Walking hand in hand with my mothers

I sat on the veranda yesterday afternoon. Above me the sky darkened, clouds drifting and merging until they became one threatening entity. The thunder rolled across the sky as soft gusts began to filter through the town. Slowly, sparsely the rain drops began to fall, warming up for the torrent of rain that soon followed. This is a storm in Africa. Now that we are into the rainy season, storms drift in and out unpredictably. When it rain in Uganda, everything stops. People are chased inside and the streets become quiet. Even the roosters, goats and cows that mingle along the streets are quiet-or at least you can’t hear them over the rain. The rain is a welcome relief after that weeks of dust and heat.

The rain has meant digging. We’ve been busy working with the Bulyantete women digging up the fields. We also spent some time planting maize with the women of Mayindo. Most mornings have been spent in Bulyantete digging. Tony keeps telling me that I’m in for serious work this next month as there is a lot of land to cultivate. But I don’t mind, I love it. We use hoes here instead of a tractor or tiller. The work has the opposite effect on me-instead of tiring, I leave the fields buzzing with a strange jolt of energy that I only find when gardening/farming. As I dig, my mind wanders, my mothers and sisters chatter around me. Luganda fills the air. I can’t understand much of anything-occasionally my name, Namubiru, comes up. I can only guess at what’s being said. Despite my lack of understanding, I find it comforting. We may not be able to understand one another, but there’s mutual happiness. I look forward each morning to seeing them. It’s a funny thing, becoming close with people with so little words exchanged. After the first morning digging, the women sent me home with gifts of food. I knew better than to refuse but it left me troubled. They need the food so much more than I do and yet, here they were giving some to me. I fought back tears on the bodaboda ride home, somewhat unsuccessfully. I’m sure some Ugandans in the passing cars were puzzled by the crying Mzungu on the bodaboda. I didn’t understand and was overwhelmed by the gratitude shown by the gifts. I simple thank you would have been more than enough. I genuinely enjoy being there and working. I suppose it’s a character flaw of mine, but I’ve never been particularly great at accepting thanks with any sort of grace. After a good cry and Andrew’s explanation, I began to understand. It is their character to give to show gratitude. They gave what they did to show how important I am to them. And that, that is powerful. The women, without few words and little understanding, have become my mothers and my sisters whom I love. This is what grassroots volunteering is and what all development work should be. None of the giant, impersonal systems that dominate the development field. Development is more than money or structure or formulas–it’s getting to truly know those you are trying to uplift. It’s knowing their characters- which one of them is the dancer or singer or comedian or the one that’s always laughing. That’s where the seeds of change get their start.

The new land and crops will bring in much needed income for both the women and Hopeline. It will mostly be maize, which requires little water. The effects of climate change have made an already water scarce environment even more vulnerable. The past few seasons have seen too much rain and not enough. Hopefully this season will be different.

After my time with the women, they walk down the dirt paths with us to the main road where we meet either Tiif or Bower (our bodaboda drivers-their names may be misspelled). Often, one will take my hand as we stroll, unhurried down the path. And I’m overcome by joy at being here, worlds away from home, walking hand in hand with my mothers.

*(I, of course, have not forgotten my family and friends at home. I love and miss them dearly and do not mean to imply any differently. My heart has simply grown to hold my Ugandan family as well.)

Beneath the mango tree

The internet cafe where I sit now is a fair distance from my house and
usually leaves me dusty and sweaty but not today. The rain has blessed
all with it’s sweet, cool presence. Before today, rain fell shortly in
pockets, but today it lingers and is a much needed relief from the hot
and dry weather. The past week has been especially dusty. I returned
home from the projects orange which incited much laughter from Tony.
Red dirt is my new accessory these days-which is just fine with me.

I began the week at the medical clinic where I was tasked with handing
out medication. Many were for malaria. The treatment of malaria here
is just like a common cold in the states. Overall cases and deaths
from malaria are much lower in the area. The drugs in Uganda come from
India and are less effective than those you would find in the US. This
means that more pills must be given out making it a challenge to keep
medications stocked. I also learned how to test for HIV and malaria.
After showing me twice, the doctor was more than willing to let me
poke a stranger-me, a history major. I passed that day as I’m a bit
hesitant about poking people with needles however small, but I suspect
I’ll be testing patients no problem by the end of my time here. I
enjoy working at the clinic, learning and building important skills
that I wouldn’t gain anywhere else.

This week we said goodbye to Jacky. Her impact upon Hopeline and the
family cannot be put into words. Though she will return later this
year, her presence is still very much missed. The last two days of the
week we spent with the Mayindo and Bulyantete women, celebrating
Jacky’s time here and saying goodbye. At Mayindo, I learned how to
prepare matooke the traditional way. The process of peeling and
wrapping the matooke in banana leaves is precise and your performance
is used to judge whether or not you’re ready for a husband. I’m not
sure it’s used so much anymore, but much laughter was had at my poor
wrapping skills. I did alright at making kabalagala (sort of like
banana pancakes), so perhaps I’d make an okay wife.

At Bulyantete, I made chapatis. I love chapatis, so I was more than
willing to learn. It’s something I will definitely be making at home.
Part way through the day, we walked to the to get water. The distance
traveled everyday, 4 or more times a day, just for water is
outstanding. With any luck, construction on a new, better positioned
well will begin this week. The Bulyantete women recently began a brick
making business, for which water is essential. The new well will make
there work a bit easier.

We spent the last few hours of our week in the shade of a mango tree,
with thunder and rain showers circling our spot among the trees. Good
food, laughter and love filled the air as the women said goodbye, if
only for a little while, to a friend and sister. Tomorrow, I begin my
time volunteering alone until the next volunteer arrives at the end of
this month. It’s sure to be a challenging but enlightening week as I
get know everyone a bit better. Thus far, it’s been hard to tell where
the students are in their education as well as where the ladies are
with English. I’m hoping to share a bit of basketball with the boys
this week, but we’ll have to see. For now, I’m enjoying the last few
hours of my Sunday in the cool aftermath of the rain.

Mzungu, bodabodas, and soul-shaking welcomes

I’m not sure where to begin. My first week in Uganda has been nothing short of amazing. There is so much to convey from only a week. I’m finding it hard to remember that I’ve been here only a week, it feels like forever. I’ve been amazed at how naturally I’ve flowed into this life and to the work. I already know leaving will be among the hardest things I have had to do in my life. The people I live with and the children, women and boys that I work with, have already made their way into my heart. The amount of love and sincere welcome I have experienced have broken me open. The Western hardness that I’ve carried because our culture is so lacking in the warmth that Uganda espouses, has disappeared completely. It was instant, the connections I have made here. I was originally only supposed to volunteer the first month, but I will be staying with Hopeline for the second month as well and I couldn’t be happier.

Hopeline runs two women’s groups, a boys’ group, a school and helps with a medical center in the villages. Tony, the director, is the most selfless, strong and giving person I have ever met. What he is trying to do for his home village is amazing. The women have unimaginably difficult lives, full of work and much misery. Tony and Hopeline have given them the little step up they need to begin to better their lives. Through basket making, chicken coops, wells or the impending brick making business, the women have been able to gain much need income. Many of the women work on Mehta’s sugar cane plantations outside of Lugazi. They must rise early in the morning (4-5am) in order to maybe get work. Lateness is not tolerated. Even if they manage to gain work for the day, often their labor can be cancelled if they fail to find enough sugar cane in the fields. At the end of the month, the most they can expect is 20,000 shillings, or about $8. No one can live on that. Not even here. Often they must look into their children eyes and tell them that there won’t be any food that day. In these circumstances, schooling is but a lofty wish. Yet, despite the hardship of their lives, they have welcomed me with open arms and souls. The welcome ceremony from the women was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Singing, dancing, hugs, and words of welcome were showed upon me. At one point they expressed ‘who are we to host a mzungu like you?’-how do you respond to something like that? For me, it’s more like, ‘who am I to be here with you?’. During the welcome is the hardest I have ever worked to keep from breaking down completely and that was only because I did not want to send the wrong message with my tears. At that time I was completely at a loss as to how I could possibly help the women, but after speaking with Jacky (the volunteer coordinator/co-director of Hopeline), I will be able to put some of my money towards the Bulyantete women’s group to purchase chickens, build a well, and begin a brick building business. I hope to teach them English as well, but I’m still puzzling out how to do that best.

KKoba school has been great. The goal at Kkoba is education, but also to build confidence and foster socialization. The attitude in the villages is bleak. Alcohol and hopelessness is rampant and no child can possibly thrive under those conditions. That is why Kkoba is so important for the kids. Giving kids even a little education in combination with the confidence that gain from interaction with mzungus, their teachers and classmates dramatically improves their lives. Someone who has a bit of education and confidence will fair much better than someone who doesn’t. So far I’ve played with the children (volleyball and bubbles), taught them about the the life cycle of butterflies as well as a bit of addition in the form of a game called math mountain. I hope to teach them more English, math and random science things.

We travel to our projects on the back of bodabodas (motorcycles), which are a main form of transportation here. I loved it from the start. I love whizzing past the lush fields and smiling children waving and screaming ‘mzungu, mzungu-bye mzungu!'(mzungu is the word for foreigner/white person-which is a kick in the pants for me, being that I’m mixed) There is nothing else like it. The group of children that gather in my courtyard grows day by day. Motokas(toys cars), coloring and general play are what I come home to after my time at the projects.

By the end of the week, I had never needed a weekend more. I was beat-mentally, emotionally and physically. I love the work I’m doing, don’t get me wrong, but it is tiring-especially since it was only my first week. I’m not even sure how to capture the poverty. I haven’t written directly about it yet because it’s simply everywhere, all the time. It’s there in the barefoot children at KKoba, it’s in the women who are struggling to feed their families, it’s in the men who were not able to attend school and it’s in the children who greet me on my porch, one of whom will look up at me after I ask about his day to say: ‘it was bad, I don’t have a toy airplane, the dirt burns my feet and I haven’t eaten today’. It’s enough to crush the soul. But it also inspires and strengthens me to do what ever I can to create hope. That is what I get to do- teach and give whatever I can so that maybe, just maybe, hope will grow.