Ashlea Surles

Ashlea Surles

I spent this summer in Bukhaweka, Uganda—I cannot begin to describe how much the experience has affected the life that I lead and the person I am. It was the most trying and stressful experience of my life, and it seemed to have no reward—the children were still hungry, wounds were still infected, the school was still bookless, and the people were still desperate for aid of any kind when we left the tiny little southeastern village. There was no visible success in what we did. And I cannot begin to tell you how hard this was for me to deal with.

I spent two months with nine other volunteers from across the United States completing door-to-door surveys of about two thousand households surrounding Bukhaweka—a teeny village about an hour’s drive outside of the country’s fourth biggest city, Mbale. We administered basic health tests such as heartbeat and blood pressure and temperature checks to each member of the family that lived there, asked questions about the family history and recorded the conditions of the homestead. These surveys will be used by the local and regional government to determine the most pressing problems and where to most effectively allot government funds.

We then filled out a slip listing the members or the family who were ill, describing their malady, and invited them to bring the paper to a clinic we were holding. The clinic had two doctors (there were only three in the 300,000-person sub-county), a dentist and discounted medication, and was financed by our program fees. It cost each family slightly less than one dollar to receive a check-up and whatever medication that they needed. We visited homesteads six days a week for six weeks and held two three-day clinics. Overall, it was estimated that we treated about 1,300 people.

But it was heartbreaking knowing that, when the medicines ran out, the womens’ arthritis would return, when the children’s bandages fell off the cuts would only become infected again, and when the glasses broke the wearer would no longer see even that little bit. And then there were the bigger problems of HIV and measles that will never be fixed — that, even if diagnosed, are a death sentence because no one can afford a car ride to get tested in the city, much less the medications to successfully treat whatever it is that is eating away at their body.

Considering all of these things, it is unbearable for me to be so self-righteous to say that I made a real difference. And coming home to a soft bed, running water, telephones, working lights and even the smaller comforts like a clean toothbrush or a piece of candy, after spending eight weeks with people who literally struggled through every day sent me into a sort of depression for about a month. But in the end I was forced to acknowledge that there may never be a tangible result from this summer, but that it was still perhaps the most worthwhile two months that I had ever spent. The way that I live my life and the goals that I have, coupled with the tremendous sense of obligation that I feel to use the privilege and opportunities that my life has been graced with will ensure that I will endlessly work to improve the lives of others for the rest of my years.

As before my trip, I aim to become a journalist. And I will travel the world and let everyone know what exists beyond their jobs and their homes and their lives. I will do this because it is now my responsibility to give what I have received. I have developed self-awareness, a humility that drives me to improve myself, an overtaking sense of appreciation, and also a cynicism that is not negative—as is often the case—but incredibly motivating. Because my experience in Africa has given me these gifts, I am determined to spend my life using these things to return the favor.