Sunday, October 26, 2014

Eyes on Talibés in Kolda: Our First Regional Talibé Conference

I really didn’t know how it would go down. I honestly didn’t know if everyone we invited would show up. But there they were, 38 talibé boys flowing into the room, shaking my hand shyly. The next day, 39 Kolda villagers showed up – both men and women. On the third day, 37 Koranic teachers (marabouts) swept into the room in their long robes (grand boubous). Every population we’d hoped to reach had made an appearance.

This is the first project I’ve tackled here in Senegal that actually had me nervous, wondering if I was overreaching by trying to make it happen. It was the first time I went off the grid, trying something that hadn’t been done in my region or by a PCV in Senegal before, as far as I know. A little scary, but somehow it all came together in the end!

On October 10, 11 and 12, Kolda successfully pulled off its first regional conference on “Daara Modernization and Talibé Child Protection,” an event I organized in partnership with several different organizations working for child protection in Senegal (Tostan, World Vision, USAID, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime / UNODC, the Ministry of Justice’s anti-trafficking bureau, La Lumière, Enda, and more).

For each day of the conference, we invited a different target audience: 40 talibés from the city of Kolda, 40 men and women from nearby villages (community leaders or potential parents of talibés), and 40 marabouts (20 from the city of Kolda, and 20 from villages). Local NGOs, community actors, and officials were also invited. We showed a film and had a panel of 5-8 speakers for each day, all Senegalese experts on daara modernization, Islam, child protection, and community mobilization.

Background on the Issue

Exploitation of talibés, young students of the Koran often forced to beg on the streets, remains an extensive problem in Senegal. Most of these children live at Koranic schools (daaras) under the tutelage of marabouts, spending their days memorizing the Koran and begging for coins or food. Many suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, and abuse. Many are denied a full education, never attending French school and studying only the Koran. This lifestyle makes these children Senegal’s most at-risk population.

Over the past several years, media attention has thrown this human rights issue into the spotlight. The Senegalese government started a national movement to modernize the daara system and improve conditions for talibé. Unfortunately, public attention to this movement remains largely concentrated in the northern half of Senegal, even though the issue is just as pervasive in the south. In fact, my region of Kolda in the south is really an epicenter for human trafficking of talibés. Daaras here receive a flow of children from Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Mali, and Kolda talibés are often sent north to live in big city daaras (Dakar, Mbour, Thiès, and St. Louis).

Hundreds of daaras exist throughout the Kolda Region. Throughout my first year and a half of service, I visited dozens of these daaras and started developing relationships with the local marabouts and talibés. While we do have handfuls of “modern daaras” in Kolda, the majority are traditional ones that teach nothing but the Koran and still send the boys out begging. Many of the marabouts I’ve met are unaware that the system could be any different. Same goes for parents who send their boys away – and for talibés who see little hope for their future.

This lack of knowledge about the daara modernization movement is why I wanted to bring the discussion down to Kolda. We’ve had small meetings and causeries before, but nothing bringing together all three target populations involved in the issue. It was a first!

Goals of the Event

With all of this in mind, the objectives of the conference I organized were:
  1. To motivate Kolda talibés and give them a chance to discuss their difficulties, hopes and fears for the future. The points they raised were then communicated to the two other groups (marabouts and village parents).
  2. To raise awareness of the Senegalese Government’s national efforts to modernize the system (enforcement of regulations, construction of new “modern daaras,” financial support.) 
  3. To suggest to community members steps they can take in the meantime to modernize local daaras and improve conditions for talibés. We can’t wait passively for the State to fix everything. It’s really up to local communities to take charge of their children and daaras, as some have done already by implementing Daara Management Committees and/or Child Protection Committees.
  4. Gather recommendations for next steps from each target population (talibés, community members, and marabouts) and plan follow-up activities.
To be considered a “modern daara” recognized by the State, a Koranic school must meet certain specific qualifications, including:
  • Students receive both a French and Koranic education
  • Hygienic and sanitary conditions 
  • Safe and secure housing for talibés
  • No begging

It’s true that this whole subject is a very sensitive issue with many religious and cultural complications. I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I was convinced that the conversation needed to be started. I definitely couldn’t have done it alone, though.

The Project Team

Honestly, the entire success of the project was due to my amazing project partners and panel speakers. Speakers from local NGOs, the Kolda Academic Inspector, and government representatives all made important contributions. UNODC sent a speaker to discuss human trafficking and screen a film about talibés. But it was a marabout, in fact, who was the life and breath of this project.

Thierno Mouhamadou Diamanka, one of my community work partners and President of Kolda’s Association of Koranic Masters, helped me plan out the project and led many of the activities and discussions during the conference. As a respected marabout who has chosen to modernize his daara, he was able to reach out to his peers and really hold their attention. Behavior change – especially when ingrained traditions and beliefs are involved – won’t happen quickly, but marabouts listen to Diamanka and respect his views.

I can’t even remember now how I originally met Diamanka, but we’ve been working together for over a year and he continues to amaze me with his dedication to children and to Kolda’s community development. Before the conference, he accompanied me all over town to help me invite marabouts and talibés in person and explain the program.

Another extremely valuable participant was Mouhamed Chérif Diop, Tostan’s director of child protection projects based in Dakar. He has spent years working with communities and marabouts around Senegal and is a well known among Koranic masters for his radio talks. He was able to explain the steps other communities have taken to modernize their daara system and outlined what communities need to do to get there. In his words, positive change for the talibé situation in Senegal must come through an overall change in social norms, led by communities and guided by a clear concept of child dignity, rights, and protection.


Despite my worries about who would show up for the conference and whether or not we would offend anyone, we had no major problems during the 3 days! Nearly everyone showed up, and our panel speakers were able to answer all questions and keep the audience calm. With all the experts present, there was no question that couldn’t be answered – whether it related to Islam, the law, academic standards, government actions, child protection, or the practical steps of daara modernization.

Everyone seemed really interested to learn what daara modernization entailed and many community members participated in the discussion or proposed ideas. None of the talibés or marabouts came away resenting me. In fact, they seemed happy to have been included! (Some even showed up that we didn’t invite. The more the merrier.)

In total, 164 people were involved in this conference. On the talibé day, Peace Corps VSA Sakhir Dia, himself a former talibé, shared his personal story with the boys. Thierno Diamanka also played an Islam Q&A game with the boys called “Genie en Herbe” (don’t ask me why it’s called that), and I worked on my throwing arm by hurling candy to the winners. All of this seemed to loosen the boys up, and they really participated with a candor I didn’t expect in the group discussions.

DAY 1: Here are some of the difficulties with the current daara system as listed by the talibés:
  • Begging and the requirement of a daily quota that must be given to the marabout
  • Some marabouts do not teach; some exploit their talibés 
  • Poor living conditions 
  • Lack of professional training or apprenticeships
  • Children run away from their daaras because of abuse 
  • Vulnerability of talibé children 
  • Being treated like a criminal by the public
  • Street life (temptation to drugs and crime)
  • Beatings / violence 
  • Lack of rest or leisure time for talibé children
  • Inadequate housing (insecure, unsanitary) 
  • Unorganized daaras / education methods not conducive to learning (ex : multiple class levels all combined in one single daara)
  • Difficulties in finding a job after studies at the daara are complete
  • Lack of teaching materials

DAY 2: Here were the community members’ recommendations for next steps:
  • Send committees to raise awareness and train all Kolda villages and communities in daara modernization
  • Set standards for marabouts  
  • Identify all marabouts with talibés in specific zones (daara mapping) 
  • Raise awareness among Koranic masters; encourage them to accept the merging of daaras
  • Conduct trainings with Koranic masters of the same zone  
  • Discuss child rights with marabouts and communities
  • Equitable geographical distribution of modern daaras constructed by the State 
  • Call to action for communities and Senegalese Government (need support for projects) 
  • Harmonization of interventions (need collaboration of all entities working towards child protection / daara modernization / education)
  • Establish a daara in each village / town / community to prevent talibés being sent elsewhere (child trafficking)
  • Bring together small community daaras to form a large modern daara

DAY 3: Here were the marabouts' recommendations for next steps:
  • Create of Daara Management Committees 
  • Merge small daaras together
  • Disseminate good examples of modern daaras (TV, radio, etc.) 
  • Consider and support community initiatives 
  • Need support for educational materials 
  • Need support for school meals
  • Raise awareness among all key actors
  • Honesty between key players 
  • Unity of hearts

Hopefully we can help these communities achieve some of these actions. At least the first step was a success!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Schooled by High Schoolers

Tiny projects impacting a small community of people may seem like a pebble dropped in a river, compared to massive aid efforts conducted by international organizations. But sometimes the ripple effects of those little projects can stretch farther than you ever expect! 10 Senegalese high school students showed me that.

Just last weekend, we finally wrapped up Kolda’s first ever “Leaders of the Future” Youth Internship Program, which provided 10 local high schoolers (5 girls and 5 boys) with summer internships at different organizations and non-profits in town. 

Me (bottom right) with the interns and Peace Corps Volunteers

The project was a lot of work to organize! Thankfully, I was able to recruit 6 other Peace Corps Volunteers to help manage the interns. And it was all completely worth it now that we’ve seen how much it impacted these youth, who had never been exposed to the “professional world” before.

I say “youth” and not “kids” because the students we selected ranged in age from 17 to 21! Sadly, many youth in Senegal don't graduate from high school until a much older age than the ideal, for a variety of reasons. Girls may drop in and out of school depending on whether they get married young or have a child. Youth living in poverty may take time off to support their family or help out at home. 

On top of that, the French school system here in Senegal is tough. Americans have it easy in comparison! The system here requires students to pass two major cumulative exams at the end of middle school (the BFM) and high school (the Baccalaureate / “Bac”), in order to receive their diplomas. Thought the SAT was hard? It’s got nothing on the Bac. And no university here will accept a student without it, nor will most decent jobs hire someone without it. 

The result is often a frustrating cycle for students who are held back year after year as they try to pass the exams. My own host sister, Aissatou, is 23 and still hasn’t received her high school diploma yet, though she studies hard every year trying to pass the Bac. Some say the system is rigged, since “there isn’t enough space at the universities anyway.” I don’t know the truth, but I do know it’s rough out there for Senegalese youth.

I could go on for pages about the problems with the school system here, but I digress. Instead I’ll swing the focus back around to the awesome group of people I had the privilege to work with. 

Getting the Community on Board

Our community partner at Alpha Molo Baldé High School, Vice Principal Idrissa Diédhiou, really made this project possible. From the first day when I plunked myself down in his office to propose the idea, he was on board. He already works harder than any school official I’ve ever met: in addition to his work as VP, he’s also a Student-Teacher Advisor, a part time English teacher, and PhD student in Literature. A man of many hats.

The high school

Vice Principal Diédhiou giving a motivational talk to the interns

Diédhiou really believes in providing opportunities beyond the classroom for his students, so he appreciated the internship concept right away – even though it’s kind of a foreign idea for Senegalese high schools. As soon as I explained the idea to Diédhiou he spread the word to students, and ultimately helped me filter through the 50+ applications we received. We then interviewed the 20 finalists and chose the 10 winners. 

Based on their goals and interests, we matched each student with the organization that best fit. The participating organizations included 6 development/aid organizations, a pharmacy, a hotel, an environmental protection agency, and a local radio station. It took a lot of biking all over town to explain the project and convince these organizations to accept an intern in the first place, but by the end of the program they all seemed glad they did. One supervisor even showed up unexpectedly at the Closing Ceremony, just because he was so proud of his intern.

Intern (Mamadou) making his final presentation with his supervisor present.

Mini Professionals

As for the interns themselves, they really exceeded everyone’s expectations. We already knew they were some of the school’s smartest and most motivated students. But it wasn’t until the end of the program, when they made their final presentations, that I realized just how much knowledge they’d acquired. They had become mini experts in their chosen fields, in just 5 weeks! Compared to where they started from – many of them had little or no computer skills, no knowledge of the work NGOs do in Kolda, and no professional work experience – it was pretty impressive. 

One intern, Diénaba Dabo, even teared up a little as she explained what the program meant to her. She had interned for an NGO called 7a. “I learned so much thanks to this program,” she told us. “7a really became my family. I had no idea about the work they were doing here in Kolda, but now I understand their programs, and I asked them if they could come start a project in my community.”

As a result of her internship, Diénaba actually conducted house-to-house visits herself to gauge the need and interest of her neighbors, based on what she had learned at 7a about community development. She was ultimately able to establish a women’s economic group in her community and link them up with support from 7a. 

How amazing is that? It’s not often in Peace Corps that you get to witness a project with an immediate tangible impact, changing someone’s life and rippling out to impact her community.

The other interns also gave pretty powerful presentations. They were able to articulately describe their organizations and the type of work they do, as well as answer pretty intense questions from their peers. By the end of the day, we’d had discussions about everything from Family Planning (i.e. birth control) to child malnutrition, the health risks of female circumcision, women in the service industry, the separation of religion and work, what makes a good journalist, enforcement of environmental regulations, the benefits of loans v. grants to communities, and agricultural techniques. 

I felt like a proud mama listening to them debate! Except I really can’t claim any credit. They sure schooled us.

Check out our 10 interns and their stories:

Diénaba Dabo
Grade 12
Intern organization: 7a, an NGO conducting local projects in community development, health, and food security.

Diénaba, age 20, is our most curious and enthusiastic intern – never afraid to ask questions or give her opinion. She lives with her parents, 5 brothers, and 4 sisters in Kolda and speaks Pulaar, Wolof, French, Mandinka, and a little Spanish and English. After high school, she plans to continue her studies at university and become a magistrate or an engineer, though she is also discovering an interest in community development projects. “I always had the ambition to help the people in my community, to contribute to their success,” she says. 7a loved her and invited her to extend her internship for two additional weeks.

Demba Balde
Grade 11
Intern organization: Eaux et Forêts, an environment protection agency.

Demba Balde, 21, is our smooth-talker, quite capable of making the ladies laugh. He speaks French, Wolof, Pulaar, and little English. After high school he hopes to attend university in Canada and study geography. He is interested in development, agriculture, and the environment – a perfect match for Eaux et Forêts. The organization “took me in like I was one of their own,” he says – even if they did chase him down to shave his head military-style!

Malick Diallo Biaye
Grade 11
Intern organization: Radio Nafoore, a local news and entertainment station.

Malick, age 19, is the spunky one of the group. He was born in Tankanto Escale Village and now lives in the city of Kolda with his parents, 2 sisters, and 4 brothers. He speaks 5 languages (French, English, Wolof, Mandinka, Pulaar). Before his internship with Radio Nafoore, Malick wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go into teaching, journalism or commerce some day. After working at the radio station, he says he’s decided that he wants to pursue journalism. 

Aissatou Diallo
Grade 10
Intern organization: Tostan, an NGO working in child and maternal health, community development, and child protection.

Aissatou may be only 17, but you’d never know it: she’s calm, mature, sweet and reliable. She speaks French, Wolof and Pulaar. Since she told us she was interested in health and the sciences, we paired her with Tostan, an NGO active in many health projects. The projects that interested her the most were those combatting female circumcision and early marriage, and it’s clear she has a passion for women’s health. Tostan has become her “second family,” she says. This program was the first time she learned how to use a computer.  

Mamadou Baldé 
Grade 11
Intern organization: ADC/Ninnaba, an NGO working in community development, agriculture, and environmental projects.

The oldest of the interns, Mamadou is 21 and the head of his household in his father’s absence, taking care of his mother, 3 sisters, and 3 brothers. He speaks French, Wolof, Pulaar, and a little English, and he is very interested in agriculture and the environment. “I really want a professional training in agronomy,” he told us when he applied for the internship. “I am responsible for my family, and I want to succeed in life and help my mother.” Mamadou says he has now learned environmental strategies that he can apply at home. His supervisor appreciated his work and has invited him to come back for future seminars and trainings. 

Amadou Bassirou Bâ 
Grade 11
Internship organization: FODDE, an NGO working in community development, health, food security, and the environment.

Amadou is 19 and lives with his mother, 2 sisters, and 3 brothers in Kolda. He is interested in health and development and he speaks French, Wolof, and Pulaar. We placed him with FODDE to give him some experience in community health projects. “I want to learn to express myself publicly and work well with others,” Amadou told us at the beginning, and it’s true: he’s the shyest of the group. But by the end he had come out of his shell a little.  

Fatou Ba 
Grade 10
Internship organization: Agence Regionale de Développement (ARD), a big agency targeting many different aspects of regional development.

Fatou is 17 and best buds with Aissatou. She is one of the best computer users and speaks Pulaar, Wolof, and French. Since she was a child she has wanted to be an engineer for NASA, she tells us. During her internship, she was given a thick manual on the agency to learn – and she aced it. She has been invited to extend her internship for a few additional weeks.

Abdourahmane Diamanka 
Grade 10
Internship organization: Koldoise Pharmacy.

Abdourahamane speaks 4 languages (French, Wolof, Pulaar, and a bit of Spanish), is very interested in health, and is a member of the science club. He wants to go to university in Dakar to study medicine and would like to work in medical research. “I want to be able to help people with their needs, especially in the health sector,” he says. “Health [is] a problem in Senegal, particularly in the rural communities that lack hospitals and personnel. That’s the reason why I’m interested in health. I want to become a doctor and achieve my dream, which is to construct a hospital.” He did so well working at the pharmacy that his supervisor showed up at the Closing Ceremony to show his support.

Hawa Diamanka 
Grade 10
Internship organization: Hotel Hobbé. 

Hawa is a courageous girl, not afraid to defend herself and stand up for women. It’s not easy in Senegal to work in the service industry, but she tackled it with a big smile. Hawa speaks four languages (French, Pulaar, Wolof, and English), is interested in health and accounting, and enjoys her sciences classes. “During summer vacation I’m [normally] here in Kolda doing nothing, and I want[ed] something constructive to do, to gain knowledge,” she says. She performed so well as jack-of-all-trades (server / receptionist / cook) at Hotel Hobbé that the manager even left her in charge of the entire hotel occasionally!

Fanta Baldé 
Internship organization: Child Fund, a nonprofit organization working in health and community development.

Fanta is 20 years old and married already – but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing her studies! Fanta was born and raised most of her life in Dakar, though she lives in Kolda now with her husband. She speaks Wolof, French, and a little Pulaar. Her areas of interest include health, accounting, and the sciences. “I wanted to do this internship because I’m thinking of the future, of tomorrow’s success,” she says. Every week that I met with her during the internship, she spouted off enthusiastically about something new she had learned about: Family Planning, child vaccinations, the dangers of post-partum hemorrhage, baby weighing and malnutrition screening. 

Tips for any volunteers looking to replicate this project in Senegal:

  • PCV project leader should have a professional level of French, in order to create documents and interact with the organizations.
  • Constant follow-ups with participating organizations are vital. If you don’t remind them, they will forget. Drop off the letter of invitation (which they will lose), and then follow up a million times: to assess interest, to get them to fill out the paperwork, to inform them once their intern is assigned, and then again before the internship starts. Some of them will try to cancel with you at the last minute. Il faut insister, quoi!!!
  • Add a line item in the budget for phone credit! I killed my credit during this project making so many phone calls to interns and organizations. 
  • It seems like 6-8 week internships would be more ideal than 5 weeks. The students really do value the experience more than the money they’re receiving (we gave them a small stipend at the end), and they all said they would like to continue. Many of them have extended their internships and are now just working for free. 
  • Orientation day and computer lessons before the internship starts are essential! Many students in Senegal somehow still make it through high school without learning how to use a computer (not sure how, since most city schools have computer labs now). The computer lessons were something I decided to add to the program, and I’m really glad I did.
  • It’s a great idea to invite a motivational speaker to talk to the students at the Orientation Day before the program starts. We chose the lovely Mama Awa Traore to talk to the kids about making smart choices, and they loved her.
  • Teach them how to make their own CV/resume – they loved this, and it gives them a tangible proof that their new computer skills are useful.
  • Divide up the interns among several PCVs – each volunteer should have charge of 1-3 interns. Volunteers should with their interns each weekend to check in. Have them fill out work logs.
  • Inform the students ahead of time that they will be giving a final presentation after the internship ends; help them figure out what they will say. Give some tips on public speaking (Senegalese youth tend to speak pretty softly when put on the spot…)
  • Encourage interns to stay in touch with their supervisors and to ask about future job openings, letters of recommendation, “attestations,” etc.
  • We did not have room in the budget to invite the interns’ parents and supervisors to the Closing Ceremony, but it turns out everyone would have preferred that they be included.
  • Make it fun! Play music at the ceremonies, make jokes with the interns, show you can relate to them as a young professional yourself. (They’re really not that far off from our own age!)

Me and Aissatou

Mamadou making his final presentation

Aissatou at her Tostan office

Orientation Day 

Computer lessons!

Awa Traore giving an inspirational talk to the interns during Orientation Day

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Miracle Tree: Article published in The Culture-ist!

Attention all nature-lovers, humanitarians, gardeners, or organic food aficionados: ever heard of Moringa, the "Miracle Tree"? Curious how one little plant can make a huge difference for nutrition and community development in tropical countries around the world?

Check out my latest article / photo essay published with The Culture-ist, an online travel magazine, to learn more (and to see photos from one of my biggest projects here in Senegal)!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fighting Malaria by Foot: New medication helps thousands of kids

Deaths from malaria are still a huge problem in Senegal, especially in the muggy, humid regions of Kolda (my site) and Kédougou (another southern region). It’s especially poignant for me now, returning from a vacation in Morocco where we could sit out on the terraces enjoying the night air without fear of mosquitos. I’d never thought I’d refer to air as delicious, but it was.

But now I’ve plunged back into the midst of Senegal’s rainy season, and those little buggers are having a field day laying eggs and spawning more of their horrendous selves in the millions of puddles everywhere.

Each year, it’s inevitable that members of my host family will get malaria during the rainy season. Too many times, I’ve sat with someone in my host family as they’re bent over, clutching their head or stomach in pain from this disease – all from a tiny little parasite transmitted by mosquito bite. My host mom, my little sister (Rouby, age 9), and my brother (Omar, age 10) have all had malaria this year. It scares me every time, but luckily my family is educated enough to recognize the signs and go to the hospital right away for testing.

It’s not just a matter of sleeping under mosquito nets, though. If only it were that simple! Each evening, mosquitos come out as soon as the sun sets (around 8 PM). Let’s be honest: who is going to shut themselves indoors, in bed under their mosquito net, at that time? Nobody. The days are so sweltering hot that the cooler evenings come as a blessing, a time in the day to finally relax in the breeze, drink tea and chat. Even if they did want to go inside, most Senegalese homes are very open to the air, with simple grating at windows and curtains as doors. “Going inside” doesn't really mean escaping the mosquitos.

Each night as I sit outside around the big shared bowl, eating dinner with the family, I get attacked by so many mosquitos I can barely concentrate on my food (or my Pulaar – pretty sure the things I’m saying stop making sense around that time). Thankfully, I’m protected by antimalarial medication, Malarone, which I take daily.

But Senegalese people don’t have that luxury. Antimalarial medications are not intended for lifetime use, and no approved vaccine currently exists for malaria (though several are currently being tested). Health workers tell the population to sleep under mosquito nets and clean up stagnant water, but that just reduces the risk – it won’t eliminate the disease. What we really need is the method that eliminated malaria as a threat in the US: a massive insecticide (DDT) spraying campaign across the entire country. And that’s definitely not something Senegal has the means or capacity to do.

(In case you’re wondering, malaria was still a problem in the States by the end of WWII. When the war ended, one of the first tasks of the new Center for Disease Control was to eliminate malaria as a major public health problem. Starting in 1947, DDT was sprayed in homes across the 13 southeastern states where malaria was reported prevalent. By 1949, this intense spraying of homes, along with extensive drainage, removal of mosquito breeding sites, and occasional spraying from aircrafts resulted in “total elimination” of malaria transmission in the US, CDC says.)

Senegal is nowhere near that stage. However, now there is a new hope! And it’s brought by the simplest of methods: feet. Hundreds of feet, walking and walking, delivering a new medication.

The New Strategy

Starting during last year’s rainy season, Senegal’s Ministry of Health (in partnership with USAID and others) started administering a seasonal antimalarial medicine to kids under age 10 in the Kédougou region. Similar to what women in Senegal are given during pregnancy (Intermittent Preventive Treatment / IPT), this method of preventative treatment for children is now referred to as "Seasonal Malaria Chemoprevention" (SMC).

SMC consists of a 3-day dosage of two drugs – Amodiaquine and a combo Sulfadoxine-Pyrimethamine (SP) pill. If the pills are taken correctly over the 3 days, the child is protected from malaria for a month. The whole thing is repeated again over the next two months, giving these kids a total of 3 months protection from malaria. This covers the worst of the rainy season.

The test round in Kédougou apparently was a success: fewer cases of malaria were recorded during that rainy season than in previous years. This year, they’ve extended the campaign to hit three more regions in Senegal (Sédhiou, Kolda, and Tambacounda). When the program arrived in Kolda this August, I got to be part of it!

I know, it's just like Where's Waldo. I blend in so well. 

French for "seasonal malaria chemoprevention for children age 3 months to 10 years"

This past weekend I spent three days walking around my quartier in Kolda doing house-to-house administrations of the medicine. We trudged around in our sandals carrying our paperwork and packs of pills, knocking on doors and invading people’s homes to explain the importance of the medicine, gather up the kids, and administer it right then and there.

We had to temper our explanations to the audience: some spoke only Wolof or Pulaar, some spoke French, some were educated and many were not. It’s pretty hard to explain what “seasonal malaria chemoprevention” is to anyone, let alone an uneducated individual who only speaks Pulaar, which has only one word for any kind of medicine (“lekki”). But we did our best, describing it as a kind of seasonal vaccine. We told them we’ll be returning in September and October to administer the medication again.

It was exhausting work, though it felt good to be physically doing something for my community that would tangibly improve their health! In the Western world, a campaign like this would never work, for many obvious reasons. But in Senegal, communities and families are very open, functioning on trust and hospitality. As long as you call out “Asalaam Alekuum” and greet everyone, you can walk right into someone’s house or compound (a big open space with several huts or buildings). This is culturally acceptable. People don’t get annoyed at you for invading their space or taking up their time – both of those things are Western concepts. Catch them in the middle of lunch? No problem, they’ll just invite you to join them. Time is fluid here, and space and belongings are open and shared.

Most importantly, door-to-door health campaigns in Senegal are the only way to guarantee that almost every child is covered. And it’s effective. People with limited means don’t travel far from their homes, so you can usually find all the children there. As a foreign “toubab” alone I would have inspired suspicion handing out medication, but I was part of a team of health workers (“relais”) from our local Health Post, all members of the community known and trusted by their neighbors.

(Actually, I’m finding that people kind of know me too, after a year living in this community! It’s nice to be recognized – much trickier in a big town like this than in a village. I’ve worked with the same team in the past for door-to-door Vitamin A supplements, polio/measles/yellow fever vaccines, and mosquito net distribution.)

My partner’s name was Youssouf Mané (“Bobo”), a local health relay and soccer coach and all-around awesome guy. Considering his size, it’s a bit unclear why he is called “Bobo,” which means baby... But no matter, it’s just gives me more ammunition for teasing. Senegalese culture is all about teasing. If you can take it and dish it back out, you’re golden.

The Dream Team (me & Bobo)

Bobo and I have worked together before and we make a good team: we alternate explaining in French or Pulaar (me) or Wolof (him) depending on the family. I fill out the paperwork, and he administers the medications. We also joke around a lot – gotta have fun somehow during these long, hot days.

At the end of the three days, Bobo and I alone had administered medication to 67 households and close to 200 children. In total, our team of health workers in Sikilo Ouest (about 50 volunteers) covered 2387 households during the campaign, with over 4400 children now protected from malaria. Not bad, for 50 pairs of feet!

Kolda is so green and beautiful in the rainy season!