Archive for the ‘Russell in Senegal’ Category


Russell: Internship at Africulturebane

November 20, 2010

I have begun a regular daily commute to a new flavor of Dakar for the internship phase of my program. Rather than tasting the feigned racial acceptance of “N’ice Cream” or the saturated donuts fried on this morning’s fresh propane tank, I will be working in one of the [outer] suburbs of the city, Pikine. It is here where poverty and ambition butt chests and become one of the rare cartiers of Dakar to vote against Wade as president, where the innovation of the business’s avoidance of the use of electricity determines its success, whereat exists the most vibrant rap and hip-hop youth movement on the continent. It’s where the graffiti is not vandalism but instead a force of community activation. It’s where people will gladly take your money, but would never think of taking your dignity.

My first day, I got into Pikine about an hour early. I thought that maybe I’d explore a little bit, but all too soon I was reminded of what everyone told me about Pikine. I went to the nearest gas station to find a toilet, and I was directed to the back. A police officer saw me searching so he helped me find them. He wondered where I was from, as everyone does, and we exchanged names. Then, he smiled and asked me for a little money. I said why? I’m a student, I don’t have much. His smile faded as he showed me off. After that, I thought it would be better to simply go to my facility and wait somewhere in there for my supervisor.

The facility is a 4-story open walkway white building with chipping paint and muddy stairwells. Paintings and graffiti decorate the halls, and posters of musicians and community events are found on most of the weathered doors. The office of Africulturbane is a veiled room divided into sections by cubicle-like walls, to give the illusion of privacy. The head of the movement is a famous and successful rapper called “Matador”. He is a vibrant activist and hip-hop artist, but until he returns from France, I’m under the auspices of the other supervisors who are there.

The plan, if it stays similar, is for me to get acquainted with the facility a little more and then begin production in the studio. Because of my musical experience, they’re going to have me produce 10 studio sessions in 6 weeks. Some will simply involve putting beats and music behind vocals and raps that just need a few minutes to lay down. But some will require more time, both in pre and in post, from helping with empowering the writing process to running promotion and marketing all over the internet. I might even get the chance to engineer and produce a small festival at the center. This is all working out a little too well for my immediate comfort, so I’ll keep you updated as all of it falls apart…

I’ll also spend some days working for and helping out with other programs at the center. Unfortunately I don’t know too much about them yet, but I had a meeting with the organizer of the youth education program, which runs activities and small educative programs on health, schooling, and development. The organizer is named Habib, and he is 17 years old. He is still a high school student, but tries to go to the center as often as possible to help out and host programs for kids in the community. All the work is volunteered. He held himself like an adult businessperson who was obliged to involve me in any way possible and give to me his time and effort, and he is my little brother’s age. My brother can afford the time to spend at home preparing rigorous applications to the best universities in the world, but Habib cannot, so he awaits going to the 60,000-person public school and volunteers at this remote cultural complex. His age is not an externality; it makes me all the more honored to know him, let alone work with and for him.

So far, I have become acquainted very slowly with the people and the facility. There are a lot of names to remember, but ndank ndank, baax na. Most of the people who run Africulturban are men, and when the electricity went out, we just sat outside downstairs and made tea and talked. Well, they talked. They all speak French but don’t ever use it, so I’m sure my wolof will improve at an exponential rate very soon. That or I won’t understand a flying flit of what goes on between them, but that’s cool too, since all I needed to do for people to high five me was start singing “Feelin’ Good” by Nina Simone when someone mentioned her name while listening to his aged ipod. It serves as a great reminder of a clause we all know and some believe, displayed on a mural that was painted on one of the outer walls of the facility. I saw it while exploring on my own. It was a beautiful graffiti calligraphy of the word “Pikine”, and at the bottom it said “musique, language, universel”.

The opportunities that this internship afford me are endless, and depend on my character, ambitions, and abilities. Worst case scenario: I underperform in the activities designated to me but I have a great facility on which to do research and report. Best case: I make connections in the underground hip-hop community of Dakar, produce 20 or so songs, learn two new software programs, expand the online networking base of the cultural center and local artists, inspire the youth in the hip-hop / rap movement, console the distressed communities of students in the outer suburb of Pikine, and attend a concert or two, or ten, with the tintinnabulation of my newfound wisdom putting a spring in my every sandy step.


Russell: On a breezy roof

November 15, 2010

It’s easy to feel drunk on a breezy roof in Senegal. For one, I’ve actually gotten drunk on my breezy roof several times, particularly recently (slash right now). But I also am starting to feel more comfortable here, and therefore more myself. I already take comfort in discomfort, so the fact that the heart through which skin-traversing blood is pumped is warming up a bit reminds me of what it feels like to make a new friend that you are immediately attracted to. Then, after a few months with this person, the two of you are clicking like mice on Rhunescape.

Not that by “clicking” I would have thought I’d be drinking with Germans on the roof. Yes, I said Germans; see there is this lovely German couple staying in the house. They plan to be in Senegal for a while, at least 5 weeks spent in the house, and we’ve definitely hit it off. They’re older and more traveled, but I’m able to help with them with their initial experiences and encounters here so we have a great relationship. And, since I’m in a serendipitous state of mind for languages, I’ve started learning as much German as I can from them, with my only practice opportunities occurring on the spacious, desolate rooftop of my sultry Senegalese abode. It’s a difficult language. In any case, I’ve doubtlessly been spending too much time sipping wine over gedankenexperiments with them in the later hours of the evening than is necessitated for me. I have so many big plans, and so many little things to do in preparation for them, I wonder if I can do it all. Not an unfamiliar pose for me.

For example, I’ve mentioned writing an album while here? I’ve written a lot of songs, but they’re of the quality where I pretty much need to write 1,000 if I hope to have 20 good ones at the end of my trip. Bad news: I haven’t written 1,000. Good news: I am overflowing with so many feelings while here that I don’t have to “get myself in a certain mood” or something like that to write a song; instead, it POURS out of me. I will write it in FIVE minutes, not 500. And then I can edit, or n’importe de quoi else. Or just let it sit in a cluttered mal-titled folder in the duldrums of the larger folder called “art”. I guess art can get pretty dusty over time, but it’s much more troublesome that art can be created in a dusty manner.

One thing’s for sure: the Senegalese-made songs that artists profess from their post-modern television posts and mid-crunched radio waves are anything but dusty. They are polished and poised, gorgeous and galvanized, and the reason is clear: they have a localized purpose. Virtually all Senegalese music I have heard is about, well, Senegal. Music is the opium of its spirit. More music feeds a raging musical fire. In the States, music just tries to get in the way of OTHER music. If they’re not listening to mine, they’re listening to someone else’s—what can I do to fix that?

No, here in Senegal, everyone LOVES every morsel they munch, and every song paves a little bit of road for another groundbreaking beat and musical experience. Singers sing about what it’s like to be truly Senegalese, or the differences in the quality of life in different places in the country. Rappers confront issues like globalization and the ironies of welcoming Western “comforts” into a society that is not yet comfortable with them. Hip hop artists seek refuge in simple yet powerful combinations of sounds that are often inspired by the pots and pans on which their mothers drummed long ago. Oh, and of course, everyone loves their mother. All is clean. All is pure. All is wildly energetic.

That doesn’t mean all is positive. (For more on the positives and negatives, check the brilliant artistry of Awadi; I went to his concert the other night and it was a vibrant spectacle of charged ideas and spiritual renewal.) Anyway, the musical tide is just like the aforementioned dancing; dancing is part of your identity, and if you don’t fit in, you don’t fit in. Hence my hard-lining hesitation at being offered to perform with a friend’s band. We joked about the idea many weeks ago, but I haven’t called them back, because for all the glory in such an experience, I can’t just walk on stages and say “Nangeendef. Maangi tudd Russell, ak DUMAY SON!!! Suleen beggee fecc, dafa yoon bi. Mesuma gis concert bu nekk fu waa yii. Demal!” I am a foreigner with a prestidigitized hemidemisemiquaver fetish. Maybe if I had a plight that they could relate to, it would be different. After all, I tell people all the time that “je connais bien le sort du peuple colonise ici au Sénégal, mais je suis venu au Sénégal pour être colonisé par VOUS!” So while I understand them, I am at the same time a powerfully visible symbol of that which has invaded their lives, harrowing their consciousness and deepening the well-decorated hole in which and from which they often question their existence. Maybe I’ll perform anyway, I don’t know. I wrote a lame song last night called “Senegal”, maybe it’ll fly…

Ok, off to new topics. We began talking about my new comforts. I’m finding more comfort in my family life as well. Just a few short days ago, I was eating dinner in the gentle confinement of a plastic lawn chair in the hallway called the public area, and the daily newspaper inspired a few exclamatory musings by Maman Elysa. She began a familiar rant about the countless faults of the president and his regime. After all, politics in Senegal are as exciting as they are helpless—what the president says goes (ce que le president dit va). I may preach about how American congressional politics have hit an all time low, but I remain an idealistic combatant of machiavellianism, and the thought that complaining is all that Senegalese society can do to fight corrupt policies and hold politicians accountable just doesn’t sit well in my recently-strengthened African stomach. The discussion proceeded with me making gradually less humble interjections regarding what problems really existed in Senegal’s political climate. A half hour later, I was pacing the room, bissap in hand, my voice raised and soaring over the whimpering cats outside and the seared neighborhood televisions. I told them that if the Senegalese are as strong as they say, and the price of food and propane gas is increasing by the day, then don’t buy it, and see what happens. They asked why on Allah’s packed dirt they would do such a thing. I said Wade’s power rests with the population’s dependency on his feeble and predictably thoughtless failures. She said well, yes, but then we wouldn’t have as much food or gas with which to cook it.

So what am I supposed to say? Do I say, “I know, but let’s be real, when have you ever?” Does it cross my mouth to foolishly exclaim “Sure you will, you’ll just have less?” Might I ask, “How badly do you want these problems to be fixed? Big solutions come out of big problems.” Or maybe I shouldn’t take a risk at all, and instead sit down and take my place in the home, as a participant observer, young for his thoughts and immature for his mind, small for his age and too excitable for his ability.

I told the family that where I am from, you can’t just rally around an economic cause and ‘take action’, so to speak. Action is by American definition a slow, careful, well-anticipated process, even at the grassroots level. But I said that in Senegal, Wade doesn’t have control over you. Wade and his plenipotentiary son don’t control the economy, nor what people buy, nor what people think. If everyone in Dakar stopped buying tanks of propane gas for two days, Wade would lose his state contract with SAR, the one and only large petrol and energy importer/refinery in Senegal. If he does that, not only will his people not have gas or electricity, but neither will he, and that just won’t do. If Wade wanted to, in some crazy circumstance, keep this contract as a large shareholder of SAR, he would have to tell his son, a minister of 6 government agencies including energy, to change SENELEC’s energy prices to fit the demands of the Senegalese. Read the rest of this entry ?


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… Read the rest of this entry ?


Russell: T-shirts & peanut butter

September 24, 2010

Yesterday, I went on a small adventure to pick up a package sent by my parents. I hopped in a cab to la poste de Medina, what I hoped to be my final destination. The wheels of the rickety taxi waned to and fro on the corniche, as the cloudless sky rained heat onto the stranger and me. When we reached our destination I was in a world of my own and had not noticed the post office on my direct left, so the driver asked if this was good, and I responded oui, c’est bon. I sat outside the building eating my peanuts and Parisiene baguette. People passed by me, investing countless glances just to see if I was worth the conversation about what they were selling. I popped peanuts in my mouth, the product of their labor, while they looked to me for more business. The relationship was very clear. Did this mean that the relationship won’t change?

I then went into the office. I didn’t notice at first, but it was lit dimly. I sat down feeling timid but looking French. After 10 minutes, I asked a woman next to me what’s going on, as no employees were at any windows in the foyer. I quickly learned that she only spoke Wolof. I was able to say that I’m in the process of learning Wolof, but don’t really understand enough to talk. She smiled warmly, tried a few times to explain things to me, and after I failed miserably to understand I motioned with my hand and retreated to my phone to call my mother back. As I sat speaking with her in boisterous English, the office slowly filled with other frowning unknowns seeking some kind of help. It would be difficult even for a local to truly summarize the variety of possible requests seated in the office, jailed to their hard chairs by obligatory patience. After speaking to mother, I stood and tried for the nearest worker behind the windows, showing him the package receipt I had and mumbling something that I hoped was intelligible French. He quickly retorted something I couldn’t understand. After asking what I would say to a taxi driver so I could get wherever I was supposed to go, a man seated near me interjected and explained where I needed to go, within walking distance.

I took to the streets happily, enjoying the sights as I went. The Grand Mosque of Dakar is one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen since arriving. It is huge, prismic, and washed with the colors of green and white. In my diminutive glory, I reached the quite obvious “poste centrale” de Dakar, and hesitatingly went inside.

If I were a television director, this is when I would begin the SNL sketch. I kid not. This is my attempt at a Dave-Barry-like take on my experience of retrieving my package.

A police officer immediately saw my paper and directed me to the set of windows down the hall. I got there, sat down, and was hastily told to stand up and go to the window that was available. Whoops. The man looked at me, looked at my paper, asked if it was my name, I said yes, and then handed him my international ID card. He said “do you really not have your passport?” and I followed with “I may be a silly white person, but if I had my passport I would have handed it to you,” to which he responded “good point, but you should really have your passport for something bureaucratic like this” and I admitted “yeah, I really should, but I just got legalized copies and forgot them at my school, the information for which is on the card you’re holding” to which he finally agreed “yeah, I guess this is you, and it’s not like a rocky conversation with you about where your passport is would be any easier than just putting my dumb little stamp by your name on this list I just spent 11 minutes sorting through papers to find.”

After taking my first paper, the man gave me three more and sent me around his window to a set of desks and offices. I had no idea where to go, so I just stood there until a nice man pointed me to one of the back offices. There, I got the top of my 3 papers stamped, and was sent to the desk of the other nice man. He looked at my packet, nodded, put a tiny mark in a corner with his pen, and sent me to a room next to this one, which connected to a small warehouse. Read the rest of this entry ?


Russell: I second that emotion

September 12, 2010

Let me tell you what I’m about to do.
I only write to you because I’ve called all my Mermoz buddies and they can’t come with me, so maybe you can be my consultant? See my only Senegalese friend is Olivier, my host cousin who lives down the road. He’s my age, which is cool because I don’t experience that at home. Anyway, the other day we were drinking some brewskies and talking about musical tastes and scene around here, and I told him to mention to me the next time he was going out. Turns out there’s a concert tonight! It’s Wednesday, a school night obviously, and I have a paper due Friday that I’ve only half finished. None of my American friends can go, so it’s just me, Olivier and his friends (some of whom I met the other day). We’re going to a club in the middle of Dakar. They stay up really late here. Bring it on.

Things I learned from last night:

  • People know how to move.
  • In America, people laugh at me because they suck. In Senegal, people laugh at me because I suck.
  • Dancing is almost a universal language, but it’s not quite there.
  • Racism exists everywhere, in everyone.

I am silly emotional. When I say that, I mean I’m emotionally silly, emotional to a degree of being silly, and silly when I’m emotional. Relevance: I’m emotional a lot here; c’est a cause d’etre en train de sejourner dans un atre pays… Most of the other toubabs I’m with are also emotional, because of their health or actual legitimate problems. The times I’ve cried have been…

  1. while reading the first chapter of a book on Senegal’s debt
  2. When we had a class discussion about 9/11 at school. Some of the things the program director said were beautiful and eloquent and I couldn’t take the juxtaposition between his perspective and that of this Florida reverend dude
  3. Just now, when my brother texted me that he completed his first college application

These are major for me. ug. anyway, I thought in my emotionality I’d recount the past few days and post a picture of a kitty for you. See, I was totally pushing this cat away from me while I was out for food and a beer on an outside patio the other day because it was begging incessantly. Then, I noticed she had swollen nipples, and therefore probably had kittens. We may care about the world’s birth rate and want it to decrease, but at the same time, it’s our job to watch out for infant mortality rates also. The cat enjoyed a good portion of my pizza.


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. Read the rest of this entry ?


Russell: Flowcharts in Mermoz

September 4, 2010

I am stressed out, confused, and tired. Funny thing is, I’m not physically tired at all. I’ve been really on top of staying healthy in terms of sleep, hydration, and sanitation. But being here is exhausting in many other ways. There is a certain amount of that struggle that “getting used to things” will alleviate. But after being here for 5 days, I think that a large amount of that exhaustion is actually part of life here. One of the domestiques a ma maison, qui s’appelle, Nina, was sitting with her head in her hands this afternoon when I came home. Knowing the amount of responsibility she has, especially after a really raining morning like this one, would make her fatigue understandable. The confusing thing is…she does this every day. And not only that, she’s probably done this every day for her entire life. To show physical exhaustion like that on a day like this, which was rainy but not apocalyptic, blew my mind. Life must actually be as hard as it’s seeming to me—you can’t just get used to things. It’s the little things in life that are difficult and then turn into flaming hellfire encompassing bigger difficulties. They’re constant and persistent and frustrating and make you feel helpless. There is nothing that makes that pain go away.

Even in my short time here, I have found a completely new sense of purpose in studying development. My passion was extensive before, and it remains that way, but I now have opaque blinders on me, and they guide me only to the plight of people. Political pondering is nothing but an obstacle. I still believe in politics, but only because it takes political action to conquer the status quo. The very disciplines of political and social sciences have become an obstacle to simply fixing things. I mean think about it. When you struggle to keep water flowing to your household because pipes are exposed to vandals that pillage just 2 miles away because they want to be rowdy in the cleanest area because the city is dirty and dangerous because not enough planning goes into developing physical infrastructure because contractors have to rush projects in order to make a living because business owners need money for their families right away because their medical expenses are off the charts because their children keep getting diarrhea because they aren’t using sanitary water sources because they can’t get water to flow properly to their household,

…life just sucks. And hey, I got more:

• Bad/inconsistent water –> pipes exposed to vandals –> urban abuse –> fast development –> unsupported/unregulated business –> household poverty –> high costs and poor medical care –> water-borne diseases –> bad/inconsistent water
• Caste system –> certain roles to fulfill in society –> a universal desire to show off one’s physical or cultural wealth –> building houses bigger than your financial and familial means –> being in need of help to take care of basic daily chores and tasks –> housing maid(s) –> becoming lazy –> abusing relationships –> creating a culture of abusing power –> halting social immobility –> caste system
• Religious government –> strong religious majority –> temptation to bypass constitutional precedents –> centralized disrespect for the law –> legislative stagnation –> decentralized disrespect for the law –> more crime and instability –> higher enforcement costs –> advantaged majority –> religious government
• Bugs –> f-ing bugs –> f-ing bugs everywhere

There’s little you can do. Neither is there something for any one individual of the agents involved in this network to do. Either everyone must act, or a higher authority must. And both can be successful, but the problems have to be hit where it hurts. Normally, the most painful spot is right in the middle of these networked maps:
• unsupported/unregulated business
• building houses bigger than your financial and familial means
• centralized disrespect for the law
• f-ing bugs
These hurt because it sucks for everyone to admit the necessity of doing something. No ordinary citizen wants their tax money spent on politicians arguing about some random business near the airport, and neither does that business owner. No person wants to admit that you can’t have a house bigger than his/her neighbor’s, and neither does the builder being paid to construct it. No politician wants to be held accountable to a constitution that they might not agree with that much, because it was drafted under the table by a colonial power. And f-ing bugs. But these things must be dealt with, in the most direct way possible.

I’m not here to change the world, nor Africa, nor Senegal, nor Dakar, nor Mermoz or anywhere else, I promise. I’m just going to keep accumulating perspectives on these and other problems. Maybe in shouldering some of the frustration, pain, poverty, and sadness that strikes people like my maid, Nina, I am, in fact, changing something.

To stray from that poetic statement, I’m also changing the world because I take care of Bebe Verain quand il pleut. That’s one very good thing. This is just about the cutest and most beautiful baby anyone will ever see. And don’t worry, you’ll see him.


Russell: Things I’ve learned

September 3, 2010

I have way more shit than these people. I call it shit because, honestly, when I’m here, it is all shit. It’s not that I am learning that object possession is way less meaningful than I originally thought; it’s that it all has a context. If I don’t have electricity to plug my computer into… of what real use is it? That’s an extreme example I guess… but what about clothing? I’m going to sweat through everything I wear, and so is everybody else. Why would I have the most stylish, expensive clothing? It wouldn’t be showing anything off, not even wealth, because I’d be changing it all the time or degrading it by wearing it. In other words, what I am finding by living in Senegal only for a few days is that material possession would mean a lot more to the local population if certain infrastructural changes were made, or if certain realities didn’t exist. But the realities do exist, and the changes are being made too slowly for me to witness a cultural impact in just a 3.5 month period.

This reminds me of something that always fascinated me about developing countries when studying in school: no matter how low the GDP per capita or what the poverty rate is, everyone purchases alcohol, attends festivals, plans extravagant parties for important occasions, smokes and drinks moderately, etc. Even if people are making less than a dollar a day? Yes. They do. I didn’t know the reason (I mean I guess I still don’t entirely, but I can make a good guess now; why else would I be typing this?) I thought it was just because celebration is a universally important and fun thing, and it takes a disproportionate amount of importance in societies who have less. But then I realized that it may be much simpler than that.

When I want to have fun with friends, I can go drink with them. But drinking with friends is essentially for exactly that—drinking with friends, not for doing business (well…most of the time), or working hard, or purely for the sake of getting out of the house or something. It’s a specific activity for a specific desire. But that’s the case because when I have a different specific desire, like learning more about the people I’m interested in, I go on facebook. That’s also specific, and it caters to a different desire, and in itself constitutes a different context for satisfying my desires.

In Senegal, my brother LouLou doesn’t have facebook, and doesn’t often go on his wife’s computer for any reason other than to look up exchange rates, so there are in fact many more desires and specific thoughts that could lead to going out and drinking with friends than there are for me. In fact, when LouLou wants to meet someone new and get better acquainted, get out of the house to avoid maman’s traditional ranting, have fun in general, or a whole host of other things, he goes out to drink with friends. Hence him bringing me along—it’s all in the context. There is nothing profound about the answer to my aforementioned question; it’s just all about context.

Like how people I meet will avoid speaking to me in length if I suck at communicating, and they will eventually learn to dislike me. Man I am exhausted from thinking. I don’t want to complain, but it is difficult experiencing a new culture, learning directions to and from the places I [need to] go, meeting my American peers and 3 days later needing each other to lean on, staying on my guard physically and mentally, and keeping up with school material, all while learning the two languages in which all of that mess is communicated. Just like a hormonal teenager, I want all the riches of home, but also have a hearty taste for being elsewhere. Likewise, here I am, in “elsewhere,” but it is now called “home,” and I have a hearty taste for being back in Southern California. It won’t go away, and it also won’t get in my way of learning, experiencing, and loving this beautiful place. It’s only a taste for it. Just because Taylor always has an inkling for some good ole’ Tilamook cheddar in front of her, doesn’t mean she always needs it or really wants it, and just because Evan is a metalhead, doesn’t mean he can’t groove to Stanley Jordan.


Russell: Arrival in Senegal

September 1, 2010

It wouldn’t be a trip to a foreign country without a costly mistake during moment #1.

Upon arriving to l’Aeroport Leopold S. Senghor au Dakar on August 30, my peers and I rode a shuttle to customs and baggage. There were many people around the baggage claim, including some men to which some new friends were conversing. When I came over, made friendly conversation (road-testing my French), I spotted my baggage and began taking it off the belt. Once I conquered the immediate struggle of lifting the ungodly amount of belongings I apported to the Western East, the [nice] man offered a cart, and quite physically placed it within reach. I put the baggage on the cart, and helped my friend Natalie put hers there as well. Once the cart was full, the man began guiding us through the rest of security/customs, seemingly helping us. Our compliance triggered a mass of similar men following our group like vultures, “helping” us when they could. They didn’t succeed extensively, but my vulnerability-gone-idiocy caused the pack to follow our now-formed-and-aware-of-Russell’s-idiocy MSID group. We walked briskly, following a different man who had now explained what was happening. He made subtle hints at what I needed to do to end the barrage, and I ended the 10-minute first encounter $62 poorer. What was an unusually anxious voyage to begin with turned into the most nerve-racking experience of my life. Everything was fine, and I was well supervised and safe, but the uncertainty of what was going on and how to deal with it gave me a fright that I tried to house in my gut.

We spent the day with our supervisors and peers at a beautiful shared home overlooking the ocean neighborhood. There was a lot of eating, talking, relaxing, fanning, and learning. Besides going to the beach itself and interacting with some local children, the highlight of the day was a long discussion on cultural survival in Senegal led by the organizers Waly, Korka, Adji, Honorine, et Prof. Sene (I honestly don’t know how long it went because too much of my brain space was reserved for understanding the fast French and learning the cultural details they were describing).

To try to describe the differences between the United States and this place would be not only pointless, but irrelevant. The point is that it is more different than anywhere else I’ve been, and that’s enough to keep me busy for a while. Hopefully you can get a feel for these small albeit complicated details through other anecdotes I relate and post about.

%d bloggers like this: