The Best Job You'll Ever Love
I think the individual reasons we all have for thrusting ourselves into the African bush for two years - for leaving all we've known for days of utter confusion and doubt - colors each of our experiences. Some of us came to experience the culture and to live it, not just watch it. We find ourselves in the daily cooking rotation along with the rest of the compound wives, baby strapped to our back and eyes burning as we strain to see the sauce through the smoke and heat of the flames. Some of us come to help, to teach, to alleviate pain or ignorance. We put our all into our work - often taking on more work then is necessarily healthy. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we suffer through the work alongside a counterpart - both convinced we are working for the good of the country and our people. Sometimes, and sadly it seems to often, we work through endless days doing more than our fair share of the work in a fruitless attempt to set an example to our counterparts as they sit in the shade of a mango tree sipping sweet greet tea through the day as the recount the numerous ways in which "Africa is not easy." We work hard because while we weren't watching our culture slipped in a fairly large dose of work ethic between the hedonism and neuroticism. We work hard and we fume that others do not do the same to help their own country. And we wonder if this place has any hope at all.
Sometimes as a result we completely withdraw and try to make a little slice of America in this tiny strip of sand on the West African coast. We escape to the city and eat crepes, dance at dirty clubs that host clientele with questionable morals and watch movies. Eventually guilt catches up with us and we head back to village again - eager to start work and convincing ourselves that this time it will be different. We'll develop people, not things, we will not once wish was had electricity and we will learn to finally enjoy the bitter sourness of the oranges that are never orange.
For me, I'm a little of each of these scenarios. I often find myself in a strange middle ground with no clear rules or expected behavior. I fetch water and carry it on my head, gossip with village women, casually flick a centipede off my sleeping mat and can drink attaya as I stare away the day with the best of them. But all of these traits that I couldn't imagine myself possessing a year ago will never make me Gambian. The people of the village laugh at their toubab and tell me I'm a real Gambian now because I can speak the language and perform the assigned tasks for my gender, but no matter how many traits and skills I assume no matter how many years I live among them - I will never be one of them. But I am no longer just another toubab tourist here either. I can chat with people and tell jokes using Gambian humor.... "You Cessays, you eat too much! (insert hearty laughter). I know when someone is being rude to me because he would never grab his sister's arm and shout, I teach their children, I cook their food, I understand that a leather amulet on their babies waist is to protect her from evil spirits who might want to enter her in the night causing stomach pains, I eat millet and ground tree leaves and actually like it. I am no longer as American as I was when I came.
I know to much now to go home and forget. Forget that Ida is in grade four for the third time because while she can speak English she can't read, forget that Ammadou has just started nursery school at age eight because his father didn't have the money to send him, forget the Jabou will never know a life other then backbreaking labor with a husband that no longer loves her and has brought another wife into her home as proof. I can't go back and look at all my smiling picture of my friends from village and convince myself..."but they are so happy." My friends know what is out there to get in the world and they want more too, sometimes they just don't know the best way to get it or their cultural obligations stand in the way. I can't just walk away and say they are hopeless and doomed to poverty as a result. Maybe I'm not one of them, but for a couple of months they let me live with them and pretend I was. They made me want to fight all the harder to make this thing called "development" work - not for their GDPs and their leaders - but for them. So Sillah can be paid a proper salary to allow him to continue teaching, a job that he loves. So Mariama can concentrate on school and know at the end of it she will be able to find a job and a husband and not be punished because she is too educated to marry. So Ansel can finally afford the cement to build her renter's compound, something that she has been saving for for five years but always remains just out of reach, and will guarantee financial stability for her family and business.
I came to learn and I certainly have. The process has been fraught with frustrations, confusion, laughter, painful realizations, guilt, hope, more confusion and even more questions but it has been a process I am thankful I have traveled. And as for helping - for saving the world - I've done a little and will hopefully do more in the future. One person can't save the world but we can do our part in small ways to help and maybe someday improve the situation. This process has been defeating at times but I am not ready to give up yet. I'm not ready to totally remove help from these countries, from these people. We, the West/North/Babylon (one of the many slang words Gambians have for the all of the rest of the world that is not Africa), created so many of the problems we blame the "Africans" for - since we created them I feel we have to help clean them up. But to succeed at that instead of just making dependency worse, as we have time and time again, we have to stop treating them like uncivilized "Africans" and start treating them like the equals they are and hold them accountable for their failings as well as their successes.