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Ugandan roadtrip

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Over Valentine’s week, Heidi and I took nearly a week-long road trip across Uganda to visit girls in our program in a partnership between Cornerstone and Global Grassroots. Eleven of our girls who are in their gap year between secondary school and university are part of a program with Global Grassroots to train them in “conscious social change.” In January, the girls attended a 3-week training where they each identified issues that concern them in their communities and developed ideas on how to confront these issues. They have now been back in their villages for a few weeks to study their issue in more depth, so we visited each of them, went over their proposals, and gave them a small amount of money to implement their venture ideas.

It was an incredible joy to see where each girl comes from and I swelled with pride at the difference they are already making in their villages. The power of seeing our girls gain the confidence to lead in their communities and work with others to find local solutions to local problems nearly brought me to tears with each visit.

Mixing Cultures: A Job Interview in Rwanda

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I sent my resume to someone before dinner. By bedtime I had an email from someone else who received it via email forward. I replied, and they shot back proposing an interview less than 24 hours later. Wow, things move fast in America. Here it takes at least two re-schedulings (my child is sick, it’s raining) before a meeting can happen. Skype interview at 6pm. In the morning, our car was an hour late so we didn’t leave Kigali until 10. We arrived at the village around 11:30 but the meeting didn’t get started until about 12 because someone was busy and then we had to go carry the benches to sit on. In the next meeting, it wasn’t until we were walking out the door that the women admitted they were way over budget because when they went to buy a megaphone they accidentally bought a microphone, which has lots of cords but no sound, so now they need to buy a speaker and an amplifier. We drive to another village, and the woman there is “coming, coming!” for 45 minutes, so that’s how at 5:40, 20 minutes before my interview, I found myself in the village of Byimana drinking milk (goat’s milk? something funky there) in someone’s living room. At 5:45 we’re walking out and she tells us that she’s cooking us eggs. No, thank you, I have an interview. Oh no, I’m so sorry! Here, just take the eggs (hard-boiled eggs are a common snack)— NO don’t crack them, they’re raw! Raw?! You’re giving us raw eggs? Why? Yes, I’m so sorry, should I cook them? NO DONT COOK THEM, I have to go, I’m sorry. Yes! Your interview, of course. Go, go. But wait! That’s my daughter running towards us with a bag of samosas for us to eat. Wow, what good timing! Let’s eat them together on the hood of your car, which is running, because you have to go. Ok, here, let’s all take two, but oh no wait, we don’t have a napkin to take the samosa from the bag (cultural thing, can’t take food with hands)… what to do what to do, dear, dear… Oh good you have a journal! Please rip some paper from your journal, here let me help… With five minutes to spare we pull out, holding our second samosas. I do the interview by cell phone in the car, and ask the driver to please turn down the radio. Wow.

Twenty minutes before my supposed-to-be-Skype interview, I found myself in someone's living room, two hours from Kigali, drinking milk and trying to deter a woman from giving me various foods. I ended up doing the interview on my cell phone in the car... I'm guessing our jobs next year will be different from this year. At the very least, we'll speak the same language as our co-workers. Also, we'll probably work at an office. Indoors.

Driving from Jinja to Acholi Land

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Post was a bit delayed because there aren’t many internet cafes up north!

After taking a weekend break from meetings to raft with some friends at the source of the Nile, Monday morning we met our driver and the 4×4 we rented to drive North, the area where we hope to identify new change agents among the victims of war violence. The driver estimated it would take three or four hours to get there, and the distance was “over 200 kilometers.” (Key word: over.)

Welcome to the concept of African Time. As our co-worker Marlene explains to us, time is “kinda flexible.” I shouldn’t be surprised when my frisbee teammate tells me he’ll be there in five minutes and shows up half an hour later. I’ve grown wary of trusting estimates like that. Once, Marlene told me that if we left for a field visit at 9, we would return by 2. “The bus is 2 hours, and then it takes thirty minutes in a car to get to the village,” she explained. Doing some quick math, I deduced if we finished by 2, we would spend exactly zero minutes at the site. So, with a knowing smile, I accepted her time estimate, and shared her amusement when we missed dinner at 6pm.

African Time prevails in Rwanda, and apparently Uganda as well. We had estimates of three or six hours for the 200+ or 350 km trip to Gulu. We would be flexible. After three hours, Christina and I pulled out our laptops to type some reports, and as we approached hour four… POP. Metal grinded on pavement and our driver Joseph expertly maneuvered the car to the side of the road. The back tire had blown out, the entire tread peeling off in protest of the 100+ ºF temperatures and the friction on even hotter pavement. We weren’t very surprised, given four straight hours on the road. According to the estimates we were almost there. But alas, across the road from our lopsided vehicle loomed an ominous sign: “Gulu 250 km.”

“Joseph, is that sign right? How far to Gulu?”

“Very far. What did the sign say?” Then, “Yes, that sounds right.”

“I thought you said 200 km… What were we doing for the last four hours?” Christina nudged me and I stopped myself, sharing her  defeated laugh. Thirty minutes later we were underway. I called our Gulu contact to reschedule our afternoon meeting. “No problem!” she said. “Don’t hurry! Just call when you arrive.” We were meeting on African Time, which was good since our journey took seven hours, including the tire blow-out, a lunch stop to bargain for some mangoes, and the traffic (a big problem in Uganda, especially where two major roads meet). And, like she suggested, we didn’t hurry. She was doing some business in town when we arrived— the system works when everyone is on it.

Uganda Update: Meetings…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

… have been amazing.  It would take dozens of pages to record everything we’ve learned thus far about Uganda and the gender and development work being done here, plus our evolving thoughts on where and how our programming is most needed.  I’ll try to share some anecdotes that will give you a glimpse of how things are going.

After our magical visit with SHED on the Ssese Islands, we headed up to Kampala and paid a visit to the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) headquarters.  UWONET arose from the 1993 East African Women’s Conference held in Kampala.  Director of Programs Betty Kasiko explained UWONET’s structure: they’re an umbrella organization built of district-level women’s networks and encompassing associations like the Center for Domestic Violence Protection and the Association of Women Lawyers in Uganda.  UWONET has a myriad of programs and activities: capacity building and networking, research and policy advocacy, ICT support, institutional strengthening, financial support and grant application facilitation.  I hope that Rwanda will have its own RWONET someday.  UWONET connected us to several new potential partner organizations in northern Uganda and agreed to help distribute applications for our Academy for Conscious Change when we begin work in Uganda.

Full of new ideas and plans inspired by UWONET, we headed toward downtown to meet Rosemary Nyakikongoro, who was recommended to us by Global Grassroots’ former program associate Gillian Porcella as an expert on gender work in Uganda.  Rosemary worked for many years at Action for Development (ACFODE).  She picked us up, and we headed to dinner at the colorful Nanjing Motel.  In the car we found out – we’re talking with a newly elected MP of Uganda!  In fact, Rosemary just found out about her victory and is coming straight from a celebratory rally.  She plans to continue championing women’s rights and women’s involvement in leadership from within parliament.  Rosemary is fast-paced, passionate, and seems to know everyone involved in gender and development in Uganda!  She gave us advice about working in post-conflict areas of Uganda and provided additional contact information for potential partner organizations and advisers.

Next stop: Jinja!

Over Monday morning breakfast, we were chatting with a couple in our Jinja hostel about Ugandan cell phone rates and smoothie flavors when we mentioned that we worked for Global Grassroots.  “Oh, of course we know Global Grassroots,” they told us.  They turned out to be the representatives for Global Giving – a wonderful website that connects social projects and donors – in East Africa.  Caitlin and I have helped some of our Global Grassroots teams develop and maintain profiles on Global Giving, so meeting them in person was fun.  They were rushing off to do a training in the area, and we were rushing because the (incredible) founder and director of Jinja’s St. Francis Health Care Services was about to pick us up in the parking lot.  In between scarfed bites of baked beans, we compared notes on our exit strategies after an incubated social project has become a sustainable, impactful organization in its own right.  They offered an email contact to ask for training materials to help get more of our teams on their website.  I jotted it down.  Life is just perfect sometimes.

Faustine Ngarambe founded St. Francis Health Care Services 12 years ago, and St. Francis currently serves more than 10,000 HIV/AIDS patients and their families.  Their holistic approach to HIV/AIDS care, advocacy, and social support is incredibly innovative, and they’ve achieved great success and recognition (www.stfrancishealthservices.org).  We visited the library, teaching vegetable garden, and colorful dormitories at Omawana House, their child rehabilitation center.  Faustine took us to see the site of one of their grandmothers projects – support networks and community income-generating projects for grandmothers who have lost their children to AIDS and must now care for their HIV-positive grandchildren.  We admired the pigs, vegetables, and nearly completed chicken coop.  We also talked with Faustine about his partnership with Lenny Williams of Mandala House, who will visit Uganda soon to train the St. Francis counselors and other staff about healing through yoga practices.  We hope to partner with their yoga trainees to provide follow-up support in trauma healing and personal transformation for our Academy of Conscious Change partcipants (i.e. our social project team leaders/change agents.

Next, the long drive up to Gulu!  Updates on meetings in northern Uganda to come.

Photo Essay: The Dowry Presentation

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The following are a few photos from the dowry presentation of a good friend’s older “sister” (we would say cousin, with our all-American distinction between nuclear and extended family).

This traditional ceremony makes up only one piece of the marriage festivities for modern Rwandan couples – there’s also a civil wedding, a religious wedding, and a reception.

The dowry ceremony begins with the arrival of the groom and his family, who ask for the bride by name.  The bride remains hidden, and her family informs the groom that “Laeticia Mutoni” was married last week… no, she moved to Butare… no, here she is!  Yes, this 70 year old woman is named Laeticia Mutoni!  Oh wait, no, here she is – this 5 year old girl!  The jokes continue.

Eventually the bride and her wedding party process in and take their seats.  In between the MC’s chatter, the head of the groom‘s family presents the dowry to the bride‘s family as a thank you for the gift of their daughter.  More speeches, traditional dance and song, and the requisite round of Fanta or Coca follow.

The beautiful ceremony you see here took place in the yard of a Kigali home, decorated with tents and grass mats.  Caitlin and I felt so grateful for the opportunity to attend, despite the internet-order bride jokes the MC made at our expense…

The wedding party. The bride is reaching for her ceremonial drink, which she and the groom share.
Traditional dancing and clothing. Male dancers sometimes wear huge manes of yellow hair on their heads, too.
More dancing. The singers and drummers are just out of sight to the left. I wish our connection were fast enough to upload any video. Rwandan dance has this gentle, bird-like strength and energy.
And, time for soda. Can you spot the Fanta bottles between the beautifully woven banana leaves and the women in their mishananas?


Friday, June 25, 2010

At the conclusion of our training the teams surprised me with the most amazing gifts.  Leoncie, the project leader of HRD, stepped forward with a team member from each of the other 6 teams to present me with a work of traditional Rwandan art.  A rural scene composed entirely of banana leaves depicts a woman filling a large gourd with milk, a symbol of prosperity.  Leoncie explained that I was represented by the mother wishing them prosperity and success.   Another team working with teenage mothers brought me a work of art made by the women in their program.  It was a large log-cabin style house made of the stalks of a plant.  Then Aloys, one of our three male participants stepped forward with a gift containing a wood carving.  The carving is of two warrior figurines in a hut, once with a bow and the other with a shield.  He had included a note written in English that he asked me to read aloud:

If someone ask me to say a single word about Gretchen Wallace I would say: “Gretchen is the Hero Woman I have never seen before. She is the woman keeping ever still by holding an arc to fight poverty, ignorance, etc. and a shield to protect violence (gender based violence) and other nightmare for Grassroots Community in Rwanda.

Personally I am very grateful.

God bless you.

I almost cried. I didn’t know how much this program and teachings meant to them.

To be true, I am always astonished, almost uncomfortable, when a team presents me with a gift.  Sometimes they will offer me a single papaya from their gardens.  It will be presented dressed formally in a clean paper bag.  Knowing these particular teams are subsistence farmers – even while operating their social venture – this means a great deal.  Still, I struggle with my own awkwardness in accepting a gift when I feel like I already have too much.  I grapple with the inherent inequality or injustice I somehow feel in these exchanges.  The flow of gifts should surely go the other way.  And yet, I’m slowly, humbly learning from these women to focus on what lies beneath – the gift of their intentions and their honor.  From such a place, intentions are all equal.  And my discomfort with who has more can transform into a higher consideration.  Above all, the greatest gift they can give me is the work they are doing to support other women and girls. And the chance to be their partner.

An Apprenticeship in Stretching the Heart

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The last few days have flown by as we have completed our Academy for Conscious Change intensive training course.  Today our teams made final presentations.  The work they are embarking upon is not easy, and they challenge me to think about how I might go about advancing my own rights in the face of opposition or threat of violence.

One team, “Handicap Rwanda, Reintegration, Rehabilitation & Development “ (HRD) is working on violence against women who have handicapped children.  Apparently, the stigma is so great against children with disabilities (including the blind, deaf, mentally disabled and physically handicapped) that they are often kept home from school, as they are considered to be without value to society.  HRD is providing education to parents about how to care for their children, and they will be creating an association for the mothers so that they can earn income to contribute to the needs of their family.  Through this association, they will have access to a support group with whom to share their challenges so that they will not feel isolated from the rest of society that discriminates against them.  The venture will also travel to raise awareness about the rights of children and the needs of  handicapped children.

Another team, titled “A Friend Indeed”, is combating the issue of violence against single mothers.  They are working with 80 single mothers, with a total 120 children, in learning how to parent.  They visit the mothers every two weeks to provide support in child care.  They are also providing education to young girls about reproductive health.  Finally, they will utilize theater to fight the stigma against single mothers and young women who seek access to contraception.  Their vision is that no child will be born who is not planned or wanted, and they hope to expand their program nation-wide.

In the next phase of the Academy, the teams develop a comprehensive venture plan over the next 3-6 months with our advisory support.  I cannot help feeling like a committed coach rooting for their success.  And yet, who am I to coach them?  Each of them is living in the midst of hardship unimaginable to most Americans, and yet they are fearlessly committed to working with those even more vulnerable than they to advance equality, opportunity, justice, and human rights.

Take “Justine” for example.  She has four children, including a teenage daughter born of another man.  Her current husband is HIV+ and sounds as if he is battling severe depression as a result of his circumstances.  Luckily, neither Justine nor her children are HIV+.  However, she carries the full weight of her husband’s anxieties, as he contends the support she provides for his step-daughter to go to school results in less care and attention for his own needs.  He frequently demands the daughter be sent away to live with her grandparents.  Justine is caught between a dying husband and an isolated daughter, both of whom need her care.  Even still, Justine is working to fight unplanned pregnancies through reproductive health education within her community.  Apparently there have already been three pregnancies of young girls aged 12 -14 in their village this year.

These women’s hearts stretch to what appears to be a limitless capacity to take on the needs of others.  I think I could stand to do an apprenticeship with each one of them.

Monday to Monday

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When our van pulled up to the Academy this morning, the scene was such a contrast to what we had witnessed in the same place, at the same time, just a week earlier. When we arrived Monday, June 14th for the first day, Rwandans were gathered in thick clumps all around the entrance and peered at us, silently. I stared back at them, wondering who was supposed to make the first move. After all, I was a visitor to their community- should step up and introduce myself, or wait to see how they welcomed me? Ultimately the children provided a buffer, crowding between us and the Academy participants. They struck cheesey poses for my camera and pushed to see the digital display. Eventually, I turned to the women and gave a sheepish wave, a ‘muraho!’ and an over-eager grin.

Today when we arrived, the children were not there; our presence is no longer novel or exciting. Some Academy participants— Marcelline, Marie-Jeanne, Christina— waved to our van as we rolled up, and I returned the greeting without hesitation. When I climbed out of the van, I shook a few hands on my way into the classroom, set up some supplies, then took a seat on one of the benches, between the women…

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