Saturday, August 31, 2013

Baptisms and Birth Control

Jingles of the mortar and pestle resonated across the compound reminding everyone that we would step out of monotonous chores for the day to celebrate the newest member of the family. By the time I opened my door to the world, the young ladies already fetched water from the well and had a choking fire prepared for the mid-morning feast. The 3.5 kilo/8 lbs baby was exactly 2 weeks old and therefore ready to be blessed and named. His mom was allotted the standard week of rest and he was able to cuten up a bit before crowds of in-law visits. Typically, the family organizes the party and then sends verbal invitations with traditional Kolda Nuts for the elders.
In the late morning, as soon as the last of the dew evaporated, guests filled ready-made benches and neighbors hoovered to see the "baby shower" gifts. The more intricate gifts sent by distant family or village groups are gift large bowls filled with rice and basic ingredients, sheets of patterned fabric, and baby care products. Village style gift baskets. The women also open the floor for monetary donations by holding a collection sheet in front of the hut entrance. The outspoken women tend to find their place guilting freeloaders into donations and then prodding them to dance with a melodic "Thank You!" song. I can never slip through before my name is put into the song for a quick shag. 
The action really starts when the Griot announces the baby's name, shouting it in every cardinal direction. Sometimes the parents have separate (special) names that only they use for the child. They proceed by shaving the baby's head, careful not to loose any of the hair that could be used to curse the baby. 
After giving the name, the festivity rolls on with treats and the first meal. The men slaughter a sheep or goat and the feast continues through the day. There is always a debate over the best way to divy up the meat to insure that all households receive a share. I finally was not delivered the prized organs. 
This particular naming ceremony was exciting since it was put on by my immediate family. My sister was in full bloom for what seemed like months, as Im sure she would agree, and I just knew she was going to give birth every time I went into town. Finally I have been present. During the last two years in Sare Meta, all three ladies of my house have had a baby and our village population has increased by about 25, a significant number for only 350 inhabitants. 
Planned parenting education has shown successful as women are speaking up and taking action to control pregnancy (and young marriage) within safe measures. The latest WHO survey in 2005 indicated that the percent of married women using modern contraceptives increased to 10% with trends projected to continue increasing.  The average Senegalese woman has approximately 5 surviving children throughout her reproductive life. The high, yet ideal number reflects the demand for physical labor on family crops, insurance of reverse caretaking in old age, and high perinatal mortality rate, which accounts for stillbirths and neonatal mortalities. Again in the 2005 survey, WHO reports an average perinatal mortality rate of 45 per 1000 pregnancies with rates twice as high in rural areas. Comparatively, while there is a 1 in 3,600 chance a woman will die from maternal causes in the developed world, sub-Saharan women face a ghastly 1 in 31 chance of dying from such causes. (Data from PRB’s  2011 World’s Women and Girls Data Sheet)
With progress both visible and reported in family planning, current government and NGO projects continue to press the women's health agenda by addressing maternal malnutrition, low birth weight, and continued developmental requirements. 
“Public health is like sex. Thinking about it and talking about it is not the same as doing it.” -Dr. Daniel Singer, Director for Global Health Research and International Activities at National Institutes of Health

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hunger & Heat... for what?

Like water trinkles to the depths of its watershed, people flow down trails and clay roads that cut through the woods to the community mosque. Last night's new moon sighting announced the end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid or "Korite."
The morning was kicked off with holiday mugs of cafe sweetened with condensed milk *cringe* to chase hazy skies away followed by traditional bowls of rice topped with tidbits of fried beef. The richness filled a shriveled and unexpecting spot now accustomed to waiting until dusk. Fasting combined with seasonal farm work has stripped most down to bones. In the fervor of Eid, they seem determined to replenish those hollow cheeks, that can attest all too well to the last 30 days.

As we near our humble mosque, the Jumanji pounding of the drum synchronizes with my heartbeat.  My brothers and the elder women discussed how old western films can attest to a day without cars or high technology. At some point we all have to slow down and walk to get where we're going (old man talk). They removed a few degrees between us as they reminded each other that we're all flawed, vulnerable humans. (Did this conversation really start with horse-drawn carts and wagons?) And here I am, calloused hands and sunburned shoulders, adorned in flamboyant, tailored drapes and tight braids, sharing another bookmark holiday in what finally feels like my corner of Senegal.

We rush for cover in the small mosque. The usual picnic spot in the mango courtyard was only slowing the rain. I haven't been inside this mosque before. Like most village structures, its simple by design and somehow offers a comfort in its patterned floor mats and quaint blue shutters. The men file inside and the women shuffle along,
beneath the periphery overhanging, situating prayer rugs and offering the better real estate to tardy elders. Enduring a life in the Sahel entitles them to such privileges. The elders, or "mawdos," can be recognized first by the several meters of fabric layered head to foot, then by the respectable wrinkles that tell stories of their own, and finally by the grandparent twinkle in their eyes.

The last month has been enlightening as most volunteers are non-Muslim Americans. We are all faced with the opportunity to fast with our families and communities, if even for a few days, which could respectably respond to the daily question: "Are you fasting?". The hardships, especially this year as Ramadan fell during the long, farming days of July, outshine the richness and depth of the religious practice nine times out of ten. Its understandable that at the surface the practice seems intimidating and unhealthy. Beneath, however, this core duty of Islam is a reminder designed to promote service, appreciation and empathy, self development of character and spirituality, and devotion. I was told regularly (as everyone grows grumpy and eager to bicker) that the smallest acts of kindness would return the giver with mercy and blessings. What I took away with the closing of Ramadan and glorious Eid celebration was that in this scope of Ramadan, we finally let the demands of our physical being ease up a bit as we serviced our overdue spiritual needs. Ive now closed my third Ramadan, only partially participating, with a clear mind and open heart.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Spilling the Guatemala beans!

T-minus 2 months and I'm in utter disbelief. I remind myself daily of the precious time I have left with my host community, of the impossible span that remains to square off work, and that I have to start thinking about my many goodbyes. These reminders are often necessary to fish myself out of post-close of service (COS) daydreams. As I mark the days down, literally scribbling them out of my calendar from h, it's increasingly difficult to sit idly in the dirt with such exciting plans approaching.

Immediately after COS, I plan on touring the splendors of Spain for two weeks with a couple of my favorite people, Robert and Becca. We're just a couple of countries away with locals always talk about that uncle that left for work in "espain" to better support the rest of the family. Maybe we will run into some of those admired Pulaar folk!  I try not to let my expectations get away from me these days, but it would be a complete shame not to pass through now.

A Few Things I want to do in (e)Spain:
  Parc Guell and Temple de la Sagrada Familia
  Las Ramblas
  Casa Mila, La Pedrera 

The two week span should be long enough for a decent visit without engulfing our limited volunteer funds. We have a dear friend, who also works here in Senegal, to visit in Barcelona along with CouchSurfing hosts. By November 10, we will meander home to the east coast on a transatlantic cruise. Once again, now or never, right?!

If we dont pull a Titanic, we will hide away from the rest of the world for two final weeks at sea aboard the "Navigator of the Seas." I plan to fully enjoy myself and my company. Im going to explore the fitness arena, test my taste buds and tummy with fine dining and room service, lounge about in the coolest breeze, remember how to appropriately interact with people and be a shameless hermit, and remember how to do what I actually want without guilt.

The real news:
After reuniting for the holidays with our overly joyous families and rediscovering intimate conversations with friends, Robert and I will be off to our next adventure in Guatemala. We're trading Pulaar and endless bowls of rice for Spanish and tortillas. We've got a plan scribbled in my journal and enough wanderlust to carry it through.