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First Person

Premed Student’s Volunteer Experience in Uganda

By Annie Adam, postbaccalaureate premedical certificate student

Photo of a Ugandan village water source by Annie Adam.

Photo of a Ugandan village water source by Annie Adam.

This past August, I traveled to Uganda with a medical non-profit organization called Omni Med, a program that places U.S. volunteers in Ugandan villages to teach village health team (VHT) volunteers about basic health issues. These range from child and pregnant women’s nutrition, hand washing, and family planning to malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention. The villages elect volunteers to take Omni Med’s weeklong training course, taught by a mix of their local employees and American volunteers.

Traveling to Uganda was my first trip to Africa and to a Third World country. I spent most of my time in Ntenjeru, a small village in the south where the Omni Med office is headquartered. It is a poor town and reflects the circumstances of most of the country. Most of the people rely on subsistence farming to get by. The children of the village play with toys made from trash, such as old tires, sticks, and plastic bottles. Everyone seems happy, and late into the night dance music is broadcast on loudspeakers when electricity is available for the whole village to hear. They are keenly interested in the muzungu (white) people who show up to volunteer, and they practice their English and thank the American volunteers for coming to work in their country.

The program’s goal is to educate the Ugandan VHT volunteers on preventive and treatment services in several primary care areas, and to train VHTs to pass along that knowledge to rural villagers. Each VHT meets with anywhere from 10 to 20 families in their homes to periodically discuss health issues and see how they are adopting the recommendations of their VHT. Part of my job as a volunteer was to hold discussions with the VHTs about the challenges of their work and if they saw changes in their villages from the work they were doing. The responses I always got were strongly affirmative.

As a volunteer, I also went on home visits with the VHTs to observe how they conducted their visits. I was better able to understand the culture of the villages and how it impacts the ability to implement Omni Med’s suggestions. When a VHT was discussing family planning with a woman who had about 12 children around her, the women challenged us with the question, “Who will take care of me in my old age if I only have two children and then send them off to college?”

Another time, I hiked up a hill with a group of volunteers to see a water source. Clean water is a major issue for Ugandans since many get their cooking, cleaning, and drinking water from streams, ponds, or springs. Sometimes the source is protected, which means there is a cement cover and pipes for it, but I also saw plenty of unprotected water sources that were dirty. Some were stagnant ponds, which I found out via tests contained sky-high levels of E.coli and other bacteria.

One day my group went to see one of the better models of a protected source. As soon as we got there, it started to pour. Some children who were getting water at the time led us further up the hill to their family’s shelter. We took refuge under their combined chicken pen and cooking area along with some of the family members. A little boy was there with a huge swollen belly, a prime example of growing up with extremely poor nutrition. For a family living on the side of a mountain with probably no knowledge of proper childhood nutrition, that little boy was the picture of what I was helping to fight against by being there.

My three weeks in Uganda were an eye-opening experience of the situation of our neighbors overseas. I saw firsthand how the program helps Ugandans in a sustainable way, since it does not rely on a scarce supply of doctors or expensive medicines to accomplish its goals. I had an interest in public health and in volunteering, and it was great to know that there are organizations out there that allow me not only to make known my concern for those less fortunate, but also to use my expertise to help those in need.