A reader writes:
You asked for reactions from readers who had spent time in places like Senegal. First, my bona fides. Like McQuillan, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. I spent a total of about 5 years in various parts of Africa, mostly in small rural communities. I never lived in Senegal but I did some work there and have visited many times. Dakar is my favorite African city.
Let me first address specifically the “fecalized environment”. This is, quite simply, a problem of infrastructure and poverty. Senegalese people who have access to proper plumbing or even pit latrines readily use them. They don’t have to be taught or acculturated to do so. There’s no cultural commitment to open defecation. The fact that poverty forces people to sh*t outdoors says no more about Senegalese or African culture than the fact that Americans and Europeans in the not-too-distant past emptied their chamber pots onto city streets says about Western Civilization.
People who served in the Peace Corps will recognize in McQuillan’s essay a familiar Peace Corps archetype: the unhappy volunteer whose misery takes the form of increasing bitterness toward the community, culture, and country that surrounds her. And the giveaway is in the penultimate sentence of her piece, where she references giving a year of her life to the poor Senegalese. PCVs make a two-year commitment; McQuillan quit early. In Peace Corps jargon, she ET’d (early termination).
A lot of PCVs are unhappy. It can be a tough life. Some are homesick. Some become disillusioned about the work they’re trying to do. Some have bad things happen to them and have trouble recovering without the familiar comforts of home. Like Tolstoy’s families, every unhappy PCV is unhappy in his or her own way. Probably more of them should ET. A lot of miserable PCVs stick it out simply because they don’t want to feel like quitters.
I mention all this in order to make the following point: McQuillan is not a reliable narrator about Senegalese culture. The unhappy, embittered PCV is the absolute last person you want to use as cultural interpreter. Her surroundings become a canvas onto which she furiously splatters her bile. Even the best-assimilated, least judgmental PCVs spend two-plus years being humbled by how poorly they understand the culture in which they find themselves. It’s an experience that, at its best, teaches patience, openness to experience, generosity, perseverance, kindness, and humility. But the embittered PCV closes herself off to all that. She finds in these experiences an endless series of frustrations. Every cultural difference or misunderstanding amplifies the feeling of alienation. It’s a vicious cycle by which “I don’t understand these people” becomes “I hate everything about these people”. You can hear these feelings in the tone of McQuillan words, even forty-some years after the experience.
I have a soft spot for Senegal. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to visit. Just typing this email has launched my thoughts into daydreams of sitting around with Senegalese friends, eating thiebou dieune from a common bowl, listening to the latest mbalax hits. Of course it’s a poor country with many desperately poor people and a lot of problems. It also has one of Africa’s proudest democratic traditions. It’s home to a famous worldwide mystic brotherhood that preaches self-help and entrepreneurship.
My first reaction to McQuillan’s piece was anger at the unfairness and lack of generosity in her characterization of such a wonderful country. But ultimately I find it tremendously sad that her negative Peace Corps experience deprived her of seeing so much of Senegal that is wonderful and worthy of emulation, even by the richest countries in the world.
Thanks to all you readers who are sending in these personal accounts. I’m learning a lot.