By Stephanie Bowen (Stephanie wrote Thoughts from Uganda for Recession Mama awhile back. By popular demand, she is back with an update and photos!)
I have been back from Africa for over a month now and parts of my trip feel like a distant memory, where others I know will stay with me for a very long time. It was a trip for work but I grew so much personally that I would’ve gone as a volunteer (don’t tell my boss)!
A little background: I work for the humanitarian aid organization International Medical Corps. We focus on health care and training with the ultimate goal of helping communities become self-reliant. Our work literally saves lives and builds healthy futures. I’m not just saying this as their PR person – I’ve seen it first-hand. First in Indonesia about two years after the tsunami, now in Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This was my first trip to Africa and as you may remember from my blog reflecting on my wanderings through Kampala, I was immediately struck by the warmth of the people. That warmth continued on into Kenya and the Congo. Bright colors and big smiles were everywhere. Children were always running up to our vehicle, chasing us while laughing and waving. At one point I was in the middle of a refugee settlement in southwest Uganda surrounded by children who couldn’t stop laughing and screaming, so excited that I was taking their photograph and even more intrigued when I showed them the digital images. It was so much fun for me that I didn’t want to leave. To see that much joy in a situation that quite frankly can be very joyless was quite intoxicating.
The reality of life in the refugee settlements I visited in Uganda and the internally displaced persons camps I visited in the Congo were tough. Women who had been raped and left alone and pregnant (http://www.imcworldwide.org/Page.aspx?pid=665), and children who were so malnourished it was a miracle they were still alive (http://www.imcworldwide.org/Page.aspx?pid=687). But there were also many stories that left me feeling very good.
I haven’t formally written about it yet, but we have an amazing program in Kenya that has made great strides in fighting HIV and helping those who are infected. It’s our Home-Based Counseling and Testing program. We started it in Suba, which is along the shores of Lake Victoria and the HIV/AIDS rate is very high – some say up to 30% — because many women there frequently trade sex for fish so they can feed their families. We reached 100% coverage in Suba and now have expanded to a neighboring community, Migori.
Marcy and Jessica are just two of the women who are participating in this program. Having met with a volunteer community mobilizer, Marcy, and her sister-in-law, Jessica, decided to get tested for HIV – they wanted to know their status. Marcy has a five-month-old baby with her husband, Jessica’s brother, and being able to get tested in their shared home made it convenient and confidential. After preparing the women for all the possibilities and educating them about HIV and AIDS – the difference between them, transmission methods, risk reduction, etc. – they took their tests, which only needed about 10 minutes to process. They chose to get their results separately and were both happy to learn that they were negative. If they had been positive, International Medical Corps would’ve been there to make sure they knew how to access treatment and counsel them through the process. International Medical Corps has 44 counselors who go door to door, administering HIV tests in this one area alone. We test 3,000 people a month!
I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of the program, but what I observed with the several families I witnessed getting tested is that this program is not only helping people who are infected it is changing people’s views on the disease. Stereotypes are being broken down, treatment is being sought and prevention measures are becoming more and more acceptable. Change is taking place around AIDS in Africa, one person and one family at a time.
I think the biggest highlight for me was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a stop by one of our programs in the Congo (http://www.imcworldwide.org/Page.aspx?pid=686). We of course knew she was going through Congo on her Africa tour but were thrilled to learn that she was going to visit our nutrition program at the Mugunga I camp for those displaced inside their own country due to the ongoing war. I was supposed to come home right after Kenya, but got diverted to Congo to help document her visit. Even though I had spent six years in Washington, DC working for CNN, it was so thrilling for me to see our field staff – 96% of whom are local – being recognized in this very big way. People asked me if I met her or got my photo taken with her and to be honest, it never occurred to me because it was all about them. They are the people who are doing the hard work day in and day out and I was so glad she took the time to SHAKE EVERYONE’S HAND!
Okay – enough about International Medical Corps! Some of the other highlights of my trip were visiting the Nairobi National Park where I saw giraffes, ostriches, zebras, a hippo and countless other animals roaming around in their natural habitat (with the Nairobi skyline in the background!), and floating along the Nile River at the point where it starts its 3-4 month journey to the Mediterranean. I also loved that everywhere I went the Coca-Cola was served in bottles that had been used hundreds if not thousands of times before and the power outlets had switches so you could turn them on when you were using them so you weren’t wasting energy when you weren’t.
I have written way too much already, so I will stop here. But I will just say this: if you get the opportunity to go to Africa just do it. I’ve traveled to many countries and cultures – modern and developing – but there is nothing comparable. I can’t wait to go back!