Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Fleeting Town


During the recent Meningitis Vaccination Campaign, I went with some hospital staff to Sanbaranbougou, a large gold mining town in the region of Kedougou. 

To give a bit of background, over the past ten years, a gold rush has significantly changed the landscape of Kedougou.  The rising price of gold led Western mining companies to begin mining exploration in the area, and migrants from all over West Africa flocked to Kedougou in search of gold.  Overnight, small villages transformed into booming shantytowns.


During the process of small-scale artisanal mining, miners use mercury to separate the gold from the rest of the silt, and the mercury is later burned off, emitting mercury gas, which the miners and other community members breathe in.  Long-term exposure to the inhalation of mercury leads to a wide array of health problems, including issues with fetal and child development.  Peace Corps Volunteers, Annē Linn, Patrick Linn, Karin Nordstrom, and Martin Van Den Berghe are working on a project to reduce mercury emissions through the use of retorts, which recapture the mercury vapor during burning, preventing the release of mercury into the air.  To read more about their project and the gold mining situation in the region, check out Annē’s blog: 

I had heard that Sanbaranbougou was the Wild West of Senegal, but I was still shocked at the level of chaos.  The transient community of miners, sex workers, and vendors live in and work out of crinting shacks.  Crinting is what we call thin woven wood fencing.  It is not durable, and most of the structures in the mining town have blue tarps over them to weather the rainy season.  Everything in the town seems to be fleeting, including the infrastructure.



Crinting vendor stalls stretch out into the horizon, selling everything from motorcycles to Biskrem cookies.  Going along with the culture of fatalism, Allah will decide your fate, and you never know if you will live until tomorrow.  This means that it is unnecessary to plan for your future, so as miners gain small fortunes, they spend them hastily on motorcycles and televisions rather than saving.  It’s frustrating to see the high rate of boys who drop out of school to work in the mines.  The allure of earning money quickly wins out over waiting until school is finished. 


As the hospital car pulled up to the vaccination site, I was disturbed by the culture of the transient community.  Traditional Muslims do not drink alcohol, and the first thing I saw was a man walking around town drinking beer at 10am.  The majority of the town is composed of young men, which may account for the high rates of violence in the community.  Unfortunately, there are no police to regulate the fighting and theft, which makes it a scary place to be after dark.  Sex workers are trafficked to the mining towns from Nigeria, and the mining towns have the highest rates of HIV in the country.  In this seemingly lawless town where anything goes, it does feel like the Wild West.

People filter in from other West African countries and other regions of Senegal, creating a confusing mix of languages and cultures.  Filling out people’s vaccination cards during the campaign was difficult since many people did not understand Malinké or French.  The lack of continuity makes it impossible to keep tabs on the community.  People are constantly moving in and out, and there’s no way to make sure everyone in the community has received a vaccination or has been tested for HIV.

Looking at it from a health perspective, Sanbaranbougou is a nightmare. When there are disease outbreaks, those living in large mining towns are more susceptible since they live in close quarters and tend to miss vaccinations and mosquito net distributions due to their transient lifestyle.  It’s a breeding ground for health problems that then make their way into the surrounding communities in the region.   For example, let’s say a miner contracts typhoid at the mines and then returns to his home village to visit his family.  He goes to the bathroom and doesn’t wash his hands with soap afterwards.  Next, he walks around the village shaking everyone’s hands right before they eat.  Three days later, a bunch of the people in the community now have typhoid.  Or maybe this same miner also slept with a sex worker who was HIV positive without using a condom and is now HIV positive himself.  He returns to his home village and proceeds to sleep with his 3 wives, and all of them are still breastfeeding their babies.  Now maybe him, his 3 wives, and 3 babies are all HIV positive.  The spread of diseases that usually would be contained to a village becomes a much larger problem when a transient community is spreading them to villages throughout the region.

When looking at how to improve health in the mining towns, a wide variety of questions arise.  How do you implement behavior change, such as the use of condoms or mosquito nets, in a transient community?  When no one feels a sense of ownership over the community, who is going to make it their job to ensure the health of it?  Unfortunately, there are no clear answers to these questions. 

After visiting Sanbaranbougou for the day, I was extremely happy and relieved to return to Saraya.  Visiting a transient town makes me appreciate living in a place where villagers take care of one another and there is a strong sense of community.  Thankfully I’ve heard there’s no gold in Saraya!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Running Buddy


I often run in the evenings along a dirt road that goes out to a neighboring village.  It’s my time to think and be alone.  Running has always been my outlet and a way to keep me sane when life gets crazy.

Last night, as I ran out of my compound and onto the road, I bumped into my host dad who was walking our cow with his 10-year-old grandson, Tonto.  Tonto is a spirited little boy who loves playing with my soccer ball on the compound.  As I greeted them and ran by, Tonto turned around and started running next to me.  I laughed and figured he’d run with me for 100 meters or so and then turn around.  To my surprise, he stayed by my side, kept up a swift pace, and seemed determined to keep going. 

After 10 minutes, I looked down at his dingy flip flops and asked if he was tired.  Barely panting, he looked like he could go for miles and miles.  He kept up the pace, and finally after 20 minutes out, I asked if he wanted to turn around.  He finally admitted that he was exhausted and was ready to head back.  He told me that he had gone to school in the morning and had been in the fields for hours harvesting peanuts until he bumped into me on the road.  After another 5 minutes or so of running, he needed to walk.  Looking at the shoes he was wearing, I didn't blame him! 

As the sun dropped towards the horizon, we walked along the dirt road in the middle of nowhere talking about our lives.  He explained that both of his parents had died, which is why he is living on my compound with his grandparents.  Such a hardworking boy, he goes to school during the week, works as a mechanic on the side, repairing bikes and motorcycles, and he also raises pigeons!  The more I got to know him, the more impressed I was by this 10-year-old!

As we passed our family’s field, we saw a cow in the distance that had broken into the peanut fields and was eating the crops. Tonto and I started running after the cow trying to scare it out of the fields.  We laughed about it afterwards and he felt energized enough to run the final stretch home. 

This was his first time running for sport.  By the end, he said he was completely exhausted and would sleep well that night.  I showed him some stretches after our run, and he bragged to his uncles that he had run for 40 minutes.  This boy has got drive and likes to get outside his comfort zone.  I think I may have found a new running buddy!

Although I had been looking forward to some time to myself on that run, the high I got from sparking a passion for running in someone else was even better.  Tonto has a natural running ability, and it was so much fun to get to know him better. 

Something I’ve been struggling with after having to move away from Nafadji so late in my service is that I worry that my relationships in Saraya will never get to the level that my relationships in Nafadji were at.  They’re progressing little by little though, and I am starting to feel close to my new host family.  Now I know Tonto a little better, and I hope we can go running again soon!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Missirah Dantila Pizza Party


Volunteers are always complaining about the monotony of village food   It’s rice and peanuts, peanuts and rice.  So why not make pizza instead?

In many villages, there is a large wood fire bread oven where the bread maker makes the “tapalapa” bread for the village.  During my recent trip to Ian’s village, Missirah Dantila, with my new Saraya site mates (Pat and Annē), we decided to attempt to make pizza in the oven.  Prior to returning to his village, Ian bought tomato paste and cheese in Kedougou, and we bought flour, yeast, onions, and sugar in the village.  The local bread maker graciously let us use his oven for the evening in return for a taste of our dinner.  Ian’s counterpart, Cheikh, was very excited about the project and joined in to make the pizzas.

Pat, our resident bread expert, showed us how to make bread dough with flour, yeast, and water.  While the dough rose, we biked out to the river to watch the sunset.  When we returned, Annē and I chopped onions by candlelight with a Swiss Army knife and caramelized them in a metal bowl on Ian’s gas tank burner.  Next, we heated up the tomato paste with water and added in some sugar and salt to cut the bitter taste.  Ian found some basil growing near the health post, so we chopped it up and tossed it into the sauce as well.

Ian, Cheikh, and Pat
While Annē and I were preparing the sauce, Ian, Cheikh, and Pat lit a fire in the oven to heat up the coals.  They rolled out the dough into 4 pizzas and flung them into the oven with a long wooden paddle once the oven was hot enough.  Cheikh was a natural at getting the pizzas far into the oven with the paddle.  Once the dough was cooked enough, Annē and I added on our tomato sauce, caramelized onions, basil, and cheese slices before sticking them back in again.

Adding the toppings







The pizzas were beautiful!  As Pat mentioned while we were biting into them, we would pay top dollar for these “artisanal pizzas” in the US.  It’s amazing what you can make in a village with the right ingredients!  We ate some of the pizza and shared the rest with the villagers on Ian’s compound.  Their reaction was hilarious.

We were so excited to share a taste of America (or Italy) with the village, but most of them took one bite and didn’t like it!  Since they are used to only eating a few ingredients in their food, these flavors may have been too complex.  Another issue that arose was that most people in the village don’t have a full set of teeth, so biting into a crunchy crust proved difficult.  There were a few exceptions though.  Cheikh was a pizza fan and talked it up to his friends.

Volunteers often feel guilty about eating things like pizza at the regional house since our villagers don’t have that option, but the irony that we found was that villagers didn’t even like it!  Maybe pizza is an acquired taste.  Regardless, it was fun to share a taste of our culture and to eat pizza in the village.  Now, it’s back to rice and peanuts.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Girl Power


Girls make up a vulnerable population in Senegal.  They marry and get pregnant young, and household chores take up the majority of their days.  For a girl to make it out of a village to attend the high school in the district capital is close to impossible. Between 6th and 9th grades, 97% of Nafadji’s girls drop out, and this past year, 13% of the 7th grade girls dropped out due to pregnancy.  The last year of junior high (9th grade) had only 1 girl in the class, and she has decided not to continue on to high school.  Young girls face strong pressure to get married and start families.

To address these issues, Awa Traore, Peace Corps Senegal’s Cross-Cultural Coordinator did a tour of some of the schools in the Kedougou region to talk about the importance of girls’ education.  I arranged for her to speak in Nafadji and went back there with her a couple of weeks ago.  24 girls showed up for the presentation, including the 9 Michele Sylvester Scholarship candidates.  Awa engaged the girls and had each of them talk about their dreams and what steps they were going to take to reach them.  She talked about what it takes to be successful and stressed the importance of knowing what you want and not stopping until you have achieved it.  She inspired confidence in the girls and had a candid conversation with them about early marriage and pregnancy.  The girls were honest with her that some of them had gotten pregnant or married young, and it is a hard cycle to break.  My 15-year old host niece who just had a baby was in the audience and could really relate to the pressures that Awa talked about, such as boys pressuring girls to become sexually active at a young age without using protection.  The cycle of teenage pregnancy is a hard one to break.  In my host family, my 30-year old host sister got pregnant at 15, and her daughter followed in her footsteps and also got pregnant at 15.  The girls in the audience were enthusiastic about their futures, and I hope that some of them are able to break the cycle and make it out of the village.



After Awa’s presentation, we presented the 3 Michele Sylvester Scholarship winners with backpacks full of school supplies, and all 9 Michele Sylvester Scholarship candidates had their school registration fees paid for this year.  Thank you to everyone who donated towards the scholarships!  You helped to send 9 girls to school this year, and this is a step in the right direction to fight for girls’ education!

On my new compound in Saraya, my closest friend is my 12-year-old host sister, Maimouna.  She is a smart, curious, and determined young woman, and I can tell that she is going to be successful in whatever she chooses to do.  Every night, we sit outside in the compound, and she asks me question after question about the world.  Her thirst for knowledge is refreshing, and like me, she wants to help women in the future.  She has asked me what an OB/GYN does and is interested in women’s health issues.  When I talk with her, she absorbs every bit like a sponge and asks me questions that no one else here has ever asked me before.  I really enjoy spending time with her.  She’s also athletic and loves playing soccer with her female friends.  Of course, she rarely has time for soccer since she is cooking, cleaning, or washing clothes during most of her free time, but I would love to form a girls' soccer team with the pennies and soccer balls my dad sent me last year.

Recently my mom sent me Bend it Like Beckham, an inspirational movie for girls.  Since Maimouna is interested in soccer, we watched the movie together in French on my laptop a couple of nights ago, and she loved it!  She was engaged throughout the entire thing, and she can relate to the family pressures that the main character experienced.  Throughout the film, she kept asking if Jess was going to get to play soccer and was so happy at the end when Jess was able to follow her dream.  That night, Maimouna asked if we could work on her soccer skills the following evening so that she could be like Jess.

Meeting Maimouna gives me hope for the future of girls in this country.  Seeing her determination at such a young age is inspiring, and I hope she never loses that!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Justice


When you hear about something bad happening to someone else, you never think it will happen to you.  And if it does by chance happen to you, you want to believe that whoever harmed you would be punished by the justice system.  Before joining the Peace Corps, I heard about sexual assault cases but never thought I’d be one of the victims.  I was lucky in a lot of ways that things didn’t go worse than they did, but I still wanted the offender to be punished.

After the assault, it took the police over a month to catch the offender.  Once they did, I decided to press charges.  I was not only pressing charges to ensure my own safety but also the safety of the girls in the village.  My host sisters were terrified of this young man.  In order to press charges, I had to sit in a room next to the guy who assaulted me while I explained my story to the Commandant.  I was told I would go to trial any time in the next 6 months.

A week after pressing charges, a guy I knew from Nafadji passed me on his motorcycle and said that my trial date was the following Friday.  I was incredibly confused.  How did this random guy know my trial date?  I called the Commandant, and he said he still didn’t know when my trial was going to be.  Turns out the random guy was right, and I’m lucky that I bumped into him.  I didn’t get my Summons until less than 24 hours before the trial, and I had to travel to another region since there’s no court in my region.  Either they were hoping I wouldn’t be able to make it to the trial, or this was just another indicator of this broken and inefficient system.

My friend LaRocha traveled up to the neighboring region for the trial, and we went to court the following morning with a Volunteer Support Assistant (VSA).  Since the offender was a 16-year-old boy, the trial was in a juvenile court, which was closed to the public.  Before the trial, we were sitting on a bench outside the courthouse, and a woman came up and greeted me by name.  I thought it was odd that someone in this other region would know my Senegalese name, and I quickly realized that it was the offender’s mother.  She stood in front of me and removed her head wrap and then her shirt, and began bowing down to me topless, begging for my forgiveness.  I felt incredibly uncomfortable, and thankfully the VSA asked her to stand up and put her shirt back on.  As bad as I felt for this woman, she wasn’t going to change my mind about going to trial.

In the courtroom, I was seated at a rectangular table with the offender’s mother to my left and a translator to my right.  Across the table was a panel with the judge, procureur, juvenile program director, etc.  The part that still baffles me is that the offender was asked to stand behind my chair.  His hand was on my chair throughout most of the trial, gripping it tightly. 

The trial seemed to be going well, because the boy admitted that he was guilty.  The procureur gave a long speech about how this young man was a menace to society.  His crimes were getting worse (this is the same young man who stole a backpack out of my hut the year before).  He has stolen from others in the village and may have done worse things to the young women in the village.  The mother admitted that she couldn’t control the young man anymore.  It was obvious to me that this boy would be sentenced to a detention center.  At the end of all of the speeches, the judge announced that the offender would go back to my village with his mother.  What?!?

At this point, I was in tears and couldn’t believe my ears.  How could they send an offender who they referred to as a “menace to society” back to the village?  It made absolutely no sense.  Thanks to the help of some friends outside the courtroom, the procureur agreed to meet with us to explain the sentence.  Apparently they didn’t think that there were any spots open in a rehabilitation center, so there was nowhere else they could move him.  The part that angered me the most is that this man said to me “this is Africa, nothing works here”.  He blamed the faulty justice system on lack of resources and the nature of third world countries.  My friend asked the juvenile program director if he could call the detention centers that moment to find out if there was a spot since they hadn’t even checked.  His response was that “this is Africa, things are slow here”.  These cop out answers reflect the fatalistic nature of this culture once again.  No one believes they can change anything since everything is up to Allah to change.  They accept things the way they are, even when systems like this are clearly broken.

Lucky for me, I’m an American.  Once the U.S. Embassy and Peace Corps put pressure on the court, magically a spot opened up in a detention center.  But what if I wasn’t an American?  What if I was a Senegalese woman who had been sexually assaulted or raped?  After seeing the dysfunctional nature of the justice system, I may not have even bothered going to the police if I knew I wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

Things seemed to finally be falling into place.  I set up my new site in Saraya and was prepared to move in this week.  The papers for the offender to move to the detention center went through, and he is ready to move there.  But there’s a catch.  Tabaski, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, is tomorrow.  Everything shuts down for the holiday, including the detention center.  The center closes, and all of the juvenile delinquents get to spend Tabaski with their families.  This means the offender was released back to my village unsupervised for the holiday.  This makes complete sense, right?  Let’s send all the criminals home for the holidays!

This justice system is broken, and the saga of my assault has been an exhausting one.  I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get justice, and I still am not sure if everything is going to work out.  As frustrating as this experience has been for me, I can’t even imagine what a Senegalese woman would have to deal with in a similar situation.  This system needs to be fixed, but I don’t know where someone would even begin.  Maybe the first step is that people whose jobs it is to provide justice need to believe that they can change the system.  If no one tries to change anything and people continue to use “this is Africa” as an excuse for faulty systems, then they are only reinforcing the system’s dysfunctional nature.  Instead of being stuck in this self-fulfilling prophecy, someone needs to break with tradition and do what is just.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Teaching Matrones and Bajenu Gox about Cervical Cancer!


To meet the prevalence study target of screening 3000 women for cervical cancer, a strong communication plan is essential.  In our strategic planning session between peacecare and the Saraya District Chief Doctor, it was decided that we’d train community health workers to lead health talks on cervical cancer to motivate more women to come out and get screened.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working with the regional midwife trainers to plan a region-wide cervical cancer training for skilled birth attendants (“matrones”) and Village Aunts (“bajenu gox”).  Village Aunts are community health liaisons, and there is usually at least one in every village.  These women have been trained in basic health education and occasionally lead health talks in the communities.  I worked with the head regional midwife to put together a curriculum for the training, and she created a powerpoint presentation.  The goal of the training was to provide the community health workers with a basic understanding of the female anatomy, cervical cancer, screening, and treatment. 

Two weeks ago, we did the training in all 3 health district capitals with skilled birth attendants and village aunts who came in from all the villages with a health post in the region.  Since it was only a 1-day training and most community health workers are illiterate, we wanted to keep the technical information to a minimum and include lots of pictures. 



Trainers: Fatou N'dour, Head Regional Midwife
and Ndella Diouf, Head Kedougou Midwife

The phrase in Malinke for cervical cancer translates directly to “the disease that lives in the birth place”.  This gives an idea of the level of technical information that could be taught.  Without a formal education, the big takeaways about cervical cancer were that women who test positive could die or not have children in the future if they don’t get treated.  This information has been enough to get women motivated to get screened, because in this culture, having a family is the highest priority.

The first training took place in Kedougou, and I was impressed with the number of women who showed up!  As tends to be the case here, the training started 2 hours late, but all of the information got covered.  Language was an issue since the lead trainer wanted to do the presentation in Wolof, and the majority of community health workers in the region speak either Malinke or Pulaar.  The slides on the powerpoint were also in French, and since most of the women were illiterate, they didn’t get much out of it.  There were some hiccups, but at the end of the presentation, the women told me that they learned enough information to do health talks in their villages about cervical cancer.  We plan to use these women as resources when we go out into the villages during our mass screening campaign.

It was great to see the women engaged in the presentation, and I hope the health talks they lead in the communities will give us a good turnout during the screening campaign!


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sustainability


The peacecare (www.peacecare.org) team has arrived, and we’re working in Saraya on the cervical cancer prevention project!

Development work is generally a slow process, and most volunteers wont see the results of the behavior change they’ve worked on during their service.  With the cervical cancer prevention project, I’ve been able to see the head midwives training other midwives and nurses in how to screen for cervical cancer, and I’ve watched them screen.  When we go to a village for a screening, we are not only able to educate the community about cervical cancer, but the midwives are able to counsel women who test positive and put them on a list for the cryotherapy treatment which will be coming in February.

Today, a huge theme of the day was sustainability.  The goals of both Peace Corps and peacecare are to implement sustainable projects and programs that are chosen by the community.  A major component of the cervical cancer prevention project is that it can survive without the support of peacecare and Peace Corps.  Head Midwives have been trained to train other midwives and nurses in how to screen for cervical cancer using visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA), and today we trained them to train other trainers.  With the high turnover rate of midwives and nurses in the region, it is important that incoming health workers can be trained in VIA. 

We’re in the process of beginning a prevalence study in the region, and working out the logistics of the study is complicated.  The goal is to screen 3000 women in the region in the next 6 months, and we need to have enough women who have tested positive by February to train midwives in cryotherapy treatment during the next peacecare visit.  The hospital is busy working on campaigns for many health issues, and getting cervical cancer on the docket is a challenge.  We also still need to train 30 more midwives in VIA before we can begin our mass screening campaign.  Organizing trainings and getting them done before deadlines has been a challenge.  Time works differently here, and it’s thought of as more circular than linear.  There’s not a high sense of urgency, and people tend to be very fatalistic.  If Allah wants something to happen, it will happen.  The idea that humans have the power to impact change is not a commonly held belief since most believe everything is up to Allah.  When trying to organize trainings and meetings, the laid back idea that “it’ll happen” is frustrating when exact dates can’t be set.  We need to get both midwife trainings and the campaign done before peacecare’s next visit at the end of February, so being the American that I am, I want concrete dates and a specific action plan.  Not having either can be frustrating.  I know it’ll all get done eventually though, and being flexible and patient is part of the Peace Corps experience.  Since the idea for the project came from the community, the local doctors and midwives are motivated to do the work.

An issue that came up in today’s meeting was how we plan to fund the prevalence study and the future of the cervical cancer prevention program.  The idea is that the funding would eventually come from the government in order to be sustainable once peacecare and Peace Corps leave.  In today’s meeting, one of the midwives mentioned that almost all of the funding that the hospital receives comes from outside sources (NGO’s and mining companies).  This begs the question, how sustainable are these programs?  We’re still working out the issue of funding and hope to come up with a solution that will allow for the program to be self-sustaining without our continued support in the future.

While sustainability can be hard to achieve, I commend peacecare for making it such an integral part of its work.  Many NGO’s will throw money at a project and then leave without a thought to whether they have created lasting development.  For example, a Japanese NGO built a state of the art hospital outside of Saraya.  This hospital is beautiful, and when you step inside and see the high tech equipment, you feel as if you’ve stepped into a hospital in the US.  The NGO funded the construction of the hospital and equipment, but it is up to the government to provide electricity and water to operate the hospital.  The hospital has been finished for almost a year now, and it is still not operational.  Power and water are a significant problem in Saraya, and I’m not sure when or if this hospital will ever open.  Every time I pass this hospital on my way in or out of Saraya, I think about how tragic it is that all that time and money went into building a hospital that can’t be used.  The question of sustainability is crucial before beginning a project, and that is something that peacecare does extremely well.

I’m really enjoying this peacecare visit to Kedougou, and it’s been great to get to know the new team members.  They’re a hearty group and have done a wonderful job of following cultural norms and staying flexible and open.  Tomorrow we have an off day and are planning to do some fun local activities like making tea and going out to the fields!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Resilience


As the Peace Corps car pulled up to my compound in Nafadji yesterday. all of my kids were jumping up and down under the neem tree, screaming with excitement that I had come back.  No one knew yet that I was coming to say goodbye.  Sira jumped into my arms, and tears started welling up in my eyes.  We went into my host dad’s hut and PC Security explained why I couldn’t live there anymore.  Mbamoussa was in the room and told me how much I meant to their family and that she appreciated all that I had done for her and her kids.  Sometimes you don’t realize the impact you’ve had on others or that they’ve had on you until you’re leaving them.

I went into my hut and had to pack everything up in a hurry.  The PC car needed to get back to Kedougou as soon as possible, and my hut was a disaster.  I was rushing to take all my pictures down, pile belongings into buckets, and haul large trunks out to the car.  I didn’t travel light when I moved to Nafadji, and I seemed to have accumulated a lot over the past year and a half.  I gave some things to the family and left furniture behind.  As I was packing up the hut that has been my home, I felt numb.  It was surreal to actually be leaving.

We packed up the car, and I told the PC staff I wanted to run back to say goodbye to my family.  I called over all my kids, and started hugging them and telling them I’d be back to visit.  Little Adama started crying, then Fantafoune, then Asu, then like dominoes, all of the kids were crying.  Mbamoussa and the other women fell next.  At that point, tears were streaming down my face and I couldn’t breathe.  I made it back to the car, and everyone stood under the neem tree to see me off.  The hardest part is leaving the kids.  I already miss them.

Playing with a bubble gun
Dou, Sadio, and Sira
Carrying Sira and Dou at Fily's Wedding

I know this isn’t goodbye forever.  I’ll try to go back and visit when I can, but it won’t ever be the same as living there.  The nature of the security issue prohibits me from spending the night in the village, which will make it difficult to visit.

This past month of dealing with the aftermath of the assault, having to leave my village, and just feeling like everything has been changing, I think resilience is what I’ve taken away from all of it.  It’s not the Peace Corps service I expected, but I’m learning a lot.

Saying goodbye to Nafadji was insanely hard, but I tried not to let that cloud the way I viewed my welcome in Saraya.  With the help of some other volunteers, I’ve found a wonderful family to live with, and I’m optimistic about the rest of my service.  My new host mom is a strong, well-respected woman in the community, and she has welcomed me into her home with open arms.  I don’t know her well yet, but I have a feeling she is going to make a big impact on me.  Not only will I be adding a whole new cast of characters to my life here, but also will have much more quantitative work opportunities at the district hospital.  I’ll be able to continue my work on the cervical cancer prevention project and skilled birth attendant trainings as well as find new projects.

Before I can move into my new compound, there need to be some additions to the hut.  Doors, windows, fencing, and a pit latrine.  Hopefully I’ll be able to move soon.

Moving on and bouncing back are all a part of the Peace Corps game.  You really do have to be flexible and adapt to whatever this country throws at you.  Recently my resilience has been put to the test, and I’m finding myself still motivated to do work and to meet new people.  I’m not going to let this setback ruin my experience here.   I’ve felt a lot of things this past month: fear, anger, betrayal, sadness, nostalgia, frustration, confusion, and now hope.  Moving out of Nafadji enabled me to have some closure, and I feel ready to begin my life in Saraya.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Change of Plans


About a month ago, I had a traumatic experience in my village.  I don’t feel comfortable posting all of the details on a public blog, but it involved an intruder coming into my hut in the middle of the night while I was sleeping.  I’m okay, and Peace Corps Safety and Security responded immediately.  I biked out of the village the following day and have been living at the regional house for the past month.

I have always felt safe in my village, and this incident broke that trust.  The part that breaks my heart the most is that I probably will not be able to move back.  This is something that I’ve been struggling with a lot, because I was so happy living in that village.  I’ve reached a point in my service where I’m comfortable with the language and have made some close local friends.  I love my host family, especially the kids.  You never think that something like this will happen to you.  It feels surreal to know that I can no longer live in the place I’ve called home for the past 15 months.  I never wanted to leave my village this way.  I wanted to leave in 8 months when I’m supposed to leave, and by then I hoped I’d be more ready.  It’s not time yet, and this whole experience has been very frustrating and confusing.

The more distance I’ve had from my village and from the incident, the more clearly I have been able to see it.  Initially, I wanted to try to move back to my village, because the thought of not seeing my kids every day was unthinkable.  My family, friends, and work are there, and I didn’t want to leave them.  It made me so angry that my village and I were being punished for something that was completely out of my control.  A month later, the situation is still not resolved, and I know that it’s not realistic for me to think I can move back.  No matter how much I’m going to miss everyone, my safety has to be more important.

Luckily, I was able to go back for Fily’s wedding last week.  The only way that was possible was because my boyfriend went with me.  I’ll write another blog about the wedding, but it was great to go back for a few days and to see my family.

Now I’m trying to plan out the rest of my service.  My friends here have been incredibly supportive and have been helping me to figure out what I want to do.  There are a lot of options, but I think I’ll probably move to another village.  The village I’m leaning towards moving to is in a beautiful location and has some wonderful people.  It’s hard to think about starting all over again in a new village at this point in my service, but this time around I have a better grasp of the language and know what to expect.  I’m not saying goodbye to anyone in Nafadji either, because I still hope to visit during the day and to continue my Care Group and Jeune Relais projects.

The funny part about this is that I had just written in my journal the day before the incident happened that I had the rest of my service planned out.  I knew exactly what projects I’d be working on up until I leave in the spring.  It just goes to show that you can’t plan everything!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Secrets

Diabou, my 15-year-old host niece, is having a rough year.  She seems to be the bad example of every health problem I’ve worked on in my village.  While training to be a Jeune Relais, she learned about reproductive health and the dangers of teenage pregnancy, only to reveal that she herself was pregnant.  During the malaria training she received, she learned that pregnant women who get malaria would become anemic and could go into early labor.  This rainy season, she has gotten malaria twice.  The second time, while she was hooked up to an IV at the health post to receive treatment for malaria, she went into labor 2 months early.

I had heard during our malaria training that malaria could induce early labor, but experiencing it with a member of my host family was surreal.  Since she was only 7 months pregnant, no one was expecting the baby anytime soon.  I was hanging out at the health post while she was receiving her IV treatment, and all of a sudden, the matrone came out of the room and said she was delivering the baby.  I was very out of the loop and rushed over and was handed a bag of bleach to carry into the room to clean things up.  When I walked in, the new baby girl was already out.  At the naming ceremony a week later, Diabou revealed that she was naming her daughter Kaba after the matrone.  Both Diabou and Kaba are healthy, but Kaba is the tiniest baby I’ve ever seen.


Baby Kaba


Diabou and Kaba

At the age of 30, Mbamoussa not only has 9 children but is now a grandmother.  Family planning is a significant problem in my village.   Last week, I did a lesson on Family Planning with my Care Group.  To gather information before I led the lesson, I talked with Kaba about which methods of family planning are the most common in the village.  We talked about birth control pills, shots, and the implants that are inserted into a woman’s arm.  All of these methods are affordable, but the roadblock to family planning is the husband.  Most husbands forbid their wives to use any methods of family planning, and this stems from a misunderstanding about birth control.  Many men think that if their wives start taking birth control that they will never be able to have children again.  This fear is so great that some men become irrational.  A woman in my village got the implant put into her arm, which can last up to 5 years.  Her husband found out and became furious.  He wanted to punish whoever inserted the implant into his wife’s arm.  The midwife who moved away from our village is the one who inserted it last winter, but he wouldn’t believe that it was someone who was no longer there.  He first blamed Sarr, the nurse, and then Makhan, the community health worker.  When he realized it was neither of them, he turned to Kaba, our skilled birth attendant.  She does not have the training to be able to insert the implant, but he irrationally is convinced that she is the one to blame.  He has threatened to take her to the police.  This situation is convincing me more and more that I need to organize a health talk with the men in my village about the facts of birth control.  Since most men refuse to use condoms, women go from one pregnancy right into the next, to the detriment of their health and the babies’.

It turns out that this same angry husband forbid his wife from being a member of my Care Group.  Back in December, when the women’s group presidents were electing women to participate in my Care Group, his wife was elected, and he pulled her out.  No one ever told me this.  I never realized that being a member in my Care Group was a controversial matter.  That seems to be the way of the village though.  Now that I’ve lived here for over a year, issues are beginning to surface that I would have never expected.

If you ask most people in my village if Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is practiced, they will tell you that it was abolished and doesn’t happen anymore.  I believed this to be true since I had no evidence to the contrary.  Recently, I was having a conversation with a man in my village who used to work for Tostan, an NGO that has done work to end FGC.  He informed me that no one in my village cuts girls, but families bring their daughters 6 kilometers to the neighboring village to have them cut.  This past month, a group of girls were taken to this neighboring village to get cut by an older woman who has been cutting girls for a long time.  Many people in my village recognize that it is a harmful practice, but the older generations do not seem to have changed their behavior.  If this man had not chosen to be honest with me about this issue, I could have gone my entire service without knowing that this was going on.  People tend to tell me what I want to hear, and the longer I'm here, the more I question what I’ve been told.

One health issue that is no secret is malaria.  This time of year, it seems as though everyone has it.  My friend Ian started a project in his health zone where he trained health workers in 5 villages to test for malaria and distribute malaria medication.  Every Monday and Friday during the rainy season, these health workers will visit every compound to test and treat every sick person for malaria.  For the first day of the project, Ian invited me and some other volunteers to shadow a health worker during their morning rounds of the village.  I biked out to a small village of 200 people to follow the health worker around to every compound, testing and treating the sick.  I was shocked at the level of malaria in the village.  Every compound we went to had people who were sick with malaria.  Since we visited every person in the village, in theory, every person who had malaria that day was given medication.  If people start taking malaria medication within the first 24 hours of symptoms, they cannot transmit it to other people.  The goal is to lower the rates of malaria in these communities, and I think the project is off to a great start!

On a lighter note, rainy season has brought lots of fun activities!  I’ve been going out to the fields with the women to plant corn and peanuts.  Mbamoussa’s women’s group went out to plant corn the other day, and we made a day of it.  We hiked out into the bush with bowls of lunch on our heads, carefully avoiding a snake that slithered across the path about 10 feet in front of us.  We hacked weeds for a while and then took a lunch break.  After lunch, all of the women lined up in a row, and we walked in parallel lines, seeding corn, singing, and gossiping as we walked.


Planting Corn


Heading home with sticks to cook dinner

Now that the rains have started, women have started hiking out into the bush with their laundry to wash their clothes in what I thought was a seasonal river.  Recently, Fily and Mbamoussa invited me to tag along, so I grabbed my bucket of dirty clothes and some soap and we headed out into the bush.  We kept walking and walking and passed the dry seasonal riverbed.  Finally after what seemed like ages, we arrived at a puddle of water, and I realized that this was where we were going to do laundry.  The “puddle water” looked to be teeming with parasites, and I was not confident that this would clean my clothes.  Fily assured me that all the women of the village have been sharing this puddle and cleaning their clothes.  We washed our clothes alongside other women, as this tends to be a social event.  I’m anxious for the seasonal river to fill up, because this puddle water was very questionable.

The upside of integration is that I feel very close with my community, but on the downside, I’m uncovering the seedy underbelly of Nafadji.  Secrets are coming out, and there’s a lot of work to be done.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Perils and Pearls of Guinea

Murphy’s Law definitely applies to my recent trip to Guinea.  It seemed as though everything that could go wrong went wrong.  It’s a beautiful country, but my friend Kayla and I had a string of bad luck.

We set off on our Guinean adventure in the front of a 4x4 truck, packed to the brim with passengers.  Not long after crossing the barge out of Kedougou, we got our first of many flat tires.  While the tire was being changed, we hiked up to the top of a steep mountain, where the rest of our car group waited at the top.  The truck made it up the mountain, and we continued on our way.  Just as dark clouds loomed overhead, another tire went flat.  All of the passengers fled the car and started running down the road to beat the rain.  Kayla and I were extremely confused about where they were running to but decided we might as well follow the crowd.  Unfortunately we weren’t fast enough, because we got caught in a massive rainstorm as we ran down the dirt road.  We took cover under a tree, trying desperately to protect our bags with our cameras in them.  Drenched in rain, we eventually realized that the other passengers were headed to another village, so we set out to find the village and wait there for the car to be fixed.  After a couple hours of sitting in the village, the truck was ready to make it to the border crossing as we finally entered Guinea. 

By this point, it was 2pm, and we had hoped to make it to the town of Labe by that evening.  If only we knew the journey that was to come.  As we entered Guinea, the roads turned into the worst I’ve ever seen.  With our fearless driver Harouna behind the wheel, we traversed rocky, mountainous terrain into the night.  The truck occasionally stopped when we got to the base of a large mountain or a huge stream, and everyone got out and forged ahead on foot.  By midnight, we were hiking up a mountain in the rain, wondering how much further we had to go.  Whenever we’d ask someone how far we had until Labe, they would always respond with “very far”.  By 2am, we finally stopped in a village, and Kayla and I sprawled out in the truck to sleep for a few hours, while the others found places in the back of the truck or on a mat on the ground.  Day 2 of the journey was not much better.  In total, we got 8 flat tires.  It became almost comical as we continued to hear tires popping on the road.  Since we only carried 2 spares on the truck, we frequently had to sit on the side of the road, waiting for another truck to help us out.  



By around 1am that night, we finally made it to Labe and were invited to sleep at Harouna’s house.  48 hours without showering did not leave us smelling good, so thankfully Harouna’s wife gave us a bucket of water in the morning.

Our time in Labe was uneventful, but the following day, we traveled to the small village of Doucki.  The highlight of the trip was hiking through the mountains in Doucki with our hilarious guide, Hassan.  He took us to some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.  I sat on a rock, overlooking and surrounded by a sea of flourishing, green trees.  



A vibrant river passed through the mountains, giving my feet a refreshing break from the heat.   On another hike, we entered “Indiana Jones World”, as Hassan refers to it.  We climbed up vines and stood between boulders in what felt like another world.  Hassan is quite the comedian and had us laughing the entire time whether he was doing impressions, juggling rocks, or just being his goofy self.  


He put us up in one of the huts on his compound and took good care of us.  If you ever visit Guinea, I highly recommend hiking with Hassan!  With all the failures we had on our trip, this was a shining success. 

From Doucki, things seemed to go downhill.  We had contacted the Peace Corps Guinea Country Director to stay at the Peace Corps Regional House in Conakry.  She told us to give her a call once we got into Conakry, since the house was difficult to find.  We left Doucki at 8am, hoping to get to Conakry by late afternoon.  Wrong again.  We squished into a 9-place, which is a station wagon that has seats for 7, but they squeeze in 9.  I was squashed up against the door as I slowly lost feeling in my leg on the ride to Pita.  From Pita, we got into another 9-place to traverse the mountains and head to Conakry.  Kayla and I quickly realized that the driver did not know how to operate a car.  We held our breath as he continually slammed on the brakes and hit the accelerator as the car made hairpin turns down the steep mountain.  We had to stop for 2 hours to fix the brakes, and then we continued into the night.  As darkness and a rainstorm set in, Kayla and I were terrified for our lives as our inexperienced driver flew down the mountain.  We made it into Conakry at 1am, and felt extremely embarrassed about having to call and wake up the Guinean Country Director.  Luckily, the director is an incredibly nice woman, and she and her husband met us at the entrance to the house in the wee hours of the morning.  We felt horrible about waking them up but so thankful to sleep in a real bed. 

In Conakry, our dream was to take out money from an ATM, eat good food, and go to the beach on one of the islands.  Being in the country’s capital, we assumed taking out money would not be difficult.  Turns out that ATM’s will either not accept Visa cards or will only let you take out the equivalent of $30 a day, which was not going to get us very far.  With attempts at multiple banks, we finally accepted that we were going to have to be on a tight budget for the rest of the trip, because we couldn’t get enough money out.  That threw our food plans out the door.  We explored the market and saved enough to eat at a nice, Vietnamese/Thai restaurant for dinner.  After eating a delicious curry, my stomach started feeling a little off.  Around 3am, it was clear that I had food poisoning and spent the rest of the night on the floor of the bathroom.  The following day, Kayla was sick with a horrible sore throat and headache, and the rain nixed our plan of going to the beach.  We decided we might as well buy our tickets to head back to Senegal since we were almost out of money. 

The following morning, we left Conakry in a 9-place.  Among the 9 passengers in the crammed station wagon, 4 of them were obese women that we affectionately refer to as “Cheb Mamas”.  Counting the driver and his apprentice, we had 11 people squeezed like sardines into the car for our 2-day journey back to Senegal.  The apprentice lay in the trunk, and Kayla and I were so squished, we could barely breathe.  These Cheb Mamas clearly should have bought more than 1 seat for themselves, but we were still able to close the doors of the car with everyone inside.  Of course, the Cheb Mamas had to frequently chow down, and the one sitting to my left brought several fish in her bag as a snack. These fish started smelling very questionable after being in a hot car all day.  She would whip out her jar of mayonnaise and grab handfuls to spread all over her fish.  As she continually spit out bones into her bag, I got sprayed.  The roads were once again less than ideal, so carsickness became an issue, and one of the Cheb Mamas puked out the window as we drove, since the driver wouldn’t stop.  The driver also wouldn’t stop harassing Kayla and I and asking where our husbands were.  During a rainstorm, something wet was dripping onto my head, which I assumed was rain.  When we got out of the car a few hours later to eat, I realized that the gasoline canister that had been carelessly tossed onto the roof had leaked into the car and onto my head.  I not only had gasoline in my hair, but I had been touching my hair and then wiping sweat off of my face, giving my face a nice oily sheen.  I was pissed at this point since I smelled like a gas station.  I asked if the driver could take my bag down from the top of the car so I could get my shampoo out and try to wash some of the gasoline out of my hair.  The bags were supposedly wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain, but when I got my bag off the roof, everything inside was sopping wet, and my clothes smelled like mold.  Unable to get the gas smell out of my hair, I gave up and just got back into the car, hoping this car ride would be over as soon as possible.  Driving into the night along rocky, pot holed roads, smelling like gasoline and being subjected to blaring Guinean music, I could not wait to get back to Senegal.  I felt like I was being tortured as we suffocated in this car for 24 hours.  It was a test of how “zen” Kayla and I could stay when all we wanted to do was scream.  Around 1am, we slept at the border and crossed into Senegal once it got light again.  That was by far the worst car ride I’ve ever had in my life, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Kedougou. 

My souvenirs from this trip are a bag of moldy clothes and hair that still smells like gasoline.  I tried putting baby powder, baking soda, and an olive oil and honey mixture into it with no success.  Hopefully the smell fades soon, because I’m repelling my friends.

Transport was the bane of this trip, but as we sat through every breakdown, beautiful mountains and lush forests surrounded us.  It was a trade off, but I enjoyed exploring another country.  That being said, I’m content to stay put in Kedougou and not squeeze into another car for a long time!


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Help Fight For Girls' Education!

The Michele Sylvester Scholarship (MSS) was established in 1993 in memory of a Peace Corps Volunteer dedicated to girls’ education in Senegal.  Every year, SeneGAD (the Peace Corps Senegal Gender and Development group), helps Volunteers run the scholarship program in their community.  This year, I’m implementing the program in Nafadji!

The goal of MSS is to help close the gender gap in education.  According to the scholarship program, nine girls are chosen by the middle school, based on academic strength and financial need.  To make up the nine, three girls from each of the three grades (Sixieme, Cinqieme, and Quatrieme) are selected by the school principal and teachers.  All of the nine girls will receive financial aid towards their school registration fee next school year, and three of the girls will receive money to buy school supplies. 

When I started this program in Nafadji, the principal was not in the village, so he told me to work with Ngom to choose the nine candidates.  Ngom has been a wonderful counterpart for the project and has wowed me with his speed and efficiency.  Within a couple of days of starting the project, he called a meeting of all the teachers, and they picked the top three girls from each grade for the scholarship.  It’s difficult for them to assess financial need from the information they have, which is where I come in.

After the teachers gave me a list of the nine girls’ names for the scholarship, I called a meeting to explain the program to the girls.  In Senegal, it is common knowledge that if you call a meeting at 9am, people may start rolling in around 10 or 11am.  There is not a strong sense of urgency, and people’s lives don’t revolve around a clock.  While the whole slow pace of life in the village may sound charming, it can make it incredibly frustrating to get work done.  The same day I called the meeting for the Michele Sylvester candidates, I also held a meeting for my Care Group.  I told my Care Group ladies to meet at 3pm and the Scholarship girls to meet at 5pm.  Of course, the Care Group women finally started showing up around 4:15, and we started the meeting at 4:30pm.  I figured the girls would show up late so we wouldn’t have a problem, but these girls all showed up at 5pm on the dot, and some of them even came early!  I was the one who was late to our meeting!  When I walked into the classroom, and all of them were already seated, waiting for me to start, I realized that this was a special group of girls who took their education seriously.

At our meeting, the girls filled out basic information about themselves and their families, and they also wrote brief essays about what they want to be when they grow up and why girls’ education is important.  At the end of the meeting, I scheduled interviews and home visits with each of them, and I’m slowly making the rounds to all of their compounds.  From the nine girls that the school chose, I will choose six candidates whose applications I will give to SeneGAD to review, and from those six, SeneGAD will choose the three who will receive money for school supplies.  In order for me to choose the top six, I need to interview the girls and visit their homes to assess financial need. 

Most of the students that attend the Nafadji middle school are not from Nafadji.  Students come from villages way out in the bush and lodge with families in Nafadji during the school year.  To get a real idea of each girl’s financial need, I am now traveling to their home villages to meet their families.  Some girls only live 6k away from Nafadji, but 2 of the candidates are 25k away, and one girl is 45k south of Nafadji, on the border of Guinea.  I’m getting some good exercise on my bike this month, trekking out to interview the girls and their families. 

I’m really enjoying getting to know these girls and their families.  It’s great to visit villages that don’t have a volunteer and to see how excited these girls’ parents get when they find out their daughter has been chosen for this scholarship program.  From the interviews with the girls, I’m learning how hard it is for them to study and to stay in school, but these girls are extremely motivated.  They want to be teachers, nurses, and midwives in the future, and I hope this scholarship can help give them a boost towards these goals. 

Not only will these girls be receiving financial aid from the scholarship but I will be working with them next school year on girls’ leadership activities!  Finding these hardworking girls has motivated me to want to do more work with girls in my community.  

To fund the nine girls’ registration fees and school supplies for the top three, I need to raise $180.  If you are interested in donating towards a girl’s education, you can donate here:
This donation will go into the Senegal Country Fund.  Please specify in the comments section that the donation is to support the Michele Sylvester Scholarship program in Nafadji and include my name.  Thanks for any contributions!  Every little bit helps!

Too many girls drop out of school, and lack of finances plays a large role.  This past school year in Nafadji, only one girl made it to the last year of middle school.  With this program, we have identified nine girls who are motivated to continue their education.  Let’s help them stay in school!

Nafadji Michele Sylvester Scholarship Candidates

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Greet your mouse for me!"

It’s so nice to be busy!  This month, I have lots to do and time is flying.  Earlier this week, the Jeune Relais passed through all of the middle school classes to do a 10 minute presentation on family planning, HIV/AIDS, and STI’s, along with a condom demonstration.  The 12 Jeune Relais divided into 2 groups of 6, and I went with one group and Ngom (an English teacher) went with the other group.  I felt so proud of these students as I watched them teach their peers with such confidence.  It was interesting to watch them do the presentations in front of students who had no prior knowledge of any of the issues being discussed, and none of them had ever seen a condom demonstration.  Sporting their green t-shirts, the Jeune Relais looked like pros, spreading sexual health knowledge to the school.


I was extremely impressed with the openness of the principal to allow the Jeune Relais to talk about these topics that are taboo in most other villages.   One teacher told me that he’s never heard of students this young teaching other students about these issues, and he was excited that it was happening at his school since many of his female students are getting pregnant.  Ngom and I had a good conversation about the project, and he said he’s interested to see what this community will be like in 5 to 10 years, since these students are gaining important health knowledge at a young age.  Maybe less teens will get pregnant.  Maybe less people will get sexually transmitted infections.  One teacher told me he never knew how to properly use a condom and learned from the students that it is necessary to leave room at the tip. .  We’ve opened the door for discussion, and people are willing to talk.

Now that the rains have begun, malaria has started hitting the village.  A couple kids on my compound have already gotten it, but thankfully Mbamoussa took them to the health post right away to get them on medication.  Since malaria is a pertinent topic, our Care Group has continued to work on ways to help the community protect themselves.  Last meeting we sewed and washed mosquito nets, and this week we made neem lotion, a natural mosquito repellent.  We held the meeting under a tree, and all the women took turns boiling neem leaves, cutting soap, stirring the lotion, and bagging it.  Neem lotion is very easy and inexpensive to make.  All you need are neem leaves, water, soap, and oil.  Fighting against malaria in my village seems futile sometimes, since everyone seems to get it every year.  All I can really do is encourage people to sleep under mosquito nets, wear neem lotion, and go directly to the health post to get tested for malaria if they have the symptoms. 




Another project I’m working on right now is a scholarship for middle school girls for next year.  I’ll explain more about this in another blog.

The rains have brought a whole new batch of creepy crawlers.  It’s scorpion season again, so I’m scanning the ground with a flashlight when I walk anywhere at night now.  Luckily, whenever I see one, there is usually a group of kids who are happy to kill it with a stick.  My fight against the massive brown ants that nested in both of my doors is back.  The other day, there were so many crawling all over that I couldn’t even see part of the wall.  A mouse has also decided that my hut would make a nice home for it, and it has been trying to create some sort of bed out of the straw in my roof.  I have swept the little nest away multiple times, but this mouse is persistent.

My host family and I have very different fears when it comes to bugs, rodents, and reptiles.  They are deathly afraid of lizards and toads and believe that if they bite you, you will die.  I laugh at this and make fun of them all the time.  But, they think it’s hilarious that I’m afraid of a mouse.  They always tell me the mouse wont do anything, but I still hate having it in my hut.  I don’t mind the lizards, because they stick to the walls, but this mouse could be anywhere!  Diabou and I now have a running joke about toads and mice.  She tells me the mouse is going to crawl into my bed at night, and I tell her the toads are nice and warm in her room.  When I go to bed at night, she tells me to greet my mouse, and I tell her to greet her toads.

Sounkharou is still waiting to get the papers to go to Spain and came back to Nafadji with Sira for a little while.  It has been so nice to play with Sira again!  She’s talking so much more now, and she makes me laugh every day.  Her cute little voice makes it difficult for me to understand what she’s saying a lot of the time though.  The other night, she was tugging on my leg, saying “Aitata, m’taa, m’taa”.  Finally, I realized that she was standing there asking me to pick her up so she could fall asleep in my lap.  Aww, I love Sira.

The other day, I was weighing babies at the health post, and Khadidia (the woman whose birth I helped out with) brought her baby girl, Kanio, to be weighed.  She’s so big now!  Babies really do mark time for me here.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that I saw Kanio being born, and now she’s 6 months old.  Where does the time go?