After months of planning that involved literature reviews, frequent family meetings, tight budgeting, mental pep-talks, craft store visits and a variety of spotty overseas Skype calls, I found myself walking on the red soils of Uganda. As a dual veterinary and public health student, I had anticipated an immersive and challenging Applied Learning Experience, but I can honestly say this was not what I expected. Reflecting now, I see that some of the greatest lessons in my life stemmed from my blind spots.
Oddly enough, my drive to pursue a veterinary education blossomed from my interest in helping people by means of their animals. One may not have an animal laying at the foot of their bed, but relationships with animals are interwoven in every human’s pursuit of an enjoyable life; from marveling alone at nature to sharing a Thanksgiving dinner with family.
The Karamojong of northeastern Uganda
The northeast region of Uganda is home to nomadic pastoralists known as the Karamojong. Isolated both politically and geographically from greater Uganda, the community is driven by strong traditional values. To these men and women, livestock are more than just food animals. They represent wealth, societal status, funds for medical care, school fees for children, cornerstones of tradition.
In 2007, as a result of a conflict with Kenyan tribes, sheep and goats were brought to Karamoja along with a highly contagious and devastating virus, Peste des Petits Ruminants.
Organizations such as the Food and Animal Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have begun targeting this region for resource distribution and animal health education, but delivering materials and gathering data in this area is challenging. Traditional ways of life in Karamoja clash with standardized, Western-inspired record keeping, communication, and community participation.
With the little time I had, I decided to work alongside a classmate and friend, Kenny Siu, to document the unique Karamojong culture and the status of animal health challenges as perceived by the men and women of this region. Our aim was to provide cultural context for effective animal health programs that were to be implemented in the coming years.
Beans for counting
My methods were qualitative and non-traditional. At village after village, I would emerge from a bright white van labeled AIRPORT TAXI with an art bag over my shoulder. The bag contained a white board and dry erase markers for listing, beans for counting and piling, and a giant drawing pad with colored pencils for mapping. I spent 3 hours with Kenny and our marvelous team of guides and translators at each site, conducting separate interviews with men and women, giving them the opportunity to speak from the perspective of their gender role.
These communities had seen many NGOs, governmental programs and independent researchers come and go over the past 10 years. The Karamojong people have often been left with unfulfilled promises and have faced the consequences of trial-and-error type aid. Not speaking the local language and foreign to their customs, I began my work hopelessly anxious that they would see through my inexperience and that barriers to trust would be insurmountable. My preparedness with my coursework, letters of approval, and grants received meant nothing standing before a village, requesting entry.
Looking back on the successes of our work, I believe that my qualifications meant little to the hundreds of individuals that welcomed me into their homes. The children racing one another to greet us as we emerged from the van always reminded me to smile, for there is so much more in a first impression than words exchanged. I identified with men and women eager to engage in a handshake and a simple greeting of which I quickly learned.
A lesson in universal language
We searched each other’s faces for expression and empathy and understanding, not words in foreign languages. During my most memorable interviews, we even shared a good laugh (likely about different things, but you cannot help but enjoy a good-natured laugh). I met their gaze while they delivered concerns, only turning to my translator when thoughts were complete. As human beings, it just feels good to know that someone is listening, not necessarily that they are understanding. If women preferred to sit and feed their children, we performed the activities on the ground and if men preferred to lean against a patch of trees in the shade, I obliged.
Now, home from Uganda and back on my path to becoming a veterinarian, I am sorting through which parts of my adventure I can take with me. The lessons are vast, but Cummings’ emphasis on effective communication as the key to a successful career has solidified my own personal value on the matter. Having been blessed with such an immersive experience in non-verbal communication, I can only hope that adding language to the mix will be the easy part. I look forward to that new challenge as my clinical year quickly approaches.
May 22, 2017
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