In 2013, I posted up my work in rural Tanzania for my DukeEngage Independent Project focused on a community-based health education campaign for schistosomiasis (schisto) and worms.
I partnered with three villages outside Shirati, rural areas with no official pharmacies. It is estimated that 60 to about 80% of people use traditional medicine before or instead of western medicine – an aspect that has unfortunately been overlooked in past treatment efforts. In 2012 for example, our community partner, Village Life Outreach Project (VLOP) conducted a treatment campaign and their goals were not met. VLOP’s studies showed that the community was 80-90% infected with schisto and worms, but the doctor’s hands were tied without the community’s informed consent. It is sad; mere misunderstanding on both sides – doctors and locals – kept school-aged kids infected with seriously draining diseases.
Visiting Shirati two years before, I had a good understanding of the community structure in the villages. I hoped community leaders in each of the three villages would partner with me to teach their own communities about the prevention and treatment of schisto and worms. The community was an asset, rather than the manifestation of the health problem. I was there to simply facilitate and support the community leaders in their teachings. I knew too well they would convey information in their communities much better than I ever could.
In planning the project, I collaborated with my mentor, Lysa MacKeen on four foundations: (1) developing an engaging and relatable curriculum for a culturally different community; (2) building accountability among the community leaders; (3) considering team and partner dynamics; and (4) factoring in time to build relationships. My mentor not only worked with me but also with my partner, Amee Tan, who joined the project later on. In this way, it fortunately became our project, rather than my project.
Without much progress, our first two weeks in Shirati passed quickly. We struggled to find transportation to the villages. We did not have a translator. Yet, while it seemed as if we were stuck, we unknowingly set the foundation of our entire project. It was in those first weeks that we built the most important part of our work – relationships; too fluffy? Well, too bad because if it were not for the relationship with our driver, our translator, our project logistics coordinator and other supporters, we might as well have flown back home for the summer.
After a slow two weeks, we finally got to sit down with the community leaders. We were excited and thrilled to finally talk, but then BLAM! They asked us for a step-by-step, detailed curriculum. WHAT?!? We originally thought we were going to make it together! My pen dropped. And my spirits crushed. What a mess I was. But thank you to the man upstairs we somehow found access to a plethora of animations and videos on schisto and worms. With a few days of excessive work, us crazy Duke students managed to shape a curriculum and re-focused our entire project – less emphasis on curriculum development and more on training and teaching. Although it was last second and regardless of the miscommunication, our project worked. While on the ground, we (the leaders, Amee, and myself) taught around 1,000 people in all sorts of environments, from schools and churches to beachfronts and beneath palm trees.
The moment I found confidence in our project was the moment I will always remember. The last day in a village on the beach of Lake Victoria, we met with the community leaders to do our final teaching outreach. Amee and I handed over the materials and without our help, there were people flocking from all corners of the small village to hear the community leaders teach. It was unbelievable – we were no longer needed. It was time for us to fly home.
When VLOP returned to Shirati in October 2013 (after our summer project), they found that the community members taught 5,000 more people. And their treatment campaign reached 1,000 people in comparison to 400 in 2012. Child participation doubled due to increased informed consent of parents, and complaints of side effect reduced by 100%.
Beyond the treatment campaign, because schisto and worms have become the hot topics of the villages, external engagement has increased. London doctors, unassociated to VLOP, are participating; Kroger Pharmacy is donating more medicine; and there are possible plans for disease research in the communities. It is cool to think that the project might have sparked the eventual eradication of schisto and worms in Shirati.
Before DukeEngage, I was pre-med and biology. Now, I am studying international comparative studies, Swahili, and global health. I have dreams of living in East Africa after I graduate concentrating on health and education social entrepreneurship. Yes, I still want to focus on health, but I have also gained a passion for teaching and educational systems because of my experience. I am also working on start-ups, which is something I never saw myself doing and I love it! It is as simple as this: some people return from DukeEngage and say the experience was life changing; others come back and change their life. My advice is to be the latter.
Phil Reinhart successfully applied for RIPP Engage funding for the 2014 summer and returned to Tanzania to continue his work in Shirati, exploring models for building a community resource center.
His project partner, Amee Tan, a rising senior majoring in Romance Studies with a concentration in French & Spanish and a Minor in Global Health, completed her own DukeEngage independent project in Nicaragua in 2014.
Village Life Outreach Project woks to unite communities to promote Life, Health and Education. Most of Village Life’s work focuses on three remote and impoverished villages in the Rorya district of Tanzania.
In the summer of 2013, I had the once in the lifetime opportunity to travel to Garut, Indonesia to work on slow loris conservation with the Little Fireface Project (LFP). I first discovered these unique primates a few years ago through a series of viral YouTube videos, but was devastated when I realized how quickly they were disappearing from forests across the world. The slow loris is one of the world’s 25 endangered primates and the only poisonous primate in the world. Their main threat is the illegal wildlife market, since they are so visually endearing as pets that poachers reap them by the thousands and then subject them to cruel conditions. Unfortunately, their loss causes not only an imbalance to the natural forest and jungle ecosystems, but also removes a critical insect and pest consumer from the environment.
I started my independent project with a lot of Internet research and multiple Google and YouTube searches. I found out that the Little Fireface Project had its own YouTube channel and section for volunteers on their website and used these resources to contact director Dr. Anna Nekaris, one of the world’s leading slow loris researchers. After applying through their website and communicating with her through multiple e-mails, I started my application for a DukeEngage independent project. Going through the application process was the one of the most helpful components of my trip, since it forced me to think about all of the logistical details of my project from safety, to transportation and lodging, to being flexible if anything went wrong. I chose Charlie Welch of the Duke Lemur Center to be my mentor, since he had extensive experience with primate conservation as director of Duke SAVA Conservation in Madagascar. He helped me immensely in foreshadowing potential problems of field biology research, communication, and technology.
With my Indonesian language skills, I was able to communicate with locals and youths to communicate the need for environmental conservation. In addition to educational school visits and talks, I collected slow loris observational data for the LFP on these nocturnal primates from 6 PM – midnight, or midnight – 6 AM each night. Originally, I believed my project would be more education and community oriented, however, I shifted my goals in order to fit the needs of the organization. Without extensive field biology research on this relatively unknown animal, there is no clear way to discover how to best help save it from extinction.
As I learned very quickly, searching for these slow lorises was not easy. I had come into working with the Little Fireface Project expecting to do more work related to environmental education, but instead found myself playing a miniature Jane Gooddall observing the primates out in the forest for six hours at a time each night along with others from LFP. Radio collars helped us identify and locate each loris, which was a godsend because they could be quite speedy at nighttime when they weren’t busy foraging for food. You could have your sight set on their eyeshine in the trees one second and the next thing you know, they’ve traveled 20 meters across the forest into the dense thicket of bamboo. Luckily, we also used binoculars and flashlights covered in red film to help identify different aspects of their behavioral ecology, such as posture, substrate type, tree species, height of the animal, proximity to other lorises, etc.
Despite my heavy fieldwork with the lorises, my biggest contribution in the village probably came through during the daytimes filled with opportunities for social and educational outreach. We often had the chance to interact with local children to try and promote the importance of slow loris conservation—how this endangered animal could benefit their families’ crops and serve an important role in the ecosystem. It was always fun for us to visit schools around the village and interact with the schoolchildren, whether it was in Bahasa Indonesia or just waving back with a big smile. Some planned activities included having a slow loris drawing and naming contest with the kids, through which we received some really beautiful and creative entries (suggested names for the new baby loris included Optimus Prime, Bob, and Squirrel). During the week of Slow Loris Pride Days in Cipaganti, we went around the area building slow loris kites and masks with the children and even had a slow loris parade that led to the loris-themed soccer tournament, which was attended by an estimated 3,000 people by the last game. Needless to say, our team really hoped programs like this would better educate this next generation to protect their forests and lorises for years to come.
I learned so much culturally from the local Sundanese people in my village. Their local language is Bahasa Sunda, but most of them know Bahasa Indonesia and a tiny bit of English, so we were usually able to communicate with them on a basic level. However, teaching myself Bahasa from a book helped immensely and broke the language barrier between me and the locals, to the point where I would frequent peoples’ houses for coffee and meal invitations just to have the opportunity to chat with them. My parents stopped teaching me Indonesian when I was about 6 years old, in fear that it would interfere with my English-based lessons at school. To this day, I wish they hadn’t because picking up another language is so much harder when you are older and have less natural ability to do so!
By being able to communicate with the people around me, I was able to understand the personalities of the local radio trackers I worked with and immerse myself deeper in the Sundanese culture, a culture driven by the belief of hard work and humility, devotion and dedication. They are farmers who labor all day in the gardens just to sell their crops at the market down the mountain for a few cents more, while maintaining the job of supporting their families at home. Trying my best to communicate with the Sundanese people around the field house, even if it was imperfect and scattered with multiple hand motions, was one of the most enriching parts of my DukeEngage experience.
I believe I have grown more as a person through DukeEngage than any other Duke experience I have had. I learned a lot about working with people of other cultures and increased my sensibility of inter-cultural and religious differences, which are things that I will carry with me to all parts of my life. I would recommend any person considering applying for an independent project to pick a cause they are passionate about helping and just run with it. Take time to communicate with your community partner and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions to cover every detail. Don’t be afraid to follow your idea, no matter how small it is—you might just end up with a life-changing experience like my own!
I am unsure if I will continue working with primate biology in the future. It is not only physically demanding, but also emotionally taxing to live abroad, thousands of miles away from family and friends. However, it has given me tremendous insight for my studies in Evolutionary Anthropology back at Duke and has changed the way I can make an impact on my community. After graduation, I plan on attending Physical Therapy school or graduate school for studies in Evolutionary Anthropology. Regardless of my future paths, I know that I will always carry this DukeEngage experience with me int he future and I am warmed by the thought that I have the ability to return to a second home among the villagers of Garut, Indonesia.
Jennifer Margono, class of 2015, is double majoring in Evolutionary Anthropology and Dance, with a minor in Psychology.
The Little Fireface Project, named after the Sudanese word for loris, was started in 1993 and aims to save lorises from extinction through research and education programs.
In the summer of 2013 I traveled to the Madre de Dios region of Peru to volunteer with the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) at the biological research station Villa Carmen. ACA is dedicated to protect the Amazon by working with the state, local communities, and private land owners to conserve the integrity of the forest and establish the sustainable use of its resources. To mirror these goals, I designed my project to combine my interest in conservation with community engagement and outreach. For the first part of my project I monitored frog populations to determine the prevalence of the cytrid fungus around Villa Carmen. Cytrid fungus has been spread worldwide by human activities and is causing mass extinctions and declines of amphibian populations in all corners of the globe. The second part of my project was to build the connection between the local community and the research station by teaching about conservation at local schools.
As a double major in Environmental Science and Biology, I knew that I wanted to conduct a project focusing on conservation or the environment. I also wanted to conduct my project in Latin America so I could put my years of classroom Spanish to use. When I originally started to think of applying for a DukeEngage independent project I began searching for organizations online, but could not find a partner organization I was very enthusiastic about. I than turned to friends who had experiences in Latin America for ideas. I was eventually directed to ACA and talked with several of the organizers to develop a project idea that could incorporate both conservation and community engagement.
When I first arrived in Peru I traveled to ACA’s high elevation biological station, Wayquecha, with the researcher in charge of the frog monitoring project and five other student volunteers from different universities who would also be working on the project. I spent nearly a week at Wayquecha, located in the Andean cloud forest, learning the history of cytrid fungus and the basics of amphibian monitoring techniques. From there I headed down to Villa Carmen, in the picturesque low-elevation Amazon Rainforest with one other volunteer. I was extremely impressed with how well the station was maintained, looking more like a tropical paradise than the rugged image of a biological station I had pictured in my mind. We began working on the frog monitoring project immediately, conducting four hour searches every night in the forest to collect amphibians. Every morning we would identify, measure, and test each frog and salamander caught the night before for cytrid fungus. This part of the project went smoothly, with a total of 313 amphibians caught over the summer, and an average of six night searches a week. However, when I first arrived at Villa Carmen, I realized that the station and the local town had very little interaction. I learned that most research stations worldwide are located in remote areas near small rural communities, and the two tend to remain isolated from each other. At this point I wanted to shift the goals of my project, and instead of attempting to go to multiple schools and teach several classes about biology and conservation, to focus on building the relationship between ACA and the local school from the ground up. I worked with several other ACA volunteers to achieve this goal, and by the end of the summer I had given several presentations to elementary through high school children about conservation.
Despite my initial impression of Villa Carmen, adapting to life in a remote biological station required a learning curve that essentially took my entire time there. Spending nearly ten weeks in rural Peru was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I have ever had. Personally, I had to learn how to live without all of the comforts and technologies of home. Limited communication and even intermittent electricity required that I adapt to a completely new style of life. Academically and intellectually, I learned skills that I will be able to take with me into future research situations. More importantly, I adjusted my ideas of what I want to pursue in my further education and as a career. While living in the jungle for months on end had always been one of my life goals, I now realize that my future pursuits of conservation and community outreach will not be based in a remote field location. Still, my summer experience with DukeEngage is something I would never want to change.
My advice to anyone applying for an independent DukeEngage project is to design a project that you are truly passionate about. The DukeEngage experience, especially on independent projects where you do not have the direct support of other students or professors, is largely crafted by your everyday outlook on life. If you are excited about your project and genuinely interested in what you are doing, you will be able to overcome the inevitable hiccups that occur on any DukeEngage project while maintaining a positive attitude. Working closely with the DukeEngage staff and a project mentor at Duke, you can create an independent project that will provide an unforgettable experience while delivering measurable benefits to a community in need.
Ethan Baruch, class of 2015, is double majoring in Environmental Science and Biology. He plans on attending graduate school to study ecology.
The Amazon Conservation Association is dedicated to protecting the biological diversity of the Amazon by working with the state, local communities, and private land owners to conserve the integrity of the forest and establish the sustainable use of its resources.