In April 2009, I traveled to Kampala, Uganda to volunteer abroad with Project Have Hope. During my two week stay I interviewed women of the Acholi Quarter to learn more about their displacement from North Uganda, offered knitting and crochet classes, and helped with urban container gardening. Below are photos, videos, and few written reflections of my trip.
April 5, 2009 – Arrival, Muzungu, how are you?
An exciting but exhausting day. It’s now past midnight in Uganda (about 5 PM or so in Boston) and I have been traveling for just over 20 hours. The longest travel day thus far in my life. After spending the past 4 years as a bi-weekly business traveler, I can say the entire trans-Atlantic adventure went perfectly. Each transfer from plane, to train, to automobile was flawless and on time, impressive, almost shocking.
Even with the near travel perfection, I do feel in a daze and disorientated. Everything is familiar, baggage claim, airport-hotel shuttle service, hotel check-in, but each is so different. The cars, the people, the roads, and the city lights look nothing like any American city. Besides that variation in what I am accustomed to, the air distracts me. It’s heavy from the humidity and it hits you the moment you step of the plane like steam when you remove the cover from a boiling pot of water. It’s thickness seems full of life, you can smell the vegetation and dust. The distinct aroma reminds you that you are somewhere else, and that’s before you factor in all the chirps, squeals, and buzzes that serve as it’s soundtrack.
As I sit beneath my mosquito net writing, I wish my fascination had been drawn more to practical logistics, like the exact location of the bathrooms as opposed to the sights and sounds of the night. The sheer volume of the animal noises outside has me nervous about crossing the courtyard to find the toilet, so I wait til day break.
April 6, 2009 – Charapita and the chickens
I woke up this AM to the sound of bubbling hens. Once the sun rose, I ventured out to find the bathrooms and discovered the chicken coop is located next to my room, which is why these chicks managed to wake me up. (This was also when I realized there was nothing to ‘fear’ in the courtyard outside my room, meaning I wouldn’t have to ‘hold-it’ each night until the sun came up.)
I opted for a ‘spot-cleansing’ shower since both water pressure and hot water were lacking. Passed the resident goats on the way to breakfast where I contemplated why the egg yolks weren’t as yellow as they are at home. The 5 of us reviewed the trip and work itinerary for the next 8 days. At about 10 AM we set out for the Acholi Quarter to meet the Project Have Hope women and this was when I encountered Boda-Boda’s, Kampala preferred method of transportation. Instead of a typical taxi ride, which could leave you stuck in traffic for hours, you hop on motorcycles whose drivers take you anywhere you’d like to go for cents. I stood there, helmet in hand, terrified but playing it cool. I had never been on a motorcycle before and my driver recognized this 2 minutes into the ride. He casually asks if this is my first boda ride, I reply yes, asking how he knew, to which he says “your hand hurts my shoulder.” I apologize, release my death grip, and attempt to explain that I am holding on for dear life mainly because I can’t get the thoughts of being flown from the bike or side swiping a car or person out of my head. He simply says, “You’ll be fine” and laughs as we weave in and out of traffic.
100 handshakes and a host with the best hair
I dismount the boda-boda in the Acholi Quarter after a near bike stalling hill climb happy to have both feet on solid ground. I attempt to take in the sights and sounds of my new environment, the children playing, the goats grazing, and a very large blue sky, before I am whisked away by a very loud and joyous welcoming committee. Sixty or so handshakes are followed by song and dance celebrating our safe arrival. At the same time we are introduced to our hosts for the week. Karen the Project Have Hope founder has paired each of the volunteers with a PHH member who will serve as our guide and translator for the week. This is about the time we realize my host, Santina, is not present. My initial thought is perhaps she doesn’t want to spend a week with Jean, aka the Muzungu woman with a man’s name (explanation to follow). This however is not the case and I have my first experience with how fast word in the Quarter travels. Within minutes we learn Santina is at the beauty salon, getting her hair done. A woman after my own heart, Santina arrives fashionably late and looking great. We hit it off immediately. The volunteer posse splits ways to tour the Quarter with our hosts.
Santina and I walk the Quarter for nearly an hour, up hill winding through narrow corridors, stepping over drainage ditches, down hill ducking under clotheslines. I am introduced to another 60 or so people and feel as though I am running for office with all the smiles, laughs, waves, and handshakes. I soon find out, laughing is not a typical Acholi greeting and my laughing introductions are caused by the contrast between myself and ‘the other’ Jeanne-Marie known around the village, a Belgium man who recently visited.. Mid-handshake I am asked “but are you a man?” to which I say, “well, no I’m not, why?” which causes Santina to let out the first of many whole-hearted laughs. As we continue walking, heading towards the Stone Quarry and Santina explains Jeanne-Marie is a man’s name, which is why everyone laughed when they first met me. “It’s quite obvious you are not a man,” she says “And they do not understand why your mother would give you a man’s name.” I smile as I say, yes-good question.
We arrive at the Stone Quarry, which is how many people in the village make a living. The work is beyond what I as an American know as labor intensive. The large pieces of stone are removed by men chipping away with only a sledge hammer, the stone is carried up the quarry walls by men and children, where it’s left in piles to be crushed into smaller pieces usually by women and children. I later find out while completing member profiles that working in the Stone Quarry is a hard life. The work is time and effort consuming and produces very little finished product, meaning it pays very little in comparison to other forms of livelihood in the area. People would prefer not to work in the Stone Quarry, but for many it’s their only employment option.
We end our tour at Santina’s home. Like most homes in the Acholi Quarter it’s a single room house with a dirt floor, a charcoal cooker, and 1 small window. A single sheet separates the front seating area from the sleeping quarters and it’s incredibly tidy. I meet her 3-year-old son Tiboni, who has been at home while we were on our tour. We begin to talk about family, which easily transitions, into completing my first PHH member profile. I hear my first of many stories that differ in specific details, but have the same general theme. Santina migrated to the Acholi Quarter about 10 years ago. Originally from Sudan she left her home for Kitgum in Northern Uganda after her family was murdered and her village burned. After the rebels of the LRA arrived in Kitgum she along with her husband traveled about 300 miles south to the Acholi Quarter where they are remained for the past 10 years. The daily living here is difficult but they did not fear for their lives. She hopes to one day return to Sudan with her children. Upon arrival in the Acholi Quarter she worked in the Stone Quarry, but has transitioned to making paper bead jewelry for Project Have Hope. Assistance from PHH allowed her to attend tailoring school and with a recent microloan she has purchased a sewing machine. She is now able to sew items like school uniforms as yet another way of earning an income.
This morning I began to see Uganda. As I dismount the boda-boda and walk toward the PHH building Santina, my host, greets me. Using my freshly learned Acholi phrases I say good morning (Acho Maber) to which she asks, in English, how my ride was. Like a child I begin to tell her about each of the things I saw on the way, rows of shops offering everything from phone cards to rice to flip flops, the car wash that I believe might be an oversized puddle, women carrying yellow gerry cans of water on their heads, and a man lugging large strips of wood on his bicycle, Smiling she says, “yes, everyday life.”
As we walk, I realize my fears and anxieties are waning. The voice in my head that has been known to say, “the rest of the world is dangerous,” or “you shouldn’t blah, blah, blah” is starting to fade away. This morning I enjoyed my boda-boda ride (and I’m sure the driver enjoyed the fact I loosened my grip on his shoulder). I took in the sights, felt the wind on my face, actually looked around, and began to see someone else’s everyday life.
As Santina and I made a plan for collecting member profiles this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder how many times in the past my fears and anxieties kept me experiencing what life has to offer. I have made two international trips in the last two months and both managed to challenge my personal comfort levels. Somehow I keep finding myself alone, in the middle of a foreign country, in a drastically new circumstance, wondering “now what?” Each time the new situation nearly paralyzes me either into staying indoors or giving up completely, but something (like boredom) or someone (like random person on the street) gets me to “just try,’ and very quickly the feelings of apprehension are replaced with a sense of wonder. It’s at this moment that I laugh at myself saying, “that challenge of my comfort level wasn’t so bad after all.” Then I am grateful I didn’t give into my fear since that would have kept me from a memorable, perhaps once in a lifetime, experience. (I do however wish it was easier to sense the ‘grateful ending’ when you are standing there with a pit in your stomach contemplating what to do.) This realization leaves me feeling as though I’ve left behind about 40 pounds of baggage; I’ve been carrying around since childhood, so basically I feel like I am ready to take on the world.
Santina and I complete 8 member profiles before lunch. The member profiles consist of 9 questions that help PHH learn more about each of its members. Questions about age, schooling, family makeup, PHH programs they participate in and benefit from, then the dozy of a question. What were some of the circumstances that brought you to the Acholi Quarter? Let me just say the stories I heard about the war in the North were equally horrific. Raided and burned villages, murdered family members, running from the rebels, walking miles on end, near starvation, taking in and supporting children of family members who have been killed, then finally settling in the Acholi Quarter where life is hard, opportunities are few, but no one has to fear for their lives. The story that will remain with me for ever is from a woman who watched the men from her village get lined up, beheaded, cut into small pieces, so they could be cooked, after which those who weren’t killed were made to eat the cooked remains of their families. Nothing about what brought the Acholi from their homes in the North, to an area outside Kampala is pleasant, though somehow they manage to be some of the most pleasant and joyful women I have met thus far in my life.
We take a break to meet the other volunteers for a group lunch. The lightness from this morning’s personal revelation is replaced by equal amounts of somberness and anger. Somberness since all the condolences in the world couldn’t make up for what these women have lost and experienced and anger from the realization that is this only a small drop in the bucket of world’s social injustices. I take a plate, to avoid offending anyone for not eating. I manage a few bites, but don’t have much of an appetite after all I learned this morning.
I wish I could describe every sight, sound, and smell. Each is so different, but at the same time oddly familiar. The hustle and bustle of the main strip reminds me of NYC’s Chinatown with countless stalls, packed streets, and intriguing merchandise, but even that doesn’t fit the description I am looking for. The red soil, traffic exhaust, and an indecipherable language are only a few of the aspects that are making oddities Chinatown feel as familiar as the food at McDonalds.
This morning when I arrive in the Acholi Quarter Karen, the PHH founder is in the midst of a quarterly “bead buy.” Jewelry sales are the primary means of funding PHH programs. PHH members make pearl like beads out of paper, string the beads into jewelry, and sell the jewelry to make a living. Project Have Hope brings the jewelry back to the States where it’s sold. Each gorgeous piece of jewelry takes about 4-6 hours to complete and the women in line have baskets with hundreds of pieces. As I arrive there are close to 25 of the program’s 100 women waiting in line to have their jewelry inspected and purchased. More arrive as others finish and the entire process will take Karen about 7 hours to finish.I watched the bead buy for about a 1/2 hour before I headed over to the home of my host, Santina.
We are off to complete another 6 member profiles, which will bring us to 13, 6 short of our final total of 19, and after talking with some of the other volunteers on the trip, I learn that Santina and I ‘have a knack’ for the member profiles meaning we get good, in-depth information. Along with answers to the questions we take a portrait of each woman and a short video. Each woman’s story and circumstance is unique though the theme is unchanging, the war in the North lead to almost unmentionable horrors, lost family members, a long journey south, followed by difficult times. I am left speechless mainly from the fact that the global community has done little to stop these crimes against humanity.
After lunch I hopped on a boda-boda and after a 30 minute ride I arrived at Owino Market in downtown Kampala. All I can say is mayhem. The market is enormous and has everything from scrub brushes, to flat screen TV’s, to sneakers. I found another travelers video on YouTube, so I will let you watch as opposed to attempting to explain.
I purchased some fabric for myself, household items for Santina, and spend the rest of the time observing the happenings of the market. Though I think most people spent time observing me, since Muzungu’s are a rare sight. I hop back on a boda-boda with my purchases for another 30 minute ride back to the Red Chili.