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!)