Thursday, September 13, 2012

There is a thin cord.

I left Senegal. My Peace Corps service ended on July 25th, and I've come to New York to study to be a doctor. I want to write about all this more soon, but I can't yet. 

What I can write about right now is what happened this week. I knew my friend Maguette in Ndiago was pregnant, and I knew she was due about now. As often as I tried to call, it was four days before the call was able to go through. The delivery had gone just fine, and Maguette is mother to a new baby girl. She has decided to name her Aissa, my name in Senegal, after me. 

And this is a little tiny beautiful thing, and I can write about it. I guess I wrote this to myself, but I think you'll know what I'm talking about. 


There is a thin cord. 

Do not let the thin cord drop. 

Pull it closer to you, tuck it as close to your heart as you can, so that every beat and every breath reverberates along it. You will hear the sighs and sweet breaths and laughter of the people you love in your sleep,  because they too knew to draw the cord to themselves and tuck it in deep. As the afternoon closes over the fields and the huts under their sky, they will wait to feel the stirring in their breasts that means you have awoken half a world away. They will retire at night knowing that you can hear and feel them, knowing that you will keep watch. This watching and being watched over, this waiting for that little tug, this restfulness and peace in knowing that they are safe and alive and loving you, and that from now on you and the people on the other side of this cord can never be alone: it’s how you know you’re alive. Do not let the thin cord drop.

It is thin because it’s not meant to be a burden or a restraint. It’s thin because you move around in the day, negotiating subway turnstiles and small desks in lecture halls. It’s thin because you have to study and learn and become a doctor, because that is what you promised as the cord began to weave itself between you and them. It’s thin because you can’t call every day, and you can’t see pictures of the new baby just now, and because maybe something will happen to the family that you won’t be able to keep them from, or grieve over them with, or try to understand with their help, because you are 3,000 miles away. Which is where they think you should be right now. So the cord is thin.

It is strong because they know you love them. And they know because you told them every day, with deeds and work and conversation and everything you had in you. And you know they love you, because here is this phone call you were finally able to make to them, and here is this new baby they’ve named after you, and and here is this cord you have woven together. And suddenly here is this afternoon when you’re in New York watching the season change and you’re in this small village in the middle of nowhere in Senegal, which could be anywhere, any family, any new baby, anywhere in this world, and suddenly New York and the shifting seasons and the world and all of it are just right here, in your heart, as you think about this baby. The cord could not be stronger.

You will not let the thin cord drop.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What I love about malaria work.

World Malaria Day is coming up on April 25th, which for those of us in the malaria field means that Christmas is coming in the springtime.

For a year now, I've been Peace Corps Senegal's malaria person. After my two years in village, I came up here to Dakar to coordinate volunteers' malaria work and give them what support I could. I was also charged with beefing up our relationships with other organizations in Senegal, like NetWorksSpeak Up Africa, and Malaria No More. I've been in a great position to see the way malaria interventions are changing here in Senegal, and to watch as new volunteers come in with amazing ideas about how to fight malaria in their communities. Again and again, I have been blown away by what we can do together, and as World Malaria Day approaches, I've been reflecting on the past three years. I really believe that I work for the Peace Corps program that's doing the best malaria work on the continent. It was a messy road, at times, but it's been worth it.

The first health talk I ever gave in village was horrible, and it was about malaria. Each family in the village sent two women to hear me talk about the signs and symptoms of malaria and to watch me make neem lotion, a mosquito repellent made of cheap or naturally occurring ingredients that are easily available in rural Senegal.

It was a bust.

Having just been installed in the village about two weeks beforehand, I barely spoke enough Wolof to keep myself out of trouble, let alone talk about a complicated disease like malaria. I had made neem lotion before, during our brief but intense time in training, but never before a curious audience, and never by myself. As I poured in the shavings of a bar of soap, which melt in the neem leaf-infused boiling water, an exasperated lady in the front row of the crowd shuffled up to me. Grabbing the large spoon out of my hand and shooing me from the pot, she rolled up her flowing sleeves and started stirring powerfully. Apparently, I needed to be taught how to stir. Watching the soap dissolve, I wondered what the hell was I going to be doing in this village for the next two years. I couldn't be trusted with the simplest of daily tasks, so it didn't seem possible that I would be much of a community health educator.

A neem lotion causerie at the end of my service, when I had figured out how to stir.

At first, Senegal and I found one another mutually confounding. Babies cried when I, the white ghost, approached for their monthly weighing. Women my age with three children didn't understand why I didn't want a husband. Men in garages didn't know what to do with the dirty girl dressed in a tank top and a traditional Senegalese wrap skirt, who spoke choppy, aggressive Wolof and refused to pay the tourist price for her car fare. I occasionally forgot some of the conventions of politeness in Senegalese culture, once, for example, passing a market lady a handful of change with my forbidden left hand.

Luckily, and to my eternal wonder and joy, humans get better at things as they go along. I spent two years learning Wolof, getting to know the 300 people who chose to share their village with me, and found out more and more about malaria and the role it plays in the lives of the Senegalese people.

Malaria costs Africa $12 billion dollars a year. Malaria kills a child every sixty seconds. The numbers vary, but the total estimated malaria deaths range from 655,000 to a million every year. The vast majority of people who fall victim to malaria are pregnant women and children under 5 living in sub-Saharan Africa, which is great news, because that's a demographic that doesn't have enough difficulties to deal with in life.

And the real kicker? Malaria is a preventable and treatable disease.

Preventable and treatable. It's like someone in the States dying of a cold.

My slow grasp of these facts and my growing rage came upon me as I continued to integrate into my community in Senegal. I lived in a hut of my own, with mud brick walls and a thatched roof that housed a number of small birds, mice, and a couple of plump snakes. The hut had been built in the compound of the Gningue family, who took me in as if I were their very own, if slightly stupid, daughter. My host father introduced me around the village and helped me keep my hut standing through the windy rainy season and the hot dry months. My host mom dressed me up and took me to baptisms, weddings, and funerals, where she helped me become a part of the community of women who do so much of the work in the village. The children listened to me practice my Wolof, and laughed as they corrected my grammar and pronunciation.

Together, the community taught me what it was, what the members valued, what they wanted from their lives and from each other. They taught me how they saw malaria, what they thought of this threat to their lives, what they knew to do when they got sick. They helped me understand why they couldn't pay the $4 to buy a mosquito net, even though they knew that sleeping underneath one every night would protect them from being bitten by the mosquitos that spread malaria. They talked about being too scared to go to the health post to seek treatment for a suspected case of malaria when their infant sons and daughters became ill, even though they knew the disease was so dangerous. They surprised me with their knowledge and resources, and saddened me with their matter-of-fact statements about their perceptions of the limitations on their lives.

Over the first two years of my time here, the people of the village turned every idea about public health I had on its head. Not only did I have to learn how to stir a pot of melting soap slivers, I had to start at the absolute beginning when it came to figuring out how health care and malaria prevention education should work.

Luckily, Peace Corps get all this. Peace Corps Senegal, maybe especially so. Our volunteers are motivated, excited, thoughtful, and well-informed. When they are installed in their new villages, their new homes for two years, they're ready to study up. They find out everything they can about their communities, the health priorities there, the barriers to seeking health care, and what diseases cost the people the most.

I've written about malaria a few times on this blog. But I want to invite you all to be a part of something bigger than that.

April is Blog About Malaria Month, and April 25th is World Malaria Day. Peace Corps Volunteers, community health workers, NGOs, and other actors across Africa are rolling out anti-malaria interventions all this month. We're pioneering new techniques and scaling up old interventions, writing blog entries and op-eds and letters home. By the end of this month, more Africans will know how to protect themselves and their families from malaria than ever before. And more westerners will understand this disease and the crippling effect it's having on this continent than ever before.

Haven't you heard? Africa's going to end malaria by 2015. Find out more.

This is the time, guys. And I couldn't be happier or more thankful to be a part of it.

Love and guts,

Monday, December 5, 2011

A funeral in the village.

I have a sense that my reaction to death in Senegal has always been childish. It is not fair, it is never fair, someone should have stopped it -- I may as well be stamping my foot, throwing a tantrum. This is a story about growing up: not all the way, but a little.

Even after almost three years in country, I am still gratified and amazed at how many opportunities there are in daily life for remembering that here in Senegal, you are always a part of a community; that the people around you are connected to you; that no one here could live in isolation.

For example, the greeting ritual in every language in Senegal is a long and complicated series of questions and answers about personal health, family, and work. It's an opportunity to ask after certain people by name, which is a way of affirming your knowledge of them and your connection to them. The answers aren't important. In fact, they're just as formulaic as the questions: How are the family? They are in peace, thank God. And the whole ritual almost always starts with the repetition of the last name of whomever you're speaking to: an affirmation of their place in their family and community.

Everywhere in Senegal, there's closeness and conversation. Public transportation. Vegetable markets. Hospital waiting rooms, as I wrote about a long time ago. Curiosity, questions, answers, togetherness, a delight in even the smallest shared bit of personal history. Time and time again, my Wolof -- which is quickly identifiable as having been learned in a particular part of the country -- has won for a me a cheaper price, a friendly exchange; even a grin from a taxi driver, for example, who was maybe more interested in swindling me before I opened my mouth and started speaking in the accent of the people of his village.

Family events are another beautiful affirmation of the way an individual supports and is supported by community here. Weddings and baptisms are universally attended, not only by close family and friends, but by everyone within walking distance. Everyone brings a small amount of money or a gift. The married women come early to help prepare the massive amounts of food needed at even a small celebration, and the unmarried girls stay late to help take care of children and be sure that the compound is kept clean.

Funerals, too.

Preparations for the day of my Senegalese host father's funeral began long before daybreak. The compound had been full of family and friends for the last two days, ever since his death, and many of us were sleeping in the sand or on concrete "beds" outside. From where I lay on my back in a thatched outdoor sleeping area, shivering in the pre-dawn cold and watching the stars disappear, I could hear the women begin to pull water for the daily chores. Babies began to stir and cry. Young girls with brooms began sweeping the sand of the compound, clearing it of leaves and small pieces of trash. Another day. On any other day, I would have registered all this and drifted back to sleep, preferring to wait until the sun came up before I rose. Not today.

I rose slowly, my back stiff and sore from the two previous nights passed on cement, thinking of how I had gotten here. The phone call had come from Ndiago two mornings ago, as I was getting ready to head to work. He had been sick for a long time. With the help of my boss here at Peace Corps, I was able to leave Dakar immediately. Driving in to Ndiago that afternoon, the village seemed deserted. I saw no children playing in the dirt paths between family compounds, no women in the lanes sorting the peanut crop and gossiping, no men sitting beneath trees and drinking tea. They had all gone to my family's compound.

As I walked in, I was amazed. There were hundreds of people in an outdoor space meant for perhaps two dozen. I greeted the men and women I walked by, received their condolences and gave my own, and was led to the room where my father's two wives sat. They were on the floor in the back corner of the hut, surrounded by their sisters and their husband's sisters, by their daughters and aunts and nieces. Their heads were covered and their eyes cast down, and as I approached them through a haze of soft sad words in Wolof, I hardly recognized them. More greetings, prayers, words for the dead. Their eyes on my face did not seem alert enough to recognize me.

Later in the day, the crowd in the compound receded. They left gifts of food and money. Neighbors sent bowls of their own dinner to the two widows, which were appreciated but returned untouched. Even as night fell, the compound was still more crowded than usual, since many of the extended family members from out of the village were staying with us. The women took over the chores, making sure that everyone was properly fed, bathing the children, finding places for us all to sleep. The men sat with the sons of the family, caught in low earnest conversations. A cold night was followed by a cold dawn; and when I awoke the next day I watched as the compound filled up again.

On this second day, mourners began to arrive from further away. Horse carts filled with people came from villages I had never heard of. They came to greet and give condolences, to drop what money they could spare on a piece of fabric laid out at the feet of the widows, or on another laid out by my aunt, my father's sister. There were even some who came from towns and cities in cars, like the marabout from a few villages away. Many were mourning the death of Osseynou Gningue, and none of them would be doing it alone.

And then finally, the day of the funeral. The mourners who had left the compound the night before came back, and their numbers somehow swelled to over 700. Seven hundred men and women in the compound, seated on plastic mats and chairs provided by the village, praying or sitting silently. Here and there a woman would begin to wail and moan softly, concealing her grief beneath her head wrap. Everywhere, heavy eyes and stillness. The imam prayed and spoke of Osseynou, followed by all of the important men of the community: they praised his devotion to his family and his work, and spoke of the struggles his illness had brought him in its final stage. It was better now for him, they said. He could rest.

I moved around during the funeral, uncomfortable, listening sometimes to the men eulogize Osseynou, passing sometimes to my host mother's room to sit with her, and settling sometimes with the elderly women, who could not help prepare the funeral lunch and therefore were in charge of the children. I felt grief, yes. But it wasn't a daughter's grief. I respected Osseynou for the way he took care of his family, and I was terrified of what would happen to them now that he was gone. But I wasn't sure there was a place for that at this event.

Later in the day, my oldest host sister Tenning passed by with a bin of water on her head, on her way to the temporary outdoor cooking area where the women were preparing the meal. She had her role, just like everyone else, in spite of and because of her grief. But as she walked by me, she began to stumble and cough and cry again. Another woman and I eased the heavy basin from her head and took it over to the huge pots full of donated rice, meat, and vegetables.

I made my way with Tenning, who was still sobbing, back to our mother's room. Tenning went to her mother and curled up against her, picking up her youngest child and cradling him in her arms. As I turned to leave, feeling not for the first time out of place in this room, this family, this village, and this country, my host mother Aissatou called out to me. "Come sit with me, Aissa. Stay and talk."

It was a village commonplace, that phrase. Come sit with us, stay with us, talk. I hear it every day, even in Dakar. But today it meant that I was to take a place with Aissatou and Tenning and the other women. We might not talk much, and I might not feel what they felt or say the right things, but that's where I belonged then. As even more mourners came in, they would come to greet me too. They would say the words affirming my place in this family and my loss, and I would say the words of gratitude and peace in response.

And this is what Senegal has done to me so many times over the past three years.

Holding back tears and covering my head with a borrowed shawl, I moved into the room again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy Senegal.

I originally wrote this for an online op/ed website that asked for a submission. It was difficult. I feel like I'm maybe conflating the idea of Occupy Wall Street and the reality of life here in Senegal, and I'm not sure how valid that is. Anyway, I would love to here your thoughts. Please comment.


I called my Senegalese host family from the capital city of Dakar the other day to wish them a happy Eid al-Adha, but I didn’t bother to ask them if they’d heard about Occupy Wall Street. The village of Ndiago, where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, is home to about 300 people, almost all of whom eke out a living as subsistence farmers. Many of the villagers listen to radio broadcasts in Wolof and a few of them can follow the broadcasts in French, but there’s not often much news from the United States.

I did, however, ask around in my office here in Dakar. Although the other Americans and I have been following events back home closely, even the Senegalese men and women who watch television news every day and pay attention to what’s going on abroad haven’t heard of Occupy Wall Street. I had been curious because I received an email from an old friend a few days ago asking me what I thought about the movement. “It all must seem sort of silly from your perspective, right? The whole 99% message? Everything we perceive here as an injustice or as unacceptable must look like just another luxurious privilege from where you stand.”

Not quite.

Senegal is a developing country, and I guess you could say that life here is generally more difficult than it is in the United States. The life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is around 80 years. Here in Senegal, it's 56. One in five Senegalese children had a low birth weight and 17% of children under five are moderately to severely underweight. The national adult literacy rate is 42%, and honestly, in villages like Ndiago it's closer to the single digits. Much, much closer. Every day, people in Senegal die of preventable and treatable diseases. Is dehydration even technically a disease? Who cares? It kills children.

Before moving to the capital city to take on a job in malaria prevention and eradication, I worked for two years in Ndiago as a health education volunteer. A big part of my job was to teach the men, women and children of the village about ways they could keep themselves from falling ill from diarrheal diseases, malaria, infected wounds and the like. Access to health care in rural Senegal is inconsistent and expensive; unreliable health workers who don’t explain what they’re doing or why they’re prescribing a particular medication make many people unwilling to fork out the cash for it. I felt there was an urgent need for someone to talk to mothers about exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their babies’ lives, to teach school children to use latrines and wash their hands with soap and water, and to convince families to use mosquito nets at night to protect themselves from malaria.

Even within the village family in Ndiago who took me in as their own daughter, it was difficult work. My host mother, a wiry and energetic woman named Aissatou who had seen six of her 11 children die before they reached the age of five, injured her arm one day in the fields. It wasn’t a serious cut and it probably would have healed fairly quickly, if only it hadn’t been the rainy season, when the heat and humidity are high and even the smallest lacerations can become infected; if only she had access to more nutritious foods to help her body fight infection; if only she believed that washing the cut regularly with soap and water would make a difference. Once the infection got serious, I begged her to go to the health post in the village. But I had begged her to keep it clean, and that hadn’t worked. She honestly had not believed that anything she could do would effect whether her wound healed well. And I found it hard to blame her, when I thought about how many of her children had been killed by inexplicable diseases. If you spend a lifetime noticing that nothing you do seems to make a difference, that poverty and poor health and circumstance seem to be making your decisions for you, fatalism and acceptance become ground into you.

Preventative measures are so much easier and cheaper than curative ones, in almost every situation I see here. Soap to wash my mom’s wound is cheaper than the antibiotics she ended up having to purchase; mosquito nets are cheaper than the medications to treat malaria. Everyone in my village understood these concepts by the time I had been there for six months. So why was it so hard to get people to take the next step and change their behavior?

I’m starting to think it’s because no one in Senegal has heard of Occupy Wall Street.

It takes a lot of patience to live in a place like Senegal. Things just happen more slowly here than they do in the States, and I can’t even count the number of times my frustrated attempts to try to pick up the pace on a project have resulted in a Senegalese man or woman smiling at me indulgently and saying, “Ah yes, in America time is money. Not here.”

Ndiago is about 20 miles from a large city, Kaolack, which is where I used to go for Internet access and the occasional cold beer. That trip routinely took three or four hours: the horse pulling the cart from Ndiago to the road was sometimes tired and slow; and on the stretch of potholes that could not quite be called a road, the rickety, ancient van stuffed with 40 people and an unknown number of goats and chickens, piled high with baggage, sometimes blew a tire. I have seen and been involved in more car accidents in less than three years in Senegal than in my 22 years in the States. But the Senegalese sit patiently and wait to arrive, the women drawing the fabric of their head wraps across their mouths to keep out the dust, the men staring listlessly ahead, all of us ignoring the flipped, burned-out cars that litter the roadside.

In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anyone lose patience and demand better service, safer roads, or a refund of their fare.

Americans, I imagine, would be up in arms. We’d be making phone calls to our congressmen, writing blistering letters to the editor of our hometown newspaper, demanding that the roads be fixed. We’d be canvassing our neighborhoods, trying to register new voters, trying to inform and involve as many people as possible.

This is how I see Occupy Wall Street. Someone, or maybe a group of people, saw the equivalent of one of those burned out cars on the side of the road and said No. This is not how it ought to be. This is not the relationship an individual should have to the state, not the relationship a bank or a corporation should have to the state: not in a democratic, egalitarian society. That person started doing a little research and started having conversations and realized he or she wasn’t the only one with the gut feeling that something was deeply, desperately wrong. The conviction grew and became a movement, a conversation, an action and a demand that spread from New York to Los Angeles, from the U.S. to the world, and my deepest hope for Senegal is that some day soon, it will come here.

My host mother Aissatou raised five children. The oldest ones are starting their own families now, and the youngest is only ten. I want all of her children and all of her grandchildren to grow up knowing that they can make decisions that will change the course of their lives, believing that this world is theirs for the taking, acting up and acting out and making their country a better place to live. I want them to demand better access to healthcare, more teachers and school supplies, and a chance to eat enough nutritious foods to grow up strong. I want them to occupy their lives, their future, their country. Because that’s what it means, to occupy: to take hold of something, to take control. It’s their turn in Senegal, and it’s our turn in the United States.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bean sandwiches and mosquito nets.

This is going to be a picture post, so I may as well start out with a photo of the best breakfast there is in all of Senegal. Ladies and gentlemen, the bean sandwich!

Seriously the best thing ever. SERIOUSLY.

For you folks at home who want to make your own, make sure you spice the beans heavily and slather the whole business with mayo. More adventurous eaters will want to follow my lead and add spicy pasta, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and onion sauce to their sandwich as well. Oh, and it's not a proper bean sandwich if it's not wrapped in discarded newspaper or something, so save your trash!


Several weeks ago, I posted something extremely brief about how excited I was for the upcoming month and promised a full report on it when I came back from the travel. That post was never written, and probably never will be. At least not in the way I had intended to write it. I'm afraid to say too much about it, because that month produced the type of happiness you suspect could be easily crushed by too many words and too much reflection. Good thing I took some pictures to share.

It ended up being an intense month. I started out in Thies, where Peace Corps/Senegal has our training center, for the Stomping Out Malaria Initiative's second boot camp. Staff members and volunteers from across Africa came together to learn more about what we can all be doing to eliminate malaria in our communities. Putting together this training was a little exhausting, but it was worth it to meet the incredible people who attended. I feel privileged to be working side by side with men and women from so many countries, who all believe so firmly in our goal.

I had to leave boot camp a few days early, though, to help supervise a big mosquito net distribution in the southeast corner of Senegal. Peace Corps volunteers and some of our national and international partners were headed to the community of Saraya, outside of Kedougou, bringing a few thousand nets with us.

These distributions are insanely complicated. They begin with a community census, when trained community health workers go from house to house, hut to hut, and count the number of beds and other sleeping spaces (mats rolled out on the floor, stuff like that) that don't have nets.

Health workers enter every hut to get an accurate count of the number of sleeping spaces.

After all this data is validated by a committee of village dignitaries and health workers, the nets are all counted out and divided up. Each one is opened and the name of the new owner and the date and location of the distribution are written on them. When the big day dawns, people are already lined up at their distribution points to collect their nets.

Community health workers in Saraya getting the nets ready for distribution day.

Waiting for new mosquito nets in Saraya.

Every distribution is accompanied by a talk about how to properly use and maintain these mosquito nets. The community health workers will follow up in the weeks ahead by going from compound to compound again, making sure that people have hung their nets correctly and teaching them about the symptoms of malaria. Finally, after some internal evaluation, the distribution effort is done. Using this method, Senegal will have covered 10 of its 14 regions by the end of this year. And that, my friends, is what universal coverage of mosquito nets and malaria education looks like.

A family sitting beneath their new mosquito net.

If nets are being widely used in a village, it benefits every individual within the community: mosquitos have less of a chance to pick up the parasite that causes malaria and pass it to another human host. So if you have about 80% of a community sleeping under their mosquito nets, you'll cut the incidence of malaria roughly in half, and mortality will is reduced by about 17%. Not a bad deal, since a distribution costs about $.50 per net after the cost of the nets themselves. Yep. Fifty cents. And those nets aren't exactly costly either.

It wouldn't be business as usual in Senegal if the car bringing us in to Kedougou hadn't broken down one late afternoon, after the whole distribution was finished and I was getting ready to come back to Dakar.

The guy in the hat and sunglasses said I wasn't allowed to help push-start the car, so I stayed inside and took pictures.

In my current job, I help other people makes things happen. Distributions, trainings, other malaria projects. I don't get out much these days, and I don't get to use my own hands for much beyond typing and drinking too much coffee. In fact, although I had been arranging the budget and putting mosquito nets in cars down to Saraya for weeks in advance of this distribution, I hadn't been sure I'd get to travel to be a part of it.

But I'm glad I ended up in Saraya for this distribution. The volunteers and the Senegalese health workers who were involved astonished me on a daily basis with their eagerness, compassion and energy. Besides, check out this river!


I think a lot these days about how a few small things in my life could have been just different enough to have kept me from ever joining the Peace Corps. It would have been so easy to stay, to take a teaching job, to keep going in that old direction. There wasn't anything in my life to make me particularly unhappy. Nothing was missing. Things were good. Joining the Peace Corps and coming to Senegal was maybe kind of an act of madness.

But now I have this whole other element in my life, like a color I had never been able to see before I came to Senegal, or like an entirely new way of putting the same old words and thoughts together, an entirely new way of living. This color, this feeling is with me all day, as I do my office work, as I shop for vegetables in the market, as I live this life. And it's with me every night, loud and clear as the call to prayer.

The work in Saraya was some of the finest work we can do, and it brought me some of my happiest days and nights in country. The best days are the days that are full. The best nights are the nights when I go to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I have done a good thing well. This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour.

Love and guts,

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Not a real post.

I haven't been tending this blog in the way I like for a couple of months. That will change soon, for sure. And for now, how about a version of the essay I'm submitting with my grad school applications? I promise it's more like a blog entry than an app essay is. Oh academia, I want to come back to you. Kinda-sorta-sometimes. Anyway, I'm not sure that this is less interesting to you than what I usually post. So here it goes.

My time with the Peace Corps in Senegal has completely changed the way I envision spending the rest of my life. I had studied philosophy and been focused on an introverted, academic future before I became a volunteer. Joining the Peace Corps was supposed to give me a temporary break from that life, a chance to learn to use my hands a little and to see a new part of the world. But I spent two years in a village of 300 people as a health volunteer, and now I work in Dakar, Senegal’s capital and largest city, on malaria prevention and education initiatives. I have come to believe that a life of service is more important than the life of the mind.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw the people the village as my constituents. I listened to them, learned what they considered to be their greatest health-related problems, and worked with their abilities and resources to try to find solutions. Sometimes I could bring additional resources of my own, whether through grant writing or the technical training I received when I became a volunteer. But no matter what the project, I always wished that I could do more, pass along deeper knowledge, and serve the people of the village better. As I thought over what it would mean to serve better, I began to focus on the practice of medicine as my means.
There was also, always at the back of my mind, a thought that there was some sort of obligation I had to meet. It wasn’t my obligation as an individual but rather my obligation as a representation of a type: privileged enough to have been well educated from early in my life, free enough to join the Peace Corps after college, and inclined to think that I am not entitled to live a life of suspended, isolated ease simply because I was born in a First World country.
My sense of this obligation grew as I saw the residents of what I came to think of as “my” village in Senegal fall ill from preventable diseases or die from treatable ones. It seemed wrong, especially when the victims were children. And what compounded this wrongness was that the children of my host family, whom I love, were not particularly special. Special to me, yes, of course. But my host sister Thian, now almost four, who has survived malaria and diarrheal and respiratory diseases, is not one in a million. She’s one of millions. I could – and did – help Thian by teaching her mother about insecticide-treated mosquito nets and oral rehydration solution therapy. That’s something, and I’m glad I could be there to do it. But there are lots of children like Thian, and their needs are greater, more systematic, than I feel qualified to meet now.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I remember thinking that the task ahead would be like cleaning a very messy house, maybe one that had been flooded or damaged in an earthquake. If you stepped back and looked at the whole of it at once, you would feel as if you were doomed to be cleaning up the mess forever. But if you stopped in the first room you reached, picked up one book and put it back on the shelf, you would have made a start. One tiny job would have been completed. And so I told myself, “Do the job in front of you – for now.” I kept my focus on particular projects and people and events, and I tried to ignore the bigger picture as much as possible.
I think I’m ready for that bigger picture. I want to understand disease and be able to fight it on an individual level – on the level of one person, one patient. I think perhaps that I want this so deeply because of Thian and the other members of my host family in Senegal. Living with them, seeing them struggle with malnutrition and disease, has left me believing that disease will never be an abstraction for me, will never be something whose story could be told entirely by the tabulation of morbidity and mortality statistics.
But I also want to be able to see why some diseases attack the poorest countries in the world, why they thrive there, and what we can do about it. In my mind, great opportunity comes with great obligation. And maybe our obligations are greatest toward those with the least opportunity.
It’s hard to escape my background in philosophy, so I’ve been inclined to think of these statements about obligations and opportunities as universal maxims. But I am realizing now that they serve perfectly well as guiding lights. At this moment, these beacons have led me to desire to pursue a career in medicine, with a concentration in global public health.
It will be very hard for me to leave Senegal. I have a life here, and a family, and a job that allows me to do good work. But if by leaving I can take a first step toward a career as a doctor, I will be grateful and come eagerly to the new studies and pursuits. Thank you for your consideration.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Stomping Out Malaria in Africa! A Peace Corps Initiative!

Hello there. I haven't had much time to write recently, but I wanted to share the website of the thing/people I'm working on/with. Check this out! We have a facebook page and a twitter, for those of you who are bold enough for such things. I am not.

Also, September is maybe going to be the busiest, most exciting month I've had since... don't even know, actually. So busy and exciting that I might even take some photos to share.

I hope you all are being treated right by your situations and surroundings. Also, eat a box of Cheezits for me. I can't stop thinking about Cheezits these days.

Love and guts,