A Busy Spring

The weeks since COS Conference have been quite busy, hence the lack of blog posts.

I’ve been working hard to finish up my project for my Master’s International program, which has seen pretty much all the delays since I started the community needs assessment back in February of 2015. But my coworkers and I finally managed to conduct two first aid/CPR trainings for secondary school students in Shine Khoroo, a somewhat removed district of Uliastai where most of the families are herders and the older siblings are left in charge of the younger siblings during the school year. And since unintentional injuries like burns are a huge issue among children here, we thought some basic first aid training was important for students who often care for their little brothers and sisters (and it’s never a bad skill to have regardless).

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The project also focuses on accident prevention, so we designed a survey on household accidents for the parents of kindergarten students (2-5 year olds) to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding childhood accidents, prevention, and first aid. The goal was to have about 350 parents complete the survey, but with all the delays, we ended up not being able to get the surveys printed and to the kindergartens until the last week of school. So we ran out of time and were only about to get 165 surveys completed, but it’s better than nothing. Now I get to analyze the results of all those surveys and use them to inform the preliminary design of future educational activities for parents (which will obviously take place after I’m gone). Then it’s just a matter of finishing up my practicum report and I’m all set to graduate with my master’s degree in August!

Another project I’d been working on was a pilot run of Happy Center, an educational and social integration program for youth with disabilities. The first Happy Center was started in Govi-Altai aimag a couple years ago, and the PCVs who developed that program published a manual detailing how to start the program in other aimags. Our M26 PCV wanted to start it in Uliastai, so she worked with our local Children’s Center to get everything organized. Each session consisted of a reading or math lesson, a life skills lesson, and “friendship time” for playing games together with students without disabilities. We ended up having sessions twice a week for 7 weeks, and it went well enough that the program will probably be continued next school year.

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during Friendship time

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during “friendship time”

 

This year, Peace Corps/Mongolia is celebrating its 25th anniversary! Most of the anniversary events will happen in August after our cohort has already left, but in May PC sponsored a tree-planting event. PC funded the purchase of 25 saplings for each aimag, which we (at least in Zavkhan) planted in conjunction with Mongolia’s national tree-planting day.

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But because spring in Mongolia is capricious to say the least, it managed to snow 3 times within a week or so of the tree planting. Luckily the baby trees survived and are now budding and thriving in the warmer, more agreeable weather.

 

June 1 was Children’s Day in Mongolia. My coworkers brought their children to the health department, where the kids had food and drinks and performed songs and dances.

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This adorable little chunk is my coworker's daughter AND my birthday buddy!

This adorable little chunk is my coworker’s daughter AND my birthday buddy!

After that, I met a couple of my sitemates at the local stadium, where the city-wide festivities were taking place. We wandered around for a bit and said hi to some people we know before grabbing food and calling it a day.

 

That weekend, I got to go on a short trip to UB on Peace Corps’ invitation to meet Secretary of State John Kerry, who just happened to be dropping by Mongolia on his way to China for diplomatic talks. The US embassy wanted to briefly showcase Peace Corps/Mongolia for its 25th anniversary during the event, so PC invited a group of current PCVs and former PCVs still living in Mongolia to come to the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the other PCVs who were invited either live in UB or were already in UB for an event at the M27s’ orientation (yep, our newest group of Trainees just arrived!), so why the hell was I there?

Well, the weekend before that, a US congressional delegation visited UB and PC invited the handful of Volunteers who are from the districts represented by those congressmen to come as well. I was one of those PCVs, but Peace Corps ended up having to retract my invitation. The meeting was scheduled for that Saturday morning, but because of Uliastai’s infrequent flight schedule, PC would have had to flown me in the Tuesday before and flown me back the next Tuesday, and they couldn’t justify bringing me in to UB for a whole week on a account of a 2-hour meeting. So they never explicitly said it, but I’m assuming they invited me to the John Kerry thing to make up for having to miss out on the congressional delegation (which I must say, was a favorable trade).

Anyway, we had to arrive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in the morning and wait for Secretary Kerry and the Mongolian Foreign Minister to arrive. They went away for some private discussions, then came back for a press conference, which we got to attend (but PC was pretty adamant about not having us all whip out our cameras and phones to snap a bunch of photos, but there were plenty enough photographers from news stations and the embassy anyway).

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He even mentioned us (Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers) in his comments, the transcript of which can be found here.

After the press conference, Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister came into the next room to shake all our hands, make a few remarks, and take a group photo:

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Photo With a Group of Former and Current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar 1

Then like that, he was gone. He was only in Mongolia for 6 hours, and he had to get on to other things like lunch with the Mongolian president and some cultural events. But I got to meet a famous person and shake his hand, and got a free trip to UB out of it! I would call that a worthwhile weekend!

Mid-May Update

The past few weeks have been very busy. I’ve been working a lot on our children’s emergency center project, mainly writing the proposal and looking into potential funding sources. I’ve applied for grants from a few large American foundations (Coca Cola Foundation, Gates Foundation, etc.) but I’m not very optimistic about those as I’m sure they get tons and tons of grant applications from around the world all the time. But there are quite a few Mongolian companies that (at least according to their websites) do the whole “social responsibility/community giving” thing where they support local projects, so at this point approaching those companies is probably our best bet. Unfortunately, my supervisor—the only other person who knows as much about the project as myself—will still be in UB for a couple more weeks, and I need her to, y’know, be Mongolian in order to talk to representatives from the companies.

In other news, despite my announcement in my last post about spring having finally arrived, it totally snowed last Friday. And not just flurries either:

May in Mongolia

May in Mongolia

It had been rainy all day, which was good since we hadn’t had any precipitation in over a month, but then the rain turned to snow and the wind started blowing like crazy. And it kept up for several hours, but once it finally stopped snowing, the accumulated snow melted fairly quickly. The ground is no longer frozen like it was in winter, and during the day the temperature has been well above freezing, so by the next day it was almost all melted.

Last Saturday was fun as our Bookbridge center hosted an English song competition for students from the older grades at each school. We—the American PCVs—were the judges of the students’ ability to pronounce the English lyrics clearly and their overall singing quality.

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Students sang songs by Adele, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, and tons of other artists.

This kid even danced along to his JT song

This student even danced along to his JBiebs song

The competition was sponsored by a local insurance company, so the winners received small cash prizes along with their certificates.

Later that same day, the Zavkhan PCVs got together to celebrate Virginia’s birthday and to welcome Karen, who was an M23 Volunteer in Uliastai (so she left right before I came to site) and had come back for a two-week visit. We made yummy quesadillas:

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Strawberry margaritas (with some tweaks to account for availability of ingredients, though tequila is sold in one supermarket in town, and split amongst several of us, it wasn’t too expensive):

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And a pumpkin cheesecake (from cream cheese Karen had brought from UB), which we turned into Virginia’s birthday cake:

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Then we spent the evening chatting and playing Cards Against Humanity:

And eating pretzels, and drinking wine…

And eating pretzels, and drinking wine…

The main reason for Karen’s visit was that this was supposed to be the time when a group of dentists from an American NGO was going to come hold a dental clinic for students in Uliastai. Last May, Karen had organized for these dentists to come give dental health education and dental treatment to students who had lots of cavities (based on dental assessments that Karen had done on almost all the 6-8 year olds in Uliastai). But apparently they didn’t really check (or weren’t really told, depending on who you ask) about the Mongolian government’s requirements for bringing in medicines and practicing dentistry in country before they came, because when they arrived in UB, customs seized their boxes of medicines (as they hadn’t gotten medicine licenses from the Ministry of Health to bring them into the country) and they were told that they couldn’t practice dentistry because they hadn’t gotten dental licenses from the government ahead of time. But since they had come all this way, they ended up purchasing the medicines that they needed from a dentist in UB and went to Uliastai to do the dental clinic anyway (and technically illegally).

So that was a huge ordeal last year, but the dentists planned to come again this spring and to actually do it legally by getting all the licenses that the Mongolian government wanted. So since last September, Virginia and I had been working with the health specialist at the Social Development Department of the Zavkhan Governor’s Office, serving as local liaisons between the Mongolian government in UB and the president of this dental NGO. And let me tell you: it was an absolute pain in the ass.

First of all, the woman who is the president of the non-profit is a psychopath. My main job was to help the health specialist translate the emails she received from this woman and to write the reply emails. I have never seen such abhorrent messages from the head of an organization. We were in constant contact with the Ministry of Health and other government agencies in UB (again, we were trying to do this all legally this time around), and every time we let the president know of some information that the Mongolian government needed from the dentists (even something as simple as the expiration dates of the medicines they planned to bring), she would reply with an email full of “we are donating our time, money and talent and we should not have to jump through ridiculous hassles” and “obviously you do not want us to treat your children” and tons of other passive-aggressive or just straight-up aggressive comments.

To be fair, the difficulty of dealing with the bureaucracy that makes up much of the Mongolian government is certainly acknowledged here, and there were some requirements that seemed excessive, but this lady was just so unprofessional in all of her correspondences. I’m sure she’s a wonderful dentist, and I’m sure the non-profit does great work in the other countries they work in (which is why I’m not plastering their name all over this post), but some people just do not have the right personality or tact to be the face of an organization.

Anyway, about a month ago the NGO decided to cancel their trip to Mongolia. The reason(s), again, depend on who you ask, but suffice to say that it was a combination of Mongolian bureaucracy and this non-profit president taking it as a personal affront that the government would dare ask the dentists to provide proof of their credentials (because, you know, Mongolia is a developing country, so they should just be grateful that anyone would want to come provide dental care; after all, only first world countries like the US are allowed to have requirements and restrictions on foreigners coming into the country or what kinds of drugs they bring and administer to the nationals *end sarcasm*).

So even though the dentists weren’t coming, Karen came to do the dental assessments on the local children and to visit all her friends she hadn’t seen in almost a year. And since I’m the resident Health PCV, I’ve spent the past several days working with Karen on the dental assessments. We visited each school and checked the teeth of every 1st-3rd grade student.

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Karen’s method was to divide the mouth into quadrants (bottom left, bottom right, top left, top right). If a student had at least one cavity in each of the four quadrants, they were given a score of 4. If they had at least one cavity in three quadrants, a score of 3, etc.

For example, you can see 2 large cavities in both of the bottom quadrants in this kid

For example, you can see 2 large cavities in both of the bottom quadrants in this kid

Students were also automatically given a score of at least 3 if they had a large cavity in a tooth next to a permanent molar that had come in, as the decay would likely spread to that permanent tooth. In the rare cases where a student didn’t have any cavities, they were given a score of 0.

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We had Mongolian assistants at each school record in Karen’s computer the students’ name, age, score, and whether they had seen a dentist in the past year (so that we could compare results from Karen’s dental assessments last year and for future assessments).

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We also taught each school’s doctor/nurse how to do the assessment so that they can continue monitoring the students’ dental health after we are gone.

Because as every good PCV knows, sustainability is key

Because as every good PCV knows, sustainability is key

And to the surprise of absolutely no one, the vast majority of the students received scores of 3 or 4. Many of them had more than one cavity in each quadrant, and their teeth were so rotted away I don’t know how they can even chew food without being in unbearable pain. I know most kids throughout the world get plenty of cavities, but here in Mongolia there is very little awareness of the importance of dental health. Part of the reason is that just a generation or two ago, your average Mongolian didn’t have access to the tons of candy, soft drinks, and other imported sugar-filled foods that the kids today enjoy. The traditional Mongolian diet consists of meat and dairy products (food not as conducive to developing cavities), so even without access to dental services or even toothpaste, these kids’ parents and grandparents didn’t grow up having to worry about a mouth full of cavities. (This is also why kids who live out in the countryside tend to have much better teeth than those in cities or towns: they don’t have access to–or their families can’t afford–all the sugary imported food and drink, so they just eat meat, dairy, and root vegetables.)

So now these adults don’t know how to take care of their children’s teeth to account for all the sugary food they eat. Some parents don’t even see it as a problem, thinking that cavities in baby teeth aren’t an issue because the teeth will eventually fall out on their own anyway. They don’t realize that cavities in baby teeth can spread to adjacent permanent teeth, or that if the children don’t develop healthy dental habits now, they’re much less likely to take care of their teeth later when they are all permanent teeth.

So even though the dentists aren’t coming to Uliastai this year, next week Karen plans to hold seminars at the schools for the students (and their parents) who received bad scores on the dental assessment, telling the parents the importance of taking care of their children’s teeth and demonstrating how to properly brush their teeth. I would be helping out with that, but for the next two weeks I will be back in Darkhan for the first time in almost 10 months for Training of Trainers. But more on that in the next post!

Spring Has Sprung!

After roughly 7 months of winter, it looks like spring has finally arrived here in Uliastai! And by “arrived,” I mean one week it was still frigid with sub-zero temperatures during the night, and the next I could comfortably walk around town with jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Now I only have to make a small fire in my stove in the morning to get the chill out from the night before and maybe a small fire late in the evening depending on how long I plan to stay up. I somehow still have over half of my firewood left, probably because it was a relatively “mild” winter by Mongolian standards. The sun doesn’t set until almost 10pm, so even accounting for daylight saving time, that’s an extra 3-4 hours of light during the evening. But unfortunately, the warmer weather means my ger spiders have come back. Stupid spiders.

Most of the snow on the surrounding mountains has melted…

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…and some parts of the rivers have completely thawed as well.

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

The weather was even nice enough yesterday for us to go on our first hike of spring!

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Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

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Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

It was a nice little excursion, but I didn’t even think about how my ghost-white skin would react to seeing the sun for the first time in over half a year. I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck, but completely forgot about my arms. So now they’re sunburned. 😦