Monday, August 31, 2009

Meeting Michael

Meeting our sponsored children was turned into a game. The sponsors were lined up on one side of the lawn and the children on the other. They were told to see if they could find their sponsors on their own. Our sponsored child is named Richard Michael (he prefers Michael) and he struck out the first time, trying another couple first. But he managed to find us on the second try with a little of our help.

A pang of guilt went through me at that. As a matter of fact, it still does. I should have been sending him new pictures of us every year. It had been a couple years since I had sent the last one and we were all bundled up in our winter gear. The poor kid didn't stand a chance.

We gave him the soccer ball we had brought and I took a picture of him holding it with my husband kneeling beside him. Both faces show anticipation with a little uncertainty. I think it took Michael a few minutes to understand that the ball was his to keep. When he did, he got very possessive of it.

Throughout the day we got to know each other better and became more relaxed. With the assistance of a translator, we asked and answered questions of each other. He learned that we have no children and we learned that he liked being our "son."

Lunch was interesting. He wasn't eating his chicken and when asked why, he responded that it wasn't salty enough. So my husband introduced him to the salt shaker. After applying enough salt to clog the arteries by just watching him, he ate his chicken right down to the marrow. He's got strong teeth.

We kicked his ball around before and after lunch, giving him a chance to show off his moves and me a chance to impress my husband. I hadn't played soccer since I was a year older than Michael. Later we took a boat ride on Lake Victoria and went swimming in the wading pool upon our return.

When it came time to give him his gifts we found a quiet spot under a tree in the garden. At first he was very formal but as he opened the first gift, the smiles came. In the package were some lead pencils, colored pencils, a sharpener, and two pink erasers. For some reason, the pink erasers were of particular interest to him and he was overwhelmed. That would have been enough, but being Americans, we had more. So out came the rest...a small sketch book, some matchbox construction trucks, and a pump for his ball. Finally, we gave him a shoulder bag to put it all in.

We gathered his things and put them in the bag to go back to our meeting area. He slung it on his shoulder and carried his ball. My husband and our translator, Wycliffe, walked on ahead while I lagged behind with Michael. He suddenly stopped and was trying to put his ball in the bag. I stopped too and helped by holding it open. The ball fit perfectly! We continued walking and suddenly he grabbed my arm, squeezed it close, and squealed! He was excited! That was the peak of the day for me. That we could give him such excitement over something so small as a soccer ball, pink erasers, and a bag to put them in.

The rest of our time was spent kicking his ball around and soon it was time to go. Quickly gathering together for a last minute group portrait of all the sponsors and children, my husband and I sat on the ground with Michael behind us. He placed his hands on our heads as if to claim us as his own.

As all of the kids and their translators climbed onto the bus, there was a lot of hugging and tears. But goodbyes have been a constant and normal part of my life, so aren't so emotional. All I required was one final acknowledgment after he was on the bus. He did that, reaching up, searching us out, and waving with a big smile on his face.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dancing, Mosquito Nets, Bore Holes, and Rain

The second half of our stay in Uganda was in the north. That was when we visited the project that probably had the biggest impact on us.

From the town where we stayed in the north, it was about a two hour drive. When our bus was just outside of the town we were headed to, we were met on the road by a large group. They were mostly women with a few men waving branches, playing instruments, singing, ululating, and dancing. They continued that way, slowly leading the bus toward the town. On the edge of town we were met by a second group of more women who joined the first, leading the bus in, around the roundabout, and up the road past the school and to the project. When we were almost there, our driver stopped the bus and most of us got out to join them, dancing the rest of the way and up to the church. There we were surrounded and greeted by another large group of women, the moms and grandmas of the children assisted by Compassion International. There was a lot more ululating and pressing of hands, Ugandan fashion, as the pastor and project workers directed us to our seats.

The church is an open building designed to provide shelter from sun and rain while maximizing the effect of cool breezes. As we sat during introductions, I noticed the large quantity of holes in the front wall. Most had been patched and some further down and around the edges had not. It occurred to me that they might be damage from bullets. I saw more, unpatched, in the walls of classrooms we visited later. What reinforced my opinion (I never confirmed it with anyone) was what the pastor told us. "You are safe here."

After introductions and reports from the staff was the dancing. And what incredible dancing it was. The first group of ladies came in singing and dancing with incredible expression in their movements that captured the emotion of the words in their songs. On their last song we got to stand up and join them. It was hard to keep up in spite of how simple it looked. They kind of shuffle, stomp, and jump, but the rhythm was fairly complex and so it was hard to tell when to do what. Besides, it was exhausting. A real cardiovascular workout.

The second group of ladies were much more sedate in their singing and dancing. The third group was even more energetic than the first. All lacked the self-consciousness or sexual connotation which is so often present in Western dancing.

I think the most powerful part of the day was the home visits and project tour.

"This village was part of the turmoil created by the Lord's Resistance Army. It was a refugee camp for awhile and most of the kids in the project were born in the bush (in hiding). There was no school until the project was started a year or two ago."

"As our group assembled around the pastor, he was talking to the co-leader of our tour. He said that many non-governmental organizations have been there to help them over time, but they all had a lot of corruption and came, did their thing, and left. They chose to ask Compassion to come help them start a program because of the lack of corruption and they felt that what Compassion had to offer would actually be of help to them."

"We were taken to three home visits and the bore hole. The homes were all small mud huts with mosquito nets and three people living in them. The first two were thatched and were quite cool, the last was roofed with tin and was hot. All the mosquito nets we saw were given to them by Compassion. We ended at the bore hole. There is another one down the road by the school, but it doesn't work very well most of the time. It's solar with too many parts to maintain in such a remote place. The pastor said the land for the new pump was donated and would not have been if anyone else had come to install it. It's one that uses a hand lever and works as long as the person using it is able. Some little girls were operating it when we were there. The 7 or 8 year old was pumping, jumping, and laughing as she did it while a younger girl used the water to wash herself, scrubbing her feet on the concrete."
(Excerpts from Ugandan journal.)

There is a drought in Uganda and so a reliable well that provides clean water is critical to this community. Both the mosquito nets and the well have reduced the amount of sickness that is experienced there. Such small things make such a huge difference.

We were told, when we got there, that it hadn't rained for some time. I know that I was not the only one quietly praying for rain that day and watching the sky as it turned gray with clouds. When we all gathered together before leaving, our tour leader asked me to pray to close out our time. Just as I finished, the clouds began to release their precious treasure... and it rained.

This is a hotel, but a typical structure for homes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Look, Feel, Taste and Smell


My points of reference for observing the Ugandan landscape was Cameroon and Nigeria.

Kampala region was reminiscent of Cameroon. the dirt was very red and staining and the vegetation was lush and entangled. What I didn't see was a lot of organized farms. There were small-space gardens in odd available spaces all over the city, but outside of the city didn't really seem any more organized. It wasn't until we got further north that farms seemed more intentional.

The houses were different from Cameroon and Nigeria in interesting ways. The only ones with mud brick and grass roofs belonged to the poorest. The next step up from that was mud brick with corrugated metal roofs. From there they upgraded to baked bricks with concrete mortar and corrugated metal roofs. We saw men making bricks from clay and it appeared that people would order clay bricks to be made and stacked in their yards. The base of the stack always had two tunnels and they would plaster the side of it with mud. That done, smoldering fires were started in the tunnels and the clay bricks were baked. After the baking, the pile was uncovered and construction could begin. Building of anything so expensive is done on a pay-as-you-go basis. So it can take a very long time to build a house or a store. The houses usually had verandas on the front and the businesses had tall flat fronts to create a high place for signage.

The northern region seemed more reminiscent of Nigeria. The dirt was lighter and grayer and, consequently, so are the bricks and homes. That was also where we saw a whole lot more mud huts with thick grass roofs. The vegetation was drier and at one point I saw a lot of elephant grass. The whole area was transitioning to savanah. We saw baboons, gray monkeys, a black and white monkey, and a lot of typical, long horn cattle. At the furthest extreme, the cattle seemed to be a shorter horned variety.

The variety of palms all over, was really interesting. Some of them were familiar (coconut and raffia) and others were ones that I had only seen in botanical gardens or photographs.

There were some very unusual trees that we called "Dr. Seus" trees due to the way the foliage formed puff-balls at the tips of the branches. One of the things I particularly enjoyed was walking past the hibiscus bushes at night. Their scent was very intoxicating then. There was a fair amount of bougainvilla around as well. One of the smells that seemed very much in place was the smell of burning. The scent of the smoke was always present in Kampala.

One thing I don't miss about the trip was the constant attack of mosquitoes. Since one cannot keep clean in Africa, it is best to bathe at night before bed. When possible, we did so just before dinner since we usually ate quite late. So, it was necessary to thoroughly cover up with clothing as I couldn't stand the thought of sleeping in bug repellent.


Meals were always interesting.

We ate breakfast at 7 am most days and at the resort it was a buffet from which I usually chose fried plantains, fresh pineapple, fresh passion fruit, hard boiled eggs, homemade yogurt, and lassi. I washed it all down with hot tea with milk and sugar.

"Tea" was served at noon and it varied a little depending on what was offered: water, milk cookies, bananas, fresh ground nuts, and cookies.

Lunch was usually at 2 to 2:30 pm and usually had most of, if not all of, the following: water, rice, Irish potatoes, matoke, ground nut sauce, chicken, lamb (goat), soup (sauce), groundnut sauce, pineapple, and bananas. Some offered soft drinks as well such as Fanta, Krest, and Coke. All with sugar, of course.

Supper was always late, about 7:30 or 8 pm. We often didn't finish until 9 or 9:30 since the service was leisurely, allowing for proper conversation and digestion of our food. The chef at the resort was Indian, so the cuisine was what I call Ugandan-Indian fusion. When we stayed at the hotel in Lira, the food was Ugandan all the way.

The one food we had which was not generally offered at our meals was the avocados given to us by a woman at the first child development center we visited. Our tour leader would cut them up as they ripened and put them on a plate to pass around at our evening meal. They were huge and very sweet. My one food regret is that we never got any guavas. They were out of season along with the mangoes.


One of the things that struck me about the people was, in particular, the women. We wore skirts since we were going into very traditional environments, but we did see a few women wearing pants in the city. It also was not at all uncommon to see women drivers in their own vehicles, usually small personal cars.

The common way of greeting was to softly take the hand of the visitor in both hands and slide off. Women often added a slight curtsey. Men had a funny little grasp and shake that was firmer and made me think of secret handshakes and brotherhoods. They were all soft spoken and I had to pay attention very closely to hear anyting at all some times.

When we went to the projects, we could always tell the project children from the rest. They all had uniforms that seemed to be school uniform bottoms (shorts or skirts) and usually t-shirts with a saying or verse on the back. And so, when we would drive up to a project, we were always greeted by an array of bright colors, usually red, blue, green, or yellow.

The Ugandan women had an interesting traditional dress that I never quite finished figuring out. The wrap skirt was pleated so that the bottom was wider than the top, but I couldn't see how. The top was quite elaborate with mid-length sleeves which were magnificently peaked at the shoulders. The neckline was square, buttoning closed on the left side. The fabric of the lower half continued on around the waist to be loosely secured by a sash with the excess shirt fabric draped over it. The men we encountered simply wore dress pants, dress shirts, and a tie if they owned one. Naturally, most everyone we were introduced to were dressed in their very best clothes.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Hope and a Future

Compassion International does the full spectrum. Starting with the Child Survival Program to assist moms and their babies, the core Child Development Program for school age kids, and finally the Leadership Development Program to send the exceptional students to university. In the developing world a university degree guarantees a job, thus ending the cycle of poverty. We met a lot of the graduates from the Child Development Program who went or were going to university not only to get a job and end their family cycle of poverty, but to go back to their communities to help those still in it. They are amazing!

"We drove to Uganda Christian University and met several LDP students. We met in a room in the chapel building. A representative of the university talked and then the Compassion staff person. She introduced all the students to us and had 5 speak about their testimony. When they were done, they each took 1-3 people from our group on a short tour of campus. It was a student named Yvette who took us around. She showed us the cafeteria, laundry area, dorms, some of the buildings with classrooms, the soccer field, and the library. It was fun to talk to her and exchange questions about college, our countries, and ourselves. Everyone met up at the beautiful fountain by the entrance gate and we took pictures of everyone. They have about 7000 students on campus and about 153 of them are LDP students." (Excerpt from Uganda journal.)

Home Visit

On day two of our stay in Uganda we visited a Compassion International child development center outside of Kampala. Part of our visit included splitting up into smaller groups to visit homes of some of the children. It was an opportunity for us to see what real, extreme poverty is and the people we visited were honored to have us come. It was a humbling experience.

"We were taken on home visits. Our home was a woman with 5 kids, although not all lived with her. She was a squatter when her house was torn down because the land had been sold. However, the land owner chose to give her a small piece of the land that was next to her sister's. So she and her children are living with her sister while she builds her house. Since she can only build as she has money, it's taking months to complete.

The picture above shows her with her grandson (her daughter is 15) peeling a matoke banana." (Excerpt from Uganda journal.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Adrenalin Rush

Our first afternoon in Kampala was spent at a Compassion International Child Survival Program.

"We were greeted as we got off the bus by several women who were introduced to us in the church as staff or volunteers at the church for the CSP program. Inside we sang with the women and their babies, heard testimony from two of the women, and got reports from the overseer and the program facilitator. We were shown case files of several women to illustrate how the program works to monitor the health of both mom and baby. They showed us the beautiful woven mats, bags, and baskets, paper bead jewelry, and crocheted items that they make to sell. Then we split up and half of us spent time with the crafters learning to make the paper beads and the other half went to the play room. Then we switched. When everyone loaded on the bus for the home visits, Paul and I stayed so that I could teach the crafters to make yarn and crochet bags our of old plastic bags." (Excerpt from Uganda journal)

Teaching the craft at the CSP project has a place in my heart of special importance. I saw it on Ravelry, learned how to make the plastic yarn (plarn) from grocery bags and found a great pattern to try. I immediately realized the potential for this as an income generating craft for CSP moms. I was actually that specific in my thoughts. Problem was, how to get it to them. I didn't know who to talk to or even how we would transmit the information from here to all the CSP projects around the world. I hadn't figured it out yet when I was approached by our Uganda tour guide. She knew we would be visiting a CSP project on our very first day in Kampala and asked if I would be bringing along my plastic bag as a craft to teach. She guaranteed that I would have the chance to teach it, so I packed the bag I had made, a ball of prepared plarn, my one N crochet hook, and 4 or 5 plastic grocery bags.

While the others were off on home visits, I got to teach. As soon as I pulled the crocheted bag out of my backpack, the women swarmed around me. I pulled out the bags, hook, plarn, and my multi-tool and sent the sample bag passing from woman to woman. They had a couple pairs of scissors as well, so I showed them how to cut up the bags. We passed out the pieces so that everyone could have an opportunity to learn how to connect the loops. Once everyone was caught up on that part of the process, I took the sample bag and showed them, using basic English and turn-talk (translation into Luganda) to explain that the bag was crocheted from the center-bottom up. I then demonstrated how to make the chain with the women watching me very closely. Then I gave it ot one of the women sitting beside me to finish the chain. When it was a good length, I took it back and demonstrated the single crochet along the chain, the increases on the end, and the return on the other side. I kept handing it off to the two ladies sitting beside me (with the others watching closely) as I went. Once we were done with the first row, I handed it off entirely and simply followed as the first woman taught the second, who taught the third...and so on. I simply offered corrections and demonstrations as needed along the way. By the time we had to stop, at least seven women had learned by working on it and we had about two inches of a bag started. Then the matter of getting more hooks arose. One of the women took a look at mine and declared that they could make them. She looked at me and I knew her unspoken question...I told her that they could keep my hook. Not only that, I made a promise. I would purchase some when I got home and send them back with a woman from the local office when she came to visit in a few weeks. They promptly informed me they would need forty of them.

I was so stoked after that one hour! That is what I love and want to do. How do I get more?

So I'm back here in the States working to keep my promise of getting forty, size N crochet hooks back to the CSP moms I met that day. I will not let them down.

Home again...or not. Back from Uganda

It's been 12 days since I was in Uganda and now I think that I'm finally "back." It takes a while for the body to readjust to the time change, food, culture... When people ask, I tell them that it's been like readjusting to a foreign country. I'm not joking. It really is.

When we landed at Entebbe on July 13th, we made our way through customs, got things loaded up into the bus and van, and Joseph drove us north to Kampala, through the city and to our hotel. I just sat there and took it all in. The sites, the smells, the colors, the people.

Being the self analyzing type, I checked up on myself about half way. What was I thinking and feeling? After running my self-diagnostic I realized that I felt normal. Really normal. It was the first time I'd felt normal in a very long time. I was home.

When we finally arrived at our hotel, the jolt of it kind of made me mad. I wasn't done absorbing.