Check Your Privilege

I’ve been awfully complainy lately: the pasta is cooked way past al dente, the quignon isn’t even worth eating, and WHERE ARE THE GREENS?

Despite my petty whining, I’m still aware that right outside the walls there are abandoned toddlers on the street begging to avoid getting brutally beaten by their marabouts.

I woke up Saturday morning to rain, which meant that the surfing excursion I’d planned with a few friends was cancelled. I used this opportunity to follow around Fatou, the maid who cooks. Today she was making ceebujen, fish of rice, the national dish. I helped her peel garlic and stripped bissap leaves from their stems. I watched (aghast) as she poured half of a liter of peanut oil into the cooking bowl and otherwise tried to stay out of the way.

Then I asked if she could take a picture of me mashing some spices in the oversized mortar-and-pestle contraption. And a series of awkward moments commenced.

That Awkward Moment When:
You ask someone to take a picture of you and she has no idea how to use a camera.

That Awkward Moment When:
You teach her how to use a camera and she still can’t take the picture.

That Awkward Moment When:
You show her again, and she can’t understand to or can’t wait for you to get in front of the camera… nor hold the camera steady nor remotely straight.

That Awkward Moment When:
You have to find a way to say that you really didn’t want a picture anyway, because you have too many, LOL, let’s get back to cooking!!!! Yay cooking is so much fun!!!!

Fortunately, Awa, the other maid, was there to intervene and she quickly got how to take a picture after I taught her once or twice. I was very embarrassed after this experience. My camera is a scratched-up, run-of-the-mill, few-years-old point-and-shoot – one of those ubiquitous Canon ones. But the maids’ lack of familiarity with it highlighted the differences in opportunity offered to them versus to me.

Mashing spices. I love how they also use calabashes as cooking bowls. But yes, seeing this photo brings up feelings of awkwardness.

The problem of rural flight is common in almost every developing country. Fatou and Awa come from Thiès (70km/45 miles from Dakar) and Kaolack (200km/125 miles from Dakar), respectively, and they go home every other weekend to visit the families to whom they probably send money. I learned in my Santé Publique class that the people of Kaolack have “dents chocolats” from the dangerously high fluoride content in their water, and it’s true. Awa’s teeth are streaked with brown in a way that didn’t come from coffee. One of her eyes is also clouded over. Fatou’s a little bit older and even though she laughs so much, her eyes are never pointing in the same direction and I learned after the camera incident that she has problems with her motor skills.

Lately I’ve also been realizing that the communication/comprehension problems I’ve been having with Fatou are not because my French is horrible. Awa’s French is pretty good but I’ve realized that Fatou knows as much French as I know of Wolof – she’ll inevitably call someone in to translate even when I speak simply and très clairement.

I should have realized this language barrier earlier. In Senegal, Wolof, the dominant indigenous language, is used on the street. An indigenous language, which may or may not be Wolof, is spoken at home. French is taught in schools. If you don’t or can’t go to school, which is highly likely if you’re a poor girl, you don’t learn French. If you don’t learn French, you’re left out of higher-paying jobs and you look for work as a mbindaan or foótkat (Wolof for maid or laundry washer). Fatou is already more lingually talented than I am – she’s fluent in both Serer and Wolof. But she never had the opportunity to learn French.

In America, there’s still a lot of inequality. It’s almost impossible for someone who lives in a rural area to get into Harvard. But it’s possible. Here, the educational infrastructure is so poor that it may have been actually impossible for Fatou to have gone to school at all. I’m not one to view education, especially higher education, as the ultimate solution for eliminating poverty – vocational training is so undervalued, and there aren’t enough white-collar jobs for the college graduates we already have – but I believe primary education should be compulsory and accessible. In addition, the lack of public health infrastructure has resulted in these women’s bodies being irreversibly damaged in what could have been possibly preventable ways.

Back in the United States, I was aware of much of the inequality in the world. This is just an example of how different it feels when it stares at you right in the face.

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2 responses to “Check Your Privilege

  1. Some spacious kitchen! Does Fatou do the grocery shopping every day? What kind of spices do they use to justify such a gigantic mortar and pestle contraption?
    It is just as hard for people from a competitive high school to Harvard as others from rural :-)

    • Yes, the house is unnecessarily large. I think that’s where most of the wealth may have gone.
      Sadly, Fatou only does the shopping once every 10-15 days, which explains why we hardly eat vegetables.
      The mortar and pestle are also used for grinding other things, like handfuls of bissap leaves. I guess they only have one huge one.
      I’m talking about really rural, where you have no access to AP classes nor access to even being able to learn properly – where there are literally no resources for you. (In my opinion), these kids gets screwed over even more than the inner city kids, because people have started developing programs for inner city kids so that there ARE resources, they’re just relatively inaccessible, versus having literally no resources at all.

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