Friday, October 28, 2016

These are a few of my favorite things…

Friends for life
I have missed several people here very much. I have their pictures hanging on my wall at home or in my cubicle at work. I think about them all the time. I had feared that they would be indifferent to my arrival—indicating that our friendship was not as strong as I had thought. My fears were silly. Every time I pass one of these friends, they come and give me a big hug then hold my hand for a long time (a common show of affection here). As it turns out, the feeling is mutual.

Apio and Viola, two girls who lived next to me in 2012. Apio used to call me "mama" so our reunion was very good.
My teaching legacy
Two of my S-4 students approached me after they finished their Biology exam. I asked how they did and they told me, “Of course, we did well. In fact we knew an answer because of you!” I asked what Biology lesson I could have possibly taught and they said it was a question about why humans are classified as mammals. They breastfeed. I can’t possibly take credit for them passing the whole exam, but it is fun to know something stuck! After that, they listed all the things they know because of me. I was taken aback. It makes me want to go tell all my favorite teachers what I took away from them just to share this feeling. 

They grow up so fast
The children who were in middle school in 2012 are now tall, mature, articulate, confident teenagers. I burst with pride and awe whenever I talk with them. Some of these kids have experienced more traumas in their less than 17 years on this earth than most Americans will in a lifetime. And yet, they are hardworking students, loving friends, active community members, and smiling young people. I tip my hat to Real Partners Uganda and Tree of Life Ministries. This project is changing the world for these kids, and changing these kids for the world.

Close to nature
I often would describe this place as camping without walls. The line is blurred between the great outdoors and the cozy indoors. I grew tired of the bugs and dirt by the end of 2012, but on this brief trip, I am only focused on the blessings this brings. Birds chirp from all directions at all hours. A rooster wakes me each morning. The weather dictates the day like Mother Nature is in charge. I love it.

Vitamin D
Working full time in America does not leave much time for being outside during the summer. As hot and grueling as some of these days have been, I really do LOVE the unavoidable sunshine of this equatorial town. I think I will be set on my Vitamin D store for the year!

The Fellowship of the Bazungu
I’ve talked a lot about my reunion with the Ugandans, but I have also experienced one more reunion. The founders of Real Partners Uganda, Elaine & Joe Griswold and Kathryn & Dana Hiscock are walking this journey with me too. These four are a constant source of inspiration. I should be so lucky to live my life with as much passion, dedication, faith, courage and love as these four have shown the world. They’ve offered their retirement to doing God’s work. They have done it in partnership with their Ugandan counterparts—which cannot always be said of projects in East Africa. Their project gives the most vulnerable children of Lukaya the opportunity to learn, be loved, and be healthy. Rather than seek to convert children to Christianity, this school welcomes children from all religions and shows them the love of Christ, while providing opportunities to learn and freely practice all religions. They teach by example and the community is stronger for it. I am a better person because I’ve had the chance to be a part of this fellowship.

With love,

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tears and laughter

Today has been a day of conflicting emotions.

I woke this morning to a text from a dear friend. It brought very sad news. Our high school English teacher passed away yesterday. Her name was Pam Stanek and she was wonderful in every way. Some of us called her “Pamcakes” and she had cute nicknames for a bunch of us. I was “Toots.” When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time in her classroom. She was the person who encouraged me to pursue community health education and she was one of the first donors when I established my foundation. In fact, she was one of my steady followers on this blog—she always cheered on her students. Pamcakes, you will be missed.

It’s a strange thing when something changes at home while you are abroad. Whether happy or sad, trivial or significant, it always feels sort of removed. Like I can’t quite get my head around it. A silly example is the social trend of using # to convey messages. That trend gained popularity while I was in Uganda in 2012 and because I spent little time on social media and didn’t have access to other forms of media, the entire #movement went over my head. I really didn’t see the appeal nor understand the point. Yet, it only took me about a week after returning to the States for me to be swept up in the #supercoolandtrendywaytosaysomething. Before I knew it, I was #Hashtagging too.

This is a trivial example to use, but I’m trying to explain why the death of a dear mentor doesn’t make sense to me today. I think Uganda creates a sort of alternate universe for me where day-to-day events back home just can’t resonate with me within this context. That said, I’m sure a time to grieve will come.

Now, the conflicting emotion:

On a joyous note, Kathryn and I went to the nursery campus this morning. Once again, my friends greeted us with love and excitement. Kathryn distributed kazoos (big hit!) and I handed out jewelry and shared my wedding photos. They teased me for having, “Bad manners” for not inviting all of them to the wedding. I said that they couldn’t take time off work in June, so I brought the wedding to them. We had so much fun looking through pictures, I let them pick out their favorites for them to keep, and we all were in stiches laughing together. I really felt like I shared the day with them.   

At one point, my friend, Nurse Miriam pulled me aside and asked for a word in private. When we sat down in her office, she pulled out a beautifully woven picnic basket. She said, “This is your wedding present, sorry I was not able to attend. You will use this at the market in America and think of Miriam in Uganda.” I was speechless. What she doesn’t realize is that I already think of her all the time.

The other neat thing that happened at the nursery campus was that I met two of the little girls who had only just been born when I left. Nurse Susan’s daughter, Noel Cherish Christine (after me!) and Teacher Ruth and Headmaster John Robert’s daughter, Vanessa are both four years old now. It was so cool to see these girls thriving!

I usually bring up some kind of introspective lesson or thought provoking sentiment in my blog posts (or at least I make an attempt!) But today, I’m all tapped out. The most I can say is that time and time again, I have learned that with the bad there is always good. The world lost a wonderful human but I cannot forget the wonderful people who remain in my life.

With love,

Monday, October 24, 2016

To be so loved.

In June of this year, my husband and I shared our wedding day with almost 200 of our friends and family. Although most of that day is a blur, I vividly remember a moment during the reception. We were sitting at our sweetheart table and we looked all around. People were smiling, laughing, and full of love for each other and for us. We were full of love for them. I looked at my husband and I knew we were thinking the same thing. We are blessed. We are loved.
Taken during the wedding ceremony in Olympia, WA.

Since that day, we have discussed how beautiful yet fleeting that moment was. We thought that emotion was a once in a lifetime feeling.

But we were wrong. I felt that same emotion again today. I was once again blessed to experience a gathering of loved ones. It was special for so many reasons.

Photo Credit: John Robert, Head of Education for Mustard Seed Academy.
Four years ago, I wrote about the celebration for the P-7 class to prepare them for their Primary Leavers Exam (PLE). They were the pioneer students for Mustard Seed Academy. Today we celebrated the fifth class to take the PLEs and that first class as they now prepare to take S-4 exams.

The American equivalent is eighth grade and High School graduations. The difference is that in Uganda at these levels in school, students must pass a test (like the SATs) before they can move on. They work very hard to prepare, even board at the school so they can dedicate every moment to their studies. This is a very special bunch of kids.

Since I arrived in Lukaya on a Saturday afternoon, I had not yet had the opportunity to see any of my Ugandan friends. When we got out of the car at the event, students and teachers swarmed me, everyone was delighted to see me. I felt humbled by their love. As the 6-hour long celebration went on, each time I so much as glanced at someone, they embraced me with a huge smile and hug. And again, that nearly indescribable feeling overcame me. I looked out over the crowd of smiling, laughing faces. Once again, I could feel their love for me and for each other. And the love I feel for them grew deeper. My jaw and cheeks actually hurt from all the smiles and laughter.

Feeling so blessed.

I am also feeling proud. Some students came to visit with me during the ceremony and I was taken aback by their poise and articulate way of speaking. Watching them interact with each other was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had here. I knew they were bright, but to be good in addition is truly a testimony to the love and support they have received in this community.

As if I haven’t experienced enough emotion for a lifetime, I am feeling something else. Gratitude. I am so thankful to know this community—and to come back after four years and still feel like I am a member. They have played such a special role in my life. I think relationships have the power to strengthen us. With the right people in our lives, we can do great things. Their love gives me confidence. I have learned a lot about community from my friends here. They have also taught me about service. Service to God, to friends and to community. I am grateful to have shared memories with them. I wish I lived closer—I actually forgot the depth to which I love them. 

When I left in December of 2012, I wrote about how I felt half of my heart would remain behind. Today I had a full heart again. I'm trying not to dwell on the reality that it will only last a week.

In other exciting news:
  • I reunited with Apio and Asano today! They were the girls who lived next door to me in 2012. They are in fourth grade now. I watched them dance and sing in a school performance with so much pride and admiration. Every time we looked at each other, our smiles spread across our faces. I am humbled that they even remember me.
  • The power AND water have been on the whole time I’ve been here!
  • I’ve only seen two cockroaches. One is dead now and the other remains at large.

With love,

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Deja vu

Over five years ago, I made a decision that led me to the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding adventure I’d ever taken.

Thinking back on that time feels like remembering an old friend. She was young, shy, naïve, and courageous yet terrified. She had traveled before, but never that far. She’d been away from home, but never for such lengths. She simultaneously knew what to expect and had no clue what she was getting into.

She documented that adventure as her “next chapter” thinking her audience was the world. It’s funny to look back at the posts and realize I am just as much a stranger to that world of adventure as the blog followers who lived vicariously through me. A lot has changed in the last five years.

Quick update:

  • Lived and worked in Uganda
  • Moved back to the US
  • Got a job in state government
  • Became an Aunt
  • Became a Godmother
  • Moved to a new city
  • Got married
  • Got a cat, named her Dottie

Big things, lots of change.

Now I read these posts and think fondly of my former self. I would not have guessed that I’d be where I am, but reflecting on the steps I’ve taken, I see this is exactly where I was meant to go.
My next move? A reunion tour for old time’s sake. I’m returning to Uganda. Tomorrow. 

It seemed appropriate that with my return I should dust off the old blog and open a new chapter.
This trip will be brief and it will be different in almost every way.

First, I’m a married woman now. Sure, I’m still with the same man from five years ago, but we have since stood in front of God and all our loved ones and vowed to be together forever. It feels different to travel abroad as a married woman.

This time, I have a real job. I didn’t raise money for travel. I actually used my own paycheck(s) to purchase my travel expenses! Also of note, the act of spending my own money and being financially independent brings me both joy and pride.

I’m older. A career, marriage, five years and a load of responsibility can do a lot to a person. My husband and I often catch ourselves doing something or making some decision and we’ll say, “Oh. It happened again. We’re being grownups!” For example, this fall we’ve actually been watching the presidential debates and then reading all the post-debate coverage and discussing our thoughts. The version of me last election skimmed the transcript of one debate then read a few headlines to gleam who “won.” I had less of a concept of what it means to act with a vote and no concept about the impact of local politics. Of course, I assume the transformation into adulthood will only be complete when we stop referring to ourselves as “grownups.”

I’m more cynical these days too. I question people’s motives. I hesitate before giving my trust. I’ve been burned and the naïve part of me was lost in that damage.

However, I now have a greater sense of self. This trip, I’m no longer seeking a better understanding of “who I am.” I just want to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in four years. I’m not selfishly expecting them to “teach me” or show me humility. I will gladly spend the entire time sitting with a friend and drinking tea on a step while enjoying each other’s company.

Of course, I can’t just sit still. I plan on learning from my Ugandan colleagues about their current health program needs. After we determine their priorities, we will work together to develop a plan for how we can develop new sustainable programs. One of the things I can’t wait to explore is how I’ll be able to apply my new public health lens to our program development. 

Keep in touch and I’ll keep you tuned in to my next chapter. This one will be exciting, over in a flash, and most likely emotional.  
Bon voyage!