Sunday, August 2, 2009

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,


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