We’ve Got the Fever: Malaria fever that is

This is one of those blogs where I feel the need to start off with an apology. I haven’t blogged here in a long time. I could tell you I live in Africa and Internet is hard to come by. I could talk about the ups and downs of Peace Corps life and explain that sometimes you just don’t feel like taking the time to describe how different your life is to the people back home. I could tell you that my life has gotten much less exotic since I moved to Kigali, and that I have been lacking inspiration.  There are many things that I could say, but the truth of the matter is, I’ve been a little sick lately. I’ve got malaria fever.

Last March, I was afforded the opportunity to attend Stomping Out Malaria in Africa’s Boot Camp in Senegal. Since then, nearly everything I have done has been malaria-related. I even recently went live on You Tube translating for my friend Justine as we shared our work with Peace Corps Volunteers and partners around the world.

It all started when John and I implemented Peace Corps Rwanda’s first major malaria prevention and control project, reaching over 1,300 citizens in Rwanda’s endemic Nyagatare District. Focusing on behavior change communication, community mobilization and interactive learning, we worked with our health center staff to develop, translate and facilitate five, two-day, 10-hour malaria prevention trainings for local health workers and community leaders. We made learning about malaria fun.

John and our Rwandan colleague Joesph Sebagabo teach community health workers about the malaria and mosquito life cycles.

John and our Rwandan colleague Joesph Sebagabo teach community health workers about the malaria and mosquito life cycles.

Participants played games, designed malaria prevention tee-shirts, made dream banners, and raced to answer malaria facts and debunk malaria myths. They discussed the devastating way malaria impacts Rwanda’s development and came up with community solutions to this largely preventable public health problem. Equipped with new skills, tools and knowledge, local community health workers and area leaders then collaborated to plan and execute their own community mobilization events in 19 different villages.

Our Rwandan colleague Justine Niwemugore teaches villagers about malaria prevention and control.

Our Rwandan colleague Justine Niwemugore teaches villagers about malaria prevention and control.

Beth helps a community health worker mobilize Rwandan citizens.

Beth helps a community health worker teach area villagers.

Every community health worker was given malaria teaching cards to help teach their communities.

Every community health worker was given malaria teaching cards to help them mobilize citizens.

Citizens raised their hands to say, 'Yes! Let's eliminate malaria from Rwanda. Yes! Let's help Rwanda with its development and sleep under our nets.'

Citizens raised their hands to say, ‘Yes! Let’s eliminate malaria from Rwanda. Yes! Let’s help Rwanda with its development and sleep under our nets.’

Then, there was a Girls Leading Our World GLOW Camp. Together, with my regional colleagues, we defied all sorts of obstacles in order to make malaria prevention education at Peace Corps camp a reality. Not only did we use Malaria No More’s NightWatch curriculum to inspire the camp’s junior facilitators to teach their peers, but we distributed nearly 100 mosquito nets to people in need. It was the first time Peace Corps Rwanda was the primary actor in a net distribution and we had started a trend. By fall, every Peace Corps region in Rwanda had incorporated malaria prevention education into their camps. The people at the President’s Malaria Initiative were so impressed they offered to pay for net distributions at all subsequent Peace Corps Rwanda camps.

Soon after, John and I moved to Kigali so I could take on the role as National Coordinator. In less than a year, we increased Peace Corps Volunteer participation in malaria prevention and control by 43%. We focused on building a team of malaria experts at Peace Corps Rwanda, increasing the availability of resources for malaria prevention and control, and improving volunteer training. Since then our volunteers have organized youth-led radio shows about malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention. They went on a bike tour in this land of literally 1,000 hills. They have organized lessons, planned events and had countless conversations with their peers.

Most recently, we organized Peace Corps Rwanda’s first Malaria Expo where we brought together 90 Peace Corps Volunteers and Rwandans to learn about malaria prevention and community mobilization. Participants went home with materials to inspire and motivate the people in their villages. In the next month, malaria murals are going to pop up on the walls of village schools, markets and health centers. Sporting competitions with malaria half time shows will be played. Malaria dramas will be performed, and there will be no shortage of community discussions surrounding the disease.

The people of Rwanda won’t know what hit them, but I will. It’s the malaria fever.

Well I am not proud it has been nearly a year since I last wrote, I am proud of how I have been spending my time. The global malaria epidemic is often said to be one of world’s most preventable public health challenges. The solutions are seemingly simple and cost effective, and unlike many other diseases that plague the developing world, treatment and care for malaria is readily available even in the most remote corners of the globe. Yet, the global malaria burden remains, impacting society’s most vulnerable. In 2010, 216 million people were infected with malaria–655,000 of them dying from the disease. The vast majority were children under five and African. Economists estimate that malaria drains 1.3% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s annual Gross Domestic Product, some $13 billion annually. Malaria is the leading cause of school-age absenteeism in Africa and reoccurring infection in childhood can lead to impaired cognitive development.

On April 25, 2011 the United States Peace Corps launched its Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative in order to eliminate malaria from Africa in our lifetime. Four years later, volunteers in Rwanda have gotten the message. They are doing everything they can to stomp out malaria and I couldn’t be more proud. They have malaria fever. Do you?

To learn more about STOMP Rwanda, click here to read our blog.

The staff at Nyakigando Health Center shows off their new malaria prevention tee-shirts.

The staff at Nyakigando Health Center shows off their new malaria prevention tee-shirts.

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton – All Rights Reserved

XBox, Asian Buffet and Stairs: Oh, America, you have so much!

Recently, I set up a pen pal program between the Rwandan school in our village and several schools in America. Every few months teachers and students correspond, allowing them the opportunity to practice their reading and writing skills, in addition to developing cultural learning and global understanding. Our first letters arrived from America last week. As I read through them, seeing the world through the eyes of an American Tween, I couldn’t believe how much stuff we Americans have. (I also couldn’t believe the intense teenage lust for a certain U.K.-based boyband, but that’s another post.)

To help the Rwandan students write back, I made a list of all the cultural concepts that would need clarification. Overwhelmed doesn’t even begin to explain it.

“hot” as an adjective indicating beauty, as in “the hottest one ever”/ fluffy pets/ ice hockey/ baseball/ Justin Bieber/ One Direction/ sushi/ Asian Buffet/ crab/ free time/ flashlight tag/rock-paper-scissors/ American football/ not liking school/ pet rabbits, rabbits not for eating/ Taylor Swift/ BMX biking/ fat cats, as in a PET that has been fed too much food/ cheeseburgers/ fashion/ stairs and multi-story buildings/ Twilight/redheads/ big lockers with room for “ALL MY stuff”/ odds and ends/ wrestling/ drinking fountains/ hunting/ a 12-year-old without “time or patience” to learn a new language/ hexaflexagon?/ Xbox/ ribs/ cross country/ cheese/ golf/ water polo/ mac and cheese/ steak/ the movies/ the mall/ ice cream/ pizza/ snow/ Valentine’s Day/ Thanksgiving/ Labor Day/ Halloween/ tennis/ opening day of gun season/  snowflakes

While I have often imagined how powerful this exercise would be for students in America, I think I underestimated the impact it would have on Rwandans. I knew the exchange would help American students empathize with global poverty, but now I can’t help but wonder how the students here will respond to all this stuff.

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton – All Rights Reserved

Our penpal project is supported by World Wise Schools, a Peace Corps program set up to help connect American classrooms with volunteers overseas. To learn more about the program globally, visit http://wws.peacecorps.gov/. Schools or teachers interested in partnering with our village can e-mail me.

African Dance: Farewell Party Film

Back in May, just before we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers, our training class hosted a party to say thank you to our local families and language teachers. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to survive in Rwanda. We arrived in country like babies unable to function without the help of strangers. We didn’t know how to fetch water, live without electricity, or cook over an open fire. We weren’t very good at doing our laundry and, for the life of us, we couldn’t cut a pineapple in a manor satisfactory to our host mother. Worse yet, we couldn’t defend ourselves when she laughed at our work. We couldn’t even talk.

As the months progressed we were able to do more and more. No longer infants(more like toddlers), we could feed and hydrate ourselves. We could communicate at the most basic level, and we were ready to go out on our own. In order to show our unyielding gratitude, we celebrated our success the Rwandan way. We dressed up in local clothes and sang and danced for our guests. While I’m sure we looked ridiculous, our families and teachers appreciated the gesture, clapping, stomping and singing along. My friend and fellow volunteer, Ian, made this video. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton – All Rights Reserved


Note: For those readers following this blog via e-mail, you might need to go to the actual website to view the film. Click on this link to connect with our homepage.

Belated Blog: Nine Months in Africa

Since John and I couldn’t send out Christmas cards this year, think of this as your belated Happy Holidays message. It has been months since our last post, but things in Africa move slowly, and the Internet is no exception. This isn’t to say we haven’t been busy. In the last few months we have had the pleasure of visiting three African countries; we completed our community health assessment; and we’ve designed and sought funding for two projects: Train Up and Mobilize: Malaria Prevention and Life Skills and Healthy Living for secondary students. Click on the ‘Our Projects’ page to learn more.

Ringing in the African New Year also gave us time to contemplate what other things we hope to accomplish in 2013. I’m begrudgingly running my way towards the Kigali Peace Marathon, while John is putting himself in the center of the international Ultimate Frisbee movement. Both of us hope to share our new found past times with our village and are looking at ways to incorporate the fun into daily life.

As we continue to work towards Peace Corps’ second and third goals of increasing the co-understanding between Americans and peoples of the developing world, we hope to reinvigorate this blog. I’m currently in Senegal representing Rwanda at Stomp Out Malaria, an African-wide Peace Corps and U.S. Government initiative to eradicate malaria in the next decade.

In addition to learning all about malaria and eating, delicious, flavorful food, I plan to take full advantage of the free, wireless Internet. In the next few weeks, expect blogs and photos about our Christmas safari adventure, bouncy balls and balloons, American pen pals, African “sharing,” and much more.

In the meantime, here’s a glimpse at our Victoria Falls Christmas!

Vic Falls 038SAM_1612Thank you all so much for your love and support over the holidays. While it was wonderful to celebrate with our friends overseas, it just wasn’t the same as Christmas in Michigan. It was well above 90 degrees and there were elephants and zebras on the highway!

Nonetheless, a stop at the post office on our way back to site was just want we needed to get out of our African Christmas funk.  The packages and cards we received from home not only kept us well fed and feeling loved, but also gave us the opportunity to share a little bit of America’s treasures with our village. In a place where people don’t have enough money to exchange gifts, balloons and chocolate from America made it a Rwandan holiday never to be forgotten.

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton – All Rights Reserved

My Sister Goes for Ten Cows: A blog in honor of our first wedding anniversary in Africa

In Kazakhstan everywhere John and I went the subject of how much John paid for me came up. We’d be sitting around a table at mealtime and without a doubt, someone would ask. “How much did you pay for Elizabetta?”

Since a woman’s status there was often directly related to the dowry–the more money, the more respect–John used to delight in telling them I was free. (He also once jokingly “sold me” to a train conductor for $1,000 USD, but that’s another blog post, and perhaps, another marriage.)

Rwandan culture is much less aggressive than Kazakhstan’s, so despite everyone’s unrelenting curiosity about the strange ways of white people, I was hopeful that questions about dowries were a thing of the past.

As is often the case, I was wrong.

It wasn’t that surprising the other night when our neighbor shyly made his way to our porch and asked me about American girls. He is, after all, a young man in his early twenties and some things, no matter how remote your corner of the world, never change. Girls captivate imaginations everywhere.

Looking at photos from our wedding, he insisted I tell him which of the bridesmaids were single and which were married. It was then the truth came out: “I want to marry an ‘umazungu,’” he giggled. “Your sister. She single? How much?”

I attempted to explain that American men usually don’t “pay” for their wives, yet my neighbor seem puzzled. “So,” he continued slowly. “I just need love her and she need love me.”

“Yes,” I replied. “That’s all.”

“I think it very good,” he continued in broken English. “But, I must give 10 cows for her.”

“Ten cows!” I replied. This time I was the one giggling. In broken Kinyarwanda I responded, “That be many cows. I think she like you more now.”

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton — All Rights Reserved

The Strange Ways of White People

People must think we are crazy. As we attempt to figure out how to survive in a country that we know little about, using an unfamiliar language, sometimes the most curious things are said. Parties on either side—Rwandan or American—have no choice but to smile at the cultural differences.

Take, for example, the other day when John had a craving for milk in his coffee. We went from store to store asking if the shopkeepers had milk, yet over and over we heard nothing but no.

The African sun was hot and we were getting frustrated. We had drank milk in this country before; it had to be somewhere. Finally, John blurts in his best Kinyarwanda,”I don’t understand. Where is the milk? Where can we buy milk?”

Somewhat taken aback by John’s assertiveness, the shopkeeper gave us a bewildered look. Laughing, he finally said, “The people with cows. They have the milk.”

There was also the time when I asked my host mom what I should get my friend in America who had just had a baby. After ruling out sending her food: beans, rice or sugar, she suggested I send her fabric so she could tie the baby to her back.

I smiled at this and told her how American women often carry babies on their front side, in small backpack-like bags wrapped around their chest.

“Their chests!” she replied, astonished. “How do they farm?”

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton — All Rights Reserved

Chairs: Who needs them?

It’s funny to think that as a Peace Corps volunteer you spend months trying to understand the local language and equip yourself with technical skills so you can make a difference, when, in reality, it’s the people whose lives you are trying to improve that end up improving yours.

I’m the first to admit, I’m a little bit of a spoiled American brat. Peace Corps allows you 50 pounds of personal luggage and I am sure I came in right around 49.999. There are things I just don’t want to live without: hair conditioner, toothpaste with fluoride and cheese to name a few.

I know it’s silly, quite ridiculous really, this obsession with things, but as Americans we tend to believe things make us happy. And, as of late, we have been a little gloomy.

We have been in our new home for nearly a month now and we still don’t have anything other than a camping stove, a few dishes and two mattresses. Our bedroom is a sad. One mattress sits on the floor while the other sits in our only bed frame. (Due to an incessant bug problem during training that somehow left me looking like I had a chronic case of the chicken pox and John looking, well, the same, John was nice enough to allow me the frame.)

The carpenter we hired promised us our furniture would be done weeks ago. Alas, things here operate on Rwandan Time, a strange exercise in physics where the time space continuum slows so much that you can actually see the hands on the clock inching backward rather than forward.

Rwandan time isn’t all bad. You never work too much. Boring meetings can be over before they even start, and there is ample time for relaxation and conversation. So much so that people often run out of things to say and just sing and dance for each other. It really can be a lot of fun.

With Rwandan Time, you get to do what you want, when you want. For example, the other day the nurses at the health center insisted on looking at our wedding photos, even though there was a line of very pregnant woman waiting outside. As the nurses oooohed and aaaahed over the cake, the women in line, many of whom had walked hours to get to the health center, happily talked among themselves. Amazingly, none of them seemed to mind the wait.

Of course, there are also problems with Rwandan time. Besides the obvious issues of productivity and efficiency, there is that of customer service. And although the women in line didn’t need things to hurry up, we do.

Never mind the fact that most Rwandans don’t have much furniture, literally, there isn’t even a word for it— an average Rwandan home usually has one mattress and a couple of benches only for an entire family—we were raised in a culture of things and we really, really want a place to put our stuff!

Our American upbringing has left us ashamed of our empty space. The other day when a neighbor came over to greet us, John profusely apologized for not having chairs. “I’m sorry,” he said, as we settled in on the floor. “Our house is empty. We have nothing.”

“That’s not true,” our neighbor insisted. “You have a fine teapot.”

While our first reaction was to laugh at what we thought was a funny attempt to make us feel better, we soon realized she was being sincere. After all, she was right. We do have a fine teapot. It’s electric and when the power is working it heats up water in less than 10 minutes! Our neighbor, on the other hand, builds a charcoal fire every morning to make her tea.

Whether she meant to or not, her point was made.

Time and time again in Rwanda we’re reminded of how “rich” we Americans really are. I am sure that my 49.999 pounds of stuff is more than everything my neighbor owns. A craving for cheese aside, her visit was just one more reminder to appreciate the things we have more than the things we want.

There is no doubt that in time, Rwandan Time, our furniture will arrive. Patiently, we will wait, and though we will probably be sitting on the floor when it comes, it really doesn’t matter. Who need chairs when you can drink tea?

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton — All Rights Reserved

Goodbye Kazakhstan, Hello Africa

It appears we have some explaining to do.  We’re in Africa. It’s been nine months since our last post and in that time we have set foot in three different continents.

Shortly after we set up our blog to share our adventures from Kazakhstan, the government of Kazakhstan blocked all blogging websites. Shortly after that, we were evacuated.

It was incredibly sad to say goodbye to the country we had called home for 9-months. Our limited language made it difficult to explain to our new friends, neighbors, colleagues and students why we were leaving.  Many wanted us to stay. When we explained our visas were being revoked, one dear friend even offered to hide us in her closet.

It took us about three days to pack up and get back to the capitol city. It took us about three minutes to realize evacuation wasn’t that bad after all.

As paperwork was processed and plans were made, we were put up in a five star hotel. Much to the dismay of the high class oil men and business travelers staying there, more than 100 gritty Peace Corps volunteers moved in.

We were in awe. Not only did the hotel have glass elevators, a swimming pool and terry cloth robes for its guests, there was also wireless internet, central heating, RUNNING HOT WATER and a complimentary breakfast each morning complete with bacon.

Now this may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind we had spent the last nine months in a very cold, predominantly Muslim country, eating horsemeat, bucket bathing in our living room and failing miserably each evening to build the coal fire that was supposed to keep us warm at night.

We were in evacuation heaven.

Things got even better when we were told we didn’t have to go straight back to America, we just had to leave Kazakhstan. Courtesy of the U.S. Taxpayers, John, I and seven other evacuees made our way home via Thailand. A month of sunshine, Pad Thai, golden Buddhas and elephants was just the cure we needed to climb out of our somber faced post Soviet rut. The smiling Thai people, the sunshine and the availability of diet coke helped us make it home rosy cheeked and well fed just in time for Christmas.

We spent four months indulging in all of America’s delights before being asked to serve again in Rwanda. Before we knew it, we had arrived in East Africa. Once again we immersed ourselves in Peace Corps language, cultural and technical training.  Without electricity or water, we spent two months living with a host family in the tiny village of Ichibanza. (Check out our photos on Facebook.)

On July 18th we were sworn in again as Peace Corps volunteers. By the 20th we were off to our permanent site in Rwanda’s rural northeast.  Here, we will work to build the capacity of remote village health workers in the areas of family planning and maternal health, nutrition, hygiene and disease prevention.

Two months ago as I stood naked, shivering in a shower-hut, dumping buckets of cold water on my head trying to clean the village dirt out of my hair, I thought we were crazy to do this again.

I was filled with fear about cooking over an open fire. My blistered feet ached from walking up and down Rwanda’s hillside. And,  I felt pretty confident I would never be able to say much more than, “Me American. Me volunteer. Me hungry. Me like papaya.”

This week, however, as people welcomed us to our new village with open arms and smiles, and the children lined the streets to give us handshakes and hugs, screaming joyfully, “Abazungu! Abazungu!” (Translation: “White People! White People!”), I’m filled with hope.

The second time is a charm.

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton — All Rights Reserved

Welcome!

We’ll we’ve been in Kazkahstan for exactly 199 days now and in honor of the big 200, we thought we’d finally start the blog we’ve been promising you. Actually, believe it or not, it has taken us this long to find the time, energy and, more importantly, bandwidth to make this blog a reality.

I assure you we have been busy. There have been countless sheep head dinners, twenty-four hour train rides across the Kazak steppe, and hours upon hours of Peace Corps language, cultural and technical training.

Our work here centers on three goals:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

It is our hope that this blog will not only help us connect with friends and family back home, but also work towards achieving the third goal.

In the next few weeks, you can look forward to blog posts about our last 199 days. Highlights include: Two Years, Two People, Less than 100 Pounds of Stuff; Sheep Head: Yum!; Pre-Service Training: The 28-Hour Day; Zhanakorgan: Our Home in the Middle of Nowhere; Summer Camp Mania; Is it Hot in Here or is it Just Me?; and any other ramblings we stumble upon as we try to catch you up on our lives overseas.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo slide show of our training in Taldy Bilak, a small village located in the foothills of the Tien-Shen Mountains, just Northeast of Almaty.

We’d miss you all very much and would love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment or e-mail us with your thoughts. We want to know what you want to read. This blog is for you.

Copyright © 2014 Beth Walton — All Rights Reserved