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.