Friday, April 30, 2010
Human Rights Watch Report: Off the Backs of the Children: Forced Begging and Other Abuses Against Talibes in Senegal
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Monday, April 19, 2010
Sunday, April 18, 2010
We experience Senegal in a wide variety of ways. It's like being around a swimming pool. A few of us are, for a variety of reasons, uncomfortable in the water, or being around water, so we resist getting wet. These non-swimmers remain on the pool deck, or are content to sit on the side of the pool and dangle their feet in the water. Almost all of us enjoy being in the water -- splashing and laughing with our friends, playing with our pool toys. A few of us have swim goggles and explore the waters below the surface, scanning the pool bottom, only to discover that, in Senegal, we're hovering above a coral reef. From the surface, the bottom is colorful and vibrant with life, and many are content to observe it from a distance. A few of us are divers, and set ourselves to explore the ecology of the reef, which is the culture/s of Senegal.
Life is, however, seldom so simple and linear, save in our conception of it. We are complex organisms, with a great many parts, constantly shifting, inhabiting both an external physical world and an internal psychological world. Thus, the pool is within us, as are each of the participants -- the one who is water-shy, the playful child, the observer, and the explorer. Perhaps there is a center-of-gravity: we can characterize ourselves as tending to gravitate to the pool deck, or tending to play with our friends, or tending toward solitary exploring.
Our response to the setting is dependent upon the context -- our mood, our motivation, the level of our interest, our disposition.
* * *
Tim Jensen and his three middle school-age daughters, from Monterey, California, recently spent eleven days visiting Senegal, hosted by their former teachers and friends -- Mike D. and Devon S., Randi and I. They certainly received the tour deluxe, seeing/experiencing many sides of Senegal, both in and around Dakar, and outside the city, in the quiet of the rural village.
I asked that Tim share his impressions of his time with us in Senegal, and reflect on his return home. Here’s his response:
We had an uneventfully long flight back to this reality. Leopold Senghor airport was crowded. We were befriended by an airport employee in a suit and tie who helped these struggling toubabs through the lines and gates. His English was not extensive, but he could see that we were bewildered. He took us out of the customs line and ushered us through a private room ahead of at least 75+ other people shuffling slowly along. He received a good tip. On the plane the girls slept. I contemplated.
We arrived in New York with 10 hours until our connecting flight left for San Francisco. I decided on some shock therapy that might uncover the underlying cause for my post-Senegal malaise. We toured the Big Apple by taxi: Grand Central Station, Empire State Building, Central Park, Astoria Hotel, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center site, blah, blah, blah. It was mind-blowing, un-settling. It was America. The girls were unimpressed and slept through it. I was quietly proud of them. I also felt as if I were a stranger in a strange land, an observer of an alien race and place.
Customs and check-in was efficient. My regard for TSA greatly improved. They were actually friendly and helpful, not like my first oppressive and officious encounter. Our flight was delayed an hour and crowded. Both the airport runways and the plane itself were over-booked. It was another long flight and the flight crew was noticeably less friendly than the international flight crews. The flight was 7-hours and girls were hungry and cold. There were no pillows or blankets and no food other than coke and pretzels. I couldn't do anything but try to sleep. Short cat naps interrupted by my seat neighbors need to order beers and pretzels, use the toilet, jostle in their seats, watch movies with the sound turned way-up on the headphones, and my own need to circulate blood to my butt and legs. We arrived in San Francisco to wind, cold, and rain. Was it a sign or just wind, cold and rain? The extremes just kept occurring.
My sister picked us up and took us to her home in San Jose where beds were already made-up and waiting for us. It was mid-night and our beds received us with loving embraces. We slept soundly through the night. I was up at 7:00 with the sounds and sights of Senegal still buzzing around inside my brain. I was determined to be home, to be whole.
I was un-settled but didn't know why. I was struggling with the question you asked, "what is the most significant thing about Senegal that you will take back with you; what impressed you?" There was so much to decipher and sift through, new perspectives to adjust and focus. One feeling was very real: I left a part of me in Senegal and I was definitely taking some of Senegal home. Even now I have Saharan dust in my hair; Peugeot diesel in my lungs; bissap and bouye in my veins; jellyfish toxin and palm tree fibers in my skin; thiéboudieune in my belly; and a kaleidoscope of countless and fantastic images swirling like a dust-devil in the vastness of my mind. But these are just the surface. There was something else.
Was it the garbage everywhere? Yeah, it was unbelievable, but nothing out-of-the ordinary when you consider what happens to any city in America when the garbage workers union goes out on strike. In Senegal I was unaware of any signs of garbage service. No garbage can or dumpster anywhere. I dread to see what would happen if every American was suddenly responsible for their own garbage. Air pollution? Basically diesel. At least with diesel you know what you're breathing. Here in America you can't smell all the car exhaust you breath-in every day, or the changes to global climate we're causing. On the other side, I saw extreme effort in cleanliness. I just had to look at the clothes -- beautifully colorful and clean while surrounded by dirt and dust. The villages were all made of dirt but even there it was swept regularly. No, the extremes of the human environment and cleanliness, though obvious, were not the most significant impression. These were just on the surface.
There are so many extremes to make comparisons of. Even the crumbling streets, buildings, cars, and neighborhoods are not all that different from what would happen to any first world country under similar circumstances. No, there was something else. Something else I was leaving behind and regretting. The baobabs and the landscape? No. Senegal is definitely a different landscape but nature is nature in all its beauty and wonder wherever you go. The baobab is as unique, as is the Giant Sequoia.
Was it the Senegalese themselves? Maybe. Was it the way they lived their lives? I don't think so. We all struggle in one way or another and do what we need to do. Becaye Diop and I shared the same values that only Dad's can share. I saw the same traits in Marie Suzzane's mom as in my own. I experienced the same hard work that the street vendors put out every day that the farm workers do here and the street vendors do in San Francisco. The alienation, desperation, and resignation I sensed in Senegal I have seen here, even in affluent suburbs. I have also here seen and sensed over the joy, happiness, and friendship I felt in Senegal. So what was it I left behind and what is it I've taken with me?
For a brief moment I shared the essence of what makes us human in a place as exotic and extreme as Senegal with you all and your Senegalese friends and family -- even the lady at the bakery. Going to Senegal was an emotionally and psychologically significant event for me (us) and you were all there to support and sustain that event by generously sharing yourselves and embracing me and my daughters into your lives and reality. I was made to feel welcome, liked, cared for and about. There was also a palpable sense of "here and now" wherever we went and with whomever we met, even the street vendors. Something westerners spend billions on trying to learn to do just seemed to come naturally to Senegalese, and to you toubabs as well. There isn't a religion I've read about that doesn't preach the necessity of living in the "here and now" as a requisite for inner peace. This is what I felt and what, to me, was the most memorable experience I have brought back -- the one thing that is truly different between my world here and the world I experienced in Senegal. Senegal is definitely NOT experienced with only eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands; or in the "bubble". Senegal has a spirit that can only be experienced by toubabs through genuine "here and now" connection with its people on their terms and in their realities. Thank you all for a most excellent adventure.
What I left behind was the human connectedness that isn't seen, only felt -- something rare over here because of the fast and superficial pace of life, something New York (and Casino) reinforced quite adequately. I (we) would have had a completely different experience without you all. I dreamed of being lost in Dakar the first night and felt the disconnected alienation of being an invisible stranger when trying to figure out what was what at Senghor Airport. Both experiences were not pleasant. What made Senegal so wonderful was you all. What I have brought back is an enlarged sense of community. I've brought you all back with me -- Yoro, Becaye, the bakery lady, the airport employee, the kids, the stranger at Isle Ngor beach, everyone. My imagination, my world, my perception of reality, all are enlarged and altered. I feel closer to wholeness than when I left here.
* * *
I'm still trying to sort things out. While sitting at my desk at work this afternoon trying to wade through the e-mails, p-mail, and phone messages, I just needed to stop. I couldn't focus. I stared out my third-story, heated (it's still windy, cold, and raining) office-building window and drifted back to the land of baobabs and street markets. It struck me that while in Senegal I experienced the full range of universal social expression one would expect among human beings: silence, laughter, anger, joy, resignation, involvement, openness, contempt, all of it. What I experienced wasn't anything I hadn't experienced here in the good ol’ USA.
The twist was that environment had no apparent relationship to behavior. Senegal and the USA are at the extremes of material wealth and Senegalese and Americans are no different socially. Oh yeah, there are social class differences and demographic differences, but we all exhibit the same range of social expression. So material wealth and poverty have no real meaning when it comes to how people relate to each other. For all the ridiculous, immoral, and outrageous wealth that is concentrated in the USA, our society is no better than Senegal's. Wealth is immaterial. All wealth does is make living easier, more convenient, and less labor intensive. What it doesn't do is make you friendlier, happier, wiser, more generous, transparent, honest, genuine, respectful, courteous, trustworthy, or empathetic. If it did the USA would be a country of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Senegal would be a country of sinners and criminals.
My experience in Senegal has showed me otherwise. In fact, the people of Senegal showed me that they are much more socially advanced than we are. Despite all the poverty and lack of even simple material goods there are no fewer happy, friendly, helpful, honest people than there are here in terms of relative population. However, I would flee in a heartbeat to Senegal if America were to switch places overnight. In America looting is common when natural disasters strike a community. In Senegal the street vendors can leave their goods out on the street unattended and come back the next morning without a thing disturbed. This is what is disturbing my brain, putting me into psychological dis-ease. For all our material wealth we Americans, as a society, are no better, and arguably inferior, to Senegalese when measured by our human relationships. I have no doubt that I could be more socially content in Senegal than I am here in the USA because of the "here and now" nature of Senegalese society. My interpersonal and social relationships there would be deeper and more open than what I have experienced here The only difference would be the ease and convenience of living. Is giving up a richer life worth the ease and convenience of just living? Why is material wealth the measure of human progress when it does nothing for social progress?
One week ago today at this time I was being taxied through downtown NY while in what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience; as if I was outside the cab watching us drive around in and around all the organized chaos. I remember thinking that I had formed this reductionist cliche of Dakar as a city on the move to nowhere but as I was whisked in and around NY I realized that it too was a city on the move to nowhere. The people in NY reminded me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers; bodies without souls. I never felt that way in Dakar. When I think about it, more often than not when I greet people here I get a surprised look or a quick Pavlovian "hi" back. In Senegal I would get a coy, shy, or embarrassed look and a quiet, look-you-in-the-eye, greeting from women and a genuine smile and warm-feeling maaleekum salaam back from men. Occasionally I would get no reply and they, sometimes a man and sometimes a woman, would just look straight ahead and not even look (kinda like toubabs do to street vendors). But I do have to say that that response was a rare exception but all too typical here. And the children, they were something else; all smiles from ear to ear. And something inside me says it was genuine, not just because I was a peculiar-looking toubab, even for a toubab. On-the-street kids here are much more cautious around strangers, even peculiar ones like me.
Well, it's been a week and my attempts at painting a verbal 3-dimensional picture of my experiences in Senegal are like out-of-body experiences where I am watching this conversation of me trying to re-live the moments there to someone completely out of context here. It's wierd. I don't think I can adequately explain so others can feel what sort of impact Senegal had on a family of toubab, or what we felt or learned while there, or how definitions of reality have changed and blurred. Dr. Taylor's TEDTalk was much more meaningful now than it would have been if I had heard it before I experienced Senegal.
As for me one week later? I've never been much of a TV or radio junkie but now even the little bit I did watch and listen to seems pointless; such a waste of time when there are people and life outdoors to experience. My world is sooo much different now. I feel more pleasure riding the road I take every day to work. Asphalt never seemed so wonderful before. Now all the comforts of civilization have taken-on new sensuality; the visibly clean air, the smooth-surfaced roads, the relative order that stripes on the road and signs bring, building codes and planning procedures, garbage service, honest cops, ... everything that makes life in America convenient. Strangely though, I feel I could do just fine without it all and miss the hectic chaos, unpredictability, smell, color, and social vibrancy of Senegal.
I feel there is unfinished business for me in Senegal. Maybe its a symptom of first love; once experienced it takes you over. On the other hand, I'm too old to be infatuated; next time will be less awkward experiment and more purposeful discovery.