Friday, June 28, 2013

On Guilt

Guilt is a unique emotion in that it is both selfless and selfish at the same time. It is simultaneously enlightening and debilitating, clarifying and obscuring. Visiting a developing country like Ghana while calling an immensely wealthy nation like the United States home is the perfect breeding ground for guilt to take root, multiply, and, if we’re not careful, spread like a cancer to the degree that accomplishing anything other than wallowing in it seems like an insurmountable task. We teach children about food and nutrition when they don’t have access to the healthy foods we discuss. We encourage hand washing with soap and clean water when soap is considered a luxury. We talk about first aid and germs when most of our students don’t have access to bandages and antiseptic cream. Perhaps most obviously, we sit in a classroom and eat a hearty lunch prepared for us at a restaurant while malnourished students without lunches play outside just steps away from us.

Students in Adigbo Kofe as classes ended for the day and we prepared to board the bus.

It has never been clearer to me that we have it easy- we live the good life, and most of us have never truly wanted for anything that could be considered a necessity of life. This is something I have taken for granted my entire life, and I probably will continue to expect it even after I return from Ghana. There are days when the guilt is somewhat assuaged, but still it lingers; its presence is a constant, dull reminder of privilege and of circumstance. Yesterday Katie, Kristina and I tried to help a young girl with a high fever, dizziness, and a throat and stomach ache. She hadn’t eaten in two days, and she hadn’t taken any medicine for her fever. In less than five minutes, she was eating a plate of rice and drinking water taken from the team’s lunch, and we gave her half an Aleve taken from my personal medication store. For a brief moment, there was a sense of accomplishment and hope that the little girl would get better, and that, in part, it would be because of our efforts. But those emotions were quickly replaced with yet another wave of guilt- why were the rice and water so readily available to me and not her? Why do I have seemingly endless access to medications when people in this girl’s village die because of a deceptively innocuous-seeming fever? At the end of the day, it just doesn’t seem fair- so the guilt lingers.

One of the team's favorite kindergarteners as the students played games and waited for their government-subsidized lunches. It is never a guarantee in these villages that the meals will actually be delivered, so the students often go without a meal during the school day.

Last night at dinner, I asked the team to share their most challenging moment or aspect of the trip thus far. Guilt was an oft-repeated motif that wove its way through each of my teammates brief speeches in a way that nearly broke my heart. I sat at a table with 16 brilliant, motivated, passionate people who truly want to effect change, but they couldn’t see past the guilt to their own accomplishments and overwhelming successes with the students who welcomed us into their schools with open arms and beaming faces over the past week. So I decided not to let the guilt overtake us- how could I let the dark side of guilt overshadow the brightness and light of the pure love for humanity that exists in each member of my team? Yes, we are privileged. Yes, it is unjust and almost cruelly unfair at times. Yes, a certain degree of guilt offers perspective and maintains balance. But (and this is a big, important but) we are making the deliberate choice to use that cruelly unfair privilege to equalize the global playing field to the best of our abilities. Slowly but surely, as more of our peers, mentors, and successors in our respective fields recognize the need for this equalization, the guilt will begin to dissipate. For now, I’ll settle for the ever-present guilt taking a backseat to the other emotions I think my team deserves to feel as our week of public health education draws to a close- jubilation, empathy, sadness, a sense of purpose and, above all, hopefulness for the future. 

The future.
~ Shikha

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Favorite Moments: Part I

This week, I’ve been trying to implement some team-building and time for reflection into our family-style dinners (or post-dinner nail painting parties) each evening at the restaurant in our hotel. Last night I asked some of the team members about their favorite moments thus far, and the question resulted in an hour-long group memory share. Here are some of the highlights:

Katya (a rising 2nd year medical student) said: “I loved seeing the excited look on the kids’ faces as our bus pulled up to each village- they glowed. One girl took my hand the second we stepped onto the field during the first break, and she squeezed my hand every few seconds so I would look at her and smile. The smile she gave back to me was dazzling.”

Lindsey (a rising 2nd year pharmacy student) said: “My favorite moment was watching Cory run down the hill with the football (soccer ball) we were donating to the village. Every single boy in the school laughed, cheered, and ran down the hill next to him- I’ve never seen so many happy faces.”

Sarah (a rising 2nd year physical therapy student) said: “When we asked the students what their favorite thing about living in Ghana is, they said ‘love.’ It was simple and pure.”

Kristina (a rising 2nd year pharmacy student) said: “It meant so much to me to see how content all the Ghanaians are with the lives they lead. They’re appreciative of every little thing we do for them, and they want the best, not only for themselves, but for everyone else in their country, as well.”

Alicia (a rising 2nd year physical therapy student) said: “I loved teaching the students our names and finding out theirs. We don’t understand each other all the time, but we find other ways to communicate- smiles, holding hands, giving high fives, and so many hugs.”

Amanda (a rising 2nd year medical student) said: “It’s so indicative of the nature of the people in Ho that religion is a centerpiece of the community, but anyone, regardless of his or her religious persuasion, is welcomed with open arms.”

I can't wait to post the rest of the team's thoughts, memories, and favorite moments over the next few days. Keep an eye out for a post comprised of the funniest moments, too- there are many!

The team outside the monkey sanctuary- one of my favorite moments!

Igniting Passion

We’ve spent the past three days teaching public health education modules at primary schools in Adigbo Kofe (a village situated on Lake Volta), Goviefe, and Peki Agbateh. The school in Adigbo Kofe was the most rural and impoverished community we’ll be visiting this week, with most of the classes taking place in rudimentary, open structures in a cleared area covered with clay-colored dust. Although we were greeted with the most primitive set-up of all the schools during our visit to Adigbo Kofe, I don’t think anyone on the team will forget the children drumming a welcome ceremony for us during the first class break, or the heartfelt, moving speech given by the headmaster at the end of the day. At times, I think it’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of the public health education week because the results aren’t as immediately tangible or evident as the results of the clinic week, but the headmaster reminded us in the most simple, direct way of the importance of our time with the students. He told us that it was a day that no one at the school would ever forget, and let us know that we ignited a passion for learning and a deep curiosity about medicine and health in his students. I can’t think of a better check on our collective insecurities about our worth and value to the communities we visited, and I have been repeating the headmaster’s words and praise to the team at every opportunity.

The drum and dance circle- the older students drummed and led the dancing and singing, and the younger students were just impossibly adorable. Video to come soon!

We were impressed with the level of knowledge of understanding and curiosity of the students in each of the villages, but teaching the “Germs and First Aid” module to the P6 (sixth graders) in Peki Agbateh today was particularly memborable. They were far too advanced in their scientific knowledge for the simple lesson we had planned, so we adapted and modified our lesson. Instead of asking if soap kills germs, we taught the students about micelles, detergents, and the biochemical mechanisms employed by soaps to clear pathogens. Instead of asking if the students knew what comes out of a wound (blood), we discussed the circulatory system and the methods by which the body repairs ruptured vessels. The students were engaged and participating with gusto, and Max, Alishia, Kristina and I enjoyed the challenge of lifting our lesson to the talent and intelligence level of our students.

Amanda, Will, and Lindsey using a mosquito net to teach the students about malaria during the "Malaria and Water Sanitation" module.

Though our time teaching in the schools has been rewarding, it has also been heartbreaking to witness firsthand the conditions under which many of the students are trying to gain a useful and well-rounded education. Many of them don’t have school supplies, shoes, or food, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more respectful, well-behaved, happy group of children in any of the American communities in which we were all raised. It has been a challenge to keep ourselves focused on educating the children when we’re often distracted by some of the more obvious medical issues they face, including hydrocephalus, a poorly healed ankle fracture that causes a 5th grade girl to walk on her ankle instead of her foot, and innumerable open wounds, ulcers, scrapes, and cuts. We’ve done our best to take care of the medical issues we can easily address with an alcohol prep pad, clean water, and a band-aid, but it’s clear to all of us that we’ll have our work cut out for us next week when we revisit the villages for clinic days.


Monday, June 24, 2013


As I told the group of community members from Ho that planned and orchestrated a beautiful welcoming ceremony for the team last night, we haven’t learned many words in Ewe (the regional dialect spoken in Ho) yet, but we did learn how to say thank you: Akpe. There isn’t a better word to summarize our first four days in Ghana- we are so thankful for the hospitality, friendship, and genuine welcome to the community we’ve received thus far. Last night’s ceremony was an amazing celebration of Ghanaian culture and tradition, with performances by children and adults in the community and each team member receiving a traditional Kente cloth with their name hand-embroidered on it. The whole team had the chance to participate in the dances and introduce themselves- I can’t think of a better way for the team to have spent our last truly free night in Ghana.

Cory accepting Max's Kente cloth- Max wasn't feeling well and couldn't make it to the ceremony. Each cloth is hand-embroidered with our full names and the name of Reverend Bankas's church.

Armed with the support of the community in Ho, we woke up today with a renewed energy and excitement for the first of our five visits to primary schools in the Volta region to teach public health lessons to Ghanaian students. We spent some time yesterday planning our lessons and preparing for the week, but we arrived at the McCollins Preparatory School today to find that we only had one hour to spend teaching the students. It was hectic, but the students' reactions to our presence and excitement over meeting us more than made up for the schedule changes.

After teaching our lessons, we helped the teachers with their regularly planned lessons for the rest of the day, which was challenging in a school that housed around 200 students from ages 1.5-12 in just 6 open rooms. It was loud and the students were often distracted, but their thirst for knowledge was evident. Some of our team members assisted the teachers, and others were given the chance to take over and teach their own lesson- Audrey and Amanda taught a science lesson about the states of matter, and Sarah and I had to refresh our memory about the types of triangles to teach a lesson about angles and triangles. Katie was almost always covered by 20 adoring children, and a few of the children asked Will if he was Jesus.

When we finally headed back to the city at the end of the day, we were exhausted, but we made some time to stop for souvenir shopping. A few of us are having skirts and blankets made, so we visited some fabric stores to pick out the designs, which was a unique (and somewhat overwhelming!) experience. We picked up a few other souvenirs, but I won't ruin the surprise in case any of you are the lucky recipients!

So sorry for a post without any pictures, but our WiFi connection at the Internet cafe isn't strong enough to upload pictures and videos- hopefully we'll be able to add some soon!

- Shikha

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Monkeys, Waterfalls and Mountain Climbing

Today was an early day for the team with a breakfast of toast, eggs, fresh pineapple, and coffee being served in our hotel in Ho at 5:30 AM, but I'm proud (and pretty impressed!) to say that everyone made it to breakfast on time, and we hit the road at 6:15 to check out the monkeys at the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary, home to about 5 groups of mona monkeys.

Pretty cute, right?!
This was one of the team's favorite experiences thus far- we held small bananas in our hands, and the monkeys jumped out of the trees, landed on our arms, carefully peeled the bananas, and ate them. One of the best parts of the monkey sanctuary is that all entrance fees are used to develop the tribal community that lives in the center of the forest. About 1,500 members live in the tribe, and the sanctuary proceeds have helped fund a computer lab, electricity for the villagers, and an ongoing library project. We have videos and pictures of each team member bonding with the monkeys, but we don't have WiFi, so they'll be posted soon....keep an eye out!

After leaving the sanctuary, we traveled about an hour to Wli Falls, the lower level of a beautiful two-level waterfall in the Volta region. 

The waterfall...if you look closely you can see bats surrounding the waterfall on the face of the mountain!
Most of the team had the chance to get in the water and stand under the waterfall. It was a truly amazing experience, and we have a great set of pictures (including a VCU pride one that was a bit of a struggle to take!) under the falls. The 45-minute hike to the waterfall was more than worth it, and we were lucky enough to have an engaging, knowledgeable tour guide, Isaac, to teach us about the forest and its history.

We had a chance to do a little souvenir shopping after the waterfall, and some of the team climbed the highest mountain in West Africa while others took a break on the bus. Tomorrow, we're very much looking forward to attending a traditional Ghanaian church service with Reverend Bankas, our outgoing and dedicated guide and honorary father figure while in Ghana. Reverend Bankas is also organizing a welcoming ceremony for the team tomorrow evening to introduce us to the community and local culture. I'll report back as soon as I can with more pictures and a recap!

~ Shikha

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Journey Begins

Friends, family, and REACH for Ghana supporters: thank you so much for your encouragement, contributions, and words of wisdom over the past year as the 2013 team prepared for our three-week journey. It means the world to all of us to have you all cheering us on back home, and we can't wait to get to work putting all our planning over the past year into action. We're excited to share our journey with you via this blog, and we hope you'll check back regularly to see how we're putting your generous donations to use in Ghana!

By way of introduction, my name is Shikha Gupta and I am the 2013 REACH 4 Ghana team leader, and I'll be the primary blogger for our trip. The seventeen members of our team (pictured below) all arrived safely in Accra over the past few days, and we didn't lose a single medical or personal bag (or team member!).

Our first family photo.

The 2013 R4G Team plus Zack, our Board representative on this trip.

We're currently staying in a great hotel in Cape Coast, and we just finished our first breakfast of spanish omelets, fresh-squeezed orange juice, avocado, coffee, and fruit (not too shabby, right?!). It started pouring as we were eating breakfast outside, but we're braving the rain for a Canopy Walk in Kakum National Park and a tour of the Cape Coast Castle. Pictures and a recap to come as soon as we have WiFi again!

If any of you are interested in being added to the list of people receiving our team e-mail updates, please feel free to leave a comment here or send me a message (guptas9 [at] Keep in touch and keep reading- I'll try to update as much as possible!

Getting crazy at one of our fundraisers this year at Jumpology! Thanks for jumping with us!

Thanks again for all your support, love, and encouragement- we couldn't have made it here without you!

- Shikha