Dec 20, 2012

Stories from the Field: Dreaming Big with Health Alert-Uganda

In the summer of 2008, a 19-year-old student named Bianca Nguyen arrived in Gulu, Uganda. A founding member of GlobeMed at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, she had two missions:

1. To help link HIV and TB testing, diagnosis and treatment.
2. To find a community-based organization to partner with her fledgling chapter. (These were the early days of GlobeMed, before the National Office launched the Partner Search Fellows Program to find partner organizations for our chapters).

Throughout her TB work, Bianca asked everyone she encountered, “Which organizations are doing the best work in your community?” Over and over, she was told, “Health Alert-Uganda,” a pediatric AIDS organization. Riding on the back of schoolchildren’s bicycles, she tracked down the Health Alert-Uganda office and its director, Francis Obutu.

Francis, wearing a UNC-Chapel Hill T-shirt, told me the story like this: “One day, a tiny Muzungu girl hopped through my window and said, I am a student and I want to work with you. I told her, you have been in Gulu for 3 weeks and you’re coming to me as a last resort? No. The next day, she came back with an Memorandum of Understanding, so I knew she was serious.”

Francis is a trained medical officer who left a cushy NGO job to launch Health Alert-Uganda (HAU) in 2004. He had seen firsthand the effects of HIV on children, and felt that targeting the youth was the best way to help fight the growing epidemic. “I called colleagues together and said, let us find a way to support our community… In the beginning, we were reaching 64 children – testing for HIV, referring to health centers, providing nutritional support, training their caregivers. Now, we’re reaching 4,000.”

Though HIV focused, HAU’s vision is bigger: “At the end of the day, these children in our program should live well,” Francis explains. That means ensuring that both the children and their caregivers have access to the resources to live in health and security: nutrition, clean water, HIV counseling and care, education, and sources of sustainable income.

Francis agreed to work with GlobeMed at UNC, and the partnership launched in the fall of 2008. Since then, the chapter has raised more than $20,000 to support the expansion of a Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program, construction of a center for peer educators and HIV positive youth, and the establishment of farming and goat-lending initiatives.

As we talked through the history of the partnership at a local restaurant, Francis told me, “To them and to us, the partnership between GlobeMed and HAU is not partnership, it’s a family.” Pictures of chapter members and the UNC newsletter are stapled to the main message board in HAU’s office, next to the mission and vision. Staff members stopped me as we walk through the office to say, “Eh, GlobeMed! How is Irene? The Lindsays? Aurelian? Where is Nguyen Bianca, the brave muzungu? Send our love to the whole team!” I promised to deliver their messages faithfully.

The next day, I visited the ongoing GlobeMed projects with Emma, a project coordinator. While a student, he joined HAU as a volunteer and is now a staff member. We started with a “Caregivers Support Group,” a group of women who care for HIV positive children. Some are their own, some are adopted. Sitting in a circle, I hear story after story of women taking in orphaned or abandoned children. Despite having little, they have opened their homes to these vulnerable youngsters. Their warmth and generosity amaze me.

HAU found a strong correlation between the wellbeing of children and of their caregivers. The Caregivers Support Group group ensures that caregivers know where and how to access treatment for their children, and creates a space for women to discuss other challenges, such as poverty and HIV stigma. The women also participate in a farming and goat-rearing cooperative that helps support their income and nutrition.

The farming cooperative has been going well. We visited the plot, Emma pulling up a groundnut plant and showing me how to pinch and expose the pink edible inside. The major challenge? Climate change. For the past 3 years, there has been no “rainy” or “dry” season. It rains whenever it wants, as much or as little as it wants. I had seen this weather weirding firsthand. December and January are normally the height of the dry season, but it had thunderstormed nearly every day in Gulu since I had arrived. “It is mixing up the planting and harvesting,” Emma told me. The families that rely on agriculture for food and income, usually the poorest, are those most vulnerable. The challenge of climate change is being faced by GlobeMed partner communities around the world. It will be our responsibility to use the network to identify and share best practices to help combat its potentially disastrous effects.

The goat project, launched 3 years ago, is still running as well. An initial group of goats were purchased for the Caregivers Support Group to own and breed collectively. Each family was given at least one male goat. A handful of female goats were to be rotated between the families to allow for breeding. The project has had moderate success. Emma explained to me that goat care falls to the children, especially the boys. But with more children attending school, goat care has become difficult and several have died because of sickness. Secondly, some of the women haven’t followed through on their commitment to pass the female goats on to the next family, or haven’t wanted to admit when a goat has died or been sold. The women are still enthusiastic about the project, but would like to try having each family own their own goats. Other chapters (GlobeMed at UCLA and GlobeMed at Columbia) have had success with this model.

Talking with Emma on the way back from the field, we discuss the ways in which the GlobeMed partnership can be a space of innovation and learning. “Students don’t care about having the project implemented their way,” I tell him. “They only care about what is best, what will create the most impact.” He nods and responds, “Yes, that is what makes it different.” We talk about HAU and GlobeMed’s dreams for the future, and our vision for what we can accomplish as a global community.

Leaving Health Alert takes 20 minutes as each person comes by for a hug. We make promises to visit again in July. Francis’s parting words from the day before ring in my ears: “It is time for all of us to dream big. Let’s share the big dream…loudly!” Yes, let’s.

Written by Maya Cohen



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One Response to Stories from the Field: Dreaming Big with Health Alert-Uganda
ANYWAR KENNETH says: March 22, 2016 at 4:46 am

Ur mission is quite much interesting.that is why the only NGO i do admire to partner with.
i would to do my internship training with am student from muni university doing bachelor of information system. i will be grateful if u offer me place for internship in the that field


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