Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Q & A: Life Uganda Style

Over the last year and a half I have been asked a few questions more than once. These questions range from where do you live- to what do you eat- to what kind of work do you do. Well, you get the idea. I thought I would use this post to give some answers to those of you with inquiring minds. I might even include some pictures…That is a technological stretch for me, but I’ll try.

Q:  Where do you live?

A: Now I live in Gulu which is in Northern Uganda. We moved here from Tororo during Christmas week. I am living in a house that has water and inside plumbing, electricity, screens on the windows, and real doors with locks. These are very valued perks when it comes to Peace Corps housing. The house is located on the grounds of the Archbishop of Gulu’s residence. The two or three acre compound which is the fenced-in area around the property also includes: housing for the workers, the Archbishop, some of the priests who work directly for the Archdiocese, a nuns’ residence, the Archdiocese offices, garages for vehicles owned by the Archdiocese along with a number of cars, trucks, and buses; assorted domestic animals, and under construction is a religious radio station.

The best part of the place is the menagerie of animals. Every day the guy in charge of the piggery opens the gates and the pigs come tumbling out—two mommies, one daddy and two generations of piglets—about 20 pigs in all. They come puffing and snorting from one end of the grounds to the other looking for any overlooked culinary treasures that they can snarf up. If the babies find something especially good, soon the bigger kids shove them to the side and they claim the find for themselves. However, if the mommies or the daddy see what’s happening, it isn’t long before they shove the kids out of the way and take the prize for themselves.

Then there are the donkeys. Steve says they are just like big dogs. There is Paul, the Dad; Enini, the Mom, and Deacon, the baby (Deacon isn’t his official name. I just think that if you’re a donkey living with the Archbishop you should be at least a deacon). They have the run of the grounds for most of the day. Steve has made friends with them and sometimes when I look out the kitchen window I see Steve walking back to the house followed by Paul, Enini and Deacon—he's sort of a donkey Pied Piper. If you pet one of them, God help you if you don’t do exactly the same for the others. The other day I was cooking and had my back to the door. You know how you can feel it when someone is watching you? Well, I had that feeling and I swung around like a ninja warlock ready to defend myself. There stood Deacon, half way into the kitchen eyeing the veggies on the table with his big sorrowful eyes. He left without incident after I threatened to tell his Mom.

The house itself is more than adequate, but there are a few drawbacks. For example, we have to scrape the termite tunnels off the walls once a week, and shoot Doom (local insecticide) into every corner to keep them under control. The house itself is situated under two beautiful old mango trees. Now on the face of it, that sounds almost idyllic. We could probably just open a window and pull mangos off the tree. (FYI-mangos are my new favorite fruit) The bad news is that in a month or two when the mangos ripen, they will  jettison off the tree right onto our tin roof! We’ve had a preview of things to come when a stray mango fell before its time. It sounds like a monster thunderclap only inches away. The nuns who used to live here paid a welcome visit to us one Sunday morning a few weeks ago. They asked if we had had any mango action yet. When we said “No,” they just rolled their eyes and said, “Just wait.”

There is ample space in our little domicile. We have two bedrooms, an inside bathroom which also holds the laundry sink, a sitting room and an eat-in kitchen. There is also a large area outside the bedrooms which is called the wardrobe room. They don’t have built in closets here. I suppose most people don’t have enough clothes to warrant a whole room just to store them. But middle class folks do have wardrobes. These are cabinets about the size of an entertainment center with shelves on one side and a space to hang clothes on the other. We have two of those and a three door cabinet with shelves where we store “stuff” and clothes that can be folded. These pieces are all placed in the wardrobe room.

The only drawback about where we live now is that it is far from town. Without the use of a car, it means that getting to and fro can be a hassle. But slowly, slowly we are figuring out how to make this transition. When I lived in Tororo, the market was less than a block away so I could send Precious there two or three times a day if I needed to.

Q:  Who all lives with you?

A:  Steve, Precious and Mbombay live here with me. Steve, as you know, is my son, and Precious is my unofficial adopted son. Mbombay is the cat and the real boss of the house.

Steve came to Uganda in April after Mike died. He’s been working on various IT projects both in Tororo and in Gulu. I think it was very brave of him to come here—to leave everything familiar and venture out to new territory. When I came to Uganda, I had the back up of the US Government in the form of the Peace Corps. Steve calls himself an independent volunteer and what that really means is that he is on his own. This is a difficult place to be on your own. There are very few safety nets to protect Ugandans in case a catastrophe should arise and virtually nothing for non-Ugandans. In spite of the challenges, we have had many laughs since he’s arrived, and we have been able to share our sorrow. While not every day is a perfect day living in a foreign land with my adult son, there are far more really good days than bad. It is so good to have him here to share the experience. No matter how persistently I try, I will never be able to bring to life for others the full experience of Africa. Truly, you have to be here! And Steve is. We will have this collection of memories which span the emotional spectrum to share for the rest of our lives. And I am very grateful for that.

Precious is 14-years-old and has been living with me for a little over a year. Our relationship started out when we were living in Tororo. His aunty, Keziah, lived in the space next door to me. (You might recall that Keziah was my boss at MESAGE Uganda, my workplace in Tororo.) His mother, Robinah, lives in Iyolwa, a village about 25 k from Tororo. She is a widow with five children. Robinah sent Precious to live with Keziah to go to school in the city as the city government schools are thought to be better than the village government schools. The only problem for Precious with this plan was that Keziah went to her home in the village most weekends, leaving him in the city to look after himself at age 12. He would sit in the compound in back of the house on Sunday afternoons with a forlorn look on his face. By then he would be out of food, and he would be getting very bored.( AND God forbide that Precious gets bored!) So I would invite him to eat with me when I cooked—and then I would invite him to watch movies with me on my computer—and then I would ask him to run an errand for me—and then one day I turned around, and he was living full time with me.

He’s a great kid—obedient (usually), funny, lively, smart, and has never met a stranger. When I made the decision to move to Gulu, I asked his mother if Precious could come with me. She agreed. On Monday he will be going to school here. It is a new Jesuit run boarding school, so he won’t be living with me full time anymore. I am having a sort of empty nest attack, but I'm sure it will pass. It will be very quiet around here without him. And even more to the point, who will run to For God (local market place) to get sodas!!! I will really miss him. But, he will be back during holidays and maybe some weekends.

The third member of the household is Mbombay. He’s the ferocious cat who saves us from rats, mice and other assorted rodents. At least that was the original intent. His name, Mbombay, I am told is Swahili for ferocious. We named him that before we found out that he is afraid of rats! So, he really serves no useful purpose except to look cute.

Q:  What do you eat?

A:  Now we get into the nitty gritty of life here. It isn’t that Ugandan food isn’t good. It is. It is also very monotonous. Here are some Ugandan food rules:

1. All food must be hot—except fruit.

2. All food must be bland. The only spice allowed is salt—and lots of it.

3. There should not be more than five ingredients in any one dish—counting salt.

4. Beef is boiled.

5. Chicken is boiled.

6. Fish is boiled.

7. Veggies are boiled.

8. Matooke must be served with “soup.” (Not our kind of soup. Our kind of soup is not food. Ugandan “soup” is watery gravy.)

9. Fruit is eaten first.

10. Salads are not served. No lettuce or celery!

11. Chapattis (unleavened flatbread) are used as bread substitute—sometimes.

12. Many meals consist of only one dish—like Irish (potatoes) with tomatoes, onions, and salt. (Notice, only 4 ingredients)

13. G-nuts (peanuts) and popcorn are perfectly OK for breakfast.

14. Utensils are optional. At big parties you probably won’t get a fork even if the menu is rice and beans, but there is a hand washing station set up at the beginning of the food line.

15. Bring your own napkins! Napkins are usually available in restaurants, but seldom used at parties or in private homes.

The foods that sustain the typical Ugandan are: rice, rice, rice, beans, beans, beans, greens, boiled chicken (special occasions), boiled beef (special occasions), boiled fish (special occasions), posho (also good as a wallpaper paste), kwan kal (add food coloring to any leftovers and use as PlayDoh), sweet potatoes (great big root veggie—not orange but sometimes purple), fruits—bananas, pineapple, passion fruit, mangos; egg plant, cabbage, tomatoes, onions and green peppers.

So in my house we eat a lot of spaghetti with red sauce (did you know that you can make spaghetti sauce straight from tomatoes!), chili with beans and minced meat (hamburger), beef sausage and potatoes, egg salad, macaroni salad, Irish potatoes—fried, baked or boiled, beef stew(I bought a pressure cooker—best investment since I’ve been here), pancakes, avocado and tomato salad, fruit salad, and lots of bread. Many nights I have to make two dinners. Precious truly believes that macaroni salad and all spices except salt are inventions of the devil!

We eat well. But there are things we really miss—like good chicken. Steve and I salivate just thinking about KFC!

Q:  What kind of work do you do?

A: My new role in Gulu is yet to be defined. Ugh! I was hoping that I was walking into an organization that had established programs, staff who were trained and ready to go, and a plan for the "way forward." But, this does not seem to be the case. Please stay tuned. There is much work that needs doing, but what I will do specifically is still not clear. 

If you have any more questions that you would like me to answer, please email them to:  betsyj811@yahoo.com

Until next time--I miss you all and look forward to hearing from you. Take care of yourselves. Oh, FYI--finally have a mailing address:
Mary Beth Johnson
PO Box 914
Gulu, Uganda
East Africa

PS: Why do we call hamburger, hamburger? Why don't we call it minced meat?

Friday, November 26, 2010


What do you say to cover-up or at least minimize the fact that you have been grossly negligent for the last 15+ months? The old standbys like I lost track of the time, or my alarm didn’t go off, or I got sidetracked just as I was going to blank don’t really cut it in a case like this. So, the only thing left is the truth. And the truth is, I just procrastinated about writing in this Blog until it got too embarrassing to enter anything. Consequently, here I am with a major hole in my “African Adventures.” Dang! And I SWORE I would be faithful to this effort so that in my old age I would have these memories to keep me warm. Oh well, isn’t there some adage about “old dogs” and “new tricks.” I guess adages get to be adages because there is so much truth to them.

At any rate, I have been weighing the pros and cons of staying in Uganda another year and the pros have won. I have talked to Peace Corps, and they are backing my decision to stay. I have to do some paperwork, of course, but unless something happens unexpectedly I’ll be here until May 2012. I have decided that I am very lucky to be healthy, I have a skill set that is useful here, and I love bananas. What else matters? But the second half of my service will be quite different from the first half.

First of all I will be moving to Gulu which is in northern Uganda. Peace Corps has only been sending volunteers back to this region in the last 12 to 18 months. Since the late l980’s the citizens of Gulu district, as well as most of northern Uganda, have been at the mercy of the Lords Resistance Army (the LRA). The LRA fought to overtake the government of the current president, Yoweri Museveni. To date more than 65,000 people in northern Uganda have died, 1.8 million people have been displaced, and more than 22,000 children have been abducted and forced to be “child soldiers.”

Peace talks in 2007 began to bring some stability back to the area. But the IDP camps (Internally Displaced Persons) where thousands of Ugandans lived after being resettled “for their own good” did not totally empty until well into 2009. (Footnote: I was told by someone who worked in the IDP camps that the IDP camps were constructed to “protect” the population from the marauding LRA soldiers. BUT, the camps were built with the soldiers in the center of the camps, and the people they were there to protect circled round the soldiers. Hmmm, who was protecting who??)

Some may have seen the movie “War Dance” which accurately captures a snapshot of life in the camps and tells the story of some of the children including one child soldier. After visiting Gulu last week and talking to some of the residents, I discovered that the war has brought with it more causalities than those killed outright. Many of the children of Gulu were born and reared in the camps. When the families were told to leave the camps and return to their villages, it was not a homecoming for the children. This was the first time many of them had seen their ancestral homes.

Camp life has seriously jeopardized the culture of the Acholi people, and according to Sr. Beatrice “hooliganism” among many of the youths has taken the place of traditional Acholi values. It was interesting to note the many similarities between what has happened to the Acholi people, and what has happened in the United States to the American Indian.

And guess what? Alcoholism and drug abuse are very big problems in the area.

So, while I have mixed feelings about leaving Tororo, I am excited about this new adventure. And, yes, Precious is coming with us. He will be going to a new school that is run by Fr. Tony Wach. Fr. Tony is a Jesuit priest who spent most of the 70’s and 80’s at Creighton Prep in Omaha, NE. Yes, Virginia, it is a very small world. (Fr. Tony knew Suzie’s dad, Bob Miller, very well--Suzie is my sister-in-law, and I’m sure that some of my nephews and maybe even my brothers know Fr. Tony!)

I will be working for Caritas Counseling Center which is a Catholic organization responsible for running a certificate and a diploma counseling program, programs for HIV/AIDS clients and their families, child welfare projects, and “Coming Soon”…alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention programs! There are many NGOs in the area and according to our intel, there are a myriad of opportunities for Steve as well.

Wish us well. I hope that we can get moved by the end of December. Everything is pretty much on hold during December here in Uganda. So if we can get settled in December, we’ll be ready to work come January 1, 2011.


  • I have been working with a group in Mukuju and with the help of the Ward Parkway AA Group in Kansas City, we have opened the first AA Clubhouse in Uganda. The members are very proud of it, and we will have an official dedication between now and when we leave Tororo. (Mukuju is about 8 km up the road from Tororo.)
  • At Smile Africa, an outreach program for the Karamojong street children in Tororo, I have been running “How to Cope” groups for the women. We are about to graduate our second class. Yeah, team! It is so interesting to me that the stories these women tell about life with their alcoholic, are the same stories I hear in Kansas City. This disease is a universal avenger.
  • Steve, Precious and I visited Sipi Falls a few weeks ago. What a gorgeous place. It is situated in the Mt. Elgon area, and the views are lush, expansive, and unique. I am used to the rugged mountains of Colorado, but these are somehow gentle giants covered in green crops, banana trees, and home to villagers who climb up and down almost 90-degree inclines without sweating AND what’s more remarkable—no sign of terror!
  • Steve and I were both home in September for the first Mike Johnson Walk for Recovery. It was a splendid event, planned perfectly by two remarkable women—Cindy Christy with the ATTC National Office and Michelle Irwin with First Call Kansas City. If you haven’t gotten an opportunity to look at the website lately, there are literally hundreds of pictures up (www.kcrecoverywalk.org ) September 18, the day of the Walk, was a beautiful early fall day. Just exactly the kind of day that Mike used to grab Kevin and the two of them would “walk and talk” their way to and around the Plaza and back again. One of the most touching moments for me was when a young woman came up to me and said, “You don’t know me, but because of Mike’s story I have been able to stay sober. I believe that I certainly have another drunk in me, but like Mike, I might not make it back. I think about him often.” So do I.


    Uganda’s elections will be upon us soon. The presidential election, Parliament seats, and most of the local representatives will be elected in February 2011. When I ask folks on taxis or on the street who they think will win, they say Museveni. When I ask them to elaborate, they say: “Well, even if he doesn’t win, he’ll still be the president.” Obviously, for an American this is a convoluted response. But, according to Uganda political observers, and since my former counterpart is running for Parliament herself I have heard many hours of political discourse, that statement sums up politics in Uganda very succinctly. I have been told that millions of Uganda shillings in public funds are available to the sitting president to use on his campaign, and from the looks of things, he has spent millions and millions and even more millions. You can’t go anywhere without seeing his face, hearing his name, or running into an NRM tee-shirted person.

     Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps. It was 1961 when President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver unveiled their innovative plan to bring American know-how to developing countries. Since that first group of volunteers left the comforts of home to make a place for themselves in communities half way around the world, thousands of US citizens have served in hundreds of countries. I am very proud to be part of this effort. I thought the opportunity to serve had passed me by, until I happened upon an article in the Kansas City Star in the spring of2008. It was telling about the work of senior level volunteers, and explained that the Peace Corps was actively recruiting older people. Well, that was me! I was definitely older, and so I went to the recruitment spiel that evening at UMKC. Well, as they say—the rest is history. This has been a good move for me, and I am grateful almost every day that I’m here.

     Last week Steve and I went to the burial of a young man I have known since I came to Tororo. Odongo was his name. He was riding his motorcycle in town last week, and was hit by someone in an automobile. He was taken to three hospitals in three different cities, and eventually died at the hospital in Kampala. He leaves behind six children and a wife. I was very sad as he was one of my first friends when I moved to Tororo. He always had a big smile, great dimples, and teased me mercilessly about my butchered Dhopadhola.


    I have been living in eastern Uganda and the tribe that dominates the scene in Tororo is the Japadhola. The people are commonly referred to as Japs. I don’t know if the burial customs in other parts of the country are different, but here the family brings the body of the individual who has died home, not to a funeral parlor. There may be mortuaries, but I haven’t seen any. In Odongo’s case, his family brought him to his home in town, and many family members, friends and neighbors spent the night at his home comforting his wife and children and helping to plan the burial. The next day he was transported to his village where the burial ceremony took place.

    People are not embalmed so funerals are planned and executed within two or three days following the death. Commonly the coffin is a painted wooden box—sometimes with a window built into the top and/or the side so that the “late’s” face is visible. Following the burial ceremony, the coffin is buried in a family plot located close to the homestead. The graves are dug using picks and hoes by friends and neighbors, and usually there is some cement work around the grave to permanently mark the spot.

    For the ceremony large, open-sided tents are erected and the event is held outside. People with money have some very elaborate tents, while the poorer families use all sorts of make-do contraptions to keep the sun and weather off the grieving guests. It depends on how important the person is as to how many people will attend. But everyone is invited, and everyone who comes is fed before they leave.

    The Order of Service is a mix of religion, politics, and testimonials from friends and family. At Odongo’s ceremony, many of his friends gave testimony as to his loyalty and kindness. His father and brothers told about his value to the family and extolled his virtues as a family member, son, husband and father.

    In due course I was asked to say something. In this case, I knew Odongo and I was able to talk about him from my heart. But, I have been to other burials where I didn’t know the decease, and I was still asked to speak. The best I can tell, it elevates the “late’s” status to have a Muzungu at the service, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether we know the deceased or not. Of course I was happy to speak about my friend Odongo, and how he helped sooth my transition into life in Tororo. I told how I would pass the veranda around the corner from my house on sunny mornings, and there would be Odongo ready to greet me with a big, dimpled smile and an “Intiye nedi?” My response was a garbled “Antiye maber, kosa in?” And no matter how unintelligible my Dhopadhola was, Odongo always gave me two thumbs up. It was sort of our ritual.

    After the friends and family, come the politicians. The more politicians, the more important the individual was. Burials are prime spots for aspiring political candidates to meet potential voters—and it’s free. Usually the political speeches take up to hour. No one seems to think it odd that politicians take a key role in burial ceremonies. In fact it is an honor to have a whole herd of political animals parade before the microphone and speak kindly of the “late” and end by asking the people to remember them at election time. Of course since elections will be in February 2011, politicians come from everywhere in the District to have the opportunity to meet their constituents and at the same time console the widow.

    Then comes the religious part. There are often three or more preachers, who seem to compete with each other as to who can whip the mourners into the greatest frenzy. This part lasts about an hour depending on how many preachers there are. In the case of an Anglican or Catholic burial, there is usually only one priest who speaks and the rhetoric is held to a more endurable level. Prayers are said, hymns are sung, and then it’s time to eat!

    While the guests are eating, the coffin is carried to the gravesite and lowered. Those who dug the grave cover the coffin with soil, and the burial is finished.

    Interestingly, pictures are allowed and even encouraged. At Odongo’s ceremony there was a videographer recording the entire ceremony. At one burial close family members of the “late” noticed that I had a camera, and they asked me to come take a picture of the body which I did. As I think about it, in our culture we seem to only want to capture the happy times—graduations, weddings, vacations, parties, etc. But as I think about the custom here, photographing our last moments on earth seems to give a more honest, real historical record of our life.

    One last comment on burials--When I returned to Tororo after Mike died, people were very concerned that he was cremated. Cremation is totally taboo here, and I was the first person many of my Tororo friends knew who had done such a barbaric thing to their loved one. I tried for a bit to explain my perspective on death and dying, but I decided that this was one area where we would always agree to disagree.

    So, my dear family and friends, this is the end for now. I appreciate hearing from you. You are always in my heart. Til’ next time…

Friday, August 21, 2009

Six Month's and All's Well...

My favorite character defect, procrastination, has set in. I haven’t updated my Blog in two months. There always seems to be an excellent reason why right now is not a good time to sit and record my thoughts. However, I am sitting here now, so I’ll start. (It was a revelation to me when I discovered that my tendency toward procrastination was really the way I operationalize my perfectionism! It’s always something, isn’t it.)

On August 14th I celebrated my six month anniversary in Uganda. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t seem that long ago when I joined the other PCTs (Peace Corps trainees) in my group for a 4-hour orientation in Philadelphia on Friday the 13th. I remember walking down to the registration desk in the hotel and meeting two of the men in the group—one from California and one from Vermont. All three of us had that wide-eyed, glazed over stare that said, “ Holy shxx, what have I gone and done now.” But as the rest of our group began to stream in, I settled in and started to enjoy the process.

In retrospect I can’t say that I had any serious doubts about this decision. Of course, I was so busy backing out of my life in Kansas City, that I didn’t have many unused brain receptors available for that sort of introspection. Also, one of the perks of being old is that I knew I could change my mind if this life altering choice suddenly—or over time—no longer fit for me.
The other night when my brother, sister-in-law, and I were Skyping (is that a verb?), Bill asked me if I was doing what I came to do. Was I helping anyone? The answer to that question is complicated. I can’t point to a project that bears my name, or to a cluster of individuals who are in better straits today because of me. But, I have two boys in my compound whom I love, and they love me back.

Here’s What I Mean…
Victor, the four year old, and I went to the library on Wednesday and checked out four books. When we brought them home, I tried to sit him down to read, but he wasn’t interested. Reading books doesn’t happen in his house where his mother works 12 to 15 hours a day at her restaurant, and the house girl spends her day watching Gift, Victor’s two month old sister. This morning as I sit here writing, Victor is sitting on my mosquito-netted bed “reading” his book. For me that is a success.

An aside…
While I didn’t look at every book in the Tororo library that might be appropriate for a four-year-old, I did look at many. I couldn’t find one that was in Dhopadhola or Kiswahili (Victor speaks both languages as well as more English than I speak Dhopadhola). I couldn’t find one book that had pictures of things Victor knows. He doesn’t know about trains, windmills, suburbia, department stores, raccoons, washing machines, jump ropes, skyscrapers or any of the things that are familiar to children reared in a western culture. Victor knows his compound, bicycles, chickens, cows, goats, his tricycle (his only toy), motorcycles, bicycle tires-as hula-hoops, cardboard boxes, and people. And, he is a very smart, curious, active little boy.

Then There’s Precious…
Full name, Obbo Precious. Precious is a 12-year old boy who is a student in P-6 (Primary 6). Two years ago his father died of cancer. He is one of five children whose names are as creative as his own. They are: Isaac, Flavia, Prayer and Congress. Precious is right in the middle between Flavia and Prayer. His mother continues to stay in the village with his two younger siblings where she is close to her very large extended family. Meanwhile, Precious lives here in Tororo with Kezia, his aunt and my boss. He attends school at Industrial View-- about a 40-minute walk from our place. Kezia stays in the space next door to me during the week, and then leaves for the village on the weekends. I become “Mama Precious” on Saturdays and Sundays. Precious is precious. He is soft spoken, pleasant, hard working (sometimes), smart, funny, active, interested, protective, curious, and so on…But, Precious doesn’t like, and, therefore, doesn’t do well in school. (Isaac and Flavia are both very good students.)

The educational system here is interesting. Only recently was access to primary school deemed a right of the people of Uganda, and the government began paying the “school fees.” The secondary grades—S1 through S5—are being phased in one grade at a time. However, the government schools are not equal in any way to the private schools according to almost everyone who knows about the educational process here. Many of the government school teachers are not paid for several months at a time; there is a shortage of books in the government schools so students have to check out their books for each subject and return them at the end of class; and the parents continue to need to pay for school supplies, school uniforms, school lunches, and special assessments for chalk, paper and miscellaneous supplies needed by the teachers. Classrooms routinely have a census of over 50 students each, in some cases as many as 100 or more. It is not unusual for a child to have only one bona fide class in a whole day because the teachers didn’t show up. The typical school day for Precious is from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

About a month ago I began to pay attention to Precious’s school work. Every night we would sit down and go over his work for that day. After we did his daily review, then he could play computer games. Interestingly, Precious has taught himself ( God knows I couldn’t teach him) to find and play games on my computer. Just so you know, computers and computer games are culturally neutral. Twelve year old boys are as addicted to them in Uganda as they are in the USA. (Is that good or bad?)

A few days ago he brought home his report card for the term. Unfortunately, the marks were not good. BUT, there were signs that over the last month’s time, he was improving. I have convinced Kezia that she and I should go to his school when the new term starts, and talk to his teachers. Hopefully, we can work out a study plan that will help Precious improve scholastically. In the meantime, Precious wanted to learn to type so we found a typing tutorial online. As expected, he is excelling at it. When he is finished with the tutorial and can type, I promised him that I would help him find an American email pen-pal. Anybody interested?

So from my vantage point…
I am not certain that I make a difference in Precious’s life, but I am certain that he makes a difference in mine. And that’s why I came to Uganda…

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I have been in Tororo almost two months now. I’ve been here long enough that I can move through town and some people recognize me and call me by name. I can walk to the bank and the post office without getting directions and without getting lost. I have my favorite vendors at the kisia (Dhopadhola for market), and I know where to go for paraffin (in the US we call it kerosene). My place is feeling safe and like home, and I know the neighbors in my compound and they know me. At night we often sit outside and chat as the sun sets and before the mosquitoes come out masquerading as harmless irritations. I have had a number of days when I’ve wondered why in the name of all the saints did I do this, but I’ve had more days when I was very certain that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It is still a jolt when I walk down the street and from some recessed brain cell a thought leaps into my awareness announcing, “I’m in AFRICA! Not just for a visit, but I’m living here for the next two years!” Interestingly, my life here is very real and in focus, and my life in the US seems very far away and a bit fuzzy. I’m not sure how that works. I think because the experience here is so different in every way from my life in America, that in order to survive, I have to concentrate full-throttle on the here and now. From the rituals of getting up in the morning to the rituals of going to bed at night, nothing is the same as it was in Kansas City. The closest exception is church.

MASS UGANDA STYLE: I have been a regular church goer since arriving in Uganda. I think I began attending regularly because there is a degree of comfort and a sense of familiarity with the rituals and the surroundings. It is easy to go to Mass. I know what to expect. I know how to act. I know how the others will act. There is no guess work. BUT…there are some notable exceptions.

Sunday Mass in Uganda is at least two (2) hours long. And even more remarkable than that is that no one leaves until the last words of the last hymn are sung! I have been to several different churches and the shortest mass was 1 hour 55 minutes and the longest was over 3 hours! That was the day the Bishop came.

One Sunday I was trying to place what was missing from the Uganda experience. It was crying babies. I don’t know what the parents do to the children here, but they don’t fuss, fidget, or fight. The older children (from about 3 yrs. To 13 yrs.) are herded together inside the altar rail on either side of the altar. They sit on straw mats, and their shoes are in a pile at the far edge. There is one older woman (every church in every country has this lady) who watches them with the evil eye. She praises God when she can bustle up and yank one of the children’s arms out of its socket and slam the budding delinquent back down on the mat. Then, she casts her flint sharp gaze on the rest of the children, daring any one of them to make a move. And, they don’t!

On counterpoint is the music. The music in every church I’ve attended in Uganda is strong, joyous, and sung with a gusto that causes those little hairs on the back of my neck to stand straight up. The singers are generally accompanied by a keyboard and three or four traditional drums. When the music begins, the church actually swells with sound and everyone sings. Many of the hymns are traditional Catholic hymns that I sang when I was at Blessed Sacrament grade school, but many are in the local languages and are moved by ancient African tempos. Every time I leave Mass, I feel better than I did when I arrived.

The Offertory is the time in the Mass when the “gifts” are given and offered as a sacrifice or insurance for our pitiful souls. In American churches that always means money is collected and then a family or some other respectable looking group is asked to carry the basket up to the altar. Well, imagine my surprise when in Uganda the Offertory comes around and people begin bringing up live chickens, baskets of produce, goats, matoke, cartons of soda, and all sorts of useful, usable merchandise as well as money. When the Bishop was here, he was given a goat. I think the goat knew the drill, because he started fighting the walk to the altar from the minute he was untied, and it took three people to get the goat into the Bishop’s care. Here’s another puzzle. None of the chickens try to run off or make noise. Why is that?

I found the Palm Sunday services especially compelling. Since I was a little girl, I went to church on Palm Sunday and the ushers stood at the back of the church and gave us some palm leaves as we entered. Every now and then I would wonder how these palms got to our church. Now I know! They come from the back yard of the Twegsige’s house in Wakiso, Uganda. Early on this Palm Sunday, Pamela, Anita and I got up and went out to the backyard to select the “right and perfect” palm leaves to take with us to church. As we walked to St. Jude’s, we met and joined the throngs of people arriving from every direction carrying their palm leaves. We entered the church carrying our palm leaves high. As the priest and the altar boys walked the center aisle of the church, everyone began gently shaking their palms making a swishing melody that accompanied the entourage to the altar. The spectacle was truly moving.

MOB JUSTICE: A few weeks after Palm Sunday, I saw a very disconcerting facet of life in Uganda. I still don’t know how to make sense of it. While the Ugandans I’ve met are bright, engaging, humorous, hard working, family oriented, principled, religious, smart, industrious, creative, articulate, loyal, trustworthy, polite, warm, and possess an almost endless list of positive characteristics, there is a very disturbing quality living close to the surface.

Around the middle of May, I witnessed an incident of mob justice that took place right next door to me. Kezia, Juma, Gonza (my co-workers), and I were having a meeting at the Mesage Uganda office when I heard some yelling and shouting coming from outside. I looked out and with a great deal of agitation, reported to my colleagues that there was a fight going on. They ventured out to investigate while I watched from the window.

Next door to us is a guest house—Ugandan style hotel. A young man entered the guest house, went behind the counter, and was in the process of stealing money from the cash box. He was caught. From there the story gets ugly. In less than five minutes a crowd of at least 30 people had gathered and they proceeded to beat and kick the boy. The temperament of the crowd, and the scene in general reminded me of a bad B-style movie depicting the days of Roman orgies that culminated in throwing the Christians to the lions. Even my colleagues were shouting, laughing at the spectacle, and encouraging those in front of the mob to give the boy what he deserved. I became very upset and finally convinced Juma to call the police. The police told him that they would come as soon as they could get fuel for their car!!

In the meantime, someone in the crowd decided that instead of killing the young man, it would be better to strip him naked and chase him through the streets of the town throwing rocks at him. Which they proceeded to do. Later that day, Kezia was at the hospital to see a friend, and the young man had been admitted. So, he lived.

I sometimes feel a violent current here that I haven’t felt in other places. Life in Uganda is very difficult, and there are no safety nets to protect people from falling into oblivion. If you can’t do for yourself or if your family can’t do for you, you are in a very precarious position. Police protection is spotty. Courts are for the rich. Healthcare is difficult to access. Income stabilization programs like Social Security or Unemployment Insurance are non-existent. Housing programs can’t begin to fill the need. Regulatory boards of all types are unreliable and generally impotent. NGOs (non-governmental organizations), CBOs (community based organizations) and even some of the faith based organizations are paralyzed by either a genuine lack of resources or by the siphoning off of funds by corrupt leadership. I don’t know where all of this fits yet, maybe I never will know. But people are often operating from a survival/subsistence stance. Many people don’t know when they will eat again, maybe today—maybe tomorrow--maybe not. It appears that often the prevailing attitude is get yours now, regardless of the consequences, because otherwise you won’t ever get what you need for yourself or your family. I believe it is collective rage which results from feelings of personal helplessness that promotes and fosters this particular type of violence toward strangers.

HOSPITAL VISIT: About two days after witnessing the mob justice scenario, I went with Kezia to visit Pastor’s brother. As we drove into the government hospital grounds, I noticed people having “picnics” under the trees, and I saw laundry hanging out on clothes lines strung between the buildings. The hospital compound is a collection of several low buildings, connected by walkways. Each building has a name: Maternity, Men, Children, Fractures, etc. We entered the Men’s building first. Pastor, his brother and their families live far into the village, about 20 or 25 km from Tororo. Pastor’s brother (I never did know his name, he was always referred to as Pastor’s brother) was hospitalized with a severe asthma attach. When we reached his bedside, he was gasping for air and very ill. He had an IV of some sort, and was otherwise unattended except when his family was there.

As I looked around the ward, it reminded me of the hospital scenes in movies from the civil war era. There were no screens or glass in the windows in any of the openings to the outside. No mosquito nets on any of the beds. Each bed had a different type of linen. When I inquired why, I learned that each patient has to bring their own linens, clothes, and food when they enter the hospital. This explained the picnic atmosphere on the grounds. Family members who come from long distances stay on the hospital grounds while their loved one is there. They cook, feed, bathe, and do laundry for their patient. As for medications, you must pay in cash each time the nurse gives you medicine. If you don’t have the money, you don’t get the medicine. This ward had about 40 patients. There was literally no privacy, no restrictions with regard to visitors, and no regulations to control contaminates brought in from the outside.

After we visited Pastor’s brother, we went to find our neighbor who had had a baby the preceding evening. It was about 2 pm and we walked right into the maternity ward. Again, no screens, no glass in the windows, and no Mosquito nets. I should point out that I sleep under a mosquito net every night. It is a Peace Corps MUST DO. Malaria is a serious problem in Uganda, and in the short time I’ve been here 11 people I know have been diagnosed with it. So, a hospital without mosquito nets is incongruous with acceptable care. The maternity ward was full, and as we walked the length of the ward I noticed a grandmother bathing an hours-old baby in a plastic basin on the floor next to the mother’s bed.

All in all, the experience made me want to go home, lock my doors, remove all sharp objects, pack myself in cotton batting, and not move until it was time to go back to the States in two years. Please God, don’t send me there for anything. It was a very depressing experience. As a side note, the medical care that Peace Corps volunteers get is excellent by all reports. If we are so ill that we need to be hospitalized, they come for us in one of the PC vehicles and take us to a surgery in Kampala or medi-vac us back to the States.

PS—Pastor’s brother survived and is back at his home.


  • African women have beautiful posture. I haven’t seen a woman yet who slouches. And they really do carry all sorts of cargo on their heads while small babies are tied on their backs.

  • Yesterday I was in a matatu (public taxi transport). 99% of the matatu's are converted VW vans consisting of 5 rows of seats and a small luggage compartment. There were 23 people crammed into the vehicle!! AND one chicken…

  • It is against the law to punish children by caning in the schools. However, it is still a popular means of discipline which is generally supported by the parents.

  • Domestic violence is a serious problem here. In a recent research study, a majority of the men surveyed in Uganda believe that women want to be beaten by their husbands. It shows that they are loved.

  • There are mud huts with thacthed roofs throughout the country and people do live in them. In fact two weeks ago, I helped re-mud the walls of one for a senior-senior citizen.The huts pictured in National Geographic are not just in some rare, out of the way place. They are everywhere.

  • Cows come by my place almost daily and eat the grass in the vacant lot next door. I’m not sure, but maybe the owner of the lot pays the cows for lawn service.

  • I’m having my first “dinner party” on Tuesday night. I’ll be making FROM SCRATCH spaghetti sauce! There is no Ragu available here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

So Far in Tororo...

Since my last post I have been on an emotional bobsled ride. I witnessed an incidence of mob justice, I made my first visit to an Ugandan government hospital, and I went to one of the villages with the TASO (HIV/Aids service organization) for an awareness event.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Almost a Month in Tororo!

It's hard to believe that I've been in Tororo almost a month already. I arrived here on April 22 after our "swearing-in" ceremony--at which I was asked to give remarks on behalf of our class of volunteers. A friend of mine said, "If you live long enough all your dreams come true. Bet you never thought you'd be class validictorian..." And she's right. I thought that boat had long since left the pier, but I also thought the chances of me every being in the United States Peace Corps was a dream totally out of the realm of possibilities. But, here I am.

I had to leave my Wakiso homestay family behind on April 19 and that was difficult. It was almost like leaving members of my real family. I'm not sure why I felt so close to them, but I suppose it is partly because they supported me during a critical transition. At any rate, they were very sweet and gave me gifts to remember them by--a beautiful carving of giraffes and a bark cloth purse. I have them displayed on my bookcase in my new home. Speaking of home...

MY HOUSE: I live in a building that has 7 other units. It is located about two blocks from the market and the center of town. It has electricity sometimes, and was advertised by the PC staff as having a flush toilet. That is technically true. However, in order to flush it, I have to carry a 5-gallon bucket (yes, another bucket) out to the facilities with me. What it really is, is a porcelain "throne" bolted over a pit latrine.

When we drove up to my new home and stopped, I nearly cried I was so upset. At one end of the block is a collection of "guest houses" that are attached to bars and rent by the half-hour. They attract a crowd very much like the inhabitants of the Bowery in NYC. There is a party going on day and night. At the other end is a furniture making establishment with hammering and sawing going on from 7 am til dark. In between and across the street is "Expert Motors" which is hidden behind a 40-foot wall of concrete. The street is dirt/mud/a river--depending on the weather, and the collection of individuals passing by rivals any Greyhound bus station in the US.

I have a "sitting room," a kitchen area, and a bedroom. There are big metal doors with impressive locks both front and back. My two windows are barred. The place came furnished with a table, three chairs and a bed frame. Floors are concrete. In the US when there is an old dilapidated building in a rundown, iffy part of town like this, investors come in and install an elevator and some metal doors just like mine; throw in a stool and a shower, sub-divide the space, call it a loft, and charge $500,000 for each unit. So, I've decided that I'm living in a loft in Africa.

Funny thing is, I've built shelves, had curtains made, bought pots/pans/dishes, etc. and now I call this place home. It even feels cozy and I'm on speaking terms with many of the characters who pass by.

Some of the logistics of living here are:
  • I pay John 200 Schillings per 20-liter Jeri Can to bring me water from the tap which is about two blocks away. (About 2000 Schillings to each US dollar so 200 Sch is about 10-cents) He brings 3 cans every two or three days--depending on whether it rains or not. I use the rain water I collect in some of my infamous buckets for mopping floors, flushing the toilet, laundry, etc.

  • I have a two burner gas cook top. I also have a dorm-size refrigerator that works when I have electricity. It really works out well, because I can't regulate the temperature in the fridge, so everything sort of freezes. BUT, the power goes off often enough that things stay about the perfect temperature all the time.

  • I bathe using cold water in my private cement stall that locks and is located out back with the "flush" toilet.

  • I go to the market about everyday. Yesterday I made beans and rice for myself for the first time. I have a few things to learn about cleaning the stones out of the rice, and picking both stones and bad beans out of the beans. Another Ugandan skill I need to learn.

  • Out my back door is a walled in area that all 7 tenants here use to cook, do and hang laundry, chat, and traverse to and from the latrine/bathing room/and the alley. At night the back gate is bolted an no one can enter the compound.

  • PCVs cannot ride boda bodas so I walk most places. I'm seriously thinking about getting a bike.

OK--that's enough for now. I'll try to write more this evening about my job, the people here, mob justice, and the health care system.

Love you all, and miss you everyday--mbj

Thursday, April 30, 2009


I have just finished my first full week at my new address. I'm in Tororo which is a 40,000-ish town very close to the Uganda/Kenya border. The town is big enough to have a decent internet cafe, but small enough that there is NO movie theater. It is a nice little place with most everything I need. My new house has electricity, but not water....more about Tororo later. So much has happened in the last month!

OK, I'll get this out of the way right now. I did NOT pass my language test, BUT I did improve. I went from Novice Intermediate to Novice-High (high meaning above intermediate, not high HIGH). But I was sworn in as an official United States Peace Corps Volunteer anyway. I have to re-take the test in 3-months, and at that time I need to be at Intermediate-Low. So, there you have it.

I have decided that Uganda is a land of B's--Bikes, Babies, Birds, Boda bodas, Blisters, and BUCKETS. Now about bikes. If you are going to get from point A to point B, you ride a bike--or walk (see BLISTERS below). In Tororo there are bike boda-bodas, BUT as a Peace Corps volunteer, I must wear my bike helmet if I ride on one. It's not like I stand out at all as it is--one white face among 40,000 dark Ugandans--but to wear a bike helmet as I sit on the rear fender of a barely-in-one-piece bicycle is the last straw. I haven't ridden one yet. I do intend to get a bike before too long, so stay tuned for my personal bike tales.

BABIES: All babies are cute. But the babies of Uganda are heartbreakingly cute. Everyday when I would walk to our training site in Wakiso, there would be at least 25 little ones from 12 months to three or four years who would run out of their houses an holler, "Hi, Mazungu, I see you." I was sort of like the "Today Show," I came on at the same time every morning and they never missed watching me go by. I made it my mission to teach them my name. So, at the end of my time in Wakiso when I walked by, they would holler, "Hi Maria, I see you!" I was very flattered until I found out that they were calling all of the white female Volunteers who walked by "Maria," thereby substituting Maria for Mazungu! Oh well, I find my humility lessons in the oddest places. But they were certainly cute, and they had the most beautiful smiles. They never failed to make me laugh, even on the roughest days.

BIRDS: Uganda has over 1200 different species of birds--more species than any other country in the world. In Wakiso I would sit out on the front porch early in the morning and at night, and study my language (fat lot of good that DID--but I digress). On many ocassions there would be at least 15 different types of birds in the yard at the same time. On the way to Raco Conference Center, the location of our training, there was a large tree--at least 50-feet high--that was home to a colony of weaver birds. The male weaver would build a nest shaped like a basket, and work on improving it very day (sort of like my brother, Bill). The males with the best nests got the best females (sort of like my brother, Bill). Every night the males and females would come home from wherever they'd been all day, and the party would begin. There were literally hundreds of birds visiting, rehashing their day, and preening for the opposite sex. Quite a spectical. Maybe we have them in the US, but I have never seen them.

Boda-Bodas: Well, I've written about these before. Boda Bodas are motorcycle taxis that whiz in and out of traffic faster than a speeding bullet. They don't stop for stop lights--those are just for motor-cars; they have never seen a lane that they couldn't breach; no truck is too big or too small to cut in front of; AND they are the most popular form of transport in many of the cities and towns I've been to. I am sooo happy that the Peace Corps forbids us to ride them. This is one rule that I'll obey!

BLISTERS: Gone are the days of grabbing an armload of whatever and jumping in the car. Now, wherever I go I walk. It is very interesting to observe how this one change in lifestyle can effect the whole. For one thing, I see my surroundings. I notice the people, and speak to them and they speak back. (an aside: Ugandans are very big on greeting each other. A young man sitting next to me in the I-cafe just now asked me for the time in America. I told him, and then he apologized for not greeting me.) I buy only the amount of stuff I can carry. I try to go early to wherever when it isn't so hot, and come back from wherever when it's cool. I walk to meet friends, to work, to shop, to go to church, etc. AND, sisters and brothers, that can cause blisters on a "tender-foot's" feet.

BUCKETS: This is truly the land of buckets. My list of bucket uses has expanded since I first observed this Ugandan phenomenom. Now I've told you about my bathing buckets (2), and my dishwashing buckets (2). I also personally own a footbath bucket (because I'm very rich and a princess-strike that--Queen), a garbage bucket, and a night "short call" bucket (when it's dark and raining and NO I WON'T GO TO THE PIT LATRINE NOW).

My favorite bucket has to be the Holy Water bucket Father used on Palm Sunday to bless us all. It was a light blue plastic bucket with a handle--sort of like my night bucket. In the US I have only seen sterling silver buckets with sterling silver sprinkler thingys for Holy Water. The sprinkler thingy was a grass handheld broom available in all the markets for 200 Schillings. I would like to report that it worked just fine!

OK-now that I have better access to the internet, I plan to add more to this soon. I'll tell you more about our training, our trip to Jinga and the source of the Nile, and about my new job and home.

Be well, email me, know that I love you and miss you like crazy! mbj-