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

2 thoughts on “Of pina coladas and free shoes

  1. Hey Happy Happy Birthday Christina! I will also send that on e-mail which until today I didn’t understand that I could use with you! As usual a wonderful letter from you and you seem to be finding out a lot about the direction in which you want to go After Uganda! I love it that you’re thinking in terms of making primary and lasting changes in people’s lives. When you come back you will meet my friend, Ellen, who became a nutritionist out of the same concerns that you have and she will share her experiences and knowledge with you; she has totally enjoyed your blog and looks forward to knowing you. All my love, Granny Kathy

  2. Hi Christina! Your adventures are amazing! I just read most of the blog tonight and viewed the photos and I am so proud to know you! Your writing is fabulous and you should really consider submitting some of this travelogue/blog to a magazine. One of my coworkers will be coming to Uganda soon (this summer, I think?) with his family and I asked Joel for your blog info so I could refer him to it. I think he will find it fascinating reading and good preparation for all sorts of cultural aspects of his visit.
    I hope I will get to see more photos and hear more about it upon your return to Colorado. I’m glad you are well and happy!

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