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.
LOVE AND GUTS,