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  • Harveen Sekhon (UCLA 2018) at a new borehole funded by GlobeMed at UCLA and its Ugandan partner, MCHI, in Busaale village, Uganda. (Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

  • Walking from a new water source to the old, unprotected spring in Busaale village. (Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

  • Harveen helps the Waluga Water User Committee (WUC) interpret the results of the user survey conducted by the UCLA GlobeMed interns. (Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

  • The Mpoma Community HIV/AIDS Initiative (MCHI) and the GlobeMed at UCLA teams hold a certificate of appreciation from the local government regarding the Water Access, Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) Project. (Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

  • Harveen (second from left) and the other UCLA GlobeMed interns pose with Dennis, a manager at MCHI, for a picture in their new dresses — a gift from the headmistress of the MCHI model school. (Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

"Now I know what global health work looks like"

Harveen Sekhon (UCLA 2018) spent last summer in Uganda working on a public health project with a local NGO.

“I was really inspired by people there."

UCLA International Institute, October 13, 2016 — Study abroad programs are not the only way for undergraduates to acquire international experience. Just ask Harveen Sekhon, a UCLA junior pursuing a B.S. in Human Biology & Society and a minor in global health at the UCLA International Institute.

Last summer, Harveen spent seven weeks in the village of Lukojjo, Uganda, doing public health work through the student association GlobeMed at UCLA. Not only did she work on a Water Access, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Project with a local Ugandan nonprofit organization, but she also experienced the gift of Ugandan hospitality, made dear friends and came home inspired. Not to mention learning a critical lesson in international development: the most effective interventions are designed and led by local organizations.

“This was as hands-on as I could get as an undergraduate,” says Harveen. “We were on the ground, working with a local nonprofit, having meetings with them. Now I know what global health work looks like.” Prior to her trip, she explains, she was unsure if global health was the right path for her or whether medicine would be a more suitable career. “And then I went abroad and I realized, I do want to do medicine, but also global health,” she relates. In fact, Harveen quickly learned she could eventually contribute far more if she became a doctor. As a result, she is considering pursuing both an M.D. and an M.P.H.

Creating safe water sources and improving hygiene

Founded by students in 2007, GlobeMed is a network of 56 university-based chapters in the United States, each of which partners one-on-one with a local grassroots organization in Africa, Asia or Latin America over the long term. The UCLA chapter partners with the Mpoma Community HIV/AIDS Initiative (MCHI) to create safe water sources and local user committees to maintain them (the WASH Project). In Uganda, where malaria is prevalent, open water sources are not only a breeding ground for mosquitos, they can also transmit waterborne diseases.

Over the past four years, the UCLA student association has funded 11 new water sources — boreholes with a pipe that use a pump to access groundwater — in the Nama Sub-County of southern Uganda. The group commits to raising US$ 11,000 for the WASH Project each year, sometimes exceeding that amount (it raised US$ 13,000 last year). Working closely with MCHI, they fund new boreholes on a matching basis with local Water User Committees (WUCs) over a four-year period on a 9:3:3:1 basis.

“Water User Committees are formed for every WASH source that we've funded,” explains Harveen. The committees collect a fee agreed by all the villagers and oversee the funds for the water source. The idea is to build a sustainable source of funding so that when GlobeMed and MCHI cease to provide funding, the villages can generate the resources needed to maintain and/or improve their boreholes.

Harveen Sekhon, Claudia Flores and Dennis of MCHI take a boda boda (motorbike) through the tea plantations
near Mpoma on the way to conduct an outreach survey. (Photo: Claudia Flores; courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

Four student members of GlobeMed at UCLA travel to Uganda each summer to conduct user surveys of existing boreholes, tabulate the results and share them with the water user committees (WUCs) of each respective village, as well as conduct refresher training in hygiene and latrine management. “You can't just say, ‘Boil your water,’” explains Harveen. “Instead, you explain that if you don't boil your water, these are the waterborne diseases you can get and these are what the symptoms look like.’”

Harveen and the three other UCLA students who interned in Uganda last summer lived in a house across from Johnson Nkosi Primary School, a model school created by MCHI. Two days a week, they traveled with MCHI staff by motorbike (known as a boda boda) on outreach visits to villages that built boreholes as part of the WASH Project. Over the course of the summer, the team conducted surveys in 10 such villages, plus 2 that did not yet have boreholes. While in Lukojjo, the UCLA interns offered public health instruction to students at the school, adding new sex education modules this year for pre-adolescent girls and boys in the sixth and seventh grades.

Launching a new hygiene program

This past summer, the UCLA GlobeMed chapter also launched a new program to train teachers at the Johnson Nkosi Primary School on how to make re-usable sanitary pads and deliver comprehensive sex education to pre-adolescent girls. Making these feminine products available to young women will help them stay in school. “We learned that once the girls started menstruating, they would either drop out or miss three to five days of school a month,” explains Havreen. “That is something you don't think about when you're in the U.S.”

A teacher at Johnson Nkosi Primary School learns how to make reusable sanitary pads in a
training provided by the local NGO Teesa. (Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

Working with a local teacher, GlobeMed at UCLA covered the cost of a training provided by a local NGO that the teacher identified. “We also built a structure for washing and drying the pads next to the latrine,” she said. “The problem with re-usable pads is that the risk of infection is very high if they are not used properly, as they are very hard to clean…. So the girls are given a rigorous sex education class and a class on the menstruation cycle, “ she says, “because you can't just attack the problem from just one angle, you have to do the entire comprehensive education so the girls understand the necessity for following strict hygiene practices.”

Lessons from a summer immersion

“Uganda is so beautiful,” says Harveen. “It's not like California, which is brown. Uganda is green and rich with life — it was so pleasant being outside." Not only did the UCLA junior fall in love with the country’s beauty, she came to treasure life in a close-knit Ugandan village.

“We actually interviewed the director of MCHI and at one point and he said, ‘No child that is born in a village is ever considered an orphan because someone in the village will take him or her and the village becomes their parents,’” she remarks. “That sense of community was present even for us,” she continues. “We were newcomers and no one really knew us — they called us mzungus, which is a type of word for foreigner — but we never felt like outsiders. Every time we went into a house, they would say, ‘You are welcome’ and mean it in the literal sense, which was so nice.

“I feel that sense of community is not something you always feel in the U.S.,” she remarks. The four UCLA students, for example, were watched over by “Uncle Peter,” an MCHI manager, and “Aunt Ruth,” a teacher in the local school who served as their “house mother” (complete with instructions on how to bargain in the local market).

UCLA interns wearing the dresses gifted to them by the headmistress of Johnson Nkosi Primary School,
Aunt Sarah, with some of the students who visited them daily at their residence.
(Photo courtesy of GlobeMed at UCLA.)

Reflecting on her experience in Uganda and her knowledge of international public health, Harveen notes, “You can't just go into a country and help for a little bit and leave. That will create so many more problems than you will probably help. Building the capacity from the ground up and helping community members go through education and become doctors for their own community is so much more important.

“I witnessed that firsthand. Ruth [the UCLA students’ house mother] spearheaded the whole sanitary pad project. For we interns, there were so many language barriers. They understood our English, but the way we talk is different. So it was hard for us to get information across to the girls. But if Ruth is trained by the local NGO then she is able to train the students, that’s so much better than us doing anything.”

“One thing I realized,” she concludes, “is there are a lot of problems in Uganda, but also a lot of hope and a lot of people who are willing to do what it takes. I was really inspired by people there."

Published: Thursday, October 13, 2016