Saturday, May 12, 2012

Birthdays and Mother's Day

I had an African moment yesterday, on my 25th birthday. I might have also had a “25th birthday moment.” Not quite sure. It’s weird to have left America at 23 and suddenly be 25, and just to be 25 in general, but it’s equally as weird to be 25 in Africa. It’s like the last year is a black hole, and while I left America a girl, I am now an adult. In Arua. Arua was quite possibly the root of my ‘African moment’ yesterday.

 We went to town because well, town has the glamorous possibilities of Indian food, cold beer (if there is power), etc. I had forgotten, somehow, that town also has the certainties of absurd amounts of heat, extreme exhaustion, obscene chaos, and sheer boredom. So, while I see only the distant and highly uncertain possibilities of future delicious food, laughter, and several hours of being just another mundu in town, Here’s what actually happens: You arrive in town early, around 9, after hopping on Adumi’s only form of ‘public transportation’- a shambly rambling white truck driven by a possibly drunk man named vaavaa who delivers (read: smuggles) goods from the border to Arua town every day, and piles people in the bed of his truck for a small cost. You spend a half hour going to the post office, an hour at the internet café , you eat lunch at Ethiopian food, and then in a delirious state of post-meal heat and exhaustion, exit the restaurant and stare at each other. “What should we do next?” Arua town is a typical Ugandan town. It has nowhere to go and nothing to do in a recreational or relaxational sense. There is usually one collective sole purpose in going to town: making money. So, town is a whirling dervish of people flying by as bicycle taxis, or motorcycle taxis, women hawking all sorts of goods, old people begging, children selling boiled eggs, men hauling timber or wheel barrows, stores and eateries open for business. Arua town is somehow not like Madison or Rome, where one can walk around and enjoy the good life. Arua is not conducive to living “il dolce vita.” This ain’t no cappuccino and cobblestone town. 

So, I realized that again yesterday, as we looked desperately around us for fun and relaxation, but instead got a mouth-full of dust and exhaust in our faces as we nearly got run over by a motorcycle carrying 10 chickens and 1 pig, the shrieks of the motorcycle and disgruntled animals competing with the collective humming of all the generators in town (because there was no power, of course). Reduced, we piled into a small café, ordered waters, and sat in a stony and surly silence for several hours. This mood may or may not have also been influenced by the hacking of my facebook account at the internet café earlier that day, during which my account sent pornographic videos of a well-known American teenage pop singer to many of my friends. Fantastic. During these several hours at the café, as I pondered my existence as a 25 year old, and trolled over all the good memories of birthdays I had in MN, WI, and Europe, we were approached by 6 people who asked us for money. The sixth person, a good-humored man in traditional Muslim dress, smiled at us and told us that god would provide for us, but for him, he needed our money. I’ve gotten a lot blunter and…more straightforward since living in Africa. And, I was in a bad mood. “No. No. No. No. No. I don’t give money. To anyone,” I said, deadpan, looking him straight in the eyes. The man laughed heartily and thanked us and walked off into the dusty hot day. My mom and dad called during this time and quite possibly noticed my lack of enthusiasm. I felt homesick, uninspired, hot, and way too far from everyone in my life. And, in that little café, I put my head on the table and cried. Don’t worry, because this too has a happy ending. 

After a few bland hours, Tom woke up a little, and suggested that we buy chocolate, olives, and wine and celebrate. So, we took this happy combination over to the Indian restaurant at 4 pm, and did exactly that for the next few hours as we waited for other friends to arrive for dinner. During that time, I received several more phone calls from family, and my mood brightened. Also, it was real wine. From South Africa. By the time that Alex, Toya, Marci and Tom arrived, I felt much better. There’s nothing like friends, wine, and good Indian food to put things into perspective. That it’s perfectly okay to be 25 and in Africa. That at some point in my life I’ll be physically closer to all the kindred-heart-spirits in my life. That I’ll be able to walk happily and calmly down a sidewalk (yes! A sidewalk!), and that everyday I’ll wake up with a myriad of possibilities in my head of thai food, movie theatres, ice cream, picnics, Frisbee, pubs! There is just so much to do in America. That night, we stayed with Marcy and Tom, who have a house in Arua town, behind the hospital. The final stroke of fate was a hilarious and unhappily enduring one. My birthday happened to mark the end of exams for nursing students, and so next door to their home, there was an all-night dance party as a celebration for the students. I’m not sure if you’ve heard how Ugandans are the biggest partiers in East Africa. I know a Kenyan woman who looks horrified whenever we talk about this, and she has told me that there is an actual ordinance in Kenya that loud music is prohibited after 10 pm. Ugandans have a bit of a reputation. And rightly so. That night, there was blaring music from 8 pm to 8 am next door. No joke. This music was powered by a generator. This generator is property of the hospital, and this all night dance party was apparently approved as a good choice, as a great use of the limited supply of fuel. Marcy has told us that the hospital usually doesn’t have enough fuel to run the generator for x-rays or really anything in the day to day functioning of the hospital. But all night dance party? No problem. Great judgment call. Dance parties > X rays and having power at hospital. Despite the fact that I happen to LOVE Ugandan pop music (especially Ugandan top 40) because it’s specially and solely designed for booty-shaking and money-making, I don’t love when it plays at ear-deafening volumes all night next door. 

Now I’m happy, and back at home in the village, where I’m hoping that my internet is enough to post this blog. Because I haven’t even written the most important part of this blog yet, and it needs to be up before tomorrow. Tomorrow is mother’s day. I have an especially stellar mother. I need to appreciate her, and I think this calls for a shout-out on my blog.  

Dr. Hogan, Margie, Marjorum, Mom, Marjorie, and most importantly, Mumsy; 
You are a woman of many names, many faces, many roles. You are a mother to 5 (Beppo included), a daughter of two wonderful people, a grandmother to 1, a wife to a loving husband, a sister to 3, a caring doctor to many, and a precious friend to a lucky number of people. You may have many roles, but you perform each with the same dignity, care, and love. When I grew up, you were a full-time doctor, mom, and friend. Who else could balance a full day of work at the hospital with a full-time schedule of sports coaching and cheering, girl-scout leading, book clubs, cooking, listening, and playing, but you? How could you always have time to read a book with me, or listen to me rant about velociraptors or my day at school? I’ll never understand how you did that. I imagine you as Mary Poppins, creating daily miracles with small wonders, or perhaps using a Time-Turner like the ambitious and bright Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. 
 I can only imagine that it is (still!) exhausting to do all that you do for the people you care about. That you have very little time to yourself. That you have many pairs of bright eyes and talkative mouths that you need to listen to at the end of a long day of work. Mumsy, you are a giver, and what you give is nothing short than magic. You have given me the best gift I could ever ask for, that of a magical and happy childhood. Every meal that you cook (but especially thai pizza!) is magical, every smile or laugh you share with close friends, every time that you speak in public about something you deeply care about, every time that you attempt Italian, every seed that you plant, every patient that you save, it is all magical. At the end of every day, when you have given all of yourself away and you are bone-tired and have to wake up early the next day, please realize that your gifts are truly meaningful to the people you give them to. You bring so much magic to life. And, as a child of yours, I can only watch in awe as you spin fairy tales and love straight out of the air. I’ve seen you pull mystery out of a good pizza in Italy, I’ve seen you capture beauty in every photograph that you’ve ever taken, I’ve seen you fall in love with nearly every child and animal that you come across. And I appreciate this palpable love and magic that you radiate, especially the way you pour it into our family. We all grew up feeling unique, loved, and capable, and it has helped form us into the creative and loving people we are now. You’ve given us all an avid curiosity of the world and its creatures. Thanks to you, I'm now an adult that finds beauty and mystery in the small and large wonders of the natural world, and who always listens to the child inside of me. This magic of yours….It’s not something you come across often in a lifetime.
 Finally, I want to appreciate that you are not only my wonderful and beautiful mother, but also a woman, a girl, and an individual. I love the slow process of learning about your past; the pictures that I see of the radiant homecoming queen, the stories I hear about the intelligent and curious student, the fierce athlete, the energetic young woman. When I learn about where you came from, and the person you were growing up, I am certain that we would have been good friends. And, on a shallow note, I think you were and always will be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I love you mumsy! -Ilse

Monday, May 7, 2012

I'm finally back in good ole Arua after two weeks of travel. For the first 10 days, I was in Gulu as a counselor in Northern Camp Glow (Girls Leading Our World), which is basically a week-long sleepover camp for young ugandan women (aged 14-18) from the northern area of Uganda. The camp was amazing and exhausting, as I spent my days from 5:30 am until sometimes 11:30 pm busy with the usual tasks of being an energetic camp counselor. I had 9 girls in my "Cheetah" group, and had a Lugbara co-counselor named Beatrice who I worked closely with. The girls in my group were all either Lango or Acholi, because the directors tried to separate counselors from the girls that they nominated from their area. The Cheetah girls were incredibly sweet, engaging, and active the entire week. I felt so lucky to be placed with such wonderful girls. My girls were especially interested in singing and dancing, so I sort of spent the entire week in a dancing daze. We were the first group to come up with a group cheer/song, but we ended up having about 5 or 6 cheetah songs and dances by the end of the camp. The most incredible part to witness, as a counselor, was the gradual unfolding or opening up that each girl underwent. The first few days, everyone was very shy and reluctant to speak or be goofy, but by the end, even the quietest girls had made friends. On the last day, as I was saying my goodbyes, my shyest camper named Grace, burst into tears at the prospect of separating from her fellow Cheetahs. I have spent a good amount of my life in camps, whether as a camper or a counselor, and so I'm very familiar with that bittersweet feeling at the end when you have to say goodbye to friends you have become very close with in a very short period of time. It's intense. I was not happy with my camper's tears, rather I recognized that the experience HAD indeed been very worthwhile for her, not only because of the enriching sessions, but also because of the connections formed. On my end, although this camp was exhausting and very different from American sleepover camps (think cold bucket baths in open-air and doorless concrete shower stalls during thunderstorms, 130 girls using the same latrines, and beans + posho for every meal), I think it was also even more rewarding of an experience. The language and cultural barriers are there, but you feel even more of a high after overcoming those obstacles during the week. Instead of roasting marshmellows and canoeing, I watched my campers learn how to properly use condoms, discover different income generating activities, discuss domestic violence, and grow in confidence. I hope to be part of some camps in the future, and I'm especially interested in helping out with Camp Build (Boys in Uganda in leadership development), which is essentially the same camp but for boys, and also Peace Camp for the war-affected youth in the north. It's also definitely a nice change of pace from village life, and gives you the opportunity to become very close to a handful of young Ugandans. Since I have left Gulu, I have been receiving many awkward phone calls from my campers, in which they run out of airtime after 12 seconds. But, I'm happy they are calling. I know that I will miss them. And, I'm SO excited about the 20 students that Tom and I nominated from our village. I can't wait to see the changes they have undergone, and the confidence they have grown from camp. I hope that they now will open up more with us, and be more willing to participate in after-school clubs or extracurriculars. After Camp GLOW, I went to midservice training. Not much to say about that, but it was good to see everyone after such a long time. I exchanged a lot of music, movies, and kindle books! After midservice, I spent a few extra nights in Kampala staying with my old friend Nathan from high school, who is doing malaria research at a hospital in Kampala. Nathan leads a very different existence than we do in our village, so it was fun catching a glimpse of his urban life, and see that Kampala is NOT just a dirty, hot mess. In fact, it is a place where you can eat delicious mexican food, watch boxing tournaments, and go to art galleries! At one point this last weekend, I felt like I was in Minneapolis, as we were sitting over our Turkish Mezze plate, watching premiere league, and discussing who wanted to go to the casino afterwards. Weird. But, I really appreciated seeing a different side of Kampala; a city that I try to minimize my contact with. Love and Lions to all! Ils