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.