After spending more than three weeks on the island of Ukerewe, located on Victoria Lake, Tanzania, pharmacy technician Nicole Wutke came home with a different view of the world. Wutke was part of a team that included 24 Canadians, mostly healthcare professionals, who travelled to Africa through the Canada Africa Community Health Alliance (CACHA).
Ukerewe District is one of the eight districts of the Mwanza Region of Tanzania. It is located on Ukerewe Island and neighbouring islands within Lake Victoria.
“Each day we visited a different village on the island,” said Wutke. “We would set up and do triage.” They were paired with a local who acted as a translator, as Swahili was the language most spoken. Villagers got to see health professionals from two departments — either a dentist, eye doctor or gynecologist — and were not allowed to see any additional doctors, even though the doctors may only come around once a year. People would walk for miles and line up in the scorching heat to see a doctor. “It affected me most on the first day,” she said. “It was discouraging because sometimes you would not be able to see all the people who came.”
When she was not busy in pharmacy, Wutke helped the other volunteers go down the line and take people’s temperatures. Those with a high temperature were a priority to be treated. The rest had to be turned away with hopes that they would see the doctor the next time. Regardless of what they were being treated for, said Wutke, everybody was sent home with some Tylenol and worm treatment.
Children on Ukerewe Island love cameras and are always excited to make funny faces and see what they look like.
The children would come from the local schools just to watch, she said, as most had never seen a white person before.
“We were called a ‘mzungu,’ pronounced ‘muh-zoon-goo,’ meaning foreign traveller,” said Wutke. “We would chase them with sticks so they’d go back to school; they would think it was a game.” Otherwise the children ended up staying.
According to the local culture, those with a little more wealth sometimes felt they deserved more or better service, which made for some interesting moments, said Wutke. As for the living conditions, they were “absolutely disgusting.” They sleep in dirt houses, drink and bathe in the same water, she said. The children laughed when a “mzungu” would take a roll of toilet paper to the “toilet,” because the locals used their hands to clean themselves.
“The closest water was one kilometre away. The women get up at 5 a.m. to walk for water and carry five-gallon buckets on their heads. I tried it once,” laughed Wutke. The volunteers were all given bottled water and their food was provided by a local caterer. The only downside, said Wutke, was that every meal, every day, was the same.
If the locals work, it is usually hard labour. She said $40 Canadian is two months worth of income for those on the island. To go anywhere else to work is pretty much out of the question. “It’s about a four-and-a-half-hour ferry ride to the city, which costs 6000 shillings, or about four dollars. There are very few vehicles there; most ride motorcycles or walk,” said Wutke. “If they have to go 50 kilometres, they will pack a food bag and walk.”
While there they each got a chance to work one day in another department. She was given the choice between surgery or logistics, so she decided to take surgery. She really enjoyed it and was quite excited to learn, stating that one of the most common conditions treated was hernia.
All was not work for Wutke and the crew. They enjoyed a bike tour, visited the rainforest and saw the monkeys or went to the local market. She even got to see the birth of a baby and assisted by holding the newborn while the midwife looked after the mother.
Wutke with a special new friend she met on the last day of the caravan. Wutke said the little girl tried so hard to copy her and learn the English language and that “The children are so smart.”
“We played cards with each other, even though we did not speak the same language – we would teach each other,” she said. The attraction of having young foreign volunteers apparently did not go unnoticed, but Wutke had been warned about one young interpreter who was in his twenties. It was rumoured that he was trying to find a wife. One day she bought a goat (for food) and he agreed to take her to help prepare it. On the way he asked if they could detour so he could introduce her to his mom. To Wutke’s surprise, he introduced her as “mototo (my girl) Nicole.”
At that point his mom playfully smacked him and said something in Swahili. Wutke had learned enough of the language to pick up on a few things. When the two were on their way out, she asked the ambitious interpreter what his mom had said, and he repeated it: “Nice try!”
The only ambulance on the island is a motorcycle with a bed attached.
Wutke said the whole trip was the most wonderful experience.
“Watching people living in their beliefs, going there to see it, gave me a different feeling,” she said. It is difficult to explain until you actually live it.
“The best part was trying to communicate with people. They laughed at you when we tried to take their temperatures,” she said, referring to her attempts to pronounce something in Swahili.
The trip, she admitted, made it harder to come home for Christmas.
“We spend so much, and $40 in a different country can make a difference in such a huge way,” said Wutke. However, this did not discourage her from planning for another CACHA experience.
“The hotels are decent, if you are lucky enough to get one with running water and toilets that flush. It’s a beautiful place, and a great environment.” She would also like to try other locations, such as Guatemala.
As to what she brought back from the experience, she said, “I have an increase in patience.”
Christmas will certainly not be the same for Wutke, or for those with whom she chooses to spend it.
Nicole Wutke is the pharmacy site manager at Regina General Hospital. She is the daughter of Connie and Kevin Wutke and granddaughter of Lillian and Cecil Wutke and Sophie Malakoff, all of Wadena.
For more information about CACHA or to donate, please visit cacha.ca.
By Alison Squires