Sunday, January 25, 2015

Watered Down

View from the waiting area at the airport.
Normally, you can see a tree row at
the far end of the tarmac.
Although the rains were late again this year (see my host and dusty earlier post about Tropical Christmas), they made up for it by arriving with a vengeance. In fact, they arrived right as we were preparing to board our plane to Capetown. The whole airport shut down for approximately two hours while we waited for the skies to empty. We returned to a green and glorious Malawi.

Unfortunately, there can be too much of a good thing. Following an enormous typhoon off the coast of Mozambique the week of January 13th, fifteen of Malawi’s twenty-eight districts were catastrophically flooded. Thus far, the government’s department of disaster management affairs has announced a state of emergency, mostly in the southern region. Estimates are over 60 dead, 150 missing and 200,000 without homes. This does not include damage to just-planted fields and loss of livestock, which are nearly too many to count.

My company doesn’t work in those areas, but I have plenty of friends who do. One friend is managing camp in Nsanje for over 5,000 people. Another friend has been frantically busy garnering resources and is hosting a delegation of donors next week. Malawi is on a “no aid” budget, but suddenly it’s pouring in. Malawi seems to be flooded every year, taken by surprise by the onset of such fast and heavy rains. Although there are always efforts to prepare, the environmental impact of poverty - deforestation, poor housing, land degradation are endemic. They don't lend themselves to being solved by one season of "no-aid" solutions.

Photo courtesy of Malawi Red Cross, near Nsanje Southern Malawi.
For us here in Lilongwe, the major impact has been electricity. It’s always been a bit variable in rainy season, but it’s much worse now. Reports are that a few of the hydroelectric power stations have had their water intakes damaged by trash, logs and detritus. To clean them out, the entire station has to be taken offline, leaving even more load-shedding than normal. 

For us now, it’s not a matter of if the electricity will go off, it’s when. When it does, we manage. The longest our power has been out is twelve hours. Not so bad really, but there’s not a lot of warning, so we try to keep our electronics charged and plugged in as much as possible. We have a lot of candles. It helps that the whole community is affected, because we rely on each other. I have only had to take one dish over a friend’s house (with generator) to finish a meal. As we go into week two, it’s getting a little less “adventurous” and more “annoying as hell” but all things considered - if it comes down to this or having my home washed away in a flood, you can bet which one I’d take. Having lived through the 1997 flood of the Red River Valley, I know it could be much, much worse.

**If you'd like to donate to victims of this flooding go to:**

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mary Sostene and Joyful Motherhood

This is a piece I wrote for African Women’s Health Initiative (AMHI) in 2014. AMHI, or Joyful Motherhood, is a Malawian organization that provides care for preemies, orphans and babies with HIV/AIDS. They fill a gap in outreach care that the local hospitals can’t possibly provide. Rainy season (Jan - April) is hungry season, and they are currently looking for more donations to keep pace with demand for their services. Please consider including them in your plans for giving in 2015 (and share with friends if you like!)

Mary, with four of her five children.
Mercy Sostene was not expecting triplets. With four other kids, including a special needs child and alreayd a set of twins, she already had her hands full. When she began bleeding at 28 weeks, she headed to Bwaila hospital in Lilongwe, hoping it was nothing serious. It was there that the doctors discovered her babies, and performed an immediate cesarean section. The children were small – each of them less than 1.5 kgs (3 lbs) – but healthy.

Given their low birth weight, Mercy was referred to Joyful Motherhood, a local Malawian NGO, in January 2014 for kangaroo care and follow up visits. Kangaroo care is a way of keeping children warm when there are no incubation units (and even, no electricity). Joyful Motherhood’s first priority was the keep the premature babies warm and gaining weight. Mercy’s assigned nurse, Nitta, told her and her husband to keep the babies inside, showed how to wrap them naked against their chests (like a kangaroo) and instructed not to bathe them for the first few weeks. It worked, and after six weeks, each baby was moving in the right direction. 

Mary's Husband brings Bertha
outside to chat.
It may not seem like it, but Mercy is lucky. First, she lived close enough to a major hospital to receive proper care for the babies to be delivered safely. Second, her cesearean section scar healed without infection. Third, she clearly has a supportive husband. Visiting their home, he joined us on the porch cradling their 8 year old developmentally disabled child, Bertha, who doesn’t walk or talk.

“I see it all the time,” whispered Nitta. “A woman has multiples and the husband leaves her, but this one has stayed – twice! He is a good man.” Tall, with broad shoulders and a rugged face, Mercy’s husband exuded warmth and caring. He works as a night guard and as manual labor to pay the bills, bringing home roughly $25 a month.

Given the paucity of funds, the family eats only once a day. The meal is made of a thin maize porridge and usipa, a dried fish. During the visit, the nurses noticed that Mercy’s breasts had dried up. With nearly half their income going towards rent, it was clear she wasn’t eating enough calories, nor drinking enough liquids to keep her breasts full. Because most households drink tea for breakfast, volunteers provided a small donation of sugar and milk, knowing it would give Mercy a double dose of liquids and nutrients at least for the time being.

Despite the challenges, the Sostene’s looked to the future with the modest goals of every parent: “We want our children to have enough food, to get a good education,” Mercy’s husband explained. Their oldest child, coddling one of the triplets, shyly admits that he’d like to become a doctor. These are big dreams for a large household, one sustained by love and the support of Joyful Motherhood.

Monday, January 12, 2015

New Years Resolution: A New Job

The sky is the limit when searching for a new gig!
I can always tell when the end of the semester or the new year begins based on the number of informational interview requests I receive. I'm also an inveterate extrovert, so when I meet someone on a picnic bench who is working in Lesotho with child health but wants to "break in" to development, I can't help myself. I gave her my card.

It strikes me that some of the things she and I chatted about might be helpful to others. This isn't development related, just a few suggestions I've accumulated after seven years of semesters. Here are a few simple things to keep in mind: 

1) Hone your ask . Something along the lines of “I’m an MPH with a background in maternal and child health seeking a long term position with an international NGO. What kinds of positions are available for someone with my skill set? (refer to attached CV). What organizations should I be looking at? Who should I talk to?” 

Don't start with: "I don't know what I want to do but tell me what to do" It may sound like a compliment, but really this person is asking me to figure out their lives for them. No. Help me help you by giving up some form of direction, even if it is an inkling of an idea. 

2) Start telling people –close work colleagues, professional friends, university professors – that you’re looking for a job. If you don’t know exactly what kind of job, tell them what you’re interested in and ask them what you’re good at, what should you say to professionals in the field you want to get into, etc.  This will help you Hone Your Ask. Once you know what you want to do (domestic or international? program management/coordination or actual nursing? FYI – unless you’re fluent in the language and culture, most expats fall into the former very quickly…) then...

3) Target specific people and companies. Start informational interviewing. Even if you don’t know someone at World Vision, chances are someone in your circle knows someone that does (Yes yes Linked in does this but an email intro from a friend who knows a friend is always so much better…). Intro emails should be short, who you are, how you know them, what you want (to talk with them about them), for how long you want to talk with them, and attach your CV. 

4) Once on the phone/skype, get them to talk about THEM, not you. The best piece of advice (career, dating or otherwise) I ever got was to ask questions about the person in front of me. It works every time. Ask them what it’s like to work there. Ask about how they arrived there, what skills they find useful, what every day work they do. How could someone with your skill set be successful in this company or position? Most importantly - who else in their network do they think you should talk to?

5) Don't outright ask if there are any jobs available (info interview = already code for “please hire me” also you can find this on their website). Trust me, they already know this. Instead, ask if you can add them to your list of professional contacts (LinkedIn or otherwise).

The best thing to do is to leave a good impression and your CV behind with the person you talked with. If something comes up in their org, they will remember you. Keep applying for positions on your own. If you see something in that org pop up on a recruitment website, let that person know you are applying. Many of my colleagues (including myself!) did info interviews but still were hired through the regular recruitment process.  These seeds sometimes take a long time to germinate, but something will turn up.

As I begin my last six months on this contract and start my own job search, I'm ruminating on these subjects myself.  I know it's not an exhaustive list. I've an idea of where I want to go and do after this, but exactly how I'm going to get there is a bit muddy yet. So, I'm going to take my own advice and tell others. I'd love to hear your ideas on what makes a good job search.

Because after all, the single best thing to do is to start.