Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Adventures in African Medicine

As you can probably imagine, there are an overwhelming amount of visible, tangible needs everywhere we look here, and plenty of opportunities to get involved to try to address these needs outside of the work we originally came here to do.  Combine that with the fact that I am looking at a career change to nursing, and I found a perfect opportunity to try to help out and get some valuable experience at the same time.  And to clarify – this is the Mrs. speaking – the Mr. is eager to get back to work with the wonderful folks at POH when we get back (and also very ready for his wife to finish up another round of education and get a paying job!!). 
So since late last year when I found myself able to somewhat gracefully handle my teaching responsibilities, I started to volunteer at a local clinic called Kairos Medical Center in the nearby neighborhood of Namuwongo.  It has been interesting, to say the least!  Each time I go there, I walk away with some interesting cultural nugget – sometimes related to medicine, sometimes just related to life.  It has been such a rewarding experience!  Here are some of the highlights or just random things that I think are important…

·    I have learned that my name and Ugandan pronunciation do not mix well – it depends on where I go as to what I’m called, but at Kairos, I am “Eye-rin.”  At other places, I might be “Ee-rin,” “Eye-rene,” or some other totally unrelated name…  But when I walk into Kairos, I just love it, because they will see me walk in and call out, “Eye-rin!  You are most welcome!” 

Treatment Room
·    Ugandans’ tolerance for pain far surpasses that of your average person.  On one occasion, a woman came in after a taxi accident – she had a pretty bad gash on her shin that was infected.  So the nurse proceeded to unwrap a sterilized razor and cut out all of the dead and infected flesh while the woman just sat there with a forced smile on her face, never uttering a sound.  If it were me, the nurse would have needed a little fixing up herself after that torture!

·  The amount of compassion you receive is inversely proportionate to age.  Babies are cuddled and sweet-talked before undergoing any kind of treatment (which almost always involves intravenous medicine).  The older the child, the less tolerance for crying and complaints.  Adults who object to the harshness of a treatment get a stern talking to.  I’ve only heard this in English once, but I can tell by the tone when a patient is getting put in their place.  Mostly it consists of, “Stop moving.  You need to let me do my job.  Don’t complain.”  Talk about being blunt!

·  Best story ever and the reason I will never have children in Africa.  I walked into the clinic at 8am one morning just as a woman was walking out with her infant child.  The nurses were sitting in the dispensary talking about how they could not believe how much she carried on.  When I inquired, they explained that she came to the clinic in labor late the night before.  She was just carrying on, moaning in pain, and it was apparently very annoying to the staff.  So the doctor told her that if she continued to make so much noise, her baby would be hurt and might not live.  Worked like a charm – shut her right up!  And then she walked out with her newborn maybe 6 hours after giving birth.  If this was a “wimp,” I don’t even want to think about how they would classify me!

Treatment Room
·  I love that there are so few limitations to what I can do as a volunteer.  In the States, you basically have to have a degree to count pills, but at Kairos, I’m a regular pharmacist!  I watch every procedure from vaccinations to stitches to giving IV medications to the poor kid who came in with a massive head injury (presumably skull fracture and brain damage… she had to be sent to a different hospital for treatment and we never did find out what happened to her).  I set up injections and give them to patients after the nurse inserts the cannula.  And apparently I will be practicing inserting cannulas in the doctor’s hand this week so that I can start doing this on patients.  Yikes!  Good thing we’re leaving before I can do any damage!

·  The most common illness is definitely malaria – though this clinic does a great job of actually doing lab tests to confirm.  It is not uncommon at all for an African to self-diagnose malaria and then be perfectly fine after 2 days… leaving any mzungus who actually get malaria and find themselves sick as a dog for weeks feeling a little confused.
·  Other than illness, it is very common for people to come in with boda boda or taxi related injuries.  These can be pretty grisly sights.  A little girl was brought in after a boda ran over her foot last week – wish that was a rarer occurrence.

·  I don’t even sort of understand most of the treatments that patients receive.  For example, a baby who came in with pneumonia received IV antibiotics (ok, I get that part), but as she was leaving, the doctor made sure I gave her a little squirt of Vitamin A in her mouth.  In fact, Vitamin A is one of the regular “vaccines” that children come in to get.  And it is not uncommon for someone to come in with some random ailment and be prescribed  5 days of multivitamins…? 

·  When the clinic is not busy, we spend a lot of time sitting around and talking (or more accurately, I listen).  Some of the random, interesting conversations include discussions of how I can possibly wash my hair every day, how much they wish they could gain weight, and the roles of men and women in relationships (I listened during that one – my inner feminist was definitely stirred during that little ramble they had!). 

·  And I gotta tell about little Gloria who I met last week.  She is four years old, and while playing outside, she ran into a piece of metal, leaving a neat little gash between her eyes.  Her father explained that she had to have it stitched up, because if something was wrong with her face, they would never be able to marry her off – because that’s the first thing every father thinks about when getting his daughter’s face stitched up?? J  I was so impressed with Gloria – she was a perfect example of tough African lady, even if just a smaller version of one.  She laid on the table while the doctor fished around inside the wound to make sure there was no debris – didn’t move a muscle or make a sound as he injected anesthesia into the wound and then added 4 stitches (and let me tell you, he’s no seamstress!).  It was inspiring.  And humbling!  I gave her my fruit snacks before she left to let her know how cool she was.

So now when I go back to the States, they’ll probably be horrified at what I now consider to be common practice, and I’ll have to do dumb volunteer things like paperwork and cleaning instead of injections and pill-pushing.  I’m so thankful for that little clinic and the people inside who have welcomed me with open arms from the first time they saw me.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Teaching J-O-B

Now that the school year is within hours of completion, it’s now my turn to share a little about what it’s like to teach here.  I’m sure you can all appreciate the fact that if someone asked you to sum up your job – you know, that thing you spend 90% of your time doing, thinking about, dreaming about, etc. – it would be slightly difficult to (A)make it interesting enough to not be fully rejected by the world of blogging and (B)not write a novel.  And since we’re talking about teaching, (C)not say something that will make it sound like I teach in a prison or mental institution.  To try and satisfy that criteria, I’m going to try to stick to the basics and what makes doing this in Africa so ridiculously fill-in-the-blank (fun, challenging, exciting, frustrating –depending on the day).

African Emperor Moth (and as a caterpillar, yikes, scary looking!)
First things first, we’ll go way back to the beginning.  I teach at Heritage International School – and I am THE secondary science teacher.  Like, the whole department – you have a question about science, you find a scary looking caterpillar (or snake, yikes!), you find some weird mold growing, you want to make something safely explode – you talk to me.  Am I qualified to be a science department?  Probably not.  Can I fake it and Google it with the best of ‘em??  You betcha!  Teaching secondary science means that I am responsible for making sure that 64 students from approximately 15+ countries learn all the biology, chemistry, and physics they can stand.  The school itself has over 200 students, but it is very common for secondary students to go off to boarding school, so since we are not a boarding school, our numbers taper off as we get into the older student population. 

My nook is at the back corner of the building.
Our campus here is absolutely beautiful.  It’s centered around beautiful walkways lined with short stone walls enclosing beautiful gardens and the best tree-climbing acacia trees you have ever seen.  Surrounding this courtyard area are several classroom blocks – primary students on one side and secondary on the other.  In the center is the Administration Building complete with picturesque front porch.  And free internet.  Gary and I often come here on the weekends to hang out on the porch, download some podcasts, and watch the diverse and beautiful birds chase each other through the trees.  There are 2 soccer pitches, a sort of scary looking playground, a basketball court, and a volleyball court with future plans for a swimming pool and another soccer pitch.  The school is lined by a 10-foot wall for security, and there’s a great running path just inside the wall for those of us that like to run in a more secure, less attention-grabbing atmosphere.  A chapel is under construction and scheduled for completion soon.

As far as curriculum goes, we use the IGCSE curriculum which is designed for an international setting and based out of the UK.  The textbook has very little information in it and emphasizes things that were not important in the States, so I have basically abandoned the book, and I create most of my materials as I go.  Thankfully I have been able to adapt materials that I have used previously or have had the blessing of many generous former co-workers who have shared resources for classes like Chemistry and Physics, both of which I have not taught before.  Grades 7 and 8 are doing a broad smattering of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.  Grades 9-12 are doing variations of Biology and Chemistry that were not covered with their past teachers.  I am used to dealing with students from many different backgrounds and need to all get on the same page, but in this case, I also have to account for the fact that even though many have attended the same school, they have had many different science teachers in the past who emphasized different things – fortunately for me, most of their previous teachers did lots of Physics and not much Biology and Chemistry.  Since I really like Biology and Chemistry and am most familiar with these, I feel a little more comfortable trying to get everyone caught up.

The hopefully-soon-to-be-completed chapel.
Most students speak fantastic English – a few are still learning – and most know more several languages and make me feel totally inadequate in my monolingual-ness.  The students here are wonderful – just treasure troves of diverse experiences and ideas.  This is a Christian school, but our population is by no means all Christian.  In fact, I have much more religious diversity in my classroom than I have ever had – but the fun part is I can talk about Jesus all day long and nobody thinks anything of it – awesome!  The students as a whole are ultra-respectful – some will call me “Mrs. Hightower,” but most will simply call me “Miss.”  And as a whole, I would say they are perhaps a bit more studious than those that I’ve taught in the past – not to say they are all over-achieving, ridiculously hard-working students, but they seem to care more about their studies.  Interestingly enough, many of the same trends I saw in the States continue – my 7th graders are ridiculously energetic and creative and still so excited about school – and the level of enthusiasm and creativity gradually decreases until it comes to a screeching halt with the seniors who are, as you can imagine, quite ready to graduate.  But a different dynamic with the 12th graders is an added level of anxiety and pressure – any teacher of seniors will tell you that they sort of “wig out” during their senior year.  The big-bad-world is waiting, and it’s scary!  Students who were perfectly “normal” (by teenage standards) will do some crazy things during their senior year.  In the States, most of my seniors stayed close to home and they STILL got weird – my seniors over here are spreading out all over the world – they’ll go to college in the States, in the UK, other parts of Africa, the Middle East, etc. and leave everything and everyone they have ever known.   We’re working to try to provide the kind of support and encouragement they need to not lose their minds and be prepared to take on the world on their own (as well as not beat them senseless as they try to figure themselves out, haha!).
Isn't it beautiful?!

Teaching in Africa definitely is different than in the States – as if you were expecting it to be the same…  For example, my classroom is basically open to the elements – and to the wildlife.  I have had snakes, rats, geckos, birds, bugs, etc. on a fairly regular basis in here.  The geckos are cute but also gross because they poop on everything.  Didn’t have THAT problem in the States!  Also, as the science teacher, supplies can be a blessing and a curse.  Getting standard chemicals and equipment is a pain – we have to order it from the States and have it brought over here (shipping is terribly unreliable), or get lucky and find it in a lab supply store here (although I think that’s only happened once since I got here).  On the plus-side, when I wanted to dissect eyeballs, I just asked for a bag of eyeballs and voila!  Bag of fresh cow eyes from the butchery!  Same was true for brains.  Truly, if I can imagine it, get the supplies, and not cause permanent damage to a kid while I try it, I can do whatever lab I want – none of this “ask for permission, make sure they didn’t do it in middle school already, what if another class is using the supplies I need that day” stuff – I LOVE that part of teaching here.  Technology can make things oh-so-wonderful as well – when it’s working.  Today, the clocks were all off, the bells weren’t working, the power was out, and the internet was out.  But at least we still had running water!  And last but certainly not least, over the course of the entire school year, I missed Grade 8 and Grade 10 for two classes when they took their Stanford Tests – and that is the ONLY time ANY of my students have missed class, had schedules rearranged, been inconvenienced and stressed out about standardized testing – coming from the “land of over-testing,” that is a breath of fresh air.  In general, there is less pressure here, and that not only makes it easier to form relationships with the students, but a more relaxed atmosphere makes it easier to get things done.  Gary can confirm that I almost had a nervous breakdown when I found out I was teaching 6 different classes, but it is totally manageable when you take out all of the unnecessary red tape and time-killing activities. 

As a whole, I would say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my teaching experience here.  It took some getting used to at first – for someone who enjoys structure and things being “just so,” well, Africa just isn’t that kind of place!  But now I see the beauty of slowing down to do things well, and not freaking out about it.  I absolutely love my students – every one of them – and I am thankful for what they are teaching me about being patient, taking things in stride, and taking the time to really care for and invest in others.  I hope I have been of some use to them, but I suspect I will walk away with far greater reward than they will.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Working with eMi

Hello All!
We hope everyone is doing well.  We just wanted to give a quick recap of how work has been going for the first half of our year here in Uganda.  We’ve managed to not write much at all about our work here so far.  Both Erin and I have been very happy with what we’ve been doing with eMi and Heritage International School.  Our work here has been quite an experience, and we are so glad we came – and so thankful for all the support you guys have shown to get us here.  We have both felt very needed throughout our stay.  And we’ve also felt pretty incompetent at times as we’re trying to figure our jobs out here.  But for the most part, it has been very fulfilling as we get to help out with all the good going on in the area. 

Erin is letting me go first to discuss my work so far with eMi.  Most of you probably remember a little about eMi and the projects they work on.  But as a quick recap, eMi provides free architectural and engineering services to communities and organizations in need in developing countries.  We work on such things as hospitals, schools, universities, orphanages, projects to provide clean water, site infrastructure, bridges, disaster response, etc.  My office here in Uganda works on projects throughout the east Africa area including countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, etc.  As you can imagine, working with eMi is very rewarding.  Each of their projects address very necessary needs. 

There is no shortage to the need for the types of projects mentioned above in this area.  Your helping us come here has allowed eMi to take on a number of projects that they would have otherwise had to turn down or put off.  I’ve gotten to work on a few projects this past term.  I certainly won’t go into them all, but I will touch on a few.  The one that I’ve spent a lot of time on is a bit of an atypical project for eMi.  It has revolved around the planning for development of the land surrounding an Airstrip for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF).  Who knew I would get to work on an ‘airport’ project when I came to Uganda!  MAF is a Christian mission organization that flies light aircraft in order to transports goods and service teams into hard to reach areas in developing countries.  MAF Uganda (http://www.maf-uganda.org/) flies all over East Africa. 

The Kajjanzi airstrip is a single dirt runway that sits on the shores of Lake Victoria.  MAF currently operates 5 planes from this airstrip and leases out use of the runway to other organizations.  I’ve gotten to see many planes take off and land in my time on site.

MAF has owned the airfield for many years and the land around it currently contains mostly buildings associated with the storage and maintenance of aircraft.  But they have been aware of the large amount of potential for this land to be able to support quite a few buildings (for MAF and others) very convenient to their air operations.  That’s where eMi comes in!

MAF’s immediate need is to build a structure on this site to serve as their office of operations and as a temporary terminal.  Currently they have an office off-site which has been serving their needs for a number of years.  But it is not the most convenient, and the rent for this is becoming less and less sustainable.  Their other needs for the overal master plan include a terminal building, plane workshops, housing and community buildings for the staff to live on site, a guesthouse for passengers, as well as reworking their taxiways and aircraft maneuvering areas to work better and facilitate more aircraft.


It was a fun and challenging project where all sorts of factors needed to be taken into account – such as the many building restrictions involved when building next to an airstrip as well as all the security and checkpoints that must be in place when dealing with an ‘International’ airfield of any kind.  Also, since all of MAF’s flights are humanitarian in nature, they typically don’t make much extra money – especially the kind of money to be able to afford site development of this magnitude.  So a big part of the project was to help them develop a business plan to be able to finance the project; and to work out phasing schemes to schedule and workout the order of development of the site in affordable stages.  The business plan mainly consists of leveraging the valuable land they have surrounding the airstrip to tenants who would develop parts of the master plan for MAF in exchange for reduced rent. 
My role has been to work with our director and team of engineers within the office to develop the business and phasing strategies, the design and presentation images for the site master plan, as well as the building design for the office building and housing units.  It has been a great experience and a lot of fun.  It is exciting to play a part in all the amazing things MAF’s organization is able to do here in East Africa.

I’ve also had the privilege of working on the RAMBIA health center clinic located in a rural community in the far west of Uganda.  Rwenzori Mountains Baghuma Integrated Association (RAMBIA) (http://www.emascanada.org/uganda_rambia.htm)  is an indigenous non–governmental organization, and the leaders of RAMBIA built this small clinic using money raised from such things as bee-keeping, brick-making and rearing goats.  The current center consists of two small buildings: one containing a dispensary, laboratory and consultation rooms; and the other, a maternity ward and inpatient department.  The clinic has proved to be a very valuable part of the community.  The nearest hospital is over an hour away and not accessible to most.

The clinic sometimes sees between 40 and 70 patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Many are mothers who bring their children for routine vaccinations, but others of all ages come with a variety of ailments.  RAMBIA's aim is to develop strategies for improving the standard of living of their surrounding community while advocating for human rights and non-violence.  Their goals include providing primary health care, maternal care, providing preventative services for malaria and other common diseases, educating the community on HIV/AIDS, and providing general counseling.

The clinic’s facilities are not at all adequate for all it is doing in the community.  It has needed to expand for a while but hasn’t possessed the means.  However a Canadian ministry, EMAS, has partnered with them to help with the funding of the expansion and overall upgrading of their clinic.  So as you can imagine, this is a very exciting time for this community.  As they prepare for the building project, I, working on behalf of eMi, have been thrilled to provide them assistance with the planning of the expansion.  My work for them has included development of an architectural site master plan which lays out new structures including a general exam/treatment building, a ward, a prenatal/maternity center, a covered waiting / vaccination area, and staff housing buildings on the compact site.  I’ve also prepared basic plans for each of these buildings.

It is something else to be able to see the impact just a little bit of our work can have on a community.  It is exciting to help them plan for their ultimate goal, to help them more fully utilize their resources, and then be able to give them actual drawings to clearly communicate their desires to a contractor. 

The Western Uganda Baptist Theological College (WUBTC) is located in Kiburara, Uganda (about 200 miles west of Kampala).  WUBTC was founded in 1990 by WorldVenture but is run by indigenous leadership.   The college trains pastors and their wives for ministry in rural Uganda through a two year theological training program during which the pastors and their families live at the campus.  Currently, the campus can house and train up to 20 families. 

Students and wives are both trained for ministry as well as ways to expand their community roles by developing skills in health education, bush medicine, birth assisting, teaching English as a second language, agriculture and irrigation methods, development of cottage industries and micro business ventures.  Because the school is not accredited, people who have not had the opportunity to continue their education beyond the 4th or 5th grade are eligible to enroll.

My assistance to WUBTC has been to address two current needs of the college.  The first need is to renovate the roof structure of several of the existing buildings on campus.  Currently several of the classroom’s roofs are very badly deteriorating – and their current design is not very appropriate for a classroom space.  The roof’s current large overhangs severely restrict natural light from entering the interior of the building, and the noise created from the significant amount of rainfall (that very frequently falls in their area) on the current single layer of thin metal roofing, makes conducting class very difficult.   So I’ve been researching different ways to insulate the roof and detailing it up adding clearstory windows to allow for more natural light to enter.

The second need is that of a Guesthouse facility for visiting professors or friends of the college who visit the campus.  Currently there is no suitable location to house these VIPs, and the necessity for it is becoming more and more regular.  The modest guesthouse facility is to have 4 separate bedrooms with a dining area, a meeting area, a separate guest suite with a its own dedicated shower and toilet, a garage for the tractor on campus, a workshop, an open air kitchen area, and pit latrines.   I've prepared construction drawings for them as well as some presentation images.

I’ll quickly touch on one more because of the very exciting organization.  The Ugandan American Partnership Organization (UAPO) (http://www.theuapo.org/) is a group that strives to actively partner with Ugandans to assist with ways for them to sustain themselves.  They have many projects throughout the country and their goal is to see each of their projects make lasting impacts for generations to come.  I assisted them with their Akola project, developing building plans and construction details for a women’s vocational center, to provide a place to give skills training to women. 

Working for eMi has been a lot of fun and I look forward to what the rest of the year has to bring.  I actually leave this week to go to Rwanda on a project trip to develop a master plan for an orphanage and women’s vocational center for the Gate of Hope organization (http://gateofhope.org/).  The organization looks like a fantastic group, and I’m very excited to learn more about them.  I’ll be gone for almost two weeks to leave Erin to fend for herself here in Kampala.  So be sure to drop her an email for me so she doesn’t get lonely! 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Seasons Greetings

Woah, did Christmas already happen???  Something about the 80 degree days and a 250% decrease in Christmas-commercialization and build-up meant we had to actually remind ourselves pretty regularly that Christmas was coming.  But to help out with that, we both had pretty good breaks – Gary had two weeks off, and the teacher, not to be outdone, had three weeks off.  We spent a significant portion of our first week off baking and eating.  We enjoyed opportunities to get together with friends, eat some Christmas cookies, cut out paper snowflakes, and play card games.  So it wasn’t too long into our break before it started to feel like Christmas.  One of the large downtown churches had a Christmas cantata that we attended.  And we also managed to fit in a little shopping – but folks back home will have to wait until we get home to get their gifts – talk about stretching out Christmas!

While Kampala stores and markets and traffic in general got a bit busier leading up to the holiday; when Christmas came, everything got quiet.  Christmas in all parts of the world means spending time with family - and this was very clearly and strongly demonstrated for us in Uganda.  In such an open, community-oriented culture, the aspect of spending time with family and friends is certainly heightened.  And when the time came, the masses poured out of the city, heading to their home villages.  It was a remarkable display. 

As for us, we began Christmas day with a potluck breakfast at a friend’s house.  Then we headed off to church and then rushed home to continue cooking for Christmas dinner – a potluck FEAST with our eMi family.  When we sat down to Christmas dinner, it started to feel more real – there we were surrounded by great people, and stuffing our faces, and reflecting on the reason why we were celebrating – to show love to people and bring glory to the King who gave it all.  It was a very special and memorable Christmas, and we are so thankful how everything happened to allow us to be here.

And then…to add to our Christmas fun, Erin got a Christmas puppy!  She was walking down the road and saw the tiny, scared little girl wandering in the middle of the road as cars tried to dodge her.  Instead of just moving her off to the side of the road and moving on, Erin had a weak moment and brought her home..…much to Gary’s surprise.  Erin likes to keep Gary on his toes! We spent a few days grooming her (she was a bundle of all manner of pests and messiness) and getting her nutrition up to par.  Before long, she was one very happy, incredibly sweet little puppy.  We had more-than-one long conversation about it.  But unfortunately, we’re in no position to be puppy owners.  Nobody we knew could take her, but we were very thankful to find the USPCA which actually appeared to be a pretty nice shelter. There were several other puppies there, but none cuter than ours.  So we’re pretty confident that our little sweetie was adopted up pretty quickly.  As the attendant at the shelter looked her over and played with her, he confidently reassured us that, ‘She’ll do just fine.’  We were really thankful to have the opportunity to give her a better start at life.

Downtown Mbale
We spent several days of the following week on holiday with our good friends the Donahue family.  We all traveled to Mbale, Uganda via Post Bus – basically we hitched a ride with the mail from the Post Office in Kampala to the Post Office in Mbale.  That was an experience in itself!  Did you know you could easily stuff at least 70 people, their chickens, their beds, their boxes full of unidentified chirping things, etc. onto a standard coach?  And do you have any idea how high you can fly off the seat while bouncing around on the very back seat of this bus that’s zooming down African rural roads between Mbale and Kampala for hours??  It was something else.  But it was a beautiful drive.  The video below shows some a sample view of some of Africa as seen from the bus on the way to Mbale.  In Mbale, we enjoyed resting at a nice, clean hotel and reflecting on our time in Uganda and our hopes for the next stretch of time here.  To help with reflection, we enjoyed the phenomenal views of Sipi Falls just outside of Mbale.  And we even found some smoothies - the perfect touch to help guarantee a good vacation!

To wrap up our break, there was New Year’s.  Just about everybody in Kamapla was back in town, and there was a lot of celebrating and excitement.  All New Year’s Eve was filled with partying, yelling, and singing.  We even saw some fireworks.  Time-keeping isn’t quite as precise here, so every party around us had a slightly different idea of when midnight actually was.  So as we sat out on the porch, we got to experience the midnight celebration several times that night.  Luckily we are good sleepers, and as we settled in, we drifted off to the sounds of celebrations going on long throughout the night. 

We were a little surprised with the amount of hoopla that is centered on the New Year here.  Perhaps all the excitement is created from the hope of a better year or from a greater thankfulness for another year.  But regardless, it is nice.  Even two weeks after New Year’s, everyone you see still wishes you a “Happy New Year!” 

And so as we begin this 2012 journey, we will take a lesson from our neighbors and wish you a very Happy New Year!  We hope your holidays were filled with much happiness and all the comfort you love.  We hope you will keep up posted about what the New Year holds for you and your family.  We pray for health and happiness and abundant opportunities to honor God with whatever He brings your way.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lights Out

Hello All!

We hope everyone is having a bunch of fun getting into the holiday spirit!  Things are beginning to feel a bit like Christmas here.  Well ...maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.  That’s one of the strangest things here.  There just really aren’t any seasons.  It still feels like a beautiful spring day.  I took this picture yesterday, just because I wanted a little documentation what a mid-December day looks like in Africa.  It feels just the same as it did when we arrived here in August.  And since we are right on the equator, the sun still rises and sets at the exact same times as it did when we first got here.  However, as much as we love and miss seasonal changes, we are not about to complain about weather like this.  Whatever country we are in, it is obvious the world is a very beautiful place in so many different ways.  Luckily we sang a little Christmas music at church this morning, and I’m starting to get that familiar uneasy feeling that I should go do a little more Christmas shopping for my wife.  So it’s beginning to dawn on me it is getting to be that time of year. 

Christmas break is coming up for us both.  After this week, Erin gets off 3 weeks from school, and the eMi office shuts down for 2 weeks as well.  So we are pretty excited.  I may have to talk to POH (my employer in Atlanta) about this ‘shutting down the office for two weeks at Christmas’ policy for when I get back.  I think I could get used to that.  …Of course we’ll see how we feel three days into it, and we get antsy and ready to get back at it.  Though…we both love our work, but for no particular reason, I don’t know if I’ve ever been as ready for a break as this one coming up.  At eMi, there is no end to the backlog of work.  I’ve worked longer hours back home, but there always seemed to be an end in sight.  Here, not so much.  So, it is nice to just shut things down for a while and hit it hard after a break.  I’m looking forward to just enjoying being in Africa with my wife.

We are sorry we’ve been so remiss getting out an update.  We’ve been hoping to give some reports to what all we have been working on here.  But I haven’t done a good job of getting it wrapped up.  But we do want you to know we miss you all.  Below is a piece Erin wrote a little while ago that we were holding in our back pocket.  As I sit in the dark, it seems appropriate to go ahead and post it. 

As your holiday family plans get finalized, decorations are all up, and the smell of Christmas baking fills the air, we so hope every one of you is feeling excited about the Christmas Season this year.  As I write this in shorts, about to take off my shirt to cool off a little more, while rolling my eyes as Erin is playing ‘It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas’ on her computer, know that even though we miss you all, we are so amazingly glad to be here in Uganda this Christmas serving a nation of some of the nicest people you will meet.  ...and are so, so thankful for all your encouragement, kind words, and support to make it possible!

Much Love!

Erin and Gary

Like many of the things we do around here, I find myself writing this blog by lantern-light.  Perhaps you have heard us mention the intermittent power here. Today we would like to describe a little bit more about that, including the many benefits and a challenge that we hope you'll try.
If you ask a Ugandan about the power load-shedding, you will get many explanations ranging from something about Kenya and the hydroelectric dams to people stealing power to, inevitably, something to do with the government. All we know is that we will be without power at some point every 2 days (or every day... maybe we shouldn't make predictions).  Sometimes we get lucky and it's only off for a few hours in the evening, but other times it is off for a whole day. Fortunately for us, our jobs have generators and/or inverters, so our work is not affected.  Our neighbors are not so lucky, but they do the best they can to adapt to the situation.  At first we were a little annoyed by the frequent dark evenings, but we, too, have learned to adapt.  In fact, we have come to appreciate the many benefits brought by the lack of electricity.  These include:
  • It is much easier to do the dishes when you can't see just how dirty they are.
  • Similarly, it is much easier to rinse laundry when you can't see how soapy it is.
  • Your cooking skills are greatly enhanced when they depend entirely on the senses of taste, smell, and touch. Forget 'presentation' when you can't see your food!
  • Everything stays very organized quite naturally when you know you'll have to hunt for things in the dark.
  • It is delightfully quiet with just the hum of generators across the street and no stereos blaring.
  • Any 'homework' only lasts as long as your computer battery - then you're off the hook.
  • We get to do fun things like snuggle up under the mosquito net and read together or play cut-throat games of Uno or Skip-Bo.
  • Romantic candlelit dinners are a regular occurrence.
  • All bugs and geckos 'disappear.'
  • We get to do a whole lot more talking and listening to each other - it's amazing what you can learn about your spouse when distractions are removed.
  • You can walk around with no makeup (for the ladies!) and in your pj's and nobody knows the difference.
So you see, not having electricity all the time is not only okay, it's actually a wonderful thing!  In fact, we've already decided that when we're back in the States, we're going to have "Africa nights" where we don't utilize our electricity.  Who knows, maybe we'll have you over for a power-less dinner!  (This is very common - we have attended many a dinner party in the dark...)
So here is your challenge - after seeing all of the benefits of a power-less night, don't you have an irresistible urge to give it a try??  Go for it!  See what kinds of fun things you can do when you don't have electricity. You could even make it interesting and have your spouse/friend/neighbor spontaneously choose an evening for you so that you also have the joy of having no warning that it's coming.  Have some friends over - eat dinner by candlelight, play some games - we promise you'll have a blast.  Or just snuggle up on the couch with your family and talk about some of your favorite silly memories.  If nothing else, think of the money you'll save with these power-less evenings!  We hope you'll give it a try - and when you do, drop us a line to let us know how it goes and maybe share some ideas for other benefits we can enjoy in the land of electricity load-shedding.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

With thanks...

In Uganda, today is just another day. We woke up to the sound of rain falling and the hum of the generator across the street (the power has been out since yesterday evening). We chased a gecko out of the bathroom, squashed a roach, and managed to get ourselves out the door headed to work on time. This evening we'll enjoy traditional Ugandan food with our eMi family (please note: turkey and dressing with green bean casserole is not traditional Ugandan food!). Not exactly our typical Thanksgiving, but the beauty of living here is that we are constantly reminded of what we have to be thankful for. Yes, things are different - in fact, there are some parts of being here that are "not ideal" - but that magnifies the blessings that surround us more and more each day.

We realize this is said so many times this time of year that we almost start to tune it out, but we really want you to understand just how thankful we are for you.  Our family and friends have helped to encourage and sustain us here more than we ever believed was possible.  Each prayer that is said on our behalf, every kind word you share gives us the strength to keep pursuing our purpose here - to strive to keep honoring God in each part of our lives here.  Really and truly, we could not do this without the support we receive from those we love back at home.  And so as you gather around the table - perhaps with your family, with your spouse, with your friends - we just want to remind you that there is a couple in Africa who is thinking about you today and praising God for the blessing you are to us.  And on that note, if you really love us, you'll be sure to help yourselves to seconds in our honor...!  

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Border Run

One of the beautiful things about the schools here is that they take a break in between quarters.  All the teachers out there know that there comes a point when students and teachers just need to get away from each other every once in awhile, so periodic breaks are a great way to preserve the tranquility and productivity of schools.  The fortunate thing for us is that Fall Break, between the first and second quarters of school, happened to fall just a few weeks before our 90 day entry visas expired.  We have both applied for work visas, but until those arrive, we have to be lawful citizens and keep our entry visas up-to-date.  Fall break afforded us the opportunity to make a border run and get another entry visa, and we welcomed the opportunity to see more of what this beautiful part of the world has to offer.

First things first, we rolled out of bed in time to catch the van we were sharing with an eMi family (travel is lots cheaper split two ways!).  This was 5:30am.  Not the most ideal time to start a road trip, but this also gave us the opportunity to marvel at how little traffic there is in Kampala in the wee hours of the morning.  After a few hours of driving, we stopped at the Equator to be all touristy and take care of our photo op.  Then we were off on the next stretch of driving towards Kigali, Rwanda.

The roads are slightly less than ideal, well, anywhere here in Uganda, and that made for slow, bouncy driving at times.  We like to think it gave us a better opportunity to absorb the beautiful scenery.  The fun thing about road trips in Africa is that when you see animals grazing by the road, it’s not just cows – there are zebras mixed in – and no, those aren’t deer, they are impalas.  How cool is that?!

Upon crossing the border into Rwanda, there were several fun things we noticed.  First, the cops like to pull over mzungus.  We got pulled over several times to check to make sure lights, wipers, horn, etc. were working properly; another time we got pulled over, the cop made us nervous at first when he walked around and demanded that the van door be open and that we hand over our passports – he then proceeded to practice pronouncing our names, pass back our passports, and send us on our way – we breathed a sigh of relief and then had a good laugh.  Second and most markedly, Rwanda is BEAUTIFUL.  I mean, it’s the kind of beautiful where you wonder if it’s even real.  It was so green and lush.  The hills were sectioned off into perfect terraced stretches of farmland and dotted with simple, rustic brick homes.  It's called the land of a thousand hills and a million smiles, and we found that to be absolutely true.  It is also very clean.  You see no trash on the sides of the road, which is a very big problem in Kampala.  When crossing the border entering into Rwanda, they even confiscate any plastic bags you may have.  Plastic bags apparently was one of the biggest causes of litter, so now they won't even allow them into the country.  It was also interesting getting used to being on the right side of the road again - although at this point in our stay in Africa, we aren't really sure which side of the road is correct!

We arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, around 8:30pm, which was 15 hours after we started (to go roughly 325 miles...).  We could blame the ‘dynamic’ roads for this as well as the fun of crossing the border at the same time as 2 full buses of other people and that stopping for African fast food takes at least one and a half hours (but it sure is tasty stuff!).  After we arrived, we amused ourselves as we watched Caleb, our 6-year-old travel companion, literally fall asleep in his dinner plate, and then we had a restful night sleep in a modest apartment.

The following morning we headed to one of many genocide memorials found around Rwanda.  The Kigali Memorial Centre wrought so many emotions, it’s hard to describe.  There is the sadness of knowing this happened recently enough that victims’ families are still dealing with the daily struggle of mourning loved ones and healing from their own wounds.  There is the anger from knowing the indoctrination that was perpetuated by people who came to Rwanda in the name of Christ to help them.  There is the shock of seeing the evil that humanity is capable of.  There is the profound disappointment of knowing people that were respected and held great influence chose to do nothing, either to preserve their own self-interest or because there was nothing of perceived value to protect.  There is a sense of regret knowing that this and other horrible things have happened – continue to happen – and all we do is say a quick prayer that things get better and thank God we’re not there.  There is the shock of knowing you are taking this all in while standing on the unmarked grave of a quarter million people.

The upper floor of the center detailed other genocides throughout history, and there have been more than we would like to admit. One thing that surprised us is that there was actually one that the United States does not formally recognize for "military strategic reasons."  How we do not recognize the murder of 1.5 million people is hard to understand.  Just to make sure we were sufficiently shaken to the core, the final exhibit was the children’s room.  At first, we thought this was meant to try to explain this incredibly deep, heavy stuff to kids, but we were wrong.  The whole thing consisted of huge portraits of children who had lost their lives in the Rwandan genocide – complete with biographical information such as what they wanted to be when they grew up, who their best friend was, what their favorite food was, and the method by which they were murdered.  That was too much to handle and the beautiful gardens surrounding the facility provided a welcome refuge from the vivid documentation of the horrors of the genocide.

It may be easy to look at the chronicles of the genocide in Rwanda and other places and think, “Surely we have learned from this.  Surely we will never allow this to happen again.”  And it is true that Rwanda offers much reason to hope that this is true – it is a vibrant and peaceful place that has made astounding strides forward.  But one of the quotes towards the end of the exhibits stated, “When they said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?”  This was said by a Rwandan, but how many Sudanese may be saying this today?  How many others down the road will wonder why they had to endure hardships at the hands of their fellow men?  After this experience, we firmly believe we have a collective responsibility to make sure nobody else is ever forgotten in the midst of such trials ever again.

After a sufficient dose of harsh reality, we took off back towards Uganda – the long way, through the mountains and volcanoes – to get a healing dose of the reality of God’s creation.  We hope the pictures capture the beauty we were able to experience – no description necessary, just to say that doubling our travel time in order to see this was so worth it.

 We spent the next day on a small island in Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.  It was a refreshing oasis away from the noise and crowds of the city.  We rested, we read, we walked our stunning little island, and we ate (a lot).  We have decided that someday we’ll have a house with plenty of avocado trees and a lake stocked with plenty of tilapia.  We are so thankful for the opportunity to serve in this part of the world and just amazed by the experiences we are having, but it can be pretty tough too.  Getting out and getting away - to enjoy the wonder of creation and have some time to reconnect with each other – was just what we needed.  Well, actually, we really just needed valid entry visas, but the refreshment was an added bonus!