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.