In high school, Laura Noble said she would never travel. Exploring other parts of the world just wasn’t on her mind or agenda. She had her friends, her school’s basketball team and volunteer opportunities wrapped up in a neat little package in suburban Sacramento.
Two short years later, she finds herself in Africa, poking her head out of the open top of a Land Cruiser. She’s on safari, breathing morning-fresh Ugandan air and feeling the warmth of the rising sun against her skin. She’s thinking about changing the world and looking forward with sharply focused hazel eyes.
The landscape is as lush and green as Oregon’s, but marked by distinctly African umbrella thorn trees. The Land Cruiser kicks up dust on its way past giraffes, elephants, wart hogs and antelope. Laura is alongside seven of her best friends and fellow classmates from Oregon State University’s College of Business, and together, they stand in awe of the beauty around them. Aleigha Mattison, a junior, remarks that it feels as if the group fell into a National Geographic magazine article.
But this group isn’t on vacation, and they’re not studying abroad. They’re in Uganda to address women’s health issues through a business lens. The safari is a quick break, a fun cultural experience, in between meetings, strategizing sessions and hard work with a nonprofit organization called Terrewode.
The College of Business students hope to provide microloans to the women Terrewode helps — women who are living with an obstetric fistula, an injury that occurs to mothers after a prolonged labor. The injury creates a hole between the vagina and the rectum or bladder. In most cases, the child is stillborn, and the mother is left incontinent of urine, feces or both.
In the West, fistula is easily reparable. But in Uganda, there are 1,900 new cases ever year and about 200,000 women living with the condition. Many Ugandans believe fistula is a curse. Because it causes a foul odor, a woman is often abandoned by her husband and ignored by her family. It’s common for the husband to pay to move his wife into a hut at the edge of her village where food can be delivered to her. She is not visited by friends or family. She loses whatever chance she had at an education or a career. She is alone.