Learning about Uganda

Hello from Kampala!

My name is Neil, and I am a second-year medical student at the Keck School of Medicine. I have been incredibly lucky to have the chance to travel to Uganda with a group of PHR leaders and other students. We're here to be part of the East African Health and Human Rights Conference, which is going to bring together health professional students from all over East Africa—Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya. The issues that students face here are vastly different from the ones we face in the US, but the strategies we can employ to make changes are similar. The goal is to share experiences and make new friends whom we can help and support as we continue in our careers.

We touched down in Kampala on Sunday night. The cab driver took us straight to the guest house we are staying at, and we pretty much just passed out. Getting to Africa is not a short journey by any means!

Monday was a whirlwind tour of the city. We started by walking down to the main road and soliciting a 'matatu,' which is basically a minivan which functions as a public bus. There are hundreds of matatus buzzing around the city constantly but each one will try to charge you a different amount. Haggling for prices seems to be part of life here, as I soon found as we entered the main market of the town. Fruits, vegetables, spices, lentils, animals, all squeezed closely together with almost no room to walk, and people everywhere made this market hard to navigate but exciting to explore.

The city is overwhelming, especially for foreigners. The city is dense with people, and the streets are filled with cars, vans, motorcycles and bikes moving in a sort of organized chaos. It is a surprise to me that more people aren't hurt in the traffic, but I think that being able to navigate the roads as a pedestrian or hail down a matatu is definitely a rite of passage here.

Later that day, we met with a couple medical students from Makerere University, which is one of the largest and most prestigious universities on the continent. The students here have formed a group called Students for Equity in Healthcare (SEHC) (PDF), which is similar to PHR in the US. We got a tour of Mulago Hospital where they do their rotations, as well as their medical school. It was simply amazing to see so many highly motivated medical students who are doing such positive things in their country.

The medical school itself is quite large, but is also very old and not up to standards that we hold as the norm back at home. Can you imagine preparing your own microbiology slides and studying Biochemistry from donated books published in the 1950s? Would you be able to survive in medical school without a laptop or easy access to the internet? Many of us might have shied away had we been required to study in an environment such as this; I know I certainly would have thought twice. But that is where the difference is; I didn't realize how privileged I am until I came here and saw how hard these students work.

Worse still, graduating students here are not guaranteed good jobs or decent pay. It is not uncommon to find trained health professionals selling vanilla beans in the market because they can make more money that way. Even though I don't know the SEHC students very well yet, I already have an immense amount of respect for them. They chose this profession out of such genuine commitment to health as a human right and out of desire to protect that right no matter how difficult it might be.

The rest of our week promises to be quite eventful. On Tuesday we are going out to the rural Lyantonde district to visit a healthcare facility that uses a community-based approach. On Wednesday we will meet with officials from the Ministry of Health as well as some NGOs that are working on health equity and justice in Uganda. Thursday through Saturday will be the conference, which is what I am most excited for!

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