Uganda Study Abroad Reflection

Looking back at this Study Abroad trip to Uganda, it truly feels like a dream come true.  Outside of living in Puerto Rico from ages 3-5, I’ve never been outside of the United States.  Coming from that, to traveling across the world to a country in Africa has been such an unbelievable experience for me.  If someone told me that I would be helping to collect data for a global health research project at this point in my life I wouldn’t have believed them.  It’s still so surreal to me.  Since I’ve been back, I’ve found myself looking at pictures and reminiscing.  It’s been emotional for me adjusting back to regular life.  I really miss Uganda, but I am so thankful for my month abroad and all that the experience contributed to my personal as well as academic life. 

I initially picked this program I’d heard great things about Dr. Swahn, and the program was recommended to me by my boss Dr. Salazar, as well as some of my other mentors.  I thought it was cool that there was a public health program that was in Africa, but I wasn’t very interested in the alcohol-related harm reduction topic.  When I think about alcohol, I think about social drinking and enjoying yourself, but I know the negative effects it can have on a person.  My older brother is a recovering alcoholic.  Two years ago he was almost killed in a car accident where he was driving drunk and ran into a tree.  He was charged with a DUI, but ended up getting off with reckless driving.  I felt like alcohol abuse and learning how to decrease its’ harm was too close to home, but ironically a conversation with him about this trip ended up being the driving factor for why I decided to choose this program over the Brazil one. 

Alcohol affects people worldwide, but I had no idea going into this trip the impact of alcohol on this country and its’ culture.  It was surprising to see a place where they don’t even have stoplights or paved roads have such high quality and quantity of alcohol billboards and ads.  The amount of money put into the industry shows how much the country values it.  I didn’t realize how big of a problem alcoholism would be in Uganda until I witnessed it firsthand.  I thought it was so random that of all places, we were going to Uganda to study alcohol-related harm reduction.  I never thought of Africa to be a place where alcohol was a big problem.  I was sadly mistaken.  We saw drunk people everywhere, at all times of the day.  I remember being out collecting data at 12pm and seeing a woman so drunk that she was tripping on her own feet.  She even stumbled around to our group and just stared at us without saying anything.  She then stumbled onto a boda boda and was so limp that I thought I was about to witness her falling off as it zoomed away.  On a different occasion, we walked as a whole group through one of the slums near our hotel.  We saw a drunk mother standing outside of a bar while holding her baby.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that the mother was in a bar with her baby, she was stumbling around so much and laughing so hard that she looked like she was about to drop her.  As I looked at the baby I was shocked to see that she had bright blue eyes.  They were so beautiful I wanted to take a picture, but didn’t out of respect of course.  As I pointed the baby girl out to Charles, he told me that her eyes weren’t blue.  It was a cataract film over her eyes, and she was most likely completely blind. She couldn’t even walk yet and she was already blind, most likely from alcohol related fumes.  We see alcohol abuse in America, but these are the things you can never be prepared for. 

What stuck with me most about this trip were the women and children of Kakira.  Kakira is an alcohol production site in Jinja.  This was our first non-touristy thing we did on the trip, and I wasn’t sure how the local people would view us.  To my surprise they welcomed us with smiles and open arms.  The conditions these women and children lived in were so unsanitary, dangerous, and unhealthy.  As soon as we exited our van we all smelled a vinegary odor, which we later found out was the smell of the alcohol being distilled.  The strong fumes nearly brought tears to my eyes.  It was sad to know that these women and children were around that every single day.  A large percentage of the people in the village were completely blind due to overexposure of the fumes.  I originally wondered why these women would stay and put themselves and their children in such dangerous conditions, but they are there because they have no other choice.  These are hardworking women that cannot find work anywhere else and feel that this is the only way they are able to make a living.  We were informed during our meeting with the women that contactors come to the villages and impregnate the women, then move back to where they live.  These women are left to take care of the child(ren) with no support, which leaves them stuck to doing the only thing they know.  These women were so strong and inspirational, but what really impacted me most was the children there.  From the moment we stepped off the bus they clung to us.  I have a soft spot for children, so it was hard for me to see that they didn’t have clean clothes or water.  Despite the conditions they live in, they still found reasons to smile and be happy.  Watching them skip around and laugh brought me so much joy.  Right before we closed our meeting with the group, a young boy stood up and said he had something to say.  He couldn’t have been older than 10 years old.  After they granted him permission to speak, he told us he was so thankful that we hadn’t forgotten about them, was so happy that we were there, and that he loved us.  It was so different to see a child express that much gratitude to complete strangers.  It made me think about the children in America and how spoiled and ungrateful so many of them are.  It was an emotional moment for me, but a moment that has such a large impact on me.   I will never forget the children of Kakira, and am so happy that Dr. Swahn is making efforts to raise money for their community. 

Following our visit to Kakira we went to an organization called Ring of Hope.  It was a place for orphans whose parents were unable to take care of them due to alcoholism.  They greeted us with light-hearted singing and dancing, but one of the songs really resonated with me.  The lyrics were them asking their mothers why they continue to drink.  Their heads hung low during this song as they reminisced on the abuse they experienced.  It was so apparent that they’d had a hard life prior to being adopted by Ring of Hope.  As the song ended and they began a new one, their faces lit up again.  At such young ages these girls exuded resilience.  It made me realize that the work we were doing on alcohol harm reduction was so important.  If the work done could prevent one family from splitting apart, we would be making a difference. 

It still hasn’t hit me yet that I’m back in America and my time in Uganda has come to an end.  It’s weird doing everyday things like sleeping in a room by myself and taking showers at whatever temperature and water pressure I desire.  I feel an overwhelming amount of gratefulness for the lifestyle I live in the states, but I do feel a bit guilty for going back to my life while others in Uganda, and around the world have nothing.  I will never forget the small children beating on the windows of our van with their starving fists of desperation.  I will never forget watching people step over the babies sleeping in their mothers’ arms on the hard concrete because she has nowhere to go.  These things are imprinted in my mind, and I feel guilty.  After this program my priorities have shifted.  As I make plans for my life after I graduate, my plans have less to do with how much money I can make, but how many people I can help.  I still don’t know what the future holds, but I now see myself traveling and serving underprivileged communities abroad.  I never thought I would have the courage to live abroad, and now I am seriously considering applying for the Fulbright scholarship to do research in Africa.  Not to sound cliché, but this trip has really changed me in ways I never would’ve imagined.  I have gained so much, and I just want to say thank you to Dr. Swahn, and to Georgia State for creating making this happen.  It was worth every single penny—and shilling!

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