Today I spent the afternoon at the new education and health center I just finished funding in village (through a USAID grant, through Peace Corps, FYI). My fantastic community health workers were weighing babies while women from the village were cooking a nutritional supplement meal of ndambé (beans in a tomato, onion, garlic, hot pepper, vinegar sauce—I will be cooking these weekly to store in my freezer in America). I was painting some project titles and a building name above the door with a 2.5” paintbrush I modified with a serrated knife and duct tape to a small round brush. The health workers are involved in a project of Plan Senegal for early childhood education and maternal and child health. So, the regional project manager came to the weighing to teach them some new curriculum materials. She lives in my road town, which I believe I’ve mentioned is 3 km away down the sand road and on the national highway… and I don’t really care for it. Although I’ve been passing through for two years, it’s big enough that I’m still a random toubab to someone every time I’m there. She’s a great lady though, who is doing really good work and not just in the capacities of her project. Every time I’ve met her, she’s spent some of her time simply explaining that development is meaningless without the work of local counterparts—if the community isn’t motivated to make a change, no amount of money from outside will do it for them.
So, I have a new friend in village, a 6 month old grandson of the local Imam whose daughter in-law I buy ice from every day. Funny how just like grown up people you immediately bond with some babies… Anyway, his grandma brought him to be weighed, and he was staring at me with a smile, so I took a short break from my work to hold him. … Totally in that phase where there is almost nothing better than holding a baby and just… being together… But, I needed to get something done. So, I put him down in his grandmother’s lap after a few minutes. He wasn’t having it. He cried, and sucker that I am, he was back in my arms pretty immediately. We walked around and looked at a charette, and after a few more minutes I tried again. Nope. Not yet. More crying. So I picked him back up, and at this point the project manager says to the health workers, “what? Have you ever seen this? A black baby that just wants to be held by a white person?” … I mean, I can at this point completely forgiver her ignorance, and even pity the fact that her world experience has been so limited that this is something worth commenting on for her. But, at the time I was really legitimately offended. I live here, I have for two years now, and very rarely does a thought cross my mind that has anything to do with the fact that we don’t have the same skin color. Only when someone else brings up skin-lightening creams or calls someone ugly because they’re dark dark. So, while in this totally blissful moment of just so legitimately being just a part of the community (maybe a weird-ish part, but a role we’ve all gotten used to together over the last two years), to have someone so starkly call me an outsider because of the color of my skin… Totally fascinating really, to have the experience of being a minority race…
I’m sure she meant no offense. And there are still some babies here that are scared of me, who have seen me only once or twice in their lives, but there are also babies here that cry when I leave them! Who the thought of leaving so soon and no longer being a part of their oh-so-precious lives makes me cry. There’s a woman named Cheika who has become my best female friend who started crying yesterday at the thought of my leaving, and people here do not cry in public. I only managed to hold it together to be to her what she has been so many times for me: a solid friend to lean on. … okay if I get any further down this road I won’t be able to make it back.
Letting that bit of weirdness go, I got back to work. Kids playing all around me, mom’s yelling at their kids, men bringing in charette loads of onions in sacks from the fields, the sun beginning to set. When I finally finished my work, I ate my beans on a mat in the sunset and just watched. At this point in my service, my life here, all the negative stuff seems to have just fallen away (mashallah), and there’s nothing left to do but be so overwhelmingly grateful for LIFE… One of those perfect-world moments, ya know? Anyway, after finishing my beans I took my plate over to clean it, talked to the ladies who’d been cooking a tiny bit, and started walking away, only to hear a friend who was cooking say “you guys are purposely acting stupid. You’re acting like toubab’s.” So, in all good humor I turn around and call her out: “did you really just say that? Did you really just say you guys are acting stupid, you’re acting like toubab’s?” … What??? She apologized, all of us laughing about it, and I assured her I wasn’t actually offended, while thinking, “d***! I just made myself the white girl!” Her response was “oh my gosh, I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that you are a toubab.” … Bam! It’s not just me that forgets, and there I was the one reminding everyone that I was different… just a strange little… mmm… One foot in both worlds, one of them, and still not. But totally beautifully accepted by the people that have seen me, talked with me, laughed with me, shared their lives and their babies and their beans with me for the last two years.
Can I get a Mashallah!?