Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Introduction to Uganda for 'Rookies'

This post is for you, if you are planning to visit Uganda to do charity and/or religious work for the first time and have no clue what you are getting into. Pay close attention, especially if you've never been camping or hated it when you did,

Packing: To be the most useful, be darn sure to pack to the maximum weight allowed for travel and figure on getting back with just your personal clothes (and normally not even with all of those). Be sure to consult with trip veterans on what to take to help. And pack a jacket, unless you are going in the hottest part of the year; it actually does get cool enough for them, especially after rain. One of the biggest requests I get from the orphanages is for sweatshirts and jackets. If nothing else, throw in nice used clothing (I generally use such as packing material for other things). Almost everywhere dealing with kids can make use of over-the counter medicines (cough and cold, asthma, pain relievers, antibiotic ointments, etc.). Pens, pencils, hand-cranked flashlights (torches, they call them), art supplies, calculators, etc. are useful. Even your now-empty suitcases are highly useful; plan to leave all but what you need to get back home. But, whatever you do, do not show up without being ‘fully loaded’ and ready to work.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Personal Hygiene: You are in for some significant culture shock. First: finding a standard flush toilet in Uganda (outside of the downtown Kampala area) is rare. Underground plumbing and running water doesn’t exist in 98% of the country. If you are lucky, you’ll have access to a latrine (often quite smelly) with a seat. However, the majority of the facilities are slit latrines with nothing to sit on; you squat and aim at a slit normally 8 inches by 24 inches. Bathing without plumbing is with a big plastic pan and a jerry can full of water; only if you’re lucky will the water be heated. Washing clothes is always by hand, using a type of bar soap; I personally have never seen a standard washing machine in all of Uganda. Energy is way too precious to waste when labor is that cheap. Washing of hands is also done out of jerry cans as well. Ugandans are an amazingly clean people, given the conditions, but the environment is hardly to Western standards. And a big bottle of hand sanitizer just won’t change that (and will drop you from the ‘Aid worker’ class to the ‘safari’ class real quickly).

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Mother Nature: There are bugs; lots of them, and you will get bit. If you can’t live with Mother Nature, please do not go to Uganda. The mosquitoes are probably no more prevalent than in Houston, Texas in the summer (plentiful enough); it’s just that the ones in Uganda have a far higher percentage of disease-carriers. Malaria is more common than the flu there; do NOT forget to take your medication, since it is a far more serious disease for the typical Western than the Ugandans (Malaria alone kills tens of thousands of Ugandans every year). However, I have actually met one Norwegian who has never taken malarial medication for several years and never come down with it (a natural immunity). Then there is yellow fever; be sure you are vaccinated for it. The rest are rare enough events that- if you use your mosquito netting and common sense- you should be fine. Proper control is possible; at my favorite bed and breakfast, I have had a total of two mosquito bites in my 15 days or so of living there in two trips.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Health: If you suffer allergies or other conditions requiring medication, be sure to bring lots of everything you could possibly need for them; I also suggest packing a little bit of benedryl, in case you find some new ones. One volunteer developed a serious peanut allergy while there (it could have as easily happened in the States); if I hadn’t brought benedryl for the orphanage clinic (which I didn’t my first trip), she could have been in serious trouble. If you are bothered by air pollution, you will suffer tremendously in Kampala; half of all vehicles on the phenomenally crowded roads belch visible smoke. This mixes from wood fire smoke from cooking and brick making, along with trash-burning smoke.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Travel is pure unorganized chaos in Kampala; you will see some of the most frightening traffic on earth (monthly traffic fatalities in Kampala typically are in the 150-200 range). The number of people per vehicle is higher than anywhere on earth. Boda Bodas are motor scooter taxis that weave through the tightest of traffic with heart-sopping maneuvers; cheap and often the fastest way around. Regular taxis are 14 passenger vans (often with 18 aboard). ‘Specials’ are the Western concept of taxis- normally hired for a day- and are far less common. There are no street signs to help you here and getting around will normally require a guide of some sort. Outside of Kampala, dirt ‘roads’ are the norm; normally these are closer to jeep trails than roads, since rain runoff drainage systems are limited.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Food: Ugandan food is normally very starch heavy and bland. Rice, beans and matoke (a very bland banana fruit, normally steamed). Fruit is plentiful and the pineapple is the best on the planet. Chicken cost twice what beef does; the taste of the beef is somewhat different. Fish (talopia) is also available.

Going as a church worker?
Let a secular worker (who highly respects your work) ask a favor of you; go there and plan to put in as much effort for the body as the soul; more would be better yet. Ugandans are- for the most part- a highly religious people; many will know more hymns than you do, and in multiple languages. But they need far more physical than spiritual support. Bring the bible; but also the mosquito nets. Personally, I just wish they could spend just a fraction as much time in health and agricultural pursuits as they do in Biblical pursuits; living longer and healthier makes for even better parishioners.

Prices: I’ll try to update this section regularly.
Current exchange rate fluctuates between 1,600 and 1,700 Ugandan Shillings to the dollar. Generally, you cannot get Ugandan currency in Foreign exchange locations outside of Uganda; in Kampala, I normally got the best rates at the Grand Imperial Hotel.

Why Go?

Now that I have you terrified, you are probably wondering why anyone would ever want to go? Simple; the inconveniences listed above are infinitesimally small compared to what you will get out of it. After going, I only wonder how long it will take me to rebuild the resources to get back. If I had the money and did not have family commitments that prevent it, I would never leave. Because in all of those conditions I have listed are some of the greatest kids on the face of the planet, kids that- even with my limited resources- I can help a great deal. Never will you feel that you are worth more as a human being than you will there in Uganda. Never will you feel as welcome as the kids will make you. If you aren’t moved by what you find there, you are indeed a cactus, incapable of feeling anything.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Kristin is a 40-year-old Norwegian consultant I had the great fortune of meeting at Visitor's Village. The rest of the entry that used to be here is now gone, because I got many things wrong as a tired idiot, memory obviously muddled by a low point in the rollercoaster that is my current life. She will always have my sincerest apologies and my kindest thoughts; I let my exhaustion, blinding concern for my son and his current and future surgeries, and my basic stupidity say and post things I never should have.

Visitor’s Village and Host Emmanuel

Emmanuel’s bed and breakfast is called Visitor’s Village and will always be my preferred residence in Kampala. I won’t always have the resources to stay there; while not overly pricey, it requires transport to get to the office and/or the Kiwanga orphanage. When Kiwanga gets it’s visitor’s rooms squared away, that will be my normal home to save money.

But Emmanul’s is worth every penny. He is an exceptionally gracious host and a good friend. He is very accommodating to all who come; sometimes difficult, because the craziness of volunteers, their schedules, and sometimes their culture shock makes it hard on such a host. But talking to Emmanuel is always like talking to an old friend, and he has the patience of Job with zany Mzungus (some of his guests are definitely not zany, like Kristin here).

Visitor’s Village has been a labor of love for Emmanual for 15 years; it is a phenomenally peaceful refuge from the insanity that is Kampala, with lush vegetation and a vast array of beautiful birds living in the trees. The birds are your melodious 6:30am alarm clock every morning (if you are a light sleeper like I am). Breakfast (omelets, toast, fresh fruit) is normally served on the terrace of each of the small units and is a very pleasant and relaxing way to start the morning (especially if joined by some of the great guests there).

The rooms themselves are quite comfortable and I have far less problem with mosquitoes there - despite the vegetation- than anywhere else in Uganda. With the seating areas of the larger suites, along with the small terraces, Visitor’s Village has proven to be an ideal place to have small gatherings of family and friends for a quiet time of it. The only downside is that it is too far from Kiwanga and the tasks at hand.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Fantastic 4: Long-Haul Volunteers

I don’t think there are enough good things to say about the group of volunteers shown above; right to left: Sarah Cowan, Cassie and her sister Talitha, and Cassie’s boyfriend Tim. People like this, their attitude toward life and faith, and their willingness to work and sacrifice, all are reasons to really have hope for humanity. May I earn half the good deed points in my entire life that this crew will just this summer!
Talitha is the real veteran in all of this and great, but occasionally the overly practical side of me might disagree with her focus. Natural differences between the young and religious, and the seasoned (old) and secular (cynical). She’s the planner and- with the $10k they’d raised for their work- she’ll make it do great things. Cassie obviously got tired of my mouth- rightfully so- but overcame that somewhat. She is very pretty and dedicated and probably not taken to sitting by silently when she disagrees. Tim is a real champ and proved to be far more valuable as a rookie than I did; he'd done underwater construction before and pitched right in with energy I wish I still had. I’m hoping he becomes the confidant of some of the older boys like I have for some of the older girls. It is a real need there.
I think Talitha felt somewhat uncomfortable in terms of directing me to some of the work they had planned; I should have figured out a way to resolve that. I’m sure most older types would be uncomfortable taking direction or a gently (or not so gentle) prodding from somebody of her youth but I wouldn’t. And, Talitha, if you’re reading this, remember; a verbal kick to my posterior is sometimes appropriate. Do not be afraid to apply it
Sarah Cowan is a Peace Corps volunteer and there for the very long haul; absolutely wonderful young lady and I massively admire her dedication and fearlessness. She does a tremendous number of home visits, where you really find out the needs. I was able to supply her with the resources for an AIDs testing day- now put off until October, due to a snafu with the Children of Uganda office. Amazing how much good $100 will do.

Rural AIDs Awareness Progam in Kyebe

The AIDS awareness program was fascinating, as was really getting out in the ‘sticks’. Getting there involved 90 minutes on a ‘road’ that would barely pass as a jeep trail, passing many miles without seeing any habitation of any kind. I swear most of the younger kids there had never seen a Mzungu; at least not one older, bald and bearded. They would just stand and stare.

The show ended up being 2 hours late (Africa time) so we waited quite awhile, part of which was spent in practical discussion with Vincent on the AIDs problem locally. Later, a pack of kids- obviously just let out of Primary- trooped by and sat in the shade of a tree about 50 yards away. They just sat there, staring at me for minutes on end, not saying anything. Figuring I was supposed to do something, I just jumped up with a shout; the whole group took off like lightning bolts, two of them running like they wouldn’t stop until dark. The rest peeked around the corner and drifted back; I got up- causing them to scatter again- and walked over to where they’d been sitting in the shade, sat down and waited. Finally, some were brave enough to return and sit down; never within touching reach and they had great fun trying to push each other within range, figuring I’d grab them and devour them whole, I guess. No English among there, so trying charades a bit, then got up and left them; didn’t eat a single one of them, which probably a surprise to them. Same pack of kids showed up at the performance and, after it was done, spent a half hour staring at me as I waited in the car. I tried to be entertaining.

When the program people did finally arrive on the back of a truck playing drums, they ‘Pied Piper’ed the entire village to the parking lot that they set up for the show; about 20 performers in all. I was there to shoot film for Vincent, so I tried to find a good position to do so. I ended up standing on a refuse pile behind some of the audience. The villagers kept looking back at me, wondering what the Mzungu was up to. I would just hoist up the camera as say in a baritone ‘I’m the cameraman.” (Anyone who saw the recent movie ‘Blood Diamond’ would understand the humor in that.)

The show involved some singing, a few short lectures, some dancing, and a long morality play, followed by a Q&A session. All in Lugandan, so I had little clue of what was going on. The morality play was- until the end- very humorous and entertaining, with a sobering moral at the end about dangerous behaviors. The length of time of the Q&A was a positive sign, a lot of it about bringing the show to other areas and how useful it was. This particular village was the epicenter of the AIDs epidemic in Uganda and had been devastated; the message resonated with these people. I kicked in 20,000 shillings to the group (things were getting tight for me by that time) as a tip, for sodas, or whatever. They do a great job.

Vincent reminds me that I should mention all of the fine organizations supporting his excellent work; they include USAID, PEPFAR and the Government of Uganda. And, naturally, the Reach The Youth Uganda group, of which Vincent is Team Lead. Note that I have added his link to my link list.

MADEUganda Project, 2007

I had already sent most of my resource (money) on to MADE before I came; it let them repair most of their machinery to keep working. I did bring the final payment for a welder repair, as well as 50 sets of bearings and weightlifter gloves for chair users.

The work with MADE went pretty well, but was a bit depressing. Their new space is so small; they seem to be hanging on by their fingernails. I was (am still am) upset with how long it’s taken to get Winnie the wheelchair that Pat paid for almost 6 month ago, especially with me paying as much as I did to fix their equipment. But it’s pretty apparent times are hard for them.

I was glad to get them the interview with the microfinance people and Kristin. I went first to check things out with Fatuma. While I was there, Winnie got in an extensive discussion with Mohammed, the blind wheel man. I was impressed; he matched Winnie word for word. I wanted to make sure he had his say to others. When Kristen and the others came, the interviews went well with Fatuma, but they never got to Mohammed. I realized this after the fact and arranged to come back and have Winnie do an interview (I told a little fib about this; I told Mohammed that Kristin was the one who caught this oversight and insisted that Winnie and I return. I actually initiated it, but Kristen heartily agreed).

Mohammed is an amazingly thoughtful individual for someone with little formal education and I love the ‘thinker’ picture I got of him. A mechanic and wounded warrior, his view on what needs to be done about the disabled is well worth listening to.

The microfinance people did not necessarily with Kristin did not impress me (hard to, compared to Kristen). During their discussion, I pointed out that they were looking at financing in the wrong way; they shouldn’t consider loaning money directly to a place like MADE, but to the people who need the wheelchairs. The loan should also include vocational training funds. I think the near $400 cost of the chairs likely put them off; it’s the material costs that eat up MADE, I’m afraid. Still, the video of the interviews should be useful.