Thursday, July 12, 2007

My peers around the world

I thought some of you might be interested to see what my classmates are doing in other parts of the world. Right now we have students in Peru, Ghana, Tanzania, East Timor and the West Bank. Here are some links to their blogs."
(multiple people write for this blog; my classmate's name is Cindy Sousa)

Sunday, July 8, 2007


Correction: I was able to post a few pictures here, with many thanks to my classmate. Apparently I just needed to switch browsers. But I took many more photos than I can post here, so if you want you can still check out the photos at Ofoto (link below).

Friday, July 6, 2007

What Africa Taught Me

I am now sitting at Entebbe airport, surrounded by a cacophony of languages, announcements, and ring tones. I was just rereading some of the emails that I wrote and received during my three-week stay in Uganda. It was really nice to reread them, if not a little painful to read the raw emotion and exposure of my terror in the early days of the trip.

Mariska (Noah’s Ark volunteer coordinator) told me that if I was able to stay and finish my project, I would be really proud of myself. I stayed and I finished, but I don’t feel proud. I feel satisfied. I am satisfied by what I have learned about myself, and about how the most of the earth’s inhabitants live.

I value my education now more than ever. I value my life, my liberty, and my riches more than I ever did before because here I have seen how truly privileged I am. I think this new found sense of gratefulness is not simply owing to the contrasting African poverty but rather the chance to see just how helpful my ethnicity, nationality and education level are in navigating a completely foreign environment.

I came to Uganda because I thought I had something to offer. In retrospect, it was Uganda who stretched out her hand to me and enveloped me on a strange and terrifying journey. Now as I sit at my journey’s end, I am more knowledgeable and more powerful than I was 22 days ago. Now I am changed in small but lasting ways.

I feel as though a deep thirst has been quenched. I have always wanted to see Africa since reading National Geographic as kid. Now I have walked alongside her people and tried to tell what little I know of their story as accurately as possible. I have learned that I am stronger than I thought and braver than I could have imagined.

What little I had to offer is far less than what the people here need. Of course, I did not go with the idea that I could solve a problem or find a solution to end poverty and suffering. I guess it helps with my overall satisfaction that I did not come here with unrealistic expectations. But I do think that what I did here was meaningful, to the people with whom I interacted and to Noah’s Ark. I think it will make some small difference in guiding the direction of the health clinic that will be established here within the next year.

I am not finished, and that is also a satisfying feeling. I feel like this is just the beginning of my life, and the beginning of my own small efforts to improve the health of people who are suffering, whether in my own country or abroad. I can only hope that the rest of my life is as challenging, meaningful, and thought-provoking as these last three weeks have been.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Same Same...but Different

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time or electrical power to respond to any of the comments posted by you, dear readers. But I was able to at least read them occasionally, and today as I got my last glimpses of Africa I was thinking about Jill’s question – whether I find more similarities than differences among us.

While I have been here I have heard this uniquely African way of describing similar things: “same, same…but different.” One might hear this phrase from a server who delivers orange Fanta rather than coca-cola, for example. Or when you want to purchase an orange shirt and the shopkeeper offers a black shirt instead. If you protest in either of those instances, your protest is likely to be met with “same, same…but different.”

When I think about this cultural mosh pit in which I have been thrown for the past three weeks, I am more impressed by our similarities than our differences. Westerners and Africans have the same aspirations, the same goals, the same dreams. The real difference lies in our ability to achieve them, and the tools with which we are able to realize our full potential.

African mothers want a balanced diet for their children. They want medical care that is accessible, affordable, and adequate. They want their children to attend school. They want their children to grow into productive citizens. These are the same goals that American mothers have. But, sadly I think African mothers are faced with many more obstacles and far fewer tools.

Sometimes the similarities are more striking than the differences, like when I watched a boy cutting grass with a long stick with a machete roped to the end. Or when I saw a man walking his goats along the road one evening at dusk. He was calmly strolling behind them, with a rope drooping between him and the goats. It really made me laugh at how normal it seemed to me – it was almost as though my mind transposed a mental image of a man holding a dog leash and walking his dogs in the park at sunset.

But the differences are also marked. Today I was learning to make samosas from Harriet, Anneke’s housekeeper. Harriet was surprised that I paid my own way here, and that I came here to volunteer. She talked about how she dreams of travel, and when I asked her where she would like to go, she replied, “Rwanda- I have friends there.” For her travel is unattainable luxury. She remarked that my ticket probably cost five months of her salary; she’s probably right. It was another quiet moment in which I was reminded of the privileged life I live. In terms of privileges, I think we are different; in aspirations, in values, and perhaps most importantly in capabilities, I think we are much the same.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Facing Unnecessary Fears

So when some of the volunteers were talking about going white water rafting on the Nile, I had two thoughts: ‘no way,’ and ‘will I regret not going?’ So, true to my nature, I obsessed about the trip and the pros and cons for four days before deciding to at least go with them to Jinja, for the change of scenery and maybe for the rafting trip.

Jinja was a nice town. Along the way there is this string of take-away stands, and if one pulls over one is sure to be mobbed by people selling passion fruit, pineapple, chicken on a stick, grilled bananas, and drinks. Luckily I was forewarned by an experienced traveler in the group, and told to be ready to order or else face a mob of people peddling their wares and reaching into the van to entice me. As soon as we pulled over at least ten people surrounded the van and began thrusting impaled roasted chicken parts in our faces. I bought some grilled bananas and took photos of everyone trying to decide on the perfect piece of chicken.

We pulled over to eat in a forest of sorts, where monkeys were swinging nearby. The trees were labeled by species, the names of which I could not begin to pronounce. After lunch we hit the road again.

When we arrived in Jinja, we were greeted by street children who were difficult to ignore. We bought gifts in the craft shops and ate at a restaurant owned by an ancient Australian woman. Our colorful, peaceful and sanitary lunch was soon disrupted by Americans. As the sole American on the trip and in the Noah’s Ark compound I found myself constantly feeling the need to defend my county; this feeling was not provoked by anything in particular, just the general awareness of outsiders’ views of American people and culture. The thing about American travelers that annoys me is that they just take up so much space. They are loud and complaining, and constantly comparing everything to the way it would be or should be if they were at home. It’s really annoying and embarrassing.

After lunch we visited the (reputed) source of the Nile, and also Bujagali Falls. Now, when I saw Bujagali Falls, I thought there was no way in hell I was going rafting. I mean, I like my life a lot. I didn’t see any reason to risk it. (I’ll post photos of these falls later, and I should also note here that it was one of the smallest of the big rapid runs.)

Of course, when we got to the Nile River Explorers campsite, the guides convinced me that rafting is fun, easy and safe. Okay, I wasn’t convinced exactly, but I was at least assured enough to be willing to commit. So, we had a couple of beers and sat on the porch of the bar and watched the sunset over the Nile. Later that evening we watched a video of the day’s rafting trip and I felt like I might vomit. But instead, I headed for bed, where I was treated to the drunken serenades of rafters and guides until 2:30 in the morning.

The morning of the rafting trip people were still trying to convince me that it was going to be great fun, and that it is good to face your fears. But, I had to point out that while it is good to face one’s fears, rafting is not necessary. I mean, I think it’s good to get over a fear of necessary things like the fear of flying, since flying is somewhat essential in the United States. But rafting is not essential. And therefore facing this fear of drowning under a huge red rubber raft is really not accomplishing much.

I tried to smile, and enjoy my breakfast, thinking it might be my last. As we bounced along the road I enjoyed the scenery and wished Rachel were there to see all that I was seeing. When we reached the river we divided into groups according to adventuresome spirits. Unfortunately, my group was feeling quite brave, except for Mirjam and me. But we decided to stick together, which meant Mirjam and I were sure to be terrified the entire time.

When we were first in the boats we learned the commands for paddling, crouching in the boat, holding our paddles, and how to hold onto the boat and when. We also learned how to float and swim in order to avoid getting our heads bashed on a rock, and how to escape from underneath the boat. Our guide, Juma, was full of antics about vegetarian crocodiles, near death experiences, broken teeth, and vomiting. He was mostly funny.

We started down the river and I really enjoyed the first few rapids. Bujagali Falls was the first big rapid run, a class 4. We managed to not flip the boat for that one, and I really felt the thrill that everyone was raving about. But then we hit a class 5 rapid and our boat flipped and I got caught under it. It was dark, disorienting, and when I finally (probably 5 seconds later) got out from under the boat I was pounded by big waves. Once I caught my breath I had to hold it again while getting pounded by another wave. I finally found a safety kayak and held on to it until he delivered me back to my raft. I struggled to get back in the boat, while Juma told me to hurry up because we were approaching another big rapid. At that point I opted for the safety (AKA chicken) boat. I could not think clearly and I was still shaky from the near death experience under the raft.

So I felt like a minor failure sitting in the chicken boat as others made chicken sounds. But three others soon joined me, so I didn’t feel so bad. The safety boat still goes over the rapids, but it takes the easiest, safest route over them. I rejoined my group in the raft for a few more class 3 rapids, and one last class 4 run. We didn’t flip, and I was really happy I gave it another shot. I (and most of the rafters) opted out of the optional final run, which was a class 6 rapid and looked like a certain, swift death. Gerben and Timon tried it, and survived, but I had no regrets about opting out of that one.

We enjoyed some beers in the rain and a long ride back to the campsite where we had a barbeque dinner. I met two Japanese tourists, an American living in the United Arab Emirates, and a Belgian U N peacekeeper. We had a friendly debate about American politics, the effectiveness (rather, ineffectiveness) of aid to Africa, and the wonders of travel in Japan. We were soaked and freezing, so the debate (with requisite discussion of President Bush) warmed my blood a little and made the ride far more interesting.

We had a nice dinner and then traveled home to Noah’s Ark, where the directors were relieved to see that we survived. Although sometimes it is difficult to be left out of conversations held in Dutch, I am realizing that it may be to my advantage that I don’t always understand what people are saying. For example, after the trip Lenne told me that Pete (one of the directors of NA) was REALLY not happy that we were going rafting, and reminded them that there are no helicopters or medivac capabilities in Africa. So, I’d say that is one conversation I was happy I missed.

So, I can say I went white water rafting on the Nile. I can say I faced my fears and I can honestly say I never need to do that again.