Pre-Service Training, or PST, is basically your crash course in everything Peace Corps. We’re only in our Training Villages for eight weeks. That’s eight weeks to integrate, form relationships, learn language, and survive, or so they say. But forming relationships is difficult when you know that your departure for permanent site is just around the corner. That has definitely solidified the rationale behind the duration of a Peace Corps service. I’ve gotten really close to my host family and the community has gone from calling me “Toubab!” (“Person from the white land”) to “Ali!” (My Gambian name), but behavior change does not happen in eight weeks. And I think Peace Corps wants us to know that.
In The Gambia, Agriculture and Health volunteers enter country at the same time. We have Pre-Service Training together and share some assignments. For our practical assignments in village, we were trained to build a “Tippy Tap” handwashing station, and dig a garden bed for vegetable seeds. The actual creation of the handwashing station, with three sticks, a filled water jug or bedong, and a pedal stick didn’t seem too difficult. The agriculture technique of “double digging” a garden bed, or using the subsoil to increase the organic matter for our vegetables, didn’t seem too difficult either.
But translating that rationale into local language, reciting it, and actually getting people to understand what you’re saying is just the first hurdle. Then it’s actually changing the behavior to include the handwashing station or the gardening technique. Why do you think Public Health has so many challenges? Because people everywhere are stuck in their ways. It’s easier for Gambians to wash your hands in a bucket together before dinner, and it’s easier to just dig up a garden and start planting. Gambians are so busy with daily tasks, and now this “Toubab” is throwing a wrench into their daily routine. And for what?
Well, for a decrease in the incidence of diarrhea, which shows the highest mortality for children under 5 in this country. And for increased crop growth, which is poor in The Gambia due to the makeup of the soil. People understand this, but behavior change doesn’t happen because of rationale alone. We’re not really sure exactly why it happens – that’s what makes this field so diverse and complex.
For me, the handwashing station I’ve built in my compound was not extremely successful. It’s still standing, which is better than some of the other trainees in my cohort, but its use is limited. When I’m around for meals, I’ll use it and some of the kids like using it. The problem is that there are 4 critical times to wash your hands – before you cook, before you eat, after you use the restroom and after you clean a baby’s bottom. Those things happen A LOT in a Gambian compound, yet I only fill it up once every few days.
The problem is, I’m leaving training village soon. I’ll be going off to my permanent site and won’t be able to come back for every meal to check up on the handwashing station. That’s the problem with a significant portion of development efforts, including Peace Corps. It’s not about building the actual handwashing station at all, it’s about getting the community to want to build the handwashing station. Because I built this one, it’s mine. It’s not theirs. But hopefully in my permanent site, it will be ours.