Abroad in Oz: How the Minerva Fellows know they’re Nott at Union anymore

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By Sarah Yergeau

Sarah Yergeau ‘10 is one of two Minerva Fellows working at Engeye Health Clinic in a small rural village in southeastern Uganda. She has worked in a variety of roles, including assisting in the clinic’s pharmacy, implementing and training staff in an electronic medical records system, and teaching at local primary school. Sarah has also a classroom book project in order to provide English books for the school to use in all their classroom. See stgertrudes.bbnow.org for info about how you can help with this ongoing project.

It is lunchtime at the clinic. The nurses have seen their last patients for the morning, Resty has finished dispensing their meds, and Ritah has completed the last HIV test before lunch. We all head to the picnic tables behind the clinic where Susan, our cook, has laid out the food. Once their plates have been filled with heaping piles of rice, matoke, and ground-nut sauce, the clinic staff settles at the table and the chatter begins. Lunchtime is also the social hour for the clinic staff and the conversation always flows rapidly in Luganda all around me. For the staff, this is their time to relax, gossip, and crack jokes with one other. For me, I sit in silence eating my food, trying my hardest to catch the odd word here or there. Yet, for the most part, everything goes over my head and I am forced to just enjoy the sounds of their voices and laughter.

This is the kind of language and communication I have come to be used to during my time here. Taxi rides, walks around the village, and time in the pharmacy is filled with streams of Luganda spoken too quickly for me to pick up and as a result, I have come to have a new appreciation for the sounds of peoples’ voices as they speak, rather than the actual words that are being said.

Without the ability to communicate using language, the importance of facial expressions and gestures takes on a whole new meaning. I can show my appreciation and respect for the old woman down the road, by grasping her hand with both of mine and bowing my head slightly. Or my excitement to see the kids in the village by pasting a huge smile on my face and picking them up and twirling them in a circle. Our laughter and smiles is what bonds us rather than the actual words exchanged. Although on many levels, I find that this to be a somewhat purer form of the connection than actual words, it often gets lonely. Without words, there   is no one to vent to, joke with, or spill your guts to.

I think back to all the times I have sat in Reamer killing time before practice or class, trying to read or finish some homework and all I could hear was the incessant chatting and gossip of all the tables around me. During those times all I wanted was the ability to tune out all the conversation around me and focus, but now I crave being able to understand all the talk that is going on around me. This experience has given me a new appreciation for the ease with which I can understand every word I hear while walking about on Union’s campus.

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