Uganda, October 27, 2014

Uganda, October 27, 2014

Village Life

“Connecting Ideas . . . The Power of Questions”

The theme emerging for me as I reflect on our experience in Uganda is, for sure, interdependence.    The reality of connection – not just the connections among humans, or the connection between humans and the rest of the natural world – – – but also the connection of ideas, of projects, of action and consequences – – – this theme keeps playing over and over again for me.

As a teacher I have long understood that it is the questions I’ve been able to prompt or evoke in learners that have always produced more learning and deeper learning than any “answers” I might have been able to provide.

We’ve learned that NGOs are prolific in Uganda – and many that we learned about seem to be providing significant positive impact in terms of health, education and environmental awareness.   And – WOW – do they prompt questions for me.  At the same time – my antenna are also highly tuned to notice creative examples that do seem very systemic.  In other words,  I burn with questions about what does work.  How can communities – and countries improve their life – by their own definition? Is it too late for that already – has TV, movies, music, politicians and missionaries already planted western seeds so extensively that appreciation for traditional culture has faded beyond motivation to preserve?

One organization shared that their work had decreased the death rate from Malaria by 80% in one area  by spraying living units and surrounding bush areas every 9 months.  Thank goodness for those folks who probably would have died if this project had not happened. AND – I wondered, “Do the residents not inhale the fumes from that spray?  Do the children who play in the area come in contact with the residue of the spray?  Is anyone researching the soil and water source to determine whether or not the contents of the spray is entering the drinking water?

Pondering these questions with the Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy, her frank comment was that she didn’t believe any one was doing that or had the authority and resources to do that.  She suggested that donors must take responsibility for the impact of their funding.   Later,  in discussion with our Safari guide, Fred, he raised questions of his own:

  • I wonder if the villagers were malnourished?  (For healthy people, with access to appropriate medicine, malaria is usually not a killer.)
  • I wonder if the family and the animals share the same living space?  (Many diseases, deadly to humans, are carried by livestock.)
  • I wonder if their drinking water is contaminated?  (We saw several places where people were bathing, doing laundry, animals were drinking and folks were filling containers of water to take home for drinking – all at the same spot.)

We remembered our visit to Reach Out Mbuya.  This organization, which seems to be doing amazing work with those who are living with HIV/AIDS, had discovered a similar problem.  Their clients who were faithfully taking their antiretrovirals medications were using contaminated drinking water.  This organization demonstrates a systemic / wholistic model of providing their services, continually exploring the impact of actions taken.  When their research revealed the problem of contaminated drinking water, the organization responded by providing what they call Basic Care Kits.  These contain a safe water container, a straining cloth, water purifier, a method for checking the water, mosquito nets and condoms.

Reach Out provides “peer to peer” counseling by engaging (mostly) women who have been able to stabilize their health through medication, education and counseling –  in working with other women who are beginning  that challenging process to learn to live with their disease,  They monitor the children of these individuals and work to help them stay in school while parents are in treatment.  They teach adults vocational skills – for example sewing, tailoring, knitting and crocheting and “market” their work by negotiating contracts with local organizations.  Some of the police uniforms of the Kampala Police Force are made by the Reach Out sewing students.  This provides some income for the people while they are in treatment, as well as marketable skills they can use to sustain themselves when they leave this treatment facility.

They also have helped a number of groups to form what they call Savings and Loan circles.  These groups manage their own process – electing a leader, a secretary, a treasurer, and three folks who have keys to the box where the funds are kept – all of whom must be present with their keys in order for the box to be opened.   One of the members of this group took out a loan and opened a small restaurant.  When she had paid back that loan, she took out another to buy a cow.     The bank rate for loans is very high in Uganda.  The rates in the Savings and Loan groups is quite a bit less.   And, believe me, they hold one another accountable for repayment!

One of my favorite, most useful, question is,  “What is wanting to happen?”  As we embraced our Safari and all we were learning and enjoying regarding the animals and birds, and about the cultures we encountered. . . . . . I felt a bit restless in terms of the purpose of the trip for me.  I wasn’t able to connect directly with any of the women we saw – and awoke one morning asking myself “What is wanting to happen today?”      Whoa!  My experience is that the question usually opens my eyes to what is right before me.   And this day was no exception.

We were tired – our morning had been awesome – connecting with gorillas – in their home!  It was around noon and we had a free afternoon – – an unexpected delight for me! ! !    But – – – our guide said, “If you want to, there s a possibility at 4:00 this afternoon to see some primary school children at the local orphanage dancing and drumming.     Hmmmmm . . . . how I longed for an entire afternoon to sit on the porch and gaze at the magnificence of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a chance to reflect on what we’d experienced, to write, to “be.”  However, we could not turn down the opportunity to see the children and learn more about their experience.

At 4:00 our guide took us to the appointed place.   Oops – an hour early it seems because it is pre-exam time and the students are studying extra long days.  They will assemble at 5:00.  Not to worry – before we’d even learned this we’d wandered into a place that served the Batwa Pygmies and were completely caught up in stories about how these tribes had been cast out of the forest that had been their home for generations – and into a culture about which they knew nothing.  They were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in shelters they made out of branches – suddenly finding themselves without homes, without food or any way of securing it and in a very strange environment completely foreign to their way of life.

This could be a story in itself, but the gentleman who was describing this work suddenly stopped and called “Barbara!”   I was startled, to say the least, as Barbara is my name.  But a woman stopped and came to the door where we were standing.  As it turned out, Barbara Thomas and her husband (who grew  up in Seattle) were missionaries for the Wycliff Bible Institute, translating the Bible into local languages.   However, Wycliff had “loaned” them – for three  years – to the Kellerman Foundation, an NGO that had established a very good hospital in this village, and Barbara’s work now was writing stories about “what works.”  I think she was seeking out stories behind successes – perhaps that could be used for soliciting funds, and training volunteers.  I was fascinated, of course – my work is seeking out stories of grass-roots women leaders about what worked for them, how they find and step into opportunities for leadership in their communities.

Thus began an intense and stimulating exchange for the two of us.  While I imagine we have very different theological perspectives, we were absolutely united in our search for what “development” means, how communities can become self-sustainable and thrive, based on their own values and desires.  Her gift to me was a recommendation of a book she and her husband were reading, When Helping Hurts.  The authors argue that we are asking the wrong questions.  They propose that all cultures are impoverished in some ways and gifted in some ways – and that rather than focusing on what a culture does not have, we should be exploring with communities what they do have.

Wow!  My own experience is all about how we “can learn from one another – and with one another.”  Here, at the edge of the Impenetrable Forest, I’d encountered a woman brave enough to change the questions she was asking.   She inspired me to return to the “power of questions,” and to assess the kinds of questions I was asking – as I quietly gave thanks for the question that had begun my day,  “What is wanting to happen today?”

The next day we began to make our way back toward Entebbe where we would conclude our visit in Uganda by celebrating with Betty her graduation and receiving her Master’s Degree in International Relations and Diplomacy!  Here was another women who appreciated the value of questions.  Research into how to best communicate information in times of crisis – had revealed that in rural villages that the Mobile Vans with loud speakers that are common – are the preferred process and – not surprising – hearing that information from people they know, and in their common language.  This doesn’t sound like rocket science – – it does, however, sound like practical, elegant, simplicity!

Safari in Ugandan National Parks “On Connection . . . and Disconnect”

Uganda, October 26, 2014

Spending ten days outdoors in the natural environment is a rare treat for me – bringing new sounds, new sights, new pace, a different way of experiencing the air that surrounds us ~ and for sure ~ new awareness and insight into the fundamental interconnectedness of our universe. Being outdoors in the natural environment also brings the absence of some of the sounds, sights and pace that block our awareness of our connection with nature.

Jim and I had the opportunity to take a very short hike with a Ranger at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary where we watched – from about 15 feet – a mother rhino and her daughter, in their home, not our zoo.

We had the good fortune to have a Safari guide / driver who is a trained teacher. He has worked as a research assistant with a Harvard professor who was studying a specific species of antelope, and has worked in in an animal rescue preserve. Fred has deep understanding of wildlife in his home country, Uganda. He is intelligent, curious, reflective, a system thinker, and has great passion for both the wild life and the human life in Uganda. He described how poaching had decimated the rhino population in Uganda during the political chaos of the twenty year period following Ugandan independence.

“Rhinos can only be reintroduced here because they once lived here,” he explained. “It is the ecosystem in which they can thrive.” The Sanctuary received the first two rhinos (from Kenya) in 2001. Later they received two more rhinos from Kenya. The next two came from Orlando, Florida. The female from Orlando was the first to become pregnant. Her first baby was named Obama. She has since given birth to two more babies. The Sanctuary how has 15 rhinos. They are each followed 24/7 by Park Rangers who are learning what they eat, where they wander and are, in the process, getting them used to humans.

This latter, called habituation, is acclimating certain wild animals in some areas of the park to having humans in their territory, to learning that the humans will not harm them and that they (the animals and the humans) can be in the same area and respect each other. This practice is based on the fundamental principle of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) that animals should be free to exist in their natural environment without being stressed by human beings.

Briefings preparing us for a trek into chimpanzee territory in Queen Elizabeth National Park and into gorilla territory in Bwindi National Part focused on our responsibility to NOT teach the animals fear. “If a gorilla comes toward you, stand still. Do not run, or yell or make other sudden sounds or movements,” the Rangers instructed us. What I am sure will become a favorite family video reveals Jim’s experience when a gorilla did indeed walk right beside him, more than close enough to reach out and touch!






Lessons about connection were not limited to our connection with wildlife. Powerful lessons about connection of the human variety – and about disconnect, as well – were an integral part of our journey. One notable one came about mid-way through our Safari when we were taking a boat ride in the Kazinga channel which connects Lake Albert with Lake Edwards in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Thoroughly enveloped in the appreciation of life in the systems view of our guide and the Rangers we had encountered – I was shocked when the operator of the small pontoon boat on which we were riding began harassing the hippos and the Cape Buffalo along the coast of the channel. Thinking I surely must be mistaken, I kept quite – for a few minutes. Then I sought out the Ranger on board. “This is not necessary,” I said. “We can enjoy these hippos without coming upon them and forcing them to submerge.” He seemed surprised, but agreed completely and went downstairs to speak with the operator of the boat. Soon, the same thing behavior began again – and the steam began to rise – – – in me. I sought the Ranger again and we had a good conversation. “It does no good to complain,” he said. This time I went to speak to the operator. I received a “This is OK. It doesn’t hurt the hippos. It entertains the tourists. etc. “ The Ranger and I talked more. He shared his passion for the animals and how strongly he believed they should be able to live as they wished without being stressed by human behavior. He also repeated his resignation that nothing could be done to change the situation.

I should say that the humans were indeed being entertained – laughing as the buffalo stumbled up onto the shore and the hippos stirred the mud at the bottom as they abruptly submerged. This disconnect, lack of awareness of the rights of other beings, was a powerful reminder of how much we have yet to learn as a global community, about how to really be in community.

When the boat docked and we disembarked, and other tourists, chattering away, hurried on to their next adventure, the Ranger held my hand quite awhile as he looked into my eyes and expressed his appreciation that I cared. Though brief, this encounter with the Ranger was powerful and affirming of the connection we have across cultures – both human and animal.

When I expressed my anger to our guide, Fred, he was sympathetic, but also pointed out the power of the tourists. “When groups I am guiding want me to drive off track, they are most impatient and demanding,” he commented, “insisting that ‘I paid my money; drive over there’.”

So – what to do. Clearly we bring our perspectives with us when we travel. And, when we are ready, the teachers will be there. In the mean time, with the assistance of our guide and the tour company we chose, I will express my own thoughts to both the Uganda Wildlife Authority and to the management of the private company that manages the boat tour.

Some Awesome Ugandan Women

Sent October 12, 2014:  Lunch with participants in Betty’s Conversation


Noting that she is 53, Winnie explained that she was “slowing down a bit” from a hectic travel schedule required by her development work. She shared her “retirement plan:”  Starting a Day Care School so that career women can know their children are getting good care.  She sees this as potential income for herself as well.  She has bought 3 blocks of land where she will grow food so that even if she has little income, she will have food to eat.  And she sees that growing food to sell can also be a part of her income generation.

She works in community development, cross-cultural training and adult literacy, is Chair of the Mothers’ Union at her church and is mentoring three young women.


“I’m at the height of my career” she says.  Like Winnie, she is involved in Community Development work.  She’s worked in rural areas – in health issues, adult literacy, empowerment, and with savings groups – always with a focus on sustainability.  She’s focused on teaching capacity-building skills – life skills, savings plans and business skills.

Currently she works with the Finnish Refugee Council – “Very hard work,” she says because the Refugees are constantly being shifted from one place to another.  She also works to help church youth recognize their leadership potential.



“I’ve worked for the UN, helping to resettle people from the Sudan,” Stella says, “and have had to insist to my bosses the importance of helping these people understand the purpose of the resettlement.”  I would describe Stella as a “warrior” leader.  Good at math, her boss wanted her to work in accounting.  Arguing with him that she did not like that work, they agreed to disagree for awhile, and finally, when he would not understand that higher pay was not primary for her, she resigned.  She is now back at the UN working with expats, utilizing her social work skills.  She also has taken on leadership work as an advisor in her church.

Stella’s baby was the center of attention at our lunch and the latest “woman leader” this group has brought into their circle.



The only girl in her village to go to the University, Jackie received her degree in social work and works in gender issues and health.  She works with women’s savings groups in which many of the participants are illiterate.  She explained that many people, especially the men, do not know “why they are saving.”  She works with Betty in TEU, and gives much appreciation to Betty and Stella for helping her, inspiring and encouraging her to believe in herself.




As she described some scenarios from her work life, it was clear that Stella has developed courage to speak up and to stand up for herself.  She described a situation in which her boss was stealing.  When she reported it, an audit was done, and her records verified that her accusation was true.   Another boss liked her work and wanting her to “just keep on working for him forever.”  He was not interested in her career goals.    Now an administrator in the High Court, she also describes with enthusiasm the mentoring group she started and her participation in the life of her church.



Betty spoke about our needing to acknowledge both “what we need to do” and what we “want to do.”  From her own experience she has learned that we must honor the practical realities of our life as well as our vision and passion and learn to set goals and prioritize so that we can accomplish both.  Working full time as a Communication Specialist at the Center for Disease Control, she also finds time to be a good mother, participate in learning opportunities – such as iLEAP, to participate in Developing Women’s Leadership ~ Around the Globe, and to found an NGO – Teen Empowerment Uganda.

Engaging with Uganda

Sent October 10, 2014

Approaching Uganda by air is a forecast of the sensuality of this country.  The rainy season has left the countryside green – trees, bushes, fields, a rich contrast to the vivid orange/rust of the soil itself.  As I sit here now, in the living room of our B & B – which opens to the outdoors – to a verandah (where we have breakfast) and then the yard – the rooster announces morning (for many hours), birds of every size and shape create a symphony to welcome the day, the trees and bushes provide rich color, and in the background the owner/manager of the B & B sings to her 3 month old baby.  It seems that all must surely be right with the world!

Betty met us at the airport, a huge bouquet of roses and a BIG hug!  We felt welcomed indeed.  After dropping us at our B & B she returned to work and her brother, Edgar picked us up later for dinner at her home.  Edgar, and Betty’s daughter, Joanita    (now goes by her middle name, Ruby) age 11 and in fifth grade, live with Betty.  Her son, Jerry, is 15 and goes to Boarding School.  He will be home for Mom’s graduation – see next paragraph – and her mother will also be here.

This is a big month for Betty! ! !    She will graduate with her Master’s Degree in International Relations and Diplomacy on October 25 ! ! ! ! ! ! !  (AND a great time for Jim and me because we will be here to celebrate with her! ! ! !)        AND  she is readying her booklet, Common Questions and Answers about Menstruation, to send for printing! ! ! ! ! ! !    What a gal!

On our first full day here we were able to participate in a Launch of Celebrating Womanhood Program at a special event arranged by Betty and her TEU (Teen Empowerment Uganda – an  NGO she founded) assistants with the leaders of the St. Theresa’s Primary School, with whom they partner.  What a joyous occasion!  There were about 50 (11 – 13) year old boys and girls in fifth grade who participate in TEU.  You will notice that that the boys wore khaki shorts and the girls aqua skirts.  We were told that the schools insist on short hair for everyone so students (girls especially) can spend their time on their school work – and not on their hair!)

The Head Teacher of the school was at this event, two or three additional teachers, the one volunteer TEU adult that currently works with Betty, in addition to the children.  It was so gratifying to see the respect and appreciation shown Betty by both the young people and the teachers.

Those children are SO articulate and spoke so confidently about what they had gained from being a part of TEU: confidence to speak, developing the habit of washing their hands, learning to respect women and girls, learning the importance of recognizing their heroes, learning they can be what they want to be, etc., etc.

There was a HUGE banner announcing the launch of the Celebrating Womanhood  Program.   A ribbon cutting to introduce the booklet was a part of the morning’s event.

YES, Betty has all of the illustrations placed in the booklet.  I believe the medical content has been reviewed for a final time.  There are a few edits I see and she has to complete the glossary.  She is using the money from the distribution of the Developing Women’s Leadership ~ Around the Globe Project funds as part of the cost of printing the first booklets.

October 9th was Uganda’s Independence Day – 52 years of Independence.  Betty had arranged lunch with six women who had participated in her Conversation.   Powerful women!  Professionals who have – and are – dealing with their own challenges of being women in the workplace – and who are passionate about mentoring other women, especially young women.   A few pictures follow.  A note about each of the women will be included in a later post.

Betty and Jim (with a gorgeous shirt the women presented to him) at the B & B where we are staying