Monday, September 22, 2008

(22 September 2008) The Passing Of My Mentor, Work Continues On, Get Involved

Greetings to all.  I am sad to report the passing of my uncle, Mamadou Camara, on August 24.  I was near Dakar at the time and so received the news by phone. There is no official diagnosis but my guesses are: heart attack, stroke, or head injury (he fell down before he died).  He leaves behind his wife, my sister Penda, their seven month old daughter, Sharon, the village of Keur Ndongo and me.  Penda is in mourning for four months, at which point I’m not sure what will happen; she is already in the same village as her family so she might just continue to live in her house or she might remarry.  Right now some family from other villages, her grandmother/sister-in-law and a few others, have come to stay with her.

We are already a month or two into the hungry season and the rains bring other concerns.  This is just a hard time of year for people here.  With no system set up to catch and store rainfall (except for the ground) immense swampy puddles form that create ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, flies, frogs, and diarrhea, while leaving transport carrying rice, vegetables, and other goods literally stuck in the mud.  However, at the same time, it is these rains that feed the crops that will in turn feed my village for the next year.  As far as our crops are concerned, the more rain the better.  The rains also bring cooler temperatures.  It’s really nice not to go to bed sweating every night and wake up the same way every morning.  I can even have a cup of coffee with my breakfast without beads of it rolling down my face. Though I won’t miss when the mosquitoes and black flies die down, taking the forever festering skin infections that accompany them away, the cooler weather is nice.

But enough about the weather.  I have been back from the US for two full months and things keep moving.  I’ve been following up with prices on different types of well pumps and looking into grain-pounding machines.  A few days ago some organization came to my village and said they want to put a robinet (French for ‘faucet) in my village with water being pumped from another village 9km southeast of us.  They need to fix the forage (a really big pump) in the other village first, but they are hoping to complete that project in early 2009.  Having seen the rate at which projects here fall through, or forages break down, I’m not going to stop pursuing the pump project I already started.  I think I have funding for it if I can find a pump for less than $2500.  Though I’m a big proponent of solar technology, I think a hand or foot pump is our best bet.

The next big project I’m working on is details for a proposal to bring a grain pounding machine to my village.  Pounding and preparing grain is a huge bulk of the women’s work here and takes a toll on their bodies.  The women’s group identified obtaining a pounding machine as their top priority when we had our big meeting last year; getting a well pump was a close second.  I had been in Dakar researching machines when my uncle died.  Not only was this incredibly sorrowful to me personally, I saw it also as a huge setback to most of the work I’ve been doing in my village.  Everything I do here involved my uncle in one way or another.  He facilitated the women’s group meetings and was able to translate both the ideas I wanted to communicate to them and explain to me what was going on.  He really bridged the gap between western ideas and organization and the traditional slow-to-change ways of the village.  It was probably unwise for me to have depended on him so much, but I did and I feel it was to the benefit of the village.  As it is now, things here will keep moving on, perhaps just a bit slower.  In terms of the pounding machine this means I must now focus more on how we can successfully manage the machine.  My father, the chief of the village, has already worked out some of the details: we will have a committee that keeps track of the finances; we will send two or three people to a training in Dakar offered by the manufacturer on how to operate and make small repairs on the machine.  All that’s left is to work out some of the other details, have the women work out the details on organization, for me to write the proposal, and the money to be raised.

This is where you can insert yourself, if you would like.  The proposal is going to be through Peace Corps Partnerships, which puts PCV projects on their website where interested people can donate to the projects of their choice.  I’m not sure what the total project cost will be, of which the village will pay 25 percent, but I’m guessing just over $6300.  The machine itself is $5900 and on top of that we’ll need to build a hut with a good roof to keep it in and pay for its transport.  So in a short while I’ll be working to raise $4750.  I’ll send out the web link and information as soon as everything is submitted and approved.  And yes, donations are tax-deductible.

I may have mentioned before that Erin and I submitted eight girls as candidates from our local college (junior high) for the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship (named for a deceased PCV).  The scholarship is run through our Senegad (Senegal Gender And Development) program ( and awards one 30000cfa ($70) scholarship to one girl at each participating college.  In Senegal college is like a three year junior high, but many of the students are in their mid-teens before they pass to this level.  Peace Corps Volunteer has to organize and manage their applicants so colleges without a PCV nearby are unable to participate; however, urban PCVs with multiple college close by can work with as many as they choose.  The principal and teachers pick four girls from each grade, usually twelve girls per college, and we the volunteers meet with them, do home visits/interviews, collect teacher recommendations and the girls’ compositions, and submit them to Senegad.  The winner for each college is selected at a meeting in Dakar in August.  Senegad only has enough funding to sponsor one scholarship per school so Erin and I decided to cover the cost of a second in Koutia Ba (our college is new and only has two of the three grade levels offered so far).  In Koumpentoum Sara’s family back home is going to provide an extra $140 so that there can be a winner in each of the three grade levels there.  Erin, Sara and I are also planning a weekend leadership camp for all the candidates (20 girls in total from both our colleges) to be help in Koumpentoum in early November.  We have applied for funding through another PC grant that sponsors activities involving HIV/AIDS education, which we discuss in the female reproductive health portion of the weekend.  The three of us have a lot of work ahead of us: we are bringing in five female speakers, have sessions to plan, and are working on the logistics at a nearby campement.

The next big collaborative project we’re working on is hosting an eye clinic in Koumpentoum in January.  Another PCV with contacts to a medical group in the states that performs cataract surgery hosted an eye clinic in eastern Senegal last December.  The doctors enjoyed what they did so much that they asked to do it again in another location.  Hopefully this will bring sight to tens or thousands of people in the surrounding communities of Koumpentoum.  While Sara, Erin, myself, and the next two closest PCVs are excited to host this, we have a lot of logistical work to do from making sure the generator at the health post works to publicity to finding places for the doctors to sleep to getting ready for the crowd control problems that plague every medium-large size function in this country.  My family is coming to visit in November, which will leave December for all the last minute details.  I’m excited and exhausted just thinking about it.

For now the corn is tall and the millet stalks taller.  My four year old brother passes the days catching crickets and grasshoppers to feed to my cat (she really likes the insects).  Ramadan started September second here, so there’s no lunch to break up the day.  It’s interesting to think of the people here fasting on purpose when they were already skipping so many meals on account of lack of food.  But soon the fruits and grains of their labors will start to come in and another year will begin again in this tenacious little village.

Ba Chikanom,

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps