Monday, December 25, 2006

Three more “West African” moments...

Myspace Mood: Happy

Feliz Natal! I hope everyone's Christmas is going or was good depending on when you read this. It has been a little difficult to get into the Christmas spirit this year for us, for several reasons, but we've been doing our best! It has seemed less like the holidays for several reasons: the fact that we're away from our families, the warm weather, lack of smothering monotone gray cloud cover (Michigan), and finally the fact that Africans generally don't worry about anything more than a day ahead meaning that Christmas wasn't really a topic of conversation until, say, yesterday.

Last blog I gave a couple of recent things that have made me notice where I am, I have three more today that are funny and also very African. The first one was humorous but doesn't have much of a story. Emily and I were driving around downtown on the TVS (checking the mail and picking up a few groceries) and a monkey ran across the road in front of us. It was spindly, but standing up its arms would reach higher than mine. I might have expected such a thing a little further out of civilization, but not downtown! So, there's another first for Jason – I have never before almost run over a monkey with a small motor scooter. :)

The second story gives you a little window into banking in Guinea-Bissau. There are only three banks in the whole country who offer personal accounts, and all three are in Bissau. One of the center employees, Fernando, needed to open an account to help with the visa he's trying to get to study English in the U.S. for a year. I took him into town on the TVS, dropped him off, and went to do the other errands downtown that the center needed. I came back half an hour later and asked him how it was going. The bank had been open for an hour and a half and his number was 110. They were helping #50 at the time. Yes, that's right folks – there was a three hour delay... even to deposit or withdraw! (While we were waiting I had plenty of time to tell Fernando how miraculous ATM's are, haha.) Apparently lines like this aren't at all uncommon and if the bank closes before they get to your number, you get to come back tomorrow, get a new number, and continue hoping.

The third story gives a good insight into West African society, but I'll give you the cultural interpretation after so I don't spoil the story. We were doing our Saturday morning shopping last weekend downtown, so we were driving from the store that has canned beans to the store that gets good soup mixes (appreciate Wal-Mart, friends), and the road the second store (Mavegro) is on is bad – so sometimes we drive on the sidewalk (which is good) for the last half block.

You might be thinking to yourself at this point, "Jason, you lawbreaker – you have a scooter and now you think you own the road and the sidewalk too!" In my defense I should more clearly define what I mean when I say the road is bad. It has potholes that are four feet wide and up to 18" deep. Not just a few of them either, it looks like the craters of the moon. So we drive on the sidewalk for that half block in an effort to avoid getting lost in one of those potholes and never being heard from again. Sure you wouldn't do it in America... but this is Africa.

Last Saturday we drove the bike up over the curb and onto the sidewalk, past a woman selling bread, past a house, and then as we passed a man washing a car on the street I noticed that he was growing slightly taller. In fact what was happening was that our bike was sinking into the wet cement that we were driving on. You'd be surprised how similar cement with carwash water on it looks to wet (uncured) cement. Or I was at least.

Fortunately only about four feet of the cement was being repaired, so the TVS hummed on through, hardly slowing down. As we drove the last 20 feet to the store, Em looked back to see a disgusted looking man with a trowel in his hand emerge from the house and glare at us. We ran into the store quickly hoping he would not follow. We picked up what we needed, headed back out to the bike (relieved that he wasn't there waiting for us), and took off – not before noticing the cement had been smoothed back out and now had several big rocks on either side to warn anyone else who might want to drive through it that the cement was in fact wet.

Now we come to the cultural learning portion of the program. If I asked an American what was the cause of the problem in this situation, I think most of us would identify two things: First, I was driving on the sidewalk. I'll give you that one, but take my word – it's totally acceptable here. In fact, I would venture to say that a majority of Africans would have thought it a little odd for me to be driving on the road rather than the sidewalk, given its condition. The second cause an American might identify in this situation is that the mason working on the cement didn't put up any markers to alert people that the cement was wet. And here is where American and African mindsets separate. Despite the fact that Saturday is the busiest shopping day of the week, I am convinced that if I had stopped to ask why he didn't put up any warning signs he would have told me in all honesty that he saw no need.

A second example of this lackadaisical approach to warning signs is illustrated by a giant hole in the sidewalk. This hole appeared one day in the middle of one of the busiest paths for foot traffic on our side of the city. It appeared with no apparent explanation or markings and was 6-7' deep and the whole width of the sidewalk when it was dug. I assumed that they might be working on underground pipes or something. A few days later (possibly because someone fell in, lol) there were four corn stalks marking the four corners of the hole with a little plastic stretched across them. The corn stalks disappeared a few days later and now (whatever its original purpose) the hole is filling up with trash as kind of a spot-landfill.

Generally, West Africans much prefer to deal with problems when they occur rather than preparing for/preventing them beforehand. As nearly as I can tell, the rationale is that preparing for or preventing a problem is work that might end up being pointless (if the problem doesn't end up happening). I'm not sure if the thinking is that clearly defined or just happens based on the fact that so many people are living hand to mouth that they don't have time to worry about problems that aren't problems yet – but either way the effect is the same. I think another factor that plays into this is that predictability is not prized here as it is in the States. We plan partially to make sure we know what's coming – so many bad things happen here that trying to have a predictable future is seen as a futile exercise in frustration. (Of course it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because the lack of planning leads to even more bad things happening, reinforcing the idea that there's no point in thinking ahead.)

Our teammate has done a good job of convincing some of the center employees of the virtues of planning ahead by putting away some money, but even after they understand the importance of it, there is a curious thing about African society which prevents them from saving. If a neighbor or family member comes and asks for money (which happens often), if you have any, you have to give it to them. This causes all sorts of funny idiosyncrasies (such as causing everyone to spend as much of their monthly pay as quickly as possible to avoid being obligated to give it away) but also has the side effect of making saving impossible. Our teammate has set up an envelope system in the center's safe to allow the employees to save without anyone knowing, but even then they almost have to lie when someone asks them for money by saying they don't have any available. Interesting, huh?

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