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Exploring Public Health in South Africa: Megan Snyder

Posted: January 16, 2015

The knowledge and experience I gained during this summer has provided me with a solid base upon which to develop my future global health career.
The group learning about occupational health at a saw mill.

The group learning about occupational health at a saw mill.

South Africa is a country of fusion. The combination of modern and traditional culture paired with a government struggling desperately to get off the ground makes living in South Africa challenging. Contradictions run at the heart of every social, religious, and economic difficulty. Some examples include; the interactions between traditional healers and modern medicine and strong religious pressure for abstinence education despite a dual epidemic of HIV and unintended teenage pregnancy. These very controversial yet important topics make for a dynamic population with strong opinions. It also makes for a perfect fieldwork site for a prospective public health worker. My time in South Africa has allowed me to grow as an individual in a challenging and intellectually stimulating environment. Through this experience, I have begun to understand what qualities are essential for public health workers in global contexts.

I first became interested in the Global Health minor because I had heard that we would have the opportunity to work abroad in a hands-on public health focused fieldwork experience. Although we had three semesters of preparation classes, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the sheer amount I would learn about public health, humanity, and myself.

The first two weeks of the trip was spent in orientation. The first day we were in the historic Soweto, in Johannesburg. We toured heritage site in Kliptown and also the Apartheid museum. We traveled to Polokwane, 300 kilometers from Johannesburg, where we would spend the rest of our field work experience. Once in Polokwane, we met with health officials from every administrative corner of the health care system. Hospital C.E.O.s, the district health department, and meetings with various health service specialists introduced us to how the health care system is run.

The third week was spent in the local Nobody Clinic where we observed the nurses run the clinic in extremely dire circumstances. The clinic has three rooms and each of the three nurses see around 40 patients a day. They are always running out of supplies and the line of patients is out the door and around the building before the clinic even opens. The nurses inspired me with their unflagging work ethic and limitless patience. During our time at the Nobody Clinic, we were also given the opportunity to go out with the mobile clinic during their rounds. We visited a number of farms where the patients are primarily immigrants who live in squalid conditions.

During the fourth week, we were paired with a student dietician from the University of Limpopo. This was my favorite part of the trip. We learned the value of community nutrition and the various roles that a community student dietician fills. Our student, Elias, was everything from a food inspector for the local schools to a social worker. It showed us that anyone with any sort of education is valued beyond measure, and that those who are educated have their work cut out for them because there is always so much to accomplish.

The fifth week the group toured a number of different facilities in the Limpopo Province including a macadamia nut factory, where we learned about occupational health, and the malaria control center, where we learned about the various challenges the department face when dealing with malaria. We also met with a number of NGOs and public health programs which are doing a lot of good for their communities. The most beneficial program we visited was the Promoting Healthy Lifestyles campaign. This campaign sets up intramural sports teams for the elderly and teaches them about how to prevent and live with various chronic conditions. The influence this program has had on the elderly participants was obvious through the joy on their faces.

My time in South Africa was not all work. On the weekends, the group took many trips to different national parks and more tourist-type locations. By far my favorite activity during these weekend trips was my opportunity to interact with some big cats including cheetahs, lions, and tigers. We also got the chance to see some beautiful landscapes including ‘God’s Window,’ a lookout comparable to standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. These weekend trips allowed me to see more than just the insides of hospitals and Universities, it gave me the chance to see the beauty of South Africa’.

My time in South Africa challenged me in ways I would never have expected. Although the group was in South Africa to learn rather than to “give aid”, I felt that I was able to make a difference by teaching the students and other individuals about what life is like in the United States and showing them that we are not that different. Throughout this fieldwork experience, I made life-long friends and learned more about my future career field than I could have through any published journal article. The knowledge and experience I gained during this summer has provided me with a solid base upon which to develop my future global health career.