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The Programs of Menna

3 Jul

Over the past few months I have helped a fledgling NGO set up some communications (website, brochure etc.) Their main program is a daily meal that is really one of the first soup kitchens in Africa. The group started as a bunch of university friends who wanted to make a difference in their community. While they are still quite small, their passion has really made an impact.

Here is the video I put together highlighting their programs, their beneficiaries and some of their info. Check it out to see the type of work I’ve been doing, and some interviews with people in my city.

Sorry for the crappy quality – not much I can do with a flipcam and 5 hours of uploading.

Soap Bubbles and Birr – Income Generation for HIV+ Women

23 Jun

There is a group of women that get together every two weeks to sit, talk, make toys for sick children in the hospital, learn about health issues, and create beautiful scarves, baskets, and other items for sale. These women are all HIV positive.

The handicrafts they make either go to a local NGO store as income for their family, or as donations to orphans living within the hospital compound. While they are making these items, they catch up on each other’s lives, talk about health issues, and about living and coping with HIV.

I have worked with this group off and on over the past year, and they finally asked if there were any other products they could make for the store. What could I teach them that would diversify their products and make them unique? I thought back to our Environment day at Camp Glow last year and remember the girls loved learning to make soap!

So after talking with the NGO, the women, and some tourists, artisinal soaps sounded like it would fit for both the women (easy to make) and their customers (who doesn’t want herbal soaps?). I am lucky to be in a town with a tourist economy. Honestly, locals would not buy cute, herbal soap. But foreigners do!

So I brought in my resident experts: Ag/Environment volunteers Ronny and Kirsten, who had lead the soap making activity last summer. With my organization/logistical work, and their knowledge we put together a 2 hour soap enhancement for income generation training.

Kirsten talking about how the different herbs affect the body.

Kirsten talking about how the different herbs affect the body.

While we can’t actually produce soap here (lye is incredibly difficult to find), we can do “soap enhancement.” Taking basic soap, melting it down, and adding different herbs for different features. Bad circulation? Try cinnamon or black pepper. Want to exfoliate? Add salt, sugar, or something very available here – coffee grinds!

After explaining the purpose of different herbs, we went through the process of how to cut, melt, and then add the ingredients to be set in a mold. The women were able to choose their own “recipes.”

Ronny helping with grinding the herbs

Ronny helping with grinding the herbs

shaving down the soap for easy melting

shaving down the soap for easy melting

Using the Kindu Trust stove to melt the soap and add ingredients

Using the Kindu Trust stove to melt the soap and add ingredients

Getting the temperature juuuuust right, or knowing when to stop adding water simply takes practice. We left all the equipment, herbs, and extra soap for the women to try over the month. We also went in to packaging and labeling techniques for the store. The women were already trained on basic financial planning – to sell their baskets and scarves they have to make a item list of individual cost. Here’s what came out of the molds the the first time (to be carved and packaged later):

different mold techniques and sizes - this batch was a cinnamon, black pepper mix

different mold techniques and sizes – this batch was a cinnamon, black pepper mix

Income generation does not have to be starting a company. One person, learning a skill, and marketing that skill is enough to generate basic income. Here we diversified a product base, but income generation schemes can be as simple as jewelry making to as complex as setting up a mill or breeding goats for sale. For many HIV positive people, especially women, they must be able to support themselves or make their own money since after diagnosis the availability of work drastically decreases. Basic IGAs (income generating activities) improve the livelihoods of people who want to more than simply survive their illness.

The Group

The Group

The training/planning team

The training/planning team


From Saudi to Addis, A Conversation with Migrant Workers

20 May

Returning from my recent trip to India I had some pretty long layovers in Saudi Arabian airports. Considering I could never actually visit Saudi Arabia on my own (the whole independent woman thang), I’d say spending a collective 27 hours in Riyadh and Jeddah airports gets me as close as I’m going to get.

On my return flight from Jeddah to Addis Ababa my friends and I were the only non-Habesha (non-Ethiopian) passengers. The security men were so confused to see us that they actually pulled us aside to ask if we were on the right flight. Considering we were having full conversations in Amharic with other passengers seemed to make them believe us.

Having these full conversations brought forth some very interesting stories. Not only were we the only foreigners on the flight, but there were also almost no men. The flight was almost exclusively Muslim, Habesha women returning home to Ethiopia after working as household servants for Saudi Arabian families. These “returnee” flights have been happening for some months now, causing fire sale prices for Saudi Arabian flights out of Addis, which come in full and leave almost empty. This is how we got such cheap tickets to India.

I sat between two women, who both had worked for families in Jeddah. Their stories were unique, but also typical. Their passports had been taken, their visas had expired, and due to the push from Saudi to deport illegal workers (with much negotiation with the Ethiopian government), scores of these women have been going home. The problem is, many of these women arrive in Addis without any way to get home. Maybe they left a broken family, maybe they ran away, maybe they simply do not have the financial means to get themselves back to their villages. These “returnees” (a play on domestic refugee) have been swarming Addis, causing a pseudo refugee resettlement industry to pop up.

One woman was from Assela, in the Arsi region where I actually spent three months in a small town during my training. This is where I was introduced to Ethiopia, learned Amharic, and lived with a host family. Two of my language teachers were from Assela, and I remember going in to the city on weekends to use an internet café and update my family. The other woman was from Dessie, my first site, from which I had to move for safety reasons. I remember driving up the East Amhara road and seeing scores of these young women in the lines for visas to the Middle East. Ready to give up their lives in Ethiopia for the chance to make some money abroad. Many of the women were barely 15, having dropped out of school. Working for a family in Saudi, or Dubai, or Bahrain could yield more (immediate) results than finishing their education would, was the common assumption.

One woman had worked there for over three years, the other just 18 months. They compared photos on their phones – the girth of the Saudi children they raised surpassing any child I’ve seen in Ethiopia. This was a common joke – “Look how fat he is!” one of the women said. Seems that many of these priviledged Saudi families, with oil subsidies smoothing the way for easy lives, run a special kind of risk. Diabetes is rising fast in this region, and I remember overweight children were a common sight when I visited Kuwait as well.

They also compared salaries – something to the tune of 800 a month. I never figured out if this was 800 Birr (Ethiopian – 19:1 USD) or 800 Riyal (Saudi – 3.75:1 USD). Either way, this is much more than the 100 birr a month (about $5) many family servants in Ethiopian receive (a whole different story). I could see the temptation.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to young Muslim women, though they do make up the bulk of migrant workers to the Middle East from Ethiopia. I have known Orthodox women who have worked in Bahrain, and one of my favorite local business owners actually got his start as a chef in Dubai. He reinvested the money he made abroad into a thriving restaurant in Gondar, catering to tourists. His story gives me hope for how these beneficial migrant worker relationships could work.  Unfortunately, many of these workers come upon a dead end. Desperate women looking for any way to get abroad, fall prey to fake visa programs where their passports are detained and they have to work to repay “travel loans.”

Though most workers go willingly, they end up in situations where their options are incredibly limited. These limitations dance dangerously close to the line of human trafficking, and in some cases women who encounter domestic violence in the homes (at the least), and outright sex slavery (at the potential worst) have no legal advocate as “non-citizens” of the country they are trapped in.

Migrant work is a sticky subject. It has bounced around the US Congress for decades, but it is not unique to the Mexican border. Migrant workers from Africa and South East Asia flock to the Middle East and Europe every day. The money to be made can really make a difference for families back home. But the risks are high. Much of my work here is aimed at getting young girls to see the benefits of education, and staying in school.

My high school Girl’s Club has gone through 10 documentary shorts with the Girl Rising video this year. The film relates stories from around the world of challenges and successes for girls’ education.  Check it out here. Staying in school can dramatically increase a girl’s potential for success, the catch is, how to convince girls that is worth the investment. Peace Corps volunteers around the world work on these issues, though sometimes these unique challenges in Ethiopia can make our jobs seem more like sale pitches. But it is worth it. You just have to hope your girls, especially the ones standing in line to work abroad, agree.

Chutes, Ladders, and General Chaos – Blog About Malaria Month!

10 Apr

It’s time to blog about malaria again! April 25th is World Malaria Day, but being the overambitious volunteers that we are, we have deemed all of April – World Malaria Month!

In celebration, I went back to Hibrit Primary School where my sitemate teaches 5th Grade English and took over her classes for a day of Malaria fun and games.


This year, I read aloud the Mimi Wins a Prize book again but instead of posters, I brought in the big guns – board games. C-Change developed a malaria version of Chutes and Ladders with good behavior (you went to the clinic when you had a fever!) taking you up the ladders, and bad behavior (you forgot to tuck in your bed net under the mattress) throwing you down the chutes.

In theory this was super fun! In practice it was chaos. Rookie mistake – I forgot that basics of rolling the dice and moving along the board are not common sense for children who play with wire hangers fashioned into loops. By the end, they got it and actually answered my questions about malaria correctly, but getting there was about as easy as A,B,C… in Ethiopia… so not easy.

So lesson learned – games for health are a good bet, but make sure you give examples about 15 times.


International Woman’s Day – A 5K Celebration

16 Mar


Last weekend, Ethiopia held its annual WomenFirst 5K to celebrate women’s achievements in Ethiopia. Over 7,000 women came out, decked in yellow, to run or walk to five kilometers in Addis Ababa, singing, leading cheers and supporting each other. Last year, a bunch of volunteers ran for ourselves. This year, we walked for our kids. Over two days, with events and activities, over 20 volunteers brought together 40 students from their towns all over Ethiopia to learn about gender equality, how to support each other, and ultimately to participate in the biggest woman-only footrace in Africa. Here are some photos from an event over 10 months in the making.


stretching before the race


at the start


PCV Cam showing Ethio Spirit

PICT0118 PICT0087 PICT0086 PICT0084 PICT0079

Some volunteers also brought young men to support the girls. They made signs and led cheers at different stations along the root. They were the only men supporting the race, the rest simply stood there. These boys are the change. They are the next generation. Gender Equality is not just about women, its about gender, and it’s about teaching boys to support their mothers, sisters and daughters.

One of the sessions - women's health

One of the sessions – women’s health

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap report, Ethiopia ranked 118th out
of 136 countries for gender equality. Over 200 Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia work in Education,
Health, and Agriculture sectors, but all are expected to work on gender issues, which span all sectors. For more (better)  photos, check out our “official photographer”‘s blog, and keep your eye out for a video I’m putting together soon.

Days in the Life

12 Mar

Recently my aunt suggested I do a “day in the life” post. The problem is, not one of my days are the same. I work by project, and if I have projects happening, it can be very busy. If I don’t, well 8 seasons of Bones on my hardrive look pretty tempting. So I figured I would highlight a few days from the past week, since they seem to hit most of the “types” of days I tend to have.

Friday, February 28, 2014 “My Life is Soooo Hard”

- 8:30 am – Wake up at and pack a backpack to head to Bahar Dar for a meeting
- 9:15am Meet Sandy for breakfast (special ful) at Enyame Cafe near the bus station
- 10:15am Get on a bus from Gondar to Bahar Dar
- 10:45am finally get out of Gondar after driving around the city looking for more passengers
-12:20pm Hand off medicine to a PCV in Woretta as the car is still moving, a perfect Habesha pass
-1:45pm arrive in Bahar Dar, lunch a Misrak
- 3:30pm lounge by the pool
-5:00pm Get a 20o birr ($10) massage
- 7:00pm Dinner at Desit, with beers on the lakefront
-10pm Go to bed

Sunday, February 16, 2014 “The Weekends are Busy!”

- 8:30am Wake up and contemplate making tea
- 9:00am Do an Insanity workout
-9:45am cold shower
- 9:55am Actually get around to making tea
- 10:00am finish last minute planning for today’s Girls Club Activity
-10:30am walk to Fasilides High School
-10:45am Arrive at Fasilides, be very surprised that some girls are early for the 11 o’clock club
- 11:25am finally start the club (that’s more like it), this week was about setting goals
- 12:05pm show a 10 min segment of the Girl Rising Documentary. We are working through each girl’s stories over 8 weeks.
- 12:40pm finish discussion and Girl’s Club, walk to Maraki (University Campus)
- 1:30pm arrive at Maraki and sit in the President’s office with free internet! Sorta kind of do work AKA plan India trip!
- 2:30pm Meet the ADMAS Leadership kids at the Makarki Gate, walk to Bridge of Hope School
- 3:00pm Play Jeopardy with African history
-3:45pm Introduce the Action for Gender Equality Summit and ask for applications
-4:15pm walk home (45 min)
-5:00pm Morgan makes me dinner, what a good housewife!
- 6:00pm Gossip
- 9:30pm Bedtime!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 “Work is more than projects”

-8:30am Wake up
-8:45 am Insanity Workout – Recovery today whew!
- 9:30am Cold Shower, I will never get used to it
- 9:40am Make breakfast, peanut butter and banana
- 10:00am wash dishes in the bucket
-10:25am clean bucket for clothes
-10: 30am Do laundry by hand. This is a “3 load” day, basically the amount of times I have to change the water in the bucket.
-11:45am sweep and clean counters
- 12:05pm Make lunch, tuna on bread, salad
- 12:45pm Eat lunch and watch Leverage
- 1:30pm Just one more episode…. it’s addictive
- 2:15pm Take line taxi (minibus) to Nigat Hotel to meet Tewelde for coffee
- 2:50pm walk to Admas Science Campus for a meeting on developing a Sex Ed curriculum at the University
- 3:00pm guy who called the meeting doesn’t show… and he’s a ferenj! Rude. We wait around.
- 3:40pm walk from Admas to Piazza (45 min), when I have extra time I walk. There are a lot of hills in Gondar. I’m crazy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 “When It Rains, It Pours”

- 8am  Wake Up
- 8:30am walk up the hill to a meeting with Menna Food Project
- 9am Go to some of the poorest communities in Gondar to interview benificiaries about where they live, their families and the lives (video/photos to come!)
- 12pm Lunch with some site mates
- 1pm Working on Malaria logistics, scheduling a Soap training, printing Grassroot Soccer certificates and other random planning for the many projects I couldn’t say no to
- 4pm Walk to Arada (market area) to help set up Food Bank/Soup Kitchen (Wot Kitchen?)
- 4:30pm More interviews and Video
-5pm Serve food to needy
-6pm Walk home on the back roads, lots of little kids yell at me
6:30pm Buy tomatoes and potatoes at the mini market near my house (from the woman with their tarps)
-7pm Make dinner
- 8pm Transfer all my interviews and photos and video and start to catalog
- 10pm Read a chapter of Harry Potter
- 10:30pm BED!

So there are some “typical” days – lots of work, lots of life, and some #treatyoself moments. The one thing that is consistent in Ethiopia is inconsistency, but in terms of work that’s ok. I like not having a 9-5 job. I like having to be motivated to get up and do something. I like working on projects that I want to do. I like having time to exercise and read and be addicted to TV shows. But even when times are the busiest (last weekend I brought two girls to the Action for Gender Equality Summit in Addis…. 6am to 11pm days), it’s still Peace Corps: The toughest job you’ll ever love.

Genderisms and Why I Always Have My Camera

5 Dec
All the painted nails, boys and girls alike

All the painted nails, boys and girls alike

On Monday morning this week I was invited to speak to an undergrad gender empowerment class at the University of Gondar. The degree program is Gender Studies, and graduates end up mostly in government jobs working towards mainstreaming gender issues in development work and other policies. It’s a lofty goal, and I was pleased to see the room about half men as well. It’s about gender, not women. It’s about economic development, real strategies on the ground, and not just “empowerment.”

During the course of the morning I was asked about almost everything under the sun gender – from “are you a feminist?” to “why are you so passionate about these issues if compared to Ethiopia women in America are so empowered?”

Am I feminist? No, not really. Not of the 1960s militant theoretical variety anyway. Though the older I get, the more places I live, the more feminist (or mindful of gender inequality) I become.

Why am I passionate? Because we still have issues in the US as well. Because health is one of the strategies to bring women up or keep them down. In Ethiopia, too many women die in childbirth because they didn’t have access or weren’t allowed to go to a health center by family pressure. In America, I won’t even get into the slew of conservative state law going on the books this summer. Because my mother had to deal with a man’s world of upper management. Because I get harassed on the street. Because I lived in Jordan. Because I live in Ethiopia. Because I have had a lot of opportunities these Ethiopian women have had to fight so hard to get. Because I know I’m lucky, and I want those opportunities for others.

So how do you move towards a more equal society? You encourage education, especially for girls. It starts in the family. I certainly wouldn’t be here without the support of my family, and I certainly wouldn’t have made the education and career choices I’ve made if my family didn’t think I was just as capable as my brothers. And that’s a generational, long term answer. It’s exciting because I really think this generation in the universities now is going to be great role models for its kids. Women are on a precipice here, it’s this generation that will get to see that change.

There are still pockets of families in the US who would rather encourage motherhood and housewifery instead of college or work. But as gender norms go, that’s not too bad. And many women choose that path, but at least they had a choice. Some families in Ethiopia are still encouraging early marriage and high rates of female genital mutilation. I’ll take “make me sandwich” any day.

But to switch gears a bit, if gender norms here can be incredibly stiff, gendered symbols are not at all. In America, pink is for baby girls, blue for baby boys. Girls get barbies, boys get tonka trucks.

In Ethiopia, I was sitting in a café that afternoon after talking to the class and two deaf streetkids I know came up to say hi. The boy was wearing a dress and pink rainboots, and his sister had a dark green sweater, no shoes.  He got the rainboots, my guess, because he was the boy – colour be damned. My sitemate and I were painting our nails and offered to the kids. No matter, he went for the bright pink. She thought the blue was great.

Men drape over each other in cafes and hold hands or link pinkies as they stroll down the street. Women can be very shy and quiet, even meek, but still wearing the tightest ,most stylish pants. Short hair for all kids is a must during rainy season – better to keep an eye out for head fungus.

So poverty, practicality and no cultural significance to westernized gendered symbols can mean an interesting mix of cultural norms.

So encourage those women in your life. Encourage the men in your life. No matter where they live, they probably face some preconceived notions. And always have a camera, in Ethiopia, it can mean a very fun gender neutral afternoon.


One of my grassroot soccer streetkids

One of my grassroot soccer streetkids

She was holding bottlecaps in her shirt

She was holding bottlecaps in her shirt


this woman wanted us to paint her baby's toenails

this woman wanted us to paint her baby’s toenails


The Least of These – The Programs of Yenege Tesfa

14 Nov

A large part of my work is supporting the amazing things that already go on in this city. Organizations and projects that have been running for years, sustained by the passion of community members. Recently I have been helping one such group with their visibility for donors (making brochures, updating the website etc.). It’s a simple way I can use my technical skills to support what’s already happening.

As part of this project, I have been going around to photograph the activities and children’s shelters run by Yenege Tesfa (translates to Hope for Tomorrow). Though I had worked with them before, Yenege Tesfa was the partner for the Grassroot soccer program with street orphans, I had never visited their shelters.

Fasil Boys' Shelter

Fasil Boys’ Shelter


They have just opened a new boys shelter. When I walked in I recognized many of the boys I had worked with over the summer. They had just moved in two weeks ago and already they seemed more content, emotionally safe, and formed a community of brothers. They had chosen the boys based on their participation in the mobile school programming, showing that these boys, even with the hardships on the street had ambitions to better themselves. Many of the children housed by Yenege Tesfa are now in the top 10% of their classes. A supportive environment that values education really really really matters.

Some of GRS graduates

Some of my GRS graduates

Yohannes Boy's Shelter - the newest of 5 homes

Yohannes Boy’s Shelter – the newest of 5 homes

But street children are not the only vulnerable children in this community. To address a different need, Yenege Tesfa opened a day care center – across from the prison. When someone is incarcerated in Ethiopia their family must feed them, their children can live with them, and many times for single mothers, their children spend most of the time behind the prison fence.

some Day Care children

some Day Care children


painting nails

painting nails

one of the house mothers making lunch

one of the house mothers making lunch

So as of last week, a day care program was set up to have programs for the children of prison inmates. A deal was struck with the guards to allow these children to pass through the gates in the morning, Yenege Tesfa provides programs and lunch, then they can go “home” and sleep with their mothers in the prison at night.

The broad range of programming from Yenege Tesfa is visibly making a grand change for the children and families it helps. Addressing not just the symptoms of poverty and disease (shelters, day care, food coupons) they also have the foresight to address the causes, creating programming that supports those on the edge (healthcare vouchers, mobile school for street children, agriculture for single mothers, life skills and business trainings).

girls with their house mother at Tsehaytu Shelter

girls with their house mother at Tsehaytu Shelter

Two goofballs at Tewedros Shelter

Two goofballs at Tewedros Shelter

Doing homework at Fasil Shelter

Doing homework at Fasil Shelter

At Mintwab Shelter

At Mintwab Shelter

In the model garden

In the model garden

Over the next few months I plan to highlight some of the local groups and projects I have had the pleasure to work with. Praising the good work being done by Ethiopians themselves. There are so many international aid organizations (for usually better and sometimes worse). To see homegrown or home-sustained programs makes me feel like the work I do here, if it supports these, will have more impact, more promise, and more roots.


Interviews with Ethiopian Girls

21 Oct

Over one week I interviewed 17 Ethiopian high school girls about what they hope for their own futures, the future of their country, why we need to support each other, and what makes them strong women. The girls were from big towns and small villages. They were as young as 13 and as old as 18. They were Orthodox and Muslim. They responded in English and Amharic. But they all wanted to see change. They all had big hopes and dreams. I’m excited that this is the generation of girls who will get to see the changes many have hoped for, who will create change, and really pull Ethiopia towards bigger things.

Here’s what they had to say:

Pop Up Clinics

11 Oct

Word of mouth, a bunch of tarps, an empty field, four days, 60 international doctors, 100 Ethiopian doctors, and a lot of life sticks (personal water filters). This was the scene I came upon yesterday in the Samuna Ber area of Gondar. Once a year an organization called Jewish Voice Ministries (they believe in Jesus, it gets confusing – translating who they were was interesting for Ethiopian Orthodoxers) sets up a clinic on the outskirts of Gondar that sees over 8,000 patients in four days. And it’s all free medical care.


Reading glasses station

Reading glasses station

There were lines around the blocs for dental, eye care, medical, pediatrics, and sanitation sessions. People were queued through lines outside, waiting areas inside, and for one on one visits with doctors. Many of the volunteer translators and crowd control were street kids and tour guides I see daily in Piazza. It was so great to see them volunteering, and when I praised them for it you could see how proud they were to be helping.

I randomly came across this giant operation through word of mouth. Being a volunteer (read… foreigner) in Gondar I was ushered straight in and given a visitor’s badge. I could walk freely through the different “wards” and even helped with a bit of translating (surprising everyone…. of course). I saw people from all around the city that I knew, including one little girl who goes to school across the street from my house.

Triage station

Triage station with a volunteer doctor from Addis Ababa, and some med students from University of Gondar

waiting in line

waiting in line

Every patient was given a pink prescription card, which helped them through the process. The amount of organization was actually quite impressive. Different coloured bracelets for different wards, a general flow and lots of Gondar area volunteers helping people understand where they needed to go next.

with her prescription card

with her prescription card

the hygiene and sanitation session

the hygiene and sanitation session

After patients had been through whichever station they needed, they were sent to a pharmacy to pick up any medication that was prescribed by the volunteer doctors. On the way out, everyone was given a session on hand washing and water hygiene as well as a LifeStraw, which is a personal water filter. Over 8,000 of these were distributed throughout the week.

picked up her medication

picked up her medication

it's for clean water, silly! This little girl stuck by my side the whole presentation

it’s for clean water, silly! This little girl stuck by my side the whole presentation

showing off his skills

showing off his skills

The whole thing popped up and cleaned up in less than a week. Off to Zambia, the group do these “pop up clinics” all over the world, where former Jewish tribes are rumored to be. Gondar, being the site for a lot of Israeli aid, is the only site in Ethiopia where this event occurs. The entire operation was, at least for the two hours I stopped by, well organized, well stocked, and fairly calm even though some of the people had been waiting half the day. Small and simple surgeries were performed in a room upstairs, and more complicated ones (like cataracts on one patient who is a student at the blind school) were referred to the local University of Gondar hospital. People came from all over the city to ask their questions and get checked out for free. Many times, while going to a clinic in the Ethiopian healthcare system is free (once you register the first time – 10 birr), the medications to treat are paid out of pocket. For many people, that means they wait too long to seek care, and sometimes it is too late.

Giant pop up clinics, while a major operation, are a time people can come to find diagnoses early, and will hopefully act on those within the national health care system as quickly as possible. They aren’t sustainable, but if a quick diagnosis and free meds will help, once a year it’s not a bad thing at all.


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