Monday, December 17, 2012

Merry Christmas You Old Village Savings and Loan



The whole VSLA Group!
Well it will be a much merrier Christmas for 13 Ugandans and their families this holiday season.  As we have posted before Christmas is a huge season to splurge in Uganda, just like America.  Therefore, it has been perfect timing that our VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association) shared out all their money about a week ago.  For many of them they likely have more money then they have ever had at any one time, so there will be lots of meat on the family table this Christmas.

We started forming the VSLA last October and November.  We just had a random idea to start this association, because we feel that these groups can be such a good thing for Uganda.  They develop a savings culture that, while only in its infancy in Uganda, can lead to so many more doors being opened to ordinary citizens without the help of foreign aid or their government.  Individuals can increase their likelihood to develop new business, send their children to better schools, or just help buy that extra nice pair of shoes.  Now obviously savings is not necessarily something many Americans have mastered either, but at least we have additional avenues to make expensive purchases (Bank loans, credit cards, etc.), which are generally not options in Uganda. 

The VSLA we had the pleasure of forming with the employees and friends of the Bushenyi Honey Co-op was a great success.  When all the books had been figured they mutually saved about 11.5 million shillings (or $4300), and they had interest off of loans totaling about 2.5 million shillings (almost $1000).  The person with the most money saved had 1.65 million shillings (about $620).  They were a stellar group all around, and we loved getting to see them flourish.

They ended their cycle last Sunday with a big share out party.  They used the remainder of their “Emergency Fund” to buy food and drinks for everyone there.  Everyone got to invite one other family member to join in the festivities.  They of course had many speeches, a photographer, a cake cutting, and lots of good food to celebrate the occasion.  Each person came up with their family member to receive their check of their savings plus interest earned on each share.  One of our good Peace Corps friends Marianne served as at the guest of honor (which entailed a lot more then any of us had planned).  Overall the day was a great one, and lots of fun celebrating in true Ugandan fashion!


Marianne handing out the checks.
They started their new cycle yesterday.  So after all that hoopla they are starting again the next week.  This year they are hoping to increase the amount of shares they can buy from 5 (25,000 shillings) to 10 (50,000 shillings).  They are also increasing their group by three people, now up to 16.  Other community members have shown interest but the group decided they would rather help start other groups then have them join theirs (how is that for sustainable)!  We are sad we won’t be there for much of their next cycle, more out of selfish interest in their progress rather then necessity of our presence.  They have done so well and no Mr. Potters have stopped this savings and loan from having a Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

We're the girls who'll change the world! (Camp GLOW)


Hello from Minnesota!!!

We're home for Christmas with family and friends!  We flew in on Wednesday night and have been loving connecting with so many wonderful people in such a wonderful place!  Right now we're catching up with family, friends, and the places we love in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and we'll be in Sioux Falls starting on Christmas eve.  It's strange and hard to be away from Uganda but so, so fabulous to be home!

But, on to the real reason that I wanted to post - Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World!)  I spent the first week in December at an incredible nation wide girls empowerment camp put on by Peace Corps Volunteers and counterparts and wanted to write about what an awesome week we had.  If you remember last year, Ryan and I counseled at National Camp BUILD (Boys of Uganda in Leadership & Development).  This year, I decided to work with the ladies.  I was so glad that I did.  It was a wonderful week full of fun, laughter, learning, and growing!  I loved it!

With Evelyne, Ronah, Jenipher, and Gloria - the BTPC Counselors!
One of the things I was most excited about camp was the opportunity to bring four of my PTC students from Bushenyi to camp as counselors.  Each group of 10 campers had one Ugandan counselor and one American counselor.  So, I co-counseled with one of my BPTC girls, and 3 other PCVs also got to work with them!  I was so excited to see them get to live out some of the skills and share some of the values I had been working with them on for the last year or so.  It was a great final project to work on with these four special young women.  Every time I looked at them I saw them stepping up as counselors and jumping in with two feet.  They learned a lot this week that I think will help them in their student teaching next term, and in their future in general.  I had a blast co-counseling with them.  The week truly would not have been the same experience without them - and they made me so, so very proud!!!  I have no doubt that others at the college will be hearing all about it in no time! ;)


Evelyne and my group of campers were the crocodiles!  We had 9 girls from all over the country.  In our group, we also had three visually impaired girls, and multiple girls who were orphans.  It was such a joy to get to see the girls open up and come out of their shells during the week.  I have no doubt that skills were learned, and wonderful friendships were made.  They were a blast!  We made a group cheer and song early on, and everyone in the camp could hear us coming and going! :-)  (Once a camp counselor, always a camp counselor, right Daddio?!)

Our cheer went like this:
We are the croc-odiles-odiles
We have such lovely smiles
We swim, we slink
We move from creek to creek
When our neighbors aren't aware
We say cross - if you dare
We are the croc-odiles-odiles
The queens of the Nile
Crocodiles Crocodiles
Eat em up!  Eat em up!
Crocodiles Crocodiles
Eat em up!  Eat em up!

We sang our song to the tune of Shakira's Waka Waka:
Glowing so bright
Self esteem is all right
We're the girls who'll change the world
We are the crocodiles

It was super cute.  We might have driven the rest of the camp crazy, but we sure had our group pride down pat! :-)


Each day of the week the camp had a different theme - GLOWing with self esteem, GLOWing with strong bodies, GLOWing with a bright future, etc.  Each morning we met as a camper group to discuss the theme and the motto for the day, then went to different sessions related to the theme.  Counselors and staff took turns leading the sessions - I taught all about family planning on Wednesday with a Ugandan counterpart from Kasese.  Evelyne, one of the Bushenyi girls, taught the whole camp about making RUMPS with another PCV.  The girls also had sessions on nutrition, communication, assertiveness, income generating activities, gender roles, malaria, HIV, and many more!  Additionally, they were able to hear from a number of special guest speakers including the American Ambassador, PC staff, lecturers from Makerere University, and Ugandan female professionals.  In the evenings we played capture the flag, watched movies, had a talent show, and had a dance.  It was a jam packed week of tons of fun activities and many chances for learning and development as well.

One of my favorite surprises from the week was getting to know all of the other Ugandan co-counselors and staff from all around the country.  It inspired me  to see so many incredible twenty-something Ugandan women in one place - my service just didn't put me in contact with that many inspiring Ugandan women who were my age.  These women truly were leaders and I loved the opportunity to get to know them during the week.  I also loved it that my four girls from Bushenyi got to meet them - I truly think that they are role models for these young women, and shining examples of how they too can be strong women and leaders of Uganda.

My week at GLOW was so much fun.  In some ways it was just like any other summer camp - crazy songs (The Hole Song and Boom Chicka Boom made a number of appearances), chatting before bed, homesickness, and energy.  Then, there would be little things that reminded you that this was a camp in UGANDA!  One of these things that was a constant reminder of this was that we held camp at a big primary school in Kisubi and stayed in the dorms.  We slept in bunk beds 3 high!  My dorm was one giant room with 95 campers and counselors in it.  We bathed twice a day - cold bucket baths - and ad only a foot or two of space by our beds to keep our things, not even enough to stand facing the front between beds.  That was an adjustment!  Early on in the week, a girl rolled off the top bunk during the middle of the night in her sleep.  It was awful - She badly hurt her arm and, as if that wasn't enough, had to battle guard dogs on the premises to get to a hospital (where nobody was available to do an X-ray until 9 am).  Definitely not your typical summer camp issue!  We also had cases of malaria and other not-so-typical summer camp sicknesses.  And, in the last night, the before bed chatter was not what you'd typically expect - boys or clothes.  The girls were talking about the tribal circumcision ceremonies in their region!  Uganda for sure!

All in all - it was a wonderful week.  Some of my favorite things all rolled into one - the girls of Uganda and CAMP!!!  Memories made during the week will not be easily forgotten - by me, by my co-counselors, and by the 160 amazing girls that took part in this fabulous week.

Here's the blog that the GLOW media staff put out during the week.  It gives a little more detailed picture of what each day held and lots of great pictures!  Well done Liz!

And, here's the link to some of my pics from the week on facebook.  I was a bit too busy counseling to spend much time on taking pictures, but there are a few ones!

Merry Christmas everyone!  It's great to have already seen some of you, and we can't wait to see others soon!

All our love,

~emily~


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ninsiima!


In Runyankore, “ninsiima” literally means “I am appreciating.”  Today, I’m using it to say “I am thankful!”  And I am!  Happy thanksgiving everyone!  We all have so much to be thankful for!  We hope your thanksgiving season is full of wonderful times with family and friends, good conversations over delicious dinners,and not too much crazy shopping!  We will greatly miss time with family and friends for yet another holiday - but this will be our last major holiday spent in Africa!  Knowing that we will be home to visit in less than a month and spending Christmas together is a wonderful feeling!  We can’t wait to see you all!

I have so many things to be thankful for this year!  I’m thankful for an extraordinary two years spent in such an incredible and beautiful place.  I’m thankful for the students, coworkers, and neighbors that have truly become our family here in Uganda.  I’m thankful for the family and friends at home who have believed in our dreams from the very beginning and supported us and loved us through the many ups and downs of the last two years.  I’m thankful for a wonderful relationship with my husband and best friend, and the ways our time in Uganda has strengthened us and helped us grow closer as a couple.  I’m thankful for the memories we have made with each other, our visitors from home, and some of our dearest PCV friends.  I’m thankful for good health in a place where bizarre epidemics and tragedies are a way of life.  And...I’m thankful to now be thinking now about the next adventure our life will hold!

It was almost exactly two years ago that we were telling family and friends that we had received our Peace Corps invitation to Uganda!  Although we’d originally expected placement in the Caribbean, right around thanksgiving, we got a call from our PC recruiter about a change of plans - sub-Saharan Africa!  We were thankful that an invitation was on its way and thankful for the opportunity to embark on a wonderful, thrilling, and frightening adventure!  Before we knew it, our invitations had arrived.  I remember the craziness of getting ready to go, the sorrow of leaving the people, places, and work that we loved, and most importantly the way our family and friends encouraged us and supported us in the major transition we were going through!

It’s surreal that two years have passed since that Thanksgiving!  Some days it feels like we have been in Uganda for *such* a long time.  Thinking about the last times we spent with family, friends, in our home, and at our jobs, feels like far more than two years ago.  But, at the same time, it’s hard to believe we’re coming to the end.  Days, weeks, and months truly have flown by.  We’ve gotten lots done, but there has always been so much more to do.  

But - here we are!  Two years down, and just a few months left.  Although our original Close of Service (COS) date was expected to be in March or April, Ryan and I received word this morning that we would be granted an early COS on January 31!  We’ll be home a bit earlier than planned!  Our renters are moving out at the end of January, so we’ll be back in our *home* at the start of February!  I’ve been offered a 7th grade teaching position in Saint Paul, and Ryan has some good leads on jobs too.  We are so thankful that the pieces are coming together for our future.  We are blessed beyond belief!  We’re looking forward to wrapping up our life here, saying some heartbreaking good byes, and moving on to the wonderful things that await us in America.  It will be bittersweet, but fabulous to be home!  

The two weeks before Christmas will hold a lot of exciting things too!  Ryan will be here at the college, helping “invigilate” exams, packing and organizing (what a good man I have!), and wrapping things up with students and staff.  I’ll be spending just over a week helping to train the brand new group of education PCVs that arrived in country last week and then going off to counsel at National Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).  GLOW is a girls leadership and empowerment camp for 12-15 year olds from all over the country.  I’m also bringing four of my girls club students as Ugandan counselors for the camp.  I’m excited to get to counsel the girls who come to the camp, and help my young women grow into the fantastic counselors and leaders that they are!  Then, back home for a weekend and to help our VSLA finish their amazing one year cycle.  And then...home for Christmas!!!  We really can’t wait to see you all!

I wish you all the best in your thanksgiving celebrations.  Thank you for reading our blog, supporting us, and encouraging us all along this journey!  We could not be more thankful!  Tusiima munonga!  We are so very thankful!

We love and miss you all!  And...we’ll be SEEING you soon!

~emily~

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Eat that Food!* (+ New Pics!)


First of all - new pictures!  Check out the end of this album to see pics from Halloween and also some to go along with this post!

Now, on to the good stuff...Yesterday Ryan and I, but mostly Ryan, took our cultural adventures in Uganda to a whole new level!  

We’d gone out to our trading center to do some shopping, and found a huge commotion at our stage.  There was a large group of people, talking excitedly, grouped around a truck.  As we got closer, we realized what it was - a truck full of grasshoppers!  Fried grasshoppers are a common road snack in Uganda - and my dear Ryan does enjoy them - but we’d never seen them being sold (live) by the bagful!  We started talking with a motorcycle (boda) driver friend of ours, Nelson, about the market happening in front of us, and...before we knew it...we’d spent 50 cents on a large plastic bag full of living, breathing, soon to be eaten grasshoppers!

Seeing our bewilderment at what we had just done, Nelson pulled us away from the crowd to do a little one-on-one grasshopper instruction.  He started by pulling a grasshopper out of the bag, still moving, and demonstrating how to remove its wings and legs in preparation for cooking.    Then, before we knew it, he’d found two boys from the village and promised them each a bitano (20 cents!) if they would come to our house with us and remove all of the wings and legs from the bag full of grasshoppers!  Done!  So, we walked back to our house, trailed by two little boys and a big bag of insects.

By the time we got home, we’d collected one more little child on the way.  So, the three little ones sat down at our table and went to work.  Nelson came up shortly after, and the four Ugandans and Ryan went to work dismembering the grasshoppers.  Flies started pouring into our living room, and there was quite a horrible smell...No wonder....After a good 30 minutes of pulling and prying, the grasshoppers were ready to go.  So, Nelson made his way to our kitchen and began to fry them up in a saucepan.  In case you’re wondering, no oil is needed to fry grasshoppers!  The little guys are chock full of fats that seep out as they cook, resulting in deep fried insects with all natural oils!  (eeeew...)  The grasshoppers took about 15 minutes to go from plump, bright green, very much alive insects, to a crispy, brown, flattened out snack food.  Nelson even compared them to popcorn - a serious offense in my book.  As he cooked, we had a good talk about the fine touches of frying grasshoppers, as well as my vegetarianism.  The best way I could describe it to him was that I don’t eat anything with eyes.  So, he made sure to point out the dozens of eyes staring at me from the frying pan in our kitchen!  Thanks, Nelson...

There’s currently a large tupperware full of grasshoppers in our pantry.  Never thought I’d say that sentence!  Since we’re a one grasshopper eater family, you’re all invited to make the trip to Uganda to take part!  Me - I’ll stick to veggies and popcorn!

If you stuck with me this far, you might be interested in a little live footage of the event!  Not for the feeble stomached among us - I could barely stand it!  But...for your viewing pleasure...The Food Channel, Uganda style!

video


Bon Appetit!  We love and miss you all!

~emily~

*For Daddio - ah, the good ol’ days!  Did grasshoppers ever make it to the cabin or camp?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Goal 2ing It!


Peace Corps worldwide have three primary goals.  The first goal is to train men and women skills identified by the host country.  The third goal is to teach Americans about the countries in which we served.  The second goal and the focus of this post is goal two teaching those in the host country about America.  The ways in which we do goal two range from conversations with students about what it is like to live in America to celebrating holidays like we do in America. 

Typically goal 2 consists of convincing students that Americans are not all homosexual, we do not agree to only 5 year contracts for marriage, we do not have a machine that tells us what to do when we grow up, and that Eleanor Roosevelt did not introduce HIV/AIDS to Africans to kill them off (seriously!).  Yet in the last month we got to hold two really fun events that were great goal 2 activities.  One event was for Halloween and the other was a carnival similar to what we did last year.

The carnival we did as part of a day to commit our students to passing their exams at 100%!  Last year the principal promised them a bull, so we have since called it the carnibull.  Now we had not planned to do these games again unless the school seemed interest, because planning events with students can be hard to do.  But a week before the day was supposed to happen our director of studies said, “We are excited to have those very silly games from last year again.”  Well that was our queue I guess.  We planned a whole morning full of games, and right on schedule the rains came and came. 

The rains finally let up in the afternoon, in time for the commitment and Music/Dance/Drama presentations.  But the principal put the presentations on hold so that we could play the carnival games.  In the end we did four large group games: Musical Chairs, Bottle Race (racing while balancing a bottle on your head, a Ugandan favorite), Water Race (racing to fill a water bottle carrying water in your hands), and water balloon toss.  The students and staff enjoyed the games so much.  It is really funny to see our students get so into a game like musical chairs when no 18 year old in America would dare lower their integrity to play musical chairs.  The day was very colorful, as they say, and we had so much fun once it finally happened.  We concluded by giving the winners a piñata!

The next big goal 2 event we held was for Halloween.  I have really gotten close to my computer club and thought it could be fun to introduce them to Halloween, a holiday they no absolutely nothing about.  I required them all to dress up, which I thought was going to fail completely but they actually got really into.  Creativity was a challenge as we had 4 Bushenyi PTC principals and 6 traditional African women (I needed my Uncle Mark and Aunt Dawn to be here to really show them how to dress up for Halloween), but they still put a lot of effort into all of their costumes.  We judged costumes and the prizes for the best went to Dracula (who was a spitting image of Freddy Kruger) and a military soldier.  Of course Emily and I got into costume as well, Emily as a black cat and me as a Bushenyi PTC student.  (I borrowed the uniform of our tallest student, and still the uniform was a very tight fit.  I really should have just gone as Gandalf.)

After we judged their costumes we had them go Trick-or-Treating.  We gave bags of sweeties (candy) to various tutors and instructed them to only give candy if the students said, “Trick-or-Treat.”  The students loved it though.  One of the tutors did not understand the number of students they were getting and gave all the candy to the first group, then proceeded to give out bananas and avocadoes after that.  After trick-or-treating the principal and deputy principal came to join in the festivities.  My favorite quote of the night was from the principal when he was talking to the students. “I hope that you have all taken something away from this event, I don’t know what, but learn something from it.”  We finished the evening by watching a scary movie, ‘I am Legend.’

I can’t guarantee that our goal 2 activities have made it so that October 31st will be celebrated across Uganda next year, or that carnivals will happen at every primary school.  But I do think that maybe students learned that they could be creative and plan other events then what they grew up with.  And of course I am sure they have all learned that America is a crazier place then even they can imagine! 

Happy Halloween and Voting Day,
Ryan

Monday, October 22, 2012

Uganda @ 50



Hi Everyone!

Hope everyone is well at home and enjoying the fall weather!  We sure do miss this time of year at home!  Crazy to think that next year we will be with you all getting out our mittens out and enjoying the fall together!  Weather in Uganda these days is rainy and “chilly”!  Everyone has gotten out their winter parkas and fur lined hoods to brave the sixties and rain! :-)  Even Ryan and I have complained of the cold - how will we manage the midwest during our Christmas visit?!

Uganda celebrated its fiftieth year of independence this month and I thought that deserved a blog post!  50 years ago this month Uganda transitioned from being a British colony to being its own independent nation.  October 9 is the official day, although celebrations have been ongoing for the last while and will continue on for some time to come I’m sure.  It’s kind of neat timing of our being here, as we will have celebrated 50 years of the Peace Corps (1961 - 2011) and 50 years of independent Uganda (1962 - 2012) during our two years of service! 

The anniversary has sparked a lot of interesting conversations with community members and students.  There have been lots of special editions of the news papers, public events, and radio programs to discuss where Uganda has come from, where it is now, and where it is going.  In the relatively short time I’ve called this country home, it’s been interesting to consider it’s past, see daily reminders of the past’s influence, and consider its future as I talk with students and friends about what they hope to see in Uganda in the years to come.

Many of the students we’ve talked to seem to think that Uganda should have come longer in the fifty years it has been an independent country.  America is often referenced, and Ryan and I try to do our best to remind our students that it’s taken more that 50 years to get where we are, and of course America is not without its problems as a country too.  Many of the students talk about their concerns over Uganda’s leadership, and issues of corruption.  In Uganda’s 50 years of independence, it has only seen three presidents, and has never had a peaceful transition of power.  President Museveni, the current leader of Uganda, has been in office for over half of its independence - 26 years!  Not only that, but it’s dealt with civil wars, violent dictators, and the AIDS pandemic....Not an easy 50 years.  Of course, there are so many great things about Uganda and its independence as a country, but many of our students seem absorbed in how far it still has to go, and what can be done about it.  So, I ask them what they think should happen, and what they will do to be involved in that change.  Their answers - vote, consider running for an office, and pray!

It will be interesting to see how the conversations continue and to keep following the news of Uganda after we leave.  It’s a beautiful place, not without it’s issues, but also not without plenty of hope!

And, while we’re on a patriotic theme - we have officially voted!  We sent in our absentee ballots a couple of weeks ago and are optimistic that the embassy will get them in on time!  The attendant at the post office made sure to give us a call when the ballots arrived, as she didn’t want to miss a potential vote for her beloved Obama!  (Another PCV was even offered money for an Obama vote on her absentee ballot from her Post Office attendant!  She, of course, declined the money!)  We’re planning to have an election party here in Uganda with some of our PCV neighbors to either celebrate or mourn the results on the day after the election. Either way, I’m painting my nails red, white, and blue and making some sort of patriotic baked goods in the dutch oven! :-)  It will be an interesting experience watching the election play out from the other side of the world (or, more realistically, going to bed with little news and waking up the next day with a new president!).  I am thankful for a fair and free electoral system that lets us cast our votes even from so far away!  So, may the best man (specifically the man bubbled on my ballot!) win...and, may that phrase not always apply to the presidential election! :-)

So - there you have it - my thoughts on Uganda at 50 and the American election from Africa. 

Love and miss you all!

~emily~

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Over the RUMPS hump


Today was the last of the school practice RUMPS workshops!  What an incredible experience this project has been!  Since the first student teacher’s workshop, which I blogged so excitedly about a few weeks ago, 8 more workshops have taken place at schools all around the region.  I’ve gotten to see many new villages, greet many new faces, and be totally blown away by the ownership and enthusiasm of my girls!

All in all, 9 workshops were held by BPTC student teachers over the last three weeks in government aided primary schools in various villages, towns, and trading centers in the Bushenyi and Sheema districts.  Over 400 primary students, 45 student teachers, and 36 local staff, head teachers, classroom teachers, and senior women were involved.  I figured out that, up to this point, the project has used 1,422 buttons, 711 needles, 12,000 meters of thread, 420 meters of ribbon, 59 towels, and 95 meters of fabric!  It’s exciting to think that all of it is now in the hands of girls all around the region, helping them take care of themselves and minimize their risk of potentially dangerous or unhealthy situations.

I’ve loved seeing the girls from the college step up and take on the project, and seeing the thankfulness for the project and eagerness to learn from the primary school girls.  It’s also been amazing to hear the support and enthusiasm of the local staff in the schools.  Many of the head teachers and senior women have participated in the workshops and expressed the need for this project even more eloquently than I could!  At the end of most of the workshops, a staff representative from the school gave a speech to close the day.  Again and again, these head teachers, senior women, and female staff members reiterated the significance of what the girls had learned through the project. They described how now they would not have to miss school because of their period, not have to resort to a “sugar daddy” to “help” them to get these supplies, and not have to use unhealthy materials to keep the blood from leaking on to their clothing and embarrassing them. Additionally, they implored girls to share their newly acquired knowledge and described how easily the RUMPS can be replicated with materials found at home.  Wow - could I ask for anything more?!  One teacher even described how excited the girls were - saying they might even wear the pads around even when they weren’t having their periods!

All in all, this has been such an exciting project to be a part of!  It has achieved even more than I could have imagined and has taken on a life of its very own!  I have been so incredibly proud of the girls, who have truly owned the project, and so blown away by the need expressed by women and children every where we’ve gone.  I can’t wait to see where it can go in the weeks and months to come, and believe that though many girls’ lives have been impacted, even more can still be empowered through this project!

So...what’s next?!  My first year students are already planning for Health Education and RUMPS teaching they hope to do over the holidays in their villages and in their student teaching next year.  And me?  I’ve already bought more towels, ribbons, buttons, needles, thread, and fabric and have a new audio book queued up on my ipod to listen to while I get more kits ready!  It is my hope that before the term ends in December, I can head out with some of my student teachers to even more nearby schools to keep the project going and share more about these important issues.  I’m also organizing a meeting with the Coordinating Center Tutors in the outreach department of the college to plan for next year and hopefully set up many more RUMPS workshops for the beginning of 2013.

So, although the school practice section of the RUMPS project is coming to an end and although the initial grant money has all been spent, I believe there is lots more potential for this project in Bushenyi!  There is still so much that the project can achieve and so many student teachers excited to keep teaching about Reproductive Health and RUMPS.

If you’re interested in contributing money or materials to keep the project going, shoot me an email!  ekjesbojohnson@gmail.com  I would so appreciate support from home to keep this already successful project going!  As student teachers have already been trained and equipped with materials and training manuals, the only ongoing costs are transportation and RUMPS kits.  At less than 75 cents per kit and less than $5.00 round trip for most local taxi rides, a little bit of money or materials truly does go a long way!  Feel free to email if you have any questions or if you are interested in getting involved in keeping the project going!

Truly - thank you for reading and thank you for the support!  What an incredible adventure this has been!

As always, we love and miss you all! :-)

~emily~

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

new pictures!

Hi Everyone,

I'm sorry if I'm flooding your inboxs a little bit!  Here's a link to new pictures that I added to the day-to-day Bushenyi album I'm keeping on facebook!

Enjoy!

The Best Day


Last Friday was the best day!  Really!  In the midst of it, I texted Ryan this message: “Seriously, my favorite day in peace corps!  So far…”  It was one of those days that made everything so worth it, and once again reminded me that I love being a PCV in Uganda!

It started as a result of the RUMPS (reusable menstrual pads) project that I began at the college last term.  I wrote about the first part of that event here – the lifeskills and reproductive health workshops Ryan and I held at the college during second term.  Now, it’s third term and we headed into the next section of the project –when the girls would take the information they learned at the workshop out to their primary schools during student teaching to lead health/RUMPS workshops of their own.  Coming back from the August holiday, I was hoping hoping hoping that the girls would take it on, but was uncertain how well it would go.  At this point, it rested in their hands, and I didn’t know if it would continue or just lose momentum and fizzle.  But, take it on they have!!!

I got a call early last week letting me know that the first of the workshops was in the works!  Two of my first year girls club members headed up the effort at their school – coordinating with the head teacher and their fellow student teachers, organizing the girls, and getting a room prepared.  They told me we would be beginning at 3 pm, and when I arrived at 2:45 they ran to out greet me, hugging me and welcoming me, and letting me know that they had been waiting for me!  What?!  Yes….I walked into a room full of almost 60 p4 – p7 girls and nine of my PTC ladies, ready to go!

The workshop started with my girls club members teaching a session in local language about the menstrual cycle.  It was amazing to sit in the back of the room, and hear them explaining the process, using the same words and explanations that I shared with them during last terms workshops and times in the club.  They also allowed for some questions and answers, handling sensitive issues with poise they never would have had six months ago!  I was so proud – I just sat in the back of the room and smiled – one proud mama watching her girls all grown up and out on their own! I have watched these girls develop over the last year and it’s hard to describe how incredible it was to see them taking this on and doing such a truly fabulous job!

After the education component, the PTC ladies taught about the benefits of using RUMPS, and taught the girls how to sew their kits into the pads and liners.  The primary girls were so excited to get going on the project – they were already talking about teaching their friends, sisters, mamas, and aunties, and I think I made their day when I told them that they would be keeping the pads they made, as well as the needles that came with the kit!  During the sewing, my PTC ladies walked around the room helping, talking, and sharing.  I overheard more questions being asked, and great, honest answers from the girls I had trained.  They really stepped up to the job of mentors, teachers, and friends.  I was so, so impressed!

So, the workshop was a really, really huge success!  I went to the school planning that at some point I might have to step in and salvage some rough moments, or do most of the teaching on my own, and was absolutely blown away by my girls ability, confidence, accuracy, and utter lack of needing of me!  It was exactly what I had hoped would happen as I trained them all a few months ago and I couldn’t have been prouder of their success! 

In the midst of conversations with my PTC girls, I also found out that they started their very own girls club on their second day in the primary school!  Although they will only be there for four weeks, they have already recruited over 50 young members, and are doing a lot of the activities that we have been working on together the last year or so – tackling issues like leaderships, health, decision making, HIV/AIDS, and communication.  Additionally, one of the girls shared with me that they had been using the manual I distributed as part of the training last term as a textbook for teaching in their student teaching classroom.  They have already used it for their HIV/AIDS lessons, as well as different health lessons from the curriculum!  I was so pleased to see that every one of the nine had their manual in hand, already looking well worn and much used!  What a joy to realize that what was prepared for them was being utilized in ways I never could have foreseen!

At the end of the event Evelyne and Charity, two of the girls who had really spearheaded the day, walked me out to the road and proudly flagged me a taxi and negotiated the price for me.  They were so excited about the day, so pleased to have shared it with me, and sent me off with greetings for the college and many thanks for the support. 

This really was one of my favorite days.  It felt like so much of my service – building relationships, seeking out needs and solutions, working to empower the girls at the school – really came full circle.  I’ve done my best, but it’s hard to describe the feeling of fulfillment, pride, and achievement that comes from knowing that all the work you put in really is making some small difference here in Uganda!  More workshops are in the works now, and I have every hope that they will be as exciting and meaningful as this one!  What a joy to be at this place in our service!

We just posted a video blog of parts of this project from last term up to now, and I think it gives a great glimpse of this fantastic project and the way our students have totally stepped up to the plate.  You can see it here!  Also, I added some pictures from the event to the end of this album on facebook!

Thanks for all of the support and encouragement from home – we truly could not do it without all of the love and prayers! 

Love and miss you all,

~emily~

Monday, October 1, 2012

Video Blog #8

video
Hi everyone!

Here's a video blog from our reproductive health/lifeskills workshop at the college last term (read about it here), as well as what's been happening with the RUMPS project this term!  Enjoy!

We love and miss you all!

~emily~

Sunday, September 9, 2012

...Epiphanies

Hi (again) everyone!

I wanted to post an article I'm submitting to our national Peace Corps newsletter.  I had something of an epiphany while listening to music last night and cooking by candlelight with Ryan.  Since it kinda follows up some of the thoughts on my last post, here it is!

Thanks for reading - we love and miss you all!

~emiliy~


All This Beauty

I’ve been in Uganda over eighteen months now, and I’ll be completely honest that I’ve been at a bit of a low for the last week or so.  Since the beginning of May, we traveled on an incredible trip to Italy, spent time with each of our families, hosted the last of our visitors (two of my very best friends!), and jumped into a school term that was unbelievably fulfilling and busy.  It’s been difficult to come off of all of those wonderful experiences.  Even if we know it’s not completely true, it’s hard to imagine that the next six or seven months in Uganda will have anything to offer that can even compare to the excitement of what we’ve already experienced.  And, naturally, many stresses and frustrations with Uganda are compiling by this point, directly impacting my feelings toward public transportation, mzungu crazed children, and people outside of our close community.  All of that to say, I’ve been finding that my usually very positive self has, in the last week or so been…not so positive.

Today we traveled home from All Vol.  On the way, I talked with a great friend who is about to COS.  Among the many things we talked about, he shared with me that he’s trying to really take in all the beauty and amazing opportunities that his last month in Uganda will hold.  Then, tonight I was cooking homemade flour tortillas with Ryan by candlelight, listening to The Weepies, and was totally struck by the words of one of my favorite of their songs – All This Beauty.

All this beauty
You might have to close your eyes
And slowly open wide
All this beauty, we traveled all night
We drank the ocean dry
And watched the sun rise

You can ask about it, but nobody knows the way
No breadcrumb trail to follow through your days
It takes an axe, sometimes a feather
In the sunshine and bad weather
It's a matter of getting deeper in, any way you can

I can see your new awake
Let me assure you friend:
Every day is ice cream and chocolate cake
And what you make of it, let me say
You get what you take from it so be amazed
And never stop, never stop, never stop
You gotta be brave

I must have listened to it four or more times (thank goodness for a patient husband!), and couldn’t believe what I was hearing – it was as if the song was speaking directly to me, reminding me of what I know to be true about my Peace Corps service: My experience depends entirely on what I put into it; nobody can give me a bread crumb trail to follow through service; the experience is so rich and fulfilling, even with the plentiful amounts of both sunshine and bad weather.  It might take closing my eyes and reopening them to truly appreciate the beauty around me.  And, ultimately, I’ve got to be brave.  Every day I get deeper in, and it really is about seeing the beauty surrounding me and appreciating the sweetness of my days here, even if there’s not a lot of ice cream and chocolate cake! 

I know that as things pick up at the school and in the community, opportunities will surprise me, relationships will continue to develop, and I will frequently be reminded why I have often said that I really do *love* being a PCV in Uganda.  Even in the week since I hit my low, my feelings and attitude have improved tremendously.  And, when the hard times come – and they inevitably will – I’ll try to stay focused on “All This Beauty” surrounding us in the people and the places of Uganda. 

When it comes down to it, I think we all can learn a lesson from The Weepies – whether remaining with days, months, or years, Peace Corps service in Uganda really is an incredible experience full of truly beautiful moments.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Catching up...

Hey everyone!

Well, we're back in Uganda!  It has been a whirlwind of a month!  First - ending the term and hosting two wonderful friends, and then an awesome time in Europe!  Thanks to those of you who checked out our *many* pictures - I think they tell a better story of our trip than I ever could in words...

But let me try all the same!  Our trip was a-m-a-z-i-n-g!  We fell in love with Italy!!!  I'll do my best to keep this recap to a nutshell version, but there is just so much to share!

The first section of the trip Ryan and I spent in Soriano nel Cimino - a great little Italian town in the hills of the Lazio region of Italy.  We spent our days walking around the community, eating delicious food and gelato, cooking with great ingredients, learning to like coffee, taking pictures, making fun day trips to nearby areas, and trying to just live in the amazingness that was all around us.  We were in Soriano for our 3rd anniversary as well!  I can't imagine a better way to celebrate three wonderful years with my very best friend!  It was an incredible time just to be together and remember what life is like without all of the little daily stresses of Uganda.  After a year and a half without leaving East Africa, it was a culture shock in the best of ways - so low key, such great food, so relaxing!  We loved it!

Next we met up with my family for a week on the Mediterranean!  We were able to visit some incredible places - Genoa Italy, Barcelona Spain, Ajaccio Corsica, Palma de Mallorca Spain, and Cagliari Sardinia.  We  had an incredible time reconnecting with family (it had been over 18 months since I'd seen my brother!!!), relaxing, catching up, and again eating plenty of non-Ugandan food!  Having family dinners every night after over 18 months apart - priceless!

Last but not least - a visit to the eternal city...Rome!  Here we had an amazing time visiting all of the major sites and some little places off the beaten path as well.  A favorite memory of my Dad's (and mine too) was getting on the metro at the station near our hotel, and getting off of it right below the Colosseum.  We walked out of the tunnel and bam - it was like being transported through time!  Ryan also had the great idea to download some free audio guides, which really helped us enjoy all the sites that surrounded us!  And again, more incredible food, great gelato, beautiful surroundings, and amazing culture every where you look!

Then (with our three bottles of wine and a large chunk of parmesan in tow), it was back to Uganda!  (I should mention how comfortable and spacious we thought the airplanes were and how delicious airplane cuisine was - my how our perspectives have changed!!!)  This weekend we are at an all volunteer conference - surrounded by all 150+ volunteers from all over the country - exchanging stories, catching up with old friends, and meeting new volunteers. 

We had also passed the 2/3 mark of our service - 19 months down, 8 or less to go!  It's an interesting place to be.  Although I know there is more to do here, and many things to be excited about (including many that we probably aren't even expecting), it's a little bit hard at the same time.  We had such a busy, fulfilling, and all around awesome term last term, and it's hard to know that some of the aspects of our two remaining terms hold a lot less excitement - at least it looks that way from where we're standing now.  Maybe the best way to describe it is to say that I feel a bit like we'd peaked by August...but still have 8 months to go!  Then of course, it's difficult to come down from a great holiday filled with time with family, friends, and time in the "western" world...
(did I mention the gelato...?)  It's just a lot to think about.  I wrote a letter to a friend today (hi angela!), and in it I forced myself to make a list of some of the things I'm excited about in the time to come.  I can already anticipate many great things to come, and I know there will be more that I can't even expect that will inevitably pop up.  Here's what I came up with:
  • Our two VSLAs close their cycles in December.  It will be really amazing to congratulate them on an incredible year of saving and loaning, and see all the results of their hard work and committment! *yay*
  • Hopefully the girls will take on the RUMPS project and continue it by leading workshops in their primary schools.  I look forward to going out to the schools to support their efforts on such an incredibly important project!
  • Book club - possibly *another* book by Chinua Achebe...
  • Our continually growing garden - it's rainy season again!  Before we left for our conference, we planted artichokes, basil, cilantro, cabbage, strawberries, lettuce, and made a cage for a rogue tomato plant that lived through the dry season!  Kudos, little guy!  I could get used to year round gardening...
  •  Thunderstorms (love the rainy season)
  • Living in such a beautiful place, with such a slower pace of life
  • Time for pleasure reading - I've passed the 100 mark of books read in Peace Corps!  How many more wonderful reads will the next 8 months bring?
  • Shopping at the market - love it!
  • Spending Christmas in America!  (Thanks Mom and Dad!!!!)
  • Continuing to be the neighbors and friends we have worked to become over the last 19 months - sharing and enjoying life in our Ugandan community
So...I'll just stay focused on those things!  I really truly do believe that as the term picks up and things get going, I'll feel really good about that fact that we're still here!  It's just a strange transition from an incredible holiday and into the last third of our time here in Uganda...lots to think about.

Love and miss you all - thanks for reading!

~emily~

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Travels in Italy, Part 2

Our trip continues to be absolutely wonderful!!! I think we'll *eventually* write a blog about our adventures in Europe, but in the mean time....more pictures!!!!  Click below if you're interested!

Seeing the Mediterranean with the Kjesbos

Roma Amor - Five Fabulous days in Rome with the fam!

Thanks for reading!  We love and miss you all!

~emily~

Friday, August 17, 2012

Travels in Italy...

We have had an incredible first week in Italy!  A complete (and much appreciated) break from Peace Corps Uganda!  We'll definitely write something up about the trip, but in the mean time, here's a sneak peak at  the pictures from our first week in Italy!

Pics from Soriano

Pics from Florence, Bagnaia, & Viterbo

Thanks for reading!

~emily~


Elephant Dung & Other Adventures

August 10, 2012

We had an incredible time this week as two of our great friends, Bryan and Jenna, visited from the States!  During our last night together, I asked them how they were going to respond when they got the inevitable question: “So, how was Africa?”  Bryan’s answer was something along the lines of, “It was a great adventure!”  And I think that pretty much sums up our week - a great adventure with two of our favorite people!

Bryan and Jenna were our third set of visitors to Uganda, so we *thought* we knew the ropes of traveling with visitors well enough to prevent any major adventures!  Little could we all imagine the adventures the coming week would hold...

Ryan and I had been in Kampala for a few days leading up to when B & J were supposed to arrive.  We didn’t have any real plans on the day they flew in, just intended to get the the hotel and airport in plenty of time to be ready for their plane to land.  However,Thursday we were surprised with a crazy offer - to attend a private visit Friday afternoon from our beloved Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the US Mission in Uganda!  Our answer - YES!  The event was supposed to be very brief - a quick speech, handshake, photo opp, then off to pick up our guests!  However, even within the embassy compound, Ugandan time reigns!  Madame Secretary was hours late, and although her speech was incredibly brief, we were still scrambling to get to the airport in time.  As we raced to Entebbe in the back seat of a taxi, I realized that Jen didn’t have my phone number, the name of the hotel we were staying at, anything!   I prayed to myself that they wouldn’t feel like being adventurous and would just stay put until we got there!  And...they did!  They beat us to the arrival area by mere minutes, so everything worked out just fine!

During our week together we had quite the adventures.  We saw dozens of incredible animals in Queen Elizabeth National Park - a momma lion and her 3 cubs, leopard, hyena, giant forest hogs (very rare!), waterbuck, crocodiles, hippos, birds, kob, elephants, and many more.  Our encounter with the elephants was among the most exciting.  As we approached the road where they were, two safari vans full of tourists were totally blocking the road.  We slowly drove nearer, and found a baby elephant all by itself.  Our friend and guide Benjamin began to slowly back away - and we all understood why!  If there is a baby, there has got to be a mother somewhere near by!  In the end, the momma elephant and about 10 others emerged.  No cars were trampled and, for better or worse, all tourists were safe!  We stuck around for a while and ended up seeing one particular elephant about 10 feet from the car window!  Benjamin also told us a story of how in 1992 the head conservationist at Queen was killed by a mamma elephant who had lost a young one and turned over and trampled the car he was riding in because she was so upset.  Shortly after the telling of the story, we heard a strange noise behind us and Benjamin floored the car!  All of our hearts tensed up and the look on Benjamin’s face was utter terror.  In the end, it turned out to only be the muffler!  Yes, in one afternoon we narrowly escaped an encounter with a dozen or so elephants and...a muffler.

Another memorable adventure occurred the day we toured a coffee plantation, to give Jen and Bryan (serious coffee lovers!) a taste of the coffee world from the Uganda side of things.  In the midst of driving to the plantation, we had a breakdown.  So, Benjamin got us set up with a colleague of his and went to work on fixing the car.  He told us we were in for a one hour, low key visit to a coffee plantation where we would see the growing, picking, and drying process of coffee cherries, and learn about the husking and selling of the beans.  So, off we went! 

Long story short - our one hour coffee tour turned into a 3+ hour incredibly intense hike during the hottest time of the day through coffee fields, people’s backyards, rocks where ancient people made sacrifices, down and back up unbelievably steep bluffs (we cant’ possibly be headed that way....we *are* headed that way!), into an apiary full of very upset bees, and through fields where elephants had trampled everything in sight, including the coffee trees that were supposed to deter them from decimating the local people’s farmlands.  At one point, I stopped to take a picture holding some relatively fresh elephant dung (the stuff was *everywhere*) and one of the guys asked how our guide could be sure that elephants wouldn’t come back through the area while we were hiking through.  His answer:  I just predicted...?!?!  Luckily, despite our complete lack of preparedness for what we ended up enduring - terrible footwear, no water, no sunscreen, and Bryan was injured - we arrived at the tourist lodge at the end of the trail relatively unscathed!  We tromped up through the resort, looking like a group of dusty nomads, being stared at by all the comfortable tourists sipping icy glasses of water and enjoying the view - at least until we appeared in it!  I will never forget the looks on their faces as the four of us, disheveled and utterly exhausted, dragged ourselves up to the bar for some water. 

Other adventures during our week included political riots and teargas, bumpy bus rides, trying to avoid Ebola, playing nerdy strategy games by candlelight, and Bryan walking around Uganda with a cane...priceless!  And, of course, we had many, many incredible conversations and times of laughing so much we could hardly speak!!!  It was an incredible week!

I’m so thankful for friends like Bryan and Jenna with who, no matter how long it’s been, we can pick up exactly where we left off!  I’m so thankful to the opportunity to catch up on their lives and share a bit of our Uganda with them!  (Love you guys!!!)




Here's the link to pics of our week together!

We love and miss you all!

~emily~

PS - Beware: Where there is fresh elephant dung, we hear there are likely fresh elephants!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The birds and the bees (+ pictures!)

Hi Everyone!

Hope you're all well!  Things in Bushenyi are winding down for the term!  Last week was our final week of classes, and after 2 weeks of exams our students will be out of here for another holiday, and we'll be off to Europe!  (could we be any more excited?!?!)

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Before the term finished off we put on a big event that we'd been building up for the last few months!  So, Saturday, we held what we called a "Health and Lifeskills Workshop."  Essentially, a souped up version of "the birds and the bees."  We divided our students into groups of girls and guys, and took the whole day to talk about issues of lifeskills, HIV/AIDS and STIs, reproductive anatomy, relationships/gender roles, family planning, and general health.  The girls also learned all about making RUMPS (reusable menstrual pads) - more about that later!  The theme of the day was "Health teachers for a healthy Uganda."  We hoped that through equipping our students (Uganda's next new teachers) about many of these important issues, the knowledge can spread out to their future students in the primary schools, as well as friends and relatives that we'll never have contact with.  Working with teacher training creates a lot of opportunities for ripple effects - sustainable work that we may never see the fruits of, and we hope that his can be one of those times!

The need for a workshop like this is huge!  Not only is Uganda one of the few countries where HIV/AIDS prevalence is actually on the increase, but many of our students have such limited knowledge about their bodies, their options in regards to their health, and what be practically done to prevent things like HIV transmission and unwanted pregnancy.  This year alone 3 girls have been sent away from school due to unwanted pregnancies, and there are surely more to come.  Although our students are in the 17-23 age range, chances are good that nobody has talked to them about many of the issues we confronted on Saturday.  There is an abundance of misunderstandings and complete myths in the minds of our students (i.e. America not only created AIDS, but has a cure for it and is not sharing it with Africa, condoms spread cancer, washing yourself with laundry detergent can prevent unwanted pregnancies and HIV, etc.)  So, we really tried to get down to the basics and equip our young adult students with factual knowledge and the opportunity to make good decisions. 

The original impetus for the event came from a grant I received from the Minnesota Returned Peace Corps Volunteer association.  The grant is all about teaching the female students at the school about reusable menstrual pads (RUMPS) and helping them teach the primary school girls (P5 - P7) about them as well.  As I described in my grant application:

One challenge commonly faced among the young women of Uganda is the ability to attend school regularly and consistently.  On top of gender related duties at home, long distances traveled to get to and from school, and availability of funds for school fees and school related materials, many girls are also unable to attend school during their monthly menstrual cycle.  Many girls do not have access to proper materials to manage their menstrual cycle.  Instead of using sanitary pads or tampons, some girls resort to using rags, socks, newspapers, banana leaves, or feathers.  Others use the same soiled pad for days on end, while others simply stay home and miss school while they wait for their cycle to end.  In some cases, girls find a “sugar daddy” who will buy them things (including disposable pads) in exchange for sex.  Clearly none of these options are conducive to a girl’s development and each has the potential to increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections, low performance at school and high dropout rates.  In addition, the shame and confusion created by the cultural lack of communication about reproductive health issues often contributes to low self esteem and negative self image.

This project aims to address the lack of knowledge and abundance of misconceptions about reproductive health among young Ugandan women.  In addition, it seeks to provide an opportunity for girls to create hygienic, inexpensive, environmentally friendly, reusable menstrual pads.  This project will teach future teachers the skills needed to effectively and accurately teach reproductive health lessons, as well as provide the materials for workshops to create reusable menstrual pads.  Not only will it empower future teachers to speak to their pupils about reproductive health issues, but it will empower girls to manage their menstrual cycle in a hygienic and affordable way, thus eliminating the danger of missing school or making high risk decisions simply because “it’s that time of the month.”
 

On Saturday the girls not only learned about why RUMPS are a good option for them and their primary school girls, but also had the chance to make a set of RUMPS for themselves. (I should backup and include that there was a lot of prep work to make this happen!  Over the last few months, I've been cutting fabric, towels, ribbons with abandon - collecting buttons, needles, winding thread, and putting together over 300 RUMPS kits!  Each one consisted of enough material to make 2 pads and 3 cotton towel inserts, along with a card of thread, needle, and buttons to make "wings" on the sides of the pad.)  Each student also got a manual with a lot of helpful information about reproductive health, answers to common questions, and directions for teaching about and making RUMPS.  (Thanks to PCVs Chelsea, Bethany, and Audrey for sharing your excellent manual with me!)  When our students get back from break next term, I hope to support many of them as they lead health and RUMPS workshops in their individual primary schools during student teaching.  The girls are super excited to share the knowledge they have gained!  Many of them are already planning their own workshops, and some have already even bought materials and intend to get started at home in the village during their August vacation!  I was encouraged to see the passion with which the girls embraced the project and their eagerness to continue to spread what they've learned!

But, we figured, why make the workshop only for the ladies?  Why not do more than just create RUMPS?  So the day ballooned into an all out health/life-skills, both gender event!  And we're so glad it did!  There was great participation, great excitement, a feeling of general thankfulness for the knowledge our students received!  And.....hopefully there will be a great impact too!  Our big hope was that our students would at the very least leave the workshops knowing the facts, so that they could make (hopefully good) informed decisions about their health and their lives.

We also were fortunate to be joined by 3 staff from the Uganda Peace Corps office, and many of the PCVs and volunteers from our region (thanks to Dan, Bailey, Nick, Andrew, Marianne, and Susie!) 

Our friend Susie snapped lots of great pics from the day!  I put them up on facebook, so if you're interested in checking them out - click here!

Thanks for reading - we love and miss you all!

~emily~