[Disclaimer: Below is a list of observations I have made regarding life in Senegal as I see and interpret it. In no way is it meant to reflect everyone’s life nor their view of life in Senegal.]
There is an enormous gap in education levels among people here. For example, my mom, Suckeye, never went to school and is illiterate. Most of the children here go to school, but that’s because Kayemor is a “wealthier” village (it’s all a matter of perspective since they would still be considered extremely poor in the states) – and because we actually have a school (children come from all the surrounding villages to go to school here). A couple weeks ago I met a man who studied at the university in Dakar and at a university in Brazil, knows several languages, has travelled around South America and Europe a bit – and now lives in Nioro and works with women who are largely illiterate, never went to school, and have never even been to Dakar let alone another country (besides maybe the Gambia since we’re so close to it). While we have a similar gap in the US, it isn’t as extreme as here. The average American can read and write, knows generally about the world (ex. how many continents there are, that the ocean is salty, what snow and sand are), can do basic math, has general knowledge about the human body and other animals, can name a handful of famous people (other than just Barack Obama) and what they’re famous for, and knows generally about current events and what’s going on in the world. I’m not sure if the average Senegalese person could do these things – certainly if they’ve had anything beyond a primary school education they could, but many people (especially adult women right now – since widespread education is still in the process of spreading to the rural areas and there has been less of an emphasis on educating women in the past) haven’t even had that and it can make life much more challenging for these people for many reasons. For example, Suckeye has a cell phone but since she can’t read, she can’t save anyone’s number in her phone (I’ve saved other peoples numbers in her phone for her several times already – though that’s often largely useless since she usually ends up memorizing the numbers because she can’t read the names of the people in her address book…) or set the alarm on her phone if she, for example, wants to get up really early (like 5 am) to cook the millet so she doesn’t have to do it when it’s hot during the day. Also, when I’ve pointed at various places on the world map in my room (ex. Minnesota is where my parents and brother and his fiancée live, while Colorado is where my sister lives; and Europe is north and east of Senegal), she doesn’t really understand. I’m not sure if anyone has ever explained to her what the world is like, but maybe when my Wolof is better I will be able to.
Students here have a much more casual relationship with their teachers here. I say this slightly hesitantly, because I’m sure it’s not always the case and I’m not sure “casual” is the right word, but I’ve noticed it in several different aspects and scenarios, which I will try to explain. First, for example, my friend Yassa washes her French teacher’s clothes. This would be strange in the States because men do laundry there, but here men generally don’t wash clothes (they know how to, but it is part of the women’s job to do laundry, so if a man isn’t married yet but not living at home or with other family members, he finds some other girl/woman to do his laundry – and in this case, it’s Yassa, one of his students, whom he pays to wash his clothes). (I was glad to find out that he pays her because it’s hard work and takes a long time – all morning, or longer if she’s washing her own clothes and the clothes of other people in her family, too). I went with Yassa to go get his clothes one evening, and when we got to his room (he lives at the peñc mi, which translates as “public place”, along with many other teachers – so that means that it is one large compound with several buildings that consist of a row of rooms that act as bedrooms, living rooms, etc. with a door out to the central area of the compound) he was in the middle of praying, so we just went into his room and sat down on his bed and waited for him to finish. Then when we were done we had a nice conversation about me and my work here, and what I used to do in the States, and other stuff like that before Yassa’s teacher gathered up his clothes, wrapped them in a big towel (which I carried on my head back to Yassa’s house because I wanted to help out), and gave money to Yassa.
Another evening I went with Yassa to invite the doctor at the hospital in Kayemor over for lunch the next day because he was interested in getting to know me and learn more about my work here [this isn’t creepy like it kind of sounds – it is not uncommon here at all for people to be invited over or to just go to someone else’s house for the day to sit and eat lunch and drink tea and talk], but when we got to his house, we learned he was traveling for several days so we couldn’t talk with him. Instead, though, Yassa’s math and biology teacher was there reading and watching TV along with another young man, so we stayed and talked for quite a while about lots of different things. While Yassa may not have normally stayed there and chatted for such a long time with her teachers if I hadn’t been there, the thing I find most interesting is that it’s not uncommon or strange for her to sit and chat with her teachers outside of school in their homes or other places. This is just an extension of the fact that community is such an important and ever-present aspect of life here. Students are often related to their teachers (even if very remotely, it still counts) and interact with their teachers in many ways outside of class because the community is so small (by American standards). I guess this is probably very similar to life in a small rural town in the States, though I still think the emphasis on community here is more prevalent than even in a small town in the US. I wish I could have spent more time with my teachers growing up. I continue to keep in touch with several teachers (from elementary school, middle school, high school, and college) and I am still learning from them. As children and young adults I think we tend to greatly under-appreciate the wealth of knowledge, guidance, and direction teachers can offer if we are willing to be open to them and have the opportunity to learn from them not only in the classroom but outside the classroom as well. [I refrained from saying “out in the real world” because I think the classroom is the real world – it certainly has been real to me for the past 19+ years I’ve spent in a classroom.] Anyway, I’m not sure if students here take advantage of this opportunity to interact with and learn from their teachers outside the classroom, but at least it is easier for them to do so here than it usually is in the US. And not only can students learn from their teachers, but teachers can learn from their students – about what life is like for them now (because invariably it is different from when they were growing up, no matter how young the teacher is), what activities they’re involved in, what their families are like, what they like and dislike, what they think about school/the town/the world/life, etc. etc.
The topic of community is so important I think it deserves its own section. I’m not sure the best way to go about talking about it, so I’ll just give examples of ways the strength of the community is expressed. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before or not, but kids just roam freely here and parents don’t worry because they know older kids and other adults will watch out for them and keep them safe. If a person has a problem, family and friends (which is essentially almost everyone) are quick to help out. Families are very large and fluid – my mom’s brother’s wife’s step sister’s niece, for example, would be considered family and could come stay with us for any amount of time without any problems. We do, in fact, have 3 students staying at our house right now (and another one across the street staying with my aunt and uncle) who are related to me in some way (through my mom – have yet to figure out the details…but I know none of them have the same last name as my mom). They sometimes go back to their homes on the weekends, but not always. They act and are treated almost like Suckeye’s (my mom) children – the girl helps with the cooking, sweeping, dishes, laundry, etc., while the boys run errands and do manual labor activities (like building millet-stalk fences), and, in return, they get beds (the boys share one bed and the girl shares a bed with my brother who’s 6 – not at all uncommon) and meals here. I’m not exactly sure if their parents give them money to give to Suckeye or if they give her other things (ex. milk, bisaap, fabric, etc.) or if they don’t give her anything directly but all involved just know that they will help her out whenever she needs it (or just give her things they know she’ll like or want). In any case, community is an incredibly important aspect of life here and I’m sure I will be writing about many more examples of how community is expressed here in the months and years to come.
No one says “please”, and “thank yous” are limited. It is part of the culture here to not really say “please” ever (I don’t even know what the word for “please” is in Wolof), and to not say “thank you” very much (though people certainly do say it). Instead, people just make demands. For example, instead of saying “Can I have some water, please?” people say “Give me water.” And instead of saying “Will you help me shell my peanuts, please?” people say “Shell peanuts for me.” These demands have gotten on my nerves a bit at times because I am so used to being very polite, asking very nicely for things I need or want, and saying “please” and “thank you” all the time. However, I am gradually getting used to this fact of life here. I think part of the reason people don’t say “please” and “thank you” that much is because of the community culture here – since everyone shares everything so much, it is not strange or rude by any means to say “Give me some water” or “Shell peanuts for me” because the other person will most definitely say the same thing (or something similar) sometime later. What I think I will struggle with the most is figuring out if I want to change my habit of being polite and saying “please” and “thank you” to fit into the culture better here, or if I want to maintain that aspect of myself/American culture. I mean, I already stand out since I’m the only white person in Kayemor (except when other Peace Corps people come to visit), and they already think I’m a bit strange because I wear different clothes, can’t talk in Wolof very well, wear a helmet when I ride my bike, etc. etc., so it wouldn’t really make a difference if I continued to ask politely for things and say “thank you” a lot. I’m not sure if it would help people feel more comfortable with me if I acted like everyone else in this respect or not. I do think, though, that by saying “thank you” a lot and being polite I can help teach Senegalese people about American culture, which is one of the three goals of the Peace Corps, so perhaps that’s what I’ll continue to do.
Money is a tricky issue here, just like it is in the US. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase “Amul xaalis fii” which means “There is no money here [in the village, in Senegal, in Africa, etc.]”. Since people have so little money here, they are always concerned about how much money they have, how much they’re spending, etc. One way I’ve seen this concern expressed very clearly is at baptisms. When women go to a baptism (and they go to them all the time since people are constantly having babies and since essentially everyone is invited to a baptism), they are expected to give money to the new mother (and her family). Usually the women all gather at some point late in the afternoon after lunch and after the dishes are done (and after those that were cooking/doing dishes have changed into their really nice clothes) to give/collect the money and record the amount of money given. The women have notebooks with lists of people’s baptisms, the people who attended each baptism, and how much money each woman gave. This is because when a woman attends another woman’s baby’s baptism she is expected to give the same amount of money (if not more) to that woman as that woman had given her when her baby had a baptism. As an American, where money is important but not exactly put on display quite as much and quite as regularly, this tradition seems a bit bizarre and condescending (in that it seems like the women don’t trust each other to give them money at their babies’ baptisms so they must record it), but it isn’t bizarre or condescending here – it is just a fact of their culture and another way community is strengthened because they are able to show how much they’ve been able to support and provide for other families.
Education is a major issue everywhere, and especially in developing countries. I was told here earlier in September that school should start early to mid October provided the teachers don’t go on strike because the government hasn’t gotten their act together to pay them. As far as I know, school started on time this year. But I have noticed (mainly through conversations with my friend Yassa and the students that live at my house) that classes are cancelled all day for the days when the teachers need to go into the nearest big town (Nioro) to get paid, which has happened at least once (and is maybe a monthly or bimonthly event) – there isn’t a direct deposit system for them as far as I know so they have to go to the bank (I assume…?) to get their paychecks. Also, there are no substitute teachers; if teachers are sick, traveling, at a baptism/wedding/funeral (which happens a lot), or whatever, then there just isn’t class. This is just one of many complicating factors that makes going to school/learning here so much harder than it (generally) is for students in the States. Another factor is the fact that students travel from all around Kayemor to go to school here. I’m sure it’s more like situations in really remote, rural places in the US. But I think there are definitely more schools in the States than here. And there is an actual school bus system in the US, whereas here the students have to walk, ride a bike (rare), ride a horse (even more rare), take a charette, or take the big alhams into to Kayemor everyday (or, like the students in my compound, once a week and stay over at a relative’s house). This obviously takes time and can become expensive over the extent of the school year (paying for the charette and/or alham every day or every week), plus since students are in school they can’t work in the fields as much, or do other money-gaining work. Students do definitely work, though – they go to the fields in the later afternoons/evenings before the sun sets around 7pm; they do the laundry; they help cook; they do the dishes; they sweep and clean; they build fences and repair tools; etc etc. This obviously takes time away from when the students could be studying and is very tiring (since most of this work is physically-demanding), which is another factor that makes learning more challenging here. (I definitely recognize that students in the States work, too – both for their families like students here, and for pay, in restaurants, stores, etc., but the work here really isn’t an option like it is for many students in the states – they choose to work because they want to have personal spending money, for example.) All in all, I am very impressed by the dedication and desire that I have seen in students here (not all, but many) to learn and improve their lives through education.