KIHEFO promotes local initiated solutions to fight disease, ignorance and poverty in southwestern Uganda
By Nikki Janzen
After a whirlwind three months in Uganda, the days I have left in this country have dwindled to three. With the looming departure in mind, I find myself reflective of my immersion into issues of global health and nutrition, international development, and even sustainable agriculture since coming here. Certainly, I have ingested more knowledge in the past few months than I could have after years in a classroom. I have also been handed some unique opportunities to apply my skills and understanding of nutrition in valuable ways, thanks to KIHEFO.
It is while working with KIHEFO that I found a home in Uganda – a place of community, of culture, of hospitality, and of training for students and young professionals like myself. Let me share with you my student experience during my brief – but so rewarding – stay in Uganda.
From the Canadian Prairies to Southwestern Uganda
A Dietetic intern at the University of Saskatchewan, I came to Uganda with a CIDA-sponsored university program called Students for Development, organized through the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). It was during this time that I, by chance, encountered KIHEFO. I am ever so glad I did.
My first 5 weeks in Uganda were spent participating in a Leadership and Community Placement with five students from the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) and one other student from my Canadian university. We happened to be placed in the small southwestern town of Kabale, with an unknown-to-us-at-the-time organization called KIHEFO. We were curious.
What is KIHEFO? Why are we placed with a private clinic? Will we have the same opportunities as other student groups placed in villages with government clinics?
Upon a little Google search of KIHEFO, I was reassured. In addition to the general clinic, they have a Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre, perfectly conducive to my current studies and future profession in the field of nutrition and dietetics. They have an HIV/AIDS clinic and family planning services, a community hospital in the works, microfinance initiatives, and are involved in several other community outreaches. They have a reliable staff, adequate supplies, and functioning equipment. Such things, I am told, are rare in Uganda.
KIHEFO accommodated our team in all ways, even beyond those needed for us to meet the course requirements. They provided transportation for us to a nearby village, Nyakiju, several times in order for us to address our chosen health challenge of malnutrition in children below 5 years of age. We conducted home visits and administered questionnaires; we provided educational sessions and nutritional assessments; and we delivered a workshop with Village Health Teams (VHTs) – all with guidance and interpretation services from KIHEFO staff and volunteers. In town, we also spent time at the clinic, learning and observing staff there.
Over at the Nutrition Centre, we participated in a cooking workshop with mothers of young children. It was also arranged for us to meet with a traditional healer on Lake Bunyonyi and to be featured on a local radio station’s evening talk show. In addition to academic- and work-related activities, however, we became good friends with the staff, who invited us out for social events as well. And we could always expect a good visit and a hearty laugh from Dr. Anguyo – who brought for us wine, pineapple, bananas, and other treats, on occasion – whenever he could find the time to come up to the volunteer quarters to chat. So many good experiences were packed into those 4 short weeks in Kabale.
On the last night of our Leadership and Community Placement, prior to a delightfully large dinner provided by KIHEFO, our team underwent a final evaluation and review of our experience.
“What are the things that you were not satisfied with during your time with KIHEFO?” the staff asked us.
Honestly, our only complaints were the over-hospitality (if there were such a thing, which there is not), and the Kabale dust, as we were there in June, the dry season. In other words, none to be taken seriously.
Back to Kabale – Focus on Informal Research with Women & Farmers in Nyakiju
This hospitable, learning-conducive environment drew me back to Kabale to work with KIHEFO after the MUST program was finished and I and my team had returned to Mbarara. I made arrangements to spend the majority of my remaining time in Uganda working on a project for the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre.
Collaborating with Trina, KIHEFO’s Communications and Technical Advisor who has been doing agriculture-related work, we established our plan: We would first conduct interviews with ten families in Nyakiju. From the information obtained, I would do a nutrition analysis to better understand the food and nutrition environment of local families in the district. Finally, we would create some type of an educational resource to be used by KIHEFO staff and volunteers among communities and families. Excited to put the plan to action, I enthusiastically hitched a ride with the ever-traveling Dr. Anguyo on one of his many trips from Kampala to Kabale via Mbarara, and became reacquainted with my Ugandan family – the KIHEFO team.
Trina and I set to work immediately upon my arrival in Kabale in July, two long weeks after the MUST placement had finished. We hired our interpreter (a college student from the village of Nyakiju), arranged for our transportation, and set off to climb Nyakiju’s hills and speak to local women about their food and agricultural practices. We were warmly received in every home, and ampola, ampola (meaning “slowly by slowly” in Rukiga, the local language), began to understand the challenges faced by Kabale-district peasants regarding food and agriculture.
The weeks following our time in the village were spent transcribing and analyzing all that we were told during our Nyakiju interviews. My nutrition assessment revealed what was already suspected:
The sunny (dry) season produces thirsty land and hungry people. Sweet potatoes and sorghum – commonly-grown drought-resistant foods – are not enough to sustain entire families for an entire season. Money is little to buy food from the market. School fees must be paid, and what little food is grown is often sold. People live in wait for the rain.
Uganda is a land of plenty, for certain. When there is rain, a plethora of foods can be grown. Yet wandering through the hills and valleys of Kabale, I saw and heard firsthand some challenges faced in the developing world, where caregivers cannot simply go to Superstore to buy imported food products in the non-growing seasons. Though I felt helpless to fix the hunger and malnutrition faced by Kabale district families, I felt compelled to do something. Therefore, the Food and Nutrition Guide came about, created in collaboration with input from countless individuals, both here in Uganda and back home in Canada.
After holding focus group meetings with several of KIHEFO’s staff and making final edits to the document based on their feedback, the first edition of KIHEFO’s own Food and Nutrition Guide is now complete and fresh off the printer. The guide is a pictorial 50-page document based on local food and basic nutrition information, covering such topics as “To Eat or to Sell?” and “Pre- and Post-Natal Nutrition for Mothers”. I am feeling satisfied, as this work – which I had not planned to do upon arrival in Uganda but somehow stumbled upon – is now finished and my time with KIHEFO has come to an end.
KIHEFO is uniquely fostering to the student experience, as I have come to know so well. Because of the flexibility of the organization, I was given the opportunity to design a project that capitalized on my interests. Using photography and my knowledge of nutrition, I created a resource aimed at contributing to the organization’s overall mission – to fight disease, poverty, and ignorance in an integrated and sustainable approach. Furthermore, I received so much encouragement – and had so much fun – in doing it.
My return to Canada is imminent and thoughts of home provoke excitement and anticipation, but somehow I do not want to leave Uganda. I do not want to leave KIHEFO. However, I know that I must go, and I have no doubt that the organization will still be here, as flexible and as open to others’ ideas and contributions as ever, should I find myself drifting back to Kabale at some point in my future….
KIHEFO is most grateful for Nikki’s enthusiasm, creativity and hard work to build the Food and Nutrition Guide – a resource that will strengthen KIHEFO’s sensitization campaign to educate mothers, fathers and caretakers for preventing the incidence of child malnutrition in the Kigezi region.
For more information about how you can become involved in KIHEFO’s projects, please visit our website – here.