USC public health program turns Uganda’s fields into classrooms

Uganda Public Health immersion

Cultural barriers gave way to goals and slide-tackles in Uganda this summer as part of a public health immersion camp led by USC students and alumni.

If there’s one thing that brings people together in the rural Mpigi District—it’s soccer. So, connecting the sport to public health was a logical choice for USC Institute for Global Health Associate Director Heather Wipfli, who has worked in the region for years and developed the program.

Just outside the chaos of Kampala, Mpigi remains largely farmland. Despite the district’s natural resources and proximity to the capital, residents struggle to obtain even basic health services and education due to lacking infrastructure and other challenges.

Using soccer fields as literal common ground, the USC volunteers teamed up with students from Uganda’s Makerere University. Together they planned educational sessions and spent a week in the villages leading lectures, games and discussions with local youth.

Ranging from 9 to 15 years old, 1,200 children from 40 schools cycled between health lessons and soccer classes in day camp throughout the district.

The lessons covered health and development subjects ranging from hygiene to gender roles. Each camp participant received a workbook, t-shirt, backpack and school supplies; teachers were given lesson packets to recreate the camp activities throughout the school year.

In the soccer rotations, students trained with professional coaches and scrimmaged for a chance to move on to the final district tournament on the fifth day.

On the sidelines and in tents, the students huddled with the volunteer instructors for short lectures and engaged in activities like “tag” and dramatizations to better understand the health lessons. With the Makerere and USC students as co-instructors, the children had an opportunity to learn from various perspectives—and it gave the instructors a chance to learn from each other.

“My greatest takeaway was getting to see the easy carefree smiles on the students’ faces when we found that common connection,” said Master of Public Health online program student Kieshla Louchnikov. “I learned just as much from the students as they learned from us.”

It takes more than a village

The camp is a collaboration between the USC Institute for Global Health and non-profit foundation Ray United FC. The camp involves Ugandan organizations including sports NGO Edgars Youth Programme, non-profit Youth At Work Initiative and community group Twezimbe Development Foundation. Each day at the camp, nearby restaurants prepared food for the participants and staff.

After the camp, the USC volunteers spent their second week touring the district health center, local schools, health organizations and the Uganda Ministry of Health, where they met with then-Minister of Health Elioda Tumwesigye.

“In the end it’s not just about coming to a community to educate others,” said Wipfli.

“By working with local leaders and community activists, students learn the importance of resilience, cultural humility and building professional relationships.”

Wipfli and her son founded RUFC after Ray accompanied her during one of her work trips to Uganda in 2014.

To date, they have raised nearly $100,000 in donations which have been used to build a new classroom building at a Mpigi primary school, support the annual health-and-soccer camp, and sponsor at-risk high performing students to attend high school. This year, the Wipflis visited select schools to launch new RUFC Clubs and meet its youth leadership councils.

Aiming to promote community leadership and empowerment through sports, RUFC challenged Mpigi schools to pitch ideas to promote health and wellness and will fund a handful of programs per year. The students at these schools brainstormed ideas including the provision of sanitary pads for girls and purchasing lawn mowers to save the students’ time maintaining school grounds.

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