Sunday, April 29, 2012

Peanut Butter Profession

I love peanut butter.  It has been a staple in my diet since junior high.  High school friends fondly remember me taking peanut butter on road trips and roommates attest to me carrying peanut butter to our college cafeteria for evening meals.   To this day my food choices are largely based on whether it pairs well with peanut butter.

When I was in college I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and Eastern Europe and saw how food availability directly effected children's growth and performance in school.  After college I decided to pursue international nutrition and headed to Colorado State University for a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition.  While there, a friend told me about plumpy'nut, a fortified peanut butter paste proven  effective in treating children with severe acute malnutrition.  As a peanut butter lover concerned for the plight of malnourished children I was intrigued and excited by plumpy'nut.  I started telling everyone that my life goal was to solve world hunger with peanut butter.  In 2009, Cooper Anderson did a interview about plumpy'nut in Niger and can be found on the following link: Plumpy'nut in Niger

A mother receives plumpy'nut in Gambia for her malnourished child.  Plumpy'nut comes in a packet that can easily be stored with out refrigeration or reconstitution.

I went to Cameroon as a Peace Volunteer thinking I would work with malnourished children, maybe provide them with a plumpy'nut.  Instead, I provided nutrition education for people with obesity and type II diabetes.  After Peace Corps, I went to Loma Linda University for doctoral degree in public health nutrition.  As one of the leading universities studying nuts and vegetarian diets, I thought I would research plumpy'nut for my doctoral degree.  Instead, I researched effective ways of providing breastfeeding education in Cameroon.  After I graduated from Loma Linda I thought I would take a job in academia teaching and doing research in Cameroon.  Instead, I accepted a job in Niger with Samaritan's Purse as Health and Nutrition Program Manager with my foremost responsibility to oversee the distribution of plumpy'nut.

Niger is considered to be part of West Africa.  Geographically, 80% of the country is in the Sahara Desert with the the remaining 20% in the Sahel (desert-savannah).  Due to the topography and climate in Niger, there is ongoing concern of malnutrition and food security. In 2006 The United Nations ranked Niger as the world's poorest country in the world and consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world.   

Mother and child in Niger

In the last 30 years, Niger has endured six severe food crises, four of which occurred in the last eight years.    A few weeks ago the United Nation and the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that more then 5 million people in Niger don't have enough food.  The "hungry season" came early this year  because of sparse rains and a poor harvest.  In addition, there has been an influx of 200,000 refugees from Libya and 25,000 people who have fled Mali because of political instability.  Furthermore, many who travel to Northern Nigeria for work have been unable to do so because of Nigeria's current  unstable religious climate.  

As I reflect on all that has happened in the last two years and ponder what will happen in the next two years, I'm filled with joy, uncertainty, fear, gratitude, concern, and awe.  This isn't exactly how I thought my life would go.  A year and half ago when I was preparing to go back to Cameroon for my research, I told myself that this would be the LAST time that I would move back to Africa for a lengthy period of time.  However, when I came back to America last February, I quickly realized the I'm not ready to live in America for a lengthy period of time.  There is still so much more I want to learn and experience, particularly related to child malnutrition.  The statistics in Niger are overwhelming and intimidating.  The task seems huge and relentless.  Its so different from Cameroon, a country I have become quite familiar with these last four years. I wonder if I will have the opportunities to develop the same connections with the people.  But  I'm going forth, excited to have the opportunity to finally work with plumpy'nut and child malnutrition and trusting once more that God will provide for body and soul in the foreign land.  
Vocation at the deepest level is this, "This is something I can not do, for reasons I am unable to explain to anyone else and don't fully understand myself, but that are nonetheless compelling.

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lessons from Statistics

For the past few weeks I've been statistically analyzing participants' answers to the pre and post test to evaluate if the audio program resulted in changes in knowledge, beliefs, benefits, barriers, and intention to exclusively breastfeed.  One of my options in analyzing the data was to collapse all of the participants answers into dichotomous data (yes, no answers).  Initially this seemed like a simple, straightforward way to determine if the intervention worked--either participants improved their knowledge as a result of listening to the program or they didn't.  Thinking about analyzing the data this way made me think about how often in life I like to look at things as yes or no, black or white, living in America or living in Cameroon.  It seems neater to divide life into two distinct categories, but as Oriah says in her book The Dance, "Neatness is really only preferable in bathrooms and in written reports" (or in my case, a dissertation).

Life isn't neat and black or white. Its lived in the midst of changes and gradients.  So instead of analyzing the data as yes or no, I sought to analyze how participants changed within a gradient.  Some drastically improved, some stayed the same, some actually decreased and overall the audio program was effective in improving knowledge and benefits, but not beliefs, barriers, or intention to exclusively breastfeed.  As I've been analyzing changes amongst the participants, I've been thinking about change in general.  Not just how to best analyze it, but the rate at which it can happen.  Today is Palm Sunday, the day in which Jesus comes triumphantly riding on a donkey amongst people shouting "Hosanna!"  Yet, a few days later, things have drastically changed as Jesus is spit upon and mocked.  Change in life is inevitable (and I think really analyzing the change is inevitable also), but I believe it also brings new insight and significance.  I know that going through the statistical analysis brought new insight to me and hopefully the changes in the participants were not just statistically signficant, but life significant.