Friday, June 27, 2008

Back from Bongo

Hey guys! It's been another long time, but I've been really busy. I had an incredible week in Tanzania (alias Bongo), which was actually almost two. Then I had to catch up on work stuff here and now I finally have some time for blogging.

My original plan in going to Tanzania was to visit some friends who I used to work with for an international organization called Pole to Pole Leadership. I won't go into that whole story here but suffice to say that our project did not work out in spite of a great deal of time and effort on the part of the international staff of volunteers. Four of the more dedicated of them rebounded by coming together to work on some other smaller projects and hope to start their own organization called EarthLasts?. They are currently on a biking expedition across Tanzania (check out and stopped to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and hold a small conference, or summit, at the summit. 
No, it wasn't really at the summit, but close enough. It was in a hotel in Moshi called Kindoroko, at the very top floor of like six and it took about ten minutes to climb up every time we went. We spent the better part of three days in that "Summit Bar" after I arrived on Tuesday almost two weeks ago. Present were expeditioners Dave, Jon, Aukje and Angus, from New Zealand, England, Holland and Canada, Marius from Lithuania, Myself, and later in the week, several local East Africans.

The first day, on which I arrived at 7am after two days and a whole night of... lets say interesting... busriding across Western Tanzania (I don't recommend it by the way), we started with a bit of a Pole to Pole debrief. It was very interesting because when the project went down, I was ready to move on, and I did. Others had a much harder time letting go, something I did not realize at the time. We moved on to talking about the EarthLasts? idea, and prospective and current projects, other ideas, experiences etc. It was good getting to know each other again after most of a year. For me, it was also really amazing to be a part of that group again. The energy those guys have is infectious and ... refreshing. Even though they understand a lot about global issues, they are not down or cynical about it, but excited and dedicated to doing their part. I found myself feeding on it, because after you experience those seemingly insurmountable things like poverty and disease and violence with your own eyes it is easy to lose that mentality. I wouldn't say I dispaired but I was just a lot more cynical and critical than I once was. The week reminded me of what we say at the Red Cross: I cannot do everything but I can do something; I will not refuse to do the thing that I can do.

On the second day, we filmed a short movie about the whole Pole to Pole experience poking fun at all the shortcomings and problems and remembering some of the fun things we did together. It was really really fun, and I can't wait to see the finished product. I will post the link as soon as they have it all edited and finished. My friend Bobo also came to visit me from Mombasa which is right across the border from Moshi. He helped us with the filming and got to know my friends, who he got to like very much. I'm sure he was infected with the crazy, fun energy the same way I was, not something you get from every Mzungu tourist who comes to East Africa.

On Thursday, the workshop day, the seven of us were joined by five local Tanzanians from an organization called "Trainig for Life" that counsels and teaches young people to make the most of their careers and lives. The six Mzungus conducted a series of workshops during the day on leadership, global issues, etc. Some highlights were us writing down the barriers to our goals and breaking them with our bare hands, singing in New Zealand Aboriginal language, listening to everyone's hopes for the world in the next twenty years, trying to make a paper house with a partner using one hand each, and discussing how our individual actions affect the world and ways of maintaining integrity. 

For me, the most incredible thing was having such an international group. People from four different continents and seven different countries, two of which are third world. When you talk about global issues with people from home, you cannot help but maintain a limited view based on your own country's perspective on the world. When you get many of those limited perspectives together, you really get something new. I did a variation on a workshop I learned at the Red Cross called Building a Culture of Peace. When I asked people to come up with international examples of themes of peace like acting out against injustice, forgiveness, compassion, understanding, etc, we got some very interesting stories of African politics and conflicts from the locals. I tried to explain that we have to adopt those themes in our own lives before we can expect world leaders to do so. We got a great story from a girl in the Tanzanian group who had just finished climbing Kilimanjaro with her friends and how they had all supported and encouraged and even carried each other up to the top and what that had taught her about the importance of helping others in your life rather than living for yourself. Similarly, a leader who leads for his people rather than for the power of it - who has a statue built for him rather than building one for himself, will be the more valuable and better remembered in the long run. We talked about the concept that one man's rebel is another man's freedom fighter and the complexities of building peace as well. I think we all learned a great deal from the day and I'm hoping we'll all stay in touch and keep the international community thing going.

Ahh, this always happens. I have to go. But I'll be back in town in a couple days and I'll finish about my week. Always too much to say. There's more about that day, written by all of us, at (remember the older stuff is at the end). Talk to you soon!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Challenges and Successes

One of the things I love about Africa is that an experience I would be talking about for months at home is just one more day here. Opportunities that would never come up at home happen all the time.

For example, two Thursdays ago I went with two other volunteers to Kabale Hospital where we helped out for the day in the operating room. Not everyone's cup of tea, but it was an amazing experience. None of us were qualified health care professionals, but we learned quickly. And we weren't entrusted with anything too arduous, just getting gauze and syringes and that sort of thing. The surgeons were very good, and arrogant and darkly sarcastic like surgeons all over the world I think. They often conversed with the patients during the surgeries, all but one of which were conducted under local anesthetic, and were very amusing. The one surgery that was done with general anesthetic (a man had fractured his leg and it had not been set so it was healed badly and was getting infected) he did not fall all the way asleep and we had to hold him down. I privately decided not to get any operations while I'm here. I have a really great picture of the three of us in our scrubs.

What we couldn't get over was how we would never have been able to do something like that at home. Not without extensive training. I'm sure it had a lot to do with us being white, but it still goes to show how easy incredible opportunities are to come by.

Another example: last week I helped teaching English in a grade 1 class. I was not planning on it, but the teacher pulled me in and told me to go ahead. Imagine 60 small black faces looking up at you expecting you to teach them something, when you don't have a clue what to do. We started talking about the weather and I drew some different pictures on the board and got them to repeat teh names of clouds, sun, etc. Then I got them to name various objects and actions, such as stirring a pot and asking them what I was doing ("you are cooking!"). Then they sang me a couple English songs they knew and I left.

This last week, we painted two of the classrooms at Kyabahinga Primary School where we conduct workshops two days a week. We did a couple layers of white, and then got the kids to put their handprints around the room in various colours. It was great fun. When we still had some time left before break, the children did a traditional dance for us, which we joined in on as we figured it out. They sang and clapped in time while a few danced. It was really special. None of those children have electricity in their homes, no radios or TVs, no CD players or iPods, but they are certainly not music deprived.

This week in swimming lessons, I helped teach a group of grade 6 girls the breast stroke. I'm getting the hang of teaching swimming and we had a really awesome lesson plan figured out. By the end, a bunch of them were really doing it.
It feels really good to see successes like that, and so much better when you know you had to figure it out on your own. At home, it would take a lot of training to be able to teach swimming, or design workshops for children or help manage a program for a non-profit organization. Here you are thrown in, and it can be daunting, but its amazing when you find out that you are up to the challenge. People believe you can do it here, so you do. At home, I think we are conditioned to assume we cannot do something until we are properly trained and ready, but I think we would all be surprised at how fast we can learn when we need to.

This week I am taking some time off and going to Tanzania, where some friends of mine are holding a conference. They asked me to do a workshop there, then I'll hang out in Tanzania for the week and head back to Uganda next weekend. When I get back, a bunch of the volunteers who I have gotten to know over the last few weeks will be gone and new ones will be here. I'm going to miss them. As I haven't mentioned them much, I would like to write a post introducing you to them. It'll be something for me to remember them by as well. And I think you'll like them. I have a pretty horrible busride ahead of me, so I'm going to go get some sleep.
I'll write again very soon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Leaving Again - part three (of three)

I am on a roll! I know its only been a couple of days, but I have a holiday today, and I'm in town, and the internet and electricity are both functional, so I cannot pass up this opportunity.

So where was I? Leaving Mombasa. I think one of the most difficult thing about traveling is meeting new people and getting to know them and then having to leave. The great thing about traveling on your own is that you really get a chance to branch out and meet people adn have experiences you wouldn't have if you always stayed with the same group. The bad thing is that once you move on, you're alone again.

Bobo accompanied me to Nairobi, cause he had to visit his cousin who had been jailed for accidentally buying a stolen car, and to help look after the cousin's wife and children. I said a difficult goodbye to him before getting on the bus to Kampala, and gave him a bit of money to get a passport. There are no jobs in Mombasa and he doesn't make much, but he wants to go somewhere where there is work os he can help support his family, especially his mom who has lost her job and is living in th slums. I told him maybe he could come and visit Uganda if he gets his passport before I leave, and if he can get the $40 for a bus ticket.

The ride to Kampala was hair raising. Including Momasa to Nairobi, I was on the bus for 26 hours, during which the bus driver rarely stopped long enough for the bathroom let alone food, and twice left without me, once when I went to pee and once at the border where I was arguing about the abysmal exchange rate and ended up paying the official almost twice as much for my Visa as I should have. Luckily they stopped not too far away and I was able to catch up within 15 or 20 minutes both times. Very luckily as my bags were still n board.

The road was also not very good and we were often jolted around in our seats, or tipped alarmingly as we passed petroleum tankers on the shoulder. A few times, I was holding onto the seat waiting for the thing to tip right over. Luckily I couldn't see the driver, so I could tell myself that he knew what he was doing.

I got to Kampala at about 11pm, with no guidebook (I lost it the day I got mugged in Mombasa), no Ungandan money, and not knowing anyone there. I got off the bus last, and a little nervously. A taxi driver saw me and said "Ahhhh! Mzungu, where are you going? Backpacker's?" I said yes, and went to collect my bag. I had to stop at the bank machine to get some cash, and I am glad to say that the man did not drive away with my luggage in the back seat. I stayed the night in the backpackers and got a ride to the bus station the next morning so I could get to Kabale. The receptionist had heard of Edirisa and told me it was run by Slovenians and I'd better not become a communist down there. I also met some other travelers and studnets there and a couple of American soldiers who were on their way to the Congo. I had some interesting conversations.

After another 8 hours on a seriously crowded bus, I arrived at Edirisa in Kabale, a small but clean and well-equipped hostel. I met some of the staff there and was told I would have to wait until they could meet and figure out the whole missing LFA thing. I had some food and spent the night there. For 5000 shillings which is a little under $3 Canadian.

The next day I went to the lake where many of the international volunteers and local staff live. It is indeed a commune, though there are only two or three Slovenians. It is ridiculously gorgeous there.
I was actually quite taken aback by the climate in Uganda. After the hot, dry coast, the lush greenness, coolness and hilliness were quite surprising. Its amazing to see the forests of Papyrus and Banana trees and the rolling hills covered with crops and dotted with farm houses. It rains often and is cold enough to wear a fleece jacket, especially in the evening. Lake Bunonyi (which means Lake of small birds in the local language, Ruchiga) is very quiet and calm and the view from the commune is incredible.

I moved my stuff into a small terra cotta house near the lake thatched with Papyrus. There was not very many people about, but I explored the place. They have three of four traditional dugout canoes and a a floating dock, a make-shift pool in the lake for swimming lessons, a canteen and a kitchen with minimal electricity that comes from a solar panel, a bar (that's right, with beer and everything), and several more huts where people sleep.

I am happy to say that my stuff is still in that my stuff is still in that hut. I was allowed to stay even though I had no training. That weekend, I made up for it in part by going with a few other new volunteers on a canoe trek around the lake, visiting some of the islands and small villages nearby. That was really amazing and I thankfully got a lot of pictures from both my camera and the others'. I also got to know John, from Ireland, Jamie and Carson, also from Vancouver!, and Moses, the local who was our guide. It felt strange to be in the company of Westerners again. All of my time adapting to Kenyan culture made me feel like a bit of an outsider there with both the locals and the Mzungus. I am over that now, but I still feel the separation of my white friends and I from the local Mchiga culture. I don't think there is much to be done about that while I am saying with Edirisa. At least, I am getting to know some of the local staff.

For the last week and a half, I have been helping with the Smiles program doing creative workshops with primary school kids near the lake. Last week we taught hygene, this week art and next week will be games and sports. The kids are amazingly cute and excited to learn as long as we can keep their attention. They love the Mzungu teachers. We also teach swimming, which many of the kids can't do despite the fact that they cross the lake on canoes daily. I don't really know how to teach swimming, especially to children that don't necessarily speak English, but they are eager to learn and we do our best. It can be quite rewarding actually.
I've learned about the commune as I go, helping to cook, doing laundry and looking after the compound. When I have free time, I take the 45 minute ride into Kabale and run errants, use the internet, and go out for food and drinks with the other volunteers. It is relaxed and social and fun.

Well, that about sums up my adventures to date. I'm going to continue with workshops and swimming lessons until more volunteers arrive min-month, at which point I will probably more on to another program. More news on that as events warrant.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Leaving Again - part two

The internet is working today, so time for another entry.

I believe I left off with going to Katherine's village on my last week in Mombasa. I really want to tell you a bit about that. Pictures would be best of course but my luck with pictures in Mombasa was beyond abysmal. But first things first.

Katherine's parents live in a village about two hours' bus (matatu) ride from Mombasa. They have a clean house with a palm-frond roof, two bedrooms, a store room and a dining room. They cook on a gas stove outside and the shower room and toilet were in separate small buildings. Because they had a gas stove, we were able to heat up some water for showering, which was incredibly relaxing. I hadn't had a hot shower Anyway, we did a little tour of the village, and I got to meet everybody. A lot of them were related to Katherine, whose grandfather (now passed away) had had three wives. We got to visit a mother with a newly born baby and took turns holding it and exclaiming over its cuteness.

There were a lot of kids in the village who wore disheveled school uniforms or ripped, dirty pants and dresses. Some of the families had difficulty feeding their children and Katherine's mom would feed them tea and bread in the wornings. One family in particular consisted of a bunch of children whose parents had died of AIDS and their grandmother who looked after them. The oldest boy made money for the family taking other people's animals out to graze everyday. He was about 13.

The Fondos owned a Shamba outside the village, which is an area of land in the surrounding forest of coconut trees, that a family can cultivate. We spent most of the morning after our arrival in the Shamba eating sugar cane, drinking the liquid from unripe coconuts and walking around to visit the people who lived close by. They also grew mangoes, oranges, bananas and pinaples, which were not ready, and maize, rice and casava in small plots. we took some sugar cane and casava back with us. What I liked the most was the fresh palm wine (mnazi) that the village boys would climb up the trees to collect. It is sweet and fizzy, unlike the more bitter palm wine we drank in the city. The longer it sits, the more bitter it becomes. We brouht some back to Mombasa at the request of Bobo and Jay, my housemates.

We were delayed in coming home because the Matatu never came, and we ended up calling Katherine's brother for a ride. We got home very late, and went to Katherine's where we met Bobo and Jay. Katherine's housegirl had cooked us dinner which we ate and then sat outside near the chicken coops drinking the wine we had gotten. I got eaten alive by the mosquitos.

The two days in the village were work-free because my colleague at WOFAK had told me he didn't need me. It turned out that Kodonde, the regional director had been expecting me in tthe office the second day. That was the beginning of a stressful few days.
I phoned and apologized profusely to Kodonde, feeling unprofessional, and told him I would be in with my final report on Sunday. That gace me two days to write it, but I didn't want to tell him I'd send it later cause I was already feeling guilty for missing my meeting with him (and supposedly some other people who had come to say goodbye to me). I spent Friday and Saturday evenings compiling a 12-page report of my entire stay with WOFAK and missed the Saturday night festivities cooped inside typing on a borrowed laptop until after 1am.

Meanwhile, I e-mailed Edirisa in Uganda to find out where I had to be in Kampala on Monday. A woman named Angelica promtly replied telling me that I had gotten the date wrong and was supposed to be there a week ago. I had missed the training and was not at all sure I would still have a position there. So I got a little more stressed.

The only upside of the whole thing was I gave myself an extra day in Mombasa to get my report in and say goodbye. I booked a ticket to Kampala for Monday night. I finished my report early Sunday afternoon, and went with everyone to a local soccer match. They were drinking and I joined in. After all, this was the last afternoon I would probably spend with everyone. In fact, by this point, leaving was starting to sink in and I felt pretty sad. I had gotten to know all these people really well. They had accepted me into their lives for the last month, which was an experience I could never have imagined before it happened. Just thinking about leaving the place I had gotten to love in Chuda, Katherine and my conversations about everything, Mweni and Bonge's pub in Mtwapa, Jay's crazy, bubbly personality, Bobo's shy enthusiasm under his tough exterior, and all the Ruff Howz gang who I had had some great conversations with and who had gotten me out of more than one tight spot... I knew I would miss them all. Even though it was strange to be a Mzungu in that setting, I felt like I really belonged there.

After the game Bobo and I, his friend Pain and a couple of girls Pain was entertaining went to a bar. I had a beer there, which was officially a bad idea. At some point in the evening, I dropped my camera amd had to put the batteries back in. The next morning, my memory card was missing. It did nothing to make my leaving easier. All the photos from weeks of working and living there, being in Katherine's village, all the faces I wanted to remember... Now I had to leave and I didn't even have the pictures to remember them by. That sounds melodramatic, but I was really upset. Still am, actually.
I wanted to go back and retrace our steps the next day, but Bobo told me, quite reasonably, "This is Africa, Bana." It wasn't the first time he'd said that.

I think, all in all, that the powers that be did not want me to leave Mombasa and made it as difficult as possible. But even if I had wanted to stay, I didn't have the money and Edirisa was offering free accommodation and food for up to three months (assuming I could still work there). I told them I would try to come back and visit before heading home in August.

And so ends part two. A mong part, I think, but as Ian wisely advised me, writing about what happened in Mombasa will help make up for the lack of photo documentation. I did take a few photos on the last day, and I will do my best to get them up online soon.

Thanks for reading!