There’s an important update to this “Where they Went” I wrote for the Boston Globe. It was published Dec. 30, 2007, just before I started this blog, so I’m going to share Caitlin’s amazing story now. Below it is information on how every day until Aug. 4, 2008, you can help her nonprofit agency win a $100,000 award to continue its work to bring health care to the slums of Mali. Please spread the word if you’re so inclined!
WHO: Caitlin Cohen, 22, of Providence, Rhode Island
WHERE: West Africa.
WHEN: June 2006 to August 2007 (and she’s been back since)
WHY: “I really fell in love with Mali when I went 2 1/2 years ago to do research on AIDS with the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS,” Cohen said. That group was founded by a professor at Brown University, where Cohen is getting (just got!) a degree in international development studies and will attend medical school. “I went back to start the Mali Health Organizing Project with two other students.” She also visited other African countries and lived in Rwanda for four months.
Caitlin Cohen on child vaccination day, with Lindsay Ryan, co-founder of Mali Health Organizing Project
OPTIMISM AND OPENNESS: “The people are dirt poor, but so energetic and lively and optimistic,” she said. “They have a national philosophy of hospitality, and that openness was compelling. The impact of health issues and the child mortality rate is really depressing, but they’re very supportive of each other. They’re very practical and they seek their own social solutions, like sharing of wealth.”
NATIVE TONGUE: In Mali, Cohen lived in Sikoroni, an impoverished area outside of the capital of Bamako. “Most of the official business in Mali is in French, but in my town nobody spoke French, only Bambara,” she said. “It’s fun and it gains you so much credibility instantaneously.” She learned the dialect through usage and a Peace Corps manual.
Sali Diarra (left) and Caitlin Cohen. Sali moved to Mali from Burkina Faso and was the host-sister for Caitlin in Mali.
MALI TIME: Getting a nonprofit off the ground was challenging, she said. “The time thing is very, very different. It’s hard going from an Ivy League environment, when your days are planned in five- minute increments to waiting two weeks for a document to arrive.” They formed their public health group using a community committee that involves locals. “We have a full-time Malian director and had three volunteers this summer from US colleges.”
ACROSS BORDERS: While in Mali, Cohen traveled to Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. “They’re so different; it’s incredible. Some depends on whether they’re French vs. English. In Ghana the weather is nice, and it’s so beautiful. Togo is very French. Benin is a small, long country, and people live in stilted villages. It was the origin of voodoo and a major place of the slave trade.” She has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study there. Cohen was in Burkina Faso when civil unrest broke out. “It was a small skirmish, but there was machine-gun firing two blocks from where I was staying.”
Allison Huggins (left) and Caitlin Cohen at Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
TO RWANDA: Not wanting her experience to be based on West Africa only, Cohen visited Rwanda, where she worked with WE-ACT, or Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment, which mostly helps those who are HIV- positive from genocide-related rape. “The people are very vivacious and the southwest part of the country is beautiful,” she said. She visited the Democratic Republic of Congo with a friend, where they hiked up Nyiragongo volcano. “The intense militarization there was oppression, just the sheer number of guns.”
PARENTS ON BOARD: Cohen grew up in Westminster Station, Vt., where her parents, both artists, still live. “The first time I went to Africa they were very concerned, but once they learned I was capable of taking care of myself, they felt better. Now my father helps with the NGO. He’s our logistics coordinator.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP CAITLIN!!
Caitlin has been named by FOX’s Teen Choice Awards and Do Something Inc as one of the top nine youth activists in the US! Online voting until Aug. 4, 2008, will determine if she wins $100,000 to build a health system in the slums of Mali. One in four children dies before his or her fifth birthday and 93 percent of urban Malians live in slums.
1) VOTE NOW AND EVERY DAY UNTIL AUGUST 4 by visiting http://www.dosomething.org/awards. You get one vote per email address per day, you must enter a birthday between 1989 and 1995 for your vote to count. (That leaves out yours truly!)
2) SEND THIS BLOG ENTRY TO ANYONE AND EVERYONE (especially teenagers!)
3) BECOME A G.O.T.V. TEAM CAPTAIN: Email email@example.com for a kit on how to get out the vote! The top five captains will receive prizes, such as VIP tickets to the celeb-filled Teen Choice pre-party, as well as Malian jewelry, music, and fabric.
Go, Caitlin, Go!!!