For the past week I’ve been in the big city of Tambacounda to help out with an eye clinic. A few American doctors from New Jersey came here on a mission to conduct cataract surgeries, giving sight back to people whose eyes have become too cloudy to see anymore. While those doctors did operations, a girl who is volunteering here in the Tambacounda region also had her father visiting, and since he is also an optomologist, he conducted eye consultations. Both cataract surgeries and eye consultations are routinely done at the hospital in Tambacounda, but the doctors from the States were able to teach the Senegalese doctors an improved way of conducting the surgeries and the help with the consultations alleviated some of the heavy work load of the Senegalese doctors and helped with some of the more complex eye issues. The doctors also offered the cataract surgeries at a reduced cost and were able to donate some medicines and a variety of glasses to the hospital. Peace Corps volunteers were able to help out by translating for the American doctors and getting eye drops and such prepared for all the patients. It was a very successful week full of long, tiring days at the hospital, dealing with crowds and patients and such. The doctors were able to conduct about 20 surgeries and 30 consultations a day, and they will continue all next week, although a new batch of Peace Corps volunteers will be here and I will be back at site.
On a whole this past week has been greatly gratifying, being able to help people who came to us blind, and a day later they can see again. It was helpful in a sustainable manner, since the doctors were able to teach their techniques, and I was able to get in some good language practice with a vocabulary set I do not usually use. However, there were some obvious cultural differences that made part of the week extremely frustrating.
In the States we definitely have a stigma about asking for help. You only ask for things if you really need them because it is embarrassing and people feel like they have failed since they could not be completely self reliant. Others judge because they see asking for help as a sign of weakness and laziness. Obviously this is an overgeneralization but the presence of the stigma surrounding asking for help becomes very clear when you are suddenly in an environment where this does not exist at all.
Our system of looking down on people who ask for help certainly has its flaws, but having no qualms about asking for help has its own set of issues. Combining this with the Senegalese hierarchy of respect, you end up running into a lot of things that appear backwards to an American. For example, the older a person is, the more respect they get. So the older a person is, in general the better they eat. The bowl of food for the adults usually has more vegetables and choice meat pieces. In the States we might feel guilty about getting better food than others you are eating with, especially when taking from growing children who might need the nutrients, but here there that is the norm and there is no reason to feel guilty. Wealthier people usually get more respect as well, so when a wealthier person comes to visit you, you will probably offer them tea first, and it is possible that there will not be enough tea for the least wealthy person, who also happens to be least able to afford tea for themselves. Just like I generalized about Americans judging when people ask for help, I am also generalizing here, but there are many times when I run into what I might consider “backward” situations.
At the eye clinic there were boxes of glasses in a variety of prescriptions, styles, and conditions, donated by people in the States. I knew that the people who donated these glasses did so in hopes of helping someone who could not normally afford glasses. And, yes, there were stories of children who could not answer the teacher in class because they were constantly in a slight state of confusion arising from not being able to see the board, and stories of such nearsighted older ladies whose entire world had been blurry for their whole life until they put a pair of glasses on that day and were able to see what the world really looked like for the first time. But other things were more frustrating. Like when the man came in to get a pair of glasses, didn’t like any of the ones in his prescription and demanded that I look for ones with a case for him. I refused because we were not doing that for anyone and there was a long line behind him. I then get the response that he is the wealthiest person in this hospital so I have to look for a special pair of glasses for him. This would not happen in the States and I just didn’t know how to respond. My thinking is that if he is so wealthy he can certainly afford a pair of glasses and shouldn’t be taking these ones from people who legitimately cannot, but his thinking is that he is so wealthy so I should give him the best glasses. It is hard to stay calm in a situation like that, but neither of us were in the wrong, we just came from very different cultures.