This blog post is brought to you by Mekala Pavlin, a graduate student in Social Work at the Silberman School of Social Work in New York City, and Spencer Dirk, an undergraduate student in Public Health at Austin College in Sherman, TX. Mekala and Spencer were part of our 2019 cohort of practicum students from the US who spent a couple of months working with the MSG staff in the Rorya District. To learn more about our practicum program, please follow this link.
Mambo! As we are sitting on the porch of Maji Safi Group’s office on our second to last day here in Shirati, today’s cool and gloomy weather reflects our sadness about leaving on Friday. Shirati and Maji Safi Group are truly special, and from the day we arrived, we were welcomed into the Maji Safi family, immediately feeling comfortable and cared for.
As we reminisce, our thoughts go back to one of our first days in Shirati. Although still fighting back some jetlag, we were to spend the entire day with the Outreach Program. We had no idea where we were going, but we were happy to be invited and start our time here, so we hopped into the Land Cruiser, and off we went. Two hours later, we found ourselves in Guchuma. Our first stop was the local government office, where the Community Health Educators (CHEs) asked for permission to teach the local residents about WASH-related issues and diseases. The local representatives were welcoming and gave their hearty approval for the outreach initiative. Somehow, it was already lunch time. At a restaurant, we had one of our first traditional meals, consisting of ugali and fried fish. We absolutely loved the food and enjoyed chatting with the CHEs while we ate.
Then the work began. We were paired with two CHEs who approached a group of men sitting outside a butcher shop. We were amazed by the confidence the CHEs had as they started discussing cholera with the group. We were equally stunned by how happily we were welcomed and how engaged the men were. They asked thoughtful questions and genuinely appreciated the knowledge they were receiving from the CHEs. After the conversation, most of the men even purchased WaterGuard (chlorine tablets) for treating their home water supply.
Next, we approached a large group of women who were selling tomatoes, cabbage and potatoes at the local market. Community Health Educator Judith Mbache started discussing urinary tract infections (UTIs) and fungal diseases with the women. We were impressed with her ability to instantly command the attention of the crowd and how she used humor mixed with personal experience to connect with her audience. Again, we were amazed by how responsive the crowd was to this sensitive subject. They asked great questions and were eager to learn more. We kept thinking how differently people in the US would have responded if stopped for a conversation of this nature on the street or at a market.
As the day wrapped up, and we waited for the other CHEs to finish, we shopped with Judith and Rosa for sugarcane, sardines and school supplies. As jetlag really hit, and we were dozing off during the car ride back to the office, the car unexpectedly broke down. We found seats on the side of the road under some papaya trees while waiting for a replacement part, chatting with Rosa for the better part of an hour. Considered how long we have been here, it’s interesting how much we can recall from our first days – it speaks to the incredibly memorable experiences we’ve had.
We both came into our practicum experience very interested in MSG’s Female Hygiene Program and curriculum. After expressing our interest in this area, Max and Dorothy explained that MSG had the opportunity to expand the Female Hygiene Program to six schools in the Serengeti Region. As part of this venture, baseline surveys were needed for female student participants, parents, community members, teachers, and male students. The surveys we wrote focused on assessing the knowledge these groups already had of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and investigating methods to reduce both stigma and schoolgirl absenteeism related to menstruation. In order to write these four surveys for the five different target groups, we had to conduct in-depth research. We explored a variety of sources, many from world organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children as well as smaller non-profit organizations in East Africa and other regions of the world. The volume of information available was large and took days to sort through. Once we had become familiar with published research on menstrual hygiene management, we immediately started drafting our own survey questions.
As the Serengeti Project includes giving out various menstrual products to female students, we realized that MSG could benefit from a comprehensive menstrual product pamphlet, describing all the different options women in the region may come across or use. This was a fun and interesting project that challenged us in many ways. Since we were already familiar with many of the products, it surprised us that it was so challenging to write step-by-step instructions for products that seemed so commonplace. We hope this how-to guide will help women navigate their monthly period more easily in the future.
Our time in Shirati with Maji Safi Group has been invaluable, and working on a project in an area that was unfamiliar to us taught us humility, the importance of relying on other people, and to think more deeply about our intentions. We will definitely miss buying passionfruit at the Monday market, the children that greet us screaming every morning as we walk to work, the endless chapatti (flatbread) and samosas we have had for dinner, the beautiful sunsets from Oboke Hill, and most of all the MSG staff’s friendly faces!