Saturday, April 26, 2014


So I will start this by saying that it's meant to be a direct criticism of only myself. In fact I am even a little reluctant to write this post as it's not really my style of saying these things. But here it is since the feelings are fresh in my mind. I am in Senegal. And I've been wanting to say this for a while. My problem with aid:

I've been thinking about how to phrase this blog for months. I have told myself not to offend people and to be careful what I say to the (maybe) broad and opinionated audience reading my posts. But I think very recent events will serve as a great example for what needs to be said. A few weeks ago PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Senegal were contacted asking if they would like any soccer balls given to our country through some organization. My site mate and I said "yeah, sure" thinking there are plenty of schools here and plenty of kids who would like soccer balls. Fast forward a few weeks and I have 5 soccer balls and no idea what to do with them. I quickly realize how bad of an idea it is to just give these out. I want to do it in a way that does not look like I'm simply giving away free goods but I still need to take pictures of these kids with the soccer balls for the organization. So weeks go by and my little brother keeps asking me for one. 

Finally one day my mom comes to me and asks if a group of boys could have a ball for some planned activity the following afternoon. I figure, that's a good way to do this, have kids share it. So they get a ball. I take pictures. They play with the ball. And thanks to this, every day, every time I pass a kid in the surrounding kilometer of my house I get asked for a ball. That is not an exaggeration. Now I can deal with the question. I get requests like that almost 10 times a day from grown men and kids alike. It's a product of this joking culture and me being perceived as a rich "Toubab." What I get furious about though is the attitude behind these requests. By giving out this soccer ball I have contributed to the barrier of good work here in Senegal: the idea that "Toubabs" will give you things and you do not need to pay for them. 

I have had this conversation many times with Senegalese friends who understand my situation here. And I even got a sense of this before I came into the Peace Corps. But what I'm realizing more and more is that foreign aid that simply gives goods out is terrible for a community. I am not usually polarizing on issues like this but I now feel very strongly that way and want you all to know. So I'll repeat. Foreign aid that simply gives goods out is terrible for a community. To clarify what I mean exactly; 'foreign' in the fashion that it does not really know the country it's helping. It does not know the culture, language, or true needs. And like wise the host country does not know the donor or it's reasons for giving. 'Simply' means the gift is not accompanied by any knowledge or taught ability to get more of the good in the future. 'Goods' are finished products that have no ability to add capacity to a country. 'Terrible' is exactly what I mean to say. These communities end up worse off than if nothing happened at all. Not only does the good not last long but the community is left with the trash, the false perceptions, and the dependence. It is damaging in SO many ways. There is the attitude it leaves of dependence. That is harder to prove. But what I can prove is the awful prospect it creates for true investment. What legitimate company or entrepreneur can possibly thrive in a place where it's customers would rather wait out the next foreign giving session? None. 

The last of the negative I have to say is that I am very guilty of this. Years ago I started The Running Exchange (which I still believe has potential for a few reasons. To be continued...). But the main purpose of that was to send used running shoes to Kenya and to relieve some of the personal guilt I had. I did not research where they were going. I did not learn if anything else would work better. It was ignorant. Like I said, Kenya ended up with shoes that won't last, thankfulness to this mystery kid from CT, and no increased capacity. And now I'm in Senegal and nothing is continued. So, failure. 

But what can we do about this? Here's the good news. Help locally. Find an organization in your own community that has identified a need and solves it with local goods and local people power. This is the very best approach if you truly want to give to those who are in unfortunate positions. But if you really feel that you want to help Africa or developing countries on other continents, please do your research. If you are coming here please learn some local culture, language, and norms. And most importantly understand the needs of the community and assess the potential impacts of your work. If your option is monetary giving, the Peace Corps is a great option alongside host country-run NGOs, or American NGOs working in capacity building. This is why the bulk of my work here is in information sharing and market linkages. I will be helping some people in great financial need but only with the understanding that I work on useable skills with them afterwards. Because this is what lasts long and contributes to development. Knowledge and information get people ahead here. Not soccer balls and not used shoes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My First Ngenté

I just recently attended my first Senegalese naming ceremony or what's known as "Ngenté" in Wolof. I was fortunately given the cultural play-by-play from my friend and work partner Pape (pronounced 'pop') who invited me to come along. It was actually a pretty low-key affair considering how often these family gatherings evolve into large boisterous dance parties. We arrived to the event around 10AM. The baby's name had not been announced yet. Pape told me it is typical of Senegalese people to wait a week or two before announcing the name to friends and family at a party like this. So around 11:30 the "grands" (important older family members) came to the party to sit down and "waxtan" or discuss about family matters. The  name was announced as Baya Senghor and officially the party was over. But there was still much waxtan to do and food to eat. So the grands sat for another hour and a half to discuss and a dish called laxh was served to the crowd. It is a base of cooked millet balls (a little like grits) and topped with a sour milk and copious sugar mix. When I had this stuff for the first time back in October I was not too happy with it. But now, I love the stuff! I had two large bowls and didn't feel too good afterwards. But luckily I had some time to wait before lunch. 

After the sheep was ceremoniously slaughtered, Pape and I went on a long walk to work up our appetites. We came back to a pleasant smell filling the house and making all the sitting men salivate. Once we had eaten our fill of 'cheb u yapp' or rice and meat we said our goodbyes and made for the walk home. 

I had been to many gatherings before this one. I had even dressed up in a similar fashion and eaten similar foods with friends. But something about this reminded me so much of family celebrations back in America. The atmosphere was almost parallel. I met family from all over the country. And although quite complicated by different men having multiple wives, I just got the sense everyone had their roots in that place. There were crazy uncles, unruly children, hard working mothers, and the usual mixture of love and political disagreements. It made me miss that feeling back home. With Easter approaching I am a little sensitive to pick up on these things. But just like this large family I got to be a part of today, I know my family in he US will be thinking of me. The Ngenté gave me a deep sense of the universal bond families have. We can be across the world but distance and time haven't separated me from that sense of connectedness.