Tag Archives: reflection

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.

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.

The end of the beginning…

Something occurred to me the other day.

We’ve made it.

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

So here we are. Over 4 years later. I am writing this from my dining room table in our house, which is on the Marantha Health land, in Kamwenge. I spent the day out in a remote village with a colleague, meeting families and hearing their stories to build relationships which will form the beginnings of our community development program. Two weeks ago, we opened our ward, and now see many patients, many who are from far areas of Kamwenge. Our staff are working hard!

In the community...

And at the clinic...

Maranatha Health has well and truly begun.

I am a little in awe, to be honest. I think Michael and I have been so busy with our heads down working hard over the past year we have forgotten to look up and see what is growing up around us. We have so often missed the twisting and turning of our vision, the first breaths of this living thing, the grand achievements, the God-inspired moments and coincidences, and most importantly, the proud ownership of Maranatha Health Uganda by our staff.

But the other day I became intensely aware of it. Of this living, functioning organisation that is so much a part of Michael and myself but growing far beyond who we are. I am amazed. That it has all actually happened. That God has taken our humble efforts and naive youthfulness and turned it into something great.

Something that is so defined by the people within…

More than anything I am amazed by the MH staff. The kind of people we have found and the way many of them have caught the vision is rewarding. We have asked a lot of them, much more than some workplaces ask of their staff.

We ask them to have passion for what they do, and give above and beyond

We ask them to take initiative and dream big dreams with us

We ask them to show compassion to the communities we serve

We ask them to be counter cultural on issues that matter – like the treatment of women, and some traditional health practices

And most importantly we ask them to contribute and invest themselves into this vision, so that they become leaders in their community.

Last month all of us celebrated our record breaking day (50+ patients) with a soda. Everyone was included. Everyone celebrated. Everyone seemed proud of the part they had played in getting us to where we are.

Waiting to be seen at the MH clinic

Enjoying a soda at the end of a long day!

Our administration staff, who at times work long hours overtime to balance the books, count money at the end of the day, and are so committed to stretching MH funds as far as they can go…

Our clinical staff, who show the kind of care and compassion for patients that is a rarity in Ugandan health services, as well as high quality practice that sets a standard for other clinics in Kamwenge…

Our first community development worker, who has joyfully and skilfully accepted the challenge of trying relationally based community development, excited by the opportunity to employ creativity and innovation in our work…

Our grounds staff, our cleaners, our cook, our askaris, who are happy to work hard for an organisation where they have the opportunity to make a difference, to input and suggest and interact and have their say in an organisation that values each staff member…

I was talking to Kiiza the other day, a groundskeepers who was one of our first staff members, and helped build the clinic before that. He has now finished his 6 month probation. Like always, Kiiza’s positive outlook and appreciation re-energised me, as he pointed out how only 6 months ago, we had almost nothing to show for ourselves. He reminded me of how far we had come, and how much of a difference we are making.

He reminded me of the LIFE that is in Maranatha Health. God-breathed life.

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.

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?

A crisis of categories

A very close friend of mine sent me an email a few months ago, asking me if I considered myself a missionary.

The answer to that question is filled with so much complexity that I asked if we could skype instead of trying to write my thoughts in an email.

It got me thinking again about our reasons for being here. Michael and I often have puzzling discussions about this, and consistently fail to come up with a satisfactory answer. Which box do we tick? Missionary? Volunteer/trainees? Expat? Immigrant? Which category do we fall into?

The problem with categories is that I always seem to fail to satisfy their requirements. I’m not really an ‘in the box’ type of girl…

For example:

The Missionary Findlay’s: Michael and I are driven in our choices/actions by our faith in Jesus as God and man, and the way he lived on earth. We feel strongly that God is FOR the poor and oppressed, inviting us to join him in what has been a massive adventure so far, learning how to live more like him and (sometimes, when we’re not feeling selfish) making our choices based on what we can offer this world to see it be a more just and loving place. The added bonus of following God in this way (to Africa, to set up Maranatha Health, etc) is that He has actually made us who we are so that we can do this – a perfect concoction of passion, past experience, internal wiring from birth and our individual skills + his intervention in a gazillion moments has meant we are not only able to run this Organisation but enjoy the journey (when I have a feeling many wouldn’t!). Our project is motivated, inspired and fulfilled by our faith and the faith of others around us. We also have a lot of similar desires as some missionaries – to connect with the local community, to become a part of the fabric of the place, and to live at a simpler standard than other expats*.

I am  often confused with the term missionary and its implications given that I see all followers of Jesus as having a joint ‘mission’ to represent our God of Love to humanity. Putting that aside, we are not, in my opinion, missionaries in any traditional sense. We are not here specifically to tell others about our faith – any more than I would normally share of my faith in any circumstance -, we don’t work with the church in any official sense, and we certainly have not gone to ‘bible school’ or any such institution (much to the disappointment of some Christians we know). We are not running a ‘mission hospital’; many who do this seem to have little awareness of development principles and even less ability to critique their ‘development’ work. We have set up an NGO and work in a professional capacity which is open for judgement by AusAID and the donor community, rather than a small group of churches.

The expatriate Findlay’s: In some ways we are like any other expatriates moving over here for a job opportunity in an NGO. We enjoy Uganda for the weather and the friendly people, we have professional roles that we are intensely committed to, and we love to have academic discussions about what this country needs/should have/is heading towards etc. We have friends in high places because the elite of Kampala are so interconnected and we enjoy rubbing shoulders with influential people that back home in Australia, wouldn’t even look our way. But that is about where the expatriate similarities end. Most big-shot NGO workers (who manage programs/projects) are exactly that: big shots. They drive around in vehicles worth well over $100,000, they live in Kololo (for you Adelaideans, think Burnside) in a big compound with numerous ‘house girls’, would not be spotted shopping at the local food market, if they attend churches they are full of other expatriates, they live at a higher standard than they would dream of at home because they are on western salaries, and almost their entire friendship group consists of other NGO managers, foreign diplomats, and international businessmen.

In contrast – we haven’t spent any time with foreigners (other than when our families came to visit) since we arrived. Our wage is at least a fifth of what managers with equivalent qualifications are getting (both Ugandan’s and expats) and the MH car is 22 years old (but doing amazingly well for its age apart from the suspension!).** I have never met an expatriate NGO worker in a management position that lives in a place like Kamwenge. Most live in Kampala, and at a stretch, in one of the bigger up-country cities full of other expats and all the mod-cons you could need: places like Mbarara, Mbale, Gulu and Jinja. I have been in many a meeting already, introducing myself as a manager at Maranatha Health who lives in Kamwenge, only to be met with disbelieving stares and raised eyebrows. Even Ugandan NGO managers fly in and out of Kamwenge in their big shiny white 4-wheel-drives for the day, happy not to have to even spend one night in my beloved village.

The volunteer Findlay’s: Many volunteers and Aid-workers-in-training come to Uganda. Whether it’s with a volunteer tourism organisation, a local NGO, the Peace Corps, or even something like an equivalent to Australia’s Young Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program.  They are here for any amount of time from 2 weeks, or sometimes (as in the Peace Corps) 2 years. They often live in relatively remote settings (I think their used to be a Peace Corps volunteer living in Kamwenge) and live with locals, often in home-stay arrangements. They make a big effort to connect with the community, and often learn the language. They live simply (some of the time) and don’t get paid a massive salary (also, some of the time). In these ways, we feel quite connected to this group. We bump into people like this from time to time, and I am often encouraged by their enthusiasm, hard work  and idealism. I remember with fondness my volunteer days, when life was about learning and comparing experiences with other volunteers, finding projects to be a part of, and travelling to exotic places for long weekends.

But again, the similarities stop there. For one thing – we have a house, a place to call our own, where we have to cook and buy food from the market and do all the normal type living things that often these volunteers seem to avoid (as I did when I lived here a few years ago for 6 months in a ‘home stay’ arrangement). The other big difference is the level of responsibility. Many volunteers, when they meet us assume we are just like them – the donor who doubles as a volunteer.  But when we talk about the complexities of negotiating bureaucracy, the difficulties of cultural pressures when making management decisions, handling political issues, registrations, reporting requirements to donors, dealing with issues of theft and conflict… we look with jealously at their blank faces. When we tell them that we have built a house here and plan to raise our family in Kamwenge – most volunteers think we are joking. You can’t actually move here permanently?! This is the experience you ‘get out the way’ before your REAL life begins back at home.

But Kamwenge is our home. Which brings me to the next category:

The immigrant Findlay’s: Sometimes, it’s easiest just to define ourselves as migrants to Uganda – the answer with the least amount of subtext and baggage. We love this place. Uganda is our home, as I said. We have friends and what we consider part of our family here now. We have migrated here because we would love our children to have the kind of life that Uganda can offer- with a focus on community, relationships and away from the god of consumerism that seems to haunt our houses in the West. We like our lifestyle. We like working for Maranatha Health and we are able to have the opportunity to use our skills and expertise in a way that would be difficult to do in Australia.

The problem with defining ourselves as immigrants is that it neglects so much of the reasons why we came – the great overarching purpose of Maranatha Health and our sense of ‘calling’ (missionaries), our desire to set up an effective NGO here and have influence in the long term both inside and outside Uganda (expat NGO managers), our desire to connect with the community and our choice to live in a remote setting on a small salary (volunteer).

So I don’t know. Maybe we can be all and none of the above, depending on who we are with at that moment. If anyone has any suggestions to throw into the ring, let me know…

*I do think I have a slightly romantic notion of myself as somewhat of an anthropologist as well, and can become FACINATED at times with culture and interaction. I often find myself desperately determined to connect and become a part of this place in a way that perhaps I never will – not from lack of trying though…

**I do need to point out thought, that the fact that we HAVE a car in Kamwenge is an immense privilege that very few people have.

2011: The year of learning

I just said goodbye to the hardest year of my life so far…

*sigh*

I know that doesn’t mean much, considering I’m actually only 26 and have lived a pretty cruisy life by world standards.

But this year has been really tough. For a thousand different reasons. There are lots of other more positive adjectives though too, like rewarding, fulfilling, exciting, adventurous, unexpected, validating, and of course…learning. Learning, learning and more learning.

It’s a funny thing, how you learn a lot, develop your character and get over yourself a little bit when life is challenging and you get out of your comfort zone…

Even Paul from the early church agrees with me: ‘We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling short changed. Quite the contrary – we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit.’ (The message)

I have learnt so much this year. Sometimes I wish I could go back and visit myself, that naive girl at the start of the year, and tell her that it all works out ok. That things will be difficult but that through all the hard stuff, I ended up learning what I needed to learn, to be able to live in Kamwenge…

So how am I different from last year at New Years?

I’ve learnt about moving to another place. I’ve learnt…

How to say goodbye to some of my closest friends and still remain involved in their lives

How to live apart from my family

How to open my house for inspection and rent it out…

How to move my entire life to another part of the world

I’ve learnt about how to live in Kamwenge. I’ve learnt:

How to speak (a little bit) in another language

How to make friends in another culture so different from my own

How to cook using only food available in Kamwenge, including Uganda’s famous Matooke dish

How to use a cigiri (a traditional charcoal stove)

How to wash clothes by hand at a break neck pace

How to bargain so that I don’t get mzungu prices all the time

How to live without a fridge (something I’m still working on…)

How to light a Kerosene lamp

I’ve learnt a lot about running an organisation. I’ve learnt:

How to manoeuvre through a million bureaucratic-red-tape-scenarios

A LOT about construction, materials, and all sorts of building-related things.

How to manage staff with Michael (10 at last count…!)

How to work with the police to arrest someone who is stealing from you

How to conduct job interviews and board meetings

How to import a shipping container

How to use Quickbooks, manage finances, sort out legal issues, and put on a great event…

How to avoid paying bribes (although I certainly don’t have a 100% success rate with this one!)

I’ve learnt some extra bits and pieces that have made life easier. I’ve learnt:

How to grow cassava, matooke, zuchinni, garlic and a whole bunch of other food

How to drive a massive old hilux ute –reluctantly, even on Kampala’s chaotic streets.

How to pick milk from the dairy, boil it, and scrape the cream off the top for later

How to work 9-5 with my husband and still have a great marriage

How to (begin) writing a thesis – including all sorts of useful stuff about methodology, field research and ethics, things I use to have no idea about.

How to enjoy cold water showers!

How to LET GO of my drive for efficiency, timelines and plans and embrace ‘community’…

 

It’s been a big year. Here’s hoping next year is a little more chilled…