Saturday, April 22, 2006

Just visiting

ETA: This felt very true when I started writing it yesterday morning. Now it just kind of feels self-indulgent and overdramatic. But I believed it when I wrote it, so I'm posting it anyway.

Yesterday I asked my friend Théo about his childhood.

“I left school in ‘89” he told me. He’s somewhere around my age, so he would have been about 8 years old then. “I went to work in the fields. I did that for about six years, but I didn’t want to do it anymore. I made some money, but not enough. So I decided to come to Dakar to learn a trade. And that’s what I did.”

He says it with no trace of regret or self-pity. No sense that things could have been any different. He is the oldest of six children and the four oldest all live and work in Dakar now and send money home to support their parents and younger siblings. Although I think, to varying degrees, they were able to stay in school longer than Théo, none of them made it to high school. But their youngest brother is nearly 15 now and still in school—his sisters pay his school fees.

When I was eight years old, I took the yellow school bus home from my suburban elementary school every day with my best friend, Sarah, and we spent the afternoons playing games with our cabbage patch dolls (my favorite was when the dolls bungee jumped from her second floor). The biggest injustice in my life was that Sarah had a key to her front door, and my mother refused to entrust me with one of my own (nevermind that I regularly lost lunchboxes, spring jackets, and who knows what else).

We stopped by the apartment Théo shares with two other guys, which is just down the street from mine. It consists of two small windowless rooms with two mattresses and not much else.

My apartment here also has two rooms, if you don’t include my private bathroom with shower and hot water. It is bright and airy with big windows and my monthly rent is a third of what I paid in DC and probably five times what my friend Suzanne, Théo’s sister, makes working here as a maid. When I was having problems with my ATM card, my parents wired me money to keep me going until I could work it out. When we went to Suzanne and Théo’s family for Easter, they brought home money, food, clothes, and a radio to give their parents and brother.

Awa, the other maid here, is a trained seamstress, but can’t afford to buy a sewing machine. Suzanne, who braided my hair, and Anna’s hair, and regularly braids the hair of her friends, cousins and sisters, for free, would love to open a salon with her cousins who also love braiding, but she can’t afford the course to get certified, let alone start a business.

On our walk, I complained to Théo that I’d been up since 6 am working. I hated myself a little for saying it, for needing to prove that there was something valid and difficult about my work, which involved sitting in front of my expensive laptop in my pajamas writing about politics and mining in Senegal. I hated myself even more when he gave the response my comment obviously demanded, “Wow, you’re so dedicated. You must be exhausted.”

There is nothing about my life that is the same as Théo or Suzanne or Awa’s. I don’t really want to believe that. I want to believe, because people dress like they stepped out of a music video and can sing along to Black Eyed Peas, and I live in Dakar and take the cars rapides (buses), that it doesn’t really make a difference that I was born in America and they were born here. I introduced Anna to people as my oldest friend from my village, as if the yuppified New York suburb we grew up in has something in common with the villages my friends here come from. I talk about how I’m making no money, as if my cashflow worries as a freelancer are comparable to my friends’ struggles to earn a living and support their families.

Okay, I know. I get it. You get it. This is Africa. People are poor here. Not exactly breaking news. And there are plenty of Senegalese whose lives are more like mine. I know university students and musicians and a journalist and a photographer. And America has unfortunately far too many people whose lives are far too difficult. I’m just not one of them.

It’s not like I didn’t know this before coming here. But what gets me is this: part of the reason I wanted to live in Africa was because I didn’t just want to come here as a rich, American tourist, staying in western-style hotels, traveling in hired buses, and never penetrating beyond the artificial veneer put on display for Westerners: a stranger who points a camera at the pretty animals and gawks at the primitive huts.

But as many weekends as I might spent in a rural village dancing to tam-tams, as many Muslim pilgrimages I may attend, as many lunchtimes I may spend in the kitchen with Awa and Suzanne hearing their gripes about life and work and boyfriends, I will never not be a rich American who is just visiting. I’m still gawking, I just have more to gawk at. All these wonderful people are opening up their lives to me, and I’m just sitting back and taking it all in, offering nothing in return.

I’m not saying my friends should or do expect anything more from me than friendship. And I’m not saying that they are somehow noble for the facts of their life. They’re just living their lives like I’m living mine, enjoying what is enjoyable and bitching about what sucks, and cracking up over everything in between.

Except that, by accident of birth, I have access to a life of wealth and opportunity and incredible freedom, which I am using to do… what, exactly?

The thing is, I’ve never wanted to change the world, and I still don’t. I have lots of friends who are searching for ways to contribute in some positive way, and while I admire them for it, I’ve never felt driven in that direction. All I’ve ever wanted was to see the world.

Well, now I’m looking.