Cultural transition: lessons from my little people

*This blog was written a few months ago, but I’ve only got around to posting it now. We are (thank goodness) past this initial stage of disorientation, feeling quite settled now, and are enjoying much of what Australia has to offer… although still missing Uganda!

the boys

My crazy boys!

Many would agree that shifting countries and cultures can be tough. Each time, the transition leaves me with the same sense of disorientation one experiences from being woken abruptly mid-dream; somewhere deep in your conscious you know you are awake, but emerge from sleep floundering between the two worlds, until that point you grab hold of reality once more.

And this time, moving back to Australia, has been no exception.*

Other times when we have moved ‘home’ to Australia, it has been on a temporary basis, and normally full of chaos and the unplanned scramble for accommodation, health checks, finding work quickly and setting up somewhat of a life before baby/babies come.

But this time has been much calmer. And more permanent.

It’s been chosen and planned and executed by us. We booked our tickets from Uganda more than a few weeks in advance, for the first time, ever. We are not in crisis mode.

We actually are now faced with the challenge of making a life for ourselves here.

And that pesky but familiar friend of mine that follows me like a shadow through my transitions has unsurprisingly surfaced: Grief. But this time, I was prepared.

Since becoming a mother, I have found it difficult to give myself the time and space to process big emotions like grief. This time it has been a full-time job for Michael and myself to help our kids through the transition, and be available as they grapple with the changes in their lives. Luckily we have fantastic family support, which has offered me the luxury of a few hours off here and there to think and pray and meditate and accept and write.

I am still very much in the midst of my cultural re-entry, where I feel awkward and emotional and a little disconnected from life in Australia. Trying to connect and find my feet often feels clunky, and because I look and sound the same as everyone else, it always gives me a strange feeling of being an imposter, attempting to fool everyone that I’m an expert in Australian culture. It’s a weird feeling.

Thankfully, children are amazingly resilient creatures, and I have much to learn from my own!  I have been watching them closely over the last few weeks, and these are some of the helpful things they do to make it through the first messy 6 weeks of transition:

Do things you love:

Since being back, all my children have been a little bit in a funk. Their little lives were uprooted and they have been placed somewhere new, all outside of their control. This is most clearly the case with my eldest, who is 4. However, they are well practiced in the art of living in the moment, as most children are. Since being home we have borrowed some ride on bikes for all 3 (thanks to grandparents!), and they have gleefully wizzed up and down our driveway, happily unconcerned in those moments by the stresses of the transition. It is a reminder that doing things you love is so important to give yourself a break from the hard stuff, no matter what country you are playing in!

Notice the differences with wide-eyes:

David’s observations remind me how different life is, which has helped adjust my own expectations of myself as I settle back in.

‘Wow mum, they have a LOT of electricity in Australia!’

‘They have a lot of footpaths and playgrounds!’.

‘The houses are very different…’

‘There are no boda’s here! And not as many people!’

It reminds me that once again, we are adjusting to a new normal. Every observation he makes, every discussion with David around the differences, gives me permission to take my own time to adjust. I’m allowed to go to the supermarket, look with wide eyes, and come home flustered mid shop. I’m allowed to feel overwhelmed by what we see as different. Seeing David remark on all the changes with wide eyes, sometimes with uncertainty creeping into his voice, has reminded me to look at my own experience with self-compassion.

Find a balance of what you will hold onto from Uganda:

I often find when I am home, I swing wildly from denying my ‘African’ self and choosing not to talk about life there, to not embracing anything about Australia and complaining about my own culture.  My kids, in their own little ways, are learning what they want to incorporate into their lives here, from Uganda. Normally any accents are the first thing to go, which is true this time round as well. Language provides a profound little insight into their process of transition though. Thomas and William were in the car with me the other day, and saw a motorbike. As they would in Uganda, they immediately pointed to it and exclaimed ‘mummy, boda’! I explained to them that it wasn’t carrying passengers, so it was just a motorbike. William disagreed strongly, shaking his head wildly and proclaiming ‘boda!’. Thomas looked at William with those cute little profound eyes that he has, and raised a finger. ‘no William, boda-bike’, to which William nodded and agreed. The tribe has spoken.

David in the meantime insists on using (arguably) the most useful term in the Rutooro language, ‘kabalega’. The term is used to describe, among other things, when children put their shoes on the opposite (wrong) feet. There is no word like it in English. Every day, whether he is talking to us, his grandparents or others, Dave puts his shoes on and asks ‘is this kabalega?’.  He has decided that this Rutooro word will stay as a part of our household, and the twins when I put their shoes on now also say ‘lega? Lega?’ as well, which is not only useful, but super cute!

I need to enjoy some of the luxury here:

In Africa, I am constantly drumming into my kids not to drink water unless they know that it has been boiled. They get told off regularly for trying to drink tap water, bath water, etc. The other day, we were having a conversation with Dave about being able to drink tap water here and how lucky we are to now live in a place where water is safe to drink from taps, where in Uganda so many kids get sick from drinking unsafe water. He was sitting in the bath at the time, and looked at me in disbelief. ‘Really?, I can drink ANY water from ANY tap?’, he asked in surprise. I nodded, smiling. He laughed, and looking doubtful, asked ‘what about the bath tap?’. I nodded my permission and he turned the water on and drank from the tap in our bath, all the while laughing in delight as if he was doing something utterly outrageous and thrilling. It’s the small things.  The lesson? I don’t have to feel awkward and reminded of the vast inequality of our globe, every time I drink fresh clean water out of my tap. Sometimes I can just enjoy the convenience!

Re-learning doesn’t take too long:

Taking David on a kindy visit gave me an awareness that once again – although socialising in this context feels ‘familiar’, its often clunky after being away. David is used to different social rules and a different culture. He was super overwhelmed at his kindy visit. When the other kids asked him his name, he responded (as he always does) with his full name, said in one long burst of syllables ‘DavidMandelaFindlay’ as every child in Uganda does. Everyone, including the teachers, struggled to understand (despite his clear articulation). He looked at me in bewilderment, and I introduced him as just David. He has followed suit since then, and has switched easily. I’ve already had my own clunky experiences, and watching him have them too is a reminder that we have become used to social interaction in another context. But seeing him adapt so quickly reminds me that humans are hardwired for connection.

I am learning once again that feeling at home in a place takes time.

When we were here in Australia last time to have the twins, we bought a house. This international move (the sixth one in eight years!) has been the first time that we have ever – on either side of the world – moved back into the same house, or even known where we would be living before we arrived. In many ways, this has been lifesaving! Naively though, I assumed that this would mean I would immediately feel settled.  Not so.

In every new place we went after leaving our home in Fort Portal, William would look at me with his big curious puppy-dog eyes, and raising his voice in a question ask; ‘mummy, home?’ First in Kampala at our friends place, then in Entebbe, then when we reached Dubai airport, then in Adelaide at  my parents place, and finally when moving into our house. I can now answer in the affirmative! But still at least once a day, even now, he looks at me and says ‘mummy, home?’ Sometimes it’s in the context of pretending he is on a plane, and he will also say ‘Violet?’ or some other favourite person of his in Uganda. It pulls at my own fresh farewell grief immensely, and reminds me that home is not an instant reality. It is people and community and familiarity and history, things that are built over time.  What my own children are teaching me, is that I need to carve out a big chunk of time for Australia to feel like home again, and that’s ok.

So that’s my lessons on moving countries and cultures, from my little people!

 

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Building consensus and community

Over the past 7 years, since we first started MH in Kamwenge, Michael and I have learnt much about management, particularly in a Ugandan context.

Most of this learning has been through the school of hard knocks. Which is often painful. And extremely humbling.

It also can be a very effective way to learn.

It’s not quite like learning things at university. I don’t seem to forget the mistakes as much as I would if they were simply questions I marked wrong on an exam.

For the first year or so of our management experience here, I spent a lot of my time trying to prove myself.

Trying to give myself permission to lead.

Trying to remind others that I had authority

Trying to show our staff and the community that I did have the capacity to run this organisation.

There was a lot of flailing arms and big emotions and alienation from our staff and then questioning my decisions retrospectively.

I don’t mean to say I was hopeless, back then. In the interests of practicing some self-compassion, I still bought a lot of skills to the table, we set up a fantastic workplace and worked round the clock to do this – we did a pretty good job considering the circumstances, all round.

But I have realised that my management style these days looks remarkably different. And because of this, our organisation looks very different as well.

This slow-moving shift is due to two revolutionary factors.

The first thing is me. I am different. I believe in me and my gifts. I have experience. I have proved to myself that I am (mostly) resilient to setbacks in a professional capacity, and I have realised somewhere along the way that I can actually do this work – though insecurity still plagues me at times.

The second is that I have learnt, ironically, that management is not about me.

It is about everyone else. It is about building a community of equals that are authentic, free to question and critique, free to own failure and learn from it, and most importantly, sold out to the vision and values of an organisation.

The natural progression of these values is that everyone has a voice – from the cleaners and security guards, all the way up to top management. Our hope always is to foster an environment where building consensus is a priority; where everyone has space to talk, and will be listened to when they do. This is obviously counter cultural around the world, but in Africa, where the ‘big man’ syndrome is endemic, this is powerful. It stands out from a mile away.

Lately we have been reviewing our organisational policy and procedures. It’s a big job. Everything from employees coming to work on time and how much maternity leave we should offer, to big decisions on what constitutes gross misconduct and what corruption looks like at Maranatha. Even thinking about these topics can give me a headache. It would be much easier for me to sit at my desk and review the policy myself, or better yet, to bring in an outsider.

But instead, we are slogging through the 70 page policy handbook in the morning meetings, which is when all our staff on duty for that day meet for half an hour to raise concerns, discuss issues, encourage each other, tell stories… and invite God to help us in our work for the day. Some of this policy discussion has been really painful, as you can imagine. Opening up to humans the ability to make decisions about their own work benefits creates the kinds of demands that would be expected – we have had many slow discussions (where I would consider giving my first born child away to avoid facilitating) regarding why we can’t have more annual leave or longer time away from work for a burial or why sick certificates are important. But with those issues, it has been important for the staff to learn the limitations of a tight budget and choices between benefits. I have also learnt and then revised my own position many times, based on Ugandan cultural norms and our staffs’ passionate discourse.

Other meetings, we have entirely thrown out my own freshly drafted policies that departments originally identified a need for, because the staff felt it was unnecessary or problematic. That was hard. But it was the best decision for the organisation, in hindsight.

This last week, as part of this process, we have had a discussion on what constitutes corruption at MH. Uganda now rates top on the list of East African countries in corruption indices. Corruption is everywhere and health care is no exception.  The patients we serve expect a broken system, where tips and bribes to health care workers replace the right to universal health care, and attention for ailments is purchased by greasing palms. Simultaneously, turning down appreciation tips for services however –especially to someone older than yourself – is culturally equivalent almost to spitting in someone’s face!

So as you can imagine, this was a controversial issue fraught with potholes and layered with thick cultural expectations. It was an amazing discussion to facilitate though – to see the passion of the staff around this issue, and their desire to protect MH from this seductive sin. It took place over 4 morning meetings– with much honesty and laughter and debating with raised voices – before we came to an acceptable standard for the practicalities of dealing with this in the workplace. I’m not 100% sure that the policy we developed will work, but we will find out along the way. Much of the point is the discussion itself and the investment in the outcome that our staff now have.  As part of this policy, the staff agreed that they needed to revisit this discussion every 3 months in the meeting. To keep conversation open to ensure they were keeping each other accountable to the standards we have set.

After one such meeting, I was sitting in Maureen’s office voicing the difficulties of facilitating such discussion. I was complaining that the next section in the handbook is going to be tough to talk through. I was wondering if we should skip it.

Maureen smiled and shook her head and reminded me in words something like: ‘But now Kim, do you see how they are satisfied once they have had the opportunity to discuss and decide? They will hold each other to this. If me and you were to sit down and agree and then order them to do something, even if we knew it was the right thing, do you think they would listen? The minute our backs are turned, they will ignore the order. This way is slower, but it’s the right way.”

Such pearls of wisdom from the woman that has taught me so much about managing staff!

Maranatha and Me

So, Michael and I have decided that we are moving our family back to Australia, permanently.

Even writing those words is tough.

I write those words with a heavy heart, taking a deep breath, and acknowledging that it is probably one of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make. Maranatha Health has been the core of our life for a long time now.  Leaving will bring more change. And, I can only assume, quite an uncomfortable period of readjustment.

Michael and I went on our first date in November 2007. It was a blind date organised through conspiratorial match-making friends who knew we both had an interest in Africa.

Like I wrote in another blog previously: “It seems like an eternity since Michael and I were sitting opposite each other…sharing with each other our passion for Africa and our desire to move there and try to DO something one day. It was then that Michael mentioned his idea – then in the very initial stages – of ‘Kamwenge Maranatha’. I remember sitting there excitedly listening and sharing, ideas already swimming around in my head about the possibilities, about the logistics, about how to transform this vision into reality. And then, embarrassed, I sheepishly tried to bring myself back to reality. This was our first date – I didn’t even know Michael, let alone whether I could be a part of such a vision…”

From sometime in the months following, until my children came along, I had only two great loves: my husband and Maranatha Health. I have now added my 3 children David, William and Thomas to that already-bursting-at-the-seams mix. I often feel in awe of what God has given me.

Michael and I have often joked about MH being our first child. On reflection, to date it has given me much more heartache and sleepless nights than the other 3 (which is quite a statement!). In Maranatha’s defence though, it has been around a lot longer than the other 3!

I have wept tears of frustration, tears of joy, tears of grief, and tears of pride over this project over many years.

Idealistic and in love, Michael and I married in 2009, asking for donations to MH in lieu of wedding gifts from our guests. Then we got to work with the MH Australia team. We fundraised. Solidified the MH board in Australia. Were incredibly lucky to have some AMAZING people join the initial team in Oz. Begged for money anywhere and everywhere. And planned and read and studied and dreamed for 2 years.

When we finally moved to Uganda in 2011, we were young and naïve. We had in a combined effort, just short of 2 years of experience living in East Africa. Neither of us had worked as managers before, let alone managers in another cultural context. All we had, really, was a nervous willingness to be obedient to whatever our Creator asked of us.

We estimated it would take us between 5-10 years for the organisation to be fully in Ugandan hands, and this is the timeframe we committed to. At the time (I was 25) it seemed like a very long road stretching ahead of us. In our generation full of instant gratification and commitment-phobia, where it is unfashionable to commit for the long haul, even the 5-10 year timeframe seemed extremely daunting.

There have been many times over the years when I have been tempted to walk away from Maranatha Health and our calling for both personal and professional reasons. Times when funding has been cut indefinitely for complex reasons; when friends and foes have stolen funds and cement and fridges and everything in between; when one too many children have died in a month at the clinic and I’m angry that the world just keeps nonchalantly spinning, when the weight of managing so many staff has become too heavy; when the grand injustice of having an illegal factory built next to our land in Kamwenge gave me a brief insight into the overwhelming powerlessness of poverty; when programs have flopped and I’ve felt completely inadequate to run the organisation; when feeling flawed by the ferocity of grief after a miscarriage; when we faced land grabs and power grabs and big egos that wouldn’t give up without a fight; when we lost our beloved Mzee, and wondered how we would ever run the project without his guidance; when we found out we were having twins and wondered if that could possibly ‘work’ anywhere, let alone in Africa….

And so many more times, when being a part of this project has stretched me far beyond what I thought my limits were.

But in all of this, God kept showing up. In beautiful, miraculous, ordinary ways.

Being a part of Maranatha Health has built my character and moulded me into the person I am. I barely recognise the girl that rocked up in the backwaters of Kamwenge, in 2011.

It has offered me an opportunity to discover and develop my gifts, a community to embrace and be embraced by, and a grand over-arching mission to pour myself into, shoulder to shoulder with my husband.

And it has offered me a front row seat to watching the poor accessing quality health care, sometimes for the first time.

God – the creator of all good things – has allowed this organisation to flourish in spite of all the challenges, in spite of our own brokenness. This I now know for sure: She is definitely on the side of the poor accessing health care.

And we are so grateful. The good has been really good. And Oh, how we will miss it. I cannot even imagine never again being a part of the MH Uganda staff team, day-to-day. Outside of my family, it has been THE most rewarding, life-giving, eye-opening, challenging-but-deeply-worthwhile experience of my life.

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But now

…we are tired.

Down-to-our-bones tired.

We miss home. We miss the ease of raising children in our own culture. We want an Australian education for our kids. We’ve moved countries 4 times in 5 years, first not knowing if we would go back after the clinic closure in Kamwenge, then because of the twin pregnancy. But for the first time since MH Uganda began, we feel like it is actually time to leave this place.

And do you know what?

We can leave. There is this incredible organisation that will carry on the work without us. In fact, I think at this point, it is actually time to let the staff manage this place without us peering over their shoulder.

No-one wants us to be the over-bearing parents.

Of course we will never really leave Maranatha. She is our first born. We will always be there to support. We will fight for her, when we need to. We will protect her as much as we can, from afar. We will visit as much as possible.

What does this look like practically? Over the next few years, we will remain as the Ugandan Directors, volunteering a few days a week from Australia. We will do much skyping and emailing.  We will provide support to our management team, continue developing resources and policies when we need to, continue to steer strategies and programs, write reports, participate in research and encourage our staff. Most of the same stuff we do here, but just condensed. We will hopefully visit twice a year.

And while we are reducing MH to this smaller, bite-sized part of our lives, Michael and I – like all parents must do when their child leaves the nest – need to figure out what else we want to do with our lives. What else we could possibly do that will give us purpose and meaning and allow us to contribute to a more just world, both professionally and personally.

If you have an idea for the rest of our lives, let me know!

The Spiders of Maranatha

In the western world, I often feel like people look upon Africans and their capacity as two dimensional. They are cast into suitably simplified stereotypes – uninspiring roles created and promoted and published over and over again, particularly by the NGO industry. The same story is retold by the swathes of voluntourists who visit Africa each year, in search of the ‘unique’ African experience to remind their followers how un-ordinary their own stories are.

Do I sound frustrated?

I am. I have heard these stories for a long time now. I am guilty of proudly propagating them myself when I was a young volunteer. And I STILL see them on charity TV advertisements when I return back to Oz.

What are these stories, you ask?

The first – and most common – is the ‘tragedy’ of Africa. Swollen bellies. Faces swarming with flies. Sick, HIV infected mothers. Famine. War. The hopelessness of black-skinned victims, passively waiting for the white saviour to come and give and rescue – whether it be by giving them sponsorship, school fees, peace, a goat, or to be looked after at an orphanage.

The other story is one of only resilience and joy. All the children are so happy. The music is amazing. The laughter. The dancing. The community and parenting that is so natural compared to what we do. But this story is only partly true: it idealises the exotic, and in doing so ignores the deep suffering that takes place when one is poor. It ignores the unjust system that allows for striking global inequality to continue. And it absolves us Westerners of any personal responsibility to work towards transforming the system and redistributing our wealth.

Craig Greenfield (whose reading I am a little obsessed with currently) discusses these two stories, in a fantastic blog on this topic and puts it far better than I can.

“When we name only the tragedywe cast poor people as pathetic victims who can do nothing but wait for an outside savior. And we end up framing all our responses to poverty and injustice around ourselves and the money we can raise….

On the flip-side, when we name only the resilience, we gloss over the very real challenges faced by people living on the margins. We romanticize their lives….we ignore our own complicity in an unjust system. Apathy reigns supreme.”

Craig goes on to suggest that instead, we should be naming the tragedy and the resilience, telling these stories alongside of each other to show both the heart break but also what is happening from within these communities to transform them from the inside.

This story, I think, can actually be quite difficult to tell. It is for me. In the past, I am guilty of swinging wildly  towards one side of the pendulum or the other. This swinging was borne out of my immature but determined attempts to inspire people in Australia to act, but simultaneously rewrite the far-outdated stereotype of ‘deepest darkest Africa’.

Stereotypes are so easy to fall back on. They often suit the narrative that we like to hear about our lives. Real or imagined – I cannot quite be sure – I still occasionally feel pressure from Australians to recount the story of MH with us as the heroes: ‘Michael and Kim Findlay, bravely moving to Africa and setting up MH alone in the face of so many local challenges, bringing health care to the sick, hopeless poor of Uganda’. *shudder* Even now, when we have this incredible staff team actually doing the work, I sometimes feel that donors following at home would prefer us to be the heroes.

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Circa 2009 – young and naive, standing on our newly acquired land in Kamwenge

But in this scenario like in so many others, stereotypes seem to do us an incredible disservice. They take away the beautiful but ordinary complexity of life. And, more importantly, they are simply not real.

Nowadays when I speak about Maranatha Health and our work in Uganda to people back home, I am often lost for words. Not because I don’t have much to say on this topic, but because I am trying to find the words to bring people’s human-ness to life. To be a witness to their experiences of injustice and tragedy, but also their immense capacity for resilience and as agents of change. To combat the natural distance and over-simplification that people tend towards when hearing about another culture.  I so often wish I could transport people from Australia into Maranatha Health morning meetings to show the utter ordinary-ness of it all – the funny stories told by our staff, the times when no-one can be bothered talking, the laughter, the frustration at a patient’s bad decision making, the teasing of each others quirks the way families do, the counter-cultural compassion for their poorer community members, the annoying requests for salary raises, the wisdom from our team when problem solving an issue, the care for each other when grieving an unexpected death, the reminders not to use too much social media at work….

I wonder if this would allow Australians to see our staff as they are: flawed and ordinary and inspiring and skilled humans who are working hard (most of the time!) to improve the opportunities in their community.

In the blog I mentioned before, Craig Greenfield shares the Cambodia proverb: ‘It takes a spider to repair its own web,” making the revolutionary but obvious point that ‘the spider, the insider, is the key player’.

I find this an incredibly useful analogy. A web, like any system, is complex and beautiful and fragile. And repairing it takes time and precision and intention and the efforts of the spider itself.

Our staff, like the spider, are fixing their community from the inside.

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The most recent staff picture (minus quite a few of us). How times have changed!

Of course…

in the interest of being authentic, Maranatha Health didn’t start quite like this.

There was a time when Michael and I, as outsiders to this place, led every meeting. Wrote the details of every policy. Treated every patient. Made every staffing decision. Created every roster. Visited every community and met with every government official we worked with. That was when MH was in its infancy. We were also young and collecting experiences and building an organisation and growing into our roles…

and still learning how to let others shine.

When we were doing all of this, it was our dream for it to be a fully Ugandan organisation. To empower and equip and up-skill and resource and release into the world an organisation – a movement – that would be transformative from the inside and demonstrate to the wider community the kind of health care that should exist, offered by Uganda’s own people.

And now…this dream has unfolded before our eyes.

These days, I am utterly in awe of our staff. They are doing everything.

They manage, they protect, they record, they treat, they implement, they strategise, they improve, they teach. They are Maranatha.

They are the keepers of the vision now.

And Michael and I? We are becoming sidekicks. Technical Advisors. Supporters. Strategic oversee-ers. Learners.

And witnesses to this incredible example of how to be a community and how to transform health culture in Uganda.

And it’s pretty darn amazing.

2018: My year of planned un-productivity

I value productivity.

It’s taken me 32 years of my life to admit this, but I think I have a productivity problem.

Of course, this rather industrial but inconvenient trait borne largely out of my cultural background stands in dramatic contrast to Ugandan culture, which is fiercely anti-productive, you might say.

I think I may have accidentally inherited the trait from my mother, after watching her throughout my childhood in a flurry of activity, ticking off as many to-do lists as possible, working furiously on impressive projects, engaging us in different children’s games and fun, serving friends and strangers…

I know a lot of women – particularly mothers – like this. Women who never sit still. Who never rest. Who seem to be always on the treadmill. For many of them, I think there is perhaps no other option. Perhaps they need that job to simply get by, or they don’t have family support, or people to help them with cooking, or supportive husbands, or child care, or other much-needed help. There is simply much to be done (especially when children are little) and someone needs to just knuckle down and do the work.

As much as my own lack of rest has in the past few years stemmed significantly from living in a mad house full of 3 energetic, determined little people (where on earth did they get those qualities from?!?!), some of it comes from a much deeper place. Like many of us, a sophisticated smoke screen of productivity covers my feeble attempts at negotiating my self-worth. It is a belief system that associates worthiness with performance and doing; so etched in the recesses of my mind that it has become my taken-for-granted truth.

It’s a belief that drives me to make sure I get my to-do list ticked, to sometimes judge those who embrace rest as part of their lifestyle, to shrink with guilt or frustration when I need to choose rest myself, and detests admitting my own limitation. Now, obviously this not-so-healthy attribute has served me in some ways to this point – my determination to achieve has certainly contributed towards Maranatha Health growing into what it is today.

William sleeping

My kids understand the value of rest much better than I do!

But over the past year, I have become extremely enamoured with the work of Brene Brown, thanks to my good friend Anna. Many of you would’ve heard of Brene before – she is a well-known researcher on vulnerability, shame and as she calls it ‘whole-hearted living’. Brene’s concept of wholeheartedness is about engaging in our lives ‘from a place of worthiness’.

Brene defines this in many ways, but one of the definitions that resonates so much with my own spirit is: ‘Cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think “no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough”.’

Every time I read that, I sigh.

I am a long way from that. A long winding road, maybe a couple of mountains to scale, a rushing river to traverse, perhaps even some kind of medieval army to defeat… that is probably my current distance away from that quote.

Little by little as I read Brene’s work, and reflect, and pray, and dig deeper into why the expectations I have of myself exist and permeate my decisions – I have begun to notice how heroically our society values tired people. We wear our exhaustion like a badge of honour. Rest, and play, and simply getting enough sleep, and having leisure time, and working less – those things are often looked down upon with eye rolls and remarks about hardening up. They are not aspired to or celebrated.

 

I know. It is changing. At least in theory. People are writing and talking about this. This blog is certainly not original. There are so many blogs and books and permission-giving mother sites telling us that we need our tribe of women around, to slow down, to chill out on our own expectations. It takes a village to raise a child, etc

And yet.

The translations of these discussions into practical support and rest and women actually letting go of trying to ‘do it all’ seems to be missing much of the time. It’s not there. I wonder if the authenticity necessary for this change feels so out-of-reach for many women who still remain silenced by our culture’s drive for productivity.

If people do find ways to rest, if they let go of productivity for a moment, if they do access support so they can slow down, it is admitted only in hushed discussions between ‘safe’ friends behind carefully closed doors.

Why? Because of judgement, I think.

Which is why I am relieved to be living in Uganda, at this moment, as I try to learn about the value of rest. And play. And un-productivity.

Because here, in this area of life, my only critic is myself. I have no other voices to silence.

Just many, many women around me who love to sneak in a midday nap. Who aren’t obsessed with ‘having it all’. Who aren’t often with their children 24/7. Who proudly prioritise having ‘help’ at home and see it as essential – whether it be their cousins’ daughter or a girl from their village who needs a job or their sister. Who ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. Like, really.

But for me from the West, actually stopping and letting go of productivity: of valuing time unfolding and ordinary moments and play and dance and connection and simply being still…

This is harder.

But this cautious attempt at something as simple as rest –without the guilt and justifications – feels extraordinary. It feels abnormal, un-habitual, and clunky.

Trying to value all the moments of quiet that come my way and live for these has exposed my worship of the productivity gods. It’s difficult trying to escape from their clutches after sacrificing at the altar for so long.

I was reflecting recently how much Jesus prioritised rest. Here’s someone whose days are numbered, who spends his time campaigning for the poor and down-trodden, advocating for this up-side down kingdom where ‘even the least of these’ has a place at the table, and is flocked by crowds of people even when he went for a little walk. And yet the rhythm of his life’s story, told in the Gospels, gives so much emphasis and space for him to rest. Sometimes he would spend whole days by himself. Praying. Resting. Being still. It even mentions him sleeping on quite a few occasions.

My attempts at rest though remind me of the way my twins learnt to walk in the past year. They were at first extremely cautious, frustrated and awkward. But with every step that ‘worked’ they became more confident, more energised, more ready to try this new and empowering thing. Now they are running. I want to run too.

In Uganda, we have a nanny – Violet is her name – who is here 9-5 Monday to Friday. One of us (Michael or I) is always here with her and the kids. We spend our days together – tag teaming cooking and skun knees and dishes and nappy changes and overtired kids and outings with no prams and make believe fun and the general insanity of 3 young children. And when we have a chance, we give each other a break. The situation still comes with frustration at times and feels in some ways a poor substitute for family and playgroups and playgrounds and all the ways raising children in your own culture feels easier…but in general, Violet is an absolute life-saver, a good friend who has become a part of our family for this time.

In one of the most encouraging conversations I have had on this topic, I was sharing with Violet the other day how in Australia it would be impossible to afford this kind of support at home. I also explained that in Australia, it would be difficult to admit that I had a nanny, fulltime. I would be embarrassed. She looked at me in confusion: “But why would you want to do all this alone? When would you rest? That would just be stressful! And lonely!”

Yes.

Yes it would.

Carols

Michael and I were reminiscing, a few weeks before Christmas, about Carols by Candlelight in Australia. When we are here, we always miss this quintessential Australian Christmas experience in Uganda:

Warm summer nights where the sun insists on staying up late

People from all walks of life flocking to reserve their place at the park

Picnic rugs covering the grass, eskys packed full of treats and drinks

B-grade celebrities on stage, bantering

Parents anxiously watching their young children’s budding pyromania as they play with candles

Australian out-of-tune accents belting out well-known Christmas songs

At first we assumed that the concept of singing carols, outside, by candlelight, was some kind of universal phenomena.

In hindsight – since the entire northern hemisphere is in the middle of winter at Christmas time – this could not be the case. It turns out it is a uniquely Australian tradition, that started in the 1920s.

So this year, we decided to put on such an event at our home.

We invited a combination of Ugandan friends, expat friends from all over the world, and some MH staff. We provided food (and others brought food as well!), I made Christmas biscuits, we had a big camp fire, and there were candles for everyone. Instead of BYO picnic rugs, people were asked to bring the Ugandan equivalent, woven mats. About 30 people turned up.

Michael, together with our talented friend (and MH staff member) William, played guitar and sang.

And it was lovely.

There is something about singing carols under the stars with a group of people that makes me feel soft inside. Emotional. Dreamy.

This feeling of course, was slightly impeded by the act of chasing the twins around near an open fire…until they went to bed.

Towards the end of the night, Michael sang and played ‘Aussie jingle bells’. It’s corny, and ‘over-the-top’ Australian, and not normally my thing.

I loved it.

It was simultaneously the cause of, and a salve for, my homesickness.

Being so far from home at this time of a year is hard. I miss our wider family. And as much as Australian Christmas tradition has become tangled up with consumerism and expensive presents and stress and all that other stuff….

Having a little bit of Australian tradition in Africa this time of year was exactly what I needed.

The Philosophy of Fat

Ugandans are not politically correct. I don’t think there would be even the slightest hint of understanding of that term here.

Once you get used to it, it really is quite endearing. What you see is what you get.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am extremely pro-political correctness. I absolutely see the need for it, especially to protect minority groups. Or to prevent my four year old son from hearing, on a very regular basis, that ‘boys don’t cry’.

But one of the things I have fully embraced is Ugandans’ willingness to call a spade, a spade – without judgement or subtext. You will often here people referred to as ‘the brown one’ or ‘the fat one’ or ‘the lame one’.

This rings true particularly in areas such as weight. In the MH morning meeting, Michael recently gave a talk on nutrition and healthy eating. As part of it he discussed weight, and included a discussion on BMI. Oh, decisions always look so much more problematic with the benefit of hindsight. Unintentionally, this discussion on BMI has created a monster that has reared its ugly fat head at Maranatha. Every day since, staff are forcing each other onto the weighing scales in the outpatient department, looking at the number, doing some quick calculations, then crying out in delight – ‘this one is really obese!’ (pronounced as oh – bess)

To an Australian, this sounds horrifying, I get it. Here, it is just downright hilarious and I have been laughing almost to the point of tears watching these scenarios play out. You just couldn’t write this stuff!

I have covered this before in my blog, but basically weight here is a sign of beauty and wealth. It’s one of the ways I measure my ‘Ugandan-ness’ at any given time: by the rush of pride I feel when someone comments to me (complete with dramatic hand gestures) that ‘you have really got fat!’

Alas, many of our staff have been talking about their weight, and have been trying to be healthier. For many of them, this has boiled down to taking less soda from the MH canteen, not having as much cake, as well as trying to walk more rather than taking bodas (motorbike taxis). Of course, every time someone smuggles in a soda to reception to get through the afternoon drowsiness that hits after a MASSIVE lunch of matooke and beans, everyone reminds them of their condition: ‘Eh, you are oh-bess my dear! Should you be having that soda? Why don’t you give me some?!’

It has brought about many interesting conversations, including one recently between me and the admin women (who are really my peeps, of all the MH staff!).

The admin girls - 2015

The admin women of MH, 2015

We were talking about our own fluctuations in weight. When I first met them, we were all quite young and thin (most of us have worked together since 2011/12). Back then, Annet was breastfeeding twins and thin from the exhaustion that comes from that, while I was young and energetic (I can only vaguely remember this feeling of energy, with much nostalgia).

But since those days we have all put on weight. The women were reflecting on working for MH for so many years and how this has impacted on their weight: they have decent salaries, they are happy at work with our tight MH community, they have little stress in their lives, their children are growing well, and hence – they have all put on quite a bit of weight. This was said with extreme pride. Annet expressed that now when she returns to her home in Kamwenge, people tell her ‘Those Maranatha people are looking after you very well – you stay in Fort Portal where you are happy!’.

They were also analysing my own weight over the years. They remarked that mostly, when I come back from being in Australia, I am fat. They likened me visiting Australia to their own experience going back to stay in their village home, ‘when they put on a big feast for you and you can just relax’. They explained that when I am home in Australia, I can eat my own cultural food, I have parents and other family around to help with my kids, I can relax in my own culture. Whenever I come back to Africa – as much as I love it here – I lose weight. They articulated that this is because I am stressed from looking after kids without family support, I am always running around managing things at Maranatha, and I don’t have access to my own food and culture. They thought it was obvious that I would lose weight here. I was at once flawed by their insight and validated by their understanding.

To end our discussion, Ellen was telling me that now when she walks into a shop in town, people sometimes ask her where she is ‘parked’ – a reference to owning a car – because she looks so confident and fat and healthy. Neither of these women are on particularly high salaries by Ugandan middle-class standards, and neither will probably ever own a car. But they are happy, and healthy, and according to their BMIs, overweight. I was laughing at our discussion, but Ellen shook her head and expressed it sincerely to me:

No, Kim, I’m serious. There is a way in Africa, that when you are happy and not just surviving, you put on weight. Maranatha makes us happy. We are well cared for. We are fed. We belong. And because of this, people notice!

And that is a lesson in happiness from my dear friends I don’t want to forget!

Read the sign…

I wrote this blog a few weeks ago:

We are in Italy.

My husband, myself, my just-turned-four-year-old, and our  18 month old twins.

Utterly luxurious, I know.

This blog isn’t supposed to be about that though.

Of course, it is wonderful to be here. I am constantly aware of my privilege, being able to visit such incredible places. And Italy – even with 3 young children – is as tantalizing and historically rich and eclectically beautiful and delicious as I remember.  We are here because we needed a break and time away from Uganda to reflect on what we are doing with our life, and rest. This seemed like a logical, close place to travel to with relatively warm weather for late autumn in the northern hemisphere, which offers us our greatest therapy in life – good FOOD!

Michael’s parents have met us here, and it really has been so special to catch up with them after a crazy 7 months, and also enjoy them enjoying our children.

But as always, letting two riotous 18-month-olds loose anywhere – EVEN in Rome – is not easy, and I feel that ‘rest’ as an agenda item may have been a little overly ambitious. It’s been a fantastic holiday, but travelling anywhere with so many children is just plain exhausting, a lesson I probably needed to learn the hard way.  There are all sorts of challenges travelling with children internationally, leave alone keeping children entertained on planes and trains! For example, of all things, I never really considered food would be an issue considering the food on offer here is AMAZING. But uprooting our 4 year old from rural Uganda to Italy, was actually quite a culture shock for him. He responded to the differences, as he has in his life every time so far, by narrowing his food choices down to the bare minimum in order to control his world. For the first 4 or 5 days, while the rest of us sat at restaurants enjoying the magic that is home-made Italian pasta, David sat obstinately munching on rice crackers and greek yoghurt. The tradgedy.

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The twins and their magical backpack harnesses 🙂

We are currently in Lucca. Which, like all good Tuscan towns, has a number of towers, one of which it is possible to climb. It may have been one of my proudest family moments so far, all 7 of us climbing that tower (grandparents included). Michael and I, each carrying a twin on us, our 4 year old galloping up the steps, as if there wasn’t about a million of them! The view was marvellous, but I was much more impressed by what our family reaching the top represented: the niggling hope in the possibility of really living, whole heartedly and adventurously – not just surviviving – with  3 small children. I was suitably impressed by the pure discipline of my husband, who I watched overcome his fear of heights in order to make the climb, sweating it out as he carried his squirming twin, to make it to the top.

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At the top of the tower: we of course aren’t all looking forward (that NEVER happens), but Thomas looks basically exactly the same as William anyway 🙂

But I digress. My point in sharing all this was because I had the opportunity today to spend an hour and a half in Lucca, Tuscany ALL BY MYSELF, while my husband and his parents looked after our 3 children at a playground nearby.

Walking down the streets of Lucca today – armed only with some Euro in my pocket, my camera and a novel, was simultaneously a wonderful and bizarre experience. It always feels a little odd these days, spending time away from all my children (when not at work). I feel free and light and full of possibility, but paradoxically insecure and – I think this is what surprised me the most – lacking a key part of the explanation of who I am, and how I earn my worth.

I was reflecting on this as I sat people-watching and remarking on the beauty and effortless style of the Italian women in the piazza, in contrast to my own appearance. Even on holidays, I haven’t washed my hair for a week, my clothes – mostly purchased second hand – had day-old stains from various children’s snot and food, and my jeans fit a little snugger since arriving in this country of mouth-watering treats.

In that moment, I felt embarrassed.

I felt like I needed to wear a sign saying “I have three young kids, including a set of twins. I live in Uganda. Please be gentle and kind when you look at me. Be proud of me for being here. Be aware I rarely do this kind of independent gallivanting. Don’t judge me for my extra weight and my unwashed hair.  I have survived a really tough few years.”

I wanted everyone to read the sign. To know. To understand. To accept. To approve.

I let out an incredulous sigh as I realised what I had wished for.

I was in a foreign country, as a completely anonymous stranger, and I still cared what people thought of me.

Then I decided.

I am going to wear this sign on the inside. And read it as many times as I needed to, to remember that I am worthy. Without my children. Without my excuses. Without my doing.

Who I am is ok.

Blood: It’s complicated

An anxious mother stumbles into the clinic, carrying a fragile bundle wrapped in blankets and a faded kitenge. The baby boy – perhaps younger than one year of age – is breathing heavily and seems frighteningly pale for an African child. The MH triage nurse takes one look at the child and ushers them towards Maranatha’s version of an ICU, although it has none of the machines and gadgets one would find in an ICU in the west. As fast as can happen in a Ugandan setting, with a culture of people who cannot be rushed, the child is examined by a clinical officer, is cannulated, tested for their blood type, and then (with relief) the lab staff report that they have some blood available from the child’s blood group. The clinical staff let out the breath they were unaware of collectively holding, and everyone carries on doing the work that needs to be done.

In peak malaria season, this scenario may happen a few times a day. A common complication of severe malaria – especially in children – is anaemia.

I’m not a clinician. But basically, in this context, where severe malaria is really common, regular access to donated blood is essential. At MH, we sometimes transfuse several units of blood every day. Blood transfusion for these children is powerfully and phenomenally life-saving.

So, blood is important.

It is also frustratingly difficult to get our hands on sometimes.

The other day we had a call from Bundibugyo, a neighbouring district 60kms away. A child that had been taken to a hospital there needed a transfusion, and was extremely sick. Before the parents traveled, they decided to call ahead to the regional referral hospital, which is also in Fort Portal. They did not have blood. They then called another big hospital here, a Catholic hospital, which also had no blood. Then they called Maranatha. Our lab tech quickly checked the fridge and to our great relief, there was 1 unit of blood left, and it was the blood type of the boy. We told them to come. A rare win!

Every few months, MH invites the blood bank in FP to do a blood drive at the MH clinic, and we try to get as many units as possible donated. It’s quite a community day, actually, and fun.

The blood banks across Uganda, including the one in Fort Portal, were funded in part by some significant donors. But the donors have recently pulled out, and most of their funding is now from the Ministry of Health. With two old vehicles, and a small team of staff, they are expected to find enough units of blood to service about 8 districts – probably more than 5 million people. The blood bank is now expected to find this blood – miraculously – with no budget for transport and reduced staffing levels.   There are some pretty substantial challenges beyond the obvious time and resource constraints: there is not a culture or awareness in the general community around blood donation; there is no social pressure or reward for donation; with the majority of people poor farmers, people do not have time or resources to commute to give blood regularly; and with HIV (and other STDs) the highest in this region of Uganda, there is a substantial amount of blood that simply cannot be used, even if collected.

This epic wall of barriers to donation culminates in the variety of stressful situations we often have at MH, where there is just

Not. Enough. Blood.

When we are busy at MH, often our lab tech will find himself down at the blood bank a few times a week, begging for another unit. He will call the staff with the keenness of a 15 year old girl having her first crush, racing to the blood bank the moment there is a rumour of a few already screened life-saving-units ready to go. He knows all of the staff there by name. In emergencies, when there is really nothing left to do, we will send family there to donate and then wait around while the blood is tested and bring it back to MH. Of course, it was much more difficult in Kamwenge days, when collecting blood from the Fort Portal blood bank sometimes felt like an episode of the amazing race. We needed to send an esky with a public taxi from Kamwenge, with the request for blood signed by a certain MH staff. After bargaining on the price of this ‘service’, the taxi driver would take the esky to a supermarket in fort Portal town that had agreed to store a few icepacks for us, and then take it to the blood bank. Someone from the blood bank would pack the units for us (once they were available) and then organise another taxi driver to take the units back to Kamwenge, often tied on the roof of the vehicle. Once it arrived at the taxi park in Kamwenge, we would get a phone-call and go and pick it up, normally in a desperate rush knowing there was a child on the very precipice of life itself.

Basically, in a word association game, if someone mentions blood and Uganda, my immediate thoughts go to frantic phone conversations, empty fridges, the oxymoron of pale-black-children, and our shabby red esky that has been thrown into the work ute ready to collect blood from the bank on about a million occasions. Then comes to mind the afore-mentioned pale-black children’s chubby legs running around the ward a day-or-two later, defying the odds of the malaria gods by being an under-5-Ugandan-patient brimming with life.

The government referral hospital does not have the same record of transfusion as MH though. Their not-so-reliable transfusion record has been the focus of many a Ugandan’s frustration. To offer some context, the public health system in Uganda is broken. Staff often simply aren’t there, equipment is broken, drugs are often not available or shifted to ‘private pharmacy’s’ within the hospital, bribes are the norm, rooms are extremely overcrowded, health staff have low morale and some simply don’t care….

In this scenario, one can imagine there is much that could go wrong when a patient is in need of a blood transfusion. The stories that I have heard when quizzing friends and our own staff about their experiences when in need of blood are numerous and horrific: clinic staff demanding payment for blood, blood expiring in the fridge while people wait in the wards in need, patients being sent to private pharmacies in town to purchase the basic equipment lacking to give blood, unqualified staff overseeing the process or staff unavailable so the blood is never transfused…

All of these issues are of course irrelevant when there is almost no blood available, and so much demand, as has been the case in the past few months.

A few weeks ago, one of the Ugandan newspapers published a story reporting that recently at the Fort Portal referral hospital, 8 people died in ONE DAY due to a lack of blood. This, understandably, created a political storm of sorts, so much so that the Ministry of Health sent some high-ranking officials in expensive suits with shiny cars to Fort Portal to find out what indeed happened. Trying to understand what the problem is, so that it can be fixed.

But there are no easy solutions.

I wish there was.

The solution is for people to be free of poverty

The solution is for the government health system not to be broken.

The solution is for the Ministry of Health to take seriously their mandate to provide basic services to the population, and to be held accountable to this by an educated, politically engaged population.

The solution is for malaria to not be endemic in this population and take tens of thousands of children’s lives every year

The solution is for people to come to the health service earlier before they become anaemic, confident in the knowledge they will be looked after well.

The solution is for the culture of blood donation in the community to be changed

The solution is for more funding and greater resources and better systems and services

It’s one of the most all-consuming realities that I have experienced and have been forced to eventually embrace (kicking and screaming) while working in the developing world.

The frustration of discovering that poverty and disadvantage is complicated. And systemic. And cultural. And contextual. And economic. And political. And relational.

It’s just plain hard.

Blood is a beautifully tragic example of this.

If anyone tells me about an ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ solution to poverty and disadvantage these days, in any context, I smile. I listen. Then I politely disagree.

Runner up

It’s a realm of life that has always alluded me.

When I was younger, but especially over the past 10 years, I have had very little interest in being cool. In the fleeting moments in my life when I have tried – I mean really tried – I would have to objectively say that it has been an epic fail.

This is all despite the futile efforts of my much more creative, stylish and beautiful sister, who seems to know at any given moment what all the kids are wearing and how exactly they wear it….

But over the past 5 years, Michael and I have become increasingly persuaded by the belief that fashion – particularly in regards to clothing retail – is an exploitative business, all round. Most garments made do not reflect the true nature of the costs involved, either to the environment but also to the tired, poorly compensated hands that have little choice but to make the garments under low-wage, exploitative conditions. I think most people know enough about this by now, so I won’t rant (but if you do want to know more, check out  Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide.

Of course, that is a reasonably inoffensive and convenient belief for me to have, given my failure in the fashion department. I understand that for others, this presents a conundrum of epic ethical proportions.

I was sharing with a Ugandan friend that I buy most of my clothes in Australia second-hand, as are a growing number of people in the West. It’s even become a ‘fashionable’ thing to do.

In Uganda, almost ALL clothing is second hand. Unwanted/second hand clothes are sent to Africa in big sacks, squashed into shipping containers, arriving from all over the world – Asia, Europe, America, Australia. They are then sold to market vendors in big bundles. These bundles are dumped in piles on big mats, on the ground, at markets all over Uganda. The best clothes are quickly picked out by boutique shop owners, who wash and iron the clothes, then display them beautifully at nearby shops. The mark-up at this point is often 400% or more – you basically pay for the convenience of not having to sort through piles and piles of unwanted over-or-under-sized clothes. I however, prefer the challenge of finding extremely economical items of clothing in the mounds.

The Fort Portal market

I was explaining to my Ugandan friend how in Australia, the majority of people buy their clothes new, from retail shops.  They buy clothes seasonally, based around what is the latest ‘fashion’, the popular style/colour of the season. This leads to a situation where most people are wearing similar styles of clothes at any given time. And people are sometimes judged (especially younger people) on how well they follow the current style.

My friend shook her head at me in pity “but that means you just have to wear what everyone else is wearing! You could even end up wearing the same exact thing!” she exclaimed, laughing in amusement. I could see that even the thought of this sounded horrifying to her. Proudly, she went on to explain that she loved the way it was in Uganda because then you can wear whatever you want, and be proud, knowing that no-one else in the country is putting on the same clothes as you. You are free to just be you.

I nodded thoughtfully at her response. It certainly isn’t the number one reason why I recoil against the retail fashion industry in Australia.

However.

The expression of one’s uniqueness is stunted by the pursuit of fashion. This is definitely my new runner-up-reason!