In 1988, my wife, three kids and I took up residence in Senegal, West Africa. We lived and worked there nearly eight years on various development projects – most of that time in a very small , traditional village.
I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s, and took notes all the while I lived there. Below are some of my personal observations when I was immersed in a culture very different from my Western one.
First a word about culture. The default ‘thinking’ is that ‘our culture’ is the one that does things best. It goes right to the glandular level and is not easily noticed, let alone critiqued or displaced. However, there is no one perfect cultural form. Each one contains pros and cons, upsides and downsides, good and bad. Each culture offers (just enough real time) working unique value solutions to ever changing life conditions – and these are always changing too.
Growth is all about having our default thinking challenged so that we can enlarge the frame. I was challenged at a core level and it was good for me. I was, in the words of the sociologists, “poked in the eye”. Living in Africa got my attention!
Keep in mind, this was in 1988. We relied on letter writing to stay connected with people back in Canada. We had no telephone and of course no internet. The shortwave radio was our connection to the outside world.
Here are the broad strokes as I experienced them then:
- In Africa, there is poverty but community
- In the West, there are riches but alienation
- In traditional societies, life is lived out in the open public for all to see
- In modern societies, life is sterilized, sanitized, compartmentalized and impersonalized
- When I lived in an African village, a word kept coming to me: earthiness. In my own culture – cogginess
We shouldn’t privilege one culture over another. Let’s incorporate the best and move away from the pathologies of each.
CAVEAT: The following comments come from my own perspective, and are written in the way they hit me then – in my late 20’s and early 30’s.
We arrived in July. My thought was: what will it be like to take my first breath of African air? I could hardly wait to walk out on the tarmac for that experience. It was warm and humid. It was midnight. We walked across the ground to the terminal. We had left our world behind. It ceased to exist.
Inside the terminal, it was hot and stuffy. Lots of tall black people were bouncing against each other in the boisterous African manner. What I initially thought were threats and arguing was merely discussing, manipulating, bantering – a typical mixture of pressure and joviality. And all of this was just trying to leave the terminal.
At dusk, after my first full day in Africa, I was on the guest house balcony, looking down on the street. A group of children was walking by. One of them looked up and smiled and yelled “à demain!” (until tomorrow). Wow!
People everywhere. People everywhere. People everywhere. People everywhere. Life in Africa is public – seen, felt and experienced by all.
On the second night in our own house, we had a break-in. We were all sleeping in one room because all the stuff from our four barrels and four crates was strewn throughout the rest of the house. We lost so much that night: tools, Christmas music, luggage – things we had been carefully selecting for living our next four years in Senegal. Years later we were still discovering what had been stolen. And this was not the only time we had a break-in. One day after this break-in, a person stopped Tina walking on a road and taunted her saying he had done this. Several years later, this person was killed in a shootout with the police.
A few weeks later I was chatting with Moctar under a half moon. He told me many people in his village could transform themselves into cats and monkeys. He didn’t know of anyone personally who could do it, but he said there were more cats at night time than in the daytime, so therefore…
So this was Africa.
We raised our three kids there. Our youngest daughter has tattooed a map of Senegal on her wrist. No one knows what it is except us! The joke is that it’s an decrepit pacman.
We lived in a mud brick house in the Sahel region. Solar panels provided electric lights and elevated barrels by the well gave us running water. At times, inside our house, we had scorpions and snakes. Sometimes I would be awakened at night if a shrew and lizard battled in our bedroom. Using a pellet gun and flashlight, I would shoot at them while leaning over Tina as she slept. The Geckos we let live in the house – to the chagrin of the villagers who thought they could kill with their urine.
We made many friends and enjoyed conversing with them in their own language under the African moon to the braying of donkeys in distant villages. One of the many highlights of my time in the village was when I dodged forty flying foreskins at the Grand Circumcision – an event which came once in ten years. I saw and heard everything at that event.
I also worked two years in Dakar, the capital city, in a logistics capacity for our organization. I coordinated the purchasing and distribution of every item that could be haggled from the savvy Lebanese and Syrians. I then arranged (with great difficulty) the overland transport of such by the Senegalese in their precarious “vehicles”. Westerners don’t know the meaning of dilapidation (but more on that below).
I remember once inching a lime green Mercedes Benz truck loaded with a disassembled airplane through a sea of people all striving to get on a ferry boat.
Officials: You can’t bring that on the ferry!
Brad: Why not?!
Officials: Because it’s an airplane!!
Brad: I know, but it’s taken apart, it’s just baggage!!
After much discussing they let the truck on. But my colleagues at the destination port in the south had great difficulty and delay getting it out of port.
During our time in Dakar we had a nice apartment on a knoll, where we had a perfect view of the local police station down below and across the way. From my balcony I could see (and hear) the beatings. Often the crowds who gathered around to watch them pressed in on the windows and door and would have to be chased away by a policeman with his orange plastic whipping pipe. On quieter days, the police would yell up a greeting if they saw me. I would toss down some mangoes.
Living in a traditional African village is very VERY different from living in Canada. Here are some of my memories, all vivid to this day:
- Transporting dead people in my car.
- Transporting dying people in my car.
- Transporting pregnant women; a person with a broken neck in my car.
- Transporting people by ferry – to filthy hospitals.
- Plowing with oxen in my bare feet. Earthy indeed!
- Funerals and weddings. From the slain animals, the kids would kick the bull testicles around and blow up the lungs like balloons. The unwanted guts went to the host of vultures jostling impatiently on the roof tops of the mud brick houses.
- Being treated to a meal and eating from a large spoon freshly licked by a toothless old lady (I was the honored guest you know and yes I ate with it). The food always had sand in it.
- As honored guest once, I was given the head of a cooked rooster to eat. I fumbled and failed. My host snatched it away and with his thumb, broke it open revealing the brain. Then I ate it.
- A Gendarme ‘friend’ walking towards me, grinning and pointing his machine gun at me. He was a friend of mine. After all, he used to borrow money (and not pay it back).
- Police with crotch crickets directing traffic. My mom who was visiting had never seen such a thing – and dad was a cop for 15 years!
- Police and bribes (“I am hungry”)
- Urine laced smoggy air (you get used to it).
- Car Rapides. I really don’t want to dwell on this except to say that wherever there was trouble, there was evidence of orange and blue paint left behind.
- Joking with the villagers that my field and hoe was my paper and pen – and that I actually did work.
- In the first month living in the village I noticed three words over and over again. I asked for their translation:
- Uncaam = Money
- Mliik = Water
- Ulemp = Work
- Many asked if there was a pill you could take to learn another language. Unfortunately, we learned an unwritten language the hard way – looking like fools in the process
- Ice cubes were a novelty: Douda’s wives not knowing what a thermometer was. “Why would anyone need to know the exact temperature?”
- No such things as “activity centers” for children. People don’t talk of “stress levels” or a “zest” for this or that. No talk of “time management” either. Or hobbies. Just a struggle to survive.
- I observed that Carpenters, Mechanics, etc, all worked with the measliest tools. In October 2005, I remember reading something from a member of the Canadian DART relief team to Pakistan earthquake region who complained of working with “toystore hammers” that were the only thing available there. I understood.
- Once my friend, the ‘Watch Fixer’, noticed some scratches on my nice Seiko. He asked for it, I handed it to him. Then he took a razor blade and with the broad edge (and a grin) completely removed the top-most surface of the crystal. You couldn’t see the numbers or hands. (after all these years, I am still learning the watch-and-wait-with-mouth-closed lesson). Then he took cement powder (I am not making this up). He filled the palm of his hand with the powder and then ground the watch crystal face down into it. When he was finished, the crystal was completely scratch-free. What witchcraft is this, I thought?
- The term for the local dentist was the ‘Tooth Puller’ – because, well, that is what he did – no matter what the problem was!
- Everyone’s lantern had many cracks. Everyone’s radio was old and busted up – and can run on batteries that I thought I had used up.
- Almost all “bikes” were paintless with very wobbly wheels, and no peddles, yet were able to carry lots of weight on the back – often animals and women sitting side saddle. You see, a village bicycle (karetan) was always in terrible condition and often kept in pieces on purpose. This was partly to avoid having others ask to borrow it (What!! And possibly wrecked further?!). And when the journey was to take place, the traveller would walk up to my house carrying the bike in pieces to get my vice grips and crescent wrench, put it together and be off in a wobbly way.
- House door hinges busted, sitting stools needing nails or having nails sticking into you.
- Giving people pictures of themselves made them very happy. If a picture showed only part of a person, they would study the feet or shoulder to determine, in concert, who it was.
- Shirts – So what’s on peoples’ T-shirts living at the edge of the Sahara desert?
- Mickey Mouse (of course)
- “I’ve zoomed the tubes at Splashland: Derby Pool Black Pool
- A pink T-shirt which said “100% woman” worn by a guy
- “This is my body – but I share”
- “So many women…so little time”
- The village chief usually wore a shirt which said “FM 96 – we rock Colombia”
- Many credit union shirts. Many.
The world beyond the village…
- One friend, Vieux, didn’t know what the blue lines on a map were for, or what the red airplanes were – or that Africa was a continent
- Many didn’t know where Canada was or that it borders ‘America’
- One person thought there might be 5 or 6 countries in the entire world
- Douda (the razor blade/cement powder wielding Watch Fixer-man above) thought the world was all on one time. A vision of globalization??
- Others were amazed when I explained the difference of daylight here and night time somewhere else
- Fatou thought Canada was a village close to Saudi Arabia
- I remember watching three old, blind men “leading” each other through the busy streets of the capital city. Three! Blind! Men! City Streets!
- I regularly pointed out to visiting high school students Jupiter, Mars,and some of the main stars. Once when I showed pictures of the planet earth taken from the moon, Mamadou said “I never knew it would look like that”. He was amazed. An amazing sight indeed. See a short documentary here.
- In the village, sitting in my study one day, I showed Mamadou how to use my binoculars. When he realized he could see the people so clear and so close he laughed and said and said in his language literally “Brad, you are stealing the people” i.e. able to spy on them. I asked if that was bad. He said no it was good.
- I took a picture of Fatou and Tina, and she asked Tina “is it hard to take a picture?”
Living in Senegal for those years felt like living on another planet. The cross cultural experience meant that we had to continually check our default, glandular reaction at the door and be open to a very different way if we wanted to learn their language and be accepted.
Overall, for us, these were some of the most amazing years ever. They changed us deeply and made us all the people we are today.