Sunday, May 31, 2009

Oh, P.S.

It's early morning here in Kaolack and I'm going to head back to my village soon, after stopping in the market here to pick up some fruit as a home-coming gift to my family. I meant to respond to the emails I've gotten on this trip, but some circumstances out of my control made it much harder to sit down and write than it usually is here. But please, keep them coming, I love hearing from you guys, and I may be in Kaolack this weekend again for an event here. And, of course, to answer your emails.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Food for thought.

I think about food a lot these days.

A friend of mine here in Senegal recently reminded me of the time in training when I, hungry, commented that I would love to slather some buttery salty mashed potatoes on a chunk of rich, moist chocolate cake. Nowadays, I can use this mental image as a barometer of my general hunger level. If I think this combination sounds delicious, I suspect that I've consumed fewer than 1,000 calories or so that day and on some number of previous days.

Right now, potatoes and cake sounds gross. I'm tempted to list everything I've eaten since I arrived in Kaolack yesterday morning, but I know that no one reading this is as obsessively concerned as I am. So I'll pass, and say that my tummy is happy, and that I hope you all have happy tummies today too.

The last two weeks in village went by very quickly, and I think pretty successfully. I'm slipping into good standing with my family; I did baby-weighings in Ndiago, Nguick, and Keur Daodo (two neighboring villages) without dropping anyone; I know some names and faces. Getting between Kaolack, Guinguineo, and Ndiago is no longer a very intimidating process. My Wolof is improving, and I can greet in Sereer now too. Of course, behind each of these simple statements of progress lurk a million stories, and I wish I didn't have to be selective about telling them. Anyway, here we go.

Being a health volunteer involves thinking quite a bit about childhood malnutrition. For the next two years, I get to monitor the malnutrition rates in my villages and a handful of surrounding communities by doing monthly baby-weighings. I just set up shop in my compound with my two scales (one for very tiny infants, one for children as only as 5-ish) and the notebook I've devoted to this purpose. In my village, I can go around and tell the women to show up on a certain day and at a certain hour, but elsewhere the local health workers help me to get the word out. I weigh between 30 and 40 kids per village.

Part of this is hilariously fun, because I like hanging out with kids. It's a little nuts, because some of them are just hideously frightened of the whole experience. If you are a young Senegalese boy or girl, it's possible that for you toubabs like me are super scary, and being stuck in a sling hanging from a tree branch is super scary. And so the moms stand by with their breasts sticking out, ready to immediately grab their wailing children from me after I remove them from the sling so they can take comfort in the familiar act of feeding. Some kids enjoy it, though: it's basically as close to a swing as anything I've seen in Senegal, and we all know that swings are basically one of the three best things about childhood.

But the days in which I've done these baby-weighings have been some of the hardest for me. This is the starving season, and while we wait for the rain to come and prices of food to fall, the malnutrition rate in these villages is between 30 and 40 percent. Some of these children, according to their charts, have never had a healthy weight. Some have just stopped gaining weight this season, and some have been losing weight. They're tiny, so tiny, with coppery hair and skinny arms and distended bellies. Sometimes the moms seem to know what I'm going to say before I say it: "Are you still breast feeding? She's too young for water, your breast milk has everything she needs." "He's too old for just breast milk now, he needs to breast feed and eat solid foods too." But some of the women aren't eating enough or drinking enough to produce all the breast milk their child wants. Sometimes, because of the heat, the mothers will give their infants water, filling their bellies but not giving them any calories or nutritional content. Sometimes they stop breast-feeding too early because they're pregnant again. Again. If I were God, or if I were a more teleological and sympathetic evolution that what we live with, I would make it impossible for a woman to get pregnant while she's still breast feeding.

This last situation is the story of a little girl who lives in the compound next to mine. Her name is Jiall (rhymes, more or less, with doll) and she's maybe three years old. When Jiall was 7 months old, her mother's milk dried up because she became pregnant again. Jiall's maternal grandmother took up the task of rearing the infant once her younger sibling was born. She got other things to eat, of course, but no breast milk. This is bad, worse than it would be in the States because diarrheal diseases and dehydration resulting from unclean food can kill kids who can't get breast milk. Jiall made it this far, but she suffered. Her hair is coppery, she doesn't walk or talk as well as the other kids here age, and she's small.

On top of all this, nobody seems to like her that much. My dad's second wife sometimes shoos her out of the compound for, it seems, no reason. The other kids she hangs out with are bigger, and they know it. I yell at them when I see that they're picking on her or hitting her, but even though I feel like I see it happen 100 times a day, I know it happens even more when I'm not around. If leftover food is being given out, or if someone's buying the kids snacks or mangoes or whatever, Jiall is almost invariably left out or given short shrift. I just don't understand it.

One day, I noticed the adults in my compound calling her Suppome, which is the French/Wolof word for cabbage. Why, I asked, was she given this nickname? One of the women said simply, "She's small." I couldn't handle it. It seemed like it was too much, this child was the butt of so many jokes among her peers, and even the adults mocked her openly. That afternoon, when I noticed that the other children were calling her cabbage too, I snapped a bit. I decided to hand out some nicknames of my own, and since we had started with cabbage, I moved on to the other ingredients of the Senegalese national dish, ceeb u jeen (fish, rice, veggies -- a luxury). The brattiest kid in the village is Carrot now, my own little sister is Jaxatu (I have no idea), my brothers are Eggplant and Fish. The women in my compound loved it, and the kids picked it up pretty quickly too. One woman gave us all ingredient names. When it came to be my turn, she said, "You are the water we cook everything in." My nickname hasn't stuck, but some of them have, and I hope I'm removing a little bit of the stigma or onus of singling out Jiall.

I have more, of course. I could go on forever. But I need a little break from writing. I'm leaving the Kaolack house tomorrow morning, so I think I'll have time to write a little more for you guys.

Seriously, though, send me emails. Tell me all about your lives. I miss you.



Thursday, May 14, 2009

One of those weird Senegal moments.

The title of this blog post is a little on the vague side, but you might not even be aware of that yet. After all, lots of weird things have happened to me in Senegal. This very afternoon, as I was sitting here typing today's previous blog entry, there was a knock at the door of the Kaolack regional house. Believe it or not, the Jehovah's Witnesses were calling for us. Seriously. They made it all the way to Senegal. Here were these Senegalese men and women, neatly dressed in an awkward mixture of western and traditional clothing, knocking discreetly at the door. No bikes or suits here, but the general feeling came through. Strange, indeed.

Anyway, that's not really the moment I'm referring to. A few days ago, when I was a week and a half into my first village stint, I was agitated, unhappy, and nervous. I had trouble settling down to one task or activity: I sat down with a neighbor to chat, and then left. I went to pick around the edges of the pepiniere, since there's always work to be done with dirt. No dice. I took a bucket bath, and it was totally unsatisfying. The sun was sinking and the day was almost over, and I was still bouncing around from one corner of my hut to the other, from one part of my family compound to another. As I sat in the kitchen hut, watching dinner being prepared ("Aissa's cooking dinner!" "No, I'm just watching." "Hooray, Aissa's cooking dinner!!" "Mmm hmmm."), I had a definitive moment of anguish, a final crescendo and crash. I thought suddenly of all the work ahead, all the daunting tasks, whether small (the weekly market in Guinguineo) or large (the preparation to be done against the threat of the oncoming rainy season and the inevitable presence of malaria-bearing mosquitoes). How, I wondered desperately, was I ever going to get all this done, or even manage to get out of bed on any given morning, when I was so far away from everything I love? My friends and family, the familiar scenes and situations, all of it seemed infinitely remote. How could I ever conjure up the strength, the courage, the guts to get the job done?

What could I do? I didn't have enough phone credit left to call or send a text message to anyone in the States for reassurance, and even if I had there was no guarantee that it would go through. I could try talking about it to my new adoptive family, but this thought only made me a little crazier because I realized the extent to which my Wolof is still limited: I can say I like something or someone or some place, I can that say something tastes good, and I can say that my stomach hurts. But I didn't know how to say "I love" in Wolof.

Within a minute of asking myself the question -- how will I ever have the strength to do this, when I am so far from what I love? -- I had the answer. I was sitting there in the hot, cramped hut that serves as kitchen in my compound, between an open fire with a heavy pot on it and a woman I had known for days, who was busily chopping onions in her hand. Outside my host-brother was coming in from a day in the fields, the youngest children were playing with whatever make-shift toys they had managed to find (bottle caps, sticks, bits of plastic from God knows where), and my host-mom watched passively. I could barely talk with any of these people, my new "family," or anyone in the village for that matter, my new "home." But I realized suddenly that this whole being-a-Volunteer thing was going to work because I was going to find love here. Senegal, this village of Ndiago, is going to break my heart. These men and women, now strangers, are going to become the center of my life. I will want to teach, to help, to protect them all. When I can pull it off, it'll feel great. And when I can't, it'll tear me apart inside.

The moment I realized this, I was calmed. Now that I know what's ahead, I can face it. It's not going to be pretty, but it's going to be all right.

The first two weeks.

I am sitting underneath a ceiling fan.

If you didn't slow down for a few minutes to appreciate that statement, to empathize a little with my relief and joy, it's understandable. But you should know that it's been well over 100 degrees in Ndiago every day since I installed there two weeks ago, and when you don't have ceiling fans or cold water to alleviate your misery, it can get rough out there. It's worse than the summer in Annapolis -- at least then we had smoky evenings and early mornings at Harry Browne's. And it's worse than summer in Los Angeles, where it was always ten degrees cooler once you sat in traffic on the 10 for an hour.

But you know what? It's not bad.

I think the way I feel about the temperature in Ndiago isn't too dissimilar from the way I feel about life in the village taken as a whole. It's rough, it's new, it's by turns incredibly intimidating and deathly slow. But I know I can do this.

Installation day was April 29th. Installation is a funny word for the process, but that's Peace Corps-speak for you: I felt, just because of that word, more like a light bulb than I ever have before. And that was the day it started not being as scary as I thought it would be. The whole village had gathered in a semi-circle in the central area: men and women sat in chairs or squatted behind drums, pots, pans; children hovered around the edges, staring and giggling. As we drove up, the drumming started. Drumming in Senegal is a Thing and every woman here is better at it than anyone in the United States. Better rhythmically speaking, and better at improvising too -- any surface can be used as a noisemaker. So the drumming was immense. And over it, the women chanted in an improvised song: "Aissa new naa! Aissa new naa!" I didn't catch all of it, but that phrase means "Aissa came!" (Aissa, pronounced EYE-suh, is my name in Ndiago.) I probably could have escaped dancing that day, but Keri (the volunteer I'm replacing) and I jumped into the center of the circle and busted it out for a minute, stomping and waving our multi-colored sers (traditional skirts). Laughing, hysterical hooting, clapping: they loved it. Their new toubab liked to dance! Not true, necessarily, but I figured today was the day.

Anyway, the drumming and singing stopped and the speeches started. My counterparts spoke, telling the village about the work we had done together during the counterpart workshop in Thies. And they were definitely not out to make it easy for me. The people of the village seem to have pretty high expectations for me, and they were excited to hear about some of the stuff we have planned. My host-dad spoke, welcoming me to the family and the village. My installer guy spoke, welcoming the village to me. And then he turned to me and said, "Your turn."

I don't mind public speaking, but this was something completely different. Imagine yourself in my shoes. New village, new family, high expectations, and this is my first shot at saying hello and making an impression. Oh yeah, and it had to be in Wolof. So on top of everything else, I had the grammatical range of a 10 year-old and the vocabulary of a smart toddler to work with. But it went pretty well, I didn't embarrass myself, and as far as first impressions go, I like the village and the village likes me right back.

The last couple weeks have been mainly feeling things out. I'm learning names, hanging out with people, and making friends. There's no such thing as a typical day for me yet. Sometimes I'll hang out with my mom in the center of the village for most of the morning, chatting and learning new words. I've visited the school in Ndiago and spent a lot of time talking with the teachers and headmaster about what the school needs and what we can do there. I hang out with my counterparts a little, talking about their health work in Ndiago and going on tourneys in the surrounding villages. I hang out with my family in the compound, where I'm slowly learning to feel at home.

I have a few projects for this initial period before In-Service Training in late July. I'm mostly supposed to be scoping out the village, assessing needs, assets, and willingness to work as a community. I have a couple surveys to do to figure all this out. I'm also doing a baby-weighing tourney in Ndiago and the surrounding villages next week. That involves lots of screaming children getting put into a little hanging scale thing I have while I talk to their moms about breast-feeding, weaning foods, and malnourishment. It's tough, because right now we're right at the end of the dry season and food is expensive. Most of the villagers are eating just rice and couscous (not Moroccan couscous, smaller grained stuff) right now. My family gets veggies once a week when I go to the weekly market in Guinguineo, the road-town 45 minutes away by charette. And we have fish a few times a week. We're pretty well off, but I know the kids are hungry.

With the help of Keri, I've also put together a tree pepinierre. Deforestation is a big deal here. And there's one type of tree, the nebeday or moringa tree, which is especially great because its leaves can be used to make a super-nutritious sauce for rice and couscous. Plant enough of these trees, teach people how to harvest mass amounts of the leaves, and you could go a long way toward fighting malnutrition. It's just that good. People also love mango trees, for obvious reasons. Mango season is in full swing here, by the way. YUMMY. Anyway, more on trees later. I have some plans along those lines.

Since the malaria season is coming, I'll be doing a malaria party in a couple weeks too. The women of the village will get together and make neem lotion, this magic tree juice that keeps the mosquitoes away. We'll talk about bed-nets, taking anti-malarial medication during pregnancy, and stuff like that. I hope my Wolof is up to it; I think it'll go fine. More on this later, too.

OK, I have a lot more to write about but I have to make a quick run to a store here in Kaolack to buy some stuff for dinner. We're making food! Alisha, thanks so much for the pesto mix, it's going to be the center point of dinner tonight here in the Kaolack regional house. And I'm mailing you a letter very soon on the beautiful stationary.

More thoughts soon, I'm excited to write today. And as usual I miss everyone a whole lot. Send me an email, tell me all about your life! Thinking of my friends and family back home helps me through the rough time.

Love and guts,