"I realize the Africa I found was nothing like the Africa I had expected. It is richer, more beautiful, infinitely more complex, and also much harder. I have grown in ways I could not have anticipated, as one of my fellow students so eloquently noted in her reflections. I will return home a different woman, perhaps, than when I left. I wonder if I will be able to fit back into my old life; perhaps the rhythms and routines I was used to will have to change to encompass this new me." - Leah McCann, Graduate Student
January 19: Today marks one week in Kampala, Uganda. The initial adrenaline and excitement have worn thin, and as I walked along the dusty roads to work, weaving my way in and out of traffic, I felt alone. Living in CRS provided housing, I lack the connection to a local family that characterizes the experience of other interns; instead I share a house with an Irish intern from Trocaire, an Irish Catholic Relief agency.
Each morning, we awake in our rooms behind walls of stone and razor wire, bars on the windows and doors padlocked from the inside make me wonder if we're keeping ourselves in or others out. Leaving for work out the back door (the front has been permanently closed, locked, and covered by an iron grate), I greet one of our security guards. Depending on the time, either Annette or Bonnie will answer, we'll share small talk, and I'm off along the dusty road. Forty minutes and four turns bring me to the CRS office outside Kampala. Along the way, shouts of "Mzungu!" (white person) ring in my ears. Boda (motorcycle) drivers, mutatu (taxi-bus) drivers, pedestrians all honk, wave, and call out. I'm the only white person I see.
The offices of CRS are nestled behind a blue gate in an area populated by NGOs. JRS, MSF, JSW, LWF; it's an alphabet soup of relief agencies. Here it's not unusual to see foreign nationals driving to work in Land Rovers. Today, I climb the stairs to my shared office. I was initially assigned a room in a concrete block built for auditors last fall, but one of the regular staff is on leave, so I climb to a second floor office with windows. I feel imperialistic. My work is focused on the Conflict, Resolution, and Dialogue program of CRS, funded through USAID and a vital part of our work in the country as Uganda is still experiencing active conflict in the north. During my first week here, I have met all the different divisions of CRS Uganda through a formal orientation, and have begun my initial project research. A stack of fat files sits on my desk, I'm analyzing the reports within to discover if there is a link to creating successful peace committees in communities in conflict. Is there a model that works across tribal divisions? Can we develop a method of building peace committees that can be useful in other conflict situations?
As I read through these files I see names, numbers, and figures. On the back of each issue of "Justice and Peace News", published by the Gulu Archdiocese in the North, there is a chronology of recent events.
May 26th- A woman who had come to collect grass was killed by rebels at her village in Obem (Kitgum).
27th- Rebels hacked to death 8 people and displayed them on the road at Parwec, in Kitgum Matidi. The Amnesty Commission started delivering resettlement packages for a backlog of 7,000 former rebels. They held the first ceremony at Rwot Acana's headquarters in Gulu.
30th- Thirteen children were abducted by rebels at Abwoch village (Gulu). Alll of them returned on the following day.
31st- UPDF soldiers injured two young men at Koc Goma. The WFP Uganda director Ken Davies warned of food supply for IDPs running dry in June. He said that the humanitarian disaster in Northern Uganda was worse than the one caused by the tsunami.
Maybe I'm here to remember. To refuse to forget about what is happening here. Maybe I'm here to bear witness. And maybe I'm here to change.
February 3: Thursday I would have done almost anything to be back in Seattle, sipping a latte and smelling the sweet scent of rain in the Pacific Northwest. This past week was spent in "the field", traveling with program officer Emily Kemigisha over the mountains from CRS' western offices in Fort Portal to the village of Bundibugyo. Traveling across the country to Fort Portal and another few hours over bumpy, unpaved mountain roads took a full day. We spent the week doing spot checks, visiting the beneficiaries of the programs CRS funds and asking if they were indeed receiving services from our partners. Bundibugyo is as rural as it gets in western Uganda, a small village without electricity, and with a few shops selling produce and items brought in from the east. Most people live outside the row of shops and few rooming houses, in mud and stick houses lining the dusty dirt roads crisscrossing the rainforest.
Our first day was spent visiting peace committees and a village bank. Violent armed conflict due to tribal rivalries had swept this region from 1996-2002. Kabarole Resource and Research Centre, our partner NGO in the area, had funded peace committees over the past couple of years hoping to provide the community with non-violent tools to solve disputes and prevent the cycle of violence from reoccurring. Added to the ever-present tribal rivalries is the political situation. Politics are huge in Uganda, and the third national elections since independence will be held in less than three weeks. In the midst of this volatile climate, the first peace committee we visited was in danger of collapse. Members had chosen involvement in politics over attending peace committee meetings, and as a result the community was losing confidence in their ability to speak of peaceful resolution. Emily attempted to provide guidance, but the task is ultimately up to the peace committee members themselves. Hard decisions need to be made, decisions that go against cultural norms that have contributed to the cycle of violence present in this community for all of remembered history.
We also visited a few peace clubs formed by local students using sports to "preach the gospel of peace" to the next generation. High school students organize regular gatherings of youth for sports, and put on occasional "sports fairs" to also involve parents in the lessons being communicated. Traditional games are played, passing along not only the lessons of peaceful conflict resolution, but also preserving a lifestyle quickly slipping away.
Our second full day in the field was spent visiting OVCs, orphans and vulnerable children, affected by AIDS/HIV. In the morning, we toured a school funded by CRS, UNWFP, and GOAL through local NGO BALIWHA to teach students how to support themselves. The school was in full preparation mode to start the following week, and included dormitories for boys and girls, a carpentry workshop, sewing workshop, typing room, and four computers. Students spend around two years here, learning a trade and how to manage their finances. While Emily spoke with one of the chairpersons, I toured the grounds with one of the teachers, who had started the school years previously with a group of students gathered around a mango tree in what had become the rear of the facility. As he shared with me his joy in working with students, I asked if I could take a picture of the mango tree. Smiling, he agreed on one condition: that I take his picture with the tree. After speaking with the school board, we visited some recent graduates to see how they were doing, and if they were able to support themselves with the skills learned. Visiting students who had been provided with a sewing machine, we learned that they had been able to use some of the proceeds from their earnings to purchase a plot of land and some animals. Carpentry graduates told similar success stories; they had set up a cooperative and were in the process of setting up outreach centers to apprentice others. A visible difference was being made in this community, one that is in danger of disappearing due to donor funds going more toward northern conflict than western development. They need new teachers; with a recent grant ending, they have not yet found funding for the school year starting this Monday, February 6.
That afternoon, we visited another of BALIWHA's projects. They work primarily with HIV/AIDS affected children and families. Currently, they are distributing food to OVCs and providing steel sheets as roofing materials to families without adequate housing. The first family we visited was headed by a single mother, "Alice". When Alice initially became pregnant, her boyfriend asked his parents permission to marry her. They refused, and threatened to hang themselves if he brought this woman home because she cannot walk. He joined the Ugandan military in the North, and was killed before seeing his child. Alice has since had another child, been abandoned by another man, and cares for two additional children whose parents were killed by the AIDS crises. Emily is a native Ugandan, and has worked in this region, at this job for the past five years. Seeing the state of this woman and her children, living in a hut that was tiny and falling down, seeing children sitting in the dirt with bowls of filthy water and flies, sorting dried beans they had received that day as part of the OVC food ration, she shook her head. We asked the BALIWHA representative "Michael" why the housing hadn't been repaired as they were scheduled to receive some of the metal sheets as roofing materials. Michael stated the home needed more repairs outside the scope of their grant funding. Alice's relatives had no money, and they had been unable to mobilize community support. Emily asked how much they needed to fix the home. 50,000 USH, or about $28. Emily asked for a quote, and a promise form BALIWHA that they would finish the work. She will ask employees from the Western office for funds, I volunteered to ask employees from the Kampala office, so that BALIWHA could complete the repairs.
After visiting Alice and her family, we also visited "Sarah", a woman with two children of her own caring for an additional two. Her family gathered around her, Sarah was too weak to speak. Her frail body was skeleton-thin, and to make matters worse, she had missed her ART (Anti Retroviral Therapy) medicine this week because her community volunteer had not been able to accompany her. We asked her husband why he had not taken her. He stated it was not his job, the community volunteer should take her, if not, it was his wife's business to go to the clinic. She was so weak, Emily admonished Sarah's husband to take her to the hospital immediately. Emily is in the process of starting a new grant program for women and babies, one that educates fathers on their role in childbirth and parenting, contrary to traditional norms that leave the task entirely in the hands of the women. All mothers in the program are affected by AIDS or HIV. Their babies receive Norparin syrup within 14 days of birth, increasing their chances of not contracting the virus from their mothers. Without this intervention, these children would almost certainly have AIDS/HIV. Sitting on a wooden stool in Sarah's yard, seeing the visible effects of the AIDS crises, I couldn't think, couldn't breathe. A family of ducks was walking through the dirt yard, attempting to find ants to feed on amidst the dirt and gravel. The mother duck was so hot, she was panting. There was no water. Irrationally, my only lucid thought was to pray for the ducks. To pray that they would grow strong and healthy, that they could feed and nourish these children, this mother, this family.
Later that night, returning to our rooms, I felt trapped and claustrophobic. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere but here. It was too much, too much poverty, too much death, too much isolation. Everyone has lost someone; parents, children, siblings, spouses. I awoke in the middle of the night, feeling pain in my chest. In the hot, stuffy little room, I couldn't breathe. Where am I? Why am I here? What can I ever hope to accomplish? What kind of a difference could I make, could anyone make, here?
We left Bundibugyo the next day. Sick from food I ate for breakfast, the bumpy two-hour ride to Fort Portal was agonizing. Back in Kampala, safely ensconced in a home with electricity and hot water for the first time in a week, I still struggle with what I should be doing, how I should be acting. Still feeling the after-effects of the sickness, I'm not traveling too far from home. I begin to pray.
February 20: This week marks the midpoint of my time in Africa. Over the past weeks, I have felt myself gradually growing accustomed to the smells, sounds, sights, and faces and have even begun to carve out a daily routine. Due to timing, office turnover, and the upcoming national elections, I have not been back to the field since my initial outing to Bundibugyo. A few things have changed here at home; mismanagement of Lake Victoria and the hydroelectric dams have led to power cuts every other day. This means all of Uganda is without power on alternate days. Different districts have different days off, but we are all growing accustomed to the situation that reportedly will continue until 2008, at the earliest. The more fortunate have generators; the rest of us, candles, flashlights, and kerosene lanterns. Dinner during the power cut is often fruit, nuts, and anything one can stomach eating cold, unless we brave the darkness to the closest restaurant with power. Less pleasant has been the discovery of our new houseguests. While "showering" last week (showering involves a sprayer attached to the bathtub faucet with a hose, good enough for sprinkling oneself while crouching in the tub) a large rat darted by the tub and into the enclosed space underneath through a loose tile. To date, four rats have been killed inside the house, by either rat poison or by the guards. I have found that bugs and reptiles of various shapes and sizes are tolerable, but somehow the rats are different. As I type tonight illuminated only by the glow of my battery powered laptop, I wonder if I should put my feet up, or take refuge on the kitchen counter once again.
I am beginning to make friends here. Over the past weeks, I have grown closer to coworkers and neighbors, been invited and invited others to dinner, and even been out to the movies in town a few times. Life is life, wherever you are, and deepening relationships with people I have met here has been rewarding. Here on the other side of the world, it gets lonely without being able to call a friend and chat, or grab a cup of coffee on a whim. Dazzled initially by all the obvious differences of this place, I've come to realize many things are the same. I still struggle to get out of bed in the morning, and I still love just passing time with friends, laughing and talking. There is much to learn here, and I find myself struggling to keep my eyes and heart open. I have been getting lessons in cooking and culture from Annet, our day guard. In exchange, I have been showing her how to use the computer and teaching basic typing skills. Education divides people into classes here just as it does at home. Similarly, for any chance of employment that promises a brighter future, you must know how to use the computer. To know how to use the computer, you must be able to pay for classes. Money = opportunity = power. In this calculus of economics, being born without advantages means almost certainly remaining in the situation you were born into.
As I grow more comfortable here, I begin to feel my own complacency creeping in. Working in an office, editing reports, compiling databases, and auditing budgets, it becomes all too easy to become insulated in my own little world of work, friends, and home. How do I continue pushing myself during my time here, continuing to challenge my own comfort zone and learn about the people of Uganda? National elections are this week, and conversation everywhere revolves around the candidates and political parties. People are stocking up on supplies; riots during the last election (this is only the third post-colonization) were brutal, and while it has been mostly peaceful thus far, the tension is palpable. Walking home today I had to pass through an exuberant, expectant throng of Besingye supporters. The opposition candidate was scheduled to make a personal appearance, and thousands lined the intersection in my neighborhood of Kabalagala (photo) to greet him. This past Sunday, the pastor of All Saint's Anglican Church in Kampala urged the congregation to focus not on the politics that might divide us, or the political candidates who ask for our trust, but instead to put our faith first and foremost in God. The message, coming after a time of singing praise songs in English and Luganda, was reassuring and refreshing after all the warnings and admonishments we have been receiving. And it made me continue to wonder, how am I called to live my life, at this time and in this place? How can I trust God to use me, to love through me? I don't know, but my perspectives are being changed.
March 2: I've started playing a little game with myself recently, attempting to discover exactly what activities can tire me out enough to sleep at night. With my roommate out of town, and my coworker friend with vehicle access gone to Sudan, moving around after dark has become problematic. Tonight, having returned to Kampala after spending the first part of the week in the western half of Uganda, I decided to walk to the market to pick up some fruit, yogurt, veggies, and sesame bars to tide me over the next few days. Already past six, I knew I was pushing the limits of daylight. Here at the equator, twilight is just a memory; it's almost as if an unseen hand wipes the sky from day to night, east to west. The moon was shining and the first stars had appeared as Richard let me in the gate. Although I had made good time, the darkness had almost overtaken me. In Kabalagala, the closest neighborhood with markets, nightfall always ushers in another round of beers, football matches, meat grilled at the side of the road, and music blaring from one open air bar to the next. It's the place to see and be seen, and tonight as I passed by, preparations were in full swing.
Over the last few days, I spent time with CRS' western area manager Emilly and a CRS connected fellow named Sharon criss-crossing the Bundibugyo district visiting five health clinics where we would be starting a PMTCT program. Essentially, the program targets HIV/AIDS positive mothers and provides simple supplies to ensure clean and safe delivery and Norparine syrup for mother and baby to increase the chance for the child to be born without the virus. Clinics would be supplied with emergency kits and "mama kits" to give out to every mother, regardless of viral status, so as not to stigmatize those living with HIV/AIDS. Each emergency kit will include a sterile blade, non-sterilized gloves, an umbilical tie, a piece of soap, and a piece of clean black plastic. This is to be given to each mother who comes in for ante-natal care (ANC) for the first time. The "emergency kit" is to be used by the mother in the event that she cannot return to the clinic for delivery. In all the clinics we visited, at most 10% of mothers who start ANC return to the clinic for delivery. The reasons for this include distance to the clinics, lack of male support to aid in transport to the hospital, lack of confidence in clinic staff or supplies, and inability to pay fees (although medical care is supposed to be free, some doctors or health aides charge for supplies or services). The "mama kit" includes a kitenge, or large piece of bright, colorful cloth to wrap the child in, as well as the supplies included in the emergency kit, and is given to mothers only if they return to the clinic to deliver. The push for mothers returning to clinics to deliver is not only because sterilized supplies are included in the kits, supplies many health clinics and individuals cannot afford, but also because for mothers testing positive for HIV/AIDS, the window for administering Norparine syrup and reducing the chance of mother to child transmission is very short. Mothers must take a dose at the onset of labor, and babies shortly after birth, if the medicine is to be effective. The other main component of the program involves community sensitizations regarding the role of men in the birth process. Without someone to help them to the clinic, and care for the other children while she is giving birth, women often have no choice but to deliver at home. Traditional attitudes here often cause men to have nothing to do with the birthing process; if a woman gives birth at a clinic, the man will not see the child until she brings it home. To prevent the transmission of AIDS from one generation to the next, both parents will have to be involved.
The health clinics focused on for this outreach were those in the district not supported by our partner NGOs UPHOLD and World Harvest Mission mainly because they were too remote and smaller than the five other clinics in the region. It took us two days to reach all the clinics, crossing a national park, reaching the DRC border, and driving all the way to a remote fishing village on the shore of Lake Albert whose clinic had all but shut down because the buildings were in such disrepair. We joked that they didn't need a "mama kit", they needed a whole clinic. We were all shell-shocked at the state of some of these facilities. On Tuesday, we had meetings with the district chairman and ministry of health representatives who all pledged to do whatever they could to help with our efforts. Later on Tuesday and Wednesday we found some of the clinics could not provide services or medicines to their clients because they had not received supplies from the ministry of health, or pay from the local government. As one clinic representative after another explained their plight, Emilly promised to advocate on their behalf. It's crazy to see all the aid and relief efforts NGOs and the government are pouring into this area, and yet at the same time watching it get stopped up in bottlenecks of bureaucracy. I sat in the office of the Ministry of Health representative waiting for him to arrive, and saw stacks upon stacks of informational booklets the clinics had been waiting for all last year crammed into a bookshelf. I later wondered if the absent Novarapine syrup, test kits, sterile supplies and government salaries were also stuffed in a dusty corner somewhere.
After witnessing the conditions of health care in these villages, I feel so incredibly fortunate. Seeing life in these villages, eating alongside locals outside a café in Kikuyo, famous because it boasted cold sodas- it was the only place in the village with a refrigerator- in a hut with poured cement floors and the best beans I've tasted in Uganda, I felt spoiled. I also started to relax. I enjoyed the company of my coworkers, finding ways to joke about the horrible conditions at a few of the clinics so we didn't fall apart right there. Driving through a national park seeing baboons, ibexes, warthogs and spider monkeys. Holding our breath together as we stop to let a military truck pull out in front of us, the soldiers in back brandishing a couple of AK-47s, a rocket launcher, and a tripod-mounted machine gun with a shiny stream of bullets strewn over his lap and shoulder. Knowing when to switch on the iPod after hearing the same Peter Cetera tape over and over and over to gain back a little sanity. As my time in Uganda draws to a close, I'm only just beginning to feel at home here, both at work, and in the country itself. It saddens me to think that just as I am growing to love this country, it will be time to leave it.
These past weeks, I keep finding myself drawn back to a passage in Isaiah I hadn't noticed before.
This is what the Soverign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says.
"In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.
You said, "No, we will flee on horses."
Therefore you will flee!
You said, "We will ride off on swift horses."
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!
-Isaiah 30:15-16, 18
Over the past weeks I have wondered about my own purpose and motivations while I am here, about my reasons for coming. I wonder if sometimes in my own quest to follow God, I try too hard. If what God really wants of us is "repentance and rest, quietness and trust", why do I try so hard to impress Him with deeds, words, and actions sometimes? Why can't I just let go a bit, and realize that God doesn't need me to help Him work out His will? It seems that the best bits, the moments when I feel closest to God, are the ones I had no hand in creating.
March 10: I have almost arrived. The race has been run, and all that remains is crossing the finish line. Looking back at my thoughts and expectations beginning this trip, I realize the Africa I found was nothing like the Africa I had expected. It is richer, more beautiful, infinitely more complex, and also much harder. I have grown in ways I could not have anticipated, as one of my fellow students so eloquently noted in her reflections. I will return home a different woman, perhaps, than when I left. I wonder if I will be able to fit back into my old life; perhaps the rhythms and routines I was used to will have to change to encompass this new me.
I wonder about the things I will never forget: the rooster across the wall crowing each morning along with the beeping of my alarm clock. Walking miles of dusty roads until I'm coated with a fine film of Africa itself. Seeing people so happy and yet living with so little compared with the "necessities" of life in America. Laughing with co-workers who have become friends. Finally finding that Korean restaurant in Uganda, and taking Emilly there as a "thank you" for letting me tag along in the field and having the vice president stop in for dinner. Travelling "public" around the city. Eating dinner with girls from Kenya and Azerbaijan while a few guys from the Congo watch football with us. Sleeping in a mosquito tent and feeling like I'm camping every night as I zip myself in. Folding all my clothes into piles on the kitchen table in hopes that the mice/rats/rodents won't make nests in them if they're out of my closet. Beginning to refer to myself as "mzungu". The families, out in the field, affected by AIDS/HIV. The conditions in the rural health clinics, and the men and women who work there.
It's part of me now, this experience that I have lived. I am grateful to the countless people who have journeyed with me throughout these weeks and months, to those who have prayed or sent emails, to those who sent care packages, to those who listened to me chatter on the phone about how things were going. I hope that just as I will never be able to look at the world in the same way, that somehow you will also be changed.