One of my favorite things about living in Uganda is the friendliness of the people. Random people greet me when passing on the road and friends often invite me to their homes where we usually end up staying most of the day. They always feed us, often cooking meat for the special occasion when mzungus visit. For the past few Sundays, Hannah and I have visited our friend Maureen. She always cooks for us and is disappointed if we don’t stay for more than a few hours.
Maureen used to work for CVI making beautiful necklaces out of beads made of paper, but now she is trying to start a small business selling manual washing machines. In Uganda, where most people wash all their clothes, bedding, and linen by hand, laundry is quite the chore! (I know from experience.) CVI has introduced a manual washing machine with a large bucket and plastic plunger specially designed to mimic the swirling cleaning motion of Western washing machines. Rather than scrubbing each piece of laundry by hand in a small basin, women can fill the large bucket with dirty clothes and push the plunger up and down for a few minutes. It’s so much faster! Every Sunday, we help Maureen with her laundry to check that she understands how to use the machine and talk about how she can sell the washers to others. Maureen’s quite the pro at using the washer now—even her husband sometimes joins in! Although it’s easier than washing by hand, it’s still quite a lot of work to gather water, push the plunger, rinse the clothes, ring them dry, and hang them inside out on the line. And I thought laundry in the US was a chore!
After finishing the laundry, we usually sit and talk, eat, listen to music, and play with the children. Maureen lives with her husband and her brother and sister in law who have 9 children! This mother of nine is amazing! In her fancy red church dress, she cooked for us and her whole family, picked ticks off their two dogs and sprayed them with powder, shaved her children’s heads (with a bare razor blade!), and played with her children by chasing them around the compound. Meanwhile, Maureen scrubbed and washed every single shoe she and her husband owned. Clothes and shoes get very dirty in Uganda, but cleanliness is very important to Ugandans—they clean their things better than I do in America! The more I get to know them, the more impressed I am with the strength, vitality, and joy of Acholi women.
On Hannah’s last Sunday visit, Maureen and her family made our time extra special! After finishing the laundry, Hannah and I helped Maureen paste boyo (a popular Ugandan green pronounced bo) for lunch. After she added g-nut paste (kind of like peanut butter) and mukene (small silver fish), we stirred the pot over the charcoal stove. We also hung out with the kids (they love having their pictures taken!). One little boy had made a football (soccer ball) from plastic bags, so I kicked the ball and played keep away with him. Our game provided quite the entertainment for the others.
We sat down to lunch of boyo and posho (corn flour and water cooked together). They always say we don’t eat enough and tell us to take more. Since it was her last Sunday, Hannah had made macaroni and cheese to share with our hosts—they loved it!
After lunch, we made some of the beautiful beaded Ugandan necklaces for Hannah to take home with her. Maureen had already made the beads, so we just strung them together. As we sat on the mat, listening to American country and then Ugandan music, my eyes grew tired from straining to string bead after bead, but I knew this was a special moment with Maureen and her family that I would always cherish.
Sometime in the afternoon, the live chicken hanging upside down on the motorcycle in the compound had disappeared. I thought, “Well, we’re having chicken for dinner.” A few of the boys had taken the chicken to the bushes, slit the throat, and de-feathered it. After bringing it to their mother, she cut up the bird and placed nearly every piece of it in a pot. Even the stomach she slit open, removed the contents, and cooked! The only part that didn’t go in the pot was the intestines.
As it grew dark, we finished our beads and headed inside for dinner. Eating the traditional Ugandan way with just your fingers is a little difficult, but the chicken and rice were delicious! I’m so thankful Maureen and her family have welcomed me to their home and shown me Ugandan life. Doing laundry together, playing football with the kids, talking about harvesting sim sim, and discussing Chelsea FC, are some of the special moments I will remember of my time with them. They’ve also taught me about hospitality—Ugandans always welcome visitors, even without prior scheduling—friends drop by anytime. They don’t eat the last piece of meat in the pot, so that just in case a visitor drops by they’ll have something to share. Ugandans live open, welcoming, genuine lives. There’s no need to prepare or put on a public face. They’ll spontaneously receive visitors as they are and spend time talking and valuing people even while they’re working. When I return to the US, I will take with me Maureen’s friendship and her lessons in hospitality.
While I’m still working on designing and finding materials for an aquaponic system at CVI, the two farmers and I decided to setup a mini test system. We made two aquaponic growing buckets and utilize human-power to transfer water from the fish pond to the plants.
First, we found a couple of 5 gallon buckets on the farm, cleaned them, and drilled drainage and air holes. Next, we gathered a pile of small rocks and performed the vinegar test to assess their acidity. If the rocks start bubbling when vinegar is poured on them, then the pH in the rocks is too high. Ours didn’t bubble, so we were good to go! After rinsing the rocks to remove sand, we started filling the buckets with larger rocks on the bottom and smaller rocks on top.
Finally, in the cool of the evening, just before sunset, we planted our little seedlings in the buckets. We found the perfect spot on the side of one of the fish ponds under a little tree that offers a bit of shade from the scorching Ugandan sun. After slashing the grass in that spot, we placed each bucket on a couple of bricks, and our mini aquaponic system was complete! Our first test is with collards and green peppers.
We’ll pour water from the fish pond onto the buckets 4-5 times a day. While the larger aquaponic system we’ll build at CVI will utilize a solar powered pump, this human-powered aquaponics is perfect for our test system. The CVI farmers were amazed that we could grow plants in rocks with no soil—we’re all excited to watch the development of the plants in the coming weeks!
After we finished building the aquaponic test system, my little buddy Joshua came over to say hi. Whenever he sees me, he runs over and wraps me in a hug. His huge smile always brightens my day! Aquaponics and adorable children…how much better can a day get?
Tarpaulin tents. Inadequate food. Meager medical care. Boredom and no way to plan for the future. This is how hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees live in resettlement camps everyday.
In its newest class of students, CVI wanted to include South Sudanese girls from the camps, so Richard (the CVI Uganda Director) and Brown (the mechanic and driver) drove out to Arua along the Uganda/South Sudan border to pick them up. I wanted to see a refugee camp, so they let me tag along. We piled into the Land Cruiser and set off on our 5 hour journey. We stopped to visit one of the CVI staff member’s husband who was in the hospital with an ulcer. He had nearly died the day before and was waiting for surgery. Ulcers are a common problem in Uganda. As we drove further, we passed gorgeous scenery of rolling hills and palm trees and men fishing in the Nile. We could even see Congo in the distance, and when driving through Murchinson Falls Park, we saw two hippos sticking their heads out of the water! For lunch, when we passed through a town, we pulled up to a chapatti stall and asked for rolex (delicious fried egg chapatti rollups). The guy already had them made and bagged—we handed our 1000 shillings (30 cents) each through the window and drove away. It was like a Ugandan McDonalds!
The next day, we met Mandela—the South Sudanese man who’s supposed to be running the CVI center in South Sudan, but the center is closed because the country is too dangerous. Mandela and his South Sudanese friends took us to Rhino Refugee Resettlement Camp where we were supposed to interview 6 girls Mandela had identified as possible CVI students. As we drove the 2 hours along the bumpy dirt road to the camp, Mandela and his friends continually pointed and exclaimed, “that used to be a camp!” Back in the 90s, this road was full of South Sudanese refugee camps. Eventually, they were able to return their country, but the war has displaced the South Sudanese again. We passed bus after bus transporting new refugees from the border to the camps. The buses used to carry passengers to Kampala, but now the UNHCR (United Nations High Council for Refugees) emblem rests in their windshields. Thirty buses make the trip from the border to the camps all day, every day, 7 days a week. 3000 refugees cross the South Sudanese border every day. Uganda houses the most refugees of any country in the world; many Ugandans themselves were refugees at some point in their lives. They know it could happen again, so they're willing to accommodate their neighbors in need. The South Sudanese are trying to escape the civil war in their country where at least 10 civilians are killed every day. The government soldiers shoot, rape, and loot whatever and whoever they want. The fighting is heaviest in Yei, a city nearly 50 miles from the border, so many refugees come from there. The roads are too dangerous to drive or walk on, so they walk through the bush at night and sleep under trees during the day. When they finally make it to the border and are bused to a camp, the refugees enter a transit center—a fenced area where they queue in long lines to register. They’re given some water and biscuits and sleep in hot, cramped tents packed together in separate male and female areas. After waiting days or weeks, they’re loaded onto large trucks and taken to their resettlement area. Each refugee is given a 20 m x 25 m plot of land and a white tarp adorned with the blue UNHCR logo. That’s what they use to make their new home.
Once a month, the refugees can go to a food distribution center and receive approximately 10 kg of posho and 8 kg of beans per person—not nearly enough food. If their soil is fertile, some refugees grow small quantities of crops, but for many this is impossible. Tall, metal cylinders are erected throughout the camp as water towers. The refugees line up their jerry cans waiting for the trucks that deliver water to each tower once a day.
When we sat down with the girls and their guardians, they started the meeting with prayer and thanked God for protecting them through the night. I thought, “When do I ever pray to thank God for protecting me through the night? Never. I always expect that I’ll be safe while I sleep.” For refugees, especially girls, this is a real concern. None of the tents have doors, so men often break into the tents and rape girls. As the interview continued and we heard the girls’ stories, most were missing at least one parent. They were either dead or still in South Sudan. When Richard asked the guardians for permission to take the girls to CVI, every guardian wholeheartedly said “Yes, please take my girl. I thank you and I thank God for giving her this opportunity.” They all realized that CVI is offering these girls probably the biggest gift of their lives—a chance to escape the camp, go to school, and receive more than enough food and proper medical care for them and their babies. It’s like a “get out of jail free” card.
In the midst of the discouraging camp setting, one happy moment was meeting the mother of Hanan, one of the South Sudanese girls currently at CVI. I was able to show the mom pictures of Hanan and her boy Joshua; she was radiantly happy and kept exclaiming, “Shukran! Shukran!” (Thank you) Richard even let her use his phone to talk to Hanan for a few minutes. While I couldn’t understand what they were saying in Arabic, the mother’s face was a picture of pure happiness. With her head tilted up, eyes closed, and huge smile, the mother was drinking in and savoring every moment of hearing from her daughter.
The next day we visited Bidibidi—one of the largest refugee camps in the world. We drove for hours and only saw a fraction of it. The conditions were even worse than what I saw in Rhino Camp. The girls looked thinner and some of their babies were coughing and showing signs of kwashiorkor—a state of malnutrition brought on by lack of protein. In the place where we interviewed one girl,the tents were built on a hill of sandy, hard soil. They had tried to dig a pit latrine, but the ground was too hard and rocky. The tarpaulins bake in the sun making the tents unbearably hot inside. Nothing could grow and when it rains, the tents flood. Refugees that had been there for a while had built sturdier shelters out of mud and grass using the tarp as a roof. A few enterprising ones had even made mud bricks to build a small hut. After driving to another part of the camp (through dry riverbeds that will be impassable when it rains) and getting slightly lost in the maze of tents, we visited Mandela’s relatives. Many of the children wore clothes with holes and nearly all their bellies were swollen from worms.
As we drove around the camps, Mandela and his friends kept seeing people they knew. We would stop and they would enthusiastically greet each other as if to say, “My brother, I didn’t know you were here! Thank God you’re safe.” It’s almost as if the whole city of Yei has been transplanted to these camps. We passed a doctor who used to run one of the largest clinics in Yei; he was carrying a tree trunk on his shoulder trying to make a shelter for his family. We talked with men who used to run large businesses now selling tomatoes and drinks on the side of the road for those who still have money. We passed teachers, pastors, and even a judge who left because there is no longer any law or order in Yei. These people used to be well off and have established lives. They had houses, cars, and jobs. Now, they live in tents and don’t even have enough food to feed their families. Some have to walk all day to reach a medical clinic that probably doesn’t have enough medicine. Most of their children can’t go to school. The worst part is, they have nothing to do all day and they have no idea how long they’ll have to live like this. They can’t plan for their future.
While the camps were grim, the stories Mandela, Richard, and the other men told while driving in the car really shocked me—they were almost too terrible to believe. One told of driving through South Sudan over 4 miles of dead bodies that were bloodied, shot, and missing pieces. He had nightmares for eleven months. Another talked of being in Rwanda when the genocide started. He walked to Uganda but remembers watching bodies float down the river turning the water red with blood. As we passed an old building, they told about the time they went to see a movie there, but the LRA started shooting everywhere—28 people were killed. They pointed to a bend in the road and laughed about the time when they had been bicycling and saw their friend driving by at that spot. After stopping to talk, the friend drove on only to be mowed down by LRA bullets minutes later. Mandela and his friends heard the gunfire, turned their bikes around, and pedaled as fast as they could back to town. They joked, “You know those American fiction movies with all the fighting and action and life-threatening scenes? We’ve lived it in real life!” I couldn’t believe they could laugh at situations where they barely escaped with their lives.
After telling these stories, Mandela kept impressing upon me the importance of peace. He said, “Once you have peace, hold onto it; because if you lose it, it will take much time and bloodshed to get it back.” Richard added that although Museveni (the Ugandan president who’s stayed in power since 1986 and should be brought before the ICC for criminal acts) is corrupt and has done some bad things, he’s brought relative peace to Uganda for 30 years, and peace has done more for the country’s development than anything. Both Mandela and Richard kept saying the camps and war are temporary—eventually peace will return to South Sudan, and all the refugees will be able to go home and resume normal lives (at least as much normalcy as they can manage after living through this). They are suffering now, but their children and grandchildren will reap the benefits when they can live in a peaceful, developed country.
Visiting the refugee camps has been one of the most impressionable experiences of my life. I never knew the value of peace before seeing these effects of war. Even a dictator can be worth it if he gives a country peace—something that I've never really thought about in America where we haven't fought a war on our land in over 150 years. Now, whenever it rains, I think of the refugees living in tents. While I'm safe in my hut, their blankets and everything they own are being flooded. Every summer, my family used to love to go camping, but I'll never again see it in the same way. We go for fun, bring lots of junk food, and pack up and go home if it rains, but for these refugees, camping is their home. I left the camps feeling helpless and like there was nothing I could do to help these people. I'm still not sure how I can physically help them, but I will definitely be praying for them and that peace will soon return to South Sudan. In the meantime, there are six new South Sudanese girls and their babies at CVI.