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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.