Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Politically Correct!

A recent blog post, written by an x- peace-corps trainee, fired up some intense emotions among volunteers here in Senegal.  Apparently her one-month experience as a trainee gave her enough insight to criticize Senegal volunteers and their administration.  After reading her blog I was offended by the preposterous claims that she made.  Although I understand her problems most likely stem from some deeper personal issues, I find it insulting that her approach was to publicize her account as an accurate representation of Peace-Corps Senegal.

The reason I am taking time to discuss this on my blog is because it raises an interesting question about being politically correct.   I find this phase quite interesting and think it’s worth looking at.  This term in America has become widely used and often times misused.  Americans must be constantly on their toes, careful not to offend anyone.  One could easily argue that this tyranny of hurt feelings toward the individual (which is growing rapidly) is destroying free speech and thought.   Not that I strive to offend others, but the freedom to be offensive is a constitutional right.  If you want to be a jerk then you are allowed to be a jerk. I think it is important to understand that just because a few people choose to live in a way the reflects negative on themselves, does not mean that they represent the attitudes and beliefs of the whole.

If you can picture a society the complete opposite of America you will find yourself imaging the interactions between people here in Senegal.  The culture here, to any American, would appear offensive. This impoliteness does not stem from a desire to hurt others, but it is just how things are.  It is by far, one of the most difficult components of adjusting to life in village.  People do not filter what they say and if challenged to do so respond with curiosity and confusion.

 Sayings such as “your fat”,  “your ugly”, “you can’t cook” “you don’t know how to do this or that”  “your white so you should give me money or buy a well” are things you here on a daily basis.  Also both children and adults constantly chant the word “toubab” “toubako” “touba haacko”.  “Toubab” is an Arabic word that actually means doctor, however very few Senegalese people know that.  The word “Touba haacko” means leaf pants and can be linked back to when colonists arrived and used leaves to wipe themselves when using the restroom.  Whatever the meaning, volunteers are called this wherever they go. It’s both offensive and annoying and it takes time to get used to it. It also takes some time to learn appropriate responses.  From an American perspective one might think to stop and explain to the children that calling someone this name is offensive and not okay. However this is not how it is done in their culture thus being light hearted and joking with a response such “black children” is totally acceptable. It is not offensive to people to call out obvious things.  (now if one where to call someone a slave, that would be inappropriate and I will discuss this in my next blog post in relation to the pulaar caste system)

There has been much debate amongst volunteers as to whether the word toubab is directed towards people because they are a foreign or because they are white.  After asking some Senegalese people they will in fact admit that the word is directed towards people who have white skin.  Fellow volunteers who are black do not usually get called this unless they are with a group of white volunteers.   Now because the majority of Senegal Peace Corps volunteers have white skin, you can understand why parts of training are focused on addressing this issue.  The trainee complains that after talking to administration about what she felt was discrimination against colored volunteers that they did absolutely nothing.  This claim was probably the most insulting.  Volunteers and those in administrative positions do their best to make sure the needs of all volunteers are being met.  Recently a peer group has been established to address the needs of those volunteers who face other challenges such as being Asian, Black, and Hispanic etc. as well as targeting those who are homo and bisexual because it is true that they face struggles not known to someone like me. Just as female volunteers face different challenges than male volunteers. (also addressed in training)

Though, after spending months at a time in village, volunteers may say things that, to Americans, appear completely inappropriate, they in no way are racist.  Volunteers do not think they are better than Senegalese people or black volunteers.  Village life is hard and makes you a little jaded. I feel that a volunteer is justified in saying how they feel, even if it may appear insensitive to others.  Though in her blog she does not directly call volunteers racist, she sure does say things to indicate it.  I can only speak for myself, my friends, my region, and the volunteers that I interact with, but I feel like we are most likely some of the least likely people to be termed as racist.  We are giving two years of our lives, to live without electricity, running water, personal space, our native language and our culture to help promote projects that are created to better the living conditions of those who are constantly fighting starvation, malnutrition, and deadly diseases. 

Unfortunately this trainee will never get the opportunity to experience what this life is like and because she made accusations without understanding all of the facts she has portrayed the program of Peace Corps Senegal in a bad light.  I think it is unfortunate that some very incredible people, such as our country director, have had to face some intense criticism over a trainee who could not hack it.  From the perspective of someone who understands the value of being politically correct and then being thrown into a culture where being politically correctness means absolutely nothing, I will argue that there is a balance! 

Every single person is different and nothing will every please everyone.  As Tom Robbins says “humanity is offensive” and it is a part of life.  It is not the governments job to make sure people do not hurt other peoples feelings.  We as human beings have a choice, a choice to act and speak in a way that lifts up others. We also have the choice to embrace the positivity thrown at us and reject the negativity. We have the ability to understand that people oftentimes do and say things because of their own restrictions or problems.  It takes practice but one must learn how to receive things without letting it affect them so personally. 
 There is a time to recognize the difference between a situation where we must stand up and fight injustice verses fighting against a person’s ignorance and insecurities.

I took the time to write this blog because I felt it was important to share how differently cultures vary and what it is like living in village.  I also felt that it was necessary as a volunteer who respects the organization she works for to stand up and speak on behalf of my experience.  Hope you enjoyed reading…. until next time! 

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