Historical Perspective

One problem I’ve been seeing about PC health missions in Africa is the problem of convincing people of preventative measures. People don’t want prevention; they want a cure to the horrible parasite infecting them now. Malaria avoidance takes a back seat to chloroquine injections to cure it now.

In order to understand this, first let’s look at West African society. West Africa has a lot of bugs and little food with little protein. Death rates are high and often people have to work the whole day long to be able to eat. Of course a society like that is going to prize the present day. Saving up for tomorrow only makes sense if (a) you have enough to save up, and (b) there’s a reasonable chance you’ll make it to tomorrow. When resources are scarce and life uncertain, by contrast, societies are going to value activities that celebrate the present. I say this to underscore how material conditions affect what people value, and that it makes sense if one puts oneself in their position.

But more than that, let us not forget that preventative health did not immediately catch on in the West. When it was suggested that washing hands would cut down fatality rates in hospitals, doctors laughed! It took a while for modern medicine to catch on in the West. When you really look at it, you could go back to the Greeks, to Aristotle’s observational skills, the work of classical and medieval physicians such as Galen, Avicenna, and Maimonides, the rise of Aristotelianism, nominalism, and mechanical physics, the discovery of germs, and then the further scientific research to get to where we are today. It took our society millenia to discover this stuff; why should it be introduced elsewhere in a single generation?

When you think about it, putting aside modern education on the germ theory of disease, hand-washing does seem like an almost magical ritual. Why should it work? And even now, most people do not take advantage of preventative medicine, but wait until they are sick. Hand-washing is really a magical ritual for most, and vaccines taken because required.

Things take time, and the problem of introducing new medical practices hits against a certain inertia in human nature that we see at home just as much as overseas. I do not plan to go to change the world. I hope to make a difference in one or two lives. They can impact a couple more, and from there more, until in a few hundred years there is health and education throughout the region. I would like to see it done now, to be sure, but (1) societies change over generations, and (2) the real change needs to come as an African response to African needs, and not some middle-class white boy telling them what they need. I go to offer tools I find useful and that I think are useful to human beings in general, and hope that they will actually be so.


Cultural Dilemmas

I finished The Village of Waiting. It’s a good book, in that the author is brutally honest. He’s honest about the problems he sees in Africa, about the superficiality of many westerners over there, about the challenges of improvement, and of his own failings (he left Peace Corps early, after having a breakdown on a trip to Europe). And whether or not I can agree with him or whether I would like him, I can appreciate his honesty in the story he tells.

One issue he raises is that of corruption in African politics. But what I liked about his assessment is that he shows just how complicated the matter is. For example, test results have to be run past the minister of education before they are made public. Said minister generally pens in some names of people from his own tribe, crosses off some others from another tribe, and voilà – the official list.

Of course this is problematic. But how would the minister be viewing this action? It would be the one way he could concretely help out those people he grew up with, the villagers and kin who always had food for him, no matter how little was going around. Family ties, including extended family and tribes, are all-important in West Africa.

And this is the difficulty: the same values that help communities survive drought, famine, sickness, and poverty in such a rough region, and which produce an amazingly generous and hospitable people, are the exact same values which produce nepotism and corruption. It is a clash of systems, between the concrete world of family and the abstract system of public authority. (Do note that a large part of the problem is that European powers came in and imposed their own governmental systems, oftentimes purposefully drawing up political states in ways that cut across tribal boundaries.)

In the next book I’ve been reading, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, the author notes that often the fonctionnaires in any given village throughout West Africa are from a different area of the same state. This sometimes produces conflict, but sometimes produces greater understanding and provides an actual point of contact between peoples. Perhaps this is one solution. Still, the problem is difficult, and it does touch on perennial problems of the public versus the private, of natural ties versus abstract duties, and of community versus the individual.

Reading List

I’m putting together a reading list on Africa in general and West Africa in particular. I don’t know if anyone might want to read along with me and chat about it, either now or while I am (hopefully) abroad (I do try to keep reminding myself that it is not a done deal yet, but the excitement is kind of carrying me away as well). But here are some books I’m looking at going through:

  • West Africa by Eugene Mendonsa: This is the book I’ve written about in the past couple posts. At 660 pages, I don’t expect anyone else to read it with me, but I’ll try to post interesting factoids from it.
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen: Not really about West Africa, or about the type of life I will be living there, but a classic that I probably should read in order to know how Africa has been interpreted in the West.
  • The Village of Waiting by George Packer: A more pessimistic view of Peace Corps service in West Africa that I’m reading in order to keep myself balanced. It seems to be simultaneously loved and loathed by PC volunteers, so I figure it is probably brings up some of the hardest issues to face while on site.
  • Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell: What appears to be a more optimistic view to counter the preceding, though still dealing with life in a very poor African village.
  • Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman: Another PC memoir, this time a bit closer to where I might get stationed.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Acheba: I read this for AP English in high school and remember it being a very good book. Time for a reread.
  • No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe: And while I am at it, why not read a second Achebe book? I want to read books about Africa by an African.
  • The Epic of Sudiata: A classic Mali epic.

Color and Culture

One week down. I’ve been coming along on reviewing French, although I still need a lot of listening and conversation practice. That, and getting these dang genders down. Noun gender is the one thing English does do logically (though I suppose a French person would be befuddled about why I don’t consider a room to be feminine or a book masculine). To get genders down, I’ve been writing masculine words in my notebook in red and feminine ones in sky blue. Together on the white page they make the page look very French.

I’ve been doing some more reading on West Africa, too. Fortunately after the first chapter, the book buckled down and stopped hitting me over the head with its agenda (I don’t mind a history that is written to make a point. Histories generally are, and some personal narratives that are interwoven with historical research can be both fascinating and informative. I just want it to be done well, with attention to nuance.) West Africa is an interesting region. It appears to have been the source of much African culture originally and has all sorts of climates (rain forest, savannah, sahara, sahel [the “coast” between the sahara and the savannah], and coast), together with many different ethnic groups. It was home to two great African economic empires, the Ghana and the Mali (which I’m excited to read about. I’m such a nerd.). It’s also interesting looking at how it was viewed by other cultures. Islamic sources seem to look up to West Africa as a model of governance, while Europeans saw them as barbarians.

And that info dump is all I have for the moment. I’ll try to read more, so that I can present more interesting material.

Reading Up

I picked up a book today on West Africa to begin reading. I don’t know nearly enough about Africa, which is an issue that I imagine is pretty common in our educational system. We’ll see how the book goes – so far, it is pretty wordy and overly romantic, in that the Africans had a perfect culture before these damn individualistic, materialistic Europeans came in. Plus, there’s a a rampant post-modernism which takes as a starting assumption that all culture is created and so one can only talk about the truth-system of a given culture. Which is baloney.

(Philosophical interlude: I am a relativist, in the sense that we can only approach reality from within our constructions, but at the same time there is something that we run up against which is not willed by human beings, collectively or individually. Diverse cultures discovered the Pythagorean Theorem. Modern physics and medicine work for non-Europeans. But other beliefs show themselves to be superstition, such as various divinatory systems, charms and talismans, and much folk medicine. And the statement that all truth is purely constructed is either self-contradictory or is culture-bound to modern postmodernism, in which case it is as good an assumption as that we must beware Zeus coming down and seducing our womenfolk in various guises.)

However, it looks like it has a lot of information in it (a whole 660 pages worth), so we’ll see how it goes and I’ll share interesting tidbits and/or rants along the way.

It Starts

I went to Chicago for my personal interview with the Peace Corps today. It looks like it is going to be a very busy few months ahead of me. I wanted to start a blog (yes, yet another one) about the journey for a couple of reasons. First, I plan to continue a blog overseas (assuming that everything from here goes smoothly and I actually get the position, which is not a certainty!), as a way of keeping in touch with people. Second, I hope that making myself post regularly about preparation will be a way of forcing myself to be diligent about it. We’ll see how that pans out.

Most of the positions available are for next year, so it is a possibility that I could be around for a fair bit longer. However, it looks like I will be conditionally nominated for a post in Sub-Saharan Africa teaching math. The “conditional” part is this: I need to know basic French before going over there. I know some French, but I need to be able to CLEP out of four college semesters to meet the requirements. Further, this particular position begins in July, so I need to learn the language quickly.

Next steps: finding ways to learn French. Carnegie Mellon has a free course online: http://oli.web.cmu.edu/openlearning/forstudents/freecourses/french. There are also free FSI public-domain courses (http://fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php?page=French). I may try the Alliance Française to see about private lessons or group chat sessions. Anyone willing to sit and watch French movies with me? Amélie? Le Cité des enfants perdus?