Summer Vacation

Greetings! It doesn’t seem like it’s been so long since I wrote, but I guess it has. First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who donated money for Camp GLOW…it’s now fully funded and it’s set to start in 2 weeks from today! So excited, and so thankful for all of your support. I’ll make sure to update you on how it goes and post pictures from the camp.

Also, thank you for the kind responses to the last blog. As an update, Fidelia is doing well. People have been helping out little by little with what they can, and the family is doing as well as could be expected for the moment. She’s almost three months old now and in the care of my work partner’s older sister. Here’s a photo of her on her grandmother’s back (if the internet cooperates to post it):

Fidelia

As for me, life has been fairly busy lately. My latrine project has been taking up virtually all of my time. We successfully built 20 latrines and the project is coming to a close. We actually got six more latrines out of the project than we had planned because of some kind of shifty business that had happened during the drafting of the budget. Apparently people working on the project with me had thought that they were going to be able to use the grant money/materials for other things (such as building their own houses, eating, buying televisions, etc) without me noticing… They were incorrect. So, we ended up with a lot of extra money. I was kind of put out about the whole situation at first, because it is admittedly annoying (and an insult to my intelligence) that they thought they could trick me like that, and also it just kind of stings that when you’re trying to do something nice for someone, they’ll still try to pull a stunt like that, but finally my friends here have helped me to not take it too personally because it’s unfortunately so widespread that it happens essentially universally in the country.

I’ve now gotten to the point where I see it more as a game–can I catch the mason before he steals my cement? Can I trick him into accidentally admitting that he took more materials than he needed? I still ended up losing a small portion of the materials that I bought to problems like that, but the vast majority were used for the intended purpose, and I was able to build 20 latrines, which is a significant number, so I’m fairly happy with the outcome. And I’ve learned so incredibly much in the past few months from this project–not only about how one actually builds a latrine: the materials you need, the prices, the number of bricks that one package of cement will make, etc, but also about how people work: how to manage them, to read behind what someone says to understand what they mean, to resolve conflicts and work-related crises, and especially how to do all these things at the crack of dawn (this project has really impeded my running routine, and more than once I had my work partners or the masons knocking on my door before I had gotten out of bed in the morning–that was always a lovely start to my day). I’ll definitely be happy when it’s over and I’ve turned in the final reports, but I’m glad I did it. And I’d consider doing another similar project, because there was a ton of interest for it in the community and I know it will go much smoother the second time.

We’re pretty solidly in the middle of summer vacation. Though the school year only officially ended last week, no one has gone to school since early June, when the three big end-of-the-year exams happened. In the Beninese school system (which is modeled on the French school system), you have to take a big test at the end of primary school, then at the end of “junior high” and finally at the end of “high school,” and if you don’t pass, you don’t move on and you don’t get your diploma. It’s kind of like the IB program in the US, except that I’m pretty sure IB students still get a normal high school diploma even if they fail their IB exam (correct me if I’m wrong–admittedly I don’t know much about IB, having been an AP student during high school…). The results of all the exams were just released in the past couple weeks, with fairly typical results, I suppose. The vast majority of the candidates passed their post-elementary school exam, slightly more than half passed the post-junior high exam, and less than half passed the final exam that gives the equivalent to a high school diploma, called the BAC. I know various people who both failed and passed all three exams. They read all the names of those who passed on the radio, so the day of the release of the results, everyone gathers around whatever radio is nearest and listens intently. It’s fun when you hear the name of someone you know, and is probably really great for them because everywhere they go, people will be congratulating them. But also everyone knows if your name didn’t get read, and that’s tough. The oldest girl in my concession family just tried the post-junior high exam for the second time and failed again, which is really discouraging.

It’s odd, because apparently this sort of school system works in France, but here it just does not seem terribly successful. I mean, less than half of the students who complete high school actually get their diplomas each year–that isn’t a sign of success. It must be really difficult to have to repeat the same grade and the same exam over and over again, but there aren’t a lot of options here for people who don’t get their diplomas, and often people are already in their mid 20s before they finally get their BAC. I think probably a lot of the problem with the schools is the lack of proficiency in French from an early age. In the US, most of the students start school already speaking and understanding English, and if they don’t, there are supplementary classes offered to them, but here (especially in a rural place such as where I live), the children often start the first year of school not knowing a word of French, having only spoken Fon at home. Then there are also structural and personnel problems in the school system that keep them from accelerating as much as they might in their studies, and I think a lot small things just add up day to day, week to week, and at the end of the year, they’re still not proficient. For example, there are only six hours in the Beninese elementary school day, and Wednesdays are half days. Attendance for teachers is pretty flexible, and they are often late or don’t show up, and sometimes even when the teacher is present, the class will be left to just hang out if he is tired or wants to grade papers or write the next exam. Nearly all the work that American teachers do at home or in their free time is done during the school day here. But admittedly they aren’t paid very well, and some of the money that they should be earning typically disappears at some point through the chain of payment, so that by the time it gets to them it’s even less than it was. And when people aren’t paid well, it is difficult to motivate them to do the best job they can.

And then there are outside factors, such as the fact that many of the kids don’t eat well before coming to school or during the school day. And that they really have no time to rest–any time they’re not in school, they’ll be working around the house, or in the fields. On the weekends, almost all the kids will be helping their parents in the fields, and summer vacation is like one long session of field work, because it coincides with the rainy season, which is when there is a lot of work to be done in the fields. So while American (and I suspect this is similar for French) children use their summers to recharge or learn new things or otherwise improve themselves through various types of lessons or camps, their Beninese counterparts are doing manual labor so their families will have enough money to pay their school fees the next year. Which makes me even more frustrated about the state of the school system, because people sacrifice so much to pay for school which is of such low quality. But as is kind of a theme here, it’s the best that’s available, so they have to make do with it.

Reflecting on this problem has led me to an idea for a project that I’m in the process of planning–a kind of academic summer camp for kids just entering junior high. I’ve been really excited about this since the end of the year, and had tentatively programmed it for mid August, to run until mid or late September (the school year starts again in October), but have been running into funding difficulties because I haven’t gotten the official stamp of confirmation on my extension yet. Since I’m not “officially” approved, I’m not eligible to receive grants, so I’m looking into trying to find other funding sources because it’s not a terribly expensive project, and it looks like it still might happen. But basically, the idea is to select a group of kids that will be in 6th grade this year–either because they failed last year or those who have just passed out of elementary school–who aren’t the strongest students but are motivated and to provide them with 4-6 weeks of intensive reinforcement in French language and possibly also math skills. I’ll recruit a few local teachers who are good, reliable, trustworthy and interested in helping the community to lead the academic sessions, and then I’m going to intersperse some more camp-like activities that I’ll lead, possibly with the help of other volunteer friends, like games and art and talking about health and nutrition and study habits, etc.

I’m in the process of trying to balance what I think would be the most beneficial with what might be the limit of the reality for these kids; I’d like to take up a good portion of the week with activities and then supervise a study hall kind of a time afterwards or in the evenings, but I know that their parents need them to help in the fields and at home. It’s a little difficult to figure out what is within the realm of possibility, but we’ll get there. Then, if I can work it out logistically, we might try to continue the extra support into the school year and see if we can succeed in making a positive difference in some of these kids’ academic careers. We’ll see.

Honestly, I’m finding myself in a bit of unfamiliar territory here because my area of expertise is health, not education, but I’ve taken enough classes on education and I’ve also been a student enough that I think I can manage this. As my work with the health center has been steadily dropping off as time goes along, I guess I’m sort of throwing myself into more youth activities and working with the schools as a replacement for that–as something to fill the hours of the days between big projects such as the latrine project. But also, as I’m getting more jaded with reality, I’m clinging more and more to the idea that things can change through youth, and that the next generation has opportunities that the previous one does not. So wish me luck!

In other news, my cat is doing great. He’s getting quite big now and has recently been vaccinated against rabies, which I’d been wanting to do for awhile. I’m not sure if I told you that he had learned how to get into my ceiling (which is a layer of straw mats that are suspended between the walls with iron wire), but he has. And at first, when he went up there, he didn’t know how to get down, and I had to go through an annoying process of rescuing him from the ceiling each time, but recently he’s learned how to descend as well, so his habit of getting into the ceiling is much less annoying than it was. And I think he finds some sneaky mice up there, too, so that’s good. I’m going to try to post a picture of him in his ceiling hammock here–we’ll see if it works. Until next time! CMK

CeilingCat

A (belated) Mother’s Day Requiem

The night that she died, a full moon rose over the village.  As the daylight faded out and that irreverent globe of too-bright white light ascended, a crowd gathered around and women began to wail.  They thrust their hands up at the sky and cried out the name of the woman who lay motionless and pale in the van that had tried in vain to get her to the hospital.  I caught a glimpse of one of my students–the woman’s 12-year-old daughter–in the middle of the throng, grief contorting her young face into something beyond her years and tears streaking her cheeks as she wept.  At some point, people who know what to do in these situations shuffled the wailers into a room to calm them and the rest of us sat in silence on benches outside their house, heads in our hands.  The silence was occasionally broken by people sighing or making noises of disappointment and disapproval, words of welcome and condolence being exchanged quietly each time someone new arrived, or some woman being again overcome by grief and screaming out into the night.  Near dawn, they buried her inside her house, as is the tradition, under the floor in the room where just the night before she had slept, while a 9-month old fetus prepared to enter the world.  Her husband, my work partner, was stoic and accepting beyond belief, telling everyone that it was the will of God to take his only wife and what was left for him was to take care of his four children.

It turns out to be one of the heartbreaking things of the world: a newborn baby with no mother.  What should be a joyous day of welcoming a new member into the family becomes filled with shock and sorrow and confusion.  Maternal mortality, or the death of a mother in the process of or directly after giving birth, is something we see fairly rarely in the states nowadays, but in the developing world, giving birth is one of the more dangerous things a woman will do in her life.  The newborn baby girl cried incessantly all night, as if to remind anybody who might have forgotten that something was seriously wrong.  And the next morning, before anyone had recovered from the fatigue of the previous night’s mourning, it became clear that the problem of the baby had to be dealt with.  What does one do with a newborn without a mother in the middle of rural Africa?

The woman in this story was a friend of mine–as my work partner’s wife, she had taken care of me through that first confusing visit to post and our relationship evolved from there–and while language barriers kept us from exchanging too many words of depth while she lived, the way in which she died hurt me because I keep wondering “Could I have done more to prevent this?”

She had done everything right during her pregnancy–gone to pre-natal consultations, taken her vitamins, even gotten an ultrasound to ensure that the baby was doing well and would be born in good health, and of course she had planned to give birth in a health center, not at home.  But there is a lack of qualified health personnel in Benin, especially in the rural areas, as in much of the developing world.  So though she gave birth in a medical facility (the private clinic in town, not the health center where I am based), she wasn’t fortunate enough to be assisted by a well-trained aide.  In the majority of rural medical facilities in Benin, and I’d venture a guess that this is true in much of the developing world, much of the day to day work is done by informally trained nurse’s aides because people who are well-educated/well-trained prefer to work in more urban areas, leaving a serious personnel shortage in places like the one where I live.  Thus, you have nurse’s aides, and then the informal aides to the nurse’s aides who have their hands in most of the daily work.  There are qualified personnel supervising the aides, in theory, but in practice one or two people cannot be present twenty four hours out of the day, seven days a week.  This is how it came to be that my friend’s wife was assisted in her birthing by a young apprentice who missed the signs that this birth should have been performed in a larger hospital.  The interesting thing about practicing medicine in remote areas that lack trained personnel is that it turns out to be fairly possible to avoid and treat many problems based on observing only the signs; i.e., you see a lack of color in a child’s palm/inner eyelid or you note that a pregnant woman’s blood pressure is outside of a certain range and you know that both of those cases need to be referred to a higher level medical facility, though you don’t know what causes the signs or what the underlying problem is.  The training of even low-level medical personnel (largely funded by international aid) on recognizing these types of signs seems to have been fairly successful in the Beninese healthcare system, and is probably the reason that we don’t see more maternal or child deaths in my health center.

So one might well say that it must have been the will of God to have this woman die in childbirth.  It was quite simply bad luck for her to encounter complications while supervised by someone lacking training.  We have young apprentices like this at our health center as well, and they also perform births by themselves at times and usually it goes fine.  What presents itself here is the sharp reality of living in a resource-poor country: you do your best with the human and material resources available, and that has to be good enough.  Perhaps at the time that my friend began hemorrhaging post-birth, the clinic’s trained nurse was taking care of a seizing child with a raging fever, or perhaps she was out of town, buying new drugs for the pharmacy, sleeping, or any variety of things; I don’t know because I wasn’t there.  But by the time the apprentice realized that she was in over her head, the woman had already lost so much blood that they had barely gotten her into the vehicle to take her on the 30-minute ride over a dirt road to the larger hospital in Glazoué when she died.

The baby girl, Fidelia, is one of my biggest worries these days.  I just see so many ways that her story could end badly and quickly, and not many realistic paths to avoid such chances.  I’ll do what I can personally to help, but when it comes down to it, the reality of the situation is this: If she’s a fighter, then she’ll make it.  If not, well, she could easily join the ranks of the 6% of babies under one year of age who die every year in Benin.

The first big problem is how to feed her, because in the developing world, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is an important foundation for good health and nutrition throughout the child’s life.  Clearly, with no living mother, this becomes difficult.  I had hoped that they would be able to find a surrogate mother to nurse her until she was old enough to start eating other things, but there is a strong cultural belief here that if another mother begins nursing someone else’s child like this, her own child will die.  Thus, even though my work partner has a younger sister with a four month old baby, he felt he couldn’t ask her to nurse Fidelia because it would mean the death of her baby.  I deployed all of my persuasive abilities for the case of the surrogate, but at some point you just have to accept culture because it’s deeply embedded and difficult to change.  However, the newborn’s digestive system can’t handle food that one might feed to older children, meaning that if breastmilk isn’t an option, she has to be fed using baby formula, which is expensive, difficult, and often dangerous in rural Africa.

Formula feeding may be widespread in the U.S. but for Fidelia, I don’t see it as a viable solution.  Anyone who has been a parent or an older sibling or even a babysitter for a young baby will remember the hassle of having to wake up multiple times during the night to mix up a bottle for that screaming bundle of joy.  That was the fun part of having a kid, right?  Now imagine doing that while you’re camping, and you’re coming close to seeing what it would be like to use baby formula in rural Benin.

You have no microwave, no safe water, and no dishwasher or even sink in which to clean the bottle.  You wake up to crying in the middle of the night and know that you have to get up, find firewood, start a fire, boil water, wash the bottle with some of the boiled water, and wait for the rest of the water to cool before you can mix it with the formula and give Fidelia her bottle.  And you’re going to do that several times each night?  Not easy, my friends.  It won’t be long before you start cutting corners–maybe washing the bottle with regular water at first, not bringing the water to a full boil, eventually using regular water or preparing the formula in advance and letting it sit all night–because after all, you are cumulatively exhausted and she’s screaming and everyone around you is waking up every night because the houses are so close together and they’re sympathetic that the child has no mother, but they still want to sleep.  And each of those tiny corners puts the baby in a little more danger of diarrheal disease, one of the biggest killers of children under five in Africa.  Then there’s the issue of the cost: formula is expensive, especially for a family that supports itself by farming.  Each can of formula costs around 3500 francs, which is about $7, and will need to be bought every 2-3 weeks at first, and probably every week by the time she nears six months.  For perspective, know that lunch money for most kids here is 50 francs, meaning that you could feed another child for over 3 months with the money that you’ll use for two weeks of formula.  The prohibitive cost will lead to you trying to economize by reducing the amount of formula added per unit of water water, which will quickly lead to malnutrition, which in turn makes the child more susceptible to other illnesses.  And to make the situation even easier for you, if the formula runs out, you don’t just zip out to the grocery store and buy more: you have to journey over that dirt road for at least 30 minutes and might not even find it in stock at the one pharmacy that sells it in town.

There was a glimmer of hope for Fidelia about a week after her birth: the social service center put my work partner in touch with a group of nuns that take care of orphan children.  They said they could keep Fidelia with them in Glazoué for as long as the family wanted and it would cost them nothing, as long as they came and visited her whenever they could.  So my work partner had accepted and sent her there–a tough decision but one that he made for the wellbeing of his child–and then less than a week later, the nuns called back to tell him that they could no longer keep her in Glazoué, but would have to send her to the larger orphanage about 3 hours away.  He didn’t want her to be so far away, so he brought her back to village and now she lives with his older sister.

What would you do in this situation?  It’s a pretty tough one.  Like I said, I don’t see a lot of ways for it to have a happy ending.  Which I suppose it’s so important to try to prevent things like this from happening.  One way to do this is by boosting funding for healthcare and training for healthcare personnel; organizations like the World Health Organization and UNICEF and even our own USAID are doing good work in those areas, and as I mentioned above, it is having an impact.  Another is to increase general education amongst the population about health issues, the danger signs in pregnancy and birthing, the benefits of having fewer children and spacing them well, etc, which is something that I’m working on with PC and many health-related NGOs also focus on.  And a third preventive measure comes back to educating and empowering women and girls.  Because a well-educated woman will take control over her own life, get married later, have fewer children (which reduces the risk of maternal mortality), have more resources available to her, and overall have a higher chance of a healthy, long life.

So I’m going to make another plug for our annual girls’ camp, Camp GLOW, which will take place in early August this year.  We have the chance to make a real impact in these girls’ lives, an impact which can continue for years and impact the lives of the next generation as well, but we’re still missing our goal by over $1,700.  I know that times are tough and money is tight, but please if you can spare a little bit to help us out, you will truly be making a difference.  I also know that I’ve been letting down my end of this blogging deal and have been pretty bad about posting lately.  I promise I’ll do better, and in exchange, I hope you’ll pass along my plea for help or the link to the blog to at least one person who might be interested or have missed the more recent posts.  Here’s the link to donate: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-680-015

As always, thank you for all of your support through this journey.  Stay well and enjoy the beginning of summer.  Peace and love.  CMK

Need Your Help

Hello everybody!

See? I promised I’d write again soon. This post will be kept short because its main objective is to tell you that we’re finalizing plans for this year’s Camp GLOW–the girls’ camp that I helped with last year–and we’re again in need of donations from people at home to make it happen.

Last year’s camp was one of the best experiences of my Peace Corps service thus far and I truly believe that it made a difference in the lives of those girls.  The opportunity to leave the village, spend time on a college campus, meet other motivated young women, learn about important issues that might normally be taboo and unspoken, and even just have a little fun is incredibly valuable and since we don’t charge the girls anything to participate, we have to fundraise it all between the Beninese government and our network at home.

So please, if you can help us with a donation of any amount, know that it will be making a difference (and even $20 or $50 goes a long way in Benin!). Even if you can’t, if you could spread the word to others who might be interested, we would all be grateful. The link to donate is here: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-680-015

Thank you in advance and thanks for reading!