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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ramadan in Village

It’s the 18th of August, the 29th day of Ramadan. If the consistently cloudy sky accepts we’ll see the first sliver of the new moon tonight and this long, holy month of fasting will be over. Tomorrow (or at latest the next day!), will be the festival of Korité. Everybody will don their very nicest clothing and follow the sound of the village drum out to a special field behind the mosque to pray. We’ll spend the rest of the day wandering around the whole village on an extended greeting tour, passing out and receiving little candies and small change like an August Halloween. And we’ll feast like there’s no tomorrow; oily rice, beef and mutton, and drinking water all day long. But for now we’re still fasting. Ramadan is an amazing, difficult, incredibly slow month here in village. In an expression and reaffirmation of faith, every able bodied person fasts a full 30 days. No water or food from sunrise to sunset. This means everyone gets up around 4:30am to eat a light breakfast, usually bread and coffee, and drink a whole bunch. Afterwards some drift back to sleep for an early morning nap and others head right out to the fields, trying to get their work done in the morning before the hot afternoon fatigue sets in. Later in the day folks kill time snoozing, playing cards and studying the Koran as they wait for the sunset call to prayer. This call can be heard all across the village, a long cry in Arabic belted over the solar-powered loudspeakers at the mosque signaling the end of the long day of fasting. At the chief’s compound as many as 40 to 50 people gather around huge bowls of porridge that they drink with laughably large gourd spoons. Down at the health post breaking the fast is a decidedly tastier, though less energetic, affair. My two counterparts and I and the health post maid Siré have coffee, bread with mayonnaise or beans, and dates. Afterwards is the standard greeting and prayer: “did you break your fast in peace? May God make the rest of Ramadan easy”. And folks drift off to their homes to eat a late late dinner and catch a little bit of sleep before it starts all over again the next day. This year and the last I have been able to participate in the vast majority of Ramadan. Except for a few days when I was traveling I have done it all, and am just now wrapping up my 22nd day of fasting. As I said, it has been a trying and incredibly slow month- it is amazing how slow the days go when there’s no midday meal to eat or water to drink and you’ve been up since 4:30! It also takes its toll physically. I’ve definitely lost weight (though not too much, alhamdoulilahi!), and everyone is less active in order to conserve energy. But it has been amazing overall. It has been a huge source of bonding between myself and my family and other villagers. Everywhere you go folks ask how the fast is going, you joke about how hard it is, and then exchange prayers for peace and health. Too, there is an incredible comradery in getting up with seven sleepy host brothers at an absurd hour of the morning, everyone sprawled out on the ground of my counterpart’s hut while the coffee boils in the darkness. I have also delved into the mental and spiritual aspects of this time. The long, bright afternoons leave infinite time for reading, studying, and writing music. Too, I have been praying alongside my two counterparts when we break the fast in the evenings. We face east, which turns out to be the back wall of the health post salon, and bow our heads in prayer. The point, I believe, of such rigorous rituals like Ramadan is twofold: First, you really, really to appreciate the blessings of food and drink (that first sip of water is like heaven each evening!). Secondly, fasting removes worldly distractions. When your day is open and your stomach empty you look past the things that normally take up your day and towards God.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hello everyone. I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I last posted here. Sometime in the spring I was besieged by a vicious bout of the ‘writersblockosis’ and am only just now getting over it. God grant me a swift recovery! Too, I’ve been out at site for the better part of the last month and a half, bouncing along in beautiful but internetless lands.
I wanted to write a quick entry to fill everyone in on the progress of life and work here. It’s been a busy, productive, and lovely past few months. In late May I shipped off to Croatia for my cousin Katie’s wedding and then off to Hungary and Italy to visit family and friends. Katie’s wedding was absolutely beautiful. It was full of fine folks, dancing, and an amazing, god-sent abundance of delicious food and drink. The same was true for visiting our dear friends Brie and Zsofi in hungary and our wonderful, perfectly stereotypically Italian family in Italy. Eat and drink ‘till you drop was on the itinerary for every day. It was heavenly! Back in Senegal I found the rainy season in full gear. The rains here bring the most stunning, wonderful beauty. Gorgeous green fields and mountains are accented by brilliant blue skies and a quickly fleeting memory of the scorched deadness of dry season. On the flip side though, the rains bring a whole army of mosquitoes and, especially in kedougou, incredibly high malaria prevalence. Malaria cases started to rise in June and are by now so common in village that you start to see this deadly disease as a fact of life, as intractable as the common flu. The news is good though, because we have met this climb in malaria with some really cool, exciting projects. In late June my good friends Ben Alex and I put together a big malaria fair for the city of Kedougou. Early in the morning on June 30th we lined the entire street from the health post to the central market with 308 rice sacks. The rice sacks visually illustrated the money that Kedougou spent to treat malaria last year. A total of 4,466,000 CFA, or almost 9,000 US$, could have gone to buying rice for the folks here had all these cases been prevented. The rice sacks also led the way to a fair ground where music blasted, a theatre group performed, and volunteers in 5 different stations taught people how to wash, repair and modify nets and make neem cream. It was a huge success and really cool to see almost every one of the 30 or so volunteers in Kedougou unite to make such a big project work. Since then I’ve been working on an overwhelming but really exciting project in my health zone called PECADOM Plus. We designed it as a complement to existing malaria interventions and systems in Senegal. It is a proactive, intensive system of malaria surveillance, testing and treatment. In early July we trained health workers from four different villages to test and treat simple malaria. Then my wonderful counterpart and I went from village to village training elected community representatives or ‘care groups’. These care groups would monitor their family members for malaria symptoms and help the health workers to identify and test potential cases. Once both of these trainings were done we were ready to start intensive, village wide sweeps in every one of the 5 villages in my health zone. Every Monday and Friday the health workers would go from compound to compound. The care group members would help them identify potential cases to test for malaria. Everyone who tested positive for simple malaria would receive free meds right there on the spot, and severe cases and negative tests would get referred to the health post. This project actually got underway just a couple weekends ago. On Monday, July 30th it rolled out in all of the five villages. Five really good volunteer friends of mine came out to help out in each village. And thanks to their and the health workers great work the first day of PECADOM Plus was an amazing success!! In some of the smaller villages we tested as much as 25% of the entire population and as many as 12% of all the villagers were treated for simple malaria in a single day. Overall we tested more than 140 people. 87 of them had positive, simple malaria and each one of these received free meds. Amazing! I’ll leave it at that though, because I’ll follow this up with another whole post about the great, obstacle strewn course of this promising project. I will do my very best to write again soon. Hope so much that you all are well and in peace.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Senegal Quirks That No Longer Stick Out to Me But Used To Seem Hilarious or Just Plain Bizarre

Hi everybody! I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long while. There are all sorts of crazy aspects of life here that really crack me up. As I go on with my service though I start noticing them less and less. So I wanted to start taking a running list of all those funny quirks, the random bits that brighten up days and life here. I hope it will bring you all smiles and some new insights into the wacky place and culture in which we live. 1. The random, haphazard mix of four to five languages that I hear every day, sometimes in the same sentence. Favorite quotes: Yangi Nice Quois?! (wolof-you are, English- Nice, French-what?!). Another came when my counterpart and I were hanging out one night and looking at the constellations. He was telling me that he though Orion was two cow herders leading a single cow between them. A couple hours later he look up and was like ‘Allah, ninso tigolu sont en train de bouger rek’ (Jaxanke- wow the cow herders, French- are scooting along, Wolof- only!)
2. Little children get their heads shaved here fairly often. But they often leave a little round poof right in the middle of the head. Or sometimes a straight Mohawk. Fashion!
3. Everybody, the oldest of old folks down to the tiniest children, wear nothing but flip flops and sandals every day. In the beginning of my service I felt like I was hanging out at the beach every day…except no beach! Dang. Even on the most formal occasions everybody wears new, fancy flip flops to complement their beautiful, tailor made outfits.
4. Eating with my hands around a big, communal pot on the floor. Every meal is eaten communally around giant bowls. Usually the men and boys eat together, and the women and girls eat separately. The little kids crouch on the older folk’s feet and everybody digs in, throwing tasty bits to me or any guests. I’m pretty good with the eating with my hand technique now, but it used to be a mighty messy process.
5. I hate to write this one right after the food one, but feel it’s important…. Wiping with one’s hand after using the pit latrine. Toilet paper is almost non-existent here, but the water method does a mighty fine job as long as you wash your hands with soap afterwards. This one might seem the worst for Americans but was surprisingly easy to get used to. Plus we’ll all be professional campers/ party goers when t.p. runs out!
< 6. Not doing anything with your left hand. We were told that people would think you were Satan if you tried to eat left-handed. Number 5. Provides pretty good cultural justification for this
7. Sweating all the time- I’m writing this post at 11:42 at night… still sweating!
8. Sharing public transportation with all manner of farm animals. For thanksgiving we bought a spot on the roof of a station wagon for our turkey to come down from Tamba. ______ 9. Sleeping under a mosquito net every night. This couldn’t seem more normal now, but I remember feeling like I was in a far distant world when I tried to tuck in my net on my first night here last year.
10. Ubiquitous religious/magical charms. Just about every person wears a kind of jewelry called gris-gris. They’re usually little sewn leather pouches, worn as bracelets, necklaces, around the waist or woven into hair. They could protect you from all sorts of things- malaria, snakes, genies.. or maybe make the girl you’re after fall in love with you_____ 11. Koranic Fire Circles. Each night the children of the village gather around huge bon-fires to study the Koran. They sing and yell at the top of their lungs and teachers, or maribous, patrol around beating kids who fall asleep or screw up. You can see the faint glow of fires no matter where you are, hear the faint chanting while everybody else drinks tea and listens to radio.
12. Senegalese Tea. Tea here is an complicated, sacred, incredibly time consuming activity. You make it in tiny pots and then pour it into tiny shot glasses, raising the tea pot as high as possible for maximum visual effect and foam. Then you pass it around, giving it to the oldest/most respected people first, and everybody drinks in fast, noisy slurps. This could take a half an hour to an hour, and then you put it back on the coals for the second and third rounds, which could go all afternoon.______ 13. Cola Nuts: I had always heard about Cola Nuts as this old time tradition of West Africa, the magical nut around which trade routes were established and from which Coca Cola got its name. And, after being here for a good long while, I am happy to report that its importance was in no way exaggerated. It is the central gift in all major ceremonies, and must be present in certain numbers for a Marriage to be agreed upon or a baptism performed. Too, all the old folks are addicted to it. They are always on the quest for more cola nuts, and use funny, nail-puntured sardine cans to great the nuts if they don’t have enough teeth left to crunch them. ______ 14. America Apparel: Senegal has been the happy recipient of an extreme excess of America themed clothing, usually Obama gear. When I got to village I was surprised to see that just about everyone sported an Obama shirt. There are also some very questionable and very ubiquitous World Trade Center Flip-Flops that look like they are burning when your foot starts to rub off the image. Hmm. The best, though, are baseball hats that read, “OBAMA, President of Space”. Yes!***** That’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll come up with a million more as soon as I post this. But I’ll leave it at that for now. Much love from Senegal.

Care Groups and Youth Groups, Comin' Along

Life here has been busily humming along since I last posted. Work has been great for the most part. World Malaria Day was a great success in Missirah. My care group members did fabulously, doing net care and repair demonstrations all over the village. Each time one of the women was ready to do a demo for her compound women they’d send a little kid to my compound to drag me on over and take lots of pictures.
Here's all the ladies of my Care Group, lookin' fancy in their new shirts! In all the women washed and repaired dozens of nets (maybe 50- 60, though I won’t have exact numbers until our next meeting) and educated more than a hundred people on the importance of mosquito nets and proper care. I also went from classroom to classroom doing malaria lessons for the elementary schoolers in my village. The littlest class in particular got really excited, I think because I did the lesson in Malinke whereas I did the other classes in French. They were yelling out all kinds of really cute, bright answers.. “Pali man nyin!” “Suusulalu se pali di moxolu ma!”- Malaria is bad! Mosquitoes give it to you!
Here one of the women from our group is conducting a net care and repair demonstration in her compound
My favorite picture! Just after her demonstration one of the care group women is posing with her two unhappy grandchildren Just before then Marielle and I did a training of middle school students in Nafadji. 12 students participated in the training which training focused on HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and family planning, and early marriage and early pregnancy. Though the students were young these topics are extremely, sadly relevant. HIV/AIDS rates are over all very low in Senegal but gold mining and trucking bring in a huge influx of migrants from all over Africa and, with them, much higher rates of HIV. Middle school drop-out is also incredibly high in our area, usually because of pregnancy or early marriage. Just before we started the project we found out that one of our students (actually one of Marielle’s host sisters) was pregnant. If only she had done this training earlier! Still, this project was a great opputunity for her to learn about ways to stay in school and learn about family planning methods in order to educate her friends and make better choices in the future. Indeed, the ultimate goal of the project was to train the students to be peer educators, or jeunes relais, who will now educate their peers and community about these important topics.
here's some of the students. I need to steal Marielle's pictures though- hers turned out better Despite a bunch of setbacks from the beginning and a bunch of health structure hoops to jump through, the training turned out to be a great success. Our Jeunes Relais were fantastic. They were incredibly engaged in for the three days, furiously scribbling notes during the full day classes and studying in the evenings. They came up with great skits and community talks about condom use, HIV/AIDS, and early marriage, and have already participated in two big community events. And, despite a bunch of trials and tribulation getting everything organized, the community got really behind the training and did a wonderful job making it a success. Now our little relais need a bunch of practice leading classes and making skits but, with a little work, they’ll do great things in Nafadji over the coming year. Now I’m back in Kedougou, working on the very early stages of a couple big malaria projects for this summer. I’m really excited and I’ll keep everybody in the loop!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Getting ready for World Malaria Day

The 25th of this month is World Malaria Day. In preparation for this we are planning all sorts of cool activities throughout Senegal to encourage malaria awareness and prevention activities. Particularly we want to use this day to focus on mosquito net washing and repair. A Universal Coverage (one net for every sleeping space) happened in the Kedougou region a couple years ago. Already though a high percentage of the nets are ripped or have holes, and many others are just not hung. In the dry season right now we have about a 34% rate of net hanging. But, if all the ripped and unused nets were fixed and hung we could have more than double that rate of coverage.


So on the 24th the 15 women in our village Care Group will be meeting to tackle that problem. My health counterparts and I meet every month with this group to teach a health topic (ORS, water treatment, cervical cancer, etc). The women will then take these topics and go out to teach all of the women of their compounds what they learned. When we next meet we’ll give each woman in the group needles and thread and practice sewing up and correctly washing nets. Then the next day they’ll go out and take the village by storm for a World Malaria Day net care and repair extravaganza. Huzza!


Here’s a picture of my counterpart doing small talks about Mosquito Nets. In the dry season malaria is rare, but we still see cases of extremely severe malaria at the health post every month. He gets super animated when he does these talks, gesticulating crazily and talking a million miles a minute. It’s amazing to see!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Stomping Out Malaria in Africa

The Malaria Team: Participants came from 11 different countries in Africa to participate in Boot Camp III

At long last I am back in Kedougou. I’m killing time ‘till the once weekly transport leaves to my village tomorrow, doing a little bit of work and a lot of floating in the Gambia river while my brain cools off from the intensity of the last couple weeks. I just got done a 10 day intensive seminar on malaria in Thies called Boot Camp III. Regular Peace Corps volunteers, Peace Corps Response people, professionals and staff came from 11 different African countries to participate in the event. Classes went all day long and late into the night (though the extra late sessions usually featured popcorn.. yes!). We covered topics such as the science of malaria transmission, vector control, advocacy, and behavior change. It was a huge, information overload, amazing introduction to everything malaria related.

Visiting Tieneba Seck, a village near Thies which demonstrated incredible community mobilization techniques in their fight against malaria

Perhaps more importantly, though, it was a forum for collaboration and momentum building for Peace Corps and many of the main players in the malaria field. We met or Skyped folks from the Presidents Malaria Initiative, FHI, Malaria No More, and numerous serious researchers in the field. By the end of boot camp the different countries presented specific action plans to take back to their programs and national partners. It was amazing to be a part of, to feel the incredible momentum surrounding this continent wide initiative, and to map out Peace Corps’ role in the fight against malaria. Malaria currently kills between 750,000 and 1.2 million people a year, mostly children in Africa. But huge gains have been made in the last 10 years. And, if the global community continues its commitment to malaria control, we will have an unbelievable impact on child survival and children’s lives.

Presenting Senegal's Plan at the end of camp

So, back in Kedougou, my buddy Ben and I are looking to adapt some of the information and strategies presented at boot camp to the regional level. Kedougou has by far the greatest burden of Malaria morbidity (almost 6x the national average) and mortality in Senegal. But we have an awesome bunch of volunteers and a huge amount of support from Peace Corps higher ups. So we’re getting ready for the next rainy season (though first we gotta make it through the fast approaching and oh-so-daunting hot season), trying out creative ways to mobilize the volunteer community and our villages in this important fight. We’ll be having summits, parties, classes and contests to educate people about malaria and prevention strategies. Too, we’ll be working with other Senegal volunteers to develop a post and re-distribution strategy to follow up on the universal net distribution campaigns that have swept Senegal in recent years. It is an exciting, exhilarating time to be here and be doing this work. I’ll be sure to share more as we go forward.
My little siblings back in Missirah. Going back tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

To Home and Back, With Some Softball In-between

A little more than a month ago I went to the states for Christmas. It was heavenly being back home, back with the dearest friends and family, surrounded by an endless array of the most delicious foods and beverages. I had expected a shock coming back to the US after 9 months in Senegal. Certainly the cold would do a number on me, the crowded insanity of cities, maybe the wealth and materialism so prevalent there? But a whole host of other things stuck out to me; trees were so tall, so beautiful and towering! Driving was thrilling, gigantic absurdly oversized houses and stores just seemed beautiful, and the endless selection of beers and cheeses was nothing short of glorious! I found myself slipping into life at home happily and easily, kicking it with my dear friends and family like I had never left. I was a happy man, drinking it all in with the deepest appreciation. Oh Amerique, Oh Home!

Such fine folks!


Slowly and joyfully the three weeks passed by and the time came for me to return. It hurt to leave, to say a second whole round of goodbyes to such dear folks. But I was ready to go back. Senegal and my hut and family in Missirah Dantila were fast becoming a dream, much too far from away to possibly be real. So I packed up, loaded down with gifts for friends and counterparts back here, and left one sad, bright morning. My folks somehow finagled Delta into letting us all go to the gate together (my son doesn’t speak English, I promise!), so they accompanied me all the way there. Twas lovely and heart breaking.
I shared my flight from New York to Dakar with my friend Cibyl and a million Senegalese folks all going back for a HUGE festival called the Magal de Touba. They all thought it was hilarious that I was living in a tiny village in Kedougou, speaking Jaxanke and a tiny bit of Wolof. “what do you eat for lunch?” usually maafe (rice with peanut sauce) “Maafe!?! Haha! You bush person!”. Aye. When we got to Dakar we immediately hopped aboard a Peace Corps car and shipped off to Thies. There we had a big conference in which volunteers from around West Africa presented on their main projects and shared best practices. This was good, though I was in a bit of a state of shock, reeling from being back here, the sights, sounds and especially smells overwhelming and familiar.
Then it was time for WAIST , the West African Invitational Softball Tournament which occurs in Dakar every year. Ex-pat teams from around the region come to play. And the acronym, at least for the hundreds of Peace Corps people who participate, is a pretty accurate indicator of the state of sobriety which will characterize the entirety of the three days. Lord! We had an absolute blast though, a great big marathon of manic, joyful, careening insanity, dancing, partying, and the occasional softball game. Each Peace Corps team chooses a theme. Themes included French- all of Dakar wore berets and batted with baguettes, South of the Border (Kolda), and Baseball (Kedougou/Tamba). Baseball I think was meant to be an ironic choice given Peace Corps’ general practice of forfeiting each game from the get go and then spending each inning in a chaos of hilarious antics, wheelbarrow races, and imbibing. I think wearing baseball uniforms was actually inspiring though. We certainly made the most of batting from each others’ shoulders, four person batting lines, and red-rover games in the outfields. We actually tried at some points though, and may have set a Peace Corps record with at least one win and one homerun!

Ben, Brian Bartel and I, ready for a three-man grandslam


The madness of WAIST and the great proms and parties that followed produced a myriad of results- most hilarious, some very bad, and many just plain bizarre. I sprained my ankle in a tragic second base slide. My team rallied to my side though, feeding me Oreos, beer and kisses to ease the pain and carrying me off like a king to get X-Rays. I eventually ended up in a cast, but this certainly didn’t stop the great dance party that ensued that night. More seriously Cibyl got in a car accident and ended up with a broken ankle and another friend Emily sprained hers running across a treacherous median. There also was a girl who got hit by a car going the wrong way on a one way street (thankfully she wasn’t too badly hurt) and another friend of mine Meg who had gotten meningitis a while before and played softball in a wheelchair. We all bonded in the Med-Hut, cooking up tasty food and cursing the fickle friend that is WAIST!

Emily, Cibyl and I: Curse you WAIST


Eventually I made it back to Kedougou and back to Missirah. It was overwhelming being back but so joyful. Back to the peace of my hut, my family, and my kind, joking villagers. I got pretty good at hobbling up and down Missirah’s crazy windy streets. And everywere I went, every day, every person I met would greet me and say prayers for my quick recovery.. ‘Is it a little better?! May Allah grant that it feels better soon!’. ‘Aminu!’ Now I’m back in Thies, getting ready to start an intense 10 day Malaria training. I’m excited, for I’m really interested in continuing work with the big Roll Back Malaria campaigns that are being implemented throughout Africa and have already been incredibly successful. More on that soon. Hope so much that you all are well.