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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life as a Manchild

Before I joined Peace Corps, I was told that being a white woman in Africa was like being a mix of a man and a woman.  So far, that hasn’t been the case.  Instead, I’ve been treated as a mix of a man and a small child.  A Manchild, if you will. 

In Senegal, one is not considered an adult until they get married.  Kids rarely attend school in my village, and even fewer pursue higher education, so the American cultural fixture of leaving the nest at 18 to go to college does not happen here.  Kids stay in their parents’ compounds, doing the same daily routines they’ve had for years, until they get married, usually around age 16-18.  After that, the new bride usually moves in with her husband’s family and becomes a teen mom soon after. 

Since I am not married yet, I am still a child in the eyes of my community, and as such, I am babied.  I have to inform the family of where I’m going and when I’ll be back whenever I leave the compound.  I have very little autonomy over what and when I eat.  I fought for weeks trying to convince my mom that I was capable of doing my own laundry before I gave up and started letting her do it. Men have approached my father to ask him to give me to them as a wife – even if I’m sitting there, I am not asked because it is not my decision.   I was looking forward to having a family here, because I thought it would help me integrate into Senegalese culture, and I suppose it is nice having people around that care about my safety.  That said, I had forgotten how much it sucked being a teenager with no real decision-making power, and it’s difficult being thrust back into that now that I’m a crotchety old lady.

The other half of the Manchild mix is the perception of me as a man.  This is admittedly really nice sometimes.  When I enter a compound, I’m equally comfortable gossiping with the women or talking farming with the men.  I don’t think I’d be able to switch gender roles as easily if I weren’t white.  I’m a foreigner, and that overrides gender.

The downside of the “man” part of Manchild is that this is a paternalistic society, and as a rich man I am seen as a patron.  Most interactions contain at least a few demands to buy something.  Yesterday, I bought tea and sugar for people to drink as my host sister was braiding my hair.  No one said thank you, and in fact I was told that I was stingy for not buying mint for the tea as well.  Last night, my host aunt told me there was no money for sauce for the dinner millet, so I had to go to the store and buy powdered milk and sugar to put in it.  Powdered milk and sugar are expensive (500 CFA or so), and usually the millet sauce is nothing more than hot water and an MSG cube or two (25 CFA).  They either thought I had so much money I wouldn’t care, or that I was too stupid to know what the sauce was made of, so this would be a nice way to exploit a special treat out of me.  After all, I’m a toddler, so I can’t cook. How would I know the difference?

My host brother borrowed my bike a few days ago, and he casually mentioned that it had sprung a flat during his trip.  I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but today when I tried to pump it, I noticed that no matter how hard I pumped the tire wasn’t inflating.  Turns out that my brother had ridden so far on a completely flat tire that the metal rim had destroyed both the tube and the tire. He didn’t apologize or offer to pay for it, but he did say that my bike was very bad and I should buy a new one.  Presumably my host brother rationalized, like so many others here do, that I had more money than anyone else in town, so I should be the one that pays for everything, regardless of fault.  When I was still fuming about that, I brought the bike to the mechanic in my town (AKA the guy who owns a few wrenches and can usually figure bike stuff out if he’s not too busy sitting). He had guests over, so I had to deal with several men slowly and exasperatedly explaining to me how to use my bike pump, since clearly I had been too stupid to notice that the tire was flat.  After they realized that the tire wouldn’t inflate and I really did need the mechanic’s help to fix it, they immediately started giving me exorbitant price estimations for parts and labor.  I’m as dumb as an infant, and I’m rich, so it’s OK to squeeze all the money they can out of me.

The dichotomy between being a baby, so stupid and helpless that I can’t even go out at twilight (lest evil spirits get me), and being a wealthy benefactor at the same time is frustrating beyond measure. Everyone wants my stuff and my money, but no one cares who I am or what I have to say.  This is annoying on a personal level, but it has troubling implications for my future projects here as well.  I’ve already noticed that when I try to do any behavior change communication (such as explaining why hand washing is a good idea and letting kids play with pesticide sprayers is a bad idea) my messages usually fall on deaf ears.  Why should anyone listen to the advice of a little kid?  I think many people would prefer it if I just dumped money on the town and left, as countless other development workers have done.

Of course, the reason I’m treated like a child is because I still talk like one.  It has been less than six months since the first time I heard the word “Fulakunda.”  I can explain and understand many things, but I’m not fluent.  This is a small village with limited experience with non-native speakers, and most people have trouble understanding my thick foreign accent.  Since so few people are educated, there is little patience for the difficulty of learning another language. Since four year olds can talk better than me, clearly four year olds must be smarter than me - they “get it” and I don’t.  As an additional barrier, some people associate the educational level of an individual with the amount of French they know.  I have had to explain to dozens of people that although I do not speak French, I really did attend school.  One man’s jaw dropped when I told him that I had gone to enough school to have gotten my BAC (roughly equivalent to a high school diploma, but rarely achieved in Senegal) but that my schooling was all conducted in English.  I tried to tell him I went to college and grad school, too, but I don’t think he understood.  His mind was too blown.

I’m going to leave it here.  I hope this didn’t sound whiney.  I really do like most people in my village, and I’m very happy I’m here.  I love the Peace Corps, and if I knew everything I know now during the application process, I would still do it.  There are more pros than cons, and I’m optimistic that I’m making a positive difference by being here.  Every day, I understand more about my community than I did the day before, and I think the rough patch I’m going through right now will work itself out in time.  That said, parts of the culture are giving me a lot of trouble, and I haven’t found any ways to deal with my frustrations yet other than angry journaling.  Do you have any suggestions?