Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When Clouds Move

I finally took a tour of the sugarcane factory that I pass everyday.

I visited my host sister's school and taught her kids the "Sunbeam" song- they loved it!

I remember pulling into the bus station in Bangkok and seeing them. They were lined up on the street, wrapped in beads, hemp, sarongs, Chaco straps, nylon packs, unwashed sun bleached hair and a casual confidence of independence. They were backpackers. At that moment I wished to be disconnected from my mixed conservative, pre-planned group and to flirt, roam and LIVE as they do. I vowed that I would learn their style and travel as they.

Throughout the next few years I did end up in the same places and even adopted an air of backpacker style, but what I didn’t know then and what I would eventually discover is that I never really would become one of them. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I can’t enjoy many of the uninhibited activities that dominate the culture. But, in honest analysis I think I have to admit that I am horrible long-term leisure traveler. The chemical that allows your brain to decide to wake up everyday and choose what you are going to do to gain the utmost personal enjoyment for months and months is not found in my genetics. Instead, I like to get in, get deep, and come out with my hands dirty- working alongside the people in the place to find out their unique quirks. And only until I think the scale will break on the heavy side of exhaustion do I feel worthy to take a rest.

So here I am, I have finished my internship, I am staying in a hostel so tuned up for backpackers, that it is literally called “Backpackers”. I am now suppose to align myself and follow in line with them. But I am restless, I feel like I am not one of them. I have a home here and there is still work to do. I am not done with Uganda. I am finding it challenging to go from caring about if Naigaga Agnes will be able to cover the remaining $20 of her school fee balance to caring about where I can get the best wireless for Face book. I use to think exploring was the pursuit of physical adventure and seeing the sites. But somehow in the thick of Uganda, the definition of adventure came to be finding the power to work among others while being different, finding a way to make an impact with unexpected variables. The exploring seems to be far more internal and related to people than geographical.

I didn’t know it would be like this or I would have acted accordingly, I didn’t know that I would be choked up and paralyzed. I am lucky though, I have a dear friend coming to travel who is willing to allow me one more day of work in hopes of closure before we line up and march on.

Today is hello Chris, soon to be good bye Uganda.

Keep It Smart

I found it incredibly fitting that my final morning living in Kakira seemed to want to give me a hearty summary.

I woke up after a peaceful night of sleeping in a thunderstorm
As I was getting ready, I unexpectedly (yet not the first time) had to clean up and quarantine a discovered flood of ants pillaging the dead bugs that blew in my open window during the night
The gate lock was stuck so I had to climb over the wall to go on my run
The colors from the sunrise seemed to press an illumination button on everything and added a rainbow
My newly washed running shoes were instantly steeped in mud with each step I took
I came home to find my host family making chapatti’s and wanting to teach me
I showered with a jerry can of cold water and no wash basin
I saw two goats bucking horns
My host mom insisted I take a plastic container of chapattis with me
I had to refill the toilet in order to flush it
I passed out toys and candy to the neighborhood kids
The driver was late
I went through the visitor’s only front door as I left
They made me sit in the front seat so the security guards would see a white person and wave us through

Rocket Launcher

Now for my favorite part of the story. As part of my internship I was given $200, about 380,000 Ushs to spend in coordination with my project- improved cook stoves. Due to the extensive nature of the grant that initiated the pilot project, my money was not completely necessary for the institutional installation. We began looking at other options and decided, for every kid who eats one meal at school there are 7 people at home that eat 3 meals a day using the 3-stone method of cooking in a mud hut. So we decided to purchase improved household stoves and distribute them to some of the OVC caretakers. Though the money only allows for 12 stoves to be purchased, it is a step to spreading awareness of affordable technology available and a good way to test their impact. So we purchased 12 brightly colored orange cookstoves that instantly make me giddy. Then we picked 12 OVC households in a concentrated area to allow speedy delivery (it is impossible to give based on need, all of them are in need). We loaded up the truck and began.

It took 3 hard days of traveling around in the field to deliver the cook stoves. However, every foot of road that had cracks down to purgatory and every degree above HOT, was worth it to see the faces of the caretakers when we delivered the stoves completely out of surprise. Part of it might have to do with the fact that I had learned and tried to speak just enough Lusoga to introduce myself and tell them I am giving them a cook stove. But the other part of it is clear, who wouldn’t want a better made appliance that makes for less work? Every stop was a community attraction-neighbors and kids would gather around to check out the delivery.

There are very few things I would take in exchange for a day out in the field working with these people and

Whisper Lite

The finished product
School food storage-posho makingsThis stove literally is the size of a hot tub (See plate inside for reference) I told them Ugandans use it to cook posho for 1,000 kids, Americans use it to soak in. They found this hilarious.
3-stone cook method
Typical School Kitchen

MGMT sings about them, Ugandans like to produce them and all I seem to do is write about them- KIDS. As a result you probably think that everything I have been doing here is related to kids and in a way it is. But there is a bit more to it. Amidst Dreamweaver, sports galas, grant writing and bursar’s offices I have been working on getting improved cook stoves installed. And finally it happened. There are now 10 improved institutional cook stoves in 8 schools in 5 districts immediately benefiting over 8,000 people and ultimately a tiny step in preserving the future of Ugandan (cheesy to say but a hope). My organization, KORD, received a large grant from an organization in Kenya to do a pilot project on energy saving technology, with the initial focus on improved institutional cook stoves. KORD had just finalized the details of the agreement when I arrived and so it was natural course for me to head it up.

The need for improved cook stoves seems a bit trivial, however, most of these schools are still using what is called the 3-stone method (see picture below). Ignoring just the poor efficiency and costs of this method, most of these schools are located in rural areas where preservation of natural resources is crucial yet are being used as fuel. Then there is the effects on the health of the cook staff, the danger to the children forced to collect firewood, and the inability to fully prepare enough for all the students in a timely manner. And those are just the primary consequences. These stoves aren’t being used to prepare gourmet meals. Ugandans students eat just beans and posho (a spongy like food made purely from white flour and water) every single day for lunch. And most students will only drink tea for breakfast and something very small for dinner.

In my work plan, all the stoves were suppose to be installed, a 4 district assessment of all schools and hospitals conducted, a workshop facilitated and finally a proposal for more funding all by the time I finished up. If the office had a few more staff and well if Uganda wasn’t Uganda this would actually be a plausible proposal. But that paired with of course unexpected variables, significantly delayed the project. However, we did get the stoves installed and even added on a bit more. However, explanations and black and white stats are boring, I much prefer colorful pictures.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Warning! A fist raiser

What would you do if you could fix everyone’s problems? Where would you start and how would you about it? Would you meet individuals one by one or would you swing a wand and let it touch all? Would you start with your family, then friends or go straight to the child on the street?

The paradox that I have come to know and love about Uganda is the numerous needs versus the constant request for more. Naturally, each feeds off the other and are sometimes hard to distinguish. Everywhere we go it seems there is someone to help while at the same time someone who is asking for more. I walk through my community and I find someone I can assist to carry something, however, while in route randomly a child will say, “You give me a 100.” We go to a school to pay fees for an OVC, and someone pulls us aside and asks us to support 20 other children. We give a school a brand new improved cook stove, they ask us for a bigger one. We visit orphan caretakers to assist with income generating projects, they also ask for healthcare. We give out over a hundred wash basins, jerry cans, blankets and tshirts, but then others want another bottle of water.

Explaining this is sensitive, I don’t blame them for needing or asking. It exposes the struggle this world has- the search for true assistance and battle for a stable perspective. Need, with no beginning and no end, is the foundation for progress and the fuel for destruction.

I have no solution to this paradox, but perhaps a strategy.
Many of you, I feel touched to say, have asked what you can do to help the lovely people here. The obvious answer is money. Not that money can fix everything, but giving it to people who know what to do with it can repair a lot of things. However, if you are like me, money is a resource that pales in comparison to capability and compassion. I have been thinking a lot about this. I still don’t think I will give a sufficient answer but I thought of a few things:

-this is an unusual request, but, I want to tell you to teach yourself and raise your children to be wise, generous, loving individuals who value being educated by the world. Realize that you can start with your own little world around you, cultivate that feeling of charity, and use it to grow out. I have many dear acquaintances who consistently amaze me with their different passions and the ways they find to help others. Do I recommend everyone should take a few months and go volunteer somewhere completely different from what they know-yes. Do I think this is feasible or plausible for everyone- no. So find what you can do in your family and in your community. And do it now. Don’t make it a resolution, make it a habit.

-Consumerism is inherit in our lives but it doesn’t have to be done unconsciously, capitalism is hip on humanitarianism right now. Take advantage. Find businesses and products that operate consciously and give a little back, however small

-Be clever. Use your hobbies, use groups, use your old stuff, use your healthy bodies- identify a need, make a plan, do it. Just because an organization’s website doesn’t have it on their list of “what you can do”, propose an idea to them.

-Obviously, there are also plenty of sites where you can find an organization to give to or volunteer with.
If you are inspired by the work my organization KORD is doing, I will happily give you information on how you can give.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What? Is not a question.

my host family with the cake I made Daniella for her birthday- chocolate with flowers
Outside our hostel in Kamapala
A Hindu Temple
One of hundreds of old school bikes everyone rides

You know when you have a really great trip and someone asks you how it was and all you can manage is a measly “good”, well I have no doubt that upon returning my own answer will pathetically be the same response, completely dismissing the near death experiences, the moments of air gasping laughs, and penetrating thoughts. So I will tell you know this trip is better than good, it is amazing, challenging, ridiculous and perspective altering. How? Let me share a short list of notes:

If you were thinking that bribery is being reduced or exaggerated in developing nations, I am here to tell you it is alive and well. Upon speeding back from dropping off school supplies, our taxi was flagged down by a cop. Our driver, after exchanging some words with the cop, came over and asked for 5,000 shs (about $2.50). Apparently, our cop was willing to let our 100,000shs ticket slide for a small exchange of money for lunch

Sometimes at night, when I am sitting on a coke crate watching a soccer game with a bunch of locals, commercials come on promoting South Africa as the site for the FIFA World Cup this summer. The announcer speaks, “Africa, walk tall.“ with a voice that gives me chills. I look around and want to whisper to the people surrounding me, you are African, do you know how cool you that is? Do you know that people are as fascinated and drawn to you as much as they don’t understand and are fearful? Do you realize how penetrating this country really is?

As opposed to the flurry of gas station, fountain machine, plastic bottle, Costco packaged nature of United States, a single glass bottle of soda here is a special occasion. You know it is an event when a crate of all glass bottles arrive. People don’t drink while they move and the exchange of the bottle is as valuable as the liquid. As the coldness of the bottle fights the heat of the day, there is a rare pleasure in the weight of a bottle in my hand and the thickness of the rim to my lips.

Ugandans have this odd little quirk. I had heard about it before arriving but assumed it was a long gone habit. Nope. Basically, Ugandans will throw in a “what?” as a question in the middle of their sentences, pause and then continue with the answer to their own question. It is as goofy as it sounds. However, after the first few times of you trying to answer the question before getting cut off as they continue to answer it themselves, you get use to it. So, Ugandans like do what?. . Ugandans like to add an unnecessary “what?” into their sentences. . .See its not so bad once you get use to it.

I sometimes joke that it seems here even the goats stare at me. The other day I was sitting on the porch, I turned my head to look and there it was. A large white goat just staring, right at me. A staring match was held and it won. Apparently, even the goats find my presence curious.

Kid R Us

They like to peek through the door of the bursars office
This is what we encounter at every school as we step out of the car

Duck, Duck, Goose Team
I have groupies. They scream and giggle and follow me home. They reach for my hand and hold onto my wrist. They all chant when I pass and stare as if I am from another planet. They come to my house and beg for more. They crowd my taxi and tell their friends. I tend to ignore the fact that my captive audience is actually just kids, living in rural Africa, entertained purely by the anomaly of a tall white person with blond hair in a bright blue dress walking through their backyard. They are probably as amused with me as I with them, but so far it seems to be a happy exchange. I take pictures of the hundreds of kids pouring out of a school or dancing in my yard, and they stare at me fully taking in the mental picture.

Sometimes they run from one end of the village to the other, taking short cuts just to yell “muzungu” at me all the way to gate. Sometimes they will gather in the yard and we will play a confused game of “duck, duck, goose”. Sometimes one will just hold my hand and walk with me home.
I am not ignorant to the fact that this is not a rare international experience. But I have never really consider myself a kid person. Don’t misinterpret me, of course, I plan to have my own troop of kids, my nephews have my weekly devotion, and I will happily baby-sit my friends adorable children, but if it comes between working in an orphanage or getting dirty in the field, my boots are on before you can say pacifier. But I will tell you this, there is something here about the kids. They seem to be handmade in factory quantities each one with nothing more than skin, bones, smiles, and a whole lot of character wrapped up in a thin cotton uniform. They never seem to cry, they dance like an MTV rap video and there is a lot perseverance. I want to package them all up and bring them home in my suitcase.