Sunday, June 3, 2012

Gorillas in the light of day

Today we personally met all the members of the Rushegura family. There are nineteen members in the family and each has a very distinct personality. We arrived at 8:00 am for a briefing before setting off on the trek. Our group of eight along with a guide and three rangers (with rifles!) only travelled for about twenty minutes through the very dense jungle before we met the gorillas. They were in the vegetation but about six were plainly visible. But we met the entire family out in the open as they walked along an aqueduct that provides water to the village. For one hour we watched them. At some points several passed by, one literally brushing my pants. They are without doubt a species that gets so close to us that I don't think it's possible to be with them without having the sense of connection. The hour passed so quickly and about two minutes before our time was up, one of the gorillas, called "the babysitter" simply turned his back to us. Our guide said that he was putting us on notice... our time had come to an end. We returned to the lodge and we were sitting on the veranda when the entire family came to see us again. They spent another half hour meandering, climbing and mostly eating. Then they left. As I sit here in the middle of the afternoon, they have returned. I can't see them but I hear them. I expect I might have the chance to see them once more. Tomorrow we return to Kampala and then Entebbe where we will spend the night and then fly home. So, to all of you who bothered to read this, thanks. I'm glad I did this because this was the experience of a lifetime and an immensely full three weeks. I know that most of the processing will happen later but the blog gave me the chance to simply record events and first impressions. It was good to know that there were folks who travelled with me...

Saturday, June 2, 2012

June 2, Bwindi National Forest

It's been a long time since I wrote anything. I'd like to begin with our last night in Gulu. We went to Daisy and Santo's house for dinner and, as predicted, Santo was caught up in meetings and didn't make it for dinner. He was also taking the 9:00 pm bus to Kampala so we didn't expect to see him. Samuel was still at school so it was a dinner of females only and it was great. Little Daisy's mom, Daisy (Miriam), "big" Daisy, Janet and Eunice, and Lillian, the seamstress and her 1 1/2 year old daughter, Rema. Lillian made some beautiful things for us (and wouldn't let Annie pay for two of them :-). Lillian made the entire dinner and it was EVERYTHING! Posho, bol (greens) with odee (groundnut and simsim paste), yams, "irish" potatioes, Malakwon (greens) and egg. We had a wonderful time but then we had to go before dark to return to town on bodas. All the women walked down the road with us. Janet and Eunice started to cry and, of course, I started to but I made some jokes and there were no tears. I hopped on the boda and I was off, waving goodby to all these wonderful, generous, lovely women whom I came to love so much. At 6:15 am we hopped on two bodas with all our belongings and traveled in darkness to the Post Bus station only to find out it broke a tire rod the day before and wasn't running. So off we went to take one of the other buses leaving at 7:30 am but I was nervous. I had been told that these buses went crazy fast on the bad road to Kampala and that your stuff would be taken. Hold on for dear life! The bus person told us to take our things on the bus and not to put them in the boot which was a good thing I guess. However, the bus was full and about an hour into the ride a new bus conductor said we would have to pay for the seat which held our things. We did. It was a long, hot, bus ride to Kampala and we were dropped off at a bus park with no idea where we were. Annie found a taxi and we overpaid our way to the hotel. The hotel was luxurious! It was in the middle of the city on a golf course with a beautiful swimming pool and a very, very large room. Wow! A shower!!! We relaxed that day an a half except for my visit to the "Project Uplife" run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. Brother Robert picked me up and took me to see this project, which is a free secondary school for males and females. The place is run on a shoestring and even that is an understatement. I don't know how he does it, but the school survives, although it is in great need of funds. Honestly, these kids were great and this school is a lifeboat for them. Some board and some walk for two hours to get to school. They live on posho and beans. I would really like to help them, maybe linking them with Rivier Campus Ministry as a way of fundraising and perhaps facebooking. We began our safari on May 31 at the crack of dawn. We drove all day to Queen Elizabeth National Park in the southwest of Uganda, bordering Congo. It is a magnificent place that stretches for miles and miles (about 2,000 kilometers) and on the way to the lodge we saw elephants, warthogs, and about twenty species of birds. Then we arrived at the Mweya Lodge which has to be the most beautiful spot on earth (ok, until I came to the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge today :-) ). The Mweya is on a very high hill overlooking the Kazinga channel which connects Lake Edward and Lake George. The Rwenzori mountains surround the park so the view is breathtaking. Our room faced the channel and I looked out to see elephants at the water across the shore. This park is home for thousands of species and we saw many of them: uganda kob, water buffalo, crocodile, elephant, hippopotamus, and hundreds of birds. A boat cruise brought us up close and personal with hippos, water buffalo and elephants, all bathing in the water. The food was incredible and all the staff were very friendly and ready to help with anything. Annie got a massage and I had a eucalyptus steam bath. I could say so much more but I'm already embarrassed by the luxriousness of this place. Leaving was hard but we left early this morning for Bwindi National Park. The main roads were both out so the trip was interesting! Moses, our guide, is an expert. I really like him and it's a riot to be with him because he an Annie are so much alike. They don't talk unless they have to. I have lots of quiet time. But here I am in paradise #2. We arrived at this eco-friendly lodge and were greated with fresh pineapple juice and four guys to carry our bags down the steep steps to our lodge/cabin/tent. It's hard to describe but Annie and I are in this thatched roof cabin which is made with eucalyptus wood so it smells wonderful! The bathroom is made of from natural stone and the cabin is both rustic and elegant. They got it right. It is built into the mountain and we have been told that gorillas are likely to wander outside our cabin. We have already heard them as some of the villagers were chasing them away from their plantings. So they have retreated for now to the mountain in front of us. We took a beautiful walk to the river below which is this stream of clear, cold water running over rocks. You can even take a dip in it. I can't describe the beauty of this place. Just knowing that we are living where one of the gorilla families lives gives me chills. We take our gorilla trek tomorrow. In the meantime, we are the ONLY ones at this lodge! The season begins next week so there are about ten people waiting on us. I'm going for a massage tonight :0 So I feel as though I have seen so much of Uganda in these three short weeks. I love this country and I am so very grateful that I have had this experience. It is all too much. Next time, Neil comes along!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Monday Morning, May 28, Memorial Day?

I'm in The Coffee Hut on my last day in Gulu. We leave at 7:00 am tomorrow for Kampala on the dreaded Post Bus. At least I know what to expect this time. We'll be staying in a pretty fancy hotel in Kampala so that will be a welcome change. We haven't had water in our room for the last two days and last night we were given a key to another room with running water. It felt great to feel clean again. The power was out in all of Gulu for about two or three days as well but I think it might have come back today. It is sporadic at any rate, even when it is "on" so generators are pretty important in the town. Apparently the power company is owned by Musevini and it outsources some of its power to Kenya. Northern Uganda gets the short end of the stick as a result. You have to pay for electricity no matter how much it goes out and you have to have a generator if you are going to maintain a business. Since Musevini has a hand in the oil company as well, he gets richer no matter what. Sweet deal for him... Saturday night we had dinner at the nicest hotel in Gulu, The Boma, with Dr. David. I guess Barbara Bush, one of the Bush twins, stayed there in March to participate in a Starkey Hearing Foundation event. Dr. David is an amazing guy. We learned quite a bit about him that night. He is director of surgery at Gulu Referral Hospital and is also working on a Ph.D. in epidemiology as well. He talked about his childhood as well as his decision to become a doctor. He was abducted by the LRA as an adolescent for about two weeks and then released for reasons he still doesn't completely understand. He studied at night, hiding in the rafters because there could be no lights left on at night. He did so well at school that he had a full scholarship to university where, he realized after being there for two weeks, he was in the premed rather than engineering track. So that is how he first contemplated medicine. It wasn't by choice! He went through medical school without having a sense of vocation but that changed when he returned to Northern Uganda and witnessed the suffering of the people. That did it for him. Now he knew why he wanted to be a physician. He came alive as he talked about making a contribution to the people here and particularly when he talked about Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, director of St. Monica's school which is a facility for long-term care and vocational training for escaped war prisoners. That is also how the cultural and academic exchange takes place. St. Monica's provides a place and context for visiting professors and Dr. David is enormously pleased with how well it has gone in its initial stage. The invitation to spend time in Gulu came up again. We'll see... We bought pork yesterday (Sunday) morning to bring to Laroo. Before that I visited the main Catholic church in Gulu and couldn't even get inside. It was absolutely filled with lots of people standing outside. The music was beautiful and the entire congregation sang in beautiful harmony. Huh? I learned from Daisy that this 7:30 am mass was one of four that are celebrated on Sunday and they are all filled. Go figure. The celebrant was a munu like me. I don't know if there were other whites inside the church. Our day in Laroo was spend visiting, preparing, and just hanging out with Daisy, Samuel, Janet, Eunice and little Daisy (Miriam) next door. There was also another meeting regarding the proposal to facilitate rural pregnant women and children being tested and then perhaps enrolling in the government's PCMCT program. A draft budget had been prepared and it was a very good discussion that included Wao, the potential project coordinator, Frances and Martin, the PAs, Clare, an RN, and Alfred, an accountant. We will see where this goes. We will return to Laroo one last time today to bring some chocolate for the children and some basic food items for Daisy. It's hard to believe our time is coming to an end in Gulu. I will miss it and its residents very much.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 9:15 am

There was a huge rainstorm last night with lots of dramatic lightening and buckets of rain. We were at Laroo to cook our second meal of pasta and marinara sauce. Boy, do they like it! So does little Daisy's family. We brought a pot of it to them again. I feel like a corrupting influence, however, since their diet is much less processed. Daisy wanted us to get supper ready earlier than ususal and I think that's because she knew the storm was coming and didn't want us stranded. However, as usual, Santo was at the office and kept saying he would be home directly and didn't show up until about 8:15 when the storm was in full force. Ten of us had to eat in silence since no one could be heard above the rain on the roof. Santo was supposed to leave for a big meeting in Kitgum where Musevini was also attending but eventually decided not to go until this morning at 4:00 am. He had one of the chiefs from Kitgum with him and his assistant and so the chief was going to spend the night at Laroo and Robin, the driver, drove Annie, the assistant and me back to town. I'm reading a book right now that is fascinating since it is about the struggles in Northern Uganda but goes into great detail about its history and present day politics. Since politics here is so very local, positions and people the book mentions are people I have met or heard of since I have arrived. If I had read this book before I came, I doubt all of it would have meant so much since I would have forgotten the particulars of what I had read. Reading and meeting at the same time is amazing!

Friday, May 25, 10:00 am, Cafe Larem

It has been very nice having running water (sporadic) and electricity. Although it is noisy staying in Gulu town, it wasn't all that quiet at Laroo. When an exorcism isn't taking place, Santo blasts his radio from about 3:00 am on. The video hall blasts music until about 1:00 am so that leaves maybe 2 hours when it's quiet. We will meet up with Dr. David today and this evening cook our pasta meal for about 12-14 people. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again. Annie has met many of her Gulu friends as we have walked in town and I'm pretty sure she'll get together with them on Saturday night. Last night I started to watch "Bridesmaids" with Annie on her computer and I thought how strange it was to do this in a hotel in Gulu. Creature comforts are nice but it's good to see how full life can be without them as well. I haven't written much about the Gulu Referral Hospital experience. We will take pictures of the Infectious Disease area of the hospital today since Fridays are the day for completing paper work. There will be no patients. The clinic is composed of two narrow buildings with an open space in the middle. That's where all the patients wait for hours and hours to be seen. Part of the space is covered with a tin roof to protect from the sun and rain. There are picnic benches and open spaces where women can place their mats for themselves and the children. There isn't an open space anywhere. It's just filled with people. The exam rooms are essentially separate rooms in the two buildings. Confidentiality is important, as the head sister told us, but it's kind of hard to respect confidentiality in this setting. I have gotten the impression from a number of people that Gulu Referral Hospital (government-run) is pretty good. The wait times for testing are shorter than TASO (, an NGO organization down the road. TASO was preferred at one point because of its ability to provide other support such as nets, food, etc. Of course, as I write all of this, you should take it with a grain of salt because I'm simply listening to the impressions of a few. We had to wait there in the open space quite a bit since the staff is so very busy that it takes time for them to help Annie get set up with interviewees. What do you do? I try not to stare but there's nowhere to look. There's just a sea of people. It's not really a sad place because these are the lucky ones who are or will be in treatment. On the other hand, saying people have "access" to ART (antiretroviral therapy) doesn't tell you much about the hardships that accompany access. But it is what it is and I'm pretty sure that all the people I've met at the clinic are the kind of people that look forward, not backwards and see how things have improved while keep an eye on the places where so much more needs to be done. The war brought so much attention to the people of Northern Uganda and many international organizations came in with financial and other resources, including personnel, to deal with the immediate effects and after-effects of the war. But many of those organizations and programs have packed up, some without an exit strategy that would provide for sustainability. I do sense that there's some sense of abandonment but I haven't picked up that it there's a bitterness associated with it. Overall, my impression of the people I have met is that they are resilient, hospitable, and kind. But at night, I want to be inside. We ate a delicious chicken curry dinner last night and walked back to the hotel, stopping by a market to get some things for the pasta supper. Annie knows the roads that are lit at night and where the Ugandan guards are posted because it's just not safe at night. That's it for now.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thursday, May 24th, Cafe Larem at 9:15 am We moved out of Santo and Daisy's house last evening and checked in to Acholi Ber Hotel in Gulu town. It is nice to have electricity and running water! Today Annie will continue her interviews at the hospital and will have Wao, an intelligent, thoughtful young man who is the son of Margaret, Santo's sister, translating for her. I think I mentioned Wao (pronounced "wow") before. We had dinner with him last night because there's a potential project in the works that will facilitate the government's not-to-successful attempt to reach the women of child-bearing age in the villages. If you want to read a little more about the government program you can go here: I won't go into the details but it is a proposal with great potential. I want to go back to yesterday to add to the story of Daisy's relative. After coming back yesterday morning to take her child, she returned around noon and began to hit Daisy and scream that Daisy and Santo were trying to kill her and the baby. Then she bit Daisy and ran down the road screaming. The neighbors came to see what was wrong. When we arrived home and heard the story I got some topical antibiotic I had and applied it the the bite wound. It was pretty bad. We will probably hear more about this when we return to Laroo tomorrow night to cook another pasta supper. I'm afraid they all love pasta so we have defnitely had a corrupting influence :-) It's now about 8:00 pm and we are at The Coffee Hut after a day of interviews at the hospital. Annie's interviews are done and she's pleased with what she's gotten. It's been a good day...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

When it rains...

Wednesday, May 23, 12:30 pm in The Coffee Hut. Where do I begin? Yesterday after going to the hospital to set up the process for doing interviews, Annie went to make copies to bring to the head sister at the hospital and I took my first boda ride alone. It was fine, especially since it was from a driver who had taken us both before. Got back to the house and it was locked. Just in case I have given the impression that the neighborhood of Laroo is idyllic, let me correct that. We are staying in Laroo "by the forest" and the forest is where it is said that many thieves live. So, when Daisy isn't around, the house is locked. The front and back doors are very, very heavy iron doors with two giant padlocks. But Daisy (young Daisy next door) came with the keys. When Mego Daisy returned she said that she had gone to a church to pray for a relative who has problems "in the head" or "has an evil spirit." The relative was not in the church but showed up soon after Daisy returned home. The relative is a woman who had a one-year old on her back, held up with a cloth tied at the front of the woman. She was clearly not alright and had some bizarre movements but I couldn't understand what she was saying to Daisy. The presence of this woman meant that Daisy couldn't accompany Santo, Annie, Robin (the driver) and me to Pece and Okwir. I was disappointed but off we went. We saw Santo's future home (the floor, ceiling and windows are still to be completed which is quite a bit bigger than their current home. And it is farther from town. Santo plans to will the Laroo home to Elizah and his three brothers (one mother) and the Pece home to his and Daisy's children. It was really hot yesterday afternoon and as we left Pece to go to Okwir, Annie said she wasn't feeling well and took a boda back to Laroo. That left Santo, Robin and me. Okwir is about 15 miles from Gulu on the Kampala (south) road. We turned off on a road to Okwir (when I say "road" I mean something different than our idea of it) and first went to see Santo's two heifers, one white and one black. Lots of jokes about that. They were kept near some huts belonging to a family and Santo said that we would have to travel about 1/2 mile to visit a family that had just lost the head of their clan. So there I was at a wake, rural Gulu style. Everyone was together and the body was in the ground with a covering of sewed together palm? leaves. The women sat on the ground on large mats and the men sat under a tarp/tent or in little groups. Needless to say, I was an unusual sight as I was as at the site of the family 1/2 mile down the road. Children, it seems to me, are the most fascinated and yet the most afraid. They stare until I interact with a smile or wave. Then they run like hell and come back. I was introduced to the elder and closest family members to the head of the clan and then Santo, Robin and I sat down. It was clear that we would be offered food and that I would have to figure out how to handle it. Sodas came and then a serving of posho (maize bread), goat and chicken. We didn't have what the others had which was beans and what looked like white yams. I felt I had to eat something and I took a drumstick and some posho (and soda, of course). I figured I had had both of these over the past week and it would be safe. (I'm feeling fine, by the way). We left and it was beginning to get dark (we started two hours later than Santo had promised... African time, of course). We got in the car and traveled to Santo's two acres out in the middle of nowhere. I was literally in the bush. The truck was no longer on a road but an overgrown footpath. We walked through tall grass to the acres in which Daisy has planted groundnut (peanut), casava, maize and beans. Santo is so attached to land and the cultivation of it. It clearly has a very deep meaning to him. But it was getting dark out there and we had not yet seen what we came to Okwir to see! The project called Echoing Good is located at a school. A large (many acres) garden has been planted so that children come to the school and receive food for their families. It is a completely community run project that receives donations from the U.S. It has been very successful and as a result of the donations, two small buildings have been erected to accommodate the teachers. By now, it was about 7:30 and dark. We returned to Laroo and found that everyone had eaten supper and the relative was still there and seemed no better. I know this is a long blog already but this next part I want to record, even if no one else reads it! I haven't discussed religion yet but it is very much a part of my experience with Santo, Daisy and their family. Last Sunday I attended church with Nancy, Janet and Eunice, partly because I was curious but also because Nancy invited me. It is a born again church that has no building. They worship under an open-air steel roof. There are four pastors, and everything is said in English and translated into Acholi. Again, I was an oddity. The service had hymns (some familiar), scripture reading, sermon, prayers, and healing. It was pretty similar to an African American pentecostal service in the U.S. I even went up to be healed because I was having some issues with my digestive tract (I'm going to say no more than that :-) ) and figured, why not? So, Nancy was the one who brought everybody else in the family to this church. I think they might have been Catholic before this. The service was interesting but that's all. However, religion arose in a big way last night. When we returned from Okwir, Santo left to pick up one of the pastors to bring him to the home to "cast Satan out" of Daisy's relative. In the meantime, one of the church women came over and began to pray over this woman. Annie made a quick exit to bed and I almost did but I was kind of curious about what would happen and Daisy said "we are going to pray now" and I felt like it might be a request to stay. It was an exorcism with the woman writhing, uttering gutteral sounds, jumping, hitting, fleeing, convulsing, etc. Jennifer, the "exorcist," was yelling, screaming, slapping, hitting the woman and placing a bible on the woman's stomach, chest, knees, and everywhere else. This continued when the pastor arrived and then he and Santo began to exorcise "Satan" as well. Samuel, Eunice, Janet and the woman's baby were there. Samuel eventually snuck off to bed in his hut and the girls clung to me as the whole thing got more intense. The baby cried on and off and Daisy, Janet and I passed her back and forth to try to quiet her. This kept on all night long. I went to bed around 11:30 and literally the commotion continued on and off all night. The rain began, with thunder and lightening, and it seemed like maybe God's promise to Noah was going to be revoked. God just might destroy the world by flood after all. Sometime during the night, the woman stormed into our bedroom. She was shirtless and perhaps nursing, I can't remember. After that, we locked our door :-). We learned this morning that the woman had fled the house about 5:00 am this morning without her baby or her blouse. She returned about 9:15 am with a sweatshirt with blood on it. She untied the baby from Daisy's back and left. I wanted to report rather than interpret this experience because I don't know what to do with it. I asked Santo this morning if perhaps a visit to the mental health hospital or clinic would be appropriate. As it turns out, Daisy told us this morning that the woman's 12 year-old son died in April after falling from a mango tree. This didn't seem to have any particularly strong connection with the woman's present state as far as Daisy and Santo go. Santo said the woman could go to the hospital and they would give her valium. That's all, according to him. I guess she has "treatment options." Exorcism or valium. Hmmm.... The exorcism didn't work.