Saturday, December 2, 2017

Reflections

I already shared this in a few other places, but for anyone who hasn't seen it, I released a new album of piano music a couple of months ago!

If anyone is interested, CDs are available here.

You can also find it on places like Spotify, iTunes, etc.

Thanks!

Reflections

Monday, February 13, 2017

Returning to Uganda


After a little more than two years, I’ve been given the opportunity to return to Uganda, the country I called home during my three years serving in the Peace Corps.  From the moment I left Uganda (and even before), I knew that I would want to come back to this place.  My time there certainly had its ups and downs, but on the whole I loved my experience, largely because of the people with whom I worked and formed deep friendships.

Like the trip to Rwanda last year, this one functions as part of a senior-level environmental engineering class, which involves laboratory and design components.  While in Uganda, the twelve students on the trip take water samples, do some analyses in the field, conduct additional tests in a makeshift lab set up in our hotel, and perform some more complex analyses on the samples once they return to the university.  Also, the students are simultaneously working to identify possible design projects that they and the other students in the class can work on for the rest of the semester.  Projects can be identified using the results of the lab tests, interviews conducted among local residents and key stakeholders, and general observations of the context.  The specific context for this trip was the Kiryandongo refugee settlement, in the northern part of Uganda.

Personally, I have a really nice gig when I come along on these trips.  There are several teaching assistants (TAs) helping to lead the trip, but I am not actually a TA.  I certainly try to help with logistics and organization when I can, but my main job is basically to be a resource for the students, answering questions about the country as best I can.  Since my own research is focused on sanitation, I’m also there to answer questions about sanitation-related topics.  Also, after last year’s trip, I had some ideas regarding how we might be able to improve the experience a bit, and so I had an opportunity to try to make some of those ideas happen.  For example, I facilitated some discussions among the students during this year’s trip, as we tried to think about what we were learning and formulate some initial project ideas.  I also gave some general guidelines and suggestions surrounding the interviews that the students would be doing in the local community.

Beyond that, after we had finished our time learning about the refugee settlement, I was also able to duck out for a day and go see my friends at Brick by Brick, the organization I had worked with for three years while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda.  I’m so glad I had the chance to take this time.  If you find yourself especially interested in this part of my experience, you might want to skip ahead to my summary of Friday, February 10.  Otherwise, continue reading for a day-by-day account of what we did and some of my thoughts surrounding those activities.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

On the flights over, beginning just before taking off Friday from O’Hare and continuing through our final descent, I experienced several moments of warmth as I thought about where we were heading.  I felt as if I were heading toward a part of me that had been left behind a couple years ago.  It seemed to be drawing me forward, almost magnetically, toward the people and the place that had become so special to me during the years I called Uganda home.

We arrived in Uganda late on Saturday night, descending into Entebbe Airport under starlight after a layover in Amsterdam and a short stop in Rwanda.  We met Benito (the professor leading the trip) and our four drivers (Moses, Martin, William, and William) at the airport.  Moses remembered me from the trip to Rwanda last year, and it was really nice to catch up with him for a few minutes.  We joined up with Peter, who helps to coordinate these trips with Benito and has his own organization focused on improving agricultural practices, at a gas station on the road from Entebbe to Kampala.  It was great to see him again, too.

There were moments, during this drive, when I looked out of the car with a wonderful sense of fullness.  I know these streets, these buildings, this air – even in the dark.  It’s all familiar – like coming home.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Not everything is the same, though.  As we drove from Kampala to Kigumba, a town about three to four hours north of Kampala near the refugee settlement (called Kiryandongo) we would be visiting, I noticed a few new traffic lights, a few new roads, and a few new buildings.  But, for the most part, it was still all very familiar.  I really enjoyed our long car ride – I spent a lot of it talking with three of the students who were in the car with me, trying to answer questions about what they were seeing as best I could.  As we moved further north in the country, the landscape changed a bit.  In contrast to the rolling hills and wetlands found in the southern parts of the country, these areas were more flat and seemed to be drier.  We are here during the dry season, but Peter also told us before we came that the previous rainy season had also been quite dry.  Essentially, this part of the country had been experiencing a drought, and the crops normally grown during the rainy season (like maize) were not doing very well.  We were certainly interested to see what we would find on the ground the next day.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Monday morning was our first visit to the Kiryandongo refugee settlement.  After meeting some of the people who help to run the programs in this place, we visited one of the boreholes within the settlement.  Some of the students took water samples and conducted some tests, and other students talked to some people waiting to collect water.  There were a lot of people waiting.  I can’t help but think about the tough situation these people face on a daily basis, a situation that has obviously come about through no fault of their own.

My general impression, after a very short time, is that the non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, and the others working here do what they can, and it certainly makes a difference.  But this situation is really on a different level from anything I think I’ve seen before.  These people have had to completely relocate their lives, often bringing very little with them, and their situation is so uncertain.  They’re not really seen as permanent residents, but many of them come from countries with prolonged conflicts and are here for a long (often indefinite) time.  It must be so difficult to establish any sort of livelihood in this type of context.  People spend so much time just getting what they need to survive – hours spent waiting at boreholes, dozens (if not hundreds) of jerry cans lined up waiting to receive water; hours to collect scarce firewood needed for cooking (and for boiling the water, if a family can get enough); time spent actually cooking; taking care of kids; growing food to eat – it’s good that boreholes, agricultural land, housing materials, food, health clinics, and other essentials are provided, but when do people have a chance to begin progressing toward a self-sustaining life?  Sure, some people are able to burn the candle at both ends and do everything, to be extremely creative and entrepreneurial, to begin that progression.  But not everyone is like that – I certainly don’t think I am – and it shouldn’t be a requirement.  I know this statement is nothing new, but it really is outrageous to think of the exorbitant wealth in this world, and to juxtapose against that the extremely difficult situation facing people like those in this settlement.  These two extremes exist in the same world – how can we live with that?

In the midst of these thoughts, what I loved about this day was watching and starting to get to know the students on this trip.  They’re a great group, and they’re doing a great job as they encounter and work in these settings.  We spent a good amount of time before dinner having everyone talk about what they had learned over the course of the day, and I was impressed with the depth and breadth of the information they were able to collect.  I just hope I’m doing an okay job assisting where I can and helping them to get the most out of this experience.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

On Tuesday morning, we visited a shallow well and a borehole in Bweyale, the town just beside the refugee settlement.  The situation at the borehole was somewhat similar to what we saw in the refugee settlement yesterday, while the shallow well was pretty different.  It was in a very congested area, close to homes and a health clinic, and there were several latrines surrounding it, probably within ten to fifteen meters.  The students found high levels of ammonia in the well water, which we are assuming is due to fecal contamination from the latrines.  I'm hoping that this site might become one of the student projects, because I think there are some interesting opportunities to look into alternative sanitation options and household water treatment.
After lunch, while Benito, Peter, and the TAs went to meet some local government officials, the students and I spent some time talking about what we’ve been seeing, as well as some possible project ideas.  Later, we visited a secondary school in the refugee settlement, where most of the students come from the settlement, while the remainder come from the surrounding communities.  After our group gave a demonstration to the secondary students about water quality and the benefits of disinfecting water, many of us walked to a nearby borehole to collect samples.  Some others and I remained at the school, taking measurements of the rainwater collection system there.  Some possible project ideas at this place might involve expanding the rainwater system, adding some treatment, installing a borehole with a solar pump at the school, and/or fixing up the nearby borehole and adding treatment.

Like the previous day, I’ve been enjoying observing the students as they collect information and begin to think about how they might move forward with that information.  This year, we’re trying very hard to encourage intentional discussions and reflections, giving everyone the chance to hear about others’ experiences and to generate possible project ideas that could work moving forward.  I’m sure that there is still plenty of room for improvement (and I certainly could be better personally at facilitating and guiding these types of discussions), but I think we are doing a pretty decent job of synthesizing what we’re learning in a very short amount of time and beginning to form plans for how to proceed.  I was fortunate to have some good discussions today with the TAs and with the students about these ideas and possibilities.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wednesday was the last day we were able to spend visiting the refugee settlement.  These three days have flown by.  In the morning, we visited a primary school with very many students, many more than we had seen yesterday at the secondary school.  Members of our group went through a demonstration similar to what they did at the secondary school, but it was very difficult for them this time, because there were just so many students.  The group was in the middle of a huge circle of students, using a loudspeaker to try to allow everyone could hear.  After the demonstration, some of our group walked to a nearby borehole, while others stayed at the school, talking to teachers and getting a sense for the context.  It seemed that their water situation was a bit better than what we observed at the secondary school, because they had a working tap from the community water system, which is treated with chlorine.  I think that water supply is still an issue, however, because the tap is not always on, sometimes for several days (or possibly weeks) in a row.  Some additional water storage capacity might help the school through those dry spells.  For the most part, during our time at the school, I stayed in the background.  I think that many in our group really enjoyed interacting with all the kids, but I’m just not generally a fan of huge crowds of people.

During lunch, the different project teams began talking about what projects they might be interested in pursuing, trying to formulate ideas that are technically complex enough to fulfill the design requirements of the class while also being appropriate one or more of the settings we have seen.  I sat in on one of the team discussions, and their conversation led to an idea requiring the design of a household filtration system that could address high concentrations of certain chemical contaminants that the group has been finding in many of the boreholes.  They also discussed developing a procedure for effectively cleaning the jerry cans that are used to collect water, because many of them appear fairly dirty.  Their TA and I both thought that Peter would be excited about these ideas.

After lunch, we returned to the settlement, near another borehole.  While a few members of the group went to sample and test the water at the borehole, most of us stayed behind and talked to the people living nearby.  I think the time we spent here was very valuable, giving us a better sense for the lives of the people in the settlement.  One of the students and I talked for a long time with a man named Obama Peter, who came to Uganda from Sudan in 2014.  He was very kind and open, telling us about the food and supplies that families receive, some of the common health issues within the settlement, and the typical living situation in these households.  He also mentioned that it hasn’t rained since September, and the crop of maize that would have grown during the typical rainy season produced very little.  This drought has been making life especially difficult for people in the area, and I could feel that undercurrent in his voice, but he did still seem hopeful that things would get a bit better once the next rainy season starts next month.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

After we had finished visiting the refugee settlement, the next few days were very different.  On Thursday, we woke up very early and went on a safari through Murchison Falls National Park.  I had never visited this park before, and I had a lot of fun.  We began with a game drive, spotting several elephants as soon as we entered the park, and of course we saw warthogs, birds, and different types of antelope.  There were also some giraffes off in the distance, and at one point we found a hyena lying in an old, abandoned building at the top of a hill.  We also were fortunate enough to see two lions lying by a dry riverbank.  After we watched them for a few minutes, they got up and moved into the long grass.

The second part of the safari included a boat ride on the Nile, heading upriver toward Murchison Falls.  On the river, we saw many hippos, a few crocodiles, several kingfishers and other birds, and we found one elephant eating on the bank very near to us.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to an elephant for that long before.  As Murchison Falls began to come into view, we got off the boat and started hiking.  We hiked along the river, and then climbed up along a slope very close to the falls.  At the top, we emerged onto a rock outcropping overlooking the falls, where we could feel the mist rising up and see a rainbow as we looked down toward the churning water.  It was a beautiful sight.  Peter said to me, “There are many amazing things in this world,” and I replied, “Yes, and we are very lucky to have the opportunity to see them.”

After finishing the hike, we ate lunch, and Peter told the students a bit about his demonstration farm and his general philosophy toward development work.  Following that, we began the trip back to Kampala.  Unfortunately, this trip would prove to be much more difficult than expected.  Our four cars needed to climb a fairly large hill as we left Murchison Falls, but the car I was in was having a lot of trouble.  Eventually, William (our driver) told us that the clutch was jammed, and so we climbed out.  William’s was the third car in the line, and the first two and moved pretty far ahead.  So, we loaded the luggage and ourselves into the car behind ours, and drove on to meet the first two cars, which were turning around to come back for us.  So, everyone was able to have an experience in which too many people were jammed into a car – something I remember all too well.  I was sitting between Benito and Moses in the front, straddling the gear shift and parking brake, while others needed to sit in between seats and very close together in the other rows.  Fortunately, we met the first two cars relatively quickly, redistributed ourselves, and continued on.

After leaving the park and driving for a while, we stopped again.  One of the remaining three cars had broken down.  It took a while to decide that the car wasn’t going to be fixed immediately, so, once again, our luggage and ourselves were redistributed across the two cars that still worked.  At least a half an hour after we had stopped, we got moving again, and finally made it back to our hotel in Kampala around 10:00 PM, about seventeen hours after leaving the hotel in Kigumba.  Certainly a long day – but maybe it was good that everyone got to experience a little bit of these all-too-common transportation issues.

Friday, February 10, 2017

After an extremely long Thursday, I needed to wake up early again on Friday.  I was tired, but also excited.  I had really enjoyed the time I had spent interacting with the students so far, but Friday was the day I had been waiting for.  This was the day I would get to see my friends at Brick by Brick, the organization where I had worked for three years while in the Peace Corps.  One of the students in the group was also able to come along, because she will actually begin a two-year post with Brick by Brick this summer, after she graduates.  So, I was able to see my friends, and she was able to meet them all in person and see some of the work they’ve done.

After traveling from Kampala to Masaka, we reached Brick by Brick’s office a little before 10:00 AM.  I was first to walk in the door, and I was immediately greeted by a flood of warmth, love, and joy.  My first hug was for Max, my Ugandan father, who is now affectionately referred to as “Muzee” (a term denoting an elder) by just about everyone in the office.  Max had suffered a stroke a few months back, but he is recovering extremely well.  He has a bit of a limp and moves slowly, but his mind is sharp, and he is filled with just as much humor and dedication as I remember.  Next were Suzan and Prossy, who are both doing well, and Suzan asked me what happened to my hair.  James, the current engineering intern from the Master’s program at USF, came next, and, finally, I had a nice reunion with Marc and Dan, the US-based and Uganda-based executive directors, respectively.

After lots of hugs, smiles, and laughs, we sat down for tea, and Marc gave a summary of everything Brick by Brick has been up to over the past couple of years.  They have made a lot of progress – new health-related programs, an expanded reusable menstrual pad program, new school partnerships, and new types of construction projects.  Several new staff people have been hired, and that initial core group of masons we started with several years ago is still going strong.  After tea, Max and James went with us to Kalisizo, the small town about 30 kilometers south of Masaka where I lived, and Kajaguzo, the village near Kalisizo where Max lives.  In Kajaguzo, we visited St. Tereza Primary School, which Max and Teddy (his wife) help to run, and which Brick by Brick had begun to partner with during my last year working with the organization.  We met Teddy there – another joyful meeting – and two of her and Max’s older children, Victoria and Patrick, were home, so I got to see them too.  They both gave me letters they had written, which I read later during the drive back to Kampala.  Teddy was very excited to show me around the school, because Brick by Brick had completely renovated it, with refurbished classrooms, a new library and main hall, new furniture, a new kitchen with fuel-efficient stoves, new latrines, and new rainwater tanks.  In a very humbling turn of events, it seems that they think of at least most of these changes as having originated with me.  The reason for this is that, before I finished my work with Brick by Brick, I essentially laid out the entire plan for renovating the school, and, if I remember the plan correctly, they followed it very closely.  Of course, many people were involved – several people at Brick by Brick and at the school contributed to the plan, and the masons made it all into a reality.  Now, Teddy, Max, and the teachers are very excited about the improved environment in which their students are learning.  It seems that it has become a source of great community pride.  As Teddy said, “Kajaguzo is now sparkling!”

After meeting with the teachers, we headed back to Masaka for lunch.  There, we met Sunday Kimera and John Ssebyoto, two of our head masons.  Once again, it was wonderful to see them and to know that they are doing well.  After lunch, we went to see James’ place, which is very nice.  He has a dog (Simba), who will be coming back to the US with James when he finishes in July.  Finally, we went back to the office, where Max and James gave us some new Brick by Brick Construction shirts, and Max gave me a wood sculpture that Patrick had a local artist make for me. Both of our names were printed on the base, while the sculpture incorporated a twisting design that I think symbolizes our two lives being intertwined.  Afterwards, I pulled out the very small gift I had brought – a collection of ten poems, some written while I was working in Uganda and some written after returning to the US, which I had printed out.  My original thought was that my friends could read them and pick the ones they liked the most, but Suzan came up with a much better plan.  They will be photocopying the poems, so that everyone can keep all of them.

Finally, we said our goodbyes.  The visit had been very short, but it had been extremely soul-filling for me, and I couldn’t put all of my appreciation and love into words.  I simply said to each one of my friends that I think of them often, I miss them very much, and I hope that I will be able to return again soon.  And that was it.  Dan drove us back to Kampala, where traffic was terrible, and we reached the hotel a little after 9:00 PM.

Actually, that wasn’t quite it.  When we got back to the hotel, we met up with David, who was sort of an engineer-in-training and had started with Brick by Brick right before I left.  I had begun training him, and then James has continued working with him over the past couple of years.  He was in Kampala because he is taking classes over the weekend towards a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.  Previously, he had graduated from a technical trade school with the equivalent of an Associate’s degree.  He’s very hard-working and seems to be enjoying his classes very much.  He also still really enjoys working with Brick by Brick, which was great to hear, and it sounds like he is doing a wonderful job.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Our last day in Uganda was a bit more relaxed.  We could finally sleep in a bit (breakfast at 9:00 AM), and later in the morning we visited a craft market.  I didn’t buy anything, but there were some really beautiful paintings on display.  After the market, we went back to the hotel for lunch, and then made our way to the airport to start the journey home.

As we begin traveling back to the US, I find myself taking stock of this trip.  On the whole, I enjoyed it very much.  Of course, there were a few minor hiccups along the way, but I think most things went quite well.  While I feel that there is still plenty of room for improvement, I believe that we did a better job this year of preparing the students and enabling them to reflect on the experience, thinking holistically about all the information they were collecting and using that to begin formulating project ideas.  I also had a great time with this group of students.  They were a lot of fun, and, at the same time, they were very thoughtful about the work we were doing.  These short-term trips can have their issues.  It’s easy to come away from the experience with a too-idealistic impression of the situation and our possible impact on it, while missing the intricacies and complexities inherent to the context.  Several of the students had conversations surrounding these and related issues, which I think is great, because it shows that they are thinking critically and realistically about what they are seeing and doing.  As was the case last year, I come away from this trip with a renewed and enhanced desire to make sure that teaching is an important component of my future endeavors.  As I often say, I still have very little teaching experience, but every similar experience I’ve had has been extremely fulfilling.  I’ve tremendously enjoyed getting to know this group of students a little bit, and I hope that my presence on this trip was useful and worthwhile for them.

Without a doubt, though, the personal highlight of this trip was the visit to Masaka to see my friends.  I had begun the trip feeling as if I were returning to meet a part of me that had been left behind when I left two years ago.  There have certainly been moments, over the past two years, when I have felt a slight pang of hollowness, knowing that people I care about very much are so far away, so far removed from my current life.  I wouldn’t say I feel guilty about not being with them – I just feel a twinge of sadness for what I’ve left behind.

But now, after returning to them, learning about the wonderful things they are doing in their lives, and seeing hints of how my relationships with them have helped to shape their lives in some small way, I think my metaphor of leaving a piece of myself behind is not quite right.  Perhaps appropriately, it was Patrick’s gift that suggested a different image, one of a self that stretches across the globe, intertwined with others.  Of course, it is not the same when I am thousands of miles away – I will certainly begin missing them again very soon – but we remain connected.  Our lives remain intermingled and woven together into a larger fabric as we each try to play our small part in improving our world.  I will continue to try, and I sincerely hope that those efforts will carry me back to Uganda, and to these people, yet again.

Intertwining
Patrick's gift

The moon is full tonight, as is my soul,
A circle filled with light, and all feels whole,
Pieces long divided, now together,
Held, embraced by love’s unending tether.

But now as I reflect upon the past
And look ahead to what our lives might bring,
I know that these relationships will last
And grow as all our voices join and sing.

I see it now – my soul is not in parts.
It stretches, touching all your distant hearts
Across the globe, and you and I will be
Forever woven close in harmony.

Tonight, I leave, my eyes and heart still shining,
For always will our souls be intertwining.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ten Days in Ghana

Right now, I’m traveling back from Ghana.  Four students from my research group – Amanda, Diana, Valerie, and me – have spent the past ten days there.  One of the projects my advisor (Jeremy) is involved with focuses on something called the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  I can’t say that I know all the details (it’s a large project with many different parts), but, basically, it is geared toward promoting and improving soybean cultivation, since soybeans are a protein-rich crop that can help reduce hunger and malnutrition.  Some of the different pieces of the project focus on improving agricultural techniques, developing downstream processing operations, creating demand for soybean products, and ensuring gender equity.  Jeremy’s piece focuses on ensuring that aspects of this project are not going to be harmful to environmental and/or human health.  For me and the three other students involved, SIL isn’t directly related to any of our main projects, but we all have a general interest in this kind of work, so Jeremy brought us in.  The environmental piece of the project is relatively small, so we have somewhat limited resources and can’t do everything that Jeremy had wanted to do initially.  But, for the past several months, we’ve been trying to come up with a relatively simple way to at least partially investigate some relevant issues, and this trip was designed to get the ball rolling on that front.

Going into this trip, we had essentially two goals.  First (and probably most important), we wanted to provide some training for two partner organizations working on the ground in northern Ghana, within and near Tamale (the third-largest city in the country).  Second, we wanted to collect some initial data (using surveys and lab analyses) from multiple villages in two nearby districts, trying to see if we could begin to assess relative health risks from exposure to waterborne pathogens, nitrate and/or nitrite (from fertilizers), and pesticides.  Basically, we’re hoping to estimate whether increased use of fertilizers and/or pesticides, or exposure to pathogens (typically through fecal contamination), might undercut any health improvements from the better nutrition that might be a result of greater access to soybean products.  Getting some clear results could allow us to make some recommendations regarding how the greatest risks might be lowered.

Our two partner organizations are Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI).  CRS, which has an office in Tamale, helps with much of the on-the-ground implementation and deployment of SIL’s work, interacting with local village leaders, distributing seed kits to farmers, and conducting surveys.  SARI is in Tolon District, about 20-30 minutes from the center of Tamale, has a number of agricultural test plots that have been used to demonstrate improved growing practices to local farmers, and also includes a soil chemistry lab.

Now that the stage is set with a little background information, I can start talking about the actual trip.  But first, I’ll include a little poem I finished just before leaving:

To Wander in Wonder
What right to go roaming
Has the wanderer got?
To run far afield from this fair, friendly spot,
To wade through the long grass she's ne'er before seen,
Or the whispering waters that still flow pristine?
Perhaps, in the foaming
Of the waves against rock,
She sees, in that moment, a white-crested flock
Lift off toward the glittering sunbeams above,
Transform to a cloud with the air of a dove.
And now, as her journey
Circles back to the start,
She maintains all the wonders she's seen in her heart:
The living and giving immersed in the loam
Wherever her wandering footsteps could roam,
And so, she returns with new eyes to her home.


As it turned out, the day before we left, we found out that Jeremy wouldn’t be able to go with us, at least for the first several days of the trip.  He had a very good reason for not being able to go, but it definitely increased our level of uncertainty about the trip.  Jeremy had been to Ghana before and had interacted with staff from CRS and SARI, so he had all the connections.  None of us had been there before or knew anyone.  But, we went ahead with it, and I think things turned out okay, although the added responsibilities that the four of us needed to share did make it a bit more daunting.  And unfortunately, I made a few mistakes during the first couple of days that ended up costing us some money.  No one else thought it was a big deal, but I felt terrible about it.  I definitely think I better understand the pressure that trip leaders must feel to get everything right and to create a good experience for everyone.  Beyond that, I noticed that needing to “lead” from time to time can make it more difficult to allow the experience to happen, to remember how fortunate I am to have this opportunity to see a new place, meet new people, and broaden the boundaries of my life.

Anyway, our first flight left from Chicago on Saturday evening, January 7th.  We spent a few hours in London before the second leg to Accra, the capital city in Ghana, which lies on the southern coast of West Africa.  We only spent one night there, arriving late Sunday evening and leaving early the next morning, so I did not get a good feel for the city.  Although, it seemed fairly typical of major cities in sub-Saharan Africa – at least relatively similar to the few where I’ve spent time.  Monday morning, we returned to the airport for a short flight to Tamale.  Apparently, the drive from the southern coast to the north takes eight to ten hours, so, while it would have been nice to spend a day driving and seeing more of the country, I think a quick one-hour flight was much preferred.

It was a hazy morning, and I couldn’t see the ground until we were well into our descent toward the Tamale airport.  As a little aside, I find it very interesting how clouds look so solid from above.  They look like a very distinct layer in the atmosphere, but as you start to move through them, they become much less well-defined – the interface becomes much fuzzier, with the areas above, within, and below seeming to bleed into one another.  I feel like there’s a lesson here, perhaps about the boundaries we put up, and how they are less definite than we might think.

In any case, as we moved down through the clouds, I began to make out a very flat landscape – maybe not quite on the level of Illinois, but close.  The ground was painted with varying shades of pale yellow, gold, and green, with dark green patches of one or two trees spaced across the plain.  At that point, I could see only thin dirt roads and paths snaking through the fields, and every so often a cluster of houses and/or farmland would come into view.  As we approached the airport, I caught a glimpse of one very turbid, gray-green pond, and I saw a single paved road.  Within a few minutes, we landed.

Arriving in Tamale with all our luggage and equipment, Joe, a wonderful driver from CRS, met us at the airport.  He drove us to a pretty nice hotel in town, got us checked in, and then drove us to the CRS office.  After a brief initial discussion, Joe took us to a nice local restaurant where we had lunch together, and then we moved on to SARI.  We dropped off our lab equipment, had an obligatory meeting with the highest-ranking person there (the deputy director, I believe), and met the staff in the soil chemistry lab where we would be working.  Going back to CRS, we had what I would probably call our first “real” planning meeting with some of their agriculture program staff – Mawuli (the director of the agriculture program), Philip (a senior program officer), and Emmanuel (a monitoring and evaluation officer who helped put the household surveys together).  These three guys are great, and we all loved working with them, but this was a tough meeting.  At this point, we had had very little sleep over the past two or three days, and it was a struggle to keep out eyes open.  But, we made it through, went back to the hotel, had a small dinner, and went to bed.

Tuesday and Wednesday were training days.  The four of us split into two groups, with two people spending each day at the hotel with CRS and the ten enumerators who would be conducting the household surveys we had designed, and two people spending each day at the SARI lab, training the staff there.  Diana and Valerie, stayed with CRS to do the enumerator training, while Joe drove Amanda and I to SARI.  Over the course of those two days, we showed the SARI lab technicians one method for determining the level of bacterial contamination in water samples (Amanda took the lead for most of this part) and how to use a field meter we brought along, which can be taken into the field to measure pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and conductivity in water (I handled most of this section).  On top of that, we went through some of the procedures that Jeremy’s lab typically uses to measure nitrogen and phosphorus levels, comparing SARI’s procedures to ours, and Prosper (who runs the soil chemistry lab) had one of the technicians (Asanti) run through the procedure they use to measure total ammonia.  At the end, Amanda and I offered some minor suggestions for improving efficiency and accuracy, but overall we thought that they did a great job.  The staff picked up on everything very quickly, and Amanda and I enjoyed our time there very much.  I think both of us agree that anything we can do to improve what they do and how they do it would be a worthwhile outcome of this trip.

Once we moved into this phase of the trip, when we got into the work itself and away from all the logistics, I think it became much easier to be in the moment, to reflect and be grateful for this opportunity.  The car rides to and from SARI were especially good for this purpose, as the fields, trees, and shops passed by.  It was very peaceful, watching the landscape rush past.  On almost every car ride, there was a moment when I marveled at the beauty surrounding us.  It is early in the dry season now, and the dry season is very long in this part of the country, so flourishing vegetation is relatively limited.  But, the earth is covered in a rainbow of yellow, gold, green, red, and brown, and the colors seem to leap out at my eyes.  Maybe I’ve just grown used to the white, sterile dormancy of winter in Illinois.

I didn’t really go in expecting to have any deep revelations, but I couldn’t help thinking, “This is real.”  Of course, so is my life and work in Illinois, and I enjoy that very much.  But there’s something about feeling the heat on your back and the dust on your face, interacting with people all day – it feels more whole.  I may not always be the best at it, and it certainly has its difficulties, but there’s something about it that’s extremely life-filling.  Obviously, though, how I feel is not the most important thing. Perhaps appropriately, at this point in the trip, we transitioned from training to field work in some local villages.

Before coming to Ghana, we had identified two nearby districts we wanted to look at (using a previous survey conducted for another part of SIL).  Each district had a fairly distinctive makeup of drinking water sources, with people in Tolon District collecting water predominantly from surface water sources (lakes, ponds, etc.) and most people in Karaga District using groundwater pumped from boreholes.  Our thought was that, by comparing data from water sources and household drinking water in these two districts, we might be able to see how these different sources are affected by people’s agricultural practices.  In each district, we and the enumerators went to three villages.  The enumerators performed the household surveys, while two of us collected samples of drinking water kept in some of those households, soil from outside the house, and samples collected by rinsing one of the resident’s hands with water.  The idea here was to see if and where bacterial contamination is occurring in these households.

Actually, “house” doesn’t quite describe the typical residence in these villages.  I was not one of the two collecting samples in the households, but I did go into the places where several village chiefs lived, so I got some idea.  In many cases, I think that one complete residential unit is referred to as a compound, which contains multiple small, circular huts, close together and arranged in a circular pattern.  The typical household size (including all the huts in a compound) is somewhere around ten people, and this number might include more than one family.  Like I said, though, I didn’t go into many residences, so my conception of them may not be completely accurate.

The remaining two of us would be guided around each village, either by someone living there or an enumerator who knew the area well, finding different water sources, collecting samples, and using our field meter to measure pH and other parameters.  Amanda and I played this role every day during the four days we were in the field, Amanda typically collecting the sample while I worked with the meter.  In Tolon, we were usually sampling from ponds created by earthen dams and shallow wells, while deeper boreholes were more common in Karaga.  On the last day, Amanda also trained Emmanuel (from CRS), showing him how to collect one of these water samples, so that CRS could continue taking samples after we’ve left.

On each day, after collecting our samples, Valerie and Diana would give us the household samples they had collected so far, and Joe would take the two of us to the SARI lab, so that we could start the bacterial analyses with the staff there.  With the earlier training and the practice they were getting, it didn’t take the technicians long to get quite good at the procedure, and with lots of help we were able to move through the process fairly quickly.  Valerie and Diana would get there a bit later, usually when we were pretty well into the procedure for the samples we had brought first, and then we would all work on the new batch.  Just to really drive the point home, the SARI staff were great, and we really appreciated their help.  They were all very excited about the new equipment and techniques they were learning.  Now that we’ve finished collecting samples, they will also be conducting analyses to measure the nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in our samples from water sources, so that we can try to see if fertilizers applied to crops are making their way into the villages’ water supplies.

On Saturday, Jeremy finally made it.  While we were out collecting data in the field, he went to SARI and spent time talking to Prosper, and we saw him once we got to the lab.  While I think we had gotten into a pretty good groove by this point and were doing a pretty good job on our own, it was certainly very nice to see him and let him take care of some things.

Sunday fell between our third and fourth days in the field.  Because CRS does not work on Sunday, it was a fairly relaxing day.  Up until this point, we had been going pretty hard, but we could sleep in a bit on Sunday morning and spend some time just hanging out at the hotel and in town.  Two of us (Valerie and I) did go to SARI in the afternoon for about half an hour, to finish up the analysis from the day before.  Prosper was kind enough to come along and open the lab for us.  On the way back, we met Jeremy, Diana, and Amanda at a craft market in Tamale.  I ended up buying a small painting from a friend of the driver we had hired for the day (Daniel). 

On Monday, we finished our work in the field, visiting the last village in Karaga.  We moved even a little faster this time, because we needed to get back to CRS by 4:00 PM for a final meeting.  So, we got all our samples, moved through the lab analyses very quickly (with a lot of help from the SARI staff), and drove back to CRS.  The meeting went well – we talked mostly about the plan for the next several months.  Once a month, Philip and/or Emmanuel would be going to the villages we visited, along with a few others, to collect samples from two different sources – in Tolon, one surface water source and one shallow well from each village, and in Karaga, one borehole and one surface water source from each village, if possible.  They will be taking these samples to SARI for analysis.  The idea here is that we’ll be able to get data from a series of time points throughout the year, which will hopefully show us how things change in different seasons.  Because it is the dry season right now, little agricultural activity is going on (besides harvesting the previous growing season’s crops), and it is possible that the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water could be very different when agricultural production is in full swing.

Tuesday was our last day in Ghana.  Joe drove us for the last time, taking us to the airport in the morning, where we flew from Tamale to Accra.  We then had almost a full day in the city – we spent most of our time at a hotel near the airport, and walked to a shopping center for lunch.  In the evening, we headed back to the airport for a late-night flight that brought us to London, where we are now, waiting for the final leg of our journey.

So, overall, did we accomplish what we wanted to accomplish during this trip?  For the most part, I think we did.  Sure, we could have done some things better.  Things weren’t always quite what we expected, and, personally, I was confused about how the field visits would work before we went to the villages.  But, I think that was mostly because I had spent most of my time in the first few days with the SARI staff, and not with the CRS staff, who were helping to plan the field work.  In general, I think the field work ended up going well, due in large part to the obvious fact that CRS has spent quite a bit of time interacting with these communities and forming good relationships.  We collected a pretty good amount of data, although we don’t have the complete results yet, and what we collected on the trip will only constitute an initial dataset.  Hopefully, the monthly data CRS and SARI will send us can help to fill out the picture over almost an entire year.

I think all of us feel that the most immediately useful and meaningful thing we did during this trip was the training we provided.  Having spent so much of my time with the staff at SARI, I saw how excited the technicians were to be learning some new techniques and to possibly improve some techniques they already knew.  I think it would be great if we could keep working with them, perhaps providing more training further on down the road.  And personally, as I’ve mentioned in previous trip summaries, I’ve really come to enjoy the teaching aspects of what we’ve been doing.  It’s been a lot of fun interacting with the SARI staff and teaching them some new things.  I hope I am able to continue along this teaching path in some capacity.

More holistically, I have a very high opinion of Ghana after this brief trip – our time there was great.  We worked with very capable and passionate people, and the overall atmosphere felt very peaceful and laid back to me.  It’s possible I just didn’t notice it in this short amount of time, but I didn’t feel so much like the center of attention – certainly not in the same way I often did when I was in Uganda – and I liked that about the experience.  Generally, the people were very polite and friendly, and we definitely liked all of the people we worked with closely very much.

But, at the same time, I am sure that this initial impression does not provide a complete picture, with all its intricacies and complexities, and I certainly cannot now claim to be an expert on life in Ghana.  We spent about ten days in the country, but we really only spent seven or eight in Tamale.  That is not nearly enough time to truly begin to understand people’s lives.  I find myself hoping to return at some point, perhaps to do some more training at SARI, but I also find that I would like to simply spend more time in the place – to be able to move more slowly, to have more time to soak in the experience, and to feel a bit more grounded there.  The still somewhat common model of “fly in, take data or do a project for a week, and leave” is not what I consider to be the best kind of work in these settings, unless it’s connected to something longer term and sustained.  This trip was just a piece of a larger framework that is more holistic and, hopefully, sustainable in the long run.  But, for myself, one week is not enough – I just need more time to connect.  Is it possible to feel like I’m at home somewhere without spending years in that place?  I’m not sure, but, regardless, there’s something to be said for finding a good place and remaining connected to it for a long time.  Personally, I find myself hoping that this work, the partnerships that support it, and the relationships we have created will continue and grow.

Seven Days to Learn a Life

Lifting off from fields of harvest,
Climbing through the dusty haze,
Leaving one new land behind me,
Chasing after western rays,

No more seeing earthy rainbows
Ranging ‘cross an endless plain,
Noticing a searching feeling
Growing like a fertile grain.

What a life I have been given,
Seeing others’ lives anew.
Leaving now, though, makes we wonder
Whether what I think is true.

Seven days to learn a life –
Not enough; no, not enough.
Someday, maybe, I’ll return
To smooth the sketch that’s now too rough.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Week in Rwanda

One of the main reasons I was interested in coming to the University of Illinois involved the work that some of the professors there were starting in Uganda.  They have been planning some projects with a Ugandan man named Peter, who runs an NGO in Uganda that focuses on supporting and training farmers, and which has begun to work on recovering resources from agricultural and human waste.  Peter already has a model farm, not all that far from where I had been living in Uganda, and the eventual goal is to set up something similar on a piece of land near Oruchinga, a refugee settlement in the southwestern part of the country, where we could work on a number of projects that would connect with the refugee community and the surrounding host communities.

Now, every year, a senior-level civil engineering class sends a team of students, along with at least one professor and several graduate students who act as teaching assistants (TAs), to another country.  Last year, the destination was Uganda, and the original idea was that Uganda would become a recurring destination, given this great connection with Peter.  Unfortunately, a trip to Uganda would not work this year, because the country’s presidential elections were being held during this past week, when the trip was scheduled to take place.  In Uganda (as in some other places), there is often a greater possibility of protests, riots, or something unsafe happening on days surrounding elections.  So, as an alternative, this past week, that class went to Rwanda, to visit Gihembe, a refugee camp in the norther part of that country, which is fairly close to the Ugandan border and Oruchinga.

Although I’ve not been directly involved with the class (I’m not one of the official TAs), I was given the opportunity to go along on this trip, because part of my research will involve working with Peter to design some of the sanitation and resource recovery systems that we think will be beneficial in these types of settings.

Although I was certainly looking forward to this opportunity to return to East Africa, I admit that, apart from a few meetings with my adviser, I was not thinking too deeply about this trip before going.  I had not talked about it with very many people.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t involved in planning the class and hadn’t really known or interacted with any of the twelve students going on the trip before we drove to Chicago a little over a week ago.  But, once we started our two-day travel marathon, I started to feel some anticipation.

After our flights, we arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on a Saturday evening, and met the four drivers (Moses, Moses, Ali, and Emma) who would be taking us everywhere in the coming week.  These guys were actually from Uganda, but they do safaris throughout East Africa, so some of them knew Rwanda fairly well.  They took us to a very nice hotel in Kigali, where we would be spending the night.

Sunday morning, we met Peter, had lunch in the city, and then drove north for about two hours to Gicumbi District, where Gihembe is located.  I spent the whole drive looking out the window and watching the countryside breeze past.  As we left Kigali, we passed by a network of wetlands, where rice was being grown, and we soon began snaking through the large green hills that characterize much of the country.  The look of rural Rwanda is very similar to that of Uganda – lush, green vegetation; dusty, reddish-brown soil; some houses made of bricks and mortar with metal roofs, and others made of dried mud and sticks; many people engaged in small-scale, rainfed agriculture; crops that include bananas, potatoes, maize, sorghum, beans, assorted vegetables, and tea.  I saw lots of terraces cut into the hillsides for farming, which was one difference with Uganda – I typically didn’t see terraces, even when people were farming on steep hillsides.  We ended up at a hotel in Gicumbi, several kilometers from the refugee camp.  The students and TAs spent the evening preparing the lab equipment that they had brought to test local water sources, while I grabbed a bunch of mosquito nets and hung them up for myself and the five male students on the trip – we were all sharing a place, and the ceilings were too high to reach, even for a tall guy like me standing on a bed, so hanging these things took a little creativity.

Over the next two and a half days, we visited a number of different locations – communities surrounding the camp, a school, a health center, and various water sources used by people in the camp and the surrounding communities (springs, a lake, a water treatment plant, and a set of storage tanks in a nearby valley where large tanker trucks are filled before driving up to the camp).  At these sites, the students would split up into groups, with some people using the equipment we brought to conduct field tests and collect samples of the water, which were taken back to the hotel where the students could do some more complex and time-consuming tests. Other groups of students interviewed people about issues surrounding water, sanitation, agriculture, and food security.  Obviously, there was a pretty significant language barrier.  The local language throughout the country is called Kinyarwanda, which is a Bantu language and does have some similarities with Luganda (but not enough for me to understand much of anything).  We typically had two to three people with us who could act as translators, so we could only do a couple of interviews at a time.

Given my interests in sanitation and agriculture, I typically shadowed the students doing the interviews, and occasionally added a few questions of my own into the mix.  I also did some very basic soil classification tests at one location, the results of which suggested that latrines in the area might be prone to collapse.  I quickly moved over to where two students were interviewing a group of men and women and asked if anyone had issues with their latrines collapsing.  Many people responded in the affirmative.  This is obviously a serious issue, but it was also a nice example of two different types of data agreeing with each other and showing me that the work we want to do could have quite a bit of value here.

The one place we didn’t visit was the refugee camp itself.  This may seem odd, given that the camp was our primary reason for coming to this place.  Indeed, we had planned to spend quite a bit of time in the camp, doing the same things we had been doing in those other locations.  The problem was that we needed a permission letter from a government ministry in Kigali, and we had not yet met with this ministry.  So, we couldn’t enter the camp.  Although this was disappointing for the group, it is also understandable – you probably wouldn’t want any random person or group to just walk into a refugee camp, where there are a number of complexities and social dynamics that may not be fully understood.

Personally, the major purpose for my tagging along on this trip was to see the camp and come away with a better understanding of that context.  So, the fact that we couldn’t enter did disappoint me quite a bit.  At the same time, though, I enjoyed the work that we were able to do.  It felt very good to be out in the field again, talking to people about their lives, experiencing a small portion of this reality.  I also had a few really interesting brainstorming sessions with Peter while we were riding in the cars.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of the more globally-focused research I often do in my office in the civil engineering building at the university, and I do enjoy that work.  I find it very interesting, and potentially very impactful.  But the work that I can contribute to in East Africa – now with the added focus on refugee communities, which are full of extremely vulnerable populations – I think that is where my heart truly lies.  I can get excited about either type of work, but I am more emotionally tied to one, even though it is not as broad in scope.

After our time in the northern part of the country, we returned to Kigali on Wednesday afternoon, back to the same hotel we stayed at the first night.  After arriving and eating dinner, the students did a few more tests on the water they had collected, while I worked on some other work not related to this trip.

Thursday was our safari day.  We woke up very early and left the hotel around 4:30 AM, so that we could reach a national park near the country’s eastern border with Tanzania when it was still relatively early in the morning.  Our drive through the park started very slowly, seeing the occasional antelope, warthog, buffalo, or zebra once in a while.  Right before stopping for lunch, however, we came across a single, extremely large elephant by a lake.  We ate lunch a little further along the lakeshore, near where a group of hippos was hanging out in the water.  After lunch, we hit the jackpot.  Our drivers did not expect to find any big cats, but we came across two lions, one female and one male, resting under a bush near a mound of soil.  This was the first time I had seen a male lion in the wild.  Very soon after that, we got pretty close to a group of about eight giraffes, some of which were obviously paired up in couples.  For the rest of the afternoon, we saw fairly large groups of zebras and antelopes.  I always love seeing wildlife in the wild, and this was a great experience.  But, it was a very long day.  We got back to the hotel around 6:00 PM, meaning that we had basically spent about thirteen and a half hours in the cars, and most of that driving was pretty bumpy and very dusty.  Everyone got out of the cars and immediately headed for the showers.

Friday was our last full day in Rwanda.  All of the students and some of the TAs visited the genocide memorial and then went to a craft market, while Peter, Benito (the professor teaching the class), Lauren, Aimee (two TAs), and I went to several meetings in the city.  We met with a few people working at USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) at the U.S. embassy, with the Rwandan government ministry that handles refugee populations in the country (and the ministry from which we would need to get permission to enter the camp), and with UNHCR (the UN refugee agency, which runs the camps and registers refugees when they enter the country).  I think all of the meetings went really well, and future groups shouldn’t have a problem getting access to the camp, now that our leaders know the process that needs to be followed.  We were all especially happy with the UNHCR meetings.  We actually had two meetings with this agency, one in the morning with technical program staff, and one in the afternoon with a few people who hold leadership positions.  All of these people seemed to be very interested in the projects we have planned in Uganda, and they definitely saw potential connections with the camps in Rwanda as well.  For example, one of the program staff mentioned that latrines were a significant issue in the camps (due to soil conditions that can increase the chance of collapse, which, again, agreed with the data we had been collecting), and that firewood for cooking is another major issue.  We were told that the UNHCR spends about $1 million per year just to provide firewood for all of the refugees in the country.  One of the technologies we will be researching can provide an alternative source of cooking fuel using energy generated from human and/or animal waste.  So, we could potentially help the UNHCR to save some money, a prospect in which they were particularly interested.  The less money they spend on firewood, the more they can spend on other critical needs.  I think we all came away from these meetings very encouraged and excited.

Friday evening at dinner, Benito and the TAs spent some time talking to the students about possible design projects that they might do for the class, based on the data that had been collected.  Benito also thanked Peter, two members of Peter’s staff who had accompanied us, and our four drivers.  I had been feeling a need to say some words of thanks for a while at this point, so I spoke up after Benito finished.  I also thanked our Ugandan colleagues – fortunately, I had been remembering more and more Luganda throughout the week, as I listened to the Ugandans converse with one another.  So, I expressed my thanks in Luganda.  I also thanked Benito and the TAs for their work putting the trip together, and for letting me tag along.  And finally, I thanked the students.  Over the past week, it’s been wonderful getting to know these people – it was actually my favorite part of the trip.  And, maybe, I was able to provide them with some small insight once in a while.  I thanked them for letting me share this experience with them, and I suggested that, either before we left the country or during our flights back to Illinois, they each take some time to reflect on the experience, to think about what they saw and heard, to try to understand in some small way the lives of the people they met – how those lives are different from ours, but also how they are similar and connected to ours.

Saturday morning was a relaxed day, as we slowly checked out of the hotel, got all of the luggage together and went to the airport.  The airport was not a relaxed experience, unfortunately – there were many questions about the equipment we were carrying, and checking in took much longer than it should have.  But, everyone made it (except for my water bottle, which I accidentally left behind in the chaos), and we had a safe flight to Kenya, and then on to Amsterdam.  We are now sitting in the Amsterdam airport, waiting for our last flight.  Our long layover here has given me plenty of time to write this extended summary of our trip.

Overall, this trip was not exactly what I expected, but it was certainly an enjoyable, enlightening, and enriching experience.  Besides the research ideas that have come out of my time here, and besides a slightly greater understanding of the lives of people in Rwanda, two key messages have come out of this trip for me:

First, as I’ve already said, East Africa needs to remain a part of my life.  This was my first time back to this area of the world since leaving Uganda at the end of my Peace Corps service, and it cannot be the last.  This place holds too much of my heart behind whenever I leave.  I find a piece of myself when I return.  Fortunately, I think my research will bring me back in the coming years.

Second, I love interacting with students.  Like I said, my favorite part of this trip has been getting to know these young people.  Hopefully, I provided something useful, and I would like to do that for more people.  A career path that involves teaching is becoming more and more attractive, even though I still have little actual experience with it.  I need to get more…

Can these two pieces work together as I move forward in my life?

I hope so.  I think it’s possible…