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.


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