Monday, December 1, 2014

Today is a Very Special Day

December 1st is my birthday. I turned 26 today. Over the years, I have learned that it is a very common birthday, and I have had the privilege to befriend several of my birthday buddies, all of whom are wonderful people. But as great as we are, we are not what make today particularly special.

Today is important because it is World AIDS Day.

I know, another calendar day hijacked by a social awareness cause, but this one is different. It is easy to talk about hand washing- it is simple, straightforward, and is appropriate to talk about at all dinner tables. However, HIV is a virus that is most commonly transmitted through contact with sexual fluids- and that comes with a huge stigma. A stigma that keeps conversations about it not just away from the dinner table, but out of the family, school, church, community, and government. It’s literally killing us.

HIV/AIDS seems like ‘old news’ in the US. We’ve all seen Rent. It’s been a global epidemic for thirty years- that is longer than I have been alive. I don’t know a world without AIDS. Yes, medical treatments have improved greatly in my lifetime, and discrimination against those living with HIV has decreased within the US. But we’re not there yet.

AIDS was the cause of 10% of all deaths in 2013, the second largest killer in developing nations, and still in the top 10 of the developed ones. There are still 35 million reported people in the world who live with HIV/AIDS, and of them, 1 million of them are US citizens.

In Panama, a country of just 3 million people, there are 16,000 reported cases. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Read that statistic again. 16,000 reported cases. If you don’t know what HIV is, you won’t get tested for it. If you don’t get tested, you don’t get treated, and you transmit then die of AIDS without anyone ever knowing.

My favorite toddler in Playona is Bello. If I thought I had any sort of resources to do so, I would have adopted Bello in a heartbeat. He lives with my host family, because for the first year of my service his mother was very sick, and then in July 2013, she died. Her cause of death is ‘unknown’ but her symptoms make AIDS a definite possibility- particularly since just days before she died, she went to the doctors and they said they could do nothing for her.

“Was it cancer? This? That?” I ask my host family. No, the doctors said it wasn’t. I ask if it was HIV. “Our race cannot get HIV. She couldn’t have had that.” I will never know if Bello’s mother was HIV positive, because even if she had been tested, her family would never admit to it. Even though Bello, his brother, and his father are at risk, they will not get tested because they do not believe they can contract the disease, or they are afraid of the discrimination would come with it. Only in Panama, right?

Not so much. In Namibia, the disease spread so rampantly through the country in the 1990’s because their society believed that having sex with a virgin would cure it. Yes, you read that correctly. And if it didn’t cure you, then it meant that she wasn’t a true virgin. I’m not going to get into how many levels of messed up that is, but it is the perfect illustration of what happens when we let stigma and discomfort keep us from talking about serious issues. Watch out, I’m going to talk about sex for a minute.

The Quick and Dirty About HIV/AIDS:

The disease is spread through contact between bodily fluids- blood, semen & pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. It is NOT transmitted through tears, urine, or saliva. One of those first four fluids from the infected person needs to enter the body of a healthy person (usually via more bodily fluids) in order for the virus to spread. So all forms of sex- anal, oral, and vaginal- can transmit the disease. If you choose to have sex, the best method to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is with proper condom use.

Blood-to-blood transmission of HIV in the States is not common, unless you are a drug user or sketchy tattoo artist, but if you were to have an HIV-positive family member or roommate, it is important not to share items that could come in contact with blood- razors, toothbrushes, manicure equipment.

Getting tested is incredibly simple and easy. Yes, getting poked with a needle once a year sucks, but dying because your immune system staged a mutiny is worse. Always get yourself and your partner tested before becoming sexually active. HIV can lie dormant in your body for years before you show symptoms.

HIV/AIDS victims are still people. With access to the right medication, many of them can live symptom-free lives for quite a long time. They can give birth to healthy HIV-free babies, and live long enough to raise them. The technology exists to help them, but right now many are too afraid of prejudice to seek it out. They deserve and need our respect, support, friendship, and love. We need to talk about this disease more, if not for us, then for them.

I talk about HIV/AIDS with kids, teens, and adults on an almost monthly basis. I can teach you the finer skills to putting a condom on a phallic-shaped jungle fruit. I play a great game with handshakes and socks, using glitter to simulate HIV transmission and we make jokes about people who end up with AIDS on their face. But this isn’t a laughing matter.

On September 15, 2014, my friend Patrick died of AIDS. He had been a fellow student with me in the theatre department (theatre family) at UNL and we did several productions together. Sometimes we bumped elbows as artist and technician because his artistic priorities and my technical priorities were not always the same, but we deeply respected each other for our passion to the art. He was a tremendously positive cheerleader for many of us within the theatre department and his sudden death was shocking and tragic. We had no idea.



On June 30th, 2014, Patrick didn’t know he was HIV positive. He would find out a few days later, but he would tell no one of his condition. It wasn’t until a few days before his passing, when he was hospitalized for the last time and no longer able to make decisions for himself that his family chose to share with everyone the news.

It is sad to hear about the death of a friend, but what is particularly heart wrenching about this situation is that for the last 2 months of Patrick’s life, in his most difficult moments, most of his friends, colleagues, and advisors were clueless to his suffering.

I never had a chance to talk to Patrick, I am sure that he had many reasons for choosing not to share his medical condition with others and I respect a desire for privacy. However, if any part of him chose to remain silent because he feared the stigma, the shame, the discrimination that still comes along with this disease, then I’m angry. No disease- not Leprosy, not Ebola, not mental illness and definitely not HIV can make a person into anything less than a dignified human being worthy of respect and love.

Since Patrick’s death, teaching kids about HIV/AIDS has become an entirely different experience. It’s not about handshakes, glitter, and this mysterious invisible disease. It’s about teaching kids, teens, moms, and adults to love themselves by using protection, love their families by getting tested, and to love HIV-positive individuals when they need it the most.

Today in West Africa it is estimated that 4 people will die of Ebola. And 685 will die of AIDS. It will be the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

My challenge for you is this: Every time you hear the word ‘Ebola’ this week, reply with a comment about HIV. Let’s get this out of the dark, both here and abroad. The developing world may seem galaxies away from your life, but American pop culture, media, and politics have global impacts. Let’s make my birthday a positive one.




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

4 in 5 People Don't Wash Their Hands, and Not Enough People Are Upset About it

Look at the clock; take note of what time it is.

War is dramatic. If you want evidence of that, check out tonight’s news headlines, look at the latest box office hits, or play almost any video game. We’re attracted to drama, and our global society idolizes violence. Peace is not as flashy. But it is still deadly.



Every minute, 4 children around the world die from diarrheal illnesses. Yea, they die from the problem you have after a crazy night of drinking or after eating too much cheap Mexican food. The same illness that we don’t usually have to go to the doctor to treat, we just chug the pink stuff, take an Imodium, and down a Gatorade.  Yet this American inconvenience is still one of the most leading causes of death in children throughout the developing world- Central and South America, Asia, Pacific Islands, Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. It’s a universal killer, and it’s killing more babies than war.

But who really cares? 4 children die every minute just from diarrheal illness. We think, wow, that’s a lot…and then click on the next cat video. But hold on. Put down the vegan cupcake recipe for a second and lets put that into context. What does “4 children die of diarrhea every minute” mean?

If your child is in a classroom of 24 students, that entire classroom is dead within 8 minutes. If that classroom is one of 7 classes in a small elementary school, K through 6, the entire school dies within the hour. In ten weeks, the entire student body of the Chicago Public Schools is deceased and in one year the entire city of Houston, the 4th largest city in America, is gone. That is 2.1 million babies and children under the age of 5 each year. That is a Holocaust of children every 3 years.

Diarrhea causes a Holocaust of children occurring every three years.


But hold on a second- that’s such a strong word, Holocaust. It represents a tragic, painful, and devastating period in our history. Holocaust is defined as ‘any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life’. Is it really appropriate in this context?

The earliest recorded evidence of soap dates back to 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. Soap has been around for over 4000 years, and yet to this day millions of people are dying because although we’ve managed to spread the good news of modern religion, democracy, Facebook, and Whatsapp, the lifesaving message of soap hasn’t gotten through. Every week I see families with smart phones who believe they cannot afford soap. What is that, other than a reckless destruction of life? Almost half of the mothers in my previous community had lost at least one child very young to illness. What is more tragic, painful, and devastating than losing your child?

My baby host brother
Every kid learns about the Jewish Holocaust in his or her social studies classes. Why don’t we ever hear about the ongoing Child Holocaust happening around us every day? I’m not here to point fingers or blame specific person or group for this, because personal behavior change at this level is hard. It is really, really hard. No matter what they do, governments, institutions, non-profits, businesses, schools, and families can’t do it alone. It takes systemic change, on all levels.

Today is Global Handwashing Day. Today, all over the world, children, schools, nonprofits, businesses, and governments celebrate the importance and the dire need for hand washing with soap, because despite all of the technological advances of the last several centuries, it is still the most effective weapon against diarrheal and respiratory illness. Just one gram of poop can contain 10 million viruses and 1 million bacteria. And yet 4 out of 5 people in the world still consider hand washing optional, irrelevant, or too expensive. 4 out of 5 people in the world don’t wash their hands after “using the bathroom”.

Let’s look at the Stats:
 Hand washing with soap reduces diarrheal disease transmission by 44%- more effective than any water treatment, sanitation infrastructure, or other hygiene education.

The impact of $8,000 invested in vaccinations against diarrheal diseases (Cholera, Rotavirus, Measles) is EQUAL to

$200 invested in household water systems is EQUAL to

$11 invested in latrine construction is EQUAL to

$3.35 invested in Hand washing promotion and adoption.

Hand washing with soap is the most effective tool we have to prevent diarrhea, parasites, worms, the common cold, flu, cholera, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and even Ebola. Today, and every day, wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds every time you use the bathroom and sit down to eat. Then teach a child to do the same. You could literally be saving their life.

My Ultimate team waves farewell!
Ok, so diarrhea, hand washing, and those amazing kids I play Frisbee with get me all sorts of upset. But it’s not all negative, and hand washing can be a lot of fun. All over the world today there are poetry slams, artwork contests, skits, songs, parades, games, and activities happening to in honor of hand washing. This week kids in Panama are making art about hand washing in hopes to get their drawings published in a book. We’re doing finger paint activities with preschoolers to teach hand washing and making actors out of 6th graders to role-play positive peer pressure. I’m sure there are other activities happening with better ideas that I don’t even know about yet.

While the silence around this terrible, there is tremendous good news. We have the power to cut this Holocaust in HALF through the simple use of soap and our voices. I can, you can, and we all can make sustainable, impactful, and lasting change when it comes to improving the health of children all over the world. No fancy college degree, public office, lucrative wealth, or complicated technology required. Just wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds after using the bathroom and before handling food, and make it socially unacceptable for your family and friends not to do the same. We can use peer pressure for positive change for once.

Batman!
Look at the clock again. Now what time is it? How many minutes have passed since you started reading this? Multiple it by 4 and that’s how many kids we lost while you read my angry, preachy blog post. May their souls rest in peace and may they someday forgive us for our apathy and ignorance.






For more information and resources on Global Handwashing Day, check out these links:

TED Talk: Myriam Sidibe, The Simple Power of Hand Washing

Global Handwashing Day website

and to help you remember how to hand wash, One Republic made a great video




















Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lost in Translation

Last night my friend Andrew was passing through so I offered to make pumpkin soup and cornbread for him for dinner, if he brought me some cornmeal and red pepper. He said it would be no problem and picked up a box of ‘maicena’ and a packet of red pepper. When he arrived I put them on the kitchen counter.

At dinner time, I was simultaneously cooking soup, making cornbread batter, and catching up with Andrew about life. When I opened the box of cornmeal, instead of being the grainy, yellowish stuff, it was a fine, very white dust. I was confused, and we looked at the box for awhile, trying to figure out what this stuff was. The only thing listed in the ingredients was a Spanish word that I didn’t recognize that had ‘corn’ as its root. Sometimes ingredients in Panama look different than they do in the States. Salt is courser, sugar is not white nor brown but something in between, and red pepper is named for the Afro-Antillean culture that stereotypically uses it, ‘black pepper’. So I was willing to forgive this cornmeal for being different.

We concluded that he must have bought some kind of corn flour instead of cornmeal, but that since I was halfway through making the batter and the store was closed, we could use it anyway. So I added 2 cups to the mix.

The batter tasted bread-like and it smelled like cornbread while cooking, so I thought it would be ok. However, it was a nightmare to remove from the pan and had a very weird, dense texture. It was rubbery and super white. We were very perplexed but cut it up to eat with the soup anyway.

Second bite in, Andrew says, ‘it tastes kinda like play dough,’ and the light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly recognized the texture, smell, and consistency of that powder before. I’ve made play dough several times as a kid and the main ingredient was…OH NO.

CORNSTARCH. Maicena.

I essentially made baked play dough bread, and it tasted just like it. The only thing it lacked was fun colors. We laughed about it for a long time and then gave the remainder of the “bread” to my new four-legged canine roommate Mango.


Second languages, man. They’ll get ya.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Conquering Fears

"Are you paralyzed with fear? That's a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it." -Steven Pressfield

As a PCV in Panama, facing your fears and going outside your comfort zone becomes so commonplace you tend to stop noticing when you do things that once were considered scary. Some of the fears and discomforts I have faced, and conquered, in Panama include:

-Going to a foreign country
-Living without modern conveniences
-Living with strangers
-Speaking in front of people in my second or third language
-Swimming in a river that I know has crocodiles
-Taking public transportation
-Traveling by myself
-Getting lost
-Eating things I cannot identify
-Bats in my house
-Rats in my house (CAT!)
-Cockroaches (it’s better to just ignore them and pretend they don’t exist)
-Most bugs
-Strange dogs
-Swimming in a place I know has sharks
-Living alone
-Getting sick
-Not being in control
-Admitting when I am wrong or don’t know
-Being culturally or socially different in lifestyle and beliefs
-Being disliked or judged
-Arguing with authority figures (this might not be a good thing)
-Speaking up for something I feel strongly about
-Being myself, especially when I’m weird and awkward
-Failing moderately

I am pretty proud of what I have accomplished in the facing fears department. I’ve come a long way. Most of those fears are things I hoped I would conquer going into Peace Corps. However, there is one creature I cannot put on that list. To this day, I am still irrationally terrified of spiders.

This is not uncommon of course, lots of people fear spiders. In fact, I think the amount of people in the US who fear spiders drastically outnumber the ones who don’t. Yet one would think that in the face of roaches, rats, bats, failure, crocodiles, sharks, tropical illness, and being lost in the jungle, that a spider would be the last of my concerns. A spider is comparatively such small potatoes.

In this context, upon glimpsing the tarantula in my sink, the sounds that came out of my body at octaves I didn’t know I could physically reach were absurd and ridiculous. I’ve seen spiders of that size and larger before in the jungle, hanging out on their web or leaf in their own territory, and it never bothered me. But to take it out of the jungle and put it into my kitchen sink on the night that I am the only one present of the 5 Volunteers that live in my town, that was terrifying. Heart pounding, voice shaking, on the verge of tears and jumping up and down terrified.

I called a few Volunteers and eventually they convinced me I could kill it. They were very patient and encouraging, even though I could tell that they were rolling their eyes and laughing at me at the same time. And not without reason- as I said, in the context of our life, it is absurd to still fear a tiny (FIVE INCHES IN DIAMETER) spider. I went outside and tried to find some kids, teens, neighbors- I even considered going to the local bar for a second- to kill it for me. My normally obnoxiously busy alley was silent. Meh.

I used my roommates steel toed boot to smash it with my right hand while my left hand was on standby with the can of RAID just in case I somehow missed it with the size 14 boot. I didn’t miss, but as I was putting the boot down to scoop the massive gooey tarantula carcass out of the sink my bare foot brushed something on the wall. A SECOND TARANTULA.

I can’t rationalize my reaction. I can’t even call it human. I can say that it was loud, high pitched, involved knocking lots of pots and pans off of the wall, some involuntary frantic body thrashing, some flailing of a steel toed boot and somehow transporting myself to the opposite end of the house. By the time I got back to the kitchen, the second demon was long gone. I sprayed down the general area with RAID and retreated to my porch to let the fumes dissipate.

Moral of the story? Some fears, like speaking Spanish in front of others, are fears I run at head on, machete flailing, exhilarated by the adrenaline. Other fears not so much. I have no moral problem admitting defeat to those 8-legged hairy monsters and asking another person to dispose of them for me. But sometimes life doesn't give you that option.


Facing your fears is awesome and rewarding. Unless there are spiders involved.