My recent turn-around

Trip Start Aug 30, 2009
Trip End Apr 28, 2011

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Saturday, July 18, 2009

So as I think you all already know, I am terribly slow at updating this blog and for that I apologize.  However, I have lots to fill you all in on and hope that these next few entries will be enough to make up for my lack of regularity in writing. I think my last entry adequately conveyed my frustration with moving to a completely new place, knowing no one, and understanding nothing. My first month at site was full of setting boundaries with my family and village, worrying about people trying to take advantage of me because I am white, and trying to understand every possible cultural faux-pas I was making.  However, as time progresses I am beginning to realize what things are actually important in my new life and what is simply not worth it.
For example, as I stated in an earlier entry, many people in Senegal find it appropriate to ask volunteers for any and everything a volunteer has that the Senegalese person does not.  I am still not quite sure how this practice got started nor why many still find it acceptable to do; however, I have come to the conclusion that many people ask for things in a joking manner (which is still really annoying), but I can look past this.  “Toubab (not-so-loving term for a white person) give me a gift”…I in turn now respond “Give me a gift”…and to this they say nothing because they were called out on being rude.  At first I thought for some crazy reason it was actually culturally appropriate for them to ask these questions but I have been told by some of the more polite people I have met that I was wrong.  Like many Americans who do culturally inappropriate things, they choose to ignore proper etiquette and do it anyways. I now laugh anytime someone asks me for something, unless I like them and at which point I will usually give it to them.  I have realized that my job isn’t to be a rule-ridden tight-wad, but that there are people in this country who care about me and if I can do something to improve their lives I will 100% do it.

2nd Turn-around: the forever amusing and tireless joking of men: as many of you may (or may not?) know, the gender roles of men and women are clearly defined, and polygamy is common practice for many men.  This is not to say that there are not exceptions to the rule, but the exceptions are very few and far between. I will explain a little about the lives of women in my village to better illustrate my point here. To put it simply, the women are amazing and I cannot imagine where this country would be without its women; I would venture to guess that it would be in far worse shape than it is now.  I will use my sister Sochna as a perfect example.  Every day I wake up around 600-630am to the sound of her pounding coffee and starting her day.  She puts coffee beans and hickory into this tall, wooden bowl-looking thing, takes a huge stick with a rounded end, and pounds the beans by hand. She then prepares breakfast for everyone in the family, usually leftovers from last night, or bread if they have enough money to buy it that day. After this, she begins to prepare dinner for that night; she starts in the morning because cooking the ceere (which is their version of couscous) takes forever.  It first has to be pounded before it can be put into the machine where it is pounded into a finer consistency.  Then it is cooked over water (steamed) for about an hour.  I am not sure of the whole process because it’s quite complicated. She then cooks lunch for the whole family starting around 11am.  After lunch, she will do laundry, sweep the compound, or rest for a bit (1 hourish). Around 4-5pm she will go to the well if she didn’t go in the morning.  She and my other sister Kodou bring back enough water every day in order that the whole family has water to drink and so that they have enough water to cook.  And women are usually the only ones who go to the well.  I am lucky enough that I have two amazing brothers who will usually go with us to the well (with the newly installed hand-pump) to help us pump since it is pretty physically intense.  But these two men are exceptions; most men are of the opinion that going to the well is a woman’s job.  After the well, she will start cooking dinner again and finish around 8ish.  This is her life…everyday. Not to sound sexist, but I have not seen a single man in my village do half the amount of work she does.  There is a “special” place for the men of the village to sit (a shade structure of sorts) that houses a majority of the men in my village for a majority of the day (no women allowed…not joking).  Many of the younger men in the village (which are actually very few in number) do take care of “man things”, such as fixing the roofs, building new huts, going out into the bush to bring back wood and what not.  However, most of the older men (and by older I mean 30 and above) spend a majority of their day under the shade structure complaining about the heat.
The women do everything but have essentially no value in the family according to the men.  Men tirelessly joke with me about taking 2nd, 3rd, and 4th wives; according to the Koran a man can only have 4 wives…because having 5 would be absurd? Additionally, they are forever asking why I am not married, would I like a Senegalese husband, etc.  I actually have, on multiple occasions, had men tell me they were married and proceed to make some sort of proposal to me by either telling me they love me, or trying to bride me with how many cows they have (it’s hard to not laugh at this one when it happens). They simply don’t think it’s a big deal to take multiple wives, joke about taking multiple wives, or joke about someone else’s wife being their girlfriend.  And the women say nothing, not because they don’t care, but simply because they are resigned to the fact that they are second class citizens.  Most men in my village no longer joke about these things with me because I made it perfectly clear by being bulldoggish and bitchy while explaining to them that this is not funny and if they want to interact with me again they will stop it (thank you mom and dad for my giving me the ability to do this).  

Doctor??? I am not a doctor, but if you were to ask anyone in my village to let me cut them open right then and there I would venture to say that almost all of them would say yes.  This I have realized from going around to compounds and discussing with people my role as a volunteer.  I actually now find these conversations quite funny because number one, I will never operate on a fellow villager which I don’t think they believe, and number two, most of their requests are absolutely ridiculous.  These things used to bother me because I could not comprehend why every day I was being asked for medicine, shots, and various other things to fix numerous ailments that my villagers are suffering from.  In America, we are obsessed with knowing where medicine came from, is our doctor reputable, are we taking too many medications, are they over-prescribed, etc. However, the lack of medicine and adequate medical care in this country has caused the exact opposite thing to happen, a complete obsession with medicine whether they know what it does or whether it the right medicine for them.   I actually had one lady ask me to help her with surgery on her eyeball because she cannot see at night; she is around 75 and refuses to believe that her problem could simply be a result of old age.  From these conversations I have learned how important my work is, not only to explain what I am actually doing here, but in order to let them know that Americans suffer from health issues as well.

Greeting obsessed?  Senegalese love to greet.  There are a whole line of greetings for the various times of day in every language in the country that you have to know.  Not greeting someone is considered rude and can get you into some big trouble.  However, the line of greeting questions is not simply how are you, but also how is your mom, dad, siblings, health, heat, field, and various others.  And a lot of the time they won’t just ask the question once, they can ask you how you are, how your health is, and how your family is 5x before they will stop…not exaggerating.  I have seen two people spend around 4-5 minutes simply greeting each other before they ever got to the real reason that they were talking in the first place.  I am still a bit hesitant when it comes to the extent of greetings at times, but now I am even offended when people don’t greet me, or when little kids ask for a gift but don’t first ask how I am doing with the heat (my favorite question since it is always hot and no one ever changes their answer to this question).

All of these crazy things are now a part of my life, and I don’t mind at all.  I am used to being proposed to on a regular basis, not because I am a great person, but simply because every man in this country seems to want a “Toubab” wife whether they are terrible or not (that is merely not a problem for them). I greet like it’s my job, which it is at the moment.  I repeatedly refuse to give people the secret medicines I have that will supposedly cure the blind and old. This is now my life.  Many people say about Peace Corps volunteers that those who end up in Africa come out laughing because their lives are so ridiculous that if you don’t laugh you will go insane, and I believe it one hundred percent.  I have never laughed so much at the absurdities of life, and I think I will certainly come out of this laughing.
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