Final goodbyes

The summer is all but done, I’m back in the US, and the temperature is already dropping here at Brandeis. Considering that the heat in Dakar is only just hitting its stride, I’m pretty happy that the northeast is cooling off sooner than usual. It’s a little strange to be speaking English almost exclusively and I’ll miss the homemade Senegalese dishes that I’d gotten used to, but it’s also been nice to see my family and be surrounded by green trees again. There’s nothing wrong with the Sahel,  but greenery is nice after 6 months of sand, sandy wind, and the occasional baobab tree thrown into the mix.

My learning goals were definitely skills that I improved during the summer. In the wake of the Ebola spread happening in West and North Africa, sanitation and disease have been keywords popping up in more conversations than I can count. One of my goals was to link my classroom knowledge of West Africa and its history to a more in-depth, on the ground perspective. One of my main tasks at GRAG during my last month was to complete a preliminary evaluation of a sanitation project done by UNICEF and a few other big-name international NGOs. I learned a lot about some of the smaller issues that affect the success of sanitation programs in the region in complex ways. For example, hand washing isn’t necessarily something taught in a lot of rural schools or focused on in households. And without a culture of focusing on small sanitation acts like that, any large companies coming in to spread messages about them can seem like just more of the same Western aid programs that might mean well but don’t end up benefiting the population in any meaningful way. The key to successfully impacting communities like the ones targeted by the UNICEF program isn’t anything difficult or impossible, it just requires careful listening to those populations. Community involvement does much more in the long-run than programs that only involve the population in secondary roles.

This example is relevant for my career goal, too. I had wanted to gain more experience with crafting NGO publications and reports and community involvement is important for that as well. Some of my translation work required translation of publications from English to French, which is one of the languages spoken in the area. But there are several other languages spoken by people in the area who don’t have access to the French education system. Sometimes another GRAG member fluent in those languages would have to take my translations and translate them again into local languages. And community engagement was important for the questionnaires to be used for research projects — we would occasionally have to bring in a consultant to handle parts of the project regarding a specific region or ethnic group and their traditions. This was in addition to hiring research teams from the targeted populations to be overseen by a supervisor from GRAG. All of this served to engage the communities better and achieve more of a grassroots, long-lasting impact.

My personal goal, learning more coping mechanisms for this line of work, generally went well. I’d become attached to some of the projects that I helped with or evaluated, so any failures I heard about could hit hard. But you learn how to deal with these kinds of emotional twists while working on so many things at once. It’s important that I remind myself that everyone will be trying harder on the next project and all I can really do is continue to perfect my section of it all. The team atmosphere at GRAG helped me to realize this philosophy and I think I can go forward knowing that those kinds of workplace bonds can be helpful in any kind of emotional situation.

My experience has given me a lot more confidence in my ability to work in an industry that I’m interested in. From here on I’m hoping to jump into even more experiences in line with research and NGO work and possibly including travel. I’ve looked into internships in the Brandeis area that do public health research or deal with sustainable tourism.

I would advise anyone wanting to work at GRAG to make sure to look for opportunities outside of the given tasks. After about a month and a half the pace got pretty erratic. There would be some weeks with pages and pages of proposals to work on and others when days went by with only simple tasks or almost nothing to do. In the end I would come up with tasks to add onto, like helping other GRAG members on their projects, or I would ask my supervisor for more things to do. I think the pace of my internship is pretty similar to that at other international aid organizations since I helped my boss do some work for a UNAID office at their headquarters in Dakar once and the setup was much the same. In general it’s necessary to be aware of the differences in activity day-to-day and not to let the fast pace or a dragging day dishearten you.

My thoughts about social justice have been reinforced as a result of my experience this summer. My internship helped me to focus on the fact that there are many different ways that I can help people in far-flung locations…but also many ways in which I can’t. I’m not fluent in any local languages in the Dakar region or fully knowledgeable of the cultures that exist there. I could pick almost any point on the globe outside of the northeast United States and the same would be true. I think that many times our vision of social justice becomes patronizing and very paternalistic to some of the people we think we are “helping.” An important part of social justice abroad is standing up for your corner of the globe and realizing that you are not the expert on any others. For me this means that I will look for opportunities in the future that partner me with people who have grown up in these places and have a deeper understanding of the forces at play there. Organizations like UNICEF or UNAID can do a lot of good, but doing so takes some stepping forward from people like me and also some stepping back. Maybe the gap between classroom education and real-world experience can never be fully filled in and that’s fine. We all have to do what good we can in the ways that we can, adding onto others and eventually creating an even better network of specialized change agents.

The summer was everything that I needed in my career and personal lives and more. I’ll miss Dakar for a while but for now it’s back to Brandeis, back to formal academics, and back to figuring out the future as it comes.


-Natasha Gordon ’15


Passing the midpoint

I’m past my midpoint here at GRAG and thinking about the learning goals I put down two months ago.The summer has been a good one, both because of the sunshine sweeping down on Dakar and the office atmosphere that’s always so positive. Even the long afternoons during the holy month of Ramadan, always slowest around the usual time for lunch, haven’t done much to deter the assorted GRAG staff. July was full of completed program funding bids and new projects to take on.

My academic and career goals have become intertwined because of the nature of my internship. GRAG is first and foremost a research organization, so my academic goals (augmenting my classroom knowledge of West-African development with firsthand involvement) and my career goals (gaining more experience in crafting advocacy materials and promoting NGO/research findings) are being met every day that I sit at my desk and draft a proposal section or edit a survey questionnaire.

I’ve read a lot about the different ways to go about international aid and over the past 2 months I’ve seen a lot of them in action. GRAG builds a knowledge base by doing its own studies based around target populations, but it also evaluates projects being done by other NGOs and government offices. Working on the outside evaluations has been especially helpful. I’m gaining more of a logistical look into the realities of aid programs and the various things that can go wrong, ways they can be improved, and in general more of a scope for understanding these ventures. Academically, this glimpse into the industry has answered a lot of questions I had about projected versus achieved results. There are more factors going in than I had thought or read about and now I know more about the multitude of difficulties that can and do arise during implementation.

Senegalese Initiative for Urban Health; one of GRAG's current evaluation projects
Senegalese Initiative for Urban Health; one of GRAG’s current evaluation projects in conjunction with the Senegalese government

I have farther to go before I’m prepared for an actual career in an organization like this one — assuming I even choose to work in this industry — but I’ve taken big leaps in some areas. My technical writing skills have definitely improved and I’ve gained a lot of experience drafting different proposals — for funding, for proposed projects, and for proposed evaluation reports. A lot of elements go into each document, and details are especially important for the advocacy materials and the study questionnaires that we distribute. Tact is essential, plus simplicity of questions and language use. Many of the materials go to poorer communities outside of Dakar so they don’t necessarily have access to the French education in public schools here. There are as many as 7 local languages at use in some regions of the country and many people here are bilingual or more, so a lot of translation work happens at the office. And sensitive issues like gender roles or sexuality can quickly cause a problem if confidentiality agreements don’t hold. I’m still learning exactly where to toe the line with subjects like that but it’s been an interesting education on the topic.

In terms of personal goals, it’s been interesting seeing the amount of focus everyone maintains in the office while working on sensitive subjects. Just yesterday my supervisor was telling me about the implementation of a project that was started before I got here on integrated health services in Senegal, and he spoke about how he is now suggesting that they take out the issue of domestic violence from the study. Researchers understand that many of the issues afflicting poor communities are intertwined, but there’s also the danger of over-saturating a survey and losing the focus of a particular research mission. In attempting to tackle too many issues at once, you run the risk of too little in-depth analysis and in fact not helping to solve any problems in a major way.

One of my learning goals was to find that emotional balance necessary for NGO work, especially during fieldwork, to juggle the heavy subjects that are the center of such studies. The GRAG team doesn’t completely separate themselves from the human elements of their research or else they wouldn’t be able to fully account for the needs of the target populations. Instead, attention is shifted to concentrate on the particular issue at hand and take the larger socioeconomic problems case-by-case. I’ve been doing the same in a lot of ways. There are always smaller pieces of a problem to work on and each project brings us closer and closer to bigger changes. My contributions don’t look like much on a day-to-day basis, but they’re part of a bigger whole and it helps to keep that in mind.

I wasn’t certain that I could do much in an international research organization back in May. When the Francophone nature of the office was added in I was almost positive that I was jumping into a place that I might not be able to keep up with. It was a surprise to discover that GRAG could teach me a lot about the field, but also that my supervisor and co-workers took my opinions to heart and my intermediate language skills didn’t end up being a problem. I am proud of the fact that I took the initiative to dive into a new experience without as much surety as I’m used to and still managed to have a great time and learn so much in the past months.

Only a few more weeks to go in Dakar until I pack up and leave both GRAG and Senegal! Things here have been heavy and confusing at times, but they’ve also taught me to keep on my toes and work on tight deadlines. Overall I’m enjoying my time in the city and trying to take in everything I can. This summer has definitely been an interesting one and I’m sure August will bring its own flavor to the mix.

-Natasha Gordon ’15

First Week with GRAG

Asalaam Aleekum! Nangeen def, ça va? As I write this, the sounds of the city of Dakar, Senegal drift in through the office window: construction from the housing development across the street, taxis passing through the neighborhood, and some of my co-workers conversing in Wolof infused with French. I have been living in Dakar for the past four months while studying French language and African development as well as attempting to learn the dominant Wolof language and the art of Senegalese cuisine.

A street in the northeastern area of the city.

Dakar has truly been an experience. The capital city of Senegal, it sits on a peninsula on the westernmost point of Africa jutting into the Atlantic. Because of its location in the Sahel region, sand is an omnipresent obstacle here, whether you are walking through it on sidewalks, emptying it from your clothes, or attempting to protect your shoes from the inevitable wear that constant exposure brings about. Gross poverty mixes with excess of wealth on the city streets and people of every nationality and social strata cross paths to work, study, or travel through the region. Experiencing Dakar has complicated my knowledge of West African environmental politics, cross-cultural identity, and, especially, the international aid industry.

The organization I am interning with this summer is Global Research and Advocacy Group (GRAG), a non-profit that works with marginalized communities in Senegal and the greater African continent. I’ve been interested in international development work for a while and knew that this summer would be a great opportunity to experience the industry first-hand. I began my internship search by asking my study abroad program directors and classmates who were interning through the program about their organizations to decide if there were any which aligned with my academic and career interests. I contacted a few companies, sent my resume, and spoke with supervisors about intern responsibilities and planned summer projects. After meeting with the director of GRAG to discuss their goals, I felt that they were the best fit for me. We discussed my qualifications and they offered me an internship position.

Plaque with the GRAG Mission Statement  hanging at the office entrance.
Plaque with the GRAG Mission Statement hanging at the office entrance.

GRAG is a relatively new organization – created just two years ago – and the team is somewhat small, with a staff of about 20 and a few occasional consultants. The size gives the office a more comfortable feel and the attitudes of the team especially contribute to that. Everyone has time to drop into the office I share with another intern for a quick chat that may or may not turn into a Wolof lesson, and I talk to every person here at least once a day because greeting is so important to Senegalese culture. There was an upcoming deadline for a project during the first few days that had everyone harried and feeling rushed, but even that did not stop the flow of conversation and jokes that carries the work along.

GRAG is currently in the midst of a campaign for the abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting(FGM/C) on the African continent and most of the energy here goes into that initiative. The team is based in a Francophone West-African country but works as part of an international consortium for many projects, so a large part of my job so far has involved French-to-English translation work and general editing. I actually jumped straight into the project even before my first day: my supervisor sent me part of the proposal to translate a few days beforehand and I decided to get a head start. That decision turned out to be the right one because the amount of documents to translate and research projects to complete sent the entire team into a whirl of activity during my first week. My first days here have been a crash-course in formal document translation and crafting international funding proposals, two fields that I am very interested in.

Though we finished the major points during the first three days, everyone is still tying loose ends and adding new ideas to enhance the proposal before the final review in a few weeks.  We are still working towards the final deadline, but if the consortium is accepted, the initiative against FGM/C will be implemented for a preliminary five years before possible extension for five more.

Me and another intern taking a break from translation.
Me and another intern taking a break from translation.

The prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, ranges by ethnic group and region, and is not as much of an issue in Senegal as in other African and Middle-Eastern nations, not to mention the recent increase in Western countries. But the practice has gained the notice of big international organizations like the UN and Tostan that link the larger themes of female empowerment and public health development to the issue. Problems abound in these initiatives, including those of criminalization of ethnic group practices, the battle between tradition and certain kinds of modernity, and a complicated (and oftentimes paternalistic) history between African groups and international aid programs. The consortium proposal attempts to validate these concerns while keeping in mind the risks that the practice poses to young women and their communities.

The FGM initiative is just one being launched by GRAG this summer and I am excited to help with this and others, such as the opening of a learning center for vulnerable populations here in Dakar. In this predominantly Muslim country, that includes sexual minorities like homosexual men and women, but also sex workers and others who do not follow accepted standards of living. In the next two months I hope to learn more about the daily processes of advocacy work and international development, and what projects are being done to help marginalized people in the region achieve their full human rights.

Ba beneen yoon, or until next time!