Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sanyu and Leaving Africa

It seems that a bit of time has gone by since I last posted here; its only been about two weeks, but I have found that when you are traveling a lifetime of experience can pack its way into such a small space of time. Em and I spent all of our last week in Africa at Sanyu Babies Orphanage in the middle of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Our time there was really amazing, and I found that I derived much more joy from hanging out with infants than I thought I would. Each kid had a unique personality that never ceased to amaze me. Some were quiet, most were loud. Some liked to play with their friends, most liked to hit their friends. Emily and I ran the morning preschool class with about 20 toddlers, and it didn’t take long for a few of them to establish a sort of “fight club” that involved them taking any toy they could and hitting their friends in the head. Keep in mind that these kids couldn’t walk. As hilarious as it was to watch these kids turn lettered blocks into weapons, inevitably I had a responsibility to keep the peace, and that is what I tried to do. Feeding time was the second craziest time of the day, we had all 40 kids lined up in small wooden chairs and had the enormous responsibility of hand feeding most of them some kind of mashed sweet potato. What little they didn’t either throw at me or drop down their shirts they seemed to enjoy immensely. The most difficult event of the day was bath time. Oh my goodness it was insanity. The kids all stripped down and one by one, stood in a line and were each taken by a large, serious looking African nurse and scrubbed mercilessly in a small tub of water. After this scrubbing they would emerge smiling and usually laughing and run towards me as I waited with a towel in hand. Drying a wriggling African child was such a task that before I could finish one, two more would come and tackle me from either side, drying themselves on my shirt. Before I knew it there were dozens of naked children running wildly around and screaming. I would chase them around the concrete floored room trying to grab them, and would eventually give up. Of course after this insanity we would have to change diapers (yes, I changed my first diaper there, and many more after it,) dress them and put them in their cribs. Wow. The whole process took about an hour and a half and by the time we were done we were exhausted and full of stories about the rambunctious children. It was really an amazing time, and saying goodbye to those kids was far more difficult than I had anticipated.

On the way out of the airport in Uganda I experienced one last touch of African “realities,” if you want to call it that. I had a 7-hour wait at Entebbe airport in Uganda before my flight on Ethiopian Airlines left. When I finally was able to check my bags the airport employee informed me that my bags were about 10kg over the allowed weight. He shook his head and said that it was “a large fee” to send my bags, but then said, in almost a whisper “I want to help you.” “Ok” I thought, but how could he do that when my bags were clearly over weight? There was an awkward silence for a few seconds while we each stared blankly at each other, until he said again, this time slower and even quieter, “I want to help you.” Aaaaaah. I began to think African and understood what he was implying. “So” I said, unsure as to how to proceed, “you want….money?” He nodded. “Like, this much money?” I said cautiously pulling a 5,000 shilling note out of my pocket. Without saying a word he quickly swiped it from my hand and shoved it into his pocket. So, to make a long story short he demanded 5,000 more but said that his manager was watching so he would find me later and collect it from me then. I still had three hours to wait at the time so I proceeded to hide myself from him as best as I could. Finally it was time to board and I thought I had successfully thwarted the money making plans of this corrupt airport employee. As I was about to step onto the plane to my dismay I saw the man emerge from inside the plane and walk straight towards me. I was surrounded by people at the time and curious as to what he was going to do. He waked up to me and asked me for my ticket, shooting me a demanding glance. Slowly I pulled the ticket from my pocket along with a 1,000 shilling note and handed them to him. He took the money quickly and said in a whisper “This is all?” I knew I had the upper hand because there was no way he could ask for more money in the position he was in so I didn’t say a word, I just shrugged.

So that is how I left Africa, with a parting reminder that there is a lot that needs to change. Any kind of sustainable change will have to take place first in the minds and hearts of people who are willing to change the culture of corruption and dare to believe in honesty and truth. It’s really a bold thing, if you think about it.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Entebbe Again, Monkeys, Tarzan, and Ants

Back in Entebbe, Uganda, and this time it's quite a different feeling. I am used to the sights, the smells, the overwhelming nature of this place, so it's a little easier to take in.

We are staying at the Airport Guesthouse, which is literally an oasis in the desert. It is nicer than most hotels I have stayed at in the States, and for Uganda, that is saying a lot. We have HOT WATER showers, good food, and ice cream for dessert! That will all end tomorrow as we head to Kampala for a tour of the Watoto Villages, and then on to Sanyu Orphanage where we will work for the next week.

A brief highlight of the last 48 hours: Today we went to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, which was an incredible place full of huge trees, and giant vines hanging overhead. Our guide proudly told us that it was here that the 1930s Tarzan movie was filmed. I believed it, so much so that I grabbed a huge vine and swung 15 feet into the air. It was incredible. I let out a quick Tarzan-esq yell, and, after thumping my chest a few times, we moved on.

We came to a series of trees around which over 150 monkeys were playing and jumping around. It was amazing, they had almost no fear of humans so we could walk within two feet of them without disturbing them at all. There is something so freeing about watching them play, jumping from tree to tree flying through the air.

Unfortunately for me, in my ever-continuing quest for taking quality pictures, I ventured a little too far off the beaten path into some brush. As I was snapping a few pictures I felt several pricks on my feet, I looked down and saw dozens of giant ants covering my feet. It was the wrong day to opt for sandals. I had stopped directly on an ant hill to take my pictures, and in no more than ten seconds they had crawled up my legs and all over my body. It was one of the worst feelings I have ever had, it felt like my body was crawling. I ran toward Emily and our guide, trying hard to keep my cool but desperately swatting at the creatures that now covered my body. I knew I was in trouble when the guide looked worried and said, "oh dear, you might have to strip down." No way was I about to strip down naked in the middle of the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, so as he said this I started swatting furiously at the little beasts; smashing, clawing, pinching, slapping, doing anything I could to rid myself of this plague. Emily and the guide joined in as I danced around flailing my arms and shaking my jeans. So much for keeping my cool. Eventually all of the creatures were either dead and stuck in my leg hair and jeans, or on the ground. The guide, after examining the fallen ants remarked casually, "ah, these are safari ants, thank goodness, not poisonous." "Whew," I thought. "That was close." It was an experience, one that I sincerely hope never ever to have again.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Baptism and a Feast

“You have been baptized!” said the grinning Congolese man as he entered my room. “Now that you have Malaria you are Congolese!” As he said this I wished I could share the same enthusiasm regarding my illness, but there was no denying it, I had been baptized in the waters of African disease, and I could now relate to the plight of the Congolese in a new way. I was tested a few days ago for Malaria and came up positive for not only Malaria, but also Salmonella poisoning, which explained why my insides were burning. I walked out of Maba-Conga Clinic with three new prescriptions and a promise from the friendly doctor that I would be feeling better soon. “Asante-Sana” (thank you in Swahili) was about all I could eek back. Thankfully, this disease has not debilitated me to the point of not being able to teach or do other important things like eat. To be honest the Salmonella has been far worse than Malaria, although one might guess the opposite to be true. Anyway, I should be cured within the week, and even now I have almost no lingering side effects from the sickness. In related news, Emily and I seem to be in a contest to see who can be sicker, and just after I one-upped her Malaria with my Salmonella/Malaria combo, she came down with Typhoid fever. It turns out she still has Malaria but has picked up a bit of a bonus with the Typhoid. Nice job. Hopefully my body won’t feel the need to one-up that.

Many other exciting things have been happening. I will try to do justice to a few of these events quickly:

The Superbowl was a few nights ago and, since the Cardinals were playing, we weren’t about to let a few thousand miles and a huge time difference keep us from watching it. To begin the celebration we decided to try to make tortilla chips and guacamole and subsequently spend the majority of the afternoon operating a kind of chip-making assembly line. Bethany, Luke, and Justin, the other three Americans here, all helped. Bethany made the dough and rolled it, I cut the dough into chip-looking pieces and handed them to Justin and Luke who fried them in a skillet. Emily threw on a bit of salt and before we knew it we had a few hundred chips ready to be enjoyed. The game didn’t begin until 1:30am our time, so we all went to bed at our usual time of 10pm, and woke up at 1am to begin the festivities. We had soda (actually cold from the fridge!) chips and guacamole, and a whole lot of team spirit. Unfortunately, most of you know the outcome of the Cardinals ill-fated quest for the Superbowl title, but what a game! Our little battery operated television actually lasted all four hours, and we went to bed at about 5am, only to wake up at 7 for English classes the next day. It was probably the best Superbowl party I have ever been to.

One of my favorite students, Amani, was involved in an accident on his way to a town called Butembo, a few miles south of here. He was in the back of a truck carrying close to 70 people that, while trying to make a sharp turn, drove off of a cliff and rolled several times. 38 people died. 38. And Amani was one of the few who survived with only minor injuries, he was back in class a few days ago and is a living-breathing miracle. Just watching him walk around and talk and smile and speak of God’s goodness is deeply moving. I learn so much from my students; I have learned the most from him.

A thunderstorm hit Beni yesterday that was the biggest I had ever seen. Dr. Kasali (whose home we are staying in) said, with a dire look on his face, “tropical rains, not a good thing.” He was right, the gates to our little compound flew open, the chickens and various animals living inside all screamed and squawked and ran in terror, the rain poured, the wind blew, and within 15 minutes our house was flooded with an inch of water. We spent the next few hours trying to soak up what we could and salvage those things that had been on the floor. It was wild; living in Arizona has not provided me with any experiences close to that.

Two days ago Emily and I took a trip to a Leprosy Camp in the nearby town of Oicha, we spent all day there and to say that it was a moving experience wouldn’t come close. First of all, let me say that until recently I was under the impression that Leprosy was a disease from Biblical times; an interesting sounding debilitation used conveniently for conveying poignant moral lessons. I had no idea that it was, in truth, a brutal disease that ravages people’s bodies and leaves them debilitated, helpless, and often deserted by their families and remains alive and well in most poor countries. The director greeted us and took us on a tour of the Camp, allowing us a chance to visit with and get to know some of the lepers living there. Seeing firsthand the effects of an illness that so altered the appearance of its victims was remarkable and profound, and to see the indomitable spirit of most of the residents was encouraging to say the least. The smiles I received from those with missing arms, legs, eyes, fingers, toes and teeth were enough to give me hope that life might be much simpler than I had imagined. After spending some time with the patients, we were told that the camp only had enough food to supply the patients with one meal daily, some beans and bananas, and that due to these realities most are often hungry. After hearing this we had an idea and asked the director if we might be able to buy the camp a meal, something nice, (by third-world standards.) The director was overjoyed at the prospect and hurriedly assigned two of his helpers to accompany us to the local market to buy the necessary ingredients. An hour later we returned carrying several pounds of meat, a huge bag of rice and ten head of cabbage. Emily and I tried to help with the preparation by cutting the cabbage, (a skill at which I am terrible,) and had our inefficiency consistently laughed at by the women who usually take on the cabbage cutting responsibility. Finally, after two hours of preparation we were able to serve the patients a meal, and it was incredibly rewarding. Each one cried out “Asante-Sana! Asante!” and shook our hands with whatever fingers still remained on their hands. To them this simple meal of cabbage, meat and rice was a feast, and I have to admit, as we sat down with the director of the Camp and his helpers for our meal, eating with our hands because of the lack of silverware, it did feel an awful lot like a feast.