Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My 'Full Circle' Story

When I was 16 or 17 I watched the Invisible Children Rough Cut documentary in my living room. Three times. The people in the film, the disheartening stats and the call for help rode my train of thought off its tracks for days. This issue seemed SO BIG and I felt so small. What did I know about civil war in Africa or the ICC or when and how is the appropriate way for Americans to intervene?
This documentary was my 'aha!' moment. My identity as an activist grew from there, and now I don't feel so small at all. Now I can confidently discuss the issues I got tangled in as a high-schooler and I can voice my opinion on how to solve these problems.
The atrocities of the LRA and our responsibility to stop them has remained a cause that is near and dear to my heart, though now it sits among (and admittedly sometimes takes the back seat to) many other worthwhile investments including my feminist lifestyle and my work to improve third-world living conditions in a more efficient manner through UNICEF.
When I wanted to volunteer abroad I chose Uganda because the terrorism there is the source of my identity as a person with purpose, a person with something to contribute. The LRA had fled Uganda long before I visited, but I had promised myself that I would see this place in the films and I made it happen. My experience in Uganda has changed my life forever, especially considering the amazing, resilient, courageous people I lived and worked with.
Tonight Invisible Children Columbus held a documentary screening and hosted "the Roadies," a group of interns who give up months of their lives to advocate for LRA victims. I knew that in previous tours the roadies brought spokespeople who were straight out of the LRA-affected areas, but I didn't expect one this time around.
It was such a pleasant surprise to find that we did have a visitor from Northern Uganda, and her name was Fiona. If you remember from earlier in my blog, Fiona was also the name of a girl I met in Uganda. She lived at the house where I learned to cook traditionally (outside) and fetch water. Today's Fiona was just as vibrant and beautiful and intelligent, but she had a different story. Growing up in Northern Uganda instead of Kampala (where I stayed) put her in the middle of the Ugandan civil war. She lost her parents so her uncle took her in. Her uncle was then adbucted by the LRA and Invisible Children is putting her through university where she studies public policy.
I knew I wanted to try my (very rusty) Luganda on her and when I told her "webale" (thank you) her eyes lit up. They lit up the way people's eyes get because they're surprised, but then the shape of their eyebrows kind of makes them look sad, if that makes sense. She said "Where did you learn that?!" and I told her briefly about my time in Uganda. We talked, took pictures and hugged goodbye. Our marketing efforts generated a much, much better turnout than I had anticipated, and everyone who came out was so generous at the merch booth as well.
When I step back and look at my initial reaction to the video and how motivated I was to do something about it, and seeing today's tangible results of that motivation (with the support of other like-minded peers, of course) I realize that things really came full circle. I never would have believed when I was 17 that 4 years later I'd be making a difference and making a connection with a Ugandan by speaking a tiny bit of Luganda with her.
I guess what i'm trying to say is that no matter how big or complicated your purpose or problem is, you can absolutely be a part of the solution. It won't be convenient or comfortable or given to you as a set of instructions, but it will be totally worthwhile once you step back and recognize how far you've come.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I promised I'd be back! Here's a few updates:

I continued feeling ill and ended up going to urgent care in my hometown the day after Christmas. For some reason my blood pressure was alarmingly low and the nurse wanted to send me to a hospital. But it got a little better and the nice Indian doctor took some blood and put me on extra malaria medication, assuming that's what I had. As my condition improved over the 4-day treatment of pills, I was also convinced that I had had malaria, but a more mild case of it since I had taken my antimalarial pills as instructed for the previous 2 months. Anyway, after I had finished that medication I received a phone call saying the tests were negative. So what it was that I actually had remains a mystery. I'm just glad it's over. And while it was kind of crappy timing since I didn't enjoy my time at home as much as I would've liked, it was nice being there since my family took care of me and made sure I was as comfortable as possible. I did get very cabin-feverish and bored, though. Tyler came down to keep me company for the last couple of days, which helped.

I got some sad news on Christmas morning. The girl I had written about named Lucy was involved in an accident. She was hit by a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) and passed away. I usually try to find the bright side to any bad news but sometimes you'll come across a story and the silver lining is too distant and blurred to really make out. As I mentioned before, I have very little experience with death, and having this occasion involving an innocent little girl makes it that much harder.
I am curious, and more anxious, to hear what kind of condition the kids are in once they return to school next month. Please keep those children in your thoughts/prayers, and I will ask about them.

I also need to ask Freda about the older sister who was taken up north last month. Freda left Uganda yesterday, and I bet it was one of the hardest departures that Herman and Annie have had to say to any of their volunteers. Freda was really a gift to them, and they were able to enjoy each other's company for three months, which is much longer than the average visit.

I really miss Uganda. I miss the kids and the people I worked with, the weather, the sense of community, and people's attitudes. I miss the laid back sense of time that everyone had. I miss being around people who didn't have much but were still content and thankful for what they did have. In my first day back to classes, 3 of my 4 professors complained about their classrooms, basically about how 'ancient' or 'disgusting' they were, because although the rooms were all clean, the desks were uncomfortable and the projector screen wasn't big enough, etc etc. I thought back and remembered how excited the Lungujja girls would be to take spelling tests leaning over their knees, writing on the concrete floor. People's standards, expectations, comments, everything is in perspective; and I'm so thankful for mine.


Monday, December 20, 2010


I almost asked Herman to pull over, I felt so sick. I was sitting in the car, on the way to Entebbe airport, and convinced myself it was nerves, but then I thought it was strange that I would have a more nervous stomach on my way home than my way here. Okay, so maybe it was the combination of nerves, Uganda’s TIA roads in all of it’s potholed, polluted, pitch-black glory. I had also consumed about twice the usual amount of food as I would in a normal day in Uganda, thanks to last-day festivities in Kampala and Busega.
But by the time I was waiting to board the airplane, I had changed my mind and was convinced that it was actually malaria. The body aches must not have been just from the strange sleeping positions I’d assumed nightly, and this temperature of sweat just isn’t normal. And, wasn’t there air conditioning in this airport when I got here? Reading my itinerary printed off specially for me at Passport Travel turned out to be not-the-best idea for calming my hypochondria, considering how I traced any slight ill feeling of mine to match any the vague ‘flu-like symptoms’ described for malaria, then moved on to the warning about how putting off treatment is what puts people in life-risking danger. I’ve come all this way and now I’m going to die on a plane or in an airport from a damn mosquito bite.
But the plane was cooler, I got some rest, and now I’m in Brussels, feeling pretty much back to normal. There’s SNOW! I could actually hear Christmas songs now and not feel totally out of place. In Kampala the plastic Christmas trees, foily decorations and advertisements felt like a giant fraud in the midst of the dust cyclones, beating sun and overall heat of the city. But now it feel like I’m back to real life. But then at the same time I feel removed from something I attached myself so closely to, and in such a short time. I’m curious to see what kind of impact my trip will have had on me, but I‘m sure it will be positive in some way or another, to some degree.
I definitely plan on keeping up with Annie and her family, both biological family and the Ttega group which I think is really an extension of her family, as well. Thatt might even be an understatement. People in Uganda will refer to you as their sister, daughter, or whatever family relation they assume is age-appropriate. The entire time I was in Uganda, Freda was endearingly referred to as ‘jaja,’ grandmother. Edith told me I was like a sister to her, and everyone who knew Freda called me their daughter by association. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to privilege of surrounding myself with such a welcoming group of people as a second family, but if I ever do I will consider myself all the more blessed.
As I hear about the happenings of Ttega I will be sure to update. Herman and I set up his own blog which I will post here as well, once it’s up and running and new posts are written. We tried to set up a PayPal account for him also, but unfortunately they won’t even give him the option, regardless of his UK-based Barclay’s bank account. It’s funny that he can set up an account to send payments, but not receive them. I can see how those things frustrate him, how it’s so difficult to tap the right resources just because someone’s living in Uganda. I sense a little skepticism even in wiring money through Western Union, but TIA. It’s kind of no surprise, hearing about all of the internal corruption in the government offices, businesses, even the mail system. Basically, it sucks. It sucks when a person is trying to do something good and there are so many discouraging obstacles. If anyone knows of an alternative for Herman to collect donations from abroad, please do let me know and I will relay that information.
For everyone who’s been reading along while I talk to much about myself, thank you. Thank you for all your support, financial as well as moral, I owe lots of favors from this experience = ) Like I said I’ll continue posting so check in every once in a while, I think there are still plenty more lessons to be learned from the equator.
I decided I wanted to bring a little treat to the kids at the new site’s program on my last day. I got a few packs of biscuits (the closest thing to cookies in Uganda) with chocolate cream, and made a plan to get them soda. Freda said some of the kids have probably never actually had soda!
When the last day came, Edith (the eldest) was keeping busy doing chores and kept asking what time it was. We didn’t really pick up on anything until someone wheel-barrowed an electricity generator down from the internet cafĂ© a few hundred yards up the hill.
By mid-afternoon there was a computer, old monitor and amplifier plugged in. Josephine showed up with a big box of biscuits of her own and mango juice for everyone. The songs and dancing commenced immediately as all of the sugar set in. There were dancing contests, and I taught my second group of Africans the whitest dance on the planet: the Macarena. Kids from around the village gathered and watched from afar after hearing the music. We waved everyone over, and while some were a little too timid, others did come join us and the group grew to about 3 times the size of an average afternoon.
Some of the kids wrote me letters, and the first was written completely spontaneously by one of my English tutees, Nakkito. It was nice to know that the letters were sincere, and not assignments. They are all very sweet and say thank you at least 3 times in each one. They wrote that they loved me and that I am a good teacher. Surprisingly enough, I actually believe I’ve taught them something in my short time spent with them.
As I expected, I think my relationship with my students was mutually beneficial. They have taught me as much or more than I could ever teach them in English.
Saying goodbye was so sad, but after an afternoon with a surprise party like that, everyone was all smiles. Tonight I am packing all of my letters, thank-yous and Christmas cards with a heavy heart.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


The second child we are focusing on helping this season is Lucy. I promise, I’m not being biased because of her great name ; )
Lucy lives, by far, the furthest from Ttega of all the kids who walk to school. When we escort the children home, she’s the only one who we don’t walk all the way. Annie has shown me how far Lucy walks to and from school everyday, and I would say it’s at least a few miles. Lucy is 4 or 5, and I’m glad that the sun always rises so early here, so that she isn’t walking to school in the dark. The first thing I noticed about Lucy, besides her name, is how sad she was to go home. She drops her head half-way while we walk her home, and the rest of the way once we let her go and she continues walking down the road. The teachers will call out to her trying to cheer her up but she doesn’t even look back at us, much less smile. It’s almost as if she’s upset with us for sending her home.
We don’t know as much about Lucy and her home life, except that her mother isn’t around and her father is a medicine man. Here in Uganda, step mothers are notorious for being cruel to their stepchildren, and fathers are known to more or less ‘choose’ their new wives over their own children. Maybe this is because it’s so rare for children to stay with only their father. If a couple separates, the children become the woman’s responsibility. So, one reason the children might be living with their father is if their mother died giving childbirth, or otherwise some time early on. We aren’t sure about Lucy’s mother, but she does have a stepmother and a father who seem to fit the norm for Uganda.
Lucy is happy at school. She and the other kids quarrel over who gets to hold my hand during the walk home, but eventually she learned that since she was the last child to leave us heading home, that she would always get a chance to hold my hand once the other kids had left. Cherryl will be heading out to buy Lucy’s family food (there’s kind of no way around providing for the parents too, otherwise a smaller amount of food given just for her might not make it to her own plate) and with the donations to my PayPal she is going to have something to cheer her up and keep her healthy during her tough months at home.
Thanks again, and a photo of Lucy is also coming soon!


For those of you who have donated to my PayPal, thank you so much! I want you to know that even though school isn’t in session, your donations are still very much appreciated and being put to good use!
During break, the kids stay with their parents or more distant relatives, if the parents need help. Annie said that every time, they return to school in bad condition. She says they fall sick and usually have not been fed well, bathed and otherwise taken care of. Part of this is just because the parents/caretakers don’t know how to do some simple things like bathing children. Annie tries hosting workshops at Ttega for the kids’ parents to learn more skills, but she says many of them who need the lessons don’t attend. So really, now is as good a time as ever to contribute to the children who really need extra help during this break.
This week Cherryl, a volunteer who came from Xenia, Ohio (small world, right?!) is going to markets, buying some clothes and food for a couple of children from Ttega who seem to really need the extra help. The first boy’s name is Dickson. He’s one of the brightest in the school and he’s always energetic and happy. In the class photo he’s one of the furthest from the camera, but one of the first students you notice with his big cheesy smile. He loves playing football and is kind with the younger ones, allowing them to take turns punting the ball and helping them if they fall down, etc. He’s one of the children who thanked me multiple times for buying food for the center’s lunches. He wants to be a doctor.
Because Dickson seemed so stable and healthy, I assumed he was one of the kids who had the better home lives, but Annie told us otherwise. Dickson’s parents can’t afford school fees at all, so Annie and Herman let him attend for free. His uniform has been donated, I assume by a previous volunteer, and his shoes are so small that they have been cut by his mother so that his feet will be able to ‘fit’ into them by poking out of the sides and front. He’s one of the children who routinely comes to school hungry, and has sent Annie into tears asking for more food at lunch time.
Cherryl went into the market yesterday and bought Dickson’s family a lot of food with the money donated to my PayPal. Dickson is one of 6 children in his family. Because of your donations for food, Cherryl was able to buy him some much-needed shoes (a bigger pair for school and another for play) and even some new outfits. I think it’s safe to say that he’s never owned new clothes before, besides his school uniform. Thanks to you, Dickson and his family are going to have a much happier, healthier holiday season and he will return to school in better condition than his family could have done for him themselves. Thank you so much for your help!
I have kind of given up on posting pictures until I get home, but I promise to find a picture of Dickson and post it up here Next week! He’s very sweet and you can tell just looking at him.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My last week

I decided to stay at Freda’s project site for my last week. It’s really amazing how she’s made something out of nothing there. People from the village come with sewing and alteration projects for what might eventually become a self-sustaining tailoring side-job for Josephine’s oldest daughter, Edith. We are a little worried about whether Edith will be able to learn much from Freda about using the ancient rental sewing machine, since she is responsible for most of the housework for their family of 6.

The English lessons are going much more smoothly. Last week a couple of girls showed up with their notebooks and pencils, asking if they could come for extra help as well. There are a lot of traveling vendors who come by trying to sell us anything from second-hand clothing to sugar cane. The fish lady kept yelling something in our direction this afternoon, and once the kids did some translation we realized she wasn’t trying to sell us fish anymore, she was asking if her daughter could come for lessons as well.

Usually we have English in the morning, then the rest of the children come for weaving, coloring and play time in the afternoon. Today after play time one of our usual afternoon-only kids asked us how much earlier she could come to get extra schooling.

So, I think enrollment has gone from 2 in the older “class” and 2 in the younger class to something like 7 and 4, all within a few weeks, almost all from kids coming to us on their own, just because they like learning and they know how important it is for their future. We’re going to have to adjust but I think so far the students have all been very patient and I’m looking forward to getting to interact with even more of them for the rest of my time here.

Like I said I’m finding myself attached already. While I know a lot of that is just me being overly-sentimental as usual, the kids are really special too. Like the kids at Ttega they each have a story, and they’re all so kind and beautiful and I see the potential in each of them. I hope somehow I’ll be able to get news about them and follow their progress towards becoming the doctors, teachers, pilots, etc that I know they are entirely capable of being. These kids are the epitome of resilience.

When I catch myself daydreaming too much about the things I miss from home, I refocus my attention to them and feel like I’m not going to be ready to leave at all when the time comes (which is creeping up on me faster and faster)!