Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Goodbye For Now

Dear Ambassadors of Hope,

It is difficult to believe that our six weeks with you passed so quickly. In that time, you made us feel like we were home, and I want to thank you for that. You welcomed us into your meetings, your support groups, and your homes, and that is something we will never forget and for which we will always be grateful.

When we attended the GlobeMed East Africa forum (put on in Uganda by GlobeMed for all the East African partners), the first weekend after arriving in Kenya, the director of GlobeMed spoke about the meaning of partnership. She said that a strong partnership is built on kept promises. One year ago, when we agreed on the Memorandum of Understanding between WOPLAH and GlobeMed, we made a promise that bound GlobeMed at CC and WOPLAH together. Over the past year, many students worked hard on behalf of GlobeMed at CC to honor that promise. We held meetings and fundraisers and educational activities as we worked to share the mission and work of WOPLAH with our community.  However, we did this without truly understanding our partner. We knew about the kitchen gardens and the goats and the jiggers and the community dialogues, but we could not picture the people behind these projects.

The six weeks we spent in Mumias changed this. The GROW team came to know you, the Ambassadors of Hope, as friends and mentors. We learned from you and were inspired by you. We met the beneficiaries of your many projects, and heard about their successes and challenges. We learned how a kitchen garden can help someone with ARV adherence and how being able to raise a goat and passing it on to a neighbor can reduce stigma. We learned how the support groups give people hope to live when they have none. We learned that giving a pair of shoes to someone with jiggers is just the first step to creating a permanent solution. We saw the impact that a single Community Health Worker can have on his or her community.

Most importantly, we learned the true meaning of empowerment. Real empowerment has a ripple effect. It starts with one person, one kitchen garden, one goat, one pair of shoes, and then spreads to an entire community. This is expressed in the sentiments of a woman from the Khaunga support group. She told us her story of getting tested and being found positive for HIV, and how joining a support group impacted her. She said, “I used to fear but now I am free. Now, sometimes others come to me to disclose because they know I can help.” During our monitoring and evaluation, we always ended our interviews by asking the beneficiaries what dreams they have for the future. Invariably, they answered that they want to expand the projects so that more people can benefit. They want to enlarge their current income generating activities and pioneer new ones so that they can help fellow community members be healthy and prosper. This is true empowerment: once set in motion, it spreads through individuals, families, and communities.

We also saw the power of community. You invited us into your homes and support groups, and showed us grassroots work in action. You, better than anyone else, understand the challenges your family, friends, neighbors, and communities face, and you use this unique perspective to work towards addressing these challenges.  When each of you visits a home to administer jiggers treatments or convince someone to get HIV tested, you are not only there as a health professional, you are there as a friend. We accompanied you into the field many times during our internship, and listened as you shared your personal stories with the people we visited. We were inspired by your courage and by the solidarity you were not afraid to express, and we saw that it had results. People trusted you and took your advice, and as a result of that there are more people who know their HIV status, more people who practice jiggers prevention techniques, more people living with hope. We understand now why you call yourselves the Ambassadors of Hope.

Two months ago, as I boarded a plane to come to Kenya, I had some qualms about this internship. I struggled with the ethics of spending so much money to fly across an ocean under the pretext of helping people when there is so much that can be done right outside my back door. I wondered what made me, a 20-year-old college student from the United States, think I could show up in Mumias, Kenya and make a difference. There is a lot of value in thinking critically and carefully about my role as a foreigner and an inexperienced student in WOPLAH’s work. However, what I learned in the last six weeks is that overthinking it can also be crippling. When I became too caught up in this internal debate over the ethics and morals of our presence in Mumias, I stopped interacting fully and open-heartedly with the people I met, which is the exact opposite of what I traveled to Kenya to do. In the most simple and human terms, our visit was about caring. It was about recognizing shared humanity between all people, whether American or Kenyan, HIV positive or negative, student or professional health worker, caregiver or patient. 

One question that many HIV support group members asked us during our visits is whether or not there are people in the U.S. who are living positively like they are. The first time we were asked this, I was surprised and also saddened by the thought that these people, who were so resilient in the face of many challenges, thought they were the only ones in the world dealing with HIV. The movement for global health equity is about ensuring equal access to basic health care for all peoples. However, I think an equally important aspect is showing people who are struggling with health issues such as HIV that they are not alone. Viruses do not recognize borders or skin color or dollar signs. All people are equal in the face of illness. We all face the same health challenges, we are all fighting them in our own ways, and we can draw hope and strength from our shared experience. 

During our time in Kenya, the GROW team did not implement any major changes or try to shift the way WOPLAH operates. We merely listened and offered a new perspective when called upon. WOPLAH does not need direction, nor were we at all qualified to give it. The true value of our visit was creating relationships that span continents, and I think this is a valuable role that youth and students across the world can play in the movement for global health equity. We may not be qualified to administer immunizations or deliver ARVs or build hospitals, but we can create global partnerships and friendships. We can learn from each other and teach other, so that when we do set out to change things, we will work together as equals, with all our strength combined into a powerful movement aimed at making health a human right.


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