Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, May 9

A Poor Volunteer

Understatement of the year: I’ve been slowly getting to know the people of my town. Learning about a Senegalese person can be as painstaking as peeling away the layers of an onion. It takes a while and you wish there was an easier way or that the onion would do the work itself and just show you the insides. Wait, that sounds weird, and I’m referring to the Senegalese and their individual personalities. I wish they could be as direct as Americans about who they are: values and morals, likes and dislikes. For as open as they are about religion and politics, it’s amazing that almost everything else is guarded precious information. Or maybe it’s just easier that most people are Muslim and dislike the current president… general consensus.

But that’s something to discuss later. This story is about a particular gentleman in town that I have to admit I know little about. Or at least that’s the impression I get after each encounter. I first met this man at a local non-profit organization in town called Projet Jappoo, which translated means Project Help, where I assumed he was an employee, a trainer/ educator to the people. And these people I admire, because they search out the needs of the community, and help implement the plans to fulfill the needs.

Every day I see this man, he is kind, happy, and pleasant. He asks about my day and genuinely seems to care; there is something different in his eyes when asks, like he fully expects the truth. He has not once asked if I am married, or looking, or attached. He doesn’t probe me with questions, but smiles at every passing.
Recently, I’ve been working on a scholarship program, in which every girl in the program wins the school fees for the next year, but one lucky girl wins money to buy school supplies. When I started the process, I met with the girls after school the first few times. I announced the program, and explained to them how special they were for being the top girls in their grade level. The next day, while hosting training at Projet Jappoo, this man approached me with the usual grin. He told me his daughter came home saying she was one of the winners. She was so happy, and the family was so proud of her. You could see it in his face that he hadn’t known this about his daughter and how proud of her he is.

The application process for the “grand prize” entails me to visit each girl’s home to meet the family and check out their level of financial need. I was initially concerned because I figured this girl wouldn’t need to win the money, what with her Dad having such a great job with the NGO. But her application says her Dad doesn’t work, and when asked about it he will say he’s a volunteer. Furthermore, when I went to the house I was blown away. The house is the evidence. It feels wrong to disclose everything that is lacking in comparison to my African home. To say the least, the door to the compound is a gap in sheet metal propped up as fencing. There was one piece of furniture that I saw, a wardrobe that housed everything from cloths to kitchen supplies. And while talking to the family I sat in a sparse room on a thin slice of foam padding with a prier mat laid on top. I genuinely believe this to be someone’s bed. I wanted to cry.

But this man was so happy. He was so proud that I had come to his home. Smiling non-stop, exited to tell me about his daughter. When I asked her the interview questions, he seemed genuinely interested in her answers. He told me at one point that he didn’t want to influence her answers, but want to make sure that I got to hear her opinion.

Let me stop right here. This in itself is a big deal. I feel like I’m living in a culture where children are not important. We believe them to be the future… which is why we have the whole “women and children first” mantra. But here, men are most important. They are more respected, smarter, stronger, and have the ability to earn more money. Children are viewed as workers who are stupid, and should be beaten if they don’t know the answer to something. They don’t have opinions.

So back to this man who wants to hear his daughter’s opinions… I’m still kind of in shock. After all my questions had been answered, I began to explain how I wanted to continue to work with the scholarship girls to help them plan their futures and realize there goals/ dreams. And that’s when this man started to tell me about an organization he’d formed.

He was divorced you see (something I’ve never heard of in Senegal- and generally get bizarre and confused looks when I say my parents have done this) and his former wife and son live Dakar. So he started an organization to help the young kids of the area who are in a similar position. In his words, he is saddened when parents are separated, and the kids live with the father and his other wives. When the other wives are the heads of household, and they don’t like the other woman’s kids, this can be very damaging for the abandoned kids, psychologically of course. He receives word of these children and finds ways to help them. I have no idea how (onion thing, maybe I’ll figure it out someday).

I told him that I was working with the Mayor’s office to organize other non-profits to help the people of Mboro who have great ideas, but no means to implement them. I invited him to stop by and discuss his project with my counterparts there. He continued to tell me about another group that is working to educate local farmers about the problems of using pesticides… and perhaps we can find a way to help with that as well. The most important thing he told me was his belief that everyone needs to open their hearts to new people and cultures. I told him I believed that every culture had its good and bad traits, and that I believe if we learn all the good things about as many cultures as possible the world would be a better place. He hadn’t thought about it like that before, but definitely agrees with me.

What is the point of all this? As I was walking home, I was thinking to myself about what an American would consider an outstanding citizen. My family tells me Peace Corps Volunteers make that list (though my personal jury is still out). Others might say its medical professionals that join programs like Doctors Without Borders. I would argue that anyone who does pro bono work (lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc) would make my list. If you volunteer your time, your life to helping people who really need it… then that should make you an outstanding citizen.

In the states we typically follow a pattern of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… where it’s a safety and food first, then self fulfillment. And help ourselves before we can help others. But how big does that safety and food blanket need to be? If this were apples to apples, and Senegal also followed Maslow, then it needs to be said that the level of comfort is much higher in the states that I’ve found in Senegal. But I know different, the Senegalese are a socialist society in that they share everything when needed. Everyone needs to have safety and food before anyone can move on to self fulfillment… not that I have any idea how or what they would consider that to be.

So while an American might consider this man to be strange or worse- lazy, because he and his family are so blatantly poor, but isn’t it possible we could be wrong? The family is clearly getting by. They have food and shelter… and beyond that they have happiness. No, the father does not work to support the family (nor do I really know the circumstances behind this fact), but they are proud of the work he does to help their community. He is a volunteer by Senegalese standards, and a top notch citizen in my book.

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