Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Senegalese events

I don’t know why I still let myself get talked into attending big “formal” Senegalese events?

During my first couple of months I was dragged to a few and I almost lost my mind and ET’d after them. Most of the time I find a way out of them, but today against my better judgement I attended one because it was held under the premise of “health sensibilizing of the community.” I disagree.

A neighboring village, 3k away arranged this massive race. There were two parts, the cyclists and the race. It was championed as a day to promote cardiac health, sports, and youth. Now in my mind it already seems a little bit ridiculous to blow an entire day/budget/fuss on cardiac health and sports when almost every single person in attendance most likely doesn’t wash their hands before they eat or sleep under mosquito nets year round, they’re constantly active, barely sleep as it is, don’t hydrate, and well, quite honestly, it sounds horrible to say but usually don’t live long enough to suffer from cardiac problems.

But you know, that’s just me… I’ve only lived here for a year…
What could I possibly know about the health problems in my community?
(insert dripping sarcasm into that one J)

At least going into it I knew it would be overwhelming so I planned accordingly. I brought my ½ gallon container of ice water, a cliff bar, a book, plenty of cell phone credit, and I wore my most lightweight Senegalese outfit. The woman from the mayor’s office I attended with told me to meet her at 7am so we could get there on time (the race was supposed to start at 8 or 9am). I knew better than that and met her around 8:15 (and waited for her) at the garage. We headed towards the next village and of course arrived to a mostly empty event. People did trickle in soon afterwards though and I was actually amazed at how early the crowd appeared.

Now at these things everyone is dressed to the nines, in the hottest, stiffest, most uncomfortable fabric you can buy in country. And they wear yards and yards of it and pounds of makeup, and fake mesh wigs, and there must have been 50 different girls in various groups of “hautess” (bridesmaid…basically matching outfits). The whole thing was quite impressive to look at from afar.

It was set-up along the main road (of which there is one in all of Senegal, so traffic all day had to be diverted), there was a massive blowup finish line, a trophy table, 2 shade tents with chairs for the invited visitors, massive speakers, police officers, event organizers, reporters, cameramen, photographers, signs and placards, and a raised platform with huge couches and chairs for the ministers and officials to sit on.

The big deal was that apparently President Abdoulaye Wade’s right-hand man was scheduled to attend the day’s events. He did and so did about 20 other “official” so and so’s. I’d say 12 different SUVs arrived each carrying about 1 or 2 individuals. The ministers paraded in and took their seats on the raised platform at around 10am. 4 griots crowded around them, to sing their praises while a young Western-outfitted man gave a lengthy speech in Pulaar and French to introduce the ministers and thank the various attendees and organizations. It took him about 30 minutes to get through it all.

At one point he did briefly mention that this was supposed to be a day about youth, cardiac health, and sports promotion. He said something like, “Today we are encouraging young people to get exercise to avoid cardiac problems, but we don’t need to talk about them because we all know what cardiac illnesses are.” That was it. Then he continued on to talk about the ministers and how wonderful it was for them to attend etc. etc. etc.

By this time I feel as if I’m sinking into the “9th ring of…” if you know what I mean. The crowd is totally out of control. People are packing in chairs all around us, there are no walkways, everyone is pressed up against one another, chairs are passing overhead, gendarmes are trying to push people out of the view of the seated invitees (myself included), women are dancing, babies screaming, everyone’s talking, griots are singing, it’s 100 degrees, and all the while huge 1 story high speakers are blaring.

I remember looking around and thinking, “okay, don’t panic, you’re not a claustrophobic person, you can handle this. You have your book, your water, it’s not that hot, you’re in the shade, you can do this.”

The race finally started around 10:45. I watched long enough to see the first and shorter race and to see the first students cross the finish line, absolutely dieing and overheated. I stayed long enough to see the ambulance and the Senegalese Red Cross volunteers help carry people away who were too exhausted and suffering from heat stroke.

I could feel myself totally losing it… and getting so furiously angry about the events that were unfolding in the name of “health.”

This fear started to rise in my gut, and I was looking around feeling like I was slipping deeper and deeper into total chaos. Then the woman I came with told me to scoot over and share the chair with her to make room for a very large friend of hers. Basically acting on instinct I just got up, said “I’m leaving. This is way too much for me. There are too many people. It’s too hot.” And amidst her protests (she said she was mad at me) I just shoved my way through the people in front of me and wound my way behind the crowd to a compound where I could gather myself together, use the bathroom, and plan my next step.

I was feeling a bit better now that I had some open space around me and chatting with some girls who had also come to seek some refuge. She picked up my thermos and asked if it was my water. I said yes, and she put it back down. I let my mind wander for a bit feeling proud of myself for not totally freaking out yet, and trying to strategize how I would spend the rest of the day until lunch, and then get through that, make my appearance with the important people, and then escape as soon as the heat of the day broke.

When I focused back in I heard one of them ask me about water, I turn around and there are 5 teenagers guzzling down my water. It’s gone! Then they ask me if it’s mine. I basically am just so exasperated, say yes, grab my thermos from them and bail. Not noticing in time that they’ve replaced my lid with the lid from their thermos which is filthy and broken. (Not a big deal, just an annoying side note since I just bought the thing last week). At that point I’m out the door and walking down the road towards my town, 3k away, holding my headscarf like a tent under the sweltering noontimes sun and I am marching straight home. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.

And I did, I made it home, wasn’t too badly dehydrated, and was ultimately pleased with my decision to bail every step of the way.

As I was walking back many of the racers passed me, panting, sweating, stopping with side cramps, asking passing cars for water, picking up huge rocks and holding them up against their ribs to “cure” their sidecramps. Hhmmm. Clearly these kids have had NO training, NO information, NO water, NO NOTHING! And this is supposed to be a HEALTH awareness day! Ugh. I again watched the ambulance pass back and forth, sirens blazing, picking up various students who couldn’t make it back.

It was absolutely the most frustrating, most ridiculous display I’ve seen yet to date.

Part of me is furious at myself for not being able to “hack” it. I’m angry that I didn’t make it through the whole day and perhaps try to make some good of it. After all, the original purpose for me going was to meet the members of this very active association in the next town over who might want to collaborate on future projects. But it just didn’t seem worth it.
And for what? Had I stayed through the races, and then the speeches and the trophy giving I’m sure I would have learned absolutely nothing, been dehydrated beyond repair, and just gotten more angry. The cameramen got that coveted shot of a toubak at a Senegalese gathering (I’m always a target when cameras are around), I made enough of an appearance so that Peace Corps was represented, and then I bailed. And I’m glad, because at the end of the day, it’s better to freak out (or at least be annoyed) in the privacy of my own hut then to lose it in front of several hundred Senegalese people and ministers, teachers, officials, and health workers.

I wish there were some way I could get my hands on the budget for this thing. I made a mental list of all the money that went into this day:

Several hundred T-shirts
50 hautess outfits
Chair rental
Gas for 20 SUVs
Inflatable finish line,
Lunch for several hundred,
Donations to the griots for singing the minister’s praises
Water/Electricity bills
Payment of gendarmes to keep the crowds under control and re-direct traffic
Etc etc etc.

And yea sure, huge events happen like this in America to raise awareness about various diseases, but last time I checked…they health concern of choice is actually relevant, and information about the problem of disease is distributed, and speakers actually talk about the problem at hand and strategize about how to solve it, and usually it’s all done to raise money so the participants are sponsored, and the events are not held in the desert during mid-day in the hot season.

And I’m not trying to sit here and put down these efforts, I mean, I guess in a way that’s what this entry has done, but that’s not my intention, and I think it’s important for other people to understand the kinds of things that do get accomplished here, but also how far they have to come. Not that they have to be carried out “my way” or in a more “Western” way. That’s not my point. But they are so lacking in every respect and in content mainly, and yet I would never be able to get that kind of attendance, or support at any kind of event I would hold.
So where is the middle ground? Is it my job to figure that out?

It’s endlessly frustrating.

Now here I am, I’ve retreated into my room for a few hours of alone time, sucking down ice cold crystal light (thanks Phyllis!) and listening to music. In these moments I usually seek out my family for some comfort and company, but I just went to lunch and it made it so much worse. Basically in the middle of lunch my sister asked me, “So wait, Binta, what is your work? What do you do? People are always asking me what you do here and I just tell them I don’t know?”

I wanted to simultaneously vomit and cry.

I’ve been here a year, busting my ass, away from my home, my family, my friends, my career, my culture, my native language, making no money, trying to help this community, fending off illnesses, watching my body deteriorate, and my very own host sister doesn’t even know what I do? What’s the point? What AM I doing here? If my own SISTER doesn’t have a grasp on it I must be the biggest most ridiculous failure.

But because I HAVE been here a year I realized that she is the one at fault, and I called her on it.

A year ago I probably would have just been devastated (which I still was) and explained to her again what I do for the zillionth time, but this time I called her out on it, I told her “Binta, I’m mad at you. I’ve been here almost a year, I teach YOUR women’s group about your health concerns, you listen to my HEALTH radio shows, you listen to me talk about the HEALTH classes I teach at the schools, and the HEALTH talks I hold all over town, and you still don’t know what I do?” To my family’s credit they all rallied behind me and they were all laughing at her and me (because somehow I managed to keep a smile on my face…I guess it’s ingrained in me that anger and sadness don’t work and that the only way to get through IS laughter) and backed me up and made her feel silly for asking the question. And maybe once and for all, they will all speak up for me and tell others what I do here. One can only hope.

Then my mom started talking to me about how I need to make my room look nice and I need to spray for scorpions before I have guests coming and I told her that I will but not until the end of the month because I don’t have the money to buy the chemicals. She said I didn’t understand and started repeating herself and I insisted that I DID understand what she said but that I can’t until I have money. Again the rest of my family backed me up and I felt good that at least I was being clear even if she didn’t understand me in that moment.

I was definitely not hungry after that and I abruptly left for my room where I burst into tears and called another volunteer. Which always makes me feel better because even though I could imagine people from home having good advice, and lending a sympathetic ear, until you’ve experienced these same kinds/levels of frustration, there is only so much you can share and understand, and only fellow volunteers seem to be able to console me in the way I need at that moment.

I guess they must have known that I was frustrated because about an hour later, sitting in my hut, drying my tears and on the phone, my little sister comes to my door holding an ice cold frozen juice bag from Binta. It might not seem like much, but that gesture put a big smile on my face all over again.

And I’m wiped out. Today is done. No more emotional roller coasters today please. I am finishing this blog and then going to hang out all evening in my compound with my family, and go to bed early and drink ice cold water, and tomorrow I will face my neighbor’s baptism (which I never go to, but this one is a must because they are my friends).

And I am vowing to never again attend another big event…


david santos said...

Thanks for your posting and have a good week.

EllenJulia said...

What I find the most amazing is the apparent lack of passive aggression (correct me if I'm wrong). It seems completely acceptable to inform people immediately when you perceive them as being rude or inconsiderate. I know it's probably not translating exactly, but "I'm mad at you" is so nice and straightforward and totally not something I think I would ever say!

Caitlin said...

Yes Ellen, you're absolutely right. It is totally acceptable to say you're angry. Though if people are REALLY and TRULY angry (I was just hurt) then they don't say anything, but do little things to let you know, like be less friendly, or don't greet. It's way worse. But because I said something she knew that I was upset and we resolved it right away.

Nelia said...

This is great info to know.