Monday, September 26, 2011

Summer Camp, Mosquito Nets, and HIV, Oh My!

I’m finally back in Nafadji after a couple weeks of traveling around to different projects.  It’s nice to be busy!

The PC volunteers in Kedougou help to run a summer camp for middle school students every year, partnering with A.D.D.K.  (The Association for the Sustainable Development of Kedougou).  One of the volunteers in our region took on the task of helping to organize the summer camp and assign various camp sessions to the other volunteers.  The camp is funded in part by some of the mining companies in the area.  Ten days of hands-on activities in Dindefelo (the village known for its spectacular waterfall), how could the kids not have fun?

I helped to lead the challenge course, nutritional porridge, tree pepineer, and sports activities.  One of the volunteers is an ex-park ranger, and he used to run leadership challenge course activities in the States.  The kids had a blast doing trust falls and problem solving activities with ropes.  Between sessions of art and games, the campers learned other valuable skills like first aid, how to make a tree pepineer and how to make nutritional porridge.  The hope is that they will be able to use this information when they get home and pass it on to their friends and families.  Out on the field, I had fun playing soccer with the kids and teaching them how to play ultimate Frisbee.  The camp was bustling with energy, and the campers were excited to finally be at the summer camp they had been looking forward to all year.  The kids sang, danced, played games, and learned a lot as well.  A few other volunteers and I were able to sneak away one evening after one of the sessions to hike to the waterfall and swim around.  It was gorgeous!  All in all, camp was a lot of fun for everyone!

After an action packed few days at camp, I headed to Saraya to help out with a massive mosquito net distribution.  To “stomp out Malaria,” Peace Corps is working to provide Universal Coverage for the entire country of Senegal.  This means having a mosquito net covering every sleeping area in the country.  It’s a huge task to take on, but we’re getting there little by little.  Last year, the entire region of Kedougou got bednets except for the zones of Saraya and Khossanto by a glitch in the distribution.  This year, Leah organized with an NGO called Networks to cover the missing zones. 

When I arrived in Saraya, Leah and I held meetings to create committees of locals in Saraya and Khossanto to help with the distribution.  We held training sessions for all the local health workers in the two zones who would be doing the census and distribution.  Before we could distribute nets, the health workers had to go to every household and determine how many nets were needed based on the number of sleeping areas and number of nets the family already had.  After the census was complete, we held distributions in villages all over Saraya.  Luckily we had other PC volunteers come in to help out with the distribution, and between the 7 of us, we were able to divide and bike out to the various distribution sites (usually the local school).  At each site, we helped the local health workers run a discussion with the community on how to take care of and use a mosquito net properly.  These nets are meant to last these families for 5 years, so people need to realize they cannot use them in their gardens to keep pests out or be careless with them.  We wrote the names of every family head on the nets along with other identifying information to make the distribution run more smoothly.  The nets are treated with chemicals to kill mosquitoes, and I found out that it is a terrible idea to touch your face after handling hundreds of nets!  My face tingled for a while.

The 3 days of distributing nets in various villages was chaotic, but it was successful!  It was frustrating to have villagers complaining about not getting enough nets or lying about how many they had received in hopes to get more.  Luckily that negativity was countered by other positive experiences of villagers being incredibly thankful to be receiving a bednet and telling the other volunteers and myself what a wonderful job we were doing.  Leah and I biked out to a tiny village deep in the bush to help with a distribution, and we were blown away by the kindness and appreciation the community showed us.  They all waited around after they received their nets, and each head of household individually came up and shook our hands and thanked us for our work.  It made me feel like the work we’re doing is making a difference.

I love that the volunteers in my region collaborate on projects and are very motivated to do good work.  It was so much fun to work on this distribution with my friends.  The Networks slogan for mosquito net use is the “3 Toutes”:  Toute la Famille, Toute l’Annee, Toutes les Nuits.  In English that translates to: the whole family, all year, every night.  On the last day of the distribution, 4 other volunteers and I were biking out to a distribution site, decked out in our “3 Toutes” aprons and t-shirts, and I had a moment of feeling so happy to be working with such a fun group.

During the census phase of the net distribution, I snuck away from Saraya for a day to help do HIV testing in Nafadji.  I rode down with the Saraya hospital car and did the labwork for the HIV tests.  Some of the youth in the village organized to have HIV testing and a community discussion about sexual health at the school.  I was very impressed with their initiative and with their eagerness to learn more about sexual health.  It was amazing to see so many young people coming in to find out their serological status, and they asked some great questions at the community discussion.  It’s exciting to be part of a community that actively wants health information and is willing to participate in awareness raising events.

Now I’m back in Nafadji and have a little time to catch my breath and finish my baseline survey.  It feels nice to be back in my hut after so much time away.  As I walked my bike and baggage towards my compound, I was greeted by the little kids on my compound running out, screaming “Aissata naata!!!” (Aissata is back), and fighting over who would carry my bags.  In a week and a half, I’ll be heading to Kedougou to help run a cervical cancer training for midwives in the area. 

I still can’t believe it’ll be October next week!  I’m missing out on pumpkin season in the US!  Pumpkin bagels, pumpkin cream cheese, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.  If you’re near some pumpkin products, eat some for me!

Monday, September 5, 2011


Ramadan is over!  No more fasting!  Korite, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, took place on the last day in August.  It was an all-day celebration, and everyone was dressed to impress.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, hair tressing is a common past time here in Nafadji.  Women are constantly tressing their hair in different hairdos, and Fily always seems to be booked to do someone’s hair.  Instead of braiding in the usual style, women had long black extensions added to their hair for Korite.  This process is long and usually takes multiple days.  The week leading up to Ramadan, I could walk onto any compound and see women doing each other’s hair.  Every woman had a friend or family member lined up to style her new do.  All of the little girls on my compound, including 2-year-old Sira, had extensions added to their hair by Fily.  They all look so different with long hair!   I took lots of pictures that I will post once I have a fast enough internet connection!

Leah came to visit Nafadji for Korite, and as soon as she arrived, Fily and Diabou told us when they were tressing our hair.  We were up until midnight getting our hair done and then watching Diabou do Fily’s hair.  Fily was hesitant to ask me to do my hair since I refused when she wanted to do it a few weeks ago.  Recently I’ve been losing a lot of hair here.  In the US, my hair is thick and curly, and here, I feel like I’ve lost about half my hair.  I started getting really concerned, but after doing some research, I think it is just a result of living in a hot climate.  Similar to the way animals shed their fur in hotter climates, humans shed hair.  After realizing that my hair will get thick again when I go back to a colder climate, I agreed to let Fily tress my hair. 

The morning of Korite, Leah and I awoke with our new tresses and walked around the village with Bamoussa to greet people.  Korite is a very social holiday and involves going around and sitting with people on different compounds.  The men all went to the mosque in the morning in their boubous, but the women waited until after lunch to change into their complets. 

After a huge, oily lunch of macaroni noodles, meat, and rice, all the women changed into their new outfits.  Leah and I went with Fily to another woman’s hut, where a group of women were helping each other put on complets and makeup.  It felt like we were all getting ready for the prom.  After everyone was looking sharp, we walked over to the party on another person’s compound.  There was music blaring from huge speakers, and we sat around, drank tea and Fanta, and played cards.  After a while, Leah and I decided to check out another party, so we moved over to a huge dance circle of women who had gathered near my compound.  As we approached the circle, we saw a very masculine looking woman leading the dances in the center.  Both of us looked at each other and were thinking the same thing “is that a man?!?”  In Senegal, where the culture is very closed about sexuality, it seemed odd to see a cross dressing man at a religious celebration.  But sure enough, it was a man dressed as a woman.  He came from Mali, and it is apparently a normal form of entertainment for a celebration like Korite.  After living in Thailand, I was used to seeing “lady boys” all the time, but I never expected to see anyone like that in a conservative country like Senegal, where gender roles are very inflexible.  It was refreshing.

After another large meal for dinner, Leah and I headed over to yet another dance party at the elementary school.  This dance party was for the kids, and after about 20 minutes of dancing with elementary school children, we called it a night.  All in all, Korite was a fun celebration and a great chance to get out in the village and be social.

Recently I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable showing up on random compounds to talk to villagers.  Initially I was relying on a village counterpart to go with me while I went from compound to compound asking questions for my baseline survey.  I thought I needed someone there to help translate if I ran into a confusing question or response.  I found that relying on someone else to be able to go around the village every night was not very time efficient since the man I was going with was rarely available.  After getting frustrated one day, I decided to just go by myself and see what happened.  I was pleasantly surprised and had a better experience going alone than I did going with a counterpart.  Villagers were extremely welcoming and one lady even offered me grilled corn as we did the interview.  Since then, I’ve been going around every evening to interview a person on every compound.  I think it’s been better for my language progress to be forced to use Malinke and work through confusing conversations.  So far, I have gone to 43 compounds and probably have about 27 left to do.  I’ve been typing up my results on an Excel spreadsheet and am learning a lot about my village.  The survey is taking a long time, but it will be worth it to be able to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of my village.

On the malaria front, people in my village are all continuing to get malaria throughout the rainy season.  Baby Sira got it, but her mother took her to the health post to get medicine, and now she’s fine.  Saibo, my favorite nephew, got malaria and refused to go to the health post.  Each day I kept telling him he needed to go, and the family was very concerned and frustrated with him.  He was getting worse and was lying around on a mat all day, and I told him that he was going to continue to get worse unless he went with me to the health post.  He finally agreed to go, took medicine, and now he’s fine.  I still don’t understand why he didn’t want to go to the health post.  He said he didn’t want to take medicine, which seemed very irrational to me, especially since he’s such an intelligent boy.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to get into the mindset of people here, because if I’m sick, of course I’m going to seek out medicine to make me better.  To them, that is not the obvious solution.  A lot of people in my village have told me that they try to use traditional medicine, which is usually leaves, to cure malaria first before going to the health post. 

Rainy season is still going on, and the roads are wet and filled with deep puddles.  We now have a seasonal river running outside Nafadji and have been able to get some fish! 

In a couple days I’ll be heading to Dindefello to help out with a leadership camp for middle school students that the Kedougou volunteers are putting on.  I’ll be helping to lead some health lessons.  After a few days at camp, I’m going to Saraya for a week to help with a mosquito net distribution.  With lots of activities coming up, this month is going to fly by!

Me and Fily on Korite