Four Months Out of Peace Corps, Reflections about mHealth
Last Monday I was at the Dimagi HQ office in Cambridge when I got the cryptic message; something had happened in village. I knew I had to go home to make the call. Something wasn’t right.
It’s been over four months since my Peace Corps service ended, but I still wake up some mornings surprised to find myself back home. I spent over two years living in a village working with frontline health workers on maternal and child health projects. Electricity came to my village soon after I arrived and my counterparts began calling and texting me to schedule our community health activities. When we ran out of polio vaccines during a vaccination campaign, we could call the health post to ask them to deliver more. When a woman went into labor, we could call a bush taxi to take her to the health center. As I made rounds with the other health workers in village I started listing the chronic barriers to health in our community that could be addressed with the use of these new ubiquitous cell phones.
I found Dimagi’s website a few months before the end of my service and was completely humbled by the scope of work they were pursuing with exactly this logic: mobile technology, if designed appropriately, can be a game changer for public health. I was so excited by their projects and vision that I trailed their West Africa team in Dakar. Dimagi agreed to let me help support the West Africa Team from the Cambridge office after my service ended.
My manager is Mike O’Donnell, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Togo. He can empathize with my cultural whiplash, my continued battle with intestinal parasites, and my constant cravings for West African peanut sauce. He has shown me how Dimagi leverages the potential impact of a Peace Corps volunteer at HQ and in the field. They knew I couldn’t write a line of code to save my life, but they saw value in my knowledge of our end users. Nothing fits more perfectly with Dimagi’s “design under the mango tree” philosophy than working with volunteers who live under those mango trees for years at a time as a fully integrated part of the end user community.
Dimagi has made a concerted effort over the last few months to expand our partnership with Peace Corps Volunteers. We have had high-level discussions with Peace Corps HQ, we presented remotely to the Peace Corps Stomp Out Malaria Bootcamp, and we have sent a field manager to present at the Peace Corps health summit in Senegal. But by far our greatest partnership with Peace Corps has been through the initiative of individual PCVs in the field.
Hannah Mills (in photos above and below) is one such volunteer; she knew we would be working on deploying an application in her region and she wanted to get involved. The application is the product of a partnership with the NGO Africare and aims to help traditional birth attendants provide better prenatal care and counseling as well as track pregnant women in their communities. We invited Hannah to our training in Dakar. As a Masters International Volunteer she not only had great cultural competency, she had already completed the better part of a Masters in Public Health at Boston University. The more I spoke with her, the more excited about the project I became. She helped demo the application in her community a few short weeks later.
Professionally, nothing has been more fulfilling for me than seeing the partnership between Peace Corps and Dimagi grow. Personally, nothing has helped me navigate the emotional gymnastics of transitioning home than working on projects so relevant to the village I left a few months ago.
I had to remind myself of this when I got the news.
I ran home and called my village; Aminata Yaya, one of my health workers and dearest friends, had died giving birth to twins.
I had discussed these deaths with Hannah and the rest of our West Africa team in abstract: the high rate of maternal mortality in Senegal, the number of hidden pregnancies and missed prenatal appointments. These numbers have a face and name now. The time and effort spent making and refining a tool that could refer a woman like Aminata more efficiently, a tool that could report her danger signs, a tool that could help counsel her and her husband on a birth plan, all of this ‘work’ has never felt more relevant.
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