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Alec Yeh

24 Apr 2010 Malaria – “the biggest problem in Senegal”

Every once and a while, I’ll sit next to Seck to observe a consultation. But for the first time, I sat in the patients’ seat, facing the ominous head nurse. Fortunately for me, I was only sitting there for an interview, and not for health reasons. “My last question. What is the biggest problem in Senegal?” “Malaria,” he responded without hesitation. I hadn’t been in Senegal for very long when that question was first asked. And I really didn’t understand why malaria was the biggest medical problem in Senegal. I mean, so we get some people with malaria every once and a while. What’s the big deal? They just get an IV and they get better, right? It’s just like getting the flu. The first time I saw somebody with malaria was back during the first month of being in Sangalkam. This girl walked through the cast-iron gate and she looked like death. Her eyes were bloodshot and where they weren’t red, they were yellow. The girl’s lips were flakey from her body losing moisture. Her skin was pale, even though she must’ve been over 104 degrees. She walked slowly and wobbly, as if she was a 10-month-old baby just beginning to stand on two feet. Halfway to the pharmacy, she bent over and vomited in the sand, though it was mostly water; a sure sign that she hadn’t been eating. Malaria isn’t like getting the flu. It might be like getting the flu if the flu was jacked up on steroids. From that moment on, I began to see malaria everywhere. The hospitalization room was constantly filled with infected patients. They laid there for hours and hours with an IV in their arms. They stared up into the air, captivated by some world that only malaria patients can see. Often times I thought they were dead. Most of the time I was wrong. The only time I’ve ever seen a person die right in front of me was at the Poste. And as one would expect, it was from malaria. Though this woman was extremely old, it’s incredibly heart breaking to see a daughter run out into the street, crying at the top of her lungs. It was even more disturbing when they carried the body out in a small truck, the ones they use in the morning to deliver the cardboard-like bread to all the boutiques. Living in the United States all my life, I’ve never had to worry about malaria. Malaria was eradicated long before I was a born. And even here, I still don’t have to worry too much about malaria. I have my prophylaxis to protect me, and if that fails, I have the comfort of knowing that I’d be rushed to the hospital for treatment, all paid by my health insurance. And in the worst-case scenario, I would be airlifted out of Senegal. But nevertheless, coming here I got to see malaria firsthand. Yes, it is true that it’s preventable. And yes it’s very treatable. Then why do so many people die from it? I really don’t know. After seven months, I have seen my fair share of malaria patients and malaria is definitely pretty bad. What’s amazing is that I didn’t even see close to the worst. My whole in-country experience was during the dry season. The three wettest months are July, August, and September. The roads flood with human waste and any open container, any stray tire fills with water, breeding mosquitoes. During those three months, the Poste is filled beyond its capacity. Seck is a good guy and I know if he could do anything to help anybody at all, he would in a heartbeat. But even during the wet season, the Poste gets so packed that Seck has no choice but to deny treatment to people.
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14 Apr 2010 Fanta

Fanta is so freaking amazing. I had this great conversation with her last night after dinner. It always stems from food. She’s always asking me what food I like in Senegal. But then she stops me halfway through and says, “Okay okay. What don’t you like in Senegal?” And this happens all the time. That’s how all our conversations after dinner start. But this one just kept on going. We started talking about her history. We talked about what jobs she worked. We talked about what she wants to do in the future. Just talking to her, it made me respect and love her even more. I had no idea she was such a traveled, accomplished woman. Let me just give you a profile of her. Fanta was born in Kaolack, a city in the middle of Senegal. She has two brothers and two sisters, and I don’t exactly know where she is in the age hierarchy, but I know she’s not the oldest or youngest. Somewhere in the middle. Her parents were Malian immigrants who came to Senegal because of the commerce. She grew up speaking Bambara (a Malian ethnic group) first, but quickly learned Wolof since you really can’t go through life in Senegal without speaking Wolof. She attended school and learned French there. She also learned a little English. Even today, she can say simple sentences like, “I am Fanta Cisse. I am Senegalese. I am a mother. I live in Sangalkam. My father is [blank]. My mother is [blank].” She really enjoys saying, “I am old. I am too old.” But the education system of Senegal, and actually of most of Africa, was much better back in her time. Her generation speaks the best French. It’s because after she was educated, there was a fiscal crisis due to the expanding production power of Africa, but a stagnant demand of products. But anyways. Today, she speaks EXCELLENT French. The best French out of every Senegalese woman I’ve met. In fact, people often ask her, “What school do you teach at?” In which she responds, “Oh I’m not a teacher! I only sell fabric!” What’s amazing is Fanta never finished high school. Because of early marriages in Africa, she got married and got pregnant with Pape, so she had to drop out of school before she finished high school. But she was so good at French that she went to Cote d’Ivoire and taught French at a school that her uncle opened. She taught little kids the basics of French. After two years, she returned because of her ailing father. After he died, she didn’t return to teaching French. Instead, she became a merchant, like her parents. She’s worked a whole range of jobs.
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14 Apr 2010 Campements, Awa, Mangroves, and Peace Corps: The March Monthly Meeting

It was our last monthly meeting, and this one took place down south. The theme of this month’s meeting was environmental conservation, so the big activity was the tour of the mangrove system. I’ll explain more about that later. But we had already been to the area before, when we had to make that Gambia border run. The Campement We stayed in Toubakouta overnight during our little trip and it worked out really well, so we did it again this meeting. Not to mention Tons just has tons of connections. Apparently his cousin runs the campement (like a hostel), except Tons never met this cousin. I doubt it’s even his real cousin. It’s probably just one of those Senegalese fake family relations. But nonetheless, Tons just called up his cousin, who was also named Babacar like Tons, called him a moron, then asked him for a favor. The Senegalese just really enjoy insulting each other. It seems like it strengthens their family relationships (that joking kinship thing). With Tons’ connection, we got a discount. The campement itself was okay. It’s weird because by American standards you’d think, “Uh…this isn’t really where we’re staying is it?” The walls of the room had water damage, along with the slow chipping of the paint. The beds were nice, but the sheets were ugly and tacky; clearly made in China. The pillows seemed like they were stuffed with rock. The toilets didn’t flush (though the girls’ toilet did). And the worst was the water. Besides being kind of salty (the region all has salty water since its right next to the water), the water just didn’t wash all the soap off of you. Ananda described it as being “soft,” whatever that means. It’s the worst feeling ever. You feel like you have a film of soap all over your body. But I’m really not complaining. I’m just trying to paint you guys a picture. Clearly not as nice as St. Louis though. Apparently the campement is actually considered a nicer campement too. It makes me wonder what bad campements are like. We had most of our meals at the campement except two dinners, which we had at Awa’s house. Awa Approaching the house, we saw beautiful pink and purple flowers growing over the cement walls. The green cast-iron gate opened to a walkway filled with white seashells. The yard was large with newly planted trees, and the back had much more mature mango trees and what I thought were guava trees. The house looked rather small in comparison to the amount of open space. But once we entered, it was actually pretty big. All we could hear Awa voice booming out of the back room. This woman is the quintessential Senegalese woman. She’s big and motherly, with a loud and commanding voice. She’s extremely welcoming and never lets an awkward moment go by. She’s by far one of my favorite people. Awa is Modou’s second wife, Modou being the brother of Tons. They’re an amazing couple. Their home is definitely a classic example of a Senegalese household, besides the house being extraordinarily beautiful. In the household, there was Modou and Awa, their children, Modou’s first wife and their son, and their son’s family. The most adorable was Modou’s first wife’s son’s daughter. Her name was Amina and she was just too cute. She had these big cheeks, and the cutest, shyest smile a girl could have. She was extremely obedient and subdued for a child, quite unusual for a Senegalese girl. The other the people in the house were all nice. What strikes me as interesting is how incredibly obedient everybody was. All the kids were extremely proper, and had the best manners. It was definitely the most managed household I’ve encountered. The one thing I found funny was how Awa’s son was permanently shirtless. This kid was probably around our age, but he was clearly proud of his body. He was very fit, very muscular. He definitely had a very nice body, but he just wouldn’t wear a shirt. He also wore these red running shorts. The most clothes I saw him wear the entire time was when he was about to go exercise. The Senegalese wear so much when they do any working out. It doesn’t seem healthy. I would die of heat exhaustion. But the point of going to Awa’s, besides seeing one of my favorite families, was to eat. Awa, being a close friend of Rachel’s, makes the food exactly how we like it. She doesn’t use any MSG, which is the most amazing part (she still uses it with her own family). And it tastes just as good. It makes me wonder why the Senegalese even use MSG. But nevertheless, the first meal we had was Yassa Ginaar, which is chicken with an onion sauce over a bed of white rice. The next day was cere (millet couscous) with a tomato and beef sauce. After the sauce runs out for the cere, the Senegalese like to pour milk into the bowl. Everybody freaked out when I did that because they apparently never had it like that before. They yelled, “That is the most disgusting thing. You have oil in your milk!” But it’s exactly what the Senegalese do. All the Senegalese people yelled back, “That’s right! That’s how the Senegalese do it!” While all the other kids, with their American perspective, thought it was gross. Good to know I’m one of the more Senegalese when it comes to eating. After dinner, we always talk. The Fellows talk amongst themselves, while the adults talk amongst themselves. Each time though, we (the kids) always laugh really hard. We all make each other laugh, but apparently I make them laugh more so than anybody else. And apparently I dominate the conversation. Since Awa was watching us talk, by the second night, Awa had declared I was the “waxkat”, which in Wolof means the talker/speaker, or the entertainer of words. It’s weird because I would never think of myself of a “waxkat” in the US. But maybe I’ve changed. I hope in a good way though. Also, the fellows think I’m REALLY funny. Like incredibly funny. Mat says I should do stand-up (what???), and Ananda said that if I write a memoir, she would love to listen to the book-on-tape version so long as I narrate it. She thinks I’d be really funny narrating my memoir (like David Sedaris). I was shocked. I’m definitely not considered the “funny kid” back home, but here, I’m the clown. It’s a weird feeling to be the “clown” of a group. I hope I maintain it though, since I like making people laugh, and I like laughing as well. I think a lot of my humor comes from my facial expressions, my sarcasm and the way I say certain things, and my stupid comments. I tend to misunderstand and mishear things a lot, so I always say something really out of context. I guess we’ll see if I’m still funny in a month! Peace Corps The second day of our monthly meeting was mostly academic.
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06 Apr 2010 Sakho at Valda Pharmaceuticals

Rachel would be so proud. Mat, being incredibly lucky and sociable, met this man named Sakho at the bank in Rufisique. It was serendipitous. It turns out that Sakho is the head pharmacist of Valda, a very large pharmaceutical company that actually has its headquarters in Rufisque. And so Mat, Ananda and I made our very own contact. Mat brought us to the Valda headquarters to meet Sakho. Walking in, I was shocked. It was a gated complex that was more official than anything I’ve ever seen in Senegal. We got to the gate, and the security guard had to phone Sakho to make sure we were authorized to enter. I know in the US, that would be completely normal, but I guess I’m just really not use to that anymore. The security guard had to escort us to Sakho’s office, which was on the far side of the complex. As we walked in, the smell of chemicals just completely overwhelmed us. It was AWESOME. I miss the smell of chemicals. It smelled so clean, so official, so scientific. I could smell the chlorine in the air, along with other various chemicals. But walking into Sakho’s office was really surprising. It was so incredibly nice, and so western. He had a massive computer monitor, loaded with all the latest software, including Windows 7, which nobody uses in Senegal. He even had his own air conditioning unit. But once we sat down, we immediately started talking about Valda. Valda is an incredibly fascinating company to me. The founder, a Swiss man, started the company right after World War II. Valda has been owned by the same family until about a few years ago, when the director of Pfizer in West Africa (yes Pfizer! My sister works at Pfizer in the States), decided to buy it. But, it’s not owned by Pfizer. It’s privately owned by the director, and has no affiliation with Pfizer. I find that a little weird, not just because the owner for this pharmaceutical works two jobs, but how in the world did he make enough to buy a company? But anyways, today, Valda Afrique services every country in Africa except South Africa (South Africa is always the weird one; they have their own pharmaceutical market there). How incredible is that? I’ve never even heard of this company and it’s a continent-wide company. And on top of that, there’s a Valda in Brazil. The Valda in Brazil services all of South America. In fact, the Valda has a much wider market in South America. Sakho said it’s mainly because the countries there are more developed and therefore have the purchasing power. But that’s incredible. Valda Afrique has this one location in Rufisque, and the entire complex can’t be more than five buildings. They have a total of around 65 employees. 65 employees for the all of Africa?! In comparison, Valda Brazil has a total of 20,000 employees. What? I don’t understand the huge discrepancy. As for the products, Valda make an incredible range of things. They make Yotox, which is the insecticide that everybody uses in Senegal. They make tetracycline, which is used for skin and eye infections. They make so many types of antiseptics, more than I even knew existed. They make elixirs and oils that help things from indigestion to infections. They also produce huge amounts of condoms. But the funny thing is, when he told us how many they produce (which was like 2 million or something), I was like, that’s it?? For the all of Africa?? I assume there has to be other producers of condoms, or people just have a lot of unprotected sex here. Which is possible considering the high birthrates and venereal diseases. But you also have to remember, more people here have sex to have kids. However, their biggest product are mints. The mints fight bad breath and they act as cough drops too. Though that’s the biggest product, I think the best product is AquaTabs. They’re tablets that clean water. And it costs about two cents in US currency. Each tablet purifies 10 gallons. That’s amazing, and hopefully people will actually use them. Overall, it’s incredible the amount of things they produce considering how small the complex is. I can only assume that, though they service the whole of Africa, minus South Africa, they don’t produce HUGE amounts. Or maybe they do and they’re just incredibly efficient. That’s possible.
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01 Apr 2010 Balla Gaye vs. Modou Lo

Senegalese wrestling is a long-standing tradition. In fact, it’s not really “Senegalese.” It’s more African as a whole. But it’s their national sport, and everybody here loves it. Everybody. Even the old ladies. Including Fanta. She loves wrestling apparently, and I find that really hilarious. I can just imagine her getting really into it. But wrestling is EVERYWHERE here. You’ll hear kids saying, “Lutte, lutte, lutte.” You’ll see kids wrestling in the sand in the middle of the street. Half the time I can’t tell if they’re playing or if they’re seriously fighting. Some of the kids get really hurt and angry, so I never know whether to break it up for not. I usually just let it be because for the most part, they’re just playing around. But every once and a while, the kids are actually fighting, and I always feel guilty because I just can’t tell! But anyways, you’ll also see posters of wrestlers everywhere. Everybody has their favorite wrestler, and everybody has a laminated photo of their favorite wrestler hung up somewhere. They’re practically worshiped. For fights, wrestlers always wear close to nothing. They wear this huge thing that looks like an adult diaper, but that’s it. They also have a ton of trinkets and medallions and things for good luck. That includes gris-gris. Gris-gris are these very African charms that ward off evil spirits. Every single Senegalese person, and I mean every one of them, wears one. They’re usually under their clothes so you can’t see. But with wrestlers, they usually have multiple gris-gris, and they’re usually very large and all over their body. It’s weird to see that since gris-gris are so traditionally African and actually clash in some ways with Islam. In this case, African tradition trumps Islam tradition. You can see the tug-of-war between the two quite often with other things. But those all goes to show how entrenched and how beloved African wrestling is. It’s their equivalent of baseball or football I guess. The actual sport itself is a mixture of sumo wrestling, boxing, and ultimate fighter. The wrestlers are put into a circular sand pit where they wrestle to the beat of a drum and the singing of female wailers (they actually do sound like they’re just wailing). Anything goes in the ring except throwing sand in the face. You can punch and kick, and some of the punches can seriously knock you out. The point is to just knock your opponent onto the ground. Once their body makes clear contact to the ground, they’re done. The thing is, you can be pushed onto all fours, and still be considered in. The main thing is that your torso has to hit the sand. It’s sometimes hilarious because of how stupid some wrestlers can be. I once saw a match where a guy tripped over his foot and fell. And that was considered a victory for the other dude. It was hilarious.
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01 Apr 2010 Next on Mythbusters: Green Card Lottery?

The green card lottery: myth or truth? They could put that on Mythbusters. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s been long said that the US holds a green card lottery. But whether that is true, many people don’t know....

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01 Apr 2010 Knowledge is Power

I’ve begun teaching Oule’ye French. It’s a little peculiar that I would be teaching her French considering how angry and upset I get teaching Muhammad French. And it’s also peculiar that I would be teaching French at all since I'm terrible at it. But, then again, Oule’ye has never had a formal education, and she desperately wants to learn. And how can I say, “Oh no, I’m not qualified to teach you anything,” when in reality, I know more French since coming here than she will probably ever know. So I agreed. But that slowly began to include Muhammad. Except Muhammad knows much more than Oule’ye so I pretty much ignore him in the lessons. I’ll start teaching him once Oule’ye has caught up a little bit. The first thing I thing to do was teach her the alphabet. I started by just writing it out and asking here to memorize it, but I realize that was just not effective and didn’t work. So what I did was I kind of turned my room into a little classroom. I taped up the entire alphabet on my wall. That way I can make teaching a little more interactive, but pointing to the letters and showing her how they are written. As soon as the actual teaching began did I realize how little she actually knows. I usually speak French to her when I need something, and somehow she gets it. Now, I realize she usually just guesses what I’m asking for. I figured teaching her the alphabet wouldn’t take too long. It’s so simple. So I thought. It was SO difficult. It took multiple days to teach her the alphabet. I just wanted her to know the thing first, so we just went through the alphabet over and over. But for some reason she couldn’t remember “u.” It was SO frustrating. I just kept on moaning and groaning every time she got it wrong. Out of my frustration, I ended up pleading with her. Pathetic, I know. At one point, I got so upset I actually threw the book I had in my hand across the room. Oule’ye never cried, but sometimes I wasn’t sure if she was on the edge of it. She also seems to be a little sick, so I couldn’t tell. And she would always laugh at me when I got angry, so I’m thinking she wasn’t actually on the verge of crying. But after a few days, we finally made the connection that her name, “Oule’ye” makes the “u” sound. The “ou” part is the same sound. So that FINALLY had her going. And what was the most amazing part was seeing her reaction when she finally learned the entire alphabet. I mean, she still has pronunciation issues, but that’s because French is not her native language. So her pronunciation might never change. But when she finally got it all done, she was so incredibly happy. She had her own little celebration and you could see it in her eyes how proud she was and how grateful she was. It really goes to show how empowering learning can be.
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