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!

Projects Accomplished!

The Goundaga Latrine Project was officially completed April 8, thoguh most people finished digging and covered their latrines before the deadline. Now every compound has a latrine! The village is very happy about the project and proud of their new latrines... so I got a couple awkward photos of people posing in their bathrooms. However, my counterpart recently visited Saare Naapo, a village just a couple kilometers down the road, and word is that in their village of 300 there is just one latrine at the Health Hut, which is usually locked unless somebody is sick and using the facility. So we are looking to do some more latrine projects in surrounding villages in the near future.

Maria, the awesome Agroforestry volunteer in Jaxanke land, and I almost completed a project in just 2 days - until it all fell apart... I went to visit her in the village of Madjaly to help build a solar fruit drier. Madjaly is in the Tambacounda region, which just happens to be one of the hottest regions in Senegal. Nevertheless, we sweated through it, brought all the materials out to the village and set up shop. First, we had to saw. The good hardware stores usually do this for you, but we're still new to the area and didn't know where the good hardware store was. So we cut two 4m long boards in half, long ways, and then into the right length planks. Drenched in sweat, coated in sawdust, and dizzy from dehydration, we were pround to see all the pieces cut and ready for assembly. So we took a break for lunch and a short siesta, and then jumped back to work: her family thought we were crazy.
Apparently, the quality of wood and nails available at the not-so-great hardware store in Tamba is pretty low. Every nail hammered in, hammered another one out somewhere on the frame. We've both built some things in the US before and the solar drier project seemed like it would be a quick job. It turned into a never ending Looney Tunes-esque fiasco, with us pounding away only to destroy that which we were building. Frustrated and overheated, we hid the evidence in her backyard and headed to the orchards to snack on cashew apples and collect seeds. But seed collection is very important agroforestry work so we still felt accomplished, though definitely humbled. And tired that night, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of corn leccere (fine grain couscous) and peanut-bean sauce. And for dessert: melted chocolate Lindt truffles! Thank you Maria's mother!

Finally, I must mention the Kolda Food Transformation Fair, which is really the work of three gifted Peace Corps volunteers in the city of Kolda. The rest of us volunteers in the region came oout to support them and help out at the fair. I'm not sure if I was much help, seeing as I couldn't even convince my coutnerpart to come to the fair, but I did enjoy sampling all the food products. I brought a bunch back to village show the could see (and taste!) the wonderful food transformation ideas for themselves. Unfortunately, as enthusiastic as they seemed about trying the products, no one seemed enthusiastic about trying to make them for themselves. Frustrated! Some days it seems the village will forever grow only millet, cotton, peanuts, and okra to be sold at the lowest prices and everyone just losing money: absolute lack of motivation! Most of the motivated people are so overbooked, busy, and overwhelmed outside of the village; the people left behind seem content to keep living their lives the way they always have, just barely getting by and sticking to dilapidated traditions - villagers readily admit the elders had a ton of knowledge and agrocultural skills that they never passed down.