Friday, February 5, 2010

While waiting for the bus (late at night)

Dear Developing World,

Yes, I joined Peace Corps to try to help make a difference, specifically to (a) try to understand and gain an appreciation of what the situation is in terms of infrastructure and privilege for most of the world (b) try to help offset the resources I've used to get the education I have by using said education to help other people (c) learn a new way of looking at interactions culturally and linguistically (d) who are we kidding, it's a type of tourism.

Yes, I have had a tremendous number of privileges in my life, from growing up with medical care and more-than-adequate nutrition in a culture that allows women to become professionals and attend school to being lucky enough to have the demonstrable intellectual wherewithal to study at a prestigious university. Yes, I have never truly known hunger, thirst, deprivation, lack of a loving and supportive family, or the flat-out lack of resource to overcome any hurdle in my life. We have always had toilet paper. Yes, I have always had more clothes than I can wear, more food than I strictly needed to eat, more clean water than I could use to drink/bathe/flush the toilet and more leisure time and activities than much of the world. Yes, even now, I have more disposable income than most families see in a year. Or two. Yes, in two years (or thereabouts) I shall be returning to AmericaLand, where I, too, shall do nothing but wear nice clothes, drink beer, and behave in a scandalizing manner. Oh, and you've seen through my clever ruse, so I might as well admit here and now that I plan to exploit the knowledge of your language (which you are giving me for free) by capitalizing on the vast demand for Pulaar teachers in the U.S., cheating you out of the royalties to which you are so justly entitled.

Given this, I can certainly understand why you seem to think that I have the magical ability to transport everyone I meet to America where I will subsequently give you a green card from the stash in my desk so that you can all be fat, rich, and happy without doing a lick of work just like all the other Americans in the world. I also see why you think that I would love to give you whatever it is that I happen to be using when you see me, whether it's the pen I'm using to write a letter or the bicycle that I use to get from my village site (where I have my own hut and latrine--I know I'm spoiled) to town (where I use the Internet and have electricity, a kitchen, and a refrigerator at my disposal). It also makes a lot of sense to think that I would be delighted to drop whatever it is that I'm doing and become everyone's free private English tutor, introduce you to A-kon, and buy you lots of presents with my neverending supply of cash. Don't think I don't appreciate the effort you make to save me trouble, telling me that I could just give you the money and you'd do the work of buying your own cadeaux. I know that many of you think I'm a complete imbecile for coming here to live and work in these conditions when I have a university degree (well, two) from one of the best institutions in the world (even if it is in dire financial straits).

I understand that in your position, I might do the exact same thing, have the same expectations, and be at least as maddening to you, were you in mine. I know that we will never be granted the chance to reverse the circumstances, allowing me to see the world through your eyes, and you to see theworld through my expensive prescription glasses. And really, I do get it that we are different. I know I'm a different color, and would remember that fact without being reminded every time I ride my bike past a compound with children. I know you can't fully control your children, so I don't hold it against you. At least, not every day, and not seriously. I know you have no control over where you were born, nor into what circumstances, and it would be unreasonable of me to expect you to NOT desire at least some chance at the privileges I've had so far in my life.

But Peace Corps service is about reciprocity, my friends, and while I know that you, unlike me, did not all sign up for this experience of having me live in your country, with my strange, strange ways...I'm here, now. And simply because I have chosen to be here is not a reason to hold the accidents of my birthplace, native culture, privilege, and skin color against me--many of you know this. If you want me to go home, tell me so. Until that time, please remember that you pride yourselves on your hospitality. I know you know it, because you've told me. What I'm not sure you realize is that I have as little responsibility for the disparity in our levels of privilege as you do.

Perhaps that's taking it a bit far. Certainly, in the most immediate sense, it is my fault: I do not regularly hand over any gifts. I am the only one responsible for the fact that you do not have my bike, my money, my clothes, my flashlight, my camera, my bank card, my cell phone, my passport, or my promise to bring you to the land of All Play and No Work (for what it's worth, I haven't been there since I was about 10 anyway). You, on the other hand, would remedy this if you could. But what good would it do you to have my stuff, the stuff I brought to Senegal?

It's true that I could spare all of it with relative ease. Except for maybe the passport (although I do have two...). But what would you do with the flashlight, cell phone, bike or camera? You'd use it for light, talk on it, ride it, or take pictures with it. It would break (things do, here, with distressing frequency). You might fix it. Eventually it would break beyond repair. And what would that have done for you? You'd have some pictures, you'd have had some conversations, and you'd have gone some places, in the dark and in the light (and oh the beauty of the conundrum, sometimes both at once!). But would it really change the quality of your life? What if I gave you my money and clothes? Well, you could wear the clothes. But they wouldn't last you longer or be any better than the ones you can get for 500 FCFA at the secondhand clothes boutiques here (by now, those are probably a better bet for long life anyway--my clothes are trashed). And if you had the money, you would probably not send your children to school, have better medical care, or higher quality food: you'd buy a motorcycle. Or have a party. Or have a motorcycle party.

Yet, while I am generally in favor of going places, having light, taking pictures, wearing clothes, and having parties (and even motorcycles!), I'm not here to give those things to you. I'm here to do my best to help you get them yourselves. You tell me why:
(a) It's more fun that way.
(b) I like to see you suffer. (That's why I came all the way over here. Those starving-kid ads just weren't doing the trick anymore.)
(c) In spite of the fact that none of the disparity in our standards of living is my fault, I do feel some level of responsibility.
(d) I don't like to share what I have, especially when it will deprive me of the least little comfort.

And, who am I kidding, you and I both know that it's a grand adventure to visit someone else's country and learn about their culture.


PS Heading up to the Dakar region for a month, taking the late/early bus, and should have my computer before March, lord willin' and the cricks don't rise.