“…there can be no true despair without hope…”

This is not the first time I have gone onto this train of thought, but if you wish, ride with me as I explore it once again. A constant source of frustration for me here is (some) people’s insistence that all their and all problems of Africa will be resolved by The Toubab. So often random men ask me to “bring them a Toubab(e)” – i.e. another female – when I refuse their proposals. The ridiculously of this request aside, I ask him, what will you do with said Toubab? If he is honest, he replies, “she will bring me money”. Again, besides the obvious, the reason this really bothers me is because of the contradictions this request completely ignores. How many problems are caused rather than resolved by foreigners in Africa?

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Coffee is the obvious example of exploitation in Africa. Côte d'Ivoirian coffee bean farmers suffer the unpredictable elements to harvest beans which are then sent to European or American countries to be roasted, ground, packaged, and then sent back to Côte d'Ivoire and other West African countries to be sold at elevated prices to people who can't afford to buy coffee (yet they do anyways) because they work for little or no wages, and, worse of all, who but the foreigners gains their profit in the end?! {I get that fair trade has its own troubles but let’s not go there just yet.}

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Naturally, foreigners prey upon a false sense of hope which pervades over poverty. To bring in a local example, here in Bandial, until three years ago when a pump was installed, women trudged every morning through fields full of a weed known only as “the farmer killer” to access this crocodile filled swamp where they retrieved all their families’ water needs for the day. They spent hours to acquire water which was not even completely safe to drink let alone to obtain, to say the least. No wonder, when a foreigner came offering to find a source of water from which they could dig a well with his magic divining rods did they acquiesce and agree to haul out all the materials and supply all the labor necessary to dig. When the well did not strike potable water, they were still not so discouraged that they distrusted the next prospect, a fishing pond, nor the next, a dam, nor the next…

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Although so many here complain that the problem is a lack of money, this appears to be not only not accurate, as there are certainly people with money and (more plentifully) resources, but of misplaced hope and confidence in something outside themselves. When people here do have cash, what do they spend it on? Popular big ticket items include motorcycles, television sets, satellite dishes, and the construction of houses (with the accompanying destruction of forests that give this place so much of its beauty and attraction to outsiders in the first place), which leads to another problem here in The Casamance especially, the over building of campements (lodges for tourists).

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The trouble with this is that, as it has been this year, when there is some sort of problem that impedes the arrival of tourists, these campements have no income. Further, one person sees the success of another’s campement and they attempt to construct one as well. This results in there being campements everywhere, all of them empty! The end result is people here relying not only on foreign aid but also foreign visitors with their money, but the money isn’t being distributed into the local economy.

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Rémy, you’ll recall my new BFF and language consultant for Jóola Bandial, is a living example of a solution to these problems of outsourcing. Being a fisherman and a farmer, he spends his nights in the river catching fish to feed those in the village too old to get their own and during the day he cultivates the rice fields. He has tried many times to live and work for outsiders, at campements, supplying their restaurants’ fishing needs, but he has always been taken advantage of for his generosity. Thus, unlike most young people who leave the village for work and only return for visits, he has come back to live a life of peace and tranquility.

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And how do I fit into this equation? Because Rémy has become a friend as well as my language consultant, I did not want our work to become transactional; I did not want simply to give him cash in exchange for his hospitality, nor for his language. He very much desires a motor for his canoe but that is a long-term goal so in the meantime, to thank him for his excellent cooking, we had the idea to bring him some ingredients from town that are not available in Bandial. This seemed like a great plan and I felt proud that I had hauled all these supplies on my bike the 23km out to the village…until I realised that I had now become that which I strive to work against. By bringing processed, packaged, and foods full of preservatives, I was bringing in the outside influence to a world that, at least in part, lives and flourishes free of it.

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Despite the epiphany, upon my arrival, I was still excited to be able to surprise Rémy with the gifts. However, he had a surprise of his own. In addition to being an expert fisherman, phenomenal cook, tireless farmer, and an extraordinary linguistic consultant, Rémy is a sculptor. He carved me an entire set of traditional Jóola tools out of wood, including a canoe, oar, spade, comb, needle, bench, and a mortar and pestle, each instrument with its name in Jóola Bandial transcribed upon its smoothed surface. We both agreed that as to the war of who is better at life, the Toubab or the Casamançais, the latter has officially won.

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