January 14, 2009
I am currently sitting in the Tamba house, a regional house for Peace Corps volunteers in Tambacounda. I came in for a few days to go to the post office, bank, and run some errands, this being one. The new year has come and I haven’t written in a while because I have been doing a number of things. I traveled to St Louis in the NE part of Senegal for Christmas with other peace corps volunteers and then spent the new year in Maleme Niani. They were both great holidays but family and friends were definitely missed from home. Today however I went to the post and picked up 5 packages and a handful of cards/letters! Thanks to you all for writing me or sending me packages! It was SO thoughtful and made my afternoon! It is really assuring knowing I am being thought of halfway around the world!
Concerning the title of this blog, I thought I would talk a little bit about the different cultures (Senegalese and American) I am constantly experiencing. It has been interesting coming from a developed country while being immersed in the people and cultures of a developing one. I feel as if I do pretty well balancing my life as a Senegalese woman and American woman but then there are those moments when you realize how different those worlds really are. For example, when coming to Senegal one of the things you cannot escape is the trash that collects in towns and cities. The garbage system is not that of the U.S. and the side of the road becomes the trash can. At first this sight was not something you could miss. Now however, I find myself not seeing the trash and have actually found myself thinking “I am glad the plastic bag was on the side of the road because I needed it.” It’s at these moments that I realize two worlds have collided. My very developed, city girl upbringing realizes I have become adapted to the developing country, village life. And the funny thing is I don’t necessarily view one as better. I have begun to realize how much culture affects how you think about and interact within your environment.
Despite the very different cultures I experience on a daily basis I have begun to appreciate the similarities between people of all cultures. One of my friends lives in Tambacounda the city and her family is well off in Senegalese standards. She has commented that she gets annoyed at comments made by family members about needing the latest cell phone, the newest trend, and getting their hair done on a regular basis. On the other hand, other PCV experience families who don’t have cell phones, have never left their village to see the latest trends, and whose hair is done by family members on special holidays. I have begun to notice,however, that despite the very different experiences we are having as PCV’s, the people remain the same. If my not as well off family inherits money and lives in a larger city, they too will most likely begin to converse about trends, cell phones, and hairstyles. Similarly my friend’s family, if only exposed to a very impoverished village lifestyle, will not have the conversations they are having at the moment. The people in themselves don’t change it seems as if it’s their environment and their experiences in a large part that changes them, how they think, what they like, etc.
I have battled with this quite a bit because in my family and in others I have observed, things like daily tasks, marriage, work are all done out of necessity. Men and women do certain tasks because they have to in order for their family to survive. Obviously this is the same in America but it’s a very different experience. It has been my experience that those who have do not have to think of or create environments in which pure survival is the aim; they have options. They have the option of marrying out of love, desire, looks, personality, education, status, etc. instead of marriage for the simple necessity of having a mate to help raise a family and support one another. Those who have share the tasks of the household much more than those who have not, who rely on one member of the family to care for the household and one member to bring home an income. Obviously things like tradition and religion play a huge part in the society here, but at the same time I have begun to appreciate some of the ways in which the culture is ordered and adapted to the needs of the people living in it. Instead of viewing the separation of power between men and women as sexist or the traditional customs as strange or inaccurate it has been life-giving to take these in as a people who know and have learned how to survive and thrive in their environments, despite how different that may look from one culture to another.
All in all, whether you go to Senegal, a developing country, or to the USA, the most powerful country in the world, people adapt to their cultures-no matter what that culture may be. This may seem like a common-sense observation but it becomes more interesting and evident when faced with it every day. Something to think about as you work in the field, drink your Starbucks latte, sit at your desk, pull water from a well, and live the every day life you have adapted to wherever you may be.