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Barry Fellowship Alum Spotlight

Beth Dickinson, 2005 Barry Fellow

Elizabeth Dickinson (Beth), a Barry fellow during the summer of 2005 in Sierra Leone (West Africa) went on to become editor-in-chief of the Yale Globalist, a magazine on world issues published by a consortium of universities in the U.S., Israel, and China. Her interest in the politics of war-torn countries led her to West Africa again in the summer of 2006, this time under the wing of the New York Times and its European subsidiary, the International Herald Tribune. Traveling the countryside from her home base in Dakar, Senegal, she reported on issues in Sierra Leone, Benin and other nations in the region. Pieces of her reporting were published in the IHT.

Beth Dickinson (Class of 2007) traveled to Sierra Leone during the summer of 2005 on a Barry Fellowship. There she experienced life in a village while working for two organizations, United for Sight and Peace Pals. Read on to find out how she dealt with a lack of supplies and general NGO disorder as well as how she learned communicate in the local tongue, a mix of French, English and Yoruba.

Where did you get you an idea for the project?
This project was really formative for me -- I thought that I may want to work in Africa in the future, but knew that I needed to have an experience that would determine if I could (and wanted to!) spend time on the continent. I was searching for a opportunity that let me work on the ground--at a village level--and also allowed me the opportunity to explore the world of NGOs a bit.


Why did you choose this specific country and project?
With the help of the Barry Fellowship, I spent 10 weeks in rural Sierra Leone, living in a village and working in a refugee camp. With the help of a local NGO, my project screened patients for rudimentary eye conditions, prescribed glasses, and taught the community about safe health practices.

Who did you consult in developing this idea?
Professors, parents, African studies students, medical professionals, and most importantly -- I spent a lot of time speaking with the host organization. I think that this was really crucial to the success of the summer; since I invested quite heavily before leaving, I was very prepared for the work and the living situation that I found on the ground (not to say that there weren't surprises!) but I could cope with them much better having the materials and the mindset.

How did you find the organization in the target country/countries?
I worked with two organizations over the summer: Unite for Sight and the Peace Pals Education Network. Unite for Sight is based in the United States, and Peace Pals is a local Sierra Leonean NGO that was "contracted" by Unite for Sight to implement the project.

Honestly, Unite for Sight has outgrown it's shoes. Because the organization operates in so many countries around the world it is rather ineffective at dealing with any of them. When our team needed support on the ground, it often took weeks to get through the right person. With medical care time was often of the essence so we often found ourselves taking action alone when we should have been in touch with the host organization in the states. Moreover, the project itself was unsustainable. The entire operation rested on the prescription glasses that we carried to Africa from the United States. Once we (and the glasses) were gone, the operations necessarily came to a halt. Nor were we trained or prepared for the plethora of horrendous eye conditions that we saw in the clinic. I cannot count the days that I left work saying "Wow, I was NOT qualified to do the job I just did." In those cases, you couldn't do anything but be honest and say sorry, but I can't help. The local NGO, Peace Pals Education Network, however, were a pleasure to work with -- and without their help, we could never have navigated the village system. They come highly recommended.

Which Yale resources did you utilize most effectively in developing this proposal?
The OFP Web site was invaluable, particularly the example proposals.

What surprised you most about the country/experience when you first landed? What did/didn't go as planned?
This is one of those questions that everyone asks you and no one really knows how to answer. The truth is, I don't remember the answer. But what is important, is that I think one thing I did successfully was to have an open mind about the experiences I had. For example, the first night, our plane arrived so late that we missed the last ferry to the mainland (the airport is on a peninsula). I spent my first night in Sierra Leone sleeping outside on a ferry dock in the pouring rain. Sounds awful, but in retrospect (and even at the moment) it was a really valuable experience -- we gained a newfound trust for our Sierra Leonean hosts and had the opportunity to chat with them extensively. This sort of this thing happens all the time in the developing (and frankly, the developed) world -- there is no "right" way to handle it -- except to accept it and cope.

With whom did you live? Would you go about finding housing in any different manner?
I lived with a host family in the village of Taiama in Southern Sierra Leone. The host organization in Sierra Leone, the Peace Pals, made the arrangements for this. I was quite glad to have had housing worked out before leaving -- it made the transition and the work much easier to begin!

Was there a language barrier? Did you experience communication problems? If so, how did you deal with them?
There was definitely a language barrier. In Sierra Leone, people speak English... kind of. English is the official language, but most people speak a dialect (called "Krio) that is a mix of english, french and yoruba languages. For the first few weeks, it was a real challenge to decipher what was going on. However, with a bit of patience, and a lot of hanging out with children, I am now fluent in Krio. Clearly this isn't possible in every situation -- and it was only because of its similarity to English that I was able to learn so quickly. However, it usually IS possible to learn rudimentary phrases in whatever language you are operating in. Armed with this knowledge, and hopefully some people in country that you trust, you should be able to operate fairly well.

Were there any health concerns? Did you ever need to see a doctor?
No serious health concerns -- but a bit of advice about stomach problems: if you have them, wait a day before you take something. Usually, I have found that if your stomach wants to get rid of something (a euphemism!), there's usually a reason. Keeping that something inside your belly usually makes the problem worse, not better! Obviously, if the problem continues, ignore this advice -- but for a day or so...

Did you have time for fun? Did you have time for travel outside of your project?

I had a lot of time for fun -- I ended up hanging out quite a bit with our host organization, the Peace Pals. We went to a few dance clubs throughout our time there, and often found time to go have a Fanta at the local highway junction. Even more though, I was very close with my host family. We cooked, did laundry, washed dishes, danced, played games, and just generally spent time together. This was, in fact, the most valuable part of my experience.

Do you have any favorite anecdotes?
The worst memory at the time (and funniest in retrospect) was sitting next to a fresh kill of bush meat for a 4 hour car ride across the back country. Our drivers saw the antelope for sale on the side of the road, apparently noticed that the seat next to me was empty, and the rest is history. Also entertaining was the night that my host family realized that I was strong enough to pick up most of the children in the family. It began with the small children... but bigger and bigger children kept coming for a ride on Beth's back. Finally, one of the Aunties (what we called the older women heads of household) decided she wanted a piggy back ride also. Luckily, I had a bit of strength left in me!

How do you plan to pursue this project? Would you go back to the country?
I had the opportunity to go back to see my host family and my former patients this summer, while I was working in Senegal. It was an amazing experience, and I continue to keep in touch with everyone from Sierra Leone quite closely. Last spring, for example, I invited two members of the Sierra Leonean NGO, the Peace Pals, to Yale to speak at a Master's Tea. It was a great experience for my Sierra Leonean friends, and also for the audience who attended.