By Anca Giurgiulescu, MPH ’12 in Sociomedical Sciences
I’ve been settling in Louga, the small city where I am based for my summer global health internship. With every day, the rhythm of work, living, and social interactions is becoming more familiar.
I lucked out from the beginning. Upon arrival after a 3.5 hour car ride, I was originally dropped off into a chambre de passage across the street from the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) office – a temporary room where I could stay for a couple of nights while I looked for a more stable housing arrangement – and then I was taken by the driver to the downtown area to meet other students working on the MVP project this summer. I had heard from the Earth Institute team in New York that there would be 3 other Columbia University students in Louga this summer, but to my surprise, I found out that there were also 6 Senegalese students also working on the project, They were paired up with the American students to work on projects together. They were renting 2 apartments in a building downtown, and I might be able to room with them if there was still space available.
As soon as I saw the apartments and I got to know a bit about the students, I knew that I would be moving in the same night with the American girls if they agreed to have me. Indeed they agreed – I was so eager to move in that I think they couldn’t say no! After spending a lovely afternoon sharing lunch, Senegalese tea (ataaya), and stories, how could I not be excited about living in an arrangement where food, ataaya, stories, and project ideas are shared on a daily basis?
The apartments are huge and brand new – we happen to be the first residents to move in, and you can definitely see and smell that. The Senegalese students have also hired a Senegalese lady – Seynabou – to come and cook lunch and dinner. They prepare the weekly menu and buy the ingredients, and she comes in and cooks the plates of the day. We then all eat together communally out of large bowls and platters – truly Senegalese style. For food for a whole month, we each pitch in 30000 CFA or $65, for both lunch and dinner. Such a great deal, and so socially comforting!
Even though I am not living with a family, I knew when I heard about it that this would be the perfect arrangement for me: I’d stay immersed in aspects of Senegalese culture that I love (communal eating, tea-making and conversing) and at the same time I’d experience a new living arrangement – with people my age studying topics I’ve studied or continue to study.
All of the other students, the Americans as well as the Senegalese, are pursuing Masters of Development Practice (MDP); except for Martha who’s doing a Masters of International Affairs (MIA). I’m really excited to see such a partnership started and I can only hope that it lasts, because this is the type of collaboration I want to see more in the International Development field: recruitment of young leaders and cultivation of skills both in the developing countries as well as in the countries that fund the development projects. These students’ backgrounds range from studies in the biological sciences to economics, to environmental studies. Their projects here in Louga touch on different sectors such as agriculture, hydrology and irrigation, fisheries, environmental reserves or parks, and economic planning for reimbursements of micro-credit loans.
I’m currently the only student working on health projects directly, though as you can imagine all of the other sectors impact health tremendously, especially access to water and food (nutrition). My project will focus on adolescent sexual health – I’m trying to put together an initiative that allows young women (and hopefully men) to come together as part of a network and participate in educational activities that cover sexual health topics.
As of now, the way I envision the initiative is to train leaders in each village grouping as peer educators and and to give the youth themselves the choices and creativity in planning activities such as tea sessions and debates, forums, radio shows, and village soirees. These type of activities together with youth networks focused on sexual and reproductive health education are already being carried out in cities across the country – Dakar, and even here in the city of Louga — with the help and financing of organizations like the Association Senegalaise pour le Bien Etre Familiel (ASBEF). I plan to model our own initiative around the existing programs and make it relevant to the youth in the villages in which we work.
View Anca’s personal blog to read more about her adventures.