What Peace Corps can do to fight Ebola

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Like so many in the Peace Corps family and around the world, I’m heartbroken by the stories of suffering caused by the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. As a public health professional who has spent a lot of time in that region of the world, I’ve laid awake at night, thinking of how the Peace Corps can help to combat this deadly disease, given our unique model and approach.

The decision to temporarily suspend our Peace Corps Volunteer programs in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and bring Volunteers home to the U.S. was a difficult one. Our commitment to Volunteer health and safety is unwavering, and always our first priority. At the same time, Peace Corps Volunteers and staff are passionately committed to their host countries and communities, and want to do whatever they can to help in this time of true need.

Peace Corps ingenuity and the power of modern technology have allowed us to find the best of both worlds, and truly make a difference in the fight against Ebola even with all Volunteers safely at home. Continue reading

Keeping Peace Corps Volunteers healthy, one text at a time

This story is also posted on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog.

Today, refilling your medicine cabinet with bandages and over the counter medicine from your local drugstore may seem like a trivial task, but for Peace Corps volunteers working in remote villages around the world, this task can be much more challenging. As we take steps to forge a 21st century Peace Corps, such as dramatically reducing the time it takes to complete a Volunteer application from eight hours to less than one hour, we are also looking into ways to tap the ingenuity of volunteer developers to support our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad.

One recent example of this was the development of Medlink, an SMS-based platform, allowing volunteers to text in requests for their medical kit refills to get supplies in a timely manner. An internal study showed that the overseas medical staff members spent up to eight hours a week responding to requests from Volunteers to resupply their medical kits that were being transmitted to medical units via emails, phone calls, and text messages. Continue reading

The world needs our ideas to fight Ebola: taking platform flip-flops to a new level

As I’ve continued to watch the Ebola virus take hold in Guinea, my former home, I frequently think about my role in this epidemic — how might I possibly contribute? I don’t have medical expertise, I’m no technology-guru and I’m an engineer only in my mind. Yes, I lived in Guinea for two-and-a-half years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but what impact could I really have now?

The OpenIdeo Challenge has given me that opportunity, and it has given all of us an opportunity to use our ingenuity and ideas to help the people of West Africa.

I want to share my story with you and how I came to be part of this exciting effort.
Back in March, while walking through the Guinean market and taking census numbers for our waste management project, I noticed a man frying meat on a stick and wearing, on one foot, a very stylish 1990’s platform flip-flop — I swear it was from Old Navy. Feeling slightly puzzled but mostly intrigued (why just one?), I silently studied the man’s habits as he went about his activity — take the raw meat, dip it in the seasoned-mixture, fork it onto the stick, repeat. It wasn’t until he shifted positions to plop the meat-stick onto coals that I realized — this man had a leg-length discrepancy. He had sourced this micro-solution — a used platform flip-flop — from a second-hand market-shop to correct and enhance his mobility. How genius! How resourceful. How brilliant. Continue reading

Celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights

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Diwali, also known as Deepavali or the “festival of lights,” is one of the most celebrated holidays in India, and it is celebrated by Indian diaspora communities all over the world. Many Peace Corps countries, ranging from Fiji to South Africa, have a large Indian diaspora population and celebrate this colorful event every year. The dates for Diwali are dependent upon the lunar calendar, so the exact date changes from year to year, but the holiday generally falls between late October and early November.

In Guyana, the entire community celebrates Diwali regardless of personal beliefs. During the festival, Guyanese families and neighbors come together to socialize, share sweet treats and enjoy public events like the parade of lights. Continue reading

Breaking down barriers

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Today is my last day in South America. Tomorrow, before the sun rises over Cartagena’s colonial streets I’ll be en route northward, crossing continents and oceans on my way to San Francisco. The important thing here is not that I am going to the U.S., but the fact that I am leaving Latin America, indefinitely.

It’ll come as no surprise to readers that Peace Corps, and everything the experience encompasses, has changed me to the core. I think it’ll be years before I can really understand the full implications, but what I can understand now is my personal connection to the rich cultural heritage inherent in Latin America.

Continue reading

Goats to the rescue!

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This story is also posted on Feed the Future’s blog.

Preparing for and serving in the Peace Corps was a journey I could not have completely prepared for. My decision to serve stemmed from my desire to utilize the skills I had acquired in agriculture and resource economics and animal science at Tuskegee University by assisting individuals to reach personal sustainability in lower-income countries. Unaware of what I was getting myself into but excited about the opportunity to serve, I accepted my invite to serve in Malawi as soon as it arrived. I wasn’t exactly sure where on the map Malawi was (knowing only that it was located somewhere in Africa), but I knew this opportunity closely related to my personal and professional interests.

I arrived in Malawi during rainy season and instantly fell in love. The temperature was warm, the land was lush and green, and the people were welcoming and loving. I learned that I would be placed in Kasungu National Park and subsequently dreamed of animals and paradise, a beautiful landscape with lush surroundings. I imagined befriending one of the elephants and using her as my means of transportation.

What I envisioned — open land teeming with wild animals of all sorts — is nothing like what I encountered: a wildlife park with no wildlife! Continue reading

There is life after pre-service training

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About four months ago, I remember staring at the ceiling in my childhood bedroom and letting my mind wander. Up until then, I tried to have no expectations about my Peace Corps experience, have no pre-conceived notions and participate in absolutely no Facebook stalking of my fellow trainees (okay, maybe a little Facebook stalking). But that night – one of my last nights in America – I sat there just mulling over everything I had consciously blocked.

How will I learn the language to a point where I won’t be able to just survive, but to LIVE? What sort of people will be in my group? Will I make any friends? Will my host family like me? Will I make it through the intensity that every RPCV tells me defines Pre-Service Training, or PST? My stomach was churning.

Today, I’m proud and extremely humbled to say “përshëndetje” (hello) from the other side. Continue reading

Music makes meaning

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“Music can change the world, because it can change people.” –Bono

It was a cloudy Monday, not unlike any other morning in my mountainous town in northern El Salvador. Students’ voices resonated from every corner of the building, and the school pulsed with vivacity. As the usual pupils from Centro Escolar 22 de Junio stood in compliance in the great hall watching the Semana Civica presentations, more children clad in varied school uniforms shuffled in, eager with anticipation for the competition that was scheduled to take place.

For the previous two weeks, the members of the newly formed choir had been practicing daily for this competition, and the moment had finally arrived when they would perform El Salvador’s National Anthem (in its entirety) in front of representatives from every school in the city. This also meant that they would be competing for the opportunity to sing at the Independence Day Ceremony the following week.

Now, if you had told me a mere three months ago that I would be directing a choir of 30 students in El Salvador, I probably would have scoffed. Continue reading

Global Handwashing Day 2014: Let’s keep it clean

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Each year on October 15, Peace Corps joins more than 200 million people in over 100 countries around the world to celebrate Global Handwashing Day. Although Global Handwashing Day comes just once a year, Peace Corps Volunteers work year round to promote handwashing in their communities. The theme of Global Handwashing Day this year is Choose Handwashing, Choose Health, which is the focus of Volunteers’ work: helping their communities to make healthy choices through long-term and culturally-adapted behavior change approaches.

Handwashing with soap is the most important and impactful hygiene practice. Soap, when used at key times such as after using the toilet or before touching food, can reduce the risk of diarrheal disease by nearly half and cut the risk of pneumonia by nearly a quarter. These two diseases alone are the cause of 1.7 million child deaths each year, particularly among the poorest communities of the world. In addition, handwashing with soap can prevent skin and eye infections, intestinal worms and influenza.

Unlike many development challenges, handwashing with soap does not require any special skills or equipment, and it’s within the economic reach of households everywhere. Continue reading

International Day of the Girl Child: What’s good for girls?

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Nearly 20 years ago in Romania, a group of Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts responded to what they together saw as a need in their communities. They wanted to teach girls leadership skills because there were few women in decision making positions, and they wanted to help the girls develop a sense of civic participation and responsibility because they were not being encouraged to do so. Finally, they also aimed to promote cultural awareness and understanding between ethnic Romanians and Hungarians. The Volunteers brought girls together from different parts of the country to get to know each other beyond the stereotypes they had learned. The Camp, called Girls Leading Our World, or GLOW, has continued in its mission of girls’ empowerment and is now implemented in every Peace Corps country in the world.

October 11 marks the third anniversary of International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme is “girls’ education,” a topic that resonates with many PCVs who have engaged girls in different activities to build their self-esteem and confidence, increase their self-awareness, and help them develop skills in goal-setting, assertiveness and life-planning. Volunteers have been finding ways to ensure girls’ access to education long before the United Nations recognized this day. Continue reading