This post was written by 2013-2014 GHC fellow Kai Cowger, a Health System Quality Improvement Coordinator with Millennium Villages Project in Uganda.
Those who most intimately know me have said I have an overactive, irrepressible imagination.
I have realized it is both a curse and a blessing. A curse of finding myself trapped in an obsessive mind, a mind that can persuade me that the most dangerous fictional ideas I conjure are true. A blessing of being a fabulist, of making sense of the jigsaw puzzle pieces floating past my head and seeing the world for what it is: beautiful, haunting and vast.
I have found this imagination most active during my field work which brings me to some of the farthest and inaccessible regions in Uganda. During my most recent trips, I am in the field coordinating two programs which fuse two of my passions — nutrition and children. One, a food supplementation and malnutrition prevention program for children and the second, a community-driven neonatal death prevention intervention.
When my embarrassingly oversized, snow-white vehicle garishly displaying the familiar indigo “UN” logo tears across villages, whipping dust into the houses and waking the babies, I always find myself gazing amongst the crowds of children striding to or from school. I watch their eyes as we rip past, trying to see exactly what their eyes observe. It’s then that, against all preparation, my imagination runs wild from its cage once again.
Sometimes their eyes catch the whites of mine, and I see as their face turns from excitement to genuine curiosity. I can see their brains asking: “Where is he from? What language does he speak? What is his culture like? Will we ever understand each other?” A future anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist.
Sometimes their eyes completely forego mine, and they look at the tires as they roar past. Through the dust they observe the way the tires bounce and dip across potholes, and I can see them calculating the velocity of the tires, the diameter of the wheel hub, the coefficient of friction needed to sustain such high speed turns. A future physicist, mathematician, scientist.
Sometimes I spot them gazing not at the vehicle or my eyes, but at the swelling, billowing dust behind the vehicle. I watch them spellbound by the randomness of it all, the perfect mess of blonde dust turning into animals, planets, people, faces. I see them injecting colors into an otherwise dusty, unforgiving life. A future Nobel Prize winning author, poet, artist.
And yet, the cruel system they are placed in against their will from birth viciously steals them of their brilliant futures. Stunting robs the brains of future physicists the ability to remain attentive in school during Maths class, malnutrition drains the energy of the future anthropologist from the willingness to ask such wonderfully deep questions of humanity, and preventable, senseless deaths during labour or the post-natal period suddenly removes a future poet from the earth.
My imagination fuels my passion to serve these children, to extend my hand and help pull them out of this system they, nor anyone, deserves to be in. I know I will never be a physicist that discovers the elusive answers to our universe’s most daring questions, or an anthropologist that illuminates the common humanity among all of us to arrest such meaningless hatred throughout the world, or a poet that is able to transcend borders and cultures to force a tear out of the most jagged and stoic of men. No, I will never be any of those, but I know where they can be found. They are among the faces I see every day in the villages.
It is not only an altruistic, empathetic and moral responsibility to care for those that have been dealt such an unfair hand at life, it is also the shameful recognition that we allow these injustices to choke ourselves of having such needed additions to our collective humanity.
Each and every day that I fill out an autopsy report of a neonatal or child death I wonder — I imagine — how much this child could have changed our world.