Simple luxuries

I didn’t expect to experience minor culture shock traveling to Kenya, but it seems that my life in Moroto is more “deprived” than I realized. My locally available food supply here is mostly limited to beans (and not in a can of course), rice, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic and avos. I can often find exciting items like green peppers, carrots, and the occasional mango (even though mangoes are in abundance in the rest of Uganda) or pineapple in the market, but it’s always wise not to expect anything on a trip to the market. In Kampala I can find what I thought was a wide variety of foods—luxuries like ice cream, chocolate, brown rice, chick peas (if you search hard enough), and cheese. A wide variety until I visited the local Nakumatt (a regional grocery store chain) in Kenya. Not only were the prices often significantly less, I found couscous, refried beans!, coconut milk (at a price that wouldn’t break the bank), tortillas (although I’ve enjoyed making my own), healthy granola bars, and more varieties of candy and chocolate than I remember existing. I bought gelato in a MALL (even though in my other life I hated malls), drank fresh juices of every fruit variety in Lamu, had a proper cappuccino with thick wholegrain bread, ate fish that had been caught the same day, discovered a health food store in the mall and had to refrain from purchasing everything in the store, and ate salad.

Life in Moroto is not so bad really; I live in a place with twenty four hour power and hot water (thanks to American tax dollars supporting US military here…hmmm), I have a good community of friends, I live in the shadow of a mountain, I have access to an oven (better than Korea), and the weather is almost perfect here. However, I also have unreliable and slow internet, I’m a ten hour drive from Kampala on roads that make the drive a bit like riding an old wooden roller coaster, and cell phone service will often cease to exist for up to days at a time. Once relatively simple tasks like getting passport photos for my resident permit in the Netherlands and DHLing my resident application form, become exercises in problem solving. I enjoy living in Moroto in many ways simply because it’s a place no one wants to be, and in its remoteness there is a beauty and untouched aspect that makes it appealing. Culturally, it is the one place in Uganda (one of few in Africa) that is still mostly preserved (which is also what makes work here a bit frustrating). Although I wasn’t exactly jumping with excitement to return to Moroto after the loveliest and “luxury” filled holiday in Kenya, it was also comforting to catch sight of Mt Moroto on the drive back and once again settle into life here.

After leaving Moroto, I realized how dramatically the development of Karamoja would change for the better if the relatively simple task of tarmacking the road to Karamoja were completed, a task that has been promised by the government year after year (mainly in election years). Businesses would come to Karamoja, driving prices down on the few goods that can be found here, therefore making life more affordable for the average person. Services like schools and hospitals would be improve because people wouldn’t be so opposed to living in this area and supplies would dramatically increase. Sometimes, I feel like all the gardening and food distribution in the world will not change this area, until they have better infrastructure. Unfortunately, infrastructure is a problem for the government…

Development aside, after my Kenya visit I think I’m in for a real shock returning to the developed world. Who would have thought that salad and ice cream would have me excited to return to a developed country?

Life is short

Originally I thought my next blog post would be a glowing report of my holiday in Lamu, Kenya in my more typical travel blog style. I will write about Kenya soon, but right now I’m trying to wrap my mind around a very, very sad piece of news: Juma has passed away. On Friday May 25th after it seemingly recovering from meningitis, Juma went into a coma. On Sunday he was airlifted to Kampala and emergency surgery was performed to reduce pressure on his brain. He apparently had a brain aneurism and due to lack of proper treatment at his hospital in Karamoja the pressure in his brain continued rising, requiring emergency surgery Kampala. The facilities in Kampala could not perform the necessary corrective surgery and so he was airlifted to Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday (after much stress trying to sort out his travel documents). Sadly, Juma never made it to Nairobi. During the journey his lungs filled with fluid and eventually he stopped breathing. I’m not a doctor and all the information I have has been acquired second hand, but my understanding is that his death was not a result of meningitis, but the brain aneurism and conditions that followed.

Just writing this post and thinking about Juma’s family and anyone else he left behind breaks my heart. It is so sudden and shocking to think that just over three weeks Juma was driving me out into the field to visit project sites. Juma was an invaluable asset to our team and he determination to break the cycle of cattle raiding in Karamoja and provide education to his children, makes his death even more heart breaking. Sadly, frequent death is a reality in much of developing Africa. Most people here have experience the loss a loved one in circumstances that would rarely happen in developed countries.

I wish I had something insightful and meaningful to say about his death, but I’m frankly at a loss for words. It’s so hard for me to understand why I was born in a country where events like this are rare, and where I don’t have the fear of potentially losing a loved one. As a thinker and doer, I keep wishing there is something I could do or could have done to “fix” the situation, but no amount of “fixing” will bring Juma back or replace the loss felt by his family. Juma’s family was fortunate that he worked for Samaritan’s Purse because his insurance (and SP’s assistance) paid for the medical bills and did give some kind of financial help to the family after his death. I hope and pray that this will help them stay on their feet and the children will still have the chance to keep attending school. Juma’s death is a further reminder that life is painfully short, so each day we should make each day we have count.

Please pray for Juma’s family that they would be able to get through the loss and that all their needs are provided. Juma was fifty two years old, young by western standards, but sadly right in line with average life expectancies for Uganda. Rest in peace Juma, you are sorely missed by all who were touched by your life.

Juma

I have yet another reason to feel blessed: access to good healthcare. Since I wrote last about our trusty driver Juma, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with meningitis. As I’m sure you are all aware, meningitis can be quite serious. Like other public services in the Karamoja region of Uganda, hospitals are very quality. Juma was doing well at first and seemed to be responding to the drugs, but on Friday he went into a coma and Sunday was finally airlifted to Kampala to receive emergency surgery to reduce pressure that had built up in his brain. I believe he had a stroke simply because the staff at the hospital in Karamoja failed to monitor his condition regularly (they were understaffed when I visited the hospital) and his blood pressure rose causing a stroke. Today (Monday) he will be flown to Nairobi for further treatment.

For those of you who pray, I would appreciate your prayers for Juma’s recovery and healing. I am thankful that he was brought to Kampala in time and hopeful that he will eventually recover, but who knows what damage has been done. Meningitis is a very real problem in Uganda (particularly in the north), and unfortunately most adults have not been immunized. Pray also for the health of our other staff and Juma’s family. I have my vaccine, but of course there is a slight risk of contracting a variety of meningitis that is not covered by the vaccine.

As I mentioned in my last post, Juma has a large family and his wife is expecting end of the month (another real problem in Uganda—family planning). Juma is fortunate to work for Samaritan’s Purse because his insurance would not have covered all the costs associated with all his treatment. It’s sad to think about how his condition might have been prevented with better medical care, but even sadder to realize that most people in his situation would have received no treatment due to lack of proper medical care and no money to pay for it. This experience further confirms my belief that healthcare is a basic human right. I am thankful that I received quality healthcare growing up and I pray that my country would find a way to provide quality healthcare to ALL its citizens at a price tag that people can afford.

Please keep Juma and his family in your prayers, and prayer for wisdom for his doctors as they continue to work towards his complete recovery.

Blessed

If there’s one thing that I am reminded of on a daily basis living in the developing world, it’s how blessed I’ve been. When surrounded by people of similar economic status as yourself, it’s easy to let the daily simple trials and difficulties bog you down and overlook the big picture. Even in Uganda, as I enter data and work with excel for sometimes eleven hours a day (fortunately that is finished!), it is easy to forget the big picture. It’s easy to get frustrated and annoyed with the constant yells of “mzungu, mzungu!” (what is so amusing about yelling “white person” ten times at me?), getting asked “how are you?” five times in a row as if my answer would have changed in the seconds between each greeting, the daily requests for food or money from people on the street, and the complexity of seemingly simple tasks. But when I have the rare opportunity to connect with some of the people I work with here, I’m reminded of why I’m here and how blessed I am.

One of my biggest frustrations with working in SP’s Karamoja office has been the difficulty in connecting with the Ugandan staff here. While there is a beautiful community of expats here, who I am extremely grateful for, I still have the idealistic desire to grow close to some of the national staff. At the other SP offices, I felt I was able to connect with the national staff. Perhaps it’s because I was at a similar place educationally (and in some sense economically) and in these regions there wasn’t the history of years and years of aid work. In Karamoja there is the constant feeling of being separate as the white expat “manager” (not really my title but I’m often treated that way). In spite of these difficulties, I have enjoyed the bumpy drives out to the field with our stellar driver and either our engineer or district supervisor.

Juma, is our trusty NUSAF 2 driver, a native Karamojong who comes from a family of Karamojang warriors. Through our many journeys together, I’ve had the chance to catch snippets of his life story. His father was a Karamojang warrior who uncharacteristically decided to leave the cattle raiding life and try to change his circumstances for his family. While Juma never had the opportunity to get an education, he is brilliant. The way he expresses himself, is able to analyze situations, and how he knows his children’s future and country’s is in education is inspiring. I’ve never seen Juma stop to take lunch while we’re out and I suspect this might be partially a way to save money to pay for his children’s school fees. Looking into Juma’s lined face and kind eyes, I can see a lifetime of experiences and wisdom I will never have. His deep desire to give his children a better life is beautiful and continually reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for.

Most recently, I enjoyed an eye-opening conversation with our district supervisor, Paul. Unlike most people in Karamoja, he has a bachelor’s degree, and one that was not acquired easily. He knew that in order to provide for his family and make a living he needed more than a diploma. So he saved his money and was able to pay for a year of school and most of his second year. But by the time he reached his third year he had no funds to continue studying. Paul was only able to finish his degree through the miraculous generosity of his friends. His friends would contribute whatever they could of their simple salaries, pooling funds every month (sometimes contributing up to 50% of their salaries) to support Paul’s education. It’s eye-opening to realize how we take education for granted in most developed countries. There was never a question of finishing high school, and fortunately for me there was never even a question of whether or not I would get my bachelors. Even as I was frustrated with the grad school application process and securing funding, it hit me that most people in the world don’t even have the opportunity to dream of attending grad school.

These experiences reinforced my desire to share the many experiences and blessings I’ve been granted, whether it’s continuing development work or even entering the corporate world. As I prepare to enter grad school this fall (thankfully received a scholarship to study at TU Delft in the Netherlands!!), I pray that I can keep my experience in the developing world fresh and remember to always count my blessings.

Free hugs!

Free hugs. I’m strongly considering starting a free hugs campaign in Karamoja and perhaps all of Uganda. I understand that ideally as a foreigner it’s not my job to change culture, but I’m seriously hugs deprived. After spending four years of my life at a university where on a so-so day I gave and received about two hugs, then spending the next year and half of my life hanging out with South Africans, who similarly treat hugging as a standard greeting no matter how often you see a person; I’m feeling a bit hug insecure (to use the food lingo that I’m getting used to up here) in the hand shake culture of Uganda.

It’s fascinating how different countries approach greetings. In Korea and much of northeast Asia a bow was the standard greeting, with the depth of the bow given varying depending on your seniority. While hugs amongst Koreans were virtually nonexistent, it was not uncommon to hold hands or link arms with your same sex friends (something that might draw ridicule in most western countries). If it wasn’t for my expat friends, particularly the South Africans, I may have died from lack of human physical contact (don’t take that the wrong way).

Even in the continent of Europe there are huge variations in methods of greeting. In Germany a firm handshake was sufficient. Germans may be efficient and hardworking, but their hugging skills were generally rather poor. In Spain a quick hug and a kiss on each cheek, in Denmark one kiss. So confusing when you’re trying to be culturally sensitive! Do I offer my hand, open my arms for an embrace, or go straight to the cheek? Awkward.

I’ve got my sturdy African handshake down pat, and I don’t mind the solidness and sincerity of the handshakes here, but I still find myself craving one of the warm feel good embraces that were a part of daily life at Valparaiso University. Even among the expats here, there is a hug deficiency, making me miss my time in southern Africa. So the next time you see me I expect a hug!

Simple Pleasures

Since my last blog post much has changed, but I’m still going with the flow. After an unexpected and hasty departure from Kampala, myself, my one duffel bag, backpack, and laptop bag (all of my belongings) are safely in Moroto, Uganda. In a few more days I will break a record for sleeping in the same bed for consecutive days, and in a few more days I will be over the ten week mark in Uganda. To clear up any confusion on my whereabouts and the project that I finally selected: Moroto is the main city in the Karamoja region of Uganda in the northeast. I am working with the Second Northern Ugandan Social Action Fund (NUSAF2) project, a partnership with UN World Food Program and the Ugandan government. NUSAF2 is in simple terms an effort to reduce the food dependence of the Karamojang people. Communities select projects related to public works, agriculture, and reforestation and in exchange for their work they receive food rations from World Food Program (or cash depending on the area and project). This article summarizes the project nicely: http://www.guardian.co.uk/katine/2010/jan/11/nusaf-developing-north-uganda

While NUSAF2 sounds great in theory, of course it is far more complex on the ground. A project cycle is one year (starting theoretically in January). However, Samaritan’s Purse did not receive budget approval from WFP until beginning of April, meaning we’re about three months behind schedule. While the deadlines have become slightly more lax because of the delay, it still means rushing through things that shouldn’t be rushed. For the first time in my working life, I feel like I’m actually doing work—working occasional evenings, long days, and Saturdays. After spending most of last year finding ways to entertain myself in front of a computer it’s nice to be actually doing some work. For the time being my job description includes errands woman (not so often), LOTS of excel work (I seem to still remember my 4 years of excel knowledge from school), and brainstorming. After the initial craziness of project planning wears off, my plan is to collect information on all of SP’s (and the many other NGOs in this area) projects, take GPS points and assemble this information in google earth for easy future access and sharing.

Besides the business of work, life has not been (too) dull around here. Living in the shadow of a mountain means hiking, watching the sunset from a vantage a short way up the mountain, running up hills (with my new fun Irish running buddy), and enjoying watching rain clouds form over the mountain. Besides the pleasure of the mountain, the expat community is close knit and fun. We accumulate our resources and create delicious meals with the limited supplies up here, so I’ve been practicing my resourceful cooking skills. Bananas are the one thing in abundance here so many recipes have been created from bananas. Banana peanut butter oatmeal chocolate chip cookies anyone? Yes, they are divine as they sound.

Besides creating our own fun and cooking tasty but simple meals, life in Moroto seems to daily present new and unexpected challenges. When I started writing this post on Saturday I was interrupted by the news that one of our vehicles had washed 200 meters down the river in a sudden flash flood. Someone had decided to wash the vehicle then just leave it by the washing station. A few hours later torrential downpour started (as it does most afternoons now), and the car was washed (with someone in it) down the river. Most of the town was around to watch the spectacle. If it hadn’t involved an expensive and nearly brand new vehicle, the incident was rather humorous. The next day with help from prison labor the vehicle was pushed out. Never a boring moment in a seemingly boring town.  

It occurred to me the other day how polar opposite my situation is now than last year at this same time. Last year I had my own apartment in a city filled with millions of people next door to another city filled with millions more people. I spent half of my day yelling at young children who had no idea what I was saying, and I spent weekends and evenings exploring nooks and crannies of one of the world’s largest cities. At any time of day or night I could get most any convenience I needed without walking more than ten minutes. I could freely walk by myself at 3 am and I didn’t depend on a vehicle to get anywhere. In one word my life was about convenience. Although I’m just now starting miss much of life in Korea, I’m also now enjoying the simple pleasures of hiking up a mountain with unexplored and unmarked trails and no people, running on mostly un-crowded streets and paths, having bugs in my room, hearing birds sing and watching them fly, having an oven, reading my bible in the sunshine in the shadow of the mountain, depending on the fact that almost every day the sun will shine for at least a few hours, and finally having the hope that as frustrating as the work can be, it may be providing food and livelihood to at least a few individuals.   Image