Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Trying my very best

I cried for the first time at site. I am surprised that it took almost two weeks. Funny thing was, I was surrounded by other volunteers at the time and on the phone with someone from home. Who knows what triggered it, but I was suddenly overcome with how much work there is to be done here and my own small insignificant contribution to what seems like unsurmountable need. It is so overwhelming to sit back and look at the lack of infrastructure, money for education, non-existence of income generating activities, and dearth of healthcare.

What Senegal needs is a total overhaul of the education system, employment opportunities and infrastructure. It is the hugeness (is that a word?) of these “topdown” needs that make me feel useless, because I can do so little to change that.

Sometimes it just builds and it is too much for one idealistic California raised Peace Corps woman to handle. On the one hand, crying made me remember that yes, this IS hard and that while you become somewhat numb to the poverty and the sick babies and the inefficiencies of daily life, it is still hard to see day after day. It’s not even one specific thing that is the hardest, but everything all together.

The fact that children here while not starving, are stunted and malnourished, and ALWAYS have respiratory problems, and there is SO much idle time and no outlets for them. Even when they are in school it’s usually only for a few hours a day and practically every week the teachers are on strike or they have a meeting and class gets cancelled. There are no after school activities. Girls come home and work, and boys sit around and play and fight with eachother. There aren’t sports clubs or dance lessons, or theater productions, or chess clubs, or pottery classes, or music lessons, or even after school tutoring. There is just idle time. Everyone wants to come to America to work. Everyone. I have yet to meet a person who has not asked me to take them to america so that they can work. There just aren’t jobs here.

The other day I met a woman who has her first baby. Roughly 2 months old and so tiny. Maybe 6 pounds. Maybe. She has been having trouble breastfeeding (she thinks she doesn’t make enough milk…though her breasts were huge and obviously painful and swollen with milk) so she has already started the baby on the bottle which trains her not to be able to suckle at the breast. She gives her water and formula. I am sure it’s untreated and making the baby sick. The baby fusses constantly and I was so overwhelmed with how helpless I felt. I tried to initiate the breastfeeding conversation and make suggestions and show her how to feed, how to reteach the baby, but it was no use. She was obviously self-conscious about not being able to breastfeed, and hesitant to have this conversation with a stranger (understandably) and convinced that she wasn’t producing enough milk—that it’s her fault.

Here I am, I have the knowledge to help this woman help her baby and yet I can’t make her change her behavior. I can’t do anything other than try. And while I tell myself that it is better than nothing, it still doesn’t feel like it. In the states she would be able to go to a lactational specialist and have help and be able to feed her baby, or if not, at least have the knowledge and the means to give her child clean water and formula. But here, my hopes are low that this one will make it. And I don’t know who she is and I probably won’t see her again.

These are the kinds of daily interactions that are the most devastating.

Women and children here eat dirt. They actually will go to the well where the dirt has been dug up and is rich in minerals and eat dirt. They are so desperate for iron that their bodies crave it. I see babies here eat sand all the time. Instinctually it is correct…they need the minerals, but clearly it is more hazardous than helpful. My baby host brother plays in the sand all day long with chicken poop and goat poop and who knows what else, and then sucks on his hands. My host family had a volunteer for two years before me and watched her wash her hands with soap everyday before meals and talked to them about handwashing with soap, and they never do it. They tell me to do it, but they don’t.

Behavior change is slow…painfully slow. These things are touched on in school. There are TV advertisements all the time showing people to wash their vegetables with clean water and to wash their hands with soap. No one does it.

How on earth am I supposed to make people change? Why would anyone listen to me?

I know that these ups and downs are part of the experience. That I have many more frustrations to come. That I need to know that what I am doing IS important, and does matter. That even if I only help one person than it will be worth it. That sometimes you plant the seed and you can never see the results. But some days repeating that just does not help. Sometimes you just need to cry about it. And that’s okay.

I have posted statistics on infant, child, and maternal mortality in Senegal all over my walls, and written in huge letters “THIS IS WHY YOU ARE HERE” to inspire me day to day. And this is why I am here, to try and make a difference. I am committed to the cause, but some days I feel like it will never be enough.

But I am trying my very best…


Christopher said...

Caitlin,I was having a though couple of days and some how I new reading your blog would put my whole life in perspective.You are making a world of difference weather you see or not.You are so Beautiful just being around your energy makes a difference in all the peoples lives around you weather your in Senegal Africa or Davis California Thank You So much for sharing your experience with all of us and all the wonderful times we have had.

Caitlin said...

Thank you so much for your kind supportive words. It's kind of amazing how much they mean to me. Really it is so easy to be discouraged by how hard everything is, but at the same time just hearing a few encouraging words from people at home can brighten my day immediately! Thank you and thanks for following along.