A Journey of Reflection in Uganda

 Erin at a hospital sitting on table

Western students hosting information table for high school and elementary classes on sexual health education at the annual St. Jude’s Health Day in Masaka, Uganda. 


By Erin Day

Over the past year, I pursued a Masters in Global Health Systems at Western University. My degree focused on achieving health equity for marginalized populations by examining the diverse factors that dictate health outcomes. For my final semester, I travelled to Uganda to deepen my understanding of the complex challenges faced by low to middle income countries.  

Here, I worked on a research project at the Rakai Health Sciences Programs (RHSP) to determine the impact of penile-vaginal sex on penile immunology and subsequent HIV risk. I had the opportunity to observe medical male circumcisions as a method of HIV prevention, and to assist with community outreach and education. Through these experiences, I was able to immerse myself in the culture of the Ugandan people, strengthening my understanding of the unique factors that continue to shape the realities of healthcare in the Global South. 

While in Uganda, I lived on a sustainable farm for two and a half months with limited electricity and water supply. Our meals were cooked over a fire and the nearest town was at least 30 minutes away by car. Working at RHSP, I traveled to many different villages for data collection and outreach programming. I witnessed first-hand the poor state of their living conditions and had the opportunity to speak with one of the village doctors about disease treatment protocols. He explained to me many of the factors that continue to perpetuate the spread of HIV and other diseases including the lack of resources and cultural norms that prevent proper treatment. I also had the opportunity to interact with many patients in the operating room who explained how family income, accessibility, religion and tradition had previously prevented them from getting circumcised. While many of their conditions were strikingly different from what we experience back home in Canada, Uganda was filled with the richness of culture and the bonds of friendships that made me feel welcome each day. 

Every morning in Uganda I would pass the same kids from a nearby village on my drive to work. They were never in school, but rather playing and helping to carry jerry cans of unclean drinking water. Every morning I would sit in the car looking out the window and asking myself how our lives ended up so incredibly different. I would reflect on how this reality appeared to be absolutely random “luck”.  

Our drive to work was usually quiet, and I can imagine it was a result of others having naturally similar thoughts.  

This past year I had the opportunity to interview at the University of Toronto Medical School. Going to medical school has been a dream of mine since I was 8 years old. On May 10th, however, in the middle of Uganda, I opened my email only to find out that I was not accepted – an outcome that felt devasting at the time. As I tried to cope with this reality, far away from the support of my friends and family back home, I convinced myself that I was just terribly unlucky. As the weeks went by, and my friends were accepted off of the waitlists, the unluckier I felt.  

With time, however, I began to recover from this disappointment, and I slowly began to see a brighter side. I became more present during each meal, during each community visit, and on the same drives to work, passing by the same children playing in the mud, and reflecting on how this random “luck” turned out in my favour. While not getting into medical school was extremely disappointing, it empowered me to realize and appreciate that I am in fact incredibly lucky. I am lucky that I have the chance to apply over again, and I am lucky that society has made that possible for me in Canada. It forced me to gain perspective and helped me to see the bigger picture.  

As my friendships in Uganda grew stronger, my flight home seemed to get closer, and I began to feel great sadness as I anticipated saying goodbye. I began to wonder if I would ever reunite with the people who so generously welcomed me into their lives. I felt strange, being a part of their lives for over two months before disappearing back into my North American lifestyle. Leaving Uganda and dreading the reality of redoing my medical school applications back home, I reminded myself just how fortunate I am, and promised myself that this would not be my last Ugandan goodbye.  


Photo by Jennifer Clarke