During the summer of 2008, I traveled to Uganda. I spent most of my time in the small community of Lugazi, between the capital of Kampala and the tourist town of Jinja. While there, I worked in community development with a volunteer agency called HELP International.
One of the projects in which I was most involved was building adobe stoves. Most days, I would walk to a school or a women’s group where the other volunteers and I would do one of the three parts of the stove-building process: build the frame of the stove from bricks and mortar, fill it with adobe (a mixture of clay and cement), or complete it by removing the banana stock and adding a chimney. These stoves benefitted their employers in several ways: logically and nutritionally, as the number of burners allowed more pans to cook simultaneously, which allowed more nutritionally diverse meals; economically, as the heat was used more efficiently and required less firewood; and individually, as the chimney directed smoke out of the structure.
I spent a small amount of time working with an AIDS support group that one of my peers had developed in the community. The group consisted of 7 patients of the Kawolo hospital who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Many of them lived in villages outside of the town center, but most were able to attend weekly meetings at the hospital where Ashley, who formed the group, would teach them a specific method of bettering their situation. Some of these approaches focused on individual health, while others were community-based stigma reduction strategies. Near the end of my time in Uganda, I was able to help in a combined effort to improve Fred’s (one of the AIDS patients’) physical environment. Over the course of a day, we built him and his family a stove and a shower to help increase sanitation and thereby reduce his risk of disease.
Some of the other projects in which I was involved targeted children, namely the tenants of an orphanage and the kids in our neighborhood. Playing with them served several purposes: it was fun, it kept the kids occupied and content while participating in uplifting activities, and it showed adults the importance of children. Unfortunately, the level of adults’ interest in children was rather low; I often saw kids playing with garbage in the street, their parents either indifferent or unaware. These projects, though, demonstrated to adults the importance of spending time with their children. In addition, some of them were educationally beneficial; at one school, we taught weekly personal health lessons, such as HIV/AIDS awareness and goal-setting. During the HIV/AIDS question-and-answer session, one of the questions was this: “If you play sex in the grass, can you still get AIDS?” That experience reinforced my belief in public health education. Children are especially important because they are the rising generation, the future leaders of the world.
My favorite project was “People with Disabilities“. In it, we met with disabled children and their parents weekly; in the meetings, we taught the how better to care for their children, whom we entertained in the meanwhile. In addition, we visited, evaluated, developed, and implemented improvement programs for each child at his or her home each week. Of the four children I visited, three struggled with literacy; to help them, I made several sets of alphabet cards for them to practice. With the help of their caregivers and parents, I saw each child progress over the course of the summer. One boy in particular, named Pius, improved noticeably. When I first met him in July, he was introverted and silent, looking at the ground each time we spoke to him; he didn’t even seem to understand the words we spoke to him in Luganda, his native language. As we visited him each week, however, he became more responsive and, by the end of the summer, was laughing and playing and talking with us. The change that I saw take place in Pius was a result of the love and attention we gave him. The great thing is that anyone can do that for another person, and it makes such a difference!
The experience I had in Uganda changed my life; it not only changed me, but my perspective. Because of Uganda, I view the world differently and I have found my place in it.