Standing in a simple home on top of a hill, deep in the hills of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, I fight the tears running out of my eyes, and desperately hope they are mistaken for the sweat that is also pouring down my face. I’m already sticking out in every way possible—the color of my skin, my unseasonable outfit, and the camera case slung over my shoulder.
I’m at the home of a family about to hold a funeral for their two-month-old baby, who had died the previous night of a variety of complications—a death that would have been entirely preventable in the developed world. As I stand in the doorway willing away tears and making myself as small as possible, the incredibly graceful mother sits on her bed, next to a small coffin holding her deceased child.
The priest arrives to lead the funeral, so we head toward the door to leave. Before we do, we are handed cold bottles of water; despite their grief, the family finds a moment to be hospitable and to think about our needs.
I’m in Bwindi to observe the field programs of Conservation through Public Health, a small but powerful organization working to preserve gorilla and human health, and to promote conservation, in Uganda’s largest national park.
In the small villages that border Bwindi Forest, CTPH’s Volunteer Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs) work to educate their communities about the importance of family planning, sanitation, and conservation of the forest land that is an extension of communities’ backyards.
This experience is just one of many eye opening ones I had in my seven days shadowing Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the organization’s fearless leader, and her team in Bwindi Forest and in Entebbe, where CTPH is headquartered.
Despite desperate poverty in much of the country, everywhere I looked, I was met with examples of generosity, kindness, and people working hard to make a difference in their communities.
On my first full day in Bwindi, we visit a CTPH volunteer, the chairman of livestock, sanitation, and family planning programs for the organization in Bujengwe Parish. He proudly takes us on a tour of his village, with stops at the primary school, cattle pasture, and his home, where he warmly welcomes us to chat more about the ongoing programs in the community.
I can immediately tell that this volunteer is a leader. He’s tall, holds a walking stick, and his presence is gentle and kind, yet commanding. He displays the utmost respect for those in his community—the headmaster of the school, the children, and the people walking up and down the hill who pass us on our tour.
At the primary school, we visit three classrooms—all small and dusty, with benches for sitting and simple notebooks for writing.
As we enter the first classroom, the students stand and in perfect unison sing us a greeting song, welcoming us to their school. Their smiling faces and gentle voices are what stand out in the room—not the simple surroundings. We then walk to the classroom two doors down, home of the “baby class,” where children as young as three are also eager to say hello to our group.
The next day, another CTPH volunteer leader, gives up part of her day to demonstrate how she gives Depo Provera shots to women in the community. She methodically shows us the mechanics of giving the shot, and then shows us the log book where she records each woman’s name, date of shot, and date of future shot.
Her warm demeanor puts me at ease, and I understand why 18-20 women per month seek out her services.
After the demo, she shows us the energy-saving cookstove she and her husband own—and the warm and bubbling pot of ebihamba (beans, in Rukiga, the local language spoken by villagers in the Bwindi communities).
Later in the week, I join Dr. Gladys, CTPH Program Manager Dr. Dianah Nalwanga Wabwire, and an international group of tourists to experience the conservation piece of the organization’s efforts: gorilla tracking!
In our nearly matching taupe hiking outfits, bearing a less cool resemblance to Indiana Jones, we quietly hike through the pristine forest to the location where we have been informed the Mubare group of gorillas is residing that day.
Suddenly, we are surrounded by gorillas—adults and babies—who are munching on leaves, climbing trees, and traipsing through the forest without a care for the group of awestruck humans watching their every move.
At one point, we hear movement above us, and a large tree branch hits me in the arm. I briefly fear that a gorilla is about to fall on my head, and wonder how the guides are going to explain my untimely demise to my family. I then realize that the branch was knocked down by the large silverback gorilla who is letting us know that we are in his house, and that he is in charge.
With the message received and our hearts racing, we go back to staring at these incredible creatures. The silverback and his family go back to their business, healthy, content, and protected in the pristine forest they call home.
These firsthand experiences illustrated for me what I thought I knew prior to my trip: that great poverty exists in much of the world, that women in the developing world would like to take control over their reproductive lives, and that the basic healthcare that I take for granted is not a reality for most people. But seeing something up close is different than reading about it, or hearing about it, and these experiences are now etched in my brain.
Going forward, I will think of the people I met, the wildlife I saw, and the beautiful natural spaces that I enjoyed, which will serve as a constant reminder, and motivator, of why our work matters.