You know what I did the summer after I graduated high school?
Nothing worth talking about.
She is the daughter of a friend … and I have their permission to share this letter with you.
Well, for the past week and a half we have been out of touch with the outside world. The Internet has been down since last Monday and having promised myself I would only be on once a week anyways, I haven’t been on since Wednesday or Thursday two weeks ago…whenever it was that I sent the last e-mail. My oh my, so much has happened. I’ll try to keep this short and not miss anything big at the same time. Bear with me.
Lira has turned out to be quite the bustling town. We’ve been out to dinner twice, both times to the same place, the Lillian Towers. They aren’t so much towers as a two story building, but it all depends on reference, I guess. I decided I wouldn’t be able to go a month without fruit and had a bunch last Friday evening and dealt with the consequences Saturday…but it really wasn’t anything too terrible. And since then I’ve had absolutely no problem with anything. The pineapple here may be the best thing I have ever tasted in my life, by the way. It may very well beat out Hawaii’s.
I went out to Barlonyo last week, one of the IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps. This camp suffered a massacre a while back at the hands of the LRA who wore government issued uniforms worn by the soldiers guarding the camp. I was able to sit in with Joe, one of the clinical officers who usually works with children in the camps. It’s really quite an amazing system they have. The line of people extends far past the site before we even get there, and the tents are set up within eight minutes. Three people check each person in, create a form, and give them a number to track how many are seen. One of the clinical officers introduces the people to the program and goes over the ground rules and whatnot that they all probably already heard at least twelve times. Each camp has a different dialect of the local language, so all of the workers must speak all nine versions. One child who came in was suffering from malaria and severe malnutrition. She was about three years old, and we put her in the team ambulance to take her to the hospital in Lira where she would be able to receive immediate and extended treatment. She died on the way, about five minutes in to the half hour drive. I helped the patients with IV drips and saw way too many small children, as in two-year olds, having to be hooked up. We saw three trauma wounds which absolutely broke my heart. We also met a 19 year old guy named Dennis who spoke great English and was able to tell us about the attack. Anyways, I guess word spreads quickly around here because the team got back from a camp near Barlonyo last week, and people asked where the muona [white woman] was.
I’ve been working further with mapping systems to chart the progress of the program and health standards over here. One program with which I’ve spent much time is Epi Info. It’s a great system and has been fun to play around with. I gridded out three maps—one of Uganda, one of Lira, and one of Ogur (a subcounty in which we’re building the youth center)—and then transferred them onto the computer square by square. I have also found that my habit of not dangling prepositions has rubbed off on a few people here. It’s actually really amusing.
Saturday we went up to Pader where many people are still living in the IDP camps. Pader is on the border and was created as a camp. There are three stores open on the “main street”: a grocery store with Pepsi products, a grocery store with Coke products, and a discotheque. That evening we drove the two hours home (although Felix claims it was one…that’s African time) and went to visit Dick Dennis at his home. Dick is the financial director for MTI in Uganda and lives about a block from the office. We had dinner at his house and let me tell you, that was a culture shock. His children came in to greet us on their knees and then brought in warm water and washed our hands, and served us dinner on their knees as well. That day his daughter had given a presentation on health to the board of directors for the schools in Lira, and we asked her to present it to us as well. It was amazing. The girl is nine and I think it was better than anything I ever could have presented. She had it memorized verbatim and pulled through the five-minute schpeel without so much as pausing to collect her thoughts. Sunday we went to church at 7:30 in the morning for the English service. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The thing lasted three hours, but it was so worth it. It was beautiful. If we thought the southern Baptists get into their services…wow. They have nothing on these guys. They asked us on stage to introduce ourselves and I’ve discovered that most places I go I am expected to make a speech of some sort. We went into the market after church and spent the day walking around. We picked up some biscuits and Nutella to serve later that night when we hosted a party for all of the staff at the team house. Everyone on the staff came, it was catered by Hotel Pan-Afrique, and we had a mixed choir/band that was absolutely spectacular. I was the entertainment for a few minutes (as I’m so shy anyways) and was trying to learn how to carry a basket on my head and walk for an extended period of time. I wore it walking around for a while and didn’t drop it, but it had to come off for the dancing. I tried to learn a few of their African calls to go with the dance steps…I got some applause and a lot of laughs. There was singing and dancing into the dark and the thunderstorm that rolled in around 8. It was glorious.
I have become absolutely obsessed with African tea. It’s milk boiled with garden tea and ginger, but it is soooo delectable. They make it every morning around nine in the office along with fresh chipate, a kind of tortilla-like bread. Opio (our in-house cook) also makes the tea in the morning before we head out for the day. At my request he has taught me how to make both the African tea and the chipate and we’re still deciding what main dishes I’ll learn before I leave. I’ve probably spent about three days in the office so far and it’s been great to be out so much. I’ve had a lot of work to do and things to keep me busy. I’ve been out and about with the youth coordinators (on motorcycles!) figuring out peer educators, behavior change programs, and sundry other things. It has truly been wonderful. I find every time I’m in the office it’s hard to get work done because there’s so much going on and so many great people with whom to talk. When I am here though, I feel like I’m ready to be a college student. I bury my face in 300 page packets of behavior change manuals and take notes and am drafting a new manual specific to this program. But man, the staff here is amazing. I’m so excited to be working on this new program though also and giving them new projects. It’s weird that they’re coming to me for instruction, but so it goes. Last week we also hired an HIV/AIDS specialist for the youth center and I was very involved in that process. We decided on an amazing guy named George who has worked for a few years at the Ministry of Health in Kampala and wants to move back up to Lira and work with children. He’s starting today and I’ll be working a lot with him also. I’ve most recently been devoting my in-office hours to developing the HMIS, or Health Management Information System that will be able to track through and training other people how to use it.
The power is nothing less than unpredictable. Some nights it stays on, some nights it shuts off at six, sometimes we lose power at ten in the morning and don’t get it back until nine at night. It’s really sporadic, but we manage to work around it. Thank goodness for laptops as opposed to desktops though. Let’s see…As it is rainy season, the power company (I have yet to figure out if there’s an ACTUAL power company or if it’s the local government or what) will turn off power when the lightning starts or when it’s raining too much. They figure that way people won’t be stupid and get electrocuted.
The next camp I went to with mobile medical was Alito. It’s one of the busiest camps and did not disappoint. They go to Alito every Wednesday. Most of their camps they see every other week and have a very stable rotation on which they operate, but Alito has so many people every Wednesday anyways, they couldn’t cut back to every other week as at some of the other locations. The idea of roads in northern Uganda, by the way…is nothing short of hysterical. There are a few paved roads. From Kampala there is one that branches into two. The rest are dirt paths, essentially. And cars manage to make a road out of being halfway on the dirt path and halfway on the shrubs and fields to the side. We drove to Alito following a huge rainstorm and there were potholes that turned into ponds. Our Land Rover was halfway submerged at a few points. The other car that goes out, a Toyota Land Cruiser or something that doubles as the ambulance, got stuck in the mud even in 4-wheel drive. It was a wild ride, but it was pretty classic. Anyways, I went with one of the drivers to a community health center to pick up some vaccinations for children while the mobile medical started seeing patients. The clinic was right next to a primary school, and I caused quite the commotion. The kids were on break and all ran across from the school yelling “muona, muona, muona!” which means white woman. I got some video and showed them themselves being recorded on the screen, they got a kick out of it. They also started singing for me, it was darling. I met the teachers and taught the kids how to play with a Frisbee. I left the Frisbee with them and then decided I should probably meet the headmaster and apologize for causing such a ruckus. He said that there was no reason to apologize, and thanked me for spending time with his children and insisted on my staying and joining him for tea. All of the classes from P1 on are taught in English amazingly. The kids are really nervous to use it though because they haven’t really been able to practice and don’t necessarily trust their own skills. As we were driving away they were all singing to us again. It was absolutely beautiful.
Driving back to the camp though, we got a flat tire and had to stop to repair it. The driver is a former mechanic so he was all over that, but I got out to look around and see what all was going on in the middle of a bunch of fields and not many homes. Once again, I was quite the scene. Two women stopped and talked with me through broken English and sign language…I have managed to learn the basics of Luo and wow the people in the office every morning with something new. By the time we left there was an assembly of ten people trying to talk to me and six children. I pulled out the video camera again to capture a little bit of it. One of the women was about 78 years old and had been working in the field nearby. She had never seen a white person before and was possibly more mesmerized by my skin and hair than any of the children. I sat in with Joe again at the camp and we brought back a young girl who was suffering from severe malnutrition because her body could not process proteins. In her case, when she starts losing weight she’ll be recovering. Her family was brought down to Lira where they will all stay at the hospital and nearby in facilities provided by MTI so they can be together. She will probably be on formula for two to three weeks and then they think that they will be able to put her back on solids. The next day we brought in another baby suffering from cerebral malaria. They will do everything they can to save her and put her on quinine, but chances are terribly slim. Everyone here has malaria, by the way. Everyone treats it with quinine and it’s just a way of life. One nurse, Molly, gets it every three months. Felix hasn’t had it for five years. Opio actually had it hit him this weekend. I’m making sure to take my mefloquine every Wednesday.
I’ve been through four books, and they have all been wonderful. I am proud to say that I have been surprisingly good about keeping a journal, making a habit of writing in it every night—usually in the dark and by flashlight. I wear my necklace everywhere, the bracelet that I’ve worn for the past two and a half years and one that reminds me to love, and I am constantly looking at my left wrist for the time and to either get inspiration from or rewrite “lueur” where it’s been for the past while. [Not sure what this means.] My pilgrimage cross is either around my neck or in my pocket and I’m still only using my video camera on occasion. It’s hard to balance these experiences with capturing them, and there are so many moments I have already missed on video. I’ve decided being a person is more important than being a camera, so we’ll see what happens with it. I think I’ll probably go to church again with Felix and his family this weekend. Afterwards his daughters want to take me out of have me over for lunch. The three of them are in university in Kampala. He has a new baby also, number ten who is three months old and still nameless. He calls her Josephine and his wife, Esther, calls her Jane. I told ‘em to settle with Josephine Jane, but I think it might have made too much sense so they’re going to choose something completely different in the next few weeks. My name has become Maggie according to Felix because although he likes Megan, he likes saying Maggie better. I am sarcastically known around the office as a princess after teaching all of them how to wave properly and for “holding court” by filling the tea room talking with people on the mornings I am in the office for tea. Moses, one of the staff members, and his wife just brought home a new baby girl. Ridiculously enough, they are naming her Megan. I have a namesake in Lira. It’s crazy.
We spent a lot of time with David Alula, one of the directors down here, this weekend. He took us around to different parts of Lira we had not yet seen and next week is probably taking me to his village to have dinner with his parents and to see a village. Ryan and I walked around Lira for about three hours yesterday (Sunday). There were boys on stationary bikes outside the market using them to sharpen blades. One boy was just getting started and the other was putting the finishing touches on a machete. We saw the districts semi-finals of a football tournament. These guys are AMAZING. And they were playing on a dirt field. I have some nice tan lines going from my collared shirts and at my elbows, from my watch and bracelets, my Chacos, and my knee-length skirts. It’s quite amusing.
So this is about four pages long and I admire you if you were patient enough to read all of it. Thank you for the responses—it was great to hear from all of you and sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. While reading the messages I was hearing your voices and it made me miss [home]. The one thing I think I miss most over here is the lack of hugs. I have had trouble sleeping (surprise, surprise) but it’s one of those things to which I am accustomed so it’s not a big deal. I sit up either in the main room or outside with our night guards (armed, just in case) and read or talk or listen to music. I have learned so much already and cannot believe I have already been here two weeks. Last night we were able to go into town and watch Brazil own Argentina 3-0 for the Copa America (woohoo!). Aaaaand for the first time in quite a while, it’s looking like the Ugandan national team might very well qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
…But I have to tell you…This is home. I love it here. It’s kind of weird, but I really do feel like this is home. I miss you all …but I’m not ready to go back (fortunately I have a few weeks). I pretty much want everyone to come over here and have this experience with me. This is where I belong. This is where I need to be right here, right now. Life is perfect and I’m in love with this place.
I failed at keeping this short. And what's crazy is that this is all still pretty general...man oh man. You don't realize how much you've done until you try to spell it all out. I'm averaging three pages a day in my journals, if that tells you anything.
Hugs and love and all of my best to all of you. Thanks again for keeping me in your thoughts and for wanting to be updated. I’m giving away so much love and all of my heart but I don’t feel like I’m losing any of it. I’m living for each moment. These people have smiles that could swallow the world, and I am so blessed to be in their presence and to be able to carry each of you in my heart while I do this. Love, love, love, love, love, and more love.