As of Monday, it is officially 2 months since I have left home. It feels like yesterday when I said goodbye to my hysterical mom at JFK and began my long journey to Ddegeya. I have enjoyed my time here, but I am definitely still learning the ins and outs of the culture and the language.
I am trying to learn Lugandan but it’s extremely confusing to me. I know enough to say hello and ask how people are doing, as well as a few other words and phrases. When I greet patients and ask how they are doing in the morning, all of the patients laugh and smile and ask if I know Lugandan. They are not laughing at me, I think they are actually proud and happy that I am trying to learn their language. There are several regions and kingdoms within Uganda, all with their separate languages. Ddegeya is located in the Baganda Kingdom, which spans from the area around Ddegeya to around Kampala. The Baganda Kingdom still exists, and the King can be seen in pictures and posters all around the region. I have not figured out the respective roles of the Ugandan government and the Baganda Kingdom, but I know there is some animosity and rivalry between the two. Anyway, the Baganda people take a lot of pride in their culture, heritage, and language, and they seem to be happy that I am making an effort to speak their language.
Two weeks ago the rains finally came, and they came in hot. The first storm of the season came in suddenly and lasted for about 2 hours. It was a downpour accompanied by strong wind and marble sized hail. If you ventured outside, you were bound to become drenched and muddy within seconds. After the rain, our wells were full again and we were able to go back to pumping our water up to the water tank and taking real showers.
The rain also signaled the start of planting in the village. The next morning, everyone in the village seemed to be planting their crops. Corn, beans, plantains, mangoes, avocados, cabbage, and g-nuts (peanuts) were among the different crops being planted. In order to get the ground ready to plant, the ground needs to be cleared of all weeds, leaves, wood, and branches. Once the land is cleared, it’s time to dig holes to plant the seeds. A hoe is used to dig the holes in the ground. It is physically demanding and extremely tiring work to dig holes every foot in a huge field. After the holes are dug, seeds can be planted and fertilizer can be applied, if necessary. Then, you just hope for the rains to come to water the plants. So far the rain has come every few days and hopefully it stays that way throughout the season.
The scholars have now all gone back to school for the start of Term 3 and the clinic feels very empty without them here everyday. After spending their break with them, I am in awe of how intelligent and kind each one of them is. They all look out for one another and are always willing to give each other, or anyone really, a helping hand. One day, I was walking along the road with two of the oldest scholars, Wilbur and Hamza, two awesome kids. We walked by a few houses on the road and Hamza pointed his out to me. It was a one or two room house with a wooden door, typical of the homes throughout the area. I had walked past this house many times, but now that I realized it was Hamza’s, I was shocked. Hamza is so bright, so helpful (many times he acts as a translator for me) and has the same interests that I did when I was his age, yet he lives in such poverty. This is why the Engeye Scholars program is so vital. It gives children who normally would have no chance at receiving an education an opportunity to become educated and help their family and community. Each one of the scholars understands and appreciates the opportunity they have been given, as well as the potential positive effect they can have on their community. I am very proud to be working for the Scholars Program and for the scholars themselves. They are all very inspiring people and they all can have very bright futures.
That being said, I have started to teach again at St. Gertrude’s, a primary boarding school down the road from the clinic. I quickly realized there were fewer students than the previous term. After thinking about it, I figured this must be because the start of Term 3 coincides with planting season. Families must spend the little money they have on seeds and fertilizer, rather than education for their children. This is unfortunate, but it is the way the community works. Hopefully, one-day education will not be dependent on whether a family had a high or low crop yield the previous year.
While the scholars and staff of Engeye are definitely my favorite people in Uganda so far, I’ve figured out my least favorite people: taxi drivers. Some are great, but most do whatever they can to make as many schillings as possible. This means stuffing their cars with triple the amount of people allowed, ignoring safety risks. One day, I got into an already stuffed minivan on the main road on my way to Masaka. I counted, not including the driver, 13 passengers. People were everywhere and the van was extremely hot and uncomfortable. On the way to Masaka, the driver was stopped by the police, he ran out of the van, handed the officer a bill by a handshake (I couldn’t see the amount), and ran back into the car, a sign of the blatant corruption throughout the country. Later in the drive, he stopped on the side of a road to do his grocery shopping and left everyone in the hot, idle car. He did all of the shopping from the window of the van, ordering people in the shops to get what he needed and deliver it to the van. He even ordered the butcher to get him a few kilos of beef before he left. So we waited as the butcher chopped the beef right next to the van and deliver it to the driver. It is incredibly frustrating, but it’s a different culture and that is the way they do things here.
Two weeks ago, Nakate, a scholar that lives at the clinic, invited me to attend church with her. Of course, I accepted the invitation, but told her that I was Jewish and not a religious person. She said it was OK and that it would still be fun. The church is across the valley from the clinic and you can see its steeple above the trees. It’s called Kyamaganda Church and was built by German missionaries a very long time ago. The inside of the church was bare except for a few signs on the wall, several broken windows, and wooden benches, which served as pews. After we walked for about 45 minutes through the fields, we arrived at the church and took a seat near the front. A few minutes passed and the church was soon packed with people and the service began. The entire mass was in Lugandan so I didn’t understand a thing. I stood up when everyone else did, but got a few angry stares when I didn’t kneel to pray or take communion. The songs the choir sung were very catchy and whether it was a slow or fast song, each and every one included an ensemble of African drums. Instead of an organ or piano, there were about 4 or 5 different drums being played with the choir, something you probably will not see or hear anywhere in America or Europe. The whole experience was very interesting and enjoyable and I hope I get invited back when Nakate comes back for her break in December.
I have also had the pleasure of meeting some interesting characters here in the village. One of them is my friend Richard. Richard is older, in his late sixties or seventies, and was once a member of the Ugandan Parliament. After his career, he moved back to the land where his father grew up, here in Ddegeya. Richard was educated in California and spent many years around the United States, his English is excellent and he is definitely an intelligent man. What makes Richard exceptionally interesting is that he believes people are always trying to kill him, steal his money, medicine, land, and has some short-term memory loss. He comes by the clinic every so often to tell John, the manager, that his life is being threatened and he needs to call the police, or his land was stolen, or his cigarettes were stolen, something new and interesting every time. He wears the same outfit every time, a pair of rain boots (they look like Hunter boots), dress slacks, a collared shirt, and a blazer. He also makes sure to introduce himself with this long and specific title which references who he is and his past career. I don’t have it memorized but I will definitely write it down next time I see him. Regardless, he’s a great guy and loves to talk to me. I am definitely going to talk to him more about his career in parliament and I’ll be sure to write about them in the blog.
There is another man who has come by the clinic twice. I don’t know his name or if he’s even from the village but he just requests to see me and then starts to sing and dance. The first time he came, he said he was an artist and wanted to demo some music for us. Eddie was with me and quickly walked away, leaving me alone with this guy. I sat down on a bench and just let him do his thing. Besides the fact that his voice was terrible, I couldn’t tell if he was singing in English or Luganda. He was also spinning and doing all these jumps. Overall the performance was a little creepy and I just wanted it to end. After his first song was over, I politely clapped and walked away quickly and thanked him. The next time he came, I happened to be with some scholars. They quickly started laughing at him and I told them to stop and be serious. Again, when he finished I thanked him and left. I’m really hoping he doesn’t come back to the clinic.
This past weekend I was able to go to Kampala and get a hot shower, toilet, and not have bats, mice, and roosters wake me up constantly all night. I had to go to Kampala to get my work permit in order to elongate my stay after my 6-month visa runs out. I checked the documents I needed 7 or 8 times and was sure I had everything. Before I got to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, just about everyone told me that the people there were unpleasant and corrupt. I made sure to put on my best kiss ass personality and got to the office an hour before it opened. By 8:00 AM, there were about 100 people waiting to get into the ministry outside of a large gate. The guard let people in one by one and I made my way to the immigration officer. I quickly filled out my G1 work permit form and handed it to the officer in a neatly put together binder with all of my documents. I thanked her a million times and she told me everything was great and all I needed to do was submit the folder to the NGO Board. I quickly made my way into the NGO Board office and was greeted by four unpleasant looking bureaucrats. I greeted them and smiled and none smiled back at me. I handed my folder to one of them and she immediately asked where everything was, without looking inside. I promised her it was all there and she made a face at me and said it felt pretty light. She then opened up and looked inside with a checklist. After she flipped through all my documents and checked off every box, she handed my folder back to me and told me she needed the constitution of my NGO and that the appointment letter was not addressed to them. The NGO constitution is not listed anywhere online, or in print, as a document required to be submitted with a G1 permit. The fact that the appointment letter from Engeye’s manager was not addressed to the immigration officer seemed to offend the NGO board. They told me to come back with the constitution, the newly addressed appointment letter (with no changes to the body of the letter at all), and another folder with everything inside it so they could have two copies. On top of all of this, they were extremely rude and I had the feeling if I slipped them a couple hundred thousand schillings they would forget about this made-up, arbitrary requirement they just imposed on me. They seemed to be offended that I did not have any document specifically addressed to them and made up their mind that I would not be getting my permit, even though I had everything required. Otherwise, the weekend was great. I got to see Kampala, which is a very nice city.
Although I have seven months to go, and a lot more to do and learn, there is one thing that I have definitely learned here in Uganda so far. It’s that money, clothes, houses, or social status cannot determine or give you true happiness. In Ddegeya and the surrounding communities, most of the people have very close to nothing. They have two or three changes of clothes, a roof over their head and the food they get from the fields. But they are the happiest people I have ever met. I have noticed that no one ever complains. Not once have I heard a complaint from anyone in the village. Instead, I see a lot of smiling and I hear a lot laughter and cheerful banter between friends and families. This has shown me that friends and family, the people who truly care about you and vice versa, are what really creates happiness. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with material success, but I believe that friends and family are the foundation of happiness; without them nothing can make you truly happy. The people of Ddegeya prove this to me every single day.
Hope everyone is doing well, I miss you all very much.