Cultural differences

Trip Start Mar 15, 2005
Trip End Apr 01, 2007

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Hello all. In one of my crosscultural training sessions last week we talked about polygamy here in Senegal. My host family is very western in that I have a mother and 4 children living in the same house. My host father's younger sister is also here studying at a local computer science facility. Some of the other trainees however have very different living arrangements. They are staying in houses with 2 wives and multiple children from each m other, as well as in-laws, distant cousins, and sometimes family friends all in the same compound. Here in Senegal, families are your support system, and noone is left on their own. The perception of the "American norm" to turn 18 and move out on your own was surprising to many of us. Senegalese consider it a cruelty to children where as in America it is considered a matter of independance and fredom. This difference in perception plays into the polygamous family structure as well. For example, one employee at the center shared his personal experience. He married very young and found out 3-4 years into the marriage that it wasn't going to work. He and his wife had already had several children, but decided to get divorced. Many years went by and his children were grown. He remarried and started another family. His ex wife had not remarried and was getting older. His grown children pressured him to remarry her and take her as his second wire so that she could be cared for and have her family in the same compound. This situation may not be typical, but it does illustrate the heavy pressure to care for those in need. It also brings in to play another interesting point. the first wife is called the grand-soeur or older sister and sbusequent wives are below her in the houseghold heirarchy. All wives in a compound generally share responsibilities. In many cases live in seperate homes. The Koran states that a man can take up to 4 wives in his life as long as he can provide equally for all of then and all of his progeny. Many of the female trainees wanted to hear a woman's perspective and one of the female employees was a grande soeur with one othr wife living in her house. She explained how her husband went about marrying again and how it made her feel. I'll try to avoid throwing in my personal opinion in here, and only say that I am biased with my own cultural filters. It is an amazing oppurtunity to hear someone living in this culture speak abaout a topic so foreign to me.
In my next post I hope to write a little about traditional medicine and the role of the marabut in Senegalese culture. I've only been exposed briefly to talk with my host family and now community. Traditional medicine can be one of the biggest obstacles for health volunteers because people truly believe they are being protected gy their talki/talisman and don't see the falue in much of the cedical training. One current volunteer told us about an informational meeting she held for the women in her community about HIV/Aids awareness. In the discussion she tried to identify some of the misconceptions by making statements and then having the women move to one side of the room or the other depending on whether they agreed or disagreed. She found that about half of the women believed that a talisman worn by either party would prevent SID's, HIV?Aids, as well as pregnancy! That is a pretty daunting cultural obstacle for improving the health of a community.
Thanks to everyone for you support. I'll include my adddress for the next two years as soon as I know it. I am off to Kolda on May 17th. You should probably hold off on any letters till I have the new address.
Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers in my extended family and my friends.
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