April 29, 2015

Alex Ding ’13, now a first-year student at the University of Chicago, has been awarded a $10,000 grant from Davis Projects for Peace, an initiative that encourages students to design and implement grassroots summer projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict.

Ding will return to Pelel, Kedougou, Senegal, for 10 weeks this summer to help establish community gardens, dig a freshwater well, and build hygienic latrines. The project is called Awdi din Jam, a Pulaar (the local language) phrase which translates to Seeds of Peace, Ding said in an email. “I will be partnering with local governments and women’s groups to work to diversify and promote resilient agro-pastoral and health practices in rural Pelel.”

Taking a gap year after graduating from Culver Academies, Ding spent seven months in Pelel, population 1,000, through the Global Citizen Year program. She learned to speak Pulaar and came to a profound understanding of the villagers’ most basic needs.

Shortly after arriving, her host mother, a woman in her early 30s, died following the birth of twin girls. The death was attributed to chronic malnutrition and untreated anemia. Ding said the death was preventable. “They have a word for that in Pulaar that means ‘stupid death,’” she added.

In talking with villagers, Ding learned that while access to medical care was an urgent need, access to basic nutrition might have prevented her host mother’s death. “They subsist on a diet of rice and corn,” she explained, “and they understand that what they’re putting into their bodies is not enough.”

They subsist on a diet of rice and corn,” she explained, “and they understand that what they’re putting into their bodies is not enough

Ding with some of the women and children of Pelel, a small village in Senegal.

Ding with some of the women and children of Pelel, a small village in Senegal.

When Ding returns this summer, she will use the Davis Prize grant to create a 2.5-acre year-round vegetable garden that will provide the community with nutrient-rich foods. The idea came from the villagers themselves, who already have taken leadership roles to make it happen, she said. She also will work to promote better access to drinking water and better hygiene and sanitation practices through the construction of a freshwater well and improved latrines.

She chose these projects because she quickly realized through conversations with villagers that “health outcomes are inextricably linked to peace outcomes, and that to choose a project targeting poor health infrastructure was to promote peace and justice.”

“Ten thousand dollars cannot alleviate the myriad of historical, systemic, or infrastructural barriers to health equality in Pelel – far from it,” she wrote. “But with the Davis Project funds, I will provide the basic capital necessary to realize the health projects and peace outcomes that will impact residents in meaningful ways.

“I am so amazingly excited, wowed, grateful and overwhelmed with the opportunity to have this experience,” Ding added. “I am grateful to Culver for the continued support in helping to cultivate an interest in leadership and global health equity, and in particular to Mr. Buxton, who took the time to meet with me during his holiday break to talk through the project and write me a gracious letter of recommendation.”

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