The Everyday Exotic

Call me a skeptic, but I’m generally not one for clichés. You know how sometimes you read about situations where even though people don’t speak a common language, yet somehow, everyone understands each other? That’s not exactly my experience in Senegal. While the official language here is French, which I speak passably, the more common language is Wolof, which is spoken by the Wolof people and increasingly, almost everyone else in Senegal, though depending on where people are from, they may speak one of a dozen other languages on a regular basis. I spend a lot of my time confused.

Take last week. I went out into the field to a village called Mbousnack. When I first got out of the car, and a few women broke into spontaneous dance of welcome, pointed to their hearts, smiled widely, and said “amie” (“friend”, in French), well, yes, that I got. I was clearly a welcome presence, though I’d done nothing to deserve this. But later when several of them pointed to their knee, I could only guess: Knee trouble? Kiva loan paid for knee doctor? Or perhaps it’s Serer (the language spoken in that particular village) charades – “sounds like knee”?

I have to admit, I had no clue. In these situations, I smile enthusiastically, take whatever info I have, and fill in the gaps based on my best guess. I’m sure they did the same. I can only imagine what they think I said all afternoon.

The agenda for the day was a monthly meeting, and there was a lot of business to be conducted –- 5 month loans repaid, monthly intra-group loans settled and commenced– all in all, quite a lot of money changing hands. The meeting dragged on for quite a while. With a group of 50 women and meticulous hand-written record keeping to keep track of it all in three separate sets of books (Caurie’s books, the village bank’s books, and each woman’s individual book), this can take many hours.

For you, dear readers, I will spare you the full process, and show you just a clip:


This went on for a while.

I’d gone to Mbousnack to interview some Kiva clients for journal updates and also to get some video footage of a group meeting. The value of the electronic equipment I brought into the village was twice that of Senegal’s per capita GDP: my trusty (and now dusty) Macbook (to show Kiva’s clients their profile page on the website), a professional-grade video camera to take footage for media purposes, a cell-phone sized Flip video camera for journal updates, and a digital SLR to take still photos.

Within the first half hour, I’d completed the client interviews, a special challenge in this village: in order to write the journal update in English, I’d ask questions in French, which were then translated by the driver (also engaged as my translator) into Wolof, and then the client would answer back in Serer (another major language in Senegal, and the one most widely spoken in this village). Later I had to ask the Caurie accountant (who is from a Serer-speaking area and therefore understands) to translate from Serer back to French so I can write my English language update. A tower of Babel indeed.

This is the one that started it all.  She looks like a troublemaker, doesn't she?

This is the one that started it all. She looks like a troublemaker, doesn't she?

Well, I’d done all that, and the payments and repayments were still going on. So I pulled a chair into the shade, bought some peanuts from a Kiva entrepreneur, and took a seat to wait it out and started chatting (if you can call it that – a few words and a lot of hand movements and pointing) to the women next to me. I had a good time miming various things and each of us talking to the other in a language we knew the other wouldn’t understand. When in doubt, smile widely at a young child, and hope she doesn’t run screaming. I showed the women my digital camera. One of the women asked me to take a picture of her baby. This started a bit of a trend.

One hour and 120 frames later, I’d taken the picture of every child under the age of 2 in the village (except for the one that cried whenever her mother brought her within 10 feet of me), and thanks to the wonders of digital technology, was able to show them their portraits as soon as I’d taken them.

After my tour of duty as the village photographer, I took my seat again. The payments were still going on at the table in front. I surveyed the scene in front of me. Maybe started to nap a bit – the day was heating up and I hadn’t slept that well the night before.

Then it struck me: “holy crap, I’m in the middle of a National Geographic spread.” It’s got all the elements – women in colorful traditional dress with babies strapped to their backs, sitting on the ground under a shady tree, chatting to their neighbor, next to a thatched-roof village, surrounded by a dusty plain of brush and baobab trees.

Right out of National Geographic, no?

Right out of National Geographic, no?

Village bank meeting in Mbousnack

Village bank meeting in Mbousnack

Kiva entrepreneur Mai Astou Sène and her wares.  I bought peanuts.

Kiva entrepreneur Mai Astou Sène and her wares. I bought peanuts.

Only it also struck me that it didn’t really feel so foreign to me. One, because I was there. That kind of takes away from the exoticism. But also, because I realized that even though I couldn’t understand a word these women were saying, it really didn’t seem all that fundamentally different from any other gathering anywhere else in the world. People get bored, chat with their neighbors. Nurse their babies (OK, that was different – some women went to pick up their payments with a baby still attached to their breast. Just try that at your local Bank of America branch). Put some money in. Take some money out. Munch on snacks. Joke around. Go to the bathroom. Stretch.

Yes, there are differences. Big ones. I can’t email the photos because there are no computers. And even if there were, there’s no internet connection. And even if there were, there’s no power. There’s poverty, health issues, lack of infrastructure, the list goes on. But at the end of the day, everyone pretty much wants the same things: some money to live on, good health, an education for their kids. Maybe a color TV.

As Kiva Fellows, we’re fortunate to have a unique window into places to which few travel – El Alto, BoliviaKoumantou, Mali …anywhere in Tajikistan, and meet people whom few meet. Because this is our day to day, it’s easy to forget how unique an experience this is. But because we’re here for several months, we also have the time to digest our encounters, to put them in context, to get over the shock factor and dig beneath the surface a bit more than if we were just passing through.

It’s a cliché to say that people are the same the world over. But even this skeptic will concede that there’s some truth in that.

(Just to end this post on a cute note, here’s a selection of my mother and child shots from Mbousnack. All together now: “Awwww…..”)

Mothers & children of Mbousnack

Mothers & children of Mbousnack


Liz is a Kiva Fellow, working with Caurie Microfinance in Thies, Senegal. Learn more about Caurie, or view all their currently fundraising loans here.



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