Students + Campus

Lessons from Uganda

Peace Corps volunteer applies what he learned in the classroom at UCLA

Peace Corps volunteer Wayne Wong leads a class
Courtesy of Wayne Wong

Wayne Wong, a Peace Corps member who graduated from UCLA in 2013, presents health information to Ugandans. He is wrapping up a two-year stint in Uganda, where he worked on stopping the spread of malaria.

Wayne Wong spent three years at UCLA studying microbiology and globalization, never suspecting that he would soon be living “so vividly the subjects taught in lectures” and facing upfront the issues he and fellow students debated during class discussion sections.

With a yearning for some real-world experience after graduating in 2013 with a degree in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a minor in global studies, Wong picked up a Peace Corps flyer “on a bit of a whim, but it led to the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Three years later, Wong is winding up a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Uganda where he has been living and working as a health educator since June 2014. Before he leaves for his next adventure, Wong reflected on the significant cultural lessons he has learned while living with his host family, members of the Acholi ethnic group from northern Uganda. And he talked about the limited impact of a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program he joined as a Peace Corps volunteer to stop the spread of malaria.

While the strategy of misting the interior walls of homes with a World Health Organization-approved insecticide has helped control malaria in East Uganda, the disease has unfortunately taken greater hold in other parts of the country, said Wong, who helped assist Ugandan government officers who are running the spraying program. Their ability to succeed hinges heavily on government funding, he said.

“There aren’t enough funds to cover all high-risk areas of the country, so the fight is really one to mitigate damage, not to eliminate the disease. And we are slowly losing,” he said.    

Peace Corps volunteer Wayne Wong and his host family

In Uganda, which has the deadliest kind of malaria parasite (P. falciparum), children under 5 years of age account for most malaria deaths. “Many children who suffer severe cerebral malaria, but do not die incur brain damage and are mentally disabled,” Wong said. In adults, the disease drains both the financial resources of the victims and the country, striking during the rainy season when planting crops is of paramount importance.  

And yet the battle against malaria is underfunded by the government in Uganda. “Although malaria is transmitted from mosquitoes to humans in 95 percent of the country, the program dedicated to the control of malaria receives only about 2 percent of the budget,” Wong explained. He also monitored conditions to detect mosquitoes’ resistance to the insecticide.

Wong, who, as a UCLA student, spent one summer studying in Paris with a Kramer Global Leadership Scholarship, found that his UCLA education prepared him well for working in Uganda. “Studying at UCLA encouraged me to think in an analytical fashion, not only about the ‘who, what, when, why and how,’ but also the ways they help determine each other — the ways in which the ‘who’ can affect ‘when’ sanctions are enforced — the means by which the ‘why’ can affect ‘how’ a war begins.” 

According to Wong, Uganda is a stabilizing political force in East Africa. Led by President Yoweri Museveni, the country has arguably the best intelligence network and military fighting force in the region, he said. “Because of its influence, capabilities and generally positive inclinations toward the West (the United States and the United Kingdom specifically), the U.S. has come to depend on Uganda to promote stability and U.S. interests in the region.”

The UCLA graduate said he was impressed by the resilience of the Acholi community, the home of his host family, in the face of the long war (and child abductions) in northern Uganda, waged by the Lord's Resistance Army, headed by Joseph Kony. “My host parents returned to Gulu, the epicenter of the war, to resettle and rebuild the area. They are some of the best people I’ve met in Uganda,” Wong said.

One cultural lesson Wong has learned in Uganda is the importance of greeting and acknowledging the people around you. “Not greeting people upon their arrival to your house, office or shop is an insult tantamount to deeming the person unworthy of your attention,” he said. Another big lesson has been seeing the vast disparity of wealth among Ugandans. Rural villages may lack infrastructure and protected water sources, “yet Uganda also has shiny Walmart-esque companies, [modern] grocery stores, malls, mansions and fine dining establishments,” Wong said. “It is only the gap between the rich and the poor and the overwhelming number of the latter that is shocking.” 

The cultural lessons have gone both ways. His host parents, for example, were very surprised to meet a Chinese-American.

“For the first three weeks I lived with my host parents, they didn’t believe I had two Asian parents,” he recounted, “even after explaining my real parents’ immigration to the U.S. in the early 1980s and my birth in California. It was a bit of an effort to convince them that, ‘No, neither my dad nor mom were white,’ and that having a white parent wasn’t required for me to be an American.” 

With his Peace Corps experience coming to an end, Wayne is exploring new options for the future.

“Living in Uganda, I’ve seen the need for public health experts grounded in a background of medicine and practice, so I’ll be applying to medical school and a master’s program in public health to fill that gap,” he said.

But Wong’s yearning for global adventures hasn’t quite been sated — he’s also considering taking the Foreign Service exam and working as a diplomat for the next few years.

Still, he acknowledges, “As an alumnus living in as dynamic a region as East Africa, I’ve got to say I’m having the time of my life.”

Read the complete story on UCLA International Institute website

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