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Interview: Joanna Brown, midwife

26 March 2021

‘One of the most difficult things is knowing just how many people are affected by health inequality’

I’m volunteering for a small charity, Jenga Community Development Outreach, in Mbale, Eastern Uganda. Jenga means “to build” in Swahili. The vast majority of our staff are Africans, with a few international volunteers like myself. We run grass-roots community projects like savings groups, agricultural projects, and nutritional training.

Jenga’s a Christian organisation, and we focus on Micah 6.8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We aim to demonstrate the love of God through what we say and do, to empower people to become transformation advocates and agents.

I’m a midwife, and I’ve launched a sustainable project, Every Girl — for every girl and woman to have safe sanitary wear. We train volunteers to teach women how to make sanitary wear out of what they have available, and train groups of mainly men about women’s health, asking them to become women’s health advocates in their communities.

The first time I remember feeling God’s presence and hearing his voice was when I was around seven. I was at Spring Harvest, a Christian camp, with my family. We were all lying down listening to worship music, feeling a real sense of peace, and I heard a voice tell me that I was going to be a missionary. I had no idea what that meant, and had to run back to ask my family after the session ended.

I studied theology before training as a midwife, and I wanted to do something that combined both of these passions. I first heard about Jenga when asking one of my pastors for advice. He was a trustee of Jenga, and also worked for the NHS.

I worked in a busy London hospital for three years after qualifying, before moving to Uganda. That gave me great experience, and I made sure that I had completed training with the Red Cross in subjects such as first aid and medicine abroad.

In Uganda, we had a full lockdown, which meant completing admin tasks from home and catching up with my long to-do list: launching a website for Every Girl and a blog to encourage women who are giving birth abroad. When we were able to restart training, we arranged smaller groups, and were equipped with hand sanitiser, masks, and temperature guns to make sure we were working in accordance with governmental directives for coronavirus.

It was a very strict lockdown, and, as there’s no social welfare at all, and many people were unable to work, they struggled to feed and care for themselves and their families. Our vehicles were used as makeshift ambulances, and to help hospital staff get to work, as no vehicles were allowed to drive without a special licence.

The internet has been invaluable. I mostly have access to technology, and use a WhatsApp group to send updates and prayer requests, and it’s great to have regular voice and video calls. I’ve been able to attend UK church services and join Zoom parties, which has been fun. The blog has been a great way to help women and families feel connected and know that they aren’t alone in their experiences.

I’m in the office most days, planning and preparing training sessions, completing admin tasks, and putting together posts for social media; then I go out into communities to run training sessions. When they can do the training themselves, I’ll be spending more time in the office, unless another project comes up. Our aim as international volunteers is always to do ourselves out of a job, and I am currently looking to hire someone local who I can train and hand the Every Girl project over to.

One of the most difficult things is knowing just how many people are affected by health inequality. I see the impact of limited access to blood transfusions, lack of necessary hygiene supplies — including safe sanitary wear — and the prevalence of illnesses such as malaria, which is the sixth top cause of death worldwide. The higher numbers of maternal morbidity and mortality compared with what we’d see in the UK are devastating.

It’s one thing to know this, but another to also experience friends dying as a result, particularly when we hear so little about this in the UK. Many people here don’t know the basic essentials of health education; so it is hugely rewarding when we can give communities this life-saving information.

It makes me angry that people die from causes and diseases that would be preventable if certain medicines were available, or if we had more research into certain fields.

Many expats left [because of the lockdown]. It was strange and sad to have so many people leave, but it’s also enabled those who stayed to bond and get to know each other better.

My faith is central to all I do. I try to continually come back to God for direction and ask him to lead me in what he wants me to do. I have to admit, that’s much easier to say than to actually do.

I’ve attended church since I was six days old. My brother and I used to always read the Bible and say prayers with my mum or dad every night. My parents were leaders on a Christian youth venture camp, which was a lot of fun, and helped me to get to know God from a young age.

I had a really happy childhood, and my family are very supportive, but I’m super-grateful to have also had countless other amazing people in my life, too, like my godparents, Sunday-school teachers, my vicar, mentors, youth leaders, and friends who have always supported, encouraged, and challenged me. I really, honestly, don’t think I’d be where I am now if it wasn’t for everyone who has spoken into my life in so many different ways.

When I was 17, I was quite unwell for a couple of weeks, and required surgery. It gave me lots of time to think and pray. I remember thinking, “Now I have to decide if I want to really believe in my faith.” Despite my illness, there were so many signs that showed God’s goodness and faithfulness.

I felt God directing me into becoming a midwife. As someone who hates being on the receiving end of needles, and doesn’t like watching gory hospital TV dramas, this probably wouldn’t have been my first choice of career; but I’m so glad that I did it. I’m learning to expect the unexpected, to continue to listen to what God is asking of me in each moment, and to embrace the adventure.

I love being with family and friends, spending time with God, exploring new places, singing, and dancing. Every Friday here at Jenga, we have praise and worship, and I’ve fallen in love with Ugandan worship — the singing, dancing, and the joy in what God has done, despite the difficulties we face.

I pray through the day as things come up, or it could be the little things, like seeing God in creation. I’ll often pray before I sleep.

As a natural worrier, I need to take things one day at a time. As Jesus says in Matthew 6.34, “Don’t worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

I would choose to be locked in a church with Mother Teresa. I’m inspired by her heart and love for God and for others. I know she helped to provide amazing care and comfort to so many, particularly at the ends of people’s lives.


Joanna Brown was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Instagram: @Jengauganda


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