The fluke of geography

Due to a fluke of geography

I was born into a society that taught me I could do anything.

I was born in a country that places a high priority on all children having access to a reasonable standard of education, that offers social and financial support to those who can’t find work, and that gives government loans for university, and only makes you pay them back once you can afford to!

I was reflecting on this the other day, after an interesting conversation with a friend in Fort Portal. This friend has a low-end job, comes from a poor background, and will probably never move beyond these circumstances.

We were discussing the fact that David, my son, is currently obsessed with motorbikes. I was joking that I hope he doesn’t become a boda-boda driver when he is older (a motorbike taxi – an extremely ‘low end’ job with little prospects which often comes with a lifestyle of women and alcohol).

My friend reminded me that David is an extremely stubborn, head strong little boy, and will do whatever  it is he wants to do…no matter what I want for him!

I sighed, and agreed.

He then nostalgically described his primary school days, a time when he thought he could become whatever he wanted in his heart to be. He remembered his peers saying they wanted to be pilots, doctors, engineers, teachers. He shook his head and clicked his tongue in disgust at their naivety.

I asked him what he wanted to be, back then.

He hesitated, obviously embarrassed to share this with me. Quietly he spoke: ‘a doctor’. Following this, was a sort of half-laugh-half-sigh.

He continued…

‘you know, that was never going to happen. As a child, I didn’t realise. But Africa has a way of separating people – there are those that can manage, and those that can’t. ‘

I sympathetically agreed, listing all the hurdles with him – having to work and study at the same time, trying to find school fees, going to a government school where teachers don’t turn up for days so your grades suffer, trying to get into university – but not being able to afford the fees and bribes nor knowing the right people…

He explained that he could barely manage to finish S4 (year 10) because of school fees, and needing to help his family in their garden. By the time he finished, he was offered a job, and took it. Now, he said, ‘its fine – you manage what you can, and try to enjoy life’.

Then I offered thoughtfully ‘you would’ve made a good doctor’.

But in my mind I was thinking – this life is so UNFAIR.

Because I didn’t want to become a doctor, not in a million years. But I am pretty sure that if I really wanted to, and worked hard towards that goal, I could’ve managed.

I explained to my friend that I felt very lucky – almost guilty – that I had the opportunities I had purely because I was born in Australia. That even though neither of my parents finished high school (but went on to technical college), even very few people in my extended family have gone on to do further study, even though I went to reasonable but not amazing schools…I still easily managed to get into university.

It was easy to get a place, because there were so many places and so many courses and so many universities. It was easy to get the grades, because I had good teachers who cared about me and knew how to teach – which is mostly the norm in Australia. It was easy to afford, because the government paid for my course at the time, and I only had to pay for text books, which wasn’t much of a stretch even on my part-time salary whilst living out of home.

And that about sums it up.

The ease of it all.

Obviously there are children in Australia that face an up-hill battle to get an education, that don’t grow up in safe and loving homes, and that struggle for survival in a variety of ways.

But the majority find it easy.

Not because they are deserving

Not because they are so much more hard working

Not because they possess some gift or intelligence the rest of the world doesn’t

But because of the fluke of geography.

Pushing bananas up a hill...

Pushing bananas up a hill… (photo by Matt Curtis)


Recently, Uganda lost an incredible man. Reverend Canon Ephraim Gensi died after a 2 year battle with cancer.

It still came as a shock, despite him being sick. Maybe because Ephraim was larger than life – everything about him seemed a little extravagant, impressive, super-sized.

His laugh

His generosity

His commitment to his faith

His love of his family

His fascination with new ideas

His humour

So I don’t think I can quite believe that life was actually able to leave him…

When I try to conjure him up in memory, all I can think of is him saying some cheeky remark or another to tease (normally about my marriage, or my lack of lots of children), and then laughing at my response.

Ephraim knew how to have fun.

It was one of the things I loved best about being around him. He was so jubilant. He didn’t let me (or anyone!) take life too seriously, which I have a tendency to do.

I’m not quite sure what I want to say to the wider world about the fact that he is gone, or why I need to write this in a blog. But I do.

Perhaps, most importantly, I write to acknowledge what an incredible influence he was on our life. I want for him to get as much of the accolades as he deserves, for Michael’s and my life’s direction and our work in Uganda.

In all honesty, without him, I’m not sure we would be living here.

Michael met Ephraim in January 2003. They immediately clicked and formed an unexpected friendship. Michael’s next trip a year later, Michael stayed in Ephraim’s house with his family and shared his vision (then as a young medical student) about a hospital he wanted to begin in Uganda. Ephraim was immediately supportive.

Years later in 2008, I had started dating Michael and was living in Uganda for 6 months, on my own. I stayed with the Gensi’s when I first arrived for a week. One of my earliest memories is of Ephraim doing what he always does – listening to the challenge I was facing, and then taking charge and coming up with a solution. In my first 6 months in Uganda, I was staying with a host family an hour away, and had had some ‘difficulties’ with the family.  I remember, after Ephraim heard about it from Pete (his son, who I had been complaining to) he asked me to come out on the front porch, and asked me ‘Now, what is the problem I am hearing with your living arrangements?’. He listened intensely while I explained, and then started in his typical way ‘Now, this is what we are going to do…’ as if it was his problem all along and not that of a 20-something volunteer he had just met who was crashing at his house. From then on, I spent most of my weekends at their place.

There are hundreds of people who have worked with us along the way to make Maranatha Health possible, both in Australia and Uganda. But it is only our own parents, a few close friends, and Ephraim and Margaret who have worked selflessly since day one to support our crazy ideals and the monumentally challenging reality of Maranatha Health, without ever asking for anything in return.

Since moving to Uganda in 2011, Ephraim and his wife Margaret (and their four -now grown up- kids) have provided us with a much needed family to be a part of. Anytime we were in Kampala, it was taken for granted that we stayed with them. That sense of belonging, when in a foreign culture, has been a wonderful gift to us.

The last 5 years has not been a walk in the park. In so many ways living here has been a lonely journey. Most of our Ugandan and Australian friends, while extremely supportive, cannot comprehend the day-to-day differences between our life here and our life back home in Australia.

But Ephraim understood. As the chairperson of MH and as our father, as someone who is incredibly Ugandan but understands western culture immensely from years of living outside the country, he has been there every step of the way – offering us wisdom, a sympathetic ear, his expertise, thousands of phone calls, his presence at dozens of meetings… all because he believed in us. We have often taken refuge at the Gensi’s house when things have been tough – the family listening to our rants, providing sympathetic sighs, and offering personal contacts and any help they could offer. Ephraim has always been at the forefront of this.

Ephraim, over the past 3 or 4 years, had spoken a lot to us about the importance he increasingly placed on leaving a good legacy, and of choosing to spend his life doing things with a higher purpose. His life, and his burial, certainly reflected this.

Ugandan burials are almost the polar opposite of Australian funerals. They often last all day (sometimes longer), and the person is almost always buried at their village home. Many people come and there is normally a big meal after the proceedings. For days after family and friends visit the immediate family to offer their condolences and spend time with the family, often sleeping at the house, bringing food, and grieving together. People came from all over the country to bury Ephraim. It was incredible. Over and over again as I walked around afterwards, I bumped into friends that I had met at Ephraim and Margaret’s house over the years. Almost all have a story to tell about Ephraim and Margarets’s generosity. Either they had been given a place to stay for a few days, a month, a year; Ephraim had found them a job; they had been sponsored through school; or had been counselled and given a shoulder to cry on when life was tough.

The reality that Ephraim was actually gone hit me as we arrived at the burial proceedings. We were an hour late, after 6 hours of driving and getting lost on terrible, potholed, dirt roads. There were thousands of people sitting and standing on the large grassy yard at Ephraim’s village home, spilling out from under large white tents up to the hedges behind. In the throngs of people, the loudspeaker booming speeches of Ephraim’s life, and a man greeting us and leading us to the centre and to the sad faces of Margaret, Peter, Caleb Esther and Rachel;…my heart beat sped up and I realized with a panic that mzee* is really gone. He won’t be coming back. It took all my strength not to fall in a sobbing mess – a response that would’ve looked extremely out-of-place in this culture. Instead I squeezed hands and patted backs and cried quiet tears for the mzee we all loved and took my seat next to them in the family tent, trying to focus on the ceremony.  The finality of death struck me – as if someone had slapped my face – and for the first time I realized that I really wouldn’t hear his laugh again. I wouldn’t get to ask him for any more advice. There would be no more philosophical discussions, and no more opportunity to thank him for all he has done for us. It was time to say goodbye.

So because I must – farewell Mzee. We will miss you tremendously. Words are not enough to express all you have been for Michael and I, and this world seems a lot bigger and scarier without you here for guidance and laughter. Thank God for you. Maranatha.


Ephraim and Michael, 2003

Ephraim and David, May 2015

Ephraim and David, May 2015

Mzee – ‘old man, father,’ in many Bantu langauges.

Let’s call a spade, a spade

One of the (many) difficulties and pressures of running an organisation such as ours, in Africa, is saying no to people. Specifically, saying no to people back home who want to come and volunteer in an unskilled capacity. We often get sent email requests for volunteer opportunities, from people we know or people who have heard of us through a distant connection, or just people who have found our website over the internet.

We rarely get emails like that requesting to donate, or volunteer with MH in Australia.

Before I continue, let me set one thing straight. I am talking about unskilled volunteers.

But I must confess.

I have volunteered in an unskilled capacity myself, in Africa. The first was 3 months long. Then 6 months. The purpose was mainly to find out whether I could do this long(ish) term. Turns out I could, and did. But there were perks, beyond finding out that Africa would be my new home. Firstly, people thought I was cool (if you know me, you would know that is a very rare occurrence). Some also thought I was selfless, which I can guarantee was certainly not the case. It was great dinner conversation, and was highly valued in our experiential generation. It didn’t cost me very much, and it’s an easy, bubble wrapped way to travel to the developing world because in these experiences there are almost always people on the other end to host you,  plan your trip and show you the ropes (although in my case it didn’t quite happen like that!). Apart from all that, I had amazing experiences, met inspirational people, and learnt much.

Me with the kids from my host family in Uganda on my 6 month trip

Me with the kids from my host family in Uganda on my 6 month trip

Me with random Ugandan kids (every volunteers' ideal photo!)

Me with random Ugandan kids (the typical volunteer photo!)

Gone are the days when missionary/voluntary work overseas in developing countries was a long-term-mother-Theresa-endeavour full of self-sacrifice. Nowadays we get on a plane for a few hours, have a 2 week/one month experience staying in ‘quaint’ less-than-ideal accommodation, still get to update our facebook page from our phone, have all the logistics handled for us, (often) spend time with a bunch of good friends, and return as heroes to our home culture.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Voluntourism has become extremely popular both in the secular and religious world. Many churches provide avenues for this these days. They are often labelled mission trips. They are promoted and packaged in noble phrases such as ‘self-sacrifice’, ‘making a difference’, and my personal favourite ‘getting my hands dirty’ (because Africa is dirty???).

Some people I have met are ‘voluntourism’ addicts. Each time I see them they are going to a new national-geographic-type-destination, talking about the latest ‘build’, or posting photos on FB of cute fly-invested children from <insert exotic location here>.

But what purpose does it serve? What does it do? How do we perceive ourselves and others and the role we play when we go to other places? What do I think about my past experiences now?

With a little maturity, a longer term involvement in Africa, a pinch of cynicism from witnessing so much voluntourism gone wrong , this is how I see my experience…

At the time, I thought what I was doing was kind of a big deal. But I doubt I made a difference in anyone’s life. I’d like to think what I did had some positive impact. I certainly didn’t give anywhere near as much as I received and learnt. I was naive and didn’t understand almost anything of the cultural complexity that was happening around me. On reflection, I definitely did some damage.

Am I glad I went? Sometimes. I don’t regret it. But I know now it wasn’t about ‘helping’ the community I apparently went to serve.

It was about me.

So let’s call a spade, a spade.

When an unskilled volunteer spends two weeks, a month, 3 months, in a brand new community where they don’t have any understanding of the culture, the language or the context (which long term expatriates tell me all takes years and years to learn), it is going to be difficult to make much long term – or short term – positive impact. Most of the time, any money it costs to fly you there would be much more useful to the organisation than your time.

Of course it is important to travel.

To learn

To expand our world view

To see how other people live

To engage with communities who are remarkably different from us

Let me be clear. I am not calling for a complete end to unskilled volunteering. I simply want people to recognise that the primary purpose is to give the volunteer an experience rather than to alleviate poverty. Call it learning, discipleship, personal growth – IT IS FOR YOU!

But we need to RESEARCH. We need to try to mitigate the damage:

The aid and development agenda can become complex and confused when it needs to be combined with volunteering opportunities. Normally there is a community of people that will benefit from the project. This community are ideally prioritised and lead the decision making process within the project. However, adding unskilled volunteers from the developed world context adds an extra type of stakeholder. In essence, volunteers pay for and expect a certain experience, with associated outcomes. When expectations and outcomes clash between the community and volunteer group (as they inevitably do when the purposes of involvement are so diverse) those supplying the funds for the program (the volunteers) are almost always prioritised over the beneficiaries.  I have witnessed this time and time again in African NGOs. Programs therefore are then designed with volunteer outcomes in mind, rather than the community, so that programs may or may not benefit the community.

The majority of these populations we visit are extremely vulnerable and they don’t have funds to leverage decision making power. They are poor. They have been exploited by people for a long time. New research (here and here)  suggests that short-term volunteer work can be ‘potentially exploitative’ to such populations. Most likely, they will never have the opportunities, experiences, or choices you have access to without a second thought. And their lives won’t often change dramatically from the experience, like yours might.  Because of this, there is a big power imbalance between you and these communities. An exchange that takes place, where you receive a lot (to add to your list of ‘haves’) and they receive something small, or nothing – reinforcing that unequal power relationship. An interesting article I recently read used the metaphor of the developing world as the new ‘playground’ for the privileged few looking to atone for global injustice. In this scenario, ‘the poor’ are only framed in terms of their needs, with the volunteer coming to save the day.

Obviously, none of this is ideal.

So here are my final thoughts on unskilled volunteering, some things for you to ponder before you pack your bags:

  • Proceed with caution, and do your research
  • When you go, admit to yourself and others you are going primarily for you – not for the community you hope to serve. Be aware that voluntourism has become a big industry, making big money.
  • When you have a revelation while abroad about your extreme fluke at a wealthy life, let the experience change you and your lifestyle at home. Dramatically. Live simply. Live justly.
  • Be aware that unskilled volunteers are a lot of work for local organisations. Think of what it would be like to have a group of students rock up at your workplace in Australia. Now imagine that group were from Africa, didn’t speak English and didn’t know the first thing about Australian culture. What would you do with them? How would they help your workplace?
  • Local organisations often host volunteers purely for the potential financial return. Make it worth their while. However, when organisations (perhaps Maranatha Health) say ‘sorry, we don’t have any volunteering opportunities at this time’, please don’t be annoyed with us. Don’t stop giving to us. Respect us for it – we are simply putting the needs of MH and this community before your needs.
  • Get familiar with this very wise (and amusing, in a truth-exposing kind of way) website to counter the worst of voluntourism.

Thus endeth my  rant.

Punishing Girls

I was angry today.

My poor colleague (who also happens to be extremely understanding), was forced to listen to most of my rant, after another one of my cultural discoveries.

We have just signed a contract with a private secondary school in Fort Portal, to provide medical care for all their students as needed. After writing the contract, I sent it with one of the MH staff to the school, who later came back with a question.

The school had asked if we could carry out pregnancy tests on all the girls at their school, at the beginning and end of each term.

Immediately I was suspicious. I asked why this could possibly be necessary.

The school wanted to carry out pregnancy tests on its girls (mostly between the ages of 13 and 18) so that they could find out who was pregnant and then expel them from school.

Yes. You read correctly.

So obviously, we are not going to be the group that does the tests. That is not in the contract I wrote.

Today I learnt that the subsequent expulsion for getting pregnant is quite normal. Well, normal…and… Ugandan Ministry of Education Policy.  When a girl is pregnant, I was informed today that she shouldn’t attend school, and should be immediately expelled. Some schools allow them back after having the baby. Others don’t.

There are some exceptions, such as if the student is sitting their final exams. Wow. Generous.

The rate of teenage pregnancy in Uganda is high, at around 25%. A UNICEF report  from Uganda found that “Many schools use expulsion (implemented in a very public manner) as a disciplinary measure to deter other girls from getting pregnant. Shaming the pregnant girl through a very public expulsion has been shown to severely compromise girls’ ability to re-join the school.”

Of course when this happens, what a girl needs is a loving home to return to, but instead… “At the community level, most respondents noted that if a pregnant girl is expelled from school, her parents will send their daughter away due to the stigma associated with teenage pregnancies. Another common practice is to marry off the teenage girl to the man or boy who impregnated her”


So let us back track for a minute. Why would she be pregnant in the first place, I hear you ask, if THAT is the consequence?

Let’s start with a few basic facts. It’s pretty much universally agreed (and is law in Uganda) that a girl under the age of 18 cannot consent and thus any sexual advances from someone older should be viewed as exploitative and coercive. Call it what you will – rape, paedophilia, defilement – there is very little choice for the child involved.

More important context: Of the many girls who have had sex at a young age, the majority had male partners that were 3 or more years older, and about 1 in 10 had male partners that were 10 or more years older. More alarmingly, a study at a secondary school in western Uganda found 31% of girls reported they had been forced to have sex. Other studies have similar findings, with sexual abuse of girls extremely common. Read more here.

Given this reality, one compassionately minded individual might ask then, why must it be the GIRLS that are PUNISHED?!


You are a poor 15 year old naïve girl.

You normally eat only twice a day. You go hungry at school.

A boda boda (motorcycle driver) gives you some extra attention. Perhaps he buys you a soda and some chappati.

After a few weeks, he propositions you to have sex. You either have no apparent choice in the matter, or you reluctantly oblige – you have been accepting his gifts, after all.

You start classes for the term. The nurse who is testing you informs you that you are pregnant. She also immediately tells the school principal.

A few days later you are told to leave the school. They announce to the school that you are leaving because you have become pregnant. You are publically shamed.

So you go home to your parents and have to explain. Your father yells at you to leave, as you are ruining his reputation in the village.

At this point, you have been raped, become pregnant, been kicked out of your school, publically shamed and then told to leave your home. You have no support or resources and will soon have a baby to look after.

All because this country allows this to happen to its young women.

Without even blinking its’ big, masculine, powerful eye.

It takes a village

Ugandans love children. As a culture they celebrate them fiercely. Everyone seems willing to smile and get down on their knees to say hello to a child. Babies are cooed at and admired. For women, bearing children is a sign of prestige and of strength.  I have earned a respect through motherhood that I tried futilely to gain for the duration of the time I lived in Kamwenge.

When I speak of African children, the oft quoted proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ comes to mind. In my imagination, this phrase conjures up exotic images of intricate networks of beaded half-naked villagers working together for the good of the communities’ children. Our over-use of this saying in the West highlights the exoticism and idealism with which we frame our discussions of child rearing in Africa. I’ve heard it said that in the developing world, child–rearing is somehow a more ‘natural’ process, beyond reproach.

To confess, I have many times scoffed at this idea.

While I believe wholeheartedly that a village – a community if I may use a less exotic term – is essential for raising children (given how exhausting and monumental such a task is!) it is also true that if everyone is responsible, than in a sense no ONE person is responsible.  My time in Kamwenge exposed me to some of this –children neglected and uncared for, malnourished and left to be looked after by young siblings or distant relatives. I think I saw the worst of this, working at the referral health centre in Kamwenge.

There are many great and (in my opinion) not-so-great things about parenting ‘Ugandan style’, as there are in any culture. I don’t need to thrash them out here.

But one of my greatest reservations about moving back to Uganda as a family were some of those ‘not so great’ bits to Ugandan child-raising, especially when I plan to be a working mother here and have other women look after my son for chunks of time. I would think of all the opportunities that I perceived our son would be missing out on, not living in Australia; that I, as his mother, would be denying him, by making the choice to live here, away from his culture and community.

Before we arrived here, when I was super-stressed or having a moment of doubt, all the marvellous moments of my own childhood unravelled before me, as a taunting list full of red crosses, marking the experiences my own son would not have.  The freedom of playing in parks and exploring creeks, running through sprinklers in bathers on lazy summer days in our backyard, the safety of playing with neighbourhood kids, the amazing quality of suburban kindergartens and playgroups, and most significantly, a community of friends and family that were invested and involved in my upbringing. I feared that we wouldn’t find a community for him to belong to here.


Slowly and surreptitiously

Without any intention or expectation

And in the midst of my concern that this could not happen…

A community has begun to form, winding its way around my son and through his little life.

After all, community is something that Ugandans know how to do.

I see it when I take Dave to our clinic, and he immediately squirms out of my arms into the arms of one of our staff.

I see it when he waltzes into the reception area at Maranatha, climbs onto the receptionist’s lap and begins to play with her phone.

I see it when he hears a cow moo, then searches for and is picked up by our security guard at the clinic, in a successful attempt to be taken to see the cows grazing nearby.

I see it when our landlady at the apartment where we stay buys him bunches of bananas so she can watch the ecstatic little dance he does every time he is given a banana!

I see it when Dave shrieks with excitement and then runs outside to play every day when his 6 year old neighbour (adopted by our American friends that live upstairs) arrives home from school

I see it when we take him to the shop where I buy most of our consumables, and the staff greet him with a big smile and call his name ‘Mandela!’ and produce a ball for him to play with while I shop.

I see it when we attend church on Sunday, and his Sunday school ‘teacher’ cuddles him and jokes that he is now her child, while I hold her little girl of the same age.

I see it when the cleaners or groundskeepers in the apartment block where I stay rush to help Dave down the steps on the compound where he continues to attempt death-defying acts.

I see it when we sit down for lunch and after polishing off his own g-nut stew and rice, he looks to see which woman on our staff will feed him some of theirs.

All these moments are small, but they remind me to take a breath and be thankful for the village here that is helping me to raise our son.

And perhaps

scoff at the proverb a little less.

Newspaper Notices

“Organisation ABC would like to notify the public that Mr False Acquisition is no longer working for our Organisation. Any interaction with this person is done so at your own personal risk….”

This is a common public notice in the newspapers in Uganda. Very common, in fact.

The subtext, one can comfortably assume in these notices, is that Mr False Acquisition was caught stealing money of a serious magnitude from organisation ABC, has been fired, and the notice ensures he can no longer manipulate his/her previous employment status for whatever shady deals he may wish to partake in.

Last week, Michael and I briefly contemplated having to place such a notice in the paper.

Last week, we also wondered for the millionth time if we will ever scratch more than the surface of this culture.

Last week, we parted ways with a staff member at Maranatha that had become a trusted friend, a brother almost, and someone we had always believed to be an incredibly integral protector of the mission of our organisation, Maranatha Health. Turns out we were wrong – this employee had been taking significant sums of money from MH*.

Last week, as you may have figured out, was a very sad week.


Of all the things that are hard about living in this country – I have detailed them in many of my blogs in the past so no need to elaborate here – the most difficult thing is getting used to deception.

Actually expecting people to give into the slightest temptation to deceive.

Having to assume the worst so that you can ensure finances are protected with layers and layers of accountability.

And somehow, keeping your heart and mind open to the possibility that people may not betray you. Because many people won’t.

Do I sound like a hardened cynic?

I thought I was. But this time, the betrayal hurt a lot. And so perhaps, I am not as much of the cynic as I thought (or hoped) I was.

There are always the little bumps in the road with Ugandan life. A job applicant misleads you about their qualifications. The waiter at the restaurant gives you the wrong change hoping you won’t notice. A friend forgets to mention they have a wife, or a kid, or a fake degree, or some equally bizarre thing to omit. The acquaintance asks you for a bribe to do their job. You find out the pastor who preaches integrity has a reputation for sleeping around. The child’s school fees you pay are actually cheaper than what was told to you.

But this is all just part of life. A kind of creative opportunism, if you will.

But when the people that actually join you in the messiness of life deceive you – that hurts. Immensely.

Normally I am furious at the big deceptions. We have experienced quite a few of them over the past 5 or 6 years. Normally I feel like screaming and hitting and exacting revenge and going home.

But this time, despite the closeness of this deception, I am not angry. I don’t feel like making anyone pay.

I am sad.

I am disappointed.

Maybe because I am a few years older. Maybe because I see the struggle and the shame for the individual concerned up close this time. Maybe because I have just learnt a bit more about how fragile and broken we all are.

But this time, it has been deeply saddening to see how crippling this deception is for those who commit it. To see how one stupid decision can spiral out of control and consume someone.  To see, for Ugandans, how difficult it is to resist this particular temptation – no matter what the cost.

Like the employee we have had to part ways with.

This deception has renewed my deep awareness that as much as I can build community and a life here, this is not my country, nor my culture…and will never be my normal.

At the best of times, I find Ugandan culture extremely confusing. At times like this, I find it is better to simply shrug my shoulders and remember that there is much of the cultural iceberg lurking underneath the murky waters of assumptions and appearances that cannot be seen. Rather than judge: pronouncing all Ugandans thieves; ignoring the complex realities of life here that lead people to unethical choices; generalising the immoralities of this country; neglecting so much of the goodness of the culture….

I instead pray that I will find the same sense of crystal clarity about the blind spots – the logs – in my own culture.

As if to remind me again of this lesson of difference, my son was playing with some of his stacking cups at work the other day. As per usual, he stacked them downward, one on top of the other, the only way it had occurred to me to stack them. Like this:


But after a few hours and a couple of different staff at MH playing with him and his cups, I quickly noticed something different. Every staff member who played with him stacked them the same way – differently to what my son was doing. They stacked them in pairs, facing each other. Like this:


Different – each way neither better nor stronger – but definitely different.


*Our ex-employee is going to pay back the full sum of money taken

Cuts and bruises

If you had asked me a few years ago what was the most rewarding part of Maranatha Health in Kamwenge, I would have said without a doubt, the staff community.

If you had asked me what was the most gut-wrenching thing about closing the clinic and leaving Kamwenge, my answer would have been the same.

In Australia, I really missed being a part of the Maranatha Health Uganda team, especially when coupled with the grief that it may not ever exist again.

But when I reflected on our Kamwenge team, wearing the rose-coloured glasses of distance and with the nostalgia of time passed,  I often wondered if the memories I had floating around in my head were deceiving me in the way memories often do.

Memories of hard long hours but with people that really cared about outcomes for those we were serving. Memories of staff giving of themselves to others. Memories of making a difference in peoples lives, together. Memories of laughing and frustrations and chaos and fun. Memories of real community. Certainly not perfect. There were also lots and lots of hard bits.

Sound cheesy?

So we are back.

And do you know what the absolute coolest thing is?

Most of the staff DO want to come back and work for Maranatha Health again, just like me!

Since we have arrived back in the country, most of our old staff – be they nurses or cleaners or receptionists or security guards – have contacted us asking for their jobs back. They have called us from new work places, from training schools they are attending, from their gardens in Kamwenge, and from various places around western Uganda. But the message is almost always the same – when can we start?!

And then when staff come to talk with us about their position, there are reunions as those that are already here greet those returning. There are hugs, questions about families and marriages, stories of new babies (at last count there are 5!) and lots of excitement in finding out about who is returning.

Some of the staff are taking pay cuts to come back and work for us. Some are relocating families.

The whole experience of gathering our team back has been extremely counter cultural – for Australia also but definitely for Uganda. Generally, money and conditions are the determining factor in jobs here. Ugandans aren’t generally very sentimental people.

But again and again, staff are saying that they miss the team, they want to work with us to make an actual difference to patients, and they want the experience, skills and training that comes along with being a part of MH in Uganda.

Which is good news, considering our new project is very much focused on sharing all of those aspects of MH with other clinics!

The other day, Michael met with a key former staff member – someone we were hoping would come back to join us for MH#2.

That staff member agreed to join us, a decision we are incredibly thankful for. But in discussion with Michael (which he relayed to me later), this staff member thanked us for returning to this place and for trying again, and acknowledged that almost nobody would have come back to this country, after what happened last time (read here).

That is the first time someone here has openly acknowledged us for this.

And do you know what? Despite knowing I should be here, and despite enjoying the first few months, moving back to Uganda has been tough.

And so here it is. The acknowledgement I needed to give myself:  It should be tough!

My trust was broken. Last time I was in this country, my idealistic, hopeful self – the self that wants to see the best in people and tries to downplay the corrupted agendas of others – took a good ol’ beating.

The staff returning, however, has helped to heal some of the cuts and bruises I collected from the last time I was here.

Motorbike meditations

I have always loved riding on boda-bodas – the humble motorbike that serves as the main form of taxi transport for short distances in Uganda.

There is of course a lot of negatives about this form of transport, top on the list being the amount of accidents that happen every day, due to terrible driving, hazardous roads and conditions, lack of helmets and protective gear, and also the decision making (whether effected by some form of drug or not) of your chosen chauffeur. I don’t take bodas (unless there is no other choice) in Kampala, but up-country, where the roads are quieter and you can befriend and loyally use the same boda’s daily – it is my main form of transport (except when I am with my son – no bodas for him!).

The freedom that comes from sitting (side-saddle for me) on the back of a bike with the breeze in your hair is unparalleled in my humble opinion. It was one of my favourite things about working in communities in Kamwenge: at the end of a long day in the village, riding on the back of a friend’s boda-boda  along a dirt track, the sky hazy with the sun’s disappearing rays and the smoke from the evening cooking fires in the village, the hum of the boda not quite drowning out the birds evening calls.

I have tried being in the driver’s seat of the motorbike – a colleague in Kamwenge was giving me lessons for a while, and I managed a few rides around the place. But I didn’t enjoy all the concentration required to ride the bike myself.

So now, enter the new me, in Fort Portal. I am tired. We are starting up MH again. Motherhood is relentless (and rewarding and amazing and all of the good stuff that gets written about… ) There is rarely time to myself. There is a lot to process and much change happening in my life. And there are no grandparents here to look after my child for the day if I need a break.  I have always had a tough time knowing how to switch off my brain and adding motherhood to this mix has made for an interesting journey over the past year in Australia. Even more interesting now I am here.

But lately, it has become almost a daily ritual to go to town in the late afternoon, to buy food we need for dinner from the market while Michael stays at home with David. I normally catch a boda. And for the five minutes to and from the market that I am on that boda, there is nothing else to do. No child to be responsible for. No list to write or action. No need to concentrate on anything in particular.

So I look. I breathe. I listen. To what’s around me – trees and birds and people and the sun setting over the Rwenzori mountains. And to whats within me – my fears and prayers and reflections on what’s good.

And with that comes some clarity and a little pause from the pandemonium of life.

That’s enough

I love sleep
Yes I do
I love sleep
Yes it’s true
I love sleep
Night or day
I love sleep
Come what may

My child, on the other hand, does not.

In fact, one might say he is a conscientious sleep objector.

Well, to be fair, he is sleeping pretty well these days. He just likes waking up super early (like, 5am early). And in my humble motherly opinion, 5am is still the MIDDLE OF THE STINKING NIGHT.

Hence the long hiatus from the blog.  But I digress.

Between my duties:

looking after an increasingly active and extraordinarily cute 8 month old who is determined to learn to walk;

doing a whole stack of work for Maranatha at nights and any other time the little person  sleeps, as the organisation begins turning its wheels again – yes, we are starting something new… ;

as a domestic goddess – which is a bit of a stretch since our apartment is always messy and I don’t really know how to iron and I think I would have failed 1950s housewife school;  and,

lamenting our current Australian government’s hard line stance against everything and everyone (asylum seekers, the poor, the disabled, the young, the sick, the environment, the education system) except wealthy white men and carbon itself;

I find myself very busy. Which leaves very little time for writing.

But alas, here I am, writing.

There is a point to this rambling, tangential post, I promise.

The point is that we are back. Maranatha Health is starting something new. Something exciting. Something better, more effective, more impactful then I could have hoped a few years ago.

And in the midst of this new beginning…

in the midst of the chaos and my anxious wanderings, when our last attempt at making the world better didn’t go to plan

in the midst of hoping that we are on the right path, when the games we choose to play always seem to have such high stakes

in the midst of figuring out how to do this new phase of Maranatha with all of its challenges and ideas and freshness and with David Mandela (my son) in tow

…the world celebrated Nelson Mandela day, the first since his passing.

And I read his words:

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

And I let out the wavering breath of a thousand what-ifs I didn’t realise I was holding.

We are rising. That’s enough.

Freshly mixed paint

Life is a paradox of powerful  proportions. A grand experiment that cannot be manipulated, managed or predicted.

If this year has confirmed anything to me, it is this single message. At the end of every year I emerge around New Year from the haze of chaos for a moment of reflection. And every year I comment on how chaotic, how unexpected, how contradictory the year has been.

“Why, how surprising!’, I remark to myself, and shake my head at all the unpredictable things that have happened.

Not this year.

This year I was prepared for the chaos and contradiction and unpredictability of it all, after the past few very ‘entertaining’ years.

And, oh, how chaotic and contradictory it was.

*contented/exhausted/with-hindsight-things-look-better sigh*

On the 24th of February this year we had a Maranatha Staff party, to celebrate the success of the 1st year of operation of the Maranatha Health project in Kamwenge. This party happened to coincide with two very unique occurrences:

The illegally constructed factory next door turned on its machines for the full day (click here and here and here to read more about this disaster!). We discovered on that day the machines were very loud and dirty and would not allow us to continue our work at Maranatha!

The factory next door - this is taken from the back of our home!

The factory next door – this is taken from the back of our home!

I took a pregnancy test and to my delight Michael and I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. I had a baby growing inside of me!

It's positive!

It’s positive!

These two immensely life-changing events shaped our year from that point on.

As the months wore on and it looked less and less like Maranatha Health would re-open for business in the short term, the waves of grief that washed over Michael and I at various times were interspersed with a growing excitement about the new life we would soon bring into this world.

In my life I don’t think I have ever felt such contradicting emotions. Since marrying Michael, Maranatha Health has been like a child to us:

We have

birthed it, in both Australia and Uganda
invested hours of our time, energy and resources into it
dreamed of its future
and had many many late nights agonising, hoping, planning, and working to make sure it flourishes.

Ironically, as this chapter in our lives came to a close, we were discovering the joy of growing a human baby. What an incredible blessing, what saving grace, that we were able to focus our energies on this new life. Perhaps it was God’s way of seeing us through the grief of Maranatha closing.

And now, this much anticipated new life has arrived!

I have a son. David Mandela Findlay.

An adorable, magnificent, inquisitive, cheerful, fascinating little human that is a combination of myself and my husband. And OH MY GOODNESS I LOVE HIM. My heart bursts for him. That all-encompassing, selfless love that parents have for their children –love that is both tender and fierce, love that takes your breath away so you feel as if you are drowning, love that makes you gasp for sanity, as if for air – I am all at once astonished, relieved and in awe of how strongly  I feel that love.

Though I have tried, words are completely inadequate in capturing the uniqueness of this new experience – of pregnancy, birth and now motherhood. I have written very little throughout my pregnancy and the first 10 weeks of David’s life, for fear of the incompleteness and inability words have to capture such magic and the mysterious transformation that takes place inside of oneself when you are given the privilege of your own child to love.

The sleep deprived whirlwind of chaos/exhaustion/ shock/ joy has lifted after a very bizarre first few weeks. I am loving the adventure that is involved in getting to know who our little person is. And the most surprising aspect of the experience so far is the fact that I have already forgotten how life was different and how I was different. Motherhood feels to me like a discovery of a part of myself that always existed, a natural extension of who I am that has now been given a chance to BE – a confidence, a courage, a compassion that I now know was always me.

And into the future, as we face the uncomfortable unknown that looms ahead, Michael and I are filled with a new kind of hope, a gentle reminder from our creator that He has made us to do something good, and will show us the next step with time. We have been given an opportunity to begin afresh, but this time as a family, whether that means a fresh start in Kamwenge, or somewhere entirely different.

When my husband proposed to me, he rewrote the entire text of the Dr Suess book ‘The Places You’ll Go’ (my favourite children’s book) for our context (and yes, he is an amazingly romantic man!). My favourite (rewritten) page in the book is below, and it resonates with me more than ever now:

“In Africa or Australia
or some other place,
in a big busy city
or somewhere with space.
With kids or without,
or one on the way,
we’ll continue to shout
and have our say
to convince other people
things are not all ok.”

Whatever the case, we as a family of three are excited to begin splattering some freshly mixed paint on the blank canvas that is our life.

Scary. Surprising. Satisfying.

Stay tuned.

(and here’s some photos of the journey of Davey so far – I couldn’t resist)

40 weeks pregnant!

40 weeks pregnant!

Less than 12 hours old

Less than 12 hours old

A week into motherhood...

A week into motherhood…


Fast asleep

Milk drunk

Milk drunk

Everything is hilarious these days!

Everything is hilarious these days!