18 February 2009

Preventing Unwanted Pregnancy and Environmental Degradation in Senegal

“It’s so hard to feed all of these hungry bellies,” I am told by Adama, a Senegalese mother of seven. We hear about the problems posed by overpopulation, but often cannot comprehend how this issue effects people on an individual level. Coming face-to-face with a malnourished family of nine is heart-wrenching. Due to the absence of reproductive health clinics, a lack of low-cost contraceptives and high infant-mortality rates, parents here are giving birth to very large families (here in Senegal the average is about six). Large family sizes place unnecessary burden on the parents to provide food and the environment to provide firewood and water.

By 2050, world population is projected to reach nine billion, a 38% jump from today's 6.5 billion; most of this global explosion will be heavily concentrated in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The threat is especially serious here in Africa, where the population is expected to surge from 900 million to almost two billion.

In the developing nations that have effectively promoted contraception, the key to success has been the empowerment of women. Mothers need to be educated to make informed decisions, as research proves that even a few years of education has a great impact on controlling fertility rates. In fact, hundreds of millions of couples around the world want – but do not have access to – family planning practices; it is estimated that one third of the population growth in the world is the result of incidental or unwanted pregnancies. Over the past few months in West Africa, I have witnessed these realities first-hand, so I mobilized my resources, found an incredible local partner organization and created a plan to tackle both issues simultaneously.

The first step was enlisting the help of Tostan (http://www.tostan.org), an amazingly-effective NGO (non-governmental organization) here in Senegal. What drew me to them, besides the accolades they have earned from the international community, is the success they have had in creating community-based development councils. As many know, too much of international development is conducted in a top-down manner, with planners in Western capitals deciding what people in the developing world need to improve their lives. This approach is fraught with peril, as cultural realities and local customs are often overlooked or ignored altogether, resulting in failed projects and a growing mistrust from the locals of the very organizations that were created to help them. Fortunately, Molly Melching, founder of Tostan (and native Chicagoan), recognized this fact and decided to base her development approach around the training and mobilization of Senegalese women to become pro-active agents of change in their communities. Each village adopted into Tostan’s network undergo a 30-month Community Empowerment Program (CEP) wherein local women undergo a rigorous training session to improve their reading skills and are then instilled with strategies for leadership, decision-making, income-generation, communication, budgeting, social mobilization, etc. Upon completion, each village’s Community Management Committee (CMC) meets to assess their community’s needs and then seeks an effective means to affect the positive change. After the creation of these CMC’s, local communities have mobilized to build latrines (drastically reducing the occurrence of infectious disease), dug wells (to improve water access and quality) and built local health clinics (to provide health care in regions that previously had no such access). Tostan has also facilitated the creation of a 1,500 village-wide Tostan’s Empowered Communities Network (ECN) which allows these small communities to work together, pass along lessons of success and share their knowledge and fresh ideas with each other. Utilizing this network to launch a project ensures that the innovative ideas will be effectively spread on a regional basis.

As many know, addressing population control is a touchy subject, as there are many religious overtones involved. Unfortunately, these taboos have prevented the dissemination of contraceptives as well as ideas that would seriously help control the population explosion many countries are saddled with.

In addition, millions of women are seriously injured or die during childbirth, a statistic particularly troubling here in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in sixteen mothers will die giving birth in their lifetime.

Fortunately, there is an innovative new approach that is proving to yield results: CycleBeads, which is a pregnancy prevention methods using the Standard Days Method. Basically, these beads, in the shape of a necklace, provide a tool for women to keep track of their menstrual cycle and avoid unprotected sex during their fertile 6-day period of the month. The United Nations Family Planning Association describes it as “a portable, durable, and renewable calendar, the ring contains 32 coloured beads that represent each day in a woman’s monthly reproductive cycle. For a woman with a regular menstrual cycle that falls between 26 and 32 days in length, CycleBeads can identify when she is most likely to conceive. During that time, she and her partner either abstain from sex or use another form of protection.” More effective than a diaphragm and nearly as effective as condoms, this tool was developed by the Institute of Reproductive Health at Georgetown University and has been distributed worldwide to address over-population.

What really excites me about the use of these beads (except for the fact that they glow-in-the-dark for those dark intimate moments) is the fact that there is no religious objection to their use here. Senegal is 95% Muslim, but everyone here, including the imams, have given their support. This is especially important, as birth control pills and contraceptive injections have (erroneously or not) been blamed for health complications among local women, but there is no mistrust towards the beads, as the women understand this is simply a way for them to become familiar with the natural cycle of their bodies. To see a video featuring Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Haiti demonstrating how these beads work:

After speaking with the regional directors of Tostan, 100 Friends has donated $500 for the purchase and distribution of 500 of these CycleBeads to be distributed to fifty women in ten separate villages. From there, the techniques will be passed along to even more communities through Tostan’s Empowered Communities Network (ECN).

Another issue that demands action is global warming and deforestation. One of the most simple and effective means of dealing with these twin issues is improving the wood stoves that people in West Africa use to cook with. Open fires cause many burns and health problems: over 1.6 million people die every year from respiratory diseases caused by smoke from wood stoves. On an environmental scale, wood fires are very inefficient in terms of energy and the soot from these fires contributes greatly to global warming, as the black noxious particles in the smoke increase the atmospheric temperature. Coupled with overpopulation, the collection of firewood is stripping the local environment of its trees and resources, which leads to desertification and infertile soil which in turn makes these families’ situations even more precarious.
Fortunately, there is a very simple and cost-effective way to address these problems: the installation of more efficient woodstoves. Instead of cooking over an open fire, round one foot-tall shelters (shaped perfectly for the pots the families cook with) are easily built from local materials. By surrounding the flame to reduce heat loss and the effect of wind, these stoves become much more effective.

Working through Tostan, 100 Friends is providing $500 to fund a training session for ten villages. Two community leaders from each village will be given a 2-day training session to provide the instruction and materials needed to install these improved stoves in their communities. Each of these twenty leaders will then train ten other community leaders within Tostan’s Empowered Communities Network (ECN) to build and maintain the stoves.

So in less than a year, this $500 investment will have resulted in the construction of 200 of these improved woodstoves. Every family utilizing these new stoves will use 66% less firewood, from 6 to 2 logs a day. They will also save about 2 hours in meal preparation due to the greater heat efficiency generated by the improved stoves. To put that into context, if each family uses 4 less logs per day, multiplied by 200 stoves, and 365 days, that equals 292,000 logs of wood saved per year! This will ease the deforestation threatening these villages´ survival. As for the time saved with these more heat-efficient stoves, 200 families x 2 hours per day x 365 work days is an extra 146,000 extra hours of time that can be devoted to farming or other income-generating activities, and that´s not even counting the time saved from foraging for firewood , an activity that is especially time-consuming in this part of the world.

It is amazing to see just how easy it is to stretch $1,000 into such a far-reaching initiative to tackle the issues of overpopulation, deforestation and global warming all at once. Your contributions are making the difference in these peoples’ lives, so keep the donations coming!

10 February 2009

Rescuing Street Kids from Islam’s False Prophets

Here is an outtake from a Senegalese TV news program that featured the work of Adam and 100 Friends: http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=uvPAtE7tGvs

While passing through a local market here in Senegal , I saw a group of kids standing in a single-file line, each holding wooden tablets covered with Arabic script. I had heard these students, known as talibes, were provided lessons in reading Arabic and reciting the Koran by Sufi holy men; weeks earlier I had met a few of them in Mali and was actually impressed to see their grasp of a foreign language (http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=b3gN1_yofnw). Captivated by the image of these small boys holding their tablets in obedience, I started to snap a picture, at which point I was nearly accosted by their teacher, who literally chased after me with his whip in hand. Though I had no problem outrunning the 60 year-old overseer, even with these rickety knees of mine, I was troubled by the experience and left to wonder what guilt this man had to hide.

After doing some research and asking around, I quickly learned that these marabouts have played an integral role in the history, politics and culture here in Senegal , a country that is 95% Muslim. Though traditional Islam forbids the intermediary of priests, stressing the individual’s personal link to Allah, these Sufi marabouts exert a great deal of influence over their adherents. Centuries back, many were instrumental in rallying soldiers to resist French colonialism, while others participated openly in the profitable slave trade. Today, most Senegalese still proclaim allegiance to one of the many marabouts. In fact, most believe their fate is tied to the efficacy of their marabout; hence the expression denoting one’s good luck: “You’ve got a good marabout.” But, in recent years, a particularly-troubling phenomenon has manifested itself here, as many of these religious teachers capture swarms of young children from rural villages wracked by over-population, malnutrition and abject poverty.

Perhaps the first thing visitors to Senegal notice are the plethora of street children that crowd the streets, begging for spare change. What most people fail to realize though is that most of these children (UNICEF puts the figure at 100,000) have been taken from their families by these “holy men” who force them to beg in the streets to provide them with income.

Capitalizing upon the thousand year-old tradition of Koranic schools, parents are led to believe their children will benefit from the religious teaching; what they fail to realize is that these false prophets take the kids to the cities and force them to beg in the streets. As nine year-old Amadou here in the capitol city of Dakar tells me, he and the other 20 boys he shares a grimy bed with are awoken at dawn and forced to recite the Koran in Arabic for hours, even though they have no idea what it means.

Taking advantage of the Muslim’s religious duty of giving alms to the poor, the marabouts send the kids (many as young as 5 years-old) onto the streets with empty cans to beg for spare change for nine hours a day. They are beaten if they cannot deliver a dollar a day in change, which explains why some boys can be seen crying at the end of the day on the side of the road.

This brutal form of human trafficking/child labor has caused a public outcry; but though the government outlawed child exploitation and trafficking in 2005, little has been done on a national level to reduce this appalling practice. Fortunately, a local woman named Anta M’Bow recognized the problem and founded a home to rescue as many of these children as possible.

While at the center, the kids are fed three nourishing meals a day and given instruction in everything from gymnastics to juggling to tae kwon do. Seeing them run around with glee, it is clear they are ecstatic to be off the streets and rescued from the abusive marabouts, as any of them will attest. “It’s like another world here,” one twelve year-old tells me.

Faced with an inordinate amount of street kids in Dakar , the objective of Empire of The Children (L’Empire des Enfants) is to re-unite these kids with their families. This requires pain-staking research of social workers who investigate each child’s situation in order to locate their families and return as many of them as possible, thus making room at the center for new arrivals.

When I ask why he doesn’t just go back home, Amadou tells me his family is from Guinea , hundreds of miles away and across an international border. This is not just a Senegalese phenomenon: nearly two-thirds of the children come from the neighboring countries of Mali and Guinea-Bissau; the extreme poverty in these places, coupled with the huge family sizes and lack of food, make parents more susceptible to the false claims perpetrated by these marabouts, with the hope their children will be taken care of and fed well. As my nine year-old friend tells me, this is hardly the case. As the boys’ physical appearance indicates, their health is neglected as most suffer from respiratory illness, skin problems or parasites. Faced with such a traumatic life on the streets, these boys long to be reunited with their families and once the parents learn of their deception in the name of religion, they happily accept their childrens’ return.

Coming face-to-face with throngs of child beggars everyday, for they often gravitate towards a toubabe (white man) like myself, I am faced with a conundrum: while I do not want to enrich their manipulative masters with my money, I shudder to imagine them being beaten if they cannot come up with enough change at the end of the day. When I have food on me, I pass some along to them, but there are times when their insistence gets under my skin, at which point I ask them to leave me alone.

Playing with them at L’Empire des Enfants though, I am able to see them in their true form: not pestering beggars but wonderful children, each of them longing for the attention and affection they deserve. As I sat at lunch, eating Ceebu Jën, the traditional rice and fish meal from a communal platter with my new friends (http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=l9HckIEzCZg), I experienced one of the strange manifestations of mixed emotions that Africa seems to evoke: on the one hand, deep sadness at the horrible fate being perpetrated upon these innocent children, the ultimate victims of circumstances out of their control, and on the other hand, a profound gratefulness that people like Madame Bow and the rest of the staff here at this center have banded together to rescue these kids from their dreadful fate. This dichotomy between desperation and hope pervades daily life here as I experience this African manifestation of ying and yang on a daily basis.

On behalf of 100 Friends, we donated $500 worth of kitchen supplies, food and medicine for the children of L’Empire des Enfants. I can only hope that with our collective help, more and more of these kids will be returned to their families, spared the trauma of their current suffering and able to once again enjoy the childhood they all deserve. Thank you for your support!