It was a hot and dusty day. I wasn’t in a good mood, and I expected the day to go downhill from here. My task for the day was to conduct a water and sanitation survey in the rural Ugandan village, where I had been living and working for a year.
A couple months ago, the health centre in which I worked had taught a series of sessions on how to conduct a tippy-tap (a hand-washing station appropriate for resource-poor settings). When I graduated from college over a year ago with a bachelor’s degree in health science, I felt ready to take on the world. I had studied behavior-change theories, I knew the importance of improving policies, systems and environments, and I was optimistic in my ability to give individuals tools to improve their lives.
After a year of working in Uganda, I realized how naive that vision was. I was unprepared for the realities of health disparities, political roadblocks, budgetary limitations and bad timing. And today, plodding along the dirt roads, I felt the weight of each of those barriers. I realized the limitations in this community. I realized that the villagers with whom we were working likely lived on less than a dollar per day; had many children to look after; spent the entire day cooking, laundering, cleaning and hauling water; may not realize the importance of timely hand washing; and likely weren’t ready to change their behavior.
Every once in a while, you connect with someone. In that connection, something is exchanged that can cause improvements in their lives, the lives of their families, the lives of their community, and your own life.
Then, I was pleasantly surprised. At the third house, the interpreter asked the woman if she had a latrine or hand washing station. The woman led us behind her house. She pointed first to the latrine and then to the completed tippy-tap, speaking quickly in Lumasaaba as she pointed. As she finished, the interpreter turned to me and said, “she built the tippy-tap and has made a game out of hand washing so that each time her children use the latrine, they wash their hands.”
I could barely hold back my tears of happiness as I hugged the woman. She had overcome so many barriers to go beyond what we had asked her to do. I may no longer live on the other side of the world, but I carry the lesson that I learned from this interaction as I struggle with health disparities, political roadblocks, budgetary limitations, and bad timing here.
Every once in a while, you connect with someone. In that connection, something is exchanged that can cause improvements in their lives, the lives of their families, the lives of their community, and your own life. The elusive part of the connection may be information, it may be a skill, it may be a word of encouragement, or it may be a smile. You may never know or see your impact. That day, I learned the joy of seeing someone overcome incredible odds to improve and grow. I learned that joy will come if I persevere and just keep plodding along.