Archive for July, 2010

Maternal mortality up close

July 31, 2010

It’s one thing to read and write about maternal mortality, but for someone who actually doesn’t work on the ground in the medical field, it’s another thing to see an aspect of it play out in real life. 

The organisation that I’m placed at has a milk program for new mothers who can’t breastfeed.  It’s not run out of the building that I work at, but occasionally women show up at our location. The previous time this happened, a woman arrived with her triplets- the results of her 8th pregnancy.  She carried one of the tiny triples, another woman a second, and a little girl- about seven years old?- the third.  I asked a co-worker about how that little girl is not in school, and commented that she probably won’t ever go, right? My co-worker replied, “well no, who would look after her siblings?” Of course, I knew the answer before asking it, but it was more like an observation on my behalf than a question, but curious about the answer I would get. And so the cycle continues.  But I digress.

The more recent visit, was quite different.  Two women arrived with a tiny, day old, premature baby girl. I haven’t been around a lot of day old babies – okay, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a day old baby- but I am pretty confident they should be a lot bigger (her head was about the size of a tennis ball?). Even my Nigerien coworker lamented how small she was, and I suspect people here are around a fair number of underweight babies. The woman holding the baby was the mother’s sister, because the mother had died the day before in childbirth.  I can only presume that the family could not pay for further hospital care, because the hospital had removed the baby from it’s incubator for premmies, and given her to the family to take home.  They had no access to another breastfeeding woman, so here they were, looking for milk.  Unfortunately, even from my basic knowledge of maternal health issues in Africa (and I mean very basic), as I looked at this baby I knew her future was bleak. Not only was she premature, but a baby born to a mother who dies while the baby is young, is far more likely to die herself.  This, if I understand correctly, is not only due to the lack of immunity that would be gained by breastfeeding, but just as in this case, the baby is often handed over to a family member, but tends to be assigned a lower status than the other children in the family thus  putting it at risk for a whole lot of factors. This sister who had just inherited the baby, couldn’t even afford to buy some milk, so add in all the aspects related to poverty that kill little children to begin with and that the fact that this baby is a girl… like I said, her future is bleak. I guess I haven’t  been able to forget about that little baby, what she stands for in my mind and just the injustice of how who you are born to and where decides so much about whether you or your children live or die.

I guess there will be some things I won’t miss when I leave next week, things are just so much easier when you’re ignorant.

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Another update

July 17, 2010

I  went to a really good conference a couple of weeks ago.  It was actually billed as a “foire au savoir”- loosely translated as a “knowledge fair”, I guess.

I went to many sessions, but here are some that are more popular. One of the reasons I topics I really wanted to see was the session being presented about Dimitra’s (FAO, www.fao.org/dimitra) radio clubs for women that they support in Niger. The clubs are run in conjunction with local literacy centres, and are primarily aimed at women because it’s usually men that have access to radios, so the women’s groups are supplied with solar and hand cranked radios. As a group, they decide on the topics they would like to either communicate about or know more about. The programs are then produced by the local community radio stations or by the women themselves. After listening to the programs, the women discuss and go to the literacy centres to write about what they heard.  The radio can also travel among families, and the group is also provided with a cell phone that they can use at a low cost to communicate among local villages on the project, as well as call their community radio stations with questions about the topic and debate the topic.  This aspect has also served to break the isolation that the women feel in their communities.  The community radio stations also appreciate the project because it can provide them with some extra funds and training. The topics they cover include malaria, marriage issues, girls’ and womens’ education, land issues, sanitation issues and so on. The women who participate pay small fees to participate, and in once instance, one woman mentioned that the village chief kicked in some cash to support it.

So what’s the big deal? Well, these are rural women who have never had the opportunity to go to school, and in addition to the direct results of increased access to information and literacy skills in their local language, the women involved gain the opportunity to participate in a more democratic process then they usually do, organise meetings and have their opportunity to speak, etc.  The women spoke eloquently (through translation) about the impact the program has had on them, one stating that “they had never had an experience that opened their spirit the way that this program has” and another that it reinforced the solidarity among them.  The program now also runs some clubs for men too, but of course a question was raised as to why the women had a separate club (which I thought was obvious, but I guess some of the answers bare repeating here.)  The separation of the men and women reflects the realistic context to how they interact here, generally men and women don’t socialize together. Also, one participant plainly stated that men and women can’t work together and another stated that they have more confidence when they are among themselves. Apparently, the villages’ men were quite surprised that women could speak up. They certainly did during these sessions! So pretty great. 

The session held on micro-gardens was very popular, despite the apparently simplicity of the idea. The raised gardens demonstrated involve a few rocks at the base, some good soil (presumably not sand), peanut shells, and rice husks (skins?).  Then plant!The gardens – built on tables- also include a way to preserve water through a spout. What I found interesting was that this was a conference with many rural attendees, and the country does have quite a bit of agriculture, so why was it so popular? I can just guess, but one is that urban attendees were interested in how to grow there own vegetables and herbs in a city that is built on sand, and that even in rural areas women don’t always have access to land, and this takes land access out of the equation. I would also think that these raised little gardens keep the greens out of the way of the goats and sheep that would nibble at anything at ground level.

Among other things I did at the Foire, I also attended the screening of a couple of good short films.  One was about a literacy program in Burkina Faso that started out as a correspondance course using technical and agricultural subjects as its base.  The organisation found that the problem was that after taking the program people didn’t have access to anything else to read, so that lead to the creation of a newspaper and then to small libraries (which were more like cases of documents- like the malles mentioned in an earlier post.) The libraries, run by volunteers, also coordinate reading circles and work with local literacy centres.  The materials are available in the local languages and French, and are focused on the local needs, especially surrounding agriculture.  One group of users were so successful at raising chickens thanks to the documents they read from the library, they gave the library some chickens, which bread to the point the library had a 1000 chickens, that they could then sell to buy more documents!

A second film was one on “Les Ecoles practiques d’agriculture et de vie” (Practical agriculture and life schools?) in Mozambique. The schools train children that have lost at least one parent to AIDS in agricultural practices, because for many of them the parent’s illness and death interrupted the traditional practice of children learning cultivation practices from their parents.  They also learn life skills and well as traditional cultural songs and dance.  After the training, they return to their villages to put their new skills into practice, hopefully reversing the trend of young people to gravitate towards the cities. Apparently, schools like this are popping up everywhere, and as of 2009 20,000 students were trained in 545 schools around the world, from Uganda to the Gaza Strip.

Trust me, this was all more interesting in person that when I relate it!

An overarching theme to the conference was knowledge management, and if you’re interested in knowledge management in development, there is a fledgling online network at www.k4dev.org that looks at how social networking and community radio, for example, can be used in development.
Not to neglect the maternal health issue now that the G8/20 is over, I thought I would pass along the link to the special series that the Sunday Edition (CBC) is doing on the issue.  I haven’t had the chance to listen to all of the entries yet, but the ones I have heard are interesting. http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/2010/06/hardlabour.html

Anyway, I better just post this instead of procrastinating….

Home in a few weeks.

Update part one

July 8, 2010

“Never get into this business if you’re afraid of failure, darling, I tell people.  Count your successes is Sudan Surah’s advice and don’t even think about the occasions when you failed.” Sudan Sarah in “The Constant Gardener” (p.389) on development work.

I was at a pretty low point in my time here when those words crossed my eyes. My work here has been very slow and frustrating, and very, very unsatisfying. As per usual, I blame myself for much of that, but there are a combination of factors, and I’ve heard it said that Niger can be one of the most difficult place to do development work- outside of a war zone (I would add).  I wonder everyday if my whole time will have been futile, as much as I hate to say it.

I finally gave the workshop I had been preparing and putting on hold for months.  It covered family literacy, early childhood literacy, programming, promotion, and cataloguing.  I know, a lot, when you have a small budget you have to cram in as much as you can. I presented them with songs and rhymes (yes! I sang and did children’s rhymes in French no less, will wonder never cease?) that I had found or translated from the English version, just to give them ideas about what they could do. They had the opportunity to contribute in a local language.  For the most part, things went as planned, in the sense that the given topic was covered on the day planned, etc.  However, the participation level was very low, as was the enthusiasm level. Unfortunately, that was of no surprise to me.   I don’t know if this reflects this group of participants, is a result of an education system that is based on rote learning, or that the extreme low pay combined with the skills needed to manage a library leaves for few candidates. However, I’m sure it’s the only workshop they’ll ever attend that includes the hokey pokey.  But in the end, I have to ask, what was the point? I really have to consider the lack of rigour behind the development of mandates on behalf of the canadian agency.

On the other hand, I should just thank my lucky stars, and I do feel petty complaining about things like “job satisfaction” when there is a severe food crisis occuring that puts millions at risk of severe malnutrition and even starvation.  The coming crisis got some attention in February, when – from what I read – the (now former) President denied (as I think he did in 2005 during that famine) that there was a famine occuring, as he was doing earlier this year when he was ousted by power. So I won’t go into details but you can read dispatches from around the country (given I can’t leave Niamey, I can’t give any eye witness testimony).  From all accounts, it’s getting very bad, and organisations have started emergency food deliveries.  A friend traveled to Zinder to film for an NGO, and he returned pretty shaken by what he saw.  There are of course many articles out there on the web, here is just one: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1287125/A-world-away-cup-The-burgeoning-famine-biggest-story-Africa-summer.html?ITO=1490

In some ways, I hope too bring that feeling of pettiness home with me. If anything, I have gained that: a little more perspective. Unfortunately, I think that will make my adjustment to being back in North America all the more difficult. They warn you in pre-departure training that for some people the shock of returning is a more difficult transition than the arrival in a new country. I didn’t think that would apply to me because I have been gone for a relatively short time, I had been away before, and arrogantly thought that given I’ve always found mainstream North American society alienating, that, basically, how much worse can it be? I know already that the transition will be more difficult than I thought, but I guess, that is to be seen.

All of that aside, I did go to visit a great little library that is in the room of a French couple’s house.  They have a little library (a room that is in the structure the owner built for his second wife), where kids are invited to come read and sometimes listen to songs.  There is a small lending library of novels for adults, but most of it is focused on kids. It was really inspiring and fun, and made me lament that the libraries I have been here to support are not interested in this model, and instead strive to be “reference” or academic libraries, an impossible feat under the current conditions.

I have more of an update to come very shortly.