Friday, November 18, 2011

Reasons why I love America

Reason #1: Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers & Sisters Program, Audobon Society... what do all these things have in common?

I feel like in the states we are instilled with a drive for volunteerism, a compulsion to contribute to our communities, or, if nothing else, a latent guilt that fabricates these emotions in us. Here in Senegal, that all seems to be essentially absent. As Kim, Ann Marie and I have been getting our region-wide HIV/AIDS Awareness project off the ground, I've learned a ton about how to work with Senegalese people. On one of the first days of outreach we had planned to visit four of our focus villages and explain our project to them, with the help of a member of our project "team" (Which consists of a Linguere hospital administrator, a worker for the Senegal-based American NGO EmbraceAIDS, and various other experts) and a rented vehicle to take us in the bush.

From start to finish, it was a struggle. Our Senegalese work partner, Jerry, gave me the cold shoulder when I asked him to motorcycle himself to Linguere to meet the others and showed coy stubbornness in actually carrying out the discourses we had planned for him. All this was because, as we found out later, he felt offended that we hadn't advanced him a per diem and transportation reimbursement. Our chauffeur stonewalled us on the price of the car rental for the day and made a pretty penny off our desperation for a car to get us into the bush. In neither case - and this turns out to be the rule, not the exception - did these men feel swayed by a desire to contribute to our noble project and cut us a break. The frustrating thing is that the project is meant only to benefit their community, of course.  Ann Marie and Kim and I talk about how we'll be out of here within the next several months . . . so why are we the ones pouring ourselves into this education, stressing about details, begging people to contribute their time, and donating our money from our own meager stipends, while they turn up their noses until they're paid, and paid well?

I mean, the answer to this is a "duh" -- we've signed on as Peace Corps VOLUNTEERS for the very reason that we get a kick out of pouring ourselves gallantly into communal ventures. Still, it's frustrating to face the reality that, across our undertakings, we can't necessarily count on our Senegalese brethren to join us in our altruistic frame of mind and give their time to our projects without expecting very specific forms of compensation. So be it.

I should also probably qualify my initial statement about people being unwilling to contribute to their communities, because, at the village level, it's a different story. While you can't get masonry, woodwork, etc. carried out for free, the people of the village can come together at the drop of a hat to put together a party, cook a meal for hundreds of people, plant a garden, etc. Further, the whole "it takes a village..." concept is definitely apt, for every child in the village (and me, as well :-) is the responsibility of any and every older individual. You can eat a meal anywhere you find yourself, at any moment. People care about each other and take care of each other, and it's beautiful.

Reason #2: No Fly Zone

Am I wrong, or have flies basically been eradicated from America? I remember having to hide from them on certain Boundary Waters canoe trips, but I feel like aside from a few wilderness areas, flies aren't a huge issue in the states. Nor are mosquitoes, save a few bad minutes right at dusk in the midwest.

Not so here in Senegal. The flies are bad. Wanna take a nap in the middle of the day without feeling the perpetual tickle of itsy-bbitsy legs landing on you?  Good luck. I dream of the day I can take a daytime nap again.

How did we do that? How did we get rid of the bugs? Is it just that we don't have trash and manure and dead animals and gross standing water near residential areas? Whatever it is, cheers America! I appreciate you.

Reason #3: Salad Bars

So, I just celebrated my second Tabaski here. It's a fun holiday, but it celebrates Ibrahim's (Abraham's) sacrifice of a sheep, so people here slaughter numerous sheep in observance. I was prepared this time around for the onslaught of meat; My gastrointestinal health has been shaky of late in general, so I didn't want to overdo it. I took it slowly and was even pleasantly surprised by how relatively delicious it tasted throughout the festivities.

The other shoe dropped two days after Tabaski. My dad's first wife, Penda, gave me breakfast -- I don't usually get breakfast from my family, even though they normally eat benign things like bread or couscous. They must have thought this particular offering was a really super special treat, because Penda tried not once but twice to force it on me. I took it the second time despite the putrid catfood-like smell coming from the bowl. As I carried it into my room, I looked down and was dismayed by the sight before me: an assortment of questionable hunks of meat and a couple potatoes floating in some manner of oil gravy substance.

I tried to capture the creation, but the pictures just don't really do it justice.  Anyway,  can't include a picture here because my computer's broken and I have no way of loading the photo onto this one, so you’ll just have to take my word for all this and depend on my description.

So.  My mother may disown me and I may turn off all males from the possibility of any future romantic contact with me, but I have to confess: I ate some of it. I ate the two potatoes and tried to find some viable morsels of meat. And in case you're wondering, no. It did not sit well with the GI tract.

So there ya go. On top of that, as the meat assault continued throughout the week, I found myself eating all sorts of weird animal parts.  As I dug meat out of the eye socket of the sheep skull plopped in the middle of the rice bowl, I once again thought longingly about my days of vegetarianism. Upon my return to the states, I plan to patronize salad bars, not sheep skulls. Until then... when in Rome...

Reason #4: Your pizza in 30 minutes, or it's freeeeee!

So remember that old Pizza Hut (Domino’s?) decree, “Your pizza in half an hour, or it’s free?” It’s something us time-crunched, hot-pizza lovin’ Americans have come to take for granted.

Think again!

In Senegal, people are generally a bit less pressed for time. I’ve pretty much accepted and adopted that rhythm, as well, but . . . when it comes to pizza . . . it’s harder to be at peace with that lackadaisical, “god-willing” business.

My buddies and I recently returned from a vacation down to the South of the country. On the trip back up to Dakar, we piled into a car at 5 A.M. and did the trip straight, landing us in the urban jungle around 3 pm. And what was the very first thing on our collective minds?

We're hungry and it's Tuesday in Dakar, which means only one thing: Pizza Inn Two-for-Tuesdays! Obviously.

We made legs straight for Pizza Inn; tragedy struck. The power was out! Apparently you can't bake pizza with no electricity. Fine, we thought. We’ll wait. We sat right in front the registers, determined to be the first in line for copious amounts of delicious buy one, get one free pizzas. And we sat. And sat. We were four gung-ho, determined Americans increasingly becoming the butt of entertainment for the Senegalese crowd populating the pizza parlor/gas station/snack shop.

Finally, around 6 pm, we let go of our dreams of the twofer pizza deal, picked up our bags (still our big vacation sacks, having come directly from the taxi station), and limped out of Pizza Inn toward the Peace Corps building.

Two hours later, we were still hungry and still meal-less. We mourned the loss of the pizza dream. Alas, we decided to revive it!

We called Pizza Inn with two questions:

1. Had electricity returned ? (Peace Corps has a generator, so we were living in a power outage-free universe)

2. Could they deliver to the PC building in NGor?

On both accounts, Fatou, the sweet young woman on the other end of line, gave me a resounding “Oui!”

Our numbers, by then, had increased, so for the nine PC Vols, we ordered eight large pizzas, duh! For the price of four! Then I did my best do give Fatou good directions to our place and got off the phone. We were back in the game, baby!

And we waited, patiently. Like I said, we were familiar with Senegal’s lack of urgency, poor customer service, and general dyscfunctionality, so we didn’t worry as an hour ticked by, and then another. (As I waited, I took advantage of the PC office phone to call home to America; my mother, when I told her the circumstances, was far more concerned that any of us were.) 

Around the 2.5 hour mark, hungry and tired, we started to feel some unease. I called Fatou back and made sure the directions were clear. She assured us our pizzas were on the way, via delivery man and his scooter.

Next time we called, however, we were appraised of the fact that a SNAFU had taken hold. Delivery man’s scooter had broken down and he was awaiting back-ups, i.e. a second delivery man with HIS scooter. We agreed to keep waiting, but I did make a brief fuss about the possibility of cold pizzas before hanging up the phone.

In the next half-hour, myself and various other Wolof-speaking PCVs were on and off the phone with Fatou and each of her delivery mignons, trying to explain and re-explain directions to the PC house under increasingly disgruntled attitudes from all parties. Finally, the doorbell rang and Justin and I went outside; we were super hungry, at this point, and not optimistic about the state the we would find our pizzas to be in.

Sure enough, as back-up delivery boy tried to hand us the boxes, we felt the heart-breaking sensation of luke-warm / room temperature cardboard. Fail.

So we did what any ravenous, self-respecting, Wolof-speaking PCV would do: we refused to pay and tried to make off with the sub-satisfactory pizzas. That’s when it hit the fan, so to speak. Delivery boy was angry. He growled. Justin and I growled back. The guard in front of the PC building got involved. Justin rushed inside for reinforcements among our starving peers, shouting over his shoulder that “the guard would protect me” – we were both afraid of the pizza battle coming to blows.

Justin & Co. returned, and we stood our ground; we wouldn’t pay full price for cold pizza that had arrived 3+ hours late. But like I said, this wasn’t America. Eventually, Delivery Boy zipped all eight pizzas back into the case on the back of his scooter and made off. But not before I – yes, I, Emily, the peace-loving, use-your-words girl of yore – had a chance to give him a light slug on his shoulder. I couldn’t help it! It wasn’t even the pizza that got to me in the end. It was his surly hostility, his snarky smugness.

We went back inside, pizza-less and jejected. The vols who had missed the confrontation stared at us in shock – “You sent our pizza back?” “On principle!” roared Ann Marie. But in the end, we caved. We were hungry, and we'd had our minds set on pizza for awhile – for some of us, we’d first had the mouth-watering hankering over eight hours ago.

So I called Fatou back. I said, “Send him back. We’ll pay the money." Delivery boy returned, still snarky, still surly. We paid. He handed us our pizzas, now colder than ever, snatched is 17,000 CFA from my hand, and zoomed away. We ate the pizza. It was delicious.

. . . . . .

Ohhhh-Kay. Enough bad energy. To be honest, I love Senegal. It’s started to occur to me that I’m actually leaving this place at some point, and that that point isn’t too far in the future! Mostly, I kid about the aforementioned downsides of this country, especially in comparing it to my motherland. OF COURSE America has better food, cleaner streets, air-conditioning, more attention to customer service, a higher tendency toward community service. There are cultural differences, wealth discrepancies, varying standards, etc. etc. etc. But that’s not why we go places or why we do things. No one joins that Peace Corps to live like they did in America. The hilarious, idiosyncratic things that happen to me on a daily basis – the cows I accidentally heard on my morning run, the toddler that tumbles face first into the sand as she’s making a frantic attempt to escape my white face, and on and on – are worth their weight in gold. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: I just must remember to laugh . . . I must ALWAYS remember to LAUGH!!

Furthermore, the foundation of one’s quality of life rises from the goodness of the people in our most immediate surroundings. I truly love the people of my village, as well as many of my fellow volunteers. The harassment that springs at me on the streets of most big cities, as well as the laziness and the lack of volunteer mentality (See above) that seems to emanate from much of the Senegalese population . . . all that nearly entirely dissipates within the confines of my lovely, perfect little village. In truth, my primary problem is only: How will I ever say goodbye?

1 comment:

  1. Good story, Em. Really catches the struggle that is PCV life. And good luck saying goodbye. It's pretty tough. I've been back a month, and it's still hard to believe I did it.