Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grocery shopping.

A trip to the grocery store is a pretty simple matter, especially for someone who's as passive about food as I am. Growing up, the food selection was pretty much the domain of my parents. In college, the massive monthly shopping trip was a pilgrimage to Costco, where we bought orange juice concentrate and frozen pot-stickers (gross) in bulk, ate six of every free sample we could find, and eyed the children's bed shaped like a pirate ship with concern (and, for some of us, cupidity). Of course, we had to be careful to time our trips so that we all had money in the bank. When we weren't so flush, we hit up the deluxe dumpsters at Trader Joe's and the Odwalla Juice distribution center. Even on the few occasions when we were caught, we still managed to stock the refrigerator.

Here where there aren't a whole lot of refrigerators in my life, the affair is more complicated. What I thought of as fridge staples in the States, even things like milk and butter, are unusual luxuries here. When they do appear, they're different. Butter is margarine, needing no refrigeration, and milk is either powdered or comes fresh and unpasteurized in little plastic jars from the Pulaars who live out in the hinterlands around my village. But these items are for purchase and consumption only on special occasions.

The staples here are rice and millet. Like most families in this area, we farm our own millet and purchase large, 50k sacks of rice from the road town. Both grains are store by my host father and carefully measured out to whichever woman is cooking that day. Tiny MSG packed bullion cubes, available here and in every village in Senegal, appear prominently in all of our meals. On good days, the rice bowl will have a sprinkling of beans, locally grown, or dried fish, the cheapest and most foul way of ingesting protein known to man. And on really good days, the market days, we get vegetables.

If nothing else comes of my service, I used a portion of my Peace Corps living allowance (Thanks, American taxpayers!) to buy vegetables once a week for a family that otherwise would be unlikely to have them. That's two lunches of rice topped with vegetables, with is kind of a big deal. All volunteers are required to make some sort of monetary contribution to their families, since we sit around awkwardly and drink the water and eat the food and so on. Mine involves these vegetables, which I purchase at the big weekly market in Guinguineo, the road town. These carrots, onions, eggplants, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and random root vegetables with no counterpart in the States are shockingly cheap but prohibitively expensive. The price for a kilo of onions is up to about $1, and you should hear people complain about it. How much would you pay for a kilo of onions in the States? And potatoes, which run about $1.50 a kilo, are too expensive even for my budget.

Anyway, I love louma days in Guinguineo. I'm unequivocally good at it, which is a pleasant change of pace. I know how much I should be paying for stuff, and I have established relationships with vendors that look, on the surface, not entirely unlike friendship. It's a day full of Wolof banter, one of my favorite activities. It's the day I pick up any packages, letters, or post cards that have come for me, and the day I get to eat a bean and pasta and mayo sandwich with a mug of hot coffee, the greatest way of consuming 500 calories known to man. And when I get home at noon, I get to take a bucket bath and a nap. Lunch and dinner are going to be delicious, filling meals. Instead of the normal millet dish, we eat a big bowl and spicy macaroni with bread on louma days. "Wednesday nights are always good," said my host mother to me recently. "We eat until we're full!" Yeah, that's right. One meal in the week, we eat until we're full. No wonder it always feels like a holiday.

Last Wednesday, though, was a little tricky. It had rained the night before, one of the long, windy storms that make it seem like there's no roof over my head. I've found the square foot of my hut that almost never gets leaked on, though, so I slept all right. Usually after a storm that big, you don't expect another one the next morning. I went off the the louma, an hour's charette ride away, totally unprepared for what happened next.

I had done a fair bit of my socializing and veggie-buying when the rain started. My neighbor and I stood giggling as I finished weighing out my carrots, watching as the people around us scampered for cover. We finally hefted our own buckets and joined a group of people standing below a small terrace. It turned out to be a brief shower and once it let up, everyone returned to their business. But it wasn't quite over.

I waded through rain and waste water up to my ankles while finishing up my market business, trying to forget that the contents of the water came not only from the sky, but also from the dirty streets, the fish market, and the flooded sewers of Guinguineo. By the time I was ready to head home, the sky had roared open again. There was no point in trying to make my way to where the charettes for my village normally stand, since even the most homocidal of horse cart owners would be staying indoors for the duration of the storm. Rain here is not just rain. It's heavy, gusting wind that knocks down saturated mud and cement walls. It's lightning and thunder, of a scarier variety than the tame stuff we get in the States. I'm closer to every aspect of my life here in Senegal than I was in the States: my food, my health, life and death, the weather. There's no cozy, warm way to ride out a storm here. You have to experience it fully.

And experience it is what I did, trapped in a huge semi-enclosed area of the market with a hundred or so women and children. This courtyard seems like originally it was just an open space between buildings. At some point, a cement floor and a plastic peaked roof were added, to provide shade and cover from the rain. But the roof is lifted several feet off the roofs of the buildings around it, perhaps to provide ventilation. In a storm as massive as the one we were caught by, the rain brought almost as much water into the space as it slammed around outside. Within ten minutes of noticing the first drop, even though I had a nominal roof over my head, I was completely soaked. Long skirt dripping, tank top providing no comfort whatsoever, I stood shivering with the others. The wind and rain were too loud for any conversation you felt like having below a shout, so we mostly just stood around looking at each other. Everyone there was as wet as I was, their clothes clinging sloppily to limbs and bellies, scraps of plastic on their heads to cover their hair extensions and braids. I squatted, not entirely miserably, not entirely without amusement, next to a sort of cement table that offered a little protection. The woman selling some vegetables and spices from it, a relative of mine, hunched below a small piece of plastic sheeting and shivered.

It lasted forever. I don't know how long, perhaps an hour and a half. I was afraid to take my phone out to check the time, since it would be immediately wrecked by water damage. The time passed, and everyone just stood or squatted or sat right down on the dirty, soaked floor. With the same patience that makes the fasting month of Ramadan seem to go by with ease, the same resolve that is required when the roads (if there are roads) are so mangled that a trip of 20 miles can take four hours, the women sat. They nursed their babies, stared off into space, and, as the storm died down and conversation became possible, traded gossip and compared prices with their neighbors. The wind dropped and the rain stopped falling, more or less. After some final brief downpours and a little more waiting, I made it home, laden with my full burden of bread and vegetables, macaroni and spices, a gift of bananas for the children and some soap for us all.

There's good patience and there's bad patience. The good type allows the Senegalese to sit out a storm like this in the miserable condition I witnessed. Keep in mind, it's Ramadan: we were well into the day when the storm came, and none of the adults had eaten a bite since the sun came up, or sipped any water. It's a sort of waiting with composure. A minimum of fretting. A trust in the future, maybe a certain amount of resignation as well. But can I call it resignation, with all the negative connotations that word carries, when we all knew that the rain would eventually stop?

And then there's the bad patience. I see it every day. It is the patience that counsels silence, even when a voice ought to be raised. The roads are horrible, they're an affront to the people who live anywhere outside of the capital city, they're a hindrance to commerce and a danger to everyone who travels. I've seen more of car accidents and their aftermath, and been involved in more, during my 19 months in Senegal than I ever did in 18 years of living in Los Angeles. It is the patience that breeds apathy, even for those who suffer. Men with infected, oozing sores. Children with diarrhea and fever. Women who know that they should go see the village health worker for their pre-natal visits, who know that giving birth at home is dangerous, who know others who have lost their own babies to preventable, treatable diseases. Knowing is not enough.

As a health volunteer, my work centers around behavior change: convincing people to take up healthier, cleaner, safer practices and pass them on to their children. I thought maybe I'd be good at it, having some experience in the method of crafting a convincing argument. I have yet to find the argument that always works here.

My hope for Senegal is still alive, but more and more I have a hope for myself: that I can take some of this good patience with me when I leave, without bringing any of the bad patience along with it.

Love and guts,


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Making decisions

It's August, which means I've been in country for 18 months and at site for 16 months. The group of Peace Corps volunteers who arrived in Senegal immediately before we came is about to leave the country, which means we're going to be saying a lot of goodbyes around here. For the last couple months, I've been hearing them talk about their futures -- grad school, boyfriends and girlfriends, jobs, houses. It's like being back in high school or college, watching the seniors prepare to graduate. Knowing my friends and I are next is prompting some serious thought.

For some time now, I've been thinking about extending my service for a third year. I wouldn't stay in the village, though. Instead, I could take a position in Kaolack, the regional capitol, working with all the volunteers around here, or in Dakar. It's an exciting thought in a lot of ways. Another year in Senegal with the Peace Corps would mean another year of work experience in development, the field I'm probably going to choose for a career. That's especially enticing, since my background has nothing to do with the field. By reputation, furthermore, Peace Corps/Senegal seems to be doing pretty well for itself. The program is highly regarded in the Peace Corps community. So I suppose this is an opportunity to continue learning from people who know what they're doing.

On the other hand, I know what I want. I know which graduate schools I'll be applying to and which degree programs are most compelling to me. Maybe I should just go for it.

More importantly, I know what it is that I don't like about the Peace Corps. I know why I'm frustrated in my work here. My thoughts on how development ought to be done, on what I would need to be doing to feel comfortable and happy and fulfilled in my work, are pretty fully formed. In that sense, I might be ready to move on to an academic setting, where I can do some really valuable study and continue to refine my thoughts.

So now I'm soliciting advice. Send me an email or write a comment, whatever you're comfortable with. I could really use some new perspectives on this, even if you and I aren't close friends or whatever. If you read this blog, which it seems you are, then I'm guessing you have an opinion.

If I had to state a preference right now, I'd say that I would like to be convinced to stay on for a third year. But that's the thing. I need to be convinced. What does the Peace Corps do well? I feel like I'm having a hard time seeing it these days, not necessarily because it's not there. It's just been a frustrating few months.

Anyway, I'm headed back to the village, in spite of the fact that my latrine is collapsing. It's Ramadan, too! More on that later, I guess.

Love and guts, and I wanna hear from you.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A dentist appointment and a crisis of empathy.

Against my deepest inclinations, I’m going up to Dakar tomorrow to do my mid-service physical. I tried to get it done a couple weeks ago, when I had to be in the capital for other reasons as well. I made it as far as the initial conversation with the Peace Corps doctor.

“Well, Jessica, you’re awfully late for this appointment. You were due back in February or March.”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.”

Ok, you’re here now, no matter. So today we’ll do your physical and send you to the dentist, we’ve got you scheduled for your OB/GYN appointment tomorrow morning, and then in the morning on the day after that, you’ll need to come back to have your TB test read.”

That’s about when I got antsy. My plans, as usual, were to get out of Dakar as fast as possible and get back to the village before the fat city made me go crazy with its conspicuous consumption, its healthy ex-pat and Senegalese children waddling around, its night life and easily accessible beer. So I hemmed and hawed a bit and managed to talk my way out off everything but the dentist appointment.

The dentist’s office was one of the strangest places I’ve seen in a while. The Peace Corps driver responsible for carting me off to my appointment in a super swanky air-conditioned Peace Corps car resisted my half-joking pleas in Wolof that he take my place. “You can say you’re Jessica Seiler, who’s gonna notice? I’ll tell everyone back in the Peace Corps medical office that it went fine. Come on, you could just let me out here and be on your way.” No dice. He laughed heartily and told me not to be afraid, but never even gave my offer fair consideration. When we arrived at our downtown destination, the driver wished me good luck and left.

There were no other patients, just the kind Senegalese lady at the front desk who chatted with me in Wolof as she did my paperwork, then sat me down in an air-conditioned waiting room. There and in the examination room, everything was done in shades of pink, from the pleather upholstering on the chairs to the highlights on the big old hanging lamp thing they stick in your face. There was even a fish tank with a few inhabitants swimming around inside. The whole experience had a little of the feeling of a Twin Peaks-esque mefloquine nightmare, but I kept my cool for the entire appointment. No cavities. When he noticed a little crack at the top of one of my front teeth, the dentist (jokingly?) asked, in his far from excellent English, if anyone was hitting me a little, maybe “with hees feests?” I’m pretty sure it’s an old soccer wound. Wonder of wonders, in this country with one doctor for every 10,000 or so people, I’ve been told to go back to the dentist in his air-conditioned office in six months so that he can monitor the situation, so that we can be sure it doesn’t, God help me, turn into a cavity.

Anyway, I’ve come to accept that I can’t avoid the rest of those appointments and the need to spend a couple days in Dakar. And besides, I have another commitment up there this week. So I’ll be heading up tomorrow. Wish me luck.

The timing is not great. It’s getting harder to believe in the Peace Corps with almost every passing day, and I’m not sure that a dose of Dakar (both inside and outside the fortress of the Peace Corps office) and the Dakar attitude toward the rest of the country is going to help me out much.

This trip to Dakar began last night, with an evening ride out of my village on my host dad’s horse cart. He makes the trip to Guinguineo, our road town, every evening, and then comes home to Ndiago every morning at dawn with a cart full of bread. I thought I’d take advantage of the free trip, spend the night in Guinguineo at a Peace Corps volunteer’s house there, and then be on my merry way the next morning. As the hour approached for us to leave, however, I started to doubt how simple this trip would be. I watched my dad ready the horse and packed my own bag, but with every passing minute the wind was picking up. Out to the west especially, just above the horizon, there floated the long grey low bar of an approaching thunderstorm. Someone was getting pounded by rain out there, and it didn’t seem impossible, given the direction of the wind, that it would head our way next. The last place I wanted to be at the beginning of a violent storm was on a charette in the middle of the bush, below a vast expanse of thunder and lightning, tossed about by the gales of wind and completely exposed to the rain. But my dad seemed sanguine about our chances, so we left.

He turned out to be right. Halfway to Guinguineo, the clouds were visibly breaking up above us. The wind was still coming right at us, bothering the horse to no end, but it probably wasn’t going to rain. My dad turned to me and said, “Allah is good, we’re not going to have to worry about that storm anymore.”

“Allah is good,” I replied.

It’s so easy for me to see two worlds here, though I know that it's an illusion: in one, we have the fat guzzling children of Dakar, and in the other, the children of my village, who every day eat a handful of bread brought back to Ndiago by my father for their meager breakfasts. In one world, I sat in an air-conditioned room and had my teeth X-rayed and pored over by a very nice man with soft gloved hands while I listened to the gurgle of his fish tank. In another, my host dad thanks Allah when he can make the forty-five minute trip to Guinguineo without misfortune. In one world, ex-pats and wealthy Senegalese leave their houses, greet their always-awake armed guards, and drive their SUVs out of their gated, barb-wired compounds to meetings in other buildings with guards and gates and barbed wire. In that world, they make decisions about development philosophy and the programs that will be put in place in the other world, my world, the world of my village. Many are so thoroughly insulated against the very world they seem to consider themselves to be working for that they may as well have never left Washington. I noticed and wrote about this before, during the big annual softball tournament in Dakar. It seems like a lot of people come here and then spend a great deal of money and effort to maintain the illusion that they are not, in fact, here.

That’s one thing in the ex-pat community. I guess they’ve got their young children to think of, or whatever, and if they want to feed their kids American food specially shipped over and let them attend schools that are guarded like prisons, that’s their prerogative. It doesn’t seem like any way to live, but then again I’m no great authority on child rearing, or even on how to live your life, generally speaking. So I try not to judge, I try not to even think about it.

What I’m starting to wonder is if we Peace Corps folk are guilty of some version of the same crime. Even though we are living a total immersion experience, with host families, out in the bush, the solitary white kids for miles and miles, we still find plenty of ways to distance ourselves from Senegal. Often it’s just for our sanity or our health, and I think all in all it’s a healthy thing to do. If my mom didn’t send me jars of crunchy peanut butter, and if I didn’t escape to Kaolack occasionally for cheeseburgers and a beer, I’d be one skinny miserable young lady, thank you. As it is, I already find myself craving monstrosities like Poptarts smeared with peanut butter and jelly, topped with marshmallows, or burritos stuffed with fried chicken, Velveeta chunks, pineapple, and hash browns. I bring a little America back to my hut, to get me through the slower days, in the form of my iPod and books and magazines. If I were Senegalese, or perhaps if I were truly integrated into the culture, I would mitigate my boredom by sitting and gossiping with the women instead of by devouring novels and non-fiction.

I don’t think I can disapprove of these practices in themselves, but I think they’re dangerous. Every step I take toward building an America for my body and mind is a step that removes me from Senegal a little bit, and from the Senegalese people I live with. I’ve noticed this tendency to remove ourselves a bit, to suspend our empathy, in myself and in other volunteers. Not all of us all of the time. But sometimes. It’s subtle. It’s in our grammar and our choice of words. It’s not something we’re necessarily conscious of doing. It’s something I do myself.

When discussing how to write grants, older volunteers and Peace Corps staff will encourage newer volunteers to include an “in-kind” stipulation, a percentage of the total cost of the project that will be paid by the community. This might be a good idea for some reasons, but when we talk about it, we say it’s an encouragement to see the project through to the end for the Senegalese people involved. As if it were the four dollars each adult is required to give toward the construction of a new protected well that makes the project valuable to these men and women, rather than the opportunity to drink clean water, to give their children clean water.

When we talk about mosquito net distributions, invariably someone bemoans the perceived tendency poor people have of selling the nets that are given to them, or of passing them on to relatives or friends. When they next speak to the Peace Corps volunteer or community health worker who gave them the nets, they ask for another one. Where is the sin in this? We can only condemn this action when we stop empathizing with the people and begin judging them. Imagine knowing that you can’t afford to buy a net, but also knowing that you can’t afford to pay for the medication to treat malaria. Imagine knowing that every single member of your family is in the same situation. Imagine feeling responsible for them. I’d lie to a Peace Corps volunteer for an extra mosquito net or two, without a second’s hesitation.

When we put ourselves in one world, a world of privilege and easy access to the goods and services that satisfy our needs and security, we are living in a dream and condemning others to live in a nightmare.

I don’t want to cast stones at any one, and I want to say again that I’m no expert in development. My background could not be less helpful when it comes to considering these questions. I’m not making accusations or trying to belittle the good work that so many people are doing in Senegal and Africa and across the world. But I need to understand why we do things the way we do, and where our principles come from, and I want to know that we’re doing the best we can. I need moral guidance on this one.

It’s almost 3 A.M. I barely slept last night and haven’t slept yet tonight. I’m sorry if this blog entry showed signs of that, but I’m hoping that after finishing it and posting it, I’ll give myself permission to get some rest.

Love and guts,