Saturday, August 29, 2009

Childhood in Senegal

OK! Hello. Remind me to tell you later about mosquito nets. SUCH GOOD NEWS. But yeah, I wanna get this stuff out first.

We're about a week in to Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. I'm fasting along with my family, abstaining from eating or drinking between 5 AM, the dawn prayer, and about 7:30 PM, the sundown prayer. It hasn't been horribly difficult so far, though getting work done is tough. People are hungry, and as the day goes along they become increasingly cranky. There's a lot I want to share about this all, but I think I'll wait until we're a little further a long in the holiday before I talk about it.

I've been thinking a lot about childhood in Senegal recently. The children here don't fast during Ramadan. Some of them are lucky to have leftovers from the previous day's dinner to eat during the day, some eat with other families, some fend for themselves in other ways. It's probably not a horrible time to be a child, in many ways: no school, not as much work, a lot of time to sit around and play cards. Of course, if you happen to still be breast-feeding you might be in for it. Many mothers choose to fast, even if they should be eating for two. And there's one other pitfall.

Every time a child is bugging me in the village, or trying to play while I'm trying to study, or attempting to help me in the pepiniere or while doing a baby-weighing, the response from the adults is always the same: "He's just rude, Aissa. Go find a stick and beat him." Corporal punishment is the norm here, where children are raised not by one father and one mother but by a whole village of extended family members. Maybe the standardization helps, since the children wander from compound to compound, family to family. There's no squabbling over how much time-out is too much time-out, no question of whether a parent is over-reacting by taking toys away (what toys?). If an adult thinks a child is out of line, that kid gets anything from a smack on the leg or face to a full-on beating. Smacking someone else's kid is just as acceptable as smacking your own. Sometimes other adults will intervene if a beating is getting a little out of hand, and if it's being done in public: "That's enough, that's enough." But this is an entrenched community practice. If your kid comes home sobbing, saying the neighbor smacked him, you're going to shrug and accept that your kid probably had it coming. You wouldn't think of going to speak with the neighbor about it, and you're not mad. You've maybe even smacked someone else's kid today. That's how it works.

I've been thinking about all this because from the very first day of the fast, the intensity and frequency of this type of punishment went through the roof. I've seen someone smack a kid for nothing in particular almost every day I've been in Senegal, so I thought I was getting used to it. No way. Not even close. Everyone's in a bad mood these days. Cranky parents are beating the crap out of their kids, or maybe just smacking them a little more than usual. Two kids in my compound got in a little tiff over cards the other day, not an uncommon experience when you're 3 or 5 years old. Their mom responded by dragging them both across the compound to her room, with them bawling and trying to squirm out of their clothes to get away and dragging their limbs and flailing all over the place, with the rest of us looking on. She shoved them in, closed the door and barred it from the inside, and just went to town on them.

All of this made me remember one of my experiences from the very beginning of my time in Senegal (all of 6 months ago now, by the way). When I came back from Thies to my home-stay in Thieneba one day, we had a young visitor. Her name was Fatu, and she was the 4 year-old daughter of my mother's sister's daughter. This is a pretty close relation in Senegal, and her frequent visits weren't anything out of the ordinary. My host mom was always easy-going, perhaps because all the other children in the house were a little more grown up and once your kids get to be a certain age you just don't have to do as much yelling. The family environment was always friendly, always easy, and more like an American household than anything I've seen since. Fatu seemed to be enjoying her visit and loving the attention from my mom, though she was pretty scared of me.

One night during dinner, Fatu had a little hissy fit. I have no idea what started it, but it climaxed when she threw her mug of a warm millet desert called fonde to the floor. In a single moment, the mug shattered against the cement, food flew everywhere, and my mom, who had been sitting right next to Fatu, slapped her once across the face. By the time Fate had recovered from her shock enough to begin crying, my mom had already started cleaning up the mess. She hadn't raised her voice, hadn't at all relished hitting the child, and wasn't looking to do it again. She had hit Fatu once, and in such a way that it marked the end of a tiny crisis, not the beginning of a big one. Fatu sat in the same spot for ten minutes, mouth open, nose running, solid bawling flowing right out of her, water from a storm drain, an un-ending un-varying stream, my mother moving efficiently around her as she picked up the jagged clay remains of the mug. When she had finished cleaning, my mom finished her own mug of millet and headed back to the kitchen niche to clean up the dinner dishes. My sister Ndeye, 13, and still one of my favorites, approached Fatu slowly, coaxed her onto her lap and into silence, soothed her with more of the sweet, warm millet. My mom came back out and sat with us. Still seeming a little disconsolate, Fatu crawled into her lap, where my mom rocked her to sleep. The woman who had made the little girl cry in the first place was the only person who could really console her. Of course, what I saw happen then to Fatu was nothing like the beatings I see in the village. They're different worlds.

I don't know. It's just one more thing about Senegal, I guess. Hard to watch, hard to talk about. I want to try to explain cultural differences away, to make them comprehensible within the world-view I've grown into, to make them disappear. That makes me pretty uncomfortable. But so does refraining from making any comment. I guess I'll just reassure you all that I haven't hit any of the kids yet, and I don't plan on it.

Love and guts,


Sunday, August 2, 2009

... And one more thing.

Guys, I'm incredibly excited about the malaria net distributions I'll be doing soon. Not too long from now, every single bed and sleeping area in my village will be covered with a mosquito net, and I'm estimating that we'll get something like 75% coverage in the three villages around mine.

I'm been amazed by the generosity shown by friends, family, friends of friends, and random anonymous strangers who have chosen to give money to the Against Malaria campaign. I want to thank you all. It makes me feel like a part of a huge, loving family that stretches from some new friends in Australia all the way to a collective of artists, musicians, and activists in Los Angeles. It makes me proud of the work I do here, knowing that you believe in it enough to want to be a part of it like this. On behalf of my family and friends here in Senegal, thank you. If you ever find yourself considering a vacation in Senegal, you should know that you'd be welcome here.

We're still collecting money, so if you missed my post on this subject, go back and read it! And then head on over to

You're my favorites, guys.

Love and guts.


First off, woah, that last entry was a long one. Sorry about that.

BUT. What I wanted to say was this. Apparently some emails from me have been dropping into people's Spam boxes because they're coming from an IP address in Senegal.


Add my email address to your address book and it shouldn't be a problem.

Thanks, guys.

Sense of Accomplishment?

What day is today? The first of August? I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the way time passes here. The two months of Pre-Service Training dragged on and on, not unlike a long block of Freshman Lab class on a Friday afternoon. (The Elder Sterling’s remark comes to mind again.) Then we got shipped off to our sites and time started to fly. Every Friday, or whenever I remembered to take my (ideally) weekly dose of mefloquine, I was shocked. Could another week really have passed?

And for the last three weeks, I’ve been out of my village. The newest volunteers, the twenty-five of us who are left of our group, all came to the city of Thies three weeks ago for In-Service Training, a two-week opportunity to get a lot of technical training and begin to learn a second local language. After that, we piled into the Peace Corps vans and were taken to Jaol, a beautiful beach community not far south of Dakar, for a summit of health and environmental education volunteers. I hate this usage of the word summit, by the way. And now I’m back in Thies, where Demba (the training center boss) has been kind enough to let me stay in exchange for a little bit of work. Tomorrow, health volunteers and their community counterparts will convene here for a training session on behavior change techniques, specifically as they relate to malaria prevention.

There have been a lot of new faces in the last three weeks, and a lot of vaguely familiar faces have come back to hang out. Not only did I get to meet a few of Peace Corps/Senegal’s nerd population (and oh, does it feel like comin’ home! I went on and on with this one guy about Plato and Nietzsche for two hours in the back of a sept-place the other day), but I also found a lot of people willing to be honest and thoughtful in conversations about their work as Peace Corps Volunteers. So at the risk of writing something that’s not as well-received as my last blog entry – and thank you, all, for the wonderful comments and feed-back – I want to take some time and think about the work here.

At the end of PST, in the final days of preparing to go to our sites, we all sat down with a third-year volunteer and prepared an action plan for the following two months. With her help, I came away with a list of three activities to begin in my village. We were all cautioned not to expect too much from these initial months of work: the primary objectives would be too continue improving our ability to speak the local language, to become comfortable with our new host-families, and to begin assessing the needs and abilities of our communities.

My personal goals were pretty simple. The first goal was one all new volunteers were required to complete: a baseline survey of my village. Combined with a similar survey on the regional level, this would involve going door to door in my village, sitting with families, observing their compounds, asking questions, and sparking conversations. The idea is that we can’t do a whole lot to help our communities without first doing some basic assessment: how many compounds have access to safe drinking water? How many families are washing their hands after going to the bathroom and before eating? How many people know that malaria-carrying mosquitoes are born in standing water, and that we can reduce the number of cases of malaria by keeping our village free of trash piles? After two months, I have a pretty good sense of my village. I know what they have, what they need, and where I need to do some educational interventions. I know who washes their hands and who uses oil to “cure” infected wounds and who is interested in making and selling neem lotion and whose children are underweight. I know how many latrines we have in the village, and I know where we’re going to get enough money that every compound will have one. I know how many mosquito nets we have, and I know that in a little bit every person in my village – every last one – will be sleeping under a net. Of course, I’m still working on everyone’s names. But one thing at a time, I guess.

I still am not entirely clear on how I got through the baseline surveys. After all, going around from compound to compound asking about where the family poops and whether or not they wash their hands afterward should be pretty awkward, right? I’m lucky to live in such a small community, where everyone understands what I’m there to do.

My second goal was less simple, but thankfully does not involve as much awkwardness or paperwork as the baseline surveys. I got dirty! I played in the mud! I shoveled horse poop around! I made a pepiniere! In the short history of this blog, I’ve probably mentioned pepinieres a few times. It’s unlikely that I’ve spelled it with any degree of consistency or explained it very well. But. A pepiniere is a home for baby trees. Fill a couple of hundred plastic sacks with a mixture of sand and horse poop (or whatever you can get your hands on), stick a couple seeds in each one, and water once or twice a day until the rains start. A couple of months later, you’ve got a glorious batch of young saplings, you’re ready to out-plant them, and you’re well on your way to defeating deforestation single-handedly. Huzzah! For bonus points, set this up in your village’s school and teach the kids about why trees are important. Pick a few of the smarter ones and have them do the watering every day.

Before you get too excited (which was, of course, my mistake), remember a couple of things. I share my new home with lots of sand, imperfect access to water, zero rainfall for most of the year, a damn lot of goats, and a fatalism born of generation after generation of grinding poverty. Also some weird aesthetic priorities; more on that later.

I had a plan for the pepiniere. The volunteer I replaced had given every compound a couple of trees at this time last year, when she did her out-planting. Between foraging goats (damn them!) and infrequent watering, all but a couple of those trees are now dead. And how the village must have mourned: all the trees were mangoes and cashews, two very popular local products. So I seeded about 150 nebeday trees. Nebeday, also known as moringa, is a tree that produces a bunch of ultra-nutritious parts. The leaves are dried, ground, and turned into a leaf sauce that can be served with rice or millet. Other parts yield other good things in excitingly large quantities. On top of all that, nebeday is largely pest-resistant, drought-resistant, and easy to grow.

The plan is to out-plant two in each compound in my village (I might be able to do a lot more, it depends on the yield) and do a lot of work with the people on tree protection techniques, proper watering, and the nutritional properties of nebeday. It’s a lot of work for me, but it’s also going to be putting some of the burden on the villagers. Which, as I understand it, is what this whole sustainable development scene is about. Unfortunately, nobody loves nebeday the way they love mangoes. But mango trees are way harder to work with. So I’m going to do a little motivational work. Any compound with a nebeday tree standing one year from now, when I’m about to out-plant next year’s pepiniere, will receive a baby mango tree.

So far, so good. Though I didn’t spend a whole lot of time mucking around in gardens as a kid growing up in Los Angeles, everything got off to a great start with the help of the volunteer I replaced and some enthusiastic kids. There’s even a fence made of woven sticks and veggie matter around the pepiniere, protecting it from the goats, sheep, chickens, cows, cats, dogs, and infants who regularly wander past, eyes gleaming with mischief. I stacked several bricks in the gap in the fence, which I used to take down and build back up twice I day when I watered. Some bugs came around and started making trouble: I dealt with it. This stupid puppy tried to eat the handful of cashew trees we planted: I dealt with that, too. Alas, though, the brick wall was not pretty enough for my family’s standards. When I came back to site one day after being away in Dakar, my dad’s second wife joyfully showed me the strange gate-like contraption she had constructed to replace the bricks. Prettier, perhaps, but definitely less effective. It had rained a couple of times by this point, and the fencing around the pepiniere had taken a bit of a beating. I’ll be back at site in less than a week, finally finally finally, and I’m a little concerned about what I’ll find. I think the rain will have been enough to keep the trees growing happily, but the fencing might not have managed to keep the critters away. I want to out-plant and start in on the educational interventions within my first week back at site, since Ramadan is coming up and no one will able to work during the day for the whole month. Cross your fingers, guys.

My third objective for the first couple months at site was the baby-weighing tourney. Without incident, I weighed a bazillion kids in my village and three surrounding villages. Now that my Wolof has improved, I’ll be doing this every month, paired with some talks about weaning foods, the importance of early childhood growth, etc. How does a childless 23 year-old philosophy major talk to a 19 year-old mother of two about breastfeeding? Stay tuned. I think I’ll be touching on this pretty extensively in the next month.

On top of all these things, I pushed neem lotion pretty hard. The causerie went well, and so did the follow up work. When I left site for training, a handful of women were making neem lotion on their own and selling it in Ndiago, the surrounding villages, and even potentially at the weekly market in Guinguineo, my road town.

When I think, write, and talk about all this, I usually feel all right. It’s not the work but the conditions in which we work that make this difficult. So when I can honestly catalogue a few things I’ve managed to achieve with my village, I feel good about myself, and good about what my village will be able to achieve in the next two years. But the second I try to go past a list of activities and look at anything on a larger scale, I get lost. I know I’ve written and talked a lot with many of you about the challenge of “sustainable development,” and the confusion I have about whether or not this work I’m doing is virtuous. I’ve had a lot of good conversations about this with people here, especially recently, and many of you have sent your thoughts along in e-mails. I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk this all out.

It struck me a few days ago that this is perhaps similar to what I was experiencing in my first two years at St. John’s. I loved the College and hated the College and couldn’t imagine being happy anywhere else and thought obsessively about leaving every day, multiple times a day. The books, the conversations, and the people all made me happy, but it took the crisis of going to New Orleans in my sophomore year for me to become fully comfortable with being in the world of academia. I wanted to drop out of school and stay in New Orleans, because suddenly the work down there seemed to carry an imperative with it, seemed to be more important than anything else I could possible be doing with my time. I consciously rejected that call, choosing instead a slower, more difficult path toward the work I thought was worth doing, one that might even lead me in an entirely different direction, but one that may also enable be to do that work better.

The crisis was in the decision, in having to choose a path instead of passively allowing it to flow along under my feet. In a sense, it would have been the same if I had decided to drop out of college and stay in New Orleans. But I think that in leaving the College and coming back to it, a moral space was created in which I could be a student for at least another two years, and that was no problem. I could be at peace with my decision, knowing that I had seen both sides of the question and that I had come to my conclusion honestly.

So these days, I’m still doing the job in front of me. But I’m also waiting for whatever conversation or event will come along that will give me what I need to stay here for the next two years.

Love and guts, and maybe another blog post coming along later today,