Sickness as a Way of Life

Not all that long ago, I prided myself on not getting sick.  I attributed it mostly to eating healthy — working at farmer’s markets in California means lots of vegetables year-round.  The circumstances allowing one to be healthy including money, education and time availability, are not ones that commonly exist in Senegal, at least not in my region.

I am currently emerging from a 3-day period of (self-imposed) isolation in my hut.  I had a fever, headache, and was too tired to do anything.  When I would leave my hut to obtain water, I looked bad enough that inevitably a family member would take my bucket and pull water from the well for me, despite my (admittedly weak) protestations.

Come to find out, lots of members of my family are sick.  Pretty much everyone has a cold, since the weather is changing — yes, it’s actually getting to be cold season!  Alhamdoulilah.  Cold being defined as about 80 degrees at night– others have fevers, headaches, and body aches like me.  People casually ask if I think I might have malaria.  I tell them I don’t think so.  “Mosquitos don’t get into your net at night, right?”  They ask.  No, I assure them.

I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of my health in Senegal (so far, knock on wood).  Lots of volunteers have horror stories — parasites, malaria, skin infections, cholera, dysentary, dengue fever, etc.  But not to worry, we have doctors on-call for us 24/7 if we have an emergency.  Dakar has quality health facilities, and if things are really serious Peace Corps will put us on the next flight to Washington D.C. 

As I lay in my hut I think about these things, and I think about the women in my family who are also sick, but who are still cooking, cleaning, hand-washing clothes, and watching the children.  When I get sick, I sleep all day. Not everyone has that luxury.  Nor do they have doctors on call to tell them what prescription would help.  Not to mention unlimited funds for medicine (Peace Corps reimburses us for all meds we buy).   Again and again, I am reminded of my privilege. 

However, despite Peace Corps’s efforts, privilege can’t protect us completely.  We, too, get used to sickness.  It’s so embedded into everyday life that even malaria usually only warrants an impromptu conversation, even between two PCV’s.  Sometimes I think about how shocked people at home would be if they overheard these conversations.  “Oh yeah, I had a staph infection that turned into MRSA, but it’s better now.  Did you hear about how so-and-so had 2 types of malaria and hepatitis E?” 

I guess treating things casually is a survival strategy.  It’d be exhausting to be concerned about everything.  While I was sick, my host mom asked me if I’d called my real mom to tell her.  I told her no, thinking she’d be upset that I wasn’t keeping in good enough touch.  Instead, she told me that was good.  “If you tell her, she’ll only be scared.”  She speaks the truth.  (Don’t worry mom, I’m better now!)

As I’ve said before, it’s amazing what one can get used to — including sickness as a way of life.


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