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