Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ode to a Bucket

Ode to a Bucket
(aka. the most amazingly versatile piece of furniture ever invented)

Oh Bucket,
You are not just an empty container with which to carry and hold water
You are so many things:
A chair to offer guests a place to sit
A desk on which to work on my computer
A kitchen counter on which to prepare my breakfast
A footbath to soak my dirty callused feet
A varying dumbell to lift so that my muscles do not atrophy
A stepping stool to reach those high up spider webs
A trunk to hold my ever-expanding wardrobe
A kitchen cabinet to keep my treasured food sealed off from mice and lizards
A washing machine in which to scrub the dirt off my clothes
A door stop to keep my screen door shut
Oh Bucket,
How will I ever thank you for all you do for me?

Work and first health class

I taught my very first health class today!

It was a 2-hour class at the junior high for 50 teenagers, in the elective health class called “EcoFam.” The class covers all health related things for economy/family/society. They learn about STIs, Family Planning, pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, reproductive systems, you name it. It’s all the same stuff we learn in our health classes pretty much. My class was on the diagnostics of pregnancy and the importance of diagnosing pregnancy early on, to ensure the health of the mother and the baby. So in French, for two hours, I rattled on about the primary and secondary signs of pregnancy, the different tests we can do confirm a pregnancy, how to estimate the birthdates, and of course the importance of early testing.

If it makes you nervous and anxious just thinking about teaching a technical health class, in a foreign language, in front of an audience of 50 hormonal teenagers, then just imagine how nervous I was. But I did it! And you know what? It wasn’t all that bad. Most importantly, now I know that I CAN do it, and I enjoyed myself to boot. I made them laugh, I got the information across, and they were actively participating. Now I’ve never in my life taught a proper class, on anything really, except to 4-year-old Peruvian kids about nutrition, so this was definitely a massive plunge. I think that they enjoyed it. Granted I stumbled through some of the pronunciation, and had to double-check my spelling and accent placement on the board a few times, but they all understood. Funny enough, I think that when they did have problems understanding me, it wasn’t because my pronunciation was wrong necessarily, but because my France-French accent and the Senegalese-French accent are very different. The teacher, Mr. Tall, sat and watched the whole thing and nodded his approval throughout and laughed along with us. At the end he congratulated the class in front of me, explaining to them how brave I was to teach in a foreign language, and that they should remember to use me as a resource for health class, or English class, or just for cultural exchange, and not to let my time here go to waste. I was so honored. I received thunderous applause, and lots of nods of approval. Afterwards he and I had a meeting and he told me that he thought it went even better than he had anticipated, and of course the areas in which I need to improve, and he invited me to continue to collaborate with him on classes about STIs, HIV, pregnancy, nutrition etc. for the rest of the school year!

It’s a bit redundant to be teaching a class that already exists and runs well, and ultimately sustains itself, but he sought me out to collaborate with. He teaches all of the EcoFam classes in town as well as runs the library so is an incredibly busy man. If anything, I am satisfied with the idea that I am exposing him and the students to different ways of learning, and teaching. I also noticed that during my class today (possibly because of the subject matter) that the girls were much more participative this week than they had been last week in his class. For the sake of my ego, I’m going to tell myself that it was because they felt more comfortable speaking with a woman. After all, when I was in school I remember them separating boys and girls to learn about this kind of stuff. I definitely saw some snickers (though surprisingly few) when I had to explain to them what a speculum is, and how a gynecological exam is performed. But Mr. Tall doesn’t even shake women’s hands (strict follower of a specific sect of Islam I think). I can’t imagine trying to approach a man who won’t even shake my hand and asking him my most private and embarrassing questions on sex, health, and menstruation. No way.

Ultimately I’m hoping that this class will be a jumping off point for teaching at the other schools. In fact it already looks to be. I stopped by the mayor’s office on my way back from the class and the mayor (who is also the headmaster of the private school) invited me to teach at his school occasionally (in collaboration with the same teacher) and also to perhaps plan health-related events like a health club, or AIDS or Malaria Awareness days. Once word spreads that I am teaching these classes, I hope that the elementary schools, and the pre-school will take notice and invite me there as well. They have a much less dynamic health curriculum and I’ve noticed that a lot of their students could really use some clearer health information delivered in a much more dynamic way, rather than just through hours of the dreaded “Dictée.” And although I am not a teacher myself, I think that the teachers could benefit from seeing some alternative learning tools.

Soon I’m scheduled to start “guest starring” in some of the English classes so that the students can hear a native speaker. One of them even wants me to teach a class on AIDS in English as a sort of listening comprehension test. I’m already helping to run the weekly English club with another teacher, so my involvement at the junior high has literally exploded in the two weeks since I got back from Thanksgiving. One of the previous volunteers in Kanel worked closely with the English club and consequently, several of those students went on to University as English majors! I guess you just never know who you might be inspiring and motivating.

I’m also organizing a hugely formal meeting at the mayor’s office with all of the presidents of Kanel’s community associations. The mayor has graciously agreed to let me use the conference room free of charge and I’m going to send out a formal letter of invitation to all 40 Presidents so that they can all come together and I can let them know that my Pulaar is better, give them a better idea of what my work is, and that I am available and eager to work with them.

My New Mother’s group is continuing smoothly. At our last meeting all but one of them showed up (11 in all). I talked to them about the Oral Fecal Cycle and germs and how they are transmitted and the importance of thorough hand washing with soap. They seemed surprised at the news that soap was the only way to kill germs (though I know they’ve heard that information before). They were interested, participative, and eager to plan the next meeting. For the lesson, I drew a bunch of silly drawings of children pooping, not washing their hands, and then greeting their friends, and then both of them having diarrhea. They got a lot of laughs, but also got the point across. I also showed them another comic strip of germ transmission in my health book, which they seem to take very seriously because they know it’s an “official” lesson, and not just my pathetic sketches. It feels wonderful to be able to teach a group of women who have never been to school, are totally illiterate and have absolutely no other place to learn.

(When I was preparing for that meeting though, I couldn’t help but sigh to myself and think “Gee I’m glad I have a master’s degree…it comes so in handy when I’m drawing stick figures of children pooping.”)

Sometimes I think to myself that what Peace Corps really needs is an army of art teachers instead of college grads and professionals. Because most of the information I give out is so simple: “Wash your hands with soap,” “Eat a variety of foods,” “Sleep under a mosquito net…all year round” etc. The thing is that yeah, it’s simple, but when I’m told that we could reduce global child deaths by 43% just by getting people to wash their hands…I am always re-inspired to continue my monotonous mantra.

Also, some very exciting news from home. A teacher and her class from PA have taken an interest in my New Mother’s Group and have not only held a bake sale to raise funds, but asked local stores, and advertised on their local television station asking for donations of products (lotions, creams, vitamins, clothing) for my mothers’ children. It’s funny how my notion of what is “sustainable” has changed as I live and work here. I know that technically, unless this class continues to do this, that it is not by definition “sustainable.” But I think that this project of theirs will certainly make a lasting impression on the students. Who knows? Maybe one of them will join the Peace Corps someday? And of course it means the world to my new moms and their children will certainly benefit.

I have had trouble getting my girls’ group up and running. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things that are universal, and one of them is that teenage girls are difficult to organize. (Duh right?) They tend to talk a lot about the kinds of club meetings they want to have and the things they want to learn and accomplish, but when it comes down to getting them to commit to a date and actually (gasp) attend the meetings they beg me for…its pretty hopeless. But no matter, I’d much rather focus my attention on people who will follow through. One of the things I’ve learned over the past 7 months at site is that it just isn’t worth trying to motivate uninterested individuals. My energy is much more efficiently spent on people who already want my participation and are willing to commit to it.

I am also beginning to take over our bi-monthly health radio show (in Pulaar!) from the soon to leave volunteers. Myself and the other newest health volunteers in the region are now going to have to start writing the scripts and make the bi-monthly treks to the regional capital to deliver health messages and American music across the airwaves. Pretty cool huh? I’ll be like a Senegalese Pulaar B-list celebrity…sort of.

So there you have it. That is the work that has been taking up most of my time these days. I know it doesn’t sound like very much, but you’d be amazed at how long all of the planning, coordinating, greeting, and meeting take. It’s possible that I am also going to start to hold weekly health talks at the health post, but thus far I have not been able to have a sit down meeting with the interested mid-wife. I have more projects brewing in the back of my mind, and am hoping that the big meeting I’m holding in January with the community organizations will introduce me to new partners and open some doors.

For now though, I’m pretty proud of my very first health class and am pleased with the progress of my work.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

My Yaaye

Having lived in Kanel for almost seven months now, with my family, I have grown so incredibly attached to them, that if I let my mind wander and think of the day when I have to leave this place, tears come to my eyes. Walking home one day, about a month ago, I literally started to cry thinking about how sad I will be to leave at the end of my service. I think that was the first time that I realized how attached I’ve become to them. Because they really are my family, for better or for worse. I know so many of their secrets, their laughs, their annoying habits, their various tones of voices, and all the other intricacies you grow up knowing inherently about your family.

I haven’t written much about them for awhile so I thought it would be a good time to write a lengthy update about my family Lam. This week I’m going to start off with my Yaaye (mom) because I have the most to say about her and it should make for a long and inspiring entry. Maybe I’m feeling exceptionally maternal today because I’m reading The Red Tent, but lately I feel closer to my Yaaye than to anyone else in the family.

She is wonderful. She just amazes me, day in and day out. She is so wise, and patient, and strong, and compassionate, and careful, and observant, and hilarious. I just love her (probably because she reminds me so much of my own mom). Some of my favorite moments at site have been the quiet nights sitting with her on a mat, away from the television, talking about whatever I can and listening to her hilarious stories. Because she does. She is always ready to tell a story, and by the end of it she’s bound to have the whole family rolling. Her stories don’t even have to be that funny. But the way she laughs in the middle of them, pausing to show her lack of two front teeth, always makes me giggle. Half the time I don’t even understand what she’s saying, though she almost always remembers to catch me up after she is done. (She knows exactly what to say to make me understand her.) She has a knack for dragging out her stories and everyone sits around her, captivated, giggling alongside her. She doesn’t tell folktales passed down from generation to generation. She just spontaneously recounts some event from the day or week or year before that came to her mind.

And I have no idea how old she is, maybe in her 60s? It’s hard to tell. I know she’s got to be exhausted, and sometimes she will admit that she is, but you’d never know it the way she works. She is always the first one awake, having breakfast with the little kids. Always the last one working at night, freezing water to sell as ice, or preparing haako for tomorrow’s dinner. No matter how wiped out she never refuses my little nephew’s attention. He is more attached to her than to his own mom, Binta. During Ramadan in 100 degree weather with no water or food, I would see her at 5 pm, still two hours from breaking the fast, the sun beating down on wiry frame, walk gracefully past my room with 4 foot long logs balanced on her head, her grandson strapped to her back.

She never went to school, never learned anything about modern medicine or nutrition and yet instinctively feeds her grandson a greater variety of foods than his mom does. Some of this is certainly a product of raising 8 children and knowing how to care for them, but I am always still in awe. Last night, with just one conversation about germs and me explaining to her that the only way to kill them is with soap, suddenly, today at lunch she and all the kids washed their hands with soap! A true breakthrough I should add. I do hope it continues and it was not just a coincidence.

And she is so accepting. Accepting of my differences, of other people. She acknowledges that my culture and her culture are different and that I don’t have to do everything that they do (like fast, pray, wear a headscarf, have a husband etc. Things that as you all have read are regularly told to me by other more “educated” individuals). She is so quick to see the good in people. The first time I told her that my parents adopted my siblings she went on and on praising them and what good people they were and that Allah would reward them in Paradise. When Chris came to visit, and gave her a bag of dried milk as a parting gift (something he was embarassed about at first because it was so little to him, but a big deal to them), she followed us into my room and told him that he was her son (grabbing her breast) and that he did not have to give her anything. That Allah had brought him to her and they were family. That he came all that way, across America and across Senegal just to visit them. She said that he was forever family and could stay with them always, and eat, and sleep and never have to give them anything.

There is so much more to say about her, so many moments I wish I could burn into my memory and tell to all of you.

Right now she just walked into my room and is looking over my shoulder at me typing this very entry! She has on her grand bubu with her headwrap and is sitting on my bed, perfectly content to observe my work. She can’t read or write a thing but just enjoys the quiet pleasure of my concentration. I love it when she periodically stops into my room just to have a chat. While explaing my computer to her, I mentioned to her that Faama, one of my nieces, wants to learn how to type, how to use a computer. I told Yaaye that she might take classes next summer at the school’s library.

Upon hearing this, my yaaye took a breath and launched into a story (which I’ll get to in a moment). I stopped writing and gave her my full attention, both so that I could better understand what she was saying and because I could tell by the sigh in her voice that something was weighing on her, that she needed to share this with me. That this wasn’t a story that would leave us both giggling.

Actually, her story left us both in tears. We sat together, just the two of us, in my tiny hut, my arms wrapped awkwardly around her, one behind her back and the other resting on her knee, not knowing how best to comfort her. I stayed quiet. We sat there, her on the bed, and me on the floor by her feet, my computer still in my lap, until the tears subsided. I eventually tried consoling her with my meager pulaar while she tried to stifle her sobs, and buried her face into the cloth of her bubu. She cried for maybe a minute in all, then quickly rose and splashed her face with water. I stood up, wiping my cheeks and fumbled for some kleenex. She mumbled to Allah a few times, graciously accepted a tissue and stepped out of the room, perfectly composed, leaving me in a tearful daze.

Throughout the whole thing, I couldn’t help but think that somehow, even while crying, she still looked so regal and poised, her neck perfectly straight, sitting with ease on my graceless bedframe. I noticed all of her wrinkles for the first time, and how worn she looked, yet still strikingly beautiful. You can tell that she was a true beauty in her youth. Though resilient, I know that life has been hard on her. She lost seven of her fifteen children either through miscarriage, at birth, or in infancy. She raised eight children to adulthood, one of whom passed away seven years ago, a father of three.

It was talking about this son that broke the dam. Yaaye’s story was about his daughter, my niece Faama, the one I had mentioned wanted to take computer class. I have actually been here to watch these events unfold, but hearing Yaaye recount them and seeing how deeply Faama’s actions have hurt Yaaye over the past several months was sobering. I realized how deeply important her family is to her. During her story, I couldn’t help but think of all of the grief my siblings and I put our parents through (especially as teenagers), and what a mild rebellion this was compared to all of ours over the years.

Faama is fifteen. The oldest of her three siblings. Her father (my Yaaye’s favorite son) died when she was eight. (It was her mention of him as her favorite among all the children that kept the tears flowing). His three kids moved in with Yaaye and Baabaa and their mom moved across town. The littlest one, Hapskaciel, never even knew her dad. BenOumar just barely remembers him, but Faama took it the worst. I had always thought this because I noticed that she is quick to beat up on the younger kids when they take her things without asking, or bug her just enough until she snaps.

So it turns out that their aunt, Nene, my counterpart and older sister (the one with the new baby named Diana, after my real mom), has paid for absolutely everything for them ever since her brother (their father) passed away. She never asks questions, she just gives and gives. She pays their school fees, and pushes her husbands (the first one passed away and now she is remarried) to give them money for clothes, and anything they need. Naturally, this summer, when Nene was extremely pregnant and weak and had no other women in the house to help her with the chores, she asked Faama to move in with them for a few months. Faama refused. Yaaye and Baabaa sat down with Faama and had her mother come and the three of them essentially forced her to go. So she spent her summer vacation working and doing all of the chores at Nene’s house during the day and coming back to our house at night. (Mind you, Nene’s house is pretty nice, with satellite TV, tons of kids around, two refrigerators, and a real shower.)
Towards the end of the pregnancy and in the first few weeks Faama did start spending the night there. But now that she is free of what was required of her, she has not even stopped by the house to greet. Yaaye, Baabaa and her own mother have sat her down and talked to her about being ungrateful and that she needs to appreciate what Nene has done for her and respect Yaaye and Baabaa, who have raised her. I actually came home from my visit with Chris the night that the third of these “interventions” was happening. Faama refused to talk throughout the whole thing, while they told her that she was ungrateful and needed to stop hitting the younger children and needed to respect and thank Nene for being so generous to her.
As Yaaye told all of this to me she said,
“I don’t know how it is for Toubaks, but for Muslims, for us, in our family, you must respect your family. I see you Binta, you work until you are exhausted, and you are far away from your family, in a different country, but you call your family, and you are happy and you laugh together. And you go and you greet Nene and her family every day. Why? Why do you do this?”
Dumbfounded, I muttered something like, “Because it’s my family. We’re the same blood. And here, you are my family.”
Yaaye wiped a tear from the corner of her eyes. She said, “I don’t know what to do. We’re done with her. We’ve given up on her. She is not part of the family anymore. (And then I think she said something about being disinherited, not monetarily, but in their hearts). She can come and do as she pleases, she can work, go to school, but no one cares anymore. Allah sees what she does and we can’t help her. I just don’t understand. I don’t understand why she is like this. We have given her everything, and she has forgotten her family. I don’t know why?”
Again, I shook my head dumbfounded, finally understanding the gravity of Faama’s defiance in this culture.
I told her, “Yaaye, I don’t understand why she would be like that. It’s so sad.” To which Yaaye replied, “No…it’s not sad,” trying so hard to be strong, and then immediately burst into tears. Clearly, she has not given up on Faama, and it breaks her heart to think of doing so. The combination of that and then she again mentioned Faama’s father and we were both in tears. Me mostly because seeing the anguish and grief in her face just about broke my heart.

I will forever remember this day, this moment with my Yaaye.

In this culture, crying in public is reserved for extreme moments of grief. For her to weep freely in front of me, even for a brief moment, felt like some kind of strange honor. It is an honor that a woman I respect so deeply trusts me enough to seek out my company and allow herself to be so vulnerable. I understand now that I really am one of her daughters. I know that she has told me this many times over (simultaneously grabbing her breast…something all women do here when they mention their children), but in that moment I completely understand how much it means to her that I am here, in her life.

Funny thing is, I don’t feel the need to push our interactions. Rather, I know that these moments with my Yaaye happen organically, probably what makes them so special. I am beside myself when I think of the day when I will have to leave and I might very well never see her again. The thought makes me nauseous and weak.

I hope that you have all been inspired by my Yaaye, Koumba Ba. It is an honor to know her and call her mom.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Last week I had an amazing experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Driving up from Dakar after dropping off a visitor, I had already spent roughly 8 hours on the road in a hot and cramped station wagon on my way back to site. I stopped at a garage in a town near the regional house to transfer cars. Since no one ever seems to be going in the direction I do, further into the Sahel Desert, I had to wait at the garage for several hours. Upon arrival the police officer on duty decided to give me a hard time for traveling without my passport. Of course I had my Peace Corps identity card with me as always, with my passport number on it, but this guy was set on giving me a hard time. I explained to him that Peace Corps told us that these I.D.s were valid and we didn’t need to carry my passport and that if he continued to threaten to take me in to the office in town that I would get the American Embassy on the line and they would sort it out for him. After a brief yelling match and my threats, he finally admitted that because I wasn’t actually GOING into the town, but continuing on, that he didn’t HAVE to look at my passport and he would let me go…this time.

Right, I’m sure the threat of the embassy had NOTHING to do with his change of heart.

I finally got into the new car around 3:30pm. In the back seat were an older woman, a younger woman and her 7-year-old daughter and twin 2-year-old boys. I was squished in between two men in the middle seat, and then in the front sat the driver and an older gentleman. A half an hour later, the car stopped suddenly. We were in the middle of nowhere by a tiny roadside transport checkpoint. The young mother in the backseat pushed past the man in front of her and hurried out of the car. Not sure why we stopped, I sneaked a glance behind me. I saw her maybe 10 feet from the car, doubled over in pain and crouching precariously on the ground. I asked the men around me what was wrong with her. They replied, quite surprised that I didn’t know, that she was in fact IN LABOR!

Of course I blurted out something like, “What?? Now??” and jumped out of the car. As the older woman and myself ran towards her I saw that sure enough, she was in labor. Not only that, but the baby was already crowning! The woman and I arrived just in time. We guided the baby out and onto the extra material from her dress that was dragging on the ground. Right there amid the dirt, sand, thorns, and dead grass, I helped deliver a healthy baby boy. With no medical facility for miles, no tools, and only my bare hands to serve as his first welcome into this world.

Instinct kicked in and I felt so lucky for my doula experiences back in California. I thought to myself, “okay, I’ve seen birth, I know what it should look like. I’ve looked at my health worker training manual, I can do this!” I immediately wrapped him up in the only ratty cloth we could find. The afterbirth followed maybe 30 seconds later. I was relieved that it all looked normal and that it happened so fast. The baby cried right away, his passages were clear, he was alert, breathing well, and a decent size-probably about 6 lbs. I didn’t notice any meconium, the fetal fluid was clear, and the blood from the umbilical cord looked red and clean.
I wanted desperately to do this right, so I started giving orders. I yelled to the men across the street “Please, bring me a blade, and string now!” Somehow, a few moments later with this minutes old baby boy wrapped up in my arms, the birth juices soaking into my green Skidmore College t-shirt, the men came running across the street with a blade and a string in hand! I couldn’t believe it. So I instructed the woman with me how to tie off the umbilical cord and where to cut it. I pleaded with her to let me run to my bag and sterilize the blade with the Hibicleanse from my emergency mini-med kit I carry with me at all times, but my hands were full of the baby and after dropping the blade in the dirt, she had already started cutting away the placenta. I wish so desperately that I had had just a few more moments notice to set up a cloth and sterilize the tools, wash my hands and help clean off the baby a little bit.

But we made do with what little we had. Ten minutes later, with the baby wrapped up in a heavy towel still pressed closely to my body, I cooed at him. As the very first person he would ever see, he opened his eyes for the first time, and I whispered to him “welcome to the world baby boy.” I congratulated the mom and held him out to her, but she was much too exhausted and spacey to do much more than give me a half smile.

By this time several women from the surrounding huts had appeared with kettles of water and a change of clothes for the new mommy from her bag in the car. We women encircled her, trying to hide her naked body from the view of the men standing idly by as we changed her clothes and got her as cleaned up as possible. We wrapped up the afterbirth in her other clothes and put it into a plastic bag. I used a cloth to wrap around her and absorb any blood.
Literally only fifteen minutes later we were back in the station wagon on our way to the nearest village with a health post.

She climbed back into the backseat with her other three children and the older woman. I carefully sat back in my middle seat with Baby Boy in my arms the whole time. Ten minutes later we stopped again. Flat tire! Of all the times to have a flat tire. I couldn’t believe it. The four men took twenty minutes to get us back on the road. All the while I’m trying to pay attention to the baby, making sure he was lucid, breathing, and making the right “nursing” motions. I tried to encourage her to begin breastfeeding so she would release oxytocin that would help the uterus contract and stop the bleeding, but she was too tired and promised me she would as soon as we got to the health post. Meanwhile she was dealing with her other three children. She even had the presence of mind to joke with her twins the rest of the ride! I was in total awe of this woman. I mean, I hadn’t even realized she was in labor. Not a single sound the entire ride. Not a groan, or a yell, or any special requests. She literally waited until the very last second to hop out and give birth to her son right there in the dirt. It was like no big deal, like she did this everyday! I have no idea when her water broke. I assume before she even got into the car back at the garage.

During the drive the men thanked me for helping and commended my attention. They joked that even though it was a baby boy, that he would be named after me anyway. I laughed and appreciated the encouragement.

An hour later we arrived at the village of her husband’s family and the health post. I promptly got into my second yelling match of the day with a Senegalese man.

The driver, instead of driving two minutes out of his way to drop her at the hospital, he dropped her off on the side of the road, at a stranger’s house, with her baggage, and her now four children. I yelled at him in French that this was inappropriate, that she needed medical attention to make sure that she and the baby were okay, that she shouldn’t be walking and that we needed to drop her off at the health post immediately. “C’est pas normale!” I shouted out him. One of the other men agreed with me, but it was getting dark and we were nowhere near their final destination. With much protest, I handed over the baby to one of the women that had come upon the scene. I gave them strict instructions to get her to the health post, and for her to start breast-feeding ASAP. With a final goodbye the rest of us piled back into the wagon and left her to the rest of the women who were already ushering her to the back of the house to wash up.

My shirt and hands soaked with fetal fluids and blood, I spent the last hour and a half of the trip in an adrenaline pumped daze. They dropped me off at the regional house at 7pm, twelve hours after I had begun the journey that morning from the Dakar garage.

Luckily I arrived at the house and all the volunteers could not wait to hear my story (I had sent them a pre-emptive text message along the way). So I got to sit down with friends and share my joy, my awe, and my anxiety at being partly responsible for the birth of a brand new baby boy.

I’m sure that by now the story has gotten out and the whole region knows that an American toubak, named Binta Lam, helped deliver this little guy into the world. I have no idea how to find them again though. I knew the woman’s name, but not the name of the village and will probably never see them again, as we were still about 5 hours away from my town. But it’s exciting and an honor that I will live in infamy in this family’s life. Baby Boy will have to hear the story of the toubak that helped deliver him for the rest of his life.

I feel so lucky that I got to be part of such an important event. And what a great story!

All in a day’s work of a Peace Corps volunteer.

Monday, November 19, 2007


My first visitor left this morning.

He was here for 2 weeks, came all the way across the country to my site, to meet my family, and to see my life and work. He also met some of the other volunteers, saw our regional house, met my Thies family, saw Dakar, and even got to spend some time on the coast. It was a rushed but wonderful vacation for him. And quite an experience for me to have such a close friend from home come all the way out here, and actually get to glimpse a small part of my life. He left saying that it was probably the most exciting, eye-opening trip he has ever taken.

I asked him to contribute a blog entry, but he said that he would just wait and comment on my entry. So hopefully you can all hear directly from him at some point (hint hint Chris).

Parts of it were exhausting, mostly from my perspective as the responsible one. I was so worried that he would get sick, or hurt himself, or lost, or not like it, or pass out from heat exhaustion, but there was not even one single minor disaster. He ate street food from the first day, drank homemade juice with tap water, ate all the national dishes (usually with his hands), slept on concrete under a mosquito net, got water, did laundry by hand, went to the fields, played with the kids, toured my whole town, and was treated like a true guest of honor by my family.

One thing that he kept repeating was how incredibly honored, and at times awkward, he felt because of the hospitality from my family. He commented that they lived in the most abject poverty he’s ever seen and yet no relative luxury was spared. They went all out and made some of the most delicious dishes I’ve had to date. He was always given tea after meals, the best seat in the house (the plastic lawn chair), made comfortable, and fawned over by my adoring nieces.

What a treat it was to sit back and watch my family interact with him, to try and speak to him with sign language, their broken English, and his ten words of Pulaar. They were so thrilled just to have him say “peace only” in Pulaar that every time he greeted and just kept repeating it he got instant smiles and laughter. People were so honored when I brought him by to greet them. And I did. I made him walk all over my entire town checking off every person on the list that I could possibly think of to go greet. He really fit right in. Which I’m learning in a country with so much hospitality is easy to do as a guest.

And what an ego boost to hear him tell me he was impressed with my language and my ease at site. Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up with how far removed I feel, or how far I still have to go in terms of integrating culturally, or with my language, but having him here made me feel so proud. Proud of my work, of my progress, of my attitude.

Even walking around Dakar I learned so much about myself. I just take the harassment and constant attention in stride. Though sometimes to a fault because I have less tolerance and sometimes don’t trust people because my defences are up. I’m programmed to ignore people and ignore their pleas for my attention to come to their stands and buy their merchandise. I guess it’s that inherent American sense of personal space that kicks in. But because Chris was here and hasn’t become immune to the constant badgering yet, we ended up having a really great experience with a bag vendor that made me laugh and remember that while it’s much more tiring, joking and a little trust gets you a lot further with people.

We took a trip to the market. I was looking for a bag to carry back some of the stuff that I had accumulated. We must’ve had at least 5 men following us trying to get our attention and trying to get us to come into their stores. I was bee-lining to the bag shops when one guy started walking with us and really would not let up. He pulled the usual “hey, don’t you recognize me?” line…to which I replied “no I don’t know you, and you don’t know me either.” He wouldn’t give up and said he was sure he knew me so I stopped, gave him a sarcastic look and said “oh yeah? What’s my name then?” To which he replied (in English)…. “I know your name…it’s Impossible!” Chris and I both thought that was pretty funny. And he took it upon himself to take us around to stores to help me find the bag I was looking for. When I didn’t see any, he started leading us away from the market to another street. I started getting a little nervous, and wouldn’t have even considered following him without a big strong guy by my side, but eventually I just said forget it, we’re going back to the market. He pleaded with us to follow him a little further. But I refused. We started walking away and from up behind us he comes RUNNING with a bunch of bags in tow. Exactly what I was looking for. Then he explains to me that he can’t sell on the street because if the police catch him he’ll be fined. Sure enough, in the next ten seconds the police turned the corner and he and his buddy gestured for us to follow them…hurriedly. So we did. And what did we stumble upon? A huge, airy shop full of men sewing bags, cloths, clothing, in every pattern and style imagineable. So we haggled for a while and I walked away satisfied with the bag I had chosen and him satisfied with succeeding in bringing a tourist to buy his goods.

It was such a small interaction, that lasted maybe 10 minutes, and not only makes a great story, but made me realize that giving in just a teeny bit to the bombardment can be absolutely worth it in the end. And now I have a friend and he actually DOES know my name, and next time I’m in Dakar I’ll find him and buy beautiful cloth for you all at home…on my HUGE Peace Corps salary (insert dripping sarcasm and sly smile).

Having the time to really sit down with Chris and talk to him about my work at site was extremely helpful. Though he admitted that he does not know the culture as well as I do of course, it was refreshing to hash out ideas and take some of the primary health problems one by one and go over new and innovative ways to tackle them. I appreciated this so much because coming up with things on your own is always difficult. One of the things I hope that the Peace Corps will implement are standardized To Do manuals written by other volunteers who have had successful projects.
Again, patience and understanding…development moves slowly.

Chris suggested that I take an itemized list of health concerns that I want to work on and how I’m addressing them so that you can all follow along. A sort of mini-work proposal if you will. I’m going to try and get around to that soon.

I guess I hope that some of you out there will be inspired to come visit or at least to maybe visit another place you’ve been meaning to go to.
Once you catch the travel bug…

The only bummer is that now I’m left alone again and dealing with going back to normal life.

Chris will literally be remembered and talked about for the rest of my family’s life. He was invited back anytime and told he could stay as long as he wanted. In their eyes coming to greet someone from halfway around the world is one of the greatest honors anyone could perform.

So who’s next?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Skype Webcam

My dearest blog followers,

Skype should probably pay me for this endorsement, but I just got a webcam up and running so if you all sign up for skype and add me (profile name: caitlingivens) then when we talk online you can actually see me! It's such a wonderful tool so I hope that some of you sign on. And it's totally free to call another skype user!

So log on because I'd love to hear from all of you. And you can see me in my sweaty glory.

Also, I'm uploading brand new pictures from my trip with my very first visitor. Check the new album called "Visitors."

I promise a better update soon.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Being Busy

I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it feels to be busy again.

For the first time since IST (because of Ramadan) I am satisfied with my schedule and I actually feel useful and needed and well, like my old self. Everyday when I wake up I actually have tasks to accomplish, meetings to attend, greetings to do and events to plan. It’s a relief to wake up and not think “gee, would it really matter if I spent the whole day reading?” I mean, I’m not running around like a chicken with my head cutoff, like I was through all four years of college, but for Peace Corps standards, and given the speed of development, I’d say I’m one of the busier PCVs. Granted a lot of that has to do with the size of Kanel, but I’m learning how to pace myself and not get caught up with attending every single little thing. I remind myself that living in another language, and the heat, and just daily chores do take a lot out of you and it’s okay not to go greet a family if I’m feeling tired. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to be motivated to get things done because I have deadlines and health talks to prepare for. The key word I believe I’m searching for is BALANCE. For the time being I have achieved equilibrium.

The teachers are finally back from holiday and school starts this week. That means that my two teacher friends are back and that there are many more to meet and talk with. It will take some time for me to start teaching health classes though because the teachers need to settle into their new positions and get to know their classes and routines. I’m hoping that there won’t be as many strikes as there were last year. I want to impress them with my first few lessons so that the word will get out and lots of them will invite me to come teach. Luckily the way the children here learn is essentially through repetition and copying, so anything I do that gets them actively participating, moving around, performing, and brainstorming will be an instant hit

I’ve also noticed how much more I can tolerate than I could even a few months ago. I guess because our first three months are supposed to be spent adjusting, that after those were over I figured I would have adjusted as much as I ever could. But that is certainly not the case. It almost doesn’t phase me anymore when my family asks to borrow things. Now I’m much more willing to let them borrow things and I also have NO problem saying no when it’s an inappropriate request (my bike, or phone credit for instance).

I’m also letting myself laugh a lot more. At Baby Diana’s baptism, I was overwhelmed and sick of people asking me for money so I retreated out back and sat with a handful of young men who were making the 3 rounds of tea for the masses of guests. Obviously all eyes were on me, but I was surprised at how comfortable I was with them. We spoke a lot about health and my work and America and I even talked to them a bit about nutrition and which vegetables would help with eyesight! (This is the definition of a PC Health volunteer. The majority of my work takes place in informal settings for maybe15 minutes at a time totally out of the blue). Inevitably the conversation turned to why I didn’t want a Senegalese husband and why I didn’t want one man in particular. So I just scrunched up my face in disgust and told him, “I can’t marry you…you’re too ugly.” Some of them laughed so hard that they actually fell out of their seats. And don’t worry, he laughed too. It’s a completely acceptable excuse in this culture to call a man ugly as a way of avoiding his advances. I am spending a lot more time with men because I feel like my vocabulary and comfort with the culture is at the point where I can defend myself and make light of almost any uncomfortable situation. Also I feel like while I might never be able to formally organize a men’s health group, at least showing interest in them and laughing with them instead of running away from them and hating them for being inappropriate, will allow me to informally transfer some kind of health knowledge gradually. Or at least breakdown some gender stereotypes. Inchallah!

Part of my comfort is due to my Pulaar. It really has improved immensely. In fact, I’ve gotten compliments on it when I’ve visited other volunteers’ villages. I don’t know that that’s necessarily because my grammar or fluidity is that good yet, but I’m confident with my level of comprehension and pronunciation. And I’ve learned how to focus in on people’s conversations. It’s easy when you’re sitting around and ripping stems off of hundreds of bean leaves, to just zone out and forget to listen to the conversation around you. Now I can actively engage and am not shy to ask questions about what’s going on or for people to explain or repeat. I can actually understand and follow along full stories when told to me. Today in fact, I sat with my Yaaye, and two of my sisters and I followed along for a good 20 minutes while they told me about a visitor that came to Kanel with the previous volunteer. Everyday I am SO thankful that I began learning languages early on in life. Even if I don’t know a word, I can still understand the story because of the syntax.

(Consequently, (as some of you may have noticed) living in two different languages that aren’t my native tongue have caused my English to become well, slightly less eloquent than it used to be. At least my writing anyway.)

I have so much more to say, but for the moment I am satisfied with you all knowing that I am incredibly happy, and in an upswing. I know that the next few months are going to fly by. And soon the weather will get out of the triple digits (105 right now p.s.).

My favorite new sister from Dakar who has been here since IST is going home tomorrow with her baby, my favorite fat-cheeked 3 month old nephew and I want to maximize my “baby-worship” time.

Until next time.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


It occurred to me recently that being in the PC is a lot like what I imagine it’s feels like to be pregnant. Clearly the reasons why we feel these things differ, but the outcome is the same.

Why the PC is like pregnancy:

1.You have constant cravings. Especially for strange foods that you never even liked or missed when you lived in the states. And especially for things that you can’t have/access easily (booze, sushi, fatty cheeses, cigarettes etc.)
2. Hot flashes and night sweats.
3. Swollen feet.
4. Nothing tastes right.
5. Back pain. (From sleeping on cement, stick beds, and flimsy foam pads).
6. Vomiting and nausea.
7. Weight gain (for women).
8. Mood swings. (You cry or experience rage at the drop of a hat.)
9. You turn into a man-hater (when you’re pregnant I understand that it’s often normal to feel some resentment towards your mate for “doing this to you.”)
10. You find yourself spending a lot of time “nesting” (sweeping your room, doing laundry, organizing your papers, folding clothes, basically cleaning house.)
11. Constant exhaustion.
12. Insomnia.
13. You track your life in segments (like trimesters.) For example, 1 month until Ramadan is over, 2 weeks until my next visitor comes, 2 months until I can take a vacation, 5 months until the new group of trainees arrives, 10 months until I go home etc.
14. You have to pee constantly.
15. You can’t wait for, but at the same time fear the end (culture shock of returning home and saying goodbye to people you might never see again).
16. It seems like it will never end.

7 month index

Just over 7 months and counting.
That means that depending on when I COS (April or May of 2009) I have roughly 18 months left.
Because I got such a positive response from it, I thought that it would be fun to make another list, like the one I wrote after month 3.

# of times I’ve found teeth in my dinner: 1

# of scorpions I have killed in my room: 10
largest # of toads and frogs I’ve had living in my douche at any one time: 7

# of times per week I wake up to various bugs, beetles, worms, crickets, or toads in my bed : about 3 (yes, I do sleep with a mosquito net and am a compulsive “tucker.” Somehow they manage to get in anyway).

# of degrees at which I feel cold enough to need a sheet at night: 84 F

To date, the lowest temperature I’ve seen on my thermometer: 76.5 F

# of times I’ve eaten goat head: 1

# of times I’ve had to watch an animal be slaughtered: 5

liters of water I drink in a day: 5 (it used to be about 10)

# of packages I’ve received in country: 15 (hooray!)

largest number of mosquito/bug bites I’ve endured at any one time: 130+

# of people in my compound it takes for me to think there are a lot of people around: 30

# of people it takes for me to think that my compound is empty: 8

# of times per week I wash my hair: 2

# of times I’ve seriously considered leaving Senegal: 3

# of text messages I’ve sent since purchasing my cell phone: 1226

#of text messages I’ve received since purchasing my cell phone: 803

# of times I’ve had to have my cell phone fixed: 1

# of times I’ve been sick with stomach yuckiness: 2

# of times per day I wash my hands: about 10

# of times I wake up in the middle of the night: 2-7 (still no progress in that department unfortunately. Gotta love the side effects of Mefaquin. Beats the alternative though).

# of times per week I talk to my parents: 1-2

# of times per month I used to talk to them in college: 1-2

# of degrees in my room right now: 101.5 F (p.s. I’m not even sweating. It’s amazing what your body adapts to)

# of marriage proposals I receive per day now that I’ve henna’d my feet and hands: ~5

# of times per day I fantasize about how much better the cool season is going to be: ~7

# of times I’ve been told by people that I’m a lot prettier in the states than I am here (they’ve seen pictures) : 4

# of times I’ve ridden my PC issued bike: 0

# of PCVs in our stage that have ET’d: 6

# of PCVs left in our stage: 37

# of PCVs in my stage that have become smokers since arriving in country: 6

# of words in the Pulaar language for “thorn”: 7

# of times per day I smell something that makes me gag: at least 1

# of other volunteers sites I’ve visited up North: 4

# of times I’ve been able to sleep inside because it was cool enough: 6

# of times per day I’m peed on by a child: usually about 2 (babies don’t really wear diapers)

# of times per week I go to the market: 2

# of times I check my mailbox at the post office: 2

# of Ipods that have died on me in country: 1

# of times my computer has died and been revived: 1

# of times per car ride when I think the bus or minicar or station wagon is going to topple over:
at least 1

# of times per day I fantasize about fresh produce, whole grains, and ice cream: 3 (aka. every meal)

maximum # of hours I’ve spent at the internet in one sitting: 7

# of bottles of vitamins I’ve gone through: 3

# of hours I spend per day holding and playing with babies and toddlers: 3-4

# of times per day when I laugh heartily: at least 3

# of times during the last week when I’ve felt totally content and at peace with my work, my
placement, my life, my family, my role in this town and culture: 6 (p.s. that’s a big deal! There really is life after Ramadan!)

Hope you got a good chuckle out of these. I had fun compiling them for you.

Next time you bite into a delicious salad, or freak out because you see a spider, or complain about the temperature, think of me…and smile.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Photos and Baby Diana

Just a little FYI to all of you fabulous blog followers. My new niece is in fact not being named after me, but after my mom in America, Diane. So in French it turns into Diana. So she is now Diana Ba. With about 4 zillion other names thrown in there. Apparently the tradition is that mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa all give a different name. So the two that I know are Diana and Isatou. Everyone thinks its beautiful. We had a fabulously huge Baptism for her. I have a brand new album called Korite (the end of Ramadan) and Baptism that have many pictures of these two big fetes that have been happening during the past week.

Also, some people have told me that they have had trouble accessing all of my albums. You have to sign into that first album (the link on the bottom right hand side of this webpage) and then towards the top of the page on the left click on "Cait's Public Gallery" to get into the page with all 10 albums I have up.

Hope that clears things up.
Enjoy the pictures of my family decked out to the nines and of my henna'd hands and feet.
Work is starting up again and I've been pretty busy lately. It feels great.
I promise a better more detailed blog post soon.

Keep the comments and questions coming!

Thursday, October 11, 2007


It is with a heavy heart that I report the death of PC Senegal's beloved security officer, Lamine N'Dongo. He was killed this weekend in a car accident while on tournee visiting volunteers. Lamine was perhaps the greatest administrative advocate for PCVs here in Senegal. He will be greatly missed.

I have attached a letter regarding donations for his family for all those interested in helping. A lot of people have asked me how to contribute to my experience, and here is one small way.

Dear Friends,

It is with regret that I inform you of the loss of a dear friend to Senegal PCVs and RPCVs from the last 4 years. Lamine N'Dongo, Safety and Security Officer, died in a car accident on Sunday, driving the PC car near Bakel. The driver was on the passenger side and is currently in the hospital, injured but stable.

Lamine was a friend to those who knew him. He took care of each of us like we were family. He knew everyone in the police force throughout the country and God forbid anyone messed with us, he would take care of it tactfully and quickly. He believed in Peace Corps and was proud to be part of its mission.

He leaves behind a wife and four children, all girls. We would like to make a collection for his family on behalf of the Friends of Senegal and The Gambia and the RPCV community at large. FOSG will match any funds collected. Some RPCVs already started collecting funds and I've invited them to join our collection so we could match the total amount. Any small contribution would be of great help to them.

Please send a check or money order to Dan Theisen to:

Pay to the order of Friends of Senegal and The GambiaMemo:
Lamine N'Dongo's Family Fund
Daniel Theisen
428 Bowleys Quaters Road
Baltimore, Md 21220

We will wait at least 2 weeks to give people time to send their checks to Baltimore for Dan to process them. If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to contact me through the FOSG list or directly to marielsie.avila@gmail.com.

My heart and thoughts go out to Lamine's family and friends. He is greatly missed by the entire PC family.

Lamine died, as he lived, on the road making it safe for PCV's to serve in Senegal.

It's A Girl!!

I am thrilled to announce the birth of my niece and namesake, Binta Sira Ba.

She is a healthy, good–sized, baby girl with all of her fingers and toes, beautiful big dark eyes, and a huge head of dark black hair.

This morning at 7am my sister woke me up by pounding on my door and announcing that my counterpart, Nene, had given birth just minutes before at the health post.

Those of you that have been following along know that I was planning on attending her birth. Unfortunately, I’m pretty disappointed because last night when she went into labor she decided not to call me because I was getting my feet henna’d and she didn’t want me to have to walk and mess up the design. It’s a bummer and I’m still pretty disappointed, especially because I had wanted to see the ins and outs of the maternity ward and see how the midwives coach women through birth, but all that really matters is that she and Nene are healthy and happy.

I have posted some pictures online under the album “Kanel.” They are at the end of all the pictures. She is so beautiful and I am so happy that I will be able to be here for the next year and a half to watch her grow up to toddlerhood.



You may have already seen the pictures of our nutrition project at the health post last week, but I thought I should write up a summary of my first real collaborative project with other PCVs.

Last Thursday at the weekly vaccination day at the health post, two other PCVs, Ashley and Christine, came into my town for a nutrition/education causerie (health talk). It was a great first attempt at a big group causerie. There were probably about 20 women present with babies aged 0-1. We measured about 14 children’s arms to see which weight zone they were in. We only had two or three in the red zone, several in the yellow, and the others in the green.

When we arrived one of the midwives started yelling at us that what we were doing wasn’t the “right” way to go about teaching women how to cook etc. She was mostly just blowing smoke and trying to assert her authority. But it made for nervous beginning and put me on edge.

Eventually she left and went back to work and left us to our own devices. One of the other women who works at the “desk” absolutely saved the day though. She spent the whole morning with us, helping to translate and re-explain what we were saying to the women and made sure that they understood the recipe of the baby food we were cooking.

We talked to the mothers about weaning foods, and the importance of breast feeding ONLY until 6 months and the importance of feeding their babies food from all the food groups and why. We measured the arms and explained to the moms whose children were malnourished that they needed to be supplementing their diets with more than just rice.

The porridge we cooked was a big hit and it was rewarding to see the babies eating it up. And refreshing to see them eating something nutritious—not just oily rice and white bread.

Who knows if they will actually go back and make the food for their children. There is really no way to know. But at least the knowledge is there and hopefully the message got across.

Since then I have had several people ask me to hold another talk in our neighborhood so that the women from the compounds around me can come and learn how to make the porridge. I am feeling very positive about the response and looking forward to having another one in a space where I am more comfortable and don’t have other people breathing down my neck and criticizing my every move.

The whole thing felt so good. Granted it’s never as organized or well-attended as you imagine it could be, but I felt so at home talking individually to these women about their babies and their enthusiasm was real and encouraging. Also, it was the first time that I realized that my Pulaar is in fact good enough to start seriously working in.

Ramadan is over this weekend. I have bright orange feet and hands from my henna’ing for the huge end of Ramadan celebration. My work is starting to pick up. School opens next week and I have a meeting with one of the headmasters about teaching health classes. The weather is cooling off slightly. I have a new niece, great projects coming up, and the outlook is good.

I am incredibly proud of myself for making it through probably the toughest part of my service without any major breakdowns. And I am SO ready to start my work!

Visit to the Sticks

Taking advatage of the forced downtime of Ramadan, I decided to make the trek out to a fellow PCV’s site in the boonies. Out of all of the volunteers up north she is definitely the farthest out. She is 8K from the road. She has a more typical PC placement--no electricity, a working faucet in the early mornings only, and limited cell phone reception (when she stands at a certain angle on the roof at night). Friday, after a few days at my site for our nutrition project at the health post, we went into town (Ourossogui—where I do all my internet related tasks and banking) and left in the afternoon for her village. We arrived at the garage around 3:30pm, got a car at 4pm and drove for an hour to her nearest road town in the crowded and deteriorating buses we call public transport. There we were lucky enough to get a charet right away. But unlucky enough to land with probably the worst charet driver known to man. He could not get the horse to do anything and just kept beating it and beating it. It was awful, and enough to make you sick to your stomach. We must have stopped upwards of 10 times on the 8k ride. The dirt path is full of divets, ravines, muddy puddles, twists, turns, thorn bushes, livestock roadblocks, you name it. The whole way we were holding on for dear life. (Ashley has been thrown off of one of these things…not fun). I grabbed at anything I could get my hands on that was actually attached to the “wagon.” We settled for mostly just holding on to eachother. By the time we arrived at her village, filthy, tired, and dehydrated, it was 7pm.

I stayed there until Monday morning. To get out of her village, we woke up at 5:30am, ate breakfast, packed up, and took off at first light. We knew that if we could not find a charet along the way (as is often the case because they are usually already full) then we would have to walk the 8K. So we made sure to start as early as possible to beat the heat. We did catch a charet, but not until we had already walked 6K.

Besides getting in and out of her village, and the shoddy cell phone reception, I left her site with serious site envy. Her life is so much less hectic and busy than mine. I felt so at ease in her village. During the entire 3 days not one person called me toubak, or asked me for money. It was such a relief. When she walks around the village everyone knows her and greets her by name. And there isn’t that same pressure to constantly be attending events in the name of “working” that amount to nothing except a migraine.

I guess I am just jealous of the romantic, idyllic village experience that she is having, that I expected to have in the Peace Corps: mud huts, no conveniences, just the bare bones and the intimacy of getting to know the culture of and to work with a small village of people. Weaving through the mud huts and stick fences along the mud paths of her village, I realized for the first time that I really would have been fine in a more rural, “hardcore” site.

Up until now I thought that I had lucked out by having such a “luxurious” site compared to most of the other volunteers. I mean, I have electricity (most of the time) and a faucet in my compound (which usually works all day), and I’m on the road, and have full cell phone reception, and lots of resources to work with. I kept thinking that it was a good thing that I was placed where I was because I didn’t think I could have hacked it at a site like hers. Granted, when I first arrived at her site and saw how far out she was I was completely overwhelmed and told her so. I even admitted to her that I didn’t think I could have made it that for out. But I should have realized that like with everything else, we are incredibly adaptable.

Clearly her site has its disadvantages too. If she were ever to get really sick for example, it would take a lot longer to get to medical care and the process would be much more uncomfortable than it would be for me. And getting in and out of her site is truly exhausting, especially on foot. And I’m sure that there are times when she wonders what she is doing there because it is so small and there are almost no set venues to start off her development work.

But I absolutely loved sitting around with different families in her village and piling on the mats with the kids, and looking up at the stars, in complete darkness with no outside noises except for the crickets, and the occasional goat. There was no television blaring horrible Latin American soap operas, or Desperate Housewives dubbed in French. I was jealous of the familiarity and safety of knowing her way around (I definitely get lost in my town all the time). Excuse the cliché but there is something to be said for going where “everybody knows your name.” I guess I feel like in a way, it’s so much easier to really integrate in a small village and abandon the comforts of being an American. I think that sometimes I’m still too dependent on the conveniences of my site because I have no reason not to be.

The immensity and pressure that come with working in a 10,000 person town can make it easy to be reclusive and stick with the safety of the few families nearby that I know well. But I also constantly feel guilty about not running around at every possible moment and trying to raly all the heads of organizations, and health trainers, and bureaucratic officials to band together for the sake of their community’s health. In my head I know that 99% of those efforts would be fruitless and frustrate me further, but it’s tough to shake the guilt.

I’ve always known that I was bad at being bored, but for the first time in my life I think I’m done feeling like I have to load up the activities just to keep from having a moment of idle time. Because in my 7 months I have finally learned that in fact sometimes you learn the most, and the most effective moments for change arise when you are just sitting around with people and chatting, and playing with eachother’s hair and complaining about the heat. Certainly my Pulaar has gotten worlds better this month because there isn’t much to do besides sit around and talk.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my site. Most of the time I feel incredibly lucky and think that I have the best site ever. I believe that I have the right background and qualifications for Kanel. And I love my host family and counterpart and friends here so dearly that I could not imagine my PC experience without them. Of course I would never trade it for anything. But it’s always a little sad when I’m out with other PCVs and we’re talking to new people about our sites and I mention my town and its amenities and they mutter things like, “oh well, you’ve got it easy.”
What they don’t know is that in some ways my site can be much more difficult to work and live in. Even Ashley told me as much. I’m certain that I will always be a little bit disappointed that I won’t have the bragging rights, or the intimate romantic experience of living in a proper Pulaar village.

So kudos to those volunteers who are living in the sticks, and have no amenities. I’m sure there are days that they would kill for a site with running water, a TV, electricity, an electric fan, on the road, with many avenues for work. I’ll never get to know for sure if I could have done it without these things.

Visiting Ashley’s village made me realize how wonderful it can be to live simply.
And I think I’ll always be a little jealous.

Friday, October 5, 2007


The title of this entry is:

Why Ramadan Is The Worst Month EVER
If I see one more creepy crawly…
Sophomore Slump
All of the above = a perfect combination for early termination of service (ETing).

Title #1

All of the other volunteers have been preparing us for how frustrating Ramadan is, but I am finally really experiencing it for myself. It really is just horrible.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. It’s still ridiculously hot. In fact, this morning at 8:30 am it was already 90 degrees in my room. I guess October/Ramadan is some kind of horrible anomaly. The rains have stopped so there are no more cool and breezy, wet days. But it also hasn’t started cooling off yet, and won’t until mid-November or so.

2. School is still out and all of the teachers and headmasters that I need to meet with are on vacation so I have been at site since mid-May and STILL can’t start my main project (which is to be teaching health classes at the schools) until it really gets going in November.

3. Everyone and their mother give me crap for not fasting and praying. And boy am I tired of it. It doesn’t matter that I attempted (or told my family I did) for one day in “solidarity.” Or that um, the most obvious one… “I’M NOT MUSLIM!” And if you’re fasting you’re supposed to be praying and obviously I’m not praying so where is the sense in fasting? For some people that’s an acceptable answer. At least for those people who have had a little more exposure to other cultures/more education. But for everyone else, I’ve gotten awful, disapproving looks, head shakes, and comments as lovely as “you’re a bad person” or “tssk, then your name isn’t Binta Lam” or “well you live here now so you should be praying and fasting and then just stop when you go home” or even from my own family “the previous volunteer fasted and prayed…why aren’t you?”
When I’ve tried telling them that they should respect my choice not to be a Muslim they just push harder and tell them that I should convert. I’m getting to my breaking point with this conversation. Every time it comes up I’m ready to scream. If anyone has any advice other than lying to them and sneaking food and water for the remaining 2 weeks, I enthusiastically welcome all suggestions.
(Oh, and actually fasting is not an option. And not just on principal. One girl in my stage put herself in the Dakar hospital because she was so dehydrated. Another girl one year gave herself a kidney infection.)
I think next time it comes up I’m just going to say, “I respect your choice to be a Muslim. Why can’t you respect my decision NOT to be one? If you came to America I wouldn’t try to make you change your belief system and pray to a different god, or tell you that you’re wrong and bad, and don’t deserve your American name.” Problem is that that is a logical argument and as I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries, the strategy of using logic to prove my points has thus far not served me well.

4. Everyone is too tired to do anything. I have tried YET again to organize a girls group meeting (I still can’t seem to get them to come together for a meeting) and none of them showed up. Classic.

5. The health post is crowded with people spending the little money they have on medicine. Why? About 90% of them all have the same complaint, and I bet you all can guess what it is: Headaches, body aches and colds. I just want to take them all aside individually and say,
“Well let’s see, it’s 4pm, it’s 104 degrees outside, you haven’t had any food or water since 5am, and when you DO break fast finally at 7pm the first thing you put into your starved, overworked, dehydrated body is Nescafe, and sugary soda. And you’ve been repeating this same thing for almost 3 weeks now! So yeah, I can prescribe something to make you feel better…DRINK WATER!! STOP FASTING!!”
I think my favorite moments are when people tell me that fasting is good for them.

Right. Especially for my 9 month pregnant counterpart (yep, she’s even fasting).

6.Children suffer because the adults are fasting. What I mean is that no one cooks meals during the day, not even for the children, because they are all so tired, so the already malnourished children subsist mostly on white bread, sugary drinks, and a hot milk and rice drink called goossi.

7. It’s impossible to sleep for two reasons:
The mosques have been going at all hours. Now instead of the usual call to prayer 5x a day, the mosques go off at all hours for unspecified lengths of time. Last night for example, a recently arrived marabou decided to sing over the neighborhood loudspeaker for two hours 12-2am. Koranic study sessions are also blasted over a speaker every single day from 11am-2pm, just a couple houses over.
Middle of the night acid reflux. Because my family cooks the main meals at night and is so hungry, that the meals are heavier, more oily, meatier, and being served later. And they get really upset when I try to bail early and tell them I’m not hungry.

8. I get harassed more than normal to give out money because it’s supposed to make for me not fasting.

9. Everyone is short-tempered, cranky, bored, and exhausted. I’ve already seen more arguments and fights breakout in the past few weeks then I have my entire time in country.

Title #2

For some reason I have had a lot of really disgusting “creepy crawly” moments lately. Everyday I seem to be battling some new bug.

*The mosquitoes are still out in full force and despite my protective night gear (long sleeves, pants, and socks despite the 90 degree weather), they still manage to make my life miserable and bite me through my clothes. I am amazed I don’t have malaria.

*Every night spiders build huge webs in my douche that I literally have to walk through in the middle of the night when I have to use my latrine.

*Today, I noticed that there were some big red ants crawling on my wall in my room. I moved my bike and sleeping pad out of the way to discover 2 FIST SIZE PILES OF MAGGOT EGGS WITH HUGE RED ANTS SWARMING ALL OVER THEM (see picture under Kanel album). After I dry heaved, I got myself together, took a picture (for proof) and then went a little bit crazy with my DDT, a broom, and a dustpan. Disgusting. I hope that none of you ever have to experience that. Worst part is I have no idea how they got there. There was no rotted food, or garbage, or piles of water, or animal feces anywhere in sight. It had only been 2 weeks since I had moved everything away from that wall and swept my whole room. As if I wasn’t compulsive enough already checking for scorpions all the time, now I have maggot nests to worry about.

*Crickets have infested my room and they make a ton of noise all night long.

*I now have 3 toads and 4 or 5 mini-frogs living in my douche that like to hop all over my feet and legs when I bathe.

*The flies. Oh the flies. The fly phenomenon is one that until you have lived in Africa during the “fly season” you cannot understand how close the constant swarms bring you to the brink of insanity. And they are not like flies at home. These guys are fearless. They fly right in your face, up your nose, in your eyes, and are not easily flicked away with a jolt of the hand. Nope, they’ll come right back. Even in the middle of my bucket baths.

*Lizards. A lizard the size of my forearm fell from the rafters in my room and could not climb back up and was trapped in my room for two days and I could not get him out.

*Beetles. I have a lot of big black, kind of dopey looking beetles that I periodically accidentally crush in my door, or step on. They never really bothered me until I recently discovered that they fly, right into my face. Wonderful.

Title #3

Maybe there is a sophomore slump that happens in the Peace Corps that is just exacerbated by Ramadan. The next new group of PC trainees arrived a few weeks ago so we are no longer the newbies, but the official “sophomores” of the groups in country. It’s a tough place to be. No real work has started yet (for the reasons I listed above), despite coming back from IST with lots of momentum to affect change (inshallah!). The next 18-20 months are still looming ahead, filling me with uncertainty and shaking my confidence that this is the right place for me. The PCVs a year ahead of us in our same programs have the end in sight and are constantly talking about COS and homecoming plans. It has helped to talk to my closest neighbor (also from Davis, CA) who confessed to me that this time last year was the worst point in her service, and if I can just hold on and make it through Ramadan in one piece then it will all get better.

I mean I’m not actually really thinking of leaving. If I really do feel on the verge of a mental breakdown and need a break I can always retreat to the regional house for some R&R. But when I’m sweating in the heat, with bugs crawling all over me, people yelling at me for not being a Muslim, and wondering when I’m ever going to be able to start working, America and all the luxuries that come with it start to sound pretty darn wonderful.

If nothing else, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?…Right?

Saturday, September 29, 2007


One of the primary reasons I elected to join the PC was because of its unique approach to development. That is, that PC actually puts volunteer development workers on the ground for two years in a community and teaches us the local language. Also, it is secular, and we work entirely in countries where we are explicitly invited by the host government. This means that we are guaranteed government support/cooperation, and we do not force our work upon uninterested or unsafe communities. Theoretically without some of the most common barriers we can maximize our productivity.

Though I learned a veritable TON about Int’l Development at Skidmore, CIDH and LSE (more than I ever thought possible really), I always felt like an imposter, having never had the chance to actually work in international development long-term. Sure, working on the ground for a month in Lima with Cross Cultural Solutions was a great beginning. It gave me that first addicting taste of international development work, but I needed a longer-term test. It just felt so hypocritical to gab on about development without ever living in a so-called “less-developed” country.

So here I am, finally fulfilling that desire. I’m thrilled to have such a concrete background in all things development related, from its champions, its skeptics, and its worst critics. Thanks (in part) to a revelationary (is that even a word?) course at LSE, “Complex Emergencies” with Dr. David Keen, my idealistic acceptance of all humanitarian work as ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’ was pretty much shattered. If you’ve never heard of him, check him out. His and his colleague’s perspectives on humanitarian work and aid work in general is disheartening to say the least, but totally changed the way I wanted to approach and to work in int’l development. The point is, that because of this academic base, I feel like I am better able to grasp the complexities of the ‘problems’ I see all around me.

One thing I have observed here in Senegal is the negative long-term effect of foreign aid—governmental or not. I’m not criticizing all aid orgs outright, (clearly all NGOs and humanitarian orgs are not made equal) or proposing that the more ‘privileged world’ should not help poorer countries to develop. What I am saying (and there is plenty of great literature out there to back me up) is that the constant flow of NGOs and IGOs and all the money they bring with them, takes away from government accountability. Granted I can only speak from my observations in a very specific place over just six short months, but it’s true. Talking to Senegalese about development projects, there are never any discussions about getting funding from the government, or about why Senegal’s education system isn’t better, or why the power and water cut out 8x a day. Instead people say that it is better to ask one of the many development orgs in country for help or for money. Maybe that’s because they actually get things done-build wells, give school supplies, bring in guest doctors and nurses, sponsor causeries and trainings etc. But that doesn’t change the fact that their presence makes governments unaccountable. And that’s what Senegal needs the most: large scale projects, sweeping educational reform, infrastructure, and economic diversification of its major industries. None of those things can come from USAID, or UNICEF, or AfricaCare. They are going to have to come straight from Abdoulaye Wade’s office.

It’s dependency.

People have become dependent on aid orgs, and will wait and wait forever for things instead of organizing and doing it themselves because they know that eventually, some foreign organization will come in, fund it, and do the work for them. And in the short-term that makes a lot of sense: “Do we tell the NGO in the next town over that we don’t have a clean water supply and have them build a well for us this season? Or do we wait and wait and wait for the Wade administration to come in and do it?” I mean which would you choose?

On a large scale, the more sustainable path to development is clear, but as a PCV, the work of other development workers sometimes makes our work that much more challenging. Most foreign development workers waltz in for a few weeks at a time. They stay in nice hotels, eat in restaurants, barely interact with Senegalese people, get their work done, waste much more money on living comfortably than necessary, take some heart-warming pictures and a few tear-jerking memories back home to impress their next date and then return home feeling selfless and proud. And they should! The very fact that they care enough to come down here, or “help” at all shows tremendous courage and compassion. Unfortunately, its been making a lot of our work more difficult.
Why? Because we don’t have any money.

One example is a friend of mine down south who is in a very isolated part of southeastern Senegal. She recently met a couple in her area that received a grant to come to Senegal and do development/health work. They are pouring out money for projects all over the place. They leave in 5 or 6 months and then who is going to be there to pick up the pieces when the projects they shoddily created fail? My PCV friend. Because there is no way that they can know the culture and the community well enough to know what projects will crumble and what projects will self-sustain. Most likely, whatever they do will fail. It might sound cynical but it’s true. Even after two years learning the ins and out of our communities, many PCV projects fail.

What about the two guys I met who had started their own NGO and were bumming around the country distributing mosquito nets using funds from friends, churches and schools at home? They were here for a few months and won’t come back for another two years. They gave no thought to enforcing “good mosquito net behavior.” Like the fact that most people only sleep under them during the rainiest season, and they don’t re-impregnate them, and most of the ones I see have so many gaping holes in them their practically useless.

And how about my other PCV friend’s village that just wants her to buy them a car so that they can transport women in labor to the nearest health post? They don’t care about her re-opening the health hut and training health workers to run it and hold educational health talks. They want money for a car. They’ve seen other groups come in and give similar sums for wells and schools etc. and they want a piece of that action. They’re not interested in some young, rich, white girl preaching at them about washing their hands with soap or how to make ORS.

Bottom line is that ultimately, all development/aid orgs should be working to be out of business, or at the very least to eventually adapt to a new location, or project. Not exactly a sound business model. And certainly the Peace Corps isn’t doing that either. After all, we’ve been in Senegal since 1963!

But our work has not gone unnoticed. A couple times I have passed people in markets and they have shouted things like “American? I like Americans better than Europeans. You learn our language and you live with us like family.” And this even before I have a chance to answer. (By the way Senegalese usually assume that all Americans are PC). Although PC isn’t perfect in its development approach, maybe those small interactions mean that what we’re doing, regardless of how ‘textbook sustainable’ it is, is worthwhile?

Certainly other approaches are equally valid and sometimes even more beneficial than the work we do. But as someone who actually lives here and struggles to convince my community that every conversation we have about hand washing is part of my work, it is defeating to be the “little guy” up against the “bling” of other foreign aid orgs. I just wish there was some way to instill all the aid orgs here with the aspiration for all projects to be sustainable.

I guess at the very least, I am satisfied that I am part of an organization with a mostly sustainable approach to development.

Now if I could just get some funding….


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Unexpected Frivolity

I had all kinds of expectations about the “ enlightened” and “back-to-basics” person I would be post Peace Corps. I remember thinking that after two years living with only the basic necessities (which actually turns out not to be true seeing as I have electricity, a cell phone with perfect reception, my computer, an Ipod, and a faucet in my compound) that I would come home and be disgusted with all things materialistic, and superficial.

For example, a few weeks before I left, a friend was planning his visit out to see me. I remember triumphantly declaring to him “I don’t think I’ll want to stay in a nice hotel when you come. It will just be too much culture shock and way too overwhelming.”

During demystification I heard an outgoing volunteer comment to a fellow PCV, “Oh, look at all the incoming PCV’s stuff. It’s so new and nice and clean, and…pretty.” I remember thinking that that was such a weird thing to say. And I took it kind of personally like, “my stuff wasn’t ‘hardcore backpacker’” enough for the Peace Corps or something.

Now I totally understand where she was coming from. It’s the same phenomenon that led my Thies family to comment that my Tupperware containers were beautiful, and why my little sisters are preserving the box that the doll figurines my mom sent them came in, and why my host mom will barely let my little brother play with his new counting/rattle book, and why every article of clothing I have is “ina yoodi” (pretty).

Because there just aren’t new, or shiny, or different-looking things here. Everyone has the same stuff and they literally use it until it falls apart. Nothing stays looking new for more than a few hours and ten more people in your house probably have the same thing anyway so its pointless to get excited about.

I might still go through the “hate everything materialistic and wasteful and pop culture related” phase when I COS (Close of Service), but at this point in my service the total opposite has happened.

In my amazing birthday packages for instance, I received a Glamour magazine. Now, I almost never read that stuff at home. I’d occasionally skim People magazine at the gym to keep myself entertained during mind-numbing Elliptical machine workouts, but that was pretty much the extent of it. And I was (and actually still am) irate at the hype, attention, and media time that Anna Nicole Smith’s death received right before I left. I mean really? Uninterrupted reporting on a porn star’s funeral? Seriously CNN? Really?

But when I got this Glamour magazine, I literally spent the entire afternoon outside in the shade with my family, on my stick bed and read that magazine cover-to-cover. I positively devoured it.

And I can’t believe I’m about to admit this in a public forum, but I feel like you should all understand the extent of my newfound appreciation of all things pretty, clean, and good smelling…

I had some useful things that arrived in my packages like soap, food for Ramadan, pocket packages of Kleenex, vitamins, etc.

But my favorite new item, (that when I saw it I think I actually shrieked out loud with joy), was the shiny, new, white Ipod headphones with GREEN RHINESTONES. My dad sent them to me because my old ones were barely functional, and I think he meant them as a joke, but they are absolutely my new favorite thing that I have in country. I mean, they’re totally frivolous, and I love them for that. Sure I have other stuff that is kind of functional, but probably unnecessary (a silk pillowcase from Mom for my birthday for example), but the rhinestones are so totally over the top and non-functional that they take the cake.

In a way it’s kind of pathetic. Who would have thought that Peace Corps Senegal would bring out my inner (some might argue NOT so inner) princess?

But at least I’m not alone. When I’m at the regional house, we girls all sit around and look at 6-month-old magazines. We talk about clothes, and trends we’re “missing out” on and complain that we don’t have more up-to-date “junk” magazines. I mean we all know that they are trash, and “in life” (as PCVs are fond of saying) most of us probably took pride at being disinterested in celebrity gossip, but not anymore.

I think at root here is that it’s exhausting to constantly talk about our “PCV lives.” And of course we talk about that a lot of the time. But it can get so depressing and frustrating to constantly talk about what isn’t working in Senegal or at site, being discouraged by the slowness of grassroots development work, failed and successful projects and meetings, sick children, the heat, gross food, being lonely, and our families peculiarities.

Sometimes you just want to look at pictures of Brad Pitt and wonder if he and Angelina Jolie really will make it? Or yearn for fall weather just so that you can wear that perfect J Crew sweater with matching earmuffs.

So for the time being I am mostly comfortable with the fact that the Peace Corps has brought out the princess in me.
And the next time I wear my rhinestone headphones I am going to smile…and maybe even do a little dance.

The plight of a health volunteer

Sometimes being a health volunteer is utterly exhausting.

There are so many myths, beliefs, and practices about what to give people and how to treat them, or not treat them, that sometimes it’s hard to know how and where to start re-educating them.

In about an hour today I had two different “health volunteer moments” (as I’ve come to call them), both of which with just a little bit of proper education would make my job obsolete.

Case #1

I stopped by the house of one of the women from my new mommies group, Aminata, and found that her 2-year-old son is really ill. She said he had been vomiting and his fever had to be at least 104. I felt his head and it was burning hot. Of course she asked if I had medicine to get rid of the fever, but I have to say no. I told her that she should go to the health post, or to the pharmacy to buy some. Then she pulled out some child’s dissolvable aspirin and asked if it was appropriate.

I was thrilled because it was exactly what he needed for a fever reducer, but she wasn’t sure how to give it to him, or how to use it because the instructions were written in French (classic). And she knew enough to read the date on the back and didn’t know what “Aug” was, but it said ’07 so she figured it was expired. Which, it technically is, but only by a few weeks so I gave her the okay (figuring it couldn’t hurt anyway) and explained how he should take it.

Like any normal two year old, he saw the meds going in the cup and refused to drink it. He hit it out of her hand and spilled about half. So I tried to salvage the little bit of powder that was still in the packet. Then we added sugar and he still wouldn’t take it. So I had her switch cups and tell him it was water. Then of course he drank it right down.

It was clear that he was dehydrated and even though he did not feel well he was gladly accepting water. It was news to her to give it to him. It’s a common belief that if stuff is coming up through vomiting or diarrhea that you should withhold water because it will just make them expel more. So that was the very first thing that I told her, that he needs to be well hydrated. She responded well and ran to get water. She is a very eager mommy and wants to learn how to take care of her first baby.

I told her to give him another dose in the afternoon (around 5 o’clock prayer time because they don’t usually pay attention to hours, and the mosque call to prayer is a good time marker) and that I would be back to check on him that afternoon. I am going to teach her one-on-one how to make ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts) so that at least she can keep him hydrated. Hopefully the aspirin will work and this is just a passing flu, and not malaria. But if it continues (it has already been 4 days) then I am going to have to keep pushing her to go to the health post and have him tested.

Interactions like this are so scary. Panic sets in immediately. I get so anxious for these kids and these families. It’s sort of like having a town full of 10,000 children. I always feel so responsible. Especially for the ones that I actually do work with on a regular basis and am trying to teach better health practices.

If anything happened to any of the kids I’m close with I don’t know how I would recover. I worry about them every night when they are outside sleeping without mosquito nets, or sitting on the ground near animal feces and then eating, or climbing walls and scraping their hands on rusty nails.

Because at least at home in the states you know that you can take care of most illnesses on your own. We all have huge medicine cabinets and know how to wash out a cut. And if a situation ever becomes a real emergency, trained and reliable personnel are just moments away. And there are roads to get there, and ambulances, and telephones etc.

The anxiety and the fear build in the pit of my stomach and I constantly ask myself what else I can do. And I get so frustrated that my Pulaar still isn’t better and that I still struggle so much to actually explain things, especially related to health.

But then sometimes little kids surprise you and they bounce right back and you can’t believe that they pulled through. In a way I’m starting to understand why people are so fatalistic and believe that the choice of who lives and who dies is out of their hands. Because a lot of times it defies all explanation and logic.

For example, I am SO happy to report that the baby that I wrote about in May, Oumou, who is the baby of a sister in another villages (the one that was having trouble breast feeding), has somehow gone from a 1 kilo premature infant, to a fat, happy, normal 4 month old. And it’s thrilling. She is always all smiles and never cries. I just don’t get it. I just didn’t expect her to make it. She’s a fighter I guess and has been since she was born.

(Next Day)
I went back to Aminata’s house this morning to check on her son. His fever is almost gone as far as I can tell. When I asked her what she gave him she said that she went to the pharmacy and picked up malaria medication.* She had just given him the first dose that morning. Who knows if that really what it is, but at least he seems better and was sleeping.

*(This is one of the reasons that some strains of malaria in some regions of Africa have become resistant to certain drugs. Here during the rainy season, everything is immediately diagnosed as malaria. I am pretty sure that the health post does not have the resources or take the time to test people using malaria smears. They just prescribe the prophylaxis to anyone with symptoms of malaria (which are pretty general and apply to almost every other illness).

Though he still wasn’t drinking anything. I sat her down to talk about giving him ORS and I was pleasantly surprised that she already knew how because she learned how to make it from the previous volunteer. Again, knowledge is there, behavior change is slow. But she thought that the ORS could only be used for diarrhea, so I assured her that it would be good because he is very dehydrated. She said she would make it right away. Fingers crossed that she did. At least his fever is gone. Hopefully he’s on the mend.

Case #2

The second “health volunteer moment” of the day happened right when I came back from Aminata’s house. I walked in and there was my 15-year-old sister, Faama, (who goes to school by the way) about to put BRIGHT PINK NAIL POLISH on her friend’s infected blister beetle bite! Are you kidding me? Nail Polish? What??

(If I could make a movie of this moment it would be in slow motion.)

I basically yelled, “What are you doing?” and ripped the bottle out of her hand. She is always the first to argue with me and question my health knowledge and it took me a good 10 minutes to convince the two of them that nail polish was not going to do any good, has NO antiseptic, or beneficial properties, and would make the infected blister worse. I had to plead with them that all they needed to do was wash it with soap and water and keep it clean and dry and eventually it will heal and go away by itself.

(Clarification: Blister beetles are these horrible things that if they land on you they often pee and their urine leaves a huge blister that is painful and can get easily infected (mostly because people don’t keep them clean or know how). Luckily, all you have to do is keep it clean and dry. It is still a very annoying bug to deal with. And everyone seems to have one so I’m assuming it is the season for them. Yuck.)

Last night I saw someone with one on his neck and it was absolutely covered in flaky white junk. Of course I freaked out and told him to run to the health post immediately. But he laughed and just said that it was a blister beetle blister, but that he had put “cream” on it. God only knows what it was…toothpaste? Soap shavings? Lotion? I have no idea.

I have decided that my very first lesson for the kids at the schools will be a first aid lesson. The things people put on cuts and scrapes make me cringe: sand, leaves, toothpaste, dirt, nail polish (apparently), hair pomade, cologne, random lotions and creams. You name it.

Although these moments are scary, at least I know there is a lot of work to be done and that I am definitely needed here.

Now I just have to work on not making myself a nervous wreck every time I see a sick child. Because if I don’t, I’m never going to make it through this.