Birthday Bash in Gbendembu

In this edition of Ukweli adventures, one of our very own fierce warriors – the longest trooper at Lehigh to have stayed on the project – turned a whopping 22 years old today. Indeed, it was a birthday to remember. Cassidy Drost, 5’8″ hailing from sunny San Diego and master of any and all card games, celebrated today in Makeni surrounded by all her Global Social Impact Fellows. Not only did she get to ride shotgun all day, but she was doused with a birthday card, an avocado fresh from the market, ice cream at dinner and several exciting birthday gifts awaiting her back at Lehigh. Cassidy is officially the oldest GSIF and we were all so happy to celebrate her day together in Sierra Leone.

And the fun continued all day. Instead of doing office work all day, we took a ride first thing in the morning to the Gbendembu clinic. While we were originally planning on talking to the clinic’s CHWs on messaging for Ukweli Test Strips, plans changed when we arrived and found out that the CHW monthly meeting actually occurs later on in August. However, we were still able to salvage the visit and had the unique opportunity to speak with the first female CHW I have seen in Makeni during fieldwork. Hassan did a great job yet again guiding the discussion and informing the CHW directly of the opportunity Ukweli Test Strips presents to health workers like herself, both in terms of financial incentive and in empowering them to do more to serve the individuals in their communities.

Some adorable goats outside the clinic!


After the interview with the CHW, we all walked back toward the World Hope van…. until lo and behold, Sierra Leone roads struck again. The victim this time? The back right tire of the van. That’s right, a flat. But with some help from a nice man in the village who helped us change the spare tire, we were back on the road in less than a half hour. The delay was actually welcomed by the team, since the village was pretty and it was a comfortable temperature. It also gave us the opportunity to buy some ginger cakes off of a local woman. Flour, water and ginger is apparently all it takes to entertain a bunch of college kids and keep us happy while we waited for the tire to be swapped out.


Cassidy doing a tree pose under a ginormous almond tree!


On the way back to World Hope, the sun continued to shine and the day kept getting better as Ukweli took full advantage. William, our driver, pulled over by a pretty stream and we were all instantly reconnected with nature. The team took photos, skipped some rocks and then took in the views at the bridge going over the stream… until Hassan got nervous we were getting too close to the edge (us Ukwelians can be ris-que) and walked back to the van.

Two members of the Ukweli team plus Marc on the bridge!

Back in the cave at the World Hope office, the team got right back to work on Hassan’s contract and motorcycle logistics, which we hope to finalize tomorrow in our last day in Makeni. We also identified a quality control test to run and some last-minute edits to the training materials. The day ended with an upbeat meeting at Radio Mankneh, where we connected with an employee at the radio station and got ideas for programming for Ukweli along with pricing options. Patrick from Mankneh was very engaged with our project and we hope to get Ukweli on the air both through in-studio interviews and in-the-field coverage of Hassan’s training sessions.

I was about to sign off… but, wait. This just in from THE Khanjan Mehta. Breaking news out here from the Makambo resort. The money for the marketing license has FINALLY been officially submitted, and our 90-day countdown until approval from the Pharmacy Board starts NOW! Though the team is disappointed at the delay in the whole process, we are so happy that we are now on the right track and we can officially launch the venture, featuring the selling of our test strips, this fall.


A Day of Wins

Finally. After a few hard-pressed days for the Ukweli squad (as our loyal readers will know from following the past few blog posts), we had ourselves a day. In fact, today was our best day of fieldwork yet. To start off, Sage, Cassidy and me had a stellar meeting with the station manager of Radio AMZA, a local radio station walking distance to World Hope. This followed a productive informal meeting on Saturday with other AMZA employees. The station manager was incredibly nice and helpful and seemed very on board with potentially running a radio program that is aligned with Ukweli in the future. He gave us two options: an in-studio program and an in-the-field program. The two would complement each other well, and the station manager emphasized the importance of including women in the conversation and airing our program in a variety of local languages to be better understood by those in rural communities.

From there, the whole team traveled to Kalungba clinic for our first ever practice training with professional health staff. Six health workers took part in an Ukweli training, with six Peer Supervisors and CHWs in attendance. Hassan absolutely killed it. I am so proud of him. It was amazing to watch him work and interact with the health staff. It was immediately clear that the health workers respond to and respect him, and Hassan presented himself as the perfect combination of knowledgeable and intelligent while being approachable and charismatic. After the three-hour training, the whole team followed each health worker who passed the training’s oral exam to a nearby village to conduct real screenings of women in the community. I left the village incredibly inspired by the dream of Ukweli looking real and tangible, arguably for the first time. Despite the disappointment of the marketing license saga, watching Hassan in action proved to the team that this can still happen and we can still make the difference we set out to make.

Hassan training health workers

Almost on cue, the day ended with the most beautiful sunset of the entire trip thus far (though I’m holding out that the sunset on the beach in Freetown will beat it). There truly is light at the end of the tunnel.


Makeni sunset


Training Mode

Today’s events featured malaria, a meeting with one of World Hope’s top administrators and lots of training….. along with a near-death experience. I’m sitting here writing this blog post STILL trying to catch my breath from a whirlwind day, so away we go!

When Hassan came into the World Hope office today, he explained to us that he was just recovering from contracting malaria the previous day. He told us he had been bed-ridden, but after taking some medicine and staying in bed, he was ready for whatever we were prepared to throw at him. Naakesh, Zach and Rohan spent a good chunk of the day running through a mock training session with Hassan, in which members of the Ukweli team ran through an example training session before Hassan practiced running one back to the team himself. Hassan even surprised us by coming in with several pages of notes which documented research he had conducted regarding preeclampsia and the symptoms and complications that can arise from the condition.

Picture 1. Scenes from the rainy season in Sierra Leone. 

Meanwhile, Sage, Cassidy and I took a trip to the market downtown to scout out some of the supplies we need to purchase for Hassan to get him started when we launch Ukweli. We created a shopping list of sorts, which included ledger notebooks, pens, and clean cups for urine, among other items. We had pretty good luck finding the items on our list and getting a gauge on the cost of these supplies. Besides a minor detour in which we had to hide under the roof in an alley due to a storm that turned walkways into rivers, all was going well…. until IT happened. We were buying some food in the market area when one car began honking behind us for the crowds to disperse to let it through. ‘ok,’ I thought. ‘I don’t know why cars are allowed through this narrow, pedestrian-heavy road, but whatevs, I’ll move.’ But then, much to my horror, a SECOND car started driving down the opposite side of the road, trying to get through, get past the crowds and get past the oncoming car. CHAOS. The drivers began honking at both each other and the crowds swarming either side of the market, and I dared to look down to find one of the car’s wheels mere inches away from my feet. Trapped with nowhere to go, me, Cassidy and Sage eyed each other, wondering if we would make it out of that mess by some miracle. Somehow, someway, the drivers screeched past each other, and here I am able to write this blog post. Why is that entire area not pedestrian-only? These are the answers I will never know. Truly an experience, but I won’t tell lies: I was scared.

Picture 2. A NEMS ambulance from a clinic last week. You can see this size of car should not fit in a one-lane road.

We arrived back from our adventure at the market to discover Saidu, the country director of World Hope in Sierra Leone, was in the Makeni office and ready to meet with the Ukweli team. We had a productive conversation about the logistics of our venture, including contract details for Hassan and discussing how transportation and phone costs could work if resources are shared between the Lehigh team and World Hope.

Picture 3. Loki, the sweet World Hope puppy.

Tomorrow, I am hoping the team can purchase the supplies for Hassan, continue with Hassan’s training and for the universe to balance our bad karma in the market with a happy surprise, like the approval of Ukweli’s marketing license. But worst comes to worst, I know I will be in for some quality insights from Naakesh based on his reading of the business paper. Just when you think you’re bored here in Sierra Leone, that’s EXACTLY when adventure strikes 🙂

Picture 4. off a dirt road next to a clinic in Rokulan.

A Sunday Holiday in Sierra Leone

With Hassan at home celebrating the holiday and most of the market closed for the day, the team took the opportunity to debrief at the World Hope office and work through some logistical details related to the venture. Most importantly, of course, we had some team laughs while playing a new card game that our teammate and Housing Czar Sage taught us: it’s a combo of Crazy Eights and Uno, and it involves giving each other dares whenever a Joker card is played. For example, Cassidy had to stand up every time her name was said, and Naakesh has to read and comment on a 23-page business paper that Sage wrote months ago! Ha!

OK, but down to business. The team accomplished several vital tasks today, the first of which included figuring out the details of Hassan’s employee contract and analyzing our team budget for the next 12 months or so. We ran through these numbers with Khanjan, and after some helpful suggestions, we are on the right track! The meeting was a huge win for the team AND the environment, as Khanjan even agreed to provide Ukweli Health Workers with boxes to collect the used test strips! Who would’ve thought!? But in all seriousness, we preliminarily approved Hassan’s commission-based salary and the various items needed to conduct proper trainings for UHWs, which was one of our big goals heading into Sierra Leone so that we can leave the country with all the financial-based details in place.

Zach and Naakesh worked on the accountability files (whatever that means) for the venture, while Cassidy and I laid out the spreadsheets Hassan will need for his two bound ledger notebooks. One of these notebooks will be for Hassan’s job tracking information, including the amount of fuel used each month and the phone credit he used each month. The other notebook, however, will be for Hassan to track information including the number of test strip boxes sold and the number of positive and negative screenings found at PHUs and other health facilities. The team plans on buying supplies like these notebooks and clean cups for the urine on Tuesday when the market reopens after the holiday.

On an unrelated note in terms of Ukweli, but a very related point in terms of cultural immersion and personal development, the team had a very exciting day interacting with some local Makeni children. Much to our surprise (and pleasure!) several local children came into our conference room and hung out with us for the day. They thoroughly enjoyed my hair and Rohan’s card magic tricks. Cassidy and I also had a fun time playing frisbee with two of the children, and we all found out we were actually better at forehand throws than we had anticipated!

Sage and Children

Stay tuned tomorrow for more wins and progress as Ukweli lurches forward!

8/5/2019- Back in Makeni

We made it to Sierra Leone for fieldwork 2019!! Our team could not be more excited to be in Makeni to work on our social venture, Ukweli Test Strips – and with three new team members with us this time. We landed in sunny, humid Freetown late Sunday afternoon and after breezing through security and customs, we piled in to our vehicles and headed off to the hotel in Makeni. On the three-hour drive, we took in the lush greenery present on both sides of the highway, waving to children along the way and getting our first tastes of Sierra Leone cuisine at dinner before gearing up for our first day of work on Monday.

Today, we kicked off fieldwork with an orientation program at the World Hope International Makeni field office, led by Sylvester, the chief financial officer and his colleagues. After learning about WHI’s extensive programming, we met with Hassan, our translator whom we plan on employing as Ukweli’s distribution manager. We caught up on his work with Gabi, our field fellow in Sierra Leone for nine months, and ran through the first part of the instructor training he will be tasked to provide to Community Health Workers before certifying them to read and interpret our test strip which screens for UTIs and Preeclampsia. We also discussed important methods for data collection, identifying holes in our data of our target population and scheduling meetings at clinics for Tuesday. These clinic meetings will be especially key to understanding the state of the Community Health Worker system, given that funding expired without renewal for the program, as well as the validating the prevalence of Preeclampsia.

The Ukweli team gathers at the World Hope office for the first day of work in Makeni.

Another piece of today was planning for the week ahead to ensure we get going with training health workers to read and interpret our test strips as soon as we can. With the ultimate goal of establishing sustainable operations of our venture before leaving Sierra Leone, the training of health workers is a top priority so that pregnant women can receive accurate screening results as soon as possible to save lives. In our planning for the week ahead, we also have a meeting scheduled on Tuesday to meet with the District Ministry of Health in the Bombali district to learn more about their work and gather information about data in the region and how they envision health care and maternal health in Bombali moving forward.  Wednesday includes more visits to clinics, and we will need to revisit our operational strategies based on the state of the CHW program.

We can’t wait to advance the project and create IMPACT!