Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Money Story

It is sometimes very scary to think about the real situation here in Senegal. I have been here long enough to kind of get used to life and the environment and sometimes I forget just how hard and unfair it is. I lose perspective. I guess in a good way, since I stop looking at people here and thinking only about the dirt that they live in, the poor conditions of education, inadequate health care and job opportunities. Instead I see just my neighbors, my family, or the guy whose sense of humor I really enjoy, or the nice old lady on the corner that struggles to show me the teeth she has left in a big smile whenever I see her.

But today was one of those days when I sort of got my perspective back. It tends to happen when I sit down with someone and really get into the grit of my work. I spoke at length with my host mother about the problems the family currently faces. Being the first wife, she is in charge of the finances for the entire family. Her husband, an older man, has been extremely sick for years. He cannot work and requires constant care and attention as well as medicines and an occasional visit from a nurse. The other adults in the house, for the most part, do not work. They try, selling items that they make in the market or raising chickens to sell for food, but for the most part the opportunity in the market is very small and family members lack technical skills and education to attempt many other businesses. In addition, due to cultural norms and certain parts of Islam, my host mother has taken care of a good number of grandchildren, second cousins, or simply other community members. It is the true African family and after living here for more than 6 months I still don’t know where everyone comes from.

So what it comes down to is that the whole family (35 people or so) is supported by 1 son who lives in New York and sells sheets (let this open an immigration debate please), another son who lives in Dakar and sells car parts, and me, from the rent and food that I pay for from Peace Corps. Already I think we can all see where the problem lies. Food is not all that expensive here, but having electricity and running water is. And the bills are serious. (The cost of electricity here is twice what it is in the states-- try that against a struggling currency and a weak economy)

But it gets worse. My family is in trouble with the Mayor’s office. They own three little stalls in a market near our house. After selling there for a while they saw that the market does not draw any clients, it is in a very poor neighborhood and people prefer to go to the big market. So the stores were losing money and they closed them. There are no buyers for the stores. But now the mayor’s office wants its tax money on these boutiques-- for the past two years. It only amounts to about $300 overall, but in Senegal that is a hell of a lot of money.

So now it is my job to work with my family to start a business that they can do with the skills that they have, that they can make money with, and that is sustainable. And how do you do that when you have 35 mouths to feed and are already in a hell of a lot of debt?

Yes, I came here for development. Yes, I came here to get to know the real issues. Yes, I came here to make an impact. But sometimes the problem seems bigger than all of us and our good intentions combined.

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