Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Grandmother's words again ring true

Sickness far away from home makes one thankful for two of the greatest comforts in life: chicken noodle soup with crackers and mom. Both of which, of course, are conspicuously missing here in Jinja. Looking on the bright side of things while sweating profusely under a mosquito net and trying to block out Congolese hip hop music that’s blaring from the neighbor’s radio, it is also easy to be eternally grateful for antibiotics!

Moving on from my stomach’s first encounter with Ugandan bacteria, life in Jinja continues to welcome me. The pineapples taste just as juicy sweet, the Nile runs just as bold and steady, and my work at TASO remains both challenging and rewarding.

At TASO I completed two additional project proposals to supplement my original one. The first new proposal is for a Pen Pal Project. The goal of the PPP is to empower youth in Uganda through Life Skills learning and cross-cultural exchange between students in Uganda and students in the United States of America so youth in both countries are equipped with the skills to successfully prevent further spread of HIV/AIDS. There will be a writing competition component to the PPP also, in which students are encouraged to submit pieces on a variety of topics including, but not limited to: HIV/AIDS, future aspirations, culture, individuality and youth empowerment. My goal is for a panel comprised of the PPP’s stakeholders to judge the writing submissions and award small prizes to the most outstanding submissions. Writing competition submissions will be published on a TASO-designed blog, acting as another forum for open discussion, an extension of the PPP goal to parties within and beyond participating students.

The second proposal is for a Child Testimony Project. I want to consolidate a number of child testimonies of children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS and publish them on a TASO blog as well as in hardcover. The project will give children a chance to share their stories and know that they are not alone, a form of psychosocial healing. The published book will also be sold to raise money for school fees for the infected and affected children.

…Of course, all of this depends upon the support I hope to receive from TASO headquarters…

The original project I began with is still in the works. I identified several rural secondary schools with administrators who have expressed enthusiasm over the HIV/AIDS and Life Skills course I am currently designing. An independent volunteer, partnering with TASO for three months before he attends medical school, happily agreed to collaborate with me on the project. We will start teaching the course mid-September when the students return from their holiday. We’re enjoying being each other’s sounding board and comparing notes when culture shock strikes!

I attended a formal Introduction ceremony with my host family a few weeks back; the event definitely prompted some “comparing notes!” In Uganda, the Introduction ceremony is a large cultural event every bride-to-be hosts. It’s a ceremony for the bride and the bride’s family to introduce her fiancĂ© to her family and the community at large. Introductions are just as, if not more, important than weddings here in Uganda. Friends, family and co-workers are often expected to contribute to the funding of the event. Actually at a staff meeting here at TASO we discussed at GREAT length—literally about 45 minutes—the appropriate way to ask for money for the Introductions of staff members. We discussed who should be included (only sisters, close friends and cousins or distant relatives and friends of friends?), if the amount donated should be noted on the list, whether or not the host should ask people individually for money, should the donation be mandatory, how much money should be given, should non-donors be revealed, etc, etc. Needless to say, it’s a pretty big deal.

After breakfast the morning of the Introduction, my family gave me the honor of wearing a traditional dress. I struggled to wrap myself up in the long, white and flower-printed fabric that I tied several times around my waist. I put on the jeweled-strapped top and tied another long piece of flowing fabric around one shoulder. Coming out to the car (waddling actually because of my inexperience walking in the thing), I met my mom and two sisters, my baby niece, and my brother all dressed up in their traditional bests. We looked pretty “smart” (the popular phrase meaning a person has great style), I thought. The two and a half hours it took to reach Kaliro after getting lost in the bush, weaving our way around herds of cattle, goats, school children, and boda boda bicycle taxis, was only a warm up for the lesson in patience I was about to enroll. As we journeyed deeper and deeper into the village, past the mud huts, rice fields and huge mango trees, my mom exclaimed with a laugh, “this is the end of the world Erica!” I smiled and forced out a concerned laugh.

We pulled up to the bride’s village, dust clogging the view through the car windows, tickling my nose and slicking my throat in dirt. My sister Maria was getting her daughter Michelle situated with a new pamper and when the brown mist settled I noticed how many eyes were pointed in my direction. At least forty children and some ten adults were staring at me from my position in the rear window seat of the car. “They’re happy to see you,” my mom reassured my apparently visible hesitance. I felt a brief surge of self-consciousness, but remembered my family was with me. We meandered (in my experience, Ugandans seem to like a slow-paced stride) over to a mango tree with a medium-sized mud house situated behind it. Following my sisters’ lead, I knelt down on the ground to show respect to the twenty local women who were seated with their children upon colorful woven mats on the dry earth below and greeted them in Luganda. My family and I sat down on an offered bench and waited for the Introduction to begin. In retrospect I say “waited;” at the time I really did not know what we were doing. But after a few hours passed under the mango tree, with the group of people not saying much at all (and when they did speak, in the local language, I was clueless) I realized we were just waiting.

It was hot. I could feel sweat collecting between my crossed legs. I could use a drink of water, I thought as I pressed my parched tongue against the roof of my mouth.
I did learn that one of the women we were seated with, dressed in a bright purple kanga, plastic flip flop sandals and a floral head wrap, was actually a bit different from the rest. Apparently I was in the presence of the former Vice President of Uganda, Dr. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe! She had flown in for the event all the way from Boston, where she is continuing her education at Harvard. I was impressed by her humility and her obvious love of Ugandan culture. The other women cheered her on as she swung her hips, smiling and dancing to the music floating over from the nearby grassy field where the Introduction ceremony would eventually be held.

Another hour or so passed under the mango tree before a truck drove by and villagers started yelling “ayyyeeayyyaayyyyeeeeayyyyaaaeee!” My sister informed me that this means the groom had arrived—and people were excited.

We gathered in our seats still waiting for the Introduction to begin. The contrast of a big tent, a large speaker sound system, flowers and decorations, well-dressed guests with the rural setting and ragged-clothed villagers surprised me. The celebration did eventually get on, and kept on for nearly five hours! I sat in my seat listening to Luganda spoken loudly through a microphone, trying to decipher some meaning out of the customs. There was cultural dancing, drums, carloads of gifts presented including pineapples, an entire cow carcass, millet, matooke branches, bags of rice, gift bags with their contents made secret, lots of shouting between the bride’s family and the groom’s family seated across the field, lots of Ugandan recorded music blasting from the speakers, role-playing and lots of drama performances and hundreds of villagers crowding around the tent to watch.

It was interesting, and simultaneously a monumental test of patience. How many hours could I go just sitting and listening to a foreign language I didn’t understand. How long could I focus my attention on the event and not my thirst and growling stomach? How long could I “appreciate” the culture without feeling agitated? I found myself trapped in a cycle of first feeling bored, thirsty, hungry, itchy from the mosquitoes biting me and shocked that nobody else appeared to share my irritation at the fact that breakfast was a LONG time ago (about 11 hours). Then I would feel incredibly guilty when I realized that so many of the villagers were used to eating one or two meals a day and nobody else was complaining. Then I would tune into the Introduction again, only to find my thoughts turning again to a sip of water and then again to the guilt of my impatience.

Soon enough, however, all four hundred or so guests were served a huge plate of local food and the party really began. Music encouraged everyone to get up and dance, the tent was illuminated with Christmas lights, sodas and beers were flowing—celebration was in the air. After filling our stomachs hurriedly as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks, my family and I dragged our weary selves into the car at about 11pm to drive the few hours it took to reach home. After the car broke down, we got out to push it along, failed, and recruited some roadside residents to help; I eventually collapsed into my bed.

On Monday at work, a TASO co-worker and friend of mine was laughing at my description of the experience at the Introduction. He told me that when you’re connected to the bride’s side (which my family was), it’s part of the culture, the custom of the event to “suffer.” There is so much of Ugandan culture I have yet to learn, study, discuss.

The familiar saying my Grandmother always wisely offers in response to unpleasant or unplanned events comes to mind, “Well, it was a good experience.”


mdp553 said...

Hey Erica! Gald to see that your doing well (besides the stomach bug)and enjoyign your new country! It sounds like your work will be quite meaningful and rewarding. keep it up!


stilllifeing said...

Dear Nangobi Nakadam (aka Erica Williams):

I have come across your post by chance - by looking into the peace corps for a family member; I've read your dad's piece about the troubles in Cameroon, and have read your entire blog before and since then. I am terribly impressed by your indomitable spirit, eloquence, and commitment to the work you are doing. I live in the UK, and would like to communicate with you and also offer to be part of your PPP if that would be of any value. I will look out for additions to your blog from hereon out. I will also tell you anything you want to know about me, but I would prefer to do so via private email if that is possible. For the present, my name is Gerard, my email address is, and I am a patent attorney living in the UK, but I was born in South Africa and have an ongoing love and sadness and wish to see good things come to that huge dark and bright continent. I am heartened to come across someone like you whos is doing something positive in that regard.


Steve said...


I was just surfing on your blog and thought I should introduce myself. I am steve, I am an engineer currently working in yaounde Cameroon. I graduated in the USA before going back home over 7 years ago. I see you are in Cameroon as well, What do you do and I hope you are enjoying the country.

Yours sincerely,

Steve T.
cell: +237 75 29 99 09

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