Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brigade: Day 2 - First Day in Community

I woke up to Anthony's breakfast bell the next morning with a sore throat, but I took some transfer factor spray and continued to enjoy my tea and oatmeal and meet my fellow brigaders.

It was breathtaking to be able to see the view from our lodge in the day light. The tables we ate at are all on a patio with a beach-front view, and views of local villages and the salt mine. There was also this smell that was just spicy and foreign that helped signify I was in a different world.

We spent a long time at the breakfast table this first morning. We got to know each other better, as well as get to know our program leads. Mersh taught us some basic Fanti phrases (none of which I remember) and taught us our Ghanaian names. In Ghana, your name is based on the day of the week you were born and your gender. Being a Saturday-born girl, my name is Amma. Gordon explained that Saturday and Thursday borns were the trouble makers. He introduced himself as a Saturday born because he was born between Sunday and Monday. When asked further what that meant, he explained his leg was born on Sunday, and the rest of him was born on Monday.... so he was a Saturday born because he wasn't either Sunday or Monday.

Gordon also explained that the fishing boats we saw along the coast didn't fish on Tuesday because he had crazy parties on Tuesday and didn't want anyone to be too tired to attend.

It didn't take too long for us to figure out that Gordon lied about everything. Other Gordon-isms included lying about how he couldn't dance at all, and only remembering Parker's name as "Player".

We finally left the lodge around noon to head to the community we would be working in for the rest of the week, Ekumfi Ebiram, for the opening ceremonies of the brigade.

It took about an hour to get to the community and it was the bus ride that made the whole idea of working in an impoverished African community become real and immediate. It also was my first glimpse at how welcoming the people were, as people young and old were excitedly waving at our bus of foreigners as we passed by.

We pulled up to a group of about 50 kids cheering on the side of the road. As soon as we stepped off the bus, at least 2 children each threw themselves at us, grabbing our hands, jumping into our arms and on our backs, and playing incessantly with our cameras (taking selfies mostly).

A drum line of elder men from the community also welcomed us by putting a rythmic soundtrack to our entrance to the opening ceremonies. It was approximately a half mile walk to the center we had the welcoming, and the excitement and openness of the community just built the entire walk.

We finally arrived at the community center, where we danced with the kids for a few minutes to some Ghanaian tunes spun by a DJ. We then took our seats and the opening ceremonies began. Mersh told the community what we would be doing during the next week. This was followed by a dance competition of the young children, a dance competition among a few of us brigaders (I got 2nd, NBD), and then a dance competition for our interpreters. After all the dancing, the elders and leaders of the community addressed us and told us that we were no longer from Texas or California, but that we were from Ekumfi Ebiram as of that moment and we were always welcome back. This incredible gesture made us feel so accepted and excited, yet nervous, for the work we were about to do. They were so excited for our help, and we just wanted to make a positive impact on their lives.

Other side observations about the opening ceremonies: 1) The kids' dance competition was by far the best thing to watch. They danced their hearts out, and people would come up and give them a cedi or so for their efforts. They would get SO excited with each donation. 2) Everyone there was dressed to impressed, without a doubt. The clothes were colorful and fabulous, and I want to dress like that for the rest of my life, yet even in Austin that might turn some heads.

After the opening ceremonies, we met with the loan applicants and Community Development Fund (CDF) leaders for the first time. We learned that former microfinance brigades promised loans in the past, and we were here to evaluate the loan applications. At this point, the effect we would have on these people's finances and lives and the importance of the quality of our work finally set in. On one hand, we wanted to grant loans because that's what these people wanted and felt they needed to grow. On the other, though, we wanted to ensure the loans were paid back so future brigades could continue to bring further economic benefit to the community.

It also became pretty clear, to me at least, that some of the loan applicants thought we would just be handing out money, or that we were just yet another hoop for them to jump through to get the money they were formally promised. Then again, that might have been my insecurity at being in a culture and position completely outside of my comfort zone.

Overall, it was a great day, but there were definitely some undertones reminding me of the seriousness of the work ahead.

We came back to the lodge, and that night at dinner, we were introduced to another Ghanaian tradition: ponding. It was the birthday of one girl on the brigade, Suchi, and to celebrate Gordon poured a huge bucket of water over her head during dinner. Best birthday tradition ever, I would argue.

Later that night, we had our reflection for the events of the day, and Katie (a fellow brigader) made a good point when I voiced my nerves for the week. She brought up that this decision for issuing a loan isn't an us versus them kind of decision, but is us working with the applicants to help them grow their business. Whether or not a loan would best help them grow their business was just a side issue. We were there to help them in any way we could, whether that included a loan or not.

Today (Dec 30) was also my parents 25th wedding anniversary, and I couldn't help but be extremely proud of them and everything they have accomplished together. Although we definitely have our differences, I am very grateful to have such a positive relationship to look up to in my life.

Other general reflections relating to the opening ceremonies is that at this point in my life I have traveled to a number of different places in the world, but I have never felt so incredibly accepted and welcomed by a community of strangers before. These people are so caring and brave that they let cycles of college kids come into their communities and homes and poke around their personal lives and analyze their private decisions all in the hope to provide a better life for themselves, their kids, and their community as a whole.

I personally have a lot of fear in getting help from people on such personal aspects of my life because I don't want to face their judgement or hear things I know are true deep down but that I have been trying to self justify. It hard enough to go to life-long friends for these kinds of things, but to allow a stranger to ask such personal questions and want their help was very inspiring to me.

Their openness, acceptance, and courage definitely struck me and caused me to ask a lot of questions about my own life. Also, their eagerness to have us share our knowledge with them and the gratitude some of the families expressed was truly humbling. They were so grateful that we are investing our time with them, and so grateful for everything they have in their lives despite having so little to themselves and the hardships they face.

Brigade: Day 1- Arrival in Africa

The journey was a long one: Three flight, three cities on three continents within 30 hours. We finally made it to Accra, the capital city of Ghana, around 7:30 at night there. It took forever to get through customs and to get our bags. So long, in fact, we didn't even leave the airport with everyone's bag (minus one brigader's bag the airline lost) at 10:30. The main bright spot of this incredibly long wait in the baggage claim of the Accra airport was that we had ample time to get to know each other.

It was after collecting our bags that we met the others on the brigade from UT, UCLA, and LSE. We also got to meet our program leads Mersh and Gordon. Then we had a two and a half hour drive in a cramped bus to the lodge we were staying at in Anomabo. At the beginning of the drive, we were introduced to arguably the most delicious treat on the face of the planet: fan ice. It's this type of ice cream in a pouch that tastes like marshmallows, cake, hopes and dreams, and happiness combined. As we were driving, we were stopped at multiple government security checks that were absolutely terrifying because the government officials had huge machine guns. Luckily, I had my fan ice to remind me of happier times. In this scenario, the government officials were the dementors on the train to Hogwarts, and fan ice was the chocolate that made everything ok.

We arrived about 2:00 in the morning and were guilted into eating dinner before we went to bed by the super nice chef Anthony who cooked a huge meal for us. I ate my rice with tomato sauce and passed out.

The room we were staying in had 7 bunk beds, filled with 5 girls from Indiana University. The bunk beds were actually incredibly terrifying because the whole bunk rocked with every slight movement, and there were no side railing on my top bunk. Our room did have air conditioning, though, so I was super grateful.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TED Talks: Poverty, Money, and Love

This is a really good Ted Talk that talks about microfinance and talks about our perceptions of poverty in a very insightful way

Monday, December 2, 2013

Only 27 days to go and over $2000 raised!

So thankful to the many people who have supported me thus far to reach this milestone!

Actively fundraising has had me think a lot more about money and its role in our daily lives.

As a college student on a negative income, I get how hard it is to live on a budget. Ask my parents, it's a struggle. Money is a major stress inducer, yet when I look at how I spend my money I find I waste it on a lot of silly things that don't bring about any good. On average, I spend about $5 a day on coffee or a snack alone. Over 50%of the people in Ghana live on under $2 US per day. If I took the time to calculate how much all my meals and silly expenses in a day cost, I can guarantee it is well over $2/day.

So from now on, I am going to challenge myself to try something differently. I am going to cut $5 of spending a week, and donate $5 to some sort of charity that is needing donations. This is the University of Texas, where everyone is always trying to raise money for various great causes. $5 a week may not seem like much, but think about it. That's $260 a year that is not going to transient selfish things now going to help someone.

If anyone reads this, think about what a big difference small actions on your part can play.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Welcome Link

Our Global Brigades contacts in Ghana sent out a welcome link for us to continue preparing ourselves for the big upcoming adventure! If you are interested in watching, here's the link:

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thinking about Poverty Differently: Healthcare

The book I'm reading (Poor Economics) delves into components that make up individual's private lives and analyze the decisions individuals makes and how the help or reinforce the poverty trap. The chapter I just read analyzed the decision making process of impoverished individuals in making health related decisions and then analyzed the underlying reasons for the overarching decision making powers they discovered.

One of the main theories of poverty is that health problems can keep individuals, families, and communities trapped in poverty. For example, workers living in an unhealthy and unsanitary environment could miss many workdays due to illness, children could be too sick to attend school or be sick too often to do well in school, and mothers living in these environments could give birth to sickly babies. Each of these instances could result in future poverty.

With this framework of poverty, it seems relatively easy to fix impoverished communities: a push to turn these environments into healthy environments is all that's needed to break out of the poverty trap. Many of the main illness that keep communities trapped in poverty are malaria and diarrhea, which could easily be prevented in communities through bed nets, chlorinated water, and ORS (a mixture of salt, sugar, potassium chloride, and an antacid to be mixed in water and drunk in order to prevent diarrhea). Many of these things are provided to and available to impoverished communities, yet not used. This leads us to ask deeper questions of why these easily fixed health ailments continue to persist and keep families trapped in poverty.

Since the poor don't seem to be willing to sacrifice much money or time to pursue these effective and relatively easy accessible preventative health measures despite their potentially large health benefits, you begin to wonder if the poor simply do not care about their health and the health of their families. Studies show that this is not the case, and that health is actually one of the primary concerns of most poor families and communities. In fact, these studies shoes that poor countries feel more worry, tension, and anxiety about their healthcare than is seen in the US. The average extremely poor household spends up to 6% of its monthly budget on health, and more than 1/4 of these households visit a health practitioner about once a month. When faced with a serious health issue, poor households cut spending, sell assets, or borrow from local moneylenders at extremely high rates.

The issue is therefore not how much the poor care about their health, or how much they are spending on their health, but on what they are spending their health on. Usually the poor's money is spent on expensive cures rather than cheap prevention. Most people also choose to not go to the free public health centers for preventative measures or for treatments for simple remedies, but opt for more expensive private doctors.

One of the issues is that many of these private doctors have no official health qualifications. Not having a degree doesn't necessarily means these private doctors are incompetent, as they could very well be very well versed in the practice of medicine. The issue is that health care audits by the World Bank have shown that many of these doctors aren't following recommended medical practice in asking appropriate questions about symptoms and giving appropriate treatments for diseases. There was also a clear pattern that doctors tended to under-diagnose and over-medicate.

Another issue is that most of the poor feel the medication has to be injected to be beneficial. This leads to more health issues of unsterilized needles, the increased likelihood of the emergence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and damage from overused steroids. This brings us back to the crucial question: why do the poor not exercise their right to obtain cheap and easy preventative health measures in favor of spending a lot of money on things that don't help and actually hurt?

Some blame governments and health employee absenteeism for the lack of use of preventative measures. If people are not there to distribute these preventative measures, how can they be used?

Or, do people not favor these preventative methods because they are too cheap? Rational economics tells us that sunk costs don;t matter, but we all know as irrational human beings that sunk costs do create biases in how much we value and use products we purchase. Maybe if these measures were priced higher, people would value them more and be more willing to use them.

The authors summarize the chapter in what I feel a very effective way. The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us: lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination to name a few. It is true that we are privileged in that we are somewhat better educated and informed than the poor, but the difference is much smaller than you think because in the end we know much less than we imagine.

Our real advantage in not letting health issues trap us into poverty comes from the many things we take as a given. We live in houses where clean water gets piped in and we don't have to remember to add Chlorin to the water supply every morning. Our houses take care of disposing the sewage without us knowing how. Our doctors's qualifications are regulated so we can generally trust them to do the best they can. We have a mostly trustworthy government-regulated public health system that also does the best it can to guide our health decisions. We have no choice but to have children immunized, for without recommended immunizations they cannot enter schools. Most importantly, we do not wonder where our next meal is coming from, so we rarely need to draw upon our limited capabilities of self-control and decisiveness, while the poor are constantly required to do so to stave off potentially deadly disease. We should recognize no one, neither us in rich countries or those in poor countries, could possibly contain the wisdom, patience, or knowledge to be fully responsible to make the right decisions about something as complicated as healthcare.

Once again, fixing poverty is not as simple as it seems. Asking someone to make the proactive commitments of preventive healthcare decisions is equivalent to asking all of us to fully honor our new years resolutions year after year without fail, or to exercise every day in order to prevent heart disease down the road. As humans we tend to let the present rule, and put off costs until tomorrow. Poverty cannot be solved with the mere provision of preventative health measures of infusion of money.

Flight is Booked!

No one else may be excited about this, but I am! Currently leaving out of Houston on Saturday, December 28, at 3:35 p.m., and arriving in Accra, Ghana on Sunday, Dec 29, 7:55 p.m. (with a pit stop in Amsterdam)

I leave Accra to come back on Tuesday, Jan 7, at 9:50 p.m., and get back to Houston on Wednesday, January 8, 1:35 p.m. I then go to Key West to go and celebrate my parent's 25th wedding anniversary :)

So much excitement in one winter break!