Category Archives: Kamwenge life

A matter of life and death

When I was a teenager, my mother, in her infinite wisdom and patience, often needed to remind me that the issue I was tearing my hair out over ‘wasn’t a matter of life and death’. I was –and still am – a sensitive person, and often experience life quite dramatically and intensely. Just talk to any of my closest friends/family and they will agree wholeheartedly (though I hope they will also tell you that it is part of what makes me driven, empathetic and very passionate!).

Sometimes now when I get stressed in my daily work, I wish my mum was sitting beside me rather than back in Australia. I wish she could sigh, give me a hug, and tell me that what I am dealing with is not ‘a matter of life and death’, that there are bigger picture issues that I could be worried about, and that everything will be ok.

The problem is, these days, some of the issues I lose sleep over at night ARE about life and death. Not in some idealistic, save-the-world kind of way.

But a lot of times in situations I am confronted with I honestly don’t know what the right action is – if it exists at all – but I do know that my decision has serious consequences for other’s lives.

I want to tell you a story that I lost a lot of sleep over, late last year. I wanted to share it earlier, but the words and thoughts were jumbled until now (I have a little time at the moment to ponder things…). I couldn’t decipher the message behind the story until now.

My community team (the three of us) were in the village having a meeting. We commented that there were less people than we had expected. A woman casually responded by explaining some members had gone to visit the family of the boy that was ‘about to die’. After gathering more information, we found out the boy was around 10 years of age, he had a heart problem, had recently been to MH where he had improved, was discharged, but after a month had become much worse.

After the meeting, we went to the household of the child. The sun was already dropping below the horizon, casting shadows on the narrow dirt track that led to the remotest area of the village. It was clear on arrival that the family were very poor. In one glance, I took in the dilapidated mud hut, the lack of shoes on the scuffed feet of the family, and the countless number of children looking on with curious faces. I heard the boy before I saw him, the short gasps and long groans of someone on the edge of death –sounds that I’ve become a little more familiar with since working at a clinic in Africa. After introducing ourselves, we found the boy inside the hut, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light that seeped in through the cracks in the mud, I saw him lying on a faded woven mat spread out on the dirt floor. It was a horrifying sight. A fragile 10 year old body, his eyes squeezed shut in fear, with an abdomen the size of a woman carrying a full term baby.  Something was very wrong.

I called Michael immediately and described what I saw. He told me to bring the child, and explained that if I didn’t the child would probably die that night.

We talked to the parents. The father reluctantly agreed to take the child by motorbike. The mother, however, refused. She wanted to keep him in the hut. She did not want him to leave, to go to a clinic, to spend further money. He had already been to the clinic, after all, and we had not fixed him. She was ready for him to leave this earth, and it took the MH community staff 10 minutes of fast talking Rukiga, and the promise of free transport and treatment, to convince her to allow the boy to come to MH.

By the time we left the village on the bikes it was dark. Once I reached home almost an hour later, Michael went up to the clinic and worked on the boy for a few hours, stabilising him for the night. When Michael arrived home, we talked in bed for a long time about the boy, about his situation, and about the mother who refused medical care for her child. I was angry and confused by the mother’s reaction, and shaken by the experience of seeing a scared young child so close to death with so few around him that were ready to fight for his life.

Arnold then spent 2 weeks on the MH ward with his father, improving as much as he could in his condition; he was in right heart failure and what he needed was an operation – a valve replacement – that cannot be performed in Uganda. We heard that an NGO (Samaritan’s Purse), often arrange and pay for heart operations in India for children like Arnold, but that they only identify those children at Mulago, the national referral hospital in Kampala. Samaritans Purse would be at Mulago the next Tuesday. So we decided it would be a good idea to send Arnold and another little girl diagnosed with a similar (but not as urgent) condition to Mulago.

This is where it became super difficult, and why all of a sudden the self-righteous judgement I had for the mother’s seemingly cruel reaction seemed to fade fatalistically away…

The families had essentially no money with them, and sending them to Mulago would be an expensive task so we asked the district health department to help us. After many promised vehicles, fuel and funds, they were not able to help.  We enquired about the two shiny white ambulances that were given to the district earlier that year by another NGO. We were told that these ambulances were only to be used to transport women with obstetric complications, an incredibly ridiculous condition imposed by American donors, which improves only one small area of the health system.

Eventually (after days of waiting) we decided to use public means, painstakingly arranging every detail so the families wouldn’t fail to reach the hospital. After 7 hours on bus, a friend of a staff member met them at the bus stop in Kampala at 8pm, and took them to Mulago. After this long journey, they found themselves at the cardiology centre, armed with test results and referral letters from MH.  They were greeted by a nurse who explained the doctors had left for the day and therefore they could not be admitted – they would have to leave. After some negotiation with MH staff over the phone (whilst dreading a long night in the rain, sleeping in the carpark of Mulago), they were sent to the casualty ward for possible admission there. The doctor on duty took one look at Arnold (who was looking increasingly sicker from the long journey) and sent him back to the cardiology ward, after a call to the on-call cardiologist demanding he admit them both.

Between the four of them (2 children, 2 guardians) they were given 1 bed. The next day they were told to pay money for a consultation or leave. They used the little money they were given from us, for the consultation. Although they already had test results from MH and it was clear that both were in need of significant help, the treating cardiologist demanded they both pay to have another echocardiogram done. Despite Arnold’s showing a failing heart with a large blood clot in one of the chambers, and the young girls showing a heart in end stage failure, he reported that they were both fine and should be discharged. A script was written for each of them but as they had no money left, they were not given any drugs at this government health facility. This was despite the fact that the young girl who travelled with Arnold had been seen by a visiting cardiologist from the MH Australia Board, Prof Prash Sanders, who found the girl to be in severe heart failure and in need of a valve replacement.

The children were, therefore, discharged before the Samaritan’s Purse workers could even see them, and not knowing what else to do, they found their way onto a bus back to Kamwenge. Upon arrival back in Kamwenge, they came to the MH clinic, grateful for our assistance, but disappointed that their children had not been helped. We treated them with what we could at the clinic, gave more free medication and instructions to return, then sent them home. The parents of the children were astonished at our generosity, and our belief that at some point we could help those children.

In February, on returning to Maranatha, my staff informed me the boy, Arnold, had died in his home.

Some of our staff attended the burial.

 

This story isn’t meant to make you feel sad or helpless.

This is not just a story about a boy dying of heart disease. It is not a story about uncaring parents. It is not a story about the need for funds to offer heart surgery in Uganda. It is not a story about a young white girl with too much idealism.

It is a story about how the poor lack opportunities, lack services, lack choice, lack voice. Not because those services and opportunities don’t exist, but because the poor are again and again denied access to them by virtue of being poor.

Arnold’s story paints perfectly the synergy of fatalism and poverty.

Immediately on hearing the boy had died in his home, in the same state I had found him, I cursed myself for pressuring him to come to the clinic in the first place, so that he would be forced to suffer through the same experience twice.

But I mulled over that thought. It sat very heavy and uncomfortably on my spirit. If I surrender to the deep fatalism of my fellow Kamwengians, how could transformation come?  Jesus came to this earth and offered life to the full despite the suffering he saw around him.

So I promised myself I would not also become fatalistic. Realistic, when necessary, but never fatalistic. No matter how many children I find like Arnold, and no matter how many I fail to help, I always want my first reaction to be one of optimism and a desire for this world to be different.

Kamwenge’s quirks

Arriving home to Kamwenge 2 weeks ago, it dawned on me one of the things I most love about living and working here. The community, my staff, and the Maranatha Health site produce a constant stream of hilarious live entertainment.

Not in a patronizing “this place has lost its marbles because it’s an African backwater” kind of way, nor a “what have I gotten myself into by moving back here” kind of way. I have more developed a simple appreciation for the nuances and quirks that remind me every day that I am living in a rural area of western Uganda. Coming back after a few months away, has certainly allowed me to see the world through fresh eyes, and what last year I may not even have noticed except for a small shrug and a smile, is now on my radar again. It’s a fun time!

So I wanted to share some of the examples I could think of, just in the last week:

Let me start with a classic Kamwenge story that left Michael’s medical mind gob-smacked. Several days ago, a tired grandmother came in with a wailing 4 week old newborn. The grandmother explained the mother had dropped the baby at her doorstep and left her to care for him. She had been giving it cow’s milk, an extremely less than ideal situation since babies that young struggle to even digest the milk enzymes. One of our clinical officers insisted to her that the baby needed breast milk. Reluctantly, the grandmother agreed, than casually fished out her droopy dark boob and offered it to the baby. Even more bizarre – there was milk there and the baby started to suckle!! The grandmother’s youngest child was 9. Only in Kamwenge…

Continuing in the maternal vein, a woman was very much in labour at our clinic the other day, as is the norm. She was told to stay in the delivery suite, since she was almost fully dilated. But stubbornly, she ventured out, walking into the staff compound. I passed her and one of our security officers pacing near our home, and enquired why she was here. The security officer Paul shook his head meekly and suggested quietly “sincerely, you can’t manage [order around] a woman when the baby is ready to come”. Then gave me a desperate, pleading look which I translated as “please for the love of God don’t ask me to order this woman off the staff compound and back to the clinic”. A few minutes later she stubbornly delivered the baby right there on the grass, with the help of our midwife and a plastic sheet from the trusty mama kit!

The work visa issue has reared its ugly head once again. This time we are up to 7 months worth of attempts, but thankfully are not far away from completion. Michael called a contact in immigration the other day to ask if he could check on the file, which was a few offices away in the same courtyard. The response was priceless: “it is raining too much – you call me back in one hour.” Who would’ve thought rain could have such an impact on life’s possibilities!

The sense of community here always makes me smile. I visited the one bank in Kamwenge yesterday to drop off a cheque, and was met with smiling faces and echoes of ‘welcome back’, before people asked how my family and friends were back home. After the greetings, the inevitable moment arrives when everyone (and I mean everyone – from the MH groundskeepers, to our regular diabetes patient at the clinic, to the bank staff) comment on my fatness. *sigh* Here’s hoping that one day big becomes beautiful in Australian culture too.

Then there was the back-up taxi driver who has occasionally (read reluctantly) picked up blood from Fort Portal (2 hours away) and delivered it to the clinic. Kamwenge taxi’s are normally Toyota sedans that carry up to 15 people in their ‘5 seater’ cars. We urgently needed blood this week. So when the blood bank finally gave us the word that they had some ready and packed for us, we begged this guy to help us. He refused, reminding us last time he had to wait a long time for the blood and missed out on passengers. We called again and begged. This time, a pastor had boarded the vehicle, and reprimanded him:  ‘It is the right thing to do and you will be saving lives – God is watching you!’. We got our blood. You can always count on a pastor pulling people into line in Kamwenge taxis.

Then there is the continued obsession with my fertility for most people in Kamwenge, considering I have been married four years and not yet produced. *gasp!* (In Australia it could be argued that that is normal and a decision that is made by the husband and wife alone.)  Alas, I live in Kamwenge, and I think some are actually making it into a hobby. Each day now, our young newly employed midwife at MH asks me the obligatory question ‘Kim, when are you coming for antenatal?’ to which I always reply, ‘My dear, you wait!’…

One part of life I have never been so keen on is the reminder that meat comes from animals (I know, I am soft and should be able to face facts even as a city girl, etc). Visiting the butcher in Kamwenge always provides a solid reminder. We have a staff party tonight, which should be a lot of fun. However, we now have 2 goats and 3 chickens wondering around the MH compound, and I am sorrowfully trying to remain emotionally unattached, knowing that I have a rare opportunity to eat fried chicken and roasted goat tonight! I walked out of my house 15 minutes ago to see one goat being skinned while the other was tethered nearby and forced to watch his fate – surely that is animal abuse!

So there is a snap shot for you for the first 2 weeks of hilarity at home in the ‘wenge. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

Is that a weevil in my bean, or am I just unhappy to eat this?!

I am a fairly resilient person. I am flexible. I can handle most things that come my way. But I really need good food.  It sounds lame and a little pretentious, but nothing is better therapy for me than a delicious meal, or a block of creamy chocolate. It was the thing I was most worried by, about coming to live in rural Uganda. Don’t get me wrong. There is wonderful, tropical fresh fruit and vegetables here. There are some pretty yummy snack type foods. There are PLENTY of carb options…but after a while the food can get a bit….well…same-ish.

Michael and I recently had the immense privilege of travelling to Italy for 10 days, to meet my parents for a holiday.

This was my first trip to Europe, and I absolutely, whole heartedly loved every bit of the experience. More than anything I loved the food. Well, maybe love is not the right word.

I devoured the food.

After so little access to food from my own culture and food with FLAVOUR, it was an incredible feast.

I ate my way across Rome.

A gelato every single day; the most light, soft gnocchi I had ever tasted; delicious local meats, cheeses, breads and pesto; luxurious panacotta’s; hearty homemade tomato sauces; scrumptious bakery food (for breakfast!!); and freshly brewed coffee whenever I felt so inclined…

All enjoyed in one of the most ambient, beautiful, historically rich cities on this earth. Sigh

I got fat.

And it was totally worth every last calorie. I thought it was an impressive effort, to put on the weight I did in the short 10 days I was there.

So did my staff. A few of them commented to both Michael and myself that we really ‘got fat’ while away, with the MH receptionist stating proudly (and loudly) that particularly my bum and hips had become much larger. There was lots of enthusiastic hand gestures to explain this. Meanwhile, I beamed with pride.

You know you have lived in Africa for too long when you don’t react with even the slightest indignation to such an observation, but receive and enjoy it for what it is – a grand compliment.

But the first day home in Kamwenge eating staff lunch was tough. Really tough.

Here’s some pictures to show you the difference between what I ate in Italy:

and what I eat for lunch at work:

Ugandan food: Matooke, Posho and Beans

As you can see, it’s really different.

For those of you who don’t know, matooke is basically THE food of Uganda – plantain banana steamed in banana leaves on a charcoal stove, then mashed and served with either red beans (Monday, Wednesday, Friday lunch) or g-nut sauce (Tuesday and Thursday lunch) or meat stew (once a month ‘cos meat is expensive!)

We always offer another staple with the matooke. Occasionally it is rice (yum!) but almost always it is posho – which is maize meal cooked with only water until it turns thick and hard, kind of a playdough-y texture. (I know you think I’m under-selling it but that is honestly what it is!)

The first day back home in Kamwenge – back to matooke and beans for staff lunch – was a little bit of a shock to the system. And my tastebuds.

Not only was it a shock, but it reminded me of why I had been so excited to NOT eat staff lunch for a few weeks. We had  purchased a 50kg bag of dry red beans from a farmer, about a month ago, who it turns out had sold us dud beans – full of weevils. They were everywhere, buried into the beans. We tried lots of local methods to get rid of them, and although these methods may have killed the majority, there was still one tiny but important issue remaining.

They were still in the beans.

Only now they were dead.

So we still have another few weeks at least to go of these weevil infested beans, which none of us at Maranatha are that happy about. And on my first day back home, I didn’t really feel like crunching down on little black dead insects in my food. Do I sound like a food snob?

I am.

So to keep us sane, Michael and I started a conversation about all the delicious food we could imagine eating, instead of the beans. We got into quite a lively debate about the best possible food dishes, so we decided that we were allowed to choose one dish from each country…

As this was unfolding, some other staff were listening curiously to our odd conversation (“laksa or rotti chanai?” “creamy gnocchi or a good Italian pizza?” “pho or cold rolls?” etc). It is times like this that I realise how much of my identity and world view has been influenced by the intense multiculturalism of urban Australia – especially when Uganda (although full of different tribes) is mostly Bantu in origin.

I turned to one staff member and invited her into the conversation by asking what her favourite food was. She looked confused. I explained, if she could have any food in the world, what would she choose as her favourite.

She thought for a moment and then enthusiastically replied:

“Posho and beans! I love posho and beans too much! I wish I could have them every day. Really, I don’t like Tuesdays and Thursdays, because I have to eat posho with gnut sauce.”

The woolworths of Kamwenge: ‘The fresh food people’

Going to the food market is one of my favourite things to do in Kamwenge.  I normally go to the market a few times a week to buy our fruit and vegetables.

The market, with the dusty well-worn path leading to the semi-undercover, crumbling old building full of wooden stalls and umbrellas and loosely hung material shade; with its neat piles of freshly picked garden vegetables and mothers sitting lazily at their stalls chatting in Rukiga; the market that is brimming with life.  The market proudly presents the picture of Uganda that I love the most: the localness of all things, the respect and time for relationship, the placid pace of life, and the now-familiar smells of Kamwenge: the smell of  dust, smoke from charcoal stoves, matooke, boda-boda fumes and most importantly, lots of ankole cows. Now, it has become a part of my everyday life.

When I first started coming to the market, no one knew the story of this strange white girl – she buys her own food from the market? She cooks? She walks? She carries the food in our local baskets? One of the first times I went there I wrote about it in my journal:

“I asked for green pepper. The woman took my hand and guided me past several little food stalls, each selling the same food – matooke, rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, groundnuts, millet, spinach, tomatoes, a million different types of banana, and pineapple. I am careful to avoid the spread of fresh beans, maize and sorghum laid out on sacks on the uneven ground, drying or waiting to be sorted by hard working women doubled over at the waste, ensuring the purity of their produce. Most people would look at me in shock but smile their jovial Ugandan smile, surprised that the Mzungu has braved the food market; it seems this is a rare occurrence.  Mischievous kids follow behind me cautiously, the light pitter-patter of their bare feet drowned out by their chanting of ‘mzungu’. A few are daring enough to come and hold my hand. As I pass one stall, a little semi-naked boy playing beside his mother’s vegetables begins to quiver, then shake, then scream at the top of his lungs and cling to his mother’s legs in a fit of fear at the sight of this strange ghost-like person. It must be his first time. The mother tries to sooth him between her own fits of laughter. She catches my eye and I laugh and shake my head, as a crowd gathers around entertained by the boy’s reaction. This is my first time causing someone to hyperventilate – I feel caught somewhere between a super-celebrity and a school yard bully. But alas, the boy calms as I continue on my way, now loaded up with a limited variety of fruit and vegetables.”

Now when I enter, I am met with familiar faces greeting me in the Batooro pet-name the women there have chosen for me. So much of the beauty and strength of communal living is disrupted and distorted in Uganda these days; but it seems this is one of the places where it stays true to form. And for a brief moment when I am there, I also feel a part of this living, breathing organism. The women allow me to practice my Rukiga on them, free of the laughter and ridicule that I sometimes find in town. They help me stumble over new words, teach me phrases that I didn’t know, and throw in free produce when they have excess, well aware I am a loyal customer. I hear their stories of illness and burial, of the woman at the corner stall who has just lost her daughter because of an obstructed labour, or the struggle of a bad harvest for a particular food due to the never ending dry weather. I also laugh with them now, when they introduce their shy children who don’t quite know what to do about the muzungu that knows their mother…

And in return? I can offer almost nothing, except to buy their fresh food at fair prices.

Bazungu are human beings too!

Most people that come and live in east Africa for longer than a few weeks agree on one thing: being called a Muzungu [white person] all the time is frustrating. Being constantly referenced in conversation (to you or about you) by your skin colour rather than your actual name is a little tiring. Being the centre of attention relentlessly, because of your colour, is exhausting. When I arrived, even professional people would sometimes address me as Mzungu in conversation. Men would call out ‘Mzungu’ and laugh at me when I walked by in town.  The Boda Bodas [motorbike taxis] would holler for my attention ‘Mzungu we go?’ Captivated children would follow me in the street as if I was the pied piper, yelling the classic ‘Mzungu, how are you?’, daring each other to run up and touch the strange women in their midst.

When I first moved to Uganda it made me angry, because in Australia this would be considered racism.  I have adjusted a little since then. It also doesn’t happen as often in Kamwenge these days.

People are a bit more used to me, and many know me personally. Men don’t call out as much because they know I am married, and some have been seen by my husband at the MH clinic. Many of the Boda Boda’s are now my friends and greet me with ‘Hi Kim’ (or the equivalent Rukiga greeting). Our staff know it is unacceptable to use that term…

But it continues. However, now that I am a little more adjusted to the African psyche, I try not to get quite as annoyed – at least not in the village [emphasis is definitely on the trying…]. People are often just excited. I am a mystery to them, especially in a place like Kamwenge. Many haven’t had experience with someone who doesn’t have chocolate brown skin. The interesting thing is that Ugandans very commonly refer to people very frankly by their appearance, a characteristic or tribe.

“The fat one”

“The brown one” [the one with slightly lighter African skin]

“That Munyankole woman” [a tribe in west Uganda]

“The mad one” [the one with mental illness – that I will never get used to…]

I must confess that a year in Uganda has influenced me a great deal. While in Australia I will (hopefully remember to) never use these statements, in Uganda I have found myself quite regularly using similar descriptions when speaking with friends and colleagues. It is not offensive here.

The other day I attended a funeral in a very remote area of Kamwenge district. A friend of mine, someone we are working with in our community programs, lost his wife in childbirth. Devastatingly and unnecessarily. I wasn’t sure about going; I was conscious of the fact that my presence would disrupt and bring attention, and I didn’t want to be insensitive. But I’m glad I made the decision to go, as it meant a lot to the community that Bosco (a MH staff member) and I were there.

When we arrived, I went and sat on the ground with the hundreds of other women that were there, refusing the chair in the marquee where the family members and VIPs were sitting. I thought it would detract attention from me, and would be a strong unspoken message about where I see my role in the community.  So many people had not seen a muzungu before. There were many lingering looks, chuckles, whispers, and the occasional freaked out wailing child who perhaps thought I might eat them (??). Many came up and touched me. Others actually shook my hand. People wanted to know if I could speak Rukiga. All in all, there was quite a bit of fuss made.

But then there was a group of wise old village women observing all of this, not that I was aware of their presence at the time. Later, Bosco gave me a rough translation of what they had said to the younger crowd, and it made my heart soar:

“Leave this young girl alone! Don’t look at her all the time, don’t laugh at her! You are making her feel shy, look you can see she is embarrassed…

…Bazungu are human beings just like us!”

Yes, we are.

Maybe one day…

I believe that men and women were created equal.

*gasp*

I believe that I can’t be bought or owned.

*gasp*

I believe in reproductive rights for all, regardless of race, age, religion…and gender.

*gasp*

I even believe that myself, as a woman, deserves to be treated the same as a man in my position.

*gasp*

Am I a radical? I think not. Well, maybe if I lived in 1940s Australia.

Or if I lived in Kamwenge, today.

*                          *                            *

Our staff, including Michael and myself, were eating matooke and beans for lunch the other day in our newly constructed shelter. They were discussing someone’s wedding. Deep in thought, one of our staff asked innocently… ‘Dr, do you have dowry in your country? How much did you pay for Kim?’

Michael explained that we don’t have such a thing. That he visited my parents to ask for their blessing, then asked me to marry him, to which I happily agreed.

Another staff member, a woman joined the conversation. ‘What about polygamy?’

I replied that polygamy is illegal. You can be put in jail. Even when a man cheats in Australia, he can lose his house and land if the couple divorces. I explained further about women’s rights, choosing my words carefully, aware of the presence of a woman in the shelter whose husband I had learned had taken a second (younger) wife against her wishes.

There was a great pause in the midst of lunch. A moment to digest this information.

Then a young shy woman, a staff member that has grown up in the village, speaks very little English, and that I have a strong infinity for spoke up.

“That means that in your country, women are equal to men.”

*                          *                            *

I was chatting to the clinical staff about a course that one of our staff would be sent to undertake, for contraceptive and Family Planning training. Another staff was sharing her experience with family planning programmes in the village. My ears pricked up – I am currently writing my Master’s thesis on fertility choices in Kamwenge, focusing on reproductive rights and normative cultural values/expectations that constrain choice. I asked about how women in Kamwenge received the idea of contraceptive advice/counselling. Were they opposed to it? The answer devastated me.

‘Some do not want. But there are many that do. The problem we are having is that husbands do not allow their women to use contraception…

.. A few months ago, there were a big number of women in my home village that got the implanon, in secret, so they could stop producing [having children]. But the husbands got very angry. Some were thrown out of their homes, their villages. Others were beaten.’

*                          *                            *

I hadn’t even given much of a second thought to the set of values around equality that I hold, when I lived in Australia. It was part of my assumed knowledge, growing up. In my teenage years, if anyone was to treat me differently – unfairly – because I was a woman, I would have acted with indignation and disgust, and the matter would have been settled, fair and square.

I’m not trying to say that Australia is the land of milk and honey, where women have achieved complete equality with men. But we are actually doing ok. We are on to the business of more minor stuff in the big scheme of equality these days.

Uganda is doing ok in some areas. They have one of the highest percentages of female politicians in the world, with a compulsory female MP position for every electoral zone. There are lots of female managers of businesses. Plenty of middle class women who go to University.

But if you even get close to village life, you can smell the stench of inequality rising from the thatched rooves of your average family’s household.

Beyond anything else we achieve in Kamwenge over the next 10 years, beyond any goal to assist people to escape grinding poverty, beyond even saving lives at the clinic…

…what I wish more than anything deep down in the justice-craving areas of my soul, is to start a movement of village women who believe that perhaps, just maybe, they could be equal with men.

That maybe they should have control over their reproductive choices; who they have sex with, how many children they have, or where they give birth.

That maybe they have the right to equal access in health and education.

That maybe they could be in a marriage without having to be one of several wives.

That maybe they don’t deserve to be abused and trodden on, beaten and bashed

That maybe they don’t want to be defined only as mother and wife; their value attributed to the number of children they produce.

That maybe they shouldn’t have to be the bread winner for their children, dig in the garden, cook, clean, and raise their children alone.

That maybe they have the right to have control over resources, including land.

That maybe they could fight for all of this.

Maybe one day.

www.maranathahealth.org

The Power of One

It’s finally happened. The much desired, dreamed of, it-feels-like-this-day-will-never-come, inevitable luxury has arrived.

The Maranatha Health buildings are going to be connected to the newly built hydro-dam and we will have electricity for the first time. WOW.

I think I’m a little bit shocked. We have been waiting for so long that I think we had resigned to the idea it might never come. ‘Hope’ in Uganda is a dangerous thing. I think we have had over 30 conversations with the electricity company since April (when the President came out to officially commission and ‘open’ the dam) where they have fed us false fables of electricity just around the corner.   We have been promised everything under the sun – from connection within a few hours, a few days, a week, a month. Every week there is a new rumour in town, about a cousin’s, father’s, friend’s son, who lives near/works with/is related to someone from the company who is operating the hydrodam and knows the inside scoop. The latest I heard was that the dam ‘had a problem’ and ‘donors from out were coming to fix it’ in March.

But now it is happening. There are engineers driving around in trucks with wires and men walking around with legitimate looking blue overalls, and the Ferdsault office is open and has given us a lovely little certificate to say we are ready for connection.

Driving back to the site after paying our registration and connection fee yesterday, Andrew (the MH administrator) and myself were dreaming excitedly of all  the things we could now use/do/have once we are connected. For the first beautiful moment in months, we had allowed ourselves to hope:

  • Guaranteed lights at night rather than Kerosene lanterns
  • No more frustration at laptops running out of battery power at work or home
  • A toaster, so we can pretend that Kamwenge bread isn’t stale
  • An iron, so our clothes aren’t wrinkled  (I could never bring myself to use a charcoal iron)
  • Hot water from our instant water heaters, rather than cold water showers
  • And most exciting for me – A REFRIDGERATOR!

In Kamwenge, we will be one of the only residential houses with a fridge. I am aware that it is a massive luxury. I lay in bed at night actually thinking about that (sad, I know). But it will change my life. How?

I no longer have to buy and boil milk every single day – we can keep it in the fridge so it doesn’t go off in 24 hours. It also means one less saucepan to clean each day

I can cook food for several days and store in the fridge

I don’t have to shop at the market every second day, as tomatoes/carrots/beans etc won’t go off within a few days

I can buy foods from Fort Portal/Kampala that I can’t get in Kamwenge – cheese, fresh non-sweet bread, nice cuts of meat, sauces…. YUM

I can cut up a pineapple and not have to attempt to eat the whole thing in one go- they’re just a little too big!

I can have COLD drinks- juice, soda, whatever. It will be COLD!

We have had solar for the past few months. It is incredibly unreliable and only charges a laptop or two and some lights (on a sunny day when it isn’t too cloudy). Realising how little a solar panel generates and all the appliances it won’t run (irons, toasters, kettles, fridges) and monitoring our energy needs/consumption so preciously has given me a new appreciation for the luxury of power. Of light. Of convenience. Of temperature control. Of power consumption.

In Uganda, the 10% or so of the population that make up the middle class might have a fridge. Often they will have a toaster and kettle. Perhaps a water heater. A TV. Beyond that, everything is still manual. Household electricity consumption is still so minimal. Only 10% of the population of Uganda even have access to the electricity grid. Those that do, often go days without power at a time, due to the lack of power generation and government failures to deliver on infrastructure.

This is unacceptable. But you know what frustrates me more? That in Australia, we take the luxury of power for granted. There has been so much complaining coming from Australian newspapers I have been reading online over the past 6 months, about the carbon tax and electricity prices going up in Australia. The general gist is that people are annoyed – ‘its not fair’ – and the government needs to find a way to lower prices. We assume we ‘need’ all of these appliances and all of this convenience so our lives can move faster. You know what though?

We actually don’t.

Take it from me. I have lived without a lot of that stuff for almost a year. Even the basics – irons, fridges, toasters, TVs, kettles, washing machines, even lights, for a lot of the time. Let alone the other stuff – dishwashers, microwaves, water heaters, air conditioners, a million gadgets, the flat screen, donut/icecream/waffle makers, clothes dryers, hair dryers, spas, the 2nd (or 3rd) fridge, etc. *

Instead of complaining about the cost of electricity, what about we try and lower our consumption? Because all of this electricity – it has to COME from somewhere. Electricity is costly to generate. Financially and environmentally. And if the rest of the world tried to consume as much as we did, our planet would be destroyed tomorrow. The end.

I am not trying to preach. I’m not an idealist. I have lived in Australia for most of my life. I understand that you think you need all that electricity. I have only really learnt about my consumption in the past year. I’ve learnt this as I’ve seen what I can live without, as I have been forced to check every appliance I brought over here to see if it could run off our little solar panel and now, if we can afford the cost of running it off the main grid.

Rather than idealistic, I am trying to be realistic about the state of our world. The cost you pay doesn’t even come close to the real environmental cost of coal-generated power. So If you don’t want to pay so much for electricity, than reduce the amount you use. Start looking at how much you consume. Which appliances are ‘necessary’ in your eyes, and which ones can go. Whether you can do some things manually. I’m not asking you to use Kerosene lamps or candles, or boil your milk or water each day in a saucepan, or hand wash all your clothes and sheets and towels and dishes, or go without fans, fridges and air-conditioners, like me and everyone in my community does.

But I am asking you to care about the future of this planet

and own the choices you make.

 

*You will notice I haven’t mentioned laptops here – perhaps it is the exception to my post. I can’t live without mine! We are almost inseparable and I use mine (unless we have no solar power) everyday – for work, study and keeping in contact with people….

Hamburger

With the birds singing and the breeze softly blowing through the trees and the sun setting in the Kamwenge sky, I had a flash of soulful peace rest upon me.

A moment of blissful beauty, where the world seemed to swell with intoxicating hope for a better day. At that moment, the words of Arundhati Roy filled my thoughts: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”

What aroused this grand moment of hope?’ I hear you asking…

It is the little things sometimes, that lead me to my happy place.

On this occasion Michael and myself were talking to one of our employees. A man of good Kamwenge stock – a village Ugandan, through and through, until a few years ago when he had the opportunity to go ‘out’ as Ugandans call any place other than Uganda (the Australian equivalent of ‘overseas’). He travelled to Kenya (which borders Uganda) to the big, bustling city of Nairobi. We asked him about his impressions of the place. After the usual – much bigger/busier/more developed than Kampala – we got onto the topic of food.

‘Eh, they have something very nice there called ‘hamburger’. It is soooo nice. Have you heard of it?’ He asked with innocent interest.

We explained that this food called ‘hamburger’ is also in Australia, much to his surprise.

In fact, we told him, there is a restaurant there that is very cheap and provides hamburger very quickly. You can find this restaurant all over the world! In thousands of locations, in many  many countries. All selling ‘hamburger’.

All over the world? This was big news to our employee.

We explained further about this infamous restaurant chain called McDonalds – and how people all over the world know it by a giant yellow M – the golden arches.

He had never heard of McDonalds. No idea it even existed. The Kamwenge community (and Uganda at large) is utterly untouched by this money-making, environmentally destructive, exploitative, obesity-generating monopoly that has taken over the rest of the world.

Thus bringing me to my moment of serenity.

And for any McDonald’s management out there reading my blog – leave my new country alone!

Broken bones and faulty machines

Michael, my husband, injured his hand about a month ago, and it was still hurting quite a bit, 4 weeks on. He was concerned that it wasn’t healing, and we wanted to get an x-ray to check that it wasn’t fractured and didn’t need a cast (something we were both dreading!! ).

Of course, there is nowhere to get an x-ray in Kamwenge.

So we begrudgingly piled into the car to set out on our fortnightly trip to Fort Portal, the nearest big town to Kamwenge. Fort Portal is a big town  (maybe 80,000 people? I really have no idea!) about 70 km’s away, and it normally takes about 1 to 1 and a half hours on a windy dirt road, surrounded by beautiful scenery – hills cultivated with maize, millet and matooke banana trees, a section of tropical rainforest with baboons along the way, and then rolling expanses of neatly ordered tea plantations, sprinkled with old houses left over from the colonial era. A beautiful drive.

But now that the wet season has well and truly come, the road is terrible. We crawled along for most of the journey, trying to avoid the gazillion pot holes and deep rivets in the road, all the time shaking our heads at the poor state of the roads. It took us over 2 very bumpy hours to reach Fort Portal for our day trip.

After getting all our other jobs done – recharging the internet modem, going to the bank, printing, getting stuff for MH ticked off the list – we looked around for a place to get an x-ray. First we tried a private clinic in town recommended by someone on the main street. We were told they are a clinic used by one of the main insurance companies in Uganda, and would definitely have an x-ray.

What I found was a small dingy room full of bored patients, with no staff in site. A woman who was waiting pointed towards the next room, where I found what looked like some makeshift outpatient rooms. It was only when I poked my head around the corner into a small store that I found a nurse. When I asked what I needed she was quick to tell me they had no equipment for x-ray here, but told me to try Kabarole Hospital – the Anglican church hospital round the corner.

Arriving at Kabarole, we struggled to find anyone to help us, just crumbling buildings and a freshly painted one labelled ‘private ward’. We approached the dispensary and after getting over his surprise that a white person would be there, the man shook his head as he told us the X-ray machine had been broken for some time. Instead, we should try another private clinic in town.

The next clinic wasn’t much different. Here, they were known for x-rays (it was even written on the sign outside) but unfortunately, the films were over and they didn’t know when they would next come. With a resigned sigh that conveyed almost no confidence, the women told us to try Buhinga.

Buhinga is the main regional referral hospital for this part of western Uganda. It is a government hospital. We have heard many stories of patients coming there to find doctors who will not see them without bribes, a lack of equipment and medications, and overcrowded rooms of very sick patients. Currently, this is where most people in Kamwenge get referred onto.

We were very lucky though. Or perhaps, more accurately, we were white. We found a nurse along the maze of undercover pathways that linked the hospital buildings, and she was friendly and happy to help us. She led us to the x-ray department, where we wove through dozens of patients sitting (or lying down), waiting for their x-ray or ultrasound. The doctor was pleasant and happy to do the x-ray for us immediately (and free), and although Michael’s hand was slightly fractured it was small and almost healed, so there was no need for a cast.

But as we were waiting for the film to develop, there was a little girl in line, needing to have her face x-rayed as she had a severe head injury. It was not possible. They were only stocking the half size x-ray films, which meant there was no way to get a full x-ray of her head. Her father, who looked poor and out of his depth in the situation, listened intensely as they told him he would have to take her somewhere else for an x-ray. I already knew from my experience that day that there were no other places in Fort Portal to get an x-ray and he would not be able to afford the transport to somewhere far.

Michael and I lived in Mannum a few years ago. In the small town of maybe 5000, they had a good x-ray machine. Compare this to Kamwenge, who in the town itself has about 20,000, but services a district of 350,000 people, with no x-ray machine.

It sounds clichéd but again it made me realise how lucky Australian’s are to have the health care system we have. As for me? I am not used to driving 2 hours on a muddy, potholed road just for a simple x-ray. I am not used to driving around to 4 different clinics in one big town just to find a working x-ray machine.

One day I hope and pray that this will be as strange to Ugandans as it is to me.

Soccer and sorcery: only in Africa

Just wanted to share something that I found quite amusing…

Just to give you some context, Ugandans are soccer – mad (like most of the world its called football here but my allegiance to aussie rules prevents me from calling it that)

There was a big soccer game on TV on Saturday night, between the Ugandan national team (the Cranes) and the Kenyan team, to see if either could qualify for the Africa cup of nations. Neither team have played in the Africa cup for decades. And to be honest, that’s not a massive surprise – they don’t have the strongest soccer teams around…

We don’t have a TV, so Michael and I watched the game at a local pub, like most people in Kamwenge.Everyone took the game very seriously. It was quite painful to watch. Kenya played terribly, and although Uganda played much better, it was still a very non-eventful match. Not one goal was scored for the whole game, and it ended in a draw. But not before Uganda had about a million corners and even more shots at goal (while the Kenyans had almost none).

Once the game finished, we walked into town to grab some food, and I bumped into a good friend of mine. Of course, the topic immediately turned to the game that had just finished, with much clicking of tongues and shaking of heads from myself, her and the people around us. Then she said something I would never expect to hear in Australia:

‘Ah! These Kenyans! They were playing some very funny tricks!  Did you see the witch doctor with the pipe at the start of the match? He cursed us!’

With those around her nodding in agreement, and spurred on by my amused questions, my friend proceeded to explain to me how it was obvious – ‘proof’ was the word she used – that the Kenyans had cursed the Ugandan players. What was the proof?

They had so many chances to score, but always missed.

The theory was that the spell cast on them was similar to the curse used to render a woman infertile. Michael, with some other friends later, heard a similar theory about the almost naked medicine man who was chanting at the start of the match.

I don’t have much to say on this. I find it fascinating, slightly amusing and entirely different to what I know. But it certainly gives a glimpse into Bantu culture; the seeming absence of any authoritative line between physical and spiritual, the merging fragments of self.

An entertaining example of a very complex concept that I love about Africa.

Holism.