BY TALIA KATZ.
Photography by Talia Katz.
“i te foosi long.” You don’t know anything.
Did I correctly understand my host mother’s succinct Malinke phrase? Did I really know nothing? Her remark, though valid, struck me hard. Intelligence had always been the one character trait I clung too. And as if to crystallize the meaning of her sentence, Sunkara Camara, the woman whom I would call mother for the next seven months, proceeded to specify the extent of my incompetency. You don’t know how to chop an onion. You don’t know how to cook rice. You don’t know how to do laundry in the river. You don’t know how to dust. You don’t know even know how to speak Malinke. And then again, “i te foosi long.” You don’t know anything.
In October 2012, I arrived in Tomboronkoto, a rural village of around 800 people located in the southeastern corner of Senegal in West Africa. A few months prior, I had graduated high school; however, instead of immediately accepting my place at Yale College, I became a Global Citizen Year fellow, deferring my freshman year in order to immerse myself in a new community. According to the sparse, one page “fact sheet” I guarded in my backpack- I was to assist a midwife at the local health clinic and teach English and math courses at the middle school. Unlike many other gap year programs, Global Citizen Year models their experience after the first phase of the Peace Corps training. During that time, the volunteer concentrates on observation and integration. While Global Citizen Year fellows hold community “apprenticeship” positions, their primary objective is to watch, see, and learn. Only through becoming a part of the community, can one understand community needs and the appropriate ways for filling them, if they should be fulfilled at all.
Of course, I could complete all of the aforementioned tasks- though my laundry techniques left much to be desired and my onion slices never fell as symmetrically as those of the other women. Sure, I could boil water and add rice to a pot, but I lacked many of the requisite language skills necessary to purchase rice from the grocer. Moreover, I had a poor understanding of the intricate analog rituals surrounding the serving of the rice dish.
As the months went by, my new proficiency in the Malinke language informed a certain degree of cultural fluency, strengthening my relationships with both Sunkara and the members of the community at large. Understanding who did laundry for whom disclosed information on social relationships within the village. Watching women plan menus and distribute meal portions to groups in the family elucidated the socio-economic factors contributing to nutrition and health. Mastering quotidian chores, in the style of the Malinke women, proved imperative to understanding the cultural aspects of international development work.
As international NGOs and other multilateral agencies ephemerally breezed through the village, starting initiatives and seldomly seeing them through, I began to understand why Sunkara had so adamantly insisted that I learn to cook rice. During the month of November, in conjunction with other Senegalese volunteers, I worked to carry out a mass Meningitis A vaccination campaign. Given the diversity of ethnic groups in Senegal, not even all of the Senegalese volunteers could speak Malinke and Pulaar. My ability to explain basic health terms, and even just count, allowed us to safely target the highest risk populations and to do so in the most dignified and efficient manner. Throughout the month of December, I traveled with a midwife throughout the region of Kedougou. Through serving Kane (a rice dish with peanut sauce) at the family planning workshops and prenatal consultations, we were able to reach and provide service to a higher number of women. During the month of January, a group of Italian businessmen visited Tomboronkoto, wishing to combat malnutrition through donating fruit juicing machines.
Through translating during a meeting between the Italians, the village chief, and the local health workers, I helped facilitate a dialogue wherein the Italians developed a new strategy, this time in conjunction with the community. Cross-culturally, there exists a tendency to devalue the domestic labor of women. Yet, it was only through immersing myself in this incredibly powerful and important set of obligations that I began to understand the fundamental operationsofTomboronkoto-thehealth challenges and opportunities. On the eve of my departure from the village, Sunkara proudly proclaimed in front of the entire village “sani sani, ite mussoo malinke laa.” Now, you are a Malinke woman.
The ability to spend eight months living with the Camara family in Tomboronkoto was a privilege, a commitment of time that I understand not all can afford to make. Yet as I close this article, I want to insist on the importance of direct people to people contact informing public health agendas. In falsely equating “large scale projects” with “large scale success” wereduce the efficacy of the solution, and more importantly, reduce the humanity of those groups for whom we are supposedly working. Grassroots development work performed by locally led organizations, such as Tostan (in the West African context), prove that small models provide big results. As we seek to solve our generation’s largest challenges- be it infectious disease, malnutrition, or infant mortality we must not forget that key insights may come from the “smallest” of places. Without a careful eye, “i te foosi long.” You don’t know anything.