Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, November 10

Sick of Sickness

On the night of the incident in question, my uncle came over a few hours before dinner to do his usual job of annoying everyone whilst waiting for dinner. I usually sit in my room for this, working or watching a movie. At some point I got up to stretch my legs only to find him lying on the couch watching TV alone. No one else seemed to be around the house, which is common for the cool evening hours, but did make his presence a bit weird. As soon as he saw me, he pulled a look on his face like he was in pain. He started moaning. I ignored him. He moaned some more. I left. A little while later I went into the room for something. He moans again; really attention hungry “look at me” kind of stuff. I do nothing. “I’m sick, Soda.” Yeah. “I’m really sick.” I ignore him. “You should help me.” You should go home and go to bed. You shouldn’t be walking across town to visit people who aren’t here. Go to bed. “But I’m sick. I can’t walk home like this.” I left again.

I’ve found I’ve become the type of person who no longer has the patience for indirect pleas for attention. Indirect is a huge part of Wolof culture, so I’m looking at a long battle of tolerance down the road. But that in itself shouldn’t be too hard. It’s the desperate attention seeking measures that get under my skin. Maybe more so because I know this culture to be one where if you’re sick people leave you alone. Initially, being a new comer, when I got sick I wasn’t left alone; I was forced to eat. But as time went on, and my family got used to my unchanging aura of weird, I started to learn that sickness makes them uncomfortable to confront. I’m talking about mild sickness. It’s the type of thing were simple medications are generally too expensive so they’re forgone. No pain meds for a headache and no Sudafed for a cold sort of stuff. People are expected to suck it up. When I’m sick my family knows that I need to make my own tea and skip a few meals in favor of soup. If my door is closed I’m sleeping and they should knock lightly for meals and I’ll get up if I'm awake or have energy. They leave me alone to recover like they would anyone else in the family. Everyone except my uncle that is?

Something I discovered by trial and error is that when I'm sick everything needs to come to a halt in order to get better. My first few months here I was continuously sick. Whether a stomach issue, or a cold, or a skin problem I’d take the appropriate meds and continue on with my life. But I just wasn’t ever 100%. We come from a culture of having only a handful of sick days for the whole year so they surely shouldn’t be wasted lest some emergency happen where taking those days is unavoidable. But that's not life in Senegal. Somehow there are too many factors and recovery takes that much longer. And if you don't get better, you could actually get so much worse. The only way to deal with illness- and most Senegalese agree with me- is to stop everything in favor of doing absolutely nothing until healed. No matter how many days it takes, I have to remember that I’m no good to these people if I can’t keep myself healthy. And no matter how much I ponder over finishing just a thing or two on the to-do list to keep myself from slipping behind in work… everything must be put on hold. Unless you're my uncle??

So given these bits of knowledge and culture, could you see why I’m so frustrated with a person that walks across town even though he shouldn’t to demand attention from people who don’t actually give it out? Why? Why would someone do that?

The answer is chicken. My uncle is under the impression that because he is a member of the family anything he desires in our house should be his. Awesome. Though this is not the first time I find myself frustrated with this arrogant cultural norm, I am overly agitated with the aforementioned “death bed” of an illness (remember all that moaning?) that accompanies him. This man is known to show up at our house demanding to know what’s for dinner. He’ll stay if it’s good, or complain and leave if he deems it unworthy. Now, I know my mom is one of the best cooks I’ve found in the country, but he’s just a little too ridiculous about it. A 30 something single bachelor that still lives with his mom (admittedly all normal for the area) who wanders the neighborhoods each night in search of the best dish… come on! At least bring a table gift from time to time. Act like a grateful house guest, right?

Well on this particular day, I find out, upon the return of the rest of my family members, that my Dad’s sister from a few towns over is coming to pay a visit. This will be my first time to meet her in the year I’ve been here as family only visits every few years- if they don’t actually live in Mboro that is. In honor of long distance visits my family busts out the bird; they made an excellent meal of chicken, fries, and salad. And although it shouldn’t surprise me that my uncle is selfish enough to potentially spread illness to every last member of my family, it does still anger me greatly.

But as I’m used to this, I brushed it off and took an extra vitamin C tablet. And then we sat down to eat. We are a family of not having to obsessively wash our hands before meals because when we do eat, we use a fork or spoon. On the occasion that there are too many people to pass out spoons for all, then we break out a fancy portable hand washing station but we mostly don’t need that. One of my brothers is in charge of passing out spoons. Only on this day, my uncle took on the role, or stack if you will, and just as he went to hand me the first one he sneezed all over them all. And this right here is what drove me to rage.

How can a sneeze be such a horrid offense, you say? Until you’ve been sick as many times as I have, and in a place where it’s hard to tell if you have a fever because you’re always that hot, I think you just won’t get it. Some days it doesn’t seem to matter how many vitamins I take, how many times I wash my hands, or how many small snot nosed kids I avoid… there is just no escaping the next cold or flu.

So here I am with an attention seeking uncle, who just happens to be sick and spreading it to everyone without remorse, who is also pulling his usual “I’m here for the best meal in town” sans worthy contribution. And I suppose this incident wouldn’t have been different from any other time that I meet my breaking point with a surrendering sigh, except for all the non-redeeming qualities coming together at one moment in time. Suffice it to say, I let him have it in an overly Wolof way. What can I say; I’m sick of being sick. I’m also a little sick of self centered people.

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