Friday, December 30, 2011

Burials

Just a quick note to report some sadness. Yesterday I went with six of COU's office staff out to the Busoga region, past a town called Kamuli, nearly 3 hours transport in a private car, to attend a burial. Kamuli district is very poor; we passed roadside stands which in Mukono would be heavy laden with fruit, but here each person was selling two or three bunches of bananas only.
The woman who died was the mother of one of our COU employees, and although none of us knew her personally, it is traditional to accompany your friends to their family burial services. Hundreds of people were there, and it felt festive as they served food and made many speeches praising this woman's good long life (79 years old - ancient by Ugandan standards!). Piles of flowers covered the ornate coffin.
However today I just packed Shirah up to go to another burial, which will be much less festive. She got a call on my phone this morning that her baby cousin passed away at only 4 months. The funeral is actually in the same town Kamuli. I know it will be a sorrowful occasion. And why did the baby die? No one knows exactly but I'll venture it was directly caused by poverty - just too many diseases around, too little soap and clean water, too few doctors, too many challenges.
Please keep the grieving families in your prayers.

Uncle Fred


At Christmas I spent a while talking with Uncle Fred, who grew up in Daughters of Charity (COU's partner organization) believing that he was a total orphan. It wasn't until he was about to graduate from university that he met some people who encouraged him to find his family. Through personal connections and the use of a village loudspeaker, he eventually managed to reconnect with his aunt (Shirah's grandmother). The family had assumed he died in the war of the 1980s along with his parents. It was a joyous reunion of course. And as he began to re-integrate with his long lost family, he saw how many of his nieces and nephews were sitting at home without attending school. He decided to help Shirah and her sister (a small family, it's just them and their mother, as their father abandoned them a long time ago). Shirah was brought to COU and is now sponsored by my parents, and Uncle Fred personally sponsors Mercy. Their mother does whatever tailoring work she can, but she also struggles with poor health. It's hard to imagine how the family would have fared without Uncle Fred and the Daughters of Charity / Children of Uganda connection.

Christmas in the Country

Shirah, my "sister" (the sponsored child of my parents) took me to her grandmother's village for Christmas this year. The journey started at 7 AM and took us through exorbitantly overcharged taxi routes to a dirt road where we both clambered onto a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) and rode 10 km to arrive at their family home. I've been in the country before but this is "really really" in the country. Very few cars travel along that road, only the bodas and bicycles. There is no electricity, and I didn't even see any solar panels. Needless to say, no Christmas lights or lawn ornaments.

We celebrated Christmas morning with 3 hours in church. Comprehending only a tiny portion of the content of the service, I contented myself with singing English lyrics to the carols I knew, and contemplating the people around me. I've known that statistically, half the population of Uganda is under the age of 15, but here it was plain to see. Adults sat on benches, mostly well-dressed, but scores of messy children rustled noisily at our feet, unheeded and unminded. Tiny babies nursed from impossibly skinny mothers, or were passed from lap to lap. The pastor had to step over and around the children to get from pulpit to lectern and back. Even when a child (or two or more) was crying, the pastor simply preached louder. He had no microphone or amplification, but then again there were a lot of things the church didn't have yet -- a roof being one. This was the first Sunday in the new building, and the portion of the roof that hadn't been funded yet was covered by a tarp. We had an auction at the end of the service to try to complete the project.
Shirah's uncle introduced me to the congregation, near the end of the service. The deacon said "Clap for her! When else will we have a muzungu in this church?" I stood up and said Merry Christmas in Luganda and the place shrieked with happiness. Afterward everyone wanted their picture taken with me. I must have posed about a dozen times.


Back at the family home we had a traditional Ugandan meal featuring matooke and chicken. Their home is nice but sparsely furnished. I and two uncles were given stools to sit on and forks to use, while the other few adults and a dozen children sat on mats on the floor eating with their hands as is traditional. After eating we took all the mats outside and sat or sprawled in the shade of a tree while the teenagers did the washing up. We sat there much of the afternoon as neighbors came by to visit, eat cake, and catch up with the family members they hadn't seen in a long time.

Shirah's sister took me on a walk around the village. We greeted many an astonished child and some elderly women as well. "Thank you for coming to our village" was a refrain I heard often, and some of the villagers backed up their thanks with gifts. I came home with three large bags of just-picked peanuts, which we've been shelling for a few days now and plan to roast soon.

Back at Kiwanga that night, we had a teen-oriented Christmas party. Sodas and cake were the main refreshments, and camera flashes the main entertainment as people posed with their sodas, new clothes, and friends. I had brought a suitcase full of donated clothing which served as my Christmas presents, and these were the only presents I saw exchanged this year. I was happy to see some people wearing them at the Christmas party.

My sister Cassie & I used to blog together, back in the day (at http://tandcinuganda.livejournal.com), and she always had some profound closing remarks. In her absence, I invite you to insert profound remarks here by leaving a comment.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Heartache

Yesterday I had the distinct displeasure of being the one to break the news to one of our girls that she will not be traveling on tour. 3 children have received such news now... 2 because their visas were denied, one because she gets horrible shin splints when she dances too long. All three of them were amazing dancers and we really wanted to keep them on the tour. To all of them we are promising to take them on future tours provided we can work around these problems.
We gathered last night in the darkness of a Kampala power outage - me, Robert (director) and Constance (trainer) and Auntie Maria, the big mama of the home, called this girl to us, and hemmed & hawed for a bit until Robert coughed - Talitha, you do it. I nearly cried myself as I told her. She's one of my personal favorites too and I remember her from when she was in first grade.
The amazing this is how well she took it. She cried a little but then said she wanted to continue training anyway. We all agreed to let her train, and keep it a secret until she was ready to tell her fellow dancers. And I'm taking her shopping today for a new Christmas dress - small consolation but it will help.

As I write this (7:40 AM) the children are in the thick of training. I was awakened this morning by the slapping of their feet as they warmed up by running circles around the home. Sorrow may visit, but the beat goes on.

Uganda - five years later

I haven't been here since 2007 and have spent my fair share of time looking for what has changed in Uganda. Hemlines are shorter, leggings are in, and ringtones are popular... There's more electricity, and it seems every church and mosque (in a very religious nation) wants to broadcast their services loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear. Those aside, here are the specific changes I've seen.

First - prices have risen, roughly doubling for food, fuel, transportation, and most necessaries, although the dollar only rose about 45% during the same time. So things are more expensive even for my dollar. The one exception is airtime -- the minutes purchased on your pay-per-use cell phone. Prices have stayed low due to stiff competition. On some networks you now pay per second, not per minute.
Second - phones are much more powerful. Nearly everyone has one now, and some people have one phone with two or more sim cards so they can use multiple carriers. Our teenagers at COU go out to the market to buy airtime in 25 cent increments. But phones are also used now for money transfers, like a bank account. You can put cash on your "mobile money" account, either to save it and take it off later, or to send it to anyone else - even paying bills or tuition via this method. Thus, any corner shop in any slum can be transformed into a bank.


Third - a few amazing high-rises have sprung up, gleaming bright on top, but with their foundations rooted in the muddy streets of Kampala. A very vivid reminder of the economic disparities which are markedly similar to the US - 1% and the 99%. There's a new Mercedes-Benz dealership, iPhones are advertised widely, and at the same time, millions of people are surviving on one meal a day.

Four - traffic jams are worse than ever before. There are just too many people on too few roads. New roundabouts and flyovers help in a few places, but mainly drivers look for bumpy back roads to escape the jams.

Five - aiya, all these children have grown up so much!

Saturday night - 10:30 PM

The dance troupe members went home for early holidays, getting to celebrate Christmas with their families ahead of time. They were told to report back today at noon, for a 2 PM training. By 8 PM we had most of them back, and they weaseled their way out of an evening training (negotiating for a 5 AM start time tomorrow instead). But I'd waited a week already to hear and see them, and I wouldn't stand to wait longer. So they put together an impromptu concert in Robert's bedroom... singing hymns and party songs alike, accompanied by harps and fiddle, dancing with side-to-side steps and hand movements. Simple, simple things, fun and easy for them. They all looked at me with such huge smiles and excitement as they sang.

I've been feeling slightly out of it since I got here, but as their music swelled around me, all of a sudden everything clicked into place. Behind me: years of love and learning. Ahead of me: traveling to share this song. And in the here and now: gratitude.

The song they sang first was the first Luganda song I learned when I came in 2005 - tunakuwaki ffe - meaning "what can we give you, [God] but to praise you all our days?" That is the kind of gratitude I'm feeling now -- there is just nothing I can possibly do or say to do it justice. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve, for the huge privilege of bringing these children to America to share their song, and for the life journey that brought me to this place and this time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shopping

The past few days I have spent hauling in various directions around town, searching for items we need for the tour. Shoes & socks were bought today, and we put in requests for bike shorts and undershirts for the girls' costumes. We also got several long rolls of material for drum bags (the tailors are coming in the next few days to construct these bags around the drums). Next up: carry-on bags, legwarmers, and tablecloths for our merchandise tables.
The shopping is challenging. Gone are the days of yesteryear where we carried millions of shillings in our pants pockets and bought things helterskelter at the secondhand market, collecting little scraps of anonymous receipts to hand in... the auditors are much more strict and so we have to buy from legitimate business that can invoice us properly, making a trip to get a quote, a trip to pay, another trip to pick up the materials.

Lead performers Geofrey and Jane spent much of the day stringing together beads for the Rwandese dances. Robert and Geofrey inspect the work:


Robert isn't sure there are enough... especially not if he gets to wear as many as he wants...

Visiting Days

Yesterday Rose (one of our social workers) and I spent 10 hours in town. I estimate it at 6 hours in taxis/minibuses/boda-bodas, 1 hour walking, 2 hours waiting, all for the purpose of having 2 half-hour visits.
First visit to Silas, a special child in our program who has always gotten extra attention because of his health problems – cerebral palsy among them. After several phone calls we found him at his uncle’s house for the holidays. They live out in a village where the children called me “Sheila” after a muzungu character in a soap opera – the only white woman they knew of. Silas is shy and didn’t have much to say, but it was good to see him there. He is healthy and when asked what he does for fun he replied “playing football.” This on crutches is quite an accomplishment!


Second visit was to Joseph, my boy from long ago. I was looking for a little terror of an 8-year old, but was happily surprised to see a tall and calm young man walk toward me in the back roads of his town. He is fifteen now and growing every minute, quite a bit taller than me already, and he says he is also growing up in other ways… that he no longer “disturbs” all the neighbors or keeps them from sleeping with his raucous behavior. Needless to say, they appreciate this and praise him for his maturity. I was glad to see, however, that he still has a fresh young sense of humor. In chalk he had drawn a TV screen on the bare wall of their house, complete with advertising slogans.
As we visited, his two little cousins came in and sat wide-eyed across the room staring at the muzungu visitor. I would turn around every few minutes to see another child or two had joined them. It is sobering to consider what a difference COU makes in our childrens’ lives, looking at how much better dressed they are then their neighbors, and seeing the hordes of undersupervised children in need of care.



When I realize how long I spent traveling (and how much money spent on bus fares) I wonder what makes these visits “worth it.” Maybe it was the smiles on their faces, or the surprise when they realized who the “important visitor” was, or just the chance to see little kids growing up. The visits definitely WERE worth it, traffic jams and back roads and all.

Please support our children at http://firstgiving.com/fundraiser/talitha-phillips/2012-tour-of-light ... your gift (before the tour) will be roughly doubled or more (by income on the tour) to support these children for the future.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A quiet beginning

In a week there will be 20 children and youth drumming up a storm in training sessions night and day. But at Kiwanga home this week, there are only about 2 dozen people besides staff, and holy cow is it quiet! I wish I'd brought my guitar with me, it would help liven things up a bit.

At Children of Uganda we prefer that the children under our care not spend their whole lives in an institution, so during school holidays we encourage all children to visit family. Despite the strong nets of extended family in Uganda, there are some who simply have no one, and they spend holidays here at Kiwanga. The other residents are members of Philip's House, who live with severe disabilities and are cared for here. And a few recent graduates of our program are here while they look for what to do next. Our resident sculptor, Ben, is one of these. He whiles away the time making amazing art. I walked out the first morning I was here, and wondered who the other muzungu (white person) was. For some reason it didn't occur to me ask why she was reading a book to an ostrich and a llama...






Five years ago, here with Cassie and Tim, we put a few trees in the ground. To be honest, Tim did easily 90% of the work. So Tim, here are your success stories! Towering and fruitful.


Agriculture is booming here, with a very successful poultry project to boot. Here Henry (a Philip's House resident) carefully waters his dodo (amaranth) and tomato plants.








I was overjoyed to see my old friend Joseph here.

Midway through his education he took a very unexpected re-route, and by now he is almost done with his training to be a hairdresser and fashion designer. Here he is plaiting some new braids for a friend - a two-day task.




Immaculate has stolen everyone's hearts, so I'll just chime in with the choir: this girl is amazing. She is the youngest of our children with no known relatives... she was raised by her older brother until last year when she came to our program. She arrived sullen and shy but you wouldn't believe it by now. She is absolutely blossoming under the care of the organization. Some times I feel bad for her - the youngest of this group, hanging around all day with no one silly or patient enough to play "monkey" for hours at a time with her - but I take a moment to remember where she came from. I realize that this environment (which would be seen as horribly boring to most American kids) is far more nurturing and loving than any place she's been in before. I realize that she is flourishing and growing in it, simple as it may be.


Gratitude for the day: singing praise songs (by popular demand) with all the Philips House members, plus Immaculate and one of the staff's children in my lap. Some of the Philip's House members have disabilities that affect their voices, and others just seem to mimic their peers' speech patterns, resulting in a whole group of people communicating primarily in vowels without consonants. Immaculate's sweet and clear voice combined with my voice and the heartfelt howls of the Philip's House members for an unforgettable sound. Between songs everyone would clamor for attention, pulling on my hands and sleeves and skirt, with needs and wants of utmost urgency (though they were to be forgotten as soon as I came up with another song). I could stay there forever, endlessly trying to meet everyone's attention needs, but I am trying to give without running dry. The Luganda words for "stop" and "please wait" came back to my brain in a flash of brilliance. Plus the words for "this has been wonderful, but I am going to bed now." Which, now, I shall do.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sleep deprived and I can prove it!

En route to Uganda! I'm at London Heathrow in the midst of a 24-hour travel extravaganza, and I'm exhausted. I wasn't able to fit my boyfriend in my duffle bag (much sadness), but I did manage to pack this little friend from Joie. He was sad that I wasn't making many singing telegrams this year, so he convinced me to let him make one himself. I sang along a bit because reindeer have very soft voices, and I subtitled it in case you don't speak Reindeer.
Enjoy.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent-ious adventures



Mary's belly is stretched to the limit and we are expectant.
I am expectant as can be, as I pack and sort and do crazy amounts of work getting ready to go to UGANDA and to pick up Children of Uganda (COU)'s dance troupe, starting their US tour on Jan 8th.
Advent is a time of strain - of living in the in-between - sure of hope, yet not tangible yet. One can never be sure. Yet we are.

I go to Uganda pregnant with hope, stressed to the max, and sure that when Children of Uganda make it to the US that hearts and lives will be changed. They changed me, when i met them as a teenager. I wish such blessings on you all as well, which is why I'm bringing them there to meet you =)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

published

...in Chimes, SFTS' magazine.
6 days until I depart.
donate here.

The text of the article:

I first heard my call to seminary in Uganda. I had just graduated from college, and had been living for several months in a small guest room next to the boys’ domitory in an orphanage run by Children of Uganda. I was sick one week, and lay in bed reading Henri Nouwen during the quiet hours when children were at school and the afternoon hours when their playful noise ricocheted off the cement walls. Nouwen spoke of service and simplicity - these things I was trying to do - and I just knew I had no idea how to put my ideals into practice.

My sister and I went to Uganda hoping for some personal, spiritual benefits. We’d abandoned the numbing American culture of consumption, and we hoped for a pure experience of important and passionate service. Instead we found a bewildering maze of questions. Why do poor people spend so much money on clothing and hairstyle? A lesson about priorities. Why do we feel like we’re in England every day at tea-time? A lesson about postcolonial culture. Why are there no jobs for talented young graduates? A lesson about global economics.

SFTS helped me sort through many of the big questions. Later I ran a summer program for volunteers in Uganda, guided by Dr. Phil Wickeri’s mission class. I also participated in the Muilenberg-Koenig History of Religion Seminar run by Dr. Chris Ocker on the topic of poverty. I was able to learn more about historical approaches to poverty relief, some of which we will try to use in Children of Uganda (I now serve on the Board of Directors).

Children of Uganda (COU) has cared for thousands of children since 1995. All have been affected in some way by the dual scourges of AIDS and poverty that have nearly destroyed Uganda. The adult generation has virtually disappeared; today, half of Uganda’s population is under the age of fifteen. There are 8 million children identified as “orphans and vulnerable children,” and only 11% of them are receiving any outside aid. About 500 are currently in the care of COU. It’s a fragment of the total need, but every tiny bit counts.

COU’s public face is our dancers. From kindergarten on, all COU children receive training in the Ugandan traditions of music and dance. With the adult generation decimated, many of these traditions were nearly lost. But we know and value the power of music to transform suffering, to encourage and uplift, and to maintain a sense of cultural pride. Every few years COU brings the most talented dancers to the US as ambassadors for Uganda’s orphan population. I saw the Tour of Light as a teenager, and the children’s infectious joy was life-changing. I look forward to assisting with the next tour in January 2012. I lie awake at night dreaming of this tour and the lives it may change.

I often am told “you’re so passionate.” I am quick to repeat the lesson I learned: Passion is not something you can choose - not a value add-on to your otherwise lovely life. Passion is something that gets inflicted on you. An orphan child asks “can I call you mum?” and suddenly you no longer have the privilege of ignoring global injustice. The price of food in East Africa is suddenly a live and pressing issue. And so you find yourself setting up a table somewhere, holding out your hands, saying “can I tell you about Uganda?” and asking otherwise comfortable people to sponsor children in need. No matter what else I may do in my life, I can never leave this work behind.