Thursday, April 25, 2013

Peace Corps Response: The Adventure Continues

In just five days I’ll be leaving West Africa, but I won’t be gone for long.

I've been offered and accepted a Peace Corps Response position with Save the Children, serving as a Health Program Specialist in Kankan, Guinea. It’s a nine-month assignment, starting in June, and I’ll be supporting the current Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program (MCHIP) that’s being funded by USAID and led by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Jphiego.

Home Sweet Soon-to-Be Home

MCHIP activities focus on strengthening family planning services, increasing local capacity for reproductive health services, and increasing the quality of care provided at the community level. As a Health Program Specialist, my main responsibilities will be to provide regular monthly updates on program activities in Guinea in English and French, to work with local staff to improve work plans and budgets, and to help coordinate the development of a Public Health and Nutrition Program. It will be a big change and a lot of responsibility, but I’m eager to work with Save the Children, to spend a bit more time in West Africa, and to eat avocados for breakfast every day. (Among other things, Guinea is renowned for having beautiful terrain, nightmarish roads and absolutely fabulous fruits and vegetables.) 

As excited as I am, there is a big opportunity cost – I was really looking forward to spending a summer in the Trinity Alps, to finally being around for weddings and birthdays, and to spending the holidays in California. Happily, I will have a long enough break to spend some quality time with friends and family, and the office where I'll work in Kankan is outfitted with electricity and a back-up generator  so it will be a lot easier to stay connected. Plus it will probably be all thrilling and novel just to be in an office, to have a desk and a chair and an internet connection. Who knows, maybe I'll even have running water at home. Fancytown! 

World Malaria Day!

The World Health Organization explains that "Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium, which is transmitted via the bites of infected Anopheles mosquitoes. In the human body, the parasites multiply in the liver, and then infect red blood cells. Symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, and vomiting, and usually appear between 10 and 15 days after the mosquito bite. If not treated, malaria can quickly become life-threatening by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs." Malaria is particularly lethal small children and pregnant women, and while there isn't a vaccine there are extremely effective treatments available, and people can avoid mosquito bites by using insect repellent and sleeping under Long-Lasting Insecticide-treated Nets (LLINs). 

Malaria is an enormous problem in Senegal, and, unfortunately, the region of Kédougou has some of the highest malaria rates around. Thanks to Universal Coverage programs and increased access to Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs), many more people are sleeping under LLINs (at least during rainy season) to avoid malaria and getting effective treatment if they are infected. There are PCVs doing amazing malaria eradication work across Senegal, and you can click here to read the fantastic post that my friend Annē wrote about an ongoing anti-malaria project in the Kédougou region.

Diamé and I in 2012
Like many, many people I know, my little host sister Diamé came down with malaria last year. Thankfully, my host family lives within walking distance of a health structure, understands the importance of early treatment, and has the means to pay the small consultation fee to see the nurse to get malaria medication, which is free. It's never fun to see a sick kid, but as far as children-with-malaria-scenarios go, Diamé's played out pretty ideally - in the evening Diamé's mom saw she was listless and feverish, the next morning she took her in for an RDT, came home with a pack of Coartem (the locally available brand of malaria medication) and before long Diamé was back to normal. All too often, people put off seeking treatment, and by the time they get to a health structure they're so sick that they need more intravenous medication and fluids, which are expensive and can require hospitalization. 

Early treatment is great, but prevention is even better, and I'm really hopeful that this year Diamé won't get malaria at all. In addition to upcoming Universal Coverage follow-up bed-net distributions, there are plans to a implement seasonal malaria chemoprevention (preemptive treatment) program for all children under the age of 10 living in high transmission zones. It's an ambitious approach, but it has the potential to have a truly enormous impact on malaria in Kédougou. 

I don't want these kids to get malaria. 
I'm excited about seasonal malaria chemoprevention because it's a way to help break the cycle of malaria transmission  Anopheles mosquitoes become infected with Plasmodium when they bite a person who is carrying the malaria parasite; the mosquito becomes infected and then passes the parasite on to the next person it bites. If kids are on chemoprevention it means that they'll be protected from malaria, and they'll also avoid being carriers, which will help to reduce transmission rates and protect the entire community. Additionally, as someone who's been on preventative malaria medication of one kind or another for the last two years, it's really good to know that my little host brothers and sisters will be given a chance to benefit from the same kind of protection that I had during my service. They deserve at least that much. 

If you'd like to know more about malaria and the work that's being done to eradicate it, please take a look at Stomp Out Malaria, or check out what the CDC or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have to say about the fight against malaria. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The True American Rainbow

There is a television show called New Girl, and on that show they play a game called True American. The Peace Corps Volunteers of Kédougou have talked about playing the game in real life several times, imagining how we could add in our own rules, quotes, and trivia.

Having already bade farewell to Digital Ben and the songwriter, phenologist, and re-birthed living legend Patrick Hair, the PCVs of Kédougou gathered on the occasion of the imminent departure of Marielle, Martin, Ian, and myself and actually played True American. We cooked garlic bread and Bucket Soup, made mojios and pesto pizza, combed the market and the Free Box for the appropriate attire, dressed up like a rainbow (because why not), and they showed themselves to be as True Americans as there ever were.

After the abject heartbreak of leaving Salémata, True American Rainbow brought some much-needed levity to my week of good-byes. We managed to cover the whole spectrum - Reds, Oranges, Gold, Yellow, Greens, Teal, Blues, Sparkles, Pinks, Purples, Plaid, and Gray.


Complementary Colors! 
The Crayola Fun Pack
At the Start of the Rainbow
Basically, playing the game involved dressing up, hopping from base to base (the ground is molten lava), calling out silly trivia questions and quotes, and switching clothing items in order to finish the game wearing as many colors of the rainbow as possible. It was fun and funny, and, as always, it was great to spend some quality time with the 'Gou Crew.

These are the people who've been there when all the tires went flat, when the ATM didn't work, and when my Sriracha ran out. They got the baignoire tubs out when it was too hot to live, fixed my bike when the gears got mangled, commiserated when work was going disastrously, and lent me a hair brush when I didn't have one (which was always). They've bush-messaged me Malarone, interpreted my dreams, put up with my affinity for confusing picture-messages, and made up songs about the terrible roads that leave us over-jostled and caked with orange dust. They've cooked Spanish omelettes, baked birthday cakes and pizzas and Ghirardelli double-fudge brownies and brewed countless French presses of hot coffee. When I lost my phone for the umpteenth time they called it, and laughed good-naturedly when it inevitably turned up my pocket. They've shared their M&Ms and their diarrhea stories and their huts and their palm wine and their fancy cheese. They took pictures of my rashes and forgave my irritability and taken team costumes to a whole new level. When I got sick they left Ricola in my basket, when I was away they greeted my host family, and when my American family came to visit they showed them a epic good time.

At the End of the Rainbow
I'll see some of the 'Gou Crew in the not-so distant future (inchallah) and in the meantime I'm grateful to have been a part of such a fun, brilliant, ridiculous, generous, beautiful, motivated group of True Americans. I'll miss them collectively as well as one by one, and I'll think of them every time I eat Pumpkin Spice, take a garlic shot, see a gold star, catch a glimpse of Cinderella, make bagel, hear a real nice chant, read a sexy book, sing my way down a river, throw it in the fan, eat too many beignets, count the birds in my backyard, or see a rainbow breaking through the clouds. 

Only Until Next Time

The morning I left Salémata I didn't take any photos. The night before, Jackie, Jubal, Katie O. and Katie W. had all spent the night, and when we woke they went to the garage to see about bean sandwiches and a car as I started to clear out my hut.

I stacked my water filter and trunk outside, set aside the furniture and gas tank for Katie W., and gave most of my clothes and buckets and tubs and miscellaneous things to my host family. Mariama Kesso brought Fatou in and helped me to stack things and divide up the photos and cards and t-shirts. She had the kids bring the buckets and things over to my host father, to be distributed later on. The older kids stopped by to say good-bye; they were stoic and so was I, but when Mariama Gaulo gave me a long, tearful hug, a bracelet, and a beautiful letter, even Mariama Kesso started to well up and I started to sniffle.

Her little brother Mamadou also gave me a heartfelt farewell letter, and all the women, Mariama, Kade, Hassanatou, and Saliou Njan, couldn't look at me without crying. Earlier, Sada, my host father, had presented me with six meters of gorgeous, costly indigo fabric as a gift from the whole family, and my host mother Mariama had given me baobab powder and shea butter. They both said wonderful things, about me and my family and my time in Senegal, reminded me to call when I got to America, and wished me well. I haven't cried so much in a very long while, and certainly not in public. Painful as it was, it was good to know that I'd invested in my life here, that I built relationships that were worth missing, and it was good to see that they cared about me and would miss me as well.

When the time came everyone gathered under the mango tree, Sada and I both made short farewell speeches, and there was not a dry eye on the compound. He finished by remarking that "People say, when they see a good person, that they came from a good family. You came from a good family, and we thank your mother and father. Wherever you go I know that you will do well, because you have done well here and you are a good person. May God bless you and your family, may God grant you good health and good luck, and may God make your road smooth. And this, today, this is not "good-bye," this is only "until next time." Adama, we will see you next time."

Then everyone rose, and picked up my bags and my trunk and my boxes, and we all walked down to meet the car. I didn't have anything to carry, so I carried Fatou, who happily tugged on my braids and poked at my glasses and ate the cookies that a shopkeeper offered me as we walked past. Everyone thanked me, and blessed me, and shook my hands and I did my best to return all the gratitude and well-wishes. My host family made sure we all got into the car, which took awhile, and waved goodbye when the car finally pulled out. I put on my sunglasses to shield my red and puffy eyes, put on my scarf and bandana to keep the dust out, and then just sat there, was so very glad that Jackie and Jubal and Katie O. and Katie W. were wedged in beside me.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Good Hair and New Friends

A couple weeks ago I got my hair braided for the first time. After my mom got her hair braided in during her visit Mariama Kesso decided that she would also braid my hair before I left. So the day finally came, I bought some meches extensions and she went to work. 

It didn't hurt as much as I'd imagined it would, and it only took about an hour. (Kesso is a pro.) Jackie had had her hair done in her village, Diarra Pont, the day before, and she came to take photos and sit under the mango tree while Kesso braided and braided and braided. 

Jackie asked for her hair to look like the crazy braided mohawk that she's seen on a little girl the week before, and her hair turned out amazingly well. She didn't even need any extensions!

Once we were all coiffed and fancy we put on our complet outfits and headed out to introduce everyone to the Peace Corps Volunteer who'll be arriving in May to install in Salémata. 

Her name is Katie W. and by all accounts she's pretty fantastic. She's still in training but came down for Volunteer Visit (VV), where Trainees have a chance to have village life demystified, meet their soon-to-be host families and counterparts, and just get a little bit of an idea of what lies ahead. During the days leading up to site announcements I fretted and wondered about who would be coming to Salémata. (Would they like living in a rural site? Would they decide it wasn't for them and Early Terminate? Would they be motivated and fun? Would they be as completely exhausted and out of it as I was during my VV?) As soon as I met her my anxieties were all assuaged. She's cool and fun and super smart. She studied Reproductive Health and already has her Master's, her Pulaar is really coming along, she can get by in French very nicely, and, best of all, she handled the ridiculous barrage of information and introductions and hellos and good-byes impressively well. She even brought out a fancy complet and dressed up with us! 

Here are Katie W. and I, and Katie W. with our friend and shopkeeper Wouri, and the two of us with Jean-Jacques, Salémata's head nurse and our Professional Counterpart. On the last day of her VV (and my last day in Salémata) we took the obligatory silly photos in front of the castle with Jubal and Katie O. and Jackie, greeted the Imam and the radio DJs and the neighbors and her new Community Counterpart and pretty much anyone who crossed out path. We drank frozen bissap juice and snacked on packs of cookies and just generally had a lovely day. Our host family prepared an amazing, amazing dinner (fonio and meat and vegetables in a delicious sauce) and then stayed up under the mango tree, just watching Guinean music videos and chatting.

As sad as I am to be moving on, it's a great comfort to know that Salémata is in good hands. Katie W. has a good host family, a beautiful site, and the best PCV neighbors anyone could ask for. As the saying goes, life in Senegal may not be all Skittles, I think she's a great fit and very much hope that she will have a wonderful and rewarding two yeas of service in Salémata. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cute Overload

So, maybe you thought that just because I'm single and childless I wouldn't be churning out look-at-this-baby posts, but I'm here today to tell you about Fatou. Fatou is adorable. That is just a fact. She’s chubby and boisterous and as gregarious as a person can be without being able to actually talk yet. Now that she’s old enough to not forget me every time I leave for a few days, she likes to come over stand in the doorway of my hut, waving "bye-bye" and chattering away in baby Pulaar.

A few weeks ago, at the Tuesday lumo market, her grandmother bought her a new complet outfit and her mom, Mariama Kesso, bathed her, dressed her, doused her in baby powder, and brought her by for an impromptu photo shoot before she had a chance to get it all dirty.

Look how cute this baby is. Cute and smart and sassy. She's got the adorability trifecta going on. I cannot even handle it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Costa Rica comes to Senegal

Nisha finished Peace Corps in Costa Rica and then came to visit her sister/my friend Emily in Dakar for a few weeks. While she was in country she caught a ride down to Kédougou and I had the pleasure of showing her around Salémata. The ride out was dusty and slow, but we made it, and after a crash course in Pulaar greetings I put her to work painting names on bowls for my host moms. 

We spent a lot of time comparing Peace Corps service in Costa Rica and Senegal, and there were a striking number of similarities. For instance, the roads are terrible, public transport is difficult, host families can be wonderful, acronyms abound, and you eat the same thing every day.

Candid under the mango tree
We spent some quality time with my host family, took the obligatory snapshot in front of the absurd castle that a creepy French man built, had much with my friend Maimouna, and threw rocks at trees in a middling attempt to knock down a few mangoes. 

Having just done her own Close-of-Service, she was really understanding of the miscellaneous loose ends I had to wrap up and gamely hung around during my last work-related meeting. I'd asked my host father to call the meeting so that I could thank everyone who'd participated in the latrine project, solicit feedback and suggestions, and distribute the bars of soap and plastic screening that I'd purchased with the last bit of the project money. (The plastic screening was to replace the metal screening on the ventilation pipes, which already seemed to be rusting on some of the latrines; the soap was a last plug for hand-washing and a token of thanks for all their hard work.) It also gave me a chance to start my good-byes, explain how I would be replaced by another volunteer, and talk about what an honor it's been to spend these last two years with the people of Salémata.

The next morning we day-hiked out to Ethiolo, a nearby Bassari village, and walked around, greeting people, stopping in at the Health Post, and hanging out with RPCV Tatiana's former host family. They invited us to stay for lunch, and then we stayed for tea, and then we stayed to sample some of the local palm wine. Nisha scored big points by offering a giant cup of palm wine to two older ladies on the compound, and then we headed back to Salémata to check out the market.

It was a Tuesday, and Tuesday is Salémata's market day. Everyone comes out for the market, and we ran into all of my host moms, including Mariama, who was selling vegetables and palm oil. 

I feel like Nisha got a really good sampler of all of the things that I do while in village. It was really fun to have her around, she was up for eating out of a communal bowl and carrying water on her head, and really nice to have PCV there for all the acronym talk about COS forms and DOS reports and SPA grants and getting NCI and being an RPCV. There was downtime, day-hikes, work stuff, market day, lunches with friends, and little kids piling in to my hut to ask for photos and band-aids.  

Sajou Ba gets a band-aid for a small scrape on his head. 

Afterwards, I realized that taking her on a tour of all my favorite parts of my life in Salémata was also a really wonderful way for me to revisit the things and people that defined and enriched my Peace Corps service. It was lovely to take some time to really just enjoy being in Salémata before beginning the bittersweet process of saying my final good-byes and I'm so glad that her visit gave me an occasion to do so.