Posted tagged ‘Senegal’

Sustainable change/Jaja’s adventures

mars 21, 2011

Some years ago I had the privilege to get to know a remarkable young woman named Olivia Kenna. Later she would become my oldest son’s girlfriend, but that is a different story. What I am going to write about now is Olivia’s last two years. From February 2009 until March 2011 she was living in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer from USA, working with health care projects in small villages in the southern part of the country. It takes a great deal of sacrifice from a person and the relationships this person is involved in, to tolerate and endure such a long term absence. It also takes a great deal of courage and stamina to be the one single (white, female) person, originally a stranger, that sets out to aid a community in building structures that can improve the life quality of the inhabitants. Consider these two perspectives for a second before you read on.

During these two years I have been on Olivia’s mailing list, receiving quite an amount of long, wonderfully written reports and photos from her stay. She has been living in the compounds of a host family in the village of Foulamory Demba, and the peace corps volunteer work has been taking place in a community comprised of four villages located within two kilometers of each other: Foulamory Demba, Foulamory Yero, Sare Djiba, and Sare Sawaly, in the Southern Kolda region of Senegal. Her host father is the current chief of Foulamory Demba. The population of these four villages is approximately 750 people, and they get their income mainly from farming of millet, corn, peanuts and cotton. During these two years Olivia has been living in her own hut in Foulamory Demba. This photo has been taken during the dry season. Imagine the wet season, that has left the soil with deep trails from the water running heavily, and snakes crawling around trying to find a dry spot:

Before a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) starts her work in Senegal, she has to improve her French as well as learn the basics of the local language, which in this case is Pulaar. In addition, she will be trained in preventive health care and in initiating projects and leading them, and in how to raise fundings for the chosen projects. But how do you know what projects to start; what of several needs in the community should be focused on; and how do you secure the sustainability of the initiated projects in order to provide them with a life after the project period is over? These, I believe, are the basic questions in all kinds of intervention that is made in order to change a certain development for the better.

«The day that I returned to the village for the last time (for a final five-day stretch), as I sat down on my host father’s shade structure to greet the family, I could tell that they were already thinking about me leaving» Olivia writes in her final mail. Furthermore, «In Senegalese culture, when you have lived somewhere a long time and are embarking on a journey, you must ask forgiveness of the people you’ve lived and worked with; in turn they ask your forgiveness for any wrongs they might have done you without realizing it: Si mi wadi ko meti e ma, mi tori maa yaafo, Jooni yaafondiren – If I have done soemthing which has been difficult to you, I am sorry for it. Let’s forgive each other.»

Olivia and her host family went through this formal farwell seremony, and it was difficult for them all. The whole village threw a gigantic farewell-party as well, a whole day of cooking, dancing, laughing, and feasting. These formalities, conducted with emotions, friendship, joy and sorrow, shows that the core of what is called intervention, projects, and community change, is the personal relation. The personal relation creates belief in the possibilities and trust in the efforts, and no project will be conducted successfully without these human qualities.

These qualities do, however, not come easily. What Olivia did in this community, was to conciously learn to know each person, first in order to find who have the leading roles, and secondly who is trustworthy. This is hard work, but it does not immediately show. It just shines through when a projects comes out as succesful. This Senegalese local community also had its own democratic structure, with two chiefs as community heads. In major decisions an assembly with the chief is necessary. Knowing these structures, and using them wisely, supports the outcome of any project.

A split between Shiite and Sunni Islam in the area (Sunni islam being the dominant tradition in Senegal) sometimes turn into rivalry; one example being that there are two separate mosques and men from these two groups do not pray together. This split follows, although not entirely, the division of the population into two separate folk groups, which do not (or rarely) intermarry. In the past there were a caste system in the area, and the remnants of this might be seen in the fact that nearly every day the elders of the village of Foulamory Yero comes to greet the chief of Foulamory Demba. This might also be the reason why some of the people in Foulamory Yero felt jealous and set aside when Olivia, the PCV, was taken into the household of the chief of the rivaling village, Foulamory Demba.

Village life is, on this background, complex and not easy to slide into when you arrive to do a job and make some canges. However, using the democratic structure fully, by finding who could be trusted in a collaboration, and always asking the chiefs, the elders, and the leading women, what could be done, and how the best way to go about it could be, Olivia managed to proceed with several successful projects. One important collaboration partner turned out to be the community health worker. His information about the health and well-being of the villagers, along with her own observations, showed that an important starting point of work could be the malnutriton of children up to two years old, and the absurdly high infant mortality rate. In addition, by eating in a local household on a daily basis, the lack of adequate nutrition in the village became obvious. There was an agreement in the villages that they needed a health hut, where people could get both treatment and consultations on health issues, and where women could go to give birth by the aid of a trained midwife. A health hut could also enable them to follow up on childrens growth and health development.

The community health hut was the first priority of the women in both Foulamory villages. Olivia had talks individually with the village chiefs, tha imam, the elders, the school teacher, the presidents of the women’s groups, and other respected members of the community, and the existing health committees, and the work could start. The community made the clay bricks themselves, and masons constructed the walls of the hut. During the time of the construction some groups decided to boycott the work, as old historic, ethnic and political grievances came to the surface. The health hut was not the reason, they later learned, and the disputes were settled and the health hut could be built and taken into use. After three months of construction, the health hut was functioning with trained personell, and a midwife in a six months training program. The women do no longer need to travel long distances with high expenses for health issues. This enables them to be more concerned about their own and their children’s health. In addition, and this is important, the health hut and the structures that comes with it make easier access for several other NGO programs that can use these functioning structures in the future, and the programs will be more effective.

Several health programs like a national deworming and Vitamin A supplement campaign, Malaria No More mosquito net equipping and follow up and a vaccination campaign, made it clear that the community health workers could be more efficient with bicycles than walking around kilometer by kilometer. After a fundraising the health workers decided to by second-hand bicycles from Europe rather than new Senegalese ones, because the European ones held higher quality at the same cost. By bicycle the health workers now have easier access to those who do not come, or are not able to come, to the health hut. They can carry out health campaigns and have health talks and health theater presentations, spreading knowledge about risks and early signs of potentially deadly deseases. Both their status and their own pride in their work has grown since they got these bicycles:

The Foulamory Women’s garden was initiated early in Olivia’s PCV period by a muslim NGO called Mozdahir International. It came out as a devastating experience for the women, as the fencing was too light and the live stock ate all the vegetables. Later, Olivia managed to motivate the women to give it another try, with better fencing and an improved watering system. They made small cement walls around it, and cemented fence posts and fencing into the wall. The vegetables grown in this garden will not only be a nutritional contribution in each family, but can be brought to the market for sale, providing the families with an extra income to pay for rice, fish, or medicines. The garden needs regular tending and watering every morning and evening. Forty women and three men had lots in the garden the first season, and they chose eggplants, onions, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, and potatoes as vegetables. Luckily the fencing held the live stock and other animals out. The women had workshops in gardening with a local garden expert, who was teaching fertilizing, preparing the soil for planting, pest control, and collection techniques. In addition, they learn about leadership, working together, and accounting practices. All of it important knowledge for sustaining the change of practice.

Nothing can totally ensure that change will endure over time. There can be incidents that change things for the worse, power balances can be altered, and unforeseen accidents may turn success to failure. Nevertheless, working with the community structure, empowering those who are willing to work and whose personal resources make them good leaders, and digging deep to find both genuine needs and values, have created a strong basis for these projects to have a long and lasting impact on the village life. This is not change that comes from above. It is change that has its roots in the capabilities of each individual member of a community, supported by quite robust local political structures and a strong will for dialogue from both parts.

Additionally, Olivia has been able to create cooperative partners out of NGO’s that might have been running separate projects alongside each other, like for instance World Vision and Medicos del Mundo. Foulamory Demba and Foulamory Yero families will have their Jaja (Olivia’s local Pulaar name) in their hearts for a long time, and it is up to them to ensure the further life of the health hut, the health worker’s bicycles, the midwife’s work, and the women’s garden. Jaja, you have done an amazing job. Good luck to the villagers in the further development and sustainment of life improvement changes.

All information is collected from mails, personal conversation, and Peace Corps Close of Service Report.

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