In the amount of time it takes me to run to the island of Fadiouth and back, I hear an overwhelming amount of ‘toubab’ or foreigner, something like word throw up for many people I have encountered. Recently the phrase, “donne-moi une cadeu,” or give me a gift has also been commonly said. Give me a gift? At first I thought I was hearing or translating it wrong. Why would I give you a gift while I am running, hot and sweaty? But then I realized it is not because I am running, but because of who I am; the red dot on a blank sheet of paper, the circle next to 20 squares, the only leaf that hasn’t fallen off the tree yet for a fall season. I am the foreigner.
There is a lot that has changed about the way I see the world since 6 months ago, and one of those topics is foreign aid. I am always an optimist, hoping that even one small act of kindness can trickle down and touch people’s lives we will never meet. I still hold strong to this belief, but also am certain foreign aid needs major reconstruction. There are many reasons the children of Joal see my white skin and expect gifts. Unfortunately, the island gets a lot of tourism where the foreigners think it’s a grand idea to throw candy out of their big buses for the children. The aftermath is that there is a generalization for foreigners to have gifts, not try to learn the local language and to be as foreign as foreign can be. I have tried each and every day to change this perspective, especially for the younger generations. At times it makes living here very difficult with always having to gain respect slowly with each person I encounter. But there is a hidden message when the children stick out their hands and ask for a gift. Time and time again “aid” is brought here, and nothing is done. I see US AID signs on all the streets in the shape of an arrow with only basic information in French and a phone number. What about all the uneducated people who only know wolof? And where is the arrow pointing anyways? I see equipment tossed in back rooms, and when asked why it’s not being used they say it’s because they don’t want to break the fancy tools. How much is our “aid really giving?
There are two main probable causes for this failing system that I can see; lack of sustainability and ignorance to culture. If a project is going to be brought to a country, there better be a group of people alongside them to get the project started and to watch its growth. Ever taught a man how to fish? There needs to be a team of people willing to be patient and teach the ways of the product or lesson. They need to be accepting of the fact that many times it is easy to slip back into old habits. I believe the best way foreigners can give aid is through active education, teaching the children from the start to wash their hands rather than dip it in water. When these habits are set in stone, there are no bad habits to turn back to.
And then there is a lack of understanding the culture. As Americans we want faster, bigger, brighter, newer- and the salesman know it. What the salesman doesn’t know is that not all the world lives this way. That not everyone wants running water, that fetching water from the common well is a social time to see their friends and talk. That you can give them a cutting board, but it actually feels more awkward for them to cut that way because they are not used to it. That cutting and mixing all the onions to make a sauce is a huge part of their day, because it is in their roots. Until the salesman, or foreign aid company can understand their consumer, or people they are serving to, no progress will be made in sales, or overall benefit for the country they are aiding. What I am basically saying is we need to reconstruct our system of aid. We need to continue helping for many matters such as health, education on sanitation, environment, and disease but do it in a sustainable way. If the children of Senegal in 30 years continue to ask any white person for a gift I will see it as a fault in our aid system. Instead of giving we need to serve, instead of rushing we need to balance out the culture with the product. It will be a gift to ourselves if we do just that.