Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ebola Fears and Reality

It's probably time that I talk about the elephant in West Africa: Ebola. Yesterday, September 2, CDC Director Tom Frieden said the outbreak is "spirally out of control," while another source says that the world is "losing the battle." It's scary stuff, and many of my family and friends have rightfully expressed their concerns for my safety. I'm not a medical expert, but I do live in West Africa and I recently watched the movie "Contagion."  It's off of those credentials that I want to tell you what this outbreak means to The Gambia and Peace Corps's response.

Peace Corps informed me of the Ebola outbreak several months ago when it first appeared in Guinea in March. At that time, our medical officer informed us of the symptoms and what we should do to avoid contracting the virus. Since then, it’s spread to the other countries as highlighted on the map above. Senegal, which completely engulfs The Gambia, borders Guinea to the South (The Gambia can be seen at the top edge of this map). In the last few days, one hopefully isolated case of Ebola has been confirmed in Dakar, in Northern Senegal, meaning Ebola is both to the North and South of me. 

At the borders, officials are looking for Ebola symptoms and taking temperatures of everyone crossing. The Ministry of Health is going on education campaigns to inform people of the severity of the virus. Village health volunteers have attended trainings to know what to look for and what they should do in the event of a suspected case. Posters and flyers have been posted throughout The Gambia warning people to avoid eating "bush meat," especially monkeys and bats. 



















Both Peace Corps The Gambia and Peace Corps Headquarters are monitoring the situation carefully. Our country director is working closely with the Ministry of Health and The United States Embassy here. All volunteers have an emergency action plan to implement in the event of an evacuation. The Peace Corps office is sending out regular updates via text. The risk for me as an education volunteer working in schools is very low. Ebola is not an airborne virus and must be transmitted through bodily fluids- saliva, blood, urine, semen, sweat. I am not a health care provider. For me, it shouldn't be difficult to avoid. 




That being said, Ebola is out of control. Peace Corps Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have temporarily suspended all operations and volunteers have been sent home because of the severity of the outbreak. Should the outbreak spread to Senegal and/or The Gambia, the same may or may not happen here. Living here, I see firsthand the challenges involved in stopping its spread.

For one thing, West Africa, though consisting of many countries, is not a large area and there continues to be a lot of travel from country to country. I myself plan to travel to Dakar for a conference next week. Yes, they are checking for symptoms at the border but the symptoms can take anywhere between 2 and 21 days to manifest. Culturally, if someone is sick, they receive many visitors, and people are sick all the time. We’re talking about third world countries with poverty, limited infrastructure, a vastly uneducated population, superstitions, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease. It’s malaria season right now. The majority of people here get malaria at some point, usually multiple times in their lives. The symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Onset symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, body ache, weakness, nausea, and vomiting. Do you see the problem? People die of what is assumed to be malaria, the body is prepared for burial, and the belongings (clothing, sheets, etc) are given away. The number of cases could be much higher than reported. Ignorance, superstitions, and distrust of Western Medicine have led to multiple cases of kidnapping or "rescuing" of Ebola patients and those in quarantine. 

It’s serious.

But not hopeless.

For those of you worried about my personal safety, (hi Mom), I reiterate that Ebola is not airborne, transmission is difficult, I am not a health care provider, and Peace Corps has a careful eye on the situation. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had any Ebola-inspired nightmares, but I do feel informed and safe.

For the bigger and more important picture, education, treatment, and vaccines are all in the works. The Gambia is listed as a country where possible trials of a vaccine would begin, though I have not heard any estimated timeline. This strain of Ebola carries a 50-60% fatality rate, much lower than the 90% fatality rates of previous strains.

I believe in the power of prayer and prayers can be heard throughout the world. I ask for the international community to keep West Africa in your prayers. Pray for the recovery those infected, the families of those who are lost, the safety of health care professionals, and the effectiveness of education campaigns and preventive measures. Our God is bigger than Ebola, and our world is best united. International support, resources, and expertise will be necessary in order to control this outbreak. Let us stand with West Africa, and persevere in hope. 

-A Not So Hopeless Wanderer

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Year In

The new education trainees have arrived to begin their 10 week training to begin their service. As a member of the Peace Corps training team, I get to witness the excitement, calm the nerves, and answer a lot of questions. The trainees arrived just two days ago, but seeing them begin this process has made me realize that I feel at home here.

A year after leaving the states, I've finally settled and figured out what I'm doing in West Africa. If you ask a Wolof "How is the work?" the reply will be "We are on the work, slowly, slowly," and it's true. The pace of life here is slow. Yet, somehow, my Peace Corps service has been flying by.

After one year, things are the things that challenge me the most.

1. Missing the important events in the lives of my loved ones at home- the babies born, knots tied, careers begun, trials and sorrows, celebrations and hoopla. I want to be there. I want to help carry the burdens for my friends who are suffering, and I want to toast to the exciting new beginnings.

2. Living in a fishbowl, always be a spectacle, living like a celebrity.  A local Mandinka proverb says that "No matter how long a log lies in the river, it will never be a crocodile." I can fetch water on my head, where a traditional complet, and speak the local language, but I'm an American in an African village. I cannot go about my business without shouts of "Toubob, Toubob!". I cannot do a normal task without it becoming a show to see if this toubob can really eat with her hands. I cannot travel about the country without people trying to sneak a picture of me on their phones. Everything I do is just fascinating to both children and adults. Here's a cultural difference, staring is not considered rude here.

3. Solicitation from men. Sex tourism is big here. It's also not uncommon for women to come from Europe looking for a husband, and it's very common for Gambian men to want a visa to these countries. I've never felt as though I was in danger from these men, but these "bumsters" are a persistent source of irritation.
Good thing I can say no in several languages.

4. No cheese. Do you realize how much you eat cheese in America?! I miss cheese.

These challenges are hard. I still get homesick, and I still get irritated. ALL THE TIME. But on the other hand, here are the opportunities that being a Peace Corps Volunteer has blessed me with.

1. New friends. Peace Corps The Gambia is a family that includes fellow volunteers, phenomenal staff, and many smiling Gambians. My fellow volunteers are a diverse group of people who are hilarious and supportive. My village has taken me in as sister and friend.

2.  A new perspective into the human experience. Yes, as I said earlier, I can lie in the river as long as I want. I won't be a crocodile, but the other crocodiles have made me feel welcome. They are excited that I'm trying. I don't always appreciate the fuss made over me, but do appreciate this window into a new way of life. It's a big world, and there's a lot we can learn from each.

3. Speaking of learning, there's so much to learn! I love learning and using a new language that is useless in America. I love attempting to garden and graft trees. I got to go bee keeping with an environment volunteer. I saw a hyena (worlds ugliest creature) and touched a crocodile. I read a wide range of books. The last four I read were The Communist Manifesto, Peter Pan, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and The Princess Bride. I practice my guitar and take traditional kora lessons. My host family is teaching me how to cook. I finally figured out how to do the bridge when shuffling cards, completed a crossword, and changed a bicycle tire. Are these things as impressive as I like to think they are?
Absolutely.

4. Meaningful work. I work at West Africa's greatest school. Not all volunteers feel as welcomed or useful to their schools here, but my school has been exceptionally open to new ideas. It's amazing to see teachers implementing alternative behavior strategies we've discussed instead of corporal punishment. The kids in my reading club have made great improvements. The school's library is now functioning. We are still thinking of creative ways to make teaching more interactive in a limited resource environment.
My fellow PCVs in my region

Peace Corps has been a daily challenge in patience and humility, but if I can maintain a present mind and a grateful heart, I'll be able to soak it all up for the year (and a few months) that remain.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Day in the Kitchen


The other day, I helped in the kitchen to make my favorite Gambian dish, benechin. Here in The Gambia, we eat a lot of rice. I mean 3-meals-a-day-kind of a lot of rice. This dish, benechin, is Wolof for one cooking pot. Unlike other Gambian dishes which are usually plain rice with a sauce on top, the ingredients of benechin are cooked in one cooking pot so that the rice takes on all that yummy flavor. 

1. Go to the market and buy your ingredients. 
Tomato, cabbage, eggplant, onions, tomato paste, jumbo, salted fish
 2. Clean the kitchen, be sure to have enough firewood.
 3. Scrape the scales off the fish. Do this with a mostly dull knife and just scratch at it for a while. Don't stress about removing the bones. Save time by doing this while you eat.
This fish is a treat for people in my village. Every once in a while a
 truck from the river will bring us some fresh and delicious fish.
Once in a while.
 Luckily, dried salted fish is always readily available.
Today we're grateful for a treat. 
 4. Fry the fish in oil.

 5. Cut up the vegetables and add them in.

6. Give the American a small task so that she feels included in the cooking.
Chopping onions with a dull knife and no cutting board like a professional.
 7. Pound the onions, pepper, jumbo, garlic, and a flavorful-tangy-bean-thing-that-I-forgot-the-name-of together. Set aside.
 8. Remove the cooked fish and vegetables.
9. After sifting through the rice to remove small rocks and noticeable bugs, steam it over the pot. Tie a wet strip of fabric between the sieve and the pot to prevent any leaking of the steam. 


10. After steaming for a good while, add the rice into the pot.
 11. Stir, then let the rice soak up all that flavorful broth.
 12. When the rice is finished, divide it amongst the food bowls. One for the women, one for the men, and another for people out working to eat when they get back.

13. Evenly divide the vegetables, onion mix, and fish among the bowls. 
14. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. In my host family, we all use our hands, and of course everyone was very impressed that I cooked the lunch (remember the onion chopping).

Nu leeka! (Let's eat).

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Gambian Wedding Photo Tour

Last week my host brother got married. Here's a few photos for how it all went. 

In the morning, the bride sits with her grandmother and younger siblings. She had to be guided around as she cannot see anything through her veil.


 The village elders gather to offer prayers for their marriage. 


After prayers, she is ushered inside this temporary room for some intensive hair and make-up while the rest of us chat and eat breakfast. 

Following breakfast (served around noon), the bride's ready and it's time for gifts. 

The night before, the party was centered in the bride's home compound. People visited and brought her gifts. Now it's time for the bride and her family to give away gifts to family and friends. 

Many of yesterdays gifts are given to the bride for the purpose of her giving more away. 

 Most of the gifts are fabric or wash buckets. 

Almost everyone receives something, myself included. The way the family system works, as my host-brother's wife, this bride is now considered my wife too. 


 When the gifts are all dispersed, my host father, the man sitting amongst all the women, offers words of thanks and prayers for blessings. Then the people go home, shower, and put on their asobees. In Gambian culture, families will buy matching fabric and get their clothing made out for special events. These are called asobees. 
Kristin and I got asobees with my whole family. Unfortunately no pictures with everyone.

\
Once everyone's ready, the hired DJ begins to play music and everyone dances well into the night. Some weddings will do traditional drumming instead of a DJ.

Meanwhile the bride and groom (note matching asobees) roam about, greeting and taking pictures.

Photo shoot continues for several hours.

  The celebration continues late into the night with dancing and eating-I believe supper came after midnight but by that time, I was tuckered out and had gone to bed. Gambian celebrations wear me out!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Literacy-It's Important

Prior to coming here, I had not realized how much my daily life is affected by the fact that I am literate. Sure, I knew that if I was illiterate, I wouldn't be able to read intellectual books or books for pleasure. I knew I would not have written research papers about “Promoting Prosocial Behavior in Young Children” or “The Causes of the French Revolution” in college. But these things are only important because I am a teacher or because I live in the developed world, right? It’s not like the woman farming groundnut in Ngayen Sanjal would really see a change in her daily life if she could read, right?

Wrong. I didn't think about the ability to read the names of my contacts in my mobile phone. I didn't think about the ability to read over important documents from the health clinic or local government concerning identity papers. I didn't think about how often I write notes to other people or even to myself as a reminder. I recently watched 3 illiterate people divide responsibilities and money to prepare for a workshop. They couldn't just hand over a list with the prices budged down. Each individual had to remember exactly which items and how much of each to buy. It was a long list-not easy.

Obviously, literacy is a big deal, and it is a top priority for  Peace Corps The Gambia. To celebrate Worldwide Read-Aloud Day, I participated in a literacy bike trek. With three other volunteers, we biked to five schools in different villages to give a training on how reading aloud to students in a class can build their own reading skills. 

The bike-trek was successful and many teachers said they feel better equipped use books in classrooms to build literacy. But literacy is a high hurdle to jump. I spent 4 years studying in a university to get a reading endorsement with my teaching license. A day-long training is not going to eradicate illiteracy in The Gambia, but it can help. That's why I'm posted in a school for daily mentoring, co-teaching, and advising to teachers looking for more training on the subject. Still not over the hurdle, maybe, but closer.

Another thing that helps build literacy is a school-library. If you want children to be able to read, give them something to read. Unlike the developed world where we help our children learn by reading road signs, advertisements, and bedtime stories, my village has nothing to read. A few months ago, my school received a donation of books (about 10 boxes containing hundreds of books) to put in our school library. Upon my arrival, the school had a library, but it was in need of repair. The vast majority of the books were either destroyed by termites or entirely irrelevant (my favorite irrelevant books are a book of Irish Baby Names and Their Meanings and a Field Guide to the Birds of Great Britain-how these books got to West Africa I do not know). When the new shipment of books arrived, my headmaster decided that we could use an empty classroom as a temporary library while we wait for the repairs in the library to finish.
So I set to work color-coding the books based on reading level and topic. It took several days, but I’m happy to say that the library is now up and running and children are excitedly checking out books to read at home. The books are still not to the ideal level of cultural relevancy, but it's one step closer in the work to create a literate Gambia.

Board Books and Book Return Cartons
Fiction and Literature

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My House

Welcome to My House 


Fuddan Feet

My host family had a wedding recently, and like all cultures, a wedding means everyone must be looking their best. Part of looking your best here means dying your feet, a process called fuddan here in Wolof. I went with Hincha, my host brother’s wife, to her mother, Yama, along with Mam Tutti, my other brother’s wife. Yama had already prepared for us by cutting tape into what must have been hundreds of thin strips.


Then Yama spent the next two hours taping my feet.


While doing the first foot, they realized they forgot a very important step, especially for the “toubob.” They forgot to apply something, I have no idea what it is, to my feet to keep them from sweating. This something comes from putting these hard crystal/rock things (again no idea what they are or where they come from) in water and rubbing the sticky solution that results onto my feet.

Y-C - Yamundow Ceesay, (my Gambian name)
After taping the feet, we applied another mixture that I know really nothing about. They mixed a powder with sugar and water until it had the consistency of thick mud. Then it was applied to my feet.



Then both feet were wrapped in extra fabric, and I put some socks on over the fabric and went to bed for the night.

Waking up at 4 am the next step was to rub off the first mixture, remove the tape, and apply another. This mixture smelled very bad, but again I don’t know what it is. Its purpose was to turn the color black, but it doesn't have the same effect on white skin as on black. We applied it to my feet, rewrapped them and went to bed for a few more hours.



Finally, the next morning, my feet were finished! I washed my feet and set out into the village for all to admire them. Of course, everyone questioned why it was orange, not black, but nonetheless, they were a big hit. I’ll be rocking my new feet for the next few weeks or so.



The final result