Monday, February 13, 2017

Returning to Uganda

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, February 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

Patrick's gift

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

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

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

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