Day 30 – June 12

Today I got to go to a “Town Hall Meeting.” I figured this was a community meeting when my boss first invited me, but quickly found out that  it was a WHO meeting, as in all of WHO. The regional offices are brought on via video conference along with a few country offices (those that have been invited) – it was an incredible thing to witness! The picture to the right is the screen we were all watching of HQ. I wanted to, but didn’t dare take a picture while people were talking. The Director General spoke to everyone and I’ve decided I REALLY like the woman! I found her to be honest, direct, humble, down-to-earth, and just really amazing. She summarized the World Health Assembly and said that 21 resolutions and 3 positions were made. She told us about our priorities for the next year – non-communicable diseases, polio eradication, social determinants of health/gender equity, infant and child nutrition, and the global vaccination plan. She gave us her schedule for the next few months in regards to travel and meetings. She emphasized that since the world is going through a financial crisis, everyone should be extra careful for money and that WHO needs to show the improvements that are being made with current funds before she will feel comfortable asking member countries for more. Then she emphasized her point with an example. This is probably not a verbatim quote, but I tried – “There are lots of women here. Women, we understand this issue. I don’t know about each of you, but I have to get a budget envelope from my spouse. It is always the question of what you will get for your household? What are the priorities? WHO needs to do the same.” As I said, I found her down-to-earth, honest, and humble. Here is this woman who is essentially royalty in the world of public health and health in general and she is speaking to us as though we are all equals and is giving analogies about how she has to ask for a budget envelope from her husband in order to purchase things for the household. I was impressed! Towards, the end of the meeting, she challenged all the members of WHO to innovate as they need to appeal to younger generations with both the work they are producing and for eventual positions at WHO. She said, “There are lots of interns here now and let me tell you something, they can beat you! They know Facebook, they have ideas, use them.” My boss, Phanuel, was sitting next to me and he put his hand on my back and said, “That’s you! We are so happy to have you here!” It continues to amaze me. In a couple of past positions, I was not completely included in things either do to people seeing me as below them, but more recently because I am considered a threat to their job soon, competition. Even though the Director General just said that we should be considered competition, my boss is still fully embracing me. I am clearly not a threat to his position ever, but he is using me, he asks for my ideas, want to know how I would change things, etc. It is a great feeling to know that you are valued in your work and that they want your thoughts as part of the team. The Director General also talked about how Africa and specifically the women in Africa will be the main focus and will receive the majority of the funds for the next while. How exciting to be in the office that is considered to be doing some of the most important work.

After the meeting, I went to lunch and was able to meet up with one of the women that I work with who is from Kenya, a new woman who has just arrived for a short time from Tanzania, and a woman that works in another area at WHO, but who is also from Tanzania. It was just the four of us women and we were seated a couple of tables away from anyone else. Towards the middle of our lunch, they began discussing a men – a fascinating topic when only women are present haha and they asked me my observations…. so I gave them. I mentioned how I had noticed that many women in Africa wore wedding rings, but almost no men did. I also mentioned how the men would tell me they had children, but would never tell me they had a wife and would seem to avoid that topic. They also would frequently ask me if I had children, but I have never been asked about my husband (since I am wearing a wedding band here). These three women thought these observations were hilarious and so accurate. Then they proceeded to tell me that it was because the men are interested in me and there is a tendency in African culture for the men to not take fidelity as seriously.

 They then proceeded to tell me numerous stories. One of which was that there was a married couple and each of them had a lover. When the husband went on an extended business trip, the wife would move her lover in. One time, the wife also had to travel somewhere for a couple of weeks, so her lover moved his girlfriend into this woman’s home. She returned early from her trip, so he hid his girlfriend in one of the rooms. Shortly after, the husband returned from his trip, so the wife hid her lover in another room. When the wife went out to run errands, the husband brought his lover over to the house and when he proceeded to go into the bedroom with her, he found his wife’s lover’s girlfriend. He obviously quickly figured out what was going on, but even more ridiculous than that, he knew the woman because he had had an affair with her in the past. The wife returned home and things blew up.

These women said that it is fairly common for men to have children with different women, even though they are only married to one of them. They also said that the men will often use the excuse that they are not meant to be committed since it is not in men’s nature and that therefore women should not expect it. The hardest thing about this conversation was that all three women have just accepted it, even though they clearly hate it, and one of the women said if she caught her husband in the actual act, that she would know where to put the boiling water. However, they have come to just accept that men are that way, so they can’t hope or expect anything else. They then proceeded to ask me if I knew if my husband was having any affairs. I explained that I was engaged, but that no, he wasn’t. They kind of half smiled and chuckled and said, “either that you know about, or that haven’t happened yet, eventually it will happen.” First of all, I know it never will, but I think it’s sad that these women do not believe that some men would behave differently.

The interesting thing about these women is that they are a rare group in this society – they are educated, they have careers, they make their own money and quite a bit of it, and they have the freedom to divorce their husbands if need be, as a result of having these things. Most of the female population here has no power, no education, no job, let alone career, no money, and they must rely completely on whatever money their husband gives or does not give them. They are not afforded an opinion about things. Here in the Congo, 70% of the women believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she burns dinner, runs an errand without asking him, etc. I guess what I am trying to say is that these women I was speaking with have more freedom and say in their relationships than most of the population. They are capable of putting their foot down if need be, having an opinion, or threatening to divorce. Most women here do not have that luxury, so I was surprised to see these women just accept things as they are when it comes to fidelity. At the end, they asked whether things were the same in the US and how I would handle these issues with my husband. I thought about trying to dodge the question out of cultural considerations and not wanting to debate, but I decided to be honest and told them I would not stand for it. That’s the very short version anyway…

I am making great progress on work and met with Phanuel today to go over the outline (I’m hoping the final product is less than 100 pages, but we’ll see) and he made introductions/ put me in touch with several people including those in other departments. I met people who are over nutrition, smoking, alcohol, mental health, reproductive health, and unintentional injuries/violence.

Dr. G tried to call today and supposedly could hear me fine, but I couldn’t hear a word he was saying! I tried and tried, but nothing. I’m going to try and figure it out tomorrow.

The ride home from work was crazy! The WHO bus is meant to fit 16 passengers besides the driver, but there is one little fold-down chair in each row that can be brought down in the aisle. By the way, it then completely acts as a bench all the way across the bus since that one little chair blocks the small aisle. If these chairs are brought down, then you can seat 19 people… well, in African fashion today, we fit 34! I was smack in the middle of all the people in the second to last row and right over the wheels – it was bumpy and crowded. I generally have issues with personal space so I was quite concerned about getting claustrophobic, but I survived 🙂 and it didn’t even seem to bother me at all, besides being a little uncomfortable because I was sitting on an angle (half on the fold down chair and half on the bench that is about 4 inches higher).

When we got home from work, Jenny and I walked over to the track and it was wonderful! We got to chat on the way over and back, but got to go at our own pace while we were there. I am still needing to take things easy, so I put my iPod in and walked while Jenny ran. Then we came back for dinner and have been sitting at the table since playing music and working on our “projects” for the evenings. She’s cleaning out her music so she can take some of mine and I’m working on writing this. I really like Jenny and I’m so grateful for her since she is making the time here so much better than I’m sure it would otherwise be.

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