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When I Was A Young Warthog

June 14, 2011

I used to imagine myself on a giant Safari van with an overzealous beige hat surrounded by Nigel Thornberry and his family, as we trekked throughout Africa. This weekend, I was as close to that pre-pubescent dream as possible. Let’s subtract Nigel and the van, replace it with 9 girls, a Toyota corolla and a friendly taxi driver named Nasser, who made me consciously have to remember that my name was Mike and not “my friend” (you can use your own imagine how he said it, I can fill you in at a later date).

Before our epic adventure, I’d like to share a little of my week. Our second week at work (third week in country) was supposed to be finding the gaps in our organization and communities. Adapting to a huge new organization can be daunting at times. TASO has over 8,000 clients and many are deferred from hospitals due to the lack of funding and corruption of the ministry centers. This week I was determined to interview, get into the field and see what the people have to say. When I told my supervisor my intentions, he put me into the field. However, with so little counselors and overload of patients, most of my time was spent driving to far outreach clinics and helping with paperwork. But, as any naïve health student knows, with care comes paperwork. So, I stuck it out. The next day was more of the same except I was able to interview one man who spoke English. Many of the gaps he spoke were common big issue problems that everyone has been describing. Poverty, access to water, access to food, jobs and treatment. The interview went great until he started talking about our new friendship and how he wanted me to give him money to help him start his business. Here’s a new recurring theme. Development is sometimes directly associated with donations. I had to explain that I am working with TASO to address these issues but I would not be able to help him out right then and there. We’re here to help people empower themselves and collaborate, not too flaunt our wealth. During these outreaches I was trying my hardest to find a facilitator for my project, since I am one of around thirty four on placement in TASO. It is quite easy to get lost in the madness. Finally, on Wednesday after waiting and waiting I decided to take some imitative and just find a facilitator. I found myself in the projects department of TASO who mainly work with Heifer International providing sustainable living projects for families and groups affected by HIV/AIDS. I thought, they definitely have a place for me here. Why didn’t I find this department earlier? Because things are not easy like that.

Now, I have a facilitator and some potential ideas. I toy around with an idea that I am hesitant about because of its history as a similar project to other Gettysburg students. Rainwater Tanks. However, these projects are in need, successful are a great opportunity for TASO clients to learn about clean water, working together and empowering others living with HIV/AIDS. In accordance with that project I hope to help initiate group SACCOs or savings accounts that will help them fund maintenance and other income generating projects. Good, great, grand. Now, where is the community? After a half hour of arguing in Luganda about my project (I feel so popular!), they decided they wanted me to perform a needs assessment (interviews, focus groups and all that jazz) on three different communities to gauge information and assess their ideas about such a project. They told me Friday I would be meeting one of these groups. Thursday was heroes’ day in Uganda (similar to Veterans) so the whole day I spent reminiscing about the Power Rangers.

The next day, I was super psyched to meet this community. I dolled up, put on a tie and tried to look “smart”. Coincidentally, Friday was dress down day at TASO so I really looked out of place. As I waited for my colleagues to arrive, I thought about how I am going to connect to my community. I waited three hours patiently trying to not be “the westerner who is always in a rush to get things done”. Then after my polite queue, my facilitator says, “Wait, did you think you were going to the field today? Is that why you look so smart? Silly Mzungu thought he was going to the field!” This was followed by excess laughter by everyone in the entire office. This is where you say “Bammmbiii” (a common expression of empathy). The last time I felt so dorky was when I finally realized how unbecoming my Jewfro© looked in middle school. Such is life. I was frustrated and wanted to punch Africa. I realized at that moment, that I think it was time to call it a day. I made sure that appointments were made for the next Monday and Tuesday and told my facilitator Prossy that I was going to take the afternoon to do some research and truthfully cool down.

We’re all growing through this process. I really do feel like if learned more and applied more in these first few weeks than months in a classroom. And now, as a Medium Aged Warthog I realize that there are some life rules to working with development a foreign environment that they don’t teach at Gettysburg College. Here are some of the rules:

          Sometimes you just need to close your eyes and relax

          Sometimes you just need to pass out

          Sometimes you just need to sit and have a beer

          Sometimes you just need to vent with close friends

          Sometimes you just need to look up and realize that amongst all this new and unfamiliar craziness, the sky is always the same wherever you are

          Finally, sometimes you just need to get away

More rules will develop as time goes on. After convening with the other FSD intern who had equally frustrating weeks, we decided to peace out of Masaka for the weekend and head to the Wild West: Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Later on Friday, a few of the interns decided that since QE was far we would need to find a private hire for the weekend. (Public Transport is an adventure itself. Refer to Kate and Margot’s blogs) Without any numbers available, I went up to a stranger in the local mzungu coffee shop and asked if he knew a taxi. He knew a friend who knew a guy that talked to me on the phone. Somehow I got a number called up the dude, bargained a 7 person van to pick us up at 6:45am. Whole thing sounds a little sketch right? I agree, but it actually worked. And that’s the way things flow here. So I just go with the program and four and a half hours later; I am in one of the largest national parks in Uganda. The landscape of this place is unreal and it looks like The Lion King everywhere. Just arriving was a safari, on our path to the hostel we we’re stopped by a whole bunch of elephants just in the road chillin. Too. Cool. After checking in at our hostel and oozing at the amazing hotel next door, we grab an awesome boat ride on the Kazynga channel that connects Lake Charles and Lake Albert (Bordering the DRC) with views of the high altitude Rwenzori Mountains. Hippos, elephants, hundreds of birds, alligators and a rainstorm all led to some serious oohs and ahhs. The next morning we stepped it up a bit. A few of us jumped in another taxi to go chimpanzee tracking. Imagine, going into basically the rainforest following a man with a cell phone and a machine gun. If you can do that, then you have correctly understood exactly what I did. The hike was intense, but so interesting. The guy knew exactly what he was doing but unfortunately we couldn’t find any chimps. Ya win some you lose some. That what this week was about. After spending too much money and a car ride home listening to the taxis favorite new Ugandan hit, we’re back in Masaka ready for another rollercoaster. So enough about me. Love everyone and miss you all. Please some FedEx me a pizza, I am pretty flexible on compensation.

Cheers,

Mike

**This post is a little outdated, more to come soon! Enjoy the pictures!**

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