Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Girl Power

I have been wanting to write something about my friends who in the market here, because they are all so nice and they have my back if people try to rip me off or sell me less-than-fresh veggies (“No, no, no…don’t buy this stuff, go over there and get the good ones!”). As I sat down to write, though, it transformed into a testament to the força da mulher, or strength of women, that exists here in Africa. So instead of just the market ladies, here’s a few stories about my female friends in Mozambique and  how they are way stronger than you are (or I am).

First are the aforementioned market ladies. There are too many of them for individual pictures, but they are all awesome. These gals start their days at 2:00 or 3:00 AM by walking miles and miles to their machambas, or small personal farms, where they work tilling, planting and harvesting for about five hours. After that, they walk miles and miles back to the village where they set up their stands in the market selling veggies, fruits, flour, pasta, spices, and goods. Some of them bake or fry things and others buy goods in bulk from the city to sell at marked up prices here. They are business-savvy. They mark up prices when an item is scarce and they establish regular customers by giving bacelas, i.e. a bonus tomato or tangerine. They are also extremely generous. If I’m looking for something in the market that has run out, often times my friends will give me whatever it is from their personal stash mahala (fo’ free). Or they will start up the network of market lady communication that consists of yelling at each other like a big game of telephone until they’ve tracked down the roaming pineapple vendor and told her to come to the other side of the market to sell me a pineapple. Lo and behold, like magic the girl with a bucket of pineapples on her head will appear five minutes later and cut the rind off of one for me to hold by the stem and eat like a chicken leg. This system also applies to town gossip, so you’d better be on your best behavior around these ladies or the whole town will hear about it.

This is Balbina. She has a small shop where she sells goods but she makes most of her living cooking meals. We have a tradition of eating matapa (pulverized greens cooked in a coconut milk and peanut sauce, served with rice) with her every Sunday. She’s also our neighbor and very good friend who enjoys cooking American desserts like banana bread.  Balbina is a single mother of two, one daughter in college and a son in the second grade. Her husband passed away over a decade ago, and she supports herself and her children off of what she makes in her shop. Never have I heard her complain about money or her life here in Panda, nor have I heard her talk about wishing she had a man to support her.

This is Amelia, one of my students. She is in the ninth grade and one of the brightest and sweetest 
young ladies I have ever met. She’s always got a smile on her face. As the oldest girl living in her house, she wakes up early every morning to light the coal stove and make breakfast for everyone. She bathes her younger siblings and gets them dressed. After everyone is fed and the dishes are done, she heads into the market to sell vegetables from her family’s farm. She works until mid morning, when she will rush home to prepare lunch for the household, bathe, and go straight to school. She studies from noon until five and then goes home to prepare dinner, clean the house, get her siblings into bed and do all of her homework before going to sleep herself. The next day it starts all over again. If she’s dedicated and gets good grades, maybe her parents will let her go off to university or move to the city to get a job. More likely, though, she will be expected to stay at home and do domestic work until she finds a husband who will pay her father a nice lobola (dowry) for her. Still, she smiles and tells me she hopes to be a science teacher when I ask her what she wants to do after school.

This is Esperança, my newest amiga. She built this restaurant right across from my house about a
month ago and we have become best friends since then. She’s from the capitol city, Maputo, and she moved here because her husband is from here and as his wife it's her job to take care of the household. She says since she’s from the city it’s hard to make friends here, but we were kindred spirits from the moment we met. She likes to practice English with us and gives us frozen juice pops when it’s hot out.  When I asked about her husband, who works in South Africa and is away most of the time, she said it's hard being apart but only for her because since he is a man he has other girlfriends wherever he is. She said this without a second thought, because that's the way it is here. I asked her why she is okay with that and if it hurts her to know he is unfaithful. She replied "No, what hurts is to see it. Because it's happening so far away I can just not think about it and it doesn't hurt. But that's just the way men are." Unfortunately this is true for almost every single Mozambican couple. It's considered inconceivable to be faithful to your partner, which is one of the biggest reasons that HIV transmission is so high here.

These are a few of my REDES girls. REDES stands for Girls Involved in Development, Education and Health in Portuguese. We meet once a week to discuss issues that young women face in this country, including HIV vulnerability, domestic violence, rape, child marriages and forced marriages, lack of education and employment opportunities, pressure to conform to domestic roles, self-image and discrimination. They are always open and honest in our discussions and they surprise me every day with their insightful questions and observations. They are independent girls with big dreams and visions for their futures.

In addition to facilitating this small group, I have also been serving as the Assistant Coordinator of the REDES project. It’s almost time for me to hand over my position to new leadership, but in my time spent working with this organization I have learned so much about the importance of the empowerment and education of women in a society. The female education rate and involvement in income generation is one of the markers for a country to be considered developed. There’s a reason for this, and it is that in a society where women are empowered and allowed to join the workforce, its economic productivity increases significantly over those where they are not. This has been proven over a number of humanitarian studies, and I’ll reference them below if you are interested in the science behind it. You can also just take my word for it, but the basic principle behind this is that women are extremely hard and resilient workers.

You might have started thinking about some strong women you know, or you may be proud that I’m describing your own gender this way, but let me tell you about the women of the third world, because they blow you and me and every other lady with first world problems out of the water. They don’t make excuses or claim weakness or frailty. They don’t accept lowered expectations assigned to their gender, even in societies where their role in income generation is severely limited. They don’t even complain about being left out of the boy’s club. They rise above and beyond what’s expected of them. They do manual labor in extreme conditions with their babies strapped to their backs. They carry things weighing five times their own body weight. They find a way to make the most out of every day in order to support themselves and their families. Their actions are speaking loudly, and they’re showing us up.

Photo credit: Alex Ernst

So here’s what happens when I see all the sexist jokes and the anti-feminism attitude coming from the other side of the world: I get offended. But I don’t get offended on my own account. I am thinking of these women here, and women like them across the globe. I’m thinking of girls sold or forced into prostitution and traded as sex slaves. I’m thinking of the mail-order brides and the women who are blamed and persecuted for their own rapes. I’m not overreacting here…and I’m not blaming men either. It’s the fundamental idea that women matter less that breeds a society that oppresses women. You may not think anything of the sandwich joke, or the women-belong-in-the-kitchen quip, and I remember laughing at them myself, but the next time you hear one think of Amelia. Amelia is actually in the kitchen making food for her family, and she may very well have to stay there doing that because her society believes that is where she belongs.

There is change in the wind here though, and seeing it unfold is encouraging. This new generation of Mozambican women is taking control of the job market, politics and higher education. They are realizing their worth and demanding the respect they deserve. I can’t wait for the day the women of Africa take over the governments here, because there is nothing more formidable than one of these ladies when they get angry.  One of my friends once told me, referring to her husband, “He may be the boss at work or outside the house, but this is my house and when he walks through that door I am the boss.” Truer words have never been spoken. 

More reading on the female's role in economic development (if you're into that):

Friday, September 25, 2015

25 Mean Girls GIFs That Convey My Feelings About Coming Home.

I'll be home in November. That means only two months left of living this crazy African life, and two months til I'm shoved back into the crazy American life. There are many different emotions that arise when I think about this. Here are some gifs from Mean Girls to help sum them up.

 Going to America is going to be really overwhelming. I can see myself getting to the airport like:

So much has happened since I've been gone. Every time I get online I'm just like:

I know I'm going to be so out of touch that my friends won't know what to do with me.

And I'll just be saying all kinds of weird stuff that doesn't make sense to them.

There will be all kinds of things that people back home just won't get.

I'm already preparing my sarcastic responses to all of the Africa questions.

I'm really afraid people will be telling me their first world problems...

...and I'll just be like

Sometimes I get really excited to buy new clothes again!

...but then I remember I'm broke.

...and that all the white carbs of Moz cuisine were not friendly to my hips.

Moz was also not friendly to my skin/hair/nails/general health and well being.

I've got to job hunt from the technology black hole that is Africa, and I'm over here trying to make Peace Corps look good on my resume like:

Whatever. I'll probably have to get a second job as a drug dealer anyway in order to pay off my student loans.

Some things I will not miss about Peace Corps:
Being the odd one out.

People asking to buy my hair to use as weave.

Creepy dudes. Everywhere.

Giving the safe sex talk just about daily.

The impending risk of getting maimed in a traffic accident.

Things I will miss about Peace Corps:
Staying home from work and blaming malaria.

 Dancing like a fool at the discotecas.

The general lack of responsibilities, 'cause let's face it:

Most of all, my PCV peeps. Despite their quirks they have become some of my best friends.

Things I am looking forward to:
 Yes! Yes, I DO want to go to Taco Bell.

 'Til November. Be gentle, America.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dog Days

In honor of my pup's second year with us, I wanted to write a blog about having a dog in the Peace Corps. Before I came to Africa my dad told me a story about a volunteer he knew who had two pet mongeese that he brought back to America with him. After hearing that story along with numerous others about finding snakes in your house/bath/bed/shoes, I decided that my first order of business as a volunteer would be to find and train a mongoose to keep the snakes at bay. Instead I ended up with a dog who can't fetch, thinks the couch is hers and hers alone, and will come running from miles away if she hears a package of crackers opening. Despite her quirks though, she is a good dog. So here's an ode to Lua.

Lua is an approximately-two-year-old African mutt which I would describe as a mixture of whippet and jackal. My only basis for that assumption are her funky ears and how quick she is while chasing chickens. She will actually lap them when she catches up just so she can continue chasing after them. One thing about having a dog in Africa is the danger that someone will decide to poison, kill, or eat them. Yes, that's right…eat them. Dogs are generally mistreated and feared around here, and if one were to kill or injure your neighbor's livestock you can bet they'll be around for vengeance. Kids throw rocks at puppies and beat them with sticks, and adults are quick to toss boiling water at a dog sniffing around their yard for scraps. They are valued as guard animals, but even kept as such they can also be mistreated and poorly trained, making them mean and keeping up their stigma of being terrifying creatures. There are exceptions to this, though. Not all Mozambicans are afraid of dogs and we have been very lucky as everyone in our neighborhood loves Lua. They leave their leftover meat out for her so much that she often snubs her dinner at our house in preference for the neighborhood buffet.

(Grudgingly) Feeding her puppies...
Lua is very well trained, which helps with her reputation. She was originally another volunteer's dog, but  when her owner changed sites to a city far away we adopted her. When she came to live with us she already knew how to sit, stay and heel, and we've been working on some new tricks since then (fetch being the most difficult for some reason). She also waits for the "eat" command, so she won't steal food out of your hand or off your table, and will stand over her food looking back at you if you forget to say it at mealtime. She understands most of her commands in Portuguese, but I've noticed she's also bilingual and will occasionally follow a command given in English. She also loves to play with kids. Every Saturday we wait for the inevitable chorus of children singing  "Luuuuuuuaaaaaaaaa" to try and coerce her out of the house to come play. I actually think she's more integrated than we are here, because when I take her on walks people I have never met before come out and greet her before they even say hello to me.

There are challenges to keeping a dog, or any pet, as a Peace Corps volunteer. The most obvious is that there are going to be some extra expenses on your already ridiculously meek stipend. Also there aren't a lot of quality vets nearby, and hitchhiking or riding a bus with a dog isn't the most logistically sound travel option. Lucky for us Lua came complete with a collar, leash, and deworming pills from her previous owner, and I received a two-year supply of Advantix treatments from a lovely USAID worker and former PCV whom I met in the capitol. We feed Lua a mixture of dried shrimp and xima (course corn flour…sort of like grits) and everyone in the market thinks it's hilarious that we feed her shrimp. She even has a good friend in the market who lets her sit under the shrimp table and eat the bits that fall down underneath.

...And hiding from them in the planter.

Lua hates her dog pants.
The most difficult challenge of having a pet here is that, if it's a girl, it's going to get pregnant. There's no great option for spaying that won't either be logistically or fiscally impossible, so when Lua is in heat the only option is extreme vigilance. I say this because we have already been through one pregnancy and while you may think puppies are cute and cuddly, I know that they are actually loud and annoying and disgusting. Also a hormonal momma dog is just the worst. She would actually hide in our planters just so the puppies couldn't reach her to nurse. Jerk. Fortunately heat only happens twice a year, and while we failed miserably at keeping her chaste last time, this time we've got the jump on her. First order is complete lockdown and constant supervision: when she's not locked in the house she has to stay on her chain, and only when one or both of us is around to fend off potential suitors by pelting them with rocks (yes, I realize I condemned this very practice in the beginning of this post, but they deserve it). We also keep a doggy diaper/chastity belt on her that we fashioned out of capulana, and cover it for good measure with an old pair of underpants with a hole we cut for her tail. Lua hates the dog-pants with a fiery passion and will often dramatically shake while we put them on her as if she's about to encounter the devil himself. It has been particularly successful though, and it's hilarious to watch dogs try to mount her and then whine in confusion as they sniff around the contraption. Our neighbors find it equally hilarious, although they are extremely unhelpful in fending off the puppy-daddies and even complain that we're being mean in forbidding her to have sex when she so clearly wants to. The whole thing makes me feel like the strict parent of a teenager. One of our neighbors did commend her on her responsible practice of family planning, though.

All the negatives aside, I wouldn't trade Lua for the world. It gets lonely here sometimes, and she's the best companion I could ask for. She's not the greatest at keeping critters out of our house; in fact she usually makes a swift exit or hides under the couch at the site of any large insects, and she recently let a chicken walk into my room and refused to chase it out. She is a great running partner, though, and I'll be amazed if I ever find a person that's as happy to see me as she is after I've been away. Upon my most recent return home, I had been on the verge of bursting my bladder for about two hours and I ran straight off of the chapa into the bathroom. I heard a strange galloping noise coming towards me and knew that Lua had seen me arrive. She doesn't usually go into the latrine but will sit outside in anticipation to accost you as soon as you come out. This time, though, I guess she just missed me too much. Next thing I knew Lua had burst through the door at full speed to jump on me in the potty. She nearly caused me to pee all over myself but I could hardly be mad at her, because that's the kind of love you just don't find in another human being.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A House Divided

This will probably be the one and only "opinion piece" that you get from me in response to the latest terrible thing that has fueled a mob of angry status updates and article repostings. I'm not trying to belittle the Charleston tragedy, but while social media can be a great platform to push for social change, it is more often used as a mask that people use to bait arguments and distance themselves from the consequences of saying hurtful or disrespectful things to others because of anger and other improperly channeled emotions. This is an important conversation and one that I believe needs to be had, but the social media network has become more of a place to yell for the sake of hearing one's own voice than a place to have open-minded discussion. This is one of the reasons I don't normally use my personal social media accounts to weigh in on political or social issues. I don't believe that putting my opinions into words on a digital page amount to as much as my daily actions do, but this time I feel the need to respond, even if only for myself.

I use Facebook as an outlet to the rest of the world and because it's the easiest way to keep up with my friends here and abroad. This week, though, I saw many hateful and ignorant posts from my own friends on both sides of this issue. One of these was a Washington Post article by a journalist who hails from South Carolina, but is apparently carrying around some very large White guilt baggage. While the article isn't completely off point, the author misplaces blame for upholding racism in America on the Southeastern U.S. and all of the White people living there. In his opinion, we as White people should feel responsible for the Charleston shooting and other acts of racism that occur in our society.

Well, I'd be kidding myself if I tried to say that racism doesn't exist in the South. It does, and it is a deeply rooted psycho-social epidemic that springs more from the subconscious than from active hate. The South has always been a society based on class and family ties, and discrimination is still easy to come by not only for Blacks, but for Hispanics, the lower class, blue collar workers, and even the "new money" rich. While I agree that this is a despicable part of our society, I cannot align myself with the author and claim to hate the South. I love the South. I love it because despite our great faults and tumultuous history, we're still a community. When the going gets rough your neighbor will not leave you out in the cold, regardless of race, nationality, income level, or if your moms belong to different sewing circles. We come together rather than turn away from each other in the face of tragedy, when the time comes to show our true colors. This is evident now by the rallies held in support for the shooting victims in Charleston this week. There were no violent riots, hateful picket signs or division of races, but rather a diverse multitude of South Carolina citizens gathering in support of one another and to pray for the souls of the lost. It is also evident of the responses of the victims' families to the shooter himself. These people suffered unspeakable losses, and while the mass media and internet communities yell at one another, they humbly bring their confessions of forgiveness to the young man who wronged them in a way most of us cannot even imagine. While the politicians, fueled by their own incentives, diverted attention to issues like the state flag and gun control, these people embodied Christ and His teachings perfectly as they swallowed the selfish desire for vengeance and begged God for mercy on the very soul that gave them none. But forgiving doesn't mean forgetting. They will never forget what happened to them that day, nor should we. They didn't do it to move on, but to move forward. Forgiveness is probably the most misconstrued, misunderstood, and most difficult of God's commandments, but there is no forward motion or growth without it. By this action it is apparent that these people are truly good people. These are the Southerners I know.

I feel no connection to those who started the White supremacy ideals in America or who uphold them today. They are not my family and they are not my kin. I feel no responsibility for their actions just as I would feel no responsibility for the Holocaust if I were to trace my German roots back to members of the Nazi Party. Shared genetics do not make brothers and sisters. People that perpetuate hate for others are not my people. I feel no connections or loyalties towards them, not only because they are wrong, but because they are so far outside of my sphere of beliefs on morality that shape who I am. How can I feel that these people belong to the same group as me solely because we share a similar shade of skin? In fact, my actual "legal" family is made up of multiple races, nationalities and bloodlines. The people who I consider to be my extended family are even more diverse. I don't divide my family along racial or geographical lines, but instead define them as the people that share with me a love and compassion for others. That's what draws us together in companionship.

I feel no guilt for what has happened in Charleston. I feel disgust, sadness, and disappointment, but not guilt. If I were to feel guilt for the sake of being White, guilty about the privilege that entails, what good would that do? The reason I won't feel guilty about racism in the South, or in America as a whole, is because guilt only results in patronizing and obligatory action. If you truly are going to take responsibility for racism existing in America, it must come from a sense of awareness, from mutual respect, and from a genuine desire to see all people as equals. If there are still division and hate in a society, and if souls are still considered unequal there, then responsibility has yet to be taken. There may be plenty of guilt and even apologetic actions taken, but the lack of responsibility remains.

I can't speak to the struggles of the Black American because I am not one. I have enjoyed and taken for granted the privileges that come from being both White and American for a significant part of my life. I have experienced prejudice and discrimination, though. Most of us probably have in some way or another. It is not a strange concept that any one person is incapable of understanding. I have been singled out and made to feel inferior or unworthy because of my religion and social status. I have been disrespected and held to a double standard because of my gender. I have been targeted and harassed by the police because of my race. I have seen girls sold as child brides and be denied education, opportunity and autonomy. And I know that everywhere in the world right now, people are oppressing and enslaving each other based on race, gender, nationality, tribe, clan, class, sect, political aligning, sexual orientation, age, and religion. This is not something we invented, and it's probably not something we will ever see the end of. But what a chance we have to try, and what strides we have made already. This is a problem that we can address, and it comes from people learning the value of life and the implications of hatred.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Terra de Boa Gente

They say the last six months of your Peace Corps service fly by. I'm not sure who 'they' are but I beg to differ. These next six months are gonna drag by...just like the months between finding out my date to arrive in Mozambique and actually getting here. I've already bought my ticket home and after a day in Berlin I'll be back on American soil by November 22nd! Knowing that no one short of God Himself can keep me here past that day elates me, but then I remember I've still got six months left and that's enough to mellow me out to just above apathy. Here I will hover and try to squeeze in as many adventures as possible and finish up all of my projects before leaving...all the while dreaming of cheeseburgers and pedicures.

So in celebration of the light at the end of the tunnel finally arriving, I'll update you on some things that have been going on around here. A while back I wrote a grant to fund a musical production group called POSITIVO to come Panda to create and record a song about malaria with some of my students. The group travels all over the country with their sound and video equipment to get young people involved in spreading positive messages to their peers and communities through music. A few weeks ago we were able to bring them here and the result was fantastic. The kids
collaboratively wrote a chorus and individually wrote their own verses. They then performed them over a beat that POSITIVO made and it sounds pretty darn cool. The song is in Portuguese, but the basic message is that we can overcome malaria together if we're not neglectful. After recording the music, they filmed a music video and also performed at our school during the morning break, which was awesome and made them all feel like rockstars.

Two weeks ago we had our provincial workshop for REDES, the girl's empowerment organization I work with. At the workshop all the groups and group leaders from across the province got together to talk about everything from income generation techniques to women's health. I brought along the girls in my group and I was so impressed with them. They had no fear about asking questions that would have surely embarrassed me too much to ask at their age. They also knew so much more than I expected them to about sex, HIV, domestic violence, and how to be successful in business ventures. One of them, Tarcia, was reading ahead and taking notes in her workbook, and when I asked her why she replied that she was "cheating" so that nobody could say that Mana Cara didn't teach the girls from Panda enough. I laughed out loud at that, but it also really touched me. I'm very lucky to be a friend to these awesome girls and to help them make good decisions to become independent and successful women in a place where most girls unfortunately will never have that chance. Also during the workshop the tshirts I designed for this year were unveiled! They have our emblem on the front and on the back they say "I AM....Strong, Capable, Beautiful, Active, Intelligent, Determined, Valuable...I AM A GIRL."

This past weekend I went to Bushfire, a music festival in Swaziland. I've never been to any of the big music fests in the States, but it was definitely a great first experience. There were a lot of local performers from Swazi, South Africa, and Moz but there were also some international groups I've never heard of that I immediately hit up on iTunes upon returning home. Aside from great music for 48 straight hours, the food was enough to make me never want to leave. I had a burrito for the first time since coming here, and there were even a bunch of American dudes with a corndog stand, complete with a lifesized cardboard cutout of Obama holding a corndog. I don't even like corndogs that much, but I definitely ate a few of those for old times sake. Not all new experiences are good, though. I woke up Saturday morning to find 1,000 people in line for about 6 private showers. The other option was the communal outdoor shower, or a partially tarped off area where you can take a freezing cold shower in the mud with a bunch of strangers while even more strangers and random workers on tractors pass by the exposed side. So, since my pride and patience have both been worn pretty thin so far by living the Peace Corps life, I said to hell with it and stripped down. If there was any argument left for how "hippie" I've become, that probably sealed the deal.

On my way back home from the festival, I relied on the kindness of strangers to get me back to Panda. On the final leg of my travel, the driver said upon entering Inhambane Province, "Terra de Boa Gente!" That's our province's slogan, kind of like the "City of Brotherly Love" or "Georgia on My Mind," and it means Land of Good People. It's true. The people I live with are my family. My neighbors, my colleagues, the guy at the post office, strangers on the street...they will all go out of their way to help you out as if they've known you forever. Good people with big hearts that show compassion and generosity towards others...that's what I'll miss most about this place. But I've still got six months to enjoy it! Not to mention projects to manage, lessons to plan, and reports to file, and yeah I'm gonna go ahead and stop procrastinating now. Ate ja!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Malaria's a Buzzkill

We Sub-Saharan-African PCV's are all gearing up for World Malaria Day this month (April 25th) by making an extra effort to educate our communities here and back home about the illness and what can be done to prevent it. You may already know a bit about Malaria, but I'll bet if you keep reading (and you don't work for WHO) you'll still learn a thing or two!

So, what is Malaria?

Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. 

Plasmodium, as a baby, enters the bloodstream and travels to the liver, where it matures and makes more Plasmodiums. After a few days, the mature parasites leave the liver and get to work infecting blood cells.

Plasmodium is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes.
The breed of mosquito that carries the Malaria parasites (yeah, there are different breeds) exists primarily in Africa. It doesn't exist in North America anymore because of insecticide-spraying measures taken by the US in the late 1940's. I can only imagine what the all-natural-all-organic-completely-against-chemicals-even-though-they-also-exist-in-nature folks would have done to keep the disease alive had they been around back then (looking at you, California).

Anyway, when the female mosquitoes get pregnant, they crave blood because they need it to carry out egg production. You know how pregnant ladies are when they get cravings....

So when one of these hangry mommas bites you, you're left with not only an annoyingly itchy bite, but also a lovely batch of parasites waiting to take over your body.

What happens when you have Malaria?

Usually Malaria symptoms are similar to those of the flu: fever, chills, nausea, and all around feeling like you've been hit by a train. In rare cases, or when left untreated,  Malaria can cause seizures, brain damage, spleen rupture, severe anemia, kidney failure, respiratory distress, and death. Pregnant women are especially at risk for Malaria complications and contracting it can result in premature delivery or birth of an underweight baby, as well as stillbirth and miscarriage.

Why should I care about Malaria?

Here are some not-so-fun facts about the illness:
  • Every year, half of the world's entire population is at risk for contracting Malaria (about 3.2 billion people)
  • Each year about 200 million people contract the disease and almost 600 million people die from it.
  • Every 60 seconds, a child dies of Malaria.
  • 90% of all Malaria deaths occur in Africa, most of them children under 5.
  • In Mozambique alone, about 30% of all deaths are Malaria related, and about 14,000 children die of the disease each year.
  • Parasite resistance to anti-malarial drugs has already emerged and is a serious concern, mostly caused by stopping treatment as soon as the person feels better.
  • Malaria targets the poor: Since insecticide treatments, bed nets and even treatment are very expensive, most of the people affected by Malaria cannot afford to treat it or protect themselves from it. Not to mention that when working adults get sick they lose valuable income and ultimately hurt the fragile economy of the affected countries.

Is there any good news?

I spent a lot of time looking at statistics, trying to find a positive correlation between reported Malaria cases and things like education rates, HDI, per capita GDP, international aid, and infrastructure. No matter what I put it up against, though, Malaria just kept steadily rising regardless of other fluctuations. It's an outlier. But how does that make sense? Surely with education and funding Malaria rates should go down. 

Part of the reason behind this is that better infrastructure and more development in the health sector goes hand in hand with better reporting of diseases. Another reason could be due to over-reporting. Unfortunately, this happens in malarious countries because the rate of malaria is so high and the clinics are too underequipped/underfunded to keep up with blood tests for all of the malaria-suspect patients that come through the door each day.  Instead, they just send patients with flu-like symptoms home with a scrip for anti-malarial drugs and those that have access to them and can afford them then contribute to the parasite drug-resistance problem by taking them unnecessarily.

There is good news, though. What we know for sure is that Malaria mortality rates have fallen by over half in sub-Saharan Africa, and 47% worldwide in the last decade. That's serious progress! Early diagnosis and treatment is essential to preventing Malaria deaths and also for reducing transmission rates, but the serious work is being done on the prevention side with bed nets, insecticide treatments and education

The best news, though? You can help.

Great, I'll go change my facebook profile pic right now!

Hold on a sec. While I admire your initiative in raising awareness, how about considering something that will directly impact the problem? Yep, that requires money/time/sacrifice, but you can feel good about the fact that you are directly contributing to the eradication of Malaria! There are lots of ways to help out. You could:
  • Buy a mosquito bed net for just $10 to protect someone from Malaria. Forego Starbucks three times this month and you can give someone here in Africa a safe place to sleep tonight. Donate to the UN campaign Nothing But Nets here.
  • Host a basketball game fundraiser for Nothing But Nets. If you're a teacher, rec league coach, or you've got kids in school, you can make this season count by hosting a game and providing mosquito nets to people in Africa. Make it extra interesting with a teachers vs. students game! Sign up to host a game here.
  • Give what you can to Malaria No More, and each dollar you spend will provide one child or pregnant mother with testing and treatment for Malaria. Donate to Malaria No More here.
  • Download the Best Fiends game on your phone or tablet and let Edward the mosquito teach you about Malaria through a series of puzzles! Get the app for iPhone/iPad on the app store here, or for all other devices on Google Play here.
  • Donate to Peace Corp's Stomp Out Malaria campaign, and fund projects that PCVs like me are doing in their communities to educate, prevent and eradicate Malaria! Give to Stomp Out Malaria here.
  • Write a letter to your member of Congress to let them know you care about funding for Malaria. Right now it's going to take an estimated 3.6 billion dollars to eradicate Malaria worldwide, but every dollar of aid counts in helping individuals. In the coming months Congress will decide how much aid the US will contribute. You can write your own letter/email, or you can use the online template here.

Done! Now what?

Help get the word out! Now's the time to change that profile pic, post a link, start a fundraiser of your own, bring up the cause at your next meeting, or just bring it up in conversation with your friends and colleagues. 

Malaria sucks, just like every other deadly disease. As with all preventable diseases, we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to eradicate it for the sake of humanity. But with this particular disease, we (the First World) have put off committing to a worldwide eradication campaign, and now it's out of control. It will be harder and more expensive now because we waited, but we deserve that. We deserve it not only because it's our fault, but because the reason we've waited so long is that the people it affects are the Third World. It's easy to forget about them and hard to pay attention. It's really easy to say it's not our place or our mess or our fault, but that's not true. However you look at it, they are human as much as we are and if you take away this sense of "we" and "them" that we have you'll see that they deserve what everyone deserves: respect, health, and a right to pursue happiness. 

"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need." 2 Corinthians 8:13-14

You don't have to be a Christian to believe in this. Call it Karma or being a good person or keeping the universe in balance or whatever you's the same concept: equality. If it were America battling an illness that we couldn't afford to combat (as it very well may be someday) I'd want the countries and corporations and individuals that could afford to pay for it to give whatever it costs to save us.

So let's not put it off any longer; let's do it, not because of foreign or political interests and not because of what we might get in return, but because it's the right thing to do.

*Malaria facts and statistics obtained from WHO, CDC, the UN, Gapminder, and Malaria No More.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

10 Things I Took For Granted: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Living Without Luxury

Don't be fooled by the title of this post, it's not complicated and it's not about economics...a word I personally can't even say without yawning. First of all, I'm not going to apologize for the infrequency of my posts anymore because a) I'm busy, and b) I'm tired of doing it every single time I post something. Just remember that you get what you pay for, and this endearingly amateur prose I provide is free.

It's funny I should bring up the mantra "you get what you pay for," because it fits right into the theme of this post. Recently I started a unit on Excel and small business ventures for my 12th grade ICT class with the intention of squeezing some knowledge of income generation principles in with all the formula confusion. I got the idea to have them do a cost-benefit analysis of two small businesses in their community, and then while researching cost-benefit analyses I became slightly obsessed with them. I started to cost-benefit analyze all of my actions, like getting up at 9:00 AM vs. 8, studying for the GRE vs. binge-watching House of Cards, and walking to the market vs. just eating tuna again for dinner.

So here I'd like to do a cost-benefit analysis of living poor vs. having all of the luxuries I took for granted in the States. You may be thinking, "Woah...poor? That's not a very PC term. Wouldn't "simply" or "within modest means" be prettier?" Nope. I'm poor. Just to prove it to you, I will reveal that I live on $200 a month. This has to cover food, water, electricity, travel, internet/phone credit, my maid (yes, she's an essential living expense), and any misc. expenses for the month. Just to make that hit home, that's less than a quarter of what I'd be receiving on welfare, and 21% below the US poverty threshold for a single person. Even so, I'm pretty well off compared to most of the family households in my community.

Now that we've established how poor I am, here's the list of the top things I now realize I took for granted living in the US,  how living without them has affected me and how I believe they affect societies in general.

*Note: These are ranked by how much I took them for granted (i.e. how quickly I would decide to give up my right arm to have them at this moment in time), not by their impact on society.

10. Diversity

This one ranks low on my list because being the only white person around sometimes has its perks here, like getting the front seat in a chapa that's usually reserved for men, or claiming ignorance of cultural norms/school policies when I really just don't want to follow them. I don't want to downplay how alienating it is, though. Being stared at everywhere you go, being catcalled in broken english and constantly disrespected, being distrusted or discredited at work, and being held to a different standard than the rest of your colleagues is exhausting and frustrating. Not only that, but the amount of times someone has asked in disbelief, "You have black people in America?" baffles me.

I think being exposed to such a wide variety of people is something all Americans take for granted to some degree. Speaking generally, people of the same race, religion, and background tend to stick together. This makes sense because we tend to pick our friends based on common interest, but there is such a beneficial affect on our psyche when we surround ourselves with different kinds of people. If you want racism, sexism, and other discriminations to dissipate, the best thing you can do as an individual is to befriend people who are different than you. That's when you really start to accept, on a conscious and an intuitive level, that we're all human beings deserving respect, and that's when you'll start to make decisions based on that respect.

9. Reliable Government/Democracy

Again, really important on a society level...but not affecting me so much as the lack of delicious ready-to-eat fried chicken. All jokes aside, having the security of the US government is something I seriously took for granted. We can complain about its problems and corruption, and we can even be justified in our complaints, but we've got a better system in place than 90% of the World and we're constantly working to make it better. I take comfort in knowing that vaccines, antibiotics and antiviral drugs are always available, that emergency medical care will be given to me regardless of my ability to pay, that if things get really bad and I can't afford to feed myself I can apply for aid, and that if I get kidnapped by Somalian pirates my government will move hell and high water to get me back safely.

Real democracy, a vote that counts, and an opportunity to be a part of the change in my government is something I will never complain about, because the alternative is seriously bleak. The blind sheep mentality is detrimental to the mindset of a country's people and, in my opinion, directly affects its efficiency and success as a whole.

8. Air Conditioning

Big switch here, but if your air has ever gone out in the dead of summer while the repairman is on vacation you know what I'm talking about. Except, you don't. Sorry friends and loved ones but when you compare the heat of the Southeastern US with this heat in Southeastern Africa it's the biggest understatement you could possibly make. The sun is literally closer to me. This means that not only is it hotter but the sun's rays are more intense, resulting in what feels like an oven set to 300F on a cloudless day. Add in the humidity of being on the coast and it's kin to that oven and the sauna in your gym combined. I can't even use the expression "sweating like a whore in church" because if that whore was sweating like I am I have no doubts that she would promptly be kicked out of church, or maybe be taken to the hospital.

How does AC affect society? I'm convinced it makes us more efficient and happier in general. The Mozambican workday in the summer is slow and there are lots of breaks because it's way to hot to sit inside. Also it's too hot to eat or sleep at night so everyone just stays in this daze of weakness and lack of motivation to do anything except nap. AC keeps us moving quicker, working longer, and sleeping better. Can't argue with a blessing like that.

7. 9-1-1

I had a dream a couple of nights ago that one of my students came into my house and refused to leave. So, essentially a nightmare. One of my threats to coerce him into leaving was to call the police to come remove him. I picked up my phone and started to dial 911 and then I realized that number means nothing here.

Don't get me wrong, there are police here in my village. If I needed them I'd just have to walk down the road to the station and get one. In bigger cities there's a definite police presence in the streets at all hours to enforce the law (and harass foreigners). I'm sure there's also a station number to call in the cities as well. One of the things I like about my village is the fact that I don't feel the need to have constant contact with the police to feel safe. I think it says a lot about the communal sense of security that exists in rural Mozambique. 911 is about more than just police, though. It's about the fact that when you're in danger of dying, you have an escape plan.

If I'm in a tight spot, it would take Peace Corps approximately 14 hours, best case scenario, to get me to the capitol. Add another 4-10 hours if it's something like emergency surgery that would need to happen in South Africa. This doesn't worry me too much because there aren't that many things that will kill you in under 24 hours but not instantly. What would worry me is if I were a national, and I had no real hope of immediate help in an emergency. The impact as far as I can tell is that people rely more on each other than they do the police, and they take precautions into their own hands when needed. Walk through any city in the developing world and this is evident by the fortress-style iron grating, electric fences, and broken glass/barbed wire used to protect residences and businesses. Of course, we've got our alarm systems and deadbolts, but there isn't a constant need to worry about being the victim of a crime in your own home when the authorities are about 10 minutes, not 4 hours, away.

6. Libraries

The availability of information is invaluable to me as a scientist. Libraries are free sources of information that have unfortunately lost popularity with the growth of the internet. You can still use the internet for free at the library, though. Free information for all! It's such an amazing concept. Every time I want to assign a research project to my students I have to print out articles for them to use, and every weekend flocks of children gather to look at our small collection of children's books. There is no building with free access to books, dictionaries, atlases, newspapers, computers, and internet. It just doesn't exist.

Obvious impacts are literacy rates and education quality, but I also think taking away that hub of credible information causes a dangerous shift. When your only source of information comes from the internet, television, and gossip, critical thinking and careful research go out the window (or never come into the picture in the first place). People stop questioning what they hear and more readily accept it to be true.

This may just be an inevitable trait of humanity though, given the measles outbreak in the Land of Information because people started believing vaccines are more dangerous than infectious disease epidemics. Hey, easy fix: lock everyone in a library who believes Facebook articles and/or celebrities are credible sources until they see the light and/or all succumb to rubella.

5. 24/7

This encompasses everything convenient about America, and our passion for making the most of our time. In Mozambique things are not so. The lunch break starts at noon and ends at 2:30 (or so). Things close promptly at 6 on weekdays and noon on Saturday, and good luck finding anything open on Sunday. This is not to say that you couldn't walk a mile to pay your electricity bill only to find that the sole employee of the energy company is inexplicably not there at 9:30 AM on a Tuesday. Life here is, in a word, inconvenient.

Astonishingly, people just accept the inconvenience of life for what it is, mostly because they've never known anything different. I, however, have an extremely hard time accepting the inconveniences and usually end up taking it out on the unsuspecting postal worker, waitress, or aforementioned energy company employee. Life is slower here, and that means less efficiency and productivity. But it also means less stress and frustration, with an ability to let things go that are out of your control. This I can admire, because I lack the ability to not try to control everything.

I often make fun of how slowly Mozambicans walk, dubbing it the "Mozambican Mosey." If I think about it, though, it accurately reflects the lifestyle here. For us in America, life is all about the destination. We live our lives constantly thinking about the future, preparing for what's next. Mozambicans live in the present. They're mind is on the moment they're in, so there's no rush to get to the next one. The journey is as important as the destination, so why hurry?

4. Wifi

OK, so it's not so hard living without wifi, but I lump this in with reliable cell service, internet, and all the things that instantly connect us to other people. Being connected to anyone with the press of the send button meant constant communication and no interruptions in social connections or productivity.

Now, conversations with friends and family are much more infrequent, and there's really no good way to keep up with everyone I used to talk to regularly. I just find out they're engaged or pregnant or moving to China whenever I log onto Facebook. Even contact within country is spotty and sometimes my village goes days without cell phone service, sans viable explanation.

I will say that each conversation I do have is more meaningful, partly because we have substantial things to talk about and partly because there's no such thing as unlimited pre-paid phone credit, so minutes are meticais! Arguments can be made that not having internet access is a blessing, but I maintain that despite the positives of being off the grid, it is still overall a curse. Not to mention, the "days since this iPhone has been backed up" notification is driving me insane, like tally marks on my prison cell wall.

3. Transportation

Safe, reliable transportation makes life less stressful, and less dangerous. First of all, having (enforced) safety regulations on all vehicles before allowing them registration is somewhat of an obvious yet overlooked measure in the developing world. I mean, you can charge money for these inspections, make it a profitable endeavor, and ensure the safety of your citizens. But noooooo, because then the colorful culture of cramming 40 people into a barely road-worthy pickup with secondhand tires and a transmission welded together in the market by some guy named "Rasta" would die. Can't be having that.

I want to say I took for granted having my own car, but I think I really took for granted having my own personal space in a car...or train or bus or boat. Also, the fixed scheduled departures and arrivals, coupled with the convenience of everyone else you know having a car, even if you don't (see number 5). The result? You always get to work on time, right?

Nope...just traffic. But at least there's AC! ;)

3. Prepared Meals

I couldn't decide whether to put fast food, restaurants, or just American food in general, so I decided on meals prepared by someone else other than myself. This is an important distinction because, while I firmly believe food from any other country just isn't as good as the American variety, I have had good food here. Just last night I made the best black bean enchiladas with homemade sauce. They were delicious, but they took me hours to make and they would have been just as delicious coming from a Mexican restaurant where someone spent hours making them for me.

The main point here is that meals are ready and available everywhere back home, and here they take hours to prepare. There's no sandwich meat or microwaves, and even salad veggies have to be bleached first. The result is spending most of your day planning and preparing meals, or visiting neighbors around mealtimes until one of them invites you to eat with them. The most serious problem arises on Sunday, when you're travelling home from a long weekend, tired, hungry, and nothing is open. Or worse, around 1 AM when you get the munchies and there's no taco bell or 24-hour Kroger.

I mark a country's development index with the availability of late night snacks.

2. Water

Do I mean indoor plumbing? No, I mean water. As in reliable access to clean drinking water. Not having to carry water for miles (or yards, even) to your house in a bucket. Having running water to wash your hands with. Irrigation systems for agriculture. Slip n slides and swimming pools!

What happens when you don't have it? Well, you carry enough water to your house to drink and bathe and cook with every few days. You praise the heavens and set out every bucket you own whenever it rains. You boil your drinking water even when it's 100 degrees outside. You might occasionally get cholera or giardia. You might have to wash your clothes in the river during a drought. Bottom line: you appreciate it, and you don't waste it.

I can bathe in 3 liters of water. I can wash my hair and body and shave with less than the liquid content of two bottles of coke. I do it every day here. I think clean, drinkable running water is a huge health advantage, but I think always having access to it has led us to waste it.  Every drop of water is precious when you have to carry 25 liters of it from a spicket 75 yards away, and even more precious when your water pumps are hooked up to the extremely spotty energy grid and you sometimes forego bathing for days until the energy comes back on because you have nowhere near the upper body strength to carry water uphill from the river 5 miles away. Which brings me to........

1. Electricity...!

Sofie's choice for every peace corps volunteer is choosing what sucks worse: living without running water or without electricity. Well, I don't have running water and I lived without electricity for 8 months, so I feel qualified to tell you that electricity is far more convenient than running water. It's one of those things upon which you don't realize how much you rely until you don't have it. Without electricity, a short list of things that become infinitely harder and/or impossible are: breakfast (I need coffee before I can light the coal stove, but I need to light the stove to make coffee!), pretty much all other meals, using the telephone, using the computer, sleeping (without a fan), keeping leftovers, purchasing meat, fish, or dairy, and any activities after 8 PM.

I will admit that having it has made me soft: I was sort of used to it when we didn't have it, but now, when it goes out, I become furious and would rather suffer in the dark than get out the cookstove and light the oil lamps. Just this morning I started WWIII with the neighbors because they forgot to pay the energy bill and I had to sleep without a fan. Being able to admit this makes me no more reliant on it, though. I know I can live without it, I just don't have to...and I don't want to.

So there you have it. That's my list. If you were wondering how the other half (of the world) lives, now you know. It's important to say that it's not a bad life, just a different one. There's not a thing on this list that has made me unhappy or unhealthy by giving it up. In fact, if I were to analyze what happens to society in general when you strip away luxury and convenience, I would say they become more resourceful. Humans have an incredible knack for adapting...we've been doing it for a long time. Mozambicans amaze me with this quality and I have definitely noticed an increase in my own capacity to make things work with limited resources. So enjoy your luxuries, and be thankful for them, but know that you can live without them. They don't define our happiness or our ability to be productive and successful human beings.