…and now this is Christmas

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It is Christmas and I am in Masaka…..

Everything is different here. The sun was shining brightly, the birds are singing, it is a warm day with temperatures in the high 20… it is T-shirt weather. How can that be Christmas? Christmas is suppose to be cold and rainy with snow occasionally.

When I left Canada, the plan was for me to be gone one year so thoughts of bringing Christmas decorations did not cross my mind…. Therefore, I do have any Christmas decorations… I have no tree to put up, no decorations or ugly angels to put on the tree, no snow flakes for the windows, no poinsettias to enjoy. How can it be Christmas? I do have some Christmas Cards given to me my a few of the clinic staff, some teachers, and friends. I have taken these and made a display on my coffee table along with a small wooden African Nativity set. But these are in Kibaale….. I did not bring anything with me to Masaka. But some dear friends of mine came prepared and their house is decorated with a Christmas tree and lights, angels, stockings and presents under the tree. ……………….. But that is not the case for most of Uganda I am familiar with.

The stores in Kibaale have no decorations, no Christmas carols, no displays, no place where parents can have a picture of their child taken with Santa, no last minute sales, no folks running around trying to find the perfect gift for a certain someone, no traffic jams….. It looks like it could be any day of the year.

Some of the stores in Masaka have decorations but not all…. You may see a plastic or metal Christmas tree with a few miss-matched Christmas decorations at the entrance to one of the shops…. The trees look like they just came out of the box as if the person putting it up has never seen a Christmas tree. No one is greeting you with the familiar words “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”…………. There are no displays to check out…. things like Christmas cards, wrapping paper and ribbons are not out and easy to find. It just does not feel like Christmas.

No one I know owns a TV ……so, there is no count downs to Christmas, no Christmas specials to watch, no school Christmas concerts to attend since school has been out since the beginning of December….. Can it truly be Christmas?

A few days ago, I went to Kampala to do some shopping. I bought a few extra things like lamp chops, liver paste and sausage all of which are not available anywhere else in Uganda…. I bought a few presents for the five kids I will be spending Christmas with. Kampala was into Christmas… the big grocery store was filled with many big displays, people shopping, carols, and cashier greeting you with “Merry Christmas”…… In the mall was a small hut with a Santa sitting in the middle of it…. but there were no lines of small children or parents wanting their child to have a picture with Santa…. no one appeared to be interested. Could it be Christmas?

I have asked everyone from the clinic staff to many of the Kibaale teachers and students as well as the security guards in both Kibaale and in Masaka…….. how do you celebrate Christmas?

Without a question of a doubt, I received the same answer….. It is a time to celebrate. The day starts early in the morning with the preparation of the festival of food. It is the one day in the year when everyone will have meat to eat. After the preparations are completed; everyone goes to church. After the service is over, it is time to feast with family and friends. “It is the best day ever!!!!”….

It seems that if at all possible …. family members travel back to their home village to celebrate with parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. It maybe the only time in the whole year when everyone gets together.

This morning, I went to church and found this little church full of Ugandans men, women and children all dressed up in what looks like new clothes. The service was very simple but participatory from the youngest child to the oldest father. It was a loud, joyous, exciting, with amazing music ………we were all there for one purpose only and that was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ…. for his birth is the true reason for this celebratory season..

So….. I came to realize that Christmas in Uganda in many ways is the same as in Canada…..It is not so different after all.

Merry Christmas everyone and a Happy and Prosperous New Year 2013.

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…. a comedy of errors

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A few weeks ago, it was Sunday morning and I was still not feeling very well. I was not sick enough to stay in bed; and not sure if I wanted to get out of bed…. I was very tired with a lingering cough from a cold. As I was laying in my bed, I noticed that my daniadown quilt I brought from Canada has a few small holes and a large number of goose feathers had escaped. My little mosquito net tented bed was nicely decorated with small white feathers….. and I wonder if the reason I was not getting better was that I was breathing in some microscopic fibers from the feathers……

So, I made a plan to change the sheets, and air out the bed; repair the small holes then hang the daniadown quilt on the line outback and let the hot sunshine give it new life. As I was putting the quilt on the line, I noticed that the cleaning ladies had done a large load of washing and left the linens on the line. I decided to be kind and take the linens of the line when I took in my quilt…..

With some found energy, I made myself a good lunch of roasted chicken with rosemary and lemons, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes…. this is a real treat for me because it takes too much time and more often than not the various items are not available. Lunch was delicious……and as I was enjoying my meal, I was answering emails.

Suddenly and to my great surprise… I heard thunder and lightning and the gentle falling of rain on my tin roof…I ran out to collect the linens. I quickly decided since it appeared to be a gentle rain that I would leave my quilt on the line and it could be lightly rinsed. I got all the linens in when the rains came pouring down…..

For the next 2 hours, I watched from my open front door the thunder and lightning flashing across the sky; rain driving horizontal with such thickness the hedge in front of my house feet away became invisible…. it was truly a show of nature’s power……. and as the storm continued to rage, I watched the water level at my front door slowly raising with great possibility of my kitchen and living room also being flooded… I already had a light covering of water in my bathroom and bedroom….. and in all this I wondered about my quilt.

The storm ended, the rains stopped …..with the water level less than a half inch away from crossing the sill into my house. I waited and watched the water quickly disappearing wondering if my quilt had survived the storm and what was I going to find. I walked to the back of my house to find my quilt on the ground. I went to put it back on the line but did not see the large army of “red” ants or biting ants which had survived the storm under my quilt…. Within seconds they were climbing up my legs, on my arms and moving quickly over my body…

I ran as fast as possible over the wet soggy ground into my house were I stripped out of my floor length caftan…. I watched hundred of ants ran in all directions while I was pulling them off my neck and face and out of my hair and….. oops, they were also in my panties and bra.

I cautiously slogged through the 1/2 inch of water into my bathroom and quickly removed my underwear; turned on the tap to wash any remaining ants away………………but I had NO… NO…. NO water…

The only way I have water is to collect the rain water off my roof into a very large reservoir; then when the generator is on pump water up to a 50 gallon drum on the roof… this gives me running water.

With no running water and in desperation, I used the water off the floor to dislodge, wash away any of the remaining ants….

Now, all I could think about was having a hot shower… I felt dirty..

As I was thinking about the hot shower, I realized that for some reason the generator was on. I could pump water!!!!!!!!!! The switch for pumping is in the adjoining guest house. Very carefully, I stepped around the thick red mud and opened the door…. I may have taken 5 or 6 steps when I slipped and fell hitting my head and back on the tile floor. I slide crashing into the bathroom door with my right foot. As I lay on my back looking up at the ceiling, I realized that my screams would not be heard since school was out, and my next-door-neighbours were in Kampala for the weekend… So, I prayed and prayed. I was not willing to lay of this floor and have someone find me… It was not going to happen!!!!!……. Slowly, I tried to get up and on the third attempt I was successful.

With great care, I walked across the floor and flipped the water switch…. It normally takes 30 to 45 minutes to pump the 50 gallon drum full of water and i know it is full when the water starts to pour out of the pipe at the top of the barrel. I guess I was not counting the minutes because the next thing I know the water is streaming down on top of me… It was only a few seconds before I was out of the way moving cautiously to turn of the water.

A few minutes later, I was back in my house enjoying a hot shower. Normally, I am very careful not to use large amounts of water because I do not want to run out during the dry season BUT that Sunday, I did not care; I just wanted to be clean and warm. As I was enjoying the hot shower, I realized that my back, and toes did not hurt. I was absolutely sure that I had at least two broken toes…..but when I looked down I saw healthy pink toes with no swelling or bruising. The only thing I had was a slight headache.

Then I heard knocking at my door…… and a lovely voice calling out “Margo, are you home?”

Patricia, a teacher who has been talking to me about learning how to bake cakes in an oven had arrived. She was hoping that I had time to teach her how to bake a cake. She saw the mess my house was in due to the water on the floor and hundreds of ants scurrying about and she helped me clean up. After a refreshing cup of hot tea, we baked.

Later that night, I realized, I was not alone…. Father God was watching over me and keeping me safe…… Patricia stayed until dark, about 7 pm baking a cake, then banana muffins and finally caramel icing.

After Patricia left, I had two more visitors each coming to check and see how I had survived the storm…..

PS…. the quilt, my back, toes and head all have survived the comedy of errors….

…… applications for the first grade

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On Monday and Tuesday of this past week, the compound was full of screaming excited 5 and 6 year old boys and girls. The energy level was outrageous…. Kibaale Community School was accepting applications for the first grade… or for those in Uganda, Nursery 1. In Canada and in the USA the new school year starts in September but in Uganda the beginning of the next grade or the start of school is the last week in January.

At 8 am on both days, there was a line up at the gate to enter. All the mothers came dressed in their finest goma (an Ugandan dress)….. there was a bright array of colourful dresses covering the grassy lawn just outside the sponsorship office. Each mother had to speak with one of the office staff since many mothers do not read or write but know the importance of a good school…. Kibaale has a very fine reputation since many of the students are able to pass the various exams which allow a student to continue their education as far as university.

The reason why I am writing this blog is because after two days of craziness….the sponsorship office staff were able to complete over 500 applications. Yes, over 500 mothers wanted their little James, Janet, Joyce or Johnny to get one of the possible 45 seats available in Nursery 1 at Kibaale Community School….

The sponsorship staff will spend the month of January going over every application carefully; then going out into the community and seeing which ones of these 500 plus students are the most needy…. because the hope is that each one of these new students will find a sponsor who will help them with their education….

In this rural part of Uganda …. education of one child is very expensive for the average family…. and no family has just one child. Many families in this area have more than 4 children. Beside their own children, it is not unusual for a family to take in one or two or three children who have been left, abandoned for a variety of reasons: death of mother, father departed and left the mother with all the kids to care for, lack of family ability to support all the children and family members with AIDS, poor crops, and abuse to name a few…..

Education gives the child… the family…… and the community hope and the opportunity for everyone to move forward and grow. There are presently four members of the clinic staff who were born and raised in Kibaale area, completed their education in various cities across Uganda with financial support from sponsors and now have chosen to return to Kibaale and give back to their community….. I think it is amazing!!!!!!

….. December 1, 2012

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December 1 is World AIDS Day…..

A few weeks ago, in late November, Rakai District sent all clinics a notice that they were a little short of funds for the events plan for World AIDS Day. After much discussion with various people, we decided to help support the event….. as I was handing over the shillings to one of the coordinator, I was graciously invited to come and see what was happening…. I had not thought about going until that moment.

The theme for this year is “Re-awakening leadership against AIDS”. Rakai District was going to have there celebration at Kasensero (Ca-sense-ee-row). Now, I have never been to this village but was told it was a very small fishing village on Lake Victoria near the Tanzanian boarder and the trip from Kibaale to Kasensero would take anything from 2 to 4 hours… This would all depend on the road and security. I understood that most of the trip would be on a single lane dirt road… what I mean is that only one vehicle can travel on the road at a time. The first vehicle has to move over and hang off the side of the road to let a second vehicle pass. What I did not understand was security….. everyone believed that the President of Uganda was coming to this event. I could understand why anyone was going to travel to the far end of Uganda to this place in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, I was interested in finding out what was happening with AIDS in Uganda. The clinic has the ability to test for AIDS and we counsel every patient who has been tested…. but we do not have or prescribe antiviral medications this is done at a government clinic.

The clinic was closed and seven of us left Dec 1 at 8:30 for Kasensero. We got as far as Ssanje (sand-gee) which is on the main road leading to Tanzania. We stopped for a few minutes which turned out to be many as one large white vehicle with black lettering stating UN passed us by. After the UN convoy passed by, I moved in behind the last truck and headed off down the road…. but by the time we reached the turn off… they were long gone. I was surprised at the speed they were traveling down this rugged, narrow dirt road.

Less than 30 minutes later, a dark blue police jeep pulled up behind me with sirens on… I pulled over to let at least 20 large, black, shiny impressive cars passed by….. Once again I moved into behind the last one and tried to follow them down the road but I was uncomfortable traveling at those speeds….. I may have gone a 3 or 5 miles when another dark blue police jeep pulled up beside me this time and told me to move over…. and another long convoy of big, black shiny cars passed me by. By now, the clinic staff were positive the President was coming to this AIDS Day events but I had my doubts.

Finally, at 11 o’clock we arrived and found parking in an off the road field; went through security where I was told I could not bring in my camera…..and was directed to seats under one of the six or seven large tents set up for various dignitaries. The next 2 1/2 hours was one set of amateur entertainment after another…. I made me think we were waiting for some… It was truly local talent from numerous school music and dance groups to a high school marching band to two young boys doing acrobatics…… Finally, the activities changed and became more like the start of the program… it was because the President of Uganda had arrived…. He walked into the small circle of tents and passed by the many booths promoting various items, programs or agencies for the fight against or supporting those with AIDS.

Once the national anthem of Uganda and AIDS had been played the speeches started…. I asked the staff what was being said but no one was willing to translate…. after numerous speeches, a little girl come up to the mike and just by her actions I guess that she was telling the President about her life with AIDS…. The clinic staff finally translated her story… she was an orphan, both parents and grandparents had died of AIDS…….. she asked the President for the necessary medications to kept her healthy, a new house and a new school since both were falling down….. It was just then that I understood the everyone’s speech as really a request for money.

There were two English speeches…. the first one was by an UN representative, Janet Jackson, presented the following information…. today, Uganda’s is one of two countries in Africa where the rate of AIDS has increased. In the beginning, Uganda was the example to all countries and governments how to educate about the ABCs for the prevention of AIDS, (A = abstinence; B = Be faithful during marriage; C = use condom); how to ensure that those affected receive the necessary antiviral medications; and how to support those living with the infection. But over the past few years things have changed….now 50% of those tested are positive and only 50% of those infected will receive antiviral medications. Unprotected sex and mother to baby transmission accounts for 99% of all cases…..

The second speech was from a gentleman who represented the international partners…. he expressed the deep concerns the foreign partners had as to why things had deteriorated over the past few years to cause a significant increase in Uganda’s rate of the infection.

By 3:30, I was hungry and the speeches were continuing… I had obtained the information I want… so we walked down the narrow vehicle filled street to see Lake Victoria and find some lunch which was fresh fish…. I would not call this village picturesque in any way…there was no motels, no hotels, no gas stations, no restaurants overlooking the lake with patios where you could enjoy a cup of coffee or tea… the village was made of old broken down wooden huts which look like they would fall down with the next wind storm…. it was foul smelling and dirty. I could not understand why a large event like this would take place in this village…. I later learned that the first case of AIDS in Uganda was from this village of Kasensero.

My plans were to leave at 4:30 so I could be home before dark… I do not like traveling on these road after sunset which is around 7 pm, but at 4:30, I quickly learned the President had just left…. Now, I had to wait for all the police vehicles and all the other support vehicles to depart before I could even think about moving my land cruiser.

I was expecting the trip home to be faster and easier but I was truly wrong…. first of all, many of those who had attend the event were impatient and wanted to get home immediately and therefore demanded that I pull over and let them pass… So it was stop and start most of the trip into Ssanje. We had to stopped to check and see if everyone was O.K. for two accident where the vehicle had rolled over but each time we were told everyone was alright.

I was less than a half mile from the turn off to Kibaale in Ssanje when I saw a very large military helicopter surrounded by the same vehicles who had just passed me minutes ago….. just then one of the staff informed me that the President had two appointments that afternoon. They did not say where the second one was…. I thought it must be in Ssanje… and I was wrong.

I was half way to Kibaale when I came face to face with a dark blue police jeep coming straight at me… I quickly pulled over and learned that the President had gone to the small village of Mannya to open the school and new health clinic. Now…. the various police and military vehicles were not coming from behind me but were coming towards me…. and once again I had to pull over and wait for them all to pass….. I saw the President a second time.

Once I got to Mannya….. the narrow dirt road was filled with crowds of people and I was not able to pass for sometime….. the trip back to Kibaale was extremely challenging…. I did not want to hit anyone and everyone was in very good spirits celebrating the fact the President of Uganda and come to their village….

Yesterday, I spoke to all members of the clinic staff about the events of December 1, World AIDS Day and I expected the discussion to be about the fact the President had come to this remote village but the staff talked for sometime about what we as a clinic can do to educate the community about the AIDS epidemic and the ABCs (abstinence, be faithful and the correct use of condoms); the importance of testing and receiving counselling of the results and making sure the person who is infected receives the antiviral medications….