Tuesday, May 25, 2010


In Africa, I have had many the awakening met by confusion and disorientation. In the first year or so, in my own home, I often awoke with no idea where I was, and no idea what the noises around me meant or where they were coming from. This rarely happens to me now--donkeys, roosters, rice being pounded in mortars--the myriad of morning sounds washes over me with a sense of familiarity. This morning is one of those old disoriented mornings, but in an unfamiliar bed, in a small dark space. The sound that meets me, however, is one I have known since I was very young, and could not be mistaken for anything else; it is the sea.

Saint Louis is in the north of Dakar, on the Atlantic coast, and is something of a hybrid African/European city founded 350 years ago. It consists of three sections--the mainland, an island a few hundred meters off the mainland in the middle of the Senegal river, and a Peninsula that extends a protecting arm to the east, as if to save the small island from the savagery of the open sea. It is the location of an annual jazz festival that attracts musicians from West Africa, Europe, America, and the rest of the world. Seeing as I had a few extra vacation days lying around, and Whitney and I had not yet taken a trip together, we decided to make the journey.

We left Gambia on the 20th of May, and, after an unexpected but not atypical delay that stranded us in Dakar for the night, we arrived in Saint Louis on the afternoon of the 21st. There were four of us. Whitney and myself and Danielle, a newer volunteer, all speak Mandinka. Jasmin, also in my training group, is a Fula speaker. None of us speak French or Wolof, which unfortunately left us at something of a disadvantage in terms of communicating in northern Senegal. I have picked up some French vocabulary words, but little to no grammar, making me sound like a stuttering French caveman.

These language skills, in addition to a lot of flailing and some phone calls to local PC volunteers, got us to a section of beach hotels on the peninsula, the Langue d'Barbarie. We were told to try the Auberge du Pelicain. Which turned out to be a beautiful hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant. It also turned out to be completely full. The management told us to try the inn next door. The polite matron showed me a reservation list and asked me which was my name. Upon clarification, she pointed down the beach and said to ask for the Auberge Mermoz. Half an hour of searching along the beach later, we gave up on that idea and decided to just ask about the only other hotel we saw nearby- the Hotel Dior. It looked unlikely, as it was a fairly upper-class looking establishment, but there turned out to be a small camping section called "Camping Ocean," which not only had a vacancy right on the beach, but was the cheapest option we had yet found while still being comfortable.

After settling in at the hotel, we headed to town to explore a bit and look for some dinner. We saw a variety of nice European, Asian, and African options, all far too rich for our thin wallets. Finally we stumbled on a small cafe adjacent to an African art gallery. From the place's appearance we all assumed it would be too expensive, but we were surprised to be able to sit down to some wonderful chicken yassa for about five American dollars. What made the place better was the extremely friendly and helpful waitress--an educated young woman who tried her best to speak to us in English. She gave us her e-mail address and invited us to a fashion show at the gallery the next day before we thanked her and went back out into the town. We found a small pastry shop and tried a few of their offerings, including a cup of espresso for me. Every time I go to a French country I am continuously surprised at how intermixed the African culture is with French culture. This isn't true nearly as often with British culture in The Gambia. Whether it is positive or negative that the Senegalese had French culture more effectively thrust on them, however, is a topic open for much heated discussion.

After the coffee and pastries we headed to the mainland looking for a party at a Peace Corps Volunteer's apartment. Once again our lack of any really useful language skill threw us off the beaten path and we had to continuously ask for directions, which just made us more confused, walking down dark and foreign colonial streets. Finally Jasmin called on or her friend in the area and got us back on the right path, after considerable back-tracking. The party was in a location that seemed ridiculously opulent to we humble Gambian volunteers: an apartment at the top of a 5 or 6 story building, half inside, half on terraced-in patios with beautiful views of the river, island, and sea. We socialized with the volunteers in attendance and drank some pretty potent jungle juice, easily losing track of time. When we finally managed to break away it was past one a.m., and we went in search of live music.

While Jasmin, Danielle, and a few of the Senegalese volunteers headed to a danceclub-type venue with a DJ, Whitney and I looked for some music that was a bit more authentically live. We finally found a club by the river that had a band of Africans playing with a white--presumably French--drummer and keyboardist sitting in. They played lively jazz with some African percussion and singing mixed in, and the mood frequently changed as new people sat in, including a Senegalese keyboardist and a stylishly dressed, female, African albino bass player. She seemed to totally get lost in the music--swooning, thrashing her head back and forth, opening her mouth wide while deeply bending a note. The band finally began to pack things up around 3, after which people seemed to be ready to leave, when all of a sudden a new type of music burst spontaneously from four men sitting near the bar. They were apparently part of a gospel choir and began singing Christian songs such as "Go Down Moses" and "This Little Light of Mine" in four-part harmony, accompanied by the intermittent "whoop" of one of them blowing on a half-empty beer bottle. Despite the late hour and the mixed-religion crowd, everyone was re-energized and excited by this sudden outburst of music, so characteristic of West Africa.

I woke up at 2 the next afternoon with the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. My head throbbed softly and my mouth was sticky. I heard the ocean and I wanted to dive into it--clear my head and wash off the sweat, dried in places, pungent in others. Trunks on and I hit the beach, where impatience pushed me to run. I thrashed into the surf and was shocked into something closer to a lucid state of mind. I practiced my usual oceanic ritual of swimming just past where my feet can touch before returning to shore. Back at the hut I changed into a slightly wrinkled off-white shirt, a maroon tie with yellow stripes, and khaki dockers. Whitney finished off the outfit by putting her fedora on me. Not quite haute couture, but at least not ragged.

In town we walked the streets of old colonial buildings while Mauritanians called out deals on silver jewelry and drumming from gatherings in compounds throbbed through concrete and plaster walls. Crudely painted portraits of local cheikhs stared forebodingly from cracking cement walls, surrounded by tattered posters of past music events and glossy newer ones of an upcoming dance gala. We turned a street and run smack into a parade consisting of dancers, singers, stilt walkers, and various other incarnations of the cultural life of Senegambia. I took Whitney's camera and started shooting, trying to capture just a taste the strange and wonderful stimuli this city keeps throwing at us. That evening we met up with some other Peace Corps friends and head for a bar where the albino bassist's band is playing. Our progress was interrupted, however, when one of out number was pick pocketed. She ran after a man she suspected to be the thief and confronts him, but he empties his pockets willingly, removing only his own cell phone. After some consoling she went back to her hotel to get some money to bring to the club, and the rest of us continued on, feeling a little more sober. It's easy to forget sometimes that anything that outwardly implies you have money can make you a target. Unfortunately, in many developing countries, being white is one such attribute.

We all made it to the concert ready for some cheering up, and we were in no way disappointed. The act, "Jac et le Takeifa," was a hyper mix of Senegalese mbalax dance music, American rock and punk, traditional West African music styles, and whatever else they feel like at the moment. We uninitiated toubabs were energized, but we seemed catatonic in comparison with the frenzy of the Senegalese. Ten or more men jumped up and down on a long, groaning wooden table, chanting the words to each song between hits of fanta or flag beer, depending on religious affiliation. Some of the performers from the mainstage jazz festival sat in on a few songs, including a German guitarist with a stunning mullet. All the while the Afro sporting front man and the bassist traded energy back and forth, headbanging, shaking, and throwing themselves into the music. When we left at three in the morning, others at the bar were calling friends, looking for another party to hop to.

The next day I managed to rise before noon. It's easier than before; I suppose that after its initial protests my body resigned itself to a temporary nocturnal state. After another dip in the Atlantic we headed in for our last day in the city. Whitney and I found an art gallery hosting an African art exhibition run by a British man who splits his time between London and Cape Town. It was full of photographs, abstract paintings, and historical information about the cultural connections between African nations and their former colonizers. This, along with the festival and the general atmosphere of Saint Louis made me keenly aware of the lack of such cultural displays in the Gambia. I feel that this should change, that Gambians should value their culture more and display it more proudly. But what they value is not up to me, or to the U.S., Britain, or anyone else. All we can do is give suggestions, and it is up to the Gambians to decide what is best for themselves.

Since it is our last night in town, we decided to splurge a little bit and pay the ticket price to get into the mainstage show. The first act was The African Roots Quartet, comprised of a kora player, a Fula flutist, a sabar drummer, and a French percussionist on a drum set. They played a charged and highly improvisational brand of music, displaying a lot of virtuosity on their respective instruments. They were followed by an ensemble led by Puerto Rican Trumpet player/percussionist Jerry Gonzales. What initially seemed to be a standard latin jazz and salsa outfit quickly became more interesting, as a Senegalese drummer, a Spanish trumpeter, and a Flamenco vocalist all added different elements to the mix. It was interesting to see the entire interaction between Africa, Europe, and Latin America represented on one stage, and the music was exciting and danceable. The closer for the performance was the American saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Despite being in his seventies and playing a set that started at one in morning, he can still wail away. He threw a lot of avant-garde elements into his music, including singing while playing, overtones, atonal passages, and a very free, open structure to each piece. He was a lot of fun to watch, but our group is fading fast, and after about an hour we file out and head for the street to catch a cab.

Before dawn the next morning we were up, dressed, and almost conscious as we took a cab to the car park on the mainland. As I groggily leaned my head against the taxi's window pane, I glimpsed the sea from between the scruffy whistling pine trees poking out of the beige sand in the weak light of the coming day. I could just hear the faint sound of the surf as we crossed the bridge onto the island, before it faded completely. Then we were back into the hustle of the car parks, the cries of the hawkers and beggars, chickens and asses--the sounds that would wake us in the days to come.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Hypothetical situation:
You have gone to nursing school for 2 years after completing high school, and have been stationed a day's journey away from friends and family in a rural village with no electricity, paved roads, or any type of modern convenience. You spend your days trying to help the uneducated population of this village with their myriad health woes, many of which amount to conditions as vague as "my body hurts." Your tools are limited and your training is limited, but you make do, and have become an accepted member of your new community, although you are still supporting a spouse and son back in your hometown. You work hard for that modest, but at least steady paycheck you receive every month. And with that paycheck, there comes the inevitable deluge of phone calls. Your brother - "I have been invited to a wedding ceremony and I need 500 dalasis to buy a gift large enough to impress the family. I am your brother, do you not love me? Do you only love your wife and son?" Your mother - "I am old and only have a few cows and a garden with which to make money. You, my son, are a civil servant. You have more money than you need. Send me 700 dalasis for new bowls and for a bag of rice." And so on. That monthly paycheck is soon divvied up and distributed among your relatives, leaving nothing left for you to save for the future.

I am sure this scenario seems ridiculous to the average American. If your brother asks for money and its not an emergency, you feel under no obligation to give him anything, and no one will judge you for not doing so. Sharing is all well and good, but there is a definite line between legitimate requests and begging. In much of West Africa, however, a request of anything from a relative or friend, if at all feasible, is something that must be given. If it is not, the person making the request will accuse you of being wicked, greedy, and uncaring--accusations that will be spread around the community and may stick. If they do, this will all but destroy your chances of getting any help in building a house, starting a business, or doing any other work that requires another set of hands.

Being a toubab, this aspect of the culture can be extremely frustrating, but at least I have an excuse for refusing most of the time, not being actually related to anyone. This doesn't stop every casual acquaintance from asking me for money for a loaf of bread or for green tea or medicine. Before you furrow your brow at that last statement, wondering why I would deny poor Africans food and medicine, let me explain the situation here and my feelings about hand-outs in the third world in general. Yes, the people here need help. But they have been getting help for decades. Western aid to African since the 60's amounts to more than a trillion dollars, and that has done little to lower poverty rates, improve governance, and generally make life better for Africans. (Check link at left for details) There are a number of probable reasons for this, but the one that is most evident to me on a daily basis is that aid decreases self reliance.

Many the charity or development organization that comes to The Gambia is staffed by people motivated by lofty ideas of building hospitals, saving children, and changing the world. While altruism is certainly something to be admired and encouraged, the main problem with this kind of attitude is that it can quickly turn to selfishness when things in the developing world are not what we expect. When projects fail because of disinterest, poor planning, harsh conditions, or a myriad of other reasons, many western donors and workers lose their patience and pull out. Westerners expect Africans to be humble, hardworking, and grateful for whatever scraps western countries are willing to give them. Often the case is just the opposite--many African leaders, especially men, are highly self-laudatory, lazy, and corrupt. International aid organizations in the Gambia routinely close down operations because of allegations of fraud and theft among Gambian staff members. It is often just too easy and too tempting for people of humble origin, when put in charge of large sums of money, to pocket some of it for themselves. This is especially true when so much financial support is expected of working men and women from their families. Since so much of this money gets siphoned off, more and more of it is needed to maintain projects, and since more of it keeps coming, it no longer becomes a leg up to poor but appreciative people, but an expected allowance that is viewed as an entitlement.

This problem of reliance on foreign aid starts at the top echelons of African societies--the government and educated Africans working in development-- but also trickles its way down to poorer people. NGO's sweep into a small village, do a short and inadequate needs assessment, and then build a school, well, garden, or other generic development project. This project either fails completely within a few years, as do most gardens and wells, or staggers on with little success, crippled by a lack of continued funding and an indigenous leadership without the proper training and/or motivation to run it. After the project fails or is no longer viewed as viable, rather than trying to revamp it or start a new project of their own design the community will sit on its thumbs, waiting for another NGO to come along and throw them some money. When one does, the whole process starts all ove again.

It is this viewing this process which has hardened my resolve to never give anything to anyone in the community that I do not have a strong relationship and understanding with--and even then only after a serious discussion about why its necessary. The old man who asks me for bread doesn't need it--it's a luxury item in Africa anyway. The woman who wants painkillers most likely doesn't have any real pain problems at present anyway--many times they just ask you because they hope to get some free medicine from the toubab. Even if they do have a real need, if I give them something they will be less likely to go through the established infrastructure to get what they need in the future. There is a Spanish NGO that comes yearly to a village near my own that, until recently, gave away medicine for free after a short medical examination given by med students and nurses. That sounds wonderful, until you realize that in the months leading up to the visit by the "Spanish Doctors," very few people go to the health centers unless they are at death's door. They would rather jeopardize their health and wait to get treatment for free in a two months instead of having to pay a nominal fee to get it now. The community nurse in my village had to have a somewhat heated meeting with the Spaniards to explain the system of medical treatment in the Gambia in order get them to help him instead of competing with him.

I realize that my tone up until this point has sounded relentlessly negative about the situation here, but let me just say that after 19 months in this country I still remain motivated and excited to be doing what I am doing. These are daunting challenges which we face if we want to improve the lot of people living in developing countries. Fortunately, I feel that the Peace Corps and a few other organizations are getting at least one thing right--working with people on their own terms as well as ours. Development organizations can not come in and dictate the "right" way for a country to improve itself. This is ignorant and arrogant on the part of western agencies, and will most likely alienate and insult the recipients of the proposed aid. At the same time, developing countries can not make demands on western nations and feel entitled to an unending stream of hand-outs. It is certainly true that European countries have exploited the developing world to a despicable degree in the past, but by hanging on to bitterness and demanding aid instead of building trading and diplomatic relationships the west and their neighbors, developing countries will never make themselves into strong, self-reliant nations.

What I value so far about my service to the Gambia and to The Peace Corps is that, despite a lot of frustrations, I have found people to work with who want to make things better by their own means. We spend two years here trying to build relationships with this type of people. This is may seem like a long time, and it is longer than the terms of most development workers, but it is still precious little time really become a part of a community. And once we find those people and decide together on a project they deem necessary, they are willing to work for it. Maybe they need a little leg up now and again with some training or a small grant, but on the whole, they want to do things for themselves. Working with such people on equal terms and with equal respect is the only type of work I see as worthwhile, and the only work that will have any type of sustainable effect. And hopefully those doing the work will find some way of keeping their relatives' hands off at least some of the benefits.