Our first volunteer assignment was in a village in northern Senegal, at the edge of the Sahara. The only housing available was one bedroom in a four-bedroom house. Right away, I knew I had a problem.
It wasn’t the lack of hot water. In the hot climate, cool showers – even the kind where you scoop water from a big barrel into a little basin and pour it over your head – weren’t so bad. And giving up pork and wine in this Muslim village wasn’t hard. Not for six weeks, anyway. The lack of privacy was manageable by escaping to the one room we could call our own.
But a squat toilet in the bathroom we shared with our four housemates – 6 if you count the kids? That was just too much. It wasn’t dirty or smelly. In fact, it was the opposite – a meticulously squeaky-clean porcelain platform. As squat toilets go, I’m sure it was 4-star. But still.
I’m really not a princess-type, but I did my fair share of whining to my husband Geoffrey, who was very patient. Eventually, we worked it out. At least, we worked out 2/7 of it: Every weekend we went to St. Louis (San Luh-WEE), the former capital of French West Africa. We decided not to stay in town at the Hotel St. Louis, the oh-so-atmospheric hotel where Antoine de St. Exupery and other aviators had stayed after they’d flown from France over the Sahara.
Instead, we opted for the sweet little Hotel Cap St. Louis, about two miles out of town and right on the ocean. We always stayed in the charming Room 29: a self-standing thatch-roofed round structure, sort of “African hut meets Club Med” – with the most important amenity of all: a lovely bathroom with a hot shower and the most beautiful toilet in the world. As for other 5/7 of the week, well, I just learned to adapt. Enough said.
I could then shift my focus from toilet-hysteria to the reason we were there: learning first-hand about “our” organization’s work, helping them focus their efforts on the projects with the most impact, and helping them describe to others (particularly funders) how they introduced irrigated agriculture and livestock-raising to farmers who’d always depended on unreliable rainfall.
After we read lots of documents and talked to the staff, we went on field trips. As always, while you can understand something when someone explains it to you, seeing it in action is another story. Like the time we went to visit the women’s literacy class in Koundoung, a village in the middle of nowhere.
The class was housed in a hut that looked…well, frankly, it looked like the model for the three little pigs’ house. The one the wolf could huff and puff and blow down without even breathing hard. The walls were loosely attached dried grasses and looked as if, wolf or no, those straw walls would soon be floor mats.
I stooped to enter the hut, all 5’3” of me. Six women were seated at crude wooden desks, with beautifully colored fabrics on their bodies and heads, some with babies at their breasts. They smiled warmly, then went back to work.
Through the softly-filtered light from the roof and walls, I saw the math problem in Poular, the local language, on the blackboard. The director of the program translated for us. The problem involved buying sheep for a certain price per kilo, buying feed to fatten them up, then selling them. They calculated gross profit for the women’s association, as well as individual net profits after association expenses were paid. These women could neither read nor add two years ago.
Wow. What difference if the school building is a flimsy falling-down structure? Hut, shmut, all that matters is what goes on inside. I’d been a teacher, I knew that.
“During the dry season,” the director explained, “there are competing demands for these scarce grasses. Many villagers wanted to use them to feed the animals, which would have meant, in the end, feeding the people. When they decided to devote all this grass to the hut, they were showing how much they value the school and what they were willing to sacrifice for it.”
While everything I’d thought about “hut, shmut” was true, what I hadn’t realized was that this hut was, in fact, a palace.
And becoming aware of the things I’d learned to take for granted, my preconceptions and cultural baggage, helped me stop complaining about the toilet. Mostly. Have you ever experienced that kind of instant change of perspective?
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing. She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.