By Shivani Desai
Trigger Warning: The organization we work with has projects focusing on sexual health, including sexual violence and abuse. Due to this, some of this blog post contains content regarding such issues.
Hi everyone! I’m new to this whole blogging thing, but here’s a look at what life in Iganga has been in the last three weeks:
Every morning at 7:55, I run out of my room, convinced that I’m holding up my team, only to see Quinten clutching a fork and knife in both hands, impatiently awaiting his eggs - which gives me time for coffee (yes!). After several threats of being left, countless pointed looks at the watch, scalding hot coffee poured down my throat, and the lovely spectacle of Quinten downing his breakfast in three bites, we set off on our daily commute and beautiful walk through Iganga.
A glaring sun shines down, it’s rays creating a sort of hazy glow that covers everything - the rust red endless paths, the lush green leaves that sway slightly in the wind, the soccer and volleyball field we pass each day, the rooster strutting around as if it owns the street, the painting of the smiling lion that signifies a primary school, the chaotic main street with nonsensical criss-cross patterns of traffic -buses blaring music, travel vans to Kampala, boda bodas, and bicycles whizzing by- that pose a Risk! situation each time we must cross, Yazid’s Cakes and Snacks where we invariably stop each day, the murals depicting safe sex education, and the blue and white building of Mercy Hospital, from which UDHA stands right across.
~views~ of Iganga on the walk to and from UDHA
In these last three weeks, I’ve fallen in love with UDHA - the organization, the people, and the mission. I’m working on the Iganga Team, meaning I have the opportunity to work with the Youth Resource Center (YRC) on sex education initiatives. The project seeks to partner with primary and secondary schools, focusing on an internal empowerment model in which the YRC team finds patrons and peer health educators within each school who are trained by UDHA and then carry the education and messages to their own schools. Through this model, the YRC trains students to take ownership of the well-being of themselves and their peers. At UDHA, we also work on data collection and health box questions. Essentially, the peer health educators collect notes on the most frequent or difficult to answer questions and transfer them to UDHA. The YRC also places question boxes in each school, where students can place confidential questions regarding sexual and reproductive health. These questions range from adorably hilarious - an earnestly penned question about true love, to heavily serious - questions regarding what to do following a sexual assault. It is extremely fulfilling to be working on these issues, as they serve to be critical and pervasive topics in all local communities, whether it is here in Iganga, or at home, in St. Louis.
An overarching theme in this experience is my positionality and the lessons and complexities it brings to everyday interactions, work experience, and global health understandings. As a western outsider entering a new community, working and living in Iganga for two months, I am constantly reconciling and evaluating my perspective, biases, cultural approaches, and privilege. Whenever we speak with new individuals, they thank us for coming to Uganda, but in reality the immense gratitude and appreciation I feel for being welcomed and for having the opportunity to cross-culturally learn about approaches to universal health and gender issues cannot be overemphasized. I understand through practice that to be a partner in sustainability and health means humbling yourself and acknowledging that you have everything to learn, keeping an open mind and listening ear, and recognizing that change isn’t effective unless it is internally led, as the work of UDHA -founded by and for Ugandans- is. To play even a small role in this work is an enormous honor.
As is true for most formative and new experiences, it is impossible to encapsulate every moment - in their beauty, novelty, thought-provoking-ness, and challenge- into one blog post. Instead, I’d like to highlight a few of the moments which resonated most with me this past week:
Thursday: We are sitting in the office, relaxing in transitional time, having just finished one of our tasks. We chat with our internship coordinator, boss, and dear friend, Sumaiyah, who begins speaking about some of the difficult realities facing women and children, including sexual violence and abuse. As we know, this reality is not inherent to Iganga, but exists in every community in the world. Sumaiyah speaks openly and intensely about how some of the kids face barriers in telling a trusted source of information and support, instead being forced to stay silent. She also talks about the connection she sees between sex education and sexual violence, detailing how if students are given the language to speak about sex, and the tools to assert their rights, agency, and safety, she believes she can help them gain comfort, find resources, and speak out through peer education and confidential health box questions if facing abuse or violence: “They [some of the students] can’t talk to their parents, they can’t talk to their guardians, but some - some talk through these letters.” The passion for her work in combatting such harm and oppression is apparent in her voice, and this conversation breaks my heart, deeply challenges me, and fuels my own passion for the work we do at UDHA and the work I hope to engage in - both this summer and for my lifetime in any community. It also reminds me that in the United States, sex education is rarely coupled with information involving consent and gender-based violence, instead riddled with pathetically un-comprehensive lesson plans filled with slut-shaming, scary pictures of STIs, and abstinence pledge forms. As UDHAs model upholds, I believe information regarding sexual violence must be an integral part of a comprehensive, equitable, and compassionate sex education program.
Friday: Today is the goodbye meeting for the peer health educators who have been working and volunteering for the benefit of their schools for the past few years. The PHE’s range from about 16-20, and all of them are deeply driven to help improve their school communities. The students speak with us about how they help teach others about safe sex (including HIV, sexually-transmitted infections, and pregnancy prevention), hygiene, menstruation, consent, healthy relationships, biological and bodily changes, life skills, and more, outlining the biggest successes and challenges they have faced while working. One of the students speaks about the change he has seen in his school since working with UDHA, “There were many challenges and students didn’t know how to solve problems, but with the presence of UDHA, everything has changed. Now the students have changed;” another speaks about how much he loves this work, and another urges her peers to “not let what was done here, end here.” Not only are the peer educators excellent students, they are also committed volunteers who are well-trusted authorities on health matters by their friends and peers at school. They are also incredibly civic-minded, encouraging each other to bring this education and change to every community they enter. From my discussions with the students, it truly seems as though the year-round work UDHA engages in uplifts whole schools and individuals, helping to empower sustainable school partnerships and leaders within the community.
Generally, in my first three weeks in Iganga, the point I’ve found most noteworthy is the open and welcoming nature of everyone, both in respect to making visitors feel at home and in regards to embracing community-driven strives for better health, change, and progress. The phrase I’ve heard most often are “You are welcome.” This phrase has been uttered both by individuals welcoming us to their beautiful home city and country, and by headmistresses/ masters of schools, as UDHA joins with them in partnership to work on sexual and reproductive health. Due to the fact that our project speaks openly and often about sex, I expected for their to be more pushback by schools due to conservative ideas of what should and shouldn’t be taught to children that I’ve experienced back home, as the issue of sex education is entirely politicized and villainized in the US. This has not been the case at all. In fact, when we tell school administrators that we are working on sex education, their eyes light up, and they tell us how much the children and young people need information in this realm (in sixteen schools that we’ve approached, only one has seemed weary of the material we teach). The general sentiment I’ve come to find can be wrapped up in a statement made by the headmaster of one secondary school: “If it will give my students information they need, then yes, you are welcome.” This receptivity and commitment to creating stronger and healthier communities also extends itself to the entire town and the streets I walk when going to work, the market, Leoz (the best Indian restaurant in the world), and home, in the form of public posters and murals that pop up everywhere. These murals (created by Ugandan organizations, international partnerships, and a local artist) contain messages regarding safe sex practices that work for the prevention of HIV and STI transmission, as well as family planning messages. This embracing and welcoming nature is amazing to experience, and I believe that this openness truly allows for greater strides and improvements to be made for the health and well-being of one’s community and home.
If you actually got to the end of this insanely long post, thanks for sticking with me!
In Solidarity and GlobeMed Love,