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By Lisa Maina

Working with Equipe Aidons les Talibés has been very interesting but there has been a recent hiatus in the management of the organization. Because of this, program development had slowed, and I haven’t been able to work with Boukom and his team in the last few weeks. However, I knew still wanted to give back to the community and was restless to find another organization to work with in the meantime. With the help of the incredible program directors here at CIEE Dakar, I was quickly placed at another volunteer post, one I am very excited about.

Being a public health major, with a particular interest in global health, I was drawn to this program in Senegal because of the chance I would have to witness the health system in action here. When the opportunity to work at a health post in suburban Dakar was presented to me, it felt like fate (sorry that’s cheesy). This post was constructed by the Red Cross and operated by Red Cross volunteers until it was offered to the local government. Now, it is operated by two government-paid clinicians, that perform the maternal and child health functions, and several volunteer clinicians, that offer first aid and pharmaceutical services. My point of contact at the post is Cheikh Faye, an impassioned, energetic volunteer that spends basically 22 out of 24 hours a day helping the people in his neighborhood.

My first day volunteering started with a 40-minute bus drive to the outskirts of Dakar in a region called Pikine. Luckily, I was travelling with a student that had been volunteering at the post for a while, so she knew exactly where to go when our bus broke down still about 20 minutes from our destination. This wasn’t my first time on public transport in Dakar, but it was definitely my longest, with loads of traffic, standing, and confusion until we were forced to take a taxi the rest of the way to the post.

When we finally arrived, we received a warm welcome from Cheikh, then we got right into the work. The other student volunteering there already knew the ropes, so she showed me around. There are 4 offices, 3 for family health and 1 for adult consultations, 1 pharmacy and 1 research lab/classroom all on the premises. Right next door to the post is a Red Cross operated primary school and across the street is a delicious restaurant that we frequently visit after long days seeing patients. My duties that first day were to learn how everything works at the clinic and pick it up as quickly as I could.

I work with Cheikh in the adult consultation room where we check in patients for the entire clinic, perform first aid duties and occasionally do mini-surgeries for kids and adults. As consultations for children 0 to 5 years of age are free, we have a lot of newborns and toddlers come into our clinic where they are weighed and sent to the family medicine offices. That is my absolute favorite part, especially last week when I got to weigh a week-old baby, oh my goodness she was so small and quiet it was incredible. Anyways, check-ins are easy enough minus the language barrier. Because we are outside of urban Dakar, many of the clients don’t speak any French and most speak only Wolof. As I have been taking Wolof classes since my arrival in Dakar, I can ask basic questions, hi, how are you, what do you want, what’s your name, and so forth. However, it’s the responses that usually pose a problem. Sometimes they have a specific card that indicates when they should be coming for visits and depending on the type of card I can figure out whether it’s a family planning visit, post-natal or adult consultation, but other times the client assumes I speak Wolof, is disappointed when I don’t, and we just wait for Cheikh to translate.

I also had to quickly learn how to clean and wrap wounds, which is simple enough but more than anything, I had to get used to seeing open wounds and blood without reacting too harshly. Though most cases have been mild, occasionally we’ll have to remove a birth control implant which involves making a deep incision into the client’s arm, squishing out the plastic implant and picking it out from the inside of the arm with some forceps. I wouldn’t say I'm rather squeamish, but that definitely shocked me watching it for the first time, especially as the procedure was done with several other patients waiting in the same room, very little anesthesia and relatively little light. In fact, conditions in the clinic are adequate for the needs of the community but insufficient compared to standards most of us are used to. When the other student first arrived at the clinic, there were no gloves for any of the clinicians in the office, meaning wound cleanings and procedures were done with bare hands. The bed is ripped up and the scale is very outdated; the tools used are limited and reused from patient to patient; and the clinic only provides antiseptic and the cleaning gauze used, so patients must buy wrapping gauze, ointments or any other necessities at the pharmacy next door.

What the clinic lacks in supplies, though, is made up for by the incredible staff that work their butts off every day to ensure the health of their neighbors. Cheikh and his colleagues are at the clinic as early as 8 am, work there until 2:30 to 3 pm, afterwards do home visits for clients that can’t make it to the clinic, then go home to their own families but are usually still on call for any emergencies. My first home visit, we went to the home of these women that are taking care of their elderly father/husband. He had fallen from a flight of stairs and has unable to walk since, but he was also experiencing severe decay of the skin on his left foot. Cheikh explained the likely cause of this necrosis as a result of the fall creating a sort of paralysis and the lack of movement decreased blood flow to his extremities. Since that first visit, Cheikh has made himself available everyday to remove the decaying skin, perform physical therapy to increase blood flow and do routine cleanings to stimulate skin regeneration. Other home visit clients include the family of a woman who unfortunately died after one of her procedures. Cheikh still visits the family members to check in on them and keep in contact as often as he can. Though I haven’t spent as much time with the other clinicians, so I am unaware of their schedules, but I know it takes a really courageous heart to do the work they do and take care of not only their neighbors, but many of these clients have become their friends, further indicating the quality of their care.

I have taken this opportunity to focus more on what I can obtain from this experience rather than analyze my impact on the community. Because I’m learning so much every day and I’m very naïve when it comes to the field of health administration, I doubt I can have much impact other than the occasional help I offer on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I stand to gain a lot of knowledge not only on health practices, but also on the health system in Senegal, diseases in the region, maternal and child health routines, world perspectives on health, cultural aspects of medicine and so much more, all information I can use in the future to then help make an impact on the international health community.

By Lisa Maina

As I discussed in the last entry, this semester I will be volunteering with Bokoum Djibril and his organization called Equipe Aidons les Talibés (EAT) in order to improve conditions for orphaned students of the Quran. These children are known all over Dakar as everyone is approached by at least one each day. When I asked my host family about their opinion of the issue, they were equally as distraught as I was but at the same time disillusioned because they felt helpless in finding the right solution to save these children from their unfortunate situation.

One of Djibril’s main goals is to change the way in which people view Talibés. Obviously when you see children begging in the streets, you are likely to view them as sad, helpless, and powerless. This perspective is heightened by their soot-covered clothes filled with holes and their bare and dirty feet. However, Djibril firmly believes that people should not see them as depressed and helpless, but rather focus on their hopefulness and potential as children to get out of their situation. Additionally, we should recognize the strength these kids have that brought them all the way to Dakar without their families and spend each day on the street just to get an education. For these reasons, Djibril has focused his organization on providing opportunities for Talibés to experience their childhood like so many other more privileged children.

In order to do this, EAT reserves full days with children of some Daaras in order to allow them to spend time with other Talibés learning, playing and eating, rather than begging. My role in the organization thus far is to help program fun activities for the children along with another American volunteer. Two weeks ago, that meant choosing and organizing games that we would play all together during a day that we had reserved with them. Though this sounds simple enough, we had to account for the language barrier when considering how to give instructions for the games. We are both proficient in French, but the Talibés have only just begun their French lessons, so communication is either in Wolof (of which we are both novices) or gestures. This cut out a considerable number of games we could play, especially games that could help their learning.

Eventually we settled on a couple games that required little instruction or ones that could be easily translated. A crowd favorite was Duck, Duck, Goose, though the Wolof words for duck and goose were very long. In this case, we settled for “Muus, Muus, Xaj” which translates to cat, cat, dog. After a few demonstrations, the kids were running around, ducking their heads, and having a blast. For the rest of the day, we helped with general logistics, serving food, practicing French and having a good time with the kids.

Playing "Simon Says".
French lessons taught by a volunteer professor.
Talibés eating a dinner provided by EAT volunteers.
Us demonstrating Muus, Muus, Xaj.

Moving forward, I plan to be an ambassador of EAT, selling merchandise to people that want to support the cause and raising awareness of the organization. This way, we can fund more activities for the kids and implement more programs to help the children. One program I am particularly interested in is the mentorship program Djibril has just started drafting. This program would pair each Talibé with a volunteer who would vow to provide clothes and food. Each day that the Talibé would work the street, he would work in the direction of his mentor’s home, meet him or her there and they would provide a meal as well as anything else necessary before the Talibé returns home.

Right now, this program is being designed but it is facing a few difficulties because of logistics and lack of volunteers. In order to implement the program, we need to work out an adequate system to register volunteers willing to participate, ensure quality involvement, establish contractual agreements to confirm length of participation, as well as get enough funds to kickstart the program. As a team, we are working together to develop this initiative, brainstorming appropriate regulations, contracts, and potential blueprints for the plan of the program.

Additionally, the EAT team has been working on establishing more structured French lessons for the Talibés with teachers for each level. This has also been challenging to implement because of logistics and lack of resources. Such resources include certified French teachers for each level, space for lessons, practice material and so forth. It has also been difficult to ensure that the children would retain the information, as these lessons would only occur the few times a month EAT is allowed to work with each of the Daaras. Though there are many challenges to overcome before implementing these lessons, at EAT we know education is one of the most powerful tools these kids can be equipped with, so we are doing everything we can to make it possible.

All in all, there is a lot to do to change conditions for the Talibés of Dakar and I look forward to providing any help I can. If anyone is interested in this organization, visit their Facebook page for more information (!! Also check out their merchandise if you’d like to support the Talibés of Dakar!

By Lisa Maina

Among the many reasons I decided to attend George Washington University, one of the most important was the many opportunities I would have to study abroad. I’ve always been interested in working internationally, and what better way to confirm this than by spending a semester abroad? GW makes it so incredibly easy to do so, whether through awesome advising, easy FOFAC registration, or financial aid transferal; there was nothing that could stop me from exploring the globe.

The hardest part of the whole process was probably choosing where to go, especially because there were so many options. With choices ranging from 6 continents, 41 countries, and over 200 programs, the list of options was long. I knew I wanted to continue learning French while abroad, so that cut down my options by a few, but many still remained. After doing the necessary research, I knew I wanted to travel with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) because of their resources, classes and global opportunities. Now most people in my position would have easily chosen to go to France, and of course I would have loved to spend a semester there, but I saw something else in my life course*. However, I wanted a different experience from the rest of my peers; I wanted to go somewhere where I could learn about the world from a completely new perspective. For this reason, and many others, I chose to study abroad in Africa, more specifically in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

In order to be fully prepared for this journey, I wanted to strengthen my French skills as well as transition my way of thought to one more open to new perspectives. In order to do this, I chose to study abroad in France during the summer, which definitely improved my oral communication and (helped me see the world in a different way). Within 2 months, I witnessed different ways of greeting people, of eating, of travelling, of interacting with others; overall it was very different. Even though I was experiencing the culture firsthand, there was still so much I had yet to understand as I learned in my course on French Identity. Learning the history behind all the common beliefs of the French, I could begin to comprehend why their culture was so different and could appreciate what some of their values meant to them.

Overall, I learned a lot from my short stay in France but the most important was how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Staying in a host-family comprised entirely of strangers was definitely out of my comfort zone, as well as being approached in French, not knowing how to convey exactly what I meant, figuring out news ways to communicate my needs, and just being in a fairly foreign environment. Eventually, it became normal for me to not know exactly what to do, and I learned how to be okay with it and understand that I’m not always going to be able to resolve that problem.

Having done intercultural workshops while in France, I also learned how to view a different culture with an open mind, not privy to judgement but rather to curious observation. Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions when witnessing some aspect of a culture, I learned to ask myself why I feel a certain way about this aspect, what I’m used to and why that culture might have this aspect. This way, I am less likely to dismiss the traditions of a society (which I believe one should never do, but humans are naturally judgmental), but I can analyze what cultural significance they might have and have a more objective opinion. For example, (maybe talk about French being pretentious, la bise, idk)

With all this is mind, I came home from France mentally prepared to head straight to Senegal, though definitely not physically prepared. Being that it is a third world country, there was a lot I had to consider like vaccinations, buying any products I might not find in Senegal, getting lots of bug spray and malaria pills, signing any documents I had left, and finally, packing. This came especially hard because of the conservative nature of Senegalese society combined with its incredibly hot climate. I am very comfortable in my body, so I am not afraid to wear booty shorts and a tank top when it hits 75°F, but that definitely would not slide in Senegal. Trying to find clothes that would keep me cool but covered is not something I’ve ever had to do and presented many challenges when I made my feeble attempts. After a couple unsuccessful rounds of shopping, I decided to just buy some pairs of linen pants and hope for the best. My last item to do was say bye to my family, which I now realize I did not do well enough. I guess I didn’t realize how long four months on the other side of the globe is and homesickness, no matter how much you think you won’t have it, is very real. Finally, we made the 2-hour trip to JFK International Airport, I said my last farewells (while my mother stalled to prolong my departure) and I made my way through security to await my flight.

While flying is generally pretty stressful, my arrival in Senegal was the first of many trials I did not foresee, from lost luggage to the heat to the lack of toilet paper in bathrooms, but my euphoria mitigated some of the initial stress I felt. It also didn’t hurt that I had some family friends in the city with whom to communicate any concerns, but also, my host family was most accommodating, and I am grateful to have been welcomed into such a wonderful home. Thus far, living in Africa is pretty much what I imagined and more. People on the streets are extremely kind and willing to have full conversations, which has only helped with the language acquisition. A simple “Salaamalekum” will spark a huge smile on a passing stranger and right away you’ve made a new friend. Often times, people will approach me speaking Wolof at full speed, mistaking me for a Senegalese girl, but it’s never an issue and only makes them more inclined to keep up the conversation when I say “degguma Wolof”.

After a few days of orientation, we had a cultural competency lesson on the cultural differences we might encounter here in Senegal. We split into groups and explored different aspects of Senegalese life. In my group we discussed the concentration of homeless children in Dakar and what has caused their numbers to remain so high throughout the years. Because of the reputation of Senegal as being the country of “Teranga” or hospitality, many people across West Africa know of the welcoming nature of the Senegalese. This, along with the importance of religion in this country, has enticed many young students of the Quran to leave their homes and study under the Marabouts here in Dakar. As is tradition, students are expected to bring Adiya, or a donation, in return for their studies. However, many Marabouts in Dakar have turned this sacred tradition into a form of exploitation, forcing these children to beg on the streets and receive no training after handing over what little they received from strangers. Many Senegalese can recognize these children, termed “Talibés”, and face an internal conflict when approached by one. If they don’t aid these children in collecting money, the Talibés are often beaten by their Marabouts. If they do give them money, however, they are only perpetuating a cycle of exploitation. One thing they often do instead is offer food around lunchtime when Talibés have been on the streets for many hours without food. This way they can help without necessarily supporting their manipulation.

After learning about this phenomenon, I couldn’t help but look at the young beggars in a new light, and all I wanted to do is help without harming the delicate situation. I thought about the many dangers these children face, children that are only seeking an education in the Quran, children that are only seeking a better future. I constantly wondered what could be done for these kids, and when offered an opportunity to work with an organization dedicated to their aid, I couldn’t pass up the option.

Equipe Aidons les Talibés (EAT), created by Bokoum Djibril in 2009, is nonprofit whose main purpose is to work with Talibés to provide adequate living conditions as well as offer an emotional support system in order for them to live safer lives. Working with five “Daaras”, or Quranic schools, Djibril and his team of volunteers conduct activities like happy weekend, one Talibé one sweater, Eid al-Fitr celebrations and more. They work with many sponsors to provide clothing, food, health care, education and safe play spaces for these children and foster real relationships with them. Coming on 10 years, Djibril and his team are developing more and more programs to improve the lives of Talibés as well as change the mentality of the Senegalese from feeling helpless to the situation by giving people a way to break the cycle.

Overall, it has been an incredible first month here in Senegal, and I'm very happy with the opportunities I have chosen thus far. I am ecstatic to start working with EAT and make a lasting impact on the organization, as well as effect real change for the Talibés. After meeting with a few of the other volunteers, I can tell it will be a very influential experience from which I will learn much and gain new perspectives to bring back to America.