The Constant Traveler

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(Horseback riding in Vilanculos, Mozambique)

After accepting my position with the regional office, I’ve been traveling non-stop for the last nine months…literally…non-stop – which is both exhausting and exhilarating. Living out of your suitcase, dining at restaurants for breakfast/lunch/dinner and feeling cooped-up in your hotel room at night isn’t exactly as glamorous as one might think. I long for a routine where I can exercise outdoors and do normal chores, like grocery shopping and cooking at home. Plus I desperately miss Darren and the dogs, so I tend to fly home most weekends. Despite the long hours and the time away from home, I’ve never been happier with my career!

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(Bazaruto Island)

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(Crystal-clear Water)

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(Picturesque waters)

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(Isolated beaches)

Each country has different technical assistance requests, which keeps my job fresh and exciting. In Tanzania, I’ve assisted with data quality assurance measures for PEPFAR reporting; in Botswana, I’ve conducted site visits with tools that measure the quality of service delivery (SIMS – Site improvement Through Monitoring Systems); in Swaziland, I’ve analyzed results for prevention programs, with an emphasis on key populations and orphans and vulnerable children.

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(Gorgeous island)

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(Darren)

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(Towering sand dunes)

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(Darren admiring the view)

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(Darren on Santa Carolina Island)

But I’ve spent the majority of my time in Malawi working on two separate projects. First, I was part of an inter-agency team that spent weeks in Malawi developing a roadmap for data disaggregation collection; and second, I worked hand-in-hand with the Government of Malawi to help draft their National Strategy for Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW).

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(Dunes with forest below)

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(Enormous sand dunes)

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(Perspective)

For the data disaggregation roadmap, we ultimately explored the best possible approach for PEPFAR partners to collect site-level data by gender and age (via five-year age bands). Despite the simplicity of this request on its surface, the complexity and magnitude of the task becomes apparent as you begin to operationalize the mandate.

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(Day trip to Villas do Indico, Vilanculos)

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(Beautiful boy on the beach)

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(Low tide)

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(Darren checking out the boat)

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(My turn)

As PEPFAR strives to achieve sustainable epidemic control, we have had to change the way we do business and have shifted towards a more data-driven approach to strategically target resources to geographic regions where HIV/AIDS burden is the highest, or where programs could achieve the greatest impact.

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But geography alone only tells a partial story of how to invest your resources. To achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goals, 90 percent of people living with HIV diagnosed, 90 percent of those diagnosed on antiretroviral treatment (ART), and 90 percent of those on ART virally suppressed by 2020 – it’s imperative to understand the nature of the epidemic. Knowing the age and gender breakdowns will provide critical information for program planning, i.e., how to ensure more men are tested or how to target HIV interventions towards young women and girls between the ages of 10 – 14, 15 – 19, and 20-24.

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(Beach in front of Casa Babi)

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(Baobab Beach)

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In Malawi, the national reporting system does not collect testing and treatment indicators broken down by gender, nor does it sufficiently disaggregate data by service modality or age to satisfy PEPFAR’s reporting requirements. As a result, we determined recommendations for an approach that would meet PEPFAR’s reporting requirements while not over-burdening the national reporting system – a fine balance to be sure!

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(We always had dogs with us while walking up and down the beach)

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The second project builds on another ambitious PEPFAR initiative that strives to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), DREAMS – whose mandate is to help girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-Free, Mentored and Safe women.

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(My morning stroll taking photos)

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(Sunday’s best)

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(Attitude)

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The National Strategy for AGYW aims to strengthen multi-sectoral responses to improve the health, agency, safety, well-being and economic potential of adolescent girls and young women. To achieve this monumental task, the Government of Malawi will need to coordinate and collaborate across the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology; the Ministry of Health; the Ministry of Gender, Children Disability and Social Welfare; and the Ministry of Labour Youth Sports and Manpower Development; and with the Ministry of Finance.

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(Armando)

I am proud of my contribution to this process, putting in endless hours drafting documents, meeting with Ministry officials, and coordinating with consultants and other members of a highly-dedicated team that pushed this process forward in a relatively short amount of time.

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The National Strategy reflects buy-in and commitment across various ministries, civil society, donors and NGOs, yet the real work will begin with its implementation…fingers crossed that I will return to Lilongwe to continue assisting on this endeavor.

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(Look what he’s reading!!!)

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(All smiles)

Meanwhile, this process has been on-going for several months which has afforded me with ample time to become reacquainted with friends in Lilongwe and to travel within the country.

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(Fish for sale)

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(Bringing in the catch at dawn)

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Malawi is a stunningly beautiful country, and Lake Malawi takes my breath away each and every time I stand on its shores. But one of my favorite stops at the Lake is a small fishing village at the base of Safari Beach Lodge. I’ve been coming here for ten years and am now a familiar site in the community.

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(Doing my thing…)

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I introduced Darren here when he joined me in Malawi over a long holiday weekend. We spent hours walking around the village, handing out sweets, and taking photos. I had so many amazing photographs from this trip and from others over the years that I felt compelled to print them. So, on one of my subsequent trips, I returned to the community with more than two hundred of my favorite images in hand.

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(Horseback riding on the beach)

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I created sheer chaos and delight as I paraded through the village, handing out photos to all of its recipients. People were thrilled to see images of themselves…in fact, I was paraded from house to house to take more pictures of mothers with their babies. Now I need to print these photos and bring them with me on my next visit.

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(Easter in Swaziland)

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(House on Fire)

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(Rhino)

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(Mkhaya Game Reserve)

Meanwhile, even the drive to/from the lake is gorgeous, with its rolling green (or brown, depending on the season) hills, bustling markets along the side of the road, and images of rural life. And during this time of year, it’s common to see vendors selling mice on a stick, a delicacy in this part of the world.

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(Wild dogs)

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I have yet to muster the nerve to try these little vermin, but will trust my Malawian friends when they say it’s tasty.

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(Security Guard at Safari Beach Lodge)

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(Not quite sure what to make of me)

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(So cute)

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(Lake Malawi)

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(Keep Austin Weird)

And I was fortunate to see a rare sighting of the Gule Wamkulu, or men who are part of a secret cult involving ritual dance among the Chewa’s traditional matrilineal society in Malawi. The Gule Wamkulu wear costumes and masks made of wood and straw, representing a great variety of characters, such as wild animals or spirits of the dead. Traditionally, the Gule Wamkulu would often play an evil character expressing a form of misbehavior, teaching the audience moral and social values.  Sadly, as tourism gains popularity, these performances are gradually losing their cultural significance.

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(World Health Day)

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(Data Disaggregate Inter-Agency Team)

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(Friends in Malawi – walking at Kumbali)

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(Sue and Terence at Lake Malawi)

In between jaunts in Malawi, Swaziland and Namibia, I’ve also managed to get some time away with Darren. We spent a lovely holiday in Vilanculos, a small vibrant coastal town 700 kms from the Mozambique capital.

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(He reminded me of my brother, David, when he was that age – super obnoxious with his slingshot )

We stayed at an amazing boutique hotel, Casa Babi, overlooking the bay of Bazaruto. But what made the experience so special were meeting the owners, Sabrina and Denis, an incredible couple from France who have made this corner of Mozambique their home. Their attention to detail was phenomenal, from its artistic décor to their delectable fusion of French and Mozambican cuisine. Their warmth and hospitality provided a sense of comfort and familiarity that felt like a home away from home…and the fact that they had six gorgeous dogs made me love them even more!

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We spent five glorious days exploring the area, including trips to the nearby Bazaruto Archipelago! The highlight was walking along the secluded beaches of Bazaruto Island, a romantically picturesque paradise island with crystal-clear blue waters, towering sand dunes, dense forests of casuarinas, coconut palms and cashew tress, and world-class snorkeling!

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Even the mainland was divine, with endless miles of white sandy beaches. In many ways, I prefer the hustle and bustle of everyday life on the coast, watching the fisherman arrive from sea with their daily catches, witnessing the throngs of people jostling to get a glimpse of the assortment of fish, crabs, sharks and prawns! And seeing young children splashing about in the water while the older boys play football on the beach. I could just sit and watch scenes unfold for days!

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One afternoon we decided to go horseback riding. Mandy Retzlaff and her husband, Pat, welcomed us on their ranch before saddling the horses for our beach excursion. The ride itself was stunning, but Pat and Mandy’s story is even more spectacular. They’ve written a memoir…and the following is just a snippet that I’ve cut and pasted from Amazon (I’ve literally just ordered the book ‘One Hundred and Four Horses’, so will provide a proper review at a later date…).

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“… in early 2001, their lives were thrown into turmoil when armed members of President Robert Mugabe’s War Veterans’ Association began violently reclaiming farmlands owned by white Zimbabweans. Under the threat of death, they were forced to flee.

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As families across the country abandoned their land, they left behind dozens of horses. Devoted animal lovers, Pat and Mandy—virtually homeless themselves—vowed to save these beautiful animals, risking their lives to bring them to safety…

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(Mice on a stick)

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(Gule Wamkulu)

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One Hundred and Four Horses recounts their unforgettable journey and the remarkable horses they protected. It is a love story and an epic tale of survival and unbreakable bonds—those that hold us to land and family, but also those between man and the most majestic of animals, the horse.”

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Immediately following our trip to Mozambique, Darren and I went to Swaziland for Easter. We ended up driving to Mkhaya Game Reserve, a haven for endangered species, most notably the Black and White Rhino. We didn’t have reservations, but as luck would have it, we showed up at the gate at the magical hour when the owners of the reserve met their guests. They had a last-minute cancellation and managed to squeeze us into their safari vehicle! So off we went…

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(Inside the new Karabo Asara orphan center facility)

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(Another braai and community fund raiser event)

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(Playing with crayons)

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I’m constantly in awe that we live in a place where we can spontaneously decide to go on safari to a world renown reserve within a matter of hours! And Mkhaya did not disappoint.

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On the home front, we are still supporting Karabo Asara Orphan Center. I’m pleased to report that in an effort to receive government support, we’ve moved the center to a new location. Unfortunately, the new facility needs a lot of work, from rewiring the building, to fixing the water pump, to revamping the latrines, to painting the buildings. Our monthly expenses are quite high, averaging $1000/month for bills, food to feed 100 children, and a small stipend for seven caregivers who volunteer and dedicate their lives to the center.

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(The dancers at KA)

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I love doing what I can to help those less fortunate. And selfishly, supporting the orphan center makes me feel as if I’m contributing to society as a whole, which is incredibly rewarding! If you’d also like to donate to this worthy cause, please click on the following.

Click to Donate Now!

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I have many more stories and travels to share, including two trips to Zanzibar, 4th of July celebrations in Malawi, and other outings in and around Pretoria but may need to wait until my next blog update.

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We are heading back to the states in a few days for a huge family reunion in Maine, followed by a short trip to New York, Washington DC, and finally to KC for my 30th high school reunion. Hope to catch up with as many friends and family as possible over the next several weeks.

Much love to all,
Amy