Thursday, September 20, 2012

Back in Africa

I am back in Africa.  Every time I step off the plane in Africa, the jet leg escapes me for a fleeting moment and I feel excited, energized and comforted because of part of me feels like she is home.  This time I am in Nigeria, a new country for me but despite the precarious security situation, it still encompasses the spirit of Africa and I am very fortunate to be here.

Six months ago I was preparing for a trip to Nigeria when my world fell apart.  I lost my mother, my best friend, so suddenly that I was gasping for breath for weeks, if not months trying to come to grips with the unexpected loss.  I was suddenly orphaned and left with overwhelming grief of not only what I’d lost but also of what I would not have in my future.  I cancelled my trip to Abuja and turned my attention to my changed life, trying bravely to navigate the complexities of raw emotions and newfound responsibilities.   

So here I am, back in Africa.  Nigeria has the largest population in Africa, a growing 162 million.  For many of these men, women and children, the health indicators are dismal – high rates of maternal mortality and under five child mortality; significant disease burdens of malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB; and a stunning population of orphans and vulnerable children.  My project’s job here is to support health systems strengthening via various interventions supporting health workers.  Despite the bleak health indicators, I see significant opportunities for improving health and building the capacity of the country’s health workforce. 

Like many of my trips, my anticipated scope of work here is playing out differently than I thought it would and I’ve learned that you can plan to not have a plan.   I’m providing programmatic and operations support to our newly established office and meeting with stakeholders to advance key activities in our project.  It is a new working environment for me and I’m enjoying the challenges, of which there are many.  Plowing ahead with me are the most unbelievable staff supporting our work. They are a remarkable, hard-working and motivated team that makes coming to work in Abuja everyday interesting and fun. 

Despite being unable to move around a lot in Abuja, I’m learning about Nigeria.  This is my first trip to West Africa and I like seeing the mix of culture and religion on every street.  You can hear Christian music playing against the backdrop of the Islamic call to prayer.  Street vendors sell everything from phone credit to peanuts.  Like in other countries I’ve visited, there are fruits here I’ve never heard of and so many ways to cook a potato.  My senses are over stimulated.

The three main languages in Nigeria are Yoruba, Hausa and Ibgo though a lot of people here in Abuja FCT (Federal Capital Territory) speak English.  My driver, Uche, is teaching me some Hausa and I’ll be lucky to retain even a few words because it is so different from English or French.  Also popular here is “Pidgon English”, a kind of slang and smashing of English words.  It is supposed to be a simplified way of communication for people of multiple languages and cultures but I have to admit that Hausa may be easier for me to learn!

I’ve been tasting some of the local food and though I don’t know the names, there are a lot of yams, heaps of rice and a variety of meats and fish.  And everything is spicy.  Nigerians would probably laugh at what I call spicy but my taste buds tingle after every meal.  I have been eating dinner in the hotel but every day for lunch my colleagues and I go to a local cafeteria.  It’s different from anywhere in Africa that I’ve visited.

I’m also learning about the map and what states are where.  The project is doing work in up to five of the states now and I can at least point them out on the map as well as a few others I’ve heard about in the news.  The sad reality is that so many states are unsafe because of Boko Haram.  I don’t want to write about Boko Haram because I want my experience in Nigeria to be focused on what I am doing and the beauty of the people here.   My interactions with everyone have been warm and friendly.   

Uche is sharing with me Nigerian proverbs as well.  Some of my favorites are: “Before peanuts came, people were not eating stones” and “Whatever any person lost is somewhere”.  He said his father taught him many proverbs growing up and they are an important part of his culture.

I really debated if I’d ever write on this blog again and I can’t promise how frequently I will do it but a part of me wanted to acknowledge in this forum my loss and grief.  Too I wanted to write again, proving to myself in some small way that I can move on and though one very important part of my life is gone, other parts of my life, work and travel, can continue.  It is possible for me to heal and move forward, finding joy and beauty.   There is so much to appreciate in this world – family, friendships, travel – and I am so grateful for what I have in my life.  In particular, I am grateful for my friends and their unwavering support during my most difficult time.  I could never express my gratitude and love for those who have comforted me during my darkest hours.  In Nigeria I was told that if you are close with someone, you call them your brother or sister.  They are your family.  I may have lost my mother but I am so blessed with a wonderful family.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pink bleeds red

I’m beyond disappointed in the announcement today from the United States’ leading breast cancer foundation Susan G. Komen who has severed its partnership with Planned Parenthood. In fact, I’m raging and furious. This “break up” means that hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for breast exams will no longer be available to Planned Parenthood. There is a he-said, she-said battle waging on the reason for the rift between Susan G Komen and Planned Parenthood, most of it centered on anti-abortion Republicans pressuring the breast cancer charity to pull support for Planned Parenthood. Regardless of the political bickering, the real losers are low-income women across the country that rely on Planned Parenthood for reproductive health and other women’s health services.

First, let me dispel the myth that Planned Parenthood is just an abortion organization. I recently read that an estimated 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are in abortion care. Over 90 percent of its services support preventative care. For many decades, Planned Parenthood has provided reproductive health care to millions of women, men and young people not only across the country but also throughout the world. Planned Parenthood promotes a woman’s health and well being and believes in an individual’s right to make informed, independent decisions about their health, sex and family planning. Planned Parenthood offers services for cancer screenings to help with early detection of breast cancer and cervical cancer.

One in five women turns to Planned Parenthood for services at some point in her life. They are typically not your women shopping in Nordstrom but rather your low-income woman struggling to make ends meet. What politicians and now Susan G. Komen are doing is taking away vital reproductive health services for women with lower incomes.

Too, state governments are enacting legislation further hampering women’s health. Rick Perry cut funding in Texas that would have provided low-income women with cervical cancer screenings, birth control and STD prevention and treatment (most of the cuts were to Planned Parenthood). Too, Chris Christie cut $7.5 million in family planning funding in New Jersey.

The brilliant actress and women’s health activist Maggie Gyllenhaal recently said, “I believe very strongly that every woman has the right to decide what she can do with her body.” She continues, “I’ve been a Planned Parenthood supporter my whole life – since my mom took me to a rally when I was in sixth grade.” Gyllenhaal says she’ll take her own children to events her mother took her to, concluding, “I hope we’ll be celebrating our freedoms and rights, not fighting for them once again as we are now.”

I wonder what Maggie has to say about today’s announcement.

To support Planned Parenthood, visit

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review - Wine to Water

My apologies for the blog drought! The holidays, work, life – it all has been busy the past few weeks. I do have so much to write about but for this post, I want to play the role of book review blogger.

I am an avid reader. From the Hunger Games trilogy to multiple readings of Wuthering Heights, I inherited my love of reading from my mother. I have just finished reading a book written by an acquaintance of mine, Doc Hendley, and let me tell you, Katniss and her defiance against the “Capital” doesn’t hold a candle to his story.

In 2004/2005, Doc moved to Sudan to help bring clean water to the men, women and children living in Dafur. The book tells Doc’s story – from his days to bartending in Raleigh to what motivated him to live and work where reputable international aid organizations wouldn’t send their own staff. Despite being shot at by the Janjaweed, he did not give up on providing clean water and subsequently healthier lives for many Sudanese. Doc’s depiction of how he connected with the people of Africa echoes many of my sentiments that are often difficult to put into words yet he has done so honestly and poetically.

Clean water is public health 101. I’ve seen first hand the children in East Africa walking barefoot down dirt roads with their yellow canteens, searching for water to bring home. While they are out filling up those buckets, they are missing school, faced with whatever perils they encounter along the way, only to return home to drink that water, that if not properly boiled or treated, could easily give them a deadly bacterial virus. What Doc and his organization have so expertly done is not only build and repair wells for communities across the globe, but truly grasped that NGO buzz word, sustainability, and taught locals how to repair wells themselves.

Doc’s story continues – he persists raising money and awareness to bring clean water to the billion people on the planet without access. Despite his accolades, including an impressive nomination for CNN Hero of the Year, he is just a good ole Southern boy who has worked, and continues to work hard for our fellow global citizens.

Whether you are a public health professional like myself, or just someone who likes an inspiring story, please read this book. You’ll find yourself laughing and crying the whole way through. And when you finish, donate a few bucks to Wine to Water!

Amazon link to the book:

Organization website: