Monday, April 18, 2011
Life has been busy the last several weeks as I’m wrapping up and I haven’t had a whole lot of time to reflect on what these eight months have meant. Here’s a first attempt.
I’m pretty sure the work has been great. I say ‘pretty sure’ because I don’t think I’ll know what I really have until I get back to the States and begin sifting through my data. I think I’ve got the makings of a dissertation, though I’m sure I’ve missed some glaring issue. Luckily, there’s a fabulous Peace Corps Volunteer in M’Bour who has agreed to help collect any missed information.
What is undoubtedly true, however, is that people here are engaged in a pretty heroic struggle to make ends meet, and very often, the ends don’t meet. One woman in my study, who tells me she is 27, collects metal and then sells it for 100 cfa/kilogram. Over a period of 2 to 3 days, she’ll collect 20 to 30 kilograms, and make 2000-3000 cfa. That’s translates to 4 to 6 dollars for 3 days of heavy, dangerous work and miles of walking. She estimates that they need, for their family of 6, at least 2000 cfa/day. All of that is for food. There’s a long back story about how she and her family have arrived in this place, but that’s not really what I want to highlight. What strikes me about the people in my study, most of who face challenges that I will never experience, is how little they complain and how they walk into each day with graceful determination to provide for their families. It seems to me that most people in America think of Africa as a continent of victims, but the people I know are not victims. They don’t want handouts; they want a fair shake. I don’t think they’ll get that fair shake as long as non-Africans keep setting the terms and creating the solutions.
It is hard for me to express how proud I am of my children, and I’ll need to write a longer more reflective essay to dig into what they mean to me and how I see them emerging from this experience. Suffice it to say, they are amazing people, and they rose to the challenge of being here, even though the rising was often accompanied by kicking and screaming and weeping. They say they hate it here, though I wonder that they will miss it after a while. I think they’ve each processed their experience in their own unique way, and they express their opinions in honest, sometimes brutal, ways. They are both wonderfully loving and, luckily for me, very articulate about what they want from me. They’ve both made their mark on the corner, and they will be missed.
As for me, I am, today, content. I like being here and feel grateful for it. I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do. But, I also feel like I’ve aged here. I look in the mirror and am surprised, sometimes, by what I see. And then I look again, and am still surprised. I guess this is what on-the-cusp-of-43 looks like, and sometimes I worry about my future of solitude except for the 10,000 cats. I know that worrying away my days is not really the way I want to spend my life, though. I’ve got a lot, and it’s high time I started appreciating it more. If I’ve learned anything from the Senegalese and my children, it’s that worrying is a fruitless activity. Better just to walk into the day, and do what I can do, knowing full well that it doesn’t matter all that much. But, there’s no other choice except to do it, and to be grateful for the people I meet along the way.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
One of the best things about Senegal is that life is actually lived, by actual people, in an actual place, doing actual things, and actually talking to each other. Very few people spend much time by themselves on a computer doing virtual things in a virtual place with virtual people. I feel like some kind of freak when I emerge from my house after spending 4 hours on my computer….oh…who am I kidding? After spending 5, 6, 7 hours on my computer. I usually find some folks sitting outside with whom I can chat for a bit. Or I can walk down to the Art Tree and find someone hanging around in the hammock or having some coffee. I am welcomed, a space is made for me, and I can enter the conversation easily. Or not. I can also just sit, and that’s good, too. Either way, I get a needed dose of people therapy, which brings me back to the land of the living.
There’s a saying in Wolof, ‘Nit mooy garub u nit’--people are the medicine of people. It seems like a pretty straightforward truth when you first hear it, or at least it did to me. It even seems simplistic. Over the years, though, that little self-evident truth has bubbled to the top of my consciousness many times, in many different circumstances. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently—this time in relation to civil discourse, or, rather, uncivil discourse, that I see come across my screen.
I typically try to avoid broad generalizations. But here is one: it is bad for both the individual and the society for people to spend too much time alone. Here’s another: it is bad not to know the names of your neighbors. And another: it is bad to say things like ‘people are stupid.’ We have become so unpleasantly uncivil in America--so incredibly intolerant, and I think it might be, perhaps, the thing that contributes most to our unraveling as a nation.
Maybe people say the things they say, and treat each other in the way that they do, because we are isolated and really have no daily functional need for each other. We have worked ourselves into this situation, I believe, as a result of our constant quest for convenience and ease, and our relinquishing of control over things that were once the responsibility of the community. The most obvious example of that (at least to me) is the food system, which is now the province of the government and corporations.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my alone time as much as the next misanthropic American. But, it’s nice to be in a place that forces me out of my misanthropy from time to time, and it’s nice to be forced out of my head and off my screen, and into the place where I am.