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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The View from the Pop Top

Two land cruisers pulled up outside our house at 7am Sunday morning. I took one look at the ‘old school’ model with it’s boxy lines and pop out top and selected it as our ride. Sure the newer one was prettier and probably had AC but the old boy had character, and hello, you couldn’t pop your head out the top of the new one! The ten of us piled into the vehicles and headed to Lake Mburo National Park for a day trip.

We drove through the park, standing up with our heads out the top of course, snapping photos left and right. Yep, we were on safari all right! The zebras were the highlight for me and it is strange to think that for the people here it is probably like seeing deer in Banff.

As we walked through the park, following closely behind our armed guide, it was cool to see the animals just ‘being‘. The warthogs, on their stubby legs, wobbled about while the zebras and water bucks grazed around them. The monkeys and baboons played around, swinging in the branches close-by not wanting to miss out on any of the action while the water buffaloes kept to themselves as if a little too good for the rest.

Following the game drive, we did a walking safari and intercepted several types of game, at a safe distance, as they made their predictable trek to the watering hole. We came upon a water buffalo who had, quite likely, just that morning met its unfortunate end at the hands of a rival water buffalo. We took this as an opportunity to get up close and personal to this creature to see its finer features. Troy took this as an opportunity to seize our guide's gun, kneel by the animal, smile proudly and pose for a photo suitable for a hunting magazine. His dad would be so proud.

While it was indeed a great day with the wildlife sighting tally for the day including...

Water Buffalo
Water Bucks
and Elands….

Still, no elephants.

Monday, June 29, 2009

5 years, 10 kilometers, and 1 new toothbrush

Troy and I celebrated our five year anniversary on Friday by scrubbing up and putting on clean clothes (trust me this is a special occasion as we and everything we own is typically covered in a thick layer of red dust), jumping on a boda boda (goodbye clean clothes) and enjoying dinner at an African restaurant (which served Indian food and showed Mexican soap operas translated into English). We felt very cultured.

Saturday we participated in a 10km fundraising run through Mbarara. It was in support of the construction of an IT lab in one of the more affluent all girls schools here and cost us a whole $2.50 to enter. Having met the organizer at the internet cafĂ© when he leaned over and asked me “Can you run?”, I recruited Troy and Lindsay as the token Mzungu contingent. The run was more of a celebration of sorts complete with DJ truck, sponsor visors, water sponge stations and color coordinated high school students. Troy left Lindsay and I in his dust (literally) early on and motivated many locals to achieve their personal bests under the threat of being passed by a Mzungu and being heckled by onlookers.

We were grateful for our very own fan support who brought us water and cheered us along the largely gravel road route. Lindsay and I also managed to make it through the ’Finishing Point’ in a respectable time and while we were pleased with our performance under the hot African sun, trailing behind more than a few participants wearing flip flops and even several who chose to forego footwear altogether, speaks volumes…

Glancing at a calendar amidst all the celebrating this weekend, it did not go unnoticed that we have also officially reached the halfway point of this yearlong adventure. Can’t believe it! As I ceremoniously changed the head on my travel toothbrush, I smiled to think of all that has come to pass and all that still lies ahead :).

Dr. Martin

So, as you may or may not know, I am teaching some basic first aid skills in the communties that we are doing work in. So prior to heading up to these communities to deliver my aforementioned stellar first aid course, I thought it would be best to visit the local health care center and find out a few things first.

The first thing I wanted to know was, what problems the Doctor at the health care center encounters most often. Doctor Martin explained to me that the most common problems that he sees are burns, fevers, infant poisoning and infections. As Dr.Martin and I talked we both felt that we could greatly reduce the risk of these injuries through teaching a little prevention to the families of these communites. We also knew that we could reduce the severity of these injuries by teaching a little basic first aid. So that was great, I now had knowledge of the main problems seen at the health care center and I had a clear plan of how I could help in this situation.

The second thing that I wanted to find out was what Emergency Services are provided to the people in the communities, at what cost the services are provided and what resources are available to them. Here is where I learned alot about the challenges the health care system faces and how the system runs. It is not pretty.

I found out that although the Health Center has two ambulances, they only use one because they can't afford to pay two drivers. It wouldn't matter though if they had 10 ambulances because to use an ambulance comes with a cost. The cost is roughly 30,000 shillings (about 15 cdn dollars) and most families can't afford such a cost.

I then discovered that when someone gets sick or becomes injured one of two things typically happens. The first (and most common) is that someone from the family of the sick or injured person will bike down to the health care center and ask the Doctor what is the best way to care for the sick or injured person. Once they have the advice they were looking for they will bike back up to the community to administer the care and medicine as described. As you can imagine, this is not the desired practice to treat someone who is in need of medical care but due to financial restraints these families face, this is usually the only option they have.

The second solution to help someone who is seriously injured and needs immediate medical attention is to put this person into a "taxi" and send them to the hospital that way. This is done because sending someone in a taxi (that generally has 9 or 10 other people in it) will only cost a family about $2000 shillings and this is all they can afford. Again, not a desired medical practice but many times this is what needs to be done.

Doctor Martin then explained that although the government "provides" the Health Care Center with materials, medications and resources every 3 months, the supplies recieved are never enough and he often runs out of medication and basic medical resources about 6 weeks before the next installement arrives. What this means is that sometimes for 6 weeks at a time, the health care center has to turn patients away unless they bring their own supplies (like surgical gloves!), as they can't properly care for them. This means that the patients have to head into Mbarara to the larger hospital at a greater cost to their family.

A very interesting look into local health care. Finding out what we did about the health care system and its lack of resources, it is our hope that Ainembabazi will be able to team up with Doctor Martin to implement a community health outreach program that will see the Doc heading up to the communties one time per month to better serve the people of these rural areas. We (Ainembabazi) will also be providing each community with a First Aid Kit and some basic knowledge that will hopefully reduce the number of times families need to go see Dr. Martin.

I believe now, more than ever, that health care is a basic human right that everyone should have access to. Unfortunately, I have also discovered that sometimes money is the only way to ensure that you get your basic human rights. That kind of sucks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ihunga Artistes

This past Monday and Tuesday I ventured out to Ihunga Primary School with two other interns, Rivka and Matt. The journey out includes a 45 minute mini bus ride followed by a 20 minute boda boda (motorcycle taxi) ride up the 4x4 trails into the hills. It is a beautiful ride through banana and matooke plantations, winding through small communities, swerving around coffee beans laying out to dry in the roads and being greeted by school children left waving frantically in our wake.

Rivka had started an art project, called the Art Murals Mile Project, with kids in an after school program she is involved with in Edmonton. They completed half of a 12 foot canvas mural and it was brought here to be completed by kids in Uganda. We worked with two kids from each grade level (P1 to P7) to finish the mural themed 'Children and the Environment'. We brainstormed ideas and the kids took turns bringing their ideas to life on the canvas.

The kids, though quiet and reserved for the most part, were very creative and as evidenced in these before and after shots, the finished product is truly a masterpiece!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TIA - This Is Africa!

It is said that time is Relative. Here however, I would say that time is Irrelevant. People are just not in a hurry. Period. Troy is convinced they must know something we don’t. Maybe he is right.

We had planned to meet the YC on Saturday at 2pm to kick things off.
We set off from Mbarara to Kinoni (pronounced Chinony) with the intent of arriving a little early to set up. When the mini bus we found ourselves on detoured to the other side of town to pick up somebody’s lumber order, it became apparent that expecting to run on any sort of schedule had been optimistic. After being loaded, unloaded, and loaded back into the mini bus several times in order to pack us in just right, tight, and in a logical drop-off order, we were finally on our way. Just the 21 of us…in a fifteen passenger van….with four or five two by twelve 8 foot lengths of lumber.

We had been told to expect that a set meeting time in Uganda should be assumed to represent more of a ‘guideline‘ than anything hard and fast and so when we arrived in Kinoni at precisely 2pm, and wedged ourselves out of public transport , we shouldn’t have been surprised when we were met by a solitary youth. I considered for a good half hour that maybe all our planning had been in vain and maybe we should head home, but we hung on and about 20 others eventually trickled in. We got started just after 3pm which apparently was “Right on Time”.

We made a plan to meet again the following Saturday. At 3pm. I am confused, does this mean 4? We shall see. The 45 minute ride home was again via shared transport, but in a car this time. Your standard five passenger variety. At one count there were ten of us. Could have been more though, I can’t be sure as you can really fit a lot of babies into the nooks and crannies and I may have lost count….

TIA. Love it :)


Still no elephants, though I have been promised Zebras at Lake Mburo National Park, a park just outside Mbarara which we hope to visit one day this week.

We have settled into Mbarara, living in a house rented for use by Ainembabazi interns. There are currently ten of us here, which is the most they have ever had at one time. Everyone has their own projects to focus on in one of two counties in which Ainembabazi supports orphans, Kinoni and Kyabugimbi Projects include agricultural initiatives, education programs, health and AIDs education, micro-finance lending, and youth work. The other interns are all University students in some capacity or other and Troy and I are once again the old dogs. We are getting used to being ‘old’ by typical volunteer standards. It is fun to watch as people bite their tongues when describing siblings, or friends, or professors in their 30’s as ‘old’ before considering their company…I guess no one told them that 30 is the new 20! We have discovered over the last 6 months that age truly is just a number.

Troy is holding up rather well though considering he is living with 8 women. He has been hiding in our room a substantial amount though and doing a lot of reading, mostly about Africa. We are both trying to use some of our free time here to learn more about some history and Africa’s past. The group here is fairly passionate about all things ’developing world’ related as most are studying in the field of political science, community health, or medicine. It has been interesting to hear the discussions and the debates that ensue. It seems that nightly we are discussing a controversial topic and true to form Troy always seems to say just the right thing to get everybody excited and worked up and he ofcourse does this with a big grin on his face.

With two weeks down, we are slowly moving our youth project forward. That is how things happen here. Slowly. We met with the youth on Thursday night to find out the goals of the group. There were about 14 youth aged 13 to 18 in attendance. It was determined that with school, homework, and other responsibilities at home, they were able to commit Saturday afternoons to some sort of youth group activity. They had tried to organize themselves in the past but without sufficient ’adult’ mentorship, the group kept falling flat. Not short on ideas, (football and dance ranked high on their list of interests, so did drama, music, art, netball, volleyball, AIDS awareness, human rights, first aid, and crafts, just to name a few…) what they were lacking was the know-how, the resources, the contacts, and any process to bring these things to life

We are here for such a short time and while it would be fun to simply be youth group leaders for eight weeks, it is important for us to try to figure out how to provide a sustainable impact. What happens when we leave? And so with the aim of creating a self-governing, sustainable youth committee, we have established our goal as setting up the framework and processes for the group which will facilitate them operating on their own when there are no interns around to facilitate.

After our second meeting with the youth on Saturday which included a discussion on their overall structure in addition to some teamwork, leadership and communication games (thank goodness for 4-H camp and a good memory!), it was decided by the group to dedicate every second Saturday to sports and alternating Saturdays to some other ‘social‘ activity, be it a discussion topic, a guest speaker, a workshop, or whatever. Troy and I will be planning the activities while we are here and will transfer this responsibility to the newly formed Sport Committee and Social Committee when we leave. We are currently drafting a Kinoni Youth Committee (KYC) Guideline document outlining the roles of their newly formed executive and committees, a meeting schedule, and proposing how to work together with Ainembabazi staff to secure resources.

While working with the youth to form a sustainable youth committee is our primary role here, we will also be getting involved in some other projects. We will be working to get an agricultural project off the ground, partnering with a governmental agency whose aim is to educate on ways to increase soil productivity and repair land degradation, Troy will be working with both communities teaching basic first aid to both the guardians and teenagers and I will be working with two other volunteers to do some strategic planning and needs assessing. There may also be an opportunity to work on a community garden project that is just getting underway. Will hopefully have more to add on these things later….

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mzungus in Mbarara

We are definitely not in Kansas anymore… Our first experience in Uganda was a helmetless motorbike ride through the crowded streets of Kampala. As we held our giant bags in front of us and our drivers zigged and zagged in and out of traffic, I noticed Nicole was laughing hysterically, partly out of fear and partly out of shear enjoyment. That is when I realized we had made it to Africa. Then, doing our best sardine impersonation, we were packed onto a bus for our 5 hour journey to the town of Mbarara. About half way through the bus ride we had to pull over to the side of the road and wait for about an hour so the bus could cool down, which was much appreciated by both me and my bladder. With the bus cool and ready to go we headed off to attack the road on our way to our final destination. To say that this was the bumpiest bus ride of my life would be a drastic understatement. We were hitting bumps on the road so fast that Nicole actually had to hang on to my pants because she was getting thrown off of her seat. At this point Nicole and I both felt that our senses had been punched in the face and all we wanted to do was get back in the ring for some more abuse. It was awesome. The traffic, the colors, the horns, the animals, the buildings, the smells and of course all the locals yelling “hey Mzungu” (which affectionately means, hey white person), we couldn’t get enough and we were pumped to finally be starting our African Adventure.

Our first week here was a week of adjustment and planning. Adjusting to the heat, the jet lag and the slow pace at which things seem to happen here and planning for our projects and getting ready to head out to the community. So, with a week under our belts and our senses almost fully recovered (it is amazing how fast you get used to something) we are loving Mbarara and still excited to be here. Our fist week was full of exploration and discovery. We have discovered that in Africa much like in most of Central and South America, people here sure like their carbohydrates. In any given meal you will be given a potato (or a potato substitute), a portion of rice along with a portion of pasta, topped off with some bread. Every meal is a “loosen the belt and undo the top button” type of meal. We also continue to realize that it is going to suck to buy produce when we go back home. The other day for 4000 shillings we bought 6 tomatoes, 6 onions, 4 carrots, 4 green peppers, 4 mangoes, 2 avocadoes and 3 cloves of garlic, keeping in mind that 4000 shillings is the equivalent of about 2 Canadian dollars. And the final thing that I discovered is that I couldn’t handle the heat and the long hair. So yesterday, despite my best intentions to grow my hair for a full year, I had to give in and get my head shaved. To my relief, there was no regret, just instant relief. In short, Africa is hot and awesome. We haven’t seen any elephants yet but I will keep my eyes open.

Keep it real,

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Big Idea Guys

Last week, our final week in Pisco, was busy as usual at PSF and with a record number of volunteers, various projects were underway. On Tuesday I worked with a team putting together a modular home for a woman and her three children. She shared with us her Tsunami story and considered herself lucky as while she was at home alone that day, treading in water up to her neck, she was secure in the knowledge that her three boys were safe on higher ground at school.
As you can see, it was 'safety first' while somewhat creative as we managed to put the roof on without a ladder...

Meanwhile Troy, Will, and Dipper, having had their water supply line trenching plan foiled due to lack of water pressure, were drumming up plans of their own. All planning to leave at the end of the week, they brainstormed ways to make their last few days in Pisco count the most. The El Molino community had plans to build a medical aid station (see previous blog), and Dipper being a contractor by trade, Troy the supplier of plenty of brawn and Will being the Spanish speaker of the group, they decided that between the three of them, all that was missing to get this project going was the funds. While fundraising was in progress for the project including raffles, fundraising lunches, and a fundraising appeal website, there just weren't enough funds yet to get it off the ground.

Though Harold (PSF director) was hesitant at first, having been burned in the past by empty promises, the boys convinced him that between the efforts of the three of them (and their lovely significant others ofcourse, Jocelyn, Lara and myself!), enough money could be raised to fast track this project asap.
And so, thanks to volunteers, family and friends, the fundraising target for the medical aid station was exceeded, allowing excess funds to be allocated to the future child care centre and the provision of blankets. Wow, there are no words. The generosity is overwhelming!

The eyes of the community leader welled up on Wednesday morning as we pulled up to the site, loaded with cement and a concrete mixer in tow. By Wednesday afternoon, under the watchful eye of Dipper, and thanks to the hard work of ten or so volunteers, a concrete pad had been poured.

Thursday, the lumber supplies to prefabricate the building had been purchased from a neighboring town and after a ride back to Pisco on the back of a flat bed semi-truck (again with 'safety first'), some pre-cutting was done by the light of the moon to get a jump start on Friday construction.

Friday was a long and busy day but by the time we had to leave to catch our plane in Lima, most of the walls had been pre-fabricated, ready to be erected on Saturday morning.
What a team! So many thanks!