This blog does not represent the position of the United States government or the Peace Corps as to any matter. All expressions of fact or opinion contained herein are solely those of Mark and Lisa Lebowitz and of no one else.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Celebrating Healthy Women........................

When I interviewed to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, my first choice was to work in health education. Even though my years of experience have been in the elementary classroom I have always felt strongly about health care issues. My primary assignment here in Georgia has been teaching English as a foreign language. We are strongly encouraged to pursue secondary projects as well. In October, a Breast Cancer Awareness walk was held in Kutaisi. As volunteers, we were invited to come and help. Mark was at a different conference that weekend so I went to Kutaisi on my own to help. In the prewalk gathering phase there was a table with breast models for women to feel what a lump might be like. In my personal education about breast health I always felt that these models were helpful. I offered to to help out and saw how hesitant, if not downright terrified, Georgian women were to actually touch the models.

On the way home I got thinking that having a Saturday event at my school to give information on breast health might be a good thing to organize. My school has 1200 students, and accordingly, there are many women teachers there also who could benefit. I talked to my teaching counterpart, and she agreed that it would be a good idea. At the PC Halloween party I had a long conversation with Johanna Holtan, an NGO volunteer from my group, who is working with a women’s health care organization focusing on prenatal parenting education. She said she would love to partner with me to make this happen and that there was an NGO in Kutaisi whom she would ask to come and run the show.

In January, Johanna came to Zugdidi to spend some time to scope out the venue and plan the event. Together we brainstormed how to make the event informative and fun. This kind of presentation would be a new concept here, and we were concerned whether Georgian women would take time for something like this. We were determined to make it happen. We decided to incorporate a breast self exam training as part of the event. The people here are crazy for trainings and certificates. March 3rd is Mothers’ Day and March 7th is International Womens’ Day, both a big deal here. We chose the following weekend, March 15th, for our “Celebrating Healthy Women” event.

There was much to do. Johanna was working on recruiting organizations in Kutaisi to come. I had made friends with the director of an NGO in Zugdidi who does wonderful support work for IDPs (internally displaced people). I asked the director there to partner with me to go to a workshop on HIV/AIDS and to assist us in organizing the event. She is fluent in English and was happy to help. She also offered the aid of an IDP doctor who she had helped and now works in her organization. We also decided that we should incorporate many different aspects of womens’ health and well being into the event, so we reached into every health related direction we could. We knew that prenatal health education was vital, and family planning was needed. There is a high rate of TB here so information on that was important. To present the HIV/AIDS information we needed infectious disease doctors and basic facts. Women need to feel comfortable with gynecologists, so we needed them on board too. Cancer was an issue so we needed an oncologist.

When the Peace Corps heard what we were planning they approached us and encouraged us to apply for a VAST grant. This was exactly the kind of event that Washington was trying to encourage, especially if we included information on HIV/AIDS, which was already in our plan. Johanna’s expertise in grant writing was called into service, and within 2 weeks we found out that we had received $500 in our project budget, which meant we could expand our possibilities. We then had a budget which we could use to advertise, decorate and entice women to attend
with food!

We also decided to go to local businesses to ask them to contribute so we could have some sort of door prizes. My NGO counterpart said that one of the local banks had stated that they might be willing to help organizations in such a fashion. So Eka and I ventured off to the Bank of Georgia to make the pitch. In my days of fund raising for Camp Chingaghgook I learned much from George Painter about how to approach this. I initially spoke briefly in Georgian, and then through Eka as my interepeter, I launched into our request. The answer came quickly. The female bank manager thought it was a great idea which was much needed in Georgia. “500 lari would be no problem.”( 1 lari = $0.66). I immediately texted Johanna, and we were exuberant! Everyone we approached about the project was very positive. Georgia has the fifth highest rate of death from breast cancer in all of Europe. Everyone knows someone who has been afflicted. Women do not go to the doctor here except to have a baby or an abortion. The rate of abortion is 3.7 abortions per woman. There is very little family planning information available to them. It is just not talked about here. On the HIV/AIDS front, the numbers have been dangerously climbing in each of the last four years, and Zugdidi, where we live, has the second highest infection rate in Georgia. What makes this worse is that many men here frequently visit “Female Sex Workers”, and often a blind eye is turned.

We hired a neighbor of my teaching counterpart to prepare refreshments for those attending. Decorations were to be posters designed by the kids at school. We would get flowers at the bazaar which would later be given to the presenters. In speaking with my Georgian friends about door prizes they were confused about the concept. Because the people here are all so poor, there was a concern that if only 20 women left with gifts there might be bad feelings among the others. So,as an alternative, we decided to give each woman a small gift instead, a bottle of nail polish with a tag on a satin ribbon saying “When you use this nail polish remember to examine your breasts once a month. Compliments of Bank of Georgia “. Everyone loved the idea! Johanna arranged for five organizations to attend, dealing with reproductive health, breast health, prenatal care and family planning. She was busy ordering a huge banner, certificates, preparing the program and jumping through the hoops for the grant. I was busy visiting 3 local gynecologists, an oncologist and 2 infectious disease doctors and inviting them to participate and provide handouts. There are no big pharmaceutical companies to give out free information here. I met with kids to make posters. We also decided to introduce the women to low fat dips with fresh vegetables and provide recipes for them to take home. To complicate things, many of the women would be in the middle of their pre-Easter fast, which meant that at least half of the food had to consist of items which had no dairy, meat or egg products. The entire event, including all the signs, had to be in Georgian, so there was much translation help needed. We also invited PC volunteers to come help. We had 8 volunteers helping us. They came from all around Georgia, several
traveling 5 hours to get here!

We also learned that the Director of Peace Corps Georgia and the PC Language Coordinator were coming as well. A comforting thought. We had set a goal of 200 women, but if the word did not get out, it had thepotential to be a pretty bleak occasion, with lots of hoopla and no women. I spent an entire day pounding the pavement asking stores and businesses to post signs. We talked to everyone we knew. I was handing brochures out to other riders on marshutkhas (minibusses) and to waitresses in restaurants, and I even resorted to bribing kids in my classes with stickers if their Moms came. The day arrived. It was cold, rainy and windy. But to our surprise more than 200 women attended! The family planning expert offered confidential family planning information, and 10 women left that day with oral contraceptives. Everyone had a wonderful time and went home with arm loads of information.

Afterwards we had a luncheon for the presenters and volunteers to network and to thank them. At this event my school director was speaking with the local oncologist and gynecologist, and they offered to arrange free breast exams and pap smears for all the teachers in my school. Needless to say, Johanna and I were thrilled. We even have some money left to use to put together an informational kit that other volunteers can use to duplicate the event. Today we are very happy campers (volunteers) !

Here are some pictures (Johanna is standing in front of the school and at the mike with me in the blue scarf) .........................

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Developing Country............................

Just a quick note. Georgia really is making progress as a developing country. During the past week or so, workmen have been busy putting up light poles on our street! Yep, we're gonna have streetlights! Of course, one shouldn't get too excited before it actually happens (as exemplified by the new gas heaters that were installed in Lisa's school....the only problem being that there has been no gas and consequently no heat all winter). We're really excited though because at night here it is pitch black on our street and dangerous to walk home. Also, today was the third day in a row that the power did not go off once !!! Usually we lose power at least once and frequently several times every day. I took my camera with me to work today and here are a few pictures for you.

This is the electrical panel for our building, which is located at the base of the stairs heading to my office (4 floors up). Many days when I arrive at work there is a group of people huddled around the box playing with the wires. We frequently check our power by turning all the power off in the office and see if the meter keeps running (which means that someone has tapped our line!).

This is the wall in the stairwell outside my office on the fourth floor. As you can see, there has been some electrical work done there too (it even looks like they may have had a small fire at one time). The pink piece of paper on the wall is an advertisement for the women's health fair which Lisa is spearheading in Zugdidi this weekend.

Here are the streetlights!! We're excited and they look pretty impressive. I just hope they have electricity hooked up to them soon!!

There are lots of used clothing stores in Georgia. Here is one that is on my way to work.

Here's a place where you can buy shesha (pronounced shay-shah), which is wood for your petchi. Lots of people pick up some for the evening fire on their way home at the end of the day.

Here is another used clothing store and a couple of small stores selling general merchandise. There are many, many of these small stores all around town, all selling the same stuff at the same prices.

Here's a fellow who has a stand on a street corner in town. On the table for sale are two bottles of vodka, a carton and a few stray packs of cigarettes. He even has a cup in which there are a bunch of single cigarettes for sale. If you look closely, you can see that his arm is in a sling, consisting of a loop of string wrapped around his neck and forearm.

Here's a car getting pushed to get started. It's a frequent sight. Notice that the driver is one of the pushers too. You really need to develop your technique in order to push the car fast enough, hop into the driver's seat at just the right time, put the car into gear and pop the clutch!!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Snow in Zugdidi............................................

(written February 21, 2008) Winter reached a crescendo yesterday when Zugdidi got about 15 inches of snow. Although it snows here each winter, the memories of most locals were taxed in trying to remember the last time a single storm deposited more snow than this one. There are no snowplows here and by the looks of things, there are few shovels either. Snow is simply packed down by the few cars venturing out and by pedestrians tromping hither and yon. Very few of the cars here have snow tires. In fact, most of them have tires that display no treads whatsoever! Not many of the cars here would be able to pass the annual inspection required by the motor vehicle department back home. Cars are stuck everywhere and will likely remain just where they are until the snow and ice melts sufficiently for them to get out. The power has been out at our house for the past 24 hours, and of course, that means we have no water either. I have a meeting in Tbilisi tomorrow, and I am on the train at the moment because the marshutkas and buses are not running because of the snow. Unfortunately, the train takes forever (8 1/2 hours on a good day, and today isn't good). Actually, I just received a text message that said my meeting has been canceled because of the weather. Unfortunately, I'm already on my way! At least there’s power in Tbilisi. It was only a few years ago when power outages for months at a time were commonplace throughout Georgia. Everyone here remembers those times, and they are completely non-plussed about the power being off now. Not so me! I can’t imagine what it must be like to live without electricity for any length of time. I’m stressed out now and it’s only been off a day!