Thursday, February 24, 2011

We Share It

The dysfunction of Africa is pretty well known. Coverage of Africa is pretty skewed, so that a lot of people in the west are left feeling that it must be more bad than good.  Some probably even think that it’s a hellhole of poverty and violence, at least in the places that don’t have the lions and elephants.  But it isn’t, at least in a lot of parts.  Yes, there is widespread dysfunction and poverty, but people are not just sitting around, paralyzed by the lack of means, the lack of power, the lack of money, the lack of access to information, or the lack of water.  And you sort of think they would be, wouldn’t you?  At some point, wouldn’t you think that they’d just give up?  I mean, it’s been this way for a long time.  So, what holds it all together?

I was interviewing Mrs. Sarr a few days ago and she told me that when their household cooks lunch, they always set a portion aside in case an unexpected guest should arrive.  This is a common practice throughout Senegal. If no unexpected guests arrive, the food goes to the widow down the street who’s got three children to raise on her own.  As Mrs. Sarr said to me, “You can’t be at peace if you are eating and other people around you are going hungry.” 

There have been times when I’ve unexpectedly had to take off on something work-related, and have had to ask my neighbors to look out for my kids while I’m gone.  I always feel a bit guilty about this, as if I’m imposing.  It is honestly confusing for my neighbors as to why I’d feel this way.  They say to me, “Your children are our children,” and when I say, “Thank you,” they say, “Noo ko bok.” We share it.

The other day, I wanted to buy potatoes at Mrs. Diop’s corner store, but she didn’t have any.  It happened that one of the men who supplies Mrs. Diop’s store was taking a break on the front step and had a bag of potatoes to sell.  Mrs. Diop didn’t have the money to pay him at that moment and said she’d get it to him on Thursday.  The man hemmed and hawed about it (without ever really saying ‘no’), and continued to hem and haw while walking to the horse cart, grabbing the sack of potatoes, hoisting it over his shoulder and unloading it in Mrs. Diop’s store.  The complaining was obligatory, but so was the extension of credit.  Mrs. Diop and this man have been doing business for a long time and have built a trusting relationship.  This is how business is done here all the time.  In development-speak, we’d say that, in lieu of financial capital, people are leveraging ‘social capital’ to keep the wheels moving.  

My intention here is not to romanticize scarcity, but to draw attention to built-in social customs that allow people, within that context of scarcity, to live their lives with dignity.  I still think that people can be expected to put up with this shit for only so long until everything unravels, until “Things Fall Apart.”  But, so far, it hasn’t.  People here are friendly and generous and good-natured and funny.  Sometimes it’s a sardonic wit, which makes sense in light of how ridiculous things can get, e.g. power for 2 hours/day), but more often it’s warm and gentle humor.  That people have survived this long is a testament to very strong cultural practices and beliefs that keep people alive, and, in many cases, keep things moving forward, despite the lack of everything else.  It isn’t a testament to the individual human spirit at all; rather, it’s a reflection of the strength found in community.  It’s self-interest, yes, but a kind of self-interest that recognizes well-being as a community endeavor, not an individual one. In turn, well-being is fostered by cooperative institutions and practices, rather than competitive ones.


  1. "It’s self-interest, yes, but a kind of self-interest that recognizes well-being as a community endeavor, not an individual one. In turn, well-being is fostered by cooperative institutions and practices, rather than competitive ones."

    Stepahanie, your last lines ring very true with me. It is what I and husband Paul Wakfer refer to as wide-viewed long-range best interest. One can not truly live - or for very long or very well - all on one's own. There are truly social needs that everyone has no matter where they live. It is not surprising to me to see another person write about how this is so well demonstrated in what is typically thought of as part of the "undeveloped world". (For development of a society with this basis, "Social Meta-Needs: A New Basis for Optimal Interaction" )

    Thank you for the personal examples of how ordinary people voluntarily interact to mutual benefit each seeking to maximize his/her lifetime happiness, the goal of each person's life (whether or not s/he recognizes it).

    I look forward to reading more of your experiences in Africa and passing them on.

  2. Thanks for reading Kitty. We'll see how many more entries I can get in before we head out in May!