Safe Zone Training in Senegal: The Queer Quiz

– a current PCV

One of my proudest achievements in service, thus far, did not include attempts to end malaria, to promote nutrition for small children, or even to introduce an alternative fuel source. No, instead, my moment of glory came in the administration of a quiz, a “queer quiz,” to be exact.

At the tail end of June 2011, Gay Pride Month in America, five other volunteers joined me at the Thiès Training Center to deliver a day-long seminar on sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles. Our target audience was a group of local Peace Corps staff members whose job it is to provide language training and cultural support to Peace Corps Trainees. Also in attendance were other key members of the Peace Corps Senegal staff, including the Training Director, Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officers. This training (called Safe Zone Training) was originally put together by volunteers in The Gambia, the small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal, and was shared at our Gender and Development Summit a few months earlier. The Gambia version was itself a version of Safe Zone Training developed by volunteers in Guatemala. It focuses on increasing the staff’s awareness of different sexual identities and instructs them on how to support volunteers that come to them with personal issues. Homosexual acts are not only considered immoral by the religious leaders here, but they are also punishable by law. In 2007, 96% of the Senegalese population surveyed said that homosexuality should be rejected by society and, in the past 3 years, 14 Senegalese men have been arrested and 5 imprisoned for illicit homosexual behavior. Just two months ago, several of my friends and I were stunned upon reading a front page news article declaring a “jihad” on homosexuality, wherein one of the most prestigious religious leaders suggested that those found guilty of this heinous crime be stoned on the streets.

They say that serving in the Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love”, but when that job comes with the challenge of masking your true identity for fear of personal harm or imprisonment, as it did for 14% of the volunteers who swore in last year, that makes the job even tougher and, frankly, this just didn’t sit well with me. I was raised to be open-minded and accepting of people’s differences and I include in my “circle of love” many people whose lifestyles differ from my own. My mother recalls a phone call she received from me in college after I’d witnessed a KKK march where little kids stood next to their parents holding signs with anti-gay slogans. I was livid at them; she was proud of me; and yes, I said KKK, as in Ku Klux Klan. I’m not blind to the fact that discrimination is still alive and well in our great nation, but I’ve never been one to tolerate it. When I arrived in Senegal, and realized that many of my friends who had been “out” at home had to go back into the closet here in order not to offend their host families or, worse, subject themselves to possible danger or arrest, it made me feel as uncomfortable as they did. Living in this foreign culture is hard enough without the added burden of trying to change who you are. So, I took matters into my own hands and pushed to have this training.

The SeneGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Board met at the beginning of May and approved my proposal. Shortly thereafter, we had full support from our Country Director, and we formed a Safe Zone Committee of interested volunteers from around the country to review and modify the training materials we’d gathered. In less than 2 months, we conducted our first day-long session to 12 attendees. We covered basic vocabulary, issues faced by homosexual volunteers, current gay rights around the world, the stages and difficulties of coming out, testimonials shared by current volunteers, and anti-gay behavior. We spent the last hour of the session discussing the definition and role of an “ally” and how our staff can be supportive of volunteers who have issues related to their sexual orientation. At the end, we passed out the “queer quiz”, which was really just an evaluation form, asking attendees about how their perceptions may have changed from the beginning of the class. Across the board, the participants demonstrated an increase in understanding and a willingness to discuss these issues. We had lively and open discussion throughout the day and everyone agreed that this was a topic that no one had felt comfortable broaching before and that this training was long overdue.

We may not have changed a nation’s attitude, but we connected with a room full of people who provide daily support in the lives of future Peace Corps Volunteers as they struggle to understand a new language and acclimate to a new culture. We “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” which is the second goal John F. Kennedy defined for the Peace Corps. Even though most of our participants still hold strong to their religious/legal beliefs regarding these matters, they’re open to accepting and supporting others whose beliefs are different from theirs. Like all countries where Peace Corps is present, Senegal is a developing country with a young democracy, so of course there is room for improvement when it comes to many rights and the concept of equality.

Even we, in America, don’t quite have this right yet, as we were reminded by the late Coretta Scott King, but we’re trying. “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”

Senegal Safe Zone Training materials.

This volunteer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

An LGBT PCV Retreat in West Africa

- a Former Peace Corps Volunteer

Editor’s Note: This is an interview conducted by email with a former volunteer in West Africa. The subject is a Peace Corps sanctioned retreat attended by LGBT volunteers from Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. Because of increased homophobia in many parts of the world, we usually don’t identify our current PCV contributors by name. Our newsletter articles are all on our web site, and everything including authors’ names are accessible.

Q. How had LGBTQ volunteers in the three different countries come to know of one another? Had they met before? How were plans laid for this weekend retreat?

I was the main connection with all of the volunteer involved. I met one of the Senegal volunteers very early in my service (we actually had a mutual friend in common that helped us meet up). Then she and another Senegal volunteer came to a GLBTQ meeting that we held in The Gambia a year ago. These volunteers went back to Senegal and set up a similar meeting of their own there last August or so. Then in February, at the annual West African Invitation Softball Tournament (WAIST) in Dakar, I organized a dinner, initially for the Gambia and Senegal volunteers involved in the groups, but we were able to get volunteers not just from Gambia and Senegal but also Mauritania, Mali, Benin and Guinea.

So that was a great networking tool and I proposed the idea of having a Pride get together then and people liked the idea so I went ahead and planned it. I kept in touch with people and had them inform and invite new volunteers and those I didn’t know. We decided to do it in Senegal because it was the most central location and didn’t require any special visas or anything. One of my friends who I met at the softball tournament site is very close to the location we selected, so she helped organized the housing for us. There were a couple Mali volunteers who wanted to come but weren’t able to make it because of Close of Service dates and trainings.

Q. Where was the retreat held, and how many people attended?

It was in Senegal (just south of Dakar).There was a total of 14 Volunteers who attended (3 from Gambia, 8 from Senegal, and 3 from Mauritania). Also attending was a Gambian friend of a volunteer who is a student in Dakar. The CDs (Country Directors) of all three countries were supportive of volunteers going. Senegal volunteers were not required to take vacation days or out of site days as it was viewed as a PC sanctioned event. My CD in Gambia wanted to let us go without using vacation days but because it crossed borders he was required by PC to make us use days since we are not a group officially recognized by PC Washington. Mauritanian volunteers were also required to take vacation days. Volunteers covered all their own expenses including transport, housing, food, etc. One of the PCMO’s (Peace Corps Medical Officer) from Senegal attended some sessions on Sunday morning and had very good input and suggestions.

Q. What were the main topics of discussion, concern? You did a survey at the end of the retreat. What can you say about the results?

Main topics were concerns with PC staff in different areas, specifically PCMOs/Med Units. Gambia and Senegal’s groups have quite good reputations, but Mauritania less so. Safety and Security is the biggest concern across the board with volunteers. This is mainly because of the lack of information that we receive from PC concerning LGBTQ issues in country. And it’s become a hot button issue with the recent arrests and rioting in Senegal and homophobic statements made by the president of Gambia and arrests in Gambia also. Then there are the differences in working with PC American staff members and PC HCN staff members. There was lots of discussion on how to go about getting education and sensitization training for different staff, who to start with, how to go about it, and getting GLBTQ issues added into the framework for Safety and Security briefings for volunteers.

And of course we had some fun activities… a Pride trivia game, Gayderdash (an adapted version of Balderdash) and general more informal discussion between volunteers about living as a GLBTQ volunteer in West Africa, coping strategies, where to find support, difficulties, outlets, etc.

Q. What came up as possible solutions to questions, concerns, problems?

Solutions – the PCMO who attended suggested a contact to work on getting GLBTQ issues included in trainings for staff for West Africa. I’m in the process of contacting her. Volunteers are dealing individually with their own countries as far as the Safety and Security concerns and lack of information dissemination. I’m also working with my PCMO and CD on possible ways to get our group officially recognized by PC Washington so in the future there won’t be conflict over vacation days and possible access to funding. Mauritania volunteers are holding a GLBTQ forum in their country for volunteers with the support of their CD in August I believe. And Senegal volunteers are already planning a weekend in their country later in the year once they have new volunteers sworn in. Also in conjunction with my CD, we are tying to get support from the Office of Medical Services at PC Washington to provide counseling techniques and suggestions for PCMOs when dealing with and counseling LGBT PCVs.

Q. Any plans for follow-up – sharing agenda, survey results with PC CDs, others?

I sent out the results to all that were in attendance and I’m leaving it up to the volunteers of the individual countries to pass it along to their CDs and have a sit down with them. I sat down with my CD recently and he was very receptive to all the issues and as mentioned early is helping take steps to help with some of the concerns. We discussed the political situation in Gambia at some length and the difficulty of handling local political and cultural issues that could affect volunteer safety and security.

Q. Any differences in concerns between gay men and lesbian volunteers?

Safety was a concern for both, but in my opinion I would defiantly say that it is viewed as a much more serious concern for men just based on cultural norms in West Africa. The other main concern with the med unit in Mauritania was from both male and female volunteers.

Q. Any thing else that you think would be of interest to LGBTQ volunteers in other parts of the world?

Ummm… well I guess that just the most groups we get going out there the easier it is going to be to get the ear of Washington and have them take notice of our issues especially when it comes to trainings that they conduct for PCMOs, CDs, Safety and Security officers etc. I was actually contacted recently by a staff member in Bolivia about a group that wants to start there.

And if anyone wants more info about what we’re doing here feel free to give them my contact information.

You can contact this current Peace Corps Volunteer by emailing lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

News from Development in Gardening and Senegal

– Steve Bollinger, RPCV

Editors note:
Late last year LGB RPCVs donated $600 to DIG (Development in Gardening). DIG’s Steve Bollinger brings us up to date on their activities.

Back to Senegal
After spending five comfortable months in America working on the set-up process for DIG, the reality of coming back to the bustling city of Dakar left me a bit dazed and confused. It took me a couple of weeks to start again in the African city I had left behind, and without the soft hand of Peace Corps looking out for me. There were a few details, like finding a home; I had to take care of myself. Luckily, I had been living in the city for over a year and knew my way around. DIG was officially underway and establishing roots in its first country.

The first few weeks were filled with the typical African delays, but we managed to start our first official garden at the Centre Traitment Ambilitoire (CTA) in February. We spent the first week both in the classroom as well as building the necessary garden tables for the project. It didn’t take us long to construct 25 concrete brick beds, which set the shape for our garden. We have found this style of garden bed to be the best solution for our sites, they are economical, easy to build, and last for years.

The garden has been finished for a few weeks now and we have gradually been harvesting lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, and tomatoes, among other things. These vegetables are going directly to the CTA kitchen where they are prepared to compliment the regular diet of the outpatients. Nutrition is DIG’s priority, but income generation has become important to our program objectives as well. The outpatients who are working in the garden have been selling produce to the hospital staff, fellow patients, and a few restaurants. They are really excited about the chance be able to have an income generation opportunity that is so simple and valuable. At the moment lettuce is our biggest seller; today some of the outpatient gardeners were telling me how “lettuce = money, we need to grow more lettuce!”

Since most of the patients don’t have the ability to build a garden like this in their homes we have created an area of the garden that is made out of recycled materials (tires, rice sacks, water bottles, juice boxes, old buckets) that we have pulled out of the trash. We are showing them how to create a garden that costs very little, will provide nutritious vegetables, and give them a little income on the side if they so choose. Since the CTA garden is right beside the HIV treatment center we are constantly having curious patients coming in to take a look at what we are doing. It really is a great feeling to see their eyes light up and to hear them say “I can do this at home.”

As the garden has developed we have begun seeing some positive and rather unexpected outcomes. The site is becoming a social gathering place for the outpatients where they can give and receive support from their peers. Every week we have people coming in to ask questions on how to duplicate it in their own homes. The clinic also treats patients from neighboring countries so we have had a lot of interest from them as well. This is a great opportunity to start passing the knowledge and idea on to other countries in need.
The word about DIG is getting out and we have been very fortunate to have so many people wanting to get involved. During the construction of the garden we had some US college students on exchange programs wanting to volunteer their time in between classes at the university. They literally saved us weeks of work and it gave them a chance to test the waters and get the feeling of being a “part time” Peace Corps volunteer. We also hosted 13 students from an inner city high school called Boys & Girls Harbor in Harlem, New York (www.boysandgirlsharbor.net). The group spent a few days in the garden building brick beds, constructing tables and a drip irrigation system, cutting tires for planters, and transplanting. Another group called the Penitent Yanks (www.penitentyanks.com) participated in the Plymouth, England to Banjul, Gambia charity challenge and designated us as one of their charities. When they arrived in Dakar they too lent some extra hands and made some new friends with the outpatient group.

What’s next for DIG?
Sarah Koch, co-founder of DIG and former Health PCV will be joining DIG full time and will be working stateside while we finish up the next garden. In June DIG will be working with the CTA in Ziguinchor to construct a similar garden for their patient base. Ziguinchor is located between Gambia and Guinea-Bissau and has the highest concentration of HIV in Senegal, three times the national average.

The impact of LGB RPCV’s donation to the Fann Hospital garden has been very significant. The original garden that was built during my Peace Corps service needed a little “make-over.” We built a lot of beds out of sheets of bamboo, which have deteriorated over this past year. Termites have enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner munching on the beds and overall it was not the best choice since eventually it rips the plastic that we use to conserve the water and nutrients. We have learned from our mistakes and are now using the bricks. We are now replacing all the bamboo beds with bricks, which will be a much more sustainable and durable solution. In addition to this project we used the funds to add some wind protection and security to the garden by adding on to an existing wall.

Sarah and I are both so appreciative of the support that has come from so many avenues providing such a strong base for DIG’s beginnings. Without the support and resources provided by the gay and lesbian community DIG would not be where it is today. I am so thankful to be a part of such a giving and welcoming community.
Many thanks for your positive thoughts and energy from Sarah and me.


Steve Bollinger can be contacted at sbolinger@developmentingardening.org. And check out their web site http://www.developmentmentingardening.org Contributions are always needed. They can be made on line or through a check to their address in San Diego.

Cultivating Health for People with HIV/AIDS

- Steve Bollinger, RPCV, Senegal

I began my Peace Corps service in Dakar working with 5 urban community micro-gardens in collaboration with the Micro-gardening Center of Senegal. One of these projects was the installation of a micro-garden at the Fann Hospital for Infectious Diseases. This hospital is a public institution and has always struggled to meet the nutritional needs of its HIV/AIDS patients. Dr. Salif Sow, director of the infectious disease ward, conceived of a vegetable garden to supplement patient meals. Seeing the desperate need of his patients, Dr. Sow approached the Peace Corps for assistance in building this garden adjacent to the hospital. The project was assigned to me, and with a $4,000 grant from USAID, we started the garden in October of ‘05. With the combined efforts of the Peace Corps and the Micro-Gardening Center, the garden was rapidly constructed by Serry (my counterpart), Sani, Lopez (two local groundskeepers at the hospital), and me. Over the past year Sani and Lopez were taught gardening techniques that included pest control, crop rotation, organic growing methods, and customizing the garden to meet the hospital kitchen’s cooking demands.

The project has exceeded all expectations, and has been an overwhelming success. Before the garden existed, patient meals consisted of a plate of rice served with an undersized portion of meat. In order to supplement these meals with vegetables, the garden needed to produce about 100 kilos of vegetables per month. As the garden matured, production grew to a staggering 400 plus kilos (880 lbs) per month. This amount surprised us all, and we began selling the excess produce to the hospital staff. With this additional income, the garden not only improved the lives of the patients, but became much more self-sufficient. As a side note, the portion of the produce that has been supplied to the kitchen in just the first year had a market value of around $9,000.00, more than double the initial investment allocated to the project.

As successful as this original garden is, it doesn’t even begin to address the scope of malnutrition and HIV in low and middle-income nations. In many of these places, AIDS is the number one cause of death, with far-reaching devastation. For example, by 2010, 18 million African children will be orphaned by the disease. Obviously, drugs alone aren’t the only answer to this epidemic. The most overlooked and under funded element of essential care for people living with HIV is proper nutrition. It is clear that the Fann Hospital project needs to be duplicated many times over, and to achieve this, I created my own non-profit organization, Development in Gardening (DIG).
During the past 4 months, we have met most of the challenges associated with getting DIG off the ground, including finalizing our non-profit status and holding successful fundraisers in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Denver. We now have some initial seed money to get us going on our next 2 projects, which will be duplicating and perfecting our model at Fann Hospital. These projects will be in collaboration with organized associations of HIV outpatients living in Dakar and Ziganchour. The gardens will be built, managed, and utilized by the outpatients for their own nutrition and for income generation opportunities.

In addition, continued work needs to be done with the kitchen at Fann Hospital in teaching them how to prepare the vegetables in an efficient and nutritious way. Once these projects are wrapped up and stable we will be headed back to the States for another set of fundraising and preparing for the next country. The goal is to spend at least one year in each country putting in three urban gardens: one in an HIV hospital, one in an orphanage, and one for an organized outpatient group. All the staff at the gardens will be properly trained to carry on the necessary tasks and be able to teach other institutions how to duplicate this model.

The type of gardening technology that DIG is implementing and teaching is new to some countries and is becoming a model for others. Nutrition, food security, and income generation are becoming top priorities for low and middle-income nations, and urban agriculture is on the forefront of making a difference in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.

We are a small organization confronting a global problem. The demand for DIG’s services reaches beyond our resources. We have projects in-waiting across Western Africa but are limited by personnel and funding. So many people want to help but do not know how. Funding is currently our priority to meet the needs of future hospitals and orphanages. There are many other ways to help, so if our projects interest you please check our web site for in-depth information atwww.developmentingardening.org. You can contact me at sbolinger@developmentingardening.org.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 83 other followers