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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Money in Village

Although I am a volunteer, I am given a monthly living allowance by the Peace Corps.  The amount of my mandat is supposed to be enough money to live comfortably at the same level of the villagers around me.  Each month, I receive 150,000 CFA.  This is the equivalent of about 300 US dollars.  In village, however, the CFA to USD conversion is not the same at all.

In village, I found it’s more useful to imagine prices in Village Currency (which I’ll call VC, because acronyms are useful, and my first choice, Village Dollars, has an acronym already in use for something far less fun).  In my VC system, every CFA is worth a penny.  My daily bean sandwich is 300 CFA, which I imagine to be about three dollars (it would only be 200 CFA, but I spring for extra mayonnaise.  YOLO!).  A new pair of flip flops is 500 CFA – one dollar using the traditional CFA to USD conversion, but actually five dollars in VC.

After converting prices into VC, I pretend that I’m once again the poorest I’ve been in my life, which was my last semester of grad school, which I refer to as my “broke-ass bitch” days.  I was poor enough that I walked over a mile through blizzards to and from school each day because I couldn’t afford gas.  Poor enough that my debit card was declined on a $2.80 purchase.  Poor enough that my grocery shopping for the week was a bag of store brand white rice – and before buying it, I’d check out the price per ounce of every rice on the shelf to make sure that it was really the cheapest option.  I would go to thesis defenses of topics I wasn’t even interested in, just for the concessions, and sneak crackers into my jacket pockets for later.  (Note: Even at my poorest, I was nowhere near the poverty that the villagers here in Senegal are at.  I’m not claiming that I was.  Stick with me here.)

The VC system helps me keep money in perspective.  Yes, a pair of flip flops at a Teyel boutique is only 500 CFA, but when you’re as poor as I was, as poor as almost everyone here is, that $5 could go a lot of other places, and spending it is painful.

While I was in Thies for training, I paid my 12-year-old sister, Medo, to take care of my garden.  I told her I’d give her 100 CFA a day, and I’d be gone 23 days.  Her eyes grew wide.  She had probably never been in possession of that much money.  I gave her half before I left, as an advance, and gave her the other half after I got home.  Five minutes after I gave her the second installment, she returned to my hut, tears streaming down her face.  “I must give you back your money,” she said, holding out the coins.  “No,” I insisted. “That’s yours.  You worked very much.”  (In actuality, she had been overzealous in weeding and pulled up all the cabbages and peas, but it’s the thought that counts).   “It is too much,” she said. “You forget, you gave me money before you left.”  I insisted twice more, and she finally accepted my words, smiled, and left, thanking me profusely.  I had given Medo $4.60, less than minimum wage in America, for a month of labor, for dozens of buckets of water hauled up from the well, for hours of work keeping the tenacious jungle weeds at bay using only a hand hoe.  And it was still too much.  In VC, I had given her $23 – too much money for a mere child.  That could have bought enough rice to feed the whole family for at least a few days. (Sidenote: Medo used the money to buy flour, sugar, oil, and yeast to make beignets [donuts] to sell at a football game the next day to further her income.)
This girl is going places, and I love her dearly.
My teen nephew, Bubacar, works in the family's fields with all the other men, but he also has a cotton field that's his and his alone.  He spent hours planting it, and will spend hours more weeding and harvesting it.  He confided in me, whispering, that he can earn up to 40,000 CFA when he sells the cotton.  No teen boy in America would work all summer for eighty US dollars, but that's four hundred village dollars, and that is worth all the work.

It’s when prices increase that the VC system is the most useful.  For example, at the western goods store in Thies, I seriously considered buying a baggie of dog treats for the miserably scrawny family dog who needs all the love he can get.  The dog treats were 2000 CFA – four dollars.  A pittance.  Then I applied VC.  The dog treats were twenty dollars.  No broke-ass bitch would spend twenty dollars on dog treats. If I would have bought them, my family would have been disgusted by me.  It would have been like the way normal people react when celebrities buy diamond collars for their cats.  There were many products at the western goods store that used to be familiar to me.  A tube of pringles was 1500 CFA ($3).  A snickers bar was 1000 CFA ($2).  A chocolate and caramel swirl waffle cone was 2500 CFA ($5).  All of these costs sound reasonable, considering they’re imported, until you convert them into VC.  It’s madness to spend $25 on an ice cream cone. (At least it is now.  Maybe after a few more months in the Sehel it’ll seem sensible.)

The VC system helped me humanize the annoying demands for money, clothes, etc. I’ve been bothered by since I got here.  When I was a broke-ass bitch, I had truly amazing friends and roommates that helped me out when I needed it most.  When I needed a dress for a wedding, my roommate let me borrow one of hers.  When I couldn’t pay for my share of gas on a carpool home for thanksgiving, my companion paid it all and told me not to worry.  Not to mention the dozens of beers that I owe everyone who wouldn’t accept “I don’t have any money” as an excuse to skip the bar.  When I needed money, and my friends had money, they helped me out, and I was grateful.  That was that.  Why should it be any different with my new Senegalese friends?  Their requests for stuff are more forceful than what I’m used to, but that might be because of my terrible Pulaar comprehension skills, or it might just be the culture.  I do have money here, and they don’t, and they know it.  Why shouldn’t I help them out with little favors from time to time? Nothing big, just a token of appreciation and friendship.  It’s still really irritating to be assaulted with the gimme gimmes every time I leave the door, but this frame of mind helps me deal with it, at least from people that are otherwise nice to me.

As I think of possible projects I might start here, money must always be considered.  Broke-ass bitches are not going to adopt a new behavior if it’s expensive or risky, and a large part of development work is contingent on getting people to change their behaviors.  Having so little money is like walking on a tightrope, always aware of your actions, always trepidatious, avoiding the fall, cautious to the extreme.  Any project I start needs to be very cheap and easy to maintain, or no one will maintain it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sokone Mangrove Reforestation

I finished in-service training last week, but decided to postpone my return to Teyel for a few days to help with a mangrove reforestation event in a town called Sokone.  There aren’t too many mangroves in Minnesota, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than that the area had a reputation for being one of the most beautiful in Senegal.
Did not disappoint.

Mangroves are important for many reasons – they stop soil erosion and are therefore important to combat the desertification that threatens most of Senegal, they protect shorelines, they're a carbon sink to help fight global warming, and they're prime animal habitat.

In many areas of Senegal, mangrove forests have been cut down to a fraction of their historical sizes.  Reforestation efforts are important because mangroves have the reproductive strategy of many trees – they produce thousands of seeds (or propagules, in this case), and very few propagules find an appropriate place to grow.  By collecting, preparing, and planting the mangrove propagules, we increase the probability that trees will grow.  Unfortunately, even after preparing the propagules, spacing them properly, and planting them with our best care, their growth isn’t a sure thing.  I’ve heard that mangrove reforestations have a 10-50% success rate, though sometimes it's as high as 70%.  We planted thousands of propagules, expecting that most of them would fail, but some would succeed.   Insert metaphor for Peace Corps.  Heh...

Reforestation was really easy, especially because there were so many people helping.  At low tide, the team went out into the warm, salty, waist-deep water of the mud flats to pull propagules off mature mangrove trees.

Each propagule looked like a thick green bean and was about 4-12 inches long.

We prepared the propagules by pulling off the little bulbs on the tops of them, throwing away any that were off-colored or broken.

Then we stuck the propagules in the mud, trying to keep roughly 1-meter spacing.  No pictures of that because it started to rain and I feared for my camera, but I think you can imagine it.  Here is the aftermath:
Field of Dreams.

Then we went swimming, drank beer, and danced to pop music from 2013 because none of us had anything newer than that on our iPods. 


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Work Project Ideas

I’m now officially done with In-Service Training, which means I am a 100% competent, educated, professional Peace Corps representative, completely prepared to swoop in on Teyel and singlehandedly solve poverty.


In actuality, I feel anxious, excited, and unprepared.  I’m totally satisfied with the training Peace Corps has given me so far.  I’ve learned a lot and I truly believe that I can implement some of my new knowledge and skills to positively impact lives in my community.  I have a million ideas for projects I want to try and am looking forward to returning to my community and getting started.

Peace Corps advises against doing too many projects too soon.  We’re supposed to take things slow to avoid burning ourselves out or spreading ourselves too thin.  With that in mind, the ridiculous length of the list below might look crazy.  Keep in mind that my list of ideas is just that: ideas.  I thought it’d be good for my own sake to make a list now to organize my thoughts, so months from now when my creativity is gasi and I don't remember training anymore I can look back on it. 

If anyone reading this has opinions on these ideas, either positive or negative, please let me know.  My next two years are a clean slate and I’d love any inputs.

At the health hut:

1.  Get a well for the health hut (if there is enough motivation for the community buy-in, which there wasn't when my ancien tried this), and plant some medicinal/ornamental plants and trees there for beautification and improved functionality
2.  Improve medicine supply at hut and/or post.  This would probably be the hardest thing I would ever do, and its chances of happening are close to zero.  The medicine supply chain's lack of functionality is a nation-wide issue, and I'm just an awkwardly tall white girl with bad Pulaar.  But hey, big dreams lead to big accomplishments.
3.  Implement a hearth program for babies that my health hut's growth monitoring programs have shown are "in the yellow", meaning they need supplemental food interventions. If the next scheduled growth monitoring session shows there's a need for this it can also be done in Dinguera, Koulinnto, Biaro, or other neighboring villages.

At the schools:

4.   Ask women who live near the elementary school to take care of the school garden my ancien built in exchange for part of the harvest.  When the principal of the elementary school comes back from vacation, I can ask him to get the kids to donate money to purchase seeds.
5.    Continue working with MSS scholars in biweekly meetings.  Have discussions or trainings on self-esteem and self-image.  Support the MSS girls in their studies and encourage them to mentor other young women. 
6.    Continue English club for CEM students and do introductory English classes for adults (the odds that any adults will show up to a class are near zero, but I would like to at least offer the option, since that's something many people ask me to help them with)
7.    Work with my ASC to do after-school program on basic first aid.  One of the elementary school teachers recommended this.  He has seen kids fall down at recess, get a bloody wound, then rub dirt in it to staunch the bleeding.  Simply teaching people to wash wounds with soap and clean water could prevent many infections.
8.    Implement the grassroots soccer malaria curriculum in Teyel and possibly in surrounding villages once school starts in October
9.   Do a pen pal program between kids at my local elementary school and French-speaking elementary students at the Pierre Bottineau French Immersion School in Minneapolis. I emailed Pierre Bottineau but haven't heard back yet.

Around the community:

10.  If my language skills are good enough, I'd like to conduct a baseline sanitation/handwashing survey.  My ancien said she did a survey when she first got to site so I will use the findings of her survey plus follow-up questions from my own to determine areas of focus.
11.  Collaborate on the Velingara work zone’s radio shows (if I feel my language is good enough).
12.   Work in community garden when they start planting (in January or February) to encourage sustainable cultivation and pest management techniques.
13.   Invite an agroforestry volunteer to add trees to the community garden (for alley cropping and live fencing)
14.   Work with the village baker (Tidiane Balde) to process and add moringa powder to bread loaves.  This was his idea - he wants to call it Mburu Dolee (power bread).  If there is a good response to it, I can ask a nearby CED volunteer to help him design a business plan.

In nearby villages:

15.  Implement PECADOM+ in Teyel and surrounding villages (next fall, if it spreads to Kolda by then).  PECADOM+ is a new program the everyone at PC Senegal is really excited about.  They have PCVs and volunteers from the Senegalese health care system with backpacks full of malaria test kids and medicine go to every compound in the village, testing and supplying treatment for everyone that has a fever.  It eliminates the transportation barrier that sometimes prevents sick people from seeking care.
16. If there is a need in Teyel or in surrounding villages, I could do a vaccination program with an NGO. Many understand that vaccinations are important, but there are transportation and cost barriers preventing some from getting them.  Vaccinations are easy programs to do because you literally just swoop in, give shots, and leave.  There is no behavior change component required.


17.  Sex ed tourney with Tasha and Coco (December).  Two senior health volunteers are planning a tourney around several volunteer sites in Kolda.  The idea is to educate middle school boys and girls about what puberty is and how they can avoid pregnancy, since this is something that is usually not taught at school or at home.
18.  Malaria tourney with Kim (late October).  A senior health volunteer in Kolda wants to go on a tourney of volunteer sites and pair a mosquito net repair and care event with an educational component on malaria and on-site malaria testing and treatment at the local health structure
19.   Latrine project with Steph M (unknown – during cold season).  In a neighboring village, most people poop in the woods.  We want to encourage them to poop in latrines instead.  Steph's handling the budget and grantwriting portion of the project and I'm handling the educational component (ie, helping people make handwashing stations, doing handwashing activities, encouraging latrine use).

Personal projects:

20.   Expand personal garden, experiment with hydroponically growing mint using found materials
21.   Study/experiment with the efficacy of neem cream/oils/candles as mosquito repellent.  Peace Corps used to promote the use of neem cream but doesn't anymore because no studies have shown it to be effective, and sometimes people would use it instead of sleeping under their nets (which HAS been shown to be effective) but it is a natural repellent, and if it works, I'd like to use it personally.
22.   Train for and run the Tambacounda Half Marathon for Girls Education (race day is December 7th)

That's it!  What do you think?           

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Work projects, Ebola, and other fun things

I've gotten asked the same two questions quite a few times in the past few days, so I thought it might be helpful to answer them here.

1.  So, uh…what’s your job, exactly?
2.  So, uh…what’s the Ebola situation?

1. I realize that when one reads the blog, it sounds like I’m just gallivanting around my village, meeting people, Ramadanning, and practicing speaking Fulakunda.  There’s a good reason for this: it’s because that’s literally all I’ve done so far.  To be fair, that’s all that’s been expected of me­­. Peace Corps euphemistically calls this stage of the Peace Corps process “Community Integration.”  I realize that I can’t work with anyone if I can’t communicate with them, and that trust takes time to develop, but it’s still hard for me to feel good about the “hard work” I’m doing by sitting on my butt drinking tea all day.  I feel like I’m wasting my time and American taxpayers’ money…and I'm a painfully slow learner who usually doesn't understand what's going on anyway.

I don’t know yet what my job in the community will turn out to be, but hopefully I’ll get some kind of an idea within the next two weeks.  I’m back at the Theis training center during this time with the rest of my training group, developing an action plan for my next (almost) two years.

There is a strict, firmly established framework for health volunteers in Senegal, and our activities need to be reported into a centralized database according to that framework.  Their rationale is that each of our small inputs into our communities are like pebbles thrown into a lake – if it’s just us, individual pebbles, scattered in many different areas, it’s not likely the ripples will be noticeable.  However, if everyone throws their pebbles in the same area, we’re more likely to have real, noticeable, country-wide effects.  For that reason, we have very precise expectations.  For example, if I want to work with malaria, there are a dozen or so benchmarks I can work towards, all of which must be quantified and entered into the database.  It’s not enough to say “I had some conversations about why to get treated if you feel sick” – instead, I need to quantify the “number of individuals who reported fever in the last two weeks who received antimalarial treatment in accordance with the national policy AND within one day of the onset of fever.” 

That said, there is still some room for individuality.  My primary projects will be focused on quantifiable benchmarks, but I’m free to do secondary projects that don’t necessarily align with the national objectives.  The important thing is that I choose projects that not only interest me enough to devote the next two years of my life to, but that also interest my community and the national government of Senegal so they can continue after I go home.

2.  Anyone in America with access to good internet knows more about Ebola than I do.  Most of the time, I’m in a village with no running water or electricity, so I’ve not kept up with the rising death tolls on the CNN news reel.  From what I hear, though, Ebola is getting to be a big deal. Peace Corps volunteers in three neighboring countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea) have been evacuated.

Ebola does scare me quite a bit, but not for the reasons you’d expect.  I do not think I will catch Ebola, and I don’t think anyone in my community will, either.  However, I do think that America may evacuate me if it continues to spread, and that’s what I’m scared of.  I’ve been in Senegal for six months now, and I have nothing to show for my time but limited proficiency in Fulakunda Pulaar and acquaintanceships with millet farmers. The last six months were spent creating a scaffolding that is essential to build a successful service on, but the scaffolding will be useless if it stands alone, if I go home instead of building on it.  Subsistence farmers don’t make good contacts on LinkedIn, and Fulakunda isn’t a language option on the drop down menus of job applications.
I know the situation is out of my hands and there is nothing I can do, so I’m trying not to worry.  Whatever happens I’ll just have to deal with life as it comes and enjoy every day the best I can.

I’ll write again once I develop my Action Plan!  Hope everyone’s doing well.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hunger Games: Ramadan 2014, week four

Ramadan came in like a lion and out like a lamb.  I came back from my meetings in Kolda ready to buckle down and fast like a champ for the last week of Ramadan, but I quickly found that others in my village had lost interest in it while I was gone.  The last week, I wasn’t asked if I was fasting as frequently as I’d come to expect, and when I asked the question to others, I was answered with a shrug and a smile instead of a determined “Yes.”

I biked to Velingara (a city 15K from me) during the last week of Ramadan and brought back dates, pineapple juice, and crackers as a gift for my family.  I got home at 5pm, well before sunset, and presented my father with the gifts.  He immediately opened the packages and began to pass them around.  “No one is fasting today?” I asked in Pulaar.  He put another date in his mouth, shrugged, and smiled.  Well, come on.  If the Muslims weren’t fasting, the foreigner shouldn’t be, either.  I took a cracker with no guilt.

A few days later, I had the last meeting of my English Club (which has dwindled to three very smart enthusiastic dedicated 15 year old boys I adore) before I left for PST2.  My ancienne (the volunteer who was serving in Teyel before me) had left me a stack of flash cards.  There’s English on one side and a picture on the other.  Most of the cards work well here (lizard, bird, cat) but there are some ill-fitted to Senegal (xylophone, rocking horse, yoyo).  Since “strawberry” and “jam” are two words they had learned through the cards but didn’t understand, I bought a jar a strawberry jam from the western goods store in Kolda and brought it and some bread to our meeting. We meet from four to six, so I also brought with small plastic bags so they could bring the jam bread home and eat it as they broke fast.  All three of the boys ate the bread and jam punctually at four while listening to the one Akon song everyone in this town knows by heart.  I joined in the party - if the Muslims weren’t fasting, the foreigner shouldn’t be, either.

Ah, well.

All told, I fasted for all but the three days in Kolda, and the two days I biked too far when it was too hot and felt like it would be a good idea to drink water, and the two days mentioned above.  Not bad for a first Ramadan!

When I woke up on my first non-Ramadan morning, I happily grabbed my running shoes and trotted through the woods for almost an hour, delighted to find that my month of near-total inactivity had not impacted my running endurance.  When I got back, my family was confused and upset.  “No!  It is Korite,” they explained in Pulaar.  “You are so tired from Ramadan!  Today and tomorrow, you must rest and eat.  Do not work today.  Do not work tomorrow.  Rest and eat only.” 

Because it's so exhausting doing nothing but napping every day for the last month?

Maybe this culture will make sense to me some day.

Between breakfast and lunch everyone went to the mosque for a big public prayer.  I’d never been to the mosque before (I wasn’t sure if it was taboo since I’m not a muslim) but my mom said I should come with to the Korite prayer, since literally everyone in the village would be there.  I wore a loose floor-length sleeved muumuu dress and a head scarf that my mom kept adjusting as it drooped, which made the cramped hot air of the mosque extra uncomfortable.  I had wanted to stand anonymously in the back, but since I’m the foreigner, I got a place of honor in the women’s section – front row center – although since the women’s section is behind the men’s and boy’s section I still couldn’t see what was going on.  The prayers were in Pulaar instead of Arabic, so I could understand a little.  I went along with the prayer movements (bowing, putting my head to the ground, standing, lifting my arms) hoping that I wasn’t offending anybody.  Where I’m from, a non-Catholic taking a host at mass is very taboo – hopefully a non-Muslim participating in an Islamic mass is not the same.  And if it is the same and I did offend people I hope they can write it off as me not knowing what the heck was going on.  I’m an idiot here, but at least I’m a kindhearted idiot who means well.

The village killed a cow for Korite, so most people bought and cooked meat, which is an extreme rarity here.  Don’t get too jealous of my good fortune, though – at my house, the “meat” was skin and organ (I think it was small intestine, because it had a fuzzy texture, which I think was cilia because on the Magic School Bus where they went inside Arnold his intestine looked like that) so I didn’t have the bravery to eat more than a couple small polite bites, swallowed like pills before I could taste it.

Besides the extra prayers, everything went back to normal seamlessly.  People have more energy, everyone’s nicer, and there are occasional naming ceremonies or weddings to look forward to again.  

Will I do it again?  Probably not.  I’m glad I did it, but hopefully by next year at this time I’ll be busy with projects and won’t be able to spend the whole month hangry.  I think most people in my community appreciated the effort, so there are no regrets.