Thursday, July 11, 2013

Looking Back:

2011 Peace Corps The Gambia HIV Bike Trek

I was introduced to Mariatou Jallow at the counterpart training for the HIV Bike trek. She shocked me when instead of giving me the traditional handshake she pulled me into a hug (the significance of this move can be fully appreciated when you realize that most Gambians never hug). Mariatou was at the training as a representative for the Bansang Upper Basic School’s Peer Health Club. Over the next two days while we learned the trek’s curriculum, I became more and more impressed with 8th grade Mariatou. She dedicated herself to learning the difficult material, asking many questions until she could explain how HIV spread and what its effect on the body’s immune system. I got to spend more time with Mariatou before the trek. I went to Bansang at her request to practice the lesson plans. Her commitment to learning the material was amazing.

Mariatou’s hard work paid off when we taught at her school. My fellow volunteers and I had been prepared to teach the two-day lesson ourselves, thinking Mariatou and the other students would participate by assisting with the dramas. She blew everyone away by teaching a significant part of the lesson about how HIV is transmitted. Eight grade Mariatou taught her ninth grade peers about the immune system by drawing diagrams and leading an educational game. She translated confusing material into local languages, including embarrassing material about transmission through sexual fluids. She even reminded her fellow students to stay quiet and give us respect when volunteers were teaching.

I was so proud of Mariatou that week. We stayed in touch over the next year. Mariatou ending up transferring to combo where she re-taught the HIV bike trek lesson to her new school. She became a resource for her new friends to turn to with questions. The HIV Bike trek is such an important Peace Corps tradition because it allows us to reach so many young people with important health messages, but it also gives us a great opportunity to inspire individual student to become health advocates themselves. Mariatou Jallow is the perfect example of this.

Friday, September 7, 2012


It Rains, It Pours

I apologize for my lack of blogging. I’ve gotten busier here and have had trouble keeping up with this. Here is an update:
The Weather: It's raining this year! Unlike last year it actually has been a very wet rainy season. Almost every day we've gotten some rain. Things are flooding. Mud Houses are falling down. But most importantly the Coos, Corn, Groundnuts, and Rice is GROWING!
The Care Group: (see last post): The ladies are going strong. We’ve now taught about Nutrition, Diarrhea, Environmental Sanitation, Waste Disposal, and Malaria Prevention. I see so much excitement and pride in the seven women who have become health teachers in the village. They want me to make a book for them of the visual aids we’ve used so they can teach without me when I leave. I’m so proud!
America:  In July I was lucky enough to take a trip back to home! I got to see go to a Starch reunion in Colorado, hang with people in Michigan, and glam it up in New York City. It was so nice to see so many people I love so much and have missed intensely. Also the food was amazing…
Despite attending four years of art(/design) school I hadn’t done fine art in a long time. But the Gambia has brought me back to painting and I’m loving it! Images are so important here in West Africa. It’s not like America where we are exposed to countless images on TV, in advertisements, online, in books… here pictures are a rare and a highly valued thing. They become more valuable when they can also spread a message because here in the Gambia literacy rates are very low. Images can help many people understand new concepts if they are done well. Murals are a great way to get more information images into the country because they are durable, cheap, and can be put in a variety of locations.
I’ve painted murals on how to make the local mosquitoes repellent in a friend’s village; a series of health murals in a village on the other side of the river; and have begun painting visual aids in every classroom at the school in my village. I love having this ongoing project becauseI can pick up the painting whenever I have time. I’ve had lots of friends come and help and have been pleased with how many villagers have come to practice painting.
The PC admin found out about all my muraling and asked me to help lead a mural workshop for twenty Peace Corps Volunteers in early September. We got a grant to do this training and develop health murals. Another friend and I designed ten health murals that could be gridded out and copied by volunteers. At the training we taught about effective visual aids, steps to painting a mural, color mixing, painting techniques, and my favorite how to make objects POP with simple shading.
I think the training went really well! Volunteers seemed excited and confident about their muraling abilities and ready to go paint in their communities. We calculated that if every volunteer just did two murals in their communities up to 30,000 Gambians could see them and start thinking about important health topics. Plus painting is just fun and livens up buildings!
In other news my host mom just had a baby! A baby girl was born August 25th in our compound. I missed the birth but was in the house while the midwives scrubbed my new baby sister clean and prayed over her. She’s big and healthy and good at crying. My host family seemed very happy and honored me by naming the baby after me (my Gambian name) Fatoumata Sowe! Another Fatso joins the world J

Monday, March 19, 2012

Women Teaching Women

Dalanda is beaming at me. She's just interrupted me for the third time since I began my lesson on oral rehydration solution. "Fatou mi andi dum", Fatou I know this she says. And she does. Dalanda, a mother of five, who never got to go to school couldn't be prouder. She takes over my lesson and explains to the six other women in our circle how to make the rehydration drink with eight spoon fulls of sugar and one of salt. Now I am the one who is smiling, still shocked at how well this is going.

Dalanda, along with four other women from my village, was selected to be a ‘leading mother’- a teacher in our Care Group. The Care Group model is a structure for health education used by Peace Corps all over the world. It is a way to teach information by spreading it to every compound through a trained teacher. My counterparts and I work with our leading mothers to discuss a health topic, and then these mothers are responsible for passing the information to the rest of the village by re-teaching the lesson in every compound.

The Care Group model by far has been the most successful form of Health Education that I have done in my village. In the past I would try to teach about health by having large health talks. Women would be invited from all the villages in my area so no one would be offended. These talks would turn in to all day events where we had to wait most of the day for everyone to finally show up. Because these meetings ending up taking all day, lunch would have to be provided and there was of course no funding for that. Since it was impossible for every woman in the area to attend each village would send representatives. These women were not necessarily eager to learn but were the most respect members of their community. I would come home from giving these health talks with a huge headache, not feeling like everyone listened and uncertain that the information would be passed along.

Our Care Group is different. Our leading mothers were selected by their peers for how active they are in the village and how eager they are to learn more about health. Our group consists of our five leading mothers, the village’s two traditional birth attendants, the village health care worker (who translates) and myself. When we meet to discuss a new topic we all work to learn together as a group. I act as more of a facilitator than a teacher and remind the women at the beginning of every session that they have a lot of knowledge already, as health workers and as mothers. We go slow, allowing every woman to contribute her thoughts to the discussion. Every time we meet I learn something new too. I make visual aids on rice bags for each woman to take along when she re teaching the lesson to the village. Aside from the juice I bring to the gatherings the rice bags are the projects only expense.

The Care Group model is effective on many levels. Every woman hears the information, including young women who often miss meetings due to their heavy workloads. The leading mothers teach when they have free time after lunch when the villages relaxes, so no one is inconvenienced. Our leading mothers chose how they wanted to organize the compound talks. They decided to divide themselves into two teams that would each be responsible for half the compounds in the village. The traditional birth attends teach with the leading mothers to offer support. I feel that these mothers teach their friends better than I ever could. They don’t have to struggle through a foreign language and they can explain in ways that their peers will understand. The leading mothers are fully trusted and respected by their community and they allow the health information to become a discussion between friends instead of a something told at them by an outsider. When the women of the village see their friends teaching about health they gain confidence and know that they are capable of learning about health too. It’s also hard to miss the pride and confidence that the leading mothers are getting from becoming new resources for health in the village. Capacity building and sustainability…. Check.

I started this project at the beginning of February. So far we’ve covered easy topic like Exclusive Breastfeeding and ORS. I know the challenge is going to come as we move into more difficult topics. I know its going to evolve as we move along (we just started doing dramas to recap the lesson for the village). I hope that I can set up Care Groups in more villages in the area. I think the model could be adapted by any volunteer who wants to do some kind of education. I’ve finally found a project that I really believe in. When my host mom came up to me the other day and began explaining to me how I have to wait till my future children are six months old to give them water all I could do was smile.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

One Year In

It’s official. Over a year ago I arrived in the Gambia. I was describing to a friend how I feel like time here moves like our public transportation: either you are holding on for dear life flying down the road or you are sitting next to a broken car thinking that you will be stuck here forever.

Christmas brought an amazing present; Michael, my twin brother, came for a visit! It was so great to have a friendly face here. I got to experience a different side of the Gambia while we spent a few days at lodges relaxing and eating good food. Our favorite place was right on the beach. I made sure he also got the real Gambian experience too and took him up to my village. I’ve gotten so used to the way things work here that I forgot Michael might be uncomfortable on the slow ferri across the river or annoyed by having to wait two hours for a car to fill. But in the end we made it. My village smothered him with their overzealous welcoming and poor Michael had to greet everybody. My host family and village friends were so excited to meet him since family is so important to the culture here and they didn’t believe I actually had any.

One day we went to a weekly market which I am sure was overwhelming for Michael. New Year’s Eve we spent with my friend Samba who plays a fiddle made of horse hair and the skin of a lizard. We danced while he played and his wife sang. The village kids and women got down too. It was a great way to bring in the 2012. On New Year’s Day we took an amazing ride down the Gambian river and saw hippos and a crocodile. That was a first for me and very exciting. My close friends in village gave Michael gifts to take home, mostly for my mom as a sign of respect for my family.

Michael doesn’t know this but everyone in my village called him “Minirowo Ma” or younger [brother]. That is because in Pular there is no word for brother or sister just older or younger sibling. In Gambian culture the twin to come out first is considered the younger sibling because it is thought that the older twin sent their sibling on ahead to scope out the world for them. Michael always holds his extra five minutes over my head but here I win!

I was sad to see him fly out again and know it would be so long until we’ll meet again. I kept busy by finishing up the pump repair project that I wrote about before. I want to send my deepest thanks to those of you who helped contribute to fix it! We were able to buy new parts to replace old parts that have been worn down from decades of use. A local man from a village near ours came over and we pulled the pipe 36 meters out of the ground. All the men in my village spent a day in the sun watching was everything was taken apart and pieces got replaced. I was fascinated to watch as well. The actual pumping mechanism was so small. It was a very slow process to lower everything back in the hole but now things are working great! With two functioning pumps in the village the line for water has gotten a lot shorter. Everyone is so happy. Thanks again!

My ongoing project of helping the women’s group sell their handcrafts got more complicated today. I was so excited because I made contact with a woman who sells crafts here in the capital to the hordes of tourists that come to use the beach. She heard about our traditional jewelry and was eager to see samples and place an order. I brought some with my friend Dowda today. She thought the necklaces were very beautiful but didn’t like our prices. The problem is that a lot of what the tourist craft markets have here is actually imported from places like China or Turkey were it can be made cheaply. The markets are chuck full of identical, imported, ‘African’ crafts. We have to ask for triple or quadruple the wholesale price of most of her other items. She is going to think about buying from us but it doesn’t look good. It makes me so angry that fake, cheap things are being past off for authentic crafts and the money from the tourists isn’t staying in the Gambia where it is needed.

I’m trying to soak up what is left of the cold season. It was great for a while, some nights I needed a sweatshirt to sleep in. The heat is fast approaching as is wedding season and naming ceremonies for the babies. My host father has saved money to have a ceremony for his three youngest children and I am looking forward to celebrating, there will be some really good food.

Thanks for reading. I miss you all- send me some letters or emails please ;-)

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Today I’m 24, celebrating my first birthday off American soil and away from my twin. To compensate some friends and I checked into a fancy hotel here in the Gambia and spent last night soaking up as much comfort as we could. I took 3 hot showers, slept like a baby on a mattress that had springs, and floated in the pool. It was amazing; tomorrow it’s back to village. In village no one will understand the concept of a birthday, the are not special or remembered.

I apologize for how long it’s taken me to post again, but it’s a good sign, I’ve been busy. Tobaski was a couple of weeks ago, it’s the big holiday in here. Tobaski celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son when God asked him to and the ram that was killed instead. Tobaski here is a big day for prayers, nice clothes, and a ram fest. In the morning I was graciously invited out to the prayer fields. The whole village gathered under a large tree field behind the village. Many people wore white, it was beautiful out in the sunshine. Afterwards I helped my host moms prepare lunch while my host father went out to slaughter the ram. We had “Sauce and Bennachin”- an oily rice with squash, potatoes, onions, eggplant, and ram. The men traveled in groups and ate a few different lunches in different compounds. The women waited until they were full and then got together, each on bringing a bowl and we ate together.

Then it was time for Salibo! For Salibo the kids and teenagers get all dressed up. Even the poorest families find a way to get their kids in new clothes, even if they have to go into debt. My host sisters went all out, especially enjoying the eye shadow I got them. After getting all dressed up they travel around in groups to the different compounds asking for “Salibo”. Salibo is kind of like trick or treating. You give out a small amount of money to a large group of kids or some candy. The kids share their money and have a party the next day with juice or sweet milk. Young married women also go out for Salibo so I went with my host moms and a bunch of other women. It was especially fun because I had an asobe, a matching outfit, with my host moms. My job was to get photos of everyone in their nice outfits. At night you relax and brew Attaya or sweet milk and go to be exhausted. We had goat for the next two days, scary due to the lack of refrigeration.

Everyone’s been spending a lot of time in the fields. A lot of the crops are in already. We harvest the corn in September. Next came the coos mid-October. Now it’s the groundnuts (peanuts). Everyone is back to eating three square meals again. I’ve been helping bring in some of the food. It’s a lot of work! For the groundnuts my host father had to plow up the plants first. After they dry for a while we picked them up and throw them into piles where they sit till they are thrown on to a bigger pile. Later a small shelter is built around them until they can be slowly, slowly brought back home. This year we ate groundnuts up until June before they ran out.

I’ve done a few things since my last blog post. In September the PCVs put on an environmental camp for 7-9th grade girls. I brought one of the teachers from the school in my village because we also had sessions on classroom management and visual aids. I team taught a few sessions on overpopulation, appropriate technology, and a fun craft section where we made bugs from recycled material. I made a fun visual aid for the overpopulation session. We wanted to relate the information to what the girls know so I made a village on a rice bag with removable parts. We added drawings of more people and subtracted trees from the forest and fish from the river. The appropriate technology session was right up my alley, but it was a hard concept to explain in an hour. We also had a drama for the girls to illustrate how they should go back to village and spread their new knowledge. I played an old man trying to put batteries in his field to energize them, It was silly. The camp was a lot of fun! We had about 30 girls from all over the Gambia. It was so cool to take girls out of the village and give them a week where they didn’t have to fetch any water or cook any meals. It was a completely new experience for most of the girls, going away to camp is a new concept in the Gambia.

In October I was part of a trek PCVs did to educate about HIV and AIDS. Four teams taught at four different schools about how HIV is acquired, prevention, medication, extra. The best part was that I had a Gambian counterpart that I taught with. Her name is Mariatou and she is an 8th grader who is part of the health club at the Bansang Middle school. Her English is great and she did a wonderful job. I was so impressed. We practiced before the trek (I went to her compound and met her family) and in the classroom she taught a good portion of the two day lesson to students in the grade ahead of her! I felt like I was working with the next Gambian minister for health.

After the HIV bike trek most of the Peace Corps went to Kanili where the President had a program to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and 45 years of service in the Gambia. The President feed us two good meals and there were a bunch of speeches. It was an interesting evening. I got to shake his hand twice and he gave all of us new outfits. We preformed our silly camp drama. So I’ve cross dressed in front of a head of state now. By 2 am we had been properly thanked and feed. It was very, very interesting…

Otherwise village life has been the same. I’m really enjoying spending time with my host family. My baby host sister calls me mom, it’s so cute. I’ve been tutoring a lot lately. A teacher at the school wanted to start a health club so we have our first meeting next week on Malaria. I’m continuing the saga on how to help my womens group sell their beaded jewelry. I'm also raising money to fix a water pump in my village(click to donate). I'll try to write again soon!

Friday, August 19, 2011

a spoonful weighs a ton

One night while I was lying out with my host family after dinner, looking at the stars, one of my host moms went into her house and came back with a jar. She began to smear Neem cream all over her sleeping baby. A few minutes later my other host mom went and got her jar of the mosquito repellent and slathered up her sleeping kids. My host father asked for some and his wife asked me to get her back. I just laid there and watched, grinning ear to ear. They listened to me! They were making a change, working to reduce their chances of getting malaria. The next day my host mom hung up mosquito nets outside on poles so they could sleep outside protected. I am so proud.

My campaign to get people to use Neem cream and fight against malaria is going pretty well I think, I have made some believers. I’ve done a lot more demos with women who have heard about it and want to learn. One woman got really interested and started making batches and selling them. That led to some lessons about basic business concepts. She is loving her profits. Other women are trying to break into the market as well.

Moringa is growing tall all over my area. Back in July three friends of mine came to my village for a Moringa Trek. We planted Moringa for three days and got almost two thousand trees in the ground at seven different sites. And it is growing like a weed, up to my hip already. I held a nutritional talk about it with my village that went great. I drew up illustrations about all the benefits you can get from the leaves; a muscular woman for protein, a skeleton and teeth for calcium, and the hardest of all a happy mother and child sort of glowing with sick people around them for vitamins. The images went over great and people said they were really happy to understand why it was so good for them. Seems like maybe I should do more nutrition talks in the future. We also discussed how best to cook with the Moringa leaves. I showed them how to dry the leaves and make a powder that can be sprinkled on every meal (virtually tasteless) to add nutrients all day long. Three spoon fulls a day provides almost all the daily requirements a person needs.

I’ve got other irons in the fire: trying to find a better market for my women’s group to sell their traditional beaded jewelry; writing a grant to repair one of our handpumps; and writing lesson plans for an environmental girls camp in September that I will be helping with. I’ve really enjoyed working with my women’s group more and more. They make really beautiful multistringed beaded pieces. These are traditionally worn by a Fula bride who might have a headpiece, choker, necklaces, bracelets, bin bins (for the waist), and multiple anklets. They make really elaborate pieces were some appear almost woven.

With August we are in the middle of raining season, malaria season, hungry season, and Ramadan. Food is harder to come by as the stores from last year dwindle. People work hard to get next year’s crop planted. The rains have been really light this year. The crops are still small in the fields and for a long time people were worried they wouldn’t grow at all. People don’t remember seeing this little rain for thirty years. It’s a problem, especially when everyone is a subsistence farmer. A harsh draught would be a disaster, much like what eastern Africa is going through. I’ve been going out and helping my host family with their fields. We leave early in the morning and walk forty minutes out to their fields. Then its hours bent at the waist over the rows with a hoe hacking the weeds. Man is it hard work! My hands keep getting blisters and I couldn’t sweat any more. But the Gambians are significantly more hard core as they are working while fasting, no food or drink during the daylight hours. I tried it once on a day where I didn’t help in the fields. It was so tough. All I could do was lay around. Since then I’ve just skipped lunch and drank like a fish.

Over seven months in and I'm a quarter way through my service! Its hard to believe, time is starting to move really fast. I'll be home before you know it but in the mean time I miss you all so much! Send me an email or letter, I'd like some news from my friends.