Thursday, December 24, 2009

First Weeks

Where to start! I have some serious catching up to do, having been in Uganda around 2 weeks now, so this will be a long one! I have been delighted, I have been cautious. I have made many first impressions, I’m sure half of which are wrong…

After 18 hours of airtime, I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda, just outside the capital Kampala. As I stepped off the plane, the scent of sweat, exhaust and wet clay overcame me. I don’t notice it anymore, except maybe the exhaust when I’m on a motorcycle and someone else’s tail pipe is literally in my face! That’s just how it smells here, at least in the towns.

I wondered if my ride would be there, or if I’d have to take a taxi at night, which my guidebook recommended against due to banditry on that highway… but… the book was pretty outdated. As I waited in the “other” line for immigration, I greeted my first African cockroach scurrying across the floor. I certainly felt like an “other.” Happily, my host family was waiting patiently for me, with big smiles.

I see now, that I met some very good friends that night. They made my first days in Uganda absolutely wonderful. They are the type of people you want to know your whole life. Despite the cultural differences, we clicked. We understood each other, and we laughed a ton. They were extremely generous and welcoming, treated me like one of their own, and even took me to see tourist attractions I’m sure they had little interest in.

One such attraction was the world’s largest mud/grass hut, built for the King of Buganda, part of Uganda. It is a living monument, meaning the descendents of the king’s 84 wives still live in the hut, alternating 4 wives at a time throughout the year. Each one has been living there since they were little. Their sole purpose is to await the king’s return (who is buried there). There are however, still living kings in other parts of Uganda who are trying to get back some power the British stripped of them, but politics… I will leave for later.

A typical day here in Kampala would start with waking at 4am to a rooster call, then dozing back off before the dogs and the birds started in around 6. Sometimes it would rain during the night, even thunder. I loved it. I’d “take tea” – I’m guessing a legacy of the British, then talk with the many children living here about what they want to be when they grow up. So far, one judge, one teacher. Some had lost a parent or 2 and were taken in here; some were my host family’s. All were so sweet. We’d have white bread and margarine for breakfast, along with bananas, corn flakes with raw warm cow’s milk, and maybe some kind of sausage.

Then we’d be off to the primary school where my host mom Olivia is the Head Mistress, and I’d get to work networking with NGOs, on the phone or online if the electricity didn’t go off. We’d take lunch at school, consisting of some combination of Matoke, avocados, rice, beans, groundnut sauce, potatoes, green beans or sweet potatoes. Meats include chicken, smoked fish, goat, and beef stew, which is the entire cow less the head, boiled in water. Bananas, mangoes, papaya, watermelon, and jackfruit are all served as snacks or after a meal. We eat the same food for dinner.

There is no Mexican, no Italian, no Thai, and no hamburgers. I’ve never seen spices here. Hardly anything is familiar, or has any flavor. There is often no refrigeration, so meat has a “different” taste. It is sold in the open-air markets. Whole cows are hacked up with an ax on a stump on the side of the road. I know this because it is Christmas Eve, and I saw about 20 along the road today. I know this isn’t improving my chances of anyone coming to visit me, but that’s how it is! I did find a super market in Kampala –near a predominately white/international neighborhood that had refrigerated meat. I made my family spaghetti one night from that hamburger. They were kind enough to choke it down. Then I saw them eating traditional food once they thought I’d gone to bed! Sometimes if I don’t eat much for dinner, they tell me to take more, but I remind them that their food is like my spaghetti to them, every day, then they laugh and offer me fruit for desert, which I devour.

During my time in Kampala, I was blessed to meet many wonderful people who truly shared their lives with me. I got to meet some “vulnerable girls” and go with them to Lake Victoria. Many if not all had never been able to afford to go there, even though it was really close to town. Fuel is very expensive. For many, it was their first time swimming or ever seeing a body of water. These are girls who cannot afford to go to high school, so they are learning weaving, baking, and tailoring instead in hopes they can make a living.

December is wedding month in Uganda. I attended an “Introduction” –the first ceremony of three in a Ugandan wedding in which the groom gives the bride’s family her dowry. Often, even in the biggest city, a cow or goat is literally pulled up on stage and handed over to the bride. It is an extensive event, lasting 6-8 hours with lots of food and dancing –particularly the kind of bootie shaking I just simply cannot pull off!

I’ve been learning about various development projects, and eventually I taught the school caretakers how to make fuel briquettes to cook with instead of using charcoal. 1/3 of Uganda’s forests are gone, largely due I believe to cutting for firewood. Fuel briquettes are made from waste materials like saw dust and shredded paper, are cheap to manufacture, and much better for the environment since trees don’t need to be cut. Sadly, for reasons I intend to investigate, this technology has not taken off here. The boys I taught at the school, the ones usually in charge of chopping firewood, were delighted to learn of this, and intend to buy a briquette maker. Everyone asked if I used briquettes at home, and I had to explain, that no, we use gas or electricity. It’s hard to see their faces when I say things like that. Those lucky enough to have a TV have a sense of how different American life is. They watch the King of Queens.

I’ve been careful to think that I will help anyone here. I think I am learning more than anything. I’m learning to take life slower, to enjoy the moment, and not rush. If I rush to arrive to an appointment on time, I am 1 to 1.5 hours earlier than anyone else. But recently, since adopting African time of coming really late, I have found that not all Ugandans follow this, making me the one who is late! Now when I make an appointment I always ask if that’s American or African time.

This isn’t my personal paradise, but I didn’t think it would be. It is, very like what I thought it would be. It is hot, dry, dusty, dirty, smoky, friendly, very, very poor and often loud with a sort of Ugandan rap music. I have had many pleasant experiences too of course, like seeing that Ugandans are extremely industrious and entrepreneurial, they have huge hearts, and want to help me in any way possible. I’m becoming addicted to Latin American soap operas in the evening –their version of a sitcom sort of. It’s ridiculous, but it unites us all, even men! I’ve always laughed at soaps, but now I kind of want to see if Preta is going to marry Domino, or go back to Raphael, her great love who she thought was dead (but of course has come back disguised as his twin brother to protect his money.) I think it is a way for people here, and everywhere, to escape the realities of their lives for an hour, including me.

There are several issues here I find very hard to stomach. For one, domestic violence is a big problem, but more than that, there is the occasional “ritual killing” when a witch doctor orders a patient to make a human sacrifice, in order to solve the patients’ problems. There was a news report about one the other night, a father killing his infant son. It was… awful. But… please don’t worry about my safety. I don’t hang around people who believe in witch doctors, and we have our crazies in the US for sure too. It’s just a different version of crazy that I’m not used to so it’s startling. I actually feel very safe here, and I take a lot of precautions I think most Americans here do not.

Also there is an anti-gay rights bill in government right now you probably know about since Obama openly opposed it, and by anti I mean if you are gay, you get the death sentence. I would be terrified to be gay here. I’d move if I could. I’d leave everything if I could. There are protests supporting the bill, but no one dares to protest against it in fear of their lives. An older gentleman at the school asked me about gays in the US and I informed him that if gays were free to be out in Ugandan society, his life would indeed, not be threatened. He seemed relieved at this news. I couldn’t really believe I was having that conversation.

Of course there was a guy yesterday who told me his brain was 4 times better than any woman’s. He was serious. He was a potential colleague at an NGO. I set him straight in a nice way and later joked about him being a baboon. He got the point and we got along just fine after that. I got the impression no woman had ever spoken up to him before and he was rather speechless. On the whole though, people here are as kind and friendly as you could ever imagine. Everyone helps me out and I have not been afraid at all. I just don’t want to give the impression this is a cakewalk with mangoes and butterflies and sunshine everywhere. It’s rather uncomfortable, quite often, but I’m learning a lot.

Lastly on a neutral note, the landscape is dense vegetation in some areas –banana, papaya, mango, planted corn and trees. It is relatively flat in the capital, but there are mountains in the east and west of the country, where I will spend some time over the New Years in a small village –I think sleeping in a mud hut. I’m excited for that. I miss mountains. It rains some here, but in the north, the area of the most recent war, is semi-arid with red dust that blows around the streets and into your face. It’s so scorching hot that I broke out in what they call “prickly heat”, a heat rash that itches like none other. I lasted 5 days up north and came back down here to Kampala for Christmas to escape the heat and “flu” the dust gave me.

When you drive through town you’ll see a random cow here or there along with goats and chicken everywhere. They aren’t really corralled, even in the capital. You can even buy a pair of live roosters, from street vendors, as you ride the bus and keep it on the bus with you as you travel. I’ve seen about 15 white people since I’ve been here. I am, a mazungu, white person, and the kids love to shout it “Mazungu! Mazungu! How are you?” and wave, smiling. I wave, say hello and they giggle non-stop.

If anything, these last few weeks have taught me to really appreciate what I have, in the way of comforts and those who love and care about me. Many children are abandoned here. Many are taken in. Often they are a product of the rape of women during wartime, and too, rape in times of peace. Others lost parents to war, disease, and HIV/AIDS. A very educated man I spoke with was amazed to learn that many women in the US have access to other forms of family planning other than condoms, like daily birth control pills. He said he had too many children.

Ah… be thankful for what you have. You have a roof, a safe place to stay, healthy meals many times per day, clean water and healthcare. You do not have to worry about your home being raided, your village burned, or your children abducted. We don’t have the risk of malaria, high HIV/AIDS and TB or polio. Most Americans have a bed, a family, more than one shirt, and at least one pair of shoes. We get to eat salads. I miss salad. You’d likely get sick if you eat salad here due to poor hygiene and sanitation. We have leisure time and money to travel, and take up hobbies that are completely unnecessary to our survival. We, for the most part, live on a level of luxury I can’t even describe to most people here. Subsistence farmers, who make up the majority of Ugandans, don’t have a frame of reference for our wealth. When they run out of clean water, if they ever had it, they drink contaminated water, fall sick, and many die. They have no choice.

Appreciate the ones who love you and the life you have. People literally kill for the life we have. I am in no position to preach, but I’m going to anyway because you are not here, and if I don’t say this now, it may fade from me once I return to comfort and luxury and I want to set these standards for myself too.

Be good to yourself and others. Don’t get annoyed at the little things people do that bother you. Remember that everyone is fighting their own fight in life and it is our duty to help each other throughout life, even if we don’t know or understand their struggles. We all need each other. I’m finding that, “no man is an island”. I could not be here, if I didn’t have support and love from you all. There is simply no way that I could psychologically handle it.

So with that, thank you, and I wish you the very best, sincerest, holiday wishes. I hope you truly find peace, love, and hope in this season to sustain you throughout the new-year and every day of your life. I miss you all very much, and wish you a wonderful Christmas.

Home Life

My host brother Hans and I playing with my laptop's camera and playing "claws" with our hands. He keeps he happy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thank you

I want to thank the people who have been so supportive of me, the last few months and my whole life! My friends and family. Thank you all. I will be flying out tomorrow. -A good thing since it is sooooo cold in Portland right now!

I'm finally getting excited. I'm ready for the next adventure, and looking forward to what I will learn. Now if I can fit everything in my pack... Hmm... I should probably start working on that now.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

6 days

6 days and counting.... I'm leaving for the adventure of a lifetime soon. Uganda, East Africa: Source of the River Nile, home to the mountain gorilla, site of some of the world's worst human right's abuses. Home to kind, enduring, welcoming people who live with very little. Ugandans have a 60% literacy rate, a majority of the inhabitants live on less than $1 per day, in extreme poverty, a kind of poverty that is unheard of here.

So why am I going to Africa? Why Uganda? Why the northern frontier town of Gulu to be exact? It just happened to be the place I felt I could do something good. A place I could be stretched as much I could possibly be stretched. I'm going on a journey, for myself, for my growth and development as a human being, and I am going for the people of Uganda who surmount challenges every day I can hardly imagine, such as starvation, illness, violence and a lack of basics. I am going, not to fix anything, achieve anything, or become anything. I simply feel that I need to go, and thankfully, I have the chance to go now.

I sit in my favorite cafe, a block from my house, and write this first entry. I hold on to my experiences here with a certain intensity, a certain tenderness, knowing that my perceptions, my attitudes, my whole life will change dramatically in one week, and although I fear change and uncertainty as much as any other person, I know this will do me so much good. Maybe, I can do something good for someone else while I am there too.