Lines on a map: Affiniam, Senegal

“If I’m alive next year, I think I’ll plant this field.”

I was out for a walk through the fields and forests near the tiny village of Affiniam in the Casamance region of Senegal where Clement, my friend and guide, was showing me his land.
The matter-of-fact consideration of his own mortality came up as we looked over a small field that he had yet to plant since returning from the city some years ago.

Clement is 52, and in some ways is lucky. He lives in Senegal, where statistics say he should have another 11 years ahead of him.

As one of the wealthier countries in the region, Senegal can afford to provide more care to its people than its neighbours can.

In Guinea, life expectancy sits at 56; in Sierra Leone, 42.

Such statistics come up a lot when people try and convince us that Africa needs help. Fair enough.

Although the statistics themselves are weighted heavily by incredibly high infant mortality levels, that only makes it even more horrifying.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the continent encounters a parade of similar numbers – HDI rankings, vaccination statistics, access-to-water measures, and more. For all things, there are measurements; this is especially true for the metric-obsessed development industry.

Statistics themselves can be pretty untrustworthy. I have had plenty of friends witness the fabrication of statistics at every level, from the village clinic to the national ministry. They can only ever be a guide. Let us, then, take them as such. What are they actually telling us?

Extracting meaning from a pile of numbers is always dicey. However, for most Westerners, the parade of digits serves as a powerful instrument of othering.

When the only picture of an entire continent is the indicators of its pain, it is all too easy to resort to the stereotypes of bloated-bellies-and-Kalashnikovs, the pictures of people who are in every way not like us. These are the people we send sacks of food aid to or see parading across Sunday morning TV screens in a World Vision commercial.

A few days on the continent bursts that bubble pretty effectively. I spent five months backpacking and volunteering in East Africa before I started at Laurier, and I remember sitting in my introductory global studies tutorials furious at the way we were categorizing people as charity cases.

I would lift up my hand and launch into a self-righteous lecture that generally made the point that people all over lived lives just like us. No less complicated, no less inspirational, no less emotional.

To a large extent, I still believe that to be true.

The politics of an African village are certainly not much different than a Canadian city, and I still get ticked off when people imply that “village life” is somehow simpler, or purer, than our materialistic Canadian version. My friends who live in poverty? They would rather not. They would rather have a television, and a good pair of shoes, and all those things that make life a little bit easier, and they are willing to work for it.

I am back on the road in West Africa now, having finished five years at Laurier, and I still am amazed at the consistency of human life under such differing circumstances. I spend a lot of time drinking cold beers with the local fellows or just grabbing a sandwich and chatting to the market ladies, and the conversations are pleasantly commonplace.

Dangerously so, in fact.

Back, perhaps, to Clement. What struck me about his attitude toward the future, and what often strikes me all over the continent, is the pervasive fatalism that lay under it.
Whatever happens, happens.

If we die, we die.

Any Westerner that has spent much time trying to make a difference here crashes headlong at some point into a wall of unwillingness to make the small changes that could lead to a better future.

The stories are endless – how difficult it is to convince people to boil water before drinking it, or to teach their children how to swim so that they don’t drown (as a friend’s child did) falling out of the boat on the way to school.

Think for a moment about the last conversation you had with your friends. How much of it focused on plans for the future, on things you will do, or want to do, or hope to do?

It’s the dominant subtext of social interaction in a Western world where aspirations are everything, and where we feel, most of the time, in control. With this attitude we often set off for the disadvantaged parts of the world and come back disillusioned and burned out by the experience.

This is what I was missing when I went on those rants in GS 101 – being honest with myself about the limits of our common ground with those who have so much less than we do. Sometimes, the surface machinations conceal a psychology that is so battered by circumstance as to render it barely recognizable.

So what do we do? That is the sort of question that’s just asking for a trite answer, and I don’t honestly have one.

Perhaps it is a matter of attitude, of learning to approach the rest of the world with humility and realism. Perhaps it comes down to helping the many, many people who are trying so hard to break the cycle of disappointed expectations.

Finally, perhaps we should take a look at the abundance of our own government’s policies that help to impoverish the rest of the world.

As for those terrible stats? They are, however slowly, getting better.

There is every reason to hope we can speed them up.

Josh Smyth is an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His column “Lines on a Map” will be a recurring feature in Cord International. It will document Josh’s travel adventures throughout Western Africa.