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Sunday, December 28, 2014


I like parties.  Everyone likes parties.  The best thing about parties is that dancing and eating require no language skills.  Since I have spent most of the last year without language skills, I have thrown many parties here.  I reasoned that although I eventually wanted my service to be about more than parties, there was nothing wrong with making people like me. It is universally true that a good way to make people like you is to give them cake.

I told a couple other PCVs about making cakes in village and was met with either dumbfounded stares or enthusiastic badgering for how I did that.  It's really easy!

Acquire a gas burner, or fire and sticks, or a charcoal stove and charcoal.  I've only done this with my gas burner but I'm sure you can do it with other heating methods as well.  Heat is heat.  Put a thick sturdy pot with a lid on your heat source.

Put something in the bottom of the pot to prevent your cake pan from touching the hot burner, since if it got too close it could scorch the bottom.  I use either a flat metal plate (if I'm making muffins) or a small upside-down bowl (if I'm making cake).  Doing this effectively means that your batter will be surrounded entirely by hot air, and that's all an oven is.

Four muffin tins on a metal plate.
Turn the heat on low and keep it covered until they're cooked.  A 6-inch diameter cake will take about a half hour, these muffins take about 20 minutes.

That's it!

Suffee cutting up a round peanut butter cake

When you can make a middle aged woman dance without music, you know you're doing something right.


Muffins:  mix 3 cups flour (part of this can be millet or corn flour), 2 cups sugar, 1 tsp baking soda or powder (I know they're not the same - I think powder is better, but there's only soda at my local boutique and that tastes fine too), 1 tsp salt, and 1 tsp cinnamon (if you've got it).  In another bowl mix 4 eggs and 1.25 cups oil.  Stir the dry and wet ingredients together.  Throw in whatever additions you think might be delicious, especially vanilla if you've got it.  Cook in little metal cups - I bought them in Thies, they're probably in many markets if you look around.  You can cook muffin batter in a cake pan, too, to make a giant muffin-cake.

Peanut butter cake:  mix .75 c margarine (the Jadida they sell at boutiques works fine), .75 c peanut butter, 3 eggs, 2.25 c sugar, 2.25 c flour, 3 tsp baking soda or powder (like the muffins, i think powder is better but soda works too), .75 tsp salt, vanilla if you've got it, and a cup of milk (or Vitalait in water).

Coffee cake:  mix 1 c sugar, 1.75 c flour, and 2 t baking powder or soda, work in 4 T butter with a fork or your fingers, add 1 beaten egg and 0.5 c milk, sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar mixed with 1.5 tsp cinnamon on top.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mbo fuddi ligge makko, seeda seeda...

Hello internet.  It's been awhile.  I guess I haven't written much lately because I've been somewhat busy. I usually have something work-related to do every day now, which feels really nice.  My village has been proud of me for finally being a productive volunteer - the title to this post, "Mbo fuddi ligge makko, seeda seeda!" is a boast I overheard my brother make from his seat at a breakfast stand when I was walking to the community garden a few days ago.  "She's starting her work, little by little!"

The big project I've had going on lately was a supplementary feeding program with mothers of malnourished children in Biaro, a village 2k from Teyel.  The last baby weighing showed that there were seven "babies" (kids under the age of two) who were underweight.  Each mother agreed to pay 300 CFA (about $0.60, but that's a lot of money in village) and to provide millet, corn, or rice flour when it was her turn to cook.  Every day at 10am, we'd meet as a group, and whoever was cooking that day made a normal weaning porridge (just grain and water) then we put in healthy additives to make the porridges more nutritious - like peanut butter and banana, or tomato and bean, or crushed peanut and moringa, and we talked about the Complet Model of Nutrition.  The kids would not only eat at the program, but would take home some more porridge for a healthy afternoon snack.

I didn’t expect everything to go perfectly smoothly – Peace Corps training taught me to expect the unexpected, to be flexible and enjoy the ride and try to avoid getting frustrated by inevitable setbacks.  I thought I went in to the project with that mindset, but there was still a lot of stuff that didn’t go as planned and I still got stressed and irritated in spite of myself.  

The first day of the program, I had my ASC (community health worker) come in and explain in his fluent Pulaar why I was doing the program and what the Complet Model of Nutrition means.  

We did an activity where the women placed laminated cards of foods onto the part of the complet where they belonged – fruits/veggies on the headscarf, proteins on the shirt, and grains on the skirt. 
All the women agreed to meet at the first woman (Sadio)’s house the next morning (Sunday) at 10 to start the program.

The next morning, Sadio informed me that she was not feeling well and would not be cooking that day. I tried to convince her that babies still needed to eat regardless of whether their moms were well or not, but it was no use.  She told me she had already told all the women the start date of the program would be postponed one day, so I wished her a speedy recovery and went home.

The next morning, Monday, I went to Sadio’s house, and she told me none of the women could come, since Mondays are market days and they would not have time.  I went around to a few compounds and saw that she was right – only three of the seven women were at home.  I was irritated, but still trying to flexible and understanding.  This was literally a program meant to give free food to hungry kids and I was amazed that it was so difficult for me to do it.

Tuesday morning I went back.  Sadio was not at home, and her neighbor told me she had gone to the nearby health post because she still wasn’t feeling better.  I was visibly upset, since I had had such high hopes for the program, so the neighbor, Booyah, who’s as awesome as her name is, said she would cook the porridge that day.  

All the women (except one, who was still MIA) came over, and as the babies ate we discussed the nutrition in the day’s meal.

Wednesday and Thursday went well, too.  Except the one missing woman (who I learned had fled to her parents’ village because of a fight with her husband), everyone attended and the babies had big appetites.  The mothers grew more confident in explaining low-cost and high-energy food additives to help kids gain weight, and though it might have been my imagination, the kids seemed to have more energy.

Friday, three of the seven women were absent, and by Sunday, there was only one left.  The women said the program was good, but that they didn’t have time to do it for that long.  I'm trying to see the program as a success - even if they only went a day or two, at least it didn't hurt anything, but it was not the intensive weight-gain boot camp I had planned.  

While that was going on, I also did a Senegal map mural in Dinguera, the same school with the same awesome work counterpart where I did the handwashing project.  My neighbor Lauren has an artistic streak and was glad to help me.  It ended up looking pretty great, though it's not quite finished yet in these pictures.  The paint didn't dry enough to label the regions yet.

Another day, my PCV friend Liz came over and did a training for a local womens' group on soapmaking.


I also spent a morning helping to seed an onion nursery and prepare garden beds in one of the women's gardens.

So, that's about it.  I know that doesn't seem like a lot, considering it's my whole month's work, but it's something.  It's hard to believe it's so late in the year already...to answer that annoying 1980s song, no, they DON'T know it's Christmas, and they don't care, because they're muslim.  Every day continues to be exactly the same as the one before it, but it's nice and I'm still enjoying it.

Catch up with you all later!  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Packing Tips for 2015's Senegal PCVs

This blog’s niche, so sorry to everyone reading who is NOT coming to Senegal to be a health volunteer and is not interested in my opinions of what/what not to pack. I just remember that I perused tons of blogs looking for tips about packing when I was in this next group’s position.  Some people’s blogs I agreed with, some I didn’t…some I wish I’d listened to, some I still think were crazy (I’m talking to you, Miss “I Packed 50 Pairs of Underwear”). 

I’m not going to go through everything in my suitcase in minute detail.  Yes, you’ll need clothes.  People wear clothes here.  Bring clothes.  How many and what kind of clothes you bring are up to you.  Remember, you’re coming to a country that millions of people live in, so anything you need to live, you can find here.  If you forget something, it’s not the end of the world.  I’m just going to list off some things I brought and was happy about, some things I brought that ended up being ridiculous, and things I wish I’d packed but didn’t.  This blog is just my own opinion, so take it with a big chunk of salt. 

Things I packed and am happy for:

My prescription sunglasses.  If you wear glasses, go to zennioptical.com and order yourself a pair.  They’re less than 20 bucks and you’ll wear them every day.  I didn’t realize before I got here how much time I’d be outside.  People in my village literally only go inside their huts to sleep.  The rest of the time they’re hanging out on benches under mango trees.  Sometimes they even sleep under the mango trees.  If something were to happen to my zennis, I could get by with normal glasses, but I really hope that never happens. 
A warm hoodie and sweatpants. I felt like an idiot when I got here in March with those things because it was hot season and it was too warm to think, even in the middle of the night, but now I’m grateful that I have clothes appropriate for cool season, because it does get chilly sometimes now.  Of course, if I would not have packed them, they would have been available at any fukkijai (used clothing boutique), so if you don’t have room in your suitcase, no worries.
A big bottle of shampoo and conditioner.  There is a nice foreign goods store in Thies (the city where the training center is) but you’re not going to be allowed to leave the training center for your first week.  I shared my shampoo and conditioner with many grateful girls who had only brought a tiny travel size.
All my makeup.  I brought it all because I figured my Peace Corps service was two years long, and by two years from when I left it would all be expired anyway – cosmo says you’re supposed to throw out mascara after 6 months – and I didn’t have enough makeup that I felt it took up too much luggage space. I don’t wear makeup in village very often, but I do for parties and holidays, and I have a lot of fun giving makeovers to my favorite pre-teens in village.  Also, I never wear nail polish, but PCVs that do say they’re happy they brought some with them.  The local stuff’s not the best quality.
LOTS of exercise clothes.  I brought with two spare pair of running shoes and am very glad I did.  I run almost every morning here to help me keep some degree of sanity and am already on pair #2.  I might be able to find good running shoes in Dakar, but almost certainly couldn’t find the exact size and brand that I prefer (Saucony kinvara, man size 8.5, you are amazing and I love you).
A hammock.  I’m in the casamance and there are lots of trees here, but there are not trees everywhere in Senegal, so packing this one was a bit of a gamble, but I’m glad I did it.  There are few greater tranquilities than hammocking in a jungle studying Pulaar flash cards with gorgeous tropical birds flitting about, singing pretty songs at you.
A camera.  You’re not NOT going to bring a camera, are you?  Come on.  You need a camera.  If you’re one of those types that uses their smart phone as a camera in America, I think it’d be worthwhile to get a cheap used digital camera instead.  The battery lasts longer and it’s less of a show to bring it out in village.
Plastic bags. I probably brought too many of these, but I am glad I bought some.  Unfortunately, ants CAN chew through them, so you can’t store food in them (RIP to the delicious sugar roasted nuts that taught me that) but they’re good to keep other things clean and dry.  Plus, if you give a village woman one of them, she will pray you some great prayers.  Ziplocks are very popular.
A few nice sturdy tupperwares with snap top lids. Thick plastic is ant- and mouse-proof, so these are good to store food in.
A swimsuit. There are pools in Dakar and Kolda for sure, and I’d wager that there are some in other cities as well.  They’re frequented by ex pats, not by Senegalese people, so don’t worry about packing a lil bikini if that’s your thing.  It’s not inappropriate.

Things I packed that were stupid:

Cooking spices.  I lived in Korea for a while, and while I was there I had fierce cravings for American food. As a result, when leaving for Peace Corps I packed tons of taco seasoning, cilantro, oregano, lemon pepper; all the stuff I thought might be hard to find here in Senegal.  I never use them.  I live with a family who does all my cooking for me, so I never use them for preparing my own meals, and Senegalese people (people in general, I suppose) are resistant to new tastes, so my family’s not interested in them.  In the last six months, there have been two instances I’ve used the spices: both occurred when everyone I normally share a bowl with wasn’t back from the fields yet when the meal was ready and the cook told me to eat alone in my room rather than wait for it to get cold.  Cinnamon made the gosse girte taste better, and garlic salt made the lecciri jambo taste better…but when I offered some of the improved dishes to my sister to taste she crinkled her nose and disagreed emphatically.  There are some volunteers that really enjoy cooking American meals at the regional houses, but I am not one of them.  It’s much cheaper and easier to go to restaurants.  You can get the best omelet, onion, and mayonnaise sandwich on warm fresh baked bread with a cup of delicious tea for less than $1 AND not have to do dishes.
Dress shoes (both heels and flats).  I thought there might be instances where I’d want to dress up nice and feel like a pretty lady, but this is NOT the way to do it. I live in the “deep south” of Senegal, the least sandy area in the country, and it’s still too sandy to walk in heels here.  It’s just not possible.  Don’t pack heels.  Senegalese woman do wear special dress shoes for holidays (or for every day, if they’re fancy) but the dress shoes here are nothing like dress shoes in America.  They’re $3 flip flops with rhinestones or triangles of colorful plastic attached instead of the normal everyday $1 flip flops.  Closed-toed flats are a sweaty mess here.
Hiking boots. I thought I’d be outside all the time, hiking, gardening, walking through the woods, and I’d need good protective footwear.  I am outside all the time, and I do do all those things, but I do in them in $1 flip flops.  Everyone here does.  You can too.  You will.  Really.
Jewelry.  I didn’t bring anything REALLY nice, but I brought a few of my favorite rings and necklaces, figuring that they were small and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have them just in case I felt like wearing them.  They are all rusting or corroding away and some kind of insect ate my peacock feather earrings.  If you wear something every single day, bring it, but be aware that everyone you encounter will demand that you give it to them.  If you just want to bring it because you think you might feel like wearing it here, don’t.  It’s far safer to keep it in the land of climate control and leak-proof roofs.
Dress pants and a cardigan. Peace Corps says you should bring “business casual” clothes to staging before you leave the country, but please for your own sake keep this as close to the casual side of business casual as you can.  “Dressing up” in village means your clothes have minimal holes and are clean.  My dress pants are ridiculous in village, like a parody of a rich person costume, and they have been in the bottom of my trunk at the regional house since I got here.
A speaker for my iPod.  This wasn’t stupid, just needless.  This radio is available at any market for 5 mille (about $10).  There are slots on the side for USB and memory cards.  You can transfer songs you want from your computer to the USB or the card, slap in some batteries, and have a dance party anytime.  AA batteries for the radio are available from any boutique – for forty cents you get about four hours of listening time.  It’s local, it doesn’t need electricity to charge, it’s real sturdy and hard to break, and it doesn’t scream “I’m rich so please ask me for money because I have so much of it” like my expensive American speakers do.

Things I wish I’d packed but didn’t:

A tent/bug hut.  I remember what was going on in my head when I decided not to bring my tent.  “I’m not going camping!” I thought.  “I’m going to LIVE there.”  Yes.  That’s true, I do live here, and when I’m at home, I’m very comfortable sleeping in my hut with my own bed.  However, PCVs travel a lot.  I regularly spend the night at regional houses or in other volunteers’ villages, and other volunteers come to my village, as well.  It’s a good idea to have a tent in the Peace Corps because it’s much easier than having a spare bed/mattress/mosquito net for guests or for your own travel.  I acquired a tent now from someone who COS’ed, but for my first 6 months here, whenever I traveled I either had to bring my mosquito net and find somewhere to string it up, which was a pain, or sleep without one and get bitten by malarial mosquitos, which was a worse pain. 
A solar charger.  Usually I charge my computer battery up as full as I can whenever I’m near electricity, then use a USB charger to charge up my cell phone and MP3 player using my computer battery while I’m at site.  This process works fine, but it’d be nice to have a solar charger instead, since that would help my computer battery last longer.  My computer is supposed to have an 11 hour battery life, and it probably does usually, but using the battery to charge other electronics makes it die much sooner for me.  If I would have packed a solar charger I might be able to use my computer battery to write more, or at least to rewatch Breaking Bad.
Notebooks.  Notebooks are available here, but Senegalese people prefer to write on tightly-ruled graph paper (I think Europeans do, too) and I do not.  I wouldn’t go crazy with bringing Target’s entire Back to School aisle, but I don’t think you’d regret throwing in a college-ruled spiral bound or two.  Bring some nice pens or gel pens (or GLITTER gel pens!) too if you want to write letters back home – nothing’s available here but cheap ballpoints.  They’ll get you by, but they’re not great.
A kindle or other e-reader.  The regional houses provide me with more paperbacks than I could read in a dozen Peace Corps services – but they also provide me with terabytes of hard drives of unlocked Kindle books.  I find great books at the regional houses and I like the excitement of trying something new after happening upon it on the shelf, and I like that my paper books don’t break if they get rained on or sand gets in them, but it would be nice to have access to anything I wanted to read, anytime I wanted to read it.  The perfect example of this is that I’ve read 1, 2, and 4 of the Game of Thrones series, but I can’t finish it unless I happen to find the other two.  It’s a treasure hunt, so that’s kind of exciting, but if I had a kindle, I could have read them already.  On the other hand, there are many wonderful regional house books I’ve read that I might not have if unlimited kindle variety had been available. 
Band aids. Med does supply band aids, but the quality is not the best (meaning they barely stick at all), and rainy season foot infections cashed out my entire stash in about two weeks.  After I ran out of band aids, I used medical tape and gauze that I bought at a pharmacy in the nearest city, but band aids are better.  If you bring a box of those nice cloth ones, the ones that could stay on through a marathon, you probably won’t regret it.

Well, this ended up being a pretty long post.  Thanks as always for reading!  Please feel free to message me any specific questions you have.  If you’re in the new stage, you’re going to love Senegal!  Welcome to the family!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pen Pals in Teyel - and in Saint Paul, MN

A couple months ago, I thought it might be fun to do a pen pal project between kids at my school and kids at a school in America.  There is no home mail delivery here, and the closest post office (where packages or letters can be picked up) is nine miles away.  When I receive mail and tell my community about it, some of them don't grasp the concept that there is a system in place to send things from one part of the world to another - the only way to transport goods that they're familiar with is to give them to someone to carry with them as they travel.  When I told my family that I received a box from my mom for my birthday, they were hurt that she hadn't stopped by to say hello. I was sure that kids here would treasure letters from America.

Since kids learn French in school here, I emailed the directors of French immersion schools in Minnesota (I chose Minnesota for no other reason other than my hometown loyalty), but only heard back from one, the L'Etoile du Nord school in St. Paul.  A fourth grade teacher there said she'd love to do the program and sent me a list of her 31 students.

Senegalese schools are not nearly as efficient as American ones.  When teachers don't show up, there is no substitute system in place.  If there's farm work to do, that takes priority over studying.  Kids go home for lunch and might come back late, or not come back at all.  There is no electricity, and the sun sets at 6:30 these days.  Batteries and candles are too expensive for many families to afford regularly, so there's not much time for homework. Young girls usually start cooking the family dinners (on rotation with other girls in the house) when they're around 10.  Since there is absolutely no processed food here, all milling, chopping, peeling, and sifting has to be done manually, so cooking a meal takes several hours. Senegalese schools aren't free, so if a family has a poor harvest, they might not be able to afford for their children to attend that year.

For all these reasons and more, I was cautious about the ability of the students to write a good quality French letter.  I asked the directors of Teyel's primary and secondary schools, and they said they didn't think the kids would be able to independently write a letter until 5eme, roughly equivalent to 7th grade.  If kids fail high stakes end-of-the-year tests here, they have to retake the same grade again the next year.  For that reason, the 7th grade class ranged from 12 year olds to some that looked around 18.  There are official age limits for each grade, but birth records are easily and commonly falsified.

I met with the 5eme teachers (Mr. Barkham and Mr. Ning) and they were excited and enthusiastic to help.  This is the 5eme class:

Which is a little crowded, so the teachers immediately made a list of the 13 boys and 18 girls who had the best grades in the class and sent the rest home.

The kids in the now-much-less-crowded classroom wrote for over an hour, in careful and meticulous cursive, as I called them out one by one to take a picture (since I was pretty sure the American kids would like to see who they were writing to).  I can't speak French, but their letters look fabulous.

The letters are now in the mail and ready to journey to America, which can take anywhere from two weeks to two months.  I just wish I could read French...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Handwashing in Dinguera

I haven't started any big projects yet (and I am totally at peace with that) but I have been keeping busy with some smaller ones.  I try to do something related to community health work every day, even if it's only greeting a new potential counterpart.  

A couple weeks ago, I went to Dinguera, a village about 4 kilometers away on a bush path.  Dinguera has a couple hundred people and a primary school, so I went to the school to greet the teachers and introduce myself.  I found that the teachers at the primary school speak beautiful Pulaar and were friendly and enthusiastic about possible Peace Corps work collaborations.  As a first project with them, I planned a handwashing/Ebola prevention causerie with Khaled Balde and his adorable students.

 After I met with Khaled and told him in my terrible Pulaar what I hoped to accomplish (you can't see germs, but they can make you sick, washing your hands after using the bathroom and before eating can help you get sick less often), he stood in front of his classroom and gave the presentation of the century.  His went through the terrifying symptoms of Ebola with relish, like a kid telling a campfire story.  Everyone's attention was complete and unfaltering.  He literally had the kids standing and chanting "SABUNDE! SABUNDE!" (soap, soap)!  If this guy were in America he could have a future as a motivational speaker.  It was beautiful.

Khaled put glitter on a volunteer's hand, and told the poor girl she had pretend Ebola.  She shook another girl's hand, who in turn shook a boy's hand, and so on down the line, until even after several degrees of separation from the original "patient," everyone had some glitter on their fingers.


Then we went to the tippy-tap station outside the school, which I constructed under a picturesque Flamboyant. The kids first tried to wash off the glitter with water alone - no dice.  Then they tried it with soap, which was still only moderately effective, because glitter is devilish.


All clean!!!!!!!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A few dark days

You may have heard that Peace Corps is a roller coaster, full of ups and downs.  I have been lucky enough that my service has been mostly ups, but this past week has been like a canyon. I’ve struggled with whether a downer post was appropriate to post publically or not, but I decided to do so, in the interest of portraying my service accurately.  Please remember that I am only recounting my own thoughts about my own experiences in my own village, and I’m trying to do so in the most accurate, honest way possible.

If you look back to my Doggy Denabo post, there’s a picture of my sitemate, Kim, peeling onions.  Next to her, you’ll see a girl with a pink skirt and a nursing baby.  That girl was my neighbor, Salimatu, and she died last Friday.  My ASC (local health worker) said it was malaria, but everyone else in village just shrugged and said “balde makko gasi tan” – her days were just finished.  Allah took her, but they couldn’t hope to understand why.  Sali left behind parents, grandparents, her baby, and a village full of friends and family that have been mourning her deeply.  She did not get sick often and her passing surprised everyone.  The funeral proceedings at her compound lasted several days.  Visitors came from all over the country, sharing their hugs, tears, and memories of Sali.  Loud sobs from her compound kept me awake for nights.  As far as I’m aware, Sali’s family doesn’t have any pictures of her.  Her baby won’t have any memories of her mother.  She doesn’t even have a gravestone.

I’m sad that Sali died, of course, like the rest of the village, but I’m also experiencing fierce anger as a result of her passing.  Sali died of a disease that was eradicated over sixty years ago in America.  I want to feel righteously indignant – I want someone to blame.  I want this death to spurn action – I want to be able to say that someone should have done something, that someone should have prevented this tragedy from occurring…however, I can’t feel that way.  Medicine that could have cured her was available at the local health post.  She was a member of a women’s savings group that would have let her take out a loan if she’d needed to go to a private facility for treatment or medication.  There was a USAID-sponsored universal bed net distribution earlier this year, as well as an insecticide hut-spraying initiative.  Sali was sick for three days before she died, slowly getting sicker and sicker, refusing to get treatment because she thought she would recover.  She should have lived, but I don’t know what more could have been done to have made that happen.  I wish I had someone to blame other than the dead girl herself.  Sali died, and I don’t know why, and anything I could think of to do to save her had already been done. 

Sad yet?  More’s a comin’.

The family dog, Leon, who was about two years old, strong and healthy, died on Monday after a short, intense battle with a mystery illness.  He first refused to eat – not like him, as I’ve never known this dog to turn down any food, no matter how questionable.  Then Leon started wailing, crying in agony like I’ve never heard a dog cry.  He started convulsing, twitching, drooling, trying to run and falling onto his shoulders, drool dripping down his face, his eyes bloodshot.  In two days he moved from the pinnacle of health to the grave. 

I don’t know what killed Leon.  I talked to a volunteer that worked as a vet in America, and she said she said it could have been rabies, which seemed even more likely after my aunt said Leon got sick after he got bit by a crazy cat.  However, my brother says the dog got bit by a snake at the beginning of rainy season, but it was a snake with slow-acting venom, which I didn’t understand “because I’m not African”.  My other brother said it was dog malaria.  I don’t know what it was.  My master’s degree in biology, my knowledge of cell structures and disease transmission, has no application here.  I’m useless.  I could do nothing to help him.  As he got sicker and sicker, my family kept asking me to save him, to give him medicine, saying that if I didn’t, he would die.  My brother, the one who was closest to Leon, was getting more and more frantic as he pleaded with me to save his dog using my magic toubab pills from my med kit.

For the first few hours of Leon’s illness, when I thought it was nothing more than a bad cold, I let Ñankatan play with him.  I thought it was cute that my puppy wanted to cheer up his friend.  The dogs were comforting each other, licking each other’s faces and playfully nipping at each other’s ears.  Now I’m scared that my poor puppy might have a ticking rabies bomb over his head.  He’s not old enough to get vaccinated yet, and the shot could kill him if delivered too soon.  If it was rabies that killed Leon, no medicine exists, and lord knows no one in village could afford the vaccine.  Under the advice of my PCV veterinarian friend and the PC med department, I’m keeping Ñankatan under quarantine, in my room away from people for 10 days.  As of now, he’s still healthy, but I’m overanalyzing every move he makes, like a crazy hypochondriac.  He yawned – is he a normal sleepy puppy, or is this the first sign of listlessness that is the first sign of rabies?  It’s maddening. 

I joined Peace Corps because I wanted to help people, but in this world where death is always on the doorstep, where survival cannot be taken for granted, I am powerless.  I look to others to provide answers and guidance.  I don’t know how to live here.  I don’t know what to do.  I find myself wishing that someone would swoop into the village with cures, someone that could make everything easier, that could prevent these tragedies from happening – then I remember that I am supposed to be that person.  That’s what I’m supposed to be here for.  I feel wholly inadequate.

And now, round three:

I was in my room playing with my quarantined puppy yesterday and I heard a cry.  It wasn’t a playful kid cry, but a grown woman’s anguished wail.  I have always struggled with minding my own business (character flaw) so I accidentally-on-purpose walked closer to the noise to investigate, as did dozens of neighbors.  The screams were coming from my neighbor Syrajo’s house, the one that’s in my Facebook profile picture with me.  Syrajo has always struck me as a good, decent, kind man, but at this moment, he was punching his daughter, Rekki, with closed fists and full muscle power.  Rekki’s sister, Hadia, was the one that was screaming.  The scene was hectic and deafening - I was tumbling blind in a sea of Pulaar, unable to find any bearings, feeling fight-or-flight adrenaline course through my veins.  To my left, my brother Oussaman was dragging Hadia away.  She was screaming, hitting him, trying to break away and return to her sister.  Rekki was to my right, stonily calm, silent, an unmovable boulder, accepting her dad’s blows without a sound, without a whimper, looking directly into his eyes with righteous contempt as he hit her.  Rekki’s mother and younger siblings were yelling and grabbing at Syrajo, trying to get him to stop hitting.  Right in front of me, a scrawny stray dog was scavenging from a bowl of overturned rice on the ground.  A preteen boy kept kicking the dog, who would cry in pain and start to run away, then return to the rice, his hunger greater than his fear.  Everyone was screaming and I had no idea where to look.  The crowd grew bigger and bigger, louder and louder, as neighbors explained to the newcomers what was going on.  I couldn’t understand any of it.  In America, I would have been a mediator.  I would have used my words to help.  But I was useless here.  I couldn’t fix anything.  For the third time in a week, I was a desolate pale island in a stormy sea. 

I went home and sat in my room by myself a little bit, trying to decompress.  Then I went outside and asked my sister Medo to explain what had happened.  “Oh,” she laughed as she explained in the clear, carefully enunciated Pulaar she reserves just for me.  “Mariama Ba – you know, across the street, Rekki’s friend?  She gave birth today, and Rekki wanted to give her some food.  But then there wasn’t enough food for Omar and Mohamed – Rekki’s little brothers.  So they started crying because they were hungry.  So Syrajo had to hit her.”  I was confused.  This is a culture that shares everything, especially food.  I’ve never gone to someone’s house without being given a glass of tea or a handful of peanuts.  I couldn’t understand how sharing rice could have been the impetus for such gratuitous violence.  Worse, I couldn't understand Medo's nonchalance about the whole thing.  She thought that the beating was justified by Rekki's actions - that it's OK for people to hit people.

I walked back to the street.  Rekki was sitting on a log, watching cars go by with stony intensity.  I hesitated and considered what to do.  I wanted to sit by her, but I also wanted to give her the alone time that’s so hard to come by here.  I wanted to tell her I was sorry and that fathers should never beat their daughters, that that wasn't right, but I didn’t want to brag about my privileged upbringing with my caring dad who’d never ever hurt me.  I sat next to her.  It was silent for many long moments.  

“Rekki…” I begain.  “I…I’m sorry, Rekki.  Hitting is not good.”
“Not good at all,” she responded.
“I think it is good to share food.”
“I agree.”
It was silent for a few more moments.
“Do you like Teyel, Rekki?”
“When I get money, I will leave.”
“How?  Where will you get money?  What will you do in Dakar?  Did you go to school?  Can you read?”

She slumped her shoulders and looked down.  My toubab guilt bubbled up again.  Of course she couldn't leave.  I was an idiot for bringing it up.  Success was handed to me as a consequence of the circumstances I was born into.  I’m collecting a government sponsored living allowance just for being here.  I’m disgustingly rich.  It is not fair, but realizing that doesn't change the way it is, and I can't do anything to make it fair.  If I would have been born in Senegal instead of America, what would my life look like now?  Just because death and violence shouldn’t happen, doesn’t mean they don’t happen.  My presence in village doesn’t stop pain and suffering.  It didn’t save Leon or Salimatu.  It didn't do anything. 

I left Rekki, went back to my hut, and cried for the first time in months.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doggy Denabo

A few weeks ago, before I got Ñankatan, I was hanging out in another volunteer’s village talking with a Pulaar friend about my plans of getting a puppy.  I told her that in America, dogs are loved like children.  I said that people buy special food just for their dogs.  I said that dogs sleep in houses, sometimes on the same bed as their owners.  I said that if people hit dogs, they can go to jail.  The person I was talking to was flabbergasted and asked if my dog would be treated like a human.  I said yes – it would be my baby, and I would throw it a Denabo (naming ceremony) and everything.  I meant it as a joke, but the second the words were out of my mouth, I knew that I was actually going to do it.  

Originally, I wanted the denabo to be a small, reserved affair, for my family and a few close friends only, since I wasn’t sure how culturally appropriate it’d be to flaunt my disposable income on a party for a dog.  I tentatively brought up the idea to my family and my closest friends in village, and everyone loved the idea.  Word spread, and soon it seemed like everyone knew about the party.  My last shred of apprehension was erased when the village ceerno (religious leader) asked if I wanted him to ceremonially shave the dog’s head. 

I decided to make it a party to remember.  I figured worst case scenario, no one would come and my family would just eat better food than we usually do, and enjoy the leftovers for several days.  Best case scenario, lots of people would come and we would all have a great time.  

For about a week preceding the Denabo, I had the same conversation with hundreds of people in the village.  “Kadiatou!  I heard you are doing a denabo for your dog!” “Yes!  It is Thursday!  You are coming?” “Yes!  I will eat until I’m very full.”  “Yes!  You will dance also!”  “Yes!  I am happy!”  “I am happy!” 

When all was said and done, I blew about 40,000 CFA on food, tea, and batteries to keep my radio blasting Akon all day.  I have no regrets.  There were dozens of people in and out of my compound all day, and everyone was happy to see Ñankatan.  I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have (I never do!) but here are some.  I also took a ton of video of people dancing, but my computer doesn't have any video editing software, so you'll have to wait for that.
Asu and Kadiatou with a cauldron of rice
Kim peelin' onions

Rice, oil, beans, and veggies!  This was probably the most delicious thing I've eaten in Senegal.

My delightful sitemate Kim gifted the baby a lovely sachet of powdered milk.
After Nankatan wiggled out of his collar and had it reattached several times, he ran off to hide it in some tall grass.  Smart dog.
Alpha has a heart of gold.
Mariama wore a new dress to the party
 Screen shots of the dancers, until I find a way to get video up:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tabaski and a new puppy!

This is going to be a pretty short post because I have this waiting for me at home.

World, meet Nankatan.  Nankatan, meet world.
He's very small and doesn't have much of a personality yet, but makes up for it by being breathtakingly adorable.  He likes sleeping, eating, and urinating.  Sometimes he does two of the three at the same time, but hasn't achieved the trifecta yet.  He dislikes being alone, which isn't a problem during the day, but nights are a stuggle.  This momma is ready for her baby to start sleeping through the night.

Falling asleep while eating

In other news, last Sunday was Tabaski, the biggest holiday of the Muslim year.  It celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son to god.  God liked that blind devotion, so he substituted a ram for the kid at the last minute.  Now, it's celebrated throughout the muslim world by ceremonially killing a ram, then eating it.  

Remember learning about  American Indians using every part of the buffalo?  They've got nothing on the Pulaars.  This is literally all that was left over.  Everything else was eaten.  So many intestines in my dinner bowl!
A villager set up a meat cart so villagers that couldn't afford a whole ram could still buy a few kilos.  You know you've been an unintentional vegan for too long when this sight makes your mouth water...

Part of the holiday's tradition is that a portion of each family's sheep is supposed to be given away.  Since almost everyone had a sheep, there was a really comical hour where villagers were sending bowls of meat to neighbors, while meanwhile recieving bowls of meat from other neighbors.  I think everyone ended up with roughly the same quantity of meat they started with...regifting at its finest.

Grilling and eating corn

Fierce Gaga-ish heels, sported by the mother of my bastard Tokara

Cute kids
You're never too young for your first weave.
I gave my three favorite tweens makeovers, which made all other tweens in the village shoot me death glares.
Bright fabrics, bold prints, sparkles, beads, and ruffles ahoy.
That's it for now!  I'm gonna go home and play with my dog.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Weighin' and feedin' babies in Teyel

Every month, Abdoulaye, my ASC (community health worker) and a few relais (volunteers from the community) weigh babies at the health hut in my village.  During my first four months in Teyel, I missed these weighings.  Either Abdoulaye didn’t tell me, or he tried to, but the language barrier was still too high, or I was out of town.  As I was eating a bean sandwich the morning of the 20th, Abdoulaye sat next to me and asked if I was coming to the health hut because today they were going to weigh babies.  “Tuma fuddi?!” I asked excitedly.  When does it start?  “Boyanni,” he answered.  Not long.  This was not specific enough for my still-not-integrated internal clock.  “Neuf heure? Onze heure?  Apres bottari?” (9:00?  11:00?  After lunch?).  Abdoulaye laughed.  “Boyanni,” he answered.  Not long.  It rarely gets more specific than that here.

I excitedly went home and changed into my best Senegalese dress (the one with the oscillating fan and lion print) while reviewing useful vocabulary and verb conjugations in my head.  I proudly explained to my family where I was going – they seemed as happy about my newfound productivity as I felt - and went to the health hut. 

No one was there.

I sat and waited for about twenty minutes, thankful that I never go anywhere without a book.

No one came.

I heard someone call my name.  “Kadiatou!  Ar!” (Kadiatou!  Come!)  It was Aliou, one of the relais.  I walked up to him. 
A weetori hande!” You are late waking up today!
Alaa.  Mi fini bimbi law. Mino fadi peesugol boobooji.” No.  I woke up early.  I am waiting for the baby weighing.
 “Arga.” Come here.

We walked together to Abdoulaye’s house, where the scale had been set up.  Abdoulaye explained that at the health hut, there was no shade, so they would weigh at his house instead.  I asked if the women in the community knew the weighing would be there instead of the health hut.  He looked confused, then said yes, they knew.  I asked if all the women knew the event would be happening today – after all, I had just found out about 10 minutes before.  He looked confused again, and repeated that yes, the women knew.  Sure enough, the babies started to come, most carried by their older siblings, since the mothers were still busy cooking breakfast, doing laundry, pounding millet, sweeping the compound, and the dozens of other chores they do every day.  I suppose village word of mouth is as good a way to organize an event as any.

We put the babies in the hanging scale
They loved it, clearly
We consulted a dog-eared growth chart to see if the babies were “green” “yellow” or “red,” depending on degree of malnutrition.  When I first got to Teyel four months ago, I had looked through data at the health post and noticed that Teyel had very low rates of malnutrition, and decided that it wasn’t something worth focusing my time on here.  However, I had failed to take seasonal fluctuations into account.  There was indeed very little hunger in Teyel during the period I was looking at, dry season, but right now is hungry season.  Last years’ crops are finished and this years’ aren’t ready yet.  No one has enough to eat.  This is unfortunate for everybody, but no one’s hurt worse than the babies.  Of the dozens of babies we weighed that day and throughout the weekend, eleven were found to be “yellow” – moderately malnourished – though thankfully none were “red.”

I asked Abdoulaye what he would do next with the malnourished kids.  He said that if the kids were “red,” they were referred to the district health post immediately, but if they’re yellow, they’re just monitored over the coming months.  He said that sometimes, WorldVision or USAID sponsors a mass feeding program, but that none were going on currently.  I considered this carefully.  I am extremely opposed to handouts, since I think they foster dependence and feelings of inadequacy in those they are supposed to be “helping.”  On the other hand…these were babies we were talking about.  And they were hungry.  Their little brains were not getting the nutrition they needed to develop properly.  They cannot wait and develop cognitive skills later, when food supplies are better – they are victims of their own biology.  How could I stand by and do nothing? 

I thought about it overnight, and the next day I approached Abdoulaye and Aliou with my plan.  Over the course of the next week or so, I would go to the houses of each “yellow” baby. I would do a small lesson on child nutrition with anyone in the compound at the time – parents, older siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  I would give a small sample of ceremine (a nutritious porridge) to the mother, then show her how to prepare it and watch her as she fed it to her child (to ensure it didn’t end up in the mouth of a bullying older sibling instead.)  I would give the mother the option of purchasing more ceremine from me at a slightly subsidized rate (150 CFA/bag instead of 200 CFA), but she would only get the one free sample.  Best case scenario:  The mother uses her newfound nutrition knowledge to feed her child more balanced meals and the child reaches a healthy weight.  Worst case scenario: the mother’s delighted that she scammed a free meal out of that weird toubab girl, but does not change feeding habits in any way and the child stays malnourished.  Even in the worst case scenario, the baby got one nutritious meal that they otherwise would not have had access to.

Aliou and Abdoulaye were on board with the idea, and Aliou offered to come with me for language help as I conducted the nutrition lessons.  Luckily, Peace Corps promotes an absurdly easy nutrition lesson called “the complet model,” so I was pretty sure I’d be able to get my point across with my still-terrible Pulaar.  
Complet model: Draw a woman in a 3-piece outfit in the sand.  The headscarf is foods that help her skin and hair stay beautiful - fruits and vegetables.  The shirt is foods that give her muscles to pound grain- meat, beans, fish.  The skirt is foods that give her energy to walk - corn, rice, millet.  Just as you need a skirt, shirt, AND headscarf before leaving the house, you also need all three components in a healthy meal.
We’ve gone to four houses so far, and the response has been positive.  All the babies ate their porridge, and one woman bought a bag.  
Baby Adama Hawa (the only kid I've met here with two first names) lovin' some ceremine.
Even if the women don’t buy the ceremine, they are still (hopefully) learning something from the nutrition talk.  After the discussion, I had one woman tell me, alarmed, that her baby had eaten only rice and okra sauce for dinner – “Wutee alaa!” No shirt!  I told her if the baby ate other “shirt” foods from the complet model during the day, it could still have good balanced nutrition.

That's all for this week!  Talk to you all later.