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!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Faces of Change

Apologies for my long absence from this blog! I’ve been working my tail off here in Senegal with some big new projects (will explain soon), as well as gallivanting around Spain and Morocco (also to be explained soon). For now, though, I want to sincerely thank everyone who contributed to the Michele Sylvester Scholarship (MSS) Program that I fundraised for and blogged about a few months back!

I am happy to inform you that with your help, I raised all the money needed to offer scholarships to 9 girls from my neighborhood middle school, CM Sikilo Ouest. The school administration nominated these girls for their academic record, motivation and financial need, with teachers submitting a recommendation for each student. Each of the girls wrote me an essay about their future plans and their thoughts on the role of women in Senegalese society (you should see some of the things these smartypants wrote!). Finally, I conducted a personal interview with each candidate. 

Two of the girls I already knew, since they had attended our Youth Empowerment Camp back in March. The others proved to be just as smart and motivated – and sweet or spunky (depending on the girl). I approved each recommendation and sent their complete applications on to SeneGAD, our Peace Corps gender and development group handling the final approvals and scholarship distributions. If all goes well, the girls will be receiving their scholarships at the start of the new school year this October.

Thanks to all my lovely donors, these awesome young ladies can now afford another year of education without putting a strain on their families’ resources. Girls dropping out of school to work at home or get married remains a huge problem in Senegal (and Kolda in particular), so every little bit of motivation helps! Many of them come from big families with only one parent present or working – usually the father, with the mother fulfilling the traditional housewife role. Some are facing other difficulties as well. In addition to their studies, each of these girls also helps with household tasks every day (cleaning, sweeping, laundry, cooking, washing dishes). Still, they’ve all managed to stay on top of things and have some of the best grades in their class.

Here are the faces / stories of the girls your donations helped support!

1) Tacko Ndiaye
Age 13, Class 6ième (6th Grade)
Though she was shy at first, once I got Tacko talking it was obvious she’s a very bright, ambitious girl with a sense of humor. She is interested in a variety of subjects at school, not just one thing – she likes science, history, reading, languages, you name it. When I asked her about her future goals, she said she wanted to be “President of Senegal” or work in foreign policy! It’s great that she believes she can aim high no matter the circumstances. I am positive that she’ll go far. Her essay made it clear she already is a strong advocate for girl’s education and women’s rights, and she even has ideas for national policy changes. In addition, Tacko’s parents are divorced and currently her mother is the only one supporting her financially, since her father’s contract ended and he’s out of work. She lives with her parents and 2 brothers. When I asked what she contributes to the family, she responded, “L’amour!” (Love!) 
Tacko Ndiaye

2) Mariama Baldé
Age 12, Class 5ième (7th Grade)
The youngest of the scholarship recipients, Mariama is facing very difficult circumstances in life, but she’s extremely hardworking. She tells me she can see herself in the future either as a doctor with her own clinic or as a French teacher. Regardless, she wants to achieve success in life and help her mother out – a very selfless goal, considering her mother left her and lives in Guinea Bissau with a new husband, sending no money back to support Mariama at all. With her father dead, Mariama’s only source of support is her uncle – she lives with him and his (very big) family. I actually know and work with her uncle, Thierno Diamanka, a very respected and caring Marabout, and I know this scholarship will help them out.

Mariama Baldé

3) Maïmouna Gano
Age 14, Class 5ième (7th Grade)
Maïmouna has two dreams, both of which involve helping women and the underprivileged: she wants to become either a gynecologist (to help reduce maternal mortality rates, she says), or a lawyer supporting human rights. She is very adamantly against early marriage, and her parents agree with her on this, thankfully! Maïmouna lives with her parents and 6 brothers and sisters. Her family seems to be having money problems, since her mother is a housewife and doesn’t work, and her father was a taxi driver, but his car has broken down. 

Maimouna Gano

4) Saoudiatou Akapo
Age 14, Class 5ième (7th Grade)
Saoudiatou was one of the 4 students selected from this school to attend our Kolda Youth Empowerment Camp this past March, so I knew her already when we did the scholarship interview. She seems shy at first but is actually quite the opposite – little Miss Socialite! She is very intelligent (she has the highest grades of all the MSS girls), with opinions on women’s rights and education fostered and supported by her father, whom I also know. He is a radio journalist and a single parent supporting 7 children. This is obviously a pretty difficult situation, but he seems like a great dad. Saoudiatou loves science and wants to become either an ophthalmologist or engineer some day. 

Saoudiatou Akapo

5) Marie Thérèse Diédhiou
Age 13, Class 5ième (7th Grade)
Marie Thérèse is a motivated student who has both achieved good grades and participated in extracurricular activities. She’s a strong believer in talking to people in her community about keeping girls in school. Later in life she wants to become a doctor. She lives with her parents and 4 siblings. Her family’s money situation seems a little tight, since her father is retired military living off a pension. Her mother doesn’t work – only her older sister is currently earning money for the family as a teacher in Velingara (another city a few hours away from Kolda). Her sister’s success has been an inspiration for her to work hard in school.

Marie Thérèse Diédhiou

6) Rayhanatou Diallo
Age 16, Class 4ième (8th Grade)
Rayhanatou seems like a hard-working girl. She wants to become a policewoman or a doctor (gynecologist). She believes that women should not be delegated so many household tasks in Senegalese society and should have more time to pursue academic interests. Like many of my MSS girls, her mother is a housewife and does not earn money for the family. Her father operates a boutique (small shop) to support his family of 10 (his wife and 9 kids, including Rayhanatou).

Rayhanatou Diallo

7) Aissatou Diallo
Age 14, Class 4ième (8th Grade)
Aissatou suffers from a vision problem that requires special glasses unavailable in Senegal, though her family is currently trying to obtain them from the US. This makes studying a little difficult for her, but nonetheless she is ambitious and hardworking. She wants to become either an engineer or a sage femme (midwife / gynecologist) some day. She is against early marriage and plans to complete her schooling and get a job to help support her father, who is the sole breadwinner in the family (mother is a housewife). 

Aissatou Diallo

8) Bayelaou Diallo
Age 15, Class 4ième (8th Grade)
Bayelaou is an extremely sweet, respectful girl, quick to smile. I know her from her participation in our Youth Empowerment Camp. She was great in camp – very engaged and dynamic. She learns quickly. She tells me she wants to become a doctor / gynecologist some day, but she realized this is a difficult field and she’s a little nervous about succeeding. (I know she will, though.) In her family, her dad works at a boutique, but her mother doesn’t work, which means money is occasionally tight for her and her 9 brothers and sisters. Bayelaou is passionate about achieving success and helping other women in Kolda, and she has some great ideas for how to help women climb out of poverty. 

Bayelaou Diallo

9) Mbadé Amy Ndour
Age 13, Class 6ième (6th Grade)
Mbadé Amy was difficult to track down – she seems like a very busy girl (lots of studying and other activities)! Her family is definitely having some financial problems, and she told me that sometimes when they can’t afford rent, they have to leave their house and stay with relatives. Her father is the only one working in the family, as a carpenter. Regardless of these difficulties, Mbadé Amy works hard in school and hopes to become a sage femme or lawyer some day.

Mbadé Amy Ndour

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