Oct. 10, 2019

Health sciences students help paint pictures of maternal health in Uganda

Global Student Community Engagement Program teaches how to reflect local beliefs and interests

In the summer of 2019, eight University of Calgary Bachelor of Health Sciences (BHSc) students gained first-hand experience with health promotion and community engagement in Uganda. Mama na Mtoto collaborated with the UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) and Healthy Child Uganda (HCU) to create a Global Student Community Engagement Program. Over the three-week field course, students had the opportunity to work alongside the HCU team, local communities, and MUST faculty and students to gain hands-on exposure to community development, health promotion and social determinants of health in rural Uganda. Here is one student’s personal story about the experience.

When I learned about the Global Student Community Engagement Program at the CSM, I thought it would be a good academic opportunity in a part of the world that I wanted to learn more about. What I didn’t expect was how much I would learn throughout the experience.

The program is aimed at giving students a knowledge base and hands-on experience for conducting culturally sensitive community engagement. So in June 2019, our group of BHSc students travelled to Uganda to work with local students. Our task was to help freshen up a few local health facilities with health promotion messages delivered via murals and paintings. We were the first cohort and we shared a common interest, maternal, newborn and child health.

  • Photo above: Nutrition was a common health promotion interest of the three communities we collaborated with. Photo by Jeff Mclean, Bachelor of Health Sciences Graduate ’19

Before we set out for Africa, HCU reached out to local health facilities to see which communities might be interested in having their facilities painted. Three health centres near Mbarara signed on.

The first cohort of the Global Student Community Engagement Program outside our classroom in Mbarara, Uganda.

The first cohort outside our classroom in Mbarara, Uganda.

Jeffrey McLean, for the Cumming School of Medicine

Learning to facilitate community engagement

For the first week, MUST faculty led workshops about principles of community engagement, focus group co-ordination, and what community engagement looks like in practice. The first week in Uganda was helpful for acclimatizing, culturally.

We also learned about the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. The charter is basically a road map for the health promotion “enable increased control over health,” which is now etched into my memory.

Essentially, our goal was to work with the community, not for the community. We needed to focus on facilitating discussion. We didn’t want to impose our own beliefs; the paintings had to reflect beliefs and interests of the community.

Once we were ready, we split into three groups; one for each health facility. Each team was made up of students from UCalgary and MUST, as well as a faculty member from either institution.

The community was involved at each stage of the process, here we are reviewing ideas for paintings.

The community was involved at each stage of the process, here we are reviewing ideas for paintings.

Jeffrey McLean, for the Cumming School of Medicine

Working with the community

My team was working in a community called Bukiro. There we met district health officers, nurses, community health workers and community representatives. Through focus groups and one-on-one discussions, we compiled a list of eight maternal, newborn and child health messages that were most important to the community.

For example, they wanted to see male involvement in the paintings. Bukiro specifically asked for depictions of a husband accompanying his wife to the health centre. The community health workers voiced interest in a nutrition guide for mothers. Mothers themselves wanted to know the milestones in a child’s development.

We stayed as flexible as we could throughout the process. There were some delays and language barriers made communication difficult. Our health promotion messages morphed meanings over time. Draft paintings were revised and revised again. It felt like we were going in circles sometimes, probably because we were.

Near the tail end of the program, local artists became involved. We were thrilled, none of us are Fine Arts students, but we did our best. For the last three days we coloured in the blanks and chatted with the friends we made in at each health facility.

It was an amazing experience. It felt like everybody understood the purpose. Our shared understanding and goal to promote maternal, newborn and child health messages that matter to the community shone through. See for yourself. We collected a few photos from our experience.

Funding and support for the Global Student Community Engagement Program was made possible thanks to dedicated funding from Campus Alberta Grant for International Learning (CAGFIL), Development Grant for New Group Study Projects (University of Calgary International) anad Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement - Local and Global

Funded by Global Affairs Canada, Mama na Mtoto is a project led by the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine and includes Tanzanian, Ugandan and Canadian partners. Mama na Mtoto works with local governments, universities and communities to strengthen health systems, fortify health facilities and build community engagement in East Africa.