August 30, 2017

A group of students from Public Health Without Borders traveled to Sierra Leone this summer, expecting to teach students about hygiene and infectious diseases, but learned some lessons of their own along the way.

The group had spent most of last school year getting ready for the trip, doing research and creating lesson plans about hand washing and infectious diseases, said Sunmeet Kaur Singh, a rising junior in Public Health Science. But when they arrived in the coastal town in the west African nation, a language barrier and the age of some students became obstacles. 

“When we got through the first round of teaching hand washing with them, it was like talking to a brick wall,” she said. “There was no reaction to what we were saying, they weren’t grasping the information.”

In Sierra Leone, the official language is English, but Krio, an English-based Creole language is the most common language spoken by most people living in the country. 

The team regrouped and decided to instead try an interactive way of teaching them to wash hands, she said. The lesson included a dance where students sang the Taylor Swift song “Shake it Off” as they dried their hands.

“We learned a lot about how to adjust and adapt,” Singh said. Students practice on how to dress a wound in Sierra Leone during a Public Health Without Borders trip.

Students from PHWB have been traveling to Sierra Leone since 2014 to teach health-oriented lessons to students at the Abigail D. Butscher Primary School.

PHWB is a group of globally-minded students working to educate and serve students in underrepresented countries. The group uses education to reduce health disparities around the world, while increasing awareness about good health.

The Sierra Leone trip is one of several destinations that students visit in the summer, including  Ethiopia, Peru and Bangladesh.

In partnership with the Madieu Williams Foundation, the Sierra Leone teams have focused their efforts on promoting hand washing, teaching first aid skills and educating local communities about malaria.

During the Ebola outbreak PHWB was unable to visit, but held a T-shirt fundraiser to help support MWF in its efforts and to provide rice to members of the Calaba Town community. 

In 2016, the teams returned to evaluate student access to clean drinking water and encouraged the local community to share experiences struggling with Ebola.

This year, the students chose to try and teach about water- and foodborne illnesses: typhoid fever and cholera.

A fellow classmate practices how to bandage the arm of Sunmeet Kaur Singh during a Public Health Without Borders trip in Sierra Leone. Students spent most of their time with the younger students teaching hand washing, but were able to conduct first aid demonstrations and taught more about the diseases they researched, Singh said.

She said that the experience taught her about the dire need for health education in underserved areas, and made her want to do more service work before going back to school to become a physician’s assistant.

“It made me want to do this work before I graduate and go to medical school,” she said. “Because I just think health education is so important.”


Related Links

See more photos of the Sierra Leone Trip on our Flickr page

Related Degree: 
Bachelor of Science, Public Health Science (College Park)