Sunday, August 21, 2011

Waterfall Adventure

Last weekend, after our regional house meeting, a bunch of other volunteers and I decided to go camping at the Ingle waterfall.  The waterfall is 50k from the regional house, and half of that is on narrow, muddy bush paths.  Some of us decided to take a car 30k to Dindefello and then bike the rest of the way.

In the typical sept place, a 70’s station wagon, we strapped 10 bikes to the roof, loaded camping gear in the back, and squeezed 11 bodies into the car.  The hour-long ride was quite cozy.  The bikes were stacked high and started resembling the Leaning Tower of Pisa by the end of the ride.  We made it to Dindefello just in time!

From Dindefello, we had 20k to bike along bush paths to get to the waterfall.  We divided into multiple biking groups and biked single file along the narrow, rocky paths.  Every once in a while, we’d run into a stream or thick patch of mud to bike or trudge through.  A ride that should have taken an hour or two turned into a 4 hour saga.  I was injury number 1 as I hit a rock the wrong way and flew over my handle bars.  Luckily my right arm broke my fall, and I didn’t have any serious injuries.  Just scrapes and bruises.  Injury number 2 occurred when a member of our group fell off her bike.  She got up, brushed herself off and thought she was fine.  A few seconds later, she noticed her hand was wet, and we all saw blood gushing out of it.  She had a deep cut that must have hit a vein.  Luckily some of the volunteers were prepared with a medical kit and were able to wrap up her hand and get the rock out of it as well.  Since it’s the rainy season, skin infections are easy to contract, and it’s important to keep all wounds clean.  Lots of volunteers even put antiseptic in their bucket baths to keep clean.  All of us with cuts cleaned them out thoroughly.  Our third major stop occurred when one of the volunteers was extremely dehydrated and fell off his bike and had to lie down and drink oral rehydration solution.   As a group, we were a train wreck, but we made it!

By the time we finally got to the waterfall, we were all drenched in sweat and ready to jump into the river.  The cold water felt amazing!  The waterfall was beautiful, and I sat on a rock in the middle of the base, surrounded by lush, green jungle around me.  It’s the most beautiful spot I’ve seen in Senegal so far.  We were the only people there and set up camp right next to the river.   Camping during rainy season is a gamble, and of course it started pouring around 6pm right as the fire was lit to start cooking up our chickens.  The rain only lasted a couple hours though, and we cooked up a late, delicious dinner of chicken and pasta.  We even roasted marshmallows! 

The following morning, most people were anxious to start biking the 50k back before the heat got too bad.  I hung around with 6 guys, and we decided to climb to the top of the waterfall and swim around.  Rock climbing and hiking in flip flops was a challenge.  I definitely need to rethink my shoe choices better on the next adventure I go on.  I got some beautiful pictures at the top that I’ll post here once I can get a fast enough internet connection. 

After making ourselves some lunch, we began an intense bike ride back.  Since it had rained the night before, we had to bike through thick mud, and there were lots of streams to cross.  At one point, we had to unpack all of the stuff on our bikes and wade across a river, while carrying our bikes.  There was a precarious stick bridge that we did not think would hold our weight.  Ian tried it though, and he survived!  Through many of the muddy streams, I went barefoot since my flip flops kept getting sucked into the mud.  It was a crazy bike ride, but it was a blast!  We were riding at sunset, and I wish I could have filmed the ride, because it was inexplicably beautiful.  I kept wishing I had my camera handy so I could snap pictures of the fields and jungle we were biking through.  We finally made it back to the regional house after dark, and everyone was exhausted and dirty.  It was quite the adventure!

My life here seems so bizarre sometimes.  Two days ago, I was biking to Saraya, and I kept running into families of baboons along the road.  When else in my life am I going to be biking through families of baboons on my normal route into town?

Yesterday, I took the Niokolo from Kedougou back to my site, and it was a true test of patience.  The Niokolo has no glass around the sides to form normal windows, so it is open on all sides to the elements.  There are 6 rows of 2-person benches on each side of the truck, and the middle is packed with rice sacks and other cargo.  During rainy season, the open air aspect means that everyone is going to get soaked.  Sometimes they use a tarp to cover the sides, but with the amount of people they pack in, it gets very claustrophobic if they cut out all the airflow.  Yesterday, the truck was packed to the brim with men, women, and lots of screaming babies.  Rain was flying into the truck, and whenever we’d get too close to the trees along the side of the road, branches would hit people inside.  For some reason, Senegalese people enjoy spitting a lot.  I was sitting in a window seat getting drenched by the rain, dodging tree branches, and trying desperately to avoid having all the spit fly in my face as everyone around me kept spitting out the window.  I was amazed at how much spit some of these people could produce throughout a 3-hour ride.  Why can’t they just swallow?

Towards the end of the truck ride, I started thinking about how all of these things have become so normal to me now.  Horrible transport, weird smells, treacherous roads, etc.  I’ve become very calm in these situations and even made some friends in the car.  The lady sitting next to me gave me one of her bracelets to add to my growing collection on my wrist.  Then I got to Nafadji, and the kids on my compound came running to help me carry my bag and walk my bike back to my hut.  Sira, my favorite little girl, came running towards me and jumped into my arms.  She’s 2 and was initially afraid of me, so I feel happy to have finally earned her affection.  She’s such a cutie!  After a long day of travel, it felt good to be back in my hut.

It was nice to take a break from fasting for Ramadan to have a fun adventure!  I’ve fasted for 5 days this month and plan to fast again tomorrow.  Only a week and a half left until Korite, the celebration at the end of Ramadan!

Mike, Frank, and me with the Ingle waterfall in the background

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Malaria Strikes Nafadji

Before rainy season, I had heard that malaria was a major problem in my region, but experiencing it firsthand is another story.  Someone could have shown me statistics of malaria cases before I arrived here, but that could not have had the same effect as me seeing my new friends and family getting sick with malaria.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that it seems that almost everyone in my village has malaria or has had it in the past year.

Bamoussa, my almost 9-months pregnant host sister, told me that she was feeling sick last week.  She was experiencing all the typical symptoms of malaria (fever, headache, fatigue).  She first told me she felt ill in the morning, and I told her she needed to go to the health post to get tested for malaria.  Instead, she lied in bed all day and slept.  Throughout the afternoon, I kept asking her if she had gone to the health post yet, and she kept saying she was going to go later.  I talked to her husband and told him that she needed to go, but he said she would go later.  I was very concerned since she is pregnant, and malaria can cause anemia and potentially early labor.  That night, I again asked her if she had gone to the health post, and she said she would go the next day.  Fily finally revealed to me that Bamoussa is afraid of needles and that she was terrified to go to the health post.  At 8pm, I finally went into her room and told her I was going to take her to the health post.  After hearing my concern, she agreed to go with me, and I waited outside the exam room as she got tested.  Sure enough, she tested positive for malaria and needed to get a shot.  Sarr called me in, and I held her hand while she got the shot.  Money was an issue, and as I later found out, since I was the one who took her to the health post, I was expected to pay the medical bill.  She got an IV treatment every morning and night for a few days, and now she is better!  I was hesitant about paying her medical expenses since I don’t want the entire village coming to me with their medical bills.  Since she is my sister and I forced her to go to the health post, I agreed to pay the bill, but in the future, I cannot pay everyone’s medical bills.  If I paid for everyone, it would first of all eat up all of my monthly living allowance, and second of all, it would create an unsustainable dependency on me.  In the decisions I make, I need to be thinking about how things will continue after I leave in 2 years. 

The experience of making sure Bamoussa got tested and got treatment made me realize that this is why I’m here.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any difference here, but in this situation it felt good to feel useful.

The morning after I took Bamoussa to the health post, I found out my pregnant sister-in-law, Sunkharou, also tested positive for malaria.  After Bamoussa went in, Sunkharou decided to go get tested as well since she had been feeling sick for a couple days.  She also received the IV treatment and is ok now. 

I’ve started my baseline survey, and I’m learning a lot about the community.  One of the questions I ask each family is “how many family members have had malaria in the past year?”  A common response is that the whole family has had it.  Sometimes they just point to various children who currently have it.  Malaria is rampant in my village, and if left untreated, it can be very dangerous.  It’s frustrating for me as a health volunteer, because some of the people who get malaria are doing everything they can to protect themselves and they still get it.  You can use neem lotion and sleep under a mosquito net and still get malaria.  Mosquitoes are everywhere here.  At night, I wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt, closed toe shoes, and mosquito repellant, and I still get bit.  If I wasn’t taking antimalarial drugs, I probably would have malaria.  It seems unfair, and it’s hard to know how to help improve the situation.  Right now, all I can do is encourage people to sleep under nets and use neem lotion at night. 

Peace Corps Senegal has joined 24 other malaria endemic countries on a Stomp Out Malaria campaign.  The mission of the campaign is:

"The Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative aims to have universal bed net coverage and malaria prevention and treatment education programs in every malaria-impacted Peace Corps community in the initial target countries by 2013.

In addition, Peace Corps will work with partners to achieve two Millennium Challenge goals: a 50% or more reduction in deaths caused by malaria globally by 2015 and a substantial reduction in deaths caused by malaria in all 25 African target countries by 2020.

I’ve linked the Stomp Out Malaria Facebook page to mine, so check out the campaign!  I’ll be participating in a bed net distribution next month and will receive training in malaria prevention techniques.

I’m uncovering problems that I didn’t even realize existed by doing my baseline survey.  I found out that the majority of people I’ve interviewed so far do not have latrines, which means they are most likely going to the bathroom in the bush.  Flies land on the poop in the bush and then land on the rice that we’re all eating, and that’s how everyone gets diarrhea.  Since we have 2 latrines on the chief’s compound, I assumed most families had them.  The ideal is to have 1 latrine for every 10 people, and so far, I haven’t interviewed any family who met this standard.   This is a problem.

When I look at everything that I’d like to see changed, it gets overwhelming.  I need to tackle these problems little by little.  I’m here for 2 years, so I have time.  Right now I’m focusing on finishing my baseline survey and analyzing the results.  Nothing is going to change overnight, but by one on one interaction with people, I can help create small behavior changes.  These small victories, like my experience with Bamoussa, make this bleak situation look much more hopeful. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011


As many of you probably know, Ramadan is an Islamic holiday that takes place during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar.  It is a month long devotion to prayers, fasting, and goodwill.  Children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are exempt from fasting, but the women must make it up and fast later on in the year.  Children are expected to fast when they hit the age of puberty, and many younger children will try fasting for a day or two to practice.  People must fast from sunrise to sunset, and they cannot consume any food or drink.  While not eating or drinking, Ramadan is a time for Muslims to analyze their lives and rid themselves of bad habits.  It is a month to cleanse oneself, and Muslims are supposed to refrain from evil actions, thoughts, and words.  It is a time to practice restraint.

What makes Peace Corps Volunteers different from other aid workers is that we really integrate ourselves into the communities that we are helping.  With that in mind, I really wanted to experience Ramadan and be able to relate to the people in my village.  It’s an opportunity for me to bond with my villagers and for them to see that I am making an effort to integrate.  My body has definitely taken a nutritional hit, but I think it’s been worth it since I’m gaining credibility points with my villagers.

Here’s what my first day of fasting looked like:

The night before, my host niece, Jaboo, said I should set my alarm for 4am and that we would be eating breakfast at that time.  I double checked the time with multiple family members and they all verified.  My alarm went off at 4am and I woke up, got dressed and waited for Jaboo’s knock on my door to tell me it was time. 4:30 rolled around and I wondered what was going on.  I walked out onto the compound to complete darkness and not a soul awake.  I was very confused and figured maybe they had eaten without me and decided to go back to sleep.  Finally around 5am, a call on the loudspeaker from the mosque alerted people that it was time to eat before sunrise.  Of course, then came Jaboo’s knock on my door, and we were ready to eat.  In general, I put very little weight on any specific time someone in my village tells me since they usually schedule meetings for general time frames such as morning, afternoon, evening, or night, instead of a specific hour.  Lesson confirmed.

Since there are 3 pregnant women in my compound and lots of children, there were only 5 others in my family who were fasting.  The fasting group consisted of myself, my elderly host parents, my niece Jaboo, my nephew Saibo, and Lagee, a middle schooler who lives on my compound.

At 5am, I groggily made my way over to the chief’s hut to eat breakfast, and everyone looked exhausted since this was their 4th day of fasting.  Usually when you walk into a room, there is an exchange of a long list of greetings, but that morning, I said a brief good morning, and they all mumbled an acknowledgment of my greeting.  I sat on my host dad’s bed as we all huddled around my niece who was making coffee.  Being part of the fasting group made me feel like we were on a sports team, gearing up for a big competition.  We all sat silently and ate bread with our coffee and then dispersed to our rooms to get a little more sleep.

The first day was not as hard as I had imagined.  When you don’t eat all day, your stomach shrinks, and I got to a point where I didn’t even really feel that hungry.  The not drinking water part is the hardest.  I lied under a tree with my family for most of the afternoon, and villagers would approach me and congratulate me on fasting.  People in my village have been very impressed that I’ve been trying to fast with them, and we have common ground that we can talk about.  When I walk around the village, I ask how their fast is going, and they ask how mine is, and we complain about how hungry and tired we are.  On my second day of fasting, Sarr could see how exhausted I was and asked if I wanted to play a board game with him and his daughter to take my mind off of fasting.  It was cute and a lot of fun. 

As great as the bonding was, on my second day of fasting (yesterday), I decided that I needed to stop fasting for day 3.  It was very hot yesterday, and I had a productive morning and afternoon, but by the end of the day my body was not doing well.  I had made plans to go with Mamadou, a local farmer, to his fields to see his garden and crops.  He had been asking me for a while and it seemed very important to him for me to see his work.  So I met him at 5pm while the sun was still blazing, and we walked deep into the bush towards his garden.   His garden ended up spanning acres, and he wanted to show me every plant and tree and describe the work he had been doing.  After an hour of walking around in the sun, I felt like I was going to pass out.  I hadn’t had any water or food since 5:30am.  I finally described how tired and weak I felt, and he took me back to the village.  It was great to be able to see his garden and to see how passionate he is about his trees and plants.  He manages the entire piece of land with only the help of two of his sons.  It’s impressive!  If I hadn’t felt like I was ready to die, I probably would have enjoyed the visit more.

Breaking fast is a great moment and a highlight in the day.  Around 7pm, all the fasters were sitting around in the compound, waiting until 7:30 when the sun would set.  At the moment the sun starts to set, the mosque loud speakers announce that it is time to eat and drink again.  My first day of fasting, I was so dehydrated that I downed an entire half liter of water as soon as fast was over, and my host brother-in-law started yelling “dondin, dondin!!!”  After the body hasn’t had anything in it for 14 hours, eating or drinking anything too fast is a terrible idea.  To break fast, my villagers eat sweet things that are easy for the body to digest.  We drank coffee with lots of sugar and powdered milk in it, ate bread, and ate sweet millet porridge.  I felt an amazing feeling of accomplishment as I sat and broke fast with my family members.  They were all patting me on the back and telling me how courageous I was to fast.  They understand that I’m not Muslim and do not need to fast for religious reasons.  After breaking fast, the family sat around the compound chatting under the moon and stars for a couple hours.  Around 10pm, we ate dinner, since the body is ready to eat a normal meal at that point.  I was expecting people to eat a huge feast, but dinner was not much different from what it normally is.  I ate rice with peanut sauce with my family for dinner the first night, and last night I got some good meat and vegetables since I ate with Sarr and his wife. 

Today I’m not fasting, and my body is thanking me.  I’m glad I tried it, and it felt amazing to be a real part of the village.  Participating in this enabled me to have more empathy for those who are fasting for the entire month.  Sarr described to me that it is much different for them to fast though, since they do it every year starting at the age of puberty.  For me, I’ve never done this before, and my body was confused as to why I was starving it. 

I’m really happy to be back in my village.  This place feels like home now (not that it can ever replace my real home though!).  I love my family here, and I feel like I’m part of the village now.  My Malinke has gotten much better, and my villagers recently have been telling me that I “know Malinke” which means I’ve made great strides in language.  It’s weird, but I feel like I don’t need as much privacy as I initially did.  I used to shut my door a lot when I was in my hut to get some alone time, but recently I’ve been letting the little girls come in and color in my room.  They love to color, and I’ve been teaching them how to write their names.  I feel really comfortable here, and it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else right now.  It’s funny how being away from this place for only a few weeks made me realize how much I love it!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In Service Training

After spending the past couple weeks in Thies and Dakar, I’m finally back in Kedougou!

Being at In Service Training (IST) in Thies was a great change of pace, and I really enjoyed seeing the friends from my training group who I don’t get to see very often.  Being back at the training center was like going back to summer camp.  It was comfortable and familiar, and we slept in bunk beds in a room with our friends.  The center served delicious food, and it looked like a paradise compared to a lot of our sites.  While I may have been pickier about what I ate when I arrived in Senegal, I'm now elated to eat any mystery meat after my diet of plain white rice at site.  It’s funny how quickly perspectives change.

We had sessions all throughout the day, some useful, some not.  Overall, I left the training feeling very motivated to start working.  I learned some technical skills such as how to make nutritional porridge and how to make a rocket stove.  Maternal and child health is interesting to me, and it’s an area that needs a lot of attention in my region.  I learned about “Care Groups”, where a group of women attend health training sessions every month led by a volunteer and counterpart, and those women go out and teach the other women in the community what they learned.  An example of something they could learn how to do is making nutritional porridge for their children.  The lead mothers would each have their own section of the village and check in on those families and teach them what they learned.  I like the idea of empowering women to raise the level of health in the village.  I’m still thinking about what I want to do, but I’d like to create some system in Nafadji that would be focused on training women to be sources of health information for the rest of the village. 

Before I can begin any projects, I need to do my baseline survey to see where the community is at right now.  I’ve created my list of questions and will be going around to every compound to gather data.  The categories of questions I created are: demographic information, water and sanitation, nutrition, maternal and child health, malaria prevention, and education.  I’ve translated my questions into both French and Malinke and will be creating an Excel spreadsheet to organize my data when I’m done collecting it.  Once I finish my survey, I’ll have a better idea of what the community needs and what they would like to see me do during my service.

After IST was over, I stayed at the training center to attend a SeneGAD meeting.  SeneGAD is the Gender and Development group in Peace Corps Senegal, and they work on projects dealing with gender issues.  I’m now part of the group and would like to stay involved in it, especially the projects that help keep girls in school.  When the meeting was over, a bunch of the other volunteers and I took a van to Dakar.

Being in Dakar was a lot of fun.  I ate some amazing food, including the delicious ice cream at Nice Cream!  For my birthday, some friends and I went to the beach on l’isle Ngor, and I had a blast!  We took a very entertaining narrow wooden boat ride, packed with people in life vests, over to the island.  After relaxing at the beach all day, we went back to the regional house to get ready to go out to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner.  Yes, I do see the irony of going out to eat African food in Africa.  It was very tasty! 

After 2 weeks of eating delicious food and speaking English with my friends, I boarded a nightbus back to Kedougou.  The bus was surprisingly clean and airconditioned, and the 12-hour ride went by fast.  The following day, Ian and I were determined to get back to our sites since we had been away for so long.  We got to the garage at 9am and the sept-place had already left, so we were stuck taking an Alhamdulillah (looks like a broken down minibus).  After waiting for at least an hour for the van to fill up, we were on our way.  15 minutes into the ride, the tire started falling off, so we pulled over.  After our driver and others in the van determined that it was not fixable, they flagged down a huge blue Camion to take us the rest of the way.  I lucked out and got to sit in the front of the truck with the driver and 2 other women, but Ian got stuck in the back with everyone’s luggage, rice sacks, and all the other people who had evacuated the Alham.  He said he had a live chicken on his foot during the ride.  But we made it to Saraya!  From there, we biked back to our sites, and I’m back in Nafadji!  It feels so great to be back!  I missed everyone! 

It’s Ramadan right now, and I’ll be writing a blog on that soon.  Right now I’m fasting and am very hungry!