STUDENTS. It was supposed to be an ordinary thesis project, but it came to mean much more. After seven weeks in Uganda, the students have developed both personally and in their future professional roles. Now they are encouraging other medical students to choose to specialize in global health and to take advantage of the chance to go abroad.
“The other day, I was about to throw away a t-shirt that had started to get holey, and was struck by the idea that the people we met in Uganda would have kept using it for many more years. It became really clear to me how little we value our material possessions here at home,” reflects Emelie Efraimsson.
She and Emilia Karlsson are taking a break from writing and are sitting at Café Anatomen at Medicinareberget and discussing about how it feels to be back in Gothenburg. It’s been a week since they exchanged an existence among mud huts and people living in extreme poverty, for one filled with comfortable houses, running water, plentiful food and gadgets galore. Now, they are preparing to compile 141 questionnaires and 44 in-depth interviews for their thesis project in global health. The aim is to investigate how participating in courses in reading, writing and basic arithmetic affected human health, economics, and social engagement in seven Ugandan villages. Most of those interviewed were women, half of whom are illiterate and half of whom have participated in an education program organized by the African aid organization CACI, Change African Child International.
Well received in the villages
“The results aren’t ready yet, but those who had participated in the courses claimed to have taken great pleasure in learning numbers and basic arithmetic that could be applied to home economics,” says Emelie Efraimsson.
“They also said that they had learned the importance of personal hygiene, washing their hands, and boiling water, and that they participated more in social contexts and felt that their opinions were heard,” elaborates Emilia Karlsson.
After seven weeks together at a roadside motel, from which they took daily car trips out to the fishing villages along Lake Victoria, the two students interact effortlessly and complete each other’s sentences when they talk. It is clear that the journey has made a powerful impression on them both. Local aid workers helped them to make practical arrangements, and they felt safe and were very well received in the villages. Yet they describe their first encounter with extreme poverty as deeply shocking.
“One of the first women who I interviewed seemed very tired and downtrodden. After the interview, the interpreter told me that the woman had apologized for her demeanor, and explained that she hadn’t eaten anything for three days,” says Emelie Efraimsson.
“In many cases the children were clearly malnourished and the mud huts were usually completely devoid of worldly possessions. The roofs were leaky and made of garbage. If it started raining at night, everyone had to stand up and wait for the water to drain away before they could lie down again,” continues Emilia Karlsson.
An obvious choice
Both Emilia Karlsson and Emelie Efraimsson have always intended to do humanitarian aid work someday. It was obvious that they should take advantage of the opportunity to carry out their thesis work abroad, where they could benefit from new impressions.
“We both decided early on to focus on the theme of global health. There’s a lot of information on the university’s learning platform, GUL,including a database where you can browse new and ongoing projects in which students can participate. The more we learned, the more interested we became in going to a developing country,” explains Emelie Efraimsson.
In the end, they settled on the idea of evaluating how efforts to decrease illiteracy can affect human health. Through their supervisor, Henrik Sjövall, they got in touch with CACI and the Swedish organization ALEF, the Adult Learning and Empowerment Fund, which finance the education program currently underway in the Ugandan villages. Before they set off on their journey, they attended a course in global health, which the university offers to students who intend to carry out their thesis projects in low-or middle-income countries.
“We felt pretty well prepared, and I think that most students would handle making such a trip, but it’s important not to be naive and think that everything will be clean and lovely. Although we lived quite comfortably, we saw a lot of misery when we were out in the villages,” recounts Emilia Karlsson.
In addition to having gained exceptional experiences and expanded their perspectives, Emilie Efraimsson thinks that their working on their thesis project also taught them a lot about how to conduct research.
“The preparatory side of our research training has become much more concrete, and my expectations of how interesting it would be were totally surpassed. I would love to do something similar in the future,” she enthuses.
The two young women also believe that they will benefit from what they learned during their semester abroad in their future roles as doctors.
“We will, of course, meet people from other continents who have fled here to escape similar conditions, and who may be illiterate. It’s easy to assume that everyone knows what you mean when you prescribe a half tablet twice a day, but if the patient is unable to read and count, things can go wrong,” remarks Emilia Karlsson.
They hope that once it is completed, their thesis will be put to practical use, not only in connection with projects in low-income countries, but also by governments and organizations involved in integration and in assisting newly arrived immigrants in Sweden.
“At the beginning of the semester, I saw it as ‘just a little thesis,’ but now it feels much bigger than that. I’ve realized that you can learn a lot in just one semester, and can even accomplish something meaningful,” says Emelie Efraimsson. Emilia Karlson agrees:
“We are actually quite proud of ourselves, and recommend that others take advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad when it’s time to write their theses!”
- Every year, approximately 25 medical students carry out thesis work in a low-or middle-income country, focusing on the field of global health.
- The students can choose to work at one of the many universities, clinics and hospitals where the University of Gothenburg has established research contacts, or they can search for contacts and develop projects of their own.
- http://medicine.gu.se/utb/examensarbete-30-hp-pa-lakarprogrammet/examensarbetet-utomlands features a wealth of information and links.
- A thesis project that is to be carried out abroad must be prepared well in advance. The university recommends that you start planning a year before you intend to travel.
TEXT AND PHOTO: MALIN AVENIUS/FREELANCE JOURNALIST