Last week, I finally, actually did something.
For months now I’ve been attempting to start a Care Group. This is a group consisting of women in the community who will then teach health topics to other women. The set-up is this: I found a woman in each of the 7 districts of my sous-prefecture (preferably who speak French) who will come to my town each month to learn a health topic. These women will return to their district and train a few women from each sector of their district on this health topic. These women will then each do about 5 home visits with target women in their sector. These target women are pregnant women or women with young kids (under 5), as the framework for Public Health Volunteers is focused on Maternal Child Health.
Since May I had been traveling to different districts to meet with large groups of women (as many as 70 have showed up), speaking to them about the idea of a Care Group and trying to find women interested in being part of it. There has always been a great response, and women are eager to be a part of it. Mostly, the few old men who show up to the meeting, usually important men in the community, chose the women for each sector, but the women always had some input and called out their suggestions.
These meetings were usually short and I said little, because the necessity of operating in Pulaar, as very few women speak French. I just gave a short spiel in each district about how I was very thankful they made the time to come to the meeting and that they were so motivated to work with me to help themselves. Short and sweet.
At the end I was often offered a gift, usually a chicken or the equivalent value. I always turned these down, with the help of my homologue, who always handled the situation with grace. He instructed them that I needed no payment for the work I would do with them and that I didn’t want presents and they should keep the money or chickens for themselves. When money was offered, he often told them to use it for a woman who needed help with payment for transport to get to the health center or some other situation like that.
It took a long time to visit all these districts and have these meetings. I missed one because I was sick but my homologue handled it on his own. When we finally had all these women chosen, we decided it was time for a first meeting.
Since I was soon leaving for a vacation in the U.S. for two weeks and then will be in Conakry helping with the training of the new volunteers for another 2 to 3 weeks, we decided we should have the meeting before I left, so it was set for the Sunday before I was to leave my town (exactly a week ago).
About 45 women are to be involved and all were told to come to my town on Sunday at noon to have our first meeting. They were also told lunch would be provided. This was a big discussion between me and my homologue. I’m grateful that the women are willing to travel to me for this meeting, but I don’t want to make providing lunch for them a habit. As much as I am thankful for their participation, I want them to be motivated on their own, not because they think they’ll get food and other presents for participating. Many NGOs provide small amounts of money to people who participate in projects like this, so it can become expected. I can’t and won’t do that. But lunch was do-able. We planned for about 25 women (in reality, getting 50% of them to show up is a major accomplishment) and I doled out the 110,000 (about $11) to pay for the ingredients for the sauce and the rice.
The day of the event, although some were late, 32 women showed up. I was shocked at what a good turnout we had. I really didn’t expect that.
Because of Guinean protocal and courtesies, we started out with the Sous-Prefet speaking. He is the political leader of the sous-prefet (kind of like a county) and is a very nice man. He gave a great metaphor that I really appreciated that went as follows: “She is like a tree with fruit. And we can take this fruit and use it, or she can leave and take it with her if she don’t take advantage of it.” Fruit being knowledge in this metaphor. I really liked it and appreciated his commentary. Especially him telling them to greet me but not be too aggressive about it. Because greeting can get to be too much.
The mayor of our town also spoke for just a few minutes. He told them that I would adapt to them as much as they would adapt to me and so if they just sat and did not work, neither would I.
As per my homologue’s request, we started out with an intro to PC. Just when it started, the goals of PC and why it exists.
Then we covered Public Health in Guinea and that the goals are to address, specifically, health needs for mothers and children.
Then we covered the structure of the Care Group. This took a while to get across, despite my illustrations of the pyramid like structure that is the Care Group. We spent a lot of time discussing it and trying to explain how it would work. Eventually, I hope, everyone got it.
Finally we got to the health topic of the month: Malaria. Since we’re in the middle of rainy season, we’re also in the middle of malaria season. Malaria kills 3 million people each year and West Africa accounts for quite a few of those deaths. Within West Africa, Guinea has some of the highest rates of malaria. This means it’s a dangerous disease for many in Guinea and one of the important things to address in maternal-health because children are more at risk due to weaker immune systems.
We talked about the symptoms and the cause (specifically how it’s a parasite that travels through the mosquito, rather than the mosquito who causes malaria), what to do if you have malaria (go to the health center and get the free medicine) and how to prevent it. Mostly, the women clearly knew most of the information, but it’s important to reiterate it. Hopefully, through repetition, they’ll understand better and take better precautions against malaria for themselves and their kids.
At the end I tried to do a True-False activity with basic facts from the presentation, but they weren’t super into it. They didn’t seem to get the concept, especially that I wanted them to go to different sides of the room based on whether they thought the statement was true or false. They just ended up raising their hands and very few even participated that much.
Overall, however, they were very participatory. They responded to questions and gave their opinions and discussed a lot of different things. I was very impressed.
I was very happy to finally have this group started and get such a positive response. The women seem motivated and excited to work with me and be in charge of the group. They’ll be responsible for spreading the information and I hope it empowers them to know that they can help themselves.
Last, but not least, we took a picture together. It was impossible to get them organized to all be in one picture, so we took three, rotating women through so everyone could be in a picture. No one smiled, in true Guinean fashion.
And then, or course, we had lunch.