Monday, July 28, 2014

The Ugandan Marketplace

Upon arrival in Uganda, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to visit an authentic African market. I had always heard it was a place full of life and I had to see for myself what it was all about. On our quest to find the best Kitenge clothe in Gulu town, we were advised by local sources to visit the Kaunda Grounds marketplace. Located along the outskirts of town we had to walk quite some distance to find it.  Once there, we immediately felt immersed in culture as the market was alive with language, movement, and commerce. 

While navigating our way through the maze of people, we were greeted warmly by patrons selling their goods.
There were many fresh fruits and vegetables on display. The skins of these fruits and veggies made the market a very colorful place.  

 We even met Mama Pauline (pictured below), who was selling traditional Acholi baskets, drums, and spears.

 At long last, we reached our destination. We had arrived at the best tailor in Kaunda Grounds.

 Once there the fashion show commenced, as we began to strut our stuff in the beautiful Kitenge garments.

 Ultimately, I’d say we all left as satisfied customers. In the future I hope to visit this wonderful marketplace again!


The Importance of Immersion



            If I’m going to be honest about one of my flaws, I have trouble remembering to think before I speak.  I like to blurt things out and sometimes I really end up regretting it later.  That is exactly the kind of situation I thought I might have been getting myself into my first weekend in Gulu.  While I was completing some community service with the local boxing club as a part of my internship I blurted out that starting the next week I wanted to learn to be a boxer.  Before the words came out of my mouth I hadn’t really thought about what that meant.  It meant training, running, conditioning and a lot of hard work.  I was going to have to immerse myself in boxing if I actually wanted to learn to be successful and I’m certain I didn’t realize that when I made my grand proclamation. 

Now, this concept of immersion…

There isn’t a single study abroad student I know that hasn’t been told they need to “immerse themselves in the culture.”  For the most part, it’s very true advice.  One cannot say they have gained the full experience of living and studying in another country if all they do is sit in their hotel room and Skype their friends at home.  I thought long and hard before my departure about how I would immerse myself and make the most of my Ugandan experience.  I knew I’d eat the food, see the sites, and speak to the locals; on top of classes and my internship that felt like a pretty well rounded experience.  Never, in all of my wildest dreams had I imagined I would be getting sweaty while throwing punches with a bunch of local boxers whose plan is to turn me into the female Mayweather.
Though boxing wasn’t in the original game plan, training with this club, being a part of something outside of school and internship, has been one of the most valuable aspects of my immersion in Ugandan culture.  I have learned vast amounts from these young men about the culture and life in Gulu.  I have learned history, politics, popular culture and more.  I have also learned a great deal about myself, and the importance of stepping outside my comfort zone time and time again.  I look forward to continuing to box with the club and grow as both a student and as an athlete; and although thinking before you speak is usually suggested, not doing so really worked to my advantage in this case.

See you in the ring!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Luck of the Irish

Well another week has come and gone here in the beautiful town of Gulu. Unfortunately, this week was a little bit sad for me because I had to say goodbye to my new found friends from Sligo, Ireland (and Holly from England). Now this isn't one of those soppy posts about how close we got and then they left just too soon. Instead, this is a post dedicated to their drive and determination and absolute love for the children of St. Jude's Children's Home in Gulu. There were six Irish women and one from England volunteering at St. Jude's and instantly I could tell that there was something different about the way they conducted things. They were both culturally savvy and incredibly strong willed. St. Jude's orphanage is a very large operation and often is is easy to get lost in what you are doing but from the first day I was there, they snatched me up and off I went to be much more productive than if I was by myself. Too often, I see volunteers become caught up in the moment and begin to focus everything solely on themselves or the experiences they are having and forget about the true reason they are there. For the Sligo women, this was not a problem. I have never met a group of individuals dedicated entirely to giving to what they are doing but that is exactly what they did. They began with teaching English. Although they only had 3 weeks, they were determined to not only teach the children of the orphanage and primary school English, but they also taught the teachers a program known as Jolly Phonics that is world renown for the ways in which it helps children learn English. They could have patted themselves on the back there and called it quits but they had so much more to do. They also decided that they would take all the children (nearly 450 including the orphanage and the primary school) to Paraa Safari Park. Most of these children had never gone and doubtfully would have ever gotten the opportunity to go to this safari park and see the wild animals that they have only seen in pictures. Through multiple hiccups and bus drivers not wanting to cooperate, the Sligo women succeeded yet again. Okay now they're done right? Wrong. Next, they decided that they would team with surgeons and dentists working in the nearby hospital and they would give all the children, mothers, and staff members a full dental checkup (even extraction!). Through working with the Sligo women, I have learned just how much volunteering is not about always being in the forefront or having a child wrapped around you at all times but how often it is doing things in the background simply because that is what is needed to be done. I can honestly say that even though I go to a school with about 35,000 Volunteers, these are the best I have ever met!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Uplifting Women

My supervisor Dora and I walked to the end of a now familiar road into what was formerly an IDP camp but is now huts rented by Gulu citizens.  The morning fog was still settling behind the thatch roofed huts as we walked into the village, shook off our shoes and ducked to enter through the dusted white lace sheet serving as a door into the small hut where the meeting was being held.  Just over twenty women crowded into the enclosure and the meeting began with a sudden ululation into the air.  I noticed a small mouse scurrying back and forth on the lip of the thatch ceiling.  There were small children popping their faces in the curtain door whispering “muno” and then dissolving into giggles when I acknowledged their calls.  A baby was being passed around the group, each woman coddling and nurturing as if it were her own.

This meeting was for an ‘Uplifting Women’ group held through my internship agency THRIVE Gulu.  This particular group is comprised of widowed, single mothers.  Many are former LRA abductees who returned with children, resulting in difficult reintegration into the community. 

These women have come together to provide mutual support to one another and receive extended support through THRIVE staff.  The group is granted a seed fund by THRIVE in order to start a group savings account from which these single mothers can both contribute (and are expected to weekly) and make withdrawals for emergencies, healthcare and other business investment needs.

The hope is that most of these women are will be able to sustain independence following the duration of this three year group.  The group should become progressively independent over the course of the program, able to manage their own bank account and personal savings.  The group is then able to decide how they would like to use their money in order to sustain economic stability for members.  This group decided to invest in a goat for each member to enable these women to breed goats. Members may choose to give kid goats to another needy member of the community outside of the group.  If each group member is able to do this with offspring from their goat, sustainable change and prosperity can be spread.  This is a lofty goal, yet THRIVE is inspiring groups to make it happen.

I was welcomed into this group with dozens of “apwoyo”s, handshakes and smiles from faces beautifully weathered by hardship and stories untold.  I was incredibly moved when these women, who are so desperately in need, offered to give me food and clothing.  I am continuously and overwhelmingly impressed with the generous, kind and resilient spirit of the people that I have met in Gulu.  I feel honored to be able to share time and space with these women, share their story, give what I can, and ultimately take away lessons and memories for which words cannot do justice.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Our Time at TAKS

As I walked up to TAKS Art Centre on the first day of class, the venue for the lecture portion of the course, I was immediately intrigued. The place seemed to radiate creativity and ingenuity without even setting foot inside the building. The first thing I saw was a very detailed and impressive portrait of Nelson Mandela on the front of the white building. I knew without question that TAKS Art Centre's philosophy and beliefs would closely mirror those of Mandela. Graffiti with Acholi words like “kuc” meaning peace and were sprayed upon the long brick wall that bordered the side of the property.


We made our way inside and were welcomed by the very passionate and charismatic potter and TAKS owner, David Odwar. He gave us a tour of the TAKS building and community while explaining to us all the resources and activities that TAKS provides for the community. The centre equips the community by offering access to computers, a cafè, a performance stage, a small shop were local artists sell their artwork, and most importantly a space where art and sport are encouraged.


Over the course of a week and a half my peers and I have gotten the chance to witness some amazing things going on at TAKS. Eric, a graduate of Gulu University, is head of the dance club there. Everyday after school hours youth from the community have the opportunity to express themselves through dance.



Very recently I got the opportunity to meet Dennis who is head of the boxing team at TAKS. Kirsten, my fellow classmate, and I watched a regular boxing practice. They practice almost everyday with youth from the community who are interested in learning how to box and being a part of a team.


I speak not only for myself but for my peers in saying that TAKS has and continues to be an important part of our experience here in Gulu. We have made countless friends here and continue to see illustrations of the strength and potential that Gulu possesses.

First Day of Work

              The first day I went to my internship at the Center for Reparations and Rehabilitation I was extremely nervous. I had never worked in an office before, and now my first time was going to be in northern Uganda. These nerves were mixed with a level of excitement. I would be working with a local organization to help right the wrongs of the land wranglers, and I would also be working with Sex and Gender Based Violence victims; I could think of no better way to spend my four weeks.
                I arose early in the morning to take a van from my hotel to where I would be working for the next four weeks. As I looked out the window to become familiar with my future route, I saw the dusty road and the large market of tailors, fish, and shoes. It was really dawning on me that this was going to be a truly unique experience.
                We pulled up to a small office with a group of men and women chatting on the porch. I stepped out of the van to meet my new co-workers. The first man I met was on the larger side and had an infectious smile from ear to ear. His name was Thomas. I did not know it at the time, but Thomas would be one of my best pals at the CRR; his continual jokes coupled with his expertise on his work make him a joy to work with. I continued with my introductions and was whisked around the office as I got the entire tour. I met people by the names of Gloria, Emmanuel, and Max and every single one was Ugandan.
                At first I was worried about working with only Ugandans. There were so many foreseeable issues including language and cultural barriers, but now as I sit at my desk in the psycho-social department I am glad that it is this way. I feel like I would have been robbed of the entire experience if it was any other way. Sometimes when I am working in the office I do feel like a complete foreigner though, but then Thomas pops his head in with a big smile, and suddenly I feel right at home.

The Road to Kitgum

Early this Saturday morning I made my way down to Uchumi, meeting my ACTV co-workers with smiles and well-wishes. After a brief trip inside the store for breakfast food, we were on our way to Kitgum, a small town about two and half hours north of Gulu town.
Our trip was prompted by the death of the mother-in-law of ACTV’s resident doctor, Dr. Judith. It occurred a few days prior to my arrival, and on my first day the staff held a meeting where they collectively decided to drive together to attend the funeral to support Dr. Judith and her family. In a show of solidarity and sympathy for Dr. Judith, whom at that point I had never met, I decided to accompany the rest of the office on the trip.
With nine of us packed into the van I was fortunate enough to get a window seat and spent the large majority of the drive staring out at Uganda’s countryside, contentedly listening to the rapid-fire Acholi being laughed out by my companions. It was a pale, brightly lit morning. As we drove the distant hills slowly solidified only to be followed by more of the same, the continuous pattern of replacement making the road seem endless.
A few hours later we turned off the main road onto a thin driveway which took us to the site of the funeral. There were about four hundred people in attendance, all of whom were seated under nine tents shaped into in a large circle around the family, who were in turn seated across from the place where she was to be buried.
The ceremony was long by American standards, lasting about six hours from start to finish, and included a few unexpected events. The first of which was a series of live-spirited dances. I asked Gloria, my fellow co-worker, if dancing at funerals was common, and she informed me that it all depends on who has died. Since the woman lived a long, full life, they were celebrating her life in addition to mourning her passing. Gloria told me that when people die young it’s a different story. Funerals for the young are much more somber affairs, filled with much crying and grieving. However, for a life well-lived, it was only right that they celebrate her, for her life and for the impressive legacy she left behind.
The funeral was beautiful and appropriately reverent, the woman in question had had eleven highly successful children, many of whom got up and spoke a few words about their mother. There was prayer, there were hymns, there was enough food to feed a small army; all in all, the ceremony held my attention and my respect. It was a beautiful service for a woman who was obviously well loved, and I am grateful to have gotten the opportunity to attend.