Friday, July 23, 2010

Eight weeks down, four to go

Well, now three, but this post presents the events of week four. I was a bit apprehensive of this week. Last weekend, I started getting a bit antsy about going home. I'm getting really excited to come home. I love it here and have had (and still am having) an amazing time, but I really miss everyone at home. It's a hard reconciliation because I also know that when we leave, I'm going to break down in tears because I'm going to miss everyone so much.

Anyway, these week we trained our research assistants (RAs) in our survey and pilot tested it on Thursday. On Monday, the RAs translated the questionnarie to two of the local languages--Luganda and Ateso, then on Tuesday we reviewed the translations to make sure that Nrupa and I had typed everything correctly and then we briefly reviewed the skip patterns (which are ridiculously confusing) to make sure that they could deliver it appropriately.

On Tuesday I also continued with week two of my pediatric nutrition assessment. It started of well, but quickly went down hill. I normally latch on to Grace, the girl who takes down client names as they come to the clinic. Often I can get her to help me find out client ages and where they live, but Tuesday she went home early because she wasn't feeling well. That left me with no one. There were a few children in the center who were visible malnourished, but I wasn't able to measure them because I couldn't communicate with them. It was so frustrating and heartbreaking. I'm doing this assessment to help Nova and the center, but I'm not receiving adequate support from staff, which hinders my ability implement this assessment.

Thankfully both Monday and Tuesday ended on a high note. We played football (soccer) on Monday and volleyball on Tuesday. It was so much fun. I can't believe we took such a long break from playing. We hadn't played since that very first time over a month ago when the UBC kids were still here. It was nice to get a bit of exercise in and hang out with people from work in a social setting. Now we're trying to arrange a big game with people from work for next Tuesday. We've been talking about it all week, telling everyone. And we're going to make signs this weekend and hang them around TASO on Monday so that everyone comes prepared on Tuesday and no one has an excuse not to come.

Wednesday was pretty uneventful. Nothing was going on so we left work after lunch and just spent the afternoon lounging at home. Then that night there was a huge storm. Nrupa went out to the Hindu temple again (yay, more dinner invitations), so I was home alone when the electricity went out and a huge clap of thunder shook the house. I quickly lit the candles and huddled in a ball on the couch, frantically texting her to come home as soon as possible. Then Tom came over and we talked (by which I mean he talked) for about an hour before he went back home for dinner. Tom is such a nice guy, but it really is exhausting talking to him. His English is really good, especially considering that he didn't finish school, but the way in which he talks is so roundabout and the language he uses is a bit different than I'm used to. I wish he would just get to the point and ask for what he wants directly. Not that I'd give it to him (ie: I don't have the money to pay for his kids' education), but at least we could move on with the conversation more quickly. I think he was telling me how he came to be appointed to his current post as our night guard, but I'm not entirely sure about that. Also, that night, our kitchen faucet stopped working. When we first arrived at the house, it was pretty leaky, but we were able to pretty much stop the leak by tightening it with a wrench. This week, however, it started leaking again, almost in a full stream. Now, even when the tap is open all the way, only a barely noticeable stream of water comes out. I tried to do the dinner dishes Wednesday night and could only get through 2 plates (which took about 20 minutes) before I got frustrated and just left them for Regina to do. I felt bad about it, but she can do them outside in the water spigot during the day. I don't feel comfortable doing that at night. Tom spoke to the landlord about the problem, but the landlord wants us to pay to replace it. We told Tom that that was never going to happen. He owns the house; it is his responsibility to make sure that it is in good condition and replace what needs replacing. Furthermore, we're only in the house for another 3 weeks, so we are certainly not paying for anything to be replaced (sorry future fellows).

On Thursday I woke up in a bad mood because of a conversation I had had the night before. I was hoping I would be able to sleep it off, but that didn't work so well. And since it was another day in the pediatric wing, I didn't have high hopes for the day. When I arrived at TASO to find that Grace wasn't there, my mood sank even further. Thankfully, I was quite wrong. The day ended up being very productive. I took charge in the peds wing and just started calling people up without someone to assist me. It ended up working quite well. I measured almost every single child that came to the center. I only missed a few because they were in the lab or something and only returned after I had finished for the day. In the afternoon, we started pilot testing our study. At first, I didn't think it was going to work. Printing is always an issue because paper and ink are very expensive here, but after a few hours we were able to get all of our surveys (all 17 pages) printed. Next we had to track down our RAs. They were supposed to meet us at 11:30 when they finished their other duties at TASO, but of course none of them showed up. Finally, around 2:00 we found 3 of them and were able to implement a few of the surveys. We also corralled some of the counselors to interview people. In the end, we had six completed surveys. We're going to try to get another six next week and then spend our last week and a half at TASO revising the questionnaire so that it's ready to go when the next fellows arrive.

Thursday night we were planning on walking around the slums of Mbale with Martin, but we took a detour to the Hindu temple and ended up spending almost 2 hours there. Nrupa was explaining the symbolism of all the gods (really it's just incarnations of one god), and then we stayed for the evening pooja (prayer). Martin is super Christian, so we were both impressed that he made it through the evening and even took some of the blessed food the priest gave us. We're going back on Tuesday because the priest is making us lunch. Nrupa said it's because we're American and apparently there's some prestige in having Westerners to dine, but I don't mind. It's free food and it's good food!

Today we're both just working on our own projects. We were hoping to submit our proposals to the TASO IRB by today, but that might not be happening until next week. However, it must happen next week because the committee meets the first week of August, so that's our last chance to have our studies approved. Tonight is take two of visiting the slums, then we're going to Restville, the "club" we went to our second weekend in Mbale with the UBC kids. It was so much fun last time, I'm worried about tonight's prospects. The fun bar has been set quite high, so we'll see how it goes. I think Martin and maybe one other guy from work, Ronald, are coming, along with Allan, and I'm not sure any of them drink that much. Not you have to drink to have fun, but I'm worried about their ability to let loose and enjoy themselves in that kind of setting. We shall see... Worst comes to worst, we'll go home and watch a movie. Always an enjoyable time.

We were hoping to go to Kapchurwa this weekend since we weren't able to go last weekend (our friends' truck broke down so they ended up coming to Mbale instead). Unfortunately for us, they're actually moving out of their house today and spending the next week or so in Mbale before they go back to the States. I'm not sure what we're going to do, but I hope we do something. We've spent the last 2 weekends in Mbale and we're both feeling a bit stir crazy. There's not really that much to do in this small town. I think we might go play with Tom's kids for a bit tomorrow, but so far that's our only plan. Sunday will probably end up being some working and swimming at Mbale resort.

I can't believe we only have 3 more weekends here. Next weekend I think we're going to try to go to Soroti for a day to meet one of our co-workers kids. Then the following weekend we're thinking about throwing a good-bye TASO party. The girls who were here last semester did, and everyone always talks about how much fun it was. They had a bunch of beer and cooked two goats, so the bar is set pretty high. It would be fun, but Nrupa and I aren't sure we have the funs for such an extravangaza. Last time there were 3 fellows, so the costs were split a bit more. I'm also not sure I want a goat slaughtered and cooked in my yard... Oh well, we'll see. We're also going to have to find time to visit Martin in Tororo. I think our last weekend in Mbale is the weekend that he's moving there for his new job. We'll see if that happens. Then, for our last week we're planning on going to Rwanda. We're thinking about leaving Mbale August 10 or 11, getting to Kampala in the early afternoon, and then taking the 12 hour, overnight bus ride to Kigali. Nrupa has a friend who's doing Peace Corps in Rwanda, so she is planning on meeting us in the capital. Unfortunately, those are going to have to be last minute plans because we have to see what happens with the Presidential elections in Rwanda. Paul Kagame is expected to win by a landslide (again), but there's always the possibility that violence could break out, and it would of course be centered in Kigali. Since the elections are August 9, we're going to be making the decision to go at the very last minute. Hopefully everything is okay. Otherwise we might end up just visiting Nrupa's friend in her village or explore western Uganda. No matter what, I'm going to need to get out of Mbale. I know that I'm going to need something more than TASO to settle my excitement of going home. Also, I want some time to detach a bit from TASO and get used to the idea of not being here before we leave. I guess the seven hour layover in Amsterdam will help with that too...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Eight weeks down

So this week has been super hectic, but pretty unexciting. Actually, a bit stressful. We'll reach the 2 month mark next Tuesday...just over 4 weeks left until we're back home. I'm excited because I miss everyone at home and I'm getting stressed out at work, which makes me just want to leave. But I think I'm going to be pretty sad to go. It's such a peaceful and laid back existence here (minus the bombings in Kampala, which is horribly tragic and unexpected). Nonetheless, I think I'll be ready to go home. Nrups and I have been discussing traveling the past week. Both of us want some time to get out of Mbale and explore a little more. I was pushing for Zanzibar, but it's super expensive, and it will be Ramadan so we're a bit unsure of the food situation. Now we're thinking about a few days in Rwanda and chimp tracking in western Ugandan. We'll see what happens. Right now it looks like we might have to spend another day or two in Mbale than we had planned to finish up some work, but that shouldn't interfere with travel plans too much.
As for work, it's going well. Of course when it rains it pours. Things are picking up with our male involvement project at the same time that Nrupa and I are just starting to figure out our own projects. I started collecting data on pediatric malnutrition this week. I'm doing it every Tuesday and Thursday for the last month that we're at TASO. It's not difficult, per say, but it's much messier and more chaotic than I had anticipated. Obviously language poses a huge barrier. I wanted to ask clients about their daily diets, but I threw those questions out because it was impossible to pin any staff down long enough to help me translate. I was hoping that there would be someone assigned to help me, but I pretty much just have to beg. I've been attaching myself to this one girl, which was helpful today. It's still unorganized, but I got much better data today than I did on Tuesday. Now the biggest challenge is locating the client files at the end of the day to find their most recent CD4 counts and ART status. I think I'm just going to have to collect a list of all the names and registration numbers and look at the files a few days after I measured the patients. Then of course there's the problem about incomplete information in client files, but that's another story.

On top of all of these, yesterday we found out about this approval process that we're supposed to go through. I had asked Nova, the nutrition coordinator, about any IRB or anything, and he told me that it was unnecessary since the data and subsequent report are only being used by TASO. I have no intention of publishing. Now, however, we found out that there is, in fact, this whole process of writing a proposal and submitting it to the TASO Internal Review Committee to have it approved. Naturally, the IRC meets once a month and they won't be meeting again until the first week of August....our last week at TASO. Oh well, we're making due. In the meantime, both Nrupa and I have been thinking about other projects we could do once we get home. I've even emailed with one of my professors and have a meeting arranged for the day after I return to DC to meet with her and discuss other ideas. I may not end up graduating until Spring 2011, but that's okay. It will give me more time to focus solely on my CE.

On the social front, Nrupa finally succeeded in securing us a dinner invite to her uncle's house, and by uncle I mean one of the 500 Indians that live in Mbale. She went to this religious discussion thing at the Hindu temple Wednesday night and one of the families invited us over for dinner on Sunday. So excited! They also said we should stop by for lunch because the auntie just sits at home alone all day. I've stopped eating the beans and rice at work (I get nauseous just thinking about it, it's so bad!), so I'm all for going to the auntie's for lunch. Also, our friend Martin from TASO got a new job, so that's both sad and exciting. He's been working at TASO for the past year as a volunteer (he gets a small stipend), so it's super great for him that he got a job. But he'll be moving to Tororo, which is about an hour southeast of Mbale. He starts the new job the first week of August, so I guess we'll only technically have one week at TASO without him, but it's still weird. He's probably our closest friend there. We're taking him out to dinner tonight night to celebrate.

Otherwise, nothing too exciting is going on. We're going to the mountains this weekend to spend a night with Dave and Jessie, our PhD friends. They leave Uganda August 4 (they've been here almost a year), so this is one of our last hurrahs with them. Should be fun. I'm excited to see life in a small village. Hopefully I'll have some stories to report on Monday...

Why is that happening?

Said by Nrupa Jani as we passed a girl, maybe around 10, who had a brand new pencil sticking out of her ear, eraser out.

My quote: "How is that comfortable?"

We spent the remainder of the boda ride to working laughing like crazy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Lion King

To Kenya

Last Thursday (July 1), we made the long journey to Kenya. The trip is technically about 4 hours long, but it ended up taking us most of the day because of waiting time and constant stopping in taxis. We boarded the shared taxi in Mbale at 11am and got out in Kisumu at 8pm. The rides were typical. Too many people were crammed in, I had a live rooster at my feet, the JAB (both Kenyan and Ugandan) was unbearable. I also got a marriage proposal in Kenya even though I told the guy I was taken. He assured me that if I brought my boyfriend to Kenya we could find him a Kenyan woman so that Stephen (my suitor) and I could be together. He even offered to buy me a banana--I think it was a dowry. I declined.

At one point along the way, near the border on the Ugandan side, we drove on a road that bisected two markets. The market on one side of the street was in Kenya, while the one opposite was in Uganda. Apparently they take both Ugandan and Kenyan shillings at both market.
At the border, this guy we had met in the taxi helped us navigate immigration. He helped us exchange money on the black market. There are literally men everywhere with calculators who exchange currencies, even right at the border. Very official... In the Ugandan office, we met two girls from Boston University School of Public Health who had been working in Kenya for six weeks and were now going to work in Uganda for another six weeks. One of them looked really familiar. On a whim, I asked if she went to Michigan undergrad. She did and was in one of my classes--I think pchem. I have no idea what her name is and I don't think we ever spoke, so she understandably had no idea who I was. I might I have freaked her out a bit by recognizing her. Oh well. Small world. In Kenya, we had to buy visas. The man demanded $25 from us and was not pleased when we told him we didn't have US dollars and had to pay in shillings, though I think we got a much better rate even though he said it was going to be worse. We paid KSh 1050, which is about $13. Also at the Kenyan immigration office was a condom dispenser (see photo on facebook). I wasn't able to check if it was full or not, but I sincerely hope it was. Though I highly doubt that anyone would actually take a condom that much in public. I could hardly believe when some guy took one from the box at the TASO library, though I'm glad he did. Across the border, I also used my first, but certainly not my last, squat toilet. It was disgusting, and I had to pay KSh10 for it. Nrupa kept telling me to practice at TASO, but I never did. Bad mistake. She was trying to coach me from outside the door, but I was too busy laughing and trying not to pee on myself to pay attention. The woman in the other stall also laughed and made some funny comment about my ineptitude, but I can't remember what it was.
In Kenya, on the ride from Busia to Kisumu, Nrupa and I were debating whether or not Kenya looks different from Uganda. We eventually decided that the landscapes are quite different. Uganda is more fields while Kenya has more trees. I also think that the stores and roadside stalls are a bit different. In Uganda they seem more sturdy, which is surprising given the western feel of Kisumu. Kisumu and Mbale are both the third largest cities in their respective countries, but they couldn't be more different. Kisumu is much more developed, with paved roads and western architecture. Mbale is what you think of when you think of an African town. It's relatively small, with storefronts of tiny shops painted as adverts. Kisumu was even much more developed than Kampala, which I found most surprising. Kisumu also has a much wider selection of food than Mbale. Here, we have four edible restaurants. Three of them are Indian.
Nrupa's friend Rachna, who organized the safari, met us when we got to Kisumu. She picked us up from the matatu park in a tuk tuk, an auto rickshaw, and took us to dinner. We went to two restaurants--Al Noor and Laughing Buddha. Al-Noor is Muslim owned and doesn't allow alcohol on its tables while Laughing Buddha is vegetarian and doesn't allow meat on its tables. However, they do allow you to combine tables and eat at both places, so long as you follow the alcohol/meat rules. We ordered food from Al Noor (really good but too spicy paneer kabobs) and wine and dessert from Laughing Buddha. Dessert was amazing. We all shared a brownie with a huge scoop of ice cream and warm chocolate sauce poured over it. It was the best think I'd eaten in the past 6 weeks. So nice to have real chocolate! Then we went back to Rachna's beautiful apartment for some much need rest before our 6am departure.

Masai Mara

Our safari was in Masai Mara, in the southwestern region of Kenya bordering Tanzania. At 6:30 we were picked up for our 6am departure. Right on time in Africa. Nine of us piled into a van with a pop up roof and set off. We all thought it was only a 3 hour drive, but apparently it was 6. Oh well. More time for bonding, by which I mean sleeping since none of us had really done that the night before. The last two hours of the drive were on bumpy, dusty road. I felt I was going to be sick the whole time.

We saw our first wild animals before we ever reached the park--baboon (I just realized I forgot to post those pictures on facebook. Oh well, something to look forward to upon my return). After two hours on this awful road, we pulled into paradise--Mara Leisure. As Nrups said, who knew the road to Heaven was so bumpy. It was beautiful! Definitely the nicest place I have ever stayed. One night at a place like this in the States would have cost more than my entire 3 day safari! We were greeted at the front gate by Masai men wearing the traditional outfit (I forget the name) who handed us warm towels to wipe our hands and faces. We then had some delicious fruit juice as we got an introduction to the hotel. All food, coffee, and tea is included. (Water is never included around here because it's all bottled. It's odd to be at dinner and not constantly have your water glass refilled). We stayed in a permanent tent that was set up on raised platform. The shower had really good pressure and solar-heated water.

We had a delicious lunch at the camp/lodge. No beans, rice, or matoke there. The girls on our trip didn't even know what matoke was. Lucky... Then we relaxed by the pool before our first game drive. We ended up hiring a second driver so that we could split into two vehicles and everyone could have room to stand up and better views. Nrupa and I went with Pilot, a Masai man who runs a transport company. He was great. He grew up in the Mara so he knew his way around really well. He even claimed to know the name of the leopard we say, but he could have been making that up.

The evening game drive was so much fun. We went out around 4 and drove around for a little over two hours. At first we just saw a bunch of zebra, wildebeest, and antelope (mostly gazelles and impalas), but then we saw some giraffe, an ostrich, hippos, and even a leopard. I felt bad for the leopard. There were about 8 cars all huddled around this one area where she was sitting. It was very difficult to see her through the bushes where she was lying down, and I only got a very distorted glimpse of her face, but it was still amazing. There was a tree in the patch where she was laying and up in the high branches we could see the remnants of the antelope she had killed. Unfortunately she was too shy to eat in front of us. The hippos were really need too. They're HUGE! And they smell terrible! They were all in this one part of the river and it smelled so bad! We kept joking that all of the water had been replaced by hippo excrement. This was the one place where we could get out of the car though, because the hippos were a good distance below us so they posed to threat.

The landscape was beautiful. I could get over how endless it looked. We also were able to see the sun set. The way the sun shone through the clouds as it went down was breathtaking. Also, in the distance we could see a heavy storm. At first I didn't know what it was--I thought it was just more sun rays coming through, but someone told me that it was rain.

That night we had another spectacular meal and watched some football before passing out in our amazingly comfortable and fresh-smelling beds.

Saturday morning we woke up early for a full-day game drive. We loaded our boxed lunches into the cars and set off. Again we saw a bunch of wildebeest and zebras early on, but eventually saw three elephants, a few crocodiles, including one that was feeding, a buffalo, and four lions. At one point, while we were looking for elephants, our driver, Lucas, set off at full speed, chasing after other cars. We bounced over rocky paths in hot pursuit of something, though we weren't sure what. It turns out that the wildebeests and zebras were lining up at the river as part of the annual migration. The few at the front kept walking forward a bit as if they were going to cross, then getting scared and turning around. We waited about 45 minutes, but nothing was happening so we decided to move on. I'm glad we did because we were able to see a crocodile feeding on an antelope. I have a pretty good video and some much better pictures. We heard from others that, after a few hours (the people we talked to had time to take a lunch break), the wildebeests and zebras finally traversed the river. Apparently two baby zebra were taken by crocs. I'm sad we didn't get to see it, but we saw something much better--MATING LIONS!!! Granted, it only lasted for about 10 seconds, but it's pretty cool nonetheless.

When we saw our first two lions, Pilot informed us that it was definitely mating season because the male and female we had come upon had separated themselves from the group. They were sitting about 10-15 feet apart from each other panting like crazy. We figured they had just done the deed. As we started to drive away, the male lion got up and started walking toward the other car in our group. It was hilarious from my perspective since I wasn't in that car (and since nothing actually happened). They all ducked down back into the van with looks of fear on their faces. He ended up just laying about 5 feet from the van. Good view for picture taking! Both of them were so big and muscular. Even from our distance and their prostrate positions you could see how powerful they were. What was most baffling was that a large group of topee (antelope) were grazing about 30-40 feet from the two lions. I wonder how they decided that they weren't a threat? We drove off in a random direction and ended up running in to two more lions that had separated from the group. Apparently they all do that for about 7 days before rejoining. These two were lying very close to one another, also panting heavily (though it was also super hot...). After a few minutes, the male got up, approached the female, stepped over her, and entered. It literally lasted about 5-10 seconds (I have a video). The whole time both lions were growling/purring and the male was nibbling the female's ear. When he was finished she rolled over in ecstasy, laid there for a few minutes, and then got up an walked away. The rest of the afternoon was full of inappropriate jokes involving lion copulation.

That night we all passed out really early, thoroughly pleased with our safari experience and ready to meet the Masai people the next morning.

On Sunday, we reluctantly packed our bags to leave paradise. It's ironic that you work so hard to get into heaven just to leave 2 days later... But, we were off to meet the Masai. I was super excited to see some of their customs and way of life because I don't understand how people can live in the middle of nowhere like that. Of course, when we get there it was a bit disappointing. First of all, we had to pay KSh1000 (about $12.50) before they would let us into the village. One of the girls in our group opted out. I knew that meant the whole process was going to be a bit commercialized, but oh well. Everyone has to make a living somehow. I paid my money and lined up to watch the Masai warriors dance for us. I joined in a bit, but was a too busy taking pictures. One of the dances is a jumping competition. Apparently the higher you jump, the more girlfriends you have. Any boy could these kids jump! It seemed like they had springs on their feet. One kid (my favorite) jumped at least 3 feet high. Get them to the NBA!

After the dancing, we entered the village. The women did a little dance for us, we saw how the Masai make fire using two pieces of wood, and then we went into one of their houses. We learned that the Masai diet consists mostly of beef, milk, and blood (yes, blood). They slit the jugulars of the cows, drain the blood, and mix it with milk. Thankfully we didn't witness this. It was neat to see their customs, but it was also very uncomfortable because they just kept trying to sell us stuff. The tried to sell us the wood they use to make fire, and the sticks they use for dancing, then there was a curios shop where everything was super overpriced (though I still got a bracelet). It's just a bit depressing that their entire community is so commercialized.

Back to Kisumu, then Mbale

After the Masai village, we headed back to Kisumu. We spent one more night with Rachna, explored a little bit of Kisumu, and then headed back to the Uganda, which was another adventure in and of itself. We decided to take a bus rather than a matatu because we figured it would be faster since the bus doesn't make constant stops like the matatu. We booked tickets on the 4pm bus so that we would have time to look around Kisumu and have lunch with our friends, but still be able to get to the border and catch a taxi to Mbale before dark. We got to the bus station around 3:30 to find that our bus had not yet arrived. We ended up waiting until 5:15(!!!) for it to get there. Though we were over an hour late, we still had time to get to the border just before dark, so we weren't too worried. The bus pulled away and we settled in...only to have it stop around the corner for an hour while someone welded the sideview mirror back on. We finally set off a bit after six, and I was sufficiently freaked out.

As we neared the border, Nrups and I strapped on our money belts, secured our backpacks to us, and set off hand in hand for the immigration office. We quickly filled our our forms and pushed to the front of the lines to have our passports stamped. At the Ugandan border, the immigrations officer tried to tell me that my visa was expired or incorrectly filled out or something, but I was having none of it. As I argued with him, gesticulating wildly, the officer at the next booth came over and corrected him. He begrudgingly stamped me through, and off we went in search of transport back to Mbale. We tried to find a taxi, but apparently by 8:30pm all of the ones going in our direction had already departed. We were in communication with two coworkers from TASO who were helping us decide whether we should just stay the night in Busia and get a taxi in the morning or travel back to Mbale that night via special hire. Busia is kind of a shady, nothing town so we decided to go back. Peter, our go-to guy at TASO, spoke with the special hire and took his name and license plate number. We also texted him (and a few other people) the make and model of the car and the driver's phone number, just in case. I was really nervous. I mean, this guy could literally drive us anywhere. Peter kept calling every 20-30 minutes our so to check on us and our progress. We made it back to Mbale safe and sound around 10:30 that night. In the end the driver was a nice guy, but I am certainly in no rush to ever travel at night again.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Jesus-free evening

aka Dinner with Ugandan Jews

Tonight, me, Nrupa, and our friend Dave (also Jewish) went to have dinner with the Abayudaya, a community of Ugandan Jews 8km outside of Mbale town. It was amazing! As soon as we stepped out of the car part of me felt like I was 13 and back at camp (not always a good thing, but it was tonight). We were going to drive there ourselves, but thankfully Dave's truck was still at the shop so we had to get a special hire. We most definitely would have gotten lost.

As we pulled into the gate, we saw standard Ugandan buildings painted with menorahs and Hebrew phrases. There were men wearing yarmulkes with Stars of David and menorahs stitched into them.

We first went to the guest house, where we were greeted by a roomful of kids volunteering with the American Jewish World Service. They were asking Isaac, the man who runs the guest and I think is sort of like a PR guy for the community, about the origins and history of the Abayudaya. Unfortunately we were a bit late and missed all but the last two questions. Then we never actually had a chance to ask more. I have Isaac's email so hopefully I can ask him some questions that way.

After the Q&A, we headed off to the synogogue for the service. It was definitely Jewish, but had a distinct African/African American feel to it. I was comparing it to the time I went to Catholic mass at a black church. I'd never been to mass before, but my friends kept insisting that this service was much more lively than at their churches, with a lot of singing and hallelujahing. This was like that too. During L'cha dodi everyone got up and started dancing around the bimah. That would never happen at home. Also, the service was in three languages. Obviously there was Hebrew, but there were also parts in English and Luganda, one of the local languages. There was a translator standing next to the Rabbi who repeated anything he said in English into Luganda (even though I'm pretty sure the Rabbi speaks both), then there were some hymns that were only in Luganda. It was a perfect blending of the cultures. I could follow definitely follow along (all of the prayers were the same as those we sing at home, though perhaps with some slight tune adjustments), but not always well enough that I felt like I was attending Shabbat at home.

I really wanted to take pictures, but that definitely would not have been kosher. There were two guitarists and one drummer as accompanists. And everyone just seemed so happy and glad to be there. And glad to have guests as well. There were probably about 15 extra people (muzungus) in attendance, but the community welcomed us so completely. It was great.

After services, we said the Kiddush and M'otze. We drank a sip of wine that tasted like grape juice and some delicious homemade Challah. I would have been content just eating the entire Challah. It was so nice to have good, homemade, non-stale bread. Dinner, however, was also excellent. I had potatoes, chapatti, pasta, and cabbage with carrots and beans. It was great being able to eat all of the cabbage I wanted rather than the meager portions that Regina gives us.

We met some interesting people too. There were a lot of MPH students/recent graduations, so we heard about the different projects they've done. One is in Uganda doing a follow-up study on malaria and bed nets. And another spent 3 months in Israel working with on diarrheal issues. I also ended up sitting next to someone who knows the only three people I kind of know in Kampala. Small world indeed.

There are a few things I found strange. Firstly, not a single person I asked had TASO had ever even heard of the Abayudaya community in Mbale. One guy told me he knew of one near Tororo, which is about an hour from here. I don't understand how they're so hidden from the surrounding community. I mean, they just opened a clinic near the center of town, and apparently even the nurses who work there don't really understand what Judaism is. One of the girls I was sitting next to is staying with the Abayudaya, working at the new clinic. She told me it took about 10 minutes for the nurses to understand that Judaism is the religion where you don't eat pork, and that was about the extent of their knowledge. I know that Christianity is the most pervasive religion, but I still can't believe that everyone is so wrapped up in Jesus they don't even realize that a whole community of Jews lives just outside of town. Though maybe that's better. Some coworkers told us today that, as Christians, they are commanded to preach the word at every opportunity. I don't want a bunch of proselytizing people ruining this community. Maybe they intentionally keep their existence and location quiet from the surrounding areas on purpose--they must be even more sick of all the Jesus talk than Nrupa and I are! Secondly, all of the muzungus sat in the front seats during the service and gathered mostly closely around the table during the pre-meal prayers. At first this bothered me because I felt like we were all invading someone else's territory and pushing them to the background. But then, after discussing this with Dave and Nrupa, I realized it was just their way of welcoming us.

All in all, it was a really special experience, though I'm having trouble verbalizing why. It was just so unique. African Jew seems like an odd pairing of words. Nrupa, Dave and I were joking on the drive there asking each other if anyone we passed looked Jewish. I wonder what would have happened if Israel was in Uganda instead of the Middle East as originally planned...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hospital Tour

Wednesday afternoon we went on a tour of Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which is located just across the street from TASO. One of the UBC kids met a nurse who works in the pediatric ward on the bus a few weeks ago so she showed us around. I knew that it was going to be an emotionally tough experience, but it was harder than I could have ever imagined. We walked through all of the wards and patients lying in rickety beds or on the floor with IVs in their arms. Many of the babies had ports in their heads so that they could be easily hooked to fluids, etc. if necessary.

There were about 30 beds in the pediatric ward. Sister Esther, the nurse, said that sometimes they have up to four patients in each bed and more on the floor. This is standard throughout the hospital. In addition, patients have to bring their own sheets and have a relative to serve as their attendant.

Malaria is the most common cause of hospitalization. It is the number one cause of death among children and the number one cause of miscarriages among pregnant women. The hospital has separate wards for women who's children survived and those who did not. In the latter ward, a woman was screaming and being comforted by her relative attendant. She kept thrashing and moaning. In the other ward, we saw two newly born babies. One was swaddled in blankets and laying at the end of the bed while its mother rested and its father looked on. I thought it was fantastic that the father was there. He was the only man in the entire area. As we peered into the ob-gyn operating theater from the door, we met a 15 year old girl who was in line for a C-section. One of my friends commented to me that she definitely wasn't in that position by choice, but I wondered if that was true or not. I certainly hope that she didn't intentionally become pregnant, but I don't think I would be shocked if she told me that she did. I think in some areas here girls still do have children quite young, well before they're mature enough to care for them.

In the surgical ward, men and women of all ages laid in bed with casts on their legs and pins in their knees holding their legs straight. In the surgical ward, the charge nurse gave us a tour of the facility. It was newly renovated and by far one of the nicest buildings in the entire complex. The old ward was a single room building with no windows that was very run down from the outside. The new one is made of brink and absolutely pristine. Aside from the building, however, some basics of care are lacking. The dirth of beds throughout the hospital is even more evident in the psych ward. There are a few mattresses scattered on the floor in the different areas, but there are not bed frames. Some patients even sleep on cardboard laid out on the ground.

Throughout the entire hospital, few patients have their own room. Those that do pay for them, whereas others receive services free of charge. Wards are separated into male and female sides to allow for some sense of privacy.

The most painful part of the tour occurred at the very beginning. When we moved into the second wing of the pediatric ward, we were confronted by a dead child, perhaps 3 or 4 years old. At first, we weren't sure whether or not he had actually died. His head was limp and his eyes were kind of rolled back, but because of the way the doctors were moving him it was hard to tell. Then they began taking his IVs out and closed his eyes. Even then Nrupa wasn't convinced; not until they put a sheet over him were we all 100% sure. Apparently his blood was too low (I'm not entirely sure what that means) and his family brought him to the hospital too late for the doctors to treat him. Worst of all, his mother and father hadn't come to the hospital that day; an aunt had brought him. She wrapped him in the sheet and carried him to a private room as I fought to hold back my tears.

It was so amazing to see the hospital. Despite the inefficiencies of the American medical system, we are quite lucky to have all that we do. Patients in the west complain of sharing a semi-private room with one other person whereas here rooms are shared with 30 other people and there isn't so much as a sheet to separate beds. In a sense, though, I kind of like this system. I think it better serves to unite those who are suffering.

Another experience that was painful and thought provoking in a different way (not appropriate for children): Nrupa and I were walking home today when we passed a man (who probably should have been admitted to the MRRH psych ward) sitting on the ground. He had no pants on and, even though we should have known better, both of us looked down to see him playing with himself. It was so gross, but no one else seemed to mind very much. Are we prudish westerners to think that it's inappropriate to have ones genitals out in the middle of town like that? I mean, we did see half naked women in the hospital and sitting along the Nile and it was entirely fine.

A few minutes later we passed the same man walking on the sidewalk (still with no pants but his shirt was long enough to cover him). I think he was trying to ask for money so he reached out and tried to touch us. We both veered out of the way and kept on going. Again I couldn't help but wonder about the differences between home and here. That man would have been arrested in a heartbeat if he was walking around DC with no pants on, but here a security guard walked by him right in front of us and didn't even flinch. How do these discrepancies in pubic decency develop and where does one draw the line? Are we naive and prudish for being disgusted by this man's actions or are we cold-hearted and unsympathetic?