Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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.

1 comment:

Shla said...

Cait! This entry is amazing! I think, if you haven't already, you should read it out loud to yourself. Really listen to what you've written. You are doing such amazing thing. I don't think you have any right to say they're "small" in anyway. Your actions and words are clearly impacting more people than you think. I'm going to get a box of hand sanitizer and send them to you so that I can help you reduce that 43% statistic. You seem so happy and dare I say in your element? The image I have in my head now is from Ghana when you, Rachel and I brought snacks and such down to that family in Cape Coast. Remember? They were so happy with the small amount we gave them. Instead, you're not giving out knowledge that hopefully will be passed on to others. It will benefit them in ways that you both hope and probably will never realize. I'm so proud of you and am enjoying reading about your experiences that I know are difficult to put into words that we can all comprehend!