Story from the field: “Someone Else’s Mile”

Someone Else’s Mile
By: Amanda Brissenden

While working for Engineers Without Borders Canada in Kisumu, Kenya, I found myself traveling to visit a variety of water systems in the surrounding regions. This often meant jumping on a matatu, the local public transport, and arriving in a new town to search for people to talk to and a place to stay. One day, I found myself in a beautiful town, fields full of green crops and tall twisted trees everywhere. There, I met with the chairwoman of the local water system and she introduced me to a young man who was visiting with a group of American doctors working at the local clinic. They were kind enough to offer me a place to stay and, with an ambition to pursue medicine after my undergrad, I thought it was great idea. The doctors later offered to let me follow them on their rounds through the local clinic. My excitement was immeasurable; it’s not common to have such an opportunity before medical school here in Canada.

In just the few hours I spent with them, watching them do basic procedures and adapt to the limited supplies, I felt I had learnt more applicable knowledge than in all the classrooms I’ve sat in. I believed I had been appropriately saddened by the limited supplies and how dire treatable diseases could be without the necessary resources. Walking home in the bright sunlight along a potted red dirt road I felt moved and inspired. All in all, it was a successful morning.

Fast-forward two weeks later.

Back with my host family in Kisumu I woke up at 3 am, violently ill. After hours in the latrine wishing for a cold porcelain toilet, I realized I needed to go to a hospital. Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya, so the hospital I rolled up to was a far cry from the clinic I had been visiting. Clean, sterile, chrome– like every hospital I had been to in Canada. I was admitted and stayed for three nights.

I suspect I was one of the only foreigners admitted at the time. Groups kept peering into the ward and whispering about the muzungu (white person) in not-so-quiet voices. When the other patients had guests, they would stare constantly, but not one of them ever spoke. I felt like an alien, hooked up to an IV, feeling pretty awful. On my second morning there, the doctor came around with a group of people following. He went over my history and symptoms with a little circle around him. I don’t know who they were, but one seemed my age or younger. I was mortified; I didn’t enjoy having my history discussed so publicly.

It didn’t take long for me to process– this was exactly what I had done to everyone in the clinic I had visited. It was what well-intentioned tourists and aid workers have always done while touring clinics or hospitals. Student groups work in clinics, assisting in ways that would never be acceptable in Canada, being given tours that would be considered a breach of patient-doctor confidentially. I felt disgusted with myself for invading so many peoples’ privacy.[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″]This was exactly what I had done to everyone in the clinic I had visited. It was what well-intentioned tourists and aid workers have always done while touring clinics or hospitals.[/quote]

Later, I was talking to a colleague about my worries, and they told me “just tell someone your name next time, then you’re not a stranger anymore.” I thought I should have told them my name, why I was there, offered to step out, etc., and done everything that would be done in Canada. Our ideas of privacy were so different, despite what I perceived as a shared experience. Well, I did go back to that beautiful town, but nothing I could do will ever leave me feeling good about my first visit.

As I reflected on the experience, it brought to mind the old cliché “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” I don’t entirely agree with it. You can walk as many miles as you want in someone else’s shoes, but you don’t know if it’s their second mile or their hundredth. You don’t know what hills they climbed to get to where you joined them. As I move forward, I keep this in mind. Every person has a unique history, every community a unique culture and etiquette. No matter how many experiences you share, everyone’s journey leaves different calluses. Next time you are faced with an unusual opportunity, take a second and ensure that you show everyone you meet the same respect you would expect. If you wouldn’t do it in Canada, what gives you the right to do it somewhere else?

By: Amanda Brissenden​

Biography: I am currently a 3rd year Chemical Engineering student in the bio-medical stream, at Queen’s University. I am intended to graduate in May 2015. I did my field work with Engineers Without Borders Canada this past summer.​

Amanda can be contacted by email at

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