If We’re Being Honest

Jackson Harris - Senegal


February 26, 2016

The thing about Pulaar culture, is that it tends to be honest. Often brutally honest. This honesty reveals itself when you least expect it. For instance: you’re midway through a peaceful morning. You’re in the garden minding your own business, tending to the compost pile, when suddenly, honesty strikes the women gathering around the well like lightning. One woman decides to voice her honest opinion about the woman across from her, irritated that she used the last of the water to hydrate her plot without consulting the others present. The other woman responds with her unshrouded emotional response, anger, and insults the first woman’s skill as a gardener (which, if we’re being honest, isn’t all that fantastic).

Or perhaps when your mom comes to visit from the US and you act as translator when two old women come to greet and welcome her to the community. “Tell her that we in Pelel welcome her. Also, tell her that she’s beautiful. Also, tell her that her husband must be ugly because you’re ugly.” Once again, perhaps all true statements but, as my mom observed later, “not necessarily necessary.”

Or the ones that really catch you off guard. Like when it’s the first time you’re meeting someone and you make a grammar mistake or say a word wrong: “Ah, you don’t speak Pulaar as well as the other foreigners I know.”

Honestly, this honesty still bothers me a great deal, and it’s difficult to approach a cultural trait with curiosity before judgement when you’ve lived in the culture for roughly five months and feel like an actively contributing community member.

But here’s the thing, being honest is better than being dishonest; dishonest is what I’ve been too many times here. I’ve shaped my stories by the way that I think they will affect those listening to them.

My father, Ibu Ba: “Does your family have a car in America?” The answer is yes, that we have three cars. How can I explain, however, that we’re not considered exorbitantly wealthy, as the cars are not in top condition? The cars my host dad occasionally rides in are, by U.S. standards, undrivable and filled with as many people as is physically possible to put into them (see fellow Maya Panicker’s blog “A Lesson in Patience”). So my answer, while not a flat-out lie, is not the flat-out truth either: “Yes, we have a car.”

My cousin, Salliu Ba: “After I learn English, I’m going to America to work.” This is fantastic. Salliu is motivated to study hard in order to pass his Baccalaureate exam in order to go to the University in order to have a better chance at securing a job in order to save enough money up to go to America, the promised land. How can I explain to him, however, that even if he were to join the 2% (statistics from my region of Senegal) of students that graduate high school by passing their Bacc, even if he were to come out of the incredibly overcrowded (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20090220081123673) University with a degree, even if he were to earn enough money to purchase a plane ticket to the U.S. and find work and lodging there, how can I explain to him that the current GOP front runner would bar him from entrance to the states based on his religion when he so graciously accepted me, a nonbeliever, into his home? My response to Salliu’s determination, however: “Great! You can stay at my house when you get there!”

When the people of Pelel choose to be honest with one another, they choose not to pity one another. When someone reminds me of my weak language skills, they tell me because they think I can take it and because it will make me want to work harder. And yet, through my decision to keep the entire truth from these same people, I am acting patronizingly. I am being dishonest because I feel that Salliu’s situation is somehow inherently inferior to mine.

And his is inferior, in the quantifiable terms of opportunity and comfort (which there’s not a word for in Pulaar). I have not only the opportunity for post-secondary education, but had a primary and secondary education where, were I to have stolen chalk, I would have been sent to the principal’s office, not whipped in front of my classmates. Comfort-wise, this privilege is true as well. When I travel in the U.S., chances are that I have my own cushioned seat and temperature control. It’s easy for me to isolate myself from any sort of natural irritant.

Yet how can someone say that access to an AC unit is healthier than escaping the heat by sitting under the shade of a mango tree? In the words of my friend Christian Gath, “If you’ve never had a pillow, why would you miss one?” Similarly, how would a person with a PhD living in Pelel be of any more value to the society than my illiterate neighbor, Kaw Aidjuma, who skillfully weaves mats and fences out of bamboo (and laughs when I clumsily handle the machete)? And why wouldn’t Kaw Aidjuma be as highly respected as the man with the doctorate would be in Pelel if Aidjuma were to end up in my home town?

It’s because, of course, the way to happiness lies with the skill set of the PhD. To develop our economies more to produce more to live more degrees-of-separation away from the production of our food and, of course, to not be bothered by such irritants as the sun and snow and other people’s honest opinions.

Although the degree to which people are honest with one another here can still be culturally off-putting, I believe that it is also one of the reasons that people tend to be so happy. If it’s an uncomfortable ride crammed into a sept-place (more like a dix-place), people don’t tense up and pretend not to be touching each other, they’re honest about the situation. In fact, I’ve held  strangers’ hands during sept-place rides; it’s simply a more pleasant way of being uncomfortable (which there’s also not a word for in Pulaar). Here, they don’t shy away from confronting problems between each other; they embrace and solve them. This is why I wasn’t surprised to see those same women who hurled insults mid-morning laughing and sharing attaya when the afternoon came around.

If you’ve followed me this far, you can probably guess how I’m going to conclude. By asking you each to be a little more honest and perhaps a little more uncomfortable in the short term. The world has a lot of problems and it’s not like we’re going to fix any of them by keeping our mouths shut and our emotions bottled up.

As for me, I’m going to begin by telling the truth. But not without challenging it first.

Jackson Harris