Eben: 22 Catch 22’s

November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving weekend to all. It turns out that Friday is just Tabaski Preparation Day, or something. So I have work off but the big holiday isn’t until tomorrow. Anyway:

You’ve heard all these stories before in various forms. And I’ll spoil the somewhat worn conclusion, that life everywhere is complicated and it’s hard enough to understand the issues without even having to think about solutions. Nonetheless, I’m still writing this post because the specifics of the complexities of some facets of life here are pretty interesting and different than their counterparts in all the similar accounts from around the world. (Draw out the sentence tree for that one.)

Given my recent work, the easiest issue to start with is microfinance, and more specifically, microcredit. I got into some of its disparate effects a couple posts ago, and there’s more numerical analysis to come, but I think the stories of a couple particular clients I’ve come across during my internship illustrate as well as any numbers the good and the bad of these loans. The first client lives in a traditional fishing village called Lompoul, about an hour northwest of Mekhe on the Atlantic Ocean. The credit agent Diadji and I make the requisite stop at the village chief’s compound, sitting in chairs on the sand between huts and more modern-style houses and explaining FDEA until he appreciates our presence in his village enough to let us move on. So along with the driver, Pap, we drive on to this old client’s house for me to interview her. (Diadji has a couple clients to see in the village, but the trip has mostly been organized for me to get some interviews in.) We pull up to a house compound enclosed by a white concrete fence, in which is engraved “F.D.E.A.” in a roughshod manner right next to the door. I figure this one will be interesting. They’re finishing up preparing a lunch of ceeb-u jën, which they make us eat before anything else. Then I take a seat on the ledge outside the main building of the compound and start my interview with Codou Diop, a woman who claims an age of 50 but shows more early 60s. A widow with 17 to feed in her house, she begins to tell me in good French how she’s taken out loans with a group of nine other women for more than ten years, using the money to increase the scale of their collective farming operations. This current loan, of about $2700 to be split among the women and be repaid after six months, has proven somewhat problematic, as a couple of the women turned out to be pregnant and have been unable to work. So she thinks they’ll be a couple months late in fully reimbursing. But she hastens to switch the topic, given the opportunity when I ask different questions, to describe how her life has changed since beginning to borrow from FDEA. “That was my entire house,” she begins, pointing at the small building to our right, now joined by three bigger ones surrounding the courtyard we’re in. Back then, she made between $10 and $15 a month doing small-scale farming, and although her husband was still around to help out, they skipped a meal a day and didn’t eat much for the other two. I think you know the rest of the story without me telling it. She now makes upwards of $110 a month by having increased the scale of the farming and the commerce associated with it; she avows having had greater authority in making collective decisions with her husband before his death; she paid for professional school for one of her daughters to learn couture; and, as I could attest to after my lunch, the whole house now eats three full meals a day. She asserts similar success for the rest of her village involved with FDEA, proudly recounting how five of the 17 students graduating high school last year are now at a university. Do you want to take out another loan after this one, I ask, one of the last questions of every interview. She responds emphatically: “I won’t leave it until I die.”

The next day, Diadji and I hop in the truck to go on what he describes as a routine loan recovery trip through Mekhe. We stop at a few houses of women who aren’t home, with Diadji menacing whoever happens to be home with the threat that if the loan isn’t repaid soon, “the American who’s here to help us out in collecting the money we’re owed will come see you personally.” (He seems to get too much of a kick out of this to consider its awkwardness, or the fact that I can’t even really speak these people’s language enough to do anything if I do realize his empty threat.) Then, before heading back to the office, we make one last stop, pulling up under a big “tree of discussion” surrounded by sand and shade in the center of town. Diadji opts for yelling the name of the man owing FDEA money instead of gracing him by getting out of the truck, and the man gets up from whatever discussion the tree was providing, leaving the three other old men looking puzzled in their traditional robes as he approaches the truck to stand outside Diadji’s window. Given that this man is an elder, Diadji and he exchange greetings in the traditional manner done to show respect – by repeating each others’ last names over and over again. “Diop,” “Dieng,” “Diop, Diop,” “Dieng,” they go back and forth for thirty seconds or so, until getting into the normal round of “Where is your family?” and “Have you spent the day with peace?” and the formulated responses of “They are there” and “Thanks to God.” (The only reason I’ve gotten for the name deal is that it’s meant to show you’re acknowledging the other’s presence. Never considered that anyone didn’t think I existed after saying hi to me, but among the things I’ve learned here is that most cultural differences are inexplicable.) Then, as happens with the women in the office, they start the main event, going back and forth quickly in Wolof over some matter. Diadji pauses every minute or so to explain to me, sitting in the back seat, what’s going on. “He’s owed us money since 2002,” he says, 849,000 Francs (about $1900) in total, since he didn’t repay the money he borrowed to raise and sell sheep. (I don’t find out the rest of his story, but it’s likely similar to another man I interviewed who took out a loan with nine others to raise sheep two years ago, and the sheep all got sick and died. This other man now doesn’t work, borrowing money from friends to pay for meals and slowly paying back 5000 Francs a month of the 150,000 he still owes. He never had problems giving his family food before all this but now goes hungry many days. But that’s a different story.) Although interest stops accruing after a year of indebtedness, FDEA’s pestering does not, although I never get a real answer as to why they’ve waited until now to see this man. “He gave his house as collateral for the loan,” Diadji stops to tell me matter-of-factly, “and so we’re going to take him to the police station to start the process of seizing it if he doesn’t bring in at least 100,000 Francs by Tuesday.” (All individual loans require some sort of collateral that usually greatly outweighs the worth of the loan itself, but Diadji later explains to me that this is yet another empty threat; they’ve never, during his time there, actually seized a house or anything of real value.) The man, increasingly panicked and pleading with Diadji, frantically pulls his wallet out of his pocket, taking out the 30,000 Francs that are in there and stuffing it in Diadji’s hand. I figure Diadji will make the man keep it until a more formal repayment, but I’m wrong; “Good,” Diadji says, “now bring the rest soon.” We soon drive off, leaving this man behind to go back to his discussion. He came in this past Tuesday with 10,000 additional Francs, which seems to have placated Diadji for the moment despite the earlier menacing about 100,000. So yeah, it turns out there are people whose lives actually get screwed up by this stuff. In theory, the question of whether microcredit is “good” or “bad” in the aggregate should be empirical, but the few real mathematical analyses that have been done on that question to this point have done nothing but muddy the waters. I’ve been trying to get at that question with my research, but my real answer is that I have no idea.

Equally confusing is the debate about language and language policy, which I gestured at in my last post. Over a lunch of mafe (white rice with heavy peanut sauce) one day, I asked Pa Diop what he thought of the fact that the language used in all his children’s classes is French. He had seemed to me to be pretty utilitarian about stuff like this, never engaging with me in Wolof like his wife does for reasons, I suspected, having to do with his rationalization of his use of the language of colonialism so that he could succeed professionally. But he had a much more interesting response than this rationalization of French that I expected was coming. “As much as people recognize French’s presence as a product of colonialism,” he said, “it’s sort of the neutral alternative to fighting between ethnic groups.” Turns out that back in the day, the national assembly used Wolof for all its affairs, since 90% of citizens speak the language despite the Wolof group’s plurality of only 35%. (I haven’t yet actually figured out how this came to be, since despite being the biggest group 35% is still pretty small.) At some point, though, the members of the assembly who weren’t from the Wolof tribe grew restless of essentially acquiescing to the Wolofs in the room every time they opened their mouths. So the Peuls started speaking Pulaar on the floor, the Diolas started speaking Diola, and so on, until no one could understand any other group and the assembly turned as dysfunctional as the current U.S. Senate. (It was probably more civil, actually, since as far as I know there was no Joe Lieberman to posture about moderacy every time a cloture vote came up, and if there was then most would have had the good fortune of not understanding his language.) So they switched to French as the “neutral alternative” in the late 80s, and although this created somewhat of a bias toward better-educated candidates to win elections (God forbid), the legislature was at least able to function. (So to keep up the analogy with the U.S. Congress, it became more like the House.) “People are much happier speaking French than they are speaking the language of someone else’s tribe,” attested Pa Diop. And the same situation plays out at the level of schools; unless every school were to create separate classes for each tribe in their own language (separate but equal, anyone?) all teaching would occur in Wolof, which the 65% wouldn’t be so happy about. All this is a reminder that as horrible as the colonial past is in every country like Senegal, reducing matters to black vs. white or West vs. Third World is usually ridiculously simplistic. (Further evidence, you could contend, that the “things were soo much better in the past” argument is baseless.) So how to get rid of a vestige of colonialism without alienating all the minority ethnic groups? No idea.

The last impossible issue I’ll go over is one bound by a self-perpetuating mix of politics and religion whose effects are visible every day in most cities and towns throughout Senegal. First, I should explain that the practice of Islam here is quite different than in your typical Muslim country in the Middle East. The largest brotherhood of Muslims, called the Mourides, are run by religious leaders and teachers called marabouts. These marabouts carry huge influence; people take their word as truth, and the names of famous marabouts throughout history are plastered on buses and storefronts throughout the country. (Cheikh Tidiane, one of my host brothers, is named after a marabout, and many of the women’s groups taking out loans at FDEA give themselves names like “Sope Serigne Fallou” or “Ababacar Sy.”) And the 99.99999999% rate of religiousness allows no room for religious questioning; “There’s no need to reflect about God, you should just know He exists,” in the words of Demba, my otherwise very smart 19-year old host brother. So since people tend to vote for the candidate recommended by their marabout, politicians bow down to the marabouts to get votes more so than any U.S. presidential candidate could every get away with bowing down to big business. (And that’s saying a lot.) So the marabouts can do whatever the hell they want, and religious freedom is all fine and well until it starts impinging on other people’s freedom. Most of these people, in the case of Senegal, happen to be children. These children, called Talibe, are sent by their parents for reasons of poverty or (more frequently) ideology to daaras, religious “schools” where the children are to learn Arabic and the Koran from a marabout in lieu of learning French. But despite the riches of many of these marabouts, they don’t give the kids any food or provide them with more than one set of dirty clothes. Half the kids’ time is spent in squalid conditions copying text from old Korans to wood panels, and the other half is spent begging for food and money. They get to eat the food, but the money goes to the marabout, and if they don’t bring in enough every day then they’re subject to corporal punishment (i.e., beating). They’re instantly recognizable by their dirty clothes and small metal pots they carry around to collect alms, and one or two of them show up at my house here twice a day, at breakfast and lunch, to ask for food. (This asking actually consists of standing outside the main room and grunting from time to time to make their presence known until Pa Diop summons them over to dump some rice into their bowl of various other crap given to them by other people. Then they move off wordlessly.) Pa Diop actually spent some of his childhood years as a Talibe, splitting his time between French school and the daara, and he’s of the majority opinion that it’s good for the kids since it makes them “figure things out for themselves” and learn humility. Perhaps having to beg for food is stretching the definition of “figuring things out,” but I decided this wasn’t a good point to argue. He does think that the daaras in cities are closer to exploitation, but I don’t honestly see any difference between the practices here and in Dakar. In Dakar, I got in the habit of buying 20 cent packs of cookies to give to the kids whenever they asked for money, but even small gestures like that beg certain questions. Every time I give them cookies, or Pa Diop gives them rice, it’s quietly keeping the wheels of the whole operation turning even if we’re not giving money directly to the marabout (which plenty of people do anyway given Islam’s requirement to give a certain amount to others per year). But if politicians have no power to change things given their acquiescence to all things marabout, and the only way to throw a wrench into the way things run would be to mount a campaign to make kids starve, which seems more than a tad inappropriate given the end goal to improve these kids’ lives (and also would never happen given that people think the daaras are a good thing), then how will this ever stop? No idea.

I could keep going. The state encourages scholarship, giving all of its university students a small stipend, so that they can graduate into an empty job market. Cultural conservatism breeds cultural conservatism, trapping many women in a cycle of housework and childbearing. And so on. These are all issues of development but clearly extend much farther than pocketbook problems. I think it’s naïve to act as if we don’t have similar problems even in supposedly “developed” countries, but the ones here particularly stand out given that they haven’t been dulled to me by their perpetual presence in my life. So if you’re looking for a conclusion, a lesson to take away from all this, then see above.

(Special prize for anyone who can identify where my title comes from, aside obviously from the Heller book.)

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