Field Notes

Vignettes: The Rest of January

Walking to and from work, one must “sanu” everyone she meets.  Clusters of children, old men, old women, young mothers, young men. Everyone. My personal favorite? These two children who upon seeing me, stick out their tongue. I stick mine out in response and we have a moment. I then continue along my way.

Other times they yell at you.

“You!! Why haven’t you visited me?!”

Um…who are you?

“I’m so sorry…”

“I’m the president of the group that the former volunteer started. Didn’t she tell me about you?”

“Well, not exactly…”

“When are we meeting?”

“Um…” If I learned anything from organizing last year it is that you cannot let the momentum die. “When is good for you?”

<< >>

You were going to start a survey. You had every intention. You decide to start with the first person you see on the way back from the hospital. A Gbaya man. More importantly, someone who speaks French. You begin asking questions. Suddenly, the neighbors come back carrying their recently departed child. The mother falls from grief. She is picked up by the others. The procession passes. The man turns back to you, ready to continue the survey. But you need a moment. That child was just at the health center. Alive. And in ten minutes, gone. You tell him we can finish it later and he should be with his neighbors. You head home, shocked. You visit your landlord and tell him what happens. He feeds you couscous and sauce. The floury gooey globs have suddenly become comfort food. You are home.

<< >>

You are sitting outside the health center, reading. A moto pulls up. Five people unload. A child is wrapped in pagne. You feel the head of the child. Burning. You rush to find a health worker. Richard goes to the child. He checks the pulse. Too late. He leaves. The family leaves. The mother, crying, follows. A crowd has gathered. In it, you notice that the other mothers are crying too.

<< >>

Question: How many people does it take to hold down a grown man receiving stiches without painkillers?

Follow-up question: At what point would I be causing more pain to this moto accident victim by holding him down than him moving while the doctor tries to give him stiches?

Oh, so that what it looks like if you were to lose the top of your finger.


Remember: Motos are dangerous, kids!!

<< >>

The moment of truth.

For the past two months, you have often felt the hesitation that arrives when you are on ledge, looking down into water. You could jump, but that would involve leaving solid ground, so instead you wait. Eventually, though waiting becomes mundane, the only thing left to do is jump.


You add the vinegar to the almost boiling pot of soymilk. The crowd moves in.

You hope it works. You still do not know if this group will stay together or will lose interest again. You still are unsure as to who exactly in this group is HIV positive. You still struggle to remember everyone’s name. All you can do is keep the momentum going. Keep them interested. At this particular moment, the fate of this group rests upon the soymilk turning into tofu.

You stir.

Like magic, curdles begin to form.

You exhale in relief.

You give a small talk about the importance of nutrition, while a rock weighs down the curds, congealing them into tofu. Afterwards, you let each of the women sample a bite as you discuss topics and date for the next meeting.

The leftovers you use to make the most delicious stir-fry.

<< >>

After about a month of giving the occasional animations on health topics at the hospital, you and Richard have developed a rhythm. You speak in French and he translates into Fulfuldé. However, today, he suddenly leaves, distracted by a new patient, leaving you in a room of women, who are waiting for you to continue.  Suddenly, all the things you don’t know how to say in Fulfuldé become crystal clear. But language learning is about finding ways around, using what you do know.

“Mi be pabodji, mi don dilla haa toy?”

You attempt to ask these women where they should go when they have malaria. They laugh. You try again.

“Haa toy? Haa dofta? Haa luumo? Haa sarre ma? Haa toy?”

Where do you go? To the doctor? To the market? To your house? Where to?

One woman gets it. She explains to the others. They nod in understanding.

“Haa dofta. Mi fami.”

One point down, one left. How to explain that the medicine for malaria is cheaper when treated early?

“Kine palu grave. Infusion naawi. Kine palu simple na naawi.”

The women look at you questioningly.

“Kine pabodji. Infusion. Booro sappo, booro nugas. Naawi. Kine complement na naawi. Dala be reeta.”

Malaria medicine. Infusion. 10,000 CFA, 20,000 CFA. Expensive. Medicine pills are not expensive. 500 CFA.

The woman who understood earlier once again gets it. She explains to the other women. They nod in understanding.


You turn to leave. “Useko. Sey yeeso.” “Useko. Sey yeeso.”

Outside you find Richard who apologizes for abandoning you. “No worries,” you tell him, “I explained it to them in Fulfuldé.” Knowing your language capabilities, he laughs.


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