Welcome to Uganda

My name is Kelly Austin. I am an assistant professor of sociology and I direct the Health, Medicine, and Society program. This is my 4th summer trip doing research and leading student teams in the rural district of Bududa, Uganda. I was asked to write this blog to get an insider’s view of what it is like to do research and work with students in such challenging, yet rewarding, conditions.

We arrived in Uganda about 1 week ago. There are 9 Lehigh folks in our team total, including 6 undergraduates and a Lehigh alumni that I am working with on a documentary project. After over 40 hours of car, plane, and van travel, we arrived safely in Kampala, the capital city. We rested for a couple of days, and the students did a tour of the major sites in Kampala. Mark (my husband and research partner) and I stayed behind from the city tour for a key objective – to buy a car. Buying a car is always a complicated process and it certainly was in Uganda. But we had success and are now the owners of a Land Cruiser Prado. Such a rugged rig is necessary in the unpaved, bumpy, and muddy roads of Bududa. And, owning our own vehicle has already come in handy for safety reasons…

On Saturday we set off for safari. We enjoy doing this excursion with the students at the beginning of the trip as a bonding experience. We hiked Murchison Falls, and were lucky Monkeyenough to see lions, a leopard, elephants, lots of variety of monkeys, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, and more birds, butterflies, and antelope than you can imagine.

On our last day of safari, our luck changed. One of my students became very ill. In sociology, we use the term “status set” to describe the different positions we assume in our social lives. On trips like these, I am a program leader, a researcher, a mentor or adviser, a friend, a community advocate, and oftentimes, a mom or nurse. I did everything I could to make my student comfortable and used my medical knowledge to treat what appeared to be a bacterial infection. These are common for students (and myself) to get here as our bodies are exposed to bacteria that we are not used to growing up in the U.S.

We arrived last night in the village of Bubiita, Bududa. The welcome was amazing. The entire Zaale family (who we stay with) as well as over 30 village members were there to greet us, yelling greetings, hugging, and bouncing with joy. The crowd included some young boys I helped to get medical treatment last summer.

Unfortunately, my student’s condition did not improve much over the 3-day course of StudentsCipro, so we are putting the car to good use and taking the student to a hospital in the nearest town, Mbale (one hour away, on an extremely bumpy road). As I sketch out this post, I am sitting in the waiting room of Mt Elgon Hospital waiting for test results. We have been here for about 2 hours, and had to stand in many lines and go back to the cashier between each phase of the process to pay for the next step (e.g. consultation, lab, diagnosis, consultation again, pharmaceuticals). The entire cost was about 100,000 UGX (Ugandan shillings) or about $30. After the process, the student asked what happens to the extremely poor households he sees in the village that would never be able to afford private care. I explained that they would seek care at a government clinic, but these frequently have stock-outs (2-3 weeks per month) where no medications are available. They would be forced to pay out of pocket for the medicines at a local drug shop, which maybe they could or could not afford.

My student is handling the horrible illness with a brave face. I tell the student jokes and funny stories as they take his blood and we sit on uncomfortable metal chairs. I’m calling the student “Trooper” as a nickname now for being such an amazingly great sport about everything. There are local Ugandans all around us; sick children, limping elders, people in pain. We are the only “mzungus” (foreigners) at the clinic.  The results are in and it is indeed a bacterial infection. He’s prescribed a stronger antibiotic and we are on our way.

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