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Why did the Chicken cross the Road? To meet the Carolina Girls?

SOW Carolina girls 2I recently had the pleasure of traveling for a week in rural Malawi with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) Chapter of Students of the World (SOW).  In this blog, I’ll share some of my thoughts about that trip and background on our collaboration.  We’ve worked with SOW for the last five years and this was my first opportunity to travel with them in the field. 

 SOW interview AFricare 2As background, I met the founder of SOW, Courtney Spence, in 2006 in Austin, Texas when I was visiting her Dad, Roy Spence.  I was meeting with Roy to talk to him about our growing collaboration with the Clinton Global Initiative since he’s a long-time advisor of President Clinton.  In our meeting, Roy gave me the idea of “Give Your Two Cents Worth to Save a Life”.  This is based on the fact that it only takes $0.02 a day to provide a person with clean drinking water using the P&G packets.  I promptly entered the “Give Your Two Cents Worth” idea into the inaugural American Express Members Contest and after a long battle against many worthy ideas, my proposal won $2 million from AMEX to provide clean water.  My trip to Austin to meet Roy and Courtney was memorable, not only for an idea that won the Amex contest, but for the wonderful collaboration we’ve developed as a result with both CGI and SOW.

Old Roy isn’t the only one with great ideas.  When Courtney was an undergraduate at Duke University, she was contemplating her future with Roy and said that, in the future, students wouldn’t only be students at a particular University but they’d be students of the world based on the growing connectedness of people.  Roy suggested Courtney pursue this idea of “students of the world” and eventually Courtney turned her idea into a not-for-profit organization.  SOW uses teams of students to shine a light on the good works of humanitarian efforts through summer projects.  The students visit programs and create inspirational and impactful videos.  P&G has been honored to collaborate with SOW now for 5 years and thrilled with the results.  The videos have been shown to world leaders at the annual Clinton Global Initiative.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m a UNC alumnus and my loyalties go deep with the University.  For any of you not yet exposed to the world of US collegiate sports, UNC is referred to simply as “Carolina”, the fans are called “Tarheels”, and UNC teams called the “Heels”.  And, UNC’s archrivals are Duke University and NC State.  All three of these great universities are located within just a few miles of each other and that adds to the spectacular rivalries.  I’m a graduate of two of them and took classes at the third. 

Well for a Tarheel (me) to partner with a Duke University graduate (Courtney) takes something special.  One of the ways we handled this delicate situation was that Courtney designated the UNC Chapter of SOW to work with P&G.  Besides, some of the best journalism students in the world are from the UNC School of Journalism so it’s a win-win. 

Let me divert a bit and tell you about CSDW’s other work with UNC.  As part of the UNC School of Public Health, my friend and colleague Dr Jamie Bartram, previous head of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) at the World Health Organization (WHO) founded the UNC Water Institute a couple of years ago.  P&G works extensively with the UNC Water Institute in research, communications, and advocacy to address the global clean drinking water crisis.  Some of our key efforts include working together to support the UNICEF/WHO International Network to Promote Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage.

Continuing my essay on all things Carolina, P&G work s with the UNC Kenan Flagler Business School lead by Dean James Dean (almost as cool a name as Dr Allgood!).  Lisa Jones and Carol Seagle of Kenan Flagler have done several award winning business school case studies on our CSDW program in order to share what we’ve learned through our decade of work in water so that others can replicate some of our success and not repeat our failures (Download P&G_PUR_Purifier_of_Water_and_Shareholder_Value_KFBS_CASE_September_2011).

And last but not least, P&G works with the UNC Medical School.  Our partnership is under the tutelage of Dr Mike Cohen, a rock-star of HIV/AIDS research.  Drs Cohen, Irving Hoffman, and Charlie Van der Horst led the ground-breaking research that showed HIV/AIDS treatment can also lead to prevention by preventing spread of the virus.  This research finding gives real hope that the battle against the HIV/AIDS pandemic can be won.  UNC has one of the largest HIV/AIDS program in Africa and we’re working with them in Malawi to provide clean drinking water. 

It should be evident by now that UNC and P&G are doing a lot of work together in water.  Our cross-campus collaboration with UNC is consistent with the University selecting water as a campus-wide theme for the next two years. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorpe has made water a priority through this designation. 

In discussing the potential of a collaboration this summer between P&G and the SOW-UNC chapter , Courtney and I agreed that it would be useful to examine how P&G has been able to complete our big Clinton Global Initiative commitment to provide 4 billion liters of clean drinking water between 2007-2012.  We’re nearing completion of this commitment and we believe it will be useful to share the “how” of how we delivered this commitment so it can be replicated by other partnerships.  So, all of this is background for how I ended up on a trip with a team of Carolina students in Malawi for a week.

Actually the students are in Malawi for a month and then in Austin to edit and create the short inspirational films for 6 weeks.  I’m joining them for a week as we meet with six of our partners who have been the implementers to scale-up our clean water efforts in Malawi.

We picked Malawi because it’s a country that reflects what we’ve been able to do on a global level.  Specifically, we expanded our partnerships and worked with our partners to integrate the P&G packets into each of their country programs.  And, we found ways that the P&G packets made the existing efforts of our partners more clinically and cost effective and improved outcomes.  My other blogs will go into the details on “how” we’re doing that and, importantly, so will the SOW films.

SOW in bus 2The UNC SOW team is composed of Florence Bryan, Ora Dekornfield, Maria Gontaruk, Erin Hull, Eric Pait, Molly Sunderland, and Debbie Vu.  We’re also joined by Courtney Irving, one of the leaders of SOW based in Austin.  All of us are packed into a mini-van for our 1000 mile plus journey throughout Malawi. 

SOW Debbie at well 2And I shouldn’t forget our capable driver Francis.  He knows most of the roads in Malawi.  Well, he knows some of them.  Well, actually, he can usually find where we need to go……eventually.  And, he has a very reliable vehicle.  It always gets us where we needed to go….eventually.  Francis and I quickly become quite an adept team at restarting the vehicle since about half the time it will not start.  Francis quickly rearranges our luggage so he can access the battery compartment that is behind the driver’s seat and then he bangs on the battery cable connection with a wrench while I engage the starter.  We’re a dream team of mini-van starting.

SOW Eric WV 2When I join the SOW team in Lilongwe, they’ve already spent a week on the ground with the UNC Project that provides the P&G packets in a preventing mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS program.  I’m impressed with the professionalism of the team in interviewing mothers who are HIV positive so that the women maintain their dignity. 

SOW Maria Debbie 2Our team develops efficiency when we reach a new site with one of our six in-country partners.  Our director, Maria Gontaruk, helps map out each of our visits and ensures that the team gets all the video footage and the interviews that we need.

SOW water carrying 2


Debbie Vu and Eric Pait are the film makers and seem to be willing to go to any lengths to get the best shot.  It becomes a common site to see Debbie sprinting ahead with her camera on a tripod to get ahead of women who are gathering and carrying their drinking water. 


SOW Erin CHAI 2Erin is the photographer and seems to always know the best angle for a great shot.  As an amateur photographer, I’m jealous of the time she has to capture shots of people and think creatively in the field about the best shot.









SOW Flo 2Florence is the journalist of the team and works through a local interpreter to get the best insights and sound bites from the beneficiaries.  And, of course, making sure we have all of the correct approvals needed from everyone.

SOW Molly drinking 2







Molly is the graphic film artist and so much of her talent will become evident during the creation of the videos.  Meanwhile, she pitches in wherever she’s needed and frequently is seen tirelessly holding the audio boom for an hour at a time.  She’s also brave and is one of the first to drink swamp water that has been treated with the P&G packets.

SOW Molly boom 2





All of the team members are compassionate with the beneficiaries that we’re meeting.  They are respectful and caring of the Malawians that we meet - most of whom are very vulnerable because of extreme poverty and many who are HIV positive.


SOW Debbie Eric HIV 2And, we have fun together.  It’s not uncommon to see the UNC students playing with the children.  At one school visits, Ora gets her groove on with some of the local girls. 

SOW Ora WV 2




It gets a bit chaotic particularly during some of our school visits when we’re trying to get about 1,000 children to cooperate by being quiet or moving to a different part of the school.  I get the Malawian children to follow me on a run and the SOW students are howling with laughter as hundreds of  Malawian children follow me running through the school yard in order to get them into position for the SOW filming.

SOW students running 2During our trip, we learned that the students need a longer amount of time at each site than we originally planned.  Each of our partner organizations are receptive to our need to revise our planned agenda and I greatly appreciate their flexibility and the access they provided for me and the students.  Thank you to Africare, Clinton Health Access Initiative, Feed the Children, Population Services International, the UNC Project, and World Vision for hosting us. 

SOW Angie with HIV women 2While the students are hard-working and tireless during our visits, they enjoy each others’ company during our long car rides.  I’m already aware that the students are the age of my youngest daughter and this becomes apparent as they spend an hour talking about magic spells from the Harry Potter series or the pros and cons of the love story of the Twilight series.  I’m glad I’ve also lived through these cultural phenomena with my daughter so I can relate.  But, my biggest contribution to our conversations is educating the team on the horrors of Ebola outbreaks and other deadly waterborne disease pathogens.  How fun!

SOW ora and girl 2Earlier this year, the students took a course offered at UNC to learn about the culture of Malawi and they’ve learned more of the local language, Chechewa, than me.  I’m impressed with their dedication to the effort.  They make good use of their language skills and this helps the beneficiaries feel more comfortable with our visits.

SOW Erin Ora 2Much of the filming is in rural areas and in schools and this creates a multitude of challenges in doing interviews with beneficiaries.  The students show patience and creativity in dealing with these challenges.  Most of the people in rural Malawi are subsistence farmers – so we’re filming on a farm with chickens, goats, pigs, and multitude of young children that all bring their own noises to interfere with the interviews.

SOW interview 2During several interviews, clucking chickens walk right into the interview making it impossible to get useful audio.  At one of our stops with Africare, Ora, Eric, and Molly chase one of the chickens away but our chicken seems quite determined and we moan at the team’s ineptitude at chicken chasing.  We joke that it takes 3 UNC students to chase off one chicken poorly while at UNC’s rival school NC State (that has a leading poultry department), it would have only taken one student and he would have come back with eggs.  And, perhaps a Duke University student would have chased away the chicken as well as used it to fertilize the nearby farm but then they’d charge a big consultant fee.  The North Carolina rivalry thrives even in rural Malawi!

SOW Debbie and Eric with kid 2I am excited to see the outcome of the SOW UNC work and I know it will be awesome.  I thank them for their hard work, dedication, professionalism, high energy, bravery, passion, creativity, and compassion to our beneficiaries.  They’re a great team. Go Heels!





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