Friday, October 5, 2007

back in portland

wow. i'm back in portland and its so surreal thinking about the whole trip. i loved being able to see so many different regions of uganda and begin to connect with all the communities. i LOVED the team i traveled with!!! diana is really a wonderful human being, so fun and full of adventure and doing some amazing things with the foundation (w glen boyd foundation) by connecting many great people/programs/resources together. james was so solid, forthright, hilarious, charming and so great to be with! and betty, i'm just plain in love with betty. she is so warm, loving and full of depth and soul. i learned so much from this amazing team i got to be part of.

one of the main things i've learned on this trip is how competent, capable and resilient the people in these communities are. they've lost their freedom, their land and their ability to full express their culture due to the close proximity they've been forced to live in inside these idp camps. as they are beginning to move home and to resettlement sites, there is more hope and joy present but they've lost so much. one thing i've recognized is how much media limits our view of africans in general. we seem to be accustomed to the idea that they need saving. its just not an accurate picture. i've met so many professional, proficient, disciplined men and women who are leaders in their communities and proactive in their pursuit of reclaiming their lives on a post-war region. mercy corps is very much a partner with these communities as they help to support ugandan led programs. it's been amazing to see!!

i think portland is all about sustainability and self-sufficiency and are like-minded in spirit to those communities in northern uganda.

it's important that people are aware of the devastation that has occured. but it's also equally important that we find out about the "silent successes" happening every day in these communities and celebrate them!!


the women of luchan rebe ~the poor unite

yesterday i finally got to meet the women from locan rebe. the translation is "the poor unite" which is exactly what these women have done. they are all mothers from northern uganda -lots of them from the region around pader, where we visited the resettlement sites. they've lost their husbands and kids to the war and like all the others were forced to relocate to the idp camps and live in the inhumane conditions there for years. somehow, this group of women found each other (networking would be next to impossible given that the were all spread out at different idp camps throughout the entire region of northern uganda so i have no idea how they found each other). they relocated themselves, and what was left of their families, to the urban city of kampala. they started their very own business making beads, baskets, clothing...etc... when diana met them they asked for one thing, a market to sell their products. this is almost unheard of (given the level of poverty) that they didn't ask for grants but instead an opportunity to create their own income.

there are 170 women altogether and they support a community of 500 orphaned children. for the concert series, we purchased 1000 beads. 500 necklaces and 500 bracelets. the women have never had a transaction this big and have had to learn a ton around accounting in the process.

our big hope is that everyone attending every concert will purchase these beads and we'll sell out by the last concert!! that way, we'll go back to them and order more to distribute throughout portland. these necklaces and bracelets are just beautiful and represent something so meaningful for these women. they're reclaiming their lives and their children's lives with every bead they make. (they're made from recycled calendar paper)

when we first arrived to their shop, we turned down this back alley that looked pretty trashed. giant potholes full of mud, lined with torn down shacks with dilapidated roofs. but these women created an amazing atmosphere of celebration in this alley. they're all from indigenous regions so although they are now living in the very urban city of kampala, their culture is very much a part of what they do and how they live. (which isn't as common in the more "modern" cities) when we arrived they were singing, dancing and playing drums to welcome us. a woman named betty (different than the betty we were traveling with) spent all day fixing an amazing meal of chicken, curried peas, sim sim (a delicious sesame seed dish), matooke and so much more. we weren't expecting to eat and we had just come from a huge lunch, so every was pretty difficult to put down. but it did taste awesome even thru the pain... (i strategized on spreading the food out just so, so it looked like i ate way more than i did, i felt like i was in 7th grade again)

the leaders each got up and introduced themselves and then they presented diana, betty, james and me with gifts. it was like we were royalty, it made me feel weird but i knew it was HUGE honor. they gave me such a gorgeous traditional dress (!!!). they had already given the others new names and told me my new name was "ayero" -the selected one. this was the leader, betty's mothers name so it meant so much to me. we all danced a ton together and then a few of us went in the back to finish the payment transaction for the 1000 beads. i can't imagine a bigger honor than working directly with these women. each of them has redefined their lives and community and to have the concert series be part of that is beyone significant. it was a pretty emotional event for all of us...

we had to leave for the airport and and said our goodbyes. these women were soulful in the truest sense. i LOVE that these concerts will feature their stories and their beautiful work.!!!!!

St. Andrews

the parish at st. andrews put together a big formal dinner for our final night. right in the back of the church in a square patch of grass where the chickens ran around all day. they set up a circle of chairs. the event was designed to be a thank-you/goodbye to kendra and her parents as well as a presentation of gifts. we sat down and one by one the staff stood to introduce themselves and formally thank kendra and her parents, as well as diana, james and me. this was a long involved process and the food was in the center of the circle smelling very amazing which was distracting. but it was still a big honor to hear their introductions and gratitudes... it's just that my focus was on that food...

the formality of things shows great respect and forethought and the priests were in great humor (which may have been assisted by the constant passing around of MORE beer). one of the teachers kept calling me "stephan". he loved music and requested i sing about 9 different times throughout the meal. which i was more than happy to do. it was fun for me and a big novelty for them but it was hilarious hearing "steff hahn! may i request you sing another song for us?" my new nickname became steff hahn within the team. we presented gifts, then i sang, people got their food, i provided music for this as well, and sang another song, someone gave another speech, steff hahn would be requested to sing again and the evening went on just like this... the teacher making the request was a great guy. so fun to talk with. it's sad to leave since i made some many great connections with a bunch of the students... fred, josephine, ivan, alysias, victor, john and esther... they're all such amazing people. i hope i get to see them again in the future.

back to wimunu pe cek

back to wimunu pe cek (a missed blog from before so the references will be out of order from the rest of the blogs... )

i love the culture here. it's a huge part of everything. there's such a strong communal feeling every second of everyday. once we came back to wimunu pe cek (i think that's where i left off) we gathered once again in a big circle and there was a discussion about how the filming went. you could tell they were proud to share the specifics of what they captured. these discussions were very formal, when info is presented here, there's a lot of formality and protocol. leaders re-introduce people and gratitude is stated in a formal way. the women were more open about sharing than the men. a woman who was the leader of her filming crew named beatrice (LOVED beatrice) spoke about who they interviewed and where. she was thoughtful, well-spoken and full of humor.

i had a copy of the oregonian's travel section and took a moment to explain to the group the tradition in our city of taking a picture in a different country with the oregonian's travel section in the picture. so, all 50+ of us gathered in the sun for a picture and a couple of them held the paper up high. i hope it makes it into the oregonian! it's a great picture.

we said our farewells and made the road trip back to mercy corps in the city of pader.

later that evening mercy corps put on a formal dinner for us at their headquarters. it was festive and delicious. again, we had formal introductions and acknowledgements and expressions of gratitude. the team in pader is just amazing to see in action. they're mostly made up of ugandans which is why they are so effective i think. roger horton was the main guy and was full of information about the programs our money raised will go towards...he was awesome.

then we went back to alice's place (the woman who runs the ccf program with the child mothers) and gathered for a concert (given by me) under a big tent. it was dark and loud from the intense rain , but they brought out a couple lanterns and we made the most of it.

all the ngo's in the area were there and the concert was loose and so much fun! a bunch of the young women from alice's project were there as well, so many of the audience members didn't speak english very well. i told some stories before the songs which when translated evoked a ton of laughter (even when the stories weren't intended to be funny at all) so i have no idea what was being translated before each tune! 2 hours and many many songs later, we decided that this should be considered the concert kick-off appropriately beginning in pader itself. it was really a magical night. the staff at those ngos NEVER get concerts, in fact it's rare and almost nonexistent for ugandan musicians to actually sing their songs live. most "live" concerts include bands with pre-recorded music/vocals and the vocalist will stand in front of the audience and lip sync. so it was extra special for people to hear a live musician and live vocals.

the next morning we had just enough time to visit obolokome and wimunu pe cek (the resettlement sites) one more quick time before flying back to kampala. our team (of diana, betty, james and me) split into two so we could cover more ground. betty and i went back to obolokome to visit the schools and talk with the elders while diana and james went back to wimunu pe cek to continue interviewing the youth.

betty and i arrived at obolokome . -i have to interject here that EVERY road trip to and from the sites are very lumpy and very long adventures in and of themselves. dolly parton and kenny rogers are ALWAYS playing on the radio. i think i heard coat of many colors 27 times at least. it kept things perfectly ironic somehow to leave these sites and then ride in the jeep blasting dolly's coat of all the colors. and meanwhile passing by women carrying huge loads of rice and kasava root balanced on their heads while we pass through these floody areas where the water comes up above the tires of the jeep. -

so because this was our 3rd time back we were immediately welcomed and recognized many faces. i joined a group of school children under a big tree. they were studying english and there was a chalkboard leaning against the trunk. richard (a staff member of mercy corps from the same region of pader) was with me and translated while i spoke with the kids. someone rang a giant bell and all the kids gathered around . we were going to have a song session with all the kids. okomo david was the music teacher and he taught me their school song so i could play along on the guitar. a few hundred kids were sitting around us and they were so well behaved. so different from kids i've seen in our school system. (!) david was an awesome teacher and helped me teach them some songs as well. the kids were so full of life, fun and passion. they have been through so much but they're still just kids being kids. making fun of each other and giggling throughout... i spoke to them about songwriting and how it's a great way to express your feelings. one of the kids stepped forward and said he wrote songs/words/melodies.

afterwards a young man named donno (or donald) and i went a few hundred yards away so he could share a few songs he wrote with me. we went under a mango tree in a small opening b/w 5 huts. he and sat on these little wooden chairs and he looked me right in the eye as he sang a few songs for me. i LOVED this guy donno. he was so excited to share these songs and described each of them. i figured out some of the chords and it became a "jam" session. i asked him if he could teach me a simple song. he taught me

atema tema oolojo. atema tema oolojo, atema tema oolojo
kioolii me nono... and so on

which means

we are tired of temptation
they capture you for no good reasons
whether you are a girl
whether you are a boy
they capture you for no good reasons

we sang/played/danced together under this mango tree. once again such sad content about the war... but the happiest sounding song. you'd think we were singing about the sun high in the sky by the sound of it. mothers and their little ones gathered around us. like i said i LOVED donno. he was so open and full. we laughed at how much i screwed the words up as did most of the women around us.. but it was a blast.

i tried to memorize him, the community, the school with my eyes. its hard to describe what it feels like to hang out in those communities. you feel so protected. and cared for. physically, emotionally, spiritually. i know there's violence and gender issues in those camps... but they weren't out in the open... so all i could feel was the beauty of the land and the playfulness of this community.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Back to school

Today I got up and heard fred outside singing his please don’t cry song. ok, its such a frickin sad song. and he’s chirping away like he’s singing about anything but what its really about…

He gets so excited when he sees me, he literally jumps. I adore fred!! he is so full of life even though he’s lost so much.

I spent part of the day with Kendra, Thomas’s wife who is here at the school with her parents giving lessons on different careers and preparing the older kids for interviews. They all have fake jobs with credentials and experience written out in form of resumes and applications. And they put on a mock interview with a few of them. Diana, james and I were the judges. It was fun to hear their creative answers to hard interview questions. Kendra’s program was awesome.

I got to see the zoom Uganda girls!! They sang Julie a song (we video taped it) and each gave her a personal message. That afternoon I worked with 6 students on guitar lessons. Fred, Josephine, victor, john, ivan, esther and alysias. Ok these kids were awesome fast determined learners! We went over a few basic chords and I taught them how to read chords so they could be independent in the future. We also met up the next day as well. !! I grew to know each of them a little bit and I was really impressed by their determination. Most of them have never held a guitar in their arms before and we got through a lot of info considering the little time. They have one guitar at the parish and will soon have two… (a friend of mine here in Portland donated the guitar/case/capo/songbook/tuner/strings...etc. and is going to be psyched when I tell him who its going to!!) I’ll be leaving the guitar in kampala and one of the priests will pick it up on Thursday…

I meet a fellow singer-songwriter

fred told his history to me and sang me a few songs. His mother died when he was only 2. his father when he was 4. he also had 4 brothers and sisters and all have passed from aids. He is the single survivor in his entire family. He says he feels alone in the world without “parental” care and love. But he also feels so lucky to be at the parish and loves the people there. This scenario is common here. The song he sang went

My world is crying
My world is weeping
My world is crying
Ohh ahh

Please don’t cry
Please don’t cry
Please don’t cry
Ohh ahh

And he sang the whole thing with bright eyes wide open and a smile on his face.

He also told me he doesn’t have it. Aids. He recently was checked and he doesn’t have it. He looks young maybe 18 years old. He loves writing songs and believes he has survived for the sole purpose of sharing his family’s story through song. He says he is very serious about aids and tries to get his friends to be also.

He’s in his senior year about to graduate and he takes school very seriously. They ALL do. I went into one of the classrooms and this young girl (12 years old at the most) was writing a paper about neuro-transmitters and how reflexes work in the nervous system. Its amazing how disciplined these kids are. So focused on their school. Most of them walk long, long distances, too. Ranging from 8-15 kilometers one way. And they all look clean and proper in their uniforms. They take such care to look formal. It’s cultural here, everyone dresses in formal wear and everything is always perfectly clean and starched. Even if they are wearing the one shirt they own. Its mind boggling to me how they do that. I feel like the sloppy mzungu (white person) by comparison. (!)

One thing that’s interesting to me is how it’s hard to keep the balance of human to human equality when a donor is giving aid to communities like these. It definitely lowers the status of the receiver. Always. And this lower status doesn’t serve anyone. Especially in the long run. Mostly it seems to create more need for the aid. The more involved the community is in whatever program is being funded the better. So if the program is developed. Implemented and sustained by the men, women and youth within the community it raises their status. Its such a simple innate thing that somehow gets overlooked a TON in the world of humanitarian aid. And the result is more dependency. This is why mercy corps is so awesome. They believe if you stay in a country for longer than 3-5 years they’re not doing their job. I love that.


We’re here in kalisizo in the region of rakai in a small town called matale. the land is gorgeous around here lush with banana trees and green rolling hills and valleys. This region has the highest prevalence of aids anywhere on the continent of Africa. I asked a leader of a cbo (community based organization) why he thought the rate of aids was so high and he said it was a combination of a few things…
1)there’s a lake for fishing which creates more income to spend on prostitution
2)rakai is right by the border so there are a lot of truck drivers passing thru
3)aids has been around for so long and it’s so common so people are accustomed to it (the very first case of aids was found in this region)
4)people still believe that its witchcraft or an omen brought on by bad deeds
5)the educational meetings around reproductive health and prevention are attended by men only because of the gender issues

and there are thousands and thousands of child head of households because both of the parents have died from aids. these kids are called double orphans.

It’s so hard to fathom statistics like these… and to spend time with the amazing community at St. Andrews that has been thru so much. St, Andrews is a church/school/boarding house and we spent 3 days with them. A friend of mine from Portland named Thomas is from here. Also, Julie Resnick who did an incredible photo-voice project called "zoom Uganda" worked with a few students in this school. I have the zoom Uganda calendar up in my kitchen and have their faces/stories memorized so I’m excited to meet them in person!

Its really quiet and peaceful here. I’m off to go play some music with a young man who goes to school here and hopes to make a living being a musician. he's written a bunch of gospel tunes about aids and i can't wait to hear them! we're meeting in a couple minutes on the back steps of the church.