the exorcism en route

It was one of those days. Coming back from a lovely weekend with friends, we all knew we had a long day of traveling ahead of us. The roads in Uganda aren’t simple to navigate, and there was no easy direct route from where we were back to Gulu. So we resigned ourselves to a 5 hour matatu (taxi-bus-thingy) ride back to Kampala before catching the 8-ish hour bus back north. The matatu ride went shockingly well, but we hit a few speed bumps in Kampala when we couldn’t find any buses leaving for Gulu before 7 pm. Thanks to the ingenuity and incredible likability of my friend Julie, we finally finagled eight tickets to Gulu leaving at 5:30 pm instead, and our day was back on track. The ride began happily: chatty, friendly neighbors, only leaving 20 minutes late, pretty smooth ride.

Things got weird about three hours from Gulu.

A woman’s scream pierced the night was a suddenness that jerked me from half-sleep. It was a terrible, terrified sound. She screamed again. I jolted again. She launched into continuous hysterics, and I looked around with wide eyes into the faces of equally baffled and jarred friends. The bus driver finally pulled over and turned on the lights. Our group was sitting near the very back. We couldn’t see much of what was going on, but we were anxious to know what was happening at the front to cause such pain and fear. Hushed murmuring filled the bus as whispering lips passed the story backward, discussed, and speculated. It was decided by the general audience that the girl, not more that 14 years old, must have a demon in her. Thank heavens there was a priest on board who valiantly stepped forward to take control of the situation. After a brief tussle, more horrified, terrified, hysterical wailing from the girl, the exorcism began, and the bus, to my extreme surprise, casually resumed it’s journey. The lights went back down, people chuckled, and our previously peaceful journey resumed – it was the emotional and spiritual version of a shrug, but something was different. The usual lullaby – the rush of the wind, the grumble of the engine, and the soft breathe of many people in close proximity – was replaced by terrified wailing punctuated by a forceful male voice and screams of mental anguish. An utterly bizarre and horrifying soundtrack on an otherwise totally normal night. I’ll never forget sitting back in my chair, breathing in the sweet air rushing in at my face from the cracked window, looking out at the moon-soaked landscape, and feeling my soul cringe as the air was rent by the terrified wailing  of a woman completely out of site in the darkness at the other end of the bus.

I’m not sure what it was - mental illness, an anxiety attack, some previous trauma, or spiritual demons – that caused the woman’s episode of panic and misery. I’m not sure why so many people on the bus felt ok resuming their trip and conversations as if they weren’t cloaked in the shadow of whatever terror this woman was facing. Maybe they just realized there was nothing they could do. Maybe they realized the only thing you can do sometimes is keep going. Whatever it was, it was an experience that will stay with me for a long time. The night my normal, peaceful, calm, albeit bumpy, bus ride back to Gulu was set on a stage of invisible horror, given a soundtrack of pain and fear. Eventually the girl calmed, whatever demons were plaguing her subsided, but the sounds of her misery revisit me often.

alternate title: how is life?

Rewind approximately three days. We’ve all arrived in Fort Portal, Uganda, and everyone is walking around in varying states of bliss. Whether you’ve been to the area before or not, coming from Gulu to Fort Portal is a remarkable transition that tends to leave you reveling in the beauty. Fort Portal is different than Gulu in many ways – more paved roads, bigger homes, more solid structures, more restaurants, coffee shops, and stores. Ringed by the Rwenzori Mountain range and close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. They even have a statue of a lion at the city center with an incredible amount of real-looking hair. We were all there for one of two purposes: to participate in a triathlon or to support the people participating in the triathlon. Due to earlier ankle injuries, I fell into the second group, and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. The location was breathtaking. For the swim: a crystal blue, freshwater crater lake. For the bike, a grueling 18k along red dirt roads and up rocky hills. The run: the hills and forests along the crater’s edge. We watched it all from a lodge resembling the African version of Hogwarts perched at the perfect vantage point from which to commit the surroundings to memory. It was quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Surrounded by such natural beauty and the equally incredible beauty of the kind souls and laughing eyes of my friends, I felt very at peace.

The people in Fort Portal, at least those that I encountered personally, don’t ask “how is your day?” or “how are you?”. Instead, upon greeting someone, they ask: “how is life?” I was struck by the question, lovely and sincere, and I realized it was pure truth when I answered: wonderful. Sometimes it really can be as simple as that if we let it. How is life? Wonderful. Really, truly, peacefully, in the golden light of sunset, with a backdrop of mountains, on a carpet of lush green, surrounded by kind people, wonderful. Wonderful.

For those three days, that was more than enough. Wonderful.

 

fighting.

Lovely one, if you dare to dream, you must be brave enough to fight.
-Lisa Bevere

There are all kinds of fighting in the world. Every minute of every day, there is fighting happening somewhere.

Last night, a bunch of us girls got together for a movie night, but we were disrupted before we could even push play by a loud and angry dispute in progress next door. We sat together, some of us getting up in agitation to converse mutely with the guard about our options, many of us with our hands over our mouths, as we listened to both man and woman shouting at each other, the woman’s high-pitched screaming that went on and on, the clanking of a chain, the barking of a dog. After peeking over the separating wall, our compound’s guard assured us that the chain was not being used on the woman, that the bitter words were being thrown around equally by both man and woman, and that there was no need for us to intervene. As you can imagine, his words did little to comfort those of us who tend more toward action than patience. Fighting.

I read an article this morning about human rights activists in Western Sahara. Caught in an occupation situation the world has forgotten about, they struggle daily with the oppression and brutality of Morocco. These activists have enduring torture, jailing, and harassment, yet they maintain that it would be better to die than to live in fear. Fighting.

In South Sudan, nothing…absolutely nothing…makes sense. Another generation of children is being lost to continued unrest and misery in Darfur. Rebels and governments armies continue to clash, to kill, to massacre, to loot, to frighten. Refugees and displaced people are running in every direction, and even those who do make it to a camp in safety face desperate conditions, including malnutrition, crime, and scarce water.

My neighbor, upon seeing me shuffling around on our porch this morning, beckoned for me to follow her down to her residence. She showed me the newest member of her family, a tiny tuxedo-colored kitten with a pitiful mew and very little meat on her frail bones. My neighbor informed that she’d found the little one wandering around the road just a few minutes from our gate. After inquiring after her owners, she was confident the kitten had been abandoned, and she decided to bring her home. In a world where so many children are abandoned, mothers die in child birth, young boys shoot each other with guns they shouldn’t even know how to hold, chemical weapons are used by despot dictators, and spouses beat each other out of frustration and desperation, I think it would have just been one tragedy too many for my neighbor to have passed this starving kitten by and left her on the roadside. We read the news and are bombarded by anger, violence, sadness, despair. My neighbor, and most people I know, cope by doing the little things they can every day. They work against the injustice in front of them. She wasn’t going to let this little thing die if she had anything to say about it. Fighting.

I consider my options for the future, both for my career and personal life. I read the news and good books. I write. I go to work, and support an organization doing vital human rights work on the ground. I do the little things I know how to do to help this one organization and, by extension, the people they work for. The people they fight for. I don’t know exactly what the next few years hold for me, where I will go, what I will do, who I will meet, but wherever the wind takes me, I am both driven by a fire for justice and motivated by a still small voice that whispers in my ear: is that the best you can do? Whatever I do next, I know I want to fight. Somehow, in some way. For justice, for children, for peace, for rights, for full bellies and free minds, for acceptance, for unity. When you come to find me, you’ll find me fighting. Fighting.

Of all the types of fighting in the world, I wish we had more of the last two. Fighting against injustice. Fighting for freedom and peace and love. Fighting will always exist, but we get to choose what kind of fighting it is. In our own lives. In our own corners. Let’s fight the good fight, fight the just fight, and encourage others to do the same.

 

**Please check out my new blog: Stepping on Cracks. It is dedicate not so much to personal experience and reflection as to more professional and academic opinion and research about international development, politics, and affairs. I’d love it if you read my first post and, if you enjoyed it, subscribed.

castration, vomit, and other joys of dog ownership

Dark clouds threatened around the tips of the trees surrounding our compound as the gates opened to receive the local vet. I should have taken them as a dark omen for what was to come. The vet was here to carry out the very necessary procedure of neutering Tucker before he got much older, but other than that, I knew absolutely nothing about what the next 12 hours would hold. I didn’t even know if he was here to pick Tucker up or if the procedure would (seriously?) take place at our home. My housemate, Jon, had already outlawed canine surgery inside the house…not completely unreasonable, but that meant the porch was still available, right?

As you might have been able to guess, Vet Simon Peter was not here to pick up Tucker. I set aside my bowl of cereal and attempted to prepare myself for the unknown.  The vet had a nice handshake, but that was the only pleasant surprise of the evening. The dark clouds continued to close in, the wind was blowing, and little did I know, the fur was about to fly. It started with Doc claiming that anesthetic was given by weight, and since Tucker weighs about 7 kilos, he’d only give him enough to put him partially to sleep. Ok, two problems with that. First of all, why on earth would I want my dog partially awake while his two best friends were getting removed? Secondly, it has been months since Tucker weighed 7kilos. At this point, he weighs more in the area of 15. I tried to raise both concerns with the vet, but, in the manner that some Ugandans occasionally adopt when dealing with Mzungus* they find difficult, he breezed by my nervous questioning with a wave of his hand and a casual “it’s fine!” My brow furrowed.

Our first trial came with the administering of the anesthetic. The vet wasn’t exactly quick about it, and Tucker hates shots. I’ll let you fill in the details. Stage one finally ended with Tucker staggering around the compound and me firmly informing the vet that he needed to figure out a more efficient way of giving reluctant animals shots. Doc was starting to look annoyed with me, but the amount I cared would not have filled his bumbling syringe. Tucker is my companion, my friend, my stress reliever, and my responsibility. I love that dog, and seeing him hurting or upset was not going down well…particularly in the face of a nonchalant vet haphazardly wielding sharp objects. As the rain started to pour down angrily, I didn’t realize how much worse it could get.

As the first dose started to take effect, I bundled Tucker up and brought him back over to the porch where he consented to lay in docile acceptance while Doc shaved the area. I mistakenly thought that if he was accepting that indignity without a peep then the anesthetic must have been enough. Wrong. As Doc made the first incision, Tucker howled in pain and fear….which provoked a bit of howling on my part as well. By the time Doc went in for a second attempt, Tucker had been given another shot of anesthetic and the good vet’s ears were probably ringing slightly. Unfortunately, even though Doc plowed on ahead without hesitation, it still didn’t seem to me that Tucker was far enough gone. He moaned and cried in a muted way throughout the first half of the procedure, and by the time the Doc switched to the second testicle, I was very close to tears. Fortunately, the sedative seemed to fully kick in for the second half, and Tucker lay blissfully unaware through the rest of his de-balling. I was not so easily calmed, however, and by this time I had had enough of Doc. When he suggested we get a bucket of water and simply rinse the blood off the porch, I decided it was time for him to leave. Clutching his $12 in hand, the vet was escorted from the premises by one tightlipped Mzungu* with curly hair and a serious attitude.

I returned to the carnage to find Tucker starting to show signs of life. I moved him inside and set about cleaning up the destruction on my porch. Thank heavens for my angel of a neighbor who not only sat with Tucker and I throughout the ordeal but offered her natural disinfectant in the wake of Doc’s early exit. Thanks to her and a few minutes of deep breathing, things seemed to be looking up. The next hour or so passed without incident as Tucker slowly came out of the stupor. I was lulled into complacency.

So there are three possible explanations for what happened next. Either Doc decided it wasn’t necessary to fill me in on possible side-effects of the anesthetic, he overcompensated after my first tirade by giving Tucker far too much anesthetic, or Tucker’s stomach just couldn’t handle the copious amounts of sedative after a day of rummaging in the garbage. I’m honestly not sure what it was, but I do know that if I hadn’t spent nearly two years cleaning up a children’s ER as a volunteer, I would NOT have been prepared. Several upchucks of epic proportions, barely digested stomach contents, nearly unbearable smells, and no paper towels. I will spare you the details of exactly how I managed to contain the damage. I’ll just say that it involved a knife, a dustpan, some toilet paper, and lots of disinfectant.

When Tucker and I finally settled in to bed, I thought the worst was over. Tucker seemed to be acting more normal, and I’d already said several prayers for a cessation of hostilities. I drifted off to sleep hopeful. Apparently, however, Tucker did not feel like he had sufficiently expressed his disgust with the day’s events, and I woke up to more dog urine covering my floor than I thought it was possible for one puppy’s bladder to hold. In the interest of fairness, I should mention that Tucker was cowering in the corner, clearly mortified. I doubt the voiding was intentional, and it’s hard to be mad in the face of such obvious apology.

Thankfully, I had gotten up with 2 hours to spare before having to go to work, so I had plenty of time to wash my entire floor, the hallway, the kitchen (where the first vomit apocalypse had occurred), and the porch (the source of all this evil) with hot water and disinfectant. Several emergency cups of coffee, a quick rinse for the pup, a long shower for the human, and I was ready for work! Hoorah.

*white person

falling forward

Walking is falling forward.

Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle – an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go.

[...]

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts.

Paul Salopek

Too often I find myself apologizing for a dip in my blogging frequency. For the past six weeks, I’ve been at home taking a breather… relaxing, talking to friends over coffee, watching basketball with my dad, running errands with my mom. All very normal things, yet they felt deeply meaningful to me after nearly 9 months on far-off continents. My time at home helped me recharge, unwind, and prepare myself both mentally and emotionally for my next adventures.

So here I am back in Gulu. Falling forward.

There are a lot of things that I’m not sure of right now: how long I’ll be here. what exactly I’ll be doing. how my salary is going to work. what I’ll be doing after my time in Gulu is up.

What I do now is that I’m here now, so the only thing to do is to keep on keeping on. As Paul Salopek says so eloquently, to fall forward. Like Mr. Salopek, I too feel as if I’m performing a daily iambic teetering in pursuit of an idea, a story, perhaps a folly. I’m on the search for a better, more equal, more peaceful world. Some days I’m immensely hopeful, and other days things happen that make me want to retreat into myself and grieve for love forgone.

On my first day back in Gulu, I was playing basketball with some friends when I badly sprained my ankle. My first night. It was definitely not what I would have planned for myself if given the choice, but as I sat panting from the pain in my living room immediately following the unfortunate incident, I had two thoughts. Number One: this sucks. Number Two: well, I’ve never been injured in a foreign country before…this should be interested. Turns out I was right, it has sucked, and it has definitely been interesting. For a while I felt helpless and incapable and very stressed out, but once I was able to drag myself out of my pit of self-pity, I managed to see it as an opportunity. My time in Uganda has been one lesson after another in just keepin’ on. This was my biggest test yet, and while I’m not yet completely healed, I do feel that I’m out of the woods. The key is just to keep falling forward.

With my return to Uganda will hopefully come my return to regular blogging, and I hope you’ll continue on this journey with me. As I write this, nearly ten people have packed themselves into our small kitchen to cook dinner, chat about our days, and discuss what awaits us in the week to come. With their warm presence I am reminded that so much of what we face in life is made easier and more enjoyable with company. So I hope you’ll all continue to keep me company as well. Stay with me as we continue this daily act of faith…marching, slogging, running, creeping…some days slow, some days fast…susceptible to fatigue but never despair. Always in pursuit of those ghosts hovering just on the edge of possible. I believe someday we’ll catch them together.

Whatever the next few months hold, bring it on.

 

leaving, grieving, and believing

There are over 500 people gathered at the three central gas stations serving Gulu town this morning. They’re jostling, jockeying, and most of all waiting a long time to fill their tanks with the ever-dwindling petrol supply. The source of the shortage is a mystery to everyone I’ve talked to. This alone is odd – Ugandans almost always have a theory. It started last week when the power supply was particularly bad and everyone was running their generator, but the shortage has persisted long past when it should have been alleviated. Boda drivers are scarce, and the ones that are running are charging 2 – 3x what they normally would. Field work has ground to a frustrating halt. People are running out of gas and propane for cooking. It has been this way for nearly a week, and yet people line up at the gas stations en mass each morning, hoping that there might be a few available drops to be squeezed into their tanks. Most of them are turned away disappointed.

Dry season trudges determinedly on. Dust has become omnipresent…collected on floors and tabletops within minutes of sweeping,  invading your eyes and nostrils, setting up camp on your cheeks, knuckles, and toes, nesting in your hair, burrowing under your nails, and wafting through the air in great clouds after passing cars. The heat is pressing, as if you’re trapped in one of those easy-bake ovens we so loved as children, and it seems to sap your limbs of willpower. Even when my hair is up, the stragglers lay damp and listless on my neck, and my clothes cling to my skin like needy children seeking constant attention.

They just killed two chickens out back. I think they’re going to be eaten at the luncheon celebrating my time at GWED-G. Like nails on a chalkboard, the sounds of their final moments run along my skin and raise goosebumps, making me cringe and my heart beat faster. It’s ironic that they’re dying for me and my leaving, and I make the mistake of glancing out the window…I can see one running around headless after escaping the confining grasp of his executioner.

It is from this stage that I soon take my leave. Tomorrow, I’ll take the morning Post Bus to Kampala, spend the night with a friend, and finally fly homeward on Wednesday. After 6 months, many kilos of beans and rice and posho, countless hours on the back of a motorcycle, one motorcycle accident, 3 exhaust pipe burns, 164 cold showers, 51 days without power, and hundreds of mosquito bites, I finally turn my eyes home…at least for a while. I’m leaving Uganda. Such a strange thought when most of my dreams have begun and ended with this internship for nearly a year. I’ve accomplished many things in my time here – both personal and professional milestones have been reached, lessons have been learned, and realizations have been come to. And now it’s time to go.

Particularly in the last four months, I’ve made friends here in Gulu. Good friends. If I’m being perfectly honest, better friends than I expected to find. People who have accepted me, bruised and imperfect as I am. People I genuinely love being around, who make me laugh and help me cry. Men and women who are, in the ways that matter, kindred spirits and beautiful souls. I am so incredibly lucky to have met them, and I am grieving our coming time apart. They have made me better for knowing them, even in such a short time, and their absence will leave a hole. I also have a dog now! Tucker. A thoroughly Ugandan mutt who doesn’t understand how to politely walk on a leash but can ingest pretty much anything without so much as batting an eye. He’s endlessly sweet and snuggly, and he’s been a perfect companion for stressed evenings and quiet mornings. Though I know he’ll be in good hands in my absence, I’m still mourning the loss of my new shadow. I’m sad for the loss of other things, too. Cool mornings quietly sipping coffee and making to do lists as the sun comes up in that slowly, slowly, then all-at-once way it has here. Boda rides with the wind whipping in your hair. Lazy days by the pool. Challenging but fulfilling days at work. Passions, a fire stoked.

More than anything, I think I’m grieving the days when leaving didn’t always feel like a division. When my heart belonged only to one place, one home, one state, one country, I could successfully return from a new destination and not feel as if I’d left part of my heart in transit. Not so anymore. Whether it’s the people or the work or the land itself, part of my heart will always be here, in this time, with these friends and colleagues. Just as part of my heart will always be home, with family and dogs and soft mattresses. Maybe that’s a sacrifice we make when we choose this life of wandering. Maybe it’s the price we pay for freedom and wings. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, but it doesn’t make leaving easy. No matter where you’re leaving or where you’re going, there’s always a slight tearing.

So there’s grief for sure. But behind the grief is a deep cool well of refreshing belief. I might be leaving Uganda, but I’m also coming back. I’ve extended my contract with GWED-G until March, 2015. So I’m coming back to the land of gas shortages, power outages, dust, poverty, frustration, corruption, disappointment, long waits, bumpy roads, and hungry eyes. I’m also coming back to lovely friends, wonderful colleagues, work that drives me and fills me and follows me, generous spirits, great music, good food, warm handshakes, long greetings, belly laughs, nourishing sun, and quiet mornings. When I get back, I’ll be moving into a new house and taking on a new role at work – Livelihoods Manager, working with the livelihood components of multiple projects to help get vulnerable women and youth back on their feet economically.

Like the people in line at the gas station this morning, I suffer no illusions about where I’ve chosen to leave a piece of my heart, the place I’ve chosen to return to. I know that there are times I’ll be turned away empty-handed. But hope and belief are a powerful team, and I have both in abundance. It’s hard not to when you walk out of your gate in the morning to the sight of a slight woman – carrying a baby on her back, firewood on her head, a jeri can in one hand, and a bag of tomatoes in the other – singing in a high, clear, beautiful voice about the glory of God and the beauty of the coming day.

Goodbye Uganda, but only for now.

these eyes have seen worse

When I arrived in Adjumani, Uganda, I found the place pleasant and serene. It’s a quaint town, and despite the already intense heat at 9 am, I liked it. But I hadn’t come for a vacation, and everything was not as it seemed.

Adjumani is home to the largest refugee camp for South Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda. There are several camps set up, but Adjumani has received by far the most people as they fled for their lives. In Numanzi 1, there are nearly 25,000 people, and the camp is seriously overcrowded. Also in Adjumani, Barutooku is much smaller but still holds 7000 people. The next largest campsite is in Arua and houses 8,500 people. Numanzi 1 is receiving around 400 new people every day, a significant improvement from the 3000 pouring in daily a few weeks ago, but our contacts here fear the worst as the recent ceasefire turns out to be holding very little water.

Can you image increasing food supplies by 400 people every day? What about increasing it by 3000 people every day?

We visit the camp right away in the morning, and though I’m not shocked as easily now as I was when I first left home in July 2013, I must admit that I am stunned. The camp is an undeniably desperate place. Mothers and children crowd what sparse shade is available under hot plastic tents. Endless lines snake toward water points meant to serve 50 people at the most. Exhausted looking women trudge along the road and down rough paths carrying impossibly large bundles on their heads. Crowds follow around the seriously overworked staff from UNHCR and OPM (Office of the Prime Minister). Everyone looks edgy, stressed, angry, and tired.

We stop with our contact to talk to a few of the self-appointed refugee leaders under a food distribution tent. In a camp where 85% of those seeking safety are women and children, all of the leaders we speak to are men. They seem angry with us, saying that so many NGO’s have come to talk to them, but nearly all of them have gone away now and never come back. How much I wish in that moment that I could just snap my fingers and funding would appear instantly to meet their desperate and basic needs. There is so much lacking – adequate and abundant shelter, enough water, enough food, enough latrines, any waste pits at all, even the most basic hygiene items, household utensils. There’s nothing. Many are arriving on foot, carrying with them only the little they can carry on their long journey. Organization are here, of course. UNICEF, UNHCR, OPM, ACORD, Oxfam, Save the Children, Lutheran Worldwide Federation, World Food Program, and others. Despite the effort, though, the available resources are woefully lacking when compared to the size of the need.

In the short term, emergencies supplies of nearly everything are desperately needed. No one is passing out supplies for reproductive or maternal health, no one is passing out personal hygiene items as basic as soap, food supplies are not enough, people are only getting an average of 5L of water per day when the international standard is 15. I asked our partner contact what we could offer, saying that we didn’t want to duplicate the efforts of others. He simply looked at me and said no matter what we brought, nothing would be a duplicate. There’s not enough of anything.

In the longer term, the refugees will need emergency education services, basic livelihood support, and social coordination to prevent Gender Based Violence (GBV). Mothers need a safe place to give birth. Children need adequate sanitation services to avoid the classic killers such as diarrhea when the rains arrive.

They need everything. As we talk to them I look around at the crowd that has gathered. They’re frustrated. Many of them look exhausted, burnt out, upset, even angry. A few smile at me, but even those who do have tired eyes. All I could think was, these eyes have undoubtedly seen worse. As horrible and desperate as life here is, as awful as the camp is, these eyes staring back at me have seen worse. These eyes. These eyes that are so like mine. It could easily have been me standing in their shoes had I not been born in a more peaceful place. That thought alone is enough to haunt and drive me.

when your boss is MIA

Sorry for the blogging hiatus, everyone! Between getting back to Uganda, moving into a new place, and starting work again, things have just been a little nutty. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to blog at least every other week. Let’s see how long it lasts, shall we?

At work, I have two people working over me that I report to. In other words, I have two direct bosses not including the Director of GWED-G. My first boss broke his arm in the same motorcycle accident that scraped me up a bit in early November, and he only returned to work this Tuesday after getting his arm plaster removed on New Year’s. However, he’s still not up to driving a motorcycle, a fact that seriously restricts our movement in the field. Even if he could drive, he’s been gone for almost two months and is seriously behind on everything we’ve accomplished, dealt with, decided, and brainstormed within that period. My second boss, the one who WAS here for the past two months, didn’t take his vacation days over Christmas and is instead taking them now. Monday was his last day. So the only person left in the office who is really caught up on what is going on with the project and what needs to be done is…..me.

No pressure, though.

The start of the New Year has brought its usual flurry of activity and resolutions. Everyone has their own personal goals for the year, but the turning of the calendar is also a prime time for everyone to give feedback on things they’d like changed or done better from here on out. It’s a time when people are asking about the game plan for the next few months and wanting to lay out milestones. It’s time to lay strong groundwork for the focus and goals of the year. In other words, it’s a perfect time for both of my bosses to be a bit MIA.

No big deal.

I found myself feeling a bit glum last night, unready for the sudden influx of responsibilities, queries, and tasks. I was feeling overwhelmed and unhappy with the situation, but as usual, working here provides you unique opportunities for perspective. I’m pretty much living that anecdote of the man who approaches God and asks for a smaller cross to bear. When God allows him to pick from an entire warehouse of other people’s crosses, he picks the smallest one, and it ends up being the same one he started with. The point of the story is that you never know what heavy crosses others are bearing, and many people are living with much heavier burdens than you could imagine. Whenever I feel a bit overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks and the heavy responsibility before me, I think of other people involved in the project who have so much more to deal with than I do. Our field-based staff are the ones doing the real work on the ground, and if I think I have a tougher job than they do, I’m delusional. You try organizing large groups of war-affected youth into productive, cohesive units that adhere to a specific savings and loan methodology. I don’t envy them. One of our field staff members, a man I’ve become friends with over my time here, recently had his home burned down along with EVERYTHING in it by his neighbor as retaliation over a land dispute. In another land dispute, one of our savings groups had their cashbox stolen. The home it was being kept in was struggling with another family member over disputed land, and the other family members came and stole everything they had except the clothes on their back. All their hard work, all their savings, gone in one disastrous night.

Land dispute. Sounds fairly tame, doesn’t it? Here it can be violent, and it can be devastating.

When reporting gets me down or I’m overwhelmed by constructive feedback or my to-do list tops three feet long…whenever I’m tempted to feel upset or sorry for myself…these are the people I remember. The ones who suffer setbacks I can’t imagine surviving and yet find in themselves a seemingly bottomless well of toughness. They fight on and so will I. Because we’re in this together. All of us. We’re in this together.

 

If you’d like to contribute to the project, sponsor a group’s livelihood efforts, or give a contribution to help any of these people get back on their feet, please email me at emi.kihslinger@gmail.com.

playing frogger across europe

I feel the title of this post deserves a bit of explanation. First of all, I haven’t been able to stop saying “playing frogger across (insert location of convenience here)” since our friend Rebecca visited us at UW Madison a few years ago. Apparently she and my roommates were jaywalking across University Avenue, one of the busiest roads in Madison, and a bit of hilarity ensued. It had to do with weaving a couple cars and tragically biffing over the bike lane divider. By the time everyone had limped, dashed, weaved, bobbed, and tumbled across the street, one person was bleeding, one person was in a tree, and Corinne’s cousin had already called her to ask if it was her who had been playing frogger across University. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to witness this miraculous display of street-crossing prowess, but believe me, hearing about it was nearly as hilarious. So ever since that time, I’ve had a propensity to use the term “playing frogger” quite a bit too much. I hope you’ll understand where the predisposition comes from and forgive me.

The second reason for the title is that I do feel like it fits somehow! For those of you who don’t know, Frogger was a computer game we used to play in the ’90′s. It was great. It involved, among many exciting activities, hopping from lily pad to lily pad collected letters or numbers or words or whatever depending on your level. I feel like that’s a bit what I’ll be doing this Christmas: hopping from country to country collecting memories and snippets of time with dear friends and family.

Lily Pad #1: Edinburgh, Scotland
Collected: 5 GLORIOUS days with my soul sister, Sarah Lang, and her delightful roommates in a city I fell in love with two and half years ago when I visited for the first time. We’ll eat a ton of delicious western comfort food, wear woolly socks, snuggle with blankets, light candles, talk about life and ambition and plans and permaculture, possibly have the toothpaste olympics (don’t ask unless you’re really prepared for the explanation), and generally just have a fantastic time. Not to mention the city is the birthplace of Harry Potter. Which makes it, like, a quadruple whammy for me. So pumped.

Lily Pad #2: Brussels, Belgium
Collected: Another lovely 5 days of waffles, museums, seeing friends I met in Uganda who’ve since gone home, and…wait for it….a little time by myself!!! It might seem weird that I’m looking forward to a few days on my own in a hostel in a strange city, but if it’s weird to you it’s probably because you don’t live in a compound in Uganda with 10 people in your house and another 20 people in the other house in the compound. This compound is less than a quarter acre in size. Cozy. So yes, I’m going to enjoy sleeping until whatever time I’d like without being checked on (still breathing!), curling up with tea and a book for hours on end without the TV blaring or dogs howling, and just generally NOT TALKING to people for a few hours at a time. It’s going to be blissful.
After a few days though, undoubtedly I’ll start to get a little restless. I might even start making lists, help! To save me from this self-initiated cloister, MY BROTHER IS MEETING ME ON THE 28TH!!! Did I mention I’m excited about it? He’s flying into Brussels, and the next day, we’re off to my third and final lily pad….

Lily Pad #3: Dusseldorf, then Berlin, Germany
Collected: 7 days of pure delight. In addition to my brother’s company, we’ll also be meeting my friends Nate and Cosette from college! After studying in Spain for the semester, Nate is off on an awesome European adventure. Cosette joined him, and we’re all meeting up in Berlin for the New Year! There may be pints involved, but I can’t be sure. Tank and I are stopping in Dusseldorf for a night before proceeding on to Berlin, where we’ll take in some football (the lesser kind, unfortunately) and I’ll drag Tank to a couple museums he doesn’t want to go to. I’m really really hoping there will be snow to play in – I bought a warm hat just to prepare for that possibility. Fingers crossed. Then on New Year’s, Berlin erupts in celebration. Tourists pour into the city to ring in the new year, and I’m excited to celebrate the milestone with a global community.

So that’s it! I’m leaving today, so wish me luck. I’ve come this far without losing anything major – or getting anything stolen, for that matter – and I’d really like to keep the streak going. Look out for a blog about each lily pad.

Merry Christmas everyone!

the battle for kindness.

A few things have happened lately to reminded me of the importance of kindness. I’ve been the recipient of great generosity recently – in both small and large ways. And as moving as the grand gestures are (and as grateful as I am for them), the little things are what have provoked the biggest emotional response from me. It’s always been a bit confusing to me why doing something so small, however thoughtful, for someone else can be so important. In trying to unravel the mystery, I’ve discovered a few things, and I’ll try to share it with as much clarity as I can muster.

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” -Mark Twain

Our lives are filled with big things. We’ve all got problems, worries, challenges, and priorities that can loom huge in our lives. It’s like the moment in a theater when someone passes close in front of a projector and blocks out the entire movie for a moment. Though that one person is much smaller than the screen, they come so close that their shadow blocks everything else out. Whatever beauty, excitement, love, or happiness might be taking place on screen, all we can see is a shadow. I think that’s how our lives are sometimes. Life is so full of beauty, complexity, and abundance, but that’s easy to forget when we’ve got a big problem that covers life in it’s shadow. I’m not saying these shadows are unique or even that we have to get rid of them. We all have our own shadows, some bigger than others, and it would be impossible to banish them completely. I don’t want a life without shadows. All I ask for is the ability to see around them. Doing little things for others, taking a few minutes to write someone a nice message, doing a small favor, smiling genuinely at someone you pass on the street, can really change someone’s day. I think these little gifts mean so much because they require us to focus our attention away from ourselves and the shadows we follow for a few moments. The require us to heft up the corners of those shadows, struggle under their weight, and glimpse, for once, the potential beauty, caring, and unity that waits for us in a life undarkened. We have to focus on the need of another instead of the needs of ourselves. When someone is able to do that for us, it’s wonderfully touching. It means that they put down their own cares for a moment and thought of us. It’s a beautiful feeling.

“Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.” -Leo Buscaglia

While putting your personal shadows aside for a moment to attend to the needs of the person in front of you might take a little extra emotional work, I think it’s worth it. Actually, I think it’s one of the greatest kept secrets in the world. It takes intentional effort to put your personal problems aside, but once you do, you’ll get the chance to be in on the secret. The secret is that once you’re finished being generous with your emotions and time, once you’ve parted from the other person and returned your attention to your shadows, you’ll find that they aren’t as dark as they were before you put them aside.

“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.” -Chinese proverb

If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that everyone carries their own cross. You never know what storm other people are going through, so it’s always in your best interest to be unnecessarily kind. If we could all realize that shadows are universal, then maybe we could all decide to put them aside for a while and allow ourselves to connect with each other at our most pure. We could give and give and give of ourselves to others without feeling like we wouldn’t have enough left to deal with our own troubles. I don’t believe that those who give the most are also those who receive the most. I truly believe that giving IS receiving. Somewhere along the way we got lost. We started believing that there was only so much time and love and joy in the world so we had to grab it quick for ourselves before it ran out instead of spreading it around. We started believing that our shadows were so huge and all-consuming that we couldn’t spare even a second to tend to the small, daily needs of others. We couldn’t be more wrong. Scarcity is something lazy people made up as an excuse not to listen with an open heart, give freely of your time, and make small efforts. The more you give, the more you have, not the other way around.

“Kindness is loving people more than they deserve.” -Joseph Joubert

Say you’re having a really crappy day. Maybe your boss yelled at you or you flunked an exam or you just stepped in a puddle and discovered your rain boot has a hole. You’re in a really terrible mood when you walk into a coffee shop to get a pick-me-up. Instead of glowering at the menu, being short with the barista, and shlumping over to the corner table to nurse your wounds, pay for the drink of the customer in line behind you. Once you start turning those little dark moments into opportunities to spread light, you’ll discover a well of optimism inside yourself that you never knew existed.

So let’s start a new trend, you and me. Be more kind than you have to. Smile more than is really normal. Give of yourself. Then give more. I could say you’d be doing the world a favor, and while that might be true, you’ll also be doing yourself a big favor.

the most valuable banana in the world

What would the most valuable banana in the world look like? Is it made of precious metal? Or is it an extraordinarily rare variety? Well, I’ve found the most valuable banana in the world, and I can tell you it’s neither. It is about 4 inches long, overripe, and freely given in a moment of human connection by a destitute street child in Kampala, Uganda.

Let me tell you the story.

When my parents were here visiting, we spent a night in Kampala before heading to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The city was not my parents’ favorite stop of the trip. They found Kampala crowded, edgy, and just a bit overwhelming, especially for their first trip to Uganda. On the morning we were leaving, I think they were both grateful to be headed somewhere quieter, greener, and all around more manageable, but Kampala was determine to leave it’s mark on our memories before we left. Leave it’s mark it did.

We were stopped at a stoplight in the downtown area. We chatted lazily, just waiting for the green light to get out of the dust and noise and into the countryside. While sitting there, I noticed a few young girls, they couldn’t have been older than eight, sitting on the sidewalk next to our car. Their backs were to the street, and they were huddled close to the wall. Clearly in their own world, they were enjoying a few bananas that stood out bright and incongruous against their dusty skin and dirty, torn clothes. I noticed that the older girl kept turning around to glance shyly at my dad sitting in the front seat of the car. Leaning forward, I quietly advise him to smile and wave at her. “She’ll love it,” I said. He smiled. He waved. And the girl was so tickled, she nearly fell over giggling. Her companions reacted similarly, and the moment was a beautiful one. A middle-aged American connecting on the most basic human level with a young Ugandan girl living in the street…all with a smile and wave, but it got better.

What happened next was so fast. In a moment, the light turned green, and we were gone, but what happened first has been forever seared into my brain. As the light turned green, the girl suddenly leapt to her feet and dashed to the side of the car. As we pulled away, she gave my dad the biggest smile and held out her banana to him. She stretched toward the car, trying to reach my dad’s hand with it. She didn’t hold out an open hand in a plea for assistance or money. She didn’t simply want to get a better look at us. She wanted to give him the banana. Unfortunately, we were pulling away so fast that he had no time to grab it, but I will never forget how that little girl looked. Balancing precariously on the curb, stretching toward our car with her only little banana clutched tight, her face broken into a massive grin, openness and generosity radiating from her like a beacon.

That girl, and that moment in Kampala, will live in my heart forever. This girl clearly had nothing. She was sitting, enjoying what was probably a real treat for her and her friends…fresh bananas on a Sunday morning…but in an instant she was ready to joyfully give what she had to a complete stranger in the spirit of generosity, connection, and love. Just writing about it brings tears to my eyes once again. Sometimes I wish I’d been able to snap a picture of her in that instant. I’d make copies and paste them everywhere – on my bathroom mirror, the inside of my laptop, the ceiling above my bed, the wall next to my desk….the inside of my ribcage. I’d want it everywhere I would see it frequently, especially close to my heart. I’d want it to remind me of the incredible gift the girl gave us in the simple offer of her only banana. Her generosity, joy, and kindness puts me to shame. What must it take to give everything you have to another person you don’t even know for the sole purpose of spreading love?

Though I never got that photo, I don’t need one. I remember the moment as if it happened five minutes ago. This girl gave one of her only precious belongings, a single banana, to my father because she could and because she wanted to. The banana was making her happy, so it could also make someone else happy, right? Instead of keeping that happiness for herself, she decided to spread it around. If only we could all remember to follow that girl’s example and spread our bananas around a little more often, too.