Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Heart of Darkness

There are moment here where I'm surrounded by situations so dark and frightening its difficult to explain.

Life in the U.S. is safe and secure. I leave my doors unlocked and travel alone without a second thought. I make it a point to not let my life be ruled by fear.

In Africa fear is real. We are not sheltered from the reality either in word or experience that as white women we are likely one of the most vulnerable segments of the population living here in Uganda.

All this to say that God has proven himself to be more real than I've ever known or needed before.

I survive knowing that my safety literally rests in God's hands. When I'm afraid and want to scream in frustration all of the sudden he's there; guiding, protecting, loving.

The song "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" comes to mind. I've sang that song many times in Sunday school without giving it a second thought.

I trust that he's holding me in his hands because, here in Africa, it's suddenly obvious that I have no alternative.

This semester is much harder than I anticipated but it is challenging all my flaws and fears in a specifically unique way.

All this to say that in Africa God is big, much bigger than I could have imagined or ever experienced in my life back home.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Life in Africa

Africa is unexpected. It is both difficult and familiar in all the ways you never imagined. Something our director said yesterday in class really struck a chord with me as I’m processing my first few days here in Uganda. He mentioned that if this adjustment was easy or non-threatening it would feel much more comfortable. Yet in this type of experience we only encourage the parts of yourself we don’t want to see developed; laziness, complacency, privilege.

In order to adapt to life here we have all had to throw our whole selves, body and soul, into the experience.

Here are a few basic details about life in Uganda.

My hall might even be considered luxurious by campus standards. We have running water including two toilets with actual seats! The showers are ice cold, which I absolutely hated at first but have learned to adapt to. We actually having a working TV that gets a few Ugandan channels. The Ugandan girls usually watch music videos or Telenovas (Spanish soap operas dubbed in English). We even have limited internet access on our very own front porch. Our hall is also backed up by a generator so whenever power goes out on campus we’re never in the dark for long. The lounge/common room where a lot of the Ugandan girls spend their time talking, watching TV and doing each others hair.

We also spend a lot of time on the front porch. Most of us Americans are used to January weather in the states, so we love to sit out on the porch and read or use our laptops, where the temperature is usually somewhere between 60-80 degrees depending on the time of day.

I share a room with another USP student Esther who is also from the states. When we finally arrived at 1 AM on Friday after two days of traveling with relatively no sleep I was honestly surprised to see how bare our accommodations were. I had known not too expect much but my room here is much less a home than the one I share with Erika at home. This was only my initial reaction though and now it seems quite normal. We each have a closet with a drawer. There is also a set of bunk beds with the ever present mosquito net, a small table with no chairs and a small shelf. It’s even too small to really be able to take a decent picture of.

Food is of course another major adjustment. Breakfast is milk tea and two slices of bread. You may even to be lucky enough to have butter on one or maybe even both pieces. We’ve been told by several Ugandan students that every once in a while we might get doughnuts instead of the standard bread and tea. Obviously there’s no Krispy Kreme here but we’re all eagerly awaiting our first Ugandan doughnuts if only to break up the monotony.

Lunch and dinner is always some variation on beans and rice. Sometimes we also get posho which is maize meal(Uganda’s flour) and water. It makes a solid white substance that has absolutely no flavor. Matoke is another option. Matoke is similar to a banana but less sweet. Instead of mashed potatoes here we have mashed or boiled matoke. Supposedly we can expect some kind of meat like chicken/pork every once in a while but we have yet to experience this luxury. We had pineapple yesterday with lunch, for which we are all very thankful.

Fortunately Ugandan’s eat their meals much later, except for breakfast of course. Breakfast is from 6:45-8 AM, lunch is 1-2 PM, and dinner 6:45-8 PM. This plus all the walking in the hot sun means that we’re all starving by the time meals finally arrive and will eat just about anything they give us.

We’ve all quickly learned that no one relies on only the DH (dining hall) to get them through the semester. You can supplement your meals with buying food/snacks at the canteens on campus or by walking into Mukono. You can buy various fruits, ice cream, meat, chapati (like a very thick tortilla that has been fried) and candy to break up the monotony.

Also Monday night I had my very first Rolex. In Uganda this refers to a chapati filled with eggs, vegetables and sometimes even meat. We were taken by Eddie, a Ugandan student, who is considered the chairman of Rolexes here on campus as he ate eighty of them last semester alone. There are several competing Rolex stands right outside the campus gates where Eddie took us to the best one and we paid only 700 shillings (about .35 cents in USD). The cook the Rolex on this little foot wide stove right in front of you. We ate them in the dark by the side of the road while the air smelled like smoke, African music played, and the boda-bodas rushed by. These are the kinds of moments where I feel like I’m truly experiencing what it means to live in Africa.

And lucky me I didn’t get sick from eating it!

The animals here are also different. There are chickens/roosters that fight in our front yard but only at 6 AM which is evidently when they want us to wake up. I have seen some of the most unusual but beautiful looking birds here. I have no idea what any of them are but they are amazing to look at. Monkeys here are very common. Today while I was waiting to go into my first class today there was a monkey hanging out in the tree across the path, probably only ten feet away.

It’s also very normal to see lizards on your ceiling at night. They are usually just in the lounge and don’t make it to our rooms, but I did see one by the showers the first night we were here. Monday night one of the newts on the porch ceiling pooped while hanging upside down and was very close to hitting one of the girls on the head which was hilarious for the rest of us.

Most of the Ugandans we’ve met have been very friendly. Sunday we walked into the nearest town (Mukono) and three UCU guys we’d met went along to show us the ropes. We’ve had a harder time getting to know the women but are told this is normal. They are generally more reserved and you will have to invest more time with them in order to develop a friendship.

These first few days have felt very similar to freshman orientation. We are meeting so many people and its hard to keep track of who’s who. Honestly the Ugandan’s all look very similar to us Americans. Its hard to tell them apart, let alone remember all their names. Today at breakfast, a Ugandan, Tony, told us that they think we Americans all look the same so its hard for them too. Everyone we’ve met speaks English but usually with a heavy accent. This also makes things difficult as you don’t want to have to ask someone you’ve just met to repeat themselves five times because you can’t understand them. Fortunately they often have difficulty understanding us as well which results in a lot of laughter.

Trips into nearby Mukono town are often frightening but very exciting. As a white American woman we are stared at, made comments about and are generally very vulnerable. It is also quite common to get marriage proposals from strangers. They assume that were rich and will take them back to the states to live in luxury. Many of the girls myself included have received several of these already. I know that being confident and not letting others know that your nervous is half the battle. I certainly don’t plan on spending the whole semester being afraid of every Ugandan man I meet and already feel fairly confident in navigating Mukono safely.

Traffic here is insane and actually poses the biggest threat to your safety. There are no traffic laws, stop lights, lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks, etc. The pedestrian definitely does not have the right of way, in fact its quite the opposite. You have to be very aware and carefully walk down the side of the road to avoid being hit by boda-bodas, cars or matataus. I don’t have any really good pictures of Mukono yet. Walking around waving a camera only makes you look like more of a rich white tourist.

We are stared at pretty much everywhere we go. Besides the other students in our program and the USP directors I’ve seen no other white people. I don’t mind being stared at but I’m starting to understand what it means to be judged for the color of your skin.

Friday we leave for a trip into Kampala (the capital) and Saturday begins our two week Mukono home stays. We’ll be living with a Ugandan family in Mukono and walking in to campus during the week for classes. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to use the internet during those two weeks but will update whenever I have the time/energy.

Love and miss you all!

PS-I've tried to post pictures but it takes forever too load them here. If you'd like to see them just comment with your email and I will send them ASAP.