Junior social work major Kelsey Nielsen did not spend her 21st birthday in a bar – She spent it in a bed in the middle of Uganda, fighting the often-fatal cerebral malaria, a disease Nielsen said she finds disturbingly common in Africa. She has set out to eliminate it by creating a fund to help children pay for treatment. Unfortunately, many of the children under her care at the Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja, Uganda, face this issue.
There, she spends her days as the orphanage’s adoption coordinator, talking to lawyers, helping children apply for passports and sifting through mounds of paperwork but somehow doing homework. Although she said she loves seeing orphans find new homes, Nielsen works to re-unite families through a program she recently started which aids poor parents. The Temple News caught up with Nielsen via e-mail to find out exactly how she does it all.
The Temple News: You’ve contracted malaria three times in one year, but this has not deterred you from your mission. What keeps you motivated?
Kelsey Nielsen: It had to be a freak thing that I got malaria so many times in 2010. I have friends here who have been here for three years and never once had malaria. I know what malaria feels like, but I have no idea what it feels like to not be able to afford treatment. A disease that is treatable should not be killing a child in the sub-Saharan every 45 seconds.
This is something that shouldn’t settle with me. [While] I can afford treatment, [some] families who are extremely poor have to watch their children die. This was the reason we started the malaria intervention fund, helping pay for the treatment of those who come to the hospitals here in Jinja, [Uganda,] with malaria but cannot afford medicine or blood transfusions. Malaria could never keep me away from Uganda. It’s a small price to pay, trust me.
TTN: How does daily life in Jinja compare to that of Philadelphia? What luxuries have you had to give up? What luxury, if any, do you miss the most?
KN: They are completely different worlds. It is really difficult to even try to begin comparing the two. In Philly, I am working, going to class, hanging out with friends, going to shows or parties. In Uganda, I am making trips to the local hospital to pay for a 4-year-old with sickle cell [disease] to have a blood transfusion, making home visits to the village and working on adoptions. Life is just different in the most unreal and awesome ways possible. I don’t really miss luxuries at home. I just miss family and friends.
TTN: Judging from pictures I’ve seen, I assume you share a lot of laughs with the children you work with. What’s the funniest experience you’ve ever had with them?
KN: Oh man, these kids are seriously hilarious. I think one of the funniest things is getting to see these kids dance. At 3 and 4 years old, they can shake their cabinas (butts) better than most adults I know. It will always make me laugh.
TTN: Many people were worried that there would be some violent reactions in Kampala, Uganda, after the presidential election in February. Were you worried about such things occurring in Jinja?
KN: We were cautioned by the U.S. Embassy to stay inside during elections. We stayed on our compound for five days surrounding elections because the opposition was threatening “Egypt-like protests” if the voting was rigged. Nothing too bad went on, some violence broke out here and there, tear gas was released on a few occasions in Jinja but nothing in comparison to the political/civil unrest in the rest of Africa.
TTN: What role has your faith played in your volunteer efforts?
KN: I would say that working here has changed my faith dramatically, hearing stories of those who have lost their families during the war and those who grew up in the North in complete fear of Kony and the rebels. People who have experienced terrible atrocities have every reason not to believe that there is a good God who loves them, but they do. You will hear them praise God in the same breath they tell you about the [Lord’s Resistance Army] coming to their village and killing their family. How is that possible? I wanted to understand this kind of faith. So the role my faith plays in my work here. It really is everything.
Marisa Steinberg can be reached at email@example.com.