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.  

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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

 

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.

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.

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

Going with the flow

My rotation period of the internship is coming to an end and I just hit the seven week mark in Uganda. Time is flying but also seems to go by in slow motion at times, since nothing happens on time or quickly in this country. For most of my rotation I’ve seen the rosy side of relief and development: projects composed of only national staff that focus on empowering people to become the change in their country, but most recently I shadowed a project that exposed the complex, political, and sometimes harmful side of development work. Lessons learned/recap from the past few weeks:

-I’m more German than I thought, but also teaching in Korea was in many ways good prep for this experience. In Korea, on a “typical” day I would experience several schedule changes, unexpected class cancelations, and last minute staff dinner invites. I learned to be prepared for anything at a moment’s notice. Generally, it was assumed that I somehow intuitively knew about the schedule changes and events, which only added to my frustrations. My frustrations in Korea however, paled in comparison to the lack of structure in Uganda. While in Lira, I fully practiced the motto of “go with the flow”. I never knew where I would be going on a particularly day, leaving at 9:30 meant leaving at 11, staying in the field (ie bringing all my stuff to stay in a village for a night or two) on Monday meant staying in the field Tuesday or Wednesday, and days when I could have been shadowing a project with only the slightest bit of communication between different projects meant staying in the office doing nothing. After spending my undergraduate career, strategically planning my days to maximize efficiency and use of time, Korea and Uganda have been  learning experiences in slowing down, being prepared for anything, and realizing that it’s okay if I don’t get as much done in a set amount of time that could be done.

-All of Uganda (or at least all the places I’ve been) are at least at slight altitude. I’m using this fact combined with the general hilliness of this country as an excuse for my subpar running habits in this country.

-Dousing food in artificial chili sauce is one method to make bland food taste slightly more delicious.

-Chicken gizzard is reserved for the guest of honor. I wish I wasn’t so honored in this country.

-Botswana spoiled me in terms of game watching. The high concentration of animals in small areas means guaranteed suburb animal sightings. Camping in Kidepo National Park in northern Uganda near the Sudanese border as an Easter getaway was beautiful but it was not as easy to spot animals. However, we did see our share of zebras, giraffes, a couple elephants, deer, and some lions. I guess I’ve just become a safari snob.

-Having white skin in pretty much any country outside of Europe, North America (not counting central America), means getting ripped off and taken advantage of. There are many days where I wish I could just paint my skin black and fit in.

-While the UN Millennium Development Goals sound great in theory, development is so much more complex and political than simply stating that poverty will be eliminated or decreased by a certain year. Spending a few days in the Karamoja region of Uganda confirmed some of cynicism of aid. This region, while very dry (especially compared to the rest of Uganda), has been receiving food handouts from the UN World Food Program (WFP) for the past forty or so years—a whole generation of people only knowing that their food comes from food trucks. The Karamojong are very similar culturally to their neighbors the Turkana in Kenya (where I worked with EWB in 2008), but somehow seem to receive far more aid. Turkana is much, much drier and desolate than Karamoja and although both places have seen more drought and extreme weather in recent decades due to climate change, Karamoja has received the aid (or so it seems). My week in Karamoja was largely uneventful since SP was waiting on budget approval from WFP (that they submitted back in September—another problem to working with a huge funding organization like WFP). Samaritan’s Purse is part of a government and WFP sponsored project that is encouraging the Karamoja to develop sustainable livelihoods and work for food.

Learning about the project was fascinating, slightly depressing, and has been prompting me to ask questions about development work. At the end of the day, development work is extremely complex and filled with theories and solutions that often do more harm than good. The challenge of working in Karamoja has led me to choose it as my final placement for my internship.

-In light of my upcoming departure to remote and luxury-less Karamoja, I’ve been getting my fill of semi fast internet, ice cream, and spicy and varied food. I’m also scheming how I can creatively cook with my soon to be limited ingredients. Bring on the cooking challenge!

While Ugandan food has yet to fully grow on me, Uganda as a country is growing on me more each day (as if I didn’t love it from the beginning). I love the hospitality and friendliness of Ugandans, their overall honesty in comparison to many other countries, the weather, and the hills and mountains. I’m trying not to get too attached and connected since my time is so short, but as usual a part of Rachel will be left in yet another country.

Here are some interesting recent (and a bit older) articles on the situation in Karamoja:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/31/uganda-karamoja-world-food-programme

http://www.economist.com/node/21524864

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1815678-2,00.html