First off, I just want to say this before turning to the actual seriousness of this blog: while I used a pop culture reference as the title for this entry, due to the fact that I live in the freakin’ African bush I have not actually seen the new Star Wars movie. The things I have given up…
A lot of blog-keeping Peace Corps volunteers write a development aid blog at some point in their service. I have been waiting until the end of my time here in Senegal to write mine and honestly, even after two years of this experience I still had a beast of a time writing this down. Its a hard subject to talk about with anybody who has never spent substantial time in the developing world.
Stage One: March 5, 2014 – January 2015. The “Yay aid!!!!!!!!” phase.
I joined the Peace Corps for many reasons, not least of which because I wanted to have a career in global health and what better way to start off such a career than living and working in the field for two years. I wanted specifically to work with communicable diseases, such as malaria and HIV, in Sub-Saharan Africa. While there is virtually no HIV in Senegal (alhumdidallah), there is a lot of malaria and as soon as my trainings were done I launched into my work as Bouri, Malaria Preventer Extraordinaire.
See; Bouri, Super Volunteer.
However, this launch was somewhat botched. My work partners weren’t excited about doing the work I suggested. Sure, they were supportive of anything I did on my own but whenever I asked them to actually do anything there was nothing but noncommittal noises. I tried to do the work on my own but the villagers were not the least bit interested in what I had to say.
Example: everybody had (has) mosquito nets that were given to them for free by the government, yet very few people actually slept (sleep) under them. Considering I am a health volunteer who wanted to work on malaria, this became my mission: “come on guys, just hang them up and sleep under them. This is tremendously easy.” But people claimed the nets were too hot to sleep under (the nets are hot but this is Africa, its hot anyways), and wouldn’t hang them up. When I actually hung them up for them, they still didn’t use them. Dejection came, but I powered on.
Stage Two: January 2015 – January 2016. The “We need to stop giving all non-humanitarian aid, this is a terrible system that’s a big waste of our money” phase.
The worst few weeks of my Peace Corps service were the first three weeks of January 2015. I had spent several months trying to do any successful work and all of it was met with apathy on part of the villagers, my work partners included, and I was very frustrated. One day I was sitting under a tree with my work partner when a man came to greet us. “How are you, how’s the family, how’s the work?” he asked my counterpart. After receiving his answers he turned to me and asked the same questions. I answered with, “everything is well.” To which he responded, “what do you mean your work is going well, Bouri? You don’t do any work. Look, you are just sitting.” He walked away laughing. I asked my counterpart about it and he responded, “nobody here thinks that you do any work because you don’t cook and clean.”
Perhaps this wasn’t the greatest time mentally to read the book “Dead Aid”, a critique of development in Africa, written by a Zambian woman. But read it I did. The book, in broad terms, laid out examples as to why Western aid has hurt rather than helped Africa, and that it exists mostly to make Westerners feel good about themselves. These arguments, along with what I had observed, and the fact that people didn’t think I did anything anyways, led me to have a several-week long depression where I made expensive phone calls home, asking people to talk me out of quitting Peace Corps. “What’s the point?” I lamented.
During this down-time I spent a LOT of time sad in my backyard. I’ll be honest though, this picture is from rainy reason when my backyard was a lot prettier.
I spent the next year doing what work I could. My counterparts never became more interested in working with me, and the villagers never became more interested in changing their behaviors. I spent many hours venting to fellow volunteers about the waste of money that is aid, and how Africa is all “gimme gimme gimme” without doing any of the work necessary to develop. Alongside this I had many conversations with villagers about their misconceptions of America – to them, Amerik is a land where people do nothing but sit around and roll around in their money. I tell them that there is money in America because people work in America – “if you do x, y, and z, Senegal will be like America!” but they weren’t (aren’t) interested in hearing it.
The narrative in the West was one that I bought into before coming here. After all, we destroyed Africa with the slave trade and colonialism and now it is up to us to fix the continent!! As I come from the background of global health, my thoughts pre-January 2015 were such: “if we make sure they have mosquito nets they will sleep under them and prevent lots of sickness and death. Then they will be able to work more, earn more money, have more crop yields, the children won’t miss school, and Africa will get better!” Just a few months ago I was speaking to an American about my new opinions on development aid and he got slightly upset with me. “Laura, you need to think carefully about what you are saying. You are actually admitting that you want to pull aid to the Mandinkas and let them die out.” I don’t fault him for thinking that Western aid is what is keeping Africa afloat, because that is the narrative that we are constantly fed. But it is false. The Mandinkas have been around for thousands of years and no matter how much or how little Western money they receive, they will continue to be around.
Lovely Mandinka girls
One of the accomplishments I did achieve in my village is installing running water at the community health structure. I came up with the idea and then did the math – if every household in my community donated the equivalent of 70 cents, we could build the pipe and spout. I held a meeting with the village leaders, who thought it was a great idea. The village Imam, the teacher, and myself went around over the course of two days to collect the money. It wasn’t a problem, and soon there was running water at the only health facility for 15 kilometers. I am really proud of this, as it was the village helping themselves instead of some Western NGO coming and and doing something for them. Whenever I tell Americans about this, almost always the response is, “wow, I can’t believe you didn’t just write a grant.” That is the knee-jerk Western response, to give to Africa instead of seeing if they can do it themselves. Everybody in my village could spare 70 cents, and I am not from a rich community. Almost every household in Senegal could afford this. Luckily, at least for me, there is little NGO presence in my part of Senegal so people weren’t going to wait for the white people to give them water. But in other areas there have been white people for decades coming in, giving people things, and setting up expectations. I have a friend who lives in a region south of me who constantly complains of the difficulty for her to do a lot of work because of the demands of the people she lives near. Just recently she told me the story that the American government financed the creation of a new, lovely paved road near her village. The local communities were required to contribute something to the effort and it was decided that they would pave the last 15 kilometers of the road. Some Americans came in, created a beautiful road, and left 15 kilometers for the Senegalese to do. They never did it and instead just spend a lot of energy complaining about how bad the Americans are for not finishing the road. In fact, Westerners are blamed for a lot of the problems here. I myself have gotten into arguments with people about just that – people here often genuinely believe that it is on the West to do 100% of the development work and that they need to do nothing but sit back and watch.
Another story, this time from a friend of mine who works for the FBI in Dakar. Prior to his posting in Senegal he was in Lagos, Nigeria. He was working closely with a local NGO and at one point gave that NGO a $10,000 printer. He went back to their offices a month later to find the printer sitting in a corner collecting dust. “Why aren’t you using the printer?” “You didn’t give us paper.”
I was listening to a BBC podcast a few weeks ago that was talking about the Millenium Development Goals. The journalist was discussing a book published in 2000 that covered the the 500 best examples of aid projects around the globe at the time. He discovered that all but three of the projects had failed. That seems to be the narrative of aid. Every government-funded project and NGO has its heart in the right place but, as is the story over and over again, it can hurt more than it helps. Take Heifer International, for example. Before I came to Senegal I LOVED Heifer. “What a great concept! Give the village an animal, the animal gives it food, income, and more animals! Amazing!” One Christmas I was even that obnoxious person who, instead of giving gifts, donated to Heifer on behalf of my family and friends. But I now really dislike them. They are a big NGO here in Senegal, and they are absolutely not needed, for several reasons. One) the one thing, other than tea, that people will pour their money into without thinking twice is livestock. Everybody has cows, goats, sheep, chickens, horses, etc. Yet they very rarely eat the meat, or the eggs, or drink the milk. The animals are basically the Senegalese equivalent of a savings account. People in my village think that the richest people in Senegal are the wanderer-herder Pulaars who live in the bush, roaming around with their hundreds of cows. So they do not need donated animals, they can buy and sell their own. Two) Senegal is located at the edge of the Sahel desert and between climate change and the poor farming techniques, desertification is one of, if not the, biggest problem in this country. The incredible amounts of livestock depleting what little vegetation there is is wreaking havoc. As the population grows along with the desert, the dependence on aid that Senegal is going to need is going to grow not shrink.
Giving mosquito nets is a popular part of international aid. So many NGOs hand out free nets to Africa. Again, on the surface this sounds like a great idea. But think again. By handing out free nets these NGOs are putting small African businesses out of work. People can buy locally-made nets, which would both boost the economy and present for them (the buyer) more of an incentive to actually use the mosquito net, since they poured their money into it. But instead they wait for the free, Western-made nets that they know are coming, even if that means going months without a net. If the West didn’t hand them out they would maybe actually go to the pharmacy and pay the small fee for a new net. Or this: in my village we just handed nets out last week (nets that were made in Japan and Denmark. Two economies that really need the help, eh?) and many people came who I know haven’t been sleeping under the nets they already do have, aka the old nets are in perfect condition, making the new nets unnecessary. The people just wanted a nice, new, free thing.
Nets in my village
In regards to global health in the last 20 years, yes, we have saved countless millions of lives. On the surface this is wonderful. But Africa is facing a massive population problem: estimates are that by 2050 half of the world’s population will live on this continent. Without the economic growth and agricultural changes that need to coincide with this population explosion, the unemployment and food shortage problems are about to grow tenfold, not decrease. With polygamy widespread in Senegal, it is not out of the question (though admittedly highly improbable) for a man to have four wives, 13 kids with each wife. That’s 52 children from that one man alone. Now imagine all of those kids having their own children, and all of the boy children growing up to have four wives as well. In my compound alone, of the four men who are heads of household, the least number of children one has is 13.
My host father (who has 15 kids)
The deeply held religious beliefs are a hard part of health work to overcome in Senegal. For example, people have enough money to survive and to even go a little crazy every now and then for big parties. But they don’t have enough money to buy everything they need AND everything they want. This means that, in my village, 99% of the people choose to buy mint tea instead of soap. No matter how many talks I have with people, they will not buy soap because they claim to not have the funds. And they don’t, except that they are constantly buying tea. Whenever this is pointed out to them they simply laugh it off. They firmly believe that Allah will keep them healthy, or kill them, whenever He sees fit. Nothing they do can prevent it so why spend their precious little money on something that Allah is in control of anyways. And if they decide not to blame Allah, they will instead blame their wives. One meeting I held with the men about the importance of buying soap (I targeted men because they control the family purse. Women can’t buy anything without their husbands permission) started with me saying that soap is important to prevent disease and childhood death and if they would just buy and use it the community would be better off. This devolved very quickly into them shouting over one another to make sure I heard and understood that sickness was never their fault. It was the wives who let the dust get in the food or let the dirty dogs near the food bowls. The women who let the kids play with horse poop and who let flies get into the food. The male health worker of the village was included in this shouting match.
Which brings me to my next point: without gender equality, or at least an attempt at gender equality, development can only go so far. Senegal, and from what I know of other countries, Africa in general is very patriarchal. Granted, this is nothing like, say, Saudi Arabia. Women are allowed to go where they please, they can vote, they don’t need to fully cover their bodies, etc. But they do have to follow their husbands orders. This can be harmless, but it can also be very harmful. For example, if a husband is, say, on a business trip to Dakar and a child falls ill at home, many Senegalese women would rather have the child die than take them to the hospital without their husbands permission. My Senegalese supervisor once told me and other volunteers a story of a time she was visiting her parents when she got very sick and ended up fainting. Because her husband had not come along on the trip, her father refused to let her go to the hospital. And whenever a man commits a crime, no matter how severe, his mother is often blamed by the community. “This is what happens when a woman does not respect her man. Look what her children become.”
Stage Three: January 2016 – Present The “Well, I still think aid is bad, but I have accepted that its not going to go away so lets focus on what it can actually help.” phase.
There are some forms of aid that I think are necessary. Humanitarian aid, for example. If there is a famine, yes of course give rice. If there is a war, yes of course create a refugee camp. And always make sure that every child in Africa gets vaccinated against every disease. But we give humanitarian aid to developed countries as well. Japan received quite a bit of help after the 2011 earthquake, for example. But this blanket-giving, year after year, is not working. But I know that its not going to stop, that its too entrenched in both the West and Africa.
So here is my current proposal: stop building wells. Africans have been drinking water and growing plants much longer than the white man has been giving them wells. Stop handing out mosquito nets. Let local manufactures create and sell them, helping not only the local economy but also giving the villagers more of an incentive to use them. Instead, focus on education, agriculture, and gender equality.
Education: read my previous blog to learn about the problems in Senegal specific. I have several friends who were teachers with Peace Corps in The Gambia, Benin, and Lesotho. All had their own stories about the systematic failures in the education systems in their given countries. A story from my friend Justin, who taught in Lesotho, was that a passing grade was 50% for all tests, and that if a student failed they were beaten by the teacher and given homework: an essay apologizing to the teacher for such a failure. This needs to change. The Millennium Development Goals set out to get more children into the classroom, and they technically succeeded. But now the West needs to help fix these systems that have more children in them, in order for these students to actually graduate and help to better their countries.
Agriculture: something like 75% of Africans are subsistence farmers. My village is made up entirely of farmers. However, their planting and harvesting practices are terrible for the earth. People talk about how just 20 years ago the area around my village was covered in trees. Now, there are still some trees but desertification is VERY apparent. In another 20 years, its quite possible that we will be as barren as northern Senegal (aka real barren). Granted, I know little about agricultural practices, and what I do know I have gleamed from my friendly neighborhood agriculture volunteers. So I can’t get specific, but I am completely down for transferring NGO attention from mosquito nets to farming practices.
Gender Equality: Oof. This is a hard one for the West to tackle, yet arguably the most important. It is deeply engrained in this culture that men and women have very separate roles. My best friend in village has seven children, six of whom are boys. The seventh, Mariama, is not allowed to go to school. This is both because she has to stay home and do the chores that her father won’t do (he is a man and men do not do household chores, they work in the fields during rainy season and thats about it), and also because her father does not deem education important for her. After all, she is nine years old now, she will be married in the next six or so years, and will start having kids soon afterwards. No need to learn when she’s just going to sweep, cook, and raise babies. This is seen again and again throughout my village, throughout Senegal, and throughout Africa. We need to aid the continent in equalization.
Bonus: population. Africa is facing a huge population problem. Estimates are that by 2050, 50% of the world’s population will be here. Considering the economic issues and food shortages, this spells disaster. In Senegal, part of the reason people have so many children is because of their Islamic faith. I recently tried to explain the concept of the limitations of natural resources with a man, and he responded with, “Allah says to have a lot of children. If we only have one or two kids He will turn his back on us. But if we have 10 kids He will ensure we have food.” Theoretically, once the economy grows this shouldn’t be such a problem. Everywhere else on earth, when the economy took off, the birth rate declined. I see no reason why this shouldn’t also happen in Africa. But the economy needs to take off first.
“If you knew then what you know now, would you have signed up for Peace Corps?”
Whenever I tell people back home about my mind’s journey, and ultimate conclusion, over development aid, this is inevitably their response. Save for those few weeks right after my idealist bubble burst last January, not once have I regretted this amazing, life-changing, challenging, and let’s be honest, somewhat brag worthy adventure. Not only do I now know more about development aid, a major global policy, but I know more about Islam in a world that is increasingly hostile towards it, I know more about nine distinct ethnic groups within Senegal. I got to send two years in an amazing village, with some people that I will never forget. I learned a new language. And I learned more about myself than ever would have been possible back home.
I HIGHLY recommend Peace Corps for anybody healthy enough to do it. Its an absolutely incredible experience that will better you as both an individual and a world citizen. People in the West don’t understand how lucky they are, or how easy they have it. Yet they also don’t realize that Africans aren’t as in bad of a shape as the media portrays them. “Can you family afford to eat?” is a question I get a lot. Yes, guys. They can.
Peace Corps is not merely a development aid organization. Arguably, the development is our least important feature. We work best when we are in our homes here, drinking tea, speaking a local language, laughing with the people we live with, and loving them with all our hearts, and them loving us back. We are better ambassadors than any other Americans, anywhere on Earth. And sadly, considering that Senegal is 95% Muslim, with terrorist attacks in several neighboring countries in recent months, the love we share has never been more important.
I could never regret two years with these people.
My host mother and I goofing around
I asked the “would you have still done it?” question to a fellow volunteer, curious to know if he had a similar response. He took the words out of my mouth when he said, “I think so, yes. But I wasn’t mentally prepared for the correct things. I thought that the language and cultural barrier would be hard, or that living without electricity would be difficult. But those things are usually fine. What has been the hardest part of my service is the complete and utter disinterest and apathy towards any development work by the local population. I thought I would be helping people better their lives. Instead I just hang out with them, because they have no inclination to develop. And that is fine, they’re perfectly happy, and its so much fun to just BE with them, but when you are constantly being told by the a Western narrative that we have to help the poor Africans and constantly being told by our Peace Corps supervisors that we have to do all this work that I know isn’t going to do a damn thing, it is really, really hard.”