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.