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I’m back in Seattle, amazed at how quickly the time in Uganda flew by. The plan is to return in February for the new school year, better prepared with gumboots for the mud and seeds for the garden.

For now, here are a few photos from my trip to Arua, a town along the northwest border of Uganda, near the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was a trip filled with children, music and a small village library with a chorus and an incredible reading program for older women. These women are the glue of the community. Their desire to learn after doing physical labor all day is inspiring (especially as I sit on the couch writing this post, trying to summon the energy to put away clothes that were washed and dried in a machine).

As you can imagine, I’m in culture shock returning to the U.S. Everything is the same but everything has changed. I found a piece of home in Uganda, and I hope to carry that feeling with me always.

If you want to learn more about Maendeleo Foundation or make a donation, visit www.progressafrica.org.

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Living Basics: Confessions

  • I stopped boiling water for dishes and just wash with cold tap water. Same goes for brushing my teeth and making coffee.  I’ve lived to tell the tale.
  • About every three weeks we shop at the Musungu grocery store in Kampala to buy treats like olives and cheeses.
  • I have developed a special fondness for Nile brand beer. Think warm Bud with sugar added.
  • For about US$5, I can get my hair washed, blown out, styled plus a fancy foot scrub and pedicure.  Almost a necessity given the cold showers and low water pressure. Oh boy, am I going to miss that in Seattle.
  • I haven’t truly exercised in weeks. My excuse is that it feels odd to exercise when most people around me do so much physical labor that exercise seems unimaginable. I do walk lots and teaching is tiring.
  • Sometimes I steal power from the batteries to go online to post this blog. Like today. Of course, it takes about an hour to actually upload anything but it’s all part of the adventure.  The risk is that there won’t be power all weekend and the rainy season makes it hard to use the solar panels.
  • It has taken me 8 weeks and a 13 year old tour guide for me to realize that there are monkeys living just down the hill from the house. Oops.
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How do you spell Bebe Cool?

I now know way too much about the latest hip hop stars. For the last two weeks I’ve been teaching basic Internet skills to 5th and 6th graders.  The lesson tamely starts with Wikipedia – the kids love to see pages about Uganda, Kenya, and Libya and giggle at the photo of Ugandan President Museveni.  Everyone is tuned into politics here – government corruption, Gaddifi’s death, Barack Obama.

But at some point, especially when the classroom teacher steps away from the tent, the kids realize that the Internet is not just for research.  No, there is a much, much more interesting world in there. You can tell the moment it happens. A burst of laughter and small gang of students gather around the quickest student. It starts with the lesson on Google… politics and geography are tossed aside and the search is on for Manchester United F.C., Bebe Cool, Chameleon, Bobi Wine.  I bet you didn’t know that Bobi Wine is Bebe Cool’s nemesis, and Bebe thinks that Bobi spent too much on his wedding to Barbie. I quickly learned to spell all the cool names because Google doesn’t help when the kids search for “Bobby”.

Once the fever for the latest star gossip subsides, the searches usually return to more school-related topics, animals, careers, and local universities. It’s like eating too much junk food – at some point you’re going to want veggies. On Saturday we taught a group of teachers which led to an interesting discussion about what websites to trust for news and when to give out personal information. (Not an issue with the kids yet. They don’t even have street addresses, not to mention phones or emails).

The school year is winding down and next week is the final computer lesson at the schools I’ve been visiting. It has been a joy to open the world a little larger, to give someone a chance to touch a computer which is something only white people use on television. It’s been a journey for the kids to get to know me, as well.  In September, many would only softly pull my shirt if they needed help, which then turned into “Madam Maggie, help!”.  This week I turned into “Auntie Maggie” and the girls want to touch my ponytail or arm hair.

It means the world to me because maybe, just maybe, the kids will see the possibilities of their world in Uganda, stay in school just a little longer, and reach for something that they didn’t know was possible before.

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Happiness is

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The car will dance

The famous Murchison Falls along the Nile River. I can't capture its size and beauty.

We bumped, rattled and chugged our way into Murchison Falls, a national park in the northwest of Uganda. The new muffler had failed on the road from Arua town (more on that visit later) so the trip’s soundtrack was punctuated with curses for the mechanic – two repairs to the good tires before leaving Mukono, the back door repair made with welds instead of bolts, the windshield fluid still washes the top of the car, etc… Luckily, I can’t break the car yet because I’m not “allowed” to drive until I stop hitting the imaginary brake as a passenger. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop.

We finally reached the park. I was so excited that my first photos beyond the entrance were tiny antelope butts standing on distant hills. Every shrub could be an elephant. I didn’t realize that around the next bend would be too much wildlife to photograph in a lifetime. Lots of oohs, aahs, did you see that?! First stop was to check in, grab a trail map and race out to see the animals at dusk. Most tourists hire a guide and car to travel around but that wasn’t an option for this budget traveler.  We stopped and chatted with one of the guides getting ready for his next trip out – he assured us that the car could handle the trails (no rain recently) and shared a favorite animal viewing spot. As we left, Jack (the hotel’s gate guard) laughed at the noisy car, kindly wrote his name and phone number on the map in case we got stuck and advised us that the roads are so rough that “our car will dance”. Which it did, but it was worth every second of it.

I’m sharing a few photos but there is just no way to truly show the incredible abundance of wildlife. It is the place of BBC documentaries; the very picture of Africa. I explored by car and boat for three days but could have stayed forever.

Before I arrived in Uganda, it was too easy to think of Africa in two ways: wretched shanty towns and verdant savannah. Maybe it’s human nature to classify in simplistic terms. But Africa is a huge continent with many different countries, cultures, religions, languages, environments, etc. Even Uganda, the size of Oregon and a former British colony, currently has 42 languages and 17 distinct tribes. Sadly, the national parks are in danger from many sides – oil drilling, sugar cane crops, poaching, invasive species, lack of funding. It’s a complex issue in a country with the fastest growing population in the world, where few get a chance to see the national parks and everyone struggles to make a living. Murchison Falls is a beautiful, special place but Uganda (or Africa) can’t be defined solely by the extremes of the parks and the slums. I feel very lucky to experience every day life, too.

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Life on a stage

Eric and I rumbled into a village last week. Blame the rough dirt roads – during a one hour trip from home, the car’s fan belt broke and the muffler fell off. As soon as we parked, our new 12-year old friend Elijah (now nicknamed Mechanic) was quick to point out the back tire’s low air pressure. Fixing the car became a community event: Elijah helped tie the remaining muffler to the car using straps made from tires. A guy on a bicycle made multiple house calls (car calls?) to replace the belt. We never did get the right size but at least we made it home later. There was no air compressor in town but an energetic guy with a hand pump was able to get the pressure up. I’m used to just taking care of business but out in the villages, you must ask for and accept assistance. It feels strange to me, but everyone is more than happy to help.
 
As one of the few foreigners even in Mukono, I can’t hide in anonymity. The kids on the road home would be disappointed if I didn’t wave each time I pass. Even the grocery store staff know my name and I can’t escape a quick “how are you” conversation. It is tiring, but it also inspires me to slow down and be part of a community. It’s an important part of life here, especially in the villages. I also must be aware that because I look so different, I may be representing more than myself. Sadly, there is a legacy (past and present) of missionaries who never learn the language or take time to be friendly when they come into town. I love the surprised smiles and laughs that I get when I ask “jebeleke, sebo?” (How are you, sir?).
 
Next week I hope to head west to one of the Ugandan national parks so I’ll be playing tourist again. We can’t teach because the government suddenly declared that all extracurricular activities must cease temporarily at schools due to the Primary 7 level exams. The exam system is odd – it’s based on the British system but has morphed into a complex mess. There’s no way to fight the edict so I get a little vacation which will hopefully include giraffes.
 
Love to all,
Maggie
 
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Living Basics: The Cell Phone

You just can’t escape the cell phone, even in East Africa. Which just seems weird in a place were landlines are rare and there is no mail service. In fact, even internet/email access is through the cell network.

It definitely leads to some interesting scenes. Teenagers wearing rags and bare feet talk on cell phones while pushing beat up wheel barrel bicycles. A German library volunteer on her gap year is able to talk to her parents in Bavaria (as long as they call her) but can’t receive a care package in the mail. Even shops with no electricity and dirt floors sell cheap airtime from multiple cell providers. I’m a newbie here but I quickly learned that buying airtime is the best way to get change for a large bill.

And then there’s the infamous “beep” – if you don’t want to use your airtime then you call someone, hang up before they answer and then hope they call you back.

The mix of modern and traditional here still constantly surprises me. Sometimes it’s the best of both worlds, sometimes it makes me laugh, and other times its sadly reminds me of the disparity between our worlds.

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National Book Week – Ceazaria Public Library

I keep running into amazing stories of local grassroots rural organizations in Uganda.

This last week, Maendeleo Foundation participated in National Book Week at the Ceazaria Public Library in Malongwe. Despite what its name might suggest, this public library is not funded by the government. Francis Kigobe, a school founder and farmer, began the library with personal funds and spends many hours fundraising and finding partnering NGOs to build the library as a wonderful community resource. It’s not fancy. You would never see such a barebones library in the U.S. Despite all the obstacles, this library is a special place, so much more than books – it provides health information, desktop computers, interactive story time for children, and a meeting space for the community. Although it sounds simple, the library is one of the few places in town with power for lights so students can complete homework after school.

Highlights from this week….

The kids. Of course. It’s amazing how much fun a basic building can be when filled with kids eager to read, shade (=color), and play games. We set up the mobile solar computer classroom in a field and trained visiting school children and the neighborhood kids.

The food. Wow, did we eat. We should have been working in the fields all day, not playing working on the computers. Imagine cooking for a family of five plus several guests in an outdoor kitchen with wood and charcoal fires. Boiled water goes into large thermoses. The rice is cooked in the water from the Irish (=potatoes). The matooke (=non-sweet bananas) are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in large metal pots. The kids are responsible for getting the water from the spring down the hill or from the rain barrels.

The games. I got to jump rope with twine that the kids made from banana leaves and play checkers with metal bottle tops. There was an “interesting” version of Snakes & Ladders about HIV that would be sure to raise eyebrows in the U.S. If you landed on a snake, you had to pick a health education card like “you had unprotected sex and became pregnant, lose a turn” and “you opened a condom with your teeth, go to the clinic”. Lots of giggles from the teenagers.

The Guest House. Hmmm, I am glad that I like an adventure. For about $30 per week, the room included a bed, mosquito net, jerrycan of water, plastic basin, and crazy bar music to about 3am if there was power. Please, please may the power be out and petrol for the generator be too expensive. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the pit latrine where our only torch (flashlight!) is forever lost. Let’s just say I had to choose between putting my hand on the floor – no seats in these bathrooms, just a hole – or accidentally dropping the torch. It was an easy decision. This week I’ve learned to always bring toilet paper, candles and bath towels when traveling.

It truly was a pleasure to be part of the activities at the Ceazaria Public Library and see a rural community center impact so many lives. I’ll be visiting the local schools again next week so hopefully I’ll be able to post a few more times during the week. I’ve extended my stay through the end of the school term but will be back in Seattle at the end of November.

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Ride the wave

Sometimes the best of life can be defined by just a few special hours and hopefully that feeling sticks for a very long time.

A couple of days ago I had a chance to swim in the Nile. Oh, I thought twice about it. Swimming in fresh water in East Africa is part of the Top 10 of VERY SERIOUS WARNINGS of my 40 page Public Health travel guide. But, really, I couldn’t resist. I was already taking an antibiotic for my belly (remember the porridge? That was a very bad idea), my shots are up to date, and it was a perfectly sunny day with the rain clouds building far over Kenya.

I needed to shed another layer of mzungu (white person/foreigner). I had spent the night before at the Haven, a resort with bungalows overlooking the Nile. I was a little drunk on multiple hot showers, the first since my arrival, and huge amounts of European food. But the longer I stayed at the little resort, the stranger it felt. All the guests were European and all the servers were Ugandan. My world had flipped and it felt strange – like being at a restaurant from the 1950s. While the food was delicious, not a single menu item was local except the passion fruit juice. The other guests were not quick to say hello or smile, and even seemed a little bored by the beauty and great service. It was more fun to joke with the staff and hear about their school plans and hometown.

But, just outside the gate to the Haven is a little road that winds down the hill to the Nile. It’s where the local kids hang out – fishing, doing laundry, being with friends, and swimming. I got to visit for a couple of hours, making small talk with my extremely limited Luganda and their much better English. The older boys were jumping into the river, floating down a quick patch of current and then letting the water carry them back around to the shore. It is a large natural eddy that creates a wild ride and a great place for playing and fishing. I had to try it. The current was strong and the boys laughed when I was fairly cautious, cruising down the inside of the eddy. The second time through I went out further and let the river carry me down, down and then around to the large rocks. There’s a sweet spot – just enough risk to make it wild but not so far out that you are carried off to Egypt. You can ride for as long as your legs and arms have the strength to launch out of the current, around and around, stopping to rest on the rocks and wave at younger kids on the shore.

 

Riding the wave - that's my head bobbing around

It was a wonderful few hours of laughing, taking pictures, swimming and sitting in the sun. I wanted to swim again but couldn’t trust that my arms had the strengh. Instead, I headed up the hill for lunch with the other mzungas, wishing I could have had a picnic lunch with the kids.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Second week of teaching

Porridge with friends

Greetings! I just finished my second week of teaching and I think I’m getting the hang of it. The key is a big smile and lots of laughs. In general, the girls are a bit shy and hesitant and the boys are serious, trying to get it just right. Until they solve their first puzzle and then it’s all smiles and key pounding! How to explain that harder isn’t better, and that the mouse can be picked up and moved? Of course, the kids get it in no time at all but the little netbooks that we use take a serious beating. Each day I trade out mice and computers as they die mid-class. Yesterday I even learned to rewire a power strip because the connections get loose with all the travel. Dirt roads, red clay, wet grass and 100 kids a day do some serious damage over the school year.  We leave little piles of equipment for Eric to refurbish/reload on a daily basis.

AND this week I finally experienced the infamous school “porridge” which resembles a watery, very sweet, corn version of cream of wheat.  Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds but for some of the kids, it’s the bulk of their daily nutrition. The school day is long, from 9am – 5pm. Beyond the costly school fees, parents also must pay a little extra for their kids to eat. There are a few government subsidized schools, but even these have a fee and are usually quite large.  I couldn’t think all day on porridge, plus add on morning garden chores, helping younger siblings, a long walk to school and then home again, and trips to the well for water once you’re home. You can see the bone-deep weariness in these kids, but still they are so excited to get some time on the computer each week. Sometimes it is overwhelming to see all the hopeful faces.

Sometimes the school's teachers are as excited to learn as the students!

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