Monday, January 17, 2011

Final Days in Gulu

It’s amazing how fast two weeks goes by. At the start you think you will have all the time in the world to see the people you want to see and speak the words of love to those you know you will surely miss.

I can’t say that I have made concrete change in Gulu, but I know I have touched people’s lives and that is what I came to do. In my final days I helped lead the morning devotions for the women of ZP. If I have not mentioned it already I will say that this is my favorite part of the day. If I had it my way I think I would begin every morning with a large drum and a group of African women singing their hearts out to God in Swahili (and the songs are repetitive enough that I can sing along woo hoo)! On my final morning with them (Friday) I began to get a little choked up when I realized how much I would miss their songs and of course the love that they have shown me. I had another hard realization during my time in Gulu that people hearts are really still hurting so much from the war and aftermath. Many people are very kind and generous but it is still quite hard for them to open their hearts up and rely on each other to cope with past pain.

I taught simple lesson on trust and how when another person trusts us, it is like they are giving us a very precious gift that we must be responsible for. In turn when we give trust we are making ourselves so vulnerable, so open to the elements of possible betrayal and hurt. Many of us close our calloused hearts because we have been wronged in the past. This is no way to live our lives though. Yes you may get hurt but it is a better existence to place trust in others and let them rise to the occasion of caring for our gift we have given them. I have been the betrayer of trust as well as the one who cannot fully let go of my gift. Yet I believe that the more people we let into our hearts and lives, the more genuine connections we can make. We can even find solidarity in others who have gone through similar pains.

After telling the women that it was my last day, there were tears in many people’s eyes and mine had already fallen to my cheeks. I did not know if I had touched their lives at all. It is hard to know when you do not speak the same language but their tears were evidence to my reason for coming to Uganda in the first place. Being present with someone is sometimes all the encouragement one needs. I made it a point to just be present. To laugh with them (even if I didn’t understand the joke), to hold their children, to roll beads, to take their sick family members to the doctor and to just be me and hope that they could trust me enough to let me into their world.

I’d like to just bullet point some of the good and also the rare but not so good parts of my time in Gulu:
• Hugs from the ZP women’s children in the morning. Seriously the first thing I got every morning when I stepped out of my door was about 10-15 smiling children running up to hug me.
• I’ll say it one more time….morning devotions in Swahili!
• The harsh realization that I was still very na├»ve about the region including how young women are treated here.
• Multiple terrible Boda Boda experiences with the worst being an old insane woman running out topless in front of us so that we had to stop not to hit her as she suddenly slapped me across my face so hard it left a fairly decent welt.  AND THEN having the cultural reaction of the giant crowd that formed be laughter instead of sympathy….sigh….at least I’m part of the slapped in Africa club now (yes there are more of us haha).
• Back to good stuff now: Having the ZP girls say while I was giving them my final goodbyes “Aunty we want to pray for you” and of their own accord having 11 pairs of little hands and voices pray over me as knelt down in the middle of them. (Yup cried at this one too).
• Time with Pastor Ron and his wife Joy before they went to Kenya. We celebrated with a cake we brought over as they shared their amazingly romantic love story with us as well as great inspiration!
• FOOD IN GULU is GOOOOD! Who knew? I loved all the traditional food that was made for me as well as the restaurants we went to!
• Getting to know the sweet hearts of my roommates Sarah and Naomi and our chill times in the house together.
• Being present during the Sudan referendum as well as pre-election for Uganda! (Good thing)
• The fact that I heard the word corruption describe the country and/or its people every single day (not over exaggerating)
• There are so many more but I will end with the word STORIES. Uganda is a place for great story telling. I heard an abundance of stories both good and bad. I am now privileged enough to know that there is so much hope for Gulu but I have also been trusted enough to hear about a man’s time in the LRA; another man’s struggle with missing his deceased parents so much it hurts; and a woman’s pain of wanting to become a teacher but fearing her family will marry her off and she will “become a slave” in her words.

I have traveled by Ugandan bus back to Kampala to spend a few days with my good friend Jonah and his family. We are planning to deliver mosquito nets as well as a few baby pigs to a village in the far reaches of central Uganda. Keep sending your good thoughts towards me as there are still great memories to be made here!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Community Outreach and Traditional Acholi Dinner

Jan. 7th & 8th, 2011

Zion Project:
On a typical Friday, the Zion Project women go out into the community for part of the day and try to encourage people in the neighborhood. This is seen as a very welcomed act by the neighbors. There are no strange looks of "why are you here?". Only the gracious provision of song and chairs for guests.

We had an amazing time and was even able to talk and pray with a man who had been in the rebel LRA for over 12 years of his life. He had a lot of inner struggles with feelings of shame and guilt over the crimes he had committed while in the LRA. He had a family in a village far off but would only travel from town (where he works as a teacher) by the darkness of night because he feared people spotting him and knowing he was a former rebel.

Gulu has made amazing strides in the past 2 years since I have been here but there is still so much pain in people's hearts. They welcome so openly the chance to just share their grief with someone who is willing to listen and speak of reconciliation like our women did! It is amazing to see our women giving back to their own community after they have come out of the hardships of life here.

St. Jude Children's Home

I had the incredible opportunity to visit a large children's home (orphanage) that is also a functioning school when the term is in session. They are on break now so we had some extra time to hold A LOT of babies and also visit their disabled children's wing.

I have to say that the photos of a malnourished child or one with stunted growth will never compare to holding one in your arms. It was my first time to hold a child who was one and a half years old but was too small and weak to hold his own head up for too long. He smiled and was clearly a happy baby even though most of the time he just rested on my chest and looked around at what was going on. For those moments I was his protector and comfort and he held a piece of my heart.

The disabled children's wing was home to children with various mental and physical disabilities. We mostly just sat with them, asked them questions if they were able to answer and played a few simple games.

Dinner with David Oyite and His Family:

On Saturday evening I had the amazing opportunity to be invited to dinner at my very good friend David's home. I met David on my first trip to Uganda and have been lucky enough to see him every year since then. He usually spends January in California with his American girlfriend Jenna but this year she came to Gulu!

I got the GRAND tour of the house which included a lesson in making ground nut paste or as we would call it, peanut butter.

David's family grows most of their own food including sorghum, cassava, greens and an abundance of chickens. We sat out in the yard on a mat and were able to look out over the hilltop at the amazing landscape of Uganda! The sun was setting and his parents gathered up all the dried sorghum that will eventually be made into flour.

Like most typical families, entertainment centers around the new baby (who grandpa adores) and the large meal that we are all excited about eating! Our menu started with an appetizer of an avocado and sugary lemon smoothie. Seriously people this is the best thing ever and I plan to master the recipe upon my return to the States :). We continued with a traditional Acholi dinner of cassava with malaquoin (greens with g-nut paste), some sort of meat (I think goat) in a delicious soupy sauce with rice, bo (like collard greens) and of course potatoes.

After dinner David's father formally introduced every family member including those who were not present. We prayed together, took some family photos (which were not on my camera sorry) and enjoyed the evening. I left their house so full of not only food but amazing hospitality! Thank you so much David to you and your family. You have truly blessed my time here in Uganda! AFOYO MATEK

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Meeting the Zion Project Women and Girls

The past few days I have been starting to work and meet everyone with The Zion Project. There is a girl’s rescue home for at-risk girls in a separate part of town than where I am staying. The house includes eleven girls ages 4-13, two house mothers, and two other female volunteers. Many of the girls are daughters of women in prostitution. The Zion Project was asked to take the girls out of the situation because they were being sexually abused and neglected.

We went to visit the girls for the first time the other day and I was greeted by overwhelming hugs and love. It is such a good sign when the children are affectionate and loving towards people they are first meeting. They seem very well adjusted and happy. Later this week I will be tasked with doing individual interviews with them to see how their level of contentment with life has changed since coming to the home about one year ago….but for New Year’s Day, we just played and they had a special treat of cake and soda.

The girls were asked to sit on their beds so I went in to read them a story (the three little bears). They all climbed onto the same bunk bed and sat on the floor next to me just so they could be close! Many of them went out to play but little Jacquelyn and Charlotte cuddled with me on the bed while handing me book after book to read to them.
After story time we went outside to play for a bit and they proceeded to braid my hair (one of their favorite activities). They call me and the other women all “Aunty”!

Yesterday I was able to meet many of the women who come on weekdays to The Zion Project Counseling Center (attached to where I am staying). Their day starts off with singing and prayers and some more singing, drumming, dancing and general African awesomeness that I can’t seem to get enough of. In fact their singing the first morning resonated so loudly and beautifully in the tiny empty room we were in that in brought me to tears.

The women all bring their children so again there are many children to play with and love. They spend the remainder of the day making the paper beads for those beautiful handmade necklaces. I attempted to make the beads and successfully made about 5 even though the woman helping me had to adjust them before the final gluing. I now have a much larger appreciation of how much time and skill it takes to make the jewelry!

The women are all Congolese and have migrated to Uganda due to dangerous political situations or family abandonment. I look forward to finding out more about their life stories but it is quite difficult because they do not really speak English and I do not speak Swahili. I did discover that some of them know a little French so that is mainly how I’ve been communicating. (Thanks International Studies Major for providing real life skills haha).

The women have regular counseling sessions both group and individual but they are put on hold for now due to the counselor needing to be in the girl’s home at this time. I have a deep respect for the Zion Project and was able to have a day full of meeting with their Executive Director, Sarita Hartz-Hendrickson. Sarita told me that she saw the need to not only help the women spiritually and emotionally, but that they were still needing to participate in prostitution so she saw the need to help them become economically viable as well. This is what started their beading projects and so far it has been of great benefit for the women to help turn their lives around.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My New Year's Eve:

This pretty much sums it up:

Ate in the house/restaurant called Mama Barbie's which is owned by the guard at The Zion Project and my new friend Richard. We had Matoke which is plantains in an amazing sauce in the orange glow of a single candle! mmmmmm yes!

We then made our way to two different church celebrations. Gulu Bible was pretty much "going off" and this picture speaks more about the excitement in the room than my words ever could:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year from Gulu!

After traversing the globe via Turkish Airlines (which by the way rocks!) I finally landed in Kampala the morning of Dec. 30th. I was actually happy that in my confusion about the time difference I had a extra day in Kampala to rest after going to bed literally when the rooster right below my hostile window started crowing at 5am.
My first day in Kampala was spent taking care of logistical things like exchanging money and getting a working in country cell phone set up. With the help of my good friend Jonathan we boarded a group taxi van and made our way to the VERY busy city center. Downtown Kampala is a maze of markets and vendors and everything in between. My favorite part was when Jonathan or Jonah as we call him led me down a steep stairway lined with vendors. From the top of the stairs you could see about all the tents that led into a SEA of taxi vans. He said "This is taxi park, it's were the taxis come to sell things or just take breaks". We saw and smelled everything from fried bugs (which really anything fried smells pretty good to me!) to fresh cut pineapple! It was highly nerve-racking to be walking around with about $900USD in my purse while hundreds of people passed me by and about every 20th person gave me a second look due to my stand out skin color.
I spent the evening meeting lots of members of Jonah's family including his two sets of twins (2 yrs and 8 months...soooo adorable!), the three generations of women that live in his compound (series of family houses) including grandma, mom and his lovely and sweet wife Jackie! Jackie cooked one of the best meals I have ever had in Uganda with a mystery meat that was slow cooked and sauced to perfection.

I arrived in Gulu and got to stop at my favorite church here, Gulu Bible Community Church. The Pastor opened his door and his entire face lit up when he saw me. It made me feel great that him and some others hanging around the church remembered me and all said "welcome back".
I am staying at a very nice guesthouse right around the corner from the church with two other American girls that have been here for quite some time and are truly LIVING in Gulu. We ventured out to buy basic groceries and while one girl (Naomi) carried a 5 gallon jug of clean drinking water I was left to cary the grocery bags including one with 20 eggs in it. This would not have been so exciting except for the fact that we took Boda Bodas (motorcycle taxis) back to home. I sat side sadle on the bike while hanging on with one hand in back and the other hanging on to all the groceries. I was quite proud that I made it with out falling off and without breaking a single egg!

The computer seems to be running out of power now and there is no electricity to plug in so goodbye for now and I hope you all have an amazing New Years!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Pre-Departure Note (part 2)

Dear Friends and Family, 12/27/2010

The time has come for me to depart once again to Uganda in East Africa. Many of you know I have been yearning to return to Uganda for over two years now. I am both extremely excited and also a bit nervous. This will be my first time going to Africa where I have planned the logistics of my entire trip by myself. With this comes exciting freedom but also a large responsibility.
My Itinerary:
Dec. 28th: Depart from LAX @ 1pm and fly through Chicago and Istanbul to Uganda.
Dec. 30th: Arrive at 2am in Entebbe (Kampala Uganda)
Dec. 31st: Head up to the Northern war torn district of Gulu and celebrate ringing in 2011 with the Acholi people!
Dec. 31st-Jan. 15th: Volunteering for The Zion Project. Helping out in the women’s counseling center. Teaching and tutoring at the children’s home. Community outreach in the “red light” district. (There will be much more during this time but I’m not exactly sure what will be going on day to day).
Jan. 15th-16th: Return to Kampala and visit my friends and Africa Renewal Ministries Headquarters at Ggaba Community Church.
Jan. 17th-19th: Volunteering with my friend Jonathan Sewava with Unreached Africa. We will be visiting remote villages and delivering mosquito nets for malaria prevention that we purchased in Uganda.
Jan. 20th: Depart from Entebbe at 3am and arrive the “same day” in LAX at 8pm. 
Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers during this time. Specifically for my health while in the country.
I want to thank EVERYONE who donated to my trip and to The Zion Project. If you donated through St. Andrew UMC, I do not know who you are because they have chosen to keep this anonymous so my apologies if you did not receive a personal Thank You note from me! You have helped me raise about $2,600 of my $3,000 goal!! I got a great deal on my plane tickets so more of the funds can go directly to The Zion Project. I would also like to thank those who have given me their kind words of encouragement as I gear up for the trip. Those words also carry their weight in gold in my heart.
If you would like to follow along with me during my time in Uganda you can visit my blog at You can also make any last minute donations on this site and the funds will get to The Zion Project.
Peace be with You

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Reflections (pre-departure note)

First of all thank you for taking the time to not only help support me but to READ A BLOG haha! I am not an avid blog reader myself but I want everyone who desires to keep up with my trip to know what is going on!

I am only 2.5 days away from a 26 hour journey through Chicago and Istanbul to Entebbe Uganda. This will be followed by a short night of sleep and another 6 hour drive up to Gulu (Northern District in Uganda) arriving just in time for a new years celebration that I'm sure will be "epic".

Some thoughts before I leave:
* I'm soooo sad that Kristen will not be there with me. My partner in crime and one of my best girlfriends could not make it to Uganda due to the weather in London where she was supposed to fly though. She made the smart choice to postpone her trip but I'm still so heartbroken for her. I have no words to comfort her and I'm sure there will be some tears as we meet up tonight so she can give me all the items she lovingly purchased for the women and children of The Zion Project. Kristen your blessings will be felt next week even if your actual embrace is delayed a few months.

* Donations came from unexpected places and people who I know looked deeply in their hearts and even deeper in their wallets. I can't express how much the notes and emails have helped me know I am on the right path. A special thanks to my sweet boyfriend JB who has been my biggest fan and believes in me sometimes more than I do in myself!

* Random: Today I practiced wrapping a head scarf that my sister gave me for Christmas. This is going to be helpful because during the dry season, the place I'm staying pretty much just has a bucket outside....aka no showers for me while in the North. :)

For all you late-birds who were too busy before the holidays, it is not too late to donate and your money will go directly into supporting the programs of the women and children at The Zion Project. You can use the ChipIn widget below to make a secure online donation!