January 31, 2008

Life in South Africa

Those of you interested into a little news about the dominant issue in South Africa these past few weeks should check out this article from the New York Times. Let me just say I am getting quite good at driving through intersections with broken traffic lights. The power shortages interfere significantly with my attempts to update this blog, however.

January 30, 2008

“…is what bwings us together today.”

(Extra credit if you can identify the source of the title of this post.)

One of the many influences on my decision to work overseas was a camp counselor I once had who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. She had a lot of stories about her experience there that inspired me to do something similar when I got older. The only story I remember now, however, is the one she told about the repeated marriage proposals from the chief of her village, who offered a handsome price in cows if she would become his fifth wife. At the time, the story struck me as far-fetched. The idea of offering cows for a woman and seriously pursuing a relationship like that seemed unrealistic and completely foreign to me. But now something similar is happening to me – it seems I am turning down marriage proposals all the time these days.

At first, it was fairly harmless. Every morning, I pick up one of our nurses Dorothy from the business her sister-in-law runs. I greet them as pleasantly as I can in Xhosa and exchange a little chit-chat. Dorothy’s sister-in-law now refers to me as her “future son-in-law” (at least, that’s how Dorothy translates it). Another time, I was at a post-church potluck and brought a pile of dishes to the kitchen to be washed. That act alone made one woman look at me and say, “I have three daughters. Pick any of one of them!”

Now, I’d like to think these women are attracted to my debonair and suave personality that naturally oozes out of me even when I’m fumbling to say “hello” in another language in a culture I barely grasp. On my more realistic days, though, it’s clear that there might be something more appealing about my American passport and (perceived) wealth.

Lately, though, I’ve been fending off marriage proposals from women in Itipini. While eating lunch with the women in the kitchen the other day, one young mother in her early 20s served me a plate of food and said something in Xhosa. When I asked for it to be translated, I heard, “she says she wants to marry you because then she can cook for you every day.” (I like the food here but the thought of it every day was enough to turn me off the idea of marriage right there.) A few days later, an 18-year old mother said almost the same thing. These two young mothers have turned into a bit of a tag team and now repeatedly – and jokingly, they say – address me as “umyeni yam,” “my husband.” They sense my discomfort with the situation, which only makes them more relentless, even as I repeatedly address them as “bahlobo bam,” “my friends.”

Vuyelwa and Vuyelwa, potential future wives with potential future step-children.

Dealing with multiple marriage proposals is not covered in any safe-church training I’ve ever been a part of and it’s hard to come up with a culturally-relevant reason for declining the offer. I could say I’m too young but they’re younger and already have babies. I could say I’m too old for them but they’d insist I’m not. “Not ready yet” doesn’t seem to translate the way I want it to. The word for like and love is the same in Xhosa so if I say I don’t love them, I’m also saying I don’t like them, which isn’t true, nor is it even clear that love is a criterion in this situation. If I say I don’t have enough money, they just laugh and laugh wishing they had my income.

Finally, my friend Noxolo stepped in and prompted me to say I don’t have the lobola or bride-price that is traditionally paid in cows from the groom to the bride’s family. “Andinayo ilobola” – “I don’t have the bride-price” – seems to be a satisfactory answer for now.

Gone Shoppin'

Since the school year began, I’ve been meeting with the five young women in Itpini who are in high school to help them with their English. Last Friday we took our relationship to another level: we went shopping together.

The purpose of the trip was to buy them the new uniforms they need for the new school they are attending. When I dreamed up the trip, I thought, “Surely, this can’t be that difficult. It’ll be a quick jaunt into town, we’ll buy the stuff, and be done with it.” We left Itipini at about 2:30 and three hours later, after they had confirmed every stereotype about women and shopping, I realized just how wrong I had been.

My plan was to go to the Plaza, the relatively new shopping center in Mthatha that I had been told would have everything we needed. It seems like I end up at the Plaza several times a week for something or other but to my surprise none of my students had ever been there before. That meant we had to walk around the entire place, window-shopping in every store so they could get a sense of what was available. They finally settled on a store and, of course, had to try on a few pairs of trousers and shoes each. When I told them they could buy two pairs of socks each, a look of wonder came across their faces at the thought that they wouldn’t have to wear the same pair of socks every single day between now and December. We found a lot of what we needed, purchased those items, and prepared to move on. Three of them couldn’t find the right size trousers but I was happy we were making progress relatively quickly.

Our next stop was a store that sells exclusively school uniforms. It was small, crowded, stuffy, and sweltering and we all complained about the heat. But when these students finally got their sweaters, with the school logo emblazoned on the left breast, the look on their faces was even better than when I told them about the socks. Up until high school, students wear a plain black sweater and I think there was something magical about the school logo. Plus, I think they thought they were never going to get them and at 25 U.S. dollars a piece they were out of their normal range. The school also requires that the students wear a blazer but they were about 50 U.S. dollars each and the students seemed to think they could get by without them, though the way their eyes lit up when I pointed at them made it clear they really wanted them. At any rate, by this point I was running seriously low on cash.

I was still feeling pretty upbeat by this point so I decided we should stop for ice cream at a soft-serve place I visit often. I bought cones for all of us, assuming they would know what to do with them. But when I came back to the table, I found them holding their melting cones and staring at them uncertainly. It was clear they’d never had one before. Teaching the fine art of ice cream cone eating is harder than it sounds. Several horizontal cones and near misses later (do not, for instance, bite off the bottom of a melting cone and not expect to get ice cream all over your uniform), we had all had our treat and some pleasant conversation in our fractured Xhosa-English argot.

We still didn’t have those three pairs of trousers so we headed to another mall in town, the one they visit most frequently. This is where the day started to get long and the stereotypes started to pile up. On a good day, I loathe shopping for clothes. On a hot, busy Friday afternoon, with every store crowded with shoppers, it becomes almost impossible for me to tolerate. We again visited seemingly every store, again without any success, though plenty of trips to the fitting rooms and conversation in rapid-fire Xhosa about what the school would and would not accept and what looked best. (I think.)

By this point, it was getting late and stores were closing for the day and we still didn’t have the elusive three pairs of trousers. So these students started asking me to come get them on Saturday to finish the shopping. I resisted at first – work? on Saturday? – but then I realized I had absolutely nothing else to do and agreed to meet them the next morning, happy to see them again but disappointed we’d have to go shopping.

Our Saturday trip was much shorter. We again visited far too many stores but in a much brisker and more business-like manner. I actually enjoyed the chance to walk around a bit of Mthatha I wasn’t familiar with a group of people who are. In what I swear was the 47th-store we visited (I could be wrong; maybe it was the 48th), we finally found the right pair of trousers. Of course, then we had to go exchange a pair of shoes from Friday that didn’t fit quite right. But it was an accomplishment, nonetheless. They still need a few more items – official ties, for instance – that can only be purchased at school but we’ll take care of that this week. Last year’s frayed and tearing hand-me-down uniforms can at last be put to rest.

To outfit a high school student, I estimate it costs about 700 rand each or about 100 U.S. dollars. That is the bare minimum and means the student will be wearing the exact same set of clothes every week day between now and December. On top of this, there’s the school fees of 715 rand per quarter. Yikes!

January 27, 2008

Paying the bill

I continue to have education on the brain as I help sort out the school fees and uniforms for the Itipini children.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Mkuseli and I went to the primary school to pay the fees for 118 children. As I understand it, the idea is that the government is supposed to give grants to low-income families to help defray school costs but by the time the money arrives, it is needed for other pressing concerns – food, for instance – and doesn’t stretch far enough to cover school. So African Medical Mission, the NGO that runs the Itipini community center, pre-pays the school fees for any parent who requests it in the hope that they will eventually be repaid over time. They rarely are.

It was my first time at the school and it was about what I expected it to be – tremendously overcrowded classrooms, an insufficient number of chairs and desks, a lack of supplies, no bathrooms, and so on and so forth. I didn’t stay long as I couldn’t stand sitting and watching the school official hand write – with agonizing slowness, interrupted for conversation every now and again – 118 receipts. Plus, Mkuseli was more than capable of handling the situation himself. (Incidentally, I gave him the equivalent of five months of his salary in cash to pay the fees and he came back with absolutely every penny accounted for.)

For those of you interested, here’s how the numbers break down.

Grade I – 28 students, ranging in age from 6 to 10.
Grade II – 11 students, ranging in age from 7 to 12.
Grade III – 15 students, ranging in age from 9 to 14.
Grade IV – 20 students, ranging in age from 9 to 14.
Grade V – 12 students, ranging in age from 9 to 18.
Grade VI – 11 students, ranging in age from 11 to 16.
Grade VII – 9 students, ranging in age from 13 to 16.
Grade VIII – 7 students, ranging in age from 14 to 23.
Grade IX – 5 students, ranging in age from 14 to 18.

For grades I to III, it costs 60 rand a year or about 8 U.S. dollars. For the other grades, it is 80 rand or about 11 U.S. dollars.

Later in the week, Mkuseli and I tackled the purchasing of school uniforms. Many children wear hand-me-downs to school but for those that don’t have them and can’t afford them, AMM will purchase them as well. Here’s my estimation on how the prices break down.

Shirt – 20 to 30 rand
Trousers – 60 to 80 rand
Sweater – 60 to 80 rand
Shoes – 110 to 130 rand

That means a full uniform ranges from 250 to 320 rand per student, or about 35 to 45 U.S. dollars. That ends up being pretty steep, particularly the shoes, but given that the student wears the same set of clothes every single day for the whole year, the price per use is quite low.

None of this counts necessary school supplies, like books, paper, pencils, pens, backpacks that I’ve always seen as traditional back-to-school purchases and that are particularly necessary here, given the school’s lack of resources.

Have you ever bought 18 pairs of shoes, 36 shirts, 24 pairs of pants, and more all at once? It can be lot of fun, particularly when you try to pay the bulk of your several-thousand-rand bill with 20-rand notes. Mkuseli sent the store’s employees scurrying to find all the right sizes. He may be tiny but when he is put in charge of a situation, he assumes an authority and credibility that seem to give him another six inches at least. Not for the first time with him, I was happily reduced to the role of chauffeur. I also spent a lot of time in the fitting-room counting cash to see how much more we could afford.

On Friday afternoon, I took the five high-school students shopping for their uniforms. That was quite the experience but deserves its own post. Look for it soon.

January 24, 2008


As my time in Itipini continues, I am building closer relationships with people that are similar to the friendships I have with people in the U.S. or Canada. We are united by a unique set of experiences we have shared over time and have a specific set of memories we can associate with the other. Rather than being friendly with everyone in Itipini – though I still am – I am friends with specific people because I know them as individuals.

One person I’ve become close to is Noxolo (her name means “peace” in Xhosa). I first met her when she volunteered to be the support person for her brother Fumanekile, an HIV/TB patient I unsuccessfully tried to get on anti-retroviral drugs last fall/spring. The three of us went to several doctor’s appointments before Fumanekile’s condition deteriorated so much that he had to go to the hospital where he died.

I see Noxolo a lot because she helps out in the kitchen and sings in the choir. She has also shown particular interest in the development of my library and will take as many books as I’ll let her have. Over time, we’ve developed a friendly relationship, helped, no doubt, by the fact that her English is not bad. Even though we don’t have a lot in common – we are the same age but I don’t have three children or HIV, for instance, and I'm not a sixth-grade drop-out – we manage to joke and laugh together when we see each other.

I am now such a familiar presence in Itipini that I can just walk into the kitchen, sit down on the bench, and start chit-chatting with whomever happens to be around. I don’t take this for granted and I enjoy every opportunity that comes by, as, I think, do the women who work in the kitchen. (I enjoy the company; the enjoy laughing at my fractured Xhosa.) But it surprised even me the other day when I walked into the kitchen, sat down, and Noxolo immediately started serving me a plate of food. Normally, I only get food when I ask for it and I only ask for it when it’s clear there is extra. Since I couldn’t turn down the generosity (and, c’mon, I was hungry), I accepted the food, trying not to remember that the pre-school children actually hadn’t eaten yet.

The other day I was in the kitchen and became captivated, as I normally do, by two young boys who are the sons of two of the ladies who work in the kitchen.

Bongamusa and Simnikiwe

Eventually, as frequently happens, we ended up on the ground playing together. One of the women in the kitchen told me I’d get my clothes dirty and I said I didn’t mind. Noxolo said something like, “You don’t care because you don’t have to wash your clothes by hand. You have a machine.” She made an exaggerated and amusing pantomime of the hard work she has to do to clean her clothes and the easy job of it I have. I shrugged and admitted this was true. (I figured it wouldn’t help to mention that my cleaning lady sometimes does the laundry for me.)

Even as I become “one of the gang” and more a part of the “furniture” of Itipini, it helps to be reminded that there are still significant differences between me and the people I aspire to serve. That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, though.

Give a five year-old a camera...

...and eventually he'll take a picture worth posting.

January 22, 2008

Live and Learn

Missionaries operate in a bit of a delicate role in their new environments. Traditionally speaking, missionaries have been better educated, better connected, and better off than the people they go to help. Together, these make missionaries more powerful than those being served. But the people they go to help have not traditionally invited the missionaries to come to their homes. Rather, missionaries have decided to take their power and put it in service to those without. (How “service” is defined is a whole other matter.)

During our mission training, we spent a lot of time on the idea that we can learn more from those we serve than we can ever give them. This helps us to come to terms with that massive power differential by reminding us the missionary is first and foremost a guest and the people we serve have gifts and talents – sources of power – that are frequently overlooked. It has the added virtue of being one hundred per cent correct. I knew coming into my time in Itipini that I should be prepared to do more learning than giving and I was looking forward to all that learning. As I hope you’ve been reading on this blog, what I am gaining from this experience is monumental compared to the microscopic things I am giving back.

So there are – at least – two compelling reasons to be a missionary. One is to serve those less powerful than you. The second is to learn from and respect those whom you serve. This allows missionaries to use their massive relative power in the most helpful way possible. But what happens when those two reasons are at odds with one another?

Here’s an example: last fall/spring (I still haven’t got my head around the southern hemisphere), a woman in Itipini suffered severe burns across much of her body and was taken to the hospital. After a few days there, she became so dissatisfied with the care, she checked herself out and came home. We dressed her wounds at the clinic but it was clear she needed more attention than we could give her. We begged and pleaded with her to return to the hospital for the attention she needed but she steadfastly refused. Eventually, she died.

We – the powerful, Western-educated volunteers at the clinic – wanted to serve this patient as best as possible by helping her get the best care possible. But we also did not want to disrespect her agency, her context, her decisions, even though it was obvious to me that she was making an irrational decision that – had she the education I had – she would not have made.

I can cite a whole host of examples of this: the HIV-positive patient who won’t use condoms; the patient who qualifies for anti-retroviral drugs but will not begin the process to get on them, for any number of reasons; the mother who will not take her obviously dying HIV-positive daughter to the hospital because she doesn’t want to wait in line (I wish I were making that one up).

The solution to this dilemma is to build up the power of those you serve so that they make decisions on the basis of the same knowledge as you have. This is why education is so important and why “empowerment” and “capacity building” are justifiably buzzwords. The trouble is that to do any of this effectively takes enormous amounts of time and HIV and burns kill much faster. This leaves the missionary in an uncomfortable position. Either he ends up mandating behaviour to people whose guest he is, with the likely result that the mandate will be ignored, or he lets the person make her own decision and has to watch the predictable results unfold, powerless to stop them.

Two common sayings spring to mind. First, “Give me a fish, feed me for a day; teach me to fish, feed me for a lifetime.” But the aphorism has nothing to say about how long it takes to teach someone to fish or about what can be done in the interim. Second, “Live and learn.” But what happens if they don’t live?

January 20, 2008

Young At Heart

I was talking with an Itipini student the other day whose English is reasonably good. She asked me why I wasn’t in school and I said I was too old for school. She said, “Too old? You don’t act serious enough to be old!”

I wished I had the Xhosa vocabulary to explain, “you have to grow older but you don’t have to grow up” or explain the concept of “young at heart.” But I don’t so I just laughed and laughed. It was the best thing anyone has said about me in a long time.

January 18, 2008

The resourceful missionary, who also happens to be a total softy

Of all the hundreds of families in Itipini, we’ve managed to muster five young women – at least two of whom are mothers – who want to go to high school. (When I learned this, not for the first time I despaired of the future of my gender.) As I noted, this is an expensive proposition – school fees, books, and uniforms will likely run to $500 U.S. per student for the year – but they are committed students and are serious about their education. I had so much fun describing my trip to Uganda in the present tense that I think this next story – a blow-by-blow of 45 minutes of the mission of reconciliation – is best told the same way.

I show up to work on Thursday morning and the five young women are waiting patiently outside the clinic as they’ve been told. They need to show us some receipts from the school to prove they’ve registered. Everything is order and they ask me for a ride to school. “It’s raining,” they say. Since I’m total softy, I agree. But once we’re on the road, there’s another request – they need passport-size pictures of themselves for their school applications. They seem to think I can produce those with my digital camera. I can’t.

Of the five young women, only one speaks English with any skill and while I am initially impressed, I quickly realize her comprehension is not as good as I thought it was. So I simultaneously try to drive down the muddy roads and explain in my fractured Xhosa that I can’t get them the pictures. As I’m doing this, I remember from my frequent trips last fall to get my visa extended that women wait outside the Department of Home Affairs and take I.D. pictures. So I immediately head downtown.

I imagine we are quite a sight when we get out of the car, five young women in school uniforms and one tall, white guy in shorts and t-shirt. I also stand out for another reason, the students tell me: “You hurry everywhere!” (In the Transkei, moving at anything faster than an amble is not common practice.) I just want to get them to school. We find a woman who will take their picture, they pose, and the Polaroids develop quickly. I pay what I think is an extortionate sum – even after I have haggled for a while – for the pictures and we return to the car.

But there’s another problem, which takes me a minute to grasp in our fractured English/Xhosa. They need a stapler to attach the pictures to the application. By this point, I am stuck in the middle of downtown Mthatha traffic but I have another great idea. An internet café I frequent is close by so I pull in there, hoping for a stapler. They have one but it’s a new employee who doesn’t recognize me so I have to beg and plead to take the stapler out to the car for a moment. He finally agrees and I run outside. (“You hurry everywhere!” I hear again.) We affix the pictures, I return the stapler, and we are on the road again.

I have no idea where the school is but all five young women know and have a different way of getting there and insist on giving directions – in Xhosa – simultaneously. We take a few wrong turns before I listen to just one and we finally arrive. The gate to the school is closed when we get there and we have to wait for several minutes for the security guard to show up and open it for us. They want a ride right to the door of the school (“It’s raining”). Since I’m a total softy, I agree. But I put my foot down when they ask to be picked up in the afternoon. The school looks jam-packed with students trying to register and I wonder how big the class sizes are. I drop them off, hoping everything is in order with their applications. We agree to meet Friday afternoon for the first of what will hopefully be many English lessons. They have shown an interest in the library I’m building up so hopefully I can put that to good use with them.

When I get back to Itipini, I see another young woman who I know is of high school age walking around and I ask her why she isn’t in school. We don’t have enough language in common for me to understand her answer but I do understand her dismissive shrug and the words, “I’m going to town.” Five is better than none, I suppose, but it’s not everyone.

POSTSCRIPT: We had our first English class this afternoon and read "Where the Wild Things Are." To my great surprise and delight it is far too easy ("lula kakulu") for them so I immediately assign harder books for the weekend.

Back to School

I’ve got education on the brain because school started again this week in South Africa after the summer break. Children here have to pay fees to go to the public schools, for the necessary uniforms, and for the books as well. As you can imagine, that’s a bit difficult for many of the unemployed people in Itipini so the African Medical Mission fronts the fees for the children and the parents pledge to (but rarely do) pay it back. It has been a logistically-challenging and hectic week as we try to sort out which child needs which size uniform, which books, and which grade he or she should be in. But for the most part, things run pretty smoothly and children are going back to school.

I’ve learned a lot in the process and here are some things that interested me.

  • The schools don’t have places for all the children who want to go. According to the news, class sizes are over 50 (they’re supposed to be capped at 35 or so) and still schools are turning away “thousands” of students because they simply cannot fit them.
  • Not every child in Itipini has a mother or father who cares enough to make sure they sign up for school. We try to make things as easy as possible for people but still I see many children running around during the day who are not in school. Part of me wants to corral all these children, put them in uniforms, march them off to school, and pay their fees. But I know it wouldn’t last. I won’t be there every morning to get them dressed, feed them, and send them off to school. The impetus for education needs to come from the child or the family.
  • The school day, particularly for the primary students, is not all that long. I think they start around 8 and are generally back around noon or 1.
  • School fees – not including uniforms and other necessary supplies – for primary students is about 80 rand for the entire year, which is less than $15 U.S. For high school students, it is a totally different story. The school fees alone for the high school are 715 rand per term, more than $100 U.S. per term or $400 per year. Even South Africans with jobs have difficulty paying that.

It is really easy to be negative about the educational future these children face and I have succumbed to those thoughts at times this week. But what has kept me upbeat is seeing the pre-school children who graduated last December march off to school in their new uniforms. They have that same combination of nerves and excitement that children around the world must get as they prepare for a major transition in their young lives. I only hope they can continue on the path they are starting out on this week.


In keeping with the economic trends of the times, I am outsourcing this post to my missionary colleagues John and Matt.

John wrote a great piece about solitutude (inter alia) about which I'll have more to say later.

Matt wrote a great piece of about the wonder of new experiences.


January 15, 2008

Coming Down From The Mountain

One of my favourite Gospel stories is the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). It’s not so much what happens to Jesus that I like – though that’s fine, too – but what happens afterwards. Peter urges the group to stay on top of the mountain where Elijah and Moses are. But Jesus and his hand-picked Apostles don’t. They come down from the mountain and return to the difficult work of ministry that ultimately leads to the crucifixion. The message I – and a gazillion preachers on Transfiguration Sunday – have seen in this story is that we can’t always stay where it is comfortable and pleasant. These high moments are only a respite from the true work that goes on below.

In some ways, I feel like that in my first few days back in Itipini after my trip to Uganda. Uganda was definitely a mountaintop moment and one I’ll cherish for a while. For one thing, I’ve had to re-adjust to a lot more alone time. One of the great blessings of Uganda was spending so much time with friends my own age, who are familiar with my context and culture and speak the same language (you learn not to take all those things for granted when you’re an ex-pat). While we occasionally got on our nerves, it was overall wonderful to see John and Matt every day.

Then there is my return to work. My first day back in Itipini was the hottest I’ve felt yet. I’d like to say that the heat doesn’t affect my productivity or attitude but it’s clearly not the case. For another thing, it was a quiet day so there wasn’t a lot to do. I was immediately confronted with that whole doing/being thing I think about all the time but had skillfully evaded in Uganda.

Reality really set in when I caught up on the goings-on over our two-week break. Actually, I shouldn’t say goings-on; I should say deaths. There were at least four while we were closed, including the HIV-positive woman my age I’d invested a lot of emotion in and a 15-month old baby I’d taken to the hospital a few times. The condition of another of our HIV/TB patients deteriorated markedly over the break and he is now skin and bones. Part of me is becoming resigned to this part of this job – people with HIV are going to die and nothing I do will prevent that – but it is still sobering to think that while I was on vacation in Uganda, the suffering in Itipini did not take a holiday.

I know there are very good reasons for taking breaks – I know the 4th commandment – and I don’t for a moment think it is wrong for the clinic to close for the holidays or for me to go to Uganda. Still, that mountaintop experience is over and it is back to work.

January 12, 2008

Viva Uganda!

I am back – safe and sound – from 12 days traveling through Uganda. My fellow missionary Matt and I went to visit our colleague John, who is working in Gulu, Uganda. Gulu is in the north of the country and was/is the center of the government’s war against the rebellious Lord’s Resistance Army. John is working for the Diocese of Northern Uganda trying to minister to some of the internally-displaced people who live around Gulu and former child soldiers who’ve been abducted at some point in the last 20 years.

Jesse, John, Matt

Put simply, the trip was a terrific time. I saw a good deal of a beautiful country with friendly, welcoming people, caught up with my friends, discussed mission, marched for peace, danced in the new year with Ugandans, dodged a charging elephant (not quite, but, you know…), was pulled over by the military, and had my eyes opened even wider to some of the wonderful diversity of this great continent. It’s hard to describe now the impact this trip has had on me – I think that will become clear only with time – but it was tremendously influential. My thanks to the good people of Alaska, whose wisdom in creating the Permanent Fund helped fund part of the trip.

In place of reflection on the trip, herewith a day-by-day recount of the highlights for those of you so interested. You might not want to read it all at once. (John has also posted a substantially shorter version of the first few days of our time together)

Day 1 – Friday, December 28
Our missionary friend Stephen drops Matt and I off at the Port Elizabeth airport early in the morning. Stephen and his mother are on their way to Cape Town for New Year’s and we had dinner together last night. Our travel is smooth and I spend a long layover in Jo-burg salivating over all the books in the international departure terminal, though I buy nothing. I marvel at the destinations listed on the departures screen – Manzini! Maseru! Mauritius! – and make a mental list of places to go next.

Our flight to Uganda is smooth and I walk across the tarmac of Entebbe airport trying not to think about Israeli commandos. We have a bit of a hiccup at customs as we don’t have visas and the 20 U.S. dollars, 10 Canadian dollars, and couple hundred South African rand in my wallet aren’t enough to get me in. But the agent lets me through to an ATM and stamps my passport once I hand over the 90-thousand Ugandan shillings, about 50 U.S. dollars.

John is waiting for us outside with a friend who lives in Kampala, Rev. Ali. We return to Ali’s house and I am immediately struck by how many people are out on the streets after dark. In South Africa, people head inside once the sun sets.

Rev. Ali and his family have only been in their house for three weeks and it is very much a work in progress. The floors are still concrete and there appears to be only one lightbulb in the whole place. John, Matt, and I pull out our headlamps and set up camp on the floor. It’s just like a slumber party except we sleep under mosquito nets. Sleeping under a mosquito net makes me feel vaguely royal.

Over dinner, I begin to try to learn a few words in Luo, the dominant African language in Gulu. Despite my best efforts over the course of the entire trip, the only word I remember is “pi” (pronounced like our “pee”), which means water. This still strikes me as funny even now.

Day 2 – Saturday, December 29
We are up before the sun and Ali gives us a ride to the post office where we’ll catch the post bus to Gulu. Not for the last time, I marvel at how quickly the equatorial sun rises and how quickly it gets hot. Before we leave we get a nice view from Ali’s place over some of the rolling hills of Kampala to Lake Victoria.

The drive into Kampala is eye-opening and puts in perspective some of the chaos of Mthatha I deal with every day. In between the swerving boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis), minibus taxis, private cars, street vendors, and other actors all creating a chaotic commute, I see newspaper headlines trumpeting Raila Odinga’s apparent victory in the Kenyan presidential elections. Ali spots them too and says, “I really admire Kenya. Soon they will have two ex-presidents living in their country. In Uganda, everything is by the gun.” (Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, seized power by force in 1986 and has been around ever since. His picture is everywhere, not in a Stalin-esque way but in a tasteful, restrained, an-8-by-10-picture-is-on-every-wall sort of way.)

The post bus is a rickety school-bus-like contraption and nothing at all like the coaches I am used to in South Africa. Ali drops us off just a few minutes before it departs and we are lucky to find seats way in the back. At first, the ride is uneventful through the Kampala traffic but as we leave town the road worsens, our speed increases, and – as every school-bus rider knows – when you sit at the back of the bus the bumps are bumpier and the swerves swervier. That’s fun for a seven-year old on a 15-minute ride home from school but less fun when you have 7 more hours of it to look forward to. Theoretically, Ugandans drive on the left side of the road but we are all over the place looking for the best route among the potholes and assorted other traffic. The shoulders slope substantially, which put the bus at an angle every time we end up on the side of the road. I later learn this drive only used to take 3 hours but a combination of war, neglect, and corruption have destroyed the road.

The bus is crowded and there are some children standing in the aisle next to me. That strikes me as not quite fair so I pick one up and set him on my lap. Later, his sister joins me and for about 250-kilometers we bounce along together, barely hanging on to our seat at times. They love it. So do I. When the bus stops, people try to sell us food and I manage to feed John, the two children, their three other siblings, and myself for less than 3 U.S. dollars. To alleviate the boredom at one point – John and I had been doing a lot of talking – I pull out my Bible and the 9-year old girl on my lap reads me Genesis 1 and the Beatitudes. Nine-year old children I know in South Africa can barely speak English, let alone read it. To date, this is the only Bible-based evangelism I’ve done in Africa.
My traveling companions on the ride north

Uganda is dramatically different to South Africa, which is to be expected in two countries that are 30-degrees latitude apart. The animals – in particular the huge stork-like birds – are impressive. I am also impressed at the number of people who speak English and I must confess to being surprised that so many Africans can understand me so well. It is a new experience. I had always thought the word “mzungu” was a bit of a joke. Surely no one uses it seriously? But they do and I have been called “mzungu” – or its Luo synonym “muna” – many times by the end of the day.

We finally arrive in Gulu and I am at first struck by its similarities to Mthatha – lots of street vendors, dusty, few tall buildings, and so on – but it is the differences that gradually come to dominate – the small number of private vehicles on the road, the number of United Nations’ SUVs, the lack of paved roads, and many more. I begin compiling a list of things I take for granted in Mthatha that John doesn’t have. Supermarkets, malls, and gas stations are at the top of the list.

We take bodas back to John’s place and it reminds me of my time in western Alaska when I rode into remote villages from the airstrip on the back of snowmachines or four-wheelers. The drivers try to charge us more than normal and when we protest, they reply in broken English that “the problem is the fuel.” (I mishear them at first and think they are saying “the problem is the female.” It seems an awfully brazen attempt to get more money for tonight’s date.) This is the first, but certainly not the last, we will hear about fuel in the coming days.
John and Matt getting off a boda

John’s place is nice but small and the three beds he has crammed into his room make it seem like a college dorm or a camp cabin, scenes we happily re-create over the next few days. My list of things I take for granted grows to include hot showers, decent water pressure, an oven, pasteurized milk, and ready access to potable water.

John shows us around Gulu in the evening. I particularly like the market and find a t-shirt I am sure I used to own several years ago. We end up at the Kope Café, an ex-pat hangout whose profits go to a local NGO. (Kope is pronounced “co-pay” and I can’t help but think of health insurance every time someone mentions it.) Mthatha may have more amenities than Gulu but I’d happily trade a few of our supermarkets for a coffee shop like Kope. We meet for the first time a group of students from Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Illinois who are in Gulu for a few weeks running some programs in the IDP camps.

We leave Kope after dark and ride bodas back to John’s. I am stunned to be out in an African city after the sun has set.

Day 3 – Sunday, December 30
We begin the day at church. John lives on the diocesan compound so the cathedral is just a short walk away. The word “cathedral” for me is usually associated with the words “Gothic,” “soaring,” or “inspiring” to name a few but this cathedral has a tin roof and very little decoration inside. The service is entirely in Luo but the preacher is kind enough to summarize his sermon in English for us.

We have lunch with John’s boss, the bishop of Northern Uganda, Nelson Onono-Onweng, and four English visitors who are the children of a missionary bishop in the 1950s and are re-visiting their old home for the first time in 40 years. It is nice not to be the featured guest and have to do all the talking.

After lunch, we begin talking about what other parts of the country we want to visit in our time here and I quickly become thankful for the transportation infrastructure in South Africa that has allowed me to see good parts of the country. In Uganda, we’ll have to ride back to Kampala before going any place else. Before the trip, we had talked about the idea of renting motorcycles to visit Murchison Falls National Park and other parts of the country. Unfortunately though, John has come up with two potential problems. The first is the tsetse flies in Murchison which could give us sleeping sickness. The second – and far more compelling as far as I am concerned – is, as John puts it, “there are things in Murchison that are bigger and faster than some guys on motorcycles and since we don’t know how to ride them, we don’t want to be figuring out how to put it in gear when we’ve got one of those chasing after us.” We also begin to hear more about a fuel shortage but don’t pay it much mind.

Afternoons in this part of Uganda are spent in the shade, I learn, and I happily play along, stringing up John’s hammock and taking his guitar outside. We end up at Kope again in the evening.

Day 4 – Monday, December 31
Gulu-area religious leaders have a peace march planned for today and we are invited. As we ride in town with Bishop Nelson – he’s wearing his purple cassock and sneakers – I am reminded of Desmond Tutu, whose biography I just finished. The march isn’t quite as significant as anything Tutu led but we have a grand time regardless. For one thing, we get free t-shirts emblazoned with the march’s theme – “women are peacebuilders by nature.” All the religious leaders are men.

The practically-shod bishop

Marching for peace

When we pray for war victims at the hospital, this patient watches.

It is hard for me to put in perspective just how important peace is to this region. It has only been in the last year that the Gulu region has begun to emerge from 20 years of war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army that has put thousands of people into refugee camps. Just a few years ago, the war was within reach of Gulu and it wasn’t safe to walk the 3 kilometers from town to where John lives now. Peace is apparently the only cause that unites the Catholic archbishop, the Orthodox bishop, the Anglican bishop, and the Muslim imam but they’ve been united in the cause for some time now and this march is only a small part of their broader effort to help resolve this conflict.

Coordination is not apparently a strong point for anyone in Gulu because another organization has also planned a march for today. It’s not quite clear to me what they are marching for – against poverty? for microfinance? nothing as snappy as peace to be sure – but they are much larger and louder than we are (better t-shirts no doubt). Amusingly for me, our paths cross at one point and we wait while they go by. A harried-looking police officer tries to direct two parades, bodas, minibuses, bicycles, and UN vehicles around a rotary, probably wondering why he got out of the bed that morning.

There’s a rally afterwards but we duck out as it is mostly in Luo and head for Mega FM, “better information and entertainment for Northern Uganda.” John has dared me to parlay my Alaska radio experience into air time in Gulu. We can’t get on air but we do get a tour of the station and I trade a KNOM hat for three Mega FM t-shirts.
Mega FM program director Oryema Justin Boswell and I in our new gear.

We also learn today that there is almost no fuel in Gulu. Uganda gets all its fuel from Kenya and the violence there has put a halt to all shipments across the border. Boda prices are shooting through the roof so we walk back to John’s. It’s a pleasant-enough walk and I enjoy the chance to wave at the shy children, buy some sugar cane, and make people laugh with our atrocious Luo.

It’s New Year’s Eve, of course, and we’ve made plans to meet our Lincoln pals at the Acholi Inn to ring in the new year. I had thought it would be a big mzungu party but when we show up, it’s pretty dead. Undeterred, the three Episcopal missionaries plus the 10 conservative Christians take to the empty dance floor and start showing off our best moves. Before long, the dance floor is packed with a couple hundred people – we are the only mzungus – and we pass the night dancing to the beat of Ugandan hip hop and traditional Acholi music. Despite the liberal amounts of alcohol flowing, this is an all-ages party and I see mothers dancing with sleeping babies on their backs. For those of you familiar with last year’s Governor’s Ball in Nome, I turn in a similar performance. I try a few swing dance steps and one or two things I’ve seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers do before realizing I’d better save them until I get back to my own country. I later learn I danced to an Acholi courtship song with a waitress from Kope. There are fireworks at midnight. It is a fantastic evening.

Day 5 – Tuesday, January 1
Our big plan for the day was to rent bodas and drive to Karooma Falls about 90 kilometers away. We passed Karooma on the way up and thought it would be great to spend a night camped on the edge of the Nile River. Plus, we’d get a chance to fulfill our Easy Rider vision without tsetse flies or lions to get in the way. Unfortunately, our plan is stymied when we realize the gas stations don’t have any gas and aren’t expecting any until next week.

Fate intervenes in the form of Daniel, a co-worker of John’s, who invites us over for lunch. It’s my first experience of the less developed and more haphazard section of Gulu but I feel very safe and the people are friendly. It must be bath day because there are lots of wet, naked children running around.

Daniel entertains us by popping in a burned DVD. We pass several hours watching American country and hip hop music videos that have been ripped and burned and re-ripped and re-burned until the quality is atrocious. It is somehow mesmerizing to watch Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw, et al. in such a foreign land, knowing if similar music came on at home, we would turn off the TV or switch off the radio. Not for the first time, I realize that for all the tremendous achievements of American culture, it is the most middling and mediocre that are on display to the world.

We make a stop at Kope before heading back towards John’s place. As it is a hot evening, and we want something cool to drink, we head down to the local bar. In South Africa, we would call this a shebeen or unlicensed liquor establishment and I wouldn’t feel safe in one after dark. Here, we are warmly welcomed by all and chitchat with the locals. On the way back, we pass several uniformed and armed soldiers casually sitting by the side of the road. They give us quite a scare.

As I take money out of the ATM today, I notice this sign, sparked by western Uganda’s recent Ebola outbreak. My favourite piece of advice is number 11.
Day 6 – Wednesday, January 2
With our Karooma plan in tatters, we are left a bit aimless in the morning. But just when you think you’ve seen all Gulu has to offer, the city surprises you with something else. This time it was a refreshing swim in the pool at the Acholi Inn. Of course, it happened on the one cloudy and cool afternoon of our time in Gulu but it is still refreshing, particularly as we are coated with dust and grime and sweat. (Cold water leads to short showers.)

Missionaries hard at work

I stop at Gulu’s lone craft shop on the way back from the pool and the owner tries to teach me to use a cow-horn whistle. I fail miserably but buy one anyway.
Surprisingly, our evening ends at Kope.

Day 7 – Thursday, January 3
Matt and I manage to score a ride to Murchison Falls National Park with the Lincoln students, who are wrapping up their time in Uganda with a trip there. They have booked through a tour company in Kampala and though it is expensive, it is the only way we can get there, given the fuel shortage, and John assures us it will be worth it.

The tour bus pulls in an hour late and it is but the first of many signs that we are in the hands of a most spectacularly and comically inept tour company. To make a very long story less long (too late), nearly everything that had been promised the Lincoln group – from mosquito nets, platform tents, an open-roofed vehicle, bedding, and much more – has not been provided. The tents they did have didn’t have enough poles to be set up properly. We take some wrong turns on the way there.

I inadvertently add to the general confusion. As we pass over Karooma Falls, I lean out the window to take some pictures. Apparently, there’s a military base near the top of the falls because a pair of soldiers is guarding the bridge looking for people just like me. They pull over the bus (moderately to severely embarrassing for me) and – after some rapid-fire conversation with our tour guide and driver in a language I don’t understand; I understand the AK-47s, though – make me delete my pictures and let us go on our way. Little do they know, however, that on the way up to Gulu, I got some even better snaps.

The forbidden falls

Amid (or because of) all this, it turns out to be a fantastic day. We get to the top of Murchison Falls just as the sun is setting and it is spectacular. The full force of the Nile River drops about 50 meters through a gorge about 9 meters wide. It is like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon rolled into one and the sun setting over the Nile in the distance is without compare.

At the entrance to Murchison – to forestall the obvious, let me say it, “Hey, I see two monkeys in that picture!”

Day 8 – Friday, January 4

We wake before sunrise and cross the Nile to begin the driving part of our safari. The ferry is basically a big sheet of metal with two tractor motors attached. I again marvel at how quickly the sun rises here and how quickly it gets hot.

Sunrise over the Nile

The game drive is superb. We see everything I’ve ever wanted to see and much more – giraffes, elephants, a lion, buffalo, and zillions of species of antelope. At one point, we turn a corner in the road and spot an elephant crossing in front of us. It is huge, much bigger than the puny guys I’ve seen in South Africa, and begins to walk toward us. The driver revs the engine and honks the horn but it keeps walking, picking up speed, flapping its ears and raising a cloud of dust. Since I’m sitting shotgun, I’ve got a great view and am leaning out the window with my camera, completely oblivious to the fact that we’re about to be charged by an elephant. Finally, just as the elephant is on us, it turns away and carries on its previous path. The bus driver admits he was terrified and our tour guide tells us how an elephant killed a tourist two years ago.

A less aggressive sight

Over lunch, Matt and I pull out the map and tour back and decide to head for the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria next. We had been thinking about heading west, towards the mountains on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo but the fuel shortage continues to complicate our plans and we decide to go one place and stay put for the remainder of our trip. We call John to update him on our plans; I’m really most interested in the Iowa caucus results and delight that I can be buried in the Ugandan bush and still find out what happened. (I also delight in the results. And for those of you who doubted my bold words about Mike Huckabee last March, well…)

In the afternoon, we take the river safari up the Nile to the falls. My goal for the boat trip was to see at least one hippo. We see 150 easily, along with the massive and spectacularly terrifying Nile crocodiles that are sunning on the shore with their jaws open. We also see plenty more elephants, though at a safer distance.

Everyone heads to bed early. Matt and I find ourselves sleeping on the bare ground in a hardly-screened-in entryway to a tent (malaria? what malaria?). He wakes me up around 11 because there’s a hippo grazing 30 feet away. Three tons of hippo is intimidating and I recall reading in the literature that hippos kill more people every year than any other animal. But this guy munches contentedly and we don’t do anything to disturb him. I fall asleep and Matt tells me in the morning, it came within about five feet of our tent.

Day 9 – Saturday, January 5

Uganda may be a small country but because of the transportation infrastructure it takes forever to get anywhere. So we spend most of the day on the bus back to Kampala. The drive is gorgeous, through fruit-tree forests, coffee plantations, verdant, rolling hills. Winston Churchill described Uganda as “the pearl of Africa” (had to squeeze that in here somewhere) and he is right. I am surprised at the number of mosques in little communities along the way.

We re-unite with John at a hostel in Kampala and spend the evening updating him on our trip. I marvel again that I can walk through a big African city after dark and feel safe.

Day 10 – Sunday, January 6

When we called to book our place in the Sseses yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find out we could take a ferry from Entebbe, a half hour south of Kampala, rather than taking a 7-hour bus ride to another ferry. That gives us the morning to kill. We debate going to the Anglican cathedral wearing “I Love Gene Robinson” t-shirts but opt against creating an international ecclesiastical incident. Instead, we wander through the city, seeing the sights. John has brought his thin backpackers guitar with him. The way he carries it over his shoulder it looks like a machine gun. No one bothers us.

We find the minibus taxi park. It is hard to miss as there must be thousands crammed into a few-acre parking lot, all going different directions, and all wanting to be there five minutes ago with at least one more person on board. I love it. We catch a minibus to the Entebbe pier and get on the MV Kalangala, which I believe translates as “Dear God, I hope this thing doesn’t sink.” (I have internal doubts about riding an African ferry.) Actually, it’s a new boat and for eight U.S. dollars we get a first-class, three-hour ride to Kalangala Island.

Waiting for the ferry

The 84 Ssese Islands are described in my tour book as “Uganda’s answer to the Mediterranean.” They sure are gorgeous, with white sand beaches, rainforest, palm trees, enchanting Lake Victoria, and a fantastic sunset. They are off the beaten tourist path and were largely untouched by the many years of war in Uganda so people still live pretty basic subsistence fishing lives. We have a little cottage – about five U.S. dollars each per night – and it feels just like camp.

Day 10 – Monday, January 7

Over breakfast, we hear about a way to catch a boat ride to a small fishing village on another island and go fishing with the locals. This instantly appeals to me – fishing with the Apostles! – so I drag Matt and John to a village on the other side of the island. Sadly, we are too late to catch a ride to the other village and hiring a boat is exorbitantly expensive given the fuel shortage.

I start walking away in frustration, trying to figure out another way to get to the small village which I can aggravatingly see across the lake but cannot get to. As I fume, a woman walks by, staring, as everyone does, at the mzungu. I distractedly say, “Hello” and she replies with “Ca va?” It takes a minute to register but when it does it’s like a door to the attic of my mind is opened and all my high school French comes tumbling out. Somehow, this Congolese woman has ended up in Mweena, Uganda and we begin an animated conversation in French. She speaks no English (Lingala, Swahili, and about six others, though) but I am shocked and pleased at how well my French serves me. Before long, I am carrying water for her back to her shack (that attracts a lot of looks) and meeting her children and the neighbours. It is just what I needed and I slowly make my way back to our camp in a better mood. The swimming that afternoon is great and we all pray we won’t get schistosomiasis from the water.

My Conglese friend

At dinner, we meet a Dutch medical student who was working in rural Kenya up until a few days ago. He has a harrowing tale of treating victims of the violence, counting bodies in the morgue, and eventually escaping across the border in a mini-bus taxi when it became too much for him. Later, we play lots of games of hearts. I try to shoot the moon several times but John and Matt hang on to their high hearts at a time when any rational player would have dumped them.

Day 11 – Tuesday, January 8

It is raining when we wake up so we turn our combined 15 years of experience camp counseling to coming up with a rainy-day plan and settle on more hearts. I continue to fail to shoot the moon.

It clears up in the afternoon and we accomplish almost nothing. But that was our plan. We visit the craft shop in town, hand-wash our laundry (harder than it seems), eat dinner at a little restaurant, and head to bed.
Day 12 – Wednesday, January 9
We have to get up early to catch the ferry back to Entebbe. The perpetually-high owners of the camp site have told us we should have no trouble finding a hostel in Entebbe – “just tell a boda driver you want to go to Joe’s place” – but when we get off the boat and are swarmed by bodas and taxis, no one seems to know what a hostel or backpackers is or who Joe is. But we are 21st-century travelers so we head to an Internet café, google “Entebbe hostels,” and find directions to Frank’s Hostel (must have been the THC at work) with no trouble at all. We also get New Hampshire primary results. Sigh…

The travel guitar is handy. John teaches a new friend to play while we wait for the Internet to load.

John wants to be back at work tomorrow so we head into Kampala to get him on a bus. Kampala is much more chaotic than I’ve seen it and I love it. We stop at a bookstore for a while and then have pizza since John can’t get it in Gulu. We get pretty lost on the way to bus park and find ourselves joining thousands others weaving in and out of minibuses, bodas, street vendors, and commuters. As the only mzungus in sight, we attract a lot of attention, some helpful and some not, and we manage to find a bus for John and a minibus headed back to Entebbe. Matt and I are asleep early.

Day 13 – Thursday, January 10
It’s another early morning as our flight leaves at 7:25. I walk past the duty-free shops in Entebbe and try not to think of the concluding scenes in The Last King of Scotland. The flight is smooth, followed by a long layover in Joburg. The bookstore in the domestic terminal is not nearly as good as the one in the international terminal. Eventually, we make it back to East London where we catch a ride to the long-distance minibus taxi rank. Both Matt and I are fortunate to find taxis leaving right away and I squish into a minibus with 17 of my closest friends for the 2-plus-hour ride back to Mthatha.

Once there, I hitchhike back to Bedford Hospital. The sun has set and I am aware this is probably the least safe part of my trip but I am picked up within two minutes by a man who spends the entire ride berating me for hitchhiking at night before I manage to switch the conversation to Kenya, Idi Amin, and Robert Mugabe.

I have my first hot shower in two weeks. It is magnificent… but not as magnificent as Uganda.


I spent Christmas at the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery outside Grahamstown. It’s a branch (do monks use that word?) of the Order of the Holy Cross, an Anglican Benedictine order. It was a restful, quiet, and pleasant, just what you’d imagine Christmas at a monastery to be. I enjoyed the chance to get into the rhythm of the daily office and raid the monks’ library.

The monastery is set amid some beautiful country and during the one brief, non-rainy spell, I ventured outside.