By Helen Blakesley,
Only yesterday I was under the British rain, bidding farewell to my nearest and dearest. Today I’m back to my francophone, sun-filled Dakar days, catching up on the latest political intrigue as Senegal heads towards a contentious Presidential election. That, and trying to work out why my water’s been turned off.
The trick, as I see it, is to try to exist in the moment, to connect with the places and people around you. Let your several lives and worlds mingle to make a space where certain universal truths exist: we all laugh, we all cry, we all need love, we all need God’s grace. Not always an easy feat.
But sometimes, a trip to “another world” can be the eye opener you need when your status quo seems to leave something to be desired. A mini adventure into the Senegalese outback just before Christmas (otherwise known as my latest work trip) served to transport me—in mind, body and spirit.
I’d been feeling rather flat since returning from Benin after the Pope’s visit (hey, it’s a hard act to follow.), so getting back on the road was just the ticket for restoring my joie de vivre. A 12-hour car journey took us first past the urban sprawl of Dakar, through dusty savannah landscapes, and then—way out East—we reached the hills, the forests, the monkeys and the wild boar.
I was there to photograph CRS’ community nutrition programs, aimed at helping Moms, babies and pregnant women in remote rural areas. And remote it was.
After the music, dancing and speeches of the welcome ceremony (I always have a kind of out-of-body experience when watching these fascinating displays) we had a mountain to climb. Literally. A 45-minute vertical climb, up to 1,300 feet in altitude. I’m afraid to say, this Brit is not the fittest, but my Caritas colleagues (the CRS partner in the programs) were true gents, letting me catch my breath—and the increasingly stunning views—as we ascended.
We stepped out of the trees into Iwol village—nestling on top of the mountain, a place left virtually unchanged since the 12th century. Huts with elegantly cone-shaped thatched roofs. No electricity and no water supply. The nearest well is an hour away, meaning that the women would have to do the trek that I just had, but daily, there and back, with jerry cans or buckets of heavy water balanced on their heads.
The women of the village were assembled under a tree, waiting for the nutrition program visit, most with babies on their knees or toddlers playing near their feet. The older women sat spinning cotton with wooden bobbins, twisting the thread from fluffy balls grown in nearby fields. They wore the Bedik tradition of porcupine quills through their noses and elaborate jewelry adorned ears and necks.
The visit was a mixture of monitoring the kids’ progress and providing information and guidance for the moms. Wriggling babies were weighed in a harness-cum-scale hung from a tree branch. Their upper arm circumference was measured to check for malnutrition. Vitamin drops were dripped into little mouths (not very popular with the mouths in question!)
And then came the cooking demonstration. Moms were shown how to mix maize, rice, nuts and beans to make a nutritious flour which can be turned into porridge. Each child was given a supply to take home.
As with every CRS project I visit, I was sitting there, privately hoping to myself that what we’re doing really does make a difference in people’s lives. And that’s when one woman decided to tell me her story. She’d been ashamed to bring her baby along to the program. She knew he was malnourished, but she blamed herself for not looking after him properly.
“I thought, I can’t have any more children if I can’t look after them” she told me, “ but then my cousin persuaded me to bring the child here. It made a massive difference. He gained weighed and now he’s even starting school.”
With a giggle, the woman told me she’d been so happy she fell pregnant again—and she placed that baby in my arms.
The next day, we went to a disco. No, I’m not about to regale you with tales of my nocturnal life. It was a daytime disco, all in the name of social mobilization. We saw this ingenious method put into practice in the village of Dindefelo, under the shade of a large, old tree. First, the team from CRS and Caritas played the latest hits at a healthy volume to attract their audience of mostly women, babies and young children. After a few introductions, the dancing began! I was persuaded to partake by a friendly woman with a wide smile, and once I’d gotten over my British reserve, I found myself exhilarated, and once again in a rather surreal situation.
The idea behind the fun is that you grab the attention of your audience, get their blood pumping and endorphins flowing with the music and dancing. Then, at regular intervals, the music stops and you deliver a key message about changing nutritional practices. This time’s topic was the importance of breastfeeding. What a way to raise awareness.
Our ride home to Dakar took a little longer than expected—a truck had overturned on one of the savannah roads and a communal effort was underway to pull and push it back onto its feet, so to speak. Luckily no one was hurt. And thanks to a heart-warming trip, in more ways than one, I was back on my feet too.
Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.
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