While I have been to a number of different countries, my trip to Uganda this summer with the Global Health study abroad program was my first trip with a humanitarian component. I went with a group of seven other U of U students and our program director, Dr. John Shavers. We went with suitcases full of donations for the village schools as well as supplies to conduct several service-oriented project. The entire experience was amazing.
Children with books we brought.
Reading about poverty and deprivation from expensive textbooks or an even more expensive personal computer in the comfort of an air-conditioned library does little to communicate the full reality of living in very poor regions of the world. Our projects brought us face-to-face with these realities. One of the projects, and the one I was most heavily involved with, involved conducting needs assessment surveys of the women in the villages we visited. We questioned the women about their water sources, cooking practices, sanitation, health needs, financial needs and access to light and fuel. Even this was academic compared to actually seeing their homes, water sources and sanitation. The women we interviewed were extremely welcoming and happy to show us their homes and other aspects of their lives in the village.
Women's group in Lumina
In western Uganda most of the homes were brick or cement blocks with corrugated metal or sometimes thatch for roofs. In eastern Uganda we encountered a number of traditional thatched huts. Most homes had no floor except the packed red dirt. Few had glass in their windows. And the size of the homes was often no bigger than my living room. Despite their meager situations they welcomed us warmly, even giving us small gifts of fruit and maize as we toured their land and homes. Some of the tours were social, but others were conducted to evaluate the capacity of their tiny plots of land to support a fruit tree or two. (This was in anticipation of possible receipt of a microloan from the non-profit organization with which Dr. Shavers was affiliated.) Through our interaction with the women we came to understand a bit of the Ugandan culture and “personality.” They were quick to joke, very warm and eager to meet and welcome newcomers. It was amazing to see such a positive culture growing out of such deep poverty.
A girl cooking on rocks.
Our water-testing project was eye-opening. Some of the water sources looked like mud-puddles. Others looked slightly better, with hand pumps or piping and cement platforms. However, nearly all sources we tested were contaminated (with bacteria), and half had e coli. This experience was more salient than any textbook description of the problems of access to clean water. Seeing these sites, testing the water, and witnessing the real implications of living in extreme poverty are experiences that will stay with me forever.