Sunday, October 28, 2012

We wish you success on your exams!

I have been blessed with opportunities to participate in several cultural events this year. As I write this entry, my adrenaline from the day is only just depleting. Previously this year, I have attended a burial, a dedication ceremony, several meetings, several holidays, a few sports/music events for the school, and even one phenomenal wedding (which hosted over 2000 guests and was the greatest event I have ever encountered!) All of those events take place in one form or another in America as well; they were interesting to me because of my ability to compare and contrast my American vs. Ugandan experiences.

Today I attended a P-7 Leavers Examination Blessing. It belongs in an entirely new category of experiences. I have virtually nothing to which I can compare the day. Instead, I want to explain, paint the picture, and praise my fellow Ugandan colleagues for implementing such a feat.

A bit of background: P-7 is the final year in Primary school. At Mustard Seed Academy, this year’s P-7 class are the pioneer students of the school. The Leavers Examination is a National exam that all students must take before going on to Secondary school (our high school equivalent, with the first year being sort of like 8th grade). To word it differently, this year is Mustard Seed’s first year to have a P-7 class taking this exam. The fate of 24 students rests on their results, and therefore many steps have been taken throughout the year to prepare these students for positive results.
(To give an idea for the intensity/repercussions of this exam, think WASL meets SATs meets GRE)    

Prior to the examination, it is tradition in Uganda for a school to host the P-7 students, their parents, and all other stakeholders for a day dedicated to praying for the students to pass their exams. When I heard about this, I visualized these people standing/sitting in one room; a series of prayers would be said; sodas would be served; and the event would culminate after an hour. Instead, I got to witness something much more special.

When our car arrived on the school’s campus today, my eyes took in the sight of our P-7 children wearing pretty dresses, suits with jackets and ties, nice polo shirts, or neatly pressed school uniforms. I then noticed the stage of our auditorium had been decorated with flowers and lovely fabric along the back and side walls. There was a DJ set up on the side of the seating area, and many of the parents and staff were dressed to impress.
Ugandan DJ setup

The children got to sit at the “high table” which had been covered in a white tablecloth and was positioned in the front center row before the stage. On the stage sat a Father (representing the Catholics), a Reverend (representing the Anglicans), and two Imams (representing the Muslims.) Never in my life have I been a part of a celebration that included representatives from such varied religious backgrounds. They sat next to one another talking and sharing as equal members in this community; that alone was an honor to witness.  

High Table

Each religious leader took turns speaking to the children. They gave various pieces of advice ranging from, “trust God on the days of your exams,” to “read the directions before answering a question.” Then each leader passed the mic around a second time to deliver their prayers to the P-7s. I finally caved and started shedding a tear for the beauty of the moment when the children were asked to come forth to the stage to receive their blessings. At this point, they stood in a single file line while each religious leader blessed them one by one, one right after another. When every child had been personally blessed by each leader, they were asked to kneel as a group before the stage, and the Father sprinkled water on all of them.

There was something very powerful about witnessing these blessings. I have discussed on and off throughout the life of this blog about my walk with God. For me personally, witnessing the love, thoroughness, and crossing of religious-lines that went into blessing a group of children to take a test reaffirmed that I am on the right path. I think the representation of the religious leaders putting so much love and support into their blessings today is a great reflection of God’s presence in the lives of all those present at the ceremony.  

After the blessings, the children were asked to stand single file again so that parents, staff, and other loved ones had the opportunity to give them cards. These cards are very popular in Uganda—most of them say something to the extent of, “I wish you success in your exams!” We had prepared for each child a card, a pen and pencil, and a beautiful yearbook (masterfully designed by Joe). We waited for the line of well-wishers to expire, and then the five of us Bazungu stood up with our gifts. Someone handed me the mic and I read off the children’s names one by one as they hugged us, shook our hands, and received our gifts. My voice barely made it to the end—I was so chock-full of pride and happiness for these kids that tears threatened me the whole time. After the gifts and cards were distributed, a series of photos were taken with the kids and they got to have their moment of fame.

Some of the neatest events took place next. First, the kids were presented with cake. Some of the students were selected to say a few words, then all students came forward and formed a sort of arm-to-arm chain so that all 24 of them became one unit that connected to the student who cut the first slice of cake. Then, after the cake was handed out to all the guests, (side note: in Uganda this is not only done before the meal, but also “a slice of cake” means one forkful per person, which is okay with me because it usually tastes nothing like cake…or anything at all) the DJ started bumping the music and the P-7s started dancing on stage like you couldn’t believe! This was interspersed with a few other speeches and eventually (as I always seem to do) I was up on stage with them sharing in the euphoria.
Cutting the cake as a team

Eventually, the music died down and it was time to eat—they served P-7s first, which as kids, was a big deal for them. We all shared in a lovely meal that was followed by traditional dancing, drumming, and singing all done by the P-7s and younger students. At one point, all of the P-7 students sang a song about appreciating the work their parents, sponsors, and teachers have done for them up to this point. They made promises about not letting us down, and proving to us that as they move on in life they will always strive to reflect well on this school. It was neat to see during the performances, some of the parents would come up on stage and shake the hand of their child during a solo part, or if they were doing exceptionally well at the dancing. Most of our kids come from very poor (in more than just financial sense) households and some have even left their homes to live in the school’s orphanage—yet their parents were still present and still so clearly love and cherish their kids. Again, I was honored to witness those moments.

Hadijja leading part of the P7 appreciation song

The fate of these children’s futures rests on this exam. More so than if I hadn’t scored well on my WASL or SAT. More so than if I tank the GRE. For me and many other people in my sphere of the world, we can still have a decent and prosperous life without higher-level education. It would be a harder path to take, but the path is there for our taking. The situation is much different here. A lot of pressure rests on the shoulders of these 12 year-olds. A lot of work and preparation has taken place to set them up for success. They have studied, sacrificed, been blessed, and been honored…now it is time for us to let them go forth and do well.

Getting to partake in today was an absolute honor and possibly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Many things stacked together create that memory—the religious leaders joining forces, the children’s hard work and good character being evident, the community rising to support them, and the general splendor of the day will be ever present when I reflect on my year in Uganda.

With love,
Proud Aunt/Teacher to 24 P-7 leavers   

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stuff that happens sometimes...

The other day I was in my bathroom filling a basin with water when I heard a stirring sound in the front room. As I left the bathroom, I heard the sound of glass bottles rattling…my first thought was that an intruder had entered and I was prepared to fight him.

Upon my first glance, it appeared I was alone and had imagined the noise. To be sure, I went to the only location of glass in my apartment; a stash of empty beer bottles between the wall and my mini-fridge. Just as I reached down to pick up the fallen bottles, a chicken (nkoko in Luganda) pecked at my hand. Turns out, I wasn’t alone after all. It only took a loud shriek then a few pointed shouts to get her out of my apartment. As I laughed about the strangeness of the situation on my front veranda, all the women in our courtyard were laughing their heads off at me. All I could think was, “Oh, Uganda.”

Mzungu to Madam to Teacher to Auntie to…Mama?
I have officially demolished the wall that I had built to protect my heart and the hearts of the children around me. There is no telling when this wall fell down, but the evidence is clear that it no longer exists. One example is that I have transformed from the once Mzungu to all, to the Teacher of most, Auntie to some, and Mama to one. Yes, apparently I am now Mama Apio Esther. This happened the other day when Apio (my 6-year-old neighbor who is the niece and permanent houseguest of the Headmaster) was snuggling me on my veranda. She looked up at me and said, “You are Mama Apio.” I thought for sure I heard her wrong, but she said again, “Kristen is Mama Guange” which (despite my misspelling of Luganda) means, “my mom.” I tried to explain to her that I was her constantly awesome neighbor, her sometimes-great teacher, and her eternal adopted Auntie…but I cannot be her mother. I don’t have enough years, experience, or cultural matchup to be her mother. These are difficult words for a six year old to understand, so I tried to hone in on the “I’d make a better Auntie than a Mommy in life right now” part. It seems to me that the more I open my heart and let these kids in, the deeper they are willing to venture into my life. Apio is just one example of the kids at Mustard Seed with whom I have mutually fallen in love. I constantly hope I am not doing more harm than good.

Despite what most of my Ugandan peers believe, I am not actually perfect. This will not come as a shock to any person back home who has known me for longer than a day. It is interesting, frustrating, and oftentimes comical how many Ugandans make this assumption. If there is a big task to be done, many people first turn to me. It doesn’t matter that I am one of the youngest employees of the organization. It doesn’t faze them that I am a woman. All that matters (or so it seems) is that I am white. Of course, these assumptions of perfection do not cross all behaviors and expectations. Many of my Ugandan peers often assume that I am unable to do simple life-support tasks like cleaning and cooking. A neighbor wanted me to hold his newborn baby and actually asked me if I knew how—which as a woman I found quite insulting. Yet, when it comes to solving peoples’ problems (whether money is involved or not) I am often the go-to person. You know what they say about assumptions…

“Hello”—“I’m fine”
Whenever I walk anywhere, I greet each person along the way. Ugandan Culture 101: Bugandans are very friendly people who live in a community environment; if you want to live among them, you must become a member of the community. Although I have become very good about greeting my “neighbors” (which is a term that extends for about a 2 mile circumference around my apartment), I sometimes feel too lazy or otherwise not in the mood to do a full-on traditional greeting. On these days, I simply wave my hand and say, “Hello.”

The interesting thing about my abbreviated greeting is that Ugandans are expecting a, “How are you?” so they always respond to Hello with, “I’m fine, how are you?” The irony of my having to respond and still greet them always makes me laugh. 

One of the problems with living in a society where the life expectancy is 53 for men and 56 for women is that people seem to be dying all the time. This is probably because there really is always somebody dying. It took a while to get used to this, but in the last several months I have adopted (a less intense version of) the Ugandan perspective on death. It just happens. Nothing we can do about it. Let us cry, attend the burial, then move on with our life; there is nothing else to do. On many occasions, I have been sitting with a child, group of children, or even adults and it will just come up that their Mom or Dad is dead. Or their sibling. Or their Auntie. Always it is the same tone of conversation, “He is the brother to my father, who is dead…” “I had a twin once but he died when we were being born…” “Both my Mama and Tata are dead but I’m alright…” Rarely is it spoken with a shaky voice or teary eyes. Mostly people speak of death as a matter of fact.

My Grandma Shirley died October 2009. There are moments when my heart still hurts from that loss; even as I type this out, tears are welling in my eyes. Thankfully, I have a short list of loved ones whom I have lost over the years. Perhaps if my list was longer I would not be able to expend as much energy and heartache on each of them. I know my Ugandan peers love, miss, and cherish those they have lost, but I think we grieve differently in our cultures because death happens in very different ways and at much different rates throughout our lives.       

So there you have it. This is some of the stuff that happens sometimes!

With love,

Friday, October 5, 2012


Each week in Uganda I face dozens of “aha” moments or moments of discovery. Sometimes I am the one amazed at what I’m learning, and other times the children or my co-workers are the ones learning and experiencing something from me for the first time. 

It would take me forever to explain every moment to you, and many of them would not have much effect on a person who has never been to a developing country. Two conversations occurred this week with some of my students and I think they are perfect to illustrate these moments:

1. One of my Mustard Seed Health Team members visited me at my apartment on Sunday. As most of the kids do, he wandered around the room asking me questions about different items. Most of the time I am not surprised that student visitors don’t know what something is because the way of life here just doesn’t require such objects (i.e.: pot holder, plastic broom, my laptop, my vitamins, etc.) However, little Wasswa caught me off guard when he grabbed a handful of napkins and asked, “What do these do?”

I said, “Those are called napkins, you can use them to wipe your hands and face as you eat meals.” He still looked confused, so I elaborated, “You know, at the restaurants they often bring napkins out with silverware and customers can wipe food or grease off onto the napkin to stay clean.”

He replied in a shy and embarrassed voice, “Oh, well I’ve never been to a restaurant before. I didn’t know these existed.”

What can a girl say to that? I’m sure I was taken to restaurants before I even had enough teeth to eat anything on the menu. Here is this 11-year-old boy who has never seen a napkin, and never been to a restaurant. I sent him home with at least 20 so he and his family could enjoy them.

 2.       I was playing after school with a group of nursery students when something on my wrist attracted their attention. My watch. The kids grabbed my wrist and pulled it closer to them and they said in their best English, “Teacher Kristen, look, it is moving!” I said, “Of course, this is a watch, it tells the time when these things move.” They said, “Yes, but it is moving!

It took only an instant for me to realize that many of them were under the impression that adults wear a clock on their wrist for fashion. Most watches break from wear and tear in Uganda, and they often run out of battery early on. When it comes down to feeding the family, paying school fees, or taking care of poor health, why would a person be maintaining their watch? Those children had never seen a working watch before. All they needed to be impressed was to see mine “move.”

These precious moments are some of my favorite times in Uganda. Each time I experience a moment about napkins, watches, or whatever else, I am reminded that the world is much more complex than I ever previously recognized.

With love,