One of my heroes is Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and a pioneer of microfinance in the developing world. In his book, Banker to the Poor, Yunus explains why he left a comfortable job as an economics professor at a top university to establish a bank with branches in remote and impoverished villages in his native country of Bangladesh. Instead of studying poverty from “three thousand feet” above the ground, reading the latest economic theories written by other highly-educated economists who had never really experienced village life, he wanted to get a “worm’s-eye view” of what life was really like for the extremely poor. Yunus felt that he could not come up with a solution for poverty until he had first been completely immersed in the problem itself.
When I read about Yunus’s reasoning for giving up the creature comforts that he could have enjoyed in his life of academia for the “worm’s-eye” view the Grameen Bank provides him, it totally resonated with me. Because that’s exactly why I spent three months in Ndejje, Uganda, volunteering with Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence.
In Uganda, I was a total worm. By stepping onto a plane that took me 7,000 miles from home, I committed myself to adapting a lifestyle that I would never have fully understood from reading the pages of a book or an online news story. I went with the goal of understanding mental health in East Africa, and in the process I absorbed a million other lessons about a part of the world that is as magical as it is heartbreaking. I learned that African women are strong – both physically and mentally, carrying babies on their backs, water cans in their hands and memories of violence in their heads. I learned that mushrooms are a profitable crop and are easy to grow in dark sheds that line the streets of Ugandan villages. I learned that children in Uganda don’t have access to free public education and that people with mental disabilities are often kept hidden from the community due to shame. Last but certainly not least, I learned that there are few greater feelings than seeing your local soccer team walk away from a win on the village field, sugar cane in hand, mouths in perma-smiles that won’t fade until late into the evening.
In a few days, I will once again assume the role of a worm. This time, it will be in Trujillo, Peru, where I will be volunteering for a month with a program called PASEO (Psychology and Spanish Elective Opportunity). PASEO operates in Trujillo’s second-largest district, known as El Porvenir, where there is a great need for improved access to mental health care. A large majority (70%) of the residents of El Porvenir are migrants from other regions of Peru and many have been victims of political terrorism by groups such as Shining Path. They have often suffered various types of social, economic or political marginalization as well as direct physical and psychological abuse. PASEO reports that “other risk factors facing this population include unsafe work conditions, inadequate housing, limited access to health care and social services, low rates of literacy and limited educational attainment.”
During my time with PASEO, I will learn about the challenges faced by the El Porvenir community and improve my own therapy skills by participating in the program’s three core elements:
- Specialized training in Spanish for mental health,
- Service learning, such as leadership of violence reduction workshops or children’s after-school educational programs,
- Attending seminars on providing mental health care in low resource settings, working with Latino clients and the state of global mental health care.
I will also, crucially, be living in a homestay with a family in Trujillo. This part of the program is so important to me, as I know that it will help me really dig in and “worm it up,” as they say in academia (OK, maybe they don’t say that, but you get the gist).
As I imagine what the next month will bring, I simply can’t wait. I can’t wait to know what I don’t know now. To find common ground with friends I never imagined I could have. To learn how mental health care can be improved for a population in need, and to apply lessons from Trujillo as I begin working with the Latino community in Los Angeles.
Basically, I can’t wait to be a worm.