Of pina coladas and free shoes

Itye from Gulu, Uganda! (That means “hi” in Acholi. The Luganda we learned in Kampala is now fairly useless for communicating, because no one speaks it outside of central Uganda, and Acholi belongs to a completely different language class, so there isn’t any overlap.)  But we have arrived safely in Gulu, and I’ve already fallen in love with the city.

I liked Kampala, but it was exhausting.  It was massive and hectic, and I always had to be on guard as soon as I stepped out of my door.  We’ve only spent 4 days in Gulu, but I really like its small-town feel, the dirt roads, the more laid-back atmosphere, and the total lack of traffic.  I love that everything is within walking distance, and people don’t generally try to overcharge us just because we’re white.  People here walk and ride bikes a lot, which is awesome.  Taxis are almost never used, which is equally awesome.  Boda bodas are the main method of transportation, and our program directors told us the rule against riding them is applied leniently for students who are here.  In my limited experience, I think the people are also a lot nicer here than in Kampala.  A few examples of the kindness: When we ask for directions, people keep actually escorting us to our destination; my flip flops broke on our way to the phone store, and a few minutes later someone from the shoe store next door came in and presented me with a new pair of sandals that someone had bought for me; and the other day when it started pouring rain as we were leaving an internet café, one of the employees drove us home for free.  I think the town is generally a lot more mellow than Kampala, and that’s the main reason that I like it so much.

The problem is, getting things to happen here is pretty difficult because everything moves so slowly.  We’ve been staying at a hotel for the past 4 nights while we try to find a house or apartment to rent, and it keeps seeming like we’re on the verge of moving, but it hasn’t happened yet.  There’s always some wrench that gets thrown in the plan: either there is some man who is supposed to call us back in an hour but who we can’t get in touch with until the next day, or it’s raining so we can’t go see a house (though we feel that we could indeed go see a house in the rain), or the power is out so it’s a bad time for meeting…the list goes on.  So as I write this, I’m fairly sure we’ve secured a house to rent, and are going to be able to move in tomorrow.  But we’ll see what happens.  At least the hotel is pretty nice—we each have our own room, there are showers, and latrines that flush.  Though as of today, the water has run out, so the showers aren’t working and the latrines don’t flush…but until today it was good haha.

That’s one of the weird things about living here: you start appreciating things you had never thought about before (running water and electricity, for instance).  I had never thought about how convenient it was to have water that came out of a tap every time you turned the handle until I came here.  Now even things like making a sandwich become more complicated, because to wash the knife you use for the peanut butter, you have to scoop water out of the basin that collects rain water outside, then bring the water to the sink, pour it over the knife, add soap, and pour more water to rinse.  Which of course isn’t an efficient way to use the water, because that’s a lot of water to use to wash one utensil.  Conservation is another thing that I think about a lot more here.  Of course at home I always try to conserve water and electricity, but it doesn’t seem as vital to do so.  The idea of running out of water at home is absurd; I try to conserve for monetary reasons, and because I think it’s better not to use more of a resource than you need.  But here, conservation is a survival strategy.  You know that if you use too much water, you might not be able to access it again for a few days.  (This is less severe for us—the people who don’t drink this water—than it might be for people for whom the water supply is also their drinking water.)  Then, here in Gulu in particular, I’ve come to realize how much I depend on electricity.  In Kampala, the power sometimes went out, but it was usually back on within a few hours, or half a day at the most.  As I write this, the power has been out in all of Gulu for nearly 2 days.  We’re fortunate enough to have a generator at the hotel, so we’ve been able to have a few hours of electricity each night (they only turn the generator on when it gets too dark to see, and they turn it off around 10:30PM so people can sleep—it’s really loud!), but it has still been quite the adjustment.  It’s frustrating when your cell phone, which is your main method of communication, runs out of batteries and there’s no way to charge it; I had to make a conscious decision to write this blog and use up precious computer battery; and other things like that.  It’s just funny how disconcerting it is when things you always took for granted are taken away.

Academically, Gulu has been a little disappointing so far.  It turns out that my advisor, who assured me that I could carry out the internship/research that I wanted to do at Gulu Hospital with no problems, didn’t quite know what he was talking about.  I am hoping to work primarily with outreach services and prevention of child malnutrition here, but I’ve been placed in the hospital, where they only do treatment.  The treatment is interesting, and is part of what I wanted to learn, but I really can’t imagine spending 5 weeks working on this end of the problem.  Those of you who remember my pre-med days know that I used to think I wanted to be a doctor, because I felt like I would be making such a difference by helping people who were really sick or injured.  The need for medical care can be so urgent, and being able to satisfy that need seemed like it would be very fulfilling.  This is probably the same motivation that led me to pursue work as an EMT.  I still feel that such work is really important, but I also have developed a strong feeling that attacking root causes is more important to me, personally.  I feel that I, as Christina, can make more positive change in the world by helping people to address the factors that cause health problems (in this case, malnutrition).  Treatment is an important part of it, but nursing a malnourished child back to health isn’t making a lasting change in the society that created the malnourished child in the first place.  I really want to get involved in outreach/prevention services that will help parents to figure out creative ways to give the children the nutrients they need, despite other challenges the family is facing (including cultural pressures, possible HIV infection, or lack of access to crops due to displacement from their land, to name a few).  The in-charge in the malnutrition unit of the hospital told me that “outreaches are supposed to happen, but they don’t.”  So I think I need to connect to an NGO that does these types of things…which is frustrating, because it kind of puts me back to square 1, and a week of our 6-week practicum is already gone.  But the way things seem to work in Uganda, I’m still fairly sure that things will work out.  They always do, though I’m never sure how it happens.  So I guess I’ll do what I can, and leave the rest up to whatever strange forces are in play here.

As far as social things go, I turned 21 the day after we arrived, and enjoyed a really atypical birthday.  We spent most of the day hanging out in town and exploring.  We discovered a great little market with tons of veggies (something we all felt was pretty lacking in our Kampala diets), as well as beautiful fabric, clothes, bags, and useful things for the home.  That night, we made make-shift pina coladas (combination of this pina colada juice that they have here, and some rum that we had to search the whole town to find) and drank them while sitting out on our porch and watching the day wind down.  My friends found some slices of cake and a candle that said “1,” which they lit while they sang to me in the hotel lobby.  It was actually a really perfect birthday.

We’ve also been able to meet up with students from the other SIT program in Uganda, which is based here for half of the semester, and in Rwanda for half of the semester.  They’ve showed us some good places to hang out, and seem like really cool people overall.  So even though things aren’t going quite as I imagined they would, I’m quite pleased with Gulu as a whole, and think I made the right decision in choosing to spend the next 5 weeks here.  OK, well my laptop has been flashing the low battery sign at me for almost 10 minutes now, so I think it’s time for me to post this.  Hope all is well.  ~CMK

And life just got interesting

Hey all,

Sorry for the cut-off post earlier. I made it home in time to make burritos for dinner, though, and my family loved them (especially the guacamole that I made to put on them). I also made breakfast the following morning (pancakes and french toast) which was also a big hit. Anyway, here’s the rest of my story from the last couple of weeks, picking up where I left off in discussion of the rural homestay:

Our host father took us on a lengthy tour of the village one day, and we got to visit the local school (711 enrolled students in 6 different grades and only 4 teachers for all of them. Also, only a primary school—nothing beyond that unless you travel more than an hour to town), the health center (a lower level than the one I previously visited–only 2 people on staff at this one, usually out of drugs…the usual, sadly), a few trading centers, water sources, and fields of crops. It was quite interesting, and I think our hosts enjoyed the recognition they got for being seen with two foreign guests.

Later that night, we received a special guest at our house—the chairman of the village (sort of akin to a mayor, I think).  We had an interesting conversation with him, though it was sort of impeded by the fact that our host brother, who was translating, sometimes decided to just answer our questions himself instead of translating them for the chairman.  It was comical, but a little problematic.  I was a little discouraged by our conversation with him, because he seemed so complacent.  He said his job was easy, and it seems to me that a good leader will never think that, because there are always new challenges that come up.  And in a village where there are 700 kids to 4 teachers, a health center without medications, at least 2 water sources that aren’t functioning, etc…there are definitely problems, so managing the village should not be easy.  It was a little disconcerting, because a lot of the leaders we’ve spoken to have been so inspirational, but I guess it would be unrealistic to expect all leaders to be like that.

The next day, we were taken to the local university to get a tour from one of our host brother’s friends.  We were a little nervous to be left with a total stranger, but we actually had a really fun time.  We found a lot of her friends along the way, and they showed us the local hangouts (including a place called Baboon Valley, where we saw—you guessed it—baboons!)  It was cool to spend time with people our own age, since a lot of our time in Kampala is spent with our host families.  Naturally I knew that there were universities here, but it was still sort of surprising to see how much their life there was just like my life at Tufts.  We all exchanged e-mail addresses and I really hope we’ll stay in touch.

Evenings in the rural homestay were incredibly comical in their extreme awkwardness, at least from my point of view.  It started getting dark around 7pm every night, and in the absence of electricity, there wasn’t much that could be done outside at that point, so everyone was usually inside by 8.  Then we all just sat around a lantern in the sitting room, listening to a battery-powered radio (usually not in English), and staring at each other…for 3-4 hours!  We usually ate dinner around 11, then sometimes had to have tea after that (they’re big on tea here, and it’s made with hot milk instead of water, so it’s much more substantial), then we were finally able to go to bed, though they thought we were funny for being tired at that point.  Eating dinner that late was kind of tough on the stomach (especially because the amount of food we were given every night was enormous, and our parents got really offended if we didn’t make a significant dent in it), but what really got me was the sitting around for 3 hours before that, doing NOTHING.  It was weird, because everyone seemed tired; the kids were always falling asleep on their chairs and the floor, and people didn’t seem to have the energy for a lot of discussion, but they wanted to stay up later anyway.  I should add here that not everybody was in the sitting room waiting…our host mom and sisters were outside working in the kitchen (the kitchens are separate structures in many Ugandan buildings), preparing dinner for us.  You can meditate on that gender dynamic for awhile.  The sad thing is, I actually thought the gender roles there were a little closer to equal than others I have observed in Uganda.

So we left our homestay on Saturday morning, and learned that African Time is often accentuated in rural areas, as we tried to leave at 11 and weren’t actually on our way until after 1.  That night, we stayed at the homestead of the parents of one of the SIT staff members.  It was beautiful and relaxing, and they actually had room for 32 of us to sleep there comfortably, which was very surprising.  That night, they arranged a party for us and invited some of the neighbors and some of the nearby homestay families.  It was a bizarre night, with an assortment of 90s music, rap, and Ugandan music blasting from speakers that were set up in the yard, and lots of little kids dancing (at times with us) in ways that were far too sexual for anyone’s comfort… Quite strange. The next day we returned to Kampala and I found out that I had a mild case of malaria.  It sounds exotic and scary, but it was really much like having a minor flu, except much more treatable.  I went to the doctor, got a blood test, got medication, and started feeling better the next morning.  I was pretty exhausted while I was taking the medication, but was totally able to go about my day-to-day activities.  Though I’m sure it would have been a lot less pleasant without the help of my malaria prophylaxis, and my easy access to a doctor and medication.  The whole trip to the doctor (including medicine) only cost me $25, but that’s still a lot more than most people here can afford to pay.  And we’ve already discussed how frequently the government hospitals (the free ones) actually have drugs… But anyway, the point is I’ve come out ok after battling malaria, and feel totally back to normal now.

The week just kept getting more intense as student elections heated up at Makerere University (the main university in Kampala, where we’ve taken some classes, but are now finished with).  Here, when students are running for office, they associate with national political parties (the equivalent of a student running on a Democratic or Republican ticket at home, except there are more choices and the stakes are higher).  There was a rally on campus last Tuesday that got a little out of hand, and the police (or a security guard, it’s a little unclear from the news) opened fire on the crowd of students, killing two and severely injuring one.  This sparked several days of riots that shut down the entire university for a week.

Then, the next evening, a historic cultural site for the Baganda (the main tribe in Central Uganda) burned down.  The site, which we had visited a few weeks earlier, was a collection of tombs for previous kings.  The tombs were above ground, and built much like the hut where we stayed in our rural homestay—out of dried grass and wood.  They were built on the land that the tribe has occupied for many, many years, and were a really important part of Buganda culture.  The burning was clearly intentional, and some people said that for them, it was akin to America’s 9-11.  There were rumors flying that the government may have been involved in/responsible for the burning, because they have been in conflict with the Baganda for quite some time.  There was a really tense time when we thought a lot of the city might erupt into riots, but the kabaka (one of the cultural leaders of the Baganda) called for peace and urged people not to take up arms against the government, so I think that really helped.  People still swarmed the site in mourning, and then President Museveni tried to visit to mourn with them, but he was blocked from entering, which prompted his guards to fire into that crowd.  Several people were injured, but I haven’t heard reports of deaths from that particular incident.  Again, it was tense for awhile, and we were urged to go home early so we would not be in the city center in case any disruption occurred, but it seems to have largely passed without any major violence (*knock on wood*).  The relations between the Baganda and the government are still really tense, and I’m sure it will flare up eventually, but for now everything is back to normal.

In other/related news, I’m leaving Kampala tomorrow, so I should be farther away from possible riots, for what that’s worth.  I’m heading up to northern Uganda with 4 other students to work/do research in Gulu.  I’ll personally be working in the hospital with the malnutrition unit, hopefully helping with the outreach services that work to prevent malnutrition in children.  The doctor who I’ve talked with at the hospital has assured me that I’m welcome there, but when I probed for details, said that we’d figure it out when I arrive.  Apparently this is common in Uganda, but it still makes me a little nervous, since as you all know, I’m the kind of person who likes to have a plan… Oh well, I’m learning how to go with the flow, and it’s probably good for me.  So that’s it for the time being.  I’ll let you know how my new home is when we get there.  Hope everyone is celebrating the passage of the healthcare bill; I heard the good news this morning! Peace and love from Kampala.

[insert witty title here]


So to start off, sorry for the lack of recent updates.  This has been an interesting last few weeks, to say the least. Looking back on the eastern excursion as a whole, I have to say it was a lot less outrageous than the western excursion (aka no dancing with prisoners this time!). The rural homestay was a great experience overall.  The living conditions were certainly a little less luxurious than I am used to (pit latrine and bucket showers!), but it was really interesting and pretty fun.

Thinking about our rural homestay experience just makes me smile, because it was sort of absurd in its own way. It started out with all of us piling onto several different buses with our homestay partners, all of us a little nervous about the next three days.  We got dropped off two by two, and were told that we would have to find our way back to our meeting place in town in 3 days.  My partner, Anna, and I were received by our host parents and led into the main house. We were showed to seats in the living room, and presented with a Visitors Book to sign (people here are obsessed with those things!), then we had some awkward getting-to-know-you chatting.  Eventually our host parents just kind of left the room, and we were served tea while a stream of people filtered into the room and introduced themselves, then filtered out again. It was hard to tell which people were part of the family and which were just friends and neighbors who wanted to stop by and see the guests. We basically just sat around all afternoon and talked to various people.

One of my favorite strange moments of the trip happened as Anna and I were sitting outside and chatting before dinner. It had gotten dark, so we didn’t see a figure approaching until it was very near us. He greeted us, and introduced himself as Jerry (again, we had no idea what relation he had to the family), and then said something along the lines of: “May I pose the question?” We both were pretty confused, and asked him to clarify, and we eventually said that he could pose his question, at which point he said, “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you?” We were both a little floored by the question. It just seemed a little early in the conversation to jump into such issues. But I think it’s not that strange in Ugandan culture. People here are generally very religious. Many different religions are practiced, including many branches of Christianity, Islam, and I think Hinduism (there is actually a substantial Indian population here), but I don’t think I’ve met a single Ugandan atheist. In my experience, most people don’t really understand when mzungus say they don’t have a religion.

Anyway, to condense three very long days into a few paragraphs: we spent a lot of the homestay time just hanging out around the homestead and talking to people. We tried to help out as much as we could, because our host mom and siblings were always so busy with tasks to keep the homestead running. Every time we offered to help, our host mom would laugh and laugh, and ask if we were sure, but eventually she would usually give us a task. Anna and I debated a lot about why it was so hilarious that we wanted to help, and there are many possible reasons, but I think that a lot of the laughter was actually just her way of expressing happiness. Our ADs told us at the beginning of the program that people here often show that they are happy through laughter, which is different from the U.S., where we usually don’t laugh out of happiness. We learned how to peel cassava and yams (some of the staple crops in that area), how to collect water from the bore hole, and how to milk the cows! It was actually really fun, and it made us feel like we were helping at least a little bit.

Annnnnnnnnnnd I’m out of time right now. I have to head back to my homestay because I am cooking mzungu food for my host family tonight, and if I don’t leave soon I won’t have it prepared by dinner time (which is like 9PM, for the record). I’ll have to finish this story later. Sorry for the abrupt ending! I promise to finish soon. Hope all is well at home! ~CMK


Hey all,

Back safely from the eastern excursion. Working on a lengthy post, but it’s not ready yet. For now, I have some pretty decent internet so I’m going to try to post a few pictures.

I tried to change the blog so it would show the entire picture, but I’m not sure if I was successful. You may have to click on the pictures to see the whole thing.

The best picture I could get of the crazy taxi park
Me and my host sister dressed up for a traditional wedding ceremony
The full view of the traditional dress–these things are not flattering in any way!
My host family taught me how to make chapatti! This is me mid-process:)
This is a school we visited in Western Uganda. It’s part of a Millenium Development Village project (i.e. one of the success stories)
This is me and Anna with our rural homestay family.
This is the hut Anna and I shared with some of our siblings during our rural homestay

Rural Life

Greetings from Mbale, Uganda!

Surprisingly, we have found very functional internet in the middle of rural Uganda.  On Sunday we spent most of the day driving east from Kampala to a very rural village whose name escapes me right now.  The scenery was absolutely breathtaking–actually somewhat similar to Colorado, but with an added tropically lush element.  We spent two nights at a hotel unlike any other I have experienced.  It was structured somewhat similarly to a summer camp, in that there were “dormitories” that were spread out, and we slept on bunk beds, with 4-6 people per room.  It was built on the side of a hill/small mountain, and beneath us the land sloped down into a valley.  On the other side, there were several waterfalls that I could see when I stepped out the door from my room.  It was calm, quiet, and beautiful–a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city, for sure.  It was somewhat like camping in that there were no real bathrooms–only latrines, and taps with running water for brushing teeth, etc.  There actually were showers (something many of us don’t even have in Kampala) with hot water (a big thing for us!), which was amazing, even if the water was a little overly hot [read: scalding].

We went on several hikes in the valley, and up to the base of two different, and large waterfalls.  We actually got to “shower” under one of the waterfalls, which was really cold, but so exhilarating and fun.  I didn’t believe that we would be able to stand under the water without getting knocked down, but it was really possible. I loved it because I kept looking up and thinking “Wow, how many times in my life am I going to be able to look up and see THAT?”  It was awesome.

We also did some work in the past few days (we are at school, after all).  We had several lectures on research methods, and then we went out into the local community and used the various research methods we had been taught.  (SIT has amazing resources/connections and they were able to set up groups of people who were willing to talk to us, so that was majorly helpful.)  The people my team interviewed were really interesting–they were part of a small “merry-go-round” group, where about 20 of them decided to come together and pool some of their money monthly, then give the sum to a different person each month, based on a pre-determined schedule.  That way, they were all able to make large purchases such as livestock, supplies of crops, parts for their houses, etc, that they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.  It was a really cool way to see people working together.

We have a free night in Mbale tonight, but we are staying at a church-run guest house which has a curfew of 10PM so it probably won’t be too eventful.  Then tomorrow we move into our rural homestays, where we will be for 3 days.  During those three days, the only other SIT person we will see is the other student we have been paired with for the trip.  Intense!  But I like my partner so I think it will be fine.  We’re also supposed to bring them gifts, and our coordinators told us that livestock are very popular gifts, so we’re bringing a hen!  (They said since it will lay eggs, the family probably won’t kill it, so I hope they’re right!)  But again with one of those rare opportunities…how many times am I going to be able to bring someone a live chicken as a gift?  Out of time!  Hope all is well. Peace and love!

Not in Kansas anymore

Sometimes I almost forget that I’m not in the U.S..  I’m starting to feel really comfortable here, and maybe I’m kind of getting sensitized to a different way of life.  In general, things aren’t as nice/fancy here as they are at home, but they serve their purpose.  I stop being surprised when I see dilapidated buildings and when I hear people shouting, “Mzungu, I love you!” at me.  I’m getting good at crossing the street and weaving in and out of taxis that are stuck in “the jam,” and I’m starting to know my way around the city.  Sometimes it starts to feel like home.

But then there is always an immediate reality check.  Today was like that.  We have now split up into electives for our classes, and my elective is Public Health.  We went to visit a health clinic in a village on the outskirts of the city.  We conducted focus group discussions about family planning with some people from the community, and we got a tour of the facilities.  The FGD went really well—we split into two groups, each talking to one gender group.  My group talked to the men, and it was actually a lot of fun.  They really loosened up and started joking with us, and it became a dialogue about culture and gender roles.  I’m going to write a whole blog about gender issues later, so I won’t go into that right now, but it was a really interesting/fun experience.

The mood got more sober really quickly, though, when we started getting a tour of the clinic.  The healthcare system in Uganda is supposed to be universal; people can go to any government health center and receive care free of charge.  There are 5 levels of health center, with the lower levels treating very few conditions and the higher levels treating everything.  This was a level 4 health center, which is supposed to be able to do everything except complex surgeries.  The grounds were extensive and in decent condition, but it became clear very quickly that there were major problems with the clinic.  They were drastically understaffed and didn’t have the most basic supplies/drugs.  There were around 35 patients waiting in the hallway to see one clinic officer, who I think is basically the equivalent of a Physician’s Assistant in the U.S. (and this was around 2pm in the afternoon).  In the maternity ward, the facilities for delivering a baby were really sparse.  There were two delivery tables, and that was pretty much all.  They didn’t have any blankets to wrap the babies in (the mothers have to bring those, along with sheets for their hospital bed when they come to deliver), no oxygen to jumpstart a baby’s breathing, not even anything to suction the nose/mouth (the first thing you’re supposed to do when delivering a baby).  And painkillers for the mom?  Forget it.

So basically, if the delivery is abnormal in any way, they are not equipped to deal with it.  They have a surgery wing, but they don’t have a surgeon; they have a blood bank but no blood.  They can supposedly refer to the main hospital if they are unable to handle a patient, but it takes so long to get between the two places (due to the roads and the traffic) that it seems unlikely to me that a patient with a severe health emergency would survive.  The only time-effective way to get between the two places would be to take a motorcycle taxi, called a boda boda.  I forgot to include those in my post about transportation, but they’re not that complicated.  Basically, some men have motorcycles that they drive around the city, and you can pay to get a ride almost anywhere on one.  They’re more expensive than regular taxis (from what I’ve heard it’s usually between 5000 and 6000 shillings to go across town, when it’s never more than 2000 on a conventional taxi), but they are a lot more maneuverable than the taxis, meaning you arrive much more quickly when you travel by boda.  We are forbidden to use them while we’re on the program because they are deemed unsafe.  I think this is a legitimate stipulation, because the boda bodas weave through traffic, sometimes driving on the wrong side of the road or the sidewalk to get around traffic jams, and the passengers never wear helmets.  (Surprisingly, the government just passed a law saying that all boda boda drivers have to wear helmets, and they are actually wearing them.  I say I’m surprised because laws really seem to have little legitimacy here…).  But back to the original point, a lot of the people we talked to at the clinic said it was already a struggle for them to pay enough to get there, so they certainly wouldn’t have enough to pay for more transport.

Also, there is the fact that they are unsafe.  While we were at the clinic, there was a car accident on the road right outside where a boda boda crashed into a taxi.  At first I thought it wasn’t a big deal since we were right outside of a clinic, and because people didn’t seem to be too worried about it.  But then as they were talking about it more, people were saying that the passenger who was on the boda was probably going to die.  That hit me pretty hard—she was a young woman, probably about my age, hadn’t been wearing a helmet, and sustained a pretty serious head injury.  Since I have training as an EMT, I was thinking about all the things that should be done for someone with a head injury, but then I realized that they had none of the resources to do any of those things.  It just made me so mad—I was thinking “What do you mean she’s going to DIE?!”  It’s just absurd that this happened right outside of a “high level” health center, and they couldn’t do anything for her.  They couldn’t even treat the driver, who was injured less severely.  They had to send them both to the main hospital (which we visited a few weeks ago, and it’s really not that much better equipped).

The whole trip just brought me sharply back to the reality of the situation, which is that I am in a resource-limited country, and when something goes wrong here, people usually aren’t able to deal with it.  It would probably be different if something like that happened to me, because I would be able to pay to go to a private clinic that would be better equipped.  But for the majority of the population, that’s not an option, and that is a sobering fact to remember.  For all the bad things people say about the U.S. (myself included), at least you know that if someone is having a health emergency, they will be taken to the hospital which will treat them to the best of their ability.  Like I said, this is just one of those sharp reminders that this setting is quite different.

This weekend we are leaving for a week-long trip to rural parts of Eastern Uganda, where I’m sure I’ll experience a lot of other things that are really different and difficult to comprehend.  So I’ll definitely come back with at least one blog entry, but I may not post for awhile because we won’t have internet access.  So until then, don’t worry about me, and take care everybody.  Peace.

But there is also life

Greetings all,

I feel as if the last post may have come off a little more negatively than I had planned. I really am OK, and this experience has a lot of positive aspects as well as the difficult ones. Uganda is kind of reminding me of that scene from Lord of the Rings (yes, I am pulling out the LOTR reference, sorry to be a nerd) where Elrond is trying to convince Arwen to join the rest of the elves in leaving Middle Earth, and he says he has looked into her future and “there is only death” there (because he sees that Aragorn will die and she will be left mourning). But then she has her own vision and sees her future child, and says to her father “But there is also life.”

That’s how I feel about this experience so far. Yes, I have already seen a lot of pain and suffering, and yes it has been hard… But truly, I think coming here was one of the best decisions I have made. There really is a lot of life and joy here. Despite all the problems they have, people here seem so happy. When you walk down the street in downtown Kampala, you pass hundreds of vendors, selling out of storefronts, stands, or off of blankets spread on the ground. They report that they don’t make much money (probably about the equivalent of $1-2 on an average day), and on some days they won’t sell anything. Some of them sleep in the same place where they operate their business, which may mean on the sidewalk, covered with a tarp. But when you pass them in the middle of day, you would never know. People are constantly laughing, joking, and generally having fun while they work. That’s something that is really difficult to find in the U.S.. In my mind I compare the high-powered, suited, business men working in Wall Street-type places with the business men here (who also wear suits, by the way), and it just amazes me, because I feel like the U.S. business world exists in greyscale, whereas here business takes place in vivid color.

The atmosphere in general is just so different. The U.S. is so rooted in capitalistic ideology, and everyone is trying to get ahead, no matter how many people they have to push down to achieve that goal. Here, though people are also trying to succeed because it’s a matter of survival, it’s more laid back and there is a much stronger sense of community. People help each other, which is really refreshing to see. But it also extends beyond economics, into family life and just life in general.

I find the family relations and personal space conceptions especially interesting. Family lines are much less clearly defined than they are in the U.S.. Parents treat many children as their sons and daughters, not just those who are biologically related. People who are considered cousins in the U.S. are brothers and sisters here. Maternal aunts and uncles are considered other sets of parents, and these people consider their brother’s/sister’s children to be their own children. In some families, it’s hard to tell how many people actually live there because friends, relatives, and neighbors are continually flowing in and out.

People are just friendlier here. I have never walked down any street here without being greeted by multiple people along the way, and the few times I’ve been lost in the city, people have been amazing in helping me find my way back to where I’m supposed to be. Maybe part of that friendliness has something to do with my skin color—being white definitely has its advantages here. (I hereby correct the language I used in a previous post, where I wrote that being white automatically put me at a disadvantage. I’ve thought about it a lot since posting that and it has bothered me, because it’s definitely not true. It does make me stand out, and sometimes that makes me a target for getting ripped off, but sometimes it opens me up to opportunities that might not be available to other people.) But the friendliness also just pervades Ugandan society in general. I hear it in the pleasant chatter in the taxis, when busses in the U.S. can be completely silent; I see it in the way people always have time to stop on the streets and say hi, when I’m often guilty of walking past friends at home because I’m in too much of a hurry to stop; I feel it in the touch of the smiling children who run to hold my hand as I’m walking through their neighborhood, though they have such a difficult life compared to American children. You know what I mean? It’s really refreshing, and I just admire it so much, because even though life is hard, people here have their priorities straight and are enjoying the life they have been given.

I think this is illustrated well in one last anecdote. I met my host grandmother recently, and I had barely stepped through the door when I was greeted by a massive smile and excited exclamations in Luganda, and enveloped in one of the most enthusiastic hugs I have ever received. She, like the rest of my host family, has accepted me into her life as a true family member. She remained in my thoughts for the rest of the night after we left, and I marveled over the love and acceptance that she had shown for me immediately. It really speaks volumes about a culture based on love, because she had no reason to accept me into her family. She is an old woman who has few material resources, but a lot of power in the family. She is not in the best of health, and she lives in a remote area that makes contact with the rest of the city difficult. If she had decided that she didn’t want to bother with meeting this mzungu (I’m the 5th student my family has hosted), no one would have faulted her. But she truly thinks of me as a granddaughter, and insisted on seeing me as soon as possible, and that is really amazing to me. It touches my heart that the family has accepted me so readily, when most people I know would keep a stranger at some distance from intimate family life.

That is the life and the joy that I have been writing about. It stretches from the rural villages to the center of the capital; from the children in my neighborhood to the vendors on the street. It is in the tea that is constantly offered to you and in people’s eyes when they greet you; it’s in the voice of the taxi driver trying to convince you to get in his taxi, and in the aroma that fills the house when you cook homemade food each night. It’s the feeling of knowing what is important in life and knowing not to waste your time with the things that don’t make you happy. Perhaps it’s partially related to the pain that people experience too; knowing all too well that tomorrow is guaranteed to no one sometimes helps to put priorities in order. That’s the life that makes me love this place, and makes me want to get out of bed each day despite the painful things I see. I can only hope to bring back some of that outlook on life when I return to the U.S..