2014 has started off with a bang! After some great days backcountry ski touring with my boyfriend, Juerg, and our friend, Bruno, in the Berner Oberland, I made the journey back to Uganda. In some ways, it is really hard to leave that amazing winter culture of the mountains and snow where you get to visit really beautiful and largely pristine places on your own steam, getting fresh powder just about all the time while getting a little exercise and adrenaline fix for the day. But there are also those other things in life that call you to action and engage you in a different way. That’s one of the draws of Uganda for me. My work there challenges me in ways that are completely different from sport and yet very exciting at the same time. There was and is always lots to do in Uganda with Soft Power Health. And this year, I was feeling particularly itchy about getting back to work there. 2014 is Soft Power Health’s 10-year anniversary, and 10 years of work in Uganda feels like a big accomplishment but also feels like a lot to keep track of – it definitely keeps me on my toes!
Over the years, Soft Power Health has grown organically, that is based on the needs that we see in the communities that we work in and with a lot of trial and error. Some things seem like great ideas in theory and are not practical at all in the field. Other ideas seem too simple to be truly effective and yet can have a huge impact. Either way, it is always a learning experience implementing any of our ideas. As of now, Soft Power Health consists of our primary and preventative health care clinic and three health education outreach programs for local communities. The clinic has become a very busy place in its own right treating nearly 20,000 patients again this year. The health education outreach programs include malaria education and prevention, family planning, and nutrition/malnutrition education.
Health education is still a very scarce commodity in Uganda and is a very inexpensive and high impact intervention. Lasting change happens for people when they use the health education to adopt a behavior change that has a positive impact for themselves and their families. Once people realize a positive outcome from a behavior change, they will make it part of their lives for the long term. Over time, this helps people get off the treatment only treadmill and helps them save money and live healthier lives. Its wonderful to see this happen and, when it doesn't work, it’s a great opportunity to figure out why and do better the next time. This year has posed some interesting challenges – there is never any shortage of those – but they are the kind of challenges you want to have because they force you to be creative to come up with other solutions.
In 2013, the government of Uganda distributed nearly 15 million free mosquito nets to Ugandans. This method of malaria control has been around for a while with very limited success in reducing the burden of malaria. While there have been distributions before, this one was the largest and most comprehensive, trying to cover the whole country. Every district was involved. Although we have dealt with free mosquito net distributions before, it has never been so wide spread. As expected, our immediate demand for malaria education sessions and net sales has gone down and we are looking at where gaps need to be filled so we can be there to do that. In addition, the process of giving nets for free has chipped away at the commercial market for nets and encouraged people to keep their hands out waiting for more free stuff from the government. This is a sad unintended consequence because people who were once willing to buy nets, no longer will. Rather than the free distribution of nets helping people live more malaria free lives, it has in some ways done the opposite. With no value placed on the nets when they are given for free and no education to accompany the free distributions, people don’t use their nets, use them incorrectly or sell them. We see this very often in the communities we work in. At the moment, there is a radio campaign on that is trying to encourage people to use their nets correctly to help combat that problem. It’s a very unfortunate consequence that I wish more policy makers at the high levels would see. Lots of money is spent on these campaigns but ends up being largely wasted money.
Family planning’s impact and the interest in it continue to grow. It’s wonderful to see both men and women participating in family planning. This year we have offered family planning to more people in the communities than ever before. Finally, the nutrition and malnutrition education outreach has garnered a lot of interest but it’s a bit harder to measure the impact of that intervention because not everyone we teach is malnourished and it’s more difficult to find a reliable indicator for “solving malnutrition”. Regardless, we try to provide as many options for learning for people as we can. The DIG demonstration organic garden is a great teaching tool, and it’s a wonderful provider of food thanks to Patrick, who has been looking after it and helping to teach as many community members as he can using the garden. So with all that going on plus training our new country manager and overseeing all the usual day-to-day stuff, it’s been super busy.
On top of all that, the Nile River Festival was happening this past weekend. There was a massive turnout this year both with competitors and spectators for all the events and of course the parties. It was great and really fun to be a part of. I was glad that my month away on skis did not hinder my ability to use the rope to get on Nile Special. There were many moments during the competition that I was thanking the universe for letting me be so lucky to be out there doing what I love to do. Sam and Emily from Kayak the Nile, and all the many, many other people that donated their time and energy put on a great festival. Hopefully, the interest from the festival will help the protective efforts that have been going on to save the remaining wild water on the Nile, which is under imminent threat of yet another dam. Every little bit helps.
Along with my trip back to Uganda also came a great opportunity to try some new gear that I received from Aquapac. The best testing ground on the planet must be Uganda. With all the water, rain, mud, dust and general African wear and tear that any gear that comes to Uganda encounters, its easy to find out in no time how well things work. So far, I have made great use of the numerous see through dry bags as well as the messenger bag and watertight backpack – I am in heaven so far! For the last 10 years, I have always been very nervous about taking my computer on little trips around Uganda like for example to the Hairy Lemon, which is an island in the Nile. Not only do you have an impressively bumpy long dirt road to go down to get there but you also have to cross by boat – either your own kayak or one of their wooden boats to the island. The potential for things to get wet and dirty is very high. I have a whole new level of comfort with my packing of precious items now that I can use the messenger bag with both the Velcro closing inner pouch and the bomber outer zipper bag with snap over closure. It’s just awesome! Not only that but the added bonus of the bag being very comfortable to carry around is extremely appealing as well. 2014 is really off to an awesome start so far!
Jessie Stone, Los Angeles, 29th January 2014.