Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bless the Rains Down in Africa

So following in my current trend of infrequent blog posts, I hereby give you the first post of the year! It’s going to be quite a doozy, with not so many visual additions, so hope you are interested enough to read all the way to the end.  Many things have been a-happening, so let’s get to it:

Happy New Year! And I guess by time I’m posting this, Happy Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day too!  I am really looking forward to this year, as there are a lot of things on the docket I am excited about. Having officially been employed now by the Meriwether Foundation since October, it is great to know that I have a job.  As I am typing, I am currently at our new preschool feeding program in Livingstone, Zambia.  There are plans to possibly be back in March and May, with trips with volunteers in the summer.  I may also have a chance to visit the East Coast for some public and global health conferences, for which I am really excited about, because it means I may actually get to see some college friends I haven’t seen in a while. 

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since finishing grad school, almost 4 years since graduating from college.  Just in that year, it feels like I was floating, job hunting and not really quite sure where I would end up, be it Los Angeles or somewhere else.  It was hard to feel like I had settled into some kind of routine, that I was living the life a 25 year-old should be, and that I was finally getting a career started and moving forward.  But now with this year, I have a job with awesome benefits of traveling across the world on a semi-regular basis, I have a new apartment, and I have a better sense of where God is leading me for this next year.  What blessings God has rained down upon me!

As for the things happening in Africa, I am really excited for what lies ahead for the programs here, and the sheer potential for awesome stuff to happen.  The main purpose of this sojourn to the African continent was to open the preschool program in Zambia.  Two years ago, I helped to start the nutrition and preschool program in South Africa, and it is truly an awesome experience to help and start a similar program in Zambia.  In addition to the preschool nutrition aspect, we are also attempting to build a clinic in a rural village, Manyemunyemu.  I know – it’s a bit of a tongue twister!  The current clinic is run only by one nurse, and does not have nearly enough supplies or equipment to make it functional.  It serves the surrounding nine villages, but most people would rather walk the 16 kilometers to the nearest hospital if something serious were to befall them.  The plans are to create almost a mini hospital, with maternity wards, a small surgery theatre, and a pharmacy, with hopes to include a mobile clinic from a refurbished ambulance.

The villages served by the existing clinic
 So most days here so far have consisted of going to the site of the preschool program, which is a house that we are renting and have renovated to include two classrooms and a clinic room to receive any walk-ins and take care of any children that may fall ill during the day.  Trying to get a program up and started when you only have a week is no easy feat, but I think we have managed to do a pretty good job of orienting the staff and getting things started into some sort of organized chaos.  The first day was mainly just to register the children, get a copy of their under-5 health cards (which I ended up having to take pictures of with my phone because the printer’s scan function decided to be difficult), and introduce the parents to the staff. 
New moon in the sky

The children who are being enrolled in our program have been identified from the hospitals as being 
malnourished, and using information collected with the help of our social worker, are the most vulnerable.  There are 50 in total, all from surrounding “catchment” areas in Livingstone, which are compounds or neighborhoods.  Many are rundown, have poor roads, and overall rather disheartening living circumstances.  The last time I was here, we had the chance to see each child’s home and it was heart breaking to see the conditions in which they lived.  Not only that, but these children will have to walk to our site, which is not exactly close to some of their homes, which is why we plan to get some way to transport them.  Even now, some children have not made it to the program yet because it is so far and because the sporadic torrential rains have made walking nearly impossible with muds washing out bridges.

Speaking of rains, it has actually been raining almost every day since we’ve arrived here, which has provided a nice break from the hot weather that is common during this time of year, but has made it hell to drive anywhere.  Because of poor drainage and city planning, not to mention the lack of paved roads away from the downtown area, many roads become pot-hole ridden streams of dirt, water, and mud.  Without the use of four-wheel drive vehicles, it can be very difficult to drive around, and imagine how it must be for a nation where most people do not even have cars.  Not only does it affect driving, but for our program where we are trying to cook meals for children outside, due to the high expense of purchasing a stove, it makes preparing meals rather difficult as well.

Mirriam and Philemon during registration
Back to the preschool, again, the days are filled with getting the teachers acquainted with the children and the schedule of topics to be covered and the breaks for meals and playtime.  After the initial assessment of the children by weight and height, I use the CDC and WHO growth charts to plot their growth, so that we can determine any changes, and hopefully be able to see some gains in weight.  I also have been helping the staff figure out the printer and teach some basic computer skills.  I never really realized how innate I have taken my computer knowledge, perhaps because I grew up in a house where computers were a regular fixture, and because my dad works as a computer engineer.  But to come here were technology is slowly becoming introduced, much less how to operate a basic computer, it seems that I have taken for granted how easy it is for me use one.  And so, I have been making a number of hopefully idiot-proof guidelines on how to scan things into the computer, as well as a fairly detailed “How to Excel” instruction manual.  Because this organization operates internationally, it is essential that its staff members become some what computer literate, with the sending of reports to board members and the use of a computer-based preschool curriculum.

As most of my days have been spent sitting at a computer while training some of the staff, I have discovered how important ergonomics is in an office workplace.  I definitely take for granted a comfortable chair when you are sitting for hours on end.  Sitting in a poorly constructed wooden chair is increasingly uncomfortable, and when you are working for almost 12 hours straight, then go to dinner to sit on another wood chair without a cushion, your butt starts to get bruised.  When we finally got back to our lodgings, all I wanted to do was lie down and never get back up again.  After we got the new chairs, I was in heaven.  So be thankful for seat cushions and lumbar support.

While the days have been filled with lots of work and training, the nights have been chockfull of football (or soccer as the Americans say) and the most amazing food.  There were the final two games of the Africa Cup that we watched with much gusto.

Makaya chicken in our trunk on their way to our stomachs
For the first few days in Zambia, we were going around town trying to get supplies for the program before it started, and as such, somehow ran out of time to buy food for lunch, leading us to eat at Hungry Lion, the Zambian version of KFC.  I have never eaten fried chicken three days in a row, but I guess, there’s a first time for everything.  But that’s not the amazing food.  One of the board members just opened a restaurant with plans to build a lodge as well, and after visiting there, we’ve been eating there every night with relish.  Nshima (the staple food made out of maize meal and boiled into a thick consistency), Zambian eggplant (which looks like small yellow round tear drops), okra (which I never eaten so much of in my life), pumpkin leaves with peanut butter (sounds strange but is a regular menu item here), makaya chicken (local chickens that run around and are cooked into a stew), and mbuzi.  And what is mbuzi, you ask?  It’s goat.  I used to eat goat rather often when I was studying abroad in Kenya, and having really only eaten it there, this was a great throwback to when I first fell in love with Africa and the people here. 

We also had the amazing opportunity to meet the U.S. Ambassador for Zambia.  He had a pretty full schedule, but made the time to stop by and see our program.  It was an honor to even meet him, and be able to talk to him about what we are trying to do, as well as set up some future events with him.

Well, I think I should finish this up.  We still are going to Zimbabwe to open a clinic and then on to South Africa to check in on Zitha and the program there.  If you are still reading, thank you for making it all the way to the end.  And again, I will do my best to update regularly, but let’s be honest, I'm not so good at doing that.  Partly because I keep forgetting to take pictures of things, so I'll try to do better.

Until the next time, some words of wisdom: Make the smart choice and eat beans.