Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Hour

It's Thursday in the Kampala office which means it's happy hour time! Unlike happy hour at home that usually means drinks after work, here it means as much fried food as you can eat. Samosas (both meat and veggie), crisps (aka potato chips), groundnuts (tiny peanuts), muffins, and of course, bananas. It wouldn't be a proper Ugandan happy hour without bananas :) Happy hour is from noon-1pm, replacing our normal 1pm lunch, and is one of my favorite things about the Kampala office.

Besides the tasty snacks, everyone gets together and just laughs about stuff - today the topic was trousers (don't say pants, that means underwear here) versus skirts. We were talking about how trousers on women are for the most part not accepted in Africa. You can get away with them in Nairobi and Kampala, but that's about it for Eastern Africa. It reminded me of when I landed in Malawi - when you leave the airport, everyone's bags are thoroughly checked/pawed through, but if you are a woman wearing trousers, they give you a kanga, or a cloth, to wrap around you like a skirt. They won't even let you leave the airport without a skirt on! I'll miss happy hour Thursdays when I leave.

I have completed nine articles in the past week which feels like a huge accomplishment. I have one or two more I'm thinking of writing, but if I stopped now, I would still feel good about what I finished this trip. In total, I have 18 stories with photos - hooray! Tomorrow I will finish up last minute stuff and then have a fun afternoon with Carole, the Bridger and my boss here, when we go to the market to do some last minute shopping. Saturday, I'll meet up with Carole and another friend/co-worker Lydia and go to lunch and a movie, and then Sunday I'll leave for the U.S. It should be a good couple of days. This will most likely be my last post before I come home, so thanks again to everyone for your support, prayers and for reading my blog!!!!

Friday, October 24, 2008


Today, I am back in the Kampala office after spending a week in Zambia. Zambia was an experience unlike any other I have had in my travels so far and was a life changing experience. I spent most of my time about 4 1/2 hours north of Lusaka in the Copper Belt with Beki (short for Bektember), the HIV/AIDS coordinator and Enelise who also works with CRWRC in Zambia. The photograph on the left is of the largest open air mine in the world. You can see how barren and stripped the land has become due to the mining industry. As in many countries in Africa, jobs are really difficult to find, so men from all over Zambia travel to this area to work in the mines. The work is really labor intensive, dirty and dangerous. Most miners develop a bad cough/lung problems, and have eye problems from all the dust. They also live under the constant threat of cave-ins. Another source of income in the Copper Belt is the trucking industry. Trucks wait at the border between Zambia and Congo for anywhere from 1-2 months (the photo on the right shows just a few of the hundreds of trucks waiting to clear customs/cross the border.) The men just sit in their trucks in 100+ degree heat, away from their families doing nothing. Both of these industries have created a sort of 'perfect storm' for the HIV/AIDS virus. The men who work in the mines and as truckers are truly surviving instead of living. The darkness that they live in has contributed towards the commercial sex industry that many woman are working in because they also have no other way to provide for themselves and their children. It's a tangled web of darkness and suffering that has led to an HIV/AIDS rate in this area of 20%. In church on Sunday, this hit me the hardest as I looked down the pew I was sitting in. There were five of us in the pew, which meant that according to the HIV/AIDS rate, one of us should be HIV positive. The overall HIV rate for Zambia is around 16% and in Lusaka it is 18% which means that 500 people die per month in the capitol city alone.

CRWRC is working with the Reformed Church of Zambia trying to combat these astonishingly high numbers - trying to not only stop the spread of HIV/AIDS but also care for those who are infected. We spent day after day visiting people in their homes, hearing their stories and witnessing the caring relationships the Home Based Caregivers have established with their HIV positive clients. We spent time with tons of AIDS orphans (remember, an orphan has lost either one of both parents) and their caregivers as well - including this lovely grandmother on the left who is caring for 7 grandchildren. She had 10 children, all of which have died, and their children have been spread out amongst relatives to care for them. Their caregiver, Daisy, is working with this grandma and kids and has established a powerful connection with them through giving support by counseling, some small food support and educating the grandmother on how she can care for her grandchildren. We also had a chance to visit a community based school, where the teachers work for free, the children pay a really small amount for school fees, or none at all if they cannot afford it, and are allowed to attend school without a uniform. The cost of the uniform keeps so many children out of school here, so it was great to see them all learning in regular clothes. We also visited a hospice which was so special for me because of the time I had spent at the AIDS hospice in Pacifica.

I think one of the things I really appreciated about
my time in Zambia was the personal connections I made with people - both staff, volunteers and people being cared for. Even though I was only there a week, I felt like I really got to know people. I don't know exactly why, but I felt closer to the patients we visited more than any of the others I have met. The man on the right lost his sight two years ago after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. When we found him, he thought his legs were paralyzed from the virus as well. He was so scared of what the virus might do to him, he had stopped walking, which in turn had caused his limbs to stop working. He had become paralyzed because of his fear, not HIV/AIDS. Rhoda (in the blue shirt) is trained as a nurse, and helped him to get to his feet and start walking. I had a chance to pray with him at the end, and Beki took a picture while we were praying I am so thankful to have. It was one of many amazing experiences that I know have changed my life for the better.

My week in Zambia was probably the most difficult for me emotionally, but also the best for me spiritually. The things I saw and heard are forever burned into my memory which I am so thankful for - I know that I will leave Africa a different girl than when I came. I will be in Kampala for the next 9 days before I jump on a plane home, and will be furiously typing away for the rest of my time here. I have at least 12 stories I want to write before I leave, and am hoping to finish 15 - a tall order for just a few days. So keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I slave away over my laptop. I look forward to sharing the stories and photos with you when I get back!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mombassa and More

I have traveled many beautiful places in the nine weeks I've been in Africa, but I think this week, I went to the most beautiful of all - Mombassa! Amy (the bridger from Kenya) and I flew in on Monday morning and met Crystle and Dave, our Canadian CRWRC friends, at the hotel. The Nyali Beach Holiday Resort (funny name, huh?) where we stayed was right on the Indian Ocean and beautiful. As soon as we met them, we headed into Mombassa to Fort Jesus which is the big tourist attraction. We hired a guide to show us around the fort who gave us a lot of information and history and was well worth the hire. It was built in the 15th century by the Portuguese and was taken over a few hundred years later by the Arabs. The views from the fort were amazing, and we stopped to take in the view and treated ourselves to a glass of lime juice which the fort is famous for. It was in my top 5 glasses of juice of all time - just sweet enough, so refreshing but not too cold, and served in a clear glass mug. Plus, it was just fun to stand on top of a really old fort in Kenya, drinking real lime juice.

On a more serious note, we learned quite a bit about the fort's history, including how it was used as a holding zone for Africans who had been captured and were being sold into slavery. They would keep them at the fort, load them onto ships to West Africa, and then sell them off from there. We went into a tiny room they would hold them in - it was so dark, no windows, cold and damp and had a horrible smell to it. I had never experienced anything like that before and it was one that I will never forget.

After we left the fort, our guide Mohammed took us through Old Town Mombassa. It reminded me a lot of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland in its architecture. We went to the local market and I bought some spices to bring home with me that look wonderful.
Then we went back to the hotel for a late lunch and our celebration of Canadian Thanksgiving. We went around the table and shared what we were thankful for which was really nice, and something I think should be done more than just on Thanksgiving. I shared I was so thankful that I do not have cancer, and that I am healthy and fully supported by so many friends and loved ones at home in my journey here. Please know how thankful I am for all of you!!!

The next day, we were working all day out in the field. I had the chance to go to the smaller town of Kilifi, about an hour from Mombassa with the HIV/AIDS coordinator, Joyce. We spent a great day meeting with support groups and widow groups, but my favorite part was at the end of the day when we went out with a Home Based Caregiver named Emily. We went to visit her client Joy (both Emily and Joy's names have been changed to protect their identity, but they are fine with me sharing their story and photo) who is HIV positive and is in a public hospital. The hospital was one of the most horrendous places I have ever been - so old and run down, people all over the place waiting to see a doctor, and inside was even worse.
Each room/area had 8 twin beds in it. Bad enough, there was no privacy, but each twin bed was shared by 2-3 people. It was so hot and the smell was overwhelming. The people in Joy's ward were terribly sick - many of them reminded me of my friends at the AIDS hospice and how they looked before they died. I spent maybe just a half and hour with Joy and Emily, hearing about their friendship and the many challenges they face on a day to day basis. It was such an amazing experience, and when I left, it took everything in me to not turn around and go back. Hands down, I have not felt the kind of joy and peace I experienced in that hospital since I have been in Africa.

I flew into Zambia yesterday and am in the CRWRC office in Lusaka today just learning about their programs here and getting to know the staff. The HIV rate is about 16% in Zambia, and in the Copper Belt, where we are going for 4-5 days starting tomorrow, the rate is 20% - 1 in 5! They told me that CRWRC spends about 75% of it's HIV/AIDS resources in Zambia, so I am thinking the next few days will be very informative and powerful as well. I will be traveling with the HIV/AIDS coordinator, another staff from the office here and a partner from within Lusaka. My Zambian experience so far has been great - people here are so friendly and welcoming. I am looking forward to the Copper Belt and about learning more about the environment these miners are forced to work in and how it contributes to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to blog about it next Wednesday. For now, thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A weekend in Nairobi

This morning in church, the pastor ended his sermon by saying, "We are living in a time of grace." I wish I had deep thoughts to share about this statement, but I don't. I just thought that it was really striking. If you have any thoughts on this, let me know.

Thanks to Moi day on Friday (celebrating Kenya's second president) I have had a leisurely three days which has been nice. Friday, I spent the day with Crystal and Dave who are visiting from Canada at the Nairobi National Museum (photo left)  in the morning and the afternoon at a place called Amani Ya Ju. Amani Ya Ju is an amazing project in Nairobi that is helping women refugees from war torn countries learn sewing skills to provide for themselves and their families. We had a beautiful tour from a woman named Maggie and then spent way too much time in shopping in the gift store followed by a delicious lunch. I love visiting these kinds of places; to see women having their lives turned around by something as little as two weeks of sewing lessons and a sewing machine and have a chance to support their work by shopping. Those of you who know me well know I never pass up a chance to shop - especially when it's for a good cause :)

My housemate Amy has not been feeling well since last week, which has left me to fend for myself this weekend. Yesterday and today, I took a taxi across town to a cafe called Java House where they have free wireless! There is nothing that can cheer me up more than a good cappuccino and internet access. So I've spent time working on some articles from the past few weeks and catching up on email which is a treat. Tomorrow, we leave for Mombassa which looks to be busy but good, and Thursday I'll leave Amy, Crystal and Dave (who I've been traveling with the past week) for Zambia. Hope you all had a good of a weekend as I did!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Return to Ulungu

The last three days, I have been in Ulungu, which is about 4 hours east of Nairobi. It was a treat for me, because this is one of the communities I visited last year when I was here on the HIV/AIDS learning tour. It was nice to go back to see familiar faces as well as the developments that have happened in the community over the past year. There were 12 of us who went from Nairobi, Mombasa (Kenya) and Uganda as part of an evaluation team. CRWRC started working in this community over seven years ago, and at this point in time, are assessing what the next few years will look like and if it is time or not to move on to another community. Ulungu has been paired up with a group of churches in Canada, and have been working together on projects like building a borehole for clean water, a nursery school, and a health clinic. (The picture above left is the current church and health clinic and the foundation for the new church they are building.)

I love the work they are doing because it is not just for the church, but it is for the entire community. On Tuesday, we had the chance to spend the entire day in the community.
They built a series of water kiosks where the community can access clean water. The photo on the right is Carole, my boss in Uganda, and I in front of the windmill they built that enables the water to be sent out to 12 water kiosks. A huge issue in the community pre-borehole was that people were having to spend all day walking to clean water and carrying it home. Can you imagine having to spend 7-8 hours every other day just trying to access clean water? The water kiosks, even though some are not working, have been a huge blessing to everyone. When the community realized the water was for everyone, not just church members, it made a big impact on the them in seeing that the local church cares for everyone, not just their own members. So the church has seen a huge rise in attendance, so much so that they have to construct a new building big enough to hold everyone.
Many people are contributing to the new building. People are giving what they can, even if it's not money. This picture is of a woman who was bringing bags of sand from her land to contribute to the foundation of the church. People donate whatever they have - sand, bricks, wood, even their crops that can be sold to pay for other materials. The church in Ulungu is such a
beautiful picture of what the church should be like: a church that is reaching out and caring about their community members, not for the sake of high attendance, but for the sake of loving people like Jesus commanded us to. They care for many Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC's) and the health clinic has benefited so many in that before, people were having to walk 50KM to the nearest health center, which is a challenge when you are healthy, and impossible when you are sick. It was a beautiful day spent with people who are working collaboratively to change their community for the better and was a blessing to all of us. On Wednesday, we spent all day assessing the work we had seen and began the process of making some recommendations to Ulungu and their partners in Canada about next steps.

During our time on Tuesday, we were split into groups of two and matched up with caregivers of local OVC's and sent out into the surrounding area for home visits.
One of my favorite things to do in Africa is to spend the day walking through the countryside visiting people in their homes. The landscape is always so rugged and often times we travel not on roads but small footpaths through farms, dried riverbeds, etc. It's just good to spend time with the people who live there, travel by foot as they travel, see and smell the surroundings they see and smell everyday, eat meals with them - just live life with them. It really is a gift every time I have a chance to do this. Another one of my favorite things about Africa is spending time with the local children. They're shy at first, but an easy way to break the ice is by taking their photo and showing it to them on the screen of the digital camera. Thank God for digital cameras! There's nothing like seeing the smile on a kids face as they see themselves on the screen. After our field visits on Tuesday, a group of OVC's (photo on the right) from different houses followed us back to the village center, and quickly became my new best friends. They couldn't get enough of having their photos taken,
and before I knew it, they had organized themselves into a line to have their individual photos taken. I've included a couple of pictures here, but encourage you to check out my flickr site, which you can access it by clicking on the flickr logo to the right of the screen. I don't know if it's because I had spent time with these kids, or what, but these are some of my favorite photos I've taken so far and can't help but smile when I look at them.

Tomorrow is a holiday in Kenya which is a nice surprise. A couple from Canada, Dave and Crystal, have been with us since Saturday evening, so I think the three of us will visit the Nairobi National Museum tomorrow which will be fun and a nice break. Crystal works for CRWRC in Canada and Dave is just traveling with her for fun. On Monday, we leave for Mombasa along with Amy, the bridger from Kenya, where I'll spend some time with Joyce, who is the HIV/AIDS coordinator for that area. She was at the evaluation in Ulungu this week and I had a chance to talk with her some about our time next week and am looking forward to seeing some kinds of HIV/AIDS programming I have not yet seen. I'm also excited because we'll get to spend my birthday on Monday next to the ocean. There is no place I would rather be than next to the water, so this will be the perfect place to spend my second birthday in Africa. Then Thursday, I'm off to Zambia for a week and then back to Uganda before I return to the U.S. As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The past few days, I have been on a mini writer's retreat which has been fabulous. I've included a picture on the left of the view from the hotel lobby/dining area of Lake Victoria. It has always been comforting for me to spend time next to the ocean, and I've found the last few days, that a lake will also do just fine. I was surprised how little time I have had to write so far on the trip. Pretty much every day, we are out in the field spending time with people. We usually leave around 8a.m. and on average, don't get back to wherever we're staying until 8p.m. By the time we have dinner and wash up, I'm usually so exhausted I go straight to bed. So I definitely needed the time to write. I have nine finished articles under my belt documenting my first five weeks of travels. Woo hoo!!! I was hoping for 10, but just couldn't eek out the last one. Oh well. I figure nine will keep me humble. Tomorrow, I'll be leaving the hotel and going back to the familiarity of traveling and interviewing people, which I am looking forward to.

It's been somewhat challenging, writing non-stop for three days. I think the part I've struggled with the most was reliving all of the stories I've heard. I still can't believe the things that I've seen and heard the past few weeks. Tonight I was organizing photos to include with my story submissions and just started crying over the photos I took of mothers with their HIV positive daughters. Not so much because it's horrible to think most of the little girls probably won't get to grow up, but I think I was crying because of the overwhelming love these women have for each other and the fact that they were willing to let me in to their world, if even for just a few hours.

So I'm finally done sorting photos and editing stories, and will now begin the task of packing. Staying at this hotel has been a treat for a number of reasons, but I think the best part (besides having uninterrupted time to write) was getting to put my clothes in a closet and on shelves. That sounds crazy, but in 44 days of traveling, this is the first time I have actually been able to somewhat unpack. Most places I've stayed are pretty tiny and don't have a closet or dresser, so I've gotten used to wrestling my behemoth of a bag every morning to find my clothes. So getting to unpack for a few days...heaven.

I almost forgot! This afternoon, I was in an earthquake! Just a little one, but a real, African earthquake. I had to stop and think where I was... Uganda or California?

Tomorrow, I am going to TASO, The AIDS Support Organization, which I am thinking will be great. Friday, am not sure what my schedule is and on Saturday I leave for Kenya. I'll be traveling within Kenya with other CRWRC workers to Ulungu for an evaluation of a community they have been working in for over 7 years. The community is doing great, have met their goals and CRWRC is getting ready to pull out. It should be a really interesting story to write. After that, I'm traveling to Mombasa for a few days, then to Zambia for a week, and finally back to Uganda for 10 more days, and then home! The time is flying by which is nice, and while I love Africa, I have to admit that I miss home. That's all for now. Thanks as always for reading.