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I cannot believe I am here

May 27, 2011

I do not know where to begin in describing the last seven days. Mike and Margot can attest to the fact that coming to Uganda has felt like a rollercoaster. Actually more than a rollercoaster, because instead of having one crazy short ride, you keep continually being launched into the ride again and again. Sometimes it is slow and peaceful. You can take a look around at the scenery and breathe in some fresh air, but then you get launched back into it all over again. Even though it is not the first thing that has happened to me, I would first like to describe my host mother, Dorothy. Today, she found me thoroughly amusing as she tried to teach me to clean my underwear, and for us Americans who live in the land of luxury, hand washing your underwear is an experience, as is everything else here. I am lucky that she can speak wonderful English, since my Luganda is terrible, but I am learning.
One thing I thoroughly enjoyed today, as I sat down to watch Big Brother Africa (Big Brother but with tons of people from across the continent) we talked about the role of women. She has worked very hard. She is a retired nurse, and she works daily at her veterinary shop in Masaka. Her daughters and son have gone on to work as lawyers, a pharmacist and a nurse in training. She prides herself in the strength of women, and she believes they should participate in government, businesses and healthcare. The sad thing though according to Dorothy is that now many women are becoming the breadwinner and the men are becoming lazy. We talked about why couldn’t both have a career. Her and her husband have had their own careers, so she is trying to teach her sons to work very hard, and not to grow up and let the women take care of them.
Uganda is a crazy place for me. There are no road rules (that I can tell) and for some reason people cannot stop staring at us interns. Little kids run after us calling “Mzungu, Mzungu” which means foreigner.
There is a massive amount of poverty in Uganda. But unlike what many might assume, people seem to just carry on living, making do with what they have. From what I have seen everything just keeps functioning. This would seem quite impossible to most of us back home in America.
So far in only seven days, Mike, Margot and I have visited the Entebbe wildlife center where we got to see lions, giraffes, otters, zebra, crocodiles, warthogs, and CHIMPANZEES. We have nearly been run over by a boda boda, we have crazily tried to walk through the market in a big pack of foreign interns, we have witnessed the making of bark cloth and we have visited a local sustainable farm. Not to mention moving in with our host families, trying to communicate with local Ugandans, and trying to learn so much about a culture in just one week of orientation.
Looking over the past days I have realized the very apparent presence of poverty, but at the same time the immense work that is being done in to help relieve issues, from numerous sources and aspects. Initially I felt judged by people calling after us interns as Mzungus, but then I realized there is a judgment we put on the local people as well. I don’t mean to, but I realize back home there is a stigma against those who suffer from extreme poverty, or a lifestyle like the one here where there is much less material use. So many people in the US say things like, “Oh we can donate money and that will feed a child in Africa,” or “that food you are wasting could feed a whole family in Africa. “It is sad that we make these assumptions because when you actually come here, the culture and lifestyle feels so drastically different from your own lives. A society that has always felt so “other” is now something I am a part of for the summer. I want to lose these judgments. Not in a way where I disregard what I see, but to distance myself from the stigma of poverty, especially in African nations.
We were faced with the challenge the other day to pull together our own personal assets, our experiences, our education, and our creativeness to begin to think about what kind of project we might create while we are here.
The thought of creating a sustainable development project feels incredibly daunting, but I forget that I need to let down all preconceptions, and just participate in this community. I can feel so out of place here, but at the same time I have not felt unwelcome. To create a sustainable project I must really look at what specific problem I can address in the community that I will be working. My organization focuses on empowering women that live out side in the villages of Masaka town. I have all these ideas now, and I think that is what is part of the globe’s problem. We are all ready to tell someone how to fix an issue, but do we always listen to what the actual causes or effects of an issue are?
The other day we learnt the word Munnomukabi. It means a friend in need. When we drop all categorical distinctions, then I think we might really look at what something truly is, and then we will really be able to assess the issue, form a solution, and put it in place, by whatever means available, through the power of the community and ourselves. It is the community that seems to be forgotten a lot of the time, and this is a very apparent issue back in the US as well. We need the work of collaboration and cooperation to find any form of success. I think one of the lessons I hope all of us interns will truly learn this summer is that human beings are all very similar. And even if we feel so foreign to the culture we have submerged ourselves into now, at the end I hope we see the people we invest time with as a just a Munnomukabi.
Being here is opening my eyes. Sometimes I wish to escape in to a world of familiarity and forget where I am, but then there are moments where you cannot believe where you are, and you don’t want to miss a thing. The other day we visited St. Jude’s Sustainable Farm, and I was able to see so much productive and fascinating work. Pictures will follow, but I saw so many indigenous and foreign plant species, two story animal homes, and many piglets. Driving to the farm we were able to see the beautiful landscape of Masaka. The environment here is beautiful. It is completely filled with lush green trees, colorful flowers, so many different kinds of indigenous plant species, and you are most likely are able to always see a goat, cow or chicken in sight. The sun is so warm and bright, and there is so much life going on. Although there are so many difficulties here, there is a sense of enjoyment that I am beginning to witness. At the same time there is so much trash on the ground or burning in piles. There is also a lot of smog from dodgy boda bodas. So the environment can seem utterly gorgeous at times, and then unbelievably polluted.
Being here is half amazing and incredibly challenging. I know I will adjust and I would not want to give up this experience.

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