Africa in Our Lives: Kevin Gibbons

This summer, the African Studies Program is offering several Undergraduate Internship Awards for students completing a summer internship at one of four approved programs in Africa. We spoke to Kevin Gibbons, the executive director at one of our internship programs in Uganda, about his vision for his organization Health Access Connect and why students should consider a summer internship there.

Field of Study: Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, Geography
Hometown: Tampa, Florida

“It’s important to me that we do [our work] in a way that puts the needs of communities front and center, and also that helps to strengthen the Ugandan health system.” -K. Gibbons (Submitted photo)
What brought you to Madison?

I was looking for a graduate program in environmental studies after serving in that US Peace Corps Philippines (2004-07), and UW was a great fit!

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I like running and baking (not at the same time). Running is meditative for me, and I always feel better about life after a nice run outside. Baking is tactile and tangible — and difficult! I like making big loaves of sourdough bread with a thick crust. They don’t always turn out well, but I always eat them!

What made you decide to study Africa?

After living in the Philippines, I knew that I wanted to research and work in rural areas of the Global South, and I wanted to go some place different to build on my experience. Based on advice from a Peace Corps supervisor, I decided to take Swahili and look into East Africa, and that’s where I looked for research topics.

Tell us a bit about your past research.

I did research in Ugandan Lake Victoria fishing communities on fisheries management and the migratory lifestyles of fisherfolk. I was interested in how fisheries management took local livelihoods into account and how the need to migrate to find fish affected people’s everyday lives.

Why did you decide to start Health Access Connect?

In the interviews for my research, I asked about people’s quality of life. Were they happy? Did they enjoy living in the fishing villages? By and large, people said that life is difficult in these villages, and, though I didn’t ask questions about health, many people talked about the difficulty of getting healthcare. There are high prevalence rates of HIV in these areas, and interviewees told me that many people were still dying of HIV/AIDS even though anti-retroviral medication was available for free just a few miles away. So, I just kept talking to local people, health officials, and friends about this problem of access: there is healthcare available in towns and cities, but people in the rural villages can’t afford the transportation to reach there. So what can we do?

Gibbons with a motorcycle taxi driver in Uganda. (Submitted photo)

Tell us about your vision or goals for the organization.

Our mission is to link Ugandans living in remote areas with healthcare resources.

We use motorcycle taxis to set up monthly, 1-day comprehensive health clinics in remote villages. If the health center doesn’t have transportation, then we microfinance a motorcycle taxi or boat. That vehicle helps to bring Ugandan health workers to the villages, and our partner community groups collect money (~$0.55) from each patient to cover the transportation costs of the 1-day clinic (~$23).

It’s important to me that we do it in a way that puts the needs of communities front and center, and also that helps to strengthen the Ugandan health system. I get annoyed seeing foreign aid money spent on projects that waste money, fail to engage with stakeholders, and don’t help to improve local institutions. So, we try to avoid that stuff!

What is one of the favorite parts of your job?

I love that my work feels meaningful and exciting. I think what we’re doing is cool! And our way of working seems to help address an important issue in fighting global inequality (access to healthcare) while improving the ability of the Ugandan health system to serve its people.

On a personal level, I like that my job mixes field work with office work. I spend about 1 week per month in the villages and then spend the rest of the month trying to figure out how to run and grow a nonprofit organization. It’s difficult! There’s a lot of uncertainty. But I believe I’m pursuing exactly what I should be, and for that I feel fortunate!

Why should undergraduate students consider a summer internship at Health Access Connect?

Since we’re still a small, growing organization, there are a lot of places where a deducted person can help out and make a meaningful contribution. And we spend a lot of time working in remote villages, so people who work with us gain experience working on a wide variety of environments. Plus it’s fun!

To apply for an internship at Health Access Connect or one of our other approved organizations, visit our Undergraduate Internship Awards page. Applications are due Sunday, February 19.

Click here to view more “Africa in Our Lives” profiles.