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.




  1. Love it! Funny isn't it that when we joined the Peace Corps we thought we would somehow change the world but little did we know just how much the world would really change us :) Congrats on the engagement, Gar and see you soon mister!!!!

  2. "...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."

    You speak the truth! Great post :-) Welcome back and congrats again on the engagement!

  3. Wonderful! And now you know why I'm a 'radical centrist', not that labels matter or anything. The balance is key, there are truths on both sides of the spectrum, but they're not all true and they're not all good. You have to walk the tightrope to find the best way.

    It was great reading this. I still sometimes wish I could be back there for exactly the reasons above, and I try to remember them here. Anyway I really wish I could have come visit, but you'll be back soon enough and I can't wait for you to bring your wisdom home with you. We need it here! :) Enjoy your last few months in Senegal and come home safe.

  4. Another great post, Garrison. We do have so much to be grateful for and so many of us take it for granted. If everyone could just take one of your 10 things and work on it our world would be a better place.

    Our political systems isn't broken, as so many people are saying, just in need of some common sense in how people should get along and compromise on the things that are really important to our country and to our world.

    It was so good to see you, even for such a short time. We look forward to your homecoming.

  5. so grateful for your insight and LOVE the ring ;o)

  6. Thank you for doing some very inspirational, educational and introspective writing. I am interviewing next week for a agriculture position in Senegal and your blog helps me understand the experience through your eyes. If you have any words of wisdom for a potential PCV to Senegal, please share. THANKS!