It’s difficult to describe why Uganda is so compelling. But the weather is just to my liking- reliably warm. And there is life and colour everywhere you look- not afraid of colour like us. People walking along the road, riding bikes, motor bikes zipping with passengers, bikes and motor bikes and trucks and vans laden with too much stuff and too many people. Markets by the road, people washing their motor bikes in creeks, women carrying things on their head, traditional dress and modern dress, T shirts with perplexing, contextually wrong western wording, birds and dogs and cows and goats. Roadside food stalls. Roadside furniture shops. The ever-present phone stores. Banana palms and corn and tea and vegetables and eucalypts and lush green. I like the place.
At Maranatha Health Children’s Teaching Clinic there is a lot to like too. By spending six full days there, I got to see how it works from close up. There is always at least one child crying, and often they have something to cry about. Going through the daily record book, I saw entries of kids with a whole range of infections, of malaria, of gastric problems, malnutrition, HIV and babies with very uncertain starts to life. I heard some incredible stories- one about a little girl who was admitted with terrible malnutrition. Her entire body was swollen alarmingly and she was in a very bad way. But when I saw her after about a week of treatment, she was starting to walk around. By the time I left, she was running everywhere. There was a baby who was born at home but who did not cry or suckle and was struggling to breathe. A big storm the night of the birth meant that she was not brought to the clinic until the next morning. She was put on oxygen and given other appropriate treatment and by the time I was about to leave, she and her mother were also set to go home, the baby now crying and suckling normally. The stories I heard were so wonderful that I thought that the entire year’s budget for MH Uganda would have been worth it to save just that one life. After all, we in Australia do not blink about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to save one premature baby. The entire budget for Maranatha Health Uganda, which enables care for up to 10,000 children and adults/year, is less than $300,000.
As well as crying, there is a lot of smiling at MH Clinic. A lot of laughing and joking. The staff are all young and nice to be with. They impressed me with their professionalism and their caring. They talked about being part of a family at MH. At one morning meeting, they discussed setting up a fund, which they would all donate to, to help each other out when they need to attend family funerals and so on, since these can be expensive and might mean travel over long distances. The morning meetings, with the staff crammed into the tiny staff room, are important times are MH, allowing discussion of the previous day and setting the scene for the day ahead. I felt privileged to attend these meetings, which end with prayer, and more than once I was reduced to tears by the beauty of that moment. The staff do not live in large houses with modern conveniences. They do not own cars or, for the most part, motor bikes, or investment properties. They live simply, in simple houses and they walk or catch motorbikes to get places. If they get seriously ill (eg. cancer or multi-trauma), or if they have problems giving birth, they are likely to die because the medical care they would need is either not available or is beyond their means. They are not perfect and they do not run a perfect clinic. But their compassion and intention to deliver high quality care, and the affordability of MH services, draw people from amazing distances. Or so I was told by a number of people who are independent of MH Uganda.
There seemed to be a culture of wanting to continually improve at the clinic- both organisationally and personally. The staff are encouraged to think of big and small things that could improve the work. Numbers of them have undertaken or are currently involved in courses that will make them better nurses or administrators or lab staff. And there are several staff who have already, or are currently taking advantage of the David Walker scholarship scheme for professional development, which is designed to fill some gaps in service delivery at MH. Very exciting!
I was extremely impressed by the community work performed by MH Uganda. The community health team works with selected villages with the aim of improving their lives. They bring a series of health messages, such as clean water, hand washing, building toilets, using mosquito nets, and eating leafy greens. They do so by working with facilitators appointed by the village. The uptake of these messages has been surprisingly good (I say ‘surprising’ because who of us is willing to change lifelong habits just because someone says it is for our benefit!). And there is the visible evidence of this- toilets, gardens growing leafy greens- and the not so obvious- fewer sick children, fewer trips to the clinic, less money spent on illness. At the time of my visit, two villages had almost completed the program and a third village was about to start. But already, nearby villages are starting to copy what they see as beneficial. I was very impressed- surely this is work that has lasting benefit.
Finally, let me tell you about the new land. MH has purchased the most beautiful piece of land imaginable, in order to build a new fit-for-purpose clinic. The cramped ex-hotel, in which the MH work currently happens- well look- it’s amazing what happens there but we would not tolerate it for a second. And they need to do more things- mostly, there needs to be a safe place to have babies in Fort Portal. Having seen the new land, with all the possibilities it offers, I’ve come back fired up to see a new clinic come into being on this land. Let’s do it!
- David Findlay