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