I have delayed writing this blog post for the past two weeks, diverting my energy instead into packing up five years of life in Los Angeles and at USC, and saying goodbye to friends and professors before I embark upon my next adventure. In all honesty though, my reasons for delaying this blog post have nothing to do with cardboard boxes or final meals at favorite restaurants and have more to do with my lack of experience writing anything beyond structured research papers and the intimidation that is “blogging”. Mostly though, I fear that, even if I did have experience with this type of writing, words may never adequately describe the profundity of my time in Uganda.
At sunrise, our team of USC students loaded onto the big bus that we would become all too familiar with over the next few weeks. The five-hour drive from Kampala to Oyam takes you through rolling hills of thick green vegetation, which is contrasted against the winding brick-red mud roads. Our driver, Abdul, made sure to point out the different types of produce growing in the fields that we would be tasting throughout the week- cassava, posho, plantains, ginuts…After a few brief stops to pick up street food and to allow baboons to strut across the road, we were welcomed by the rest of our team at the Global Health Network Uganda (GHNU) house in Loro, a subcounty of the Oyam district.
Over the next week, we would be collaborating with students from Makerere University in Kampala, the team of individuals working at GHNU, and coaches from Football for Good as the hosts for Ray United FC (RUFC) Camp 2017. This would be RUFC’s third year hosting a community outreach, health education camp, but it would be the first time it was hosted in Northern Uganda. Over the course of a week, our team would reach over 1,000 students through our health education program and hundreds more community members through a medical outreach.
Our first night in Oyam was spent with a host family, which was basically just one big party. We played football (soccer), jumped rope made of banana leaves, and sang and danced around the campfire under the stars. Dr. Bluetooth, a Makerere student who would become a dear friend of mine, had brought his guitar. We sang popular American songs and our host family would reply with local chants. Everyone got up and danced and we could probably be heard laughing way out into the maize fields that surrounded us. Another Makerere friend, Meddy, gave me the name Namaganda, which means ‘national’. This gesture meant to me ‘you are one of us’. It certainly felt that way that night.
The following afternoon, we returned to the GHNU house, and after a traditional Ugandan meal of rice, beans, cassava, and beef, the team broke up into groups to go over the sessions they had prepared for the week. Different groups of Makerere and USC students would be teaching the camp participants about nutrition, infectious disease prevention, avoiding risky behaviors, sexual and reproductive health, citizenship and stigma, and leadership and communication. Each team had developed fun, interactive games to communicate these health messages in a way that would have a lasting effect. As an intern for the USC Institute for Global Health, I had spent months helping Dr. Heather Wipfli develop these activities, but my primary focus was the independent research study I had been preparing to carry-out in Oyam.
After extensive research about reproductive health issues in East Africa, I found that menstrual hygiene management in low-income, rural areas is a great challenge, particularly in schools. Disposable sanitary pads are often unavailable or unaffordable, and with little access to sanitary products in school, girls typically manage their menstrual periods by using pieces of cloth that lack absorbency and are essentially ineffective. Private latrines or washrooms with adequate toilet paper, water, and soap for washing are often lacking. Consequently, girls prefer to stay home from school to avoid embarrassment and challenges with menstrual hygiene management. Unable to keep up with their school work, many girls end up dropping out before completing secondary school.
When I discovered that Global Health Network (Uganda) was working with local women to make reusable sanitary pads to be sold to local women’s groups and schools, I knew I had to be involved. Instead of distributing pre-made reusable pads, I decided to provide the girls with the tools to make a pad of their own and instructions to make pads using materials they might find in and around their homes.
Evan Pye, a USC MPH alumnus, and Allie Schmidt, both of whom currently work with GHNU, took on the daunting task of finding all the necessary materials in Kampala the week before. Tired from a long day of traveling, Allie and I got to work cutting out the fabric templates that would constitute the pad making kits that would be handed out over the course of the week. As the individual groups finished preparing their sessions, people trickled in to the main living room of the GHNU house and sat down to help. There were more people volunteering to help than there were scissors to work with. We spent the better part of the balmy evening listening to a playlist of local music and cutting cross- and oval-shaped bits of fleece and nylon. Everyone really believed in the project and wanted to be a part of it in some way.
Still, I couldn’t help but worry how it would be received by the local girls. Would they scoff at my not-so-perfect homemade templates? Was it presumptuous of me to think that they would actually want to use reusable pads over disposable pads? Teenage girls can be a tough crowd.
When our fingers could cut no more, we packed up the bus and headed to Lira to get a good night’s rest before what would be a few incredible days in Oyam.
by Simone St.Claire
Story continued here.
Simone St. Claire received her Master of Public Health degree at USC in 2017. Her project, “Menstrual Hygiene Management of Secondary School Girls in Oyam,” was supported by the Anderson Family Global Health Immersion Fellowship.