Posted By Dinesh Pethiyagoda, Richard T. Clark Fellow, Merck & Co. on March 27, 2014

Labels: Africa , Namibia , Alumni, Infectious Disease, Volunteers

TB hospital in Kavango region of Namibia

Dinesh Pethiyagoda is an employee of Merck & Co. in Upper Gwynedd, PA in its Global Marketing Communications for diabetes franchise.  As a Richard T. Clark Fellow for World Health, he and Gary Zelko, Merck’s Director and Publisher of the Merck Publishing Group spent three months in the fall of 2013 visiting Project HOPE’s program sites in Africa.  The purpose of their fellowships was to develop new promotional materials for Project HOPE’s work in Africa to aid in attracting new sources of funding for our work in this region.

We left Zambezi early the next morning for the Kavango region of Namibia, which was a 600 km drive and on the border of Angola.  We visited TB wards in a hospital, and it was extremely sad to see patients piled in rooms with beds in very close proximity to one another, some even sleeping on dilapidated beds outside the building.  There were patients who had previously not adhered to treatment and had developed multi-drug-resistant TB and hence were kept in isolation.

It was very moving.  Project HOPE had conducted extensive community outreach programs to educate villagers on TB and had greatly increased rates of diagnosis and treatment.  Many patients were co-infected with HIV and TB, which made them harder to treat.  Over the next three days we visited more TB hospital wards and OVC (orphan & vulnerable children) and VSL (village savings & loan) meetings in remote villages which almost always had to be accessed after significant off-roading.

Treating TB in Namibia

We then proceeded on our next drive to the North Central region of Namibia, which is home to the Wambo tribes.  The people in the villages here were extremely welcoming, as usual, and the traditional greeting was “Wa La Lepo” (Did you sleep well?) to which we would always reply “Yes” in the native language, although this was rarely true for me!  The differences in culture and languages in each of the regions of this country is fascinating.  We visited more TB wards, and it was encouraging to see a donated pool table and some exercise equipment in one of the hospitals to help patients while away the time during their recovery.

The VSL groups which had formed were quite incredible.  The community has good project ideas and clear goals on what they want to do with their saved money, i.e. start a mini market, make and sell baked goods, buy goats, buy school uniforms for children, etc.  This economic strengthening program in areas that need it the most is very impressive and will hopefully lead to a better life for the villagers and their children.

Women of the Wambo tribe, northern Namibia

All villagers we visited were extremely well dressed and very well organized.  They had planned agendas, and those few who spoke English had very neat and impressive handwriting. They were so welcoming and happy, even though they had so little. Their generosity was heartwarming as most of them insisted on providing us with lunch, which consisted of two cooked chickens, maize mill porridge, greens, beans and amarula oil (extracted by an extremely tedious process after picking out small amarula nuts from the fruit and then squeezing them to get the oil).  When we were ready to leave, they would bring lots of gifts.  The gifts ranged from exotic fruits to amarula nuts, and in one instance we were even given a live chicken!  It was very clear how appreciative they were for the work Project HOPE was doing in their communities and were determined to share what little they had - totally selfless behavior.

After 12 days of non-stop travel covering probably close to 2,000 km in Namibia, we took a flight back to Windhoek.  Namibia is a wonderful, safe and diverse country with very interesting cultures, and the people are phenomenal. The next day we were off to Johannesburg, South Africa.


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