On this trip to Uganda and Rwanda we visited health facilities supported by UNFPA and listened to women talking about their lives. They spoke with an intimacy, honesty and openness that ordinary tourists would never get to see, and they told us things that ordinary tourists would never get to hear.
The women that I talked with were living in cultures where large families are expected, and access to all forms of health care, including reproductive health care, is limited. They told their stories in a simple, direct fashion, and on more than one occasion I found it hard to even listen, let alone talk later about what I'd heard. Even now it's hard to write it down.
I met sex workers who sold themselves nightly for "50 cents with a condom, $2 without," a woman who was taken aside by the Rwandan interahamwe during the genocide of 1994, thrown on the ground with one leg tied to one tree and the other leg to another tree, raped repeatedly and left for dead, a women who was thrown out of her home by her husband when she confronted him about keeping his positive HIV status a secret and who had no choice but to turn to prostitution to support herself and her three children.
I also met strong, charismatic, educated women working effectively to change traditional views on family size, on the education of women, on female circumcision, and to make health knowledge and health care available to even the poorest people. Meeting these often poor and often uneducated women in rural health centers, in the offices of their women's associations, at a widow's agricultural association, and in hospitals and orphanages, also showed me their determination to make their lives better. Even more humbling was their desire to improve the lives of others they could touch.
It was very clear that modest but consistent funding transformed these women's lives. They went from a feeling that theirs was a waste of life and waste of the human spirit, into a life where there was some hope. The source of the hope was very practical: immunizations, prenatal care, childbirth services, family planning services, nutrition counseling, adult education - women who could read using their spare time to teach women who had never gone to school. The hope held by all these women was that they could be healthy, could earn a living, could plan their families, and most important of all, they could hope to be in control of their own lives.
I was reminded of Loren Eiseley's story, "The Star Thrower." Eiseley is walking on a beach after a storm where thousands of starfish are stranded on the beach, dying. Eiseley walks along, picking up starfish after starfish, throwing them one by one back into the sea. A man asks him what he's doing and what difference it makes, pointing to the starfish in Eiseley's hand. Eiseley throws the starfish back into the waves so it can live, and says, "It makes a difference to that one."
The biggest problem in Africa is the grinding poverty I saw almost everywhere. It's too large a problem for any one person to solve, and too large for all of us to solve in the very near future. But on this trip I learned that there are unlimited opportunities to help people and that there are countless people who desperately want to be helped.
Americans for UNFPA is truly helping some of the poorest, most defenseless women in the world. That help always makes a difference. Help always makes a difference to someone.
If you are interested in traveling with Americans for UNFPA, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.