Monday, September 29, 2008


Last week I was traveling in eastern Uganda in the region of Teso. I went with Jim, Carole and Allen who all work for CRWRC. I couldn't have asked for better travel mates! It really was a nice week, even though we heard a lot of difficult stories. It took over 6 hours to drive from Kampala to Soroti, which is where we stayed for four nights. So Monday was basically a travel day, but was nice because we crossed over the Nile river at it's source in Jinja. We also stopped for Chinese food on the way, which I had my doubts about at first, but turned out to be great. The restaurant was in a full blown, ornate, chinese style architecture building in the middle of rural Uganda. You would have doubts too, right? Much to my surprise, the food was excellent. I had chicken and cashews that would have given the chicken and cashews at my favorite San Francisco Chinese restaurant a run for its money.

Starting on Tuesday, we traveled anywhere between 60-80 kilometers every
day to the surrounding towns and villages. Tuesday Kaberamaido, Wednesday Katakwi, and Thursday Kumi. We would start our day by going to the offices of the group we were visiting and would get an overview of all their programming. Carole, Jim and Allen would also deal with any CRWRC business they had. Then, into the car and out into the field for community visits.
We always took more people from the office with us as our guides, which meant Carole and I had to ride in back where the luggage usually was stored. (see photo left) We loved it and felt very wild with no seat belts, actually no seats at all, and just an overall feeling of wild, car rebellion. The thing that was funny was the children's responses to seeing us get into the back of the car. After we were done with our visit in a community,we would crawl in, all the kids would crowd around our car and stare. I don't know what they were thinking, but every time they would just stand and stare at us in amazement. Normally, when you see visitors from North America, they are riding in the front seat of the car,
so maybe that was it. Or maybe they were just wondering if we understood the concept of riding in a car (we were always the first one in since Allen had to shut the door behind us, so that might have been it). Finally on the third day
of being the recipient of these bewildered looks, I took a photo which is what you see here.

Overall, the week was really powerful for me personally. Everyone we met was so welcoming and sweet. The groups were so joyful and open about sharing their stories. Every community visit was a treat. I think the thing that made the week so powerful was knowing the history of this area. For over 20 years, the Karamojong have been raiding villages, stealing cattle and sometimes killing villagers, even women and children. The Karamojong are very traditional in their dress, lifestyle, etc. They believe that their god has divinely ordained that all the cows in the world belong to them, hence the frequent cattle raids. Before and during the reign of Edie Amin, the Karamojong only had spears, so their attacks weren't too dangerous. Edie Amin had quite a tight police force and was able to keep the Karamojong in check, but after he was kicked out, the Karamojong were able to get access to automatic weapons and that's where the trouble began. People in the Teso region were under attack/being killed by the Karamojong, and then to add to the trouble, the rebels in the Lord's Resistance Army began attacking them in the early 2000's. In case you are unfamiliar with the LRA, this is the group that has terrorized northern Uganda and southern Sudan by raiding villages to take boys for child soldiers and girls as sex slaves. They have killed thousands as well as mutilated their victims who lived by cutting off their arms, noses, lips and ears. It's truly horrible.

Between the insurgency from the Karamojong and the attacks by LRA rebels, people were forced to leave their homes and move into displacement camps. In the camps, they could protect themselves because many were living together so they had strength in numbers. Today, many have been able to return home because the LRA are in peace talks, but many are still living in the camps because of the Karmojong. Almost every town you visit in this area still has camps that people are living in.

The challenge for people when they returned home is that oftentimes, everything they had was gone. Their homes had been burned, all of the cattle had been stolen, the crops/farms were destroyed. Everything they had left behind was gone. What is amazing is that the people we met with haven't given up. They have returned home and have begun rebuilding, but this time with new priorities. One of the pastors of a village shared with us that the reason they built a school as one of their first projects post-conflict is because they realized that knowledge can't be stolen. Rebels can steal everything, even kill people, but they can't take knowledge, education and information, so they want their children to learn. Amazing.

The picture on the left is of the residents of the village that built the school in Kumi. This is who is left after the years of suffering and terror. What is amazing is how these people are so hopeful and sincerely joyful. The things they told us about, the things we saw first hand, just the entire situation - it would have been too much for me to handle if I had lived through it. And to come out of it with hope that things will be better, even better than before, is mind boggling. I think this is one of the reasons I love Ugandans so much. Sorry for the generalization, but I have never seen a country full of people who have lived through nightmare after nightmare (corrupt governments, massive killings, famine, basically everything horrible you can think of) and are not only still here, but are still here and full of hope. The faith they have in God is amazing and indescribable. But really, you would have to have that kind of faith to still be alive.

This afternoon, I am going to work on writing their stories. Sometimes, I feel like the words I use could never do justice to what they have been through or what they are continuing to live with. I wish that all of you could come here and spend time in the villages. That all of you would have the chance to sit in a circle under a mango tree and spend time these beautiful, strong, faithful people. I don't understand why God would allow me - out of everyone in the world - to be here and to hear these stories. Being here makes me feel small and humble and so incredibly blessed and lucky to be the one chosen to write these stories. I seriously wish you were all here, but since you can't be, I just pray that the stories I've written, the ones I've yet to write and the ones you've yet to read will change your lives the way they have changed mine.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Balance Your Decisions Carefully

Last night (Sunday, 9/21 - sorry for the delay in posting. I wrote this Monday morning before we left for Eastern Uganda, and as I was finishing, the power went out and I haven't had internet access until now.) I went with the Omanyo family and our friend Lydia to see the Ndere Dance Troupe which was amazing! It was a beautiful night outdoors, even though it had been pouring rain earlier in the day. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot and we could hear the joyful beat of the drummers, I could tell we were in for a treat.

The entire night consisted of traditional
dances, music and costumes from all over Uganda accompanied by two hysterical MC's. The jokes and routine they had was great - my favorite joke was when they were talking to a group of Canadians, remembering a trip they had taken to the blustery north and said, "You have the coldest sun we have ever felt in our entire lives" Besides the high entertainment value, they also mixed in some really thought provoking moments, one of which was illustrated through a beautiful dance native to Northern Uganda.

My favorite dance of the evening involved the kind of grace and balance I can only dream of having. It began with one woman (right) who acted as the lead by singing and leading a progression of pot stacking. They started with one pot on their head (picture above) and as they danced and sang, stacked more and more pots on top of one another until they had reached the pinnacle of 8 pots each! The dancing was so joyful and lively, it was hard to believe they were keeping the pots on their head without some sort of magic glue or invisible magnets. No trickery was involved though because when they got to the sixth pot, one girl had to sit out because her pots were so wobbly they were in danger of falling.

When they finally reach the eighth pot, the lead dancer (right) had two pots fall from her head and crash to the ground. You could audibly hear the crowd gasp as they fell and smashed into hundreds of pieces. Two male dancers came out and picked up the pieces, as she continued to sing, even with the sixth pot (pictured below) still perched precariously on top of the teetering tower.

When the song was over, the audience broke into wild applause. The MC came out and interviewed the lead dancer/singer. He began by having her sing the song once more and this time, he translated the words into english. The song lyrics that accompanied this dance translated into something like, "When you are making decisions, balance them very carefully if you want to maintain peace in the world." When the song was over for the second time, he explained that the lead girl is from the area of Uganda that has experienced massive violence from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA - also active in Sudan) who have been terrorizing that area for over 20 years. You might have heard of the LRA before - they are the ones who abduct children to be child soldiers and prostitutes as well as mutilating many of the adults by cutting off their arms, lips and ears, if not killing them completely. The MC talked about how sad it is that many children in this area will not learn these beautiful dances because they are just trying to survive. But then he made the point that made the audience go completely silent. He said, "Why is it that when two pots fall to the ground, everyone gasps in horror but when hundreds of thousands of children are being taken and people are being killed and mutilated, no one makes a sound?"

His powerful words were a reminder of a couple of things for me. 1. What are the things in life that I really value? Are they things like clay pots - my car, clothes, etc? Or do I value most of all human life, justice and mercy? 2. What am I doing to stay educated/informed about what's going on in this world? Northern Uganda can seem far away, even from Kampala. From North America, it can begin to seem like another world away. It is easy for me to choose to either not be informed or to ignore these kinds of things that happen in the world that the nightly news chooses not to report. Finally, 3. What am I doing to make a difference in this world, even if it is in the life of just one person?

They're hard questions, but ones I was glad to be reminded of. It made me wrestle with challenging questions, which isn't fun, but I know are good to wrestle with. So far in my trip, this has been a common theme - wrestling. Lots of good things, lots of hard thing, just lots of things to think about. Hopefully, some of the things I'm writing about are causing you to wrestle too. Thanks for reading and hopefully wrestling.

Friday, September 19, 2008


I just returned to Lilongwe from the areas of Ntcheu and Songa, which are south of the capitol city. I have been traveling with Justin Majawa, the director of Save Orphans Ministries, and three of his workers - Naomi who is the Evangelism Coordinator, Picard the Independant Growth Activities Coordinator, and Lonely the HIV/AIDS Coordinator for SOM. It was a very good week in terms of learning and spending time with people - I met at least 100 people a day if not more. It was very tiring through, so I will be glad to fly back to Kampala tomorrow and rest on Sunday before I leave for Eastern Uganda.

My battery power on my laptop is on red, so I'll just give a high level overview, some photos and will write more later in my articles. The photo at the top is one of my favorite photos I've taken so far, which was taken at sunset next to the hospice SOM is building. In the same place, we made some new friends with the local children who were really excited to have their photo taken, which is on the right. Save Orphan's Ministries (SOM) is working with over 10,000 OVC's (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) in two regions of Malawi. Remember, an orphan in Africa means a child has lost one or both parents. 

Realizing that battling HIV/AIDS takes more than medicine, they are working holistically with the communities. Really, it's amazing and overwhelmingly beautiful what they are doing. School fees for OVC's, starting preschools for kids ages 3-5, Kid's Clubs and youth groups twice a week (like Sunday school or Bible Camp in the US - at the left is a photo of a Kid's Club we visited) Adult Literacy Classes, IGA training, farming techniques including Treadle Pump Irrigation systems, building a medical clinic for children in terminal stages of HIV/AIDS, the list goes on and on. They started in 1995 with just one worker, Justin, and today have 50 employees.

I also met with a group of mothers and daughters who are pictured below. 
All of the children are HIV positive, and some of the mothers are as well. It was such a gift to spend time with all of them - we talked about what they love about each other, what the girls want to be when they grow up, the dreams their mothers have for them, etc. We barely talked about HIV/AIDS because some of the girls don't know they are positive yet. Really, how do you tell your four year old child she is HIV positive? It really was a blessing to spend time with them. Every day, I wake up and wonder what amazing thing I will experience, and every day there is something equally amazing and unexpected given to me which I am so thankful for.

We are leaving the office in just a few minutes and I am looking forward to a nice shower in the hotel. This morning, I washed in the sink, and they day before yesterday, the water was so scalding hot at the hotel I couldn't bathe at all. So after two days of pretty much no water, I'll be glad, as well as everyone who has to be around me, to be clean. Then tomorrow morning I'll leave for Uganda, which takes about 7-8 hours to achieve by flying - we make a stop in Zambia, then I have a layover in Kenya, and then will finally make it to Kampala. I'll be on the road all of next week, but will hopefully have internet now and then for more updates. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Maasai Mara

I just have a minute in the office before I have to run home and pack for Malawi, but I had to write a quick note about my AMAZING safari this weekend. I know, I know - between this post and the last one, you are probably thinking that all I'm doing is having a good time, but I promise, I have been working hard and this is the only fun trip I am taking while I am here. Last week we were in Limuru all week at a conference where there was no internet and no hot water - yikes for both! Monday and Tuesday were focused on CRWRC's work in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and Wednesday-Friday was environmental training which was very interesting (will write more about this later)

Saturday morning we flew to Maasai Mara game reserve, stayed the night and flew back to Nairobi this afternoon. It was truly an incredible experience. So many animals, so much land, so beautiful! This is the season for the wildebeest migration where 
about 1.5 million of them run through the park. We didn't see all of them, but saw quite a few along with lions, giraffes, cheetah and cheetah pups, crocodiles, tons of beautiful birds including an ostrich, elephants and my favorite of all - hippos! You name it, we saw it! I will post a few pictures now and more later. (Only have time to download a few photos of my pocket camera - after I download all, will choose some favorites and post them. Just in case you couldn't tell - the top one is me with a lion, and the second is me with a cheetah)

This week I'm off to Malawi for just under a week. I'll be visiting CRWRC's partners there including Justin and Ruth Majawa's work with Save Orphans Ministry. (If you were at CotC this last spring, you probably met Justin and Ruth.) The taxi comes for my roommate Alice and myself tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. - Alice has been here for a month and is returning to Canada tomorrow.
- Kristen

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Some Fun Stuff

We're in the office for just a few minutes before we leave for a conference this whole week, but I thought it would be fun to share a couple of photos from a trip we took this weekend. We had worked hard all week, so to reward ourselves, we went to a place called Kitengela Glass. They make stained glass, blown glass and glass jewelry there, and the woman who started it years ago has trained locals to make all of the products which are beautiful. Besides beautiful things to purchase, all over the campus, there were these crazy sculptures and buildings the woman had designed. Camels and donkeys were running around, they had the most ornate outhouse I've ever seen, and really every time you turned a corner there was something new and bizarre to take in. (During the car trip there, we also saw baboons in the road and zebras in the distance - fun!) On the right is a photo of some of the girls that I went with. I'm staying with three of the girls in the photo, and the other two are friends of another girl. The picture of the tall man on the left is just one of many crazy statues we saw. In all seriousness though, it really was a neat place and a lot of locals have benefited from the training and jobs they've received. It was also great to see so much creativity. One thing I'm realizing as I'm traveling is how thankful I am that I was raised in an environment that encourages creativity. I'll write more about this later.
A couple other fun things I've learned on my trip:
I was told that Ugandan Air only has one plane and makes only one flight a day. Interesting.
When you try and go into Rwanda, you have to leave all your plastic bags at the border. The government is tired of so much trash/so many plastic bags all over the place, so when you get to the border, you have to empty all your plastic bags and leave them behind.
I have a few more, but that's all for now. Thanks for reading! - Kristen

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Western Kenya

We just returned to Nairobi this morning from Western Kenya. We flew in early Monday morning to Kisumu, which is along Lake Victoria, close to the Ugandan border. We then drove to Kakamega, about an hour away and spent time with the leadership of the Western Region Christian Community Services (CCS) They are doing amazing work in Western Kenya with HIV/AIDS, Food Security, Income Generating Activities and Capacity Building. They have very little monetary resources in that area, but believe that capacity building and leadership training is the way to work in community development. After three days of visiting their programs, I have to agree that they are doing amazing work!

Our time in Western Kenya was spent traveling in the rural areas,
mainly the lake area, and visiting differing Community Based Organizations (CBO's). CCS begins by going into a community and spending time with the villagers, getting to know them and discovering what needs they feel need to be met. One of the CBO's we visited was a group of widows. Many of them had lost their husbands to HIV/AIDS and were now caring for themselves and their children, many of which are also infected. The widows in this village gave testimonies about how when they first lost their husbands all they did was stay at home and cry because they didn't know how they would provide for themselves. It can be dangerous for a widow in this area to remarry. Often times, men will marry a widow just for the little money or land she may own and as soon as he has used it up, he will kick her out/leave her with nothing. Another problem in this area is wife inheritance - when a man dies, his brother will "inherit" his wife, and if she is infected with HIV, it will then spread to the new husband and his other wives. On top of all of this, when a woman loses her husband to AIDS, she is often blamed by the community for killing him; accused of witchcraft and bringing HIV to the family. If a woman chooses not to be inherited or remarry, often times the only way to provide for herself is to work as a commercial sex worker.

The widows in the CBO we met with gave their testimonies about how CCS has helped them change their lives. When I asked one woman what she thought her life would be like today if CCS had not found her said "If CCS had not come, I would be dead from prostitution." CCS goes out into the field, finds the widows and starts to counsel them. They provide free testing and counseling for HIV and then get them involved with a support group. In the group, they are trained in Income Generating Activities (IGA's) such as handcrafts, and are also taught the basics of business and marketing. The woman who said she would have died a prostitute told the story about how CCS taught her to farm in a new way - digging holes and line planting instead of broadcasting seeds. They introduced her to new
crops and to seeds that had been bulked (these seeds you only plant once and they will grow three years in a row instead of having to re-plant and re-purchase seeds each year.) From the vegetables she grew, she was able to buy a chicken. She sold the chicks, and was able to buy a goat. She was able to sell the goat milk, and then bought a cow. Now she has a business where she raises and sells goats and cows, is providing for herself and her children and in her own words told us "I am free to not be afraid anymore." She's not only healthy, but is also able to pay the school fees for her five children to attend school.

Overall, it was amazing. We met with groups that had been organized for years, and some that were brand new. They were all in different places of the development process, but what I found amazing was how CCS had helped all these people, trained so many volunteers and touched so many lives all with very little monetary resources. The pastors and workers we spent time with were wonderful and taught us so much. One of the pastors we met with on the first day talked to us about serving people - how they serve people of all faiths, network people together to help one another, all for the purpose of loving people like God loves us. He said "Just because we touch your life does not mean we expect you to come to God, but if we touch your life, know that God is there." Amen.

Some fun things from the trip - we encountered a friendly mob on the road in one of the villages. They were running along and chanting things like "Don't be afraid! Do not shake!" as they waved branches and leaves and ran along side a group of pre-teen boys. They were a circumcision party! They were taking the boys of the village into the forest to be circumcised
and we met them during their pre-party parade. Definitely not something I expected to see! Also, on the last day, everyone in the village we visited were so excited to hear that I am from California. They kept telling me they do their shopping there. It took me a little while to figure out they have a market/store in the village called "California." They insisted I go and visit it, so if you look close enough at the photo, you can see the sign over my head says "California." (BTW, sorry the photos are so small - the internet here is slow and this is as big as I can get the photos to be and upload before I'm kicked offline.)

This next week, I'll be in Limuru at a conference with CRWRC. Hopefully we'll have internet access there so I can post some more. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers!