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.

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.


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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Silence isn't Neutral

*It's another soapbox post, you've been warned.*

Read this..."What my Bike has Taught me About White Privilege"

Then watch this... "Jon Stewart Destroys Fox News for its Mike Brown Coverage"

I loved the bicycle article because it creates a nonthreatening analogy of what it is like to be the minority, highlighting what kinds of things the majority never even consider. My experience in Panama has really driven that home, because much of the things he says about being a bicyclist on the streets of Lansing could be said about being a woman on the streets of Panama.

Jon Stewart's video gives you a crash course on what is going on Ferguson, and his strong opinions on it. Since I was in America when this hit the fan, I saw many news reports covering it and heard lots of people talking about it from both sides. The general consensus of many people I was around is that this was just a gross exaggeration of the African American population taking any chance they could to create media hype and criminalize the white man. They defended the white police officer and his colleagues, saying that no act of violence warranted such a public protest that could spark more violence. They empathized with the tragedy, saying that it was awful that this happened, but chalked it up to an isolated incident, a glorified accident. There are also many people I was around that want to elect Jon Stewart president, so there's that too.

I had a fairly middle ground reaction to this whole thing, rather apathetic, to be perfectly honest, at first. I live in the "third world", it is hard for me to muster my empathy for "first world problems", as I classified this at first. I have been focusing a lot recently on developing my grey space thinking, rather than polarizing things as black or white. I want to try to see every side of the story. My general conclusion was that it was like an internet video gone viral, a lot of hype that was centered in truth, but that would mean nothing in about five minutes. 

While I was in the States watching protesters pour milk in their eyes to soothe the tear gas on my parents 70" television, I saw a Facebook post from a fellow Volunteer. In the very town I now live in, a 14 year old indigenous (Ngabe) boy was riding his bicycle on the 2 lane road through this community of roughly 7,000 people. He was hit by a car, and the police were called. Thankfully, he was not killed and suffered only minor injuries. However, this young indigenous Ngabe boy was fined by the wealthy Latino police officer for damage to the car owned by a wealthy Latino driver. (By definition of having a steady job like a police officer and having a car automatically boosts you into the 'wealthy' category in this area.)

But maybe the kid actually did something wrong! Life is never black or white, I'll give you that. Our town has no bike lanes, few stop signs, and no street lights. While there is a speed limit, it is rarely enforced, and any process involving the government is anything but transparent. (And corrupt, more often than not.) Everything about this situation is grey and unclear. But at the end of the day, it is still a kid versus an adult.

Here's what is very clear- there were no protests, no arguing, no investigation of the situation. If that boy or his family had anything to say about their injustice, real or perceived, it happened in the privacy of their own home and went no further. The worst part is that it is possible that they didn't even realize that the system was prejudiced against them, they might even believe they deserved to be treated that way. The boy was probably reprimanded or punished by his family for bringing this financial burden upon them in their already desperate state. He was probably told to be more careful, to behave differently, to not participate in such risky behaviors, and to not go to certain places.

For my first 3 days back in Panama after my visit to America, I had to walk from my hostel to the lab once each day to drop off my poop tests. (Standard yearly medical protocol, I am actually healthy right now for once!)  On the most direct route there, a group of street vendors cluster near a big tree to sell things to the drivers at the 4 way intersection with the street lights. Male street vendors.

Monday when I passed them, it was early evening and one guy made some comment. When I passed them on the way back, they all tried to get my name. I rolled my eyes and thought, "Welcome back to Panama". I felt annoyed by it, but more so with myself than at them for letting it bother me, I should be used to this by now. It is something that is so common in my life in Panama that most times it goes unnoticed. 

Tuesday, I went in the morning, and crossed the street before I got there, so as to put 3 lanes of traffic between us. It didn't matter- one of them crossed the street and tried to hold my hand as I walked across the street until I told him to leave me alone. On the way back, they all hissed and yelled things. I was angry that day, why is it that I can walk the streets of Chicago alone for 3 days in peace and I can't walk 6 blocks in Panama alone without harassment? (I'll give you a clue, it's because I am a white female.)

Wednesday, I again went at a different time, this time around lunchtime, hoping that lunch hour traffic would keep them occupied and distracted. I got minimal comments on the way there, but on the way back the traffic was too much to cross to the opposite side of the street so I had to walk amongst the 5 of them. As I passed between them they said really horrendous things about what they would do to me after they 'married me'. Gross.

Don't tell me that I should have asked someone to go with me. Don't tell me that I should have taken a taxi. Don't tell me that I should have walked another route. Don't tell me that I should have worn or said or reacted any differently. Don't tell me how I should or should not feel about that. That is all victim blaming, and it is not ok. Stop telling me to be careful, stop telling me to change my actions to compensate. Stop holding me accountable.

Michael Brown was a victim. The Ngabe boy was a victim. I was a victim. We're not flawlessly innocent, but none of us deserved what we got. The cultures we live in hold us accountable for the crimes against us and it needs to stop. 

If I were to prevent myself from being a victim of sexual harassment based on my race here in Panama, I would quite literally never be allowed to leave my house, and would have to put up curtains over my living room windows because yes, I have been catcalled while sitting on my couch.

If the Ngabe boy were to prevent himself from being a victim of racial discrimination, he would be required to move back into the reservation of his tribe, where there is little food, little work, and little education. And he could never leave.

If Michael Brown were to prevent himself from being a victim of racial discrimination, how would he even go about doing that in America? Where could he hide?

You are tired of hearing about these issues in the news- rape culture, racial profiling, feminism, equal opportunity, religious persecution, bigotry, etc, etc, etc. They are classified as separate, individual issues and they compete with each other for awareness and funding. The competition is crippling them. At their core, they aren't separate problems. This isn't a small town issue, nor a national issue. This problem transcends all countries, races, cultures, religions, ethnicities, and all of the categories people use to label themselves. They all come down to one thing. It is not the people behind the actions, but the system we've created.

Globally, we need to shift the accountability from victims to their perpetrators with empathy. We need to speak up for the silent crimes, and we need to make a fuss like Ferguson for the hundreds of thousands of people who feel powerless to do the same. For the victims who believe they deserve what they got. Instead of telling minorities to change themselves and hide, we need to teach the bullies to stop. We need to be aware of our own privileges and how we are unconsciously disempowering others and propagating the victim blame culture. We can't change others unless we first change ourselves.

I don't want you to tell me what I should have done differently when I say that I was harassed on the street- I want you to hold your friends accountable for it when you see them do it. By remaining silent on the issue you are just as guilty. When you see a cyclist on the road, change lanes and realize they are navigating 10x as many dangers as you are. When you hear about an unarmed teenager getting shot, question the system that allowed that to happen. Dig deeper and say, 'Why is it that the officer felt the need to shoot this young man? What about his training, life history, or personal beliefs led him to that conclusion?" And then, keep going. Ask, "What can we do to change that behavior?"

Most importantly, when you meet those people who have been victimized by the harsher side of life, validate their experience. Listen to them, believe them, and make sure that they really understand they did not deserve it. Think about how Michael Brown's mother feels having thousands of people come to defend her son, and how the Ngabe mother feels in the silence. Honestly, the reaction to Ferguson may be a good thing. It means that there are thousands of people who believe they have the power to change things.

Visiting America

After 836 days in the jungle of Panama, (yea, I counted) the lost wanderer returned to the heartland of America, my hometown of Omaha, NE. I was expecting it to be really weird and foreign. I was expecting it to be like going to a brand new country. Therefore, it was definitely more familiar than I expected...but it was still kinda weird. I felt like a tourist in my own city, which while at first was strange, I also enjoyed because I observed and learned a lot about my home town and former life before Peace Corps.

It goes without saying that the best part of my trip was seeing my family friends for the first time in years, but I am going to repeat it just so everyone knows how important they are to me. Thank you so much to my family and friends to made time to see me last week! The people were the best, however the food was a close second. Some of my old favorites aren't anymore (diet coke and french fries are meh) but other things I never appreciated before were an amazing surprise. (Cupcakes! Carnitas at Chipotle! Coffee shops!)

I spent most of my time catching up with friends and family members, and then running errands with my parents looking for a few items that would make my PC life just a little bit better- a carabiner to support the porch hammock so it doesn't fall down, a 'cap cap' for my nalgene so that I don't bathe myself trying to take a drink on the bus, and running shoes so that I don't have to play ultimate barefoot anymore.

After several days in Omaha and a night in Lincoln, I went to Chicago to continue my 10 days of gluttony with Chicago style deep dish, more amazing beer, and fried cheese. So delicious. Also, THEATRE. I spent 3 days talking about theatre, with theatre people, and seeing theatre. Though I've never lived in Chicago, it was familiar from my several visits there. I rode the public transportation system effortlessly- street signs, stop announcements, and Google maps make it a piece of cake after Panama. Many of my college friends welcomed me to the city and most of us picked up right where we left off a few years ago.

It was a 10 day blur, so much so that I barely took any photos, but an enjoyable blur at that. The purpose for the blur, I mean, vacation, was for my little brother's college graduation and so I must give a shout out to Nate for his great accomplishment. You rock bro.

I loved my visit, but as with any vacation, by the end you are typically exhausted and ready for the comforts of home and your own bed. It turns out, that at least for now, those things for me are located in Panama. Landing at the Panama City airport and being greeted with atrocious customer service at the customs desk made me smile. Panama, you are a dirty, smelly, hot, buggy, and mind-numbly inefficient country, but for now, you're home.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Third Year In Panama

I haven’t really talked about what my job as Sanitation Coordinator is. I coordinate sanitation, obviously. But what that means is that any Peace Corps Volunteer that wants to do a latrine project works with me to help make their project as sustainable, effective, and self-sufficient as possible. I share with them resources and best practices I have learned from my personal experience and the experiences of others, and together we try to make the process better in a multitude of different ways.

This job is personal to me, because it plays on what I learned in Playona. It also works to address a huge global development issue of sustainability and capacity-building. What does that mean?

“Handouts are bad.” Most people have heard that. They have heard that giving people free things is counterproductive and does not actually help them. Hand-washing is important, and most people have heard that too. But like hand-washing, just because they know something is bad doesn’t mean they actually do anything about it. (How many times have YOU washed your hands today?) Many governments still do handout projects. Many development organization do too. Frankly, they are a lot easier. It is hard NOT to.

Try as we might, even as Peace Corps Volunteers, sometimes we mistakenly do too. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. We’re trying to establish a buy-in, to address a need the community recognized rather than to give a free unasked for gift that might be culturally or environmentally wrong.

Panama has a lot of latrine projects that are not well cared for or used correctly because they were too much like handouts and not enough like empowerment projects. I am working with PCVs here to improve how we implement latrine projects and to renovate the training materials we use to prepare a community for said project.

Yes, we’re building latrines to improve people’s health, but that’s not the REAL goal. The real goal is to empower people to make positive changes in their lives for themselves and their community. By ‘capacity-building’ we mean to foster leadership and support education. This is where theatre comes in.

Throughout my service in Playona, I noticed that the most effective parts of our training seminars, the most memorable pieces from our sessions, were the skits and role-playing. Watching skits and then pushing the community members to re-enact them, not only teaches the material but also engages them on an emotional and physical level. I am rewriting the training curriculum for sanitation projects to include a lot of skits and role-plays, to give community members a voice. It forces them out of their comfort zone and gives them time to practice teaching the material and leading the discussion in their own home.

Theatre also does something incredibly special. All of us within the performing arts cherish the ‘magic of theatre’- that invisible bond that is created not just amongst the ensemble, but with the audience as well. It’s a relationship, a connection, and a social equalizer that brings everyone in the room down to the same level to share what it is like to be a human being. I can see no demographic that needs this kind of connection more than the people who live in developing countries. They truly believe that they are incapable of improving their lives and themselves. They truly believe that they must wait for the government or white people to give them things. They truly believe they have no power and no voice, that they are insignificant to the world at large.

I want to host a Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) Theatre Camp for teenagers, a place to give them a chance to tell their stories and find their voice. I want to use theatre to train leaders and inspire behavior change. I can write a lesson plan anywhere, but I want to test these sessions and seminars in neighboring communities with other PCVs to see what actually works. I want to teach PCVs how to be better actors and better improv players to give our skit performances even more of an impact. For that, I need more time.

My successor for this Sanitation Coordinator position will not leave their community until August 2015, so the beautiful thing is, I can take more time. That’s exactly what I decided to do. I have requested to extend my service (this time it was my idea!) through next August. If approved, it means that I will finish my service in Panama on August 7, 2015.

Making that decision was not easy. It was a sacrifice to know that I am missing yet another year of major life events for my friends and family. It means missing many more birthdays, a fourth Grand Assembly, and some holidays. I will get a special leave that will allow me to be home from Thanksgiving through New Years’, which I am incredibly excited about.

However, I realize that it is an emotional strain on many, many people and for that, I am incredibly grateful for your enduring support and encouragement. I miss Mom, Dad, Nathan, Grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I miss my Rainbow Girls and Masonic family. I miss my theatre family and colleagues. I miss so many friends from the different phases of my life. All of these amazing people made this decision challenging as it becomes harder and harder for us to share our lives together when time and distance are so actively trying to separate us.

I hope that each and every one of those people understand how much I love and appreciate their role in my life and how incredibly grateful I am that this news has been met over and over with overwhelming optimism and reinforcement. Despite its challenges, I truly feel like this is where I am meant to be right now, and hearing that my friends and family are overwhelmingly supportive of my decision is priceless. Thank you.