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.