Western Heads East still answering the call

For Western Heads East, an upcoming celebration is the fruit of a lamentation that mobilized the campus community to action.

More than a decade ago, Stephen Lewis – then the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa – visited Western’s campus for a conference of the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers. There, he mourned the inattention and limited efforts allotted to the HIV/AIDS crisis. While the Sept. 11 attacks, killing roughly 3,000, had united the world, the same number perishes daily in Africa, yet he has to beg everyone to pay attention, Lewis noted.

But Bob Gough, as well as other staff, students and faculty present, heard him loud and clear.

“What he said shocked some us. It even shocked a diversity speaker from the United States. She said, ‘I’m so ashamed I was unaware of (this).’ And, I think that’s true – to the extent of this (crisis) happening, I don’t think we had really let it in and understood the extent of it,” said Gough, Western Heads East (WHE) project coordinator.

This fall, the university’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa celebrates its 10th anniversary.

A decade ago, Gough formed a committee with other employees, expecting to start something like a United Way campaign, he said.

“We had to act and had to do something. We knew we wanted to send people, not just money, and that we wanted those people to come back and educate those on campus,” he explained. “We met with groups on campus to explore what might we do as a response, and we saw, in Western News, there were people (here) working with probiotic yogurt, which builds immune response and nutrition. They came to speak to us and WHE took off.”

For WHE, which has, for the past decade, worked to establish disease-fighting probiotic yogurt programs through community kitchens run by ‘Yogurt Mamas’ in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, there’s much reason to celebrate, given success stories that go beyond the disease-fighting and health benefits of probiotic yogurt, Gough said.

“It’s great to see the impact on the women’s lives in their local communities. They have been so empowered – economically and with leadership skills – by the health and nutrition they are able to bring. They’ve become leaders, standing up and speaking in their local governments,” he explained.

“Seeing the health of people change … hearing them talk about their children going to university … it’s just neat to see the shift in people’s lives.”

Gough noted the partnerships WHE has established with communities in Africa, government agencies and organizations, with universities, research institutes and the Western community at large has been phenomenal and it is a key to WHE’s past, present and future success.

“I’m so proud of the staff and faculty and students at Western and how they’re collaborating so well with our community partners (in Africa). We’ve had students from every faculty go on an internship,” he said, noting some 50 students have gone on an internship to date.

The group works with partners both on campus – Brescia University College, Housing and Ancillary Services, Lawson Health Research Institute, Research Western – and in country – Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization, National Institute for Medical Research, St. Augustine’s University, City of Mwanza and Tukwamuane Women’s Group, all in Tanzania, Orande Women’s Group, Nyanam Women’s Group, Kenya Medical Research Institute and Rachuonyo District Hospital, all in Kenya.

The next step, Gough added, is building on the success WHE has already seen.

“Scaling up is really a big challenge, growing by micro-operations, not big factories. My hopes for the future would include large-scale funding to scale up through East Africa,” he said. “I’m hopeful and excited about how WHE is growing, partnering and working with east African countries.”

And as Western turns its focus to internationalization, Gough noted, maintaining something like WHE and its approach to working with developing nations is worth keeping in mind.

“With the whole emphasis on internationalization, just as important as what we do, is how we do it. At WHE, we’re really conscious of respectful and mutual relationships – instead of just focusing on what we’re learning – what are we leaving behind is equally important.”