I expected the worst but found the best

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First things first: Elderly Ethiopian ladies are truly the cutest human beings. They ALWAYS say hello to me and they ALWAYS laugh hysterically when I respond in Amharic. As I walked home from work tonight, I noticed a group of four ladies sitting around a shop and smiling at me as I passed by. I waved, said hello, and asked them how they were, and they chuckled in delight at my broken attempts at their language. I walked up to them to introduce myself and ask their names, and we had a brief conversation about my purpose in Addis. Turns out one of the women was selling injera (a local food), which I had been trying to find for weeks at the supermarket. What a coincidence! I picked up a week’s worth of injera for 6 birr (30 cents!) and said goodbye, and the ladies told me they loved me! Like I said, the cutest.Speaking of injera, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Ethiopian food. Prior to my departure, a friend and I decided to try an Ethiopian restaurant back home, but to be honest, we were so turned off by the menu that we walked away. Many people warned me I wouldn’t like the food, when in fact, the traditional food is one of the best aspects of life here! I expected the worst but found the best - just another example of why preconceived notions are typically never useful.99% of the Ethiopian food I’ve tried thus far has been delicious. The only thing that turned me off was goat tongue (thankfully Sege, my landlady, understood my aversion!). Utensils are rarely used, as Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hand. If eating a communal dish, a special pot is used to clean your hands before and after the meal.Last Thursday I enjoyed a special dinner at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant with three other people visiting my organization. One was a volunteer, one was from our headquarters in Canada, and one was from an external organization – and we all had yet to experience a traditional dinner and dance ceremony.The base of all meals is normally injera, a flat, gluten-free bread made with teff, a local grain:We ordered a serving of doro wat and shero wat; doro means chicken, shero means chick pea and wat simply means dish. In Amharic, wat is always added after the name of the food if you are serving it as a meal. Each dish was a bit spicy, and the texture is similar to that of a stew.In addition to the food, we were completely entertained:A few weeks ago, Sege, my “Ethiopian mother” honored my arrival with the killing of a baby lamb. Although I must admit I was a bit sad about the poor lamb’s fate, it was imperative to respect the local culture and demonstrate thankfulness and appreciation for her generosity.When an entire animal is killed, the meat is often cooked over a traditional Ethiopian stove:I must say, the lamb was fantastic, and combined with injera and some rice this was a traditional feast I’ll never forget.

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Celebrating our one month anniversary

It’s been a rocky four weeks with lots of ups and downs, but don’t they say the transition period is the hardest?! While you’ve thrown me for a few curveballs, I’ve already become so thankful and appreciative of your entrance into my life. Yup, it’s been a good four weeks, Ethiopia.Exactly one month ago today I disembarked flight ET503 at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Equally exhausted and excited, I had no idea what lay in store; I was entering this new chapter as blind as could be. I think this was for the best though, because I had no preconceived ideas and was able to create an impression of Addis entirely my own.While life can be summed up as harder here, I’ve mentioned before how blessed I feel to be in this place. To be working for a cause I believe in, to learn the in’s and out’s of an entirely different culture, to challenge myself to adapt to such a foreign environment… it’s all so incredible and so enriching.I can’t believe a month has already flown by. While it moved quickly, a lot happened. I left everything familiar behind and arrived in Addis, started a new job, rented my first house (pictures to come soon!), joined a new church, and met a ton of new people. That’s a lot of change!!! It’s a good thing I thrive off it.Ironically enough, I was struck by a mild case of homesickness on this 30 day mark. I took a nap to brush if off, and woke up with a renewed sense of assurance that I’m meant to be here. Right now, this is home… my intuition could not have been more clear. Although my time in Ethiopia is limited, I know this is my stepping stone to greater things to come. I know this place will let my potential flourish and ultimately, will be make me a better person.Ethiopia tests my patience on a daily basis. I still get annoyed with having to disinfect all my fruits and veggies before eating them; too often I find myself staring at my watch and thinking about how salad prep takes 1/8th of the time in Canada. And then reality strikes and I am ashamed for such thoughts. How can I complain about the abundance of food in my fridge when there are dozens of homeless surrounding my home who probably haven’t eaten for days?Ethiopia has been a wake-up call. We don’t know how blessed we are until we see how unfortunate living conditions can be for others. While my patience is tested, my patience is growing. When I am at my most uncomfortable, my comfort level expands. When I look down while crossing paths with a stranger, as my Torontonian upbringing taught me to do, that stranger says hello and encourages me to be more welcoming.These are the changes I’ve undergone and the experiences I’ve encountered within my first month in Ethiopia. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.

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The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

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As you may or may not know, Ethiopia is known for fantastic coffee. I’m not sure how I’ll ever be able to return to Tim Hortons in Canada, because this stuff is liquid gold. There’s nothing “instant” about it – coffee beans are roasted over fire, ground up (traditionally by hand), and then brewed – it doesn’t get any fresher than that!I mentioned we had Eid al-Adha off work a few weeks ago. Well, my gracious colleague Soliana invited me to spend the day at her home with her family. Not only was the lunch amazingly delicious, but I was honored with a coffee ceremony as well! Soliana explained that the non-working women in Ethiopia - the older generation in particular - often enjoy a ceremony three times per day. Most women now work, however, so coffee ceremonies normally occur for holidays or when welcoming a guest to your home. The coffee should be surrounded by grass and served while incense is burning with sides of fruit, nuts, or even popcorn (which is very popular here!). Also interesting is the fact that one pot is brewed for three “rounds” of coffee, no matter the number of guests. Each round is weaker than the former because hot water is added to the mixture each time (therefore, the more people being served, the weaker each round of coffee).This process isn’t for the impatient – it takes about 30 minutes before the coffee is even ready! How many of you at home would be willing to give up your instant for this?! (none, I’m guessing…). But when it’s done – the TASTE! Indescribable. Well, perhaps it’s best described as pure happiness…I know a few people – including my mum & I – who definitely can’t wait 30 minutes for their morning coffee to be ready. But experiencing this part of the Ethiopian culture is just another reason why moving here has already been such an enriching experience.I already know I’ll be bringing a truckload of beans and a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot back to Canada – who’s up for a ceremony at my house?! :)

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Life in Ethiopia

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I have slowly fallen in love with living in Ethiopia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the most challenging change I’ve ever inflicted upon myself. Ethiopia is a fantastic example of societal harmony. Despite an equal divide between the Muslim and Christian population, each religion offers complete respect to one another. The working calendar respects each set of holidays, which means the employees of Ethiopia essentially receive double the time off work! Last Tuesday was the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, so my gracious colleague invited me to her home for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.Another aspect of life in Ethiopia: the culture. Ethiopians are proud to be who they are. Whether through generous offerings of food, supporting the local soccer team, or just general friendliness, Ethiopians want to welcome any “forenji” (foreigner) to their country, because they hope you’ll love it just as much as they do (and yes, I do!). For example, I didn’t make it home from an after-work commitment tonight until well past 8 pm, but immediately upon my arrival my landlady offered me a delicious Ethiopian dinner, plus a glass of wine!Other incredible perks of living here include the weather!! Ethiopia has a reputation for offering “13 months of sunshine”, and I can see why! Every day is sunny and hot, but the nights and mornings dip down to about 10 degrees! I love grabbing my fruits and veggies from the local huts on the way home from work – picking up a kilo of avocado for 80 cents is pretty great ;) . Oh, and then there’s this guy:So yes, there are many positives to life in Ethiopia, but this doesn’t make it perfect.  Moving here has undoubtedly been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m not yet “immune” to the extreme levels of poverty I witness on a daily basis. I must get asked for money at least 15 times per day, and when I do open my wallet to offer a few birr (1 Canadian dollar = 18 Ethiopian birr), I am like honey to bees and am surrounded by others, who are only hoping for a few birr themselves. The health issues are widespread, serious, and gory to witness, and the most disadvantaged are always women, since they normally end up carrying the burden of unwanted children.While my “issues” do not compare to those facing such poverty, I cannot say it’s easy to adapt to life without a source of continuous power. It is not unusual to be without electricity for a few hours per day, or to lose an internet connection. The internet is my lifeline when it comes to keeping in contact with those back home.Speaking of home, part of my evening is often spent Skyping or emailing with someone in Canada. When I moved to The Netherlands, I was able to meet new people constantly, since we were all in the same business school together and all spoke the same language. Here, English is a rarity and connecting with people outside of work is much more difficult. Thankfully I have my fellow Canadian here with me (and we enjoyed a great weekend downtown)! For the first time in my life, it’s not unusual for me to experience sleep issues, whether due to my own mind in constant motion, or the outside roosters/dogs/wild animal making noise. I’m always able to make a phone call home and be back to bed within the hour, though :) .

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Giving Thanks

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I had a different topic in mind for today, but I’m opting to postpone it in favour of a themed post to honor today’s Canadian holiday – Thanksgiving! In my house, celebrating Thanksgiving would involve church, lots of time spent with family, friends, and loved ones, and an excessive amount of food - most likely a turkey, green beans, sweet potato, baked potato, and a tasty pumpkin pie or two. My grandma always made an incredible sweet potato casserole. I am missing her AND her sweet potato casserole today.While I am not ‘celebrating’ in the traditional sense, I am still incredibly thankful for where I am today, both figuratively and literally. I have moved into my new home, and have basically been adopted by my landlady as her “white daughter”. Really, I saw the house on Wednesday, moved in on Thursday, and when I returned from work on Friday she had mountains of gifts for me: new bedding, cutlery, pots, pans… anything I could ever need, and everything I would have had to buy with my own money. The housing director said that in all his years of work, he has never known a landlady like her. While this move has been a bit overwhelming at times, finding a home is what I needed to start feeling a lot more settled here. I will post pictures soon!I’m so thankful for my new life in Africa. It is changing me, in ways that I like. During a conversation with someone from home the other day, I mentioned I try and keep to myself while walking to work. Now I can’t make the 10 minute trek without stopping to talk to a stranger, or at least receiving a “hello!” from a passerby. The locals and I exchange smiles, waves, and “good mornings!” multiple times. This is quite different from North America, where we try to avoid eye contact with anyone we don’t recognize.Case in point: today I asked to take a photo of a group of boys supporting their local team for today’s soccer match (soccer is life here). Not only were they thrilled to do so, they were ecstatic that this “forenji” (foreigner) could speak limited Amharic. We ended up having a brief conversation is support of the soccer match; my Amharic is broken (to say the least), but they were more than happy to put up with it. In the end, they requested a picture together.While I may be missing some sweet potato casserole, there’s no other place I’d rather be spending today… HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Whether you’re in Canada or not!

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The next chapter…

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9 days ago, I began what I think is bound to be the greatest and most difficult adventure of my life.Guess where I currently am? In my new office, in my new place of living … in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, AFRICA!My arrival date was delayed time and time again because of the crazy amounts of paperwork I needed, but I finally made it last Sunday (the 29th). I have already experienced more than I can even begin to describe. The only reason it’s taken me a week to post from Africa is because here, the internet is quite a luxury!Speaking of luxuries, let’s add hot water, electricity, and a working cell phone network to that list. The adjustment has been… difficult. After a 16 hour direct flight, I was too tired to comprehend anything last Sunday. The newness of my new surroundings left me ecstatic on Monday, and the reality of my new surroundings left me overwhelmed/anxious/insert uncertain emotion here on Tuesday. Thankfully, I have a select few people I can turn to in any time of need, even if I’m now 7,140 miles away from them.I’m still living out of a hotel, but I hope to move into my new apartment sometime this week. Who would have thought my first apartment, paid for by my first post-grad “real job” paycheck, would be in Addis Ababa?! Ummmm… would anyone?Once I get moved in, I’m pretty sure I’ll start feeling a lot more settled here. The level of poverty is still shocking, but in a sense it’s becoming more normal to witness on a daily basis. The beauty of this city cannot be denied though. The surrounding landscape is consumed by green countryside and mountaintops, providing for fantastic sunrise and sunsets.I’m so fortunate to already have a friend here. Her name is Shaunet, and we were lucky enough to be driven around the city on Saturday afternoon. What’s astonishing is the contrast between rich and poor here. There are five-star hotels and million dollar homes practically across from tin huts the less fortunate call their home. Beggars are not found every few blocks, as is the case in Toronto; rather, they line the “streets”, which in fact are dirt paths with pot holes the size of… well, let’s just say you can’t drive over them.I feel so BLESSED to be here. I am already accustomed to the community-oriented nature of the Ethiopian people. This type of kindness is not common in the ever-consuming society I come from. I am learning every Amharic (the local language) phrase I need to know, and perhaps best of all, I am working in microfinance, putting my skills to use to help disadvantaged women!

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MEDA Staff Visit and a Quinceañera to top it off!

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I was given the pleasure of meeting Allan Sauder, Katie Turner, Nick Ramsing, and Dave Warren and accompany them along with my coordinator Roger Larios to different companies that the project Techno Links in Nicaragua is supporting. This was a great experience for me in getting to know some of the MEDA staff that are working on the same project as me. There were a lot of great explanations and ideas shared with me on the Techno Links project. On Tuesday afternoon I arrived in Managua with Roger, where are hotel was for the week. On Wednesday morning we were up by 6:00am and out the door to meet MEDA staff for 7:00am. Each day was like this as we had a full packed schedule of visiting different companies of Techno Links. We travelled to Rivas, in the southwestern region all the way to Ocotal, near the border of Honduras.Of the 10 companies in Techno Links we visited EIAG, Burke Agro, Chiles, and Davila & Associates. I was excited to visit each company because they bring such different aspects to the project. During one of the visits, I got a little carried away and started asking my own questions in Spanish to the producers. There was a machinery room with the cleaning and sorting of beans (frijoles). At Davila & Associates they have used the assistance from Techno Links to use sustainable energy such as the fertilization with worms. They also have a rain catcher to save water. Each of the companies have different processes since each company is using different crops and have different needs. I was fascinated by the different sustainable developments and technology used in agriculture. It was a very comfortable environment and I appreciated the laughs and lessons learned from the trip. I arrived back in Leon Saturday afternoon and there was no time to rest as I had to get ready for a Quinceañera. The daughter of the house of where I am living had her 15th birthday last week. In Latin America turning 15 for a girl signifies becoming a women. There is a large celebration for this birthday with invitations being sent out to family and friends as well as attending a mass before the party. This was definitely a nice way to finish my amazing week with dancing and learning a little more about the culture!

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The Power of Development

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Last week I travelled to visit farms in Ometepe, which is an island that is formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, and a region in Jinotega called Tomatoya, which is in the northern region of Nicaragua. Sediment from the two volcanoes in Ometepe provide rich land for planting a variety of fruits and vegetables, while Jinotega is known for producing 80% of the nations coffee, as well there is a variety of other crops. I visited both these regions because MEDA has funded IDEAL Technology, which is an organization that has a commitment to the welfare of its producers. It does this by creating accessible technology and micro-irrigation to rural farmers, which helps to maximize revenue and small agriculture businesses. In Ometepe there were four farms we went to visit with IDEAL. Three out of four of the farms have female farmers. For example, at the first farm we visited there were 20 women and two men working with irrigation. As well, they have a hostel called Puesta del Sol on the side of their work being done in collaboration with IDEAL. The fourth farm was ran by a man named Freddy and his son who grow a variety of produce from papaya and watermelon to plantain and avocados. I also had a chance to help set up a drip system in Tomatoya, Jinotega. Then we visited Bayardo Alonso near Jinotega who is a distributer for IDEAL, as well as RC Industries, which manufactures the drip systems for IDEAL. This has helped me grasp a better knowledge of how technology in agriculture can provide a better knowledge and increased income for producers. On top of this, women have become empowered in their lives with the knowledge they have gained through this organization.Not only is this a learning experience for rural farmers, but this has been an eye opening experience for myself. I have only been on my internship for three weeks and I have learned about the benefits and power of development.

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Deacachimba

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I have recently moved to the colonial and picturesque city of Leon, Nicaragua. The volcanoes, specifically the famous Cerro Negro, surround the city and the 17 churches that fill the city make it a popular tourist destination. Along with the beautiful nature and astounding architecture there are constant celebrations. The first night I arrived there was a festival called Griteria Chiquita, which celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary. I’ll never forget my first night in Leon!

To add to the colorful festivities occurring on a regular basis, there are also other cultural factors that I have tried to immerse myself in. I have titled this blog “Deacachimba” as it is a slang word for “Awesome” and is only used in Nicaragua. I use this title as a representation of my goal in trying to better understand the culture of Nicaragua. This past weekend I went to the Revolution Museum where I learned from veteran Sandinistas the history of the Somoza dictatorship that lasted 50 years. I believe my immersion in the culture and study of the history will help me in return to connect better with the Nica people. To understand why I am doing this, I must explain my role as the impact assessment intern with MEDA. I am grateful to be working with Techno-Links, which supports business plans of agriculture companies. The approach of each company is on sustainable energy and gender equality. The strategy is to promote small producers, poor rural farmers, and as a result support women’s participation as producers. For example, in some companies, 89% of producers are men and 11% are women. I have had the opportunity to communicate with the agriculture companies and will soon be meeting them. The streets of Leon are continuously busy with around 4 large markets. With going to each market I learn about all the important agriculture that rural farmers depend on, such as chia seeds and red beans. I have been studying these different companies and their history and their business approaches supported by Techno-Links from my home with a Nica family. This has also helped me to fully immerse myself in the culture. I live with a single mother and her mother and this has helped me understand the difficulties they face. They teach me new things every day and I am thankful for their knowledge and help in understanding current Nicaraguan issues. 

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A short buy very sweet (and packed) trip

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I got to spend two of the busiest days of my post graduated life during my training at MEDA’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario; getting ready for my value chain development internship in Peru.  I have to confess that I am feeling a little dizzy after having over 10 meetings in only 2 days. However, it is a little price to pay for all the knowledge I’ve acquired in such a short time, I truly went from zero to hero!I was able to learn much more about MEDA. I honestly feel privileged to be part of such a noble organization. What a pleasure to be able to work in a place where I deeply identify myself with their mission and their faith.I also got the opportunity to personally meet the passionate team members of MEDA.  I was impressed to see their impeccable work and discipline. You are all fabulous and generous of you time! I specially want to thank Sheila Mei for organizing this trip for me.My heart beats faster and louder every second that gets me closer to the day of my departure to Peru (Time left: 5 days, 3 hours, 25 seconds) I can’t imagine a better place to start my career than my beloved country.Let the internship begin!

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Meghan's Most Significant Change Story

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As part of her internship, Meghan interviewed over 20 clients of the UHDP project to learn what impact MEDA's work was having on them, their business and their families. The method they used to measure their life changes is called Most Significant Change (MSC). At the end of her internship, Meghan decided to complete the exercise herself to see what she was able to achieve, how has she changed and what she has learned most from the experience. To read her MSC story, click here or on the photo.

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Ola's Most Significant Change Story

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As part of her internship, Ola interviewed over 20 clients of the UHDP project to learn what impact MEDA's work was having on them, their business and their families. The method they used to measure their life changes is called Most Significant Change (MSC). At the end of her internship, Ola decided to complete the exercise herself to see what she was able to achieve, how has she changed and what she has learned most from the experience. To read her MSC story, click here or on the photo.

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Walking the talk in impact investing

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My first visit to the Centre for Social Innovation at Regent Park was uplifting. I’d arrived at the first community Impact Investing Fair, a room brimming with smiling faces and glowing with slight perspiration, thanks to Toronto’s infamous humidity.The evening began with a presentation from the charismatic “Sustainable Economist,” Tim Nash, who dispelled the mysteries behind impact investing. Swiftly cutting through clunky terms like portfolio, market risk and liquidity, Nash boiled down the essence of impact investing. Afterwards, a number of entrepreneurial investment funds pitched their cause and expected returns to the crowd.There were many conversations that night that I would have loved to continue for lengthy coffee breaks. Though from different backgrounds, the people present spoke a common language, one that understood the value of putting their money into something worth investing for. Sure, your own financial security is important – but at what economic benefit are you willing to allocate your funds to blue chips or off to mutual funds? I feel that it is much like the clothes we buy, never once contemplating the supply chains of our jeans and jackets. Where is our money going?Ignorance is bliss, but meaningful investment is better.The term impact investing started to gain traction in 2009, with the establishment of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). Since then, leading publications and groups have jumped in.Dipping my toes in the waterWith all this discourse on the glorious frontier of Impact Investing, I craved a reduction in talk and uptake in action. And this started with myself. Several months ago I finally stumbled upon an impact investment opportunity that met my investment needs. It happened serendipitously through a conversation with the CFO of MEDA (my previous employer) that they had a Risk Capital Fund. With a low minimum investment of $1000, returns of 2 – 4%, and high social-environmental investment standards, I had found my match.Agro Capital Management (ACM), one of MEDA’s investments. ACM sells and finances agricultural equipment to small farmers to help create more profitable operations in the Ukraine.My relationship with impact investing has mostly been rocky, a lot of talk and little action. I’ve learned that I need to be thorough and patient in my search. Impact investments do exist, and there is no shortage of places where money is needed. Investing safely and wisely means due diligence plays a serious role at this stage. Until impact investing becomes a staple in mutual funds, us investors will have to take a more active stance, and spend more time and resources understanding, supporting and promoting the industry. As difficult as my impact investment pursuits are, I’m in it for the long haul. Are you?

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One Door Closes and Another Door Opens!

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It is hard to believe I am writing this post from my new desk, in my new office in my new home!  I cannot believe my internship is over and that I am back on Canadian soil!  I think my last month in Crimea was probably the best of them all, which made it hard to leave, but none-the-less I am happy to be back in my home and native land!Everything at the UHDP wrapped up wonderfully.  Olya and I went full throttle finishing up our MSC stories.  In the last month we conducted 8 interviews and wrote 8 stories bringing us to our goal of 20!  Each story was as heartwarming as the last.  Each person we interviewed, no matter their age, gender, background, crop, or size of their farm, has had great results from working with the UHDP.  It just goes to show how great the Ukraine Horticulture Project is to be able to produce such great results for such a variety of different clients.As a small parting gift for the UHDP offices, Olya and I wrote Most Significant change stories about ourselves to share with everyone how the Project impacted us as interns. You can find mine here: Meghan Denega MSC StoryNot only was work the busiest in the last month, but I also travelled the most too!  Although I had been taking advantage of the interesting and beautiful natural and historic sights of Crimea the whole time I was there, in the last month I managed to squeeze in a bunch of great trips with great friends! I have so many great memories from hiking in the mountains, exploring ancient Byzantine settlements, visiting residencies of the tsars and other nobles of the Russian empire, and meeting and getting to know so many great people along the way!  I was even able to meet and spend some magical times by the sea and at the top of Crimea’s highest mountain, Ai Petri, with my now colleague Susan and a volunteer auditor Dale! On my last full day in Ukraine I climbed the mountain Djimerji, had dinner in a lovley cottage restaurant in the forest and enjoyed another Russian sauna- complete with oak branch beatings!  Here are a few photos from my last few adventures including the UHDP Simferopol Staff (left), Ai Petri (middle), Rock City (right):

Although my time at the UHDP has come to an end, my time with MEDA is just beginning.  I am now located in Waterloo at MEDA’s headquarters, working as the new Project Coordinator/Junior Consult in the Financial Services department.  It is true what they say that when one door closes, another door opens! Al though I will miss the staff in Simferopol, my first week at the Waterloo office has been wonderful.  The staff is friendly and very welcoming.  I can tell that this next leg of my journey with MEDA will prove to be as impactful as my last and I look forward to all that is to come my way!

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A Clipboard, a Nissan Pickup, and a Very Bumpy Road

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These three essential components describe well the first week of my most recent field work, through the east-coast's rugged region of Nicaragua's RAAS (Region Autonoma de Atlantico Sur). The RAAS region of Nicaragua is very unique from the middle and western parts of Nicaragua, which are primarily inhabited by the Spanish-speaking population of the country, and many more of the country's larger urban centres. RAAS is one of the two autonomous regions of Nicaragua, with distinct cultures and populations from the rest of the country. One of the major distinctions is the rich cultural mix and backgrounds present within this region, ranging from native groups of the Miskito and the Mayangna, to the Creole African population, speaking a heavy creole Afro-Caribbean English. The degree of influence and presence of the Afro-Caribbean culture and language becomes stronger as one approaches the east coast of the nation, with the Corn Islands (60 kilometres into the Caribbean sea; and highly recommended) exhibiting the extremes of this culture, with the absence of Spanish speakers a regular occurrence. The field work did not take us to the islands however, but it did bring us right to the coast, and to many hidden, small communities along the way, granting us glimpses into peoples' highly isolated lifestyles.The purpose of the trip was to follow up on some of Techno-Links' end clients; users of the technologies that the grant-winning businesses produce and distribute. The first week was working with clients of Tecnosol, the first round winner that is working to distribute bio-digesters to small rural cattle farmers in order to improve their sustainability and independence from commercial suppliers of fertilizers and propane kitchen gas. By use of the bio-digesters the farmer is able to utilize the manure from the cattle to produce bio-gas, a sustainable alternative to propane. The gas is produced from manure, water, and nothing more. After the gas exits the bio-digester and is piped to the kitchen for kitchen use, the bi-product produced ("biol") is deposited at the opposite end, leaving a potent fertilizer.Juan Humberto is one of the project's very successful farmers, who has worked with the bio-digester for some time now and has employed the use of the biol effectively as well, creating his own compost and fertilizer uses for other plants around his farm. Juan no longer needs to purchase propane gas from town and has cut down his costs greatly.The calm and collected participants of Tecnosol's initiative continue to look onward, to the future of sustainable farming and alternative agricultural energy methods. These brilliant bovine have little idea as to the difference they are making for the farmers of Nicaragua and other proponents of bio-digesters around the world.The first of the two weeks in the field was no easy feat, as many of the roads to access the farmers were barely roads at all. The pathways were merely washed out dirt/rock pathways that have faced the severe climate alternations of the rainy season, switching with the desert-like dry seasons of the country's summer months. This back and forth pattern leaves a not-so-pleasant trail of scattered rocks, semi-submerged in the hardened soils, at times resembling the shape of sharp and bloated footballs. Travelling for hours across these roads lends chance the truck may glide across the broadside of the football with relative ease and smoothness, but also brings the probable passing that the nearly completely exposed football could have one pointed end highly exposed from the earth, waiting to send the passengers of the truck flying into the ceiling of the cab. The challenge for the driver is to cross the 20 km stretch of road within the allotted 3 hours, as to not fall behind and arrive home late at night (returning on the same quality road), while the passengers' goal is to find a position and manner to sit throughout the journey that leaves the least bodily damage. Riding without a safety belt poses the risk of launching one's self into the ceiling, and enduring a good blow to the head/neck, while fastening the safety belt eventually leaves bruises and lacerations across the shoulders and chest, where the "said" safety belt has repeatedly attempted to keep you "safe", every 10 seconds, for the past 3 hours of being launched around the cabin of the truck like a can of paint in the motorized shaker at home depot. Needless to say, after a few days on these roads, my upper torso felt like I had undergone some sort of military training with intensive workouts and all-day fitness drills. The following is a quick screen capture of the map where we traveled, with the original Google Map accessible in the link to follow:The journey was extremely enduring but full of adventure. Working the long days and crossing hundreds of kilometres on back-country roads really summons feelings of unique opportunity and the gift of experience. Meeting and talking with the farmers that MEDA works with in the small communities of Kukra Hill, and Laguna de Perla (both communities within the RAAS region of Nicaragua), helps one to understand the extreme disparities between how some families live in Nicaragua, and how families live in Canada. Although these differences are acknowledged and common fact to most, even those not working in development work or overseas, seeing the lives of those living in Managua and other urban centres of Nicaragua still appear significantly different than those in the remote communities of RAAS on the east coast, often in deeper levels of poverty due to remote locales. These individuals are exceptionally isolated and bringing in the technology of bio-digesters to create a cooking fuel from on site natural resources (besides burning firewood), presents a superior alternative to purchasing propane gas tanks from the nearest towns and villages. Passing 6 months with MEDA as an Impact Assessment Intern with the Techno-Links project was an excellent opportunity to become increasingly exposed to developing-world conditions, but in addition to this, proved to be a pivotal learning stage in my life to witness business connections made between local businesses and the small rural farmers of Nicaragua. Given the gift to work and live abroad is a pivotal time in one's life, to learn about culture, language, mannerisms, and all things different, that invigorate and awaken one to the vibrancy and reality of life outside of North America. It was a pleasure to work with MEDA and serve in the monitoring and evaluation of the Tecno-Links program. I would recommend this internship with MEDA to anyone interested and would love to tell you more and answer questions if you would like to contact me (arifriesen@gmail.com). God Bless, and continue serving and exploring the wonders of the World.

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Fighting GIGOOS Syndrome one train ride at a time

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Grass-Is-Greener-On-the-Other-Side Syndrome.  Many, if not most, have had a case of it -- dreadful, pesky thing it is. And hard to get rid of too—some struggle with it for life.My time riding the rails here in Ukraine has taken on a special purpose. While I’ve always enjoyed sharing a couple of hours of uninhibited conversation with captive strangers, my approach in these encounters in Ukraine has been somewhat more calculated.While I personally think I do a decent job of looking and sounding like a local, it eventually comes out (whether through the natural questioning period or a grammatical blunder) that I am not exactly from this neck of the woods. I can’t help but feel a slight disappointment when I’m ‘found out’, as a foreigner. Don’t get me wrong—I am a proud Canadian, but there is something special about going unnoticed as one of the locals.Whenever I mention I’m from Canada, there is a distinct shift in the energy of our train cabin. Sometimes I sense envy, or a feeling of ‘I should be on my best behaviour’, or ‘ this foreigner has it so cushy she has no idea what real life is like’. Still, many default to filling this foreign ear with reasons why they have problems in their life, government and country, and will always have those problems . They can’t find the money to bribe a university for a diploma, they can’t find good work, those that are in power lie and steal and kill, corruption is so much a part of everyday life that it won’t ever go away…In the beginning, these rants were a hard blow. I used to think about each train character for days after our meeting; it was exhausting. As someone with a generally sunny outlook on life, I didn’t want to believe that things were bad, getting worse, and there was no way out… except for moving to Canada. (As many suggested… “won’t you invite grandpa/auntie (insert name here) back to Canada with you?”)While I tolerated these bumpy rides at first, soon enough the optimist in me came alive and piped in. I would meet every complaint with something positive that I had noticed during my time here; with a question about how such problems can be solved; by sharing some of the challenges that we face in the West.  I don’t blame these people for becoming blind to the good things that surround them, the general population really does face a lot of hardships, with much of it coming from the government that is supposed to be protecting them.As a representative of “the other side”, and a seeker of green grass wherever I go, my remedy for these sufferers became my list of favourite things about Ukraine:1. The quality of food – The amazing soil quality (Ukraine has 25% of the world’s black topsoil) makes the produce delicious, a noticeable difference from the West (except Ontario peaches, those can’t be beat!!)2. The amazing nature and history– This one is usually administered in multiple treatments. Ukraine is definitely an underdog on the North American radar of cool tourist spots. I have found, and been introduced to, gem after gem. From the amazing mountains along the Black Sea coast, to the Greek ruins near Sevastopol, to the cliff-dwelling monk community, to the soul-shatteringly beautiful churches in Lviv, to the 2000 year old cemetery in the Tatar capital.3. The talent and drive! Ukrainians are very driven and capable people. Like one of the farmers that the Project supports once joked in an interview “ Ukrainians like to work. You help us get a tractor, and soon we’ll be working your fields in Canada, and for a good price, too!” Besides the entrepreneurial, “survivor” spirit, many are talented, especially in sports and dance. Many world-class athletes and dancers (especially ballroom!) come from Ukraine, definitely a reason to love and feel proud of your country.4. Relationships: One thing that my patients were especially responsive to was my highlighting of the quality of communication between people, especially strangers. People here are open with each other – they talk to each other like we would talk to our family in Canada. Not overly polite or careful, but direct, open, soulful. People here skip the small talk, and go straight to what matters. This is something people really reacted to actually, when they realized it was one of the few good things left over from the Soviet rule --- the brother and sisterhoods between the people.5. Approach to health – everyone has a knowledge of which herbs, teas, oils help which ailment. There is a culture of folk wisdom that has survived and thrived, and chemical treatments are secondary options for many. Also, there are opportunities for those on their pensions to vacation annually at one of the many health resorts along the sea side as a preventative approach—brilliant!6. The amount of celebrations! People here are constantly celebrating – “Day of the Rail Worker, Day of the agricultural worker, Youth day, Forgiveness Day”...the list goes on! It was amusing and endearing to me how often there were fireworks in my small industrial town of Melitopol (we’re talking once a week, sometimes more!) Below is a picture at the Melitopol's 228th birthday (which I'm gets changed at the whim of the latest mayor)7. Opportunities- This is when I would do a shameless plug for the UHDP. People were really skeptical to hear about a project without an ulterior motive, but once I convinced them that there is no catch to the work we do—they were floored. Below is a picture from a recent field day about grape cultivation, which was put on by the Ukrainian Women Farmers Council. I also helped clarify some of the over-glorified myths about Canada and the West – University education isn’t free, democracy isn’t perfect, and the business environment is still its own unruly ‘feeding time at the zoo.’The result of the treatment is hard to track. I can only hope that the jolly musings of a half-foreigner will have a contagious quality of their own. And for those of you daydreaming of an escape – I would advise against it. The best thing, the only thing, is the present moment. So make it the greenest it can be!On another note, I leave Ukraine in just two weeks. If you’re not yet exhausted by puns -- yes, the grass has been very green here, but I know that at home in Canada, and wherever my next adventure takes me, there will be green to discover too. Stay tuned for my next and final soul search (read: blog post), where purpose, pleasure, and personal discovery will take the stage together for the last time here in Ukraine.

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Danakil Desert in Pictures

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Go west…To Lviv!

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Only a 24-hour train ride from Simferopol and I arrive in Lviv.  Lviv is the second biggest city in Ukraine.  It was founded in 1240 by Daniel, the leader of Galicia (an Austrian province), and named after his son Lev; which means Lion.  Having been a part of 4 different nations throughout history, Lviv is now part of Ukraine and is considered to be its cultural capital. Lviv has a population of approximately 1.5 million and the residents are predominantly Ukrainian (and very friendly!).  Finally, in Ukraine I heard Ukrainian, I saw embroidered blouses, Ukrainian dancing and heard my favorite Ukrainian song Chervonu Rutu (not sung by me)!What I found especially interesting about Lviv, as I mentioned, is that over the course of history, it has belonged to 4 different nations. Lviv belonged to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1349–1772, the Austrian Empire from 1772–1918 and the Second Polish Republic 1918–1945.  At the outbreak of World War II, the city of Lviv was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union and with the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Lviv became a part of Ukraine.  (This is especially interesting to me, because recently I saw that my great grandfather’s birthcertificat and in said he was born in Austria; for the longest time I was sure he was Ukrainian, but now that I know this about the history of the area, it all makes sense.  He was Ukraianian, but he was born in a part of Ukraine that at the time belonged to Austria!)Most of Lviv’s archtitecture is still intact, unlike many other Eastern European cities that have been damaged by both World Wars.  Lviv’s historic churches, buildings and relics date from the 13th century. As a result, Lviv’s historic centre is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage list. While I was in Lviv, I was fortunate to visit a number of Cathedrals, maybe too many to keep them all straight!  If I had to choose, I think my favorite would be St. George’s Cathedral (pictured right).  While its interior was not as extravagant as some of the others I visited, I liked it mostly because of it’s location; it is situated high on a hill that offers an impressive view of the city.

In 1903 the Lviv National Opera House was built and remains one of the most beautiful in Europe- it actually emulates the Vienna State Opera house. I was fortunate enough to see two performances here- one opera and one ballet (pictured left).  Both were very impressive, and I was pleasantly surprised when in one scene of the opera Ukrainian folk dancers took the stage; reminding me of my past as a Ukrainian dancer and also making me think of many of my friends back home!Another beauty Lviv has to offer is the Lychesivsky Cemetary (pictured right).  Since its creation in 1787 Łyczakowski Cemetery has been the main necropolis of the city’s inteligentsia, middle and upper classes, and apparently it has the same sort of overgrown grounds and Gothic aura as the famous Parisian necropolis.  I spent a lot of time wandering here.  It was one of the highlights of my trip.My last day in Lviv was extremely cold (well extremely cold compared to Simferopol), so I decided to take a bus tour of the city and save myself from freezing!  The bus tour was very informational and I learned not only about the history of Lviv but also about the many influential people to have lived there.  One of the coolest things they pointed out was the former KGB head-quarters. There is a joke that the KGB- building is the highest point in Eastern Europe, because from its basements you can see all the way to Siberia!It was a quick trip, but well worth the two 24-hour train rides!  After the cold weather, I was definitely happy to get back to the mild temperatures and sunny skies of Simferopol.  Funny thing, this time when I returned to Simferopol, it really felt like I was coming home! Too bad it will only be home for one more month and then I head back to Canada!  Seriously, where has the time gone?

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С Новым Годом!

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Happy New Year!Wow! Is it 2013?  Did we survive the 2012 doomsday fears? Looks like we did!  Well, from what I understood of the Mayan prophecy anyway, it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world, but rather the end of the world as we know it.  I heard December 21 corresponded with a shift to a new “world”; one characterized by a greater common consciousness.  I believe that we are experiencing such a shift, whether we realize it or not. I know that, I, personally, feel much more aware of my self and my body, the people around me and our connections to one another,  and also of our connections to what is greater.  Although this could be a result of me growing older and wiser, I like to think it has more to do with something grander!So how did I celebrate this New Year?  Introspectively, as per my tradition.  This year, I welcomed the new and said goodbye to the old at a Russian Banya.  And what is a Russian Banya you ask?  It is a Russian Suana.  And what can I tell you about a Russian Banya?  It is a Russian tradition that has been enjoyed by people in Eastern Europe and Russia for centuries.  For me, it was a little piece of heaven for my body and soul, and I am so grateful for such an amazing experience…..I started my day with an athletic massage, this is not really a part of the tradition, but it felt so good and it got all the knots out of my body before heading to the sauna floor.  The reason I say sauna floor, is because it was a whole level of different types of saunas.  There were dry saunas, and steam rooms, saunas with therapeutic herbs smouldering, different steam rooms with steam coming from all directions, different temperatures, and of course cold pools to jump into!  By far my favourite was the Russian Sauna.  I decided to pay extra and receive a treatment from the therapist, and I am so glad I did…..My ‘ritual’, as Edick (the therapist called it), involved lying on a large ceremonial/offering type bed of wood, in front of a wood-burning stove, inside a large oak sauna.  Edick, who was interestingly, a former military officer, put fresh oak logs into the stove and threw water over the stove.  The smell of the steam this created was woody and wonderful.  By my face, he placed a small towel of crushed ice; which made it nice to feel some coolness in the midst of the hot steamy room. Then came the ‘massage’.  This was done with large oak branches.  The massage involved various techniques, like beating, hitting and scratching my entire body with them.  In between the beating, he would let the braches hug my body, which felt so comforting- it was like being hugged by Mother Earth Herself! It was so hot and the branches stung, but then being embraced by the branches felt so comforting. Next, it was time to go into the freezing cold pool. This first time, I was allowed to ease myself in slowly. After a few moments in the freezing water, it was back in the sauna.  The branches came out again, and I got the beatings and the embraces from the oak branches. This time after the beatings, Edick threw crushed ice all over my body and scrubbed my skin with the ice.  It was amazing, it was like hot and cold and pain and pleasure all at once.  Once the ice melted, it was back into the cold pool, but this time I had to jump in!  Then, it was back to the sauna.  Another beating, more hugs from mother earth, another crushed ice exfoliation massage and a few minutes to relax in the heat.  I could have stayed in there all day, but obviously this is not possible and my prescription was to dry off and rehydrate with green tea with lemon and honey!  Like I said, absolutely heavenly!This was such a great New Year’s experience for me.  It felt good to do something so nice for my body.  After the banya, my body was begging for rest, and I gladly took it!  During the next couple days, I spent time to focus on my mind and my soul and I set the goals I would like to achieve in the coming years.  This year, however, I did my goal-setting in a very different way from what I am used to.  Based on the advice of a friend, I changed my goals from being mostly concrete, to being mostly abstract.  In the past, my goals have all been very definite attainable things ie) I want to do a master’s degree, I want to work in foreign affairs, I want to buy a house, I want to get married, ect, ect.  The problem with this is that now that I am close to achieving  of these concrete goals, I still felt unsatisfied.  My friend recommended that I change my goals to feelings rather than to accomplishments, which is pretty much the best advice I have ever received!  Now instead of saying: ‘I want to this kind of job’,  I say: ‘I want to feel successful, challenged and appreciated in my work’.  Not only have I applied this way of thinking to my career goals, but I have done it for physical, emotional, financial and spiritual goals as well.  So far it has proved to beneficial to my overall well-being and I look forward to a great year, professionally and personally!It has definitely been a learning experience here in Ukraine, both on the job and off.  It seems that I get very self-reflexive living in another place amongst a different culture. It is like you are given a different lens from which to view yourself.  My experience here in Ukraine has provided me with a very different lens from which to view myself and the society I grew up in.  I have come up with some interesting observations that I would like to share with you… but in the next post! I will leave with this for now, and some photos from Simferopol and around Crimea.  Wishing you all a very Happy New Year! С Новым Годом!

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Fighting Fistula

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Last month my roommate Katy persuaded me to join her on a visit to the most advanced Fistula Hospital in the world. Before meeting Katy, I had never heard of Fistula. Being well informed about maternal health issues, Katy knew this was an important visit, one that we could not pass up.First I had to understand what Fistula was. With a little googling, I discovered that 5% of childbirths result in obstructed labour around the globe. Obstructed labour occurs when the baby gets stuck, and can eventually cause Obstetric Fistula: a tear in the mother’s birth passage where urine and/or feces flow uncontrollably. The tragic result is a woman debilitated by her condition, emitting a repugnant odor. She eventually becomes ostracized from her husband, family and community and remains in a state of isolation. Some die.In many developing nations, pregnant women acquire Obstetric Fistula because of impoverished rural environments and the low status of women. Nine thousand women in Ethiopia develop fistula annually. The statistics are distressing but the reality is that the pioneering Hamlin Fistula Hospital offers hope and renewed futures for affected women. My visit, accompanied by the lovely and knowledgeable Sisay, revealed a calm facility in the heart of cacophonous Addis Ababa. The hospital grounds were decorated with flowers. Patients drifted down forested paths, an aura of tranquility surrounding them. During the tour, I observed the post-op ward, maternity room, craft shop, Oprah Centre, physiology unit, and patient classroom.As we wandered the spacious property, Sisay divulged nuggets of information. I learned how dedicated the hospital was to treating patients holistically. Some examples…

95% women return to their previous lives after fistula surgery; however, the remaining 5% are persuaded to undergo a second and much more life-altering surgery. The surgery changes them to excrete externally into a bag that they must carry with them at all times. As women cannot return to their villages, the hospital permanently hires them as nurses. I saw at least seven nurses working industriously, their bags discretely hidden beneath their neat red aprons.Surgery and treatment is entirely free for patients. This improves the likelihood of women traveling from extreme rural locations to Addis AbabaOccupational therapy and group discussions are used to lift the stigma and shame women are burdened with prior to surgery. At the craft shop, I purchased several hand woven baskets that pay directly to the patient who made the itemA midwifery education program is in its fourth year. The program trains rural midwives who will live in far-reaching communities to permanently strengthen maternal healthTo symbolize restored dignity, women that have completed recovery are given a new dress and paid transport home

One woman I saw on our walk hobbled past us with an awkward gait, aggressively swinging her left leg forward every second step. Sisay commented that she had been abandoned in a shed for three years before arriving at Hamlin, suffering severe physiological injuries to her legs and feet. She had occupied Hamlin for the past three years and would eventually move on to their long-term rehabilitation centre. Her story is included in the bestseller Half the Sky (Katy highly recommends it!)I guess one of the strangest and sobering realizations is the knowledge that if Katy or I ever bear a child and have complications, we will never have to suffer from fistula. Fistula can be prevented. Fistula was eradicated from the United States in 1880. It is a condition from history. If I have an obstructed labour, there will be doctors surrounding me and a c-section performed immediately. Fistula is a reality that I will never know. For this reason and the positively radiant tour of Hamlin, I contributed to their deserving hospital.You can learn more at their website hamlinfistula.org. Photos are courtesy of Hamlin website.

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