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On Senegal, Malaria, and Beaches at Sunset

5 Oct

Back safely in Gondar, tucked in to my wool blanket and sweatpants, I can reflect back on the past two hot and humid weeks in Senegal at the Stomp Out Malaria Bootcamp. A Peace Corps initiative to beef up malaria prevention programming across the continent, I represented Ethiopia as one of the regional coordinators at the conference. We spent two weeks learning from experts in the fields of entomology, epidemiology, and malaria intervention experts from CDC, USAID, The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and MACEPA all stopped by.  But in between the sessions, case studies, and 12 hour days of training (it’s not called boot camp for nothing), I was able to get duly sunburned, and see the westernmost point in Africa.

Popenguine, Senegal

Popenguine, Senegal

fisherman at Popenguine

fisherman at Popenguine

They took us to the beaches of Popenguine for a day trip, where I swam, ate fresh fish, and spent a little too much on souvenirs.


So as beautiful as the beaches were, we still actually learned a lot. And I am coming back to Ethiopia with best practices and project ideas from Peace Corps countries all over Africa.

remembering my French

remembering my French

we did a lot of this

we did a lot of this

looking for malaria parasites (microscopy)

looking for malaria parasites (microscopy)

At the end of the conference we headed back to Dakar (Senegal’s capital, and the westernmost capital in Africa) for some good times before long flights. I was able to see a friend from Korbel who is working in Dakar now – so nice to see a friendly face! On the whole Senegal was very different from Ethiopia. The food, the language, and the heat! made the trip, as busy as it was, still feel like an adventure. Senegalese eat family style (like Ethiopians) but you won’t find injera here. The staples were rice and couscous and everyone gets a giant spoon.

all for meeeee

all for meeeee

My last night in Senegal I went out to the Pointes des Almadies, the westernmost point in Africa. I got to literally pick out my dinner from the catches of the day, and watched the sun set over the Atlantic… the opposite side of the ocean from home.

Dakar at Sunset

Dakar at Sunset

Pointe Du Almadies (the Westernmost point in Africa)

Pointe Du Almadies (the Westernmost point in Africa)

A Passion for Prevention

25 Sep

For the past week or so I have been in Senegal on the West side of Africa learning about best practices for malaria prevention programming both broadly and for Peace Corps volunteers. Waaay over here:

All the way across the continent - First time to West Africa!

All the way across the continent – First time to West Africa!

Over two weeks we are learning more about malaria and mosquitoes (anopheles female variety of course) than I could ever want to know. Did you know they rest perpendicular to the wall? Did you care? But in the middle of the science, the entomology, and the  details of funding schemes, we are also sharing best practices, practical programs and visiting a beach or two.

More on the conference later, but Monday night we had the opportunity to attend the launch of malaria prevention program in one of the villages outside of Thies (pronounced Chezz) lead by a man who has a personal connection to the cause.

Monsieur Elhage has started malaria prevention programming in Senegal in over 10 villages around the area. Starting by walking door to door, he garnered support from village chiefs, women’s groups, and community leaders so that in a country where malaria is endemic, these villages have had 0 reported cases this year.

The "trois Toutes" (3 Alls) program- The whole family, the whole year, every night

The “trois Toutes” (3 Alls) program- The whole family, the whole year, every night

A skit about the importance of a bed net, and seeking prompt care

A skit about the importance of a bed net, and seeking prompt care

But these results have been the blood sweat and tears of over a decade of advocacy. One morning in 1999 his daughter fell ill, and asked her father, then a photographer for UNICEF, to pick up apples and oranges in the market. He went to work, bought the fruit, and mid afternoon received a call from his sister telling him of death of his 12 year old daughter Ami only 10 days before the start of school. A severe malaria epidemic rocked the region that year with children and pregnant women dying for no apparent reason.  After a gathering with the health workers in the area, Elhage began to understand his daughter had died from malaria.

What was worse, she could have been saved had she been treated quickly, or prevented the bite. So Elhage rededicated his life to malaria prevention education. Working at the village level he employed a few different strategies to get buy in from the community. He worked with the women’s groups, youth, and village leadership to develop a health community committee and fund. The fund would pay for education supplies as well as treatment costs for malaria cases.

The village clean up celebration

The village clean up celebration

Leaders of the health committee and women's groups

Leaders of the health committee and women’s groups

With push from village leaders and a mass bed net distribution from the Senegal government (in partnership with the US’s President’s Malaria Initiative), confirmed malaria cases dropped in these villages. But there was still a hot spot of infection – students coming back from summer vacation who had visited families in other villages or towns and were coming back with malaria. To combat this migration effect, the schools developed a “vacation card” and kit that gave the kids nets to take on their trips with them.

The "vacation" card

The “vacation” card, it says: “I will protect myself from malaria, I will sleep under a bed net”

In addition to the health education and bed net distributions, village chiefs put together a “night watch” group that would go around to houses in the evening to check if bed nets were up. If they were not, the household would be fined $5 (USD) – a LOT for the villagers.  The fines would be added to the community health fund. This was a completely internal idea, and worked to keep usage rates high, even in the dry season.

As malaria rates went down, funds needed to treat cases also shrank, freeing up the community health fund  to dream up bigger and better projects. Elhage began to advocate larger development goals, and he developed three philosophies needed for moving forward: politeness, cleanliness, and punctuality (a frustration for any aid worker across the continent).

Politeness, Hygiene/Cleanliness, Punctuality

Politeness, Hygiene/Cleanliness, Punctuality

For his hard work in malaria prevention and social behavioral change, the head of the President’s Malaria Initiative (Admiral Tim Ziemer) presented Elhage with a medal. Elhage has continued to promote vigilance against malaria infection and other small scale development goals.

Obama on a Medal

Obama on a Medal

Elhage talking us through his work

Elhage talking us through his work

As we hear about best practices in malaria prevention across the continent, it is always important to connect with the people who have poured their lives into the cause. People, like Elhage, who have worked for decades and pursued his message and worked with community members to affect change. Change that was home grown, and sorely needed to protect against a deadly disease. His story, while tragic, was one of the most motivating moments of the conference. With stories of his success, we volunteers can head back to our own communities and hopefully support people like Elhage.


PC Ethiopia Harlem Shake

27 Mar

Because you can dress us up, but you can’t take us out. Jumping on some YouTube bandwagons. I’m G8 Health (you’ll spot me around 1:15 or so I think).

IST Reflection

24 Mar

IST. In Service Training. The point where, after three months at site, everyone is going a little crazy. We have been researching, interviewing, data mining, drinking copious amounts of shay/buna, meeting new people, and forgetting our Amharic. We have been getting sick, getting harassed and getting to be known. We have been missing each other.

So Peace Corps brings us all together, with our Ethiopian counterparts, sticks us in 9 hour days of training, and then lets us loose in Addis Ababa at night. Sounds like a good time, and for the most part it is. I actually learned a few things about composting and food security. I visited the National Aids Resource Center and got a little jealous of their resources. I discovered my counterpart really likes his sunglasses. But most importantly I got to catch up with the family of volunteers I came in with. The volunteers who are going through the same emotional cycle as me. The volunteers whose support I couldn’t do without.

IST is also the time when I got to know better those volunteers I only said a few words to before. Whether because we never had the same trainings, they lived in a different village, or we simply didn’t have much common ground, we certainly do now.

Nobody’s experience is the same. Some of us are in small villages, some in towns, and some in large cities. Some of us speak Amharic, some Tigrynia, some Oromifa, and some are picking up second and third tribal languages down south. Some of us are working with health centers, rural outposts, English learning centers, agricultural offices, and tree nurseries. But what we have in common is the day to day trials and small victories that come with living in communities where we both belong and do not belong. Where we represent change and hope as well as materialism and charity. Where we live in a fishbowl, yet no one really know us.

Three months in site, six months in country, coming back together gives us the chance to reevaluate. Are we still here for the same reasons? Have our expectations changed? What does success look like now? It is still early enough in our service to shape these things.

Coming in to IST I was worried about the changes I was seeing in myself. I was more blunt, curt, quick to assume and ignore people. And while many of these are coping mechanisms for the day to day barrage, what didn’t bother me 4 months ago was getting under my skin 4 weeks ago.

I didn’t want to come back to site, or America for that matter, a bitter jaded expat worker. But everyone is struggling. What is rude? Where to set boundaries? How much Doctor Who is really normal to watch in one day? And I realized I wasn’t doing too bad. And then I had a small incident that was a little scary, and I realized I wanted to go back to site. I was actually excited to go back to site, to start work, and see the people I hadn’t seen in three weeks.  And it wasn’t about getting out of Addis (well, a small part of it was), but getting to Gondar.

So IST did it’s job. It got me out of the funk. It shook me awake to the bitterness that was sowing seeds. It gave me a jolt of ferenji food, and sent me back ready to create relationships, get shit done, and separate my self worth from the times when I don’t get shit done. The show must go on, as they don’t say here.

I Now Know What I Do Not Know

20 Dec

On Friday we finally finished our pre-service training and swore in as official Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteers! After 10 weeks of language, technical, medical, cultural and safety training I can safely say that I am both prepared to go to site and also completely overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge.  They say that by the end of training you will know what you do not know, which is a big step from Day 1 when I didn’t even know what I didn’t yet know. Following?

The more I learn about this country, its people, its history, its (87!) languages, the more I have come to realize that I have only chipped away enough of the iceberg to make a couple ice cubes for my St. George’s draft beer.

Taking the Oath of Service at the American Embassy; Group 8- Health and Environment

Taking the Oath of Service at the American Embassy; Group 8- Health and Environment

But lucky for me I have two more years here to attempt to figure it out, forge some relationships, make a lot of mistakes, and hopefully leave a small mark of change for the better. Since swearing in I have gotten a (very) early flight to Bahar Dar in the Northwest of Amhara Region, driven across the country and back to get my things from Desie, and finally arrived in Gonder, my site, one week later.

Reflecting on training I came up with a list of things I now know, and things I need to learn.

What I Know:

– how to order a beer

– how to order other food (less important than beer)

– how to say “my favorite colour is purple”

– how to say “I don’t like kitfo because it will give me worms” (compound sentence!)

– a basic understanding of the health services in Ethiopia

– how to brew traditional coffee

– that time is very different here, both literally and figuratively

– how much I need to learn

What I need to learn:

– more Amharic

– better bargaining skills

– how to figure out when the water/electricity will come back on and when to stockpile barrels

– how to make a tortilla

– the layout of my city

– the fair price for things

– and a lot lot more

And so begins the actual Peace Corps adventure. Two years starts now, these past few months have just been a warm-up for the marathon. And considering this country produces some of the best runners in the world, I’d say that’s a pretty apt analogy.


A Small Ode to Iteya

17 Dec

As we leave our training sites to swear in as full volunteers, my site mate (and future neighbor up in Aykel, about 2 hours from Gondar) Morgan made a video from our time in training at Iteya. Enjoy!

It ends at 3:50 so don’t watch through all the extra black at the end.

Who were all those people? Those were the 9 trainees who lived in Iteya throughout training, our language and culture trainers, our host families and the cutest little nuggets (Mimilu and Misikir) who showed up at our language class every day and loved to copy our awkward dance moves. The last little bit was an inside joke- don’t worry about it, just know that you lost the game.

Introducing Dr. Wahib

4 Dec

Pre-Service Training, or PST, as it is called because Peace Corps is an alphabet soup of acronyms, is the 10 weeks prior to actual Peace Corps that is a right of passage for every volunteer. It is 10 weeks of language training, technical training, medical training, host family living, safety and security training, general confusion, a lot of learning, and a bit of boredom. Into this mix steps our Medical Officer Dr. Wahib with the following presentation:

Truth bomb

Truth bomb

Followed by:

heheh- transubstantiate

heheh- transubstantiate

To get to this point:

The last point is especially poignant

The last point is especially poignant

Do you see why we love him?

Kidding aside, our medical team here is top notch. I have been lucky enough to only have been slightly incapacitated once so far. I’ll spare you the details (or you can read them here depending on your curiosity level). They are available 24/7 with all our tropical disease drug related needs. Though opening my PC Med kit was a bit of a pandora’s box. I couldn’t pronounce half the things in there; I don’t know if that makes me more or less assured.

It’s Not Peace Corps Until…

28 Oct

I hit a few milestones this week. Signs that I am a Peace Corps volunteer…

#1 I got my first violent vomiting, GI, Montezuma’s revenge, double headed dragon, whatever you want to call it sickness. But I survived and still want to be here so check that one off the list. Luckily it was only 24 hours. (If only I could have it once and be done, but I foresee many a crumpled on the floor weeping moment in the future).

#2  I have fleas in my bed. I remember reading volunteer’s posts before I came and seeing things like “you get used to it” and “it’s not that bad” and thinking I will never get used to fleas, that sounds disgusting. And yes, it is. And yes, you get used to it. At this point, if I’m not going to get malaria, dengue fever, typhus or some other crazy tropical illness I don’t care. Bring it on. Hours of itching and hundreds of bites all over my body? Child’s play. Refer to milestone #1.

#3 I can conjugate verbs! In Amharic!… sort of. If by conjugate you mean I kind of recognize a pattern on paper but still have absolutely no idea what anyone is saying-ever.

#4 I have chaco sandals tan lines. AND they are the double strap kind so that just makes it more legit.

#5 I ate ox stomach. I don’t recommend it, but if I’m going to keep a mental list of Anthony Bourdain worthy foods, I guess ox stomach is like the minor leagues. I’ll keep you updated as I get more adventurous.

#6 I pooped in a hole. Well, really this one came in the first week, but it was a milestone nonetheless. They say once you’re in Peace Corps all you talk about is pooping. Yup, that’s pretty much accurate. It’s also not very ladylike.

In other non-fecal news, I have switched language teachers because my first teacher is now teaching Oromifa (one of the regional dialects). My class is now 5 people, which is actually pretty large for learning a totally new language and new script. I like my new teacher as well, but 5 of us is really a lot to handle (especially when we are all suffering from #1) and I feel a bit of pity for her. Oh wait, unless she is suffering from #1, no  I don’t.

Site Announcement

23 Oct

On Saturday we found out where we will be living for the next two years. I felt a mix of anxiousness and apathy. Considering it is two years of my life, it was kind of a big deal, but I also feel like I still know next to nothing about Ethiopia so they could have said any town and I would have nodded and smiled. I went in with no expectations and no requests. I came out with what I think will be a great site for my project interests, research and personality. I’m feeling pretty lucky.

So, I will living in … drumroll please … Dese!

Everyone reading this probably feels exactly how I did when I heard that. Namely, where is that? Is it big? Small? What language do they speak there? Where will I be working? What’s the weather like? Yup- I was as clueless as you. But after a bit of research (asking around the old fashioned way), I am getting more and more excited.

Dese is a pretty large city of 150,000 in the East Amhara region. I am about 8 hours (by bus) north east of Addis Ababa. I have one of the largest sites in Ethiopia. Most people are going to have what you might call the “typical Peace Corps experience” (if there is one) in a smaller town or village. I am moving to one of the bigger cities in the country. So working through some pros and cons:


Lots of options for cafes, souks, and even some ferenji (foreigner) grocery stores!

More resources, including a university for projects/funding and counterparts. Hopefully this also means a motivated community.

I am paired with a local NGO (ARC- AIDS Resource Center), not a government health center, which is more my line of work. It works with Behavioral Change and Communications (BCC) programs, which fits nicely with my communications/marketing work

I have a site mate! A guy named Korey, who I have not yet met, but I’m sure is awesome. And by awesome, I mean speaks English.

They speak Amharic (the national language) so I don’t have to switch languages and I can still travel anywhere in the country. Whew!

Ease of access by public transportation. Dese is the largest city in the area so I can always find a bus going there.

I’m the hub city for a bunch of volunteers in the region. I have at least 4 or 5 volunteers within 30 minutes of me so I will get to host all the holiday parties haha.

The weather is supposed to be pretty mild- warm during the day and cool at night. Seriously the weather here is so crazy it deserves its own post in the future.

Good access to internet! Yay for blog posts.

Last but certainly not least (in fact, this probably should have been #1) I have a private toilet and shower in my house! SCORE. It’s the little things. But actually… (any other volunteers shouldn’t be too jealous though, there was nothing said about hot water).


Integrating into the community where everyone knows my name will be next to impossible

Most likely I’ll get more harassment as a single gal in a bigger town that has a lot of transit through it.

More expensive. I’m told my house is 2 rooms for 1500 birr a month (about $90). Some volunteers have full 4 room houses for 400 birr (about $25) a month. Though I’m told that will get a larger allowance to compensate. All you Americans get your idea of “house” out of your head now. These houses are still made of dried mud walls- though I will have electricity (most days).

Somewhat isolated in a zone of East Amhara volunteers. While we are close to each other, we are cut off from people in the south or even West Amhara.

Getting around the city will involve more negotiating with bajajs (3 wheeled scooter taxis) and line taxis rather than simply walking. Though I’m sure my transportation language skills will be top notch by the end of 2 years.

Clearly the pros outweigh the cons. What will make for a very difficult first 6 months I’m sure I will appreciate in my second year. When I went on demystification to Debre Birhan (a city of about 100,000) I was worried that it would not be close to my experience. Now I have some realistic expectations about larger sites.

Another interesting tidbit- Dese is the city/region where all the models in Ethiopia come from. And considering basically every woman in Ethiopia is gorgeous, that is a very intimidating fact. Oh well, maybe it will give me more ambition to actually use my private shower more than once a month. Peace Corps hippiedom stay back! I brought my nail polish!


Drinking from a Fire Hose

18 Oct


I have been in Ethiopia for just about 2 weeks now- though it feels both like 2 days and a whole month at the same time.  As soon as we stepped off the plane we were in training and it has not let up since. This is good in that I have had no time to freak out, but also exhausting and I really have to try hard to give myself a few minutes each day to process and decompress.

They say pre-service training is like drinking from fire hose. You can only get so much in your mouth, and if you concentrate on how much you are missing you will be lost forever. The best advice is to get what you can.

Well that is a pretty accurate analogy, and this week has felt like a water cannon.

Since I have been here I have travelled around Addis Ababa, up to Debre Birhan, moved in with my host family in Itaya and shot down to Assela a few times. A whirlwind of medical, safety, technical, and language training has been mixed in with making new friends, navigating public transportation, and using charades to communicate with my host family. So how to break it down for all y’all back home?


Flew into Addis and the first few days were a lot of training sessions and workshops at the King’s Hotel. A few days later I took a mini bus with five other trainees up to Debre Birhan to visit some current health volunteers at their site and “demystify” Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Debre Birhan is 2 hours northeast of Addis in the Amhara region and a larger town of about 100,000. We visited a married couple there (who are so badassadely awesome), so I don’t know how close my experience will be to theirs as a single gal, but it was good to see the type of housing and lifestyle of volunteers. Other volunteers went all over the country for demystification, some going as far as needing to fly.

Coming back from Debre Birhan (on mini-buses aka the public transportation where you just have to fight for a seat), we stayed another couple nights in Addis and took a tour of the city. We went to the national museum and saw Lucy, the ancestor skeleton thing.  Since then I have moved in with my host family in Itaya, a small town of about 17,000 a couple hours Southeast of Addis in the Oromia region.  There are 8 other volunteers in the town with me.

Most recently we have been bouncing back and forth between Itaya and Assela, our training hub town where we get to see the other volunteers and get all sorts of vaccinations. I mention the shots because they gave me a Reese’s Peanut butter cup, and you need to know how exciting that was. (very).


Language training has been 2 parts fun, 1 part frustrating, and 17 parts exhausting. I am keeping hold of my small victories every day and considering how much I have picked up in the language over such a short period I have to remember to give myself a pat on the back. Or you can send me chocolate (or goldfish!), if you feel so inclined J I can almost sort of pretend to read kind of! And of course my host family thinks I’m very “gobez” (clever). If saying “good morning” and “I don’t understand” make me clever then in 1 month I’m going to be at Einstein status. I have class with 2 other volunteers, and our language and culture instructor is the bomb dot com.  He has also taken every awkward cultural question from me in stride- and if you know me you know I have asked a lot of stupid questions.

The food is pretty damn delicious. I was a little worried back in the States going to a few Ethiopian restaurants and not falling in love with the injera and wot they were serving. But as with everything exported, the original is always better. And thank goodness because I literally eat injera (a sponge like pancake sour bread) and wot (stew) for every meal. Peace Corps gives us a water filter that I use with boiled water also. So far so good! No sickness or stomach issues yet, though other volunteers have not been so lucky. I figure my health is half mental so if I am still enjoying myself my body will stay healthy. Fingers crossed.

Integrating into our host community has been an interesting experience. Kids are running around everywhere! And of course every single one of them wants to say hi and ciao and shake our hands. The best idea was teaching the fist bump- it’s cultural and clean! My friend and fellow volunteer Todd brought a slackline, and so we have been setting it up in the fields. Everyone wants to try it and so it has been a great way to meet community members and feel involved. The toll to try is to for the kids to teach us a word in Amharic (which I promptly forget).

My host family is really fantastic. It’s smaller than most volunteer’s families- I live with the mother and father and their 13 year old daughter. They are both teachers and the father’s English is very good. They like to watch the news in both Amharic and English and then have me explain what is going on. There may or may not be a napkin floating around Itaya with a scribbled map of Europe and a haphazard explanation of the eurozone crisis…  We have been playing card games like Skip-bo which help me with my numbers. They also like to watch movies and the first two I saw on TV with them were Tootsie and She’s the Man… so basically they think Americans like to dress up as the opposite gender. Thanks, Hollywood- that was fun to explain.

So it’s been a busy couple of weeks! I will try to update my blog more frequently as I get a hold of this schedule. I also hear a rumor we might be getting a “google bet” in town soon so I won’t have to travel to Assela for internet. Oh, the small things in life.