the week I was blind

A few weeks back, my friend texted me from the States and asked, “What would be the worst part of being blind, do you think?” I love that about him—he always asks me thought-provoking questions that really challenge me to think about things to which I’ve never really paid much attention. This week I’ve been thinking about the irony of that conversation, and how I would answer that question now that I could answer from firsthand experience.

A few days ago I didn’t want to write this blog. I’m not sure why . . . maybe it was too fresh, too real. Also, in all honesty, it was difficult for me to read on a computer. But just a few weeks ago I vowed to blog more, to share updates, to be free. Plus, I know many people are worried about me, and this is a fairly major event in my life, so here’s my best attempt to share it with you.

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I’m sitting on the bench at the station in my town trying not to cry. To hide my emotions, I rest my head in my hands. I blink back tears and open my eyes. Then I close my right eye. I can no longer see my feet with my left eye. I hold up my hand to test my vision. I can only see it if it’s within several inches of my face, and even then it’s very blurry. The tears start to come in earnest.

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I’m now in a car on my way to Kumasi. I try to take in all I can with both eyes, but it’s hard to keep the left eye open, and it doesn’t do me much good anyway. I think, ‘What if these are the last views I will ever see with my left eye? A tro tro ride. Soak it all in. Time in limited.’ I think of the beautiful things I saw just two days before at the UNHCR camp in Brong Ahafo. How could my eye have been fine then and now I’m blind?

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I decide I can’t think like that, so I tell myself, ‘It’s got to just be the drops that makes everything so cloudy. I’ll get to Accra, Nana will tell me I’m fine, and once I stop taking these drops I will be able to see again.’ Still in denial, I tell myself ‘This can’t be how going blind feels. Everything is bright, behind a cloud, not dark like true blindness.’

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What if it is real, though?

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I start thinking about what this could mean for me, for my service. I tell myself I’ll have to make a decision, that there are two options. ‘No,’ a voice in my head says, ‘there’s only one option: Ghana.’

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Darrie’s question pops in my head and I chuckle to myself a little bit. The worst part of going blind is not being able to see where you are going.

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I am rushed from Kumasi to Accra. The Peace Corps doctor examines me and says, “Well, there definitely is some infection going on, as I suspected.” He pauses, won’t look me in the face.

“Is there something else going on as well?”

“. . . You have an appointment with the eye doctor tomorrow morning. Let’s let him make the diagnosis.”

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The eye doctor makes pleasantries while looking at my right eye. He switches to the left, and mid sentence exclaims, “Mamma mia! Oh my . . .  no, no, no, not good at all.” He sits back in his chair and tells me extreme damage has been done to my cornea. I ask how to fix it. He shakes his head.

“I’m afraid the damage is too extensive at this point,” he tells me.

“But changes in my prescription can help me see better, right?” He tells me glasses can’t make the cloudiness any better.  I ask about a cornea transplant. He tells me the damage is too deep, it won’t help.

“So, my vision will always be like this?” I ask, adrenaline surging, voice breaking.

“Let’s see if the steroid drops help, but most likely, yes.”

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Disbelief. Grief. Adrenaline still surging. “I need you, now,” I text my friend Adam, before leaving the office. He calls instantly. Adam and Paul meet me at the Peace Corps office and I tell them I’m blind. “C’mon,” they say. “We’ve got gin.”

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Paul and Adam have seen me through all my darkest moments in Ghana, some of the hardest moments of my life period. This time, we sit on the kitchen floor in the home of an FBI agent I had never met sipping gin and tonics and eating cake out of a pan. The boys do their best to make me laugh and think of other things. A few times I say things like “How am I supposed to take the GRE with one eye?” or “How am I supposed to climb Kilimanjaro half-blind?” (“You keep the ledges to your right side” Paul tells me). Pretty soon, even I can’t stand my self-pitying. One eye is all you need to climb a mountain. One eye is all you need to read a computer screen. I’m determined to not let this stop me. Still, I don’t know what I would have done without them there by my side in my moment of need.

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I’m back in the PC doctor’s office and he tells me I have a flight booked to Morocco in twelve hours. “CD Mike will be accompanying you,” he tells me.  

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“So, sounds like we are going to Morocco together,” the country director says when I go to his office. “Don’t worry, I’ll be your seeing eye dog.” He’s making light of the situation to make me feel better, but I also know he is coming with me so that if the second opinion confirms the original diagnosis, I won’t have to hear that I’m blind all alone again.

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Driving through the Moroccan countryside, CD Mike points out various things and teaches me a little bit about the history of Morocco. The bright sun hurts my left eye, but my right eye takes it all in. Morocco is a beautiful place. If only the knot in my stomach would unclench so I could enjoy it.

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We arrive at the clinic in Rabat and the Regional Medical Officer is waiting on the sidewalk. He takes my hand and guides me straight into the examining room and tells me we can deal with checking me into the hospital later. The doctor comes and begins her examination. Eventually, she sits back and says, “Who told you you will lose your vision? Don’t worry, it’s not true.”

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CD Mike is noticeably cheerier when he comes to visit me in the afternoon. He brings me a coffee and a fresh squeezed orange juice. I’m still reeling from the past few days of intense emotion, but its good to have company.

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I’ve been at the clinic for two days and there has been no improvement. The Regional Medical Officer begins talking about plans to send me to Washington DC. I’m torn. If I go, it means that things aren’t going well for my eye, which is very bad. But at the same time, I can’t help but kind of want to go to America, to see my family, to be home. Ultimately I decide I can’t think like that. The best thing for me is to be in Morocco and begin to heal. The doctor gives me yet another eye drop to try.

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“Today your eye is really better!” Dr. M’Rabek tells me, obviously relieved. The latest steroid drop is working, the cloud over my cornea is beginning to recede. A new flood of emotions, most of all relief.

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I will go home to Ghana Saturday morning. My eye is almost all cleared up. My vision won’t ever go back to exactly what it was, but it’s close. I can see again. I can see much better than I ever thought I would, and I am so grateful. Everyone has gone above and beyond to make sure that I will be ok—my country director, the entire medical staff at Peace Corps Morocco, my wonderful ophthalmologist, all the nurses here at the hospital. All of them have exceeded my expectations and provided me with the best care possible. 

And to answer Darrie’s question:

One day one of the nurses took out her phone and began to show me videos of her wedding. The traditional garb, music, and dancing were all incredibly beautiful, and she and I laughed continuously for 10 minutes as she tried to pantomime her way through explaining how Moroccan weddings work. The worst part about going blind, I decided, would be losing the ability to fully share experiences with others. If I was blind, I could still listen to the music and listen to her try to explain things in French, but I wouldn’t be able to see her hands tattooed with henna, to watch her be lifted on a platform onto the shoulders of four dancing men. It just wouldn’t be the same. I’m so grateful that I haven’t lost that ability after all. 

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an unfortunate reality

It’s after midnight when Oliver’s low growl wakes me up. Neither of us moves at first. We lay still, both listening. I hear the faint percussion of drums and I understand what has woken him. At first I think it’s a church program—sometimes they do those all night—but something about this sounds different. Oliver’s growls turn to barks. Frantic, urgent cries. He’s afraid, and desperately wants to go outside to see what’s going on, to protect me. I start to listen more closely. There are men singing along with the drums. It occurs to me that, like Oliver’s tone, the sound of the cacophony outside is also insistent. Occasionally, a high-pitched cry rises above the voices, the drums, and the maracas. It’s not a church hymn they’re singing; the song is too emotional, carrying too great a weight. I can’t tell how many are taking part, but I would guess 15 or 20. The sound gets louder and softer every so often, so I know they are moving, but not far, as I can always hear them. As I sit on the floor comforting my dog, I vaguely wonder what they are doing. Is it a juju ritual? A celebration? Before falling asleep, I think, listening to this when I first got to site would have scared the shit out of me.

The next day everyone leaves the house by 7:00. It is unusual, but I don’t think too much of it. Kofi returns around noon and invites me to share his lunch. Over boiled yams and stew, he tells me he had to go to his spot to work because Kwabena just left for Kumasi. I remember to ask him about the noise from the night before.

“They were doing a funeral ritual,” he explains. “A small girl just died in the night and they were mourning.”

“Was she a small child?” I ask. “A baby?”

“Not so small,” he says, pausing. “OK, maybe 16 to 17 years,” he decides.

“Was she sick? What happened?”

“They say she was pregnant and, well . . .” His voice trails off. He doesn’t need to say more. I know what happens when teenage girls get pregnant here. “She was Kwabena’s friend,” he tells me, with sadness in his voice.

Kwabena is Kofi’s nephew who usually works at the spot. He’s maybe 20 years old, lives in our house, and he works from 6:30 each morning until 10:00 each night. Well, he leaves and returns at those times anyway. He opens the spot and closes it, and is often working there, but clearly not all the time. Though we’ve lived together for over a year, I barely know Kwabena. He’s very quiet around me, and I hardly ever see him. Sometimes he will come back to the house with a girl in the middle of the day. I never mind or say anything. You see, young men and young women aren’t ever just platonic friends here. Suddenly, I understand his early morning departure to Kumasi.

The girl tried to give herself an abortion, and it went badly. At our last baby weighing, the midwife came and spoke to the women about long-term family planning options.

“The women here too often try to give themselves abortions,” she told me. “It is better they use long term birth control.”

Last month three women came to her very sick from complications from their abortions. I’m sure many more performed abortions, they just didn’t have severe complications, or they went to a clinic further away for treatment so no one in town would know.

Women here have a variety of methods they use for abortions. Some make teas from herbs to drink. Others insert the herbs directly into themselves. I’ve even heard of people drinking ground up glass, thinking it will cut the baby from their stomachs. I have no idea which method Kwabena’s friend tried, but I’m sure she didn’t want her parents or the midwife to know, which is why she didn’t seek help until it was too late.

Her family is angry, and rightfully so. They’re angry with Kwabena, which is why he had to leave until things calmed down a bit. I feel like I should be angry with him as well, but I can’t be somehow. A small part of me wonders if I’m becoming complacent; death happens all to frequently here, and often they are preventable deaths. So why am I not furious with him for not using a condom or for encouraging her to keep the baby?

Because anger isn’t going to solve anything. It’s not going to prevent the next pregnant teenager from doing the exact same thing. Only education on family planning and about the dangers of abortion will do that. Only talking to young girls and encouraging them to stay in school, to avoid sex, and to think of their futures will do that.

Do I think girls in my GLOW clubs still have sex? Of course. Will any of them get pregnant? It’s always a possibility. Do I think they will have an abortion? I hope not. I hope participating in my girls’ club will will give them the courage and the knowledge to avoid this. And that’s all I can do, I guess. Just hope.

UNHCR Refugee Camp for Cote d’Ivoire

Yesterday I traveled north to Brong Ahafo. I had the opportunity to visit the UNHCR Refugee Camp there established for people from Cote d’Ivoire. Some of them have formed a drumming and dancing group and danced for us. They were incredible! Not only were their dances amazing, they made their own costumes and masks, and they sang beautifully as well. Here are some pictures and videos of the dancing

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Reflections on a rainy Sunday morning

The other day, I arrived home after my GLOW camp. I had my backpack and three large bags in tow. As I started up the path to my house, a woman approached me, greeted me in Sefwi, and insisted on taking the largest bag from my hands. She was returning from farm and had a head pan full of vegetables, a baby tied to her back, and a toddler trailing behind. She carried my things all the way to my front door, set them down and said goodbye. She started back up the path in the direction we just came from to go home.
I strive to be as selfless as this woman, so willing to help me, whose name I don’t even know.

A few mornings ago, I was outside preparing to do my laundry. There was a woman at the well fetching water. No one else was around, so she called to me in twi and asked me to “carry” her (help lift the pan onto her head). I came over and lifted with her. We got the pan about eye level, but I wasn’t strong enough to lift it onto her head. We struggled there for several seconds, and then half the pan came cascading down all over me. Embarrassed, I apologized profusely. She kindly told me not to worry as she turned around and began to haul more water up from the well to replenish what was lost.
One day, I hope to be as strong as these women, and to be able to carry them. I also hope to always be as forgiving as this woman.

A friend of mine recently finished his service in Ghana. Instead of going home to America, he headed to South Sudan, his original home. He went back to find his family, to discover what happened to his mother, and to find closure. He created a Facebook page in lieu of a blog to share his journey. Every time I read an update, I nearly cried. I am in awe of his story, and his bravery/willingness to share every raw moment and emotion. He has reminded me of the impact words can have.
I aspire to be as free and open as Nhial, and will make more of an effort to share my experiences, big or small.

Ghana from Mom’s Point of View: Guest Blog

I’m going to start first with my impressions on Ghana, then go into the fun things we did.

The first thing I learned when I arrived in Ghana was, they have flush toilets but you don’t flush the toilet paper. There’s always a little trash can next to the toilet that you put the paper in after using it.  I only forgot a couple times after learning the rules.  Old habits die hard!

The second thing I learned was how to drink from a pure water sachet.  These are half liter plastic bags containing purified water.  There is definitely an art to biting off the corner without soaking yourself.  After making the tiniest hole in my first pure water sachet, I watched children doing this and decided it’s easiest to tear the corner off with your teeth and then spit it out.  Bottled water is much easier and tastes much better.

Lots of women in Ghana wear wigs.  I guess they want it to look like they have long, silky hair but, most of these wigs are rather short.  I can’t imagine wearing one when it’s so hot all the time.

If you’re female and live in Ghana, you will be an expert at carrying EVERYTHING on your head.  Even toddler girls practice this with soft things such as packages of toilet tissue.  Apparently the men have more rounded skulls because they don’t carry anything on their heads.  In fact, they don’t carry anything at all unless they see white women with heavy bags.  Then they carry things in their hands.

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I cannot tell the difference between Twi and Sefwi.  One morning someone greeted me and I replied without thinking for very long.  Everyone who lives there got a good laugh because it turns out I was greeted in Twi and responded in Sefwi.  Hey … at least I was trying!

If you order food at a restaurant, be prepared to wait for it for an hour.  That’s preparation time only.  Ghanaian people are very patient.

Chickens, goats and dogs roam freely everywhere.  Even in the big cities, you see them all over the street.  It’s amazing they don’t get run over by the crazy taxi drivers.

Ghanaian corn grows really tall . . . like ten feet tall!

On to our trip:

When Heather greeted us at the airport, it was great to see her.  She looked healthy and very happy to see us.  I instantly knew it was going to be a fun trip.  It took a while to get through customs because they were capturing everyone’s fingerprints with a little scanner.  Sarah had serious issues making the little scanner see her fingers but finally we got out of the airport.

At this point, Sam lost her iPhone.  I don’t think anyone will ever know if someone lifted it from her bag or it fell out in/around our first taxi.  It certainly didn’t take long for her to figure out it was gone.  After a quick call (45 seconds) to her dad from Heather’s phone, she was at least feeling a little better.  This was while we were waiting for our first meal.  We were told when we ordered that it would take an hour.  There were exactly five other people in this restaurant and it took that long for everyone’s meals to reach their tables.  We were all Americans and all discussing the length of time to get our food.  At least the food was good.

On day one, we had smoothies for breakfast and then went to a fabric shop where there were many beautiful batiks to choose from.  We each picked one out and bought enough fabric to make a dress.  Then we headed to the main bus station to take a nice, air conditioned bus to Kumasi where we would pick up Oliver.  We arrived to find the station packed to the gills with people waiting.  Heather said she has never had to wait for a bus there before.  On this particular day, the wait was 3 hours.  Then the bus ride was 5 hours.  Luckily, there’s a rest area about half way where you can pay to use the restroom and buy some food and drink.  When we got to Kumasi, we went straight to our hotel before walking over to the Kumasi Sub-Office (KSO) of the Peace Corps.  Oliver was very happy to see his mom.  I was impressed with how small and well mannered he is.  He definitely wanted to go home though.

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On day two, we went to the station to find a tro tro that was going to Adabokrom.  We found one and then waited 5 hours for it to fill.  Once again, Heather said she has never waited so long.  Tro tros only go when they are fully loaded with 23 people.  This one also had one dog which managed to scare off at least one potential rider.  The ride to Heather’s town was long and we arrived after dark.  Oliver did great because he had four laps to switch between.  But he was also oozing a little from his surgical site so we all ended up with a little blood on our clothes.  Oh well, at least we were finally at her house.

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We met Kofi, his wife, Hawa, and their daughter, Sandra.  I was a little surprised at how tiny Kofi is.  He’s not much bigger than Heather.  Hawa is even smaller and she’s very beautiful.  Sandra is a little cutie but very shy. It’s going to be very hard for Heather to say good-bye to her when it comes time to leave.

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Hawa

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We had Ghanaian food for dinner and it wasn’t bad.  I forget the name but it had cocoa yam leaves, palm oil and some sort of fish as well as spices in it.  We had plantains and cocoa yams to dip in it and we pretty well finished it off.  It was interesting to be sitting on the floor and eating with our hands. When in Ghana, eat like they do.

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Sam wasn’t feeling well the first day at Heather’s house so, Sarah and I went on a tour of the village without her. It was wonderful to meet the people Heather’s been working with including CK and Agya.  They were all very excited that we had come to visit.

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When we met the midwife, Alice, I could tell immediately why Heather likes her so well.  She knows everyone and hears about everything that’s going on in town.  I liked Alice too.  She’s so warm and friendly and just a firecracker.  She’s got to be the busiest woman in town.  She joined us briefly for a little sip of pito (millet beer) and then returned to her clinic.  When she learned that I have my own house, she pumped her fist and cheered! That’s something we have in common.  We returned later in the week to a lunch of fufu and light soup.  It was tasty with a little bit of pepe and salt added.

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We stayed in Adabokrom until Friday around noon.  In the days we were there, we participated in an educational health program and toured a palm farm at a nearby village, visited CK’s cocoa farm, greeted the elders at the chief’s palace, toured Alice’s clinic where we saw two newborn babies, and went to a religious festival at a place called “The Grotto”.  We did a fair amount of walking around the town and I was very glad I had my knee repaired before the trip.

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It was especially fun to participate in the health program and get to see what Heather actually does for work.  She spoke in English, then a health worker named Desmond translated into Twi.  Agya also spoke in the native language at the beginning of the program.  At the end, Sarah was assigned weighing the babies, Sam was assigned recording baby weights to make sure they’re growing, and I was assigned looking at the babies’ fingernails.  Of course, Desmond helped us out with our tasks.  After the program was over, the village brought a huge bounty of food and donated it to the health workers.  It filled the back of the pickup truck we rode in. Ghanaian’s are also very generous people.

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The highlight of staying in Adabokrom was getting to see the progress made on the new community center.  In the time we were there, a couple layers of blocks were laid all around the building.  It was easy to see how much progress was made in just a few days.  I hope it’s finished before Heather’s service to Peace Corps is up.  If not, it should be well on the way.

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I’ve saved the best for last.  The original plan was to head north and go to Mole National Park as soon as we arrived.  Since Oliver needed emergency surgery before we came, the sequence of our trip was modified a little bit so we could take him home.  We went to Mole last and then took a bus from Tamale, straight to Accra for our flight home.

Mole National Park was AMAZING!  We arrived around 6:30 PM and all checked in at the main gate.  They collect a nominal fee there when you enter the park.  Then we were driven to the Mole Motel where we checked in and put in our orders for dinner.  After freshening up, we headed to the restaurant.  The restaurant tables are on a covered deck overlooking the pool.  This is one of the few motels in Ghana where there’s a swimming pool for the guests. Just below and to the side of the pool is an observation area with about six or eight benches.  It looks directly out over a large water hole.  We were told before arriving that all the animals in the park will come to the water hole if you’re patient enough.  We weren’t that patient but, we did manage to see some beautiful African birds and there were three large elephants in the middle of the water hole the next day at lunch time.

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There are a variety of ways one can see Mole but the most popular ones are the morning walk and the jeep tours. You are not allowed to go anywhere outside the motel/restaurant/information area at any time without being escorted by an armed guide.  This is really for your own protection.

The morning walk begins at 7:00 and is supposed to last two hours.  After the walk, they serve a continental breakfast to everyone.  Our walking tour ended up being three hours and we were successful in finding a large elephant as well as many smaller mammals including kobs, baboons, monkeys, bushbucks, waterbucks, and warthogs.  Birds we saw were double-spurred frankolins, woolly necked storks, and African jacanas.  I was thrilled to get close-up movies of this 50 year old elephant using my new Canon “point and shoot” camera.  We spent extra time viewing him near a water hole.

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Later that day, Heather, Sarah, Sam and I hired a jeep driver and another guide for a jeep-top tour that lasted 2 hours.  It was WONDERFUL!  This guide commented on how unusual it is to find people Heather and Sarah’s age who are interested in birds.  I told him that was all due to their parents.  It turns out that he guides the bird tours and he knows all the birds.  Heather will definitely be returning at a different time of year when she can do the bird tour and see even more different species.  Here are the birds we saw either on our jeep tour or near the restaurant:

Red cheeked cordon blue

African dwarf kingfisher

Shining blue kingfisher

Pin tailed whydah

Batula eagle

Rosering parakeets

Cameroon indigo

Long tailed glossy starling

Palm nut vulture

Western grey plantain eater

Red throated bee eater

Greater eared Starling

Stone partridge

Gabar goshawk

Little weavers

Blue breasted kingfisher

Black billed wood dove

Short tailed Senegal parrot

Black winged bishop

Yellow capped bishop

Yellow fronted canaries

African cuckoo

Variable sunbird

The colors of these birds are amazingly vibrant compared to the birds we have in America.

Remember that fabric we bought in Accra?  While we were at Mole, a tailor in Tamale was making each of us a dress.  He took all our measurements and wrote down what style of dress we wanted.  Then he made them in two days time and only charged us 15 cedi each.  That’s the equivalent of about $7.50.  They turned out beautiful. That was really something special for each of us to bring home.

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