I knew going into this week that I wouldn’t be able to sum up the experience and my subsequent thoughts and emotions in a blog post. Or two, or five. But that’s okay. Some of them are probably best kept for me anyway. There are some things I wanted to share though.
A dental team from the US, some volunteers from our church here in Dakar and dentists from Këru Yakaar (the House of Hope) went to prisons in the Dakar area to offer free dental services. We did this in partnership with an amazing Senegalese woman named Ndeye who has been volunteering and serving as an advocate for inmates for nearly 15 years. It’s no wonder they call her ‘Maman Ndeye’.
My role: Interpret between English – French – Wolof.
Not my role: Pulling teeth or seeing anything that might make me pass out.
Day 1: 23 patients, 27 tooth extractions, 3 fillings. And to my knowledge, zero additional pain caused by my poor translations between the English-speaking dentist and the Wolof-speaking inmates.
Day 2: 28 patients, including 14 fillings and tooth extractions. (And, not to brag, but also my first marriage proposal from a prisoner.)
Day 3: 28 patients, including some European inmates, 20 tooth extractions, 11 fillings, 1 pair of dentures cleaned, 6-hour power cut, 1 tiny hole-in-the-floor bathroom facility.
Day 4: tomorrow!
The most surprising things:
– The cleanliness. I expected everything you think of when you think of a prison in the developing world. But the yards were kept clean, swept a couple times a day, and the rooms and halls were quite clean too. The cells where the boys slept were pretty rough and definitely a tight squeeze, but not smelly like I though they might be.
– The smiles. All I knew about prison was from movies and books, so super realistic. I was really surprised by the friendliness and gentle joking among the inmates. At the women’s prison if someone was undergoing a particularly difficult procedure, the room was filled with compassionate murmurs of ‘Massa, massa waaye,’ expressing their sympathy.
– The (lack of) stripes. On the first day I pulled out a striped shirt to wear and then put it back, thinking that it would be tacky to wear stripes to prison. (Shows how very little I knew about prison, eh?) Apparently I could have worn my stripes – and even a ball & chain if I wanted to. The inmates just wear their normal clothes. The women even had henna on their nails, but not many had the long mèches braided in.
– The smiles when they got up from the dentist’s chair. Absolutely awesome.
– Talking with the women who were waiting or who were scared. I just loved it. You’d think we might not have much in common, but with each one there was something. They were from the same village my husband had lived in. They were from a place in Europe that I’d visited. They had a child the same age as mine.
– The excitement when THAT AMAZING lunch was served!
– Leaving the women’s prison and translating the thank-yous to the dentist and the women who waved and smiled as we walked past their cells. Totally not like the movies.
– Hearing the sound of ligaments cracking as teeth were pulled. It totally freaked me out at first. Now? Meh, what’s the big deal?
– Interpreting for the head of the directors of the chiefs of the bosses on day one at the first prison. I got about three sentences in and had to say in English to the team, “And I totally missed that line so I’m just going to pretend I’m saying what he said now.”
– Realizing that the bathroom facility for the day was a hole in the ground about the size of a baseball. By the end of the day, you couldn’t even find the hole for all the, um, puddle around it.
Best quote of the week
“Before today, we didn’t eat chicken. In part because they don’t serve it here, in part because our teeth hurt so we couldn’t chew it.”
Most commonly asked question
What are they in prison for? People have asked this a lot. For the minors, it’s mostly stealing (cell phones, money…) or drugs, but also crimes all the way to murder. In the women’s prisons, the most common is illegal prostitution, followed by infanticide, then theft or drugs. More on this here…
– How long are they in for? For minors in for petty crimes, as little as two to three week. But more serious crimes can mean a sentence lasting several years. For the women’s prison we went to, some are serving out ten-year sentences.
When we got ready to close up shop at the prison for minors, we were treated to a celebration with lots of drums and dancing – including the prison director having a dance-off with some of the inmates!
Tomorrow is the last day with the dental team, but I hope not my last time volunteering with Ndeye. More to come on that…