by Alena Pauley
Naigobya team here. So, we are about a month and a half into our African Adventure. It has been chock full of fun, full of ups and down, challenges and successes, of trying new foods and then throwing them back up again. One of my biggest accomplishments is that I can now eat an entire mango, including the peel. And each time I do it, my stomach dies a little bit less than it did the time before. I am training my stomach to be indestructible. All in all I have learned so much–more than I even imagined I could. The culture difference was a bit of a shock at first but now Sakura and I have become well tuned to the daily routine, down to the littlest details and rigors, of living in a typical Ugandan village.
One of the many cultural niches is that when walking through the villages you are supposed to greet every person you encounter, even if you have never met and are just passing through. You say “webale,” which is an all purpose word, whose meaning is sort of like thank you but more. When is doubt, just throw in a good ol’ webale. The person will then respond “Kalae,” which means okay. Then, what really took me a while to get used to, is that you and the person you are greeting both take turns making a high-pitched “hmmm” sound, an exchange that can go on for a while. I think the longest successive “hmmm” exchange I have witnessed was about seven “hmmms” long. That was particularly intense. What I have been able to gether is that these sounds are not words so much as a recognition that you have been heard and are appreciated.
A part of Ugandan culture that I especially admire is how welcoming and generous so everyone is. In Uganda, your door is always open and you are always welcome. Everyday we come home from the field we find someone new in our front yard. And it goes both ways. Sakura and I have been conducting a large survey that evaluates the Community Health Worker project in the new regions it has recently expanded to. We have visited over sixty houses, always coming unannounced, always making intrusive requests like asking how often a day they breastfeed or if we can see their latrines, and there has not been a single time where we have been turned away or have not been given an answer. There was one particular instance that I will forever remember. We were interviewing a potential CHW named Robert. He was so happy that we visited that as we were about to leave, he shyly walked over to us and pulled out from under his arm a pretty, red and brown chicken. We were gifted a chicken. Not a dead chicken. A real live one. I have never, ever been gifted with a chicken before and I am not sure if I ever will be again. It was such a huge gesture. These people that we are visiting are peasant farmers. Most of them make less than a dollar a day and meat is something you only get on Christmas, if then, and for this man to give us his chicken when we had only just met him is one of the most generous acts I have ever seen.
Something that Sakura and I have had especial exposure to is maternal health. Some of the local health practices blew my mind when I heard them. Here are some of the more interesting practices that we were told about. One practice is for women to burn special herbs in a pot and then squat over that pot while naked, essentially burning themselves, because they believe it will give them a safe birth. Another is that women will gather chicken feces, mix it with herbs, leave it the mixture to dry, and then smear the final product on themselves because they think that this will transfer the chiken’s ability to pass its’ stool to the mother so that she can pass her child quickly. While these may be (relatively) harmless, there are some practices that can leave lasting harm on the unborn child. I was taken aback when I was told that pregnant women drink the locally made alcohol because they believe that doing so will help them to produce a clean child with clear, white eyes. One of the most important resources that communities like Naigobya need are not shoes or food–things that I would typically have pictured when I would think ‘aid’– but education. For example, it is well known that pregnant women should take extra iron supplements to ensure a healthy mother and child. But here, a mother will crave iron but not know that it is iron that she is craving. In an effort to curb this craving, women will eat dirt because it has a metallic smell. In local health clinics there are free iron supplements that pregnant women have access to if they know how find it, but the broken link lies in the lack of knowledge. In some of the most secluded parts of the village some women do not recognize labor pains as a sign of birth, so they will not seek medical help and will end up delivering their child in a problematic way that many times this leads to brain defects. Thus many children here are born both physically and mentally stunted, will not perform well in school, and will be doomed to repeat the same cycle as their parents did before them.
As we approach the final quarter of our time here it feels like it will be harder and harder to leave. Because also, how in the world am I supposed to have access to such great pineapple, mango and avocado. Those I think I will yearn for every day. That, and all the wonderful people, amazing experiences and beautiful culture of Naigobya, Uganda.