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!

Add caption

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.

The Saddest Day

     One day last week I stopped by the maternity ward after clinic, to greet some nurse and midwife friends before heading home for some rest and some lunch (it was about 12:30). They mentioned that a young woman who was having very difficult labor was in the delivery room. I stopped in and found this 21 year old woman (this was her first pregnancy) in a state of absolute exhaustion, all alone on the bare delivery table, with a few nurse standing around. Her aunties and husband were outside somewhere and she told me (in English) that she had not slept or eaten anything in nearly two days. One of the midwives told me he had just checked and she was fully dilated, so he was hopeful she'd deliver by 2pm.
     I decided that if I could give her some support, I should stay. So I stayed. I held her and reassured her and encouraged her while she pushed for 5 hours. There was no option for any kind of pain relief and the best we could do for her exhaustion was to keep some IV fluids running, give her sips of water and have her lick some sugar in attempt to give her a little energy. I was exhausted and hungry, but I know it was nothing compared to what she was going through. At one point everyone else had left the room and she said, 
     "You are a good person. Everyone else has left me here."
Later she said,  "I am going to die." 
     "You are NOT going to die," I said. "You are very strong. You are going to be fine. Your baby is going to be fine. You are going to do this."
    At 5:30 they decided to arrange an ambulance ride to Banjul, because the hospital there could do a cesaerean section. We had her get up and put on a wrap skirt. Her aunty came and tied her headwrap back on.
     "Ning sunkuto a bambanta baake," I told the aunty in Mandinka. (This girl is very strong.)
     Her legs were too weak to support her, but she wanted to sit on the commode while we waited for the ambulance. I held her while she sat there for about twenty minutes, pushing through countless strong contractions. When one of the midwives came in she got back on the table and pushed the baby out in just a few minutes.
     The baby girl was big, obviously full term, with a lot of hair. But she had been stuck in the birth canal for a long time and was limp and grey. Her breathing was slow and irregular and after suctioning her airway the midwife and several Cuban doctors began administering oxygen.
     "We need ventilator," one doctor said. "In other country, they have ventilator."
     No one said anything to the mother, who was still on the table, getting some painful sutures. I held her hand and told her,
     "The baby is not breathing well, but they are trying to help. They are giving oxygen and medicine."
     Around 6pm the mother was transferred to the postnatal ward and her aunties brought a foodbowl with fish, rice and sauce. She asked me to eat with her. We sat there, surrounded by a few other moms and their babies, and ate. It was hard for me to swallow. I washed the oil and stray pieces of rice off my right hand and I told her I would go check on the baby. 
     When I reached the delivery room I saw one of the the Cuban doctors pronouncing the newborn dead. 
     "I don't hear nothing," he said in broken English, shrugging and putting his stethoscope down.
     I went with one of the midwives to break the news to the mother and her family. I stayed with her while she sobbed uncontrollably.
    "Take me there," she said finally and I steered her wheelchair down the hallway to the delivery room. Several nurses and the cleaner who was mopping the floor gathered round as she unwrapped the infant and examined her, touching her ears, lips and hair. They began praying and patting the mother's back. 
     She never got to hold the baby. 

Post-natal ward

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


I am happy to be able to post some pictures of...our first vacation!! On May 23rd Darrin, our friend Kathy and I travelled overland to Dakar, where we met up with Dylan and then flew to Praia, on the island of Santiago, Cape Verde. We had a fantastic time, found excellent and economical accomodations, did some hiking and generally enjoyed a slightly cooler climate and a very different culture. I wonder if the language barrier would have bothered me if I hadn't just come from 14 solid months of living where I constantly hear people talking and have no idea what they're saying...but between a few remembered words of Spanish and French, a small number of English speakers we encountered, a VERY small number of Mandinka speakers we encountered, and about 10 servicable words of Creole we learned, we managed pretty well.

In Tarrafal, on the island of Santiago

Darrin and Kathy in Tarrafal

Scary hole in a Tarrafal

Dylan enjoying the view in Tarrafal

Boa Vista

The folks...on Boa Vista!