Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Considering the holiday that happened back in the US last Thursday, I thought that now might be a good time to talk about some of the reasons I am thankful this year…

…for Nature

Last week, right around Thanksgiving day, Max and I ventured a little ways into the southwest region of Uganda to prepare for the construction of two water tanks at Kutamba Primary School, near a town called Kisiizi.  In addition to Max and me, we also brought along two of our masons, Joseph and Gonzaga, and the press that the masons would use to make the curved bricks for the tanks.  Now, the brick press weighs at least a few hundred pounds, and it takes at least 3 to 4 people to move the thing anywhere, so transport was a bit of a tough issue.  We left Kalisizo in one of the Toyota Corollas that function as taxis, with the press and our masons’ mattresses, pillows, and other belongings all stuffed into the trunk (here it’s called the “boot”…obviously a little British influence).  Needless to say, the trunk was a bit smaller than the stuff that was in it, meaning that it was pretty much completely open, with the stuff tied down somehow.  Due to our massively imbalanced weight distribution, our driver was stopped several times at police checkpoints.  As is customary here, a small bribe was all it took to allow us to keep moving, but these small bribes piled up, and, by the time we got out of this car, the driver had decided to up the price by about 10%...

After leaving the car, we loaded the press and all the other stuff into the back of a matatu (the small mini-buses that are another form of public transportation), and, even though the back didn’t completely shut, it wasn’t quite so bad, and we weren’t flagged down by police every few kilometers.  When we had gone as far as we could in the matatu, we switched again, this time to a pick-up truck, which was probably the most appropriate vehicle for the press in the first place.  Of course, our masons had to ride in the back as we careened down a fairly bumpy road, picking up hundreds of pounds of matooke along the way, but we eventually made it to the town, safe and sound.

Overlooking Kutamba Primary School
By now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with nature.  Well, during the whole journey, I was almost oblivious to our current mode of transportation, due to the changing scenery that I saw moving past me as I looked out of the window.  The progression actually reminded me a lot of starting at my home in south-central Pennsylvania and heading up into the northern part of the state, a journey I’ve made several times.  After beginning with the rolling foothills near Lewisberry, the hills grow as we travel north along the Susquehanna, and we eventually reach the round, wooded peaks of the Appalachians, with a variety of colors bursting forth if you’re there as the leaves are changing color.  The Ugandan trek was all green, but the landscapes were similar.  After leaving the rolling, relatively small hills near Kalisizo, we saw the hills get bigger and bigger, until we reached the majestic, green mountains out west.  These peaks were not as heavily forested (deforestation is actually a growing problem in Uganda), they were occasionally dotted with small, jagged rock outcroppings, and I think they might have been a bit bigger than the Appalachians, but the trip reminded me of past vacations, with the days being spent hiking through Pennsylvania’s state parks and the nights being spent in a cabin with a great view of the surrounding area.  I’m thankful for nature because it never ceases to remind me of the grandeur, the wonder, and the harmony of beauty and functionality that characterizes the natural universe around us.  I hope the pictures do a half-decent job of showing you some views from the school that were breathtaking, in person.

…for Friends

Another view from the school, looking down the hill
I wasn’t planning on having a true Thanksgiving meal, this year.  I didn’t have the capacity, with my little gas stove, or the actual cooking skills necessary to pull off turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, broccoli casserole, baked pineapple, corn, cranberry sauce (homemade), rolls, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and other assorted goodies.  (Okay, maybe I could have managed the rolls…)  But, as fate would have it, I was lucky enough to randomly run into another Peace Corps volunteer last Wednesday, and was invited to the dinner she was having with a bunch of volunteers from Great Britain and Ireland.  Granted, there were a few of my Thanksgiving favorites missing (green bean/broccoli casseroles, baked pineapple, and apple pie, for starters), but it was absolutely amazing anyway.  I, of course, did my standard “take some of everything” Thanksgiving tradition (this includes desserts, by the way), and was not disappointed, with the food or with the company.

Yet another view from the school
I also spent last Saturday with some friends in a nearby town.  They had just bought some fresh pork (in other words, the pig was slaughtered that morning) from the butcher down the street, and we made a really, really good stir-fry with pork, pineapple, assorted veggies, and rice.  Then, we spent the afternoon playing games, talking about what we’ve been doing, and eating some of their leftover pumpkin cake.  Yet another great day with great people.

And, of course, I’m thinking about all of my friends in other parts of the world, wondering how they spent their Thanksgiving this year.  I continue to be so very thankful of all of the support coming from so many different places.

for Being Alive

Joseph and Gonzaga, two of our masons, mixing soil and cement

Don’t worry, I have no near-death experiences to report, although our trip back to Kalisizo from the southwest was a little interesting.  Max and I set off back home in a matatu, and we were barreling along at a good pace until we hit a very muddy stretch of dirt road.  It had rained a lot while we were out there at the school, and some workers were adding more dirt to the road to make it a bit more passable.  But, we couldn’t get through.  So, our driver turned us around, and took this crazy, circuitous route in an attempt to make it back to the main road.  I’m pretty sure there were times when he was just making it up, having no idea where exactly he was going, as passengers in the back shouted what I think were suggested directions up to the front.  At one point, we were on what had to be a very rarely traveled “road” (it was more a set of tire tracks that went up and over a big hill) that was not at all appropriate for a vehicle of our size.  After we had reached the summit and were bouncing down the other side, the driver leaned over to me (I was sitting in the front between him and Max) and said, “This is a road.”  I laughed a bit as I responded, “This is a road? Almost…”  Well, we eventually rejoined something that was a bit more road-like, at which point our driver nearly floored in, trying to make up for lost time, which lasted about 10 seconds, as we flew over a large bump that he didn’t see.  I’m pretty sure the minibus, with all of its luggage and its numerous passengers, caught some air at that point.  We went a little slower after that, appeasing the unimpressed grunts from the passengers in back.  Finally, we spotted the main road (it’s actually paved), and rocketed home, this time with our driver successfully avoiding the obstacle course of potholes.

Adding the mixture to the press
Anyway, my life was never really in danger there, I just wanted an excuse to tell that story.  Trying to get back on point, I’m thankful to be alive at this exciting time in history, when the connections between people around the world are so obvious.  Just the fact that I can be writing something in Uganda, which could potentially reach you instantly on the other side of the world, is something kind of crazy.  I think that, in general, people are slowly starting to realize how much we depend on one another, and how much we can learn from one another.  And I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to live in a completely different place, with people from a different culture.  I think that’s certainly something to be thankful for, and I think it’s really important to have the chance to see the different perspectives and ways of doing things that exist in the world.

…for Trials

Starting the compression stroke...
All that I’ve said so far has been very good.  These are things that are easy to be thankful for.  But I’ve also had my share of frustrations, disappointments, and other assorted trials and tribulations.  I’m not going to go into these in detail, but I want to say that, I think, trials are also something to be thankful for.  Certainly, some things are just too terrible and might not have any sort of good value to them, but many of the things that go wrong and that frustrate us can be very important in our development.  I have to try to remember that each of these frustrations, each of these disappointments is a veiled opportunity to grow and to become a better person, to confront some of the aspects of myself that might not be so good or effective, and to try to improve them.  Just as a quick example, you might remember my frustrating encounters with the little kids who live in my compound.  Admittedly, sometimes, they are still pretty good at ticking me off.  (Yesterday, for example, one of the little ones bit my shirt, and now the shirt has a nice little hole in it.), but things have definitely gotten better.  I’m not sure how much of this is me improving or if it’s just random ebb and flow, but we’ve spent some fun time playing together.  They like it a lot when I pick them up and swing them around a bit, and the youngest boy and I have started doing this thing where I hold his hands as he walks up my legs.  When his feet make it up to my waist, he gets a little reward, as I swing him around, turn him upside down, and help him to perform other acrobatic feats.  Of course, I need to be wearing clothes that are already really dirty, because, if he has not had a bath five seconds ago, the little guy is invariably covered in dirt (and he hasn’t yet learned the benefits of blowing his nose…he gets some nice snot buildup around his nostrils…anyway, I’m sure you wanted to know that).  So, we’ve been having some fun, and I hope things will keep getting better.  I’m thankful for this opportunity to improve.

…and finally…for Family

Finished compressing
Thanksgiving is one of the days of the year that I look forward to the most.  And that’s not only because of the food (although that certainly plays a significant role).  Every year, I would get to see a whole bunch of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and cousins’ kids (whatever that relationship is called).  On Thanksgiving Day, Grandma (and Pop-Pop, before he passed away) would come to our house for an amazing meal, after which we would probably hang out down by the fire, talk, watch some (American) football, take naps, and then start chowing down on the leftovers in the evening.  The next day, we would get together with the Trimmer side of the family, traditionally at the Trimmer farm, but now the gathering rotates between various members of the family.  And we’d have another big feast, with the ladies usually providing the majority of the talking while the quiet Trimmer guys stuffed large amounts of food and gallons of milk into their mouths, possibly stopping occasionally to interject a few carefully selected words into the conversation (possibly).  Then, we (again, mainly the ladies) would talk some more, catch up on anything we haven’t yet covered, and reminisce a bit about Grandma Trimmer.  Finally, we’d all take our large assortments of leftovers back home, and I’d probably chow down a bit more that night.

The first two finished products
The past several years, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my family would go and pick out a Christmas tree over at Haring’s tree farm, since it was likely to be one of the only weekends Luke and I would both be around before Christmas.  I always enjoyed this, even though Luke, Dad, and I might have played it off as if we didn’t really care what the tree looked like, as Mom would carefully examine every branch, occasionally pulling out a chart of proper Christmas tree dimension ratios (okay, that was a bit of an exaggeration).  But really, it was always a good feeling when we finally formed a consensus and picked one out, after which I would kneel down on the usually frosty, occasionally muddy ground and cut it down.

Even though I’m never the most talkative or the most exciting to be around during these family events, they have always been something I’ve looked forward to.  The anticipation of coming home from school for Thanksgiving was always huge, even when I was (relatively) far away in Florida last year.  Nothing was going to keep me from coming home.  And, this year, I’m realizing how much I love this time with family, how important it is to me.  Don’t get me wrong, hanging out with some Peace Corps friends over the past few days has been great, but it cannot possibly replace that feeling of being completely at home.  As much as I want to feel at home wherever my life takes me, there’s something special, something irreplaceable, about being with a family, both an immediate and an extended family, where there is so much love, warmth, and care.  To all the Trimmers, Houseals, and Shericks out there who might be reading this, I miss you and love you very much.  I’m so thankful for you, and for your infinite love and support that is always there.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Development Dilemma

So, a couple weeks ago, I met a really nice man named Samson (Biblical names abound here, by the way…in that respect, at least, I fit in pretty well as John).  I just found out a day or two ago that he is the brother-in-law of Max (my counterpart who manages the brick business), and that the two of them grew up in the same village, Kajaguzo (where Max still lives), which is maybe 4 or 5 kilometers from Kalisizo.  Anyway, Samson and his family have lived in Canada for the past 10 years or so, and he seems to be doing very well.  He has a doctoral degree, and now he has started up a non-profit organization that does work in this area of Uganda.  He has a very impressive compound that’s really close to my place, and he brings groups to Uganda from North America and Europe, and he’s working on getting a group from Australia sometime next year, I think.  He seems like a very good guy, and I think he genuinely wants to work to improve the area where he grew up.

About a week and a half ago, a group of three young women from Germany came down and are spending a month here to do some work.  I’ve run into them a few times (they tend to stick out…kind of like I do), and we’ve talked a bit about what I’ve been doing and what they’re doing.  A couple of evenings ago, I ran into two of them as I was walking home after buying a couple of avocadoes, and we talked a little bit about what the Peace Corps is and what it does.  Then, as they were talking about some of the schools they had visited that day, they said something very interesting: “It seems like the people need money more than they need help.”  The statement kind of caught me off guard, and I wasn’t really sure what to say, so I just did one of my things where I cock my head to one side and utter a thoughtful grunt, “Huh.”  (I think I do this often when I feel like I don’t completely agree with something, but don’t really know what to say at that moment.)  Anyway, we didn’t really talk any more about that, but I’d like to think it through a bit, so I’m going to take you along for the ride.

First of all, the idea of just giving money is very different from the general approach of the Peace Corps.  The idea of a PC volunteer (very generalized) is not that you’re a source of funding for the community.  Rather, you act as a kind of facilitator or catalyst, trying to help the community to identify its own needs and resources and to figure out how to move forward.  Now, my specific situation is a bit different, because I’m working with an organization that is based in New York, and its primary mode of operation is for its schools in New York to fundraise in an effort to help the schools in Uganda.  So, there’s money that’s being given.  And that money is being used to fund projects like the construction of new classrooms, libraries, and water tanks, or like buying books to fill the libraries.  These are projects that need a significant source of funding, and that money needs to come from somewhere.  Anyway, the question, I think, is: How far does it go?  Maybe people need a bit of money at the beginning to get the ball rolling, but then, how long does the money need to keep coming in to keep the ball moving forward?

Of course, this is something of a microcosm of a much bigger debate.  On the continuum of opinions regarding development work and foreign aid, the two extreme ends of the spectrum seem to be either “We need to increase foreign aid money” or “Foreign aid has done more harm than good.”  I’ve read a little bit in support of the first position.  For example, the first book I read over here was Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, in which he suggests that, if the “developed” countries would fulfill their pledge to devote 0.7% of their budgets to Official Development Assistance (ODA), the “developing” countries would be granted enough funding and resources to break the cycle of poverty that exists and to begin steadily climbing the “development ladder.”  The money would function as the “start-up capital” needed to get the ball rolling.

Then, there’s the other side of the debate, which I have not read as much about.  But, I do have two books on my “need to read soon list,” Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo and The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly (though they’ve currently been trumped by The Teeth may Smile but the Heart Does not Forget by Andrew Rice, which is about some of the relatively recent history of conflict within Uganda…Idi Amin and such).  Anyway, from what I’ve gathered, a big idea on this side is that all of the aid has created something of a “welfare continent,” in which African countries are very dependent on outside sources to provide services.  For example, something like 80% to 90% of the anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS in Uganda are paid for by the US government (PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).  If the US pulled that funding, Uganda would be in big trouble.

I can understand this argument, because I see some people who think that white skin automatically means money (I get asked for money a lot more than the average Kalisizo resident), and because giving out money might be “the easy way out.”  Maybe we’re limiting the natural ingenuity of people when we see a need and donate the money to meet that need.  Maybe, we should remember that these are people who know their own history, their own area, their own resources, and that they might be able to discover a solution that they can bring about themselves.  I think that’s a lot of what Peace Corps tries to do…”helping people help themselves,” or the old standby about teaching someone to fish instead of giving him/her a fish.

But is this fair?  We say that Ugandans should be able to help themselves, and we just need to “build the capacity” for them to do that.  It certainly shows a level of respect for the creativity of the people with which you work, but are we setting the bar a little too high?  A school does not have enough classrooms, or a school does not have enough books, or a school is not able to provide lunch for all of the students…Should it really be the school’s responsibility to figure out how to fix these problems?  Don’t we all have a stake in that school’s well-being?  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s responsibility to see that every child in the world has access to a good education?  The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to education.  Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages…Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”  Is it right to ask a poor school in a poor village to figure out how to fix its own problems?  Do we ask that of schools in the US?  Are we setting a double standard?  (By the way, I’m not incredibly familiar with all of the workings of the public school system in the US, so maybe some of my assumptions here are wrong…feel free to correct me if you know more about this than I do…which is quite likely.)  Anyway, the point is that maybe we’re asking more of those we work with than we have asked of ourselves.

As we swing back in the direction of giving money, I can also see how this (giving money) could also be seen as a gesture of respect.  By giving a person, a group, or a country money, maybe you’re showing the person, group, or country that you trust that the money will be used wisely and will go to the places where it will have the greatest effect.  By giving money, you suggest that people know what they need and can make it happen if they just have the funds available.  Maybe you suggest that these people could be just as successful as you are, if the same resources that you have at your disposal are also at their disposal.

All that may be true, but it seems that, in the “real world” of flawed systems and flawed human beings, money is not always used as it should be (this is not exactly a major revelation).  We see headline after headline about corruption, about money that doesn’t get to its intended destination.  We hear about the “trickle-down effect,” which can be a terrible side effect of decentralized government.  The national government gets some funding that’s supposed to go to some project at the local level…People at the national level take their cut, and the rest of the money moves to the district.  People at the district level get their cut, and the remainder moves to the county.  Yada, yada, yada, by the time it gets to the grassroots program it was supposed to fund, there’s hardly enough left to pay the rent, let alone to actually improve the community.

So, it seems that, as with most debates, each side has its pros and cons (what a surprise).  But, here’s the real problem: I think that both sides of the debate, at least as I’ve framed it so far, miss a crucial point.  There’s a very important aspect to development work that has, up to this point, been missing in this blog post…I think that, fundamentally, development should be relational.  What I mean is that, regardless of how you approach development, foreign aid, and all of these issues, I don’t think it should be about “us” helping “them”.  It is probably very easy to fall into this trap when we give money, because money is something that “we” have and “they” don’t.  I think we can also fall into the trap when we follow the other approach (“helping people help themselves”) if we see it only in terms of “us” helping “you” to help “yourself”.  In other words, development should be a two-way street.  All of us (including both “us” and “them”) work together for everyone’s benefit.  Sure, “we” have many things that we can offer “them”, but “they” can also teach “us” so much.  Development is about all of us working together to create a more understanding, just, and peaceful world, and we can only do that by building relationships and by learning about other cultures, other belief systems, and other ways of seeing the world and our place in it.

As I come near to the end, I’ll give a quick example.  Although I think it’s very important to work with people and to build relationships, my hugely introverted, Type-B personality sometimes takes over.  Often, I just like to be alone, and to do my own work, on my own time, in my own way.  That way of doing things got me through school pretty effectively, but here, in Uganda, I need to learn to do things a bit differently.  As a Ugandan priest who lives in Tampa told me before I left, Ugandans like to do things in groups.  He was talking about Ugandan students studying at the university, and contrasting them with American students, like me.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, and I continued to study on my own, and it worked out fine.  But now, it’s becoming very important.  Max, my counterpart, wants to do everything together…he gets nervous if he even thinks I might be getting ready to send an email that we haven’t both gone through with a fine-toothed comb, one word at a time.  I think to myself, “Gosh, it’s just an email telling our director that we won’t be able to talk to him on Skype today, what’s the big deal?”  But, maybe it is a big deal, and I just don’t realize it because of my own filters through which I see the world.  So, as I work with Max to help him with certain things, he also helps me improve in certain areas, and, I think, that is true development: seeing the world from a different perspective, and realizing that we can improve ourselves and the world by incorporating that perspective into our own.  Maybe it’s not something on a huge, grand scale.  Maybe it won’t solve all of the world’s problems in a day, a month, a year, a century, or even a millennium.  But it might slowly help us all to develop into better people, it might slowly help the world to develop into a better place, one day at a time.

So, if you decide to give money to an organization, know where the money goes.  Try to learn about the people with whom the organization is working.  Try to come to understand how they see the world, and let it affect your own perceptions.  If you decide to go on some sort of service trip, don’t just see yourself as the “helper”.  From what I’ve seen, most people come away from those experiences feeling as if they had been given more than they gave.  You are not just there to work.  You are also there to learn, to try to understand, and to develop friendships that can cross any boundaries, whether those boundaries are political, racial, religious, or anything else.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A People-Centered Approach...and just a little patience

So, it’s a little weird.  Here I am, in Uganda working for the Peace Corps.  I have to admit that I didn’t expect to be doing the great majority of my work in an office, sitting at a desk in front of a computer.  Yet, here I sit.  In fact, I’m in the office right now, starting this post as I wait for Max, my counterpart, to arrive.  Today, we’re working on updating the brick business’s big, master accounting spreadsheet, getting all of the numbers from our most recent projects into the right places.  It is fun guiding and helping Max along as his computer skills continue to improve, and he seems to think that I’m a pretty good teacher, mainly because I go relatively slowly.  Admittedly, sometimes that’s because he’ll ask me something that I don’t know, and I need to figure it out on the spot…so far, I’ve done okay with this.

Anyway, the point is that, at least in some cases in Uganda, it might be a little different than what somebody might consider a “traditional” Peace Corps experience.  I think at least part of this is due to the fact that the Peace Corps operates a little differently in Uganda than in many other countries.  From what I’ve heard, volunteers in some other countries are placed in a community, and it is up to them to help members of the community identify resources, needs, opportunities, and so on, and then to work together to see what could be done to improve everyone’s well-being.  On the other hand, in Uganda, while all of us are certainly living in Ugandan communities, each one of us is placed with a specific organization…it could be a community-based organization (usually very grassroots and run by Ugandans in the community), a governmental organization (volunteers might be working directly with local or town council chairpersons), or an international non-governmental organization (which could range in size from an organization that works with a few schools in Uganda, like Positive Planet, to the Ugandan branch of the Red Cross).  It’s a testament to the sheer number of organizations in this small country (about the size of Oregon) that the Peace Corps’ approximately 170 in-country volunteers are all placed with them, and I think there are very few organizations that get more than one volunteer.  So, for example, in my case, I don’t always spend a lot of time just trying to figure out the local community, because my organization already has projects going, and in some cases I’ve just needed to jump right in and start working.

Some students looking out the window at Lwamaya Primary School
This isn’t to say that I never get to leave the office.  Over the past week or so, I’ve had a few opportunities to visit tank construction sites and one of Positive Planet’s schools, and I’m hoping that the frequency of these “site visits” continues to go up.  Last Thursday, for example, I went with some of the masons to Lwamaya Primary School, which, if we could all pull out our maps of Uganda, is in between Masaka and Mbarara…give or take, maybe about an hour and a half or so away from Kalisizo.  We went there with a trainer, because the masons are going to be expanding their construction knowledge with these interlocking soil bricks.  They’re going to be building a three-room structure at Lwamaya, which will contain a classroom, a library, and a small store, and this construction project will function as their introduction to building structures other than circular rainwater tanks.  This visit was basically to get an idea of the site, to draw up a rough plan of the structure, and to begin to estimate the amounts of materials that will be needed.  I talked to one of the teachers while we were there, who told me that the primary school, which contains seven grade levels (P-1 through P-7), had about 400 students, 6 permanent classrooms, 1 temporary classroom (until this new structure is done), two rainwater tanks (one of which isn’t collecting any water because the gutters weren’t installed very well), three sets of five latrines (boys, girls, and staff), and a little shack that functions as the kitchen, so that the kids can get lunch.

A big group of students outside the school
My point in telling you all of this is that, considering the fact that I spend a lot of my time working on a computer in an office, and the fact that so much of development work at the macro-level involves numbers, percentages, and statistics on a much bigger and more complex scale than the ones I just listed, it sometimes might be easy to forget the importance of each individual person.  For example, let’s take malaria, which, as I’ve said before, is a pretty big problem in Uganda.  I don’t know the current infection rate or prevalence rate of the disease, but let’s assume it’s relatively high.  Now, that in itself is a tragedy, because malaria is preventable.  It is transmitted by a certain type of mosquito (and only the females of this type bite humans, and they usually only feed during the night), so, if we can eliminate the breeding grounds for those mosquitoes and prevent them from biting us, we can prevent the disease.  There are a number of things that can help to accomplish this.  Obviously, sleeping under a mosquito net is huge.  In addition, using insect repellant and wearing long sleeves and pants during the evening hours can help to stop mosquitoes from landing on us and biting us.  Then, we can work to reduce any standing water nearby, because mosquitoes breed in standing pools of water.  We can cover our latrines and add stuff that will help to dry them out (like wood chips or charcoal ash).  And, on top of all of that, every volunteer in this country is on some type of malaria prophylaxis drug, which should prevent malaria, even if we are bitten.  So, it should be possible to reduce the incidence of malaria quite a bit.  But, what I really want to get at here is this:  if we reduced the incidence to, say, 0.0001% of the Ugandan population, we would probably consider that an incredible success, and it would be.  But, we cannot forget those people who are in that 0.0001% (which would be about 34 people)…they might not see things in the same way.  To them, the achievement might not seem quite so great.

More kids at a window (hopefully I didn't cause too much of a disruption)
Maybe the complete elimination of these types of diseases is an idealistic fantasy (though I hope not), but my point is that we need to be careful about seeing people in terms of numbers, percentages, statistics, etc.  And beyond that, we can’t just see people in one dimension.  Especially on the large-scale level, we inevitably lump people into categories: impoverished people, sick people, malnourished people, etc., and while these issues might have a large impact on their lives, they do not necessarily define their entire lives.  Every single person has hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, virtues, faults…just like I do.  Their dignity and inherent value as unique individuals is of prime importance, regardless of the work we do.  We need to be careful and ensure that we don’t reduce these people to numbers and statistics on a graph or in a table.  The life or death, the sickness or health, the happiness or sadness or one individual is incredibly important to that individual and those close to him or her, and so it should be important to us, even if that individual is in the smallest of minorities.  Much of what I wrote in the last post was about our similarities and what draws us together.  This time, in the spirit of seeing the uniqueness of each individual, of seeing not what separates us or pulls us apart, but what creates variety in our lives, the rest of this post will consist of stories about my experiences over the past few weeks with some very unique, interesting, and inspiring individuals.

And even more students standing outside of the school
About a week and a half ago, a 20 year old young woman named Grace stopped by my house with her brother.  It was obvious that they had something very important that they wanted to ask me, and were maybe a little embarrassed or afraid to ask.  After sitting for several minutes (and eating a couple of bananas with them), they finally started to tell me how Grace had been in a motorcycle accident, and she showed me a scar on her wrist.  She had gone to see a doctor and had gotten some treatment, but that visit had basically eaten up all of their money.  Basically, Grace needed a job.  Well, it just so happened that I had been thinking of trying to find someone to wash my clothes for me, because, even though I had gotten a lot of practice during homestay, I knew that a Ugandan would do a much better job than I would.  So, I threw that out there as an option.  Eventually, after a little negotiation, we ended up deciding that Grace would come every Monday, wash my clothes, clean the floors (they can get kind of dirty, what with the mud and dirt and such), wash the dishes, and cook us something for lunch, and I would pay her a pretty decent wage for this work.  Plus, since she only comes once a week, she has the rest of the days to find other ways to make a little more money.

Some students in the P-7 class
Now, immediately after Grace and her brother had left that evening, I wasn’t sure if I had done the right thing, or if maybe I should have tried to go a different route.  Well, her first day was last Monday, and let me tell you, I think it will work out well.  First of all, she did a great job…she wasn’t satisfied until every single thing in my house was clean.  The stove and the mini-fridge, for example, which had built up quite a bit of grime during their two years with the volunteer I replaced, were practically sparkling.  People that came to my house in the days after that all were amazed at how nice and clean the house looked…I might even go so far as to say that Mom would have been proud to see this change from the college dorm rooms that accumulated quite a mess every single semester.  And she can cook, too!  She made spaghetti (yeah, I can actually get spaghetti noodles really easily here…although the Ugandans don’t really differentiate one pasta from another…they’re all “macarones”), and it was really, really good.  And we even had a nice conversation and bonded a bit over lunch.  She was telling me about her family, and I was doing the same.  Eventually, she asked me, as many people have, if I had a wife.  And I gave her what has become my standard answer of “No, I am still too young.  I am not yet ready for a wife.”  Then she actually said that her mother always asks her when she’ll get married and start having kids, and we found a little connection, as I told her how my dad often asks me, “Any girlfriends yet?”  (yes, that’s a plural “girlfriends” by the way).  By around 3:00, she was all done with everything, I gave her the money, and she headed off.  Then, on Thursday evening, she stopped by as I was cooking dinner…After being surprised by the massive mountain of assorted vegetables I was cooking to go with my rice, she showed me a little present that she had brought from the market, I guess to thank me for giving her some work…three avocadoes and one big papaya, which I was very excited about.  It was just a very kind and thoughtful gesture, one which she obviously didn’t need to do (cleaning and cooking lunch was more than enough), but it just showed me how great people can be, and how generous people can be, even if they don’t have a whole lot.

A really good view from the school (the photo doesn't quite do it justice)
In the morning on that day (Thursday), as I was toasting a piece of bread, my propane tank ran dry.  Seeing as Jonathan, the volunteer before me, hadn’t filled it in a while, this was not incredibly unexpected, but I basically needed to spend the morning going to the Shell Station in Masaka to get a full tank.  After lugging this empty propane tank to the main taxi stop in town (which wasn’t a bad workout, let me tell you), I was, as usual, crammed into a Toyota Corolla with about 9 other people…4 people in front, 6 in back.  As you might guess, this requires some people in the back to sit on others’ laps, and at least one person in the front to sit right in the middle, with the gear shift shoved into your leg.  That was my spot…obviously, Toyota Corollas were not designed to allow a person taller than 6 feet to sit in this spot.  My neck was a little sore when I got out, after having to hold my head sideways for most of the half hour ride.  The ride back was a bit more comfortable, since I was in the back…you’re more packed in, but there’s no gear shift in the way to cramp your style.

Anyway, the can of sardines public transportation system is not the point of the story.  The point is that, even as I was crumpled into somewhat uncomfortable positions, I was struck by how open and willing to talk to “strangers” most people in the car were.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that one person is sitting on another’s lap, but I found it kind of neat that people, who I don’t think had met before, were greeting the other people in the car (including me) and just having conversations.  I don’t have much experience with big city public transportation back in the US, but, in general, I’m not sure if you’d find that kind of willingness there.

Okay, now you may have just noticed that I’ve started falling into a trap.  I just made a generalization.  It’s so easy to do as we look at certain things in Uganda and try to compare them to things in the USA, but we always have to remember that generalizing can be dangerous.  Once I start down that road, it becomes very easy to assume that a Ugandan will act a certain way, will do something in a way that’s different and not how I would do it.  It becomes easier to begin to create a divide, an “us” and “them”.  Sure, we are all different, and there are certain things that Ugandans are likely to do differently, but that doesn’t change the fact that, at the most basic level, we are all connected.  For one thing, we all want to feel valued, to feel that people care about us.

The trainer (yellow shirt) and two of our masons at the school
As I was walking home from the office Thursday afternoon (Thursday was apparently a very eventful day), a group of guys across the street shouted to me, “Jangu” (“Come”).  Now, obviously, it might not always be a good idea to walk over to a group of guys who want you to come that way, regardless of where you are.  But, I felt okay about this group, so I did go over, and we spoke a little Luganda, then a little English, and finally I told them that I needed to go to the market (in Luganda).  As I left, one of the guys said, “Thank you for greeting us.”  In other words, thank you for taking the time to come over, to show us that we are at least a little important to you.  Now, my thought process as I had walked over to them contained nothing about making them feel valued, but that’s how it was perceived.  And that’s all they wanted.  They just wanted to know that this person, who might look a little different, cares enough to say hi.  Thankfully, a very little bit of language can go a long way.

Now, let’s go in the other direction.  On a day that was not Thursday, I walked passed a woman who asked me for money.  I told her that I was not able (we’re actually not really allowed to…), and she walked away.  As is usually the case when someone asks me for money, I started to walk away, frustrated with the fact that we live in a world where this happens quite a lot, wondering what the answer is, what the right thing to do is.  But then, another woman came up to me and started talking to me in English.  Her name is Lydia, and she showed me where she lives, introduced me to two of her kids (Lydia and Rachel), told me that her son (Earnest, who’s away at school), has hair like mine (a statement at which I expressed profound disbelief, as I have not seen a Ugandan man with hair longer than a half an inch), and showed me her cow (which needed to have its horns cut at the top because they were so big).  Anyway, it was a really nice conversation, and she even had her kids calling me “Uncle John” by the end of it.  I don’t know if she had seen my exchange with the first woman and wanted to lift my spirits or just randomly decided to start talking to me, but it did help me to feel a little better.  And it kept me from falling into the trap, from starting to make the generalization that Ugandans see me and immediately think that I might be a source of money.  Lydia’s greeting helped to show me that I am valued, just for being a human being.

There’s also another girl who I think I’ve become pretty good friends with.  Her name is Monica, and she is in Senior 3 (after Primary 7, the next step is to go to secondary school, which starts at Senior 1, or S-1).  Monica just amazes me, in general.  First of all, her English is really good.  I can have a fairly in-depth conversation with her in English, and she definitely understands what’s going on.  Second, from what she tells me, her work ethic is incredible.  Apparently, she wakes up at like 3 in the morning to study, goes to school at 7, finishes the school day around 5, and then does chores and probably studies some more.  She said that she usually goes to sleep around 11.  In other words, she’s getting like 4 hours of sleep a night.  Now, when I was living in homestay, it became pretty obvious that sleep schedules in Uganda are usually a bit different than in the US (I would hear people out in the kitchen at like 2 or 3 in the morning, doing who knows what), but 4 hours a night is tough, especially if you do it for several days in a row (this happens to be known by me through experience).  It’s pretty obvious that Monica works really hard, and, though I don’t know for sure, I’m assuming that she’s a really good student.  After finishing secondary school, she would really like to go to the US and study to become a doctor.  (Actually, she first told me that she wanted to be a singer like Rihanna, but then, after pressing her a bit, she said that she actually wants to become a doctor.)  She has hopes and dreams, just like me, and she is willing to work so hard to try to make them happen.  And yet, even though she works really hard, she still makes time to stop by and say hello, to take a few minutes to go with me to the Saturday market and make sure I don’t buy bananas at the “muzungu” price, to let me know that I have a friend.

Okay, now this is not to say that my life here has been completely devoid of frustrations.  Let me just give you the most difficult, ongoing situation.  As you might have read before, the kids who live in my compound are a little tough to deal with (did you read the post about me getting locked in the latrine by one of these kids?).  On the positive end, they do not always shout Muzungu at me now…the frequency of “Johnny” has eclipsed the frequency of “muzungu”, I think.  But, I’ll just come out and say it, they don’t behave very well at all (and this is not a generalization about Ugandan kids…remember little Hosea?  He was awesome).  They have taking a liking to hitting me, for one thing.  I’ve tried quite a few things…Telling them not to do that in Luganda, raising my voice (Luganda and English), and trying to slowly explain to them that, in general, hitting isn’t good (something like “Do you like when someone hits you?  Well, I don’t like it when you hit me,” translated into Luganda).  This has not worked very well.  They also try very hard to get in my house.  I make it pretty clear that I’m trying to set a boundary at my front door, and that I don’t want them coming into my house.  (Among other reasons, some of these kids get insanely dirty…like, literally covered with dirt.)  Even when I have the door closed, they’ve actually opened it and gone in.  Now this becomes really difficult, because I have to get them out of my house without hurting them, and there are usually like 3 or 4 of them at once.  As I try to carry, push, pull, or otherwise move them out, I have to be very careful that they don’t fall or hit their head, which is pretty tough as there repeated attempts tick me off more and more.  And occasionally they even resort to biting…yeah, some of them have bitten my arms.  Not hard, and no skin has been broken, but I obviously don’t want them to do that, and want them to realize that doing that is pretty freaking disgusting.  Sadly, I don’t currently have the vocabulary to say “pretty freaking disgusting” in Luganda.  But, honestly, so far, these kids have definitely been the biggest test of my patience.  Yesterday, I didn’t handle it incredibly well.  I actually yelled at them  (which doesn’t work, I’ve learned…they just think that’s funny), and one of the kids did fall down as I was trying to get him and two others out of my house.  He was fine, but it scared me, and, when I finally did get into my house and locked the door, I felt really, really bad.  Today I think I did a bit better…I’m trying to get into the habit of locking my door all of the time, whenever I go in or out, so that, maybe, eventually they’ll learn that they can’t open the door and get in, so they’ll stop trying and banging on the door.  And I was very calm as two of them were hitting me today, trying to gently tell them to stop.  I did raise my voice a bit when they started with the biting, but I kept it under control.

After yesterday’s little display, I’ve realized that it might not be such a bad idea to consciously search for and rely on a little bit of divine guidance (realizing, of course, that divine guidance can come in the form of advice or help from a person).  Before leaving, a good friend told me that this experience would really challenge me and force me to rely on God.  While I’ve tried to consciously keep God in my life here, I certainly haven’t done a perfect job, and there are days when my mind just isn’t at that place.  But this little series of events has pushed me back toward that place a bit, indeed, almost forcing me to beg for more patience and peace.  And I have been.

And, wouldn’t you know it, that friend had given me some Bible verses to read while I’m over here.  The one on the top of the pile this morning was Galations 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  As I said, today went a little better.  Ask, and ye shall receive, I guess...Thank you so much, my wonderful friend.