Friday, June 19, 2009

A bad day in Dakar.

There aren't any of what I would call easy days here. If I'm working, I'm working. Any number of things can make that hard: cultural and linguistic barriers, my appalling ignorance, or the damn long skirt I wear most days in the village. Especially that skirt, for God's sake, it almost hits my ankles. And if I'm not working, you better believe I'm freaking out about my inaction. I've never felt so guilty simply picking up a book before.

Even if there aren't easy days, I would generally describe most of my days as good. I'm happier here every day, or so it's seemed for the last two weeks. And new things make me happy: bantering with my family, playing with the kids, wandering through the village to the market for a snack and knowing, finally, several people's names.

But today was maybe the second or third genuine bad day I've had. A family member in the States is having health problems, and I'm holed up in the Peace Corps/Senegal office here in the capital city of Dakar. I got here early this afternoon after maybe 2 hours of sleep and 5 hours in a sept-place. You know things will be a little ugly when you spend more time in the Senegalese public transit system than you spent in bed the previous night. But it's better to be here than in the village. Here, there's a phone I can use to call the States with no charge. Here, there's Internet access so I can... I don't really know what I do online, honestly. Here, there are other volunteers and PC staffers who are sympathetic, available, and helpful.

So I'm here. Waiting. Just waiting.

This is the type of moment when you have to step back and take a good look at some things you may have preferred to ignore. I could have been on tonight's flight to New York, could have been out west with my family by tomorrow afternoon. I say the word, they put me on the plane. I can come back to Senegal or not.

Every day I ask myself about what it is I'm doing here, why it's important, why I should care and continue to care. Most days, these questions are academic: I know I'm not going anywhere, I know I'm where I want to be. But some days, the questions are very real and very pressing. Today is one of those days, and tomorrow will be one too. For a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months to come, I'll have to make the decision to come to Senegal every morning when I wake up. I'll have to re-commit every day and then re-examine my commitment every night. I'm scared, I'm tired, but I'm pretty sure I'm ready for it.

Just to prove to you that I mean it, I'm going to plug the bed-net thing again. Go look at my last post, if you missed it.

Love and guts, for serious,


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Against Malaria bed net distribution project

Dear friends and family... and total strangers who read my blog,

I got to Kaolack just this morning, and I have a whole lot to write about. It's been a good couple of weeks, maybe some of my happiest days so far in Senegal. And there was this one guy in a purple cowboy hat -- I have pretty good story to tell you about him. But I want to take a break from the usual tone of this blog to shamelessly, without the slightest bit of guilt, ask you for money.

Here are the basics. I'm raising money to provide everyone in my village and in the three tiny villages next to mine with mosquito nets. Each mosquito net costs $5. My goal is to be able to bring around 1,200 nets to my area, which should be enough to cover every single bed.

Already interested in helping me out?

I think probably you'd all agree that saving lives is, generally speaking, a good thing to be able to spend your money on. And a quick internet search or a perusal of the Against Malaria website will tell you that malaria is the number one killer of children and pregnant women in the world, that one to three million people will die of malaria this year, and that the children who will die today from this disease would fill seven jumbo jets. You'd also quickly discover that malaria is an entirely curable, entirely treatable disease. But all that means is that if you or I got malaria, we'd be fine. For almost all of the victims of malaria, however, prevention and treatment are just out of reach. The decision is between being able to eat for a week and being able to purchase a mosquito net. The people I live with don't have $5 to save their own lives, but I know you do.

Anyway, you know all these things already. So I wanted to tell you a little about my own experience with malaria.

So far, no one I know has ever died of malaria. The rainy season is just just just starting here in Ndiago. After the first heavy rain, I've been told, the mosquitoes will come out. There are lots of ways to try to prevent malaria, and we're making use of all of them in my area. After my causerie the other week, the women are making and selling neem lotion, a natural anti-bug lotion made of soap, cooking oil, water, and the leaves of the neem tree. Our first big set-setal, when everyone in the village sweeps up all the trash in their compounds and in the public areas and burns it, is Monday. We'll be repeating this task every two weeks to keep the malaria population under control. So I've done everything I can, at this point.

That's pretty much what's killing me. With my limited Wolof and my limited resources, I'm spent. And I know it's just not enough. Ever since I got to site, I've been feeling a gnawing anxiety about the advent of the rainy season. Part of me is excited, because soon the harvest will come and we'll have more food and the malnutrition rate in the villages around me will drop from its current level of 40%, and I'll sleep better. But the thing bringing on this wealth -- the rain -- is also bringing misery.

So spend a few dollars and save a life or two. Don't forget you're also buying me a small reprieve from intense anxiety. Everyone will be sleeping a little better.

Other blog posts to follow soon. Thank you so much for reading and responding, here and in emails to me. I'll get to them as soon as I can.

Love and guts,


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sustainable development?

My very first neem lotion causerie was Thursday!

Depending on who you are, there are a few words in there I may need to gloss before talking about how it went.

A causerie is a demonstration and conversation with the people of my village about a specific topic. These are going to be a big part of my service, and topics will include things like nutrition, adequately and cheaply feeding a baby who's being weaned, the making and maintaining of mud stoves, and, well neem lotion.

Neem lotion is some seriously good stuff. It's a mosquito repellent that's easy and cheap to make; the only ingredients are the leaves of the neem tree, bar soap, a little oil, and water. When you live in a country with a whole lot of malaria and no DEET spray (except for what the Peace Corps gives me, which makes me die inside a little bit inside for reasons I'll explain soon), neem lotion is a potentially very powerful tool. The volunteer I replaced cut the malaria rate in the village by 90% (yep) during the last rainy season, when she made and distributed neem lotion to all the villagers. Other measures helped, and I'm doing all those things too as the rainy season approaches. But since the Peace Corps is all sustainable development, I chose this year to try to convince the women of the village to make the neem lotion on their own, so that they could sell it in and around the area. Since the lat volunteer changed everyone's mind about their ability to influence whether or not they fall ill with malaria, I figure I should be able to push it up a notch.

Anyway, the causerie went really well. The women understood my Wolof and I understood theirs, and I feel all right about it. I sort of want to tell you about it, but I'm not sure how much time I have to write today (heading back to village later) but I also kind of want to get on to this other topic....

Sustainable development?

So I'm all about neem lotion. The advent of the rainy season here makes me crazy, maybe partially because I don't know what it looks like. I know it brings mosquitoes and malaria, but it also means there's going to be more food and fewer starving people, so I feel kinda conflicted. The thought of people in my village falling ill with malaria (a preventable, treatable disease) and possibly dying of it fills me with anxiety.

And neem lotion is... I think it would be called "appropriate technology" by authorities on the subject. Maybe I should call it that too. After all, it can be easily made with local products, it's effective, it's even potentially a moneymaking project for the women. All good things, right?

What it makes me think about, though, is the fact that the Peace Corps gives me DEET sticks for my own protection against mosquitoes. I take a malaria prophylaxis every week, provided and required by the Peace Corps. And if I were to fall ill with malaria in spite of these precautions, the medications to save my life would be readily available to me and doctors would be there to prescribe them. I would be fine, and I wouldn't pay a cent for it. This is a disease that killed approximately 881,000 people in 2006, most of whom were probably too poor to purchase DEET, some of whom would be too poor to purchase even neem lotion, and all of whom were just as alive, just as human as I am. But through some meaningless accident, I was born in the United States. Through no action or virtue of my own, because I'm an American citizen, one of the very few and the very privileged, I have nothing to fear from this disease. I help the women of Ndiago make and sell neem lotion while enjoying full access to medications and technology that make neem lotion totally unnecessary for me, personally.

It's hard for me, then, to always embrace sustainable development, because so often I think we conflate that concept with "appropriate technology;" in other words, with accepting cheaper, less effective methods of health care for the world's poorest people. And it's hard for me to be a Peace Corps volunteer sometimes for similar reasons. All of us have medical kits stocked with all sorts of drugs, including Tamiflu and the first few days of a regimen of pills to take in case I manage to get malaria. And I'm not exactly supposed to give that stuff out to the people of the village.

I don't know. I'd really appreciate your thoughts on this one, here in the comments section (oooh! start a conversation!!) or in an email. This stuff keeps me up at night, and sometimes it makes it hard for me to do what I came here to do.

Anyway, things are well, as usual. I feel like I'm focusing on work pretty well, and bein' thoughtful about some stuff, and learning a whole lot. Keep sending the love, knowing I have friends out there keeps me going.

Love and guts,