“Ugandan memories are always with me”: Reflections on GlobeMed’s Summer Research

Three members of the Northwestern chapter of GlobeMed (Natalie Sack, Alissa Zhu, & Matt Zhou) spent part of their summer in Uganda conducting needs assessment research at GlobeMed’s new partner organization, the Adonai Child Development Center.

Alissa Zhu writes of their experience abroad:

Photo by Alissa Zhu

Photo by Alissa Zhu

GlobeMed’s new partnership with the Adonai Child Development Center meant a fresh start, new friendships, and inspirations. It also meant starting from scratch and we knew we had to build a strong foundation with our partner in order to create the change we envisioned in Namugoga, Uganda. We knew very little about the community that Adonai is based in because it’s a fairly rural area and the last government census was taken over 10 years ago. We didn’t want to come into the community with false preconceptions and assumptions. Our team formulated a 49 question needs assessment with questions pertaining to sanitation, nutrition, and disease. We interviewed and compiled data on over 40 local families. With the data we’ve collected we can determine what public health projects GlobeMed can effectively implement in the years to come.

I didn’t really know what to expect at Adonai. I had gone over our needs assessment interview questions dozens of times in my head already but beyond our planned interviews I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. There was a lot more free time than I had expected and my teammates and I burned through our books. We ended up having ample time to complete our needs assessment so we took a few outings in the country to see the Nile and Murchison Falls national park. I was also surprised by the language barrier. Most of the older children and all the staff at Adonai could speak English very well but many people from the Namugoga community had a very limited knowledge of English. That was a big surprise to me because English and Swahili were the two national languages of Uganda.  We became very close with the main translator, Gideon Lukwago. He was a wonderful man with an awesome sense of humor and a healthy love for Gossip Girl.


Photo by Alissa Zhu

As an observational and hands-on part of our needs assessment, we spent a day shadowing a family in the Namugoga village. We arrived at their house early in the morning and spent the day helping the “jjajas” (grandparents) out with chores. The jjajas ran a farm with chickens, a cow, and a variety of local crops including sweet potato, cassava, matoke, and coffee. The family was amazingly welcoming and we immediately felt at home. We helped them prepare food, fetch water, take care of chickens and the garden. Even the simplest of tasks required much thought and planning. Their resourcefulness and work-ethic was inspiring. Out of the entire five weeks we stayed in Uganda, this day stands out as my favorite because I was able to immerse myself in the Ugandan lifestyle. I felt like being involved in the everyday life of the family taught me so much more about the health, nutrition, and sanitation lifestyles than all the needs assessment interviews combined. It was a really unforgettable experience.

After being sequestered in our village for two and a half weeks, my team started becoming antsy and hungry. Very, very hungry for western food. On an interview off-day we decided that we would venture into the capital city, Kampala in search of some Nutella, ramen, and souvenirs. The trip to a western-style cafe called Endiro Coffee took about two hours from Namugoga. It was the first time we ventured out on our own without translators or guides. Our host father, Aloysious, like the caring and awesome dad that he is, called every few hours just to make sure we were okay. But even with his constant supervision and detailed instructions, it was incredibly stressful to navigate the city. Trying to cross the streets of the city near the taxi park was like playing Frogger in real life. It was by far the most scared I’ve been in my life. Buses honking, motorcycles called boda-bodas swerving, and dozens of street vendors trying to get your attention all at once was like some Northwestern roadkill waiting to happen. But even so, we managed to get home safely at nine o’clock that night. Bedraggled and exhausted, we collapsed into our respectful beds in silence. Despite all the chaos, my team ventured back into Kampala several more times during our stay. We learned quickly how to navigate the streets, ask for directions from the right people, and keep our wits about us.

Photo by Alyssa Zhu

Photo by Alissa Zhu

There were a lot of small cultural differences that we managed to figure out in funny situations. For example, children at Adonai and in the village loved to wave to us when we walked by. They screamed “muzungu muzungu” (the Luganda word for white person) and waved their tiny hands at high rotating speeds. Naturally I would wave back, sometimes opening and closing my palm in a lazy sort of way. It wasn’t until I was told that that same gesture meant “come here” in Ugandan culture that I figured out why I would randomly have one or two children hanging off my skirt.

Ugandan memories are always with me. They pop up, unheeded, at the most random and mundane moments. While shopping at the local grocery store, I’ll feel pangs of guilt partaking in the extravagant bounty that surround me. When I went into the school pharmacy to pick up some prescription medication, I felt immensely grateful that I have access to to such reliable medication and health care. All three members of my team have become very involved in GlobeMed, especially the Global Health University committee. We strive to educate our organization and our community about global health disparities and help motivate students to go into the field of global health.

The most important thing about researching abroad is just to keep an open mind and try to take things in stride. A lot of the time, things won’t go as expected but it’s crucial to have patience and realize that many aspects of your project are not entirely in your control.

Photo by Alissa Zhu

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