Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Saying Goodbye

 Well, we are now home in the U.S. - and we are a bit behind on our blog, since we've been computerless for quite awhile. We spent a few weeks in Europe, flew into Boston on May 19th and have been visiting my family in Massachusetts. We'll head out to Wisconsin in a few days, then on to Minnesota and Iowa. Stay posted for further plans as they develop!

It wasn't easy to say our goodbyes to host family and friends in The Gambia. Here are just a few of the photos we took in the final month there.
The trekking team at the hospital in Bwiam: Pa Ous (l) and Ansumana (r)

Goats hoping for a snack at Bwiam's daily market.
My unfavorite chore: ironing with a charcoal iron.

Muhammed looking bored as he minds the local shop.

Chatting outside another local shop.

My friend Sirrah selling at the market.

Local omelet sandwich stand.

Cooking sauce farin.

Yusupha playing with some toys from Holland.

Darrin hanging out in the hospital pharmacy.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Tobaski is the Wolof word for the important Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. The holiday celebrates Abraham’s  near-sacrifice of his son Ishmael. Most important on this day is: lots of praying, sacrificing a ram (or cow or goat), looking fancy and feasting. For the kids, in the evening they get to dress up and go around asking for money and candy.  This year our community celebrated Tobaski on October 16, but due to ever-present technical problems I'm posting about it now!

2013: Dan (Jerreh) and Darrin (Kawsu) pose with our family's dog, Jack, in their nice holiday clothes

2013: Baby Therese chowing down on a large piece of meat and thoroughly enjoying it

Tobaski 2012: Binta snacks on some puffs while a ram is slaughtered.

Tobaski 2013: Fancy kids!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Material Baby!

A friend in our village(a mom with several kids) was recently urging me to hurry up and have a baby. I hear this from people all the time. Most Gambians are horrified to hear that the Peace Corps does not allow their married volunteers to procreate during their service. My friend pointed out that caring for a baby in The Gambia is not expensive, like it is in the U.S., so there should be no problem. You don’t need anything for the first month, she assured me. Just some old faanoos (wrap skirts) to wrap the baby in and replace with clean ones if the baby makes a mess. Later on, some used clothes might be nice. I didn’t even want to try to explain to her the massive amount of equipment some parents in the U.S. tote around on a daily basis!
When you have a baby in The Gambia, people generally give you things like money, soap and fabric – not crazy plastic contraptions. Granted, people in the Gambia are not inundated with the marketing of baby products like we are in the U.S. If these products were available and people had the money to buy them, they might. It’s human nature to like new, shiny products. And for many Gambians, having Western material goods is a big status things…so who knows. Maybe I will someday be visiting a more developed Gambia of the future, where people are pushing name brand baby joggers down village streets and sterilizing baby bottles in their electric dishwashers.
So, here is my top ten list of the West African way vs. the American way
(United States prices are estimates based on searches – I know they are not completely accurate!)
1. sport stroller for jogging(150 - 600 $ USD ) , regular stroller for general use (40- 400 $ USD), expensive baby backpack contraption and/or front-carrier contraption and/or store-bought baby sling (15 – 150 $ USD) , stroller base for car seat infant carrier (100 $ USD)
vs. wrap skirt (“faanoo”) (2 meters of fabric)  for riding on mom’s back (1 - 2 $ USD)
2. expensive child safety seat for automobile travel (80 – 300 $ USD)
vs. potential death in accidents involving baby riding unprotected in mom’s lap on public bus/donkey cart/taxi (0 $ USD) (I don’t even want to think about it!)
3. breastfeeding (0 $ USD) (In the U.S. A.: 49%  at 6 months, 27% at one year, says the CDC) or formula (20 $ USD)
vs. exclusive breastfeeding (0 $ USD) – anytime, anywhere…and no one cares or complains that it is obscene (in The Gambia: pretty close to 100%, barring a few exceptional situations, says me with no scientific proof)
4. disposable diapers (20 $ for 75) or cloth diapers (1 $ USD each) with intricate snap pants in cool design (12 $ USD)
vs. semi-reusable triangle of plastic (0.05 $ USD)  and an old, not especially absorbant rag OR nothing (0 $ USD – though you need soap and water for cleanup)
5. baby wipes (13 $ USD for 350 “all natural” wipes), baby wipe warming device (25 $ USD)
vs. plastic kettle (“tasaloo”) of water (1 - 2 $ USD) (I also recommend soap for proper handwashing)
6. play pen (50 – 100 $ USD)
Vs. mat on the ground (3 $ USD)
7. baby bathtub (25 $ USD), baby bath chair (20 $ USD)
vs. plastic basin (4 $ USD)
8. crib (150 – 300 $ USD), crib mattress (60 $ USD),  apnea alarm mat (100 $ USD)
vs. old fabric (0 $ USD), sheet of old plastic (0 $ USD), mom’s foam mattress (25 $ USD)
9. Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Click N’ Learn Remote (12 $ USD), Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Smart Screen Laptop (16.25 $ USD), Baby Einstein World of Rhythm DVD (10 $ USD)
vs. mom’s cell phone (20 $ USD), large, not-so-sharp knife (3 $ USD), sticks (0$ USD), goat poop (0$ USD)
10. Bouncer swing with IPAD  plug (200 $ USD)
vs.   Riding on mom’s back while she does work (0 $ USD)

No one can argue that West Africa is a safer place for babies than the U.S. – the discrepancy in access to health care is just too large. Malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections take many infants’ lives here…and countless more die for reasons no one investigates. In the U.S. we have access to clean water, medicine and amazing emergency services. We have eradicated malaria, successfully vaccinated our population against many deadly childhood diseases, educated the public on many child safety issues and found ingenious ways to make traffic accidents less deadly for kids. But we Americans also spend a lot of time, money and energy on things that have no discernable benefit to our childrens’ health and well-being.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Work at Sulayman Junkung General Hospital is not always exciting. I’ve recently spent a lot of time collecting information for birth certificate registrations, adding it to the official books and filling out certificates when they’re available…we’re always slightly behind on this task and I know my help is appreciated, if not particularly essential to anyone’s health and well-being (except maybe the public health officers, who can spend more time taking breakfast breaks).
I also still help out at clinic by making sure kids get the proper vaccinations, as quickly as possible. At some of the busier trekking sites, some crowd control is necessary at the vaccination station.  Gambian women are a multi-talented bunch, but few of them really excel at orderly queuing.
Sometimes I have nagging doubts though – I think most Peace Corps volunteers want to feel that they did that one  major project that was flawlessly  conceived, perfectly executed and really helped their community in a big way. And many volunteers do! But you can’t just force a project, especially in a large community that already has a lot of resources. Many times in Bwiam I’ve had a sudden “great” idea, only to inquire and find out people are already doing whatever it is, by themselves! Sometimes the best I can do is say “Great job! I’m so happy you’re doing that! Let me know if I can help.”
I never knew much about development work before coming here and I still don’t. However, I have learned one thing: it’s really complicated. What makes a project succeed in terms of its effect on individuals or communities is pretty elusive sometimes. Having a sufficient grasp of what’s really going on in a completely different environment and culture is frankly close to impossible, even when you live alongside community members for months or years. As volunteers we see situations where foreign aid money is being poured into projects and the benefits are minimal – and people are less willing to work for their own needs because they now expect continued support.  In other cases, aid is essential for people’s well-being (for example: Global Fund’s funding of antiretrovirals for HIV patients at our hospital) and the idea that the money may someday dry up or be withdrawn is very scary.
There are definitely many people here who believe that all Americans are insanely rich and should be giving them money and things all the time. It’s hard to explain that some of us are privileged in terms of our educational opportunities and skills, but we don’t have bottomless amounts of cash to share with them. A lot of people don’t want to hear that and a few will even become angry with you or call you a liar. I have been trying to put my ego aside and not fight about this – I just want to be secure in my own knowledge that I’m helping in the best way I know how. If I honestly thought that throwing money at some serious problem here would solve it for once and for all, I would be eager to raise funds, write grants or do whatever it takes. But I also believe that it’s something you really need to be careful about.
Honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for real development work. I respect that Peace Corps is geared towards small, community-based projects. And I’m sticking with the smallest of the small. If I leave after two years knowing that a handful of people learned something about family planning, malaria prevention or prenatal care, that’s great. If a few moms remember that some crazy white lady with terrible Mandinka (and even worse Wolof) came and held their hand while they were in labor and helped them to be a little less frightened and feel a little less alone, that’s great. If some of the hospital staff got a few new ideas for how to care for their patients, that’s great.
I’m a nurse and a volunteer because I care about people. I love women’s health because I love women and I want their lives to be better. Most women in The Gambia have hard lives, but they are strong. I don’t pity them, I respect them. I want to show them my respect by working alongside them and encouraging them…and we’ll see what happens.
Hospital staff educating about the benefits of prenatal care.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pictorial Tour of the Past Few Months

Prepping Gmelina tree seeds with host brothers

Our family's new puppy "Jack"

Colette enjoying the puppy while it's young

Our host brother Sam receiving his "Best Science Student" award this year

It's mango season here!

Sam with his award. We are very proud of him.

Colette with our friend Kassa. She's the new Deputy Head Girl at school.

Our cat only drinks water from buckets. She's spoiled.

The youth beekeepers received their new beesuits!

The hut I sleep in every week while beekeeping.

The NGO I work at 2 days a week.

Bottling fresh honey for resale.


Bintou (our host sister) and I are preparing "soso" for lunch.

Mariama pounding cardamom pods to put in home made soap.

Cute baby.

Colette whisking soap mixture.

Me whisking body butter mixture.

The group is proud of their home made beeswax and honey soap and body butter.

More soap making.

Hive building.

The youth with their new bee "catch boxes."

The group with their hives!

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At Abuko nature reserve.

Abuko nature reserve. It's a hyena!

In Cape Verde making sangria in the bathroom. We're classy budget travelers.

Cape Verde's black sand beach. 

One of Cape Verde's many shipwrecks.

We match! 

One student with her Earleaf Acacia that she has been taking care of.

In Basse Santa Su.

We used to eat by we have electricity!

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer's beautiful hut.

One of two bathtubs we've seen in our village. The other one is in a pig sty.

Wedding feast called Benecin!

We made grass hives.

A local "griot" musician played the kora at our host sister's wedding.