Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Current Garden Project

Hey Everyone,
Here is a link to a project I am currently working on. It will be the last thing I complete before leaving village. Please take some time to check it out and donate if you can!


Monday, December 26, 2011

Female Circumcision

This is a topic that I have yet to discuss with my fellow community members until recently. It is a controversial issue worldwide and one that often leads to an emotional debate.  Female genital mutilation (FGM) is where women have their clitoris and/or their inner and outer labia removed.  It is currently illegal in Senegal but after a recent incident I have come to understand that it is something that happens quite frequently. 

Last year, I wrote about male circumcision and the ritual that the boys partake in.  It is one of the most interesting cultural practices that sill exists today, especially as Pulaar culture is slowly being replaced by globalization.  At the time I was learning about this practice I also asked if girls had a similar ceremony. Their response was NO, absolutely not. It is illegal to cut girls.  Being naive and new to the culture I felt content with the answer and did not dive deeper into it.  

It was not until this past week that I learned this practice does in fact take place. The shock of discovering this brought up many different emotions. The consequences to this illegal cutting are one of the most depressing realizations I have faced throughout my service. The story goes as follows:

One morning all the uncut girls in a small village (ages 6 months to 5 years old) are gathered in a grandmother's rooms located in a small hut.  Only a few mothers are allowed in and it's secrecy is only discovered after deathly screams are heard around the compound. These girls have no idea what is going on or why they are being deprived of their female organs.  All they know is that is hurts! And it hurts a lot!  There is no doctor present because if discovered they would go to jail.  So it is no shock when a four year old girl has an infection and they do nothing except tell the poor child that "god is good and to pray for him to heal you".  Nor is it a shock when the girls don't pee for 3 days because it hurts so badly.  And when a girl finally dies because "it was god's will" there is no one held accountable. 

I have heard it argued that FGM is a traditional practice and we "westerners" have no place to fight against it.  And I have several responses to this:

1. Women here claim that they must cut their daughters because if they don't they will not be a good Muslim woman.   (Please correct me if I am wrong but I believe many Muslim scholars argue against this practice and there is in fact no verse in the Koran that supports the cutting of women)  

2. Today there is no traditional practice being carried out when the girls are cut. They are too young to understand, it's done in secrecy and they don't seek proper medical care. 
There used to be more tradition involved because girls where cut when they came of age (12 or 13) and it was a ceremony with the grandmothers who would talk about the important qualities of being a Pulaar/ Muslim woman.  However his no longer takes place, the cultural component has been lost.  

3. I personally do not agree with any type of circumcision or altering of the body but at least for boys there is a major health benefit that results. For girls it is removing the part of their body that gives them pleasure during sex. It has nothing to do with making them healthier but further supports the notion that women are created only for the pleasure of men.  

To me this is a human rights issue. No human being is better than another, no matter what sex you are.  It infuriates me that girls are taught to have no self-confidence and from a young age are told they are worthless. What is more frustrating is the ignorance among mothers. They have no opinions of their own but have literally been feed lies their entire lives.  

You may criticize me and say it's not my place to fight against this injustice. One also might argue that I am trying to force Western ideas on a country that have their own.  And you know what, I probably might have said the same before this experience but I have come to understand that our" western ideas" work.  Though it's important to say that I don't agree with all of them, there are many that should be shared.  The fact that we women, in America, can get a free education, can easily attend college and pursue a career in whatever we want has, no doubt, significantly increased the success of our country.  It has not always been like this and many strong women before us have had a hard fight, but it is an intricate part of development.  Now that we have achieved it is our job to share and educate our sisters around the world.  The fight against FGM is just a start.  We are women who deserve to have all of our organs. We deserve to enjoy sex the way it was either created or has evolved to be practiced. We deserve to be confident, we deserve the chance to pursue an education and be successful. We deserve the opportunity to contribute to the world and make it a better place! 

Fight against FGM! - organization the works in Senegal against FGM. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Politically Correct!

A recent blog post, written by an x- peace-corps trainee, fired up some intense emotions among volunteers here in Senegal.  Apparently her one-month experience as a trainee gave her enough insight to criticize Senegal volunteers and their administration.  After reading her blog I was offended by the preposterous claims that she made.  Although I understand her problems most likely stem from some deeper personal issues, I find it insulting that her approach was to publicize her account as an accurate representation of Peace-Corps Senegal.

The reason I am taking time to discuss this on my blog is because it raises an interesting question about being politically correct.   I find this phase quite interesting and think it’s worth looking at.  This term in America has become widely used and often times misused.  Americans must be constantly on their toes, careful not to offend anyone.  One could easily argue that this tyranny of hurt feelings toward the individual (which is growing rapidly) is destroying free speech and thought.   Not that I strive to offend others, but the freedom to be offensive is a constitutional right.  If you want to be a jerk then you are allowed to be a jerk. I think it is important to understand that just because a few people choose to live in a way the reflects negative on themselves, does not mean that they represent the attitudes and beliefs of the whole.

If you can picture a society the complete opposite of America you will find yourself imaging the interactions between people here in Senegal.  The culture here, to any American, would appear offensive. This impoliteness does not stem from a desire to hurt others, but it is just how things are.  It is by far, one of the most difficult components of adjusting to life in village.  People do not filter what they say and if challenged to do so respond with curiosity and confusion.

 Sayings such as “your fat”,  “your ugly”, “you can’t cook” “you don’t know how to do this or that”  “your white so you should give me money or buy a well” are things you here on a daily basis.  Also both children and adults constantly chant the word “toubab” “toubako” “touba haacko”.  “Toubab” is an Arabic word that actually means doctor, however very few Senegalese people know that.  The word “Touba haacko” means leaf pants and can be linked back to when colonists arrived and used leaves to wipe themselves when using the restroom.  Whatever the meaning, volunteers are called this wherever they go. It’s both offensive and annoying and it takes time to get used to it. It also takes some time to learn appropriate responses.  From an American perspective one might think to stop and explain to the children that calling someone this name is offensive and not okay. However this is not how it is done in their culture thus being light hearted and joking with a response such “black children” is totally acceptable. It is not offensive to people to call out obvious things.  (now if one where to call someone a slave, that would be inappropriate and I will discuss this in my next blog post in relation to the pulaar caste system)

There has been much debate amongst volunteers as to whether the word toubab is directed towards people because they are a foreign or because they are white.  After asking some Senegalese people they will in fact admit that the word is directed towards people who have white skin.  Fellow volunteers who are black do not usually get called this unless they are with a group of white volunteers.   Now because the majority of Senegal Peace Corps volunteers have white skin, you can understand why parts of training are focused on addressing this issue.  The trainee complains that after talking to administration about what she felt was discrimination against colored volunteers that they did absolutely nothing.  This claim was probably the most insulting.  Volunteers and those in administrative positions do their best to make sure the needs of all volunteers are being met.  Recently a peer group has been established to address the needs of those volunteers who face other challenges such as being Asian, Black, and Hispanic etc. as well as targeting those who are homo and bisexual because it is true that they face struggles not known to someone like me. Just as female volunteers face different challenges than male volunteers. (also addressed in training)

Though, after spending months at a time in village, volunteers may say things that, to Americans, appear completely inappropriate, they in no way are racist.  Volunteers do not think they are better than Senegalese people or black volunteers.  Village life is hard and makes you a little jaded. I feel that a volunteer is justified in saying how they feel, even if it may appear insensitive to others.  Though in her blog she does not directly call volunteers racist, she sure does say things to indicate it.  I can only speak for myself, my friends, my region, and the volunteers that I interact with, but I feel like we are most likely some of the least likely people to be termed as racist.  We are giving two years of our lives, to live without electricity, running water, personal space, our native language and our culture to help promote projects that are created to better the living conditions of those who are constantly fighting starvation, malnutrition, and deadly diseases. 

Unfortunately this trainee will never get the opportunity to experience what this life is like and because she made accusations without understanding all of the facts she has portrayed the program of Peace Corps Senegal in a bad light.  I think it is unfortunate that some very incredible people, such as our country director, have had to face some intense criticism over a trainee who could not hack it.  From the perspective of someone who understands the value of being politically correct and then being thrown into a culture where being politically correctness means absolutely nothing, I will argue that there is a balance! 

Every single person is different and nothing will every please everyone.  As Tom Robbins says “humanity is offensive” and it is a part of life.  It is not the governments job to make sure people do not hurt other peoples feelings.  We as human beings have a choice, a choice to act and speak in a way that lifts up others. We also have the choice to embrace the positivity thrown at us and reject the negativity. We have the ability to understand that people oftentimes do and say things because of their own restrictions or problems.  It takes practice but one must learn how to receive things without letting it affect them so personally. 
 There is a time to recognize the difference between a situation where we must stand up and fight injustice verses fighting against a person’s ignorance and insecurities.

I took the time to write this blog because I felt it was important to share how differently cultures vary and what it is like living in village.  I also felt that it was necessary as a volunteer who respects the organization she works for to stand up and speak on behalf of my experience.  Hope you enjoyed reading…. until next time! 

Monday, August 29, 2011

There are Challenges and there is Hope!

It is rainy season here in Senegal.  The fields have transformed into a beautiful painted landscape of greens and yellows and the crops are finding height in their growth process. Everyone is busy working in the fields and tending to their gardens. I remain, as always, the outsider observing and trying to find my place.  Ramadan is almost over and once the holy day is celebrated, drinking and eating will find its way back into the normal daily routine.  I will not go into too much detail of my Ramadan experience because I blogged about it last year, but I will quickly say that this year was incredibly different. I think maybe the romantic idea of fasting and witnessing another religion has slowly worn off.  Instead I found myself in  multiple debates about what it means to truly fast and often times had to defend my beliefs and the choices I make. 

I have a hard time with those who fast and then complain constantly that they are tired, hungry or ill. It drives me crazy when they come to me  seeking medicine because they have a headache.(because they worked in the hot sun with no food or water)   It infuriates me when men tell their pregnant wives they must also fast and I feel the wrath of Jenae about to unfold when they fail to provide food for their children, who are too young to fast.  These things, in my opinion, go against what fasting is all about.

For Muslims the goal is to seek nearness to Allah by not eating or drinking during the day, abstaining from sex and smoking and making an effort to prevent thoughts of anger, evil or malice.   It is also the month when the first few verses of the Koran were revealed so it’s received in a very spiritual way.  It is also said that this time should be spent dividing what you have and sharing it with those less fortunate than you.  It would be unfair to say that everyone here fails to fast in this way. There are many people who celebrate the holy month and gain much from the experience. Unfortunately for me, this year was spent working in the health hut.  (My village finally got medicine) so my experience dealt mostly with the sick. 

Speaking of the health hut, it has been a wonderful experience to finally do my job. I have been waiting my entire service for things to finally get situated. Now I am able to witness the health issues on a more personal level and better understand how and why particular problems arise.  My health worker is a little difficult to work with and I am certain being a woman has much to do with it.  I am learning how and when to speak up and seeking more encouraging ways to offer my wisdom and insight. 

The biggest problem right now is Malaria. It unfortunately is most common in children. The first week we started working we had 9 cases in 2 days. Fortunately it is free for a rapid test and the treatment for simple cases so we have not seen any children die.  However in other villages this is not the case and despite the governments effort to eradicate this disease it is still a huge problem.  I have become quite aggressive when it comes to talking to parents about protecting their children.  I do not think any excuse is valid when it comes to justifying why their children are not sleeping under nets.  I have become the Malaria Prevention Nazi and though my words may seem harsh it does seem to have an affect.  

 For example my 2 year old host niece falls asleep before everyone else. Instead of taking her inside and putting her under a net, she sleeps outside exposed to the biting mosquito (worst insect ever).  I tried talking to them and encouraging them to put up a mosquito net, but it did not work.  Finally I started doing it myself. Every night for about a week I would take her and put her under the net. Then I left for a couple of days and when I returned, I was surprised to see that they were carrying on with the ritual.  I was so excited and it gave me hope to continue the fight.

 There are many challenges, but one of the most frustrating is the lack of desire to prevent diseases. I think it is the combination of ignorance and  accepting it is a part of life.  These two issues are extremely hard to face and we as volunteers spend enormous amounts of time talking about malaria prevention and other disease. 

The volunteers in my area recently took part in a 4-day Malaria tour née where we set up a fair style convention in collaboration with a local theater group. It was a great success and we had a lot of fun making Neem cream (natural anti mosquito cream), coloring mosquito nets, and talking to communities about the importance of prevention. The pictures below are from this event. 
  This last month in my village, I also had the same theater group come and perform on a weekly basis. They did different skits of different health issues and we then talked about ways to prevent illnesses such as diarrhea, infections, malaria, and AIDS. It was fantastic and we had a lot of fun.  So despite the frustrations and challenges, there are good things that are happening and I am content being in this place. Thank you for reading and stay tuned, the next few months will be full of fun events and I will soon have much more to share.

STOP MALARIA NOW!   pic by Cara Steger

Theater Group 

Dance party under the mosquito net after the sketch
Photo take by Cara Steger

Exile Malaria!!! Picture by Cara Steger
A women's blog in which I read regularly shared this quote 
"The roots of the tree of life are alive as ever even if the shoots appear tortured and burnt….” – Chief Clyde Bellecourt.

And her response was this...I thought it was beautiful and had to share: 
."much of our inner forest has been harvested, abused and cut down — all in the name of the fear of scarcity and profit. But, the roots are strong…the tree of life will not give up. Whether we want to sit under the shade of its loving canopy is our decision." 

If you are interested you should check out her Blog site. She is a former peace corps volunteer and her insight is invaluable.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Girls,Education, Dreams and Empowerment

When you educate a girl in Africa, everything changes. She’ll be three times less likely to get HIV/AIDS, earn 25 percent more income and Have fewer, healthier children who are 40 percent more likely to live past the age of five

All the girls with their certificates!

In Obama’s last public speech he made a point to address why girls' education is so fundamental in the developing world.”   This idea is nothing new, for many influential people who are dedicating their lives to this cause.  Books like “Half the Sky” have recently brought people like you and me the truth about the unfortunate status of women in developing countries.  Sex trafficking, abuse, female genital mutilation and other crimes against women will continue until people like you and me make efforts to change it.  From a security standpoint education is a vital means to combat the ignorance that fuels terrorists.  There is nothing more important to me then allocating my time to fight the injustice of ignorance. 

The literacy rate of women in Senegal is 29% as opposed to the 51% of men.  That is a terribly low number and unfortunately little is being done to improve it.  There are more girls going to school then 10 years ago, but the number is still small.   If a girl is lucky enough to make it though school in village and attend junior high, there is a large chance that she will not make it past the 6th grade.  In the local CEM (which is equivalent to an American Junior High School of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade) there are 163 girls in the 6th grade, but only 40 in the 8th grade. There are numerous reasons for this decline:  Sometimes once they enter 6th grade they are not at the literacy level they need to be and are unable to keep up, they become pregnant and drop out, or they are forced into early marriage.  If girls live far and do not have parental support then it might make it difficult to complete homework and have good attendance.

For children who do go to school, they are taught very little.  The education system is quite problematic. In my village and those surrounding it, school is supposed to start in the beginning of October but usually does not start until late November.  Once it does start the teachers have strikes so frequently that one would think the school week is only 3 days.  Unfortunately when I say that, I am not joking. With the limited time they are in school, they do not have any books or supplemental material. They have notebooks that they write the days lesson in and then repeat it until it’s committed to memory.    The other day my 10-year-old sister was talking to me about school. Her teacher had not been to class in a week and so I offered to help her. We looked at her notebook and I started asking questions. She had no idea what anything meant, and when asked to write she could barley scribble her name.  I was dumbstruck! No wonder children cannot continue on with their education, their foundations are so weak
The girls that can keep up have to fight in order to continue with their education.  A lot of the times, girls who travel into the city may stay at a family’s house where they are expected to clean and cook as an exchange for rent.  This is also the age of puberty and without strong supervision many of these girls fall victim of molestation, pregnancy, and even AIDS.  Of course sometimes it is out of choice, but the culture makes it difficult for girls to turn down men, especially when they are older or in a place in authority.

It is because of these reasons that Allyson, Samantha and myself decided that a leadership conference was an excellent idea.  We wanted to target girls in the 6th grade and hold a two-day conference to promote the importance of education.  We could not invite all 163 girls due to the large number, but we worked with the teachers to choose 50 girls who demonstrated a good work ethic. We also invited our 9 scholarship nominees. (My next blog post will cover the information regarding that)

We had Awa Traore facilitate the conference and invited working women throughout the local community to help out and share their story.  Day 1 started with the showing of the film    “Elle Travaille, Elle Vit”  (Girl works, girl lives)      here is the link:     
 It interviews women in different fields of work and asks them how they got there, the struggles they have faced, and advice for younger girls seeking careers.   After the film there was a follow up discussion with Awa that led into a panelist session.  We had five women: a doctor, a food transformationist, a teacher, a journalist, and a NGO worker.  They all took turns sharing their story, and talking about the importance of education.  We then had a session about goal setting where the girls broke into groups to come up with a long-term goal and then three steps they need to take in order to get there.  They then presented this in front of everyone.  We then told them how much support they have and we gave out bracelets to remind them of their dream.

The next day was spent addressing challenges they may face in pursuing their dreams.  We had a session on health where we talked about AIDS, STD’s and other issues related to women’s health. Our Doctor talked about the risks of early pregnancy and contraceptive methods. (Early pregnancy is a huge huge problem in this area).  We invited a parent for each student to join us for an afternoon session. Awa talked to the parents about their roles and how they can better support their daughters. She brought up sensitive issues, which forced parents to talk to their daughters about things that would more than likely be ignored.  This session was incredibly successful and it ended with a theater group performance and the handing out of certificates.  Each girl was presented a participation certificate and the Sous Preferet (government official) gave a speech about the importance of women’s education (which was a really big deal)!

Our goal of the conference was of course to encourage girls to stay in school but more so to empower them with a dream.  We wanted the community to see that we as volunteers/Americans view them as important and special. We wanted their parents to know they have amazing daughters who have the ability to make a difference for their communities, families and world.  We wanted the girls to understand they are worth more than they think and to inspire their confidence.  Steps to change education on a larger scale are difficult, but if we made a difference in one girl’s life then the hard work preparing for such an event was worth it.  That girl could be the next Awa, the next doctor, or even the next Rosa Parks.  As Marian Wright Edelman once said “ we must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily difference we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee."

This blog post is an attempt to light a fire within all who read it.  We are people who have been educated in an amazing part of the worldWe have the power to make change, we have the power to combat injustice, and we have the ability to make a difference. It does not mean we have to get on a plane to Africa or Asia, it doesn’t mean we have to give up our savings, but a little contribution can make a world of difference.  This conference was funded because of ordinary people who understand that the education of girls is important. If any of you want to get involved in supporting projects like this, there are hundreds of organizations out there. SENEGAD is an organization created by volunteers in Senegal and of the funding it receives goes to events like the one just discussed. Here is the link to learn more:

And here is a link to  Half the Sky’s list of organizations you can get involved with!

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."   Eleanor Roosevelt

AWA talking to the Girls about Goal Setting

The amazing Panelists Awa, Nene Galle, Salimatou, Mama Ramata Diallo,  Nane Ndeye et Salimatou

Koun Kane Volunteers! What!

Session with the parents! 

Scholarship girls