Theory to practice
Yonina's senior thesis will be on "HIV prevention methods as rooted in behavioral change theory" – using her experiences in Ghana and in Nepal as case studies.
Brandeis Study and Work Abroad Opportunities
Student Profile: Yonina J. Fleischman '08
Major: International and Global Studies
Study Abroad Programs:
CIEE/University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana (Fall 2006)
SIT Culture and Development, Kathmandu, Nepal (Spring 2007)
Yonina Fleischman ’08 spent her junior year studying abroad in back-to-back semester programs in Ghana and Nepal. In Ghana, she studied arts and culture, and volunteered with the Streetwise Project, a HIV/AIDS outreach program. In Nepal, she conducted United Nations- and Red Cross-sponsored research on public health that led to her senior thesis. Here, she reflects on the dialogues that shaped her experiences.
In Legon, you volunteered at a grassroots organization called the Streetwise Project. How did you get involved there, and what did you do?
It wasn’t part of the study abroad program, but we were encouraged to do community service. The wife of the director of the study abroad program was involved in Streetwise, and she set me up there. It was entirely run at the grassroots level by Ghanaians.
There are two main aspects of Streetwise. The first is HIV/AIDS/STD awareness/outreach. Twice a week volunteers go out for three hours into the local area to local businesses – mostly to visit women. We would talk to about ten women at a time. We had this flip picture book that we would bring with us. The flip book had all these pictures of how the different parts of your body will look if you contract HIV or a STD. It was such a scare tactic, which was an interesting way to approach outreach, but the women had clear and strong reactions to it. I’m now doing my senior thesis on HIV prevention methods as rooted in behavioral change theory – using the experiences in Ghana (and in Nepal) as case studies.
The second aspect of Streetwise is a women’s vocational training center. They taught cooking, batik [an African fabric] making, and hairdressing. They were trying to teach women who don't have a lot of skills some basic training. I worked with the woman teaching batik-making, and helped her prepare for classes.
You’ve written previously about an experience you had at the end of the first semester, when you traveled to a remote village of the Lobi people in the Upper West region of Ghana. You describe searching and finding a kind of ideal intercultural experience. What made this particular experience unique?
Almost every weekend on the program, we had free time, and a lot of students on the program traveled pretty far away. For me this was a bit harder because I don’t travel on Saturdays [for religious purposes]. I actually really liked it because I could spend a whole day Saturday just being “present” and not feeling like I had to see every piece of the world in one semester. I really ended up seeing almost every region of the country.
At the end of the semester, I had a week and a half off during finals, so a friend and I traveled about 25 hours away to the Upper West region of Ghana. We went to a hippo sanctuary, which was on the border of Burkina Faso. It was so far out there, there was no transportation, so we biked. We had an arrangement where we paid for a guide and that fee went towards keeping up the hippo sanctuary.
We stayed overnight, and that night we heard the faint sounds of a xylophone coming from the nearby village. Now, while in Legon I had taken a number of courses in the music and dance departments, one of which was a beginner’s xylophone class. Hearing the xylophone, we walked through the brush to the mud compound where the music drifted up, where we found a family lounging around the fire and a young boy playing an in-ground xylophone.
The family asked me to play the xylophone, and I began to play a song that I had learned in class - which was written by the Lobi people who I was now playing for. They all began to shout and run over to us. As I continued to play, I moved onto a variation that my teacher had taught me, which the people didn’t seem to know. So in a sense I was playing variations of their own music. Families began to pour in from the surrounding compounds to see what the commotion was about. I must have played those two songs over fifty times that night! They taught me some new ones as well. It was so refreshing; they seemed to feel so honored that a foreigner had come in wanting to share something other than the fleeting images on the screens of a digital camera. We couldn’t talk together, but we could use this universal idea of what a note is and what pitch is.
What made this experience different from others you had?
People really like to take pictures of other people. It’s just something that happens. Especially when you’re there, and lots of little kids are coming up to you, you want to take a picture because that’s what people do. Thank God in Nepal my camera was broken. I didn’t have the opportunity and I didn’t have the burden of that camera. It was the best thing that ever happened. Whenever anyone would come up to us as a group and had a camera – which was pretty rare – and wanted to take a picture of us – that would blow students away. Why would they want to take a picture of us? Well, it’s because we’re white. And why would we want to take a picture of them? Because they’re African. There’s no reason to sugarcoat that, I feel. And, it’s very much an idea of commodifying the experience. We want to commidify our experiences as much as we can by buying so many things and taking pictures and saying “I was there.” But in a sense, me being there as a foreign American, I was a commodity as well. It took me a while to understand that dynamic. But I don’t understand why I have any more right to commodify that experience as they have to use me as a commodity. That was something that I still grapple with. It makes me happy that I at least got to experience what’s it like to be present in that kind of dynamic, and what it feels like to be a commodity, for really the first time in my life. It helped me to understand how I want to interact with other people, how I want to be interacted with, how I can understand cultural relations a little bit more.
So when I went to that [Lobi] village, I don’t know where I was on that page in terms of understanding that. I just knew that I was sick of feeling like I was a camera. So in that way, when we went to the village, I wanted to be a part of the celebration, but I didn’t want to “mess it up,” to become that commodity, in that sense. So I was very hesitant to go and play music with them. But my guide said just go, it’s going to be fine.
He convinced me to go. We stood at the side, sat by the fire, and they continued to play, and they didn’t pay us too much attention which was a kind of nice. And then he mentioned something that I knew how to play and I was so nervous. I do theater here, so I’m used to performing, but this was a different story all together. Plus I was a woman and women don’t play the xylophone much there. So I sat down and started to play. And they were so excited. And I was just playing a simple song.
I know I didn’t become “part of that group,” because of all of our differences, but I was able to shadow their lives in a different way than in a camera, I was able to see them and their culture reflected through me in a different way than just the camera, because that was something that I was frustrated with. So in that sense I was so excited to have been a part of that, to see how you can have a relationship that’s based on something deeper, something like music, which is so much about who I am and who they are in such different ways, and we could still have this dialogue through music.