Family Planning Paperwork

Generally, when I got to the Health Center (Centre de Santé), I don’t do a whole heck of a lot.  At first they wanted me to watch them do meetings with patients.  They wanted to teach me how to give vaccinations and injections.  They wanted me to essentially be able to run a meeting with a patient on my own.

They quickly realized this wasn’t going to happen.

It’s against the rules for PCVs to give injections (unless you’re a registered nurse), for which I am thankful.  It took a long time to get this point across, because coming here as a health volunteer they assume I’m a doctor.  They were actually shocked that I didn’t already know how to give vaccinations.  But after many long conversations I got the point across that I can’t (and have absolutely no interest in) giving vaccines.  I’d probably pass out on the spot.  Needles don’t bother me but I can’t actually watch injections, on others or myself.  I get light headed.

Along with not being able to give vaccinations, I’m really not qualified to be having patient consultations.  Like I said, I’m not a doctor.  And I don’t want to be.  And despite feeling like I have a better general sense of health than the average Guinean, the doctors and trainees at the health center know better the common illnesses and their symptoms of Guinea that I do.  I could recognize a case of malaria for sure.  And some other common illnesses.  But cases like these come in less often then people with injuries from moto accidents.  So eventually they realized I wasn’t going to be a new doctor to lessen their workload.

This has left me with not a whole lot to do.  As a Public Health Volunteer my job is to address health issues through education, not as a doctor.  I’m here to inform people how to prevent Malaria, how to optimize nutrition for themselves and their children based on local foods, and teach the proper aspects of breastfeeding (when that should start, when new foods can be added in to the diet, etc.), among other topics.  This kind of work doesn’t really happen at the Health Center, because there isn’t much of an obvious.  Most days, there are few clients.

It has come down to me helping with Pre-Natal Consultations on Saturdays, which is our busiest day at the Health Center because it’s market day and so women come from the surrounding villages to go to the market and stop at the Health Center while they’re in town.  Since the majority of women speak little French, the doctor still has to conduct these consultations herself.  I am there to count out the pre-natal vitamins and malaria meds each women gets.

Last week, I got to actually do something!  I helped fill out Family Planning Forms for women who had come in to the Health Center for birth control.  I was given the big book that the doctor keeps the records in and then had to copy the information down onto the forms.

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This is the big book that Dr. Hassanatou keeps records in.  From left to right: Name, Age, Village name, Occupation, Married/Single, Age of Children, ?, Blank, Method Preferred, Method Given, Amount Given, ?
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Forms that I had to fill in

It was easy, mindless work, and I’d done it once before, but it was nice to feel like I was doing something.  I had to write their names, ages, occupation, village, their requested form of contraception and what they actually got (which was always what they requested).  I also had to write no a bunch of questions that the doctor said she asked them and that the response was always no.  I’m a little skeptical of this, but I just followed her directions.

I had talked with the doctor about contraception before, and I’m still surprised how many options women have here.  I thought it would only be the pill, but they can also get shots or implants.  And all of the options are very reasonably priced; usually less than $0.50 USD a month. And that’s affordable by Guinean standards.

The downfall is how secretive women have to be to get contraception.  They often can’t tell their husbands because they’d be accused of wanting it because they were cheating.  So they have to sneak into the Health Center and have to hide away money to pay for the contraception.  It’s a sad situation.

Thankfully, it seems like lots of women are going for it anyway.  Almost 30 women got some form of birth control in the month of July, ranging in age from 17 to late 30s.  All were married and had previous children.  I’m not sure their reasons for using it, whether they wanted more space between kids or didn’t want more kids, but I’m happy to see that women are taking advantage of the opportunity to make the choices for themselves about having children.  And I hope some of them have consulted their husbands and have their consent, but if they don’t, I’m glad they’re doing it anyway.

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The Salidaga

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The picture above is a salidaga.  This is the Bambara word for it, I can’t remember the Pular one, and in English I would just call it a plastic kettle.  But it has a very specific use, so I believe I very specific name is needed.  Thus I continue to use salidaga.

The salidaga is used to by Guineans, Malians and I assume other West Africans when they go to the bathroom.  They’re kept constantly filled with water, and carried with to and from the latrine.  They’re also used to provide water for washing hands, brushing teeth, doing the ablutions before praying and occasionally, mostly by children, drinking.

Now I assume you can imagine how the water is used for all those activities except going to the bathroom.  In the latrine, the water from the salidaga is used to clean oneself, in place of toilet paper.  Most people here actually think toilet paper is a very dirty way to clean yourself.  I’ve seen people laugh when they see me taking to the latrine with me.  As such, I usually just rip some off the roll and tuck it in my shirt so they don’t know what I’m doing, and take the salidaga with me, which I then don’t use.

The West African method of cleaning yourself involve holding the salidaga with your RIGHT hand and using your LEFT hand to clean yourself.  For ladies, if you pee, you pour some water in your left hand and splash upwards as many times as you see fit.  If you’re pooping, you hold the salidaga in your right hand and kind of pour the water down your butt-crack, simultaneously wiping with your left hand until clean.

How can I explain this so well?  I have in fact done both.  Not unless I have to however.  Toilet paper is available for sale and I do buy it whenever I am in the regional capital.  While the local methods leave you clean, it also leaves you wet and I just don’t like that.  But I have run out of toilet paper before, and thus been forced to use the salidaga.

This method of cleaning yourself is why there is such a stigma around the left hand being dirty in West African culture.  You don’t ever eat with your left hands and you don’t give or accept things from others with your left hand.  The eating thing I can handle because I’m right handed so it feels weird anyway to eat with my left hands, and this rule mostly just applies to when you’re eating with your hands out of a shared bowl.  Not when you’re eating with utensils or off your own plate.  Though I think West Africans still generally avoid it.  I have had a hard time getting used to not giving or accepting things with my left hands, especially at the market when my hands are full of bags and I’m taking transactions.

And you may be wondering, are there left handed West Africans? Of course.  I’m sure there are a lot who may have been trained out of using it by their parents, but I have also seen West Africans write with their left hand.  They’re probably just much more ambidextrous than most Americans.

There is one time that West Africans will shake with their left hands.  This is when someone is leaving for a long time.  Possibly you may never see them again.  Since shaking with the left hand is “wrong”, the idea behind shaking with the left hand in this instance is that the person leaving had to come back to rectify the “mistake”.  It’s a nice tradition I think.

So there you have it.  The salidaga.  A nice piece of West African culture that I thought you all would appreciate hearing about.  So next time you go to the bathroom, appreciate that toilet paper.  Because what you buy here sure isn’t Cottonelle and because I didn’t buy enough this time to make it through to my next trip to the regional capital…

The Sacrifice

The title of this blog post is misleading.  While Guineans would call what I just witnessed a sacrifice, it was not that in any sense of the American/English meaning.  Guineans often use the word sacrifice to explain a ceremony of sorts.  I’m not sure if the meaning has to do with a certain type of ceremony, but I’ve often heard it used in conjunction with funerals.  I certainly did not just witness the slaughter of any animals, so let’s just call it a ceremony.

After dinner this evening a bunch of men started showing up at my host family’s house.  When my host father is around, this is fairly normal, but he’s not, so I was confused.  Then my homologue started laying out mats for them to sit on in the living room.  A pack of candles and incense appeared and I started wondering what was happening.

Then, when there were about 6 men, none of whom I recognized except my homologue, a plate of sand appeared and seven candles were stuck in it, and lit, along with some incense.  At this point I was pretty sure I was about to witness a séance and I was ready to bolt.  I wanted no part of that.

I’m not sure if my homologue noticed I looked a tad concerned/confused, but he started explaining that they were going to have a “sacrifice” because it was the end of the lunar calendar and they always do this.  Afterward he explained further that it was the end of the lunar calendar after the month of Ramadan and that’s why they were doing this.  Plus my host-mother has been pretty ill the last few weeks and I think he said part of the ceremony was for her.  Still not sure if this happens every lunar month or not, though.

So they started out with six men and the ceremony ended with nine men present.  It began with one saying some prayers in Arabic out loud, using pieced of dried corn to count how many he did.  This is fairly normal, as Muslims often use rosary type beads to count their prayers.  Then everyone did some silent praying themselves, using corn to count.  I think they did at least 20 each based on the piles of corn in front of each man.  Eventually they ran out of corn and one man signaled that that they were done.  Not sure what determined this other than the amount of corn.

Then, staring with the original man who prayed out loud, they went around the circle with each man praying and the others answering with “Amiina”, their version of Amen.  Some were longer than others, but most were less than 2 minutes if I had to estimate.

After this a few men gave more prayers out load, then they all shook hands, starting with the first man to start the prayers shaking hands with the man to his right, then him shaking hands with the man to his right, until they had gone around the circle.  There was a final prayer, and then they were finished.

I still must have looked pretty confused because one man then explained to me, “This is just our manner of asking God for things.”  At this point food was set out and they all lost interest in explaining anything to me.  Which was fine by me because I was tired and wanted to write all this down.

I’m pretty used to have no idea what’s going on around me by this point, but this was one of the more confusing and strange situations I’d been in in a while.  It was fascinating, and I think that maybe this might be part of the cross-over you often see between Islam and Animism in Africa.  Or maybe this is purely Muslim, I honestly have no idea.  It was a cool thing to witness, and honestly I’m a little surprised I was allowed to stay.  I half expected them to say women couldn’t be present.  My host-aunt walked through the room at one point, and my little host-sister walked in crying, saw what was going on, and immediately stopped and walked out, but there were no women attending or aiding in the ceremony.  I’m not sure if I’m making more out of this than it is, or if this is one of those times I’m treated as “3rd gender” by Guineans— not equivalent to a male, but more respected than a Guinean female.

Regardless, it was a pretty cool thing to watch and very calming.  The candlelight, incense, and the cadence of the prayers nearly put me to sleep.  I’m hoping for some more explanation tomorrow, but for now I’m just glad it wasn’t a séance.

Back at Site

I apologize for the lag in posts in the last month or so.  Exactly a month ago I left site planning to only be away for 2 weeks to help plan for Pre-Service Training (PST) for the incoming trainees.  Well as it turned out, only one current volunteer was planning on staying for the first two weeks.  I thought this wasn’t really sufficient, because I knew they’d have a lot of questions and need a lot of help getting settled in, so I decided to stay to.

It was certainly exhausting, but I’m glad I stayed.  It was fun to greet the new group at the airport and be there to answer all their questions.  It reminded me how out of my element I was when I first arrived in Mali, and made me realize how far I’d come.  Things that seemed so bizarre then (pooping in a hole, buying credit as needed for your phone, shopping at a West African market) all seem so normal now!  It was a nice reminder that I’ve learned a lot in the last year, especially when I’d recently been feeling rather frustrated with myself, Peace Corps and Guinea.

But today, I arrived back at site and it’s really a relief.  I expected to be ambushed by kids when I walked in to my host family’s compound, but it was empty!  I found my homologue’s wife, Djenebou, and her daughter, Aichatou-Bah, in the “kitchen” preparing lunch.  I was so happy to see Aichatou-Bah! It had been 7 weeks since we’d seen each other, as she had been staying with her grandmother the three weeks prior to me leaving site in mid-June!  I think she was equally pleased to see me.  She couldn’t even talk for the first few minutes!  She just smiled contentedly, especially when she realized all the cookies I’d brought for my host siblings to share would be all for her.

The return to site was also made better by the fact that I saved up enough money to buy a new mattress!  The one I had been using had been here upon my arrival, and I think had been used for many, many years.  It was just a piece of foam, no covering, and was smashed down and holey.  My new one is firm, covered in fabric and very clean.  And much more comfortable.  Aichatou-Bah had a lot of fun kicking and punching it while it leaned against my wall while I removed the old one.  She also managed to drop a lot of cookie crumbs on the floor as all this was done while she chowed down on cookies.

While the next month seems a little daunting after a month of activity and being surrounded by fellow native English speakers, I’m due for some down time for sure.  I’m exhausted and am looking forward to some peace and quiet.  I also have a few presentations to prepare, grad. schools to research, and a girls’ conference to start planning.  My kindle breaking yesterday is a set back, but thankfully it happened in Labe and I was able to grab a bunch of books from the regional house to get me through the next month!

Updates to come on the next month!  Hopefully it flies by as I’m quite anxious for my vacation home for my mom’s wedding in September!

PST for the New Trainees

So I thought you all might be interested in seeing what the new Public Health Volunteers that arrive on July 19th will be learning during their Pre-Service Training.  I know I never covered too well what we were doing during PST in Mali, and while a lot of that was more targeted towards water/sanitation, a lot of it touched on topics the PH volunteers here will cover.  So I’ll give a little info on each session so you know what we’re doing over here in Guinea.  Plus maybe some of them are reading this blog and will get a taste of what they’re in for.

The first thing you should know, however, is that our framework (or goals) for the program are heavily focused on Maternal and Child or Newborn Health (MCH/MNH).  While there are many aspects of health that need to be addressed in Guinea, this is the focus of the PC Guinea Public Health Program.  I think a large part of this is because these are the groups that have the least access to health care.  And, of course, children are always particularly at risk due to their weaker immune systems. The program focuses on improving the health of these two groups by focusing on health problems most common to them.

The Sessions

Intro to Public Health and the Guinean Health Care System

  • This session is an intro to the idea of public health, public health in Guinea, and the health care system here. We’ll touch on the different levels in the health care system, and at which levels volunteers can be the most effective.

Introduction to Framework

  • This session will simply be an introduction to the framework, which is new to the PH Program this year. Volunteers report their work quarterly and have to specifically report on how their projects relate to the framework, so it’s important to understand it well and be familiar with it. Of course, not all your work had to relate to your framework.  Secondary projects often don’t, and allow you to explore other interests.

Introduction to Maternal Health

  • This session focuses on maternal health, specifically during pregnancy and when their children are small. Trainees will learn the most common illnesses and issues during pregnancy, especially those issues leading to death and the delays or reasons women don’t seek or receive care.  They’ll learn to recognize warning signs during pregnancy and key interventions to employ.

The First 1,000 Days and Essential Nutrition Actions

  • This session will cover “The First 1,000 Days” approach as well as essential nutrition actions to take during pregnancy and childhood. The First 1,000 Days approach covers the period from conception to when a child is 2 years old, aka the most critical time, health-wise, of a child’s life.  It will also cover nutrition, the three food groups, and key vitamins often missing from the diet in Guinea and where these can be found in local foods.

Technical Language

  • There are a total of 6 technical language sessions during PST, each related to a session that comes after it. These technical language sessions are run by the languages tutors and are used to teach technical language in French to trainees to aid in their work at site.  They’re words that you wouldn’t naturally learn in French classes because they’re rather specific.  (We did this too in Mali, but it was all in Bambara.  They do it in French here because that is the language spoken at Health Centers, in general.)

Postpartum Care and Essential Newborn Care

  • This session covers essential care topics for the mother and newborn starting immediately after birth with the first breastfeeding (something often not done quickly enough). Also covers essential vaccinations and the continuation of breastfeeding for the newborn.

Visits to Health Center

  • The trainees will be making 3 separate visits to local health centers focusing on: prenatal consultations, nutrition, and family planning.

Tippy Taps and Handwashing

  • This session will focus on proper handwashing techniques as well as how to properly wash your hands. Most Americans know these times and techniques already, but it’s good to review and to learn how to present this to Guineans (There’s a common misconception that washing your hands with soap will cause you to lose money/have bad luck).  We’ll also make small handwashing stations using large tomato paste cans.  During their In-Service Training (IST) we’ll make larger, sturdier, tippy taps that are better at schools, health centers, etc.

Cooking Demonstration: Porridge

  • Trainees will be learning how to make ameliorated porridge, a dish often made by mothers for children, but not often made with all the vitamins needed. Porridge demonstrations are often done at health centers, so it is something trainees will encounter often.  They will learn what ingredients they can use to add key nutrients to the porridge and how to present this to mothers.

Key Accelerator Behaviors of EPCMD

  • This session covers diseases that cause early death in childhood in Guinea, such as malaria, pneumonia, pregnancy complications, etc. It covers behaviors that accelerate these diseases and how to intervene.

Counseling for Maternal Health and Intro to Care Groups

  • This session focuses on the counseling approach to MNH. The idea here is that often information is best related in a one-on-one interaction.  This would involve home visits, or possibly visits at the health center, with pregnant women or women with young children.  The counseling basically indicates it’s an interactive meeting, especially the negotiation approach, where you’re “bartering” with them; trying to get them to adopt new practices and drop the old ones, using small steps.  They’ll also get an intro to Care Groups, which will probably be a main project for many volunteers.  As promised before, I’ll soon have a post specifically on Care Groups because this will be my main project at site!

Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses (IMCI)

  • This session covers common childhood illnesses and how to approach them through the health care system. They key parts of this session are learning how to recognize illnesses early and how to sensibilize parents on this.  It also covers encouraging health care workers to fully examine a child at health center visits, not just addressing the present issue.

Health PACA

  • This session will cover PACA (Participatory Action Community Assessment) in regard specifically to Public Health. The point of PACA is to use the community to assess what projects are most important to the community.

Diarrheal Disease and Safe Water

  • This session focuses on the causes of diarrhea and how to prevent it. Diarrhea is a huge issue in Guinea due to lack of clean water and poor personal hygiene practices, namely handwashing.  We’ll focus on causes, transmission and prevention.  They’ll also learn treatment methods, like how to make Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) and how to properly clean and store water.

Introduction to Sensibilizations

  • This session covers “sensibilizations”. This word is probably not familiar to you call. This is derived from the French word.  It basically means a meeting/demonstration on a health topic.  Trainees will learn ways to sensibilize, particulary in Guinea.  They’ll also be split into groups and start preparing their sensibilizations for their final projects.

Malaria (STOMP)

  • This session will cover ways to address Malaria in Guinea and will be led by one of the PH Volunteers who went to the STOMP conference in Dakar, Senegal. STOMP is an initiative across West Africa to “Stomp Out Malaria”.

Social Influences

  • This session touches on individual vs. communal societies and how to find influential people in the community to aid with projects. It will also touch on why it’s so important to find these people to be successful in your work in the Guinean community.  It has a lot of case studies.

Conducting a Health Community Assessment

  • This session will talk about how to conduct a community assessment to discover the biggest health problems in the community. Trainees will discuss what PACA tools are most useful to explore different health issues within the community.  They will also begin an Action Plan for their own community assessment.

Final Project

  • In small groups, trainees will do short sensibilizations for the community (with an opportunity to practice for their peers beforehand).

Between all the tech, language, cross cultural and admin sessions during PST, trainees will have a packed schedule. Unlike our PST in Mali, they have both Saturday and Sunday off, with opportunities for outings to a nearby waterfall.  Still, it’s an exhausting 9 weeks for the PH and AgFo volunteers and 11 weeks for the education volunteers. They’ll be relieved to get to site by the time it’s all over.

Planning all of training has been equally exhausting.  Even with sessions sort of prepped when we got here, it’s taken a lot of time to get everything in order, make the schedule, revise the sessions and find ways to make them interactive.  We also can’t use any media (like PowerPoint), so everything relies on flipchart paper and group activities.   Today is our last day so I’m relieved to have a few days to relax before the Education Trainees arrive.

I’ll be here for their first two weeks, helping them figure out Guinean culture.  I’ll also be here when they meet their host families, and for the first week, which is always a difficult week because everything is so shocking and new.  Many families haven’t ever had a trainee before, so they are as at a loss as how to deal with Americans as the trainees are at how to deal with Guineans.  I’ll be doing a lot of visiting of the host families to work out issues and check in on volunteers.  The families have had some sessions on living with an American, and the trainees have 4 days in Guinea before they go to the host family, so they have some time to settle in a little.

But we’re all excited for them to get here, even if I still feel like we’re scrambling a bit to get things together.  I’ve never been in a program with more than 30 or so volunteer, so the arrival of 40 next week and 40 two weeks later is daunting and exciting!  I’ll have some volunteers who live quite close to me too, which is exciting!

See below pictures of the final calendars that we made with flipchart paper and post-it notes. The Guinean staff got really into decorating the calendars, whereas we Americans fought all week to just get the calendar up so we could plan the schedule.  There was a lot of clashing of priorities during the week and a lot of miscommunication of what could be finished when based on who had what.  Everyone seemed to think another person needed to give them something before they could finish a task, while the other person thought opposite.

 

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Calendar of Training Events (COTE) for the PH and AgFO Volunteers.  
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COTE for the Education Volunteers.  A PH Volunteer and Language Facilitator work on typing the schedule up so it can be printed for the Trainees. 

Gender Roles

I am currently spending 2 weeks in Dubreka, about 50 km outside the capital of Conakry, at TOT, or training of trainers.  I’m here to help prep the training program for the volunteers that will be arriving July 5th (35 education volunteers) and July 19th (47 Agroforestry and Public Health Volunteers).

Mostly we’ve been spending time prepping the sessions related to our own sector.  This has been a lot reviewing past sessions and adjusting PC provided sessions so they make sense to Guinea.  I think I’ll post something when we’re through about the topics Public Health Volunteers will be trained in.

For the moment, I want to talk about a 2 hour session we did called “Let Girls Learn”.  As you may or may not know, Let Girls Learn (LGL) is Michelle Obama’s initiative to promote education for females.  One of my fellow volunteers, Monica, was lucky enough to go to Ghana for the LGL conference in April.  She did a short presentation for the volunteers and the language instructors currently at the training.

I really just want to focus on one part of the training that I thought was really interesting because it portrayed so well the situation for women in Guinea.

The directions were to split into two groups: men and women.  Then we were to make a list of why we liked being our gender and another list of why we envied the other gender. I’ve included a picture of the lists, but since you may not speak or read French, I’ll translate.

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Women’s List from the Activity

For the ladies:

Why We Like Being Women Why We’re Envious of Men
It’s natural (I liken this to “It’s what god intended”) They are free
Women give life (birth) They are less exposed to insecurities (violence, harassment, aggression…)
We’re the base of the children’s education They are strong, have physical force
We’re the pillar of the family
We take care of everyone
We bring beauty and taste to life (fashion, makeup, etc.)
We are the chiefs of the chiefs
We give and get respect

I wanted to add that they can pee standing up but that as too crass for the Guinean ladies…

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Men’s list from the Activity (it was mentioned they should be jealous of women’s handwriting…)

For the men:

Why we like being men Why We are Envious of Women
We are responsible for the family Men do EVERYTHING for women (presents, money)
Force Men protect women
We are the decider Women are closer with the children
We don’t do house work Women are beautiful
We give the “allowance” Children prefer the women (give them gifts, take care of them when they’re old)
We don’t give birth Women have solidarity with each other
We marry women, multiple Women are pacifists, analytical, and conciliatory
We can be in politics, men are the presidents of the world Women are less jealous of men
We become religious leaders

I thought the women’s reasons for why they liked being women were really lovely.  They loved that they gave life, that they provided the most basic education for children and were the base of that education.  They liked that they took care of people and were the pillars of the family.  When one lady said they were the “chief of the chiefs” I told them how before I left for PC my mom told me to make friends with the village chief’s wife, because she was the one really making the decisions, they loved it.  I was really happy with what they came up with.

And their reasons for being jealous of men were good ones too.  They envied their freedom, their lack of insecurities because they were stronger, because they were men in general.

I was quite unhappy with the men’s list and its delivery.  When each point was delivered, the men clapped and cheered (the women did not do this for each of their own points).  And to me, all their reasons for liking being men were the things that put them above women. They even openly admitted they liked their ability to be lazy and not do housework.  I was OK with not wanting to give birth, I feel like every man in America would say that too.  But the other’s seemed domineering to me, and rude.  And their presentation of them just aggravated me more.

I was hoping they’d make up for them with their reasons for being envious of women, but many of those made me mad too!  They’re jealous because they think men do everything for men? That they give women money and presents?  They just said women did all the housework and carried their children! And when they said women are pacifists, analytical and conciliatory… I found that to be negative, not a compliment.  I’ll give them credit where it’s due, they admitted women are taking care of the children and thus forming a special bond.  And that their giving birth is something special.  But generally I was pretty upset with the men.  These are educated, supposedly forward thinking men and this was the list they came up with? Ridiculous!

At one point in the conversation, we talked about how men sometimes have problems with educated women.  That they can’t force them to do what they want like they can with many uneducated women because they stand up for themselves more.  We specifically mentioned educated women only wanting 2 kids, not 5 or 6.  One man stood up and said “Well then that’s when I find another wife!”  This was met with laughter from the men and boos from the women.  And while it came across as just all for good fun, I do think he was serious.

I got asked recently by a friend if I was going to come back a feminist because all my projects seemed so gender specific.  And he’s not wrong, they are! And I would never consider myself a feminist in the US, but here is another story.  Girls are kept from school to do household chores when boys aren’t.  They get married off young and can’t finish school, or get pregnant and are forced to stay home.  They often miss school during when menstruating because they don’t have the products to deal with it and are embarrassed to go to school.

I have met strong, educated, wonderful women in both Guinea and Mali doing wonderful things to empower and encourage other women and make their lives better.  I’ve met many men who encourage this, too.  But in situations like this presentation, where I see some of the most educated men available who are coming to teach new volunteers French and local languages coming up with reasons like this for why they like being men…I’m disheartened.

Maybe I’m making too much of their reasons.  It’s a good thing they like being responsible for the family, right? I’m not always sure.  Women still have a lot of work to do even in the US to fight for equality, but our problems pale in comparison to those of women here.  Women in the US wouldn’t even think of asking permission from their husband to go to the doctor or to take birth control.  Female children aren’t kept at home to do chores while boys go to school.

It breaks my heart every day to see girls at home while I know they have brothers at school.  To see women sneaking in to the Health Center to buy birth control with money they’ve stashed away, probably from the money their given to buy food at the market.  They do this because if they asked their husbands, they’d accuse them of cheating on them.

All I can do is encourage the women and girls I know and support them in their academic endeavors.   Preach to men about women’s equal rights.  I reprimand my homologue when he complains about what is for dinner, and when it’s served.  I say “If she’s the one cooking, she gets to choose!”  And I hope that I can set an example to the women I know here; that they see a women can be educated, can travel, can live on her own, and doesn’t need to marry a man as soon as one offers.

And maybe to one girl, that will make the difference.

Host Sisters

Throughout my PC service I’ve been lucky enough to have some really awesome host sisters. As much as they have annoyed me at times, they have become my best friends in both Mali and Guinea and provide hours of entertainment.

The first was Nani. She is 8 years old (maybe 9 now…).  She spoke great French so we could communicate at least decently well.  She warmed to me the first day.  Whenever I was at my host family’s house we were together.  We painted each other’s nails, we made friendship bracelets, we played with the balloons my mom sent us, we taught each other little games… We were best buds.  When she got sent on errands at night we would walk together, often holding hands.  And when I’d come back from a day of language training she’d come running to greet me and try to take from me whatever I was carrying.  She loved to get water for me and wash my flip flops, too.  I miss her a lot. The day I left my homestay family in Mali to leave for site, she cried all morning, even walking with me to the bus.  Eventually she had to leave for church, but she walked away sobbing and could barely say goodbye.  I left her her favorite nail polish color, red, as a gift.  I hope she thinks of me whenever she uses it.

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Nani and I at our going away ceremony at the end of PC training in Mali. 

I had another little sister in that family, named Elizabeth, after my host mother.  She used her Bambaran name, however, which was Maftini.  I called her Lizzy, so that her name was 2 syllables and fit into the song Nani would sing using her and my name, which was, and is still, Ami in West Africa.  Lizzy was only 4 and spoke no French, so she took a little longer to warm up to me.  But eventually we were buddies and she played silly games with me like “Which Hand is the Rock In?”  She was a real cutie pie and we have lots of great pictures together.  She was asleep when I left my host family’s house the last day, so there were no tears from her.

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Lizzy and I making silly faces for the camera.

When I got to my village in Mali, I had a few host sisters but only one I really spent any time with.  Her name is Aminata as well, so we bonded from the beginning.  Unlike Nani, she was very quiet and shy, even bashful.  She never talked to me much, and she only spoke Bambara so there wasn’t much we could say to each other anyway, but I always enjoyed her calm, quiet presence and gentle nature.  She would stand next to me while I read and play with my hair.  At night sometimes she would sit in my chair with me while I read and fall asleep on my shoulder.  Whenever I went to get water she would carry my bucket for me to the pump, though I never let her carry it back full of water.  She was only 7 and so small!  She also liked to sweep my house for me, or pull weeds in my hard.  She didn’t even need candy in exchange for it.  When I’m surrounded by my loud sisters now, I often miss quiet, gentle Aminata and her lovely smile.

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Aminata cheesing for the camera.

I didn’t have any host sisters at my homestay family in Guinea, but that was made up for at my host family at site, where I have 4!

The oldest is Batouly.  She is 15 and downright beautiful (and she knows it).  She’s intelligent and speaks great French, as does most of my host family.  I think because she’s a teenager she has never wanted to spend as much time with me as the younger kids, but she has been interested in English lessons and I taught her to make friendship bracelets very quickly.  She’s rather sassy, but she’s got my back when the younger ones beg to watch movies on any night but Saturday night, and every once in a while she’ll tell me to come sit by her- that’s how I know she likes me.

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Batouly with a not-so-happy looking Mariam Hadja on the front proch of their home.

The next youngest is Hawa (short for Adama Hawa).  She’s 9 and speaks some French, but makes a lot of mistakes.  I usually can understand what she’s trying to get across, though.  She likes to come to my house a lot and just hang out.  Sometimes we make friendship bracelets, or we color.  She always wants to look at all the pictures on my phone, and is always begging to watch movies.  She’s certainly entertaining though, and is always excited when I come to the house to hang out.  Sometimes she comes to me with her French book and has me help her read, as her mother is really mean to her when she reads with her.  Her catch phrase with me is “No, Ami, no!”, coupled with a pleading look, as I always seem to be turning down her requests for candy and movies.

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Hawa with her younger sister, Mariam Hadja, making funny faces.

The next is Aichatou-Bah, who just turned 3 on June 11th.  I wanted to make her a cake but she’s spent the last month with her grandmother in a nearby village, so I didn’t get to see her.  She’s probably my best friend in Guinea, yet we can’t speak to each other at all.  Our names have the same number of syllables, so we sing each other’s names to the other a lot.  She loves to climb all over me, sit on my lap, play clapping games and absolutely loves taking my water bottle and then having me chase her.  She regularly shows up at my house and asks for candy, cookies, bananas, oranges, and eggs.  Sometimes she shows up while I’m eating breakfast and I have to share.  She also likes to color but she always tries to steal the crayons.  Like any 3 year old, she gets mad at me, and sometimes throws rocks (small ones), but she’s my buddy and I’ve missed her all this time she’s been away.  I can’t wait to see her again.

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Aichatou-Bah in her “winter” coat. I’m sure I was wearing a tank top and sweating while I took this picture.  

 

 

The last is Mariam Hadja.  She took a little longer to warm up to me, but she’s as cute as button and we’re getting there.  She likes to copy whatever Aichatou-Bah and I do together.  She’s a little younger, maybe around 2, so she likes her sister and mom when she’s upset, whereas Aichatou-Bah will come to me sometimes when she’s upset, but when she’s in a good mood she likes to bounce up and down on my lap, play hand clapping games or tickle me/get tickled.  She, like Aichatou-Bah, now know goodnight and yell it over at any time of the day if they see me leaving the house.  She also likes to ask for treats, and uses my crayons as lip gloss rather than crayons.

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Aichatou-Bah (left) and Mariam Hadja (right) putting chalk on their faces.

I really feel like throughout my service I’ve really lucked out with host sisters.  They’ve always been helpful, kind, fun and a total source of entertainment.  I adore them all.  And honestly, many times they’re what’s kept me in PC.  All those time I’m sad, lonely, isolated, frustrate, angry, etc., I think of them, and they’re often reason enough to stay.  Not only because I care so much about them, but because I think they’re my biggest chance of making an impact and leaving a mark.  I hope I can inspire them to pursue education and that I can provide them an example of a woman who does more than have babies and stay at home.

They’re absolutely the people I miss the most from Mali, and who I’lll miss the most from Guinea.