Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Adventures in Senegal

The Stomp Out Malaria Bootcamp was intensive, inspiring and by far one of the highlights of my Peace Corps service. Surrounded by 37 other PCVs from 14 different African countries, I learned about malaria best practices, current initiatives and got to speak with global leaders in the fight against this disease.

Peace Corps Benin meets Peace Corps Senegal, Thies, Senegal.
Over the course of two weeks, we explored different ways that PCVs can use their own resources and innovative technologies to combat malaria in their how countries and communities. We had the opportunity to meet a true hero in the fight, a local man who lost his daughter to malaria at age 12 and who, over the past 15 years has championed his community to become malaria free. In Senegal, where malaria is still one of the number one reasons for child mortality, this is a true miracle.

In addition to the hours of malaria work, we learned about conducting behavior change activities, piloting grassroots soccer and Moderating focus groups to determine doer vs non-doer behavior patterns. With the help of our amazing facilitator, we were critiqued on our presentation skills and given feedback on how to pursue careers in international development while marketing our peace corps skills in the modern age.

Piling into a sept-place, the easiest form of transport in Senegal.
Despite all the material that was covered, one of the most important parts of the experience was the networking. With people coming from as far as Madagascar and Zambia, I now have a better image of the scale of Peace Corps in Africa. And, I can't imagine serving anywhere but Benin. From late night trips to the local gelato spot and helping non French speakers navigate the fabric stalls of a west African market, I'm walking away with new connections, ideas and friends.

Before leaving Senegal, I got to explore a little bit more of this beautiful country. From Thies, a group of us hired a station wagon and headed for a night of desert camping in Lompoul. Located about 2 hours north of Thies, we were picked up by a open back tractor (imagine a hay ride), and driven out to Camp Desert. Upon our arrival, we were escorted to our site, where an inviting canvas tent awaited us.
Rains moving across the desert.
The desert was beautiful and immense, sand dunes stretching in all directions. Camels relaxed under the shade of a few trees and we enjoyed the solitude that only vast emptiness can bring. As we sat in silence, a rain storm began making its way across the sand, forcing us to take shelter in the communal eating tent. At night we gathered around a bonfire and danced to the beat of traditional drumming with the other visitors. It was an amazing experience.

Camp Desert, Lompoul, Senegal

From the desert, we headed north to the island of St. Louis, the former colonial capital of Senegal and Mauritania under French rule. The island, which is connected by a simple truss bridge to the mainland, is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and walking down the streets one can easily point out the colonial influence in the wooden shuttered architecture and beautiful rooftop gardens. We found a nice little B&B to spend the night and set off to explore the island.

Lompoul Desert, Senegal
Crossing another bridge, we came to the more populous part of town, away from the tourist hotels and home to hundreds of long horned sheep and colorful fishing boats. We roamed the streets, caught a glimpse of the ocean and then enjoyed a meal at the infamous Vietnamese restaurant, which didn't live up to its amazing reputation.

St. Louis, Senegal
At night we went to dance at the Iguana Bar, a Cuban club that only played top hits. The next morning, I enjoyed coffee from a garden patio and waited for the other girls to head to Dakar for our flights. We finally headed out, caught a taxi and left for the capital.

Fishing Boats, St. Louis, Senegal
With a couple hours to kills before my flight, I took the opportunity to wander to Pointe des Almadies, the most western point on continental Africa. Dakar itself is a bustling and developed city, well worth a trip back to explore Goree, the slave island, and the art scene.

Instead of heading straight back to Benin, I'm off to a couple weeks of much needed repose in America! Can't wait to see family, enjoy the cooler weather and eat more fresh blueberries than humanly possible.

In true fashion, Team Benin rocked meme tissu during the training!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Intro To Mapping: How You Can Help Plot Communities Worldwide!

Have you ever searched for your house using Google Earth? Used satellite imagery to scope out a new neighborhood, plan a trip or avoid traffic? Well, satellite imagery is incredibly useful, especially here in the Peace Corps!

While you have all seen pictures of my village, I've never actually shown you a map of my community.  Well, all of that is about to change!  Here in Senegal, Peace Corps Volunteers from across Africa are learning about the advantages and utilities of mapping to track public health, agricultural, economic and a various number of other initiatives.  Over the next two weeks, I will be working to plot out my village using an open-source tool called OpenStreetMap.  

And here's where you come in! As an open source database, you can help me map Adourekoman from your own living room.  Since I'm sure your wifi connection is much stronger than my own, I can assure you that this will be a fun, easy and informative experience.

So, get your computer ready, find a comfy seat and prepare yourself for an awesome (m)appy hour!
I've already located Adourekoman on the map, all you have to do is zoom in and start tracing!

Tracing is easy! I've done all the major buildings in Adourekoman.
Using the drawing tool, you can go in and add all the other houses in the community!
This is the first map of Adourekoman...ever!
I'm hoping that we can finish it up and use the map to start tracking projects.

So... How can you help?

2. Create a username and password
3. Search Adourekoman, Benin and select "Village Adourekoman, GlazouĂ©, Collines, Benin"

4. Click Edit and zoom in to see the outlines of community buildings
5. Using the "Area" tool, trace buildings

6. Select Building Features and Choose "House"

7. Click "Save" and add #PeaceCorps and #PCBenin to the "Changeset comment" textbox

8. Click the blue "Save" button and you're done!  You've helped map one more building in my community!

9. Continue adding, saving, and participating in the global mapping community!!

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out by email:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Onward We STOMP

Hello from Senegal!

It's been a little while since my last update, but I can assure you that things have been exciting and busy post-camp. In addition to wrapping up the camp activities, I was back in village to implement some project follow-up before leaving country for a couple weeks.

Starting today, I will be participating in a malaria intensive two-week program called STOMP Out Malaria in Thies, Senegal. Volunteers from various Peace Corps posts across Africa are invited to this training to foster collaboration, learn about best practices and really dive deep into the problems of malaria endemic countries. I have the privilege of attending with two other Benin PCVs, Karsten and Nicole, both of whom serve on the Benin Against Malaria (BAM) Committee with me.

We left Benin yesterday morning and, like most travel in Benin, it was not smooth sailing. After grumbling about our airport drop-off time, we arrived at the airport at 7 am for a 10:30 am flight. We were dumbfounded when guards told us that the plane was already boarded and they wouldn't let us in. August 1st is Benin's Independance Day and the security was adamant that the airport was closing at 8 am. We talked our way into the airport, were rushed through baggage check and then waited patiently in the passport control line for about a half hour. When we approached the booth, we were yelled out for not completing the proper forms (what forms?!?) and then shuttled through security and into a mini van that sped us across the tarmac. We walked onto the plane only to find it full of people, none of whom seemed phased by the 3 hour change in departure time. Only in Benin would a flight leave hours early.

Once the plane took off, we were notified that there would be a brief stopover in Accra, Ghana en route to our layover destination in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The plane ride was uneventful, but freezing cold, something I haven't experienced in months. We arrived in Abidjan for our layover and enjoyed a quick snack before boarding for Dakar. The second flight was equally uneventful, and slightly warmer. We touched down in Dakar about 10 hours after leaving Benin and were greeted by Peace Corps staff who escorted us out and drove us the the Peace Corps office in Dakar. Having arrived with the cohorts from Madagascar and Ethiopia, the nine of us set off to explore a little of Dakar. After scouting out the surrounding area, we headed back to catch a ride to the Peace Corps training site in Thies, where we will be based for the remainder of the training.

While West Africa has a similar beat, Senegal has some striking differences to Benin. First, the infrastructure is far more developed: roads are paved, lined with street lights and the major highway had electronic toll booths every couple miles. While we are so used to riding zems (motorcycles) as a means of transport, Senegal has no shortage of yellow taxis. Instead of negotiating with a zemijohn for a ride, taxis run on the meter (or atleast they are supposed to.) We arrived at the training site, which resembles our own in Lokossa. There are bunk houses, outdoor gazeboes, but everything exists on a much greater scale. In comparison to the program in Benin, Senegal hosts about 250 PCVs to our 75. So, in general, everything here just feels bigger.

After a night of restless sleep (think heat, humidity and mosquitoes), we got up for our only training-free morning this week. Nicole, Karsten and I decided to check out the city and wandered down towards the bustling market which was filled with horse carts, vegetable vendors, fabric shops and more flies than I could count. We found a shop with some different Senegalese prints and negotiated based on our knowledge of Beninese prices. Trying to beat the heat, we headed back to the training site, making a quick stop in an artists compound to scope out the local artisanal wares.

Training starts this afternoon and will continue until the 13th. We will be discussing our own programs in Benin, learning about malaria transmission, prevention and implementing behavior change initiatives based on various different models. It's going to be a grueling two weeks, but I'm excited to meet other PCVs, learn more about posts across Africa and share our experiences.

Sending love from the other side of West Africa!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boys Reaching Out: A Photo Tribute

Camp season is over here in Benin, but I'm still running on the caffeine high and enjoying all the amazing pictures from the last week in Ouidah!  Thanks to the amazing Alex Peterson for putting this together!

Over the week, we covered so many topics including malaria, sexual health, human rights, art, music, hygiene and HIV/AIDS.  We took the kids on field trips to the Python Temple, Portuguese Slave Fort, and many saw the beach for the first time.  Back at camp, we played soccer, sang songs, completed an epic relay race and enjoyed countless laughs.  It truly was an amazing week!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Magic of Discovery: Boys of Summer 2016

One of the best parts of Camp BRO Ouidah is the location. Ouidah is the perfect trifecta of culture, history and the beach. While Benin is known as the birthplace of Voodoo, Ouidah is referred to as the Vatican of Voodoo, the mecca that is all Vodun. In addition to the myriad of statues scattered around the city representing various voodoo deities, there are temples, sacred forests and almost daily parades of different costumed spirits. Although it sometimes feels like a sleepy beach town, the cultural scene is alive and well.

Where voodoo is colorful and lively, Ouidah also has a dark history as one of the main slave ports in West Africa. Slave traders from the north would collect slaves in Allada, a city about 1 hour away, and march their “property” to the shores of the Atlantic. The only building that remains today is a Portuguese fort, that was burned down and reconstructed as a slave museum. Today, you can tour inside the battered ramparts, where slaves were lined up, valued and sold before making their way to the ships.

Sarah is a brave soul!
Yesterday, we took the boys on a tour of the Fort. It was eerie and sad as we watched these young men realize the horrors of the past. Hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through the stone gates, being ripped away from their family, their ancestral lands and their rich African culture. The boys learned about the slave trade and the role of the Dahomey kings in the sale of their own people. At the end of the tour, they asked us, “why?” Sometimes, we don't have the right answer.

Coming off the sobering field trip at the fort, we left this morning to visit the Python Temple of Ouidah. Perhaps one of the most touristy attractions in Benin, it is also a very important site for Voodoo worshippers. Pythons are holy animals in Voodoo and the temple hosts upwards of 50, ranging from small little babies to, what I would consider, monster-sized beasts. Having become a hysterical wreck during my last visit to the Temple a year ago, I swore I wouldn't hold another python, but I entered the walled enclosure with the boys and watched as each bravely wrapped a snake around their neck and smiled for a photo. At the end of our visit, Lainey and I stayed behind and snapped a few pictures, but kept our distance.

From the temple, the group started down the slave route, a 5 km walk from the slave market to the shore. Along the path, the slaves were put through 6 stages of cultural cleansing in the attempt to reduce them to nothing but property for their journey to the New World. Walking in shackles, the slaves renounced their homelands, families and loved ones. Many slaves died en route and were buried in a mass grave where we paused and had a moment of silence. As we walked, the boys began to realize what the walk actually meant. We were doing it leisurely, in memoriam, but for decades, this was a route of pain, loss and suffering.

The last stage of the slave route is the Point of No Return. Now recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, there is a large arch that represents the gateway to the New World and a life of Slavery. We walked through the gates and were greeted by the sand and ocean that laid on the other side. At the sight of the water, the boys began running. For most here, this was the first time they had seen the ocean. It was magical watching them sprint down to the shores, coming to rest on the top of a high dune, poised right above the splashing waves.

The magic of seeing the ocean for the first time!
The boys stood above the water in awe of the majestic immensity of the ocean. The blue water stretched for miles and the horizon was just a thin white line in the distance. They looked terrified. One volunteer jumped off the dune and ran towards the water, signaling for the boys to follow. Moments after reading pure fear in the faces, it was all smiles. The boys leaped into the incoming waves, collected water in their bottles to bring back home and cart-wheeled down the sand. I have never seen such an intense reaction of happiness from children; it was magical.

Felix and I at the beach!
Camp is all about letting children learn in a way that's fun, giving them the opportunities to grow unencumbered, providing them with the teamwork and life skills to be productive members of society and empowering them to be leaders in their community. Throughout the week, we have shown these boys both the darkness and beauty in this world. I am so proud of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, these boys and this amazing country I call home.

Camp BRO Ouidah 2016!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Motivate, Educate and Celebrate: Summer Camp Honors the Girls of Benin

Camp GLOW was everything I wanted it to be, and more. Much like attending camp as a child, I was sad to leave yesterday. The pouring rains were fitting for the voyage home; we danced, enjoyed road snacks and sang our favorite camp songs. From start to finish, it was a blast.

The week started with a pre-test to assess participants knowledge of various topics that would be covered over the course of the week. It touched on malaria, menstrual hygiene, resources for vioence against women, sanitation and nutrition. As a group, the average on day one was 40%, clearly not a passing grade. When I graded the post-tests however, I was elated to announce that the group achieved a 84% average, with several girls receiving perfect scores. So, not only was camp a fun experience, but an effective opportunity to educate and motivate these young girls to become leaders in their community and promoters of healthy habits in their homes.

There is no way camp would have succeeded without the tireless work of the other directors, our amazing team of volunteers and their wonderful homologues, adults in their communities who assisted run activities, explain lessons in terms that the girls could understand and monitor the girls at night. Their presence was an absolute blessing. One homologue even brought her baby, and little Ebenezer became a pillar of the Camp GLOW experience.

Despite the addition of educational sessions, we spent hours with the girls outside the classroom, challenging their creativity, teamwork and introducing them to new programs. Each day, girls chose to participate in one of four different activities: yoga, self-defense, computers or art. By the last day, the yoga girls were in perfect vinyasas, our self-defense girls were blocking and throwing jabs, our computer girls impressed us with their ability to use a mouse and open new programs and the art girls dazzled us with their portrait-drawing and cootie-catcher making skills. During the afternoon, we presented the girls with team challenges: relay races, egg drops, straw tower building competitions and a scavenger hunt. We watched as natural leaders emerged from each colored team and girls began to take care of each other. There's no doubt that each girl returned home with the memory and knowledge of forming 50 new friendships.

The power of camp and the importance of my work here came to a shattering halt on Wednesday morning when one of our campers, who had been complaining about a stomach ache since arriving, began vomiting during a session on reproductive health. We made the call to take her to the health center for a consultation, aware that it was unlikely to be malaria. At the health center, I sat with her while they took her temperature and vital signs. When she didn't have a fever, I suggested to the nurses that she do a pregnancy test. The city nurses sized up my 14-year-old camper with wide eyes but acquiesced. Five minutes later, with a positive result in my hands, I had the difficult responsibility to tell this young girl that she was pregnant. My stomach dropped as I watched her future flash before her eyes. While I don't know how she became pregnant, it was an instant reminder of the fate of many young girls here in Benin. Although this young woman was a top performing student in school, she will now be forced to drop out, and it is unlikely that she will ever return. The news crushed me, but I was happy to bring her back to camp, where I knew, despite her little secret, that she would find comfort in her new friends and enjoy a couple last days of just being a kid.

Camp, no matter where you are in the world, is a place of freedom, fun and friendships. Every girl, regardless of their village, background, age, grade level or economic upbringing, was given the opportunity to just enjoy a week away from home, free from daily chores, pumping water and caring for younger siblings. As a camp director, I walked away on cloud nine. The smiles and laughter were contagious and I feel like we did our part to motivate, educate and celebrate the girls of Benin.   

Saturday, July 16, 2016

These Girls Rock!

After an amazing week at camp, it's sad to say goodbye.  Our days have been jam packed with games, chants, educational sessions, team challenges and more smiles than I can count.  Here's a little sneak peek into the shenanigans of the last couple days up here in Parakou!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!!!

When I think of summer, I am brought back to my weeks at camp.  I remember making friendship bracelets, playing capture the flag, singing campfire songs and eating all the foods my parents would never let me have at home (ie. Fruit Loops and doughboys!)  As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was so excited to learn about the summer camp programs that we offer to youth here in Benin.  Starting on Sunday, I kicked off two weeks of campy fun all over the country.

Welcome to Camp!!
Camp GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, is a program offered to girls who have completed 6-4 eme level, the equivalent of American middle school.  This year there are several different GLOW programs across Benin, but I volunteered to coordinate the camp in Parakou, a city located about 4 hours north of Adourekoman.  For the last several months, I have been planning, budgeting and preparing for the camp with my two amazing co-coordinators!

This Sunday, I packed up a car, filled it with supplies ranging from soccer balls to moringa powder and wooden phalluses to friendship bracelet string.  In addition to being fun, camp is educative.  We have organized sessions on malaria, hand washing, leadership, goal setting, women's health, financial literacy, and so much more!  I invited 6 girls from Adourekoman to participate this year, and they all arrived early, smiling ear to ear and excited to head up!

Discussing the myths of malaria transmission!
Whether I was a camper or a counselor, I used to always get butterflies as I drove to camp for the summer.  This year, while riding shotgun in a Beninese bush taxi, those butterflies were back.  I couldn't wait to get started.  The trip was painless, which is a miracle itself here.  We arrived at the school where we are holding the camp, which functions as a technical school during the year, helped the girls install mosquito nets in their bunk rooms and gave them a tour of the site.  Its a great location, complete with three bunk rooms, a shower hall and multiple soccer fields and basketball courts.  

Once all the teams had arrived and settled in, the directors welcomed everyone to camp, taught the special GLOW cheer and played a couple rounds of lumberjack ninjas, my favorite game from the wonder years.  Dinner was akassa with fish, a treat for the girls, and afterwards they were all excited to go hang out and meet their new friends.  The girls have come from 8 different villages, so it's fascinating to watch girls interact in French and see them sharing their different cultures.

During "choice" time, the girls can choose between yoga,
self-defense, art and computers!
This morning, we started with a visit from the tailor, who measured each of the girls for school uniform dresses, which they will receive at the end of the week. John and I followed that with a session on malaria before another volunteer conducted a lesson on nutrition and a visiting volunteer taught the girls about the benefits of moringa and helped them plant seeds.  The afternoon was spent playing sports, learning the essentials of hand washing and making up team cheers.  

Over the course of the week, the girls will be participating in team activities that will force them to make friends, try new things and learn about a variety of different health and life skills.  Even after one day, there has been an amazing transformation as some of the girls have stepped out of their shells and emerged as leaders among their colored teams.

Tonight we capped off the day with ice cream sundaes.  Since ice cream is hard to come by, we used Fan Milk, a icy milk cream concoction that is sold in plastic sachets and squeezed into your mouth.  Each girl got her own sundae, complete with whipped cream, chocolate fudge sauce and crushed peanuts. Let's just say, there were no complaints here!

Camp continues this week with the girls, and I will be bringing boys down south next Sunday for Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others).  Stay tuned for more camp updates and photos!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Relishing the Differences

Although there are some major differences between my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin and my pre-PC life, I'm always surprised by how many things have stayed the same over the past year. Sure, I live without running water and electricity, can't buy fresh produce on a daily basis while roaming through the aisles of a big grocery store and my definition of dressed now includes a sports bra and two meters of colorful fabric (which would have been a total fashion faux pas in my past life!) I don't want to exaggerate, but some aspects of life have gotten easier since moving to West Africa.

Being social in America always required making plans, getting ready, arriving on time and usually making small talk with strangers. Here in village, however, I am constantly entertaining. My house is a revolving door of women who come to say hi and make sure I'm eating, children who want bubble gum, tattoos or just some time to color away from home, and village leaders who stop in with new ideas on how to grow our community. I find myself boiling large pots of water to serve tea to my visitors, and always having snacks on hand for hungry kids.  While I never knew my neighbors in America, I have become family to the 2000 people living around me. There is something beautiful in sharing customs, goals and the mundane tasks of daily life with people who, on paper, appear so different.

As much as I integrate into Beninese culture and village life, I will always be an American, a foreigner. I don't think I'll ever enjoy eating a mayonnaise sandwich or refrain from cringing every time my neighbor slaughters a goat.   But, now I have these experiences, stories, and a new perspective on the patchwork of our global community. And for that I am so lucky.

This past week, I celebrated the Fourth of July surrounded by Peace Corps friends, both Beninese and American. Nothing says July 4th like cold beer, burgers and red, white and blue, no matter where you are in the world. I enjoyed teaching some of the Peace Corps staff how to build the perfect burger (with ketchup, mustard AND relish, of course) singing all the lyrics to "summer of '69," and watching them look quizically at potato salad that still had the skin. Although most people think my role as a PCV is strictly health related, I've realized it's so much more than that. I'm a cultural ambassador, a student and a member of a community that I truly love.

Benin has taught me that you can never walk alone in life. Despite how different the people around you may act, look, talk or dress, we all want the same things. Happiness is sharing, learning, growing and laughing, no matter where you are. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Labor of Love

Well, it certainly wasn't the love of labor. I've been struggling for a couple days trying to decide how I wanted to share this story from last week. It struck a chord that brought me to a shattering halt, reminding me that no matter where you are, everyone has their struggles. Sometimes we get caught up in the successes that we forget about the human factor. So, here we go.

It was quiet in the health center on Tuesday. A couple children had come in with cases of malaria, but other than that, everyone was just keeping busy with paperwork in preparation for our quarterly supervision visit. We had the new lights on in the consultation room and cell phones charging away in our new charging station. The only noise was a low moaning coming from the outer lobby.

Leonie is 18 years old, a good student and from a well respected family in the community. She was also in her 9th hour of labor. Since there's not much we can do to induce labor, it's a waiting game. The midwife kept checking on her and it was getting close. I took her hand and we walked to the delivery room. The pain was etched across her face. Beninese women never shout, scream, or swear. Somehow, they remain composed, taking each contraction with a wince and deep breath.  Leonie was no different.

Once on the bed, things moved quickly. I'm always shocked by how little pushing is actually required once we get the women on the table. She squeezed my hand and arched her back with every push, trying to stay as relaxed as possible. A minute later, the baby had arrived. We placed it on her chest and carefully cut the cord.  She didn't see the child, just threw her head to the side in agony. The birth had resulted in a total episiotomy, a procedure that we repair within minutes of delivering the placenta, but without any local anesthesia. I knew she was already in excruciating pain and I couldn't break the news to her that we'd have to stitch her up. I kept talking to her, counting deep breaths and complimenting her on her great job. Ironically, bon travail can mean both good work and good labor.

After delivering the placenta, Sabine started the sutures while the nurse aids cleaned up the baby. It was a healthy and beautiful baby boy!! Like each birth I attend, I immediately got all googly eyed, busying myself by making fishy faces and blowing raspberries. One of the aids was guiding Leonie through the process and she was a total trooper!

With the baby swaddled and in my cradled arms, I stood next to Leonie as she breathed through the resulting pain from non anesthesia stitches. I kept reminding her to breathe while counting to try and calm her down. After a couple minutes, I looked at her and asked if she wanted to hold the baby. I told her it was a healthy boy. I expected elation, but the look in her eyes was despair. She asked me to repeat it; yes, it's a boy. She began to sob.

I've seen many birth while here in Benin, and none have ended in tears. I had no idea what to do, so I did the first think that came to mind. I held the baby close and sang the lullaby that my dad used to sing to me every night. Somehow it calmed all three of us down. The vulnerable child in my arms, the weeping young woman on the table who had just endured the most intense pain of her life, and the only white girl in miles, feeling helpless.

I don't know why she was crying and I don't know what her situation is. I don't know the father and I don't know if she will ever continue her education. I do know, however, that this baby will be welcomed with open arms to my loving community and soon become a member of my growing village family. Life is a gift and health is a blessing. Leonie is just another of the strong women I've met along my path here, and I'm so proud of her, her resilience and the wonderful mother she will become. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Let There Be Light!

When my predecessor first moved to Adourekoman in 2014, she dreamed of bringing solar powered light to the the village health center.  Two years later, this dream has finally come true.

After many village wide meetings, getting buy-in from all of the village elders and their respective families, I submitted a funding request to the Peace Corps to purchase solar panels, a refrigerator and delivery bed for the health center.  The solar panels would allow for light fixtures throughout the center, including in the delivery and consultation rooms, where staff often used cell phone flashlights to illuminate the area.  We churned through batteries that then got tossed in a growing trash pile behind the center; it was not a sustainable solution.  With the panels, we could also purchase a fridge to provide vaccinations in village.  Now, villagers won't have to travel to vaccinate their children and we will be able to vaccinate newborns right after their delivery.  It's been a long process, but it's been wonderful to see this dream come to fruition and watch my community come together and work towards improving health care in Adourekoman.  

Once the grant request was submitted, it was posted online for fundraising.  With the help of friends, family and countless RPCVs from Benin, we met our funding goal.  With the funds, we were able to begin construction of a raised platform for the panels and order caging units for the batteries to protect them from theft, hungry goats and rock pelting children.  One morning, Fortune and I left village at 4 am to travel with our solar panel technician to Cotonou, where we purchased the panels, regulators, converters, batteries, lightbulbs and dozens of meters of cable.  

Back in village, the technician called in his team and immediately got to work setting up the panels and wiring the lights.  The villagers contributed to constructing the platform and spoke to the metalsmith to order the frame.  Within a couple hours, the first lightbulb was installed and illuminating the consultation room, where the staff was already busy conducting prenatal consultations.  Later that day, lights were placed in the delivery room and waiting area, where patients often rest or visitors wait for their loved ones at night.  I was so impressed by how well the community was driving this project and loved watching Fortune take on the role of Project Manager in the field.  

Now that the panels and lights are installed, we are starting with the next phase of the project.  We are waiting on the fridge to arrive, but I am working to train the health center staff on hand washing in the clinical, the importance of vaccinations and the diseases that they prevent here in Benin. I also found a great educational video that discusses vaccinations in the context of Voodoo, a religion that is practiced throughout my community.  By pairing traditional and modern medicine, we can address women's concerns and assure them that vaccinations are truly critical to their child's health. 

While watching the lights switch on for the first time has been one of my highlights while here in Benin (it was accompanied by shrieks from children as they watched the room go from darkness to illumination), nothing beats welcoming the first child born at night in the newly lit maternity ward. Having sat with her mother for the last several months and given her advice on maternal nutrition and her birthing plan, it was an absolute joy to welcome Marrlyn to my Adourekoman family.  I can't wait for more babies to enter this world and receive quality health services from the start.

One of the most important lessons I've learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer is that our role here is to support and motivate our communities.  Despite the grand visions that we may have to improve the lives of those around us, it simply doesn't work that way.  We strive to build local capacity and provide our partners with the skills that they need to grow.  This project has taught me that, when working as a community, anything, even bringing light to a community living in total darkness, is possible. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Malaria: It's a N(e)tsy Business

So, remember the craziness that was World Malaria Month and the massive net distribution that the Benin Against Malaria committee conducted in Cotonou (Think Ladji(stics))?  Well, the team recently went back to check on our nets and their recipients to determine whether they are being used properly and by whom.  After postponing our follow up due to torrential rain, Ben, Evan and I set out to visit houses in the community with some of our local counterparts.  Despite having to duck inside from another downpour (I bless the rains down in Africa), we were able to visit about 250 of the nets that were distributed.  By using the CommCare application build for this distribution, we counted the age and gender of each net user, the quality of the net and whether it was actually being used. 

In all, the distribution was a great success! People seem to be using the nets and understanding their importance.  As always, following malaria rates over the next couple months will be the true measure of our success in behavior change.  For more data, check out this little infographic I put together below!

Also, although I'm reluctant to release this publicly, I finally got my hands on the video from by malaria interview with BB24.  Once you get past the blue eyeshadow and pink lipstick that the makeup artist threw on me minutes before going on camera, it's a pretty good piece of journalism marking the malaria efforts across the country including those by Peace Corps.  So, for your viewing pleasure, here is my infamous Beninese TV debut:

Although World Malaria Month is over, the Benin Against Malaria committee and Peace Corps Volunteers across Benin remain committed to the fight against malaria.  Stay tuned for more malaria updates and highlights of our work!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Be(nin) a Variant: Why it matters

On an atomic level, we are all the same. Quite simply, our bodies are just a delicate balance of chemicals and elements that miraculously work together, creating life as we know it. And yet, despite our identical internal makeup, we feel the need to differentiate, categorize, label, and hate others who appear different on the outside. Why is this the world in which we live?

Before joining the Peace Corps, I worked at a genetics laboratory on the forefront of personalized medicine. In genetics, no one is the same. While we all start out from millions of nucleotide base pairs, problems during replication can cause variants that either have negative, positive or undetermined consequences. From a clinical perspective, each person's genetic code was the key to solving their disease.  We analyzed their  differences to provide medical support, counselor their families and  helped them plan for their futures.  I believe that we were saving lives.

It was at work one afternoon when I opened my email and found out about my acceptance to the Peace Corps in Benin. After my initial shock, I googled Benin, embarrassed that I couldn't place this small West African country on a map. I turned to my colleagues to tell them the news and realized I had no idea how to even pronounce Benin. Is it Been-in, Beh-neh or Ben-neh?! We laughed about it for a while and started calling it benign, the classification of a genetic variant that is neither helpful or harmful to your health. It exists in harmony with its surroundings (and often throws medical scientists for a loop when trying to actually determine its true purpose!)

And that's how the Benin Variant was born. As a peace corps volunteer, I know I won't change the world. But, I know that I can be a variant in the lives of those around me. Being a variant means celebrating differences, challenging stereotypes and ultimately working to mark the world a better place. With one year in Benin on the books, its incredible to think about how many new people I have welcomed into my life, learned from and grown with. And that's what this blog is all about: sharing, learning, accepting and questioning. I hope the next year is just as fruitful.

With the recent events in the US and worldwide, this is a reminder to be a variant in this world. While on some level we are all the same, it's our tiny differences that make us unique and give us the power to build a world worth fighting for.

Let's not wake up to more news of hate, terror and discrimination and instead preach love is love is love is love.  My heart goes out to the whole world tonight, for we are all in need of healing.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Akassa: A taste of community in Benin

After a couple weeks of travel around the country, meetings and various other engagements, returning to village feels like coming home.  Not only is my actual house a place of quiet (well, save the kids and goats) but everyone here feels like family.  When I arrived on Tuesday, after a treacherous bus ride that resulted in me getting splashed in vomit, I was greeted with a running hug from Alphonse, who has become my little village shadow.  He follows me everywhere and cries when I go home and close the door.  This morning, he sobbed for 15 minutes when I wouldn’t let him come over because I had to shower.  One thing they don’t warn you about Peace Corps is that, after a while, you’ll forget where home is.
Alphonse and I, happily reunited.
While Adourekoman used to be simply the village I was assigned, it has become that village that I was gifted.  The people, the work and the comfort I feel make every day back feel like I won the Peace Corps lottery.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are hard moments.  But those are far outweighed by the joys of watching the village embrace change, move towards development and include me in that process.  And, even when we aren’t tackling big projects, it’s nice to be part of the celebration.
This weekend marks two major events in village.  First, it is the death anniversary of my best friend’s father.  She has been working tirelessly to prepare 16 matching tissu outfits for the ceremony and it’s been fun watching everyone pitch in.  It is also the “liberation” ceremony for the apprentice seamstresses in Okouta.  The five women have passed their exams and are being “freed” into the world of employment.  After years of apprenticeship, they are so excited to work on their own and finally leave, what some would view as, a life of modern servitude. 

After boiling, the liquid layer
is separated from the corn sediment
through a series of sieves.
Sabine fills plastic bags with the
hot akassa mixture
In addition to the clothing preparations, the women have been busy making akassa, a typical Beninese dish consisting of corn flour.  It’s been a “all hands on deck” effort as they made bags upon bags of the globby white mash for all the weekend’s festivities.  The process starts by grinding dry corn kernels into flour.  While some do this by hand, most villagers send the grains to a mill down the road where they pay about 50 cents to grind the contents of one cement sack (think a large reusable shopping bag).  Once the flour has cooled, it is boiled until it reaches a milky consistency.  Additional flour is added and the pot is left to cool, allowing the corn meal to settle to the bottom.  The liquid layer is drained off and stored overnight, while the corn meal (sediment) is discarded (and often fed to the pigs.) The next morning, the liquid undergoes another sieve separation before being boiled again.  During the boiling, a small amount of sediment is added until it becomes thick, like a heavy pudding.  While still hot, the women spoon it into plastic bags and tie them off, leaving the akassa to cool in the form of small balls.  The akassa stays in the bags until served, often cold, with a side of spicy pepper sauce and fish.  It’s not my favorite, but it’s Benin’s delicacy!

Akassa, bagged and cooling for the big fete!
Learning how to prepare local dishes has been one of my favorite ways to learn about my community and the culture.  Even more importantly, the women always think its funny when I struggle to stir the contents of a pot that’s bigger than my body and hotter than the surface of the sun!  (And humor is the key to cultural integration success!)


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Peace Corps Fac(ToT)ums

To say that running a Peace Corps program is a logistical nightmare is a complete understatement. Before even arriving in Benin, I had already communicated with a placement officer, been interviewed by a regional officer, submitted countless medical documents to a nurse for review, been contacted by my future program manager and participated in a long distance conference call with other invitees and host country staff. Between the countless emails, documents and travel arrangements, I was quite shocked when staging ran flawlessly in DC and we arrived in Benin after two long-haul, yet uneventful, flights. For months, the staff in Benin had been preparing for our arrival, but I had no idea what that actually looked like. This week at Training of Trainers (ToT), I got to see behind the scenes, experiencing the programming side of Peace Corps as a trainer for the incoming Stage 29 volunteers, who will begin their own PC adventure in September.

A couple months ago, I was on the fence about applying to be a trainer. Between my commitments to national committees and ongoing village projects, I was weary about pulling myself away from my community to facilitate the training program for the new batch of PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees.) I decided to apply however, and use my experiences, both the good and bad, to serve as a resource for the next group. This year, Peace Corps Benin is piloting a new approach to training called the community based training, or CBT, model. Instead of having all volunteers grouped by sector, as we were in Se, volunteers will be split up into smaller groups in smaller villages, enabling better community integration, more hands-on practice and a more realistic glimpse of their actual service. While this new model aims to create more autonomous volunteers, it raises some new questions about how to provide adequate technical training and the best practices for challenging different adult learning styles.  Regardless of how we approach training though, it is ultimately up to the volunteers to develop their own skills to help them become Peace Corps factotums, problem solvers and Jacks (or Jills) of all trades.

This past week was all about preparing us to support, challenge and motivate the PCTs that will arrive in June (TEFL program) and September (RCH, EA and CED). We discussed language acquisition, designed training modules based on the technical curriculum and revised the calendar of training events more times than I can count. While the entire training is 12 weeks long, there are three RCH PCVR (PCV Resources) to split up the time; I will be with the new stage for about 4 weeks. During that time we will be covering everything from malaria and women's health, to staying healthy and learning about Beninese culture. Having survived this process a year ago, I have a better understanding about the challenges PCTs face and how to remain resilient, become a successful volunteer, and embark on the journey of the toughest job you'll ever love!

Rebecca and I "enjoying" some Nescafe during a week of training.
Sometimes resilience presents itself as a cup of pure bitterness.
Oh the woes of caffeine addiction!

Needless to say, I am so excited to meet and work with everyone who will joining us here in Benin. I can't believe it has almost been a year since I set foot in West Africa, took up French and started acquiring a collection of tissu fabric. It's been a wild year of exploration, mistakes (don't touch your eyes when hand grinding peppers!), celebration and friendship. I look forward to sharing this and watching the next generation make their mark here in Benin!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What's the Buzz: The Success of World Malaria Month

World Malaria Month is officially over, the numbers have been tallied, and I finally feel like I can live and breath something other than malaria.  I'm officially apologizing for ranting to anyone who will listen about malaria prevention, Benin Against Malaria programming or fighting for the cause.  I appreciate your support as we work to build initiatives that will ultimately lead to disease elimination in Benin.

As a country, Benin STOMPed OUT MALARIA this month.  The following newspaper article came out in the Beninese journal and I am still working to get my hands on the TV interview I gave on BB24 after the net distribution in Ladji!

To promote malaria related programming amongst volunteers in Benin, the BAM Committee hosted a competition to challenge volunteers to launch new initiatives in their villages.  Together, we reached so many people, impacted thousands of lives across the country.  I am so proud to work amongst such motivated and dedicated people here in Benin!  Check out our success stats (and my first attempt at graphic design below!)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Blistering My Way to a Green Thumb and Community Health

When you think of food security, what comes to mind? Your first thought is probably running out of food, famine or malnutrition. While those are all parts of food security, our programs here also target food availability, diversity, and accessibility. In order to tackle all three at once, my Care Group decided to build a community garden that will serve as a nutrition training site for women in the village.
Finishing up our fence!
Our teaching garden is located next to the health center, an area frequented by almost every mother in the community, including those who come for regular prenatal consultations. We decided to build it using the permagarden model; the idea is that the garden can feed a family year-round due to some special techniques that improve soil quality and increase production. Although one is supposed to build this type of garden next to a house, where rain can fall off a roof and collect in special chambers that then funnel water and irrigate the garden beds, this central location in Adourekoman makes it an ideal site for our nutrition and food security initiatives.

Searching for bits of charcoal at abandoned sites
on the outskirts of village.
Since I have little to no experience with gardening, I partnered up with Rebecca, a fellow PCV in the Environmental Action sector, who is my go-to expert on all things green (or living, re: goats, chickens, sheep etc.). Using Peace Corps resources and a technical exchange, Rebecca and her homologue, Athanase, came and taught all 15 of my women how to build this garden. It was a great day, full of laughs and hard work (trust me, I have the sunburn and blisters to prove it!)

Teaching the double digging technique
Before even starting the garden, we had to pick out our plot of land, clear it and build a fence. When we decided on the overgrown area by the health center, I was skeptical. To my untrained and amateur gardening eye, the untamed jungle I was looking at looked unconquerable. But, my women marched right in there, machetes in hand, and left no weed standing. Within a week, they had started constructing a fence around our 30 m2 plot, collecting charcoal and manure and, within another week, we were ready to plant!

Teamwork (and measuring that our beds are about 1 m across!)
Rebecca and Athanase arrived on Wednesday morning to survey our terrain and start digging. He marked out where our beds would be dug and began to teach the women about the importance of double digging. Double digging is the most critical part of the garden. This technique allows for the introduction of new micronutrients into the soil, loosens up deeper and harder soils to allow for root growth and aerates the entire bed to enable better irrigation and production. While this all sounds great, it is extremely labor intensive. First you dig the top 20 cm of soil, passing through the entire bed, then do a second pass to loosen up another 30-40 cm of tougher soil, which here in the Collines is mostly clay and rock. With each pass, we added charcoal, crushed snail shells, and manure to the soil, mixing it throughout. It was hot, but my women are superheroes and powered through!

Churning up our super enriched soil!
Despite what you may think, this was not staged!
After digging the beds, we leveled them with a rake and added yet another layer of charcoal, manure, ash and shells to the topsoil. By building in a little brim on the side of each bed, we tried to prevent erosion of the beds and ensure that water is retained by the vegetables in the soil. 

Planting, finally!
 With our beds prepared for seeding, with split the plots in thirds and planted a mixture of local legumes and other vegetables, such as carrots, cabbage and cucumbers, which I am trying to introduce into the local diet. The women are really excited to see how their tomatoes and soma, a local leafy green, turn out, since I've promised them that double digging makes a huge difference in terms of quality and quantity of the produce!
Celebrating reaching a depth of 55 cm! 
It's only been three days, but the women are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our new veggies. They've designed a watering schedule amongst the 15 of them to ensure that everything stays properly hydrated during this period of insufficient rains. Some of them have even come by to ask me for seeds to start their own family gardens.

Fortune leading the watering charge!
I may not have a green thumb, but I'm well on my way to building up a green community!

If one's gotta garden, you may as well do it in style!