“lows will have their compliment of highs”

Mzungu

One of the first words I learned was Mzungu (white person). As I travel from village to village on the back of a boda (motorcycle taxi), this is a word I hear repeatedly. Kids of all ages run to the road and warmly yell, “Hello Mzungu, Byyyeee.” It is like they are taught this word from birth and when they see a white person, their enthusiasm makes you feel as if it is the first time they are seeing a real live white person. There are also many that just intently stare, but often once I smile and wave, their stern faces crack and the smile is reciprocated.

Americans aren’t always the most embraced travelers around the world, so receiving a warm greeting isn’t something I’m going shy away from, especially from a smiling, gap toothed African toddler.

———-

Bedside Manners

One thing that remains a constant reality in Africa is the presence of death. It is in your face daily and the circle of life is rapid and evident as one life passes a new one is brought into the world just as quickly; most families have at least six kids. In the short amount of time I have been here, I have seen dead goats, several dead chicks, witnessed a kid (young goat) die at Mama Ali’s, heard of two mothers dying after giving birth (which is absolutely preventable), plus countless other deaths I have heard about around the village on what seems like daily basis. It is rainy season so malaria is rampant right now.

Visiting Oko’s Uncle in the hospital however was the most eye opening experience thus far. The sight of the hospital alone is hard to bare. It looks like it has not been updated since the 1950’s. It is comprised of several wards, each of which are large rooms consisting upwards of twenty beds lined up on the outside perimeters of the room. The simple metal bed frames are topped with worn in foam mattresses, many with holes in them. A patient isn’t provided with much, so the patient’s family or visitors, if they have any, must provide their own bed sheets, water and food.

Not knowing what to expect of his condition, I was caught off guard upon approaching his bed in Ward 4. He appeared completely emaciated, a soul slowly wasting away. Although he had only arrived to the hospital the night before, he had been unable to keep food and water down for the last month. His sickness had started with extreme headaches and worsened from there. It was evident that his organs were failing him. He could barely speak and each breath was a painful task. He was so dehydrated that his mouth was permanently pried open gasping for air, his face sunken in. It was then that my eyes began to water up and I was consumed by a deep sadness.

The bed was surrounded by many friends and family as we waited for forty-five minutes for a nurse or doctor to speak with us. When Brooke asked how long it would be, the young overworked nurse unemotionally told us we just had to be patient. The whole time we were there I only saw one nurse. I believe there was also a doctor there but he may have been attending to a patient who was wailing in pain from another room.

Phoebe was able to get a nurse friend to agree to come and help us out. While waiting for her to arrive, I couldn’t help but scan my environment. It was very hopeless. One young patient, who was probably suffering from HIV, was kept company by two women and a third who was preaching the word of God loud enough that whole ward was able to hear. I later found out that ward 4 is usually for HIV/AIDS patients.

Once Phoebe’s friend arrived, she was able to help us discern the reasoning behind the several meds they had prescribed him. All the medicine were in small plastic bags and looked like color assorted M&M’s. There was everything from malaria treatment to yeast infection medicine. This was all so heart wrenching because Ugandan’s have no knowledge on how to handle such a situation. They don’t feel empowered to ask what the medication is for and to question what the problem really is.

In the end, she told us that she thought he might make it, but he needed to be able to hydrate and keep down food. I had my own opinions, which I kept to myself. I tried to sway towards the side of optimism. With heavy hearts we left the hospital without every speaking to a nurse or doctor.

Since then, there have also been several instances where work on projects has been delayed due to death. Work is not to done, especially digging, until the body is buried. This is to be strictly adhered to or else you can be beaten. We really try to be culturally sensitive to this,  but sometimes it comes at the worst of times, like right before we are stocking thousands of fish. None the less, there is something about it I find very respectable. As difficult as death may be for humans to deal with or accept, Ugandans take the time immediately following to properly bury the body. I have heard the burials are very intense and moving ceremonies where women wail for hours in mourning. Although I wish no more death upon this country, I would like witness such a moving ceremony while I am here.

———-

Steph-a-who?

One day at the Namizi fish ponds I felt I had a major break through with the correct pronunciation of my name. By now there is a good mix of being called Steph-a (because they don’t like to end anything without a vowel) and Steph-an.

I started a call and response where I called out “Steph” and the women responded and then I followed it with  “Anie.” They really caught on and even got excited about it. This went on for a minute or so and when I stopped and then again asked my name, to my surprise they responded, “Steph-an.”

About a week later I asked Arafat to translate the five “w” words, who, what, where, when and why. It wasn’t long into the lesson that something clicked and I realized that “anie” means who, so the whole time my call and response was more like “Steph…who? Steph…who? Steph…who?” A seemingly good lesson to them, but somewhat of fail on my part.

———————-

Water Cooler Conversation

Falling in love with Naminya Fish Ponds

I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I have enjoyed the manual labor element of working in the field. I’m not sure if its the gratification of getting dirty and working with the earth or the connection it encourages between myself and the members. Since being here, I have had some of the most open and honest conversations in the fish ponds, with men no less.

Naminya fish ponds is a group that has had its ups and downs but is now starting to truly understand the purpose of the project. Before I arrived I had heard of the struggles in this group. They had received a lot from BEL because of their relocation from the River to Niminya so they could be difficult to work with and demanding. They weren’t a group I anticipated connecting with immediately.

It had been raining a lot recently so there was at least half a foot of mud to remove from the bottom of the pond before being able to lime, fertilize and stock the fish. This requires shoveling the mud into cut jerry cans and then passing them in an assembly line to be thrown on the outskirts of the pond’s perimeter.

As we were slinging these jerry cans around, one member named Mariam, said jokingly (I think) that all men in Africa have AIDS. After translating, I replied that this would mean that all women with kids have AIDS. This spurred the topic of the cultural norm of having many wives. Although it is fairly common for older men in the villages to have upwards of three wives, it is becoming equally common for men to practice monogamy.

Being devout Christians, many members in Niminya are more modern and only take one wife. Pastor Frances and the “rock” of the group, Peterson, being two of them. Pastor Frances lives life in accordance to the Bible and believes that man is to be with one woman. He also considers women equal. Pastor went on to say that he strives to keep matters of the home and heart equal as well. Even when they don’t agree, he tries to understand and accept what she has said or how she is feeling. All of this surprised me quite a bit.

After discussing gender equality, Peterson began to probe about homosexuality. I was aware that homosexuality wasn’t widely accepted in Uganda or Africa, but I was surprised to be having such a conversation my third week in and my first time really working with Niminya. Pastor said that he had read and searched the scripture in an effort to try and understand how it was ok. It was amazing to see these men really looking for the answers and more so trying to find acceptance of this taboo topic. I said that there will always be struggles with societal equalities and tolerance. There have been many before such as racial and gender and there will more to come in the future.

I told them to keep searching for what feels right for them and to search for the answers within themselves. Although it is great to appreciate the Bible and a wonderful place to start searching, we have many of the answers within us. And even though it may be difficult to fully understand another’s reality, it takes a strong individual to not judge and find acceptance. Their sense of yearning to understand was so humbling. Pastor added that the world would not be nearly as great if we all thought alike.

With the nearing election, the conversation naturally steered towards politics. I was very impressed with how much they knew about not only American but also about world politics. I feel as though we are such an egocentric society while these Ugandans are taking to the time to seek out information about world politics. It was impressive. I left Naminya muddy from head to toe but feeling full of energy and educated on more than fish ponds.

Maybe it was beginners luck with these guys, but it was a good feeling to get off on the right foot. Although Brooke has spent years cultivating trust and friendships with these people, I realize that it can easily become one step forward and two steps back. There is a fragility and vulnerability with these groups that is not to be forgotten. Trust takes a long time to build and relationships can be impermanent like the turning of the weather.

But on a positive side, their vision of change has now extended to their future and they are understanding more than ever how these fish ponds are the answer. They understand that their project has united women and men, educated them to be teachers and change makers of their environment. Peterson said in one meeting, “we are trying to chase away being poor. To be poor is the failure to maximize what we have.” The members are now able to pay their children’s school fees in full. This means paying school fees for up to 8 kids all the way through the university level. The men are even giving the women money to buy new clothes and new household things. They are ensuring the success of their future while being able to enjoy their lives in the present. This shift is exactly in line with S.O.U.L.’s mission and it has been amazing to witness.

———————–

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Daddy Ken

After only spending a few days here, it is not uncommon to come across a young girl or boy who touches your heart. This is such a unique experience in the way that the connection is often instantaneous and completely heart gripping. Being around this person feels natural and fills your heart with pure joy. It is the feeling of love in its purest form.

For Ken Stern, this is a 14 year old girl named Prossy. Her story is one I still struggle to wrap my head around. When she was 8 years old she was struck across the head for not bringing her book to school. The injury was so severe that it required surgery. While in surgery, her brain started to hemorrhage and in the end her optical nerve was severed. She is now left completely blind. To top it all off, her family life, like so many, is very dismal. Her young mother left her at this time due to her inability to take care of Prossy and the father has never been around. When not boarding at school, she lives with her grandmother, who makes the local alcohol and as a result is a drunk. Her two younger siblings also care for her, but unfortunately her sister is quite malicious and manipulative. She steals things that are given to her and then taunts her.

Despite all of this, she is a happy and energetic girl. At school, she is cared for by Kenneth, a caring man who has been at the school for years. When we arrived at the school Ken and Brooke approached her slowly and gave her time to decipher who her visitors were. One she heard Ken’s voice, her body language was immediately different. Her whole body swayed with emotion as her innocent hands held onto Ken’s arm like a daughter clings onto her father.

Using her other four senses, she navigated herself with us down a small ramp and pathway into her dorm. The dorm was the cleanest I have seen yet (thankfully) and was filled with several other girls living with various other vision impairments. She introduced us to some of her friends before sitting herself down on her bed. Brooke asked her to sing for us and she kindly and excitedly obliged. It felt as though time stopped, at least in the that room, as she sang not one but several songs for us. It is hard to explain the sense of presence that I experienced during this time, but Prossy’s beauty was breathtaking.

As we pulled away from the school, guided by a moment of coincidence, we realized that her supervising/favorite teacher’s name is Kenneth and her best friend’s name Diana, both not very popular names in Uganda and the name of Brooke’s parents; proving she is never too far away from her “family”.

————

Lunch Buddies

My beloved lunch buddy

One of my favorite individuals I have met since being here is Mama Ali’s granddaughter, Lahmah. She has taken her in and is caring for as if she was her daughter. Although age is rarely accurately known, I believe she is about two years old. We share just about every breakfast and lunch together, often times just the two of us. We take tea together and share conversation. I think we have created our own language. Mama Ali tells me she wants to speak with me but doesn’t feel like she can. My Lasoga is improving, but limited and she gets timid to speak english with me. She does what Mama Ali calls “head dancing” where she just nods her head in varying speeds, like a morse code sign language. This can go on for most of the meal and afterwards I really feel like we are communicating although I couldn’t tell you what we are talking about. When we aren’t head dancing, we sit quietly and enjoy our meals. She knows how to still like a lady “tiyama belungi,” and drink out a big mug without spilling. Best of all, she eats just as much as me which makes our meals more in sync. Her dexterous abilities and independence are equally as impressive. These kids get dirty, roam around the village and even handle a hoe like champions. Daily life stateside is clearly different but I will undoubtedly pick up a parenting tip or two while I’m here, even if it’s just the resourcefulness of being able to wrap a baby on my back with a piece of fabric.

————-

Bodi & Feta Cheese

Barack & Bodi pre feta

Considering there are goats and cows around every turn, it is a little surprising there isn’t more cheese around here. You can however, purchase feta cheese among other cheeses at some shops in the cities. At lunch one day, we enjoyed a fresh salad and had some feta remaining. There are always kids hanging around so nothing goes to waste, even an old wrapper is gold to these kids. We gave the small remnants of the feta to Zuba, Bodi and Amisu.

Bodi is probably hands down the cutest little boy I’ve ever seen so I am immediately entertained and content watching him do just about anything. Not ever saying no to food, Bodi accepted and threw the feta in his mouth. Enjoying it for some time, his palate began to process this foreign flavor. His smile began to fall and a sour expression took over his face. Not knowing what to do, he covered his face in disgust. He turned around and almost almost fell over the wall behind him as he spit it out. This was probably the first time he had ever spit something out in his life so you could tell we wan’t sure if what he had done was acceptable. Us mzungus, started hysterically laughing so he knew it was ok. But the violent disgust did not end here. He continued to look as though he was going to throw up, wiping his tongue dry in an attempt to rid himself of the pungent taste. To relieve him we handed out some “sweeties” in the form of Sweet Tarts to help him chase the feta taste away. I’m not sure which made me laugh more, Bodi’s reaction or Zuba’s commercial perfect children’s laugh that vibrated around the shack. Either way, I couldn’t help but laugh uncontrollably. The daily novelties here provide me with enough humor to forsake an ab workout, so it’s a win-win.

—————

Jinja Speed Shopping

One day Pheebs and I were in the open air market collecting random supplies for the field such as strings for fish ponds, posha (corn flour used to make the sticky starch component of most meals) and beans and 50 liter bags. While we passed through the never ending market in an effort to leave, I got distracted in the women’s clothing department. That day I was wearing my indian paisley colored skirt/pants. The pant ‘legs’ are tight around the ankles and loose everywhere else, so not particularly flattering but an article of clothing I must have when traveling. Suddenly a shop merchant threw a grey article of clothing in my face. He saw what I was wearing and quickly found a relative in style he had in his shop. It was the same style of pant but in addition, this had a halter top making it a jumpsuit onsie.

I was rushed, I had no desire to try it on, but I liked it. More than that I had always wanted something like it in my wardrobe but knew I couldn’t really pull it off with my five foot five stature. He threw out a number and I threw out a number more than half less thinking he wouldn’t agree. But he did, so I threw him 20,000 ugx and stuffed it in my bag.

I haven’t looked at myself in a mirror in over a month now and I have seen maybe one full length mirror since being here so in the confines of my room I held the jumper out in front of me imagining what it would look like. I realized that since being here I had been dressing according to the way things make me feel opposed to what they make me look like. Without a doubt I have walked around at times a little mismatched, but it didn’t matter. As long as I kept my knee covered to stay in line with the culture, I could use this opportunity to wear something I couldn’t and wouldn’t wear elsewhere. The next day I put on my new purchase, threw on a scarf and felt the excitement of wearing my new (at least to me) outfit for the first time.

————-

The Simple Things

Tonight after four long but very enjoyable days, I sat down to email brooke a much needed update on what has been going on, as Brooke is in Morocco and needs to know the happenings. Tuesday was almost a ten hour day, and the momentum of the day made us fee like skipping lunch and eating from our boda. Once the end of the day rolled around, I had little energy to sit down and email using third world internet.

Yesterday I had big plans of finishing right at five with time to run and do yoga before sunset. These plans were abruptly altered when we heard word that Oko had gotten in a boda accident. He was a lithe shaken up with some cuts on his face and knee and a chipped tooth, but overall he was doing ok. The other boy, also 19, was worse off. He had chest pain, a cut foot and his bottom four front teeth where knocked in. Unable to speak and with shallow breathing, he laid outside of his house as many villagers gathered around him.

Hospital visits can range from 30,000 ugx and up ($12 usd), and yet no one, including the family, was jumping to assist. For me it was first instinct to get him help. He was able to get on a boda so Phoebe and I followed him to the clinic. He got two X-rays at the clinic but the doctor was out so we were told to take the X-ray to the dentist to see what work was needed. Since the X-ray was still dripping wet, he instructed us to take the X-ray and the contraption it hung from on the boda to the dentist. Phoebe and I took the 12×15 inch X-ray and hopped on the boda. As it flapped in the wind, we head to the dentist to find out whether this boy would be four teeth down by the end of the night. Hours later, with some pliers and dental wiring, his teeth were in their upright position. I think it was a relief for all that were there, including the boda drivers.

Before the end of the night, Phoebe and I took some time to speak to the father. We asked what he planned to do had we not helped. We were met with blank stares. After some time, we found out that he had fourteen kids. Although he cares deeply for his son, 110,000 ugx ($44) was not something he had in the budget. He would have probably remained on that mat outside his house for some time before being put to bed to heal without treatment. We told him his son was lucky it was not worse and now is the perfect time to start saving if only 500 ugx (.20 usd) a day. You never know when something will happen and it’s important to have a little cushion when it does. At the end of the night I was happy Latiff lived in this village so that he had a chance of getting some help, but I felt saddened by all the other boys in other villages where that is not the case.

So, I have digressed majorly, but yesterday I was clearly unable to stay put to my plan to work out, email, eat dinner and rest. More than ever I am becoming comfortable being malleable to the situation, and here it changes almost hourly. Yet, today I had convinced myself that I was going to be able to sit down and write that email, if for nothing else so that I could tick that box off on my to do list.

Two hours of email writing in, I was feeling great about it. It was clear, concise and best of all finished. I tried to send it and alas the internet would not allow me the satisfaction. I had even gone the lengths of saving as I went and copying it before each time I saved the draft. The email did not send and it did not completely save. Worst of all, it would not copy into a new message when I tried to paste. All of this went against my logic. But this is Africa (TIA as they say) and the rules of the modern technology don’t apply here. It was just an email but I was distraught and disturbed. I could not bring myself to retype the email especially since this had already happened to me last week.

Ali, Mama Ali’s son, was waiting for me to go on a run and I hadn’t gotten to anything I wanted to do after work. I was greeted at home by Ali who looked ready to do some road work (term they use for running). We went through a less formal greeting and I told him I was upset. I told him why and it was quickly lost in translation but he saw I was distressed so he asked if I wanted to go the repose, a beautiful structure and unfinished restaurant right on the river. Grabbing my yoga mat, I couldn’t think of any better remedy. On the way there, we passed several kids who ‘in training’ had gallons of water and food perfectly balanced on their head. Each called me by name as they gave out high fives in passing. I got particularly excited when I saw the Ugandan Buckwheat, Zuba. Once I passed, another boy wanted to make sure I got just as excited next time I saw him so he yelled from a far that his name was Safa and “he didn’t want me to forget it.”

My mood quickly began to shift. After 30 minutes of saluting the setting sun, the red and orange hues dissipated and the crescent moon began to rise as night took over. I returned home to see most of the family present. I spoke some Lasoga to my grandmother and the next hour was spent playing with the four younger girls, tickling Lahmah and playing hide-and-seek. We made it to my room, where they found a Mr.Cheerful book I planned to give out as a present. Without thinking, I began reading to them in English. Although they didn’t understand a word, they listened intently.

When I had finished, it was hard to remember what I had felt like just a few hours ago. My evening had been so simple and yet so fulfilling. Other than my working hours, my days are filled with a simplicity that only a child exudes. It’s a simplicity that is often forgotten or lost amidst our busy grown up lives. As life experience molds us, we sometimes allow this innocence and imagination to diminish.

Being able to experience life like a child is one of my favorite parts about being here. Maybe that is the reason that Lahmah is one of my favorite individuals here. It is a presence I am most thankful for. As I type this, Lahmah and Jennat quietly keep me company while sifting through photos I have brought of friends and family. What a simple pleasure.

Sending out much light and love,

Steph


The title of the blog entry is from Yeasayer’s “Ambling Alp” (if this link doesn’t work, use link below)

Yeasayer has been a great band to jam out to on the boda rides and a personal favorite for the last couple of years.

Enjoy Friends!

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24 thoughts on ““lows will have their compliment of highs”

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