A dear friend and mentor whom I met on my first sojourn to Uganda and whom has remained dear to me since then (ahem, Gann!) once told me that, upon my return to the states, I needed three replies ready for the abysmal question “So, how was Africa?”
This question is abysmal for the following reasons:
1. Africa, as I have repeatedly mentioned, is a continent and NOT a country. Yes, I’ve been to six (and by the end of the summer, possibly 7…more for another time!) African nations in both Western and Eastern Africa. This accounts for approximately 10% of the countries on this continent, and as for Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire I hardly spent any time in-nation and did not even get my passport stamped (a tale for another time). So really, I’ve only come to know Rwanda, Uganda, and Ghana. A blessing, but by no means enough to make me capable of answering how a continent that is larger than Russia, China, all of Western Europe, and the USA combined is faring.
2. Condensing ten weeks worth of time, experience, feeling, learning, and growing into one little question is like asking Jo Rowling what it was like to write one of the Harry Potter masterpieces. It’s your entire life for an intense amount of time- how is one supposed to compound it all into a sentence?
Now, unfortunately, I see no easy answer to the problematic question, because I do generally really appreciate that people who ask such questions (a) actually care enough and remember that this is what I did for the summer, which humbles me and reminds me of the incredible people who fill this world, and (b) are opening a space, usually, for dialogue to ensue.
And, let’s be real, so many times questions like this are asked over punch after church or in passing in the cereal isle, so it’s not exactly like I’m going to go NGO-fanatic all over you and nit pick the question and belligerently proclaim myself to be a sage whose mighty wisdom deserves more than a measly sentence asking. (Mighty wisdom, ha!). Perhaps a better question might be, “Tell me about your time in Uganda” or, the money-maker, “This must have been quite the adventure [/experience/formative time…] and I’d love to hear more over coffee [/drinks/a meal/a long romantic walk on the beach…].” Alas, these exist in dream worlds and not really in reality. And, let’s be real, I may not want to take a quixotic stroll with you on the sand- no offense.
In lieu of this microcosmic dilemma, my dear mentor told me I needed to prepare three kinds of responses: the two-sentence/thirty-second reply for those vaguely interested and merely fishing for a conversational topic; the five-minute story for those who have genuine interest whom you either do not want to divulge all or, more commonly, are more on the periphery of your life and therefore don’t have the time for the hand-holding sharing session; and lastly, the full experience, to be shared with the few people who truly want to know it all.
The last divulgence is a rarity; usually among family and close friends. I tend to include pictures and video with this sharing and, if you’re especially lucky, some full Ugandan regalia.
Having taken this to heart, my return to the states at the age of fourteen was a little less burdened by this guidance. Still, I struggled for months post-landing, wrestling with questions of why I am white, American, middle-class, and handed an excellent education merely because I was conceived in a womb of parents with the same privilege. I was blessed with people wanting the whole story, but blinded in some ways because not everyone wanted the full, gory, intensive retelling. A little older now, I understand why. Not everyone can care about what I feel passion for and people have their own lives. This is neither here nor there, but learning to respect people’s passions is a lifelong journey for me. Regardless, this kowledge doesn’t mean my return is going to be any easier.
Which was, in part, my secret motivation for creating this blog. Yes, I wanted to have a place besides my journal to look back on fondly to recall my time; yes, I wanted a central place to share my tales of woe and glory with friends and family; yes, I think someday I’ll write memoir (I’ve already got a title, is that bad?) and this will be a place to begin; yes, I think a life-abroad is rich material for blogging; but most of all, I thought (and still think) that by sharing the micro-events and big feelings bit by bit as they happen I will have created a space for healthy transition and sharing. Ultimately, selfish as it is, this blog is for me. I’m so grateful you all are along for the ride, especially because you being here (virtually) is helping and encouraging me every step of the way.
But now, having laid out for you my trick to sanity and transition, I now must make one further confession.
A question I am often asked pertaining to my internship here in Uganda for the summer is: what exactly are you doing in Uganda? It is, admittedly, a perfectly fair and reasonable question to ask as I have yet to be explicit with projects to be undertaken or outlines of my job description.
My avoidance of writing out a concrete, as-you-please, simple explanation are one of two reasons; the first being I like to be counter-cultural in my avoidance of feeding what surely People want to hear: a clean-cut, two-sentence sized-down version of an entire summer’s worth of work, meditation, and exploration. The second is because, as in many things pertaining to NGO work in Uganda, what tangibly can be accomplished in ten weeks is often not apparent until those ten weeks have commenced. And, you know, it’s my rebellion against the two-sentence reply.
But, having forced you all to endure my aloofness and avoidance of the subject long enough (though, strictly speaking, I do feel that you all read this blog of your own will and therefore I haven’t, per se, forced you to do anything (dually, however, if I pester you in real life (which could well be the case) to read my blog is some sense that is forcing you…hmmm, food for thought)) I think it is high time I made a material list of our project goals for the end of the summer.
(This might also have been prompted by the planning session held by Thera and I yesterday…but to keep the mystery alive, I won’t share that…oops.)
So here it is, at long last, my thirty seconds condensation of three weeks thus far:
In the Karamoja region of Northwestern Uganda I am working for the North Karamoja Diocese of the Church of Uganda under the Educational Coordinator. Our principle jobs were in capacity building, community living, and educational support and reform.
Now, if you’re like me, you might say “what does that mean?” (ENSUE MY TRICK!) For, if you are in fact looking at the screen with a dubious and confused expression scrawled across your visage, you might ask “Tell me more about that” or “What exactly does capacity building mean?”
And now, dear reader, you have transitioned from the two-sentence to the five-minute reply. (I HAVE ENSNARED YOU, HAHA!) And I might reply, “capacity building is the idea that we, as Western NGO workers, recognize that the Karamajong are perfectly capable of raising themselves out of material poverty and creating their own educational reform. With this recognition we seek to build this capacity within the community in which we live, creating a space and laying the foundation for those native to this community to create their own change. We create sustaining relationships until there is no need for us, not necessarily until we feel like leaving mid-project.”
Should you be even more curious, you might ask me to explain in detail some projects to enlighten one’s understanding of this fabulous concept of capacity building.
And now, after this ridiculous ramble, I present to you three key projects Thera and I hope to accomplish (or make serious headway on) for the summer:
1. Education Surveys
A few months ago Thera took a comprehensive survey of all the schools in the district; what they needed, how they were doing, etc. There are a few schools left to be surveyed which is our first task: to complete the data compilation so as to have a full report on the district. However, as any researcher knows, paper-copied data is a pain in the ass to read through and, dually, needs to be compiled into a more cohesive and read-able format for future workers and fellow Diocese employees and volunteers. Thus, the concrete:
– To finish surveying the remaining three schools.
– To compile all the data into on cohesive and legible format both on paper and electronically.
– To write a narrative report of the data with an easily updateable at-a-glance for every school.
– This project falls under “educational reform and support”
– We also hope, once the data is coherent, to find ways to satisfy the needs of the schools.
2. Water Bottle Building
Unbeknownst to many, water bottles actually make incredibly sturdy and useful bricks when building homes (my new friend and fellow MCC worker, Elizabeth, has an awesome blog post about the first-ever water bottle house built in africa here). Filled with concrete/dirt and sealed together like any other mud-brick home these bottle-bricks are both incredibly good for repurposing and thus, our environment and a very cheap way to build a home. We are hoping to receive grant money to begin the project (for which we’ve been saving all of our bottles (which are many, when one cannot drink tap water and therefore often must drink bottled water)) and, praying all goes well, we shall begin the campaign for collecting plastic bottles from across Kotido. Once enough are collected, we hope to construct a structure on the Church property (probably a latrine).
– To collect water bottles so as to reduce carbon footprints and as an innovative and useful way of recycling
– To build, with professional guidance, an example structure on the Diocese’s property
– Capacity building resides in the idea of “we did this from local materials for cheap and so can you!”
– Community living will have ensured trust within (hopefully hopefully hopefully) much of the community and, therefore, we hope to have a successful bottle-collecting campaign as our fellows will have trusted us with our initiative (crazy as it may sound to Karamajong or Westerner alike)
3. Solar Appliances (Oven/Cooker & Dryer)
This might by my favorite project initiative, and certainly seems the most do-able. We intend to build a solar cooker and solar dryer for our own compound completely from found materials within the community. Solar cookers have been around even in the states since the 1960s and are (a) incredibly efficient, (b) good for the earth, and (c) very easy to make from fancy materials or found trash. This is the biggest capacity building and community living project; we build the oven/cooker as a demonstration to the rest of the community, bringing it with us to visits and sharing food we will make in the oven with others. Most importantly, in using local materials we can show (once again) that it is a relatively simple project that anyone can do! Assuredly a video will ensue of the whole process, but it’s already looking to be incredibly cool!!
– To collect the necessary materials, visibly, from our surroundings (two cardboard boxes, a sheet of glass, flour paste and soot to make natural black paint, a piece of hanger wire, and the silvery metallic insides of plastic bags)
– To build the solar cooker and dryer
– To cook in the oven/cooker and then share it with the community to prove its effectiveness.
– Capacity building at its finest!
– Efforts towards long-term renewable energy and sustainability
– To also show you, dearest readers, that you can make these as well and reduce your carbon footprint! I fully intend to make on my return to the states as well! (this, in turn, is Western capacity building)
These are the three main objectives we hope to achieve. I am, understandably, terribly eager to begin. And while these are the tangible, so much of work in NGOs abroad is simply living as a community member, understanding cultures and embracing and learning from the collision space between us.
current jam: “swee swee” mountain men
best thing in my life right now: i woke up to a snuggly cat on my lap this morning!
pages read: still 17; it’s barely noon here and i spent all morning writing this, okay?! (judgement judgement judgement)
fantas consumed: 5