I was beyond excited when I was able to secure a practicum with the UNC Gillings Zambia Hub. As this was going to be my first time in East Africa, I could not help but count down the days. I looked forward to my trip, the practicum experience and spending the rest of my summer holidays with my family (I last saw nine months ago) back home in Ghana. I went as far as checking on flights and almost booked a ticket. So, you can just imagine my shock and disappointment when the news of the rampant spread of the pandemic and the possible closure of the borders was all over. This probably has been the time when I have prayed the most in my entire life for normalcy to resume. I have had mixed feelings ranging from anxiety, uncertainties, boredom, and loneliness. The good news is that I have been able to make adjustment to my daily routines and faced the reality of working remotely from home.
For my practicum, I am working with my preceptor, Dr. Stephanie Martin, on the project “Engaging partners and families in HIV-focused postnatal care” in Lusaka, Zambia. This is a qualitative, formative research study aimed at examining the feasibility and acceptability of engaging male partners, grandmothers, and other family members to support HIV-positive mothers to practice recommended infant care and feeding practices, and to continue antiretroviral therapy. This qualitative study employs the use of Trial of Improved Practices (TIPS) methodology, a formative qualitative research approach. For this study, data collectors will need to be trained on TIPs and to counsel women and their families on infant feeding, care, and stimulation, and women’s ART adherence. TIPS involves an interviewer and participant together reaching an agreement on a solution or solutions having analyzed current practices and how they could be improved upon. Participants are given a trial period to assess the feasibility and acceptability of the intended practice. I am, however, helping to prepare the documents for the upcoming data collection activities and participate in secondary analysis of qualitative interviews with women and their male partners in Zambia and Malawi to understand the role of male partners in the prevention-of-mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT).
Regular check-ins from Dr. Martin and faculty mentor, Dr. Sian Curtis, have helped me stay focused and encouraged. To stay productive, I have a work schedule that I try to stick to taking breaks in between. In order to keep sane, I have been going for walks, visiting the lake, and recently started baking.
Amidst the uncertainties, I am grateful for good health, loved ones both far and near, practicum and the opportunity to be working remotely. I would say this pandemic is a blessing in disguise because it has made me realize that tomorrow is never promised and has taught me to adapt to situations, making the most of every opportunity. A note to my future self would be that “I am stronger than I seem, smarter than I think, and I am capable of anything that comes my way,” because at the end of the day, it always works out!