My first exposure to Uganda consisted of a midnight crossing of the international border that is shared with Rwanda along the three-hour drive from Kigali to Kigezi district. Along with KIHEFO’s driver Enock and four University of Calgary medical students, I filled out the appropriate forms and showed my passport, with a newly acquired East Africa Visa, enough times to make it through the gauntlet of road stops and gunned border agents. With the darkness around us and only a few stars above, we drove the short distance from the border to my new home of Kabale – a southwestern, hilly town of around 50,000 people.
I was thankful to be the first one in our van to arrive. It was 1:00 am and I was in desperate need of something other than a car or airport terminal to call home. My apartment companions Trina and Atayo greeted me and gave me the short version of their home tour before calling it a night. I was running on fumes, but took them up on the offer of a shower, as it would be my first in over 72 hours of travel, layovers, and a night asleep on the benches of Toronto Airport’s Terminal 3.
That first day of work – Monday – would set the tone for the rest of the week, as it was filled with continuous learning and interaction
after interaction. I met more students – these ones were American – who were here to learn about public health in a East African context; some of whom arrived a day before me. We started with a great presentation on the history and work of Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO), an organization that does amazing work in providing health care to the four districts of Kigezi. In addition to their permanent clinics – medical and dental care, HIV/AIDS, child nutrition – in Kabale, KIHEFO does several outreaches each month in surrounding communities. In the afternoon, we were able to actually tour these clinics and the town of Kabale. The town is flowing with hills, houses set into them like blocks, with stores and the artery roads running through the valley.
Over the next two days, we were given presentations on the health care options in Uganda, which range from village health teams and traditional healers to formal national hospitals; and on the conditions mothers face in during their pregnancy, during childbirth, and while caring for children.
Thursday allowed me to start looking at the Village Nutrition Surveys that have been developed to find out what families face in Kigezi. With questions covering access to water, illness, foods consumed, and household assets, it will allow KIHEFO to have quantifiable data for future initiatives in their communities.
I was invited to add additional questions related to water access and sanitation facilities, so that information from these sectors could also be used in future planning.
The last day of the week gave all of the new arrivals, including myself, our first look at village life in Uganda, with a tour of a primary school in Ibumba. After speaking with teachers and having the most amazing welcome by their students, we traveled a short distance away with the school’s deputy headmaster to speak with a women’s group that she is leading. Together, this group of widowed and orphaned women have found strength. They farm together, save together, and learn together. They also helped us learn, by describing the challenges they face in their remote community.
The weekend gave me time to rest, relax, and do a few errands. On Saturday, I started the process of making some custom shirts with local fabric. Two yards of fabric, which comes in amazingly bright patterns, sells for 10,000 Ugandan shillings (or $4). This is enough to make a single men’s shirt, tailored to your exact measurements, costing an additional 20,000 shillings (or $8).On Sunday, I washed clothes. To hand wash clothes completely and in a reasonable amount of time is an art form; I am not there yet.
Looking forward, the second week will see me going out into communities and participate on maternal and child health surveys. There will also be the opportunity to discuss new ways of small-scale agriculture with local youth. Both of these projects have me excited to learn more about Uganda and the issues that people live with each day.
More updates to come.