Tag Archives: culture

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!

 

Newspaper Notices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*sigh*

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

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

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

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

Do I sound like a hardened cynic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am sad.

I am disappointed.

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

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

Like the employee we have had to part ways with.

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

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

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

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

DSC01803

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

DSC01810

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

DSC01864

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

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.”

Missing autopilot

At our wedding I walked down the aisle with Michael’s pre-recorded voice singing the then-popular song by Thirty Merc entitled ‘homesick’. The chorus is:

I would give all my time

just to spend my nights with you

I will lay down my fears

just to spend my years with you

‘cause when I’m standing at your door

I don’t feel homesick anymore

In the ceremony handout we explained that:

This song means a lot to us both– with our hearts firmly divided between two continents, we no longer have a set ‘home’ except the one we have found in each other and our God.

Cheese, I know. But give us a break, we were star-crossed lovers and a little obsessed with each other at the time.

When I wrote those words in our handout, they conjured up romantic notions of unfaltering love, of fearless faith, and the aroma of adventure in Africa.

As I read those words right now my heart hurts a little. As if it is sick.

Homesick.

I love Uganda. At times I really love life here. At times I find it exhausting. Most of the time I feel fulfilled living here. Sometimes I don’t. I feel privileged to get to do what I do. Sometimes I feel like my calling is more a burden than a blessing. That’s life, really. Contradictions.

But at this moment, I miss having a physical place where I good-and-truly belong, where I’m not so obviously ‘from out’ as Ugandans say. We are going back to Australia for a visit at the end of this year, and despite my nervousness about returning home, I’m ready for a trip to Oz.

I have never felt homesick before. Honestly, never. It’s a foreign feeling for me, probably because I’ve never left my own country and culture for more than 6 months. In Kamwenge, I am quickly approaching 2 years.  While it’s a good place to live, it may almost be the polar opposite of Adelaide (except that everyone knows each other and/or is distantly related here too!). What I see, hear, feel, touch, taste and experience every day is worlds apart from the first 25 years of my life.

From day to day, I don’t see the vast differences so much.  I notice it more though, when visitors come from Australia. A friend visited us a few months ago and I took him into Kamwenge town. We walked down the street, greeted a few people, bought some meat from the butcher, and came home. I didn’t think anything of it, but when we arrived back to our house his comment was something along the lines of ‘wow, this place is really different…’. It made me realize that I don’t notice the landscape much anymore – the fact that everyone is a different colour to me, that women are carrying baskets and firewood on their head, that people speak in another language, that my local ‘butcher’ is an old man in a little ramshackle shed hacking up a cow caucus on a dirty wooden bench with a machete.

Being ‘used’ to a place, however, doesn’t mean I have forgotten the last 25 years of my life. It is amazing how much our culture and what is familiar and ‘normal’ is engrained in us.

Community values and norms, expected patterns of behaviour, social symbols and their associated meanings– never have I quite understood or appreciated these concepts as I do now. Each day, I  interpret all my interactions through another cultural lens to understand the meanings behind the simplest of exchanges. And my natural way of understanding the world is almost always the ‘different’ or ‘wrong’ way in Ugandan culture.  No matter how many times I experience some situations, each time I have to force myself to ignore the flashing red lights in my brain signalling actions as ‘bad’ – actions that are acceptable in a Ugandan context. Most of that interpretation I do silently, swiftly now …but it is still a tiring process.

Mostly, I miss the soothing familiarity of my own culture – and the deeply embedded understanding that comes when interacting with Australians. After almost total immersion in a different culture for 2 years, interacting with Australians gives me a peculiar sense of déjà vu – the ‘knowing’ that comes when you find yourself living out a scenario of a long-forgotten dream.

Or the feeling you get when you’re driving a familiar route home and you wonder how you arrived safely because you can’t remember much about the journey. You had switched to autopilot.

I miss being able to switch onto autopilot.

Shoeless and stubborn

Those of you who know me well, will know that I detest shopping.

By shopping I mean buying ‘stuff’, not food. Food I love to buy. But I have to be in great need of clothes/shoes/bag/whatever, to be motivated to even attempt a shopping expedition. When I was in Australia, normally I would only end up in the dreaded shopping centre when my mother, my sister – or yes, embarrassingly a few times my husband – would drag me there because they were sick of me complaining endlessly about a certain thing I ‘needed’.

I still sit and ponder sometimes how women seem to be so good at it. And they actually really enjoy it. Many would actually choose to go shopping of their own free will. Some would even consider it a hobby. A relaxation activity.

Not me. I cannot think of anything more stressful. The salespeople, the expectation of having to come home with ‘stuff’, the time it takes, having to make decisions, the inevitable guilt associated with the purchase, the whole idea of fashion that I somehow have to manoeuvre…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like living simply, but my hatred of shopping is not really about my refusal to accumulate too much ‘stuff’. It’s much less selfless. I am normal, I like having pretty things; I just don’t like process of acquiring them.

Then I moved to Uganda.

The first few times I shopped in Uganda – in the past when I have lived here for shorter periods – I really enjoyed it. It was fun. It made me happy. I smiled and laughed. It was a good way to bond with Ugandan friends.  The clothes/shoes markets here offer a quintessential ‘African’ experience; colours and fabrics and clothes of every make and design, hundreds of stalls lined with endless piles of second hand clothing to sort through, sure opportunities to practice bargaining and language learning…

Now I’ve changed my mind. There are no more smiles. Let’s take shoe shopping for example, my least favourite of all shopping-related activities.

In Kampala (the capital of Uganda) there are basically 3 options for shoe shopping.

1. The classy establishments in the big shopping malls scattered around Kampala. This is where the beautiful people of Uganda shop, for equally beautiful shoes. For an up-country Kamwenge girl like myself, this is very daunting these days – walking into such shops I feel a little like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she attempts shopping on Rodeo Drive. The primary hurdle at these places is the cost – shoes range upwards from about 250,000 ($100). Considering I would never in my lifetime pay that much for shoes, as well as the fact that I don’t want to spend my entire salary on footwear (!!) this option is a no go.

2. Then there is Bata. The international chain shoe store that has locations across the country. Bata is always an option, and if I need to, I can always count on them. All prices, which are normally fair, are labelled so there is no bargaining (I’ve tried!). The issue with Bata is that they have the same range for about 6 months, and if you don’t like the options (which I don’t at the moment) it’s a lost cause. Given my fussiness with shoes/clothes – a frustrating quality of mine my husband will tell you – I often fail to find what I am looking for at Bata.

3. Which leads me to my last option: the classic Ugandan shoe shop, located anywhere and in anything – often a converted shipping container, squeezed between other clothes shops or market stalls, or at the side of the road on roughly made wooden shoe racks. Regardless, the shoes will have one thing in common – they are imported, second hand.

Now, I am not a ‘second hand’ snob. In Australia I often buy pre-loved stuff. No issues there. But I have quickly realised, especially with shoes, that there is one grand dilemma buying shoes from such places: Each pair of shoes will only come in one size.

So I walk into (or up to if it’s outside) a shoe shop. Let’s say there are 100 pairs of shoes. Due to that fact that I am looking for a specific type of shoe, I will probably only be interested in 10 of the 100. Then because they are second hand, there is the obvious issue of quality. That narrows it down to about 8 pairs. In Kamwenge and with my work in the village, I do quite a bit of walking, so any shoes have to be practical – so let’s cut that number in half, with 4 pairs of shoes remaining to choose from…

This is before I have tried any on. After a cursory look, I realise 2 aren’t anywhere near my size. They are out. One pair I really like – but alas after trying them on, they are just a little too small. I utter a sad goodbye to them also. So I am left with one pair. They aren’t amazing, but I am excited because they actually fit me. They are my only option. However, the girl in the shop knows I want them. She knows they are my only option. She has seen the other shoes fail. She also sees my shiny white skin and realises her luck is changing. All of a sudden the cost is high. You wouldn’t believe the quality of these shoes, she tells me. The best pair she has. They will cost 50,000 ($20) – much more than what they are worth.

Then comes the biggest problem. My husband and I have unique qualities we bring to the relationship when it comes to bargaining. Michael is a ‘Findlay’ through and through – he will make every last cent count, and won’t pay an ounce more than the value. Myself? I bring a stubbornness and pride to the relationship that forces me to accept only Ugandan prices when I buy things. No Muzungu prices for me. In combination, most of the time, it makes us a killer bargaining team at a Ugandan market. It can also make us very ineffective at buying items like shoes. Because those qualities also dictate that we walk away from the one pair of promising shoes that actually fit me because the shoe lady wants us to pay double what they are worth.

So once again, I leave shoeless with my pride in tact…

To laugh or not to laugh, that is the question

One of the greatest things about working in Kamwenge at Maranatha Health is the amount of amusing/humorous things that happen on a daily basis.

And I mean laugh out loud kind of funny, not a half-baked smile and a quaint story to relay later.

Patients, in particularly, provide endless sources of entertainment.

The other day we had a slightly obese woman admitted onto the ward. Because the staff aren’t nearly as politically correct as me, she immediately adopted the charming title: ‘the fat one’.

Which was quickly adjusted to become ‘the fat lazy one’, mainly because she refused to get out of bed (despite the fact she wasn’t that unwell after a few days at MH). I shouldn’t judge. I’m sure she had a hard life, with lots of children to look after, and probably just needed a good rest in a comfy bed.

I walked through the ward one day, to see her stretched out lying on her bed, in what could only be described as a typical sun baking position, her top half completely naked. I wandered over to the nurses desk enquiring about the lack of clothes. The explanation was a shrug, then a giggle.

After 3 days like this, she requested to go home. Michael explained that before she could go home, she would need to show she could get out of bed. Freshen up. Have a bathe. He even suggested (sensitively) that perhaps she could put some clothes on?

After another day and much coercion, the nurses got her out of bed. Then, she kind of went missing. Nobody saw her for about an hour. Michael and I were doing some work in the office, heads down, when Merinah one of the clinical officers came in. She looked at the external glass door of our office with mild amusement and asked ‘who is that’? Outside, on the cement ridge that borders the clinic, just outside the office door, was a lady fast asleep. We all lost it. As we watched she woke lazily, wriggled around to get a comfier position on the cement (??), and stripped down to reveal her breasts once again, oblivious to our laughter.

We gave up, and sent her home that day.

***

Michael and Andrew our administrator (and me to a much smaller extent) have one thing in common – we’re not very good with birds. Especially birds inside. My personal opinion? Birds belong outside…

The other day the three of us were having a management meeting in the office when a bird flew in an open window. Immediately Michael and Andrew hit the floor, as the bird fluttered and flung itself around the room. At first I tried to guide it to the open window, but crazy with fear and desperate to escape, it just kept smashing into the glass. I gave up and tried to flee the room. Eventually, it knocked itself out, although we were all too scared to go near it to check if it was dead. Andrew ordered me to ‘find Ibrah’.

Just for some context, Ibrah is our ‘machine’ – he is probably the strongest, fittest guy I know. MH last year sold him an unneeded (extremely heavy) wooden bed for his place, and he happily carried it all the way to town (about 2 kms), over his head, without flinching. Needless to say, the iddy-biddy bird would be no match for Ibrah.

However, Ibrah was not close by. Instead I found Bosco (our CD worker) walking towards me in the corridor, who quickly saw my half amused/half concerned expression and asked me what’s wrong. I explained and he came to the office. After laughing at our pathetic display, he crept over to the bird.

The bird flinched.

Bosco flinched.

It was a tense moment. He picked it up from its feathery tail (still half unconscious) but it moved and he dropped it in fear. He tried again, this time throwing it towards the door, its limp body no longer moving. Andrew finished the job, by soccering it out the door. We cheered.

The semi-concious bird had almost defeated three grown men and myself (an extremely competent woman!).

Bosco was the reluctant hero.

Compared to the rest of us, he was a bird whisperer.

***

There are plenty of funny moments every day, and anyone who comes to Maranatha will quickly realise we have quite a boisterous, energetic work place and staff, which I love!

However, there are some things we laugh at because there is nothing left to do.

It’s a common Ugandan trait – one I am still getting used to but slowly adopting myself to my surprise – to shake your head and laugh when you see the suffering around you. Not because you don’t have compassion, or because you think it’s hilarious, or because you think poverty should be laughed at.

Not because you don’t care, but because you do. Because if you don’t shake your head and laugh, you cry. And that is not acceptable most of the time – Ugandan culture is a culture of glass-half-full people.

Did you ever remember a time when someone was breaking bad news to a room of people, or your class was getting reprimanded, and you got the giggles? The ridiculousness, the terribleness of the situation caused you to slip out a sound of amusement? It is kind of like that. So many situations here and the grinding poverty and ignorance that creates them, is beyond our immediate control. Constantly you watch the worse possible scenario that could happen, play out in front of you like a terribly painful slapstick comedy routine.

Like the other day, when a young boy admitted was left for a whole day at the ward without his family. When the family finally returned with his ‘food’, the staff described it to me as ‘pig scraps in an unwashed detergent container’.

Or the 10th small child presenting at the clinic with a life-threatening infection due to an archaic ‘surgical’ procedure practiced by traditional healers, because the child had a bit of diarrhoea.

Or the woman you test positive for HIV who refuses ARV treatment because her husband will beat her if he finds out she is getting access to treatment.

So our staff laugh. I used to be indignant.  I used to get defensive of those they were laughing at. Now, sometimes, I try to laugh with them. And pray that God will bring change to this place, when so often I feel utterly powerless to do so.

But sometimes, as a last resort, we cry. The other day, the first child died at the Maranatha Health clinic. A little girl with cerebral malaria. Our staff did everything possible, but she did not make it. It was a very sad day. I wasn’t there when the mother took the body. But Michael was; he told me later that the memory of it will be etched in his mind forever. After preparing the body, the baby was wrapped in some material the mother had. She had no transport and no way of carrying the body – all we could find was a box. So as Michael looked towards the gate, he saw the tired woman slowly make her way down the hill and back towards her village on foot, a cardboard box perched above her head; inside her young daughter ready for burial.

They clapped…

Go to the people

Live with them

Learn from them

Love them

Start with what they know

Build with what they have

But of the best leaders, when the work is completed, the task accomplished, the people all remark:

‘We have done this ourselves’.

-Lao Tzu

This is a translation of a poem written over three thousand years ago. Its unwavering universalism and prophetic-like-power staggers me. If there is anything to learn about developing communities, it stems from these words. It is a pity so much of community work in the world today is the antonym to this poem.

The vice chairperson of the Maranatha Health board in Uganda gave me a copy of this poem around 4 years ago. He is a mentor to me in community development and advised me that this is the pathway to empowerment, seen from his own experience over decades. I have read books, articles, case studies and theoretical debates on ‘empowerment’ for the past 3 years, as part of my Masters in International Development.There are many contested definitions. These are some helpful insights from leaders in the field:

Social development is profoundly concerned with how individuals gain the strength, confidence, and vision to work for positive change in their situations: the process of empowerment. Empowerment is a measure of people’s capacity to bring about change. (Eade and Williams, 1995)

Empowerment cannot be defined in terms of specific activities or end results because it involves a process whereby women can freely analyse, develop and voice their needs and interests, without them being pre-defined, or imposed from above, by planners or other social actors. (Oxaal and Baden, 1997)

Honestly?

I can give you the spiel, but witnessing the process close up, right in front of me, in the community, is incredible. The small, slow-germinating seeds of hope being planted and seedlings sprouting; the steady fragile truth emerging that people may be able to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives – this is empowerment.

In this blog, I want to share what MH are doing so far in our community work because 1) I think it is so important for donors to be educated about empowerment and think about mechanisms for giving to the developing world that don’t create dependency, 2) I want to demystify ‘community work’ and show the enormous possibilities and 3) I don’t want others to miss out on the excitement and hope it has brought me through my involvement so far!

So far, the MH community development team have identified a poor, remote, resilient community that we will work in.  We visited each household on foot (160 households spread over a few K’s) and introduced ourselves as friends, as an organisation, as people who are seeking to partner with their community. They shared with us as much as they wished – about their family, their relationships, their day-to-day activities, and their challenges. They fed us if we needed to eat. We listened to their stories. We didn’t ask prescribed questions, write things on paper, or tick boxes in books. We just listened. And we learnt. A lot.

Now we are meeting with groups as a community. Most group meetings represent anywhere from 20-40 households. And it is at this stage – still at the very beginning – that I am seeing this incredible thing happening. This process called empowerment

In our groups meetings we spend a lot of time at the beginning reinforcing several important messages:

  • The community are the experts of this process – they are the ‘professors’ of their village. They know what they do and don’t have. They know the place intimately.
  • They are in control of the process, and have the freedom to tell us what is wrong and right. What is helpful and unhelpful.
  • They are also the ones that will do the work to improve their lives. We have nothing to offer in that regard.
  • We explain that we are not doing the group exercises for our own benefit, or for donors, or for research. It is for them only.

Then we share with them the challenges they shared with us, some of the key areas of their lives that they identified that they struggle with. Not just health – anything. We discuss. The community agrees or disagrees. Then on a big piece of paper, each issue/challenge is represented by a picture/symbol, decided on and drawn by the community (due to high rates of illiteracy).

Every single community member then has the chance to come up and vote for 2 issues that are most important and significant to them. We explain what democracy is, we explain what equality is, and we explain how each person has the right and the opportunity to have a say in decisions that affect them and their community. Every single person.

Seeing women who are normally pushed to the margins, standing up meekly and casting their vote

Men in volumes, voting for maternal health as the greatest challenge

Young men voting for the issue of food security –trying to feed their growing families

Almost everyone in the community marking child morbidity and mortality as a priority

Yesterday, in front of everyone in the group, an old woman walked up stubbornly, took the marker, and was the first one to vote for domestic violence as an issue. You know what the other women did?

They clapped.

Women who were shy and weary and when we visited their houses sat on woven mats on the ground behind their husband’s chairs, listening quietly while their men talked.

They clapped.

Then we take the number one prioritised issue. Not surprisingly, this is almost always child sickness. In most households we visited, they have lost at least a quarter of their children.

I share with them how there are other places in the world, other places even in Uganda, that you can find a community who have not lost any children. I tell them that I see their pain, their sadness, their shame. That there are women in the world who don’t have to face this sadness the way they do. But I explain that before this can change, we need to know why it is happening. And we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Then we conduct a ‘problem tree’ analysis. We explain how you can see the trunk of a tree if you look straight ahead; the problem. But to find out what is underneath, the reason the trunk exists you must dig deep into the soil – finding the roots: the cause. It takes thinking and work to do this. But it is important because if you pull a weed without the roots attached in your garden – the weed will grow back. So it is with problems, if you don’t address the causes beneath the surface.

We draw a tree, with the picture of the ‘problem’ on the trunk. We ask them about the causes of 1 problem. We ask them to draw a symbol on the roots of the tree, to symbolise each new cause they think of. We ask lots of why questions. Why malaria? Why no nets? Why no money for nets? Why no priority put on nets? Why don’t they go to the clinic? What’s wrong there? Would they go if there was this or that?

And the more they think, the more they discuss, the more they break down and analyse – the more they begin to realise that these issues don’t have to control them. That the issues won’t always have to exist. That there are multiple causes, that often they can do something about. They can see outside of their immediate experience. They gain confidence. They speak up. They think critically. They themselves begin to ask why. They see they have some power.

And it is one of the most exciting processes that I have had the privilege of being a part of!

Most importantly, what I have learnt over and over in my study and in my work with communities is that the process of discovering and meeting the need is as important to empowerment as the end result. That is why giving communities ‘stuff’, and meeting needs outside of the context of partnership and participatory processes DOES NOT WORK.

In community development, the end cannot justify the means. The means and the end are two sides of the same coin.

Of course, there is much work ahead. And not all groups we have worked with are interested and engaged like this. Next we are looking at what the community can bring to the table; their skills and resources. Then we will look at solutions. What an adventure!

www.maranathahealth.org

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.

She arrived in a beat up Corolla

The other day a woman from the village was brought to our clinic.

Unconscious

Her body in shock

In the back seat of a beat up Corolla

She came with a few relatives and an educated man from Kamwenge town who was from the same minority tribe, found the woman, and rushed her to us.

The woman had given birth recently, at home, with only a relative to help her. She had come to us for antenatal a few weeks earlier, but had made the decision to stay at home for the birth. She and the baby had not been for a postnatal check-up. When the relatives saw the woman was unwell they delayed taking her to the clinic for days. It might be expensive, after all.

So there she was, her limp form lying in the car.

Then there was a lot of quick, fast discussion in Rukiga and English – between the well dressed educated man, the relatives from the village, our staff, Michael and myself. What should we do?

Could we admit her and try and help?

Do we have anything we need to treat this woman in such severe condition?

Could we find an ambulance to transport her to Fort Portal?

Would she die along the road if we tried to send her somewhere else?

Why hadn’t we already purchase our Oxygen concentrator that we desperately needed?

Did any of the other health facilities in Kamwenge have blood ready for a transfusion?

No.

Less than a week later, we now have an oxygen concentrator. We are almost set up for blood transfusion.

But the woman is already dead, so what use is that to her now, I ask?