11 December, 2012

Occupy! The Grain Mill?

The night before leaving my village for a week long training, to be followed by four weeks' vacation in the U.S., I could not seem to fall asleep. An all-night prayer event blasting over the solar powered loud speaker at the Mosque or the nagging thought of having to wake up at 4:30 AM for the car out of the bush may have lent to my restlessness, but no, something else was moving rapidly in my mind. I couldn't quiet the pondering inspired by the interesting publication I had just read. A compilation of interviews and talks by the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky regarding his thoughts, advice, and opinions on the new sociopolitical movement sweeping the cities of the industrialized world; Occupy. Hubs of this very movement are located in my old back yard in Brooklyn, which late at night in my village seemed so far away, but soon to be close.

Much like everything else in the life of a peace Corps Volunteer I was mentally drawing lines between what Chomsky had to say about Occupy to my experiences here. His pervasive suggestion to improve income inequality amongst Americans was not necessarily total revolution, but reforming our system which has proven to yield substantial change before, a la the Civil Rights Movement, Womans' Empowerment, etc. Senegal has also made great strides in the way of social, political, and economic equality, at least comparably to other developing nations. When weaknesses and disorganization of the system are reformed this forward movement is sure to continue at a more rapid pace. Two very different nations, with very different political and economic pasts, both immediately require the action of their people to change the vast gap in income distribution.

Chomsky points out that change will come about if communities increased their level of organization to reach identified goals. For example, the goals and needs of the community of Sunset Park Brooklyn should be chosen by the members of the community. Politicians vying for office there must prove she will fulfill these needs, as opposed to proposing hot-platform needs and convincing people through Public Relations tactics that it's what they want; as politicians local and federal are wont to do. My role in the community here, in the pocket of villages south of Kaffrine, is assuredly not as a politician but I have been instructed by extension manual, professor, and Peace Corps trainer alike to do just what Chomsky encourages leaders of the Occupy movement to do. The methodology is to learn from the people and have them identify their needs before attempting to bring change or inspire action. Otherwise, one's efforts will be in vain, not to mention that believing you know whats someone needs more then they do is quite vain as well (admittedly there are exceptions to this such as mandatory vaccinations).

he Occupy movement also places great emphasis on worker/union owned and managed production. The U.S. has many such operations but in general to create such a business would require a break down from the system of corporate ownership we're accustomed to; a removal of the top most part of a tiered business management structure. Many Peace Corps projects encourage the same type of entrepreneurship suggested by Occupy but it is instead being built from the bottom up. An example would be to support a group of women who sell roasted cashews to transform that same product into cashew butter and distributing it on a wider scale. Such cooperative small ventures can grow with the aid of micro-lending or grant opportunities through which a volunteer is a liaison. A fellow Kaffrine volunteer is currently helping a local womens' group apply for funding through an independent grant foundation in order to purchase a grain processing facility. They have been trained in the usage of such machinery and know the codes and processes to follow in order to sell their product to outlets in the larger cities of Senegal. If such an effort continued to grow to an industrial level, which is has the potential to do, the best way to run the operation would likely be to keep those workers who created the business at the helm. I believe this since it would be wildly beneficial to the community as they would employ local people at fair wages, as they are their kinsmen. I can easily imagine the benefits of such a structure both here and in the U.S. Perhaps a project which took some of our excessive military spending and put it into New Deal style economic stimulation (high speed rail anyone?) worker and/or union operated. I am not blind to the possibility of corruption emerging in such systems, but if members of the business at all levels feel valued and in control such behaviour may be avoided.

Large scale farming operation, or industrial factories in rural areas of Senegal could pull available wages and products out of the capital city (the only place they are currently somewhat readily available) and into the rest of the country. This could reduce the destructive 'brain drain' affect plaguing the country. Educated and/or potential wage earners leave the rural areas in search of cash income or other economic opportunity, leaving the important agricultural work and their families behind. Introduction of factories or other industrial operations could be beneficial to the lower classes of Senegal, but it shouldn't be to the benefit of some outside corporation's bank account. They should be regulated by the workers who determine fair wages, benefits, and culturally appropriate schedules and rules. The level of organization demanded by the goals of the Occupy movement in the U.S. would be necessary in Senegal alike to achieve such economic development I've just described.

Chomsky interestingly discusses why functional community organization may be difficult in the U.S. He told the story of a group of women and men in the mid 19th century who ran their own successful press operation in Boston but as the new industrial system grew it became too difficult to continue their business as they had designed it due to the imposition of rigid hierarchical structures by industrialization One of their main complaints was what they called 'the new spirit of the age: gain wealth forgetting all but self”. Selfishness has been engrained in us from childhood through sneaky PR schemes and the promotion of an isolated mentality. Although Dawkins is right that the gene itself is selfish, our selfish little genes do better if humans act altruistically, so to turn us all against the other my necessarily be against our biology (and may explain so much personal misery and depression among Americans). For the people of rural Senegal, this sentiment has yet to be ingrained and community is still of the most importance. At least, in this sense, Occupy sentiments have a leg-up on purveying into the social and local political structures here. I've heard other PCVs say that the spirit of sharing and community here is what is hindering development, since people are willing to give what little they have instead of saving and building their economic situation. It is my sincerest hope that this is not true and the strong sense of community here will, in fact, promote true democratic exchange instead.  

21 November, 2012

For the Love of Peanuts!

A lump formed in my throat and my heart grew strangely heavy. An inappropriately dramatic reaction to being handed the fifth bowl of peanuts in a week. I sat in my green plastic lawn chair, my most prized piece of furniture, eyeing the various sized heaping bowls of groundnuts in my room. I was running out of receptacles for them all. I took a deep breath to relax. In through the nose, out through the mouth. My room was the sickly sweet smell of burnt sugar which was still hanging in the air from my experiment with honey roasting peanuts earlier that day.

“Am”, my little host cousin squeaked in Wolof from my door, “Here”. She extended a tiny arm. Handing me the Tupperware in which I had given her roasted peanuts. Whew, a mouse proof container for my newest delivery of nuts. She peeked around the room hoping for a refill, but I had given them all out already. “Sorry, all finished!”, and she nodded and made a click sound of agreement and skipped off. There was that lump again. 

It is a few days after my one year anniversary living in this village and it seems I’m already worried about my time here expiring. I only have one year left to live a life it took me one year to feel completely at ease in. This hut, this household, this family, and this village are all the same word in Wolof. I have begun to feel pangs of nostalgia and guilt when I think I will leave them all. I’m sure these feelings are premature and amplified by the milestone of my one year mark here, but powerful none-the-less.

At five o’clock that day I hoisted out of my lawn chair to go out and do my evening work. But, not before I grabbed yet another handful of raw peanuts to snack on. I contentedly munched on the gift while I strolled to my garden, thankful for the clouds and the approaching cool season. The many bowls of peanuts being offered to me were part of a custom created out of a culture where sharing and reciprocity are the ultimate relationship builder and societal balancer. The bowls from my family members represent my share of the harvest as a member of the household, while another bowl-full came from a generous friend, and yet another from a woman I just began a year-long project with. Each of them solidifying my place as part of their family.
A pile of peanuts was even given to me so I could offer them to my family and friends back in America. My host aunt explained that my ‘people’, my family, back home, was now connected to my village and my host family and therefore they deserve their share of these peanuts as well. This touching offering exemplifies, symbolically, the literal was family systems work here in Senegal; all things are expected to be shared, but anything you may need is also offered, and everyone is family.

I arrived at my garden and the friend who gave me the bowl of peanuts was waiting next to my tall, clumsy hibiscus plants with her 10 year old son. He occasionally comes to my garden to help and learn, which usually ends with me yelling at him not to destroy something, but we have fun. I offered his mother, Fatou some of the ripe hibiscus flowers to make a sweet drink with. The sunset over the tree line was aiming to be glorious, and I thanked the clouds for a second time. I hauled watering cans over to each garden bed and tree while Fatou and I chatted.

I had never known it before, but she mentioned that her 3 year old daughter was not hers biologically but was technically her niece from her husband’s side. Fatou gave birth to her one son, followed by several miscarriages and then the inability to become pregnant. In Wolof, she used the same term I had ‘to offer’ hibiscus flowers, or roasted peanuts, to explain that her daughter was offered to her since she was unable to have any more of her own. All things are expected to be shared, but anything you may need is also offered.

The offering of a daughter to a woman who has none has a social importance here as well as economic. Roles and responsibilities within the household amongst the genders are fairly rigid, and without a female child the system of work and the general dynamic of the household could be upset. To offer one’s child, or to raise someone else’s, is a normal occurrence here and exhibits how sharing and family functions in Senegal.

That night, sitting under the stars with my host mother, I shared with her my fears of eventually having to leave here. She reminded me of how often I speak of my family and friends back in the U.S. and it will be happy to go home despite it being, at the same time, sad to leave here. She told me the only thing more important than one’s health is family. “Plus”, she said, “Your orange cat misses you and needs someone to take care of him.”

Her words eased my mind but for some reason I felt a flip in my stomach and a lump in my throat yet again. I may have grubbed on too many raw peanuts. 

23 October, 2012

A Funeral

Death in here is familiar but still jarring. This time the air in the village seemed heavier, more quiet then other times. This may have been my own projection though. Sunday morning I sat under a mbentinki tree and discussed his corn field, the one he planted with seed I’d given him. I told him it was fine he didn’t follow one of the protocols I’d asked. I thought maybe I didn’t explain it well enough to begin with but either way I didn’t mind, he was one of my favorite farmers to work with, and a good one at that. He was also family, but with 200 people in the village everyone is family. Monday morning I left my room at 8am with the day all planned out, as Americans like to do. My host mother told me immediately, “Babo died, you know the one you gave corn to. He died last night quickly, today is a sad day”.

I accompanied the women to Babo’s house where we sat outside his wife’s room. There, my host mother and aunt cried, something I’d only seen once before. I had felt like crying too and their tears made mine well up again but I didn’t let them fall. I felt a bit like an imposter and that crying would look foolish and dramatic.

We stayed there and sat in somber silence for an hour or so. By then two dozen women had gathered in the courtyard of the house and began preparing to cook a massive lunch. We joined them and I assisted in cutting onions and cleaning rice. I’ve yet to be brave enough to step in and cook with them in their giant pots over the open wood fire.

We then sat again in silence for hours. Throughout the household and out into the road groups of women huddled together and sat vigil. They all wore traditional dress; brightly colored patterns, one after the next in groups of 20 and 30. I knew I didn’t have to but I’d put on a black skirt and shirt, it felt more appropriate. Cars and carts full of men and women arrived and the women just joined their respective piles; one group of older women, one of mothers sitting on low stools silently breastfeeding, and another, and another.

All the men sat praying in the central square of the village, preparing for the burial. Mam Babo Cisse was older, but not that old. He became sick in the night and family members asked one of the men in a neighboring village who has car to drive him to the health post about an hour away. He had an asthma attack and died in the car on the way. Death by such an easily preventable episode is especially tragic.

As I sat with the women a beefy sheep baayed loud and deep from the post it was tied to next to me. This was the sheep Babo had bought for his family to sacrifice on Tabaski, the biggest holiday here and to be held in less than a week. An ancient woman I did not recognize as someone who lives in my village approached mumbling prayers while tossing small bits of cola-nut to each of us. A white and black streak, not yet a cat but no longer a kitten zigzagged between our legs, pausing to glance at me with its one good eye. I shifted awkwardly on my stool wondering how long we’d sit for, hoping it would be all day but at the same time becoming concerned with the lack of blood reaching my legs.

At around 1 o’clock I heard the hum of many male voices in the square and then engines of cars and motorcycles come to life indicating the ceremony had ended. The men of the village had conducted the burial while the woman sat at the house, as is the custom for most rituals here. My family and I returned to our house across the road and those from other towns ate lunch and headed out as well. The day went on as any other would but a reserved quietness remained. 

30 September, 2012


I screamed an obscenity as loud as I could at the rolling field of peanuts and nothing spread out next to me.  A bit dramatic but it was a long time coming. I’d just flown sideways off my bike into some millet and prolonged exposure was starting to burn my arms and the space between my nose and upper lip, just those two places. I don’t know. My ear phone had gotten pulled out during the fall, my biggest pet peeve. It didn't matter, no music was playing anyway. Not since the Pantera album I was listening to had ended soon after I decided to back track instead of continue down an unfamiliar road. The reason I was biking down a road I knew was wrong is that if you keep going you’ll usually find somewhere. A village to ask directions at. I couldn't have been that far off but it seemed I was on the bush path to nowhere. Visions crept up of biking for 30 more minutes over that rocky, crevassed road only to end up at a big seasonal lake. Nowhere. The planted  fields were untended and transitioning into uncultivated land; only forest. This indicated that I was getting farther from where people are willing to go, and people travel several kilometers for available field space. The phone was dead, the water was finished; it was time to back track.

I knew I’d find my way eventually but I was sick of biking; the roads were awful from a rainy season of torrential down pours, which had seemingly ended abruptly. I truly hoped they hadn’t though, for the sake of a good harvest. And I did make it home. And it felt good. Brothers, sisters, and cousins welcomed me, chanted my name, announced my arrival, and I had just left that morning. After bathing and cleaning my many scrapes from the day, I chatted with my family. We sat in a circle and de-stemmed a medicinal plant, leydour, to be dried and sold. My host mother's call to gather around for dinner was very welcome, and familiar.

Chere with mboum sauce. A fine millet, corn, or sorghum ‘cous cous’ with peanut butter and green leaf sauce over top. This is the dish I equate with Home, as in my home here. It is the pasta and sauce to my real home in Brooklyn. My host mom’s chere is just like my dad’s sauce in that none other tastes the same, or as damn good.

I’ve had over a year here in Senegal. The mid-point of my service is coming up in November and instead of moving forward I feel as though I may have gone around in a circle. But I must have learned something right? Yeah, A LOT. I had to have achieved something and made a positive contribution, right? Well, yeah, I've fostered the learning of a few important things. Then why do I feel like I’m exactly where I started?

Upon arrival here as a Peace Corps trainee, and during my first few months of service, I purposely deconstructed myself and tried to rebuild as the ideal PCV. Fearless, constantly positive, approval seeking, proactively minded, an expert and an educator. I threw myself into various work projects to feel out my abilities and interests (a valuable and fulfilling way to start service). I've felt stressed, lonely, contented, achieved, useless, bored, thirsty, completely discouraged, and incredibly inspired (sometimes all at the same time). All of this for a year and I came out exactly the same person I started as. I still miss my family and people I love at home and still wonder if I should have left them, I still worry about doing a good job and feel under-appreciated here, and I still despise poverty and its causes and would like to build a life dedicated to the amending of social wrongs. I’m still the hopeful cynic I started as. People say Peace Corps service is life changing so I guess I thought it would change me noticeably, but I am happy that is hasn't. Just yet.

Many things are the same as they were in the beginning (i.e.: getting lost in the bush on my decrepit bicycle) and there’s still a lot to learn (i.e.: the rainy season roads to my village).  I don’t think I went in a circle though, but I didn't move straight forward either. I think I followed a path many things desire to follow, I went in a spiral. I followed around the curve so I may well be close to where I started, in mind set and attitude, but not for lack of progress. Simply for the natural path of growth. 

26 April, 2012

Me, Ulle, and the Coming of a Wind

We sit in the dark and silent still.
Staring up at millions of stars.
One falls, blazing red, appearing
from behind The Great Neem.
Everything is silent, everything is still.
It's almost never silent here. The radio is off.
Ulle doesn't like the radio, she explains.
The children are asleep in a row on their mat.
It is hot.
We near no baby cry.
A rare and silent peace
held firm in place by an unyielding heat.

A rolling roar arrives in the East.
Stroking each branch of each Baobab.
A forest that remains, housing the dead.
The Great Neem above us is quiet.
But we listen.

The Wild Hunt arrives.
The Great Neem springs into motion.
Branches dancing and leaves jostling.
This explosion of movement
breaks the still.
The heat remains, but not unmoved.
We revel in the newness,
the Dynamic Shift.

Scorpions come out with the wind, she explains.
With flashlight trained on the row of children,
their stillness unbroken, she tells me a story.
Our laughter touches each leaf of each branch of The Great Neem.
It is picked up by The Wild Hunt
and carried on with it's journey
to the next village
to the next continent
to the next Dynamic Shift

Explicative Deleted

01 April, 2012

Not Just Agriculture

Although the better part of my February was spent in agricultural training sessions, several recent events have caused my mind to be fixated on health issues in Senegal, and the developing world in general. After two and a half weeks of trainings in appropriate agricultural techniques in Senegal I found myself waiting for a taxi back to my village, baggage piled high, at the Peace Corps training center in Thies, feeling intensely drained. But why? I’d spent my time there soaking in information on protocol and methods for being a successful volunteer. Maybe I’d just been too stressed about trying to retain it all and it was resulting in some kind of melt-down.

We jammed into a Sept-Place (seven places) taxi and began the first leg of our journey to the Peace Corps Kaolack regional house. As I shuffled some baggage around the hatch-back of the car from my seat I took notice of how much these cars look like hearses. I thought to myself that if I were dead I’d probably feel better than I did at that moment. Arriving at our destination a friend urged me to take my temperature which revealed that my discomfort was not some kind of mental breakdown but, in fact a fever. I spent the better part of the following week in a sort-of fever haze, since I’d called the Peace Corps doctor who said it was likely a virus to be waited out. As it didn’t improve he advised me to take antibiotics and I was on my feet and in my village within two days.

Although being sick here was not pleasant I’m sure it was much less difficult than giving birth in a hut in rural Senegal, as my host-aunt did on the day of my return to village. I walked into Fatu’s room and the women were doting over her, smiling, and singing. I could sense her elation as well, but there was also an intense fear palpable in the room. This was not the first child she’d given birth to, but it was the only living one. My excitement was piquing (a new cousin!) but I was anxious as well that something might happen. Pre and post-natal care for mothers and children in rural villages is usually non-existent, too expensive, or highly inadequate. A young girl died in my village a few days later and several people told me this was not rare and very much inevitable.

This attitude combined with lack of access to health care and inadequate knowledge of the causes of many health problems contribute to infant mortality (and all other health issues) in developing countries. The new baby was taken to a health post 10 K away when it was three weeks old for vaccinations. Fatu explained to me that the baby was given ‘medicine’ that was good for her ’body’. Further inquiry on my part produced no more detail on which vaccinations the baby was given. This lack of knowledge is not the fault of the mothers since the nurse likely didn’t tell her the information to begin with (or know it herself). Girls in rural villages are generally not sent to school, and without a fairly advanced understanding of biological sciences (High School level) one can’t understand germs and viruses and their connection to illness (Banerjee and Duflo 2011). In the United States we are mandated by law to go to school and learn these things.

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo point out in their book Poor Economics that many deaths and illnesses in developing nations are caused by excessive diarrhea related to water borne illnesses. Most of these illnesses may be prevented by adding a few drops of bleach to drinking water (Peace Corps volunteers are advised to do this). If this is the case we are tempted to say, “Why don’t people just bleach their water!? It’s low cost and accessible!”. But can we blame people for NOT adding an extra step to their work-filled lives when we live in a place where clean water is piped into our homes directly? Further, as mentioned, they may not truly understand the role of the bleach as this would require scientific knowledge. The water that comes into our homes in the U.S. is required to be clean by law. Just as he makes sure we understand why they are sick (bio class), Big Brother makes sure we don’t get too sick either. Even if I played hooky on my biology class, I still wouldn’t die of dehydration brought on by diarrhea caused by a dirty water source. Similarly we are required to have certain vaccinations in the U.S. and, just as my host aunt, most parents may not know exactly what the shots are for but they do understand their importance.

The differences in the quality of life and life-span are marked between developed and developing countries. I was told by a fellow volunteer that Peace Corps Volunteers live for two years less, on average, then the general population in the U.S. In the Behavioral Economic spirit of making sweeping generalizations about real life based on a flimsy statistic I will venture to say that every two years spent in a developing country takes two years off your life-meaning people born here would have zero years of life on average!

The limitations to secure public health in Senegal I point out here can really only be solved through policy change, which is out of my control as a non-citizen (and for my own good). Despite my neutered political status in this country I do have the ability to play a small-scale educational role in improvements to public health. I’m involved in a project being designed by health volunteers to train community educators in common causes of illnesses and prevention of these on a village level. The broader population of the village has the opportunity to received subsided pricing on the building materials for latrine construction. In order to receive this pricing they must attend several trainings, led by the community educator, in health and hygiene as well as the importance of using and maintaining their latrines. As Esther Deflo calls them, ‘low hanging fruit’ for improving public health will be promoted like hand washing and burying human defecation.

A project like this is born out of the hope that we can (at least try to) help prevent devastating occurrences like the death of a child in our village and keep new babies healthy so they have a chance for proper development. A week after her birth the new baby in my compound had a traditional baptism ceremony was named Mariama. I was so excited for it I biked all morning to get there and even agreed to wear a pink, puffy belly shirt with a matching wrap skirt (not pictured here).

05 March, 2012

The Creation Myth of Shade: The Goddess Ker

Disclaimer: This is not real Wolof or Senegalese myth. The Gods described are NOT in any religious texts or traditions. This is fictional albeit based on a very non-fictional experience I had when my skirt caught on fire while I tried to kill a scorpion during an in-hut dinner party I was having. I was (basically) not injured so it’s alright to laugh at my misfortune if you must. I’ve been obsessed with reading Nordic Mythology on my down time so that’s why I decided to tell the story like this….

A long time ago, before mortal man stripped the power from the ancient Gods through their disbelief, a Farmer Girl inadvertently created shade (Ker). At that time the earth was baked by the sun(Naac) constantly and trees nor roofs could provide shelter from its rays; only Night (Guddie) could give creatures on Earth (Adduna) respite from the sun. This made it impossible for humans to sow successful crops, for even the little shade given by a corn stalk protects its neighbor. The women of the village Diouly gathered the fruit and nuts of the forest as well as hunted the animals within. With this they fed their husbands, children, and elders: but the forest could not always provide enough for all and the women wanted to be able to create food for themselves. The Gods would rarely bother with the problems of mortals but decided to help the women of Diouly because they were hardworking and kind.

The Queen of the Gods visited her holy seamstress (Neaw) and asked her to create a skirt, which gave its wearer the ability to bring life to dead soils and produce abundant and healthy crops. With the Skirt completed she gave it to the Wood Nymphs of Kaffrine, the earthly realm in which Diouly lay. The nymphs; Senne, Mam Jarra, and Arame, were to choose one mortal who would be the wearer of the Skirt, and whom could be trusted to be in charge of its magical properties. They chose the Farmer Girl, who was not from the village but there only to learn and educate, she was someone they knew had no reason to be selfish with divine power. As the benevolent Goddess had instructed they warned the Farmer Girl that once she put on the Skirt, and therefore acceptedits power, she must not take it off. If she took it off, the blessing it put on the land would be wiped away and crops would dry up and die.

The Farmer Girl graciously accepted the Skirt and gave the women of Diouly the ability to work their land. Their husbands were so excited to have an abundance of food; they too worked in the fields. The Farmer Girl herself had a garden, into which she sowed seeds for many delicious vegetables and quickly thereafter tiny tomato plants emerged from the soil. The people of Douly knew she was favored by the Gods and were elated by her presence in their lives. All was pleasant and calm.

One day the Farmer Girl and the Wood Nymphs decided to take a walk through the stone structures created by the ancient priests to honor the Gods. The structures were beautiful and lay within an enchanted forest where it was a lovely place to pass the afternoon. The Gods had created the Scorpion (Jeet) to protect these consecrated lands from outsiders and those hoping to steal the powers of the Gods, since these sites are a gateway between the mortal earth and the infinite heaven. The Gods did not release their minion to attack the Farmer Girl since she was accompanied by the Nymphs who were members of a higher realm. The Farmer Girl had also proven that she was a trustworthy person (Sawar) by using the Skirt only for the benefit of others.

That night The Scorpion lay sleeping under a mat of leaves and sticks to stay warm when he was awakened by laughter and story-telling. He saw the warm glow of candles and smelled dinner being cooked in the hut of the Farmer Girl. It was Senne’s birthday and they had gathered for a party in celebration of her 230th year. His stomach growled and he decided he would ask for some dinner and a place to sit inside. They would be happy to see him since he had allowed them to explore the beautiful stones today unbothered. He was startled andupset when his greeting was met with yelps, cowering and general hysteria. He did not realize that the day previous Arame the Wood Nymph had been attacked by one of his brothers. An ugly Goddess who was jealous of Arame’s beauty and grace, for Arame was an especially beautiful creature, had sent a Scorpion to sting her while she worked in her garden.

The Farmer Girl jumped up and began trying to step on the scorpion tentatively, for fear of its vicious stinger. She then grabbed a pan and began to try to smash the scorpion, but to no avail because of his sturdy armor. The Gods became aware of this attack on their sentinel and were instantly enraged. The lowly mortal Farmer Girl had the powers of the Gods bestowed on her and how does she repay them? She lounged in their sacred lands as if they were hers to enjoy, she prodded their magic orchids out of ignorance of their faerie inhabitants, and now she attacks their creation, unprovoked!

Faerie Orchid

At that moment the Gods’ flared the flame on a nearby candle and it licked the flowing hem of the Skirt as the Farmer Girl fussed around trying to destroy the Scorpion. The magic cloth burned hot as the flames moved up the length of the skirt. The Farmer Girl screamed and pulled the skirt to the ground, jumping barefoot on it to smother the flames. The Nypmhs and the Farmer Girl laughed loudly and nervously between shouts as she ran out the door in nothing but her under clothes to escape the gaze of her villagers and family. The noise had attracted the people of her household and she was now shamed as they saw both her cowardess and hubris, since all the villagers knew the Gods would not have punished her as such if she hadn't wronged them.

The Farmer Girl had removed the Skirt and, as the benevolent Goddess premised, the land on which the Girl worked began to dry up and her plants started to wither. The magic skirt lay in he dirt, scorched and limp and all magic and happiness had gone from the village. There was no dancing or music or feasts. The farmer girl was ashamed.

One day, as she gazed upon her wilting tomato plants, which were once her prize crop, she decided to see if the Skirt had some use in it yet. She put eight sticks in the ground around her precious plants and lay what was left of the clothe over them, in the vain hopes that the Skirt would protect them from the harsh sun just one last time.

The next day she saw her tomatoes stood up straight and strong. The Pure Intentions under which the Skirt was created and the true need for sustenance and life in the village had combined to create a new entity; the Goddess of Shade (Ker). Ker was able to bring life to the land all over the world and not just in the village of Diouly. She protects young plants, which feed the world, as well as is the patron God of security, comfort, and family. The Wolof word ‘ker’ refers to the shade, the home, and the family since home and family provide protection and comfort from the harsh world just as the shade does from the harsh sun.

Although this was just a nerdy way of telling a personal story, I did try to make it a pertinent to my Peace Corps experience with a lesson to be learned. The skirt itself is an allegory for the ability I, or any other aid or development worker has to truly improve the lives of those in poverty. The Farmer Girl, while wearing the skirt, could only herself ‘hand out’ viable land which is a bit like just handing people fertilizer which can grow a lot of food quickly but the results will never last without proper usage and understanding. Governments or aid organizations can hand out free food or medicines a few times, but just like when the Girl takes the skirt off, when the free food stops coming in, everything will go back to as it was before with no sustainable growth. As in the story, though, the miraculous day will hopefully come when the resources, knowledge and good intention (the Skirt) brought by a Peace Corps volunteer (the Farmer Girl) combined with the local knowledge, drive, and need of the villagers (represented by the resiliency of the tomato plants) will create a powerful and lasting network of knowledge sharing, institutional growth, and economic stability and health for a village, a country, and the world. Something like what the role of the personification of shade, the Goddess Ker, played in the world; something which is all purveying and can provide protection, security, and growth everywhere and for a long time.

I would also like to mention that that Becca Herring (Arame) did really get stung by a scorpion the day before Sarah’s (Senne) birthday hut dinner. She was in a lot of pain but the scorpions here aren’t deadly (for the most part) so she did not have to hospitalized. I also did run screaming and laughing into my back yard in just my underwear after the skirt fire, but I’m almost certain my host family did not see me despite being gathered at my door way. That would have been embarrassing; knees and legs are covered here by men and women as they are a mostly Muslim society.

31 January, 2012

Nicomachean Work Ethics

The beach resort some friends and I stayed at for three nights for Christmas is an amazing collective which includes artists and musicians as part of the staff. As a World Heritage site it keeps these individuals around to teach classes and generally create an air of creativity. All-in-all it is an incredibly beautiful place where you can stay for $10 a night. We’re going back-in two weeks. After two weeks back in my village I again abandoned it for the city of Thies where the Peace Corps Senegal training center is located. There I spent a mere three days working; attending seminars put on by seasoned volunteers. Then the entire U.S.ex-patriot community of West Africa, some traveling for days, gathered in the capital city of Dakar-to play softball.

The West African Intramural Softball Tournament - appropriately acronymized WAIST- is three days of American stereotype designed by the U.S. Embassy for the enjoyment of all interested in participating. Peace Corps Senegal has several teams, divided up by the geographic location of our villages, and makes up a sizable chunk of the participants. Also in attendance were embassy workers, NGO workers, their families’, some West Africans, and others looking for a slice of the Global West in Dakar. Hot dogs, beer, baseball-Peace Corps even held a prom night. My favorite part was seeing the American teenagers at a family event. It was just the same as it would have been in America right down to the pimply faced 15 year old boy serving us hot dogs from a stand and snarky 13 year old girls giggling at the nerdy costumes we made for the Kaolack softball team. This was the first time I was around a non-Peace Corps group of people who I could understand culturally but whom, I had to keep in mind, could understand what I was saying in English. A pervasive bad habit of volunteers is to assume people around us don’t understand what we’re saying in English, and we become quite free with our vernacular.

For the duration of the event I stayed in the lovely, amenity-filled, home of an American woman living in Dakar. She had been a Peace Corps volunteer for three years 35 years ago in, what was then, Zaire. The U.S. embassy and Peace Corps collaborate to find people living in Dakar who are willing to host volunteers. Some stay in incredible homes of colonial proportions with a staff of servants, cooks, and gardeners. My home-stay wasn’t this elaborate, but amazing none-the-less. Within moments of passing through the door I was handed sangria, Thai noodles and grilled chicken. And the shower was hot-I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed that. But, even after all of this relaxation, luxury and ‘American’ fun I felt strangely listless upon returning to my village, Diouly.

A couple of days later, out for a run, I came upon a group of young Dioulites out by the forest. I abandoned my cardio and Pantera and took up their mission instead; gather kenkeliba leaves (for medicinal tea), demb, and alome fruit (for a delicious snack). We climbed the trees and whacked at them with long branches to get the fruit down, and I discovered a new hobby; nibbling twigs from a eucalyptus tree to curb my nail biting (a seriously disgusting habit to have here). The following day I biked the trail to my Master Farmer’s house to get some work done (my first time going unarmed with another volunteer). She was having a problem with aphids infesting her pepper plants so I whipped up a solution of neem leaves and garlic to deter them from spreading to unoccupied plants. The next day my host mother took me into the forest to teach me the names of and uses for the local trees and plants. I was able to observe a good deal about the movements of moisture through the landscape in Diouly’s agricultural lands, which is important knowledge when growing field crops.

Gathering Demb fruit outside Diouly

After these three days of work and integration I realized my post-Dakar funk had lifted. What had happened? Aristotle insisted that the ultimate good was happiness and the way to reach happiness was to focus on pleasures. But not all pleasures are created equally. There are higher order pleasures like enjoying a great book and lower order pleasures, like smoking, drinking, shopping, etc, which will never deliver you to the greatest Good (Nicomachean Ethics). Playwright Noel Coward said that interesting work ‘is more fun than fun’ (Wiener 2007). WAIST was three days of pre-structured fun and constant indulgence in what I am supposed to desire, but it turned out to be much less fun then my three days of frolicking in the forest and working.

A good part of my new found giddiness had to do with the fact that when humans feel useful and productive we are generally more contented, and this is amplified when we know our work has gone appreciated, as confirmed by behavioral economics experimental magic conducted at MIT (Ariely 2010). Eric Weiner points out, in The Geography of Bliss, that Americans tend to ask the question, “What do you do?” as the foremost way to get-to-know a new acquaintance. We take pride in our work, especially if we find it to be interesting work, and it becomes a deep source of our joy and perhaps, High Order pleasures. I asked this very question of a contented Englishman I met in Dakar and after giving a very indirect, but appropriate answer, he turned out to be this guy ; a designer/writer who just published a new book. He was all too excited to hear us vent bitter fumes about how appalled we are by what life is like for the people in the rural villages in Senegal, and the seeming impossibility of our goals here. He listened patiently about this discontentedness which it turns out is, supremely, the unlikely source of our greatest pleasure; our work.

Fancy MRI brain scans have shown that altruistic action stimulates pleasure centers in our brain. No one can deny that fuzzy feeling you get when you believe you’ve committed a truly Good act. In this way, Peace Corps volunteers are some strange breed of hedonist. Separate from our happy inducing ‘interesting’ and altruistic work, I often hear volunteers commenting on how luxurious even the quaintest American life will seem to us after our service. Is forcing ourselves to NOT take our lives back home for granted an effective happiness stimulant? I guess I won’t be able answer that question for myself for several years, but most returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) I’ve met are happy people (and usually have interesting work). So the idea is, it seems, is that we will make ourselves so uncomfortable, so frustrated, so confused, that nothing after this will seem as difficult, leading to some kind of hedonic wisdom. Sprinkle some altruism in there and you have an unconventional recipe for a contented life.

This basic recipe is something utilized by people fairly often. Take the marathon runner; she pushes herself to an incredible extreme in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and make challenges in other parts of her life easier to face (as an achieved marathon runner my father can attest to this). Her happiness could stem from the positive psychological effects of all the endorphins and oxygen, or the sense that she’s achieved a formidable goal and been part of something bigger then herself (a spiritual experience as well). Those who take part in extreme body modification projects, like suspensions are cooking with the Peace Corps Volunteer happiness recipe as well. By proving to themselves they can do something so incredibly scary and taxing, they can make any other challenge seem like a walk in the park. Just as with running a marathon, there is a physical aspect here; one crazy-intense adrenaline rush (which is generally experienced as a spiritual event, as well).

Even though Peace Corps Volunteers often feel like they’re banging their head up against a rock solid wall of institutionalized inequality and poverty, the daily task of hoping that our work to tear it down is effective has to be enough to keep us happy. The Science of Happiness has ascertained (scientifically, of course) that hope contributes an enormous amount to an individual’s happiness…

Ariely, Dan. The Upside of Irrationality. 2010 Harper Collins E-Books.

Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Happiness. 2008 Twelve Books, The Hachette Book Group. New York.