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Russell: Cell phones, cab fares and French wine

September 8, 2010

The lessons I will learn la plupart de temps ici sont life lessons. I mean we all could have predicted that, right? Everyone knows that Russell’s going to “get a lot of out of” this experience, and it’s going to be “eye opening,” and so on. But what did you all actually mean by that? Think about it for a second…what life lessons am I going to learn here that I couldn’t learn at home?

In fact, I would argue, none, except for the exposure to a different home, group of friends, school, etc. We’re not talking about some foreign place that anyone can go if they really want to go through the tough love and learn about life. We’re talking about a different, but similar, place. The similarities are striking. If my life in Senegal were so different from home, would I really be writing you right now? No, I’d be eating some alien food, sleeping in some weird unknown schedule, learning from professors that made me believe something different that what I’m used to, etc. But that’s not the case. The home I’m in can be described with similar adjectives, and so can everything else.

This is what I’m reminded of a little over a week into being here. (To be honest, by the way, it feels like far more than a week, but not because I miss home – just because it’s something I have never been used to, and getting used to it has transformed me for sure. So I’d like to share something pretty personal with you. Try to get past your yearnings to think critically of my actions, and instead pay attention to the fundamental motivations behind it.

I’ve already mentioned my struggle to understand and adapt to the presence of house maids that live here and submit to social immobility. Those are two very different things—I mean, we know people in America that have either hired help or family friends that help out at the house. We even know people that have permanent “friends” that live in the home and take care of things for the sole purpose of making our lives easier and subsisting on that opportunity. But I don’t think I’ve experienced a true environment in America wherein servants are present. Here, it is made to look like they are not servants, but in all reality, they are. They are not mistreated, but they are admittedly maltreated.

Last week, I related to you that experience of coming home to see one of the maids tired, exhausted, emotionally drained. I ranted about it for a while to you, but when I had asked her about it, it was something about walking around all day looking for a cell phone. I didn’t know if she lost one or if she was looking to buy one, but my intuition told me that it was the latter. It all struck me because a cell phone is a uniquely special thing to one’s personal life, and typically exceeds the value of other material possessions in our lives because of its ability to give us more personal opportunities.

This woman is extremely nice. Her name is Nina. She has explicitly said that she wants to be there for me, and help me with language, but in the fringe moments when we’re not having some kind of basic Russell-can’t-talk-but-I’ll-love-him-anyway moments, she is cooking meals for me, cleaning my bathroom, or checking in on my schedule. She is a better mother to the babies of the house than their actual mother, and that’s saying something. This is a woman who deserves to be inspired or helped in whatever way is appropriate.

Anyway, I thought about it for a while, and decided to approach her about it, and asked her about what she had been struggling with. She said she didn’t have the money to buy a cell phone. I gave her a look. She went on washing the dishes. Then she did something surprising. See in America, to honor the person that is taking the role of the gift-giver or favor-doer, one avoids mentioning it, or confronts it forwardly and declares a non-need or something like that. Instead, she bluntly asked, “tu vas m’aider? Tu veux me donner l’argent pour une portable?” It caught me by extreme surprise, because while that was exactly what I wanted to do, she put me on the spot. I deserved it—if I was going to talk about her struggles openly, I had dishonored the relationship between servant and master, despite my denial of those roles. Now I was the one answering questions, and that was ok. I’m used to that, obviously. I have no identity here unless I create it, tell someone about it, etc.

My original plan was to bring it up, have her give me a cryptic description of her situation, and a few days later leave a ready-to-use cell phone on her bed (which are much cheaper here than in the States, mind you). Instead, I asked her how much she needed, she said 10mil f (about 20 dollars), which was less than what I bought my [very basic] package for, so I gave it to her.

The rest of the night passait normallement, with a few exceptions. One difference is that a few minutes later, Nina mentioned that it would be cool if her, me, the kids, the other domestique, and LouLou’s wife Djeyna went to the beach someday soon, just to hang out and have fun. This was so nice, because it reflected the personal relationship I had wanted to have and tried to imitate all along but hadn’t seen results from. Here were results… Another aspect of the night was LouLou (the man of the house) and I sharing a bottle of wine. We spoke more than we normally do, and he didn’t seem frustrated or exhausted by my lack of French speaking skills like he normally does. I also was able to loosen up (par the wine) and speak more freely in general, giving me the confidence to answer the door for the family, do some dishes, and stuff like that. And the key was, I had bought the wine for us. He had taken us out a few times, and given me wine once or twice, so I bought a bottle of French red and brought it home.

The lesson is this: sometimes, you buy things.

And again, you know me. I am loose with my money, and consider generosity extremely important, because it acknowledges the value you place on things. I happen to show the value I place on things with my wallet; I understand not everyone does that—whatever. The important thing is, I rarely waste and I always think. I’m not perfect, and I do make mistakes, but I’ve definitely learned a lot in my experiences with money.

For us theologians and philosophers and altruistic philanthropists and American freedom-fighters, the situation I outlined and my moral conclusion represents a sad, cynical, perhaps short-sighted realization. I would argue that this reality of money-related relationships that I have uncovered was there and evident all along—it just wasn’t evident to me, because I come from a different society. And in fact, it truly is just “money-related,” not money-governed, and that’s an important detail. They are still people. There are also life-scenarios for me that are strongly money-related; often money-correlated.

I cannot, having experienced this magnificent place, make a judgment on their lives as being simple-minded, shallow, predictable or miserable. There is more complexity to the simple things in life than we ever admit, so much that they should never be considered simple at all.

I will probably be posting less frequently, and trying to make each correspondence with you more meaningful. I’m getting more used to things for sure. I am still in a phase wherein I go in and out of missing the comforts of home, but I am learning to make my own comfort here. Sleeping in my room is comfortable. School is comfortable, because of the internet and friends. Honestly, my walk home become quite comfortable, because it’s so familiar. And my family is slowly becoming comfortable.

Before I go, I wanted to mention one more experience involving financial contributions. See, getting a taxi is a pretty regular thing (about three times a week, for whatever reason comes up). Taxi drivers tend to be assholes because they overcharge everyone, ESPECIALLY white innocent-looking Americans who have trouble bartering in another language. But, as with any field, there a few gems, and I found one the other day. I bluntly responded to a request for 1200f (about $2.50) that that was too much. This guy looked at me, made a quick judgment, and admitted that yes, that’s too much, and really the ride is more like 800f. I got in the cab, got home, and as I was getting out of the taxi, I handed the young man 2mil f, and said “gardez la change. Mais il faut faire quelque chose bonne pour quelqu’un, vous comprenez?” He looked at me with a boyish smile and nodded, as I exited the cab and he drove off. As I was walking to my house, I heard a screech of tires. He had turned the car around and come back, and was looking at me with a much more serious face. I neared the cab, and he handed me 1200 f back. I refused. I reminded him, “il faut faire…” and he stopped me with his hand. He said “thank you. Don’t worry, I will.” He drove away.

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