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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Uganda: Wrapping up

We returned from Gulu on Saturday and a group of 6 of us spent all day Sunday white water rafting at the source of the Nile River - Class 3, 4 and several class 5 rapids. Once again I was trapped under the boat when it flipped, but I'm sure it somehow made me a better person (following the whole "what-doesn't-kill-you-only-makes-you-stronger" paradigm). We rafted for an entire day and there were long stretches of flat water (hopefully no schistosomiasis) where I lay on the boat with my head upside down and my hair floating along in the Nile - experiencing the world with a ceiling of water. We had the same guide I had last time (Tutu) and he said when I come back again my rafting and an overnight stay at the campgrounds will be free (as if I need another reason to return...).

Now - the end of our Gulu trip. After the day of mentoring programs, we allowed the students to have free time to visit organizations in which they are interested. I visited The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), an indigenous Ugandan HIV/AIDS organization that has had some major success in cutting the incidence rates in Uganda. There are still serious challenges in the north, as the national rate is 6 or 7% and the rate of HIV/AIDS incidence in northern Uganda is 13%. TASO provides ARVs, herbal treatment and counseling services, as well as a children's center and dance and drama team. The facility was definitely the best I've seen in the country, and while it's outpatient only, it seems to provide a safe, clean haven for the clientele.

After TASO, I took a walk with one of the participants to see the World Food Programme Storage facility - where tons and tons of food are stored in huge tents behind barbed wire - this is the distribution facility from which food aid is distributed to the camps. After seeing thousands of kids with swollen bellies in the camps, it's pretty surreal to know that there are enormous tents of food just five kilometers from their squalid camps. Conditions in the camps (as far as congestion) have improved since the last time I was in Gulu, but if you haven't been following the news, you should know that the peace talks are in limbo once again, as the LRA has demanded to move the talks from southern Sudan to either Kenya or South Africa for reasons of insecurity. This is another major setback.

I've spent a significant amount of time on the balcony of the Hotel Kakanyero, reading The Places Inbetween, by Rory Stewart - a Scot who walked across Afghanistan amidst the fall of the Taliban. Our last day in Gulu I visited Janet, a 19-yr-old Acholi massage therapist at a health club (highly recommended by Josh, our summit coordinator). My massage was an hour and a half (and the best I've ever had) and followed by a body scrub -- total cost? 15,000 USH, which is about $8. YES! I have to get in my little luxuries here and there.

On Saturday we returned to Kampala from Gulu via the Post Bus, which also delivers mail between the two regions. While the bus was less claustrophobic than the tiny and bumpy matatu taxis we had been taking, we stopped every five minutes to deliver mail or buy groundnuts, meat on a stick, matooke, or live chickens from villagers that rushed the bus as we passed by.

We returned to Kampala on Saturday and since then have been spending some free time with our Ugandan friends here in the city, exploring the town and finalizing our action statement for release (see below). We officially closed the program yesterday evening and the national Chief of Police for Uganda came to speak at dinner (he provides protection for our group). The goal of this Youth Summit is to produce a working document that outlines the role of youth in post-conflict northern Uganda. My group, poverty relief and economic development, produced the following bullet points:
  • Promote the restoration of local culture and break dependence on foodaid by encouraging development of agribusiness tied to resettlement. By participating and sharing knowledge gained from agriculture-based training, youth will be prepared to lead the rebuilding of a peaceful northern Uganda.
  • Facilitate increased access to capital and markets through expansion of microfinance to rural areas and improved transport and communication infrastructure. Integrate practical and entrepreneurial training into educational curriculum to develop a generation of job creators

The students are going home tomorrow, and I will miss them a lot - but I'm really looking forward to spending the next 10 days experiencing Uganda at a slower pace. Lots of students have been really sick this past week with the typical travelers stomach afflictions, and one participant seems to have malarial symptoms - we visited health services yesterday for a test, which came up negative. One student was robbed at an ATM in town and another student decided to spend the entire night out without informing us. I'm getting some seriously stressful leadership challenges, and now I know how my parents feel when they worry about me!

Also, Godwin Ortega, one of our Ugandan participants that lives in Namuwongo was robbed this weekend, losing all of his money, documents and possessions. Ortega is only 22 and takes care of his 3 sisters, one of which - Judith, age 7 - he's been bringing to spend the days with us. She's adorable and I've been spending lots of time with her teaching her how to use my camera and giving piggy back rides and tickle fests. I gave her the Hello Kitty purse from Auntie Paris, which she LOVES and carries around with her everywhere (she even wrote her name on the back and keeps a 100 shilling piece inside). The American participants have really bonded with Ortega and are contributing some funds to help him keep his sisters in school and get documents back. Once the students leave I'm going to take him to try and open a savings account and pick up some things - and we're taking Judith and some other girls from Namuwongo to spend the day at Munyonyo Speke Resort for swimming, slides and ice cream.

To my delight, Katie - my American co-leader, has decided to extend her stay and we'll be traveling together.

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