Thursday, October 20, 2011

Beware of the Genies!

Whenever I take a car along the road to Kedougou, I always see the Spires off in the distance near the Guinean border.  The pointy rock formations screamed ADVENTURE, and after talking about it for months, a few friends and I finally made plans to attack the mountain!

Ian and I biked 30k along narrow, overgrown bush paths, dodging vicious tsetse flies along the way, to meet up with Ben and CJ in a small village near the base of the mountains.  We left our bikes in that village and hiked up a rocky hill to get to an even more remote village to camp out for the night.  Prepared with tents, tea for the villagers, and food, we asked the village chief if we could spend the night.  He had an area cleared out for us to set up our tents, and he took the rice we brought and asked some women to prepare it for our dinner.  All was going according to plan, and CJ and I decided to find the forage (village water pump) to fill our bottles with water before it got dark.  As we looked around for the pump, we started feeling little drops of water on our heads but thought nothing of it.  A little boy agreed to lead us to the forage (which we assumed was in the village), so we followed him along a trail.  All of a sudden, rain started dumping from the sky and we saw lightening flashing above our heads.  The little boy started running along the trail leading out of the village, and we followed after him, hoping we could grab some water quickly and make it back to our tents.  He kept running further and further outside of the village as the wind roared around us, blowing tall grasses over us as we tried to stay on the path.  Drenched from the rains, CJ and I looked at each other, debating whether or not to continue, but we had already gone this far and were already soaked, so why not?  After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it to the forage, quickly filled our bottles (with sulfur smelling water), and booked it out of there.  As we were sprinting back towards the village, all of a sudden, it sounded like 3 shots were fired as light blew 3 holes in the tree right next to us.  I ducked and froze out of shock, thinking that we were being shot at.  CJ screamed that it was lightening and told me to keep running.  By the time we made it back to the tents, I felt like my ear drums were blasted out from the boom.  That was the closest I’ve ever been to lightening, and I never want to get that close again!

The benefit of all that rain was that we all got a shower, which we were not going to get otherwise, and we didn’t smell very good after our long, sweaty bike ride!  Around dinnertime, we were called into one of the huts for our meal.  We were served a bowl of fonio (grain similar to coos coos) with a delicious leaf sauce.  It wasn’t enough to make us full, but we were satisfied with the meal.  A few minutes after we had finished, another woman walked in with a bowl of dinner for us.  We thought we were completely lucking out with 2 dinners!  Then another bowl arrived, then another, and another!  5 dinners in total!  It seems as though every family in the village cooked a meal for us, and we couldn’t even finish the last one!

That night, with stomachs full of rice, we talked to the villagers about the Spires.  We were told that genies inhabited the top of the mountain and that it was dangerous to go.  We told the villagers that if the genies did not accept us, we would leave the mountain immediately.  Truthfully, genies weren’t really our top concern.  Our main concern was having enough food and water for the journey.  Between the 4 of us, we had 7 liters of water that was to last us at least 24 hours.  Foodwise, we packed some cooked rice in a ziplock bag, 2 energy bars, some cookies, 2 cans of sardines, 4 halves of soggy village bread (moist from the rain storm), and 3 unripe mangoes the villagers had gifted us. 

Bright and early the next morning, we chugged all the water we had and refilled at the forage (which didn’t seem as far away this time) to prepare for the trek.  Since there is no trail up the mountain, we were bush whacking the entire way with a machete, trying to aim for an opening between 2 of the Spires where we believed it would be easier to climb. 

After a few hours of intense hiking uphill through thick jungle, we finally reached the base of the rocks, but the rock faces were too vertical for us to free climb.  We knew we had to move further east in the bush to reach the point where we had heard we could climb.  So we backtracked and kept hiking, growing more and more hungry and thirsty as we trekked in the sun.  Once again, we reached the rock, but it was not the right climbing point!  Frustrated, we had to decide if we were just going to camp there or keep searching for the right opening.  All of us agreed that we wanted to keep going.  After a soggy sardine sandwich and some cookies in the shade of some trees, we picked up our backpacks and kept moving.  Hiking for another hour led us to finally reach the point we had heard about!

After some sketchy free climbing to the top of the mountain, we made it!  Standing on the top, we could see for miles and miles.  Mali, Senegal, Guinea.  It was a spectacular view and definitely worth the effort.  We found some shade and ate our sour mangoes, which tasted glorious.  Running very low on water, we tried as hard as we could not to think about our thirst.  We set up our tents in some tall grasses in between two Spires.  Before we went to sleep, we passed our water bottle around and each took a couple sips, looking forward to the sulfur forage the following morning.  So far, no trouble from the genies.

Before coming on the trip, we had heard that another group of volunteers had done the climb a couple years ago.  That group camped at the top just as we were, and they got attacked by swarms of bees in the morning and had to be rushed to the hospital.  With that in mind, we were a little worried when we saw a few bees the night we got to the mountain. 

Around 6am the next morning, it seemed as though all 4 of us awoke at the same time as we heard a constant buzzing outside the tent.  The bees!!!  After talking for a while, we decided we had to leave the tents eventually, so we ventured out.  As we packed up our stuff, a few bees landed on us, but no stings.  Thanks genies!

On our way down the mountain, we somehow stumbled across a stream and were overjoyed to be able to fill our water bottles.  We made it down the mountain quickly and without any problems.  Full circle, we ended our journey at the water pump and washed ourselves and rehydrated.  To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a victory half an energy bar.  All in all, it was a wonderful adventure packed with genies, bees, dehydration, spectacular views, and lots of laughs.  Just a typical Wednesday in Senegal…

Made it to the top!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cervical Cancer Screening

I’ve seen so many cervices in the last week!!!  I helped lead a 5-day cervical cancer screening training for midwives and nurses in the Kedougou region.  There were 9 students, and they were required to pass a written and photo test before they could be certified to do cervical cancer screening on their own.  I went into the training not knowing much about cervices, but along with the trainees, I can now distinguish between negative, positive, and invasive cancer results.  We looked at a lot of example photos of each type, and the trainees would go up to the projected image and explain what the result was and their reasoning for their conclusion.  They also got to practice inserting the speculum into a plastic vagina and spraying vinegar in.  After 4 days of intensive all-day training, they were ready to go out and test real women at a health post.

Testing a woman for cervical cancer is easy and doesn’t require a lot of supplies.  You insert the speculum into the vagina to examine the cervix.  Next you put a cotton swab of vinegar on the cervix and wait for 3 minutes.  After the time is up, you can look inside the vagina with a flashlight and know by looking at the cervix whether or not it is positive or negative for precancerous cells, or if the woman already has an invasive cancer.  Women in villages do not go to the doctor for an annual checkup or pap smear, and early detection of cervical cancer is extremely important.  Having cervical cancer screening in a village can help women find any problems early and seek treatment.

We divided the trainees into two groups, and each group went to a different village to do the cervical cancer screening.  I went with one group to a village not far from Kedougou and was surprised at how much I was able to participate.  Initially I helped the trainees get demographic and health information in Malinke from the women being tested, but soon I moved into the screening room to help with the test.  I held the flashlight to help the trainee examine each cervix, and I was asked for my opinion to verify the cervical status.  A trained nurse was also there to verify results as well.  Being in this medical room and looking at women’s cervices felt so surreal.  We got a great turnout at the health post, and I realized how many women are interested in their health.  A woman from their village had died of breast cancer, so the village was very cognizant of what cancer can lead to.  Before the testing began, we explained what cervical cancer is and why it is important to detect it early.  It was an amazing experience to be part of this training and see women being tested first-hand.  Looking at real cervices, I learned so much more than just looking at the pictures of them during training.

Nafadji just got a new midwife, and she participated in this training.  I plan to work with her and organize a cervical cancer screening in my village and possibly Ian’s village as well.  Nafadji has never had a cervical cancer screening before, so it would be great for the women here to be able to find out their cervical cancer status.  I’m excited to work with the new midwife, Madame Diop, on maternal health issues in the village. 

After a week in Kedougou, I’m back in Nafadji for a while.  It’s nice to have a slower pace here after being in training from 9-5 every day last week.  The kids on my compound love drawing every day, and each morning I am greeted with “Aissata, dessin, dessin!!!”  “Dessiner” is “to draw” in French and they use “dessin” in Malinke as well.  Thank you to everyone who has sent me art supplies, because the kids have gone nuts over all of it!  A couple months ago, I gave them blank paper and pens and told them to draw.  They had no idea how to draw or what they should be drawing.  Since children in the US start drawing at a young age, I assumed children here knew how to draw as well, but I found that they need a little guidance.  They started off trying to copy whatever I was drawing, and then they asked me to tell them what they should draw.  Now, they’re finally getting creative with it!  Although they do ask me every few minutes “Aissata, regarde” to get my approval.  Art projects have been a fun activity on days where not much is going on, and the kids really look forward to it. 

We have a seasonal river that runs just below Nafadji, and women have been using it to bathe and wash clothing and dishes.  Fily invited me to go down to the river to bathe with her and Diabou one evening.  I felt uncomfortable bathing in the river when people are frequently walking along the road right next to it, but I agreed to go in a bathing suit and swim around for a bit.  Right before sunset, I walked to the river with my sisters, and they bathed in the river as I swam around with a bunch of kids.  It was funny being in the situation, because I think I pictured this scenario of women bathing in a river when I came to Africa, but now it didn’t really feel as foreign since I know all the people involved.  I also had just gone running right before we headed to the river, so it felt amazing to be in cool waters.  It was a fun evening activity! 

Right now, Ian and I are working on a project to get matrons (midwives) trained for 5 villages that don’t have anyone trained in birthing babies.  A couple weeks ago we biked out to a remote village to talk with the village about electing a woman to participate in the 6-month matron training.  It was great to be able to meet the woman they chose and to see the village’s enthusiasm for getting a trained midwife.  Women in villages with no health post give birth at home, and oftentimes there is no trained individual to help with the birth.  I’m planning to meet with another village this week to have them elect a woman for the training as well.  It’s a project that I think will have a big impact on maternal health in the villages that do not have easy access to a health post.

I’m at a point where I’m beginning to do work and have so many ideas for projects that I don’t know where I should start.  This week I’ll be writing up an action plan that will cover the projects I’m interested in doing in the next year.  It’s exciting!