Kelly McCain: Thohoyandou, South Africa

9 July 2016:

So far, I have been in South Africa for 39 days. It feels as though only a fraction of that time has passed, but looking back, we have accomplished an incredible amount of work. Just as an introduction, I am a second-year Human Biology major from North Carolina. The Center for Global Health is helping to fund me and 3 other undergraduate students part of a human health study done as a partnership with University of Venda (UNIVEN) here in Thohoyandou, South Africa. UVa has an extensive relationship with UNIVEN, spanning over a decade. Just during the time we have been here, we have ran into two independent teams of scientists from UVa working with UNIVEN on various projects. The human health study will evaluate the health effects of the use of the MadiDrop, a silver-impregnated ceramic disk, as a point-of-use intervention to disinfect drinking water in Dzimauli, a group of communities near Thohoyandou. There are two parts of our project this summer: evaluating how the MadiDrop works with water of different chemistries from water sources found throughout Dzimauli and following the growth of children under 3 years of age over the next 2 years, with growth as the main outcome. Our purpose as undergraduates this summer is to help the two post-docs and PhD student we are working with get the larger human health study started successfully and also to collect water quality and MadiDrop disinfection rate data on the drinking water sources people in Dzimauli use.

Every single person I have met here in South Africa has been incredibly welcoming. Almost everybody inevitably ends up welcoming us to South Africa, expressing their hope that we love their country. I always assure them that I do, then prove that I am trying to learn more about their language and culture by greeting them and saying goodbye in Tshivenda, the local language. I am often the subject of hysterical laughter at my mispronunciation, but it seems to be very much appreciated when I attempt to speak to them in their native language.

It has taken some time to come to any sort of an understanding of the poverty present here. I often forget that many of the people we are working with on a daily basis in the communities are very poor. Without exception, people seem to be happy and grateful for what they have. Now, that may just be how they present themselves to us, but it is admirable how kind and content they are with so little. It is a daily reminder to me to be more grateful – I will continue to think about that when I return to the United States.

I had never been in a place in which I am a minority before arriving here. It surely looks very different for me, as a white woman, to be a minority here than it does a black person in an overwhelmingly white nation like the United States. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what it means to be a minority with privilege, which is what I am here in South Africa. Most people are very excited to see a white person; one mother told me that her son, who was staring at me with a huge smile on his face, thought that it was a “miracle” to see a white person for the first time. It made me very uncomfortable, especially after realizing that that probably would not have happened if I were any other race. Especially in light of the recent crimes against the black community in the United States, I am realizing the weight of my privilege as a white American woman and it comes with the need to take action to support those not lucky enough to be born with such overarching privilege.

Our time here so far has been chock-full of hard and satisfying work. It has been adventure after adventure in places around Thohoyandou. With two flat tires and a motor oil problem, we finally got our car switched out for a better one. There have been many challenges so far, but it has been an amazing experience, and I am very grateful for this opportunity.

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