Live it and Love it: The Thrill that Comes with Compassion

It is a tradition in many cultures to help one another and to express love and kindness in times of good and bad. These cultures have evolved from handing over gifts like chicken, goats and other material gifts to now the much talked about funding of projects in the developing world – in other words called “Aid”. This has slightly twisted the meaning of showing compassion and the reasons for doing it.

In a twitter exchange between Andrew Mwenda (a Ugandan Journalist) and Jeffrey D. Sacks on December 23rd 2013, Sacks argued that “aid should be based on justice, mercy, compassion, and knowledge”. Sacks advocates the idea that aid should be churned out by the rich to the poor in developing countries. I have a problem with attaching ‘aid’ to compassion and at the same time using it as a way of expressing mercifulness and administering justice to the poor – the intended beneficiaries of this aid. Compassion is an act of kindness and kindness comes from the soul, from that thing that makes us human. It doesn’t come from the mathematics attached to aid monies. It has nothing to do with the quid pro quo nature of the aid that we see these days. We don’t have to be rich to give back to our society, we don’t have to be wiser than those who need our support and we surely don’t have to publicize and sign agreements about the compassionate activities that we are delivering to the needy. This is what the Global Health Corps Fellowship has taught us by letting us serve underprivileged communities with community based organizations (some of which have annual budgets of no more than $40,000). Besides, most of the aid Sacks is talking about gets swallowed up by the donors at the top – the expatriates and government agents handling the aid.

Compassion can be shown just by talking to someone and inspiring them, or by sharing in their sorrow and providing comfort. This is why the GHC fellows program allows the fellows to live among the rural communities. Here they can inspire, support and touch the souls of the world.

Dr. Brian Ngwatu of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Mr. James K. Arinaitwe of Educate Uganda and myself – all members of GHC class of 2012-2013, are part of the Uganda GHC Alumni Committee that has continued to promote health equity in Uganda by working with young professionals and other institutions like the Uganda Youth Forum.

Dr. Brian and Brian at the Kitgum Hospital Nodding Disease Ward

As the world was preparing to celebrate Christmas and usher in the New Year, we embarked on a journey of over 500km to some of the most remote parts of Uganda. Our mission was to bring happiness to the children whose lives have been distorted by the little known but highly impactful “nodding disease”. I won’t go in to the nitty-gritties of the nodding disease because I don’t know much either. Infected children however experience seizures and a loss of appetite; thus becoming malnourished and stunted. The cause of this disease is not yet known but has been present for the last 6 years or more.

It is heartbreaking that Aciro, a 13 year old girl, cannot talk properly and has never gone to school due to the failure to know the cause of this disease . I do not believe that in a century where developing countries are struggling to send satellites to space, great militaries have advanced weapons never seen before since creation and where education standards and research has greatly been simplified by technology, that the cause (let alone the cure) for nodding disease is not yet known. I believe that attention has not been paid to the suffering of these children, their parents and the whole community. Resources for handling the outbreak have either been inadequate or have been inefficiently used in the fight against nodding disease.

Aciro’s mother has to look after her daughter in the hospital and mobilize the resources to take care of her. Our visit to Kitgum Hospital was seen as a blessing and we were able to support her with some soap and food. We gave her hope that her child would be okay one day and that she would return to her home and take care of her family. The look in Aciro’s mother’s face spoke a million words and has changed my life for the better. It’s taught me the lesson that giving is much better than receiving. Each time we get, there is someone out there waiting to receive something back from us.

This is the kind of ‘aid’ that the vulnerable groups around the world are lacking. Aid workers have made themselves celebrities in the process of helping the poor and this is in no way compassion of any nature. While “Invisible Children” was busy creating attention about Kony, who had fled Uganda some years back, the victims of the war were dying of post-traumatic stress (committing suicides, killing each other in local fights, etc.) and nodding disease was eating away the children that survived the wrath of the Kony war. Where are they now to advocate for the support of children affected by nodding disease?

The world needs changemakers. The likes of Sr. Rose Mary of St. Monica – Gulu Uganda deserve more and should be supported to touch the lives of the thousands who look upon her for inspiration. She is taking care of over 200 orphans and mobilizes the resources to pay for their school fees, food and medical care. She believes that an educated community is a healthy community and has dedicated herself to organizing health outreaches with Pros for Africa, the Starkey Foundation and Global Health Corps. How I wish that the aid that goes to developing countries would pass through the changemakers who are less known, but are highly effective in promoting development. We should stop “growing the  stomachs” of the corrupt and instead give back to the needy as much as possible, both as individuals and as groups committed to social justice.

Dr. Brian, James, Ariong and Children at Lacor Hospital Childrens ward, Gulu.

James Consoling a Mother of 2 Children Affected by the Nodding Disease

Aciro and her mum at Kitgum Hospital