As a Peace Corps volunteer, Cassandra Duffy worked at a Burkina Faso health clinic that served more than 5,000 people in 14 villages. Over the course of two years, she observed the challenges of providing rudimentary health care to a population struggling to meet their most basic nutritional needs. At the clinic, malaria and malnutrition were commonly diagnosed conditions.
A staple of the community’s diet is tô, a polenta-like food made from locally-produced grain. To make tô, grain first must be dried and ground by hand into flour, a laborious process performed by the community’s women. Women could also pay to have the grain ground by the town’s diesel-run mill.
The unreliable mill broke down often, however, which meant families might not eat because there was no time to pound the grain by hand or bike the eight kilometers to the nearest town with a working mill.
Duffy realized a new mill was needed and did something about it. With only a few months left in her stay, she wrote a Peace Corps grant, received funding, purchased the expensive piece of machinery, organized its transport to Tioyo, and oversaw its installation.
Duffy is grateful for the opportunity to have made a lasting impact on her community—and to learn about leadership—through that grain mill. “By recognizing the needs of my environment and finding my own role in the solution, I was able to initiate a project that bettered the lives of many and ultimately was taken over by the very people it helped.”
Duffy says her service in the Peace Corps shaped her career. She feels that foundational coursework in public health will better prepare her to work as a physician in developing countries and to lead larger public health initiatives. “I have come to understand that medicine holds more than the power to prevent and treat illness; it also has the potential to heal social injustice and create opportunities for entire populations.”
Maternal Fetal Medicine Clinical Fellow, Dept of OB/GYN, Columbia University Medical Center