I’m way overdue for another blog post – the updates have piled up! I feel like I’m struggling to find a balance between using this forum as a diary of sorts to fill all of you in on what I’ve been up to, and using it as a platform to talk about the issues and challenges I’ve been witnessing related to health equity and social justice in Uganda. For the time being, I think I’ll continue to do a bit of both, and just hope that this vacillation between tales of fun adventures and reflections on the big challenges in maternal and child health doesn’t generate too much cognitive dissonance.
The past three weeks have been a whirlwind of work, travel (mostly for fun), and trying to get myself more grounded in my life here.
My work at Save the Mothers has been plugging along – some days feeling like there’s just way too much to do, and others feeling a lack of direction and motivation weighing on me. I have excel sheets of potential donors, a bunch of leads, and a ton of resources and support at my disposal, so (now that we just finished our Global Health Corps Quarter 1 retreat) I’m ready to really dive into the work and reconnect with why I’m here. Mary and I did celebrate one small victory recently when we found out that a letter of intent we submitted to a potential donor has advanced to the next round of applications. Woo!
I was really happy to learn (today) that Mary and I will be participating in some site visits in the coming weeks to some of our Mother Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative facilities. The visits will be an opportunity to learn about how the initiative has been implemented in these facilities, as well as get an update on a mobile hospital referral program that was established as part of the initiative. I’m really excited to get out into the field!
Speaking of which, I recently accompanied Topi, our lovely networking coordinator, on a field visit to Budondo, a community about two hours east of Mukono. We visited Ivan, one of Save the Mothers’ first graduates, who is a mayor and school principal in his community. He is AMAZING. After graduating from the Master of Public Health Leadership program, Ivan returned to his community and started a number of ‘safe motherhood groups.’ In addition to providing education around safe motherhood, these groups, now supported by Barclays Bank, engage the women in micro-enterprise projects that generate funds to pay for hospital fees, emergency obstetric and neonatal care, and other necessary services.
On the day we visited, the group (who happened to be teenage mothers) was trained in how to make two different kinds of notebooks for school children. Aside from learning the skills to actually make the notebooks, the women also learned the cost of all of the materials and collectively agreed on a price to charge (2,000 Uganda shillings, which is about $0.54 at the current exchange rate) for the notebooks. The other safe motherhood groups have been producing soap and shampoo, and have been relatively successful in marketing and selling their products.
Barclays provides the raw materials and training to the groups, and conducts periodic check-ins to see how the work is going and determine if additional support is needed. This example so perfectly illustrates how tackling maternal and child health challenges requires creative, multidisciplinary efforts that extend far beyond the walls of the health facility.
Life updates (a.k.a. adventures in Mukono, Jinja, and Malawi)
I’m so grateful to have had some time over the past several weeks to explore my surroundings – locally, nationally, and regionally – and feel more rooted in my experience here.
A couple of weeks ago I officially had my first ‘wow, I live in Uganda’ moment. Prompted by an internet outage at the office, Mary and I decided to take a walk up to the Ankrah Foundation, a beautiful lodge surrounded by lovely green, wooded landscape – which just happens to be located right behind Uganda Christian University. There wasn’t a soul around, so we just sat on a breezy veranda looking out at the beautiful valley below. I felt a wave of deep gratitude wash over me and I finally felt from the center of my being that I am here.
A few more paces up the hill and we discovered the Besaniya Prayer Mountain, a sacred place where people camp, pray, and otherwise commune with God sometimes for days at a time. It was one of those moments where you find what you need when you’re not even looking. We both sat for a little while in silence, solitude, and presence before making our descent back down the hill to campus in the golden evening light.
Venturing outside of Mukono, I spent a night visiting some of the fellows living in Jinja, which is about two hours east – right on the Nile – and stunning. We cooked, ate, played music – and jumped off a rope swing into the river! It was exhilarating. And so good to see these friends I’d been missing.
I have to admit I’m slightly jealous of their idyllic location in a village right on the banks of this powerful life-giving force. The energy in this place is entirely different than Mukono, and especially Kampala. A slower pace, a more immediately-felt connection to the source, and more readily-offered smiles and hellos left me feeling full as I journeyed back to Mukono.
I feel a bit guilty about it, but this completely self-indulgent trip was an absolute blast. I flew with three other U-Crew fellows to Lilongwe, the sleepy capital city of this southern African country, where we joined forces with a bunch of the Malawi and Zambia GHC fellows, before heading out for the Lake of Stars music festival.
We camped, danced, laughed (a LOT), swam, lazed on the beach of Lake Malawi, and generally had a seriously fun and relaxing time. Plus, we saw some AMAZING music. Young Fathers was hands down the most incredible show I’ve seen in ages. We were all buzzing from the energy of their performance for hours after. Please, listen to them now. Uhuru and Toya Delazy from South Africa and Lucius Banda from Malawi were other awesome performances.
After a few crazy days at the fest, us U-Crew ladies made our way to Cape Maclear, about an hour from the festival site. At our lodge, the Funky Cichlid, we were promptly welcomed by a small band of young boys who sang us two songs – one I can only guess is titled “Welcome to Malawi,” and then a killer rendition of “Who let the Dogs Out.”
We ate great food, lounged on the beach, swam, and went snorkeling in the crystal blue waters. We also woke up at 4 AM to watch the lunar eclipse (I hope you all did too!) from the shore of Lake Malawi. As the moon was burning a bright red on one side of the lake, the sun was beginning to rise on the other. Spooky, magical!
My time in Malawi gave me a chance to pause and reflect on why I’m here and what it is that drew me to this experience. As we flew home through Nairobi, I felt overcome by gratitude for the people, places, and moments I’ve encountered so far and a sense of anticipation for all that is yet to come.
I can’t tell you everything!
It’s hard to get everything into these updates. There’s so much to tell you about and so many important people and moments that I haven’t even included here. Like Quraish, one of the Save the Mothers drivers – who is so, so much more than that. He’s a trusted friend, an entrepreneur with his own tour company, and a soon-to-be yoga student of yours truly.
Or Fred, the facilities manager, who has ten kids (only two are his biological children) and dreams of opening an orphanage one day.
Or the time that Clay – the driver who brought us from Cape Maclear back to Lilongwe – rather than dropping us in an unfamiliar place, spent an extra hour accompanying us to the kitenge market in Lilongwe so we could buy loads of the beautiful fabric we’d been admiring all week.
Or the awesome new outfit I had made by the local tailor, Khadijah, who calls me sweetheart and tells me in the most loving way that I’m ‘growing fat.’
Or Saida and Christine, the sweet mamas of Save the Mothers’ staff, who bring us chai and mandazis every morning while we work (which is probably responsible for Khadijah’s compliment).
I could go on… Until next time!