Sunday, December 18, 2011

Birthday Blog, White Christmas, Circumcision(?)

Birthday Blog
Today I am 49 – Funny, since in my head, I still feel 30-ish.  I think my mind stopped aging once I hit my 30s. It can’t deny I am an adult, married, and have 2 great sons, but it seems very talented at forgetting I have aged beyond those milestones! (Unfortunately the mirror seems to know exactly how old I am!)
One of my favorite pics of Me!

A wonderful part of life is that you can never predict where it will take you. Four years ago I was celebrating my “half-way to 90” birthday with my beautiful, fit, and inspiring friend Karen. I could not have guessed in 4 years, I would be typing with the aid of a solar lamp, in my house in Uganda while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  The nice thing is that, somehow, I am feeling very happy and up beat with my present situation.

For my Birthday I have received lots of well wishes from near and far – thanks primarily to Facebook. Closer to home, my supervisor & duplex-mate, gave me a lovely new purse and a wooden plaque for my home.
A lovely sentiment !

My new fashion upgrade!

So I am truly feeling the love that surrounds me. A special shout out to Lynn & Gretchen for the nice emails; and Lisa for sending me two separate birthday cards via snail mail – she sent them before thanksgiving to insure they would arrive in time. Obviously she is very organized!

Yesterday I spent 5 hours working in the “garden” (Think fields!).  Most of you know this makes me very happy – then I bagged up 4 kilos of rice to give as Christmas presents to my local buddies here in Koro. I handmade some cards and decorated the plastic bags with “fall leaves” motif Kleenex that some nice person sent in a care package a month ago!  One must improvise in Uganda!

I am growing fond of my outdoor bathing opportunities – I have experienced sunrise bathing, sunset bathing, midday full sun bathing and of course night bathing under the moon.  Only thing left is rain bathing and I don’t think that sounds appealing enough to me yet. But who knows?!
Poem in Honor of my Outdoor Bathing Room – written December 9, 2011                                                           
…outside on a Friday night,
….in the soft gentle twilight,
….in the light of the full moon,
….next to fields of papaya and cabbages,
….under peeping starry skies
….beneath the racing wispy clouds
….while listening to distant African music
….and enjoying far away laughter
…. Smiling that I am here,

A White Christmas on the Bus
Last week I went to Kampala for a Peace Corps Volunteer Advisory Committee Meeting – I am one of 3 reps from my “class”. We are tasked with taking praise and complaints from our classmates to the Peace Corps Staff every 3-4 months. Since we are the freshmen class we basically just attend and share our info while the Junior and senior class reps lead us newbies. However the main point of this section of the blog is to talk about the bus ride I took from Gulu to Kampala.
Public transportation in Uganda is sweaty, crowded, exhausting, and constantly surreal. People transport live chickens, milk, bananas, multiple babies in one seat with mom, and a variety of bus food for the journey.  Music or talk radio is played the entire 6-hour ride, all at the discretion of the driver. Once I watched American music videos from the 1980s play over and over again. I now know that Michael Bolton is revered in Uganda…again who knew?  As is Celine Dion, Phil Collins and other soft rock giants of 3 decades ago. 
However, this bus ride was on December 11 – and it’s Christmas time in Uganda. (Ugandans are VERY religious. All meetings open and close with prayer, Really….no law against that here. ) So our driver popped in a 1 hour CD of American Christmas tunes.  Imagine barreling down Kampala highway – only white person on the bus - listening to White Christmas (it is Sunny & 85 degrees), Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and even Felice Navidad! I have to admit I sang the last one out loud, softly to myself. It was just too funny a situation to remain stoic. I was in the middle seat between 2 Ugandan men – one sleeping and the other talking to a guy in the seat across the aisle. This CD repeated 5 more times over the course of our journey. Now, again, I reiterate – surreal. (Refer back to my earlier blog poem on being in a movie/ documentary/ comedy.)

December 16th was Circumcision Day in Koro
Friday there was a big celebration occurring across the street with loud music, and a public address system. I asked my counterpart if this was a Christmas celebration and she said no – there is a big effort to educate the village about the public health benefits of circumcision and they were having a major celebration while performing them at a reduced rate. We were in the staff room for lunch and this led to a discussion on the pros and cons of getting circumcised. (Refer back to my poem on being in a movie/ documentary/ comedy.) One man vehemently said he was not getting circumcised. His wife was familiar with what he had and she did not want something new to work with. Also he stated that God made him that way, and that way he will stay!  

Update on the Home
My Home is coming along. After 2 months of having no furniture in my sitting room.  I now have a twin sized bed for guests and am expecting a couch/sofa on Monday. Now I will be able to read my kindle in multiple locations and am feeling quite wealthy with my new amenities! Once the furniture is in place my Ugandan Wall Hangings can be hung up and I will be living in high cotton!

Work in Progress
My work is moving along well these days. I have designed a brochure including taking photos of the students & school facilities; I am working with the accountant on next year’s budget; I helped them email the brochure and a new course announcement letter to several hundred NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) to solicit student sponsorship monies, and I am researching potential grants. The school needs to develop other income generating activities because the tuition they charge is approximately 50% of the costs they incur. The challenge is that most don’t seem to worry about this profit & Loss / cash flow challenge. I think this is partially a result of having Aid for the majority of the schools existence. However with the war ending over 5 years ago and the world economy struggling, I don’t think Aid will be available in the same amounts as they have seen in the past.
PLEASE NOTE - I am not interested in getting any monies from my friends, family, or blog stalkers. At this point, I don’t want to be seen as the woman who came with money.  I have explained that I am here as an advisor and to transfer skills and build their capacities. Peace Corps Volunteers don’t bring money – money only lengthens dependency.  However, if the right opportunity arises I will send out a call for your support. Remember I am here until Oct 2013.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyful Divali, Cheerful Kwanza, etc etc
 - whatever works for you I send you my love and support! PEACE - Karla

Saturday, December 3, 2011

“There is no Electricity here – Life is HARD in Uganda”

December 3, 2011
“There is no Electricity here – Life is HARD in Uganda”
I’m Back – Sorry but life here in Africa is non-stop work – as my counterpart said the other day as we sat in our office waiting for electricity to come…which it never did – “There is no Electricity here – Life is HARD in Uganda”. And it is. I cannot adequately convey the challenges people face just to complete the basic tasks of daily life. Nothing can be counted upon, and people have little control over their lives. Water may not be available for days; electricity may or may not come on during any given day – imagine trying to run a business without being able to count on the basics of electricity and water. Then throw in Disease- malaria, AIDS, along with gender inequality and mal nutrition and you will agree - Life is hard here!

Last week our site was out of electricity due to a late electric bill – so even when the power was sporadically available – our school was not able to get on the grid – In addition, salaries here have not been paid since mid-October, and in a staff meeting yesterday the Director said she does not see any hope for funds to pay Nov, Dec and most likely Jan salaries. From what I know of their cash flow projections, I can’t see how they will meet Feb salaries…but this is too far in advance for them to think about now.  Needless to say this adds to the difficulty of the already challenging life of our staff. I feel guilty for receiving my Peace Corps Stipend as they all struggle to feed their families.

Millions Fetching Water – My Observations
There are millions of people fetching water from down the road, up the hill, across the fields.
Their day begins with outdoor latrines or the bush, then bathing outside with cold water – if there is enough water for bathing. They wash dishes, clothes, themselves – all outside in plastic basins, using the same bar of soap.
They eat one or two staple foods - daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, …for a lifetime…mostly a bland starch with beans. A tomato or carrot is a celebration, a feast to mark a birth or the beginning of the dry season.
Bugs are part of their everyday life – inside, outside, everywhere. They barely notice them unless they are poisonous.
They can’t read, write, drive, or go to a bank.
Disease is everywhere, mal nutrition a given, death part of every week. They have lost parents, children and siblings to disease or war or both. Purchasing a coffin is a common activity.
Justice and fairness are not concepts to reflect on. They know that these notions have no meaning where they live.
They don’t hurry or fret. They are powerless to affect the majority of their lives. If you aren’t born to wealth or privilege it is impossible to attain. Things are as they are, life is what it is.
Waiting is part of life – life is lived in the waiting periods. Laughing, storytelling, gossip, news is shared as people wait for the line to move, the electricity to come, the rains to fall, the sun to rise and set.

Thanksgiving in GULU with PCV’s
Given the observations above, I am truly grateful for all the blessings large and small in my life. So turn on your tap in the kitchen and praise God! ...oh and be thankful for a drain too! I wish I had one in my Ugandan house.

Well, I finally had some real American R&R to help shed some of the stress and drudgery of the above mentioned everyday challenges in Uganda. We were given a 4-day weekend for Thanksgiving and being resourceful talented PCVs we organized quite a fun weekend.
It began with my weekly bike ride to Gulu town. Unfortunately it was drizzling as I left my school and shortly thereafter it picked up strength. So I had to seek shelter in a Boda Stage (think covered motorcycle taxi stand). It was actually a fun cultural experience as I chatted with one Ugandan man who recognized me from our Open Day with the German Ambassador. I practiced my pitiful Acholi language with the Boda Drivers (Motorcycle taxi drivers) and they smiled at my broken 3-year old abilities, but appreciated my effort. Very few foreigners make the effort to speak the language.

When the rain let up I forged ahead and arrived in Gulu with Mud flying everywhere – from my bike tires, from the truck & car tires, …from every direction all I could see was mud – much of it  on me. Good thing I had a backpack with a change of clothes. I went to the bank to withdraw my PC stipend for Dec and had to wait 30 minutes for the machines to come back on. Then off I pedaled to another PCV’s house to cook 3 packages of brownies – my contribution to the feast – thanks to all my supporters in the USofA.  

Baking is a challenge in Uganda – not many ovens – I have not seen one yet – though I hear rich people have them in Kampala. SO I made Stove Top Browning Scramble. Imagine brownie mix continuously scrambled in a skillet until it turns somewhat solid. I scraped the brownie scramble into a pan and then molded it into brownie bricks which could be cut into pieces. Yes – I felt a great sense of Pride for my accomplishment. It took over 2.5 hours by the way! There were people cooking all over Gulu that day. Iwas with a group cooking a turkey on an outdoor stove with a huge pot placed over the turkey – it turned out very well and I, like most of us, was very surprised!

We carted our items to an Ethiopian restaurant that lent us their facilities for the day – not much biz on Thursday afternoon on Thanksgiving in Uganda. I think there were 50-60 people there mostly PCVs but also other Americans that needed a place to celebrate the American Holiday. It was my first away from Family and I missed my parents, sibs, kids, husband and friends very much but this was a good alternative!
Beer Basting the Turkey! Sorry - No pics of my Brownie Bricks!

Murchison Falls Safari
Friday 12 of us woke at 4am for a 3 hour ride to Murchison Falls National Park to see Animals and ride a boat to the falls where the Nile river gets compressed into a narrow  gorge and then plummets down over a cliff to continue its trek towards Egypt. Unfortunately one of our vehicles broke down 1.5 hours into the trip and we sat by the roadside for a couple hours waiting for a replacement – so we missed the morning game drive and our best chance to see lions. However the day turned out wonderfully and we all enjoyed seeing the giraffes, water buffalo, wart hogs, Ugandan Kobs & Crested Cranes, elephants, baboons, monkeys, crocodiles, hippos, and a gazillion birds! The boat ride was relaxing and the falls a nice site – though nothing like Niagara. We all wished we were staying the night a t the Paraa Safari Lodge – it was luxurious with a pool overlooking the Nile and outdoor bar and lovely rooms and dining facilities – nothing like my home in Koro!
On top of our safari vehicle

Its Mister Baboon to you!

Elephants were all around us near the Nile River

Murchison Falls in the background

Perma-gardening Workshop
My site was selected to host the Northern Uganda Peace Corps training for Perma-gardening; which is organic gardening using locally available resources and materials to create long term sustainable family gardens that provide increased yields by planting complimentary plants together and utilizing varying plant heights to get the most out of smaller family plots. The purpose is to help improve nutrition and food security here in Uganda. So 37 people – a volunteer and their counterparts – came to Koro to learn the process over 2 days. We learned some in classroom settings and a whole lot in the fields doing the practical work. (KICKED MY BUTT!) As I love gardening, I really enjoyed it; and now I am caring for the 9 plots and the Keyhole garden constructed near my house over the 2 day workshop! 

Making and animal barriers out of local materials

Farmer Karla

my fellow co-workers digging beds

Keyhole garden - cent3er for kitchen compost which leeches nutrients into beds 

I love and miss all of you guys - the important things get very real here! So - please treasure your family and friends; and harmony in your homes; as your heart will be with what you treasure!
PEACE - Karla