In my village, keeping up with the Joneses means keeping up with the Bahs: a few years ago the chief’s son sent money from Spain for a concrete block, tin roof batiment, so last year my family knocked down a row of huts and built their own batiment. Batiments aren’t particularly superior to huts—water seeps through the walls, rain on the corrugated tin roof is deafening—but boy are they BIG next to those (i.e., everyone else’s) huts (even if the individual rooms have about the same area as a largish hut).
Now my family has upped the ante: three weeks ago a charette brought the village’s first TV and VCR. And a generator, since there’s no electricity. And a ginormous antenna to strap onto the front of our batiment, just in case anyone passing by didn’t already know about the TV (and to pick up the one broadcast station in Senegal, RTS 1).
So now, every other night or so (when they have fuel for the generator and can get all the electronics to work correctly), a good chunk of the village gathers in our compound to watch RTS (Senegalese music, news, or foreign soap operas dubbed into French) or one of their two VHS tapes: video from Alahji and Fanta’s wedding last year, or a copy of Kickboxer, some awful 80s Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, dubbed in Spanish.
Maybe three people speak anything other than Pulaar, so the vast majority don’t understand a word of what’s going on, but they sit enraptured anyway. They notice things American viewers wouldn’t think twice about—a quick shot of a kid doing a backflip into water made everyone gasp and laugh.
My first reaction was to find the whole thing pretty ridiculous: why not put that money towards something that would actually be useful—a millet machine, a gas-powered freezer, new farming equipment? Conspicuous consumption seems all the more conspicuous—and absurd—when it’s in the midst of obvious poverty. I asked Massaly (Ag APCD, Senegalese) about this, and he explained it as the desire of the men who go abroad to come back “successful.” When they visit they walk around the village in button down shirts and pressed slacks, cellphones in hand; shiny new electronics are simply a more lasting way to show that they’ve made it.
As an outsider in a “development” role, it’s easy for me to pass judgment on village priorities and choices. But who am I to tell them they shouldn’t be allowed to indulge in some mindless entertainment? (Especially when I’d happily spend an entire day watching a marathon of “The Real World” or, say, “The Ashlee Simpson Show.”) I suppose a TV in the village is no more foolhardy than cable in a trailer park… but it still seems irresponsible.
However, I’m certainly not complaining about catching the occasional episode of “Muneca Brava.” Kickboxer is gonna get real old, though.
At this point I’d be tempted to call the score Consumerism: 1 / Development: 0, but I’m happy to announce that it looks like it might actually be a draw: Last week we signed a contract to have the new well dug! Hydraulique is supposed to show up in the village on September 25th and start work. They’ll finish the construction within 90 days, then wait until March (when the water table would be lowest) to let the water in and make sure it’s deep enough.
So while I won’t be able to help the village start the dry season garden they want, they’ll have what will hopefully be a more secure water supply, and the next volunteer would be able to jump straight into gardening. If it all happens like it’s supposed to, Inshallah and whatnot.