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Welcome to the Bush Life

“Do I look like a dirty little bush girl? I do, don’t I?” Words I never thought I would utter, but I did. My former hutmate Julia and I were going to town for the day after being in the bush for a few weeks. “Nooo you don’t,” she insisted, “you just look relaxed.” Great…relaxed=slob. I was wearing my only clean outfit—a long flower skirt and a white ribbed tank top. My hair was in pigtails, and my feet were filthy . While this was all perfectly acceptable in the village, it made me feel uncomfortable to look like this in town where I might spot another mzungu.

Well after spending three weeks in Gulu, I got to know a lot of mzungus. I didn’t know so many even existed in northern Uganda and here they were all in one place. I felt oddly out of place in my bush attire and got overly excited at their French pressed coffee and tiramisu coffee creamer. I even said “Apwoyo” and gave a Ugandan handshake (distinctly different than a normal handshake in the U.S.) to one American guy. He looked confused. So did I.

Some girls wore leggings with long blouses and belts…like legitimately cute clothes. I didn’t even bring anything like that to Uganda! They had a real concrete building with couches and a kitchen sink and flushing toilet. This wasn’t the Ugandan life I had come to know at all, yet this is how all of them were living. I became aware that while most others working for organizations in the area may travel to the villages to work, they do not actually live in the villages but in town with most modern amenities that we are accustomed to in the U.S.

Even though my hut in Lukodi is only about 19 kilometers (about 12 miles) from our office in Gulu town, the dirt road is so bad that it takes about an hour each way. “So you come to town a few times a week?” some asked, “then why don’t you just live in town instead of traveling all those hours each week?” “Yea, why don’t I?,” I thought. If all these other organizations can put their people up in these nice places, why can’t mine? But then I realized that this life of mine is what I’ve wanted for so long. Why would I come all this way just to live the same way as I did at home, go work in an office and hang out with the girls and kids once a month?? No way. I came here to live like the locals live, to get to know them on a personal level and to love them. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

After talking with some family members and friends I realized that they also aren’t totally aware of my lifestyle here. So here are a few details about day-to-day life in the bush…

Bathing

Each day the girls go to the borehole and collect water. One girl is assigned to me, Janet. She gets my water for me each day and thank God because I fail miserably at it every time. (The last time it fell off my head and spilled all over me leaving me soaking and on the verge of tears in the middle of the field… I finally decided to leave it to the experts.) Anyway, so we get a plastic container of water called a jerrycan and a plastic basin. That’s it. Stand in it, stand over it, everyone’s got their own technique but I usually just splash it up on myself and make a mess in the process. There are special bathing areas for this in the compound. This is a wooden platform surrounded by straw mats, open air. Since I’ve got my own hut now though, I usually just stick to that rather than venturing outside. To wash my hair, I kneel on the ground and hold my head over the basin. I’ve gotten this part down pretty well.

The shower hut. The bottom is a wooden platform. It's nice to watch the stars at night though while you shower=)

Latrine

I’ll avoid too much detail here. So no running water of course. We keep TP in our own huts and carry it with us to the latrine when we need to. There are a few options to choose from here. You can get the squatter style (hole in the ground) or the port-a-potty style with a plastic seat. Both involve a certain level of skill—holding the TP in between your neck and chin with 1 arm holding the door closed and the other balancing yourself in place so you don’t lose a shoe. I could make a lot of inappropriate jokes here, but like I said, I’ll stick to the basics. Long story short though, we’re actually pretty lucky. We have proper latrines because the organization had the money to dig them, but most villagers are not lucky enough to have their own latrines so they just go to a spot in the bush and use tree leaves. I’m living the good life, what can I say?

My basin and jerrycan of water. This is how I usually bathe.

Washing

Clothes and dishes are hand washed in the basins and left out to dry. The girls use charcoal irons to make their clothes nice and kill any bugs that got in the clothes while hanging outside.

Clothes dryer

Sleeping

The girls and kids sleep on bed pads with mosquito nets, but I prefer the hammock. It’s not like our outdoor hammocks at home with the rope. It’s a slippery mesh-like material on the bottom and netting on the top. You jump in and zip up, keeping you safe from nasty bugs flying around and critters on the ground—best of both worlds. It curls around you creating a natural “pillow” of sorts. You have to lie diagonally to be flat. If you lay straight then you dip down which makes your feet go above your head and you wake up with sore ankles and well…sore everything actually. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually quite comfortable, like a little cocoon. I genuinely missed the comfort of my hammock when I was staying in town.

My comfy hammock

Food

Uganda has wonderfully rich land with lots of vegetation most of the time (minus the few months of extremely hot dry season). However, they don’t grow a lot of the same vegetables we do in the U.S. Lettuce is almost impossible to find around here because there is too much sun; same with cucumbers. They have lots of onions, tomatoes, eggplant and corn. That can all get expensive though so at the center they prepare the basics—beans and either posho, millet, cassava or rice. Traditionally, food is eaten with the hands so these starchy, sticky things like posho are meant to be easily picked up and formed into a scoop for the soupy beans. Once a week we have chicken or fish. The fish is whole—scales, eyes and all. I usually opt out on that though—too much work for food. For breakfast, the girls make bread rolls and tea almost without exception. The ladies cook these things using a charcoal stove and mud oven fueled with firewood.  Impressive.

Electricity

Thanks to a new solar energy system, the center has electricity for more hours than ever before. It stays on from about 7 PM to 7 AM now which allows me to get on the computer and charge my phone. This is a recent development at the center and I’m very grateful for it.  Sometimes if there is a storm or there wasn’t much sun that day, then we won’t have it, in which case we just use lanterns and go to bed early.

Even though I sometimes miss showers, carpet, air conditioning and other little niceties of modern living, I am grateful for my experience living among the native Acholi people of northern Uganda. I fall to sleep to the sound of the villagers drumming and singing and wake up to the sound of roosters crowing. The sunsets and stars in the wide open African sky are unlike any I’ve ever seen in my life. No doubt this is God’s country, and I love it.

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Talk Less, Listen More

Since the beginning of this year, I have been working with a Christian organization called New Song of Grace (NSOG) in addition to ChildVoice. Once a week I travel to a village called Paicho and teach a business development course to a group of about 100 men and women in the community. It has been an extremely rewarding experience so far and I am so hopeful of the possible outcomes of the course.

A few things are different about this class compared to the class I teach at ChildVoice. Many of these adults have had or currently have small businesses and want to learn how they can improve them. Those who do not have businesses want to start businesses and are ready to do so as soon as possible. Therefore, the participants in this class in Paicho really have a sense of ownership for this class. They don’t have to be there, but they take 2 to 3 hours out of their day each Friday to learn. There is no financial incentive for them as NSOG cannot offer loans, yet each week there continues to be a packed room. Also, I give them a “challenge” each week which they are expected to report on in the following class. This challenge could take an additional few hours each week, yet every week I have to limit it to only a few responses or else our whole class would be spent on their reporting.

Last week I went to Paicho early so that I could spend time out in the community with some local business owners and others who were not a part of the class. I first went around just making conversation and buying an item here and there—relationship building. This is a very important part of the Ugandan culture. Unlike in America where we get right down to business, in Uganda, you’re expected to develop a relationship before you discuss business. So it was on this second visit into the community that I was able to revisit and talk to the people who I previously bought from.

I asked the people about the problems they faced in starting businesses, about savings, spending, education, lots of topics that would help me to better understand the people of Paicho and the challenges they face so that I could (somehow…hopefully) help them to overcome those challenges and begin the economic healing process that is so needed in their community. I also asked questions during class—what did they want to learn about, what were their expectations, etc. What I learned was this: I should have asked them a lot sooner! They had great ideas. I stood there thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?” Of course they did though…they’re living it, shouldn’t they know their own needs? Yet more often than not, people trying to help the poor don’t even ask them if they want help or how to help them. You’d think that would be the first thing you would do, yet somehow, we think we know what is best for them.

At the same time as I am instructing this course, I am also a student in another course through the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. It asks questions that force me to reconsider every approach I’ve ever taken in working with the poor…and that’s a good thing. One thing that the course has taught me so far is that I must seek to address not only material poverty but poverty of being, stewardship, and spiritual poverty. Also, it has reminded me that the people I’m working with are the solution, not the problem. Of course that seems obvious, yet my previous approach to teaching (not asking, but telling), may have conveyed otherwise.

Most of the people in these communities never attended high school and many of them never even completed primary school because of poverty, war, gender inequality, or a myriad of other unfortunate reasons. They are so grateful for the opportunity to be educated that after each class each one of them lines up on the way out and curtsies (common sign of respect in Uganda), shakes my hand, or some combination of all three. It is very humbling. One woman even stayed behind afterward and kneeled down in front of me, asking me to lay my hands on her and pray for her. I felt most inadequate, but I did the best I could, praying inside that God would just speak through me.

Without education, there is little hope for a future here in Ugandan, and unfortunately, even with an education there is much difficulty due to the government systems. These adults have passed the time where they can go back to school, but what they can do is learn enough to create businesses that will allow them to send their children to school so that the cycle of poverty does not continue and there may be hope for the future.

“We Are Tired”: Michael’s Story

Day to day we go about our business and we interact with a lot of people along the way. There are some people that we see every day yet never really get to know them for who they are. We don’t really see them. It could be the bag boy at the grocery store, the receptionist at your office, or the mailman. There are people that are somehow functional in our lives and we expect them to “do their jobs” to somehow make our lives a little smoother, yet we fail to recognize their real worth. Maybe the waitress wasn’t really friendly because she had an argument with her husband that day or a family member passed away. We can never really know what another is going through unless (God forbid)…we ask!

Michael is the gatekeeper at ChildVoice. Every day he sits in a tiny metal building just by the front gate so that he can open and close it as the vehicle passes through. When I go for walks in the evenings, he asks me “ichito kwene?” (where are you going) and I say “achito ka wot” or “achito poro” (I’m going for a walk or I’m going to the farm). Every time…never fails. I assumed he didn’t know much English and he knew I didn’t know a lot of Acholi so we never bothered going any deeper than simple pleasantries. Yet…I often wondered about Michael, or as we call him, “Mose” (it means “old man” in Acholi but is meant as a sign of respect to an elder). Does he have family? What does he like to do? What does he believe? What must he have seen in his lifetime? For some reason, I never took the time to find out.

When I went back to Lukodi this week to check on my hut and the chicken farm (a wild cat was eating our chickens grrrr), I decided I would visit with Mose. Maybe it was the meat and matoke I brought him or maybe it was just because he was bored all alone there, but for some reason, he decided to open up to me that day. Here’s a little bit of Michael’s story…

Michael was born in Lukodi 1952, and he attended Lukodi Primary School (which sits directly next to ChildVoice so he can see it every day from his post by the gate). He was 10 years old when Uganda gained independence from Great Britain in 1962 and he remembers the great celebration that took place in Lukodi on that day. There were parades, singing, dancing and lots of meat-eating that day. He said they didn’t have school for several days just because everyone was too busy celebrating. Before the country’s independence, he says the British treated the Acholi people a bit like slaves. He said, “When the road needed built, the British would just stand to the side and tell the others what to do, making them lift very heavy boulders and other objects without any help. If someone couldn’t do the work, they would yell at them and threaten them.”

The first president in Uganda was Milton Obote, an Acholi man. “After Obote, all the Acholi thought that they were so powerful that only an Acholi person should ever be in charge. So they were not happy because they felt like they lost control,” he said. Of course, then rebellion started in northern Uganda by the likes of Joseph Kony in 1986. The details stopped freely flowing at this point in the conversation since he and I both knew what came next: 20 years of terror, death and destruction by the Lord’s Resistance Army. All Michael said was, “Even though I grew up here, I never knew Kony because I am older than him. Still, he is just a young man. He doesn’t know what he is doing.”

Michael went on to tell me that he was blessed with a wife (Josca) and one son who had given him five grandchildren. I never even knew he was married. He said he sees some of his grandkids every day because they attend Lukodi Primary School. He said they sometimes stop at the fence and say hello to him on the way home and sometimes his wife will come to bring him lunch. I’ve never seen them, but then again, I wasn’t really looking. He told me all of this while smiling and eating the matoke and meat. I felt as if I had now earned this valuable time with him, although really I think he would have been happy to share all this before…if I ever gave him the chance.

Silent now, I looked over at the people lined up to vote in the field nearby and said I was glad there have been no problems with elections so far. Now he was laughing. Not just a polite giggle but like really laughing. Then he said, “Ohhh no…no problems. We are just tired now, don’t you know?” Tired. Tired of war, violence, poverty. Tired of fighting. Or tired of caring. In the weeks prior to elections, some of my co-workers laughed when I made any mention of disturbance, saying that most people did not feel like their votes mattered anyway and they didn’t care enough to rebel. They were apathetic. They were just happy to have peace and did not want to do anything to disturb that peace.

Some might say this is a bad thing when the people feel like they do not have a voice, when the government has all the power. Coming from a free, democratic country like the U.S., I am tempted to agree. Yet I knew that the elections in Uganda would not be “free” or “fair” as they had claimed, and I knew that Museveni had been unfairly elected for more than 20 years, but somehow I still hoped that he would win if only to spare me the disturbance of riots and potential violence. Maybe there is something to be said for apathy after all. Things might not get better, but at least they know they won’t get worse.

I thanked Mose for talking with me, and he thanked me for the food. I told him I would come back again next week to visit, and I meant it.

 

Mose Michael

Election Day Observations

4 AM: I awoke up with some “bright ideas” and couldn’t fall back to sleep. Why is there loud music still playing outside?

5 AM: I heard the Muslim call to prayer and it reminded me to pray myself and to thank God for another day alive. Oh yea, and safe elections please?

7:30 AM: After talking to some people online (shout out to my momma) I’m now at the only opened coffee shop in town eating a lemon scone and drinking coffee (Café Americano).

7:35 AM: Ha…just gave the scone away. That’s the problem with sitting at the window near a Ugandan street. All the little kids walk by and stare at your food and make sad eyes, making you feel incredibly guilty for eating a proper meal. I never really liked it at this place to be honest—it’s a mzungu hot spot and even though I would typically enjoy the windows, here it is as if you’re on display. Am I the observer or the observed? It’s hard to say. Mzungus are scarce in Gulu these days so I’m inclined to say that I’m the one being watched…like an animal at the zoo. It’s a bit unsettling.

I traded the little boy outside the window my lemon scone and 300 shillings (about 15 cents) for a single samosa that I didn’t really want (they’re too greasy). Did I do the right thing? I’m always conflicted. Don’t want to refuse anyone in need, especially a child, but he did have a bucketful of samosas so it’s not like he was starving. Maybe I just contributed to the breeding of dependency and the assumption that Mzungu=Money. I feel bad if I give and I feel bad if I don’t. There’s no winning in these situations. But hey I found out the proper term for my previously held “bitterness”—it’s called “compassion fatigue”, apparently its quite common for people in my line of work. Fortunately God and I worked my way out of that one…hope I don’t relapse. I think I’ll eat a banana and crackers at the apartment for dinner just to be safe.

Kids playing in the alley.

9 AM: So far all is calm in Gulu despite (or perhaps because of) the increased military and police presence on the streets. I watched a video on BBC Online earlier where a reporter…uh…reported…right here in Gulu. It showed the roundabout, Crane Bank and everything! I saw him right here at the coffee shop the other day. Didn’t know he was a reporter at the time obviously. Not that it would have mattered.(Here’s the video…see the Lukodi memorial by ChildVoice at the end!…http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12482717)

“Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye is playing and Brian just brought me another cup of Café Americano…uh oh. Hoping I’ll be productive today with all this caffeine and adrenaline in my system. See…a little bit of fear can be healthy after all.

11 AM: Work stuff.

1 PM: Go to hut in Lukodi to pick up my little paraffin stove for making pasta tonight. Swing by polling centers on the way to sneak some pictures. People lined up to vote. Relatively quiet in the villages.

People in the village lined up to vote.

3 PM: Went running around the Gulu High School soccer field. Polls were set up around the perimeter of the field and people waiting to vote watched me run. Glad I could be their entertainment in my cool once-white sneakers. Just when I was really struggling though, three little kids showed up along the field and started giving me high fives every time I came around to them—10 times in all. It never got old. It made me smile wide every time and keep running so that I could do it again. Everything still normal around town.

5 PM: Calling it an early evening today just to be safe. Failing at making even pasta. I think my little stove is broken. What a waste. Mmm cheese sauce for dinner. Thinking about home now. Can you imagine being nervous or worried about safety on Election Day in the U.S.? The worst our people do is sit around long tables wearing suits and arguing with one another ha.

Boiling water outside the apartment

11:30 PM: So it seems Election Day in Uganda came and went without a hitch. Well, at least in Gulu anyway. The true test thought will be Sunday when they announce who was elected. The man in the apartment across from me said he’s keeping his business closed on Sunday just to be safe…in case there were riots and people tried to loot his store. Don’t blame him. It’s somehow quieter tonight than last night. Is it possible that there was actually a peaceful election in a peaceful Uganda? That would be a first. I pray that it is so. We’ll know for sure on Sunday.

Home is Where…God Is?

Everyone went home, well, home in the sense of that place where your biological families are, that place you call your own whether you want to or not. It is nearing Election Day in Uganda and the ChildVoice center will be closed for the next several weeks. As the girls and children packed and prepared to leave ChildVoice though, I noticed an unusual somberness in many of them.

The girls have become very good at hiding most of their feelings, or at least pretending they are tough. The kids though still show their true emotions. They were clearly sad. When I asked Odong what was wrong he said, “Ojoko, pege. Prisca pege. Alan pege. Achito gang diri.” (Ojoko isn’t here. Prisca isn’t here. Alan isn’t here. I’m going home tomorrow.) Some of the girls and their children had already returned home and Odong was lamenting his same fate for the next day. When I see some of the girls in town who graduated and left ChildVoice in December, they always say that their children miss the center.

As the van full of girls and their children drove away, one of the children, Pitora, banged on the car window and cried as it drove away. Amazing. They didn’t want to go home. How could that be? Didn’t everyone enjoy going home? Shouldn’t this be a happy day? Then again, not everyone has a comfortable living situation or a warm family to welcome them home. The lives these girls and their children live while at ChildVoice is significantly better than their home lives where they work from morning until evening, often being forced to leave their children behind to fend for themselves. The food does not magically appear in regular intervals throughout the day, and they no longer have their friends and playmates around. I guess I wouldn’t want to go “home” much either.

The truth is that for many of the girls and children, ChildVoice IS their home. While there is certainly an adjustment period when they first arrive at the center, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they have a loving and supportive family right there. They enjoy being able to learn, to worship God freely, and to spend time with their friends. The girls form incredible bonds with one another that many of them have never known before. They are joined by common experiences. They are family.

Something funny has happened though…the girls are not the only ones who have found family at ChildVoice; I feel like I have too. Let me describe this morning to you—I am awakened by the sound of the girls singing worship songs and banging on the drums. I emerge from my hut to be greeted by my neighbor, Beatrice, who thanks me for waking up (a lovely little tradition in Uganda) and tells me how beautiful I’m looking. Matron then comes over, gives me a hug and asks me how I slept last night and she also tells me I’m looking very smart (It was the Ugandan dress I just bought. They love when mzungus try to blend). I take my coffee percolator to the kitchen and Aning (who I call ‘Mama’) does the same, giving me a hug and shortly after bringing the heated coffee to my hut for me. I sit and drink my coffee with my neighbors (CVI co-workers) as we talk about things like the nasty dry season dust, harvesting millet before it goes bad and putting rat poison in the hut to prevent any unwanted visitors while we’re gone…all perfectly normal small talk ya know? A few co-workers welcome me to their homes and others arrange to meet for tea in town later in the week. As I prepare to leave the center, relocating to a co-workers apartment in Gulu town while the center is closed, the remaining girls help me load my items into the vehicle, hug me goodbye and wish me a safe journey until we meet again. I got a little teary-eyed as I drove away. I guess leaving home is never easy after all…

As I prepare to spend the next three weeks in Gulu basically alone, I must remind myself of one thing though—I’m not really alone at all. This is not the first time and will not be the last that I will spend several weeks in my own company. During my travels I’ve eaten many meals alone, explored, ran, worked and relaxed, all on my own. Granted, even though I’ve enjoyed these times of self-discovery and independence, there is something to be said for sharing these discoveries with another. It somehow seems as if it becomes more real when someone else is there. If you are alone, who is there to help you recall the name of that one restaurant that serves the best sushi or the time you wiped out in a giant muddy pothole…well…on second thought, maybe it is best not to remember some things.

I was blessed for several weeks to have the company of two very good friends since childhood, Jessie Blackwell and Sarah Kemp. They experienced the “bush life” with me and for that I feel so blessed. There are some memories I can now share with a knowing audience, some things that people from home can now relate to and understand. When I somehow long for the simplicity of my old hammock and mud hut or want to laugh about the time Ojoko accidently peed on me, there will be someone who knows who I’m talking about, who “gets it”. I will not be completely alone or misunderstood. I am forever grateful for that comfort. Thank you Jessie and Sarah for that gift.

Wheeling girls take Uganda

Now that they have left Uganda and I am one of the few non-Ugandans left in the area, one could say that I am again “alone,” and although that may be true in the physical sense, I know someone who will always be with me. I heard a song by Mercy Me recently called “Homesick.” Here are some of the lyrics:

“In Christ, there are no goodbyes; And in Christ, there is no end; So I’ll hold onto Jesus with all that I have;  To see you again.

…And I close my eyes and I see your face; If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place; Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow.

I’ve never been more homesick than now.”

Yes, I miss my home—as in the place where my family resides, a place I love and feel welcomed. But when I’m alone, that is when I feel God’s presence the most. I talk to Him more and feel Him talking back, comforting and guiding me. I have a home in Wheeling, West Virginia. I had one in Morgantown. For a little while I had one in Dublin, Ireland, and now I have one in the little village of Lukodi, Uganda. Homesick? Sure…at times, but the truth is that my real home (all of our real homes) is with the Lord.

I am grateful for my many homes and many family members around the world and for the One who provides those, the One who never leaves, and the One who is the best travel partner that anyone could ever ask for.

Some of the children in my Ugandan family

The Beauty of the Journey

A poem that I love but cannot claim credit for. It expresses a lot of my own feelings. Did I mention I love traveling??…

 

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad;
and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

-John O’Donohue

Harden Not Your Heart

Something that I never expected to happen to me has happened. I am bitter. I am losing my compassion. I am becoming complacent. I am sometimes short-tempered. I am almost always on guard. Or at least, I was for a while…until I remembered to let God in again.

“Try to be at peace with everyone and try to live a holy life, because no one will see the Lord without it. Guard yourself against turning back from the grace of God. Let no one become like a bitter plant that grows up and causes many troubles with its poison.” (Hebrews 12:14-15)

Before I left home, everyone told me to be safe, not to be naïve, not to be friendly to strangers, not to trust anyone. The same sentiments were repeated to me by coworkers when I got to Uganda. Except in addition to those suggestions to keep my guard up were suggestions to be firm so as to be viewed as having a position of authority, don’t show too much affection or interest, don’t have a private conversation with a male and many other culturally appropriate rules. This was how I started becoming guarded and untrusting. Trying to follow all these “suggestions” for how to act finally caught up with me and I forgot how to just be myself.

In the past several months since I’ve been here, I have experienced some situations which have also forced me to put the walls up to the point that I wasn’t even seeing clearly. Seeing people living in poverty every day starts to become “normal.” The mud homes, the tattered clothes and no shoes, the bloated bellies…you start telling yourself this is just the way things are and that since the people haven’t known anything different, they’re perfectly content with their situations. Because you can’t possibly say ‘yes’ to everyone, you learn to say ‘no’…to everyone. Suddenly the street kid who knocks on your car window becomes a nuisance and you find it a lot less of an internal conflict to walk past the old crippled man on the side of the road. You also get used to being the only white person in sight and the attention that comes with it. You grow tired of strangers yelling ‘hey mzungu’ or ‘mono, how are you?’ and suddenly find it easy to ignore them because you have a name and deserve to be called it. I would ever say ‘hey black dude, what’s up?’

See what’s happening though? I’ve found an unfortunate but accurate word to describe it.

Dehumanizing: “To make someone less human by taking away his or her individuality, the creative and interesting aspects of his or her personality or his or her compassion and sensitivity toward others.” (Wikipedia)

Yep…that about sums it up. Dehumanizing. Add to that blocking things out, blocking people out and becoming desensitized. This defense act became such a part of my everyday routine that I wasn’t even aware of it anymore. As we were walking one day, Jessie commented on the malnourished children with the puffed out bellies. “Oh…they’re malnourished?” I said. Of course they are! But almost every child I had seen for the past 5 months looked like that so I honestly thought that was normal. Later my sister commented on a picture of one of the kids and said, ‘Have you ever seen a kid at home look like that?’ Well…come to think of it, I hadn’t. Another time, we were lost and a young man kindly offered to help us find our way. Assuming he wanted money, I ripped the piece of paper from him and said ‘We’re just fine alone, thanks!’ and walked speedily away. Jessie didn’t even have to say anything. The look on her face told me I was unnecessarily rude. Turns out he really was just trying to help us.

How did this happen to me?? That’s not me at all. The real me smiles at everyone I pass, talks with strangers, gives to those in need, wears my heart on my sleeve. But the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem, right? I’m glad Jessie was here to point it out to me, even though I admit that the burden of carrying on this ‘tough act’ was already weighing on my heart and my conscience for some time. Honestly, it had become draining. I’ve always said I want to live in a way so that others might come to know God through me, but how in the world could anyone come to know God through me if this is the way I’m acting. This was not Christ-like at all.

During this time I was also talking to God a little less than usual. I don’t know why exactly. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. I was just busy, ya know? Lame excuse. I know we should never be too busy for God. I realized that the further I was from God though, the worse I was feeling. This fear, cynicism and distrust of others should have been the very things I was guarding myself against, not other people. As soon as I started talking to God about these feelings though, these problems of having a hardened heart, He quickly worked to make me soft again, showing me His simple beauty through the young women and children I am working with.

Coming to Uganda, I never expected to experience this challenge. But as I’ve said before (from Romans 7:21) “when I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” We all have similar struggles actually. Many people grow up thinking that one race or class of people is inferior to the other, and we find ourselves placing people in neat little categories to fit our previous assumptions about them. We stereotype, we judge. It is natural for us to do this as humans, but we must be guarded against these ways of thinking because they inevitably determine our actions. One of the things I remember from my religion class at Wheeling Central with Mr. Smay was the discussion about our hearts and minds being spiritual battlefields. To be honest, I did not fully understand what he was talking about at the time, but I do now. In the battle for my mind and my heart (and everyone else’s), I pray that God will always be victorious.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Hebrews 3:15

They make me melt 🙂 ~ Lubang Kene

~Agena

~Lubang Kene

~Aaron

~Ojoko

Travel Diaries

Since I’ve been traveling over the holidays, I’ve missed the opportunity to discuss some important reflections especially around Christmastime and New Years. I’m going to try and catch everyone up to date though and talk about each of the cities we’ve visited just in case any of you are ever considering such a trip or just want to learn a little bit about different parts of the world. One thing I neglected to discuss is that one my best friends, Jessica Blackwell, has decided to join me for this leg of my journey. I met Jessica in Casablanca a few days before Christmas and she will even stay in Uganda to get involved with ChildVoice for a few months. I feel beyond blessed to have her with me as she brings a piece of home with her and is really like family. I couldn’t think of a better time to be with family than Christmastime. We thank God for our safe travels thus far and pray that God works in and through Jessie during her time in Uganda.

Casablanca: Casablanca has been mostly romanticized because of the movie, but Rick’s Café is about the best thing the city has to offer unfortunately. An American woman renovated an old building in the city and recreated the restaurant that is featured in the movie even down to the piano player who plays “As Time Goes By” each hour. Jessie and I celebrated our reunion there with filet mignon and chocolate raspberry truffles…something we could have never afforded in a fancy restaurant at home but were able to swing in Morocco. It was heavenly! One thing that is a bit funny about the city is that there only men out at night, no women. I gather this is mostly due to the Muslim culture and belief that the women should be in the home with the family and should not leave home without the company of a male. However, Casablanca is a fairly moderate area. You will see many young women during the day wearing modern clothing that you would see on a young American woman. They laugh and some even hold hands or hug in public (something you would never see in most other predominantly Muslim areas). Anyway, it’s a bit of a nervous experience to walk around the area alone especially at nighttime.

Enjoying our meal at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, Morocco

That all being said, Jessie and I were fortunate to meet some wonderful people in Casablanca including our humorous hosts at Hotel Central in the Old Medina. I recommend this hotel to anyone traveling to the area. The men who ran this place served us mint tea for free throughout the day, advised us on activities, negotiated lower taxi prices for us and even walked us to Rick’s Café because they didn’t want us walking alone at night. I don’t know many other places where they would give such personalized attention to their guests. We felt very lucky to have met them, and they showed us our first taste of true Moroccan hospitality, something we could come to experience much more of during our time in the country. Lesson learned: Don’t let first impressions determine everything.

Rainbow near the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca--the first day of mine and Jessie's trip together

Tangier: One of the best thing about Tangier—Bayt Jasmin, the quaint bed and breakfast where we stayed. Now, remember that I am coming from not having a hot shower (or any shower for that matter) or a bed for about 4 months. I’ve been eating a hard starchy substance called posho with beans every single day. So perhaps you can understand why my trip highlights may often include comfy hotels and hot meals. I had one of the best meals of my life at this place. Moroccan cuisine has earned itself a spot on my list of favorite foods. Their flavors are rich and include mostly lamb, roasted vegetables, and lots of fruits and nuts like dates, figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins. They serve an incredible mint tea which is specific to Morocco—very refreshing (and also very sugary as Jes and I later discovered).

Sooo much sugar in Moroccan mint tea. Good thing we didn't discover this until the end of the trip after we'd had about 5 cups every day

Jessie and I celebrated our Christmas in Tangier by hanging stockings by the fireplace, opening a few gifts from each other, and of course going to church. We met several more interesting people on this leg of the trip including two soccer players from the Moroccan national soccer team, an elderly Spanish man named Tony who gave us a tour of the city, and a sweet young girl who gave us her earrings because Jes said she liked them. Lesson learned: McDonald’s has really good coffee but people will look at you funny if you walk and drink/eat at the same time.

Part of our room at the Bayt Jasmin in Tangier

Marrakech: Snake charmers, monkeys, dancing, dramas, music, henna artists, healers, chicken dancing, owl taming…you name it, it’s in the Djemma el Fna (giant plaza) in Marrakech. There is a striking contrast of old and new in the city; fast taxis as well as carts pulled by donkeys and horse carriages. The markets and souks are hectic as ever and require a certain boldness in business transactions. Bargaining can be fun but also tiring. I missed just looking a price tag rather than arguing over each purchase, not knowing whether I’m getting a good deal or being cheated (my guess is as a tourist I was cheated more often than not). Jessie and I put all sweetness aside as we gave a very firm “La shukran” (No, thank you) to hassling vendors. Jessie got called Shakira and we both got asked “how many camels for you?” which gave us a good giggle once we were out of their sight.

Ready to camel trek in our proper Berber headwraps

Mohammed, a young nomadic Berber man in the Sahara Desert

We spent the night in the Sahara Desert for camel trekking and site seeing where we met Mohammed (one of many) and other nomadic Berber men. We sat around a bonfire with them, drank tea and then froze our butts off the rest of the night. I didn’t know the desert could get so cold. For New Years we had a wonderful meal at the Palais Arabe restaurant as we watched traditional Moroccan music and dancing. They even gave us masks, hats, balloons and noisemakers to welcome in the New Year. It was one that we will certainly never forget. Lesson learned: If you call a man in Morocco by the name of Mohammed, Hassan, Abdul or Akhmed, chances are you are right. Oh, and don’t tell people in an Arabic-speaking country that you’re from Lebanon if you can’t speak Arabic.

Selling sheep heads in the chaotic Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech

Cairo: With a population of more than 25 million people, Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Since we had such a short time to see so much, we decided to take a day tour of the most famous sites which of course included the pyramids. It was amazing to be in the presence of so much history. We saw the nine pyramids of Giza as well as the sphinx of Giza and also the sixteen pyramids of Sakara. The most famous and largest pyramid, which was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is in Giza. We climbed on it and marveled at its size and the work that it must have taken to build it. We also visited the Egyptian Museum and went on a Nile River dinner cruise where we saw whirling dervishes and belly dancing. Despite some frustrations over the lack of direction in most places (one man said Egypt was allergic to signs), we managed to still find our way and make some great memories. Lesson learned: No matter how much you pay, you will never really see the mummies; and don’t wear flip flops in the museum…you will fall.

Woohoo we're at the Egyptian pyramids!

Alexandria: We made the day trip to Alexandria from Cairo despite the recent news reports of a church bombing, and we were glad we did. In the seaside town, we experienced some of the most beautiful sites and tastes of the whole trip. The best part of Alexandria for me was the library which is the second largest in the world (the first is the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.). Alexandria was a hub of knowledge in ancient times and while the old library was burned in an accident by Julius Caesar, the new one was still inspirational. We spent the afternoon pouring through books on every topic imaginable from religion to philosophy and arts to economics. Artistic and historical pieces were scattered throughout the gigantic library. Being the bookworm that I am, I was totally in heaven. We topped the day off with an amazing meal of fresh fish and then God gave us a little parting blessing—a rainbow above the Mediterranean. When Jessie first arrived in Casablanca there was a rainbow as well, so our travels began and ended with rainbows.Lesson learned: Don’t let fear stop you from exploring new territory. It will mostly likely be worth the risk. (See more thoughts on traveling to “dangerous places.”)

Rainbow over the Mediterranean in Alexandria, Egypt. The last day of our travels.

This is not the first time Jessie and I have traveled together. We first started our adventures about 4 years ago when we studied at Dublin City University in Ireland and explored Western Europe in our free time. During those first travel experiences, my “Europe on a Budget” book was my Bible and I made it my personal goal to visit every single place listed in the book even if I didn’t know what it was. I can’t tell you how many stone monuments and churches we visited that year, but I can tell you that I don’t remember most of them. We were on such a budget that we once shared a can of cold beans in a train station and ate a days old chicken sandwich because if we bought food then we wouldn’t have had enough money for a ride home.

Well I’m happy to say that since then we’ve improved our travel style a bit to include less monuments, more leisure time, more quality food and most importantly, more people. While it is often difficult to meet locals due to language barriers, you can still learn a lot about people from observing the way they live. What’s better is that once you come to know and understand people, it is difficult to discriminate against them. Many Americans have misconceptions about Muslim people and that is very unfortunate because the majority of Muslim people are loving and Godly people. One of the things I liked the most about Morocco and Egypt was witnessing the calls to prayer each day. Most everyone would stop what they were doing, lay down a mat, piece of cardboard, a shirt, whatever they had and kneel on the ground to give thanks to God for being alive. The phrase I heard more than anything from the people we interacted with was “Inshallah” which means “God willing” in Arabic. The Muslim people recognize that each and every breath of life is a blessing from God that is not to be taken for granted because it could be taken at any time. So when the prayer call comes (5 times a day beginning at 5 AM) they stop what they are doing and thank God for life. It is a beautiful religious custom that we could all learn from. Each time the pray call came, it reminded me to also give thanks to God for His many blessings.

When the topic of religion was brought up in conversation, all of the people denounced the actions of the radicals on both sides saying that we are all “brothers and sisters in God” regardless of whether we were Christian or Muslim. It is easy to watch the news and get one side of things, to see only the bad things and then to gain a slanted viewpoint as a result, but I hope that people at home can see beyond that and understand that what we see on TV is not the whole story at all. People are people no matter where you go. Jessie and I know God was watching over us during our travels and we are grateful for the opportunity to explore and experience His beautiful, diverse world and beautiful, diverse people.

Dubai: A Land of Indulgence…and Idolatry?

I just paid six dollars for a coffee. I knew 19 dirhams sounded like a little much but it was 6 in the morning and I didn’t feel like thinking about it so I handed over the last of my money. As I sit now in the airport lounge waiting to board my plane, I just realized the conversion amounts to 6.25 to be exact. It’s even bitter and the service was horrible. Ugh.

Okay…rant over. Oh Dubai…if I could use one word to describe the city it would be “shiny.” It literally sparkles. There are glittery looking lights on the palm trees, buildings, even the road itself. I have never seen so much money in one place. There is not one dilapidated building, not even a regular looking one really. They are all on the scale from grand to completely opulent. Even the taxis are luxury vehicles. Everyone wears designer clothing. The local women shine in their robes which are black but lined with large colorful stones so that even the people sparkle. Dubai is home to one of the few 7-star hotels in the world (Burj Al Arab), many five-star hotels, and the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa. If it’s called the Las Vegas of the Middle East then it’s in all the good ways. The Islam customs don’t allow for the scandal. (You can get arrested for even kissing in public and a man on the plane told me his friend was arrested for kicking a soccer ball with a girl on the beach.) The malls have ski slopes inside, ice skating rinks, large aquariums and waterfalls, any product in any store you could ever imagine, any type of food from any place, literally anything you want to do is within your reach in Dubai. If the geography or the climate doesn’t provide it, the King will. The man builds islands. Anyways, I could go on about the opulence of Dubai, but you probably get the point by now.

I’d recommend Dubai for anyone wanting to go to have a pampered and safe trip to the Middle East, but not if you want the real thing. Only 20% of the people in the U.A.E. are actually native Emirates. The other 80% are expatriates—mostly Indians, Pakistanis and rich Europeans. I talked to an Indian man on the plane who lived in Dubai and he said it was fake and “soulless.” At any rate, I had a good time and would have even liked to have an extra day more of “pampering.” I liked Dubai but it was for mostly the wrong reasons to be honest. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it because it goes against my long-standing travel philosophy, but I cannot hide it anymore—I ate fast food! I ate Dunkin Donuts, Cinnabon, Subway, pizza and even thought about going into a McDonalds. (Blasphemy!) Don’t worry, I didn’t…but it was close. I saw the sign for a Big Mac and stood looking at it for a while but in the end my will power won out.

I usually make fun of people for getting American food in a foreign country because I believe you need to experience the country for what it is. In a quote by Clifton Fadiman: “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable, it is designed to make its own people comfortable.” Another one I like even more by Walt Whitman (from The Land) says, “O lands! O all so dear to me—what you are, I become part of that, whatever it is.” You’ve just gotta do it! If I didn’t conform to the ways of the people I lived with in Uganda, then my life would be a heck of a lot harder. SO you can imagine how disappointed I was in myself to eat a Subway sandwich…but when I smelled that yummy bread baking and I bit into that Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki with warm parmesan bread, I didn’t feel so bad anymore=) Don’t judge.

I mostly believe in living simply though. I hate waste, and think a lot of things about Dubai are excessive. I mean, at the airport bathroom, when one person left the stall, an employee would run in front of the next person in line to wipe down the toilet and turn the heater on for the seat. Now…as nice as that was, is that really necessary? Wouldn’t we all survive without the toilet wiper woman and toasty buns for 10 seconds? I think so. I struggled with it all really. To come from where I’ve been living and to see the extreme poverty that I see on a daily basis and then to see so much in excess in the same day was a bit disturbing. I imagined what the girls I work with might think of it all. They probably wouldn’t believe it if I told them about it. How do you explain that there’s a restaurant under the water where people watch sea creatures swim by their dinner table and that they spend more money on that single meal than a typical Ugandan makes in an entire year. On second thought, I don’t think I’ll tell them about it at all.

It’s okay to indulge every once in a while and as a matter of fact, God even wants us to. He wants us to enjoy life. (Note: I’d like to insert the perfect biblical verse here but i don’t have my Bible with me and can’t remember where it is so you’ll just have to trust me that its in there somewhere). The point is that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty for the things we have, but he also warns us against idolizing possessions. I do not believe that “money is the root of all evil” as the saying goes. What is evil is making money our god. If we are rich (and let me remind you that anyone reading this blog is), then it is because God made us that way, not by any doing of our own. Yes, we may have worked very hard and earned it, but remember who gave you the functioning brain and healthy body to learn and physically do the things you do to get that money. We must hold our possessions lightly and recognize that although they are nice to have, they are not what make us who we are and they certainly are not what God cares about.

Another quote I like says something about when we die, God will not ask us about the fancy car we bought; He will ask us if we used that car to provide transportation to those who needed it. It’s not what you have, but how you use it to share God’s love with others. If you know how to bake really well, invite people over for dinner, make bread for your neighbors or take a pie to the homeless shelter. There are literally countless ways to use your time, talents and treasures with others. Think about how good you felt the last time you benefitted from someone else’s good fortune and generosity. So indulge every now and then, live life to the fullest, and enjoy and all the wonderful things God has given us, and then share those joys and pleasures with others. If you do, I guarantee you will be far happier in the end than if you kept it all to yourself.

I think I’ll go share a Big Mac lunch with a street kid now. Peace.

"Blending in"

A check off my life 'to do' list--riding a camel in the desert!

I realize that the title of this blog site suggests that I would be talking about my business development work here; however, I have not really discussed my projects much at all. To be honest, I don’t even know if my own parents are entirely sure of what my work here involves. Well, I think I’ve mentioned that I’m teaching a business development class to our girls. I’ve created the curriculum that includes important topics for starting and running a business and being financially literate like savings, how to create a business plan, customer service, loans, and how to manage money wisely, among many other topics. Once a week, we meet to discuss and practice these concepts. Two other days of the week, I teach women from the Lukodi community similar topics.

Our young women from ChildVoice range in age from 16 to 26. Most of them have not completed primary school and none of them have attended high school. Their educations were disrupted by the war, and now many of them feel they are too old to ever return. Even though the girls may not be able to get a formal education now, they desire to run small businesses so that their children can have the educational opportunities that they were robbed of.

The girls have made great progress in their lessons so far and after meeting with them to help record their business plans, I am so delighted by their business creativity! If half the young Americans their age had the ideas and ambition that these girls do, we’d have a lot of wealthy teenagers. At home, some people might have capital but lack the bright ideas for a good business. These girls have the bright ideas, but lack the capital. Out of this need came the development of the ChildVoice Loan Program in which the girls would have the opportunity to apply for a microloan (meaning simply, a small loan) to go toward the start-up costs of their small businesses. For as little as $50, one of the girls could have the basic materials needed to start a hair salon in Northern Uganda. I’ve never been one who believes in “hand-outs” for fear of breeding dependency. These are what people in the world of economics would call a “hand-up”—providing an education and other opportunities for someone to improve their situation in life. One difference between a ‘hand up’ and a ‘hand out’ is that the beneficiaries have to work for what they have; it is not simply given to them. In this way, our girls will learn to function in a formal financial system and more importantly, they will become self-sufficient.

The implications for these loans are much further reaching than just an opportunity to have a small business though. They can help provide better healthcare, education, higher gender equality and the revitalization of a whole post-war society. According to a study mentioned on Opportunity International (a Christian microfinance organization), women and girls create more developmental change for each dollar invested in them. As a matter of fact, it says “the gains that women achieve are three times more likely to be invested in their children–providing a powerful generational multiplier that accelerates economic growth.” These young women are among the most vulnerable in Uganda society, but despite their past experiences and present realities, they show resilience and determination to create a better future for their children and their communities.

So, I pray that as the girls prepare to leave the ChildVoice center soon, they leave behind the bad memories of the past and move forward with the knowledge and resources to create that better future for themselves and their children. If you feel like this is something you would like to learn more about or be a part of, here is the link to our project on Global Giving that I just posted (http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/childvoice/). As a lender, you will receive regular updates from the girl whose business you support. Then you can tell your friends you started a business in Uganda! Who knows, maybe they’ll want to help too? 😉

“If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness.” Isaiah 58:10

Betty is baking bread rolls for the bakery training. Many of the girls want to start a bakery when they leave the center.

The girls practicing their hair salon skills.