University of Calgary

Postcard from Uganda

UToday HomeDecember 17, 2012

Hannah Mercader, a Bachelor of Health Sciences student, chose to intern with the Students for Development program in Uganda. Here is her postcard home.

Why did you choose to do an internship with the Students for Development program over other study abroad programs?

I was really interested in getting work experience and having the opportunity to use the skills that I’ve learned during my studies in health sciences. I was also starting to seriously consider a career in developing countries, so I felt that this internship in Uganda would be the perfect way to see if I’m well suited for such a lifestyle. The Students for Development program seemed like a great advocate for students interested in having fulfilling development experiences abroad.

Where are you located? Tell us more about the Students for Development program you’re working on.

I am currently based in Mbarara, Uganda, interning for an organization called Healthy Child Uganda (HCU). HCU is a partnership between the University of Calgary and Mbarara University of Science and Technology, and it aims to improve maternal and child health within rural Uganda. To be specific, I am assisting with an end line study for a project that’s piloting drug distribution to rural villages, so I primarily help with developing research tools and mobilizing the study.

Did you receive any funding for this experience?

Yes, the Students for Development program is supported by the Government of Canada, and provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

How would you describe the country and people to friends and family back home?

Uganda alone is an absolutely lovely region, with its lush green hills and comfortable temperatures. But to me, what makes the country really special is how welcoming and friendly the people are, despite their hardships. For example, people greet each other with genuine interest and take their time to give proper handshakes. This is refreshingly different from the hasty “Hi, how are you — good” that Canadians tend to blurt in passing. Every one is very laidback and charming, and I can always count on some good Ugandan hospitality to cheer me up.

Have you come across any interesting topics or findings through your courses/experiences?

Since my background is mostly in science and research, it has been really interesting for me to learn about development and sustainability. I’ve learned firsthand that there’s much more to consider when you want to help low-to-middle income countries. Donating money and resources can only go so far when allocation and policy implementation is poor. Rather than viewing developing countries as “charity cases,” we need to start recognizing their immense potential and start giving them the encouragement they need to utilize their strengths.

Tell us about the research you are doing.

HCU does a lot of work with Village Health Teams (VHTs), which are community volunteers that help promote healthy practices within their villages. The project I’m working on is piloting a program in which some VHTs are also given the task of drug administration for childhood malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea. We have been surveying local families about their experience with the VHTs and it has been quite eye-opening to see just how many children get sick. I would say that, for every 10 questionnaires filled out, seven of them have had children under the age of five that were sick in the last two weeks. Obviously, findings like this are somewhat expected in sub-Saharan Africa, but it was very striking to see the hard data in front of me — particularly when I am living in the region myself.

Tell us about a journey/adventure you have been on?

I have had the good fortune to do a lot of travelling while being here, from visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda, to white water rafting on the Nile River, and even a chaotic football/soccer match in Kampala. One of my most memorable trips was doing a gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Let me start by saying that the park is called impenetrable for a reason! It was remarkable to hike down into the thick of the forest and spend time with endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. As I was crouching down, one of the younglings even stopped right in front me and stared straight into my face for a good five seconds; he was so close that I could have leaned over and kissed him! The hike back up to park headquarters was a brutal and steep 1,500 meters, but so worth it for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Have you experienced any interesting cross-cultural interactions?

It’s quite funny trying to explain Canadian food to Ugandans; they just don’t understand the concept of variety. For them, each meal usually consists of at least one starchy staple food (e.g. matooke, posho, beans, rice, potatoes, etc.) accompanied by some sort of stew. They just can’t comprehend the idea of Canadians not having a staple food and how our meals depend on our cravings. For example, one day we might have pasta, the next day sushi, the next day a salad; this variety doesn’t make any sense to them and I’ve basically given up trying to explain it.

Did you try or learn any new hobbies/sports/interests/food/language?

Definitely! I’ve learned a fair amount of the local language. For example, Agandi means “hi, how are you?” and Ndyaho means “I’m fine.” I learned how to ride a motorcycle (falling many times), which is the most common form of public transportation. I’ve also tried almost all of the local dishes (matooke with g-nut sauce and fried tilapia... yum!) and have even tried fried grasshopper now that they’re in season! On weekends, you can spot me at the local nightclub with my newfound appreciation for reggae and dancehall music. I think it’s important to immerse yourself in local culture when travelling and I’m always up for doing anything at least once.

What do you feel this experience has brought to your life and future career?

Ugandans — being so gregarious — have taught me to be even more social and laid-back. As much as I liked to use my studies as an excuse back in Canada, I realize now that I was lacking a healthy social life. I have learned even more to appreciate every minute of my life and have found the value in taking risks, both in my life and career. I am still unsure whether I want to pursue a career in medicine or public health, but I now know that it will involve a lot of travel and helping people in developing regions.

Tell us about your future plans?

When I come back to Calgary, I still have another year and a half to finish my degree. After that, I might do a master’s degree in international public health, and then maybe medical school. My future plans are up in the air, but all I know is that I’ll be doing lots of travelling in between!

Would you like to share any words of wisdom?

If you had asked me in April how I would be spending my fall semester, never in a million years would I have thought I’d be spending it in Uganda. When I first saw the posting for this internship, I originally decided not to apply because it would set me back a year in my studies. But one day, I decided very impulsively to apply last minute, and I’m so glad I did! My advice would be to take risks, to push yourself, and to think outside of the box — both in your life and in your career. Life isn’t meant to be lived like a timeline set in stone. So take every moment as it comes and when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arises, don’t be afraid to take a chance!

Learn more about the Students for Development program. This postcard was supplied by University of Calgary International.