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10 Tips To Know Before You Go: a guide to maximize your global health experience

by Judy Gbadebo
Global Health National Chair

Before embarking on my amazing trip to Rural Ghana, there was not a single doubt in my mind that I would need to make a few major lifestyle adjustments. Here are just a few things I learned before and during my travels that helped prepare me for a smooth transition and warm reception.

“It’s better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” –Whitney M. Young

  1. Before you leave, take time to do your research.
  2. Learn the political climate. In times of discourse or economic strain, politics are a topic that will surely come up. At the very least, know the President and the governing body of your region. Be prepared to engage in these conversations.
  3. Learn the social dynamic. In Ghana, it is custom to greet everyone you pass by, every time you pass by. Learning common greetings and phrases can take you incredibly far (and give you something to do on the plane ride over.) It immediately demonstrates that you are happy to integrate into their culture rather than imposing your own.
  4. Be modest in your dress. Yes, the weather is typically hot and humid, but short shorts and spaghetti straps are almost always a no go. Think wide strap tank tops and cargo shorts. Blend in.
  5. Politely ask the locals before you act. Many people in the regions you’ll be working have a misconstrued understanding of your purpose in their village or town. Something as innocent as taking a photograph can be considered a serious offense. Explaining your position and purpose is always a great way to build trust and reduce suspicion within the community.
  6. You might be the first foreigner a majority of the locals have ever seen. Expect a lot of attention. While living in the village, I developed a fan club of 15-20 children (ages 2-12) that would follow my every movement, laughing, giggling, and chanting the phrase “OBRUNI” (which means foreigner) in unison. By day 3, I secretly wished for a cloak of invisibility, but I kept a smile on and decided to teach the children my actual name and learn theirs.
  7. Bring your home goods as if there were no shops where you are staying…which may very well be the case. Bug spray was a really big deal for me and if I could change one thing about my trip it would have been to bring more bug spray. I also would have picked up a flashlight had I known that electricity was a sporadic luxury.
  8. Be careful with the food you eat and the water you drink. I spent my time eating hot dishes, avoiding cold dishes, and drinking sachet water. I missed my fresh fruits, but not as much as I feared getting a horrendous case of gastroenteritis! On the same note, be open with food. This goes for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores. There is a very slim chance that the food provided will be able to accommodate everyone’s dietary differences. It might be helpful to bring protein bars for when your food options are limited.
  9. Hygiene is important. As the age old adage goes, wash your hands before you eat and after you use the restroom. Wash your clothes regularly to prevent bacterial, fungal, or protozoa growth from the moist climate. This is easier said than done if you have to hand wash and line dry. And although it is not so common now, you may need to mentally prepare yourself for ice-cold bucket showers. After two weeks, I began to convince myself that they were refreshing. Lastly, bring a few rolls of toilet paper. You want to be ready when nature calls.
  10. Visit your local travel nurse and get up-to-date on all of your vaccinations and don’t forget your antimalarial medicaiton. Consider bringing prophylaxis for upset stomach (Cipro) and headaches (Ibuprofen).

I hope you find these tips helpful. Remember attitude is everything. Enjoy your trip and stay safe!

-Judy G.

Judy Gbadebo

Judy Gbadebo is an MD candidate in the class of 2015 at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a B.S. in Biology and a Minor in Psychology. In college, she conducted research in the field of neuroimmunology through the MARC U* STAR Program, served as a peer educator and student mentor, and volunteered at the Student Run Health Clinic. After receiving her degree, she embarked on a 6-month pre-medical internship to Cape Town, South Africa, where she volunteered in the University of Cape Town’s student run mobile clinics and worked at a children's convalescent hospital, delivering healthcare to underserved communities. Upon returning to the states, she worked as a mental health counselor for behaviorally troubled youth, assessing the dynamics of mental health in urban communities. Following her first year of medical school, she traveled to Ghana through a global health internship, to conduct research centered on developing malaria prevention strategies for young children.

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