Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gratitude, Health Care, and Other Random Musings

I don't seem to know where to start.  Blog posts usually come to me pretty easily, but this one has left me feeling unsure of what to say and how to say it.

Thanks in large part to many of you reading this, the PC Partnership grant to fund the wall around our Health Hut was fully funded within two week of going up on the website.  I don't yet have any information on specific donors (that will come soon, along with the money itself!), but it's clear that many of my friends and family have opened their wallets and forked over precious cash.

I'm so appreciative, so humbled, so touched.  I realize that this act shows a palpable trust in me, which makes my stomach do somersaults of affection and gratitude. By no means, however, am I blinded by such narcissism, for I also realize that it says a heck of a lot more about all of you.  For one, it's a poignant indicator of your generosity -- even in tough times, even when you had holiday shopping to do -- you forked over what you could for people you will probably never meet.  Moreover, what's clear is the ubiquitous compassion that exists out there -- and it is this that catches in my throat and that I find so immensely touching and humbling.

It took little convincing to get you on the same page as myself as far as the notion that humans should have access to a certain standard of health care. (Here,  I don't mean the loaded term currently tearing America apart from the Senate on down, but rather the more basic concept of access to medical attention and education).  I hesitate to employ the heavy and overused term "right" - though it be an institution of our American parlance and world view both - but the notion that human lives are entitled to a minimum amount of help and support seems to be one human right that is difficult to contend with.

As for me, I'm a disciple of Paul Farmer, who believes that "the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that's wrong with the world" and quotes heavily from Rudolf Virchow, the populist German physician of early 20th century ("Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them"), so I'm hardpressed to see a more fundamentally important battle that we may undetake on behalf of whatever population we find ourselves living amongst.

All this convoluted babble is merely to say: yay!  I'm so appreciative that my friends and family have supported this project in which I really deeply believe.  Now, in addition to activating the actual building process for the wall, latrine, and water tap, the arrival of funding allows me to attack Health Hut Rehabilitation Project, Phases II and III, with additional gusto.

Phase II, already underway, is to work with the community health agent and the midwife in the village - those two fantastic women - to get in the regular practice of stocking medical supplies, holding health committee meetings, weighing babies monthly, conducting educational talks, and otherwise doing what they can to start and maintain a functioning health structure.  On a side note, baby weighings - we've now held one in December and one in January - are my favorite activity. Have you ever seen a baby scale?  It kinda resembles a canvas diaper strung from above, like a grocery store produce scale, so you stick the chubby little legs through the holes and let the munchkin dangle there while you read the scale.  I just don't get tired of the way those precious little ones look dangling there like a sack o' taters!  They invariable cry, but all I can do is laugh and make faces at them until this brief traumatic experience has passed. :-)

Phase III, also already in progress, involves asking other related parties in the region to help us in any way they can, mostly through providing necessary supplies that we don't have the ability or means to seek out ourselves.  Did I say "asking?"  It usually looks more like groveling, but I ain't ashamed.  I put on my nicest Senegalese outfits and go talk to anyone who will listen, including the doctors and other important parties at the Linguere Hospital, the government-issued nurse at the nearby community health post, officials at the district community council, reps for a health-related NGO that works in the region, and a smattering of other Senegalesians that may or may not be able to help our village health system in any way.  In my most obsequious, self-effacing, strategic manner, I explain the work, effort, money, etc. that Peace Corps, the people of of Ngaraff, and my friends and family back in America have put forward for the wellbeing of the village's Health Hut; I also enumerate the reasons that I believe the rehabilitation of the Ngaraff's health system is of such vital importance not just to the village but to the region (as if my audience shouldn't already be hip to this reality . . . but many benefit from the convincing.)  Though my Wolof still struggles with the details, I think that what comes through is my real dedication - perhaps even angst - related to this project.

And I think it's starting to work!  The other day Ngaraff got a visit from the Linguere district top doctor - the chef medecin - who came bearing various supplies meant to build a safe, sterile medical facility.  (And he proved himself to be about 20 years younger and twice as handsome as the Dr. Thiam I had been planning to visit/grovel to before too long, but that's neither here nor there.)  The best part?  He spoke of the arrival of our piece de resistance, the bit of equipment around which all the groveling is centered: a birthing table.  With that, our midwife can help women deliver their babies in a clean, comfortable environment, instead of on the mud/sand/cement floors of their huts.  Can you imagine?!?!

And there ya go.  Visions of a birthing table dance in our heads as we go to bed every night, and meanwhile we work toward a functional Health Hut in all ways we can.  Once more, thank you for your support, monetary or otherwise.

In other news?

I just took a mini-vacay in Kedougou, a region bordering Mali and Guinea in the Southeast of Senegal, AKA the Land of Dreams, if you remember from my 4th of July posts/photos.  I spent a couple of days in a friend's village, which was an interesting and instructive experience for many reasons, not the least of which was that - for the first time in awhile - I was totally out of my element language-wise.  This part of the country is dominated by Malinke-speakers, of which I knew not one word upon my arrival!  It was wild to revert back to the feeling of being a butt-headed foreigner who couldn't even greet my friend's host family.  Aside from that, it was a joy to be in a new place, especially one covered trees and vegetation.  Though Kedougou, like the rest of Senegal, is heavily feeling the effects of the dry season, this terrain nonetheless provided the lushest, most forest-like environment I've seen in . . . way too long.

After the village visit we took a hike out to one of Kedougou's gorgeous waterfalls, tucked away in a verdant creek gorge, and camped near the water.  I was nearly shedding tears of joy, just for the relief I felt in seeing water and greenery.

Photo by Mika :)
The original purpose behind my trek to the Southern reaches of the country was to help out at an eye clinic being hosted by the NGO Right to Sight in the region of Tambacounda, just North of Kedougou.  Unfortunately, they let me know only after my 15-hour-long travel day to Kedougou that I wouldn't be needed for the clinic after all.  Despite this, I decided to pass through Tamba on my way back up North and at least visit the clinic -- and I'm SO glad I did.  What they're doing is cataract surgery on over 200 blind or nearly blind Senegalese people from all over the region.  I got to watch the surgeries up close for a short while, and I was totally blown away by what I was witnessing: they actually go in a slice these people's eyes open, pull out the clouded cataract, and replace it with a new one, as patients lie patiently, having received only local anesthesia.  And all this in Senegal.  I'm still reeling; I can't quite describe how beautiful and inspiring I found this whole process, and even if Paul Farmer and this whole Health Hut project hadn't already been coaxing me down the path of a career in medicine, this experience would certainly have resonated with me in a meaningful way.  I was only there for an hour, but my friend and fellow UPS Logger, Mikael, volunteered at the clinic for a whole week - you can read his blog for more info and photos.

Before leaving Tambacounda, I spent a night in Mikael's Pulaar village, which, like the Malinke-zone farther South, provided a pretty interesting and enlightening experience as far as intra-country cultural differences.

Mika and some little sisters, with his self-painted hut in the background.
I was pretty stirred by Mika's relationship with his family. 

Mika and I - we're both gamers of yore - played Magic in his hut!
We're brushing up on our skills so we can take on Marty D,
PC Senegal's resident master of Magic: The Gathering

Now I'm back in Linguere, trying to love the desert despite having  seen the "other side."  As much as I appreciate in my home, it's hard sometimes to realize where I could be living, had I received a different site placement.  But really, there's beauty and intrigue around us all the time, wherever we are, and I'm not just saying that.

I took the above pics with Mikael's camera; my camera died a few weeks back, hence the recent lack of photos.  Don't fret - my lovely mother is sending me hers (thank you, Mama!), so don't fret -- the crisis will soon be over.

Finally, to wrap up this already too long blog post, I'll ask you to allow me one final indulgence.  I haven't been able to get this poem, "Mending Wall" by the great Robert Frost, out of my head since I started this whole wall project.  I want to share it with you - even though it has nothing to do with Africa or health clinics and (haha) actually discourages the building of walls.  Really, it has nothing to do with anything.  It's just so lovely, that's all.

Mending Wall
by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall.
That sends the frozen ground swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.  The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side.  It comes to little more.
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?  But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What i was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."  I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.  I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."