I’ve been trying to write this piece for weeks now, just staring at a blinking curser and blank Word doc, trying to find the words to describe my trip with OneWorld Health to Masindi, Uganda. Maybe the place to start is at the very beginning.
Getting asked to go document OneWorld Health’s work, a healthcare outreach in the back country of Masindi, was a thrill, but then certain factors came in. I had to get a series of shots, 12 to be exact, to travel to Africa. I received paperwork from OWH to fill out that was explicit in informing me not to ever leave the group because my safety couldn’t be guaranteed. I had to take an extensive online course to know the rules and regulations of both the organization and the country. Once those were completed, my excitement and anxiety were running neck and neck. Having never been to Africa, I didn’t know what to expect. From there a series of random miscues ensued.
My initial flight out of Memphis was cancelled due to snowstorm in Atlanta. I had already checked in when they cancelled it and my bag was on its way without me. I was supposed to meet up with my bag the next day, but that flight too was cancelled. I finally made it out of Memphis the following day headed on my adventure. Now, the rest of the group I was supposed to meet in Africa had made it a day before me, so I would be landing in Africa alone. This was a little stressful but I’ve travelled abroad and felt confident I would be fine. I was told a driver would meet me at the airport in Entebbe and drive me to my hotel where I would stay the night. I would then be picked up at 8 am the next morning by a driver to take me the six hours by car to Masindi, where I would meet up with the volunteers and OneWorld Health folks. After travelling to Amsterdam to make the African connection, the flight was delayed due to “mechanical issues.” Again, after my bumpy start, not great news. This delay caused my arrival into Africa to be at about 1 am. I made it through customs easily and went to get my luggage that I was guaranteed by the airline was on my flight to Africa. Can you guess what happened next? Yes, me alone at baggage claim in Entebbe airport at 1:30 am and no luggage. Okay, nothing to fear. I will be able to get that later. Let’s just get to hotel, sleep and get ready for this amazing trip. Would you believe no driver there to greet me as I made my way outside into the warm, wet air? I was greeted by hundreds of people waiting in line for I don’t know what, and dozens of men shouting at me to offer a taxi ride. In a panic, I picked the most honest face I saw in the crowd and asked to take me to my hotel. That 20-minute drive was slightly stressful as we travelled down streets and back roads that were unfamiliar and also seemed a little sketchy at best. I did travel with my camera gear in my back pack, but thought this gentleman could be taking me anywhere and I wouldn’t know. Luckily we arrived at the hotel, which was gated with an armed guard. I slept well feeling some sense of comfort. I woke the next morning to talk with the airline about my bag, ate breakfast and met my driver for the long drive ahead. The airline assured me they would deliver my bag when it got in. So off we raced for what turned out to be the most frightening car drive of my life.
There are rules of the road in Africa, streets with turn lanes, center lines and a few traffic lights. It turns out none of those things actually apply. There was so much traffic and people and animals in the road for the first three hours. We nearly clipped 20-25 motorcycles, nearly hit dozens of cars, but somehow did not. I also did not see any accidents anywhere in this chaos. No horn blowing or cursing at other drivers from either my driver or any other on the road. Somehow, although this was pure terror for me, everyone there just drove like another normal day. My driver was quite cordial but spoke very little English and I, of course, spoke none of the languages he knew, which were four. So in our silence we left the city for more rural roads. I stared out the window to watch Africa roll by. I began to see those vistas and plains and mountains in the distance, the ones we all think of when thinking of Africa. I saw smoke rising from a volcano in the distance. The air was warm and wet and smelled like fresh cut grass. After the terror of the city this was really amazing and relaxing to see and feel. I know I am going on and on, but there are so many things about this trip that need to be said, and me just getting to Masindi was something that made a very large impact on my psyche.
Made it to Masinda around 3 pm and I was excited to finally meet the rest of the group. Unfortunately, everyone was out in the field doing their work for the day. I checked in to my room, mind you, with only the clothes on my back I travelled in from Memphis. I bought a T-shirt in the lobby and went to my room to “clean up” as much as I could. I can’t tell you how good a clean t-shirt felt after 2 days of wearing same shirt. I went to the lounge area where I met three of the volunteer doctors who did not go out in the field but were going to the healthcare clinic OneWorld Health opened in the city of Masindi. They were great guys excited about being in Africa and asked if I wanted to come along to go do some initial consults with local patients. I grabbed my camera and off we went. We decided to walk, as the clinic was about ¾ of a mile away. They had been there the day before and knew a short cut. We jumped off the main road onto a dirt road passing thru a small village with very modest mud and brick homes. As we walked the locals waved and smiled and then a group of about seven children came out of a very small hut and greeted us with sheer joy. I started up my camera and they all came towards it with the biggest, sweetest smiles. There was a depth in their eyes that most 5-9 year olds don’t have. I played back the footage for them to see and the looks on their faces seeing themselves recorded on the camera is something I will never forget.
We arrived at the Masindi clinic and the manager took me on a tour. The professionalism and quality of this facility was amazing to see and a credit to the work that OneWorld Health is doing in Uganda. He then left me and told me to film anything anywhere and was so gracious and thankful we were there to help educate people on what they are doing there. And what they are doing is amazing! The clinic is run and maintained by local African healthcare professionals. They treat thousands of people throughout the year. I filmed several kids and parents getting check-ups, some women in the maternity ward, and a patient getting an ultrasound. I was filming a couple of the nurses’ aides when a beautiful older admin worker told me to come have lunch with the staff. This would be my first experience with local cuisine and it did not disappoint. Rice, Beans and fresh plantains with some sort of bean gravy that I wish I had a jar of today! It was like soul food here—good for the soul.
That evening I was back at the hotel where I was finally able to meet the entire crew from OneWorld Health and all the healthcare volunteers. I also checked in with front desk about my luggage. Still no word. “Cleaned up” again and we all ate dinner together. It was nice to meet everyone and feel the energy and everyone’s excitement about the next day’s work. We would be travelling 20 miles to a very rural area to do an on-site health clinic. Off to bed under mosquito net to await the next day.
This next part is very hard for me to put in words. We all loaded into three separate vans; the group was about 22 people. We also had three interpreters and three very serious machine-gun-wielding police officers along. Seeing uniformed men carrying AK-47’s is something that most Americans don’t see often, and although they were there to keep us safe, it was a little unnerving. We left Masindi for the country. After a good 30-40-minute bumpy ride through sugar cane fields, we arrived at an old abandoned school with four buildings.
A quick aside, seeing hundreds if not thousands of people along the ride walking to or piled on giant trucks to work the sugar cane fields is jarring to say the least. There were all ages of men and women, boys and girls. I saw children as young as six or seven years old in fields cutting sugar cane with homemade scythes. I asked our interpreter what the average pay is for their 10-hour day. He said each person earned about $5 a day. For those who got rides into and out of the fields it was about $2 a day since they had to pay the truck drivers to take them. Thinking about the amount of work and how hard it was to get in and out of there (a lot of people walked to work about five miles each way) was something really hard to wrap my American mind around.
Back at the school there were easily 200 people sitting around in a long line. I found out from one of the interpreters that some had been in line overnight up to 24 hours. There were all types: young and old, babies, teens so many people looking to get different types of medical care. The medical volunteers and OneWorld Health people got all the equipment and medical supplies off loaded and set up within an hour and then, along with our local folks, put a process together to start seeing patients. I fired up my camera and began filming. The next 10 hours were something that I will never forget. Seeing these beautiful people who live in such poverty but had the biggest hearts, friendliest smiles and gentlest souls I have ever seen. When seeing the camera, the kids would smile and laugh and goof a bit, but the older folks would just look at me through the lens with an honesty and a pride that is not easily explainable. The more I shot, the more I fell in love with this place. Watching the doctors, nurses, and pharmacists from America along with local Masindi healthcare workers was something that makes one understand the power of love and positive energy. Everything I shot was beautiful—the rooms I shot in had faded colors of turquoise, burnt orange and red. The blackboards still had school lessons written on them from a better time for this area. The people waited patiently, the doctors and nurses worked diligently and the pharmacists made sure that people got the medicines they needed and understood how to use them. It was truly a magical day.
One thing though that made it extra magical was a little boy who had a curiosity about what I was doing. He became my little helper. He was about eight years old, dirty-faced and clothes that were hand me down hand me downs. He would follow me wherever I went as I moved from shot to shot. As the day wore on, I showed him how to hit the record button and operate the camera. I was using a Cannon C300 with Zeiss standard prime lenses on a monopod. By 3 pm that day, he was shooting things with me standing by just in case he needed my help. He would frame up a shot and look back at me for approval and I would nod and smile and say, “Yep, that looks great. Hit the button.” He was so excited to see the little red light appear in the monitor. I also brought a DJI 4k Osmo so I could get some slow-mo portrait shots that would feel floaty. A group of about eight kids had a soccer ball and next to the school was an old soccer field with overgrown grass and rusted out goals. It didn’t matter. Those kids took to the field and just played. My little helper and I went out with the Osmo to get footage of the kids playing. I ran with them several times back and forth, but being someone pushing 50, I couldn’t quite keep up. I also at one point put my foot in a hole and went down end over end. The kids had a huge laugh at my klutzy expense. I could see my little helper was anxious to use another camera and I showed him how to use the Osmo. Before I could say anything else he was off chasing the kids, shooting them running, following the soccer ball and getting really great footage in both wide shots and close ups. He really had a knack for it. I sat back and just watched as these kids, some of them my own daughter’s age, played and ran and laughed just like any kid should. Although I knew the circumstance of their lives and putting my American filter on it, it was still good to see kids getting to be kids. I watched as the sun started getting low in this remote beautiful part of the world and just breathed in thankfulness. Thankful to be there, thankful to meet these kids and people, thankful to the medical volunteers, thankful to OneWorld Health and thankful to get to experience a once-in-a-lifetime moment in Uganda.
Thank you, Uganda. Thank you, medical team and thank you, OneWorld Health for something I can’t really put into words.
FYI – My luggage never made it but it didn’t matter. I got the opportunity to be part of something that is making a difference in the world, something that is helping people, educating people and caring for people. If my sacrifice was only having one change of clothes for a week, I’d gladly, without hesitation, do it again.