Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It takes the youth

It takes a village, as Hillary Clinton and many others have claimed, to raise and educate children. Let me turn this around a little: It takes the youth to educate us on the global village we inhabit. This may sound hackneyed, but if you had watched our students in the closing days of our program in Gulu you would also share my renewed sense of interculturalism and internationalism, indeed of volunteerism.

I do not want to play down the profound significance of the lectures we heard for one week at the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies at Gulu University from an impressive array of war survivors, peace-builders, religious leaders, community workers, and humanitarian, human rights, and development experts. Nor would I wish to diminish the richness of the students’ internship experiences in their various host institutions in Gulu Town, whether the local hospital, arts center, government office, education or development NGO, interreligious, sports, or cultural organization. Nor would it be right to underestimate the impact of our excursions into local communities in the region to learn how they were trying to recover from the effects of war and eke out a living for their families.

But it was also under the roof of our downtown hotel, Hotel Kakanyero, that lives were being transformed. Through the friendships that our students forged with the staff in the hotel--whether they worked in the restaurant, the reception, or the laundry--the hotel became a home. Life stories were shared, jokes were exchanged, and before long, when the day’s work was done, there were social outings to local coffee shops, restaurants, and Internet cafés. The young people even joined forces at a popular quiz and social night at a nearby hostelry to constitute the Hotel Kakanyero team! These human interactions, occasioned by a building, reminded me of that wonderful novel about a Cairo apartment building, The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany.

But it was not all about sociality. Our GSSAP students had learned enough from their new friends about their hardships as well as their hopes. They knew that some of them had been abducted and served as child soldiers during the war, that some were war orphans, that others had unpaid medical bills, and that several could not afford to complete their schooling. In next to no time, the students had raised money to purchase shoes, backpacks, and a bicycle, and donated funds to help start a poultry project, pay school fees and medical bills for at least four of the staff. There was also help with email addresses and Facebook accounts, and gifts of clothes and even beloved IPods. The significance of the Mark Twain quote, posted at the TAKS Art Centre that we frequented, “the best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up” was really driven home.

On the final day of departure, there were hugs, tears, and endless photo opportunities. The students were moved by the gifts they received in turn from their Ugandan friends. But it was the letter was pushed into my hand from one of the waiters (with apologies for the spelling) that arguably had the greatest effect: “Your students could make me smile the whole day and night in the course of my duties. I will never have such friends again till they come back to Uganda.” Indeed we will, thanks to GSSAP.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Infected with smiles: my happy ending

My internship in Gulu ended with a bang.

On Friday, Aug. 5, 2011, the TAKS Art Centre hosted the first ever Poet's Night Out, and I had the privilege of watching the success of a dear friend.

During my two weeks working at TAKS, I helped a local young poet named Joseph.

Joseph appeared at the center on my first day and explained his dream for a monthly open-mic night.

He wanted to provide local poets and musicians with a channel to the Gulu community, giving them the exposure and encouragement they need to continue expressing themselves through words and song.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I watched as Joseph's organization savvy brought a variety of characters to the center.

These young artists injected TAKS with vitality and me with inspiration. The Poet's Night Out represented the essential purpose of the TAKS Centre: providing the community with a space for creativity and expression.

The event was a huge success.
The line-up featured poets, break dancers, storytellers and musicians from all different backgrounds, heading completely different directions but meeting for one brief moment at a crossroads.

The Ugandan youth I encountered at TAKS through my work with Joseph have an infectious energy that slapped me across the face.

The jolt was just what I needed, and I discovered something powerful and precious in these young artists: hope.

The name "TAKS" stands for "Through Art Keep Smiling," and my internship there left me grinning so much my cheeks are sore.

Poet's Night Out at the TAKS Art Centre, Gulu

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Putting the "Charm" Back in Charming

I was lucky enough to spend a day with a vendor of local herbs and charms in the Gulu Market. This video provides some examples of the various items available:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

8:30 AM at my Internship

Our trip is winding down, and even though I am excited to come back, I am beginning to realize how much I will miss the town of Gulu. I will particularly miss the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), where I did my internship. ARLPI is an interfaith organization based in the Acholi Sub-region of Northern Uganda that is made up of people from the Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Seventh-Day Adventist traditions, as well as the National Fellowship of Church of Born-again churches. Founded during the middle of the recently-ended civil war in Northern Uganda in 1997, ARLPI has aimed from its inception to promote peace and development through communal dialogue.

In my two short weeks there I was able to experience a lot, but I think that what I will miss most about ARLPI are the morning devotions. Every morning during my internship, I would get up at 7:00, shower, have breakfast, and then walk four blocks to the ARLPI office, generally arriving there around 8. After dropping my stuff at Cooper's office (he's the other American intern, there 'til December, and I had a spare desk in his office while I was at ARLPI), I would wander into the boardroom and sit down to wait for the devotions to start.

I think morning devotions are technically supposed to begin at 8:00, but in practice they never start until 8:30, because most people don't arrive at the boardroom until then. First there is singing ("Good morning Jesus, good morning Lord..."). Then the preacher of the day reads a passage from scripture and gives an interpretation. After the floor opens to anyone else who would like to add their interpretatuon, someone gives a closing prayer, announcement are made, and the workday starts.

What impressed me most about morning devotions was their participatory nature. Everyone at ARLPI gets the chance to lead devotions: the program coordinator, project leaders, office assistants, interns. And everyone gets the chance to comment on what the preacher of the day says. But perhaps most impressively, both Christians and Muslims get the opportunity to preach. To be sure, there are many more Christians than Muslims at ARLPI, and when one of the Muslims lead devotions, the Qur'an is not used. But coming from a state in the U.S. where the building of a mosque can insight hostility, it was a striking experience for me to hear one of the Christian members of ARLPI wish the Muslim community at ARLPI well at the beginning of Ramadan. The Christians at ARLPI would be praying for the Muslims during the season of fasting, he added.

To me, these morning devotions encapsulate ARLPI's philosophy: just as everyone gets the chance to speak at devotions, so does ARLPI encourage peaceful dialogues in which all parties get the chance to speak.

Morning devotions will be one of the many things that I will miss about being in Gulu and Northern Uganda. I am sad to be leaving.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Experiencing Surgery in Uganda

Medicine in Africa: a cringe-inducing sentiment, evoking images of Ebola, malaria, malnutrition and overall misery. Upon telling people that I was going to the surgery ward, they winced and wished me luck. However, after spending two weeks in the surgery ward at the Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, all my initial expectations were blown away. While there certainly are some gruesome aspects and grave illnesses, the surgery ward is compassionate and optimistic.

Due to the lack of supplies, low funding and large volume of patients with severe conditions, I expected bedraggled and terse staff. Conversely, I was warmly welcomed into the hospital by some of the most compassionate and patient doctors, medical officers, and nurses I have ever met. They willingly explained their actions and decision making process when examining patients or performing surgery, allowing me to truly experience medicine. Moreover, they strive to deliver the highest level of care possible, and are delighted when a tibia is re-aligned perfectly, an infected wound finally turns around, and peoples' suffering slowly ebbs away. At the Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, in the surgery ward at least, the staff genuinely loves the process of healing others.

The level of care and sophistication of services floored me. I was told anesthesia was unavailable- "going under" is risky business in North America, never mind Africa. The doctors graciously permitted me to observe "theatre," and the experience was astounding and enlightening. Patients walk into the operating theatre if they are able, observing all the tools that will be used for their procedure. There is indeed anesthesia- Lidocaine is preferred for local anesthesia, spinal blocks for surgery below the waist, and general anesthesia if there is no alternative (eg. for a splenectomy). The surgical instruments are mostly manual, although enough machines (pulse oximiter, oxygen machine) require electricity to make the frequent power outages a serious problem. Improvisations must be made, but largely supplies are available. The surgeons know what they are doing, minimize bleeding and infection, and overall do an excellent job.

While the hospital is free, transport, food and time off work are not, so people put off hospitalization as long as possible. This means that fractures can be a few weeks old, severe burns infected, wounds exacerbated by flesh eating disease. While this complicates treatment significantly, the doctors still do their best to promote optimal recovery. Not everyone makes it, but the death rate is below 2% in the surgery ward and there is a constant effort to improve.

Ultimately I emerged with a completely different perspective than I approached medicine abroad with. The medical system is not in crisis, but in progress, and it still needs a lot of support. I will never forget the kindness of the patients and personnel at the hospital, generously helping me to learn and understand their medicine.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Time is Relative

Ugandan time is different from American time. Dr. Hepner described the attitude here well when she said to me, “In Africa, you are never late as long as you get there.”

American time runs a race, while Ugan

dan time takes a stroll in the park.

It took me a full week of work at the TAKS Art Center to appreciate how easygoing the people of Gulu are.

As a nervous American girl, I made certain to arrive at work fifteen minutes early each day.

At home in the U.S., this is expected. But at TAKS, the staff think I’m insane when I come so early.

The more time I spend here, the more mellow I become. Ugandans have an amazing ability to absorb my stress and leave happiness behind.

The laid-back approach to life rubs off on me like glitter, and I return to the hotel each day from work scintillating.

I want to bottle up this sparkle and take it back with me to ease the overwhelming pressures of academic life.

TAKS has been without power for the past month, but you wouldn’t notice if you paid it a visit. The center operates as though nothing is wrong: they have no choice.

The sweet staff are the most optimistic group of people I have ever had the pleasure to

work with.

David Odwar, the founder of TAKS, is a brilliant ceramicist casually referred to as “Big Boss” by the staff. His pots are incredible, but his genius shows when he brainstorms.

If you present David with a problem, big or small, the deafening sound of his neurons clicking and whirring almost drowns out his voice as he thinks aloud, spitting out solutions faster than a mathematical genius doing multiplication tables.

Stella is the soft-spoken receptionist whose voice sounds sweet and slow like honey dripping from a spoon. She is a skilled jewelry-maker and is patiently teaching me how to roll paper beads.

Pascal runs the art gallery and has the most infectious smile I have ever seen. This small but charming song-writer knows eleven languages and leaves a big impression with his music.

Amos in the computer department has a face shaped like a heart and a heart the size

of Jupiter. He remains smiling even though the lack of power at the center has cost him money and work.

Bubbly Joyce, the artist in charge of the kitchen, is a crate of dynamite. This dazzling dancer sings Christmas songs year-round.

Stephen, the goofy day guard, chatters like an excited squirrel and tells funny stories all day long.

William is the stoic gardener who says little but smiles and waves when I get there every morning.

I still arrive at work early each day, but the habit no longer stems from fear of being fired. I c

ome early because I desperately want to maximize my time at TAKS that is flying by far too fast.

The TAKS Art Centre where I worked my internship provides the community of Gulu with art, internet access, encouragement and space; it is a well-equipped creative haven for artists of all sorts.
Joyce at the TAKS Center smiles as she makes a beaded curtain for the kitchen.

Recycled paper beads made by local women are sold at the TAKS Center art gallery.

Traditional dancers welcome the return of the Acholi paramount chief.

A crowd of children lead the parade as the paramount chief arrived at Ker Kwaro Acholi.

The Gulu rugby team played hard and defeated Lira on Saturday.

Hard Work and Dedication

My Internship


One of my favorite parts of the GSSAP experience so far has been having the opportunity to learn about the daily lives of Northern Ugandans. Getting the chance to enter a person’s home and share food with them has taught me an incredible amount about the lives and struggles of Ugandans in rural areas. I have been afforded the opportunity to visit homes and communities because of my internship with Julia, one of the doctoral students with the program. I have been helping Julia with her research on the healthcare systems in Uganda, and the trips out to the villages have been full of adventure. Especially when it comes to mealtimes. My first real experience with traditional food out in the field was in Lalogi village. I was with Julia’s team at a health center interviewing patients and it was time for a lunch break. So I went down the street into the village with two of the translators, Morris and Jennifer, to pick up some roasted maize for the group. The three of us waited for the corn to be ready and then munched on a piece as we walked back towards the health center. Jennifer left to take the corn back to the rest of the group and Morris asked me if I was still hungry. I said I was so he took me across the street to a small building where a group of women were sitting and chatting outside. He spoke to them for a moment in Luo and then said to me that there was some fish inside that we could eat. Jennifer walked up and joined us inside the dark building and bowls of food were bought out shortly. While I was not sure exactly what I would be eating, I was not expecting an entire fish to be sitting in a bowl of soup in front of me. Jennifer and Morris laughed at my expression and asked if I had eaten with my hands before. While I was thinking, “Oh no, this is going to get messy”, I replied that I had eaten with my hands before but it was my first experience with an entire fish. Morris explained that there was posho (a bread made of ground corn that closely resembles grits) and cassava to scoop up the soup with and that I should start by inserting a couple fingers into the gut of the fish and tearing it in half. I hesitantly started to rip and Morris laughed again (he was already half done with his fish) and told me that I needed to get in there. I was picking out bones, doing my best to avoid the head, and getting a little bit of meat when Jennifer and Morris started laughing hysterically. I looked up to see what was going on and found that they were both looking right at me. I immediately asked what I had done that was so amusing and in between fits of laughter Jennifer managed to say that I ate like a child. Morris started laughing even harder as I looked down at my hands, both of which were covered in bits of food. Once they had calmed down a bit Jennifer explained that only babies who were two or three years old ate like I did. Morris explained that I ate like a rat. I stared laughing at that point and replied that, because I had never learned to eat this kind of traditional food, in this situation I may as well be a child. I was a bit embarrassed, but I felt much better when Morris told me that I would make a great anthropologist because I was willing to try anything. Despite the compliment, it’s safe to say that the next day at lunchtime I ate the bean stew and millet bread with only one hand.