This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Fulbright program—it was started by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946 to promote mutual understanding across cultures. After WWII, exchanging students, professors, knowledge, and skills with other countries was seen as a way to promote peace. If we can understand people from other cultures, and they can understand the US, then we are better able to help each other.
Makerere University and the US Mission in Kampala hosted an event to celebrate the anniversary and encourage Ugandans to apply for Fulbright scholarships to the US, so me, Eden (the other Fulbrighter in Gulu), and Hannah (the intern at CVI) hopped on a bus to Kampala. Hannah and I had front row seats—right next to the driver—so we saw how he sped down the road and barreled past all the land cruisers, trucks, bodas, bicycles and every other vehicle on the road. In Uganda, police checkpoints (complete with yellow spiked barriers) periodically populate the highways. To prevent speeding, the buses are supposed to hit each checkpoint at a certain time or they are fined. Oftentimes, drivers just pull over and kill time while local people sell food to passengers through the bus windows. The bus drivers wait so long they have to speed to reach the next checkpoint in time!
The Fulbright Anniversary event was very well done—the Makerere University main hall was packed with Ugandan professors and students who had participated in Fulbright or were interested in applying. I was surprised that “business casual” meant all the professors were dressed in full suits, but Ugandans dress to impress, especially in the city. The auditorium was decorated for the occasion with a table up front for distinguished guests, and the schedule was planned to the minute! We were entertained with many speeches (always an integral part of any Ugandan ceremony), a video of past Ugandan Fulbrighters, and an incredible student choir who sang the Ugandan and US national anthems and the Makerere University song.
One of my highlights was meeting the US Ambassador to Uganda. She planted a tree to commemorate the occasion then everyone headed to a reception at the Makerere Art Gallery. There we talked to many students and encouraged them to apply to study in the US. The first Ugandan Fulbrighter was also there—she went to the US in 1961 and had an amazing story! I was surprised how many Ugandans had received Fulbrights to the US; they all testified that the program impacted them greatly and enabled their work in Uganda to have a bigger difference.
After spending the last few weeks in Lukodi and Gulu, Kampala was crazy! There are so many people jostling each other, sellers grabbing your arm to get your attention, matatus jamming the roads, and boda drivers constantly calling out “Mzungu! Mzungu!”(mzungu means “white person”). We went shopping in town (the center of Kampala that houses the markets) one morning, and the number of stalls and shops was overwhelming! I was looking for a Uganda Cranes (the national football team) jersey. The guy didn’t have the color and size I wanted, so he had me sit while his assistant ran around to all the other football jersey sellers looking for the right one to bring back. They’ll do anything to get your business, but I had a nice chat with the shopkeeper while waiting. He and many other Ugandans like Trump because he’s “a strong man” and promised to oust Musevini if elected. Musevini is Uganda’s long-time dictator who should be prosecuted by the ICC but stays in power by rigging elections. Although he’s popular among young Ugandans (he’s the only government they know), many Ugandans think he’s corrupt and not doing what’s best for their country.
While in Kampala, I saw my first boda accident—a boda crashed into the matatu in front of it. The passenger managed to jump off, but the driver and his bike started falling right into the path of my matatu. We swerved and narrowly missed them. Bodas drive crazily fast through narrow gaps in traffic, so accidents are common, but it was unnerving to see one myself. Thankfully, everyone seemed ok.
We also went to a movie theatre and watched Queen of Katwe—an inspiring true story of a girl who grew up in the slums of Kampala and how she fought to become a world champion in chess to escape poverty. The movie accurately depicts Ugandan life, and it was really neat to watch a film in the city where it was made. The theatre was packed, and it was interesting that the Ugandan audience laughed at scenes in the movie that would shock US viewers. Queen of Katwe is currently showing in the US, and I highly encourage Americans to see it and learn what daily life is like for many Ugandans.
Before the movie, we stopped in a grocery store to get snacks. Hannah and I walked in and were overwhelmed! After being in Lukodi, this store was massive! We couldn’t believe it when we saw M&M’s, Snickers, oatmeal, a whole selection of ice cream bars…pretty much everything in a US supermarket was in this store. While I enjoyed the opportunity to buy whatever I wanted and catch up with Kampala friends, the city was too crazy for me. I’m glad to be back in Lukodi and Gulu with the CVI girls and beautiful sunsets over the palm trees. I can't believe I've already been in Uganda over a month--time has flown by so quickly! While there are definitely things I miss about the US (like apple cider donuts, pumpkin bread, and fall foliage), I feel comfortable in Uganda and that I understand how things work here now (mostly!). Uganda feels like home.
A couple of days after meeting Komakech, the masters student studying aquaculture at Gulu University, I expectantly waited for him to come visit the CVI ponds. He came roaring up the road (a couple hours late, but hey, that’s Ugandan time) on his motorcycle donned in goggles and a jacket to fight the dust. He brought his friend, Winston, who’s also studying aquaculture. We walked down to the ponds, and Komakech gave many helpful suggestions. He even brought a water quality test kit, so we could measure ammonia and nitrite levels.
One of Komakech’s biggest suggestions regarded the fish feed. Tilapia like feed that floats, but the feed we have sinks, so the fish weren’t eating all of it. He suggested we build feed troughs and submerge them halfway underwater. Stephen, the CVI farmer, found some iron roofing sheets and we started making the troughs. Using a hammer, he flattened the metal then bent it to create sides. There was a hole in the middle of one sheet, so he plugged it with a ripped feed bag lying in the yard. To secure the corners, we punched small holes in the sides and twisted bits of wire through them. We carried the troughs down to the ponds and thought about how to secure them. Eventually we decided to use wire and metal stakes scavenged from a nearby fence (at least it was partly falling down). Stephen and his assistant William pulled the fence posts out of the ground, but the bottoms were encased in concrete. William just banged the concrete against another fence post until the casing fell off! We jumped into the water, sunk the posts, and submerged the troughs. When we poured feed into the troughs, the fish quickly swam over! A swarm much larger than the number that normally appears at feeding time emerged, so the fish seem to like their new feed troughs!
We went through several iterations when designing the feed troughs, but I really enjoyed participating in the Ugandan style design process. Since there’s no Home Depot or Lowes out in Lukodi, we used whatever materials we could find. But with some simple tools and a little creativity, we built some excellent feed troughs.
Later, we wanted to change some of the water in the ponds because there's too much algae, which is reducing the dissolved oxygen in the water to dangerously low levels for the fish. Normally, Stephen uses a gas pump to lift water from the stream to the ponds, but his water hoses are a few years old and broken. Saturday morning, he and a couple farm hands tried to fix them. They hauled the pump down to the stream, but every time they turned it on, water came bursting from leaks in the canvas hose. I watched as they turned off the pump, hacked off the ruptured part of the hose with a machete, inserted a 6 inch section of plastic tubing into one end of the hose, and pulled the other end on top. Then, they cut strips of rubber from an old tire and tightly wound a strip over the hose seam. After removing all the ruptured sections and splicing the hose back together, Stephen turned on the pump again. All seemed fine for a few seconds until, "PSSHHHT!" the hose ruptured again in a new spot. After a couple hours of working on the hose, they fixed most of the leaks until it was good enough to pump water to the pond. I am constantly amazed at the hard work and ingenuity of these Ugandan farmers.
My main purpose for being at CVI is to help turn some of their fish ponds into an aquaponic system, so I couldn’t wait to check out the ponds. I met CVI’s head farmer, Stephen—a hardworking man who has turned acres of bush into a productive farm. Stephen gave me a pair of bright yellow “gum boots,” and we headed down to the farm past the fields of maize, pigs rolling in the mud, bunnies hopping around their coop, chickens and goats running around the yard, and dogs sleeping in the shade. Finally, I soaked in the view of three beautiful tilapia ponds. A rabbit hutch overhangs one of the ponds, so as the bunnies happily hop around all day they add additional nutrients to the pond. Stephen and I measured the size of all the ponds, and he answered all my questions about the piping and construction of the ponds. The engineer in me compelled me to draw a detailed diagram of the ponds and water flow. Stephen showed me the fish food and the stream from which they pump water into the ponds during the dry season.
I took out my DO (dissolved oxygen) and conductivity meter (thanks to YSI for donating this fine instrument to me and UNH) and showed Stephen how to use it to measure the water quality. He loved learning to use it and wants to help every time I take water samples! I wasn’t able to test all the water quality parameters I wanted because I couldn’t bring most of the kits on the plane (they contained hazardous chemicals), but I had picked up a pH kit in Kampala, so as we waited for the pH strips to dry, I started talking to Stephen about aquaponics. He hadn’t heard of it before, but he was eager to learn! When I showed him the pictures of the aquaponic system I visited in Kampala, he became very excited and couldn’t believe they grew 5-6 kg taro yams in six months. Stephen said he wanted to build an aquaponic system here at CVI. As we sat there on the grass in the beating sun, I wanted to hold onto that moment. There was an empowering, visionary feeling as Stephen bought into the idea and we dreamed about the aquaponic system we would build. Later, I met with Night, the farmer who oversees the crops, and she also grew excited about aquaponics. We discussed what vegetables we should grow and envisioned clearing the bush behind the ponds to make room for grow beds. Again, it was a magical moment of vision and dreaming about the future. I can’t wait to make our idea become a reality.
I called the professor I’m supposed to work with at Gulu University, and to my amazement he picked up and told me to come meet him. This is the guy who I’ve emailed repeatedly and haven’t received a reply in 2 months. I’ve found Ugandans are extremely helpful and friendly over the phone or in person, but they don’t do email. I went to the university (and got in trouble with the security guard for taking a picture) and found the professor’s office. He said he couldn’t help because aquaponics wasn’t his field of expertise, but he introduced me to a master’s student, Komakech, who’s an expert in aquaculture. I told him about the CVI fish ponds and how the tilapia weren’t growing too well; he gave some suggestions and offered to come out and visit the ponds! I was so thankful for his expertise and willingness to help—I know virtually nothing about fish, so Komakech is an answer to prayer. He also knows all the fish farmers in the area and said he can introduce me so I can ask them about aquaponics. I can't wait for Komakech to come visit the CVI ponds--I think I'm going to learn a lot from him!
The past few days at CVI have been tiring, though-provoking, and beautiful. Everyone has welcomed me warmly, and we’re quickly becoming friends.
CVI’s center in Lukodi houses 24 girls, their 30 children, and staff. Of their current girls, most grew up in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps. One was abducted and forced to serve as a child soldier during the LRA conflict. Many are from northern Uganda, but some are also from South Sudan. Almost all the girls have children ranging from newborn (just visited her in the hospital!) to 7 years old. Since the girls grew up in camps and war zones, they missed a lot of school and weren’t able to learn basic life skills to care for themselves and their children. The highest literacy rate among the girls is a 6th grade reading level, and many are much lower than that. At CVI, the girls go through an 18 month program where they learn basic hygiene, gardening, cooking, and vocational skills they can use to support themselves. They take classes in tailoring, hair dressing, cooking & baking, and sweater weaving. Most of all, they live in a supportive community.
The girls are friendly and kind, but my favorite part of living at the center is the kids—they are so adorable and there are so many of them! Every time I walk by I get swarmed by little children wanting to play. They want to hold my hand, kick the football (soccer ball), sit in my lap, go for piggy back rides, and be chased. I was sitting at the table in the pavilion trying to type on my computer when four kids came over to sit next to me. We started playing telephone where you hold your hand to your ear and call each other. I used my limited Acholi, and they laughed. Soon, they were reaching for my keyboard, typing random symbols, and deleting whole sentences. I surrendered. I took them out to the grass and started chasing them. Squeals of laughter rang out through the center. Hearing the fun, more kids came to join! I ran and ran, tagging each of them until I couldn’t run anymore. Exhausted, I collapsed onto the grass, and they piled on top of me! I lay there and thought, “How blessed I am to be sitting here in the African sun surrounded by a sea of such beautiful smiling faces.” Then those mischievous little angels started tickling my bare feet! I couldn’t even protect myself because four of them were sitting on top of me holding me hostage! Finally, I managed to jump up and began chasing them again.
I live in a very nice hut (complete with large, friendly spiders) that offers a cool relief from the scorching Ugandan sun and use latrines and bucket showers. There’s no electricity, but we have solar lamps and they run the generator for a few hours each night. We eat all our meals together, and almost everything is grown here on the CVI farm. Breakfast is always cassava and tea. At first the cassava was hard to eat, but I’m starting to like it. Meat is served once a week on Saturdays, and it’s always very fresh. Otherwise we have rice or posho and beans and some kind of green. Once we had sweet potatoes, which were really good! My stomach hasn’t quite adjusted to the high starch diet, but pepto bismol and immodium are taking care of that!
The first few days I experienced as much as I could with the girls. I helped them plant maize in the garden—it was hot, backbreaking work! The girls showed me to take a stick, dig a hole, plop one kernel of maize in the hole, cover it up, and repeat for row after row. I was quite slow compared to them! The girls are also teaching me Acholi—I’ve learned quite a lot! But I think my pronunciation is wrong because they laugh every time I ask, “Ni ni nga?” (What is your name?) The girls also love Snapchat! At night when we’re gathered after dinner, they love to use my phone and play with the Snapchat filters—they make some hilarious videos.
One of the girls, Beatrice, showed me how to wash clothes—it was quite the process! First, we hauled water up from the borehole. Watching the girls balance the heavy jerry cans on their heads is an impressive sight! We then placed my clothes in my washing bucket, poured water on them, and scrubbed them with a blue, lathery soap. After scrubbing for a while, we rinsed and wrung the water out of the clothes then washed them again. I thought we were done, but nope, Beatrice pulled out a second soap! This one was white and powdery, and she used it to wash the clothes again! I think she washed and scrubbed each piece of clothing about 5 times—they were cleaner than when they come out of the washing machine back home! Finally, we hung them on the line to dry (inside out to preserve the color from the sun). We had to remember to bring the clothes in before dark or the cows would eat them.
When the girls put away their laundry, they keep their clothes in bags, so they can quickly grab them and run in case the fighting returns. They have few possessions, so they can carry everything they own. While the LRA has moved away from northern Uganda and the area has enjoyed peace for several years, the girls were brought up with this flight mentality. Back in the U.S., I like to think that I don’t live extravagantly and that I work hard for what I get, but the girls work just as hard and possess great talents, except war has hindered them from developing all their skills. I’m shocked and almost ashamed what different lifestyles and opportunities are available to me just because I was born on the other side of the world.
We're off to Gulu! My research was approved by the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) much faster than I thought. I paid my fee, so now I just have to wait 10 business days to pick up my official letter, and I’ll have my research clearance!
Since there wasn’t that much left for us to do in Kampala, Eden and I decided to head north to Gulu where both of our NGOs were located. We sadly said goodbye to our GLA and other Kampala friends and boarded the Friday midday bus for Gulu. The 6 hour cross-country trip was only 20,000 schillings (6 USD)! Our bus even featured a TV showing African music videos and then, when that supply was exhausted, terrible 90s films.
The Kisenye bus terminal in Kampala was crazy! As soon as we pulled up, our taxi was swarmed with Ugandans offering to help us with our luggage and direct us to our bus (all for a fee of course). We kept saying “No, no, no.” and held onto our luggage dearly. Thankfully, Juliet (our Ugandan friend) was with us and led the way to our bus. She helped us load all of our huge suitcases into the bottom of the bus and lock them up. We arrived quite early, so we paid for our tickets and waited on the stifling bus while hawkers streamed on offering us water, fruit, soda, and other snacks. The bus filled up to capacity (they squish those seats together tightly), and we pulled out—the breeze through the windows felt so good!
The scenery through our 6 hour journey was beautiful and varied! Outside Kampala there was open green fields and trees broken up by one street towns. As we traveled further, the strips of buildings grew shorter. Then we passed forests of pine trees neatly planted in straight rows. Next, the green fields returned interspersed with circles of huts and roadside open air markets.
The bus stopped a couple of times for petrol and restroom breaks and momentarily pulled to the side of the road several times for passengers to buy food through the windows from the sellers below. Some held wire baskets full of drinks on high sticks to reach the windows while others offered bananas or meat on a stick.
The road from Kampala to Gulu is all paved, so vehicles can go quite fast. Our bus was moving extremely fast and passing all the other vehicles it could. We finally pulled into the Gulu bus station, and the CVI driver, Jacob, picked me up in one of their white Toyota pickup trucks. We hefted in my two humungous suitcases and set off for the CVI center in Lukodi 40 minutes away.
The dirt road from Gulu to Lukodi has grown worse since I was here 2.5 years ago. The rains forge ever deepening potholes and ditches across the length of the road. Memories rushed back as we passed familiar landmarks, and when we pulled into the CVI center, I was glad to see the rings of huts, grove of mango trees, the girls’ smiling faces, and all the adorable children. It was good to be back.