Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Staying Out of the Hammock

I feel so far away from the U.S. here that I can't accept the election is today and that in a few hours, the polls will open. There is constant talk about the election--everyone has asked me whether I'm voting for Obama or McCain--and the radio has been buzzing with it, especially the BBC, which has termed it "the U.S. election--the vote that effects your world." It's amazing and a bit embarrassing that people here know more about the election than I do and actually listen to the campaign speeches. It really shows how prominent the U.S. is globally and how important this vote is, not just for we Americans, but for everyone. It actually makes me a little sad that I'm not home to witness this, "the most watched election in history," though I'm so apathetic at this point (heartbroken would be more like it) that probably I'd be even more removed than I am now if I were back in Ojai. I was listening to the BBC's special "Black in America" series this morning. The segment was on Morehouse and there was a discussion about MLK. I was shocked upon remembering how recently the entire nation was essentially at war over civil rights. A couple of days ago, thinking about the psychic damage that civil war inflicts on a nation and the differences and rivalries that still exist between North and South, and realized the American Civil War wasn't that long ago either. In Senegal I sadly corrected friends of mine who said that they wanted to go to America rather than France because there was no racism there--that we'd solved that issue with the civil rights movement.

Race in Sierra Leone is a strange thing. There are definite colonial throwbacks, where white people working for the NGOs have instituted behaviors and have expectations of treatment that I find extremely uncomfortable. Being given more food during parties and gatherings is one example. I've been called "a real African lady" because I do some of my own laundry, occasionally eat local food, (very) rarely wear African clothes, and carry things around, like shopping bags, chairs, and other items, both heavy and light. I'm not tooting my own horn here for being such a good person that I carry my own bags; what I'm trying to say is that the expectations of what expats/white people are capable or willing of doing is very low because many of those pumoi (the Mende word for foreigner) don't do anything for themselves. It's actually a little frustrating at times to have everyone on the staff smile at me encouragingly because I was able to figure out cooking okra all on my own. This frustration comes out of embarrassment that the people who come here to work for NGOs allow others to do the things they should be doing for themselves. I'm not saying everyone who comes here to volunteer should do all their own laundry (I'm certainly not capable of washing my own sheets by hand), but I think that there is a fine line between seeking out help when you need it and becoming a neocolonialist. The image (that I've already evoked) of French colonial administrators getting carried around in hammocks on their tours through "the bush," while lines of forced porters carry their clothes, phonographs, pernod, carpets, and tents behind them, never leaves me.

Furthermore, I've had confusing conversations with a few merchants of Lebanese origin (most of them were born in SL but don't have citizenship--a sticky subject). They consider themselves Africans but hold themselves apart, generally speaking, and there's a continual "us and them" mentality, even for the black Sierra Leoneans that have worked for them for years. One Lebanese diamond merchant said that the reason why Sierra Leone was "backwards" (his words, not mine) was because they kept their "superstitious" beliefs. Another Lebanese shopkeeper said that "they" can't be trusted because his workers steal from the shelves. In both cases, I didn't know what to say. There's also some tension in this of class/economics, since the Lebanese community has a fair amount of influence, despite its lack of citizenship (and vote, I think--I keep hearing different things) and has cornered the diamond market. Most of the merchants we buy bulk food from are Lebanese, and every "supermarket" has a Lebanese son behind the register.

I think about all of this often but don't have much concretely figured out. What I've written here feels clumsy. Race and racism is complicated here, as it is anywhere. The system is always different and is always subject to the history of the place. Racism in France is different from racism in the U.S. is different from racism in Sierra Leone. I try to be aware of my behavior, speech, and expectations, so that I don't end up in that "us and them" mentality that is so easy to accept, especially as a foreigner as well as being of a different race. And I continue to seek out what the different communities think of each other here. And, I keep washing my own underwear by hand because that, I can do on my own.

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