Science, Serengeti, and Stigma: How a summer abroad became a quest to change the world.

I decided to go to medical school after studying abroad in South Africa. I lived in a small town in the poorest province and spent my time in many small local clinics and NGOs using their limited resources to try to combat the stigma and devastating disease of AIDS. The most frustrating thing about my time in South Africa was I did not have the education or skills to make a significant impact on the patients there. When I left South Africa, I knew not only that I wanted to become a doctor, but also that I would spend at least some of my time and knowledge in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As first year med students, the vast majority of our time is spent staring at a book or a computer screen. We have limited patient contact and it is easy to lose sight of what got you interested in medicine in the first place. I find a way to balance the monotony of basic science courses by spending what free time I have volunteering locally. Two of my favorite organizations are a student-run clinic downtown and the AIDS Foundation. Working with underserved populations allows me to get some perspective and also hone my newly learned medical skills. The local initiatives are a major part of my life here.

First Time Fundraiser

Margo volunteering at the Clinic

In medical school, we get one summer off between first and second years. That’s it. One last hurrah before real life truly sinks in; one final chance to choose how to spend each and every hour of every day for three months; the last opportunity to be completely free. Our classmates will be relaxing by the pool, working to pay off some debt, and researching with medicine’s finest, but my classmate Roxy and I decided to volunteer our last summer and go to Africa.

With only one summer, it was tempting to take a break, relax, and get ready for the next school year, but my sense of adventure and desire to return to Africa overpowered my logical side and I started looking for a way to use all of the amazing things I have learned in the past year to help patients in need abroad.  But to which destination? According to the World Health Organization, Tanzania has one of the worst physician-to-patient ratios in the world, and as of 2004, only about 0.5% of those with advanced HIV were receiving treatment. With more than 5% of the population in Tanzania living with HIV, this disparity is in desperate need of improvement.  So I chose to head to Tanzania.

I decided to set some personal goals for the trip.

First, I want to improve my clinical skills by working hands on with patients.  Second, by working outside of the States, I will gain an understanding of a different culture and its perspective on both Western and traditional health care. And finally, I aim to gain first hand knowledge on how HIV is affecting global health.  And I can accomplish this while improving access to care for patients in need.

With all of this in mind, it was time to figure out how to make it happen.  So I turned to the most reliable and knowledgeable resource I know. Google. Large international volunteer placement organizations proved popular, but I felt the positive impact they make on an underserved community was questionable. The grand amount of money these companies charge for their trips seems to mostly go towards administration, advertising, or their own profits. Another drawback is that it seems the volunteers are present for such a short time that they are more trouble to the community than help.

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Kids who will attend the Children’s Centre

I next attempted to set up my own placements with hospitals and doctors in Tanzania but had tremendous difficulty establishing any reliable communication. With nothing concrete worked out, I realized I would need the help of someone local who had experience with volunteers. My absolute requirement was finding a way to volunteer that would provide a sustainable benefit to the community we visit.  I discovered Hostel Hoff whose sole purpose is placing volunteers with a few small, stable, local NGOs where the impact of their work will continue. In my subsequent communication with the Hostel Hoff’s director Amanda Natali, I found that they are part of a local project, Path to Africa, which is working in Moshi, Tanzania with a school to build a Children’s Centre for students to live at while they are being educated. I found this inspiring, and when Amanda emailed me the latest newsletter I found they were in desperate need of funds to complete a borehole that would provide the students with clean, fresh water.

I knew I wanted to help, but when I looked at my bank account I realized this was not something I could do on my own. Medical school is astronomically expensive, and I am financially dependent on government loans to pay the many thousands of dollars for school and housing. With my debt already accumulating, I knew I couldn’t possibly find a way to fund my own trip, let alone help Path to Africa by myself. That’s when called my friend and classmate Roxy, whose ingenuity and creativity helped me hatch a plan to raise money for the borehole, to buy medical supplies for the clinic in which we will be volunteering, and to cover some of our own expenses.

Our greatest fear in starting to fundraise is the very legitimate possibility that we will be unsuccessful.

The idea of failing to provide support for Path to Africa and our future patients is a persistent storm cloud in my conscience.  I know we will be a positive force in Tanzania with extra donations or not, but knowing we could have done more than we did will haunt me if I have to get off the plane empty-handed.  It‘s a funny thing, though, and on the contrary, I don’t want to be wildly successful in our fundraising efforts, bring a big gift, and then be perceived as the Americans waving our wealth in front of Africa’s poor. There is a balance in this surely, and I am continuing to search for it.

We have run into a few roadblocks on our quest to raise money improve the living situation for the children in Moshi.

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Roxy and her brother Ray who is a third-year medical student

The largest of which, interestingly, is the location of our trip. Africa? Scary Heart of Darkness, genocide, Kony 2012 Africa? The same. Sort of. The misconceptions Americans have about Africa abound. The process of asking people for donations to support our trip is complicated not only by the assumption we will be abducted by guerillas and never return, but also by a overwhelming opinion that Africa, in being so different from America, is somehow backwards and wild. I don’t disagree that living Tanzania is more dangerous than living in suburbia, but I was surprised by how off-putting many people find the idea of traveling there.

Another notable difficulty is the people I interact with every day, my classmates, also happen to be extremely broke medical students. It is not my goal to take my friends’ meager savings or federal loans to fund my trip. So I have asked them to reach out to their connections, encouraging them to promote our cause to their friends and family. We aren’t asking our friends for cash, only for exposure, but often my spiel falls on deaf ears. Our class has been bombarded by fundraising projects all year, and to come at them at the end of the semester with a huge new endeavor is uninteresting for many and overwhelming for most.

We have had many successes as well.

The first of which is the inspiration from my former equestrian-trainer and fundraising savant Heidi to start a donation website. We then used social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about our trip. I was pleasantly surprised by the goodness of my friends and neighbors. Many friends and colleagues have gone out of their way to make our cause known, and have personally donated. One neighbor in particular has tirelessly promoted our cause, brought in donations, and attended every event only because he believes in what we want to do. Another friend offered up her home for a benefit concert and barbeque. We have received donations from a spectrum of anonymous philanthropists, cousins, neighbors, and even my high school counselor. I am constantly amazed at Facebook’s reach.

Roxy and I were also excited to find success when planning a fundraising party at a local bar, Hans Bier Haus. We had almost nothing to offer them in return for hosting a fundraiser for us, but they are passing out obscenely discounted beers for anyone who comes in on May 17. Bring your friends.

This often thrilling, occasionally disappointing and remarkably time-consuming endeavor is in full swing.

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The Children’s Centre in progress

The first thing I do in the morning and the last thing at night is check our website for donations. I am proud to say that we are now at 36% of our $6000 goal, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity we have encountered on our journey. I cannot wait for the day at the end of May when we get to meet Amanda in Moshi, hand her a check, and say “look at the wonderful thing we brought from home.” But reality sets in and I remember there is still more than half of the money to raise. We will continue to promote our fundraiser and dream up new ways to inspire the people of America to use their resources to help change the lives of people half a world away. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and we need generosity to make our dream a reality.  After all is said and done, it won’t be just Roxy and I, as a first time fundraiser, heading to volunteer for our last summer, but the whole of our community making a lasting impact for people who desperately need it. The size of our impact lies in the hands of the people we reach in the next few weeks.

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4 comments
Margo
Margo

Hello from Tanzania! Just wanted to update everyone and let you know that our event was a huge success and we are now at 70% of our goal! Now that we are here we see the need is very great for medical supplies, especially blood pressure cuffs as the entire complex has to share one! I know with your help we can raise the rest of the money and help the Majengo clinic be better able to care for their patients. Thank you so much! Margo

Prakash
Prakash

I am leading a volag involved in enabling communities in rural India enabling them to improve their quality of life and livelihood. I will be happy receive the support you can offer in fund-raising for my work.