Mbale, Uganda. What can I say? The last three and a half weeks I have been on practicum in Mbale, a small city in Eastern Uganda. The 15 GoEd students are spread in pairs between seven very diverse practicum sights around Uganda and Rwanda for the month of October. Leah, my partner, who is a senior psychology major at Messiah College has become a close friend as we have journeyed and processed the last several weeks together. We are volunteering with the Food for the Hungry, Mbale field office which is an international Christian NGO working towards sustainable community development. Leah and I are living in a bedroom at the Food for the Hungry office with Justine, a wonderful and hilarious 19-year-old born and raised in Mbale who works for FH, cooks for us and has become a dear friend of mine. What would I do without Justine, the way she makes me laugh, her patience and willingness to teach me about her home? I have no idea. Our first two weeks here it was challenging to discern where we could be of most help and generally ended up working with FH’s Child Sponsorship program; taking updated photos of teh sponsored children, arranging their files, etc. Last week was significantly different because an 8-person missions team from Canada was here to run a Bible Camp and begin building a primary school in Marare, a community where FH is just beginning to work. The last three weeks have contained so many experiences, but I will try to give you glimpses of my time in Uganda.
Here are some of my lessons learned during practicum, some the hard way, but all very important.
1) Be flexible. Most days after staff morning devotions Leah and I have a few hours of down time as we wait for the staff to prepare to go out to the community. Then abruptly we hear from a staff member, “And we go!” alerting us that suddenly it is imperative that we leave immediately J. For the first few days these transition was startling and at times frustrating – but it is now one of Leah and my favorite sayings, and at this point when we are in the middle of washing our laundry and called to the field we yell, “And we go!” shake our heads laughing, put on our shoes and walk out the door.
2) Cultural immersion requires sacrifice. To be honest my first week in Mbale was not easy in any sense. I struggled to find my bearings in Uganda, a noticeably louder, physically dirtier and more chaotic place compared to my experience in Rwanda. Homesickness struck harder than it had all semester and I missed the comfort and fun of living with 14 other American college students. Although I have come to love them dearly, at first communicating with some of the FH staff was challenging, not because of English but simply because of the culture gap. My go-to refreshing alone-time activities; running, biking and playing piano became irrelevant overnight. I dug into reading, listening to music and long walks but felt antsy some nights not being able to leave to house after 7 p.m.
While the streets of Mbale are as chaotic as ever, I still can’t hop on my bike and take off for 30 miles to relax, and I spend every evening here at home I have come to terms with sacrificing what I view as “fun” or “relaxing” or “social.” In return I have come to appreciate the art of cooking as an evening activity. Justine spends at least five hours in our little kitchen a day. Millet porridge for breakfast with a sweet banana, and many combinations of matooke/beans/cabbage/chapatti/posho/rice/g-nut sauce/cow peas and carrots/chicken for lunch and dinner. The three of us girls spend much of our evenings in the kitchen laughing, singing, sharing about our home cultures, discussing cultural standards of beauty (lucky for us GoEd girls who are not shaving our legs all semester, apparently in Africa women with hairy legs are “blessed” – ha!) and talking about our dreams for the future. I wouldn’t trade these hours or delicious meals for anything.
Another humorous side note….I can still hardly believe it but yes, at 8 o’clock every night Justine, Leah and I watch Mexican soap operas that are terribly dubbed in English but Ugandans absolutely love them. What?? But by Day 2 Leah and I had embraced this idea and find as much entertainment watching Justine immerse herself in the drama as the actual show. All this to say, it wasn’t an easy transition here but now I love it.
3) Leave your pride at the door. This past month has been refreshing in the sense of being a college student but not letting college define me. I realized recently that the FH Mbale staff know that I am a university student in the US and studying sociology/politics but beyond that we haven’t discussed college. Who cares about what honors classes I’ve taken or how many extracurricular groups I’m involved in or what leadership position I hold or how many coffee dates I have planned with friends. We are here to serve God together and build the Kingdom based on grace, humility and compassion. I have spent many hours this month copying lists of child sponsor names and ID numbers by hand. Am I frustrated by the inefficiency of the system? Yes. Have I been taught that no job is below me, regardless of my college education or social status? Also yes. The FH Mbale staff have blessed me with a refreshed identity rooted in how I relate to people instead of what I can prove to people.
4) Figure out what transcends language. Smiles. Hand-clapping games. Laughter. Coloring. A handshake, hug or pat on the head. While visiting a primary school for deaf children a young deaf girl sat on my lap for an hour and a half and we colored together – totally content despite our ability to communicate. One of my favorite memories with kids in Marare happened the other day when Leah and I were surrounded by a crowd of children (like always) and decided to try entertaining them in a new way. Beat boxing. We are both admittedly terrible at it, and initially felt like fools from the blank stares we received from the kids…until a little boy in the back joined in and soon all ten kids had their hands covering their mouths mimicking us “boom boom ch, boom boom boom ch.” It was fantastic. A huge turkey happened to be gobbling nearby, so a few kids picked up the gobbling sound to add to our authentic African beat box! Also one day Leah and I were trying to entertain 60+ kids and taught them leap frog. Chaos but so so fun!
5) Give your time and energy, not stuff. Last week was challenging for Leah and I as we watched a, 8-person Canadian missions team come and go in five days. It was a whirlwind of Bible Camp activities in Marare (a nearby community), hygiene lessons, working along side the community to start building a primary school, devos/worship each morning and evening and helping Justine in the kitchen whenever I could. While I know that they are truly passionate about Marare and their church is committed to partnering with them long-term, I cringed at the many suitcases they presented to the community full of crafts, school supplies, hygiene supplies, stickers and balls. While some of the supplies like pencils, tooth brushes/paste and soap were paired with teaching sessions and understandably distributed, others like stickers, and random toys seemed to only perpetuate the notion that “muzungus” (white people) show up to give them stuff. Ugh. It is also important to note that FH is being responsible and intentional about the distribution of these resources and I have appreciated hearing their perspective on the challenges that these suitcases bring to their long-term partnerships with communities. Leah and I spent much of last week processing how we want to be remembered as being relational, not as materially wealthy. Please understand that these musings are not really about this specific Canadian team, they are wonderful people, but reflect the tension that I see in being blessed with material wealth but felling called to offer my time, listening ear and creativity. I am eager to hear your thoughts on this balance – I see how it feels hypocritical to teach a group of people how to brush their teeth and wash their hands without equipping them with the materials, but at the risk of creating a dependency cycle of temporary supplies? All in all Leah and I are both so thankful that the Canadian team came, added such a different element to our practicum experience and opened our eyes in a new way.
6) Ugandan women are amazing. Over and over again this month I have encountered the strength, determination and passion of Ugandan women to develop their communities, teach their children and learn how to lift themselves out of poverty. I have also been deeply impacted by the heart of many Ugandan women to serve their families by cooking, taking care of the house and children and getting water. At the same time it is painful to see how many disengaged and demanding husbands/fathers are – and that that is the accepted role of “head of the household.” One conversation with Becky (an FH staff member) in particular will always stay with me as she explained that many African women suffer the daily oppression of tirelessly serving their husbands and submitting to their authority because they do not feel the autonomy to say that it should be different.
The men at on the FH staff are incredible and encouraging examples of Ugandan men who are committed to loving their wives well, helping at home and eager to spend time with their children. I could go on and on about this topic, but for now please take my request – husbands and fathers, help your wife cook a meal and spend quality time with your children. Partnering in daily responsibilities unites a family like nothing else can.
7) Visit Kapchorwa, Uganda before you die. Please do. Leah and I have spent the last two weekends tucked away in mountain villages in Kapchorwa hiking through barley, pea and maize fields to explore waterfalls and caves.
Hands down it is one of the most stunning places on earth. Two weekends ago Leah and I visited our three GoEd friends who are working with Food for the Hungry in Piswa (way way up in the mountains) and this last weekend we went to Sipi Falls with Justine, our friend/roommate/sister from Mbale.
8) Trust God’s timing. Two weeks ago I made a major decision that had weighed heavily on my heart for the last several weeks. Earlier this semester I was presented with the opportunity to return to Rwanda for the spring semester. I would be helping my professor Dwight Jackson kick-start a five-year research project focused on long-term resiliency-building community development. Between this research internship and two independent study sociology classes with him I could earn a full semester’s worth of college credit. How could I pass it up, right? I have felt drawn to Africa for years so why would I say no to any opportunity to stay here?
My other option was to participate in Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus program – where students assimilate into Temple University for a semester. This program is known for being a helpful atmosphere for students returning from study abroad semesters in Africa to transition back to Messiah College. Temple also has very well respected Sociology and Anthropology programs and the chance to study in a large diverse university setting is I believe a valuable addition to my time at Messiah.
Ultimately I have decided to return to the Philadelphia (MCPC) program for the spring. I struggled to make this decision while I was homesick and lacking the relational support that I generally rely on heavily to verbally process big decisions. It was hard for me to not equate the choices with Africa: adventure, Philly: wimpy, safe option. But through prayer and the encouragement of close friends I have realized the worth of embracing my four years of college while they are here and taking in as many diverse opportunities as possible during that time. After Spring 2012 I will never have the chance to take up the opportunities that are unique to the college years, but I am confident that God will open the door to return to Africa at another time. It it was also important for me to realize how much I really do love and miss the classroom setting and being surrounded by university students energized about learning. I also trust that my time in Philly will sharpen my eyes for Africa in the future. And please come visit me in Philly in the spring! I am looking forward to the more reasonable physical proximity of friends and family and the chance to share my experiences and listen to yours in person. Since making my decision it has been incredible to see how at peace I feel about it and honestly how much more I am able to enjoy being in Africa now since I don’t feel anxious about pumping myself up for an independent semester in Rwanda.
Here is a passage that encouraged me many mornings as I took walks and prayed about the decision. I pray that it also blesses you as you seek daily guidance from the Lord.
“So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed. I remember the days of long ago; I mediate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Resuce me from my enemies, O Lord, for I hide myself in you. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” – Psalm 143:4-10.
9) Enjoy the thrill of Africa! White water rafting on the Nile, bungee jumping, getting my hair braided like so many African women, hiking to waterfalls in Kapchorwa, exploring caves with 40+ Ugandan children by our side (ha), boda boda (motorcycle) rides on Ugandan dirt roads to the communities where FH is working, and incredible food! I’m just taking it all in!
It is hard to believe that Leah and I are headed back to Kigali already this weekend. My heart is torn in leaving the FH staff who have taught me an incredible amount and been more than hospitable. Now that I am finally adjusted to being here and finding my place – I leave. Next time, much longer.