October 9, 2010

The world has frozen over and pigs are flying

That's right. The impossible has happened. My 9-year-old sister, Kadyjatu, has started first grade. (I know that starting school at 9 seems really old by American standards, but it's not very old here. Most first graders are 7.) For my ENTIRE service here, I have been trying to get my mom to agree to send KJ to school, but she has refused every single time.

I just wrote an article about it for the PC newsletter, which my friend Kasey and I edit. In the article, I talk about Behavioral Change Communication (BCC). It was a technique we were taught during our 10 weeks of training when we first arrived. It basically says that so many of the unhealthy habits here are deeply ingrained behaviors that have existed for many generations and are ridiculously hard to break. Some behaviors include child and domestic abuse, giving the most nutritious food to the old men, FGC ((Female Genital Cutting) something I have discussed here informally on several occasions, but make no large-scale effort to change. You have to pick and choose your battles here, and I do not choose that.), or in my case, shunning Western education.

The central argument behind BCC is that it takes a lot of time to change these behaviors because they are so ingrained. It's basically the broken record theory: If you tell people to wash with soap and sleep under a mosquito net enough times, they might actually do it. But the thing to remember is that if one approach doesn't work, try another, and on and on, until you find the one that does work.

So with that information under your belts, read away:

Believe it or not, Behavioral Change Communication actually works.

When I first learned about Behavioral Change Communication (known as BCC to its close friends), I thought to myself, “Wow. This is so great. This is why I joined the Peace Corps and not an NGO. NGOs can’t affect real, sustainable changes like this, it requires someone who really knows the culture and the people. And they don’t.”

A year later, this is what I thought about BCC: “It’s a crock of shit. Gambians will never change.”

To those of you who have put all the memories of Pre-Service Training far out of your mind, BCC is the idea that it is possible to change ingrained unhealthy behaviors, like not using soap, not using a mosquito net, etc., but it requires a lot of time. And a lot of repetition.

During our BCC training on Janjangbureh, Ellie and our then Training Manager, Gisele, used a skit to show us an example of BCC. In the skit, Gisele was a smoker and Ellie was a PCV trying to get her to quit smoking.

They had a series of three or four conversations. Ellie gave basically the same information in each conversation, but presented it in different ways. By the second conversation, Gisele became more open to hearing about the health risks of smoking and by the last one, she was ready to try quitting.

Now in the real world, we know it takes wayyyy more than 4 conversations to convince anyone, let alone a Gambian, to quit smoking. But you get the idea, right? You consistently talk to people about changing their unhealthy behavior until you eventually break them down and they actually begin to do it.

I’ve given up on trying to get Gambians to use soap, because, to be honest, I probably use soap as often, if not less, than they do. I’ve also stopped scolding my family when they give attaya (super strong tea with TONS of sugar) to my 18 month old sister because it's obvious that no matter what I say, they're going to keep doing. It seems to me that those who exhibit positive behavior (ie. Always using soap) will continue doing so, and those that don’t, will continue not doing so. I just accepted that and gave up trying.

Like my family's reluctance to use soap, my sister Kadyjatu’s non-existant education is sort of a dead issue to me. I’ve talked to my mom about it more times than I can count. She says no every time. Kadyjatu’s dead father (may he rest in peace with Allah, but not so peacefully since he is the reason that my other sister Mamatida never went to school and is now married at 15) was against Western education and my mom refuses to go against his dead spirit.

So when I found out that one of my neighbors was going to start first grade, I thought, “Ooh! Maybe if KJ has someone to walk to school with, my mom will let her go.” But I wasn’t getting my hopes up. I asked my brother Yankuba what he thought. “She will refuse,” he answered. My brother Kemeseng (the head of my compound) added, “Yes, she will say no.”

I ALMOST gave up right then and there, convinced that it was a lost cause. But, instead, I started arguing with them about how important education is. I made a lot of points in favor of it. Eventually, the conversation shifted to my brother talking about money and Spain (surprise, surprise) and how all our problems would be solved if he could get to Spain, but he just doesn’t have money, yada yada yada.

I explained that if these boys trying to get to Spain (they’re almost entirely uneducated) had just enrolled in school, instead of spending all this time trying to go to Spain, they’d be done with grade 12 by now, probably working, and would have spent a lot less money on their school fees than they will getting to Spain.

I’m not sure if that was what made the difference or if it was something I said earlier, but soon after, my oldest brother Kemeseng, who had been listening to our conversation the whole time, asked, “If she goes to school, you will pay up to grade 12?” And I said yes. And he said, “Ok, we will talk to my mom tonight.” It was the most positive reaction I had ever seen in my entire service, but again, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I knew we still had to convince my mom, and that, I thought, would be much harder.

I brought up the issue with my mom that night. In past education ‘discussions,’ Kemeseng had functioned solely as my translator. He never interjected with his own opinions, or argued in favor of education.

This time, however, after I said my usual schpiel, Kemeseng went on for 10 to 15 minutes about how important school is and how everyone is just sitting here doing nothing. All the while my other brother, Yankuba, was also standing there, agreeing with him. And that was all it took.

My mom barely argued. She made a couple feeble attempts to say no after he finished talking, but it was clear the decision had been made. My brother took a stand as the head of the compound and my mom was unable to refuse. I couldn’t believe it.

I suddenly realized that the whole time I had been trying to convince my mom, I should have been trying to convince my brother. He was the key, the turning point of the issue. (In my defense, he’s usually a pansy and mama’s boy, so there was no reason to think that my mom would ever listen to him, nor, more importantly, that he would ever argue with my mom.)

I never dared to hope that I would see Kadyjatu in school before I COS’d. But, lo and behold, the next day I registered her in school. And the day after that, Liz and I walked her to her first day. And now she practices English with my brother every afternoon.

Getting Kadyjatu enrolled in school is by far my greatest accomplishment here, even though I have no idea what exactly I said that made the difference. It just goes to show that persistence pays off. No issue is closed if you can find the turning point.

And if monkeys can compose Shakespeare given an infinite amount of time, there’s hope that given 27 months, we can find that turning point and maybe even change some behaviors.