Saturday, March 8, 2014

International Women’s Day 2014

On the way back to Dakar from Thies today, one of our Peace Corps doctors asked me if I ever thought about everything I’d learned since coming to Senegal. Three years ago when I got off the plane in Dakar for the first time, would I have been able to guess everything that would be in my head today? The answer is unequivocally no. This conversation happened after we had spent the day at the Peace Corps training center facilitating a session on malaria for a new group of Health and Community Economic Development trainees who are going through their first week of what will be 9 weeks of language, cross-cultural, and technical training. After that, they’ll be sworn in as Volunteers and installed in their communities.

Being around PC trainees in their first week in Senegal is exciting; everyone is so motivated to soak up information and do good things. There are also telltale signs that they haven’t been here long- the way they interact with people, perhaps paying no mind to whether they pass or accept an item with their left or right hand, or getting right to business before the customary Senegalese greeting ritual. These things will change with time, and the next two years will be a tremendous learning experience for everyone as it was for me. I sometimes wish that I could transplant all the information I’ve learned here into their brains to get a head start on things.

Learning what it means to be human, American, a woman, and uniquely me is a road that Senegal is guiding me down; being a woman is surely the most sacred part. The strength of Senegalese women never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Over the last three years, I have seen women in all sorts of situations that I couldn’t have imagined before. From being raised to be a ‘good woman,’ marriage, becoming a mother, raising children, succeeding in education and the workforce, weathering hardship, losing friends and family members, women are so often the glue that holds this place together.

One of my favorite memories from the village happened late at night. After the kids had played with their friends until they couldn’t play anymore- singing, dancing, and joking at one or another’s house, each would file in. Wherever their mother, Ndeye was sitting, the six would find places to sit or lounge near her. They would ask her all sorts of questions, she’d answer and ask her own, they would chat, and inevitably there would be lots of laughing. When I was lucky enough to catch one of these moments, we would laugh together- sometimes at each other, sometimes at a joke, sometimes at a ridiculous situation. The trust in and love of their mother alongside such closeness and honesty with the realities of life is what always got to me. If every family could have these warm joy-filled conversations, the world would be a much different place. 
Ndeye with her oldest son in a photo she
accidentally took with my ipod. 

Ndeye is on the right, chatting with our neighbor 
More of my favorite moments came with my 5-year-old host niece Codou during my second year in the village. Not long before, her mom had died a few months after giving birth to Codou’s younger sister, leaving three girls in the care of their grandmother. As with her mother and I, Codou and I hit it off right away- it was a no-questions-asked bond. She started by coming into my yard on laundry day to “help” wash my clothes, which usually involved dunking her head in the rinse water, coming up with a gasp for air and a huge smile on her face, and repeating until I intervened. Next, she started coming for breakfast. Sometimes she would bring her own bread and coffee, sometimes I’d give her some of mine, but either way, we would sit on the floor of my hut and chat while we ate. My efforts to get her to chew with her mouth shut were to no avail. When we finished, she’d go on her way. If she was early, she would crawl into bed with me and we’d chat there before breakfast. Finally, during the last few months of my service, after all the family and neighbors had started calling her my child because of our closeness, Codou started coming at bath time. I would get tub of water and have her stand in it while I scrubbed her with soap then rinsed and dried her off; she’d giggle every time water poured over her. We would comb her hair, clean her ears, clip her nails, put on lotion and chapstick. She would have brought me the outfit she wanted to wear that day, which I’d help her put on.  The final step was handing her my mirror to check herself out. She had the biggest, proudest smile on her face when she saw what she looked like.
Codou with a belly full of meat on Tabaski
Neighborhood hoodlums in their lineup.
Codou is in the center.
With these wonderful times come just as many difficult ones. The pain, injustice, violation, and inequality that women here so often go through is heart-wrenching. The saving grace of this country is the strength of the women; they guard so many secrets, bear so much burden, work so hard, and give up so much to move forward. I was shocked the first time I saw a pregnant woman with a baby on her back pounding millet for hours in unbearable heat; next to her a little girl with a baby doll strapped to her back pretending to pound millet and cook food for her family. It’s more strength than I have that gets these women through. I am so grateful for being let in on a few of the sacred secrets, moments, and memories that make the unbreakable bonds between women, and I can only hope to carry with me a fraction of the character of the women of Senegal.

For the new Peace Corps trainees, I wish for them a fruitful service filled with the feeling that someone has changed their life, that they’ve changed someone else's, and that they clearly see the richness of Senegalese women.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What's happening in malaria news

It's Blog About Malaria Month (it even has a catchy acronym- BAMM!) and I'm kicking it off with an update about some of the malaria-related events Senegal has going on. It's also apparently grilled cheese month (GCM?), which I also plan on celebrating, but that's for another blog post.

I got back to Linguere yesterday after a quick trip to Thies where I helped Senegal's current Regional Malaria Initiative Coordinator, Mike Toso (whose position I'll be filling after he leaves next month) with a training session about malaria for the brand new batch of PC Trainees, who arrived about a month ago. We gave a snazzy Prezi presentation that Mike and his predecessor, Jessie put together- complete with interesting videos about the history of malaria:

...and it's lifecycle:

The trainees seemed excited to hear about malaria and what roles they can play in combatting it during their service- I'm really looking forward to working with them.

It's always a treat to get updates on the Stomp Out Malaria program and its' initiatives (; knowing that you're a part of something with so many people working towards the same goal is a pretty good motivator. Mike also had news on Senegal-wide events; there's never a dull moment here.

Here in the Louga Region, and the beautiful but off-limits (due to civil conflict) Ziguinchor Region south of The Gambia, the National Malaria Control Program and its partners, especially NetWorks ( are getting ready to roll out a mosquito net distribution. This distribution is the next phase after the universal distribution that we had last year. It will be primarily based in schools- educating students on malaria and net use and care then providing them with nets to sleep under. I'm really excited about this; my favorite experiences here have involved working with students, and this initiative has the potential for some amazing results. Nets will also be stocked in all health structures, they'll be available to anyone who comes in for a visit for a low cost and pregnant women for free. Finally, community organizations will be provided with nets. The NetWorks personnel assigned to this area are set to arrive any day now, and we'll get started with planning, training, and distribution. If last year's distribution was any example, this will be a lot of work, but totally worth it.

As a follow-up to the distributions, a few Linguere-area volunteers are planning a net care and repair tourney, a project that caught on through Stomp Out Malaria, and has been very successful here in Senegal. Volunteers will go to various villages, ask people to bring torn, dirty, or otherwise damaged nets in, then teach them how to wash, sew, or repair them until they're good as new.

We're also getting ready for World Malaria Day- April 25. There are lots of activities in the works- stay tuned.

It's all very exciting, and I'll be updating as these things actually happen.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Soaking it all in

I had a chance to look through some old letters and photographs last week, and they served as a reminder about how important it is to keep track of life's events. I seem to go through phases with that- keeping up for a little while, then letting it fall by the wayside, and at the moment, I'm re-motivated to document things (and my dear computer has come back from the dead, which helps- thanks, Mom!)

As the time to start wrapping things up here came around in January, I was thinking about what the heck I'm going to do with my life this year, about leaving Senegal, and all the millions of things which make big life decisions so hard. After lots of pondering and chatting, I decided that this place is too wonderful, I'm too excited about the work to be done, and there's too good an opportunity to pass up- so I'm staying for another year. After my last weeks in village, I'll come back to the States for a month of leave time, then move to Dakar to become the Senegal Coordinator for the Malaria Initiative. There's a lot of exciting work going on here in Senegal, and in the rest of the countries participating in the Stomp Out Malaria Initiative ( I've got some big shoes to fill- I'll be taking over for Mike Toso, and before him- Jessie Seiler, both motivated, excited, and just generally awesome people.

This year is going to mean a lot of changes- no more hut living sans electricity in the village, days spent chatting and drinking tea under the shade of neem trees, sleeping under the stars with my family, or for that matter, the hot hot heat of Linguere (hello, air conditioning!) If all goes as planned, I'll be living in an apartment by the beach, walking distance from work in the midst of all the craziness that is Dakar. The next couple of months also mean saying goodbye to the other volunteers who have been here through this whole adventure; there are undoubtedly lots of emotions imminent. In the mean time, I'm soaking in the last bit of all of this.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Where do I even start? I managed to leave my blog in hopeless abandon during the flurry of work I've been swept up in over the last several months. Here's to a blog re-boot.

The last 6 months have been a fabulous, albeit exhausting adventure. Linguere is finally finished with mosquito net distribution, and Mac and I with our USAID-funded partnership with the program. I wrote an article about the work for Peace Corps' Stomp Out Malaria initiative, which is posted here:

The latest excitement here has been Tabaski, a celebration marking the end of the annual Muslim pilgrimmage to Mecca, and marked by an incredible amount of meat. I was in Doundodji for the party, and spent the day helping with the processing and cooking of the 3 sheep the men in my family killed. It was a good day, topped of by an old guys vs. youngins soccer match in my neighborhood. The old guys won, and surprised everyone...

Of course I can't forget the election. The endlessly wonderful missionaries in Linguere, Dirk (who had to be out of town during the election) and Sarah invited all of us PCVs over for an all-night CNN-watching party. Most of us crashed before the final hours, but Andrew and Sarah made it all the way through to Obama's speech around 6:30AM. Despite our sleepiness, it was exciting, and refreshing taste of the (comparatively) organized, informed, technologically literate life in America... which is peeking right over the horizon.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cape Verde, The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

Lord Byron may have said that Sintra, Portugal was the most beautiful place in the world, but the man obviously never made it to Cape Verde. That place has it all- great beaches, beautiful mountains, lush green valleys brimming with fruits, and most of all, wonderful people. My dear friend Emily Naftalin, who recently finished her Peace Corps service and transitioned from PCV to RPCV and I are just back from a 10-day trip to 4 of the 10 Cape Verdean islands. Both work and all the great people and things here in Senegal brought me back, but I can't say that the two of us didn't have moments of scheming to never leave the islands.

We started our trip in Praia on the island of Santiago, where we spent the morning, then hopped on a car North to Assomada. We were met there on a rooftop bar for a glass of wine with our gracious hosts, CV PCVs Toby and Bob. We made our way further North through the mountains to Toby's site, Tarrafal, with the guys providing a guided tour along the way. Our first two nights were spent there- strolling around town, hiking to black sand beaches and shell-filled caves, drinking CV's signature capareinas and eating its cachupa (the can't-miss-it dish- corn and bean stew with fish for dinner, then re-fried with an egg and sausage for breakfast). We went back down to Assomada for our third night, where we hiked to see the most enormous tree I've set eyes on.


Toby took us to this shell-filled cave in Tarrafal

Emily and her crab shell- spirit animal? Maybe...

On a hike to a black sand beach outside of Tarrafal
Emily and Toby at one of Assomada's grog production sites
The big tree!
After a hurl-inducing boat ride (Emily and I managed to keep our lunches down...) to the island of Fogo and a car ride up to a little town in a volcanic crater, Cha das Calderas, we climbed Mt. Fogo. The way up the mountain took about 4 hours, and the way down, a little less than an hour, thanks to volcanic ash slopes and an exhilarating downhill slide. We were there for a couple more nights, then flew back to Praia and up to the North for a flawless cinco de mayo spent with the volunteers (& company) of Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente. Our next fabulous hosts Drew and Rory brought us to meet all the PCVs at a 5/5 get-together, followed by some of Mindelo's finest music and dancing. We hopped on a boat the next morning, accompanied by the elite of Europe's middle-aged adventure hiker scene to Santo Antao.

Early-morning Mount Fogo

Emily on the ascent

Mt. Fogo

At the summit with our guide, Nezito

Skiing down the ash fields, with only a few tumbles, ending with volcanic ash in every nook and cranny

Cha des Calderas' music scene

Up to the boat ride to Santo Antao, the trip was full of all kinds of great things, but there was no topping that place. It was take-your-breath-away amazing from start to finish. We took a car up to the top of a peak, where we found PCVs Scott and Melissa, who were great company, gracious, and oh-so-wonderful, in their mountain homestead getaway. After some shady relaxation on the porch shelling beans, chatting, and munching on sugar cane, we got out for a little hike to see the scenery, then wandered back to find that Scott had killed a chicken and Melissa cooked up a traditional Cape Verdean dinner. After the feast, we stepped up to a successful Cape Verde/ Senegal dance-off.

On the boat to Santo Antao

Leaving Mindelo

The port on Santo Antao

The next day was the stuff of dreams... Emily and I strapped on our packs and headed out for the famous, if not infamous "grog and cheese" hike, which we'd been hearing about from near every PCV along the way. It was just a little way around a volcanic crater to the top of the mountain, then down switchbacks into a valley that looked something like never-never land meets the shire. It was an oasis of irrigated terraced gardens, sugar cane, coffee, fruit trees, little huts, women selling coffee and homemade liquor (Cape Verde's moonshine- grog and ponche), all looking over the ocean.Once we made it down to the main road, and after a little ponche-tasting detour, we got to our destination- grog and cheese. It was an airy restaurant on a farm with a view where we had a lunch-to-die-for: goat cheese, salad, fresh yogurt with papaya and honey, and of course grog. This was the place that prompted our conversation about how we could possibly live right in that very spot.

(No photos here... just as we got to the top of the mountain, with the most spectacular view I've ever laid eyes on, my camera gave up.)
Unfortunately, we had to hop on a car to head to the port to catch the boat to Mindelo then a flight  back down to Praia. We spent our last night where we started, in grand finale style, with Bob and Toby in Assomada.

This trip was a great break from the usual routine in Senegal, a reminder of how many wonderful people and places there are in the world, an affirmation that us PCVs have got something special going on, and a great time spent with miss Emily before she flew back to the US. While it was hard to leave, I was happy to be back with friends, host family, people who speak a language I understand, and with whom any commonality or a shared joke is cause to be instant friends.

Since I've been back, I've kept busy with census-taking for our mosquito net distribution, a meeting in Thies with fellow peer support network members, and no shortage of mango eating. While it's hard to be here without the volunteers who showed us the way and each of whom I came to love completely, we have 6 great new volunteers, lots of good work to do,  and I can't complain.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Every child deserves a 5th birthday

Although it's the tail end, April is Blog about Malaria Month (BAMM), and yesterday- the 25th- was World Malaria Day, so here's a little something about what's going on with our malaria-related work here.

For the past couple of years, Senegal has been working to achieve universal mosquito net coverage; the goal is for every sleeping area in every house across the country to have a mosquito net treated with long-lasting insecticide. The campaign is accompanied by education to help people use and maintain their nets properly, and to have every member of the family sleep under a net every night throughout the whole year. The net distributions have covered the majority of the country already, prioritizing regions with very high rates. Here in the Louga region, we're on the verge of our very own distribution. The program looks like this:
  • April 8th: Peace Corps' very own Jessie Seiler and Mike Toso, who work on coordinating nation-wide malaria efforts, drove all the way from Dakar to our little desert haven of Linguere to get us in the loop about the master plan. It being Easter Sunday, the meeting was followed by a successful and delicious easter-mango hunt.
  • April 17th: Mac, Andrew, and I headed to the regional capital of Louga for a meeting with project coordinators and hospital officials about big-picture logistics (stay tuned for photos). Being in the big city and all, we got to eat delicious ceebu jen (rice and fish) and drink ice cold juice.
  • April 18th-19th: I went to the training for hospital and health post staff in the district of Linguere for a look at the local specifics. Again, they fed us delicious lunch...
  • April 20th: Mac and I met with Linguere hospital staff to clarify our role in the distribution. We'll be attending future trainings, supporting health workers in each of our sites, helping to teach community health volunteers about net use and how to make mosquito repellant with neem tree leaves, and holding a city-wide malaria awareness event in Linguere. After the meeting, we hunkered down to apply for a USAID small projects grant to support our programming.
  • Beginning around May 10th, and lasting 45 days (if all goes as scheduled), trainings for health hut staff and community health volunteers will begin, followed by village-wide censuses throughout the region, verification of census results, net distribution, and home visits by health volunteers.
  • Towards the end of all the official programming, us PCVs will accompany hospital staff on a district-wide tournament to emphasize key points about net use and care, teach about making mosquito repelling neem lotion, and finally hold our big malaria event in Linguere.

Malaria's a big problem here in Senegal, as I've seen too much evidence of, and it's really exciting to be a part of such a widespread and well-coordinated effort to get rid of it all together. Peace Corps is playing a huge role in all of it- and not just in Senegal- check out if you want to see what other volunteers across Africa are working on.

Until next time- the wonderful Emily Naftalin and I are headed to Cape Verde for an island vacation. My mosquito net is packed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A year later

 As of March 9th, I've been in Senegal for a whole year, and it's all gone by in a flash. The wonderful 2nd-year volunteers of Linguere who showed us the way as newbies are on their way out, and their replacements are in training. The hot season is creeping in, and Senegal is starting to feel like home.

The last month has been full of (mostly) great stuff:
Laundry day with my favorite nieces Ndeye and Codou helping out
 The middle school students from my neighborhood organized themselves into a group for village development, complete with officers. They are meeting every Saturday morning to sweep and rake up trash, no parents in sight. I've been totally amazed at their initiative; they're a great group of kids.
Doundodji Parba cleanup day one at the mosque
Sweeping outside the back of my compound. 

 As a part of the Linguere-area AIDS initiative that Ann Marie, Kim, and Emily have been working on for the last few months, there were AIDS testing days in 3 villages- I made it to two of the events to help out. Over 60 people were tested in each of two sites, and 101 in the third. Each day had film screenings, skits, music, speeches, and goodies for everyone who got tested. The project has been a lot of work for the volunteers, but is so inspiring and has been a huge success.

Watching skits at Kim's testing day in Diagely

Beignets and juice for the brave testees

There was no shortage of help at the snack station

Some of our new friends who showed up for the entertainment

Mac got tested

The Diagely crowd
Watching skits... more fun than herding your cows
Manning the tech station during Barkedji's testing day
Barkedji skits under their enormous neem tree
All of us Linguere-area volunteers got together in late February to do a tour of our villages to spread the word about moringa, the miracle tree. It was a lot like our malaria tour in August- we did skits, danced, and gave out prizes to people in 15 different villages.
The wonderful Jonno Larson came down from the north to help us out- he was indispensable and even put in overtime in getting baobab fruit during our picnic between presentations.
Thicogne, a pulaar village outside of Doundodji

the future moringa gardeners of Linguere

Doundodji's audience

Explaining ways to plant moringa to the people of Doundodji

Dancing in Doundodji

Mac in Xol Xol

A few of us went down to Tambacounda in the first few days of March for a Peace Corps half-marathon, 10k, and 5k run to support girls' education. Linguere was well represented in the races: I petered along in the 5k, Kim and Justin (in flip-flops, no less) ran the 10k, and our very own Emily took 2nd in the women's half-marathon. The event was lots of fun and a huge success, raising $3,000 for our girls' scholarship program.

The beginning of March also brought some sad news. My host sister, Mbayeng passed away after a long illness. From the very beginning of my service, she was nothing but wonderful- I have great memories of chats with her, laughing about the shenanigans of her 3-year-old daughter, Codou, the birth her baby who she named after me, and her warm giving spirit.