Sadly, my grant has ended. I'm extremely thankful CVI allowed me to stay an extra month, but even that has finished and I'm back in America heading to grad school in a few weeks.
Ten months ago, on the day I left for Uganda I ran this road to say goodbye to my home in NH. Today, nearly a year later, I traveled it again. The road had changed and so had I. The road was freshly paved, the overhanging branches were cleared, the grass on the side was nicely mowed, and the dead leaves and branches had been removed. I had changed physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. This time, with an infected foot and having had typhoid two weeks ago, I biked the road because I was too lame and weak to run. I possessed a deeper, stronger faith in God. I could trust that He would guide me when I was lost, provide help when I was hopeless, and open doors for plans that were better than my dreams. After living in a village for 10 months with no electricity, limited food options, but wonderful people, I was overwhelmed by the American lifestyle. My mind and heart were disturbed as I biked past large houses with beautifully mowed lawns and two cars in the garage. I was surprised when a Mercedes whizzed past me and when a large fluffy dog barked at me. It was strange that I only passed one other person not in a vehicle. Where were the pickups overloaded with people riding in back? Where were the scrawny, short-haired dogs and the cows and chickens crossing the road? Where were all the people walking, biking, and riding bodas and dressed in bright colors, carrying objects on their heads, and greeting everyone who passed? Why was everyone secluded inside their houses rather than outside talking, cooking, and playing with their neighbors? My mind was very confused. Emotionally, I was much more sensitive. I could now empathize with the poor where hunger, hardship, sickness, and early death are accepted as normal life. I’d visited the largest refugee camp in the world, talked with former child soldiers, and lived on what used to be an LRA battlefield. In the camps, I saw babies sick and stunted from malnourishment and hopelessness written on the face of their mothers. I met a sick man at church who couldn’t afford 5000 schillings ($1.39) for medicine. I read in the papers about districts all over Uganda ravished by famine and the only aid offered by the government was a few cups of moldy rice. In Lukodi where I lived, when the rains delayed, I saw people’s crops—their livelihoods—eaten by pests and the seedlings shrivel and die from heat. My friends couldn’t pay school fees for their children. Others told stories of how their huts had been burned and they lost everything they owned. Nearly everyone I talked with had lost siblings and family members from sickness or war. I saw women and children struggle in their gardens while their husbands and fathers sat drunk in the village center. I heard firsthand stories of witchcraft. When my friend was attacked by demons, I prayed fervently with the other girls and pinned her to the ground to prevent her from hurting herself. As my face was inches from hers, the sheer terror written in her eyes and her piercing screams were like nothing I had ever seen or heard. But I had also never experienced such joy as I did living in Lukodi. People may have problems so worrisome that they don’t sleep at night, but during the day, they greet you, smile, and joke because they accept hardship as a fact of life that happens to everyone, and they trust that God will somehow provide for their basic needs. Over 10 months, my NH running route had become fresher and more beautiful, but I felt more broken.
Adjusting to life back in America is hard—I’ve changed a lot. I no longer like American food. Every time I walk out of the house, I’m overwhelmed by the hugeness and richness of America. Walmart was like a nightmare. People dress strangely. I drove on the left side of the road. I’m constantly amazed that I can brush my teeth with and drink the water from the tap. I forget to flush the toilet because I’m so accustomed to latrines. It’s strange to take a hot shower, and I’m amazed when light switches work. People don’t understand my funny English. Everyone else exclaims how hot they feel while I’m wearing a sweater. I’m always surprised that I can charge my phone whenever I want and have constant access to high speed Internet. It’s strange that you can cook immediately with a gas stove rather than waiting to build a charcoal fire. But I miss Uganda like nothing. Mostly I miss my friends—the deep connection we share can’t be explained. We lived together in community every day for 10 months. When I was sick with typhoid, they carried me, bathed me, and literally spoon fed me. When they were sick, I held them, fetched their water, and brought their medicine. We prayed fervently about deep issues together. I relied on them for help and guidance in my aquaponics project. We danced and worshipped every day. We cooked together, cleaned together, dug in the garden together, watched movies together, read the Bible together, washed clothes together—we lived life together and depended on each other. I’m usually a very rational, unemotional person who rarely cries, but I’ve never cried so much in my life over saying goodbye to these people. I still cry every day. A few days before I left, one of the girls came to my hut to tell me that she wasn’t going to see me anymore. She was going to hide in her hut and when she had to pass me while working, she would hide her face and not greet me because it pained her heart too much to look at me. Likewise, during my last few days in Lukodi, I avoided the girls because if I spent too much time with them, I would break down in tears. I will probably never see some of them again before heaven. I never knew I could love people as much as I love the people at CVI. I almost didn’t get on the plane to come back to the US.
Coming back to America didn’t feel like home. I tell my Ugandan friends America is strange. While they’re flattered that I like Uganda more than America, they don’t understand why. I try to explain that I miss the chaos of Uganda—bodas cutting in front of you, trucks honking to move out of the way, roads made impassable by mud. I miss the colors of Uganda—women wearing beautiful kitenges (African fabric), buildings painted in bright yellows, reds, and blues, buses and taxis painted with decorative mottos. I miss living and working outdoors all day every day. I miss the beautiful sunrises and sunsets over open savannah and the myriads of stars illuminating the night sky. I miss singing, dancing, and worshipping together every day with unbridled enthusiasm. I miss Ugandan food—posho and beans, cassava, roasted maize, vegetables and fruits fresh from the farm. I miss the simplicity of life with limited internet and technology. Most of all I miss the love and joy of the people. I miss how everyone knows everyone in the community, how you greet even strangers on the road, how family is so important, and how people are ever smiling.
While I may be happier in Uganda, I know for now God has called me back to the US for grad school, and I can trust that He has prepared a good road for me to travel. While I may feel broken now, I am grateful for everything I experienced and learned and the relationships I made in Uganda, and I can trust that just like the road I ran down 10 months ago has been transformed into a more beautiful, newer street, He will also continue to grow and fill me with new life. And I firmly believe that one day He will bring me back to run on a different road—a dirt road lined with palm trees and cassava plants, dotted with mud huts and boreholes, and filled with beautiful, bare-footed, ebony children walking to school. Because my home is no longer only in NH—I now have a second home in Uganda.
Lugan. Family. After 8 months apart, I finally got to see my family—they came to visit me in Africa! It was truly amazing how God arranged the timing and made it possible for them all to come. In the weeks leading up to their arrival, I was at first really excited then became scared…I’d changed a lot in 8 months—what if they didn’t understand? What if they didn’t like Africa? But when they piled out of the van at 2 am (a delay in their flight was agonizing for me), all those concerns faded away, and we hugged like we’d been missing each other forever.
I couldn’t wait to show my family around CVI and introduce them to all my friends. The girls were so excited to meet them—they greeted them with the Acholi yell and exuberant dancing then all shook hands and introduced themselves. It was one of the happiest days of my time here in Uganda when my family from the US was together with my family from Uganda. I couldn’t stop smiling—it was like heaven on earth because the people I love most from different continents were together in one place.
After experiencing life at CVI, my family and I set off for Murchinson National Park—one of Uganda’s preserves full of animals. As we drove through the park, everywhere we looked there were antelopes, water buffalo, warthogs, zebras, baboons, giraffes, elephants, and birds. We even saw a couple of hyenas and lots of hippos and crocodiles in the Nile. In the afternoon, we took a lovely boat cruise along the Nile, saw lots of animals, and then hiked up to the top of Murchinson Falls. The falls are really impressive because an immense amount of water is pushed through a narrow opening making it the waterfall with the highest pressure in the world. There’s even a smaller waterfall called Independence Falls that broke off from the main waterfall in 1962, the same year Uganda gained its independence from Britain (hence the name).
While I loved being with my family, I was surprised how much I missed my CVI Lukodi family too. Throughout the day I’d find myself thinking about them and what they would be doing at that moment. “11:30 am: Oh, it’s break time. I bet Opandi is trying to knock the last of the mangos from the trees for a juicy snack. 4 pm: Stephen and Kazungu are probably feeding the fish. I wonder if Knight finished weeding all the crops? 8:30 pm: The girls are starting prayers.” I even missed eating cassava and posho and beans. Sometimes my face would settle into a somber, reflective visage, and my family would joke that I’d rather be in Lukodi than be with them. While they were kidding, there was some truth to their statements. I dread the day when I have to say goodbye to everyone in Lukodi for good and go back to the US.
The next day, we woke up very early, drove to Kampala and flew to Tanzania to continue our safari adventures in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and surrounding parks. After an unexpected night in Nairobi (the airline canceled our connecting flight, but at least we got Kenyan stamps in our passports and the hotel had the nicest bed I’ve slept in for 8 months—even if it was only for 2 hours), we made it to Arusha, met our guide, and headed out on safari. The animals were amazing! They weren’t as prolific in the Serengeti as in Murchinson, but we saw so many lions! We would drive right up to them—they looked so lazy and serene, like big pussy cats. You felt like you could nearly reach out to pet them and play with them. We also saw lots of wildebeests, gazelles, antelopes, ostriches (they have the funniest feet), zebras, warthogs, water buffalo, and a few giraffes and hippos. We even saw a mother cheetah and her cubs, and at the last minute our guide found us a leopard hiding in a tree. It was like watching Lion King in real life. Next we moved on to Ngorongoro Crater, which was stunningly beautiful. While the Serengeti is mostly flat, dry plains with some rock outcroppings, Ngorongoro is the world’s largest caldera (collapsed volcano) full of lush green grass and colorful wildflowers because of rainy season. Here we saw many of the same animals plus two rhinos, a 50 year old elephant with massive tusks, flamingos, and many other kinds of birds. The rhinos looked like huge, ugly, prehistoric tanks—I was torn between unbelief and laughter as I watched them meander through the grass. The Masai people live in the surrounding area, so it was neat to see them walking along herding their cows dressed in their iconic checkered blankets and copious jewelry. It was so cold though, I don’t know how they wore just their blankets—in the early morning, I would wear all the layers I had and still be cold!
Finally, we headed to Zanzibar—an island beach paradise that makes one think you’re in the Bahamas instead of Africa. After wandering around cute, historic Stonetown for a day, we headed for a beach bungalow. While the water was a little disappointing (after navigating around spiky sea urchins for an hour, we gave up trying to find a spike-free place to swim), the beach walks and tasty seafood were amazing. The next day we went snorkeling on a local, wooden fishing boat called a Dhow. Sailing on the water was a blast, and the tropical fish were amazing! We swam through schools of brightly colored fish, spotted two lion fish, and found nearly all the characters in Finding Nemo. :)
While the safari and ocean animals were neat, my favorite part of the trip was simply being with my family. Seeing them, talking with them, hugging them, playing cards, catching up on their lives, laughing and making funny faces together—these were the best moments (although they say I talk funny now :) ). It was hard to say goodbye, but I’m so thankful my family was able to visit. Now they understand a little bit of Africa and why I love it here so much. When I rode into the driveway of CVI on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi), the girls all started yelling and ran to envelop me in an avalanche of hugs. They nearly pulled me off the boda, and when I could finally stand we couldn’t stop hugging each other, smiling, and saying “abedo ka pari matek!” (I missed you so much!) I was back in Lukodi, and I couldn’t have been happier. While I’ll miss bike rides, beach days, hikes, and ice cream dates with my family in the US this summer, I’m also looking forward to the next couple of months of football games, chapatti making, fetching water, working on aquaponics, studying the Bible, and dancing to drums with my CVI lugan.
One of my American friends who has lived in Uganda for several years and worked on construction projects has a motto: “In Uganda, nothing is easy.” I came to Africa knowing I would face delays and difficulties, but I’ve found this motto to be truer than I expected. For example, the metal workers I hired to fabricate iron stands to mount the solar panels and pumps said they could do the job in 3 days. It took a month. They didn’t have the proper materials, so they had to wait for the iron bars to come from Kampala. Then the power kept going off in Gulu, so they couldn’t work. Finally, the truck I hired to transport the stands to Lukodi was stopped by the police for carrying too large of a load. The driver bribed the official and made me cover the bribe. :) Another time, we had the liners finally installed, the solar panels and pumps connected, and the plumbing just finished…we were ready to test the system! Flipping the switch, the pump started humming and the water started flowing; I was ecstatic until we noticed a leak. We tried to fix it ourselves with epoxy but failed. The liner company said they would come fix it. After waiting a week and half to the appointed day, they said they could no longer come on that day, failed to give me a new date, and refused to pick my calls. Sometimes people just don’t understand what I’m asking, even though we both speak English. I needed calcium nitrate (a fertilizer to kickstart the growth of the plants in the initial phase of aquaponics), so I went to all the farm stores I could find in Gulu, but none of them had it. Finally, some guy who happened to be in one of the farm shops said he knew someone in Kampala that could get it. After several phone calls to this lady, where our understanding vacillated from she could sell me by the kilo to she didn’t have any to she could only sell in bulk of 25 kg bags (I needed about 3 kg), I finally bought the 25 kilos, sent her the mobile money (in Uganda, it’s very common for people to send money through their phones. It’s similar to Venmo, but used even for business purposes. There’s just a small fee for sending and receiving), and told her to ship it on the bus. When the calcium nitrate finally got here, a farmer looked at it, and told me, “Oh, that’s what it is. I bought this by the kilo in Gulu last year!” Sometimes the people I hire don’t show up to work or leave halfway through the day before the work is finished. Sometimes the tasks are just hard. When we stocked the large fish ponds at CVI a couple months ago, we also bought the fish for the aquaponics and planned on transferring them when the aquaponic system was ready. I never guessed catching catfish from a pond could be so hard. I needed 200 catfish for the aquaponics, and the big pond had 600. We tried catching them with fishing poles (after fishing for 2 hours, I caught one catfish), casting nets, and entering the pond and dragging mosquito nets). After several days of trying, we’d caught 23 fish. I gave up and bought new catfish fingerlings. The man failed to deliver the fish on the appointed day, refused to pick my phone calls, then replied a couple days later apologizing that he had been busy and he would send the fish in 2 days. He packed the 200 fingerlings in a 10 L jerrycan, sent them on the bus, and after traveling 8 hours they were all still alive.
The main part of my research here in Uganda was to design and build an aquaponic system for CVI. I soon realized that I was woefully unprepared for the task. Sure, I worked on aquaponics for my senior capstone project, but that was on a team led by a professor. My role was mostly in engineering fluid computations. I didn’t decide what size system to build, what type of fish to use, the ratio of plants to fish, how many fish to stock or vegetables to plant, what flow rates to set, what and how much to feed the fish, what slope to create for the water to flow, what materials to use, or how to construct the grow beds. I tested the water a few times, looked at the plants, and understood the basic science behind the symbiosis of aquaponics, but I never really understood how fish and plants grow. So I spent my first few months in Uganda learning about fish, plants, and aquaponic system designs. The US fish experts would give different advice from my Ugandan fishery contacts, so I struggled to discern which guidelines to follow. There are several different variations of aquaponics. Eventually, I decided to build two independent systems and compare the two. The first system is called a flood and drain media bed design where the plants are grown in gravel and the water floods the grow beds then drains and repeats the cycle 6-8 times a day. The second system is called an integrated aqua-veggie culture system (iAVs) where the plants are grown in sand instead of gravel. The iAVs proponents claim their system is better than the gravel media beds, but there hasn’t been a lot of research on the topic, so I decided to compare the two.
The biggest struggle was the lack of power in Lukodi. Modern aquaponics requires pumping water and adding aeration for the fish. While solar technology has greatly advanced in the past few years, it’s still very expensive. I looked into other alternative energy options, but decided solar was still the best option. Nevertheless, I decided to skip aeration to reduce the power load and instead build bigger ponds with lower stocking densities than the aerated fish tanks normally used in aquaponics. I made countless fruitless trips to the Gulu pump store, but could never find the right solar pumps to use. Finally, Richard (the CVI director) connected me to a solar technology company in Kampala, and after I made a couple of trips to their office, we figured out which pumps, panels, and controllers to use, and they trained me how to install them.
Finding materials was also a struggle. I wanted to line the ponds so the nutrients in the water wouldn’t seep into the mud instead of going to the plants, but none of the plastic rolls sold in Gulu were wide enough. The Gulu Fisheries Officer directed me to a large agriculture company in Kampala that has branches in many African countries. They sold a large, heavy-duty fish pond liner. It comes in 7.5 m rolls, so I designed my ponds and grow beds to fit that width. However, every time I told them the size of my ponds and asked how much liner I needed, they replied that I needed much more than my math suggested. I was pretty sure I knew how to calculate surface area, and since the liner is sold by the meter, I decided to go with my calculations. It was a terrifying moment when the liner finally arrived and the technician started to cut it…the liner was just enough! Chemicals are very expensive and hard to find in Uganda. After searching in countless chemistry shops in Kampala, I was never able to find the reagents I wanted to use to test the water. Instead, I had to use a less accurate aquarium test kit available on Amazon and brought over by someone coming from the US. Finding the proper sand for the iAVs system has been a continual struggle. There are multiple tests you’re supposed to conduct to check if the sand drains properly for the vegetables to grow, so I jury rigged lab testing equipment with a jerrycan, basin, and some water bottles. All the sand in Gulu is full of clay, but iAVs needs clean sand to work properly. I tried testing sand from various places in Gulu and along the river where they take the sand from, but it was all dirty. If I wash the sand until it’s clean (a very slow process that requires a lot of pumping at the borehole), it drains too quickly. I’m still working on the solution to this sand problem…I’ll let you know how it turns out. :)
Hiring people to do work for me was also daunting at first. The CVI farm often hires people from the community to weed the fields, slash grass, and do other jobs, so I wanted to hire some boys to dig the fish ponds for me. This was back when I had typhoid, so it was all I could do to walk down to the farm and check on them a few times a day. There was no way I could wield a pick ax to dig through 1.5 meters of soil and clay. Initially, I had so many questions…where do I find the boys? How much do I pay them? Should I pay per day or contract? Do I have to provide them tea or lunch? How do I tell them what to do if they don’t speak English? How often do I check on them to make sure they’re working hard? Thankfully, the CVI staff helped me out with negotiating wages and translating and everything else. Now, I feel like I’m an old pro and hire people regularly. For unskilled labor, the going rate in Lukodi is 5000 shillings/day ($1.38). If the manual labor is very difficult (such as digging a hole all day), it increases to 8000/day. If they don’t take lunch but instead bring their own food, you add an extra 2000. The boys who came to dig I’m sure were all under 18…some looked like freshmen in high school or younger (I didn’t hire them for a second day…they weren’t strong enough yet to dig well). In the village, life is hard. Kids often don’t go to school because their families can’t afford the school fees.
Sometimes I make mistakes. This is my first time building an aquaponic system, and I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I have to wait for people to pick my calls and reply to my emails to answer my questions. Sometimes I’ll find a problem and backpedal for days before finding a way forward. For instance, we had the liners, pumps, and plumbing installed, and I thought we were almost finished! But after I sent a picture to an expert in the iAVs system who’s been advising me via email, he replied that the grow bed was too sloped and the drain was too small. So I removed the liner, hired a mason to level the grow beds, and tried to add more drains. It was frustrating to go backwards when I seemed so close to finishing, but I know it’s better to have a quality system built correctly.
In school, I always worked on projects in teams. I miss bouncing ideas off my fellow classmates, discussing problems with them, and having someone double check my work. But the CVI staff have been supportive too. They’ve helped me find materials, catch fish, change water, and dig holes. They’ve taught me how to fix things when you’re lacking tools. There’s no wire strippers? Use your teeth. There’s no drill? Heat a nail in the fire and use it to punch a hole in the jerrycan. The pipe connection is too big? Light a bundle of grass on fire and melt the pipes to fit.
While building an aquaponic system in Uganda is not easy, I still love it. I love learning how Ugandans do construction. I love being outside working on the farm all day. I love solving problems and sourcing materials. It’s taken a long time, but the aquaponic systems are finally coming together. I thank God for His guidance and help all along the way. Since high school, my dream has been to work as an engineer in a developing country. Now that I’ve tried it, I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. However, sometimes I wish Staples would come to Uganda and introduce their “EASY” buttons. :)
One challenge preventing the fish from growing in the past has been the feed—the animal pellets sold in town sink (tilapia only eat food that floats) and the protein content is something like 20% when it should be 30% or higher. Additionally, no one knows how many fish are in the ponds, so we don’t know how much feed we should give them. CVI used to make its own fish feed, so a few months ago we decided to try that again. I talked with the Gulu District Fisheries Officer about making fish feed, and he gave me a spreadsheet for customizing formulas based on the protein content and price of each ingredient. If we have sweet potato leaves available from the farm, we can enter the number of kilos we have and adjust the formula to use less ingredients we have to buy. I worked on the spreadsheets adding ingredients and updating prices until I had an optimized formula for CVI.
Stephen, the head farmer, and I headed to town to buy fish feed ingredients. We started walking down the road until we were able to flag down a passing boda. We both piled onto the back and set off on the 22+ km ride to the CVI office. Soon after getting on, our boda began to sputter and finally stopped. We all got off, the driver blew into the gas tank and tipped the motorcycle over to push the last bits of petrol down to the engine, then restarted the bike as we climbed back on. This is a common occurrence with boda drivers, and we managed to make it to the next roadside stand where the driver bought a water bottle of petrol. Water bottles of various sizes filled with this amber liquid dot roadsides everywhere, and no, they’re not filled with ice tea.
The road is quite bad in spots and made entirely of dirt. This was some months ago when dry season was in full force, so dust rose in copious amounts. I made the mistake of wearing a white shirt. There aren’t that many 4 wheeled vehicles on the road—it’s mostly bodas, bicyclists, and pedestrians—but when a truck does come speeding by, it leaves behind a trail of billowing dust clouds. The worst is when you get stuck behind a truck and languish in its dust. We spent several kilometers in this state because our poor engine carrying 3 people didn’t have enough power to accelerate past the truck in the rare passing opportunities. I followed Stephen’s lead and covered my eyes to protect them from the dust. It’s quite unnerving to bounce along on a boda with your eyes shut—you don’t know when you’ll hit a bump that will send you flying off your seat. Finally, our boda driver saw his chance when the road widened. He gunned the engine and shot into the other side of the road. Even if I had my eyes open, I couldn’t see if there was oncoming traffic or giant potholes on the other side of the truck. I squeezed my eyes shut, held tightly onto the back of the boda, and prayed our driver knew what he was doing. We soon safely shot past the truck and pulled into open road and continued zooming toward town.
But alas, our road adventures were not yet over. We soon ran into 6 inches of loose dirt that someone had dumped all over the road. Often, trucks dump leftover dirt and bricks on the road in a giant pile until someone uses it to fill the innumerable potholes and ditches, but in this case the government was trying to fix the road by dumping trucks of dirt but hadn’t gotten around to compacting the dirt yet. In rainy season, the dirt turns into impassable mud. Our boda first attempted to avoid the dirt by driving along the very edge of the road without falling into a ditch, but eventually even that narrow strip of road disappeared. We were forced into the thick of the dirt, and the bike slowed, faltered, then stopped and the driver had to stick out his feet to prevent us from falling over. As he walked and pushed the bike through the dirt, the truck we had finally managed to pass earlier zoomed by. All our progress had been for nothing! We were again stuck behind our dusty friend. When we finally made it to town, my face was caked with dust! But at least the brown dirt helped cover my cheeks’ lobster red hue from the sun.
We walked to many different places around town to buy all our ingredients for the fish feed—Gulu doesn’t have any Walmart Super Centers or Blue Seal Feeds where you can find everything in one spot! Some of the sellers were out of what we wanted. This is common among sellers and restaurants in Uganda. They buy or make a certain amount, and when it’s finished, it’s finished—sometimes for weeks. There’s no backroom storage stockpile. In the market, we spent 20 minutes talking with the many mukene (small, dried, silver fish) sellers to let us weigh their fish. They usually sell by the basin, but we needed to know the price per kilo. Finally, one woman consented to let us take a bag and walk across the market to the scales to weigh her fish. The people in the market only sell small amounts of mukene for cooking, but later, I learned you can buy large sacks of mukene for animal feed from another place in town much less expensively. Now that our experimental feed has worked, we buy the mukene in 100 kg sacks. Stephen and I bought what we could, tied our purchases onto the back of a boda, made a quick detour for mugatti (fried bread—you gotta use every opportunity to town to supplement the cassava and posho in Lukodi :) ), and climbed aboard for a dusty journey back to Lukodi.
Another ingredient we wanted was blood meal. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I’d read it was high in protein, good for fish feed, and cheap. We asked for blood meal at the feed store—they didn’t have it but said they could get it from Kampala and would come tomorrow. Tomorrow came and went. And the next day. And the next. First, the people in Kampala failed to get it on the bus in time. When they did get it on a bus, the bus broke down. Finally, the blood meal arrived in Gulu, but every time someone from CVI went to pick it up, the shop was closed. Eventually, we picked the blood meal—it turned out to be red-black granules, and boy, did it smell! Unfortunately, it also sunk, and since we wanted our feed to float, I decided to switch to bone meal, which has a similar protein content, doesn’t smell, is readily available in Gulu, and only 200 schillings (6 cents) more per kilo.
Finally, when we had all the ingredients, Stephen, Kazungu, Onen, and I measured the proper amount for each and poured it all into a big pile on the cement floor of the store. Kazungu took a spade and methodically turned over the pile until it was thoroughly mixed—we had our fish feed!
Who knew it would be so hard to mix fish feed? I naively thought it wouldn’t take very long, but after much researching various fish feed formulas, searching around town for ingredients, and experimenting with different recipes, we finally made our own quality fish feed. It’s cheaper and more nutritious than the feed sold in town, and the fish love their new feed! They’re growing much faster than before partly thanks to their new diet.
My fish feed journey taught me that completing projects takes a long time in Uganda. I first have to understand the local resources available by talking with many different CVI staff members and other local connections, such as the District Fisheries Officer. There are almost always Ugandans who have already successfully implemented whatever project I’m interested in. I can learn from them and spread what they’ve successfully done. I’ll probably fail in the first few attempts and there will be innumerable delays, but eventually, we’ll get it to succeed. And the bumps and clouds of dust in the journey along the way make a great adventure.
Graduation. A much anticipated day of exhilaration, joy, and fear. Exhilaration for completing a long sought after goal. Joy for celebrating with family and friends and being free from school. And fear for the unknown future. These feelings are the same whether you’re graduating from a mechanical engineering program in the US or a vocational school in Uganda.
A few weeks ago, class 8 graduated from Child Voice International (CVI). These 12 girls completed CVI’s 18 month program where they not only learned tailoring, sweater weaving, saloon (hair styling), catering, bakery, business, and agriculture, but they also learned how to take care of themselves and their children, how to interact and work with others, and how to overcome traumatic experiences in their past. Most importantly they learned how to grow close to God.
These teenagers had come to CVI frightened, hurt, and helpless. They’d been told they were worthless. Their families couldn’t afford to send them to school. They had no way to support themselves. Many lacked even basic understandings of hygiene for themselves and their children. But because of the CVI staff’s skill and patience and God’s transformative power, these girls changed. Maybe it was the smart-looking hair or the makeup, but when I looked at each of these graduates, I saw not vulnerable girls, but strong women. Women prepared and determined to go out into the world to make a good life for themselves, their children, and their families. They’ll find jobs, start businesses, dig gardens, and impact their communities.
The days leading up to graduation were a frenzy of excitement as the whole center prepared for the big day. The girls plaited each other’s hair; made donuts, chapatti, and bread to serve their families; crafted sweaters and dresses to sell and show off their skills; and ironed their gowns and uniforms.
Like any Ugandan event, graduation was a long, tiring, but inspiring day filled with speeches, dancing, singing, speeches, food, and more speeches. I still had typhoid, so I was exhausted and had a splitting headache by the end of the day, but it was definitely worth it. The schedule said the event should start at 10 (but everyone I asked gave me a different start time :) ), but it didn’t really start until after 12, and many of the guests didn’t arrive until after 2. Early in the morning, tents and chairs were set up in the field, the DJ hooked up his speakers to a generator, a giant cow was slaughtered, and the mobile catering company set up under the mango trees. I was amazed how many people came! Throughout the day, more and more people from the graduates’ families, former students, local government officials, and their guests kept trickling in. We listened to speech after speech (CVI works closely with the local government, so it’s important to respect them and let all the officials share their thoughts) interspersed with songs and traditional Acholi dances until finally around four o’clock the cow had finished cooking and lunch was served. Everyone filed past the serving tables and heaped their plates high with rice, Irish potatoes, posho, chapatti, meat, and cabbage. (oh, and don’t forget the soda!) As the girls finished their plates and the music played, they started dancing until the speeches resumed, then it was time to pass out certificates! As each of the girls’ names was called, their families ran forward and swarmed them with hugs as they shook hands and received their certificates. As the sun was beginning to set, the graduates all gathered and cut the cake complete with flaming candle sticks and a bursting confetti popper! In typical Ugandan fashion, the cake was cut into small chunks and passed around in bowls for everyone to take one. Finally, the families all lined up with gifts (most were hidden in brightly wrapped boxes, but there were a few chickens) and the girls went forward one by one to accept them. Some walked maturely across the field smiling while others ran and slid onto their knees and engulfed their families in giant hugs. The DJ continually played, “Congratulations and jubilations; I want the world to know I'm happy as can be.” As the party died down, the photographer who had been taking photos all day reappeared after traveling to town to print pictures to try to sell to the graduates and their families. Since most people in the village don’t have cameras or smartphones, they rely on photographers like these to document momentous occasions.
That night, after all the families and guests had left, we played Queen of Katwe for the girls. We strung up a sheet and pulled out the projector and speakers to make our own outdoor movie theatre. Queen of Katwe is an inspiring true story of a Ugandan girl named Phiona who grew up in one of Kampala’s slums selling maize but became an international chess champion. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it! The girls absolutely love it! We’ve watched it about 9 times now…if I haven’t played it in a little while, they’ll start quoting the movie and exclaim, “Paige, we miss Phiona!”
The next morning, the girls woke early, packed their things (which somehow all fit in two trucks), and were driven home. I was so sad to see them and their children go, but they were so excited to leave and start their lives. They are some of the strongest women I know—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I have no doubt they will be able to conquer the unknowns of the future. I believe they will provide food for their families, pay school fees for their children, and impact their communities economically and spiritually. These girls will always hold a special place in my heart—I may not see all of them again, but I’m thankful for everything they taught me about love, joy, faith, and strength.
Sorry I haven’t posted in so long…I’ve been sick the past few weeks. I wasn’t going to write a blog about it, but it’s turned into a much bigger deal than I thought, so here it goes….
Thursday, February 2nd. I woke up feeling terrible. But I headed down to the farm to make fish feed with the farmer. The fish gobbled up the feed, so it was a success! J After throwing up, I felt a little better, so I went to staff prayer. It’s one of my favorite times of the week, so I didn’t want to miss it. Little did I know how eventful staff prayer would be. During the hour of singing, prayer, and devotional, I felt progressively worse. I chugged a whole water bottle but was weak, hot, dizzy, and couldn’t concentrate on the teaching. Towards the end when they started the closing song, I remember thinking, “I should get up and go outside for fresh air.” But I was too tired to move. My legs wouldn’t obey my brain and my head slumped forward resting on my hands. That’s the last thing I remember until I felt a breeze on my face that was oddly horizontal and a jostling as I realized someone was carrying me. They lifted me into the car and said, “we’re taking you to the hospital.” Immediately I protested, “No, no, no—I’m fine!” Then asked, “What happened?” Apparently, after prayers finished, the Bible teacher noticed I wasn’t feeling well and asked if I wanted to go outside. I didn’t reply for a few minutes but finally mumbled something and tried to stand up but collapsed. The staff around me caught me before I hit the floor, and immediately the driver ran for the vehicle while another staff member picked me up and bodily carried me to the Land Rover.
While the nurse took my blood sugar, the staff in back exclaimed, “What’s taking so long? This is an emergency! This girl needs to get to the hospital!” In slightly slurred words, I was still protesting, “I don’t want to go to the hospital! I’m fine. I just passed out because I didn’t eat breakfast.” As Brown, the driver, sped to town, I remember in a semi-conscious, hazy sort of way him speeding much faster than normal, honking his horn, scattering chickens and children out of the road. Apparently the staff kept touching my neck and forehead and shaking their heads, going “Tsk, tsk, tsk” because I was cold and clammy, but I don’t remember any of that. Later, one of the staff said I was “like a limp chicken.” Another quietly told me, “It was like you were dead. Everyone was so scared.”
When we pulled into the hospital, the CVI staff bustled into the office, and I don’t know what they did or said, but I’m pretty sure we cut a bunch of people in line, and the doctor came to see me much quicker than anything usually happens in Uganda, and he was surprised I was sitting up—he seemed to expect that I was still unconscious. Anyways, the CVI staff got me a private room, and a couple of them and the two American interns stayed with me. A nurse took my blood to the lab and hooked me up to a glucose IV. My blood pressure was 70-something over 50—pretty much the lowest it can be. I’m grateful to the CVI staff who kept me company, got me juice and food, and played UNO with me. More CVI staff came to visit me—so many that the hospital nurses didn’t know what to do with them all. I struggled to keep my eyes open and concentrate on conversation until a few hours later the nurse returned and started hooking me up to more IVs. Still convinced that I was perfectly fine and all this rushing to the hospital business was a waste, I asked her, “am I sick?” She replied “you have some fever.” A couple minutes later, as she proceeded to inject me with more medicine, I asked, “what kind of fever?” She replied, “Typhoid.” I sat back and thought, “Wow. I guess I really am sick.”
But as I lay in that hospital bed hooked up to IVs for 11 hours waiting for it to drip drop by drop, all I wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as possible. When they finally released me around 11 pm, I was so happy I was finally free, but then I thought, “how am I going to tell my mom that I have typhoid fever?”
My Ugandan hospital visit was an experience—the large government hospitals in Uganda generally have competent doctors and adequate medicine, but they’re understaffed and woefully underpaid. (Last year, nurses went on strike because they hadn’t been paid in months). I only saw the doctor once at the beginning and the nurses never gave me instructions about what to expect with typhoid. Nurses in Ugandan hospitals don’t care for patients, they just administer medicine, so family members or friends camp out on the hospital grounds to care for their sick. I’m thankful I had so many CVI people stay with me! At night, the rooms inside are full of mosquitoes—now I understand the stories of people going to the hospital and when they’re starting to recover from their original illness, they die of malaria. But my entire hospital bill—admittance, doctor consultation, private room, lab fees, and medicine—was a whopping $37, not even close to my insurance’s $75 co-pay for hospitalizations.
Over the next several days, I basically stayed in bed at the CVI guest house in Gulu too weak to do anything. The one time I attempted to walk to town to get something to eat I nearly passed out again. My mom and dad, as loving, concerned parents, researched typhoid on the Internet (always a dangerous idea), talked with American doctors, and kept sending me descriptions of all the possible serious complications.
On day 3, I lay in bed with my body shaking and head paining, and I cried. I cried because I was exhausted and I couldn’t sleep. I cried because I missed my Lukodi CVI family. I cried because I finally admitted to myself how serious typhoid was. If this happened 100 years ago, I’d be dead. I cried because my family half way across the world was still asleep and I couldn’t talk to them. I cried because I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do. I cried because I was overwhelmed by the number of people praying for me—people at CVI in Uganda and in the US, at my home church, at my university, at my sister’s school, and at my mom’s work were all praying. I couldn’t believe so many people cared.
Finally, they let me go back to Lukodi! I was so excited to see the staff, girls, and kids—I had missed them so much! They were so happy to see me back too; when I walked into chapel, they stopped teaching and the girls all clapped and greeted me with huge smiles. I was still really weak. Sometimes I could barely walk from my hut to the kitchen for lunch. Reading gave me a headache, so I would lie in bed, sweating in the 100+ degree heat, and stare at my grass ceiling while listening to lizards chase each other along my wall. The CVI staff and girls took such good care of me though. They carried things for me, told me to rest, and constantly asked how I was doing. I never knew how much to admit the truth and how much to put on a brave face. When I said I was ok, they looked at me disbelievingly and said, “you’re not fine.” When one teacher caught me walking outside her classroom, she exclaimed, “Why are you in the sun? Get back to your hut and rest!” When Brown asked, “are you strong? Can we race to the fish ponds?” I smiled and said yes, but inside I thought, “No way. If I try to run 2 steps right now, I’ll fall flat on my face.” One teacher told me when she had typhoid, it took her a month to feel better. Aghast, I thought, “if I don’t play football for a month, I’ll die! I’m young and strong (well, at least I used to be). I’ll be better in a week or two.”
As I hit week 2, I started to feel better. I went down to the fish ponds to work some, and even played football with the girls a couple times (I had missed playing so much!). However, my legs were still weaker than I thought, and while sprinting after a ball, I fell flat on my face and scraped up my kneecap quite nicely. I was still really tired and had headaches and had to rest after doing anything for more than a couple hours. Then in week 3, I started feeling poorly again, so we made plans for me to see a doctor in Kampala. At first I protested traveling 6 hours just to see a doctor, but as I grew progressively worse, I accepted the appointment was a good idea. The day before I left, the CVI director told me, “Paige, I know you don’t want to admit it, but you’re sick. Don’t mind, but in Uganda we would say you look half dead.” I looked forward to getting some medicine and feeling better so I could return to hanging out with the girls and doing my work. Little did I know it wasn’t going to be that simple.
We went to a well-respected hospital in Kampala that has extensive experience with mzungus and tropical diseases. The doctor ordered a bunch of tests, but they all came back negative. She said I never even had typhoid originally! She didn’t know why I was sick. Her best guess was a virus, and if I didn’t feel better in 5-7 days, then they could test for more extreme tropical diseases like sleeping sickness. I was sorely disappointed and slightly concerned that the doctor couldn’t give me any answers. That night, the family of the US Embassy staff that oversees the Fulbright Program generously let me stay with them. It was so nice to be in an American style home and eat American food! The next day, they arranged for me to see the doctor at the US embassy. He was stumped too. He said I didn’t have a virus, he couldn’t explain why I passed out, and he had no idea why I was sick. He suggested I see another doctor in Kampala, and if I still didn’t feel better in 5-7 days, then I’d have to go to Nairobi for more extensive tests that couldn’t be done in Uganda. What!? I didn’t want to go to Nairobi! As I laid in bed that night, with my body shaking and head aching, I was scared. How could two Kampala doctors not figure out what was wrong with me? Typhoid was scary, but at least it had a name. Having some unknown disease now was so much worse. Tomorrow’s doctor was my last hope before Nairobi. I prayed so hard that she could give me answers.
The next morning, I got to the hospital before the doctors arrived and was first in line to see Dr. Helen. Immediately, I liked her. She was kind, friendly, extremely knowledgeable, and really took the time to talk with me and thoroughly examine me. We even chatted about northern Uganda because she’s originally from Kitgum—a town 100 km from Gulu! She seriously considered my shaking limbs and flinching muscles and ordered a new set of tests. After waiting several hours, the lab finally had most of my results. As I waited for Dr. Helen, I nervously scrutinized the pages, trying to understand what all the numbers and acronyms meant. Eventually, I gave up and resigned myself to anxiously waiting. Finally she said I had a few salt imbalances, and the typhoid test was slightly positive! Dr. Helen surmised I did have a fairly severe case of typhoid (explaining why I passed out since extreme typhoid can cause comas), and all my IVs and pills cleaned out the infection, but the antibiotics also wiped out my immune system and all the good bacteria in my body. Then the diet of boiled cassava and posho and beans wasn’t good enough to replenish my system to the proper levels, so poor diet coupled with pushing myself to do too much led to near chronic fatigue syndrome. She prescribed nutritional supplements and bacteria pills and rest. No more football for a while…It’s gonna kill me! I just can’t believe I had to go through the drama of seeing three doctors for something as small as fatigue. It’s going to be hard to make myself rest, but at least I know why I’m sick.
Typhoid is a nasty disease, but it’s taught me several lessons. The first is that you can’t judge a hospital by its waiting room. Dr. Helen’s hospital wasn’t as flashy as the first one I went to in Kampala, but she and her lab staff were extremely competent, professional, and friendly.
I also realized how fortunate I am to have insurance. Fulbright gives all their grantees health insurance, which let me comfortably tell the doctors do whatever tests they wanted. But as I sat in these hospital waiting rooms, I couldn’t help thinking about the man I met in Lukodi who couldn’t even afford 5000 schillings (less than $1.50) for a simple medicine.
I also learned to trust God when I’m weak and feel alone. I hate hospitals and seeing doctors and taking medicine, so the past few weeks have been excruciating. I’ve never had so many tests or been pricked with so many needles. I’ve always been strong and healthy. In high school, I played 3 sports. In college, I played nearly all the intramurals and ran or went to the gym nearly everyday. Here in Uganda, I would harvest sweet potatoes then play football for 2 hours in the intense heat of dry season. But with typhoid, there were times when I could barely walk. Getting out of bed to take my temperature was too much effort. I’m still working on this lesson, but I’m learning that when I am weak, God is strong. However, that doesn’t mean that I push myself harder and ask God for strength to get through it. Sometimes it means letting things go.
My sickness also showed God’s impeccable timing. While it stunk to get typhoid, if there was ever a time to fall ill, this was it. I passed out during the one time of the week when all the CVI staff are in one room. There was a vehicle to take me to the hospital, and there were two American girls knowledgeable in medicine staying as interns at CVI for a few weeks (huge shout out to them for staying with me through this whole ordeal!).
Finally, typhoid helped me realize how much everyone at CVI and my friends and family back home care about me and how much I love them. I’m blessed to be surrounded by such loving people.
Daily life in Lukodi is so different from America or even life in Gulu or Kampala. Simple, everyday tasks such as drinking water, cooking, bathing, and washing clothes take so much more time in the village, but living outside virtually all day enjoying the beautiful scenery makes up for the extra work. Every day is different and interspersed with surprises (like a snake slithering by), but each day is always full of baby cuddles, fish/aquaponics work, praise songs and drums, beans, laughs with the girls, and scorching heat.
I usually wake up with the sun around 6:30, sweep my hut, fill a bucket with water and put it in the sun to warm (cold showers are not fun), and liberally apply sunscreen. Sometimes I’ll go for a run while it’s still cool. Most people I pass greet me warmly, but some stare as if to ask, “Why is she running? Why expend energy for no reason?” In the village, running is unheard of, but it’s fairly common in town. When school is in session in Lukodi, I’ll pass streams of kids walking to school in their matching uniforms. They laugh when I say “Apwoyo” and sometimes run with me. My favorite is when one of the boys has a football made of plastic bags wrapped tightly together and we kick the ball along the road.
Most mornings the girls have chapel or Bible study. I love these times because we beat the drums, rattle a shaker, and lift our voices in praise to God. Sometimes dancing will break out. :) It’s a beautiful way to start the day. Breakfast is always tea (if I let one of the Ugandans make my tea, it’s soooo sweet! They love their sugar!) and either boiled cassava or sweet potatoes depending on the season.
After tea, the girls bathe their children and go to classes. My work varies everyday, so sometimes I’ll go down to the farm to check the water quality or construct an experiment while other days I’ll read about fish and aquaponics. Often I’ll walk around the compound trying to find Internet connection to send emails. Lately, I’ve been trying to track down materials to build an aquaponic system—some things are available in Gulu, and Kampala has everything, but imported goods are expensive.
If I don’t have too much to do, I like to visit classes. In saloon, the girls will plait my hair, and in preschool, the kids will sing me songs and tell me stories. My favorite is catering and bakery class because I get to eat what we make. :) I’m pretty good at making chapatti and donuts now, but my samosas still need some work.
Lunch is at 1 o’clock, and we usually have beans or lapenna (a local crop that’s kind of like a cross between beans and lentils) with posho. Posho is maize flour and water cooked and stirred into a thick, heavy blob. It’s not very flavorful, but it sticks to your insides and fills you up. Occasionally we’ll have rice instead of posho, and I get really excited. :) On Saturdays we get meat, which is usually very fresh beef straight from the butcher. I eat lunch with the teachers and enjoy hearing about their lives. We sit on a mat under the shade of a tree and talk; many of them lived through the LRA war and have crazy stories. They’ll often invite me to help dig in their gardens or visit their homes. One teacher told me that she works at CVI to earn money for her kids school fees, but she’s rented small plots of land throughout the village to grow sweet potatoes, sim sim, and other crops to feed her family. I don’t know how she finds time to commute to CVI, work here all day, cook and care for her kids, and grow gardens. I helped her harvest her sweet potatoes once—we walked about 2 km, dug up sweet potatoes and loaded them into a bag so full until I could barely lift it, then walked all the way back with her carrying this insanely heavy sack of potatoes on her head. Village Ugandans are extremely strong and hardworking.
Some afternoons the girls play football, and it’s so much fun! It’s worth braving the blazing afternoon sun. The girls are tough players who push and fight hard for the ball! I love running with them barefoot through the grass—when I score, they rush me and lift me high in the air while cheering. I feel like Carli Lloyd!
In the evening, the girls fetch water from the borehole. They fill jerry cans for the kitchen, for cleaning the compound, and for them and their children to drink, bathe, and wash clothes. I can barely carry a full jerry can, but they easily balance them on their heads with a baby strapped to their back. Some days I’ll do laundry—it’s quite the process to fetch water, scrub each piece of clothing several times by hand, rinse a few times, turn inside out, and hang on the line to dry. I sit outside my hut, scrub, and listen to country music. Thankfully, one of the girls helps me with my laundry or it would take me all day!
After bathing with my bucket shower, I love to sit and watch the sunset. It’s my favorite time of day because the sunsets are always spectacular, it starts to get cool, and I’m clean. :) I quietly sit and read or journal and reflect on the day while drinking in the fantastic scenery.
After the sun sets around 7, I head up to dinner which is whatever we had for lunch plus the girls usually make me eggplants, tula, or cabbage cooked in a sauce strongly flavored with Royco (a Ugandan spice mixture they put in everything). The generator runs from 7-10 pm every night, so I can charge my laptop and phone and we have light in the reception area. I usually hang out with the girls in reception for a while. They love to go through my phone and look at pictures we took. They also love to play with Snapchat filters! Sometimes the girls teach me Acholi and Arabic, and I write the words in my journal. Sometimes we watch TV; I laugh when they play Barney. Sometimes we pick boo (a leafy green) where each girl is given a pile of boo they have to pick the leaves off of for eating or drying. Sometimes I’ll do a Bible study with one of the girls who leads chapel. I cherish these moments of helping her sound out the difficult words and sharing what God teaches each of us. These girls may be younger than me, but they’re so mature about serious life matters. One of the former CVI interns worked on a literacy program because most of the girls are at an elementary school reading level and some can’t read at all because they weren’t able to finish school. The intern started teaching one of the girls to read, and now that she’s left, I sometimes continue it. The girl is learning so quickly! She started out just learning now the alphabet, then moved up to two letter sounds, then words, and now she can piece together short sentences! It was so exciting the first time she read a word—she kept sounding out the individual letters “d”, “o”, “g” then saying them together faster and faster, until finally it clicked! Smiling, she said, “Dog.” This is a girl who when she arrived at CVI 6 months ago, she laid in her hut for three days with no desire to even care for her newborn baby. Now she’s a wonderful mother (even helping with the other children), does well in classes, smiles and laughs with her friends, and is learning to read. She says she wants to be able to read bedtime stories to her son when he’s older and help him with his schoolwork.
Every night at 8:30, the girls ring the bell for prayers and everyone gathers in reception to sing and pray. This is another one of my favorite times of day. Some of the songs are lively, fun, and full of dancing while others are slow, heartfelt cries to God. No matter how my day went, even if I feel like I’ll never figure out how to build an aquaponic system in Uganda, singing these songs never fails to fill me with peace, realign my perspective, and remember that God has an ultimate good plan.
When the generator shuts off and everyone goes to bed, I walk down to my hut. The stars are always amazing! You can see so many, and some of the constellations are even the same as in NH! As I stand outside brushing my teeth and look up at the sky, it’s comforting to know that my family is looking at the same Big Dipper. They may be halfway across the world, but we’re still connected.
There are definitely moments when I’m tired of the heat, being covered in dirt, and itchy bug bites that swell to large red lumps. Sometimes I’m tired of taking bucket showers, always using a latrine, and eating beans nearly everyday. Sometimes I’m tired of facing snakes, lizards, mice, and giant spiders. Sometimes I’m tired of waiting for work to get done, waiting to meet people, and struggling to get complete answers. Sometimes I’m tired of picking up kids with runny noses and wet pants (if they have pants at all J )and trying to learn Acholi and Arabic, but the girls’ love, joy, and friendliness; the kids’ cuteness; and the natural beauty of Uganda more than make up for the hardships of village life. I wouldn’t trade a child’s smile, a girl’s laugh, or a farmer’s greeting for anything. (not even a cold milkshake!)
I love climbing into bed every night and listening to the wind and animals outside my cozy hut. Tucking in my mosquito net, I feel protected against the little critters of Uganda’s night and thank God for this opportunity to live in Africa, work on aquaponics, and build relationships with these beautiful people.
This was my first Christmas away from my family, so I missed them and our holiday traditions (and the NH snow!) a lot, but I’m still thankful I was able to spend Christmas in Uganda. Experiencing Christmas here gave me a new perspective and appreciation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
CVI closes for two weeks during the holidays, and most of the girls go home to their families. However, none of the South Sudanese girls were able to go home because their families are either in a refugee camp, in a war zone in South Sudan, missing, or dead. Although I was sad I couldn’t go home to my family and even shed tears on several occasions, the South Sudanese girls’ situation made me realize how blessed I am to have a complete family that I know I’ll eventually return to. Many of these girls don’t know where their family members are or if they’re even alive. The girls were all sad they would be spending Christmas without their families, so I thanked the Lord for my family and asked Him to help us celebrate this holiday together as a CVI family and that it would be fun for the girls.
We all stayed at the CVI office in Gulu—the bottom floor is a guest house, so the girls packed the floor with mattresses. The walled compound has a small grassy area where we played lots of volleyball and badminton. The girls would sit outside and plait one another’s hair, so they would all look their best for Christmas.
One morning, I taught the girls how to make paper snowflakes—they were quite creative! We also got a tree (well, more like a large branch) and decorated it! Ugandans use cyprus trees and love to decorate with balloons. One of the girls constantly listened to the radio, and sometimes a spontaneous dance party would start when a good song came on.
As usual, the kids were adorable and loved to be cuddled or tickled. We watched Home Alone and other movies (video shops selling insanely cheap pirated movies and music are everywhere in Uganda).
When everyone was sick of beans, I went to the market and got ingredients for mandazi (basically fried bread). It was so much fun to make and eat this special treat together. The girls and their children love having their pictures taken, so we spent hours on a Christmas photo shoot. It was so funny to watch them pose and goof off in front of the Christmas tree—some of them are quite the actresses. Some wanted to look very smart because most Ugandans and South Sudanese rarely get pictures taken and only on special occasions (although more and more people are getting smart phones now). The girls bathed themselves and their children, rubbed oil on the kids’ heads, and dressed up in their best clothes. The pictures were pretty adorable!
Earlier in the week, I had the chance to watch the Watoto Church Christmas Cantata. From African drums, to shadow art, to hip hop, to traditional Christmas carols, it used a range of culture and art forms to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. It was a masterful production and reminded me of my church’s cantata in America.
On Christmas Day, we were planning to go to prayers at 8 o’clock, but getting 14 girls and 13 children fed, bathed, dressed, and in the van is no easy task! We ended up going to the 10 am service (which actually started after 10:30), but I didn’t realize it was entirely in Acholi. The South Sudanese girls (who speak Arabic and English) and I sat for 3 hours dripping in sweat without understanding a word. Nevertheless, I’m glad we could go to church to worship God, and the songs were quite lively with a lot of dancing. After church, I visited my Ugandan friend Maureen (see my previous post “Sundays with Maureen”) and her family. When I arrived, they were sitting outside on a grass mat playing a card game (called “Cards”), so I sat down, and they taught me how to play. I really enjoyed it because my family always plays games together at Christmas. Later, Maureen invited me to help her cook the Irish chips (fried potato strips). As we sat huddled over a charcoal stove in an unventilated room, I forgot about the sweat dripping down my back as she told me how she’d suffered two miscarriages because of incompetent nurses. As she talked of the physical and emotional trauma, I was thankful she trusted me with her story. In Uganda, a woman without children is often ridiculed, but thankfully Maureen’s husband and his family are understanding and supportive. When all the Irish were cooked, we sat down to enjoy each other’s company and a special Christmas meal of goat, chicken, rice, Irish chips, and soda.
When I returned to the CVI office, the girls greeted me with enthusiastic hugs and immediately recruited me into a badminton match. Later, I gave them each a small candy and a photo of themselves with a note I’d written on the back. I was amazed how excited and thankful they were for such a small gift. After dinner, (which was beef—not posho and beans!) I sat with a few of the girls in the cool of the evening breeze, and we talked. We shared deep thoughts and laughed about funny moments, and I felt like we were a family.
I received my own unexpected Christmas gift later that night when I tried to call my family. The Internet had been down all day, but right when my sister called me on video chat, the Internet suddenly started working! We were able to talk and see each other and share about our different Christmases. Soon after we said goodbye, the Internet stopped working again. I don’t understand it, but I was so thankful for my Christmas miracle.
Christmas in Uganda was different in many ways from my usual Christmas in America—rather than near freezing temperatures, I was in near 100° heat. There were no ornately decorated gingerbread houses, red-suited Santa Clauses, or delicious eggnog. Christmas in Uganda is much less materialistic than in the US, so the things that truly matter, such as worshiping Jesus and spending time with family and friends are more evident. Most Ugandans travel back to their home villages for Christmas to be with family. I asked many Ugandans what they did for Christmas, and they all said eat meat, go to prayers (church), spend time with family, and buy clothes (pronounced clotheses).
Until now, I never realized why the little Haitian girl who’s my pen pal got so excited when all she got for Christmas was new school shoes. I always thought, “Why doesn’t she ask for toys?” But after living in Uganda for 3 months and especially after spending this last week with the girls in the office, I can understand my pen pal and the thousands of other children like her. When you have nothing; when you can’t afford to eat anything else other than beans six days a week; when you only have a few pairs of clothes that you wear over and over, then you are excited to receive a new pair of shoes so you can look smart. This Christmas, I realized I was happy to just spend the day surrounded by people who love me and that I didn’t have to eat posho or beans all day!
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been busy here at CVI with the fish ponds. I feel like I’m more of a fish farmer than an engineer now! We started off with draining one of the big ponds and harvesting all its fish. It was so exciting to see what I’d been talking about for weeks actually materialize! It was a tiring, muddy day but so worth it.
CVI hired a bunch of community guys as day laborers, and they started by unearthing the pipe and digging a drainage ditch. Once the pipe cover was removed, water gushed out! To drain even faster, we also pumped water from the pond with the petrol pump. Then it was time to get some fish! Pairs of guys hopped in the water and dragged mosquito nets along the length of the pond trying to catch as many fish as possible. It’s harder than it sounds—those fish are pretty smart and very fast! When they made it to the far side, we’d take the nets and sort the fish. The big ones we kept for eating, and the small ones we threw into the other two ponds. There were some big ones, but a lot of the fish were quite small because a wild strain of tilapia has invaded the ponds. The red tailed fish are male, and they grow well. The white bellied fish are the females of the same strain, but the fish with black stripes are like weeds that invade the population and don’t grow well. Unfortunately, we had a lot of black-striped tilapia.
As the water drained, it became a race against the clock to capture all the fish before the pond went dry. Everyone jumped in and tried to grab fish! Some held a long black netting and walked it across the length of the pond to corral the fish while the rest of us tried to capture them with nets and our bare hands—they were fast, and their fins were spiky! They were hard to catch with your hands! Soon all the water drained from the corners of the pond leaving fish flapping in the mud. We waded through the ankle deep muck trying to scoop up the critters before they suffocated.
Finally, most of the fish were captured, and we prepared to enjoy our labor! Tracey, the catering class teacher, and some of the girls cleaned and gutted fish and began frying them in oil. They were really tasty! I learned that you start by eating the hard tail of the fish and continue down all the way to the eyeball, which wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. :)
The community guys began digging out all the mud on the bottom of the pond. This pond sludge comprised of rotting organic matter needs to be removed because it creates an oxygen sealing layer that prevents good bacteria from growing on the bottom and instead promotes anaerobic bacteria which release toxic hydrogen sulfide. After removing the sludge, we limed the pond to sterilize it and kill any pests before restocking. Before adding water though, we sloped the sides of the pond at a 45° angle. The sloped sides help prevent erosion because waves roll up the sides rather than crash into a blunt edge. We also covered one of the sides with a plastic liner and mud-filled bags because that side leaks water during dry season. Finally, we started pumping water back into the pond! With the help of the District Fisheries Officer, we located a fish supplier with good strains, so when CVI reopens after the Christmas break, we’ll be ready to restock the pond with healthy, fast-growing tilapia! We’re also going to get some catfish that will eat the stunted tilapia we already have that won’t grow.
One form of aquaponics is growing plants on rafts, so one day, Knight, the head plant farmer, and I tried an experiment. In the US, people usually use Styrofoam insulation board for rafts, but that’s expensive in Uganda and only available in the capital of Kampala. Instead, we tried to make a raft out of locally available materials. One rainy day I was staring at the grass roofs of our huts and had an inspiration, “Dried grass floats!” So Knight cut some long grass and let it dry for a couple days then we attempted to make a raft. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, so we made it up as we went. We tried gathering small bundles of grass and tying them together—it held together; we just hoped it would float!
Normally, the aquaponic rafts are in a separate bed from the fish, but since this was just an experiment, we were going to put our raft in a fish pond. I knew the fish would eat the plants’ roots, so I asked Knight if there was any thin cloth or mesh we could use to protect the roots. She said, “a mosquito net!” So she grabbed an old net, and we figured out how to attach it to our raft. Finally, we were ready to test our contraption! We laid it in the water and held our breath—it floated! We stuck some collards, tomatoes, and peppers between the grass bundles and prayed our raft would last overnight.
This raft experiment perfectly portrays my experience designing an aquaponic system in Uganda. Some days are filled with excitement and anticipation as I make progress while other days are filled with disappointment as I go back to the drawing board and question if I can even build an aquaponic system. Usually I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing—my limited experience helping with an aquaponic system for a year at university didn’t prepare me to design a whole system by myself. I’m an engineer—I don’t know fish and plants! So I read as much as I can online when I get Internet, contact experts, and ask the CVI farmers questions to figure out how to adapt complex aquaponics to rural Uganda. It’s a journey of ups and downs, but whenever I grow discouraged, I only have to listen to the girls’ heartfelt songs during nightly prayers to remember that God called me here for a purpose and He will give me the strength and skill to accomplish His plan.
Last weekend, my Ugandan friend, Carol, got married, and I had the chance to attend her wedding—it was so beautiful! Ugandan weddings are definitely go big or go home! it’s a once in a lifetime celebration, so you make it as lavish and memorable as possible. You also have to invite every brother (brother and sister are loosely defined terms in Uganda), sister, uncle, aunt, cousin, grandma, grandpa, distant relative, friend, and distinguished district official, and you have to feed them all (with plenty of meat)! Carol’s wedding had 700 people! Many Ugandans actually live together calling each other husband and wife before they get married because they can’t afford a wedding. Once they save enough money (sometimes years later), they’ll have the ceremony. There’s usually two ceremonies—a traditional and a church wedding. Carol already had her traditional wedding several months ago, so this was her church wedding.
The wedding started at the Catholic church in Gulu on Saturday morning. The bridal party drove slowly through town with ribbons on their cars and horns honking. Even the boda boda drivers stayed respectfully behind, and they normally cut in front of everyone! The cars pulled up to the church 15 minutes late (not bad for Ugandan time), but most of the guests weren’t there yet either. The cute flower girls and beautiful bridesmaids followed by the dashing groomsmen slowly made their way down the aisle rocking backwards about three times for every step forward while the choir sang. Arrayed in gorgeous matching gomas (traditional Ugandan dresses with pointy shoulders and waist sashes), the choir sang beautifully throughout the ceremony. Finally, the bride appeared! Escorted by her husband, Carol slowly rocked down the aisle amidst whistles and the shrill celebratory yell of dozens of Acholi women. In any song, dance, or celebration, Acholi women let out this high-pitched screech /cheer/whistle by yelling while rapidly wagging their tongues. Whenever I try to do it, they laugh, but I’m getting better! Carol and John took their seats on the stage, and an older man and woman sat beside them. These were two trusted, close friends who helped the young couple throughout the day (usually by repeatedly wiping sweat off the bride and groom’s faces with a handkerchief) and will offer guidance and counsel throughout their marriage. The choir sang more songs, the priest preached, and then the bride and groom exchanged vows and rings. I was disappointed they didn’t kiss, but Ugandans don’t show affection publicly. Church is considered sacred, so kissing in church is especially frowned upon, even at a wedding!
Three professional photographers and three more videographers captured every moment of the ceremony! As the only mzungu in the church, I was quite the attraction. The photographers kept snapping photos of me and everyone wanted to greet me. Even the bride’s mother came over! Next, the guests walked forward and dropped small coins in a basket, and then the bridesmaids and groomsmen came down the aisle carrying baskets of gifts from family and friends. Holding everything from watermelons to soap, the baskets were for the newlyweds, but they’re often left for the priests.
The priests (there were a lot of them! Some even came from Kampala and other districts) then offered communion and the bride and groom signed their legal wedding document. After a few more songs, the ceremony was finally over, and the bridal party slowly filed out of the church. Carol and John were both waving and smiling exuberantly—a picture of happiness. Outside, rows of traditional dancers in feather headdresses with ankle bells and drums lined the way to the cars.
The guests all made our way to the reception at a hotel and restaurant with a large grassy compound on the outskirts of Gulu. It was beautifully decorated with ribbons, flowers, and lights, and nearly a dozen tents were setup and designated for religious leaders, the bride’s family, the groom’s family, and other invited guests. The bridal party’s tables were on a raised platform, and the bride and groom had a private table with huge, plush chairs that looked like thrones!
The bridal party was taking pictures, so the guests sat and waited for a couple hours. Ugandans are very good at sitting and waiting—even if they don’t know people sitting next to them, they’ll contentedly sit silent for hours. However, they like to talk to mzungus. One lady told us she thought of us as her daughters because her daughter studied in the US. We were also entertained with a few traditional Ugandan dances. With drums, whistles, and bells hanging off their arms and legs, the young dancers shook their feet so quickly to the beat of the drum—it was like a quick feet soccer drill!
Finally, the bridal party arrived and made a grand entrance! As the drums beat and the women shrilled, the procession passed under the arches and made it to their tables—there was even a fog machine! In Ugandan ceremonies, cake comes before the meal, so the bride and groom danced down to the array of cakes. Yes, they danced, and yes, there were many, many cakes. At a Ugandan wedding, you never walk—you always dance. There was one large, multi-tiered cake surrounded by over a dozen smaller, wrapped cakes. At the emcee’s countdown, the couple cut the large cake and bam! confetti and white foam exploded! I was standing quite close and got covered! I was so surprised! Apparently, tradition says if you’re sprayed when they cut the cake, you’ll be the next one to marry…we’ll see!
The bride and groom fed each other bites of cake and orange Fanta (out of champagne glasses) then the rest of the cake was cut up into small pieces and placed in bowls. The bride and groom took a bowl and danced over to the father and mother of the groom to present them cake then did the same for the bride’s parents and finally for the nuns (who were distinguished guests). The bridesmaids then brought bowls to all the other guests, and everyone took a small piece. Ugandan cakes are much denser and not as sweet as American cakes, and the frosting is much stiffer and more sugary. Then the smaller cakes were presented to distinguished groups of guests. The emcee would call out groups, such as “the bride’s aunts” or “the archdiocese” or “the Children’s Rehabilitation Group of Gulu,” and representatives would dance to the front to accept their cake from the bride and groom. Sadly, they didn’t open the cakes (I was hoping to get a few more bites!) but brought them home.
The traditional dancers returned, this time in different costumes, and entertained us while the bridal party changed to their reception attire. They returned in matching bright blue and yellow while Carol wore a shimmering gold dress and John boasted a flashy, silver suit jacket. They danced through the arches again and announced lunch was finally served! At 5 pm. As we waited in line, country love music floated through the air (country music is quite fashionable in Uganda), the sun began to beat less mercilessly as it set, and feelings of happiness, joy, and peace permeated the soul. Everyone piled their plates with rice, sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, chapatti, skuma wiki (a Ugandan green), cabbage, chicken, beef, g-nut, pea paste, and of course soda.
After eating came the speeches. Every Ugandan ceremony has speeches. Any slightly important relative, friend, or official stands up and gives an often lengthy speech. I haven’t met a Ugandan yet who’s afraid of public speaking! Thankfully, Carol kept the speeches at her wedding comparatively short, and the dancers soon returned. Then the guests formed lines and danced their way to the bride and groom to present their brightly wrapped gifts. Everyone was dressed up in their finest! Some wore modern attire, but many wore the brightly patterned traditional gomas. As the sun descended below the horizon, the strings of lights hanging from the tents twinkled on, and Carol and John each gave heartwarming speeches of love and dedication to each other. Then came their first dance—a beautiful, slow song where they seemed to just get lost in each other.
When the music switched to the traditional, fast Ugandan drum beats, everyone joined in! I wasn’t too good at Ugandan dancing at first, but I’m getting better! It’s mostly a lot of foot and booty shaking accompanied by the periodic Acholi shrill. In traditional dancing, they get very close to each other but never touch. It’s a little intimidating when a large Ugandan woman sidles up to you shaking her booty or chest and expects you to do the same to her, but once you throw yourself into the dancing, it’s a lot of fun! The dancing lasted late into the night, and as I boarded the bus taking guests back to town, the party continued! The passengers continued singing and letting loose the Acholi shrill—one lady even danced in the aisle, until the road became too bumpy and threw her to her seat!
The celebration continued on day 2 with a party at the bride’s family house! This was smaller with only three to four tents. They said come at 10, but we’re starting to figure out Ugandan time, so Lei and I showed up after 2. Food was served at 4, which is early for Ugandan celebrations! Ugandans are punctual for some things, such as school, but for parties or meals, it doesn’t matter what time you show up. As long as you show up at some point, it shows you care about the person.
We sat under the tents where the drinks flowed and talked with Carol and other guests. She doesn’t know where her honeymoon will be—her husband is keeping it a surprise! Some of the women started dancing, and Lei and I made friends with the family children. They called us Aunty Lei and Aunty Paige and loved having their picture taken! They kept stroking my arms and turning over my white hands. Later, they pulled out a small ball they had made by wrapping strips of balloons together. I would bounce it high in the air, and they would all scramble to catch it and bring it back to me. It was fun for all of us! When I left, they swarmed me with such a huge hug, we almost all fell over!
I love weddings and am so thankful I got to experience one in Uganda. While the music, dresses, and cake might differ between Ugandan and American weddings, the emotions of love, commitment, and pure happiness etched on the bride and groom’s faces are the same, and that’s what truly makes a wedding beautiful. No number of fog machines, fancy dresses, or flower bouquets can change the way the bride and groom look at each other. That picture of utter devotion and happiness only comes from finding your soulmate—no matter what country you’re from.