On a recent excursion the Land Rover bounced along pothole-ridden gravel roads for over an hour as my head throbbed along with each bump in the midday heat. The meandering road stretched through Kasese District, located on Uganda’s western border; our destination was a small village called Nyakatonzi, abutting the shores of lakes Edward and George in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’d come to learn more about a ‘success story’ we’d heard about regarding a beneficiary of a maternity clinic called Good Samaritan Care, which is supported by our project, a USAID-funded maternal and child health initative called STRIDES for Family Health. The interview with one of the directors – a soft-spoken but enthusiastic, saintly woman named Sister Gladys Rukidi – went well. We documented her narrative of how the clinic supported church groups to pool small amounts of money each week to be used to provide transport for pregnant mothers to attend antenatal care visits and to deliver at the health facility. The sun beat down relentlessly as the interview concluded and, secretly, I was relieved to be getting back in the car to travel to our next destination, my headache, hunger, and fatigue admittedly getting the best of me. Just as I had resigned myself to moving on, Sister Gladys insisted that we travel with her to meet one of the mothers who had benefited from the program. At first I balked at the notion of extending our visit and was trying to think up an excuse when her kind insistence won the rest of the team over.
Exiting the car, Sister Gladys led us through fields of grazing cattle, past low-lying cactus trees filled with tiny birds flitting about from branch to branch. Eventually a tiny mud brick and thatch hut appeared in a small clearing. Hesitantly, we approached the dwelling and ducked slowly through a small opening to greet the assembled family members, including the mother and her adorable 6-month old daughter. Before we could conduct our interview, however, the family insisted that we first greet the parents of the mother. We were led to an inner room of the hut and, after trekking through the brilliant sunshine, my eyes had to adjust to the darkness of the room. Eventually, I was able to make out two figures lying on a tiny mattress. Soft light filtering through the thatched roof revealed the woman’s parents: the ancient-looking blind man sat crouched over his knees, muttering to himself; his wife – impossibly frail and tiny – lay crumpled on the mattress as she shook violently from Parkinson’s disease. When she noticed the visitors she attempted to rise in greeting. I quickly crouched down on my knees in order to grasp her dry, cracked and shaking hands. The Lukonjo greeting I had been taught caught in my throat as I was surprised by a sudden surge of emotion, having to fight back tears.
As we made our way outside to commence the interview I was struck by the simple beauty of the scene set out before me– tall, beautiful women with high cheek bones floating along gracefully with generous smiles, their multi-layered and vividly-colored clothing juxtaposed against the drab hues of dirt and grass. I found my own face break out into a broad smile as the realization of just how lucky I was to be in this place washed over me. Suddenly, the headache, hunger, and eagerness to move on to our next appointment on time had dissipated. I was left instead with relief and gratitude. It is moments like this – brief snippets of time amidst hours of field work – that constantly remind me of why I decided to become a Global Health Corps fellow: the chance to work on the ground to make an impact directly in the lives of vulnerable populations. Needless to say, I was all smiles and filled with inspiration as the Land Rover continued to bounce along that same gravel road, this time back toward town, en route to our next destination.