Archive for the ‘Eben in Senegal’ Category


Eben: Epilogue

January 4, 2010

I’ve been taking a look back at my 2000-odd pictures from this semester — and I’ll get some more of those up on my site sooner or later — and the overwhelming thought I’ve been having is not, “Wow, this is pretty interesting,” but rather, “Wow, I did a lot of crap over the past five months.”  Not bad crap — just a ton of stuff.  Being there definitely affected me in ways enumerated in this post, but I have no oversimplified conclusions to give about my time in Senegal.  Am I happy I did it?  Certainly.  But I’m also happy to be back home, speaking my first language in an entirely familiar culture.  I feel like the other students and I accustomed ourselves to a new way of life, and although it would be impossible to fully and entirely integrate into that life, I think we did pretty well given the constraints.  So I’ll miss the other American students and the Senegalese students I got very close to, but five months did seem long enough and I’m ready to get back to college.

To recap the past few weeks, I had a great time with my family both in Senegal and in South Africa.  My mom and I went down to Kedougou, a town in the southeast of Senegal close to the border with Guinea, hiking to some cool waterfalls and visiting an independent Bedick village on the top of a mountain.  Then my dad and brother joined us the next weekend, and we had a fairly rough time fending off thieves and hustlers (successfully) but also got to a great traditional wrestling match and had a nice visit with my host family.  It was great to have them there but also a little odd to spend time with them in the way that I did; I had come to think of the lack of some basic comforts as a structural constraint on my life there, but as soon as the family showed up and was willing to spend a little more money, those amenities became available to me.  Senegal had become the land of lack-of-hot-water for me, and all of a sudden I had hot water, and so on.  I don’t think this is bad — I always hate when people complain that their experience in a developing country is somewhat ruined by something like relatively constant internet access, since people in Senegal should have internet just as much as we should — but it was just a little weird to me given how I had become accustomed to living there.

Anyway, after a busy last weekend, we headed down to South Africa.  I spent nine hours on a plane next to a man taking up half my seat and reading a Glenn Beck book, then two days in Cape Town, two days in Stellenbosch (the wine country right outside Cape Town), and three days at a safari camp north of Johannesburg.  I recommend it all (except my neighbor on the flight).  Cape Town is beautiful, and was like Disney World after being in Senegal for so long.  So I’ll try to get back there at some point soon.  And I had never really considered going on a safari before, but I don’t see how you couldn’t like seeing those animals up close.

And now, I’m back home.  I’ve never really understood the phenomenon of culture shock, so no big problems readjusting, but whatever odd feelings I would have about being home have been somewhat tempered by already having been in a more developed country for the past 10 days.  Our program leaders told us before we left that all we would want to talk about on arrival would be our time in Senegal, but that we should be forgiving to people who don’t have unending interest in what they may see as a somewhat bizarre abroad program.  But I’ve actually had the opposite experience; I’ve mostly wanted to hear what others have been doing, but most have been unwilling to leave the subject of Senegal.  But I can’t complain too much about having to talk about myself extensively, and I’ve appreciated all the interest.

With that I think I’ll come to a close.  Some have suggested that I should continue posting here even though I’m back from abroad, but I have no plans to do so;  I don’t think my economics problem sets are quite as exciting writing material as killing a sheep.  But who knows, maybe that’ll change.  Again, I’d like to thank you for following along.


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. Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: I am here

October 30, 2009

In Wolof, the first question asked when meeting or running into someone is “Nanga def?” which essentially translates to “How are you doing?”  The proper response is “Maangi fi,” or “I am here.”  This seems particularly appropriate given that I am, in fact, now here at my internship site, Ngaye Mekhe. After exchanging parting gifts with my family on Tuesday night — I gave them T-shirts, they gave me doughnuts and chocolate spread — I woke up the next morning at 5:30 to begin the next phase of my time here.  I hauled the entirety of my current belongings to school for our 7 am departure at 7:30 am. (This was still more on time than expected.)  After driving in our bus northeast for a few hours and dropping off Jasper and Lisa, we arrived in Mekhe around midday. Waly threw my bags at me off the top of the bus and left me at my family’s doorstep with a wave and a smile.  (Once again I find myself lying. We actually went to my internship site first to meet my supervisor and chat for a half hour or so about my work, and then I went to see where my friend Trina was staying before being left at my new house after a lengthy introduction from Waly.)

The family has been great. Unlike Trina’s new family and much of the rest of the town, they all speak very good French to complement their Wolof and Pulaar, another local language.  The father, Pa Diop, works for a local microfinance organization (different from mine), and the mother, Ma Sow, just opened a small boutique selling printed fabrics and assorted household items.  Pa Diop has a pretty sober demeanor and gives off a general vibe of seriousness, but after a couple days I would no longer describe him exclusively as such.  He’s very interested in my opinions on American and international politics and loves giving advice to his kids.  In news from the Irrelevant Details Bureau, he’s pretty short.  Ma Sow is not.  She’s unbelievably nice (to be fair, I believe it, but she’s nice nonetheless), and so she calls me “my son” and reminds me from time to time how happy she is that I’m here.  I now have a new Senegalese name, Yoro, which she chose for me within 20 minutes of my arrival.  (It’s a Peul name, since she comes from the Toucouleur ethnic group, which is part of the Peul tribe.)

Then the kids, of which there are nine as of my last count.  Some are children of Pa Diop and Ma Sow, while others are nieces and nephews here for unexplained reasons.  I repeatedly forgot all their names the first day, prompting me finally to pass around a notebook and make them write their names down after many jokes at my expense about my memory.  Save for the 5-year old, Adama, they all speak good French and love talking.  But although Adama is the only one I can’t really communicate with, he’s the one who likes having me there the most.  He ran in the door on the first day when he saw me sitting in front of the TV, and he tends to break into dance in front of me whenever any music is on.  I think he’ll be great for my nascent Wolof abilities, as he often tries to speak to me in Wolof and there are tons of natural translators around the house.  There’s a 19-year old, Demba, who is soft-spoken but quite smart and easy to talk to, and the one I talk to most is 10-year old Cheikh Tidiane, who has endless stories about the past Americans who have stayed with the family.

The house is roughly what I expected, with a few minor differences.  Like most houses here, it’s quite open-air, but most of the house is covered instead of being open to the sky.  The main area is defined by relatively dilapidated concrete flooring and walls, and it includes, of course, a TV set.  I have my own nicely-sized room directly off the main area, and otherwise inside on the first floor there is a boys’ room, a girls’ room, parents’ bedroom, and an unused living room.  (It all sounds bigger than it actually is.)  Then outside is a kitchen, a toilet hole, and a shower.  Finally, the roof is used as a petting zoo for the pet rabbits and pigeons.  The pigeons stay up there, but the rabbits love wandering around the house, often going into my room to hide under the bed.  The kids bring their mattresses up to sleep on the roof with the animals now that the rainy season is done.

I may have made the house sound somewhat simple, but the family is far from poor village folk or anything like that.  There are two computers in the house, one in the parents’ bedroom for Pa Diop to use the internet and the other in the boys’ bedroom for them to play computer games.  We get more TV channels than at my house in Dakar, since there is cable at this house.  And like the Mendy family, everyone speaks French, the parents are well-educated, and the kids aspire to go to college.

More so than the Mendy family, though, the Diops very much engage in the “typical” Senegalese manner of interpersonal interaction.  Every family member who enters the house shakes everyone’s hand upon arrival, so Pa Diop shakes his sons’ and daughters’ hands multiple times daily, which is pretty foreign to me.  A few minutes of every conversation are taken up by greetings, which usually consist of the same question asked multiple times by both parties, with full knowledge of the answer to come.  In French or Wolof:

“How’s it going?”
“It’s going, it’s going.  How’s it going for you?”
“It’s going well.  So how’s it going?”
“It’s going well, it’s going well.  How’s the heat?”
“Oh, it’s going a little, but it’s hot.”
“Yes, it’s always hot here.  And your day?”
“It’s going, it’s going.  Yours?”
“It’s going well.”

And so on, until perhaps you start talking about whatever it is that you wanted to talk about, or the conversation might be over after this exchange.  You are not, under any circumstances, allowed to answer these questions by indicating that something is not going. Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: I heart activities

October 20, 2009

Ok fine I didnt take this one...forgot my camera that dayIn between playing online trivia games in class, organizing my next semester, and thinking about big issues like development (ooooh), I actually do try to do cool things with my time here. Here’s a brief slideshow of my recent activities:

And a bunch of other new pics are up at my site, going back to near the beginning of September. Starting from the top, I went last weekend with the members of the environment class, which I’m auditing, to the Ile de la Madeleine. We took a 20-minute motorboat ride into the ocean west of Dakar and arrived in the lagoon shown above, which looked something out of a deserted island movie set. We were ostensibly there to see some plant species or something, but the swimming in the lagoon was the fun part.

The next day, I took my first surfing lesson at a beach on the north side of Dakar. It was about as hard as you can imagine it would be to stand up and balance on a moving plank in water, but as you can (sort of) see from the picture above, I managed to stand and stay up three or four times over the course of the hour-long lesson. Going back for more this weekend.

Looks better than it ended up, Im sureThen on Tuesday, my friend Sean and I found a golf course on the northwest tip of the city and played a good round of 15 holes after class. (Why else come to Africa than to play golf?) The course was beautiful — right on the ocean, with multiple tee boxes and greens situated on jetties over the water. Wasn’t incredibly well-kept, as the greens played pretty slowly and the fairways were a little rough. But something is briefly right with the world when arms and hips and metal and torque combine to make a tiny ball fly a couple hundred yards, and we’re also not exactly the most discriminating golf connoisseurs about the course we’re playing, so we had a lot of fun.

They made us take caddies, so we made them take pictures

I’m looking forward to a busy last weekend in Dakar before heading out to my internship in Mekhe next weekend. Working on a post further describing my family now that I actually know some interesting stuff about them, and I have plenty of other observations to report, but I figure keeping things simple for once here is worthwhile. So I’ll leave it with that.


Eben: Meals Without Wheels

October 14, 2009

A few weeks ago, during the presession, we took a field trip to the island of Ngor, off the northwest tip of Dakar, to conduct interviews with strangers on the beach on the subject of polygamy.  We were informed that Waly and co. had bought food for our lunch there.  Naturally, given my concept of what a portable lunch should be, I was excited for the possibility of sandwiches and maybe, if we were lucky, some fruit.  My cold-cut dreams were shattered when I was asked to carry a large vat of oil to the bus, which we subsequently carried with us on the small, wet pirogue that took us to the island.  Accompanying that vat were multiple pounds of chicken and uncooked French fries, along with a gas cooker.  We were going to have a normal lunch, field trip be damned.  And we did; Waly’s assistant, Adji, tended the cooker for a couple hours until our communal platters were ready.

And this is the way Senegalese food works.  There are restaurants, sure, and even a few fast-food places, but a real meal is hand-cooked.  And in this process, there are no compromises, no shortcuts, and certainly no need for lessons from Michael Pollan.  A meal is a meal, and it must be cooked in a certain way no matter the location or circumstances.  All of which is somewhat surprising given the way food is actually eaten.  Despite the elaborate tradition that surrounds meals here, people eat quickly and usually without stopping to talk or take a drink.  When you’re done eating, you get up even if others are still working.  After hours of cooking — at my house, a 2:30 pm lunch often gets started around 9 am — the meal is usually done within a 10 or 15 minutes.  Then onto the next meal.

At my house, lunch (which I only eat there on weekends) is the biggest deal of a meal.  The family eats with spoons around a large bowl, as depicted in the picture above of students eating in Sokone.  In many families, the bowl is present but the spoons are not, and people sit on mats around the bowl, rolling balls of rice (or millet) and sauce with their fingers.  (All of this is done with only the right hand, for cultural and hygienic reasons.)  Everyone eats the rice and sauce in the area in front of them, while people break off small pieces of the meat/fish and root vegetables in the middle of the bowl to eat with their rice.  This role is often also played by the woman who did the cooking, in which case she’ll distribute the pieces she breaks off to everyone around the bowl.

On the other end of the spectrum, dinners at my house are casual, less stereotypically traditional affairs, eaten on individual plates at each person’s leisure.  Usually, the kids and I eat around 8:30 with Ester, the youngest daughter of Mère Vitou (she’s probably about 30), and the maids.  Mère Vitou gets a plate in the living room while watching tv, and the rest of the house eats later if at all.  Moving back in the day, breakfast, the least important meal, is a very European affair that is done, as far as I can tell, exactly the same at every house throughout the country.  You get a piece of baguette and some chocolate spread or jam, accompanied by a hot drink (despite the heat) made of whatever powders — coffee, milk, hot chocolate mix, sugar — you want.  The French really sold Dakar citizens short in terms of whatever baguette recipe they taught them, and so I’m generally hungry by the end of my walk to school.  Eating air would at least require less chewing.  Outside of Dakar, though, the bread is great — much heavier, but still soft enough to eat comfortably.

In terms of the food itself (beyond breakfast), I’d love to be able to come back to the States and, like many who have traveled abroad, say that the food here was inconceivably wonderful.  But that would be dishonest.  I generally like the vast majority of what I’ve eaten, but I’ll return home and be perfectly happy to go back to eating the food I have for most of my life.  Most meals consist of a starch, meat or fish, and a dark, heavy sauce.  The starch, as I started to explain above, is either rice or very fine-grained millet during one of the traditional “bowl” meals, and then often it’ll be French fries or pasta for our more casual dinners.  The fish is always served whole and I’m pretty sure is usually herring.  It’s nice, flaky white meat once you get past the fact that the thing you’re eating still has its head on.  The meat is either chicken or beef, although Catholic families do eat pork from time to time.  Regardless of the meat, it’s served on the bone with plenty of fat still on.  In my house, beef is much preferred to chicken, much to my disappointment.  I grew up not really eating red meat, and so I do my best to pick around it here, but I’m essentially required to eat at least a little bit given the rules of hospitality.  The meat is always flavored very heavily with spices ground together with the equivalent of a mortar and pestle, and like most everything else, cooked very slowly over a gas cooker.  Finally, the sauce usually falls into one of two categories: onion-based or not.  The onion-based sauce is very thick, and brown, and delicious.  Reminds me of caramelized onions.  The other types of sauces are a mixture of oil with either tomato, peanut butter, or spinach.  This thick spinach sauce (as shown in the picture above) is about the most you’ll get in the way of green vegetables, as the only other “vegetables” you might get are carrots, potatoes, or white roots whose name I have no idea. Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: Developmentalizationism

October 5, 2009

I do my best to comport myself in ways that make people think I’m not stupid.  A casual visitor of this site, however, might not get that impression.  There are continuous references to development throughout the blog; I wrote a whole post about it before coming to Senegal, for example, and the title of my program (Minnesota Studies in International Development) indicates that I’m here to learn something about it.  It would be easy to conclude from these (and similar) examples that I’m some idiot who thinks that by studying somewhere for five months I can change the world.  I assure you, though, that I am not here to save the world, or Africa, or Senegal, or Dakar, or even to save the whales.  Mostly, I’m here for personal gain.  Aside from the instant credibility I’ll get with white people around the world for having traveled to a developing country, I also think I’m learning a good amount about worthwhile subjects like language, politics, other people’s worldviews, and so on.  (And you think I’m kidding about the first reason.)

But much as I’d like to repudiate the idea that I’m only here to save (or learn how to save) the world, I certainly think that development is one of those worthwhile issues about which I’m learning a good amount.  More so than learning about it in that often funny/ridiculous development class, I’m living it every day.  Every time the owner of a boutique can’t speak French because of a lack of education, for example, I’m affected (although the fact that they even learn French in school is another development issue).  When I cut my foot (which I did in Toubacouta) and my doctor sneezes in his hand before touching my wound, I’m affected.  I’m also affected on the positive side; the lack of electricity in many rural homes, for example, makes for less technology-driven detachment from family and visitors, meaning there’s more time spent talking to people like me.  (That could easily be spun as negative, though; visiting a house with wireless internet would sure be more convenient, and their own lives are negatively affected by a lack of electricity.)  But clearly, it’s hard not to be constantly aware of the challenges and issues involved with living in a country that’s less developed than the one I grew up in.  So I figure that devoting a post to describing some of these observations is worthwhile.

Now, up to this point, I’ve been vague about the word “development,” using it six times in this post in lieu of more directed or specific words.  I think it is used like this so often that it has become more of a buzzword than an actual idea — hence the title of this post.  So what exactly among all of the issues of development do I have the relevant experience to describe?  Most of it, obviously, is anecdotal. But I think being here has given me an understanding of how big a challenge it would be to effect the kind of change necessary to make Senegal appear like a Western country. (It’s obviously fair to question whether this is even good, but this is some people’s definition of being economically developed.) Being here has also given me an idea of how much the country’s economic climate would have to change in order to bring economic transactions in line with the way they work in theory. And being here has shown me the some of the type of development people do consider important, and although I’m sure I could express it all in economic terms, I think that misses some of the point.

My first impression of Senegal regarding development was one of mild surprise.  I knew I was going to a developing country; I expected poverty and infrastructure problems, among others. But numerous sources insisted, before I left, that “Dakar is just like Washington, DC” or something similar. It is not. Sure, there are a bunch of people and some important business buildings and some restaurants and cars and houses and stuff. But there are also goats roaming the streets scattered with trash and concrete rubble. There are no sidewalks, and the roads are often a mix of dirt and sand. There are multiple power outages on a daily basis, halting businesses as well as electric fans guarding against the stifling heat. The pure poverty doesn’t leap out at you in awful ways — there are fewer beggars than I expected, for example — but the differences between Dakar and the cities I know certainly do. There are, of course, many nice areas of the city; Centre Ville, for example, is a nicely developed business district, and the northwestern tip of the city (called Almadies) has expensive restaurants and nightlife on par with most other cities I’ve been to. But this isn’t the impression the city gives most of the time. The majority of the time that my host family tells me that I’m going to a nice neighborhood upon hearing my plans for the day, I’ll arrive to see a good number of people living in gutted houses whose borders are defined only by crumbling cinder blocks.

Equally striking is the scene outside of Dakar. The rural areas I know from my past are different than cities in many ways, certainly, but ultimately I could move to a small town in Iowa and live much the same life as I would in DC. There would be roads, internet, and cable TV (as well as more significant similarities, such as some availability of steady jobs). I could not move to Soucouta, Senegal and expect any of the same things out of life that I could in that small town in Iowa, or that I could in Dakar. Senegalese villages are characterized by thatched-roof huts, no running water, and dirt roads pocked with potholes to the point that cars often just can’t pass through. And this doesn’t really touch on the personal level of life. As was clear in my description of Waly’s family’s house in Karang, there is nothing to do at home. There’s often no communication with the outside world. There’s really nowhere to look for a steady source of income.

Further, as I mentioned above, economic transactions often do not work as they would in a theoretical framework, especially in a rural setting. In the simplest form of theory, one makes as much money for delivering a good or performing a service as that good/service is worth to the entity to/for whom it is delivered/performed. In simpler terms, you should get paid as much as what you’re selling is worth. This seems pretty tautological. But it does not hold here. Poor villagers are forced to get basic training and work as volunteer doctors if their village is to have any medical care. This service is certainly worth more than nothing. On the flip side, villagers with no access to price information can easily become the victims of price gouging by duplicitous fishermen (or simply by fishermen who don’t know the correct prices either due to a similar lack of communication technology). In this fairly well-documented case, the villagers are paying more for the good than it is worth. And so on.  Despite what libertarians would like to think, markets simply do not work by themselves.  This directly hurts both consumers and producers, as these markets don’t clear at either efficient prices or quantities of the products being sold.

In short, turning this into Germany or England or America would require an upheaval of nearly unimaginable proportions. It seems like a horribly futile goal for the near future (not that I’m sure that anyone really thinks it’s possible). The vast majority of roads would have to be paved or repaved; land would need to be cleared; most houses and buildings would need to be torn down and rebuilt; enormous amounts of trash would need to be cleaned from the cities and shorelines; and information technology would need to be instituted at an impossible pace, just to name a few. There is simply no income source for this type of project, nor could the planet really afford it in an environmental sense if it took place on a widespread scale among developing countries. Now, all of the world’s more developed countries were obviously not created rich or successful; they had to go through a long development process, too. But they had the benefit of phenomena like the Industrial Revolution allowing them to essentially create wealth out of thin air. I wish Senegal good luck with Industrial Revolution Part II: The Developing World Strikes Back, but it seems like overly wishful thinking.

I understand that to this point I may have given the impression that Senegal is some sort of hellhole.  It certainly isn’t; I’ve loved my time here, and I think that what I’ve gained in terms of knowledge, friendship, and understanding has far outweighed whatever minimal discomfort I may have experienced due to its state of development. Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: Return from Toubacouta

October 1, 2009

I’ve decided to change things up this time and save my general update for last. As is clear given that I’m posting, we arrived back from Toubacouta safely this past Sunday night after a very nice five-day trip. The hotel was great; the rooms were air-conditioned, and there was a decent-sized swimming pool.   (Unfortunately, the swimming pool and I finished the weekend on bad terms, as I slipped on the side of the pool while playing a game and cut up my foot badly enough to need a doctor and some antibiotics. On the plus side, I did get to see firsthand how a rural doctor’s office works. Not so clean.)  I stayed with Vu (Brandeis) and Sean (Cornell).

Our group was accompanied by five or six University of Dakar students (who originally hailed from the Toubacouta area) throughout our time, which was spent seeing different facets of rural life. We visited two health posts, a tiny health hut in a village, the two microfinance groups mentioned above, and different members of the local political leadership. We also spent an afternoon helping one of the women’s microfinance groups plant mangroves in a swamp area, which eventually and predictably degenerated into a nice round of collective mud-wrestling. And speaking of wrestling, we attended a traditional wrestling event one night (not sure what else to call it other than an event), at which a circle of nearly-naked men danced around until two would fight each other at inexplicable times. The men put large sticks in the ground during their matches in order to ward off spirits, and it’s customary to lie face down while being dragged out of the center of the circle by friends after losing. I figure any reaction I make to this would be taken as pretty insensitive, so I’ll steer clear.

Now that I’m back in Dakar, things have settled back into the same rhythm as before. That rhythm, however, is soon to have another (welcome) disruption; Casimir invited us to stay with his family in Sokone this weekend, which Olivia, Vu, Alex, Rachel, and I will be doing.  Supposed to be some raging Catholic party.  I’ll be sure to report.


Eben: A day in Senegal

September 27, 2009

Sorry for the long time between posts. Some updates:

  • My 6-week internship has now been confirmed; starting October 25, I’ll be in Mekhe, a town of 15,000 about 3 hours northeast of Dakar. I’ll be working in a microfinance institution called Femme Developpement Entreprise en Afrique that gives small loans exclusively to women. (I guess I should translate: Women’s Development Enterprise in Africa. ) Their website is here, but this is the Google-translated version of the site for the non-francophones. More to come on this later.
  • Ramadan is now over, with a big day of celebration (called Korite) having taken place this past Sunday (although it was yesterday for the Mourides, another set of Muslims…depends on when the new moon is first seen or something). Given that my family is Catholic, I spent time collecting invitations for different Korite parties, only to find out that my family just likes to have parties and was having our own. If I had to compare it to a holiday back home, I’d actually say Thanksgiving; although there are a lot of visitors going in and out of houses, the big part of the day is really spent eating with your family. Although maybe I should also compare it to Halloween, since the kids go around asking for money in between meals.
  • I have some more dish on my family after finally having asked a few questions. A couple fascinating teasers: one of the daughters of my host mother/grandmother works at the airport, and another works at the local DHL (which tried to charge me $178 to send my Dad a birthday package…happy birthday, Dad, by the way). I did actually learned plenty of good stuff, which I’ll share in a second post about my family sometime soon.
  • My group of students will be taking a five-day trip starting tomorrow to a town near the edge of the Senegal-Gambia border. There’s a bunch of microenterprise activity there as well as very interesting environmental features, so I think it’s supposed to be some sort of an educational field trip. I’ll be sure to update when I return.
  • In the French-dubbed Indian (as in the country India) soap opera that everyone watches, called Vaidehi, the main character has now tried unsuccessfully to kill his wife and his brother. I’m totally hooked, but I never know when I’ll get my next dose; the last two episodes, inexplicably, took place on a Sunday night and a Thursday night, and shows tend to start at times like 8:26. But somehow, everyone knows when it’ll be on. I’ll keep you posted. (Five seemed like a better number of bullet point updates than four.)

So people have been asking me what I’m up to in Senegal, and my response has tended to be a mix of banal stereotypes about how different life is and some platitudes about how I’m enjoying my host family, or something similar. It hit me at some point that perhaps people would actually like to know what it is that I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. So here’s a timeline account of a typical day. (Every day is somewhat different, but hopefully this gives a good idea of what life is like.) Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: Culture in Senegal

September 15, 2009

I hope that just as interesting as my descriptions of life here are my reactions to it, and so I’d like to take some time out to talk about culture. (I guess this counts as part of my series on life in Dakar…I now realize that I could probably categorize every one of my posts as that, save my ones about trips to Gambia and other similar things.)

So, as I documented in my first post after arriving, time is treated very differently here. Using economic terms, I would say people consider the opportunity cost of the time spent doing something as much less than the Americans I know consider it; in other words, they value their time less than we do. I’ve told that to some Senegalese students I’ve met here, and they’ve all, interestingly, had roughly the same response: “I’ve heard the phrase ‘Time is money’ when reading about American culture,” they say, “and now I finally know what it means.” This different frame of mind here leads to a less action-oriented society; instead, relationships are highlighted (among plenty of other things, to be sure, which I’m still figuring out). Some, it seems, have no problem hanging out for hours, or days, or years, or a lifetime. (I guess it’s also possible that the arrow of causality runs the other way — that the less action-oriented mindset leads to a more lax conception of time — but I don’t think the difference really matters for this.)

(Of course, this is all a horrible generalization. There are plenty of people with the same sort of ambition as a Wharton student, for example, who would dispute that I think their life has no “purpose” in the American sense of the word. But I would make the case that from an aggregate point of view, rather than the point of view of individual people, what I’m saying has some credibility, although I guess it’s also possible that I just have everything wrong.)

These differences, I think, lead to two different ways of seeing the arc of a person’s life. The (average) American manner of thought is, roughly, that life has the capacity to constantly improve, and that a person actualizes this possible transformation through hard work and a little bit of good luck. The (average) Senegalese viewpoint, from what I’ve seen, is different in that there’s less emphasis on possible improvement and more acceptance that the way a person’s life goes will ultimately be pretty constant.

So I’ve been considering this difference. And my conclusion, in relatively blunt terms, is that perhaps the people here have got something right. Let me explain by saying, first, that I love the teleological American viewpoint that our lives are leading to somewhere tangible. I think it leads to a lifelong optimism that tomorrow could be different, that life could change for the better at any time as long as we keep working at it. And I don’t see myself changing that viewpoint anytime soon because it leads to a constant sense of hope about what’s ahead. But perhaps it’s just a worthwhile illusion to maintain. In reality, I think there are a lot more people who spend entirely unremarkable lives in the same place they were born than there are people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and create a new reality for themselves. To be a little morbid, most people’s gravestones, frankly, should read, “Born, Lived, and Died.” In that way, I think the view that I’ve encountered here — that although there will certainly be some surprises, life is ultimately pretty predictable – may be closer to how things usually end up working out. There’s also, of course, the possibility of the two different mindsets actually leading to two separate realities about the way life works out, but that becomes a tougher issue to deal with than I’m willing to do while sitting at this cyber cafe. So that’s all I’ve got.


Eben: To Gambia and Back

September 9, 2009

I guess it should technically be To The Gambia and back.  Anyway, as you can tell from the title, I am in fact back, and now have a horribly long blog post to show for it.  The 20 other kids in my group (the ones who didn’t do the presession) have now arrived, making our group complete with a round 29.  Our program’s orientation is now done, and classes start tomorrow.  I doubt I’ll devote a post just to describing the other members of my group, but hopefully our character becomes somewhat clear in the course of tangential references to people.  If not, and you happen to have a fascination with in-depth descriptions of generally similar college-aged kids, please let me know and I’ll change tack.

The following is a travel diary of sorts (in present tense!) of what transpired over the course of my five-day trip to The Gambia.  This is The Gambia (the one with Banjul starred):


I wasn’t planning on doing this so that I could continue with my series of posts on Dakar, but the trip was pretty interesting and so I decided to try my hand at a travel log.  There are a bunch of pictures of my trip relevant to the account here (as well as some pictures from our group’s subsequent trip to Goree Island, an island off Dakar that was central to the slave trade for centuries).  I’ve also uploaded a few pictures to this post, making it take up huge amounts of space in your mailbox if you get my emails.  So here’s the journey:

Wednesday, August 26

  • 7:00 am — I wake up with a horrible head-cold, which feels eerily similar to the ones I get back at home.  And I thought everything here was supposed to be different.
  • 2:00 pm — Having finished our last presession class, my three companions (Olivia Snarsky, from the University of Illinois; Alex Kutac, a girl from University of the Pacific; and Jon Fischer, from the University of Minnesota) and I go to the Garage Pompier, Dakar’s main transportation hub.  It’s a parking lot with thousands of generally decrepit Peugeot 505 station wagons (referred to as sept-places, or seven-places, since they fit the driver and seven people) going every direction.  After three men try to trick us into paying too much, Waly (our program director) somehow shows up out of the blue and tells us we’re in the wrong place.  He has an uncanny ability to do that.  We meet a friend of Waly’s, who puts us in a sept-place headed to Banjul, Gambia.  We leave at about 3:30.
  • 8 pm — The driver takes a two-minute stop in Sokone to tune the car up.   In that time, our Senegalese university friend Casimir (the one who killed the pig) runs and manages to find our car.  We say hello and goodbye.
  • 9:15 pm — Our first bathroom break comes a good six hours after we leave, and it’s at the house we’re staying at for the night.  I guess maybe it’s easier to sit in a tiny car spot having to go to the bathroom for six hours if you’re fasting for Ramadan and thus not drinking anything, which the other car members were doing, but for the rest of us it could be described as torture.  (The driver didn’t speak any French in order to be instructed to stop, and the car wasn’t equipped with empty bottles.)  Anyway, we get off  at the last village in Senegal before the border, Karang, in order to stay the night with Waly’s family.  Waly’s wife Amy is there on vacation, and she picks us up on the side of the road.  We go on a toubab parade (toubab=white person) through Karang, down a long dirt road, and get to the Faye family compound, where Waly grew up.  The compound consists of a big front yard with an outdoor bucket-shower area, a house with four rooms and not one piece of furniture that I see, and a toilet-hole in back.  A couple of Waly’s younger brothers are there, along with his mother, who doesn’t speak more than a few words of French but is very nice.  (Actually, how would I know?  I can’t even talk to her.)  We sit outside under the stars talking to Amy, while the Mosque down the road blares prayer over a microphone throughout the night.  The Arabic songs are particularly dystopian, not for what they might be saying (again, how would I know?) but how it sounds.  After a good dinner around a communal bowl, the four of us go to bed.  We have two rooms, each with one mattress and nothing else other than our bags. Read the rest of this entry ?
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