This chapter is finished!

Today marks the end of my internship with Samaritan’s Purse and the end of this blog. For my future (and probably more light-hearted) documentation of adventures pop on over here. And by pop I mean in Uganda click the link and then wait ten hours or hit reload a million times (yes that life is shortly over for me, or at least temporarily over until I return :)).

I’m off for a week of traveling through Uganda with my dad filled with rafting, hiking, mountain biking, and navigating Ugandan public transport. Then it’s Turkey for five days, northwestern US for one week, and back to Michigan for another week to pack up my life and move to the Netherlands. Thanks for reading! I’ll probably post photos and stories on my other blog!

Pieces in a Puzzle

DISCLAIMER: This post is a bit philosophical. An area of life I am extremely unqualified in and have little interest. However, I am at the crossroads of another transition; therefore thinking more deeply about my life than usual.

Comparing life or aspects of life to a puzzle has probably been done a million times, but it’s a metaphor that holds true. I think about all the events, experiences, and people in my life and how they’ve enriched me, allowed me to grow, and ultimately expanded my “puzzle”. It’s as if each life event is a piece in an ongoing puzzle, each experience slowly adding to the beauty and complexity of a life. As human being (and planning obsessed, borderline OCD human being), it’s easy to try and fit puzzle pieces together. I think I know what’s best for me and which new place or job or school I’m going to next. While just like putting together a puzzle requires some planning and effort, we also can’t force a puzzle piece to fit, it will look odd and eventually ruin the image. Sometimes, finding the right piece is easy. The first one we grab locks in place perfectly. But more often, it takes piece after piece of careful fitting before the right piece is found. We think we know the color scheme and shape, but so frequently the right piece is surprising until we see the whole picture.

The last two years of my life were not a time of effortlessly finding the next puzzle piece, as much as I tried every single application that might be the right “fit”. Instead it was a time of learning to be patient and enjoy the pieces of life that were already fitting together rather than looking forward to completing the picture. I never would have guessed that I would spend a year teaching English in South Korea after laboring over an engineering degree, I might have guessed that I would spend five months in Uganda, but in no way could I plan the people I would meet and how it would change my life. Even my OCD grad school search was a period of waiting for the perfect fit. No matter how much I planned, stressed, and obsessed, I couldn’t force my acceptance or scholarship offer.

Yet all of my waiting and random unplanned adventures have only made my unfinished puzzle more colorful and rich. I can’t imagine life without the wonderful people I met in Korea, I can’t imagine life without my Ugandan experience. God is the ultimate puzzle maker, He knows exactly how all the pieces will fit one step at a time, and He knows exactly how the finished product will turn out. While, I will probably never completely stop planning and obsessing, I am grateful for how all the pieces have fallen together in ways I could never plan, and I am grateful for how each “piece” or experience has shaped who I am.

Moving on

My days left in Uganda (and as an SP intern) are rapidly diminishing, meaning I should probably conjure up some final insightful blog post. Unfortunately, I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye or final words. I’m really good at counting down to transitions that I often forget to stop and take the time to enjoy the present. So while there are many things I’m looking forward to, there are just as many things that I’m going to miss about Uganda and my job.

I’m going to miss:

-The pace of life here. The pace of life could also be added to the list of things I won’t miss, but as a slightly OCD time obsessed person it’s been nice to know that even though I may have a million plans and things to do in one day, most days never go according to plan. Instead of being focused on results, I find myself focusing more on experiences, processes and most importantly relationships.

-Fruit. While Karamoja is severely lacking in the fruit and veggie department, the rest of Uganda more than makes up for what Karamoja lacks. Juicy, sweet mangoes that grow in the wild, giant avocados, pineapple that tastes like candy, and bananas of more varieties than I knew existed.

-Weather. If you know me well, this is an obvious aspect of Uganda that will miss. Since I’ve been here and even while traveling throughout the country, there is no part of Uganda that has bad weather. During rainy season in the mountainous areas, it can get chilly but never too cold and even in areas where it gets hot, it’s never unbearable. The perpetual cold and rain of the Netherlands is not exactly beckoning me.

-Starry skies in Moroto. I’m now back in Kampala, but I was gifted with two breathtakingly last starry nights in Moroto. Looking up at a sky filled with bright twinkling dots inspires me and also leaves me feeling like a tiny speck in a massive universe.

-People. This is an obvious aspect of any move that is difficult. I’m extremely thankful for both the interactions I’ve had with Ugandans and how I’ve learned and grown, but also for my expat friends who I can effortlessly feel like myself around, have insightful (and not so insightful) conversations with, and who inspire me with their travel and life stories. I’ve almost taken for granted all well-traveled my circle of friends is here and it will be a difficult adjustment to perhaps be around people who haven’t spent their lives globe-trotting.

I’m already missing life in Moroto, although very much looking forward to the next stage in life. Like all places I’ve visited and lived in, Uganda will have a special place in my heart.

Just Living

 

Usually when I mention Uganda or another African country to your average American (or Korean) their eyes glaze over, and once they’ve figured out that Uganda is in the continent (country) of Africa I can see images of starving and emaciated children, millions of people living with AIDS and elephants and lions flash through their minds. A typical conversation might go something like this:

“Oh you’re working in AFRICA? Wow! That must be so hard with all the diseases and starving children.”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“How fulfilling to be able to save so many lives. You’re so brave to be there!”

The conversation might continue to mention someone they know doing a short term mission trip to “Africa” and how wonderful it was, but if you try and mention any other details about “Africa” and how perhaps it’s more than just starving children, AIDS, malaria, and unique animals, the person will lose interest.

Why many people can’t seem to grasp the concept that Africa is a continent made of up of many, many individual and unique countries with separate cultures, languages, and customs frustrates me. But what what frustrates me more is the perception of Africa (that the media only reinforces) as a continent just riddled with poverty and disease, corrupt leaders, but filled many beautiful animals like the lion “king of the jungle” (thank you Disney for confusing jungle and grassland). Of course none of these perceptions are inaccurate per se. I live in a place where people do die of hunger, where on almost a daily basis one of our staff gets sick with malaria (which actually isn’t that big of a deal if you receive treatment), and where almost all the Ugandans I know have lost a child or a young relative prematurely. I can’t gloss over the fact that all the African countries I’ve been to are filled with hardship that we can barely dream of in the western world. But they are also filled with so much more than hardship. To characterize an entire continent so negatively is the same as when people ask me if all Americans carry guns to school. Sadly, there are people who carry guns to school and shootings do happen, but of course there is so much more to the United States than shootings, McDonalds, New York City and LA, and fat people.

The “Africa” I know is filled with people just living. Just like in every other country I’ve visited, people in Uganda have families, they fall in love, they have favorite foods, they laugh, they cry, and they enjoy life. Even in the midst of harder living conditions than we have in the west people are still living. Yes, there are corrupt governments but people have still found a way to get by. When I read the news about the state of government affairs in the US, I find myself disgusted, but when I’m living there I realize it’s not as bad as the media presents. Yes, there are many people living with AIDS (particularly in Southern Africa), but there are even more people living without AIDS and many people fighting to stop the spread of AIDS. Yes, there are many unemployed people who are barely scraping by, but there are also many people who have regular jobs, who work hard, who send their kids to school to give them a better life, and people who have hope for their country and want to stay and make a difference.

I’ve only been to a handful of African countries and each one possesses a slightly different set of struggles, different languages, slightly different animals, vastly different geographies, different cultures, different beliefs, different political systems, different dress, and simply different ways of life. The African continent is arguably the most diverse culturally and certainly linguistically, yet this is not the Africa that most people know. Instead of only seeing Africa as a place with famine and drought, disease and despair, corruption and power struggles, my hope is that people would see it as a continent filled with people full of life and ideas, bright and colorful culture, music, and art, and landscapes and animals that are a photographer’s dream. Just as it’s unfair to characterize America by obesity, fast food, and guns, it’s unfair to characterize Africa by only the negative.  

Life in Moroto

Moroto may not be the cosmopolitan world of Seoul, or even have the artsy cultured vibes of Ann Arbor, but somehow we keep ourselves entertained. It’s not uncommon for both of the only two cell phone servers to lose service (sometimes even for days), and my internet speed (and availability) varies from day to day. I can count the number of restaurants in Moroto on one hand and all of them offer almost identical menus. Within approximately the first month of living in Uganda I had already sampled all varieties of Ugandan food. In contrast, during my one year in Korea and incessant sampling of new Korean dishes, I failed to scratch the surface of the variety of food. Korean food was so varied that I even introduced some of my native Korean friends to new dishes.

In spite of how dull life in Uganda and Moroto might appear, there is never a dull moment living and working here. While I do spend a significant amount of time in an office (something that scared me from ever being a real engineer), even my office time presents daily new challenges and surprises. For the past week and a half I have been acting project manager of my project and so I get the full range of problem solving opportunities. Figuring out how to get a stray chicken from wandering around my office and relieving itself, trying to communicate with my staff when the cell phone network is down, trying to read and send e-mails when the internet fails, losing power because someone accidentally mixed diesel and petrol when refueling our generator, trying to get money from the one atm in town when there is no power for days, trying to make it to the field and not get stuck when driving on roads that often more closely resemble rivers than roads, figuring out how to print when our ink cartridges suddenly run out and the only way to get new ones is bringing them up from Kampala, figuring out how to send a visa application registered mail and get appropriate dutch passport photos, sorting out how to transport staff to the field when there always seems to be a vehicle or motorbike in need of repair, the list goes on. Even the task of hiring new staff is more complicated that one would expect. Receiving strange phone calls at 9 pm begging you not to hire one of the interviewed candidates? Yes, that happened and apparently happens frequently.

Beyond work, we entertain ourselves with weekly hikes, looking ridiculous doing sprint workouts around town, movie nights, pizza nights, a play and dance for the whole town, and making enchiladas and other meals from scratch. According to the several personality quizzes (that seem to always produce different results) I’ve taken, the trend I’ve noticed is that my personality thrives in a fast paced, busy, challenging, and constantly changing work environment. While, Moroto may not provide the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a world class city, it does provide constant challenges and entertainment. Although I am looking forward to living somewhere where I can satisfy my “sophisticated” (or so I think) taste buds, be completely independent, and blend in; I will miss living in the shadow of a mountain and the humorous daily challenges that life and work in Uganda present. Image

 

How are you?

Phrases don’t always carry the same meaning in every country. In Korea, I very nearly banned the phrase “nice to meet you” from my speech due to its constant improper use. “Nice to meet you” directly translated back to Korean more closely resembles the phrase “Nice to see you again”. Because of this translation error, I was greeted with “nice to meet you” by almost everyone I “met” on a daily basis. The confusion was humorous at first, but very quickly grew old. I found myself cringing when I was forced to use “nice to meet you” in its proper way, instead trying to at least replace “nice” with different adjectives.

Even the simple expression, “how are you?” carries slightly different connotations in different countries. “How are you” is most often treated more as a greeting in the US than a genuine inquiry to a person’s well being. Even so, how are you is not used at the beginning of every conversation and one might expect slightly different responses from person to person. In Germany and much of Europe “how are you” is only used when one really wants to know how a person is. If you ask how are you don’t be surprised to hear about how horrible someone’s day is with all the details. A simple “I’m fine” would only suffice if the person was truly fine. At first, I was a bit taken aback when I received what I deemed long winded responses to how are you, but later I learned to appreciate the honesty of people and how the question was taken literally. When someone asked me how I was, I knew they were genuinely interested in my well being, rather than just throwing out a standard greeting. 

In the US how are you may be viewed as a greeting, but its frequency of use pales in comparison to Uganda. How are you in Uganda is the equivalent of hello. A standard conversation might run like this:

“Hello! How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m very okay.”

Sometimes people are so zealous to answer the question that they don’t even wait for you to ask. “Hello. Fine. How are you?” Ugandans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met (particularly in all other regions of Uganda besides Karamoja) and probably are mostly interested in my well-being. However, I’ve about had my fill of how are yous. My daily walk from the office to lunch allows me to disclose my well being at least twenty times as I pass by a village full of young children. “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” At first the small children running up to greet me was cute. But my patience for repetition (and children in general) is rather limited and these days I find myself getting irritated with the rapid fire stream of greetings. My answer to how are you does not change in the one second between the first greeting and the second and more importantly seeing a mzungu walking past the village should cease to be a novelty, given that I walk the same way nearly every day. The only thing that prevents me from completely ignoring these greetings is the knowledge that I have some kind of image to present since no one here comes in contact with many mzungus. So every day I robotically respond “I’m fine. How are you?” a million times in a row as I briskly walk past to the peace and quiet of lunch. 

I know I’m being impatient and intolerant, but pretty soon I won’t be “fine” if I hear one more “how are you” ;) Image

Good thing they’re super cute or I my patience would be exhausted by now.

Blending in

The more time I spend in Uganda and other African countries, makes me wonder what it is that draws me to these places. In my natural, comfortable state, I am pretty close to opposite the average “African” (if I’m going to do some generalizing) citizen. I immensely enjoy planning (as long as its long term big picture planning), I love structure and schedules. I dislike being late. I have a terrible sense of rhythm, and am a bad dancer even for a white person (not that it stops me from having a good time). My ideal diet would be mostly plant and whole grain based. I have the attention span of a two year old; therefore am lucky to sit through a one and half hour church service (forget about an all-day affair). While I consider myself semi social, I am not nearly as relational as people here are. I would likely prioritize finishing a to-do list or making it to a meeting on time, than stopping to chat with someone. I prefer hugs to handshakes. I have no immediate or even long term plans to have a family, and if I ever decide I want kids it’s hard for me to imagine handling more than two or three. Repetition in speech, writing, or song irritates me and when viewing the Bible and faith I struggle with theology that is legalistic or merely focused on evangelism.

There are a million reasons why I do not blend in here and why I often become frustrated, but I also love how different life is here. It is slightly less stressful (in some ways) knowing that meetings will NEVER start on time, deadlines are flexible, and no one takes life too seriously (a lesson that could be learned in many other countries). I appreciate the rhythm and character of music here since it’s so opposite to what I’m capable of and used to and I appreciate the passion people put into their worship even if I’m the awkward one stiffly standing and singing. I appreciate how relational people are and how they will stop whatever they are doing to talk, no matter how trivial the conversation is. While I seriously doubt I will ever learn to love African church services, it is admirable that young children are able to sit through three hour plus services and that people often devote their entire Sunday to church. I’m not sure if I will ever understand the obsession (for lack of a better word) with fertility and “producing” here, and it is one area of Ugandan culture that for the health of the country and people that could perhaps adapt a bit (without trying to sound like I’m trying to change culture).

There is a vibrancy, color, and relaxedness to life in Uganda (and the other African countries I’ve visited) that I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world. In spite of the many, many reasons I look silly here, I do enjoy Ugandan life and there is so much I will miss.