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From Crofton to Tanzania: Peng lives her dream

Yun (Annie) Peng's experiences prove the adage that you can go anywhere from a small town.

Peng grew up in Crofton, but has just spent six months in Tanzania interning with the African Medical and Research Foundation. She was one of 10 young Canadians who have just completed an internship with AMREF in sub-Saharan Africa, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development through the Government of Canada's Youth Employment Strategy.

She took on a wide variety of jobs, including visiting communities in the rural Simiyu region of Tanzania to assess malnutrition in young children; helping with AMREF Tanzania's first fundraising gala to raise money to train midwives; and using the results of her post graduate studies evaluating completed AMREF projects. Peng talked about how she ended up in Africa and some of her experiences there.

"Ever since I entered [the University of Victoria], I studied anthropology and always had a dream of going to Africa and working in international development. I never really had an opportunity to realize that dream because it costs a lot of money but the timing wasn't right," she said Not many teens dream of working in international development, but she got the idea from television.

"I would see these advertisements for things like World Vision and I would watch those shows. I think a lot of people change the channel if they see something like that because it's quite unpleasant to see the hungry children," Peng said.

"But for me it was different. When I watched them I thought wow, this is something really meaningful and really worthwhile and I would love to be somehow involved in it."

Her dream came true when she found a program that helped organizations hire young professionals and send them overseas for six months.

"That's when I thought: this is the time. I either do it now or it's not ever going to happen. It won't work if you're in school and afterwards if you were to get a job and have a family it's very difficult to just get up and leave for six months," she said.

She had heard good things about AMREF and learned they were looking for a monitoring/evaluations officer.

"A huge part of my post-graduate work was the monitoring and evaluating of health projects. So I thought this could be a good match."

AMREF works primarily in four countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

"They asked me if I had a preference and I thought: hmm, 'I don't know. Ethiopia: the food there is great.' But, I left it up to them. They picked me for Tanzania. I didn't specifically ask to go there."

Arrived in Africa for her great adventure, Peng felt the heat.

"The minute you step out of the airport, it's like you're walking into a wall of hair dryers. The funny thing is I went there in June and that month is the coolest time of the year," she said.

Even with that, on the first day a 20-minute stroll around the centre of Dar es Salaam immobilized her for the next 24 hours.

"The city is at sea level, it was hot and humid there. It got consecutively hotter every month until December, when I left, which is actually their hot season and their rainy season. So it rained pretty much every other day; you were just never dry. You're sweating throughout the night and you get up, have a shower and step out the door to find you're sweaty again in 10 or 15 minutes.

"You find yourself apologizing to people for sweat pouring down your face. I would go into meetings with Tanzanian colleagues and as the two white people we were constantly fanning ourselves like mad, with sweat pouring down our faces and everyone else was just sitting there cool as a cucumber. I guess they were used to it."

Peng's work involved a lot of research and the monitoring of projects.

AMREF Tanzania's main push is to address some pretty strategic public health issues and she helped to focus attention on them. They included maternal mortality, particularly when women give birth too young or have a difficult childbirth.

Obstetric fistula, a preventable childbirth injury, is another grave concern, she said.

"AMREF builds maternity wards and do a lot of healthy motherhood and childbirth campaigns, a lot of fistula surgeries and programs for early childhood health," she said.

Some of the most common childhood killers are malaria, and diarrhea, and, along with dealing with HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation difficulties and promoting the use of family planning, both to reduce the number of children women have and to help women have safe sex and prevent sexually transmitted diseases. AMREF finds itself overloaded with work.

"If they could reach all of these goals in all of these areas in East Africa most of their health problems would be solved," Peng said. She enjoyed her work in Tanzania.

"One thing I really appreciate about AMREF's work is that they are not about surface solutions.

"They don't often do what you see from western countries where you see people come in and set up a medical camp and offer treatment to locals for a week and then they take off, or they send a whole bunch of food and they feed children for a period of time," she said.

"Those things are good but they don't really solve the root problem whereas AMREF really tries to work with the government, with the local health authorities to build some infrastructure to deliver better health care."

Peng gave two strong examples. "One of the things they are working on, for instance, is training more midwives, so there could be more people assisting women give birth and referring them to health clinics.

"They are also working to improve laboratory technicians' skills. That's something you often don't think about but a huge amount of medical diagnosis is contingent upon accurate laboratory tests for HIV, for malaria, for TB."

Here we take those things for granted.

"What I was doing with AMREF was to help them write research and funding proposals to get more grants to help them implement new projects. I also helped write up some of their findings from their studies so they can share their findings with the rest of Africa, maybe the rest of the world. That's what I did in a nutshell."

Peng said she would like to return to Africa in some working capacity.

"One thing with AMREF is that, virtually all of the staff hired by the African AMREF are Africans," she said.

"They have a motto: 'African solutions for African problems.' They are really all about hiring local people so in that sense I don't think I could go back to work for AMREF Tanzania as a foreigner but I would love to continue in some capacity in international development in Africa," Peng said. "That would be my best dream coming true."