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Health Club. The phrase may conjure mental images of sweaty old men in headbands working off their Christmas poundcake on a rowing machine, but in Kenya, it has a very different meaning. A health club is a representative sample of primary school students (usually classes 4-8) who gather once a week to learn about community health topics – malaria, teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, etc. The aim is that they will then become peer-to-peer educators or peer-to-parent educators, disseminating this vital information throughout their community. I can’t personally go house to house to house throughout all four sub-locations I’m responsible for to tell every person they should sleep under nets and wash their hands before eating, but if I can plant an adorable child in every sub-village with that same message, maybe I’ll get somewhere.

I’m currently co-running two health clubs and on retainer (providing supervision and assistance on an “as-needed” basis) for at least one more. I never take on a health club without an on-campus counterpart whom I can educate and encourage to a) share half the responsibilities and b) be able to continue the activity after I go back to America.

SUSTAINABILITY, SUSTAINABILITY, SUSTAINABILITY. In conclusion, SUSTAINABILITY.

Of course, any time you drop an unfamiliar face into a room full of elementary school kids, you’ll have a small handful that are gregarious volunteers, and a whole lot of deer-in-headlights stares. It happens, and they’ll warm to you eventually once you stop being the scary new white person teacher. At least, this is what I kept reminding myself of over and over the other day as I taught my second health club session at the new primary school where I’m helping. Not to be unkind, but I’ve known more talkative chia pets. At one point, I could not get a group of 14 girls to name one good thing they liked. About anything. Oi.

When I stepped out of the classroom and back into the blinding sun, my co-teacher touched my shoulder and said, “That was wonderful. They are shy, but they will come around.” Despite her reassurances, I felt ill at ease. This kind of thing can ride on waves of positive energy generated by the students in the group, or it can completely fall flat and make everyone’s life hard. I had a long, long, long, LONG walk home to think about this (about 9 km – bike tire’s flat, remember?)

On the way home, I passed a guy I had spoken with a week or so ago, informally, about HIV and condoms. It wasn’t a lecture or seminar or teaching engagement then. I was literally just hanging around waiting for my friend to finish at an ATM when this man asked who I was and why I was here. I explained. When my friend came out of the bank, the three of us stood there talking about HIV, dealing with misconceptions about condom use and “cures” for AIDS, etc. I do this all the time with beach boys. It didn’t strike me as anything unusual. But that day, as I was walking home from failclub health club, he called me over to thank me personally for talking to him the pervious week. He explained that he used to never use condoms for a variety of reasons, but now he knew the facts, and uses them every single time. “Thank you for saving my life,” he finished simply before shuffling back into his shop.

The walk home got a lot shorter after that.

That’s how these jobs go: it’ll happen when it happens, quite possibly by surprise, and in an instant you’ll be humbled and reminded why you came here.

And that’s ok with me.

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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.

My secondary projects are all in the “please please call me back so we can talk about that thing you want me to do for you” phase, my tertiary project is on hold until the end of October, and my primary project (developing the epidemiological monitoring/record-keeping system for the dispensary) entails a lot of brainstorming and working from home (for now, at least). So the other day, I empowered myself to mobilize down to the beach to splash in the tide pools for a while during what would be my “lunch hour.” I was doing just that when a trio of beach boys sidled over and offered to show me some great eels.

In America, this would end in them getting pepper-sprayed, and possibly arrested for sexual harassment. Here, sometimes an eel is just an eel, and they were offering me a snorkeling trip. I politely declined and went back to picking up bits of coral rock with my toes. One persisted, offering me a good price on a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. If not today, maybe tomorrow? This weekend? How long was I in town?

I initiated the usual speech: I’m not a tourist, I’m a volunteer, I’m here working in the public health sector. “Oh, like a doctor?” came the predictable response. “No, more like an educator. I mobilize communities, work with groups, and teach about important public health topics like malaria, water sanitation, HIV …” I trailed off.

He narrowed his eyes. “Prove it.”

”Nini?” I responded. What?

“Teach me about those things. Sasa.”

“Err, sawa … where do you want me to start?”

Water sanitation. I have a well, and my children have diarrhea. What do I do?”

For the next hour, I stood up to my calves in the Indian Ocean, tripping clumsily between two languages, giving my best impromptu health lecture. We covered well construction and maintenance, the importance of pit latrines, and malaria prevention tactics. He asked about his sister, who “did things for money” and had recently been diagnosed with HIV. I stressed the importance of getting support at local hospitals (both in the form of ARVs and looking into joining a group) as well as taking care of herself physically. I explained ways to eat healthier using local foods (fruits and greens year-round!) and getting enough exercise. He asked about traditional remedies – can the bark of the AdrnjoauNw tree cure AIDS? – and we discussed the need to consult with a doctor. By the end of it, he’d resolved to eat more kale, make his children sleep under mosquito nets, and start using Waterguard in all his drinking and food washing.

I walked home with a distinct feeling of “Wait … did that really just happen? Or am I being Punk’d by Peace Corps training staff?”

The public health sector of the Peace Corps is weird like this sometimes. I often feel like I get as much done in these unscripted moments of ambush as I do in formal assignments either from HQ, from my host organization, or from my community counterpart. It’s a good feeling, honestly. Helps to make one feel supremely useful, even in those initial days of flailing wildly and figuring out what you need to be doing. Just … unexpected.

I love my job.

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Yours truly