Friday, July 25, 2014

The Center of the Universal Sphere

This is not a normal blog entry - it's basically just a poem that I decided not to post on Facebook, mostly because it's a bit longer than the ones I've written in the past.  Just as a very quick introduction, this poem summarizes some ideas (not necessarily completely original or unique) that I've been formulating and tossing around in my head for probably about a year now.  I'm not sure how well it's all explained in this format, but I thought it might be important to start providing some order to all of these ideas.  Since I've gotten into writing some small poems during my time in Uganda, it just ended up coming out this way.  If something strikes you as interesting, or if I need to explain something in more detail, feel free to send me a message, and I'd be happy to talk about it!

The Center of the Universal Sphere

Somewhere clear of the confines of time,
Outside the gaze of the stars,
None hears the sound of the midnight chime,
Or sees the face full of scars.
Space and time as we know them to be,
At that point, they pass away,
While the triumphs and trials of life are set free,
To be perceived in a different way.

Is it true, what I hear, that none sheds a tear
In the center of the universal sphere?

On the surface of the sphere, full of spirit and thought,
Lies the realm of our waking eyes,
Where something like love can be sold or bought
Or sunk in a lake of lies.
One cannot dismiss this plane’s imperfection,
Yet good could still be supplied,
For the surface offers space for expression, through action,
Of spirit-touched love from inside.

Each soul, it seems clear, as a cross could appear,
At which matter and spirit cohere.

Surface points on the sphere, irrespective of kind,
Can exhibit each component quality.
In the material plane, specific form one will find,
Along the radius, spiritual beauty.
But greatest value will come from the two vectors’ sum,
And connecting one’s own to others’,
For no fortunes or doctrines or dogmas should come
Before love for life’s sisters and brothers.

Touching points there and here, inner lines will draw near
To the center of the universal sphere.

The shortest distance to steer between two points on an arc
Is a line that cuts inside the curve.
Tensile force then pulls points toward the central mark
And fires a spiritual nerve.
These lines show relationships of peace and equality
Among people and all of existence,
A collectively-formed filter to reduce the turbidity
That clouds the spiritual substance.

And in a soul’s final year, when matter’s ties disappear,
Perhaps connections propel it into the sphere.

But what of the tear about which there was query
Whether ever it falls in the core?
Now I cannot be sure, but I present here a theory
Based on that which has come before.
There are those who do not form connections of peace,
Or of love, or equality, or kindness.
Instead they pursue, seeming never to cease,
The means to power, to wealth, and to blindness.
Some prey on those who they see as below them,
Or those who seem not quite the same,
While some, solely fixed on a goal or a gem,
Are indifferent to those losing the game.
But although they may gain all the things they have sought,
Time fades power and fine, precious stone.
The permanent value of love they have not,
Without connection, souls drift off alone.

So perhaps, a soft tear, for these souls will appear,
And for those whose connections they shear.

But let us be clear, yes, let us remember
That these sad souls are not simply “they”,
For in each of us fidgets a flickering ember,
Burning to keep connections away.
Yet in all of us also is a stream from the center
That supports and joins one to another.
All we need do is allow it to enter,
To flow, and the flames it will smother.

So join hands without fear, and together draw near
To the center of the universal sphere.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter in Kajaguzo

A couple of weeks ago, Max (my counterpart) and Teddy (his wife) invited me to spend Easter with them at their house in Kajaguzo, a (very) rural village a few kilometers away from Kalisizo.  In Uganda, Good Friday and Easter Monday are considered public holidays, so businesses and organizations, like ours, get a four-day weekend.  However, I only spent Sunday and Monday in Kajaguzo.  On Friday and Saturday, I had our office to myself, allowing me to really focus on some work that I needed to do individually.  Electricity in Kalisizo had been pretty terrible all week (I think I might do a post about electricity, to try and give you an idea of what it’s like), but power was on in the afternoon on Friday and all day on Saturday, so I was taking full advantage of it while I could…

On Sunday, I woke up to a cool, steady rain.  I would say that this kind of rain is pretty common here, and it’s incredibly relaxing.  The cool temperature, the gentle, steady tapping of raindrops on the roof, and the general lack of other noise (because most people don’t go outside when it’s raining) all helped to keep me in bed for a while.  Eventually, Max called and told me that he would be coming to pick me up in a couple of hours.  So, I climbed out of bed, got myself ready, quickly packed a few things in my backpack, and waited for Max.  As I was waiting, I had my front door open, and one of my landlady’s little kids started knocking on the door.  At first, I thought he was just doing it to play around, but he was pretty persistent, so I walked over to see what he wanted.  He handed me a plastic bag and quickly walked away, before I had a chance to see what was inside.  It was a collection of vegetables (carrots and eggplants, mostly).  I was a little unsure of what to do, and then I saw my landlady walk past.  I quickly assumed that it was a present for Easter (an Easter basket a bunny might actually enjoy), and thanked her for the veggies.  She cheerfully said, “Happy Easter,” and continued on.

Max showed up in the car a couple of minutes after I received this nice little gift, and I was ready to go.  We had to take an alternate route to Kajaguzo, up and over the big hill in town, because the more direct (but lower and flatter) dirt road was probably a muddy mess.  Needless to say, the drive took a while, and I’m pretty sure we were slipping a sliding a little bit as we crawled along at five miles an hour, but we made it.  Upon arriving, I sat down in the family’s sitting room, with the three kids who were home from school (Robinah, Gemma, and Emma), and Teddy served lunch almost immediately, although the word “lunch” sounds a bit too light to do this meal justice – definitely more of an Easter feast.  On one plate, I had a massive pile of matooke, rice, noodles, cabbage, green beans, and chicken.  I don’t think anything else could have fit.  In addition to this plate, I had two big bowls, one with a beef stew/soup, and another with a vegetable stew/soup.  I got through just about everything, except for some of the beef.  I feel like I have very weak teeth whenever I eat meat here – it’s generally more than a little tough.  But it all tasted good, even after I had been engaged in this eating marathon for what must have been over an hour.

All during lunch, and then for the rest of the afternoon, the TV was on.  Wait a minute, TV?  Yes, they have a TV.  Kajaguzo is certainly not connected to the electrical grid, but Max installed a solar panel a couple of years ago, and it works really well.  In his words, if he wants, he can watch TV “full time,” which was more or less the case on Sunday.  During our lunch, there was this cartoon on that went through Holy Week from the perspective of a kid living in Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, it had some not very good songs (lyrics didn’t rhyme, trying to fit too many syllables into one beat, etc.).  After that, a Filipino soap opera came on (and stayed on for like 2 hours…).  If I haven’t said it before, I will now.  Soap operas are big here.  Some are in English, some (like the one we endured) are in another language and then overdubbed in English by some absolutely terrible voice actors, and others go through this translation procedure and then add on yet another layer of overdubbing, in which one Ugandan guy (it sounds like one guy does all of the different shows) translates into Luganda and provides what I assume is some pretty lively commentary on the action.  Sometimes he yells, sometimes he laughs, and sometimes I’m pretty sure that the translation is a little off, but he’s probably making it better, so I can’t complain.  Anyway, I paid attention for a bit, in case some family members couldn’t quite keep up with the English.  At one point, Max, half-dozing after our feast, asked me which character was which.  “The girl in the green dress,” I said, “is Miguel’s new girlfriend, and the girl in the blue dress is his ex-fiancĂ©e,” as blue dress girl throws a glass of wine at green dress girl.  Finally, I pulled out my Kindle and started reading.

After a while, a commercial came on about the World Cup (which is being held in Brazil this year, if you weren’t aware).  Max, fully awake now, asks, “Why aren’t people from Brazil called Americans?”

Without thinking, I replied, “Well, it’s not a state in the US.  It’s a completely different country.”  Then I realized that it’s actually a pretty valid point, seeing as Brazil is in fact in South America, and this is of course what Max meant.  Amending my original statement, I said, “I guess only people from the US are called Americans, even though many other countries are also in the Americas.”  Thinking about it a bit more: “Maybe it has to do with the name of the country…What else could you call someone from the US?”

“Ah, you can’t,” Max replied.  “For other countries, it’s okay, because people from Canada are Canadians, and people from Brazil are Brazilians.”

“So, I guess the US was just named without thinking about these repercussions,” I concluded.  “Now ‘Americans’ is only used for people from the US.”  I certainly don’t claim to be an authority on the history of the Americas, but we reached an interesting little conclusion there.

Around 7 PM (what I would consider supper time), Teddy served us a “snack”, which consisted of half a plate of beef, with a few carrots and onions, and half a plate of cabbage.  Again, it tasted good, but my teeth hurt…

At some point just before or during this snack, a very short, and somewhat odd, news program came on called “News Beat”.  It basically consisted of two anchors, one woman and one man, both sporting dreadlocks, saying news headlines.  There was music playing in the background, and both of them, during the whole thing, stared intensely into the camera, heads bobbing to the beat, as they went through the headlines, which were sort of rapped, or at least rhythmically spoken on the beat.

Also around this time, a commercial came on showing some women doing the traditional dance of the Buganda tribe.  “Do you like our traditional dance?” Teddy asked me.

“Oh, yes, it’s very impressive,” I responded.  “I can’t move my hips like that…”

“John’s brother and mom are coming next month,” Max joined in.  “Maybe they would like to see the dance?  Teddy, we can organize a demonstration.”

“Does St. Tereza (the village’s primary school) have a dance troupe?”  I asked.

“Oh, of course,” Max answered.  I didn’t really need to ask that question.  Pretty much every school has a dance group.  So, Luke and Mom may be getting a personal dance show in about a month…

As it got dark, a few kids from the village came into the house and plopped themselves in front of the TV.  This is obviously the thing to do when it gets dark, and we have one of the only TVs in Kajaguzo.  It made me think of my mom talking about how, when she was a kid in Highspire, everybody would go over to one family’s house to watch their TV.

Sometime after 10 PM, we ate supper, which consisted of matooke, rice, noodles, beef, and avocadoes.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that, every year, Max gives up beer for Lent.  So, since Lent was over, we had been drinking beers for quite a while (thankfully, very slowly), and we can’t forget about those calories…  Oh, I also forgot to mention that the family has a cat, which is called, quite simply, “Puss”.  I’m not sure if it’s a boy or a girl, but I made friends with it during dinner.  It walked over to me, looking longingly up at the meat on my plate.  I knew that Max and Teddy wouldn’t have wanted me to feed Puss using my own food, but I was pretty successful in getting Puss to forget about eating with some well-placed petting behind the ears.

As a little aside, I think that part of the reason many Ugandan families eat so late is because cooking takes so long, and it’s quite a lot of work.  In just about all of the cases I have seen, it is the women that do this work (in addition to a bunch of other household tasks).  I’m not going to go into a big thing in this post about this issue, but I will say that if you spend any time at all with a Ugandan family, especially one in a rural setting, you will develop a profound respect for the work ethic of most Ugandan women.  And you might also notice that the work these women do is sometimes (perhaps often) underappreciated.

Anyway, by supper time, Gemma and Emma were falling asleep. Robinah shook them awake to eat, and then they dazedly walked off to bed.  Eventually, Max and I were the only ones left in the room.

“Thank you, John,” Max says as we start to get up.

“Well, I didn’t really do anything,” I replied, thinking of all of the work that Teddy put into our meals.

“Thank you for spending Easter with us.”

“Well, thank you for inviting me to spend it with your family.”

“Oh, we could never forget you,” Max says.  “You are part of the family.  We are just praying that God will keep us close in the future.”

I’ll tell you, this gig can be difficult and frustrating sometimes.  Then, other times, Max will go and say something like this, and I can only utter the Ugandan grunt of agreement (“Mmm”) as I feel a little tear starting to form in my eye…

Monday was more of the same – big meals and relaxing.  I won’t get into it now, because this is a nice place to end, and it’s pretty late.  I’m back at my house now, still feeling extremely full.  I took a few minutes tonight to run back and forth between my two rooms, trying to use up a few calories and to persuade my still relatively fast metabolism to continue working its way through the recent influx of above average amounts of food.  In any case, it was a nice couple of days, and, now that it’s over, I’m glad to be back comfortably in my house.  Back to work tomorrow…

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Alternate Resume

If you didn’t read it, my last blog post consisted of a story in which I saved the day by pulling out little pieces of wood from a car door keyhole, so that my coworkers could get into the car.  It was suggested that I create a “resume” of completely random skills, sort of along the same lines as “proficient in removing small wooden fragments from car keyholes”.  If you were to ask my coworkers, they would probably say that I’m an expert in a great many fields.  Just last week, Suzan asked me to edit and proofread a short report she had typed, about the selection of households to receive water tanks from a grant Brick by Brick had been awarded, and about health education sessions that were being held for those beneficiaries.  I certainly don’t have any special abilities or experience when it comes to health education or figuring out the best candidates to receive water tanks, but, after I had finished going through it, we gave it to Max, so that he could “approve” it.  “Oh, I don’t need to read it,” he said, “The expert has already gone through it.”

After Suzan started to agree with him, I interjected, “What exactly am I an expert in?”

Suzan takes this question.  “Oh, you’re an expert in the English language, designing reports, computers…” Her voice trailed off as she listed a few other things that I can’t remember.  After a bit more conversation, Max did read the report…

I suppose that it’s nice to know that my coworkers see me as a valuable member of the group, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t classify any of the things listed by Suzan as areas of special expertise.  However, for some frequently needed comic relief, I confess that I do, from time to time, think about some of the more obscure skills and abilities that have developed as a result of living in Kalisizo for more than two years.  The following list is certainly not exhaustive, but it might give you an idea of the professional benefits of living in Kalisizo.  Of course, some of these skills won’t be so useful after I leave…

Traveling Skills

Navigating crowded city streets and sidewalks – I think, at one point, I described the Kampala taxi parks as similar to those little puzzles with sliding pieces.  There’s one open space in the whole puzzle, and you have to move all of the pieces around before you have space to move the piece you actually want to move.  I think that this comparison still stands.  Take a few trips to this area of Kampala, and you will be forced to quickly learn a number of skills that are needed to get you where you need to go.  I could write an entire blog listing these – looking like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t; knowing when to squeeze in between two taxis that are about six inches apart; changing the position of your backpack so that sneaky people can’t get into the compartments without you realizing it, etc…

Traveling long distances with no personal space – When I was younger, I thought that the three or four hour drive to the beach was long.  Now, that kind of trip would seem like nothing.  I mean, I had an entire seat to myself, and I could move my arms and legs a little bit.  The trip between Kalisizo and Kampala takes about the same amount of time (on a good day), but I have also been on public transport for, and I’m not exaggerating here, ten to twelve hours in a single day (and I spend the next day being sore).  This is part of the reason why I have been able to read so many books over here.  What else is there to do?

Packing light – When you have to travel on public transport, as partially described above, you realize that having only one, relatively small bag with you is quite advantageous.  I’ve traveled around the country for a week or more, all with a single backpack (that still has quite a bit of room in it).  When I think about the massive bags that I lugged over to Uganda back in 2011, I have to laugh at myself.  There’s no way that I needed all of that stuff…

Household Skills

Making candle holders…out of other candles – I inherited a few candles from the volunteer in Kalisizo before me.  Obviously, these come in handy when the power goes out.  However, I couldn’t just sit the candle on a piece of wooden furniture, so I found a whiskey glass, also inherited from the previous volunteer, and put the candle in there.  After that initial supply of candles was used up, I couldn’t find the same type of candle, so I bought these tall, skinny things that can’t stand up on their own.  What to do?  Well, the bottom of that whiskey glass had started to accumulate quite a supply of candle wax, so this was heated up, and the bottom of one of the skinny candles was plunged into the resulting pool of hot wax.  After a while, the wax solidified again, and the candle stayed standing.  Now, when a candle burns the whole way down, I immediately stick a replacement into the hot wax.  The four pencils in the picture function to hold the candle upright until the wax cools down again…

Water Conservation – Our compound’s tap only actually gives us water for a couple of days each week, if that.  Considering that three other families live in this same compound, I don’t get very much.  You are forced to figure out how to use as little water as possible.  Take bathing as an example.  After two years, I am now able to get myself relatively clean with less than one liter of water (a liter is slightly more than a quart).  I have no illusions about this.  I would get much cleaner in a long, hot, pressurized shower…but I get clean enough.  And I just get dusty again within a few minutes anyway…

Alternative Hairstyles – Over the past year, my range of possible hairstyles increased from one (which I’ll call “let it all hang down”) to two.  I can now put my hair in a ponytail.  Yes, I’m very proud…

Interior Decoration – For people who do this professionally, interior decoration would certainly fall in the next section.  For me, it doesn’t quite make it to a full-blown technical skill…mostly because the extent of my interior decoration ability includes ripping out cool pictures from calendars and taping them to the wall.  Sort of dorm room-esque, I suppose, but I like pictures of animals and landscapes…


Technical Skills

Study of Indoor Fauna – My bedroom has no shortage of (harmless) lizards, moths, and other insects, especially in the evening.  Of course, “study” may be too strong a word.  I sometimes just sit in my chair and watch the lizards stalk the insects on the walls and the ceiling.  It should be noted that some of the bugs are a bit too big for the lizards.  See, for instance, the picture of the moth with a wingspan as long as my finger (and my fingers are pretty long), or the picture of the stick insect.  You can get some idea of the scale by noticing the photographs on the wall behind the insect.  Slick, my family’s cat, doesn’t look that impressed…

Translation between American English and Ugandan English – Returning now to the Brick by Brick office, we have Skype meetings (audio only) almost every week with Marc, the organization’s Executive Director, who lives in New York.  We have three USB modems from different internet providers.  Usually, at least one of these works...  Anyway, I generally take a backseat in these meetings, so that our Ugandan staff are the ones giving Marc updates.  However, I occasionally need to step in and provide “translation” services.  My Luganda may not be so impressive, but I’m pretty good at rewording things so that something someone said is easily understood by everyone else.  Accents are a problem sometimes, as are some common American/Uganda phrases, that are not so common in the other country…

Do-It-Yourself Pencil Sharpening – For a while, we didn’t have a pencil sharpener in our office.  And yet, we had wood pencils that eventually became very dull.  What to do?  I pulled out my trusty Leatherman Multi-Tool, snapped out the knife, and started to spend a few minutes of each day sharpening a few pencils that way.  It was significantly more tedious than using an actual pencil sharpener, but I got pretty good at it after a while.  The two pencils pictured below began as new pencils, with no points whatsoever, and were completely knife-sharpened…

Hammering Nails into Crumbling Walls – A common problem when trying to hang anything on a wall is that the plaster crumbles, resulting in a much larger hole than was desired.  The walls here don’t exactly have wooden studs.  You’re hammering into the plaster, and then you either hit a brick, which bends the nail like crazy, or you keep going through the mortar between bricks.  These plaster and mortar mixes are often not so impressive, and they come apart pretty easily, once they get started.  While I have not yet perfected a technique for getting a nail to stay in the wall without big chunks of plaster falling out, I succeed more than I fail, which, I think, is an accomplishment.  I heard a story that when another volunteer’s dad (who is a carpenter, or works in construction, or something like that) was over here, he also recognized this problem.  Upon returning to America, he sent over a battery-powered drill, in an effort to make it easier for the volunteer to put stuff on the walls.  This idea was not so successful.  The drill just made it worse.  I can visualize hundreds of little flakes of plaster being sprayed all over the place as the drill powers through the wall.  No, the best thing seems to be some careful hammering…

Business Card Design – Changing gears a bit, in an effort to show just how varied my job is sometimes, we had some business cards printed for our office employees and masons about a month ago.  Guess who designed those business cards?  That’s right, I did.  I suppose I was the most qualified person in our organization to do it, since I can move pictures and text around on a computer.


Alternative Distance Measurements – Moving out into the field now, sometimes I need to measure long distances by myself.  For example, if I’m working on a rainwater collection project with another volunteer, I’ll need to measure roof dimensions.  The quickest way to do this, especially if a really long tape measure isn’t available, is to walk along the side of the building and count steps.  Fortunately, exact accuracy is not necessary for rainwater collection systems, because rainfall itself is so variable, but I’ve gotten pretty good at taking steps that are almost exactly one meter long.  I’ve checked myself and have gotten quite close.  I guess it’s just muscle memory at this point.  I just have to think to myself that I want to measure distance, and my steps are calibrated accordingly…

Cinematographer – For the grand finale, I’m going in yet another completely different direction.  When Marc was here a few months ago, he wanted to get some video footage of people at our partner schools talking about the work that Brick by Brick has done.  At one school, we found a boy with very good English who was comfortable talking into a camera.  So, Marc basically interviewed him for about a half an hour.  Guess who filmed this thing?  Yep, me.  I spent a half an hour kneeling in the grass (so that it didn’t look like the cameraman was towering over this kid, who was about half my height), with my legs starting to fall asleep less than halfway through.  But, I persevered, and the footage, after quite a bit of editing (probably needed due to my incredible camera work), will be shown at Brick by Brick’s big annual fundraiser in New York, which is actually happening next week.

So, that concludes this list of some of the random skills I have picked up in Kalisizo.  Please feel free to send me any job offers at your convenience…