You are not allowed to be a selfish individual

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Three weeks after college, Karin McQuillan flew to Senegal, West Africa, to run a community center in a rural town — which was, in the words of the Peace Corps doctor, “a fecalized environment“:

In plain English: s— is everywhere. People defecate on the open ground, and the feces is blown with the dust – onto you, your clothes, your food, the water. He warned us the first day of training: do not even touch water. Human feces carries parasites that bore through your skin and cause organ failure.

We may have a shorter, pithier term for that in English. I don’t know if the French have a term with the same je ne sais quoi:

Last time I was in Paris, I saw a beautiful African woman in a grand boubou have her child defecate on the sidewalk next to Notre Dame Cathedral. The French police officer, ten steps from her, turned his head not to see.

Senegal was not a hellhole, though:

Very poor people can lead happy, meaningful lives in their own cultures’ terms. But they are not our terms. The excrement is the least of it. Our basic ideas of human relations, right and wrong, are incompatible.

As a twenty-one-year-old starting out in the Peace Corps, I loved Senegal. In fact, I was euphoric. I quickly made friends and had an adopted family. I relished the feeling of the brotherhood of man. People were open, willing to share their lives and, after they knew you, their innermost thoughts.

The longer I lived there, the more I understood: it became blindingly obvious that the Senegalese are not the same as us. The truths we hold to be self-evident are not evident to the Senegalese. How could they be? Their reality is totally different. You can’t understand anything in Senegal using American terms.

Take something as basic as family. Family was a few hundred people, extending out to second and third cousins. All the men in one generation were called “father.” Senegalese are Muslim, with up to four wives. Girls had their clitorises cut off at puberty. (I witnessed this, at what I thought was going to be a nice coming-of-age ceremony, like a bat mitzvah or confirmation.) Sex, I was told, did not include kissing. Love and friendship in marriage were Western ideas. Fidelity was not a thing. Married women would have sex for a few cents to have cash for the market.

What I did witness every day was that women were worked half to death. Wives raised the food and fed their own children, did the heavy labor of walking miles to gather wood for the fire, drew water from the well or public faucet, pounded grain with heavy hand-held pestles, lived in their own huts, and had conjugal visits from their husbands on a rotating basis with their co-wives. Their husbands lazed in the shade of the trees.

Yet family was crucial to people there in a way Americans cannot comprehend.

The Ten Commandments were not disobeyed – they were unknown. The value system was the exact opposite. You were supposed to steal everything you can to give to your own relatives. There are some Westernized Africans who try to rebel against the system. They fail.

We hear a lot about the kleptocratic elites of Africa. The kleptocracy extends through the whole society. My town had a medical clinic donated by international agencies. The medicine was stolen by the medical workers and sold to the local store. If you were sick and didn’t have money, drop dead. That was normal.

So here in the States, when we discovered that my 98-year-old father’s Muslim health aide from Nigeria had stolen his clothes and wasn’t bathing him, I wasn’t surprised. It was familiar.

In Senegal, corruption ruled, from top to bottom. Go to the post office, and the clerk would name an outrageous price for a stamp. After paying the bribe, you still didn’t know it if it would be mailed or thrown out. That was normal.

One of my most vivid memories was from the clinic. One day, as the wait grew hotter in the 110-degree heat, an old woman two feet from the medical aides – who were chatting in the shade of a mango tree instead of working – collapsed to the ground. They turned their heads so as not to see her and kept talking. She lay there in the dirt. Callousness to the sick was normal.

Americans think it is a universal human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s not. It seems natural to us because we live in a Bible-based Judeo-Christian culture.

We think the Protestant work ethic is universal. It’s not. My town was full of young men doing nothing. They were waiting for a government job. There was no private enterprise. Private business was not illegal, just impossible, given the nightmare of a third-world bureaucratic kleptocracy. It is also incompatible with Senegalese insistence on taking care of relatives.

All the little stores in Senegal were owned by Mauritanians. If a Senegalese wanted to run a little store, he’d go to another country. The reason? Your friends and relatives would ask you for stuff for free, and you would have to say yes. End of your business. You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives. The result: Everyone has nothing.

The more I worked there and visited government officials doing absolutely nothing, the more I realized that no one in Senegal had the idea that a job means work. A job is something given to you by a relative. It provides the place where you steal everything to give back to your family.

I couldn’t wait to get home. So why would I want to bring Africa here?

(Hat tip à mon père.)


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    It would be horrifying for Senegalese to be greedy, but Senegalese don’t mind it when Mauritians are greedy and live nearby. Medieval Europe had a similar attitude toward usury. Usury was bad for Christians, so leave it to the Jews — and then let the Jews live in the country with easy access to the rulers.

  2. Candide III says:

    Gaikokku: I suspect Senegalese don’t mind Mauritians so much because every time Mauritians get too big for their britches Senegalese can just kill half of them and drive the rest from the country, like Arabs from Zanzibar and Indians from Uganda. In a few years, new Mauritians will come to run the shops and be greedy. And since the threat of indiscriminate mob violence is never absent, Mauritans keep in bounds and don’t “radicalize”.

  3. Alrenous says:

    You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives.
    But never forget it’s not selfish for them to ask for your things. I wonder what would happen if you pre-emptively demanded stuff to run the store from everyone else?

  4. Charles W Abbott says:

    This was provocative but in some ways frustrating. I don’t get offended easily, yet I suspect if you put a hundred testimonials of returned Peace Corps volunteers from Africa (even from Senegal) all in a row, they would not all be so pessimistic.

    I lived in Southwest Nigeria for about a year in the 1990s, and my experience was not all that similar to the author’s — the economy was much more monetized and the extended family in some ways more attenuated. Nigeria was highly dysfunctional and still is.

    The people I knew there would more likely be characterized as pushful and energetic rather than lazy (and I lived among the Yoruba, who are less pushful than the money hungry grasping pushful Igbo, who could be described as almost Calvinistic in their approach to money-making and trade).

    If a reader did not know that Senegal is one of the more functional African states, he probably wouldn’t learn it from this essay.

    Note: Mauritanians come from Mauritania, a big, low-income, arid country to the north of Senegal — they are discussed in the essay. Mauritians come from Mauritius, the small island in the Indian Ocean a few hundred miles out past Madagascar, on the opposite side of Africa.

    I think there is some evidence that Africans are behaviorally different from Europeans (especially Northwest Europeans) on average. I don’t know why. Cochrane and Harpending say “Every society selects for something.” Village norms and the extended family play a big role. In many places there is a not a functioning commercial code. The Hajnal line has something to do with it, I suspect.

    The role of Christianity is hard to pin down. I lived among the Yoruba, who are about half of them Christian and half of them Muslim. Both those religious are recent imports for the Yoruba — less than 200 years old for the most part.

    This article below is paywalled, but provocative. Sometimes you can find excerpts outside the paywall. The author sensed that villages where Christian missions were active had a different ethos or vibe:

    As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

  5. Isegoria says:

    I’m not sure Calvinists are the go-to analog for Igbo, Charles, but I take your point.

    That article you cited is quite neo-reactionary, in its own way.

  6. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Thanks for your reply, Isegoria. Probably I’m not a neo-reactionary so much as a noticer, lol.

    Trying to come up with a metaphor for the Igbo is a tough one. The Yoruba got ahead first from primary exposure to the outside world — the Igbo raised themselves up afterwards (1920s and 30s), acutely conscious of their backwardness, poverty, and isolation relative to the Yoruba.

    I mention Calvinism as a half-assed metaphor simply because the Calvinists (in my dim understanding) thought that making money and bettering oneself was not simply a good thing but a sign of one’s moral rectitude and favor with God. I don’t know the Igbo well, but I think they might understand that idea, even if they put it in other terms.

    Of course, some will be offended by what I say, and as an outsider I’m flailing around, largely clueless. The other thing noteworthy about the Igbo generally speaking is their open society in which each person must make his own way and there is little deference to inherited authority or status.

    The other metaphor that comes to mind with Igboland is South China. Core Igboland is landlocked, crowded, life is hard, people became accustomed to living exceptionally close to the edge of starvation, no one has enough land, and neighboring areas see mercantile networks of Igbos, similarly to the South Chinese who are traders all over the regions adjacent to South China.

    Rod Dreher at American Conservative has a rollicking discussion of the sh*thole issue on his blog. Doubtless it’s being discussed ad nauseum elsewhere as well.

    It will be interesting to see Nigerians hold forth on the topic as they traditionally have a prickly sense of their own potential combined with a mania for self-criticism.

    By the way, are all of Isegoria’s delightful readers familiar with the book The Big Necessity?

  7. Isegoria says:

    I found that article on Africa needing Christianity neo-reactionary because it promoted an “outdated” tradition (Christianity) from outside the tradition (from the perspective of an atheist who doesn’t believe the rationale, but who sees it making lives better). One of Moldbug’s main points was, similarly, that a monarch may have ruled through the divine right of kings, but hereditary monarchy also made the person in charge the “owner” of the “firm” he was running, as an economist might recommend.

    Anyway, I teased about comparing the Igbo to Calvinists, because they have a long tradition of being compared to another market dominant minority, the Jews — and of comparing themselves to the Jews. In fact, a small group of Igbo Jews was claiming to be a lost tribes of Israel for a while there.

    The Big Necessity looks like solid bathroom reading. (Sorry.)

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