When I Was Young and Dumb I Tried to Save the World

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As a college student, I became obsessed with ecovillages. Ecovillages are modern-day Utopian housing projects, community-building in “harmony with nature.” My thoughts ran like this: “People are lonely and isolated. The planet is being destroyed. If we can just arrange for ecovillage world domination, we can solve both things at the same time!”

I was dimly aware that the ecovillage movement I idolized might be considered by others to be a bunch of kooky hippies. But to hell with those naysayers! So I googled around and found a “Study Abroad in an Ecovillage,” program, which offered eight or ten different international options. Since I spoke French, I chose the Senegalese option, and my supportive parents bravely bought me tickets and sent me forth into the wilds of Africa, humbly requesting that I “try not to die.”

Before Senegal, I was basically Percy from the Harry Potter books. I was horrified if anyone offered me a beer at a party. I cried if I got a bad grade. If I was assigned to work on a team at school, I was in charge of keeping people “on task.” In other words, I was unbearable.

Senegal changed me. How? It’s a long story. It begins with this: I’m sorry to characterize an entire nation in this flippant way — but everyone who has traveled there really will know EXACTLY what I’m talking about — Senegal is a nation that really, really, really likes telling butt jokes. In Wolof, the phrase for “big butt” is “gai funday.” (Long after all other vocab words have faded from my memory, I am sure the phrase, “gai funday,” will remain).

As the self-appointed savior of the world, I found it improper, not to say alarming, to be jocularly complimented over and over on the size and magnificence of my butt. I had the feeling that perhaps the entire country was playing some kind of elaborate practical joke on me. It wasn’t just the butt jokes, either. The joking just never stopped.

It started in the airport when I asked anxiously if this was the right door to find my missing luggage. The airport official, relaxing on his chair and listening to a portable radio, told me that it was indeed the right door — but I was only allowed to pass if I would dance to the music on his radio!

Three seconds of bewildered dismay was followed by a kind of glazed comprehension. But I rallied. I laughed at him, smiled flirtatiously, and said in a teasing tone of voice, “I don’t think that’s an official airport regulation!” And he laughed back and let me pass, perfectly satisfied. That was the rule. As long as you laughed, they were satisfied. They let you through, they let you in. As long as you remained serious, focused, and on-task — you got nowhere.

The “ecovillage,” I was studying in, had been referred to in our Study Abroad pamphlets as EcoYoff. But upsettingly enough, no one who lived there seemed to know it was named, “EcoYoff.” With the delicate tact of someone trying not to offend the sensibilities of a rich madwoman, they would explain to me, “We live in Yoff, lady.” And this was just the first of many mysteries that would confront me.

For one thing, it was not the least like a village. Despite the sand-paved streets and the occasional stressed-out cow, I’d never been anyplace more urban. To get from my host family to my school building, I had to clamber over a large concrete barrier, and run as fast as I could across a large, busy highway, hoping I wouldn’t die. My school building was the headquarters of Global Ecovillage Network Senegal. In the front yard grew pretty much the only plants I ever saw in all of Yoff. My school was a small oasis in a desert of urban sprawl.

In hindsight, I was able to piece the mystery together. An ecovillage “thought leader” from Ithaca, NY had visited Yoff back when it was a humble fishing village. Enchanted by the way the Senegalese lived in harmony with nature, she recommended the place to the attention of the ecovillage folk. They made friends with a few natives and dubbed the place, “EcoYoff,” probably to make it easier to raise money from environmentalists with deep pockets. But the vast majority of Yoff’s population remained ignorant of Yoff’s new status. Meanwhile, the city of Dakar grew until it engulfed Yoff, transforming a peaceful fishing suburb into part of a bustling city.

And now the harbor was so polluted, some fish grew two heads! Given that the fishing business was waning, the citizens of Yoff seemed very happy to be engulfed by Dakar and its economic opportunities. They didn’t want an idyllic rural lifestyle; they wanted mansions, swimming pools, and sports cars, “just like you Americans,” they would tell me with a cheeky grin. I did get one person to admit that “sustainability,” might be a good thing for Yoff — but I’m pretty sure he was just trying to finagle a date out of me.

Of course, this was a body blow to my cherished new value system — but I rallied! I thought maybe, given time, I could win more people over. And of course, there was the Service Learning Project. That was my Chance to Make a Difference. The whole class, half Senegalese students studying English, and half American students studying “sustainable development,” were piled into a bone-shakingly rickety bus and driven out into the desert to Make a Difference to the rural village of Guede-Chantier.

Before Senegal, I was obsessed with being perfect. The perfect grades. The perfect conduct. The perfect virtue, saving the world. And because my life had always been easy, I could usually manage the motions of perfect behavior.

In Senegal, it was different. I didn’t know the rules. I couldn’t be perfect because I didn’t know what I was doing. For example, there was a cultural taboo against accepting anything with your left hand. Once, when I unthinkingly reached with my left hand, my roommate slapped me hard on the wrist. Then she explained (in a gentle, motherly, kind of way) that the wrist slaps were how they taught Senegalese toddlers to follow the cultural taboo. I had regressed from being a straight A student to being dumber than a toddler.

The truth couldn’t escape me forever. Eventually, I realized: I wasn’t there to save the Senegalese; I was there to be humored by them for the sake of the hard cash I carried. (Towards the end of my semester, I even heard about a popular local film, in which clever Senegalese con money out of comically clueless foreigners working for an international development nonprofit.)

Speaking of misguided NGOs. In the desert village of Guede-Chantier, students from a previous semester had built a library, filling a small unused room in the local high school with books. Together with one of the Senegalese students, I was assigned the problem of improving it for my “Service Learning Project.” How did that go?

  1. I discovered the library was kept locked up at all times, (the high school vice principal explained to me) “to keep students from stealing the books.”
  2. When we opened the room (which hadn’t been used for months) it turned out the books were being eaten by termites.
  3. When I borrowed termite spray from a friend, the vice principal indignantly refused to let me return it, saying that since I was rich I should just donate it to the school. But it wasn’t mine!
  4.  I emailed the student from the previous semester who had started the library, complaining of my woes. She emailed me back that the vice principal was a “sexually harassing creep” and I should watch out for him.
  5. I found the sign the previous students had painted to mark the library rotting in the back of some shed. I asked that the sign be hung — and was irritably told to pay for it myself, which I did.
  6. I proudly opened the library. I found that nobody wanted to visit it because it was full of out-of-date donated textbooks and dry, dense works of French literature.
  7. I bought some “fun” books for the library (Tintin comics were the biggest hit) and organized “fun” student events, like quiz bowls and debates, to raise awareness for the library’s existence. Yay! Students signed up for library cards! Books got checked out!
  8.  I was not sure whether anyone would ever actually return the books, but I went away before I could find out one way or the other.

Of course, no part of this saga took place without emotional turmoil. I felt totally out of my depth. One day in Dakar, I confessed my turmoil to my teaching assistant, a gentle-voiced and pragmatic lady named Brooke. She saw the tears start to well up, and she said, “Let’s take a walk.”

Remember my mad dashes across the busy highway to class? Well, on either side of the highway were staircases leading to nowhere. They had started to build a bridge for pedestrians to cross the highway, but had abandoned the project halfway through, when corruption drained all the money from the budget. Brooke led me to the top of one of the staircases; under cover of the highway noise, a nice private place to talk and cry it out.

After I was finished, she took me to the corner store, and bought me an ice cream bar. In retrospect, that was the best (only?) thing she possibly could have done. I calmed down. I ate my ice cream bar.

So when I read hysterical essays on the evils of “voluntourism,” sometimes I think, “Gee, I wish I could buy the person who wrote this an ice cream bar.” Because yes, it’s all true. Foreigners really do suck at solving other country’s problems. You shouldn’t do volunteer work without considering the context of patriarchy, white supremacy, and wealth inequality. But good lord, stop taking yourself so seriously. You are no more the white destroyer of the world than you are the white savior of it.

Ultimately, going to Senegal was the best thing that ever happened to me. Not because I made a huge difference and saved the world. Not because I learned the secret to ecovillage world domination. But because going there taught me I wasn’t perfect, and never would be.

I came home knowing how to laugh at myself, and it’s made life generally more bearable. For me, and probably also for the nice folks who have to put up with me.

2 Responses to “When I Was Young and Dumb I Tried to Save the World

  • There is nothing better for building character than to travel and meet new cultures. What a wonderful experience for you you to have at such a young age.

  • I love this post! When I served in Americorps, over and over they drilled into our heads that we were not saviors and we should not expect that we can do or try anything that the locals haven’t already tried. There is an element classism/racism in the notion that volunteers have some power to fix things that the locals don’t. So many volunteers go in with expectations that they’re going to make everything better, and end up in tears when they don’t. So our program went to great lengths to rid us of any such ideas.

    The weekly discussion were the best part of my Americorps experience. Helping kids learn to read is swell, but mixed raced discussions about race and class are so helpful and so rare.

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