I feel like there’s a vacuum in my chest

Today we’re leaving Murchison Falls and travelling to Kampala for a debriefing. We’ll be leaving Uganda in two days and I’m starting to feel like there’s a vacuum in my chest. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life in Vancouver. But that life is waiting for me, whereas this experience isn’t likely to ever come again, and I’m fighting feeling pretty sad.

I’ll miss my new friends most of all. I’ll miss the scenery, the climate, and the sense of purpose this mission gave all of us. I’ll miss meeting Ugandans and hearing their stories, and the smiles of the children whose pictures we took. I’ll miss eating so little that I’m losing weight rapidly.

I won’t miss wearing this hot, sticky silk skirt. When I get to the Speke Hotel tonight I’m retrieving my western clothes from my other suitcase.

Anyway, that’s enough of my depressing feelings. How about I change the subject and show you some pictures of the awesome safari and Nile cruise we went on yesterday? I’ll start with a picture of a police officer I met in Democratic Republic of the Congo (an ebony-and-ivory shot for sure).

Deb and a police officer from Democratic Republic of the Congo

Deb and a police officer from Democratic Republic of the Congo

Giraffes at Murchison Falls

Giraffes at Murchison Falls

Sunrise over the safari park

Sunrise over the safari park

Hippos on the Nile

Hippos on the Nile

Elephants on the Nile

Elephants on the Nile


How Ugandans shake hands

David is a fun member of the Ugandan Co-operative Alliance and this was a great moment. Thanks for capturing it, Jenn!

If you can’t view the video above, check it out on Jennifer Nelson’s YouTube channel.

Travellinlady ~ Jenn Smith Nelson

It may be a never ending handshake. But, that is a good sign. This is a short clip on how Ugandans shake hands.

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The not-so-itsy-bitsy spider

Why I skipped a blog post yesterday has to do with the subject of this post, which is about being a Canadian communicator in Uganda. This mission is the communications project of a lifetime but it is a far cry from my daily job, (which I also love).

So why did I skip posting a blog yesterday? The list below should give you a clue.

Let’s compare: Canada Uganda
For starters, I keep longer hours in Uganda, yet magically I’m not tired. Must be the adrenaline and endorphins. 6 am – 11 pm 5 am – 2 am
Work Potentially anything communications-related, with a focus on storytelling and strategic planning Interviewing, blogging, photography, videotaping
Location Boardrooms Under trees, inside lobbies, on verandahs, on farms – pretty much anywhere
Agenda Display on screen and jump right in Read aloud and make constant reference to the agenda during a meeting
Style Mostly casual, generally fast Mostly formal, except for individual interviews. Featuring the occasional musical performance/dance routine.
Language English English, but often through translators, which makes for funny misunderstandings.
Applause Rare After every introduction
Prayer None Opens every meeting
Spectators Rare; sometimes guests from another department Children, other townspeople, sometimes nearly an entire village
Background noise White-noise machine, sometimes traffic and/or sirens Traffic, animals, roosters, children, sometimes sirens, music, people passing on the street, people in nearby shops
Travel One hour each way in a 2008 black Honda Accord V6 on paved roads, with free parking Several hours, several times a day, in a safari van on mostly rough roads. I love it! But I do have a few bruises.
Technology Generally excellent; sometimes we need batteries for a remote Sporadic wi-fi; near-ubiquitous cell coverage
Culture Friendly, polite, forthright Very friendly, polite, gracious, hierarchical, respectful of elders
Supplies Plentiful and readily available Scarce, even down to garbage cans, which makes one very careful not to be wasteful
Climate Climate-controlled; sealed windows Hot and hotter, except when it’s hot and raining
Clothing Business casual Long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. With Sketchers Go Walk shoes. Love the shoes; hate the clothes; feels like I’ve been carting around a hot and ugly tent for two weeks.
Team 14 smart, wonderful, skilled women Eight women and two men who are all smart, skilled and wonderful. I am already aware of how hard it will be to leave them next week.

The differences between doing my job in Canada and Africa really hit home yesterday as I was videotaping the manager of a SACCO in her back office. The room was full of motorcycles that had been reclaimed from people who’d defaulted on their loans. The loan recovery rate for this particular SACCO is 88 per cent and the organization is working on improving it to at least 95 per cent, but that’s a story for another time.

People were talking in the front room and we had to close the door. There wasn’t any light in the room so I made use of the light from the window. To get the right angle I had to place myself close to a spider that was on the wall behind my shoulder. The spider was big, nearly as large as the palm of my hand. When I finished the video, I turned around to find the spider gone – a chilling moment – but a quick check of the room showed it had skittered to the opposite wall.

I wrote this post this morning from the safari van, on a two-hour trip to our meeting at Kaboko SACCO in Kaboko, northern Uganda. Internet was unavailable so now I’m in my hotel at 9 pm, trying to go online.

Goodnight from Africa!

Let me introduce you to Salvatore

I met Salvatore at the Akoloda ACE, the third-most successful marketing co-op in northern Uganda, according to UCA. We were in the town of Alito, which is accessible only by a much-rutted dirt road, and which was at the heart of the fighting during the civil war.

I’d already interviewed several people that day, and had heard some amazing and inspiring stories that I’ll report on when I get back to Canada. But his story was so far outside my experience that I was floored. Salvatore spoke some English and we had a translator as well.

He began by telling me, “Long ago, I had an unsettled mind and went into the bush. I returned when I found the work was very difficult.” He explained that he was captured by Kony‘s men, and that along with other the captives he was tortured. He was given 300 lashes with a cane that left scars on his buttocks, and he made a gesture around his neck that I interpreted to mean he had either had a rope put around it, or a machete held to it.

When Salvatore returned to Alito he brought a baby boy with him, Kizito Bob, whose parents had been killed in the fighting. He approached the Akoloda ACE for help, and was given maize (corn) seeds. His first planting yielded a bumper crop and with the proceeds he purchased another 32 sacks of seeds. The ACE helps bulk his product so that he can get a good price for it. Salvatore also has an income from brick-making.

With his newfound security, Salvatore was able to put Bob through school. The boy is now 19 years old and in college. Salvatore has since had two children of his own, one of whom is in school; the other will be enrolled next year.

It was so hard to look at this sweet, calm man in front of me and hear what he had been through. I’ve never cried in an interview, no matter what I was hearing, but Salvatore’s story really shocked me. I couldn’t hold back my tears though I was fighting hard to stop them because I didn’t want to put Salvatore in the awkward position of having to comfort me. But the tears wouldn’t stop and he put his hand on my arm and looked into my eyes and said, “It’s okay, it was a long time ago and things are better now.”

I am not Ugandan but I will be eternally grateful to the Ugandan Co-operative Alliance and the Canadian Co-operative Association for helping people like Salvatore through the IFAPI project. Salvatore’s story reminds me of the power of co-operatives to change lives.

Salvatore, farmer and brick maker

Salvatore, farmer and brick maker

“Are you a virgin?”

I’ll get to the title of this blog in a moment but first, today was our first full day of interviews and it was so awesome that I want to share it. The smaller team I’ll be travelling with for the next few days comprises these fabulous people: Karen Timoshuk, Cindy Corrigan, Jenn Nelson and Jim Harris.

Early this morning we headed out in a van to the Bomido Co-op Society outside Masindi. We were greeted by the chairperson, Turyagaruka Christine, ACE manager Masinguzuki James, and several co-op members.

Christine started our meeting with a prayer and introductions. We began interviewing co-op members on the spot and then were escorted on a tour of their farms. The work these Ugandan farmers are doing is impressive. Through their production co-op, Bomido RPO, they’ve been trained to take maximum advantage of their land and as a result they’re growing diverse crops. They’re also getting the best price for their crops through their marketing co-op, Bomido ACE. And they’re handling their financial transactions through a financial co-op, Bomido SACCO. Below are some of the places we visited today.

Bomido Co-op Society office sign
Bomido Co-op Society office sign
Prince, eight-month-old son of a co-op member who owns a shop
Prince, eight-month-old son of a co-op member who owns a shop
Co-op member Deo's farm
Co-op member Deo’s farm
Market outside Masindi
Market outside Masindi
My team looking at samples during co-op meeting
My team looking at samples during co-op meeting
Members Feko, Joseph, Grace and Deo at co-op meeting
Members Feko, Joseph, Grace and Deo at co-op meeting

After we completed the farm tour we returned to the co-op offices for a final meeting before heading to the market where these goods are sold, then back to our hotel for a debriefing. During the final meeting at the co-op, we Canadians got to know our Ugandan counterparts a little better and the discussion turned to everyone’s spouses and children. When he found out I’m single James asked me, in front of everyone, “Are you a virgin?” Yep, that was an awkward moment. All the Canadians froze and I did my best not to sink into the floor.

It was a moment of culture shock that I’ll not forget.

The nanny state and the iceberg

Exposure to Ugandan culture has had an impact on the entire team. Jim Harris commented that Canadians live in a nanny state by comparison to Uganda and I agree. He pointed out how our coffee cup lids say “Caution: Hot beverage” and how we strap our children into cars like they’re astronauts. In Uganda we’ve seen entire families on one motorcycle. (Caution: Nanny state or not, do not try this at home. Have a licence, wear a helmet, keep your mind on the road, watch out for pedestrians, use winter tires as needed, keep your vehicle in good condition, and drive safely.)

CCA shared with our team the notion that culture is like an iceberg; what is visible on the surface, (especially to a tourist), is only a small part. Any culture has a massive underlying foundation that may take years for an outsider to fully know and understand. Our team has been lucky to even take a peek at the peak of the iceberg that is Ugandan culture.

I’ve mentioned some of my cultural observations in other posts. In this one I want to mention other things about Uganda that have stuck with me. Like the toilet paper, which is actually a bit sticky, and sometimes scarce. And look below: dark green toilet paper.

Green toilet paper in Kampala

Green toilet paper in Kampala

Also, Ugandan handshakes vary widely in form and are not done the same way as in Canada. Finally, (’cause three examples is enough for now), the moon is directly overhead and appears to be rotated a quarter turn to the right, so that it looks like a smile when it’s a crescent and a football when it’s gibbous.

Laurie Tennian shared some of the interesting feedback CCA receives from international visitors to Canada. What sticks in my mind is how they don’t understand why we put ice in our drinking water even on winter days.

Today our team had its first exposure to Masindi, a great town. Shortly after our arrival at the Hotel Victory Bijja we held our first round of interviews with local co-op members. It was enlightening to hear their stories of how belonging to a co-op has had a positive effect on their lives, and I look forward to sharing some of these stories soon.

Three experiences that taught me a thing or two about Ugandan culture

Two days of travel, two days of briefings. We’ve learned about the important international development work of the Canadian Co-operative Association, the history and mandate of the Ugandan Cooperative Alliance, and the goals of the Integrated Finance and Agriculture Project. The team has hashed out ideas for gathering and sharing compelling content. We’ve started bonding and we already have inside jokes. And today we’re heading to Masindi to begin our work.

After our briefing yesterday we revisited the Orange store to upgrade or fix our Internet connection sticks (can you tell I’m not a techie? I have no idea what those things are really called) and our SIM cards. Although this took longer than expected I was happy to conduct this type of transaction as it gave me another view into life in Kampala. Our driver waited for us for nearly an hour so we gave him a great tip. He even helped us cross the street, which is a major undertaking in Kampala – akin to a live game of Frogger at high speed.

Orange store in Kampala

View from the Orange store in Kampala

We next visited a craft market where I picked up souvenirs for my nephews and nieces. The shopkeepers were nice, each saying, “You are welcome into my store.” They were not too pushy and had a good sense of humour about bargaining. I’ve noticed that humour is a big part of my conversations with Ugandans, and I’ve never heard the word “welcome” so often as I have in the last two days.

Shop at Ugandan craft market

Shop at Ugandan craft market

Next we visited the Gaddafi National Mosque. From the minaret of the mosque is a lovely panoramic view of Kampala that is worth every one of the 308 steps you must climb. The women on our team had to cover their hair but Jim didn’t (Rolf stayed at the hotel). Our guide was really nice and answered every one of our questions about the mosque and Islam quite candidly.

View of Kampala from Gaddafi National Mosque

View of Kampala from Gaddafi National Mosque

Team learning at Gaddafi National Mosque

Team learning at Gaddafi National Mosque

Rayanne, Karen, Adele, Deborah and Lacey at Gaddafi Mosque

(Left to right) Rayanne, Karen, Adele, Deborah and Lacey at Gaddafi Mosque