Birthday Fundraiser

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Written June 23-June 26, 2009

First of all, RIP Michael Jackson. My day began with the report on the news and continued with the sounds of Thriller coming out of shop windows and a surprising amount of personal sympathy. Random shopkeeper and boda boda drivers have shouted their sympathy. I received a text message from the principal of Ahmaddhiya today starting with something more official and ending with his “heartfelt sympathy” for “the demise of the greatest star.” People assume that I am more affected by his death because he is from my country. Actually, it seems to me that people are bigger fans here than at home.

With that out of the way, I want to report on some of the experiences I’ve had in the schools so far. I have been getting settled in Ahmaddhiya Secondary School, and have (finally!) stared working with an NGO that I am very happy with.

At Ahhmadhiya, I have learned thus far that when teaching, the only thing to expect is for things not to go as expected. The first four lessons were on: human development, sexuality, stereotypes, and gender roles.

Human development went more or less according to plan. What shocked me was that they knew more about the reproductive system than I expected them to, which was a good thing.

Sexuality was a huge surprise. The session veered away from the curriculum a bit. We tried an activity that involved agreeing or disagreeing with a series of statements about. We only got through statement #2 before we were having a hardcore debate that touched on prostitution, the meaning of provocative clothing, and husbands mistreating their wives, among other things. Boy, did people have opinions. There was standing and some shouting involved. My dilemma was in defining my role in the discussion. Should I be strictly a facilitator? Should I share my personal opinions? Should I share my opinions but present it as a fact, since I know they will listen?

Stereotypes took me by surprise, too. I seriously thought that this would be a boring review for them. So I was shocked when no one could define stereotype. The definitions I got were just blatantly wrong. One girl suggested it was the life course from birth to death. I had trouble understanding one boy’s answer until I realized he was defining a stereo (as in the thing that plays music). So I abandoned the activities I was going to do and spent the class defining words like stereotype, discrimination, prejudice and stigma. Maybe it’s because civil rights, slavery, etc. is so embedded in US culture that we learn from a very young age the meanings of these things. Anyone else remember the “blue eye/ brown eye” activity in kindergarten? A product of different educational systems.

In general, I have found it challenging to teach a group of kids from a different culture than me. There are certain times when I realize my examples just won’t really work. For example, when talking about discrimination and prejudice, it is natural for me to want to talk about the civil right movement and slavery. But I don’t want to be constantly talking about the US. I want to relate the lessons to the kids’ environment. I was happy that when I asked for examples of discrimination, someone brought up Idi Amin’s treatment of Indians. After Amin, I did resort to talking about slavery and such. Actually I hesitated for a moment, thinking that racism against blacks would be offensive to a group of black kids. Then I decided that if anything, it would spark their interest.

I noticed that when talking about gender roles, some kids think in a different way that I do. During the agree/ disagree exercise described above, one girl and one boy agreed that men should make all the important decisions in a relationship. And while I initially thought it would be easy to refute this idea, hearing justifications based on religion and tradition complicates things. And when I talk about family relationships, for example, I am not sure I know exactly what they are thinking.

Finally, I want to talk about my start at the NGO. It is called Vision for Sustainable Development. It is a completely volunteer organization. They do a variety of work for a community called Bwaise. All of the volunteers (expect, now, for me) grew up here. One of their main activities is going to primary and secondary schools to teach about life skills and HIV/ AIDS. The past few days, we’ve scooped up our materials and marched like a brigade school to school. My first day took me by surprise because although I assumed I would start off observing since I hadn’t yet learned the ropes, I actually played as big a role as anyone. I was slated to be one of two facilitators. I could talk about just about anything I wanted but I hadn’t, of course, prepared anything. They suggested I talk about HIV/ AIDS. I was worried because although I have knowledge on the topic, I had not been prepared to give a lesson on it. I had some time during the first presentation to jot down some facts and attempt to create a coherent lesson. In the end, I actually thought it went pretty well. I proceeded to repeat the lesson at another school that day, and then variations on the lesson in four more schools over the last two days. The most interesting part is fielding questions at the end. Some of their questions really take you by surprise. There is a lot of AIDS confusion out there, it’s true. The interested reader can ask me for a list of the questions.

I am really impressed by the vision of Vision. Talking to them is really inspirational. As volunteers, everything they do is done out of the goodness of their hearts and the LOVE of the community they grew up in. The “office” is a tiny room located right within the community. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that it is important to the program to remain in the community, even if it means having a small headquarters. They work as a “family” and I have been officially welcomed as a family member. The team mentality is what I really love.

Today, we spent half of the day in a nearby clinic where we took nine girls with suspected STDs and possible HIV to get counseled/ treated/ tested. These girls were from a school we worked in yesterday. Some of them had anonymously asked questions that suggested there might be a problem. The Vision guys told them to speak to them after the session. They did, and today, action was taken. Just like that. I thought that was really nice. Shows that a day’s work actually has a positive impact.

I like showing off my Uganda knowledge with my new “family.” This includes local food, popular music, and my increasing store of Uganda words. I have found yet another group of people with whom to practice my Luganda skills. Will be fluent in know time (okay, maybe just “decent”). Today I tried a food called a kicommando (pronounced chi-commando) for lunch. It is a mix of cut-up chipati (a flat bready thing) and beans. Everyone kind of laughed when I agreed to eat one, and I wasn’t exactly sure why. Isaac later labeled it a “ghetto food--” something you eat if you want to fill up quickly and inexpensively. So I guess that was the funny part.

Perhaps one day I will tell them that I go by “Meghan” and not “Smith.” I may have mentioned previously that when I arrived here my family called me a combination of “Meghan,” “Lee,” and “Smith” before I set it straight. It is because they have a system of naming that is different than mine. I did feel compelled to tell the family because it sounded so funny to me at that time. But by the time I started work, Smith had actually started to sound fairly natural, so I let it go. And now I've embraced it as my name. You may call me Smith when I get home.

That’s all for my update.

Keep it real,


Monday, June 22, 2009

"Fitting in"

Written June 17-18, 2009

The theme of this post is fitting in. To start, today (June 17) I attended a “welcome” lunch at Ahmaddiya High School. This is a “fitting in” example. The principal has been trying hard to find a day that I can come. He is great and very pleasant to work with. He started off with a speech where he introduced me and, to my partial surprise, my country. Although he stated that he didn’t want it to get political, he went on about how in Uganda, when things go wrong, people blame the United States, but as evidenced by my being there, the United States is not all bad. He talked about the principles of democracy and acceptance and more and how I will be able to bring promote these positive ideas in the school while I’m there. As I was set to make a “speech” next, I was thinking, how on earth am I going to respond to this? I managed, taking mostly about how important it is to observe and learn from other cultures and that although I hope to contribute something to the school, I expect to gain just as much. I networked with some teachers, too, who were able to help me out by drawing a lovely replication of the male and female reproductive systems on a poster, which I sorely needed a couple hours before class (a collaboration between biology teacher and art teacher).
My cultural knowledge is increasing. A recent addition: Don’t tip in Uganda. I was at a café a few days ago where I sat down and ordered lunch. As I was finishing up, I suddenly realized I didn’t know if I should tip…. And how much. I really had no way of finding out the answer, but I figured it was better to tip when it was not expected than to not tip when it was expected. So I calculated 20% as I would in the US and added that to the bill. The bill was only 5000 schillings, so it was not extravagant. Anyway, later that day, I found out that tipping is either not done or done in very small amounts in rare circumstances. So I made someone’s day with an extra 1000 schillings.
If you ask what the hardest cultural adjustments are, I might say the language “barrier” and the food. When I say language barrier, it is not a barrier per se because almost every person here speaks English and Luganda fluently (English is the official language). But Luganda is used quite frequently and sometimes I just want to know what they are saying, especially when “mzungu” (white person) is in the phrase. I am trying hard to learn Luganda. I practice with members of the family every morning and night.
As far as food, it has been somewhat difficult to adhere to the eating habits here. Three very big meals a day. A quick sandwich or salad is not an acceptable lunch here (sidenote: Someone asked me, “What is this we see in the movies about eating leaves all the time…?”) We ward off comments that we are going to starve at night and that we are going to lose so much weight. I’ve found that I’m just accustomed to small meals and snacks, rather than so much at once. Another adjustment: Dinner here is eaten sometime between 9:00 and 11:00 pm. Yes, right before bed.

EDITOR’S NOTE 1: Maybe it’s just the type of food I’m not used to. Some of the other interns and I treated ourselves to a fast food restaurant a few nights ago complete with cheeseburger and fries, pizza, and an ice cream. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that despite my comments about “too much food,” in the face of this familiar food the issues disappeared. One of the Dutch girls accused me of acting so American. I accepted the comment and finished my burger. So I am more American than I had realized.

EDITOR’S NOTE 2: I believe the “losing weight” comments will cease. “Mommy” told me today that despite my small portions, I am looking good and fat (must be the burger). A bit bigger than I was when I arrived. Woohoo! Imagine someone saying that in the US… I’m glad I was warned of this cultural difference.

Here is a story addressing both of the issues above. A couple of days ago, I went to a very large market with an AIESECer from Uganda. They sell literally everything you can imagine. All the clothes are second hand and apparently brought in from the US and Europe (exclusively). To me, it was a giant maze of alleys. As you walk through crowded and cramped pathways, you enter “shoe world” then “women’s shirt world” then “appliance world,” etc. All the while you are being shouted at (“mzungu! mzungu!”), touched, arms grabbed. At the market we stopped at a “restaurant.” We sat down at this little table with a bunch of strangers. Negotiating how much food I would order took a long time. I seriously did not want a lot, but that is rarely an acceptable answer. The process involved me tasting the pumpkin on my friend’s plate to see if I liked it. I took a tiny bite, and I guess there was something funny about how I did it because every single person at the table—mostly strangers—started hysterically laughing and making comments in Luganda that I couldn’t understand but included “mzungu.” That was one of the moments where I had that burning feeling of just feeling out of place. It doesn’t happen all the time, but every now and again.
The shouts of mzungu do baffle me. Imagine walking down the streets of the US, pointing and shouting “black person!”
There are moments where I happily realize that I do belong here. A couple of days ago, I passed a small test of belonging when I was walking alone around the town and actually bumped into a Ugandan I knew (an AIESECer). This may seem like it’s not a big deal, but it made me oddly happy to be in a crowded, foreign place and know somebody by name. Not that it was warranted but it made me feel pretty popular.

So to wrap it up, things are going well in the schools (I am working at 2 now) and as far as work with the NGO, things are STILL getting settled but I am making progress. By next blog post I expect to report good news.

Love and hugs,


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Earning My Stripes

Written June 13, 2009

Hello again. I hate to start on a negative note, but there have been some roadblocks in getting everything settled in terms of work. To recap, I am working in a high school and in an NGO called Kamwokya Christian Caring Community. I have already taught one lesson in the school. I have not, however, began working in the NGO. And I really can’t say when (or if?) I will. I’ve unexpectedly realized that although I thought the more slow-paced African lifestyle was right up my alley, it is not in all cases. I have come to better appreciate and even miss the fast pace and sense of urgency of the United States that makes things happen. There are of course pros of a relaxed, optimistic, unrushed atmosphere, too. Like anything else, it is a tradeoff.

Like I said, I have taught my first lesson at Ahhamadiya Muslim Secondary School, and I was pretty happy with it. To recap again, the goal is to teach kids about HIV/ AIDS while also teaching them skills to relay their newfound knowledge to their friends and peers. The topic of the first lesson was “what is peer education?” My class is made up of the school’s “S.3”’s and “S.5”’s (S for secondary). There are about 30 kids and they range in age from about 15 to 20. I teach by myself, although I might have an “assistant” from now on. I was a little intimidated going in at first. I think they were a bit hesitant at first, but by the end of the hour-long class, everyone was participating and seemed engaged. I really like the fact that at the end of class, a lot of kids come up to you to shake your hand and say thank you for coming.

There is a chance I’ll be working in another school too. There were supposed to be six interns working on this project but we only have two. So Jo and I are hoping to devise a plan that will allow us to deliver the program to all three schools. We’ll have to be a little crafty, hopefully giving each school three days a week.

I am proud to say that I am well on my way to becoming an expert Kampala-navigator. I am earning my stripes here. With the frustrations I’ve alluded to about the work not getting off the ground, I’ve committed to not letting my days go to waste. On Friday, I went to the Uganda National Museum. Pretty cool. They had a special exhibit on climate change, although I spent much more time looking at ancient African artifacts. Arguably, the more noteworthy fact here is that I managed to get there, by taxi, on my own. A small but meaningful accomplishment that means I will be a tried and true Kampalan in no time. Let me describe the taxis:

They hold about 16 people at a time. There is a money collector who sits in the front and leans out the window, summoning weary travelers and ensuring that every seat in filled at all times. When you get to your destination you say “stage” and get out. They’ll stop anywhere along the road. They are crowded and hot, but they get the job done. It costs the equivalent of about 50 cents to get from my home in Bukoto to the Kampala city centre. Perhaps one day I’ll learn to negotiate prices, but for now I happily accept whatever I am charged (it’s usually fair).

So after the museum I taxi’d to downtown Kampala to give myself a self-guided tour. Self-guided with the exception of the guidebook I borrowed from Jo. I managed to check off a few “must-sees” from the book, including the Parliament building, the National Theater, and a great national craft fair to which I will definitely return. I found a cute café to eat lunch in and ordered fruit salad and… a slice of orange cake (ah, cake!!).

I was quite satisfied with my outing and realized that despite being upset that I had to “waste time” all day, this was actually a great opportunity that will be rare once I start working. And I boosted my confidence about navigating on my own about 10 times.

It is fun to see the reactions of Ugandans when they ask me how I get around Kampala and I say by taxi (no, not a “private hire”). And also when I tell them that I do so on my own. Honestly, since I’ve gotten here, it’s kind of been expected and the norm—so I didn’t think that I was doing anything particularly noteworthy. But there has been many more than one occasion where people act surprised and impressed to hear …Brush it off :P. The transportation I have yet to master is the “boda boda.” These are motorcycle-like vehicles. Single passenger. More expensive (and arguably dangerous), but the “door-to-door” service and the ability to dodge traffic may be worth it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I had my first boda boda ride through Kampala today and it was actually really fun! I was with a Ugandan guy (an AIESECer). We were trying to get a couple of boda bodas, but whenever he tried to negotiate, he’d be overcharged, presumably because they saw me and my skin color. So in the end, I stayed back while Wakib negotiated, and then once the deal was set, he called me over. Surprise!

In other news, I proudly held my own in a 2 on 2 game of basketball with Abraham (one of “my brothers”) and two university students that we met on the court. On one of my free days, I headed with Isaac’s brothers to a sort of recreation center for mostly university students. I was a minority there on two accounts, but I think I temporarily forgot. I even scored the winning point… only one point after it was determined that the white girl had to make the last shot. Good motivation.

Before wrapping it up, this weekend I participated in an AIESEC national conference in Entebbe, Uganda… a “beach resort” right on Lake Victoria. A great opportunity on a few accounts. I met all of the other interns. They are from the US (6 from Yale, plus another from North Carolina), the Netherlands (2), Canada (2), Brazil, and Japan (2). Someone just arrived from Egypt as well. Lots of people from AIESEC Uganda and AIESEC Rwanda took part in the conference. Perhaps about 60 people in all. So there was a good world representation. In fact, on the last night, each country was introduced and each group (or individual) sang its national anthem. My vocal chords and I were grateful that the US was well-represented. The conference ended with some goat-roasting, singing by a campfire, and a dance party. Two of my favorite things and one thing I’d never done before. Guess which is which. Overall, the conference offered a good chance both to have serious conversations with interns and AIESECers about the structure of AIESEC and about cultural issues, and to let loose and have fun. AIESECers are a fun-loving group of people; no doubt about that.

That’s it for now. Until next time,


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

firstblog post

Greetings from the Bukoto District of Uganda! Having a wonderful time so far. Some things are as I expected them to be/ hoped they would be; other things have shocked me.

Written June 9, 2009

I have more independence in terms of my jobs than I expected to. For one thing, although Jo and I thought that we would be working together, we found out this is not the case (note: Jo is from London and the other intern working on my project). We are each working at an NGO and in a high school. We thought we were both working at Kamwokya Christian Caring Community and Ahammadiya Muslim Secondary (High) School. While this is true for me, it is not for Jo, who is working with two different organizations in Kampala. This means that I will be working alone.

The teaching job itself offers more independence than I was anticipating. I was told that I would be teaching an existing curriculum. But contrary to my expectations, it is my job to develop particular lessons in order to teach this curriculum. I am looking forward to this, as I had hoped that this would be the case, and was kind of disappointed when I was told the curriculum was already in place. I guess I just didn’t word my question properly when I asked.

My first lesson will be taught tomorrow. Jo taught her first yesterday. I am fortunate that I can model my lesson after hers, but in the future we will develop lesson plans together. Actually we are planning lesson 2 together after I finish this.

I also feel more independent in terms of traveling. I had expected, of course, to travel to work with Jo each day, but now, although we will likely take the same taxi routes, we will be heading toward different ultimate destinations. Although it would have been comforting to travel together, I think I will be glad for the extra challenge, as I will learn a lot more about the city, and surely gain some useful skills. We will likely get a taxi together in the morning, but I will get off first. I will then walk to my second job (school) around 4:30, and walk to Jo’s school around 6 to get a taxi home together.

The first time I went into Kampala, I was thinking, there’s no way I’ll EVER navigate this by myself. However, having gone back with Jo a couple of times, I feel much more confident. I know that I know enough to get to where I’m working and back. And at the moment that is all I need. I expect to come home with a set of street smarts that I didn’t have before—or that I didn’t know existed. I expect to be able to hail a cab like nobody’s business and cross any street with ease. With much less than I am used to in terms of traffic lights and stop signs, if “extreme J-walking” were a sport, Kampala-dwellers would do quite well.

As far as the family, I am enjoying integrating myself with them and learning about them. Jo and I have entered a world of 7 boys, plus mom and the maids (It is quite common in Africa to have maids and one of the boys was shocked to learn I didn’t have any). I enjoy sitting in the living room by the TV just hanging out. A couple nights ago, I asked them to teach me some Luganda (the local language—lots of people speak English and Luganda, plus the language(s) of their tribe). I’ve learned the basics—“how are you,” the numbers 1 through 10 and “white person.”

I have been often made fun of by the guys for what I call my “movie illiteracy.” Isaac and his brothers are shocked by the list of movies (and TV series) that I haven’t seen. As Isaac put it, they watch “my people” and my home in movies all the time and that I don’t even bother to watch. Food for thought?

We’ve shared a lot about our respective cultures and homes. So far I have shared the following relevant facts… the meaning of “fives” and “shotgun” and the definition of “cougar” (which Isaac has already used in a sentence at least three times).

Jokes aside, I have had more meaningful conversations, too. Comparing education systems and religion, for example. Why the US drinking age is higher than the rest of the world (relevant, considering my current age [20 and exactly 11 months today]). And why the US would dare to steal the word “football” for an unrelated game. I have also explained the rules of baseball.

So this blog posting is occurring a few days into the trip and postings like it will probably be sparse. One thing that I have really come to appreciate is the Internet access I enjoy at home. Internet is joining the growing list of things I take for granted. There are Internet cafes around the area. Two quite close to our home. My second day, I was eager to send an email to my family and said that told Isaac 10 minutes should be fine. But you pay for 20minute intervals, so I took 20. What I did not anticipate was the time I would spend waiting for pages to load. 20 minutes was not even enough to write my email! I ended up getting another 20 minutes and managing to read about 5 of the 24 messages that had accumulated in 2 and a half days. The fact that at home and at school I can sit at the Internet… and for free… at virtually any moment I feel like is now bizarre to me, and something to appreciate. I am actually not online at the moment. I am typing into Word so I can upload this document in a café tomorrow or some other time (make note of the time delay, by the way). A crafty technique Jo and I came up with.

One more fun fact before I put an end to this lengthy post. I have found it interesting to see what comes to mind when I say that I am from the US. The principal at the school I work in wanted to know how we in New York were doing after the “big shock.” I initially thought… economic crisis? He meant 9/11 and offered his apologies and prayers. People mostly mention Obama. Everyone that I’ve met seems to be a fan (or maybe it’s just that only the fans feel compelled to mention him). I told a 6 year old where I was from yesterday (after he guessed I was from India, and then China), and he responded that he has seen the US on TV. I asked where and he said something that began with “Barack Obama goes to ____.” Finally, today, I got something along the lines of, “I thought Americans were taller…”

So that’s it for now; hopefully more to some soon.

Thinking of YOU (yes, you),