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Tiana: living & interning in Joal, a tropical paradise

April 12, 2010

It’s been two weeks since I left Dakar, and I am finding that my time in Joal is a perfect complement to my studies there both academically and in terms of ambiance.  I’ve been placed in a situation where work and vacation coincide for me (if that’s even possible!).  Allow me to explain:

When we first arrived at my new home, I wasn’t half as nervous as I had been the first time around.  The house is gorgeous, tranquil, and tropical.  The windows and doors are almost constantly open and draped by light curtains that move ever so gracefully whenever the ocean breeze blows by.  There are four different buildings in this familial complex: The main house is where Mama (grandma) and Papa (grandpa) live with Ferdinand, Clemence, and Agnes.  I live in a house with Paul (dad), Agnes (mom), Chlotilde (little sister), Robert (little brother), and Therese (little sister).  I have a perfectly sized, simple room with bed, desk, chair, and shelf.  One of the other buildings consists of a shower and toilet, the other is half-kitchen, half Augustin’s (uncle) room.  A grove of palm trees is basically in our back yard.  The beach is a small handful of meters away from our front door.  And there is a basketball court about a thirty-second walk away.  I have no complaints!

What a delight to find out that I have younger siblings here!  Chlotilde, whom everyone calls “Mama”, is bright and seems quite wise for her age, which I believe she told me is ten years old.  Robert is an active little man of around eight, and he and his cousin, Jean, can always be found goofing around acting like kung fu champions or wrestlers.  Therese is a little bundle of energy of about four years old who chats, sings, dances, and pesters every waking hour of the day, and she is one of the cutest kids I have ever in my life met!

The family has been so nice!  They have lodged several students in the past, so they seem to know the drill really well.  Agnes has allowed me to help with the cooking a couple of times, and just this afternoon she showed me how to do laundry by hand. The kids and I played basketball the other day, and we all often study together. Agnes makes ataaya almost every evening; I was able to attend church with the family this past weekend; the entire family has been willing to help me with Wolof and even some Serrere; I now have a Serrere name, Nilan Thiaré!

Joal as a community is quite the idyllic place.  Everyone seems to know everyone else, whether personally or through a friend of a cousin of a friend’s brother‘s son, etc. One neighbor, who is an English teacher at a nearby village, has offered to help me with Wolof if I help him with English.  Another neighbor wants to teach me to play the djembe.  Yet another, who just received his degree in English, is also eager for conversation.  I love the feeling of walking into work or walking down the road and seeing familiar faces, exchanging long salutations, feeling a bit like a member of the community.  I feel so blessed to have the chance to stay here for a while, not just pass by for a few days.

Work is another cool part of this unfolding story.  As aforementioned, I am interning at the Centre de Pediatrie Sociale in Joal, an institution started by the German army in, I believe, in 1987, then taken under the wing of a Swiss NGO. It is now functioning based on the participation of the community through payments for consultations, medication, etc.  I work with a lively crew with a family feel, led by Dr. Eugenie.

In any case, I cannot reiterate enough how incredibly blessed I feel to be placed here.  Not only are the personnel wonderful, but I’ve been given opportunities the likes of which I didn’t even imagine before my arrival.  They have allowed me to set up an IV for a dehydrated patient, prepare diluted syringes dosed with the appropriate amounts of medicine, evacuate a premature infant with respiratory troubles to a larger hospital in Thies via ambulance, do cleanings and pansements for burn victims and sutured patients, sit in on a session at the radio station to inform the public about the polio vaccine, participate in the national campaign to vaccinate infants between zero and five years old against polio, aid in the treatment of different tropical diseases, and so much more.  And all in just the past two weeks!  It’s an entirely different method of learning and, as I mentioned, is proving to be quite complementary to my classes in Dakar (particularly public health and Wolof).

The vaccination campaign was really interesting to witness.  Senegal hadn’t had a new case of polio since what I believe was the 80s, at least not until January of this year when the first case in years was seen at the very place that I am working!  I had an opportunity to briefly meet the young boy and his mother, and what a heartbreaking story they have.  Since January, seven other new cases of polio have been discovered in Senegal, hence the need for this campaign.  The vaccines are funded by the Ministry of Health so that they are absolutely free for the population.  Community workers called “relais” went door to door for four days (March 27th through the 30th) briefing parents on the disease and vaccinating the infants of which the parents agreed to the preventative measure.  I worked with two colleagues from the hospital, Doudou Diouf and Maguette Sylla, as well as with Babou Faye, the chauffeur, and the staff from the Poste in Fadial, a small town about ten minutes from Joal by car that is surrounded by tiny villages.  We visited several different villages and homes, supervising the relais who administered the vaccinations to see that they were following the designated procedure of briefing the parents, marking the infants properly, marking the homes visited properly, etc.  The days were long and exhausting, two things amplified even more by the presence of scorching temperatures, but it was an incredible experience just the same.

At present, I have yet to really explore the city.  These first two weeks have been long, and for some reason, I think I’ve had trouble adjusting to the heat.  Ergo, I’ve been sleeping a lot!  But my daily energy is on the rise.  Wednesday afternoon, I went on a walking tour of Fadiouth, a nearby island connected to Joal by a long bridge, with Modou from the pediatric center.  What a charming island it is!  It’s tiny, but there is such a richness to it, just a density of culture and history.  After passing by a couple of shops there, we came across a shop where the vendor, Jean, insisted on giving us a free tour of the island.  He took us to the church there and told us about the preparations they’ve been doing for Easter.  We saw the daily market, where he explained a bit about the products sold,  we passed a small mosque, a giant and mystical baobab tree, the health center, the place where the elders of the island gather to discuss everything and nothing, etc.  Jean then proceeded to tell me that we would make a really good-looking couple… Whoa, there, mister!  In any case, he was really nice, and it was neat to have a guided tour of the stunning little island.  Oh, and did I mention that it is an island made entirely of shells?  The ground and the walkways, the very foundation of the island, is truly the surface of a mass of shells more than five meters deep!  I need to go back and take pictures, and also hopefully to take a pirogue tour around the island and visit the Christian/Muslim cemetery located on an island connected to Fadiouth.

After visiting the island, Modou and I crossed over the short expanse to the ocean, encountering hundreds of tiny crabs burrowing in the sand along the way!  We walked along the coast, then sat in an empty pirogue and chatted while the sun set.  I’m so thankful to have friends here.

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