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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Stuck In The Middle (Ive)

UGANDA | Saturday, 27 June 2009 | Views [5495] | Comments [4]

A traditional home in the Uganda bush

A traditional home in the Uganda bush

For the last few weeks, we have been living at the St. Paul KAASO school in Kabira, Uganda. Kabira is very rural – what people here call “The Countryside.” It’s located in Southwest Uganda, maybe 40 or so kilometers north of the border with Tanzania. The school is set on a dirt road that is lined mainly with residences (some modern brick, many mud brick) and very small farms, with a few small clusters of very simple shops that are considered villages. It is about a twenty-minute boda boda (motorcycle taxi) ride on that dirt road to the nearest “town,” Kyotera (prononuced more like Cho-Terra). Kyotera has a bustling marketplace and the nearest access to the internet, so we have made a few trips there over the weeks. Kyotera is on the main, paved road that leads back to the nation's capital, Kampala, about three hours to the north. The route borders the western side of Lake Victoria.

Although we didn't realize it when we made our plans to come here (ignorant Americans!), Uganda was colonized by the British. So, along with their mother-tongue of Luganda (a language that is beautifully different to the ear compared to Romance or Germanic languages), most people here speak very good to excellent English – which has been an immeasurable help in connecting with others. And we have worked to master the beautiful greeting exchanges in Luganda – which almost always brings an amazed chuckle from local people. “Oli Otya, Sebo? [Belungi, Nyabo. Oli Otya, Nyabo?] Jendi, Sebo. Jebelee, Sebo. [Kahle, Nyabo.]...”  (How are you today, Sir? [I am fine, Madam. How are you today, Madam?] I am doing well, Sir. Thank you for your work, Sir. [You are welcome, Madam.]...”

We are living here on the KAASO school compound with three other volunteers (all from New Zealand), the Director of the School (Dominic), his wife and headmistress of the school (Rose), one of the Nursery program teachers (Sarah), and 300 boarding students of elementary school age. Each day a bevy of teachers and 300 additional day-students arrive for classes, which run from as early as 7am and end in the evenings with review classes for the boarding pupils. Then there are extra-curricular activities, like sports and music, as well as daily living tasks, like washing clothes. Even in the hot sun of Africa, there is an almost constant flow of activity around here. And the sounds of children singing songs or repeating lessons often fill the air. It is a very special energy to get to experience.

We have had the chance to teach the children lessons in some of the classrooms, which has been incredibly fun. But most of our time with these truly beautiful children has been in little conversations and receiving Luganda lessons as we go about our day – as well as some really raucous games of Duck-Duck-Goose! Their excitement about such simple activities is priceless. With visions of endless hours with these children when we first arrived, we were auspiciously welcomed at our first Volunteers Meeting by Dominic saying that he would like to offer his teachers a workshop explaining alternatives to corporal punishment. (Corporal punishment, mostly through caning children, but also through slaps, hits, and punches, remains commonplace in Uganda.) At the time, he had no idea that Miral and I are psychologists. We made the workshop our main offering here, helping teachers at the two schools Dominic directs (KAASO and nearby Kamuganja Government School) to better appreciate individual learning and behavioral differences among their students, to use Active Learning techniques to better engage them, to use reward programs to improve behavior, and to find non-physical forms of punishment. This was review for some teachers, but brand new information for many. It was a very small step toward a culture shift – but significant enough to get the attention of local education and government officials who proudly described it as the first workshop of its kind here in the Rakai District. We had a great time following up by offering some of the teachers (and pupils) demonstration lessons that emphasized Active Learning – while simultaneously exploring the challenging mismatch of American and Ugandan approaches to scheduling! Miral then worked tirelessly to leave everyone here with a manual of what we had presented, for their future use.

Maybe the most amazing part of this experience is that we have literally been invited to be part of the family by Dominic and Rose. We sleep in Volunteer Quarters that are next door to their home at the front of the school grounds – and we all “take meals” together in a dining area in the Volunteer Quarters. We are almost always invited to join Director Dominic in his always-interesting escapades – from attending school dances to meetings with government officials. And we are consulted about all major decisions he is making, from how to best install the newly obtained solar panels donated by a local Rotary Club that is replacing the fuel-burning generator that they could afford to run for no more than a few hours each night, to whether or not to trade in his current car for one that seats more passengers. (His car is no small issue. He has used his car – one of two in the town of Kabira – to give rides to many neighbors in need and, in fact, to save countless neighbors' lives rushing them to the hospital during emergencies.)

Like family, stories about their lives are often being shared with us – like Rose telling us the incredible stories of the births of her children or Dominic explaining about how, as an orphaned youth, he labored to put himself through school. (He now has an advanced degree in Primary Education – and he devotes nearly all of his available funds to sponsoring the schooling of children and youth in similar straits. In fact, he directs a second school for a salary to live from – he and Rose both take no salary from KAASO to devote that money toward sponsoring children in need.) Both Dominic and Rose are magnetizing story-tellers – Dominic sharing his boundless enjoyment of life's ironies with his huge smile, full-body laughter, and sound-effects that, at times, eliminate the need for words -- and Rose offering her calm and endlessly sweet presence and perspective, punctuated by her rounding, “EHHHH!” as she, also, celebrates the oddities of life. They also patiently answer every question we have about Ugandan culture – questions probably asked by every volunteer before us – covering topics ranging from the locals' unique English-language expressions to the practices of local witch doctors. We have been invited to be family – we are treated as family – and we feel like family. Weeks into our experience, all of the volunteers still regularly share our amazement at the luck of finding this place and meeting these people.

Life for the locals here in rural southern Uganda is hard, to say the least. This region is severely lacking in basic infrastructure. I remember writing about how I had to adjust to uneven sidewalks in South America. Here, even in Kyotera which is the capital of the District, there is nothing but rolling and cut up mounds of dry dirt between the pothole riddled road and the basic cement, brick, and wooden structures that serve as storefronts. Any sidewalks would be a welcome addition! Only the main road back to Kampala is tarmac -- the rest of the region is a newtork of moderately to poorly groomed dirt roads. Not surprisingly, it takes exponentially longer to travel here compared to the West. There is very little electricity and many people still make daily trips to local wells to access water. Most people here seem to scrape together an existence, between poor paying jobs and food grown on their land; they have little, if any, money for luxuries. And this region is about where AIDS was first discovered. It continues to be at the epicenter of the epidemic. In fact, one statistic we were quoted regarding a nearby village was an 18% HIV infection rate; nearly one in every five residents is infected. And it is widely accepted that official statistics are significant underestimates, as people trying to avoid being shamed in their communities refuse to admit their HIV status or, worse yet, refuse to be tested. There is no person here who has not been, in one way or another, directly affected by death from AIDS. Although there are no estimates of how many, a large percentage of the students at our school are orphaned to AIDS.

Yes, life here is hard. And full. We are constantly commenting on how full the days are here. On one of our first days here we witnessed a mob of hundreds chase two crime suspects out of their town in the morning, were the guests of honor at a high school dance where we presented a goat as a gift to the students in the afternoon, and then spent the early evening visiting a village woman battling AIDS. To help the woman avoid having to sell her small field of crops and main source of food, we donated funds to pay for her most recent treatment that had returned her from near death. Our donation was the equivalent of $3 per person. On one of our last days here, we celebrated our school's soccer and netball (kind of a cross between basketball and ultimate Frisbee) championships at the annual regional Sports Day with a wild parade down the dirt road that had horns honking and children jubilantly singing and chanting – only to return to the school to find out that a 16-year-old neighbor down the street and graduate of our school had just died from Hepatitis. We paid our respects to the family the next day, crowding into the heaviness of a room in their small home with relatives, neighbors, and the girl's corpse. This is the emotional roller-coaster that seems to be Africa.

GIven this, it will not be surprising that there was some adjusting to do when we first arrived at KAASO from kushy Switzerland. Especially to the physical environment and the challenges of daily life. In hopes of drawing a fairly vivid picture...: the bedrooms in the Volunteer Quarters have an unfinished cement floor that was once painted a deep red, but has now peeled back to gray in large patches. The inconsistency in color is softened by the layer of deep brown, dusty dirt that quickly layers everything here. The wisk brooms have trouble getting at the corners of the room, so small piles of dirt accumulate there. The cement walls are painted a turquoise-ish color they call “Uganda Blue,” with many scuffs, a few cracks, darker stains, and that same layer of dusty dirt. The ceiling is made of a white soft particle-board, with many water stains from one or another type of leaking in the roof. Around the perimeter of the ceiling, there are many small mud hives abandoned by one or another insects that are simply everywhere here. Mosquitoes, hornets, grasshoppers, and geckos are regular visitors. There is a simple closet with one shelf and a rope pulled loosely across the front, strung through two curtains that serve as a closet door. The wooden door to the room is painted white but it is chipped and peeling in many places, and yellowed in the dusty dirt. There is a simple wooden bed with a yellow-foam mattress. There is no décor on the walls; I have taped a world map we are using to track our travels. There is no other furniture; some stacked reams of paper provide a small table.

We volunteers share two bathrooms. One is a bathing room. It has the same floor and ceiling as the bedroom. There are large white tiles on the wall from about knee height to the floor; nearly all of them are cracked and many of them are missing large pieces. To one side is a porcelain tub that is stained and scratched, with an open drain coated with some muck that sometimes seems to be pulsing. There are two taps on the tub, but there are no pipes to provide it with running water. Instead, there is a large plastic barrel in one corner that is filled with water. The water in the barrel collects in a pond at the edge of the school campus and is pumped to two outside spigots at opposite ends of the campus. The water is mildly brown and somewhat slimy feeling. It is collected each day from the closest of the two spigots in “Jerry cans” (variously sized plastic containers of the shape of anti-freeze containers) and dumped into the barrel. “Showers” (as we all continue to insist they be called) are taken by filling a hand-held tub with water from the barrel and, using a plastic cup, dumping water over the body, soaping up, and rinsing off with more water using the cup. There is a bar of communal soap that sits near the tub, browned from all of the people washing off that same dusty dirt.

The other bathroom has a scratched and stained porcelain toilet, with no toilet seat and a plastic tank-lid that is cracked down the middle. The tank is the only other apparatus on campus that is hooked up to running water. The end of a wire hanger is protruding from the top of the tank-lid; it is pulled and wiggled and pulled some more to get the toilet to flush. To save water, the flushing is done according to the rule, “Only if it's brown should you flush it down.” So, the bathroom often smells some of urine – helped along by the light smell of waste wafting from a nearby student latrine. In the corner of this bathroom is a  pipe coming up from the ground with a plastic elbow at its top – but with no sink sitting atop it.

We get our drinking water from the same spigot as the bath water. The Jerry cans are carried to the water room and passed through one of the three filter systems serving the school. The donated filters are large cement pylons filled with sand and gravel – basically giant versions of the camping filters many of us use in the US. They require about 45 minutes for the water of one Jerry can to pass through the filter and into a “clean Jerry can,” which is brought back to our Volunteer House for consumption during the day. (As long as we have it, Miral and I have also then been passing the filtered water through our Sawyer filter.)

Our food is prepared in a kitchen that is a large room with a hay covered floor. In one corner is a large drying rack with pots and utensils and such. Around the room are various foods, mostly vegetables and “matoki” (a fruit in the banana family that is similar to plantains). At the end of the kitchen are three “stoves” that are each small campfires with three stones around each on which to balance the well charred pots for cooking. We have four meals each day. Breakfast is usually a piece of bread or a roll and a cup of tea. Tea and a light snack, often fruit or another roll, is also served at 5pm. At 2pm a large lunch is served and at 9pm a large dinner is served. Each of the large meals includes some combination of four or five of 12 dishes. The one constant at every meal is steamed and crushed matoki. (I have come to love the matoki!) The other possible dishes include white rice cooked in a light dusting of curry; spaghetti cooked with a bit of tomato; steamed African yam (pretty different from yams in the US – white, dry, and not as sweet); steamed pumpkin; small white potatoes cooked in light curry; crushed nuts (a distinctly Ugandan dish that is a pinkish pasty-sauce made from nuts crushed into powder); sauteed eggplants; sauteed cabbage; and/or boiled beans thickened with flour and some veggies. Occasionally, there is a meat dish and sometimes some chapati (fried bread typical in India – there was a significant Indian population in India before it era of Iti Amin and it is now returning). Although the locals eat these really delicious meals with their hands, we are given utensils.

As I look back on our arrival here, it is amazing how quickly the adjustment to life here was made – and how quickly the situation became perfectly comfortable. Not that there still aren't days when I crave a hot shower or a perfect cup of Seattle coffee and a big New York salt bagel – but I have found myself really happy living in this simplicity – taking nothing for granted. I begin to lose the ability to know what this all sounds like to people back home. Maybe it sounds like spending a month camping – maybe it sounds like living in squalor. Maybe it sounds like we are “truly living the African experience.”

If you are thinking that it's the latter, I can assure you that it is really not. Take, for instance, the comparison between the lifestyle of the volunteers and that of the children who board here at KAASO school. They live in Spartan dorms filled by rows and rows of wooden triple-decker beds. Their four daily meals alternate between corn-based porridge and posho (slices of cooked cornmeal) with a spoonful of beans on top. They use fly-filled pit latrines. They dress in simple school uniforms in various stages of disrepair. They crowd into classrooms 60-100 at a time, sit behind long, uncomfortable wooden bench-desks, and try to hear their teachers teach over the noise of adjoining classrooms separated only by hanging straw-mats. Somehow they attend and behave better than children in the average American classroom. With the only toys being pull-toys fashioned from milk containers, they pass the few hours out of class studying, just sitting and talking or, more often, helping adults with the work of cleaning dishes, washing clothing, or fetching water. But to talk to them, you would never suspect any of the lack you may perceive in this description. Unless they have come down with malaria (which is dangerously common during these months, but easily treated if identified early; no one here uses the preventatives we are using), they are all smiles and bundles of joyous energy.

 Yes, we volunteers live a very pampered existence compared to the children around us. And compared to most of our village neighbors. We are given the royal treatment. We are Muzongo – the swahili world for “white person.” We are reminded of this regularly – usually quite literally with yells of “Muzongo! Muzongo!” as we pass by. This is not a derogatory term in the least. It is expected behavior in Ugandan culture to describe people by how they look (“fat one;” “skinny one,” etc) – and, especially in rural Uganda where we are living, being white is striking. There are few white people to be found anywhere here.

So, there are the children truly everywhere who wave and yell, “Bye Muzongo!” (by which they mean “Hi Muzongo”). Some are courageous enough to walk up and rub our hairy white arms trying to see what we feel like as they stare at our strange-looking faces; a few others, though, have quite honestly screamed in terror feeling certain they'd seen a ghost. Then there are the calls of Muzongo from the market stalls and boda boda drivers who see Ugandan Shilling signs in their eyes, since it is an accepted practice to charge white people more than the locals. Others see us and immediately ask, “Muzongo, where are you from?” and quickly follow-up with questions about how a person like them can get to our country. Few directly ask for money. Many others are simply ecstatic to see that people from the Western world would come to rural Uganda -- they shake our hands, welcome us, and tell us how much they appreciate our visit.

Then there are the more subtle responses to us Muzongo. Although it is rare, there are occasional moments when the non-verbals make clear that the local people don't appreciate having Muzongo in their midst. Whether its resentments lingering from the colonial era or current resentments about our relative wealth, the response certainly is understandable. The response that feels much odder, though, is when we are offered special treatment, only because we are white. On several occasions we have been in what they call “taxis” (actually mini-vans with four or five rows), and the local people have squeezed six even seven people into a row, while leaving us Muzongo sitting in relative spaciousness. On one occasion we were invited to the equivalent of a prom dance at a local secondary school and were deemed the guests of honor, seated on the stage, and asked to give a brief statement to the students – mainly because we are Muzongo. On another occasion, we attended an Introduction ceremony – a traditional and highly ritualized engagement party; when drinks were distributed at the end of the ceremony, despite hundreds of local people in attendance, the server looked directly at the five Muzongo and took our order first. So, although we feel like we are family with everyone at KAASO, there is never a doubt that we are not African.

Of course, we never felt SouthAmerican or even Swiss earlier in our trip, but the feeling here in Africa is different. As Miral and I have talked about it, we seem to both describe it as feeling stuck in the middle. Stuck in the middle in so many ways. On the one hand, our material lives here are so limited compared to our typical lifestyle back home – yet we are surrounded by others who have so much less than our hosts have given us. And it may seem to some like we have made unusual sacrifices to go on this trip, selling most of our belongings and living out of backpacks for over a year – and yet what we have in those backpacks exceeds what so many people here have in their homes. And unlike them, we can rest easy that any of the luxuries we gave up to travel can (and probably will) be re-acquired in due time. This leaves us stuck between a vastly deepened appreciation of the lifestyle we have in the Western world, and utter shame at some of its incredible excesses.

And we came here most motivated to give our time and energy to people, especially the children. But what we found most was an opportunity to bear witness to the simultaneous magic and tragedy that is Africa and an invitation to help find ways to attract dollars and technology (like computers) for projects that can change lives. And about the money in our own pockets, Miral and I talk often about the daily tension created by the desire to give endlessly and the realism that we must be very thoughtful about where the limited funds we have available can do their most good. One example that one of our co-volunteers struggled with: when you are surrounded by 600 children with so little to call their own, do you put your money toward beads for necklaces for each child that you know would bring them such joy and comfort – or do you put your money toward computers for the school so that they will have some future ability to compete in the global village? Making these kinds of choices is an almost daily experience – with no easy way to do it. We get stuck, also, between the desire to give, and the fear that we will reinforce a sense of Muzongo with endlessly overflowing wallets.

We also get stuck in the middle in relationships with people we meet. We feel completely invited to be family with our incredibly warm and caring hosts and to nurture sweet relationships over tea and meals and extended story-telling sessions – yet we never forget that we are seen by most people around us as very wealthy outsiders. We came here with a genuine hope to know and to taste and to learn from Africa, to share love and compassion, and to be positive Obama-era American ambassadors (and, man do they LOVE to talk to us about Obama here!) – yet the differences in material well-being creates a wall in many of our encounters, conjuring up envy and/or unreasonable hopes in them and guilt in us. We feel completely immersed in the daily life of this world while we are here, yet also know full well we are only passers-through.

Being stuck in the middle has left Miral and I frequently feeling off balance – but not in a bad way. More in that way that keeps you very alert – waiting to see what the next day, the next activity, the next interaction will bring. Yes, Africa seems to hold us, almost constantly in a very, very awake mind. There is no doubt that we feel so grateful for this chance to experience these very real and potent conflicts and struggles, and to feel stuck in the middle.

We are really interested to see how these feelings will change, if at all, as we get ready to leave KAASO and Uganda next week, and begin our month-long journey across Tanzania – visiting with the Massai, trekking at Arusha National Park, and experiencing Zanzibar…





Dear Miral and Ivan,

I throughly enjoy reading about your experiences. You really express the mixed feelings of being in the "third world" compared to our lifestyles back in the US. You will really enjoy a HOT shower
We will be leaving for Peru on the 19th.(on a tour). Most of our activities will be planned, but we will have some free time in Lima and Cusco and we can do our own hiking in Machu Picchu. We will also be going to Lake Titicacca for four days.
We are really looking foward to this trip.

  marty feldman Jul 2, 2009 8:13 AM


Dear Ivan and Miral,

What wonderful descriptions of Uganda! West Africa certainly has its similarities -- I taught school in a "bush" school in Ghana for a year in the 70's. Our little village had no electricity or water. So true about the white privilege, one begins to REALLY understand what the British Empire was all about. In Ghana we were called "obruni", which we always thought was "white person" but then we saw that the American black Peace Corps volunteers were also called "obruni" ...! In the tiny villages out in the bush, there would be a long parade of children following us if we walked through town, all hollering "obruni obruni." drove us nuts.

Bless you for your teaching about corporal punishment. My experience was that once one of the Peace Corps teachers was griping to the Headmaster of our school about some students who had misbehaved - we were friends with the Headmaster and chatted with him a lot. Much to our horror and unbeknownst to us, he had the whole form (grade) lined up and caned! We couldn't believe it, and realized how much work was to be done to really bridge the cultural gap. He didn't understand why we were so upset.

Thank you for your stories, they are wonderful.

  Alice K. Jul 2, 2009 3:27 PM


Hey hey, you two. We finally poked around the old web site again and, as we knew it would be, it is wonderful and fascinating to see you all, where you're at and read a little about it all. My first response was - we gotta go there at some point. Looking at the pix and reading some of the text, it's a no-brainer. So, at some point...Thanks for leading the way. I'm sure you all are so pleased to be doing what you are doing. Trish and I are so glad for you and those who you meet and spend time with. Loved the photo of you all and your blackboard of alternatives to corporal punishment. Well done!! Take care.
Aaron & Trish

  Aaron & Trish Jul 2, 2009 3:36 PM


hey - me again - read the whole post - wow. good on you.
Aaron & Trish

  Aaron & Trish Jul 2, 2009 4:05 PM

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