In Bandial there exists a warehouse full of solar panels, car batteries, and street lamps. For three years, the materials have been sitting in a locked building. The people of Bandial refuse to touch the materials for fear that there will be negative consequences. They state that they’d prefer to remain in the dark rather than potentially upset the delicate balance of give and take.
Upon first seeing the unused light fixtures and hearing the explanation, I felt upset at the people for refusing the assistance that had been offered them. After some reflection, however, I wonder if the assistance was requested or it was simply assumed that the people would want street lamps and that the light would improve their lives. Bandial, as I’ve written before, is often the recipient of “help” from outsiders. In many cases, the help is a hindrance. Especially when help equates assimilation with the values and customs of the ones who offer it, it’s often useless in this environment.
Who’s to say that the quality of life in America or Europe is better than that in Senegal? While many do claim that the life in so-called “Babylon” is better, will imposing it onto “Zion” have the effect of ameliorating or annihilating it? It seems that Africa is always being either exploited or aided. While the former is regarded as unquestionably negative, the latter is usually viewed as being altruistic. Many assume that the recipients are infinitely grateful. But consider the effect of an unwanted gift: like unrequited love the beneficiary may feel guilt and a sense of indebtedness.
I often feel that my linguistic work is both exploiting and imposing. Attempting to preserve an obscure language is like trying to alleviate the obscurity of a village’s paths. The price of light may be an unnecessary cost to those who speak and live their daily lives without any observed hindrance. In fact it is sometimes the very observation that someone has what someone else is apparently lacking that causes the desire to have it, even if it’s not filling an unfulfilled need.