Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Touch With the Elements

The Five Elements
The Eastern medicine paradigm formulates five elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal.  I first become aware of them and their effects on my life years ago when I began acupuncture therapy for chronic upper respiratory infections. The elements are our creative and controlling energies and ideally should all be in balance.  Out of balance, they are known as the causative factor and become apparent to a trained acupuncturist, who can then restore balance with the placement of needles along your body’s meridians.  After Western medicine offered me nothing but years’ worth of antibiotics, I turned to this Eastern alternative and it worked for me.  I liked the idea of communing with these elemental forces of nature, plus it gave me something to thing about while needles were being stuck in me.  It wasn’t until I came to African, however, that I understood the profound effect that these elements can have on one’s daily life, in a veritable way. Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal all play a crucial role in the the developing world.

Without fire, most people in Africa would not eat.  Most meals are cooked over open flames so fire is a bare necessity.  Fires are also used to burn crops after harvest, heat irons when doing laundry, and boil water for the afternoon Attaya (traditional sweetened tea).  Fire also burns, ever so brightly, in the sky.  The sun is prominent overhead for the majority of the year, exuding extreme heat which permeates everything and everyone.  When you are this close to the equator, seeking shade becomes a daily pastime for both people and animals. When folks back home ask me how it is here in Senegal, my first response is usually, “it’s hot!”  The sheets on my bed and the clothes in my wardrobe feel like they’ve just come out of the dryer.  Cinder block walls radiate the day’s heat inside, even throughout the cooler evening, making sleeping indoors uncomfortable.  The brightness of the sun against the light sand is blinding.


As you can imagine, water is a sacred commodity in Senegal.  Many people spend much of their day porting it from one place to another.  I’m lucky to have a faucet at my house, but most of my neighbors rely on wells.  Even with my faucet, water is not guaranteed.  Like, the electricity, water outages are frequent and unpredictable.  Growing up, my dad had a sailboat, so I’ve always had a great respect for the open waters, but after living here in the Sahel, I’ve learned to respect the mere presence of water, as well as its weight, its taste, and its health.  Aside from a drop or two that fell unexpectedly last week, we haven’t seen rain since the first week in October.  When it arrives next month, it will come with a force, dumping great amounts of water on the thirsty soil.  Children will strip naked to bathe in its showers, shrieking with laughter as they lather up.  But it won’t be all fun and games. The trash and manure that line the streets will become soaked in giant puddles creating public health enigmas.  Storm drains clogged with trash will back up and flood the streets blocking roads and creating traffic jams.  Clothes that were once too hot to wear will soak up the moisture in the air begin to mold.  Standing water will cultivate mosquito larvae and the air will be filled with biting and disease-carrying insects.  So, although it’s greatly desired most of the time, when it comes water often wreaks havoc.


The earth feels old and tired in Senegal.  The soil is sandy and lacking nutrients.  Where it’s not sandy, it’s rocky and hard.  Sand and dirt are tracked everywhere and swept continuously.  The earth is dry and expansive, its colors melding into the structures that sit atop it.  Those structures are made from its rocks and its grasses.  The earth here struggles to provide sustenance and farmers are in constant struggle to make it work for them.  Because the terrain is flat, the sky is big in this part of the world.  Trees are few and far between, so the wind flows freely and fiercely at times, picking up sand along the way which then finds its way into every nook and cranny.  The great majority of people’s living space is in the open with dirt floors and the sky overhead.  People here in Africa have known this earth a long time and can attest to the fact that it has not always been kind to them.


As I mentioned in my last post, gathering wood is a daily role for many women.  Wood is needed for fire, fire is needed for food, it’s all a big cycle. The trees that are left in this area of the world become prey to people in need of firewood and live tree limbs are hacked away without a care.  If they're not taking their limbs, they're scraping off their bark to make traditional remedies for common ailments.  Miles of land stretch on with only the baobab (a spiritually protected tree, which happens not to burn well) in sight.  Luckily, I live with host-father who’s spent his life learning and teaching others about the importance of reforestation and the benefits of an environment diversified with many plant species.  Some days, it feels like he is on a one-man mission trying to implement change and modify behavior.  For now, he’s got my help, and each year a new group of students to carry on his message.  The land is vast, however, and the message has far to travel.


Concrete and metal form the basis for most structures in Senegal and the sound of the two of these together is one that I will never forget.  It’s a loud harsh clang that is mimicked by the native language.  Metal on metal is also the sound of meals--spoons scraping against bowls and platters.  Metal absorbs heat and therefore augments that problem of daily discomfort.  Roofs radiate the heat inside, doors swell up mid-day and are hot to touch and hard to open, window shutters clang in the wind.  Scrap metal is used to enclose compounds or to make toys. Small children can often be seen rolling metal hoops down the road like scene from colonial Williamsburg.  Others spend time constructing their own toys, making figures and cars out of old wire or tin cans.  It's also common to see young children with razor blades in hand.  These thin, sharp, cutting edges replace scissors, which most family don't own, so no one thinks twice when they end up in the hands of a small child trying to cut a piece of cardboard into a doll.  I have to admit, this is hard to watch.

My Thoughts
Communing with the elements can mean leading a harsh existence, but it can also make you intimately aware of your environment.  I know that in 14 months, I'll be packing up my hot or moldy belongings and headed back to my life in "Amerik", where we have insulation, carpeting, air conditioning, and public sanitation systems to shield me from some of these discomforts.  We also have four glorious seasons which help generate growth and make my little spot on this earth a beautiful place to be.  I would hope that I will never take these basic elements for granted again, but in all likely hood, I will, because I can.  Hopefully, I'll always remember what my friend Marla recently told me, that "most of the world is like Senegal, or India, or Laos", where she just traveled. "We were born into a rich and civilized country.  We can cannot be sorry for what we have, we can only have an open heart and be more in tune about what other's need and, above all, be thankful for what we have."

1 comment: