(Okay, I admit this blog post is very long and rambling, but just read it.)
Once upon a time, an old man fell down a well. For days he cried for help. Many people heard, but no one did anything. They all had excuses – “I don’t know how!” “I don’t have the strength to pull you out!” “I don’t have the money for the tools to save you!” Finally, a Peace Corps volunteer came along. He heard the man, and immediately leapt to action without hesitation. “I’m coming!” he said, and jumped down into the well. “Well, what did you do that for?” asked the old man, “Now we are both stuck here!” “Oh I know,” said the PCV, “I came here to live with you!” Sometimes we get a little confused about our role as volunteers. Helping someone out doesn’t mean throwing yourself down the well with them, but time and time again, this plays out in various forms.
The attitudes volunteers take toward their health in this country can be quite disturbing. Malaria is endemic in Benin. We are all freely given malaria prophylaxis, but many volunteers don’t regularly take theirs. In fact, it becomes a matter of bragging rights – who’s gone the longest without taking their malaria meds? It’s one thing if you are experiencing negative side effects, but if you aren’t, and you don’t take the drugs because you just don’t feel like it – that doesn’t sit well with me. To say, “Nah, I’ll opt out” is like a slap in the face to the Beninese people – many of whom would give anything to be able to protect themselves or their children with preventative medications during the high season for malaria but can’t afford to. Some volunteers argue they don’t want to take the medication because they want to be able to truly empathize with the people around them. There’s logic to that, but all the same – you’re not helping people who suffer from malaria by sitting in a hospital with malaria yourself.
Furthermore, many Beninese look to us for direction on matters of health. If I’m seen drinking something other than water, applying some sort of lotion, taking a vitamin, etc. people want to know – What is that? What does it do? Where can I get some? Whether or not we really know what we’re doing is inconsequential because as they see it, we come from the land of western medicine where everyone is healthy and wealthy. So people want to know our secrets – even if we don’t have any. I’m not a doctor, but if people around me watch my every move, believing no matter what I tell them that I am an expert on health and medicine, maybe I should try to set the right example by taking good care of myself. This year’s new group of Peace Corps trainees will be arriving in about a month, and they’ve been asking lots of questions on the Peace Corps Benin Facebook page. One of the soon-to-be health volunteers wondered whether or not she would be working with “certified doctors” in her community. All I could think was, Honey, you’re gonna BE the certified doctor!
Staying healthy in Benin takes a lot more work than it does in the U.S., and in spite of my best efforts, I still get sick from time to time. I have such a great appreciation now for things like the clean water, waste management, and health education we have easy access to in the United States, but even at home we have major emerging environment and public health issues that we could be doing more to prevent. For most of my life, I thought I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. I love animals and science, so it just made sense. That’s not my dream anymore. I am still fascinated by health and disease – just in a different way.
Instead, I think maybe I’d like to have an educational farm. I believe we have the ability – and responsibility – to live in ways that preserve clean air and water and healthy natural ecosystems while still producing food for nutritious diets. And that’s what I want to strive for. I’ve realized over the years that I feel closest to God when I’m working on a farm, so I think that’s a sign. I’m never happier than when I’m digging in the dirt, or running my fingers through the snarly mane of a pastured pony, or even getting up at dawn to go outside in the pastel light and chilly air of early morning. It’ll take a long time to build up to the farm I envision, but I think I’ll get there – petit à petit…
The reality of third world living conditions can be at times really discouraging – it can be so easy to just say “why bother?” when everything around you seems hopeless. You know, like why should I boil my water? I’ll probably get sick eventually anyways. It can also make people do really dumb things out of desperation – like the story of the PCV jumping down the well. It’s a kind of if you can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em mindset but instead it’s if you can’t help ‘em, might as well join ‘em! But there are other options. You can choose to take the situation for what it is without having unrealistic expectations but still be inspired. Do what you can do, don’t stress about what you can’t, then walk away asking yourself what you’ve learned. If you look for it, inspiration and ingenuity can come from the unlikeliest of places – from not only the good, but also the bad.
So today my little mantra is this: Be inspired, in sickness and in health!