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Cameron Norris - Medicine in Tanzania

A Glimpse of Life in East Africa

Hospital sign

A frightening sense of freedom overcame me as I step away from my family and handed my passport to Portland, Oregon’s airport security.  I had never really been out of the United States before, and now I was headed halfway around the world, alone.  23 hours later I landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport.  It was 8pm in Tanzania and 10am back home.  I realized on this dark African night that I wasn’t exactly in familiar territory.

A Projects Abroad employee met me there to take me to my host family.  He offered me the front left passenger seat (which was quite odd since we Americans drive on the right side of the road and in the front left seat) and off we went.  At the time I wasn’t sure how he found the place because Arusha doesn’t have much in the way of street signs, but sure enough, after traversing a few bumpy dirt roads, we arrived there.  I was greeted with great hospitality by my host family and roommate-to-be for the next month, which was a great relief to my jet-lagged and disoriented mind.  I gratefully took up offers for a meal and a bed, and slept like a rock for the next 10 hours.

On hospital rounds

The next month would be filled with exciting, fun, heart wrenching, enlightening, awful and wonderful things.  I have yet to find one word that encompasses my entire experience.  As a medical volunteer I shadowed surgeons and doctors in Arusha’s St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.  Another Project Abroad volunteer, Laura from Germany, volunteered in the same hospital as me.  Among other surgeries, we observed several cesarean sections, a splenectomy, a prostatectomy, and an appendectomy.  We also spent time doing rounds with doctors in the wards.  Most patients at St. Elizabeth’s are Masaai people and are diagnosed with TB, malaria, or pneumonia, or some combination of these diseases.  About 30-40% are positive for HIV/AIDs.  Doctors doing rounds would talk with patients and then give us a run down of their condition and its implications. 

There are a lot of sick people.  The hospitals are doing everything they can and sometimes it’s enough.  Sometimes it’s not.  There is no way I can romanticize this.  A lot of times it’s hard to take in.  A lot of times you wish you could do something more.  A lot of times you wonder how the doctors do this everyday.  And you wonder how they do it with what they have.  And this feeling sticks with you.  But at some point you also realize that a lot of healing does happen.  And sometimes you have a hand in it. 

Top of Uhuru mountain

When you go home you take with you some experience in medicine, but you also take an even more valuable experience of the human condition.

Volunteers are not restricted to their volunteer positions though.  As a resident in a Tanzanian home, I grew close to my host family.  They accommodated my roommate (Daniel from England) and me in their home and hearts.  If we had any troubles, we had them to turn to.  For even more support, we had the other volunteers and the Projects Abroad staff.

The most unexpected part of experience in Arusha came at the hands of other Projects Abroad volunteers.  With only twenty or so volunteers in Arusha, Projects Abroad was able to foster close relationships within our group.  I made friends with volunteers from England, Germany, Denmark, you-name-it.  Sometimes, I felt like I had one foot in Tanzania and the other in Western Europe, as I was introduced to both cultures simultaneously.  Most weekends we made our way to the Greek Club sports bar to watch some football/soccer or cricket (I’ve actually grown quite fond of both) with a refreshing Kilimanjaro lager before meeting the rest the Projects Abroad volunteers for dinner. 

View over the plains

Other weekends we spent hiking the hillsides of Arusha, visiting Masaai markets, or bargaining with street vendors for souvenirs for friends back home.  One weekend I was fortunate enough to find my way to the Serengeti with my English and German friends for an unforgettable safari.  When my time as a volunteer had expired, I ventured over to the adjacent town of Moshi, and climbed my way up to Uruhu Peak on Mt. Kilimajaro for the most spectacular view I had ever laid eyes on.  Sitting upon the roof of Africa was the perfect way to top off what had already been the wildest adventure of my life.

I returned to the western United States with memories that have intricately entwined themselves into my being.  I now have both medical experience and an expanded understanding of life in the developing world.  My story doesn’t end here though, it’s really just beginning.  When you leave a piece of yourself half a world away, it’s difficult to think that you won’t make it back there again.

H. Cameron Norris
Portland, Oregon
United States of America

Cameron Norris

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