Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Roller Coaster

So the traditions that Pulaars cling to are disappearing rapidly from Senegal; some of them just seem like the hollow shell of a great cultural institution that used to exist. There are only a few traditional craftsmen and artisans in the region; most products are Made In China, sold in Diaobe, and other Senegalese market places. Even a lot of traditional agricultural knowledge and techniques have been traded in for a dangerous dependence on hand-outs, fertilizers, pesticides, and government subsidies. So what is tradition really?
Lately, I have been at a very low dip on the emotional roller coaster that is Peace Corps Senegal (though I must say I'm handling it gracefully!) From down here, tradition looks like nothing more than an exucse, usually used as a tool to subpress women.

First, there are the uneven workloads, masked as "separate but equal" divisions of labor. The young men take turns working in the fields, or helping to build a hut or latrine, usually in the morning. But almost the entire afternoon and evening is devoted to sitting and drinking tea, maybe listening to music. The older men have "meetings," extended greetings and reassurances of how happy they all are that they've met, but it's never a discussion: the outcome was decided before the meeting ever happened. They also enjoy sitting and drinking tea.
Meanwhile, they women and girls of all ages work 24-7 cleaning, cooking, gathering firewood, pulling water, gardening, taking care of childrne, selling their produce at market, and serving their male relatives. I've seen men call their wives away from breastfeeding their children across the compound to bring them cold water when all the while they were sitting two feet from the water pot. To refuse a work order or take a break only invites criticism; it's untraditional. Maybe my demo garden project is stalled again because all my counterparts and collaborators are male...
On top of these even workloads, there is ubiquitous violence against women. Since a man "owns" his wife  (in Pulaar language), and literally paid a bride price to her family to marry her, if she disappoints him, he feels he has the right ot hit her. The other week, my brother beat up his wife (my best friend in village) for coming late to dinner; she had been returning a bowl to our neighbors and stay just a little too long chatting. She cried and screamed and then ran away back to her parents' home bruised when it was over. Host brother tried to come justify himself to me - I just called him disrespectful, kicked him out of my hut. My sister came back the next morning looking defeated - the whole incident was completely about power and really got under my skin. So I told the whole village the beating a person is disrespectful; people have language and we should  use that to solve our problems. My neighboring volunteer's host sister gotten beaten up this week, too - he broke her wrist when she accused him of looking for a second wife. Of course, domestic violence is not just a problem in Senegal; it took the life of my classmate back home last week, which was horrible, shocking news to receive here. What's really terrible in Senegal is how acceptable wife beating is - it's tradition.

Then there is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) - violence against helpless little girls by the people the trust most: their parents and grandparents. FGM is extremely prevalent in the Kolda region of Senegal, especially among Pulaar peoples. It is tradition to circumcise young girls; in the past, this was an elaborate ceremony in which the elders taught girls about reproductive health and their responsibilities as women of the community. Since FGM become outlawed a couple years ago, the whole thing has gone dangerously underground. Relatives snatch up girls and cut away part of their genitals in unsanitary conditions, often several girls to one not-so-clean razor blade or kitchen knife. This is a great way to spread diseases, but the wounds can fester and parents are too afraid of prosecution to bring their daughters to get medical attention. Some girls bleed to death, like the girl who died Wednesday in a neighboring village. FGM causes permenant damage depending on how the wound heals: troubles or pain with urination, pain during sex, and dangerous complications and bleeding during childbirth, especially for women without access to hospitals, i.e. most girls here. I don't know where this tradition started, but the shell that's left today in the Fuladu seems targeted at making girls hurt and an attempt to control female sexuality.

Then there are the traditions surrounding marriage. My 14 year old cousin was married off earlier this month to a relative in his late twenties; my uncle is building a new house with the bride money. I almost cried when I found out my 15 year old sister's marriage was secured Tuesday to an older cousin. No one has told her about it yet; she's only heard a rumor from her friend. I hated to be the bearer of bad news; she doesn't want to get married yet - her dream is to finish high school. She brags that she's never had to repeat a grade of school, something many Senegalese cannot boast. Unfortunately, marriage is not a girl's decision; it is worked out amongst the elders of the family. Whether or not Mainmouna gets to go to high school may be her new husband's choice.
And, oh yeah, Islam let's men take up to four wives. (Long debate as to the qualifications for and implications of polygamy as specified in the Koran and Hadith will not be discussed here, but there's lots of good info out there if you are interested.) What's got me down is how dangerous this can be for the sexual health of women. West Africa has some of the highest rates of cervical cancer; continuous reinfection of HPV in polygamous households could be the culprit. Not to mention the psychological impacts on women and children. Or the expenses of buying a new wife - money that could be spent on fedding, clothing, and sending children to school. Kolda has the highest rates of malnutrition and illiteracy in the country; in my opinion, no one here can afford a second wife. But it's never the woman's choice.

Apparently, that goes for sex too. If a girl has gotten herself into a sticky situation or showed the slightest bit of interest in a guy, if he wants to sleep with her, she can't stop it. Even decicions about her body and sexuality are predictated. So rape is not a very well understood concept here. When an eleven year old gets knocked up by her elementary school principal, or a volunteer is attacked and violated, there initiative and reaction in the community is reluctant to confrontation. Chasing the principal from town or bringing the rapist to court to be sentenced to "probation" whatever that means, leave much wanted. Just sweeping the problem under carpet, or off to rape more children in other villages, instead of getting to the heart of the problem. It is the tradition to be unconfrontational and force harmony to stay in a community already broken.

Every "tradition" in this society appears to be melting away in favor of cellphones, French school systems, motorcycles, hair extensions from India, and of course Made In China everything, until all that's left is sticky glob of excuses for why men can abuse women and why women must kowtow and bear their hardships silently, but gracefully.

Last week, all these events and thoughts came crashing down on me hard, pulling me down to the lowest I have been since I got here, probably the lowest I've ever been. I felt real hopeless about initiating any sort of change or accomplishing any meaningful work during my Peace Corps service. For a couple days, I convinced myself that I hated all men; then I remembered my dad, my brother, and a couple of truly exceptional guy friends that helped me end my crazy self declared war on everything male. There were my great and patient volunteer neighbors and support system to pull me out of the rut, too.
And there are a few other glimmers of hope in my work. The girls club at the high school is starting to flourish and we have had a local midwife come in and answer all the girls' questions about their bodies, sexual health and pregnancies. they are learning and that knowledge will empower them to make healthy decisions for themselves. Jenae, Sam, and I are also planning a Girls Leadership Conference for the middle school students at the end of May. Middle school is a time when many girls drop out, or are forced out of school by early marriages and/or pregnancies.
This week of reflections has brought me a lot closer to the women and girls in my village. I spent Thrusday afternoon hiding out in my backyard with a bunch of 8-12 year olds, beading necklaces instead of doing all the chores and work the rest of the world expected from us. It was a nice escape for everyone - myself very much included.
And then there is the cherry on the cake - I cut off all my hair! I don't are what I look like anymore, and there is too much pressure put on women to look a certain way. (Eating disorders are here in Senegal too - pressure to look sexy.) Also, short hair is just easier to wash and going to sleep feeling clean is one of the few pleasures from home I still try to enjoy. So it's all gone: I buzzed the sides, cut the top, and am now rocking the mohawk in village. Unfortunately, it came out good, so they still think I'm pretty.... ha!


  1. Ally, this is such a heartfelt plea for the rights of Senagalese women. I don't know you at all, but I can see you have huge heart and Senegal and the Peace Corp are lucky to have you there. Clearly you are a beautiful person, keep up the good work, you never know what you may be accomplishing.

    Randy (Garrisons Dad, maybe you have seen him this week.)

  2. ally - i love you and i know that your work is going to make a meaningful impact on the people you're around. the world is a big place and you've got a big enough heart for it! i wish i could fly to you, give you a big hug and superhero-style kick some ass/sense into some men. oxox - shadea

  3. Dear Ally, You may not be able to change the entire country/world all at once but it sounds like you're having a heck of an impact where you are! Take it one day at a time. Your work is so meaningful and though it may not be the extreme change we all wish were possible overnight, you are definitely making a difference in these women's lives. Lots of Love coming your way, turn toward the West and you'll feel it hitting you! Love, Deirdre