I am an applied medical anthropologist beginning my PhD in Public Health this fall. For the second summer in a row, I will travel with my research partner, Ginger Mckay, to Kampala, Uganda. Last summer, we evaluated an HIV education program for children developed by the Savannah Sunrise Foundation, which is a non-profit organization. We we will be residing in Kampala from the end of May until the end of July to conduct additional fieldwork. This summer, our colleague Nicole Smith will be joining us as we wrap up our project.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

23/6 - 30/6

Thursday 23/6
I went alone to Mary’s house to discuss our tentative plans to travel to the Southwest corner of the country to visit her village located in Rukungiri. She said that her family lives within three kilometers of Kizisi Falls, and invited us to come stay there to meet everyone in our “African family.” I am really excited at the prospect of going to the area because it’s in really close proximity to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Lake Bunyonyi. There are also hot springs nearby, but my guidebook suggests those are “little more than mud holes.” As disappointing as that description is, I am thrilled that we might be able to hike with a guide where the worlds few remaining mountain gorillas live in their natural habitat. The whole of Kabale and all the local opportunities to explore and see the wildlife will be well worth the visit, and we will get to meet Mary’s family on top of it all. Otherwise, there was not much else today, minus an email from the UNCST saying that we will have temporary approval to begin our research by next week. We just might end up publishing afterall!

Friday 24/6
We have officially been in Uganda for 30 days today, if you count (as I do) our first night when we arrived late at the airport and had nowhere to say. The three of us have debated whether that counts as day one, and I think I’m right. That said, it seems rather fitting that exactly one month in we are traveling upcountry. I think it takes a couple of weeks to adjust to the pace here, and a few more if it’s your first time in Uganda.

Last night I couldn’t sleep, like a child excited about Christmas. Reverend picked us up for our journey at 7:45 a.m. and we sped past men and women setting up items to sell in the foggy morning. It was cold out. I contemplated listening to music on my i-pod but spent the first hour listening to everyone talk and taking a million photographs out of the window. One funny piece of commentary: Rev told us that “boda-boda” comes from motorbike drivers yelling “border? border?” to people trying to get across to Rwanda and the Congo. I’m not sure how I’ve missed this information, and I appreciate how Rev is eager to explain and question the origin of titles, names, labels, and phrases. He does it incessantly; it’s funny.

While I was sitting in the backseat, I opened the window to take better pictures without the glass of the windshield ruining the shot. I was struck by how happy I was to be seatbelt-less, gazing through the fog and fumes, as Reverend slammed on his brakes and lurched us around to move through the traffic jam. I really love “moving” as they call it here. The swerving, and overcorrecting in combination with liberal breaking by Reverend frequently sent Nicole and I flying around the backseat but this did not deter my appreciation of the countryside. I kept making eye contact with Ginger in the sideview mirror, as she sat in the front seat ahead of me, and we communicated nonverbally that THIS is what we love and the experience we’d been waiting for. It’s like you have to realize your own mortality and it makes it so much more meaningful.

We stopped in Kiboga for chai and I realized how different my perceptions are being here this time around. Last year I was entranced with how new everything was and I constantly tried to absorb every minutiae of daily life and events. In the car I had been gazing out at the cows and goats, people using digging sticks and hoisting baskets up to carry on their heads, and I tried to relive those moments last summer when I felt assured that this type of fieldwork is exactly what I want to do with my life. I’m still filled with awe that I’m here, it’s just a different feeling this year.

We met mentors at Meeting Point, the support group organization for PLWHA in Hoima that employs many of the mentors. We spent some time with them last summer and it was nice to see familiar faces this year, too. We went to two school observations before coming back and having a meeting with everyone. We were discouraged that they had not given the pre-test in Hoima. Despite this recent setback, one interesting development over the last year is that the foundation has implemented several of the recommendations we made in our report which were based on our interviews in Hoima last summer. SAS is now working at partnering with other organizations in the area and reaching out to parents and teachers, who told us firsthand last summer that they were eager to learn from the mentors. I love what the education program is evolving into, in its meandering way. Although change is slow, the results and impact of the program seem to be strengthening which makes me feel like we have done our jobs. Somehow.

Our car died, of course, because Reverend had left the lights on. I totally called it. I am just glad that the car trouble we had was IN Hoima instead of driving in the middle of a sugar cane field like last summer. We walked to lunch and then found someone to jump the car. We didn’t have running water in our hotel room, but we did have a jeri can with water to use for bathing. Nicole had a hard time understanding how we couldn’t have running water if we were paying for a hotel room, which reminded me of my annoyance last summer when I could not find a landline phone and the cell service was down in the area. The cellphone service was down in Hoima this time, too, but now I’m used to such things.

Saturday 25/6
Reverend had scheduled to meet with a local NGO this morning at 9 a.m. The organization is the National Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (NACWOLA), and I think they are pretty solid and spot-on in their approach to reduce the HIV rate and prevent it from climbing. SAS is partnering with them to either recruit their members to become mentors or to have them include information about HIV education for children when they meet with parents and teachers in their outreach efforts within the community. They want to inform, translate, and transfer knowledge between the children, their parents, their teachers and the community at large.

After a successful meeting we drove off, stopping on our way out of town to buy snacks from the gas station. Although it is a typical “American” experience to buy snacks from the gas station before taking a five hour road trip, this experience was uniquely Ugandan flavored. For one thing, the items we purchased are not the run-of-the-mill “snacks” we are accustomed to eating. We bought mango flavored juice boxes, and a cut fruit salad that included jackfruit, sugar cane, canteloupe, lemon, and mango. Reverend purchased “little stones” which are like miniature “cakes” and he also purchased sesame seed balls held together with honey. I got the sesame seed balls too because they remind me of the middle eastern candies.

On the way out of town Reverend told us to wave goodbye to Hoima, and we did. We drove past Maiha Prison Farm where workers wear bright yellow jumpsuits while tending the fields, and eventually we stopped for lunch in Kigomba near Masindi. After lunch we drove over Karuma Falls on the Nile and that’s when we saw baboons for the second time today. Earlier we had seen a troop from a distance near some cows and Reverend pulled over to allow us to take a picture, but they were afraid of us and ran way when we got out of the car. The baboons near the Nile, however, were coming right up to cars passing on the tarmac. My first instinct was to roll my window up as fast as I could, but Reverend started throwing his “stones” out of the window to feed them. Up ahead of us a large truck was throwing the baboons whole pieces of bread.

They are olive baboons, and they look quizzically at you while waiting for food, sometimes standing up on their hind legs and walking towards the car. It’s weird to have a staring contest with one. They almost have the profile of a dog, and they really wanted our snacks. They were begging. My guidebook has a whole section dedicated to why feeding baboons is a terrible idea, and I read that sage advice after we got home from our trip. While it’s dangerous for humans for obvious reasons, it’s really more dangerous for the monkeys because they might get shot or killed by cars. In fact, you can see one risking his life for our treats in one of our video clips when he narrowly escapes a boda. Next time I see wild animals, we will not be feeding them.

I am trying not to write a novel, but I really enjoyed our road trip. I loved driving in the car, and seeing the fields of sunflowers, corn, sweet potatoes, tea, and tobacco along the way.

My mood began to change, however, the closer we got to Gulu. I have read articles and excerpts about the unrest and violent history of the northern region that still haunts people there, and I’ve seen films and documentaries that depict the horrible consequences of the LRA in places like Gulu. I kept thinking about an Invisible Children documentary that I watched before coming last summer. It is Sunday’s story. I wondered to myself, and later aloud to Ginger, whether or not I was creating the ominious feeling because of such media or if the vibes are simply there to be felt. Ginger felt them, too. We stayed in the hotel tonight and did not go out to explore the town.

Sunday 26/6
We walked to town today from our hotel. Nicole would later describe the way the place felt by saying that it felt like “people are missing.” I found her explanation intriguing because for one thing Gulu became more populated because of the murders in the villages and bush surrounding the town. People, especially children, fled to the town to escape violence. School children would walk for miles every night to avoid the soldiers who terrorized their families so that they could avoid being captured and forced to become child soldiers, or meet even worse fates. And the camps that were set up for the internally displaced as a result of the unrest have had lasting effects on families and people who remember living in them and remember fearing for their lives. Despite the relative peace that the north has maintained for the last few years, many people still live in the town and have not repopulated their old homes. Resettlement is not a simple task, either. I cannot imagine the torn feeling they must have of not wanting to go back or wanting to stay; I’m sure that’s an indescribable feeling.

We enjoyed our time walking around, despite the sense of sadness and loss that is prevalent in Gulu. We walked around the market, went for coffee and met Reverend later back at the hotel. It began to rain and he drove us to find something for lunch. We were looking out the windows in the pouring rain when a huge lightning bolt struck right beside our car. My heart stopped because I saw it and it was close enough that I felt it. Later, I would find out that 30 children had been struck by lightning and many people have died in the storms in Uganda since we’ve been here.

Monday 27/6
We all awoke to the sound of a hotel guest making a grotesque and yet unidentifiable noise, which I’m assuming was the sound of him waking up and stretching. It was before 7 am. It sounded like the combination of a large man with severe constipation, who had just stubbed his big toe and the final death moan of a dying donkey. It had all three of us rolling, as we laid sideways in our queen size bed. We were laughing before we had even said “morning” which is even funnier because the accent here makes “morning” sound like “moaning.” Ha.

At breakfast, Reverend instructed us to go ahead and check out of our hotel room in case we finished visiting the four of the schools we were observing early and wanted to head back south today instead of tomorrow. As we drove away from the hotel, an employee ran to the car telling Reverend that he had not paid for the chai he drank last night. His reaction struck me because he felt bad, and I think many Americans would have been annoyed or felt that it was the hotel’s fault, not their own. He kept saying, “Can you imagine! I almost drove off with their money! Oh my God!”

I noticed two shops advertising coffins on the side of the road as we drove to the schools. It created a feeling of foreboding because children used to be kidnapped from schools by the LRA. It’s just another reminder of where we are. Many children are now heads of household in this area, and the teachers and administrators at the first school we observed described their new roles as “the parents of the parentless.” I wanted to cry. I had to swallow really hard and blink a lot during our interview with them. They told us that many of the children have HIV in their school and the head teacher said they were wanting for nurses to help when children “collapse” in class. That made me wish I knew a nurse who wanted to work in this area, someone like a colleague of ours named Meredith who is both a nurse and an anthropologist. I told everyone as much in the car after we left, but Nicole had an even better suggestion. She said the foundation should recruit nursing students, to become mentors in Gulu. I wondered why I didn’t think of Ugandan nurses.

On the way home we also ate some fish in Kigumba. It was amazing. We ate our food so fast that it reminded Revered of a painful memory during the reign of Idi Amin. He was once captured by Idi Amin’s soldiers many years ago while he was in church. He spent three months in jail, being slowly starved because they fed them very little food only every other day. When they finally ate again they devoured six plates full of food each and afterwards they were in miserable pain from the food that both poisoned and sustained them. He told us that a doctor later told him that they were lucky to be alive.

Driving home we ate the best mangoes I’ve ever had, while we anxiously looked out the back window expecting the bumper to fall off at every pothole and speed bump. Over the course of our trip, Nicole and I took close to 800 pictures between the two of us and we deleted them as we took more simultaneously. We spent a long time after we came home choosing which ones to keep, and putting them into one large file to upload. Please enjoy them and understand for each one you look it we probably took 3 more and the same is true for the videos. Also, we have a TON of mangoes. I wish I could bring you one.

Tuesday 28/6

Today we played catch-up and tried to finish writing. We got an official letter from the UNCST allowing us to conduct focus groups. We are scheduling them for next week. We just might pull this off. We are also subsisting primarily on mangoes.

Wednesday 29/6
The data from our pre test is screwed up. I spent all day working on it and since we didn’t have power I eventually had to move to the Mulago Hospital. Nicole came with me and Ginger was at the foundation working. We went to bed tonight discouraged and we hope to sort it out tomorrow. I’ve become VERY familiar with the databases.

Thursday 30/6
Nicole swooped in to save the day by finding a new way to comb through the data since Ginger and I were out of ideas, and even though Nicole ultimately ended up finding the solution to our problems, I am glad I spent all day working on it yesterday because I found several glaring mistakes in the process. The three of us really make a good team. We joked about what we can do with our powers combined.

Today is Ginger’s birthday so we didn’t do much more work today and instead celebrated by shopping for souvenirs, and eating pizza for lunch. We went to Garden City and later to the National Theatre. I was buying presents for everyone back home, and for myself, when I thought I’d lost my bag in one of the small shops. I ran out frantically to look for it, but it was in the shop where I’d just ran out of. How embarrassing. We also went out with a few friends, including David who has the same birthday as Ginger. It was a good day. Tomorrow we meet with the mentors at the foundation to give them their results!

1 comment:

  1. I love this story. OH my gosh how wonderful you write. It makes me want to be there. I can feel every emotion you spoke about. Happy birthday to Ginger. You three are great together. I am going now to look at the pictures. I love you Meagan.