From my journal, February 20th, 2011. Training in Thies.
"I can only take one of my two cats to Tamba. I'm going to leave the fat, nice one, and take the stringy, mean one. I love him."
Yesterday aforementioned stringy mean cat launched herself out of a tree onto my head like an attack bomber. She is also female...something that took me way too long to realize.
Awa, 7 years old, yesterday: "I wish I could go to Africa too."
Me: "I wish you could go to school and pay attention once in a while." She didn't get it.
My farmer and me, last week "Do you live with the people who hate electricity?" "What?" "In the US, do you live near those people? The people who hate power?" "I don't know what you're talking about." "You know...in Pennsylvania." "Are you talking about THE AMISH?" Astonishing. He's never been to Dakar but he knows about the Pennsylvania Dutch.
If you are watching the news concerning Senegal, don't be alarmed - things in Tambacounda are stable and I am safe as can be. We're all crossing our fingers that the elections pass without further incident. I don't think I'd fare well in a second evacuation...
Albert Camus wrote, "At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."
I've chosen to kick start my first 2012 blog post with this statement because of the poignant feeling that overwhelmed me yesterday in a taxi. I sat in traffic, watching life in Tambacounda revolve around me. It was an ordinary day, but I felt something. I felt kind of absurd. I'd just arrived back in Tamba after a month long vacation. Three weeks were spent in the States where the streets are paved with gold (or so I've heard) and one week was spent in Dakar with fellow volunteers attending a motivation conference. All four caused me to remember vividly why I'm in the Peace Corps and what I came to Senegal to do. Or try to do. Or not do at all, as fortunes would have it.
I'm straddling two imbalanced and imperfect worlds, with one foot firmly in my American heritage and another teetering on the African landscape. I have two names, I have two personalities, I sometimes have two opinions. By returning home in the middle of my service, even for a fleeting three weeks, I was hit in the face by the absurdity of our world at large and of my situation. This feeling magnified as I returned to find my Master Farmer project entirely burnt to the ground. Goodbye, months of labor. As the Senegalese say, God is Great. Alhalmdoulilaye.
As a result a feeling of hopelessness descended on me this past week, towards my projects and certain behavioral changes I'd like to initiate. I'd been back to the other side and remembered how far behind Senegal is. I'd seen months of hard work obliterated in a day. I'd been discouraged by how effortlessly I fell back into my lavish American lifestyle. I thought, is this really how it's going to be? I'm going to try, and try, and fail, and go home. As if it never happened.
And then (I bet you're relieved) I promptly kicked that mindset to the curb. The Senegalese are big fans of living in the moment and not worrying about the future. In terms of work, that can be ridiculously frustrating. In terms of stress, it's a fantastic credo. Day by day, my friends. The important thing to remember is, my projects are not all burnt to the ground. One out of three, still coming out on top - right? Now that I've said that, the school garden will be descended upon by locusts, or something. I'll keep you posted.
Check out my new post below on the December Eye Clinic, if you're interested. Pretty eye-opening experience! (Ha ha...ha)
On December 5th, I packed my bags and joined a group of volunteers heading north to the dusty region Bakel. After a significant bus breakdown and a fight with a group of testy Senegalese who didn’t take kindly to our accidental “looks” in their direction, we arrived after dark, down a sweeping paved road strung high with street lights, into the glittering regional capital. I’m not sure if it was the fatigue of the long travel day or the impressive array of electricity before us, but one volunteer exclaimed “Woah – it’s like the Los Angeles of Senegal!”
Yes, if you know of anyone coming to Senegal, please pass on the word that Bakel is just like Los Angeles. That’s sure to piss of any tourist who makes the trek that far north. However, after having spent a week there, I’m pretty fond of the city and have only good things to say about it.
Even though Bakel is technically part of our Tambacounda demographic, few volunteers have been there. It’s not close, and it has a rough reputation for heat and desolation. Maybe it was these deplorable expectations that caused us all to be pleasantly surprised by the tree lined streets and the fully stocked boutiques. But we weren’t there to admire the views. It was time for the long awaited Eye Clinic!
One of the cooler projects I’ve been involved in, the Bake Eye Clinic involved two American ophthalmologists, both of whom traveled to Bakel to teach a Senegalese doctor how to perform cataract surgeries. Over the course of their two weeks in Senegal, the three doctors performed over a hundred cataract surgeries and diagnosed many eye conditions. Peace Corps volunteers descended on the clinic to help with language, logistics and provide extra hands.
I served as master of logistics, with another volunteer. We handled the crowds of people who swarmed the clinic, glimpsing the white doctors and demanding anything from an appointment to free x-rays on their heads. It became easy to sort out the truly afflicted and the freeloaders. The doctors had brought a hefty supply of cheap Club Med sunglasses, so our strategy for those just looking for a handout became “Hey - just Club Med that guy!” and tossing out a pair of free glasses. Nine times out of ten, satisfaction was achieved. A job well done!
At one point, I switched over to administering eye exams. Instead of rows of letters, our eye charts have pictures to accommodate the illiterate. One of the pictures is of a hand, and it gets smaller and smaller as you go down the chart. As I tested one old lady, she said “Yes, that’s an adult hand.” And then “that’s a child’s hand.” Finally, “that’s a baby’s hand.” Well played, Madame.
Between the jokes and successes, there was a fair amount of tragedy. Some patients waited all day for a consultation, only be told they had advanced glaucoma and there was no hope. Many of these cases refused to accept their situation and argued that we just “didn’t want to help” and “of course we could cure it” because we were white and American. One volunteer broke down and sobbed after one such confrontation. Other times, patients would lie and exclaim that they couldn’t see anything, not a single thing. Of course, if that were the case, the doctors most likely couldn’t operate or assist in any way. Once told this, the story quickly changed. “Yes – all of a sudden I can see the light!” Ok, buddy.
The 7am-9pm hours of the clinic were also extremely wearing on volunteers who haven’t adhered to such a schedule in months. After one day, I thought unnervingly “this is what it’s like to have a real job…”
At the end of the week, I was exhausted and fulfilled. The experience had all the positives and negatives of any project in Senegal, but I felt exhilarated by the quick results. Some people removed their post surgery bandages and walked away without further ado, which was a bit anticlimactic, but I also watched several patients give happy exclamations. (In actuality, it takes about a month to perceive the benefits of the operation, but we appreciated the theatrics.) A trip well worth it and one I hope to repeat this coming year. Thanks very much to the Right to Sight NGO and their incredible gift to Bakel!
my journal entry from one year ago, today. Always a source of entertainment. In
this particular entry, I lay in bed in my house in the US of A, spilling forth
my fears and excitements about Peace Corps and Niger and what challenges I
would face. I bulleted them like this:
Using a latrine
reminded myself to buy “a billion batteries.”
As I rolled
my eyes at my own stupid exaggerations it dawned on me that the actual battles I’ve fought as a
volunteer, with myself or others, have been entirely different from those I
speculated a year ago. One adapts to food and climate. I adapted. I must say, I
pride myself on being an expert adapter at this point. Throw me into the ocean
and I’ll build a raft from jagged seaweed and jellyfish tentacles and make
friends with the fish. Or something like that. (So glad I retained my ability to exaggerate).
difficulties I’ve faced so far have been the result of cultural walls, or,
surprisingly, of issues with my program itself. Most recently I’ve struggled
with the pressures associated with Peace Corps’ biggest watchword: sustainability.
Corps, as an organization, prides itself on what it is not. We are not an NGO that throws money at a
community without research or further follow-up. We don’t put our stamp onto
every project we’ve briefly brushed up against (ahem, cough, USAID) and we are
not, most importantly, unsustainable.
thing that Peace Corps is is self
selecting. The type of person who joins the organization is full of zeal and
good will; think uneven tan lines, calloused palms and lots of laughter. As a whole we’re
a concerned group. We’re concerned about our commitment, concerned about the
country, concerned about the cultural stressors, and lastly, concerned that our
well meaning sacrifices are worth it. Therein lies the rub. According to Peace
Corps and many development theories, in order to be worth it, our work must be sustainable.
all the sense in the world. The lifespan of a volunteer is only two years.
Granted, so far it seems like the longest two years in the history of time, but
in the scheme of things it is a blip, a flash, a sprint. In the lives of the
people we want to help, two years is sadly insignificant. It is for this reason
that we strive to find projects that last. This means not only teaching
individuals, but teaching teachers. It means broadening our net of knowledge
and trying to reach as many people as we can in our service. It means trying to
hit all problems at the source and not the end. It means not doing everything yourself, a concept that has fallen hard on
many an earnest volunteer (Mamadiy, I'm talking to you here!) It means,
unfortunately for us, never giving a quick fix but always thinking in the long
I say “unfortunately
for us” because wouldn’t it be so nice to once, just once, give a few extra dollars to help a family get through the week?
Wouldn’t it be so nice to see a grateful smile and know that this baby is going
to live because you paid the hospital bill? Couldn’t I just buy this man lunch
so he doesn’t go hungry today?
But what about tomorrow? What about the day
after tomorrow? What about next week?
one can see the large crater I’m so gladly moving towards. I can’t possibly
give money to every sick baby, to every hungry man. I may be a white American
but I’m a Peace Corps volunteer which doesn’t amount to much financially even
in Senegal. Anyways, it’s better to teach a man to fish and all that, right? If I help improve the health care,
if I increase food security, these problems may work themselves out for the
betterment of every citizen, not just two or three. This is the very core
belief of the Peace Corps and sustainability. But this man will die by then,
and that baby will never survive the week without medication. Do I really want
that on my conscience? And so I continue to give small financial aid and
consequently feel like a dirty, corrupt volunteer.
are other issues at hand in this scenario. The family system in Senegal, in
much of West Africa to my understanding, is tightly wound and supporting. If
you’re in any need, your family is honor and duty bound to assist you. Some are
not blessed with a particularly loving or capable family, but that’s the
general idea. Let’s consider, however, the viewpoint of such a person in need.
You could save yourself the shame and hassle of petitioning your sister or your
husband by asking this hapless foreigner. You could
find the money in your family, but this poor lad doesn’t know that, right? Also,
he’s more likely to give you ten times the amount you actually need, through
sheer ignorance or that nagging privilege guilt. Sounds like a good deal!
Senegal thrives on the concept of making a quick buck. Any way to fix a piece
of junk for two dollars and resell it for ten is seized upon immediately. The
amount of money scams in this country is astounding. I may have written about
this before, but one that really gets me is coined the ‘prescription scam.’ In
this scene a person will find an old hospital prescription in the trash and
then set about house to house, asking for small donations to cover the cost of
the medicine. “My daughter is so sick, she’s all I have, I need to get her
help, please give me a few hundred CFA”. In reality, no one is sick, this
person probably doesn’t need the
money (at least not desperately) but sees an easy way to fool people into
emptying their wallets. The Senegalese are wise to this scam. Foreigners? Not
to say we don’t have similar situations in the US of A (or worse, unless I
missed something and Bernie Madoff was Senegalese). The difference is merely the
continent and the continued perception that Westerners have towards the third
world , mainly, Guilt with a capital G. The hand of fate made me a rich American and
so I feel compelled to shell out money for those with fates less fortunate. I
believe this describes, on a small scale, many failed development schemes. Voila – the reason Peace Corps
discourages and frowns upon such handouts, as harmless as they seem.
problems with sustainability stem from the Master Farmer site. My farmer is
working 24/7 to install this field, a place that is producing nothing as of
yet. Do the math – this man is broke. He can barely afford bread for breakfast.
The Master Farmer program assumes that the farmers have grown children to help
in the field and a family support system to feed them during this installation,
which most of them do. My farmer, however, owns land in Tambacounda, about 40K
from the village where his family lives, and has no grown children. He is
living in a small room in Tamba until he can afford to move his family out
Therefore, rather than watch this rail thin man work himself to the bone
and suffer pangs of hunger and exhaustion, I’ve been giving him money for food.
I also bought him a cell phone to make our work partnership easier – better to just
lay it all on the table.
of red warning signs appear in my mind as I write this. I know, I KNOW it’s unsustainable. Other
volunteers would tell me to be wary of setting a precedent that I can’t uphold,
or that the next volunteer will be saddled with. They’d tell me I likely don’t
know the entire situation and it’d be better to keep the boundaries of
volunteer and work partner without travelling into the wastelands of money dependency
from which one can never turn back. After all, Peace Corps is funding his farm - in the larger sense, he's one of the lucky ones. I'd be told to just wait it out and things will get better when we start selling vegetables in a few months. And I’d agree. I’d nod my head, say that I
understood. And I’d continue to feed him, and I defy anyone who reads this to
my friends in Tamba put her thoughts about this issue very nicely. She said, “Frankly,
I’d rather be scammed out of a few dollars than deny someone the help they
really need.” My consternation with sustainability rises not from the concept
itself or its obvious merit. But I often feel strangled by the notion
that I’m not ever supposed to give
financial help to those in dire straits, just because I can. I think change agents are forced to sometimes turn a blind eye in the name of the greater good. We can be, if you will...sustaina-blind.
At the end
of the day, I don’t want to set bad precedents or ruin the reputation of my
organization, one that is tenuously built and often undermined by wealthy
French tourists (zut alors!). I don’t
want to leave Senegal having only temporarily helped several people instead of
setting in motion long term shifts that will better the nation forever. I also
don’t want to look into the face of a distressed mother and tell her her baby
will die because it’s not “sustainable” for me to give her two dollars for medicine.
A dilemma, my friends. And one that has been much more than challenging to face than
any third meal of millet porridge or a hot day.
P.S – It’s
been a year, Africa! Happy Anniversary.
The perks of living in a small village include a Cheers type familiarity - it's where everybody knows your name. No little kids screaming "white person, give me gift" because you're known, you're one of them. No incredulous stares when you speak Wolof well, or not well, or somewhere in between, because your village is used to you.
Of course, I live in a city, so all bets are off.
I have to re-explain my purpose, my name, my single marital status, my job, no I don't know how to cook the national dish of rice and fish, no I don't want to buy you a plane ticket to France! - to almost every person I encounter. I think some Senegalese kids are trained from birth to yell "toubab!" ("white person!") whenever they see one. What really gets me is when adults yell too. Come on, people.
Yesterday I was biking furiously to the Pentagon (my field) and a woman called "toubab!" as I passed. I stopped. I turned around. I biked back. She looked blankly at me. I told her politely that "toubab" was not my name. Would she prefer be called simply "African person" or did she go by something else? Did she, in fact, want to talk to me? Or was she just being vocally observant? Yes, there's a white person! Ta da. I got back on my bike to leave. She waved and said "bon voyage, toubab!" as I biked away. Lesson decidedly not learned.
There's a French grocery store near to my house that sells a lot of my favorite foods such as Pringles, gummy bears, Twix bars, fruit yogurt and olive loaf. (As I write that, I realize I sound like a bizarre five year old. Can't help it...) This store, besides being the reason I don't have any money ever, is also a local hang out for the talibe gangs of Tamba. You'll remember, the talibes are the young Koranic students who are told to beg most of the day, to learn humility. Well, they see me a lot as I come in and out of this store, so I finally taught them all my Senegalese name (Aida) to avoid the typical "toubab" situation. Somehow this information spread all over Tamba so that when I see a talibe now, even in the far reaches of the city, he will know my name! I was pretty impressed by this until another female volunteer came into the regional house one day wondering why all the talibes were calling her "Aida". Drat.
In my somewhat reluctant role as the white foreigner, I can get away with things that normal Senegalese eschew. Having a pet, for example. Pets here are very rare; most animals serve one sole purpose, I think you can guess what.
It can be hard to see the too-skinny cows and goats and know where their destiny lies. Of course, there is something more honest in this type of butchering than in buying a pack of chicken breasts at Stop&Shop. At least you know where the meat came from.(Or is that worse? I can't decide.) Unfortunately you don't often know which part of the animal it came from...and that is how I ended up eating sheep testicles last week. Not good. Not even remotely good.
In March I arrived in Tamba towing my tiny black cat, unnerving half the neighborhood and earning myself a reputation right from the start. Now it's September and I've adopted a puppy to live at the Pentagon, so he can run free in the field and keep us company as we work. I recently took him on a walk through the small village area next to the field and earned myself a whole new reputation. It's important to remember that as strange as Senegal seems to me, I'm giving just as much as I receive; in terms of weirdness, of course. Yes - I'm pretty sure most of Tamba thinks I am very weird. But there are worse things!