Thursday, May 2, 2013

I'm still here, I'm still alive, and this is what I've been doing.

            Work has really picked up for me in the last few months, which is something I’m really glad about. I peg myself as a pretty lazy person, unless I have a set and busy schedule. Being my own boss out here in the village, there is no one to set my schedule for me, or tell me what to do. I decide what I do, when I do it, and how I go about it. I work best when I’ve got a lot going on- that’s why I always stayed busy with after-school sports or extracurricular activities and multiple jobs throughout high school and college. That’s why I took 9 to 12 classes per semester, while working, interning, and volunteering, and graduated college in 3 years. If I have too much time on my hands, no direction, I don’t know what to do with myself, so I do nothing.
            During my first three “settling in” months at site, I spent numerous days in bed, doing nothing but reading and sleeping. I plowed through books, got lost in series, and barely set foot outside some days. I feel like, although I would sometimes help at the clinic or attend an occasional meeting, I didn’t work at all during that time period. I remember more seasoned volunteers would tell me that work would pick up after In-Service Training, but I couldn’t imagine how that work would pick up- like I’d just cross some imaginary threshold one day and all of the sudden a bunch of projects and programs fall into my lap, I have meeting to hold and work to do? Maybe it was because I wasn’t confident enough yet; I was afraid (yes, me) to even call my own meetings, or speak up about things that got my attention: things that were unjust, or the inefficiencies of how my clinic is run, or the way some of the staff would treat the patients. It’s hard to just sit back and watch these things, and not feel as if it is my place to say anything about it, because I’m just this white American bombarding in on how they’ve always done things. Maybe it’s because I was still in the observation and reservation stage, which is, essentially, where we’re supposed to be during the Community Integration period. Anyways, after Community Entry ended and we completed out In-Service Training, things did start to pick up and get rolling, and by April, they really accelerated.
            Back in March, I traveled to Serenje, which is in Central Province, for a meeting for Camp GLOW. Although it took me 19 hours and 6 vehicles to make it to the capital city of Lusaka from my site, I did make it around midnight, after being annoyed, hassled,  and frustrated by multiple Zambians. Peace Corps booked me a hotel room, and although I was exhausted, I was captivated by having a shower and TV, so I didn’t get much sleep. The next morning PC provided transport for us up to Serenje, where we got to stay at the Central Province house. It’s always nice being able to meet other volunteers from around Zambia, and hear about their experiences. The GLOW meeting was a lot of fun, I actually had a blast. We all got together from our individual provinces and discussed what has worked and what hasn’t worked for us in running these female-empowerment camps across the country. I’m really excited to help run and participate in our camp this upcoming August, and hearing everyones stories brought me back to my youth, when I would be able to go away to summer camps, make new friends, and learn new things. I’m excited for the girls who get the opportunity to attend these camps, because it’s definitely a rare and once in a lifetime opportunity for them to get out of the village and experience something of this nature. After our one day meeting, I hitched back to Lusaka where I got to stay at Peace Corps Headquarters so I could see our medical officers. For the previous two months, my left wrist had been bothering me, and I was sure that I had dislocated it, as it pained me quite a bit and looked different when compared to my right wrist. I was sent to see an Orthopedic Surgeon, who nicely informed me that my wrist was not dislocated as I had thought, it was in fact broken. I have no idea how I broke my wrist, I don’t remember any defining moment in which I hurt it, I just remember it hurting me. In true Zambian fashion, they sent me to a medical supply store at the mall, and had me buy myself a wrist brace. The doctor informed me that I would have to wear the rigid brace for two months, my wrist would take about 6 months to heal, and I’d probably have pain for the rest of my life. Not exactly the best news, but whatever, I don’t really care. The only thing is, is I’ve been wearing this brace for a month and a half now, religiously, and I feel like my wrist has only gotten worse. I can’t even hold my coffee mug, I can’t switch gears on my bike with my left hand, I can’t do the simplest of things or lift the lightest of weight. Unfortunately, this might mean surgery, which is not something that Peace Corps has said yet, but if it doesn’t get better within the next month before I see them again (which I’m doubting it will) I’ll be opting to have it surgically fixed, because this immense pain is not something I want to deal with the rest of my life. And while PC is my medical provider and pays for everything, why not handle it properly, right? Aside from having my wrist examined, I was also finally treated for the Staph- infection that was in my legs and riveting my feet with massive wounds, swellings, and infections. It feels so great to finally have [decent] looking feet again, but even better to be able to put shoes on again and run!
            On my way back from Lusaka, I took a week long vacation and traveled to the wonderful, magical world of Lake Malawi. Entering Malawi, even going just a few feet over the border, was immensely different that Zambia. Infrastructure makes a huge difference. The country, at least the part I was in, was significantly cleaner than Zambia; their roads were smoother, faster, safer. We got into Lilongwe, the capital, at around 7:15pm, and unfortunately the last bus going to where we were headed left at 7pm, so we had just missed it. We had to stay the night at a hostel, which I wasn’t bummed about, because I had been traveling from Lusaka since 3am that morning. I was with another PC Volunteer and 3 of my Zambian friends, so we relaxed at this really nice hostel for the night. The next morning we finally (after many hours stuck on a crammed, stuffy bus) made it safely to Nkhata Bay, which is a bay on Lake Malawi. We met up with a bunch of other volunteer friends at Mayoka Lodge, and I was finally able to relax. It was absolutely gorgeous. There were green, rolling mountains and hill surrounding the area. The lodge was set right on the water, with grass bungalow type housing, outdoor showers, and compost toilets. They had their own garden, and an amazing array of delicious, fresh foods. We could snorkel, bird watch, canoe, etc. all for free. I decided to check out the local PADI scuba certification center, as getting scuba certified is something I’ve been wanting to do, and I thought, “why not now?” So I spent 3 days doing the certification class; it’s amazing to be able to dive down under water and take a breath, and be able to breath without surfacing. With my wrist being broken, the instructor wouldn’t let me do the deep dives, to keep from air bubbles forming between the broken bones and causing pressure during the decent, so we did all of the technical training and shallow water dives. Lake Malawi has the most diverse amount of fresh water fish species, and you can see a ~7 minute clip of it on Planet Earth: Fresh Water edition. I was happy to spend my days there at the dive center and hours under water, and I’d take the lunch breaks to go down to the beach and converse with locals, eating the fish they were catching right there in front of me. One of the cool things about knowing Tumbuka, is that it’s also spoken in some parts of Malawi and Tanzania. It was nice to have that edge above the other tourists in the area, to be able to speak to the locals in their language and know more about the culture than a typical tourist would. In the evenings I would go back and swim with my friends, and we’d spend the nights dancing away to drums and local performers. I’m grateful to live so close to such an amazing (and amazingly cheap) place, and I can’t wait to go back when my friend comes to visit this month!
            Going back to the village after being gone for about two weeks was definitely refreshing. I came back a little more relaxed, inspired, and motivated to work hard during the upcoming month, which was extremely busy for me. I’m not really an incentive driven person, and I wasn’t in this case, but having a Peace Corps Competition for Malaria Month really kind of gave me the push I needed to start my work here. I took the contest and ran with it, not because I wanted to get the most points for activities completed, but because it gave me ideas, activities to do. We could get certain points for training a group about Malaria, or performing a skit, or doing a radio show, a net distribution, a blog, a status update, ‘liking’ the STOMP Out Malaria Facebook page, whatever. I didn’t do these things for the points, I did them because they gave me an outlet to teach; they made me really learn about, on a village level, how Malaria was ravishing my community, and then do something about it. I was skeptical about calling my first meetings with the Neighborhood Health Committees, especially because all we hear about calling meetings in the villages here are bad things. People won’t show up, people won’t be on time, people won’t be interested. I was amazed by the support I got at each of my meetings. I have 7 different “neighborhoods,” each one consisting of about 10-20 villages, and all within distances of 8km away, to ~20 km away. A lot of these are areas that I had not yet ventured to, so I called my meetings in their areas, at a local school, so I could get an idea of my way around, as well as introduce myself to people who might not have seen, met, or heard of me yet. Not only did people show up on time for my meetings, but some of the neighborhoods brought a majority of their communities out, because they all wanted to meet me and hear what I had to say. I used this opportunity to introduce myself, why I was there, what the purpose and goals of Peace Corps were, and what I could offer them- how we could work together to improve the health and livelihoods of their communities. Then I went into assessing how their Neighborhood Health Committee (NHC) was doing as an NHC, and to my surprise (but was I really surprised?) none of their committees knew what their 5 jobs were, nor were they functioning properly. I told them of the Peace Corps Malaria Month Competition, which motivated them as well, and insisted that they could earn points by going out into their communities and educating people about Malaria. Then I gave them my Malaria talk, going over the life-cycle of a mosquito, how one acquires malaria, the symptoms, treatment options, interventions, and dispelling of common myths. At the end, each NHC was able to pass my True/False quiz about Malaria, and I sent them on their ways to talk to their communities. I also asked if they’d allow me into their homes, something taboo, to take pictures of them or their families with their properly hung mosquito nets. I did not think that I would succeed in this endeavor, but to my surprise, they were thrilled to bring me in and show off that they had hung their nets and were protecting their families. Once I entered one home and took photos, it was like dominoes fell, and everyone in the village was running at me, grabbing my hand, and leading me into their homes to take pictures of them and their nets. I was honestly astounded by the number of people that actually had nets hung in their homes, and had them hung properly; I thought the number of those using mosquito nets would be staggeringly lower. Later, when I was in Chipata to assist with the moving of our Provincinal House, I printed out all the pictures I had taken of people and their nets, and hung them at my clinic as a “wall of fame.” My idea worked out, and I have had numerous villagers ask me to come out and visit their homes and take pictures of them and their nets as well. The purpose of this was to inspire Zambians to hang their nets, because once their hung it increases their chances of them using them, and Zambians love to have their pictures taken. What better way to get them to do something, than with a little incentive of fame?
            My month was filled, almost every single day, with Malaria-related activities. Whether it was giving the health talks, reading my Malaria childrens book to local kids, a 1-hour radio show all about Malaria, or working with the local drama group to present Malaria informative skits, I never took a break. On World Malaria Day I had planned, with my clinic staff, to hold a huge event, much like the ones we’ve held for World Aids Day, Mental Health Day, etc. However, due to the unfortunate and unexpected passing of my counterpart/clinic nurse, we were not able to hold the commemoration at the clinic, because it is against their culture to ‘celebrate’ where people are grieving with a family. They moved the event to the school near my village, and not a single staff member showed up, leaving me to organize and present the entire event, which I was not happy about. It all worked out though; over 70 villagers showed up, including 3 local Headmen, the Group Headman, and the Chief. At the end, I did my standard True/False quiz, which they all answered correctly and absolutely loved.
            The problem with development here is that, people love to learn, people want to learn, people learn… but people don’t change. The major issue I face in my work is the behavior-change aspect. That couldn’t be more apparent than in the loss of my friend, sister, counterpart, midwife, and clinic nurse- Jessy Kalipe. She was a health professional, who could recite to you everything about Malaria- from the signs and symptoms, down to the exact breed of mosquito (Anopholes) that carries the deadly parasite (Plasmodium Falciparum). She tests, diagnoses, and treats tens of people for Malaria on a daily basis at our clinic. She has access to our pharmacy, to our tests, to our drugs. And yet she died on Malaria. To me that is unacceptable, that someone that educated, that knowledgeable, and with that much access to prevention and treatment, should die of a PREVENTABLE disease. So what’s wrong here? What’s not clicking? How do I get people to change??? All that pops into my head is the Chinese Proverb: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I think that’s an extremely challenging part of my job here; I can educate to Earths end, but I can’t force people to change their ways. I can make them see the benefits of changing, of a better life, a healthier life. But I can’t make them adopt those practices. And that’s hard. And it hurts. Because in the end, am I really making a difference?
            I’d like to think I am. I’d like to think that just me being here, living amongst these people and like them, makes a big difference in their lives. I know it makes a difference for all of the village kids, who learn English, peace, acceptance, and a different way of doing things from me. I know it makes a difference for my host father, whose eyes have been broadened and now see the world and humanity in a whole new light. I know it makes a difference for people that have casual conversation with me, and learn that America isn’t as bad or evil, or great or perfect, as others have mystified and made it out to be. And I know it makes a difference for people back home, who learn more about another culture and way of living, through me. But the difference I want to make here is a permanent one, one that will make people’s lives better because they are healthier. Because they won’t be faced with the same diseases that we were able to eradicate in America decades ago. That they will have near to the same access to treatment and care as the rest of the developed world does. That they won’t have to suffer from things that should be a basic human right.

Looking Forward:
            The idea I got from the Malaria Competition has really given me direction in my work. I didn’t know where to start, and now I’m so overwhelmed with meetings, programs, and things I want to do that I feel like I don’t have enough time to do them all. I’m 1/3 of the way done with my service, but not even 1/3 of the way done with things that I wish to do during it. I’ve taken the idea of a “Malaria Month” and decided that each month will have a health theme that I will focus on. During the month of May, I’m going to be starting my mass-hygiene project. In May, I’m challenging all of my NHC’s to complete village inspections throughout their neighborhoods. A village inspection consists of going door to door and evaluating peoples home, essentially coming up with a ‘health score’ for each of them. They will fill out a form that starts by asking how many people live in that home, how many are children under 5, how many deaths they’ve had of children under 5, how many of the children suffer from diarrhea, etc. Then it asks if they have a trash pit, a dish rack, windows in their home for ventilation (Tuberculosis), and pit latrines. It grades if they have gardens, fruit, what their water source is, how far their water is, how clean their water is. I’ll take all the information they gather and compile it into an Excel document, then create graphs for each individual area showing what their ‘health scores’ are. The second phase of the project, which I hope to complete during the month of June, will be encouraging people to start digging latrines (toilets) and trash pits, to build dish racks and tippy-taps (hand washing stations). Of course, there will be an incentive, because I’ve learned that incentives and prizes are excellent motivators, and either the village or NHC that is most successful will be given a Peanut Grinder, to make and sell peanut butter as an IGA (income generating activity), or a bike-powered cell phone charger.
            On top of all that, May is promising to be as much of a busy month as April was. I’m starting NHC Trainings at my clinic, because, as mentioned earlier, I’ve found that many of my NHC’s are not functioning, not functioning properly, or just have no direction in what they’re supposed to be doing. I’ll probably end up writing a post more specifically on NHC’s later, but for now I’ll say that I’ve scheduled this program into 12 trainings, starting from scratch on how to socially mobilize community members, form an NHC, and write a constitution, to being able to find resources, plan advanced interventions, write grants, and see projects come to fruition. The final meeting, of course, will conclude with the bestowing of  Certificates of Completion, because Zambians LOVE to get certificates to prove they have been educated in a certain realm. Aside from NHC trainings, one of my friends and former Peace Corps Volunteer Hosts, is eager to start up a Boys Club and a Girls Club at his local grade school. Since I’ve been looking to start up a Girls Club, I’m glad to have found someone that can be my counterpart, and is motivated to work and help with youth. We’ll be discussing things like gender issues, gender empowerment, HIV/AIDs, and whatever else these kids desire. I’m extremely excited about this, even though it’s just going to pack my schedule even tighter- but I’m okay with that! After the first few meeting with these individual clubs, we will be, in conjunction, beginning a program called Grass Roots Soccer, which uses the game of futbol to educate youth about HIV/AIDs. Another program I’m extremely excited to delve into. I’ve also set up Health Education days at my local Community School on Mondays, where I will be teaching grades 5 and 6 about different Health Issues, as well as training the volunteer teachers on HIV & English integrated lessons. I’m sure every day of this month will be filled with activities… but that will only make it pass by faster, which is a good thing because… MY EMILY COMES MAY 29TH!!!!! I cannot wait for my best friend since I was 3 to step off that plane in Lusaka, Zambia, and feast her eyes on this wondrous country J  I’m so enraptured to travel with her to Victoria Falls, where we will witness one of the 7 Wonders of the World, walk and cuddle with lions, see giraffes, hippos, crocs, elephants, monkeys, EVERYTHING. Go white water rafting down the Zambezi River, then head to my village so she can experience village life for a bit. We’ll top off her two week African Adventure by relaxing in a beautiful private chalet, with private beach, at Mayoka, Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi. I can’t wait for her to experience this wonderful place I now call home, the mysterious culture, and all that comes with being in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa.
            So that’s what I have to look forward to in the coming weeks :D 

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