Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rat Story

What is your favorite meal? What is your favorite soccer team? What is your father’s name? What does he do for a living? …..These are some of the questions that I ask our kids, Mercy Uganda’s Sponsored Children. No, it’s not my way of making awkward small talk. This is official business. In addition to documenting the children’s school information, tuition payments, and grades, it is also my job to document as much as I can about this child as a person. It can be challenging when I sit down with a child for the first time. American kids are groomed to share—share their opinions, desires, complaints. But Ugandan children tend to be different. It takes a while to draw them out. Quite frankly, the kids look at me like I’m crazy for some of the questions I ask. Why does this muzungu woman want to know if I like bananas or what my shoe size is?  Well, if I am going to drop by the school and bring a treat, I need to know if they would prefer oranges, apples, or bananas. And if a sponsor ever wants to give a child an extra gift of shoes, I need to have on-file what size the kid wears. I don’t tell the children my reasoning. It’s ok with me if they think I’m eccentric.
One of the best parts of these little interviews is how one simple question often leads to another, which ends up giving me insight into the culture that I never would have had otherwise. This September I sat down with Michael Ludungu, a newly sponsored 10-year-old from Karamoja. I learned that he has six brothers and sisters; he is a dedicated fan of Manchester United, and he gets malaria about four times a year. Normally, the answers to the following questions are not particularly interesting, bur there’s a first for everything:
“What is your father’s name?”
“What does he do for a living?”
“He traps rats.”
“You mean, he goes into to people’s homes and they pay him to kill the rats?” Hmm, I could use that. There’s a mouse in my home that has been evading capture for a week.
“No, not in the house. Just there—in the field.”
“How does he make money by catching rats in the field? Do rats damage your crops and farmers pay you to catch the rats?”
“He sells them”
“He sells the rats?”
“Why would anyone buy a rat?” At this point, John Lobali, one of our high school boys, interrupts to explain what should be obvious.
“People eat them,” John clarifies. He must find the reaction on my face amusing because a few moments later he cracks up laughing.
“Okay…” Where to begin with the follow up questions??? “Um, people, do they taste good?”
“Yes,” they answer in unison.
“What if the rat has rabies? Can’t people get sick if they eat the wrong rat?”
“That is the chance you take,” John says, still chuckling.

Well, there doesn’t seem to be much more to say about that, so we move on to the next topic. Later that afternoon when I am visiting the new well in Kokorio, I run into John again. He is happy to show me how people trap rats. It’s hard to explain with just words, but these pictures should help:

This is John holding a rat trap. It looks more like a bow than a trap at first glance. But if you look closer…

Barely visible in this photo is small loop where the stick meets the ground. When a rat runs through the loop, it tightens and catches the rat by the foot. Trappers tend to put the stick in clumps of grass where rats feel safe running around. Clever, huh?
Don’t be mistaken—eating field rats is not a typical African practice. It’s not even typical of Uganda. My husband is Ugandan. Even with the harsh poverty he suffered under as an orphaned child, he never ate rats or heard of anyone doing so. Karamoja is different. The poverty is extreme, incomparable to anything else I have witnessed with my own eyes. And yet, looking at John and the boys from the village of Kokorio holding a rat trap, they don’t seem to pity themselves or the fact that rat meat is the only meat their families will be able to afford all year. They actually seem quite proud to be able to show off what they have made with their own hands, to show me their resourcefulness in feeding themselves. Like I said before, the simplest question can lead to another question, which gives you a whole new level of insight into a culture.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Raining in Karamoja

Me in Karamoja during dry season, January 2011
Last week I saw rain. Amazing. Gabriel told me that I would see it—so much of it that I might get flooded. But for me, I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it for myself. Rain in Uganda is not unusual, especially now during rainy season. But Karamoja, the northern region I visited last week with Henry, has been plagued with drought for decades.

Dry Season in Karamoja

I moved to Uganda in January 2010. My first week in this country, I drove up to Karamoja with Laura (Mercy Uganda’s executive director), Gabriel, and Henry. This was a needs assessment trip to see how our new organization could assist the people there. I had never visited such a harsh looking landscape in my life. I saw many riverbeds, but they were all dry. There was nothing green. Nothing but massive thorn bushes could survive the oppressive heat. The Karamajong people were as poor as the land was desolate. There was no water. When a family managed to fetch well water, they weren’t likely to bathe, or even cook food. There was no food. But they might boil some old cow hides from their homes and eat those. The land in Karamoja was fertile, but it had not rained at all in Karamoja for four years.
The only plants that survive in drought are these thorn bushes

 By the end of 2010, however, it was raining again in the Karamoja Sub-Region. From my home in central Uganda, I heard reports of flooding, farming, and food. But by the time I made it back to Karamoja in January of this year, it was dry again. There was absolutely no evidence that it had ever rained, and I had to wonder—was this “rain” like those reports of “snow” I would hear when I was growing up in Florida?
Karamoja in Rainy Season
But on this trip I saw green fields and mountains. I saw mud! (The mud turned out to be dangerous on the way home—but I’ll save that story for another time.) We drove out on motorcycles to the village of Kayepas to check the progress of a well that Mercy Uganda drilled, and rain clouds chased us as we passed by acres and acres of sunflower fields. 

We saw this rainstorm in the distance from the village of Kayepas.

Even though this particular drought has ended, Karamoja has a very short rainy season every year. The rest of the time, the Karamajong are left to manage through the long dry spells. Still, this area is not without its resources, and its people are not without hope. Henry often says that the hardest part of helping people who live in poverty is getting them to change their mindset of helplessness—getting them “to use the little they have in order to get what they don’t have.” Mercy Uganda has a few projects in Karamoja with that very purpose. I’ll share more about those soon.
People from the village of Kokorio

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bird Scare

By the end of this month I will have spent a year in Uganda. I would like to be able to say that life here has made me tougher. Sigh…

I’m still afraid to touch a chicken—I mean, a live one with red eyes and dirty feathers. That’s the sort of thing most Americans would never give a thought to, whether or not they fear live fowl. Most of our encounters with poultry occur when it’s de-boned and wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. But in Uganda, if you want to cook chicken, you go to the market, find the vendor who has three stacks of caged chickens, and pick one out. Then the vendor binds up the bird’s feet and ties a plastic bag around its rump. You pay him 8,000 Ugandan shillings ($3.50), and take your dinner home where you’ll kill it, clean it, and cook it.

I bragged about killing a chicken once. It happened back in April. I wasn’t lying, but the part I left out in that Facebook post was that my friend Alex plucked its neck for me and held it while I did the slaughtering. I was very careful not to let my hand touch its body as I sawed through its neck with my Pampered Chef boning knife, screaming the entire time. The head wouldn’t come off easily, and blood was splattering on my feet, so I jumped out of the way with a girly squeal and let my friend finish the job.

Birds are terrifying. They have a wild look to their fiery eyes, monstrous claws that are waiting to scratch you, and sharp beaks that are waiting to peck you. Plus, they’re filthy. At least, that’s the opinion of this pampered American.

So imagine my chagrin when I’m up in the village this December visiting one of Mercy Uganda’s sponsored girls, and little Olivia (age 8) kneels down with a shy smile offering me a Christmas present—a chicken. It’s flapping. And she expects me to take it. With my hands. I’m hoping she can’t see the panic in my eyes because I know, I know, I know I can’t touch that thing! I’ve got only a few seconds to do something before I hurt this child’s feelings. I’m trying to make my hands reach for the bird, but I’m frozen. And then, a hero comes along. THANK GOD for Martin. He’s my guide who showed me to Olivia’s home. He steps in with an amused look on his face and takes Gertrude (that’s what Leslie decided to name it) for me.

Chicken is a luxury for most Ugandans. People look forward to eating it on special occasions (chances are, Olivia’s family offered me their Christmas bird). It was an incredibly generous gift. Thank you Olivia. Leslie and I ate Gertrude on Christmas Eve. I cut her up and grilled her over charcoal in a clay pot. She was delicious.

(And NO, I did NOT kill the bird this time. A little tip that my Ugandan friends never gave me with the last bird was that for 500UGS ($0.20) I can have the man in the market kill it and clean it for me!)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Into the Bush

Most of my work takes place in the Kampala-Entebbe area, but once a month I make a trip to one of the villages outside Kampla where Mercy Uganda has a presence. Yesterday I rented a car and drove with Gabriel and Leslie to a village 4 hours west of Kampala. (Well, Gabriel drove.) This village is so remote that I've never been able to find it on a map. It is way out in "the bush," as Ugandans would describe it. My work for the day was visiting different children in the area who Mercy Uganda sponsors to go to school. Each child has an individual sponsoring him or her, so periodically I visit the children at school or at home to find out how they are doing. I report what I find--school reports, family history, state of health, needs, favorites-- back to Laura in the States, who then passes the information to the sponsors. I'll let the pictures tell most of the story from the day.

The roads are terrible going up to this village, but at least this time they weren't muddy!
Jack fruit tree

Most of the other homes in this village are single homes. The homes in this photo belong to relatives who are members of the Banyankole tribe. According to my translator,  families from this tribe tend to build their homes in clusters for safety and a sense of unity. My ears perk up whenever I hear something about the Banyankole because Andy is is Munyankole (The Bu-  or Ba-  prefix denotes the tribe; the Mu--prefix denotes an individual belonging to that tribe.)

Children using the well that Mercy Uganda drilled this September

Lobu in the shade

A prime view of Lobu's lips as the cows go by


David and Mesach receiving gifts of mosquito nets and rice from their sponsors. (Rice is a great gift; all the kids I interview say that rice is one of their favorite foods. Rice is a treat for special occasions that the whole family can enjoy).

A man carrying matoke bananas

Me working on interviews with two sponsored girls and their family

Millie is a newly sponsored child. In this photo she is receiving a Christmas gift from her sponsors in America. Martin is reading and translating the card they sent.

Rovinsa is one of our sponsored children. Whenever I come to the village she seeks me out, either holding my hand or sitting close to me.

John, one of our sponsored children, standing in front of his home

Me with the headmaster going through school reports of the children

Working on sponsorship interviews with Mesach and David

Olivia is a sponsored child. Her sponsor sent her and her family several gifts for Christmas

The car we took to the village

A giant termite mound

The Major Characters

Before I delve into narrative writing, I’ll go ahead and give you a brief description of the people who I will write about most frequently.

. Henry is my boss, the director of Mercy Uganda here in Uganda (Laura Knetzer is the director in the U.S.), but he’s also like a brother to me. I’ve met a few people who work as hard as he does, but I’ve never met anyone who works harder. He is constantly moving on his motorcycle, not just around town, but even as far as Kenya. He’s very creative; he sings, writes music and poetry. He and his beautiful wife Alice have four kids.

Gabriel. Gabriel is my other Ugandan brother. He has looked out for me since the day I moved here. While I am the field manager of Central Uganda, Lobu is the field manager of Karamoja. Gabriel was traveling back and forth from Karamoja ministering to the people of that region before Mercy Uganda even existed. He is Karamjong himself, but he was brought south as an orphan when he was three years old. He has never forgotten his people, and he loves to spread awareness of the true goodness of the Karamajong and the hardships they face. Lobu is known for being quiet--to the point that he makes some people nervous--but I have the privilege of being someone he’ll talk to.

Leslie is probably the only American that I spend time with on a regular basis. She has commitments back in the States, so she is back and forth from Michigan throughout the year, volunteering as our business manager. Right now she’s here staying with me at my apartment. She’s a great roommate. We like each other’s company, but we’re both introverts so, neither of us gets offended if the other one occasionally retreats off to her room to be alone. We fit well together.

Andrew. Alright. I’ll try not to gush…Andy and I got engaged while I was visiting him this November. He’s not in Uganda right now; he lives in England, volunteering at a Christian drug rehabilitation center called Gilead Foundation. He’s such a huge part of my life that he’ll appear in a lot of these stories. For example, when I contemplate going to a village that is 3 hours away on the back of Henry’s motorcycle, Andrew has STRONG feelings about that plan. (He does have a point. The highways here are a lot more dangerous than the ones in the States.) When Andrew comes home in March he’ll take on a more active role in my tales. For now, I’ll just be telling you what Andy says. We talk everyday, then add to it texts, chats, e-mail and snail mail.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Formal Introduction

Hi everyone. I'm Lauren. This is my first post--(not counting the post where I wrote out lyrics to a Carpenters song. If you saw that one, I was just using it to test out the different page designs. Songs by the Carpenters have nothing to do with the theme of this blog, so just ignore that post). I'm an American who has been living in Uganda for almost a year, and only now am I starting a blog. Shameful, I know. I work for a new international NGO called Mercy Uganda. It's a small organization, which means I have several different jobs all rolled into one. Mercy Uganda's mission is to work with women and children, helping them to improve their quality of life spiritually (in the love of Jesus Christ), socially, educationally, and physically. My official job title is "Central Region Field Manager." It really is difficult to give an explanation of all that my job entails—which is why I decided to start this blog. Maybe through regular stories about my life here, my family and friends back home will have a better idea of what I’m doing and why I’m here doing it. My life isn’t just about work, though. You’ll be reading about other things…such as my battles with insects and rodents, the friends I’ve made, and how I fell in love and got engaged this year. He’s Ugandan♥. I’ll share all of it with time.