[cut] Walk through the Case Hall courtyard, look up and scan the six rows of cookie cutter windows. Distinguishing one from the next may seem like an exercise in attention to detail until your eyes wander upon something unusual. Perhaps you will spot a figure standing in a second floor dorm window, looking at you just as you’re looking at him and seeming more alive than the cardboard cutout of his body lends him to be. His plain dress contrasts his beaming smile that radiates through his eyes and accentuates his entire face. The African priest greeting you from a dorm room window is not the result of a lucky dumpster dive or even just a bizarre choice of dorm décor. In fact, he is the inspiration for something much bigger than adding character to a courtyard on campus.
The man in the cutout is Father Joseph Birungi, the inspiration for international relations sophomore Alex Hill’s non-profit organization, SCOUT BANANA. The cutout itself illustrates one tactic, which Hill has used to raise $67,000 for a health center within Birungi’s parish in Uganda. SCOUT BANANA, standing for “Serving Citizens Of Uganda Today Because Africa Needs A New Ambulance,” was started six years ago as Hill’s Eagle Scout project and works to provide basic health care in African communities for those who would not otherwise have access to it. Hill’s organization started modestly in his hometown of Grand Blanc, Mich., but has grown into a nationwide effort responsible for providing medical equipment, including an ambulance, to an area of Uganda that, like many other developing countries, lacks basic medical supplies.
Hill became inspired to launch this project upon meeting the human version of the cardboard cutout that now sits in his dorm room. Father Joseph Birungi traveled from Uganda to Hill’s hometown in hopes of raising money to build a health center to benefit his parish in Africa. Upon visiting Hill’s home parish and talking to him, Birungi offered Hill African drum lessons. That summer, Hill became Birungi’s sole drum student. It was during these months that Hill not only learned how to play a new instrument, but also became aware of the lack of medical supplies and care in Uganda and the pressing need for these to become available. Hill said Father Joseph educated him about “people dying because they don’t have one dollar for medication or because they don’t have any transportation to a medical facility.” [medical]
“I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world,” Hill said. Adopting the public health crisis in Africa for his Eagle Scout project seemed like the natural thing to do. SCOUT BANANA began with ambition with the first order of business being to raise $50,000 for an ambulance. The large price tag was daunting, but Hill’s innovative fundraising ideas, such as asking families to host life-size cutouts of Father Joseph, complete with a briefcase of information explaining why Uganda needed help, were successful in promoting and benefiting SCOUT BANANA. Hill spoke to more than 50 organizations, encouraged neighborhood schools to “walk the distance to Uganda” during Walk-a-thons, and within a four month period saw SCOUT BANANA funds jump from $3,000 to $67,000.
Bringing SCOUT BANANA to MSU made perfect sense to Hill. “There was no way to stop and say that my part was done and someone else could pick up where I left off,” he said. “This was some people’s only link to basic healthcare.” SCOUT BANANA’s presence on the MSU campus has become visible through its supporters wearing bright yellow fundraising T-shirts depicting Africa on the front and declaring, “I made a difference in Uganda” on the back. In addition, last year the organization held two open mic benefit nights and collected change, raising a total of $500.
This year SCOUT BANANA is working on adding a dance-a-thon to its agenda, as well as fashioning a supply of buttons to promote its cause. “I would like to see SCOUT BANANA’s ongoing pursuit to go around to residence halls and exchange pop bottles or spare change for a bright yellow banana to hang on a door to continue and be expanded,” said Sarah Schrauben, a human biology senior and active SCOUT BANANA member. Schrauben’s ambitions to practice medicine in the developing world made SCOUT BANANA a perfect organization for her to join. “I thoroughly enjoy getting involved with the campus and observing students’ reactions to SCOUT BANANA, and being proud of our resulting efforts,” explained Schrauben.
SCOUT BANANA continues to grow nationally as new chapters at different universities are established. While touring Europe with students from various places in the United States, Hill was able to interest his peers in SCOUT BANANA, and consequently recruited new members to start chapters at their own schools. Combined with active members from Hill’s high school who wanted to continue SCOUT BANANA at their university, new chapters of SCOUT BANANA spread across the country. Schools such as Miami University, University of California – Los Angeles, and Western Florida University all have SCOUT BANANA chapters. In September alone, four new chapters were founded, including those at Western Michigan and Loyola – Chicago. SCOUT BANANA is now a registered organization at over 20 universities in the U.S.
[kids3] So what do Alex Hill and SCOUT BANANA have to show for their efforts? Besides the ambulance, a 40 ft. container of medical supplies consisting of an ultrasound machine, furnishings for the health center and wheelchairs were delivered to Uganda thanks to money raised by SCOUT BANANA. Hill is continually researching the needs of the health center in Uganda and plans to make creating funds for those who cannot afford medical care SCOUT BANANA’s next aim. “Uganda is not like here where medicine is easily available,” Hill said. “Clean water isn’t even available. People have to walk a really long distance to a health center, and then walk a really long distance to get clean water, and then go home and boil it.” Projects to build community wells to provide clean water for African communities is another effort Hill is researching for SCOUT BANANA to take on.
Hill’s work with SCOUT BANANA has not gone unrecognized in the U.S. and certainly not in Uganda. Hill has been honored with the 2004 NetAid Global Action Award, which is given to only four young activists fighting for social change each year. NetAid is an organization that works to enable youth to fight poverty by networking youth leaders, encouraging education, and connecting youth with projects that combat poverty. Hill was also featured in Teen People\’s \”20 Teens Who Will Change the World” issue.
Aid from groups like SCOUT BANANA has made an impact in the developing world because in countries like Uganda, government medical care systems are poorly funded to the point of being unnoticeable. “These countries do not have access to very expensive medicines developed by advanced industrial nations,\” SCOUT BANANA advisor and international relations professor Rita Kiki Edozie said. “They have very immature, poorly resourced health care systems, and while they have made gains in the education of health practitioners, including doctors and nurses, their doctor-patient ratios is very high: 1 to 5,000 in many African countries compared to the 1 to 100 average.”
Hill saw the absence of government health care first hand in Uganda when he and Father Joseph happened to pass the scene of a bike accident where two men had collided. Hill and Birungi took one of the victims to a nearby government run hospital only to see him quickly walk back out, almost as soon as he entered. “They didn’t have anything to clean him up, not even bandages to cover the cuts on his face” explained Hill. “Luckily, Father Joe knew of private clinics in the area where a doctor was able to clean him up, but I remember looking into the window of the government run hospital and it being almost completely empty.”
After the medical care systems become more fully developed, Hill said the challenges of care and supplies are purely monetary based. He explained that although it is cheaper to buy goods and supplies in Uganda, the monetary means to do that simply is not there. In a country where the life expectancy at birth is 48 years for females and 51 years for males and ebola and cholera have been the most recent disease outbreaks, it is clear that there is no shortage of demand for medical reform. The decline in the prevalence of AIDS from 30 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 1999, largely due to commitment and openness of the government as well as the implementation of new testing and counseling procedures, shows that while governmental intervention can make a difference, a huge demand for medical care remains.
Although developed nations such as Britain have pushed for the privatization of health care in developing nations, \”asking poor countries to privatize all aspects of their economy, including their health care, medicines and access to health care contributes to the weakening of these countries ability to improve health care,\” Edozie said. \”Privatization of the health care economy would mean that citizens in those countries could no longer rely on ‘free’ government subsidized health care and formal, but ‘free’ education in healthcare.”
The inequalities between developing countries like Uganda and an advanced nation like the United States have become most staggering when comparing the availability of everyday necessities like health care and supplies. However, Hill sees the gap between the countries as more reason to help. “Everyone has the same wants and needs,” he said. “That’s not different. Everyone wants to be healthy and have a good future for their kids.” SCOUT BANANA illustrates these commonalities between MSU students and Africans and provides an outlet for relief. Hill said, “We may be separated by an ocean, but the issues can hit home pretty easily.”
SCOUT BANANA meets Thursdays at 8 p.m. in the International Center lobby. To get involved or buy a t-shirt, log on to www.scoutbanana.org.