Sunday, July 29, 2007


Worrying that my most recent entries were downers, I decided that I wasn’t being representative of the full range of emotions I’ve been experiencing. Namely, that I hadn’t written enough about the happy moments that warm your heart. So not only am I going to upload lots of happy cute pictures of adorable children this week (Inshallah they go through), but I am also going to include this list of blissful moments.

To totally plagiarize…

Caitlin Givens’ Moments of Zen…

Walking back from the mayor’s office. 4 young girls (age 5ish) running full force at me yelling “Toubak! Toubak!” with huge grins on their faces. One of them ran straight into me and gave me a huge bear hug. It was so cute. I busted out laughing and smiled all the way home. Here she came barrelling towards me, a perfect stranger, and her little head only came up to my hips. Adorable.
When people emphatically correct me and tell me that “No, you speak Pulaar very well” when I apologize for only speaking a little bit. A little compliment goes a long way.
The day that my newest nephew (Albert age 18 months or so) recognized me and not only stopped being afraid of me, but spent hours playing with me.
My birthday. I spent it surrounded by new PCV friends who I’ve only known for a few months, who trekked out from their villages (no easy task) to spend time with me, just so that I could have a nice day. One of whom called for a circle of “Why We Love Caitlin.” Then each went around in turn and gave one reason why they love me. It’s hard to explain how important fellow PCV support is out here. We really do become eachother’s family.
Recognizing people from my town!
Prepping people in my town for my departure for IST and them all telling me how much they are going to miss me.
Finally feeling accepted by the matrons and sage-femmes at the health post.
Double trouble. My two little nephews toddling around our compound with their big bellies (not cuz they’re fat) hanging out, babbling in babyspeak, and herding our family’s goats. They are fearless and will just go right up to them and smack em if they aren’t going the right way.
A solid night’s sleep.
The 2 days when my alarm clock thermometer did not get above 100 degrees!
Successfully convincing my family that they NEED to sleep under mosquito nets.
Attending my quartier’s (neighborhood) winning soccer match. Everytime they scored a goal we all rushed the field and my sisters and their friends and neighbors danced and sang throughout the whole game.
The realization that I’m going to be able to eat ICE CREAM for 3 weeks when I’m in Thies for IST!
Finally tracking down the health supervisor in his office after months of unsuccessful attempts.
The sound of the robinet in the morning (the faucet). Because it means that the water is on.
It being cool enough at night to finally start sleeping in my room.
Haco nights! Yum!
Going to the post office and discovering that I have letters, packages, or postcards of any kind. (THANK YOU ALL!)
Not freaking out when I found a full chicken head and neck in my “yassa poulet.” (I did not eat it.)
Catching a whiff of something that smells good-soap, lotion, perfume, anything.
Eating as much all natural, not processed Senegalese peanut butter as I want. A half kilo is only 75 cents!
Doing laundry while jamming out to Whitney Houston’s Top 20 and singing at the top of my lungs.
Quiet moments talking with my yaaye when its just she and I and the littlest kids.
When my little 7 year old nephew and 10 year old niece came to my door the other day and held up a tiny slip of paper asking me what it said. My eyes fell on the words “erectile disfunction.” My sister Binta found some generic viagra in the house and was wondering what the pills did, but the instructions were written in English. Hilarious. Of course no one has admitted ownership of the meds!
The realization that I am really going to miss my family for the month that I am gone for IST in Thies. When I almost cried leaving my baby nephews I realized that this really is my home.
And finally…those moments when I’m walking around my town, or riding in a van and I think to myself “I’m doing it!” That I’m living my dream. I’m here, in West Africa, on my own, doing what I love, working for something I believe in, challenging myself every moment and not just surviving, but thoroughly enjoying almost every moment.

The Health Post

The Health Post

Every Thursday is vaccination day at my town’s health post. It coincides with the weekly market so that everyone knows what day it is happening. This is very effective and I have been consistently impressed with the turnout. At my first vaccination day 64 women showed up to vaccinate their babies! Women come from all over the region, not just from my town. They come in from nearby villages, and towns nextdoor.

I have recently started attending the vaccination days, not to vaccinate any babies of course, but to hang out and speak with the women, to practice my Pulaar, and to have a chance to talk to them a bit about their health concerns (in my broken Pulaar). All the while I have my PCV observation goggles on. I take in every site, sound, concern, and emotion I can until my head is swimming with ideas and of course, frustrations and disappointments.

As I said, 64 women showed up several weeks ago. Most of them arrived between 8-9am. The last ones did not leave until 2pm. They waited to be seen for 6 hours, in the heat, with their infants. There are only 2 benches, which means there is room for about 4 women on each. The rest sprawl out on the cement floor and when that is full the others wait outside in the sand or on mats. When the power goes out, so does the running water and on this day, the power was out, so no one had any water to drink.

But despite all that, these women persevere. They pay the money to travel by cart or van, they brave the heat and the thirst, all to come and vaccinate their babies. I am always inspired by their drive. None of them speak any French which means that they have not been to school and I am consistently impressed that it is now common knowledge for babies to even be vaccinated in the first place.

All that aside, my days at the health post are exhausting. The first vaccination day I had my first run in with really sick, tiny, skinny, malnourished, swollen-bellied newborn babies who will most likely not even live to 3 months. This is just devastating every time. My first day I had to leave because I couldn’t hold back the tears. Even thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes.

I try to single out the mommies with the sickest looking babies and talk to them about why they are so tiny and what they can do to make them well. Because it’s not as if they do not notice. And I can see all the other women with healthier babies glancing knowingly at the tiny ones. I spoke with one woman about her baby and I asked her if she was breast feeding exclusively-no water, no butter, no oily coffee dipped bread, breast milk only. She nodded at me sheepishly and then later of course I saw her giving her newborn tap water out of a filthy sippy cup. Sigh.

It’s these kind of interactions that have motivated me to start weekly health talks at the health post on vaccination days. I have already cleared it with the head midwife and she was very encouraging. I mean, I will have a captive audience of bored, hopefully interested women. I know it will not be ideal, because it will still be hot and uncomfortable, but it is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of a captive and idle audience. I will be giving talks on breastfeeding, diarrhea, explaining the vaccination cards (because they are in French), the importance of pre-natal visits, tracking their babies weight, first aid, malaria, you name it. I am eager to start as soon as I come back from IST. I know that the women will be appreciative because they are always very receptive to me when I am there. They just cannot believe that there is a toubak at the health post who not only speaks some Pulaar, but who wants to do nothing else but sit around and talk to them and hold their babies, and laugh, and make them feel at ease. (I will admit that these days are very good for my own ego because the women always tell me how good my Pulaar is. Not true, but nice to hear. And of course I get to hold adorable drooling, giggling, babies all day. Heaven!) I even had one woman give me a bin bin a few weeks ago just for talking to her. I was touched.

From hanging around at these vaccination days I now understand first hand the complexity of the health problems in my town.

For one thing, the quality of care is almost absolutely zero. Women are literally afraid of the nurses and midwives there. And I entirely understand why. If they are late vaccinating their babies, they get yelled at; when they get injections there is no forewarning, the nurses just stab them gossiping with their friends all the while; if they don’t jump up and run to the vaccinating room the instant they are called the midwives roll their eyes and sigh as if they have somewhere else they are supposed to be; the babies are thrown around like pillows and vaccinated on a cold hard slab of metal; and don’t even get me started about the birthing room…

Perhaps that needs to be reserved for a whole other entry?
But ultimately, there is no privacy. There are 5 “beds” (wire structures with old foam pads) all in one room and the door is left open at all times so that when the health post is crowded women can come in and sit in there. So women who are in labor are always surrounded by strangers. The midwives might check on them every once in awhile, but ultimately they are left to their own devices until the very last minute. Most bring a family member who fetches them water and whatever they need, but if they can’t, they are totally alone in a crowded, filthy, hot room with no bathroom facilities, and no medical facilities. There are no ultrasound machines, or heart monitors, or medicine for pain. Nope, it’s pretty much just a room and as far as I can tell every woman is indiscriminantly given an IV drip of glucose.

So there is little incentive to even get to the health post in the first place. As a result many women choose to give birth at home. I spoke with one woman recently who told me that when she was in labor, she trekked to the health post at midnight, got ahold of the midwife who told her to go back home because it was too late at night, and the woman most likely would not need to be there until morning. On her walk back sure enough, the baby arrived and she gave birth right there in the sand. In the sand, with animal shit and urine, and tires, and trash, and rotting food. And the stories don’t end there. Every week I hear new ones, each more horrifying than the last.

And on the other end, the midwives get jaded and frustrated because they repeatedly see women doing exactly the things they tell them not to, like not exclusively breastfeeding until six months, or not coming to the vaccination days on time, or not coming for prenatal visits. So there are frustrations all around and no one seems to be working to retrain the health workers to be more compassionate, and the women are not receiving the necessary education to help keep their babies healthy.

I suppose this is where I come in, as a middle person, to transfer simple health knowledge and to live by example.

But I am going to start this work off right. Namely, by gathering data. I can access any records I want (health post, mayor’s office) so I am first going to accumulate statistics on the number of deaths of children under 2 in my town and then after two years I will actually have something to compare to. Granted it is not ideal because reporting is not required and there is plenty of room for error, but I think that concrete results are important and unfortunately they are difficult to come by and overlooked in a lot of grassroots development work.
I am ready to start helping mommies keep their babies alive, healthy, and giggling…one vaccination day at a time.

Atheist Man Hater

I called my parents last week and the first thing I blurted out was
“My site is turning me into an atheist man-hater!”

I didn’t think it was possible, having grown up with atheist parents in a liberal town in Northern California, but I think that living here in a conservative, Pulaar, polygamous, Muslim, region of Northern Senegal, has actually made me less religious and turned me into more of a champion of all things women’s rights related. And I realize that addressing this topic in this public forum has the potential to get ugly, so let me qualify what I’m about to say. This entry is about my observations, and the frustrations I encounter as a development worker working, living, and trying to integrate into a culture wholly unlike my own. I am not passing judgment or criticizing. I mean only to share my experiences with you all at home.

I’ve been thinking about this entry for over a week now. Thinking about how to write it and how to dive into a topic that is so complex and sensitive. Because ultimately, religion ties into this, but this entry is mostly about a culture of male dominance and female subordination (in my opinion, partly due to religion and of course many other factors such as lack of education, unemployment etc.). And I decided that no matter what, I can only capture so much through writing and I might as well just dive in and try my best. I hope that you will all be patient with me as I ramble.

Here is how it started.

About 2 weeks ago I was invited to a conference on girls’ schooling. A dynamic and educated young woman I met while drinking tea at my counterpart’s house invited me. I quickly accepted the invitation and agreed to put on my best Senegalese outfit, headwrap and all. To boot, I was going to get a ride from my counterpart’s husband who has a car. So Sunday I went to my counterpart’s house to check on when we’d be leaving. I walk in and she’s lying on the floor resting at 10am and looks horrible. She’s about 7 months pregnant and she’s older and has been really tired and in a lot of pain lately. I tell her that she should spend the day napping and rest as much as possible and try to eat more frequently and stay hydrated etc.

She laughs/groans and says she has to prepare lunch. I look around. There are not one, not two, but 6…count them 6 able-bodied young strapping men LAYING around in their living room watching TV doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. And SHE gets up, nauseous, in pain, and spends the ENTIRE day preparing their food, cleaning up, and then preparing dinner. I almost went nuts. So being the assertive toubak I asked them all why they weren’t helping. “Men don’t cook,” was the response I got as they changed the channel on the TV. Brilliant.

So later that afternoon when I headed back to her house I was already annoyed and worked up about her feeling so badly and not having any help. I was all dressed up in my grande bou-bou, (Senegalese attire) wearing my headwrap, and my desperately uncomfortable hot, wrap skirt. I was sitting around waiting for my counterpart’s husband to get going (Senegalese time. At least an hour late) and I started talking to one of his guests. Now, I’ve met this man before and I knew that I was in for a conversation about polygamy and why I would never ever in his dreams be his second wife.

Maybe it would be better to write out the conversation. This isn’t ver batem but it is the best I can remember. (It was all in French. He doesn’t speak Pulaar).

“Caitlin, you still won’t accept polygamy in your life and be my second wife huh?”
“Nope. Never. Not a chance. Not even in your wildest dreams.”
“But why? Polygamy is good!”
“Yeah it’s good…for the men.”
“Right. So?”
“So? That’s entirely unequal. If men can have multiple wives, why can’t women have multiple husbands?”
(Hilarious outbursts of laughter from the men in the room).
“No Caitlin, that’s not right.”
“Why not?”
(Be prepared for this one…)
“Because it’s in men’s very nature to NEED to have sex with more than one woman. It’s our right ordained by Allah.”
Fact Check: Islam does NOT promote polygamy outright. It merely tolerates it. And limits it to 4 wives.
(Stunned silence from me).
“That’s ridiculous. I do not agree. Polygamy is merely legalized infidelity. In my opinion it should be one person for one partner. I will never be your second wife. Quit asking. I’m bored of this conversation. I get asked every day and the answer will always be no!”

Then the conversation dissolved into laughter (his) and I excused myself from the room. Normally these conversations are routine and I can bounce back from them, but I was already in NO mood to tolerate anymore patronizing “maleness.” It was hot, I was waiting to get to this conference and nervous about having to try and understand all of it, and I was just done defending myself. It becomes exhausting to talk about 10 times a day.

But some days, there is just no rest for the weary PCV.

I went outside hoping to find some comfort in the younger brother who I often talk to because he is extremely patient with me and always wants to talk about America and asks lots of questions and helps me with my Pulaar.

Unfortunately, he was the straw that broke my back…

We started talking about the conference, and that it was promoting the importance of girls schooling. He asked me why it wasn’t about boys schooling too, and brought up the scholarship program that the PC offers to girls of middle school age, but not to boys. So I told him about the statistics, about how many girls drop out after middle school because they are given a husband by their parents. How there are many more boys in high school than girls and this conference and the scholarship program were designed to encourage people to let their daughters and wives continue their schooling.

He chuckled and I knew I was in for a tiring debate. (This time in Pulaar and French).

“But girls don’t need to go to high school.”
“What? Of course they do? Why would you say that? Boys and girls are equal.”
“WHAT? No they are not. Boys and girls are not equal.”
“What are you saying? Seriously? So then what you’re saying is boys are better. They deserve an education. Is that what you mean?”
(Nervous laughter on his part.)
“All I’m saying is that they are not equal. I won’t say who is better. Besides, girls don’t need to go to school because they get husbands and they work in the house. They don’t need to be educated.”
“That’s ridiculous. I definitely don’t agree. Besides, the more education a woman receives the higher chance of survival of her children. Don’t you want your children to survive?”
“That is up to Allah. Besides, girls need to be married early.”
“Early? But here it happens as early as 13! Another volunteer’s brother (age 25) just married an 11-year-old last week! Is that okay?”
“Of course.”
“But she’s just a child. She probably can’t even conceive yet. Ask ANY teenage girl. None of them want to be married yet. When I went around and did my scholarship interviews I did not meet a single girl who wanted to leave school and be married off to some man twice her age and leave her family. That is no future.”
“No. Early marriage is good.”
“Right, for the old men that are marrying them.”
“Yeah it’s good for the men. For us. (Chuckles). But Caitlin, Caitlin…early marriage is good because if they don’t get married they will start running out at night and having sex. You watch…they all do it.”
“At 13? That’s ridiculous. I have 3 teenage sisters in my house right now. And you know them, and you know that they aren’t doing that. They don’t even have time to study let alone have boyfriends because they’re working in the house all day long.”
“No Caitlin. You watch and see. I am going to marry a young wife. I want 3.”
“But imagine if you were a 13 year old girl, going to school, living with your family, enjoying time with your friends and one day your father comes home and gives you a husband. You’re pulled out of school, you’re dressed up and married off and terrified of the wedding night. You have to leave your friends and everyone you know, and live with his family and spend the rest of your life in the house, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. I mean why do you think so many young girls sit and sob with their groups of friends on their wedding days? Would YOU want that fate?”
“Of course not. But it’s good for them. And I would because I would have to.”

You get the point. It’s not really worth continuing because it just gets me riled up. The conversation ended when I told him point blank that I did not agree. I think I actually stamped my foot and turned my back to him to avoid punching him in the face. And I know. I know that this is not being culturally sensitive, or accepting of his opinion, and his upbringing…but damnit I can’t always be on my best behavior. And sometimes silence is more harmful in the long run. I’d rather risk being rude and have a shot at making him think about what he’s saying. It was just that suddenly, the reality of the kind of centuries of ingrained teachings I am up against loomed in front of me and within seconds I was fighting off tears of frustration and desperation.

This whole thing was so devastating. Not just because of what he said, but also because it came from someone who I enjoy talking with and who I looked forward to sharing experiences with. It was so disappointing.

Thankfully we headed to the conference. My counterpart’s husband, his friend, and myself. Of course they were joking the whole way that the three of us were going to spend the night there and that I was going to have to sleep in the middle of them. Gross. And patronizing. And the joke is old and was never funny in the first place.

The Conference.

As I said, no rest for the weary.

Upon arrival men and women are separated and seated on opposite sides of the compound. In the middle sat a bunch of men on huge cushy couches and were served ice water and tea. They were marabous and Imams mostly. The women meanwhile are sitting in plastic chairs and must share a few sachets of water between themselves and the babies they all have on their backs and in their laps.

Within five minutes I realize that the whole conference is going to take place in Wolof, so I won’t understand a single thing. And it’s not exactly about GIRLS schooling. It’s about the role of Islam and schooling.

3 hours later. I am bored almost to tears. Only ONE woman has spoken the entire night and only to briefly explain her role in organizing this event and that she wants to see more girls kept in school.

On the way home my counterpart’s husband briefly summarized the event (and only after I pestered him). Basically the Grand Marabou talked the entire time. His point was that Koranic schooling should come first. He did not speak a word about keeping girls in school.

Koranic school? Are you kidding me? I want those 3 hours of my life back. I just couldn’t believe it.

I mean, what kind of skills do these kids get from going to Koranic school? Young boys are sent away by their parents during some of the most fragile years of their life (6-10) to sit all day long, filthy, hungry, exhausted, reciting the Koran, and begging for food. I just can’t wrap my head around this idea. I mean what skills do these kids leave with? None. What prospects do they have for employment? Zero. Senegal can’t have thousands of marabous, or Koranic scholars. And they can’t go back to normal school after they’re finished if they’re over 10 years old because they’re not allowed in after 10.

This just baffles my mind. My counterpart for example, chose to put her eldest son in Koranic school instead of regular school. When I asked her what he was going to do afterwards for work, like maybe be an Imam, or a marabou, or teach the Koran, or continue his studies at University, she sort of laughed and said “Oh no. He’ll move to France and work and find a French wife.” Great.

Not to say that everyone has to have schooling to be productive and have successful careers, but we all know it makes it that much more possible. The sort of unreal expectations and the lack of planning and the total absence of logic all for the sake of studying the Koran…I just cannot relate to. And I don’t even know where or how to start.

But maybe I don’t have to relate.

And I’m not here to change anyone’s beliefs or pass judgment on his or her decisions. That’s not what I’m getting at. My intellectual challenge is to find ways to transfer the knowledge and skills that my community asks me for, despite these enormous obstacles I have laid out in this entry. As I said at the beginning, my frustration comes from trying to work through and with these ideas, some of which are entirely contradictory to the work I have been asked to do and see tremendous need for.

If you’re still reading, thanks for your patience and understanding as I grapple with how to sort through of all of my emotions and thoughts from that day. (Remember, that was all just one day). I hope that I have at least made all of you think!

Finding the silver lining. (Because that’s what I do best).

Through it all, even at my lowest moment of the day, even though I was so discouraged, I still didn’t want to leave. Yes, I was overwhelmed and wondering how in the world I was going to be able to affect change. But I am in no way, shape or form going to call it quits. I have made a commitment and I am in this for the long haul.

Wish me luck!

Ode to a Toad

Edward the Toad

Some PCVs have pet cats, or dogs. Not me. I have a pet toad.

The rains have arrived. And so has Edward the toad. One day I found him hopping around in my room. I threw him outside and he hopped right around the corner to my douche and moved into the the hole in the wall where water drains from my “shower” area. He is great company. I know he won’t be around for very long (aka. Until the rains start pouring down), but for the time being I like talking to him. He likes to come hangout in the water after I buckbath (P.S. In case you were wondering, yes, bucketbath is totally a verb).

My family thinks its hilarious that I named him and they often ask me how he is. On days when he is not there, my sister Mariata likes to tease me and ask if he’s called. When I say no she tells me that he is a bad friend and I shouldn’t let him move back in.

Oh Toubaks, we’re always good for a laugh.

I have uploaded some pictures of Edward for you all to admire. I didn’t think I would have a pet in the Peace Corps, but he hasn’t really given me a choice. When there are big rainstorms he is incredibly loud and sometimes I even talk to him. Mostly to yell at him to shut up.

Because he has become such an important figure in my life, I have decided to write a little Haiku about him.

Ode to a Toad

He lives in my douche
Hopping and croaking all night
I call him Edward

(Oh, and I do realize the silliness of this blog entry, but you know, sometimes you need to embrace the silly things so that you can have the strength to face the tragic ones.)

Living on the Downlow

Someone in my town (I am not mentioning who for privacy’s sake) has asked me to buy her birth control. She is married and her husband does not know that she is taking it. When asked by other women, she maintains that no of course not, she would never intentionally prevent pregnancies, that is up to Allah, but she is thrilled to have discovered the pill.

At first I thought she was probably being overly cautious, or paranoid. I mean, this is 2007 and I live in a fairly large town where most young people receive an education and they provide it at the pharmacy and the health post don’t they? Shouldn’t that be enough? But I also live in a conservative, Muslim, Pulaar, polygamous, society in West Africa.

Guess which one wins out at this stage in the game?

So I gladly agreed to help her out and rattled off some statistic about the percentage of women in the US that practice some kind of family planning (pretty sure it’s around 75% if memory serves me correctly? Please feel free to correct me if I’m totally off). Telling her that it will of course not harm her, or her ability to have babies later, and she can stop whenever she wants etc. I read her all of the facts, and myths included on the brochure she had (she is not very literate) and headed to the pharmacy with her thanking me profusely.

At the pharmacy, the man behind the counter refused to sell them to me. This is how the conversation went (French not Pulaar):

“I need 3 refills of this pill”
“I can’t give them to you.”
“No, it’s not for me, I’m picking them up for a friend.”
“Because she is busy at home preparing lunch and I offered to pick them up on my way into town”
“Why won’t she come pick them up herself? (gee. I wonder.) What’s her name?”
“I don’t need to tell you that.”
“Is she married?”
“What? Yes. (totally caught me off guard). Why does that matter?”
“Well does her husband live HERE? (insinuating that she’s being unfaithful) Does he know?”
“That is none of your business. Why would that be important? That has nothing to do with this.”
“Well I cannot sell them to you.”
“Fine. I won’t buy them from you then. Goodbye.”

I nearly lunged at his esophagus. The nerve. The ignorance, the machismo, the abuse of power. I walked right out, talked to the woman and promptly walked right back to the pharmacy. I ignored that first young man and went straight to the nice old man who sold them to me NO PROBLEM. Apparently that first guy is infamously difficult and everyone tries to be waited on by the older, nice man. But that is just a little taste of the kind of odds women are up against in my town. They can’t even space their pregnancies without living in fear of people finding out and being punished. When I talked to her about it she said that some of the older marabous in this area preach to people and tell them that the pill is evil and it makes women sick and that it will kill their children if they use it.


And it’s not as if she is the only one.

I have had several women approach me privately at the health post asking me if I can give them the pill. The conversation always happens quickly, in hushed voices, away from the eyes of curious neighbors. When I tell them that I don’t, that they have to see the midwife first and get a prescription, they always clamp their mouths shut quickly and that is the end of the conversation. I try to be as encouraging as possible, answering all of their questions and letting them know that it is inexpensive and available. But the risk of others finding out is simply too great.

Challenge # 5,396.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The big 24


Today is the start of the first year of my mid-twenties.

Every year on my birthday I like to look back over the year and think about what I’ve accomplished during those previous 12 months. 23 was a huge year for me. I finished grad school, got my massage therapy certification, had my first couple of birthing experiences as a doula, and of course, joined the Peace Corps and moved to the Sahel desert in Senegal!

Today I am feeling incredibly lucky. I realized that the past four birthdays I have been in different countries scattered around the world: Senegal, London, Sevilla, and Maui. This time last year I ate at Sushi Nobu London for my birthday. What a privileged existence I have led. I do not feel guilty, but today especially I am just reminded of how fortunate I am to have these opportunities.

I am spending the day in town surrounded by other PCVs, laughing, speaking english, napping, writing, and eating yummy food.

In Service Training is starting on August 6th, which means that I will be back in Thies, enjoying the splendours of a big city for three weeks. Taking beach trips on the weekends, eating ice cream, speaking English, and working at my technical training so that I am prepared to go back to my site and start my official work.

September will bring Ramadan which is reportedly a tough month because everyone is fasting and not drinking water during the day, it is still hot, and then they are up at all hours of the night breaking fast. And it lasts for a month. It ends October 13th ish. November I have my first visitor from home! The new stage will be installing by then and we will no longer be the newbies. By then I will have been in country for 8 months! I just know that it is going to start flying by. I already can’t believe that I have been here for over 4 months.

Unfortunately, we have already lost 5 PCVs. All of whom I loved very much and I am devastated to see go. That is tough, and it’s hard for morale, but all of them had more than legitimate reasons to head home. But if they are reading….we miss all of you. Do amazing things wherever you end up!

I think that one of the reasons that time has sped up is because I am starting to be really busy. There is so much momentum in my town for health work. I am constantly invited to health talks and other events and meeting many important point people.

Also I must apologize for being such a lame blogger lately. I had lent my computer adapter to a friend and only now got it back so I have no new entries because my computer ran out of juice. That being said, this whole next week I expect to totally binge on entries so next week you loyal followers can expect many long detailed updates.

My Ipod has officially died. I am devastated. Especially because I have a 2 day car ride ahead of me to get to Thies. Frustrating for sure. But I guess I should be lucky I have it in the first place. It’s made me realize how attached I am to my electronics. They are my lifeline here.

I promise pictures and many more interesting blog entries next week….

Monday, July 2, 2007

A yeroba to remember

A “yeroba” to remember…

I know I have talked about my “jaye funday” (ahem…"well-proportioned rear end") before on my blog, but I feel like it has become such an important “ASS-et” (groan…I know) that it warrants its own entry. It’s almost comical how many times a day it comes up in conversation. And I don’t just mean the passing comments. Those I just expect. In fact even today, a kid driving a charet (horse or donkey drawn wagon like vehicle) who could have been no more than 14, greeted me as they sailed passed. But as soon as I was almost out of ear shot he called out to me “Eh! Toubak…yeroba maa ina moyyi!” (“Hey Toubak…nice ass!”) But it is not as derogatory as what we would be used to in the states. There I was alone on the road and I just busted out laughing. I just think it’s so funny that it’s such a big deal to people…and EVERYONE notices. Seriously, everyone. I’ll be passing by people and I’ll hear them mutter “hey, the toubak’s got a yeroba! Look at that?!” Hilarious.

It’s totally a conversation starter too. And it gives me an instant “in” when I can talk to people and laugh about it. This is my favorite example:

The other day after an exhausting workshop at the mayor’s office, I stopped in at a little boutique to buy some water sachets (bags of filtered water that are 20x cheaper than the filtered water that comes in plastic bottles). When I went it, I noticed three youngish men sitting outside of the shop and I knew that something was bound to come up. As I was paying for my water I heard one of them mutter something about “yeroba blah blah blah….” I whipped around and gave them a look like “don’t even try it. I understood you” and they started laughing. The store owner gave me a look like “oh boy, you’re in for it now. Good luck” and I left the store.

One of the men sitting there grabbed my wrist. This is pretty standard, and makes me nuts to no end, but thanks to a friend (you know who you are) I now know how to easily break away. So they started talkin’ to me about where I was from, what I was doing here etc. Then one of them was saying something about me NOT being a toubak, and he kept on insisting that I couldn’t possibly be a toubak “An wonaa toubak.” Confused, I asked him “ko wadi mi wonaa toubak?” (Why aren’t I a toubak?). His friends started busting up laughing and he just slyly pointed at his own backside. Teasingly feigning ignorance I pointed to my purse hanging at my hip. “What? Because of my bag?” He just kept pointing at his butt, but before he could try to explain I just cameback with… “OH! You mean my YEROBA?!…I know, I’m practically Senegalese!”

I don’t think I’ve ever made a stranger laugh so hard in my life. The three of them, the store owner, and a random passerby all just cracked up and almost fell out of their chairs.

Then we got into a discussion about how no toubaks have yerobas and it’s such a tragedy and they asked why I had one? And how that meant that I must not be a toubak, that my butt was too “nice/big” to not be Senegalese.

They just went on and on that they couldn’t believe that I knew that word. It’s so funny that people are so impressed and startled that I can bust out the slang term for bum. I mean I definitely won that interaction. And the one guys buddies just kept poking him and saying “see, the toubak knows the word for yeroba…she totally caught you!” They were laughing too hard to talk so each of them shook my hand laughing all the while, and I made my getaway.

And in case you’re wondering… yes, they did all gawk at my yeroba the whole time I was walking away.

Who knew that my bum would be such a good ice breaker? I mean maybe I should start telling incoming volunteers to work on getting a sizeable backend before they arrive and it will make cultural integration a breeze?!

The funny thing is though, I don’t necessarily understand why MINE gets so much attention. I mean there are plenty of volunteers with more sizeable rear ends than mine who don’t get harassed anywhere near as much as I do. Maybe I’m just an easy target and don’t mind talking about it. I dunno. But it really does endlessly entertain me.

Even my sisters bring it up everyday. Some days they think it’s looking too small and they worry that I’m losing weight, and some days they try to chide me into dancing for them when I’m walking away by yelling “yeroba amat amat” (essentially: “Dance big butt dance!”).

Sometimes people will call out to me and try to get my attention by yelling “Eh! Yeroba” instead of Toubak. To that I always whip around and say “Yeroba wonaa inde am!” (Yeroba is not my name.) Which again always makes them laugh and I can carry on my merry way.

It’s just an easy way to make people laugh. And I have found that more than anything else, even if my Pulaar is atrocious, if I don’t understand a single word they are saying to me, if I can smile and make a joke, or just make them laugh, then I make an instant friend. The Pulaar people are so jovial and always quick to laugh and smile. The key is to not let myself get so frustrated, or worn out, or discouraged that I can’t laugh it all off.

As I wrote before… “Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa come back laughing.” Every day I am learning how true that statement really is.

I think my yeroba deserves most of the credit.

Myth #1 Education is the Key???

Myth #1 Education is the key??

Since my arrival in country I have had this constant nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that my work here is missing the point. That I am going to accomplish nothing during my whole two years. That what Senegal needs to help its citizens “develop,” is sweeping educational reform from the governmental level. That what Senegal needs is educational policy reform, and funding to implement it. Because all of the problems that I battle on a daily basis, and all of the health problems I see, at this point in my PC experience, all seem to stem from an overall lack of education, and especially a lack in the QUALITY OF EDUCATION.

The past couple of days the dirth in the educational system has been repeatedly been slapping me in the face. I am realizing more and more that even though many people do receive a basic level of education, that the quality of said education is just disheartening beyond belief.

There are a couple of myths that all were slammed in my face yesterday from “educated” individuals that just made my heart fall. And I’m not talking about health related practices passed on from grandmothers to daughters etc. Those are in a category of their own and are already widely agreed upon as a lack of adequate education.
(2 Examples include:
*Pregnant women should not eat eggs. Already with the lack of protein and vitamins in this diet, taking away one of the cheapest and most useful sources from women when they need it the most is really harmful.
*If you brush your teeth at night your mother will die. Needless to say, many people’s teeth are rotten and painful.)

But the few that were said to me yesterday mostly resulted FROM the educational system.

These things were presented to me as facts by various fairly well *educated* individuals in my community. First I’m going to list them and then I will explain each scenario in turn.

*Disclaimer: I realize that the term “educated” has many different meanings, and there are all different kinds of “education” and that you cannot measure it and blah blah blah, but I’m talking about the ‘conventional/Western’ definition of education (aka. Schooling).

1. That the United States has 52 states.

I was told by several sources that all children learned this in school and it’s drilled into their heads. I had to swear on my own life that there were only 50. I mean they were SO convinced that I almost doubted myself. I’m pretty sure they’re still wary that I’m wrong. At least I made some headway when I brought up the point that I am in fact American and I lived there my whole life and that I should know.

2. That Senegal is the poorest country in Africa after Ethiopia.

With this one I almost spit up my food. I guess I (wrongly) figured information concerning Africa would be correct. The worst part was that my sister totally does not believe me and we spent all of lunch arguing about it. I tried to explain the concept of GDP per capita, and how “poorest” is measured. And then I launched into an explanation about levels of development and various UN indicators, and that I even wrote my undergraduate thesis on Senegal’s developmental success as compared to the rest of West Africa ( for example Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Mauritania, Niger) Not to mention other countries like the Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Botswana (nearly 40% HIV prevalence among its adult population!), etc. etc. etc. I am determined to print out some concrete statistics from the UN website next week, but if she doesn’t know what the UN is….is she going to appreciate the source and trust the reference? I’m not banking on it.

3. That there are only 3 continents.

This one I actually won quite easily by listing them on my fingers and mentioning that I personally had been to 4 of them.

4. That Senegalese men NEED to be polygamous because there are so many more women than men… and if they didn’t have many wives then there would be too many women left out of marriage.

Now I understand that this one is a little more embedded in the culture. I’ve heard it many a time. I know that it’s not necessarily something that people learn in school…but they certainly don’t learn that it’s not true. The worst part is that one of the guys I was talking to goes “Well look, how many women are there in your house?” (because there are more women than men)…as if 1 household could prove his point.

The problem was that his argument was so void of any logic that it’s totally unarguable. And that was the most frustrating part. That you can’t argue with someone that doesn’t understand how to even analyze those kind of figures and can’t wrap his head around those ideas. And I got so flustered that I ended up getting way too technical and busted out all of my grad school population banter. I started blabbering on about how worldwide for every 100 baby girls born there are actually 105 baby boys, and that men often go abroad to work, and all the little boys are sent away to Koranic schools and that’s why there seem to be so many girls in the households in Senegal …etc etc.
(In case you’re wondering….yes, I did this all in Pulaar!! Hooray for me!)

The most ridiculous part about his whole conversation is that I was literally the only woman and I was sitting around on mats with at least 15 middle aged married men.

At that point I realized they really didn’t care to believe otherwise so I put on a big smile and said “it’s just an excuse for infidelity!” They didn’t like that very much. But by then there were a few more women around and boy were they cheering me on!

Looking back, what I should have done was tried a more “out of the box” approach and found an example that they might have understood. I still don’t know what that might be, but I haven’t given up yet.

I think the most frustrating part about hearing these blatant untruths is that they are not only being perpetuated, but they are adamantly believed by the individuals perpetuating them. And why shouldn’t they be? If someone told me for example that India does NOT in fact border an ocean, and I grew up my whole life believing that it does, and I had never been there to see for myself…why would I believe them?

And of course my ego gets involved in these situations. In each case when all methods of reasoning with them failed I pulled the “Yes, but I AM RIGHT. Listen, I got my undergraduate AND graduate degrees in development/population related issues concerning the “developing world” and I actually studied these exact things at very reputable universities!” But it’s no use.

I guess the point of this whole entry is just to point out to people that yes sweeping educational reform is key…but QUALITY is just as, if not more important.

I mean when I say that my sisters even go to school, its only for a few hours a day and then every other day it seems they come home early for strikes, or because there is a meeting, or because of some other random reason. And vacations are ridiculously long and the start of school this year falls on Ramadan so it most certainly won’t start on time because they’ll all be too hungry and exhausted to concentrate or even go to school.

Some days my work feels like a tiny drop of rain in the middle of a drought…in the Sahara…when what it really needs is months of giant thundering rainstorms.