Family Drama

I’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, which has its ups and downs.  The life of a Peace Corps volunteer can often be very transient — we have lots of meetings and trainings that take us out of site.  And for someone like me in the South where it takes me anywhere from 10 to 15 hours to get to Thies or Dakar, these trips are often extended or combined with other things to minimize the back and forth.

This rainy season I’ve just refused to go anywhere.  I’ve been at site for the past 9 or so weeks, broken up only by a few nights at the regional house interspersed.  The rains have been plentiful, which is a real relief for people here (practically everyone in my region is engaged with farming activities in some way).  Last year there wasn’t enough rain, and it really hurt.  This year people are complaining about too much, but I’m happy.  Things are green and the rain cools things down.

There’s no doubt that getting out of site can be good for a volunteer’s mental state.  Dakar has a lot of comforts to offer.  The camaraderie of being around other volunteers, whether in Thies or in the regional capitals is invaluable.  But during Peace Corps training I remember them urging us to create support systems within our Senegalese communities in the same way that we do in the volunteer community.  I’m fortunate to have been able to do this, and sometimes its nice to just get lost in my little world here.

The more I’m here, the more I pick up on family drama.  And my family has been full of drama lately.  The latest has been weighing on my heart in more ways than one, and it leaves me feeling culturally conflicted and unable to help or support my family in the ways that I’d like.  My host cousin (though I think of him more as a brother) has gone “crazy.”  My family first told me this in the context of his marijuana habit, which is apparently quite serious.  They told me that he went crazy from smoking too much, which I doubted could be the full truth.

Later, I pressured my host brother to give me examples of what he was doing that was so crazy.  Turns out, he’s been having hallucinations.  He told my host brother that Obama visited him in his room.  He doesn’t sleep.  He also is very paranoid and won’t eat the food my family gives him for fear they’re trying to give him medicine or control him in some way.

As an American (and perhaps just as a person with white skin), I’m often looked to as someone with inherent knowledge.  In this case, I had no idea what to tell my family.  The symptoms sound to me like schizophrenia, but I’m no psychologist.  My host cousin acts completely normal towards me, and I don’t know what kind of mental care Senegal has to offer.  They decided to take him to a mental hospital of sorts against his will.  The place is called “returning the mind.”  They tricked him into going under the pretense that it would be a consultation only and after they would all come back.

When they got to the hospital (which is in another region a good 8 hour drive away) he tried to run.  They caught him, gave him a shot, and then he went to sleep.  Who knows what they shot him up with — that’s not a question a Senegalese person would ask.  My family is just happy he’s there.

For me, its another sad reminder of the lack of resources available to people here.  It also demonstrates a lack of awareness and sensibility to mental health issues.  My family has had little patience for him, and instead people make fun of him and laugh about how crazy he is behind his back.  It’s a coping mechanism.  What else can you do?  Sometimes, you can either laugh or cry, and Senegalese people almost always choose to laugh.  That’s their way.  I’ve definitely learned to take life less seriously here.

With about seven months left here, I’m acutely aware of things coming to a close.  I know seven months sounds like a long time, but after 19 months I can tell you its going to fly by (for me, at least).  Spending so much time at site, I’ve learned a lot of Pulaar, and gotten a lot closer with my family.  This is bittersweet.  Learning a language that I will most likely someday forget, and getting close to a family that I will be leaving soon enough.  It’s also difficult to negotiate this closeness in terms of the information that I’m now let in on — my ‘crazy’ cousin being a prime example.  In one way, it’s great that my family trusts me enough and that I understand enough to know all the details of this saga.  But on the other hand, the more I know, the more I realize the immense cultural barriers facing me.  I feel less able to help or to explain my point of view, because I now understand enough about life here to know that my ideas or views will not be understood or supported in the context of this different culture.

But, I’ve learned to choose to laugh instead of cry.  So I’m here, sitting with my family and drinking tea while the rain comes down and the corn grows tall.  And we’re laughing.  For now, at least.



  1. Your experiences there have been so enthralling. It must be very hard indeed to know there are treatments for your host brother that are completely out of reach for his family. I hope your last months there will be filled mostly with smiles.

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