Thursday, June 24, 2010

Plastic Water Bottles

The young boy, held tenderly by his mother, stared at me with unabashed curiosity, and then back into his mother’s eyes. He said something to her in Luganda, and the group of women and their children turned to me and laughed heartily.

“What did he say?” I asked Angelina, my colleague in the communications department at IDI. Angelina giggled.

“She said that you have a small nose. And that you are hairy.”

That little boy’s observation about my mzungu appearance was my welcome to Kiboga District. I spent time there this week touring the local health facilities supported by IDI in the district with two colleagues, Angelina and Medard, and a documentary film crew as they filmed newly constructed buildings and interviewed the staff at each location. As a mzungu who recently arrived in Uganda, it was my first trip outside of Kampala. While the local children might have had fun observing me, I most certainly learned far more from them.

At our first stop, we met Veronicah, a young medical worker, who explained some of the challenges she faces trying to help people living with HIV in rural areas. The ratio of patients to medical staff is extraordinarily high, and the supply of drugs too low. However, she beamed when discussing the new building recently built by IDI, which allows Veronicah and her colleagues to treat far more patients in an orderly and secure environment.

We continued on to Kiboga Referral Hospital, and then to a number of satellite locations. At each, there was a stark contrast between an old building and a newer structure that significantly upgraded the capabilities of the clinic. All built recently by IDI, these new structures have made getting care more efficient and more accessible for an untold number of Ugandans living with infectious diseases.

At one our of last stops, we parked our van next to the clinic and, seeing me, at least a dozen children came running to greet us. At first, they were wary, eyeing me like a guppy might look at a shark – no sudden movements, unsure of what to make of me. Finally, they loosened up, and in no time, we were fast friends. They would come near me and offer high-fives, or just want to get a closer look. Occasionally, I would run at the kids, causing them to scatter quickly, all the while laughing with glee. Gather around me, then scatter. Gather, then scatter. And so it went for some time. Just kids playing, experimenting, enjoying something new. And I knew that just about all of them were very sick, born with the HIV/AIDS virus.

Finally, we loaded up the van to depart, and the kids faces turned sullen. Sad we were leaving, I asked Angelina what, if anything, we could give them. She had an idea. Scattered on the floor of the van were empty water bottles from the day. She picked one up and held it out of the window. The children clamored, excitedly. She gave the bottle to one kid, and then another to another. A look of pure jubilation came across their faces when they received an empty water bottle. Finally, I held the last bottle, and a few children remained. One girl, in a pretty but worn pink dress and holding a small baby, peered at me. She was not aggressive like the others. I motioned for her to come to the van, and handed her the bottle. Her face shone of unabashed elation. She curtsied, and scampered off.

Think about that for a moment. It took an empty water bottle to make that little girl’s day. I promised myself not to use this blog to preach or scold, and so I will refrain. But the next time I bemoan the fact that I don’t have an iPad, or a hotel room I’m in doesn’t have a comfortable bed, I’ll remember that girl.

Reading about the HIV/AIDS epidemic from far-away places like my living room in Washington, D.C., it’s easy to analyze the situation in a big picture context. How many millions are infected? Are rates going up or down? And how many billions of dollars will it take to improve the situation on a huge, complicated continent? But meeting Ugandan children personalizes the disease in a way I could have never imagined before I arrived in here. It makes the work done by everyone at IDI that much more tangible and worthwhile.

As the day ended and we sat in endless traffic on our way back to Kampala, I reflected on the work done by the doctors, nurses and staff that I met in the Kiboga District. While IDI does a tremendous job of providing resources and support, it’s never enough. How could it be? Challenged by limited space and medical supplies, and an ever-expanding list of patients, the doctors and nurses face extraordinarily odds and work diligently, saving countless lives, always doing it with a smile on their faces. They were some of the most welcoming and generous people I have met, anywhere. At each location, a doctor or nurse explained the challenges they face with honesty, but remained hopeful that they can help the numerous patients who desperately need their services.

Patients like a little girl in a pretty pick dress.

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