Global Citizen Year provides Fellows with complete, succinct and crucial preparation prior to placing us in the field. Upon arrival in Senegal I felt well equipped to handle the inevitable culture shock – I was ready to face my immersion with an open mind and a compassionate heart, and with no expectations. However, nothing could have prepared me for my reaction to the common practice of hitting children as a form of discipline in public, in schools, and at home. Corporal punishment – “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort” – is obviously not an issue exclusive to Senegal, and I realize that I am only one generation removed from this type of discipline in my own family (I grew up in the open-minded and forward thinking city of San Francisco where children’s rights are taken extremely seriously), yet the first time I witnessed a child being chased down the road by her mother brandishing a large tree branch all I wanted to do was call the police. The woman, a mother of several small children, cheerfully sells bread to my family every morning. My jaw dropped when I watched her catch up to her little girl, grab her arm, and begin to whack her repeatedly with the large stick and I was horrified to notice the people around me chuckling and nodding in approval. I believe this mother would have been judged for lackadaisical parenting had she not openly punished her child (in San Francisco she would have been arrested).
Soon after the incident with the tree branch I learned from two of my local Fellows that various instruments – a piece of a pipe, an extension cord, a rubber whip, a ruler – are used at elementary schools to frighten, bully, and beat “bad” children into “behaving.” These Fellows witness such acts of violence on a daily basis due to the nature of their work, and they often sadly recount detailed stories to me of their young students getting punished. Yet as disturbing as these facts were, I was still able to push the images from my mind until it happened in my own home.
My ten year old host cousin struggles at school and is tutored a few times a week at my house by my host mom and sister. One afternoon, after repeated failures with her French homework, my sister handed my mom a belt and she began whipping the girl’s palms, over and over again with each mistake. This occurred two feet away from me while the rest of my family continued watching TV without so much as a glance in my cousin’s direction, and though I wanted to snatch the belt from my mom and “rescue” my cousin, I retreated to my room and muffled my own sobs as I listened to my cousin crying out in pain. I was physically sickened by the knowledge that I could not protect this child. I was depressed for days after – I had trouble grasping that my own host mother, the woman I trust the most here in Senegal, was capable of the same heartless, cruel acts that I had been trying not to think about for weeks. I was disappointed in my sister for playing a part in the beating when she herself was beaten as a young girl for making similar mistakes. I could not understand why this type of discipline is not obviously wrong here, why it wasn’t clear to my mom that my cousin wasn’t learning anything besides fear by getting whipped with a belt for making an honest mistake. I asked myself why this tradition continues with each generation when the person wielding the belt knows exactly how much pain they’re inflicting. I wanted to know what I could learn from witnessing this, what lesson there was to gain from my experience, when all I really felt at the time was helpless, alone, and nauseated. Since that first time with the belt, punishment has been inflicted in my house at each lesson because my cousin continues to make mistakes. The methods vary – sometimes she is hit with whatever hard object is within reaching distance, but what I believe to be exponentially more disturbing is that I find myself getting used to the weekly beatings. While my family members continue to appear to not notice my cousin getting whipped, I still retreat to my room, but I no longer cry and I no longer need to listen to extremely loud music to turn a deaf ear to the crying in the other room. I still feel nauseated, but how long will it be before I no longer even notice when it happens? I think I am starting to understand how unacceptable methods can become normal, accepted behavior…
When I asked my sister if she’ll hit her future kids when they do something “bad,” she shrugged and said “of course.” I asked her if she thought it was right to beat our cousin for making a spelling error instead of rewarding her when she gets something right, and she looked at me curiously, thought for a moment, and said “maybe I won’t hit them as hard as I was hit.”
The community I am part of is genuine, kind, generous and lives in harmony. I work as an English teacher to young adults in a vocation school. The classes I teach are job specific – my students are studying to become tailors, metal workers, or restaurant employees. When I first began work I believed I would be playing an important role in preparing my students for their future – these classes will help them obtain steady jobs and thus provide for their families and future children. Yet now, three and a half months into my time in Senegal, I can’t help but wonder if there is a more essential lesson I need to be teaching. I want to teach more than just a method of providing for their children – I want to express that allowing your child to thrive in a safe home with confidence and a love of learning instead of violence and a fear of making errors could do so much more than anything money might buy. How can I, as an individual who understands that it is not my place to change this culture but to learn from it, help someone understand that beating their child is more detrimental than effective? I realize that the point of view here is merely discipline and perhaps Senegal will never see this as something that needs to be changed, but in my heart I feel that the cycle needs to be broken. I want to know how I can teach my students and my sister to remember their own childhoods as they bring up their own children – and to learn to question what does not feel right.