Saturday, March 22, 2008

Baby weighing

Written Monday, 11 March 2008

For two days this past week I went around my village with my counterpart and weighed all the kids we could find five years old and younger. We're going to re-weigh the kids every month. The idea, of course, is to track malnutrition levels in the village and to help mothers keep track of how their kids are doing and to motivate them to try harder to keep their kids well nourished.

This is what I found out from the first weighing: about 25% of the kids under five years old in my village are underweight/malnourished. I was a little surprised the percentage is so high since few of the kids here look malnourished, but during the weighings I discovered that a lot of the kids who look like a fairly healthy kid of a certain age are actually a lot older. So kids who look like they're 1 ½ or 2 years old are actually 3 years old or even older. They've just stopped growing, or at least aren't growing at a normal pace. It made me really sad to realize that.

There is a fairly large difference between boys and girls – 31% of the girls were malnourished, while only 19% of the boys were. I can't figure out why this is – from my own observations and also from asking my villagers about it, I know that boys and girls are given the same food in the same amounts. It's not like all the meat and other good food goes only to the boys.

Malnutrition problems start after babies are about 6 months old, when they are weaned. They get diarrhea from drinking dirty water and crawling around in and eating dirt. I think it is really this hygiene issue that is the problem, rather than not getting enough food or vitamins. We already talk to the women about filtering and bleaching their water, but I have no idea what to do about kids crawling around in and eating dirt. It is just the environment we live in here.

One difficulty with the weighings that might have thrown off the results (and I am hoping it did and the kids aren't as malnourished as these statistics show) is that the mothers often don't know how old their kids are. Birthdays aren't celebrated here, and people, especially the uneducated, which is basically all the women, aren't very familiar with the Western calendar. So unless the women brought their kid's vaccination card with their birthday on it, usually they could only tell us something like "He was born during the last rainy season." So I am hoping that some of the kids' ages were mid-guesstimated and they are actually younger, and consequently less underweight, than we recorded.

Next month, and every month from now on, we are going to re-weigh the kids to see if they are gaining weight from one month to the next.

Wife inheritance

Written Tuesday, 18 March 2008

There is an old custom here, which I believe is practiced throughout much of Africa (although I'm not positive, so don't quote me) that when a man dies, his brothers should marry his widows. In the West this is referred to as wife inheritance, and is usually viewed as an outdated, anti-feminist practice – the wives being passed around as if they were property to be inherited.

And maybe there's how it was in the past. Maybe there are still elements of that now. But I think the main purpose of the custom is to protect the widow and her children – rather than being just a "poor relation" dependent on the charity of others for survival, the widow, through marrying her late husband's brother, strengthens her ties to her husband's family and remains an integral part of that family. And any children she may have are more likely to be treated well by a step-father who is also their uncle (in West African tradition your father's brothers are considered to be also your fathers) than by a step-father who has no prior relation to them.

I bring all this up because my village host father is in the process of "inheriting" his deceased brother's wife. (Negotiations and arrangements are under way for the marriage). I am curious to see how it all works out and how our family dynamics will be affected.

The Affair of the Crinting

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The hut I am living in was built by my village for the previous volunteer, so now it is about 3 years old. Which means that the cement walls and floor are starting to crack and chip off, there are holes in the thatch roof where the rain will be able to come in when the rainy season starts (although the previous volunteer already had some of the thatch replaced last year), and the "crinting", the woven bamboo fencing for my backyard and latrine, is starting to fall apart. So I got permission from Peace Corps to pay to get everything repaired. Getting the cement and thatching was easy: I went to a store in Dialacoto and paid for the cement, and then paid for someone with a donkey cart to transport it back to my village. Same thing for the thatching: I paid some guys to cut some thatching grass out of the bush, and some other guys to transport it, and voila, a few days later it was sitting outside my hut.

The crinting, however, has been an entirely different story. Crinting is only made in a few villages around here (because of distance from the bamboo, I think), and the closest for me is a village about 10 km away. My host dad, the village chief, recommended a good crinting maker in the neighboring village, so one day, way back in January, my counterpart and I went to see him. He said he charges 1500 CFA, about $3, for each piece of crinting, which is about 10 feet long. We told him I needed 10. He said he could have them ready in 10 days. So we paid him a deposit of 7500 CFA, half the price of the 10 crinting pieces, and said we'd be back in 10 days to pay the rest and pick up the crinting.

My host dad had failed to mention to us, however, that while this guy makes good crinting, he's not exactly reliable. After a week, he sent someone to tell my counterpart that the crinting wouldn't be ready on the previously agreed date and gave a new date for when it would be ready. I figured this is just the way things work in Africa, and I wasn't bothered by it.

When the new deadline arrived, my counterpart and I biked over to the other village to get the crinting. But when we got there, his family said he was off in the bush making the crinting; he should be back at lunchtime. We said we'd wait. So we spent the whole morning just sitting there, with nothing to do but wait. The man wasn't back by lunchtime, though. So we had lunch with the village midwife, and then we waited some more.

Finally the crinting man showed up, and, as I had begun to suspect, the crinting wasn't ready. He gave us a new date when it would be ready, and we said fine, we'll be back then.

So it went for weeks. We'd show up in the morning, he'd be "out", we'd wait all day, and finally he'd show up and tell us he needed more time. One day we came in the morning and his family said he was out til the afternoon, so as usual we went to hang out at the midwife's compound. But then my counterpart decided to go back and check, "just in case" he'd come back early. Sure enough, his family had lied to us to cover for him, and he wasn't out at all but just hiding from us.

Finally I was fed up, and I told him that the next time I came he had better either have the crinting for me or else give me my deposit back, or else I was going to report him to the gendarmes. He agreed he would definitely either give me the crinting or the money.

So the next week we came back, determined to get one or the other. I thought that he would have been so scared after I mentioned the gendarmes that we would get whichever one (and I really didn't care which at this point) without any trouble.

But this guy was tougher than I thought. We showed up in the morning, and once again his family said he was out in the bush and would be back with the crinting by noon. This time we didn't go to the midwife's house to wait, but instead stayed at the crinting man's compound in ambush. But he wasn't back at noon. (I'm betting someone from the family warned him we were there and not to come back). His family told us, Well, definitely by 3:00 he'll be back. But 3:00 came and went. Definitely by 5:00. Ten they said, Well, sometime tonight. You can come back in the morning, and he'll be here. But I was really mad by then. (All day in the host sun with nothing to do made me cranky). So I reminded them that we had agreed that I would either get the crinting or my deposit back that day, or I was going to the gendarmes. I told them I'd better have received one or the other by 6:00 pm, or else.

So we sat there tensely for an hour, until 6 pm. Of course the man hadn't come back. I got up and told the family it was 6:00 and I was leaving. They tried to convince me to wait longer or come back in the morning, but I refused. (If I didn't leave then, I couldn't make it back to my village before dark, and the next day I was leaving for Tamba and then onwards for my much-awaited vacation).

So I left. When I got back to my village, my host sisters laughed at me, as they had been doing for weeks, for having wasted another whole day waiting for crinting I never received.

The next day I left for my vacation, determined not to worry any more about the crinting til I got back, and hoping that my counterpart and the crinting man would have resolved the situation by then.

Sure enough when I came back to my village this week, my counterpart told me he had gotten the deposit back from the crinting man (who I think was finally convinced that I was mad enough to report him to the gendarmes). He ordered the crinting from someone else, and a few days ago it was finally delivered to my hut.

So the crinting drama is finally over, and I didn't have to go to the gendarmes. (Would I really have reported the guy over stealing a $15 deposit? I'm not sure. I really don't know what the gendarmes would do about it – toss him in jail and throw away the key? Laugh at me and do nothing? Something in between?)

Now I just have to get someone to install the crinting and the thatch on my roof…


Wednesday, 5 March 2008

I finally got back to my village last night after being gone for a few weeks for vacation, and this morning my counterpart came over to catch me up on what I've missed in the village while I've been gone and to talk about what activities we'll do over the next few days.

The big news: Kinkeliba, a private French hospital a few kilometers up the road, has hired and trained "relais" (health educators) to do health education classes and baby weighings in villages in the area, including my village.

This is exactly the same as what I'm supposed to be doing here, and as what volunteer relais trained by Africare, an American NGO working in the area, are supposed to do. Which brings me back to the question of what exactly is the point of me being here? And how is my counterpart, a volunteer relais trained by Africare, supposed to stay motivated to do health activities while he is not getting paid for it and someone else is? Should we just give up our activities and let the guy who is getting paid for it do them? Or continue our work, and compete with the other guy for popularity in the village?

However useless I feel, at least I can be pretty sure that health activities in the village won't just stop when I leave. Hopefully the village will benefit from all this competition between Peace Corps, NGOs, and private organizations.