Thursday, May 31, 2012

10 Things America Could Learn From Senegal

Yes that's right there are things we in the west could learn from the third world.  Not everything and not always but surely this time and surely some.  I just got back from a whirlwind 30 day vacation in the states during which I visited family, spent a few days in Yosemtite, ate a ton, and got engaged... among other things.  I'll upload a picture of the ring at the end.  Anyways with all of that plus several really long trips up and down California I've been thinking.  Then again when do I ever stop thinking.  Here's a new slogan for you, "Peace Corps: Two years of feeling really mixed and confused about everything".  But I digress.  During my time I had this same conversation probably about 50 times:

Them: "So how's Africa?"
Me: "It's good."
Them: "What did you learn?"
Me: "The world is really complicated."
Them: "Ah yes... did you see any wild animals?"
Me:  "Monkeys and birds..."
Them: "Excellent!"

Obviously that's an oversimplification but that's how it felt after a while.  In truth I've had some of the most stimulating and insightful conversations of my life this month, but they all seemed to boil down to the same couple of truths: the world is complicated and so are people, and by and large we have no idea how to manage either.  During my final dinner with friends Jason and Jodi Womack we got on this topic and I came to the realization that the art of sustainable success lies in walking the knife's edge between complexity and simplicity.  We can't oversimplify to the detriment of truth, nor can we over complicate at the expense of action.  It's a fine balance and good work comes from the struggle between these truths.  The world is full of conflicting truths.  Think about that the next time you get into a political debate because guess what, the Republicans and Democrats are BOTH right.  Conservatism and Liberalism are both necessary in our world, both bring valid points to the table, and the struggle between them is where the good work gets done.  That is only true however if we recognize it to be so and stop uselessly flinging mud.  Life's about the journey, the struggle, the in-between, not about destinations and absolutes. 

I mentioned my friend Jason Womack.  He's the author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  Truly interesting, insightful and inspiring.  There are lots of people who can tell you how to be more productive at work, but Jason does it in the context of getting what you want out of life not just work. 

I digress once again.  So America.  Tis a strange land.  Very strange indeed.  Being back showed me how so many of the things we take for granted are truly absurd and NOT inherently the ideal or better than the way the rest of the world lives.  We live within the context of our own culture and don't reach the absolute truths of what "Should" be any better than any other culture.  So with that in mind here we are, 10 things America could learn from Senegal (not in any particular order):

  1. Greetings:  In Senegal people talk to each other.  I could walk up to any stranger and 9 times out of 10 (probably 99 out of 100 really) they would have a conversation with me, and ask me real questions, if not somewhat standardized, about my family how I'm doing etc...  Try doing that in America.  Try even making eye contact with a stranger for that matter.  So strange. 
  2. Family: People here really have an appreciation for family.  It matters.  How many times in America do we toss our family aside because of inconvenience or distance.  Call your mother!
  3. Community:  In Senegal it would be absolutely unheard of to not know and communicate or socialize with your neighbors.  Do you really know your neighbors?  And I mean all of them on the block not just the ones on either side of you.  If not why?  Are your differences really that great.  Make the effort. 
  4. Child Rearing: They say it takes a village to raise a child... and IT DOES.  I suppose this connects with the previous item but still no excuses.  We are all responsible for the well being of children and for teaching them the norms of our culture.  Get involved in the lives of the children around you, not in an intrusive way, but you know.  Its not just the parents job to take care of them.  Oh and also breast feeding is a normal human need for Christ's sake.  Never make a woman feel uncomfortable for feeding her child no matter where she is.  God knows here they just whip out their breast wherever they are and IT DOESN'T MATTER.  
  5. Forgiveness:  On Senegalese holidays everyone walks around asking forgiveness for anything they may have done and forgiving others for offenses to them.  Both ask for forgiveness and forgive more then you think necessary.
  6. Generosity:  In Senegal if you start eating something in front of someone you offer it to them, if anyone stops by around meal time you feed them, if someone has problems you help them.  We kind of have this sentiment in America but when was the last time you offered some of your M&M's to the person next to you on the plane/ train/ wherever.  Just be nice and generous, its better then hoarding.
  7. Waste:  America is incredibly wasteful.  I bet you'd all take a shorter shower if you had to full that water from a well, or carpool a little more if gas cost $7.00 a gallon (That's the price in Senegal).  Speaking of, it would be unheard of to have everyone drive with only one or even two people in a car here.  Cars get filled up.  Think of how many people go to the same places but take seperate cars.  Not easy to fix but easier once we tell ourselves that that isn't necessarily "Normal" or "Ideal".  Also American food portions are absurd.  We're all getting fat!  We don't need to eat so much just because we can.  
  8. Religious Tolerance: Senegalese are by and large pretty religious, but I don't know many that would judge you based on your beliefs.  Islam and Christianity coexist perfectly well here.  If you believe nothing else believe that people are generally good and put that lens in front of your eyes next time before you judge someone else's faith or think that you understand more then you do.  Everyone's just trying to do their best in the context of their unique situation and back ground.  
  9. The Siesta: Taking a long lunch break to reinvigorate yourself and socialize with others should be rewarded not punished.  It works great here and makes people happier, healthier, and MORE productive.  When I get home I'm napping every day.   
  10. Respect:  Everything on this list is possible because of a general respect for the dignity and worth of other people.  Beyond that though Senegal has an incredible level of respect for age and elders.  In America we do not.  We must realize that the world works in cycles not just linear progress and thus the old are not useless and obsolete but rather the perfect guides to take us into the future.  
Well there you have it.  Go forth now and fix America before I get back.  In truth my biggest reaction to being in America was absolute amazement.  America is incredible and we all have so much to feel thankful for.  As many problems as we have just as much, if not more, just goes right: roads get built, electricity stays on, sewage gets treated, everyone can have an education, everyone gets food, etc.  Of course its far more complicated then that but in this moment I'm grateful. Its hard to feel good about paying taxes when so many of the benefits are unseen and taken for granted.  Let me tell you this though, none of that infrastructure is a given in this world.  It takes money and effort and a pretty well functioning government to maintain.  That's just one side of it though and as I've said its complicated and all my assertions are probably just as wrong as they are right.  In any case food for thought.  I love swinging the pendulum and trying one side and then swinging back and changing my mind.  That's where I am right now.  That and this:

Kinda puts things in perspective.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012


When one has gone as long as long as I have without writing a blog post there should be a myriad of things to say, stories to tell, revelations to share and general bloggery to explore... that is unless the one in question has been stuck in a cave with nothing to do but ponder existence or something similarly useless, in which case said person should be kept away from communication apparatuses at all costs lest they infect the general population with a malaise for which no one but a bored cave dweller (or PCV) really has the time.  In the great wisdom of Amtrak however I have a wifi connection right now so here's whats been happening in my cave the last couple of months.  Caution this post may have the following side effects: Malaise, Sentimentality, Ethnocentrism, Boredom, and Dry Mouth (It just wouldn't be a side effects list without dry mouth).

Things have been shifting lately.  When I first got to country I was the scared little American who knew nothing about his job, couldn't speak the language, got screwed over and taken advantage of in the cities, didn't particularly like pushy Senegalese culture and couldn't understand why with all of these wonderful attributes garnered zero respect or authority in his village.  If you look at the day to day its hard to see any improvement whatsoever but lately several experiences have given me the opportunity to step back and look at my overall progress.

1. Getting Shot.  Now that got your attention didn't it.  Ok well not shot exactly in the stereotypical sense with blood and injury and whatnot but shot in the sense of something that came out of a gun contacting with me...  Here's how it all went down.  There have been a lot of Belgians hunting birds in my village lately.  Being tourists they don't know what they're doing, don't follow any cultural protocols and are just generally assholes.  One guy thought he was out in the middle of the bush and didn't seem to realize he was right next to a community garden and a village.  It was just a nuisance at first, but he kept getting closer and closer and the women got angrier and angrier and then suddenly bird shot started raining down on top of us.  I got hit in the hand.  It almost left a mark.  This meant war.  I dropped what I was doing, stormed out and proceeded to curse out Mr. Belgian hunter man in my incredibly horrible french which was probably more of an insult then the actual words I used.  Luckily his guide spoke Serere so I was able to redeem myself by properly insulting them both in my now excellent Serere.  It was a proud moment.  When I got back to the garden the women all laughed and asked if I hit him.  The story spread like wildfire, how I had defended the village against the stupid toubab and how it showed that I was really a part of the village. 

2. NGO Ignorance.  My host dad works for an NGO that hosts French students as interns every year and this year the guy was a little... stupid... Ok thats kinda harsh, but I spent some time discussing Senegal with him and lets just say I didn't appreciate his views.  Now I admit I have said some bad things about Senegal, Senegalese people, Peace Corps, you name it, but I've done this in the way you would do it to a family member.  You know honest, cruel, and from a place of love and respect.  This guy who had only been in Senegal for a month was criticizing it left and right and I found myself vehemently defending the people here out of both out of a respect for the culture and a healthy amount of American pride and general contrariness to French arrogance.  The moral of the story is don't mess with MY Senegal.

3. COS Conference.  For those of you not accustomed to PC acronyms COS = Close of Service.   Yes due to some shifting around of things we had ours this month.  AHHHH!!!!! Sorry that's been happening a lot lately for some reason... Yes my training group all came together to write our resumes, talk about job possibilities, and learn how to cope when all of you lovely well meaning people inevitably stop being interested in our stories and experiences.  Aside from some freaking out over the prospect of going home it was fun.  Peace Corps Service for better or for worse starts to look pretty successful in resume format.  For example by the end of my service I will have helped to plant over 30,000 trees. What does that mean?  Nothing out of context but it looks good on paper :-).

4. Adoption.  For a long time my host family has been trying to convince me to bring home one of the kids to America.  I always joked back saying I could put them in my suitcase and whatnot.  Always joking, never serious...  Don't worry I didn't bring home a child in my suitcase, but for the first time I actually want to.  It's never going to happen but if I could adopt my two little host cousins, Moodu and Fatou, I would.  In a heartbeat.  I never thought I would be one of THOSE volunteers.  You know the obnoxious ones who are just a little too dedicated and integrated and take things a little too far... oops...

5. America.  As I write this I'm riding a train heading up to Chico, CA for some much needed vacation time.  This is vacation number two of my service and its absolutely amazing to me how different they feel.  Before vacation last year I was counting down the days until I could leave, wanting nothing more then to get out of Senegal.  This time I wanted to push back vacation to get more work done and immediately started missing the hustle and bustle of 3rd world life now that I'm back in meticulously organized and clean America.  It is nice to be back certainly, but I get the feeling I don't quite fit in here anymore.  I'm still incredibly jet lagged, but stay tuned for a post about my reflections on America once I'm more settled here.

Nothing too profound from my cave this time, just a few clearer interpretations of the shadows on the walls. Maybe if I keep going deeper I'll come out the other side someday... but then how do you ever really know whats real and whats just another cave... man... deep...


P.S. I don't know about the other side effects but a glass of water should take care of that dry mouth :-p