Saturday, June 07, 2008

Vacant and full of gems

posted by rachel
June 3rd

I sit panting in the suffocating heat as it sits stale on my overheated skin. This is it, our last week in Kerewan. We’ve been waiting for this moment, ever since arriving late Thursday night to the sandy, incomplete, irrelevant city of Kombo two years ago. The secret to getting through this experience is knowing that you will be home in two years. So we all just stick it out, ride this complicated and uncomfortable adventure.

It hits after just six months here, when you realize that you will never truly be able to tell your story so that everyone you love and know will understand. It’s not shitting in a hole for two years or living the “authentic” Africa experience, it’s understanding that we, the donor franchise, the voyagers, the white people, the romantics of “development work”, our position on this continent is “irrelevant, impotent, and a contradiction” (quoted from George Packers The Village of Waiting). We spend the next year and a half trying to justify our existence in this country, to create a lifestyle that doesn’t feel fraudulent or absurd. In that time, while trying to do something that is “sustainable” and “builds capacity,” (all words that are used to revamp the flawed franchise of development, to somehow eradicate the dependency development has created on this continent), we are the ones who have truly developed.

Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I feel vacant, as like The Gambian youth’s spirit and creativity is beaten out of them at home and in school, my spirit and idealist hope has suffered the blows of realism and defeat. The incessant harassment that never failed to remind me of my white privileged skin - whether it be children wailing Toubab, young men following me and asking for marriage, entitled educated men embodying every aspect of a sexist pig, women asking for the clothes off my back, and the constant charade of praise and love for the white person that in the end is sad and mocking - chipped away that na├»ve isolated idealistic liberal from Boston into a hostile, cold realist that would support a complete pull out of all NGOs on this continent to finally give Africa a chance to develop itself.

I get a nervous shiver up my tired spine every time I am left alone with my thoughts here. My entire world view has been turned upside down. I want to throw rocks at tourists who stampede through villages passing out bowls of rice to help with the food crisis, when if they stopped to think, seeds for dry land rice would have been an incomparable better idea. But there I go blaming others for my own discomfort in my skin.

In this jarring, mundane, depressing, dulling experience the gems kept my appetite for compassion and humility satiated. As I say over and over that I am ready to go, that it’s time, as I ride this glorious wave to home, I fail to let myself understand what leaving these gems truly means. Aja and the kids, my toma, Dabo, Mbaa Suwareh, the girls in girls club loved me for me, and not my white skin. They are my friends, my anchors to approximate normality in this absurd place. Their relationships allow me to feel less of a fraud or a charade, but a person who is living in a strange place in need of a family to trust and love. They were the only aspects of this experience that reaffirmed one of my core beliefs: true relationships make somebody matter in this world.

I recently figured out why this country works the way it does and it made me appreciate my gems even more. Accountability lacks in every corner that I look here, thus corruption both insidiously and blatantly seep into everything. No one held anyone accountable and passed blame on to anyone but the self. But I realized I only looked in the places where Americans hold accountability: the public life of work. Here, it is the exact opposite. Accountability exists inside the family. If a taxi driver does stop to greet and/or eat with his wife’s family as he passes through their village with a van full of twenty overheated passengers, then he is shamed and has to answer to his father-in-law. A teacher, posted 100k from her Mandinka village to a foreign Wollof village, misses weeks of work to attend a family ceremony or to take care of family business doesn’t even consider time off from work. Her family holds her accountable not the parents or community in the alien Wollof village.

When western development imposes accountability in the public sphere, Gambians laugh at such futility. One is a good worker if they sit all day or initiate after school homework clubs. Fulfilling the expectations of your family is work in itself. In America we don’t have to share our monthly pay check with twenty of our extended family members. Our individualistic society allows us to invest in our future. Gambia’s communal society never lets anyone fall through the safety net, but doesn’t let anyone pull ahead either.

This is not to justify corruption and inefficiency, it’s merely my belated attempt to understand it. Why here and not there? Why does an inept dictator steal the governments money to build fancy hotels and a zoo in his hometown? Because his home people will hold him accountable. Why are my attempts at teacher training met with plastic smiles and inane nodding of the head? Because since when does the white girl hold the man of the Sanneh family accountable?

With accountability in the corners of walled compounds, the culture of blame blankets the big fat notion of progress. When men can’t bring in enough money for the family, they blame the wife for being wasteful and stupid. When a women becomes pregnant outside of wedlock, her family disowns and curses here while the male impregnator continues without having to act the least bit responsible. The women bear the brunt of all societal ills, yet no one every stops to truly hear what they have to say. And the charade of “development” goes on in quarterly reports and fancy white NGO SUVs, while the people wait.

People in America tell me that I am so brave for doing all this. But, I am the one who can just wisp in and out of here free from the waiting game, with only my conscious holding me accountable for my actions. The brave ones are my gems who protected me from the defeats that they absorb daily. When I was being bothered, they were the ones who stood up for me. When I had a problem or needed to figure out a situation they were there to help. When I was in over my head, they were there to bail me out. They sympathetically listened as I attempted to hold full conversations in Mandinka. They looked past my inability to say the correct phrase and understood my compassion for them. They are the brave ones, because they did all this in face of familial accountability. They stood up for me to their relatives, to older men, for me. Now, for the first time I feel and understand the quiet female solidarity that exists in pockets here. I do see women blaming other women just like the men, but it’s the brave ones who risk empathy for the otherness.

I worry about this country. I worry that it won’t exist in fifty years with the rising sea levels. I worry of this culture in limbo between the desire to embrace all that is western and traditional culture that roots Gambian in a sense of place and history. As traditions wear thin to hip hop culture and accountability to the self, will The Gambia become like Nigeria, where no one and in no aspect of society is held accountable? I worry that the desert will over take my home here in the next ten years and forcing everyone to leave for a dwindling forest to the south. I worry about how no one here believes in this food crisis. When in six months the price of a bag of rice will be over 1000 Dalasi (half of an average civil servants monthly salary), people will finally believe in the crisis but it will be too late. I worry that the donor enterprise will come in and save the day per usual and Gambians will never learn to solve their own problems.

I want to somehow honor Aja, Mbaa Suwareh, Dabo, my girls club girls, my toma and her mother. I am humbled by their tenacity and sheer strength. I worry about them, and worry that when I go, I will vanish and be sucked back into the American bubble. For Aja is my person, my best friend here in The Gambia. She is the only one who truly understands my plight here, she gets my needs. I am indebted to her understanding. She kept me alive. Her and her six children, Lamin, Karamo, Binta, Fatou, Alieu, and Baamutar brought light, beauty and encouragement to this difficult experience. Most of all they brought me security. Mbaa Suwareh was like my Grandma here. She filled a void in me that I have had since my last surviving grandparent passed on five years ago. Her slow, crippled walk and her adorable lived face warmed my heart every time I saw her. She was the one who berated any child who dared to disrespect me. Funding her false teeth is one of my most proudest accomplishments. Dabo is the hardest working Gambian women I have seen. She is reserved and talks in circles. But when I came home crying from the gardens because the girls were harassing me, she took care of it. From that moment on no one every bothered me again. Havibg little Lisa in my life here brought a sense of belonging, though somewhat still marred by being an outsider, it was enough to keep me going. She is the fattest baby I know, but whose smile of recognition every time she saw me, makes both of us shine. My girls taught me to love every part of myself (although that is still a work in progress), how I look, what I do or say. Everything. As I advocated for their rights to empowerment, success, financial independence, and safety, they taught me how to appreciate mine. Their resilience and inklings of hope for their future, in spite of all they are up against, rekindled my hope and idealism for girls all around the world.

As the dark cloak of this big picture we have come to figure out snuffs our optimism leaving room only for frustration and angst, we cling onto our gems. They come in all shapes and sizes, all shades, each for different purposes. Some of my other gems include relaxing over a couple of beers and ice cream with our close Peace Corps friends, like Becca or Todd, Jim, Dan, eating cookies with Carson after yet another attempt of cooking dinner in the bush while waiting for BBC’s News Hour to come and racing to guess if it's Julian Marshall or Owen Bennett Jones’ voice that comes in after the trumpet fanfare, waking up to French pressed Pete’s coffee, and that first night of sleeping in the A/C in Kombo after months of hot interrupted sleep. We come to the end exhausted in every way possible, feeling as though we aged ten years too soon. But we lived through the raw absurdity of this place and never felt more alive. Now, holding those bag of gems close, it’s time to go home.

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