Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Got Trapped in a Game Park. True Story.

As I approach Day 2 of my countdown to leaving Malawi, I can't help but reminisce a little. I've done really well on the emotional front (minus my mini-Saturday night breakdown) but it's amazing how far I come. I remember how miserable I was during my first few weeks (months, even) here; how I just couldn't navigate my way around a new culture...I now have fond memories of my co-workers dancing around the office and enjoying a candlelit evening when the power is cut (both of which happened yesterday) and somehow making "Malawian life" my life!

I've thought about some of my most memorable moments here, but nothing compares to an adventure I had last month. No, I'm not talking about the final training session I ran. And no, I'm not talking about my trip to Brussels. I'm talking about the night I got trapped in Liwonde National Game Park. True story.

Let me rewind a bit...

My mom and two younger brothers came to visit me in Malawi, where I finally had a chance to show them the life I'd created for myself! Our packed itenirary involved 5 days at the lake (complete with a boat trip to feed the fish eagles) and a 2 day trip to the beautiful Zomba plateau.

We rented a little car (of course I could drive on the other side of the road after watching for 10 months), and naturally, our trip had to involve Malawi's premier national game park to see hippos, elephants, and maybe even a lion! Our first day and night in Liwonde National Park was exquisite, enjoying the luxury of the exclusive (and expensive) Mvuu Lodge. The camp is so exclusive that you have to drive an hour plus into the national game park, during which we saw our first signs of wildife: a huge, galloping Sable Antelope.

Safari, Malawi-style. 

Our awesome guide!

Nighttime safari.

The "chief" of the area (local dancing).

Some antelope butting heads!


After 24 hours of "living the life," I was prepared to drive back to Lilongwe and finish out our trip. Having learned from our antelope run-in in the little sedan I rented, I drove about 10 km/hour the journey. Around 3:15 pm, after an hour and a half, we were still driving on the rocky roads of the game park, when - in true "it could only happen to a diva" fashion - I heard a loud pop! I got out of the car, and to my chagrin, the situation was grim: a destroyed back tire and a strong smell of fuel (it was later determined that a rock may have punctured the fuel tank). Yikes!

The next few hours were among the most terrifying of my time in Malawi! We called Wilderness Safaris, the company managing the exclusive lodge, and they supposedly contacted the lodge directly for us. I called my office and the car hire company, and no one was concerned initially. But when 5:15 pm came around (just minute before sunset in Malawi at this time of year) - after several follow-ups and no rescue - the panic started to set in. The Lodge Manager wasn't answering - nor could we get through on any of the other 4 numbers - and the Park Ranger number listed was out of operation. Add 2 dead cellphones into the mix just minutes later, and I really thought I was going to sleep in the middle of Liwonde National Park for the night!

I had a brief "ah-hah!" moment and used my USB internet device to send an SOS email (which a co-fellow said he thought was spam after the fact) and reached out to the few people that I knew in Malawi. It was the first instance I realized that I'd made it through a year with no safety net, with no plan of what to do in the case of a serious emergency!

In the end, we were lucky that my mom had her U.S. cellphone, which we used on roaming for the remainder of the evening. We had 3 teams come to the rescuse - my office, who sent a vehicle and reported our situation to the Police and Park Ranger; the car hire company, who brought us a new vehicle; and the $1000/night lodge, who came with the Park Ranger after being contacted by my U.S. diplomat friend. The flat tire was changed, and as we drove the remaining 8 km out of the park, I heard a loud "BRRRRRRRRRRR," followed by...a parade of three elephants. Really.

Since it was pitch black by the time we made it out of the park, the trip unexpectedly ended at a nearby hotel for the night before we hired a driver to get us back to Lilongwe. My family enjoyed one last day in Malawi, before my mom shared, "I love you and am proud of you, Yvette, but it's time to come home!"

Well, that's exactly what will happen in 3 more days but I'm sure I will never forget the evening I got trapped in Liwonde National Park. 

We survived! Bought some local pottery the way back to Lilongwe.

"Celebration of Life" dessert!

Still all smiles on the car ride back.

My brothers' first minibus experience. (Not too happy).
What survival party is complete without homemade...
strawberry gooseberry crumble!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Breaking the Silence with a Few Photos...

I know, I know...

You haven't heard from me since April! I never posted pictures from my luxurious weekend in Dubai or trekking through the hills of Nepal; I didn't share the juicy details on my week as at the Global Changemakers Euro-Africa Youth Summit in Brussels and weekend in Germany; and you must be assuming that I don't do any work in Malawi since I haven't given an updates lately.

The truth is, my time in Malawi is coming to a close and a LOT has been happening in preparation for the transition. A blog post is coming your way soon, but in the mean time, enjoy a few pictures! As the saying goes, they're worth a thousand words...

Thank you Ethiopian for the first class upgrade!
First day in Dubai = 4 hour brunch (and too much fun)...
Second day in Dubai = World Horse Racing Championships.
Check out the track.
Site seeing around Katmandu.*
You better believe I climbed those stairs!*
Trek Day 2.*
Lunch time....
Mmm, buffalo noodle soup!
Almost there!*
The prayer flags are a symbol of Nepal. 
Hitching a ride (notice the boys in the back) to beat the pouring
rain during our trek!
Nepali life along the way!
Real cozy in the rickshaw...
The beauty of Nepal!
Canyoning in Nepal. 
If you thought this was should see
my bungy jumping video!
Enjoying the last little luxuries of Dubai, including some yummy
fro-yo at a huge mall!!
*Thanks Ray, Sam, and Tyler for taking these awesome pics!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Problem with Women's Rights in the 21st Century: the Case of Malawi

After reading some reflections from a recent article, I was struck and angered by a number of comments. In the absence of a constructive forum to directly challenge the author's article (see below), I decided to use my own little platform to foster dialogue on the issue of women's rights today. In summary, the author refers to the stripping of women that occurred here in Malawi this past January because they didn't dress within the traditional cultural norms (e.g., long skirts not trousers). The article continues by reasoning through why such a situation occurred, detailing the problem of women dressing inappropriately but still trying to advocate for women's rights. If Taiwo and I could have a discussion, this is what I would say:

I am currently a Malawi resident and can attest to the fear and confusion that the attacks on women earlier this year produced. From several informal discussions with Malawians, however, the issue was not just about women's rights or clothing but instead about a majority exercising control and releasing anger in a domain they felt they could control. Why else would the focus be on women's clothing all of a sudden instead of an anger toward fuel, foreign currency, and food shortages nationwide? 

Your choice of words like "indecent" and "obscene" fall into the same trap that those men who tore clothing off women here were in. Yes, there is a socially-acceptable way to dress for each occasion, and yes, there are consequences (good or bad) for however one chooses to dress, but if we seek to break the mold that justifies treating people differently based on judgement or awareness, then we can't fault people based on something as shallow as the way they dress. 

I also take issue with your statement that: 

"Unfortunately, at the same event I met some girls from Africa that dressed in very obscene dresses (micro mini-skirts), bringing shame to Africa. Funnily enough, the ladies from the west were more decent than these African ladies. The fact is that mini-skirts and even trousers are never a part of our cultural heritage. Some girls do not know the difference between bedroom tops and outdoor dresses."

Why is it funny or strange that Western women would be "more decently" dressed? And whose place is it to determine what is appropriate and what is not? Why is it difficult to acknowledge the dynamic nature of culture whereby "Western" styles  are now universal, and who says that mini-skirts and trousers were a part of Western culture? If you do the research, you'll see that evidence suggests the wearing of pants for work-related purposes possibly as early as 19th century and during World War II but not truly for fashion purposes until as late as the 1970s. Do the math, and we see that it took countries like the U.S. hundreds of years to morph into what we now call "Western culture," a process that younger countries such as on the African continent have powered through in a fraction of the time. 

My final comment is to refer to a Facebook post that was circulating this past February, which for me captures my very concerns with this commentary.

Similar to marxisbros reasoning, the problem with this article is that its focus is flawed. Why is the author "imagin[ing] the issue of dressing and why it incurred the wrath of vendors to the extent of stripping women naked for not following cultural norms" instead of realizing that there is nothing that could ever warrant the treatment of such women. 

The author rightfully points out that "stripping women naked on the street is not the solution to the problem because it even compounds the problem for the society." But at the same time, the author wrongfully implies that the problem is the way these women were dressing. In what world in the year 2012 should I not be entitled to wear a pair of jeans based on my "cultural heritage" or the color of my skin? Who has the right to suggest that pants are "indecent," "obscene," or "bedroom clothes." I take issue with the author's article and see it as a step back for women of Africa and the Diaspora, not as dialogue on the way forward. And I pose a challenge to men and women out there to focus on the causes of global injustice, not just the symptoms. 

Article in question (sent through

by Taiwo Adesoba 

“No Woman, No Cry” is a 1974 reggae song by Bob Marley and The
Wailers. The original title is “No Woman, Nuh Cry” in Jamaica tongue.
The “nuh”, is a shorter vowel sound for “no”, and corresponds to the
short form “don’t”. The song tends to persuade women not to cry and
reassure them that everything will be alright.

A lot has been said, proposed, advocated, and intended regarding
mainstreaming of gender human rights in Africa but nothing much has
been achieved. In African culture and even religion, men are dominant,
natural leaders, and divinely positioned to rule. There is nothing
anybody can do about this. However, equity is not a function of
religion, culture or social norms, but conscience and tenderness of

Recently, hundreds of people protested in Blantyre in Malawi over
attacks on women wearing trousers and mini-skirt by vendors. Some
women were in January 2012 beaten and stripped naked on the streets of
Lilongwe and Blantyre for not wearing traditional dress. The protests
were attended by former vice president Joyce Banda (Current
president). According to the BBC, until 1994, women in the deeply
conservative south African country were banned from wearing trousers
or mini-skirts under the autocratic rule of Hastings Banda.

In my reflections, I imagined the issue of dressing and why it
incurred the wrath of vendors to the extent of stripping women naked
for not following cultural norms. I have discovered that many of the
things we do are rooted either in our religion or culture. The kinds
of food we eat, dresses we wear, language we speak, and such and such.
No culture is completely good or bad but every culture must be
respected. However, you cannot respect what you do not understand. Due
to globalization or westernization, the very beautiful culture of
Africa is fading, unfortunate! Young people nowadays do not understand
and appreciate their cultural heritage that are based on respect for
elders, decency in dressing, fidelity, brotherly love, etc. All of
these have been traded for life-wrecking characters such as indecent
dressing, disrespect of elders, political thuggery and such like.

Indecent dressing has cost women a great deal of trouble, particularly
rape. You can imagine the consequence of rape such as unwanted
pregnancy, HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infections, emotional trauma, and
other terrible corollaries. The rejection of indecent dressing is
therefore very beneficial to women.

You may then ask me who is to blame. The family, of course. You cannot
have your cake and eat it. An irresponsible father will likely produce
an irresponsible son, “Like Father, Like Son” or “Like Mother, Like
Daughter” as they say. In Africa, dressing is an important part of our
life. It makes us unique and it is our pride. I personally experienced
this when I went for a conference in an African country. On the day I
wore local attire, the delegates from the west were amazed at how
beautiful African dresses are. Also, a black woman wearing a Kaftan
(like gown) was admired by other women from the West. Unfortunately,
at the same event I met some girls from Africa that dressed in very
obscene dresses (micro mini-skirts), bringing shame to Africa. Funnily
enough, the ladies from the west were more decent than these African
ladies. The fact is that mini-skirts and even trousers are never a
part of our cultural heritage. Some girls do not know the difference
between bedroom tops and outdoor dresses. Many parents have failed to
show their wards the right path to thread, acceptable behaviours, life
skills; and so what else can we expect other than what we are seeing?
Many young people do not understand their family values because they
do not actually have one.

On the contrary, stripping women naked on the street is not the
solution to the problem because it even compounds the problem for the
society. That is very unfair because it reduces the worth of the
victims and the disrespects the dignity of womanhood. I do not know if
there are legal instruments that protect women against such attacks
anyway, but such can be formulated and advocated for by civil
societies in Malawi to prevent a re-occurrence. Women and girls should
be treated fairly at all times because they are a blessed, wonderful
and fragile sexual category whose existence has influenced the
stability of our societies over the years. Women are blessed with
unique qualities such as goodwill, character, responsibility which we
must all recognize and appreciate. They do not deserve such inhumane

We have to go back to our roots. Let children and youth be aware of
and respect our cultural heritage. Every family should have values
which must be inculcated into every member of the family. Many of the
youths in Africa do not even understand the tenets of our existence.
They are misled very much through media, internet, travels etc.

I’m always a proponent of gender equity and will always advocate for
fair treatment of girls and women in my country and throughout the
world. Nooooooo Woman, Don’t Cryyyyyyy!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Inside PIH: my Brief Tour of the Global Health Icon*

I remember lazing around my parents' house during Christmas break my senior year of college, contemplating what to do with my life, when my mom called me to see something on PBS. "There's this doctor from Harvard," she said, "doing some work in Haiti that you might be interested in." Sure enough, she was referring to the work of global health guru Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, an international NGO renowned for its community-based, social justice approach to addressing global health.

Now, I'd read one of Farmer's books (and, in fact, used it in my thesis research on structural barriers to accessing HIV medications in the U.S. and Senegal) and I'd been very impressed. How did an NGO started by some medical students years ago become the #2 best NGO, improving health in Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, and 6 other countries worldwide? The more I learned about the organization and its status, though, the more curious I became about its approach. Its work seemed, in my opinion, to be based in certain communities, providing a wealth of resources to a small group. I understood the rationale behind providing quality services and creating model institutions to areas where access is difficult, working with Ministry of Health officials to create governmental ownership, but what I wondered was about the others who don't yet have access to these types of services. How could we hail an approach that didn't yet reach them?

It was with these thoughts in mind that I embarked on a professional development trip early this year, visiting the countries of Burundi and Rwanda. While the trip provided an excellent opportunity to visit friends and see their amazing work and perseverance during their time abroad, it also provided time to visit these same facilities I'd theoretically questioned.

While in Burundi, I spent four days visiting the PIH-affiliate Village Health Works (VHW). Though I'd never read the famous book, I'd heard founder Deo Niyizonkiza speak about his childhood as a refugee, leaving Burundi and being lucky enough to find opportunity while in the U.S. I had been moved by the story of how the community of Kigutu adopted the facility Deo started upon his return, constructing a  stone road with their bare hands to ensure vehicles could get to and from the clinic.

The famous road.
And when I saw the facility, an absolutely beautiful spread in the mountains of a remote community, I grappled with the issue: how can we justify putting all of this money into one place?
Part of the beautiful facility.
On the way up the mountain.
Our escort (yes, this would be national security)
View from the facility (DRC in the background, I'm told)
Hundreds of patients come daily, seeking services in the facility.
VHW is home to the largest solar panel in Burundi,
and relies on this for everyday operations.
By Day 3, I began to feel slightly different about the place. The doctors and medical technicians were wonderful, trying to provide the best services possible to several patients each day (a reality that unfortunately was missing from so many other international health facilities I'd visited). The numerous volunteers providing considerable support to VHW's operations were so hardworking and asking for so little in return, inspiring me to remember why I often do the things I do. What really touched me as I approached my final day was the sense of community that radiated through the meal times that all staff members ate together each and every day...

to the laboratory technicians who allowed me to practice my French and watch medical tests for hours...

Administering one of dozens of blood tests for the day.
Me acting as though I could actually diagnose malaria
to the children's choir that performed for me over and over when they saw me curiously looking in...

I think this was song number 5. :)
to the women of the cooperatives who tried to teach me to sew (unsuccessfully!)...

The local instructor helps me use the manual
foot peddle sewing machine. 
At least this time I'm peddling with my own feet!
...and basket weave (pseudo-successful), as they were doing to better their own lives.
It's not perfect, but not too shabby (I had a good teacher!)...
Team work creates...
This! (Just kidding, she did this amazing basket on her own,
and they'll soon be for sale through VHW).
The following week, while in Rwanda, I took a day trip to the famous PIH-Butaro Hospital.

On the way...
This is the impressive facility.
Through an informal tour led by an architect from the MassArt group, I learned and was so inspired to see how paying attention to the design of a facility can impact the quality of patient care. Perhaps what struck me more than the mod, simplistic designs and the beautiful scenery was the attention to community:
  • a large tree that would have more easily been removed remained because it was important to the community;
  • a doctor from Brigham and Women's Hospital was warm, friendly, and offered her time to us after just experiencing the death of a patient; 
  • our unofficial "tour guide," who was a friend of a friend, invited us for lunch and spent half his workday hosting us. 
The community tree.
The waiting area, purposefully designed in an open setting
(and a remarkable view!)
One of the wards - simple mod designs with important functions!
There's attention to every piece of detail and
functionality. Here is some retaining wall construction.
Remarkable view from the corridor. 
Views like this can only help you feel better!
The famous PIH fish pond.
The facility was built around these trees as well, as requested
by the community. 

I even had the chance to venture into the rolling hills of the local community, meeting some new "friends" along the way.

My informal PIH tour concluded back here in Malawi, where I had the opportunity to spend a few days visiting friends in the district of Neno. Admittedly, this visit was for pleasure, though I was once again blown away by the hospitality, intelligence, dedication, and integration of American and Malawian staff members with one another and in the community. The "Neno in 15" tour (the number of minutes it took to see the main town) revealed that PIH employs and partners with so many in the community. A trip to the local "bottle shop" (home to 2 varieties of Carlsberg beer, the local fermented maize drink, and a pool table) revealed that almost everyone in the town knew my host by name. Even the fun activities - which involved community-style meals, playing sports with local children, and creating very innovative sources of entertainment with the beautiful mountainous backdrop - all centered around principles of fellowship, community, and cross-cultural exchange.

The view from the guest house
Going up to the hospital.
The hospital.
Neno "Boma" (town)

The market.
Basketball is a serious community affair.
Showing the kids funny pictures on the Ipad. 
My new friends holding their homemade football.
Sunday brunch with the PIH fam.
We "mowed" the grass, Malawi style. 
I even tried...
Fellow-ly love!
Movie night under the stars!!
(Yes, that's a sheet and chairs from the living room).
It's these little acts, and this warmness and commitment from everyone I interacted with in all three countries that have truly challenged my initial perception on approaches like PIH's. I can't say the approach is flawless - and I've yet to find one approach in global health that is - but I was so inspired by many of the strengths I witnessed during my brief visits. I found it incredible to enter into a community that openly pushes for social justice, a term that far too many shy away from because it's too "politically charged." In how many worlds can one sit with a beer and a beautiful mountain backdrop talking about how and why you want to save the world? I was so encouraged to see people of all backgrounds - from Americans and Europeans to people from within local communities - freely interacting with one another, a reality that I've rarely had the opportunity to be a part of outside of my work environment in Lilongwe. I was blown away by how incredible the few people I met were...and that they were altogether in one place! And perhaps most importantly, I'm inspired that criticisms aside, PIH is an organization that truly believes in providing high standards of care to even the poorest and most in-need. I still hope and believe that one day, we will live in a world where social justice is a reality not a pursuit, but along the journey, we can continue to challenge and learn from existing approaches worldwide.

*This blog was independently written without support from PIH for the purpose of sharing my experience while abroad with family and friends.