Working In Africa With The Peace Corps

(Efrem Sigel '64, former associate managing editor of the CRIMSON, is now in his second year with the Peace Corps, teaching elementary school in Grand Bassam, The Ivory Coast.)

GRAND BASSAM, The Ivory Coast--One of the cornerstones of the Peace Corps experience is the "summer project," a vacation-time job which ideally takes the Volunteer away from the routine of his regular assignment, often to more informal duties, and gives him a chance to see different aspects of the country he is working in. This summer Volunteers in the Ivory Coast chose projects ranging from running a huge day camp for children in Abidjan to building a cultural center in a small town in the North.

My own project was to join a team of Ivorien health workers in Agboville, 90 kilometers north of Abidjan, in their efforts to engender various sanitary habits in small Ivoriean villages. Our net accomplishment for six weeks was probably zero, or close to it, but at the same time I learned a lot about the village life, and the attitudes of Ivoriens in general. Perhaps the best way to convey an idea of the day-to-day work and my own mental ups and downs during this period is to reproduce parts of a diary I kept of the summer.

Arrival in Agboville

Friday, July 30--Arrived in Agboville today to begin my summer project. Right away I got emboiled in an annoying situation. I had asked the head of the health team if the government would pay for water and electricity in the house, which I'll only be using on weekends. He said he didn't see why not. But today he was told he needed authorization from the Ministry. He offered to go to Abidjan first thing tomorrow morning to see the proper people. Unfortunately that didn't solve the problem of my taking a shower tonight.

(As it turned out, it took five days to get my electricity and water, but I figured I had scored a great victory. A week later I was told they had re-examined the question and didn't have enough money to pay for it after all. So I wound up paying for it myself.)

August 3--Have spent a pleasant day in the village of B., about a 50 minute drive from Agboville. The agent and I made an inspection this morning. Signs of freshly cut brush, and men out working with machetes, were more evidence of the fact that the villages had been warned we were coming.

We saw a number of latrines, mostly unfinished or just begun. And we took a look at the source of water, a fetid, sandy pond, covered with insects. I asked if they drank it like that, and our interpreter said yes--after letting it settle a few minutes. Much discussion during the day of their building a permanent cement well, but they are skeptical.

I tried to stress boiling water, and the agent plugged for this too. But his approach is so unenergetic. Their method seems to be to lecture, and to threaten--with fines, hints of hauling people off to Agboville, and flat statements that the "African" won't do anything unless pushed and pulled. All in all not my idea of sanitary education.

(This early disillusionment with the technique of my co-workers was to grow during the summer, though I never said anything about it. On the other hand I can't condemn their tough talk entirely. Americans are too often convinced that you can persuade people to do anything if you are reasonable and smile enough.)

Through the Jungle

Monday, August 9--Left at 9 a.m. for A. Idea was to meet with sub-prefect on possibility of working for a time in the town on hygiene and health. Meeting supposedly for 10, but sub-prefect busy. Finally received us at a quarter to 12, dashed out ten minutes later because his wife was having a baby. We had to hang around till 3:30 when he returned. (It was a boy.). The meeting accomplished little, except to set the date for another meeting.

Friday, August 13--Traveled to C., a large village of a couple of thousand. The trip itself was an ordeal, an unbelievably bad road turning finally into a jungle trail, with bushes and trees snapping in our faces as we jolted forward. Then we hit a stretch of mud and puddles and got stuck. We got out only after and hour and a half of pushing and pulling, with the help of half a dozen men. I was well splattered with grey mud by the time we were through.

(That morning before setting out I had jokingly told my co-workers of the superstition that Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day. They gave me some funny looks when we were all ankle deep in mud two hours later.)

Dishwashing Demonstrations

Tuesday, August 17--Went to village A., 13 kilometers from Agobille with J, another agent. He is much more dynamic than the others. When he saw a concession with dishes lying on the ground he made a point of it--we told the family how to wash dishes and store them on wooden shelves. After lunch I offered to give a demonstration of dishwashing. The word went out to the villagers, who quickly gathered in a big circle, while I squatted in the middle with a basin of water, soap, a sponge, and a pile of dirty plates. As I washed, J. explained in a stentorian voice what it was necessary to do to kill germs. I washed the dishes carefully, then took the hot water that I'd had the women heat and poured it over the plates and glasses. The rinsing with boiling water was the point of the lesson. Whether it sunk in or not is doubtful, but it was the first teaching I've done in the project, and for that I was happy.

Monday, August 23--Visit to village of N. with J. Cleanest village I've seen. Well-swept courtyards, neat latrines. Very impressed by wooden tables in many compounds for dishes to dry on. After lunch I repeated my dish washing demonstration before appreciative audience--much giggling when I explained how American men know how to wash dishes. Shortly after we arrived we gave another demonstration: how to boil water to make it safe. Once boiled, we strained it through a cloth to get the mud and dust out, then passed the cloth around so everyone could see the dirt deposit that was left. All in all an excellent job by J. He is very capable and devoted.

(An experience like this was almost more discouraging than encouraging, however, because it was so rare. In general the work of the team seemed so set, and so lacking in real understanding, that I despaired of ever making any progress.)

Cartoons and Hygiene

Friday, August 27--How do you measure the worth of what you're doing? Tonight we jounced over a horrible rutted road to a village about ten kilometers away, to show films. The villagers had been alerted ahead of time, and as we drove in a great cheer went up from the kids lining the "main street." I grinned from ear to ear in the darkness as the kids cheered, that sound seemed to make the whole two years worth while. Fifteen minutes later, of course, I wanted to grab the same kids by the throat and throttle them one by one because they made so much noise you could barely hear a word of the film. The chief, a slightly addled old man, white-haired, with a rasping voice, stamped out in front and tried to shout down the noise, with little success.

(The films we showed were a series of Walt Disney cartoons designed to convey certain essentials of hygienes the need for clean houses and courts, the importance of latrines, proper care of food and water. With a portable generator mounted in a truck we were able to bring the films to villages, in addition to a number of showings in the town of Aboville. Excellent as the films were, however, their success, was limited. In the typical village nine out of ten people have never seen a movie, and are so taken with the physical image on the screen that the message is by an largely forgotten. Even in towns, the use of films for educational purposes runs into the conceptial dificulty that uneducated people have in connecting, say, an imaginative representation of germs, or of the blood stream, with what they know of their own bodies or everyday lives.)

August 28--Visited villages with two different members of the team. Discouraging, on the whole. Inspections, with no effort at teaching. Emphasis on outward signs of cleanliness--neat houses, swept courtyards. Generally they ignore the things I'm interested in: source of water, how water is treated, whether latrines are used. The villagers are expected to perform a certain superficial ritual of cleanliness without ever understanding why.

(To wind up my summer I spent a full week alone in a village, trying to clean it up, and at the same time, gathering information on village life to help a new group of Volunteers who will be doing health education work full-time in the Ivory Coast. I lived with the local party secretary, who fed me--usually rice with mutton or fish. In the morning I turned to the supply of canned pineapple juce, corn flakes and evaporated milk I had brought with me. The week turned out to be little more than an endurance test, and I literally spent hours jjust sitting emptily while most of the villagers were off cultivating their fields. Folowing is the record of some of the more desperate moments.)

September 2--For the last two days I've been in the village of N. We were lucky to get here at all--just as I got into A. Yesterday the jeep broke down. It took a day to fix. Today I gave a speech to the assembled population. I held up the start for 15 minutes insisting that the women come too, but in the end only a dozen showed up. Afterwards I made the tour of the village with the local sanitation committee, a collection of ragamuffin types. Tonight I did my dish-washing act before a small group of women. Afterwards they asked questions about household work, and the caring for kids. I didn't know the answers but I faked my way.

September 3--At 5 p.m. in the chief's courtyard, I gave a talk on the importance of milk for older children. Showed pictures from a biology book of rats with rickets. When I had boiled water I added it to a container of canned milk, stressed the importance of preparing milk with boild water. Few people there.

September 4--I wonder if the Volunteers who do this work full time feel, continously, the boredom, discouragement, apathy and alienation I feel in this village? I find I'm sleeping about 11 hours a day. We tour the village for an hour and a half every morning and night. Aside from that--nothing. On the rare occasions when I hear two people in the village speaking French I have a leap of recognition and pleasure, as if it were my native language.

Morning inspection completed. I've learned my lessons well from the other health workers: instead of an educator I have the tones of an overseer. "Whose field is this?" I ask. "He'd better come and clean it up. If he hasn't started by tonight he'll have to pay a fine." The villagers nod; this, all, is a language they can understand. Of what good is it to talk of disease, germs, or hygiene? After yesterday's milk demonstration a woman asked how she was to pay for this milk that was so important to her kids. Believe it or not, I hadn't even thought of this. A pint of evaporated milk which costs 50 francs will make one and one quarter quarts. If a family has five kids and each drinks a pint a day, that's 100 francs a day, or 40 cents on milk. Doesn't seem like much but it's probably more than the daily expenditure per family on all food.

Sunday, September 5--Yesterday the old man took me to see his fields of manioc and coffe, at my request. Most of the fields are simply stretches of forest that have been laboriously cleared by hand, with hoe and machete. The beautiful, even rows of corps in dark earth that one sees in American farms don't exist here.

This morning attended Mass, said by a young African priest from A. About 200 people at the service, and maybe as many in the Protestant chapel nearby. In fact the two constant competition, the hymns of one drowning out the service of the other, and vice versa. Church here seems to have much of the social function it does at home: an occasion to get dressed up and show off clothes before the neighbors.

Palm Wine

September 7--In the middle of the afternoon two villagers hailed me as they were heading off into the forest, and invited me to come along. We We walked to a small clearing where two palm trees had been felled, and they collected the palm wine from gourds that had been under the cut. We sat in the shade and drank the palm wine. One of the men explained to me, half joking, the importance of this drink to village life. It's cheap--25 francs for a groundful. In the morning, the men eat a little manioc, and empty a gourd of palm wine. Then, juiced up, they take a machete and go off to the fields to work all day. At night they come back, eat some foutou, and empty another gourd of palm wine. Then they are happy--and sleep well. The sub prefect once tried to stop the drinking of palm wine, they told me. All the police were alerted, and men who passed on the roads carrying the huge