Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mosquitoes Make Me Bonkers!

Don’t tell Peace Corps, but probably the greatest job I ever had was as a camp counselor. It’s exhausting, meaningful, and an incredibly good time. I was a counselor at D-Camp for three summers, and each camp began with a game of bonkers. Simply put, campers get points completing various tasks at stations while “bonkers” run around bonking campers with flour-filled socks. If bonked, you have to sit and wait for a medic to rescue you. Only two people are safe in line at a station. The rest better run.

My friend Kristin, a former camp counselor herself, had the brilliant idea that we adapt this well-loved camp game to compact malaria.

So we did. And it was awesome.

We began with some classroom learning. Fifth and sixth grade students rotated through three 30 minute lessons taught by Peace Corps Volunteers paired with teachers from my school. One classroom on bed net care, 
Photo by Michael Alvarez,
Another on malaria prevention and mosquitoes,
Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

And one on symptoms and treatment.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Now that students had heard the content, it was time to apply it.

In the form of bonkers.


Children earned points by completing malaria-related tasks at stations.

They did things like cover standing water to prevent mosquitoes from laying their eggs.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

They searched through a pile of clothing to find protective clothing for nighttime wear

Photo by Michael Alvarez

cleared the area of grass and fallen leaves where mosquitoes spend their time,

Photo by Michael Alvarez

and completed a puzzle and answered questions on the importance of taking prescribed malaria medication as directed.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Other stations included acting out 3 malaria symptoms and properly tucking in a bednet.
But there’s a problem. Mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite ran about the field. They infected children with the deadly parasite, also known as bonking children. Students with malaria were out of action until a community health nurse came to save them with the malaria medication. Bednets were hung throughout the field, but there was only room in each for 3 children at a time.
The children loved it! The adult teachers loved it! I loved it!

Here’s what it looked like.

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

Photo by Michael Alvarez

The kids had to put discussed malaria prevention techniques into practice. They controlled mosquito populations by clearing grass and covering water. They protected themselves from mosquito bites by wearing long sleeves and using bed nets. They identified symptoms and displayed proper treatment seeking behaviors by getting medicine from a health care worker and recognized the importance of taking that medicine properly. Just as medicine would cost money in real life, getting bonked in the game cost the children a point. The message: prevention is the best route to take.

In the end, the team with the most points remaining after subtracting medical fees (bonks) won the game. Not only was this game fun and memorable, it was meaningful.

Being a camp counselor is the best job ever, and in this heat, Peace Corps is really just a two year long summer camp.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

I Love My Bednet

When I was little, I dreamed of having a canopy bed. I'd be a princess with bedposts and curtains and throw pillows and ruffles and tassels and my American Girl doll there on the pillow. Oh yes, this was the dream.

Well, my dream didn't come true as a child but upon arrival here, I joked that my bed net was the canopy bed I'd always wanted. Finally, Queen Yamundow sleeps in luxury. Luxury, that is if luxury can be considered laying inside an insecticide treated bed net to the ambient sounds of donkeys braying and 5 am calls to prayer while watching rats tight-rope along my clothesline.

Joking aside, I love my bed net which protects me from many things beyond mosquitoes. The photos below are all creatures that are frequently inside my house or on my bed net.


Praying Mantis 

Giant Moth
Giant Grasshopper

Flying Termites? Not entierly sure


But most importantly, the reason I love my bed net is this.

The Gambia is home to the world's most lethal animal in the world. It's not the lion, the black mamba, the great white shark, or the hippo. It's the mosquito which carries several lethal diseases, the worst perhaps, being malaria which, according the World Health Organization, kills more than half a million people very year. Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito. There are a few different strands but the P. Falciparum, prevalent in The Gambia, is the most deadly.

Today, April 25th, is World Malaria Day. Generally, I'm not a big fan of disease awareness campaigns. People talk about it for a moment, and that's the end of it. People say, "Oh, how sad." They watch a video and shed a tear. But is there change? 

Here's why I think World Malaria Day is different. 

Malaria is preventable, and malaria is treatable, yet a child dies of malaria in Africa every minute.

Malaria continues to kill because of misconceptions and ignorance among those at risk and because of insufficient resources to prevent, detect, or treat the disease.

As I live in a village where malaria is a problem, I am taking the momentum gathered from World Malaria Day to educate on prevention and encourage people to seek treatment when suffering from malaria. I mentioned this in my Ebola post, and it's true for malaria too. Oftentimes, people suffering from an illness will go to a traditional healer because they distrust the clinic, or they simply won't go because they can't afford the treatment. A major difference between Ebola and malaria, however, is that malaria is treatable! Medication taken timely and properly works! Half a million people do not need to die each year.

Across the ocean, support organizations that work in the fight against malaria through bed net distributions and provision of diagnostic tests and treatment. Many such organizations exist. The one that I see on the ground  here is Catholic Relief Services.

 In a couple weeks I will have a program in my school to educate and motivate students on malaria prevention and treatment. I'll be sure to post about it. 

Malaria's a buzz kill. Bednets save lives. With enough momentum, maybe someday soon there will be no World Malaria Day. Because that's the goal, that's the dream. A malaria free world. It can be done, 

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Day in the Life

A typical village day looks like this

Wake up in my outdoor bed. Because my house is essentially an oven, I prefer to sleep outside where it is less hot.

I crawl out of bed and head to the pit latrine (toilet).

Then if I was a good Gambian, I would sweep my house every morning to prevent ants, mice, and roaches from making themselves at home. However, to be frank, I’m not winning this battle, and I’m doubtful daily sweeping would really give me the upper hand.

I make breakfast which most often consists of a tortilla made from scratch and coffee made possible by the wonderful people who mail me grounds to use of my French press. I usually put dege, the local peanut butter, and honey, also local, on my tortilla, but pictured here is Nutella. All yummy. 
I get dressed and walk between the baobab tree and termite mound on the path to school.

 A variety of tasks await me at school.

Such as work with my reading club

 Co-teach a lesson,
Or work with teachers to create resources and teaching aids.

I usually head out during 2 o’clock prayers to avoid congestion on the path.

While waiting for lunch to be ready, I’m probably either playing guitar

Hanging out with a 5 year old, 

Or doing this.

When lunch is ready, close to 3, the men receive their own foodbowl while I join my host mothers and sisters to eat rice using our hands.

I’m happiest when it’s benechin (pictured below), but we may be eating domada, a peanut sauce, or chu, an onion sauce.

After lunch I head back to school for a couple more hours. Returning home around 5:30, I am met by my welcoming crew.

Then I’m off to join the other women at the tap to fetch water.

Now that the sun isn’t so hot, I head out through the baobab trees and into
the bush for a run.

In the evening, I clean off with a bucket bath,

Help with some homework,

And then lay out under the stars with my family until 9 o'clock suppertime. It is almost always cheri which is made from pounded coos and corn. I love it.

Photo by Beth Eanelli

After supper, I head to bed with my fan, kindle, and flashlight, just the necessities

Nu faanan ak jaama. Be suba!
*Let's spend the night with peace. Until the morning!

Saturday, December 27, 2014


It’s common to hear that life’s a roller coaster, you've got your ups, yours downs, and your upside downs. Join Peace Corps and the intensity of your rollercoaster goes from the Corkscrew at Valley Fair to the level of the Millennium Force at Cedar Point. Sometimes you’ll be up for a month; your projects are flourishing, your community feels like home, and adventure is thriving. Then a loop in rollercoaster sends your project back to where you started, your community feels foreign and intrusive, and adventure wanes into monotony. Sometimes it is week by week, but oftentimes the high and lows come in one day as they did on October 28, 2014.

The day, like usual, begins with a cup of coffee and a crossword. I’m on the upward trend.

I go to school to find that my second graders have come for reading club. They’re supposed to begin tomorrow but are so excited they came today. I decide to meet with them. Still going up.

Three minutes into reading club, I begin to suspect that one student has dyslexia. The educational system is already struggling to teach reading effectively. They are not equipped to provide for her individualized needs. On the decline.

At recess I see children playing a game of dodge ball using limited resources, aka throwing rocks at each other. They’re giggling something fierce. Moving up.

I start to think about how, in America, people would get sued for this situation. America intimidates me. Going down.

Oh, children here also cry with they are hit in the face with rocks. Small down.

Walking home for lunch, a man I don’t know stops me to ask if I will come to see his compound in an aggressively friendly manner. He has orange and mango trees he wants me to see. I tell him I’m not agriculture volunteer. I don’t know anything about trees. “But I know you. I asked you if you had a boyfriend. I want you to come to my compound tonight. You have no boyfriend…” I walk away, not unaccustomed to the offer but irritated nonetheless. More decline.

Home for lunch, and it’s pumpkin season! Sharp increase.

My little sister, Yago, is late for lunch. Corporal punishment will be her grandmother’s discipline of choice. Back down.

I returned to school for the afternoon shift. I get news that a friend from home is facing a time of serious trial and difficultly. While I couldn’t fix it, I want to be there to help her through it. Missing the big stuff, good and bad, for the people back home is the hardest part of Peace Corps. Further down.

Returning from school I learn that an old woman in the neighboring compound passed away after lunch. Downward.

I go into my house to put on traditional clothes and a veil for the funeral which is happening immediately. My compound is full with more than one hundred women, and I don’t know where to go. I feel isolated and out of place. Downward bound.

My host mother sees me looking lost and uncomfortable. She directs me to the young women who are sitting by the water pump. My friend Soxna is there with her baby, Muhammad. He is a beautiful, healthy, and giggling baby boy. Going up again.

The woman who died is said to have been 130 years old. They don’t keep very close track of the years here but either way, she had a nice long life. Continuing up.

I sit with the young women for several hours, past dark, feeling like we are waiting for something but not knowing what. Eventually my host brother’s wife, Maram, who is in grade 12, goes inside to study. I decide to go inside my room as well. As I walk past my host mother, she asks me “You’re going inside? Good. Yes, go inside and rest.” I can’t put my finger on it, but something in the way she says it fills me with gratitude. I feel like she really cares for me. I feel at home amidst such foreignness, amidst joys and sorrows. I have been invited to share in the daily lives of people who hadn't even met me when they agreed to open their home to me. I feel peace.

Each day has its ups and downs. I am grateful to see the joys and sorrows of daily living because it is the mingling of the two that is the essence of life. The ups and downs will weigh differently on different people, but we all experience them. I am thankful to notice small moments of happiness. I am honored to share in the burdens of sorrow.
Life’s a rollercoaster.
Let’s go for a ride.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Using Cardboard to Make Math Concrete

Math is a subject that many people find challenging. Gambians seem to have a special fear of the subject. Seeking to improve student performance, we recently held a workshop on math methods. The main ideas of the training were establishing a solid foundation of number concepts, moving in a gradual and building pace, and making math concrete. 

How do you make math concepts concrete? Use manipulatives that allow students to both visualize and interact with place value, fractions, area, and the four operations. But we live in West Africa, and our school struggles to purchase enough chalk. The solution: use locally available resources (some would use the term trash) and create learning aids. Here's what we made.

In rotating stations, discussing how to use the teaching aids in class

Are these manipulatives as attractive as those for sale? Nope. I don't do cute things, but if you're into that, I'm confident you could make them more attractive. Are they durable? Not especially, but it is more sustainable to teach teachers how to create and use these kinds of learning aids for their classrooms. When I came to my school, my headteacher showed me a handful of teaching aids that had been donated by well meaning people. Teaching aids they had no idea how to use so they sat in the corner for years. Should we give fish or teach fishing? Creating learning aids from trash, not only allows teachers to create more when they change schools or lose parts, it also helps remove a bit of the garbage strewed about in a country with no waste management system. Is it a small difference? Yes, but that's how these things go and countries grow: slowly, slowly.