Saturday, July 23, 2016

Back en afrique de l'ouest

Well, here I am again, three years later and with that original five year plan (join the Peace Corps and change careers) checked off as done. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Conakry, Guinea, my new indefinite home. Inexplicably amongst all the Tuareg art in my room hangs a “Bienvenue √† bord” lifejacket looking thing. One of these things is not like the other.  Anyhow, my new job as a Program Manager for Health Systems Strengthening begins tomorrow, and while I’m excited about the job, these are my last moments of relative freedom, I’m sure. 

Brief update since the last blog entry: After getting an MPH in Arizona, I spent the last nine months in Madagascar as a Program Management Fellow with an international NGO, and then spent a month in Burkina Faso before taking this job (with the same organization). The other day curiosity about my old haunts in Benin got the best of me, and I sought out some Peace Corps Benin blogs. Some Volunteer from stage 27 (I was in 24) had actually referenced my blog on his, mentioning that I had “quite the rollercoaster ride.” Considering the possible miniscule influence I may have had on said Volunteer and everything I keep hearing about needing to really work on “self-care” and coping mechanisms while in this particular job (because from all eyewitness accounts and based on my own last 48 hours here, Guinea is not an easy place to live), I’m going to devote some more time to blogging. I maintain handwritten correspondence still with a number of close friends and family members, but I don’t often get into the larger picture stuff that I spend a lot of time thinking about. One thing that I simultaneously love and that annoys me about my particular experience abroad is that it affords me a lot of time for reflection. It’s not that I have more free time necessarily, but normal life seems to provide instances where you have no other choice but to be alone with your thoughts – like the hour it took on Friday night for the driver to navigate a roundpoint in which cars were going in two directions. 

 We’ll see how my first week goes. Until next time, a bientot.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Game Plan for the Future

The past couple of weeks (well, all of July post-Cape Town) have felt similar to Peace Corps in that the days crawl along, but the weeks fly by. What ended up being one of my primary projects - a spreadsheet detailing all US government health projects in Zambia - has pretty much concluded. The mapping team at USAID Washington was able to take that data and create fairly easy-to-read provincial level maps from the spreadsheet. My portion wasn't really the hard part (the software did that), but I do feel like the series of maps could end up being an important tool to have around, at least until the fiscal year ends and some of the programs change. I'm making major progress on another front - talking to anyone and everyone about my future. One of my goals for the internship was to figure out where I should start out in global health, and specifically, if I belonged more on the administrative end (USAID) or in a more hands-on programmatic role. I'm still not entirely sure, but I do have a better understanding of the advantages of each. Over the past six weeks, I've had to chance to have one-on-one time with several people from USAID Zambia, USAID Washington, CDC, Peace Corps (of course), and a USAID implementing partner. State Department staff have also been quite willing to share what they love and hate about being an expat (having a housing allowance is great, finding quality schools for your kids is not). One thing that hasn't changed after all these discussions is that I still want to work for the US government - whether that's in USAID, CDC, or Peace Corps. The work is important, the benefits are pretty difficult to beat, and, honestly, if I'm going to live anywhere overseas, I'd prefer to be associated with the US mission. Happily, with the advice I've received, I've begun to chart out a course of fellowships and jobs to pursue in the fall, once I'm again entrenched in school. I also feel really fortunate, upon reflection about the job search ahead of me, that I get to figure this out on my own and not worry about a family or spouse having to follow me wherever I want to go. For once, it seems like it's better to be single. Finally.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Adventures in Cape Town

One of my bucket list destinations is/was South Africa.  I never really cared which part of South Africa, really, just as long as I got there.  Using the 4th of July/Zambian Heroes Day/Zambian Unity Day 5-day weekend provided the perfect chance to visit the Rainbow Nation.  Pretty much every American in the Embassy made Cape Town sound like a utopia, their preferred African destination for their R&R breaks.  A fellow intern, Bren - our Midwestern-ness made us fast friends -  and I hopped on a plane with quite a few boisterous missionary teenagers on Friday the 4th.  We arrived to pouring rain and wind, the type of weather perfect for a movie and lounging around indoors.  This wasn't really part of our plans, but neither of us minded all that much given that Lusaka, similar to Tucson, seems to have nothing but cloudless days.  In fact, until that point, I'm not sure I'd seen rain for at least six months.  Anyway, some of the highlights of the weekend:

The view from our hotel room.  The Parliament building is in foreground, with Table Mountain in the back.

I took my Jayhawk to the top of Table Mountain.

 Bren and I looked on in horror at this guy helping people propel down the mountain.  WHY would you do this?

The Victoria and Albert Waterfront, which is both a giant Navy Pier-like tourist trap and a working pier.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The last two weeks

Hi everyone – I can’t believe we’re already at the end of June, although I also feel as if I’ve been in Zambia for my entire adult life.  It’s definitely been an adjustment to work a 40-hour week, which I haven’t really done since I last had a “real” job, aka, Life Before the Peace Corps.  Although I am generally enjoying the work I’m doing here, I find it really hard to sit still for very long, and by long I mean more than about fifteen minutes.  Thankfully I can just run up or down the stairs if necessary.  Happily, however, this return to desk life has also done great things for my running.  I have a ton of pent up energy, so I’m now only 11 miles away from my goal of running 1,000 miles in the year ending July 12th. 
Last week proved quite busy, and for me was totally focused on HIV/AIDS.  For reference, the prevalence in Zambia is 14.3%, a figure I read so often this week I committed it memory.  This has also resulted in more than 1 million orphans, who have lost either one OR both of their parents.  I participated on a panel to review concept papers for a grant targeting orphans and vulnerable children in a way that focuses on both family structures and building capacity in community-based organizations (so, granting money to primary awardees who then do sub-awards to local organizations).  The concept paper phase precludes an official grant proposal.  Only a small percentage of the NGOs whose proposals we read this week will be invited to submit a formal grant application.  The entire process proved much more rigid than I ever imagined, and, as I quickly learned, is not a place for feelings!  It’s not like, “these people seem to be doing good work and would probably meet this objective,” it’s, “so and so did not address Objective 1.3b, so they are completely ineligible.”  There seems to be very little room for giving people the benefit of the doubt, which I totally understand given the size of the grants and that it’s government funding.  It’s just a definite adjustment to my usual mentality.

Socially and professionally, one unanticipated challenge of this internship has become the dreaded age factor.  While it’s sometimes great that most people assume I’m fresh out of undergrad – not helped by the fact that I hang out with the other interns, the youngest of whom is 20 – it can get annoying.  It’s not that this translates to typical intern grunt work like making copies (I’ve only had to do it once); it’s just humbling to have people not really consider that you have experience. I’m also trying to become friends with “older” people (meaning those who are actually my age) at USAID, but I’ve found that a bit difficult to navigate.  Honestly, the social aspect of all this has been the most difficult so far.  I don’t think people are willingly un-friendly, but most are married with families, so obviously that takes precedence over getting to know the new person, especially with the number of people in and out of the mission on temporary duty assignments.  Happily, though, one of the objectives I wrote for the summer was to get a better handle on the challenges of expat life, so I suppose I can mark that down as (partially) completed, even after three weeks.

Yesterday, two of the other interns and I walked over to the once-a-month craft market at the Dutch Reform Church in Kabulonga, the same neighborhood in Lusaka where the Embassy is located.  It was a pleasant walk through a rather expat-laden, residential neighborhood.  Minus the 12-foot walls with electric fencing and/or glass shards, you could almost imagine that you were walking through a golf-course community or something akin to Trout Valley.  Okay, you’d have to really use your imagination, but still.  We arrived to the church about 20 minutes later to find pretty much every expat in Lusaka and what could have been a street fair or flea market anywhere in the world, with the colorful addition of bougeanvilleas.  It was absolutely perfect.  The sun was shining, and the vendors and I chatted it up while bargaining over their handiwork (which included a lot of – very similar - wooden bowls, carvings, paper mach√© jewelry, and, interestingly, some copper jewelry from the Copperbelt).  My friends and I enjoyed some gelato and the company of co-workers before heading back home. 

Apologies for the lack of photos here or on Facebook.  The problem is that I can’t take pictures either of the Embassy or inside the Embassy, and that’s obviously where I’m spending the bulk of my time.  The extended-stay hotel thing where I’m staying looks a lot like one would in America, relatively un-extraordinary in its African-ness.    

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Settling in in Lusaka

Good morning from Lusaka!  It’s cool, cloudy, and windy here today, so in other words, a perfect change from 97 with a chance of a cloud.  I will frame this recap of the last two weeks with some background info: other than studying up on AID, getting a typhoid booster, and making a packing list, I did virtually no preparation for this trip.  This has handed me some minor challenges, mainly that my clothing is not especially appropriate for Zambian winter.  Despite not having lived there consistently for four years now, I consider myself a hardy Chicagoan, and a climate chameleon, of sorts.  I should not be freezing cold when it’s about 65 in the office, but alas.  I should have brought some sweaters; shopping is in my future. 
Everyone so far has been super nice, although working within the confines of the Embassy has been an adjustment (mainly the security and figuring out who belongs to the State Department, who belongs to USAID, and who is just visiting on a TDY).  Quote of the week from the Embassy: “They (the Marines) aren’t here to protect you; they’re here for the documents.”  I feel completely spoiled by having access to a commissary with Oreos and Coke Zero.   With this entire internship, I continue to have moments of “this can’t be happening,” but in the best way possible.   I will also not complain that everyone seems to think I’m 25, at most.  Hahahaha. 

So, the AID Health Office, as is the case for Economic Development, HIV/AIDS, and Education, has a portfolio of contracted programs.  One of the activities I’m working on this summer is to revamp the fact sheets – which are distributed to various stakeholders –for each of those programs.  It’s essentially like writing copy, which I’m happy to do.  Next week I’m participating in several site visits around Lusaka related to HIV/AIDS.  A group of people from CDC and PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) are coming to town to work on monitoring and evaluation of some of that portfolio.  I know a lot more about general maternal and child health issues, so I will learn a lot, particularly about treatment. 

It’s been pretty neat so far to have more of a context for many of the concepts I’ve spent all year reading about in Tucson, especially the idea of multi-sectoral collaboration.  It’s most certainly happening within AID – one example is how the Education Team weaves HIV education into the suggested reading curriculum for primary school.  I also heard a few mentions the other day of the first 1,000 days (yay!  I just read several papers about this three weeks ago), and a supervisor passed around a hard copy of UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children (distributed earlier this year in one of my classes).

All in all, I’m having a marvelous summer so far.  Take care, everyone.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Back to Africa, still with the government :)

Hi everyone,

Following my first year as an Master of Public Health student here at the University of Arizona, I am headed back to Africa on Sunday night.  For this summer's adventure, I will work in Lusaka, Zambia - proudly representing U of A and KU, by default - with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID - aka, Peace Corps for Grown-Ups) in their Health Office.  To say I am excited would be a major understatement.  I've had my eye on AID since 2010, and this is pretty much my dream internship.  I'm nervous but also know that I will be a-okay.  I'll update the blog regularly with adventures and misadventures.

Stay tuned, but in the meantime, let's sing along to this song, one of my favorites from the northern half of the continent.

Sai anjima,


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Amazingly, the end

My Peace Corps journey has concluded.  I don't know how to feel about it, honestly.  I thought I'd only be ecstatic, but instead, I feel....everything.  Here's an excerpt of what I wrote during a  layover in Brussels last Friday:

Wow.  The last week.  The last two years.  What a wild ride, and you made it.  Currently sitting all by myself in Brussels, anticipating the hellishly long & boring day here, wondering if I dreamt all of it.  Leaving the bureau turned out to be a LOT more emotional than I ever anticipated.  I really thought I could get out of Benin without crying, but c'etait faux!  Following my descent into tears inside the airport in Cotonou, I got to talking to a Beninese dude with ties to Kerou (where three PCVs live), a perfectly random & distracting conversation. Somehow I never pictured it all ending this way - or ending at all, really.  Already I'm seeing Benin and my service nostalgically, sans bush taxi rides, unmotivated work partners, etc.  No regrets about any of it.  Let's hope this next adventure proves as exciting, terrifying, and worthwhile.  Allons-y, or as my dear friend Nina would say, "get it, get it."