This post is a little long-winded and touches on probably too many topics to put in one post, but it has been sitting in my draft folder for too long and I know that I’ll never get it just right. I’ve decided to share it with all it’s faults- it’s a little about the variety of lessons I learned while in Uganda.
My Obsession with Africa…
I was willing to do anything to get to Africa. I was a senior in college and had already been to Europe twice but I NEEDED to go to Africa. I didn’t really care which country.
It’d been an obsession of mine since high school when I used my position in a school club to raise money for Darfur after reading about the civil war. At 17, I kept asking my dad, “I don’t get it, it’s like what the Nazis did…. At first we didn’t know about the concentration camps but once we found out we stopped it. We KNOW about these wars! Why aren’t we doing anything?” My dad then informed me of the many genocides that were happening all over the world or had happened recently. I was shocked.
If I could have majored in “Save Africa” in college I would have. It would go along really well with my spy degree.
My interest in Africa was only intensified when I read the book “What is the What”. The book told the tale of the 27,000 lost boys of the Sudan and their intense and traumatic journey to safety. It included so much detail about the government and war criminals, leaving you feeling like something had to be done. I later got to meet the subject of the book at a signing. He is truly a hero.
Valentino Achak Deng, a hero. link to His Foundation.
When I went to Sarajevo in 2009, I learned more about genocide that had occurred there. I felt like the world was full of monsters. I then went to Auschwitz and Birkenau… how could we continue to let things like this happen? Some of my foreign friends blamed it all on “where the oil was”.
My Village of Lugala
It was 2010 and a girl from class told me a couple from her church live in Uganda and help put kids in school. I was in nursing school and thought maybe I can even get some volunteer hours in.
The FIFA world cup suicide bombings happened in the capital, Kampala, on July 11th. 74 people died from Al-Shabaab’s attacks and 70 more were injured. They are a Somalian group linked to Al-Qaeda and they were mad at Uganda… but I won’t get into all that. They were targeting expats and Christians. Missionaries were killed along with NGO workers.
Al-Shabaab sent a message to Uganda, saying,
“We are sending a message to Uganda and Burundi, if they do not take out their Amisom troops from Somalia, blasts will continue and it will happen.”
In response, Uganda sent more troops.
When I landed at Entebbe airport, I pictured in my head the Air France airplane hijackings during Idi Amin’s reign which landed here. Idi, the cannibal. Which reminds me, if you haven’t seen The Last King of Scotland about Amin’s terrible rule, you really should! It’s actually not based on as many truths as it leads you to believe, but still gets the main point across. I arrived in Uganda almost 5 months after the bombings when the city was recovered.
I stayed in the same compound in Lugala as the couple I was connected with. I had a cute little one-bedroom house, complete with a twin size bed and mosquito net. Chester the German Shepherd was there to keep me safe from people and snakes alike. Although, I never felt unsafe in Lugala. I loved to take walks or hop on a boda-boda for a ride across town.
the police station and a woman in local dress
my dog and my shower…
The water was never hot. The shower was broken. I took cold bucket baths every morning only to get covered in red dust the moment I stepped out of the compound and the village kids started jumping all over me (the best part of the day!). The electricity was set up to the house but maybe due to rainy season, it was sporadic. What I’m so used to now in India, was such a shock to me back then.
Uganda Terrorism and Corruption
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Kampala. Would there be riots? Would people be panicked about more terrorist attacks?
It was on the U.S. “Do Not Travel” list and they expected an attack on a holiday (as they also warn us of. These terrorists like to make a name for themselves… and the U.S. gives warning out for everything to cover their bums). I was there on Christmas and actually out at the bars in Kampala on New Years with some Ugandan women I met. Everything was festive and fine.
I saw maybe 10 westerners in and around Kampala other than the couple I knew and another couple in my compound. I saw a married couple in a market and on NYE a journalist out at a bar. I was there for 5 weeks. Granted, I wasn’t going to the high-end bars and restaurants in town or hanging around the embassy where the other westerners were.
I did go to the pool one time. It used to be Idi Amin’s playground I was told. There were a lot of Middle Eastern businessmen here and a couple expats. I went one day with the woman from my compound and paid the 10 dollars to cool off in a pool. I was just hours from the Equator and it was HOT.
My village was quaint and friendly. On my walks down the path of boda-bodas I would be stopped for tea, hair braiding (which I would politely decline), or to play soccer- turning my 5-minute walk into 30.
my playmates every day
I was warned that if someone robs me, stealing my purse or phone, I should think twice before yelling for help. Petty theft results in mob mentality. The culprit is sure to be beaten to near-death or death in front of your eyes.
I saw newspapers that had photos of “Wanted Homosexuals” so I am not surprised at all about Uganda being in the news this month in regards to their stance on homosexuality.
The kids told me they didn’t get school uniforms because the teacher kept the money. The teacher kept the money because she wasn’t being paid by the government. They said they didn’t get lunch sometimes either.
There were indeed a couple instances where I wondered if I was actually in a safe environment while in the city of Kampala. Massive Range Rovers (or Land Rovers, I’m not very good at car types) would slowly circle the city, loaded up with armed men- although they look so young I almost typed ‘boys’. They were always yelling or singing along with the booming music coming out of the speakers. The side of these cars would say “Gift from USA” or “UNICEF Vehicle”.
I learned a lot about the donations from abroad and where that money actually goes, which is why I now only donate to NGO’s where I know someone involved or know very detailed information about where the money goes. I want to know that is truly trickles down to the people who need it. I think you’d be surprised to learn where much of the money from UNICEF and US Aid goes.
Uganda is corrupt, like many countries not just in Africa but in the world. I’m sure most of you reading know that already. It’s strange to suddenly be in the thick of something I’d read so much about. It’s not like India, which is secretly hidden corruption that everyone knows about. In Uganda, it’s the type of corruption and propaganda that leave the lowest of classes unaware that corruption is even happening. It leaves them liking the men in control while they starve. It’s the worst kind.
coal, grasshoppers, onions
this was a mini-protest that from what I gathered
the Kampala taxi lot! Takes a while to find the cab, but longer for the car to work it’s way out
The “people” often do not get the money donated. Not only did I see it first hand, but I worked closely with a 15-year old NGO on the ground. The government gets to send a paper back to the Red Cross or whoever saying “we used the money to buy these 4×4 trucks so that we can get out on the village roads to help people” These cars are just for teenage army boys to ride around the city and yell at people from high up. The cars are just one example of mishandled money. This is one reason why I pick a specific NGO.
I was told that before the Queen’s visit, they wanted to clean up the city so they put all the street kids in these 4×4’s and buses and took them so far out of town, by the time they got back to the city the Queen would be gone, believing there were hardly any beggars.
Genocide: A Ugandan Perspective
I know this is a bit controversial, but its my opinion based on observation and I wouldn’t feel right writing about corruption in Uganda without mentioning this. Ugandans I met had a bad opinion of Invisible Children. Keep in mind I was there two years before the viral video, KONY 2012, came out.
I’m sure a couple years ago you saw the FB campaign for KONY in Uganda. He has been wanted for over 3 decades. Interpol/UN/other forces were already trying to catch this war criminal (who is actually operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo)? Did those FB likes do anything for the kids that are mentally scarred by what happened, and did the people “liking” and “sharing” it even know what happened? Did they realize this Invisible Children campaign was ran by people who took photos with the SPLA (who have fought against the LRA but are known for looting and rape), guns in their hands? Did they know months later, after speculation of fraud, the man in charge, Jason Russell of I.C. was found naked, masturbating, and rambling in the streets of San Diego? And truly, many Ugandans were very upset about the video, which did not accurately portray the terrible offenses that occurred, and at a 10,000 person gathering to see the video they pelted the organizers with rocks in Gulu.
This really happened. IC with the SPLA.
How about instead of focusing on catching Kony, one of MANY war criminals, who has a reported 50 people in his circle (although over 5,000 troops are in the Congo looking for him), focus on helping the kids dragged into the LRA who are now saved.
What’s done is done. They aren’t kids anymore. Forced to be child soldiers, these young boys were manipulated into raping and killing their own family members. They were brainwashed and tortured. They are the ones who need the money so they can receive therapy for PTSD, and they are the young adults in Kampala with new lives. Instead, *reportedly, 86 percent of the money donated was put toward publicity/marketing/travel expenses/salaries of Invisible Children’s campaign against Kony. Their goal was to shine light on what happened. They succeeded. They have improved their rankings and stars since the criticism, but other charities are “doing good for the victims”, better. It’s so important to know what money you donate actually goes toward.
I talked to a few young adults about genocide and corruption.
These aren’t word for word (except the first I vividly remember is) but this is 100% the gist of what the people answered from memory and conversations I wrote in my journal.
“Do you know who Hitler is?”
“Hitler was a great man”
“Why do you think that?”
“He had many followers that would do what he said. I wish I could be as great!”
“What do you think of Joseph Kony?”
“Who is that?” said some. “He was very very bad.” said others.
“Have you ever heard of the child army that was in your country?”
“All countries have children in army. That’s how they get so big and win.”
“What do you think of your president now, Museveni?” (Who gained control by coup, village raids, and murder. Kony wasn’t the only one recruiting children. The UN found over 5,000 kids in Museveni’s army)
“He is a very great man! We like him a lot! If I had more money I would keep it like him.”
“Do you know what happened in Rwanda, just a few hours from here?”
“Yes, of course we know. We had no drinking water because the lake was red.” (I don’t think the lake was actually red in Uganda, but the Hutu dumped the Tutsi bodies in Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Ugandan Villagers were told to boil the water before drinking.)
I can’t even get into the conversations about HIV/AIDS aka “dying of a broken heart”.
A complicated trip
I was woken up in the early morning to a nearby drum circle. I also woke up in the middle of the night to my bed shaking: my first earthquake. I met three orphans who became my “sisters” who I’ll never forget. I saw a city recently recovered from terrorist attacks. I learned first hand about corruption on a massive level. I saw people being taken advantage of while they were too naive and uneducated to know the difference. I heard stories that made my toes curl and I heard worse ones that made me want to vomit. I let a hairstylist put a handful of grease in my hair that took two weeks to come out. I did some traveling to the Nile for whitewater rafting and bungee jumping. I gave shots to terrified babies and aided the nurses saving children from malaria. PS: Indian readers- there are many types of malaria and in India although it’s looked at like the flu sometimes, in Uganda it’s much more serious and often found far too late. I helped almost fainted watching their version of a cesarean section in the OR. I met Maria, who said, “I want you to meet my grandma” and insisted on paying for my bus ticket, taking me to her home. She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, inside and out. She was always holding my hand and hugging like, like Ugandans do.I met little kiddos that made the days go by faster.
Sweet Maria and her family at their home
left: carrying bananas through Kampala, right: four-year old went to the well all on his own
this is the bed that the 3 girls I met shared.
So much happened in just a month that of all my trips abroad, Uganda holds the most special place in my heart. It’s also the country I talk about the least for some reason. I did spend one weekend doing ‘backpacking’ activities, but because of the tw0 (or maybe more) bus bombings on buses coming into the city (from Kenya) while I was there, I didn’t want to risk getting out of Kampala. I couldn’t go trekking with gorillas in the Bwindi Jungle or check out Nairobi because the terrorists had targeted tourists, which I clearly was. I like taking risks, but even I knew it would be stupid.
the drum players who woke me up in the mornings
this little babe was my favorite! (I pick favorites, which is why I would have been a bad teacher)
Instead, I got the opportunity to really get to know people. I got into a routine. I got homesick for the first time abroad because I wasn’t out distracting myself with partying. I saw real poverty and illness for the first time. Even though when I go to Bombay I see unbearable destitution, it doesn’t hit me as hard as Uganda did. While I was there, I didn’t appreciate the journey as much as I do now because the limitations on freedom bummed me out a little. I would love to go back now that it’s safer, see the people I met the first time, and travel around their beautiful country.
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Thanks for sharing this. One of the classes I was required to take my very first semester of college spoke a lot about these types of issues in certain countries. We read books about the corruption in Uganda, Darfur, modern day slavery and other horrendous topics. A lot of people ignore this information and pretend like it isn’t happening because they don’t want to be bothered by it. I’m glad that you have written about this because it shows that there are problems like this and people should care. I’m also glad that you found a charity you can trust. So many charities are there only for personal gain and that’s sad because the money could be used for something better.
Yeah it’s hard to write about especially because there’s always going to be someone who knows more on the topic and I’m not that type to get into internet fights- but like I said in the intro- it wasn’t doing any good in my draft folder! I’m glad you appreciated it.
I’m glad you managed to relate this to India, because now I can relate. Plus I really know what the cold bucket shower is like and then being immediately dirty right after with small children crawling all over you… and that’s not a bad thing. It just is.
This weekend will definitely be filled with some interesting conversations, I’m sure! I want to hear more about what you think about volunteering overseas! The lady who started the organization I’m volunteering with has told me all about the corruption and “charities” in the slums… people think they are donating to charities but the money just goes to drug lords or what have you. It’s such a shame, but people need to do their research! I’m like you, I only contribute if I know the organization on some personal level.
Plus I can also appreciate how this is the trip you’ve spoken about the least. It’s a major trip, and a life changing one at that. It’s not easy to go home and just say, “Uganda was amazing!” It certainly was, but so many other complex emotions and layers too.
We’ll have plenty of time to talk when you’re here! Can’t wait! I have heard horror stories about the gangs and drugs lords running the slums in Bombay… I can’t remember if it was you or someone else that knew my friend Elise in Bomb? If not I”ll have to connect you two. She works with helping rich people decide where to donate money (some kind of PR job I think).
This is one of my favorite posts you’ve written so far. What beautiful kids. It’s so interesting to hear there view on Hitler, their president, etc. I am curious to hear about their understanding of HIV/AIDS as well.
THank you for saying that Jamie! I’m glad that you took the time to read it. I know some people would rather see beaches and sunsets, which are awesome too, but it’s good to mix it up. I will be putting up a post soon about HIV/AIDS … I don’t mention this is the post I’ll be putting up because I hate the negative comments that would for sure come, but there was a christian church in the next village “curing” people of HIV and I just would cry at the hospital when people would whisper “Ok I used to have HIV but now I dont… I was cured..” Heartbreaking. Oh, and they weren’t cured for free!
It’s so true that you have to be choosy when it comes to what NGOs you donate to. When I lived in Thailand the organisation I “worked” for sent 100% of the donations to the kids. They did this by relying heavily on volunteers and having some people donate purely to cover admin costs. Hence “worked”. :) But any good NGO will have transparent books and you’ll be able to see precisely the amount that goes to the people in need. So when deciding who to give money to, a little homework goes a long way.
I love also seeing the Ugandan’s perspective on the war and genocide. It’s so much more complicated than any of us in the West can imagine.
You’re right and I think a lot of people don’t know they can look online to see the books of the NGO’s and make a better decision.
It’s so nice to hear you had these experiences and got to get a look in the true tragedy Africa is saddled with. East Africa hold a special place in my heart too and like you said, I hardly ever talk about my trips there… Because it’s more than a travel destination, it’s a complex, difficult and gorgeous to understand. Thanks for posting this! Oh, Btw, yes, definitely revisit, things really are a lot better now! I’ll be heading there this summer…
That’s great that you get to go back! I think it’s important to see the “dark” side of anywhere you travel to, so that you can understand the people. In Africa there is also a touristy gorgeous side (for example I’d love to backpack the east coast), but I wouldn’t have felt right “having fun” without having first learned about life there. Enjoy your trip back!
Thank you for sharing this- I really appreciate its honesty. I think, oftentimes, writings about African or other developing countries only focus on one aspect- it’s either the poverty, corruption, and the need for saving, or it ignores those issues and only focuses on things such as safaris. I think this post captures both the problems facing Uganda but also the positive aspects or things that you gained from your trip. I feel like, in general, a lot of your posts are very straightforward, and I think that that is great!
Oh, and what specific NGOs do you support?
Thats a great question. I support St. Nicolas Uganda Children’s Fund and International Animal Rescue in Goa. Financially, I am unable to support more than that … but with my medical background I really hope to get to mother Theresa’s soon to volunteer!
Oh as well as the Down Syndrome Associate of Central Ohio, my little cuz benefits from them a lot!
Thank you- I tried to lay out the facts and observations I saw without being too opinionated, but then I went on that Kony rant haha, I think you’ll like my post about the little kiddos I met there too (if you search on the site children of uganda, its a photo gallery).
It sounds like you had an incredible experience and met some amazing people. I really want to see a lot more of Africa, I absolutely loved it when I was in Ghana.
I hope you get back to Africa soon then!
It sounds like you had a very eye opening experience. Unfortunately corruption reigns in most developing countries and sadly it is often so deeply engrained into local cultures that it takes generations to change attitudes towards corruption, as most people see it as so normal. I worked as an aid worker in Cambodia for 2 years and corruption is a big problem there too from teachers, to local government officials or police. It can be beaten, but it will take a lot of awareness raising, campaigning and time to beat it.
Yes, I agree time is really important to let the next generations make changes. Where I live in India it’s very corrupt as well and it’s very easy to just get used to the lifestyle where people live by bribing.
I love thought-provoking posts like this! Uganda has been on my mind a lot lately as I was given the opportunity to travel there but am hesitating based on my (very strong) beliefs/morals/ethics and their lovely new laws. So this was just an interesting post to read!
Yes they’ve had some interesting law changes lately. That personally wouldn’t stop me from going back, as they basically had that rule before it was “law” and the newspaper had photos of people “wanted dead” for reasons including being gay. It’s a shame. It’s a tough decision because your dollars are going toward them!
Thank you so much for sharing this. These are the types of posts I love most–really understanding what it was to be there, at the time, knowing the people–and I completely agree about the “not knowing where the donations are really going”. I only donate through Voice of the Martyrs and a couple pro-life organizations that I have come to trust. This was a really beautiful post in that it was so honest, and I felt what it must have been like to be you, getting to know the people. Thanks!
I’m glad you enjoyed this post, I really liked writing it even though it was hard to get my point across sometimes. I’m much better at writing packing lists haha so I’m glad that some people have found this post informative for them