For more than a month this summer, a group of 10 undergraduate students from Memorial University of Newfoundland took up the challenge of a lifetime – working in sweltering heat in a small refugee settlement in East Africa, eating mainly rice and beans, and going days without washing. There was limited access to electricity and on more than one occasion things were emotionally difficult.
For the nearly 50 days they spent on the other side of the world, life was a far cry from what they’ve been used to – but give them the chance and they’d each do it over again in a heartbeat.
The world travellers are members of the student-run, non-profit group Memorial University of Newfoundland Health Outreach, Promotion and Education – better known around the St. John’s campus as MUNHOPE.
After months of fundraising and filling out forms, they packed their bags in mid May – just after writing exams – to head to the Chogo Refugee Settlement in Tanzania for a six-week journey.
Their goal was simply to educate poor villagers about public health issues.
“Members volunteered in the local clinic, taught nutrition classes to pregnant woman and mothers of malnourished children,” said Heather O’Reilly, one of the participants who founded MUNHOPE in 2004 and a recent graduate of the Faculty of Arts. “Our biggest project involved peer education. We identified approximately 25 youth refugees who were interested in becoming public health educators. We then proceeded to teach them about important public health issues, including HIV and AIDS, women’s health, water safety, the environment, sanitation and leadership. Our project culminated in a community activity day where we stepped back and let our peer educators conduct information sessions about the various issues they had learned, teaching hundreds of community members important health information in their own language. It was absolutely amazing.”
It was also a life-changing experience for the 10 students – seven of whom graduated from Memorial in May, while one member just finished their third year and two others completed their sophomore year. While travelling in Africa five members – including Ms. O’Reilly – were accepted into Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine (four of them will attend in September, while the other is heading to the University of Western Ontario in the fall).
The society began fundraising for the trip in December 2006. It cost each member roughly $5,000 each to travel to Tanzania – 80 per cent of which came directly from the participants’ pockets.
“The trip was important to me for many reasons,” explained Ms. O’Reilly, who noted she is proud of the fact the group she established was able to travel to a remote village and teach locals the importance of health education. “On a personal level, I have had an interest in international health for a number of years,” she added. “We have all heard so much in the media about the health situation in Africa and it had been a dream of mine to be able to go over and lend a helping hand in anyway I could.”
And, despite their tough living arrangements, Ms. O’Reilly said there are no regrets from the MUNHOPE members who travelled to Africa for what she dubbed an adventure most people never get to experience.
“Each of the other nine participants were amazing. They worked incredibly hard and accomplished more than I ever imagined. Even when the going got tough, everyone pushed forward and pulled through,” said Ms. O’Reilly. “It was definitely difficult but everyone was able to deal with whatever came our way and I am so proud of them.”