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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Article on Peace Corps published!

Check out the article I wrote on modern-day Peace Corps, published with the LA Post-Examiner!

Part 1: What is Peace Corps really, and who are these crazy people that sign up?

Part 2: Addressing criticisms of the Peace Corps and why I think our service is worth it

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Precarious Life

“You only live once” could be a mantra for Peace Corps Volunteers. As young expats (mostly in our twenties) living in Africa, most of us are focused very much on the now. We travel, try new things, take risks, plunge into challenging situations to show we can handle it. This is our time to prove ourselves. (Conduct health trainings entirely in the local language? Navigate the rickety public transportation system alone? Eat that weird looking fruit? You got it.)

We take necessary precautions and then turn the telephoto lens on our lives, focusing only on the big end goals and blurring out the rough spots. We do it so we can succeed and survive – and hopefully thrive – in this pretty tough job.

But lately I’ve started noticing how fragile and fleeting life really is. A person’s presence in your life, suddenly removed, feels like you missed a step and plunged into air where you expected solid ground.

That happened when a lifelong, childhood friend back in the U.S. passed away in February this year. Unexpected. Unknown causes. I didn’t know how to write about it, so I haven’t mentioned it until now. He was like a little brother – someone who had always been around, who I expected to always be around. We played together as kids, joked around as teens, and I thought I had decades of time to get to know him better as an adult. Sadly, I was wrong.

It hurt, but I felt so many worlds away that I didn’t quite know how to process it until now.

Here in the developing world, so many risks to health and life define existence that we can’t dwell on it too much, or we’d live in fear. Unlike kids born in the States, many children here still remain unvaccinated to a plethora of diseases. Those diseases then become a continuous threat to life: tuberculosis, hepatitis, typhoid, yellow fever, meningitis, polio. Not to mention endemic diseases with no current vaccine, such as malaria or HIV, or water-borne illnesses transmitted through poor hygiene and sanitation. Diarrheal diseases are one of the biggest child killers in Senegal.

Then there are the risks of malnutrition, maternal/infant mortality, largely unregulated transportation systems prone to dangerous accidents, violence and banditry, you name it. Still, we try not to give it too much thought, for our mental sanity.

But then, starting in February, the Ebola virus arrived in my part of the world. Beginning next door in Guinea, it ravaged the population, spreading to Sierra Leone, Mali, and Liberia. A total of 235 people have been infected, 157 killed.

Ebola is one of the world’s most deadly viruses, terrifying in its rapid, hemorrhaging slide into death. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with virus-containing body fluids from a person or animals, usually primates and bats. Outbreaks mostly occur in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests or jungles. This happens to be my present environment. Yikes.

As the outbreak worsened in March, Senegal closed its borders to Guinea. Only this week have the borders been reopened. But I remember that tangible feeling of fear during March and April, all through Kolda. “Don’t buy meat in town!” my host mom warned me, her eyes wide. We’re close to the border, and people seemed to sense death lurking like a shadow around the corner. There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola.

Thankfully, the outbreak didn’t spread to Senegal, and our major trade markets down here in the south have reopened.

As much as I’m happier doing so, I can’t ignore the fragility of life any more. From the tiniest baby brought to my house flopping listlessly in his mother’s arms, his little tummy distended with intestinal worms, to my far away loss of a good friend at home, to the looming threat of Ebola here, death is back in focus.

But I’ve decided that this is okay. I want to feel that fear, because I want to appreciate every day I have – and I want to live with everything in perspective. I never want to be oblivious. I also never want to become jaded or hardened to the pain. Too many Senegalese people I know have become like this. I’ve seen it: they mourn their family or friends for a day or two after their passing, and then are back at work and immersed in normal life.

One day last month, I returned home to my family’s compound, joking about something stupid to make them laugh, only to notice one of the girls staying at our house (a cousin of some kind) wasn’t smiling. When I asked what was wrong, my host mom replied, “Oh, her older sister died a few days ago.”

I was shocked, and I felt awful that I had been obliviously going about my week without even knowing. But everyone else was carrying on like normal. The girl wasn’t accorded any special treatment because of her loss. Death is too common here, and self-pity is not tolerated. Life must go on.

It’s harsh, but I understand how this attitude came about. I admire the Senegalese people for their strength in moving on.

For myself, though, I never want to become so tough that I become numb. Each life lost, or each risk averted, is worth feeling and remembering – whether it’s relief or pain. If that’s the price of valuing lives, I’ll pay it.

This post is a tribute to my friend Jason Mastroianni.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Kickstarting Change for Child Rights

Whether change comes with literal kick (think soccer) or metaphorical kick (think: bugging people until they pay attention), momentum is important. We have to keep things rolling. If we let the ball go, gravity will inevitably pull it to a stop.

This is how we need to think about helping talibé, the Koranic "students" often forced to beg in the streets, and pushing modernization of their daaras (Koranic schools) in Senegal. We can’t slow down. Right now talibé and the exploitation they've faced by their marabouts (teachers) are hot topics in the media. But the minute media and public attention die down and these kids fall out of the spotlight, the minute we let things slide back into their normal routine as we wait for change to trickle from the top down – that’s when progress stagnates.

The tradition of daara education in Senegal is deeply embedded, with strong religious and cultural roots. Parents are used to sending their kids away to live with and study under a marabout, who is automatically respected for his status as a religious leader. They are used to assuming the marabout will take care of the kids, with no need for oversight. Many people don’t want things to change, or can’t imagine how the system could run any other way. It’s difficult and sometimes intimidating to broach this subject with Senegalese people of this mindset. But the more we talk about change, the more people accept that it is happening.

Every year since the first Human Rights Watch report on the abuses faced by talibé in Senegal came out in 2010 (the first kick), things have started moving, even if slowly. Organizations and NGOs have amped up the programs they offer for talibé. Plan International and Pour Une Enfance offer the boys classes in everything from French to math and computer use; Taliberté and other groups maintain talibé youth centers and safe houses.

Activists like Issa Kouyate in St. Louis and others in Dakar have continued their work conducting night watches, rehabilitating runaway talibé, and supporting these at-risk youth. Coverage of their efforts increased with the 2012 documentary film, “Talibé: The Least Favored Children of Senegal” (second kick). In 2013, the horrible fire that killed 8 talibé trapped in their daara and the subsequent media attention and lobbying of national leaders kept the issue on the forefront (third kick), resulting in promises by President Macky Sall to end the practice of forced begging.

A national child protection strategy then passed in December 2013, and a law was drafted that would regulate daaras and shut down the ones forcing talibé to beg. HRW just published a second report in March 2014, urging Senegal to make the draft law a reality and enforce existing legislation that protects these children (fourth kick).

Recently, leading up to the International Day for Street Children on April 12, Peace Corps Volunteers and local partners organized the 4th Annual Talibé Soccer Tournament in St. Louis. Putting together such a big event was not a piece of cake, but it managed to bring together both talibé and non-talibé kids, mixing them in organized teams, to emphasize to the public that talibé deserve the same treatment and opportunities as anyone else. With every kick, they proved that to the audience. They even made the local news.

Photo by Hattie Hill (St. Louis Talibé Soccer Tournament 2014)

Momentum rolling.

In a few months, another documentary on talibé, “Raŋ Raŋ” by PCV Andrew Oberstadt, will be released. Still moving.

But then what?

All I ask is that we don’t let things unintentionally skid to a stop. That we don’t let anyone forget.

If you’re based in Senegal, here are some ways you can help:

  • Organize events and activities for talibé to keep them in the spotlight (talibé days, sports tournaments, etc.)
  • Get the community involved (conferences, events, medical support for talibé)
  • Start up conversations with Senegalese locals 

If you’re based in Senegal or anywhere else in the world, here are other ways to help:

  • Provide an audience for the media content on talibé (reading and linking to the articles, watching the videos)
  • Write about the issue

In my site of Kolda, a regional capital in southern Senegal, I’m attempting to organize a conference on daara modernization in partnership with several Koranic teachers (marabouts) and other leaders. We plan to invite all the local marabouts, which is in the range of 30-40 in the city of Kolda alone.

Even as global attention begins to fade after the International Day for Street Children, let’s not let these kids be swept to the side of the streets again, invisible in plain sight. Keep the movement going!

This article was originally posted on the Peace Corps SeneGAD blog at http://senegad.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/kickstarting-change/

Friday, April 11, 2014

Fighting for Girls' Education

Want to push a region's development and reduce poverty? Educate the women. Want to increase public health? Educate the women.

It's been proven: studies have linked education of women with reduced child and maternal deaths, improved child health, and increased income for families. The World Bank reports that a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult. Educating girls can break cycles of poverty that have kept their families spinning uselessly, stuck in a rut and seeing no way out. Educated girls are less likely to marry early and more likely to send their own children to school.

Despite these facts, a gender gap in education still exists today, with girls around the world struggling to receive the same access to quality education as boys. Women’s literacy rates are significantly lower than men’s in most developing countries.

In Senegal, the literacy rate for adult women (age 15 and above) is 39%, while men are at 62%, according to UNESCO. Many girls drop out in middle school, often due to early marriage or pregnancy - or simply because in a poor family, limited resources almost always go to the boys' education before the girls'.

The Peace Corps Michele Sylvester Scholarship (MSS) Program is our effort to help close that gender gap in education and encourage young girls to remain in school. The scholarship provides money for the school fees and supplies for 9 girls at each middle school working with a volunteer.

This will be my first year doing the project, and I've already approached my local school - Sikilo Ouest Middle School - and they're very excited to be involved! The girls will be nominated by school faculty members, and finalists will be selected based on their personal essay, their grades, financial need, an interview with the volunteer (me), and teacher recommendations.

This is an issue I really care about, on a deep personal level. Not just because I'm a young woman myself with strong opinions on gender equality, but because I've lived and worked and joked around with so many young girls here in Senegal who could have such bright future if given the chance! But so often, society doesn't give that to them. It hits close to home, too. One of my own host sisters (a family cousin) never finished school, falling victim to early pregnancy twice and deciding that she had no academic future. Even though I disagreed - it's never to late to try again - she left our house a few months back, and no one knows what she's doing now. It was sad and frustrating, and I hated that everyone dismissed her as a lost cause. No one is a lost cause.

But there are bright spots. I've met young women who stuck it out and completed their education, found jobs, and now radiate success and purpose. Recently, I was able to interview a young woman here in Kolda who received the Michele Sylvester Scholarship in 2002. Listening to how much she's been able to accomplish in her life was like a breath of fresh air!

Aissatou Diallo, now 28 and working as a community health agent at the NGO Child Fund, is a staunch supporter of girl's education. She says the scholarship motivated her to keep studying, and now's she able to give back to the community by focusing on child and maternal health.

"My friends who didn't finish school, their lives are very different," Aissatou told me. "They've been married since middle school."

Check out the quick video I made of Aissatou's story:

As you can see, these young ladies are real - they exist - they are right in front of me, every day. This scholarship program may seem small, but it can be just the little bit of help that a struggling family needs to keep their daughter in school.

To bring this program to my local middle school, I need to raise $180. Donations would be greatly appreciated! Just $20 provides a scholarship to one girl and ensures that she can attend school next year and purchase all her school supplies. (That's a lot of money here, believe it or not!)

Anyone interested in contributing can donate here, through the Peace Corps website. Please be sure to note: “For MSS scholarships in PCV Lauren Seibert’s site of Sikilo Ouest Middle School, Kolda.”

Thanks for helping us empower girls and women in Senegal!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Empowering Youth: Change Starts Here

Take a look at this photo taken during our Bagdaji Youth Empowerment Camp last week. What do you see?

Besides some crazy expressions (including mine)... what I see is a sea of smiles. Really, look carefully: not a single kid in this photo looks bored or irritated, like we’d expect from at least some kids in a group of teenagers. Instead, I see laughter, intelligence, mischievous glints in dark eyes, and pride at being selected for the camp.

This was the second youth camp I’ve participated in during my Peace Corps service - the first one was an English Camp in Dakar (not an overnight camp). This one was even more fun.

What does Youth Empowerment Camp look like in Senegal? A little bit of everything! We mixed art and sports and fun with important life lessons, exposing the kids to things they’d never yet had a chance to experience. Tie dye, dodge ball, tag, intro to karate and self defense, theatre skits, discussions on health issues and gender equality, a career panel and life planning sessions, art, a game teaching money management, movie/popcorn night, spontaneous dancing to Beyoncé, and more.

Karate session
Nutrition activity
Musical chairs (with human chairs!)
Tie-dyed shirts
In general, the camp aimed to equip these kids with the knowledge to live healthy lives, express themselves, and pursue their dreams. 12 girls and 12 boys, the best and brightest of middle schools throughout the Kolda region of Senegal, were invited to the four-day camp. Some were from the city, some from small towns, some from villages. Over half of these students had no electricity at home. It was a big mixing of worlds.

Happily, all 24 showed up, enthusiastic but unsure what to expect. There aren’t many camps for youth in Senegal, so many people here don’t actually know what a “camp” is. (And I’ll tell you, it’s pretty amusing trying to explain the concept in Pulaar…)

Once we got to know them, it was clear that these were really some of the most awesome kids we’d ever meet. They were extremely smart. Most spoke at least two languages (Pulaar and French), and some spoke three or four (Wolof, English). Throughout the four days of camp, they participated eagerly in every activity. They soaked up the knowledge that we and our Senegalese partners showered on them, asking questions and taking notes. One kid - a tall 16-year-old always dressed like he just stepped out of a men’s magazine - couldn’t be torn away from his notebook. It was funny, but great at the same time: apparently you can take notes and still be fly.

In fact, a lot of these kids dressed pretty fancy. With the heat in the upper 90s (Fahrenheit), it’s normal here to bathe 2 or even 3 times a day - but some of these little fashionistas actually changed clothes each time, revealing 2 or 3 new outfits in one day! Considering they all arrived with one small little backpack or sack while we volunteers lugged large duffels, we still don’t understand it. Magic bags??

Bringing the Camp to Life

For an event of this size, you need a lot of help. (Just to give you an idea, this project took about 6 months to organize and required a decent sized grant!) Two Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), Alexia Kime and Sophie Danner, were the camp leaders in logistics and planning - but the camp was really the collaborative effort of many. A local NGO, Ofad Nafoore, hosted us during the camp. Senegalese partners (nurses, teachers, local professionals) were also invited to help out with various activities. About 13 PCVs participated in the camp, each of us taking on different sessions.

I helped organize the art session, teaching the kids how to make animal dot paintings loosely based on the concept of Aboriginal dot painting. (Thank my trip to Australia for the idea… yes, Aus is still on the brain.) But the kids loved it, and while some chose to copy our samples, others took plenty of creative liberty. Check out my little artists:

I also helped out with the session on First Aid, along with a few other PCVs and a local health worker who brought her medical kit to show the kids. We taught them what to do for heat exhaustion, burns, cuts and other injuries, and choking. The Heimlich maneuver was probably the biggest hit of that session. One group of kids even surprised us (and cracked us up) by including it in their theatre skit later:

Heimlich during their theatre skit
First Aid session
In addition, two community health workers came to talk to the kids about sexual and reproductive health - everything from puberty to STIs and HIV. We split into two groups, girls and boys, so they’d feel more comfortable to have a discussion. Many of them already knew a lot, but some didn’t. The girls asked a lot of questions, including: can you play sports while it’s your time of month? What can you do about the pain (cramps)? Happily, all of the girls agreed that their monthly cycle shouldn’t prevent girls from going to school. Traditional views used to keep many girls home for an entire week each month, but thankfully that’s not often the case any more.

Reproductive health talk
One of the best sessions during the camp was a discussion led by Peace Corps employee Mama Awa Traore, our beautiful, regal Senegalese guru. This woman is amazing - you can tell just by looking at her in photos. She knows how to command an audience to rapt attention - and how to get us laughing.

Mama Awa Traore

This time Awa talked about sexual equality with the kids, asking questions to see what they already knew about topics like early marriage and school dropouts, gender roles, and other sensitive subjects. She handled every topic bluntly, but gracefully. She assured them that it’s normal to have boyfriends and girlfriends at that age, but they have to be smart about the choices they make.

“They say that girls in Kolda are beautiful, but easy,” she said to the kids. “Why?”

Responses on why early pregnancies were so common in Kolda centered on the reality of poverty. Lack of money means girls might jump at the chance to have a man give them money or clothes, or the girl’s own mother might even prostitute her daughter for money (this is rare but does happen, sadly - one of the girls in the camp had seen it herself). Teachers have been known to get their own students pregnant. It’s a vicious cycle.

Awa wanted the kids to know that there is a way to break that cycle, and that is through respecting yourself, having life goals, and pursuing an education. “Do you know your own mind? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you want?” she asked them. “You have to know and respect yourself. Only education can get you out of poverty. It’s not the 1,000 or 2,000 francs someone gives you, it’s not the clothes someone gives you.”

She also encouraged the kids to expand their horizons on roles for men and women. “A woman can fly a plane, a woman can be an electrician, can build a house,” she told them. Anything is possible.

One of the other most inspiring sessions of the camp was the Career Panel. We had invited several Senegalese professionals in various careers to come and speak a little to the students and answer questions, discussing their own experiences and how to achieve success in life. Speakers included two nurses (female), a community organizer for Child Fund (female), an information technician (male), a social relations manager for a construction company (female), an agronomic engineer from World Vision (male), and two teachers (male/female).

Career Panelists' Advice / Experiences:
  • “Be proud of what you are.” —Sali Baldé, Ofad Nafoore
  • “If you wake up in the morning and you have no destination, will you end up somewhere? He who manages his time well is he who succeeds.” —Luc Manga, World Vision
  • “Accepting that you’re a student means accepting that you have a teacher, even if you don’t like him.” —Mamadou Diao, Information Technician
  • “All my girlfriends were married at a young age, but happily my father refused. He encouraged me to study.” —Aissatou Diallo, community organizer for Child Fund's maternal and child health program
  • “There’s one teacher I will never forget. He would even come visit me at home, and if he’d find me in the middle of cooking dinner, he’d say, ‘No, this girl shouldn’t be cooking, she has to study.’” —Mama Camara, nurse

Interviews conducted by students during Career Panel
Career panel
Following the career panel, we had another session on future planning to encourage the kids to follow their dreams and set concrete goals to get there (e.g. finish high school and pass the Baccalaureate, get a scholarship, go to university or trade school, do internships, etc.). We also had the kids draw what they envisioned as their future (dreams/goals/interests). ...And yes, I drew one too!

My self-portrait (travel, journalism, writing/photography)
Among the kids we had a range of career interests, from doctors to teachers, journalists (woohoo), and three future Presidents of Senegal (two girls and one boy)! Mamadiang Diallo made sure we knew that when he became President, his ministry would contain large numbers of Diallos and other important family groups (last name jokes are a big thing here).

Mariama Diallo wants to become an eye doctor / ophthalmologist. 
By the end of the camp, the kids were all thick as thieves and had all exchanged phone numbers, just like any summer camp in the States! At our closing ceremony with the kids and their parents, we learned that many of their parents hadn’t actually finished school themselves, and they regretted it the rest of their lives. They told us they were extremely proud of their children for doing so well in school and being selected for this camp.

“Everything we are doing here is to support you, but the most important thing is to say, ‘We can do it,’ and push until you do it,” our PC Volunteer Support Assistant Tidiane Diao told the parents and students in the audience. “To be educated is to know how to better handle things, how to better take care of your life, how to better help people to achieve their goals.”

Of course, education comes in all forms - not just what you learn at a desk in school. We’re hoping this camp gave these kids some of the tools they need to succeed both in the classroom and beyond. Also, if one of these kids ever becomes President of Senegal… we got the hook up!

Tidiane Diao giving his speech
Making tie-dye shirts

Camp housing

Gender equality: boys can serve the food too!!


Me with my group of kids from the city of Kolda

Me (camp photographer!) and my PCV friend Tasha (camp dance queen!)