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Tanzania: Tribulations and Triumphs - Michael Henry, Immunology and Infectious Disease Major , Global Health Minor

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Posted: September 5, 2013

It’s the type of experience that is hard to describe simply when someone asks “What did you do in Tanzania? What did you learn?”
Hanging out with Tanzanian medical students

Hanging out with Tanzanian medical students

Before beginning my senior year at Penn State, I traveled to Tanzania to fulfill the fieldwork requirement for my Global Health minor. I was not as naïve as some are when traveling to a developing country, thinking they are “going to save the world” or something similar. I had traveled to Honduras several times with Global Medical Brigades and Global Water Brigades and had a little taste of what international development was like. However, I had no clue as to what happened behind the scenes which I had not seen on my other well-scripted short immersion experiences.

After spending several days learning about the lasting effects of apartheid on a short tour in South Africa, the Tanzania cohort flew off. We had contacts at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences who apparently had some sort of environmental health project set up for another student and me. However, when we arrived, they were confused. It was as if they did not expect our arrival and did not know of the project we had been promised. Eventually they set off trying to figure out what we would do. The other student and I were confused and worried, but our professor was relaxed, knowing that “going with the flow” was often the only thing to do in such an unfamiliar scenario and that snags were to be expected.

HenryTanzania2.pngWe thought we were going to be living in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, but instead they sent us several hours north to the tiny quiet coastal town of Bagamoyo. There, a group of medical students were on their Community Health Rotation. We joined them as they performed surveys on contraceptive use, child nutrition, and sanitation in the village over the course of a month. There were times when we were up late, fighting deadlines to get out a report, and other times when days slipped by without us knowing what to do. Every chance I got, I would join the students in going to the market, going down to the beach, or trying to pick up snippets of Swahili whenever possible. While I learned a lot about rural public health from the work, it was how I spent the free time with my new Tanzanian friends that I learned the most from.

Some of the moments that stuck out the most were the discussions (which often elevated almost to arguments) that I had with many of the Tanzanians my age. We talked about politics, about jobs, about sports, about international aid, about girls and music and anything and everything. Some of the things we viewed identically, some were polar opposites. But I learned how different people’s views can be based on the context in which they were raised; some things I took for granted as facts simply were not here.

It’s the type of experience that is hard to describe simply when someone asks “What did you do in Tanzania? What did you learn?” More than anything, I wish anyone who asks could have been there. Yes, I learned about the difficulties in feeding infants and getting couples to use condoms. But I also was shocked at how different the views could be of people from another culture, and how these would have to be taken into consideration if I am to continue my career in international development. I was also shocked at some of the similarities; at times, they were even more up to date on American movies and music than I was!

Most importantly, I gained a sense of patience and independence I had not before. Patience to hold my tongue when the aforementioned differences came up in argument, lest I lose my new friends. HenryTanzania3.pngPatience to understand that everything does not flow smoothly outside the relative bubble I normally live in and that roadblocks are often the status quo. Independence to explore every opportunity that presented itself in the free time I found myself having instead of being consumed by the homesickness which was inevitable in such a different area. When I went to Ghana with the Global Water Brigades for ten days several months later, I felt extremely confident when it came to interacting with villagers, trying new foods, and so on.

My exploration in Tanzania even put me in touch with the Ifakara Health Institute, an organization working in Bagamoyo to understand how intestinal worm infections affect the course of HIV and other diseases. It was through my effort in pursuing a relationship with them during my time in Tanzania that led me to stay in contact and ultimately decide to apply for a Fulbright to return. I will be spending nine months from September 2013 to June 2014 researching alongside native Tanzanians in Bagamoyo under a Fulbright grant before attending medical school at Columbia University.

I thank the Steele Fund for helping to make this experience possible. Both the highs and the lows of the experience made me grow as a person.  I look forward to returning, learning even more, and taking that knowledge to better the health of people around the globe.