Telling The Story
A friendship that led to year-round research, service and advocacy in Uganda By Julia Love
Eddie and Josh's Story Continues
“A lot of young people are frustrated because there are all these barriers. You know you want to do something to help, but you don’t know how you want to go about doing it,” said Zhang, who graduated from Duke this May with Greenberg. “We felt that students were capable of doing more than awareness campaigns and fundraising. We thought that we could do something on the ground that really made an impact on the community.”
Inspired by a lecture on micro-economics, Zhang and Greenberg’s first idea was to sell malaria bed nets for a low price in the developing world that villagers could pay bit by bit. The project did not come to fruition, but word spread of the pair’s mission.
Shortly thereafter, they were invited by Duke professor Dr. Alex Cho to discuss safe motherhood initiatives with a Ugandan doctor over lunch. The conversation inspired Zhang and Greenberg to create Progressive Health Partnership (PHP) in 2008.
PHP’s mission is to improve the health of the poor worldwide with a comprehensive approach, helping villagers with their most pressing needs while also tackling root issues like education and finance. The organization recently received non-profit status, and Zhang and Greenberg have been laying the foundation to perform year-round research, service and advocacy—PHP’s three-pronged approach.
PHP gained momentum after Zhang and Greenberg received funding from the University to send a DukeEngage team to Uganda in Summer 2009. Suddenly directing a team of students and locals in a foreign country, the pair was off “on the deep end of leadership,” Zhang said.
With that first trip, Greenberg and Zhang developed a devotion to the country that runs deep, outlasting the summer commitment to service that is typical among college students and even their time at Duke.
The pair’s conception of the community’s needs changed drastically once they were immersed in it. They spent four days a week in local health centers helping provide physical exams, ultrasounds and antibiotics and other services to pregnant women with the aid of medical practitioners. In their spare time, they also conducted focus groups with villagers. Over the course of the meetings, access to clean and safe water emerged as one of the most pressing issues in the community.
Zhang and Greenberg took the villagers’ needs to heart. Upon returning to Duke, they began brainstorming a rainwater harvesting program, but it quickly became clear they would need a new level of capital to make their plan a reality. After a lengthy application process, they received a $180,000 grant to fund their project from the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Upon learning of the grant, Zhang and Greenberg were thrilled, but they didn’t celebrate for long.
“While we already knew we had undertaken serious work, the grant really raised the bar,” Greenberg said. “It upped the level of responsibility.”
Returning to Uganda that summer and adding rainwater harvesting to their existing safe motherhood initiatives, Zhang and Greenberg had a base of knowledge about the country, but the work was no less demanding. Each day, they encountered challenges that forced them to adjust their approach. It was leadership development in overdrive.
One day, Zhang needed a sharpie to mark bottles for sampling water. The trip to purchase the pen took him six hours.
“When you’re on the ground, there are at least a billion and a half adaptive challenges,” he said. “It’s just remarkable how many things go wrong every single day.”
Zhang said he drew from lessons he learned in the yearlong leadership development program Service Opportunities in Leadership to confront obstacles in Uganda.
“[Working with PHP] has completely affirmed everything that I did in class,” he said. “I was able to translate those lessons into a real-world, emotionally charged situation.”
To be sure, PHP’s ties with the Hart Leadership Program run deep. This summer, Seth Napier, a former Hart Fellow, will serve as coordinator for the DukeEngage team sent to Uganda to work with Zhang and Greenberg. Anastasia Karklina, another SOL student, will also intern with PHP in Uganda.
The centerpiece of SOL is a community-based research project that is collaboratively designed with a community partner. To this day, Zhang is deeply invested in the community-centered approach, striving to involve Ugandans at every level of his work. Indeed, as he noted, PHP is something of a double-acronym—it also stands for People Helping People.
To implement the rainwater harvesting program, Zhang and Greenberg drew heavily from local knowledge.
“We strive to involve the community in everything we do and every decision we make,” he said. “Our biggest priority is to be as humble as possible.”
Doing this work in Uganda has also showed Zhang and Greenberg how much two young people working in tandem can accomplish. PHP has given them a vehicle to test the theories about global health and social change that they believe in and take action.
Yet Greenberg and Zhang are quick to note that they still have a lot to accomplish in Uganda. Their work is just beginning.
“It’s a long road,” Greenberg said. “We don’t yet have the comprehensive system that we think is necessary to make a lasting impact. These past four years have largely focused on building the infrastructure.”
Now that their time at Duke has come to a close, Zhang is headed to medical school at Mt. Sinai, and Greenberg plans to apply while spending the coming year in Uganda. But they do not expect their impending lives as medical students to derail their work with PHP. They are currently devising strategies to continue their efforts from a distance. But they are certain they will be back in Uganda.
Upon returning to the country in the summer of 2010, Greenberg paid a visit to a shopkeeper he had met in a focus group. She was surprised to see him again. She had told him how desperately her community needed clean water, but she had not trusted that the newcomers from PHP would see the project through.
“She told me, ‘We hardly believed you last year when you all were asking us about the water problems and about how you could help. We almost thought you were joking,’” he recalled. “A lot of things there don’t come to fruition, so she was perfectly justified in her suspicions. It has been really satisfying to follow through with the program and to respond concretely to the community’s problems.”
For more information about PHP's work, please visit http://www.proghealth.org.