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,


  1. Hi, Jessie. I'm Dave Datz, Arielle's dad, and I have just read your fascinating blog. You are very brave and giving and open to new things.

    I've been thinking about your DEET dilemma. Since you asked for comments, I thought, why not mine? Forgive if I'm obvious--I'm hardly telling you things you don't already know--but it's a dilemma that most Americans never think about: Why are we awash in plenty, even in bad times, while most of the world is starving? Unfortunately, many Americans answer that question by saying it's because, well, because we're Americans and we deserve it. God has blessed us, therefore we are blessed, QED. But what to do when the question smacks you square in the face?

    I have no answer. All I can think of is the what they tell you on airplanes: If the oxygen mask drops down, put your own on before helping the child next to you. If you get malaria, you can't help those people, and if too many of your stagians get malaria, the whole program could get malaria, and the people will get no help at all.

  2. Jessie--You are doing important work. Not surprising to me: you are a gutsy woman. Just one caution: Please watch where you step, since I'm assuming that you are not wearing shoes most of the time. I'll be following your adventures, and appreciating your eloquence (as a long-time writing teacher). All good thoughts--Arielle's mom.

  3. Jessie,
    You keep using your DEET and taking your pill. As a health education provider I believe you teaching the women to make Neem, which sounds fantastic is a great idea. Always good to start a "cottage industry" in developing countries. Good thought,run with it.
    Sue Tenerelli, your Mom's BFF