This post by Gaya Morris has been cross-posted from the Current TV News Blog.
When I first entered the backstreets of Sebikotane, a large town just east of Dakar in Senegal, Africa, I saw only a peaceful, culturally vibrant, almost idyllic community – people and houses packed together in a spidery web of sandy streets and family ties. I was struck most by this tight social web; by the way people drifted in and out of each others houses, doing each other’s laundry, eating out of each other’s bowls, watching each other’s televisions; by the way nearly every person I was introduced to in the street turned out to be related to my host family in some way, and so by consequence was introduced as my new uncle or cousin, my second father or mother. The town seemed to be basically one big family and everyone welcomed me in with open arms, lots of laughter, and bowl after bowl of steaming, oily ceebujeen.
And so during the first few weeks I saw only prosperity. People around me always ate well, dressed well, and were always celebrating – baptisms, weddings, holidays. Everyone seemed relaxed and content – no one stressed on in a hurry. Life was centered around the home and the family. Any lack of material amenities I took for simplicity. Who really needs food processors and dish washers and sinks and whole sets of cutlery? Vacuum and showers? These people live in complete dignity with just a few buckets, a spigot and a toilet bowl – and for cooking, some bowls and pots, spoons, knives, a single gas stove and a wooden mortar and pestle. Garden fences made of sticks and rags I saw as signs of resourcefulness, not poverty. The women who are obliged to spend their days selling vegetables and fish in the streets seemed cheerful and proud, calling out respectful greetings to friends as they passed – not at all poor or desperate. The copious piles of trash bordering the paths along the outskirts of the town kept the pigs fat and happy.
These were my first impressions as a newcomer in this maze of sandy streets and people. Now, nearly two months later, I can say without a doubt that a lack of resources, a lack of money, is a reality for the majority of Sebikotane residents. I’m not just talking about the kids who watch me unpack my backpack of interesting possessions and gadgets with envy; the people who dream of moving to America and France to live the luxurious lives they see ‘tubabs’ (white people) live on TV; people who might not be able to purchase things on a whim, but who live comfortably. These are the people that I, in my GCY homestay, spend most of my time amongst. I’m talking about the greater mass of families who lack the material means to live comfortable, healthy lives, and the education or opportunities with which to improve these lives. Poverty is here, but, as we GCY fellows all agreed discussing our first impressions during our first monthly meeting in Dakar, it is less striking in Senegal than it could be because of the way people take care of each other – the deep traditions of generosity and charity. I actually think it is almost impossible for a child to go hungry in Sebikotane because he will always be welcomed around the bowl in whichever house he might wander into.
But despite the incredible capacity of the Senegalese to make the most of what they have, the lacks are there, and Sebikotane as a whole faces many challenges as it developes and expands – for with the influx of people from Dakar and the abundance of small children, there is not doubt that this town is growing. First and foremost among these challenges, I would say, would be a lack of work and job opportunities and a general lack of education. Most adult males are in and out of work, and those that do have steady jobs are under strain to support their many brothers and cousins who depend on them. Public schools are so overcrowded that its not hard for young students, especially girls to slip through the crack and drop out before their reach middle school; others simply aren’t admitted at all due to a lack of physical classroom space.
And its not like problems aren’t being addressed. What with NGO’s vaccinating infants and raising awareness on diabetes and AIDS, with the government efforts to boost the economy and fund social projects, with women’s associations fundraising to plant gardens in schools and tutor the illiterate, the development of Senegal is certainly not being overlooked. Listen to the radio every morning, or turn on the news at night and all you see are government officials, professors, experts and NGO workers presenting their solutions to local and national problems, in slews of fancy, technical French vocabulary. Zoom out and you have expansive, grave problems, each with their prescribed solution, the global issues that we’ve all heard about: expanding population, desertification threatening an agriculturally based economy, too much dependence on imports and not enough investment or infrastructure, a lack of schools and universities. But zoom in and you see the grains of sand that slip through the cracks: the one child that decides to skip a day of school, the next scrap of plastic tossed onto the pile, the father who spends another day sipping tea under a baobab tree. Spend a month or two living with them, experiencing the intricacies of their daily lives, and you’ll see that most of the time people are neither poor nor wealthy, neither hopeful nor desperate, but simply living from one moment to the next – you’ll see that the problems and solutions aren’t as easily measured or defined. Not in a bad way, just in a real way.