[Author Saumya Ayyagari is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is majoring in International Studies with a concentration in Global Health and Environment. She works part-time for the institute.]
As I child I dreamed of “fixing” India, the country of my heritage. I wanted to eradicate the poverty, disease, and horrific environmental conditions that plagued the country’s poor. As I learned more about the world, I realized that the squalid conditions I observed in India were found among the poorest of the poor in many third world countries. I wanted to be like Paul Farmer or Bill Gates, somebody with enough clout to make a huge, lasting impact on the world.
After I entered college, I dedicated myself to various student organizations involved with public health and poverty eradication. I learned about the Millennium Development Goals and about how poverty, hunger, lack of women’s rights, lack of environmental sustainability, poor maternal and child health, illiteracy, infectious disease, infant mortality, and civil unrest were all related. For me, global health was a goal. All I had to do to make the world healthy was to find a way to tackle these issues at once.
I figured that since Africa seemed to be the most “unhealthy” continent, I would go there and start making a difference. I ended up going to Uganda through a student organization called Advocates for Grassroots Development in Uganda. Through that organization I learned that my desire to heal the world implied that I had a sort or savior complex. I discovered that efforts to improve public health can only be sustainable if those efforts are designed an implemented by the people living in the communities that will be directly affected. Not only will such programs be more effective than top-down systems, but they are also empowering for the communities putting the initiatives into place.
Off I went to Uganda, where I knew would be empowering people because, after all, I was working for a Ugandan founded and run community-based health care program. I didn’t realize that for me saving and empowering were synonyms. This was driven home when I was teaching about nutrition to a large group of elementary and middle school aged children. “What are Africans in particular doing wrong that makes them get HIV/AIDS and TB?” the teacher of the group asked me all of a sudden. I explained that people who have an illness should not be blamed for it. I also told him that I didn’t exactly understand why Africans in particular were struggling with those diseases.
He looked at me with what appeared like contempt, and it seemed like he thought he knew the answer before asking me the question. As if I were being tested. As though he were saying, “You’re not as smart as you think you are.” Then it dawned on me that perhaps the students who were patiently listening to me talk about nutrition had already known the information I was presenting. Maybe the only reason I was up in front of them was because to them I was a Mzungu (white person or foreigner). Were they waiting for me to say something earth shattering?
Unfortunately, not only was I thinking that I was going to do wonders for people in Uganda, but apparently they were also expecting this from me. From then on I decided to view my internship in Uganda not as a task on my list of things I needed to do to “achieve” global health, but as a learning experience within itself. I was fortunate enough to be able to learn about how people with HIV/AIDS perceived their disease. I also learned that something as simple as showing somebody how to use email and google could put a huge smile on that person’s face. More importantly, however, I learned from the way that people in my village do not take life for granted. They live with great regard for their fellow human being. The fact that even families struggling to feed their own children adopt children orphaned by HIV/AIDS speaks to this.
More soon. . .