Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farewell to the "New World"

On arrival at Entebbe airport this year, I was struck by a prominent roadside signboard emblazoned with the words, “Welcome to the New World.”  I recognized the telltale yellow (Y’ello) of Uganda’s (perhaps Africa’s) largest mobile network, MTN.  This marketing idea of a “New World” exercised my mind, particularly as it featured in related slogans, such as “Experience World-class Internet,” and “Join the New World of Better Money” that popped up everywhere, not least on my own phone!
 As you may imagine, as a religion scholar I was intrigued, but not surprised, at the inclusion of a “faith” dimension to this New World.
 I inquired of a few Ugandan youth what the notion of the New World meant to them.  “It means we have entered the modern world,” said one.  But modernization has been occurring in numerous ways over decades in Uganda, I said.  Another opined that it refers to the new possibilities of communicating, networking, and conducting business that did not exist before.  Agreed.  But that New World of connectivity comes at a price.  Airtime is expensive.  Saving up to buy a phone on low wages can take months if not years. Service is unreliable due to congestion from overselling. When you can’t reach someone or he or she can’t reach you by phone, people simply say frustratedly “network.”  To boot, I never knew how much inclement weather could play havoc with the wi-fi signal for downloading your email.   
On the bus ride back down to Entebbe last weekend I mused about another version of this New World, the one our wonderful set of GSSAP students has been exposed to and helped generate during their time in Gulu.  A New World of experiences, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, but above all of Ugandan people who welcomed and inspired us in manifold ways, notwithstanding the many challenges they face in rebuilding their lives and communities in this deeply war-affected area.  No doubt that our students will be staying in touch with their new friends and their teammates via those New World connections, but it is good to know that our life-changing memories will transcend those pesky networks. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goodbye Gulu

I’d been preparing for the day that I would leave Uganda even months before I embarked on this journey.  Although I knew that time would fly here, our departure date still felt too soon.  There was a sense of urgency in the last days - have I picked up all of my clothes from the market? (Have I tied up all the loose ends at work?  Have I been able to say goodbye to everyone?  Have I packed everything?  Do I have enough photos?  Have I completed all of the research that I thought I had so much time to do?)  Days before our departure back to Entebbe, tears were beginning to be shed, hugs were plentiful and promises were being exchanged to stay in touch and celebrate each other’s accomplishments from afar – via the wonder that is social media.

It is bittersweet, leaving Gulu town. I long for many comforts of home and am excited about starting a new school year but will miss the vibrancy, exhilaration, curiosity and ‘live-in-the-moment’ attitude that I have embodied here.  I have worked hard (and sometimes found it easy) to create a life in the short time that I have been here.  I will miss the Potato and (malaria) Pill breakfast every morning, dodging puddles/ruts and sliding within a mud-soaked van into work in the mornings, the endlessly friendly faces and greetings (even shouts of ‘muno!’), deepening friendships, learning a new language, squeals of joy when the power comes on, Sankofa deliveries, commiserating about hardships and joys with friends in the evening, impressive lightning shows, impossibly inexpensive (and delicious) pork joint dinners, sherbet sunsets, tucking into my mosquito net at night and the countless other smells, sounds, tastes and visions that Gulu offers.

Although an incredibly poorly timed illness kept me away from our GSSAP goodbye celebration, one of the women’s empowerment groups that I have co-facilitated in my time here held a goodbye party for me earlier in the week.  I have added a few photos below to share occasion. 

The group served a delicious dinner of rice, millet paste, groundnut paste, chicken and Fanta. 

Then they presented Lucy (the group leader from THRIVE) and me with a brightly colored dress, headscarf and necklace, even a necklace gift to take to my mother back at home.  

Making sure it fits!

Celebration dance.

The finished product!

The lovely ladies and myself.

 I was at a loss for words, and still am, about how to thank each and every person I have met – and even Gulu town – for making this learning experience such a profound one for me.  I hope that I was able to teach as much as I learned, that I listened exponentially more than I spoke, that I shared support and friendship as much as I gained it and that I will hold the unbreakable bonds that have been created/lessons learned here within me as I move along to the next adventure.  Thank you all, apwoyo matek.

Happy Birthday from Gulu, Uganda

A few weeks ago I got to celebrate my nineteenth birthday in Gulu. After we all had finished our internships, a few of my team members and I walked around the marketplace until they took me to Emmy’s house where the rest of team and a few of his family members were waiting. Then suddenly, a few of the girls brought out two birthday cakes for the surprise party everyone had planned for me! I was definitely surprised, but after cake and drinks, I received an even bigger surprise.
Some time back during the trip, I had jokingly mentioned to a few friends that I was expecting a goat to take home as my birthday present. Never in my dreams did I expect to get an actual one for my birthday. While we were enjoying the cakes, a baby goat was carried out like a child and handed to me like a casually wrapped up present with a bow. I was in a state of disbelief, but the situation was too hysterical for me not to laugh. I was taught how to properly hold the goat, Lester or Little Esther, upside down and cradle her under my arm.
Unfortunately she was not mine to keep since she was a rent-a-goat, but I did get to keep her until nine that night. We decided to take her out to dinner at a pork joint close by. We walked Lester around town, which was probably quite a sight, but no one seemed to question it, especially when they let her into the restaurant. I tied her to my chair, and we all enjoyed our pork and cassava while I assured Lester that we were not having her for dinner. Soon it was time for her to go home, and I walked her one last time and said a bittersweet goodbye to my brief friend.

From the surprise party to the surprised goat, it was definitely one of the most interesting birthdays I ever had. It’s a day that I will not ever forget. Thank you to all who made this birthday possible!

Business in Gulu

During my time in Uganda, I got the unique opportunity to intern for two businesses in the Gulu area. Before coming to Uganda I was always curious about the trials and triumphs of doing business in Africa. I am blessed to have interned for both the Gulu Peace Garden Project and Link Printers/Music for Peace.  The most interesting aspect of working with these two organizations is experiencing the challenges they face every day and how they overcome them while still managing to get the job done.
I began my time in Gulu interning with Emmy Wokorach, founder and director of the Gulu Peace Garden Project.  GPGP is dedicated to encouraging urban gardening and the conservation of indigenous plants on the verge of extinction in the community of Gulu. During my time there, we accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time. Our tasks included creating a business plan, a brochure, business cards, and registering the organization as an official business entity with the district. With GPGP I experienced firsthand the trials local entrepreneurs face when trying to start their businesses. This challenge is especially hard considering most banks in the area won’t lend to local entrepreneurs, thus leaving them with limited access to startup capital. All things considered, this doesn’t prevent the local people from trying and eventually succeeding in starting their businesses. This experience gives me great inspiration to become an entrepreneur myself someday.
Next, I also split my time in Gulu interning for Music for Peace/ Link Printers. Music for Peace is an organization dedicated to building artistic and cultural exchanges between conflict areas in Africa. Founded by Jeff and Lindsey Opiyo, MfP is a staple of peace initiatives involving music in the Gulu community. Also attached to MfP is Link Printers, a printing business that supports many of the MfP projects. Here I spent most of my time learning from Jeff Opiyo and shadowing his every move as he taught me the ropes of how a successful business operates in northern Uganda. From Jeff, I learned how to manage employees and a heavy workload, all while dealing with power outages that cripple your business’ productivity. Jeff Opiyo is a business man with uncanny flexibility and patience, and I absolutely admire his determination to make his businesses work.

Overall, I believe the trajectory of my future business success is forever changed for the better because of my experience here in Gulu. I have learned the intangibles of being an entrepreneur and look forward to up starting my own enterprise someday!

Community Outreach in Negri Village

During my time in Gulu I had the opportunity to join the director of my internship, David Odwar, and the TAKS Centre Boxing Club on a community service trip to Negri Village.  We went to Negri to help an elderly couple that has been an important part of the Negri community for many years.  The boxing team helped out by trimming the compound, planting a garden of sweet potatoes, getting water from the borehole, and building a new grass thatched roof for one of their buildings.  It was a wonderful experience!! It was fantastic to be able to join hands and give back to the community not to mention I learned so much about Acholi culture during my time in Negri!
Romano and Ventorina, the couple we went to help in Negri Village.
This is the building the boxers built a new roof for.  It only took them a few short hours and the process was very impressive!

Some of the boys from the boxing club tilled and planted a new garden for Romano and Ventorina.  They planted sweet potatoes which are a relatively low maintenance crop during the rainy season meaning it will be easy for the couple to take care of even in their old age.
The roof is going on the hut!
Mowing the lawn and trimming the bushy compound was another huge part of what the boxing club did while in Negri Village.

The roof is almost finished as the boxers put the many bundles of grass on the frame.

While I wasn't taking photos, the ladies in the village kept me busy by teaching me to cook in the traditional Acholi way, I was very impressed in how the women did it because it was not easy!

The boxing team after a hard days work in Negri!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Traditional wedding celebration

It's our last full day in Uganda and it seems no one is truly ready to go home. It's been an incredible five weeks and I know many of us are just looking for our next opportunity to get back.

For me personally, one of the most interesting things I've done during the program was attend a traditional celebration of a wedding. Thanks to our dear friend Winnie, much of the team was able to attend Sunday and Olive's celebration and I caught some video from the occasion.

Just one of the many memories we've collected in our time here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

From Survivor To Thriver

I briefly touched on my experience with one of the women’s empowerment groups offered through THRIVE Gulu, my internship agency, in my last post.

While the concept of empowerment is a main component of THRIVE’s services, they offer a variety of other group and individual activities designed to assist the communities of Northern Uganda to heal from traumatic events of war, sexual enslavement, extreme poverty and lost opportunities.

THRIVE provides disadvantaged youth with computer skills classes with the hope that graduates of the classes will be able to return to school and/or find employment.  THRIVE also offers yoga therapy, business skills training, “exposure visits” for women in Gulu town (story telling about successful business endeavors), life skills training groups, character development/relationship building groups, recreational activities designed to reduce anxiety/increase group cohesiveness, hygiene and financial management groups, music and dance therapy, mentorship, narrative trauma counseling, and psychoeducation regarding PTSD and other symptoms of trauma.

Dora Alal Single, Program Director, is THRIVE Gulu’s fearless leader.

A glance at one (of eight) of the women's empowerment groups that THRIVE supports.  The three silver bowls shown collect weekly member contributions to the 'group fund', often used to assist with the group member's healthcare expenses or business endeavors.

Chris teaching a computer skills class for disadvantaged youth at THRIVE.

Partner work during yoga therapy aids in the creation of trust and teamwork skills.

Geoffrey (the financial manager) and I showcasing information on THRIVE services.

The meditative element of yoga therapy helps in improve focus and decrease anxiety/depression.

This is another women's empowerment group within the community.  This group included several abduction returnees, widows and single mothers.  Providing treatment through these constructed groups builds a ‘safety net’ support system for these women.  It creates a sense of community and group members learn to take care of one another as well as themselves.  

This proud 'papa' shows off twin offspring of the 'seed goat' that THRIVE provided his family.  Goat rearing can provide a sustainable livelihood for many Ugandan citizens.

THRIVE is providing wonderful and much needed services to communities of northern Uganda.  This agency has grand plans to grow and expand but is currently lacking appropriate funding to carry out its full vision.

For more information on THRIVE or to get involved, please visit their website: