Saturday, January 30, 2010

We're Building Latrines!

So, shockingly enough, I've been here for almost a year. I'm gonna shy away from that abyss for a minute to tell you about this latrine project that's taking up so much of my attention these days. I've talked about it with some of you already, but I'm excited about it and my mind is filled with its details. So I'm gonna go ahead and share.

Most of the few jokes I heard about the Peace Corps while growing up were based on the premise that an ignorant and oblivious volunteer, filled with the best of intentions and befuddled by massive amounts of marijuana, was dropped head first into a village and immediately began the construction of several latrines. When he left, people stopped using and cleaning them and went back to pooping in the bushes. The latrines just didn't fit in with their lives. This was a cautionary tale, a warning against the way most people thought development workers (and Peace Corps volunteers specifically, I suppose) went about their work. Anyway, the message sunk in.

I've known for a while that the volunteer I had replaced had written a grant requesting money for several villages, including Ndiago, to build latrines. The money came through a while ago. So for months now, I've been thinking about that story. I won't say the memory of it made me hesitate to start the work, but I did smart a little each time I thought of making a beginning. But I'm headed back to the village with the money in a day or two, and at the moment, the men and women of 12 compounds in Ndiago are digging pits and preparing to begin construction. Here's what we've done so far, and what we're going to be doing next.

I started talking up latrines a little bit and trying to gauge the level of interest. Mostly, this involved visiting with the families and heads of household and drinking the tiny sweet cups of tea that are an afternoon tradition in Senegal. It turns out that of the 26 compounds in the village, each with maybe 10 to 20 people living in them, 11 already had latrines. That's pretty good coverage, compared to a lot of places, so everyone had heard of latrines and was familiar with the purported health benefits that went along with using them. Nobody's a fan of pooping in the bush, so naturally, interest was pretty high.

One afternoon, after the hottest part of the day had passed, I sat down at a meeting in the village center with the heads of most of the compounds and several of the most prominent women. My counterparts, the two villagers who work with me most closely and answer all my awkward questions about the Wolof language and Senegalese culture, were also there. Fama, one of the little girls who lives in my compound and who usually accompanies me on all work-related errands, also was in attendance; but she was shooed from her usual station on my lap once the meeting got started.

With some help from my counterparts, I explained to the men and women where the money was coming from, how much was available, and what it could be used for. The money covers materials for construction only: each household will have to contribute a small in-kind amount and also cover the cost of labor. And while 15 compounds in the village lacked latrines, we only had enough money now for 12. I explained that I thought that if we did a good job, I would be writing another small grant to cover the costs of the remaining latrines.

But for now, I wanted to form a Hygiene Committee. Two men would be in charge of overseeing construction, working with the mason, and going in to the road town and bringing back the cement and other materials. Two women would be responsible for collecting the money and overseeing various educational aspects. After some training with me, they'd be going from compound to compound teaching about latrine maintenance, what types of dangerous trash should be put into the latrines instead of allowed to sit around (batteries, old pesticides, etc.), and the importance of washing your hands with soap and water after using the latrine. The village chief and another local leader would both have representatives on the committee as well. It would be better, I thought, if this group of people could help the people of Ndiago to bring latrines to themselves. If it worked, I would help this group of people get the training they need on how to write grant requests. My hope is that the group is able to build a wall around the elementary school in Ndiago at some point in the near future. I was trying to communicate the concept of sustainable development: when I go home, the village can do small construction projects for itself, from the first step to the last. That's the idea, anyway.

Everyone took to the idea pretty well. The group immediately took over the meeting, and I spent most of the rest of it in silence, waiting and listening. First they talked about who the men on the committee should be: who knew enough about building latrines? Who knew suppliers in the roadtown? And then they turned the conversation over to the women present: which women had been educated enough to be able to turn a position like this into a good opportunity for themselves? Who would be good at going from house to house, patiently explaining the same material over and over again? All this went fairly smoothly, and whenever they agreed on a name I wrote it down happily.

Then the part I had been a little apprehensive about came around. There just wasn't enough money to cover latrines for everyone. So who would be left out? The men and women quickly came up with a list of the compounds lacking latrines. There were lots of questions that I wouldn't have been able to answer myself: was the Thiare household a separate entity, or was it really attached to the Gningue compound? The conversation was long, and obviously a little uncomfortable for some people present. But they considered the distances between neighboring compounds, the number of children living in each house, and other factors until they came up with a list of 12 households. Not everyone directly benefited from the results of the discussion, but when we all went home, I think everyone felt satisfied with the way things had been decided. All in all, people are excited about the project and interested in pursuing it in this slightly unusual way.

For my part, I was ecstatic. From this moment, the very first step in bringing latrines to Ndiago, the community had taken responsibility for the work very seriously. My input and guidance was helpful on some matters, and that will perhaps continue to be the case. But this village is changing itself for the better. These days, I'm feeling privileged and excited to be along for the ride.

There's a big religious festival this week, and most people have cleared out for a few days to attend. And I'll be heading up to Dakar soon for a conference and the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (no, really), so besides the pits being dug, work is on hold for a couple weeks. But that's the way it is in Senegal. Everyone stops what they're doing five times a day to pray, and when there's a baptism or a wedding or a funeral in Ndiago or the neighboring villages, we all take the afternoon off and get dressed up to go help our neighbors celebrate life in style. This rhythm of life has been frustrating to me in the past, but I think I'm coming around to it now. And a couple of months from today, if all the latrines get built and we talk enough about washing your hands with soap and water, I'm thinking that we're going to see something impressive in Ndiago.

So yeah, these are good days.

Love and guts,


Sunday, January 3, 2010

More Whining About Development Work

I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m probably not qualified to talk about development work. So I’d like to apologize in advance to anyone who’s offended by any inaccuracies or generalities in what follows. But that’s part of what having a public forum like a blog is about, right? Those who are less well-informed (I never studied development, don’t know much about it) and less experienced (I’m writing this with less than a year under my belt in Senegal) can get their questions out in the open. I’m writing this because I need to hear an argument, a line of reasoning, that makes me feel better about the work I and my friends are doing as Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s not that I want to go home; I just need to believe in what we’re doing here, and that’s pretty difficult sometimes.

I've been uncomfortable for a while now. Initially, when I realized that something was bothering me, I thought it was the amoebas. And it was, for a few days. But I took the meds , stopped pooping water, and started eating solid foods again, and the feeling didn’t go away. When I was finally able to pin it down, it came to look something like this: there seem to be at least three very different ideas of what good development work looks like, all of which are present in our lives and competing for our energy and resources. The first is the Peace Corps model of sustainable development, based on the transfer of skills and knowledge. The second is the perception villagers have of what our role should be. The third is the one that compels me the most, and I’m not sure where it comes from or what it’s based on. All I can say now, by way of introduction, is that it doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with either other model.

The Peace Corps Model

You may be sick of my disclaimers by this point, but it's probably important to say it again: I'm not an expert on development work. I'm not even an expert on Peace Corps development philosophy. All I have is what every volunteer has: a couple months of training and a year or so (at this point) of experience. But that's pretty much all any of us has to work with, as far as I can tell.

In the Peace Corps development as I was taught it here in Senegal, the emphasis is on the transfer of skills and knowledge to the Senegalese. Techniques in anything from making neem lotion to grafting fruit trees are passed from the Senegalese trainers in Thies to the new American volunteers. These volunteers pick up enough technical knowledge and ability to communicate in local languages to be able to pass on that knowledge to the people of their villages. That's part of what, in theory, should make our work sustainable: we're not just handing out mosquito nets and improved seed varieties, we're teaching people how to use them properly and telling them how they can put their hands on these things by themselves. The backbone of being a good Peace Corps volunteer (or even, I suspect, of being a good national Peace Corps program) is therefore the attempt to put yourself out of a job. If a string of volunteers has done well in a village or sub-region, they have eliminated the need for any other volunteer to follow in their footsteps.

Another cornerstone of the Peace Corps philosophy I've been exposed to is the importance of being able to quantify results. The Peace Corps community in Senegal as a whole has a plan of action, with goals and criteria for success based on numbers. How many school gardens are being established or improved? How many farmers are being trained in advanced permaculture techniques? How close are we to 100% mosquito net coverage? The regions and sub-regions have similarly outlined documents. And finally, each volunteer is expected to report on their activities every quarter using a format that emphasizes this type of statistic. At least in the health sector, we all have numerical goals to meet. I mention this because it might come as a surprise to some people: after all, the pop culture image of a Peace Corps volunteer is probably a lot closer to a pot-smoking, guitar-playing, lazy Americana-drop-out than is quite accurate. My work objectives as a volunteer are in fact clearer than they were as a college student.

The more I think about and experience this vision of development, the less comfortable I am with it. But for now, it's enough to say that the Peace Corps model of development work doesn't look anything like the average villager's vision.

The Village Model

One of the first steps in community-based development work is finding out what your community wants and needs. What are the perceived difficulties of daily life as they pertain, in my case, to health issues? What are the most common diseases or health problems in the village? What do people think causes something like malaria? Often, the next step in community-based development seems to be correcting peoples' answers to these questions. We have to talk people out of their more ambitious goals and correct their notions of the causes of health problems. All health volunteers are primarily educators, not healers. But say we're actually lucky enough to get down to some work.

Here's an example of the way some people in my village envision the role of their Peace Corps volunteer.

The volunteer I replaced had a lot of success with neem lotion, a plant-based insect repellent that is produced with the leaves of a tree found all over my village. She collected money from everyone in Ndiago to cover the expense of the soap that's also a main ingredient of the lotion, made a million and a half bags of the stuff, and distributed it. I thought I’d build on her success by pushing to make it a community-driven progress. Now that it’s widely recognized that they can reduce their risk of contracting malaria, I thought, surely the people of the village will be eager to learn to make neem lotion themselves. It would be a way for women to make money in the rainy season, and the technique is so simple that it can be passed from person to person without a whole lot of fuss. I was excited, because it seemed like I had an opportunity to teach a skill rather than give a hand-out.

So we got together, talked about it, and I taught about 30 women how to make the lotion. A few women took it up, made batches themselves, and sold it. But after a while, their work came to a standstill. When I came back from a mandatory three-week training in a city a few hours away from Ndiago and asked around, it didn’t seem like neem lotion was widely available. Many people in my village thought that neem lotion made by the Senegalese women would not be as effective as the stuff I could make for them. My white-person-from-prosperous-America-juice was the missing ingredient. Many women said they had trouble getting the money together themselves for making a batch even one small enough for their families alone. One of these women lives in my compound. The day after she claimed that she couldn't raise the 400CFA needed to make another batch of lotion (about one American dollar, by the way), I watched as she bought earrings for 500CFA in the market. The money was there, but it was there for something else.

I was upset. After all, I reasoned with people, I would be going home after a couple of years. Ndiago will probably have one more health volunteer, but in even the best case scenario the village would be on its own for rainy seasons after 2013. If no one in the village had practice and expertise with making neem lotion, what would happen once the magical white people stopped showing up? Shrugs all around. I left the conversation after making it clear repeatedly to pretty much anyone in the village who would listen to me that I would not be making and passing out neem lotion myself. It was up the village now. A couple women picked up the project and I'm hoping to expand it next year. But still, what went wrong? Why did the village's picture of what their volunteer could and should be doing differ so much from my own? Given the difference in opinion, what should my next step be?

I don't feel that I have the tools to really answer those questions. I don't know anything about anthropology or development theory, as I said before. But my gut sense is that the problem revolves around education. Few adults in my village are literate. Few have had anything but the basics of primary school education. Teachers and health post workers don't come from the village: they grow up in Dakar and Thies and Kaolack and other cities, where they're raised and educated in urban environments of privilege. These guys don't count. They have enough money to buy mosquito coils and DEET products and other deterrents. The people I needed to convince to make their own neem lotion, the poor majority of the village, were the people least likely to understand why neem lotion was important, why they were capable of making it themselves, how it was that the white girl wasn't using America magic to make the stuff.

What's a village volunteer to do? Try again next year, spending a lot more time talking and teaching. That's fine, I'm willing to do it. Of course. And I'm definitely not saying I should have caved and made everyone neem lotion. But what I can't get over is the daily message I got during the rainy season, both implicitly and explicitly: I had failed Ndiago. I had not met the village's expectations. I wasn't their Aissa , their very own white girl with magic and resources and clever, easy solutions. I was a foreigner, with a foreign agenda, with goals and criteria for success that didn't look anything like theirs. And of course, I'm the only person in the village on malaria prophylaxis. Malaria doesn't threaten me or my kin or loved ones in the States. If it did, would I be able to embrace the Peace Corps' model of development work, or would I also be afraid that neem lotion wasn't enough, that I couldn't make it well enough to keep the people I love alive?

As with every country with volunteers in it, the Peace Corps was invited to Senegal. Americans and Senegalese worked together to design a program that addressed Senegal's specific needs and development goals: for example, we have more agricultural volunteers than some other West African countries, and no volunteers working in teacher training. Communities in Senegal invited volunteers to their sites through a lengthy and thoughtful selection process. Because of all this, I feel like I have a constituency: primarily the 200-odd people living in Ndiago, secondarily the 1,000 or so people living within the cluster of villages of which Ndiago is the center. The Peace Corps is not my constituency. In my heart, I am not accountable to anyone in the office in Dakar, or anyone in the office in Washington, D.C.

And Now For Something Completely Different

So what am I left with?

I think the role I envision for myself as a volunteer is a combination of the Peace Corps philosophy with a strong punch in the face of social justice added to it. The emphasis would still be on transferring skills and knowledge, but instead of pushing things like neem lotion and pit latrines as sustainable development measures, I want to talk about them as temporary compromises. They're all right for now, because realistically speaking this country just doesn't have the political clout to lobby for affordable and safe anti-malarial medicines for children living in endemic areas, or the infrastructure to bring sanitary facilities to villages with no source of running water. But when we accept things like neem lotion as solutions to problems that are rooted in the unequal distribution of wealth or the total failure of the Senegalese government to abide by the social contract, then we're cheating the people we're here to help.

The real goal of development work might look like this: not only can one person in every compound in Ndiago make neem lotion well, but also that every person in Ndiago can imagine the day when their risk of dying from malaria is the same as it would be if they had been born in the United States. I would never ask my family in the U.S. to use a pit latrine or accept an unreliable source of water which would need to be filtered and treated before being totally safe to drink. So why should I ask my host family in Senegal to do these things? All we can do as Peace Corps volunteers is encourage the people we work with to take baby steps. But I think it's also important to say that certain things about daily life as I encounter it in a village in Senegal are utterly unacceptable. Compromises are short-term solutions, stop-gaps, band-aids. They're not truly long-term sustainable development options. Say Peace Corps and all the other aid agencies in the country just went crazy and built latrines in every compound in Senegal. That would be an incredible solution right now, at the beginning of 2010. We could be proud of ourselves for that. But if the people are still using latrines 20 years from now, if no one is crying out for plumbing and hygienic facilities and waste treatment programs, then the program will have been a failure. And every Peace Corps volunteer, every aid worker who built a latrine or raised money for them or did a health talk on latrine maintenance, every single one us us; we are all implicated in that failure.

Furthermore, I fear that the emphasis on sustainability in development work is making us lose sight of the forest for the trees. In the end, if there is no solution to a problem that meets the criteria for sustainability, it is preferable to enact a non-sustainable solution than to walk away from the problem entirely.

To me, these points are axiomatic. They either are or rest upon the principles and opinions that led me to want to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the first place. Almost a year after arriving in Senegal, I'm beginning to find that they are not compatible with the way Peace Corps itself functions. They're not fully contradictory with the established institutional philosophy of development, but they certainly aren't comfortably reconcilable. At least, I haven't figured it out yet.

I was warned recently about making the perfect the enemy of the good. That is, about despairing of achieving perfection to the point where I’m incapable of working for anything less. But how do we ever honestly decide what it is to be be “good enough”? How far short of perfection should we set our sights? How will we ever improve ourselves, learn anything, feel worthy, if we don’t first acknowledge that our reach exceeds our grasp, and then work to extend both?

When I first came to Senegal, none of this bothered me. I honestly believed that we didn’t have to think about the big picture. Someone else had picked out this village for me, these 200 people. Someone else taught me everything I know about being a health volunteer. I tried to be a tool, a conduit, a machine that went on monthly baby-weighing tourneys, distributed mosquito nets, seeded pepinieres, taught the women to make neem lotion. I thought I could do the job in front of me and find peace of mind on this small scale. But it’s not working that way right now.

Love and guts.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Look at my hut from SPACE!

No, really. Look at my hut from space.

Strictly speaking, you're looking at my village. I'm not sure if I can annotate the map to point out to you all which hut is mine, though it does appear here. But I thought some of you might think this was cool.

Happy 2010, everyone! Substantive blog update on the way. Maybe.

Love and guts,