Sunday, February 13, 2011

Coming to Terms with Different Worlds

I have been home for a while now, and I love it. I love the well known paths in the woods, over the fields, the old boards in my floors, the looms, the spinning wheels and all the activities which are my joys of life.
View from the bus

 However,  as I am working on new pieces, spinning, planning, creating for new work to come I always have this quiet current of new found knowledge at the back of my head. New found knowledge of all the things in life which I know nothing off, of which I think I may have a notion but really ..... that is just me taking my mouth too full.

Visiting Senegal with the Class Afloat Programme on the West Coast of Africa was ...... amazing, eye opening, and for me an earth/soul shattering experience. I loved it and hated it at the same time. Or perhaps 'hate' is too harsh a word - it just unsettled me, it made big question marks sprout and grow in my fields of fairly firm convictions and it made the foundation for other thoughts firmer and stronger.

Centre where we met and finally said good bye to our Senegalese friends

Working as a Cook's Mate on Sørlandet I had the opportunity to partake in some of the port programmes planned for the Class Afloat kids. In Dakar, Senegal the project was called West Africa Initiative For me this meant that I got to participate in several day programmes involving a visit to a Micro Finance Institute,  a visit to a newly founded Eco Village and all the thoughts that follow an experience like that. In the West Africa Initiative groups of Class Afloat kids are mixed with groups of Senegalese youth from the CEFOPPPEM Centre in Dakar.

The busses!

We travelled with these kids to the seminar on Micro Financing and later to the EcoVillage.
On day one of the actual project our group was driven by cabs to a local Micro Finance Centre and the leader gave a good and thorough talk about the importance of micro finance loans for groups and the impact it can have on impoverished areas and people.
Next time the group went out we were on a bussed day trip to an EcoVillage  one and a half hours out of Dakar, established 6 months earlier.

Checking to see if the road is safe to take the busses down to the village.

The original plan or hope had been to go and visit a well established EcoVillage in order to experience the impact a micro finance loan can have for a group of people having a hard time making a go of it in an area where jobs are scarce and other development opportunities are close to non existent.

New dwelling being constructed and visitors being invited in to feel the coolness 

 It turned out, that the Micro Finance agent had never been to the village we went to. No meetings with the SEM agent, the villagers or the government folks involved in getting this EcoVillage going had ever taken place before. The village was young, new, and although some things were in place even more were not, and most questions had not been contemplated or touched upon by neither the villagers nor the officials.
This meant that what met our eyes was the beginning of a project, the beginning of .... something which was hardly defined yet. Something which the villagers themselves along with the guidelines from the officials will have to define, visualize and  make happen down the road.

In my wildest dreams I had hoped to be able to visit a full blown weaving EcoVillage, with weavers, dyers, spinners, cotton growers, you name it, I saw it in my mind's eye.
Matriac in her 80's, the mother, grand mother and aunt of many of the villagers.

Instead I/we had the amazing experience of being part of the very first meeting for all the aforementioned people, the villagers, the Micro Finance official and the Government Official, the willing participants for this particular project.

We sat on grass mats on the dry sand/soil under a big shady tree. Shoes off, officials in chairs in front of us, villagers over on the left, Class Afloat Group spread out over a good area but still within earshot to the right. All groups encouraged to give input and ask questions at any time.

Problem #1 - language - who understood what and how many?
An 18 year old Senegalese youth stood up and went over to the officials and then proceeded to translate questions and answers for about an hour - the languages spoken were Wolof, one of the Senegalese languages,  French and English.
Visiting younger brother of the Matriac
 The young man who took on this challenge turned out to be an excellent translator. In spite of his youth he managed to honour all the different cultures and languages gathered under the tree.
I could follow along in French and English and heard him being very precise in those two languages, and when the translations were done from Wolof to either one of the other two tongues it seemed to me that he was taking great care to translate everything, not just word by word but in such a manner that the meaning from one language to the other was carefully preserved.

As a little bit of a language nut that truly thrilled me greatly.

The men from the village sat up front of the village group, the women with the youngest kids right behind them, thus able to also give their input.

Leader of SEM institute mr. Boubacar and Soren at reception, Sorlandet
There was talk about what kind of money amounts the villagers were wishing for projects for their new little community, like new road construction and safer drinking water and talking about the money. The men were wondering why the SEM institute couldn't just give them an amount which would cover these expenses. The SEM consultant laughed and said something really loudly and fast, after which the women laughed heartily and clapped vigorously.  We were of course a little puzzled since the exchange happened very quickly and so the translation didn't come until a few minutes later when the mirth had died down.
It turned out the response had been something along the lines of this: Well, and what would happen if I just happened to give you guys a hand full of money for a new road? the next thing I know, you would be out there buying another couple of cows, planning a big party to celebrate your good fortune, adding another wife or two to your family and then..... tell me then, where would the road be????

The women laughed loudly and the menfolk did smile and nod. This was not a rude joke, this was just what it is, the situation in this part of the world.
The people we were visiting are/were nomads, traveling around with their cattle, but due to grass lands declining and drying up they have had to acknowledge that perhaps settling down and staying in one place might be the better plan for them in the future. This way their children will have a greater chance of attending school and getting an education.
Micro Finance Loans are mostly given to villages, groups of people who all have business plans as individuals, but whose future success in the business world will depend on the group goal and support the village rather than just their own family.
Groups of students interviewing villagers after the meeting

When lending money to a group like this everyone parricipating is interested in paying the loans back so new loans can be obtained when the first projects are off the ground. Should project A not work as well as hoped, but project B and C go glamorously, the surplus from B and C will be used to help pay off A's deb. Cooperation is the word!

thinking about dry conditions, bug covers and growing food!

An example was given where loans were given to purchase seeds to grow feed for humans and livestock. The human grains didn't grow so well, but the mishap still was able to be used for animal feed and thus fattened up the flock more than expected. This meant more offspring to be sold off at the  market and thus...... there was money to pay off all loans, not necessarily from the funds expected from the crop meant for human consumption but the surplus from the others made it possible to also take care of this and .... all were content and all things got squared away at the designated time.
The loan takers were actually very eager to make sure that these loans were paid off in time, in spite of the fact that they had been told the loans would be forgiven, given that it was inclement weather which had ruined their crop and not human failure. They were however not interested in having the loans forgiven as it was important for their personal pride that they could show they were able to take care of business themselves.  Close to 98% of micro finance loans are paid off, only the small percentage of apprx 2% are not honoured. Really a very small percentage considering the hardships the loan takers sometimes have to go through to make sure their dues are paid off.
We did not get to see any projects being decided on during the hours we spent on the mat, but we followed a very fine and delicate discussion.

Staying in the shade!
The people were nomads, great herders of cattle, and they had many heads of cattle.
The cows would traditionally give 1-2 liters of milk a day, which could be processed into yogurt or cheese to feed the families or be sold at markets. An initiative had been introduced where the cows were inseminated with semen from bulls whose origins are in the milk cattle breeds, amongst others Holsteins. This means for better or for worse that the heifer offspring once mature will be able to produce for some of them up to 20 liters of milk a day. This is quite a considerable increase. Especially taken into consideration that there are no refrigeration possibilities in the village. The most well painted and newest building in the village was the little cement shed which holds the batteries, charged by solar panels on the roof, giving light to the huts and the street lamps when night falls.
Coming home for a drink at noon!
An idea was being floated around that the villagers would like to take a loan so they could develop a cheese business with their excess milk. The government dept. would support two people  to partake in workshops at a dairy and cheese factory some distance away from their village facilitating understanding and knowledge of how and what is involved in safe production of cheeses and the building of the business so it can sustain the community, keep the production going and keep the villagers employed.

The shelter for the batteries, charged daily by the solar panels

As an interesting aside, one of the students asked why the cattle was not used for meat, if they had too much milk, and finding suitable pasture was problematic part of the problem would be solved, if they butchered some of the animals. My husband also suggested that just diminishing the number of animals they had might solve a lot of their headaches. What neither  one knew was that...... these cattle are part of the family, the nomads will sell off a head of cattle when/if they have to, and once sold they no longer worry about what will happen to the animal, but they would never butcher their animals and eat them, the animals are part of their family, a sign of wealth, what keeps them breathing and moving each day.
My husband apologized for not having had the proper insight into his suggestion and all was well, but ....  the layers and layers of unknowns which surround us when we venture into unknown territory, the sensitivities we are bound to develop if we want to be seen not as intruders but as supportive community builders are incomprehensibly many.. The quagmire a person who wants to lend a hand can end up in is quite substantial if not enough research is done into culture and tradition before trying to suggest changes. Changes which might look minor in one set of eyes can look down right insulting or catastrophic in another set of eyes.
I still think about this often as I go through my peaceful creative days. One of these days I may figure out what to do with my new found understanding of what it is to be truly human.


  1. What a wonderful eye-opening experience to have had! My new novel is set in Southern Sudan, but I had to write it without having had the opportunity to visit the country. Maybe someday...

  2. ah, I take it you have read copious amounts of books and articles about the subject instead. Writing about one's experiences is an emotional and long winded process, it is not easy to know which point to start at. But I closed my eyes (well, sort of) and jumped! Is your novel out yet?

  3. You are making wonderful use of your wandering/ wondering time, processing the things you saw and heard on your trip. This is an excellent account of how complex it is to work with people of a different culture in ways that are truly beneficial. If only our politicians - and their politicians too - understood these complexities and took the people's needs to heart.

  4. thanks Heather, you know the young man, could I only remember his name, who was doing the translations had already decided that his goal in life was to become an honest politician. He was very serious about this and I would say that judging by the seriousness he showed when translating he just might get there and be an honorable man. I hope so!

  5. There are many wonderful, sincere people who really want to work to improve the lives of the people in their respective countries - against great odds... and there are wonderful sincere people in/from the wealthier countries who partner to support them through various organizations, against somewhat lesser but still significant odds...