Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, February 21

African Friends & Money Matters

I first read African Friends and Money Matters just after install. At the time a few points stood out, but I kept mentally coming back to one specifically. The idea is that, in Africa, knowledge is guarded while possessions are shared. From the moment we got off the plane, and I noticed the women a few rows in front of me using the in-flight blanket to carry her baby off said plane, it just the beginning to the awareness that personal property was a loosely defined term on this continent. But what I didn’t notice was how little information was shared.

This could have been because we were in Peace Corps training; where information was spit at us from left and right. But when the lessons were over, and quality time with the host family began, I was too tired to miss the lack of substantive information being passed around. Daily happenings on my street, the weather and accompanying climate changes, and whether or not the maid was doing a good job in the house were common topics. What was missing was the pertinent stuff like when we were eating meals, how profitable was my mother’s vegetable stand, and what I would be doing here in Senegal.

The idea that those last topics are highly valuable information that should be guarded with extreme care was beyond me. If everyone knew what time dinner was in the States, then they’d be sure not to intrude then. Family time is important, and one would not want to impose where they were not invited. In Africa, knowing the schedule is an open invitation to sit down for the meal. But social hospitality isn’t the issue. The issue is those that are always looking for a free meal where vegetables and meat are expensive commodities.

Likewise, the profitability of the vegetable stand would be readily discussed between Western friends and family. We are a culture of seeking free advice, and value the opinions and ideas of those closest to us; therefore we would open up about the status of our business as yet another opportunity to engage in such an exchange. But for the African entrepreneur, if a stand is doing well then family and friends will find a need to ask for money or resources. And if the stand is doing poorly, there is certainly no advice to be gained from saying so.

And lastly, my work in Senegal is what Westerners consider a conversation starter. This is why I’m here; this is what I hope to do. I’m excited- nay, proud- to tell people I’m here to share my business savvy in hopes of helping them to better their lives. In my case, it’s also a subtle message that says “I’m looking for work.” I’m here for you and here’s an opportunity to mention your shop, stand, or profession and seek free advice (which we not only love to get but also love to give). Though, again, in Africa my host family couldn’t have appeared less interested in why I was here. Perhaps to them, that seemed like an invasion where it is not socially appropriate seek knowledge from another. And I suppose I made them uncomfortable by sharing.

They say knowledge is power, but I think Africans take this more literally than Westerners. After enlightening myself to the above thoughts, I imagine a secondary goal in my time here: to illustrate that knowledge is a resource that can be both valuable and shared for communal benefit. Knowledge may be power, but ability to share knowledge could be more powerful. 

1 comment:

  1. In the African country I live in they treat knowledge the same way. In a way, it's sad because nothing destroys relationships more than secrets and (at least in the country I live in) there are so many.

    In the end, the holding of knowledge facilitates all types of wrong-doings and limits true intimacy among friends... And these are the saddest things of all.

    I do hope you will be able to help them to see that knowledge can be a resource that yields blessings for many.