Uganda Health Care

Students Aim to Bring 'Life,' in More Ways Than One, to Africa

There's an old saying: "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." The idea is that while a handout is a thoughtful gift, it is ephemeral. Education, however, is a gift that leaves a legacy.

This is the spirit that drives Maysha, a health-care program-in-the-making focused on education that will serve marginalized and remote areas of East Africa. Maysha, which means "life" in Swahili (the primary language of East Africa), is a Tommie-run program – operating under Minnesota-based NGO West African Medical Missions – founded and led by program directors Samali Mutazindwa and Netsanet Negussie, both seniors at St. Thomas, and executive director Mathew Vicknair '13. WAMM is shepherding the team's vision and serving as the program's organizational mentor while they learn how NGOs work and providing the nonprofit status they need to operate.

Maysha's purpose, Negussie explained, is to "empower members of underserved communities in East Africa to take an active role in addressing health disparities instead of merely being recipients of aid."

Negussie, a Minnesota native born of Eritrean parents, and Mutazindwa, a Uganda native, became friends their freshman year at St. Thomas. Each harbored the same dream of bringing better health care to underserved communities in East Africa. Negussie, a pre-med student, had seen firsthand local and international health-care disparities in her time with the Minnesota Future Doctor's program. She wanted NGOs to do more than distribute aid and to see more involvement by local community members. Mutazindwa's Ugandan high school required students to volunteer for credit. On her many trips outside of Kampala, the capital of Uganda and her hometown, she noticed "the orphanages and schools didn't have the same resources ours had. The small hospitals in the villages didn't have as many resources and staff."

Over lunch in Scooter's last semester, Mutazindwa pitched to Negussie a rough sketch of what would become the bones of Maysha: She wanted to bring health care education projects and malaria intervention initiatives and supplies, like malaria nets, to Uganda, where the disease is the leading cause of death.

"She was enthusiastic but thought I was crazy!" Mutazindwa, a dual social work/justice and peace studies major, remembers.

Apparently, Negussie didn't think she was crazy enough, as the pair didn't waste time getting Maysha off the ground.

"I believe it's not good to think too much on an idea," Mutazindwa said. "An idea can become a reality, but you have to push and keep pushing to make it real."

Soon after their lunch, they enlisted sociology/international economics major Vicknair, whom they knew through classes at St. Thomas, and scheduled a meeting with Gabriel Warren, co-founder of WAMM. The group was a fan of the NGO's approach to bringing health care education to marginalized areas of West Africa – an approach that was in line with their own vision for East Africa.

"They listened to us and liked our ideas," Negussie said. "Now they are our umbrella organization and we use their 501(c)(3) status, which allows us to carry out our initiatives."

Maysha will focus its efforts first on Uganda. If all goes as planned, they hope to expand to Ethiopia, then Kenya and Tanzania.

Efforts also will gear toward community-health outreach for local (Ugandan) students who plan to work in medicine "so they feel empowered to be a part of our project," Mutazindwa explained.

Under WAMM's auspices, they're also receiving valuable training on how to run an effective NGO. One of the team's long-term goals is to step out from under WAMM's umbrella and evolve Maysha from a program into an NGO in and of itself. They will model one of their main initiatives after WAMM's Young Scholars program, which "brings local health professionals, and university and secondary school students together with international volunteers to address gaps in community health literacy," according to WAMM's website.

"That's how you empower a community. You get the youth involved," Negussie stressed.

Starting a program that could yield life-changing results to underprivileged East African communities while an undergraduate requires a lot of elbow grease. Mutazindwa acknowledged that "my time is so divided right now. I'm putting 100 percent to both school and Maysha. I have no social life! But the whole team's on board, which makes it easier." She will travel home this winter to lay the groundwork, essentially "searching out and starting to build relationships with people and organizations we can link up with," she said.

They also must deal with real-world issues NGOs contend with daily, Negussie noted, such as applying for grants, recruiting students and others to volunteer, and gaining public exposure for Maysha.

All three founders already have applied for a Clinton Global Initiative grant, which would give Maysha not only operating funds but also invaluable training at a weekend-long conference hosted by former President Bill Clinton in March.

Vicknair, who is in Washington, D.C., working toward a master's degree in public policy with an emphasis on international development at George Washington University, said his goal "is to help set up the infrastructure and basic policies and contacts to bring WAMM's idea into East Africa." His current home base enables him to actively connect with other NGOs, beginning in Uganda, to make that happen. His intent is that the Clinton Initiative will be a "launch pad" for Maysha.

Back at home, students in St. Thomas biology professor Dr. Jill Manske's "Biology of Emerging Diseases" course this semester are helping by performing a critical literature review on malaria prevention, treatment and challenges. The students will report back to Maysha at the end of the semester with recommendations regarding the interventions that have been documented to have the highest impact on malaria in Uganda. Additionally, the students will discuss the challenges and barriers that need to be considered based on evidence and well-designed studies. At the end of the semester, the students will present their findings to Maysha, along with a more detailed, written report of their findings and recommendations.

Manske said, "I am excited to see UST students engaging around issues in global health. Malaria is a huge problem that impacts much of the world's population. The partnership between Maysha and the students in class allows the students to use their academic background and skills to address a real-world problem. It allows them to experience how difficult these issues are; that even in the absence of a perfect solution, we need to keep moving forward. They also see that for every solution, there is some other consequence or problem. Like I said, real world!"

If all goes according to schedule, Negussie said Maysha will be poised to "inspire, advise and mentor communities" in Uganda by summer 2014.

Other Tommies also serve as executive board members, active participants or avid supporters of Maysha:

  • Luis Ortega '14, program policy director
  • Annie Peterson '13, director of finances
  • Victor Negussie '14, technical chair
  • Hiwot Ayehu '14, secretary
  • Colleen Vaughn '16, grant writer volunteer
  • Philipo Dyauli '15, fundraising chair
  • Dr. Amy Finnegan, Justice and Peace Studies Department
  • Dr. Mike Klein, Justice and Peace Studies Department

Maysha welcomes interested St. Thomas students of all disciplines (pre-med and pre-law students are especially encouraged) to "get involved beyond the Arches," Negussie said. They encourage anyone interested in becoming a Maysha volunteer to email the team directly.