Curious Children

Putting ITunes on shuffle is a funny thing. Music is memories. Taking me back to my past self as I sit here in my hotel room in Nebbi. Funny enough, Robyn’s song “Do You Really Want Me” just came on (Sara and dad I think you remember this song from junior high carpool days.

There are moments in life when something about the future becomes so clear and unavoidable, as if there is something inside that needs to get out and explore. I remember clearly the car drive with Bjorn on the way to Santa Barbara for my sister’s wedding when I decided that I was going to leave GFW and move to Uganda. It is possible. Anything is possible, which can be so miraculous and beautiful and also very overwhelming.

Yesterday, I had such a moment. I was teaching yoga to Sarah in the garden at the hotel with smiling and laughing children peeping through the gate. During every updog, I made funny faces at them and they thought I was the funniest person ever. At the same time I had another observer. Sarah, sister-in-law to my colleague Lillian, who is helping Lillian take care of her four-month old baby Zion, was also watching us practice yoga. Afterwards, she asked me if I was a counsellor. I said no, but that I can always listen. She proceeded to tell me with tears rolling down her cheeks how lost she was feeling in her life. I wont go into the details for confidentially sake, but it really made me think about going into therapy or counselling work. Lillian is also a counsellor for MEMPROW and is here to provide support for the girls who are going through the training. I talked to her about it today and she told me that she studied IT at university, but it did not feel like her calling. She is in the process of getting her Masters in Counselling while she also plans her wedding (Nov. 10 with 500 people! My first Ugandan wedding) and takes care of her four children. She told me she loves the job and I can see how it is really helping the girls here. Two days ago, she took a girl to get an HIV test because she thought she could be positive. Thankfully, it came out negative!

This new idea has really taken my plans a bit off course. I have been looking into different counselling programs and at one point today I thought I would cancel my plans of going to Cape Town and instead apply for a psychology or counselling program in the States. After talking it through with my parents, I decided that I would take this year at UCT; learn as much as I can, while solidifying my next step. I want to gain as much knowledge of different options before I turn the plane around and change my plans, so if anyone is a therapist/counsellor/psychologist (Auntie Lisa or Pam?) or anything please let me know of your thoughts and ideas! I just talked to my sister, Jess, who studied Psychology and was thinking of the same thing. She gave me good advice about the negative aspects of the job: loneliness, working with crazies, going nuts yourself. Ahhh, so much to think about. But, at this point in my life, I feel that skills are more important than anything.

I am glad that I am finally making use of my yoga teaching skills! During the social survival training I have been teaching mini-yoga classes to wake the girls up and reenergize them. They are really liking it! Even today, Sarah asked them what they are enjoying and one girl said the yoga sessions with Kim 🙂 They especially like the dance and wiggle session I start off with and the loud exhales. There is more laughter than silence, which is refreshing. I am also teaching Sarah every night after work. We sometimes have guest visitors like our friend Eve tonight and Lillian two days ago and the occasional curious children observers. It is also a fantastic way for me to continue my teaching practice and own practice.

The downpour of rain is so soothing right now. A couple hours ago, I decided to walk to the store and get some water and a rolex (egg wrapped in chapati) when it was still dry outside. As soon as I got to the store the water started coming and it only got worse. Hanging under an overhang I made some new friends including the owner of the shop who offered to drive me home. But, I was so close, I would just wait it out. The impatience was kicking in after 10 minutes so I decided to go for it when the rain slowed down. Before I knew it, I was running through the streets, hearing people laughing and yelling muzungu. I wonder how often they see a white lady run through the streets in a downpour laughing. I still had a big smile on my face as I entered the gates of the hotel. It was so invigorating 🙂 Hopefully, it will subside in the morning so Michael, Sarah, and I can go on our morning runs. We have to go at 6am before it starts to get hot, but it is worth it. Watching the sun move up over the landscape into the expansive sky is a beautiful way to start the day.

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Small town livin’

All small towns are the same. They are small. First night out on Friday and I met some new friends and second night out, I met them again. Small town with kind people. On Friday, we went to the disco! I imagined a classic 1970s bar with disco ball and my favorite song “Play that funky music whiteboy!” But, it was just another bar/club. We were also there for work purposes. To create a baseline for how many young girls under 18 are frequenting these discos that all the stakeholders were so concerned about. I saw only a couple young girls strutting around when we were there because we went to the more expensive club (2,000 Ugandan Shillings, approximately 80 cents). Apparently, the young girls go to Le Grande where it is only 500 Shillings (you do the math :). Next weekend, we will go there.

The highlight was when we saw one of the district officials at the disco. My friend Hope decided it would be fun to dance with him. He had enough drinks to not realize that just four hours earlier we were in a meeting with him discussing how the district would work to regulate these discos. Last night, Saturday, Sarah and I went with our friend Vicky to a nice outside bar where we met his brothers who I also met last night. Vicky is an interesting guy. He is a consultant and runs his own business on agricultural productivity. He also works for the Alur Kingdom on gender programs, which is how we got to know him. And he also drives extremely slow. 🙂 The Kingdom is very influential here and is working to create laws to end child marriage and the three-day marriage ceremonies where cases of rape have been reported. The Kingdom is spread between Uganda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and they have just recently reconciled their differences. I saw it in the paper and didn’t know why they were not talking for 50 years so I asked Vicky. He told me that a couple decades ago there had been disagreements among the chiefs and a chief in the DRC killed a chief in Uganda and then there was retaliation for a while. He is going to the DRC next weekend for a meeting with the Alur Kingdom there and I hope Sarah and I can join.

I taught a mini-yoga class to Sarah yesterday and it was the most I have laughed during teaching in a long time. This is the greatest thing I enjoy about the Ugandan attitude: things are rarely taken so seriously that you can’t laugh. Everything is funny, including my cheesy jokes. Teaching Sarah made me realize that I forget what it is like for someone who has never done yoga to take her first class. There wasn’t much space in her room so I really had to watch what sort of instructions I gave her. After a couple minutes she was surprised by how much she was sweating and then said we should just continue tomorrow outside where I can demonstrate for her. I was so happy that she was willing to give yoga a chance because I know how frustrating it can be to do something that you don’t understand at all.

Today, a friend from Action Aid took us with some other friends to this place called Biko Retreat Center. I was really not sure where we were going; Sarah just told me we are going to somewhere that is beautiful. And it was! There was a beautiful collection of trees and flowers with large rocks reaching to the sky. The head priest of Uganda with the help of a Korean priest founded it in 1993. We walked all around the property looking at the different prayer points and landscape. There were nine different prayer points, including the world’s smallest church, where you would pray for certain things. We took a lot of pictures and had some fun. I think we may go back next weekend with food and drinks and make a whole day out of it. Now, I am going to go climb another rock that my friend Martina, from the Czech Republic, told me about, if it doesn’t start raining. Otherwise, we can hang here and watch some football with a drink. 🙂

I am feeling pretty good these days, really working on enjoying being here and feeling free. I am so blessed to work with compassionate, fun-loving, and intelligent young women. Sarah, Monica, Enid, and I are the only MEMPROW staff let for a while. The others left after the advocacy campaign was completed on Friday. On Monday, we start a two-week social survival skills training for 30 young girls. I am excited to witness the transformation of the girls brought on by this training and to teach occasional yoga/meditation classes. I am learning the beauty of openness and throwing away plans. Practicing each day to be completely here and now, rather than in my imaginary world of the future. For this moment is all I can truly trust.

With primary school children after an advocacy meeting.

At the Biko Retreat Center (From left: Sarah, Immaculate, Doreen, Eve, Richard, me)

Bumpy Road of Smiles

Writing from my hotel room in Nebbi District in the Northeast of Uganda, with sounds of pouring rain soothing my soul and relaxing my mind. Just laying down after a long day of work feels so good. Sometimes, everything just feels so right here. Last night, as we drove back on a bumpy road from a marketplace an hour away so some ladies could buy some Congolese fabric, I was smiling to myself. Feeling alive with each bump. With these inspiring women that I am surrounded by. And yet, at other times, I still wonder what I am doing here. The rollercoaster of emotions that can overtake me. Learning to see them as passing by, and continuing to move on.

I am on an advocacy field trip with women from a sexual and reproductive health coalition, funded by Amanitare (based in South Africa).  MEMPROW is the organizing group, and we are joined by representatives of other coalition organizations that consist of a women’s lawyer organization (FIDA-Uganda), an LBT group (FARUG), a political leadership group (FOWODE), a gender advocacy group (Akina Mama Wa Afrika), and a women with disabilities group (NAWOU). We all drove together in a stuffy van from Kampala and shared stories, opinions, and drinks J Everyone is so smart and brave in their work. For the past two days, we have visiting with district officials, teachers, elders, school girls, and district councillors to discuss the problem of girls’ retention in schools, particularly due to teenage pregnancy and early marriage.

All the stakeholders have been very receptive of the message because they know that they are seriously lacking behind on national and international standards for girls’ education. MEMPROW conducted a needs assessment before we came and found that only 30% of girls continued past elementary school. When we talked to the girls today in small groups it was clear that no one, besides their friends, sits them down to talk seriously about sex. Although, we only had about 45 minutes, all facilitators did a great job of teaching them the link between unprotected sex and pregnancy, and the importance of staying in school while still making the girls laugh.

Throughout all these activities, I have been taking video and picture recordings and helping as needed. Today, I had some technical breakdowns, with my camera battery dying, then the memory card too full. I had a couple of backups that worked and I am now compiling everything on my computer. I really hope that we will be able to use the video and create a DVD to illustrate the work being done. Most importantly, I have learned how these feminists advocate with local leaders and teach controversial issues to young girls. They are very tactful in their strategies and allow the people to come up with their own solutions to their own problems rather than prescribing a certain recipe for success.

For instance, through our group work we found out that there are many young girls and boys under the age of 18 going to discos and drinking and taking part in transactional sex. I was in a group that was tasked with establishing bylaws and ordinances to address the problems. I was really trying to stay quiet because it wasn’t my place, but when they started creating a bylaw about how girls’ skirts have to reach their knees, I had to say something. I would never forget when I got in trouble in junior high for rolling up my PE shorts, and still believe that we should be able to wear what we want to wear. It is no excuse for a man to rape a woman. After I said my comment, I felt a little ridiculous because I was so used to the rights we have in the US and didn’t relate it to the laws in Uganda or international conventions that Uganda is a signatory to. Thankfully, my co-worker Enid, stepped in and mentioned that if you look at what Ugandans wore before colonial times, you notice that they wore practically nothing besides beads and a little leather and they rarely raped one another. A little bit of cultural sensitivity goes a lot way. I tried to not be hard on myself for what I said, and took it instead as a learning opportunity for how I can engage in these conversations for the future.

Also, as much as I came here wanting to teach yoga and meditation techniques, I have learned that it is a slippery slope. It seems to be more taboo to talk about these things than to talk about LGBTQI people. When I start to explain it most people, they move on quite quickly to something else and don’t seem interested. However, last night I spoke with a co-worker that I will call Charlie for the sake of anonymity, who told me that most people think that yoga and meditation is about worshipping the devil and is against Christian believes. Charlie did Transcendental Meditation back in the 1990s and wants to get back into the practice. I gave Charlie one of my Thict Nant Hahn books to read and hopefully we can continue to have these conversations and possible meditate together in the future. For now, I will continue my home practice and when I get back to Kampala in November I will do more research.

Well, the power just went out. Expected at this time I guess. Thank god for my headlamp otherwise I don’t know how I would get around. Till next time my dear friends! And please, feel free to post comments or questions. The biggest thing I have learned as a MEMPROW Girl is to always speak your mind with eloquence and thought.

Xoxo

 

 

All the beautiful and intelligent ladies from the Amanitare Coalition!

Learning from our African Feminist Sistas

With Christian music in the background, I am finally finding the time to write down all the thoughts that have been floating around my mind these past couple of days. Today was my second day of attending the National Women’s Week Conference called “United Women Can” to reflect on 50 years of women’s contribution to Uganda’s development. This is an interesting time in Uganda because Tuesday marks Uganda’s 50 years since independence, which is called the Jubilee. Of course, it is a public holiday and there are many celebrations that people are preparing. But, there is also a sense that there is not much to celebrate at all, especially at the women’s conference. There is so much more that needs to be done to promote women’s rights. It is inspiring to be around these determined ladies and feel the energy, frustration, and annoyance with the current politics.

The MEMPROW Girls led a great session today on “Generation Y” emphasizing that young women need to be included in the actions of the women’s movement so that they can learn lessons and become the leaders of tomorrow. There were many opinions and contradictions during the discussion. Should the girls be angry that they are not included? Or reduce their temper so they can work with others? Was it the girls’ responsibility to seek out mentors? Or the responsibility of the elders to teach the youth? All this movement building talk has really had me thinking of the women’s movement in the US. Or the lack thereof. At another session, we were to think of a feminist leader that inspires us and I had to think hard of a feminist from the US that I would consider as inspiring. Ironically, at the same time, my dear friend Polina, posted on Facebook that she wanted to organize something for a new women’s movement, and I couldn’t agree more. Why is that we are able to sit back and think that all women’s issues are solved? Aren’t girls in the US also affected by mass media images diluting our body images? Aren’t our sexual and reproductive health rights and education under attack by conservative politicians? Aren’t we lacking strong women leaders to challenge the current system? Aren’t we lacking intergenerational dialogues among the young and older women? I think the most important thing that women are lacking in the US is collaboration and the spirit of working together and creating one agenda. If women around the world can come together and organize, why can’t we do the same in the US? I’m not sure when and if I am coming back to the US, but if this resonates with anyone, please get in contact. I would love to work on organizing something.

My friend Sayid asked me yesterday during a boring lecture, “Why are you here?” A simple question and one that I have been thinking a lot about lately. I am here to learn. Firstly, I want to learn from MEMPROW and specifically Dr. Tadria on how to run an organization that empowers young women and educates them on their rights. Realizing that how one does the work is just as important as the work itself, and seeing that Dr. Tadria practices what she preaches. Secondly, I am here to deepen my mindfulness, yoga, and meditation practice without leaning on the yogi community that I left behind in San Francisco. I must make time to practice during my day and dedicate myself to the practice. It also means passing my teaches onto people in Uganda, which I have been subtly doing with the people I work with and will more directly teach when I go up country on Wednesday. Lastly, I am here to have fun, dance, and soak in the Ugandan culture.

Last night was quite an adventure in Kampala nightlife. Sayid took me to an outside reggae concert of some guy called Conscious from Jamaica. I could tell from the moment we parked that this was going to be a big event given the massive amounts of people. After waiting in line for a while, a guy came up to us and told us for a little money he could sneak us to the front (not so obviously, but it was implied). Once we got to the front, I thought stampede. People pushing, shoving, falling down the hill. Oh geez….but we had made it this far and we were going to get inside. And we did! A breathe of fresh air and dancing to be had. It wasn’t quite the electronic concert that I am used to, but the hip-hop and reggae was not bad. We decided to leave a bit early to beat the crowd, and good thing we did because Sayid’s car wouldn’t start. I thought it was a boda-boda night for me, but anything is possible with a bit of money. He asked the guard to find someone who could jumpstart the car and before I knew it there was a taxi that jumpstarted the car. It was great and I was so ready to go to bed.

Tonight, I am going to take it easy. After the conference, I went with Sarah to the City Centre to get some nice work clothes and malaria medicine just in case. We are leaving on Wednesday for this 3.5 week trip to the North. I will try to write before, but if not, peace and love to you all! I miss you and think of you often. You inspire me to continue with this work and I hope you are healthy, happy, and peaceful wherever you are.

With Evelan’s (MEMPROW Girl) Peanut Butter, yum yum                       Opening Prayers

Welcoming Vulnerability

Yesterday morning. 3AM. Wide awake. Thoughts, worries, anxieties, filling my body. Making me feel weak and sick. As soon as I talk to Bjorn, my love, the tears don’t stop. I don’t make any sense. I am vulnerable; I am weak, when all along I thought I had this. I thought I could do this, no problem. Move to a new city without knowing many people. But, at this moment, all I could think of was, “Why did I do this? Why did I decide to leave all the people I love to come to a distant city for four months? How will I survive?” Waiting for the sun to rise, I realized (with the help of Bjorn) that the best answer was to get up and moving. Realizing that this sad emotion is like any other emotion that comes and goes, impermanent. As my friend Hilary, who spent three years living in Nicaragua, suggested to me, writing is a great cure. So here I go.

It is my second full day and I feel so much better. I will admit that the nights are quite hard. Possibly because for the last year I have lived with Bjorn and have become accustomed to his warm body next to mine. And now all I have is a dusty mosquito net. Makes getting up in the middle of the night for the bathroom quite funny. I also switched rooms at the hotel I am staying at, so that I am not right next to the lobby that cares for drunken men all night long. Telling stories, laughing, and drinking. Now I have some peace and quiet.

But, the most important thing that has restored my sanity are the amazing people that I am working with including Hilda, Sarah, Monica, Lilian, Hope, Fred, and Michael.  Walking into MEMPROW offices the first day, I already felt welcomed. Monica was making herself some hot lemon water and then showed me the possible places that I could sit. The first was an office for “some privacy”, but instead I told her I wanted to work with the other girls if that was ok. There didn’t seem to be room, so I didn’t want to push it, but she said no problem and before I knew it there was an empty desk awaiting me. And right to work we went. I already have a few projects that I am working on including profiling the girls that have gone through the trainings so that MEMPROW can publish a book. I conducted an oral interview of a MEMPROW Girl today that became quite emotional, but inspiring. It can be overwhelming to realize that a majority of these girls have experienced sexual abuse without realizing that it is wrong. I have also become the in-house editor so that most things that are being sent I edit, which makes me realize how detail-oriented I am. Hilda told me that if there is anything that needs editing to just do it and do it I have.

We are preparing for our three-week field visit to the northeast region of Nebbi District. We leave on Wednesday and are putting the final touches on our activity plan. MEMPROW is completing a three-year advocacy project (funded by Amanitaire) to keep girls in school through educating the community on girls’ sexual and reproductive health. Then, we are conducting a ten-day social survival training, which aims to increase girls’ self-confidence through learning their rights. I will be teaching a couple sessions on meditation and mindfulness practices. I am so grateful for the opportunity to teach something that I am so passionate about. I was going to teach yoga, but given that there is little space, I think meditation and a bit of yoga before will suffice.

I am very excited about this work and can’t wait to see it all in action. I have really connected with Sarah, another Program Officer, who is so sweet and easy to be around. We went to the City Centre yesterday, which was quite a crazy place. Cars and motorbikes everywhere, vying for the space to move through the crowds of traffic and people sneaking through the crevices to get around. There were so many picture perfect moments, but Sarah told me that it wasn’t a good idea to take my camera out and especially to take pictures of people before asking. In these crowds, every picture would include fifty or more people, so you must come to Kampala to see the real deal. J And the real deal is hectic and alive and dirty and beautiful all at the same time. Riding on the back of the boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) last night after our adventure, I had this huge smile from corner to corner as I was full of love for this city that is so radiant, welcoming, and safe. Different than I have felt in other cities.

I am now sitting at the restaurant at my hotel, using a piece of wood as my table, waiting for my Indian dinner (there are many Indians living in Uganda) and drinking my Reeds Cider. Life feels pretty good and I feel that I am here for a reason. Learning about project implementation and myself. Learning how to face my vulnerabilities and challenges with an open heart and strong and steady mind. Meditating and yoga in the mornings and evenings are keeping me sane and I hope that I can teach the others around me about the inherent power we have within ourselves to change how we perceive our circumstances. I believe that I had this sleepless night to remind me what sadness and depression feel like, so that I can deepen my awareness of my mind. Reminding me that we can all handle anything that life serves us and decide how we response. Namaste.

MEMPROW’s Office

Sarah the Model