Thursday, October 23, 2008

Best Week Ever!

My trip to Mbale started with a bang. After driving through the savannah and the hills, we drove up a mountain (on which we got stuck in the mud for 45 minutes) and watched the sunset over Uganda. We could see for miles and miles. The next day after breakfast, we went to Children’s Resotration Outreach and played with homeless street children and learned about the CRO program. CRO gives them two meals a day, counsels them, and supports their schooling, but unfortunately cannot shelter them. We had seen many children sleeping on the streets, so it was both happy and heartbreaking to see them being children during the daytime. We learned that one major problem for them is drugs. When one child was asked why he cannot give up drugs, he said that Mbale is cold at night and he cannot afford a blanket. “The drugs are my blanket.”

Even in Kampala, there are so many street children. You always hear that most homeless in America are children too… but the homeless children are much more visible here. Often they choose to be on the streets because street life may be better than their home lives. They often come from violent homes, and they choose not to go to school because they can make money on the streets. Unfortunately it can be a confusing moral dilemma about whether or not to give them money. Many of them don’t choose street life. Kampala has a large problem with human trafficking. Many of the children (and prostitutes) here are kidnapped from villages or sold by their parents and beg and work for bosses. Thus, giving money to children may mean giving money to their bosses so that they can acquire more children.

Now for the fun part!

Later that day, we got cabins on a hillside that overlooked Sipi Falls. If ever I can post pictures, you will agree with me that it is absolutely gorgeous. We went on a two hour hike to the base of the falls and stood in the spray from the water (though we were not allowed to swim because SIT is currently battling a lawsuit from another program about a swimming-related death). That night, after dinner when we were all singing around the campfire, I snuck to the top of the hill on which we were staying and stood alone in the dark on top of the mountain. From this island in the sky, I could see 360 degrees of other mountains and flatland and Lake Choga for miles and miles. My friend Laura called and had suspected where I had gone off too. She met me on top of the mountain and we decided to sleep under the African stars.

After taking all of our bedsheets and making a little bed on the ground, we talked about life, stargazed, and found shapes in the clouds. We actually saw a star slowly fall and burn out. The clouds above us started moving much closer and much more quickly and we thought maybe it was about to storm. But suddenly everything around us went white and turned to mist, and we could no longer see further than our little island. We realized that we were inside a cloud. We just looked at each other and then jumped up and started dancing. We danced for probably 15 minutes until the cloud had gone. After that we had little left to say and we fell asleep under the full moon. We woke up in the morning to the sun rising over Sipi Falls on our right. Muna, our “minister of transport”/ taxi driver, hiked up the mountain to watch the sunrise and filled us with some fresh parables (as he is accustomed to doing) to start the day. He loves animal analogies, and I think this one in particular was “be a snail. Leave your mark behind.”

The next day, we hiked up to see two other waterfalls and we stood behind one of them and got completely drenched before we split into groups and went into villages to do focus groups. My group spoke to farmers about cattle rustling which has caused a huge conflict in the region for the last fifty years. The Karamojong, a violent tribe in the East, believe that all horned cattle in the world belong to them and were stolen at some point. (interesting fact: one reason for the chaos and conflict in Karamoja is that they were neglected by British colonization. Great Britain said “geez, we are not going to deal with that,” and left Karamoja alone). They justify their cattle raids on the grounds that they are taking back what is rightfully theirs. They kill and rape and burn and pillage while they steal the cows. Cattle rustling affects everything from the education system to the health care system to the economy of Kapchorwa which is a two day walk from Karamoja.

We then left for the rural homestay. It was fun dropping everyone off and seeing where they lived… little mud, grass-roofed houses, hikes up undrivable terrain, baboon territory, etc. Any children we encountered on the way were scared of our car. One time we were swarmed by them until our taxi turned on. They each jumped back about 10 feet and briefly cowered. The last thing our taxi-driver told to us before we got to our homes was don’t walk without a man at night. According to him, the baboons are known to (to censor this for my 5 year old readers) forcibly have their way with women. He is kinda crazy. He said even a newborn male infant could serve as baboon repellent at night.

Our rural homestay was amazing. Cara and I got unlucky because we had a tin roof instead of a grass-roofed hut… and we had a mattress to share. Our resentment quickly faded though because we had a wonderful time in the village. They were very fond of feeding us… way way way too much! (For one breakfast … which people out there usually cannot afford to eat… we were served 30 matooke, an entire cabbage, and 4 pounds of rice). Our dad was the chairman on the local council and he took us all around the community to talk to farmers about our research on subsistence farming. We spoke to like 50 cassava farmers and one pot smuggler. We had two one-year-old babies living with us who liked to play with knives. Most children here do. I feel like I missed out when I was growing up because we were not allowed to play with huge machetes or run with knives. But I guess monopoly was the next best thing. Gotta make the best with what ya got.

Our gift to the family was a goat (also soap and salt). When the goat arrived by motorcycle, our dad was really confused, but the look on his face when he found out it was a gift was unforgettable. I have never seen someone so excited and so grateful about a gift I had given. He made plans for the goat—he will build a shelter so it doesn’t have to worry about getting wet, milk it for the children everyday, and borrow a neighbor’s male goat to impregnate ours so that he can save up enough goats to trade them for a cow. Cara and I also got to milk the goat. I accidentally shot both my dad and myself with the milk until the goat kicked me and I spilled most of the children’s breakfast on the ground. I wish I could post pictures!

On our third day in the homestay, Cara and I, hopped on the back of some bicycles and rode to Kenya. We freely walked past customs and wandered around Kisumu Road (two hours from Barrack’s grandmother). Nothing really exciting happened because all the cool shows didn’t start until after dark… but we did get really cheap tea and a stalker!

Our last day was bitter sweet. Our dad repeatedly told us we were good people (as he had told us the whole time). To thank us, he bought 2 one-foot tall mahogany trees named Cara and Alex. We planted them on his property and he promised that they would be there whenever we come back. He even said that he would water them everyday for a month and when Cara and Alex are medium-sized, he will make two cement stones with the names and bury them so that we can always know which trees are ours. He was so cute… and also very protective of us. He had a wonderfully welcoming family. We promised to send him pictures.

I am back in Kampala for now, but next week I will begin an internship with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) in Mbale, Uganda. I think I will be working with counselors there and hopefully I will be involved in the outreach programs. I will keep you updated!!! Yay!

To those of you interested in learning more about schools and disabled people in Uganda:

Because education is seen as a way out of poverty, schools here are intense! A huge number of children go to boarding school (even when they are five). Two of my host siblings go to a really good boarding school. This is their schedule: They are woken by a bell at 3:30am. “If you are not in the classroom by 4, you just kneel” (they cane you in schools). At 4am, mandatory study hours start. Breakfast is at 6am. At 7am classes start. They have a lunch break and a 30 minute dinner break. At 7pm mandatory study hours start. They last until 10pm. The next day, they are again woken at 3:30am.

As for the disabled… again the disabled are much more visible in Uganda. There are so many more people with natural physical deformities (a huge reminder of the prominence and convenience of both plastic surgery and wheel chairs in the US). Also, many people are crippled in accidents and cannot be helped here. An incredible amount of people crawl around the city with sandals on their hands and calluses on their knees. Not only have I never seen people crawling around the city in America… but I have never seen them try to cross the road of anarchy on all fours. Every time I see a careening taxi with a man crawling in front of it, I hold my breath. It is kind of terrifying. I do enjoy seeing careening taxis with men on roller skates holding onto the back for a free ride.


Dom said...

The goat arrived by motorcycle? Thats absolutely amazing! Simon can't even learn to mow the lawn, let alone drive a motorcycle!

Anonymous said...

Alex, I'm so glad you are having a wonderful time. Thanks for keeping this updated so often - you're on my bookmark tab! :)

Can you write more about Building Tomorrow for me? I would love to have more updates for ND-8.


P.S. - some little gifts are coming your way...........:)

Anonymous said...

Alex! It's good to hear you're having such a great time. I actually have been quite entertained by this blog, as have my dad,mom, and friends on my floor. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that your blog is awesome. It was also a fantastic idea, not only to document what happened there, but also to avoid the mass amount of questions that would follow 16 weeks in Uganda (although I am sure you will get a ton of questions anyway).
Everybody misses you.
with Love from BW, Sean Hurley, Eros, Kelly, Maddie, Steve, Samantha, and Katie.