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,



  1. Jessie,

    Your words ring very true.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  2. Amazing Peace Corps blog post. Don't sweat your Americanness. There's nothing wrong with craving pop-tarts and peanut butter. (I'm missing TJ's too-especially the one in Chicago where I asked the beer guy how he got the dream job of being a TJs beer guy, and he said, "be an alcoholic, basically.") I also don't think there's anything wrong with the way people live in Dakar, to want to live with air conditioning and plenty of food, free of fear of disease and hunger, with cars and medicines that work. But I agree that if you're one of the people that live that way and you want to make things better for people in the villages, you need to spend time living in the villages like you are.

  3. Jessie, you are a fantastic writer! Really interesting stuff, too.

    I've noticed this sort of thing happen with public interest lawyers and clients, as well. Even though public interest lawyers feel very strongly about fighting for indigent clients, we still find ways to distance ourselves from them at times. Very similar to what you describe with the mosquito nets - If a client does something unusual, instead of trying to empathize or understand their rationale for doing it, some lawyers will just get upset and judge them for it. I'm certainly guilty of doing that before. I guess I attribute it to natural human laziness. It really takes an energetic spirit/mind to constantly be pushing to empathize and understand. Of course, some people willfully refuse to empathize, but I think people like PCVs and public interest lawyers probably don't fall into that category. But, people with gigantic SUVs who live in gated communities may be a different story!

  4. Disillusioned in DakarAugust 8, 2010 at 5:45 PM


    Your insights and ethical instincts are spot on. Between your sensitive comprehension and perception of "the development needs" of Senegalese villagers and the suppositions that the Dakar-ensconced expats proffer as they bet tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands (dollars, euros, you pick) on schemes that are certain to miss the mark, there is a huge rift as there has been so many times in the past. These development "pro's" miss the mark because despite everyone's "best efforts" the objectives are formulated without the needs of the beneficiaries and principal actors being understood. So, someone somewhere will get a pump for a well which they may or may not need, but they won't get the rest of the package (training on how to maintain and repair, spare parts, tools, money to buy replacement parts, etc.) that helps them maintain this wonderful gift that came from wherever. Or they'll get a school or a clinic or whatever...and who will maintain, pay the personnel, purchase the supplies and equipment, etc.? And then, the cycle will repeat, again, again, again. YOU understand this and you have the courage and commitment to explore the people and their needs. Hopefully someday soon, you'll be able to start chipping away at the vast development machine that has been erected to throw money at the great needs of the people, without even taking time to get to know the people's needs. Bravo for you, Jessie. You've done a great thing...keep doing it. And your writing is great...keep doing that too.

  5. An incredibly perceptive post, Jessie. There is a natural tendency among us towards a sort of escapism, which removes us from being fully immersed in our communities. Perhaps this an effect of our American (or Western In general) origins, where we are constantly flitting from one distraction to the next (Internet, television, iPod), constructing walls around ourselves and between us and our surroundings. While this tendency is perfectly understandable, it is not necessarily a positive one. Indeed, it has been one of the most difficult things for me to get used to since I returned to the US. I suspect that this insulation from the general (read rural) Senegalese society would have been somewhat inevitable had I extended in Dakar, at least for me.
    Enjoy the rainy season, and greet the people of Kaolack for me.

  6. "I’m sorry if this blog entry showed signs of that (i.e., fatigue)."

    Not in the least. You sound as clear-headed and perceptive as ever. You are experiencing what I call the burden of light: you are incredibly insightful but it comes with a price. I hope it does not become too much to bear.

    My best to you, as ever.

  7. Hey guys, thank you all for the thoughts. I'll have more to say when I've gotten another full night's sleep. And thank you for reading -- I can't tell you how helpful it is to be able to write this stuff down. It's helping me figure out what I want for my future.

    I gotta ask, though I'm willing to respect your privacy: Disillusioned in Dakar, do we know each other?

  8. Another intereting read, Jessperson. Your dental experience took me back to the Russian Far East, the eastern third of Russia which has largely been neglected. Trembling with fear, I went to the dentist lady for help and she fixed it by painting on some stuff. But my fears were intensified by her equipment -- a chair and accoutrements from about 1940. The spit bowl was caked with dried "stuff" and hadn't been used since the Korean Conflict, it seemed.
    I had seen too many weeping Russians lurching out of the clinic holding blood-stained rags to their mouths. Hooray for our side...
    John McCafferty, Russia 1996-98

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Jesse, Thank you for your posts. I am desperate to get news of Senegal because I have a friend who is involved whom I haven't heard from. My development work was in Peru 12 years ago, before the internet was stable enough to send much of anything. I am state side in Vermont....... cheers, T