New Name, New Routine

5.29.2018                                                                                                        Ashanti Region, Ghana

In Ghana I answer to a different name, a local name given to me by my homestay family during training. I am called Adwoa (meaning I am a female born on Monday) Akyaa (a family name). Now, six weeks into site integration, answering to this name feels natural and like I am a part of my community. I walk down the street and am greeted by everyone I pass, asking me how I am and where I am going. When I go to the school, the kids crowd around me shouting my name and trying to get my attention. The community has welcomed me warmly. My community members bring me fruit and vegetables from their farms, and help me fetch my water on a weekly basis from the borehole. The kids come to my house to say hello and play games. The teachers and clinic staff that I have interacted with patiently answer all of my questions and teach me about their culture. I love being able to answer all of their questions about life in the United States as well.

The house that I live in gives me the perfect amount of privacy and space, and as a bonus it is set against an amazing backdrop. Everyday I wake with the sun, and am up out of bed by 6:30am. I bathe, get dressed, and make myself breakfast, usually oats or avocado toast. From there, each day is a new adventure. Some days I find myself at the school, shopping in my market town, helping at child welfare clinics, or doing chores at home. Tuesdays are market days, which is the busiest day when all of the vendors come to town. Their stalls are tight packed together and line the streets, and I can get all of my food for the week and more: clothes, electronics, household items, fabric, etc. They have mostly everything you could possibly need.  Once a week, I try new do laundry which takes about an hour. I wash everything in one bucket, rinse in a second one, and then hang it on the line to dry. I am in the process of starting a garden, and a couple of boys in the community are building me a fence to keep out the goats and chickens. I am looking forward to growing vegetables that I can share with my community in return for everything they do for me. I have lots of free time, and am constantly looking for ways to spend that time productively. Though I do love watching TV shows on my computer and am moving through seasons at an incredible pace, I have also found time to read more (Just finished the book Unbroken, and would definitely recommend!), relax with yoga and coloring books, and experiment with new recipes (Learning to cook is one of the goals I have for myself here). In the evening, it gets dark around 6:00pm and usually I am asleep by 9:00pm. On a normal day, my go to dinner is rice, vegetables, and a hardboiled egg. I am thankful for my rice cooker and fridge, which makes meal prep so much easier.

My first full month in my community was aligned with World Malaria Month, so the first thing I did was conduct a malaria survey assessing knowledge and practices around malaria prevention and treatment, in addition to a general needs assessment. I visited 60 houses with the help of my Peace Corps contact person, Evelyn. She lives close by and has been incredibly helpful by introducing me to people and showing me where to get things in my market town. We spent several days interviewing people, and talking to them about their health concerns and desired health projects. Through this process, I learned so much about my community dynamic. Malaria knowledge is strong, even among the young kids, and most people are well-educated about how to identify and prevent the disease. The actual availability and usage of bed nets is still very low. A bed net distribution is just one of the things that could benefit the community. They have also expressed the need to invest in community infrastructure, including building a clinic to improve access to medical care, mechanizing the boreholes to make them better suited to serve a community of their size, building latrines in people’s homes to promote hygiene and sanitation, and finishing the new school building to address overcrowding issues. I was surprised by the number of chronic diseases in the community, in addition to the expected infectious diseases. The next step is to gather the community together to discuss the results of the survey and identify priorities and the resources and leadership needed for completing these projects.

We finished out the month by hosting a Grassroots Soccer event on malaria and stenciling Malaria symbols at the school in my community. Grassroots Soccer is an adolescent health organization that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize at-risk youth in developing countries to overcome their greatest health challenges. I am going to a week long training for the program in July, but this was a sneak peek at how it works and how I can use it in the community. Some other education and health volunteers from nearby came to help, and we played games with the kids and talked about malaria. Even though it was African Union Day and the kids had a holiday from school, we had great turn out. The kids know a lot already, so it was mostly a good way to get to know them and have some fun. I think the favorite game was the one where I was the “mosquito with malaria” and had to tag the kids when they ran by. Once they were tagged, they became a “mosquito” as well and helped tag others. The lesson is how easily malaria can spread in a community when even one person has malaria. The kids also enjoyed another game, which is similar to the parachute game I remember playing in Kindergarten. Basically they use a sheet to toss a ball in the air, and then have to all get underneath before the ball hits the ground. The sheet is the “bed net” that protects them from the ball or “mosquito.” We also spray painted some visual reminders on the walls of another volunteer’s school. Shaped like a mosquito, the symbol says “End Malaria, Fight the Bite.”

I have been enjoying getting to know people and doing these little activities during integration period. This next month I will focus on developing a plan of action and building relationships, that way we can start off strong when integration ends in July. I also hope to solidify a language tutor in the next month, that way I can start to improve my language understanding. I also am adopting a puppy this week, so look out for more about her.

We’re officially PCVs!

5.01.2018                                                                                                        Ashanti Region, Ghana

I have been in Ghana exactly three months as of today; the time has passed quickly and slowly at the same time. I am here with 20 other new, recently sworn-in, health volunteers from all over the United States. We come from very different educational backgrounds. Some of us studied public health and biological sciences, but others have backgrounds in music, religious studies, and international politics. We are fresh from ten weeks of training, and ready to settle into a new community and routine and join the more than 150 volunteers from the agriculture, health, and education sectors that are currently serving in Ghana. Ghana was the first place to receive volunteers more than 60 years ago, and the impact of the work can felt throughout the country today. You can see it not only through the public health and other achievements that have been made, but by speaking with people who have known volunteers and had their lives impacted through those relationships.

What attracted me to Peace Corps is that its development work built on a foundation of mutual respect and friendship. My goals when I came to Peace Corps were to learn about a different culture and way of life and tackle infectious disease problems in the process. I also saw Peace Corps as an opportunity to push myself past what I thought I was capable of and embrace uncertainty. I was hired as a health extension volunteer, which I have learned is as broad as it sounds. Promoting good health is my ultimate goal.  The training I have received has given me tools to educate, foster behavior change, and address barriers around malaria, HIV, maternal and child health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene, the four health focus areas in Ghana. Training covered language and culture, the role of gender, medical and safety, and technical health skills.

My public health background gave me an understanding of the social determinants of health and behavior change framework going into training. My focus at Boston University in Community Assessment and Program Design has given me the mindset of the importance of community input and sustainability throughout the program implementation process. Peace Corps training added tools for evaluating cultural misunderstandings and practical skills that I can bring to the community. Using the DIVE (Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate) method, we were taught to think critically about  cultural differences and find informants to help us understand why things are the way they are, instead of making assumptions. My practical skills now include building soak away pits to reduce the standing water around bath houses, giving lessons on nutrition using Go Grow Glow guidelines, and teaching women to make reusable menstrual pads.

The first three months of service is called “Site Integration”, and it is during this time that we are encouraged to be present in our community and open-minded to learning about the place we will be living the next two years. This early effort gives us a better idea of what public health  problems the community faces and how we fit in. My community is near Agona, about an hour north of Kumasi, the regional capital of the Ashanti region. They are a community of about 1000 people. Most are farmers, whose main livelihood is growing cocoa, the cash crop of Ghana. They have welcomed me openly and appear motivated to improve the health of their community. I am the first Peace Corps volunteer to serve in this community, so they are very inquisitive about who I am and why I am here. As a first volunteer, the relationship building is a particularly important part of my service, something I may have underestimated before I got here. With my public health experience, I feel prepared to fulfill my duties as a health volunteer. However, I expect to be challenged by the the more personal aspect of meeting people, having less privacy, and overcoming language barriers to form friendships.

I have been at my site about a week and a half, and I am excited to start defining my role in the community. I will begin visiting the clinic this week to see how I might support the outreach work they already do. I am also looking forward to school starting next week, so that I can get to know the students and teachers. The first project my community has requested is a health club in the schools. I hope to teach the kids about gardening and nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, and malaria prevention. The community has expressed that teenage pregnancy is an important issue here, and from speaking with the police commander, drug use seems to be a challenge as well. I think youth empowerment will be vital to my work, and in the future I hope to be involved in the leadership camps organized by Peace Corps. I learned from the nurses in the clinic that malaria is also a huge concern in the area. Continued community education about the severity of malaria is essential as bed nets are often not used, despite their availability. I intend to serve as a co-facilitator in addressing these issues. I plan to work in partnership with community members to leave skills and knowledge behind with leaders and role models when I leave at the end of two years.

My public health background has given me a more structured and logical approach to addressing problems to create more successful outcomes. I will use my knowledge about conducting needs assessments to identify community priorities and ensure that my efforts appropriately address these. My education has also helped me identify clear goals, objectives, and measures of success. Based on my time in the community to date, I believe I will have opportunities to both explore my interest in infectious diseases and work on areas that are new to me. While I am excited for what is to come, I believe that this experience will challenge me in ways I cannot even anticipate yet. In addition to navigating new social dynamics, I expect to face unexpected barriers when implementing projects, whether that people with different points of view or challenges accessing resources. These experiences during service will help me grow to be a more adaptable and resourceful person. I came in with very few expectations, and I am pleased to find myself in a place where I can support and help grow the current programs that exist.