Monday, August 1, 2016

Intern Dispatch: Bufutula A

Great Expectations. 
   by Debbie, Jake, Kennedy, Bridget, Kirsi

There are a lot of things that we (mostly I) didn’t expect upon arriving in Bufutula A. Most are mundane: I didn’t expect the rooster that lives in our neighborhood to crow at literally any hour of the day (I thought they were trained?); to my surprise, I love wearing the maternity skirts that my grandmother bought me to wear in village, despite the fact that they are outrageous colors, clashing with every shirt I attempt to put on to make a cohesive outfit; the latrine is terrifying at night – many of us (again, mostly I) struggled to go to the bathroom between the hours of 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. for the first solid week. (This fear has subsided in most team members I am happy to report.)

Members of the Bufutula A community.
One unexpected thing, however, has been essential to our work here in the village and our hopes for sustainable change: everyone in Bufutula A is so excited to have us here, especially our amazing Village Health Team (VHT). Their enthusiastic welcome and support throughout our weeks here has been the most unexpected (and freaking amazing) thing we have encountered during our time here.

The first member of the VHT we met as a team was Hadija (the VHT specializing in the Family Planning and Obstetric Fistula areas of the Healthy Villages Initiative). We met her so informally I didn’t realize she was one of the people we would be working so closely with during the next eight weeks. She approached us while we unloaded all of the things we would need to live in the village for the next eight weeks. I was hot and sweaty – I’d only been in Uganda for three days. She approached each of us and gave us an extended hug and greeting, which none of us besides Kennedy and Debbie (Lusoga speakers) could understand. She was all dressed up - for what, I still don’t know. This woman could have been (should have been, really) a model. I almost didn’t recognize her the next day when she came back in her work skirt to help us dig our compost pit, carrying two hoes and wearing a determined look. We would not have been able to dig it without her – she was a machine, making the work look absolutely effortless. When I hopped down in the pit to continue the work she had started, I must have looked like a child trying to get the hang of using utensils for the first time. Hadija was patient, directing me when necessary, jumping back in and helping when directions just weren’t cutting it. My overall sweatiness and exhausted expression and posture after this project perfectly contrasted hers. She stood at the edge of the freshly dug pit, looking regal, not a single speck of dirt on her skirt. My green-gray-pink-purple striped maternity skirt was definitely going to need a wash. Over the weeks I have seen her hardworking spirit in everything she has done – during baseline surveys, in meetings, raising her children – all the while maintaining enough energy to express her words in large arm and hand motions. She’s a central community member, and is respected by people in the village (I being among them), but she has certain things she is uncertain about. She only shows one side of her teeth while she smiles, and I get the feeling that she is thinking a lot more than she says behind her eyes.

The next VHT we met was Faziri. He’s the only male in the group, and also the oldest, his shoulders bowed with years of hard work, hair thinning in a way that makes it seem like he is bald. His wisdom shows in the cadence of his speech. He talks slowly and steadily, listening with kind and gentle eyes that seem to twinkle all the time. The first thing we noticed about him was his memory and attention to detail. He can (and frequently does) recall and repeat entire conversations that occurred while someone was absent or not paying attention, even if the conversation was a half an hour long. Where Hadija has an energy for life, Faziri has an energy for health. During our first meeting he told us, “Oh, I wish I wasn’t so unfortunate as to live in Bufutula A,” while informing us of all of the health problems the villagers encountered. I didn’t believe him for one second – his is so crazy passionate about his village, it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that he considers himself the physical embodiment of Bufutula A. His thoughts about village health, his plans for the future, and his commitment to and pride in his work have made him the well-respected village man to the community and an absolutely invaluable VHT.

The specialist in the HIV area of UVP’s programming is a woman named Brenda. Her jovial and carefree demeanor belies her quiet power as a strategist and mobilizer who can adeptly juggle demands from all sides. This became clear to us on our HIV Day last Tuesday. Brenda was the glue that held the event together and kept everyone organized and energized—she helped cook lunch, directed people to seats, directed our team to the wonderful lunch she made, and pushed mosquito nets on every person that milled around the testing area waiting for results, all the while being 6+ months pregnant. The laid-back, calm woman who always keeps us laughing during planning meetings disappeared for the day as Brenda transformed into our expert in all things HIV. It’s clear that her gift for setting people at ease and making them feel like a part of her personal community is an indispensable asset to the work of the VHT, and her joy will continue to be a motivating force for many in the months to come.

Last, but most certainly not least, we have Betty, our head VHT, and quite honestly our Beyoncé. The first time we saw her, she was biking as fast as I’ve ever seen anyone bike on our dirt paths in a beautifully colored satin dress. I had no idea where she was going, who she was, or why everyone got so excited to see this impeccably dressed stranger blazing by us. When she approached us from the direction she had just raced off to dressed in a VHT shirt, I understood. As the head of the VHT, she is decisive and outspoken. As a mother and a village member, she is also a leader – all of her children went through school, her home is amazingly hygienic, and she can “show up late to a party long after food is done and a plate will be waiting for her.” (This fact particularly impressed Debbie, our Ugandan team leader.) When she listens, her brow furrows just the tiniest bit to indicate respectful concentration. This same brow furrow occurs when she speaks, except instead of indication concentration, it tells the gravity of her words even though I have no idea what she is saying most of the time. This expression is the secret to her leadership and gravitas. It makes everyone, even those not VHT members, jump to action and do whatever she is saying.

HIV Day activities in Bufutula A.
Last Tuesday, each one of these amazing individuals worked for so hard and so long to make our HIV Day a success. There had been some bumps along the way – the drama group scheduled showed up late due to a truck breakdown, pushing back lunch and throwing the entire day’s schedule into chaos. At the end of the day when the drama group brought out their drums for one last song, every single one of them got on the dance floor and shook it like no one was watching – Hadija forgot to be self-conscious about the other half of her teeth and smiled a full smile; Faziri looked 15 years younger; Betty lost her iconic brow furrow and allowed herself to be sucked into the beat; and Brenda, pregnant and all, completely stole the show with her moves. I stood on the outside of the circle, partly because my dancing might be generously considered sub-par, but mostly because I wanted to capture the moment of the dance circle. I felt so blessed to be watching them. That day we tested 180 people for HIV and Malaria, and it never would have happened if it wasn’t for the four wonderful people dancing like there was no tomorrow. Every day, but especially in that moment, our VHT inspire me to work harder, make more of an effort to be an agent of change like they are. If I become half of the pioneer that they are, I will feel as though I have succeeded.

No comments: