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Monday, May 14, 2012

Liz in Mal(aw)i on Mother's Day

And so it begins again.

More than a year has passed since I left you all somewhere between goats, Haribo candies, and mosquito nets. My life has moved forward and progressed – I graduated from my MPH program, found myself a solid international development job working for one of the biggest USAID contractors in D.C., traveled to Uganda, Mozambique, back to Mali, and now to Malawi, and (let’s not forget) debuted my back-up singing career in the release of Mageez’s first album.

 From the balcony of my hotel in Kampala, Uganda recruiting proposal staff for a program to 
increase nutrition through investment in livelihoods and access to agriculture inputs.

Poolside strategy session in Mozambique, thinking through teaming options for a project to 
increase Portuguese reading capacity among 2nd and 3rd graders.

Oh Mali, how I still love you...despite your sub-Saharn lands
 covered in black plastic "flowers."
Over this same period of time, on the other hand, Mali has significantly digressed – in the past 3 months, extremist Muslim groups have taken over the northern region, tearing apart the gem that is Timbuktu and initiating Sharia law; President Toure has been overthrown by junta soldiers upset with his response to the situation in the north, only giving more power to those northern rebels and throwing the country in further disarray, a country who prior to 2012 had enjoyed peace for over 50 years.

Lush Malawian mango trees
But that’s neither here nor there, as today I am 
writing from sleepy Malawi, a small yet populous country sitting in southern Africa, sandwiched by Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique along the beautiful Lake Malawi.

While the main purpose of my 10-day trip is to provide technical assistance to the multi-million dollar malaria prevention project I’ve been supporting from the home office back in Washington, you may be wondering why am I really here? How did I begin down this path of international development, hopping among what you laymen would call “third world countries,” travelling to neglected corners of the world where there are open sewers, tropical vector-borne diseases, and where Westerners are advised to even brush teeth with bottled water??

Let’s wind the clock back to 2008, when I realized at the approach of summer that I would not have the luxury of a junior-year abroad due to my commitments to competitive college volleyball. Coach would not simply let me ditch our prestigious Green Wave team for 4 months to go “find myself” in Europe or Australia. However, this same coach would not be able to tell me no to a volunteer (could we go so far as to imply, mission?) trip to India. I was excited to receive the go-ahead from Coach, and even more excited to receive a traveling stipend from the Newcomb College of Tulane – but this excitement was quickly drowned away by the tears of my darling mother, Penny McGehee: “Lizzy, I want to help the children.”

My dad will tell you this story differently. He will illustrate, with his fictitious words, an intense father-daughter moment where he tells me, “Princess, do you really think I’d let my only daughter, my ‘Hope Diamond,’ fly to INDIA by herself? Your mom or I are coming with you, and that’s that.”

He will then follow his description of that make-believe moment with another one of Jim McGehee’s infamous one-liners, “She chose her mother!”

Don’t let this story fool you, though, it is not the accurate depiction of what really happened. Sweet Penny had a “calling” and could not ignore this inner pull she felt to follow her daughter to the far-East. Sweet Penny came to me with her big, Lebanese eyes and begged me to allow her to “help the children of India” alongside her precious angel baby.

And there were more tears – when this hodunk Louisiana mother-daughter team were denied access to board their very first flight to their very first developing country because of this little thing called a “visa”? And even more tears – when, while lying under a mosquito net in rural India, trying to take a nap after having handed out food and delivering first aid to homeless Indian street kids, mothers, and young drug-addicted men from 6-11AM, the electricity cut off. Penny’s precious fans stopped working in the middle of the hottest time of the day during the hottest time of the year in the hottest place she had ever been.
Sweat bib alert! 2008
But, in only the way my award-winning real-estate agent, million dollar personality mother can, she started laughing at herself: “Did I really have a CALLING to come do this with you?!” She turned it around, inventing the oh-so-creative game “Sweaty Scrabble” (can you guess the difference between that and the original?), and going out to buy us a cantaloupe to celebrate another blackout – nevermind the fact that the cantaloupe turned out to be a pumpkin.   Around this same time, when she finally started seeing the beauty in her ever-present sweat bib, the beauty in what mystery vegetable could result in the English-Bengali language barrier, and recognizing the beauty in being in this foreign new land with her beautiful daughter, Mom also discovered the beauty in the ever-available 22-Karat gold, legal only in India, baby!!!

It was gold-hunting from that point on. After our early morning first-aid and breakfast shifts, and before we devoted our evenings teaching English to Calcutta’s slum children, Penny would drag me around town like we were following the new gold rush East. We were treating ourselves to gold after treating leprosy patients, wrapping bug-infested train-related injuries, hand-delivering white bread and boiled eggs to hungry, broken families. And our Indian patients and gold salesmen alike loved Penny for the better because of it, “giving back” to the Indian people and economy with her skillset, warm personality, and wad of cash.

Looking back, was the delivery of first aid and handing out food willy-nilly at train stations, followed by purchasing locally-mined precious minerals, a good model for sustainable international development? Is it what catapulted me into this unwieldy professional field? I’ll answer that with a simple: no.

Did I get SUCH a high from answering Penny’s “calling,” working with the children of India in the mornings and hunting for gold in the afternoons alongside the woman who gave me birth, that I’ve been trying to get back to that same high with each additional country that I visit? Absolutely not.

So, what I DID take home from this roller-coaster trip – what is now referred to as the blessed “mother-daughter bonding trip” in the aisles of grocery stores throughout Lafayette, Louisiana – is that wherever you go and whoever you’re with, you can just do you. My mom was her definitive self, across the world on the outskirts of Calcutta, India, fraternizing with anyone she could talk to. Flashing her smile and sweat bib to anyone she came across, playing her favorite game, Scrabble, during monsoon season, and not being ashamed of treating herself to some nice 22K gold after opening her heart to street kids and drug addicts each morning and night. Penny was drinking tea in the back alleys of Sealdah train station and in generator-produced airconditioning of gold parlors the same way she drinks coffee with clients back home, whether they’re buying a $40,000 townhouse or $4M home. And everyone loved her for it.

My mother embodies the mantra that: wherever you go and whoever you’re with, you can just be yourself and do what you love. In Hindu India, Muslim Mali, Christian Malawi, or any new culturally rich, economically poor country I travel through – I can just be myself and do ma thang (public health, for those of you who haven't caught on). In any setting, I know I’m not going to lose who I am, and that’s because of my momma.

In thanks, here is the beginning of a new set of blogs. Because, for whatever reason, Mom seems to like these stupid things as much as she likes that 22K gold!

Happy Mother’s Day to the best Mom gold, or anything else, can buy! 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turkeys and Goats

The great American holiday, Thanksgiving, has arrived. The tight-knit group of American families to which I’ve grown so close have invited me to their annual potluck tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to contributing Mom’s famous hummus and Liz’s famous guacamole. While overseas, I've finally come to terms with the fact that I cannot cook and cannot bake -- I can merely “prepare” easy-to-mush dishes.

Based on my kitchen skill-set, it’s not difficult deciding what I am going to “prepare." It IS difficult, with makeshift French skills, trying describe our feast to Malian friends and coworkers. The direct translation, “Action de Grâces,” does not seem to do “Thankgiving” justice. The abbreviated historical background, “la journée pour célébrer les pèlerins (pilgrims) et les Indiens,” simply will not fly.

Therefore, to transform our holiday into Malian terms, it has become “La Fête de la Dinde,” the “Turkey Festival.” The only explanation needed for such a festival in this beautiful God-loving country is: “mangeant de dinde pour donner nos remerciements à Dieu”/eating turkey to give our thanks to God.

What makes our Turkey Festival even more comprehensible is the fact that it coincides with Mali’s “Fête du Mouton”/Goat Festival, also known as Tabaski. Muslims devote one day in November to sacrifice a goat in honor of God’s mercy, when he gave Abraham a ram at the altar to take the place of his son Ishmael.

Our Thanksgiving bird does not have any such religious significance, although I do wish our history books included an allegory of a turkey being scalped in place of a pilgrim.

My Malian sister, Assi, and I in our festival finest. Gotta get a new bazin for every fête! Call me!

For the Fête du Mouton, the head of household is expected to provide the Almighty goat, which has become the ultimate indicator of male machismo. I have been watching men over the past few weeks gripping horns, tugging beards, grabbing haunches, and even cupping unbelievably saggy testicles, all in an effort to find their perfect goat match. In the days leading up to November 17th, I saw cars with backseats down carting goats, young boys driving motos with goats roped to their laps, bicycles with smaller goats curled into the bike baskets. The day before the festival, I flagged down a taxi and hopped into the backseat. There were kicks and screams coming from the trunk -- a goat hostage along for his “last ride.”

Goat hunting, and some of the finest goat testicles in Mali.

The morning of Tabaski, I woke up at my boss Claudia’s home and accompanied her son Andrew as he walked his family’s meal down the driveway into the hands of their 3 guards. All six hands held the creature down, and when the cut was made at the throat and blood was pouring out, each guard whispered “Bissimila,” meaning “in the name of Allah.”

1) "Dead Goat Walking," 2) Try to find the 3 goat heads being roasted in the fire for the next morning's soup!

While it is the goat that was killed in the name of God that Wednesday morning, Malians do not forget to pay tribute to the Father for each animal life taken. A friend recently shared the story that a large rat had begun frequenting her home. Her guards plotted together and trapped the rodent in a corner, and the instant they killed it, they uttered the same chant, “Bissimila.” Even though it wasn’t “La Fête du Rat” that particular day, they found no shame in frying the thing up and eating it for lunch.

There is something special in the way Malians treat their food here, however grotesque that food may be. Not only because there is always that direct acknowledgement to God for each kill, but because that acknowledgement is part of an understanding in Mali: what you’re eating is your hard-earned nourishment.

Kintu enjoying the cooking process, singing and clapping.

They don’t just go buy frozen, packaged ribs on sale at the grocery; Malians save up their money to hand-pick the finest animal that they can be proud of holding down until its heart stops beating. They don’t go and buy a 5-pound bag of Haribo candy at the nearest corner store; Malians take their time to make each and every dish in their iron pots on their coal fires from fresh, local ingredients. They don’t just fork and spoon gobs of food into their mouths without thinking; Malians ball up their rice and sauce in the palms of their hands for a few seconds before taking a bite -- feeling exactly what they’re eating, conscience of the size of each mouthful.

Tomorrow for Thanksgiving, we’re having our turkeys shipped from the U.S., are cooking our prepackaged ingredients in the oven, and will be eating with a full set of utensils. The Malian food principles may not carry over into our celebration of the Turkey Festival, but there is at least one tradition that both eating festivals respect: eating together.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

French Fries: the Gift from God

On the second day of my father’s big Malian adventure, we decided to wake up early to catch a Malian Catholic mass. My Southern Baptist father, who frequents a church in Lafayette where Jesus-praising, hand-raising music takes up 75% of the service, had heard from a plane ride encounter that the music at these West African churches was not to be missed. We headed to the big cathedral in town about 45 minutes before mass to make sure we'd get a good spot.

Despite the morning's rain, and what we thought was good timing, there was an enormous crowd of people with chairs on their heads waiting to squeeze into the double doors. Unbeknownst to us, this particular Sunday’s service had been aired all over the radio and television as Bamako’s official Cinquantenaire/50th Anniversary mass.

Even with Mali’s 90% Muslim population, you gotta remember Bamako is a densely populated capital. The approximate 10% Christian population still means serious numbers, especially when all of the other services are cancelled for such a special eucharist; 10% of Bamako was all heading to the same church to receive their week’s blessings.

Dad and I, the only tubabous in sight, squeezed into the back door and found ourselves a little breathing room standing behind the second set of double doors. With all of the women with chairs on their heads standing in front of us, there wasn’t much to see. With all of the ushers yelling at all of the women with chairs on their heads, there wasn’t much to hear either. Dad stood in a zen position with his back to the wall for a few minutes, closing his eyes every now and then to try to listen for any kind of prayer or music coming out of the main room. Got to hand it to him, he really did try hard to feel like he was at church, meanwhile I just felt like we were in the back of a big red carpet show crowd trying to peek our heads in to see the hot celeb, a.k.a. the preacher. I suggested we leave.

The streets at this point were flooded, and I tried to navigate us through ankle deep freshwater without getting us too close to the open sewers again. We made it to the town’s main market, and with the money that would've otherwise been used as an offering, we got to shopping for my nephew Mac’s birthday presents. We managed to acquire one fake Polo shirt to go with one pair of jeans stamped with grammatically incorrect English phrases, and then continued on our way.

At this point, hunger pains started to strike. I saw a vendor with a plate of custard apples -- my all-time favorite exotic fruit, not available in the states -- on her head, a much more welcome head hold than a 4-legged chair in the middle of a pushing church crowd. I bought one for me, one for my dad, and a few extra for the road; he surprised me by popping right into the "street food," although I'm sure he was regretting his decision later in his hotel bathroom. We kept walking for a few more minutes, and then dad once again hit his third-world wall when we saw two consecutive 3-wheeled wheel chaired individuals begging for money in the street. We gave them our extra custard apples, but evidently we'd hit our ceiling for new sights and stimulations for one morning.


Back at the hotel for our first meal of the day, Mali once more redeemed itself by offering "frites"/French fries on the menu, even at breakfast time. After a few tastes of that Malian street fruit, Dad needed to get back to his equilibrium with his favorite American vegetable: potatoes. It was at this point that his 2-day travel caught up with him, so I allowed him to take a nap under his mosquito net. A few hours later, he was again ready to take on this developing country and with my boss Claudia's two boys in tow, we headed off to the artisan/handicraft market.

Knees to dash in taxi traffic

The boys, Abraham and Andrew, warned us about the hassling and haggling that was to come. In return for their help and advice, Dad offered to buy them a prize of their choice, thus the beginning of a lasting friendship.

Big Jim, Big Abe, Little Andrew: BFF

At the market, we were immediately hit up by some Rasta necklace sellers, whom we quickly by-passed. Next came the row of wood crafts shops. Dad, being a lover of all things brown (you'd know this if you'd ever been to our house in Lafayette) immediately took to these craftsmen. To my surprise, he welcomed their chants to enter this store and that, to look at a hippopotamus which looked exactly like the last one. He even lit up at a good bargaining session, of course with me or one of the boys translating. We made some choice purchases, and moved along to the mask section, then to the jewelry, and then...

Checking out the brown crafts, meanwhile Dad finds himself another wide-hipped honey (sorry, Mom!)

The drummer man. He started following us around banging a shoulder djembe, and offered to sell it for a ridiculously high price. He then began dropping down the price like the stock market, and brought out desperation tactics, all while banging his off beats on the drum. Jim McGehee started walking faster, and faster, started wiping his forehead from all the sweat, and then hit that wall once more...


At this point, I'd learned that there was only one way to get my dad back into his groove in Mali: French fries. We had to get back to the hotel, and fast.

When we arrived, the two boys proudly placed their two new elephant statues on the dinner table and ordered themselves two Cokes. We McGehees put a rush order on the fries, and in the meantime sipped a few local Castel beers. The food could not arrive fast enough, but even though he had not been to church that morning, Dad still made sure to take a hungry minute to say his pre-meal Southern Baptist prayer. He made sure to pay tribute to that higher power for bringing his new best friends, Abraham and Andrew, into his life.

I had one of my own prayers that evening: thank you JESUS for French fries!

End: Act Mali, Scene II.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Blackness


My dad has recently become the proud grandfather to his second grandchild, Bach Franklin McGehee (congrats Bo and Jess!). He was feeling pretty lucky last week: two healthy, beautiful grandchildren living so close to him. He felt so lucky, in fact, that he planned a quick trip to Vegas.

Dad’s on top of the world right now, living the American dream. To bring him back down to Earth, though, I’ve got to rag on him a little. I'd stopped blogging to focus on my Public Health Analysis for school, but I've decided to bring it back to remind my Dad that he recently broke away from his American dream and lived through 10 days of his African nightmare (OK, not really a nightmare...maybe more like one of those creepy lucid nap-dreams we all have):


“There’s so much...blackness here.” These words were James A. McGehee, Jr.’s first reflections upon entering Bamako, Mali. He was looking out of the window during the car ride to the hotel when he let this one slip. It was the perfect reaction from Mr. Mashed Potatoes and Gravy himself, fresh off of the airplane, taking in West Africa. I wasn’t exactly sure if he was commenting on the lack of street lights around the city, making it complete darkness at this hour of 10PM, or if he was commenting on the general tint of the population. Either way, I just left the statement in the blackness, and couldn’t wait to see how Big Jim would fare in his first role as a minority.

Once we’d gotten settled into the hotel, after whipping out that unforgettable new quote, I asked my dad if, after two days of traveling, he could handle going out to hear some music. At that point he pulled out one of his old quotes, an ancient Jimism: “This ain’t no dress rehearsal.”

Ever since he’d hit the ripe age of 50, my dad’s been using this quote like white wine to get my mom out to the hundreds of activities he has impossible amounts of energy to do: movies, concerts, UL football games, and those last minute exhausting trips to Las Vegas (OK, my mom doesn’t need THAT much convincing to go to Vegas). He uses it to convince friends and acquaintances to take those intimidating investment risks in business or race horses. He uses it as his reasoning for designing something like an underground movie theater in his Louisiana backyard. Now he was rightfully using it to let his daughter know he could handle a little more Mali before going to sleep that night.

I took him to Savannah, an expatriot favorite where we could listen to some local music and I could ease father into his new surroundings, by being surrounded by at least a few more white folk. While I tried to minimize his ethnic minority, I forgot about his debilitating anglophone/English-speaking minority. But even after 2 days on a cramped airplane, Big Jim was taking it all in stride, saying “merci” any chance he could (even though it did sound like more of a George W. Bush “mercy”). Plus, I was able to perk him up when I explained that “frites,” the French word for French fries, were available on the menu.

Unfortunately, due to the rain -- the all-encompassing excuse for everything that goes wrong in Mali -- there was no live music. In an effort to keep the night a positive experience, after dinner Dad suggested we take a short walk around the area so as not to waste our 20 minute taxi ride over to this side of town. A few paces later, though, he was regretting his decision; we had run into one too many open sewers. There was no escaping their omnipresence. I, myself, tried to use the rain excuse, “you only notice them after the rain!” but he had to get away from the black, gruesome canals closing in on him.


Dad was right, life certainly wasn’t a dress rehearsal. At that moment, though, I'd wished there could have been some kind of rehearsing to prepare my dad for the sights -- and smells -- he was to encounter here in Africa.

In Jim McGehee’s big performance of life, end Act: Mali, Scene I.

What's under that mosquito net, and hanging off of that miniature hotel bed? Could it be?

It's true, ladies and gentleman: herein captured is Jim McGehee sleeping under a mosquito net.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Monstrous Moustiquaire

Wednesday morning, I got the call to complete an emergency mission for the “Voices for a Malaria Free Future” project. They needed someone to document the creation of a mosquito-net. Not just any mosquito net; a mosquito net big enough to cover the lobby of the UN building in New York City.

With my new, shiny blue camera, I was chosen to take pictures and videos of this monster “moustiquaire,” and show the chaos involved in shipping this mass of fabric to the states.

A slew of African heads of state are heading to NYC for an ALMA meeting, “African Leaders' Malaria Alliance” ( and in the American spirit -- where bigger means better -- the Big Apple hosts thought it would be a great plug for malaria awareness to have this gigantic net greet their guests. They wanted it shipped “at whatever cost” by Monday evening, to have it in place for the conference kickoff on Tuesday.

Thankfully, our “United Against Malaria” campaign was getting such a mosquito net made for one of Mali’s most notable monuments, “le Tour d’Afrique.” Sitting at five stories tall in the middle of the capital city, when covered with “un moustiquaire” the Tour d'Afrique will give the United Against Malaria campaign some serious visibility, and ideally influence Malians to get their own net, albeit smaller, to sleep under.

The official draping of the notable statue will occur in a few months, and in the meantime there’s another structure everyone’s talking about. To celebrate Mali's "Cinquantenaire"/50th anniversary on September 22, Monsieur le Président Touré purchased a 5 million dollar monument of a girl and a boy to be placed on the Niger river.

A $5 mil. project like this would be considered nothing in a high-income country. In the developing country of Mali, however, $5 mil. ain't chump change. Such a huge percentage of Mali's purse could be used in so many more productive ways -- strengthening the health system, education system, infrastructure.

You could come back with the counter-argument that: oh well, at least the money’s going back into the Mali economy, which could then trickle down to these other sectors.

But no, M. Touré did not have the monument locally constructed. He bought it from China.

Instead of making a fuss about the already decided, ludicrous purchase of a statue that will contribute nothing to decreasing poverty, hunger, or disease in Mali, we at “Voices for a Malaria-Free Future” are just going to put a giant net over the much bigger, and more respected, monument. We’re sending a message to the Malians that even though their president made the decision to put the country's money into a chunk of Chinese handiwork with his name on it, we can make the decision to aim the country's attention away from it. We’ll be combating the president’s example of using Malian funds for self-commemoration with a better message to lead by example. If the Tour d’Afrique is going to sleep under a mosquito net, so can you!

It is this same Tour d’Afrique’s mosquito net that our project so kindly decided to loan to the United States, and whose production I was assigned to document.

On my way to the tailor’s, I started imagining the room where the monstrous moustiquaire was being assembled. The twenty, thirty people working together under high ceilings, trying to keep in order what could be the design for King-Kong’s insecticide-treated bednet.

I was led through the “Grand Marché,” Bamako’s famous market, up a narrow staircase, and into a poorly lit room with a twin bed-sized pile of white netting on the ground. Sitting in the room, next to the sole dangling lightbulb, was a young man with a sewing machine: the tailor. The only tailor that had worked on this already-sewn, ready-to-go mosquito net.

It was an impressive feat for one person to squint through, and both he and the project were thrilled at the agreed-upon price of $300. I got a great video interview of his excitement in sending his work to the United States, all taken while he was lounging on top of the giant mass of netted cloth.

Monsieur le Tailleur

He walked me through the production process, starting from measuring the light fabric using his arm’s length. He mimed cutting with his rusted scissors. He showed me how to start up his lone, antique sewing machine.

Mass heap of mosquito net in the background

We wrapped up our interview when two of his buddies walked in to wrap up the net for shipping to NYC. They used a much larger needle to thread together four pieces of tarp that would ensure that the delicate netting did not get ripped. The tarp would allow something like rolling the net down the stairs to take place without worries.

All packed up and ready to fly

So that’s what they did. After stuffing the net into this homemade tarp contraption, they let her rip down the outdoor staircase. Eyes on my digital camera, I almost got blasted with the falling heap, and instead let it knock down a moto to my right.


They jacked the tarped mass onto a cart, rolled it through the Grand Marché, and stopped traffic at each intersection for this all-important mosquito net that would travel over an ocean to an internationally-recognized building in NYC, and back again to top Mali’s most acclaimed monument.

When finally in the car, I looked through my video footage. This life-saving material looked so cheap, like tutu netting you could get at Marshall’s for ten cents a yard. Why wouldn’t those guys in New York just use such arts and crafts netting and get a local a tailor to make their show prop? Our shipping company told us it would take this $300 net a jaw-dropping $5,400 to ship there, and another $5,400 to ship back. The investment seemed almost as ludicrous as Monsieur Touré’s.

The car ride back to our "Voices" offices was tight and uncomfortable, all of the seats folded to make room for the net of honor. When we arrived, we all ran up the stairs to get everyone down to the car to see probably the biggest mosquito net ever made.

We walked in and were met by somber faces. Those flippant New Yorkers decided not to get the net shipped after all. Apparently, "at any cost" had a ceiling.

While this may disappoint our lone tailor, it was a wise decision not to burn over $10,000 that could be used to buy moustiquaires for 2,000 households, saving much more than 2,000 lives.

Now if only we could get Touré to retract his $5 million being exported to China. Who knows how many lives that could save -- something much more worthwhile to commemorate his presidency, and Mali's 50th anniversary.

About Me

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These blogs are written on personal accounts and opinions of my near and far away adventures, so far. They do not in any way reflect the thoughts and opinions of the organizations with which I work.

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