Where the wild things are

Posted by stephanie on Feb 27th, 2009
Feb 27

Last weekend I had my first quintessential African experience.  I went on a safari in Murchison Falls, which is located several hours northwest of Kampala.  When I do touristy activities in Uganda, I am really happy that I also decided to do volunteer work here as well.  If not, I would never be able to engage with the local populations to the level that I have because of my time at Reach Out.  The safari was great though, and I was able to meet many other muzungus, all of whom are also volunteering in Uganda.  Our safari started early Saturday morning with a 6 hour drive to Murchison Falls that involved miles of road dotted with speed bumps every 30 feet or so (we still can’t figure out why there are so many), and we arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon to a beautiful, but scorching hot, campsite.  We were given a run down of the activities to come, as well as a warning about the warthogs and hippos that like to come onto the campsite.  Me and three other North American girls (2 Americans, 1 Canadian) settled into our luxury tent, complete with actual beds inside and mosquito nets.  The rest of the evening was filled with a walk to the Nile and an amazingly good pumpkin and peanut curry prepared by the incredible Red Chilli chefs.

The next day was when the real fun began, despite the 6:30 am departure time (which luckily did not include a run in with the hippos, who like to scavenge around the campsite in the mornings).  The nine of us on the trip together hopped into our van, which was converted to a safari machine by the lifting of the roof of the van, which allowed us to stand up inside and take pictures of the wild animals.  I think we saw all of the animals on offer at Murchison, including giraffes, elephants, antelopes, buffalo, warthogs, various birds, and lions (we were one of the few groups to see them that day!)  Our game ride was 4 hours of blissful hair blowing in the wind, sunshine on the face (although my arms became a nice shade of tomato afterwards, despite my SPF 50 protection—one of the downfalls of my Irish heritage I suppose), and views of amazing scenery in an amazing place.

We headed back to the campsite and ate another unbelievably mouthwatering meal before preparing to leave for our boat ride of the Nile.  Unlike the rafting experiences of the Nile that I’ve heard so much about (and go on tomorrow, yikes!), our boat ride was calm and peaceful, with views of multitudes of hippos (somehow I never get tired of looking at hippos, with their huge heads peering out of the water) and some crocodiles.  The ride was certainly beautiful and capped off a very busy day nicely.  After the boat ride, we were once again treated to amazing food, good company, and a ridiculously early bedtime (one of my favorite parts of camping).

During my conversations with my fellow safari friends, we all discussed how much we love Uganda and the reasons why.  The common answer was always that the people here are so great and friendly, in contrast to the more reserved and cold attitudes of people in western countries to strangers.  People are constantly greeting each other here, with huge smiles on their faces and cheerful dispositions.  Despite the perception that people in the west have everything, I think we can take away a lot from the people of Uganda and Africa about how to treat each other and live life.  Sure, maybe we have a lot of stuff, but with so much stuff I feel we come more isolated from others as we become more consumed with protecting the things that we have rather than caring for each other.  There seems to be so much more humanity in this part of the world in the way that people care for their family, friends, and even strangers.

The next day was our departure from Murchison Falls, which we were all sad to leave.  Before heading back to Kampala, though, we went on a nature walk to the falls, where we go to see the full force of them up close.  This was another highlight of the trip for me, with the power and might of nature surrounding us.  Our ride back to Kampala involved more beautiful scenery, small catnaps, and of course the ubiquitous speed bumps.

Murchison Falls

One Mango Tree

Posted by stephanie on Feb 26th, 2009
Feb 26

It’s official.  I am a creepy stalker.  But this time, my habit of browsing Facebook and various blogs paid off as I was able to meet an amazing person (one of many, of course) during my time in Kampala.  Let me start at the beginning, though.   Uganda has been on my itinerary from the start of this adventure, and as I was looking at the different organizations present in Uganda and the various work that they do, I stumbled across a Facebook group called One Mango Tree.  One Mango Tree is a business started by a 20-something American named Halle Butvin after an initial trip to Uganda she took in 2006 as part of the Global Youth Partnership for Africa.  Halle quickly fell in love with Uganda and made several subsequent trips to the country, learning more about the conflict in northern Uganda and trying to discover ways for sustainable peace.  From all of the discussions she had with young leaders, civil society groups, and Uganda individuals, she decided that one important solution to sustainable peace in the region lay with economic empowerment of the people.  Halle began making artist connections in the area (all of her tailors come from the IDP camps in northern Uganda), and decided to implement a business model that emphasizes a combination of market connection, job creation, and development assistance.  One Mango Tree (www.onemangotree.com) makes a variety of products, from bags to ties to kitchen accessories, with more products in the works.  While still a young organization, the success that Halle has had already is astounding

To put it lightly, I became fascinated with Halle and her story and did some more Internet research into her and along the way found her personal blog, which only made me feel closer to this perfect stranger.  While perusing her blog, I found out that she was going to be back in Kampala during my time her, so I shot her an e-mail to see if we could possibly meet either in Kampala or Gulu, where the tailors who make the products for her company work.  Halle responded immediately, and we were able to meet a couple of weekends ago and chat over coffee (where we also learned of our mutual love for yoga, and she has been able to connect me with the sizeable yoga community in Kampala).  Halle was so warm and open, and our conversation flowed effortlessly, and she wasn’t the least bit perturbed by the fact that I knew so much about her from her website and blog, and I was a random stranger to her (actually, she said that this happens to her quite a bit).   I was fascinated to learn more about Halle, from her personal life to the successes and challenges of One Mango Tree.  I think that Halle’s passion for Uganda is contagious, and she even made the decision to move to Uganda indefinitely to more fully put her efforts into One Mango Tree (which she doesn’t take any of the profits from, instead earning money through other work).

Without even thinking of it as freedom per se, I think that Halle has hit upon a crucial aspect of enhancing freedom in Uganda, which is providing economic empowerment to people.  As it says many times on the One Mango Tree website, the people of Uganda don’t need more handouts—they need sustainable livelihoods that allow them to take care of themselves.  What kind of life is it to rely on help from outside sources, help that might not come because organizations, such as the World Food Programme, are suffering from the economic crisis just like the rest of the world?  People need opportunities to take control over their own lives.  That is freedom.  Sustainability is also a key idea here.  You have to make the project that of the people who are going to benefit from it if you want it to last.  One thing that has become abundantly clear to me is how quickly people from the outside come and go in the developing world.  It takes a special person like Halle who decides to come here indefinitely.  If the entire burden of helping the people in Uganda is put into the hands of people who may or may not be around within a year, then nothing will ever get done and you create a culture of people expecting handouts.  Ultimately, change needs to come from the people living here if it is to last.

There are a lot of organizations working on similar issues of creating income-generating activities for the people of Uganda, and even Reach Out, the HIV/AIDS clinic that I’ve been working at, has similar tailoring projects to create sustainable jobs for people by giving them marketable skills.  I have been working with that section of Reach Out as well, called Roses of Mbuya.  One issue that we are working on is how to best market the Roses products (which include men and women’s clothing, beads, kitchen accessories, bags, etc.)  We are trying to make the Roses products more prominent in the local community, and are even considering trying to make a website to sell the products online to the international community (which is actually a really complicated issue with various facets to consider).  There is so much to take into account, including whether or not to get fair-trade certification, logo design, and trying to find a creative spark for new products.  Halle’s work has served as an inspiration for me in many ways, even before I actually met her.  I am so happy that my stalking of her paid off, and I was able to meet the person behind so many amazing ideas and with such a passion and drive.  Check out her website at www.onemangotree.com if you want to see more of what she has done or to purchase a One Mango Tree product!

Reach Out and touch me

Posted by stephanie on Feb 13th, 2009
Feb 13

Many people ask me how I found out about Reach Out, a grassroots HIV/AIDS initiative that isn’t terribly well known throughout Kampala, let alone the world.  Very simply, Vanderbilt connections are incredible.  I had heard about Vanderbilt’s Kampala Project in passing before and decided to see where Vanderbilt students have volunteered in the past while in Kampala.  To briefly summarize the Kampala Project, it is a service-learning project offered at Vanderbilt where students participate in workshops about pressing topics in East Africa, from HIV/AIDS to human rights to the ethics of volunteerism in the developing world, all in preparation for the practical experience of spending a month in Kampala interning at local NGOs (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/oacs/kampala).  While I was perusing the blogs of past participants, I was reading about one students experience at Reach Out and decided it was the place that I wanted to try to connect with during my time in Kampala.  I had sent a few e-mails back and forth with the volunteer director at Reach Out before arriving in Kampala, but in Africa, it is much easier just to go to a location and talk to people to make plans rather than through the impersonal means of e-mail.  The internet isn’t such a widespread craze here yet, and is painfully slow even if you do have it.  On my first full day in Kampala I hoped on a boda-boda and was taken to the Reach Out facility and was set up with a volunteer position.

So, what am I doing at Reach Out?  Before I tell you about that, although to pique your interests I will tell you that I served as a model for an African fashion catalog the other day as part of my work here, I want to tell you a bit more about Reach Out and the amazing work that is done here, despite the abundant challenges.

Dr. Margrethe Juncker, a Danish doctor, and Father Joseph Archetti, an Italian missionary, founded Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative on May 2001.  Reach Out started as Mbuya parishioners wanting to relieve the pain of the sick and poor people in their community, most of who were dying from HIV/AIDS.  What started as simply medical treatment for those suffering with HIV/AIDS quickly grew into social support as well in order to fully care for a person instead of simply treat a disease.  Starting with only 14 clients, today more than 2700 clients suffering from HIV/AIDS in the Mbuya Parish are served.  More than 1500 clients receive free antiretroviral medicines to treat HIV/AIDS, and other programs are in place to make sure that the clients now prolonged lives are rich and fulfilling.  These programs include giving clients microfinance loans for businesses, providing tailoring classes to allow clients to gain marketable skills, helping clients pay for their children’s school fees, educating individuals and couples about HIV/AIDS, cultural exercises for students, going into the communities to insurance drug adherence, and a variety of other programs.  Check out their website for more information (www.reachoutmbuya.com).

Back to the million-dollar question, what do I do here?  The answer:  a little bit of everything.  I am working in the communications department at Reach Out, helping to find cost-efficient (we are operating on a very low-cost model) ways to publicize Reach Out’s services and opportunities, improve internal communication of the organization, and find a way to market the products that the tailors make through the organization on an international market.  My tasks from day-to-day vary.  One day I may be helping to write and send thank-you notes to people for attending events and the next I am being asked to wear African fashions for a catalog.  I am fortunate to work with wonderful people who I can joke around with and with whom I am building close relationships.  Joanita is the small but feisty head of the department who always tells me that I need to gain weight (even though she is smaller than I am), Roselyn is her communications assistant who always lets me know when it’s tea time, Francis, the photographer and graphic designer, is my self-proclaimed Ugandan “godfather,” meaning he uses his clout within the organization to help me get whatever I need, and Anna is another volunteer in the department who is Ugandan and has been my buddy from the beginning.  Venus is the front-desk receptionist whose job I had to do on my very first day at the organization because she was gone.  It was really humorous because at that point I didn’t know anyone’s name and had difficulty understanding the Ugandan accent on the phone, so I was pretty ineffective at that position and immensely relieved when she returned the next day.

I have had to get used to the differences in mentality towards work between America (and western culture in general) and Africa.  Basically, it is much more laid back here, and times and deadlines are much more flexible.  At first, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything.  From frequent power outages, lines at the copier, lack of certain resources when I needed them, and one computer between several people, it was hard to get tasks done.  But, after a few days I stopped thinking about my days at Reach Out in terms of what I got done but instead, I took the time I had waiting to work on building relationships and connections with the staff here.  I also began venturing down to the clinic where there are tons of beautiful children there every day waiting for their moms to get treated.  I am finding out that kids here really like muzungus and they aren’t scared at all by my foreignness and will instantly come to me.  This has been a continual source of happiness for me, as I love children and love playing.  Joanita told me the kids like me not because I’m white, but because they think I’m a kid myself.

So, what have I been doing at Reach Out?  If you were to put down on paper all of the tasks I’ve completed in the past three weeks, you might conclude that I haven’t been doing a whole lot.  However, I have been developing close relationships with many Ugandan people and a better understanding towards the culture and how Ugandans view themselves and their country, with all of its beauty and all of its blemishes.


How are you muzungu?

Posted by stephanie on Feb 6th, 2009
Feb 6

There are some times while I’ve been here that I’ve had to step back and think, where am I?  There are just some situations that have put a huge smile on my face.  Here are a few that I hope put a smile on your face as well.

*When I was taking a boda boda (basically a motorcycle taxi) back from visiting the Ba’hai temple in Kampala, the driver had to stop at his home along the way to retrieve his helmet.  While I was sitting on the motorbike waiting for him to return, literally about 20 children came out of the woodwork and began waving hysterically at me and chanting in unison “How are you muzungu?” in an incredibly rhythmic African beat.  Muzungu, by the way, means “white person.”

*I walk to work most days (about a 30 minute trek) to avoid taking the aforementioned boda bodas because, to be completely honest, they are possibly one of the most terrifying things to ride.  It’s not so much because the boda bodas themselves are scary as much as it is the insane drivers of them.  Kampala has some notoriously bad traffic, so boda bodas are the fastest way to travel because they can weave in and out of traffic…which they do, sometimes causing scrapped knees on cars and nearly getting your face taken off by car mirrors.  Therefore, I walk in order to be safer.  This illusion of walking being safe was tragically shattered the other day.  While walking down a side street that is a short cut to getting home, I was chased by a goat.  I never knew how mean goats were, but the little children who were running with me were definitely aware.  While the goat menacingly reared up on its hind legs, I am happy to report we all escaped from the great goat attack of 2009.

*Whenever I walk to work I pass lots and lots of fellow walkers.  I do get lots of strange looks for turning down boda driver after boda driver (I don’t really ever pass any other walking muzungus).  While I initially get curious glances, if I look at anyone or smile slightly, I am more often than not greeted with a huge smile of impossibly white looking teeth from everyone I meet, followed quickly by a “Hello! How are you?”  (It’s never just hello, just about everyone asks how you are and they do wait for the response).  It’s hard not to smile when you’re greeted by tons of wonderful Ugandan smiles every day.

*I made a new friend today.  I was helping to lead a tour of new volunteers at Reach Out, and while in one of the rooms this incredibly cute 1-2-year-old girl came into the room, walked directly toward me, and hugged my leg.  I squatted down and gave her a hug (vowing that she would be my new sponsored child) and after the meeting in the room held her hand and walked her out to find her mom.  Later in the day I got to play with her some more, and when I had to leave, she began crying hysterically.  For once it was kind of nice to make a baby cry because she missed me, rather than terrifying them into tears with my white skin.

National Anthems

Posted by stephanie on Feb 6th, 2009
Feb 6

Uganda’s National Anthem
Oh Uganda! May god uphold thee
We lay our future in thy hand
United, Free;
For Liberty
Together we’ll always stand.

Oh Uganda!  The land of freedom
Our love and labour we give
And with neighbours all
At our country’s call
In peace and friendship we’ll live.

Oh Uganda! The land that feeds us
By sun and fertile soil grown
For our own dear land
We’ll always stand
The Pearl of Africa’s Crown

I stumbled across the lyrics to Uganda’s National Anthem in a local magazine when I first arrived in the country.  As a person on the quest for freedom, or at least to understand how different countries and cultures view their own freedoms, I do admit that I felt for a moment that I had struck gold.  Then I got thinking about the national anthems of all of the countries I have visited, which isn’t something that I had thought to look at previously, but I think there could definitely be something interesting to be garnered from looking at the language that is used to inspire people to rally together behind their country in an effort to convince the world and themselves about the greatness of their homeland.  Despite the bloody past and present of Uganda, despite mind-boggling poverty, despite the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people from diseases that have been eradicated from other countries, despite corruption at all levels of government, when Ugandans get together to honor their country with the singing of their national anthem, in that moment they all do live in the “land of freedom.”  Despite the problems that America faces and causes, we are still the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Now I need to find translations of the national anthems of the other countries I visited and hope that nothing is too lost in translation.

The Pearl of Africa

Posted by stephanie on Feb 6th, 2009
Feb 6

When I stepped off of the plane at Entebbe airport in Uganda, I had no idea what to expect of Africa.  This is my first time in Africa, with my knowledge of the continent limited to the newspaper articles I have read of war, poverty, diseases, chaos, and general un-pleasantries.  Of course, a hazard of gathering information from only the news is that you can get left with the impression that there are only negative things in the world.  What I am discovering very quickly is that what is generally left out of the picture is how warm, inviting, and friendly the people of Uganda are and the physical beauty of the country (not to mention the awesome weather, while most people I know are freezing in the February blahs, I am walking around in a t-shirt and sandals trying to avoid getting a sunburn).  Uganda isn’t the biggest tourist destination in East Africa compared to Kenya and Tanzania, but I am beginning to see why Winston Churchill called it “The Pearl of Africa.”

This is not to imply that Uganda has not been without its fair share of problems.  One of the most famous Ugandans, but for all the wrong reasons, is Idi Amin, the brutal dictator portrayed in the film The Last King of Scotland.  Amin seized power of the government in 1971 through a coup, beginning a horrific reign of terror in Uganda where hundreds of thousands of innocent people lost their lives in unimaginable ways.  Amin also targeted the Asian community of 70,000-plus living in Uganda, forcing them to leave the country, which also served to cripple the economy.  During this time, industrial activity stopped, roads fell into disrepair, hospitals closed, soldiers gunned down wildlife, and refugees across the border continued to increase.  To distract the army, which had become restless and inundated with intertribal fighting, Amin choose to begin a war with Tanzania, which ended in the fall of Kampala as well as organized resistance.  Amin fled to Libya until he was thrown out, and in 2003 he died in exile in Saudi Arabia.

During the past two decades, though, much stability has returned to Uganda as the country was rebuilt under the leadership of President Museveni.  For much of the 1990s, Uganda was even the fastest growing economy in Africa.  Despite the gratitude that many Ugandans feel for Museveni’s role in bringing stability to their lives, there is concern that Museveni is set to become a president for life after scrapping constitutional presidential term limits that allowed him to run for office again in 2006.  He is still currently in power.  Keep in mind he was first elected in 1986.

While southern Uganda has enjoyed relative stability in the past two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, has been fighting a war in northern Uganda for two decades with no end in sight.  The original goal of the LRA was to establish a state based on the 10 Commandments, although the group has broken every commandment as one of the most vicious insurgent movements on the planet.  Children are kidnapped to use as soldiers and slaves, lips, noses, and ears are sliced off to subdue the population, and the people of the north are forced to live in IDP camps.

HIV/AIDS is another prevalent issue in Uganda, but one that has made great advances in the past 20 years.  In Uganda, the infection went down from 25% in the late 1980s to its current levels of 5.4%.  All sectors of society are involved in combating this problem, from religious and traditional leaders, the government, community groups, and NGOs, forging a consensus around the need to contain HIV.  HIV/AIDS programs are full of acronyms, from CHAI to SPEAR to PEPFAR.  Sorting through the different NGOs is a bit like eating alphabet soup.  You have to swallow a lot of letters.  Ugandan has served as an example of a country that has had amazing results in HIV/AIDS prevention, but recently the levels have stagnated, causing some to believe that the old ways need to be improved to counteract newer issues.  I am currently working for the Reach Out Mbuya HIV/AIDS initiative, which involves too much description for this post, but more to come on what Reach Out does and what I am doing and learning there.

Meredith Bates, a ’06 Vanderbilt graduate, has wonderfully hosted me for the past two weeks.  Meredith moved to Uganda immediately after graduation and has been working here ever since and is currently the corporate social responsibility manager for a forestry company.  Meredith is the sister of Melissa Bates, the other Vanderbilt graduate who helped me out so much in Thailand.  While I never met the Bates sisters while I was at Vanderbilt, I’m so glad that I have now!

Despite the problems that it may have, it is pretty easy to fall in love with Uganda.  I’m excited for the several more weeks I have here to explore, learn, and to fall head over heels for the Pearl of Africa.