Thursday, March 11, 2010

Experiments in Heat Evasion

February saw the beginning of my least favorite (though aptly named) Beninese season--Chaleur or "Heat." This means that by 10 a.m. the sun's immense power is already bearing down on all of us, slowing everyday life to a crawl as we all sluggishly amble between patches of shade. Wells have dried up to such an extent that the water pulled up is completely opaque with sand and dust. Most men simply lounge under trees all day and alternate between board games and heat-induced comas.

For me the season officially announced itself when one day I walked into the concrete box I call home and instantaneously broke into an all-over body sweat. Now if I stay stationary for too long at home around noon, little puddles of perspiration collect around my feet. This unfortunate situation poses a serious problem when nighttime rolls around and I’d like to get some sleep. Against my will I’m awakened--sometimes three times a night--by the dampness (read: saturation) of my sheets forcing me onto my feet and to the shower to pour water over myself.

It was my Beninese mama who first suggested sleeping on the floor. This worked wonderfully for a few nights (except for a little soreness) until one morning I opened a work folder to discover a pre-historic centipede about four inches long. Her son was later stung by a scorpion who escaped his suffocatingly hot hiding place for just that purpose. I moved back to the bed.

Another village friend advised me to get a cot made. In Benin cots are surprisingly comfortable wood-and-tough-plastic-bag affairs so it seemed like a viable option. I got one and slept on it one night: heaven. On the second night an unfortunate miscalculation in terms of body mass and centers of gravity resulted in the collapse of my cot and a very bruised and hurting elbow. I’ve moved back to the bed.

Though I still haven’t admitted defeat in my efforts to reduce my nightly sweat output, there is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. Chaleur only lasts until around the beginning of April and then--after months and months--come the rains. And that’s when the best season of all begins: Mango Season.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Care Groups

In a previous post I described the inauguration in my village of Care Groups, a project designed to train local women as peer educators of simple preventative health messages.

Let me bring you up to speed.

Since then the three Care Groups I work with have had six monthly meetings covering topics such as handwashing, breastfeeding, and nutrition. Adjara my workpartner (an aid at the Health Center) and I try hard to make these meetings as interactive and fun as possible for the women with pictures, puzzles, songs, and more. Between meetings the women are supposed to make home visits so that they can then in turn teach what they learned to other families and in so doing reach a much wider audience in a faster and more effective manner. Last week I met with one of these groups:

Early last Friday morning Adjara and I arrived at our meeting place under a mango tree and waited for the women to come. One by one they assembled, some carrying stools and others benches for sitting, all sporting their matching t-shirts proclaiming them to be "Leader Mothers." Once everyone was there I formally greeted the group and asked about the previous month's home visits. I also asked about certain "critical information" such as new births, deaths, sicknesses, etc., in order to pinpoint problem areas as well as to simply gather community data.

After this Adjara and I discussed with the women our findings from a census we conducted a few months back. For the census we asked a sampling of households about hygiene and sanitation, mosquitoe net usage, breastfeeding, and more general statisitics like the number of children, up-to-date vaccinations, and pregnancies per woman. In order to present this information to the women we decided to draw pictures to represent each number and put tally marks next to it. So, for example, we had a drawing of a sick man with nineteen tally marks, that meant that nineteen illnesses were reported to us when we conducted the census. Once every picture was explained in this manner I asked the women to tell me first what was positive and then what they wanted to see change in their community. In that way they were able to set goals for themselves for the coming six months, goals we will be able to evaluate once we conduct the exact same census in August.

We then reviewed malaria--where does it come from, how can you prevent it, and how do you treat it. Since right now is the halfway point of the project we've started to go back over everything we've already covered to really make sure the women know their stuff. And they did: we quizzed them individually and at random and they all passed with flying colors, topping it all off by singing a song about malaria in Lokpa.

What is so great yet frustrating about this project is its decentralization--we try very hard to put as much power in the women's hands as possible, with varying degrees of success. For the group I've just described this has meant a wonderful show of initiative and motivation to the point where group members keep track of meeting dates, work in pairs, and form a cabinet to help with the overall organization of the group. For the other groups this hasn't always been the case. One in particular has consistently struggled with meeting times (members are almost always more than three hours late), meeting dates (we've had to reschedule three meetings), and attendance in general (twice more than half the group never even showed up).

To adress these problems Adjara and I called a village-wide meeting where we explained the goal of the project and the difficulties we've been having. We didn't quite get the demographic range we were hoping for (the meeting was made up predominanty of women) and the village chief didn't show up until the end. Regardless the women recommitted themselves to the project and promised to work harder--but as their next meeting isn't until next Friday it remains to be seen what changes if any they will actually make.

Despite hiccups like this the overall project has been wonderful and the women seem really motivated to help change their communities. I'm worried about the future and whether or not Care Groups will continue after I leave in September but even before that day comes we all still have a lot of work ahead us. And I for one can't wait to see what these women will do.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Slice of Beninese Life

Last week's yellow fever vaccination campaign provided an interesting window on life in Benin.

Vaccination campaigns (concerning various illnesses) happen periodically throughout the year all across the country. They are great favorites with the workers at my health center since, unlike their monthly salaries, a paycheck is a sure thing at the end of them (as they recieve outside funding, such as WHO, and not from the Beninese government). Each health center keeps a group of vaccinators on the ground while at the same time sending teams of vaccinators out into villages farther away from the center itself. This "agressive strategy" is meant to reach the greatest number of people possible within the time constraints of the campaign.

I was part of the team that stayed at the health center. There were four of us: only one spoke the local language and only one, but not the same one, actually vaccinated; the rest did paperwork. We were all women, something that the head doctor initially objected to. He said he didn't want a team with only women since it was inevitable that "they would fight." You know women and their hysterics.

I mentioned paperwork. The Beninese have an on-going never-ending love affair with paperwork. Anything that is smothered in legalese, stamped, and signed several times is bound to be framed and hanging in any respectable Beninese home. Everyone vaccinated was given a card with their personal information (and an official stamp) and my job was to check them off in the appropriate age group. When I help with pre-natal consultations during the week I shuffle through four different notebooks along with various charts and booklets in a hurried scramble to get everyone's information copied down, usually in triplicate.

And who is all this paperwork prepared for? The all-powerful patron--in our case the head doctor. Patrons or head bosses strike fear in the hearts of their underlings with regular check-up visits in which they rarely fail to find at least one thing wrong, no matter how trivial (think: amount of leaves on the ground). Reprimands for such errors are usually stern and are often aimed to humble and humiliate. In the case of vaccination campaigns this translates into extra care in groundskeeping, a halt to charging phones with the center's generator (used to power the vaccine's refrigerator), and frequent fudging of numbers on all that paperwork in case of any unaccounted or left over doses. What the patron doesn't know can't reflect badly on you.

Finally there's the vaccination process itself. Everything starts off fine, it's dry season now so the mornings are quite cool and everyone is ready for the day's work. The nurse actually vaccinating and I have set up inside the consulting room of the maternity, the two other women are outside dealing with paperwork. Anyone and everyone is supposed to be vaccinated, nine months and up (one shot good for ten years). I am given the seemingly simple task of checking people off based on age groups--problems quickly crop up. A lot of people simply don't know their age. Others, mainly students, give fake ages--the age they use in school. It seems that the Beninese school system has an age limit, so once you pass that you're no longer allowed in. Therefore those who have previously dropped out or who never went in the first place and who are already too old will lie and say they're younger so they can go to school. Thus the full-grown man sporting a beard whose towering over me and claiming he's twelve.

The nurse vaccinating has begun the day fairly good-humored and jokes with the villagers who have come to be vaccinated. As the day wears on and the sun climbs higher however, her cheerfulness flags. It becomes hot, very hot, and the burning sun starts to bake the dead rat that's been in the ceiling for days. It stinks. We've already vaccinated over six hundred people and the nurse is no longer joking--she's irritated. Children from the primary school across the street have lined up and after the tenth one in a row who hasn't rolled up his shirt sleeve in preparation for the shot the nurse starts dealing out slaps to the tops of heads. Needles are waved about and nurses are screaming at everyone. Eventually things do slow down and, regaining her former good humour, the nurse tries a joke or two, adding a few racial slurs for good measure. Once during the course of our regular, weekly vaccinations I saw a health worker slap the face of a young mother who hadn't restrained her child properly while she was gettting a shot. The doctor-patient relationship we enjoy in the states is almost unimaginable here.

That first day of the campaign we vaccinated eight hundred men, women, and children against yellow fever. Afterwards I went home, cooked dinner, and read a book before falling asleeep. A (fairly) typical day in Benin.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Letter of Appreciation to My Mama

Just about every volunteer (at least in Benin) has a mama. Often she's a neighbor; sometimes she's just a good friend. Sometimes she speaks French while others only know the local language. She's the one that gives you massive amounts of food and scolds you when you can't even finish half. She always offers to do your housework for you (and maybe she actually does) and she's terrified when you're sick. She knows all the best food sellers, clothes sellers, any kind of seller, and will tell you the right price. Maybe she'll even help you barter. In short she's a godsend, a life-line, a source of support. And because my mama is all this and more, here's a letter to her in my local language:


Thank you. Thank you for befriending me from the very first moment when you walked up to my front door and asked to chat for a bit because you felt lonely. Even then it was easy to talk to you (especially since you speak French) but also because you treat me like anyone else. Instead of seeing me as an opportunity (i.e. for money or free things) you see me as another woman, another villager who you can talk openly with about anything. And we do talk about everything--how you were circumcised, spousal abuse, the fact that not all Americans are white, your fear of small animals (which is weird by the way). Thank you for laughing at me and with me. Thank you for helping me learn Lokpa. Thank you even for your only son who at four years is possibly the biggest brat I have ever met (think Dennis the Menance to the fiftieth power). Thank you for cooking me dinner for the better part of a year and for having the good grace to accept it when I started cooking for myself after two bouts of ameobas. And thank you most of all for all those conversations under the stars before we both go to bed (early!) and for all those conversations yet to come. You are my biggest support and best friend in village. Thank you,

Heidi (Aicha)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I am Huge and You Can't Judge Me!

After working for two weeks with the newly arrived trainees, I decided to take a few vacation days to visit a friend here in the South. She lives in Aja-land where the tropical heat and especially the humidity means that a simple walk down the street can trasnform the clothes on your back into sopping sweat-rags. It also means that the vegetation down here is a vibrant green that grows in thick, tangled masses all over the place. Driving out to her post I passed satuarated marshlands and lakes with stilt houses growing out of the still water. Often the grass hanging over the side of the road was taller than a grown man, a fact that did not affect the speed of cars and motos (i.e. breakneck) even when the road became very curvy.

Catherine, my friend, lives in a medium-sized town complete with several paved roads, electricity, and running water. Here in Aja-land everything is loud. And it's not just the constant flow of taxis and motos that screech and honk incessantly. It's the people who yell and scream and holler at each other and you and everyone. But they're not angry--not all of the time--this is just how people are here, how they express themselves. "Yovo" was sung/shouted at us constantly.

Mostly we stayed in her cozy house where we cooked (fabulous meals of Hamburger Helper, carrot cake, and pigs in a blanket!), and watched movies on her lap-top. We did make one expedition however, to see the local hippopotamuses (or hippopotami?). There are two of them--a mother and her four year old--who live in a nearby lake and for the price of 3000FCFA ($6?) you can rent a pirogue (think: canoe) and see them. Definitely worth it.

To begin we took motos to a nearby village where a pack of children met us and, instantly knowing what we wanted, led us to the house of the hippo guide. After some paperwork and payment our guide led us through the village to the lake. Barefoot, he walked swiftly down a winding path that cut through the encroaching brush while we struggled to keep up. Two smaller children carried our moto helmets, also outstripping Catherine and I.

Once at the water's edge we were told to wait while the guide got the canoe ready. Soon we heard the sound of the small children bailing out water; our canoe, it seems, was a bit leaky. Once most of the water had been dumped out we got in and our guide, pushing the ground with a long stick, deftly manoeuvered us through a tight inlet and onto the lake itself. The lake was wide and calm and ringed with leafy, green vegetation.

We drifted towards the center for a bit, occasionaly asking questions of our guide. At one point a fisherman at the other end of the lake yelled something and we changed directions. Catherine and I supposed that he had said something like, "the hippos are over here!" Soon we saw the ears and the top of the head of one of the hippos, the mother. At a distance we could see her head out of the water and we could see that she saw us. Then she ducked under for several minutes at a time before resurfacing at a point closer to us. Our guide and the children bailing out water drove the canoe into the nearby bank. A few low, staccato grunts sounded from the bushes somewhere to the right of where we waited. The child was calling to its mother. Then they were both in the water, swimming in circles around each other while we watched. After awhile we shoved off, lazily drifting towards our starting point, all the while still watching the hippos. For a time the child followed us but he quickly gave up. The sun was setting and the temperature was cooling off--almost time for the hippos to go on land and feed.

We asked if the locals had given the hippos names. "Yes," said our guide, "they are called 'I AM HUGE AND YOU CAN'T JUDGE ME!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Yoga, sex, and an ambulance

What happens when you put sixty Beninese (teenage) girls, seven Peace Corps volunteers, and matching t-shirts all together in a semi-cramped yet wonderfully available tissage center? Girls Camp! That's right: one full week of group discussions, defining objectives, sports (think: dodgeball!), learning computer skills, talking about sex, games, and camp songs sung at ear-piercing levels in French.

The highlights for me? Firstly I led the yoga session in our "Managing Stress" segment. It seemed to go over fairly well although space was limited, the girls were giggly, and the idea that it was not supposed to hurt didn't quite carry itself across. Secondly, after having a head maternity nurse come in to answer any questions pertaining to reproductive health we realized that most of them didn't even have the basics down (e.g. what is a uterus? why do women menstruate? etc.). In fact that information isn't given out until the 3eme grade--which is roughly equivalent to freshman or sophomore year of high school. Our girls were more like middle school. So, Rut (my postmate, also a health volunteer) and I quickly drew up some matter of fact diagrams of a naked woman and man, explained the uterus and menstruation, the mechanics of sex, and different methods of contraception. Afterwards everyone said that our talk was a lot clearer for the girls and that they were all very interested in what we had to say.

Talking about sex...I've been asking around in my village and the end consensus is that people don't. Parents especially almost never talk to their kids about sex, although they complain quite often and loudly that the youth of today have no morals and its all they think about. This unfortunate taboo goes for other subjects as well, such as menstruation. In a culture where you learn not by asking questions but by silently watching and copying, finding out about such topics becomes a little tricky; some things you just can't observe. A further complication: as I mentioned above the "sex talk" isn't delivered in school until about high school at which point kids are given a run-through of human anatomy and the barest sketch of the other stuff. In most cases this is way too little way too late since, especially in smaller villages like my own, many if not most girls drop out of school long before the 3eme and many are already having sex. In a situation like that, with no one to tell you any different, who knows what sort of explanation you might come up with on your own...

After the camp I was looking forward to a few days of relaxation and then of preparation for some upcoming Care Group meetings. Not so. The very last day I woke up with a splitting headache that refused to go away. Once home I tried eating something to see if that wouldn't help things a bit...I threw it up. Then I threw up water and was dry-heaving. I had a fever. I called the Peace Corps doctor who wanted me to spend the night at the health center so I wouldn't be alone. One terrible night later an ambulance was called in from Parakou that took both myself and Rut (as moral support) down to Cotonou. After having an IV the entire way down I felt a lot better and quickly recovered in the days that followed. The doctor thought I had malaria even though it didn't show up in the blood test. But I might just tell people I did...malaria sounds much more interesting than the flu.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Rain on a tin roof makes a very loud noise

Rainy season is finally here again, just as the mangos have started to dwindle. Everything grows so fast here--I went down to Cotonou for a week-long workshop and when I came back all the previously brown and dying shrubs had somehow been replaced by thriving, green, knee-high vegetation! It was like the whole landscape changed overnight, like it took a really great (non-bucket) shower.

This has also meant a return to the fields for many villagers (some never really left off). Now instead of the gangs of men lounging around playing board games all day I seem them starting off into the "bush" early in the morning--wearing their worn work clothes and broad-rimmed straw hats, carrying machetes and hoes. For the women, who never stop working (and certainly do not play board games), this just means a new task to shoulder along with all the rest.

Lately I've been trying to start up what are called "Care Groups." This means selecting a group of Leader Mothers (about ten) and holding monthly meetings with them about certain topics like malaria, sanitation, or malnutrition. Then the Leader Mothers go out into the village to relay the same message to other mothers and report back at the next meeting. Our first real meeting was a few days ago, the women had a blast even though it hadn't gone exactly as I'd planned. I had wanted them to draw a community map to sort of envisage for themselves their village. They wanted to actually go house to house and talk about malaria (a topic we had discussed in a previous meeting [we, including me, sang a song for them in Lokpa!]). We went house to house. There were a few problems but, like I said, the women absolutely loved it. And as long as they do I have no problem at all with changing my plans around.