Katherine McFerson :: Uganda
It has been over three weeks since I arrived in Uganda. Before I left, I was told that this would be the hardest experience that I would ever love. In my short time here, I have been challenged, appreciated, accepted, rejected and made to think about my ideas and beliefs from new perspectives. Though every day is a different (and often difficult) experience, Uganda is a beautiful country with wonderful people where I truly enjoy working and living.
I work here as an intern for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). My job is to get to know the majority of the programs that the office runs (things like microfinance, water sanitization, HIV/AIDS care, and others) and write up “project briefs,” which are one-page summaries similar to brochures. I am stationed in Fort Portal (western Uganda) but will have the opportunity to travel to other parts of the country in order to learn about programs based those areas.
The first aspect of life here that struck me was Uganda’s incredible diversity. I stayed in the capital city, Kampala, for my first week. There, it seemed relatively easy to forget that I was in Africa as the city has anything I could want or need, including a mall, movie theater and several swimming pools. Here in Fort Portal, many aspects of life are different and unlike any place I have ever been.
The town itself is small, with only four main roads, and sits in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon, which provide both excellent scenery and a cooler temperature. My greatest physical struggle is the unreliable power, which results in difficulties storing food and charging appliances. More basically, I have a difficult time crossing the street due to heavy bicycle and boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) traffic and the fact that here, cars have the right of way and will run into a pedestrian. Mentally and emotionally, I struggle in communicating with my coworkers and other people here. Though I am happy that most people speak English, I often feel as though I am speaking a second language because of their heavy accent and my need to over pronounce each letter (especially consonants) and rephrase my statements or questions in at least two different ways in order to be understood. The local language is Rutooro. Learning some conversational phrases like oraire ota (good morning) and kirokindi (another day) has helped me to make friends and blend in socially (as much as it is possible for me to blend in, that is).
Aside from the difficult communication, the people that I have met in Uganda are absolutely wonderful. In general, they are reserved, but also friendly, sincere and amiable. I enjoy their unique ability to laugh at any comment or in any situation. This positive atmosphere has made my adjustment far easier. Another contributor to my easy adjustment is my housemate, Mary. A fellow American and CRS volunteer, Mary works with CRS Fort Portal’s microfinance program. Though I was originally disappointed that I would not be living with a host family, I am grateful for Mary, as she is a wonderful person to relate to while I work through adjusting to the life and culture and has introduced me to her many friends here (both Ugandans and expatriates). We live only two doors down from the office in a self-contained house, which means that the kitchen and bathroom are inside. We have western-style toilets, a shower, a hot water heater and basically what we need (more than, really). One thing we don’t have is a clothes washer and dryer, so I’ve started learning how to do this by hand. So far, I’m not very good. Half of my load ended up smelly from not drying fast enough and a quarter was still dirty when I was done so I have to do another load soon!
Besides learning about Uganda, I am also learning a great deal about CRS and what it means to be an NGO in a developing country. Though I am interested in nonprofit and international development work myself, after my first two weeks I wondered how people manage to make it into a career. I appreciated the philosophy of CRS and the programs in theory, but communication and follow-through can be painfully slow. Requests often have to be made several times before a document will be sent or a proposal made. Last week I visited a local hospital, Virika, that works with CRS on AIDS programming. My tour of the hospital seemed to be one long list of facilities that were being merged to accommodate the surplus of clients and machinery that was broken and would be fixed or replaced in an undeterminable amount of time. How difficult it must be to work under these circumstances every day! Later in the week, still feeling pessimistic, I traveled to a community group that participates in the Savings and Internal Lending Communities program (SILC). The group was able to pool and save their money in order to give out loans to group members, who pay the loan back with interest. This method allowed group members to buy school supplies for their children, seeds and other farming supplies, and items for resale. Where many programs simply give out aid, SILC gives people the skills that they need to improve their own lives now and after CRS leaves. It was wonderful to see people who are impacted by the work CRS does. When I brought this up to the driver, he launched into a several-minute speech about how CRS works from the ground up, listening to the people in need and not pretending that everything is okay or that they know what the people need. “Even if I was not employed by them, still, I would feel this way,” he said. I found it touching that every CRS employee, including the drivers, feels impassioned and proud. At that point and ever since, I could not help but feel the same.
My time in Uganda has raced by and I am now in my 9th week here. My experiences could easily fill a book, but I will do my best to share some memories that stand out for me.
In the middle of my stay, my job took me to Gulu (Northern Uganda) to learn about CRS’ agriculture programs. The drive took over seven hours. As we bounced along the pothole-filled road, I watched the lush, green and mountainous terrain transform into a flat and dry land, much like a slightly greener version of what a Westerner might imagine stereotypical Africa to look like.
Twenty years of civil strife has left the people of Northern Uganda in a poor situation. The conflict forced many people to leave their homes and live in internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. The IDPs face difficulties such as poor sanitation in the camps and being unable to continue their traditional means of livelihood: agriculture. CRS’ initial efforts were to combat these issues. Now, as peace increases, IDPs are moving back to their original homes. Loss of technical farming knowledge over the years is just one of many difficulties returnees face. In order to speed the recovery process and combat dependency on food aid, CRS focuses its efforts in the north on agriculture.
I spent the week both in the office interviewing program managers and also in the field visiting projects. First, we saw two SILC groups (internal lending communities). The second group we visited was an all women’s group. I was able to interview them while my coworkers reviewed their records. It filled me with joy to hear about what these women were able to accomplish with the skills CRS provided them. I wanted to communicate my congratulations, but I only knew three words in Acholi: (1) kopengo – hello/how are you, (2) kope – the response to kopengo and (3) afoyo – thank you. It was incredibly frustrating having so much to say to someone and only be able to smile and say, “thank you.”
Another experience in Gulu was helping at a seed fair. The fair and voucher method has become CRS’ main system of seed distribution. The old method of NGOs providing seed involved an NGO buying a certain seed and distributing it to identified beneficiaries. A seed fair is a market where CRS invites local vendors to come with seed, identifies beneficiaries, educates both parties on the process of buying and selling, then distributes vouchers. A buyer will use their vouchers (which total 35,000 USH) to buy seed. The vendors receive a receipt for the vouchers they collect and are reimbursed at a later date. This system benefits the NGO because it does not have to pay for seed, the vendor because they would not have been involved otherwise, and the beneficiary because they have a wide range of seed to choose from. Since I could not speak Acholi, I mainly took pictures and made use of myself by totaling voucher amounts at the end of the fair.
Working in and around IDP camps is a memory I will never forget. Though I had seen many pictures of them, I had never fully grasped the reality of camp life. What struck me most was the complete lack of privacy. An entire family fills one small hut, which is surrounded on all sides by other huts. The huts themselves are round and made of mud bricks, then covered with cow dung to make them appear smooth. Roofs are made of thatch and doors are either made of wood or a piece of cloth. Showers and bathrooms can best be described as outdoor shacks that generally sit in the middle or just to the side of the camps. As for the people, I saw many women either cooking or carrying jugs of water or food on their heads (often with a baby strapped to their back). Swarms of children were everywhere (which is not surprising as over 50% of the population is under 14 years of age). The kids ran around, chewed vigorously on sugarcane, collected water from the pump and even stole a baby monkey from the bush to entertain me with. I couldn’t help but be entertained, but also hoped that the baby would be returned to its mother and that the children did not contract any diseases!
My time since Gulu has been very relaxed. I have been spending time with friends, visiting parks, going on walks around the town and working in my office. I can hardly believe the time has nearly come to pack up my belongings and head back home. I have learned so much from the Ugandan people and CRS employees, in particular. Every day here has challenged me in a different way. I have been made to question the way that I view the world and the way in which it is organized and have even been taken by surprise by some middle-class American prejudices I did not realize I had. The Ugandan people taught me to appreciate life and the set of circumstances that I was born into. They also taught me about what is truly necessary in life and what is not. Most importantly, I have learned about the importance of global solidarity and the need for each of us to reach out to one another with an open mind, heart and hand.
The “Pearl of Africa” will always have a special place in my heart. Though I look forward to going home, seeing my friends and family and finishing school, I will think fondly of my time here and deeply miss all of the people who I have connected with.