Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Three Confessions



One short and obvious, one sort of odd and maybe a little amusing, and one more serious and reflective...and longer...

1.) I stink at writing blogs…or at least at writing blogs regularly.  But, you already know that, so I won’t dwell on it…

2.) Sometimes I sleep on the floor…don’t worry, not directly on the cold, hard concrete.  I don’t know if my bony frame could make it through a night like that.  There’s a woven mat on the floor that’s about as long as I am, and I take a fairly thick blanket and do a sort of tri-fold thing with it (basically making a flattened Z).  The folded blanket goes on top of the mat, a camping pillow goes at one end, and I go inside the blanket, so that two layers are beneath me and I can use the third as a cover.  Why do I do this?  Because I also stink at waking up early, especially when I sleep in my bed.  After two years of use, I fit into the mattress like a baseball fits into a catcher’s mitt.  It’s a bit too cozy when I need to get out of bed early.  Sleeping on the floor is a bit less comfortable, but I can still go to sleep fairly easily, and, in the morning, I still don’t want to get up.  But, at least I wake up when my alarm goes off.  When I’m sleeping in bed and I need to get up for something, I set at least four alarms on my phone the night before, spaced out so that they get gradually closer together the longer I sleep in.  Even with those fail-safes in place, sometimes my barely-awake brain is able to silence all of the alarms so that it can go back to bed.  It’s a pretty impressive feat, considering I can’t even remember doing that when I wake up again hours later…  So, because I still have the sleep schedule of a lazy guy in college, sometimes I sleep on the floor.  (And I secretly hope that it helps my posture a bit, too…)

3.) Moving to something a bit more serious, I’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of how eye-opening this whole experience has been for me.  In this case, I mean “eye-opening” in terms of learning about myself.  Obviously, the past two years have given me a wealth of interesting outward experiences, but I’m looking inward right now.  Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading journal entries that I wrote during training.  Believe it or not, when we first arrived in Uganda, I was amazingly good about writing in that journal, just about every night.  This lasted almost the whole way through our 10 week training period.  Then I got to site, and I started to write in the journal only slightly more frequently than I wrote blogs.  In other words, there have been stretches where I didn’t write in it for months.  Anyway, the point is that I’ve been looking back at some of the first thoughts I had after coming to Uganda, and I’m realizing that I have changed a little bit.  Admittedly, I was kind of na├»ve, I was incredibly idealistic (sometimes to the point of writing stuff that seems excessively sappy and sentimental), and, although it was not explicitly said, it was implied that I thought I was a pretty good and special person for doing what I’m doing.  I also thought that I was this calm, cool, and collected Zen master who could handle anything with grace and ease.  (I may be exaggerating the truth slightly with my word choice, but you get the idea.)

I’m certainly not saying that I’ve made a 180 degree turn, here, but I definitely see differences between who I was and who I am.  I certainly don’t know everything I should know for the work that I’m doing, but I’ve learned quite a bit over the past couple of years.  I haven’t turned to ultra-realism, but my idealism is tempered now by the raw experience of things sometimes not living up to my hopes.  I may still get sentimental on occasion (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but that has become counterbalanced by what I think is a healthy skepticism.  In other words, I question things even more than I used to, which sometimes helps to find deeper truths that can emerge from previous ideas.

Perhaps most importantly, I know now that I am not, as I might have thought, a person with an extraordinary, Zen-like amount of patience and collectedness.  Indeed, I have found that there is a pretty intense temper that finds its way to the surface once in a while.  A few months ago, I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and a passage near the end really nailed it for me:

“Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them.  You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing, and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness.  Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered.  In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom.”

In the next paragraph, Lewis goes on to discuss “nasty people” who try to be better and find out right away that they need lots of help.  As usual, I see some parts of myself fitting into the (apparently) “nice chap” model and some parts fitting into the “nasty person” model.  (I also think that other parts of myself are not encompassed by these two possibilities, but that’s not really relevant to my point right now.)  The past two years have, in some ways, helped me to bring my personality and my soul out into the sunlight, so that I could see some of the scratches and bruises and dents.  It’s hard, when you’re in the moment, or when you look back on a moment, and you realize that it’s not one of your best moments.  It’s hard to discover that the frustrations and realities of the world are threatening to make you jaded or pessimistic or devoid of compassion, that they are tearing down your abstractions and ideals about how things should work and how things should be.  It’s hard to find yourself, and to be not quite satisfied with what you have found.

In the end, though, I’m glad.  It’s important to realize these things.  I think it’s important to be “not quite satisfied” with what I have found in myself, because it pushes me toward a path of growth.  I think it’s important to understand that I could be nudged down a path that leads to pessimism, jadedness, or despair.  I occasionally see myself turning in that direction.  On the whole, I love what I’m doing, but it can be really easy to forget that when the frustrations and annoyances build up.  It can be really easy to become hard and closed, and maybe even a little unfriendly at times.  But, witnessing those parts of myself is a step toward overcoming those parts of myself, with help.  By closing myself off in an (often failed) attempt to shut out frustrations, I am also shutting out the positive influence of those around me.  I am now trying to make a conscious effort to remain open, even when things start to tick me off, and I have witnessed a positive impact, both on my thoughts and on my work (while still seeing much room for improvement, of course).

Some years ago, during a trip to Nicaragua, I wrote that I have no right to despair.  I would go beyond that now.  I would say that, for me, despair is not even a reasonable option.  I’m going to support this with passages taken from another British author, J.R.R. Tolkien (yep, I’m re-reading the Lord of the Rings right now): First, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.  We do not.”  Second, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

I am so fortunate to have this opportunity, and to continue the experience into another year.  I have the opportunity to do something that I want to do, something that I love.  Doing it means that I also miss some things that I love, but they will be brought back again soon enough.  Though the joy and love does often mingle with disappointment and difficulty, perhaps this process makes the positive that much stronger.  Though I have come to see many of my faults and blemishes more clearly, perhaps, in the end, that knowledge is making me a better, and happier, person.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

But What Do I Know?


Forewarning: this is a bit more serious than my last few blog posts, and it might be a bit disjointed.  These topics returned to my mind only yesterday, and my ideas are probably still not fully formed…

A couple weeks ago, my training group had its Close of Service conference, which happens a couple months before our second year is finished.  I’m a bit of a special case, because I will be staying for a third year, but most people are beginning to transition, figuring out what they will be doing next and wrapping up activities at their sites.  Maybe this sense of things coming to an end has been the cause of my reflections over the past day or two.  I’ve been thinking about the past two years, what I’ve seen and how I’ve lived, and I’ve realized that, even after living in Uganda for two years, I still can’t say that I really know the experience of an average Ugandan.  Sure, I’ve seen things, I’ve heard stories, I’ve lived and worked with many Ugandans, but have I really experienced any of it?  Can I really know what it’s like?

Based on statistics, the “average” Ugandan lives in a rural area, has a bunch of kids, farms for his/her own family’s sustenance, and doesn’t make much money (if he/she is fortunate enough to have a job).  While most of Rakai District is rural, I live in Kalisizo Town, which is, in fact, a town.  While it isn’t a huge town, it is certainly significantly more built-up than the surrounding villages.  For example, none of Uganda’s banks have an actual branch in Kalisizo, but one bank did recently install an ATM machine in town.  So, I’m not living in a strictly rural area, although I’ve certainly gone to very rural locations and have spent weekends in nearby villages.  Besides that, I have a reliable income that is more than sufficient for my needs, and even allows me to eat a meal at a nice restaurant in Masaka from time to time.  I don’t have a large family to provide for, and I don’t need to garden (there’s no place for one in my compound anyway).  All in all, I have a relatively comfortable life.

Others are not so fortunate.  For example, let’s look at a primary school teacher.  According to a 2011 report from Uganda’s Bureau of Statistics, the 2009 median monthly wage for a primary school teacher was 150,000 Ugandan shillings, which is about $60 (per month, remember).  This is further complicated by the fact that teachers are not often paid on a regular basis.  I was just talking to the head teacher at a local primary school today, and he said that it has been at least two months since government teachers have received anything.  If this teacher has a spouse and, say, five kids (which is less than average), that’s seven people in the family.  Now, I probably spend more than 10,000 shillings a week, just on food that I cook myself, but let’s say that I have expensive tastes (carrots are certainly more expensive than matooke), so let’s assume 5,000 shillings per person per week, and we haven’t even addressed the fuel needed to actually do the cooking.  That’s 35,000 shillings per week for the whole family, which, in four weeks, comes to 140,000 shillings.  Add in a few extra days to round out the month, and we’re right around 150,000 shillings.  So, a teacher’s salary is maybe enough to allow a (relatively small) family to eat, but we haven’t even included the costs of anything else (water, cooking fuel, utensils, a stove, furniture, etc.).  Maybe the teacher’s spouse makes money from another job, but, most likely, a teacher’s family probably has to farm to have any chance to getting by.

This opens up another can of worms.  The teacher has to spend his/her days at school to have any hope of getting paid, leaving the kids and spouse to do the farming.  Once the kids are old enough to attend school, the family has a difficult choice to make.  Sending the kids to school would give them the increased opportunities that an education can provide, but those opportunities are years down the road, and their absence from the farm would probably mean a loss of productivity.  Plus, even going to a “free” government school still has costs – for example, if you want your child to be able to eat lunch.  Also, as I’ve said before, government schools are, on average, not that great.  The sad truth is that, if parents have money, the kids almost automatically go to a private school.  I’m not sure what the costs are for primary school, but, for secondary school, the fees for one term could amount to a few hundred dollars or more, and there are three terms per year.  Just having the money to send one child to private school is hard enough, let alone five or more.

Those two paragraphs highlighted only a few issues.  There are several more that would have further complicated the situation.  For example, I didn’t even mention the detrimental effects of disease, or the common need to spend hours fetching water and/or firewood, or the potentially disastrous consequences that could eventually result from the intersection of environmental degradation, rapid population growth, and climate change.  This is how people become trapped in a cycle of poverty, through no fault of their own.  My point here (one of them at least) is that I have not actually experienced this cycle, so how could I claim to know what people here are going through every day?  I might be able to explain the issues and how they can arise, but I can’t begin to tell you how this affects someone on a personal level.  I can’t say how it might create a sense of hopelessness, or how it might cause someone to lose faith people who might be trying to help.  If you are willing to listen, people will talk about their issues and problems, but even then, I doubt that I am getting the whole story.  I doubt I hear the deepest feelings and frustrations that weigh on a person’s soul.  And it’s hard for me to remember this, sometimes.  It's easy to get frustrated myself, when people don’t do something that seems like common sense to me, and it’s easy to forget that every person has an untold story, maybe happy, maybe incredibly sad, which informs that person’s reactions to others and to the outside world.

It’s also important for us to remember that, despite what we might infer from what we read and what we see on TV, the experience of everyone in Africa is not the same sad tale.  First of all, of course, separate places in Africa can be as different as separate places in the Americas (yes, I’m including both North and South America).  Beyond that, within countries, even within communities, there are significant differences.  Near Kalisizo, there are villages with houses made out of mud and sticks, with only an opening where a door should go.  Near Kalisizo, there are also walled-in, gated compounds that contain huge houses with satellite dishes on the roof.  Similar to the USA, significant inequality exists in Uganda.  I remember reading a quote from Bono about how an “accident of latitude” (someone’s place of birth) should not determine a person’s opportunities.  While I appreciate his recognition that different areas of the world are certainly not on a level playing field with one another, and his sentiment that things should be different, his phrasing completely glosses over the intricacies of the situations within countries.  There are a significant number of people in Uganda who are living a comfortable life, but there are also many who live paycheck to paycheck (if they even get a paycheck).  Not recognizing these complexities risks overlooking a number of important facts about the progress Uganda has made so far, about the work that Ugandans are doing to improve the lives of other Ugandans, and about the nature of the work that remains to be done. 

A special report in a March issue of the Economist framed Africa as a “hopeful continent,” where lives are improving, stability is increasing, and economies are growing.  In some ways, Uganda probably fits into this idea, but, in other ways, maybe not.  I have a friend who started nursing school this year, which is a great step, but her continued attendance in future terms is somewhat dependent on the weather.  We are in a dry season right now, and it’s been really dry.  She tells me that, if it doesn’t rain soon, her family’s coffee plants might die, and they might not make the money needed to pay for her next term (by the way, nursing school is significantly more expensive than secondary school).  Opportunities are increasing, but so are the risks that could take away those opportunities.  I could write an entire post on the potential nationwide problems that could arise in the coming decades if population, environmental, and climate trends continue along their current trajectories.  I hope that we’re making a small impact, that we’re doing a little bit to improve people’s lives and to ensure the country’s long-term success and sustainability.  But, what do I know?  Can I really understand how someone’s life might be changed, when I haven’t lived that life myself?  Physical changes might be seen, but emotional and mental changes, for better or worse, are not so visible.  And that mental/emotional state is probably more important, because the most important work cannot be done by someone like me.  It is being done by Ugandans, whose hope lies within themselves, who have faith in their abilities and their goals, and who believe that they and their neighbors deserve healthy lives full of opportunity, promise, and love.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

(Saint) Patrick's Day


So, today is St. Patrick’s Day.  I remembered when it was this year long before I usually do, because Griffin is oh so proud of her Irish heritage.  Honestly, this day doesn’t normally have any really special significance for me, but this year is a little different, due to the ironic coincidence that today was also “Visitation Day” at Patrick’s school.

If you remember, we are using the money raised from selling CDs to pay for Patrick’s first year at Minor Seminary (the level of seminary that would match up with late middle school and early high school years in the US).  Once per term (and there are three terms per year), all boarding schools, whether they are primary, secondary, seminaries, nursing schools, or whatever, have a Visitation Day, usually near the middle of the term, when students’ families come to talk to teachers, see grades, listen to speeches, eat a big lunch, and spend time with the kids.

So, a few weeks ago, Max told me that Patrick’s day was March 17th (it took me a few days before I realized the irony of it also being St. Patrick’s Day), and on Friday he said that he and Teddy would come pick me up at about nine in the morning.  I was actually up in time (rare for a weekend), and they got to my house a little after ten – close enough.  The drive to the seminary took a little less than an hour, and, about five minutes before we got there, Max decided that it was a good time to inform me that two of their other kids had visiting days today as well.  So, for at least a few hours, I was going to be the family’s representative at Patrick’s school, while they went to their daughter Gemma’s school.  Wonderful – so I was heading into a sea of people I didn’t know, except for Patrick, which wasn’t a huge help.  What I find kind of odd about these visiting days is that it seems like families don’t actually get to spend a ton of time with the kids.  All of these activities, meetings, and presentations happen, but the students are often separate from the parents.  For example, during the two hour Catholic mass, all of the students sat in the middle of the church, while the parents were behind them or in the side pews.  During lunch as well, most students didn’t sit with their families.

As you would probably guess, I’m not really the person who walks into a gathering full of strangers and immediately starts making friends with people.  Actually, the opposite of that would probably describe me a bit more accurately.  So, there I was, sitting on a bench, watching what might be called the school’s marching band, in that there was one group of people playing brass instruments and drums, and a second group of people marching to the music – not exactly the type of marching band I remember from high school.  There I was, sitting in a pew trying to pick out anything I could from the mass (which was completely in Luganda), discreetly glancing sideways at the guy next to me from time to time so I had some idea of when to stand up, sit down, kneel, or cross myself.  There I was, sitting on a stool outside, listening to someone give directions about lunch, and hoping that I understood enough of what he was saying to know the correct procedure.  Actually, now that I think of it, it was kind of nice…I felt a sense of anonymity that is usually lacking in my life here.  People weren’t making a big deal about me, and no one was going out of his or her way to make me feel special.  Strange as it may sound, I enjoyed and appreciated this.

As I was sitting on my stool, waiting for the huge buffet line to dwindle, Max and Teddy returned.  I was happy to see some familiar faces, but I also realized that my status had now reverted back to “honored muzungu guest”.  Within a few minutes, a priest was leading by the hand, past all of the people waiting in line, and he put me at the start of the buffet table so that I could get my food immediately.  I thought about protesting and saying that I didn’t mind waiting, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t make a difference.  On the other hand, maybe this system works better for everyone, since I eat about half as fast as most Ugandans…

After we had eaten lunch, it was about 4:00 pm, and we still needed to go visit Emma, Max and Teddy’s youngest son, at his primary school.  So, we talked with Patrick for a few minutes before heading out.  Patrick seems to be doing well, by the way.  He was one of the acolytes or altar boys or whatever they’re called during the service (sorry, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a Catholic mass), and he is currently 10th in his class, out of, I don’t know, a lot more than ten.  The list was long, and there were a lot of numbers…but I did notice that his music score was very high – that’s my boy…

We drove to Emma’s school and probably spent about an hour there.  Emma is in Primary Four, and he can’t be any older than ten or eleven.  I have to admit that this whole idea of boarding school really amazes me, especially for kids that young.  Even in high school, I was never away from my family for more than a few days at a time, and those periods, usually related to swimming or music, didn’t happen frequently.  When I finally went to college, I got used to the idea of being away from my family relatively quickly, but I still missed them, as well as friends back home (and I also miss them now, of course).  It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving home for months at a time when I was in elementary school, middle school, or even high school.  Ugandan parents who can afford it send their kids to these schools because it will likely give them greater opportunities in the future, I think, but I still have trouble grasping it.  I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad thing the parents are doing – it’s great that they’re trying to give their kids these opportunities.  I just don’t know how I would react in this situation, personally, either as the child or as the parent…

Anyway, after hitting all of the schools on the list, we headed home, back to Kalisizo.  Max decided to take a shortcut on some bumpy back roads, making it very difficult for me to read, and I don’t think we got back any faster than we would have otherwise (Mom and Phyllis will likely be chuckling right now).  But, we did make it back with no problems, and Max dropped me outside of my compound.  As I was saying good night and thanking them for letting me come along, Max said, “Thank you for the friendship you’ve shown today.”  It was sort of a striking statement, and it reminded me that, sometimes, doing something very small can mean a lot to others.  I certainly didn’t start the day thinking that my tagging along would be a big deal, but Max and Teddy seemed to appreciate it quite a bit.  So that’s a plus.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dancing in the Moonlight


Last night was interesting…

At about 10:30 PM, I heard a knock on my door.  Wondering who in the world would want to talk at such a late hour, I reluctantly got up from the comfortable chair in my bedroom and made my way into the front room.  Opening the door, I found that the person responsible for disturbing me from my relaxation was a woman who helps to run the guest house next to our compound.  She is also a friend of my landlady, and she had been sent to invite me to a graduation party for my landlady’s daughter.  The party was scheduled to take place at…10:30 PM last night.  (Actually, it was probably scheduled for like 8 or 9 PM but was actually just getting started.)  After overcoming my surprise surrounding, first, the fact that my landlady has a daughter old enough to be graduating from college (I’m assuming it is college…it was never explicitly stated), and, second, the fact that I was being invited to a party that was starting at 10:30 on a Thursday night, I found out that the party was happening at the guest house next door, and that they were hoping I could come “just for 30 minutes or an hour.”  (I’ve learned enough in the past year and a half to know that this timeframe would be a significant underestimate.)  I paused and looked down at my outfit, which consisted of the dirty t-shirt and shorts I only wear before bed when I’m alone in my house, and my friend at the door quickly realized that this ensemble simply would not do.  So, she told me that she would wait for me at the guest house.  I agreed, shut the door, and put on some pants and a slightly less dirty shirt with buttons.

It was a really beautiful night.  The stars were out, and the yellowish moon, just past full, was shining brightly down onto the courtyard of the guest house.  I paused at the entrance to the courtyard and took a breath, knowing that, as soon as I stepped through the doorway, I would become the center of attention for at least a few minutes.  I generally need to take a second to prepare myself for something like that.  If you ever want to experience service, be a muzungu guest at one of these Ugandan functions.  Once I finally did make my way to the section of the courtyard where the party was getting started, chairs and tables suddenly moved to provide me with a place to sit where I could easily see everything.  In his haste, one guy, trying to move a small table, only grabbed the top part (the legs were left sitting where the table had previously made its home) and, without even realizing his error, tried to place the table in a new location.  As he let go of the table top, it promptly dropped to the ground.  A second guy discreetly passed him the forgotten legs, but not before everyone had a good laugh.

A few speeches were made congratulating Maria (who I had never met before last night), Maria said a prayer, and then food was served.  Now, it was past 10:30 PM, and I had obviously already eaten dinner.  Actually, Griffin had been in Masaka yesterday and had brought me a huge cheeseburger and fries from an amazing restaurant there, because she’s just an awesome person.  As you might expect, I had really enjoyed dinner and was feeling completely satisfied.  I would have been quite content with not eating anything else last night.  Instead, suddenly, sitting in front of me was a huge platter that on which you might serve a small turkey.  (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit here…It was probably only big enough for a whole rotisserie chicken.)  Every square inch of this thing was piled with matooke, rice, and some sort of meat…I’m guessing beef.   I was not hungry at all, but, thinking that it would be impolite to refuse, I slowly shoveled as much as I could into my mouth for the next half an hour or so.  I made it about three-quarters of the way through the stuff, and I think I impressed Rita, the girl who had served me.  After picking up my nearly-cleared plate, she said something along the lines of “You didn’t give your food to someone else, did you?”

After 'second-dinner,' a few friends gave Maria some gifts, and then the dancing started (and the title of the blog starts to make sense).  Ugandans can dance.  These people have rhythm.  Even the little kids have solid skills.  On the other hand, if you know anything about me, you probably know that dancing is not one of my favorite activities, and I am not very good.  Sometimes, I think that the reason I like playing music so much is because, when I play music, I don’t have to dance to it.  Well, as you might imagine, a muzungu standing up and dancing would be quite a spectacle, and quite a few people were trying to persuade me.  I remained steadfast for a few minutes, but then my neighbors in my compound started to work on me.  I like them a lot and found it much more difficult to say no.  So, it happened.  I stood up and found myself dancing in the moonlight with my neighbors.  Actually calling it “dancing” might be a bit of a stretch, though, seeing as my only move consists of rhythmic swaying, incorporating very subtle knee bends on the beat.  Granted, the long hair adds an entirely new dimension, forcing me to include a few quick head movements to keep the hair out of my eyes.  Needless to say, the company enjoyed this sight quite a bit, and I suppose I’m glad that I could add to their evening.  Sometimes, I guess, you just have to accept that you’re going to be a spectacle and go with the flow.  Obviously, though, to an impartial observer, I was put to shame by the others dancing around me.  Sarah, who I described in my last post as the woman who cooks, cleans, and takes care of some of the kids in our compound, had some especially impressive moves.

Finally, around 12:30 AM (didn’t I say that 30 minutes would be an underestimate?), things started to wind down, and I told my landlady that I needed to get to bed after thanking her for inviting me.  As I left the guest house and walked the short distance to my door, I thought a little bit about the experience.  What I found most striking was the sense of accomplishment that permeated the entire group.  It was not just felt by the graduate herself, but by her friends and family as well, as if it was a team effort.  Truly, I’m sure it was.  Personally, I know from my own experience that I would not have been nearly as successful as I was in school if I did not have a wonderful, loving family, a great group of friends, and supportive teachers standing with me through it all.  It seems that Maria has these things, and I think that the children of several other families I have met here have them, too.  This is the kind of realization that brings me joy and that allows me to truly enjoy my time here.

So, our compound's saga of interesting and amusing events continues.  Who knows what next week has in store…