Seven days after arriving in Uganda, I contracted my first (and hopefully last) stomach bug of the summer. As I laid on the floor of my bathroom all night in pain, I was flooded with memories of all the times I felt this way in Nepal, and hoped this wasn’t going to be my new normal here too. As in Nepal, there was no point in trying to figure out what made me so sick, as the options were endless. Better to just trust that, so long as I kept myself hydrated, eventually my immune system would win out (and if I wasn’t better in a few days, there is a nice medical facility a few minutes from me). And so, lying on the cold floor of my bathroom taking sips of water with Gatorade powder I had brought from the US and willing my stomach to keep them in, I started to feel pretty lucky.
Not, of course, lucky to have caught a bug that seemed to demand exclusive tenancy over my entire digestive system, but lucky for just about everything else. I was lucky to have a bathroom attached to my room, lucky to have access to clean drinking water and Gatorade powder to keep myself hydrated, lucky to have a roommate I could call to help me to a medical facility if I got any worse, lucky to have access to a medical facility that would be able to provide me proper care, lucky to be able to pay for this facility. On an even bigger scale, I was lucky to know that I needed to stay hydrated, to know that Gatorade or just water with sugar and salt, would keep my system going while this bug thing worked itself out, and lucky that eventually I would be going back to a place where brushing my teeth and showering and cooking food were not likely to make me this sick. And really, I am pretty lucky to be in Uganda in the first place.
Before I got sick, I had been thinking that perhaps I was having such a hard time adjusting to being here because I didn’t have a good sense of why I am here. I didn’t know what I wanted to get out of my 12 weeks in Uganda, and I didn’t know what I wanted to contribute. I was comfortable with my life in New York, so I failed to see why I needed to make a change. Going in to all the other amazing opportunities I have been a part of around the world, I knew what I wanted—to meet new people, to learn about a place I had never been, to donate my time to something I felt was important, and to have new adventures. Somehow, these feelings were missing when I shipped off for Uganda. During my year in school, I seemed to have lost track of why I was there. Development started to be about policy briefs and problems sets and brown bag lunches. I lost the sense of urgency and injustice that propelled me to apply to the program more than a year ago when I was still in Nepal.
Writhing in pain on the bathroom floor, it came back to me. This is so unfair! I hate that I am susceptible to disease just from brushing my teeth or washing my dishes, and I hate that millions more people are even more susceptible. It is so unfair that in August, I get to go back to my home in the US and not think about these things any more, and that I will leave behind a country that has generously hosted me and allowed me to make it my home. Sure, I am working on a project that I believe is doing an amazing job addressing some of the causes of malnutrition in a way that is making a difference in a serious, long-term way. I’m trying to be realistic about the impact I really can have in such a short time, especially given my lack of understanding of the local language, culture and history. While I certainly hope I can contribute to the research and bolster the long-term local staff who are conducting the research and running the project, I don’t for a moment think that I am, in this short summer in Uganda, doing all that much to reduce malnutrition.
What I am hoping to do is rekindle the fire. I came in to the program in August of 2014 full of anger at the injustice of the world, and brimming with hope that, with a little refinement, I would emerge after two years with skills and peer networks to actually reduce some of the inequalities and suffering I had seen in Asia. Clearly, this fire is hard to sustain, and easy to forget. It hasn’t slipped my mind that just five months ago, upon my return from El Salvador and Nicaragua, I wrote that the greatest takeaway from my trip had been a renewed sense of urgency about what I want to do, and that feeling managed to slip away again during the spring semester. I plan to have a long career in this field, so clearly I need to find a way to balance the urgency I feel in the field with the system I want to work with in the US. But, I know I still talk about Nepal all the time, and will always carry those experiences and stories with me. So, here’s to more experiences and stories from a summer in Uganda. I look forward to sharing them with you over the coming months!