Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Year Two Reflections, More Visitors, and Curing AIDS

They always say that the second year is when Peace Corps gets good – That the more frustrating and awkward your challenges are your first year of service, the more intense and joyful your experiences will be your second year.

Weellll . . . That sounds about right.

I’m not yet done with my second year, but I can say this: I shed a lot of tears my first several months in country. There were lots of good moments, but what was more pronounced, especially at the time, was the sense of constant highs and lows, with a lot of the lows being very low. (Again, I was happy a lot, and I’m not licking some wound here. I know that life was not that rough at all, but I’ll admit that all the standard aggravations and disappointments broke me down sometimes. Too many times.) Following the one-year mark, however, things started to feel less weighty, and I started to appreciate the small victories, the standard happenings, the nuanced beauty of just being here. Now, I kinda feel like I’m in a love affair with my village. I’m not saying I’ve started moving mountains or that I’ve turned lives around. I’ve just turned my own corner of sorts. For all those tears I shed, I’m being rewarded with real, robust laughter and a strange fullness in my chest as I enjoy the company of my people as much as I can. Ups and downs, what-have-yous, those are still there. But the lows aren’t so low and the highs are really high and the sun rises and sets and the moon moves tides and nothing is that important, so let’s all just laugh at ourselves and appreciate where we are.

I think that’s enough of a spiel, seeing as it was quickly spiraling down a rogue and non-sensical path.

In November, I was graced once again by a brave visitor from America. Kayla was here for over two weeks, and we had such a good time. We started out in Dakar, spent a night on Ngor Island off the coast of Dakar, and then enjoyed two gorgeous, carefree days at Lampoule Village, a little place in the desert dunes modeled after Mauritanian tent camps. We had Thanksgiving in Linguere with the (incredible and ever-generous) missionary family and about ten other Linguere PCVs.

Kayla then came home with me to Ngaraff and we spent about five truly magical days there. Kayla’s ability to integrate and build bonds with people totally blew me away – it was as if no language or culture barrier existed. Having acquired a Senegalese moniker - Binta Sarr - from some friends we made on Ngor Island, she was ready to go! She taught the kids songs and they adored her. “Benin woy! Benin woy!”- “Another song! Another song!” - they screamed as they clamored to get close to her on the outside bed. (They still come up to me and belt their severely distorted versions of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” and “Squirrelly, Squirrelly, Squirrelly.”) She got dance lessons from some of my rambunctious young female friends (and her natural rhythm means she’s a natural, and already a way better dancer than I am!). She wowed them with her Wolof from Day 1, and my counterpart said to me, all giddy, “She’s got a good brain, like you – you can tell because you both learned Wolof so fast!” She rocked Senegalese clothing at two special occasions, and looked beautiful. Binta Sarr was a hit, and I wish she was my village sidekick impermanently!

Kayla, enjoying the dunes at sunset

Camel rides at Lampoule

Market shopping for Thanksgiving.  This is my favorite
market lady ever - I call her my mama and she calls me
her child.  I love how small I look next to her in this picture.

With my counterpart Marieme and her granddaughter Kinay

Dressed up for the women's group meeting.

Outplanting trees at the school.

Kayla gets a dance lesson - she's got it!

Dressed up again, and so are the babies!

Kayla snapped this shot of the some of the
crazy little boys at the entrace to my village.  Classic!
After Ngaraff, we headed to the coast.  We stayed at this magical little hobbit village, Toubab Dialaw, a beach community about 50 kilometers south of Dakar.  (hmmm, have I really said “magical" twice in describing this trip? I’m not taking it back, it's all true.) We did all sorts of fun things there – lazed in hammocks, petted the cats, drank coffee, created papaya/banana/lime salads, splashed around, bantered with questionable Rasta-men, ate chocolate crepes, and immensely enjoyed each other’s company and conversation.  When I put Kayla on a plane at the end of her trip, I felt blissful for the time I’d spent with a truly good friend, impressed and humbled by the goodness, honesty, and wisdom she, as always, had exhibited, and remiss at having to say goodbye.  In an uncertain world, I feel truly lucky to have a friend like Kayla.  

View from our favorite terasse,
where we drank coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon.

Lounging with our kitties.

Dancing with our new favorite dancing mama.

The magical hobbit land.

Dancing with the kids on the Toubab Dialaw beach.

Playing on the beautiful sandstone with our new friend, Cheekay,
who's traveling through West Africa for 6 months with his girlfriend.

After Kayla left, I had to rush back to Linguere to dive into work (yes, we do work here, sometimes.) The region-wide HIV/AIDS education project that Kim, Ann Marie, and I have been working got its official kick off with a four-day training of the educators that had been chosen, two from each of the 12 participating villages. Putting the training together was a huge amount of work and stress, but it went well! The villages vary greatly from each other, in size and other indicators, and the 24 educators represented very disparate levels of knowledge about HIV/AIDS and a broad spectrum of experience in teaching and speaking in front of people. Several of them were quite shy and inexperienced, so much of the training was devoted to teaching how to teach and to loosening up the educators by forcing them to practice leading discussions and presenting on the topic of HIV/AIDS.

It was actually a lot of fun, and at the end of the fourth day, I felt a real current of motivation amongst these people.  They seemed pumped up to go into their communities and share what they had learned. The project is now in that phase – the educators have started holding the discussions in their villages. It’s rolling along (with the usual hiccups) and is scheduled to finish up around the middle of March.

Condom demonstrations

Making people come out of their shells.

Condom practice.

Of course, a dance off with one my the trainees. 

Trainees from my zone.
All that aside, tomorrow will bring the real piece de résistance of my entire Peace Corps Service: the Naftalin-Levitt clan will invade Senegal.  The only thing more remarkable than the thought that I will be able to hug my mother, father, stepmom, and big brother tomorrow is the fact that I haven’t been able to do so for over 21 months.  Bring it on!  Ten days in paradise with my people.  (unfortunately, that probably means I’m speaking to an empty room, here, since the people visiting me in Senegal represent my best blog readers J )
P.S. Is there a disease for someone who can't stop taking of pictures of babies?  I think I have it, because, seriously, it's uncontrollable.  And I love it!!
A random smathering of photos -- mostly of babies, duh:

My counterparts gorgeous grandkids
(whom I might have to bring home to the U.S. with me...
we'll see how mom and dad feel about that...)

Ibra Sisee has a good protective grip on his little brother, also named Ibra.

Kinay and Fatou.

Kinay! I love this kid! Seriously, can I keep her?

Team Linguere storms the PC Halloween gathering as N'Ice Cream Girls!!

Getting my hair braided for Tabaski.

Typical lunch: Red Chebujenn (rice + fish) with veggie.

Gather 'round, let's eat!

These sheep gave their lives on Tabaski...

Little sisters in their Tabski outfits.

I'm so in! I got invited to wear the Tabaski hostess outfit with
my dad's four wives and two sisters.  Can you even
find me in this picture??  I know, I blend in, don't I?

Awa Thiam and the twins on Tabaski.

The whole Lingeure crew, recently updated.  There are 14 of us now!!

While taking care of my baby sister Ndeye Fatou,
I plopped her on my bed for a bit, and this is what she did!
I'm so proud.

In a world of ugly, broken down, decrepit public
transportation, this car that Abby and I rode in
on the way back from Dakar takes the cake. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Coolest Thing I've Ever Done

I have to admit: I was starting to feel sheepish about having divulged my med school ambitions to too many people; I started wanting to back out as I came to terms with the mountain of prerequisites that I would have to face after leaving Peace Corps this spring.  Then… something happened –  I got a call asking me to translate for American doctors coming to Senegal to repair cleft lips and pallets.  I was feeling pushed and pulled in all different directions, wanting to be in my village for a stretch, knowing my friend Kayla would soon be coming to visit from America… but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  And for Pete’s sake,  I can’t believe I almost said no.  It was entirely life-changing.  

We’ve all see those commercials about the “Smile Trains” – the Western doctors that come into developing countries to operate on hair-lipped kids.  Being a part of it, however, really drove home the importance and wonder of what occurs.  

From start to finish, I was blown away by what was transpiring before my eyes and by what I got to be a part of.  The team from the Global Smile Foundation worked with a group of local doctors at a hospital in Thies, operating on 30 people from the ages of 5 months to 25 years, all with unilateral or bilateral cleft lips or pallets.  The job of the PCVs in attendance – myself and four others—was to do English/Wolof/French translation and whatever other odd jobs the American doctors were in need of. Right after I arrived the first morning, my first task was to help one of the head surgeons talk to a seven-year-old patient, Awa, and her TWIN SISTER, Ada.  Dr. Farid said, “Tell her that after the operation, she’s going to look just like her sister.” What a beautiful , thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience that was, to be able to tell a little girl that these doctors would change her and make her look like her twin.  They both smiled, shyly.  

Things only got more incredible from there.  They let me into the Operating Room almost immediately.  The American doctors were all really good people, each one kinder, more patient, and more eager to teach than last.  The first operation I watched was on that 7-year-old girl with a complete cleft lip.  Once the anesthesiologists had put her under, Dr. Kyle and Dr. Ousama made markings on the girl’s upper lip and discussed where to cut before they injected anesthetic “pain blocks” into her face, which caused her lip to swell dramatically. (Babies and children were all put to sleep, but anyone 12-years-old and up was counted as an “adult” and therefore put under local instead of general anesthesia.)  

Fifteen minutes later, once the pain block injections had fully kicked in, they went to work.  Incisions were made, skin was snipped, and they moved along deftly and expertly.  And then, not too long after that, the first stitch was made, pulling the two parts of the upper lip together.  All of a sudden, this startling, miraculous thing occurred: the girl’s face was whole, and it was changed.  The doctors were done before I knew it, and that was that: one hour had passed since they had injected her anesthesia, and now she was waking up,  looking around the room, sitting up on the OR table, and getting ready to move to the recovery room.  And, essentially, she had a new face.  I was speechless.  Literally! I NEVER hurt for words.  But I was bereft of words that could come close to articulating the awe that was swirling through my mind.

The work that occurred in those 60 minutes, throughout the day, and for the duration of the four days of the surgical mission continued to blow the mind.  I got to talk to adult patients, comfort them during surgery, hold babies, assuage the fears of parents, hear stories about why they thought their children had been born with this deformity, clean surgical implements, assist surgeons in all sorts of ways, and generally observe and participate in some seriously fascinating and touching operations. The lives of some of these people, who had come from village and towns all around Senegal to have the operation, composed sad vignettes, and talking to them was eye-opening.  There was one young women who said that she had had to pay someone to marry her; another girl simply said that she would never have been able to get married if the was not to have the surgery.  I got to spend a lot of time with a little 10-year-old boy named Abdou, whose entire persona screamed of his intelligence, kindness, pure integrity, and fervor for life.  Unfortunately, he also had a severe cleft lip, and while he had tried to go to school twice when he was younger, he was kicked out by his teacher both times because he was not able to speak clearly. (Cleft lip surgery addresses issues that are far beyond aesthetic – most kids that don’t have the issue fixed as an infant develop major speech defects.Over and over again, myself and the other volunteers found ourselves incredulous at both the stories that these peole were telling us and the candor with which they told them.

If I was looking for affirmation for my post-Peace Corps goals, I certainly found it, in spades.  

Dr. Sarah Jane doing last minute checks on a patient.

Little baby on the OR table!

Bringing in the next patient.

Justin and I in the OR.

A Haitian patient pre-surgery.

Abby with a patient and her family - mother, big sister, baby sister, and grandma - after surgery.