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.

 

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

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.

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.

paying homage to my battered backside

It will be difficult for you to understand the title of this post if you’ve never experienced the roads in Uganda. Nowhere in SE Asia did I come up against such sorry excuses for roads, but I’ve heard that the situation is the same throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa. I haven’t travelled to enough of those countries to feel comfortable making sweeping statements, so for now I’ll limit my griping to Uganda.

When I was a kid, I remember that we sometimes took a certain route home from my grandparents’ house that took us over what my parents called “the Bumpy Road.” I remember giggling and giggling as we zoomed over the road, bumping and jiggling along. When I got older, I had the opportunity to drive back over that road myself, and while it wasn’t everything I remembered it being, it was still mildly amusing. The Bumpy Road was definitely bumpier than most roads we drive on in Waukesha, WI, and I was sad when they finally paved over it. If only I could see into my future, I would never have dared laugh at the state of that road.

My parents have been here now and have seen the carnage with their own eyes, so if you don’t believe me, feel free to verify with them. The roads here are indescribably bad. Rutted, potholed, gullied, narrow, flooded, muddied, crowded, lined with people, crisscrossed with goats, pigs, chickens, and children. Some patches of road feel like I’m playing frogger, weaving back and forth (there’s a “my” side and a “your” side?) to find the spare patches of passable surface while dodging families of goats, herds of cattle, women carrying massive bundles of firewood on their heads, and the occasional monitor lizard. Other patches feel a bit more like I’m riding over a washboard. Several times, I’ve even opened my mouth to hum along and feel how the road creates a motorboat-like sound without any effort on my part. Despite all the difficulty, I’m normally great at grinning and bearing it. They are, like many things here, just part of life, and to constantly complain about them would be annoying and counterproductive. However, I spent over 15 hours on a motorcycle last week due to a busy work schedule. That’s 15 hours of bumping, weaving, swerving, bumping, sloshing through huge puddles, choking on dust, bumping, breaking suddenly, and did I mention LOTS of bumping? After such trial, I feel it’s necessary to pay homage to the damage done to my rear end. By the end of the week, I was wincing just looking at a motorcycle. Thankfully I don’t think any real damage was done, but it has made me very grateful for a slightly slower schedule this week.

So here’s to everyone, local and international alike, who brave the roads here in Northern Uganda every single day. Here’s to the adrenaline, the skillful drivers, washboard stretches, the rare paved patch that fills you with disproportionate relief, and the sheer toughness of those that live their lives on those roads day in and day out. I salute you, brave sirs and madams.

On a more serious note, a definite ceiling exists for economic growth in the region if something drastic isn’t done to address transportation infrastructure. That’s a topic for another post, though.

5:30am how I hate you

When my alarm went off at 5:30 am this morning for the fourth day in a row, I nearly threw my phone across the room. Thanks to the foresight of Babs who insisted I buy the mother of all cases, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world for my phone. It only felt like the end of the world for me. It couldn’t be 5:30 already!! I could feel every bump in the road from all the motorcycle riding I’d been doing the past three days and the weariness in my limbs that comes from long hours in the sun. Day four. I can do this.

This week has been all about the new youth resource centers that we’re building in conjunction with CARE International. CARE is building several, but we’ve been involved in the construction of two: one in Patiko sub-county, and one in Lamogi sub-county.

Monday morning was taken up by driving from one side to the other making sure everything was in order for the official ceremonies on Tuesday and Wednesday. I think I probably spent about 5 or 6 hours on a bike….talk about sore cheeks, man.
Tuesday and Wednesday were the official ceremonies! They were exciting, energy filled, wonderful events, but MAN those were long, hot, exhausting days. Each evening, I could do nothing but go home and go to bed.
Today (Thursday) and tomorrow, we officially breaking in the new youth center with trainings on peace-building for vocational teachers and role model youth in Lamogi sub-county.

Our crazy week had meant a few things:
1) I have so much reporting to do. And paperwork to fill out. Ugh.
2) I am stiff and sore and growing to really hate these Ugandan roads.
and
3) I’m really tired.

However, there’s a fourth result, and this one is really the most important…
4) The youth of Patiko and Lamogi now have somewhere to meet, attend trainings, organize themselves, and receive services. They have these beautiful new buildings that will be partially their responsibility to take care of, and they can be proud of them. These centers mark real progress in infrastructure development, and they will facilitate more and better programs for youth in the rural villages in the future. Upwards of 200 people attended each ceremony to hear talks, listen to music, be entertained, and learn about what the future holds for them in these centers. I believe that they’ll come, that these centers will be places of learning and growing and coming together. I hope that meaningful work will be done there by all, and I look forward to being a part of it.

The center openings were held during the first few days of a campaign in the area called 16 Days of Gender Activism. It is a huge event put on by many different NGO’s, so the ceremonies also carried the theme of advocating for more peaceful households and putting a stop to GBV. Local musicians and singers came and performed songs with titles such as “Say No to Gender-Based Violence.” Everyone in attendance received the trademark purple 16 Days ribbon to show their commitment to ending GBV, and it was really a beautiful sight.

So yes I’m tired. Yes I’m sore. Yes I’ve still got dust in my hair even though I’ve showered twice. Yes I’m a little sunburned. But these past days have been inspirational, moving, and exciting. So was it worth it? Absolutely.

how to eat an elephant.

For all of you who read the title and gasped, have no fear. I don’t condone, in any way, eating elephants in the literal sense. So you can relax, tell your heart to start beating again. I rode an elephant in Thailand and think they are some of the most amazing, intelligent, sensitive creatures on earth.
The type of elephant I’m talking about eating is actually a big project. We’ve all run into them before: assignments, jobs, tasks, goals, etc that just seem absolutely overwhelming. Well let me just say, when I’m done here, I’m going to be able to give one hell of a talk on how to take on projects you don’t feel ready for.

I should have expected it really. I know myself well enough to know that I’m a master at biting off more than I can chew. A perennial over-achiever. Addicted to the thrill of not knowing whether or not I can pull something off. Committed to being over-committed. A professional at fitting 10 lbs of sh*t into a 5 lb bag (as my dad would say). So I really shouldn’t be surprised when I look around and find myself hip deep in a project of proportions I’ve never before attempted. It’s definitely the biggest elephant I’ve ever tried to eat, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared.

I remember being a sophomore in high school – just laying the foundation for what would become a lifetime of being over-involved. I was in the car coming home from school, and my dad was driving because I didn’t yet have my license. Sitting in the passenger seat, I distinctly remember suffering the first waves of stress and anxiety: am I going to be able to finish all my homework and go to basketball and manage the new member list for International Outreach and get in my service hours for IB/Service Club and on and on….Honestly, I don’t even remember the things I was stressed out about. Undoubtedly, they were mere shadows compared to the bigger and more vital things I’d take on later in college and life, but to me at the time, they were of huge importance. I was scared. Just like I am now. And my dad gave me advice that rings as true now as it was then: start with one thing. Focus on it. Complete it. Move to the next thing. Move from task to task until you’ve done all you can do for tonight. Then go to sleep.

I’ve never gotten better advice on how to deal with a big project or problem. It helped me deal with the stress of beginning to take personal responsibility for life and my place in the world when I was in high school, and it’s going to help me now as I attempt to craft my life and career into a message that’s worth the world’s attention.

Step 1: Make a list
Step 2: Make lots of lists
Step 3: Make sure you break down your list items into quantifiable, complete-able tasks
Step 4: Then start checking them off, baby. One by one.
Step 5: Sleep**
Step 6: Repeat

(**This step may, in extreme circumstances, be replaced by a high coffee intake, thought this is not advisable too many days in a row…It could lead you to do things others will find questionable, like balancing pillows on your head while parading around your apartment in your underwear saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Not that I know from experience or anything.)

I’ve come to accept that the type of fear I’m feeling now – when you’ve got a lot riding on your shoulders, and you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone – isn’t my enemy. It’s what drives me to make those lists. It motivates me to be creative, innovative, and persistent in checking off those tasks. And when I can go no farther and fall into sleep (hopefully), it’s what gets me up early the next morning to start again. I might be scared of what I’ve begun. I’m afraid that I won’t have what it takes to complete it successfully. Am I too young? Too inexperienced? Too naive? Maybe. But one thing is for sure, they’ll never be able to say it’s because I didn’t work hard enough.

So I’m off to make lists. I’m off to answer emails and read curriculum and design M&E. I’m off to write grants and network and plan. To make timelines and budgets and workplans. Then I’m off to sleep before I get up tomorrow and do it again. And again and again and again, because the people I’m working for are worth it and the good things that could come of my success are too great to not give it my all. I might be afraid, but I’m going to try to bring fear along as my friend instead of desperately trying to leave it in the half-unthought thoughts of near sleep. Together, we’ll make it.

Have you ever faced a project like the one I am? What strategies did you use to combat the anxiety and self-doubt that comes along? I hope that my philosophy sounds like a sound one. I’d love to hear your input, and if you’re busy eating your own elephant, know that you’re not alone in the struggle. We’re all together in that one thing at least – the ways we strive to make ourselves better people and the world a better place. We all get scared sometimes, but that shouldn’t be enough to stop us from dreaming big.

Dream on. Struggle on.

the two way connection between wings and bravery.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: sometimes you have to just jump and grow wings on the way down. Something along those lines, at least.

I think it’s very true, more now than ever. I’ve done things outside my comfort zone before, but never to the extent of these past few months. I’ve ridden elephants, killed cockroaches, made my way in new cities where no one spoke my language, gotten tattooed in Bangkok, gone dancing in Ugandan clubs, learned to speak (some of) a new language, said goodbye to friends and loved ones, and made new friends. It all required a certain level of bravery, I suppose. I had to be brave to try so many new things and go my own way. It wasn’t only bravery, though. Thanks to parents and friends who helped me grow into a confident woman, I also trusted my own ability to grow wings.

When I moved to Uganda, I was not equipped to deal with life here. It wasn’t that I was inept or didn’t have the ability, but no one could be fully ready for a country they’d never even visited before. I didn’t have the tools to succeed, and I knew it, yet I was still brave enough to force myself to move anyway – new job, new home, new city, new country, new continent – only 2 months after graduating from college. I promise this post isn’t just about tooting my own horn. I might have been brave then, but I’m braver now. I was wondering how that could be, but I think the path to more bravery is quite simple. You need to be brave enough to take that first leap, but when you find that you easily grew wings during the fall, it gives you enough courage to take the next, bigger leap.

Bravery isn’t about being born without fear. It’s about taking small step after small step toward self growth. When you realize you can handle risk and uncertainty, you are emboldened to be even braver. You need enough bravery to push you off the ledge, but then the wings take over. You grow them, glide on them, and they take you to new heights. Then you jump again, because you’re more sure than ever of your ability to fly. Risk and bravery form an upward spiral, and the best thing is that there’s always a higher ledge.

Here’s to the next cliff.

that one time i danced in a traditional ugandan wedding

A friend called me recently on a Friday night saying that he had a traditional wedding to attend the next day. His cousin was getting married, and he asked me if I’d like to join him. Of course I said yes without hesitation. I’d never been to a traditional Ugandan wedding and was excited by the prospect of a new experience. He said he’d pick me up at 9:00 am. Great.

9:00 am rolls around, Justin picks me up, we hop on a boda-boda, and we’re off to the wedding

9:15 am we arrive at the wedding, dressed up and looking nice, to find a bunch of people wandering around, beginning to set up tents, clearly not even near ready for the ceremony
Justin: “I guess we’re a little early”
Me: “hmmm it seems like we are”
Ever the optimist, I figured it couldn’t be long before things would start to come together and then we’d begin. Having gone without breakfast, I could only hope that lunch wouldn’t be too far delayed. What a silly girl I am.

10:00 am Waiting

11:00 am Waiting

12:00 am Still Waiting…but wait, the other family members finally arrived!
In a traditional Ugandan Introduction Ceremony, the bride’s family members and the groom’s family members (not the couple themselves, mind you) get together and negotiate the bride price. Usually there’s an unwritten agreement about what’s expected long before the actual day of the ceremony, but it can still get pretty tense if there are disagreements. Only after the two families have agreed on the price to be paid can the actual ceremony start. So there we were at midday, and the family had finally arrived to BEGIN the negotiation. Excellent. They disappeared into the house.

1:00 pm Waiting

2:00 pm Waiting

3:00 pm …you guessed it, still waiting.

3:30 pm They emerge!! Justin, who’d had to participate in the negotiation and had been gone all this time, said that there had been a few misunderstandings, but everything had been worked out in the end. Time to eat! Not.

After the families emerged, the ceremony began in earnest, and I must say, it was extremely enjoyable. A group of women danced their way into the yard, and the families acted out a drama where the husband-to-be looked for his wife to see if she was among those who had come to visit him. Finding that she was not, he graciously sent the group back, and the drama was repeated again with a second group of young women. The wife was again not among them. Finally, a large procession of many women holding fruit, flowers, and clay pots danced into the yard with the bride-to-be at the center of the group – finally she had arrived!! The groom again went through an elaborate show of searching for her, and there was much cheering, yelling, and ululating when she was “discovered.” Afterward, the couple gave gifts, cut the cake, and told stories. A local leader, the equivalent of the mayor, gave a speech, followed by words from both heads of household. All of these festivities lasted wrapped up around 7:00 pm.

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Woah wait, back up, I thought the title said you danced in the wedding??

Oh that’s right, let’s back up a little. For the final entry procession, the big one that I mentioned, they were apparently one lady short. The very front row of dancers was comprised of Justin’s sister Stella and the two flower girls, but apparently another dancer was needed on the other side of the flower girls to even things out. So they figured, let’s grab the only mzungu in attendance and see how she does. Sure, why not? I was approached by one of the bride’s family members, and she simply held out her hand. When I asked her what was going on, she replied, “we’re going to dance!!” Oh lord. I was plopped in the very front row of dancers, told to follow what Stella did, and given only one piece of advice: feel free.

When Ugandans say “feel free”, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as when Americans say it. In the US, we really only use the saying in the context of “go ahead” after you’ve asked for permission. As in, “Can I have one of your Pringles?” to which the Pringle owner would respond “Feel free!” In Uganda, they use the saying in a more literal sense. They mean don’t feel constricted by self consciousness, don’t feel embarrassed, don’t worry if what you’re doing is right, just do what you feel. Just feel free. There was no time for me to back out without being rude and causing a scene. The only thing to do was follow her advice, so that’s what I did. We danced in, leading a large group of women, and everyone cheered and clapped and sang and yelled.

And you know what? It worked! I danced to the music, I followed Stella’s lead, I beat my hand fast against my mouth in the Cowboys and Indians style of youth, and when my job was done, someone kindly led me back to my seat where I was surrounded by cheers and congratulations for a job well done. Above all, I felt free. Every time I caught myself feeling awkward, I pushed those thoughts away. I tried instead to focus on the overwhelming joy that was pummeling me from all sides. Aunties ululating, uncles clapping and cheering, children dancing on the sidelines, music blaring – everyone was radiating happiness. All I had to do was let it run through me instead of feeling self-conscious. The couple was clearly in love, and this procession wasn’t about me and my unsureness, it was about them! It was about their happiness, their hope, and their bright future, and I let those beautiful things move me. Afterward, everyone said they were surprised by how well I had danced! They weren’t the only ones, let me tell you.

I left the wedding feeling like I’d stumbled upon a priceless gem of wisdom, a secret with the potential to unlock countless difficult situations. The advice given to me by Justin’s auntie as she threw me into the spotlight gave me the courage to become a mirror for the joy and love that surrounded me. Feel free. What lovely words and how applicable they are for my life right now. Feeling uncomfortable? Awkward? Unsure? Intimidated?
Feel free instead.

Well don’t mind if I do.

ps: “Lunch” wasn’t served until 7:30 pm, and I ate as if I’d never seen food before in my life.

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and then my parents died.

and then my parents died.

It’s a phrase I’m hearing almost daily at the moment, and it’s usually followed with one or more of the following variations:

…so I had to drop out of school.
….so I got married at the age of 14.
…so I took over care of my 5 younger siblings.

I knew what happened here during the war. Theoretically I understood the life-altering violence that occurred. I knew people were killed. I knew people were abducted. I knew children were left with unimaginable responsibility. I knew there was trauma. But it doesn’t matter that I knew. Hearing it in person is as different as watching someone go snorkeling on the Discover Channel and being thrown headfirst into the ocean to dive with sharks. The emotional shock is core-shaking.

I’ve looked into the brown eyes of a woman who recounted her parents’ murder, her own rape and resulting pregnancy, and the five children she was forced to care for….at the age of 12.

12.

There’s nothing in the world that could have prepared me for the way my heart broke. No article or course or documentary can steel you against the grief you feel for the lives lost and the lives forced to bear such weight. Hearing it in person is different. Indescribably so. Hearing it in person fills me with a torrent of emotion that makes me grateful for the long motorbike rides back to the office. I need that time to process the grief and horror I feel on their behalf as well as the deep gratitude I feel for my own good fortune. It could easily, so easily, have been me. Those could be my steady brown eyes, my voice recounting that story. I didn’t do anything to deserve an easier life, but it’s what I was given simply because of the location of my birth. I never did anything to deserve the safety, security, and abundance to which I’ve become accustomed, and I know there’s nothing I could ever do to completely balance the scales. However, I find comfort in the knowledge that I wasn’t blessed wastefully. I will never let the gifts I’ve been given remain idle or go to waste because I will use them in the service of others always. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me – I have to fight for the tired but determined eyes behind the stories. The faces, voices, and real stories of the people I work with have touched me to the core. These connections are just the latest additions to my long list of things to be grateful for in this life, because their touch has energized me.

Hearing it in person is different. Hearing the horrible things human beings are capable of doing to each other, hearing the immense burdens some are forced to carry, and hearing the remarkable resilience of people who have no choice other than to simply go on is not easy, and it’s not fun. But I am grateful. Hearing it in person gives me purpose….

To never take anything for granted.
To fight.