Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Work Hard, Play Hard

Work Hard, Play Hard

This is an expression that I use a lot at home. Perhaps it is just my own “life philosophy” or maybe it is an ultimately American notion…I dunno. But I do know that it fits my life pretty much exactly. I know when to buckle down and work until I’m exhausted and that is always my first priority, but I also know how and when to take time off and explore new places, people, and things.

I guess I never thought that such a simple saying, one that I consider almost part of daily parlance, would be so inspiring to someone else. But bear with me, because this story is only a preview into a larger entry about my work here in Senegal as an Urban/rural preventative health education volunteer.

I met up with a teacher today, who has lived and worked in my town for 5 years. (Teachers here do not get a choice in where they get sent. Of course most of them want to be near Dakar, or near the ocean, or near home, but sometimes they end up here in the desert.) This English teacher, Mr. Diouf, and I arranged to meet early Saturday morning. Apparently he worked very closely with the two previous volunteers and is a very motivated (and quite hilarious) and friendly guy.

There I was at the only private school in town (5,000 CFA per month~10 dollars) when I made the connection that the mayor (whom I have met several times—also very friendly but firm) is the headmaster of this school. While I was there he stopped by, and the three of us held an impromptu meeting in his office about my work in the town, and about the school’s exam results (as this is its first year and there is a lot of pressure to produce high marks).

While the two men were planning the end of the school year party, Mr. Diouf offered up the expression that I had taught him only moments earlier “Work Hard Play Hard.”

It is hard to describe the instant approval that washed over the mayor’s face once I translated the meaning of this expression “Travailler dure, jouer dure.” It was as if I had just given him the key to eternal life or something! He immediately started reciting it and wrote it all over his calendar and went on and on for ten minutes about why that is such a brilliant saying and that “yes, of course work must come first, but one is nothing without the other” etc. etc.

The three of us made a few more jokes, set the date for the end of school party which they are eager for me to attend and then we parted ways.

I know that today, I made an ally of the mayor. And I know that he is one of the more important individuals to have on my side because all big meetings, health talks, events, must go through his office.

This is my work.

On my way home I stopped by the “Forestry Dept.” building, realizing that I had still not introduced myself. I just waltzed right in and was given an impromptu tour of the place and a brief summary of the work that they do there. They were all young, from Dakar, very nice young men and eager to take me on a tour of all of the plants they were growing and the peppinieres they so carefully guard and distribute to anyone who asks for them. Then they asked me about my work there as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was only a brief half hour exchange, but I am confident that keeping these 4 men closeby will come in handy when I want to pursue projects involving nutrition and gardening.

This is my work.

Sitting around with my sisters for hours and hours every evening until one night one of them gets up the courage to ask me about AIDS.

This is my work

Reinforcing the good behavior of my younger siblings when they wash their hands with soap before eating.

This is my work.

Attending a conference run by a local NGO to train health workers in my town and making my face known, and making connections and pinpointing future resources.

This is my work.

As an urban volunteer, finding resources that will be useful to nearby village-based PCVs.

This is my work.

Taking over the bi-monthly health radio show run by current PCVs once they leave (and once my Pulaar is good enough).

This is my work.

Hanging around at my counterparts house and meeting and greeting other officials that stop by and drinking tea with them and discussing future projects for the upcoming year.

This is my work.

Being invited by the mayor’s office to take a tour of the new hospital construction site and being included in the meeting about it’s opening ceremony (which President Abdoulaye Wade has promised to attend!)

This is my work.

I cannot put it into a soundbyte, or even give a few short sentences for family members to recite to friends. But I can share my stories with all of you. And I can describe the kinds of day to day interactions that right now in my first three months of “Community Entry Phase” will allow me to do my “real work” later.

It is totally open ended, and there is tons of room for creativity. Yes it is challenging to be “thrown” into a community with no specific task, or boss, or end goal, but it also means that there is that much more opportunity for invention. I think that the most wonderful thing about being a PCV is that we do come into the community and let them tell us what they need! Ultimately, we are “public servants” in every sense of the word. I am not here with an agenda of the ‘development’ work that I think will be beneficial. No. I am here to watch and observe, and brainstorm, and talk, and most importantly listen…to the needs, of this community, to the problems they want addressed and to work WITH them to create sustainable ways to help them achieve their health goals.

As an American I understand that this entry is probably making you all nuts. I too sometimes don’t even know how to explain my work. So I will try to give you a more concrete description to take away.

Yes, I am a health education volunteer. This means that I can work with schools, with women’s and men’s groups, with the health post, with the mayor’s office, with NGOs, to organize health talks, health clubs, get kids to put on skits, bring in the Forestry Dept. to donate and teach the local school how to keep a garden and discuss the importance of nutrition etc. I can hang out at the health post on vaccination days and talk with moms about their children’s health. I can work with the mayor’s office to organize meetings with existing groups and offer my services to lead talks. And the list goes on…

Ultimately, the end goal is to meet motivated individual point people in the community and over the two years, train them to become health “relais”…that is community health educators. To train them to be able to lead Malaria Awareness Day’s in nearby villages, or lead a Diarrhea Causerie at a local school, or any number of different subjects and projects. This is what makes my ‘sector’ sustainable. Meanwhile, many volunteers will guest teach in an English class, or have English club meetings at people’s houses and use English to talk about health related concerns.

I guess in some ways, I am an organizer? Because at least in my town, there are so many projects and people all working towards the same goal, and so many untapped resources and so many motivated individuals that it is a full time job to put all of the pieces together.

But all of these kinds of interactions take time. And often it is just a crapshoot and you have to be at the right place at the right time and meet the right person. This is why hanging around and greeting, and meeting everyone possible and attending events, and learning Pulaar, and just making my face known is the most important thing for me to be doing right now.

I have TONS of ideas for projects floating around in my head and I can’t wait to start my actual “work” once I return in September from In Service Training. Until then, I have to keep studying my Pulaar frantically, and meeting everyone under this sweltering Sahelian sun. Because that is the only way that I will be accepted into this community and the only way they will later take me seriously when the uncomfortable conversations about STIs, and population growth, and forced marriages, and nutrition, and breastfeeding, and gender roles come into play.

This is my work. Work Hard, Play Hard.

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