Tag Archives: Dialogue of Civilizations

Structure

This Dialogue has been reminding me more and more of the Egypt trip every day.  And it must be so, because people who aren’t here have been commenting that it seems like I feel the same way about this Dialogue as that one.  After Esther asked me about the trip that has had the most impact on me personally, I began thinking about it more directly.  I’ve loved all the travel in between, but this trip seems to align the ever-fickle planets of academics, leadership, location and group members.

I love the books we read.  Why the Cocks Fight is maybe a little boorish and poorly written, but is nevertheless entirely necessary as it’s the only real history of the island of Hispaniola as a whole.  I can’t understand why there aren’t more books about this topic, and why the author (Michelle Wucker) didn’t arrange the book chronologically instead of thematically.  But alas, we are able to bypass so many basic overviews of DR/Haiti history when we are on site visits or in the field, and instead move on to deeper issues.  With Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (DR) and The Farming of the Bones and Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), we have been able to see the contemporary lives of Haitians and Dominicans at home and abroad, and just how important history, race, nationality and poverty have been to their lives.  I highly recommend all four of those books, and those two authors in general.  Nothing could make the 1937 massacre come to life as much as Farming of the Bones, to the point where I know flinch when I see the word perejil.

It seems that being informed about where you go is a basic form of respect, much like learning hello, goodbye and thank you in the native language.  It is a small token of effort and understanding that is overwhelmingly appreciated by every local population I’ve encountered thus far.  When Haitians learn I’ve read a few Danticat books they take me more seriously, and raise the intensity level of the conversation.  While I’m not in expert in the languages, history and culture of Hispaniola, at least I’m making a good faith effort.  I love that in this group, we named our traveling parrot Tousaint (l’Ouverture) and no one has to ask why.  When Junior references “the election thief” in Wao, no one is unsure about whom he is speaking.  We are better travelers, better students, and better…helpers? because of the reading we’ve done.

Beyond that, it is invaluable to my education.  Our discussions are more enriching, due in part to the books as well as to the overall attitude of this group.  I’ve mentioned before that we have a large proportion of freshmen (1 in 4 students on the trip) but that has only been an asset.  On the whole, the group mixes well and frequently, and is full of people who are dedicated to and excited by social business.  People are practical and enthusiastic, and have their head in the game.  Drinking hasn’t been an issue, no one complains about our long or fruitless bus rides, and everyone has taken the workload in stride.

I was a little nervous after our spring break Capstone trip, because there were a lot of areas for improvement.  I enjoyed myself, but I had various concerns and often felt like an outsider.  It turns out that the issues worrying me also bothered the SEI leadership, and are simply not present on this trip.  The readings were required before and during the trip, the intentions of our trip have been clear since the beginning, and everyone in this group is amazing.  On the whole, this is one of the best run trips pf which I have ever had the pleasure to be a part.

Only a Soph-o-more

Often on school trips, both at high school and university level, the students are treated as unskilled laborours.  This is true with the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, Alternative Spring Break, and pretty much any trip that involves volunteering. 

What is up with that?

College students are NOT unskilled.  Especially if you take into account where in the world they are sent to volunteer.  When they are working with 1st graders in Benin, they have worlds more education. 

Why is it that so many of out volunteering abroad programs only use people to build schools, paint community centers and tear down old houses?  Just because you’re not a doctor or an engineer doesn’t mean you are entirely without skill.  And really, don’t even get me started on the mistakes made by EWB–every engineer I know informs me that no no, they make totally good decisions about culture, cuz they like have someone who knows about that and stuff.  Yeah, high school Spanish doesn’t really cut it on the cultural awareness and general-development-aid-savvy scale. 

Anyway: back to us “unskilled” laborours here.  We’re not unskilled.  If you look at the overall global population, having a high school diploma makes you one of the lucky few.  Several semesters of college?  It’s rare throughout the world, and totally unheard of for many populations. 

Now, all this doesn’t mean we’re smarter than them, better at whatever we do than them, and more equipped to understand their culture than them, whoever “they” may be.  It just means that the aggregate knowledge of our affluent lives and relatively good education systems means we should be shooting higher.  It also means there’s a good chance that we geeky political junkies are perhaps better fit to policy decisions than breaking large rocks, and could do far greater good from a desk than a hot field.  Yes, it is appealing to go somewhere and see children in rags and have them smile for your digital camera.  It feels great when they love you, and to use your hands to create something tangible. 

But are we really all in college so we can be day-laborers?  Or are we just assuaging our own guilt?  Or perhaps even being misused? 

On that note, I HAVE been involved in several different volunteering abroad opportunities, and I’m looking to get into another one.  What’re your thoughts?  Any dos or don’ts?  Any questions you would ask before volunteering?  I’m looking at you, yovos and Allyson Goldhagen!

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes

Yovo, Yovo Bon Soir

That’s the refrain we heard all throughout Benin.  Countryside, city, airport.  Adults, children, wisened old anciens.  We were told we would be greeted with song, and man, they weren’t kidding.

Yovo, Yovo, bon soir!  Merci bien et toi?!”

It loosely translates to “whitey, whitey, good evening!  I’m good thanks, and you?”

As a result of this song, which every Beninois is taught from birth, (the way I learned “Trot Trot to Boston”) almost every Beninois greets us by saying “Bon soir!” even when it’s not evening, encouraging us to respond accordingly.  Even when they’re not running and yelling Yovo, they still sort of are.

Sometimes we would sing it back to confused children, who would erupt in giggles.  I overheard Allegra in a crowded marketplace saying (in english), “Yes I know I’m a Yovo, but I still need to get by!”  It was in that tone that”s halfway between charmed and annoyed.

Many of the little kids say it with wonder or glee.  Some, like at the rural primary school we visited, may never have seen a real live yovo before.  Others, often adults or older children, say it weighted with hope and anticipation: all the yovos they meet are Peace Corps, government or aid/non-profit related.  Sometimes, like at night and said by adult men, there’s a hint of menace in the way it is yelled.

There really is nothing like it in America, except for maybe the pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner.  What else compells every American, regardless of age, region, gender or class, to stand up and say something in unison?  Even ignoring any possible racial implications, we simply don’ tuniversally chant things in unison at a predetermined time.

Like in many other cultures, especially ones that speak romance languages (Benin is officially francophone) color and race are not quite such sensitive subjects.  Of course it’s also important to remember that there are very few light-skinned people in Benin, as well.  There are Lebanese immigrants who mostly own businesses like marches, and Chinese who build all kinds of amazing buildings and are involved in all kinds of trade.  Then there are do-gooders of the religious, governmental and hippie variety.

I wonder if the Lebanese and Chinese hear the shouts of yovo! yovo!  I never saw it happen, but that doesn’t mean much, since I rarely saw Lebanese or Chinese people just strolling the streets.  I wonder if, had we been a more racially diverse group, darker skinned Americans among us would also be called yovo.  I have a feeling it’s sort of like gringo–more a socio-economic issue than one of color.

I love the way our service-learning women used yovo the best.  They referred to the five of us, collectively, as yovo, especially before they knew our names.  They’d joke around when this yovo tried to dance and that yovo tried to sing, or when another tried to lift a bucket of water that they so often carried on their heads.  And they used it when we weren’t there at a party, but some other yovos from our group happened to be, entirely by chance.  As in, there were some other yovos here, but they weren’t our yovos.

By the time we were done in Benin, it got to the point where we started pointing out yovos, out of sheer shock and confusion at seeing ones we didn’t already know.

Things That I Love About Benin

Here is a list of things I love about Benin–both the program I’m on and the country.  I hate to give you all such a skewed idea of my life over here, and I also don’t want to focus too much on the NU specifics, but I’m a creature crafted for analysis, so that’s usually where my brain wanders.  In the interest of fairness, levity and a more well-rounded picture, here are some things I love.

  • Everyone is so friendly. Even moreso than in the American south, everyone we meet says “bon soir!” and is excited to see us.  Children wave and flash the peace sign, and women in the market are patient with our burgeoning Parisian French.
  • The Beninois students. We did a three day exchange with students form Universite d’Abomey,
  • Vodoun and the Cuba connection. I haven’t learned a ton more about vodoun here that i didn’t already learn in Cuba, but I love seeing how it is woven in to their clture, and talking to the university students about it.  Also, I miss Cuba and my Cuba aseres terribly, so its nice o have a little reminder of home
  • French! I love languages, and speaking French makes me happy.  I like helping other people with it, and getting a better understanding of the people I meet because of my language skills.  It’s also great to see what the francophone world outside of Paris looks like.
  • The weather.  I know it’s hot and sticky and furstrating, but it’s great to be back in a warm, comfy climate.  This coming New England winter may be harder for me than the ever were before…
  • The way of life. I love dirt and messiness and wearing the same gross clothes everyday, with worn-in french braids
  • The group. We spend a lot of time telling each other how smart, kind and adorable we all are, which is just refreshing and enjoyable
  • Our leaders. It’s nice to spend a little time being warm, fuzzy and non-competetive.  For those unaware, this trip is a Human Services excursion, whcih is not my major, but is a related field.  I am one of the few political science people here, but there are many international affairs majors as well as psych, journalism, art, sociology and a few others.  I miss the fiery polisci discussions, and I tease the Human Services kids about drum circles, peace signs and the high number of piercings and tattoos on this trip, but it is acutally kinda nice.  We haven’t met Prof. Luongho yet, but Rebecca is a lawyer in human rights law (!) and Lori has a great cross between sarcasm and being a mom.
  • Julie! Our TA, Julie Miller, is great.  We’ve been doing sunset rooftop yoga led by her, and I really think yoga should never be done anywhere BUT a rooftop in Africa at sunset.  She’s a great help both socially and academically, and I think we’ll all miss her when she goes to UC Berkeley for grad school in the fall.
  • The geography.  Palm trees, red earth, lizards running around everywhere, and adorable goats that act like puppies.  This place is great.  Did I mention we went to the beach?  And Obama Beach at that.  More to come!
  • The Songhai Center. More about this later, but it’s up there with the Grameen Bank and bacon on the list of things that rock my socks.

Traveler or Traitor?

Damn! Are we traitors? Un-American Commie sympathizers? Freedom Fry-eating liberal whackadoos? Or just misguided college kids?

In our discussion today, many people mentioned that they had received negative reactions to our trip.  They were called un-American or traitors, and chided for not volunteering at home, or treated as stupid for “wasting money” to volunteer abroad.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Our trip is service-learning, and for credit.  It actually costs less than a regular summer semester at NU would, if you include housing, food and such.  I would also be taking classes regardless of whether I traveled this summer, so the argument that my program fees are better spent on aid/charity doesn’t quite work here.
  • Many of the people who say things like, “why aren’t you doing something about all the poverty at home?!” aren’t actually doing anything about it either
  • Service doesn’t have to be either/or.  Volunteering at home and abroad is not mutually exclusive
  • Experiences abroad can make us better volunteers/employees back home
  • Things will never be perfect at home, so by that logic we (as people, a community and a nation) should never help any other country, state, neighborhood or even family.  That sort of logic doesn’t help make the world a better place, and if you start applying it to the prioritization of issues it is a virtual spiral into inaction
  • It is no one else’s decision but my own to determine my priorities and my path in life.  In other words, buzz off!  This is my money, my credits, my scholarships, and my time.  I’ll put it where I think it can benefit me and others the most.

What do you think?  Are we wasting our time and our money by going abroad?  Should we be focusing on Roxbury, the Reading food pantry and other such local isssues?  Is it better to do something like go work on Katrina relief effort, or is that not okay until we’re done fixing Massachusetts?  Would my tuition money be better spent at some charity or relief organization while I stay at home?  Should we, as an imperialist nation (and human beings) feel obligated to help?  Is helping foreigners un-American?

Did You Hate it?

Sometimes I feel like this guy.

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba.

A partial group shot of Americans lounging on the steps of La Universidad de la Habana

When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green

line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships.

During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.”

I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality.

Hotel Nacional, a lavish place most Cubans can only hope to work.

But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance

family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps those terms are outdated.  To smile more, to relax, to complain less, to accept failure–or at least try.

I am very proud and protective of the places I have been, the cultures I try to know.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and I feel a perhaps self-inflated responsibility to portray everything with as much honesty and dignity as possible, but I find it tough when everything is so conflicting and based on rumour.

So please bear with me, as I try to tell you all the conflicting sides of life there, and how I felt about it.