Agnes recently visited Mutungo, Uganda as part of her International Experience. The International Experience Fund is a fund per annum, kindly supported by Santander Universities, and other generous donors, which exists to help eligible undergraduate students take advantage of opportunities overseas, such as work placements, volunteering or studying abroad. Enabling students to access such opportunities will have a range of benefits – enhancing life experiences, building a global network of contacts, broadening horizons and increasing intercultural competence, as well as gaining a competitive edge with regards future careers. For more information, visit https://www.brighton.ac.uk/santander/international-experiences-fund.aspx.
Agnes tells the story in her own words:
“The original objective of the volunteering placement was to increase my understanding of public health provision in developing communities, with the main focus being working with cultural differences to effectively educate and prevent the spread of disease. I was interested in evaluating what might be preventing people from seeking healthcare and education, as this is closely tied in with my career pathway in epidemiology.
During my three weeks in Uganda I was working with a local HIV outreach team. We would meet the local team leader every morning and go to various communities that he has arranged an outreach slot with. We have gone to rural villages, slums in the centre of the capital Kampala, adult skill development centres in large towns, islands on Lake Victoria with extremely limited access to the outside world, to list a few. Initially, the main objective of the team was to provide HIV testing and education, but having quickly realised the need for more extensive healthcare provision, we expanded our outreach by giving out condoms and providing malaria and dengue fever rapid response testing.
We were also able to provide some newborn assessment thanks to having a midwife in our team.
Every day was different in terms of both the people we met, and places we visited, and every day brought new experiences and learning opportunities I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. There were plenty of jobs within the team, and I tried to get involved in a different one each day, so that I could get the full understanding of the process. Those jobs were: supporting our team leader in counselling patients pre- and post- receiving their results, collecting blood samples (finger prick), sample testing, documenting the population data, walking around the village/slums to encourage people to come for testing, combined with HIV education and answering questions regarding both HIV and other health concerns. We always walked around the villages in a group of 3+ as a precaution. I appreciated how well structured the programme was in terms of our safety and wellbeing, although I always felt safe in Uganda and my outreach team always received a warm welcome from wherever we went. Going from door to door and encouraging people to get tested was the most interesting part of the outreach, as I got to learn a lot about people’s personal healthcare challenges and views.
One of the most interesting cases was a lady in one of the fishing villages, who initially told us that she wouldn’t get tested because testing is the Mzungo’s (Mzungo means “white person” in Luganda, and is by no means used as an insult. It is derived from Swahili where Mzungo means “rich person”) way of infecting people in Africa with HIV, which we make in labs in the western world. I took it upon myself to have a conversation with that lady and address her concerns and assure her that this is not the case. I was very surprised to hear that she had thought HIV only existed in Africa and white people couldn’t get infected. It made me realise that it was this lack of information about HIV that made her believe we were going to harm her, rather than help. I showed her statistics from World Health Organisation website (thanks for technology!) about the number of HIV positive people in America and Europe, and I explained how crucial it is to get tested, because it’s possible to live a normal life with HIV with the right medications. It was one of the most heart-warming and proudest moments of my life, because this lady who was scared of us and absolutely adamant she would not get tested, then gave me a big hug and asked to take her to the testing spot.
The most personally challenging days were those when we were going to the slums in Kampala. It’s very difficult to explain the state of the slums without sounding like I’m exaggerating, but I will try. There are approx. 15,000 children living on the streets of Kampala, about 15% of them living in Kampala slums. At the entrance, you are welcomed by a group of boys aged 8-25 inhaling “mafuta” which is basically petrol, through a cloth. They never cause any trouble and are always very lovely to white people coming to the slums because they know we’re there to help. Since having met our group of volunteers, they would often skip their turn at getting high so that they could come and play games with us. They particularly like football and Uno.
Boys in the slums are looked after by Uncle Freddie who comes in every day to teach them skills that could help them get a job and get out of the slums, such as car mechanics, hairdressing, jewellery making etc. He also brings them food to make sure they get at least one meal a day without having to steal.
As heart-breaking as the boys’ side of the slums is, girls’ slums is something I was not ready for. There is no group of girls at the entrance getting high, which makes you think it’s probably a good thing. There is silence. No happy children playing football, no uncle Freddie teaching skills. Only an occasional cry of a hungry baby. When you enter the building, you see a group of girls sat on the floor in a crowded room with not nearly enough beds for them. If you decide to go in and talk to them, you’ll be greeted by lovely young girls speaking perfect English. They have to speak perfect English. The only reason they can afford a bed at the slums, and an occasional meal for their children is because they prostitute themselves every evening. Myself and other volunteers visited girls slums almost daily. We were bringing them food, teaching them how to make reusable pads, clothes, read and write, hoping that any of our efforts will at least have a chance of changing their lives for better.
I left Uganda knowing that it was just the beginning of my experience with that country. As a starting point, I am now a UK ambassador for the NGO I was working with, and we are fundraising for a school for the kids from the slums.
In summary, my visit to Uganda was somewhat an emotional rollercoaster. From going on a safari and seeing giraffes up close and the most beautiful waterfall, to meeting kids in the slums and being confronted with what is reality for them, and for people in developed countries would be the worst nightmare to even think of. I absolutely believe everyone should go to Kampala and see that reality at least once. I believe it would make us better human beings.
My best memory from the trip are the local children, who whenever they would see a white person would happily shout “Mzungo” (meaning “white person”) on top of their lungs and run towards us to give us hugs. When occasionally I had candy left when returning back from the slums and I gave it to the kids on the way back home, they would always say “Webale” (“thank you”) and kneel down, because that is their way of showing respect to the adults.
I will use my experience in Uganda in my future career in public health, as it made me realise how complex the system is and how many aspects of life need to be considered, and I will use that experience in my everyday life, trying to make the world a better place, one person at a time.”
Support Agnes’ Go Fund Me raising money for HIV supplies for Uganda here.