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Mozambique piques student’s passion for global and rural health

by Barb Boose No Comments
Luke Wenzel meets with a Women First group, part of an organization that fosters economic opportunities for women.

Luke Wenzel meets with a Women First group, part of an organization that fosters economic opportunities for women.

Peace Corps In the Southeast African nation of Mozambique, Luke Wenzel made some babies cry; learned to speak Portuguese; met and married his wife; and decided on a career in family practice, all during his work as a community health volunteer with the Peace Corps. “I miss Mozambique and think about it everyday,” says the first-year osteopathic student.

Wenzel has learned to follow his passions. His tenure as a computer programming major at Winona State University lasted one semester. “I wanted to do something that matters to me at the end of the day,” he says. He completed a degree in molecular biology and then participated in a three-week service trip in Tanzania, Mozambique’s northern neighbor.

“That set the hook in me. I’d never thought about the Peace Corps before, but I loved Africa,” Wenzel recalls. Months after he graduated from Winona State in 2008, he was on his way.

That decision was a leap for a guy from Viola, WI, population: approximately 700. His training included four hours of Portuguese every day, plus extra time he devoted on his own to learning the nation’s official language. He spent part of his two years in the Peace Corps in remote areas in Zambezia province, about four hours away from the nearest fellow Peace Corps volunteer.

Above, he participatesin permaculture training, an effort to improve ecological sustainability.

Above, he participates
in permaculture training, an effort to improve ecological sustainability.

“There were times when babies would cry because they’d never seen a white person, and I scared them,” Wenzel recalls.

In a nation whose government declared HIV/AIDS a national emergency in 2004 – a 2010 survey reported nearly 12 percent of the population between the ages of 11 and 49 are infected with the HIV virus or has AIDS – Wenzel also devised ways to help people understand the importance of preventing and getting tested and treated for the disease.

“That was a challenge, because a lot of the women aren’t educated,” he says. “I tried to talk about it in ways they could understand: If your house has shutters, a nice roof and a door, it keeps you safe. But what if someone bit by bit poked holes in your roof? That’s what HIV does – it attacks your body and makes you sick.

“I like that aspect – to determine ways to explain things that people can understand,” he adds.

Luke Wenzel returned from Mozambique with countless memories, a spouse and daughter, and an affirmed career focus.

Offering culture- and resource-appropriate solutions to local problems, like cholera, is critical. “You tell people to always wash their hands with soap, but many don’t have soap; they can’t afford it. So they can use ash,” he notes. “You have to come up with solutions and listen to people or else you’ll find obstructions at every turn.”

He also learned that lack of access to health care in Mozambique is similar to that in his native rural Wisconsin. “That’s when I decided on family practice. I’m interested in global health and rural health,” he says. He eventually shadowed an osteopathic physician who showed him the value of osteopathic manual medicine.

“In third-world and rural medicine, I’m not going to have a lot of medical equipment,” he says. “So what better equipment could I have than my own hands?”

Left, after Luke Wenzel gave a Women First health session, participants turned on music, drawing youth and inspiring spontaneous dancing. Middle, homes typical of Macuze, Mozambique, where Wenzel worked with Women First groups. Right, Wenzel’s "surrogate" Mozambique family negotiates with his bride’s family over gifts he provided for her hand in marriage, in the country’s traditional Lobolo ceremony.

Left, after Luke Wenzel gave a Women First health session, participants turned on music, drawing youth and inspiring spontaneous dancing. Middle, homes typical of Macuze, Mozambique, where Wenzel worked with Women First groups. Right, Wenzel’s “surrogate” Mozambique family negotiates with his bride’s family over gifts he provided for her hand in marriage, in the country’s traditional Lobolo ceremony.

Before he left Mozambique in 2010, Wenzel and Matilde da Conceição António Moniz Lemos, a staff member of the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization International Relief and Development, were married in a traditional Mozambique wedding ceremony in which he gave her family a negotiated list of gifts (the “bride price,” or “Lobolo”). As at all celebrations in the country, music and dancing ensued.

The couple and their daughter, Dianara, now live across the street from the DMU campus.

“The people of Mozambique are the happiest in the world,” Wenzel says. “Culturally, they believe it’s your duty to help others.”

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