By CSON KILN and Chiamaka Okorie

Malaria Prevention Volunteers
Malaria Prevention Volunteers

KILN scholar Sonia Chiamaka Okorie (CSON ’17) was awarded the competitive Amanda V. Houston Traveling Fellowship from Boston College for the summer of 2015. Amanda V. Houston was the director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program at Boston College from 1981-1993. As an educator, community leader, and mentor, she wanted to provide an outstanding candidate of African descent with an opportunity to develop leadership skills through international travel and research.

Chiamaka traveled to Africa in June to volunteer with the Ghana Health and Education Initiative (GHEI), a non-governmental organization based in the Bibiani-Anhwiaso-Bekwai District of Ghana. Her project, “Perceived Susceptibility to Malaria: An Evaluation of Bed Net Usage of Ghanaian Mothers and Children under Five,” will be completed with data she and other community health workers compiled during her visit; more details can be found on the GHEI blog. Chiamaka describes her experience as follows:

“No classroom could have conveyed the heart and strength of GHEI. GHEI is a grassroots organization that runs several health and education initiatives in Humjibre, Kojina, and Soroano. I volunteered specifically with GHEI’s Malaria Prevention program, which partners volunteers with local community health workers to conduct comprehensive surveys. Each ‘household’, ‘woman’, and ‘child’ survey helped GHEI to collect health indicators, gauge the success of their past interventions, and identify where they could create new interventions.

Chiamaka with one of the nurses at the Bibiani Government Hospital

I found that the most special part of GHEI was the partnership both within the organization and between the organization and community. The survey itself was a great example of this. It was translated from English to Twi by community health coordinators, and then administered by trained community health workers (a mix of students, teachers, and local supporters) who visited households and expertly navigated in English, Twi, and the dialect Sefwi. We, volunteers, were responsible for coordinating the supplies and compiling the information to form the database. In four days we completed our goal of surveying half of the Humjimbre community and the entire Kojina and Soroano communities!

Within the volunteer group I took on the role of Field Coordinator, keeping track of how many surveys were submitted, completed, or needed to be revisited. We were posted at a central site in each community, surrounded by curious children and chickens, and dashing back and forth between correcting surveys, weighing frightened babies and measuring moms. I smiled with each “meda ase!” (thank you!) and felt welcomed as strangers asked “ete sen?” (how are you?).

I was able to connect much of my volunteer work with my independent research project. The survey asked detailed questions about malaria, family planning, pre-natal and post-natal care. We had the opportunity to tour the Bibiani Government Hospital and meet the wonderful doctors and nurses. Our trip also coincided with a hospital outreach baby weighing session, where I talked to nurses in more detail about the post-natal programs offered and vaccines provided. The GHEI health coordinators helped me answer my remaining curious or health-related questions. The complexities of public health became even clearer to me. As I have learned in nursing, each intervention must be carefully and individually woven. I intended to only focus on mothers, babies, and malaria, but watched the way other factors such as location, financial situation, and gender shaped each person. It was a humbling opportunity to assess data quantitatively and see, in front of me, the qualitative picture.

Market day in Bekwai
Market day in Bekwai

When we weren’t surveying, we learned Twi, had drumming and cooking lessons, and made visits to our local markets andcocoa farms. I conversed over my favorite meal of red red (beans and sweet fried plantain), learned the names of the kids that ventured to our doorstep, and got to know my fellow volunteers and the GHEI coordinators. During our last two days, we visited the massive Keteja market, Kakum National Park (where I bravely conquered the 100 ft high canopy walk), and Cape Coast (where slaves were held before they were sent abroad). As a Nigerian immigrant, I felt at home in Ghana and was continually amazed by its beauty.

When I found GHEI, I was searching for an opportunity to truly contribute to the community and I served, and return with renewed understanding and appreciation. With every day I spent in Ghana, I gained just that.  I am sincerely grateful to GHEI, KILN, and the Amanda V. Houston Fellowship for my incredible experience!”

The Boston College faculty and staff are proud of the work that Chiamaka has begun and we look forward to hearing more about this and other global health projects throughout her career.