Sunday, November 27, 2011
Saturday, October 8, 2011
- I would like to study and become a musician.
- I would like to be a teacher.
- I would like to be a Member of Parliament.
Monday, September 19, 2011
A few PCVs and I are attempting to start a Uganda wide youth newsletter. This is the article that I wrote for our Peace Corps newsletter announcing the project and trying to convince people to get involved:
As Peace Corps Volunteers we are in a unique position to build relationships with the people who are responsible for the future of Uganda. No, I’m not referring to our government officials, development workers, or local leaders- I’m talking about Uganda’s youth. Let’s face it, whether you’re a teacher, health worker, or business consultant we are all kid magnets! We work and interact with youth in a variety of ways and PCVs describe their life skills clubs, games and sports programs, involvement in Peace Corps camps, or just hanging out on their verandahs with the neighborhood kids as being some of the most rewarding experiences of their service. Through our varied interactions with youth we are not only able to recognize the need for guidance and positive influences in kids lives but also the benefits that can come from listening to them and creating opportunities for them to become leaders. Inspired by the amazing kids in our lives and communities here in Uganda a small group of volunteers have joined together with the GAD (Gender and Development) committee to lay the groundwork for Peace Corps Uganda’s very own National Youth Newsletter.
The Newsletter will be for youth, by youth. It is designed to be an open forum where kids can express their ideas, opinions, and experiences regarding gender and youth related issues by writing and submitting essays that will be used as articles in the publication. By engaging with these issues through the Newsletter youth have the opportunity to think critically and independently, are given the space to develop their own unique perspectives, become leaders and role models to kids in their communities and around the country, are exposed to different viewpoints, and have access to positive reading materials. We are envisioning having one publication between 2 and 4 pages in length once every two months but will respond to the needs and wants of both the youth and PCVs participants.
How will is work? The Newsletter committee will announce the theme of the upcoming issue and related essay questions to PVCs. PCVs can distribute the essay questions to youth in their areas. Volunteers will collect essays and submit their top writing samples. A panel of judges will then select the best essays to be handed back to the committee who will create the actual Newsletter from those selections. The Newsletter will be emailed to PCVs who can then distribute copies in their schools and communities.
As you can see there will be a lot of opportunities for volunteers to get involved and help guide the project. We’d like to have PCVs judge the essays and select which submissions make it in to the Newsletter. PCVs should also feel free to suggest themes for the issues, essay questions, or anything that they feel would help make the Newsletter more dynamic. As the project progresses there will also be opportunities to add new aspects such as creating life skills activities that compliment the ideas addressed in the Newsletter. The opportunities are endless and together with your help we hope to explore them all!
Our goal is that PCVs will utilize the Newsletter not only to help foster difficult conversations but also to highlight projects and youth who make you happy that you decided to live in a mud hut for two years. We know that you have a lot to be proud of and we want to help you brag. With the theme of each issue you will receive essay questions but we also encourage PCVs to make the project work for you. Feel free to interview youth who are less skilled in writing, create your own essay questions that relate back to the theme, or ask a student to write about a successful project that you recently completed together. We’re happy to be flexible if you keep us informed about your great ideas. The bottom line is that we think that we have an opportunity to do something really cool but it’s not going to work unless you and your kids’ thoughts and ideas are represented!
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Right now the stars are literally twinkling.
Or at least they were before I went inside to get you.
Does our perspective on the world and life as a whole adjust to different environments and inputs the way that our eyes do?
I want to live in a world that twinkles. I think I do.
Clouds are coming.
I want the twinkle back in full throttle.
I just heard a lizard croak from inside my house.
It’s such and interesting library of memories that I’ve created.
A few minutes ago I had such a strong urge to be back in the Indian desert starring up at the Milky Way, disregarding the sand in my hair and itchy blankets as I surrendered to tribal drumming in of a distant village.
The experience undoubtedly enhanced by the pot cookies I accidentally ate.
I became completely enveloped.
Sitting here on my verandah in Ngai under that same exact Milky Way I realize that some day I’m going to long to be back here too.
I already do even as I write this.
So many places, so many feelings.
How much can one heart, one head, two feet and two eyes handle?
I think I’ll push the limits and find out.
Dark clouds are coming fast now, eating my stars.
It’s gonna rain big.
Toads hesitate in their declarations and mumble intrusively.
Bat wings are my ceiling fans and the army of crickets the background to my thoughts.
The spiky tree that’s home to the weaverbirds sits black and quiet, silhouetted by the rain clouds, disguising its chaos.
Morning will release their golden energy and nagging calls. I love it.
I wish it was still new enough to wake me but it’s now just the mundane noise of life.
Sights, smells, tastes. Strange things mixed with peanut butter.
All will be filled away in the library of my mind and memory.
I tend to lean towards chronology. I like seeing how one experience leaps to the next.
Filled away filled away to be recalled on another verandah of the future where I’ll sit and long for qualities of this distant land.
Monday, August 29, 2011
Hello Peace People,
I hope everyone is recovering well after our exhausting and amazing week in Gulu. While I know that I'm going to be seeing the majority of you tomorrow I wanted to share some of my post Peace Camp Peace Camper experiences with you.
Our ride back to Oyam from Gulu required a fair amount of teamwork from everyone to keep ourselves in our tiny open backed truck. We were all piled on top of one another but no one complained and everyone looked out for one another. The kids sang songs and decided that rather than chanting the names of their counselor groups, which were obviously all different, they should find a more unifying title. They started yelling that they were The Peacemakers with pride. It was only a matter of time before we were pulled over by the police. He was obviously looking for a bribe and as Walter, one of our Ugandan co counselors, got out of the truck to try to negotiate all of the kids started calling to the officer, ‘We are the peacemakers!!! If you don’t let us go who will help you keep the peace!!!’ It was pretty hysterical, I was proud. (Yes, we did still have to pay the bribe but at least they tried.)
We started with some small activities and played a few games but it was clear that they were looking for something of more substance. We had a discussion about the importance of trust in the peace building process and then we did trust falls. I explained that they could teach people in their school or communities about trust using the same methods. Naturally they all said that they would have absolutely no problems with teaching this new trust lesson on their own and didn’t want to practice. I decided to put them to the test.
I managed to round up about 15 local kid to be the first students of our students. At first our kids were a little shy but after a few minutes they worked it out and jumped right into their roles as community peer peace educators. Each one of them played a part in the lesson. Some talked about the importance of trust, some demonstrated the trust fall for the group, others helped teach the safety tactics and gave encouragement to the kids. After successfully getting every single one of their participants to do the trust fall they gathered the group into a circle and lead a reflection. They then taught the kids a few of the games that they learned at camp. When they finally announced that their lesson was over the local kids protested saying that they were having too much fun and wanted our kids to teach them something else.
I can’t express how proud I was of all of them today. I didn’t even start the meeting off with the intention of having them teach a lesson so they literally had no idea that it was coming. They stepped up to the challenge and at the end all of the local kids had a lot of fun and said that they learned something new. Their lesson was relatively seamless as they communicated with one another calmly and allowing everyone to take the lead on at least one piece of things. Three of our out of school youth, Jimmy, David, and Leo, who were all a bit more reserved during camp, stepped up and lead some of the more challenging reflective parts of the presentation. It was awesome.
I recognize that this email is a little bit fluffy and rambly but I know how much time, work, and heart you all put into helping to empower the campers this past week. I wanted to let you know that it worked.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Peace Camp was designed to allow the youth to address some of the lingering issues and trauma resulting from their experiences during the war. The hope was that they would be able to release some of the burdens they had been carrying and start the process of bringing peace to themselves, their families, and their communities. The main topics addressed during camp were forgiveness, reconciliation, positive communication, trust, peaceful living, and looking towards the future.
I was lucky enough to have been selected to be a counselor for the camp which meant that my Ugandan co-counselor and I was responsible for bringing 10 campers through the days activities and helping them process all of the new information they were getting as well as their feelings.
They training was extremely dynamic with interactive lessons prepared by PCVs, experts brought in to address certain topics, a man who had also been abducted who now runs an extremely successful company, an opportunity to showcase their traditional tribal dances to the kids from other regions, and even a trip to a phenomenal ropes course to put lessons on teamwork, communication, and self-esteem into action.
It’s difficult for me to write about Peace Camp because it was such an amazing experience both for me and my campers. It feels too big to put into words. What I can tell you is that I saw kids who’s lives had been dark smile, laugh, and play. I saw kids mourn the loss of parents who one day just disappeared. I saw friendships made between children of different tribes that had historically blamed one another for the violence. I saw kids whose bright futures had been stolen from them see that the world can still hold opportunities for them if they are willing to take control of their lives again. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this experience.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Junior’s back and the chicken is still here. Baraka’s father was sick for about three weeks, which gave Junior’s scary chicken enough time to come up with a plan to cheat death and Sunday dinner- she started laying eggs.
Ironically, while the local government’s campaign urging women to give birth in the health centers verses at home has largely fallen on deaf human ears the message has been heard loud and clear by Ngai’s poultry population.
Junior’s chicken wakes up in the morning, walks out of the bathroom, across the compound and over to the maternity ward where she lays her eggs.
Adding to the irony, while delivering in the health center is a safer option for human mothers and babies, it’s proved to be more dangerous to the lives of chickens and chicks.
After a few days, the bored and anemic pregnant mother started making omelets and Junior is guessing that it will only be a matter of time before they help themselves to a big pot of scary chicken stew.
While the pregnant mother’s decision to steal their midwife’s eggs is questionable at best I’m happy that this new development has put malaria chicken back on the menu and hopefully out of the bathroom once and for all.
Friday, July 1, 2011
After returning home from a training in Kampala a few months ago I was met with the news that three violent murders had taken place in Ngai within the previous month. First, an army officer who was originally from this area was invited back to facilitate a training for the local police. While here, he heard rumors that his sister, who was still living in Ngai, was romantically involved with an unsavory local youth. Unhappy about the situation he confronted the young man. A fight ensued and the army officer was beaten to death in the road.
Second, a local man went back to his house late in the evening. He had been drinking heavily and ran out of money. Apparently his drinking habit had been a major drain on the family income. When he attempted to take all of the food that remained in the house, all of the food that they had to feed themselves and their many children, his wife hit her breaking point. She protested, they argued, things got physical and she, 9 months pregnant at the time, managed to overpower him and hit her husband over the head with a large rock, killing him instantly.
The last and most shocking incident involved primary school children. Apparently two girls, one in 3rd grade and the other in 5th, had been harassing a 4th grade boy for sometime. They had been forcefully trying to convince him to have sex with them but he repeatedly refused. One day the harassment escalated. The girls managed to lock the boy in a hut with them. Enraged by his refusal they beat the boy to death. The medical officer who examined his body said that the damage was extensive and brutal with several broken bones and a mutilated groin area.
As I mentioned earlier, violence is fairly commonplace in Northern Uganda and the first two incidents didn’t cause much of a stir. The case of the primary school students was different. People were upset about what happened and shocked that such a crime could be committed not only by kids but by girls. My coworker, Tonny, and I decided to pay a visit to Onek Gwok, the school that the students had attended, to see what kind of activities and counseling were taking place to allow the other students to grieve the loose of their classmate and process the horrible attack that lead to his death.
“Nothing!,” the head teacher told us. “No one has come to help us deal with this situation but the students must be scared and confused. We would really like to address this with them.” We got to work planning a school meeting. We invited all of the local religious, political, and cultural leader to the event to show support to the students and demonstrate that the death of a pupil would not be taken lightly. We also invited the chief of police who explained exactly what happened so that the students would understand that they themselves were not at risk and that it was an isolated incident. Lastly, the head teacher spoke to the children. While it’s hard to accept, the fact is that this murder was committed by students. The head teacher asked them to think about their own behavior. He encouraged the students to think of one another as brother and sister and leave violence and bullying behind. It was a challenging day but overall successful and the school management committee even decided to schedule a second meeting to speak with the parents of their pupils.
A few weeks later I met with the head teacher again. He was very pleased with the way that our meetings had turned out and was seeing a positive impact in the school culture. “How would you feel about hosting an community event about peace building here at Onek Gwok?” I asked. I had been secretly hoping that things would move in this direction all along. While the murder was horrible it was also the only thing that had gotten the community to think critically about the culture of violence that resulted from the war. It had created an opportunity for people to think about the kind of community that they wanted to live in and make more calculated changes to address that. “I think it’s a great idea!” The head teacher exclaimed. Plans for the first ‘Peace Day Celebration’ were put in place.
I arrived at Onek Gwok early on the morning of June 30- Peace Day. I was met at the school grounds by hundreds of excited children. Music, Dance, and Drama aka MDD seems to be Africa’s favorite was of addressing social issues and Peace Day was no different. Throughout the weeks leading up to Peace Day, teachers at the school had been busy composing songs and plays that addressed issues such as gender based violence, land disputes, and positive communication for the student to perform. During the planning process we also discussed the breakdown of local culture and thus the management committee decided that the students would perform the traditional Lango dance Abuda. I had been at the school all of 10 minutes before I started tearing up at seeing that the dancers had taken it upon themselves to make the beautiful headdresses that are traditionally worn for Abuda.
After admiring every headdress and praising the owners I started looking around for the school staff. They were nowhere to be seen, there were about 400 students at the school and as far as I could see, I was the only adult around. Not even the head teacher with whom I had worked so closely to put the event together was there. Just as I was starting to get annoyed and upset he arrived. “Bad news,” he said. “One of our teachers has died and is to be buried today. It’s customary for the entire staff and all of the pupils to attend the funeral.” Shocked and feeling guilty for my earlier impatience I didn’t know what to say. “I’ve spoken with the family and asked them to postpone the burial but they’ve already made the announcements on the radio and their hands are tied. All of the teachers will be attending the funeral but our music teacher and I will stay behind for Peace Day. It’s unfortunate timing but we can’t turn back now!”
Here’s a piece of advice for anyone who is thinking about planning community events in rural Africa- don’t schedule them to start in the morning! Our agenda had us beginning at 10am at the head teacher’s request (we had a lot to cover). As you’ve seen, my morning had already been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions and by one o’clock in the afternoon I was ready to throw in the towel and sadly accept defeat for the event that felt so close to my heart. “Wait, they’ll come,” the head teacher kept telling me. “They went to their fields to work in the morning, went home to bathe, now their cooking and eating lunch, they’ll be here around 2.” Sure enough about 200 villagers arrived at 2. Why we didn’t just plan to start at 2 is a mystery to me but I have most definitely learned my lesson.
Peace Day was phenomenal. In addition to the student’s beautiful songs and dances we also had a drama performed by the Women’s Guild from the local Catholic Church. The local leaders spoke about the importance of having peace in the community and looking towards the future. NGO workers praised the community for taking the initiative to put together such an amazing and important event. Local leaders spoke of times before the rebels infiltrated the area and enchanted the kids with traditional Lango instruments, the likes of which they had never seen. One of the elders insisted on performing a ‘traditional American dance’ in my honor. The number was entitled ‘I’m a tricky tricky tricky tricky cowboy’ which also happened to be all of the lyrics. I returned the favor by joining in at the end of the students amazing performance of Abuda.
Unfortunately a lightning storm blew in and the head teacher quickly dispersed the crowd. Lightning has taken the lives of about 20 people throughout the country over the past few weeks. The local leaders, school representatives, and planning committee stayed for a post Peace Day reception featuring a grizzly goat stew and sodas. As preachers, government officials, and clan leaders all expressed their gratitude for the event and committed themselves to the mission of building peace in the community I was once again overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. When it was my turn to address the community leaders I told them honestly that only time will tell how the event will effect the community and we still have a lot of work to do but I feel honored to be here in Ngai, honored to be a part of this work, and hopeful that, with the help of their community leaders, the people of Ngai will be able to live in the kind of place that they want.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Today I made a vow to, at some point during my two-year service, develop a program to help fight malaria. Malaria is a huge problem in our community. Oyam is essentially a big swamp and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are in plenty. A few months ago I was actually told that this area has the highest rate of malaria in the world but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that statement. People fall sick regularly, disrupting the flow of work and life. Teachers miss classes, land goes uncultivated, and work unfinished as people suffer from dangerous malaria-inflicted fever and diarrhea and families struggle to care for their loved ones.
An unbelievable amount of money and resources are dedicated to fighting malaria in Uganda. The health center just finished yet another round of spraying homes with insecticides and countless NGOs have come to lead sensitizations on the subject and distribute nets (which I only ever see being used for fishing and as nets in makeshift soccer goals). Despite the upper tier’s tireless fight against malaria, it seems to me that people on the community level are far less engaged in the battle.
So why my sudden interest in malaria? No, it wasn’t the schoolboy who told me that it killed his 4 younger siblings. It’s not the massive line of patients waiting to report the same symptoms to the health center staff. No one I know has recently died and I’m not crippled with fever as I write this. Once again- it all comes down to a chicken.
Four months after moving into my house (which happened four months after arriving in Ngai) I STILL don’t have a place to bathe. My little house, which I love dearly, is made up of a sitting room, bedroom, and miniature kitchen (I had to saw the sides off of my cooking table to get it in). Apparently, while it is both stupid and annoying, it is not uncommon for government housing to be commissioned without a pit latrine or bathing area- facilities which I had previously considered to be essential. Luckily, Junior said that she didn’t mind if I continued to bathe at her house until arrangements had been made to construct a shelter at mine.
About a week ago Junior left to run some errands in Lira. She said that she’d spend one night at her parents’ house in town and come back to Ngai on Sunday when she would prepare a chicken dinner for all of us. I called on Monday to find out if everything was ok. She said that she was in Kitgum, a small city near the boarder of Sudan. Baraka’s father, who works there, was suffering from a horrible case of malaria and was in the hospital. She was worried and would stay with him until she felt confident that he’d be okay. This was bad. No, I wasn’t concerned about Baraka’s father- I’m not a big fan. This meant that dinner was being postponed indefinitely- that Junior’s chicken was here to stay.
A few months ago Junior was accused of bringing bird flu to the health center via a rather smart looking rooster. Supposedly all of the chickens died or were killed and everyone was pretty pissed. While I’m pretty sure that we didn’t experience an outbreak of bird flu nor do I remember this mass killing of chickens the accusations were enough to make Junior keep any subsequent poultry separate from everyone else’s- more specifically, in the bathroom.
It’s difficult to explain how startling coming across an unexpected chicken can be in and of itself but when you add being wet and naked into the mix it’s all out terrifying. She lurks there in the corner, waiting until my most vulnerable moment when she suddenly ruffle her feathers, scratch the floor, and make scary chicken noises- her beady little bird eyes warning of an imminent attack that has yet to come. I scream and the girls laugh outside of the bathroom door. It’s like clockwork but somehow I never remember that this exchange has become part of my bathing routine.
Over the past few days she’s gone on the offensive leaving booby-trap all over the tile floor- meticulously placed poops every 4 inches or so. This morning I failed to see one and went sliding across the room, only narrowly missing the squat toilet. It was after this near death experience that I had an epiphany. This was a call to arms. The root of the problem wasn’t the chicken itself but malaria. Had Junior’s husband not gotten malaria we would have eaten the chicken days ago and I would never have been subjected to the psychological torture of bathing with a bird or risked life and limb while tiptoeing through a minefield of shit. Yes, this was the world telling me that I was needed in the boring, stagnant, endless, fight against malaria.
While I might not be oozing with enthusiasm I do feel that it’s a very worthwhile cause to take on (and have given myself a two year window in which to design the said program). As I mentioned earlier malaria is having a huge impact on the lives and productivity of the people of Ngai. It’s something that’s affecting everything and will continue to be a major deterrent in the progress of this community and country if we can’t figure out how to get it under control and convince people that prevention is a better way forward than constantly seeking treatment. It’s certainly an uphill battle but I know that anytime I feel myself loosing motivation I can go for a refreshing bucket bath and will be ready to fight again when I come out!
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Today the first person who I knew personally died of AIDS. I didn’t know her well, in fact I didn’t even put it together when I initially heard of her passing, but it’s still something notable. A sad milestone.
A few months ago I was walking past the health center late at night. It was very dark so I didn’t notice the people outside until someone called me by name- a rarity back in November. I turned to them, prepared give a friendly greeting but was startled when the light of my torch fell on a frail, naked woman. She was sitting on the concrete bench that wraps around the unit as a friend bathed her, she was too weak to stand. Sensing my surprise she reminded me of her name and that she was a teacher at Ngai Primary. We had recently met when I was visiting the school. We continued talking as she wrapped herself in a beautiful laso and, with the support of her friend, stumbled into the ward and was helped into one of the three tattered, dirty hospital beds. I said goodnight and told her I’d come back to check on her the next day.
I went back to Junior’s house, I was still staying there at the time, and told her that I had just been talking to a teacher in the ward. “Auntie, that woman is very sick,” she said. “Malaria?” I asked- everyone always has malaria. “No, she has HIV and is refusing treatment. No one in her family knows she’s sick, she says she doesn’t want to burden them. She was brought here by her coworkers but they can’t stay. I’m really fearing that she’ll die.” Junior never says that.
I went back the next day and found Betty in bed, her head hanging off the side, vomiting bile into a bucket on the floor. I sat with her and some of the teachers. I found myself speechless as she calmly and eloquently explained how much pain she was in. How every inch of her body tortured her. I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted to beg her to get treatment. Suck it up, tell her family, live! But how? How do you talk to someone you just met about something that you’re not supposed to know that they are literally willing to die to keep secret? In truth I know that it’s possible but at that moment all I was able to say was that it’d be okay, she’d get better- words that I never say when I don’t believe them but words that I used that day to fill the horrible stale space of the ward.
Laying in bed that night I decided that I’d talk to Betty the next day. Try to convince her to go for treatment, help walk her through it. When I arrived at the ward I found her bed filled with the body of yet another very sick person- probably malaria. I went to find Junior. She told me that the health center staff and teachers had finally convinced Betty to face her family, face her secret, her shame- to live. They had come for her that morning and taken her to a facility in Lira better equipped to handle such cases. I was so relieved. Betty would be okay.
As I mentioned, I didn’t put it together when I heard that a teacher at Ngai Primary had died. All of that took place months ago, I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. It wasn’t until talking to Junior that it all came together. It’s likely that by the time Betty came to the health center she already had AIDS. With treatment people can live a long time with HIV.
While AIDS obviously makes people physically sick it’s often regarded as a social disease. It’s spread through social ties and activities (in Uganda HIV is most commonly spread through consensual sex and most new cases come up among married couples). The social stigma surrounding HIV is a huge part of what makes the virus so horrible and so hard to fight. Stigma keeps people from talking about the virus and getting tested. It closets huge numbers of people who are positive, potentially leading to activities that put themselves and others at risk. Living positively, openly, takes courage and tenacity. I can understand why so many people keep quite.
We all know people who have been diagnosed with fast moving cancers and passed away within a few months. We’re always told that any of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow, live for today. So why is the worst, most feared illness of our time one that is willing to potentially grant us decades of life before claiming it’s victims?
The other day my supervisor was asking me if we had AIDS in the U.S. I said yes, we actually have the most recorded cases of any country in the world (keep in mind the massive population and relatively easy access to medical care and testing facilities). I explained that the spread of HIV functions differently in the U.S. It used to be most prevalent in gay men, now the highest rate is among IV drug users. It’s also become an ever-growing issue in the inner cities. Historically, HIV has flourished in America’s marginalized communities. “Yes,” he said. “Immoral communities.” “No, marginalized communities.”
Reflecting on Betty’s death I can’t help but think of my VSLAs. Literally 60 of my favorite people in Ngai are HIV positive. Both of the groups are so full of life. Our time together is always full of laughter, hugs, jokes, and of course a lively exchange of mangoes. It’s not uncommon for someone to do a little dance before taking a seat on the papyrus mat. They’re phenomenal. Sitting there sometimes I remember that I’m the only person who doesn’t have HIV. Strip away the bodies and I’m surrounded by virus. It’s humbling. But most of the time they’re just my friends. People I want to help- connect with resources and NGOs, train in some simple things that can help improve their lives. And they help me too, bringing me mangoes and papayas, watching my bike when I buy little fish for the cats in the market, making Ngai feel warm. Like home.
I would give an honest and modest estimate that at least 1/3 of the people who sell food in our tiny little market are VSLA member. A striking view when you look at the trading center through the lens of the epidemic (officially our community is 8% HIV positive but the health workers all feel it’s much higher). One of my absolute favorites is Esta. She’s always the first person to greet me when I get to the market and the last I say goodnight to when I leave. I’ve been buying her tomatoes for months even though they are by far the worst. We even have a pseudo secret handshake/dance we do every time we see one another. She’s amazing.
Esta invited me to her house about a month ago. We hung out, listened to music, ate mangoes- it was nice. She showed me pictures of her family. Her husband is an officer in the Ugandan army. Her three children are in boarding school- a Ugandan norm if you can afford it. We often talk about going to visit her daughter together. We came across a picture of a baby boy sitting on a blanket. “That one died,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” “He was born with AIDS, only lived a few months.” A moment went by as we just sat.
So my personal experience with AIDS in Africa is looking something like that. Something I drift in and out of. Sometimes it consumes me completely, overwhelms me into a state of melancholy. Other times I forget about it all together as the joys of everyday life leave no space for disease. Like all of the big horrors of Northern Uganda, I seesaw between feeling like it’s an insurmountable issue that affects everything and an isolated challenge of the few. I think it’s all of those things. The polarized reactions that I have are all strangely valid. AIDS is a big problem. It’s a big deal and it does affect everything and everyone. It’s also one piece of things. One piece of what’s happening here. One piece of the people living with the virus. I, and they, are unwilling to give it everything. So I’m finding the seesaw strangely comfortable. A good vantage point for now. I’ll continue enjoying the spirit of my VSLA friends while remembering their unique challenges. We will all continue to attend burials of the people claimed by the epidemic and pay respects to those whose lives have been forever changed by AIDS. We will continue to feel its presence, respect it, live among it, and look past it.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
“Eliza! Come and Mango!” A command from Fiona last night. It’s finally mango season. The North is littered with mango trees but for my first 6 months in Ngai they were a big tease. While the mango trees of other parts of the country produce year round, ours torture us throughout the dry months, waiting until May to bear fruit. May has come and I can’t keep up! Today alone I was given multiple mangos by FIVE different people!!! It’s an epidemic! Everyone I met is either holding a mango, eating a mango, or talking about mangos. Children sit on the edges of the muddy roads with massive heaps of them, hoping that people won’t notice that the sweet fruits are now falling out of the sky like rain. If there’s ever been an example of ‘to much of a good thing’ this is it. After wishing and waiting for what felt like an eternity, I’ve been struggling to eat all of the mangos that I’m given. Can you overdose on mangos? I think I’m on the brink. I must start searching for a solution to my luxurious problem in the forms of jams, chutneys and cobblers- if only I had the time and oven do meet the challenge.
It’s a truly delicious dilemma.
(No joke- as I was writing this Tamale handed me yet another mango.)
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
A few weeks ago I stopped at one of our local ‘restaurants’ for a quick plate of beans and cassava. While I was waiting, four tiny kittens wandered into the room. I started petting them and the owner of the restaurant asked me if I wanted one. No. I’ve never really liked cats. After having an epic allergic reaction as a child I’ve steered pretty clear of them for most of my life (with a few exceptions of course). As a result they kind of scare me. They scratch and bite, and their actions feel sporadic and unpredictable. I’ve even been quoted saying that I’d only want one if I either lived in a REALLY big house or had a REALLY small cat. That way I’d only have to see it, from a far, once every few days.
That being said, I found myself thinking of one of the little cats quite often. Three of the cats were mostly black with white faces but one had very unusual markings- white with a patchy back of marbleized orange and brown. It was beautiful. I tried to justify the idea in my head. What better time to get a cat: African cats are usually more work animals than pets so they don’t require much attention, I can leave the window open and it can come and go as it pleases, and it’s only a two year commitment- I can find someone to take it when I leave Uganda. I even thought of a hypothetical name for the kitten. Alas, the rats were the tipping point that pushed me into experimenting with becoming a cat owner.
When I got home Tamale asked me what I had named the cat. I told her that I had named it Popo. “Popo!” She yelled. “Where’s Aki!” I was totally confused. As far as I knew Popo was the Lango word for papaya. What was Aki? It turns out that Popo and Aki are two of Nigeria’s most popular movie stars. According to my Google search they are either children or dwarfs who have a series of films where they get into all sorts of shenanigans. Where’s Aki? Good question!
After a rather rough night of sleeping on the couch with Popo who had been crying out of loneliness Fidelis, my neighbor and fellow cat hater, asked me if there were any more available. She was having rat issues at her family home in the village. I told her I’d take care of it. I went back to the restaurant that day and asked if I could take a second kitten- the mellow one with the really green eyes- Aki. No worries, as long as you can pay. The average cost of a kitten in my village is one chicken. Considering I’m currently out of chickens they were willing to take 3,000 shillings or about $1.20. “Enjoy your cats,” on my way out. “Two girls! That’s great!” Wait, yesterday you told me they were boys…
Our walls are like paper so Fidelis was all too aware of Popo’s crying the night before. It wasn’t difficult to convince her to let Aki stay with me. Taking on the responsibility of feeding him/her and looking after him/her was also an easy sell. It’s been a few days and I’ve realized that I’m going to have to find Fidelis another cat. Currently curled up together in a sleeping ball of fur, I don’t see how I could separate them. I also have to admit, despite my prejudice against cats, I’m already feeling quite attached to these little guys/girls (as long as they don’t 1- poop in the house 2- tear up my clothes/shoes 3- make me sneeze excessively).
So the cat owner experiment continues. We are currently working on socialization of semi-wild kittens and owner’s ability to focus on tasks other than watching cats play for hours on end. We have successfully proven that kittens can go from being malnourished to obese, with the appearance of having swallowed tennis balls, within a matter of days. I’ll be sure to keep you posted as things progress.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
The buses are always overcrowded in general but, it being Easter weekend, it was even more extreme. As per usual I had the misfortune of sharing my bench seat with a slightly obese woman and the tallest man in the world. About a third of what I had rightfully paid for remained for me- one butt cheek’s worth of space. What’s the last thing you need on a bus that’s already overcrowded? That would be someone cramming boxes of baby chicks through the windows. About 20 chirping boxes came in that way. Slightly annoyed but overall extremely accommodating passengers managed to help stow the chicks away. They were placed up in the luggage racks, under the seats and in the aisles- pretty much everywhere.
We were barely out of the bus park when the first managed to escape. The fluffy yellow chick hopped down the aisle, scratching the ground, looking for bugs. The five back rows watched, not moving. Naturally, it wasn’t one of the Ugandan passengers (who most likely grew up with food animals at home) to catch the little bird but the only foreigner on the bus who happens to be a bit scared of chickens. A second popped out shortly after, then a third. Things were starting to get crazy! It’s not easy catching chicks on a moving bus. That’s when I realized what was happening. Right then, Easter weekend 2011, I was being invited by circumstance to partake in the first ever Adult Easter Egg Hunt!
The premise of the game is the same- find the egg/chick and place it in your basket/overloaded chick box. The challenge is stepped up by the fact that, in the adult version, the ‘treasure’ is a moving target and there is a good chance that it will either peck you or poop in your hand. The most notable difference is that, unlike the traditional Easter Egg Hunt for kids which is based around rewarding the participant, the Adult Hunt is punishment driven. If a participant fails to collect all of the chicks they run the risk of stepping on one and thus becoming covered in bird guts and suffering emotional trauma from the experience.
Having collected about a dozen chicks throughout the trip I have declared myself the winner- I had about 12 more than all of my competitors. While the challenge was fun and certainly kept me entertained I was relieved when the chicks were either lulled to sleep by the jerky motions of the bus or ran out of air in their cardboard boxes and stopped jumping out. One of the greatest things about traveling is experiencing new customs from different parts of the world. I’ll be happy host an Adult Easter Egg Hunt at home to share a piece of my Uganda experience with all of you.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
I’ve been up for about an hour. I set my alarm clock for an unusually early time so that I can get to a meeting in Gulu but it’s raining. I’m sitting on my back veranda, washing dishes, waiting. I glance into the house, a chicken walks out of my bedroom. Sitting, perplexed, visibly confused. I’ve been here the whole time, how did I not notice it walk in? Spotting the chicken coming out of the house my neighbor comes over. “So that’s where that chicken’s been! We were looking for it all night, it must have slept with you!” Evidence. An unfortunately large pile of poop beneath my bed- directly under where I lay my head. Fist shake to the sky!
Early morning. Outside my window the sky is streaked with the pink of sunrise. Clanking of pots. That’s strange, my neighbors get up early to make a fire for cooking breakfast but the suns not even up yet. Big crash. Shit. That’s coming from my house. By the light of my cell phone flashlight I creep into the kitchen, panicky. Big Noise! I scream! Chicken! Again! Damn Chicken! I open the door, it runs out. I start to laugh, how ridiculous. I walk into the sitting room. Fear, laughter, now anger. The chicken has shit all over the house. I’m thankful that today is school visitation day- chicken dinner.
Monday, March 7, 2011
After some consideration and failed attempts at addressing other issues we decided that what the group needed was a VSLA- a Village Savings and Loans Association. Millions of people around the world don’t have access to appropriate banking systems either as a result of their remote location, illiteracy, or lack of finance (most banks expect their clients to have a certain amount of money and financial activity that might not be realistic for everyone). VSLAs are banking on the village level. A group of 15-30 people meet at a given time and date (usually once every week or two) and, using a set of rules decided by the group, save and loan money. Each group member can ‘buy’ between 1 and 5 shares per meeting. My groups have set the cost of each share to be 1,000 shillings- about 40 cents. The savings, along with records of the transactions, are stored in a strong metal box at the treasurer’s home. The box has places for 3 individual locks and 3 different group members hold the keys to ensure that no one has access to the money outside of the meetings. Members are able to take loans out of the group savings with a monthly interest rate of 10%. I have been told by my father, a banker for 40 years, that 10% is an insanely high interest rate and would be illegal in the U.S. BUT there is a benefit for the members. After the savings cycle ends (about 1 year) the group divides the money in the box according the number of shares that each person has bought. Because there are no external fees to pay and the biggest expense is the cashbox, the average return on savings is between 30-60%, also insanely high according to American standards.
Not having any previous experience, I was thankful that there’s a ton of literature on VSLAs which allowed me to start the program with my group. Unfortunately, we still had a ton of challenges. The biggest issue that we faced was that my group members were just too damn understanding. In order for a VSLA to function you need to have no more than 30 members and they need to come consistently. Every training meeting that I held seemed to be comprised of a completely different group of potential members. We discussed this issue every time and every time their leading spokes person, Dorcus, would say that we needed to give people another chance, they’d be there next time.
One day I finally hit my breaking point. Because of the inconsistent attendance I had to continuously teach the same material at the meetings and I was starting to loose faith in the fact that it would ever come together. I spoke with them in very candid Lango. “Jo pe kan, kob WOT!” “The people who aren’t here, tell them to GO!” I asked if they would let someone run up and steal their money as we were sitting there and explained that they were doing exactly that by allowing people who didn’t bother to come steal an opportunity from them. They got it. Two weeks later they managed to divide into two groups (30 members each) and we officially started saving.
In the end, the point that we needed to hit was that I needed to lay off the rules a little bit and they needed to start following them. What they needed to understand was that we never would have gotten started if they continued to accommodate people who didn’t make a commitment. What I needed to accept was that a lot of the absences from the meetings were both understandable and unavoidable. Members consistently miss meetings because they have to go get medications from various NGOs, they have appointments to have their CD4 count tested, or they’re sick- a lot.
Over time we’ve reached a mutual understanding- I’ll make sure they know which rules are flexible and which aren’t and I trust that they will take them in and make them work in a way that fits their situation. I’m FINALLY happy to say that we’re makin’ it work.