Village life and the essence of rural Uganda
Noted on August 14, 2012 by IE3 Student in
Written by Elizabeth Ragan: Oregon State University student and IE3 scholarship recipient interning with PROMETRA in Uganda this summer.
Seven weeks in rural Uganda. It feels like I’ve just arrived, but at the same time I can feel a different rhythm beating inside of me. Village life in Africa is completely different from anything I’ve ever known or experienced, but there’s something invigorating about it. Fetching water, collecting firewood, planting, harvesting, peeling cassava, moving the livestock, living with a local traditional healer, walking to the village trading center, traveling by boda-boda, greeting the many now-familiar faces as I walk down to road, cooking over the fire, waking up to the sunrise and roosters crowing, feet permanently stained by the red dirt, drumming echoing throughout the night, lightening storms, starry skies, the village children and their ever-happy faces. There is something elemental and something pure about life here. It’s just… simple. Even my coworkers joke about how I’ve become a village person, “Liz ‘Kisakye’, a muzungu Bugandan, she even works in the fields barefoot now.” The initial culture shock has faded, and what once so foreign and overwhelming to me when I first arrived has now become exactly what I love about my daily life. Even then, my time is going so fast. It seems like I’ve just arrived and my departure is already looming. I know that when the day comes for me to take off from Entebbe Airport, I’m going to feel like I’m leaving so much behind.
Wednesday is when the excitement happens here at the PROMETRA field center, and it’s become the day I look forward to the most each week. It’s the day of the weekly Buyijja Forest School for traditional healers, my primary day for conducting patient case studies, and the weekly on-site community clinic. Hundreds of traditional healers travel from the surrounding three districts and converge to share knowledge about traditional medicine, cultivation of indigenous medicinal plants, and community health.
This Wednesday I woke up just as the sun was rising and headed down the dirt road for a morning run. Saya, the resident farm dog, accompanied me as he usually does these days. The first time the poor fellow decided to follow, I’m not sure he knew what he was getting himself into. Regardless, he’s remained a loyal companion ever since. The villagers seem to have become accustomed to my morning appearance. Luganda has been a challenging language to pick up, but at this point I have enough of the basics down to give routine greetings as I pass by. This, along with my canine shadow, seems to give the locals much amusement.
Mid-morning I headed down into Buyijja Forest to sit in on class. Healers choose to specialize as an herbalist, a bone-setter, a traditional birth attendant (TBA), a mental health specialist, or a spiritualist, and interns get to choose which specialty they’d like to focus on during their stay. Because of my interest in maternal/infant health and midwifery in the U.S., my decision was apparent. The topic in the TBA class this Wednesday was how to improve the health of women during pregnancy and how to facilitate a smoother birth. We discussed in great detail a number of herbal medicines used throughout the process. Up through their second trimester, women are given medicines to promote healthy fetal development, ease discomfort, and maintain their personal health and nutrition. Herbs are combined with clay, which the mother melts into hot water and takes daily. From 7 months to birth, the focus shifts to preparing the mother for a complication-free delivery. Clay mixed with a different concoction of herbs is prepared for daily consumption, and a variety of vine plants are collected for the mother to tie around her waist. The only medicinal plants that I can translate to English are sweet potato (lumonde) leaves and aloe vera, but the list of indigenous species was long, each with a various important function. The TBAs were each assigned one of the herbs to bring next week so that we can prepare both of the clays, something I am looking forward to very much.
After class ended my translator and I met with two patients who were brought by one of the traditional healers. We interviewed them about their health condition and experience with both Western and traditional health care providers. These case studies have proven to be extremely revealing about how important traditional medicine really is to rural Ugandans. I’ve learned about the struggles and challenges associated with the Western health facilities through the patient’s perspective, how overburdened, undersupplied, and inaccessible they are. A single visit to a health clinic can cost a villager a week’s salary, not including the cost of transportation and the cost of time. Traditional healers are located within the communities and (let’s be honest) using the very plants that Western pharmaceutical companies have derived their drugs from.
After the interviews I headed out of the forest and down to the community clinic, a place where the School’s trainees offer free traditional treatment to community members every Wednesday. It also provides the healers with an opportunity to collaborate and apply their knowledge in the clinical setting. The clinic has been just another eye-opening experience during my time here. Each week I’ve been assisting with patient check-in and have gradually been working to organize the patient files. The first step was simply to put the records in alphabetical order, but sometimes you have to start with the little things.
Because of how deeply rooted culture and spiritualism are in traditional medicine, much of it remains a mystery to me. What I cannot deny, however, is that traditional medicine is an essential resource that many rural Ugandans rely on to stay healthy. I sought an international internship because I wanted to know if international public health was the right pursuit for me, and Uganda has taught me just that. Now, more than ever, I know that I’ve chosen the right direction, and I will eagerly continue to follow it. People ask me, “After you go back to the U.S., will you ever come back to Uganda?” And although I can’t predict the future, I know that this region will call me back. “Someday, someday I’ll be back.”