The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 4, 2007

Enid woman spends 3 years in Africa with Peace Corps

By Robert Barron Staff Writer

Casie Valtr has seen the world in a way most of us never will — or want to.

Valtr, of Enid, was a Peace Corps volunteer beginning in 2003 for nearly three years in the village of Doultcha, Niger, located in western Africa. Valtr’s original term was two years, plus three months of training, during which she learned the language and studied health care.

Valtr has a master’s degree in international studies from Oklahoma State University. Most people with international studies degrees work for United Nations, World Bank or International Monetary Fund, she said.

Valtr, though, lived in a one-room mud hut and slept outside because of the heat. She was provided with a table-top heating plate and a water purifier by Peace Corps. Otherwise, she bathed with water from a bucket, and her bathroom was a hole in the ground.

“You train in health and language, then go into the village and do what you can,” she said.

She was community health volunteer in her village. Most youths in Niger are malnourished, so she began tracking height and weight balances of the children, while educating their families on nutrition. There was no hospital in the village, and malnourishment was rampant.

One of her accomplishments was obtaining funding for a health clinic. The village provided part of the money and provided an ox cart for emergency transportation. Valtr obtained medicine and supplies for the clinic. She trained villagers to be involved in the clinic operation and to assist the government health nurse who came to work in the clinic. A local committee oversaw the medicine replenishment fund, which the nurse used when supplies were needed.

“People came to the clinic expecting me to be able to cure anything because I am white, and they think I have medicines to cure anything, even cancer,” she said.

If children are malnourished, Valtr enrolls them in her health program for four months and tries to provide the nutrition to make them healthy. In the meantime, she educates their parents on what type of food would be better for the children.

“When you do the nutrition right, the kid lives,” she said.

She was adopted by a host family and made many friends among the people of her village. Some of them brought their children to her for treatment, and some of the children died. Sometimes, she went to her hut and cried at the hopelessness of their situation.

Every day, she was aware of her color. Valtr said it was unusual to be aware of her color and realize she was in the minority.

Valtr and another volunteer organized a girls youth camp, hosting girls from 13 to 15 from 10 villages. During the camp, they discussed reproductive health, pre-natal and post-natal care, sex and AIDS. AIDS is not as common in Niger as it is in many other African nations, Valtr said, but it is becoming a problem. One reason AIDS has not yet become a problem is because 95 percent of the people in Niger are Muslim.

She also brought in women nurses who acted as role models.

She lived in Doultcha for nearly three years, eating tuwo every day just like the other villagers. Tuwo is a meal made from ground millet. It provides the staple for rural Niger residents every day. They eat very little else, Valtr said.

Leaves of the baobob tree are harvested and pounded into a sauce for the millet.

Tuwo does not taste good and looks worse, although Valtr said she got used to it.

“That’s one thing I won’t miss,” she said.

Sometimes, they will grind beans into flour, and they also raise sugar cane and sorghum, but millet is the primary crop. They store the harvested plants in a grass hut and wait until they need it.

Everyone has a trade. Some make grass mats, others sharpen knives or perform other basic trades. Her host family were blacksmiths and made knives and even primitive guns, similar to those used by 19th century pioneers.

Crops are raised to support a family for an entire year. If they get below normal rainfall, which is often, their crops are smaller, she said. The average life expectancy is mid-40s.

Niger is two-thirds desert and very poor, with no natural resources. The official language is French. Schools are taught in French, but the primary language is Hausa, and students do not understand when teachers instruct in French, Valtr said. Textbooks also are printed in French, which students, especially beginning students, cannot understand.

Plus, Valtr said, because the government seldom pays teachers, classes are seldom held. Teachers strike when they are not being paid, so there will be no school from weeks or months at a time. Only about 15 percent of the population goes to primary schools, which are usually in larger cities. Those students must find a place to live and pay for their housing, she said. Even fewer students go to high school, and almost no one goes to college.

Valtr was a volunteer 24 months, then extended her stay 10 more months. She now works for GOAL, an Irish non-governmental humanitarian organization. She currently works as a nutrition coordinator for mobile nutrition clinics in the region. She has moved from the one-bedroom hut with a dirt floor to the city, where she has an apartment.

Valtr recently applied to a master’s degree program from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health. She will be gone for a year once classes start, but it will help her prepare to serve the people better.

But she will return to Niger Friday to continue her work and hopefully to obtain a master’s degree to better do her job. After all the hardship, frustration and hopelessness she has seen, Valtr still is determined to help.

“There isn’t anything I’d rather do,” she said.