Barry Fellowship Alum Spotlight
Clare Cameron, 2005 Barry Fellow
"I just returned from spending two months in Mali doing research for my senior essay. There is no way I would have ever gone to Mali alone and spent two months in rural villages with no one but my translator had I not had the experience of my Barry semester in Senegal. Many of the issues I dealt with as part of my research stemmed directly from my experiences working in Senegal."
You can read about her experiences in Senegal in an article written for the Yale Journal of Public Health.
After spending the spring 2005 semester in Senegal, Clare presented at the Council on African Studies Brown Bag Lunch Series entitled: "How NGOs are Shaping the Present (and Future) of Public Health: The Case of Senegal."
An interview with Clare Cameron about her experiences working in Senegal:
Why did you choose this specific country and project?
Meet Past Barry Fellows
Who did you consult in developing this idea?
I consulted Linda De Laurentis, Director of Fellowships in the Office of Fellowship Programs Office.
Where and with whom did you live?
For the time that I was working in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, there was a volunteer apartment where volunteers were able to stay. For the portion of the time that I was working in regional offices outside of Dakar, mainly the regional offices in Kolda, Bignona, Tambacounda, and Matam, I was housed in a "chambre de passage," guest room that was part of the office. When I was working in rural villages, the representative of the organization living in the village found me a mattress or a place to sleep in someone's home in the village.
Was there a language barrier? Did you experience communication problems? If so, how did you deal with them?
The official language in Senegal is French. The first few weeks proved very difficult because the Senegalese French accent is extremely different from French that is typically taught in the United States. After a few weeks, however, this was not much of an issue. The greater communication problem was when I was working in rural villages. I always had to have someone translate any interviews from a national language (primarily Wolf and Pulaar) into French. Working with a translator can be very frustrating because you're never entirely sure how accurate the translation is.
Were there any health concerns? Did you ever need to see a doctor? If so, how was that experience?
I had two major health issues which required consulting a doctor. Three weeks into my visit, I needed to have two of my wisdom teeth removed. The organization for whom I was working recommended a dentist located in Dakar and I had them removed without any problems. About five months into my stay I had what was most likely dysentery. I consulted a doctor that was again recommended by the organization. He was excellent and recommended a lab where I was tested for intestinal parasites (the tests were negative). In addition to these health problems, I experienced some of the more normal and less threatening travel illnesses.
Did you have time for fun? Did you travel outside of your project?
The hours that I worked really varied on where I was located. When working in the Dakar office, I worked more or less 9-5. This left weekends and evenings completely available to explore the city. In smaller regional offices, there was a similar schedule, but there were fewer opportunities for exploring. I usually spent my free time chatting with staff members who lived permanently in the area. When working in rural villages, there was no "9-5" schedule and working on weekends was expected. There was little time for non-work related activities. At the end of my internship, I traveled with a girl I had worked with in Senegal to Mali, the neighboring country. We spent two weeks backpacking through the country.
Do you have any favorite memories/anecdotes?
At one point during my internship, I was working in the southern region of Kolda and needed to travel back to Dakar. All of my travel in Senegal was through public transportation, and so, at 4:30 a.m., I headed to the gare-routière to find a car heading toward Dakar. I arrived only to discover that all of the public transportation cars in the entire country were in the city of Touba Fall for a huge religious celebration. Later that day, when I told my Senegalese co-workers what happened that morning they responded, "Oh of course there were no cars. They are all in Touba Fall." At the time I felt this was relevant information that might have been helpful to know before I woke up at 4:00 a.m. That very afternoon, I went back to the gare-routière to reserve a spot for a car the following day, hoping that there would actually be a car. The next morning, I went through the same routine and arrived at the gare-routière at 4:30 AM..again, no cars. There was, however, a car heading for The Gambia, a small country that intersects Senegal. There were three men that knew of my situation and recommended I board the car to The Gambia. Once in the Gambia, they too would be looking for a car back into Senegal. They assured me they would make sure I got on any car that they found heading in the direction of Dakar. We left Kolda and arrived at the Senegal-Gambia border about two hours later. The border was a short fence that could easily be jumped or walked around. We waited several hours for a large bus heading for the river that intersects the Gambia. At the river, we caught the ferry that transports cars and people across the river. Across the river, we located a taxi that was heading back towards Senegal. Twelve hours after setting off that morning I arrived in Dakar, still accompanied by the three men from Kolda who had promised to help me find transportation home!
How do you plan to build upon this project? Would you go back to the country?
Since my Barry Fellowship I have returned to West Africa two separate times. This past summer I conducted research for my senior essay in Mali, the country next to Senegal. I chose to work in Mali this summer in part because of my experience backpacking through the country the year before. My experiences in Senegal, working for a health and human rights non-governmental organization (NGO), ignited several interests that became the topic of my independent research in Mali.
What do you know now about the experience that you did not know prior to departure?
At least in my internship, no one was going to "hold my hand" in adjusting to a new environment. It took me two weeks to discover that where I was initially housed in Dakar was not in fact downtown in the city. No one bothered to tell me that we were located in a suburban area of the city. I received an orientation of about one hour. You cannot be oriented in one hour to a country, especially since this was my first time in Africa. I did not realize until I got there how independent I was expected to be. After the first two weeks, I was yet to be given any specific job or responsibility. I ended up approaching the man who was in charge of the volunteers and asking if I could go spend some time in villages to get an idea for the country outside the capital. He agreed that this was a good idea but probably would never have suggested the village visits himself!
Do you have any advice for future Barry fellows?
- Plan ahead, but don't be afraid to scrap all of your plans.
- I found that with a lot of foreigners oversees, they felt that the only way to really experience a foreign culture was to forget about or avoid certain parts (or all) of their own cultures. Don't be afraid to disagree with people even if you think it might go against their cultural beliefs. Spend time with people from the country you're in because you want to, not because you think it's the right thing to do.
- This may be easier said than done, but don't stress about things over which you have no control. If there is no transportation leaving for three hours, don't be frustrated or blame what may seem like an idiotic transportation system. It may well be, but there is nothing you can do about it just then. Be able to "entertain" yourself for extended periods of time.
- If you have an internship with an organization, don't expect them to have a project for you to do. They may be extremely organized, but there is also a huge possibility that you will be improvising your responsibilities. Again, as frustrating as this may seem, take control of the situation and propose a project to whomever is supervising you, rather than waiting around for him or her to come up with a job.
- Make sure to carry your MedEx card and don't feel stupid calling the number. MedEx is not just for emergency evacuation. They can help you locate a doctor in your area or if you are on your own can help arrange transportation to the nearest health facility.