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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 √Ďankatan 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 √Ďankatan 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.