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waiting on the rain

August 16, 2011

People say everything is slower in Africa. They make t-shirts that read, “Americans have watches, Africans have time.” This line of speech generally annoys me. Maybe because it’s cliché. It’s the kind of “Africa” talk that involves ooo-ing over how cute “the kids here” are, gushing about your “heart for Africa,” and attributing any mishap from potholes to food poisoning to “TIA: This is Africa!” Or perhaps it irks me because it strikes me as a simplistic perception of time. Sure, a meeting starts an hour later than scheduled, but try loitering in line at the supermarket and you’re toast. And somehow in the midst of supposed “Africa time” the past year of my life in this corner of Africa has raced past me faster than I can keep up.

But sometimes everything does seem slower. There are days when everything takes mind-numbingly longer than you think is humanly possible. Days when it seems like all I set out to do when I wake up is accomplish one small task before evening sets and yet even that is too much to ask for. It is a pattern of life that can leave you utterly discouraged from taking any form of initiative and quickly erases any semblance you ever had of yourself as a productive member of society.

The other day I had but one errand to run and it took the better part of the afternoon. I set out to procure interfacing fabric for a project I was sewing for the daycare. I was confident this wouldn’t take me more than half an hour as there are a slew of fabric shops within walking distance and I’ve seen our tailoring students use interfacing in many of their projects. Yet when I asked for “interfacing” in the first shop I entered, the games began.

“Eh…now, it is what you are looking for?”

First we parroted the word back and forth in various tones and inflections. Then the attributes of interfacing were discussed followed by a display of several bolts of material that could possibly fit within my description. Yes, cotton fabric is iron-able, but I was looking for fabric that could be ironed on. And while I found the fact that adhesive faux fur is available for bulk purchase in Gulu quite intriguing, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. It was then that I learned the Ugandan term for interfacing: “Stiff papers.” And no, this shop did not carry it.

I then tried the market. I zig-zagged from stall to stall identifying which area of the market “stiff papers” might be sold in, locating a shop that had it in stock, and selecting the correct grade of papers I desired. I had just handed over my money when the afternoon downpour began. The shopkeeper vehemently insisted I stay to wait out the rain. My thoughts were on the unfinished projects I had waiting for me back at the school but as a near flood was already forming outside, I reluctantly obliged. Inside the crowded tin stall we angled chairs away from the storm blowing in the doorway.

We waited.

While we sat he talked of his two kids, of the Ugandan education system they’re working their way through. He asked about my country’s political climate. The rains gathered speed, a gurgling brown river gushing down the path outside his shop and he laughed; he explained that in the time of Kony, one would never take cover inside as we were doing. The rebels might take the opportunity to attack groups who had sought shelter. Better to brave the storm than risk being an easy target. We talked of seasons, here and at my home. He told me about the fields he is digging, the crops he is planting, of the city’s plans to move the market vendors to a new plot of land. The rain eventually lessened and I parted for home, exchanging names and handshakes. By the time I hailed a boda, trudged to my door, and hosed off my muddy shoes, the school day was drawing to a close and kids packing up to go home. The rainstorm had also cut out the electricity, erasing the possibility of using an iron on the “stiff papers” I had at long last procured.

Another day of productivity lost. And yet, I feel a bending of the tenets I once held as truth.  Something convincing me that perhaps there is a kind of value in the intangible tasks. Of talking of cabbages and carrots and watching raindrops form streams.


diaper duty

August 2, 2011

As of late I’ve been busy working with  a group of our tailoring students in a cloth diaper sewing project.  The diapers our students produce are purchased from them for use in our infant/toddler daycare; an income generating project for our students and a cost-effective solution for our center.

In much of rural Uganda, it is not uncommon for infants to go diaper-less, a practice which is quite hygienic, practical, and climate conducive on an individual basis.  Interestingly enough, diaper free babies are also more likely to be toilet trained at an earlier age. As you can imagine, however, it is a difficult system to maintain in group care settings.  Our center was in need of diapers and while disposables are readily available in town, they are quite a costly expense.  Not to mention they are a pain to dispose of in a context without public waste disposal services.  The more I looked into it, I found quite a few downsides to disposables.  A few diaper facts to ponder:

  •  It is estimated that disposable diapers do not decompose for 250-500 years.
  •  The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth.
  •  Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby each year. (Statistics from the Real Diaper Association. That’s right, an entire organization dedicated to cloth diaper awareness. )

I myself was a cloth-diapered baby and I’ve got plenty of baby pictures with my ass three times the size of my head to prove it.  The cloth diapering world has come quite a ways since my time in the nappy, however, so in deciding on a design that would work for our center I had my work cut out for me.  I delved in the world of cloth diaper research and read far too many “mommy blogs” in the process.  In case you have yet to encounter this subset of society, let me warn you: the cloth diapering advocates of the world are serious about their science.  It took me a while to catch onto their lingo, but I think I’m in the in-crowd now.  AIO CD with a PUL lining, or perhaps an OSD with FOE trim and a PF insert?  Can’t fool me!  The alphabet soup of the cloth diaper crowd is almost as bad as the NGO scene. The pattern I settled on is an adaption of the acclaimed “Rita’s Pocket Rump.”  Despite it’s unfortunate name, the design is working out fabulously, and our students are crankin’ them out like there’s no tomorrow.

And that is how I found myself, one Saturday evening, pouring over an article entitled, “What to Do if Your Toddler is a Super-Pooper,” with genuine interest.  This is certainly not where I pictured myself at 24 and less than a year into my post-grad “career.”

introducing “ot cupa”

July 20, 2011

Our “Ot Cupa” (bottle house in Acholi) is finally finished!  Check it out:

Interior bottle design:

We’re not done building!  Ready to start our next project with 8,000 packed bottle bricks and counting…

For more on plastic bottle (PET) construction technology and how our little “Ot Cupa” came to be, see this previous post.

south sudan oyee!

July 19, 2011

Last week I caravaned up to Juba with several of the Sisters, a few Uganda MCC-ers, and a handful of assorted friends. We went to partake in the first independence festivities of the Republic of South Sudan. Because really, how often do you get to celebrate the birth of a nation for the very first time in history? July 9th marked the official secession of South Sudan from the North, making the Republic of South Sudan the newest country on earth, the 193rd country in the world, and the 55th country in Africa.

A lovely time was had…

We reunited with the Sudan MCCers

We feasted on delicious Sudanese Ful

We scored some sweet independence swag. Please note that my shirt reads, “I Got 99 Problems But Bashir Ain’t One.” And yes, that is indeed a venn diagram with Bashir’s head.

We toasted at midnight of Independence Eve, watched prayer lanterns rise above Juba, and beat our empty Heineken cans in order with the government’s call for country-wide “drumming and ringing of bells” to mark the dawn of Independence Day.

We waved flags and yelled “South Sudan oyee!” a million times over at an Independence Day parade

We listened to the declaration speeches by radio and attempted to ward off heat stroke after our morning at the parade. (Picture stolen from Heather’s blog.)

We joined in an evening at a cultural center that included traditional dancing, lip-syncing performances of SPLM themed hip-hop, and a fireworks show.

Welcome to the world, Republic of South Sudan!

For more reflections on independence in South Sudan, check out a few posts by fellow MCCers:  Heather, Kaitlyn, & Luke.

the 4th of july is still the 4th of july in uganda

July 4, 2011

When I arrived at breakfast this morning, a heated debate was underway:  should we have goat or chicken for dinner?  Or perhaps chicken and goat?  When asked to weigh in on the matter I inquired what the cause for a feast was.

“Your country’s independence, of course!” the Sisters laughed, “Some American you are!”

There are a few other Americans staying at the school this summer and the Sisters aren’t ones to pass up an opportunity to celebrate.  In the end, we settled on goat accompanied by Spanish omelettes, homemade chips, and a vat of guacamole.   To the great amusement of the Sisters, we Americans provided a spirited patriotic sing-a-long during which we realized we know the words to the Ugandan national anthem better than our own.  And to top the night off?  What else but MariMar!

Happy 4th of July all!

intro to ugandan pop culture. lesson 1: marimar

June 26, 2011

When entering a new culture, I would argue that a healthy grasp on pop culture is nearly as important as language learning or mastering cultural faux pas.  It’s the stuff of small talk, the chitchat at the atm, the humor that breaks the ice.  I’ve been studying up, so indulge me while I share.

The popular TV station in Uganda broadcasts everything from local news to stand-up comedy to Desperate Housewives. There always seems, however, to be one show that sticks out from the rest, and the favorites run in cycles.  When I first arrived, it was an East African spinoff of American Idol (that is a whole other post).   These days, MariMar is all the rage.

MariMar is a Filipino soap opera, and let. me. tell you.  It’s a spellbinder.  The Sisters are much more dedicated followers of the series than I, so whenever I tune in they have to give me a rundown of the latest developments to bring me up to speed.  These days, though, the plot is really heating up and I hardly miss an episode.  You see, MariMar, also known by her alias, Bella, just ran into her ex-husband Sergio at a masquerade ball, but Bella won’t tell Sergio that she is actually MariMar because she thinks he cheated on her with her best friend and that’s why she left him.  But he really didn’t cheat on her and now he wants to win her back but all his friends think he is crazy for thinking Bella is actually MariMar.  And on top of that, his dad really is going crazy. Whew.  What WILL Sergio do??

Fun fact:  while the series is produced in the Philippines, it is actually a remake of a Mexican telenovela (and dubbed over in English when aired in Uganda.)  Globalization at its finest.  The English voiceovers are really the kicker that make it well worth your time to watch.  That, and the fact that all the animals in the show have human voices and their own separate animal world storyline.  Fifi totally has the hots for Pulgoso.

So there you have it – intro to Ugandan pop culture, lesson one.  Enjoy this little snippet of my weekly entertainment:

the booksellers of owino

June 17, 2011

If ever you have the great fortune of visiting Kampala, an essential stop on your trip is Owino market.  It is a sprawling maze of plywood and corrugated aluminum stalls housing over 500,000 vendors and visiting it is an experience I find both charming and exasperating.  Mostly I revel in it: skipping down bottle cap cobbled paths, dodging wheelbarrows of matooke and leaping over pothole craters.  Unearthing treasures beneath compressed flats of Goodwill castoffs, actors feign offense in the elaborate game of bartering a deal. Towering tiers of second-hand sequined prom dresses rise into the sky beside whirring treadle sewing machines spilling out traditional gomezis. The aroma of frying cooking oil mingles with curry, masala spices, and dried fish.   Brightly hued produce is arranged in neatly stacked pyramids and dried beans fill up fat sisal sacks stamped in fading blue WFP logos.

Traveler’s romanticism aside, there comes a point in nearly every visit, typically when I’m deep in the tangle of stalls and my blood sugar is running on empty, that I resolve to chuck all Mennonite pacifist convictions to the curb if one more vendor grabs me by the arm and calls me his “sweetie.”  Regardless of the hassling, Owino market is a spot not to miss.  Just enter on a full stomach and maybe practice some ujjayi breathing before plunging into the chaos.

One of my very favorite corners of Owino I first stumbled upon by accident.  I rounded a corner one day and there it was: a length of stalls with dusty books teetering in tall stacks.  Vendors perched in between the towers tear pages away from spines, for what purpose I’m not certain.   In these heaps of yellowing volumes, one can find everything from colonial era hymnals to textbooks on infectious diseases to trashy romance novels.  There are always a few gems to be found.  This time around, a T.S. Eliot play and a collection of John Ruskin poems.  While I have visited this spot a few times now, the market has a way of turning one’s inner compass askew and I always come upon it either by chance or extensive wandering.  I can therefore sadly offer no advice on how one might reach this literary oasis beyond blind luck and the counsel of those you meet along the way.