Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Fecalized Environment

When newly minted Peace Corps volunteer Karin McQuillan arrived in Senegal, West Africa several decades ago, a doctor took her aside to warn her that she was entering “a fecalized environment.” (via Maggie’s Farm)

She explains what that means:

In plain English: s--- is everywhere. People defecate on the open ground, and the feces is blown with the dust – onto you, your clothes, your food, the water. He warned us the first day of training: do not even touch water. Human feces carries parasites that bore through your skin and cause organ failure.

Bad habits die hard, even when their possessors arrive in nations that have indoor plumbing. McQuillan described a scene from central Paris:

Last time I was in Paris, I saw a beautiful African woman in a grand boubou have her child defecate on the sidewalk next to Notre Dame Cathedral. The French police officer, ten steps from her, turned his head not to see.

Now that she has your attention, McQuillan analyzes the cultural problems that keep countries like Senegal behind.

She liked the people she met and thought well of them:

Senegal was not a hellhole. Very poor people can lead happy, meaningful lives in their own cultures' terms. But they are not our terms. The excrement is the least of it. Our basic ideas of human relations, right and wrong, are incompatible.

As a twenty-one-year-old starting out in the Peace Corps, I loved Senegal. In fact, I was euphoric. I quickly made friends and had an adopted family. I relished the feeling of the brotherhood of man. People were open, willing to share their lives and, after they knew you, their innermost thoughts.

The ethos was another story. Marital customs in Senegal have very little to do with those that pertain in Western cultures:

Take something as basic as family. Family was a few hundred people, extending out to second and third cousins. All the men in one generation were called "father." Senegalese are Muslim, with up to four wives. Girls had their clitorises cut off at puberty. (I witnessed this, at what I thought was going to be a nice coming-of-age ceremony, like a bat mitzvah or confirmation.) Sex, I was told, did not include kissing. Love and friendship in marriage were Western ideas. Fidelity was not a thing. Married women would have sex for a few cents to have cash for the market.

Women in Senegal have very hard lives. Given that the culture is only apparently patriarchal, men do not work:

What I did witness every day was that women were worked half to death. Wives raised the food and fed their own children, did the heavy labor of walking miles to gather wood for the fire, drew water from the well or public faucet, pounded grain with heavy hand-held pestles, lived in their own huts, and had conjugal visits from their husbands on a rotating basis with their co-wives. Their husbands lazed in the shade of the trees.
Since people do not work for a living, they steal:

The Ten Commandments were not disobeyed – they were unknown. The value system was the exact opposite. You were supposed to steal everything you can to give to your own relatives. There are some Westernized Africans who try to rebel against the system. They fail.

We hear a lot about the kleptocratic elites of Africa. The kleptocracy extends through the whole society. My town had a medical clinic donated by international agencies. The medicine was stolen by the medical workers and sold to the local store. If you were sick and didn't have money, drop dead. That was normal.

It’s a pure kleptocracy, culturally rather different from what we know. In addition, people do not care about other people:

In Senegal, corruption ruled, from top to bottom. Go to the post office, and the clerk would name an outrageous price for a stamp. After paying the bribe, you still didn't know it if it would be mailed or thrown out. That was normal.

One of my most vivid memories was from the clinic. One day, as the wait grew hotter in the 110-degree heat, an old woman two feet from the medical aides – who were chatting in the shade of a mango tree instead of working – collapsed to the ground. They turned their heads so as not to see her and kept talking. She lay there in the dirt. Callousness to the sick was normal.

Americans think it is a universal human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's not. It seems natural to us because we live in a Bible-based Judeo-Christian culture.

As for the Protestant work ethic, it does not exist in Senegal:

We think the Protestant work ethic is universal. It's not. My town was full of young men doing nothing. They were waiting for a government job. There was no private enterprise. Private business was not illegal, just impossible, given the nightmare of a third-world bureaucratic kleptocracy. It is also incompatible with Senegalese insistence on taking care of relatives.

All the little stores in Senegal were owned by Mauritanians. If a Senegalese wanted to run a little store, he'd go to another country. The reason? Your friends and relatives would ask you for stuff for free, and you would have to say yes. End of your business. You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives. The result: Everyone has nothing.

The more I worked there and visited government officials doing absolutely nothing, the more I realized that no one in Senegal had the idea that a job means work. A job is something given to you by a relative. It provides the place where you steal everything to give back to your family.

McQuillan’s story astonishes because, how did we not know what is going on in a nation like Senegal. Her short and incisive analysis shows, far more than a bunch of talking points, that if all these people move to Western Europe they will not adopt local cultural habits. The distance they need to travel is far too great. One day they might get there, but it is not going to happen tomorrow.


James said...

She will be destroyed.

trigger warning said...

Karin McQuillan is an experienced hand at dealing with Progswarms.

Last I heard, despite her work as a writer and novelist, she's a tool for Big Oil.

Ares Olympus said...

It's a compelling story with many interesting points, but I'm not sure she's a clearly credible witness, as hinted at her previous story.
I think Trump's character is excellent.

Like the wall, he still wants Mexico to pay for his wall, because that's the neighborly thing to do. As Frost said "Good fences make good neighbours", and making them pay for the fences keeps your neighbors resentful, and when your resentful neighbors act badly, you can tell them they have bad character and convince yourself that's true.

trigger warning said...

Are you suggesting she's lying about conditions in Senegal?

Jack Fisher said...

Mass immigration helps the ruling elites of shithole countries like Mexico. Immigration acts like a steam dump valve, getting rid of the kind of people who are best able to physically rebel against the regime. Seal off Mex and the place would eventually explode, and that's a good thing.

I'd be careful about trashing Senegal, as the relations between that country and France are complex. Senegal was a French colony from 1850s, and hundreds of thousands of tirailleurs sénégalais served in the French army in two world wars and numerous colonial wars for over a hundred years. The country is 5% Christian (including protestants) but this wasn't a problem.

James said...

Though I believe we should seal off the border with Mexico, I think it's collapsing anyway. I think a rigorously maintained border would just hurry the timeline. As for Senegal you're right in so many ways, but the Sub Sahara seems doomed to disintegration regardless of any efforts, especially from the outside. Actually I think the entire continent is on the verge of collapse.

Jack Fisher said...


Mex needs to be fixed by Mexicans, and as long as the DNC lies in the same bed as the oligarchs who run Mexico, the fixin' won't happen.

Subsaharan Africa is and remains what the West wants it to be. Foreign and humanitarian aid is a tool of diplomacy and flows to friendly governments, and it doesn't matter whether they are somewhat democratic or run by warlords, or that vast quantities of aid are stolen by the political elites, so long as they are our warlords and serve our interests. Samuel Doe of Liberia is a prime example of this, if the Cold War were still ongoing, he'd still be president.

Ares Olympus said...

trigger warning said... Are you suggesting she's lying about conditions in Senegal?

I am suggesting she is painting a one sided view. I also would like to know how many years or decades ago she was there.

I'm also suggesting that she risks encouraging her readers to characterize an entire continent based on a single person's view of a single visit.

After all those suggestions, I'm perfectly open to cultural anthropology and seeing how cultures differ, and how they could learn from each other.

It is nice the U.S. has generally clean drinking water and sanitation, and its not rocket science, but it does cost large amounts of money, as Flint Michigan discovered when the state decided to skimp on their water quality to expose their lead pipes to acidic water.

trigger warning said...

Heres the other side: according to the wiki table derived from WHO and UNICEF data, 2% of rural Senegalese have access to sewer service. In fact, collapsing both the urban and rural data yields only 11%.

Sounds like a shithole to me. You should go check. Be sure and get your vaccinations...

"Most travelers to Senegal will need vaccinations for hepatitis A, typhoid fever, yellow fever, and polio, as well as medications for malaria prophylaxis and travelers' diarrhea. Meningococcal vaccine is recommended during the dry season."

That yellow fever vax is a bitch.

Sam L. said...

I had thought that if we sealed our border with Mexico, there'd be a revolution by the people. Now, I think it would be a narco-gang revolution.

James said...

I understand how the foreign aid program works, I just think that Africa especially the Sub Sahara is going down and think nothing will stop it. As they say we'll see.

James said...

There is. From what I gather talking to guys from down there, you're going to see a lot of local vigilantism, much much more that what has already happened.