Study Abroad Essay Contest Winners: Africa Chose Me

KarenBeth Bohan, Third Place Winner of the Faculty and Staff category

When asked why I went to Africa, I always say, “I didn’t choose Africa but rather Africa chose me.”  And once I decided to go, I thought I was bringing my expertise and charity to help the people of Uganda, but instead I have been the greater beneficiary.  Five years ago, visiting Africa was not on my radar. Sure, I always had dreams of traveling but it was the traditional tourist destinations of London and Paris that made my bucket list. Little did I know that my life was about to change – not just my ideas about where to travel but the whole direction of my scholarly work and focus of teaching as a Pharmacy faculty member at Wilkes University.

I visited Uganda the first time to conduct research on the impact of access to safe water and sanitation on the health of rural villagers in Masindi, Uganda.  The Water Trust (TWT), a non-governmental organization, had asked two Wilkes faculty colleagues in Communications and Anthropology to assess their community water and sanitation project and in turn these faculty offered me the chance to collaborate and work on the health aspect.  As a clinical pharmacist specializing in infectious diseases, the treatment of waterborne infections was part of my teaching curriculum and participating in this research would be a great opportunity to use my knowledge and skills to help others.

Having obtained research approval by the Ugandan government and armed with oral questionnaires to discuss with villagers in communities with and without access to clean water, in the summer of 2011, a pharmacy student and I set off for Uganda. I also wanted to bring some sort of gifts for the people of the country that would be allowing my student and me into their lives.  That summer I distributed 94 knitted and crocheted baby hats and 95 Little Dresses for Africa lovingly made by friends, church members, pharmacy students, and alumni to orphans, health clinics, and a church group.

Although all of the charity items were graciously received and TWT is thankful for the research efforts, the warmth of our welcome by all the Ugandans we met, the new friends I’ve made, my newfound knowledge of and eyes now open to the health challenges faced daily in the developing world are worth much more. I know first-hand what it means to a village to receive a well and how thankful they are to give their children clean water rather than that from a mud hole.  I’ve also seen villagers collect water from an open, unprotected water source that looks as cloudy and brown as a light café latte.  When asked if they will boil the water prior to drinking the answer was “No, we can’t afford firewood to boil water and make dinner.”  In addition, when ill they walk many kilometers to the health clinic and then wait all day to be seen, just to find out the clinic ran out of medications.  Despite conditions that would easily make Americans outraged, these Ugandans don’t live a life of despair.  In their quiet manner, they patiently walk back to home and set out the next day to a clinic that is even farther away. Living in large family groups, they value community and chip in to help each other in a way that is not common in the U.S.  I learned not to take their patience for lack of caring or understanding about health issues.  The women I spoke with knew that clean water and proper sanitation is critical for improving health and they were as curious about why sickness occurs and what they can do for prevention, as any American parent would be.

Fast forward a year and I have returned from my second trip to Uganda.  This time I took four pharmacy students who completed an Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience rotation.  They shared learning experiences with Makerere University pharmacy students in Kampala and volunteered with the Masindi Red Cross, Masindi-Kitara Medical Center, and The AIDS Support Organization.  I have developed a collaborative project with Makerere University, The Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda, and D’Youville College of Pharmacy in New York to help advance the practice of pharmacy in Uganda and develop a curriculum to train pharmacists in Pharmaceutical Care.  As I continue to pursue these projects, I hope to encourage others to step out of their comfort zone, experience the world, and open their eyes.

– KarenBeth Bohan


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