Settling in…

27th Birthday

Family photo
Family photo

I have always enjoyed my birthdays mainly because it gives me a good excuse to bring all of my favorite people together. The day is usually filled with the 3 F’s..friends, family and food (thanks Javier). Spending a birthday in a foreign country is always unique and special. A big difference here is that they rarely put much effort into celebrating and it is common for someone to not even know the exact day or month they were born. When I found out that Mama Ali’s birthday was the day after mine, I was immediately filled with excitement and wanted to throw a joint birthday gathering. She has prepared most of my meals since I have been a guest in her home and spends much of her life in the kitchen, so I thought I would give here a night off and prepare dinner. I told her she would not be allowed to cook that evening.

Birthday cakeIn addition, I wanted to surprise her with a birthday cake. The icing on the cake (no pun intended), was that I asked Muganda, her step-son (son from Tata Muganda’s second wife) to bake it for us.

November 19th arrived and I was now a year older. The day began with the preprimary kids serenading me with the happy birthday song and I was gifted with little presents from the S.O.U.L. staff in the way of bracelets, earrings and a keychain. All so thoughtful and very unexpected. Pheebs and I worked extra hard that day so that we could get to the market right at 5pm. We created the budget and navigated through the increasingly busy market to purchase kilos of rice, fish and fresh vegetables. I had initially wanted to prepare a non-traditional dinner but because I would be cooking on two charcoal stoves which are much more time consuming we decided to make one of Pheeb’s fish specialities with tomatoes and onions. I also had a few packets of Top Ramen that would add a novel touch to the otherwise unvaried menu.

Prepping birthday dinner
Prepping birthday dinner

Everything always takes longer than expected here so once we arrived back to Mama Ali’s it was almost dark. Pheebs and I started chopping green peppers, onions, cabbage and tomatoes while assigning other kitchen tasks to other families members. It was nice to see the boys helping out; a small yet significant sign of the changing gender roles. It wasn’t long until Mama Ali started working herself into the mix. I told her she could watch but she was meant to enjoy and relax. She replied that it was getting late and we needed to get this moving. Fair enough.

birthday spreadSome hours later, the food was ready and about twenty members of the family were present and hungry. Ali, Zahara and Arafat had gathered some fresh flowers from the garden and decorated the couch with their arrangements. In honor of her birthday, Mama Ali plated first and then the feast ensued. Like any good meal, after hours of preparation, the food is finished in a fraction of the time. I snuck away to my room and shoved two candles into the cake. Like most 3rd world countries, pastries can really differ from what we are used to. Here, they prefer their icing ROCK hard, bordering on the strength of cement. I have a feeling this is for preservation purposes since Ugandans aren’t purchasing cakes on the regular. I literally jabbed at the cake until the candles broke through the solid candy coating. Lighting the candles, I presented the cake and told Mama Ali it is tradition for you to make a wish before blowing out the candles. Making sure she had thought of her wish, we counted to three in Lasoga and blew out our candles. This got everyone so excited that someone re-light the candles and we got to do the whole thing over again. Here it is also tradition for whomever is being celebrated to cut the cake, so we both held the knife and pushed down as hard as we could cutting into the cake. Once cut, the cake was throughly enjoyed by all.

the boysI figured this would be the end of the night but the energy only picked up from here. There was singing and dancing and then they announced that there was going to be a Lasoga/English speaking competition between myself and Somboda. Somboda is a relative/adopted son to Mama Ali and didn’t get much further than primary four in school. He hasn’t learned much English and for some reason everyone dies laughing at any attempt he makes. We were asked four questions each with a total possible of twelve points. I feel like they may have favored me a bit. His questions seemed to be translating full sentences but he managed to get some correct and I answered each one correctly with the exception of the the second. My questions were: How do you say ‘tomato? How do you count to ten? How do you say ‘the tea is not yet finished’? and how do you say ‘Thank you for coming’? Chai aganye acoogwamu (the tea is not yet finished) was one the previous Project Manager’s favorite phrases. Although I had won based on points, they said it was Somboda who had won since it seemed he had taught me more Lasoga than I had taught him English, thus making him the better teacher and overall winner. Again, fair enough.

With so many personalities in the room, the whole game show was hilarious. We laughed through the evening until it about 1am, way past my Ugandan bedtime. The night ended with a few more gift exchanges. I gave Mama Ali a birthday card that I had written to her in Lasoga and Arafat gave me some art he had drawn, a birthday card of sorts; it was a personification of my birthday complete with the cake, candles, and table full of food.

Family photo
Family photo

Although I missed friends and family, I had celebrated with newly formed friends and family, a beautiful gift in it of itself. In total I had spent about 90,000 ugx ($36) on the evening. This is way less than I would have spent in the states and best of all it provided a great meal and evening for about twenty people. This equaled $1.80 per person. It is the most selfless birthday I have ever had and yet it is hard to say the last birthday night I had gone to bed so enriched with love. It was a lovely evening even without a sip of birthday wine.

If a birthday is telling of the year to come, then twenty-seven will be one filled with love and many gifts. Each passing year gets better than the last, so in some ways I am more than excited to reach my 87th birthday.

————

Bedmates

There is a phrase in Lasoga, “sula mukatimba,” meaning sleep under the mosquito net. This is to prevent getting malaria of course, but I have found that the net can actually protect me from more than that. During one of the first couple of weeks I was here we had a small mice problem. I would wake up hearing rustling in the walls. One night I was convinced it was in my box of food but after fearfully poking through I found nothing. The following night I awoke from a dead sleep, sat up and looked down to a mouse running across my pillow! I screamed in shock and threw the mouse out. I couldn’t believe the critter had snuck into my safe zone. From that night on, I’ve made sure that every square inch of the net is tucked in. Coincidently enough, our mice problem ended there after that and I haven’t been as scared of them since.

Tonight, some many weeks later, I was laying peacefully in my bed doing some work when I heard a thump into the mosquito net. I looked over to see a big black thing the size of a tennis ball. Grabbing my flashlight, I inspected the undetermined object. This time it was a bat! It had flown through the window and smacked into my net. I yelled for Arafat to help; thankfully he isn’t scared of anything except for dogs and oomlogo (refer to “Dinner Discussions” for that cultural gem). He wanted to beat it, an idea I quickly rejected; all I could imagine was that thing finding it’s way onto my side of the net. He beat it down to the ground and then kicked it outside.

I’m sure I could have solved that problem had I been alone, but it was more than comforting to have assistance. The net now gives me a whole new level of peace of mind when I fall asleep.

————

Ms. Headmaster

Filling system for Jinja SS, a school with over 4,000 students.
Filling system for Jinja SS, a school with over 4,000 students.

As final exams draw to a close and students return home for the holidays, S.O.U.L. begins to gather our evaluations. These evaluations, in conjunction with final reports, provide some insight on general areas of improvement and are used to monitor each student’s performance.

The newest member to join the S.O.U.L. staff is Shamira. After interning with us for some time she was offered a job during the community meeting. She usually works in the office under Jane, but is always willing to help in the field when needed. Today we were making our rounds to pick up all the evaluations. We discussed which boda driver we wanted to spend the day with and went over our plan of action since we had several schools to go to.

Stopping briefly at so many schools provided us with a snap shot of what it is like to go to school there. Each had their own distinct character. I’m sure my snap judgements may change in time, but first impressions are often lasting, and I won’t be quick to forget the experience.

The last school, Victoria Nile, gave Shamira and I our most colorful experience. We were first greeted by the school’s secretary. Everything started off friendly enough. She said she didn’t know anything about the evaluation form and that everything had to go through the headmaster so we were directed into another room. The room was large with windows all along one side showcasing students playing outside. As we entered, she was sarcastically saying how she couldn’t believe her lunch was not yet in front of her. It was clear from the get go that this women wasn’t going to be rainbows and butterflies. We informed her of our purpose of visiting and she returned with a stony expression, telling us she had no idea what we were requesting. She asked for the children’s name and when Shamira only responded with the child’s first name, she began to get really aggressive.

She explained that as the sponsors we are fully responsible for knowing the student’s names. I apologized for not knowing and said that I am not personally the sponsor but the new Project Manager of S.O.U.L. Foundation. She barked back saying that she knows all 400 students’ names in her school. She has interviewed each and everyone of them and has never forgotten their names since. She said she has a great brain and sharp memory. She was insinuating our lack of intelligence and belittling us for not coming prepared; meanwhile the whole time refusing to make eye contact with me, only looking at Shamira. Even when I attempted to draw her attention back to me, since I knew all of this was making Shamira very uncomfortable, she would defensively answer the question but only direct her glare to Shamira. She went on saying how dare we come unprepared and I calmly responded that I had only just arrived and not yet had the time to know all of the students we have in our program. If she gave me the opportunity to meet with the child, I certainly would never forget her face or her name. I asked what her name was since I wanted to remember who I was speaking with and she responded with, “Head Teacher.”

At this point I was seething with emotion; it was the first time I had been mad since arriving to Uganda. She spoke to her servant secretary saying that this was a waste of time. Although this was a very respectable school with high standards, I could only imagine how she spoke to her students if she handled visitors in this fashion. Shamira wanted to leave but I told her that we needed to maintain a relationship here even though we only had one sponsored student. We couldn’t leave on these terms. Shamira had to understand that if this women was always nasty, we weren’t going to change her but we had to stay strong and let her know that she couldn’t treat us like that.

My anger barely subsided, but I could not and would not give her the satisfaction of knowing this. But I didn’t respond with anger. Instead, I allowed presence to be my best defense. I remained calm and collected, my replies fluid and unruffled. As my outer demeanor began to redirect my emotional state, I found there is some truth to the belief of ‘acting the way you want to feel’. I was able to step back from the situation, and find some pleasure in watching it unfold. She exemplified a raging antagonist from a Disney movie. As soon as I detached myself from the situation, her words once charged with petulance and irritation, were now as good as dead weight once they escaped her lips.

After spending entirely too long at Victoria Nile, we sped off on our boda, some anger still lingering. In spite of it all, it was an experience and mini triumph which made me grateful it had happened.

If these walls could speak, Kiira Primary School
If these walls could speak, Kiira Primary School

————

Mini ‘Lunch Buddy’ Update:

I was enjoying my Sunday breakfast with Rahmah (previously thought to be called Lahmah) when Mama Ali joined in the family room. She told me that Rahmah felt peace when she ate with me. May not seem like much, but it was a very nice compliment to receive.

Also, she has gotten over the hesitation of speaking in front of me. Now, but only when there aren’t others around, she will speak non-stop in Lasoga. Like the rest of the family, she must think I am now fluent. Then when someone else comes around us, she will become silent, but a sly half smile will remain. The two of us have a lot of fun together and I don’t think I have ever felt so close to someone so young.

————

Circumcision Masquerade

Circumcision Parade outside Mama Ali's
Circumcision Parade outside Mama Ali’s

After having a pep talk with Chicken Group D in Buwenda, the S.O.U.L. clan headed east to drop off fish feed in Namizi. While en route, the red dirt road began to vanish underfoot a mass of people. The congestion went on for about a mile until we were at a dead stop amid the crowd. This was the biggest gathering I had seen yet, as well as the most tribal looking. The rhythm of the drums was accompanied by a brushing sound of all the grass skirts everyone was wearing. Many men held large sticks in the air, some topped with masks and signs. People drummed, romped, marched, and danced. The really festive and perhaps more important attendees, were covered in flour while their heads adorned large headdresses made with some type of animal hair, flowers and beading. At first, I thought it may have been a wedding but the rhythm of the drumming indicated otherwise. I had heard similar drumming the day before and was informed of its significance. It was a circumcision.

It is not uncommon for a boy to wait as much as 19 years old before undergoing this bodily alteration. The circumcision is preceded by a day of celebration. During the actual procedure, the boy or young man may have a large audience. In this case, it could be hundreds of his closest village friends and family. Yesterday I had heard about a circumcision for 15 year old twins. Today after seeing so many people swarming the streets I asked Brooke, “is this Circumcision Day?” It was not circumcision day but rather circumcision season. It can only be done every other year on the even number years and since most of the boys are away at school most of the time, December holidays is high season. Sometimes the boy will dance for a few days around his village gathering gifts from house to house. You know the procedure is complete when the boy is spotted sporting a skirt. It is a very amusing spectacle, and there has hardly been a day this month where I haven’t heard the specific beating of the drum or witnessed the parade.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Turns out, it takes a whole village to circumcise one too.

————

Shillings & Sense

PTA meeting at St.Mary's
PTA meeting at St.Mary’s

At the end of the school year, many schools hold their version of a PTA meeting to discuss things such as uniform changes, goals reached during the year, plans for the upcoming year and in most cases, an increase in school fees. After the experience of picking up evaluations, I thought attending a few meetings would be a good opportunity to get to know a few schools better and vice versa.

The first meeting was in a neighboring village called Buwenda at St.Mary’s Primary School. They said they were going to keep time and start right at 2:00pm but due to some rain it began at a tardy 3:30ish. Through the entryway of the modest but new school hall I could see the Headmaster at the front of the room; quite short and oddly shaped, his legs made up most of his body with a square uptight chest balancing on top. He commanded the room with a bellowing voice. Once he saw us, he stopped what he was saying, introduced us to the meeting and invited us to sit on the couch at the front of the room. I sheepishly walked in and greeted the parents (mostly women with only a few scattered fathers) with a smile and a Lasoga greeting. I haven’t felt out of the place very often here, but there is something about walking into a full room of Africans that makes me feel self-conscious particularly in a meeting setting likes this. Their earnest African faces can be very intimidating, but as soon as you attempt to speak Lasoga, laughter breaks out and any sign of seriousness is gone. I scanned the room and found comfort in recognizing several women from Bujagali and our various groups.

Our main objective of attending was to get more familiar with the staff and to see if there are any major changes to school fees since we pay half them (only after receiving the first half from the parents). We stayed for a bit, but the agenda was long and after forty-five minutes the Headmaster was still telling Lasoga stories to reiterate the importance of supporting their children through school; an important topic but we had another meeting to attend that had started at the same time.

Kiira Primary was a much bigger school and more orderly based on the handout we were given upon arrival. The meeting ran according to the agenda like at St.Mary’s but things got a lot more interesting once they discussed the school fee raise for the upcoming year. Last year it had been much more significant at 10,000 ugx, but this year they decided on 3,000 ugx. They explained it was for things like firewood, maintenance, administration and a small raise in teacher’s pay. As soon as the discussion became an open forum, the energy of the room became alive again with parents eager to share their opinions.

Many parents voiced their opinion against the rise in school fees, and a motion began to reduce it to 2,000 ugx instead. One female parent and fellow teacher said that it can act as a small motivation for the teachers. Another women, and former student of the school, advocated for the 3,000 ugx to help the teachers who are suffering. She said that the teachers are the ones who allow the children to advance to becoming doctors and lawyers. This got some applause and it was motivating to see women standing up and expressing their beliefs. Oko’s father, Peter, was there and he suggested a vote.

The amount of money is relative, but even with extreme poverty (most people  $1 a day), parents were debating over 1,000 ugx ($.40) going towards a year of education. The committee came back and said that they had initially wanted to increase it to 5,000 ugx but decide to lower it. In the end they decided to go with the first stated 3,000 ugx.

On the way from Kiira, back to Bujagali, I got a call from Brooke saying she with Kalimentina, the midwife, and she had just delivered a baby girl. This was the ninth time she had delivered a baby at Kalimentina’s. Why wouldn’t I want to end my day seeing a newly born baby girl?

—————-

Inqwenda Africa!

Falling in love is a mysterious and beautiful process.
It usually happens when you least expect it.
It’s a good slap in the face.It’s a journey you don’t know you’re on until that moment where you surrender and you realize you have fallen in love.

Today I had the revelation that Africa had indeed stolen part of my heart. It occurred after arriving home after an exhausting day. The sun was setting, hues of orange and reds were spread across the sky. I approached the house when a familiar feeling crept in. This was the feeling of arriving home and being welcomed by family.

What made this so climactic today was what had happened the preceding forty-eight hours. It had been a been a near seventeen hour day beginning at 2:30 am. S.O.U.L. had recently started bringing the chickens reared by the women’s groups to the Serena Hotel in Kampala. This a huge market and great company to be affiliated with but the chicken runs require a lot of work and organization. Without getting into the nitty gritty of what goes into slaughtering and dressing hundreds of chickens, I’ll say that it can a stressful day which starts well before dawn. There are momentary ups and downs with this since it is only the second time we have done it and no matter how much we think we are organized, there are always TIA (this is Africa) moments where it is clear that Africa has alternative plans for us.

Thankfully it works out in the end one way or another but to add on to today, I had gotten in a minor boda (motorcycle) accident the night before. There were no major injuries but I was definitely feeling sore today. I had also been a weighing my options…a few weeks back Brooke had asked if I would consider coming back for another six months. Even though I was only two months in, this isn’t a job she can post on Craigslist so she would need to start looking for someone else when she returned back to the states that Saturday. It didn’t feel like the most difficult decision to make but the pressure to let her know was weighing on me a little.

But after everything that had gone on, we had successfully delivered the chickens to Kampala. I was pleased with the good results and approaching the house I figured now would be the time to crash. I was surprised to see Zahara and Bashir (Mama Ali’s daughter and nephew) there. They both ran up to me to give me bigs hugs. This was immediately energizing so much so that my exhaustion from the day was now nonexistent. Shortly after the sunset was was joined by warms drops of rain and I began to chase Rahmah around the house for our hide and seek play session. When people ask what I love about living here, these simple moments are at the top of my list. They are the most organic and don’t require any effort other than returning home and visiting with my family.

On the other hand, when people ask what I do from day to day, it is difficult to explain. Everyday is different, but I really wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m wearing many different hats while trying to respect a culture, educate women on things I am learning myself (i.e. chickens, goats and fish), and managing the (amazing) staff. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps my mind stimulated and my feet moving. When I look back on the week I’ve had it is easy to see the highs: we delivered a hundred kilos of chicken to an internationally acclaimed hotel that will now provide women with their own income. These are women who previously would rely 100% on their husbands for money. They are being taught a skill which allows them to be business women. I also found out that that my brother is planning to come out here for a few months next year. I can’t think of a better experience to share with him. I’m so excited to show him this part of my life.

As the evening set in and I took a moment for myself, I felt content and excited about my decision to accept the offer to come back. In a way it eased my soul to know that I will have more than six months to do this. I can really take each day at a time, letting it unfold moment to moment. Having a traveler’s mindset, committing to a person, place or thing can be difficult. The first two months I was just feeling it all out and learning as much as I could, so committing to something I loved doing made me feel more at ease. The support and love I have received since being here has been overwhelming – webale eno for that. There is really nothing better than getting support for doing something that is genuine and authentic to me.

Living in this state is what makes life fun.  So, it’s been a good week.

Signing out from the mud hut…

If anyone is interested in sponsoring a student or would like more information feel free to contact me directly or check out the website. If you would like, I would be happy to handpick the kiddo for you! 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Settling in…

  1. Steph:

    I continue to enjoy your writing.. Keep it up.. Your experiences have helped to prompt me to arrange a trip to South Africa and Swaziland for Louise and I in Feb and March.. This will be different from what you are doing as it will be a guided trip including a safari.. But we should get to see some of the country as well as the cities.. Keep up the good work and enjoy ! Darrell and Louise

    1. TIA is so true! Had a similar RAIN EXPERIENCE in Midigo near the Sudan border 3 years ago. Had planned a bgf Saturday for the Promise Child children and their families. When it rained and rained, i was disappointed, but we got started 3 hours later after the rain stopped,and had a great afternoonwith music, games and a hot cooked meal! THANKS FOR YOUR STORIES STEPH…in my prayers

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