Sometimes you get a question so good it requires its own blog.
Today, my dear friend Alana asked:
Since the Peace Corps is focused on public health, and you’re not trained as a medical professional, what are the expectations concerning that part of the job?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the very first question I thought myself when I received my placement as a public health volunteer. I imagined myself in some clinic in the middle of a desert giving vaccinations and pills to whoever came in and asked for them, and having people of all ages coming to me for medical advice on a range of topics. Needless to say, these thoughts were pretty disquieting, as these are all things I am WOEFULLY unqualified to perform. And 3 months of training in-country isn’t exactly equivalent to individuals who have spent years, if not decades, studying these very things. So… I decided to learn more.
Fortunately, my job as a public health volunteer is not at all on the clinical side. In fact, I am expressly forbidden from performing any of the above tasks (phew). My actual day-to-day work can be described more as something of a liaison or informant. In brief, this means that the Peace Corps’ goal in terms of Public Health is more focused on teaching skills and giving information, especially to individuals who live in areas where these services are not readily available.
At the top of these public health priorities, in Namibia and many other countries, is combatting the HIV/AIDs epidemic. In fact, the full title of our project is the Community Health and HIV/AIDs Project (CHHAP). In this project, there are 3 main pillars: HIV Prevention, Care and Support Services for those living with HIV/AIDs, and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health. As you can imagine, these 3 pillars allow for a pretty broad range of activities for a public health volunteer.
On one end of the spectrum, we have one of the primary activities people imagine when they think about the Peace Corps: teaching the proper and consistent use of things like condoms to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Useful, yes, but maybe not so fun to blog about! On the other end, though, are things like Youth mentoring, creating after school programs, and training individuals to maintain such programs. In the middle you can find any number of things, from offering referral services for people living with HIV, to assisting as a case manager for local medical professionals. To be blunt, I will work primarily in a supporting role for Namibia’s real health professionals.
It is also important to note that the Peace Corps has 4 basic signposts for any project undertaken by a public health volunteer. These are as follows:
· Do no Harm
· Respect for Individuals
These are pretty self-explanatory, but in my own mind the key signpost can be found in participation. Though I feel there are a great deal of things I can accomplish in two years, the ultimate goal isn’t for me to have a nice paragraph on my resume. To succeed as a volunteer, I need to assist in the proliferation of real and useful skills to individuals who otherwise may not have learned them, and to assist locals in creating and maintaining programs that they actually want to have. This is why I struggled to tell people exactly what I would be doing before I came here – as an outsider, it is foolhardy and unproductive for me to project needs or wants onto a community I know nothing about. In fact, it could go against the first signpost to Do No Harm, as I may be forcing something on a community that doesn’t want what I have to offer. In the end, openness and collaboration will determine whether my 2 years here will be useful.
I hope this answers the questions adequately – if not, ask me more!
Also – do stay tuned as tomorrow I’ll be uploading a fun video (and teaching you all a little Afrikaans!) provided my internet connection stays strong. More soon!