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Archive for the ‘Uganda’ Category

June 30:: Kindness of Strangers!

Angello 1I realized today that I have four weeks left of work and at least four projects I’m trying to complete. The workshop I have planned is going to be on July 16th and I’m hoping that everyone in LUGADA pitches in for a successful workshop. The purpose of the event is to strengthen LUGADA’s revolving fund and teach the loan applicants how to manage a loan and when to take the loan. We’re going to give a repayment schedule and show how to write or describe a business proposal. There are tons of logistical problems, like the transportation stipend (do I give it beforehand, so the attendees can afford to travel to the site, but risk that people will forget to show up? Or do I give it once they arrive, risking that some people won’t have the 1000 shilling for travel?), the cultural obsession with food, and wondering if everyone will show up.

I chose the time of 10-5 for the workshop, trusting that no one will arrive until at least 10:30 and we won’t start until closer to 11:30. This way, we avoid having to give morning tea and can give only lunch. We’ll give a late lunch so we won’t have to give afternoon tea and can have only a water break around 3 o’clock. I’m trying to maneuver the workshop to be cheap because I have only 400,000 shillings to work with for the entire day. A friend rented me her conference hall for only 35,000 shilling and we have an expert coming to speak for 50,000. I have doubts about his expertise, but he comes with high praise from other sorts. Anyway, he knows more than I do.

Of the remaining funds, more than 60,000 shilling will be a transportation stipend so that attendees can travel the 4 kilometers to the workshop site. More than 100,000 shilling will be for lunch and the remaining money will go to purchase notebooks and pens for the attendees, as well as packets of information. I estimate that 30 people will attend and there is really no room to be wrong: I can’t really afford more attendees but I can’t exclude any LUGADA members from attending!

My facilitator in LUGADA gave me a terrific gift yesterday. Most group members have given me welcoming gifts of bananas, jewelry or fruit. Florence and her family adopted me and gave me a new name. I am now introduced as Sarah Angello Namugerwa and I am a member of the monkey clan, one of Uganda’s 53 tribes and the most prominent in Buganda, where I live. (Side Story: my monkey-clan grandmother, Jjoja Francis, rejoiced when I told her my dad in America found a new job. She told me she had been praying for him every day and how is the rest of her American family?)

Every day, LUGADA has more great ideas about how to improve the Nyendo-Ssenyange community. I think we have twenty project ideas for the upcoming months and years and I wish I could watch them all come to fruition. Some of the ideas are enormous (Community Clean-up: Paving the main streets in Nyendo to prevent sicknesses that come from inhaling dust) and some are small and manageable, like computer literacy and empowerment training. I’m teaching computer literacy to anyone who asks. I’m teaching my two brothers typing and I’m teaching others Microsoft Office Tools and basic Internet skills.

I love comparing our skills sets here in Masaka: I can teach computer literacy and lead empowerment training, but I needed my host mom to show me how to peel a jackfruit and my colleague Maria is teaching me about medicinal herbs. My brothers are around my age (Ivan is 17 and Brian is 20), but we have very little knowledge in common. Neither of them has ever read a book, but they both have incredible knowledge of plants and basic science…although Ivan curiously asks for my help every night with his homework.

Tonight is a LUGADA meeting where I will be surprising St. Ignatius Primary School with an enormous bag of donations. The husband of an acquaintance flew into Uganda and brought several bags of school supplies, but didn’t know where to donate them. I met his wife at a café in Masaka and she asked me if I had any use for a bag of school supplies: I didn’t expect these supplies to actually show up at the FSD! I wish I had a name or an address where I could send my thanks and pictures of the kids using the books and supplies.

St. Ignatius Primary School, where I volunteer and work with LUGADA, has absolutely nothing. They lack everything except students. 507 students, 8 teachers. 1 desk for every 9 students. No books. No pencils. No running water.

At least they have some pencils and books now! I can’t wait to distribute the supplies. I just finished writing a grant for St. Ignatius: while donations are used up and disappear, funding for the school will enable them to find their own supplies and develop the building to provide a safe and educational environment for the kids.

July 6:: Sarah V. Nile: A Draw

Angello 2I had the intention of conquering the Nile this weekend, but after 3
days of adventures getting to Jinja, rafting the Nile, making endless puns about the Nile/denial, returning to Masaka and still, after 3 days, coughing up the Nile River, I concede a draw.

The day I went rafting had an inauspicious start. Our bus was so late that we didn’t have adequate time for a full safety briefing. Our guide, Charles the Prince of the Nile (not Prince of Denial. The joke really, really does not translate between English and Luganda), began our session with the following: “Okay, so we have no time for safety briefing. So we will learn as we go, yes? Yes.” Our first rapid was a
Cat3, then a Cat5 and then….well, I speak enough Luganda to recognize certain words. So when Charles stared at our raft and then shouted Luganda gibberish and the word kwabaka, I was incredibly concerned. Tesia, Zach, Jenny and myself shared a Look.

Kwabaka: Luganda for to burst or explode.

Our boat was punctured when we hit the rocks on a Category 3 and Prince bluntly told us the raft would not survive the next Category 5. His bluntness, Ugandan sense of humor, lack of concern for our nerves would cause problems throughout the day but I was definitely somewhat concerned with our imminently capsizing raft. We got out and carried the raft for a bit until we met the replacement. So a sunken raft started the day.

Prince motivated us through fear and used his authority to terrify us all day. Examples? During lunch break, we removed our lifevests and helmets to float in calm water. Suddenly, Prince jumps up. “QUICK EVERYBODY LIFEVESTS ON, GET DOWN GET DOWN GET DOWN WE ARE GOING TO DIE.” We immediately drop everything and cower for our lives. No rapid. Calm water. Example 2: Zach jumps off the raft during a calm stretch to swim. Mid-jump, Prince yells “NO! DON’T! THE CROCIDILES!”

No crocodiles.

“Prince, what happens if we swim right instead of left in this rapid?”
Laughter. “Then we can’t save you, see you in Egypt.”

The worst joke by far was that it was his second day as a guide. He had us all going with this one until he slipped by mentioning he had been a guide for over 5 years. By the end of the day, Prince proposed to me and I accepted, attracted by the title of Princess of the Nile. Prince has offered 50 cows or the cash equivilant to my father. I told him my father would probably prefer the cash (2.5 million shilling!), but he’d have to negotiate the details with my very American father. So this situation is pending.

I do owe Prince an enormous debt of gratitude. When we faced Silverback, the biggest and strongest Cat5, I panicked. Silverback is over 150 meters of double category 5 rapids colliding in deep water, surrounded by jagged rocks. You can only see the white caps of the rapids. Before the first drop, we were all regarding the intensity before and I just started screaming. There were only two sounds: the rush of the rapids and my terrified shrieks. I’m ashamed to admit that I abandoned my post and ducked for cover, gripping the safety rope and quaking with fear instead of paddling like a team player. Prince had no sympathy for me. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? PADDLE! PADDLE NOW, YOU SCARED MZUNGU!” The “scared mzungu” comment snapped me out of terror and I picked up my paddle and managed to stay on the raft and paddle. Of course, when we finished navigating Silverback, we realized we had lost one of our rafters and had some random guy on our boat, but we quickly did an exchange and found her.

Angello 3There were so many awesome and terrifying moments: when we rafted Bujogali Falls, I misinterpreted “DUCK AND COVER, GET DOWN GET DOWN GET DOWN” for “Wow, this is a gorgeous waterfall. Look around! Absorb the moment!” and for that, I got an awesome shiner from smacking my face into an oar. My position at the back of the raft meant I spent a lot of time flying into the air from the impact of waves. At The Bad Place, I sailed right out of the raft, over the top of the raft and somehow landed in front. The Bad Place starts as a Cat6, so we had to carry the raft over that and then relaunch into a Cat5. So I was petrified that I was going to drift back into the Cat6 or over to the falls: I managed to grip the front of the raft and Jenny summoned inhuman strength and hauled me over the front while steering through a Category 5.

But despite a minor sprain and a dozen bumps and bruises, I had an
awesome time and I think I’m going again in two weeks.

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clerkint-1-with-captionLiving with a host family has been one of the more interesting parts of my time here in Uganda, and the best way to fully experience Ugandan culture. There is no better way to fully understand a different culture than getting to know local people on the deep level that you do when you live with another family for two months. Not only do you have the opportunity to eat white ants and other local dishes, but also you get to experience the culture and all the traditions, such as women kneeling as a sign of respect and the importance of greetings.

I have had the privilege of not only getting to know and learning from my own host family, but also the host family of another FSD intern, Daniel, as well. His family, the Kintu family, was gracious enough to invite Daniel as well as myself to an introduction ceremony. An introduction ceremony, one of three Ugandan wedding ceremonies, is an important Ugandan tradition where a woman introduces her fiancée formally to her family and is given away to the groom. The Kintus were introducing a nephew to his fiancée’s family.

The day of the introduction, Daniel and I dressed in the traditional Ugandan garb. The Kintu family lent us some of their clothing to wear to the ceremony. Men wear a long white robe called a Kanzu with a suit jacket over. Women wear a dress called a Gomesi. The dress is a wrap around dress that buttons on the top and is tied with a thick sash. The dresses vary greatly in fabric, pattern, and color. My dress was a pale pink with a pattern of flowers and animal prints. My sash was a brighter pink with a gold design. I felt extremely foolish in the large dress, especially with the pointy sleeves coming up to my ears!

When we arrived at the home, I was amazed at all the commotion and splendor. Outside the bride’s home the groom’s family was assembling to process into the ceremony together. Nearby, several trucks and cars were overflowing with gifts for the bride’s family and more were still driving up the road. I had been told the groom’s family brings gifts for the bride’s family, but I had no idea the amount was so large. There were baskets upon baskets full of fruit, huge sacks of sugar, wrapped gifts, crates of soda and beer, couches and even a large chicken! The yard in front of the house was transformed to the party area with three huge white tents decorated with lights and flowers. In the middle a smaller tent was set up and several mats laid out on the ground. The children in the neighborhood were all crowding around to see what was happening and to admire the beautiful Gomesi’s.

clerkint-2-with-captionOnce all the family members arrived, the men and the women lined up in their respective lines and we were all given bows with chocolates attached to pin to our clothing. I think this was a token of hospitality from the bride’s family, but I am not sure. Either way, the chocolate tasted very good. We entered the yard of the bride’s home and sat down in the designated tent for the groom’s family. After that, the ceremony began. The families sang two anthems from the two areas of Uganda, Buganda and Busoga.

Soon after, the groom’s family presented the gifts. The entire clan left the yard and began carrying in the gifts. Women carried baskets on their heads—those are hard to balance!—and knelt down to present them to the family. Men carried in the heavier items, and Daniel carried in the large chicken to be given to the bride’s brother. It seemed like a never ending procession of women dancing slightly with baskets on their head or gifts in hand, intermingled with men carrying huge crates of gifts. Once all the gifts were given, the groom’s family returned to our seats.

Then began the long series of greetings and introductions. Various members of the bride’s family took turns greeting the groom’s family. The aunts and the bachelorettes of the bride’s family performed dances and a series of greetings to the groom’s family. Eventually the bride came out and was dancing with her aunts. Her bridal aunt presented her to the groom’s family who accepts her into their family.

After all the ceremony, the families feast on a huge array of traditional foods. Everyone relaxes, listens to music, and dines on the delicious food. My favorite was chicken cooked inside a banana leaf, a Buganda dish called Luwombo. After the meal, the groom’s family leaves, taking the bride with them.

clerkint-4-with-captionExperiencing the introduction ceremony has been one of the most interesting parts of my time in Uganda. Daniel and I got to see first hand the importance of tradition in family life, especially concerning weddings. Both families were so happy to be meeting with each other to celebrate the union of the bride and groom and celebrate their love. Despite the differences in Western wedding traditions and those of Uganda, the joy at the celebrations of either culture is overpowering.

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I came to Jinja, Uganda with the excitement that I would learn a tremendous amount about subjects such as Uganda history, economics, politics, and social and cultural practices by interacting with my host organization, host family, fellow FSD interns and co-workers, and locals whom I would come across.

I also eagerly anticipated working in an unfamiliar business line (micro-finance and micro-lending), and employment in a full-time capacity that contradicts my New York City rat-race, Wall Street-driven, high-tech software consultant career: Philanthropy.

My assignment is a short one – 2 weeks, including FSD orientation training. “How much can I accomplish?”, and “how effectively can I be utilized?” are questions on my mind, as well as my FSD Project Director, Margaret.

I’m fascinated by current world events, and alert to recent rebel skirmishes in eastern DRC just west of Uganda, violent political incidents in Kenya to the east, the incessant carnage and tragedy in Sudan to the north, the recent historical genocide during the ‘90s in Rwanda to the south-west, and Uganda’s own chronicle of tyrannous rulers and vicious turmoil of the 70’s and 80’s. And with all of these conflicts come human displacement, rampant disease, and suffering.

Fortunately, it seems the political and economic landscapes have stabilized in Uganda over the last decade, allowing the micro-finance industry – an overwhelmingly successful tool for empowering disadvantaged women around the world – to take root.

To get started, I received a number of FSD preparatory materials, including the final report of a previous intern whose project on the above subject I was targeted to continue, in advance of the trip for my absorption.

The project is a straight-forward concept: Carry on the work of preparing, through basic business skills training, a local, economically disadvantaged women’s group, the Walukuba Maama Development Association, to receive micro-financing loans to fund their own businesses, and make a website used to solicit external donations more visible and effective for raising capital for these members.

This is accomplished by working with my host organization, Jinja Cooperative Savings and Credit Society (SACCO), who oversee the loan management and business preparedness of these women’s groups, along with paying visits to the Maama Groups to get their input on current needs and challenges.

Meeting these women was inspiring, to say the least. When greeted with a chorus of “You are most welcome!” and bestowed the title of “honored guest”, I could only respond with how humbled I was to be introduced to them. I was moved by the way they supported each other, worked as a team, and shared their personal experiences and struggles.

And to speak of the wonderful and unique craftsmanship in their handmade products – I explained that in the U.S., their work would be highly valued, especially considering how bland and uninspired today’s mass-produced goods are, and as compared to the brilliant colors, artistry, and precision they diligently put into their personalized crafts.

It is this point exactly which prompted appeals from many of the women to get assistance with expanding the marketing and advertising of their products. They had been trained in these business concepts, but could not reconcile how to formulate a strategy, nor develop partnerships with others who could assist them in a sustainable way.

As my time in Jinja is brief (and quickly coming to a close), I’ve focused on developing action plans and initiatives, along with documenting solution methods of my own into project proposals, so that the goals and objectives can be easily handed over to future FSD interns to follow through with.

I made a return visit to the Walukuba Maama group which produces beads and baskets and brainstormed the ideas I had developed, to get their feedback. They enthusiastically took to several suggestions, and were even more thrilled when I bought many strands of beads to take back to NYC and perform, what I called, an “experiment” – see what the price point and sales potential is for their product in that overseas market.

I promised to follow up with them in the near future to let them know how my experiment goes, provide further guidance on their marketing and advertising initiatives, and work on raising the traffic on the current website seeking donations for their businesses.

I extended my proposal writing to concentrate on the operations of Jinja SACCO as well, and developed some inventiveness around how they could scale their business to serve more underprivileged members of their community.

That they, like most businesses in the area, lack internet access and skills stands out to me as an opportunity to differentiate their team and accelerate on this advantage in developing new partnerships with large organizations for further philanthropic work. Once implemented (although not a simple task to get adopted, and one that comes with a considerable price), the internet will serve to expedite any research they perform, enable easier and more widely distributed communication amongst its partners and clients, and give them access to online tools for small businesses in order to replace a number of paper systems they currently use.

In other words, it will have a radical, positive impact on them, and the community they serve, in a sustainable way.

Volunteer work aside, another major highlight of my stay here in Jinja is the chance to live with my remarkable and welcoming host family, the Kintus.

To my delight, my host dad shares the same spirit as I do in understanding the world, seeking the truth, and challenging leadership and authority when their principles and values appear to be lost. We’ve had hours (maybe days’ worth!) of conversations and I’ve gained tremendous knowledge from him about a range of subjects that only an encyclopedia could encompass.

My host mom is the embodiment of poise and warmth, and graciously offers to help make me feel at home at all times. She is a fabulous cook, and keeps me VERY well fed with the local cuisine, sometimes trying to sneak even more food onto my plate! I’m not sure how I’ll wean myself off the delicious carbohydrate-overload I’ve enjoyed here, but I can guarantee you’ll see me in my local gym working out upon my return home.

The house also buzzes with their adult children and grandchildren coming and going, which is always a source of entertainment. They offer me a chance to practice my limited Luganda (the local language), which I think provides a source of amusement for them!

Living with the Kintus has been a sheer pleasure, and I feel as though I have a second family that I’ve connected closely with, despite coming from worlds apart.

Lastly, forging new relationships with the FSD staff and my fellow interns has been rewarding and important in that we’re sharing the same momentous journey and fulfilling an adventure that will provide a lifetime of memories. This experience impacts not only us, but people we’re here to work with and for, who are as hopeful about living a happy, meaningful life as any person with passion and dreams would want.

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The Beggar Children

We ten interns had more or less just landed in Uganda. We had stayed a night in the capital city of Kampala, had driven in excruciatingly slow traffic to Jinja, and had been attending cultural orientation for several days. It was Day Three, and we were touring Jinja on foot.

Imagine. A parade of mzungus meandering around downtown, fingers pointing, and heads on swivels. With stomachs full of matooke and rice, we took our time digesting as we strolled along the broken sidewalk. Shopkeepers called out, hoping that their wares could draw our attention. Boda-boda drivers offered us rides on their bicycles or mopeds. A third group called us too. Three small children, around five or seven years old, quietly implored, “Sirs, 100?” They were asking for a meager 100 shillings, and we had just spent 8000 on lunch. Surely we could spare the equivalent of 6 American cents.

Before we could respond, our program director shooed them away in their native language. Many were heartbroken. I know I was. Here is a little kid, malnourished and poorly clothed, and all he wanted was a nickel. That’s not too much to ask. I could have tossed him the coin and moved on.

But, as our program director explained, it is not about the amount of money. It is the principle. FSD teaches that you can only effect serious change by striving for sustainability. What will that boy do when we leave? Who will care for him then?

It was only the third day, and I was already being taught how to rationalize away the most vulnerable members of society.

Causes, Direct and Indirect

As an aside, I would like to present a brief summary of some history that has been imparted on me by a few Ugandan friends.

There is a region in the northeast of Uganda called Karamoja. For several years, it has been stricken by famine, destroying crops and driving families from their farms. Many families fled from their hunger and came to stay in Jinja.

For almost 20 years, President Yoweri Musevini’s army, the Uganda People’s Defense Force, has been fighting rebels in the North, the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA has, over recent years, lost popular support. As a result, they have resorted to abducting children as soldiers. Rather than risk abduction, many families have taken their children south, and some too have taken up residence in Jinja.

Due to the myriad of issues that arise when one doesn’t know the language or the layout of a new region, many adults had trouble finding reliable work. Many of them went to the streets to beg for help.

The beggars who had children with them were given more money than those without children. The children who were without an adult received even more. Some adults, recognizing this, sent their children into town to do the begging while they farmed at home. The beggar children were born.

Not too much later, a lady from Switzerland was in Jinja to do some work and she too was heartbroken by the position that these children were in. She understood that you cannot simply give money to the little kids, so instead, she decided to feed them. Every day, she bought them a simple lunch and fed the kids.

However, what originally appeared beneficial proved to be harmful. More children heard about this and came into town. They skipped school to get the free lunch, and they begged the rest of the day. Unwittingly, this well-meaning woman had made the situation worse. It got so bad, in fact, that several local NGOs grouped together and asked her to stop buying the lunches. She stopped.

Is it sustainable?

Sustainable development is the very center of FSD’s mission. With every action, we must ask ourselves if we are promoting something that is sustainable. What incentives are we creating in our aid efforts? If we do something that encourages less local involvement, less accountability, or less empowerment, we are doing our jobs wrong.

When I first saw those beggar children downtown, I wanted to give them money. I wanted to buy them food. But I know that I won’t always be here to do that, and they will be right back where they started.

What is the sustainable approach to getting these kids off of the street? Get them into school? Economically empower their parents? I am not sure I could tell you.

But maybe the first step is to really pay attention to them. Tossing money at them and hoping that they disappear is the exact opposite of actually paying attention to them. Instead, I’ve been trying to talk to them. To make them feel valued for something other than their sad situation. To at least put a smile on their face. After all, they are only kids.

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Community members celebrating the completion of a safe water source in Igombe village.Over the past few months, FSD intern John Allen has been involved in water development efforts in Jinja, Uganda. John’s internship has been hosted by Busoga Trust, an organization that seeks to extend the coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation to rural communities in Uganda. With his background in Civil Engineering, John has been working actively with the technical team at Busoga Trust to serve communities by facilitating the construction of shallow well sources. This has improved the health of residents in communities like Igombe, where villagers have worked together to construct a clean water source.

With some exposure to water development before coming to Uganda, I thought I had a decent understanding of the use of appropriate technology. Then I arrived at Busoga Trust and discovered something that confused me. I was disappointed to find out that my host organization preferred to implement hand-dug wells to boreholes. I was perplexed by the “slight compromise in quality” present in hand-dug wells, as was explained by my supervisor. Of course, the organization’s reasoning behind constructing so many shallow well sources was simple; they are about one fourth the cost of a borehole. A woman collecting water from a traditional sourceNevertheless, I was not completely satisfied with my supervisor’s explanation, but I began my work in the field ready to oversee hand-dug well construction. It wasn’t until I first arrived at Igombe community for needs assessment that I fully understand my organization’s philosophy. A couple of Igombe residents took to me to the bottom of the hill to inspect the community’s “traditional water source.” This was no more than a rainwater runoff pond completely open to contamination from nearby livestock. At this point I realized that by constructing cheaper shallow wells, the impact of water development efforts would be maximized by serving more communities, and that a hand-dug well was infinitely better than the water sources rural communities accessed. Later, during the process of constructing the well, I understood another important reason for why shallow wells are constructed. Through the process of building their own well source, I was able to observe the residents of the village come together as a community. With each villager having his own tasks and responsibilities the community was able to work as a team with the knowledge that upon completion of their collective work, the village would benefit from better health that would result from the completion of a safe water source. This was further reflected in the interest garnered in health education sessions, as community members learned how they could take an active role to ensure their own health and that of their children. All of these activities of the community transformed my opinion of water development works, as I came to the realization that the technology which promotes community involvement and capacity building and has the widest impact range is the most sustainable.

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Some of the young women practice beadworking at the vocational schoolI am volunteering in Jinja, Uganda, with the Phoebe Educational Fund for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (PEFO). Part of my work involves administering a vocational school that PEFO established in December 2007 in order to help young women who had had to leave school early because they could not afford the school fees.

There are 12 students at the school, all between the ages of 16 and 23. Many of their parents died of AIDS, and they are being cared for by their grandmothers. In addition, about half of the young women are mothers themselves, and struggle to provide for the many dependents in their families. The opportunity to learn a marketable skill—in this case, tailoring—is a potentially life-changing one for them.

I was startled one night a couple months ago to receive a phone call from one of the young women at the PEFO vocational center. The reason they don’t have cell phones or the ability to make frequent pay phone calls is more or less the reason they’re in this program: they’re extremely poor.

But there was one of my brightest students, “Sarah,” 23, on the other end of the line one evening. I greeted her with pleasant surprise.

“Madam, I can’t come to class tomorrow,” she said. Her voice was muffled by the static of the pay phone line.

“Oh…well that’s okay, Sarah. It’s no problem. Thanks for telling me, though.” As an afterthought: “Is everything all right?”

She paused. “Madam, our family is visiting tomorrow for my son. Last week he fell sick, and he was lost.”

That couldn’t be right. Sarah has a five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, and they are the joys of her life—especially since her husband left the family a year ago for another woman, which she talks about with lingering bitterness and pain.

“He is lost? What do you mean?”

Her voice seemed to grow fainter. “He was sick very suddenly, and we took him to the hospital, and on the way…he lost his life.” She added: “So I will not be at the school tomorrow.”

I was suddenly overflowing with condolences, offers to help, profound apologies—all of which sounded empty and clichéd as I uttered them. And just then, her phone credit ran out and the line went dead.

I spent the rest of the night alternating between attempting to call her back and fighting back my own tears. Child mortality rates in developing countries are shocking by Western standards, but they’re still little more than numbers on a page until one of the most intelligent, prepossessing young women you meet in one of those countries has the light abruptly sucked out of her life.

Rebecca at Sarah’s home a few weeks after her initial visitThe next day, another PEFO staffer and I drove into her village, down bumpy, red-dirt roads lined with banana trees and mud huts in front of which children shrieked and played. Each one must have been a reminder to Sarah of what she had lost.

She was waiting for us on the side of the road, at a neighbor’s house. She smiled the same smile I saw every day at the vocational school, as if nothing were wrong. I got out of the car and gave her our gifts of bread, tea and sugar. Then, not knowing what else to do, I put my arms around her and told her I was sorry.

And then she began sobbing quietly. “Madam—I have lost all my hope.” She shook her head as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I miss my child.”

We spent the rest of the day back at her house, chatting with her neighbors and family members, playing with her little daughter (who Sarah kept obsessively by her side the whole day), and walking out to see the fields where she cultivates corn, beans, cassava and potatoes.

One of the neighbors pulled out a photo album at one point, and showed me Sarah’s late son. He was, by any measure, a beautiful child. He had his older sister’s same shy smile and his mother’s large, bright-alive eyes. At that point, after doing her best to talk and laugh with her visitors throughout the day, Sarah began brushing away tears. The neighbor quietly put away the album.

Soon after that day, the vocational project really took off; we began making deals with local schools to buy school uniforms en masse from our young vocational tailors, ensuring a potentially enormous, sustainable market for this class and all future classes. Every day I visited the school, the girls had made new skirt and shirt designs and hung them proudly on the walls. And I was starting to see a new confidence in the way the girls carried themselves—a new spark in their eyes.

Sarah continued as she always had—energetic, inquisitive and determined. She made no reference to her dead son, never faltered when other students brought their young children to the school with them for the day. But I continually wondered and worried about her state of mind.

A couple months after my visit to the village, we learned about a two-day finance and bookkeeping workshop being held in Jinja. Since the young women would be starting their own tailoring business together after graduating the vocational school, it was critical that some of them have a sophisticated grasp of accounting. (We hold periodic “Entrepreneurship” lessons at the school, but we only cover the basics.)

PEFO could only manage to pay for one young woman to attend the workshop. I thought back to all those “Entrepreneurship” classes, to the hand that was raised the most frequently, to the person who asked all those questions I often struggled to answer, to the young woman who listed seven subjects—including accounts and commerce—when asked what her favorite classes in school had been.

Sarah and her five-year-old daughter at the vocational schoolI met Sarah on the morning of the workshop and guided her to the hotel conference room where the lectures were being held. She was easily the youngest person there, and her simple attire stood in stark contrast to the business suits and tailored dresses of the other participants in the room.

“Now, don’t be afraid to ask questions,” I told her (though I could imagine no such thing), “and think about how this will apply to your business. You will have to use this knowledge in just a few weeks!”

She nodded, oddly quiet, and I realized she was quite nervous. “You’ll do great!” I added, and then left her to the workshop. Well, I thought, at least she’ll get some good food.

The rest of that week at PEFO, we rushed to solidify plans for the vocational students’ graduation: we picked out a place for them in their local village to set up their business, we signed up more schools to buy uniforms by the hundreds, and we began recruiting the second class in what (I hope) will be a long line of groups to have their quality of life improved significantly by acquiring the means and skills to earn a decent living for their families.

The next week, I dropped by the school and learned of all the progress the girls had been making recently. But I was especially eager to hear how Sarah had fared in her workshop.

“I will show you,” she said. She took out a notebook and opened it to a page of complex tables and figures. “This is the [incomprehensible term to me] method of accounting,” she began. And then she flipped to the next page, and the next—countless pages of meticulous notes—explaining everything she had learned in the workshop.

“At the end of the class, we had an exam on everything they taught us,” she said. “And they awarded certificates to those who passed.” At this point, she pulled out a glossy, laminated certificate with her name on it and showed it to me. “Only 18 passed.”

“How many were in the class?” I asked.

“Forty-two.”

Suddenly I felt tears spring to my eyes. I picked up her certificate and stared at it. “Oh my God! That is…oh my God!”

I had the feeling then that the project was going to be a success, that the tailoring business would be in good hands when I left, that inside all of these young women were countless untapped talents that just maybe stood a better chance now of finding expression.

I know life won’t always be easy for these women. Already, many have overcome more difficulty than most people in the Western world will know in their lifetime. But all I wish for them is what I began to see happening during their time at the vocational school: pride in their abilities and confidence in their way forward. And for some of them—to find hope again after losing it along the way.

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Soft Power Health ClinicShannon Harney recently returned from Jinja, Uganda. In Uganda, she worked with Soft Power Health, a local health clinic, to expand HIV education and testing in four rural secondary schools–via an educational HIV seminar for teachers, an on-campus HIV seminar for students that included free on-site voluntary testing and post-test counseling, and the creation of a savings account to generate funds for 2 Soft Power Health staff members to become HIV post-test counselor certified. The following is a selection of posts from the blog she kept in-country describing various stages of her experiences.

September 25, 2007
beautiful beautiful kawa...coffee bean I live in an agrarian jungle; a banana plantation right outside our back door, coffee plant volunteers seeding everywhere, each home equipped with its own durable sweet potato field and as I look to the west to watch the sun set from the main road I look past an ocean of sugar cane.

My mother, Rose, is dark and strong, with speckled honeycomb eyes and hands the size and texture of a baseball mit. My older sister, Silvia, is small and waif-like, and yet incredible durable and grounded; she gets stuck in quick sand Christianity too often for me, but her intentions are good. And the last of our humble abode is Edith, she is 10 and has boyish facial features, from what I can tell she has 1 dress, 1 skirt and 1 shirt…all beyond repair. Her status in the family seems to be dangerously close to house servant and she is so soft spoken I’ve all but given up trying to hear her quiet obeys; I found out just this morning that her constant hacking cough is because she has malaria…there is a sever lack of communication in my house.

The 25 or so children that reside on my street alone are priceless. The day I moved in, I had an audience of about 10, just peering curiously into my window for hours…they didn’t want to chat or beg, they just wanted to see my things…things are a rare commodity out here.

October 12, 2007
Last week my supervisor wanted to demonstrate how our HIV test kits in the clinic work. He carelessly grabbed a blood sample from the dozens of test tubes perched on the counter and dropped a blot on a tiny receptor strip. Ten minutes later we went to check it out and it had read positive. The random lab sample, the older women in the hall who’d complained of dizziness was living unknowingly with HIV. We couldn’t inform her I was told, as its illegal to test for HIV without consent. So I sat and stared at the test for a few minutes until the doctor came and threw it in the rubbish bin. I bid the woman a safe journey and refilled my water bottle. Those are things I don’t know what to do with.

So. I’m here for 3 months (1 of which is gone with the wind). I’m not going to eliminate AIDS from rural Ugandan communities. But I’d like to think I could take a stab at educating, informing and testing my district, my community; with the hopes and idealistic longing that my efforts will propagate themselves elsewhere in the country. With the money I raised at home, the money that was donated so generously to this project by my dear friends, family and even distant acquaintances; I’ll be implementing a pilot project for Soft Power Health.

October 26, 2007
Teacher\'s workshop Monday night I facilitated my HIV education seminar for the secondary school teachers. I had assumed that we would start at about 7:30, after all, I’d told them to show up at 6:30, its called African Time. When I got to the hotel at 5:30 I’d set out to practice, set up, calm my nerves and my newly arrived bout of nausea…what do you know? All the teachers were there, sitting, waiting patiently. That blew my mind. I was really impressed, impressed by the honoring of their commitment to come, their timeliness, their motivation…it was really inspiring, it made me feel like perhaps I’d gotten this one right, perhaps I’d tapped into something that they really wanted, that they felt could help them make a difference. I’d asked the hotel to provide refreshments on my bill… you know, coffee, tea, sodas… so when I saw all the teachers kickin’ back with cold beers I knew the communication barrier had once again gotten the upper hand. I paid nearly three times more than I’d budgeted for, but the heated post-seminar roundtable discussion on teaching techniques was a lot more fiery thanks to the happy glowing buzz the teachers were feeling. Everything happens for a reason?

I spent that night throwing up (beers were not involved in this I assure you) and wasn’t able to go to work on Tuesday thanks to a number of GI issues. All I wanted was sleep, the temperature in my solar oven house to drop below 90 and my host-mom to please stop offering me fried macaroni… and then down the path to my house comes trotting a whole band of cohorts. My clinic was worried about ‘the sickness’ and so they all decided to abandon their health profession posts for the afternoon and come visit me; needless to say it was the first sick-in-bed day I’ve ever spent surrounded by a doctor, two nurses, a lab tech and a cook…just in case.

November 22, 2007
The logistical swamp bucket that presents itself when trying to coordinate three autonomous bodies is thick and it is fierce. After much pleading, rationalizing and exhausted compromises each school finally confirmed a date [for a school seminar and testing] that worked for both Soft Power Health (i.e. me…that wasn’t too difficult) and AIDS Information Centre Jinja.

East Secondary School- November 5th at 10:30 am
The AIC staff arrived one hour late to our meeting place, thus we arrived nearly 2 hours late to our appointment. It didn’t seem to be any skin off the Headmaster’s back as he was lounging under a mango tree eating jackfruit when I arrived in my long-skirted American “I heart efficiency” guise. We lumbered into a concrete classroom with dirt floors and twiddled fingers as the students scuffled in. The presentation went nicely, my favorite moment was when a cocky 18 year old raised his hand to say, “You said that condoms they should be thrown in the pit latrine. But me, I fuck in the bush, so what then?” The AIC HIV counselor was kind enough to take that question for me; I cowered backwards and resisted the urge to kick him in the mouth. We tested 70 students.

Workshop at Lubani Secondari SchoolLubani Secondary School- November 8th at 1pm
The AIC staff arrived one hour late to our meeting place, thus we arrived nearly 2 hours late to our appointment. It didn’t seem to be any skin off the teacher’s backs as they were lounging under a grove of pine trees, “We have just released the students for lunch. You wait for some 40 minutes.” So we began the presentation at around 4 pm, at which time I was introduced by one of the younger teachers as his wife. This set the students into such a fit it took canes and cursing of all sorts to quell them. This particular teacher, my husband, has taken to text messaging me late at night to tell me he misses me, that he needs my personality or to ask me “ware you b?” I gave the presentation to just under one thousand students. Outside. Without a microphone. These are times when I thank my theatre career… projection, annunciation…pause, punch and attitude…you got it! We tested 97 students before we ran out of vacutainer needles and the sun went down. This was the most chaotic group of all the students, I sustained several minor injuries that evening as well as coming to the conclusion that I don’t ever, ever want to be a schoolteacher. The electricity at the campus was shifty at best and we realized about thirty minutes before dark that the special hire car we were riding in had no headlights. Henry, the driver, and I had a friendly little chat where all I could think about was that he had a huge problem of misusing the word “generally”, ‘Well, generally, I have no lights. Oh, yes, generally I will go get another car.” This was not the end of the “Henry screwing me up” saga.

Trinity College- November 12th 1pm
By this point I’d like to think I’d worked out most of the hitches. I told the AIC people to arrive four hours before the program began and this time we were only about 20 minutes late. I educated the students in a really beautiful shaded arbor; pine trees, eucalyptus and palm all collected in a strange kind of partnership to provide a cool and calm space in which to talk about viral infections and condoms. We were able to test 100 children and make it home before dark. I felt good, I felt really proud driving home around dusk, the pink sky burning into the sugar cane plantations, the amueze rising as a fingernail in the sky.

Shannon with schoolchildrenSt. Stephen’s Secondary School- November 14th 10:30 am
I almost don’t want to talk about it. But this, as much any of the pitfalls and obstacles, was part of my experience, part of the reality of getting things done or not so done here. I received a text message from the HM from St. Stephens at about 10 am the day of the program, something along the lines of, “Please cancel your visit. We are too busy. Thank you.” Keeping in mind please, that this is after two months of planning, of confirming and reconfirming of sticking to a date and time that he suggested. And so I kindly asked him to reconsider based on the fact that the program had already been paid for, the counselors had been hired etc etc. His response was, “Our position is final and unchangeable. Your program is not as important as our students learning. Thank you.” The story concludes with me rolling up to the school in a heated fury and laying in on the administrative staff, using my big English words and all.
Over, done with, unfortunate. Thus the lackluster aspect of this whole sha-bang.

But now I have about a month to learn this place. Learn the ebbs and flows of her land and people, the things I’ve been biking past too fast to notice. The weather has been peach, plum, pear perfect lately; cloudy sunshine days, breezy, beautiful. The living here is easy and I’m gonna take an HIV load off and enjoy it while I can. Christmas is coming in fast this year.

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