mungu akubariki

Following in the footsteps of Medical Teams International volunteers to refugee camps in SW Uganda.

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.



Ever been frustrated by the wait at your doctor’s office?

This is the overflow of the patient waiting area at the maternity unit in Oruchinga refugee camp – our first stop today. The general family practice line was just as long. In January of this year Oruchinga had only about 5,000 refugees. The influx of the Congolese since has driven the population upwards of 20,000 refugees. Here’s a sample of what we saw there:

Infant malaria testing.

Wound dressing.

And more cute kids :)

After Oruchenga, we headed next door to the oldest and largest refugee center in Uganda – NAKIVALE. Nakivale has been around so long they stopped calling it a “camp” and now call it a “resettlement.” It was formed in 1959, I believe, and families that stay build huts instead of staying in tents. New generations of refugees are born in this camp. I asked if the refugees still want to go back to their homelands, or if at this point they were rooted in Uganda. I was told yes, some wish to return home. Apparently many refugees tried to return to Congo when the warring stabilized last year, but were forced again to flee to Uganda when fighting resurged. There are approx 89,000 living in Nakivale right now, from Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, etc.

All of these people are served by just 4 health clinics. And we visited them all. In one day. (This is an accomplishment for anyone familiar with the roads in SW Uganda during rainy season!)

There was a ton of great work taking place at each spot…

Distributing deworming pills & vitamin A

Diagnosing a child with fever-like symptoms

The nurses running the medicine dispensary

Treating infants with Malara

Treating people of all ages with Malaria.

And along the way…

we met up with my gang – Robin Hood, Little John, & the Friar (right, left, center), 

and this very strong little girl. I love her dress (she’ll grow into it in a few years).

The clinics are small compounds staffed by around 15 health workers and ever day they treat an average of 150-200 patients (per clinic). At one clinic an average of 100 women give birth per month. That’s more than 3 per day. And there’s only one delivery bed at that clinic! That is also hundreds of women who would be extremely vulnerable to common life-threatening complications without these health clinics. The staff do an incredible job, improvising and pouring themselves out to address the needs of the people of Nakivale.

Camp Matanda

We drove from Kisoro this morning along a dizzying and rutted mountain road for 4 hours to reach Matanda, another transit camp for Congolees refugees who have crossed the into Uganda. The influx of refugees here (it’s north of Kisoro) has been very sudden, due to new fighting that’s broken out between rebel groups just across the border. Again, the UNHCR runs the camp and asked MTI to run the health clinic. Since it’s Saturday, there wasn’t much activity at the health clinic. Debbie and I toured the camp a bit, gaining a steady following of kiddos yelling “muzungu!”

(This girl was hilarious. She had ATTITUDE and a BRIGHT smile, though she wouldn’t show it on camera)

Before leaving, we met with ­­­­a representative of the Office of the Ugandan Prime Minister. He sang the praises of the medical volunteers MTI has been sending to run the clinic. “They are up at 6am to start work, and at 5pm –they’re still there!” Made me so proud of and grateful for the mission-oriented volunteers who apply tremendous work ethic and passion to their service – both here in Uganda and in MTI’s programs around the world. What they do really is amazing.

The drive from the camp to our guest house in Mbarara was another 4 hours, but we didn’t notice… we were too busy spotting baboons, antelope, buffalo and… ELEPHANTS!! Lots of them! Aaaamazing. I love Uganda. Even if the power did go dark while I was showering tonight, haha. One more piece of the adventure…

Congolese Refugees in Kisoro

What a day! We left Mbarara early this morning and took another 4 hour drive up to the mountains of Kisoro (bordering Congo). Our destination was a UNHCR transit center for refugees who have fled the warring just across the border. There are currently about 2,500 refugees in Kisoro – almost all are women and children – and we’re told at times there have been 10,000 here at once. They’re escaping what experts have called the deadliest conflict since WWII, which is ongoing in their homeland.

UNHCR asked Medical Teams International (MTI) to run the health clinic in Kisoro, a small building which sees on average 180-200 patients each day. I spent most of the afternoon in the antenatal care room listening to the stories of women who fled while pregnant. Most ran alone – without their husbands – with some of their children in tow.

Ana, volunteer midwife with MTI, is here from Alaska for a month to support MTI’s Ugandan midwife, Patricia. They explained to me that they instituted a new policy today of requiring a pregnancy test for any woman who comes to the clinic claiming to be in her first trimester. The reason is that they are finding many of the refugee women THINK they are pregnant – but Ana and Patricia can’t feel the child. It turns out the stress of the conflict caused many women to stop menstruating for several months, so they assumed they were pregnant though they are not. Can you imagine the stress of running (literally, RUNNING – I asked) from militias while trying to protect your children?

All day there was a long line of women who actually were pregnant and in need of a midwife. Janet (her full name was not English-friendly so they shortened if for me) arrived here five days ago, all by herself. She had a husband in Congo, but when they ran they were separated so she doesn’t know where he is, if he found safety, or if he was forced to join the rebel army. She is very pregnant, and when she ran she could only manage to take one child with her. She left her other child with her grandmother, who was too old and weak to run. Now, at twenty-one years old, she is a refugee – a single mom with another on the way. Ana gave Janet a thorough check up, necessary vaccinations and supplements, and counseled her on steps to take to make sure her child is born healthy.

Another pregnant girl that came in the room looked like she was 12 years old! She wasn’t, she was twenty. But she was TINY, likely due to malnutrition and stunting. Like Janet, she had left her husband behind and crossed into Uganda with her two children. (When I asked our staff why most refugees were women and children, I was told it’s because many men join the fighting). Her small stature forced her to have c-sections for her first two births, and she’ll no doubt have to have a third. Ana and Patricia prescribed her the supplements she needed and worked with her to ensure that when it comes time to give birth, she’ll have the professional medical attention she needs.

In two other rooms at the clinic, two more MTI volunteers from the US examined patients with all sorts of medical needs. One woman who came in today told us she was raped 6 weeks ago before crossing the border. Today she tested positive for HIV. Women are used as weapons of war in Congo.

Pray for these people, and the seemingly out-of-control situation in Congo. We heard many, many other stories today… I also got lots of photos of children smiling, laughing, teasing and striking poses while their mothers rolled their eyes :) I pray they have a bright future.

I’m going to go set up my mosquito net now so I can wash off this 98% deet before my skin melts. No, 98% is not excessive ;)

PS: Amidst the constant rotation of patients, one of our Ugandan volunteer’s phone started ringing. “Call Me Maybe” was the ringtone…made me feel at home.

Introducing Uganda – Kampala (Day 1)

Our first morning in Kampala. We had breakfast at our hotel with three nurses who have been working as Medical Teams International volunteers in Uganda for the past month. They were working in Nakivale helping the refugees there from several countries (Debbie and I will visit there in a few days). One has been on around a dozen trips with MTI, and her first was to Kosovo in 98/99. They all have kids, most grown, and reminded me of my own mom. Speaking of, Mother, you neglected to tell me how gorgeous Uganda is!!! Perhaps it’s because we’re here on the tail end of the rainy season, but it’s the greenest place I’ve ever seen! And we got a good look because this morning’s drive from Kampala to Mbarara took 4 hours. Allan, our amazing MTI Uganda staffer, took our hands to pray for a safe journey before we left. He was our tour guide, narrating the history and sights as we drove along, seeing Uganda for the first time.

Zebra sighting…

PS: I saw a sign on a little hut that said “Molly’s Place” – miss you!

The Rains Down in Africa

After 26 hours of travel from PDX, via Amsterdam and Nairobi, the wheels of our last plane finally touched down in Uganda. Debbie and I stood in the aisle with the other passengers, and made quick work trying to spruce ourselves up as best as possible so as not to embarrass the Medical Teams Uganda staffer who will be waiting at arrivals (cover up the chocolate sauce I spilled on Debbie’s pants and that sort of thing).

This excited process was interrupted by the announcement from a fellow passenger (a passenger, mind you – not the flight attendant) that we are in fact NOT in Uganda, after all. Surprise! We landed back in Nairobi. The news trickled to the back of the plane, in the fashion of the game of “Telephone”. The entire plane started laughing (very impressive response!).

Fifteen minutes and still no announcement from the captain or flight attendants. Finally a passenger reports that the flight attendant told him we turned around because of bad WEATHER, and were going to wait in Nairobi until it clears up…

On our second try, we made it to Entebbe, then took a drive under beautiful 2am stars to Kampala. It’s good to be here!