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There’s a scene in the film The Constant Gardener (can’t recall if it’s also in the book) wherein the protagonist Justin is trying to smuggle a Sudanese child onto a UN airlift plane in the face of a janjaweed raid. “There are thousands of kids out there just like her, we can’t save all of them!” exclaims the pilot with marked exasperation. “Yes,” Justin replies, “But we CAN help THIS one!”

It was this line that played through my head as I stood in the grocery store the other day, staring blankly at a dimly-lit display of soaps and disinfectants. A 500ml bottle of hydrogen peroxide was priced at 200 shillings, or less than $3 USD. The contents of this bottle, when applied fastidiously, could begin healing a child infected with the chigoe flea, or “chiggers,” a seemingly minor parasite that wreaks havoc on primary schoolers in sandy areas. If treated, it’s a brief nuisance. If untreated, it can cause itching, lesions, infection, gangrene, and possible limb loss or even death. I had just seen a child at the school near my house with a starting case of chiggers. However, he was an orphan, so there was no one at home to treat it. He had no money to cross the street and pay to have them treated at the government clinic. Could I spare 200 shillings, just this once? What’s to keep me from placing the bottle in my shop basket, and ensuring the child is healthy enough to take his national exams in December?

It’s a common urge – to do what you can for who you can, heedless of the consequences – among compassionate people who venture to places where extreme need is present. Tour groups (yes, they come through my clinic) are forever dropping off boxes of bandaids and aspirin, or asking how much it would cost to sponsor a school child’s lunch for a week. The intentions are good. But of course, it’s never that simple. On the small scale, you might help someone today, but what are they going to do after your visit/vacation/term of service ends and they’re on their own again? Have you really helped, or just delayed the inevitable? Or have you even made things worse?

What tends to result in high-traffic areas is “donor syndrome,” or the creation of an unsustainable reliance on the dream of outside funding. I’m not going to make this a wordy treatise about donor syndrome – I spent countless hours on the topic as an undergraduate and will save it for an entry when I have, oh, 40 pages or so to spare. However, suffice to say that this is NOT the job of Peace Corps: we are here to empower the community to make their own long-term sustainable solutions. Rather than the “quick fix,” we’re here to jumpstart the “long haul.”

By the end of the day, I had talked to the clinic and made arrangements for the treatment of sever chigger cases in orphans from the primary school under special circumstances. I had also started the ball rolling on developing regular outreach clinics to screen for and treat chiggers at local schools with qualified medical staff. I then returned to the school, spoke to the headmaster about the pupil in question, and passed along some information for him (the headmaster) to pass along to his faculty (thus “training the trainers”) about chigger prevention and detection. I met with the head of the school’s health club, still in its infancy, and arranged to do a seminar about chigger prevention and basic hygiene to them. In turn, each of these 30 specially-selected students will return to their classrooms and present an age-appropriate talk on the topic. Ideally, this will make it back to the parents, then the villages, then the wider community.

Both from a practical standpoint and with regard to Peace Corps procedure, this is the far better option. It empowers the community with information to take ownership of its own health. It doesn’t require anything from the outside to keep it going. Yet it’s also a delayed gratification that takes training and commitment. This is what development work is, at the very core, that separates it from the troubled systems of “global giving.” It’s the difference between immediate action to right a tangible wrong and delayed action in the amorphous hope of invisibly repairing the system that creates the wrong to begin with. It’s the difference between William Easterly’s “Planners” and “Searchers.” It’s the difference between external charity and inner strength. But in every person who witnesses hardship on a daily basis, or works in development, or finds employment in the field of responsible aid application, it takes that extra millisecond of impulse control not to move three muscles a mere eighteen inches to just buy the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

I spent two days this week working with youths. This may be a bit puzzling to some of you who know me back in the States (“But Megan, you don’t like children!”) but it actually went rather well. I didn’t boil any of them into stews or bake them into pies, and I may have even reasonably passed for a Competent Figure of Authority. If I can just keep faking *that* for the next 21 months, we’ll be set.

Wednesday was The Holiday Formerly Known as Kenyatta Day, aka “Mashujaa [Heroes] Day.” The clinic was closed, so in the morning I went to a nearby town with an established Youth-Friendly Services department to meet with an activist group. The age range there is 16-21, although most of the kids were around 17/18, and they chose to spend their well-earned day off from school huddled in a stuffy back room at a district hospital to talk about public health issues. One of the projects my supervisor and I have discussed is developing our own YSF division and stirring up interesting in starting local youth groups to provide services to kids in our sub-location, so I was mostly trolling for ideas. And boy, was I at the right place.

Spending your day off in a room full of unfailingly clever teenagers may sound like some peoples’ idea of a personal hell, but it was actually quite fabulous. Those kids (am I allow to call them kids if they’re only 5-6 years younger than me?) had their act together and were brimming with achievable goals, realistic ideas, a strong logistical grasp of their area, and ambition for community behavior change. On top of it all, they were hilarious. It must be a self-selection thing of joining a group like that, but not a one of them wasn’t a wit. They were pleased to have me there and politely asked for my opinion on various abstract possibilities for projects, but mostly? I was the student, and pleased to be.

The next day I ventured back into the realm of academia, but this time, as the teacher. I led my first outreach to primary school kids – form 8, or eighth grade. Pacing beneath an expansive shade tree while occasionally pausing to scribble something semi-intelligible on a makeshift chalkboard, I spent half an hour lecturing about hygiene and the importance of preventing parasite infections. I had been instructed to use English, and was glad to do so: how exactly does one say “wide-spread infection can lead to an amputation of your foot” in Kiswahili? They seemed to absorb it reasonably well, even if they had few questions at the end, and getting a volunteer to help me draw something on the board was more difficult and taxing than choosing one’s favorite flavor of Girl Scout Cookie.

My colleague then presented for rather a long time about HIV/AIDS (the standard topic for such lectures), referring to me from time to time to give additional input, provide clarification, or answer a question about which he wasn’t 100% sure of the answer. Go team! When he reached the end, I was expecting another silence audience full of deer-in-headlights stares, but was shocked and pleased to see that lots of kids had questions. Discussing some topics – drug use, condoms, etc – is often taboo for teachers when working with kids that age, but if a child asks directly, it’s your duty to answer. Rather than filing it away under “more boring morality lectures I’ll never use,” as most 11-14 year olds would, the kids actively engaged with the material and sought answers to salient (if mildly scandalous) questions. I’ve been to college sexual health lectures with less audience openness. It was impressive.

A lot of what I’ve done so far has dealt with adults, but if you REALLY want to affect lasting change in a community, you MUST target the next generation. I have a meeting next week to set up a health club system in a school near my house, and hope to do a lot more of that in the future. It’s easy to get frustrated here, but seeing kids who actually care about making a difference either in their community (as with the first group) or their own life choices (as with the latter) is incredibly, incredibly refreshing.

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Yours truly