Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting to the Root of Dengidëk

I often receive emails from the Anthropology faculty and staff alerting me of opportunities to study abroad, participate in a field school, or look into a particular graduate program. Sometimes they are sent to all anthropology students, sometimes a selection of them, and in many cases they are sent only to me. Most of the time, these advertisements – titled something like, “FORWARD THIS TO YOUR STUDENTS!” – don’t apply to my interests, and they go right into the Trash folder. This past December, however, I received one that caught my eye and I had to give it a go.

I don’t talk about it a whole lot on this blog, but I study French and public health, and I have an interest in postcolonial development. So when I received a notice about studying French in Senegal, I had to check it out. Frankly, at the time, I knew very little about Senegal, and even less about the school running the program: Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL). Naturally, when I decided to apply, I figured that if they accepted me, so be it, and if they didn’t, I had a back-up plan in the form of a primatology field school. To be quite honest, I was looking something to occupy my summer (because I firmly believe that idle hands are the Devil’s playground).

After a few weeks, I looked up “Senegal public health” on Amazon, and the first two books to pop-up were Your Pocket Is What Cures You (Foley) and The Enculturated Gene (Fullwiley). Considering that I had almost bought The Enculturated Gene at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Montreal only one month prior (their only copy had been nicked), I had to scoop these up and absorb their contents, posthaste. I needed background information as soon as possible; I want to do whatever meaningful research can be done with two and a half years of French under my belt and six weeks to do it.

This has been a five month journey of hoop-jumping and crash-coursing, and the more I did it, the more passionate I became about the follow-through. I’ve done paperwork for CSU’s study abroad office, CSU’s Department of Anthropology, CSU’s Department of Modern Languages, WUSTL’s study abroad office, four scholarships (two from CSU, one from Gilman, and one from a private donor; all of them won!), an IRB proposal, and an AAA abstract. I had an unbelievably patient mentor to hold my hand along the way (though she’ll just tell you she’s doing her job), and an incredibly supportive faculty behind me. This last five months has been ridiculously instructive (and frustrating), and I’m sure it’ll prove to be a fantastic primer for the future of my fieldwork. I’m so excited that I’ve made it this far, and I haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.

Thursday, I leave for Dakar. I will be in Senegal for six weeks, attending classes on French conversation and Senegalese history, politics, and culture. While I would love to do research on the infrastructure of public health, I’ve chosen to research the tree Fagara zanthoxyloides instead, the root of which is used as a chewing stick and as a remedy for sickle cell crises. What caught my attention about dengidëk (the Wolof word for Fagara) is that in vitro, there is evidence for a lot of other activities (e.g. anti-tumor, anti-oxidant, anti-leukemia, anti-malarial). So, is dengidëk used for more than just sickle cell crises and oral hygiene? That’s one of the many answers I’m after. Ultimately, I hope that I can walk away from this experience with a foundational understanding of Dakar’s public health, Senegalese treatment-seeking behavior, and maybe a little epidemiology. I really want this to be my gateway to future research.

I understand that our accommodations will have internet access, so blogging, Tweeting, and Skyping from Senegal may be entirely possible. Ideally (if possible and practical), I’d like to update this blog regularly – in the spirit of improving the communication of our scholarship. If that doesn’t happen, I will be posting plenty of pictures and articles when I return.

This is it. All of those silly hoops are behind me, and I’m on my way. Ba beneen.