Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yes We Did!

That was the headline on the front page of the Kampala Daily Monitor on Wednesday, November 5th, 2008.

I was pretty bleary by that time having gotten up at 3:00 a.m. that morning to watch the returns with a hardy little band of Obama-supporting American ex-pats (our one Nader-supporting friend from Boulder was grudgingly invited as well but didn't come). Although everything looked promising leading up to the final moments, it was not until CNN called the election for Obama that we breathed a collective sigh of relief, followed by shouting and crying and general hysteria and the uncorking of champagne! Champagne at 6:30 a.m. on a wonder I drifted through the day accepting congratulations from Ugandans, both friends and total strangers, with a huge grin on my face. On some level, I could not quite believe what had just happened.

But then I went to work and my friend Karim made it real for me. The first day I arrived at BeadforLife in May, I was introduced to Karim, the BFL gardener, inventory staffperson and "Obama's most enthusiastic supporter in Uganda." And he is. He is the sole support of his two-year-old son, Hassan, and together they live in a small apartment on the BeadforLife premises. After seeing Karim's excitement over the Obama candidacy, I immediately gave him my Obama shirt which he wore daily between washings. Each day he greeted me with a concerned look and the question in Swahili-accented English, "How is Mr. Obama?" I reported as best I could on Mr. Obama's general health, on the primary ups and downs, the Democratic convention, the Palin nomination, his grandmother's death and in the end I just kept saying, "It's looking good, but..." He would give me his wide, soft smile and a thumbs-up. Missing so much sharing the energy of the election with friends and family, it became a nice little ritual I began to look forward to.

After we got the election results early on Nov. 5th, I bumbled into the office about 11:00 a.m. to find an elated Karim waiting for me in his Obama t-shirt waiting to get our picture taken with a huge American flag he had bought just for the occasion. I've never been much of a "flag" person, firmly believing that imaginary borders and inordinate pride in the location of one's birth are responsible for far too much death and destruction in this world. I'll be honest though, seeing Karim's pure joy and total lack of cynicism made me give up my self-proclaimed Canadian citizenship and enjoy being an American for a change.

Pictures follow.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


It's a beautiful Sunday morning in Kampala. The Ibis are swooping through the blue sky making their unique and very loud “ha-da-da” sound, monkeys frolicking in the parking lot outside my apartment and from my window, I can watch the steady stream of pedestrians that walk slowly by on their way to church, to visit family, to go to jobs. It is a quiet parade that never ends, day or night. Kampala is never “peaceful” exactly but there are times, like now, when there is a certain rhythm, comfortable and steady as a heartbeat.

Last week, BeadforLife welcomed its newest group of beaders to the fold. They chose the name Suubi for their group. It means hope. Never has a word fit a group of people better that this one. The day of their enrollment, an event that marks the end of successful training and the beginning of their 27-month program with BeadforLife, the new members put on a “fashion show” for the staff where they modeled their newly made bead creations. Of course there was paperwork to be done in the midst of the singing and dancing but it didn’t seem to detract from the overwhelming sense of joy and confidence that permeated the day. AIDS patients, widows, acid survivors, war refugees – each one with their own story of shattering pain and loss – on this day smiling and laughing and eager to begin this new chapter of their lives. How often do we get to witness this level of pure “suubi” and how humbling is it, in the midst of world-wide economic panic, to see people who want only to make enough money to feed and shelter their families? I do not for one minute forget what a lucky woman I am to be in the presence of such … I can’t find a word that nearly describes the depth of a day like that. I’m just grateful to have been a part of it.

Oh, and I also met the Vice President the other day. Someone from his office called and said they'd be picking me up to bring me over there at his request and, remembering the fiasco with the Prime Minister and not wanting this to be a repeat, I asked politely, "Now where are we going?" And the man replied (somewhat sarcastically, I thought), "We are going to the home and office of the Vice President of the Republic of Uganda." This time I was ready. I said (somewhat ironically, I thought), "That's what I thought you said." I'm getting better at this. Well, it turns out Vice President Bukenya wanted us to train some women from his village and he also had some "creative" ideas for new jewelry designs (you can't make this stuff up). So it was fun and very strange and I'm glad it wasn't Dick Cheney. Photo attached.

One last bit of news. I have written before about the little girl I saw at Sports Day with the terrible skin disfigurement. Her name is Patricia and we are now fast friends. She is attending school now and is about to enter the boarding section so her nutrition, health and general safety will improve greatly. I was surprised to see so many boarding schools here and learn that often the very poor find ways to send their children there. It makes sense when you consider the fact that a boarding school provides food, shelter, uniforms and supervision for children who may not get any of those things on a regular basis at home. Still, these schools do not match the image we have of boarding schools in the west. The buildings are often very old, the food simple, and the children usually have many chores they're expected to complete. Still, it is a good educational alternative for families who can find a way to make it happen and costs the equivalent of $160 per term - seriously. Patricia has blossomed since beginning pre-primary school. At nine years old, this is her first school experience and from what the headmaster tells me, she is making friends and having fun as well as learningvery quickly. I could even see a vast improvement in her skin condition the last time she came to visit the office about a week ago. There are photos of that visit at the end of this entry. I hope they convey her bright, loving spirit and her beautiful sense of "suubi."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Good Men

The election news here is very erratic and like everyone else with a brain, my nervous system is shot at this point. Although it is hard to get the U.S. version of what's going on, we have great coverage of what other countries think about the election and it's very enlightening. Most report that their populace leans toward Obama, with the notable and somewhat bizarre exception of Croatia (!?). All of them hope that the new president will take their needs and concerns into account when making decisions that affect the entire world. Seems like a reasonable request. And an excellent time to elect a good man.

Okay, okay, let me talk about Africa since I'm here and all and that's what the blog is about. (By the way, Africa supports Obama.)

So it is the rainy season here in Uganda and when it isn't raining in torrents, the weather is hot and muggy and full of mosquitoes. Like so many other things here, it reminds me of my beloved New Orleans. There are so many parallels between the two cities that I believe it must account for my feeling so at home here. A city of tropical greenery, sticky weather, huge insects, plenty of corruption, poverty and bad luck, inhabited by the most joyful people in the world - singing, dancing, crying, laughing, celebrating life, no matter how tragic and unfair, at every opportunity. And like New Orleans, it is no place for sissies.

I have found that one of the big problems I have here is not being able to understand the Ugandan accent over my cell phone. It doesn't help that, a) cell phone service is horrible and b) giving your name when you call is just not customary. People will ask how you are, how your family is, tell you how they are and how their families are without ever identifying themselves. I had a ten-minute chat with a woman about her severe urinary tract infection and have yet to discover who I was talking to. Therefore when a man called me on Wednesday last week inviting me to his office, I had no idea who he was and said that I was sorry but I was just too busy to make it. He laughed and said, "Maybe you can try to make a little time to visit the Prime Minister's Office?" And I thought to myself, "Shit."

So on Monday afternoon, one of our staff members and I went to visit the Deputy Prime Minister of Information and National Guidance, a lovely grey-haired man (not something you see here very often with a life expectancy of 41) wearing a Hawaaian shirt and a warm smile. He was eager to learn about BeadforLife's poverty eradication strategy as he has been working on poverty issues in Uganda since colonialism and is always open to new ideas! It was an interesting and enjoyable visit and we agreed to create some type of collaborative effort. I left feeling that I'd been in the presence of someone with a lot to teach me.

The very next day, I had a visit from another venerable Ugandan elder - a doctor who came by to learn about the BFL program and see if it could be adapted to the work he is doing in the Nairobi slums. He was excited about the model we're using but both he and his assistant insisted that Kampala did not have slums... at least not in comparison to Nairobi! I had heard this before but have had a hard time believing it. Apparently it is the size and density of the Nairobi slums that make them some of the world's worst. They invited me to come visit for a weekend and see where they were working and what they were doing there and I will definitely take them up on it.

It's been a great honor for me to listen and learn from those who've been working on Africa's poverty for many, many years. The complexity of the issues are staggering, the depth of the problems daunting. But great progress has been made by these men and by many more African men and women like them. I am convinced that their greatest gift is their refusal to give up. No one ever talks about "burn-out." The passion they have for their work and the vision they hold for a progressive, economically healthy Africa erases any tendancy towards feeling overwhelmed or hopeless.

There is a third man I have had the honor of knowing here. He is a former Ugandan policeman who was fired years ago when it was discovered he had AIDS. His wife is deceased and he is supporting six children on the small salary he gets driving for BeadforLife. He is very quiet, impossibly thin, and deeply dignified. I enjoy our rides together. Sometimes he tells me about Uganda and sometimes we say nothing at all. Again, he makes me feel as if I'm in the presence of one of my life's teachers. In spite of the dignity and serenity he exudes however, Mr. Edward's driving is appalling. I am always amazed at the way he stubbornly pushes his way through ridiculously packed traffic, at an alarming rate of speed, confident that other drivers will slow or stop for us. And they always do for some reason.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Only Skin Deep

After spending a long, lovely weekend in Dar es Salaam with my good friend, Steph Smith, I returned to work rejuvenated and ready to jump back into the hoopla. Now, two days later, I'm ready to jump out of the hoopla and return to Dar es Salaam and the island of Bogoyo where we ate grilled fish fresh from the sea and swam in the torquoise waves of the Indian Ocean.

Still, work is busy and interesting (not fun, because as my friend Kenny Weickum says, "If it was fun, they wouldn't call it work").

A new group of beaders started this week so there is a renewed sense of hope and energy floating around that's very refreshing. This is a particularly vulnerable group, though - two members, a young man and woman, were referred to us from the Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda. Apparently, throwing acid into someone's face and then running away is the latest thing in revenge tactics these days. Everyone from jealous boyfriends and wives to petty thieves are committing these life-altering atrocities. Thankfully, there is a group here for survivors of this hideous crime ( doing incredible work providing medical and welfare support, psychosocial support, legal support, training and rehabilitation, economic empowerment and public awareness. We feel very fortunate to be able to offer a safe space and a tangible form of economic self sufficiency to these young victims. Our staff and the other beaders have provided an environment of security and acceptance that I think is working wonders. Today, the young man, only 22-years-old, came early in order to help set up for the training and even led the circle in a song. He has a strong, wonderful spirit that shines through the scars and ruined features allowing us to get to know and enjoy the person he is..

In other news, the entrepreneurial program assistant spent yesterday visiting the new businesses of some of our alumni beaders. One has a very small and very busy restaurant with four employees and another has opened a thriving pub. These are the kinds of endeavors that produce livable incomes for families here and we're very excited for their success. Another woman has not been so fortunate. She used her business savings to build a chicken coop and was having some success raising poultry. However, her neighbor had used the chicken hut to sleep in on several occasions after her husband beat her and this so outraged the husband that he tore down the coop, totally destroying our beader's source of income. She made a report to the police who told the man he had to repay her for the damages but now the police want to be paid for enforcing the repayment schedule. And this is the way it goes in Kampala, Uganda. But whenever I become completely disgusted with the corruption here, I remind myself that the corruption I'm used to in the U.S. is just of a much more sophisticated, cynical variety. Not particularly comforting, but it helps keeps a lid on my self righteousness.

I have occasionally been accused of being a real buzzkill so let's close today's entry on an upbeat note, shall we? If you read the last entry about Sports Day, you may recall the little girl I saw there who had what appeared to be terrible burns covering her face and arms. I couldn't seem to forget about her little smile so I asked the headmaster of Kisugu Academy if he had seen her in the area and if so, would he get me information about her. He did better than that. On Tuesday afternoon, he brought her to the office to meet me! And she is the most delightful little person! That smile of hers is amazing. And I was happy to learn that she had not been burned; she has Vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that causes a depletion of melanin in the skin resulting in white and pink patches that are very noticeable in African and Middle Eastern skintypes. And very disfiguring.. There are new and effective treatments from what I've read, but they are not available here. I will be following up on this, looking for treatment options, so please leave any ideas or the names of progressive, kind-hearted dermatologists in the comment section. In the meantime, we'll be getting her into a school where her bright mind and bright smile will be able to shine.

I told you this would end well....


Monday, August 18, 2008

all god's children

Several weeks ago, the headmaster of a local primary school showed up at the office (in the middle of a sale) and gave me an invitation to be the "guest of honor" at their school Sports Day. Having no idea what this meant, I naturally agreed. It was later that I read the invitation (which was addressed "Dear Sir") and learned to my horror that the event was being held on a Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Seems I would be spending all of a precious Saturday watching children run around in sacks. From there, the news went downhill. I learned from my co-workers here that Sports Day is a very big deal in Uganda and that the "guest of honor" is expected to bring a very big gift. "Like a world globe or something?" I asked cautiously. "No, more like a computer," was the answer. I was then told that there would also be a marching band and that I would be expected to accompany them around the field waving like Miss Iowa's Corn-Again Queen. (Thanks, Mandie). At this, I began to seriously regret my decision. I even tried to delegate the guest of honorship to someone else on the staff but no one was biting. Then I considered cancelling - after all, the letter was addressed to "Dear Sir"; how much research could have gone into the selection of their guest of honor?

In the end, I went. I told the headmaster I would come around 3:00 plenty of time to give out the trophies instead of 8:30 in the morning. I arranged for a gift certificate from a textbook publishing company (this is a poor school with few books)and one of the staff people graciously agreed to accompany me to the event so I would know what the hell I was supposed to do. And it turned out to be a blast. Yes, there were children runnng around in sacks but there was also a spelling contest (spelling as sport), a bottle-on-the-head relay race and, best of all, a matooke peeling contest. Matooke (ma-toe'-kay) is the staple food of Uganda - a large, very green banana that is peeled with a knife, steamed and eaten everyday by the majority of the population. It is also an acquired taste - like grits. Not only were the students judged on how fast they peeled the Matooke, but also on form - how they sat and how much they wasted. A very educational experience.

And yes, there was a marching band but I was not required to march and wave; that had only been my co-worker's idea of a joke. I was not warned, however, that I would be escorted onto the field with other esteemed guests and expected to dance - in front of approximately 1,000 parents and children - with my back to them.... I repeat, with my back to them. Dancing is an important part of every event and even the elderly gentleman next to me in the long white robe and ornately carved cane managed to shake "it" expertly. While I, on the other hand, being the only Mezungu within a radius of at least 10 miles, was in danger of experiencing the single most painfully embarrassing episode of my entire life. Well, the whole situation was so ridiculous that I just looked at the crowd over my shoulder and burst out laughing. And they, thank God, started laughing too and a good time was had by all.

Well, almost all. Like every story in Uganda, there is humor and there is tragedy. As I sat in the stands watching the children in their bright gym shorts and t-shirts running around the field, I became acutely aware of dozens of children in rags sitting in front of the grandstand watching the proceedings quietly. At one point, they were made to move to one side by two police officers with sticks so they would not block our view. These were the children from the surrounding slum; the ones whose parents cannot pay school fees and so therefore do not attend school of any kind; the poorest of the poor. A child with one red shoe and one large yellow shoe, another wearing a red sequinned evening top meant for an adult, most of them barefoot. All of them very thin and very dirty. But of all these, there was one child who has remained in my mind ever since; a little girl around seven years old, who appeared to have been horribly burned on most of her face and neck and head. She was very dark-skinned and what I could see of the unburned part of her face was quite beautiful. But the burns had resulted in massive white and pink scar tissue that was unnerving when first seen. She sat apart from the other children by a few yards and drew with a stick in the dirt. No one talked to her, no one played with her. Several times, she would glance around at me and give me a shy smile which I returned. One stranger to another. I think about what the future holds for her... for all of them.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Child's Play

Here's one way to start a week.

I arrived at the office last Monday morning to find two dead cobras, about 2 feet long each, hanging on the clothesline. One had a large frog hanging out of its mouth and the other one had a frog's foot sticking out of a hole in its side. They had been initially apprehended in the middle of the night by our office dog, GiGi, and summarily beaten to death with a stick by the resident gardener. While I was appropriately horrified, my inner child (who I've always suspected of being an eight-year-old boy) just couldn't get enough of the grisly sight. Luckily, one of my colleagues had a camera and caught the image for me to share with you. Warning: the accompanying photogragh depicts graphic violence and should be viewed only by those with a strong constitution and a desire to be thoroughly grossed out.

Actually, it was a very good week in spite of the snakes. We ended the week with a picnic at the apartment pool to celebrate birthdays, comings and goings and all of our month's hard work. After bocci ball, swimming, and some half-hearted workouts in the gym (picture women in long skirts and thong sandals laughing hysterically on the treadmill), the male staff wandered back to the pool for some more happy dog-paddling (not many having swimming lessons here) while the women gathered in a circle and asked that I join them in playing some games. These turned out to be games from their childhood which were very similar to games I had played on Mockingbird Lane as a child. Hand clapping, sing-song chants that make no sense, and lots of giggling. It felt familiar and ancient in some way. Do these games that girls play travel all over the world with various human migrations? Or are they part of a collective unconscious; rhythms and words that live in the body's memory and come to the surface wherever the circle is formed?

One of the things I love most about being here is the shameless sense of fun Africans have perfected over lifetimes of struggle. One of the highest compliments you can give a person here is to say that they "make much fun" or are "full of fun." And the fun is simple; the wit often wickedly clever but never sarcastic. Even when I don't understand the language being spoken (there are over fifty tribal languages spoken here), I seldom miss the joke which is told more with eyes and smiles than with words. Dancing, singing, jokes, and much loud, uninhibited laughter - that's what fun is.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Requiem for a Dream

This will be short.

There are so many parts of my job and life here that are fun and rewarding. Then there is this.

On Monday night, we lost another of the women in the program to the illness she had fought and suffered with for so long. She leaves two children under the age of nine. Two more orphans of Africa. The saddest part is this: she had just completed her home in Friendship Village after working and saving and planning for a very long time. She hadn't even gotten to move in. The dream of a safe home and a good life for she and her children is over.

This happens far too often here and I haven't yet learned to accept these things as those who live here do.

Today, the mood was somber as the members of her group arrived to sell their beads. Just a prayer and one sad song for her in the bead circle this morning. While I thought about the irony of her short life and the uncertain future of her children, the other women in the circle grieved for her, for themselves, and for the ceaseless tragedy that is this country's legacy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Welcome to the Funhouse

Early Friday evening, and I'm sitting in front of the computer at home with a box of Danish Butter cookies and a glass of Amarula on ice wondering why my "Move to Africa Diet Plan" isn't working as well as I'd expected and reflecting on the week gone by.

As we all know, there are difficult days (and weeks and months) in every job, and the "helping professions" are no exception. I think, rather than review the past week in this post, I will instead describe more about what I find interesting in my life here. Nothing serious...just some skewed perceptions and obtuse observations.

First, rather than allow you to believe any longer that I'm roughing it in the bush somewhere, I must tell you that my apartment here in Kampala is nice even by western standards. Yes, there are ants in the kitchen (but no cockroaches the size of shoes, my Louisiana friends...) and the stove must be lit by matches, but that's about as rustic as it gets. Oh, and there are the monkeys, of course. By the way, the monkeys that live in our compound are not the cute Curious George kind that wear little red caps, but are mean-ass monkeys who try to swoop down and grab little kittens. Just last week as I was sitting by the pool (another very nice thing about this apartment), I looked up just in time to see a monkey as big as a Collie sitting right next to my chair staring at Moses the kitten with malevolent yellow eyes and a very bad attitude. I grabbed Moses (who was clueless, naturally) and rushed to safety. Apparently monkeys like to catch small animals, break their necks and... well, never mind. Let's get back to the description of my home here.

I moved to one of the buildings closer to the back of Salama Springs so that the noise from the street is reduced significantly. I'm still able to hear the trucks with loudspeakers that drive slowly by announcing public events and there is a pentecostal church next door as well as a sports bar, so it's no sound-proof booth here in Apt. #21 but I am able sleep quite often.

The first time I heard the preacher at the pentecostal church was late one Friday afternoon after a long week. I swore it was Forrest Whittaker's portrayal of Idi Amin threatening his staff, but then I made out the words Hallelujah and Hey Zeus and realized it was a prayer meeting. No reason for alarm. The sports bar clientele are fairly well-behaved most of the time until Uganda beats Niger in a game ... or it's Saturday night. Not bad neighbors, these; just not easily ignored. Makes Logan Street in downtown Denver seem like Green Acres at times.

The apartments have adequate, if somewhat eccentric, furnishings but they're comfortable and clean and everything I need right now. There is a lamp in the living room that I find a little disturbing but I'm adjusting. It consists of a tall pole with a flat disc the size of a plate at the top pointing straight ahead. I feel as if I'm either going to be ruthlessly interrogated or professionally photographed. Also in the living room is a vertical mirror, maybe 4 feet long, in the shape of a very narrow, elongated oval situated in a black tubular base. Something the Jetson's might have purchased. In any case, I found it absolutely hideous until I noticed that, in the spirit of the best funhouse mirrors, it takes off at least 20 pounds and 6 inches from whatever image it reflects. I've grown quite fond of it over time.

There are also, among all the endearing eccentricities, huge, beautiful flowering trees and arbors of red and pink blooming vines surrounding the pool. Palm trees sway in soft breezes and it is never too hot or too cold. Now, there are the occasional enormous flying insects straight out of " The Land Before Time," but they seem to be on a busy schedule and harmless enough. Not like those damn monkeys.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Live and Learn

For the last five days, the members of BeadforLife have been attending an Entrepreneurial Training here which will prepare them to start their own businesses once they graduate from the beading program after 27 months. The purpose of BeadforLife is not to create an army of beaders but to help women access a permanent exit from poverty. Each week, when they sell their beads, 20,000 UGX (Uganda shillings) is put into a business account for them. Upon graduation, they receive those funds plus a business grant from BeadforLife which totals about 800,000 or around $550. The skills they learn in this training include market research, financial resourcing, budgeting and finances, advertising, and record keeping - all on a micro level. Last Friday, the participants were issued a 20,000 loan each, the equivalant of $13.00, to start a practice weekend business. On Monday, they repaid the loan plus 1,000 UGX interest and reported back on their profits or losses. As they sat in small groups discussing their experiences, I listened to them describe the businesses they had undertaken and how much they had made.

An older woman named Teddy had bought a fish for 10,000 UGX, roasted it, cut it into 16 pieces, and sold each piece for 2,000 for a net profit of 21,000. Another woman bought fishing net, sewed it into body scrubs for the shower, sold them in pretty packages of 12 at the market and made a profit of 60,000! My personal fave was the woman who bought goat heads, cooked them, and sold them for twice what she had paid. I have to say that when I asked her what she had sold and she replied "Goat heads," it took me a millisecond to regain composure, but I think it went unnoticed.

The photos accompanying this post reflect the spirit of our "graduation." Laughing, singing, dancing, praying, and lots and lots of uulating - quite the celebration. When I see how much pride and hope they bring to their efforts, I wonder how and if we can transfer this spirit to self sufficiency programs in the U.S. I also get a little embarrassed in their midst at my own total lack of business sense. I think I would be more like the male beader we have in the program who bought meat for his business, gave it to a friend to sell, got the meat back after the friend failed to sell it, and ate it all himself.

Yesterday was an adventure as well. I visited St. Barnabas school where we are paying school fees for nine students. There have been complaints from parents and students that the children are not getting a good education, that they are not given any books, that they are sent home if they don't have a broom or plate, and that they are not allowed to ask questions in class. I should add that the secondary students board at the school, hence the need for brooms and plates....I guess.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the school administrator, headmaster, lead teacher for the secondary school and another teacher of some sort, all males. Paying school fees for nine students brings out the big guns apparently. They were very earnest about their teaching and after an hour or so of reassuring us on the excellance of St. Barnabas, we were given a tour of the facilities. The science lab was shabby but functional as far as the untrained eye could tell (there were test tubes and bottles of scientific-looking stuff sitting around); the computer lab had students actually working on computers; and the library, which was perhaps the most dismal place of all, had the books and the librarian safely protected from the students by a wire-like cage. Then we visited the primary school starting with the first-graders. As we entered the class, they leapt to attention in their classically Catholic school uniforms and recited carefully, "Welcome to our visitahs. We are the Bananahs. Just peel, and peel, and peel, and eat!" This little chant was accompanied by suitably adorable choreography which made the Bananas, in my opinion, the clear hit of the day. I'll admit, the Mangoes and Apples gave them a run for their money but I believe the school tour guide would be well-advised to skip the academic falderal and just bring on the Bananas.

Besides dealing with an out-of-control kitten (he got his head stuck under the bathroom door when I put him there in "time out" for ankle-biting) and a brief but intense case of homesickness on Tuesday, I am healthy and well and loving my life. Wishing you the same...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Unanswered Questions and Little-known Facts

* The best bookstore in Kampala has a shelf devoted to maps. On the shelf there are several maps of Kampala, Ugandan maps, maps of Tanzania and maps of Florida.

* When one visits a classroom in a Ugandan primary school, the students stand and greet their visitor by saying, "Good-morning-and-welcome-sir-or-madam-whichever-the-case-may-be."

* Is it odd that, at just 10 months shy of 60 years old, I put a kitten in a bag and ride on the back of a motorcycle through the streets of Kampala, Uganda to my job everyday?

* Idi Amin once gave a speech to the Queen of England in which he said, "Before I go back to my country with a plane from the Entebbe airport of London I wish to invite you, Mr. Queen, to become home to Uganda so that we can also revenge on you and you will eat a full cow and also feel up your stomach and walk with difficult because of full stomach completely. Even when you want to rest at night, I will make sure that you rest on top of me. Thank you very much to allow me undress you you completely before these extinguished ladies under gentlemen, sir."

* Two friends rode from Jinja on a bus whose horn got stuck and blasted continuously for over one hour. They were most grateful for their i-pods.

* Ugandans have an unusual speech pattern that sounds like a teacher talking to students. They ask a question and then answer it themselves. Some examples from real life:
"He needs to what? To study."
"Jesus drank what? He drank wine so therefore it is allowed for us to do what? To drink wine."
"I got my what? My paycheck so I can do what? Go shopping."
Sometimes I feel like I'm in Miss Jones' second grade class again and I try to guess the answers.

* The Ugandan military had three helicopters. One of the helicopters had to be used for parts to repair the other two. The second helicopter ran out of fuel in the air and crashed to earth. Perhaps the gas guage was stuck. The Ugandan military now has one helicopter.

* Are the employees at the Nice House of Plastics friendlier than those at other plastic factories in Uganda?

* Soda in Uganda comes only in glass bottles. You are required to pay a deposit on the bottle or they will kindly pour the soda into a recycled plastic bag and give you a straw.

* Is there one comfortable chair in Uganda? I haven't found it.

* Are Ugandans the most resilient, joyful, strong, resourceful, humorous, kind, courageous people in the world? I think yes.

* Average life expectancy in Uganda is forty-one.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Coming Home

Saturday began with soft breezes and a warm, gentle sun. I thought about all those touched by natural disasters in the recent past and gave thanks for the peaceful weather we have been gifted with here in Kampala.

It was a special day in many ways. I have written before about the village in Mukono created by BeadforLife and the beautiful community that is growing there. Yesterday was devoted to house dedications - blessing the new houses of those beaders who have struggled so hard to save for and build their homes. I believe I will quickly run out of words to describe the day and the emotions that engulfed everyone in attendance so I am posting many new pictures with the hope that you may share in the depth and joy of this celebration.

When we arrived, all the women whose homes were being dedicated were waiting for us dressed in their most beautiful clothes. Brother Solomon arrived to give the blessings and the ceremony began. In all, fifteen homes were dedicated. Most of the villagers attended and almost all of the BeadforLife staff were present. As we walked from home to home, Brother Solomon conducted prayers and a Bible and a Mango tree were given to each woman to welcome her into the Village Family. For the two Muslim women, Korans were given and Islamic blessings were said. Then, each woman would tell her unique story of how she had come from poverty to a place where she now owned a home and belonged to a community. Many were stories of losing husbands to AIDS and being chased from their homes and villages. Some told of homelessness and abuse and the ravages of an endless war. One theme was universal however. Each woman spoke of her hope and faith that with very hard work and a little support and encouragement, she would be able to pull herself and her children out of the worst poverty on earth. And today, she was standing on the porch of her home in front of friends and family to say, "I am home." Tears flowed freely from all of us, most especially from those women who had been in the village for some time, but who still remember vividly the feeling that a miracle had happened.

Earlier this week, a staff member asked for the day off so she could help her sister whose three-year-old daughter had died during the night before. When I hugged her and told her how terribly sorry I was, she replied, "It happens, it happens." Although I understand that death is ever-present here and that emotional survival depends on acceptance, I felt myelf cringe at her words. How unaccustomed to death we have become in the west and how close it remains to those in the rest of the world... Almost every staff member here, and certainly all the beaders, have lost some or all of their family members to illness, war, accidents, street violence, domestic abuse. Death is an ever-present reality.

There is one other story to tell this week. Somehow it is related to the previous two in a way I'm not sure I can explain. I went into my office late Thursday afternoon to find a cardboard box on my desk. A picture of what I found inside is on this page. We have named the kitten Moses. He and his siblings were on the side of the road with their mother when a truck backed over them and killed all but Moses. He has now joined the BFL office menagerie which includes two labrador retreivers and a two-year-old boy named Hassan, all of whom are very interested in the new arrival. The Africans think my care of this kitten, particularly his bottle-feeding, is very amusing. They call him the "luckiest cat in Uganda." A love for animals is not very common here and is considered another Mzungu eccentricity or perhaps just another attachment they cannot afford to lose. But for me, the presence of Moses has come to represent something about the will to live against the odds and the need of all living things to find a place they can call home.


Friday, June 6, 2008

Worlds Apart

The city of Kampala (and all of Uganda) is one of stark contrasts. While the government does its best to present the city as one of burgeoning business opportunities and cultural sophistication, a huge part of the population, a clear majority in fact, lives in absolute and clearly visible squalor. It is unnerving to pass a new mall with attached condos across the street from wooden hovels whose only front doors are pieces of torn fabric. These contrasts occur in many different contexts and offer a jarring sense of surrealism to the environment. Two events lately have stuck in my mind as examples of this.

I went to my first meeting of an organization for women from all over the world for "networking" purposes and to hunt up some Democrats for the new chapter of the DAU! What I found was about eighty women from everywhere (living in Uganda with their husbands who are engaged in some type of business venture here.) The most interesting part of the meeting was the speaker's presentation. He was a Canadian living in Uganda and working with an international food relief organization. He has worked in Africa since the 1973 famine in Ethiopia and presented a very clear, very frightening picture of the food shortage that will be affecting millions within a matter of months. He referred to it as '"the Big One." He began his talk by saying that the food crisis would not affect the audience but only the poorest of the poor. The four countries hardest hit will be Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda. He mentioned Eritrea as well but says there are few reliable statistics available from there. Unfortunately, his talk was cut short because the secretary of the club insisted that we go over the calendar of events which included the monthly meetings of the bridge club, the garden club and the Mah Jong club. Again, that jarring juxtaposition of realities....

The other event was a "gender" class held yesterday for the youth in the Vocational Education Training program. There are about 130 young people in this program learning trades like catering, garage mechanic, beautician, etc. We divided the boys and girls into two lines and asked them each to become a "sculpture" of what they though the culture expected of them based on their gender. About six of the girls immediately dropped to their knees and bowed their heads. The rest did gestures ranging from covering their faces to striking provocative poses. Several mimicked breast-feeding. When it was the boys' turn, they all stood erect with arms crossed, or hands on hips or pointing down at the women. It was a gut-wrenching scene for this western woman so used to freedom and fairly consistent respect. Both boys and girls explained that kneeling before your husband was just a traditional sign of respect in Africa. When we asked them to switch roles and portray what their perception of the other gender was, several girls raised their fists or pulled back their hands in preparation to slap someone. The boys immediately started swishing around pretending to put on make-up or comb their hair. No portrayals of washing clothes, nursing babies, sweeping bent at the waist, or carrying heavy water cans on their heads. The Ugandan staff person leading the exercise did a very good job of wrapping up the lesson on a positive note however. She asked them to pick a partner and show what they would like their own relationships to look like. After several more disturbing displays of subserviance , several couples held hands, looked in each others' eyes, hugged, or put their arms around one another. These were greeted by loud applause and cheers. She ended the presentation by saying, "These last ones seemed to make you very happy. Is this what you want in your relationship? Next time we will talk about how to achieve it."

There is a very real struggle by the people here to respect the culture and heritage of their past while confronting the parts of that heritage which cause them pain and limit their potential for growth and well-being. It is a struggle that is familiar to Americans and to many other cultures. It is the job of those familiar with these struggles to assist and provide examples of alternatives when they are asked.

I close this entry with a birthday shout-out to my wonderful daughter, Marti!
Happy 26th!!!
I am with you in spirit..... (The date of this entry says June 5th but it's really the 7th..)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Si Se Puede

I have mentioned several times that my learning curve here is so steep that I often feel I'm in danger of falling over backwards. But the learning curve is not my greatest danger.

While the most exciting activity I used to engage in was paying bills before my paycheck cleared, now during even the simplest car ride in downtown Kampala, I feel I am cheating death at every turn. People ask when I will start driving here and my only answer is a somewhat hysterical laugh. There are no words to describe the traffic "pattern" in Kampala. That's because there is, in fact, no pattern whatsoever. No lines, no rules, not even a hint of a system.. Try to imagine very aggressive grains of rice being poured into a funnel, or a herd of cattle stampeding toward a mountain pass, or children exiting a primary school for the Christmas holidays. Now add multiple car horns, tons of exhaust, four-foot potholes and ridges in the roads, a million motorcycles and bicycles transporting passengers and produce and the occasional lazy-boy recliner, thousands of pedestrians carrying large things on their heads, and no sidewalks. That's what I'm talking about.... The amazing thing is that it seems to work for most everyone except myself and a few other white-knuckled transplants.

Now for the good news. It was another incredibly busy, productive week at BeadforLife. The last Friday of the month there are two sales; one in the morning and a special sale in the afternoon for the women who have built homes in the BeadforLife village. There is more information and pictures (a couple pictures can be found by scrolling to the end of this blog) of the village at but very briefly, the village is being built on 18 acres of land purchased by BeadforLife near Mukono and all the beaders are eligible to puchase and build homes there from money they save while in the program. It is a truly beautiful place. There are seventy homes there now with room for maybe sixty more. To build a home, there is a down payment of about $500 and the average cost of one of the homes is $2,500. Each home has a garden ("with a garden, we will never starve..") and there is a meeting house, central pumps for water, latrines, and a soccer field. Imagine the way it must feel to move from a mud hut in a slum to a clean, well-built house on beautiful land in the country that you have paid for with money you've earned making lovely beads. And there's more. While tribal tensions are common in Africa, this village has families from many different tribes living in one community and making it work. They have named their new home "Friendship Village."

Now for a completely different train of thought... Besides family and friends, I think the thing I miss the most right now is being involved in the Democratic Primary for president. I had worked hard on the Obama campaign before making the decision to move here and even had a shot at being a delegate at the convention in Denver . So when I heard about a meeting of the Democrats Abroad Uganda, I decided to check it out. It was a great meeting, but of the six people attending (one man from Spain, two Ugandan men and two Irishmen) I was the only American eligible to vote in the election in Uganda. So guess who was made the National Chairperson of Democrats Abroad Uganda? Yes, I'm afraid so. And may I add that my first task as National Chairperson of DAU will be to find a new national chairperson. Still, talking politics with people from all over the world is an eye-opening experience and one of the best ways I can think to spend a Thursday evening. How else would I have learned (from one of the Ugandan gentlemen) that Barack Obama will be the "first African U.S. president"? And where else would I have had the chance to throw back a beer with the Deputy Speaker of the Irish House of Parliament?
Interesting times.

Until next time, my friends...

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Healing Power of Beauty

It's been a great week. The work is endlessly fascinating if not always easy, and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. It's actually not a bad spot to be in. It's when I feel I've seen it all before that work becomes monotonous and soul-numbing.. I can honestly say, I have not had one of those moments since I arrived...

One of the initiatives I have become most excited about is a project in collaboration
with a group here in Uganda that helps young people who have been recruited into the sex trade (desperately poor, mostly sexually abused) and want something else for their lives. It is a natural alliance as BeadforLife looks for those most in need of an economic and emotional life raft. The collaboration will also help BFL access the inventory needed to meet an ever-increasing demand for the beads in the U.S. and elsewhere. Though there is much groundwork to be laid before the project begins, the possibilities are exciting. The young enthusiastic social worker ("enthusiastic social worker" is not an oxymoron in this case) who arrived at the office to discuss the project brought with him a frail young woman who was a participant in their program. She didn't speak at all during the discussion and several times I found her staring at me with huge, wary eyes. At the end of the meeting, we showed them the beads and explained how they are made. It was then, for the first time, that I saw her eyes light up. She observed the beads carefully, turning them over and over in her hands asking, "I could make these?" And when we said yes, she broke into a wide, beautiful smile. It is often said around here that "it's not about the beads - it's about poverty eradication." And that's true. Sometimes though, it is about the beads and what it means to create something of beauty when your world has far too little beauty in it.

Let me do a quick health update before signing off this evening. The first
week I was here, the staff traveled to Jinja for a three-day retreat. It was a good time for meeting people and beginning new relationships. Unfortunately, it appears that several staff members have come down with Malaria now and the most likely place for contracting the illness was at the lodge in Jinja. I asked a co-worker today if she had had Malaria and she said, "Every Ugandan has had Malaria. I prefer it to the Flu." So - I intend to keep my perspective about this .. and about everything else as well.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

There's a Monkey in the Hall

One of the things I love the most about Uganda is the steady stream of surprises that make life so interesting. It might be a boda boda (motorcycle for transport) suddenly lurching in front of you on the street, or a sign saying "God Is Able Beauty Saloon"or it might be the turkey I found living under my back stairs. Life here is a never-ending pageant of surprises.

One morning, sitting on the porch during a torrential rainstorm, I noticed a little boy just inside the gate romping around in the rain butt naked. He heard me laughing and as a result, became much more animated and much less inhibited. Soon his friends joined him and there ensued a full-out burlesque extravaganza. Still laughing loudly, I became mildly aware that someone's indignant mother might appear at any moment demanding an explanation from me. Blame my years as a child abuse prevention trainer for that one. In any case, no adult appeared and if one had, I'm sure they'd have soaked up the pure joy of kids dancing in the rain as much as I did..

About that monkey... I guess all these years there's been a part of me that has secretly wanted to make the statement, "There's a monkey in the hall" though I've never been aware of it before. At long last then, I am able to truthfully make that statement. Next to my apartment building, there is a tree that is home to a family of monkeys. Maybe several families, how would I know. In any case, there are quite a few of them and they're the very essence of monkeyness. By now, you have no doubt come to the conclusion that at least one of these monkeys ran into the building and down the hall. You are correct. He or she then ran up the stairs and proceeded to eat the cat food left out by conscientious pet-owners. I guess the title of this post made the end of the story a bit anti-climatic and I apologize for that. Next time, I'll make the ending a surprise....

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Getting There is Half the Fun (?)

That is what they say, isn't it? Maybe they haven't flown from Denver to Entebbe, Uganda, missed several flights, waited an entire day in Heathrow Airport, and found, after 48 long hours of travel, that their luggage was in Brussels (for one week...) Anyway, that was 2 weeks ago and I'm finally shaking the jet lag and starting to enjoy Uganda again.

Let me just describe one morning last week so that the feeling of the place, rather than the facts, are communicated.

BeadforLife is an organization designed to help women escape from extreme poverty. It does this by taking an indigenous craft, making beautiful beads from paper, and then teaching women to fashion these beads into necklaces, bracelets, etc. to be shipped and sold in the United States and internationally through parties held at people's homes. In this way, a connection is formed between women in America and women in Uganda and the path out of extreme poverty becomes less steep.

On Thursday, the women from the Mukisa Group came to the office to sell their beads. This is only Mukisa's second bead sale after training so they are very excited and enthusiastic. Each sale begins with the beaders and BFL staff forming a circle, singing, dancing, and sharing announcements. As I sat in my office, which has a big balcony overlooking the porch and yard below (and much of Kampala!), I could hear thewomen and their children gathering for the sale. There are approximately 50 women and 2 men in the Mukisa group. There are babies and children and bags and bags of beads that the beaders have worked on for the 2 weeks prior to the sale. After the greetings, songs and dances (which I do my best to participate in...) the sale begins in earnest. Each one is paid the highest price for her beads and is carefully instructed on how to make jewelry that Mzungu (white people but all North Americans in general) will want to buy. Often the yellow beads are held up to my skin by the other buyers to show what doesn't work with Mzungu skin color. I do not mind being the model for these lessons. It fact, it may become a second career. But I do need to remind them that North Americans come in all colors!

After the sale, w
hich usually lasts up to four hours, all staff gathers for a communal lunch and afterwards, the inventory staff begin to bundle the beads whichwill then be sent to Boulder for distribution to those hosting parties and events across the U.S and Europe. It is such a female time, the bundling. There is chatting, laughing, serious talk about families and children all while working in the shade of the tent on jewelry other women will wear..