Archive for July 2009

Culture vs. the Government & Justice

July 28, 2009

Things have been going well here! Julie arrived on Friday, so that’s exciting! We spent the weekend going to the Owino market that is a crazy insane maze of stalls and people and everything you ever need, and then going down to Entebbe to go to the beach yesterday. Overall a very satisfactory weekend!

Yesterday was the first time we had teachers teaching our lessons, and it went really well! We met with them first to go over what exactly they wanted to teach, but then they taught their first lesson with the XO, two science classes and one social studies, using Wikipedia to learn more about what they had just covered. It was a bit less exciting for the kids to just read about soil or cigarettes or whatever, but it was cool to see that the teachers could actually do it and that we are moving toward them taking overthe project.

Sunday morning, we saw/were in an interesting situation. While we were waiting in line for rolexes (chapatti and eggand vegetable all rolled together) down the street from our place, this man who I think was drinking walked up to us and started pointing at us and talking angrily and then trying to grab our arms and pinching us and things. He was speaking completely in Luganda, so none of us had a clue what was going on, but he was clearly upset by us in some way. The part that I found really cool and interesting, though, was the sense of community responsibility or justice that is present in Uganda, and seeing that in action. When he was bothering us, the other people standing in line started helping us out and talking with him and telling him to go away (I think?) and leave us alone, and it was nice to feel like the community around you would take care of you. In Uganda in general, there seems to be that sort of sense. Sarah told us that thieves in Uganda get beaten by everyone around wherever they stole from until/unless the police get there, and that’s their way of delivering justice. This whole episode tied in well to an article I read in the newspaper yesterday and integrating traditional cultural healing, reconciliation, and justice into the peace process in the North, and how they’re trying to supplement the formal justice system with these traditional ways of delivering justice. It was especially interesting to me to think about this in relation to how other countries, like Rwanda and Haiti, have tried to do similar things to help communities move forward from mass violence.

I’m intrigued by whether or not this is actually effective, and also by how, in many of these places, it seems like cultural values overshadow dictated laws or regulations put in place by the government. I’ve noticed that here, it matters wayyy more if you breach some cultural standard than if you break a law, and people are upheld by these cultural “rules” more than it seems like it matters if you break a government rule. It’s just interesting, because in a lot of ways it seems like there isn’t really a government here, but peopleare governed by cultural standards. I could be completely wrong on this, and it’s also very possible that since I am new to all these cultural ideas they just stick out to me more, but there seem to be many more unspoken norms here that people follow than any sort of government involvement.


Monkeys, laptops, and bookstores – oh my?

July 23, 2009

It’s been a crazy last week or so! So many cool things have been going on, it’s been really quite glorious. I wrote part of this post a number of days ago in response to a trip to the bookstore, but I will first give a quick update on what we’ve been up to.

Danielle came into town last week, and it’s been really great to have another familiar face around! She, Jeff and I took a trip out to visit another OLPC team’s project in southwestern Uganda near Fort Portal. The coolest part of the whole trip was that we stayed with Ian and his family at the chimp research center that is in Kibale Forest, a national park in the area. Friday we spent at Ian’s school, and it was definitely interesting to see the contrast between the urban and rural situations, since his school is quite rural, and absolutely huge (around 1300 kids, versus our 250). It was good to get some ideas for working with our kids, things to do like have a parents’ meeting to answer questions, and other things to try and make our deployment go even smoother. But the greatest part of the weekend was spending Saturday and Sunday going on hikes around the national park and other nearby locations. We went on a three hour hike on Saturday through the forest and saw all sorts of monkeys, awesome looking trees, and a huuugeeee spiderweb! It was definitely awesome. Sunday we headed out to do a two hour hike around some of the crater lakes in the area, which are old volcanic craters that have filled up with rainwater and become small lakes. At our last one, we got to dip out feet in, and there were the little fish that they use for pedicures that eat the dead skin off your feet, and we got a free version of that! It tickled like crazy, but they definitely made some progress on my beaten up feet! Overall, it was a really amazing weekend, we saw five different kinds of monkeys and lots of birds and in general it was just a nice respite from crazy Kampala that was much needed.

Yesterday, we started working with the kids at our school! We spent an hour each with P5 and P6, and it went quite well I would say. We had lots of support from the teachers, and it was really cool to see them teaching the kids after we had taught them, and seeing them become more confident with the skills they had learned. Hopefully we will have more success for the next three weeks! (I can’t believe we only have that much time left!)

Ok, now on to more serious musings:

As I was perusing a bookstore in the mzungu hangout mall the other day, I found this quote in a book, and it spoke to me so powerfully and summed up some of the things I have learned this summer so well that I wanted to make sure it made it onto my blog:

“Lately, I’ve come to realize that its not just an ocean that separates us from Africa. Greater barriers have caused a distance between the two continents. Misunderstanding has turned goodwill into greater injustice. The media portrays Africans as victims, as children with flies on their faces, as statistics, as those we pity, and as those we judge with Western standards. Even with the best of intentions to help, I don’t think we truly understand Africans because we haven’t taken the time to listen and to share their stories in an honest and humanizing way.” – Jena Lee

One of the things that I have really come to understand this summer is the necessity of living in the community that you are working with, of listening, seeing, observing, discussing, and above all understanding how people live and think where you work. And I also think that that is one of the biggest factors in why a lot of international aid has failed thus far. I think it’s kind of funny, in a sort of ironic and dark way, that what so many aid organizations are doing wrong is one of the most fundamental lessons of doing any sort of international development project – your plans will, no matter how much preparation you do before going, change once you get on the ground because of the need to adjust to many unanticipated issues. But SO many NGOs, and even larger organizations like the IMF, don’t allow that to happen. They don’t ask the people who they are trying to help what the best way to accomplish their goals are, they do what they think is best regardless, many times, of local circumstances. The paper bags I bought made of USAID HIV/AIDS prevention pamphlets is a laughable example of that. But what that quote also highlights is for the need for aid to overcome the blind pity and making people into statistics that so many of us are guilty of when trying to make our point. If we want what we do to be effective and to solve actual problems, human beings can’t be turned into sheer numbers, because you can’t quantify the complexities of being human. I am completely guilty of doing this, both in high school in STAND and now in GPI. But this summer has really showed me that while in the US you can use those numbers, and pictures of kids covered in dirt and flies to convey your message, it undercuts so much of what these places are about and really sells all of those people short. I can walk outside my door and find a dozen kids that look like those pamphlets NGOs use to suck you in, but that doesn’t define what they are, nor does it show the feeling of interacting with them, playing catch or them yelling “bye mzungu!” when you walk by with a huge smile on their face, or seeing them dance better than most Americans ever will at the age of 4.

What it really comes down to, I think, is the idea of dignity. Every person here has their dignity with them, no matter how much or little they have, and that dignity is what makes them human, more than a number, more than a statistic. I still remember clear as day last summer in Denver when I saw a homeless man along the route that I ran every day just taking a shit on the sidewalk in broad daylight. And what struck me the most wasn’t that that was gross or whatever else, but it really made me think about how much must have broken down for someone to be ok with doing something like that without shame. And when you get to that level, and are forced to or choose to compromise your dignity, that is what changes so much. Everyone here, even though they are incredibly poor, still is hanging on to their dignity, and that is what in my mind, people who claim they want to do development need to understand.

Life as a slumdog and education in Uganda

July 11, 2009

Highlights of my life right now:

1. I am sipping the first glorious iced coffee that I have had in about a month right now. That being said, it cost me more than an iced coffee in the States costs, but hey, one a month is not that bad.

2. WE HAVE ELECTRICITY! Finally we have wired up two classrooms at Kampala Primary School, which means that as soon as we figure out the power strip situation, we can start working with the kids and the XOs, which is what we’ve all really been waiting for this whole summer!

3. We have finished teacher training! It’s been really great, seeing the teachers evolve from being scared to use the XOs to really being empowered and curious and excited. We were doing a project the other day with them using geometry and angles and how to draw shapes on one of the programs, and it was so great to watch as someone would say they wanted to make some random shape, and they would work in twos or threes to figure out all the angles and lengths of sides and then translate that into making the computer program draw what they wanted. It was incredible to see the change, and most of all the sense of discovery and enjoyment of learning and the energy that was in the room.

I will spend the rest of this post dedicated to two things: first, describing where we’re living and a typical day, because people keep asking me about that, and second talking about a really intriguing conversation I had this morning at the school. Aplogies for the length of this – I normally try and keep my posts shorter, but I’m on unlimited internet now, so I dont have to filter 🙂
I realized that I have never really articulated well where we are living, other than saying it’s in the slums. The particular location we are staying in is interesting because it’s not a huge, vast slum that covers many square miles, as you often think of slums as. But it’s sort of a small area, maybe in Boston the equivalent to the size of MIT’s campus, give or take a bit. The distinction that sets this area apart from the surrounding area is a) no more paved roads, and b) the beginning of mounds of trash. All of the roads around where we stay are dirt roads combined with layer upon layer of plastic shopping bags, discarded shoes and clothes, and whatever else people decided to throw away for the past year or so. It’s also all very hilly, and add to that basically craters in the road, and you can start to see what it’s like. And by craters I really do mean bumps and ups and downs in the road that are maybe a foot and a half to two feet high a lot of the time. I think basically every morning I get to watch a car try and actually make it up the hill into our neighborhood, get stuck, and then hear the horrible scraping sound as the bottom of the car barely clears some bump or another. Every once and awhile where you walk around you’ll find a trash field, which is about 50 square meters just covered in trash, occasionally with a dirt path up the middle. That’s the other thing about Uganda generally, and where we’re staying specifcaly. The redddish brown dust is absolutely EVERYWHERE! I can’t walk around without getting a nice coating of dust on the bottom half of your legs that probably won’t come off without a good 20 minutes of scrubbing. I’ve just kind of abandoned that battle.

Anyway, back to my tale of our dwelling area. Usually in the mornings, I get up, and always on our way out we walk past a nursery school, so I have about ten adorable little kids saying “Bye Mzungu!” to me as I head out of the neighborhood with the occasional latch-on. There’s also a gang of guys who also yell to us mzungus as we’re leaving the school, who I tend to ignore. Then there is the dogde-ems as you try and walk along our roads where there are also cars and boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) trying to make it up this road and avoid all of the hills. Once you do that hopefully without stepping in one of the wet mud-trash puddles on the way down, you get to a main road that is paved, still dusty and usually with a tinge of sewer smell, but nonetheless a road. For the day-time hours, we are usually up near the school, either working with teachers, eating at Bismillah, a little restaurant right next to our school, or learning Arabic. The evenings are usually some variation on eating at Blue Moon Cafe (beans, rice, and matooke for only 1500 /= or about 75 cents!) or getting a rolex or chapattis from our regular guy Julius, and then maybe some internet time. After that we tend to retire for the night so there isn’t any gate climbing adventures in the middle of the night, but every so often that has to happen. And that’s a typical day here!


This morning, while hanging out at the school, I was sitting in the P6/7 remedial session for school (the kids who aren’t doing well come into school from 8am-1pm on Saturdays, and the teachers review things) with one teacher named Robinah, who teaches social studies for those two grades. Robinah is a really interesting person; she is such a fierce woman, she isn’t afraid to try new things and was one of the first teachers to really get into the XO, spend a lot of time with it at home and to really be determined to conquer it. When you work with her, she is constantly looking for a challenge and new things to learn, and it is very obvious she is an intelligent woman with a great mind. She’s just got such a kick to her, and I love it! But yesterday and today I got to see another side of her, and how observant and caring she really is – she saw that I was wearing a certain kind of African necklace and told me that next time she was going to go to the market she would get me one, and when I was sitting with her today she got me tea and a donut, which she must have picked up in the past week or so that those were my favorites from the nearby restaurant. It’s just been great getting to see her work, and how she acts almost as a surrogate mother to all of her students, and making sure not only that they work their hardest and understand why their schooling is so important, but also making sure they take care of their well-being too.

Anyway, as we were talking this morning, I was speaking with Robinah about the adult education classes that she does at night. And she was telling me about her different students, about how some of them barely speak English when they start the classes, and how they are slowly learning not only to speak English but also to read for the first time. She even told me about one man who did all of the schooling from primary to university as an adult, which inspired his wife to try and do the same. I asked her really why education was such a problem, why so many people didn’t get schooling, and while her answers weren’t entirely surprising, still made me think. She was telling me the story of a woman who’s family didnt have much money, and how since they were coming from a fairly conservative Muslim family her father told her she couldn’t go to school because they had to pay for her brother’s schooling, and many other things. Another comment she made that I found interesting was about many men here who leave their wives and kids in the morning to go to work with almost no money, and then instead of going to work go borrow money from people for food during the day or gambling or whatever, and then come back to their families with even less money and no food for them either. It was interesting that she said that that was what she respected about Western countries – that people there are always busy, always working and making things happen, which echoed what the Mayor of the district of Kampala said when we met with him, “In America, you live on your toes, onthe balls of your feet ready to run, and here they are on their whole feet dragging.”

What we were talking about really highlighted how amazing free public education is in the US for everyone, because you rarely have people dropping out for monetary reasons, and if they do it’s in high school. Here there are a significant number of people who dont even get to start primary school beccause of money issues, and also because education isn’t seen as as valuable like it is in the US. Which got me to thinking more, how much does a government that is not corrupt, that can really get things moving espite the poverty in that country, how much can that do? Is having a motivated and active government the key to development? Can development be successful if you have a government that is dragging its feet like it is here? I think we’ll have to look to Rwanda to see ifthat is the case, but still – it’s an interesting and also frightening thing to think about – is external aid futile if the government isn’t doing anything to move the country forward too?

Pictures up on the team blog!

July 5, 2009

In case you’re interested – pictures of our trip are going up on our team blog as we speak from our time in Uganda!


Highlights (I wrote the blog post on our team site so I won’t detail everything here):
-rafting on the nile river!
-beach trip yesterday
-working at our school
-various excursions around kampala!