Despite what my family and friends back home might gather from email updates chronicling ‘adventures’ in the field, photos of adorable babies, and tales of baboons or elephants along the roadside, every aspect of public health field work isn’t glamorous, exciting, or inspirational. There are most certainly moments of great frustration, pain, anger, and the unavoidable mundane moments of monotony that come with any professional post. One of the greatest strategies my co-fellow Viviane and I have found to deal with these frustrations is through humor.
Like any marriage-like arrangement, the unique Global Health Corps co-fellow relationship has its ups and downs. Deadlines loom, mountainous roads to rural health centers get bumpy, and exhaustion sets in after weeks spent working in the field away from office amenities and comforts. This partnership is one where we spend the vast majority of our time together and learn a great deal both from and about each other. I’m not sure if we’d be as close as we are today without the ability to laugh off a miscommunication, cultural faux pas, or impasse on what to prioritize in our work plan. From the earliest stages of our relationship we’ve been able to laugh away the frustrations inherent in this work: a quick glance and smile across the table of a never-ending meeting at the district offices, a knowing eye flutter when a coworker takes the course of a meeting on a tangential tirade, or the ability to simply come back after a long day and laugh at the joys, tragedies, and – indeed – the absurdities of life make all the difference.
On one recent day in the field Viviane and I had the following interactions with health workers. Viviane was visiting facilities to conduct on-the-job monitoring and evaluation follow-up trainings and had this encounter:
Viviane: Where do you keep your antenatal registers? Health Worker: Umm, there are no registers. Viviane: Wait, so how do you capture data? Health Worker: Yes, well we don’t capture data. Viviane (incredulous): You have no data at all for this entire facility? Health Worker: Well yes, that is our challenge.
On the very same day I was visiting multiple hard-to-reach health facilities to document accountability of mosquito net distribution and had to ask directions at several points. At one juncture I ended up at Kabirizi Lower Health Center instead of my actual destination, Kabirizi Upper Health Center:
Joseph: So this is not Kabirizi Upper? Health Worker: No Sir, this is Kabirizi Lower HC II. Joseph: Oh ok, can you tell me how to get to Kabirizi Upper? Health Worker (sans irony): It is up, Sir.
While debriefing after this particular day, Viviane and I could hardly contain our laughter as we tearfully recounted the trials, travails, and joys of working in the community.
Ultimately, the ability to laugh at a situation has kept the tendency to become overwhelmed, frustrated, or jaded at bay. As we chronicle our shared experiences in the field our threshold for the surprising, shocking, or tragic keeps shifting so that what once may have made us gasp, cringe, or crack up laughing now seems passé. And through it all we’re happy to go through it together – smiles on our faces, laughter in our hearts.