Wednesday, March 12, 2008

White Man in Africa

Several months ago I was working in my office and one of the local cleaning girls came in. She had been cleaning my office for the last couple days. I like to talk with most of the cleaning and security staff, so I asked what her name was and how she was doing, briefly chatting about a local Sierra Leonean band, Jungle Leaders, and their popular album Pak En Go. Within moments of becoming friendly, the whole dynamic changed and I began to feel uncomfortable, both with her and the other cleaning staff. Like many before me, I had become another rich white man about to rescue some cleaning girl from poverty.

I decided I shouldn’t be as friendly in the future.

Walking to work on a weekend, I stopped and chatted with some kids, saying “hi” or “kushe.” As I was walking away, a couple girls in the group approached and threw their arms around me. I kept walking and shrugged them off as they began offering me prices.

Taking the back road to my apartment, Fatima, a pretty Sierra Leonean girl I met a couple times near my apartment, waved me over to her place, where another girl was doing her hair. Both were probably no more than 14 or 15. She smiled at me and asked how was work, and said she'd see me tomorrow.

In bars and nightclubs in Mali, in restaurants in Senegal and Guinea, on the streets in Sierra Leone, being a white man in Africa… It's almost disturbing to see how easily one could be seduced by the power at your fingertips.
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On the way back from work, I took a poda-poda (shared mini-bus) to Congo Cross on the way up to Wilberforce. The poda-poda stopped to drop someone off, and a man standing by the road offered the normal greeting, “Hey White man.” And added, “You come here and fuck our sisters.”

It was rude. It was offensive. And too often, it was right.

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Note:
After posting On Prostitutes and Whores, the topic emerged in the national news in the US with the Spitzer prostitution ring scandal. This led to several interesting articles on the various approaches regarding various legal approaches to prostitution. Most notably, Sweden has legalized prostitution but, in contrast to Amsterdam for instance, focuses on arresting and prosecuting the clients. Initial evidence suggests that clamping down on the demand and treating prostitutes as victims has been the most effective. The Spitzer scandal is also ironic because Spitzer had taken the lead in reforming New York State law by signing, only last month, a bill strengthening the law against clients (such as himself). New York Times also carried a recent op-ed arguing that the theory women choose prostitution is generally a "myth" propagated by the clients.

1 comment:

Dave Chen said...

We can spend an eternity analyzing and re-analyzing the things that make us different and build walls between people. While I have no delusions about our human capacity for getting along (it's about the size of a milk jar), the meaningful things in our work are not so much the chasms between as the bridges across. As corny and trite as all this sounds, it is something I am grateful to medicine for. Yes, there is a huge gap in the power dynamic between the patient and the doctor, but at least it's formally established that the patient is in need and that it is my duty to serve. I do not envy your position in that it must be hard dealing with the ambiguities of the power structure of humanitarian work, and the medical paradigm doesn't really fit, but perhaps if we just see the things we do as bridges between distant people... I think juggling is a great example of that, but you didn't need me to tell you that. If others want to burn those bridges, so be it. We have phrases to describe the psych of patients that fake illness for the sake of attention (factitious) or lawsuits (malingering); power dynamics will always breed pathologic behaviors and relationships. But that doesn't diminish the value or the sanctity of our work... though it does keep us on our toes.