Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy Senegal.

I originally wrote this for an online op/ed website that asked for a submission. It was difficult. I feel like I'm maybe conflating the idea of Occupy Wall Street and the reality of life here in Senegal, and I'm not sure how valid that is. Anyway, I would love to here your thoughts. Please comment.


I called my Senegalese host family from the capital city of Dakar the other day to wish them a happy Eid al-Adha, but I didn’t bother to ask them if they’d heard about Occupy Wall Street. The village of Ndiago, where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, is home to about 300 people, almost all of whom eke out a living as subsistence farmers. Many of the villagers listen to radio broadcasts in Wolof and a few of them can follow the broadcasts in French, but there’s not often much news from the United States.

I did, however, ask around in my office here in Dakar. Although the other Americans and I have been following events back home closely, even the Senegalese men and women who watch television news every day and pay attention to what’s going on abroad haven’t heard of Occupy Wall Street. I had been curious because I received an email from an old friend a few days ago asking me what I thought about the movement. “It all must seem sort of silly from your perspective, right? The whole 99% message? Everything we perceive here as an injustice or as unacceptable must look like just another luxurious privilege from where you stand.”

Not quite.

Senegal is a developing country, and I guess you could say that life here is generally more difficult than it is in the United States. The life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is around 80 years. Here in Senegal, it's 56. One in five Senegalese children had a low birth weight and 17% of children under five are moderately to severely underweight. The national adult literacy rate is 42%, and honestly, in villages like Ndiago it's closer to the single digits. Much, much closer. Every day, people in Senegal die of preventable and treatable diseases. Is dehydration even technically a disease? Who cares? It kills children.

Before moving to the capital city to take on a job in malaria prevention and eradication, I worked for two years in Ndiago as a health education volunteer. A big part of my job was to teach the men, women and children of the village about ways they could keep themselves from falling ill from diarrheal diseases, malaria, infected wounds and the like. Access to health care in rural Senegal is inconsistent and expensive; unreliable health workers who don’t explain what they’re doing or why they’re prescribing a particular medication make many people unwilling to fork out the cash for it. I felt there was an urgent need for someone to talk to mothers about exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their babies’ lives, to teach school children to use latrines and wash their hands with soap and water, and to convince families to use mosquito nets at night to protect themselves from malaria.

Even within the village family in Ndiago who took me in as their own daughter, it was difficult work. My host mother, a wiry and energetic woman named Aissatou who had seen six of her 11 children die before they reached the age of five, injured her arm one day in the fields. It wasn’t a serious cut and it probably would have healed fairly quickly, if only it hadn’t been the rainy season, when the heat and humidity are high and even the smallest lacerations can become infected; if only she had access to more nutritious foods to help her body fight infection; if only she believed that washing the cut regularly with soap and water would make a difference. Once the infection got serious, I begged her to go to the health post in the village. But I had begged her to keep it clean, and that hadn’t worked. She honestly had not believed that anything she could do would effect whether her wound healed well. And I found it hard to blame her, when I thought about how many of her children had been killed by inexplicable diseases. If you spend a lifetime noticing that nothing you do seems to make a difference, that poverty and poor health and circumstance seem to be making your decisions for you, fatalism and acceptance become ground into you.

Preventative measures are so much easier and cheaper than curative ones, in almost every situation I see here. Soap to wash my mom’s wound is cheaper than the antibiotics she ended up having to purchase; mosquito nets are cheaper than the medications to treat malaria. Everyone in my village understood these concepts by the time I had been there for six months. So why was it so hard to get people to take the next step and change their behavior?

I’m starting to think it’s because no one in Senegal has heard of Occupy Wall Street.

It takes a lot of patience to live in a place like Senegal. Things just happen more slowly here than they do in the States, and I can’t even count the number of times my frustrated attempts to try to pick up the pace on a project have resulted in a Senegalese man or woman smiling at me indulgently and saying, “Ah yes, in America time is money. Not here.”

Ndiago is about 20 miles from a large city, Kaolack, which is where I used to go for Internet access and the occasional cold beer. That trip routinely took three or four hours: the horse pulling the cart from Ndiago to the road was sometimes tired and slow; and on the stretch of potholes that could not quite be called a road, the rickety, ancient van stuffed with 40 people and an unknown number of goats and chickens, piled high with baggage, sometimes blew a tire. I have seen and been involved in more car accidents in less than three years in Senegal than in my 22 years in the States. But the Senegalese sit patiently and wait to arrive, the women drawing the fabric of their head wraps across their mouths to keep out the dust, the men staring listlessly ahead, all of us ignoring the flipped, burned-out cars that litter the roadside.

In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anyone lose patience and demand better service, safer roads, or a refund of their fare.

Americans, I imagine, would be up in arms. We’d be making phone calls to our congressmen, writing blistering letters to the editor of our hometown newspaper, demanding that the roads be fixed. We’d be canvassing our neighborhoods, trying to register new voters, trying to inform and involve as many people as possible.

This is how I see Occupy Wall Street. Someone, or maybe a group of people, saw the equivalent of one of those burned out cars on the side of the road and said No. This is not how it ought to be. This is not the relationship an individual should have to the state, not the relationship a bank or a corporation should have to the state: not in a democratic, egalitarian society. That person started doing a little research and started having conversations and realized he or she wasn’t the only one with the gut feeling that something was deeply, desperately wrong. The conviction grew and became a movement, a conversation, an action and a demand that spread from New York to Los Angeles, from the U.S. to the world, and my deepest hope for Senegal is that some day soon, it will come here.

My host mother Aissatou raised five children. The oldest ones are starting their own families now, and the youngest is only ten. I want all of her children and all of her grandchildren to grow up knowing that they can make decisions that will change the course of their lives, believing that this world is theirs for the taking, acting up and acting out and making their country a better place to live. I want them to demand better access to healthcare, more teachers and school supplies, and a chance to eat enough nutritious foods to grow up strong. I want them to occupy their lives, their future, their country. Because that’s what it means, to occupy: to take hold of something, to take control. It’s their turn in Senegal, and it’s our turn in the United States.