Dispatch: Pleiad from Senegal

Pleiad from Senegal is a guest column by former Pleiad editor-in-chief Nicholas Diamond. Nick is abroad in Senegal, studying public health, French and Wolof.  He’ll be reporting about health challenges and cultural experiences while in Dakar.  

Every morning, Islamic prayers from the local mosque awake the Senegalese in Mermoz, one of Dakar’s neighborhoods.  Though temperatures reach up to 90 degrees here, it’s the rainy season.  People tie back mosquito nets that cover their beds, break a piece of pain au chocolat and pour a cup of lemon tea before beginning the day.

The Ministry of Health confirmed Senegal’s first case of Ebola virus disease [EVD] on Aug. 29, but life in Dakar seems unchanged.  Outdated taxis still race down the Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop and people still fill the bustling fish markets.  Ever since a Guinean student traveled to Dakar’s Fann Hospital for treatment, the Senegalese can palpate the tension in this city.  The student and his family members have been quarantined and tested, but people continue to worry for their health, safety and security.

Caroline Butler, Virginia Commonwealth University senior, studies in Dakar.  This is her first time traveling outside of the United States, but she isn’t bothered by the threat of EVD.

“I was more worried about it getting in the way of being able to travel and see things and have different experiences,” Butler said.  “I wasn’t worried about actually getting Ebola.”

In offices, co-workers share stories in French and Wolof about Ebola news during a pause café.  They drink their tea and explain what they would’ve done if they had been in the Guinean student’s position.  Most wish the Senegalese government did not reopen the borders.  Several hope he dies, while others want legal repercussions.  Some even want to kill him to stop EVD from spreading in Dakar.

Signs of prevention against EVD cover walls in medical offices, schools, restaurants and markets.  Public service announcements on French television networks remind locals that EVD is not contracted through air, food or water.  Cashiers at patisseries wear protective gloves when handling food and change.

Public health agencies debunk hysteria and myths about how the disease is spread from person-to-person.  Pedestrians avoid shaking hands with one another, and instead they offer a reassuring wave in the street.  On Sept. 5, the Ministry of Health sent text messages as a reminder to wash hands regularly with soap and water.

Here, people are encouraged to avoid public transportation and to add bleach to hand soaps at home. In Senegalese culture, eating communally around a bowl is common practice during meals.  Instead, family members eat individually on plates only after having scrubbed their hands in the kitchen.

“My host mom has been very particular about preparing food, and she is very adamant about hygiene,” Butler said. “I feel as though my host family is taking the appropriate precautions, and I know that the directors of the program have our best interest in mind.”

Vivian Park, University of California – Irvine junior, hopes to teach elementary education in West Africa.

“I see a lot of news and a lot of radio talking about Ebola and preventative measures, and I was impressed by at least Dakar’s health prevention,” Park said.

Like Butler, the threat of EVD hasn’t changed Park’s perspective on Africa.  She’s found comfort in how quickly the Ministry of Health responded to the new case.

“I wasn’t too nervous about it because I know that Dakar has such a great health system,” Park said.

Sooni Shirazi, Arizona State University junior, researches women’s health.  The risk of contracting EVD limits her thesis, which is based in Senegal.

“If I have to leave the country, then I have to come up with a new thesis topic,” Shirazi said.  “This is something that I have been working on for several months now.  It would be a shame if I have to leave.”

As a global health student, she recognizes the challenges regarding access to health care in West Africa during this epidemic.

“Senegal is definitely the most developed country in this region, and it would make sense that somebody would want to flee here in order to receive the best health care possible.”


Photo by Nick Diamond

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