Thursday, December 10, 2009

16 Days Until Launch-Off

There are only 17 more days until I leave for Rwanda and my emotions are so mixed that I really can’t tell what I’m feeling!

Of course it will be sad to leave friends and family behind for an entire year, but right now those feelings are eclipsed by the ocean of excitement and uncertainty about the year ahead of me. So many details are still up in the air! My exact placement has not yet been determined, so I could end up living in a city, village, or rural area. To fully immerse myself in the culture and language of Rwanda, I requested that I live with a family in a village or rural location, so I will most likely be living in a relatively remote area without running water or electricity. In preparation, I have purchased a Steripen water purification kit and a 10 gallon shower bag. My ESL students have been asking a lot of questions about my likely living conditions and they were blown away when I told them that some people in Rwanda must walk several miles each day to fill jugs full of water for drinking and bathing. They were especially concerned when we discussed the possibility of me shaving my head, if daily showers become impossible! But I say, when in Rome…

Thus far, I have obtained 6 of my 9 vaccines for various diseases such as yellow fever, polio, cholera, typhoid fever, etc. I’ve been getting 3 shots at a time, which is not at all a pleasant feeling when I can’t move my throbbing arm the next day! To prevent contracting malaria, I’ll be taking daily doxycycline tablets. There is a weekly malaria pill, but I’ve been told that one of its possible side effects is psychosis, so NO THANKS!!!

I fervently hope that when my teaching placement is finalized I will have manageable class sizes of students who speak and understand at least some English. As I’ve learned with my ESL students at the Literacy Council, it can be quite a formidable challenge to communicate even the simplest concepts (such as how to use an American toilet) when a language barrier is present. I am truly passionate about science and HIV/AIDS education because I believe that these subjects are so fundamentally important to the health and well-being of people everywhere; therefore, I want to be able to teach these subjects effectively!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rwanda 1st Landmine-Free Country

According to a recent BBC article, Rwanda is the first country to be declared landmine-free by the Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World. Prior to this designation, hundreds of people had been killed or injured in Rwanda by landmines laid between 1990 and 1994. Specially trained Rwandan soldiers have destroyed more than 9,000 mines in the past three years.

Since land is at a premium in Rwanda, the most densely populated African country, this is an especially significant accomplishment. Farmers, who comprise 80% of the population, are now able to farm their land without fear of death or injury. Wow, what a relief---I can't imagine having to balance a fear of starving with a fear of having limbs blown off in the process of trying to feed one's family!

For Rwanda to be declared landmine-free according to the Ottawa Treaty, it had to not only ensure that its land was free of mines, but destroy any landmine stockpiles it may have had. The U.S. is not deemed a mine-free country because, along with China, Russia, India, and about 3 dozen other countries, the U.S. has declined to sign the Ottawa Treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel mines.

In news story after news story, I have read nothing but great things about the advances that Rwanda has made politically, technologically, medically, educationally, etc. Every new tidbit of information makes me even more excited to begin living and teaching in Rwanda. And although I hadn't given any previous thought to the danger I might encounter in Rwanda due to land mines, I've gotta say that I'm liking the news that landmines are no longer an issue! I can't wait to do some serious hiking once I get there!!!

Monday, November 23, 2009

My Rwanda Wish List

I'm still accepting donations and trying to compile educational materials to take with me to Rwanda. On the top of my "wish list" are microscopes and slides/coverslips, ball and stick molecule model kits, and anatomical posters and models. If you have any of these items that you would like to donate, please contact me at so that I can arrange pick-up. If you would like to donate money towards the purchase of these items, you may donate online through WorldTeach, or you may mail donations to my home address below. WorldTeach is a non-profit, non-governmental organization sponsored by Harvard's Center for International Development, so your donation is 100% tax-deductible. If you choose to donate money through WorldTeach, please specify Emma Eck as the recipient of your donation.

I would like to thank those who took the time to donate money and materials to this cause. If you DO NOT want me to thank you by name on my blog, please let me know! Please know that I may not always receive specific donor information for those who choose to donate through WorldTeach.

Many thanks to all who have supported this WorldTeach teaching initiative thus far!

Emma Eck
349 North West End Ave.
Lancaster, PA 17603

Friday, November 13, 2009

Literacy Council ESL Teaching

By now I've fulfilled my 25 hour TESL requirement in preparation for teaching in Rwanda. I've been teaching ~9 hours of ESL each week at the Literacy Council of Lancaster and I've discovered that I really enjoy it, so I'll probably continue teaching until a week or two before I leave for Rwanda.

My class of ~25 students is comprised of adult learners from Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, many of whom are refugees. The group is very diverse in terms of both culture and ability. While some are literate in their native language, others are not, which poses an even greater challenge for the students as well as the teacher! The main point of these mixed classes is to equip refugees with basic life skills so that they can live and work and function in American society.

I've been having reading and discussion periods with some of the more advanced students, and next week I'll be reviewing basic math concepts, which I'm very excited about (hopefully the students will be as well).

Anyone who might be interested in teaching ESL and Life Skills classes or tutoring one-on-one should contact the Literacy Council. Funding has been cut to many of these programs, so volunteer support is needed more now than ever!

AIDS is leading cause of Death in Women Worldwide

The World Health Organization just came out with new data showing that the AIDS virus is the leading cause of death among women aged 15-44.

"Throughout the world, one in five deaths among women in this age group is linked to unsafe sex, according to the U.N. agency." Women often lack access to contraceptives or simply do not know how to protect themselves from infection.

The report goes on to discuss the disparity between the health treatment received by women vs. that received by men. "In many parts of the world [women] suffer serious disadvantages because of poverty, poorer access to health care and cultural norms that put a priority on the well-being of men...the discrimination extends throughout a women's life, from girlhood diseases that aren't identified because they are not sicknesses affecting boys, to clinical trials and medicines developed on the basis of curing adult males."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Countdown to Rwanda: Less than 2 Months to Go!

In less than two months, I will leave virtually everything I know behind to live and teach high school math and science in Rwanda for an entire year! I am beyond thrilled!

This sure-to-be-epic journey will be coordinated through WorldTeach, a non-profit organization sponsored by Harvard's Center for International Development. I will be employed as a volunteer teacher through WorldTeach and Rwanda's Ministry of Education. Although some of the WorldTeach programs are paying positions, the year-long Rwanda program is not. I am currently fundraising to pay my $6000 program fee, which includes the cost of round-trip airfare, health insurance, a monthly stipend comparable to a typical Rwandan teacher’s salary, and field support. It is my hope that I will be able to fundraise additional money so that I may take along educational supplies and equipment (there is a good chance that I can get donated microscopes, but I must still pay to ship them)!

The recent history of Rwanda is a dark one. It’s been fifteen years since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutu Power regime over a 100 day period. In researching for my trip to Rwanda, the genocide’s legacy seems to be all-pervasive. I’ve recently been reading studies on post-traumatic stress disorder and the use of various forms of therapy in the aftermath of the genocide.

One of the most promising therapies is narrative exposure therapy (NET), through which survivors detail the events of their traumas, essentially reliving their nightmares and reexperiencing all of the emotions associated with them. Studies have shown that this intense therapy results in habituation of the emotional response associated with the trauma, thus mitigating PTSD symptoms. Many studies have shown that short-term NET is more effective than traditional psychotherapy in treating PTSD, while at the same time being cost-effective and relatively simple to use, even by laymen. Any kind of administration of therapy is certainly outside of my job description, but considering that many of the students I will be teaching are surviving orphans of the genocide, it might be a good idea for me to have an understanding of mental health issues that I am likely to encounter. How does one return to normalcy after living through hell on earth? Will these children, who are most certainly haunted by this country’s ugly past, be able to thrive in the classroom and in the community?

As if these children haven’t been faced with enough challenges in their lives, many deal with the day-to-day reality of being infected with HIV. Superstitions and misinformation regarding HIV abound; therefore, proper education is imperative! The lives of these children literally depend upon the quality of HIV/AIDS education that they receive, if any. The opportunity to be involved in the formation of an HIV/AIDS education class is one of the most significant reasons that I applied to this program. My greatest passions are the study of emerging infectious diseases, vector-transmitted diseases (malaria), virology (HIV/AIDS, yellow fever), and parasitology (elephantiasis, river blindness). I’m hoping that I will be able to both learn and educate about disease prevention, pathology, and epidemiology during my stay.

Since I will be living in relative cultural and geographical isolation without friends or family or my usual distractions of television and easy internet access, I have decided to use much of my downtime in Rwanda to study for my MCATs, so that I may apply to Penn State Hershey’s MD/PhD program upon my return.

I am very passionate about math and science (biology in particular) and I am so excited by the opportunity to teach in a country that is in such great need of English-speaking teachers as it switches its national language over to English. If you would like to support this teaching initiative by contributing funds toward my $6000 program fee, you may donate through (please specify that your donations are in support of Emma Eck), or you may donate directly to my home address: 349 N. West End Avenue, Lancaster, PA 17603.

I encourage everyone to follow along with me on my journey as I continue to blog about the joys and challenges of teaching in Rwanda!