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R.U.M.P.s

Last week on May 28th was World Menstrual Hygiene Day!  (Betcha didn’t have that one on the calendar!). What a perfect excuse for me to share with you something that the girls and women in our community have been up to in recent months.

“Menstrual Hygiene Day offers the opportunity to create awareness of the importance for women and girls to hygienically manage their menstruation – in privacy, safety and with dignity.” 

Women and girls around the world face a number of challenges in managing their menstruation in a safe and dignified way.  Some of these challenges can include misinformation, myths, and stigma about menstruation; lack of adequate education on menstrual health;  limited access to affordable and hygienic menstrual products; poor access to clean water and soap for personal hygiene and for washing menstrual cloths; and lack of private and safe spaces and washroom facilities for women and girls, particularly in schools.  One consequence of these challenges is reduced school attendance for girls during their menstruation.

In recent months, I had the chance to spend time with some of the older girls attending the primary school in the community where I am staying.  We got together to chat about growing up, understanding and taking care of our bodies, and to learn about menstruation and reproductive health.  After some of the women in the community shared that disposable pads are not accessible (or affordable) for most of the girls, and that some just use old clothing or bed sheets to manage their periods, we discussed the idea of making our own reusable (washable) pads and the girls liked the idea!  We spent the next few weeks making our own reusable menstrual pads (sometimes called “RUMPs” or “AFRIpads”).  There are a number of different designs out there for these pads, they are simple and cheap to make, and can be made with local materials (fabric and towels, cloth, or cotton).  I would totally recommend these to anyone looking for a cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and hygienic option for managing your periods!

Check it out! 🙂

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Brainstorming some of the challenging and positive aspects of menstruation.
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I was surprised and impressed by how many positives the girls could come up with!
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RUMP Kit – materials per pad included: 2 pieces of fabric, one button, one towel, needle and thread. Each kit contained material for two pads.
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Hard at work!

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I think it’s time I give you a glimpse into what my day-to-day life looks like here in Uganda…

First, some background.

I am living in a small community called Bandali within Kibuye Village in the Kamuli District of Central-Eastern Uganda (2 hours from the nearest town of Kamuli, just North of Jinja).  There is no electricity but there are a few sweet spots where you can get phone reception.  The majority of residents of Kibuye are subsistence farmers and they work very hard to support themselves and their families.  I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to stay in this community and learn from the incredible people who live here.  The highlight of this experience is easily the time I get to spend with my host family, friends and neighbours.

A day in the life of Arrow

6:30 am:  Awake from a deep sleep and emerge groggily from my mosquito-net fortress.

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Wasuze otya! (Good morning!)
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Morning sweep of the compound
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6:45 am:  Grab a couple of jerry cans, and head to the borehole to collect water for the morning.

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7:00: Head to the garden to tend to crops of maize and beans on the bank of the River Nile.

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Our beautiful field of freshly sown maize, beans, and groundnuts: the product of some serious hard work – cleared with a single machete, dug by combination of hoe and cattle-driven plow, seeds hand sown, and weeded by hand.
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10:00: Head back home and stop at a second garden to harvest sweet potatoes for lunch.

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10:30: Enjoy a breakfast of tea and porridge with my host family and the children from the neighbouring primary school.

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Join me?

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11:30: Do some laundry or help prepare for lunch.

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Sorting beans for lunch
12:30:  Prepare for the afternoon’s workshop.

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The shade of a mango tree…it’s an office, a classroom, a playground, a meeting space, and a trading centre.

2:00: Lunch!  Devour a delicious mountain of food.

3:00 – 5:00:  Depending on the day this time may be spent…

  • Participating in a workshop with some of the adults in the community (topics often include: health, agriculture, literacy).
  • Go for a walk and greet people (this might sound strange, but this can actually be considered an activity here…if you spend anything less than 15 minutes greeting someone you are being rude! This is one my favourite things about the community and culture here.)
  • Visit friends in the community and attempt conversations of broken Lusoga and English (and then give up and just dance instead).
  • Tag along on a walk to the health centre if it is immunization day or if one of the students is sick.
  • Head to the little “town” of Kibuye (a 45 minute walk from where we stay) for market day.
  • Storm watch from the comfort of my hut.

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Football anyone?
5:00:  If it is planting season, return to the garden to scare away the birds, check on the crops, or water nursery beds.DSCN0499[1]

5:30: Make another trip to the borehole for water.

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6:00: Have a bucket bath (i.e. fill a bucket with water and (if you’re me) splash it around wildly and hope for the best).

7:00: Enjoy a beautiful Bandali sunset.

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7:00- 9:00:  Hang out with my host family and/or the boarding school kids (or read as they study in the solar-lit classroom).

9:00: Dinner!

10:00:  Soak in the incredible night sky…the kind you can only find hours away from towns, roads and electricity …(sorry, you’ll just have to take my word for it).

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…aaaaand this is what happens when you try to take pictures at night…
10:30pm:  Return to the mosquito-net fortress and fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the night.

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Sura bulungi, Bandali (Goodnight, Bandali)

 

 

Words and Windows

It is a unique experience living and working in a community where you share only a few words of the same language with the people you see everyday.

You might expect this to be an isolating and lonely experience, 
And there are moments where it can feel that way,
But mostly,
I feel connection and I feel community.

I have such affection and appreciation for so many people in this community;  a community where I am merely a transient visitor. I often feel like I am surrounded by friends. I feel a rush of joy when I see a familiar face approaching or when I hear a distant call of “Arrow!” in my direction. I look forward to sharing greetings in my limited Lusoga…greetings that are actually 5% speaking Lusoga and 95% hand holding, kneeling in mutual respect, and a lot of smiling and “mmmm”-ing and occasionally some spontaneous dancing.  

It occurs to me that it might seem unusual or unexpected that I could feel so close to so many people who I have never shared more than a few words with. People that I have never had a conversation with. And yet I feel like I know them.

It seems…and this is something I have always suspected…that words are not the only means (or even the best means?) to get to know someone.

At times a language barrier is not a wall but a window.

A window through which to see people and relationships in a different way. An opportunity to notice things that you might not have, had you been focused on finding the right words.

Actually language has never been my favourite way of getting to know someone.

Words fail you.
Words fall short.

The most significant and overwhelming experiences and emotions render us speechless.
I have found it frustrating how much importance is placed on words and conversation in our society. The need to fill spaces and silences with small talk. When silences are not silences at all, you just need to listen in a different way.

I think sometimes you can learn more about someone by just being with them.
Being with them, laughing with them, meeting eyes, sharing silences, and sometimes sharing incomprehensible babble in languages that neither of you can understand. Sometimes words are a distraction. A distraction from the simplest and maybe most important aspects of who someone is. A distraction from their humanness, their vulnerability, their strength.  A distraction from all the things there are to love, appreciate, and respect about this person.

Of course… there are many times where I wish I could speak Lusoga. Times where I wish I could learn about someone’s life, hear someone’s story, ask questions, understand the answers, and simply be able to understand and join in on conversations. Yes, language (or lack thereof) can be limiting in a lot of ways. But I also am seeing the value of this “limitation” as an opportunity to know people in different ways.

So when someone grabs an interpreter so they can invite me to visit them tomorrow afternoon, I gladly accept. I follow my feet along winding networks of dirt paths, greeting everyone as I pass, and make my way to the cluster of huts where I know I can find them.
And we sit.  Sit on a straw mat in the shade of a mango tree. We exchange gifts of food and tea and toss around a few words in Lusoga and English followed by comfortable silence.

And on some of my favourite occasions
a radio appears from a purse or a pocket 
and we dance.

Uganda Election 2016

Ugandans hit the polls this Thursday the 18th.  What a time to be in the country! 

This past week, Ugandan voters have seen the opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, arrested not once, not twice, but three times; there has been sporadic violence and significant military and police presence in the streets; and Ugandans have faced a social media blackout from Wednesday night (before polls opened Thursday), until Sunday evening (a day after the results were revealed).

With election results in, it seems that Yoweri Museveni will extend his already 30 year long rule (a fourth and now a fifth term made possible by a change to the constitutional term limits in 2005), and Besigye (curiously, Museveni’s former physician!) will have to wait another five years…but first he needs to be released from house arrest (still ongoing as I write this on Sunday).

There has been criticism of Museveni and how the election period has been handled; accusations have been made questioning the transparency and fairness of the election, and concern has been expressed over violations of Ugandans’ rights to free expression and assembly.

With tensions high during the election period, it seemed that many here were preparing for the worst and bracing for potential violence and unrest (at work they had stocked up on enough food to last for weeks). And so, amidst this criticism of Museveni and the election period, it seems that this weekend many Ugandans are, to some extent, breathing a sigh of relief as the election comes and goes and relative peace appears to be holding in the country.

***

Photo: FDC (Opposition) Rally
*Photo courtesy of Noah*

 

 

Welcome to Uganda (Part Two)

Part Two: Welcome to Public Transit in East Africa

You position yourself along the shoulder of the road, careful to avoid the trajectory of the never-ending streams of boda bodas (motorbikes) whizzing past.   From here you flag down a hurtling metal box on wheels that looks vaguely similar to an old VW bus. Pulling up in front of you, a man is dangling out of the window shouting “town! town! town!”.

But the driver has made a mistake, this bus is full! Think again.
The dangling man ushers you in, and with exceptional grace (just kidding) you manage to squeeze in, half sitting on the lap of the person next to you.

And then dangling man sits on you.

The metal box resumes hurtling down the road.
And suddenly…the door is falling off.
Dangling man jumps into action, along with several other passengers, and the door is clamped to the metal box by several clinging arms. A few bashes and smacks and it is back in place…at least until the next passenger hops out.

As the hurtling down the road continues,
you make the mistake of glancing out the front window.
Holy crap, we’re gonna die.

Weaving in and out of traffic, other minibuses and those crazy boda bodas appear out of nowhere from left and right. Traffic “lanes” expand and contract, new “lanes” appear and disappear before your eyes.

But as you are watching this unfold, the sound of a mystery reggae remix blasting from the speaker above your head begins to lull you into a strange calm, your heart rate slows, and your perception starts to shift.

What you thought was utter chaos begins to reveal itself as an intricately choreographed dance. A symphony of honks and flickering of headlights working together to create a language that eludes you. There is order to the chaos. (Maybe). And somehow, it works.

***

(Photo by Tim Abbott: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theabbott/9734402184/in/photostream/)

Welcome to Uganda (Part One)

“The captain has turned on the seatbelt sign. In preparation for landing, please make sure your tray tables are stowed, your seats are in the upright position, and all carry-on items are stored in the overhead bins or securely beneath the seat in front of you.”

 Peering out of the window you search for ground below and instead find water. A seemingly infinite expanse of it. “The Ocean?!” you think for a fleeting moment. But a quick consultation of your mental map of the continent reminds you of your rapid descent towards a landlocked country. And it dawns on you. Lake Victoria. Beautiful and vast and HUGE.

The water rapidly approaches, and just as you’ve resigned to an over-water landing, a strip of land appears and with a flip of your stomach you are bouncing along the runway.

“Welcome to Entebbe…local time is 12:10pm.”

Stepping out onto the tarmac you feel a rush of warm air and the humidity settling in around you. Deep breathe in. You are met with smells both familiar and foreign – impossible to place, yet comforting.

Friendly faces greet you and you forget the exhaustion that has seeped into your skin after over 24 hours of travel. Instead, you are buzzing with excitement and beaming with gratitude to have two feet finally on this continent. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here. The same thought is repeating as you try to grasp this reality. But it won’t sink in for weeks.

Piling into the car you gratefully accept bottles of water that you didn’t realize you needed until this exact moment, when suddenly you are parched. Over the next months, water will be on your mind more than you could have ever thought possible. Do I have enough? Will this last me the day…the week? Where will I get more? Will it be clean? Crap, was this bottle sealed when I opened it?

On the road, colours are whizzing past. The landscape around you is saturated with colour; deep rust red dirt lined with lush greenery, stretching over hills and across fields, nestled under a clear sky that somehow seems even more expansive than back home.

You try to take it all in. But it’s like watching a foreign film with no subtitles. You spend a few minutes straining to pick out some semblance of meaning, trying to grasp what is going on, but eventually you surrender, let go of your need to understand, and just take in the beauty of it all without needing to know what it means.

Crawling into bed, exhaustion seeps back in, and you manage to tuck in the edges of your mosquito net fortress around you before collapsing. It’s 10am back home, your circadian rhythm is sincerely confused, but sleep won’t be difficult to find tonight.

Becoming Arrow

In Kenya, I became Atieno.
In Uganda, as I find myself growing into a new experience,
I am also finding myself a new name.

I love my name.
In all it’s uniqueness and …unexpected… origins.

But for a name that can, at times, elicit a confused look in Canada, it becomes even trickier in a region where “R”s and “L”s can be challenging and interchangeable, and where a Canadian accent will prompt whispered responses like “she has too much twang…I can’t understand her” and spark impromptu games of charades while attempting to (unsuccessfully) purchase electricity credit.

And so, in an effort to mercifully alleviate the many very well intentioned and appreciated attempts at my birth name (including “Owen”, “Irene”, “Erin”, and others that I would not know how to translate into text) and to avoid being resigned to “hey mzungu (foreigner)” around friends for lack of a better (more pronounceable) name…I have learned to adapt.

And more than that, I have grown to love the names that I now associate so strongly with experiences, memories, places, and people that lie so close to my heart. A very special handful of people call me by my other names, and this unique connection makes me feel closer to them.

And so here I find myself growing into yet another name.
I find myself becoming “Arrow”.

Beyond learning to respond with “Wangi??” (yes?/ what?) to an even broader range of sounds and exclamations (Taro, Harro, and best of all “Halloo!”) I’m reflecting on what “becoming Arrow” could mean to me.

One thing I am quickly realizing is that although I may be a mere 589 km from a place and people that I have deep love for…a place where I am “Atieno”… this is a new country, a new culture, and a new experience. I need to let this to be a new experience.

In order to commit to this fully – I am becoming Arrow.

I am focusing my intentions on being open, letting go of assumptions and expectations, and committing to “trusting the process”.  I am welcoming new connections and new friendships, and I can already feel these seeds being sown in my heart.

As I start to notice flickers of fear in premature anticipation of the pain that inevitably comes with learning to love and leave people so far away from “home”, I remind myself of the words of a fellow intern that struck a deep and resonant chord within me. (The sentiment of which I will attempt to loosely and less eloquently paraphrase below…)

I’d rather make these connections, grow to know and love these people, and have to leave them…than to never have had them in my life at all.

With love,
~Arrow~

***

Photo Credit: Blessing

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