"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tradition and Change - Culture and Development - Religion and Progress

Salaamaleekum! Peace be upon you all :)

Dreams are the Seeds of Change
The rains are falling, the seeds are sown, and the work has come.  For the past 5 days, I have been in the city for our final Peace Corps training sessions.  All of the health volunteers, who came with me in January, got together for idea sharing and brainstorming sessions.  I found the whole in-service to be extremely helpful; it allowed me to share ideas for/from my village, brainstorm with my co-volunteers (who I found out are seeing alot of the VERY same issues that I have seen in my own village), and find effective ways to implement sustainable projects and ideas into the minds of those I am trying to help. 

Building a Soak Pit for proper water drainage
(standing/open water may cause the breeding of mosquitoes that may carry Malaria - eeek!)
 I believe the hardest part of being in Peace Corps so far (outside of adapting to the culture, learning a new language, and missing home) has been trying to find effective ways to preserve culture, tradition & the deep roots of religion, while trying to progress a community and it's people.  Surprisingly, even though The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, there are over 6 different ethnic groups - each speaking different languages - and all being deeply rooted in Islam.  This is where I find the most beauty in the "smiling coast of Africa".  It's a double edged sword though, sometimes...

The community I live in is a traditional Wolof (Fana Fana) community.  They are known for their eccentric dancing, proper language without English influence (meaning no English words are randomly thrown in, like I hear in the cities), rich culture and faith, and I hate to say it but... stubborn minds!  I wish I could put it in a different light, but it seems like they just don't want to budge when certain opportunities come to "progress" the community, further development, or even implement essential elements of change that will better the well-being of the community members. 

Traditional Wolof Wedding - they LOVE to dance, even late into the night!
For example, recently I realized that my entire village either doesn't wash their hands before eating/after defecating; if they do wash their hands, it is common here to not use soap and running water.  This may sound like a silly thing to put on my resume when I get back to the States ("taught proper hand washing"), but here it is a huge health concern aiding in the spread of diseases that could potentially lead to death.  Good news people - it's preventable to spread germs and bacteria!  In the States and for alot of the world, 'germ theory' and disease transmission is understood, as well as simple methods of prevention - such as hand washing.  Here, if someone gets sick or even dies, it may be the act of evil spirits, spells, or witchcraft.  The people sometimes don't understand what a "germ" is or how it may cause diarrhea, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, and the list goes on. 

Hand washing demonstration
Therefore, I decided to start a hand washing campaign - sounds easy right?  Well, maybe in a place where soap is affordable and available, water flows from the faucets like a waterfall, and there's a sink next to the place where "pooooping" takes place to conveniently wash the soiled culprits or where cooking takes place to clean up before preparing meals for the family.  It's a mouthful, I know.. but my point is - IT'S INCONVENIENT TO WASH HANDS here.  At least that's what the mindset of most villages is.  Soap - either you make it or you buy it .. and that may cost some Dalasis ($$$).  Water - it's wayyyy easier to stick a bucket in the middle of the compound for the whole family to slosh their hands around in before eating out of a single food bowl.  By the time the food comes around, people are ready to dig in.. proper handwashing takes wayyyy too much time (so they say). Plus, I realized that some people don't even know what a germ is in the first place. 

I recently learned how to make soap!
This is one example of how hard it might be to change the mindset of my village on something as simple as hand washing.  So, despite the barriers to proper sanitation, the hand washing campaigns have been very successful.  However, behavior change takes time... reminders.. uprooting old habits to sow new ones.  Heck, even I forget to wash my hands before snacking sometimes.  We all forget to do things that we know are beneficial to the maintenance of our minds and bodies, but it's even harder when people don't even have the basic education to equip themselves with proper health habits in the first place. 
Back to the main point - even if people gain the knowledge of disease transmission and prevention, the Fana Fanas (or any tribe) still may decide that hand washing isn't worth buying/making soap or a kettle for running water, or taking the time to teach their family to wash their hands because they still believe that someone put a curse on their family, an evil spirit entered their body to make them sick, or it was an act of God.  So, my challenge is, how can I properly introduce change while trying to preserve the culture, traditions and strong faith, that the Fana Fanas are known for and are so proud of?  It's a tough one.  And this is just HAND WASHING!  Imagine when I try to educate my village on birth spacing/birth control/family planning, or any other ideas that may "challenge" the Islamic faith.
Crafting JuJu charms that are made to
ward off evil spirits, prevent disease, or even prevent KNIFE PENETRATION;
usually made with animal bones and Quranic scripture
 On a more positive note, I have a few ideas (thank you in-service and friends from home).  My dear friend Moya Moye, an enlightening fellow I knew back in college, suggested that I educate myself in the principals of Islam.  Instead of trying to butt heads with the beautiful Muslim faith that deeply permeates my village, I should use it in conjunction with my own goals as a Peace Corps health volunteer! Recently, I have found a few books that highlight Islamic ideals, which include maintaining the health of the body and well-being of children & family.  If I can find ways to relate these progressive ideas and habits, that Peace Corps wants me to introduce, back to their roots in Islam and traditional Gambian culture, then it's beneficial for everyone!

So all in all, I'm on the up and up, slowly slowly.  The Gambia has a proverb "Ndanka Ndanka mooy jappa golo ci alle bi" which translates from Wolof to "Slowly Slowly catches the monkey in the bush"... it's pretty much the motto of every Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia.  It means SLOW THE HELL DOWN!!  Progress takes time and patience.  You can't grow a tree overnight.
... just a cute monkey!


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    Greetings from Santa Marta, Colombia

  2. Well it seems that everything is slowly evolving for you. Congrats on the hand washing campaign. Always remember, "You can't get clean in a dirty restroom!" Just do the best that you can with what is available. We love you, we miss you and we support you! Can't wait to see you again. PS: We thoroughly enjoy your blog!

    Greetings to all from Columbia, South Carolina!!