Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ebola in West Africa, A de feel am

I woke up today feeling inspired to write a blogpost. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, so here it goes…

The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa has been getting a great deal of media attention. Every day there is a news article reporting rising fatality numbers and displaying disturbing pictures of unrecognizable, masked healthcare workers with body bags. Yesterday, I told someone I was studying public health and the first question he asked was, “so what do you think about this Ebola? It seems like a movie.”

“Seems like a movie”… I wasn’t angered by this comment, because I know that for many Americans it does seem like a movie. Something happening far away, so distant from our reality that it just doesn’t seem real. I can relate to this. Sometimes I go days without checking the news because it is exhausting to find the energy and strength to care about ever terrible thing that is happening in this world. But we all pick our battles. We all feel passionate about one issue or another, because that’s what makes us humans. For the past several months, I have felt strong passion for the crisis in West Africa, and in particular, Sierra Leone.

If you know me it goes without saying why Salone, but it is difficult for many to understand. Many people who I surround myself with have had the privilege of travelling somewhere, and of those many have travelled outside the US. When you travel somewhere, you see cool things, meet interesting people, and usually take a bunch of pictures. Usually, the memory of those cool things fade away, those interesting people turn into a “happy birthday” Facebook post every year, and those pictures get put away with the other pictures from other trips. I know, because I too have experienced these types of trips and continue to experience (and enjoy) them. There’s nothing superficial or uninteresting about these trips, it’s just that’s how people enjoy their vacations and when the vacation is over they must go back to their normal, daily routine.

When I answered this person’s question with “I’m actually very personally affected by what is happening in West Africa,” he was surprised, which is actually quite common. I think people have a hard time making the connection that someone can have strong connections to a place after living there (and not just travelling for vacation). If you’ve never made true life-long friendships with people in another country, it would be difficult to understand that it’s possible. My reality was not the same as this person’s reality.

My reality, lately, has been calling and messaging my friends in Sierra Leone in constant search for answers on what is actually happening. I’ll read every status and article my Peace Corps friends post and engage in conversations with them asking how their people are doing. I can’t speak for them, but for me I feel angry, terrified, and useless.

I feel angry that something like this has happened to a nation who had such a strong hopes for the future. After the war, Sierra Leoneans would always tell me they didn’t want that to happen again – “Mama Salone must go before.” Now, only 12 short years since that declaration, they are faced with a similar fear that they felt during the war. Fear that they may become sick and stigmatized, that they may die, that the government is tricking them, that they won’t be able to have enough food for the month. Not only has the health of a nation been disrupted, but the culture and the livelihoods of thousands are being jeopardized. I am terrified that this outbreak will continue to get worse before it gets better. 

I continue to feel useless as I get these reports from Salone friends and the BBC and know that there is nothing I can do now. Yes, I can donate money and yes, I can spread awareness, but that doesn’t seem like enough when I have such strong links to these people. I had seriously thought about dropping out of school and flying over there to help with … well, not too sure what, but I figured I would come up with something when I got there. I ditched that idea and came to my senses. There are some amazing Sierra Leonean and foreign workers helping to control this outbreak. And although they are understaffed and under-resourced, I want to believe they are trying their level best.

So, this is my plea to all of you. I know it might seem like a movie and you might be busy with your day, but take a few minutes to pray, have a moment of silence, or pass good thoughts to the people of West Africa. Although it may seem like their reality is not our reality, we are one people and we need to continue to care for one another.

Take care,


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gunshots in the Night (...Not what you think)

The other night, I was sitting with some of my friends watching a scary movie when all of sudden we heard eight, nearby gunshots. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Terrified, we quickly locked all the doors and silenced the movie. Waiting, not-so-patiently, to hear signs of what was happening, thoughts ran through my head - robbery, murder, terrorism - what the hell was happening? Soon enough, we got word from our neighbor, that it wasn't a menace of human nature, but rather a menace of hippo nature. Yep, a wild hippopotamus from Lake Victoria, just down the block, had moseyed on up the street and was blocking traffic, like it was no big deal. The shots were fired from local security guards to try to force the hippo out of the street and back into the water. The hippo was not budging, and unfortunately, more gunshots were fired, but this time to kill the animal. Then, there was a great deal of commotion - cars honking, people yelling, drumming. There had been a great race to the meat, so crowds formed around the hippo, machetes flying to get a piece of the sweet traffic blocker.

Where am I???

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kenya & Salone, Two Very Different Countries on the Same Continent

I’ve been in Kenya for about seven weeks now and I still seem to be thinking about Sierra Leone. It’s hard to shake the two years of memories, especially in a place that reminds me so much of my second home. But there are definitely differences – whether it be the difference between East Africa and West, or the two countries themselves, the longer I spend here the more differences I seem to recognize. 

When I first moved to Sierra Leone, I remember thinking “or yea, it was the same in Tanzania.” As I continued my time there, I started to understand the differences on a deeper level. The same thing is happening here, which is fascinating. Is it human nature to first recognize the similarities between countries, people, and culture and then the differences? Is this something that carries into every changing aspect of our lives? Or is this a learned behavior? Something to ponder on…
Anyways, I started to make a list of the differences between Kenya and Sierra Leone, because I’m addicted to making lists. (As my dear padis, Krim and Rat, know well, when they pulled a prank on me and hid my list book… devils.) Here’s what I got thus far:

How Kenya is Different than Salone:

Economic Development. Kenya is in many ways more developed than Sierra Leone. The unemployment is lower, the items manufactured locally is higher, general access to running water, electricity, and internet are higher, and the education system seems to be of higher quality. In fact, Kenya sends the most students abroad for higher education than any other African country. (Although I’m unsure how many Kenyans come back to work in their home.) At least the government is investing in education in some way and, in my humble opinion, the best way for a government to spend their bucks. This does not mean Kenya is not short of its own problems, but viewing the country from a macroscopic scale, they seem to be doing some things right.

Tribes. There are more tribes here. Although the number changes slightly depending on who you talk to, there are about 42 tribes throughout Kenya. (There’s about 15 in Salone.) That’s a heck of a lot of languages! Through conversations with Kenyans, I’m starting to pick up some differences between the tribes, but to fully understand them I would need A LOT more time here. 

Religion. About 78% of the Kenya population is Christian, with about 10% Muslim and 10% traditional beliefs. Religion here compared to Sierra Leone is quite interesting. I haven’t once been asked, “Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” or actually, anything about my religious beliefs. (Although one guy asked me what church I like to attend.) There have been few opening prayers – a couple of people have prayed before chai, but I haven’t had any before a meeting or other events. I asked our project coordinator the other day if people use toilet paper or water to go to the bathroom and he said that only the Muslims use water. In Sierra Leone, it didn’t matter if you practiced Islam or not, everyone used water to do their business (if you know what I mean). I wonder where the balance is between culture and religion. How much do religious beliefs affect cultural practices, and vice versa? Either way, I’ve been missing my regular call-to-prayer wake up calls. 

No secret societies. As far as I’ve heard, there are no secret societies here. In Salone, there were groups that were distinguished between tribes and between sexes. People’s initiation and participation in these societies were anonymous and group activities and traditions were not talked about in public or with people outside of their society. 

Diet. There is much more diversity in the diet here. Although the traditional food is ugali (pounded corn mass) and sikumawiki (colored greens cooked in tomatoes, oil, and spices), there is plenty of chipati (similar to Indian naan), sautéed cabbage, rice, millet, fish, eggs, and bread. Although Sierra Leoneans had most of this in their diet as well, there doesn’t seem to be the practice of eating rice for every meal, every day. Two of the main staples in Kenya are corn and tea. OMG the chai is awesome – I’ve been averaging 4 cups a day. :-)

Traditional Clothing. People mostly wear Western clothing sold second-hand from the local markets. I’ve encountered few people wearing the traditional clothing as many did in Sierra Leone. In fact, I observed more women than men wearing the Africana clothes in both countries. I wonder what this means in terms of globalization and dependence on high-income country imports.

M-Pesa. Kenya has this fantastic program, where people can use their cell phones like debit cards. There are little stands everywhere where they can buy M-Pesa credit and then pay for groceries, bar tabs, rent, bills, etc all through their phones. They are also trying to implement this system on public transport. People pay for their transport on the matatus (the crowded buses and most common form of transportation) with shillings, but if they pay with M-Pesa, it will result in a reduction of corrupt overpricing and better enforced tax laws.

Tuk-tuks. Something that Sierra Leone was lacking was tuk-tuks, which was difficult for Peace Corps Volunteers (because we could not ride motorcycles). In Kisumu, you can hitch a ride with a matatu, tuk-tuk, piki piki (motorcycle) or a bota bota. The last is my personal favorite – it’s a bicycle with a little seat attached to the back. Yes, the drivers physically bicycle their passengers around town. I haven’t ridden one yet, but I’ll have to hop on one before I leave. 

Speed bumps. There are more speed bumps here in the city and on the highways. I’ve been driving a decent amount here. How am I supposed to cruise, pass, and merge like Nintendo Mario Kart when they got these speed bumps messing up my groove? 

SO, those are a few of my observations. People, if you are Sierra Leonean, Kenyan, or have been to either of those countries, please do not correct me. These are differences from my perspective and I know they are not 100% complete or accurate across the entire countries. In fact, here are some differences between my time spent in each place: (I <3 LISTS!)

1. I was living in a rural, small town in Sierra Leone. In Kenya, I’m staying in the third largest city in, what I believe to be, one of the nicest apartments in the city.
2. In Kenya, I’m working as a researcher, mostly speaking English with people, and living more of the ex-pat life (shopping in grocery stores, taking private transport, hanging with the other whities in town). In Salone, pretty much everything was the opposite of that.
3. TIME! As I mentioned in my last post, time is the weirdest thing ever. I’m going to spend a whooping two months in Kenya, which is about the same length as my training for Peace Corps in Salone. I developed much deeper relationships in Salone and have gotten to know the culture and lifestyle on a less superficial level. 

The last statement has made me think a lot about my future career. I’ve developed so many critical skills in Sierra Leone – many that can be transferred to other parts of the world, but also many that are only applicable in that country (i.e. language, relationships/connections, cultural understanding, etc). There’s much of the world to see, but maybe I should consider solely working in Sierra Leone (and the US – don’t freak out Mother). If I chose to use my skills in this way, I could possibly be more effective there than any other “international health” arena, thus making my time/work more fulfilling.

OK, I’ll sleep on that. Asante sana for stopping by. 

Keep it real peeps.


Political Correctness - “It’s a very well-crafted tool to distract us. A very self-centered activity. Clean up your own vocabulary so you can show everybody you have the social capital of having been in circles where these things are talked about on a regular basis.” - Jim Kim, Mountains Beyond Mountains

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Time is the weirdest thing ever.

Sasa? (Wazzzup?)

I am currently on the bumpy dirt road on the way to the lowlands site. I’ve been coming here every day for the past week, thus my boredom of the road and usage of the computer distraction. I have been working on the particulate matter portion of the study, which means I go to the field every day and place smoke detector monitors in a house and a kitchen. Smoke/dust repels mosquitoes so my professor and her PhD student are investigating essentially how much smoke is needed for this to happen. I’ve also completed all 12 of my interviews in the lowlands, which was a great feeling. I interviewed the 6 positive deviant (PD) families (families with low incidences of malaria) and the 6 non-PD families (high malaria). The community health workers and the research field assistants helped me to identify these families, but that process was a challenge in and of itself. Of the 6 PD families, there is one that holds true to the criterion and definition, which at first frustrated me and then excited me. The PD approach outlines how difficult it is to identify these very few individuals, and in my short time here, I was able to identify at least one family! Next week, I’ll be heading to the highlands to conduct 12 additional interviews there. We’ll see how it goes.

 Bednet Action

I’m trying to think what else has been happening  - it has been a long time since I’ve written. Sorry-o! A couple of weekends ago we headed to our project coordinator’s village. There was an event, Saba Saba, happening which is the day the current opposition holds a lot of rallies. So it was suggested that we get out of town, just for extra security measures. On the way to his village, we took a ferry to Rusinga Island, beautiful little place on Lake Victoria, and later stopped at President Obama’s grandmother’s house. I was skeptical of this old ma, so I Wikipedia-ed the info and she’s actually Obama’s paternal grandather’s third wife… close enough. She was funny though – didn’t speak a word of English. In the local tribal language, she told us that she was going to give us her sons to marry (i.e. Obama’s uncles) and that education is the most important part of life. I informed her that I wanted to be the first female president. She wished me luck in my pursuits. :-)

Mrs. Obama and us whities

My project coordinator’s home was absolutely beautiful tucked away in green and yellow mountains with a stunning view of Lake Victoria. We spent the day milling about, greeting all of his relatives (which seemed like the entire town) and enjoying the company of our hosts. It was a nice reminder of what life was like in Salone for me. We headed back to Kisumu and finished up the work week.
During my week of long drives, I’ve been reflecting on the past, present, and future. I think too much. Oh well… Here are some of my thoughts…

Maurice's Beautiful Compound
Lake Victoria Bluffin'
 The best dinner ever - fresh Tilapia, tomato sauce, cabbage and ugali

My friend and workmate, Elise, just got her invitation to serve in Peace Corps Burkina Faso. I’m so excited for her! Being with her during this time (and on top of that, back in Africa) has allowed me to process what my service meant to me. For starters, I’m definitely more cynical – an attribute I hardly had before PC. I’ve also realized how much I’ve grown and how much confidence I’ve gained since PC. The experience trained me to see people for people despite culture, environment, etc. I’ve learned to empathize instead of sympathize, and through these emotions and a significant reduction in shocks and surprises (had those in my early days of PC), real work can be done. Instead of feeling sorry for people, I feel like I can truly work with people in low-income countries and empower them to find solutions to their own problems, which is to avoid the top-down and outsider-over-insider approaches. I’ve realized that this is truly the field I should be working in, because it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve also realized that even though I lived in Africa for two years, it doesn’t mean I know everything about Africa. It sounds obvious but coming to Kenya has continued to humble me and allow to me realize that there is always room for growth and learning regardless of your past experiences. 

It’s interesting being in Kenya, another African nation dominated by poverty and corruption. I sometimes wonder how I maintain any ounce of hope in situations so (what seems) dire and complex. I’m not ignorant of the wars and the ugliness of the world we see every day in the headlines, but I still seek to understand them and be a part of some sort of change. CRAZY! I feel like my mom dropped me on the head when I was baby…

In Kenya, I’m constantly reminded of my status as an outsider by the little nuggets screaming “mzungu” (“white person” in Swahili). The same name I had heard before, apoto, puerto, gringa – different words with all the same meaning. I’m reminded that no matter where I go, for however long, I will always be an American and despite the many faults of my country, I am proud to say that I put my hand of my heart for the red, white, and blue (Is that a song??).

I spent a great deal of time this past year trying to figure out who I am back in the U.S. and I think it took coming back to Africa to realize who that person is. My relationships with family and friends had changed from my two years away – not for the worst, just different, because I was different. I spent a lot of time trying to hold onto this new person and trying to incorporate my old self. A lot of my graduate school friends actually thought I was older than what I actually am, and despite the maturing that took place in PC, I was additionally trying to act older – grow up too fast. And for anyone who knew me before PC, you would know that one of my greatest fears was getting older. I now realize that it’s all based on your perspective and anyone older than 24 will probably say I’m crazy for even thinking about age. Well, I’m a thinker, so I can’t help it. :-)
Next year is the first year in my life that I don’t know what is going to happen. I tried to fight it looking into Fulbright and Peace Corps Response, but I think it’s time I let nature take its course. Nature could be moving to Hollywood and fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a famous actress. Da sky’s da limit! My life has been so overwhelmingly blessed and aligned – high school, college, Peace Corps, grad school. This path is often the path a parent would dream of for their children – one full of education and experience, but what many people have trouble realizing is that everyone has a different path and a different time line for that path. There’s no formula, there’s no “right” way of going about life. This is an important realization as my 25th birthday is coming up next week. What does it mean to be 25? To be half way to through my 20s? There are so many conceptions about what one should have achieved by this point. I now know that it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. I’ve had a poor attitude about this past year of graduate school – the boredom/monotony of classes, the thought that more learning comes through experience and not books, but if I look at school as a way to expand my thinking, my disposition changes and this next year seems more achievable. 

Well, my friends and anonymous, avid readers (if any… womp, womp), I’ve given you a life update – how I’m feeling about being back in Africa, aging, life courses –  we’ve covered a lot. 

I hope you all are given the opportunity at some point to think about these things. If not, turn the screen off (any and all of them), go for a drive down a long, dusty road, and let your mind wonder – you might just surprise yourself. 

All my love and more.

"Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity." - Aristotle

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Great Lights of Nairobi

This past weekend, I boarded the Easy Coach Express and headed East to the great capital of Nairobi. First impression, this was no Freetown. A western-style city nestled into an African backdrop - I couldn't help but be enthralled by the street lights, the malls, the LAWS! I was happy I got to see some of the sights and experience the late night hours and the late night characters of Nairobi dance clubs. Here are some pictures from the weekend:

If you run into Tour Guide Johnstown, be sure to ask him about the gorillas and their imminent threat in replacing local housewives. 

Jump on to Matatu 126 and jump off at the sign for "Carnivore". You won't be disappointed by the mixed flavors of osterich, crocodile and oxen balls. 

Get picked up by Robert in the Parklands Neighborhood and he will tuk tuk you all the way to town.

And in ending, I want to wish all Kenyans a peaceful holy month of Ramadan!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Workshop Business

On Thursday and Friday last week, we hosted a "Good Clinical Practice" workshop for all of the field assistants. Some of the topics covered included: a historical context, research ethics, research approval process, and study-specific information and guidance. Here are some snaps from the training:

Also, the workshop was at this quaint little resort by the Yala River:

Over the weekend, us gals went on a bike bicycle tour with some new friends. We hit up the Kisumu Musuem, the local port, and a real, live African market. ;-)

Yesterday, we went to the lowlands clinic and met with some community health workers. Tomorrow, I'll be piloting my positive deviance interview. Wish me luck!

Asante sana!

"You don't have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great." On a poster of Rhianna (and a calendar) in the guesthouse the other night. Classic!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zebra Kicked


My first week in Kenya has been fantastic. Over the weekend, Ashley, Elise & I went to the Impala Sanctuary, where I got kicked by a zebra. I couldn't resist my urge to get as a close as possible to them and try to touch. Lesson learned: zebras kick like donkeys... strong donkeys.

We went out for some dancing on Friday night. I was pleased to hear the smooth jams of West Africa. P-Square is a hit all over the continent! It was nice to get to know some of the people who are also staying in our compound, too.

On Sunday, we headed back to the highlands. We got to witness the field assistants walking around to the different study sites tracking their latitude and longitude coordinates, which will later be imported into a GIS map.

Maurice is the project coordinator and the main guy helping us with our individual projects. Happy to have him as a supervisor!

 We've also been busy preparing our projects and getting settled into our temporary home. I'll be talking to the field assistants, clinic staff, community health workers and some other community leaders to try to identify some of the positive deviants and then hopefully I'll be able to interview some of them. (Refer to the post from June 9 for more information about my project.)

 This picture is of a bednet being used for a chicken coop.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Rainy Highlands

Spent last night in a more rural, mountainous area about an hour and half outside of Kisumu. The lush rolling hills and the crispness of the late night rains are enough reason to stay forever. We met with some of the field assistants, who are working with the research study and surveying homes in the highlands area. We'll probably be working with them quite a bit this summer.

Our abode in the highlands.

Friendly neighbor

 Ash and Elise at the EQUATOR. Cool!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

This Ain't No Peace Corps.

After two missed connections, lost bags, and awkward plane sleeping, I've arrived safely in Kisumu. I've been traveling with my classmate and friend, Ashley, so it was nice to have a travel buddy. We were welcomed by Elise, an undergraduate student at UA, and our professor and her family. The compound we are staying in is the bomb diggity. The first picture is of our apartment - with wireless internet! The second snap is the pool in our compound and the last picture is Simba, the compound dog. Living large!

I'm still adjusting from sleep deprivation and the time difference, so not much of an update now. Today, we are heading to the study site in the mountains, otherwise known as the highlands. More to come!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ndiyo, nyuma Afrika!

Hello there old friend! It has been awhile since you’ve visited. I apologize for my absence, but it turns out that graduate school is an all-consuming event leaving me little time and energy to update this blog. But I’m back and ready to tell you about my life happenings.

My first year of graduate school has been a whirlwind. I’ve been challenged in my courses and have pushed myself to self-reflect on my interests and passion as I continue to navigate my life path. Some highlights from the past year have been:

1. Living and loving Tucson, a place full of character and characters
2. Ringing in another new year with family and friends back home
3. Visitors! My brothers and high schools friends were feeling the west coast vibes
4. Acclimating to desert life and taking advantage of my geography to learn more about the US/Mexico border
5. Being a part of a team of students who traveled to the Mexico/Guatemala border to learn about migration in Latin America
6. Discussing and writing, with an academic lens, about some of my experiences in Sierra Leone and relating them to my coursework
7. Bouncing over to Chicago to dance with my Peace Corps padi dem

Now that you’ve been officially updated, I want to share my (new) news with you – I’m escaping the unforgiving Arizonan summer to venture to Kisumu, Kenya for my Master of Public Health Internship. 

Yes, back to Africa (as this blog titles informed you)! Back to the warmth and comfort of the African sun – to a place I still call home. I feel fortunate that my path has brought me to East Africa again, but this time is different than the first. Once a wide-eyed and naïve girl, I have now grown into the woman who I will be for the rest of my life. I’ve gained confidence and self-awareness and am ready to continue to learn and grow through this new experience.

The last couple of days I have been reflecting on how this trip to Kenya will affect me emotionally. Will the guilt that I felt leaving Sierra Leone resurface? Will I meet Kenyans and see the faces of my friends and be reminded of my homesickness for Sweet Salone? Am I even ready to open my heart and my mind to embrace a new land?

Welp! I’m on the plane on the way to Nairobi, so we’ll find out the answers to those questions sooner than you think. Stay tuned!

You may be wondering about this internship business. In November of last year, one of my professors sent out an email to our school announcing an internship funded by her current research study with malaria in Kenya. I jumped at the opportunity to go back to Africa and to work with malaria again. I feel so privileged to have been awarded this position and am eager to work towards achieving my professional goals.

(Wow, I sound like I’m writing for a school application. Sorry-o! I’ll add in the spunk you all love when I’m blogging about my Kenyan tales.)

The project that my professor is working on involves the effects of climate change on mosquito populations in a mountainous setting and how malaria is becoming an emerging infectious disease in the area. Sounds pretty cool, right? I will be working on one aspect of the project that I’ve had sparks of interest in since Sierra Leone. The title of my project is “Using the Positive Deviance Model to Identify Community-Based Malaria Control Strategies in Western Kenya.” Positive Deviance (PD) explores the notion that in communities where there is a prevalent issue, may it be obesity, female genital mutilation, malnutrition, or what have you, there are individuals and families in that community, who despite similar obstacles as their neighbors, are able to overcome that particular problem. I will specifically be observing families who use bednets and other malaria-preventative strategies and try to better understand why these people chose to do so and what are the underlying forces that help sustain the health of their family. My exploration will be channeled through observing, interviewing and digital storytelling. I’m ecstatic about this opportunity to wear the hat of a researcher!

Well, my friends, I’m off again, but I only leave so that I can come back again. J Wish me luck! Please keep me in your positive thoughts and prayers. Can’t wait for all things Africa. Keep you posted.


p.s. I haven’t forgotten about my niche. Here you go…“Communities and countries and ultimately the world are only as strong as the health of their women.” — Michelle Obama