Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Empty Wallets, Full Hearts

Once a week I write and turn in an essay about my experiences here. Sometimes the essay topics are chosen for us, sometimes they just must relate to Senegal geography/history/culture, and sometimes they must be a personal reflection. I turn them in in French, but first I write in English in order to organize my thoughts and lay out a map. When I go to translate it into French, some of the sentences’ meanings change a little because of my limited French vocabulary or the non-existence of certain words. Also, when I write the first draft in English, I often choose my words based on what I know I can easily translate into French. Here is the most recent essay I wrote. It needed to be a personal reflection essay, but it’s always good when the essay relates to development which is the focus of the MSID program. The essay is the expansion of a journal entry I wrote near the beginning of my life in Dakar, but since that day I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot and forming an opinion. Here it is.


Empty wallets, full hearts

Since being in Senegal, my ideas and perceptions of many things have changed. My ideas about religion are being challenged, my ideas about myself are being challenged, and my ideas about poverty are being challenged greatly. “Poverty” is one of the first words the typical westerner thinks of when they think about Africa, and “development” is the most commonly proposed solution. Indeed, almost all development scholars include “reduction of poverty” in their definition of development. Since being here I find myself asking questions like, “What is poverty? Why is it an important topic?”

Some friends in the United States, upon hearing that I have a maid at my house here in Senegal, assume my family is rich. I’m not here to talk about my family’s income because truly I don’t know, but consider this scenario: if family A lives on $10 a day and woman B’s family lives on $1 a day, woman B might be willing to work for a wage well within the budget of a $10 a day family. Having a maid doesn’t mean you’re rich, but it means you’re wealthy when compared to someone else in your city. Maybe a family can’t afford a computer but they can afford a maid. Perhaps culturally maids are a higher priority when a family considers what they want to spend their money on.

Now yes, I know that I am in fact living in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Dakar. But that’s just the thing: this neighborhood is relatively wealthy. Mermoz is wealthy when compared to other neighborhoods in Dakar, and Dakar is wealthy relative to other cities in Senegal. I would argue that relative wealth, and relative poverty, are the only values that are even relevant in a society. Absolute poverty, often expressed in American dollars as people living on less than $1.25 a day, seems almost entirely irrelevant to me. Although it might shed light on how Senegal as a nation compares to other nations in the world economically, it does nothing to talk about an individual’s daily life.

But even if relative poverty values are more relevant than absolute poverty values, I still find myself asking “What is poverty?” I think the more important questions to ask other than “Are these people poor?” are questions like: can they see a doctor if they want to? Can they go to school if they want to? Are they happy? If the answers to questions like these are “yes”, what does it matter how much money is in their bank account?

I’m not suggesting that the discussion of reducing poverty be taken off the table altogether. Surely reducing poverty will probably lend itself to giving people more access to medical treatment, schools, and happiness. However, what if putting more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t lend itself to better access or health? Maybe the infrastructure or the trained doctors aren’t there. What if more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t mean more access to education, if there isn’t a school within walking distance or the teachers are always on strike because of government corruption? What if money is in fact the root of all evil, and that simply more money won’t lead to more happiness? Have we ever seen that casual line between money and happiness proved?

I’m suggesting instead that we stop worrying so much about economic development, particularly on the individual level. Instead, we should ask questions about how many doctors there are, and how accessible clinics are. Are there adequate schools and supplies and are teachers treated well? Are people happy, do they feel empowered, are they free?

I think we are living in an interesting time in history, a time where there are the greatest wealth disparities in the world but the greatest awareness of what exists for the other half. With today’s media, Americans are aware, or at least think they are aware, of the poverty in Africa. Africans are aware of the wealth in the United States, even if the view gets skewed as it travels through the technology waves. But I think that it’s important to critically think about what poverty is so that when we as a world try to fight it, we build up healthier, smarter, and happier people, not bank accounts. Yes, I am living here comfortably. I think anyone could. But my family’s income and whether or not we have a maid does not define poverty. My family in Dakar is wealthy because we can see a doctor when we need to, go to school when we want to, and smile because we’re happy.


Learning French: passer la nuit à la belle étoile, to spend the night under the stars. (I wish.)

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Mes cours ce semestre

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In picture: Sidy teaching our Wolof class. In Wolof, he asked and I told him what my American dad’s name was. Turns out “Ray ma” means kill me. There are also some other interesting words on the board at this moment.

I thought I would share the classes that I’m taking this semester in Dakar. All the classes are taught in French by Senegalese professors. Most people have Friday classes but I’m lucky enough not to!

Country Analysis – 4 hours a week; M 9-11am, W 1-3pm

This class talks a lot about the history, geography, politics, and social culture in Senegal. We talk about the current events in the newspaper each class. We also write essays about our daily experiences and what we are learning.

Wolof – 8 hours a week; M 12-2pm, Tu 12-2pm; W 4-6pm; Th 9-11am

My favorite class and favorite professor! Sidy (pronounced C-D) is amazing. He is trained as a Peace Corps professor so his methodology is great. It’s impossible not to enjoy learning a language with him, no matter who you are.

French – 2 hours a week; Tu 9-11am

Half of the 12 students on our program are in this French class with me, and the other half take French on Fridays. I chose to be (and need to be) in the lower of the two levels of French. It’s nice learning French grammar in this class, but I probably learn more French just from the French instruction in all my other classes.

Education & Literacy – 3 hours a week; Tu 3-6pm

There are five tracks that students can take – this one, Public Health, Arts and Culture, Environment, and Economics and Alternative Economies. I chose the Education and Literacy track because it’s something I may be interested in for my career and I want to explore more. An even bigger reason than that is I love kids, (specifically little ones). For the second half of the semester I may want to be placed in a school, unless I can get an internship in something related to international politics or law or something.

International Development – 3 hours a week; W 9-12pm

This is my homework heaviest class. We mostly talk about different development theories and learn about the different states of development in various African countries.

Research Methods – 2 hours a week; Th 12-2pm

Waly, our coordinator here, teaches this class. He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever met. In this class we talk about how Senegalese culture is, how our internship phase will look, and various other interesting topics. We haven’t talked too much about research methods yet but I’m sure that is coming. Waly is also in charge of placing us into an internship we’re interested in.

Learning Wolof: Am naa jëkër bu am doole, I have a husband who is strong. (An appropriate response when being hit on)


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A Day in the Life

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In picture: My lunch today at school. The best school lunch I’ve ever had. Amazingly flavored boneless fish, French fries, brown onion sauce, a tomato slice and a piece of lettuce (quite a treat), and of course, bread. I didn’t eat that whole basket of bread, but my plate was licked clean.

Dakar, Senegal – Tuesday, February 3, 2015

7:45am  First alarm goes off.

7:54am  Second alarm; check to see if Wifi is working. If yes, quickly check Facebook and email for important messages. This morning, and yesterday, our power was out so I couldn’t.

8:02am  Get out of bed; get ready for the day. Put on pants, shirt, and sweatshirt. Mornings are chilly. Go potty, flush. Brush teeth while tank refills and flush again. I almost never can get the toilet paper down in one flush.

8:20am  Quickly eat breakfast – a baguette, a piece of cheese, and hot tea if there’s time. Take malaria pill. Today I left a little late because my mom had new mango jelly she wanted me to try, and Saliou wanted to play with me for a little bit.

8:28am  Head to school; walk quickly. Stop and have a quick chat with anyone you know, or “know” in many cases. Most days I run into my neighbor, Laye, and we hug and chat.

8:59am  Arrive to school.

9:04am  French class starts.

11:01am  French ends. We have a one hour break. Sometimes I will spend this time walking to the Toubab/white person store. It’s essentially a small grocery store. Today I finished up some homework and checked my email/Facebook instead.

11:59am  Wolof class starts. This is by far my favorite class.

2:00pm  Wolof class ends. We have another one hour break. Again, what I do varies. Some days I will buy ice cream and sit near the beach and eat it. Today I ordered and ate lunch at school with my friends. We drink ataaya (tea), after.

3:05pm  Education & Literacy class starts.

6:01pm  Done with school for the day; start walking home. Today I stopped at a fruit stand and bought clementines.

6:35pm  Arrive home; greet anyone at the house.

6:50pm  Drop bag off in room; change into comfier pants.

7:05pm  Socialize with family; test out new Wolof words; struggle with French; play with Saliou, the maid’s baby. Sometimes I go to our roof where Bas’s students are studying and work on homework. At some point the people in my house I’m hanging out with go to the mosque to pray, but I haven’t figured out exactly what time this is yet. At that point, I head to my room and do homework or go online.

8:33pm  Go downstairs to living room so I’m around when dinner is ready. Watch TV/talk if someone else is. Otherwise, write or study.

9:25pm  Eat dinner. It’s always with mama, but the other people around the table varies. My sister is often there, and two of my brothers are often there, but it’s never all of us at the same time. Always someone is out and about. Take vitamins.

9:35pm  Go upstairs; relax; write; homework; laptop; blog.

10:10pm  Shower, change clothes. Wash undergarments.

10:40pm  Walk to Yama’s house, drink ataaya; hang out with him and his friends. Sometimes I ask him for help with my homework. If I don’t go to Yama’s house I hang out with my friends from school, either at their homes or the bar.

12:20am  Yama walks me home; computer; pack my bag for school tomorrow. Fill my water bottles. I force myself to drink 2 liters, minimum, every day. Read my Bible, journal.

1:15am  Set alarm, bed time.

1:17am  Already sleeping.

Learning French: Il sent bon, He smells good. (What I want to say when many a Senegalese man passes.)