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Russell: The land of Eureka!

October 10, 2010

The last paragraphs of this post are the best, and it is so fabricated because of the difficulty of getting through some of the muddy mush in the beginning. Thank you for reading!

yeah westwoodI have come to the point where I can articulate a little bit on exactly why I can’t articulate very much. It is deluging to even think about describing the details of my life here, let alone to actually write or talk about them. I say this not to freak out my loved ones, but more to excuse myself from a prostrated, unpleasant experience. See, I’m having a great time, and I am not stressed out. Je ne blague pas. Wante (“mais” (“but”)) one can understand what I’m talking about best if you put yourself in the shoes [read: flimsy sandals] of a Senegalese. You see, if you had even just a smidgeon of a face-to-face perspective on how different your life is from this Senegalese person’s, it would be utterly impossible for you to bring yourself to describe it.

What are you going to say, really? That “every building has a bathroom”, that “my house has a drain in which you can put large morsels of food, flip a switch and not worry about things getting stopped up”, about how “when you drive, everyone trusts each other to stay on a certain side of the road, and you don’t have to worry about when to turn, because special lights tell you when it is safe”? These are all differences that are so far removed from their roots that they are just shiny surface areas that drunken the foreigner with motiveless envy. But when this Senegalese wakes up from her or his hangover, the exchange that took place seems more like that of Dorothy in Oz; men can dance without possession of any vital organs save some straw, tin mannequins can draw a tear or two with their telling visages, people shrivel up when they die, and that’s just what it is.

But the real truth of this Oz is that a wizard is behind it, not unlike the that has almost permanently advantaged the developed world over the developing one. It is absolute magic, and as someone who is, in a tiny glimmering spark of way, beginning to understand what it’s like to be in the shoes of a Senegalese man, I find the differences as impossible as they are magical. I cannot, for the life of me, put into words what it’s like to experience some of the things I experience over here, so if you please, try not to ask me to. If you consider it an important opportunity for me to be here and potentially a valuable perspective for a young man of the 21st century developed western world to take home, please help me nurture my comforts, wherever I stand, rather than poking at what could be my discomforts.

I am more worried about my return. Don’t ask me how my experiences were; I won’t be able to tell you. I will do much more learning about Senegal and the developing world during the coming years, following now. You will inhibit my learning if I am forced to come to even the smallest conclusion about my experiences, a good example of which is verbalizing something that was before nonverbal. I mean, we are not just talking nonverbal, but sourcing from another set of languages, cultural backgrounds, and interpersonal experiences. Some things, I literally don’t know how to say in English, even though I practically think and breathe my native language. Mon dieu, that is so weird.

Ok, I am being dramatic. But if I were to be totally real for a moment and not even think about the way I’m phrasing this, I will simply say this: everything is different. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “everything” is “all that exists”. Virtually not one thing is the same. Whatever you’re doing on the sidelines, right now, trust me, none of it is the same. Is that a plate of nachos? Yeah, they don’t eat that here. They don’t make chips out of corn, let alone eat corn in Dakar, nor do they eat cheese except when white people are around. Considering that, should I really be expected to write something eloquent with the rest of this blog post?

…My name is Russell Anthony Angelico, and I am going to try…

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned here is how to shut up. Maybe the reason I’ve never liked doing this is because what ends up mattering the most are the little things that have big, flashy lessons. I find it a little bit vain sometimes, but little things have largely constituted my musings while abroad, because of their power to affect an observer disproportionately to their duration.

Recently, the group went on an extended weekend trip to some central/southern village communities on the Senegalese coast. If you are looking for something to blame for my elongated introductory drama, I give you said excursion. It really got me thinking. I treasured it because I probably won’t be traveling very much more, if at all, during my stay here. There is certainly something to be said for seizing the day when one is on a new continent to reach out and explore, and this is the mentality with which I left the USA, but I must humble myself in all respects, and that includes accepting the responsibility for learning well another place, not just “well enough”, hence staying in Dakar.

Anyway, being away from Dakar was a welcome change for everyone, others more than me I suppose, but I didn’t spare one moment of non-appreciation. It was magnificent to see the faces of young children gleam and gawk at me just as much as my ivory dimples bloomed for their world. We visited many villages, saw many things, got closer as a group, did some reforestation (an additional note on that later), and danced more than I have in a long time.

As I described in length before, I simply can’t write a glowing, thorough description of last weekend, and trust me I tried hard before settling on this post’s current format! Instead, I have collected a collage of petite novelties for you to browse. I have put them mostly in order of when they were experienced, but have left most commentary out, because you should create your own. Hopefully they enlighten you!

  • Because of the roads, it took us 7 hours to get to touba couta. It is 130 miles from Dakar.
  • We ate at the mayor’s house. He is the WARC director’s brother. He has many wives, over 25 children, and they all loved us like family.
  • On the way to the villages, we stopped at a gas station to pee. Note: how do you normally think of American gas station bathrooms? Anyway, there were no mosquitoes where we stopped, nor bees or any other normal insects. Instead, there was a plaguingly strong presence of the small hive beetle. They were everywhere, covering nearly every square inch of the ground, and debilitated the station’s outpost store. Men were sweeping thousands of them out the front door when we arrived.
  • The village right outside the hotel area was as much like a town like it could be. There were imitative “cosmetics shops”, and a little post where one could get your TV repaired, no matter how rare it is to own one.
  • There was one small medical post that served 50 villages of touba-couta. In it were 6 nurses, 2 assistants, and one doctor. If your condition necessitated a stay longer than 3 days, you were referred (moved) to a hospital in Sokone, 15 miles away. Recall, the roads are bumpy and gravely misshapen.
  • Villages may not have “How I Met Your Mother”, and they may not know how to use an overhead shower, but they have a community radio station for important events and in-depth cultural discussions.
  • During a roundabout discussion with a village community, we got the opportunity to ask the community many questions, and they answered warmly but honestly. They asked us visitors only one question: how does it feel to be welcomed into a new foreign place?
  • After the discussion in the village, the community wanted to dance and celebrate before we left (this will have been the 3rd time that day that we engaged in village communal dancing). When the women started getting really involved and joyous, one young woman silently and unquestioningly handed her newborn baby to Jessica, an International Studies major from the U of I, so that the baby wouldn’t get rocked about on her back while she danced indefinitely.
  • The population of the small island we reforested was 0. It took us 40 minutes to sail there by small motor canoe.
  • The young men who helped us plant mangroves had no sense of time. They just played and played in the water, with no concern for all of us sitting in the boat. It wasn’t because they didn’t love us.
  • There are three types of mangroves that grow on the coast of West Africa, and they change based on the salinity of the water. Maybe this is why the warming of the bay of Bengal in the Indian ocean is causing problems for the mangroves – no matter how flood resistant a plant is, you can’t replant a human hair on a head that has already fully balded.
  • I guess east coasters aren’t that bad.
  • We attended a dance show/presentation by a professional village group in a nearby village. While the children were intrigued by the man on stilts (and it merits mentioning that I have never seen a stiltsman perform so daringly as this), no one during the presentation took the opportunity to participate like they do in the family circles. In fact, afterwards, the Americans got up to dance, I thanked the dancers, they tried to sell me a CD and I got on the bus.
  • No one here thinks linearly, not even the trip organizers who have worked with foreign students for upwards of 10 years. We get there when we get there, and we pee when we pee.
  • The hotel we stayed at was extremely luxurious considering the surrounding environment. The Belgian owners fed us gourmet European dinners full of western tastes. Several of us had a hard time with our stomachs that night, because of how rich the food was relative to what we were used to.
  • La lutte is a violent sport, but you cannot hit or lock joints, because that would cause harm to your opponent. Instead, the objective is to level your opponent to their knees, back, or bottom. I practiced hard for this activity, and didn’t get to participate in the end, because the village was so energetically invested in their own lutte that by the time we arrived, water mixed with milk and tree sap was already drenching the participants and a man was already screaming referee-like calls on a mid-frequency-only microphone as men whose bodies were hidden by the brilliant reflection of the floodlamp on their sweaty ebony skin violated the taught skins of old, weathered village drums.
  • I met a young man in the lutting village who had worked really hard in school and traveled long distances to and from the village to learn English and try to save money to buy musical instruments. As his friends laughed at my encouragement, he stared into my eyes as Clapton would to his late father. If you have a dream and you can work hard, you will succeed, and this young man, my age to the week, will most definitely succeed in his own special way.

As mentioned, we got the opportunity to explore the mangrove forests of the central coast of West Africa. Some background: I have always wanted to see mangrove forests. They are the reason I chose to research Bangladesh in two different geography seminars at UCLA; the country experiences the worst flooding in the world and it’s destroying the forests that are practically endemic to the region.

Practically because here I am, in the other major mangrove coast! The entire coast of The Gambia is constituted by mangroves, and we explored villages very close to the finger-like enclave in central Senegal. I was in complete bliss, and though I didn’t spend too much time learning specifics, I was able to just relax, lead myself through the simple activities of getting on the boat there, planting seedlings, sorting good embryos from bad ones, etc. Nothing complicated, just pure and natural environmental love. It was a really cool experience.

the beautiful coast of nowhere

I must confess, with somewhat of a tristesse, that I have become noticeably self-conscious of the deterioration of my blog posts from cleverly creative to drudgingly dreary, as if drawing resources from the duldrums of each day rather than the day’s dreams. To offer an explanation, I further confess that I dream very rarely in Senegal. In fact, I can count only two nights during which I have dreamt. Quelle dommage, mais in the long run, I suppose I should save my dreams for a day when I have some fried matzoh to munch on the morning following, or for a moment when I have a piano on which to resentfully frap until my fingers stiffly cry “arêtes-toi, c’est fini!” and I return to my loved ones at home in the land of Eureka.

Eureka is California’s state motto. Eureka means “I have found it!” as in an exclamation of such a discovery. It also, however, denotes the discovery of a solution to a problem. I may have, for the next 2 months or so, found a new place to declare eureka, but my work isn’t finished, and I look forward to finding a solution to whatever troubles me in my coming years. My blessing and wish is that we may all find the same thing.

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