Engaging with Global Health Initiatives in Mukono, Uganda
Experiencing the World Fellowship
Adviser: Mahan Mirza
Organization: Child Family Health International (in partnership with Omni Med)
Mukono District, Uganda
As I sat on the plane looking over Lake Victoria one last time, I couldn’t help but already miss the people, friendships, and experiences that Uganda had given me. Initially, six weeks felt daunting as I missed the normalcy and comfort of home, yet it all went too fast in the end. I worked with Omni Med, an NGO that works with the Village Health Teams in the Mukono District of central Uganda. These Village Health Teams are essentially community members chosen from their village to be trained, allowing them to disseminate health information to their communities. The idea is to protect them from and educate on health challenges such as malaria, HIV, pneumonia, etc. The VHT program was started by the Ugandan Ministry of Health in 2001, but after initial training, the MoH did not maintain the VHTs education or give consistent support. So, organizations such as Omni Med have stepped in to support and maintain these VHTs in the face of changing health challenges. Every day in the field, we conducted quarterly educational meetings (aka quarterly trainings) on topics such as diabetes and mental health. We also participated in several home visits with VHTs around the entire district of Mukono, giving us the chance to discuss their successes and concerns with their work as a VHT (or community health worker). Further, we had the opportunity to talk to healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, etc), educators and other members of the community, as they all are stakeholders in the healthcare system. I quickly realized how greatly the healthcare system is impacted by other aspects of the country, such as the education system. A fellow volunteer was focused on health education in primary and secondary schools, giving me a glimpse of the challenges that Ugandan children have at a young age, on top of the lack of accessible healthcare, and how they all feed into one another.
Omni Med works to bridge the gap in communication between the people doing the work on the ground and the people making the decisions that fund and approve the VHT project. The community health workers that we visited and trained were very open with their frustrations regarding supplies and financial support since in the Mukono District VHTs are not receiving compensation for their efforts, yet it costs them both time and money to effectively complete their tasks. The work that Omni Med does is far reaching yet challenging due to lack of sufficient funds, poor resource allocation and complexities coordinating with the Ugandan government.
Considering these struggles though, what stood out to me every day was the joy and attitude of the people I worked with. We visited many villages across the Mukono District and countless VHTs opened their homes to us (the American volunteers) and shared their experiences. Some shared their gratitude as our local coordinator told them we had traveled from the U.S.A. to spend part of our summer in Uganda. Yet, I often struggled to understand what I was really contributing by volunteering with this NGO. I quickly realized that they were teaching me a lifetime of lessons in a short six weeks, and I will always be grateful for that. On top of immersing myself in the healthcare system, I was able to see both urban and rural settings informing my understanding of Ugandan culture. We got to interact with many different populations, from older VHTs who had been volunteering for the past fifteen years, to the children at a local primary school. I spent most of my time with the staff of Omni Med. Of course, they taught me about the healthcare system, but we also were able to share our experiences and compare the cultures and places we had grown up in. There were moments where I struggled with the language barrier and some of the differing social norms, yet it pushed me out of my comfort zone in a way that I had never experienced before. Working with Omni Med was an experience that will impact the way I view my career in healthcare. I left with more questions than I had arrived with regarding global poverty and healthcare disparities, many of which I got the chance to discuss with Dr. Edward O’Neil, M.D., who is the founder of Omni Med. It is my hope that this experience will continue to influence my worldview as I move further in my education and potentially a career in medicine.