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 maché 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.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ-rI2i9VGE

Sai anjima,

Erin

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."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Looking towards the end of service


Greetings Earthlings!  It's been quite some time, I know.  I've been occupied lately with a beautiful thing - pondering the future.  This August I'll start a master's in public health at the University of Arizona as a Peace Corps Fellow, exactly the situation I've imagined myself in since 2009, when I began my Peace Corps application.  West Africa and I are ready for a break from each other.  Not a divorce per se, just a separation.  It needs to enjoy gazing at fresh-faced volunteers who are full of optimism and an appropriate amount of innocence while I need to enjoy some fruits and vegetables and Starbucks.  We'll be back together in a few years, I'm sure.

By my  (not unreasonable) calculations, I have about eleven weeks left of Peace Corps service.  If someone in Washington loves me, I'll be on a plane on July 1st.  Like I said, it's really, really time for me to go.  Certainly there are things that I'll miss about Kandi and about Benin - like entire pinneaples for $.20, the maman by the post office who makes amazing rice and beans and wagasi, and speaking Hausa to my Nigerien leather goods guy - but I'm ready for the next step.

Last night, because my brain was full and head pounding, I took a walk on my favorite running path, which cuts through several fields and over to what used to be a gravel collection area.  It's the most peaceful part of town and close to my house, and I wanted to be out and about without having to be especially "on."  This, as I'm sure PCVs throughout the world would tell you, is always a huge challenge.  There are several enormous (several stories tall) mango trees along the path, and I watched as two women with long sticks tried poking out the mangoes while another one precariously climbed around in the tree, simultaneously balancing on and shaking the branches.  A Fulani man herded a group of about twenty cows nearby and greeted me when he passed.  As I got further into the field,  I spotted a teenaged boy doing homework under a giant neem tree, undoubtedly enjoying the peace and quiet and shade.  Two dusty men with dogs on their laps passed on a motorcycle, heading out to the bush to hunt rabbits or bushrats.   These scenes, along with a sunset view of "my" colline/hill and for the first time this spring, smelling the newly emerging mint leaves, is what I want to remember about my time here.  A returned volunteer assures me I won't remember the bad - being called "batoure" every time I leave the house, bush taxi travel, or obnoxious and sexist treatment by men.  I am grateful for selective memory.  I will forever say that Peace Corps service is a privilege and that my entire worldview has changed because of it.  I was thinking last night about how it also marked the end of my young adulthood and naivete.  As much as I've tried to hold onto those things, I understand now more than ever what it means - however complicated - to be actively engaged in the world, to be in service to others, and perhaps the most profoundly for me, doing so as an American.  I'm so, so very excited to continue on this journey as a volunteer.  For now, though, eleven more weeks of  baby weighings, vaccination paperwork, and my radio show.  Allons-y toward the end.

The phrase "il faut patienter" needs to die

Recently my dad noted how the tone of this blog has changed pretty drastically since I started it in July 2010 when I headed off to Niger with zero expectations and a lot of naivete.  As much as it hurts me to admit it, it's true.  Don't get me wrong: as emotionally and physically difficult as it's been to spend the last 2 1/2 years in West Africa, it's been an absolute privilege.  But there are still things I probably should have accepted a long time ago that still leave me either scratching my head or wanting to tear my hair out.  One of these things is how the concept of customer services does. not. exist.  Why?  There's no real competition, so really, there's no need.  In my town of 30,000 people, we have one bank.  The next nearest one is 3 hours away by bush taxi or bus.  So here's what inevitably happens: you walk into the bank and see about 20 people in line ahead of you, waiting for one cashier.  Of course it's your responsibility to magically determine who the last person in line is, because that person may be sitting in one of the chairs to the side. soaking up the air conditioning (the only comforting aspect of this errand).  There's no taking a number.  Then, you'll wait in line up to an hour for the one cashier, who tells you that no, even though you have expressly written it on the withdrawal slip, you may NOT have petite monnaie/small change because he doesn't have it right there in front of him and/or doesn't feel like counting it when there is such a long line of people.  You try to explain, calmly at first, that you are in fact the client but really, no one cares.  You then say, "would you prefer that I talk to the bank president instead?"  He ignores you, calling the next person in line and leaving you hanging.  You ask for his name, and he refuses.  Heading over the to bank president himself, you explain the situation.  He's sort of sympathetic, even though he acknowledges that counting out all that petite monnaie would have taken the cashier a lot of time.  "Why," you ask, "don't you put another cashier up there (there are multiple windows) if you see the line has 20 people in it?"  "Il faut patienter."  (Be patient, he says).  "Being patient doesn't solve the problem, does it?" you retort.  And again, no one cares.  Incidentally, he asks why you didn't use the ATM outside.  You tried, but a giant Microsoft error message blocked a majority of the screen.  He insists it's still usable.  You ask if the technician was called and he responds, "multiple times."  You wonder if God is good at fixing ATMs, because, well, that's who solves everything.  You'll undoubtedly find out next month.