Today’s post comes from Allison Hillner, a fourth year Chemistry and English student at Northeastern University. Allison became involved with GlobeMed the first week of college (and hasn’t been able to stay away since), a student-run non-profit that partners university chapters with grass-roots organizations around the world, with the aim of improving health disparities. GlobeMed at Northeastern is partnered with Kitovu Mobile AIDS Organisation, a mobile AIDS clinic in Masaka, Uganda.
When I started college three years ago, I was one of those people who, when you asked what I wanted to do with my life, would say, “I don’t know…but I want to help people.” As I got settled in, I made it a personal mission to seek out the people who had similar ambiguous-but-social-justice-related-volunteer-type ambitions, too.
Doing this is easier than you think on Millennial college campuses! We scribble our names on community service sign-up sheet, and crowd the Invisible Children table. But I was looking for more than a short burst of service. I wanted to meet other students who, upon sight of a sad, “All we need is $0.50 to save a child’s life”-advertisement, didn’t change the channel but instead asked, “What the hell is going on?”
Through a campus group called GlobeMed, I found a community of students who were just as curious as I was about international development and global inequities. We discussed the health disparities that plague other nations, and in particular, we learned about the lack of water and sanitation in a place called Masaka, Uganda, where toilet coverage is under 10% for the entire district. Reading about these struggles was heartbreaking, but I also felt removed sitting in comfy cozy Boston, where the pain and suffering lasted only for five minutes on a projector. The video ended, we discussed possible solutions, felt motivated to fundraise for our cause, and called it a day.
At some point, though, the videos, discussions, and things I learned began to penetrate other aspects of my life, until I actually wanted to address the pain and suffering as part of my own reality. A group of us wanted this so badly that we joined up with a GlobeMed project, and bought plane tickets to Uganda, to understand first-hand how the majority of people on this planet really live. We wanted to try and do something meaningful in response, to accept a challenge.
Things started off positively. I laughed at all the yells of “Mzungu!” (“white person!”) as we traversed through the villages where we were conducting our project. Our work involved assessing the hygiene and sanitation practices of women who signed up for a type of cleanliness ‘competition’. Depending on performance, women would receive any number of sustainable, hygiene-encouraging gifts, like new jerry-cans, water drums, or gardening materials. The thrill of hands-on work kept me feeling useful even in such a new environment.
But not for long.
As the week carried on, we felt like we were swimming against a tide. Between translation issues, scheduling discrepancies (“Africa time,” we learned, is very lax), and misaligned priorities (assessments turning into lengthy meet-and-greets with villagers; while I now appreciate this as vital for our partnership, at the time I just wanted to get to work!), we ended up needing twice the amount of time we thought we needed in the field. We walked until we couldn’t feel our feet. We were tired, dehydrated, and confused. Our project, our Boston-bred brainchild of incentivized hygiene, felt pointless to me. But we trekked on.
Another part of our field-work involved a community survey. After assessing individual women for their sanitation practices, many got together in what they call Self Help Groups and answered a broad community survey on behalf of their villages.
- What percent of your community has been tested for HIV?
- What percent uses a mosquito net?
- How many meals a day to people generally receive?
- What is the biggest challenge your community faces, and how do you think it can be best overcome?
The women were animated, passionate, and forthcoming with their answers to these questions. It was at this moment that I truly recognized how much this all mattered. These women weren’t about to wait for the next mission trip to come through Kyanamukaka. They were intelligent, and empowered. They cared, they wanted to see positive change, and they worked hard. Lucky for us, they weren’t shy letting us know.
I suddenly felt like a real resource, even if not in the way that I originally set out to be. Rather than delivering any kind of lifesaving service, I was a documenter, a witness, a journalist of their needs, translating their concerns into numbers, scribbling their ideas into my notebook. These women trusted us to spread their stories, and we agreed to find them the resources they needed.
My doubt lifted. I felt needed. I felt responsible. I felt scared. It was exciting.
My attention turned to one woman as she dropped a word that caught my ear. “There used to be very poor sanitation,” our translator said after she spoke, “but a group called GlobeMed came and installed pit latrines.”
Hey! I thought, That’s us! They didn’t realize that we were GlobeMed. Through this third party perspective, we saw that our work had done something. That was a great feeling, to hear from a beneficiary that progress was being made. We were getting caught in our own frustrations, but wasn’t it her opinion we should really be listening to?
With our notebooks full of the latest feedback, after hours of listening intently, we felt ready to tackle the next community issue, and said our goodbyes. The women graciously sent us off with gifts of avocados and a Jabale, a Luganda greeting for “Thank you for working,” that speaks volumes of their appreciative culture.
If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that your work, however small it feels compared to the giant monster of unfairness, can help. While it’s hard to capture the injustice in the world without seeing it first hand, it’s just as hard to capture our potential to be agents of change unless we try it, first hand. Even at teeny tiny levels.
I think too many people focus on cramming all the bad of the world into catchy videos, and screaming reminders that ”There’s work to be done!” But why not show videos of these powerful women, for a change? It’s so easy to get trapped in cynicism, but that’s because we set ourselves up for it. We only market the bad, never the good. The problems, the scary commercials, they’re not the whole picture. We often forget to include a whole lot of progress, and more importantly, the determination of the human race to pull ourselves, and each other, out of suffering and into peace.
It’s crucial to confront the scary stuff: to learn first-hand what the hell is going on. But it’s just as important to be patient, to listen for a while longer, and let the croons of Jabale pull you out of doubt’s shadow and into a solution.