“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Australian Aboriginal activist
It was about this time one year ago that my wife and first set foot in our new home in Mbarara, in Southwestern Uganda. We had just finished an abbreviated Peace Corps orientation in Washington DC and Kampala, Uganda and were deemed “ready to go.” Though we have been back in the U.S. for a couple months, the memories are fresh and our arrival in Mbarara sometimes still seems like yesterday.
I was participating in the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP), a collaboration between Peace Corps and SEED Global Health, designed to build local capacity in Africa in Medicine and Nursing. My placement was at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST). MUST was starting the first Emergency Medicine Residency (Masters in Medicine in Emergency Medicine) in Uganda and providing academic structure for the GEC’s Emergency Care Practitioner Program (Diploma in Emergency Medicine). Both of these programs are essential pieces to creating a much needed and effective Emergency Care System in Uganda.
“Looking back, it’s not hard to pick out the high and low points of a most extraordinary adventure.”
Our “pioneer” group of residents all had three to five years of clinical experience prior to joining us. Thus, they were seasoned clinicians, primarily in need of technical guidance and mentorship. They were hard-working, unpretentious and kind in addition to being skilled and knowledgeable physicians. While critical thinking and problem solving seem to be challenges for medical students in Uganda, a few years out in the real world does wonders in this regard. One lesson they taught me was the power of a diverse group. They were all so different from one another but worked together constantly to learn, teach, care for patients and consider more systemic change. As several observers commented, we became like a family.
“International development is a dicey endeavor; it can be hard to know who is helping who, who is driving the bus and if you are making a sustainable difference.”
Uganda is a beautiful country with spectacular scenery and wildlife. We explored only in-country during our first eight months and had plenty of wonderful trips. We normally think of Africa as hot but where we lived, the “Land of Milk and Honey,” it was hilly and green, with temperatures in the 80s during the day and 60s at night. We were so close to the equator that day and night were precisely 12 hours long, and the only seasons were “dry” and “rainy.” While we were awed by the beauty of the country, Uganda’s people are its true gem. They were warm and welcoming to us, at times to a fault. The standard greetings were genuine and required before getting down to any business. Ugandans are impressive in their ability to embrace the vicissitudes of life in stride; that’s no small feat based on what we saw of the everyday difficulties and struggles almost everyone faces.