Winston Churchill called it the Pearl of Africa. All we know is that the people of Uganda have been occupying our minds and hearts for months now, and we are beyond excited to live with them and serve them for 9 weeks this summer! If you want to be a part of what we're doing, you're in the right place.



Due to some conflicts in planning, Nicole and I were apart for a few days while I journeyed North to Gulu. She would have come too but she had to remain behind for a trip to Kiyindi, where her prized football tournament extravaganza will be taking place in a few weeks– the likes of which is progressing wonderfully! However, a few of us were due for a trip north to do research for TOMS shoes and to meet with contacts in that area to plan some projects for later this summer. I must admit that initially I was not a fan of up and leaving on the first week that schools were in session and our work there was finally about to start, but after two and a half days, I was madly in love with Gulu.

Brooke Z., Lexi, Ryan, Oscar, Rob and I began our adventure at noon on Friday, under the assumption that we’d be at our destination in about 3 hours. We caught a taxi to Kampala where we met up with the two young men who would be our guides, David Opiro and his friend Franco. They both grew up in Gulu, just graduated from Makerere University, the best college in Eastern Africa, and they now work in Kampala. They’ve set up a women’s group that we’ll be working with on income-generating projects, and they’re probably my new heroes. There is really no sufficient way to describe the madness that is downtown Kampala’s taxi & bus parks. I have never in my life seen that many swarming people in one place. It was stressful and terrifying and crazy and hot and made me very much nostalgic for the calm Mukono life. We walked through mobs of people, squeezing ourselves and our backpacks in between the endless masses of taxis and buses. Then we had to sit on the bus for over two hours waiting for it to fill up. Meanwhile, vendors yelled from the street below and walked up and down the narrow aisle trying to sell strange orange drinks in old water bottles, flashy plastic hair bows, gum, and awesome bags plastered with Obama’s face. I could devote an entire post to the Obama obsession here. It’s quite humorous.

Once we finally got out of the sweaty noisy city, the sales technique I mentioned became quite useful when it allowed me to buy a banana and chapatti (our staple tortilla-like snack) out the window at various stops. We stopped so much, in fact, that our three hour drive took nearly seven. Luckily I brought multiple books for entertainment. I wish I could express how beautiful that drive is. I’d do it over a hundred times again if I was ensured a window seat. Granted there was a stretch where it started pouring rain through the broken window pane and pelting me angrily in the face, but other than that, my seat was prime for a view of the setting of the sun on the rolling green bush. It was magical. Ten hours after we’d left the house, we found ourselves walking the pitch-black streets of Gulu during a late night power outage. We ended up at this awesome restaurant where we feasted on a delicious candle-lit meal before heading to our hotel. There we dead-bolted our door, snuggled up in sketchy hotel sheets, and tried to think positively about the state of our bathroom and the fact that we actually had one. It made me think back fondly on the vast extravagance of the various scary hotels and motels I’ve slept at in the United States.

The next day we got an early start, splitting ourselves between David and Franco to head even further north into the villages and Internally Displaced People’s camps that were affected by the insurgency and rebel attacks a few years ago. They acted as our guides and translators. Because Gulu is part of a different kingdom than the south and thus has a different language, even our arsenal of basic Luganda was unhelpful. I did learn a few things in Acholi, but all I remember is the basic greeting “Kop’ango?” and the response of “Kope.” It was a hot, productive day involving lots of walking and a lot of extremely helpful research findings. I wish I could describe it all in detail, but this post is getting absurdly long as it is. Life is just different there. I’d never really comprehended the various levels of extreme poverty before that trip. There’s the extreme poverty of rural Mukono that makes my heart ache for the kids and their future. And then there’s the extreme poverty of a school in rural Gulu where only 5-10% of the students have ever owned a pair of shoes and they are lucky to have a spare piece of raw cassava to bring for lunch because most of them go hungry throughout the entire eight hour school day. They have no money, no food, and little hope for changing that in the near future. I saw a boy lying in a field by a school, sick and in pain, with no one around who knew how to take care of him. I was on the verge of tears multiple times during the day, and it was hard, but it left me motivated to do what little I could to relieve even a small part of what they live through every day.

As usual, the people were friendly, inviting, and generous. I can’t say enough how much I’ve learned about being a good host from the Ugandan people. I felt more welcomed in the twelve foot diameter hut of a stranger than I have in a lot of places at home. That evening we visited David and Franco’s women’s group and within fifteen minutes were able to dive into a plan to cut their costs for making paper bead necklaces by about 80%. It was one of those times when something so simple makes you feel really useful. It’s nice to feel useful every once in a while, especially when most of the things you’re working on seem to open your eyes to all the other layers of problems you just can’t penetrate. The next morning, after a world-class pancake breakfast at our new favorite restaurant, we had a meeting and then stopped by the Invisible Children office in Gulu. It was awesome. If you don’t know much about Invisible Children, I would strongly suggest doing some research about what they’ve been up to recently.

The ride home took just as long as the ride there, although this time I had the privilege of being the sixth person squished in the middle of a backseat bench meant for five. It only got awkward the one time I nearly fell asleep on the shoulder of the man next to me. And again on the stretch when there were 45 large speed bumps in a row. We’re still not sure what the purpose is of having so many, but we were sure to count each time we were violently propelled into the air. The whole trip was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but I cant tell you how good it was to get back to our friends and our cozy little house. I’m going to be terribly upset when I have to leave. I'm trying not to think about it.


We Can Combart Illitracy

(The main wall at Crane School. Maybe some problems aren't so hard to spot.)
I have never truly appreciated how difficult it is to be a teacher. This past week we began our work at different schools throughout Mukono. One of the schools we work with a few times a week is Crane Preparatory, a needy school that houses many orphans year round. There are no words to describe Crane. Oh wait. There are three words that describe it with absolute perfection: gird your loins. Our group of volunteers has taken to reciting this as we walk onto the grounds of the school, because Crane is about a handful and a half.
On our first day at Crane, we had five volunteers for around 500 students (some of our volunteers, including Jessica, were on the opposite end of the country. More on that later). Not stressful or anything, right? These 500 students are crammed into the tiniest dilapidated brick buildings with dirt floors and rickety wooden benches for desks and seats. The walls are covered in dirt, doodles from past children, and charcoal stains. The “wall” between the classrooms is more like a wooden screen with gaping holes in it where all the noises from surrounding classrooms filter in. Witnessing such a chaotic and cluttered learning environment was difficult to handle. The fee to attend Crane Preparatory is around 10 U.S. dollars, and some families cannot even afford that. All my life I have seen poverty stricken people shown on the news and depicted in movies, but until I came to Uganda I never realized how absolutely real it is. I just want to take all of these kids and give them all the opportunities that they deserve, but the best that I can do is show them that they are loved and hopefully teach them a few life skills along the way. Learning that I can’t change everything is the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn here. 
I was put into the P.7 class, which is the equivalent of 5th-6th grade in the United States. As I said before, I’ve never truly appreciated how difficult it is to be a teacher. Granted, it was never my goal to be a teacher, but due to communication barriers, the teachers at Crane assumed that we would be teaching the classes for them. Another volunteer and I ended up with chalk in hand in front of 105 students waiting for us to teach them. No big deal. After a morning of teaching English and Math to the students of Crane, we finally tracked down the teacher and explained that we are not here to take over their classrooms, but that we want to establish a tutoring program for the students that are struggling in their studies. 
Once class gets out in the afternoon, we lead the extracurricular programs with the students, hence the girding of the loins. The headmaster put us in his office while he divided up all of the children into the three groups: music/dance, sports, and reading. As we sat there we could hear the crowd of kids roar, and that’s when we knew the next two hours were going to be insane. Another girl in our group, Kaile, described the scenario with absolute brilliance when she said, “You know that part in Mulan when the Huns come riding down the snowy mountain, and you see how many soldiers there really are? That’s what Crane is like.” So true. One by one, the headmaster led us out of the office to meet our group of around a hundred excited and enthusiastic students. I was called out to help with soccer, and as I walked up with the headmaster, he said to the students, “Is that how you greet your teacher?” And then they stormed me. I was literally ambushed and body slammed by fifty rushing preteens. It was out of control. Later, I was recruited to assist in the reading groups because we were so outnumbered. After leading the kids in games and songs for the next few hours, we went home absolutely exhausted. That first day in Crane was even more tiring than building an adobe stove in the hot sun. We have now divided the school into more reasonably sized groups for the extracurricular activities, so things are going much more smoothly now. Yesterday, Jessica and I played netball with a big group of P.7 girls that supremely dominated us. It is so much fun to run around with these kids whether we are teaching them funny American games and songs or running soccer drills with them. Despite the girding of the loins and the craziness that ensues when a bunch of Muzungus enter a school, the looks of absolute happiness and delight on the children’s faces are so worth it. 


The day that changed our lives.

White water rafting the Nile was the best day of our lives. It was SO FUN. Surprisingly enough, I was much more excited than nervous even though this was my first experience with rafting. Jessica was thrilled to continue on with her vast experience in rafting, which amounts to one trip to Yellowstone when she was eight. The rafting package included our transportation so the van picked us up and took us to the source of the Nile at Jinja, which is about an hour away from Mukono. There they fed us a delightful breakfast (full of so much chapatti, our obsession, and endless supplies of pineapple) and prepped us for the rafting. There were about 75 people total on this rafting excursion. They lined us all up and handed out the life jackets and our fancy helmets. They pulled our life jackets so tight that I was afraid a few people might pass out, including myself. Jessica and I looked so classy in our helmets. We weren’t deterred from the many stories of parasites and diseases that accompany any mention of the Nile, so we boarded the bus that took us to our entry point.  Our HELP team was divided between two rafts with seven of us in each. Our raft was the only all girls raft, which prompted much teasing from the other river guides. As we were boarding our raft, the man in charge of this extravaganza said that we were privileged to have Thabani as our rafting guide, who he claimed was the “strongest raft guide in Africa.” After six hours of rafting with him, we were convinced. Thabani was from Zimbabwe and entertained us with fascinating stories about encounters with hippos, lions, and other feisty jungle creatures. When we were getting onto the raft, Thabani asked for the two strongest to take the front of the raft. Interestingly enough, my raft voted fellow teammate Brooke Zollinger and myself. I was confused as to how I suddenly became a “strong one.” But Brooke and I obliged, and took the front as the pacesetters for the paddling. We loved the front! We hit everything first and probably swallowed the most Nile water, but it was such a blast. Jessica and I impressed everyone with our ability to jump back onto the raft at quick speeds while everyone else would still be hanging on to the side of the raft, drowning in the river. It was awesome. I knew that all those years of tubing at Lake Powell would come in handy one day. The river was beautiful! I feel like we have sued the word “green” so often while describing Uganda that it is starting to lose its meaning, but really, it was so green. Our rafting experience consisted of twelve rapids, many of them class five. It was the most thrilling experience. I remember the first time we went through some rapids, which we later found out were a measly class one, we all screamed (well, not Thabani, he just laughed at us).  By the end of the day, if we weren’t barreling down life-threatening waterfalls, we were supremely disappointed. We trusted Thabani with our lives. The approach to any rapid usually included a lengthy pep talk from Thabani where he would lay out our game plan. We would usually enter a rapid by paddling at full speed, but our favorite part was when he bellowed, “Get down!” and we all got to crouch down and cling to the our paddles and the side of the raft for dear life. At one particularly intense rapid, Thabani told us that to paddle as hard as we could until the very last possible moment when he would tell us to get down. We don’t hold it against her, but we had barely entered the rapid when Jessica yelled out, “WHEN DO WE GET DOWN?”even though she was had already pulled in her paddle and was curled up in a ball on the floor of the raft. Oh, how we love the rapids. Although the sights during the calm parts were quite nice. Well, most were nice, others were scarring. At one point, we passed a group of local spectators watching from the shore, and the following conversation took place:
Nicole: “Some people watch TV. Others watch the Nile.”
Jessica: “Some people wear pants. That man doesn’t.”
After that, we averted our gaze from the shore and concentrated on dominating the river.
 We enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to change our life plans and become a river guides and travel the world rafting. Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? Despite many close calls, we only flipped one time, and we kind of liked it. It reminded me of getting stuck in the waves at the beach when you just get pounded over and over again. It didn’t scare us, but some of our team members were a bit freaked out by the thrashing we experienced. Our teams other raft flipped twice, so we had all the bragging rights, naturally.   During our break for lunch, we were just floating along eating pineapple, and I looked around me, and thought, “I am sitting on a raft. Eating fresh pineapple. On the Nile.” It does not get much better than that. Somehow, none of us found it annoying to mention that we were “on the Nile” every five seconds. We got a disc full of the funniest pictures from the professional photographers that hung out in kayaks as we battled the rapids. We look like absolute savages. I will say no more, and let the million pictures below do the talking.