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Friday, April 19, 2013

STOMP the Yard....

...or at least that patchy, dirt looking area near my house. This month actually does come with a lot of  "stomping" on my part. For Peace Corps Volunteers across Africa, this month is Malaria Month and we're picking up the pace on our "Stomping Out Malaria in Africa" initiative. Now, I know many people reading this are wondering why the Peace Corps is so off target with the disease battlefront, but actually for many countries in Africa malaria, not AIDS, is causing the greatest societal burden. So, me being the bandwagon fan that I am, jumped on board to show malaria who's boss, if you know what I'm saying?

*Disclaimer: Yes, I know that I said I would do my best to write all my blogs with a somewhat positive spin, but I'll forewarn you, it'll be tough to do with this topic. Malaria is a really serious problem here and I can only begin to shed some light on the havoc it can cause to a Guinean family. So please, bear with me and I promise my next post will be all flowers, rainbows, and highlights of how I singlehandedly saved a baby from a burning building using only a tooth brush and a can of peanut butter. Maybe.

--In 2010, an estimated 655,000 people worldwide died from the disease (most of whome were children under the age of 5)
--90% of these deaths occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa
--100% of Guinea's population lives in a "high transmission area" meaning high risk, always.

These along with many other statistics and information sheets have taught me what kind of impact this disease has on not only Guinea, not just the region, but the continent of Africa. But, no session can compare to seeing the effects up close. The first time I really felt afraid of malaria was when a fellow volunteer called me to say that a little girl from her host family died during the night. The story is short and sad. She was running around playing and laughing in the evening, but then came down with a fever. She passed away as her family drove her to the hospital.

Teaching students about net maintenance

Sadly, this storyline is not at all uncommon. I've seen it play out twice before myself. I lost an 8th grade student of mine unexpectedly. I asked around to the causes and my students cited a pretty similar progression of events that my friend had described. The second time was unfortunately much closer to me. One of my best friends at site, a ninth grade student named Lamine, came over to my porch like he normally does on a boring afternoon and sat down. I could tell something was off and then he told me that his little brother died. Same story, word for word. It was in that moment of shock that I truly felt how helpless the general Guinean population is against malaria. I didn't know what to do. Do I hug him? Do I talk to him? Do I ask about his brother? How do I even begin to console someone who's just lost his little brother in the most unexpected manner? I did what I could, I oiled his bike chain, gave him some water with propel powder in it, and let him sit at my house until he was ready to leave.

Yes, it's sad. It's horrible, terrible, awful and unjust. How can a disease that is mostly shrugged off by those in developed countries be so rampant here? In addition to all of those feelings and questions I felt something start. I knew I had to spend whatever extra time/energy that I have during my service to aid in the fight against this entirely curable disease.

This past month or so has been filled with malaria activities, plans, meetings and events. To start the month off, I channeled some of my former director's talent to write an educational theater sketch about malaria. Theater is a really great way to reach a lot of people in the community, but next I gotta translate it into the local languages! During the second week of April I had the pleasure to host three of my good friends here in my humble abode in Wonkifong. My friends, being much more "Livestrong" than I am, rode their bikes 250 km to see me. Along the way, they stopped in some smaller villages to give sensibilizations to community members. I got to join in for the last two villages closest to my house.

Malaria dance class!

Just today I had one of the best times I've had in country so far! I gave a hip-hop dance class to a youth group in one of the regional capitals and turned it into a malaria dance to get them pumped up about the work they'll be doing in the next few months for the mosquito net distribution campaign that's scheduled for later this year. The malaria events continue tomorrow when I go to a middle school with a group of volunteers to talk about malaria and steps to prevent it. I wrote a small presentation piece for this event in the form of a Dr. Seuss-esque story about a student who goals get set aside when she gets sick!

To keep the ball rolling (hehe), there is also a HUGE soccer game (see what I did there) later this month. This event is my baby. I've been working with my community and it's leadership to make sure that everything will be prepped and ready to go when 25 volunteers come in to give sensitizations to the village as well as play a game of soccer. The spectacle of non-African, non-athletic volunteers playing against Guineans who are pretty much born with a soccer ball juggling effortlessly at their feet, is sure to pull a decent crowd. I may even have some big name chameos appearances in the audience but I don't want to jinx it so if all it goes as planned I'll update everyone. I plan to use this grand audience to our advantage and give an over-the-top sensitization that will knock their socks (and mosquito bites) off.
So as I continue to feel like I'm planning a school dance for high school student council, my sister said something that made me feel good "Dante, you're doing, like, real work over there!" I guess that I can only hope that my normally well-spoken sister was right and that my work will help my community to better fight malaria. I've biked, danced, and kicked to end malaria in Guinea, but it's all just a small step in the effort to STOMP OUT MALARIA in Africa. How will you Stomp Out Malaria in 2013?

April has come and went. Malaria is still out there but now, thanks to PCV's, our Guinean communities are a bit more prepared to handle the task. Both the soccer events went very well. In my village alone we reached out to over 500 Guineans! Also the novelty of a soccer game has not worn off for them yet. I still get commentary from the game, now two months past. Which, given the theme, was the point! I'm very happy with my malaria work in April and have already started planning for longer impact projects like a children's book! Stay tuned, stay healthy.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Spring Break 2013: Heights, Hassan, Huts, and Hikes

Out to see the sites!

As surprised as I was, I’m glad Guinea observes the ever holiest of holidays: spring break. I’m pretty sure it’s a something leftover from the French influence but they have a weeklong break every year around the time of Easter. This year that week started on a Wednesday and ended on a Thursday, meaning that the students would take the entirety of both weeks as break because who would want a half week of school, right?

So in taking advantage of the moral loophole that is my teaching schedule, I headed out to the Fouta for a hiking adventure with a group of friends. There is a small village in Guinea named Douki (yes pronounce that like dooki) and in this small village is the oddest little Guinean man I’ve had the pleasure to meet thus far in my service. The owner of the location we stayed at was named Hassan and he can only be described as a man of many talents. A five and a half foot, chain smoker (those things may be related) who speaks not only the local languages of Guinea, French, and English but he also has a quick tongue in Spanish! Hassan always had a funny comment to add or some random skill (handstands, juggling, etc) to show us throughout our time with him.

I would definitely pay to just hang with Hassan, but the real reason we were out in the brush was for the hiking. Hassan’s place is a bit famous amongst Peace Corps volunteers and we wanted to see what was out there. The first night we arrived we took a shortened hike to the top of a mountain. It was short because we were already highly elevated. The real hike was the next day, with what Hassan named “Chutes and Ladders”. The 9-hour hike started with 4 hours of walking down a mountainside. We walked next to cliffs, next to waterfalls and inside crevices, the views were gorgeous. We even got to stop a few times to see some monkeys from a distance! So we started with the descent and we were all a bit wary about the ascent, but the trail was true to its name and the 4 hours of chutes were followed by 5 hours of ladders! Home-made ladders led us up countless levels of a massive crevice in the mountain range with a light waterfall on the side. The “ladders” were actually just bundles of branches tied together with vines, but if it works, it works.  Looking up from the back end, our group looked like they were in some kind of real life Donkey Kong, except thankfully there were no flaming barrels to trip us up.

We left Hassan after just two nights but a volunteer’s salary will force decisions like that. Next up we stopped by the Labe regional house for a night. We took advantage of being together in standard American fashion once again: beer pong. Good to see I still got it, ask Caleb for proof.

I made Labe a quick pit stop, as I headed back home to Wonkifong the next morning. I had to leave earlier than the others because I was expected visitors the next day! Two of the volunteers, Ben and Geoff, who had not been on the Douki trip were instead taking a bike trip. They started in their village of Telimele (telly-melly) and then, over three days, made their way to my village. A total distance of around 250 km!

Those two along with Caleb, who arrived by taxi the next day, spent a few days with me in Wonkifong. We spent Monday doing malaria projects (hanging mosquito nets and giving sensitizations) with general goofing around mingled in there. We managed to find some cheap wine and some cards for euchre making for a pretty good night. The next day we went to Forecariah (featured in the movie Blood Diamond) just to see some place new, plus they have a super market! That’s right friends and family, my vacation plans now hinge on the presence of a super market. Wednesday, we went back to work and did some more malaria sensitizations. Although whenever the four of us are together things are exactly like work anyways. To add a bit of spice to the day, we went swimming in a random spot in a river with a decent jump off a rock. That week overall was just amazingly fun and ridiculous. Those same guys are headed down towards me again near the end of the month and I’m worried we won’t be able to top it, but we’ll sure try!

Blending the line between work and play,

Had to do it. Go Blue.