Our Vice President Marialena Michanetzi’s recount of her experience volunteering at Africa!
I spent two weeks in a rural area of Kenya, Ngong, as part of the Kenyan Village Medical Education Program (KVME, check it out here: http://muhi.org.au/global-programs/kvme/about-kvme/), a program organized and run every year by the Melbourne University Health Initiative (MUHI). Needless to say, it affected me in many ways, it taught me heaps and it was one of the most freaking amazing experiences I have every had or will ever have in my life. I’d love to share a bit about what the program involved and my thoughts on it.
What we did:
The aim of the program was two-fold. First, my team and I (a total of 7 very passionate, energetic, and wonderful people) were staying at a children’s shelter, the Shelter Children’s Home in Ngong Kenya. There, we lived among kids of all ages, from one year old to young adults and we could interact and play infinitely with them and also help around the shelter with various tasks, such as re-painting rooms the kids live in, teaching the kids in the school located within the shelter and invest in projects that supported the long-term healthy development of the Shelter. For example, thanks to the fundraising that my team and I did before departing for Kenya, we bought the shelter a cow which will ensure milk for consumption and selling to benefit the shelter!
Secondly, and this was the main step of the trip’s purpose, we travelled to surrounding isolated -sometimes very isolated- villages to deliver presentations to villagers on various diseases, with pneumonia, diarrhoea, trachoma and also first aid training being the main topics. We presented the topic, we described the causes of the disease and we suggested methods both for prevention and also for treatment, with an emphasis on actions the villagers themselves can take when symptoms arise.
The presentations were sometimes conducted in English directly and sometimes in Swahili (Kenyan national language) or in a local dialect, with the help of translators. We tried our hardest to make the presentations interactive, fun and we often got the villagers to perform tasks themselves, in front of everyone and we asked questions to ensure that they remembered some of the material by the end. A lot of them had no idea of simple health measures to be taken. Other times, the perceptions of the villagers of what needs to be done, for example when someone has been bitten by a snake, came in contrast to the information that my team and I was presenting, due to more traditional (and sometimes fully effective) methods of treatment. This meant that we had to be very understanding of the cultures with which we were interacting and always try to make the material engaging and easy to digest.
Where do I start? I guess with the things that stayed with me most of all: The happiness of the children and of the people in general. Interacting with kids who have come from broken backgrounds but are all part of a big family at the shelter and seeing their happiness and energy just makes your heart warm up. It also has the magic ability of reminding you of what things are really important in life. Not to mention the kids are amazing dancers (even the one or two-year-old ones!) and they taught us some groovy African moves!
Additionally, I learned a lot about communicating foreign concepts to people of a culture, background and access to education that was very different from mine. I loved the challenge of trying to find fun and interactive ways to convey health and medical concepts to people of varying levels of education. I loved how those people, isolated in villages up in the mountains or out in the open desert-like tundra, where willing to spend time listening to some foreigners try to explain strange concepts and I am very happy to have seen that they learned things that perhaps will be useful to them one day.
I could keep going for ages but I just want to finish off by saying that it was an experience I totally recommend. The things you learn, the people you meet and the opportunity you have to try and make someone else’s life a tiny little bit healthier, are priceless.