Hard Lessons from Africa

Hard Lessons from Africa

GSSW students see hope and despair in Uganda's battle against HIV/AIDS

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor
It was not as if Graduate School of Social Work student Jennifer Mills had never seen people in need, or never encountered a person with HIV. But that was before her trip to Uganda this past summer as part of a GSSW pilot program on human services in developing countries.

Graduate School of Social Work Assoc. Prof. Hugo Kamya (fourth from left) and students during their three-week stay in Uganda, which included site visits to clinics, agencies and programs involved in that country's efforts to curb AIDS/HIV.
Visiting an HIV/AIDS support and outreach center some miles from Uganda's capital, Kampala, Mills and a group of GSSW students and faculty met a woman who had walked seven miles to obtain medical services for one of her twin infants. The other twin, Mills and her colleagues learned, had been left in care of another child, only a few years older.

That wasn't all. The mother, who was HIV-positive and suffering from tuberculosis, was breast-feeding the child - even though her breast milk was likely tainted as a result of her illness.

"She simply had no choice," recalled Mills in a recent interview. "There was no other way she could provide nourishment for her child."

But while the GSSW visitors saw many signs and symbols of the desperate poverty in Uganda, they also witnessed the inner strength of a country's people determined to confront the impact of HIV/AIDS. Those impressions were as meaningful, perhaps more so, to the BC representatives as the insights they gained into Uganda's success in battling HIV/AIDS.

Even Assoc. Prof. Hugo Kamya (GSSW), a native of Uganda, was taken aback by what he saw and experienced.

"To see such resilience alongside the fragility of life there was remarkable," he said. "I was quite aware of the disparity between the rich and poor in Uganda, but to see the stark contrast was powerfully challenging. Yet so many people, especially those in desperate circumstances, opened their homes to us."

Student Jessica Matzkin was similarly struck by the friendliness shown by the Ugandans.
"I was amazed at the degree of intimacy we were able to foster in such a short time," she said. "They were so willing and eager to talk with us and share their stories about living with HIV/AIDS."

Those stories represent an important facet of the GSSW program, which was directed by Kamya and Continuing Education Director Vincent Lynch. Uganda was selected as the program site because, despite its meager resources, the country has recorded a significant decrease in the rate of AIDS/HIV infection during the past decade.

During their trip, which took place from July 10-Aug. 1, the GSSW contingent visited clinics, agencies and other organizations and individuals serving HIV/AIDS sufferers. Their primary contacts were through The AIDS Support Organization, or TASO, which provides personal and family counseling, preventative education and other resources.

The education and outreach efforts of TASO have been credited with helping contribute to the decline of infection, according to the GSSW representatives, by encouraging the use of traditional healing strategies in concert with modern biomedical procedures, providing support for the growing numbers of teenagers thrust into parental roles in families affected by HIV/AIDS, and other initiatives. President Bush - who visited Africa during the GSSW program - met with TASO officials during his stop in Uganda.

The openness with which many Ugandans discussed the effect of AIDS/HIV on their lives and families was a revelation to the GSSW visitors. In particular, they said they were moved by the plight of teenagers and grandparents who were forced into the role as head of household because of parents' death or illness. One was a 17-year-old boy caring for his four siblings as well as a cousin who had been orphaned.

"He was going to school, but he also had to work to make sure he had enough money for food and medical care, because his youngest sister is HIV-positive," said Matzkin.

Kamya and the GSSW students also met with the chief justice of the Uganda Supreme Court, who discussed legal questions and issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, and with representatives of the Islamic Medical Association, which is blending faith traditions with its care and outreach.

However encouraging the Ugandan situation might be, on-site visits with care providers through TASO and other organizations were often sobering, especially in rural settings. Because of a lack of facilities, much of the care - including lab tests - is done outside, "literally under the trees," said Kamya.

Talking with one care provider on a typically broiling hot day, Kamya asked her about the most challenging aspects of her work. "'Look around,'" said Kamya, recalling her answer. "'We need more shade.'"

The GSSW contingent met every evening during the trip to review the day's events and share their reactions, for reasons that went beyond the program's educational content.

"You saw and heard so much, it could be overwhelming at times, so you needed to sift through your impressions and talk them out," said Mills.

"We also were concerned about how we could take this experience home and incorporate it into our lives and professions. You don't want everything to simply fade away once you're back in your routine, but at the same time you have to be realistic about what you can and can't do."

Mills says her way of preserving the Uganda trip will be to aid the pilot program in whatever way possible, and to bring a renewed commitment to her job at Headstart, which involves working with many immigrant families.

"But it's often the basic, most simple things that matter most," she added. "Over Labor Day weekend, I'll be cleaning out my closet, so I can pass along whatever I can to those who need it."


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