The Right Hand Rule

14 December 2011

Cracking peanuts after lunch over at the Konjirakunda.

In America we take the chirality of handshakes as a formality.  An occasional left-hand offer is at most awkward.  Nobody gets hurt.  In Senegal, you greet with your right, you eat with your right.  This is the rule.  And for a reason, your left hand does the dirty work.  I won’t be explicit, but toilet paper is not abundant.  There is water, for many purposes.  I wash my hands furiously.

To some extent the immune systems of the people in Fodé Bayo are more accustomed to that arise here and other microbes that come to live in sitting water.  But I have seen toddlers stumbling around with tears in their eye, aching bellies, just wanting to be held by their Mama’s cause their little bodies are on fire.  And I have seen, three days later, the same exhaustion, distinct from that caused by their tireless work, hit the mothers of these toddlers.  I fell subject to this phenomenon after returning from the Kolda Regional Retreat.

The retreat seemed too soon after Thanksgiving to be leaving village again.  As I’m finding, though, time in village and time with other volunteers creates a healthy balance for both mental state and the scope of our work that is already happening and in our region and were able to contribute to region-wide1 and work-zone2 specific projects.  The three days were also deliciously catered by my fellow volunteers, cookies and birthday cake included.

Revived by protein, fats and real coffee, I held my first meeting with the women’s garden group (Garden Club?).  Thirty women showed up.  We decided to start with two formations: one on compost, the second on garden bed prep. #doubledigging

Our beautiful compost pile! I asked them to pick a spot and they went straight for a ditch in the ground where a tree was removed. They have great composting instincts.

Thirteen women, plus my male counterpart, attended the compost training.  We built a beautiful one meter-cubed pile, which I’m proud to say is steaming hot with decomposition today.  The women were engaged, grateful, and really understood the need to give back to the soil if you went to get anything from it.  We were all chatty on the walk home.  In my hut I sat down to record the event.  So I was lying down, my attention span lost to the blue and yellow plastic grain of my floor mat.  Oh, and then I was up like a goat that just heard “Achaa!” snap from a Senegalese mouth.  It was a dash to the hole in the cement septic tank that sits in my backyard.  The next day and a half I slept, read, listened to podcasts, drank ORS3, and squat a lot.  People stopped by to greet me and bless my hurting body.  I was offered a lot of food and took only the bite I could of what I’d call rice porridges, turro4 and daberro5.  I used more hand sanitizer than I have in my life, aside from my work at a hospital.  And today I’m out of my hut, not work hard, but sitting and chatting, “practicing my language skills,” I’ll say in my activity log.  With my weak developed-nation immune system, it took sleep, water, salt and hygiene for my recovery.  I know there are a lot worse things out there but it didn’t take me a lot of money or foreign resources (let’s replace hand sani with some regular anti-bacterial soap) to return to health.

The work one volunteer in Kolda-même is doing with USAID PEPAM’s program CLTS, community-led total sanitation is beginning to prove this point through educating small villages on hygiene.  Local CLTS agents work in villages with populations under two hundred for four months.  Awareness is raised about the use of latrines, hand-washing, clean drinking water, and other hygiene topics.  No money is given, information only.  After the first round, the nearest health posts reported significant decreases in visits from the villages served.  PEPAM also provides grants for water sanitation projects, including foot-pedal operated sinks and well pumps.  This is only one of the many connections to funding and education opportunities other Kolda volunteers shared during the regional retreat.

Meanwhile, back in village, today I’ve witnessed the following:  a child throwing up, the vomit being covered with dirt, the child’s mouth wiped with her own shirt.  A child who spoiled her pants, sitting there crying for five minutes until her mother takes her to a main pathway to the compound, pulls down the girl’s pants and throws water on her, doubtlessly putting the excrement on the path and the mother’s hand, which was only cleaned further with water.  Every day I see multiple people cleaning children’s runny noses with a squeeze of their pincher fingers.  Last week I also had to deal with the face that I had to tell kids in my compound that they can’t use my douche when they come over to draw because I found out that making them wash their hands has nothing to do with their ability to aim or even squat remotely near the hole.   And I had two health volunteers here before me, with obvious work accomplished in the operation of the health hut and the nutrition of people’s diets, which I’ve found in comparison to friend’s working in new sites.  Health is going to need to remain a part of my work, because what does food security mean when food has little time to absorb in people’s digestive systems.

Happy new year!  Hope you all get in your black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, and collard greens.



1. Region- Senegal is divided into thirteen regions, similar to states, but Peace Corps does not inhabit all of them and combines a few to make six PCSenegal regions.  Each region has a regional house in the capitol city, where volunteers can find the internet and a gas oven and stove top.

2. Work zone- Each region is divided into work zones for more specific collaboration and volunteer-support.  For example, I’m in the Dabo work zone and we are planning tournées to each other’s villages to discuss uses of Moringa and Malaria prevention, but we also meet up approximately every two weeks for the weekly market and lunch at the Dabo volunteer’s house.

3. ORS-  Oral rehydration salts.  A god-sent in our medical kits.

4. turro–  mostly just soupy rice and salt, surprisingly good.

5. daberro–  a stickier rice dish with deliciously bitter pods.  One time they also put peanuts in this and it nearly tasted like risotto.


4 thoughts on “The Right Hand Rule

  1. Mare!!

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of free time to read your thoughts/observations here on WordPress, but I know my extensive hours are home are numbered now (got another job!).

    Since I’ll be working again soon, and since Trau has also said she would love this, I thought I’d suggest you toss an Email Subscription button onto your nav bar. That way I can put my little addressy-thang in there, and then WordPress emails me when you update!

    Obviously up to you, but having subscribers can be super fun!

    All the lovez from da spot,

  2. Oh Mary… After having a bout of gastro go through my house just the last couple of days i REALLY feel for you…I was thinking while i was sick how horrible it would be if you got sick like this… You poor thing! I’m glad you survived your first illness and have now added some anti baterial soap to your care package to be posted soon!!
    Love Mel xo

  3. Happy New Year to my favorite PCV! I know that in the new year you will sow more seeds for growth in Fode Bayo and reap personal rewards. May your Garden Club flourish, your compost rot and clean hands greet you on every touch!

    Peace and Love,


  4. Mary, Wow. Never a dull moment in Fode Bayo. I’ve enjoyed all your postings so much and wish you continued success on your garden enterprise, keeping the runs and men at bay, and wishing for a sucessful half marathon. Jo Catron

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