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Engaged with the World

Sheri StilesMédecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an international medical agency, has worked in Uganda since 1986 and assists, among others, the people in 19 camps who are displaced due to an armed conflict. Activities consist of the provision of medical care, nutritional support, counseling and provision of drinking water. There are more than 300,000 internally displaced persons living in the refugee camps. Some people have been displaced for upwards of 20 years. Sherri Stiles ’87 contacted The Participant to share a typical day of her work with MSF. Given the magazine’s focus this issue on Pitzer graduates engaged with the world, the article was perfectly timed.

I’m rattling down the road near the camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Agoro, Uganda. I’m trying to think of how I can describe the situation here so that you can see the tragedy, but not feel pity. The people of northern Uganda are strong and resilient and not to be pitied, but rather admired for their courage. They have lived in a war zone for more than 20 years—a war zone unknown to many. Agoro is located approximately 20 miles from the Sudanese border. The green, hilly scenery is lovely and provides a stark contrast to the appalling circumstances in which the residents live. Huts are so close together that the roofs touch. The ground in the camp is dry right now, but it is the beginning of the rainy season and soon the gullies between the huts will become fetid streams. In some areas of the camp, 70-100 people must share one pit toilet. In other places, there are no latrines at all. The soil in Agoro is so poor that it is not uncommon for the latrines to collapse.

I am traveling to Agoro because I am the mental health officer in Uganda for Médecins Sans Frontieres. Today, I am doing clinical supervision with Benard, the counselor stationed in Agoro. We first meet with a 14-year-old boy who was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) several years ago. He spent years in the bush fighting for the LRA and in the past has talked to Benard about the horrific acts he was forced to commit. Luckily, he escaped. His parents are deceased and he lives with his aunt and uncle, both of whom are indifferent to his situation. He tells Benard that he is no longer having the nightmares that plagued him in the past months, but he says that his short-term memory is causing him difficulties. He says he is constantly in trouble at school and at home because he can’t remember things from one minute to the next. There are no other aid agencies operating in the camp, so Benard is his sole contact with mental health services. The boy agrees to return to see Benard in a few days.

In the afternoon, Benard and I make home visits. On our way out of the MSF office, we pass the Ministry of Health clinic, which is empty. Even when the poorly motivated staff comes to work, they must contend with chronic drug and supply shortages. Our first stop is to visit a 16-year-old polio survivor. She is unable to walk or use her legs. She spends her days sitting on the ground outside of her hut. Benard thinks she is depressed. She would like to go to school, but has no way to get there. We meet with a few other people and attempt to check in on two HIV positive clients with whom Benard is working, but they are not home. Some of the IDP camps in Northern Uganda have an estimated HIV prevalence rate of 7-10 percent.

In the evening, the whole MSF team is back at the compound in the camp doing a pharmacy stock count. About 10 p.m. we hear several rounds of gunfire near the military barracks, not far from where we live. We wonder among ourselves if rebels have been spotted by the military or if, more likely, a drunken fighter is firing at civilians. In the morning we learn that our second guess was correct. Unfortunately, physical and sexual violence carried out by armed groups toward the residents of the camps is an all-too-frequent occurrence.

At the end of the week as we drive back to Kitgum town, I think about what it would be like to live in Agoro for years. Would I be able to rise above my circumstances? Would I be able to laugh with my neighbors and care for my children? Or would I collapse under the weight of what sometimes seems like a hopeless situation? I don’t kid myself that I know the answer.

Sherri Stiles ’87 is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Social Worker from Austin, Texas. She has worked in East Africa for two years. She has been a counselor and administrator in psychiatric services, HIV, and adoption for 15 years. Her e-mail address is ssstiles@aol.com.