Katie Huston / Lantern columnist
I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks in the Oyam District of Northern Uganda this summer with six other members of Nourish International, a nonprofit student group on campus. We partnered with Global Health Network (Uganda) and did things such as HIV testing, building latrines and teaching about proper sanitation during our stay.
Before the trip, I tried not to formulate too many ideas about what Uganda might be like, because I knew all of my expectations would be shattered upon arrival. I didn’t know what my living conditions would be like, I didn’t know what the terrain would be like, and I remember sitting on the final plane ride there thinking, “I don’t even know where I’m sleeping tonight.” This trip was truly an adventure.
The first two days of our trip were spent in Kampala, the capital city. There were decent roads with crazy traffic, stores, banks, shopping malls – my first impression was that things might not be so different from the United States after all. I was anxious to see what our home for the next six weeks would be like.
The drive from Kampala to our home took about 5 hours. As we got closer, the roads got worse and the bush got denser. Our home was in an extremely rural setting, with rich, red soil, tall grass and many trees. Everything was more green and lush than I had expected. We were there during the wet season, and temperatures never got much higher than 85 degrees.
I had foolishly assumed that we would have electricity and running water, although I had anticipated many ice-cold showers. We did not have either, but we did have a gas-powered generator that we used in the evenings. We bathed once or twice per week, using a bucket and water that was brought to us from about a mile away. We had a toilet inside of our home, which was uncommon in the area. Due to the lack of running water, we dumped buckets of water in the back of the toilet to flush. Water was limited, however, so flushing was limited too. I would never have imagined myself as the type of girl who would be OK with such a lifestyle, but it didn’t bother me. It was liberating, actually.
Going out into the field to work meant riding in the back of a truck on dusty, bumpy roads for about an hour to each site. We would drive back into the bush on paths that were sometimes no wider than a foot across, plowing through tall grass and other plants to reach our destination. Several times we got stuck in the mud, and had to push our way out. Every day brought new obstacles and adventures.
We were always greeted by a large group of children, no matter where we went. They were amazing – so full of life and always ecstatic to see us and watch as we worked. The villages we were in consisted of simple, round huts, often very isolated and vulnerable. They had nowhere to go to the restroom, other than in the bush. I thought the huts were really cool until I saw the inside of one, and it set in that this is where people actually live their entire lives. The roofs are made of grass and often leak during the wet season, leaving them cold and wet through the night. After hearing such a story from an older lady, my boyfriend, who was also on the trip, took his blanket and gave it to her the next time we saw her. Such a simple act of kindness, but she was elated and forever grateful.
Aside from construction, we did other meaningful work as well. We helped with the administering of about 500 HIV tests to the rural population, which resulted in a positive testing rate of only about 3 percent. We also visited the homes of new and expecting mothers each week. We took a gift to each one containing items for the mother and the new baby, spoke to them about how they were doing and advised them on important practices such as breast-feeding and immunizations for the baby. All seven of us had a baby named after us and we will receive updates on them for the next five years. Visiting the babies was definitely a special part of the trip.
On the weekends, we often got to go site-seeing, which really made the trip incredible. We went to two places with hiking and beautiful waterfalls, took a boat ride on the Nile River and participated in a 10K race to raise awareness about child and maternal health. We went on two safaris, which really made my time in Africa complete. We saw all of the animals you would imagine seeing: giraffes, zebras, elephants, monkeys, warthogs, gazelles, water buffalo and even a lion and his lioness.
My trip to Uganda was the adventure of a lifetime and truly life changing. I will never forget the people that we met, the work that we did and the memories that we made. The more than 2,000 pictures I took will make sure of that!