Friday, December 17, 2010

Not Another Faceless NGO

I live here, and I am coming to you for help with a project that is deeply important to me and the people of Ngaraff: we are working to rehabilitate the non-functional health structure in the village.  As I describe in the last post, many of the my early conversations with the members of my community made apparent the need for such a project.  Currently, the village has two small buildings that function as a Health Hut - the smallest unit in the top-down Senegalese health structure - but they are rendered largely ineffective due to the lack of a viable compound-type area that is safe, inviting, and conducive to larger gatherings and other health-related purposes.   The people of Ngaraff face a persistent set of health challenges, including malaria, respiratory distress, child malnutrition, and complicated pregnancies.  Under current circumstances, villagers have to travel over six kilometers, by foot or horse-drawn cart, to reach the health post in the next town over.  Often, however, they just don't make the trip, leaving illnesses untreated, preventative reproductive health measures untaken, and malnourished babies without recourse.

Obviously, there are a number of steps that have to be taken for the health system in the village to function well.  Some of these are already in place - For one, Ngaraff has two highly competent, energetic, trained health workers. Their opportunities to conduct effective health care, however, are just about entirely stymied by the fact there is no viable setting in which they may do their work.

My conversations with these health workers, as well as with the village health committee and other community members, has made it clear to me that, in order for the Health Hut to function in a robust and worthwhile manner, it needs to become a secure, inviting compound-type health facility, contained and protected from the road and the elements. Thus, my plea for money.

Through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP), I have put together a grant to build a wall around the village Health Hut.  Through a separate funding source (see if interested), we will also build a water tap and latrine within the Health Hut Compound.

Together, these improvements will serve to create a safe, sanitary, and pleasant compound-type area that will service the community across the spectrum of health-related needs.  Additionally, a walled-in location will make possible a garden and tree nursery on the Health Hut grounds, both of which will reinforce the importance of healthy practices with the community.

I'm fully aware that, despite what I've described here, a wall might seem like an insignificant or symbolic improvement to any locale -- this would have been my reaction as well.  Living here, however, I fully grasp the necessity of such a project.  Given the sandy terrain of the village, coupled with the extreme heat and prevalence of strong winds in the region, the small health hut buildings, by themselves, are nearly unusable - what is necessary is a protected, shaded outdoor area that lends itself to being a gathering space and a setting in which a health worker can function in peace.

Of course, a functional health structure consists of more than a functional location.  That is why, both before and after the completion of the health hut wall, I will work with the village health workers, as well as the district doctor, local nurse, and other third party individuals, to plan and implement a variety of health-related activities.  These will include: monthly baby weighing in conjunction with baby/child nutrition demonstrations; other types of nutrition education; regular HIV testings in conjunction with education on HIV/AIDS sensitivity, prevention, and general awareness; family planning discussions; seminars on the importance of pre- and post-natal visits; and other activities.

Over time, the health hut compound will enable the community to address a number of principal and entrenched community needs, including expanded youth education and reproductive and family health discussions.  I truly believe that this project has the potential to heighten gender parity in the village and generally boost the morale of community members as medical care becomes effective and reliable.

PCPP is an international Peace Corps initiative that allows volunteers to fund projects by collecting money from friends and family back home through secure, easy online means.  If this project is something you would like to support, you can do so by going here:

I've described some of the build-up to this project below in the first part of that last post.  For those of you that want more information, I would LOVE to share my entire grant proposal with you (makes for fascinating bedtime reading!) or to answer any questions or concerns you have.  Just contact me here on the blog or at

Thank you, sincerely.

"So, I can't tell you how, exactly, health care is a basic human right.  But what i can argue is that no one should have to die of a disease that is treatable."
-- Paul Farmer --

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Yes, I'm still here. And still Verbose.

I know.  It's been long enough that you're probably all a bit timorous of the lengthy post that I am likely to impose on you after such an absence.  To make it less daunting, I've broken it into chapters . . . like an equally scintillating American history text book, or something.

Chapter 1: Here's to Your Health

My big project at the moment is an initiative to rehabilitate the health structure in my village.  The build-up to this has essentially been going on since I installed.  I heard the adamant and resounding cries of my villagers early on as I went from compound to compound asking what their desires were for change in the community -- almost everyone voiced a wish to see a functioning health hut.  A "Health Hut" is the most basic level of the Senegalese top-down health structure; it's a simple facility meant to address fundamental needs, dispense a minimum of drugs, and help people make healthy decisions.  Our "Health Hut," which consists of two pathetic-looking buildings on the edge of the village has, for a variety of reasons, been essentially non-functional for almost a decade.  Following PC modus operandi, I've been careful to look for a way to effectuate Health Hut rehabilitation by empowering my villagers, without taking an overly-dominant role in the process.  

As the project took shape, I convened the latent village health committee and we talked business: how can we make this work?  We agreed that the vital first step was to create a safe, pleasant health setting, which would be accomplished by constructing a wall around the current Health Hut -- creating a nice health compound that can be used for everything from weighing babies to testing for STDs to simply ensuring an inviting space for someone that wants to consult the health worker.  And maybe someday, we'll have a birthing table and women will give birth in a safe, sterile setting instead of on the floors of their huts.  

Eventually, the planning process for the project intensified a bit, and I dove into the grant-writing portion.  I made sure that the people of my community understood what was coming and what their role would be.  I engaged in a serious heart-to-heard with the health committee, the two village health workers, and my two village counterparts, and - using my very best Wolof - I explained the parameters of the grant, stressing that while I would be the one seeking funding, it would be the members of the community, led by the health committee, who would plan and execute the ultimate building of the wall.  Additionally, I made sure that we agreed that the wall's construction was only the first step; that once this had been accomplished - rather, even before it is completed - we would do what we could to make care and preventative health discussions a priority in the village.  Thus, accord was reached.  I suggested that we convene the rest of the village to explain the details of the project - especially important considering that we decided that the community members would be responsible for a contribution of rocks and sand for the wall and a certain percentage of the monetary funding - and the committee insisted that the meeting take place the following night, after dinner time.  Though a nighttime meeting seemed bizarre to me, I went with their counsel . . . and sure enough, post-dinner-hour the following evening, under a star-speckled sky in the light-free village square, all my neighbors came streaming in, women with sleeping babies strapped to their backs, men carrying plastic chairs, and we convened.  The village chief held forth; the members of the health committee held forth; I held forth; other vocal villagers had their say; and following only a modicum of dramatic yelling and banter, we agreed the a plan to build a wall around the Health Hut was indeed the crucial and much-sought-after project we had thought it to be.  Everyone assured me that I had the full support of the entire village, and we all went to bed. 

P.S.  How am I funding this project?  Through a Peace Corps grant process that asks for contributions from the volunteer's friends and family back home . . . So stayed tuned for my shameless plea for money.:-)

Chapter 2: Here's Lookin' at You, Kid

During this intense time, when I was meeting with the health committee and convening my villagers for after-hours assemblies, I was lucky enough not to be all alone.  For a week, I got to host a CIEE study abroad student who was on a brief exploratory hiatus from his Dakar schoolwork.  Eli was such an absolute joy - all that one could want in a person and a guest, and I couldn't help but wish that I could have been that insightful, level-headed, and downright cool when I was 21.  Despite only being in the country for a couple of months, he was interested in everything, eagerly tried to keep up with the Wolof, engaged with my community, remained energetic, and never seemed intimidated.  AND: he ate everything, from fermented Pulaar yogurt to dried hibiscus flowers to second lunches, which, even if nothing else had, guarenteed the undying respect of this girl.  

Modu and I free the peanuts from their stalks  

Eli and I chipping in.

With Ousman and Eli.

Eli and Modu
Chapter 3: Nice to Meat You

Senegal recently celebrated one of its most important holidays, Tabaski, which commemorates Ibrahim's sacrificing of a lamb to Allah.  So, naturally, we all must sacrifice our own shared of sheep on this day . . . and my family took that concept and ran with it.  Dad killed four sheep, and all of a sudden the meat feeding frenzy had commenced.   Enormous bowls of (mostly) severed animal parts were carted over from the slaughter station (my nomenclature, not theirs).  Adults, adolescents, children who have even nominal motor skills -- everyone was grabbing at the troughs of raw animal protein.  Cooking fires sprang up seemingly from nowhere, and we roasted meat on wooden sticks scavenged off the ground -- the scene resembled some sort of perverse marshmallow roast from my favorite summer campfire.  Again, this former vegetarian had all of her preconcieved notions regarding meat consumption - the parts we could eat, how we would eat them, and how they shall be cooked - turned on end.  

As it turned out, this sprint turned into a meat marathon.  Following the 11 AM "cocktail hour" consisting of the sheep scrap roast-off, we had a brunch of meat and potatoes, followed by a lunch of meat, potatoes, and bread.  After an afternoon of parading around in our fancy tailored Tabaski outfits, we had - what else - a hearty meaty dinner.  That was Day 1.

Fast-forward five days.  Still eating Tabaski sheep meat, three meals a day.  And yes, dear discerning reader, there's no electricity (= no refridgeration) in Ngaraf.  Mmmmmm . . . 

On a side note, some of my female family members took a brief break from the meat mania to braid my hair into teeny braids!  My scalp ached for a few days, but it's all in the name of integration, right? 

My host moms work on getting some meat off a leg.

One of many roasting stations.

Meat feeding frenzy begins.

My mom is hanging sheep intestines out to dry.  She asked me to hold her chair for her, which put me straight into the spray zone for meat juices as she whipped the strands over the branches.  Oh well.

Gettin' my herrr did.

My dad's four wives and his sister, looking splendid in their "hostess" outfits.

Little girlies in their best outfits. 

Aunt Oulymata is decked out.  There's so much fabric -- can you even see that baby she's holding?

Gussied up.

Winding down on Tabaski.

(Braid aftermath, one week later.)
Chapter 4: Gone with the Wind

Harvest time has been in full swing for a few months now.  We brought in our beans and gathered our millet, and we are now, at long last, in the final stages of the peanut harvest.  Eli and I helped with the "man" job -- physically detaching the peanuts from the stalks by repeatedly swinging rakes into the large mounded piles of pulled peanut stalks.  More recently I've been taking part in the female half of the job, called bessing -- separating the peanuts from the sticks and stalks and what nots that are mixed into the huge mound (a task that my Djolof compatriots very distinctly relegate to the women).  The precess here is absolutely elegant in its simplicity: the women hold the mixed buckets of peanuts and chaff above their heads, and then they wait for the wind.  And (sing it!) when the wind blows, the buckets will dump, and when the buckets dump, the peanuts will fall, and the chaff will be blown away, once and for all.  Cool, huh? Using nothing but the power of the wind and the relative density properties of peanuts and their dry chaff material, my people have devised a relatively efficient method for separating huge messy jumbles into tidy piles of peanuts rekk.  

And for what it's worth, these women are total warriors -- for a couple weeks now, they've been going into the fields everyday, morning 'til night, skipping lunch and taking advantage of every gust of wind until the sun goes down.  I've gone with them whenever I can, and goodness, I get hungry, no matter how many peanuts I munch.  

(I couldn't help but note that a good day for bessing is a like a good day for sailing: warm, but not hot, with a steady strong breeze.  Made me smile.)

Gewal and Nancy dump their peanuts as the wind blows.

The women after a long day of bessing.

Heading home after a day in the f ields.

The product of a well-sorted mound of peanuts.  Beautiful!

Chapter 5: Riding the Gravy Train to Peace and Carrots

As we saw for the 4th of July and Halloween, PCVs love to travel for good ole American celebrations, and Thanksgiving was no exception.  The kids in the far North - the region surround St. Louis / Ndioum, generally referred to as the Futa - hosted this party.  Ann Marie, Justin, Rachael, Steve, Mary and I headed out of Linguere last Tuesday night having no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and it ended up being some of the more harrowing, gut-wrenching travel that I've experienced.  We got packed in, we got piled high, we got kids on our laps and knees up to our chins .  . . and I'll let some pictures tell the rest of the story.  

It was rough, but the adventures proved worthwhile.  It's always fun to see a new area of the country, and Ndioum offers a great river for swimming.  On Thanksgiving day, after a morning of killing and plucking chickens and turkeys, we feasted and danced in classic PC Senegal style.  Whew.  

We stopped mid-night to rest for a few hours in a some random Pulaar village in the middle of the desert.  Here's Steve and I up early to search for a car for the next leg of our journey. 

Justin and Steve take measures to keep the massive amounts of dust out of their eye, throats, lungs on one leg of the trip.  

Some of our truck-mates. 

Too much dust to see the car that's not far behind us . . . 

Arrived safely; ready to go for a swim with our Northern compatriots. 

Doing our share of the plucking . . . 

Dancing?  And waiting to catch the football, I think . . . 

The men of the North - Jonno, Evan, and Paul - show off some Senegalese haute couture.

And now for the return trip . . . packed in on Leg 1.

Return trip, Car #3: Do you see how far below us those people on the ground are?  That's how much baggage was piled on top of this pick-up, and we sat on top of that for many hours.

A beautiful sunset as we enter the final hours of the World's Longest and Most Painful Day of Travel.

What else?

The kids and I transplanted our first set of trees at the school, and I'm hoping with all my heart that at least some of them are alive when I return to the village in a week.

Now, after a quick few days in the village and a restful watermelon-eating day in Linguere, we're about to be on the road again, this time for our West Africa All-Volunteer conference in Thies.  After that, I'm hoping to have some good couple weeks of respite and work in Ngaraf before the New Years celebrations, etc. tug at my heart strings.

Goodness.  Long enough for you? Thanks for reading, team. (or skimming.  Or just being here.  I get it, really :-)

Happy Hannukah!

Sala puts a flamboyant seedling in the ground.  

With Brian, savoring the last moments of watermelon season by eating excessive amounts of it.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Revel is in the Details

I recently finished reading "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun," a memoir about Mugabe's decimation of Zimbabwe and the impact it has had on one native white family. In it, the narrator, Peter Godwin, makes this poignant avowal:

"I feel like weeping. Weeping at the way Africa does this to you. Just as you're about to dismiss it and walk away, it delivers something so tender. One minute you're scared shitless, the next you're choked with affection."

For some reason, I was immediately struck by this quotation, by its striking honesty and by my visceral awareness of its truth in my own life.

Unlike Godwin, I'm not living in a veritable warzone, forced to watch the country of my birth and rearing go from being "Africa's breadbasket" to "Africa's dustbowl." Senegal is a world away from Zimbabwe, and in most cases I'm eager to avoid generalization about a continent made up of 54 distinct countries and countless tribes, ethnicities, cultures, and languages.

But something about what Godwin had to say help specific resonance with my experience here, as far as the way that this place - Africa - can shuffle you between polar opposite emotional extremes from one moment to the next. I know that I frequently have to take pause -- literally, to stop what I am doing -- when I find myself experiencing that sudden shift from utter, abysmal frustration/fear/loneliness/anger to utter appreciation/love/wonder/affection for the moment and the place.

As I write this, by candlelight in my hut, exhausted from a frustrating day, some young men are clustered outside my room in the nearby village common area. They came together for an impromptu session of harmonious singing, accompanied by the rhythmic beating of plastic jerry cans (Which double as chairs and water containers during the day). The anxiety and aggravations of the long, hot day are melting away in the beauty of this juxtaposed tranquility.

As a simple matter of fact, the harshness of life here is constantly making its presence known, especially to a tender, under-prepared white girl from the first world, such as myself. I go days on end without ceasing to sweat. My skin - thankfully not quite as pale as that of some of my colleagues - still responds unfavorably to the relentless West African sun. I spend my days walking through sand mottled with various types of manure, and no less than one in five steps does the poor sole of my foot come crunching down on a thorn stuck in my flip-flop.

And then there are all the inveterate health problems. Few and far between are the days when we don't suffer from some sort of gastrointestinal issue, mysterious rash, or both. As my PC Volunteer Leader April put it, "Sometimes you just don't know what's going on with your body in this country."

And then -- well, and then there are the people. Specifically, there's the high-incidence of meddlesomeness, the unabashed and unending demands and constant needs, and the perpetual scrutiny that is directed at me, the toubab. Please understand that I mean it in the least ego-meniacal and self-interested way when I say that I have come to sympathize fiercely with celebrities. Everyone wants a piece of you, wants something from you -- your attention, your salutation, your money, an English lesson, a ticket to America, a US. visa, your bike, etc. Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to pretend I'm anonymous again, like if I can't see anyone, they can't see me -- like a baby playing peek-a-boo who thinks he becomes invisible when you cover his eyes.

Believe it or not, however, all this is not meant to be a senseless barrage of complaints. What I'm presenting above is a sampling of things that can get me thinking that I'm not cut out for a life in Africa, that make me wonder what the heck I'm doing here, that break down my resistances, sometimes to point of tears or tantrums or feelings of total despondency.

But alas, this is the crazy miracle of Africa: it is these same forces that bring me back to life. The same kids that make me want to run screaming can make me fall in love with their sincerity, their desire to talk and learn and help. An old man will infuriate me when he reprimands me for not greeting him, but then we get to talking and I realize what a spectacular thing it is to befriend this man, and that maybe I should have been more careful with my greeting after all. In the midst of a sweaty afternoon, a poor migrant laborer gives me a watermelon and refuses to let me pay him for it. The women have impromptu dance sessions at the women's group meeting. The kids are always dancing, too, for no ostensible reason. Some of them bang on metal bowls while the rest of them dance, and in this simple, creative fashion, they pass the time. Teenage boys chant late into the night. Women come together to cook for the whole village, on command. My four-year-old brother insists on giving me a full half of his handful of peanuts. Villager after villager forgives all my language blunders, excuses all my communication errors, likes me and respects me and takes care of me despite my general confusion and occasionally cranky disposition. I sleep under the beaming moon, pee under the stars, shower in the rain. Goats and sheep offer me consolation in bad moments; a cow's soft eyes lift my spirits on a morning run. And the terrain, generally dry and brown as could be, for three months out of the year pulls out all of the stops and blankets itself in a lively expanse of green. In unexpected and vivacious ways, Africa makes you smile out of nowhere.