It Takes a Village to Raise a Fellow

Devin-B-FarisToday’s post comes from Devin Faris with our partner organizations S.O.U.L. and Global Health Corps. After working with refugees and people affected by HIV near Kampala, Uganda, and after numerous visits to Bujagali, he relocated to New York City to complete his M.A. in International Education with hopes of one day returning. Devin is a 2014-2015 Global Health Corps Fellow with S.O.U.L. Foundation, working as Program & Advocacy Officer to assess the maternal health care needs of the community and design an outreach program for mothers that responds directly to those needs. We chose this post for Devin’s recognition of the need for patience and humility when navigating new cultural lines, and the flexibility needed to become a part of a new community.

As you sit anxiously aboard a series of flights from Global Health Corps Training to your placement in rural Uganda, you are so fired up with inspiration and vision that you feel nothing will stop you from hitting the ground running. You quickly learn, however, that hitting the ground running makes little sense when the pace at which you work (and walk) leaves behind the very people with whom you intend to cross the finish line.

“NO HURRY IN AFRICA.” A slogan plastered across the backs of minibus taxis, a painful reminder of the traffic jam you are inevitably stuck in when traversing the labyrinthine sprawl of Kampala. Beat the jam and drive just two hours east, maneuver your way up the bone-rattling dirt road branching north from the source of the River Nile, and any sort of hurry becomes a laughable fantasy. That dusty road disintegrates into a muddy soup with the onset of unpredictable torrential rains. Important, pre-scheduled and well-planned meetings are delayed. The heat that comes when each storm passes combined with a belly full of matooke and groundnut sauce is enough to slow you to glacial speeds of any wired Western workaholic.

You begin to renegotiate your relationship with time itself. You adjust, and adapt. Then you realize that these delays are just the start of it. When your job description entails designing a community assessment aimed at procuring highly-sensitive information about maternal health, taking the time to ensure cultural sensitivity is crucial. Of course, when you are a 6-foot tall white male with a beard and a complete ineptitude at acquiring new languages, you pretty much need to reinvent your entire conceptualization of patience. Accept the pace; move along with it.

Like the newborn babies you plan to interview the women about, relationships with these maamas need to be gently nourished, coddled into being, and treated with utmost care. The way you treat a child in his or her infancy will echo throughout their entire lives. The actions, behaviors and attitudes you possesses in the nascent stages of village-based work will linger throughout your entire time in that village. In order to engage in any meaningful community assessment, the community you are assessing needs to be comfortable divulging sensitive, personal and often tragic information to you. This requires extensive community engagement and relationship building, which, for your Western-oriented mind is a bit of adjustment is required.

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A simple “wasuze otya, maama” and a smile is not enough. It takes a commitment to engaging in the very livelihoods of the women themselves. This creates an ostensibly insurmountable task when you realize that the women are the very backbone of the community. They are the child-bearers, child-rearers, farmers, gardeners, cleaners, cooks, shoppers, educators, disciplinarians, role models and often the sole bread-winners. In between your schedule of meetings – with district health officials, Village Health Teams, traditional birthing attendants, midwives, doctors and health administrators – you find yourself penciling in a morning gardening session, an afternoon lesson in tailoring, a three hour dinner with a maama that wants to teach you how to roll chapatti, a 5am breakfast with a maama who wants to show you how to fry mandaazi, a morning schlepping waist deep in mud through the fish ponds to weigh this month’s tilapia harvest, and not to mention countless play-dates (and language lessons) with the innumerable children running all over the village. Your hands grow tougher, immune to the grease burns and the splintering friction of the hoe in your hand. Your Lusoga language abilities grow, right along with your stomach when you learn that the quickest way to a maama’s heart is to uncontrollably devour her cooking. It’s not the work you were expecting, but it’s the work you wind up looking forward to the most every week.

Navigating your role as a male within the world of women’s empowerment is much like navigating your way through any relationship. Trust takes time, and you cannot expect it to be built overnight, and more often than not, it all requires a great deal of humility. You are not “helping” these women. You are not “fixing” anything. You are the student here, and they are your teachers. You are learning and listening, every day. You are soaking up any lessons you might possibly gain from our great nurturers, the women of this world, those who breathe life into us and continue to create when so many human beings continue to destroy. To focus only on the list of tasks in your job description is to ignore something far greater. Connecting with the women of this village on a deeper level is worth every extra moment.

When you slow to a more fitting pace, your mind and heart catch up to the most profound needs of the mothers here. This is not about collecting data. It is about sharing stories. A continuous symbiotic relationship. Once bred, you can walk hand in hand with your village of extraordinary maamas, slowly and steadily, across the finish line and towards a brighter, healthier and more dignified future.

 



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