American Conservative, Constitutionalist, Pro 2A
by Karin McQuillan (Senegal 1971–72)
Three weeks after college, I flew to Senegal, West Africa, to run a community center in a rural town. Life was placid, with no danger, except to your health. That danger was considerable, because it was, in the words of the Peace Corps doctor, “a fecalized environment. “In plain English: s— is everywhere. People defecate on the open ground, and the feces is blown with the dust — onto you, your clothes, your food, the water. He warned us the first day of training: do not even touch water. Human feces carries parasites that bore through your skin and cause organ failure.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that a few decades later, liberals would be pushing the lie that Western civilization is no better than a third-world country. Or would teach two generations of our kids that loving your own culture and wanting to preserve it are racism.
Last time I was in Paris, I saw a beautiful African woman in a grand boubou have her child defecate on the sidewalk next to Notre Dame Cathedral. The French police officer, ten steps from her, turned his head not to see.I have seen. I am not turning my head and pretending unpleasant things are not true.
Senegal was not a hellhole. Very poor people can lead happy, meaningful lives in their own cultures’ terms. But they are not our terms. The excrement is the least of it. Our basic ideas of human relations, right and wrong, are incompatible.
As a twenty-one-year-old starting out in the Peace Corps, I loved Senegal. In fact, I was euphoric. I quickly made friends and had an adopted family. I relished the feeling of the brotherhood of man. People were open, willing to share their lives and, after they knew you, their innermost thoughts.
The longer I lived there, the more I understood: it became blindingly obvious that the Senegalese are not the same as us. The truths we hold to be self-evident are not evident to the Senegalese. How could they be? Their reality is totally different.
You can’t understand anything in Senegal using American terms. Take something as basic as family. Family was a few hundred people, extending out to second and third cousins. All the men in one generation were called “father.” Senegalese are Muslim, with up to four wives. Girls had their clitorises cut off at puberty. (I witnessed this, at what I thought was going to be a nice coming-of-age ceremony, like a bat mitzvah or confirmation.) Sex, I was told, did not include kissing. Love and friendship in marriage were Western ideas. Fidelity was not a thing. Married women would have sex for a few cents to have cash for the market.
What I did witness every day was that women were worked half to death. Wives raised the food and fed their own children, did the heavy labor of walking miles to gather wood for the fire, drew water from the well or public faucet, pounded grain with heavy hand-held pestles, lived in their own huts, and had conjugal visits from their husbands on a rotating basis with their co-wives. Their husbands lazed in the shade of the trees.
Yet family was crucial to people there in a way Americans cannot comprehend.The Ten Commandments were not disobeyed — they were unknown. The value system was the exact opposite. You were supposed to steal everything you can to give to your own relatives. There are some Westernized Africans who try to rebel against the system. They fail.
We hear a lot about the kleptocratic elites of Africa. The kleptocracy extends through the whole society. My town had a medical clinic donated by international agencies. The medicine was stolen by the medical workers and sold to the local store. If you were sick and didn’t have money, drop dead. That was normal. So here in the States, when we discovered that my 98-year-old father’s Muslim health aide from Nigeria had stolen his clothes and wasn’t bathing him, I wasn’t surprised. It was familiar.
In Senegal, corruption ruled, from top to bottom. Go to the post office, and the clerk would name an outrageous price for a stamp. After paying the bribe, you still didn’t know it if it would be mailed or thrown out. That was normal.
One of my most vivid memories was from the clinic. One day, as the wait grew hotter in the 110-degree heat, an old woman two feet from the medical aides — who were chatting in the shade of a mango tree instead of working — collapsed to the ground. They turned their heads so as not to see her and kept talking. She lay there in the dirt. Callousness to the sick was normal.
Americans think it is a universal human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s not. It seems natural to us because we live in a Bible-based Judeo-Christian culture.
We think the Protestant work ethic is universal. It’s not. My town was full of young men doing nothing. They were waiting for a government job. There was no private enterprise. Private business was not illegal, just impossible, given the nightmare of a third-world bureaucratic kleptocracy. It is also incompatible with Senegalese insistence on taking care of relatives.
All the little stores in Senegal were owned by Mauritanians. If a Senegalese wanted to run a little store, he’d go to another country. The reason? Your friends and relatives would ask you for stuff for free, and you would have to say yes. End of your business. You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives. The result: Everyone has nothing.
The more I worked there and visited government officials doing absolutely nothing, the more I realized that no one in Senegal had the idea that a job means work. A job is something given to you by a relative. It provides the place where you steal everything to give back to your family.
I couldn’t wait to get home. So why would I want to bring Africa here? Non-Westerners do not magically become American by arriving on our shores with a visa.
For the rest of my life, I enjoyed the greatest gift of the Peace Corps: I love and treasure America more than ever. I take seriously my responsibility to defend our culture and our country and pass on the American heritage to the next generation.
African problems are made worse by our aid efforts. Senegal is full of smart, capable people. They will eventually solve their own country’s problems. They will do it on their terms, not ours. The solution is not to bring Africans here.
We are lectured by Democrats that we must privilege third-world immigration by the hundred million with chain migration. They tell us we must end America as a white, Western, Judeo-Christian, capitalist nation — to prove we are not racist. I don’t need to prove a thing. Leftists want open borders because they resent whites, resent Western achievements, and hate America. They want to destroy America as we know it.
As President Trump asked, why would we do that? We have the right to choose what kind of country to live in. I was happy to donate a year of my life as a young woman to help the poor Senegalese. I am not willing to donate my country.
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Alongside every article published in Peace Corps Worldwide are five circular links, the last of which (the one with the thumbs-up icon) is labeled “Share The Love.” Anyone care to step and do that with this one?
Interesting point of view. She makes some valid points regarding third world public health problems, culture, and corruption, which I also pesonally have observed during my Peace Corps and Foreign Service days. Of course she neglects to mention Western forms of corruption, which on a grant scale dwarfs the daily petty corruption in developing countries.
But where she shows her true colors — literally — and her ignorance is in her statement, “They tell us we must end America as a white, Western, Judeo-Christian, capitalist nation . . ..” A white dominated nation, yes. A “white nation,” never. It is historical fact, not “political correctness,” to note that North America was and still is populated by indigenous peoples, African slaves brought to America since 1619 and their descendants, and mixed race Latinos absorbed by the US in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War.
You may be surprised to hear that when I knew her she was very much a liberal lefty … not as surprised as I am to see she is a trump supporter.
Whoa! Welcome to another culture. I think it’s great that you’ve shared your candid perspective on Senegal and your experiences. I spent many years living and working in four African countries and traveling to many more as a Foreign Service Officer and a Peace Corps country director. I don’t fault your basic observations. I’ve seen most of these things myself, and in South Korea in the early 1980s, where I was a member of the last Peace Corps group to serve there. It had so many characterizations of present day Africa (generalizing, because Africa is 54 countries and many more cultures). A couple of years ago, I went back to South Korea for the first time in 37 years. Almost everything had changed in terms of infrastructure, hygiene and public behavior – or so it seemed to an outsider. My assignment site was literally unrecognizable. Traditional Korean culture was in tact, however, and the people seemed to be more like me than different from me. Don’t write Africa off. Things can an do change, although often with great difficulty. Be careful with generalizations and words like “nobody” and “everybody.” They’re too absolute to be true. Africa might be — as a result of resources, poverty and practice — dirty and filled with omnipresent fecal matter (so was South Korea in the 1980s). Countries can be filthy, corrupt, seemingly uncaring and not pristine and responsible like the United States. Each time I left an African assignment, I felt a certain hopelessness. But I thought of those poor countries and their people as seriously challenged, not shit holes. To describe them in that way – even based on an observation that there is indeed shit everywhere – is to demean them and condemn them to some “hopeless” category, not worthy of US assistance. I don’t believe that, and I know seasoned Africa hands across the political spectrum who would would likewise take great exception to that categorization. I could write book in response to your essay. You will think and rethink this many times over the coming years. I do with each new African experience. Finally (and this more broadly to American politicians and citizens), please don’t simplify and mischaracterize Democratic Party positions. Spreading ignorance and fear on that basis is causing serious damage to our civil and political society. Ditto for Democrats relative to Republican positions and behavior.
The woman was in Senegal fifty years ago. She is probably older than you!
—– Forwarded Message —–
From: WALTER BLASS
To: John Coyne
Sent: Monday, January 4, 2021, 08:56:19 AM EST
Subject: Re: What I Learned in the Peace Corps in Africa: Trump Is Right
John Coyne: I was very disappointed in the publicity you gave
Karin McQuillan’s book on her experience as a PCV in Senegal.
If she had obeyed Hugh Walpole’s dictum at the start of his 19th C. novel FORTITUDE, “It’s not life that counts, but the courage you bring to it” she might have found many redeeming aspects to the culture. She might also have come to realize that most PCV’s found themselves in similar conditions in Asia, South and Central America as well as West Africa, even in some parts of the United States.
Did she try to learn the local language–as opposed to French? Did she consider
what the expense is for a village or a town to construct a modern sewage system,
Did she notice that babies get born, people survive and the population grows?
My experience as a country director in Afghanistan in 1966-68 was quite the opposite of what bothered her so much that she quoted our President’s four-letter put down. Our volunteers worked in one of the least developed countries in the world; two PCV’s deliberately lived on a mountainside in the middle of Kabul, without running water ( it was brought on the shoulders of a boy), no sewer, no electricity, because they wanted to experience the life of their counterparts. It’s not easy to cross a cultural boundary; that applies in spades when it’s a very traditional culture that has scarcely changed in most Afghan villages for hundreds of years.
One PCV deliberately asked to be transferred to the insane asylum where he could bring modern social work methods to the inmates. One of the PCV doctors sent his 5 and 6-year olds to the local Afghan school despite its antiquated pedagogical methods so that the girls could learn the language quickly and play with their age cohorts. One PCV caught amoebic dysentery 7 times, was evacuated to Bethesda Naval Hospital and asked to come back to finish her tour– and then became a nurse-social worker in East Harlem and South Chicago
Yes, it took all of us, staff as well as volunteers many months to come to terms with how the locals lived. One of our nurse PCV’s learned sufficient Dari to understand what the men in the front of the bus she was riding in with Afghan women in the back, to give a piece of her mind as she was the last woman to leave the bus!
Karin, are you listening?
Walter P. Blass
Thanks, Walter, for your comments and stories of some great PCVs and how they lived their lives as Volunteers and how the Peace Corps changed their lives and careers.
Now just to make one thing clear. I wasn’t giving Karin “publicity” by republishing her essay (twice) on this site. Marian Beil and I have created a platform for the opinions that RPCVs and Staff have about the agency and their tours. We are trying to use the website to tell the story, all the stories, of volunteer life. We want to inform other Americans, and all of the Western World, was the Peace Corps was and is today. It is our Third Goal effort. As I have said several times, the Peace Corps has all kinds of Volunteers. We represent the U.S. the good and the bad and everyone in between. And hearing what Karin has to say, I hope, as it did for you, give others the opportunity to tell their story of life in the Peace Corps. Keep those tales coming. John
Walter and John,
Thank you both for this very interesing and timely discussion. I was concerned that comments on the McQuillan article suddenly appeared in the current comment section. I don’t know why the sudden interest by non-RPCVs in her article from 2018.
That is why the exchange of opinions was so important. John, your statement reflects everything you and Marian have done for over 35 years. Walter, you recounting of the PCVs who served so long ago in Afghanistan is just great and only three years earlier than when McQuillian was in Senegal.
Walter, not now because this ongoing discussion is so important, but later, I hope I can talk with you about a nurse who left Afghanistan because of her ethical concerns.
I took the advice of other RPCVs to visit my country of service. They had and reported that I would immediately see many improvements, some of which my team of nationals and PCVs had promoted. It was true. I found that Ecuador had changed dramatically, and mainly for the better. Now, I also encourage that every RPCV try to visit their country of service. A short article on my experience was published in the Spring 2018 issue of WorldView magazine. Only with firsthand observations can a RPCV speak truthfully about a country not seen in decades.
RPCV Ecuador 1970-73
Excellent observation, Beverly.
Karin would not recognize Senegal today. Nor would I, since the last time I visited was 2005. The country is well on its way to development. You must have heard that the Institut Pasteur in Dakar came up with a vaccine weeks ago, that the incidence of COVID-19 is among the lowest in the world, that President Mackey Sall is an inspiriing leader, hat FCG is almost entirely eliminated, thanks to TOSTAN, that infrastructure has improved across the country.
There are no shit-hole countries; there are only shit-hole presidents.
Leita Kaldi Davis
Thank God I didn’t have McQuillan’s attitude when I served in El Salvador. Despite El Salvador’s political and other problems at the time, I learned a lot from Salvadorans about devotion to family, appreciating life in spite of hardships and many other lessons.
I started to read this article with an open mind, but I could not continue beyond the first 3 or 4 paragraphs. Such pious claptrap!
Alan Jackson (Belize 1976-78)
I am a leftist. Believe it or not, I do not hate whites (I am one), or white achievements; I don’t hate America (love it), and I do not want to see it destroyed as we know it. Like so many other Trumpers, this woman has a warped mind.
Kevin King (Senegal ’69-’70)
I spent three years in Senegal, and my experience was different from the author’s one year (probably less). Because she is so eager to endorse the defeated president’s “shithole” statement, she presents a world of filth and corruption. But I never once paid a bribe. And where was all this shit? I didn’t see it. However, a few years after leaving Africa, my wife and I traveled to Europe together (her first overseas trip). When we arrived at Heathrow, we saw a little Indian boy peeing against the terminal wall. It didn’t make us hate all Indians—or Brits. It did make us wonder where the bathroom was.