Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A little work, a little play

Written July 26, 2009

In the past two weeks, I have visited Queen Elizabeth National Park (the play) to the west and a district called Kumi to the east (the work).
Queen Elizabeth was a fun outing with some of the interns. A budget safari with budget accommodations. Not that I’m complaining in the least. Our safari vehicle was no different than the taxis that we take through town. Since taxi windows are not designed for animal viewing, all 11 of us hopped on the top of the taxi for a panoramic view. The views were spectacular. The feeling of sitting on metal bars on top of a bumpy taxi was not. In fact, after two days’ worth of game drives, we all felt quite bruised in the backside. But the views were worth it. Seriously, I think our method beat sitting inside a typical jeep. And I must add that the discomfort of the drive was completely cancelled out by the extreme comfort of a HOT shower. Yes, the hostel we stayed in had a water heater! One of the best feelings in the world. I mean it.
The ride took about 8 hours each way (despite the 4 hour estimate we were given). Since we’ve travelled most weekends, such long taxi/ bus rides have really become a way of life. My favorite part is what you might call the “rest stops.” I feel that only a video camera could do the situation justice, but basically, you get to a certain point and uniformed men and women literally run/ sprint to the taxi carrying various food items. From all directions, sticks with meat, chicken, and liver get thrust in the windows and shoved in your face as the vendors try to get you to buy. Fried bananas, water bottles, etc. Chaos. The nourishment is sometimes quite welcome, though. I really wish I could video it because it because it is the image rather than the situation itself that is priceless.

July 22 through July 26 was spent in Kumi District in eastern Uganda. Jo and I went to do some field work with our NGO. This region is currently experiencing widespread drought and famine. After spending weeks mobilizing food and clothing donations from a giant market in Kampala, we travelled to Kumi to distribute the donations and also survey the situation there. Surprisingly, despite the drought, it rained every day we were there. We were praised for bringing the rains with us. It’s a good thing my Ugandan name means “fortune.” Hopefully the rains will stay.
It was really interesting and heart-wrenching to observe life and living conditions in this part of the country. Very different from Kampala. And of course very different from home, too. Although we stayed with a family in a relatively large mud house with a tin roof, mud huts with grass ceilings and a diameter of about 8 or 9 feet are the norm.
We went around to various communities and homes to talk to people there. Some of the stories are really touching. We spoke to a 53 or 63-year old woman (her ID and her statement didn’t line up) who is infected with HIV and has 3 infected children. We saw a woman of about 100 years who struggled to sit up outside her hut, but managed to muster out in her language some of her needs. A mosquito net, a mattress, etc. It is clear that these people are in fact facing a bad condition. Driving through the area, you can see the dried up crops. All people we interviewed said similar things about having relied on farming their gardens in the past, but being stuck now with no source of income.
We distributed lots of our donations in a struggling village called Oseera. Things were, to put it simply, hectic. Quite frustrating and overwhelming at times. It was clear that these people are indeed in strong need. Not that what we donated made much of a drop in the ocean, but it is amazing to see how eager people are to get a cupful each of flour and beans. When we gave out the clothes, people went crazy. Lots of pushing and grabbing. I’m now that much more aware that successful charity work of this type takes careful, careful planning.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the visit was sitting in a circle with some Oseera elders drinking from a communal pot of local brew. A very African tradition in which I’m glad I got to take part. Yes, I did sip from the pot. If you can’t picture it, imagine a big stationary pot of warm foamy beer with 5 or 10 windy, meter-long straws hanging out and getting passed along. Pretty good, I may add. This was a good opportunity to sit and chat with village members about all sorts of issues. Of course, the first thing I wanted to talk about was the details of this brew-drinking tradition. It is taken every day by the elders (about 40 and above). I was told that in light of the famine, elders often take brew as their lunch to save food for their kids. Shocking… But it remains an issue of interest to me whether the money spent on brew could be put toward actual food. Or if the millet used in the brew could be used to make bread. We talked of hunger (of course), marriage and polygamy (a conversation I somehow get wrapped up in very often), parent/ child relationships, and more. A pretty relaxed environment in which to chat.
We asked them what tends to be discussed around the pot. They answered that they discuss a variety of community issues. I’d love to sit in on one of those meetings.
It is worth noting that as we drove away from this “get-together” in our pickup, the guys (all men) I was with let me know that I had gone against African tradition by sitting in a chair. Apparently, women are meant to sit on the ground, especially if a man does not have a seat. Sure enough, I thought back and realized As in hindsight that I was in fact the only female with a chair. Honestly, if I had known before, I’m not sure what I would have done. I feel like more of a feminist here than I have been before. The thing, though, is that when it comes to views on women, everything is so intimately tied to culture, tradition, and history, so it’s not such a straightforward issue. Which is why I find this an interesting, if also frustrating, discussion.
The ride home to Kampala was an adventure as always. The 6-hour ride was bumpy as usual. This time, we had the very last row and I was seriously concerned that my head was going to hit the ceiling as we bounced down the road. I was thinking, though, if it was bad for me, it must have been worse for the poor chicken under my seat. Yes, there was lots of poultry and other animals on this journey. One of the chickens belonged to our group. I have to laugh at how quickly such foreign practices come to seem so normal.

Off topic, but before signing off, I want to mention discuss how happy I am that I came abroad with AIESEC of all organizations. It allows you to meet and connect with people from all over the world which I find so perfect. I now have friends from: England, the Netherlands, Japan, Egypt, Sweden, Canada, France, Rwanda, and more. And of course, lots of friends from Uganda. Despite the [many] associated challenges, the fact that this is a student organization makes it really easy to connect to people. As I sat at dinner with about 10 people the other night and realized that no two people were from the same country, I had a corny song we sang in an elementary school (6th grade I believe) concert running through my head. [Picnic of the World: “…All sitting at the same big picnic with the same big blanket eating hamburgers and sandwiches…”] (Anyone remember it?!)

On that uplifting and corny note I bid farewell. 7 ½ weeks down and 2 to go! See you soon.


Thursday, July 16, 2009


Written July 6 - 11

Things are going quite swimmingly now. I have become accustomed to 10:00 dinner, taxi rides, bargaining with boda boda drivers, and my permanently dirty feet. I am still not used to cold showers and I really miss iced coffee.

I have not written in a long time and have lots to say (note the time span above). For the skimmers out there, enjoy the subtitles.

Uganda turned into the Unites States for a bit on July 4. Happy Independence Day everyone. I went to an event at the American Recreation Center. There was a barbecue and fireworks. With the exception of the tribal dances we watched as entertainment, I felt like I could have been at home celebrating the 4th. Hotdogs and hamburgers, a kid with a football (no, not a soccer ball), and mothers spraying bug spray on their kids. Very American. Jo came along. Imagine… they let her in even though we were celebrating our independence from her own country…

Actually the United States’ presence is felt almost every day thanks to the African roots of our president. I still find it hysterical to see… “Obama Supermarket,” the “Obama Hair Salon,” and my personal favorite… the “Barack Obama Street Ghetto.” (the first are actual names; the last is graffiti). I’ve bough chapati from “Obama Smart Takeaway” and have had a soda opened with an Obama bottle opener. Then there are the Obama bracelets, belt buckles, and scarves. I may try to determine the most ridiculous item and then take it home as a souvenir.

To finish off the July 4 weekend, I went with Jo and Isaac to Jinja in the East. Highlights were seeing the source of the Nile, visiting the absolutely beautiful Bujagali Falls, and experiencing a 3-person boda ride to get from one to the other (certainly illegal). The lowlight was the 2-hour taxi ride home where about half of my behind and three quarters of my back had a place to rest. Did I mention the resting part was on a metal bar and the ride was bumpy… Something that made me laugh out loud was that just when you thought this little taxi was filled to capacity (actually, officially past capacity), the conductor opens the door and lets a mother, her baby, and her toddler on. I think I exclaimed, “You have to be kidding me,” pretty loudly. When it comes to public transportation, though, anything goes. (Did I mention how many people we almost ran over as we drove down the shoulder of the road to bypass traffic?)

On to work… I am so grateful for the NGO I ended up in. It is seriously perfect for me. We have done very varied work. No day is exactly like any of the others. As I mentioned earlier, they describe themselves as a family and I have been welcomed with very, very open arms. Jo has now been welcomed too. She joined me working there recently. These people are not only an inspiration due to their vision, but also some of the most hysterical, charismatic, fun people I have ever met. A superb combination.

Selected things I have done so far:

I’ve visited many schools with the team to discuss HIV/ AIDS and life skills. The character of the schools vary. Some large some small. Some primary some secondary. Some groups clearly more knowledgeable than others. The largest group I’ve encountered so far I estimated to have about 175 kids. A good challenge.
Speaking about HIV and AIDS in primary and secondary schools is enlightening. Judging by the questions we get, there are so many misconceptions. Some deal with the US and the western world. For example: “Where was AIDS manufactured? Is it true it was manufactured in Florida, America?”

The hardest thing about the schools is the language barrier. Although all the kids we work with know English for the most part, many of them, especially the younger ones, either prefer Luganda or have a really hard time understanding different accents. So a lot of the time, I need to have a translator. When the language keeps changing, sometimes it is hard to keep up with the flow of the class.

In other words, condom demonstrations for large groups of boda boda drivers on the streets of Bwaise. I was surprised to see how little these guys knew about condoms. Again, I was unfortunately more of an observer since the conversations tend to occur in Luganda. But body language and tones of voice told me that they were eager to learn.

I have met various people with various medical and personal conditions. There are many but I will illuminate two of the stories. One is a 12 year old boy named Willy who was not only born with an intestinal condition that resulted in him having a hole on his side instead of the usual place, but also has Down’s Syndrome. He is the sweetest kid you’ve ever seen. It’s frustrating discussing the best ways to help him. His issues are simultaneously medical and social. He is not in school now. According to the story I’ve been told, when he was in school, the kids made fun of him and he had to leave. We visited the hospital the other day and the doctor said that a) despite what his caretaker had thought, there is no procedure that can help him right now and b) he strongly advises schooling. But he will have to attend nursery school with 3 and 4 year olds. In my non-expert opinion, neither nursery school nor school with other normally developing 12 year olds will be ideal for him in this complicated situation. But the type of support he really needs in not available to him. When you can’t have everything, which part do you sacrifice?

Another story that touched me is that of a woman and her adorable 9 and 10 year old boys. All are HIV positive. But all were so upbeat and happy. The boys, I was told, know of their condition, but don’t necessarily yet know the seriousness of it. One moment that stuck with me was when I got a chance to look at one of the boys’ school notebooks. I had been told he was very bright. As I looked through and saw the neat handwriting and the perfect grades on homework assignments, I thought, here’s a kid that has so much potential—has everything he needs to go far in life… plus one thing that will definitely hold him back. That suddenly became a very overwhelming reality.

Okay, this is probably not my calling, but Jo and I did get to speak on the radio recently. In a couple of weeks, Jo and I are traveling with Vision to a northern district called Kumi. Kumi is a very impoverished area—closer to what you might call the “stereotypical Africa.” Currently, there is a famine occurring there and lots of people are dying of hunger. As Vision has done in the past, we are going to travel there with donations. We used this radio show to get publicity and encourage people to give what they can. When we got there—Surprise! Jo and I are the ones presenting. So we discussed our cause and got interviewed on air. Finally, I can check appearing on radio off my life to-do list.

I have officially turned 21 in Kampala! I had a fun couple of nights celebrating. I went out with some of the AIESECers and celebrated at midnight. Appropriately, we entered to a casino where I lost exactly 21,000 schillings to blackjack (you know, the game where you count up to 21…). So appropriate. The following night, on my “actual” birthday, the guys from Vision threw me the nicest birthday party. Complete with some traditional Ugandan flair. Lots of speeches and stand-up comedy (Did I mention they are hysterical?). A big local feast, cake, dancing, presents that were presented in a procession. And the highlight of the night: the presentation of my Ugandan name, Mukisa (means “fortune”). Definitely made for a memorable birthday.

That’s all for now.


Mukisa Meghan S. (as it appears on my Vision ID card)