EP126 The Nachan Project with Gina de la Chesnaye

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EP126 The Nachan Project with Gina de la Chesnaye

Aman: Folks, welcome back to another episode of the I AM GPH podcast.
Today, we have Gina de la Chesnaye. Gina is the founder and director of The Nachan Project.The organization offers mindfulness-based practices for trauma and resiliency, as well as psychosocial support, humanitarian aid, and public health advocacy to the women and children of the Karamojong tribe living in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Apart from learning about all these amazing things that the organization is doing, we're gonna learn a whole lot about Gina today as well. Gina, welcome to the I AM GPH podcast.

Gina: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Aman: Lovely to have you here. Let's start with taking a step to what's happening now and you in school. So what made you come to NYU for disaster preparedness? Specifically, what made you come over here?

Gina: Well, disaster preparedness, global health, global public health, because I recognized that I needed to up my game basically and my skills so that I was better able to help others, help themselves. And so I applied to NYU 'cause I live in Brooklyn. It didn't make any sense for me to leave the state because I have a home here. I work primarily here, even though a lot of the work is global. But I couldn't just move to Boston or move somewhere else. And so I applied to NYU, a couple of other schools and some of the other schools I got into, UNC, but it was online program and so I chose to go here.

Aman: Okay. And then what's the experience been like so far since you came here? What stood out to you from all the classes you have taken or the people you have interacted with?

Gina: I'm sad that it's ending. I don't want it to end. I remember when I graduated college and I was like, "Wait a minute. There's so much more. Why would we stop learning?" And if I could, I would get my doctorate, but that's all time and money. But my experience here has been great.Most of the professors have been amazing, and astounding, and really supportive, and just really great human beings. And also, I like to think of my fellow studentsas my colleagues now, and many of them have been incredibly helpful and supportive of the work that I'm doing. When I've gone to Uganda, people have come and dog in house sat for me, or helped with different-

Aman: Wow.

Gina: Yeah, it's great.

Aman: That's actually so sweet. In the classes you have taken and you have mentioned right in the class setting, I feel that students... we become collaborators and kind of that's where a lot of projects happen and you connect with your peers. Is there a moment from any of these classes
that really stood out to you? Which one of those classes have you taken here where there was something, that aha moment where I am elevating, I am growing being over here?

Gina: I think it probably started with data-driven decision making because it's been a while since I've been in school, but I have also been continuously educating myself and attending conferences and workshops.And it just hasn't been specifically in an, I guess, rigorous academic setting, although I have done work with different professors and doctors around the country on the world. I did the Harvard training and refugee trauma and recovery and that was extraordinary.But I guess with data decision, it was me turning on a part of my brain that I love to access, which is problem solving. And I love it 'cause I'm like that kind of person that at night, I play like IQ games on my phone to actually like wind down 'cause I'm very competitive, too. So it's fun to be in that kind of setting again.

Aman: Problem solving. We'll get to your organization shortly 'cause that's gonna be what is gonna stand out to a lot of people. While in school, I'm curious, you're managing this huge project on the side as well, an entire organization. What is that balance like for you? How do you do that in this whole experience?

Gina: I'm tired. No, honestly, I am tired, but I'm also incredibly focused and driven because there's an entire community of people that no one is doing anything for, and I have privilege and they don't. And so I will be tired and that's a privilege, right? To be tired. To even say that I'm tired is a privilege. So I also know that there's an end point. Like I'm graduating (speaking in foreign language) May 15th, and so I just put my head down and just do the work that's necessary. And I learned a lot of that from being an athlete and a kickboxer. You just do what you need to do. There's an end point. The bell will ring and then you can rest. And also because there are urgent and emergent situations that need my energy and my attention and it's my responsibility.

Aman: This focus, you mentioned, how being tired is a privilege and being in certain situations where there are people that need me and I'm supporting that. How did you find that why of yours? How did you find that focus of yours? Does it refine over time? What was that journey like for you?

Gina: It's been really interesting, honestly, because there's times where I've definitely found myself, especially in certain situations, whether it's working in detention centers or residential incarceration sites in New York City or some of the places. I mean, the slums of Katwe in Uganda are dangerous. especially if you don't belong there, why would you be there? And there's definitely times where I've found myself in places and situations and just been like, "How did I get here?" And I think that for me, it's because of... I grew up in Mexico City. I'd go back and forth between Mexico City and Westchester. Both of them very disparate. My white family is blue collar. My Mexican family was upper class. Usually, it's the other way around, right? That's what people tend to think. And in Mexico City, I would see children begging on the streets and it made no sense to me. It still makes no sense to me, and I didn't understand it. I guess I've always been that way is like I don't understand why things are the way they are and I do what I can to try and change them. And so it's kind of carried over into my work with trauma survivors, working with youth in New York City. Again, that makes no sense. Systematic oppression, systematic racism makes no sense to me. And then in Uganda, in 2016, I'd done the Harvard Global Mental Health Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program. And couple months later, I was in Uganda. And actually, I was in Uganda first, and then I did in the Harvard training. And one thing kind of led to another led to another as it does, right? I also think that when you're on the path, 'cause I am a Buddhist, doors tend to open if you're on the path of doing things for others. And so doors opened and someone that I had met and trained in Uganda, I became friends with him and he invited me back. And I was there with another colleague from the Harvard program.And I went into the slums of Kisenyi and Katwe and what I saw made no sense. And I was just there just kind of witnessing, and getting to know people. And then maybe, I don't know, a few weeks went by and then I started to offer practice, especially in Katwe. I'd been working with the youth in Kisenyi. But in Katwe is when I saw suffering that I had never seen before. That made no sense. And so I can't walk away.

Aman: There's this powerful thing you're mentioning, "it makes no sense",
"this doesn't make sense". And people watching this right now have something within them that they see in the world that they want to impact that "it makes no sense. What are some steps in terms of getting a solution for these things or finding the path?" "It makes no sense, hence, I'm invested in this." "It makes no sense, I have to find a solution.
What is that journey or that path like?"

Gina: Well, that's why I came to NYU or to get a master's degree in global public health is so that I could have the tools to advocate through research and policy for change within this particular situation and in larger situations. And also because regardless of the amount of experience that I have, which is over 10 years of working in this particular field, if you don't have those three little letters... I mean, I have an MFA, right. But no one in an MPH, no one in a public health world really cares about an MFA. If you don't have those three letters, people don't respect you as much. That's part of the game, that's part of the system. And so to affect change, you have to be a part of the system, unfortunately.

Aman: Unfortunately.

Gina: But that's the way it is. And I saw it very clearly. My first year here, first semester was really interesting and really interesting to notice my mind and what my mind was doing. I went back to Uganda, came back, and I met with one of my professors who had been with the WHO and he said, "What do you need?" And I said, "I need to have the children immunized for childhood infectious disease." If I'm offering food and the little clothing that we can get and also mindfulness practices for the mother, it doesn't matter if they're dying from infectious disease. So he's like, "Okay, here, get in touch with somebody." Got me in touch with somebody at UNICEF. She helped me out with some supplies and that whole cycle. So having the MPH going to NYU opens the doors for me to open the doors to this community.

Aman: Tell us about The Nachan Project. It's what you stand for. Walk us through the whole journey of how it got started. You have alluded to a lot of the things you're doing right now and the experiences that have happened. What is it and how can people learn about it?

Gina: Well, we're a small organization. And since 2018, that's when I first was invited into Katwe, which is a slum or an informal settlement in Kampala. And as you mentioned, primary purpose is offering mindfulness-based practices for trauma and resiliency, which I've been doing for more than 10 years and which are evidence-based, as well as humanitarian aid, meaning food. During the pandemic and during the lockdowns, we were the only organization that was bringing in food, sanitizer, masks, as well as sensitization into Katwe. Meaning like what's going on? And also public health advocacy. So that's the kind of the main focus. We started with maybe 50 women members. Now, we have more than 250. So we serve 250 women-led households, which is more than a thousand people because we're also caring for their children. And in Katwe, in the slums, for instance, they have no access to WASH, which is water and sanitation. Disease is endemic, but we don't know how endemic, because there's been no full public health needs assessment, which is what I've been trying to have happen with colleagues at Macquarie University. There's no access to menstrual health hygiene. Mental health issues are pretty high because there's been a lot of trauma. The community that Nachan serves have migrated from Karamoja region. And for decades, they've experienced environmental disasters and manmade disasters in the form of flooding, drought, famine, and armed conflict. And because of that, they migrate to the slums and try to change their lives. They also have no access to education or employment. The women scavenge and beg on the streets to survive. It's unlike anything most people here have ever experienced.

Aman: I felt that, I felt that down to my gut. Including myself, we're not aware about this largely that this is one region that the problems are unheard of or we can't even imagine. How did you find out about it? Or how did you get to that, that you chose Uganda specifically?

Gina: I think Uganda chose me. I mean, like I said, I was invited in 2016 to actually co-lead a training at Macquarie University on contemplative-based practices for trauma and resiliency with the International Center for Mental Health and Human Rights. Small organization. But I was invited to co-lead this training. And then I did the Harvard training, partook in that. And because of that, I met other colleagues. I keep going back. I don't go to one place and then I'm like, "See ya," and take like poverty porn pictures and say like, "Look at how good I am." I go back.

Aman: Yeah.

Gina: I go back and I go back and I go back and that's what I did. I think problem solving, Like we were talking about, also includes the ability to watch patterns. And if you're a Buddhist, you're doing it more than in just this lifetime. When I was a little kid living with my grandparents, my mom left my father, we lived with my grandparents, and I used to sit and watch National Geographic with my grandfather and Mutual of Omaha, and I was fascinated. And I wanted to go and explore everywhere as much as I could. But I remember definitely seeing images of the Maasai warriors in Kenya and just being absolutely like, "I need to go." But it felt so far away. I grew up, as I said, with my mom and my grandparents mostly and we didn't have a lot of money. So this idea that I could have that life seemed impossible. And then doors opened and I went to Uganda and then I went to Kenya. and I actually have become really good friends
with some Maasai warriors.

Aman: Wow.

Gina: Yeah. Like I have these burn marks are from a Maasai tradition.

Aman: Wow.

Gina: And they've become like family to me. And seriously, like one of them, Dan, actually just recently got in touch with me and he sent me a WhatsApp. Everybody's on WhatsApp, you know? He sends me a picture of his face. He's like, "I got bit by a snake and I think I need to go to the hospital," and I'm like, "Go to the hospital." And he's like, "I was in the bush," and I was like, "Go to the hospital." And his face is like getting bigger and bigger and I'm like, "What kind of snake was it?" He's like, "Green mamba." And I was like, "Dude." It was crazy. It's amazing how much has changed in the last 20 or 30 years, the ability to have global friendships. I mean, the stories I could tell about hanging out with this Maasai are just like crazy.

Aman: Let's let's hear one of them.

Gina: I think one of my favorite stories is like, so the first time I met Dan, he and his brother Eric, they're both sons of the chief of this tribe. And Eric will one day be the chief. They have different mothers. I think they liked hanging out with me 'cause I was game for anything. So we were going up this mountain and I wanted them to teach me how to throw a spear. So we're doing that. And again, I kept going back. So I'd been back two or three times, spending time with them. Because usually after being in a place like Katwe, where some of the refugee camps, I've also done a lot of work in rescue centers for survivors of sex trafficking. And usually after working in places like that for weeks and weeks, I would go to Maasai Mara and say, "Please just take me as far away from humans as possible." And on this time, on this trip, Dan picked me up. I said, "Please take me as far away from humans as possible." And we went out into the bush and I got to see a leopard in the Savannah. Just like watching a leopard move through the grass is unbelievable because they just plow through it like a ship in a way. It's pretty amazing. And later on in that trip, Dan and Eric, we went back up this mountain that we used to travel up, to climb up. We all had weapons because there's wild animals around. And all of a sudden, we're going up and there's Dan, and there's Eric, and there's me and you hear like scrunching. And I was like... And I'm watching what they're doing because what they're doing is gonna affect what I'm doing. And I put myself in between them. And they have their weapons out and I was like, "What do we do if it's a lion?" And Dan's like, "You turn and face it." And I was like, "Okay." Like you have no choice but to be like, "Okay." And Eric picks up some rocks and he flanks it at the direction of this grunting sound. And then Dan's like, "It's a Cape buffalo." And I was like, "What?" And he's like, "I hate them." And I was like, "Noooo." It ran away. And then we went further up the hill and up the mountain. I mean, it's just like adventure after adventure.

Aman: Exactly. I mean, we can make a two-hour long podcast and all the stories from there.

Gina: It's fun.

Aman: Yeah. People have made it to this point of the episode are probably... You mentioned the MFA, right?

Gina: Yeah.

Aman: You studied photography. You studied literature and now this is what you're doing. So it makes folks wonder, like, "oh, how does a path of photography or literature get you into public health? How did your journey evolve over time?" You were in photography for a long time. Before the podcast started, we were talking about photography and looking at all the cameras over here. So I'm curious to hear your journey

Gina: Oh, I know. I had to check all the cameras. That's being a photographer that's also me feeling a little bit nervous and wanting to feel like I have some kind of control. And that's being mindful, me being aware of like why I'm doing what I'm doing and the running dialogue that we all have with ourselves. When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor. I think as most children do, many. And I experienced some pretty severe traumatic events myself. And then I became an artist, a writer, and a photographer. I've been taking pictures since I was 13. I've been writing since I was 13. I became an artist to be able to figure out and understand my own pain and also so that I could share not necessarily my own experience, but share the experience of pain with others so that others wouldn't feel as alone because it's about connection, right? It's when we feel disconnected that we suffer. And we're all looking to feel safe and we're all looking to feel connected. I wanted to be a Magnum photographer. Who doesn't wanna be a Magnum photographer? I wanted to be a photojournalist. And I'm a good photographer. And the aspect that I love about photography is that you're just completely in the zone. It's just like also being an athlete. You're in the zone. You're not thinking about anything else. You're just completely witnessing, which is also like mindfulness, right? But I couldn't take images of people suffering without doing something about it. It felt wrong, and like wrong, you know, like exploitive. And so then I kind of migrated more towards doing like fine arts and all of that. And as I said, I got my MFA. And I just hated the game. I hated the gallery game. I hated feeling like you had to suck up to somebody to get a show.I mean, it's in everything really that's like its own endemic issue. And now with the work that I'm doing, I can offer skills to communities to heal themselves. I just had a conversation this morning with another friend of mine and she's like, "You're a healer," and I was like, "No, I'm not. No I'm not. I offer skills for people to heal themselves," I don't wanna be anybody's guru. No, like no hierarchy at all. And even when I'm offering, and which is one of the things that kind of drives me a little bit nuts about classes here is like, there's like the front and the back. I always sit in the front so I can be really focused, but it's much better when it's in that circle. And you can have conversations and dialogue with everybody and no one's in a different position or a higher position. So now, all of it's come together. I can share practices with people to be able to heal themselves from trauma. I can advocate for people who don't have a voice, and I can utilize the images and the words that I write based on their experiences to help them get the help that they need. It finally has come all together. This last trip was a little intense, the one when I was there in January and February. And I started shooting the documentary last summer in July and August. And it honestly felt like all parts of my life had come together and I was firing on all cylinders and it felt great. Do you know what I mean?

Aman: Indeed. I'm hoping a lot of people who listen to this will experience something like that one day as well. What is the purpose of what I'm doing? It feels like the pieces of the puzzle are missing and it sounds like, "oh, this is what I've been meaning to do. This is why I did that. This is why I did that. And that's what this moment was created for." Does it kind of feel like that?

Gina: Yeah. It comes together. It all goes back to me sitting and watching National Geographic, Mutual of Omaha with my grandfather, and even further back to... Well, I guess that was a little bit before. But even me experiencing the trauma that I've experienced is what led me to heal myself and then offer those tools to others. It all comes together if we allow it to and also have to push for it. I don't think I've ever worked as hard as I have in this last couple of years.

Aman: It seems like a mixture of focus plus allowing, so a surrender yet focus.

Gina: Well, surrender's a really interesting word 'cause, honestly, I remember hearing that in a yoga class. I'm also a yoga teacher. And somebody was saying that in a yoga class that I wanted to be like, "Don't tell me to surrender." First of all, last thing you ever wanna say to a trauma survivor, honestly, but that's why I like the word "allow". There's much more agency.

Aman: Oh, very interesting. Yeah.

Gina: "Allow".

Aman: "Allow" seems more controls and that you have some autonomy over it
and surrender feels like giving up in essence.

Gina: Right, right.

Aman: Wow, very interesting way to look at it. What's next, Gina? You're graduating. It's your final semester. What's next?

Gina: We need funding. Now that the majority of my time isn't gonna be on writing papers and things like that, which I really enjoy actually. I love the methodical process of it. I find it very calming because sitting on my couch and writing a paper is a necessary component, but very different part of the work of like being on the field and like... When you're on the field, especially in Katwe, like you have to be aware of what's going on at all times with people and what they need and also people that may be coming in. It's a different component. And so writing papers... deadlines can be stressful, but it is quite peaceful. So for me, what's next is finding funding and to continuing to advocate. And also, we're cutting a demo reel right now of the documentary and continuing to do what I can for this population, which I'm not gonna stop doing.

Aman: Folks, we're gonna link everything in the description of The Nachan Project.  Gina, this was a pleasure. Thank you for educating us and sharing your insights on this entire experience.

Gina: Thank you for having me. It's an honor.