June 22, 2009
School, track, and the life at home are all going quite great and quite normal, so I've decided that for this blog I will discuss some of the bad impressions some aspects of the culture have had on me. In some ways, I hate to analyze the culture negatively, but I also feel it would be misleading and wrong to blog only about the good things. Senegal is definitely a more progressive country compared to other parts of Africa, but just out of my own experiences (which, since I'm just a twenty-year old, isn't saying much), I would say that this place is the least progressive place I've visited.
Women as Objects:
My roommate is here on the human rights project, and specifically she's been working with women who are trying to get divorces. She was telling me that a woman trying to get a divorce said to her, "Women here are treated as objects. You Americans, Toubabs, have no idea what it's like" (here in western Africa, the word Toubab means white person and refers to people of the western culture). What this lady said rings so true. Men follow you and won't give up asking for your number. I've only met three or four men here who seem to understand the meaning of having a friend--strictly friend--of the opposite sex (and this includes all age ranges of men). One of the first four questions you are asked upon meeting a man here is "Are you married?" If your answer is no, you're fair game, even if you have a boyfriend or fiancé back home. Even the married older men show their interest since taking more than one wife is part of the culture here for many men. Yes, the women have basic rights like education, voting, and getting a divorce for legal reasons like domestic violence, but these rights don't mean much if the culture continues to objectify women--the culture must embrace these rights, and beyond that, embrace what these rights mean.
I'm pretty sure there are hardly any serious crimes here beyond pickpocketing, but perhaps the environment might seem a little more threatening because of how crowded the city is with the Talibe children, who are quite harmless. At first, I thought these kids were orphans or abandoned children. Now that I'm a bit more informed, I can share the information I've gained to the best of my knowledge. Please forgive me if I make any mistakes.
The Talibe kids are young boys from the small villages in Senegal and have been sent by their families into the large cities like Dakar and St-Louis to enter into an Islamic religious education. A marabout takes charge of the religious teachings. Although for the most part, there are many respectable placements for Talibe, there are also the evident cases here in Senegal where these children are exploited. The children must live on the streets and bring back certain amounts of money each day to the marabout. Part of all of this is to teach the children humility--and I'm talking about boys as young as three. Oftentimes, the families from the villages are unaware of the conditions their kids are living in. Although I don't know the situation for the children who are in proper placements, there are definitely some marabouts who whip and beat the children when they don't bring back enough money.
Unfortunately, I've seen this happen when walking back home at night. You might ask why I don't give the kids money when I walk by every day. The answer? Because there are way too many kids. It's impossible to describe the number of children on the streets, and taking a picture to show you would be completely inappropriate. If I gave money to one child, the child would recognize me and come after me every day or else another child would fight with the kid to take the money from him. Not to mention this would reinforce the marabouts' expectations that the children should be able to come up with the money each day. Anyway, the result of the situation, as you can imagine, is quite disturbing. The kids have no health care and are essentially skin and bones. You see kids sleeping in odd corners throughout the town at night or in abandoned buildings.
The other day, my roommate went out for a late diner, and she brought me back a whole pizza (which is definitely a good treat here), but I was already asleep. By morning, it wasn't a good idea to eat the pizza for sanitary reasons, so when we were walking in town we gave the pizza to two talibe children. The aggression, fear, and desperation in their eyes and behavior was heartbreaking--they quite seriously yanked the pizza from our hands without even knowing what it was yet. When they started fighting over the box of unknown contents, I yanked it back and told them to share, and luckily they obeyed. I don't think they realized at first that it was a whole pizza only seven hours old, and I hope it was a nice surprise and break from eating out of the garbage. This experience reminded me of something I learned in my psychology class when we covered Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the mind can only develop upon securing the basic needs like food and shelter first. Their behavior--fighting, desperation--reminded me of this and how not even their most fundamental needs are met. They are essentially kids with no ability or guidance to develop psychologically or emotionally, let alone physically.
There are other aspects of the culture that are likewise shockingly regressive. For example, homosexuality is illegal here--so not only is homosexual marriage illegal, but the actual act of and even orientation itself are illegal and punishable by several years in prison. I'm not going to lie, now--beyond simply missing and appreciating the little luxuries we take for granted in the States (like toilet paper, safe tap water, places for taking care of garbage and sewage, and food that doesn't have to be cooked before eating to avoid food-borne illnesses originating from food sitting in the sun all day with flies eating off of and laying eggs in the food), I am also missing and appreciating our culture in the U.S. I know we have so many cultural flaws and
problems, but I also have faith in the ability of our people and culture to address these problems and to work through them together and grow from our experiences.
For now, I'll end my blog with this, but I promise my following blogs will have more positive notes!! I definitely still want to tell you about all the things that make this country as amazing as it is--all the fantastic people I've met and some of the most outstanding experiences I've had, too! So don't worry, the good definitely outweighs the not-so-good by a ton!