Duke students spend summer in Uganda, tackle health care

Jul. 01, 2013 @ 12:51 AM

A 28-hour trip at the beginning of June landed a group of Duke students at the doorstep of Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport. They only had basic knowledge of the native language, Luganda, and two months to make an impression on the village of Naama.

The Duke Global Health Institute, created in 2006 to reduce health disparities found here in Durham as well as across the globe, has 69 students in 17 countries. The Naama team of John Davis, Sejal Lahoti, Ben Ramsey and Samantha Truong spent an entire semester preparing for a fleeting few weeks, ones they hope will have a small impact on the people they meet.

Their majors range from public policy to a global health focus on diseases and demographics. One plans to become a physician. Their average age is 20.

There’s the cultural immersion aspect to their African trip, such as riding boda-bodas, or motorcycles, and trying out matoke, a meal of steamed green bananas. They’ve affectionately been called foreigners by young children, and they’ve noticed the incredible amount of air pollution that leaves a sharp smell of unburned fuel lingering in the city. They even took a weekend trip to the capital, Kampala, to watch the Uganda vs. Angola World Cup qualifying match.

“My attention was immediately drawn to the disparity between the wealthy and poor in Uganda,” Davis wrote in an email from Uganda. “In the ride from Entebbe to Kampala I saw extremely poor homes and trash on the side of the road, which was contrasted with a Mercedes-Benz parked in front of a heavily guarded home several kilometers up the road in Kampala.”

And then there are the research projects they’re overseeing. Ramsey is helping to organize a health fair where people can receive free medical services and health education. He’ll focus on cardiovascular disease and take people’s blood pressure.

Lahoti will help a local women’s group create and sell Mama Kits for pregnant women and teach in the Naama Millenium Preparatory School.

“I love speaking Luganda to the people because it is a part of their culture that we can share together,” Lahoti said in an email.

Truong will look at nutrition-related health risks in pregnant women and school-aged children in Naama, to see if there’s a widespread presence of anemia that can lead to hookworm, parasitic worms in the small intestine and malaria.

Davis is studying the barriers to malaria treatment in Naama. Malaria, a prevalent disease in the country, can be easily treated with medication. He and his team are shadowing physicians at Mityana Hospital.

“I want to learn more about why people may wait several days to seek treatment,” Davis said in the email. “Also, I hope to learn a great deal about Ugandan culture and how the health system in a developing country functions.”

The students are working independently of any organization in Uganda. They crafted their fieldwork goals with the help of Global Health Institute advisers. Sumi Ariely, assistant professor of the practice in global health, was one.

Ariely, in a Skype interview from Israel, said she took her first cultural immersion trip across the world in 1990, when she served for two years in the Peace Corps. She said she remembers the excitement and frustration that came with getting to know a foreign village in Niger. Facing no electricity and running water, she helped the village set up its new government-run health center, where she focused on weighing newborn babies and sharing maternal health care information.

She said she was most afraid of feeling ineffective, at a time when the village of about 5,000 people would only see about one or two visits to the new health center a day. She was charged with community outreach, when much of the village was still set in its ways with traditional midwives and a high mortality rate for children under 5.

“It made much more sense that if these were simple problems to fix, they would have been fixed,” Ariely said over Skype. “…Preparation in country didn’t really allow me to grasp the depth of how much helplessness there is.”

She described the two-year excursion as her first adventure. Today, she is mentoring student groups in Kenya, Uganda and India. Ariely said one of her pieces of advice to traveling students is to make as many connections as they can so they’re no longer considered an outsider.

The process is a “combination of facts and looking through the lens of general humanity,” she said. “They’re always going to be an outsider looking in, but trying as much as possible to find what’s similar.”

The Naama team returns to the U.S. at the beginning of August, but Ariely said she hopes the trip furthers their desire to become “global citizens.”

“It brings out the best in everyone, to really interact with good-meaning people and to have challenging circumstances,” Ariely said, “and to feel like they can make a difference.”