For those of us working in international development or non-profit organizations, we have a strong tendency to deny our needs for self-care. We usually push ourselves beyond the “healthy” limits due to our insatiable drive to make this world better. This often leads to ignoring our body’s whispers to “slow down”, “get rest”, or “just be.”

Today marks the one year anniversary of my wake-up call to be more mindful and attentive to my mind, body and spirit. It happened on this day in 2013, when my body went from whispering to screaming after several months of overseeing multiple projects. I had pushed myself to the brink by running two successful funding campaigns simultaneously for Uniting Distant Star plus prepping for our inaugural trip as an organization to Liberia, and also co-chairing the first annual MINN IDEA Summit. I left Minnesota on September 7 and spent two long days traveling to Liberia with layovers in Chicago and Brussels, and a brief stop on Banjul’s tarmac. As I descended from the plane at Roberts Field Airport in Liberia, I had no idea the life-changing experience that would soon unfold.

It took awhile for our team to get their bags and travel to where we were staying. When we finally arrived at our host family’s home around 8pm, my hunger pangs were no longer bearable. I was delighted to find a table filled with a few of my Liberian favorites such as potato greens, fried plantain, and chicken. I immediately began consuming this delicious food while chatting with my hosts and team. My excitement and exhaustion overshadowed my focus on chewing my food. All of sudden it finally hit me when I took my first sip of water and felt that familiar sensation. Oh no! A piece of chicken had lodged in my esophagus and what would I do if it did not pass!?

I had previous problems with acid reflux in my twenties that scarred my esophagus at the opening of my stomach. It would become inflamed whenever I became overly stressed. Majority of the time, it would either pass into my stomach or it would come up to be spit out. Regrettably, there were a few occasions where I had to make an emergency room visit to have the food extracted by an endoscopic machine. I had put myself into a tough position knowing that Liberia’s post-conflict medical system created obstacles in finding proper care. With it being late at night, I went to bed hoping that this would be resolved with a restful sleep allowing my body to recoup and relax.

Regrettably, when I woke up the following morning I knew I had a real problem on my hands with being unable to swallow my first sip of water. It became urgent to figure out what were my options, since the chances of finding an endoscopic machine in Liberia were pretty slim.

Due to my previous experience with this condition, I knew what I needed to stabilize myself  as we searched for a solution. I had gone several hours without drinking water and would need to be hydrated intravenously since I could not swallow anything including my saliva. Kelvin–our co-founder and country director–found a medically trained person to administer my re-hydration as I prepared for what seemed like an impossible quest.

Early this year, I had written an article “Healthcare in Africa: A Fight For Life” for Super Steel Africa that highlights the details of my ordeal in finding the endoscopic machine. This article also gives an account how this excruciating experience opened my eyes to the difficulties that many Liberians face in finding the healthcare they need and deserve.

It is evident as I write this post one year later that everything turned out alright from this unfortunate medical mayhem. However, this incident was not the only wake-up call that I received from this trip in 2013. I left Liberia with a severe cold that made the long trip home quite miserable. Each time we took off or landed my head felt ready to explode from the plane’s intense cabin pressure. Obviously, I had depleted my own immune system that my body could no longer sustain itself.

I am standing next to my host mother Mrs. Esther Wreh before I left for home. Photo by Kelvin Fomba (2013).

This trip provided the opportunity re-examine my “crazy” busy life and ponder why I quit meditating earlier in 2013 without considering the consequences. I had been meditating faithfully since 2010, a month after returning from my second year living in Liberia. Returning both flat broke and jobless, I started this practice to quiet my overly anxious mind and establish a keener focus as I actively pursued my job search.

My self-induced crisis in Liberia required some significant changes in my well-being. I discovered that I created undue stress on my body by working more than playing while depriving myself of much needed sleep. I needed an immediate self-intervention before self-destructing, since I returned home to a demanding schedule during the month of October. This included a two-weekend training course Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR), and the inaugural 2013 MINN IDEA Summit that I had co-chaired the planning committee.

With October being my birth month, I treated myself to the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman. This thoughtful book guided me in re-establishing my mindfulness practice that I put on hiatus in 2013. The need for a quiet mind was reaffirmed during the first weekend of the STAR training when they conducted a 10-minute meditation session.

During the two weeks leading up to the summit on October 25, I meditated anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes a day and ensured that I went to bed at a decent hour. Also, I started reintroducing healthier food options into my diet while being very mindful of my chewing. After two weeks of practice, I took a moment to reflect on my progress and became pleasantly surprised by the benefits that included no swallowing problems, increasing productivity, and feeling rejuvenated. Additionally, I heightened my awareness of what I preferred in my personal and professional life. I could not afford to lose sight of my progress, so I started recording the positive effects from changing my previous bad habits.

In the following months, I have increased my meditation to include occasional retreats and regular group classes along with my own at home practice. When Minnesota’s long and bitterly cold winter ended, I have taken power walks almost daily while enjoying a peaceful commune with nature. I continue to add new and healthier foods to my diet as well. Additionally, I have made a concerted effort to sleep approximately 8 hours a night in response to what my body demands.

Enjoying a colorful array of flowers and peaceful tranquility at Plymouth Millennial Gardens. Photo by Heather (2014).
During the summer months, my mindfulness evolved into what I call “my second childhood.” The concept is to play smarter. Interestingly, I read an article “7 Secrets to Grow Younger, Live Longer” by Deepak Chopra two days ago. His seventh secret “Maintain a Youthful Mind” mentioned how adding child-like activities such as playing on a swing promotes “openness and flexibility.” This made me smile, because I took up swinging in June. I love to sway back and forth while watching the clouds change formation. This simple activity gives you a sense of wonder while having fun.

Me and my shadow taking a swing. Photo by Heather (2014)
In closing this post, there is much to be grateful for what I have learned and accomplished in the last year. I’m extremely happy to announce that I have had no swallowing issues in the past year. This invaluable intention has also contributed to a much improved quality of life. That is why today I celebrate and honor my commitment to self-care.

An engraved brick at the Plymouth Millennial Gardens. Photo by Heather (2014).