In 2020, Network for Africa would like you to hear from some of the amazing team of people who have worked with us on many of our projects, beginning with Dr. Barbara Bauer.
Why do you do this?
I wanted to do humanitarian work from the age of 14 when I read The Other Side of the Mountain, by a medical missionary, Dr. Thomas Dooley. The fact that I remember both the title and the author after so many years, tells you how much impact it had on me. I remember promising myself, “Someday I’m going to do that kind of work.”
It took a long time for that day to come. College, marriage, children, graduate school, all filled my life, and the dream was put on hold. As a psychologist, I gravitated to working with trauma survivors and joined a small NGO, the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. My first mental health humanitarian trip was to Sarajevo, Bosnia, shortly after the peace accord was signed. Electricity and gas had yet to be restored, walls were peppered with bullet holes and bomb craters pocked the streets. Those that had remained and survived the four-and-a-half-year siege were struggling to resume some semblance of normal life.
Through the course of my many trips to Bosnia, Kosovo, and Palestine, I came to understand how much psychological pain remains, long after the danger has passed and physical wounds have healed. But I also came to appreciate how effective simple mental health interventions can be to foster resiliency and recovery. In many places, psychologists or social workers are in very short supply, so training lay volunteers became the focus. I had found my place. Some years later, I connected with Network for Africa, first working with genocide widows in Rwanda, and, subsequently, with returning child soldiers and war survivors in Northern Uganda.
What are your happiest memories of working with Network for Africa in Uganda?
The relationships with the people: we returned many times over the eight years we worked in Patongo. We heard their stories, visited their homes and celebrated their growth and successes as counselors. We became friends.
I had some doubts about Network for Africa’s plan to open a counselling center, because seeking psychological help from a non-family member is an unfamiliar concept in the local Acholi culture. If we build it, will they come? When our pairs of counselors go out into the community, will they be listened to, their help accepted? Giving it a try was the only way to find out.
The programme succeeded and its being used to an extent way beyond our expectations, to the point where we needed to coach our counsellors on setting personal limits. They were being sought out for help at all hours, when they were at home with their families, working their fields, or going to the market. This resulted in developing a workshop on Helping the Helpers—avoiding burnout, self-care, and team support.
I’m particularly pleased our counselors have been used in the health clinic to talk to every newly diagnosed HIV patients. Not only has this freed the nurses to see more patients, but our counsellors have used their skills to educate people about medication and transmission of HIV, and also the psychological effects of getting a serious diagnosis. Their community work has confronted the stigma of epilepsy, commonly thought to be a curse, and support medical treatment.
What are your bad memories?
Any negative experiences in Africa quickly turned into stories we laugh about in hindsight. (The rat in my bed one night, lizards in the loo, the unfamiliar food). But I’ll try to capture one for you:
Our team of three mental health volunteers departed from the US for our first trip to Patongo, Uganda. The civil war ravaging Northern Uganda had ended two years previously, and Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army had been driven out.
The plan was to meet the two coordinators from the UK at the airport in Entebbe and fly together to Patongo. My two colleagues and I boarded the small aircraft and took our seats. I looked around as we took off and said to my seatmate, “Shelly, we are the only white people on this plane. Where are the Brits?” Clearly, they had missed the flight. We had no idea who was to meet the plane, where we would be staying or how to proceed upon arrival.
After 45 minutes, the plane set down on a packed dirt strip in the middle of a field. There wasn’t a building in sight. Our bags were unloaded and the plane took off. I had a brief moment of panic. I didn’t have the slightest idea what direction to walk in to find Patongo. It was a huge relief when the local contact person arrived moments later.
My first impression of Patongo was that we had stepped off the edge of the world. The clock could have been turned back 100 years. There was no electricity, running water or paved roads. Houses were made of mud bricks with thatched roofs. Chickens, goats and children roamed at will. Women in bright African colors were cooking outside over charcoal fires and men sat in groups talking.
We met our potential lay counsellors – the local people we would be training – and heard about the deep trauma this community had suffered during the war. Kidnapping, murder, rape, mutilation. I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the trauma and the numbers of suffering people. How could I possibly make a difference? I took a deep breath and thought, “We’ll just do what we can and hope for the best.”
Fun fact about Barbara
One evening, after a long day, training community counselors, there was a knock at her bedroom door. One of our trainees wanted to tell Barbara that thanks to the techniques she had learned, she had her first decent night’s sleep in twenty years. Then she handed Barbara a plastic bag with a “present.” The bag moved, and when Barbara looked inside, she found a live chicken. It was a generous gift from such a poor woman. However, Barbara failed in her attempt to explain why she was unable to take the chicken on the plane back to Missouri with her. The story does not end well for the chicken, who had a starring role at dinner the following evening.