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Pfizer Fellow Reflects on Health Huts, Emailing, and Other Lessons Learned in Senegal

Melanie Martel recently completed a six-month Pfizer Fellowship in IntraHealth’s Senegal office. In this blog entry, she reflects on La Teranga sénégalaise and lessons she learned in Senegal.

When I first came to Senegal, I did not know at all what to expect. I knew it would be a life-changing experience. I also knew that I would, at times, be out of my comfort zone. What I did not know, though, was how profound the experience would be. I didn’t know, either, that living in Senegal would force me to question my own values and expectations of how things “should” be.

My personal goals for my fellowship were simple: to fit in with the team and actively participate in the work; to better understand the developing world and how I could contribute; and to take some time to reflect on my own values, motivations, and what I wanted for my future. I think I have achieved these goals—and more.

My professional goal was, as a Pfizer Fellow, to support communications for IntraHealth’s USAID Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health/Family Planning/Malaria Program and IntraHealth’s Pfizer-supported Mobilize against Malaria project. Documenting and sharing success stories kept me busy. I was especially excited to develop and disseminate bulletins, using the success stories to create “best practice sharing” tools that gave regional supervisors information about what was happening in the other regions.

One of my most memorable experiences in Senegal was a visit in February to Tambacounda, where I worked with the Mobilize against Malaria team. Early on a Tuesday morning, I left with a driver for a very long trip. Tambacounda is only 460 kilometers from Dakar, but one part of the road is so difficult that it takes about six to seven hours to get there. We left freezing Dakar (as it can be very cold in West Africa) to end up in hot Tambacounda, full of mosquitoes.

I wasn’t sure what I would find there, but my time in Tambacounda was memorable. I learned about the importance of “health huts” managed by the communities themselves. Because the population has limited access to health centers, which are too far away, the Mobilize against Malaria project has been rehabilitating health huts to provide basic and quick care for malaria. The project has provided training, materials, and resources. The management of the health hut is based on community engagement and leadership. Each community, after forming a health committee, chooses one person to provide basic care and to be in charge of the hut. The health committee takes care of the management and funding, and the huts function autonomously.

I especially remember the day we went to the village of Pada. The morning was dedicated to the community coming together to talk about their health hut, challenges in the management of the hut, and an action plan to address the problems. It was extremely interesting to witness the population’s high level of engagement, and how seriously the community members take their health issues.

This malaria project, from my perspective, is like an iceberg in that you can only see the top of it—the impact it has on malaria and community health in general. But below the surface, the impact is even greater on community development. In managing the hut, the community learns about and gains new skills in management, organization, and finance. I believe that the next step should be that the government directly fund the communities’ work and help ensure that community workers have a certain status within their communities. I think this is the best path to development. Furthermore, now that we have seen outstanding results in malaria prevention and treatment, it is probably time to expand these huts’ responsibilities to offer family planning and maternal and child health services. There are large unmet needs for these services, especially in West Africa. Bringing them to the community level in Senegal would help the country to improve maternal and child health and meet Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5.

I discovered so much about Senegal in six months. I learned about La Téranga, the Senegalese way of welcoming foreigners. I also learned about how best to communicate in my new work environment. In the western world, we work through emails. In Senegal, your most important way to communicate at work is the phone. If you want something to get done—and get done fast—you need to pick up the phone and talk. You can’t hide behind emails.

I also discovered, through my work in Senegal, that partnership between nongovernmental organizations and the private sector is vital; these partnerships can accelerate development achievements.

One of the most important lessons for me is that we can work on different continents, in different cultures, in different environments, but when it comes down to people, we are all the same. We fear the same things. We feel happiness and sadness in the same ways. We care about our health, and the health of our family, friends, and neighbors. Although what drives us and what we prioritize can somehow be different, there are no differences when it comes to basic values and emotions. Once you’ve learned the local codes and you respect them, you can then, simply, just be yourself.