Growing up in a town where taking time to step back and reflect on life was viewed as a waste of time, and self care meant hopefully finishing homework before 1AM so you could get a few hours of sleep, life in Senegal is a big transition. I remember begging my dad at least once a week to take a "mental health day". By this I meant a day where I wasn't rushing from class to class stressed about my next stat test or if I'd have time for a 15 minute nap after 8 hours of school before going to 4 hours of work waitressing. My life in Chapel Hill was on a schedule and I valued the time where I could do absolutely nothing more than anything, even if others saw this as a waste of time.
I feel like this western idea of time is poisonous. If taking time to do nothing is so useless then why have I learned so much in the past month and a half? Perhaps it's because of my new environment. Of course I'm going to be learning when every little thing is something new. But at the same time, I've read more books in the past month than i did all of last year. I've written more blogs/journal entries than ever before. I'm aware of my feelings in a way I didn't know was possible for me. My level of empathy has grown immensely.
At Global Launch in August GCY CEO/founder, Abby Falik, talked about how bridge years, especially, GCY creates a group of young people who will be more willing and ready to take on college. At first I didn't really understand what she meant by this. I thought maybe it was because we were finally getting a break from the grind of school and would come back refreshed and ready to get back into the day-to-day work of college. But now I realize GCY prepares us in a way I only now understand.
This time doing "nothing" is actually allowing me to more deeply understand how to learn. As someone who's wanted to work in the field of international women's reproductive health since my freshman year of high school, I believed the best way to make change internationally would simply be getting a degree and working for an NGO and hoping that the work I did would be effective. But after living in a small village in rural Senegal I now see how complex problems like these are. You can't simply set up one station for your NGO in the capital of a developing country and expect to make change. The thing is, I don't actually know how you can truly make a positive change in such a big world. That in and of itself is a complex topic. But because of GCY I know that I'll go into college with the knowledge that these problems don't have an easy fix. I'll go into college ready not only to learn more about the field i'm interested in, but ready to learn about how to actually make a change. I'll go into college aware that I know almost none of the answers, but that I want to understand.
To work internationally requires intense humility and modesty. You have to be willing to be embarrassed when you don't do things according to the social norms. You have to realize that what you may think of as "right" could be viewed as completely wrong in another culture. That's one of the main reasons there is no easy fix to such big issues.
I've seen two huge examples of this in Senegal. The first one is in regard to homosexuality. If you know me, you know that I am a huge proponent for equal rights and a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community. I have many family members who identify as LGBTQ and I often get personally offended when people don't agree that being gay is perfectly ok and that all love is love. A few of my GCY friends went to the beach with some local teenagers and had a discussion about homosexuality. The senegalese teens said that to them that they believe there is no homosexuality in Senegal. It simply doesn't exist. They recognized that it was part of the culture in the United States, and that was ok, but that it wasn't in Senegal because no one was homosexual. Of course they didn't believe that that's true, but for the sake of being culturally appropriate my friends didn't argue on his point but instead asked why it was not ok to be gay. The boy answered that if you chose to be gay today it meant that you chose to die yesterday. That was very intense for me to hear. My friends asked why it meant you wanted to die and the boy replied that it was because your parents and community would shun you and that isolation would be worse than dying. This was an interesting point as it's true, especially in our villages, the community is so tight knit that if you were to be isolated from it your life would pretty much be over. This idea of homosexuality in Senegal frankly sucks. I'm sure there are many people who wish they could come out but would not risk it for fear of being ostracized. This is just one example of how issues are not black and white. Many issues are deeply ingrained in particular cultures and just because you want to change them doesn't always mean it will be easy.
Another example of this concept is birth control. I was happily surprised to see, while working in the pharmacy in my villages health post, that they offer a range of birth control options. They offer the pill, female/male condoms, the implant and a more traditional form of birth control where you count beads to know when you are ovulating. However, I was less happy to find out that you need a prescription to get any of these and most of the time you can only get a prescription if your husband signs off on it. This means that young women are oftentimes unable to have access to birth control methods. Sadly, lack of access has caused many teenage girls to have to dropout of school due to pregnancy. Along with this long term effect, even if women are allowed to have access the way they get it is quite depressing. They are brought into the pharmacy room where the windows and doors are shut. The pharmacist explains to the woman how to use the medicine (usually the pill) and then the woman must wrap the medicine up so it cannot be seen, as if she should be ashamed for taking birth control. The stigma against birth control here comes from the idea that taking birth control means you're having sex with a purpose beyond procreation. As someone who's very passionate about this issue and is very pro-female pleasure and healthy sexual relationships, it's very disheartening to see women having to protect themselves in secret. While doing a research paper last year on the lasting impacts of access to birth control in the U.S., I found that there was a large correlation between women being able to control when/if they get pregnant and they're autonomy in life in general. In other words, when a woman is able to control her own body, she is more able to choose how she wishes to live her life. Whether that be pursuing higher education or joining the workforce or other options. This ability was found to actually stimulate the economy, so it's quite frustrating to see that women here may be held back, consequently holding the community back, because of lack of quality access.
All of this is happening in one set of villages in one region of one country with its own unique culture. I've learned that these problems are so much bigger and harder to deal with than I thought. But instead of feeling frustrated and hopeless about the situation overall, I feel excited and ready to learn how to make a positive impact. I know that this change won't happen on a massive scale while I'm here. I also know that when dealing with this problems one has to be careful of the white savior complex. But it is one thing to be obliging of cultural differences when it comes to some things, but when it comes to the rights of all people to be loved equally and to have the right to their own health and body, it goes beyond difference in cultures and race and becomes an issue that needs to be solved. However, it cannot be solved unless there is an inside cultural push for change. No outsider can change a culture they do not understand no matter how badly they want to.
I learned all of this while doing less than I've done for 18 years. I don't want to live like this forever, but I'm so grateful for what it's teaching me now, and for what I will take from it when i go to college. When deciding to doing GCY I didn't know I would be getting all of this from it, but I am so glad that I am.
Wyatt / Ngoné
P.S. A little update on my day-to-day life, I've started working at the local high school helping to teach english. My host family is amazing. And I am learning Laala jutut a jutut (little by little).
My first complet!!
It’s officially peanut season!