There’s been some recent activity at “Kër Nice” (House of Nice) I’d like to share. For me it exists in a much larger context that insights an analysis of my service-to-date in Senegal. For some it will just be a story. But for those who are interested in a larger conversation, it may help to first read a Huffington Post PC Blog post called “Peace Corps Guilt” here. This post has come under some criticism from Senegal PCVs but I think all participants have some valuable stances. Here’s my story.
I currently live on the top floor of the tallest building in our neighborhood, Jaxao. Our apartment is situated so that the ground floor entrance is separated from the family who inhabits it. Our five bikes are stored in a little space next to our door where young boys often come to stare as we come and go. I suspect they imagine themselves flying through the street on our fast American-made bikes since they often ask for them or try to prop the door open with rocks. Well one day one lucky boy had his dream come true. The door was left open somehow and the bikes were unlocked. I ventured out for my afternoon jog to find the bikes knocked over and one missing. I surrendered to the fact that someone was out zipping around on my friend’s slick bike and we would never see it again.
Next day, Sunday, I took my bike out to go get some vegetables when I noticed my derailer needed to be tightened. So I coasted over to a side street no more than 250 meters from our apartment building where beheld to me was the very bike that was stolen the day before. Its break lines were stripped and the chain was about to be taken off. I said to the man carrying out this process, “Hey that’s my bike!” to which he said, “How do you know?” A small argument ensued in which I explained it is from America, it definitely belonged to my friend, and I could prove it very quickly. He offered to take me to the boy who sold it to him but I opted to wait for our head of Safety and Security to sort things out in a more systematic manner. In our attending time they described the young thieving boy to me and I recognized him as the same one who lives in the ground floor of our building. Figures…
Our S&S hit man Mbouille (Mboo-yay) arrived on the scene only having just delivered medicine to his wife who had their fourth child the day before. We made our way to the building with 30+ neighborhood rubbernecks in tow. We brought the bike inside where the whole family was waiting for us, young thief sitting on the floor, head resting sulkily on his knees. As I walked in the mother of the house asked me to please not take her son away. All I could do was dodge responsibility and explain that this was not my bike or my decision. The father explained that it was in fact his son who stole the bike and that he was in the process of being punished. Mbouille then said that if we take him to the police he would be taken away to a youth camp for two years. From what I have heard these are not nice places with inhuman living conditions and unreasonable correctional methods, widely known by most Senegalese.
The boy’s father then asked us to take the boy away. He explained that he has disowned the boy and does not want him in the house any longer. Now, Senegalese women have a penchant for drama but there was something guttural and raw in the way his mother started to plea at this point. A typically sweet woman had been reduced to tears and begging. What could I do but again abandon responsibility? I had to disassociate myself from the situation or try to alleviate it. So Mbouille, the father, and I went in another room to discuss. I tried to explain that when I was that boy’s age, I did more harmful and less explainable things yet my father did not consciously abandon me or try to send me away to a correctional facility. I understood the shame of having the whole neighborhood watch as we returned with all but the boy’s hands painted red. It was enough to make my guts shutter for them. I felt the boy’s guilt; I felt his father’s disgust. A week before a huge holiday, in his own home, this is what he has to deal with. His family had betrayed a neighbor which is a grave mistake in their society. But I had been dangling these 5 bikes in front of them, an arm’s reach away, only a wall separating them and a glorious joy ride. Not one of them locked properly. I apologized for that temptation and said it is too great for a child.
I suspect Mbouille was relieved when I spoke on behalf of my friend and said we should not involve the police. The bike was taken back to Dakar for repairs and the bike shop worker was reprimanded for buying a 250,000 cfa bike from a kid for 35,000 cfa. All went their own ways. This could be the end of the story for me but it’s not for them. I leave this place in a few weeks but they carry their reputation for a long time.
The larger conversation to be had here is about privileges vs. rights. Like a few others I’ve talked to, one of the main reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to live in solidarity with some of the world’s poorest people. I wanted to learn what that was like, experience it, and help if I could. But I quickly found out that being an American in Senegal would make true and thorough integration impossible for us and actually very confusing for HCNs (Host Country Nationals). The color of my skin inevitably lends some impressions as to the way I’ll act and how much money I have. And at first I was so hurt by this. I resented that and did everything I could to fight that impression. I lashed out and explained to everyone that I am learning Wolof and I am living here in Senegal to help and that I have a right of respect for that; “I am Toubab, hear me roar and rant!” But I’ve been through many attitudinal changes since. I’ve gone from being the victim, to being self-righteous, to complete apathy, and back to what I hope is a co-humanity approach of treating every person as a valuable individual and only accepting treatment of the same sort for myself. That is my right but I reciprocate it as well. I no longer identify as victim here which is why I couldn’t bring that child to the police. I realize that having a bike is a great privilege but I can’t share it based on callous rules. I have come to realize that for me and my service there is no way to abandon my white privilege. So I now see privilege as a great opportunity rather than a hindrance. That’s been humbling. It doesn’t lend itself well to getting “work” done here but it has made me genuinely interested in Senegal, its people, and their stories. It was a long painful path to get here and I‘m still walking it, at least for a few more weeks.