Monday, May 26, 2008

(26 May 2008) June Blog- 1 Year On, 1 More To Go

  It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since leaving my home in Sunny California to come to the exotic hub of West Africa .  As different as it is here, I find strange how normal and non-exotic it feels to me.  Being here has also increased, rather than answered, my questions about development.  It’s also made me contemplate my work here for the second half of my service.

    I really appreciate how much of the stigma of Africa disappeared for me after being here for so long.  Though the way people do things here is drastically different from what I’m used to, the things that people do here aren’t that different.  The pace of life here seems slower but only because it takes so much longer to do any one thing, there isn’t time or energy to do more beyond that.  The climate is another huge factor.  Sometimes we joke that entropy occurs at a faster rate here than anywhere else; because the temperature is so much higher I think that’s technically a fact.  This weather ages everything at a warp-speed pace.  As I write this it’s 2:45pm in the shade inside my hut and with both the window and door open it’s 101.5F.  The other day it was 109F inside my room at 5pm; that was hot.

    I may lament it at times, but I’ve become accustomed to pulling water at the well every other day and carrying it back to my room on my head.  In the states I can’t imagine how much water I use in a day; here, I use less than 15liters a day for bathing, drinking, cleaning, etc (granted this does not include laundry, which takes 30-40liters of water once every two weeks or so).  I’m also much more aware of the moon.  With no electricity to create light pollution it gets dark when the sun goes down and the amount of light is entirely dependant on the moon.  As for weather, I notice everything.  In the states if it’s too hot you turn on the a/c or a fan; if it’s too cold, you turn up the heat.  So much time is spent in a climate-controlled environment.  Here if it’s cold (anything below 80F is cold) I put on more clothes and sleep inside.  If it’s hot I sweat and sleep outside; if it’s really hot I am soaked in sweat and sleep outside.  I’m used to my younger brothers and sisters running around like wild monkeys every evening.  The more moonlight, the madder they get.  I’m used to their ripped and tattered clothes and my host mom walking around with no shirt on.  I get excited about millet with leaf sauce for dinner and am not surprised on nights where there is no dinner.  When I go someplace I walk or bike.  If my destination is really far I take a hot, smelly, overcrowded, and often-breaking-down relic of a bus that we call an alhum. Needless to say it’s not air-conditioned.  I’m used to the 100km (60mi) trip taking at least four hours and arriving in Tamba covered in dust that has adhered to my sweat.  I’m used to the trip from my village to Tamba (130km) taking a day.

    There used to be times I’d be in disbelief that anyone could live like this, but at the end of a year of living it, it just seems normal.  Part of the reason I wanted to come to Africa is all the bad press we hear about it in the states.  I knew I needed to dispel the myths that had built up in my mind and replace them with a picture based on my experiences here.  This much I am achieving.

    I think every Peace Corps Volunteer thinks that they will change the world on some level, ideally for the better.  In some ways you have to believe it to take the plunge and go.  I came into this with basically no development experience, but the idea that Africa is a big part of the world that seems to have a lot of problems that no one understands. All sorts of people spout off all sorts of solutions: leave it alone, give money, flood the place with international NGOs, or adopt a child… In my opinion Africa has been taken advantage of for centuries and continues to be, and as someone who profits from this I feel obligated to try and see the bigger picture I don’t really have any money to send that would make much of a difference, and even if I did I am unsure of how wisely it would be spent. International aid organizations in Africa constitute a major sector of employment, and while unemployment is a huge issue here it seems strange to me that working for an NGO is one of the best jobs someone here can get. Needless to say I am in no position to adopt a child.

    One of the nice parts of Peace Corps is all the books we pass around. Paul Farmer is a household name here. Martin Meredith provides an excellent, if lengthy, account of African history leading up to and through revolution until present day in The Fate of Africa. In the states I probably couldn’t sit through book after book on development, but here I’ve got the time and my interest is yet to wane. However, instead of deducing the solution or means to achieve sustainable development, this seemingly holy grail, I’ve only deduced that a lot of factors led to this web of issues that seems to have kept Africa back. Untangling this to move forward is going to be slow.

    I often find myself thinking of projects for my village and area that they haven’t mentioned yet. The consciousness of PC Senegal is currently shifting in a positive direction, but during my training we were totally discouraged from any projects that weren’t entirely initiated by our communities. The trouble is there are a multitude of basic needs that aren’t met here. Only a few compounds have latrines; most people walk out into the forests/fields to relieve themselves. Every drop of water used has to be pulled 64 meters or more up from the ground and carried home on the women’s heads. This water contains dust, dirt, and sometimes parasites. It’s a rarity here when a woman gives birth to twins and both survive. Women in the village often have 8-12 pregnancies during their lifetime; around 40% of those children don’t make it past the age of five. Though my family is fortunate enough not to have this problem, there are families here that eat one meal a day. The World Food Program provides a modest but filling breakfast and lunch to the school children each school day, except when it runs out. That’s for the kids who get to go to school. Some children are kept home to help with work around the house (the case with many girls) or for lack of money to continue their studies. Many simply fail to pass the exams required to continue on to the next level and drop out. I can’t even begin to picture my opportunities as a third grade dropout. When so many students are incapable of passing their exams, it shows how ineffective the education system is.

    I have trouble demanding the solution to their salvation from people who are starved in so many ways. Outside of the towns almost all the adults are illiterate, and very few children what I consider fully literate. The farthest people in my village have gone is usually Kouthia Ba (for the women) or Koumpentoum (for the men). Few have ever been to the regional capital Tambacounda. They have little to no knowledge of anything going on outside of Senegal and even less of factors outside their control that impact their lives (such as grain or cotton subsidies in other countries that may decrease the value or demand of the crops they grow here, or a global food shortage that has caused the cost of a sack of rice to increase 50% but done nothing to increase their income, or the poor quality of their roads that impedes potential trade and work opportunities). How is it, I would like to know, that these people should be able to have a clearly mapped out answer to their problems? Even when they do know what will improve their lives they must defend it to people or organizations that doubt the proposed solutions or drag out their execution. The contrast to this is when random groups, usually NGOs, stop off and hand off wells, or machines, or big-ticket things. This serves to reinforce the “give-me, give-me” attitude that drives me crazy. These people do have to work for things but how much do they need to convince us that their basic needs should be met? How much is reasonable for them to put forward to meet these needs? As I skimmed through volume one of the Oxfam Guide to Development, I could only imagine my village’s response to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Part of the trouble of having so many questions and so few answers, is the paralyzing effect it has on action. Part of me feels that I shouldn’t take any action without knowing its full impact, after all that is what has caused a lot of these problems. At the same time we will never have all the information and have to start somewhere. Doing nothing changes nothing.

    This leads me to figuring out what I will do in this next year, the second half of my service. As I mentioned earlier, the atmosphere of PC Senegal was pretty negative when my batch arrived. Since then, a new Country Director has come in with a much more positive can-do attitude and a lot of jaded volunteers have left. I spent part of this first year unlearning a general destined-to-fail outlook on projects, and really do feel I can help my village to improve at least some parts of their lives. My women’s group, though discordant at times, is slowly taking steps forward to achieve their goals. Right now we have leads with an NGO, some random guy from the US Embassy, and possibly Engineers Without Borders to work on our well-pump project. Once I return from the States I’m also going to begin a numeration class with the women to teach them how to write and say the French numbers. I am thinking about starting a men’s group to get them off their asses and doing something, but their work season is about to begin and by the time it finishes I will be getting ready to leave. I am also thinking about starting a latrine project (seeing as it’s a basic need and the improved sanitation would lead to a break in the oral fecal cycle, and a decrease in incidences of diarrhea), but my village hasn’t mentioned this as an issue. I’m hesitant to start it without going through the possibly lengthy process of getting them to understand that if they stopped going in the forest and exclusively used latrines it would keep them from having diarrhea and decrease child mortality. I’m nervous that if I do go through the process with them that by the time they get it I won’t have enough time to see the project through, leaving a huge and costly project for whoever comes after me. Other things I want to do include a girls group and boys group. I’m not yet sure what my target age range will be, or my max number of participants (too many and nothing gets done, too few and you’re exclusive), but I’m hoping to start when I return.

    I am also not sure how much to leave for the next volunteer after me. For all I know the next PC slated to come to Lewe could early terminate during training, or right after they get to site, leaving no one to continue any projects I might leave. Also, some PCVs prefer coming to a site with activities already set up for them to do, while others would prefer to make it entirely their own. This won’t stop me from starting girls and boys groups but it is a serious concern for bigger projects like wells or latrines. As long as two years is, it’s not that long when everything has to move so slow except time doesn’t slow down for us to catch up.

    A year in, I would have to say that Peace Corps is all about balance. Balance between your comfort zone and uncomfortable places, cultures, locus of control, project ideas, personal time and work time, and more. I was learning how to balance while I worked in the states before I came here, and this process has continued. Being here has tipped my scales in a totally different direction (both literally and figuratively) but I think overall it will help me to find a greater balance in my life. Inshallah!
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