Tag Archives: volunteering

On Volunteerism & Development: A World Just Within Our Reach

A Peace Corps staff member assesses the projects planned and presented at the Community Health Project Design & Management conference in Nampula City, Mozambique.

Half the room is made up of American (and one Puerto Rican) volunteers, and the other half is made up of our Mozambican counterparts. We enter the conference room for the start of a three-day training that promises to introduce all of us to project implementation in our communities, a topic that all of us need to understand as projects start to get off the ground.

The all-Portuguese training begins, and I realize the importance of the situation. Roughly 25 years ago, this country was tangled in a civil war that crippled the country, destroyed infrastructures, and left emotional scars that still remain today. While not many people here openly speak about the war, it’s clear to see the effects on the developing country.

However, one product of the end of this war was pure, and understandable hope for a brighter future for the country and its people.

My counterpart is sitting next to me as we spend the day learning about the role of Peace Corps volunteers in Mozambique, developing goals and objectives for our plans, and starting to list out the activities which we are going to complete once we return to our sites.

The American volunteers are familiar with this environment as we scoff at the pile of papers and handouts we receive throughout the day. However, to our Mozambican counterparts, the information is (mostly) new and (mostly) exciting, sparking an energy in the room that is hard to resist.

A fellow PCVs counterpart is a community health worker. He lives a very simple life, but today he is attending a conference in an urban hotel surrounded by accommodations, intelligent discussions, and a bountiful supply of water and food. 

To say that he was elated would be understating it. He was completely and totally beyond himself. Literally, a world had been opened up to him. Not one of excess, but one of deserved recognition for the work that he and the other Mozambican counterparts do on a daily basis.

While employment is hanging over every conversation with volunteers as the country faces high unemployment, especially in rural areas, he sits in his seat for the remainder of the training with a smile across his face and a shirt nicely ironed and buttoned all the way to the top.

We spend three days exchanging ideas, mapping out our activities, and providing advice to one another. While us Americans see this as a normal, everyday brainstorming session, Mozambicans embrace this dialogue as the new foundation to their newly developed home. These conversations provide them a glimpse into a world that is not fully their own but, at the same time, just within their reach. A world of community health and progress. A developed world.

I share a table with my counterpart, and he is also elated. He speaks up often, shares his insights, thanks for me bringing him to this place where he is learning much. 

Ivan with the final project proposal.

As an unemployed member of our shared community, my 28-year-old counterpart, Ivan, thrives on giving back and offering his hands and heart. He describes to me in detail during a lunch break that his last name isn’t actually his last name, as his parents disappeared when he was very young, leaving him to grow up in an orphanage. When asked about his parents, he only knows that someone told him his parents were taken away with the trash.

Today, he’s advocating for youth and health in our community. He is engaging in difficult conversations to move the efforts closer to success. At the conference, he develops a plan to work with the HIV-support groups in our town to raise chickens for sale, gaining money for the groups and the promotion of support groups.

We can learn something from Ivan and Mozambicans: conversation with peers about moving forward should be our constant motivations in life. Why can’t we all see the bigger picture for the future of our own country? Instead of bowing our heads during brainstorming sessions, let us raise our fists and demand change.

The conference asked us to design a project. However, the conference also asked us to be better listeners, not only to our own peers, but those on the outside who still have the motivation and energy to love more, push harder, and seek results.

Ivan, as well as the other counterparts, receive certificates for their work during the conference. A piece of paper to us, the next step in changing their home for the better to them.

Ivan with Peace Corps staff receiving his certificate for completion of the training.


Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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Community Needs Assessment in Mozambique: Personal Insights, Tailored Focus


This is the second (first) in a series of posts about implementing health projects in a developing country. It is meant to introduce a reader to the inner workings of public health training and action, especially the collection of baseline information, and share with the world data, stories, and personal thoughts about the ongoing challenges of global health in Mozambique.

Public health is all about knowing who matters most.

We want to believe that all information that we need to be successful in any area or field is advice, input, and research from those who we deem as “experts.” While these voices are crucial in public health to develop a robust assessment, there are lesser-heard voices that act to compliment the information gained from national health statistics and evidence-based research and provide a more personal insight and tailored focus of the CNA.

The lesser-heard voices belong to those in the community who are living with and seeing the daily effects of any given disease or health issue: the mother of two who is HIV-positive along with her children, the community leaders who have daily discussions with their neighborhoods about issues, the volunteers in the health system that work to seek out the patients who have abandoned their treatment. They all have voices and deserve to be heard. The simplicity of public health: Listen to these people and, often, solutions will reveal themselves.

Public health is all about understanding those who matter most.

Before we can collect personal information from those in the community, we need to first better understand the community itself. Sure, we have national statistics, photographs of key places in the town, a history of the community, and an overall opinion about the health issues that matter most to people, but we need to round out our understanding with a current snapshot of the community and its resources to better understand the people.

Community Map

Everyone shook their heads in confusion when I first asked about a map of my community. From the local health leaders to those who work in the local government, nobody was able to provide a detailed map of the neighborhoods and main streets. Having an overall view of the layout of the community is crucial in understanding proximity, abundance, and availability of local resources for those living in the neighborhoods. Good place to start.

Instead of walking the entirety of the community and sketching out a rough map, I thought about who would already have this information through experience and knowledge of the community. The answer was simple. Located in each hospital in Mozambique are activistas, or volunteers from the community who search out patients who have either abandoned treatment or are in need of crucial medication. Each day, these volunteers are given stacks of cards with patient information. Their task sounds simple: search the neighborhoods, find the patients, give them treatment or bring them back to the hospital. The reality is much more difficult, but we will discuss that more later.

Working with the activistas, we created a detailed community map (below) with the district hospital as the central point, names and borders of neighborhoods, and the locations of key resources, including the markets, the police station, and churches.


Seasonal Calendar

Now that we have a better understanding of the locations of key points in the community, we also need to better understand specifics about some of these points, mainly the abundance of food in the markets. Since nutrition and availability of food is firmly linked to the overall health of the community, we need to know which foods are available during which parts of the year, thus knowing which foods we are able to use in future interventions and health programs.

Working with the chefe (boss) of the market located to the east of the hospital as well as vendors who work daily in the market, we together created a seasonal calendar complete with the name of the product, the months along the top of the calendar, the time in which the crop is planted (plantar), harvested (colher), and sold/eaten (consumir). The yellow bars are the crops that are available all year. It is clear that Namapa has a high abundance of available food items. While the issue is usually cost, we now know that food is available.

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Additional Resources

In addition to an abundance of food from the markets, other resources in the community include: a community radio station that airs health messages in both Portuguese and the local language; water pumps around the community that provide a constant (with energy) supply of water for the neighborhoods; access to the national highway for travel and import of crucial supplies; cellular networks for both phone calls and internet access; and Namapa is home to the district government offices.

Public health is all about listening to those who matter most.

Now that we have a detailed profile of our community, a general opinion from the public and patients regarding health problems, a precise community map, and more information regarding the availability of food items, we are able to start collecting qualitative information from the community to best identify our direction for future health programs.


Who better to understand both the inner-workings of the hospital system as well as the health issues in the community than those who are volunteering their time to locate lost patients and reduce the burden of diseases in the community? The activistas not only have detailed information on the best direction to take future activities, but since they are volunteer workers they also have an unbiased view to provide honest answers and a personal motivation that will help us to better understand Mozambican’s values.

At the time of this assessment, my hospital had six activistas (now seven). Using a sign-up sheet, I scheduled interview times with each activista. During each interview, I first collected demographic information (below) regarding the activistas, including age, where they are from, time as an activista, the reason for becoming an activista, daily hours in the hospital, daily hours out in the field, with how many patients they speak in the hospital, and with how many patients they speak out in the field.

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Following the collection of demographics, I asked each activista a series of questions about logistics, strengths, and challenges of improving health in Namapa. Below I will share a couple insights from each category, but all are located in my assessment that will be available once it has been reviewed and corrected for grammar by Peace Corps staff.


Besides some of the demographic questions asked above, I asked the activistas, “What do the members of the community think about activistas?” All of the activistas agreed that the people of Namapa, especially those patients who abandon treatment early, believe that the activistas are improving the health of the community. People know that the activistas are linked to the hospital and, therefore, are able to provide information regarding health, illnesses, and prevention.

All of the activistas discussed the importance of the palestras (health talks) that they both create and complete out in the neighborhoods. Community health workers and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) complete palestras in the community because of the lack of information regarding prevention and limited resources. The activistas discussed the fact that since they are seen daily in the community with important health information, they are trusted. It is more difficult for a PCV to enter the community with information since they are new.

Strengths & Motivations

I asked the activistas, “What motivates you to work as an activista?” Since the activistas don’t earn any money for their work (besides the occasional money given by one of our team members), they all agreed that helping to diminish the burden of disease in the community was their main motivation. The demographics show that five out of six of the volunteers are from Namapa, so they have a strong connection to the community.

One of the female activistas described how her son is living with HIV. Looking down as she describes the disease, it’s clear that the issue is close to her heart and family. Also, another volunteer said that he himself is living with a disease, and by working in the community, he knows he is helping others and decreasing the likelihood that they’ll acquire the disease.


I asked the activistas, “What are the challenges of the job?” While they are all motivated by improving the health of the community, they all agreed that one challenge is actually diminishing the burden. They are out in the community each day searching for patients or giving health talks, yet the diseases continue to tear through the neighborhoods. They discussed how it is difficult for six people to reach so many people. With a population of more than 60,000 people, Namapa is too large of a town for such a small group.

Another challenge that is seen throughout the health system in Mozambique is the organization of the patient cards in the hospital. All patients are registered when entering the hospital, but because the system is not (yet) electronic, the paper forms are put into filing cases that are disorganized, dirty, and confusing to understand. The activistas spend crucial time in the morning simply searching for the patient’s information before heading out into the community. A faster system could help them reach more patients.

Finally, a problem that is also seen nationwide is transportation for the activistas. Since they are volunteers and there is limited funding for the hospitals, the activistas have to search the community by foot. With so many neighborhoods and limited time, not as many patients are reached. In the past, the volunteers had bicycles, but because of thieves, poor quality of the bikes, and poor maintenance, the bikes don’t last very long. Additionally, a motorcycle or car is out of the question because of cost.

Final Thoughts

I asked the activistas, “If you could change one thing about your position, what would it be?” While all of the volunteers said they were content with the job, they mentioned the need for a little bit of money for their families, transportation to get around the community, and the need for more material. The activistas enter the community without any physical pamphlets or information. Their palestras are just through speaking. However, there is the issue of literacy in the community as well as those who only speak the local language.

Public health is all about continuing the conversation.

The conversations with the activistas were crucial in developing a focused assessment. However, the conversation needs to continue into the implementation of the interventions or health programs. Additionally, we need to continue to speak with as many members of the community as possible to make sure all voices are heard and all voices are included.

Next, we need to better understand our organization’s reach in the community, speak with those directly affected by our organization, and identify any areas of improvement.

Questions? Concerns? Contact me!

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On the Power of Water, The Driving Force of All Nature


“Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do – they all contain truths” – Muhammad Ali

Exists in my small town a small sink. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about this white sink. It hangs three or four feet from the ground, attached to a wall just through the main doors of a local bar, seemingly out of place among tables and chairs. Framed directly above the sink is a curvy mirror, casting its reflection of customers in the space opposite. Resting on the ledge next to the shiny, metallic spout are two, small cups, both shades of pink.

On any given day, this sink is frequented by a variety of members of the community, since the owner of the bar allows anyone from outside to enter and quench their thirst during long hours in the sun, often working in manual labor or selling items on the street.

There are the young men with dirty, sleeveless shirts and cut-off jean shorts, who drain the small cups in one big gulp while also moving their faces side to side to examine their reflection in the mirror, pulling at strands of hair or dirt that rest upon their faces.

There are the young children who stand just outside the bar doors, hesitant to enter. They first scan the inside of the open-air bar, locking eyes with strangers, before taking the first step toward the sink. They swiftly gather as a small group, reaching up to open the spout, filling the small cups, and drinking, before dropping the cups and quickly retreating.

The visits are always short: in, quick drink, out, repeat. To many of the people who visit the sink, the environment of the bar inside the large, metal, gated doors is a foreign one. While they work tirelessly during the day, they are unfamiliar with the luxuries of disposable income, especially to be spent on cold beverages. To them, drinkable water is their luxury.

A River Runs Through It

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“You first,” I say to Wilson as we approach a flowing stream near the main part of the river. “Then I’ll follow.”

He and his father both laugh as they remove their shoes, empty the contents of their pockets into the deepest part of their sneakers, and hold them above their waists as they enter slowly into the water.

It’s mid-August, two weeks after arriving at my site, and since we are still technically in winter, the river is low with wide banks of sand and rock in the valley. Wilson and his father, my neighbors, have invited me to join them and their family on a trip to the River Lurio, just outside Namapa. We walk the wide valley with our final destination being the main flow of the river, just near and under the bridge that connects both sides of the valley.

They both make a high-pitched sound and laugh as they enter the water, which reaches them just above their pant line. As promised, I remove my shoes, empty my pockets, and follow them across the small stream separating me from them. The water is softly pushing against my torso as I make my way across. On the other side, we continue to walk along the sand and rock, this time more slowly and with slightly more pain, as we are still shoeless.

In the distance, we are able to see a large group of people sitting along the main flow of the river. To either side of the group are boulders with jagged edges. Atop the boulders are shirts, pants, and other articles of clothes, stretched out along the surface of the rock, resembling simple drawings or sketches under the setting sun’s light.

As we approach, Wilson’s mother greets us. She is sitting along the bank of the main part of the river with her newborn baby in her hands. “There you all are!”

“Sorry,” Wilson says to his mother. “It took a lot longer than we thought.”

“No problem,” she said as she turned the baby in her arms and tightened the blanket around her.

We all sit down next to her as the entire scene of the river unfolds in front of us. Her other children, some with floaties, are wading in the waist-deep water, racing each other against the flow and laughing with every successful inch forward.

Farther down the river, under the long, cement bridge, older kids are jumping from the boulders into a deeper area of the river. Two teenage boys are shimmying out of their shirts and pants, revealing only tight, white underwear, as they quickly dive into the river. One pulls out a bottle of soap, fills his hands, and starts to lather his head and body. Others across the river are doing the same.

Up river an older woman is near the bank of the water with her arms deep in the water (photo above). She raises them, revealing a long piece of clothing. She uses her hands to scrub the cloth, dip it into the water two or three times, and she rests it upon a piece of exposed rock with other pieces of clothing.

Just in my view is a large group of children at the farthest end of the bridge on the road. With buckets and soap in hand, they clean the car of a passerby, offering their time and cleaning abilities to make a few meticais (the currency of Mozambique) to spend on candy.

The lower half of my body is still wet, but I find myself not feeling discomfort, but instead peace. As my new home, I feel like I’m witnessing an important and reoccurring event in the lives of the people of my little town.

Wilson’s mother asks if I want to swim. “I’m okay here,” I respond. “But I’m sure it’s a lot of fun.”

Heavy Clouds & the Floods that Followed

The power has been out in the northern part of the country for nearly a month now. The floods that hit the country in mid-January continue to have a lasting effect on both the infrastructure and lives of the people attempting to recover.

Reports (Huffington Post) coming out from parts of northern Mozambique, especially the province of Zambezia, are devastating. The floods affected more than 150,000 people across the country. The event is described as the worst flooding since 1971. Hundreds were killed, and countless families are attempting to rebuild their lives after losing homes, clothes, food, and livelihoods.

Residents of the area describe seeing people attempting to swim the river, since the flooding badly damaged the cement bridge, making it impassable. Many of who did not make it to the other side.

The rainy season in this area of Africa is powerful and fierce. The calm waters seen in mid-August along the River Lurio are replaced with wide currents of water, crashing against the tall boulders lying on the riverbed.

No longer are people bathing or wading in the water. Instead, they describe the danger and have fear of the resting crocodiles that make the rivers their home during the season of endless rain.

The issues with the floods go beyond just the river. Inside the community, houses that were built using a mixture of cement and sand start to crumble. The water finds its way through the tin sheets of the roof and puddle within the sleeping spaces and kitchens of homes. Roads and paths within communities are swept away, replaced with mud.

Communities come to a stand still against the powerful nature of the rain. However, within this harsh environment are bright spots of joy and adaptability. To describe it is difficult, but to simply it into one word, it’s stunning.

Letting Go & Diving In

Week two of the power outage in late January, and I want to go home.

The water continues to flood inside my house, first filling my veranda before finding its way into my kitchen area. In the darkness, I come home following a long day of work to find my house nearly unrecognizable because of the foot-deep water.

After going through my water supply used for drinking, showering, and cooking, I carry my bucket and flashlight to the mosque next to my house where I have been collecting water from their pump. I am told that the pump does not work without electricity.

The increase in rainfall causes more mosquitos, and the increase in malaria and cholera threatens to attack an already weak community.

One morning I wake in my bed to the sound of a strong rain pounding against my tin roof. The sound is jarring as you’re not able to really think or hear much of anything but the rain. From deep inside the noise, I hear the voices of some of the neighborhood kids outside my house.

I open my front door, and three of the neighborhood children, wearing nothing but small shorts or underwear, are using an empty, cut-in-half container usually holding oil to scoop the water that is collecting on my veranda and tossing it away from the house. They are laughing, and when they notice me standing in the doorway, they yell “Good morning, Aleksi!”

The sight throws me off. After two weeks of frustration and dark, energy-less evenings, it all started to make sense. Adaptability. Who am I to be frustrated with a tough environment after two weeks when the families in Mozambique live with this all their lives?

I greet the children, go and change into a pair of swimming shorts, grab a bar of soap, and I join the kids on the veranda in attempting to remove the flooding water. We sing a song together, and then climb upon the ledge of my veranda, just underneath the lip of the roof where water is streaming toward the ground.

I slowly push my head under the cold, flowing water. I let it flow down the back of my neck, across my shoulders, across my back and chest, and down toward my legs and feet. I feel the coolness touch every part of my freshly woken spirit. I lather myself from head to toe, pass the soap to the children, and I watch as they do the same, smiling and laughing loud. Little white, soapy men standing under the rain as the water sheds the soap from our skin, and we open our arms wide to welcome the new day.

Across the road, the owner of a small shop and her friends sit underneath the covered veranda and laugh at our antics. We yell “good morning” to them before running inside, grabbing towels, and drying ourselves from the cold water and cool, brisk air.

A Source of Life

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water” – W. H. Auden

I find much comfort in this small sink. There’s something particularly beautiful about this white sink. While seemingly out of place, upon second glance the sink is placed exactly where it should be. In the heart of the community, the sink provides much needed sustenance for those who often go without.

The visits to the sink are always short, but they are constant and consistent. During the rainy season, people supplement the loss of water in the sink due to lack of energy by collecting water in large, 2-liter, plastic bottles just outside the doors of the bar. The water streams from the roofs of nearby buildings, and the children and teenagers take turns catching the water inside the bottles and passing them along to friends.

Underneath the covered area of the bar, I am able to watch all this happen before my eyes. No one else gives much attention to the already familiar routines of the season, but in my mind is the driving force for my existence here. My attention turns back to the sink, where the two, pink cups lay in their sides, waiting for the next person to arrive. It’s easy to relate, because so am I.


Questions? Comments? Contact me!

Note: The title of this post comes from a quote by Leonardo da Vinci, when he said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.”

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American Insecurities, African Sensibilities


I fear the morning. The morning is a daily reminder that there is so much to do and that what happened yesterday is already history. The morning means a new day filled with heartfelt attempts followed by the possibility of failure, embarrassment. The morning begins early, softly eases you from your sleep, then forces you to take notice.

While night allows you to sink into introspective thought, morning shows you in all its daylight the world in which you’ve agreed to help. The only problem is that you’re not sure how. While others thrive and shine in this possibility playground, the uncertainty and weight of it all debilitates me. My response to the morning is to close my eyes tight, shut out the light, and hope that the day passes in a moment.

My nights are long and my thoughts endless. The night is my friend for its seemingly slow existence. Others sleep, time slows, and those who are awake float on the night’s abundance of free space, filling the world with thoughts of the future, thoughts of the past. The night doesn’t ask for action, only contemplation. It is in this contemplation where my greatest ideas are created and my biggest anxieties are analyzed, piece by piece.

South by Southeast
In a training provided to my first-year AmeriCorps team in Federal Way, WA, we were given a personality test to determine our place upon a symbolic compass, with each direction representing a different personality type. This type of training is popular not just among service-minded folk, but businesses, colleges, you name it. Everyone enjoys being put in a recognizable box and told in which personality traits we thrive (just ask BuzzFeed!)

Along this symbolic compass, north represents the strong minded, action-oriented individual. This person lives to lead the forces. To the south, we have the soft hearted, group oriented individual. This person is eager to help but wants to make sure everyone in the group is heard. To the west, we have the organized, detail-oriented individual. Regardless of the leadership, this person wants to make sure everything is organized, accounted for. Finally, to the east we have the big picture people. These individuals thrive on imagining the future outcome of any project or campaign.

For my two years in AmeriCorps, I found myself being grouped mainly in the south with a little eastern tendencies. Basically, I’m concerned with taking care of the group, addressing issues, and sitting around talking about the difference we are going to make.

Sure, it’s an activity. A fun activity, in the keep-you-occupied-until-free-lunch kind of way, but still fun. Yet, while we realize these activities aren’t necessarily written in the stars, we find ourselves hanging on every word, reading every description, in hopes that our true selves will be unveiled to us. Back home, we are always looking for bigger answers to simple questions. Usually, we develop our own definition ourselves built from insecurities and doubts.

In the case of myself, I am still searching for a clear definition and often strangled by unrealistic thoughts of failure. I often place myself in the minds of others and imagine myself as someone who is annoying, uninteresting, unkind. I search out others who struggle with the same issues, and in these people I look for my answers and support.

I’m such a South.

Success & Self
It should come as no surprise that this post is being drafted in the nighttime. My mind is in a million places at once, and my thoughts settle on the people we are here to serve. I realize that the insecurities of which I find myself thinking often are a product of an American upbringing. Back home, success is measured in terms of output. What can you hold in your hands, what can you describe during a job interview, what can you produce that will provide sufficient evidence of success?

The people of Mozambique (and I can only assume other countries of this beautiful continent) measure success in an entirely different realm. Instead of bothering with personality tests and hyper-analyzing the results, (I’m Princess Jasmine! By why am I Princess Jasmine?) the people of Mozambique measure their lives in terms of health, family, and community: three things that have somehow let slip from our own definitions of success and life.

They do not wake in the morning and wonder about the interactions they’re going to have throughout the day, crippled by an unrealistic fear that failure is around the corner. To them, the morning is another day. Another day of being able to provide. Another day of hard work followed by spending time with loved ones. Another day filled with handshakes, cheek kisses, meeting new people, laughter, drinks, stars, dreaming.

Is this the big answer to my simple question? Is life this easy? Then why do I turn to isolation instead of socializing, something I’ve done since high school? Why do I believe that the nighttime holds more answers than the day? Will my mind eventually find the solution to its constant confusion?

Simple Answer: Estamos Juntos
The Mozambican welcomes the morning. The Mozambican does not worry about his or her place on a symbolic compass. Mozambicans find their direction from the direction of the collective whole. The collective whole is strong when healthy and happy. I now belong to this collective whole and can feel the love pouring in, but the trick is opening myself up to this inflow.

The trick is to not fear the morning but fear the idea of a personal world without the ability to face mornings, nighttimes. The fact that I’m able to wake healthy and happy surrounded by people who are living each day with love in their hearts and a sense of identity built on a strong history and even stronger national pride. A common phrase when meeting someone for the first time is “estamos juntos” or, literally, “we are together.”

I can’t promise that I’ll be able to face tomorrow morning without hesitation, but I can promise that I’ll allow the morning light to fill my eyes and show possibilities as they are: solely dependent on ourselves and our ability to recognize them, attempt them, and learn from them. If we are to succeed as volunteers, the answer is that simple. Mozambique will welcome us. Mozambique will recognize our role.

Mozambique is such a South.

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