Thursday, May 6, 2010

"How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home."

First of all, Mom. I'm going to take advantage of this moment to wish you a very happy Mother's Day right now, since I'll be in the village on the day itself and the network coverage is too unreliable for me to be able to promise to call. Thank you for everything, and thank you especially for everything you've done from afar in the past 14 months. I know it's hard to be a mother to someone who's so far from home, but you've been with me every day.

Secondly, don't worry Dad, your shout out will be coming up soon.

All right. I've been in Kaolack for a few days working with some friends of mine, trying to get the regional house all set for the installation of 6 new volunteers in our region. We built all sorts of shiny new toys, like a spice rack! And a kitchen table! And a shade structure! Well, mostly the others built the stuff. I pretty much just wandered around looking for food and getting in the way. But I share in the sense of accomplishment. And for those of you who laugh Kaolack off as the dirty region, the stinking Saloum cesspool, all I have to say is that our shade structure is a thing of beauty and dignity and there's not an open sewer within several yards of it. So there.

Anyway, I was poking through one of the nineteen notebooks I keep strewn about my hut when I found the beginning of something I wrote last year, maybe around the month of June or so. Reading my descriptions of the heat and life in the village, I got the same feeling I used to experience when I would run into my own marginalia in some of the books I've read the most carefully. I'm not really inclined to show many people the drivel that eighteen year-old Jessie scribbled in the pages of Plato's Phaedrus, truth be told. But I was in the mood to take what I found and re-work it a little bit and then finally to finish out the thought, which is one that's been bonking around in my brain for a while without ever fully taking shape. So just to be clear, the events in the first part of what follows happened last year. This year's water cuts are still to come. Ha.

My village's water supply comes from a deep-bore forage that sucks up water from hundreds of meters below the earth. Most of the compounds in Ndiago have rubinets (taps connected to the forage system) and there are a handful in public places as well. The whole system was built by the Belgians (?!) a couple of decades ago, and since then the wells in my vicinity have been covered and out of use. For the most part. I've seen water pulled from the well in Ndiago on one occasion, and it was hilarious. The men involved were very officious and proud of themselves for taking up this new task, but once they got started it was obvious they had no idea what they were doing. Luckily for all of us, the problem with the forage was fixed soon after.

But nothing is wholly reliable in the bush. A little while later, the water was out again. I was pulling water from the rubinet in our compound and chatting with my mother when the comfortable healthy rush of liquid started to slow. My mom made disapproving, clucking noises, and the other women of the compound gathered to watch as the water flow turned into a trickle, and then stopped entirely. This has happened a few times before, and I have a routine all set up. My priority is drinking water, so I filled up my filter with what I had managed to get and then accompanied my mom to the rubinet in the center of the village, where I hoped to get enough for a bucket bath in the evening.

When we got to the rubinet, it became obvious that the problem wasn't just in our compound. From every direction, women and children were coming with containers of all sorts. There was already a bit of a pile-up at the rubinet, so my mom and I took our place in it and joined the conversation. Some of the banter was pointed toward us, since my uncle is the manager of the forage. It got a little sharper in tone when the water dried up at the public rubinet, too, sending all of us in search for another one further from our compound. All in vain. We waited in line at every public rubinet in the village. One by one, as we waited and gossiped and watched the sun move across the sky, all the taps turned up short. The rubinets were dry in Ndiago for a couple days, and a handful of men made a killing by drawing water in the road town and carting it in to sell in the village. I did eventually get my evening bucket bath, but it wasn't as pleasant as usual.

As I watched the women of my village carry away massive basins of water, I remembered something I'd been meaning to mention since training. In Senegal, pulling water is almost always a team sport. Whether you've got a well or a rubinet, if you're using one of the very common humongous plastic basins to retrieve your water, you're going to need someone's help to get that thing up on your head. By now I've pretty much mastered the art of hoisting one of these basins up onto another woman's head, but the first couple of times were sploshy adventures. Not even women who have been pulling water and carrying it on their heads for decades can get those monstrosities up on their own.

I feel like we're used to a lot of independence in the States. We don't count on the presence of others for many things. But being alone in Senegal would mean being stranded. A task as simple as getting the day's water supply becomes infinitely more difficult. No one seeks isolation here. Being a part of a community is not just a convenience, it's a necessity. Extended families live in large compounds of fifteen, twenty, forty people. Traditional Senegalese food is served in large bowls, which seven or eight people can share. People pass the time by sitting together and talking, in the family compound or in the center of the village or wherever they happen to find themselves. People even nap outside, surrounded by others. The only Senegalese people I've seen seek “alone time” are the very elderly, who sometimes withdraw inside their rooms to concentrate on prayer and reflection. Even sick people sometimes prefer being outside, surrounded by visitors and family members.

The Senegalese family is more of a unit in many ways that anything I'm used to. Parents are economically dependent on their children, who go out to the fields to help with the work. Wives are dependent on their husbands. Husbands rely on brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. So in a small village like mine, where all the families seem to be connected, it's easy to get the impression that every single person in the village is contributing to and benefiting from a social structure that's centered in a very small plot of land, but that extends through family links to villages all over our region, to Kaolack and Dakar and beyond.

For example, many people in the village eat bread every morning for breakfast. It's my father who makes the nightly run to the roadtown, where he buys bread early each morning and is home before dawn. He brings the bread to his sister, who sells it in the village. There aren't delivery trucks here, there aren't licensed and registered service providers. There's your uncle Abdu, who has a horse cart and is usually good for a ride from Guinguineo back into the village in the late afternoons. There's your neighbor, who knows a guy who knows a guy who sets people up with cheap used cell phones. The first time I needed some new clothes made, I went to the tailor my host sister goes to. When I started buying vegetables every week at the market, my aunt was the one who told me how much to pay for a kilo of onions. When the women in my compound have finished making dinner, they put together a small bowl and send it over to our neighbors, my uncle's family. In return, my uncle's wives send my grandma a bowl of whatever they're eating that night.

I have occasionally been a part of communities like this before. St. John's College felt a little like this, because it was so small and because we all read and cared about the same things. Common Ground, some people I worked with in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, felt like that too (at least, in its early days); but I think that was just because we all figured we were pretty much screwed if we didn't stick together.

But what I'm experiencing now is different. I'm surrounded by a community, but I'm not a part of it. I mean, I am to a certain degree: if I had a problem or an emergency in my village, the people I live with would take care of me. But I just don't fit in. The ties I have to my host family and my friends in the village are utterly different than the ties they have to their actual family members, to their real friends. No one relies on me, and I don't rely on anyone. I honestly think that if I got on a plane to the States tonight and never went back to Ndiago, as long as the Peace Corps replaced me with another volunteer there would be no appreciable change for any of the men, women, or children of the village. After a year in the village, I still get called Maguette, which was the Senegalese name of the volunteer I replaced. Ndiago is a place where the people are so closely connected, so intimately known, that each of them has deep and functional ties all over the village, ties that are constantly celebrated and reaffirmed day after day. They are, obviously, irreplaceable. But I am interchangeable with any other white man or woman who happens to walk in.

Maybe that's why I sometimes feel as if I am not treated like a human being here: I'm not an individual, not the way we think about it in the States. That type of strong self-identification, that push to make yourself stand out from the crowd, just does not exist here. People define themselves based on how they relate to others, to their community. And it's a community I cannot authentically be a part of. It's obvious the minute they set their eyes on me, the minute they see my white skin and blond hair and hazel eyes: I am not the way people are, for them. I am not a person.

It's upsetting. I do feel like some of the connections I have with Senegalese people are deep and honest and meaningful, and I know volunteers who have romantic, loving relationships with Senegalese partners. But I can never be a part of the group, which means I can never be a part of the family. When someone asks me who my parents are and where I live, I say my dad is Osseynou Gningue and my mom is Aissatou Diop, in Ndiago. And nine out of ten times, those people laugh at me -- the white girl has Senegalese parents? Ha! But if I say my parents are Kathy Gosnell and Michael Seiler, and that my hometown in Los Angeles, and that for God's sake my name is Jessie, not Aissa, I cut myself off entirely from the world around me. Even if this is a big charade we're all taking part in, it's still one with a certain amount of very superficial meaning and relevance.

And this, if you're wondering, is why I miss you. I'm happy here and I love my work, and I'm seriously considering staying for an extra year or six months to continue it. But this is why Senegal is not and will not be my home, not ever. This is why I'm coming back some day.

Love and guts,


1 comment:

  1. Whenever that is, I'm looking forward to it.