On Being Evacuated: It’s every volunteer’s worst nightmare.

Today volunteers in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia received the information that we will be sent home for an undetermined amount of time as a cautionary move against the rising risk of Ebola.

Electron micrograph image of the Ebola virus.

Electron micrograph image of the Ebola virus.

Friends and family back home are overjoyed at the news, but volunteers in-country are stumbling around in a state of shock. Projects that have taken months of sweet-talking the authorities, grueling grant applications, planning every step of the way have to be left now – postponed indefinitely. Bags must be packed. Close of Service dates for volunteers preparing to leave will be moved up. Pre-service training has been stopped dead in its tracks for the recently arrived group of volunteers. Somehow, we must all find the words to explain to our friends and host-families the harsh truth that we are leaving and don’t know when we will be back.

The Ebola outbreak began in the Forest Region of Guinea in February 2014 and was quite a shock. The word “ebola” conjured up images of bleeding, vomiting, dying and astronaut-style HAZMAT suits.

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But, looking around my village I saw that nothing had changed. Ebola was here now, but it seemed too far away to be dangerous to me and my village. It was more likely, and still is, that people in Guinea would die of malaria or malnutrition than a deadly viral hemorrhagic fever. I remember calling my mother to dispel her fears. She’s a reasonable woman but even she imagined that I was living through some sort of ‘zombie apocalypse’ with infected patients roaming the streets looking to pass on their contagion.

“No, Mom. I’m OK. Everything will be fine as long as I don’t touch dead bodies and stay away from severely ill people, which I tend to do anyways.”

Sunset and thunderstorm skies in Koba are beautiful

Sunset and thunderstorm skies in Koba are beautiful

Over the course of the past five months, Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO’s) have taught us how the disease is spread, instructed us to avoid ill people and funerals, and placed a ban on working in local health centers. Once Ebola became a daily used word in my Peace Corps vocabulary, the initial shock wore off and I spent more time dealing with worrying friends and family members back home than worrying about my own health and safety. I’ve been carefully following the outbreak, receiving updates from PCMO’s on new confirmed and suspected cases, and have felt safe the entire time. Other more anxious volunteers posed the question lurking in the back of all of our minds – “Could we be sent home for this?” I always assumed that the answer was a resounding NO. Day to day life at my site has hardly been affected, save for new radio spots educating the public on how to avoid contracting the virus and the occasional news report that more cases have been confirmed. I’ve taken every opportunity to educate people in my village about the seriousness of the illness and how to minimize risk of contracting it, but as time has gone on so has life and the outbreak seemed more and more distant to us in Koba.

 


But it has lurked, continued, spread, and grown. As of today, 1,201 cases have been confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia and 672 of those patients have died. That’s a 56% mortality rate. Still, living through this Ebola outbreak has proven to be less scary than it must be for all those back home in the States, being bombarded these types of headlines daily:

“The Curse of Ebola” 
“Ebola Outbreak: Could it spread to the US?”
“Death Toll Rises In ‘Totally Out Of Control’ Ebola Outbreak” 

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Unfortunately, this outbreak has been severely mismanaged on two ends. Primarily, the Guinean government is not equipped to handle it but more tragically the Western world has chosen to feed the fire with sensationalized media instead of what we really need here in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – medical assistance, man-power, education, and funding. In a recent New York Times piece Ken Isaacs, the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, penned a plea to the world to wake up to what’s happening in West Africa:

“Doctors Without Borders is the only non-governmental organization working against Ebola in Sierra Leone and Guinea. The organization I work for, Samaritan’s Purse, has collaborated with the group in Liberia, but this outbreak is too much for us to take on by ourselves. We desperately need others to join this fight…. I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease. I urge all organizations with capacity in medical, public health, social mobilization and water/sanitation to help in this fight. A disaster has descended upon West Africa, and it deserves the full attention of the international community. The world’s deadliest and most contagious disease is on a collision course with millions in major population centers. The situation is urgent. There is no time to wait.

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I’m devastated to be leaving. Truthfully, it hasn’t yet hit me. How does one face their family — because that is what my community has become — and tell them that I must leave while they must stay? It is another example of the astounding privilege I have as an American, and perhaps the heaviest blow of them all. I am not any better than these people; I have simply been more blessed in the game of chance we call life. I get to leave while they must stay. My country has decided the risk is worth removing me — but who will be their hero? Who will help Guinea? Sierra Leone? Liberia?

To those outside the affected nations, Ebola is a headline; a scary word, a panicked nightmare that some African may hop on a plane and land on your doorstep with his deadly illness. But these are real people affected and they are scared. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not growing due to a super-mutation of the virus — it is spreading due to misinformation, fear, and hard-to-change cultural traditions. Doctors working to contain the virus have met serious distrust and even conflict in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which has been negatively reported in Western media as superstitious and religiously based. But as Susan Rered of Salon writes, 

Distrust of Western medicine may have less to do with superstition than with history: forced sterilizations in Peru; the intentional infection of Guatemalans with gonorrhea and syphilis; marketing campaigns urging mothers in countries lacking safe water supplies to replace breastfeeding with infant formula so that women could work in western-owned factories; the sale in Africa of pharmaceuticals that passed their expiration date for sale in the West; the harvesting of organs in India for transplants to wealthy foreigners.

Yet many continue to blame the disease on Africans who have rejected foreign aid. Rered notes that people have been quick to judge West African citizens and government, thinking that this type of outbreak would not be possible in America. But there are deep-rooted causes contributing to the current situation:

Attention to sorcery rather than the inequalities of globalization obscures the fact that the biggest leaps in life expectancy in the U.S. and Europe came about because of massive government-funded public health measures — sewage systems and clean water supplies – not because we gave up our religious beliefs.

The misinformation, distrust, and lack of education is unfortunate and causing this virus to spread, but it is not the fault of the Guinean people. The rich history of Guinea is pained by colonization, civil discord, military raids, failed communism and struggling democracy and has led to a general distrust of both the Guinean government and the Western world in general. The education system, 70% unemployment rate, and social structure sets people up for failure; there is nothing inherently unintelligent or incapable about Guineans. During my time here I have been constantly amazed at the rich linguistic intelligence I see on a daily basis — people are often fluent in 5 or 6 languages, while Americans struggle through their required 4 years of Spanish or French. Creative solutions and a tenacious energy run freely through villages and cities. Yet I fear that many back home reading about this outbreak imagine an uneducated country with religious zealots refusing to be treated. I imagine that these people cluck their tongues, sigh, and silently think that this would never happen in America. And they go back to their day without a second thought.

UN workers teaching the public about Ebola symptoms and how the virus is spread.

UN workers teaching the public about Ebola symptoms and how the virus is spread.

As always The Onion, a satire news organization, has hit the nail on it’s odd little head with a recent piece entitled “Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away” with a fictional doctor stating that “waiting more than 50 white people for an effective preventative measure was something the world would simply not allow.” As I am now forced to leave, I worry about the world allowing this outbreak to continue and leaving Guinea behind. Leaving West Africa behind.

Now is a time for action. We must step up, we must help. We must contain this outbreak. More doctors are needed. More equipment is needed. More education is needed. More government support and action is needed. We can start by contributing to Doctor’s Without Borders (click to donate) and by remembering that real people are involved, who are very uneducated and scared, and remembering that we also need to educate ourselves before we jump to immediate panicked conclusions and assume that the fault lies at the hands of those suffering from this illness.

I leave you all with this quote from an oustanding article from The Independent I recommend you all read:

Perhaps our obsession with the horrors of Ebola says more about us than anything else. That it kills so rarely, and, for many of us, so far away makes it more nightmarish to contemplate. Absolutely horrific, sure, and yet, could you really argue that stage IV metastatic cancer is any less gruesome? Fearing Ebola is morbid escapism, a way to flirt with the inevitability of our own demise, to ponder the frailty of our own ineffectual meat sacks. Ebola is our macabre fantasy not because it’s likely, but because it isn’t. To many in the West, Ebola matters not because of what it does and how it kills; it matters because of what it represents.

My prayers are with all Guineans, Sierra Leonians, and Liberians. May God help these people and grant a quick end to this devastating outbreak. Please keep them in your prayers and thoughts.

My heart is with the village of Koba and will remain there until I can safely return.

Updates to follow as they come.

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Peace Corps Blog It Home 2014

Update: Voting link is live here on Peace Corps’ Official Facebook account. Vote for me to travel to D.C. to share my stories about Guinea by ‘liking’ the photo in the album and sharing with your friends! Voting runs from August 4th to August 10th. Thank you for your support!

Jul 25: My inbox this morning held more treasures than the usual “Buy one get one FREE” and “XYZ Political Organization Needs Your Money Now” nuggets. I was happily surprised to see an e-mail from a dear college friend who I haven’t spoken to since I’ve left. Memories came flooding back; who I was then, who I am now. I sat on the floor of my house and reflected on all the changes that I’ve been through in the past 8 months. A constant feeling of gratitude courses through me.

But what really shocked me was an e-mail from Peace Corps telling me that I’ve been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Blog It Home competition. I receive monthly e-mails from Peace Corps and remember seeing the one announcing this contest. The subject was “Win a Trip to Washington, D.C. in September” — of course my interest was piqued!

As I’ve mentioned to you all before, the Peace Corps has three goals:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

This competition, the e-mail stated, would recognize Volunteers who use their blogs to support Peace Corps’ Third Goal of sharing other cultures with Americans. I thought about my blogging hobby, closed my e-mail, and proceeded to forget all about it. It seemed too daunting and that obnoxious, tiny, inner voice reported that it was painfully obvious that my blog wasn’t good enough. Several days later I received a text message out of the blue from a fellow Volunteer in-country telling me about the contest. She saw the e-mail and thought that I should enter – so I did. Tiny voice, be damned.

I’m pretty shocked and humbled. I love to write about Guinea; I take it seriously, plan what I want to say, erase and rewrite, reorder and rethink. I want to get things right, I want to portray it correctly. I owe it to Guinea. She’s a beautiful corner of the world masked by ignorance (Do they pierce their noses with bones?) and fear (Oh my god, but the EBOLA!).

So, thank you — to my mom and her friends, to my friends and their friends, to people who google “peace corps guinea” and stick around to read. You all inspire me to get what’s inside of my head out, to share, to teach, and to keep learning. And, obviously, a thank you that will forever be on my lips – to Guinea, to the friends and family I have gained, to the lessons I’ve learned, to the adventures I’ve had, and to all that’s to come.

The next phase of this competition is a public voting on Peace Corps’ official Facebook account. The judging will be done by number of “likes” and several Volunteers will be chosen to go to Washington, D.C. September 14th to 20th to participate in a Third Goal Conference at Peace Corps HQ. I am honored to be a finalist and would love the opportunity to present my story and to learn how to share it with even more people.

So, I’ll be calling on you all. The contest will run from August 1st to August 10th. Once it’s up, I’ll share the link. The public voting will be used to help the Office of Third Goal staff choose the winners.

Please, guys, like me? And tell your friends I’m pretty likeable, too.

Ramadan: Staving off Hunger by Staying Occupied

Hi friends! I hope you had a lovely 4th of July and enjoyed the fireworks for me. I was able to spend it in Labe with a large group of volunteers — we whipped up BBQ chicken, mac and cheese, pasta salad, and potato salad so don’t feel too bad for us out here. It’s been a while since I’ve updated on what I’m doing at site and I know you all are curious as to what I actually do out here so let’s get to it!

Ramadan

Ramadan began on June 29. I’m a reform Jew who complains about fasting for Yom Kippur and I’ve been known to sneak a few nibbles in years past. For those not familiar with the holiday, it’s only one day. Ramadan is thirty!

Well, if anything I’m always up for a challenge. I’ve been fasting with my family and it has been an interesting, rewarding, and difficult experience. We wake up at 4:30am to eat before the morning call to prayer at 5:00am. Break fast is at 7:30pm. In the hours in between not a single drop of water or crumb of bread is consumed. People are also supposed to stop all conflict, loud noise, non-Arabic music, sexual contact, and smoking. Fasting is supposed to make you more “God conscious” and allow you to connect on a deeper level with Allah. It is one of the 5 Pillars of Islam and is obligatory unless you are ill, pregnant, or menstruating. In which case, you must make up the days at a later time.

I chose to fast for the opportunity to learn more about Islam and to “do as the Romans do”. The hunger pains hit hard around 2:00pm and I’ve snuck a few swigs of l’eau, but I keep busy with my work and friends and being on the ‘inside’ of all the Ramadan jokes and struggles has brought me closer to my community. They are all very proud of me but I suspect many of them think I can’t do it. Stubbornness drives me to prove them wrong. I have also been praying with my family. I am of the belief that all religions are different answers to the same question and I am relishing in the opportunity to fully immerse myself. A Baltimore Jewish girl praying in Arabic in West Africa — stranger things have happened. Wasalaaum alaykum. Shalom aleichem. 

Also, fun note, I turn 22 on the fête de Ramadan. This is a big party after Ramadan has ended where everyone busts open the piggy banks and slaughters cows, sheep, goats and eats and dances their little hearts out. I’m excited!

Ismael

I spend a lot of time reading English novels and debating with my friend Ismael. He was taught English by the 3 PC volunteers who were at my site before me and is fluent at this point. You want inspiration in your life? Take one look at this kid.

His parents are both deceased and he has little contact with his remaining family members. He lives alone in a small hole in the wall that also functions as a boutique. He is fluent in Susu, Pular, French, and English. He spends his free time studying organic chemistry and teaching English to his neighbors. He just took his high school exit exam and we are waiting on the scores to find out what his college options will be. He dreams of being a doctor and living in a house filled with books. He dreams of studying in Canada. He dreams of education, opportunity and something more.

Ismael reading "Tuesdays with Morrie" by Mitch Albom.

Ismael reading “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom.

A former PCV from Koba just sent over a Kindle to give to Ismael. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he realizes he now owns hundreds of books.

YETP/Dare to Innovate

In May I attended a training of trainers for PC Guinea’s Youth Entrepreneurship Training Program. It is a 12 class course that teaches basic business skills and project design. In September, I will start teaching the class to a group of final year university students at the National Agriculture and Animal Husbandry School located at my site. I am hoping to also offer the course to members of my community at large, focusing on different skill areas (a class for farmers, a class for boutique owners, etc).

I am also involved with a very special and exciting program, Dare To Innovate: The Conference for Social Entrepreneurs. This program leverages the success PC Guinea has seen with the Youth Entrepreneurship Training Program and searches for the most dynamic and motivated youth of Guinea’s communities. Through a competitive application process, we will choose 20 candidates to attend a 6 day conference in Kindia on social entrepreneurship. The candidates will then be put into contact with mentors, successful men and women in Guinean business, and will work with them for a 6 week period to develop a business plan. After this period of research and development, we will hold a competition in Conakry and the candidates will have a chance to present their business plans and receive seed money to start their social enterprises.

From our website, http://www.osezinnover.com/:

The mission of Dare to Innovate is to create a community of socially minded individuals and entrepreneurs that fosters the exchange of ideas, knowledge and resources, catalyzing and promoting the social entrepreneurship movement in Guinea. As Sally Osberg, President of the Skoll Foundation said, “Social entrepreneurs don’t just pursue a social end, they pursue that end in a fundamentally communal way.” Dare to Innovate: The Conference for Social Entrepreneurship will challenge youth to become actors in their economy while combating social issues. Through partnerships with thought-leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship, the conference will be an opportunity for Guinean youth to access top-level training and jump-start a social entrepreneurship sector in Guinea.

I am extremely excited to be working on this project. I will be able to learn management and organizational skills of running a conference, teaching and language skills from the sessions I will be facilitating, business skills and creativity from the mentors, and I will also have the chance to meet 20 young Guinean change-makers. The conference will be held in mid-August and the competition late-September. You will definitely be hearing more!

Moringa

Back in May, Mangue TP and I started a Moringa tree nursery and they are ready for transplantation! We have 50 trees to give away. The past few weeks we have spent going around the community — to gardening collectives, the Agricultural university, the houses of the authorities — and teaching people about the medicinal, nutritional, and agricultural benefits of Moringa. Next season I am hoping to have two or three times as many saplings, distribute seeds, and hold taste-tests of meals prepared with Moringa.

Kala and Bafode, leaders of a gardening groupement, posing with one of the Moringa trees we planted on their land. The Nitrogen fixing plant will improve their soil quality and the leaves can be periodically cut back and used as a green manure.

Kala and Bafode, leaders of a gardening groupement, posing with one of the Moringa trees we planted on their land. The Nitrogen fixing plant will improve their soil quality and the leaves can be periodically cut back and used as a green manure.

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Mangue TP, or as I call him “L’Homme de Moringa”. He has a huge Moringa tree at his house and we recently added about 15 to his garden.

Planting Moringa trees at the house of the Chef of the town.

Planting Moringa trees at the house of the Chef of the town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We just welcomed G26, the newest member of our PC Guinea family. There are 24 math, chemistry, and physics teachers. It’s been great to meet them and now this means I am officially 1/4 of the way done my service. It’s weird how fast time has flown and it’s even weirder to not be “the baby” anymore. I kind of know what’s going on in Guinea now… kind of.  She always surprises you, though. She always keeps you on your toes.

Until next time folks! Love you all and know that I always keep you on my mind.

That time a Blister Beetle took up residence on my face

During my time in Guinea, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid major illness. Diarrhea and head colds have knocked me down, but nothing more severe than a few days of bed rest.

I have, however, encountered a nasty little creature known as a Blister Beetle twice now. The most recent time, it happened to my face. This beetle releases a defensive acidic spray when you try to brush it or swat it away. It causes an acid lesion that heals in about two weeks but is extremely painful. Thankfully it does not leave a scar. I took some pictures of the healing process because it was pretty gross and, y’know, battlewounds are cool. It was extremely painful and led to some weird questions from my Guinean family and friends and lots of sympathy BUT, allahumdulilaye, I am all healed up now with not even a scar left to mark the incident!

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