Monday, December 12, 2011

Food Dreams / Village Politics

Hello everyone!

Since I came to this country, I've been having taunting dreams about food. Usually they go like this: I order a pizza and right when I pay for it, I wake up. Or, I walk into a Taco Bell or Burger King and I'm verbally stunned at the menu, I ask someone else to order for me and right before I get the food I wake up. OR... I'm about to bite into a large hamburger, and I wake up....

But recently -- and I think it's because I'm about to come home for a Christmas and New Year vacation -- I've been able to bite into the food I order. A few days ago I ordered a hamburger in a dream, and I actually got to take a bite or two. The rub is that I woke up absolutely disgusted at how it tasted. Two days ago it improved a little bit; I received a large hot dog with ketchup and mustard, took a bite and it tasted... like a hot dog with ketchup and mustard. Then I woke up. Things are improving! Today I could have sworn I smelled fresh bagels cooking somewhere, but I think that was just a fluke of some sort.

All joking aside, my work here in my village of Niandouba has been great recently! In November and early December I held pretty successful meetings shaping my and my villagers' idea of creating an early childhood education and development center, what we are calling a Sudu Cukalon but what is officially named a Case des Tout-Petits (CTP). Today my host mother Mariama Diaw and I became the first two individuals to begin training at an established CTP in the road town Kounkane, 15km from Niandouba. All of this week her and I will be attending class there, 9am-1pm, teaching and playing with kids aged 3-5. Mariama has volunteered to be one of the support staff; she will attend the Sudu Cukalon one day a week and help teach and take care of the kids. This training is especially important because not only is she learning how a CTP is run, but she is gaining an understanding of the value of early childhood education, an issue which was deemed the most important issue at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in 2000. Today, when I gave her $10 for the week for attending this training, she said "Oh Sakou, your paying me to learn?". She's a great mother and we will have soooo much fun this week.

And indeed, early childhood care and development is very important. I've been reading Wangari Maathai's most recent book (before she passed away this year, bless her) The Challenge for Africa and I believe that she would be proud of the direction my villagers and I are going with this and other projects. Maathai states that the dependency ubiquitous in Africa was not only generated by the more recent overabundance of aid, but colonialism and a detachment -- forced or defacto -- from culture and history also played a large part. Furthermore, this dependency is not at all perpetuated by some genetic or geographically-generated disposition to be relatively careless and "fatalistic" about the welfare of one's children and the future. It all comes back to a loss of culture. She prescribes a focus on strengthening the "culture of peace" inherent in many African cultures, a focus on the environment and environmental sustainability, and also a strengthening of Africa's future leaders, of civil participation and activism in general. She also says that to strengthen the leaders of tomorrow, ethics and leadership have to be taught from the beginning of a child's education to the last year of high-school; a topic only focused on at the university level across Africa. I believe that the tree planting, garden establishing, capacity building, and the increase in the quality of education that I'm doing in my village is hitting upon her prescriptions.
It's not all smooth sailing though. You'd think that people would be behind my ideas and projects, see and understand the obvious value, and want to help, but it's my current perception that village politics are getting in the way of things. A few examples:
  1. I was recently told that I can't use the building I wanted to house the Sudu Cukalon because it is a "health structure" and a group of health officials have refused access to it for anything but health projects that they are informed of and condone.
  2. Whenever I try to have a meeting, it's like pulling teeth trying to get people to attend. The mechanisms that are in place to inform people when a village meeting is scheduled seem to be off access to me in many cases, even though I am told by many villagers of high standing that "everyone will be notified".
  3. There is this feeling that people want to be paid to help themselves. If I have an idea for a project and I need a little bit of volunteer assistance it becomes difficult to mobalize people, even after they've publicly volunteered. To quote Wangari Maathai: It's as though I'm expected to compensate them for helping themselves.
These issues are overcome though, through something I've been learning about firsthand called politics. Politics on the village level is much like the politics we know back in the states, and I use many tactics that I've learned from paying attention to the news all my life. I constantly remind people that what we are doing is for the children, and that I'm just a volunteer. If I have no children, and I'm volunteering to help them, then why shouldn't they? I also have an ace up my sleeve that I can use at any time, the wonderful director of our primary school Director Mussa Coly Balde. Last night I came to him after dinner updating him on a few things, and I told him that some of the potential staff for the Sudu have come off to me as wishy-washy. I also told him about the problem of the Ministry of Health (MoH) officials prohibiting use of the building we planned to use for the Sudu.

Last night, from around 8 o'clock to 11 o'clock he and I went on a reprimanding campaign all over the village. We arrived at the house of the potential teacher and got a pretty convincing pledge to attend a week of training in Kounkane at the CTP.

We then went to the health worker Souba's house and YELLED quite a bit at him. He told us that we hadn't informed him adequately enough about our plans for using the building, and Director Balde flipped out at him, along with some other villagers that had chosen to approach the loud yelling next-door to their compounds. Souba played a large role in shaping this project, but when the MoH officials arrived in my village last week they decided themselves to start a project in the Sudu's building beginning in January, and consequently barred access to the building. I was not present in village at the time, nor was the village chief or Director Balde. Souba says when he informed them of our idea for the Sudu Cukalon, they verbally prohibited use of the building. Director Balde's grief was that he didn't fight for our idea and by condoning their prohibition he was setting up a blockade for the Sudu Cukalon, and oh boy did Balde show that grief.

Director Balde and I then stormed to my host father, the village chief Sakou Balde, and told him about what was happening. Sakou, in my perception, is not as involved in village happenings as he should be. If I was the leader of a group of 1000 people I have to admit that I would be the first to know everything, but he is not. Perhaps it's that he is over 50 years old, doesn't use his cell phone very often, barely greets the village, can't get people together for a meeting, and empirically cannot keep promises. He's a good host father, and he's getting better at helping me with my work, but I can think of two or three other host fathers in a 20-km radius that I'd rather have stand beside me. Sakou said that he would speak to Souba about what's going on, but only after Director Balde got in some scathing reprimands about not "grabbing the village like you should".

It's stressful and tough to watch this struggle, but Director Balde is being the voice that I cannot be. Balde is not from Niandouba, and that takes a chop at his credibility and village clout, but he is being the proxy I, and consequently and the future of Niandouba, needs. I wish I could tell him with a greater vocabulary, but a pat on the back, a straight look in the eyes and a thank you will have to do for now.

Although I believe that anything the MoH wants to do for the people of Senegal is in some ways more appropriate than the projects I'd like to do -- Senegal helping Senegal is better than me helping Senegal -- I don't need people putting up unnecessary roadblocks. A building is a building, not a political tool. A meeting is a chance to better understand ideas and issues, not a waste of time or an opportunity to posture or soapbox, or something to not believe in from the get-go. And a chief should act like one, not like just another villager. But it all comes back to value. Once people really understand the value of early childhood education I believe the tune of the village will change; the roadblocks will be removed and we will be able to move forward more fluidly. For now, we must just move forward and do the best we can.

Love you,

1 comment:

  1. Hi Costa,

    I always enjoy reading your blogs. Politics is part of everyday life. What I hear you describing is a culture of entitlement. Cultural shifts take time to evolve. So, don't be too hard on yourself or on others. Change takes time and effort.

    You will probably have to take baby steps to accomplish your goals. While that might be frustrating to you, it's equally frustrating for the villagers to think about things differently.

    I am looking forward to seeing you over the holidays.

    Take care,