UNFPA

A Student's Journey to Africa: Michaela

Michaela Maynard is the winner of our inaugural Americans for UNFPA Essay Contest for the Health and Dignity of Women.

«Read Michaela's Winning Essay
«Read Michaela's Press Release
«Read Michaela's Story in the Providence Journal

 

You can also read and comment about Michaela's travels at www.marieclaire.com.


Michaela's Blog RSS Feed
Americans for UNFPA Essay Contest Winner- Hope for the Future
10/18/2007

Having a young person - Michaela - join our delegation to Malawi had a strong impact on the other delegates, as well as our Malawian hosts. It felt like all around us in Malawi, young women embodied the country's hopes for its future. This was especailly apparent when we visited the Malawi Girl Guides Association. There Michaela interacted with young women whose life situations were not so different from her own - recent college graduates, with aspirations for a future improving their community. Of course, many of these young women faced much greater adversity, having been orphaned, overcome teenage pregnancies, needing to scrounge for school fees. But to be able to introduce them to a young woman from America enabled us to relate more intimately to them than we have been able to in other situations.


Michaela's participation - along with that of 3 other young women and one young man - also invigorated the American delegates. Most of the delegates anticipate a number of years of advocacy and involvement in women's health and rights, but the interest and commitment voiced by this younger generation gave us all hope that, when the time comes, there will be someone to whom we can pass the torch. Maybe that "passing" is already happening! I recall one evening during our debriefing sessions when we got on the topic of Facebook, and Michaela and the other younger delegates tried to explain this new technology to us, assuring us that Americans for UNFPA has an page not to mention, videos on You Tube and photos on Flickr. Michaela's blog post via MarieClaire.com, the new technology mentioned above, and the energy on the young delegates show the promise of the future.


I hope that the many readers of both Michaela's blog and Marie Claire continue to stay involved with Americans for UNFPA. And for those of you who've caught her travel bug: next year's delegations are as follow: India in January and Uganda in August.


Marcela Hahn
Vice President of Development

Zikomo = Thank You
10/18/2007

Nothing I learned in class or read in books compared to what I gained in the past 10 days. I witnessed first-hand the struggles the Malawian people face and their spirit, which can never be expressed in a book.


Despite dismal statistics and limited resources, hope is pretty powerful. I heard it in the songs of the orphans, saw it in the courage of sex workers, and felt it in the empowering spirit of the girl guides. The young girls and women I met in Malawi are trying to establish better lives for themselves, and they are succeeding little by little.


I felt helpless seeing rows of pregnant women who walked barefoot for miles sitting on the floor of a hospital room because there weren’t enough beds, and I couldn’t help but picture the high tech neonatal intensive care units we have back in America. I wish these women could have the same access to incubators and vital medications we take for granted in the US. At the same time, I am 100 percent confident that the doctors, nurses, and midwifes provide the best treatment available to ensure the health and dignity of every woman they treat. I just wish that they could have more—more space, more money, more doctors, more access, and most important more lives saved.


Needless to say, this trip brought about mixed emotions: happiness, exhaustion, aggravation, confusion and sadness. Ultimately, though, this experience brought about gratefulness. Zikomo, or thank you, Malawi!


Now that I’m home all I can think about is how and when I’m going to go back to Africa! Until then, I want to support Malawians through advocacy and fundraising. I hope that by talking about my adventures to my family and friends I can get more people interested in Americans for UNFPA and their work in Malawi and elsewhere. It’s frustrating to know that since the US government cut funding for the UNFPA, there is a shortage of programs that help women with family planning, pregnancy, childbirth, protection against sexually transmitted infections, and the prevention of violence against women all over the world.


So now I keep asking myself what can I do, what’s next for me? I’m excited to share my stories with other students when I get to grad school. I hope they will join me in giving back to Malawi through fundraisers and public conferences.


My African experience will surely have a lasting impact on my life and my pursuit of a medical career as I strive to have the courage and determination of the Malawian women and children and the passion and perseverance of their doctors.

Look Out For Hippos and Elephants!
10/18/2007

I have been away from the internet for a few days again, and I have a lot to tell you. My trip is almost over and before leaving Africa the delegation spent a few nights on Safari! Before we left though we traveled to the Zomba to visit an orphanage founded by Joyce Banda.


Joyce Banda is currently the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Malawi, but that wasn't always the case. She was involved in an abusive marriage and at age 25 she became empowered by the growing women's movement. She took her three children, left her husband, and started a garment manufacturing business. She inspired other women to free themselves from abusive relationships, poverty, and injustice. Ms. Banda created the Joyce Banda Foundation for Better Education, and this is just one of her many contributions to Malawi's women and children. Her orphanage in Zomba is a part of her foundation; it is there that she provides a nutritious meal, an education, and a safe home for children who have lost both of their parents. I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Banda, and she is truly an incredible woman. She has overcome many challenges and is now a successful leader in Malawi and wonderful role model.


The children from the orphanage and the all the nearby townspeople were eager to greet us on Thursday afternoon. The students had prepared a song for our visit, and we took a group photograph together. I am still in awe at the warm welcome we receive at every new site. I am honored that our simple visit is viewed as such a celebration. We didn't stay very long at the orphanage because we had a three-hour drive ahead of us in order to get to Mvuu Lodge before dark. The Mvuu Lodge, or the place of Hippo's, is where we spent two nights on an African Safari. For me this part of the trip was especially exciting. I've always wanted to go on a REAL African Safari, and my one wish of the weekend was that I would see elephants. Well I certainly got my wish! I saw elephants, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles, bushbuck, and impala, just to name a few. I had warthogs snorting by my door as I was trying to fall asleep, geckos trying to sneak into my room, and I was almost eaten by a rhino (well I guess that's a little bit of an exaggeration)! Truthfully though, during a dusk safari ride our jeep got stuck in a ditch and we couldn't get a signal on the radio or the cell phone. Did I mention we were in the gated area where the rhinoceros live, and it was getting dark very quickly?


My two nights on safari helped me to realize that I am by no means a wilderness girl. I couldn't fall asleep at night because the animal noises were so loud, and I started screaming when I saw the lizards in my room. I did love the baobab trees; they are the biggest, most beautiful trees I have ever seen. I am only five feet tall but when I stand next to the trees I feel even smaller. At night, the stars were magnificent, they literally sparkled above my head, and again I was reminded that I am only one in such a huge world.


Tonight is my last night in Africa, and it is a bittersweet feeling. I am very excited to see my family and I long for the comfort of my own bed. However I have truly loved every second of this experience and I know that I will miss Malawi when I'm gone.

Sex Workers in Malawi
10/18/2007

Hi everyone,

It has been a few days since I’ve had computer/internet access, (hence the date of the blog) and I have a lot to tell you. On Wednesday the delegates and I traveled to meet with a group called the Family Planning Association of Malawi. This organization is currently working to promote safety among Malawi ’s increasing population of women sex workers. Sex work is becoming a trend in Malawi, and it is especially affecting young women. FPAM, is helping to supply women with counseling, free contraception, motivating talks, and a feeling of empowerment. During our meeting with FPAM, we met about twenty women who are all employed as sex workers. Although prostitution is illegal in Malawi these women will congregate at particular night clubs and bars and sell their bodies in order to survive. One delegate in our group coined their work as “survival sex”. These women earn less than $1 per day and every day they are risking their lives for this small income. One woman from the group explained that she became involved in sex work because it was the only way she could make money, and she was using the income to help her brothers and sisters gain an education. Another woman named Martha told us that she was in an abusive relationship. She wanted to leave her husband but she knew she would be unable to support herself. Martha began selling her body so that she could care for her children and leave her abusive husband. These women did not choose this kind of work; they need to do this work in order to survive, in order to support their families, in order to have a chance at making a better life for themselves.


Our delegation was especially concerned with the safety of the women. These women risk their health and their dignity. Many male customers refuse to wear a condom. Each day 14,000 people are newly infected with HIV, and half of new infections are women. In addition, since this practice is illegal, many women have been arrested and are forced to have sexual relations with the police officer in order to be released.


This group of sex workers ranged in age, the youngest being 17 years old. Many of them had begun the work when they were 14 or 15 years old. Almost all of the women had children of their own. They told our delegation that although the money they made was a small amount, it was helping them, and for this reason they would continue this work.


Initially I was unsure of what to expect from this site visit. When I got out of the bus I was surrounded by the women, who were singing and dancing, they gave every delegate a friendly hug. I knew about prostitution, and I am aware that it happens in the US, but I was still outraged by this practice. I can’t fathom having to sell my body to strangers in order to survive. My heart broke for these young women, many of which where my age. The term “survival sex” is embedded in my brain now, and I am terrified for these women.


On a more optimistic note, tomorrow I am visiting the Joyce Banda Orphanage. Hopefully this site visit will be slightly more uplifting.

Meeting the Girls
9/21/2007

Today we visited Nkhoma Hospital in Nkhoma, Malawi, which is run by the Presbyterian Church of Central Africa. Each month the hospital admits about 1,000 patients all of which come to the hospital on their own or are referred to the hospital by local clinics. The government, organizations like UNFPA, and other donations support this hospital and allow for patients to be treated free of charge. One of the main procedures performed at this hospital is the repairing of fistula. A fistula is a connection between two spaces. Obstetric fistula is an abnormal opening between the bladder and the vagina that allows feces and urine to leak through the vagina. It is due to prolonged labor; pressure from the baby's skull will push against a mother's pelvis and cause damage to the tissue. The prolonged labor also affects the baby, and unfortunately the result is usually a stillbirth. The physical effects of this condition are obviously painful; however what I find even more heartbreaking is the psychological and emotional effects of the fistula. Fistula causes women to leak urine and stool continuously, and often husbands will leave their wives and women are thrown out of communities because they are considered to be a disgrace. There are many beliefs and misconceptions about the condition and most people do not understand that this condition is not due to the actions or the behavior of the woman.


At the Nkhoma Hospital I had the opportunity to hear the stories of two women who suffered from obstetric fistula, but with the help of the doctors at the hospital, they are now recovering. One woman lived with the condition for twenty-three years. For almost half of her life she was considered an outcast and suffered tremendously from something that she had no control over. Just imagine for a moment that you are in labor for half of the day. You live several miles from the nearest health clinic and you know that you are having trouble and you need to get help. The only way to get to the clinic is to walk, so you walk in excruciating pain to the clinic. You get there only to discover that your baby has passed away, and at no fault of your own you have developed a hold in your vaginal wall. Now, you have no control over your urine or feces, and people in your village stray away from you because you carry with you an unbearable scent. This story is common; at least two million girls and women live with untreated obstetric fistulas.


Although the hospital in Nkhoma is doing great work to provide women with treatment for fistula and other reproductive health issues, there is not enough space or resources to help all those in need. Currently there are only four hospitals in Malawi that perform fistula operations and this hospital only has the capability to do two operations per week. Today there were eleven women at the hospital waiting to be operated on, and the doctor explained that often women will be put on a waiting list for months before they are able to be treated.


Fistula is obviously not an issue in the US, as we have the resources and the transportation to get women to the hospital before a fistula can form. My heart bleeds for the women all over the world who suffer from fistula. I think that this condition must be the most humiliating experience for a female.


As if this day wasn't already overwhelming, in addition to visiting the hospital I also traveled to Lilongwe to meet with the Malawi Girl Guides Association. MGGA, is an organization that work with young girls ages ten through twenty five, to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS, to promote gender equality and safe sex practices, and most importantly to encourage the young ladies to chase their dreams.


When the bus pulled into the dirt parking lot of the MGGA center, the air was immediately filled with the sound of loud, joyous voices. The young girls had traveled from many villages to greet us and to share with us their songs, dances, and poems. More powerfully then anything was their spirit. The young girls come from many different backgrounds, one twenty three year old named Lexa, had endured the death of her mother, and was now the sole caretaker of her family. She has dreams of becoming a pilot and although she had faced many challenges in her life, she is adamant about accomplishing her goals.


For me, these children are inspiring. So often I complain or become upset by the challenges and difficulties in my life. These young ladies did not allow their struggles to discourage them or deter their dreams. If there is one thing that I can take with me from this trip it is the spirit of those girls. All women would benefit to experience the empowerment and the courage that the girls at the MGGA showed me today.


Today's blog is a little deeper then the others, because for me, today was especially overwhelming. I am still trying to process and articulate the impact that this experience has had on my life. With that said, I am ready for bed…goodnight and please tune in tomorrow…

First Day of My Official African Adventure
9/21/2007

Today I began my official delegation adventures in Africa. First, I went to the UNFPA headquarters in Malawi, to meet the staff and to learn about the programs that this organization provides in order to support women and theirhealth. Representatives of the UNFPA are traveling with our delegation throughout the week and taking us to see various projects and campaigns in the local area. Our first site visit was to the Michinji District Hospital and Health Center. This is one of the main hospitals for maternal health. Women travel from many villages to receive help and to deliver their babies. In the maternity ward I noted that there were twelve beds yet I was told that there were currently sixty four expecting mothers. There are only four birthing beds, and there are always more women in need than there are beds. Many women come to the hospital to stay long before they are in labor, because they know that when they start delivering their child, there will be no transportation and they will not be able to have a safe delivery.


Before I left for Malawi, I had the opportunity to visit the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in my town.The differences are astounding. The beds in the Malawi facility are falling apart, there is no privacy for the women, they are all put together in the same room, and their babies lay in the beds beside them. The women are of all different ages, some couldn't have been more then twelve years old. They looked sad and uncomfortable. In the US, we have the ability to save premature babies and those children often grow up to lead very healthy lives. We have the medicines and the technology to help these children. In Malawi, and in many third world countries, this is impossible.


I must say though, I was very impressed by the Michinji Hospital. The facility is clean and the staff is friendly.  They are making the best of what they have, and they are absolutely improving women's health.  They are helping to decrease the maternal morality rate in Malawi and they are providing women the chance to bear healthy children, and protect their own lives.


Our second stop of the day was to Mkanda Village. The only way to get to the village is to ride on a bumpy, dirt path. The entire trip felt like a tiny rollercoaster and when the bus finally stopped I had to check to make sure my insides were still intact. I can't imagine being pregnant and having to walk along the long, dirt road while enduring contractions, all in order to give birth in a hospital. Lucky for us, this is the dry season; the rain must make the road muddy and even more difficult to manage.


Mkanda Village is only one of the 232 villages that are supported by the UNFPA. In this village there is an ongoing project which works to promote education and provide reproductive health outreach services.  Laws have been created in order to make obstetric care safer.  For example, no woman is allowed to deliver a child without the presence of a traditional birth attendant. In addition, the village uses bicycle ambulances to provide transportation to health clinics and hospitals in emergency situations. One thing that I found especially creative is that the locals write messages about reproductive health, protection against HIV/AIDS, and other positive and informative messages on their houses.  These messages are spread all throughout the village and they are a beautiful way to support women and their reproductive rights.   The entire village program is greatly helping to reduce maternal mortality.


On the way to Mkanda Village I was able to talk with a representative from the UNFPA, and I found the following tidbit of information very interesting and I thought it would be appropriate to share it with you.  In Malawi, women have no right to property. Therefore, if a woman's husband dies of AIDS, the husband's family has the right to the property and often will kick the woman and the family out of the house and onto the street.  I was appalled at this information. Women in the US have so many freedoms, many of which I think I take for granted.


Today's trip was long and exhausting. We didn't return back to the lodge until long after dark and I am still slightly jet lagged. Tomorrow will be a full day as well and I know I will have even more to share with you…

I’m already in love with this beautiful country!
9/21/2007

Hi Everyone,


After three full days of traveling I have arrived safely in Malawi, Africa! Although I have been here for only a day and a half, I'm already in love with this beautiful country. For the next few days the delegates and I are staying at the Kumbali Lodge. The lodge is set on a farm and when I step outside of my hotel room the view takes my breath away. My favorite part about the hotel is the bed net that surrounds my bed like a princess canopy. Its main purpose is to keep out the mosquitoes, which are very common in Africa and often carry with them diseases like Malaria.


In just the two days that I have been in Africa, I've learned so much about this country and the people in it. Yesterday, after settling in at the lodge I had the opportunity to watch a dancing and singing performance. Some of the locals gathered at the farm to perform and teach other children the art of dancing. I myself have not an ounce of rhythm in my body, but the young dancers were incredibly talented. My favorite part of the performance was when a group of young boys presented us with a form of dance using dumbbells. Their instructor would choose a routine and sound out the beats by blowing his whistle. Depending on the routine they would strike the dumbbells under their legs, above their heads, while in mid-air jumping, and they would do this synchronized. I was fascinated by their performance and I can only imagine how much hard work and dedication that it took for the boys to complete the routines in unison.


Today, I traveled to Lake Malawi. I was able to take some time and relax by the pool and get to know the other delegates. I always imagined that Africa would be beautiful, but I never imagined it to be this beautiful. The entire ride to the lake I couldn't take my eyes from the window. Along the way, I was able to experience a village market. There were so many people, and you could buy just about anything you could possibly need, from peanuts, to clothes, fruits and vegetables, and even some sort of unidentifiable meat. In addition to the marketplace, there were also many street vendors selling goods. On the way to the lake, our bus driver Isaac bought us a fruit from baobab tree. The fruit is oval shaped, and about the size of a softball. It is green and fuzzy, but when you crack it open it is filled with a solid white center. The Malawians consider this to be a sweet. I tried it, and it was very sour, and unlike anything I've tried in the US. Even more interesting though was a vendor selling dried mice on a stick. Isaac told us that it is very common for young boys to collect these mice and sell them on the street in order to bring home some extra money. The boys will dig holes in the ground and stick bowls of water in the hole. The mice can't see very well so they fall into the hole and either drown or drink all the water and then die. The boy's then take the mice cook them with salt and put them on a stick to sell on the street. One of our delegates was dared to eat a mouse, and so we pulled the bus over and bought a whole stick of dried mice! The brave delegate described the mouse as being salty and furry, not something he would want to eat by choice, I know my stomach never would have handled it!


The trip thus far has been very laid back but tomorrow is when the real adventure begins. Throughout the week I will be learning about Malawi and the type of work that the UNFPA is doing here by visiting hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and surrounding villages. One thing I have found very interesting is the convergence of different cultures. When the airplane was just a few feet above the ground and I had my first glimpse of Malawi, I was shocked because all I could see were huts covered with grass roots. I don't mean to sound naive, I never expected to see skyscrapers or elaborate city buildings, but I certainly thought there would be more then grass huts. After leaving the airport I began to see more of what I am used to, people talking on cell phones, advertisement signs along the main road, it began to look little more familiar. Today while I was looking out the window on the bus, I witnessed this sort of culture shock again. I saw women carry tall, heavy baskets on their heads and a few minutes later there were a group of young girls playing jump rope. These similarities and differences in the two cultures are very interesting, and they help me to realize that even though we are living completely different lives, we are all similar in some way.


Well, it's late here in Malawi, and I'm still jet lagged from the trip, so I'm going to sign off for the night…I promise I'll have many more stories to tell tomorrow…I hope you will tune it…

Preparing for Malawi
9/21/2007

Hi Everyone,


 


My name is Michaela and I am a 22 year old from Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  I just graduated from college at the University of Rhode Island, and next month I am moving to Washington, DC to attend graduate school at George Washington University.  In just a few days, I will be on my way to Malawi, Africa.


 


In March I entered a national essay contest through Americans for UNFPA, an organization that supports the health and rights of women worldwide.  The essay asked me to discuss the ways in which I plan to impact and improve these issues through my life and career. Well, I won the essay contest, and lucky for me the grand prize was a trip to Malawi with a delegation representing Americans for UNFPA.  So you can only imagine my excitement because this prize includes traveling to a new continent and learning about what interests me the most. 


 


Ever since I was in the fourth grade I have wanted to become a doctor.  My interest in medicine has expanded to include an interest in global public health.  I have this "travel bug" that doesn't seem to be going away and my goal is to experience as many new countries as I possibly can.    


 


When I learned I had won the contest, I was completely shocked. If you ask my family or my closest friends they wouldn't think me going to Africa was anything out of the ordinary.  I called my parents immediately and my mom admitted that she knew one day I would visit Africa.  During a family vacation after riding through the African Safari in Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park, I talked the whole day about how one day I would go to the real Africa. 


 


Malawi will, of course, be much different then what I experienced in Orlando, Florida, but for me this trip is a check off my list of life goals.  I know the trip will be an unbelievable experience.  In Malawi I will have the opportunity to visit maternity hospitals, fistula clinics, youth centers, and meet with representatives of Malawi's Parliament. 


 


As a student with a great interest in medicine and global public health, this trip will help me to gain a broader perspective on the world and the people in it.  I often wonder about the similarities and differences between my life and the lives of other twenty-two year olds around the world.  I am eager to meet young women like myself and learn about their lives, culture, values, accomplishments, and dreams.  I have a feeling we're not as different as we may seem.


 


Malawi, located in southeastern Africa, is bordered by Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique.  Don't feel bad if you are unable to pick it out on a map right away, I'll be honest I had to look it up too!  This small country holds a population of about 13 million people, and 65% of all households live below the national poverty line.  Malawi is part of the developing world, which consists of 125 low and middle-income countries. 


 


When I tell people about my trip I am always being asked if I am nervous to go to Africa.  I tell them that nervousness isn't the right word, perhaps anxious is a better way to describe how I am feeling.  I know I will be experiencing a completely new culture, including new foods, foreign languages, basically just an entirely different way of life.  This part really excites me though.  However, I will admit that I am a little bit of a "germaphobe" and for this reason I will certainly be packing A LOT of antibacterial hand sanitizer.  For me, more daunting than the trip, is the task of packing for the trip.  Even at 22 I still need my mom's help! The trip is days away and I still haven't got out my suitcase.  It seems like I have been talking about it for so long, yet for some reason it still hasn't hit me, and I don't think it will until I step off the plane. 


                       


I hope you continue to tune in, and join me on my adventures in Africa…