My favorite project: The Health Book
Hawa opens her mouth wide and laughs in that way of hers that is so infectious I can’t help but laugh as well.
Meta and Mohamed look up from their books, the pages turned to complementary foods. Hawa’s book is open on her lap; a picture of a fat baby, breastfed, looking happy, and a skinny baby, drinking water, stare up at her. Hawa is the traditional birth attendant in our village and is telling a story to her partner, Umu.
“The woman knocked on my door before the morning prayers. ‘Quick, Hawa, quick!’ she was yelling at me. ‘My goat is giving birth! Come help!’ ‘What? What? No, no, no! I give birth to people, not animals! Go away!’ Umu, Meta and Mohamed laugh with her and then turn back to the book. Hawa giggles and launches into the health messages related to exclusive breastfeeding, ones she knows like the back of her hand and is teaching to Umu.
Almost two years before this particular day, I arrived for pre-service training in The Gambia with no background in public health or international development. I was an emergency medical technician and qualified to be a health Volunteer. What I found missing in our training was very basic–just a simple manual that explained the different areas we were to teach to villagers. And once I finally landed in my village, I found the people there were also lacking in health education and a simple way to teach it to others. I formed a Care Group of 30 villagers to spread the Peace Corps health sector’s teaching and training. It went well, but teaching in compounds was difficult without something to keep villagers engaged.
As my counterpart Lamin Jammeh, a community health nurse, and I began to write our grant for water and sanitation trainings and education, I realized we could also make a book that would help our Care Group teach villagers. The grant focused on water, sanitation and hygiene training, but I wanted the book to include everything health Volunteers did, as well as all that was outlined in our project framework. And so Lamin and I came up with the idea of the Peace Corps Health Sector Visual Aid Booklet. There are 30 different topics and each includes a picture (that can be turned into a mural) and eight to 10 facts and essential messages. The booklet is designed for Peace Corps health trainees as well, so they can clearly and easily see what the health sector focuses on. The book includes relevant vocabulary in the local languages Volunteers learn.
The book was a collaboration between myself, my counterpart Lamin and a large group of Volunteers. I called my fellow Volunteers who I knew to be experts in certain fields, like Eloise Douglas and maternal health, or Lisa Helm and pit latrine maintenance. Other Volunteers (Daniella Choi and Jess He) helped draw the visual aids. The language and cultural facilitators at the Peace Corps office translated the vocabulary for me. Many people contributed to making the book what it is now.
The best part? Since the book has been finished and distributed to the members of the Care Group, I have meetings like the one described above. We meet every day to learn a few new pages of the book and understand the topic. They keep knocking on my door, showing up early for meetings and asking questions. They have their own tool to learn and share their knowledge. It’s been my favorite work in this country–creating something for my friends that makes them energized and empowered.