June 22, 2009

Babies in buckets, Obama gear, beer and some work here and there

I walk out of my house yesterday and see the baby, Hawa, sitting upright in a bucket. She looks up at me, unsure of how exactly she got into that bucket in the first place. Not having any answer, I wonder where on earth her mother is and who the hell is watching her. And, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m exactly where I should be.

Because my house is on the road and in a central location, I often have visitors, or strangers as they are called here. For example, when people see me with another white person, they call out in Mandinka, “Mahana, you have a stranger?” or if they speak English, “Mahana, you are having a stranger?” It never fails to make me laugh. But since I came back from Turkey, it’s been crazy—at least every other night, there has been someone else staying with me at my house—all nearby Peace Corps volunteers that are passing through for one reason or another. Although it can be slightly stressful—making sure there is enough water and that the place isn’t completely disgusting—I’m not complaining at all. I love having visitors and know that many people are jealous of all the people that come stay with me.

When I have ‘strangers,’ my activities for the day usually include taking them to get internet or to the market in Bansang, the neighboring town, to buy the most delicious panchettos (fried dough balls) in the country and look at all the ridiculous Obama shirts and pants (You wouldn’t believe how amazing the Obama gear is here. Some shirts say “First Afro-America President” or “First African American to Sit White House.” Another has a picture of the first family and below it “OBAMA” in sewed-on letters, and in the middle, a map of the world titled, “Climatic Zones of the World.” That one’s my favorite. I can just imagine two guys sitting at a computer, “Ok, so we’ve got the picture of the family and ‘OBAMA,’ what can we put in the middle?” says one guy. And the other one says, “Well, we’ve got that climatic zones clip art on the desktop, right?” There’s also a pair of pants with his face airbrushed on the front left leg, and on the back pocket it says, “Republicans for Obama.”). Then we go to Pa Fouad’s, a store in town, more importantly, the only one that sells cold beer, and spend anywhere from 2-6 hours just sitting in plastic chairs in the shade behind the store drinking bags of water, black Fantas and Julbrews (Gambia's national beer). Getting up now and then to buy the occasional omelet or bean sandwich.
As a result of having all these visitors, I’ve spent way more time than usual just hanging out with other volunteers at Pa Fouad’s. In fact, after having beers so often before noon, I taught Musa, Pa’s son and the one who runs the store, the American saying, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

But, despite these seemingly wasted weeks, I’ve actually managed to get in lots of great work. In fact, during these last few weeks, I’ve had my most productive and successful work days to date. I’ve always advocated work hard, play hard. I guess things don’t change, even in Africa.

So I had promised a post about my activities, aside from the hours at Pa’s and the hours spent reading (I finished 4 books this week), so here goes:

1. I go to the hospital probably two to three times a week to check on the malnutrition ward, meet with the Nursing School principal, and occasionally check my email, update my blog and charge my phone. Right now, the malnutrition ward is a disaster. And after beating myself up about it for months, I’ve decided that it’s not my responsibility if the hospital staff doesn’t function properly. I was supposed to have the end-all meeting today about accountability and record keeping with the 2nd in charge of the hospital and the 4 head nurses in the pediatric ward, but the former informed me this morning that he’s too busy. So, it will have to wait until we both get back from Kombo (the capital) next week. Surprise, surprise. Out of all my activities, this one is by far the least enjoyable and most tedious.

2. Luckily! I have started working with a women’s group in a nearby village and it is by faaaaar the project about which I am most excited. My mentality about work here is to wait for people to approach me with ideas or ask me for help. It is not my job to motivate people and talk them into working on a project they don’t care about. So, I try to make it known to everyone that I am here and willing to help in areas such as health talks, record keeping, saving/profit management, income generation projects, etc., so that were an individual so inclined and motivated already, he/she would come to me and seek my help with a specific project. And that is just what happened with this women’s group. A man, Musa Kanuteh, approached me and said he works closely with an unbelievably organized and motivated women’s group and that they would love to meet with me. So I said I’d be happy to come.

The meeting went better than I or anyone else could have possibly imagined. Number one, it started on time. I cannot convey to you how HUGE that is and how rarely that ever happens. It started small, with myself, Musa and another man that works with the group, both of whom speak English. There are almost always a few men in every women’s group, serving as the treasure and/or secretary, because they are the only literate and English speaking members. And as a result, I’ve heard many examples of men taking control of the money and decision making. So I was a little irritated that the women weren’t being included in the meeting. But they were soon ushered in and everything was translated. I did what is called appreciative inquiry, which means I tried to find out about their strengths. I spent several minutes asking them questions about what it is they do, their activities, how they generate income, what happens to the money, who is in charge, what is the hierarchy of the group, when do they meet, etc. I found that Musa did not exaggerate; they are by far the most organized women’s group I have ever heard of, they even have a bank account and are already registered at the capital. I did a few assessment activities—I split them into three groups and had each draw a village map and then created a seasonal calendar with them.

After this, we got into the real work, ie. What they want. They have a garden, but the fence is no longer intact and they want to extend the garden. So first they need a new fence and more wells. I think that every single Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia encounters this exact same situation. People always want you to give them money for fences or wells. I didn’t necessarily want to apply for grants, but after all my assessment; I felt this group was competent and responsible enough to make good use of the money. So I am going back Wednesday, with a fellow agriculture volunteer, to see the garden and assess what exactly is needed in terms of fencing materials and wells. So I will likely be meeting with them once a week to determine the best way to acquire specific materials, start a live fence, dig the wells, etc. As things happen, I will describe them here.

3. I am heading to my friend, Ashley’s, village tomorrow to give a talk on weaning foods, which is what babies should eat after 6 months, when they are no longer exclusively breast feeding. The idea was conceived when Ashley looked at her baby brother’s clinic card, he is 9 months old, and found that he has not gained any weight in the last 3 months. So we met last week to prepare for the talk. We drew some diagrams and pictures on a rice bag to show during our talk. I got a recipe for weaning food and picked up the ingredients we will need. So I will leave tomorrow morning for her village and we will give the talk/demonstration after lunch and I’m hoping to get a good turn out!

4. There is a really great Senior Secondary School (equivalent to our high schools) across the street from me. Recently, I have just been helping them type out their end of term exams. But my friend Adrian just started an Environmental Education club there and I went to the meeting last week. I have talked to the principal about starting a Current Events club. I have heard of other volunteers having a lot of success with that and I think it’s a great way to get kids to think critically about a wide range of issues. I’ll let you know how it turns out once it gets going.

5. I also hope that if I get to know a good group of girls, I can start a girls’ club, either with the school or in my village. Recently, I have been spending most nights lying with my sisters inside their house. Because it is just the three of us—their mom and older brother are always outside—we can talk about their boyfriends (girls are never supposed to have boyfriends or tell people about it, obviously boys can have two or three) and even sex. It was so awesome to have them open up to me like that. I feel like I finally bridged the gap and now they feel comfortable talking to me, because for so long they insisted that they didn’t have boyfriends. I can tell they have a lot of questions and concerns, so I would really love to get a group of girls together to discuss health issues and also just offer support for one another.

Ok, that’s all for now. I hope that was informative for those of you wondering what activities I’m doing. LOVE YOU ALL!!


Lauren said...

you are amazing!

Anonymous said...

You sound as if you're feeling much better now, Marnie, and that you're involved in some really meaningful projects. I thought that "appreciative inquiry" was an odd term, but of course the concept is rock-solid. I also flashed on a Food Network special featuring Mahana and Ashley cooking weaning foods!

~Mrs. Sprague

PS--I got your letter of mid-April last week. I’ll reply when I have something interesting to tell.

Marta Thompson said...

I am also a big fan of the Obama gear. Just the other day I bought a sweet pair of Obama brand jeans with embroidered flaming eagles on the butt. tre chic.

wgflorin said...

OMG, and the baby in the bucket is how many months old???

PS Loved reading about all your projects!

RondaSeifer said...

Hi Marnie, Donna and I received beautiful gifts from your parents. Highly unnecessary but very appreciated. I just made them a photo thank you card and used our group photo with the crew as we left the M/S Samarkand. It really sounds that you are now a very special and integral part of your village's positive "growth". You sound excited. I am so happy for you. Seems like you have purpose! Keep inspiring us all.
Brooke is here on the cape for July 4th and sends her cheers!