Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Article for Ssanyu

When we think of Africa most of our thoughts are drawn toward children with pot bellies, flies and extreme poverty. Although we cannot discount the level of suffering, many people in Uganda have refused to become victims of their circumstances. Hard work, prayers, and tears, have inspired many to rise above their situations and make their dreams a reality.

Francis and Ssanyu are a local Ugandan couple who have taken up the fight to better their lives and the lives of hundreds of children and families in the Lugazi community; including our 2010 HELP-International Lugazi, Uganda team of volunteers. HELP-International is a non-profit organization based in Provo, Utah that is currently involved with development work in six different countries. Each country is equipped with a team of unique and motivated volunteers committed to creating and providing sustainable projects to aid in the fight against poverty and to make a lasting difference. The organization works with local community leaders in each location to ensure sustainability and see that the needs of every community are fulfilled in an empowering way. Francis and Ssanyu are two such committed and devoted people with the vision of creating a better Lugazi and a better Uganda for generations to come.

Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School is located deep in the lush rolling hills of Lugazi, Uganda. It functions as a private school that closely follows the national curriculum and is home to 187 African children between the ages of 2-15. The School stands proudly in the community as a constant reminder to all that dreams do come true.

From a young age Madam Ssanyu never knew her father and was asked to take on the roll of trying to generate income for her family by working alongside her weak elderly mother at a local sugar factory. The combined wages were still not enough to be able to afford the 12 year-old girl’s school fees and she was forced to drop out of school in order to work. The following year Ssanyu would lose her mother and become an orphan at the tender young age of 13. Having only completed the equivalency of 5th or 6th grade, Ssanyu would spend the next 5 years of her life going door to door begging relatives for the amount that you or I would spend on a movie ticket to pay for each term of her schooling. When money was tight among her extended relatives, this young teenager found herself tossed between homes working months at a time as a house girl to try to save money, being scooped up by the generosity of church and other organization members and hidden by some of the kind-hearted teachers and money collectors of her school to help her avoid her tuition payments.

Despite almost giving up hope to continue her schooling, Ssanyu fought desperately every school term for her right to an education. Even from a young age, this woman knew and cherished the value of knowledge and learning.

“I knew the best thing was to go to school” she said.

Ssanyu faced each day with a young heart of courage and determination. This positive outlook carried her through many dark and despairing times including putting up with the culturally tolerated physical abuse inside the classroom.

“One of the teachers would beat me in the head” shared Ssanyu, “I made a promise to God that if He helps me and I get money I will make a school and these things will not be involved in my school”.

At the age of 16 a family friend who also happened to be a headmaster of a school expressed his interest in opening a sister school to the one that he was currently operating.

“He asked me what I enjoy doing” said Ssanyu, “I told him that I taught the bible to children in Sunday School at church and then he asked me if I would like to teach in his school”.

Ssanyu was then employed as a nursery teacher at Katosi Community School in her mid-teens. Three years into her teaching career, Ssanyu was reconnected with a Scandinavian organization from her youth that had previously helped to put her through one year of primary schooling. The organization invited her to join their two-year nursery skills training course that provided certification upon graduation. The offer was accepted and during that time Ssanyu married her life-long companion Francis. The two first met at church and Francis observed her character and commitment toward the children, especially the vulnerable ones.

“I knew at that moment that I could not make it in this life without her” recalled Francis, who would later earn the well respected title of 'Pastor' within the Lugazi community.

The couple began their incredible journey shortly after with some advice from a colleague at a Nursery Skills Center that Ssanyu worked at post-graduation, she and Francis began their own school: Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School.

“Through some kind people I was able to be pushed and go to a training. It was as if God was confirming what was in my heart. I told the nursery skills director that this was my desire also” she said referring to creating their own school, “and I prayed for the funds and that is how we began”.

The Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School began eight years ago with only 7 students. Throughout the course of the next 5 years, the number of students grew exponentially reaching well over 100 children and the couple accommodated by using 4 rooms of their rented personal residence as classrooms. The reputation of the way that the school lovingly and respectfully handled their children spread quickly throughout the community and they began to receive difficult cases of children. Children who were incapable of paying tuition, victims of retarded mental growth, def children, and children who were not able to keep up with the teaching speed, were among those that were sent to Ssanyu School.

“When we get new teachers we tell them they are parents to the children and that any form of physical or emotional abuse will not be tolerated here” said Ssanyu.

"We want to create an environment that favors progress” Francis added passionately, “Our challenge is to remove the strong-hold of individualistic tendencies and teach children that they share the same blood, to encourage each other to succeed and that we are all brothers and sisters”.

As the number of children and staff at the school continued to increase and the children among the influx that could afford to pay tuition decreased, the school fell financially to the point where it almost couldn’t sustain itself.

“We just kept moving and praying to God” shared Francis.

After 5 straining but successful years of running the school, the couple received notice from their landlord that that they had only 3 months to pack up and leave the property. After many prayers Francis and Ssanyu found a willing friend who owned some land and a family member to loan them some money to begin construction on a permanent school building for their students.

“The walls were easy to construct because of the cost of the bricks” said Francis, “But the roof was difficult to get”.

The school began hosting classes with only four walls and a partially completed roof. The incomplete structure provoked laughs and scorns from their fellow community members.

“We questioned whether or not to move on” shared the couple, “but the parents of our students still trusted us because of the way that we believe in respectfully handling and instilling values within the children”.

“What sets this school apart” continued Francis, “is the focus of the holistic development of the person. Many schools focus on academic excellence and that is very good, but the focus here is the child. This mentality is not a big or popular industry, but we believe that holistic development instills moral value within the child, gains the trust of the community and deeply roots within the child social principles that will allow them to contribute positively to our community in the future. We earn that trust because of our good reputation of child development and that is why Ssanyu School is different”.

With the little money that had come from those children who could afford to pay school fees and with what the couple was able to save, the school now has five classrooms, 187 students and 11 teachers. School fees at Ssanyu school range from $12 to $20 dollars depending upon the cost of books, uniforms and those that can afford to pay the extra $3 for one cup of porridge each school day. Of the 187 enrolled students, only about 80-90 of them are able to pay for their schooling expenses and even less can afford to eat daily.

Unlike the educational systems in Canada or America, the children here remain in school for up to 8 or 9 hours; that is a long time for any child, not to mention a child who cannot afford to eat.

Francis and Ssanyu have committed even more of their meager funds in an effort to feed everyone and supply each child with a cup of porridge daily.

“Whether they pay or not we are now trying to give all of them porridge” said Ssanyu, “before, only 30 children were able to take porridge. The nursery children would cry for food, so we recently decided within the past two weeks to allocate some more of our funds to buy more porridge and feed all of the children and trust God that we will find the needed money elsewhere. Finances are a challenge, but we have the heart here and we fight differently.”

The teachers and staff at Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School fight differently indeed, they fight selflessly. The average wage for a teacher in Uganda for one month is about 150,000 shillings or approximately $75. After each of the able children at Ssanyu School have paid their term fees, the school operates all of its expenses on that money, which leaves less than a quarter of the average wage for their teachers. The teachers at Ssanyu School support their families from month to month with only $15 instead of the $75 that they should be receiving.

“We have lost good teachers because they fear the financial situation; they move to better schools. You can only retain those who understand and appreciate the situation and understand God” explained Francis.

“As this term is ending it looks the same” added Ssanyu, “We will explain the situation to the teachers and ask them to trust God on this faith journey. Sometimes I’ll even leave the receipts on the desk so they can see”.

That is the very reason that Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School is filled with such loving and caring mentors and teachers. The continued selfless sacrifice and common vision of working together to develop one another and ensure another’s success has blessed hundreds.

The care and concern that the couple shares for each one of their students is overwhelming and admirable. Three enrolled children that come from broken families and tough backgrounds have been offered a home with Francis and Ssanyu.

“They were each in their last year of primary school and candidates for national exams” explained Francis, “they were all victims of a bad environment that was not conducive to their studies”.

One of the teenage girls staying with Francis and Ssanyu saw her parents divorced, her mother leave her to move to another district and her father jobless with no place to call home. The directors of the school are not naive to the hundreds of other children who fight for their right to education and their life daily. They have opened their home to a few cases, but take it upon themselves to voluntarily correct the root of the problem. Francis has designated time outside of his roles as a Pastor, School Director, community leader, father and husband to create a curriculum encompassing integrity and servitude-leadership. He is currently working with local police officers, town council members and other high ranking members of the community to progress unity, morals and ethics.

“The gap between the rich and the poor is ever increasing” explained Francis, “It is a very complicated dilemma. Here, democracy means getting ahead at any expense… usually it is at the expense of marginalized populations such as the youth and widows. We need to work together to develop our town; it is about our community and its well-being, not who is in what position”.

The story of Francis and Ssanyu continues to grow. Each day is a new day to accomplish new things and rest assured many things are accomplished every day through the hands of these exemplary people.

“Our team has had the wonderful opportunity to interact with Francis, Ssanyu, and several of the teachers at Ssanyu School through various projects” says Nicole Luscher, one of the Co-Country Directors responsible for leading the group of HELP-International volunteers in Africa this summer. “They are some of the most upstanding people that we have had the privilege of working with and an inspiration to us all”.

Among the several projects that the two Ugandans have undertaken to accomplish, building and completing the additional two classrooms for Ssanyu School ranks high on the list. The foundations of the classrooms were laid almost two years ago and have remained waist-high for a long length of time due to a lack of funding.

“I have been slowly collecting bricks for the past two years” shared Francis, “Every time I have an extra hundred shillings (approximate equivalency of 0.05 cents) that I can spare, I purchase a brick and add it to the collection”.

The two-year heap now totals over 3,000 bricks; however it still falls short. The bricks need to be supplemented by over a third and the costs of cement, rebar, timber, nails, doors, locks, delivery, labour etc. have not yet been factored into the equation. These two rooms will serve as classrooms during the daytime hours and Francis has agreed to open the space to disabled members of the community as a meeting place for them during the evening hours. Selected members of families who are struggling to pay school fees will train alongside the hired labourers to gain a marketable skill and be linked to local businesses. In return for their work, the School has agreed to forgive the related children’s tuition fees and encouragement to develop their newly found skill into profit for their family and future expenses.

As someone who shares an interest in promoting education and enriching lives, the invitation is extended to all whom this article is able to reach to see how simple projects, things that are often take for granted in our world, can inspire hope and transform lives. This story acts as a voice of hope for those who don't have the ability to speak. Join HELP-International and our team of volunteers in Lugazi, Uganda this summer and give the gift of education and community support to hundreds of children and families. Donations can be mailed directly to HELP-International (363 N. University Ave. #110, Provo UT 84601) or through PayPal online at:, including “Ssanyu School, Uganda.” in the comments section.

“My family and friends have all helped to solidify deep within me the importance of opening my heart to others and serving in every able capacity to ensure another’s well-being and happiness” says 26 year old Nicole Luscher. After graduating from Mount Baker Secondary School, Nicole served a full-time 18 month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City Utah and returned to Brigham Young University shortly after to further her studies in Public Health and International Development. “I have been very fortunate to dedicate service in many different capacities and visit many different parts of the world and, like anyone, I want to make this world a better place”.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Bad Place!

I have been completely regreting not updating my blog at least weekly since I haven't been very good at keeping a journal either. Coordinating volunteers and partner organizations has been a busy, but very fulfilling job. I've tried keeping a notebook to write down some thoughts at the end of each night, but I usually only get through a few sentences before you see the ink leave the page and my head hit the pillow.

Uganda is absolutely incredible! The longer that I am here, the more I believe that I could actually live here. The people are fantastic, willing, giving, happy, and humble. It inspires me to be more like them. It is amazing to think that the reason that I took this job was to make a difference in the world, some kind of positive change, when really the one that is changing is me. The people are my heroes and I am finding myself wanting to be more like them with each passing day. To be content and happy with candy wrappers for shoes or an old plastic drinking bottle as a rattle, my heart is forever changed.

I have also been contemplating quite regularly the qualities of a good leader. I have learned so much through prayer and scripture study, but also from those whom I am surrounded with each day- my co-director, the volunteers, and the people of Uganda that we serve. Sacrifice and selflessness really are the key to happiness. Sometimes some forms of sacrifice are more difficult to make than others, but it is a lesson that I am constantly learning. The irony of it is even if a task is presented before me that I may not be entirely excited about, that if I choose to do it for the benefit of another, willingly and with a smile on my face, as a result, I become happier also. I wish I could share all of the incredible experiences that I've had because of this simple change of attitude, but it is too many to recount. I love to serve!
This past weekend, we decided that we wanted to go white water rafting on the Nile River. As you can tell from the picture, the rapids were pretty intense and climbed up to several class 5 rapids- including going over a waterfall! As they were loading our boats up and separating the equipment in preparation to get onto the river, I must admit I became a little nervous that our boat might bump into a crocodile or a hippo! My fears became a reality when I had to use a banana tree as a bathroom before climbing into the raft. I looked over and only a few feet away from me was a giant 3 ft lizard! It looked like a Salomander on steroids! I had no idea what in the world this strange African creature was and I emerged from the bushes just in time to get my shorts up around my waist! Our guide later informed me that it was a Monitor/er... no idea... if someone decides to google this and find out what it is, please let me know!
As time went on and the intense African sun beat down upon us causing us to swim more than be in our raft, my fears of all creatures were exchanged for the cool relief of the Nile. Our guide was fantastic and fun! He was a fellow Canadian who used to work as a guide on the Ottawa River. We all had a great adventurous day and actually made it through without tipping on 4 of the 5, class 5 rapids. The last rapid that we approached was nicknamed "the bad place". Our guide had never made it through once without flipping. The picture above illustrates our raft approaching "the bad place". Sure enough the raft flipped and we all got rocked! Everyone was dumped out and thrown into the raging rapids of the Nile River. It was pretty intense too! Just under a minute of being tossed around by swirling white water. Before going into "the bad place", we had a lesson of how to correctly time our breathing... it was a good thing that I learned something from that otherwise I would have paniced and been toast. Somehow while I was trying to synchronize my breathing while trying not to drown, I began collecting the floating oars that were thrown out of the hands of my fellow rowers on our raft. Don't ask me how the first lesson of the day that included "Whatever you do, do not loose or let go of your paddle!" stuck with me in my moment of trying to stay afloat for my life!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Choice is Yours

In America, when Africa is brought up in casual conversation or in a classroom, it is almost always associated with the deadly HIV/AIDS virus. Although our country has not yet eradicated the disease, it seems as though it is a very taboo topic that most people avoid discussing. Why is that? Is it because of embarrassment? Or because of what the disease is associated with? In Africa, Uganda, here, it is a reality. It is something that people are forced to deal with on a day to day basis and almost everyone that I’ve spoken to has had a family member, relative, close friend, or someone who has become a fallen soldier in the devastating never ending battle.

I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for those who are brave enough to attend a screening that will reveal their HIV status; to wait in line wondering if a small test strip will show one line or two, knowing that those results given within the next 40min will ultimately define their future and their life. What if you were given the next half an hour of your life to wait while your future was laid out for you? A future that will determine whether or not you will live or die? What emotions would you experience? Would you want to know the answer? An answer that would determine how many years you have left to be a brother, sister, mother, father, friend, son or daughter? And would you still be willing to take the risk knowing that if you are told that you are HIV positive, that you would become an outcast to society, lose your job, your family, your dreams, and face living on the streets because your parents would disown you? Knowing all of that, would you still do it? It’s a sobering thought.

I have seen the fear associated with it. It is reality and I have come to learn to completely respect the disease itself and those who join in the fight to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. They are my heroes; the people who know what they are up against and walk fearlessly and courageously into war and face the disease, regardless of the consequences, or their status.

Two weeks ago, almost to the day, a few volunteers and myself, partnered with a local clinician named Emmanuel to conduct HIV screenings at Lugazi University. We arrived just as people were beginning to file into the room to be tested. At this point, I hadn’t yet understood the serious cultural implications/reprecussions of the virus and was very focused on the work ahead of us. We had almost completed testing those that had shown up, when a gentleman approached me and sat down next to me. He was a young man about University (my) age. He was sweating profusely and spoke anxiously. He began to confide in me and tell me all of his fears about being tested. How do you console someone to do the right thing when you know very well that the outcome may be life threatening? I took a moment to collect my thoughts and to think about what I would want to hear if I were in his shoes. We spoke about the disease, what it is and how it is transmitted. We spoke about the importance of knowing your status to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and the responsibility associated with doing your part. We spoke about treatment should he be HIV positive and the ways in which he could receive help. After the conversation, he nervously agreed to go ahead and be tested. As I walked alongside him I couldn’t help but feel like I might be walking him toward an unhappy fate. My stomach was in knots and my heart ached for him. I prayed silently the entire time that we were awaiting his results and tried to continue to lift his spirits with an occasional "thumbs up".

Delivering the results took longer than what was expected as the doctor really interrogated each person to ensure that they knew the seriousness of the virus; it was a pretty intense process. The doctor would say things like, you look nervous… Have you done anything that has given you a reason to come in and be tested today? At first I thought it was a little harsh to pressure people like that, but after sitting in and hearing some people open up to the doctor I understood that this little scare tactic was necessary to really help the reality of this disease to sink in. Daniel, the name of the young man that had approached me, was sitting in a chair nearby and called me over. We talked again at length about the danger and risk of HIV and the importance of taking proper action to prevent it.

Finally it was his turn to receive his results. He asked me to come and sit next to him as the doctor spoke. When it was announced that his results were negative, his eyes welled up in tears and he immediately reached over to shake my hand. He was all smiles and couldn’t find the words to express his joy and happiness although his relief was very apparent. As he was leaving he said to me “It is because of you… It is because of you that I was tested today”. He praised me for encouraging him, but of course I knew and told him that it was all him. He walked in that door and he made the choice to get in that line. I was so proud of him and really felt that from our conversations that he had a firm grasp on how to protect himself and that he was sincere when he smiled and told me that he “would run away” from any risks associated with the virus. He was so excited about his status that he announced that he was going to travel back to his village and encourage everyone that his voice could reach to be tested and recruit them to the cause.

49 people were screened today and all of them were found to be negative.

Friday, May 14, 2010

May 11, 2010

Today marks two weeks that I have been in country! Like my mission, the days are long but the weeks are flying by. I have a feeling that this summer is going to go by in no time and before I know it, I will be flying north back over the equator, stopping in London briefly enough to see Big Ben out the window of the plane, waving at the cubs in Chicago, viewing the pacific from the sky as I fly over California and finally, driving across the border into Canada after I land in Spokane, Washington. It has been a week since I have had time to sit down and recall all that has happened in these short seven days, but as I do, I can’t help but laugh! We have been placed under arrest for taking pictures on a bridge, someone attempted to steal keys to our padlocks (we caught him, got them all back and changed the locks), volunteer flights have been canceled and delayed, the water and the power in the house have gone out (those desperate enough have resorted to using plastic bags and throwing up in the yard), our toilet is broken, our sink is leaking and flooding the house, we haven’t showered for days, my mattress had fleas and I woke up with several bites across my stomach, one morning we were woken up very early by the crowing of our dinner, we've enjoyed the smell of our neighbours (four cows), marked ourselves for circumcision, and have tried the delectable dish of fried grasshoppers...

Our volunteers arrived on Friday and others on Saturday and of course the house wasn’t ready with construction workers entering and exiting at their leisure. Thankfully the team in Mukono was kind enough to put us all up for a night! On Saturday I brought one of the volunteers, Kyle, into Lugazi to help me conduct house business, since Lauren had to do an unexpected airport run. My heart sank as we arrived at the house close to ten o’clock and saw that there were still no workers here. It was the same mess that we left last night, only tonight it had to be ready for us to move in! I immediately got on the phone and let the German in me come out for heads to roll! It has been so tough always having to be on the case of these construction workers! Ugandan time! Oh and if it rains, everything is put on hold!
Kyle and I got to work and began cleaning what we could. Slowly but surely, workers finally began to show up in the late afternoon. Lauren was trying to stall and entertain our volunteers in Mukono, when finally they all expressed their interest and eagerness to come to Lugazi, roll up their sleeves, and help us get the house ready. When the van pulled up and all 13 of them piled out, dropped their luggage in the garage and began working, I was so happy and relieved that I could have started crying! What could have potentially been a tough and difficult situation turned into a real team building activity. Our volunteers are so amazing! They took a bad situation and made it into a real learning experience! Seeing them work together and help one another amazed us as Country Directors! We are so proud of them and it turned out to be such a great experience in bringing everyone closer together!

On Sunday May 9, we had our first Ugandan home cooked meal! Rose, our cook, was also hired to cook for the 2008 HELP-International, Lugazi, Uganda team. She showed up at 11am to start preparing dinner for that night. It was an extravagant meal with several authentic dishes! Posho, a white corn meal, Matoke, mashed bananas, Chapats, a kind of thick flour tortilla, G-nuts, which stands for ground nuts and is a sauce that tastes somewhat like peanut butter, and many others. Another part of our dinner woke me up this morning as it was crowing just outside my window. Chicken here is a delicacy and is rarely eaten, except on special occasions. We eat it only about once every couple of weeks. I thought the slaughtering of the chickens would have bothered me a little more than it did as I spent the day with them running around the yard cleaning and doing my laundry outside by hand, but it never. In fact a very small part of me was grateful that I wouldn’t have to hear them the next morning:)

Yesterday, May 10, our team met up with Kizza, who is the go to guy for any construction projects and a community leader in his community. He taught our team how to build an adobe stove African style! It was so much different than what I learned in Guatemala… it was better! The frame of the stove is built with bricks and mortar; the inside is filled with a mixture of clay, sawdust, and water; the entranceway, burners, pipes and other openings are molded with banana stalks; and the entire stove is plastered with cement.

To begin the morning, Kizza took us to visit some of the beneficiaries that received the energy saving stoves from the HELP group last year. We spoke with them, asked them questions and checked the conditions of their stoves. I was totally surprised to see how well the stoves have held up over the last year. Of the five we visited, none were cracked and only one stove needed its chimney replaced. I’ve had the opportunity to previously be involved in this project and even teach it in Central America, but going around and meeting and talking with the Ugandan beneficiaries of the stoves from last year was still a growing experience and a source of excitement and motivation for me. It was a really great idea for our team to visit these women and to really gain a firm grasp on the stove project and to have a tangible understanding of how these stoves are involved in the human development process. Kizza’s mom was able to start her own business selling Samosa’s (a fried flour pocket filled with beans or beef), the cooking time of beans has been reduced from 3 hours to 30 min leaving more time for other activities, the stoves use a quarter to an eighth less firewood than an open fire does allowing the beneficiary to allocate more money toward other things, preparation time is significantly less and families are able to eat more than once per day, the extra heat source allows the beneficiaries to sanitize their water for safe drinking through boiling, and of course the chimney provides a smoke free environment.

My favourite part of building the stove is kicking my shoes off and jumping in the mud to help stomp out and mix the clay mixture! It’s fun, dirty and the kids and volunteers love it! While the clay was squishing through our toes, I had the brilliant idea of putting mud across our cheeks like a football player or warrior to make for some fun pictures. Some of the other girls thought it was also a fun idea and followed suit. After decorating some of the African children the same way, we took some pictures and laughed as we showed them to the children. Soon after we began moving the clay up to Kizza for the use of the stove. As I passed by him with a handful of it he said to me “Nicole, you have something on your face, just there” and pointed to my cheek. I laughed and told him that I had put it there on purpose to be like a warrior! He doubled over laughing as he told me that in their culture that was a mark for small male babies who were about to be circumcised! I told the others through a fit of laughter and we all made sure to wash our faces really well before leaving for town!

Tuesday, today, it was my turn to stay with the house as the construction workers were still coming and going, to keep an eye on things and be here for any of their questions, but mostly to put my foot down in order to get things done! The group's activities were done earlier than expected today, so I took some of the volunteers with me to the internet cafe as I had to email some reports to head office. We waited for about 20min before Richard, the owner of the HOPE Internet cafe, came out and told us that the network was going to be down until this evening and asked us to come back then. Of course for our safety we have set a curfew of 7pm, a rule that everyone must abide by to be in before dark. I explained to him that I could come back the next day and thanked him for his time. Before I could leave, he asked me what my plans were for the night. I never quite knew how to respond because I knew exactly what his intentions were. I answered his question with a question and asked him if he wanted to talk business with Lauren and I. Even though I somewhat expected his response, it still surprised me a little. He asked if he could come by this evening to "chat" with me. I handled myself very well and told him that we could talk as friends at his internet cafe. Richard was good friends with the previous volunteers and Country Directors and is completely harmless, but our team now enjoys joking with one another about going for walks and "chatting". I guess there's not much else to do in Uganda when you take someone out on a date!

After this "hot mzungu" left the internet cafe, I had to rush to a meeting with a partner about renting a fridge for the team. After we had come to an agreement, Robert, our partner who is on the board for TYOM and who we will be renting the fridge from, his aunt brought out some ensenene for us to try. Imagine a plate of fried grasshoppers being put out in front of you, all eyes on you waiting for you to try one. They explained to us that you must first pull off all of the legs, the wings are removed in the preparation process, and pop it in your mouth and start chewing. I was totally unsure of this and didn't really know what to think as I was pulling off the legs of my fried grasshopper, but I tried to clear my mind and not think about it as I chewed. Again I was surprised when I decided that it wasn't actually that bad and had several more. I received permission to take some home for the rest of the team to try and it was a riot to watch these girls, some haven't traveled before, trying to figure out how eat our new roommates!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 4, 2010

Yesterday, Lauren and I put in some long hours house hunting, being on the phone with partners and potential employees and trying make everything perfect for when our volunteers would arrive. This particular day (May 4, 2010), we decided to treat ourselves, take the afternoon off, stay local and explore Jinja. We took Kristy with us as went into town to walk down the main streets and visit the tourist shops. Jinja lies east of the Nile River and has a bridge available to vehicles and pedestrians to pass over for a beautiful view. We were all feeling very fortunate to be walking along the source of the Nile, that naturally we wanted pictures of the River, ourselves, and each other. The Nile is a main tourist attraction for visitors to Uganda, and the dam supplies most of East Africa with power. It is incredibly beautiful and lush!

While we were all taking pictures, I could hear someone calling us from the opposite side of the bridge/road. I turned and saw an armed guard dressed in camo holding a shotgun motioning for us to come toward him. I pointed him out to Lauren and Kristy and became the first to venture across the bridge to see what he wanted. He began speaking very quickly in Luganda and I couldn’t understand what the problem was. At this time Lauren and Kristy began dodging traffic and making their way toward me. Before I knew it there was another armed guard, also carrying a shotgun, approaching us at a rapid pace. Luckily he spoke somewhat better English; however, I still misunderstood him and thought that maybe he was informing us that we were not to be on the other side of the bridge. As he spoke, it sounded like he said “It is best” which I took to mean: it is best to be on this side of the bridge/road, but I quickly found out that that is not what he said at all! I apologized and agreed with him when he spoke again and this time he distinctly said that we were “UNDER ARREST” and asked me to come with him… I froze! I didn’t know what to think or say! He and his partner demanded that we give them our cameras. I was completely and totally overwhelmed still trying to process what was actually happening, while trying to decide if I was really going to spend the night in a Ugandan jail cell. I stood in front of the guard in utter disbelief with my mouth on the ground and my mind blank, his arm outstretched reaching for me to come with him or hand over my camera… thankfully, Lauren took advantage of the awkward silence to explain who we were and why we were in the country. When she mentioned that we were here to serve and help the community, that we would be living in Lugazi and that we knew the mayor, they left us alone without any serious repercussions, other than fear!

That night, Lauren had a friend call from the States that had previously lived in Uganda for about a year and as she was telling her our experience of almost being arrested, she gasped on the other line and said “I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I didn’t tell you! In Uganda, taking pictures on bridges is totally illegal!” Her statement was confirmed by some members of our trusted partner orgs… they had a good laugh about that one! I can laugh about it now, but it sounds like a ridiculous law that should be in one of those crazy books that people read while going to the bathroom!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

May 3, 2010

Today we made up for all the fun we had on Saturday. We woke up at 5:45am and caught a costa (mini-bus) from Bugembe to Lugazi. After seeing two taxis run off the road in the forest of the Jinja highway, we’ve decided Costas are the way to go in terms of public transportation, besides the fact that they’re about the same price and we’ve actually seen people give change on them… twice! We met with Wilson first thing in the morning and begin crossing off our huge to-do checklist: secure housing, set up our projects, send our weekly country report, check our volunteer flight schedule, find a cook, find a guard, visit Kawalo hospital and Sister Josephine the public health nurse, and meet Mayor Ozuma and some others of the town council. We got it done. All of it. The meeting with the mayor was quite a little treat. He was very adamant about how grateful he was to have HELP back in Lugazi. I am surprised at the incredibly good reputation that HELP has in this town. We have been so well received by everyone, especially people in prominent positions that are very influential in the community like the Mayor and Chairman Livingston. We’ve been able to share with each of our partners our plans for the summer and the incredible projects that we would like to accomplish as well as hear their ideas of what they would like to accomplish and how we can help them achieve their goals. Needless to say it is going to be a great summer full of hard work!

To thank Wilson for all of the assistance that he has rendered to us, we decided to treat him to dinner. He recommended the Patron Hotel, which is owned by the previous mayor and friend to HELP-International, Deo. There I had one of my first experiences with a Ugandan bathroom, I will spare you all of the details, other than you have to have REALLY good aim! Our friend Wilson recommended that we have Fish and Chips… I’ve travelled before so I can’t believe that I was so na├»ve to think that it would actually be fish sticks and fries. I was surprised when they literally brought out an entire fried fish, head, tail and all! We were shown how to eat it and my second surprise came when I realized how delicious it was! I ate the fish down to the bone and thought I was finished, when Wilson told me not to leave the most delicious parts… the head, eyes and tail. My stomach churned as I began picking apart the head and tried to find some pieces that resembled meat. I mostly just picked apart the head and occasionally raising a piece to my mouth, but for the most part, I just couldn’t do it. Wilson was right. It definitely had a different taste to it! The most delicious part according to our African friend was the eyes. I pulled out the cornea of one of the eyes, apparently that’s one of the only parts of a fish you can’t eat, and popped the jelly ball into my mouth trying to keep mind over matter. I chewed… it wasn’t good. It tasted like old stagnant lake or river water that had absorbed the taste of moldy algae. Blach!

May 1, 2010

This morning as we prepared to brave the 40km journey into Lugazi from where we are staying in Bugembe, we had no idea that we would be spending the day with the Chairman of the Wale… district, Chairman Livingston. Uganda is divided into districts, each of which includes many villages and are the equivalent of states in the U.S. The Chairman is the government representative of each district, and the equivalent of a congressman. When we arrived to meet Wilson at The Youth Outreach Mission (TYOM), Chairman Livingston came to meet us and invited us to join him for a visit to a remote village in his district where they were celebrating the National Labor Day holiday with a football (soccer) tournament. When the invitation was extended Lauren and I looked at each other wondering what we should do… we had a lead on a house, yet nothing was confirmed and we still had so much to do; however, we decided to honor his invitation and venture into what they referred to as “the real Africa” or “the heart of Africa”. Six of us piled into a small car, the Chairman comfortable in the front with the driver and four of us, including Lauren and myself, stuffed into the backseat literally on top of one another. The landscape was absolutely gorgeous! We drove past mahogany trees, sugar cane and papyrus plantations as the road wound deep into the villages of central Uganda. Rain pounded the car as the small holes in the road became huge canyons. Maneuvering the vehicle around these crevasses, the winding of the road itself, the braking of the vehicle, being squished in the backseat with my “pungent” friends and the windows rolled up, I began to feel very motion sick. About an hour into the drive I asked the driver to pull over so that I could grab some Gravol or Dramamine from my bag in the trunk and get some fresh air and a drink of water. I stood out in the rain for relief and dreaded getting back into the car as my friends were calling me in for shelter. A few minutes had passed and I was again stuck in the back seat, now wet, pushed up against my colleagues. I finally got to the point when I could not endure the back seat or the drive any longer and seeing my gag reflexes beginning to act up, Lauren immediately asked the driver to pull over. As soon as I gasped the fresh air I was ok, still we had a good part of the unpleasant ride ahead of us in order to reach the village. The Chairman so kindly gave up his seat in the front to be squished in the back with the others. I tried to refuse him and assure him that I would be ok, but being the wonderful man that he is, he gave me his seat in the front. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the village of Ssi. As the car came to a stop, my stomach came to a start and I flung the door open and bolted to the side of the road. I couldn’t help myself, everything came up. The Chairman made his way over after greeting some people and put his hand on my back as I was bringing up my breakfast. Right when I turned around there were four people waiting to greet me. I shook their hands as tears rolled down my face, I felt SO BAD! But I suppose that I should be grateful that nothing came out in the car or on any of our partners… especially the congressman! I had to assure everyone that I was fine and didn’t need to see a health nurse.

After that incident I began feeling better and I was able to enjoy the great celebrations of the village. Hundreds of people had walked for miles to attend this celebration, an occasion that is rare, and it was special to be a part of it. The soccer field where the tournament was taking place was huge! And I have never seen such incredible “football” players in my life! We were able to meet and shake hands with some of the players, I was pretty excited about that, but for them it is a way of life. Robert, the manager of TYOM, came with us and explained to us that each village chooses its “footballers” and who will compete and that they train for many months before events such as this.

The women had a small court to the side and they were competing in an event called “net ball”. It was much like basketball with a few ultimate Frisbee rules thrown into it. The object of the game was to put the ball through a metal hoop to score. It was pretty rough, but very fun to watch. In Africa it is considered disrespectful or disgraceful for women to wear anything but skirts, mid-calf skirts. The thigh is a sign of prostitution and “looseness”. Of course we have been respecting the culture and dressing each day with skirts, but as I watched these women play, I couldn’t imagine playing basketball in one!

Smart Choices, a local Non-profit group, MC’d the event and the purpose of the large gathering was to promote abstinence to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. All of the music played carried with it this message. It was played throughout the day, and every time it came on the kids would jump up and start dancing. At one point, I decided to get up and start dancing with them and attracted the attention of the whole crowd! I guess they didn’t know that Mzungu’s could bust a move! The MC on the microphone commented “Thank you sister for showing us your moves!” It was pretty funny! By the end of the day we were dancing and having fun with the kids. By the time we left, we had trails of children literally climbing on us. I would venture to guess that most of the people deep in this village in the “heart of Africa” had never seen a white person before, not one that had “moves” anyway.