When I was in London, I tried on several occasions to write down the frustrations I had with life in the city. Each time I failed because I could not avoid, in my own mind, coming across as embittered or defective - as though I had made a mistake (or a whole series of mistakes) which explained why I was not fully capitalising on what London had to offer. It is after all, one of the most desirable places on the planet to live.
Having been in Senegal for just a day, I think I can now articulate one way in which London was defective. It has something to do with "systems", or "culture", or "incentives" - essentially, not a concrete thing in and of itself, but a broader, more liquid, climate in which other things happen. Dakar is a city that loves to exercise. I went to the gym today to take part in a class, and on the way to the gym we passed several groups of people exercising in make shift groups on plazas and street corners. I saw so many people going out for their evening runs.
In the west we are taught so frequently about western exceptionalism. We are taught that only people in the west are properly "civilised" and that this civilising effort is the most important thing to have happened in the last 400 years. To some degree that is all true - even when I am walking around Dakar, seeing many unfinished buildings and sandy roads, it has occurred to me that the challenges of organising enough capital, labour, and motivation to create something so monumental as St Paul's Cathedral, or the Empire State Building is no mean feat. However, I think there are significant problems with life in the West that are too easily dismissed as the sacrifices that need to be made for "civilisation" to continue.
For example, we tolerate that in the USA one-third of people are considered to be obese, and two-thirds are either obese or overweight. In the UK we tolerate that many people have jobs which, and I include myself in this sample, require them to be sat down at a desk for long periods of time, and then take a long commute home to an isolated apartment in a suburb rather than a village - a place with little sense of community. We tolerate that we will need to pay £20 for a meal, when we are not even interested in the food, we just need a place where we can talk to our friends. We tolerate that people often live so far out of the city that organising a friendly get together requires weeks of preparation. In London I found that my diet was often much worse than it had ever been in the past, I found that it required far more willpower to do the things I knew were "good" for me (exercising, not eating sugar, eating nutritious foods, going for walks in the countryside) than in other places. In many ways, the incentive structures were perverse - at work, I am expected to solve difficult mental problems, so when I have been stuck on a particular problem for thirty minutes, and I need a break from my desk, the sugar provided by the snack area seems mightily appealing. It is almost as though I need to take the sugar hit in order to be a good employee. When I finish work at 6pm and then take the tube home, the energy levels around me are so low that in order to exercise either before or after dinner requires a monumental summoning of willpower.
Here in Senegal, the house I am living in has a strong sense of camaraderie and it feels like everyone is looking out for each other. There is a cook who prepares two healthy, nutritious meals each day so I am never found in need of a sugary snack. In the evenings, after 5pm it feels like the whole city is exercising and so staying home is the choice that requires willpower. I am very excited to be here :)