Saturday, May 25, 2013

...with my flippy floppies

Last week I made the trip up north, about twelve hours from my village by car, to attend Jazz Fest 2013 in St. Louis. This annual festival is opportunity for many volunteers to get out of site, hang out with those volunteers that they may not see too often and do those American things that we all so much miss; wear shorts (still long by American standards), drink beer and speak English. Since transportation logistics make it impossible for me to make the journey in one day I spent the night in Tambacounda at the regional house on my way up north. I got to see a few of the new volunteers that were just arriving in site and also a few friends from my region just happen to be at the house, it sure is great seeing people again. I forgot how long I had been at site, it was a much needed break. Eli, Jonathan and I had about an ten hour ride to get to St. Louis but the trip went about as smoothly as you could plan, which is always great. There was an incident of wrapping a tube that was in the engine with tape but I am sure we were not going to blow up or anything. Right? We arrived in time for me to meet up with Hattie at a local restaurant, she had just finished teaching a class and while waiting I had no problem taking pleasure in pizza and Wi-Fi, a real treat. We ended up meeting Marsha from our stage along with some other volunteers for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant on the north side of the island. I can’t even remember a time when I had such delicious cuisine, calamari with a spicy curry sauce over a bed of rice. To die for. We walked back to the center of town, each of us eating more than necessary requiring a walk for proper digestion, looking for music on the main stage but since there was an entrance fee we figured the festivities could wait until the weekend. I spent the night with Marsha in her room; she is always so welcoming to those of us who were homeless due to our reservation being for the next night. Again I was spoiled with Wi-Fi, a comfortable bed and the sound of the ocean breeze as I feel asleep (Marsha is serving as a volunteer after a successful career she has more money that the average just-out-of-college volunteer and can splurge on a room on the beach and there are a couple of us that reap the benefits). The next day, Friday, Marsha and I spent walking around “downtown” on the island, eating lunch at a wonderful local restaurant, admiring the merchandise in a cheese shop (we don’t even have cheese at my site let alone a whole store dedicated to the luxury item) and shopping around for an elusive Senegal patch to add to my collection. Julia, Jenn and Lisa from my stage arrived in town around 3pm so I stayed in town to meet up with them as Marsha went back to her room to prepare for the festivities that were to follow that evening. The girls grabbed a bite to eat at a local café and I sipped on a café au lait, which is also nonexistent at my site. If you have not already picked up on the pattern, time spent in the big city is consumed with eating and drinking things we don’t have at site, wasting countless hours online until you can repeat your newsfeed from Facebook or have memorized all the top stories on and catching up with friends. We went back to our rooms to nap before heading out for the night that just ended up with Julia and I talking in our room until it was time to start getting ready. Alexx was supposed to also be in our room but flew back to America last minute to be with her family after the passing of her uncle. He was, in part, the reason why we shaved our heads, allowing us to raise money and awareness for Lymphoma. My thoughts go out to her and her family during this hard time. That night we headed to the “the boat” to listen to live music and drink wine like the classy people that we are not these days. The boat was about four levels and looked like it could be used as a river cruise, or somewhere with mild seas, and the whole time I could not help but sing random lyrics to the song "I'm on a boat". The music and bar were on the top deck, which provided chilly weather and a great view over the water and the bridge that was lit up for the festival. It was truly a beautiful site and I would have never thought I would have experienced something in my time here in Senegal. Saturday we indulged in a cheap breakfast, the usual but delicious pea sandwich, before heading into town to walk around. We ended up shopping at the “fukiji” which are basically tables or sheets sprawled out with used clothing from the west or Europe. Unless we want to walk around in traditional African ensembles we rely on this supply of cheap western clothing to supplement for the wear and tear that the cloths that we brought from America go through. And you can find name brand items for the equivalent of $2 or cheaper. After some more American type dishes for lunch we headed back to hotel for another nap before the night festivities, which ended with Julia and I watching Downton Abbey (great show if you have never seen it, I highly recommend, it is on BBC). While heading back into town we decided to stop and grab a glass of wine before heading to the boat and it may have ended up being one of the best choices we had made all weekend. We ended up at La Résidence, a hotel downtown that was in our budget for happy hour but not lodging. A band was warming up but there was a great wine list and free appetizers floating around so we decided to stay. The atmosphere was great, the service was the best that I have seen in all of Senegal and I was in great company, it was fabulous. Not surprisingly we went back to the boat for more music and wine after our hotel adventure and it was just as delightful from the night before. As the weekend progressed more and more volunteers were coming into town, it was great seeing people from other stages and sectors (health or agriculture) that I don’t see on a regular basis. We ended the night at a bar with buy one get one free Gazelle beers, horrible tasting by American standards but does the trick if you need something cold and beer like. Sunday morning Teni arrived in town and we took her downtown to show her around and, if ulterior motives must be known, have another café au lait. A few students from Howard University, DC were in town to perform in the festival, a couple of my friends are alumni of the university so they stayed and had a drink with
the band while Julia and I did what any other respectable Peace Corps Volunteer would do in a city, eat ice cream and sit along the water. It was great talking to her one on one, though we were in the same stage I don’t get to see her nearly enough and being that we both come from islands (myself Hawaii and her from St. Croix) we needed a little ocean breeze time. Our hostel is about a 20-minute walk from the center of downtown, and close to where the boat is located, so our walk back to nap gave us ample opportunity to walk off the ice cream and shop a little more. May I add all this shopping resulted in just looking, there were things that I would love to buy and there were things that were the same tourist crap that you can find anywhere but the thought of lugging it back to site makes one not want to buy anything. Our nap, also known as another episode of Downton Abbey, ended too soon as we were to get cleaned up for dinner with other volunteers for Lily’s birthday. A few of us thought it would be best to go back to La Résidence for drinks and live music and next thing you know there were a dozen of us drinking too many $10 bottles of their finest (cheapest) red and eating homemade banana bread, thanks for that Karen! Our waiter was the same from the night before and at this point we were on first name basis with him, Moussa. For a couple of hours I felt like I was in a European city with people that I have known for years, you would have never thought we had all just met a year ago. It makes me realize 1) how great the people are here that I am sharing this experience with 2) how much I do miss my friends and family back home and 3) how I do love a nation full of citizens with a disposable income. We had to be at the main stage by 9pm to listen to Howard University, to show our American support, and of course we were late and of course the show didn’t start until 10. They opened with some boys from the military school in Dakar, whom honestly looked like Boy Scouts in their hats and uniforms, and infused a slam poet and a local drummer in some of their later pieces. The performance was great and though I am not usually a jazz fan they put on a great performance and the music was a great change from what we normally hear. There was a Tunisian
Dhafer Youssef
band on as the final act and I was so impressed by him I bought some of his music on iTunes. His name is Dhafer Youssef, the combination of the instruments along with his voice made for a great sound. I am trying to get a video up of the above-mentioned acts but since internet speed is so slow it is proving to take forever. I will keep working on it; stay posted. We took the Howard boys out for some drinks and dancing after their performance and though the night ended too soon, the morning was proving to come too early for our trip back south. Jenn and I left St. Louis Monday morning, around 7am, to get a jump on our voyage back. I am 12 hours south and she is 10 so we often make a majority of the trip back together; we stopped half way in Kaolack since I would not have been able to finish the trip in a day. I know I mention this in probably just about every post but if anything this adventure has made me realize how great my life is back home. I have a great family, an amazing network of friends and endless opportunities for my career. I am thankful to be born and raised in such a great country. This post may have been a little staler than others, it is more of an message for update than a message inspired by something, but thank to for those following, it truly is an adventure.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Do Handouts Actually Help?

My counterpart Amadou asked me the other night why I had [student loan] debt when my country spends so much money on education in other countries. I must say I was more troubled that an uneducated man in Senegal made this realization on his own than the fact that we can’t even get our own politicians on board with the notion of affordable secondary education. This question, and the fact that Peace Corps Senegal is celebrating 50 years in country this year, made me think about how valuable our money and time is being spent here in Africa. We are one of the longest standing programs in all of Peace Corps and we have a lot to show for it. Thousands of people around the world can say that they have made Senegal their home for a small period in their life, worked to improve development in the country and were given the opportunity to better understand and integrate with local culture. With all the projects the Peace Corps has been involved with there has been those that required no funding (or funding from our own stipends) and there have been those that benefited from grants, from not only American organizations but those all around the world. With all the money that we are seeing being pumped into Africa we are left with the question, do handouts actually help?
Handouts may be a strong word, though it is a synonym of aid according to the dictionary on my computer, but after working in Velingara for around nine months I feel that it is more than suitable. Right after you install they always say that work is slow but projects will come and I would have to agree. The first few months that I was in Velingara I had a little more on my plate than the average Jo because I had the project that my predecessor started, but it was by no means enough to fill my time. I went from working 50 hours plus a week in Minneapolis to about five hours a week in Senegal, if I was lucky, and it was a difficult adjustment. Though it sounds like a great time to sleep in, catch up on the news or read the latest books, any normal person would go crazy after about a week of this schedule. But there comes a time at site that everything just seems to come together, language is better, you have some sort of a routine and the projects are seemingly endless. With these endless projects comes endless questions and headaches concerning how exactly you are going to get these great ideas off the ground, also known as who is going to pay for it?
The approach to aid is different depending on the organization but here is a bit of information based on my experience with the Peace Corps. There are many options for funding projects depending on the project, who the beneficiaries are and the time of year. It is almost too easy to write a grant and submit it to Peace Corps to get help in funding through a few different donors requiring very little on the side of the local population. Sure the grants require a community contribution, usually 25%, but these donations can be in-kind so it usually ends up being lodging (people staying with family) or training rooms (grab the nearest empty classroom). The community contribution was meant to make the community accountable and provide for some of the project but as you can see it doesn’t really prove to be demanding on their part, financially or otherwise.
Though I have personally written a grant for a project I don’t necessarily believe in handing out money for things that the community should be able to pay for, it is just that I am already asking money from the Mayor’s Office and didn’t want my youth project to affect the chances of funding for my other projects. I have worked with the Mayor’s Office a lot recently trying to secure funding for our waste management project (which is officially broke and I just found out that we were not a registered business though everyone told me we were- remind me to blog about lying later) and I have seen plenty of room within the city budget, if it were managed properly, to allocate money to these small scale projects that benefit the community. One major reason why the city does not have as much funding as they desire is a simple concept that is usually a hit or miss with the audience, taxes. Though they are not fun to pay, nobody complains when primary education is free, a road is repaired, a park is built or a homeless family is fed. We as Peace Corps Volunteers work with securing funding for projects similar to those listed, things that the community members and governing parties should be responsible for paying for but don’t. As a result of poor management and lack of country revenue generated from the population, countries from all over the world not only help these suffering communities with projects but straight up give cash to governments having faith that they will then allocate the funds rightfully. As we see right here in Senegal 1) mainly the capital city, along with a few other cities few and far between, have paved roads, 2) every household is required to pay dues for their children to go to school to cover institutional costs and if the family is poor don’t count on their children being educated, 3) parks are nothing more than shaded areas of sand to be kept clean by community groups who are sick of looking at the trash and 4) families who are unable to eat are left with begging, or starving, as there are not many other options.
This anniversary of Peace Corps Senegal has left me with questions of how much of an impact are we actually having here? If we are in fact doing as much good as we think we are why have we been here for 50 years and why are we still needed for years to come? Why have basic systems, education and tax comes to mind first, not developed in a way to improve and help society? Why have we not created enough leaders or sustainable projects that we are forced to have volunteers year after year in the same villages? Why do people continue to think and use us as a financial crutch without any desire to become independent?
I have been researching the impact that aid is having in Africa and I must stay that though the results vary there is a big consensus that we are doing more harm than good, and I can’t agree more. Daniel Hannan wrote a blog post, Stop giving us aid, say Africans, where he interviewed a Nigerian man, Thompson Ayodele, concerning aid in Africa. “It discourages enterprise, fosters dependency and bolsters corrupt regimes” he explains, later stating that, “never mind that aid shields recipient governments from the consequences of their policy failures: the key thing, for Lefties, is to show that you're a caring person.” Hannan replies with a tangible argument, “the trouble is that if conservatives announced that they were going to cut overseas aid budgets, not everyone would believe that they were doing so as a result of Thompson's cogent philosophy. They would be accused, rather, of doing it because they were selfish or because they didn't care about people whose skins were darker than theirs. Hence, perhaps, my party's determination, at a time of general economic retrenchment, explicitly to guarantee the international development budget against future cuts.” His points in the article are spot on and proves that though we all have it in our hearts to want to help we need to decide what is actually helping, no matter what the critics say. Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist, states in the article Stop giving aid to Africa. It’s just not working on that “development aid simply doesn’t work…it is supposed to lead to sustainable economic growth and a reduction in poverty. Name one African country where this has happened.” When asked what are the consequences of aid she states that “first and foremost the widespread corruption. The people in power plunder the treasury and the treasury is filled with development aid money. The corruption has contaminated the whole society. Aid leads to bureaucracy and inflation, to laziness and inertia. Aid hurts exports. Thanks to foreign aid the people in power can afford not to care about their people. But the worst part of it is: aid undermines growth. The economies of those countries that are the most dependent on foreign aid have shrunk by an average of 0.2 percent per year ever since the seventies.” Moyo’s approach to the problem is to pull aid all together stating that, “only the elite will feel the pain. The poor won’t even notice the difference. It’s not like they ever saw any of that money anyway.”
Development is much more complex than giving money to fund projects in small villages. There must be sustainability within projects, knowledge learned and kept in the community, a sense of ownership for the project and financial involvement by local authorities. The research that I have done lately made me believe in what we are doing here but maybe we should be giving less money to governments to do with as they please and spend more of it on our own citizens. There are many more articles just like these ones and I challenge you to go out and do your own research on the topic.

*Repost this blog, email it to a friend, or mention it in social media if you want to help keep some of the money we send overseas in our own country, specifically working towards making education affordable.

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