Have You Ever Lived Like This?

Katherine Wang, M.D. ’17

It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than a week since we arrived home. It simultaneously feels like I’ve been back for an eternity, Uganda a distant memory, and like I was just there yesterday. Home is such a vastly different place—from the weather and physical setting to the people and customs. On the flip side, it is so familiar that it has been easy to settle back into the routine, hopping back into a car to drive on the right side of the road, and working out on the treadmill. I almost wonder if it’s been too easy, given the prevalence of reverse culture shock. Maybe it just hasn’t set in yet, but I am certainly happy to be home as well.

However, within the familiarity of home, I am more aware of the things I take for granted here that make life easier. For instance, bringing my grandparents to the dermatologist the other day opened my eyes to a world of convenience. The car they requested through their insurance never arrived, and luckily I was home, as they surely would have been late had they turned to turn to public transportation). It was an easy drive—nicely paved roads without boda-bodas zipping around or dangerously aggressive drivers. They already had an appointment in clinic, rather than a daily walk in clinic. When at check in, my grandfather was asked if he wanted to sign up for a program that allows for sharing of his Electronic Medical Record outside of their network, I realized how much I had missed our record systems!

Photo Feb 20, 8 53 15 AM
Katherine Wang at the ACES Health Clinic, Nakaseke, Uganda

He had his own private room, fully stocked with all the equipment and materials needed, and was handed a disposable gown to change into. The appointment was quick and efficient, with plans for a follow up visit in two weeks. The entire trip was remarkably smooth and easy.  My awareness has extended beyond just this particular event. I now notice the many choices of food to eat, the free time to catch up on shows, and the indulgence of lazing around the house. I feel almost guilty to be enjoying these luxuries.

Many Ugandans would ask something along the lines of, “how is it living in these conditions?” or “have you ever lived like this?”

Honestly, the living conditions were not  uncomfortable. Sure, I complained when my shower sprayed/leaked all over the floor since there weren’t curtains, and about  there being too many bugs, but I was thankful to have a shower to use. Even though the accommodations in Nakaseke were basic, there was still a flushing toilet, showerhead, bed, desk, and an electric outlet. It also wasn’t my first time living more simply. I have traveled to various parts of China since childhood, seeing all different levels of infrastructure. I have used squat toilets for years and know to always travel with extra toilet paper. I took a mixture of shower and bucket baths at my grandfather’s, slept on the floor on mats, and since then, have witnessed the huge changes that come with the growth of cities over time.

Maybe I was taking the question too literally, considering  it on a purely basic level about the accommodations. Or perhaps the knowledge of an endpoint subconsciously made me feel better. I knew I’d be returning to Kampala, and after that, back home. But not everyone has the ability to just get up and leave. It might not be the living conditions that are necessarily bothersome either (which is what I believe I was being asked about), but rather the general, bigger picture elements that would stand out to me the most if I stayed long term, namely the lack of infrastructure and scarcity of resources. Granted, if I had stayed longer, I would have been able to afford private services if needed.

Katherine Wang with a group of global health elective participants

I have also returned to my bubble of social values. I’m back in my liberal enclave of a hometown, back to the indignant shock of what’s happening daily in American government. We met many Ugandans who supported President Trump for a variety of reasons including his stating that he’d remove President Museveni from power, and his views on immigration. The conservatism of these individuals paralleled the thinking of the GOP, with significant support for the Anti-Homosexuality Act. I didn’t agree with much of what was said, but it also forced me to consider what people look for in their leaders, and what some people prioritize. I didn’t expect so much support for President Trump, and although those supporters  were not  looking at traits that American Trump supporters consider to be important, our conversations  allowed me to take a step back and listen to values that are different from my own.

Finally, I look around my home and see that I have so much stuff. It covers my floors, currently in transition between medical school, home, and wherever residency will be. Do I need all of it? Probably not. Do I want all of it? I could probably get rid of some of it. It’s difficult knowing that we have so many expendable things here. Superfluous possessions are almost the “standard” for me and my peers. With the knowledge that people in other parts of the world could only dream of having all that stuff, am I supposed to give it up? Who would  that benefit?

There are no easy solutions to alleviating the suffering of others. We cannot just drop in a “sustainable” water pump or sink without any other instructions and expect it to work. The “Reductive Seduction” article makes a good point—we need to be willing to tackle the complexity of the situation, which doesn’t  have easy, straightforward answers. All of my global experiences thus far, with a particular emphasis on the past six weeks, have offered me a better understanding of what type of issues people face in accessing health care and other basic needs. While this awareness leads to many uncomfortable questions without simple solutions, it prepares me for future action. It drives me to continue to advocate for those in need, and makes me excited to look for ways to contribute.


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