One of the projects I've been working on lately is putting together a week long conference or 'camp' for 45 high-school aged girls in the Iringa region. Nine Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) will be participating, each bringing a facilitator and five students from their respective villages. The conference will be hosted at a vocational training center in the small town of Mafinga. For some girls, this will be their first time in town, first time to use electricity, and first time away from the mundane routine of house chores that monopolize their daily lives.
This Iringa region girls' conference, which will take place June 6th-10th, aims to empower 45 girls from nine villages in the Iringa region as peer educators with sound knowledge on preventing HIV/AIDS, promoting women’s health, and skills to make healthy life decisions. We have two objectives: (1) To improve the knowledge base of female students concerning HIV/AIDS awareness, transmission and prevention and (2) To empower girls with leadership skills through providing the knowledge and resources necessary to become peer educators on issues such as reproductive health and life skills. The sustainability of this project hinges on our hopes that after interactive sessions on a variety of topics ranging from the menstrual cycle to smart money management, these girls will return to their homes confident and motivated to share the things that they learned with their families and peers.
I have recently been criticized for working primarily (ok ok, solely) with women in my village. This girls conference project is the only project so far that I have applied for outside money to fund and therefore it is under attack. The concern arose when a male PCV who lived in my village from 2001-2003 returned to visit and the men that he formerly worked with complained that I wasn't doing anything to help them and so they preferred male volunteers. First of all, not a single one of these men has approached me to ask for help. In fact they don't interact with me at all unless it's to ask how I stay warm at night all alone in my bed. Second, I am a woman. And, even here in Tanzania, thankful to be a woman. While it has taken some time, I'm learning to navigate the social circles of women in Nyololo and they're beginning to accept me as a friend, as an advisor, and as a fellow woman. I feel more comfortable around women here. I can relate to the struggles of finding a husband with 'good manners' and sympathize with the daily hardships of keeping a house running. I can sit around with them, braiding hair, drinking tea and arguing over who has the prettiest fabric. I can be a role model to my young female students who often show up at my house on the weekends to flip through American magazines and use my camera to take their own glamour shots. I am a woman. Third, I simply have a strong interest in reproductive health. Now I recognize that no change will happen unless men are involved, which is why I fought to keep my "Life Skills/Health" class at the high school co-ed where issues of gender roles and reproductive health are continual discussions. I would love to involve more men in my health lessons at the clinic and I'm currently trying to figure out just how to do that. But at the moment, I work in the maternal/child/family planning office of the health center and the only people that walk through that door are women, girls, and boys under the age of five.
Finally, all the statistics are on my side. Development money, appropriately invested in women, yields results. I recently heard an adaptation to the fish parable that went something like, "If you give a man a loaf of bread, you keep him alive until the next day. If you give a woman a loaf of bread, you keep a family alive for a week." Now I certainly don't believe this is always the case and all men aren't evil. But the need for investment in women in the developing world is SO great. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than 1 in 5 girls make it to high school. Half are married (with multiple children) by the age of 18. Complications from pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19. So why am I taking five promising young girls from Nyololo to this conference in June? Because I'll be getting the best 'bang for my [ok ok, PEPFAR's] buck' and they deserve some attention from the development world for a change. An article in Newsweek recently stated that less than 2 cents from every development dollar goes to girls and only 1 out of 10 youth programs is targeted at young females. The reason cited for this is that not much is known about how to help girls in places where gender roles are so strictly defined and culturally ingrained. I believe that big investments in changing infrastructure in these countries in ways that benefit women and show that they are a priority to society will have a significant impact. These include reducing barriers to girls' education, vamping up women's health resources and their access to these health centers, reducing the time required to collect water and firewood and prepare family dinners, and instating female leaders on local and government levels to provide role models (hey america, you could learn from this right now as well!). For my part, I'm going to take five of my female students to this conference and help them realize their potential by giving them confidence in their gender and skills to fight the uphill battle to demand the treatment they deserve.
I am having a great time planning this girls' conference right now, which currently involves speeches on female leadership from the district government, a career panel, a lecture on the science of HIV/AIDS, discussions on the risks of inter-generational sex, and of course fun sessions like afternoon yoga, spa night and a midnight dance party. If you want more information or would like to contribute, financially or otherwise, please contact me by email (email@example.com). Thanks for the support!
So I've traded my flip-flops for rain boots, 5-course dinners for instant oatmeal, steamy hot showers with luxurious toiletries for a bucket and a bar of orange dish soap, remote controlled air condition for the bone chilling gusts of wind that blow through my shutters at night, and the companionship of my parents for the endless squeaking of thieving mice.
I am home. Home sweet home Nyololo. The past couple of times I've left my village and returned, the now familiar 10 km stretch of pot-holed hills has felt like the road home. The sight of my house as I round the bend and the shouts of "Kamwene!" ease my tiredness after the journey and I always sleep great the first night back in my own bed. I can't say I had the same feelings on this most recent return trip. In the 10 days I was gone, intense rains had washed out the road to the point i thought a small kayak may be a better means of transport than the rusty pieces of welded metal Alex drove. Eventually we reached my home where I discovered the rainstorm had found it's way inside my house and my living room was covered in a couple centimeters of water. To go to the bathroom I had do wade through ankle deep mud. Rats had discovered a bar of soap in my clothes box and chewed their way through. Ants, seeking shelter from the inhospitable conditions outside were crawling through my floor. yet these weren't the things that upset me. As I snuggled into my new leopard print flannel sheets that still smelled like an American department store I realized that the sadness I felt was because the last time I traveled that road, cooked in that kitchen, or slept in this bedroom, my parents had been right there beside me. Now they were gone and my life had returned to that of a typical Peace Corps Volunteer only at this moment I had an all too intense awareness of how far away those I love really are.
I was so happy to have my parents here and show them around my new home. The conversations, laughter, counsel and hugs will stay with me until the next time I'm able to see them. While traveling, I was even able to catch up with a good number of friends via technology usually absent from my life. The long dormant social side of me thrived and wrestling it back into the suitcase in the corner that holds my 'city clothes' will be no easy task. But it was worth it for the memories of my villagers giving my mom her first kitenge, orphan Serena crawling all over my dad's lap, playing banana grams on a beach in Zanzibar, long talks of 'the future' over gin and tonics on a porch, or watching the World Cricket Championship at the best Indian restaurant in Dar. And I realized that after my parents left for the airport, I cried not because I wanted to board that plane with them, but because they were no longer here. My homesickness isn't a longing to return home. It's a realization that my home is along way from a lot of people I care about. In the same way, I believe I'll experience homesickness for Nyololo when life carries me elsewhere. Here is my home for the next 18 months. I now feel confident it's where i'm supposed to be even if I haven't discovered all the details why Nyololo is home sweet home. Nyololo is one of many homes I'm sure to have in the coming years but I know none of them will be able to compare to the home I grew up in with the two most loving parents any girl could ask for...
This blog has been dead for way too long, I'm sorry. I'm in the midst of enjoying some much anticipated beach time with my two loving parents and I cannot express how happy I've been to have them here with me this past week or how appreciative I am that they made the long journey to catch a glimpse into the new life I've learned love. Inspired by reading Stanley's "How I Found Livingstone," my mom wrote this post about her recent trip to Nyololo:
How We Found Atu: Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in East Africa The airport in Dar es Salaam is unyielding. We had Johannesburg and Lusaka for comparison after spending 10 days in Mpanshya, Zambia where my husband did some teaching. The real reason for my journeying along was the opportunity to visit our oldest child in her home in Nyololo, Tanzania. A Peace Corps volunteer nine months into her first year, this was the second time in 22 years of life she had missed Christmas with her family. The first was when she boldly chose to leave us at 14 to help deliver supplies and rehab a dispensary in Haiti. That trip, along with other brief trips to conduct service projects in Honduras, Peru, and Bundibugyo, should have been premonition enough that ensuring the well-being of this child might involve more than the usual investment parents make in planes, trains and automobiles . And so we found ourselves in Dar, “muzungu” with a penchant for choosing the wrong visa line and a series of ATM machines that would not deliver needed cash. We bargained with a taxi driver to please accept the last $24 US we had in our possession to get us to our hotel. That night a series of explosions happened at the nearby armory that literally rocked our hotel and led to an uneasy sleep. At 8 am the next morning we were armed with “doti” in the form of Tanzanian shillings to begin our trip across the country in search of a better understanding of our daughter’s world. We traveled through the city with its mix of new construction and dilapidated concrete ruins side by side. Endless villages peppered the highway with mud huts and women clad in colorful khangas sporting large baskets loaded with coal, cooking oil, or produce perfectly balanced on their heads. In between the towns, where the highway had been engineered with ridged speed bumps, our driver passed the local buses packed tight with Tanzanians at speeds of 100 mph. At a brief stop to visit the choo, we were swarmed with vendors for roasted cashews, renditions of the Last Supper carved out of ebony wood, and hard boiled eggs. Three hours west of Dar, we entered the Mikumi National game reserve. Now the buses passed us as we asked our driver to allow us to gawk at the impala, giraffes, and zebras that grazed unselfconsciously near the highway’s edge. Giant baobab trees majestically marked time. We left the reserve to wind along the Ruaha river where families of silver haired baboons boldly approached vehicles for handouts. Katie advised that we call her when we entered the Mafinga district so that she could walk the six miles to the main road and guide us in. (It always startles me to be in a land where cell phones greatly outnumber the homes with indoor plumbing and electricity). It was the middle of the rainy season and the downpour started; she directed us to look for a man on a bike with a red hat at the turn off for Nyololo who would lead the way to her house. We must have been rather obvious as he appeared in dense rain, tapped on the window, and said, “you are looking for Atu, I presume.” I assumed it was a mis- pronunciation of her name. Without him we would never have located her along the winding, rut filled, mud trail that led into her cinderblock cottage tucked deep within the village. And “Atu,” the nickname with which she has been christened, is a local Wahehe tribe expression that means, “we give thanks”. She welcomed us in traditional dress, a long embrace to bridge the nine months apart, and a meal of peanut curry and pineapple that she had prepared over an outdoor fire. Her walls are decorated with pictures of family and dear friends from home attached to pieces of African cloth. We were bearing the Christmas gifts she had requested: a non-stick frying pan, a sharp knife, warm socks (it actually gets quite cold in the highlands of Tanzania), flannel sheets, chocolate bars, Crystal Light, as well as a gift she had no knowledge of: a Kindle preloaded with How I Found Livingstone by H.M. Stanley containing rich history of the land she calls home. This child, who read little with the distractions of her modern life in the states, was now devouring anything she could find. The three of us retired to her sleeping room, the one secure place from the rodents who remind her each day that they were the true owners of her hut. On guard for their rummaging, I slept little that night – but as I listened to the breathing of my first born and the man who helped make her, I felt profoundly blessed. The next morning we carried water to boil for oatmeal and wash the dishes. Then it was out to make introductions to the people who now considered her part of their family. Katie’s fluency in Kiswahili had rapidly improved in the isolation of her village. Her Tanzanian Peace Corps partner, Mama Chalamila, has helped her integrate into village life and find meaningful work. A health care worker, she assists in the local mother/child nutrition and HIV clinics and teaches health education in the schools while she develops a project that will hopefully leave her village a better place. Privately she helps a local woman whose husband left her with two small children to develop life skills and tutors a boy who desires to learn English. She clearly finds pleasure and frustration in it all. She has developed healthy coping mechanisms to work through the frustration: a monthly weekend in Iringa with other Peace Corps workers, prayerful solitude, and regular visits to her favorite respite place which she saves for the last stop on our walking tour. An Italian mission organization founded an orphanage for children in her village left alone when their parents died of AIDS. A beautifully landscaped oasis, we round the corner to the pavilion where the children play to behold eight 2 to 5 year olds who run and crawl to her squealing, “Atu”. She has arms big enough for them all. Our driver, a city boy who grew up in Dar quietly observes the experience. “Life is very hard here,” he tells our daughter as we part ways. Somehow she sees her way through. -Peggy Morris
14 January 2011 So when these long rainy days and my worsening cabin fever finally got the best of me, I took advantage of a sunny morning and went looking for work to do. And work was what I found! I was discussing with the clinical officer (like a P.A. or Nurse Practitioner in the States) my ideas for a Mama’s Care Group and the logistics of getting one started when he decided that instead of forming a new group, I should just teach my lessons to the mamas at the outreach clinics. I said I’d be happy to consider doing that as well but… and he cut me off saying, “Great! You’ll start the day after tomorrow!” Right then the thunder clapped and everyone ran for their homes before I could ask what kind of lesson would be best to teach. I returned home and poured over my PC resources and consulted other volunteers and decided that nutrition would be a great starting place. This idea was reinforced that night when I went to a friend’s house for dinner and watched her try to force-feed ugali (a stiff porridge made from corn flour with absolutely no nutritional value) down her 5 month old baby’s throat. I decided to teach a lesson on how and what to feed young children. Lucky for me the next day was a national holiday meaning everyone spent the day at their farms leaving me lots of time alone with my Kiswahili dictionary to plan the lesson. I didn’t sleep much the night before, not because I was nervous but because I woke up around 2 am to a small furry mouse climbing the wall near my bed. I spent half an hour chasing it out and then proceeded to have Jumanji dreams of lions and snakes entering my house to take care of the mouse problem. I walked to work the next morning as the rain clouds moved in. Rain clouds at 9 am are never a good sign here. At the dispensary I found out my counterpart was going to another village to do another outreach and the nurse had to stay at the dispensary because the clinical officer decided not to show up for work. This left me by myself to manage the 50 or so expected Mamas and teach the lesson. What was supposed to start at 10 am actually started at 12:30 and the conditions were less than ideal with a consistent drizzle and no cover but a village health worker and I managed to weigh, chart, and tally all the children and I taught a 20 minute lesson on what and how to feed children under 2. I stressed the importance of mashing up food, feeding multiple small meals instead of one big meal, and not giving young children tea, coffee, soda, or alcohol. The women seemed genuinely interested in the information although understanding my horribly accented Kiswahili was an issue. More than anything I learned a lot and gained some confidence for teaching. Afterwards I headed to my “duka Mama” (my friend who works in a small shop in my village and often cooks me lunch) to tell her how it went. She let me hang up the poster I had made at her shop and lots of people came up to ask me questions and I was able to teach the lesson again to a different audience! Things are going slowly but surely around here…
7 Jan 2011 I remember well what it was like trying to get back to the grind after Christmas holidays in college—everyone happy to see each other, week(s) of champions, avoiding the library for as long as possible. Well hello real world! Actually, I have nothing to complain about. While my friends in urban America were left unsatisfied by their long-weekend Christmas breaks, I had an entire month, between training and the holidays, spent with good friends, eating great food, and none of these silly snowstorms everyone keeps complaining about. Now it’s been back to the grind of village life. Again, not that I can really complain, I spend many a rainy afternoon curled up on my living room mat reading novel after novel and many a long morning baking banana bread, drinking tea and flipping through Xmas package magazines. Doing things at a villager’s pace is what I tell myself. Integration, right? The excitement and motivation from training faded fast after I spent an entire day sitting at my shared desk in the health dispensary just waiting for someone to come seek my advice on why she should get tested for HIV or which kind of birth control is most appropriate for her or what she should feed her swollen two year old to get rid of that brittle orange hair. While waiting, not so patiently, I helped the staff put together their annual report using carbon paper, rulers and ancient calculators. I asked the nurse why, for the month of December, only five women, in a catchment area of 8,536, had come to the pre-natal care ward. “They’re using family planning!!” exclaimed the nurse happily. That led me to the newly constructed and copied chart on family planning. Only 20 women had come for FP services in December. My eyes rolled until they found more interesting information… less than 100 condoms had been distributed over the past four months despite the growing stack of hundreds of silver condoms on top of the water buckets. When I confronted the nurses about this, they giggled and said that villagers don’t like condoms. Well I don’t think anyone likes condoms, I said, but they’re extremely important, especially in a village where the HIV prevalence rate is somewhere between 7-20%. Shouldn’t it be our job to make them available and educate villagers on the importance of correct and consistent use? I was speaking about as passionately as my Kiswahili would allow but the nurse cut me off dismissively saying that the villagers were unable to understand. Well maybe there’s more of a need for my basic health knowledge than I though. The issue arose again the next morning when we were packing a box of health supplies for an outreach clinic the next morning and the nurse tossed aside the condoms to make room for the Nevirapine (an HIV drug used to prevent mother to child transmission)—sad irony. The bureaucracy of running all over my village looking for a carbon copy of a special stamp from an M.I.A village official so that I could go meet an M.I.A headmaster to discuss the possibility of teaching a Life Skills course or watching village workers manipulate the statistics on the annual report to make my village seem better off health-wise have put a damper on the enthusiasm I had coming out of the Peace Corps Training in December. BUT waiting patiently, living alongside my villagers, I’m beginning to gain motivation for work from seeing a real need, which I think is much better in the long run!
I'm on my way back from a 2 week training in Morogoro where we all brainstormed projects and learned how to write grants. I'm in my banking town buying food for a big Christmas party in my village this weekend! Several volunteers are coming to my village and we're going to try to make it feel as much like Christmas as possible. On Saturday we plan to go to the orphanage and hopefully one of us will be dressed like Santa Claus (I have my camera back so I'll try to post some pictures)! I'm really excited to have people to celebrate with!
In-service Training went really well! My nurse from my dispensary came for a week and we talked about starting some great projects in my village. Currently on the table: -A Girls Empowerment Conference with the other volunteers in my area -A dairy goat project for pregnant women living with HIV -Permagardening with the HIV/AIDS group in my area -A Mama's Care Group (uses a peer education model to educate families on basic good health practices) -Nutrition classes at the Health Center -Pre-natal classes at the Dispensary -Life-Skills Class at the Secondary School -Health Club at the Primary School -Income Generating- Basket weaving?
These are all just ideas that I'll be taking back to my community and seeing what I can motivate them to get going. I'll also be doing a lot of survey work in my new area to get to know the needs a little better. If you all have any ideas for projects or advice for those listed above, please let me know! You all are in my heart his holiday season... I hope everyone is asking for plane tickets to Tanzania for Christmas! Miss you all!
It's 10:30 am. i'm in a neighboring village doing an outreach project with the nurses. Pre-natal check-ups and routine child vaccines. women have walked for hours to meet us today because there's no regular healthcare offered in their village. the women arrive in la rge groups cheerfully chatting-- i think they enjoy the day off from the usual farming and household chores. i sit in the back room where women wrapped in rainbows of fabric shuffle in and out with various sizes of baby bumps. a woman wrapped from head to toe in a soft purple sits in f ront of me and flashes her gap tooth smile as i fill out her pre-natal health card: Name? Age? Number of pregnancies? A measurement from her pubic bone to sternum tells us that she's around 20 weeks pregnant. She's sent out and returns with a mug of murky brown water and i start to administer the sulphadoxine/pyramethamine (SP)-- a strong malaria prophylaxis given to women to keep them healthy during pregnancy. a routine question before giving the three pill dose is "have you had any alcohol today?" I was putting the pills in her hand when i looked up and she flashed me a guilty gap toothed smile adn raised her eyebrows indicating a positive answer. I tried to disguise my shock when i glanced at a clock that read 10:48. My nurses did not do the same as shame tends to be the preferred teaching method here. they asked the other women in the room if it was ok to drink this early in the morning and 'tsk tsked' the woman in lavender. as i closed my hand and retracted my offer of malaria protection (i think the drug must interact negatively with alcohol) i tried to explain in my kindergarted kiswahili the dangers of drinking while pregnant. she lowered her stare and nodded her head as my nurses reinforced my message. alcohol seemes to be related to just about every health concern i've noticed in the two villages i've worked in. the parents may be too busy drinking to feed their children. the head of the household may find his money better spent on bottles of pombe than school fees, hospital visits or malaria nets. i'm pretty sure alcohol is involved in just about every exchange of STI's including HIV. not to mention the detrimental affect alcohol itself has on one's body and in some cases, the young body growing inside. i've seen a need for a standardized ruberic for pre-natal counselling and i've considered trying to write some basic guideliens for the nurses in my village, in which i would definitely include the dangetrs of fetal alcohol syndrome. that's an easy starting point for alcohol education because the consequences are so clear. when i look around at all the other ways alcohol addiction is hurting my community (one upside is that it's often a great source of income for women) i'm at a loss for how to help. certainly sensitizing people to the many ways alcohol is affecting their lives would be an excellent project. but when you hear some of these people's life stories, it's hard to blame them for using alcohol as an escape. for the same reason that recovery programs in the West are led by former addicts, change in alcohol behavior here in TZ is going to have to be initiated from the inside. in the meantime i'll be looking for resources to educate and support my villagers in recognizing the problem.
I am writing this blog as a way to share part of my experience with family and friends around the world. The toughest part of this work is being away from home and out of touch with those I care about. That being said, I would love to hear from you (and I promise to respond)!