Bearcats making a difference in East Africa

UC's Marian Spencer, NEXT Innovation Scholars and Engineers Without Borders to visit Tanzania

Chris Lewis made his first trip to Tanzania during his final year of residency training at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

Bright and trained in Western medicine with all its advances, Lewis felt he was ready to make a difference. Then the freshly minted doctor encountered the stark realities on the ground. His first patient was a pregnant woman who walked more than 20 miles from her village to deliver her baby. She went into labor, began hemorrhaging and died before making it to the hospital.

The experience that stayed with Lewis, now vice provost for academic affairs and a professor of family and community medicine professor at UC, led to his creation of the Village Life Outreach Project in 2004. The Cincinnati nonprofit partners with three villages in northern Tanzania’s Rorya District — Roche, Nyambogo and Burere — to implement programs to fight poverty by increasing access to clean water and health care and improving educational outcomes.

"We are making an impact in partnership with the communities that we serve,” says Lewis. “The communities are healthier. We have been doing this work addressing water, health care, education and nutrition, and it is making a difference. Even in our health care work we are not seeing the volume of people with serious illness that we used to see.”

Lewis’ passion has inspired about 800 Bearcats — including faculty, staff, students, alumni and professionals from UC, UC Health and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center — to travel to Tanzania during the past 19 years to lend their expertise and experience to advance projects, listen, observe and support the partner communities. Equally important to the service provided to Tanzanians are the lessons learned from Tanzanians — lessons of love, community, empathy, global citizenship — that transform travelers and enable them to have a bigger impact here at home.

This year the mission will continue with a trip scheduled May 13-25 and will include our newest Bearcats to visit East Africa: nine Marian Spencer Scholars, four NEXT Innovation Scholars and two UC students part of Engineers Without Borders.

Local media WLWT-TV and Local 12 News produced stories featuring the upcoming trip.

I am so excited to go to Tanzania, to even have the privilege to say I’m going to Africa is amazing.

Benya Coleman UC Marian Spencer Scholar

“I am so excited to go to Tanzania, to even have the privilege to say I’m going to Africa is amazing,” says Benya Coleman, a Marian Spencer Scholar, who is studying pre-med and hopes to someday become an OB-GYN physician.

Coleman hopes to shadow health care professionals in Tanzania, pay careful attention to maternal and prenatal care among village members and create a documentary and PowerPoint presentation with a fellow student about health care in the community.

UC also featured Lewis in Tanzania during a 2019 magazine feature.

The Marian Spencer Scholarship program, unveiled in 2021, provides scholars with undergraduate tuition, housing, service-learning opportunities, international study abroad and much more for high-achieving Cincinnati Public Schools students.

The University of Cincinnati’s NEXT Innovation Scholars program is a transdisciplinary, cohort-based educational program centered on design thinking and future focused innovation. NIS encourages UC students to pick up the challenge of discovering unmet needs on campus and in the world, and view them as an opportunity to create solutions through innovation, creativity and human-centered design.

The UC chapter of Engineers Without Borders is part of Engineers Without Borders USA, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that supports community-driven development programs worldwide through partnerships that design and implement sustainable engineering projects. It has enjoyed a lengthy partnership with Village Life Outreach Project and village members in Burere, Roche and Nyambogo.

“We are leveraging our students to perform needs assessments and research on some of our top projects that impact people in Tanzania,” says Lewis. “The Marian Spencer scholars are going to be meeting with community members to ensure that we are addressing all their needs as we prepare to open our new reproductive child health center.”

“The Spencer scholars are going to make sure that we are doing due diligence with community members as we are in the final stages of construction of the health center and make sure that we know what programs will be available in that center to provide the best care for people,” says Lewis.

Spencer scholars will serve as investigators for Village Life by speaking with village members about areas of need in education, health care and daily life. 

Micaela Bresler, director of programs for Village Life Outreach Project, says the NEXT Innovation Scholars will be focusing on ways to improve the nutritional program present in several area schools, feeding school children who otherwise might not have a meal during the day.

“We want a program that is more nutrient dense, cost-effective and sustainable for the schoolchildren in these schools,” explains Bresler. “Our NEXT Innovation Scholars will assess the ethnographic landscape to determine what foods people consume, how the current nutrition program operates and how we can make improvements.”

The UC chapter of Engineers Without Borders will examine water pump systems in the villages of Roche, Nyambogo and Burere. During the trip, they will transfer maintenance of the water pump in Roche to the community, as is customary when no further water expansion needs are desired by the community members.

“For Village Life, we never come into a community and act like we know what their needs are so from the beginning of our work we have always made sure that the community members are intimately involved in decision making, planning, execution, evaluation, and evolution,” says Lewis.

Learn more about Village Life Outreach Project and be a part of its work.

Featured top image: Dr. Chris Lewis in the center is shown during a meeting with village residents during at 2018 trip in Tanzania. Photo/Lisa Ventre/UC Marketing + Communications.

UC Medical and Engineering students and faculty trip to Tanzania with Engineers without Borders and Village Life Outreach Project. Safari at the Maasai Mara National Reserve serves as an end-of-trip treat for the group.

Sunset in Maasai Mara National Reserve near Kenyan-Tanzanian border. Photo/Lisa Ventre/UC Marketing + Communications.

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Bearcats making a difference in East Africa

May 10, 2023

Marian Spencer Scholars, NEXT Innovation Scholars and UC students from Engineers Without Borders are traveling with Village Life Outreach Project to Tanzania for a host of service projects promoting healthcare, education and access to clean water.