This month I caught up with two of my fellow dentistry colleagues, Melika Hedayat-Kelishadi and Sara Member, to talk about their experiences in Uganda where they worked as volunteers with a student lead organisation ‘Team Gulu’ to help those less fortunate receive life changing medical and dental treatment.
Initially, the volunteering trip was entirely made up of medical students from Manchester, Belgium and Uganda who worked alongside the Northern Ugandan Village Health Outreach Porject (NUV-HOP). Sara joined the project as a part of the first dental team in 2018, whilst Melika visited Uganda the following summer.
Hi both, thanks for agreeing to share your stories with our readers. I know they will be fascinated to hear all about the amazing work that you conducted as a part of the ‘Team Gulu’ volunteering project.
I would love to know, why you both chose this particular project? As students, we are often inundated with so many opportunities to volunteer with a variety of organisations and it can be difficult to know which would be the best project to choose. So why ‘Team Gulu’?
I started off my second year wanting to do something new and put myself out there. Thankfully the dentistry course has many opportunities for students to be able to do this. Team Gulu was one of the first things that stood out to me and having volunteered abroad in the past, I instantly became interested. This was my chance to volunteer as a dental student and put my skills and knowledge into good use.
This trip stood out in the sense that in its pilot year, it placed huge importance on delivering oral health education in rural areas of Northern Uganda to ensure the benefits of our trip were long – lasting and sustainable. This is something that immediately sat right with me ethically.
I know that the trip heavily relies on you being able to fundraise the money required to fund the trip. How did you manage such a mammoth task whilst studying for a very demanding degree?
I had never had to fundraise to this extent before and raising the money was my biggest concern, but I had so much fun with it! Having the support of my friends, family and colleagues from my part time job just made the fundraising so much easier. My favourite fundraiser has to be the music event I put on with some of my friends, I managed to hire a venue, promote the event through different social media sites, and got some of my friends to DJ at the event for me.
Something that surprised me when starting our individual fundraising was actually the amount of help available for these types of projects through the University itself, using their bursary schemes. With an initial target of £1500 per member of the team, having these bursaries was a huge relief and definitely helped to make the target feel a lot more feasible. Another useful area of funding was by reaching out to my local rotary clubs, both in Manchester and in the area of my family home.
I bet it was such a relief when all the money was collected, and you were getting ready to go. Something that isn’t spoken about a lot is the initial travelling experience, what was this like for you?
The entire journey was just over 30 hours long but there was never a dull moment with our team, and it made the length of the journey far more bearable.
The final leg of the journey was probably the most difficult. It involved a 5-hour drive in Jeeps to get to Gulu, Northern Uganda. The roads were incredibly bumpy, and it was extremely humid whilst we were all cramped in one vehicle. I was so relieved when we arrived!
That journey sounds like a pretty challenging experience in itself, I’m sure you needed some much-needed rest after that! What were your accommodation arrangements?
We stayed with a host family who were very welcoming and truly inspirational people! We learnt so much about their culture, their food, their day to day lives and they were just very wholesome people to be around.
The food we ate together was delicious, Daniel (our host’s son) has a great passion for cooking and he taught us some really great dishes! I think I speak for the group when I say the traditional Ugandan rolex was our favourite. This consisted of a homemade chapati encapsulating a gorgeous filling of omelette and homemade guacamole- sounds simple but you could never make one as good as they do in Uganda. There was always such a vast selection of fresh, organic produce and I think our bodies definitely thanked us that month due to the lack of processed food.
I was fortunate enough to be housed with a very special lady named Jolly Okot and her family, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for the amazing work she has done to improve the lives of women in Northern Uganda. Jolly is probably the most inspiring individual I have come across in my life so far. The stories she told us truly opened my eyes and seeing first-hand the work she does in her community is something I can only strive to live up to. You can find out more about Jolly and the charity she has set up here on her page.
I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the entirety of your trip than completely immersed in the culture like that. I’m sure Jolly was a great inspiration during your volunteering work. What kind of work were you doing?
We started off by gaining some experience in the dental unit at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital. The shift was every weekday from 9am-1pm where we assisted and carried out many tooth extractions- this is pretty much the gold standard in Uganda due to the lack of funding.
At first, we were so surprised at the mass amount of people arriving at the hospital every morning, but we soon found out that this government hospital has a catchment area of 9 million people with approximately 4 dentists to treat them. It took a while for us to adapt to Ugandan dentistry. We were expected to extract 5 teeth in a minute! We were thrown into the deep end but managed to get through it. Every day I felt as though we were becoming more and more competent.
During 3 weeks we were in Gulu, we attended 5 outreach clinics. This involved setting up tents in the most rural areas of Northern Uganda and providing basic services such as malaria and HIV testing, vaccinations, and the provision of free medications for those in need. With this being the first time, a dental team was present, we focused on delivering oral health talks to those in attendance, with numbers often exceeding 1000 people and demand being extraordinarily high. With a very useful team of translators and aided with interactive props to make the talks engaging, we were able to deliver several key oral health messages to the patients who came and provide.
We would also visit the local schools where we would deliver carefully tailored lesson plans to children between the ages of 4 – 16 to highlight the importance of oral health and introduce them to basic tools such as a toothbrush, which most of them had never seen before. Working with children was one of the most rewarding aspects for me as they met us with songs, dances, and plenty of hugs.
Sounds like you were all extremely busy with important work, did you get much free time to explore Gulu?
Yes, we did get free time amongst all the dental havoc. I think the best thing we did with our free time was the 2-day safari with Jolly’s family and the Manchester medics. The safari included a long uphill hike to see Murchison falls in all its glory, a close-up experience with so many of Africa’s beautiful animals and a refreshing cruise along the river Nile. It was honestly an experience of a lifetime.
We definitely made the most of the time we had by visiting the local markets and admittedly buying every souvenir Gulu had to offer, eating in local cafes to try the street food (probably not the best idea for our stomachs), and even being able to use the facilities in the local hotel which included a swimming pool! It was a great time to bond with the other students on the trip from other countries and take the time to reflect on the project itself as at times it definitely could get a little overwhelming.
It’s so lovely to hear that you had the free time to make the most of being somewhere so culturally and environmentally different to the UK. I think there is often a misconception that when individuals go abroad to volunteer, there will be little time for anything else. Is there any particular experience that really stood out during your trip?
I think it has to be at our second to last outreach. The gas for our autoclave ran out and it was approaching 5pm with a storm brewing. Abandoning our patients was not an option for us or the Ugandan dentists and so we sent one of our team to the nearest town to get some more gas (bear in mind we are in a rural village, pretty much in the middle of nowhere). The wait was excruciating but we tried our best to make good use out of this time by implementing some more prevention. When they came back, we tried to get the instruments sterilised! The stove would not light… the gas canister was faulty, but we were determined to find another solution! The sister at the outreach centre offered us her charcoal pit at her nearby home, we knew it would take a long time to get the water boiling to sterilise the instruments, but we were willing to give it a go. As soon as the first lot of instruments were cleaned, we were off! Everyone had adrenaline pumping through their bodies and I think the medics were slightly mortified with what they had just seen.
One of my favourite experiences on the trip was a fundraiser that our host family held in their garden to raise funds for the charity they ran, WEND Africa. The night consisted of traditional Acholi dancers, inspirational speeches on the work the charity does, the most amazing food, and a whole night’s worth of Ugandan entertainment. The energy levels were incredible. As this was one of our final nights before leaving Uganda, it was the perfect send off with and a great way to celebrate everything we had achieved.
Every story you tell makes your experience seem so exciting, but I know many students will be worried about leaving their home comforts for an extended period of time. Was there anything that you missed whilst you were away?
I didn’t miss much; I could have stayed in Uganda for a lot longer! It is definitely one of the best countries I have visited to this date.
Before we left, I started to dwell over how long a month can feel like but in all honesty, time went far too fast. Being away from technology and other luxuries was genuinely refreshing and something I’d encourage everyone to try!
I’m sure that will put a lot of our readers minds at ease and encourage them that volunteering abroad is such a worthwhile and enjoyable experience. Could you offer any advice for our readers who are considering volunteering overseas?
Just do it! I would recommend it to anyone, it is an experience that you just can’t get in the UK.
There are hundreds of different opportunities out there to volunteer abroad, so I think an important part is to find the right one for you. Find something you’re genuinely passionate about. Perhaps go to an area of the world you wouldn’t have even thought about visiting otherwise but something and somewhere you can really make a difference.
It’s a big commitment and the thought can be daunting, but there’s no better time to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and to get involved.
Do your research, plan effectively but most importantly – have fun!
I want to say a massive thank you to both Melika and Sara for sharing their stories with me for this month’s edition of ‘ordinary people with extraordinary stories’. Their stories were truly humbling and it’s clear that the work they carried out was certainly life changing.
If you have a story to tell or know someone who has a tale worth sharing, please get in touch with the student news team to feature on this blog. This platform is all about sharing inspiring accounts from people just like us.
Thanks for reading and keep studenting!