Life Saving Journey
There are no straight lines to career fulfillment when poverty blocks the way. Never give up, though, urges Mr. Keneth Kaggwa, who wears several leadership hats in the Uganda Village Project, a vibrant NGO that promotes public health and sustainable development in marginalized, rural communities in southeastern Uganda.
In Kampala where Mr. Kaggwa was born or rural Uganda that he often visited as a youth, widespread poverty can mean early death in ill equipped hospitals overflowing with patients. Many impoverished patients never go to hospital for treatment they cannot afford. With human devastation crying for attention, Mr. Kaggwa set his sites on saving lives. “You don’t want to be remembered for doing a lot of nothing,” he says. “You want to be remembered for doing something. This starts from where you are right now. You don’t want to waste a single minute.”
Such burning ambition faced tall hurdles. Mr. Kaggwa’s family could not pay for access to secondary schools with teachers and academic resources that prepare high school students to study medicine. At 17 and unable to pay costs associated with the next level in public schools, Mr. Kaggwa sat out for a year, eager to resume his formal education.
He returned to classes but science in his school was not a robust option. He switched his focus to the arts, retaining the hope that somehow he might still find a way to save lives. His grades earned Mr. Kaggwa a place at Kampala University.
Career options governed his field of study. Advised to pursue a talent for teaching, Mr. Kaggwa balked. In Uganda, caning students is customary. “At some point it is just inevitable,” he says. Visiting corporal punishment on children seemed far removed from saving lives. He also resisted working for the government where, despite honest, hard work by many, epic inefficiency and endemic corruption put lives at risk.
His priorities were clear, topped by sharing knowledge that keeps people, families and communities healthy. “Looking at the NGO world,” says Mr. Kaggwa, “I realized that most if not all NGOs work this way.” He refocused his studies, earning a degree in social work and social administration. Real experience validated his decision.
Working at a hospital in Kampala, he counseled troubled teenagers afflicted by heartbreaks, family crises, health issues and depression.
He recalls the indelible impression by a girl exposed to HIV/aids. She came to the hospital to be tested, unable to confess her predicament to anyone other than a counselor.
To prevent a tragic outcome, Mr. Kaggwa asked what she would do if she tested positive. “She said she would get a gun and shoot herself. If not a gun, she would fall from a very tall building or step in front of a speeding car,” Mr. Kaggwa says. The prospect of HIV/Aids, full of shame and terror, pushed her toward suicide while waiting for a test results.
“My big task was to show her that many people in Uganda have declared they are HIV positive,” says Mr. Kaggwa. “We don’t want to lose them.” He painted a picture of friends and family who care about her, people whose hearts she would crush by taking her life. He said, plainly, “your family needs you, your country needs. No one wants to see you die.”
They kept talking until the result came in: HIV Negative. “This girl came running and screaming and hugged me. Everyone was looking at us,” says Mr. Kaggwa. “I will never forget that moment.”
Persistent stigma in rural Ugandan communities makes HIV treatment more complex than prescribing antiretroviral drugs. Some fears conjure witchcraft. Suicide often lurks. “In many cases, I believe we have a good impact by showing people the other side of life,” says Mr. Kaggwa, “even when they are HIV positive.”
In his current role at the Uganda Village Project, Mr. Kaggwa witnesses daily struggles. “We talk with people, play soccer, see how families struggle for a small piece of food,” he says. “Poor families lose loved ones because they cannot afford mosquito nets, they can’t drain all the water where mosquitos breed, and when malaria strikes children they don’t go to hospitals because have no money to pay for it.”
Mr. Kaggwa oversees the UVP program that combats Malaria with mosquito nets and sanitation. He also coordinates international internship programs. One more hat identifies him as project coordinator for village health teams. The Uganda Village Project staff cannot monitor local health threats at all times in 70 villages. They rely instead on village health teams that act as a community’s initial health care contact — a crucial link in the Healthy Villages Project launched in 2009. “Each and every day these teams have consequence,” says Mr. Kaggwa, “ if not around HIV then around clean water or sanitation or malaria.”
Without spending a single day in medical school, Mr. Kaggwa helps villages save lives by identifying medical disorders, by organizing efforts to promote sanitation, by orchestrating interns or by pitching in to dig wells for fresh water. “I’m not a medical doctor,” he says, “I’m a social doctor.” He has no illusions about the scope of work that remains. It is vast. “I still have a lot to do not just in districts where we work now, but also in other developing communities.”