Anne Linn, PCV, Saraya, Senegal
Oct 14, 2012
As the sept-place bearing the peacecare team approached Saraya, I couldn’t help but wonder what these newcomers to Senegal would think of the place that has become my home over the past five months. We passed the new hospital built by the Japanese government and sitting unused for over a year because the Senegalese government hasn’t done their part to provide water and electricity. We passed the school where I have a girls’ scholarship program and have spent many hours painting a mural to encourage students to stay in school rather than dropping out to mine gold. We passed the thatched roofs of huts much like my own and arrived at the District Health Center where I work every day. How to best share my world?
Well, when in Senegal, do as the Senegalese. We started things off by making introductions to important community elders, most notably, Bintu Mady Danfakaha, the chief. He in turn gave each of the team members a Senegalese name, providing them with an entry point to several key aspects of Senegalese culture—greetings and joking cousins. Lengthy, scripted greetings are essential to interactions with the Senegalese, and they center around a person’s last name. Joking cousin relationships exist between different last names, where people insult each other in good fun (most of the jokes center around the eating of beans). Because of these two cultural elements, peacecare team members were asked their names by almost everyone they met during their stay, and were thus able to interact with the community at a deeper level. Yes, they came to work on a specific cervical cancer project, but, in my opinion, understanding the context in which a project is set is just as important as understanding the disease in terms of project success.
This is the beauty of the peacecare partnership. The clinicians from the academic centers bring the technical expertise, and we Peace Corps Volunteers bring our integration into the communities served by the project, our knowledge of what works on the ground, our local language skills, and our connections with the key people that will make the project work and continue to work in the future. Neither partner could be as effective without the other, and the synergistic effect makes this project really exciting to work on. Andrew Dykens’ own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mauritania shines through in the project design, with its emphases on sustainability and overall health systems strengthening.
It is not often that one week of work as a volunteer can simultaneously meet all three goals of Peace Corps, but this one did.
Goal 1: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Meeting with health officials to think strategically together about the future of this project, training midwives in clinical training techniques, and conducting screenings in preparation for the mass campaigns that will make up the upcoming prevalence study all worked to meet this goal in a participatory, sustainable way.
Goal 2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
On my own, I cannot represent America, and exposing the people of my community to Americans with different backgrounds greatly increased their understanding of the country I represent as a volunteer. Explaining vegetarianism to my host mom when asking if the team could join my family for lunch was not an easy task, but it was a conversation that may not have ever happened without this visit from a team of Americans that included someone who abstains from eating meat.
Goal 3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The peacecare team members were troopers, willing to try anything: trips out to peanut fields and artisanal gold mines, negotiating with fabric sellers and tailors, attempting traditional dances, sitting on the floor around the food bowl under my family’s shade structure, bracing themselves on terrible roads to the remote villages where we would conduct cervical cancer screening in a hut with a dirt floor. They witnessed a painful unfolding of events as Patrick and I begged our host sister to take her two-year old with an infected wound on her hand to the health center, and watched as the family postponed the visit again and again—40 cents was too much to pay, even as her hand swelled bigger and bigger and her cries grew louder and louder. If that doesn’t teach about disparities in this world, I don’t know what does.
This morning, a different sept-place drove us all away from Saraya. I can’t say for sure what the visiting team members will take away from this trip, but as for myself, I have had the chance to share my home, to look at my here with outside eyes, to ask questions I hadn’t even thought of. I have been given a chance to view my work as a preventive health educator from a more clinical perspective, enhancing my capacity as a volunteer through this other angle of understanding. I have been part of conversations between my Senegalese and American counterparts for this project that thrill the public health nerd in me, inspire the idealist in me, and empower me in my service. In my Peace Corps experience thus far, it doesn’t get much better than that.