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Africa-May 2007

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Tuesday, 1 May 2007

It is Labor Day here in Uganda. Apparently it would be disrespectful to government orders if we did more interviews today, so we’re not. Instead I can do the data entry from yesterday’s work, which is clearly going to be the time consuming part of this project.

Yesterday was a great, exhausting, and long day. Judi and I went to Obuku camp nearby and conducted 7 hours of interviews, which included talking to only 4 individuals. It was so fulfilling for me to talk with people and feel like I was on the ground and present and learning in an enhanced way by being in the midst of everything. Judi was great at facilitating that, based on her past work in human rights. It was an incredible asset that people have seen her in this camp before, and consequently trusted that we were there for a trustworthy purpose; there has been so much aid, so much research, and it is understandable that people are a little tired of talking. I wouldn’t be able to get any of this information by myself, coming in as an outsider and not speaking Ateso.

Interviews in Obuku camp
Showing me a typical oil candle
With kids in Obuku camp

One of the interviews was interrupted by a massive downpour and we had to run into a family’s hut to take shelter from the rain. It was a serendipitous event in disguise because otherwise they would have been too shy/embarrassed to invite us or show us the inside, and being forced to sit inside it for that long was a valuable (and mini, superficial) experience of what it might feel like to live in such a limited space, with mud above, below, and around me. Yesterday made me feel really good about being here and the work and the learning.

I also touched base with David, Insight President, last night which was affirming after not having much contact with Insight lately. It was great to talk about where I am now, how far I’ve come this year, and anticipate the rest of the year’s experience, and to just feel re-connected when I’m geographically a world away.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

It’s getting difficult to keep track of the days here. The things that were easy to accept as part of the reality of this experience at the beginning are getting a little irritating lately: the bugs, the dirtiness, the food being dirty, the ants crawling across my computer and my journal, the bug bites, the cultural misunderstandings. It makes me feel like I want to be by myself even though I already spend so much time alone.

Between yesterday and today I conducted 12 interviews, and after speaking to the head office, I’m aiming to do 120 by the end of my time here. We traveled to three different camps nearby, all smaller than Obuku but some in worse condition and dirtier.

Interviewing in AsiaNut camp

Struggling to figure out more logistics for the rest of my time outside of interviewing in Soroti; arranging transportation and translation are more difficult and expensive than I had anticipated. In spite of some of my frustrations in trying to get work done here though, it is easy to walk around and remember how alive people are here. The kids especially help me do that.

Excited faces in the village

Saturday, 5 May 2007

It’s a calm early evening here, thick cloud layer and blue. I’ve gotten used to the huge afternoon storms and really appreciate them now; they punctuate the day in a way that I welcome. Although it is the end of the rainy season, it hasn’t been as oppressively wet as I had imagined it might be – there is generally only one big rainstorm a day, with dramatic and beautiful thunder and lightning. It helps with the heat too – I can’t imagine what the dry heat would feel like in the dry season.

Yesterday was a long day driving north with Michael, the Country Director. We did interviews in Obalanga and Kapelebyong camps. I only knew we were there in Obalanga because the density of buildings grew a little less sporatic, but it still felt like a deserted area.

Obalanga
Kids in Obalanga

When we got to Kapelebyong, a camp that is only 10-15 kms away from Karamoja, kids crowded around the vehicle shouting ‘Amelia!’ which was funny to me because last weekend I met one of the only other mzungus I’ve seen in Soroti, a girl named Amelia who is now living in Kapelebyong as a teacher. She is the only white person there, and for many of the children, probably the only white person they have seen. She unfortunately wasn’t there the day I arrived, so the kids were clearly excited that she had returned, but alas, I wasn’t her. It was a beautiful drive up to the camp with the blue mountains of Karamoja in the distance, green expanses of bush everywhere, and I felt so far off the grid.

With individuals I interviewed in Kapelebyong camp, and Michael

Sunday, 13 May 2007

A lot has happened since my last entry. On Monday I started to feel sort of achey and sick, but thought that it was probably just due to lack of physical activity. When I didn’t feel better on Tuesday, I went to a village clinic in Soroti and cringed through a blood test which I didn’t feel very comfortable doing in an ancient looking ‘lab’ room. 30 minutes later they told me I had scanty malaria, with my symptoms of headache, muscle ache, and fever. I came back to the compound, tried to remain calm about it, and looked up more information on the drugs they had given me. After talking to people at home who had contacted the CDC, they recommended I switch to a different medication. The current problems with fake drugs and ingredients coming from Asia and endangering people throughout North and South America didn’t make me any less anxious to try to get good information and good treatment for a disease that can be really dangerous to foreigners.

After I started the new drugs, I started a cycle of feeling great and then absolutely horrible. I thought I was well enough to work on Wednesday, and then by Thursday was feeling like I was dying and couldn’t even walk with pretty scary symptoms, which made us haphazardly pack some things and drive for six hours through storms and dark to the International Hospital in Kampala on Thursday evening. In spite of the roads being terrible with potholes, tons of crazy traffic with semis on the shipping road between Kampala and Jinja, and the danger of driving through the night and storm, I couldn’t even keep my eyes open.

When we finally got there, they ran a bunch of blood tests, we waited for awhile, and they finally admitted me. I collapsed into bed, they started some IVs and waited for test results to figure out how to proceed. If I had been more lucid it would have scared me more that I wasn’t really in a position to make good medical decisions, and with people who I had just met who knew nothing about my medical history or what sort of treatment I would want. But, it was absolutely great to have Charles and Judi there, they were wonderfully nice and patient and it would have been a total nightmare to deal with it all alone, far from my family and a familiar medical scenario.

I finally saw the founder of the hospital, a Dr. from the UK on Friday morning, who after doing tests was sure that I never had malaria, which is (previously unbeknownst to me) very commonly misdiagnosed in foreigners, because of fear of not catching it until it’s too late, and because of the ability to sell medicine for it. They think in the end that I just had a virus that was really exacerbated when my system was already compromised by me taking serious malaria-treatment drugs. They held me for another day on IVs to watch and make sure nothing else happened, and I gradually felt a lot better once I stopped taking the drugs and got re-hydrated.

It has been very frustrating and discouraging that I’m at supposedly the best hospital in Kampala and it still has been hard to get quality service. It was immensely difficult to get discharged today because of the absolute disinterest in working or responding to our questions about how to proceed through the administrative maze. It took almost the whole day just to leave. I can’t imagine having to deal with a serious health problem in a local clinic with fewer resources when I had this experience here.

View of Lake Victoria from the hospital

We stopped at Garden City, a mall (yes, shockingly, a mall!) in Kampala where I had the first non-Ugandan food I’ve had in a long time, and thoroughly enjoyed both the fact that I could get some variety and that my body was healthy and resilient enough to actually eat. This illness experience has made me very grateful to be young and generally healthy, and able to bounce back quickly from a scary experience of being definitely the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. Garden City was also an overwhelming experience because after living in a village for the past month, I have barely seen any white people; this mall was crawling with them. There were also just a ton of stores, an escalator, many things that reminded me how far I’ve been outside my ‘normal’ realm, without even remembering it in a lot of ways. Being sick and far away did make me miss home and feel vulnerable in a more acute way. Now I’m back in Soroti and hoping to re-start and be productive after the last lost week; I will have to reevaluate and see how much is actually feasibly to do from my original plan, and may have to take out the Lira or Gulu portions of my plan, towns in the north where I was hoping to do more interviews. I’m just glad to be healthy again.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Today was so fulfilling. I drove in a minibus far west with a translator, James, and driver to Otuboi in Kaberamaido district. It felt like the middle of nowhere, and particularly after my experience of the past week, it was refreshing and invigorating to be out with an expansive horizon of green plains and bush, African air, and wind in my face.

The day wasn’t free of mishaps, however – our vehicle got stuck in mud (a common occurrence as most of the interviewees live deep in villages far off any sort of reliable roads) severely enough that my translator decided it was more efficient for us to walk the remaining few kilometers to the interviewee’s home than to continue trying to dislodge the vehicle. It was a pleasant walk though, and being out of the car facilitated good discussion with James at our slower pace and in quieter surroundings than the rattling minibus on pot-holed roads. Being out of the car also helped me assuage some of the feeling that I occasionally struggle with of being detached throughout this project: though I am living within a local community in Soroti, building relationships, and trying to understand what life is like here through experiencing it, the pace of the interviews can feel like I’m parachuting into these communities, leaving as soon as the interviews are over to get on to the next ones, and not really understanding or being capable of empathizing with what life is really like in each village community. Though half an hour can only improve my understanding so much, it made me feel more connected.

Walking with an interviewee in Kaberamaido.

It was a long day, with five lengthy interviews, some of them like pulling teeth. I don’t blame people for not wanting to talk – they’ve seen countless mzungus come and go, promising things or not even bothering to promise things, wanting information, time, a beneficiary for their services. The highlight was one gentleman named Abdullah, at the end of the day – a character I believe I will never forget for his energy and charisma. James and I were both tired, and could tell when we sat down that both of us just wanted to get through the interview and head back on the 1.5 hour drive to Soroti. But we ended up staying an hour and a half, talking to him, walking around his gardens, seeing his fish pond, meeting his three wives and multiple children. He was one of those elderly people who seems ancient – and makes me want to gather great life experiences so that I can be ancient one day and have the caliber of stories he had about his life. He has seen Uganda go through so many transitions – from colonialism to tyrannical rule to rebellion to struggling for peace, and he has kept impeccable records of all of it – down to the direction the wind was blowing on a particular day, and how many fish he caught. He had stacks upon stacks of records in worn out books, and when he opened them various artifacts would fly out of the bindings. Abdullah’s will undoubtedly be one of the faces of Uganda that remains with me.

Three of Abdullah’s sons at his fish farming pond

Thursday, 17 May 2007

The past few days have been busy as I redrafted my work plan at the beginning of the week and have been doing five or six interviews a day to be able to leave Soroti this weekend and head north to Gulu by bus on Sunday. Problems with getting affordable transportation and long days here have made me eager for a change of scenery and to finish up the interviews.

Transportation issues have eliminated Lira from my plan, where I had planned on doing more interviews, as it will be difficult and very expensive to get to the villages outside of town. My interpersonal skills have been challenged as of late as well, since my going to Gulu has raised concerns with VEF about whether it is secure or not, ending with the outcome that I will be under independent auspices while I am there. In my mind it is really important for me to go for the research; missing the northern region where conflict has been most intense would leave me with more questions than I came with now that I have seen what Soroti is like. In a separate arena, yesterday I spent the day interviewing past beneficiaries with a VFC (Volunteer Field Coordinator) who had been fired from working with VEF, which brought some tensions within our work group – remaining focused on my work amidst these interpersonal challenges has made me realize how sensitive I am to these external factors while in a foreign environment. I’m trying to keep in mind how I relished learning about people’s stories and gathering the data that will help determine VEF’s future efforts in the region at the beginning of this project to prevent myself from feeling worn out with it now.

At interviews yesterday

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Paul, one of the VFCs, and I have finished the Soroti set of interviews in Kapelebyong camp, out toward the northeast Karamoja region. It was a good few days on his brother’s motorcycle, one and a half hours each way, trying to beat the rain so the mud roads wouldn’t get too slick. I enjoy being out in the expansive terrain and the mountains; but what feels like a geographic retreat to me still hosts (according to UN OCHA) over 100,000 displaced persons because of the LRA and the Karamajong. Knowing that these were my last few days of work in this region of Uganda gave me the energy to finish them well, and I had a good time working with Paul and meeting with people in the camp.

Paul (VFC) and an interviewee, one of the general store owners in the camp

As the day wore on, near the end of the interviews on Thursday, I looked up at the small crowd gathered around us while we were doing the last interview, and saw a toddler shoving fistful after fistful of dirt into his mouth. This is the same dirt that I never go barefoot on, for fear of disease that can travel in parasites and worms that break through your skin. The conditions in the camp are often appalling; I have seen kids in front of me have diarrhea, and other kids play around the exact same area – they are undoubtedly going to get sick from it. I stopped Paul mid-sentence to please ask the mom, who was holding this child but was too transfixed by the mzungu interview happening to notice what was going on, to stop her child from eating the dirt – and started looking for anything I had in my bag to give the kid to eat instead. I don’t usually give anything out when I go to the camps; although there is an ever-present need, there are so many factors that make it too complicated – it would mix the results of what people thought the purpose of my interview was if I started giving them things in return, the situation for white people working here is always intertwined with thinking some handout will come of it, and I’m here to analyze the effects of relief, aid, and development, not to practice it. I hope what I’m doing is going to help improve the situation in other ways by gathering better information about what is actually needed, and what is working. But after giving the child who was eating the dirt a candy I had found in my bag, I felt badly that there were all these other kids just waiting there. The only thing I had enough of to give out were some of my Insight business cards – and knowing that it was more about feeling like everyone was getting attention, and not actually what the item was, I started handing them out. It was a funny scene, and a moment that made me step back and think about how the plans I made this past summer at the Insight offices had brought me this far into the world.

Remnants of relief efforts in Kapelebyong camp

Thursday night, after having no power for over 24 hours—one of the longest stretches I’ve had so far in a place that’s supposed to be on a grid—I had one of my first social evenings in Soroti. I met Paul and his brother at a bar in town, which was eerie with no electric lights on. We talked about the politics of conflict and the LRA/Karamajong, the president Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan relationship with Somalia – and it was an enlightening conversation to feel like I’ve learned enough here to have informed views on the topics, but still don’t have a local perspective about how deeply the cycles of power and conflict have affected their lifetimes here. We later went to a concert which was packed in a building that I had thought was abandoned every time I passed it during the daytime, of reggae/rap type music that was fun and really entertaining. The power has finally come back on now, after 48 hours, and I’m getting ready to pack up my stuff and leave tomorrow, heading on to the next adventure in Gulu.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Breakfast in Gulu, looking out from Jojo’s Palace, the ‘motel’ where I’ll live for a little while, onto Gulu’s street, music already going around the makeshift market stalls across the street.

I’ve been in survival mode for a few days – the bus ride yesterday was unbelievable. I had quite a bit of stress and anxiety leading up to it – waiting in the bus park for several hours after the bus was supposed to arrive, not knowing whether there would be seats/space on it or not (though I had already purchased rights to a seat), struggling with all of luggage I have for these three months on a bus I knew would be crowded, hot, and full of live animals…it had nearly convinced me that I should have taken up the offer from another expat I met, who had a private minibus driving that way today. But, I hadn’t taken a real transit bus yet in Africa, I knew I needed the experience, and it’s also the most affordable way. I did it though, getting thrown up on by two kids en route, having an animal defecate on my bag, and being convinced that a crash was imminent as we barreled down non-paved roads at 100 km/h and tipped so far off the side of the road that I thought it was physically impossible for us to stay righted. Not sure I really need to do it again. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror when I finally found somewhere to stay, after meeting up with the translator I will have for all of my interviews. My face was entirely reddish brown from the dirt flying in the windows for the six hour ride. I couldn’t believe I had tried to negotiate room rates while looking as I did.

The other aspect of my survival mode is just being a woman alone here. I was nervous about my security all through the night, and didn’t sleep very well. Some of it I know is just because what I’ve heard about Gulu – how recently it’s been wracked by violent conflict, how now, with the pouring in of aid and Westerners, there is more crime, what I would do to get myself out of here if anything was to happen, being as I am now on my own and working independently, not under VEF etc. But again, I survived safely, and I’m hoping I’ll sleep easier tonight. I have been surprised already by the presence of other mzungus – last night when I tried to get a quick dinner at another hotel down the street, 40 college kids on an exchange trip walked into the restaurant—more white people than I have seen in a long time. The westerners I’ve known so far here make up an interesting community of mostly two camps – sort of save-the-world bleeding heart types, and ‘Africa as a problem’ academicians who sometimes aren’t as engaged in forming local relationships, and are focused on the data and the experience before they return home. I’m trying to balance how I am as a foreigner, and juggling my apprehensions about both sides.