Tuesday, June 27, 2006

AIDS and Life

Scooby-doo! Where are you?? I feel like I’ve disappeared from the blog for a while, sorry about that. I’ve been on the internet about 3 times since my last post and haven’t posted for a couple of reasons. 1) I’ve seen some things recently that have been, emotionally, difficult for me to place, let alone write about. 2) my time on the internet is usually spent fighting a slow connection and thus getting only a few things done when I am on… Let’s start here: Marcel’s Orphanage. Through many many people’s support we were able to reach a goal of $2,000, which means that we will be able to buy beds and mattresses for 30 kids there which also means that another 30 kids won’t have to share beds anymore. Plus just having some nice new mattresses will be an added advantage. The problem has been getting the money from a bank in the US to here. There is a bank that will let me use my credit card, however, it will only allow me to withdraw about $200 at a time. I’m in the process of talking to different bank managers to see if something can be worked out to get this done, but it’s a timely process, but I’m working on it. Things with Compassion are going well. Lately I’ve been helping them organize some forms they use for the kids. They have folders for each child and in them are pictures and different forms based on health checkups, home visits, maps to these kids houses (which is interesting because many times there’s no real ‘road’ that goes there, only a small ‘bike trail’ that winds through the hills. One guy described it as the ‘shire’ as in the Lord of the Rings…) In these folders I find a plethora of information, some of which completely contradicts itself. One child’s folder had 3 different forms that said the child had 3 completely different birthdays, another form asks the child if their parents are alive, separated or dead, but they are asked this every 6 months instead of being asked 1 time and having that information kept in the front of the folder. By searching through all the 5 different forms I found relevant questions that I’m compiling into a couple of concise and relevant forms. If you’re a prayer, pray for all of our compassion kids, but especially for Nicholas. (sorry, I don’t have pictures now, but I hope to soon) Nicholas is the sweetest, happiest 13 yr old kid. Both of his parents died of AIDS, his father in ’95 and his mother within the past few years. He has no brothers and sisters and he lives w/ his aunt. Nicholas also has HIV, but he has a more serious condition now which effects his balance. He cannot walk or even sit up without completely losing his balance and falling over. It’s the strangest thing, it’s like being drunk and it sounds to me like an inner ear thing, but the doctors are stumped. We sent him to a hospital in Kampala (a 6 hr bus trip) to see the doctors. Now the hospitals here are not like they are back home. First of all, you’re not admitted unless you can pay. You aren’t automatically admitted just because you’re sick. Secondly, the patents are taken care of by their families and not by nurses. The nurses stand around and talk or do general cleaning of the building from what I’ve observed. So Nicholas has been at this hospital for nearly 4 weeks and his aunt has had to stay with him the entire time. Which means she can’t work but Nicholas’s bills are piling up. Now Compassion is paying for his hospital stay, treatment, plus money for his Aunt who sleeps on a mat directly underneath Nicholas’ bed which looks more like a cage w/ bars than an actual bed. And walking through this children’s ward, seeking these kids w/ feeding tubes in their noses and seeing their parents with them… it’s just tough. Seeing kids sick is just a tough, tough thing. A child with AIDS… they didn’t do anything to deserve this, they are the innocent victims of crimes of passion committed by their parents who, as in Nicholas’ case have already died themselves and have left orphans to be taken care of by family members… it’s just painful. So they’ve done CT scans on him, looking for problems in his brain and haven’t found anything. The doctors don’t know if it was a virus that caused this or if it is just a result of the HIV… I was at the hospital when we were sending him back home while we figure out what else to do with him. And I had to carry him to the vehicle. I started w/ my hands under his armpits trying to let him walk, but about every 6th step he would stumble, so I resorted to piggy backing him to the vehicle. Every time I visit I try to bring him some candy and let him play games on my cell phone. Beyond that and praying I don’t know what else to do… We may end up sending him to Nairobi for further treatment and tests. Fortunately he’s not getting any worse, and equally as fortunately there is an organization like Compassion that is there to provide for what would otherwise be no care for this child at all. Beyond that I’ve been doing home visits w/ the HIV/AIDS project children we have. I go w/ our health coordinator who is a nurse and we visit w/ the kids caregivers and just take a look at their homes and compounds and make suggestions and see if there’s anything else that they need that compassion can provide (small things like lamps, soap, food, but also big things like a new plot of land or a new house or kitchen…) The things we see… 8 people sleeping in 2 small rooms on 3 mattresses with an additional mattress that’s never been used because there’s no place for it in their small house. A child with marks like chicken pocks all over his body which is a skin infection resulting directly from the HIV he has. Kids who are dirty and very thin (not like you see on those feed the children infomercials but still, smaller than they should be). Pit latrines which consist of simply a hole dug in the ground with a few logs laid over the top where someone could easily slip and possibly fall in. One family had their pit latrine about 75 yards away down a STEEP hill and there’s no WAY they could get there in the evening or if it were raining… So compassion tries to help. We will try to allocate money for a new pit latrine or even a bigger house. Part of me wishes we didn’t just hand out money but part of me knows that’s exactly what they need and don’t have. It has to be a BOTH/ AND like my friend Roger says, not either/or. The toughest thing though was visiting a child’s home and finding another young lady in the house who had recently been tested positive for AIDS. She was in bed without a top on pouring water over her head and complaining because her head was hurting so much. Alice, the nurse, told me that what she was experiencing was an infection in the spinal fluid which was causing pressure on her head and what she would have to do is go to the hospital for a spinal tap to drain the fluid and without that she could die even within a few hours… So Alice recommended that she go immediately but the young lady refused to go because she didn’t have money to pay. Now a week later she did end up going to the hospital, and I found out a few days after that that she died from the spinal infection which was a complication from the AIDS… Hearing that she had died, knowing that only 10 days ago I visited her in her home, knowing that Alice recognized what she had and recommended her to go to the hospital and she didn’t and now she’s dead… of AIDS… It hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure I know about AIDS, I know it kills, I know the statistics, facts, and figures… what I didn’t know was the person. You can read about something until you are blue in the face but to see it… to experience it…. To know that this young lady is now dead because of AIDS… I just don’t know where to place it… Just another day in Uganda I guess. Seemingly millions of miles from ‘home’ and ‘the rest of the world’. And you’ll go home and complain about your commute and complain that there’s nothing to watch on tv and tomorrow, someone else will die of AIDS and the world will continue to turn… On a happier note… the US Ambassador has asked me to sing the National Anthem at the 4th of July ceremony at HIS HOUSE where there will be around 500 Americans celebrating Independence Day. I sang at our swearing in and he was ‘very impressed’. Funny thing was, I had a terrible cold and I was so nervous that I could hear my voice quivering… It’s much more difficult to sing in front of a few of your peers than to sing in front of 500 total strangers, so I’m sure I’ll be better in a week!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Coffee Shop Experience

Last weekend a bunch of us got together to hang out and celebrate birthdays in Mbarara, one of Uganda's 2nd tier cities. I'd say on any given day you could ask 6 Ugandans which city is the 2nd largest city in the country and they'll name 6 different cities. Mbarara would be one of those. It's a central meeting ground for those of us in the South West to get together, run through the ever popular Peace Corps rumor mill, play poker using bottle caps instead of money, drink, eat Muzungu food, chocolate, etc and just share our PC stories. After a day of socializing I decided to try the Mbarara Coffee Shop, located on the main strip. I'd never been but the tought of a coffee shop intrigued me enough to check it out. In a country who exports so much coffee, you might think there would be more of these and that they could sell it cheaper than you could get a $3 cup at Starbucks, but no. Same addictive stimulant, same high price, reflective of the income levels here that is. I arrived at around 8:30pm with 2 pieces of literature in hand. The May eddition of Runners World and a book called Men & AIDS. The inside of the coffee shop was painted the usual coffee shop colors, various shades of brown and tan to give that perfect, bland, earthy tone to everything. It didn't look so much like a coffeeshop as it did the old snack counter at the old Boys Club with simple shelves which held the various soft drinks and some coffee cups. On top of the shelves were 3 trophies which I could only figure were for the game of Cricket. Over the speakers played Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' as I placed my order for 'African Coffee' rather than 'Regular Coffee'. I was in a special mood and regular just wouldn’t suffice. African coffee, it seems, consists of milk and coffee already mixed and prepared with sugar on the side. As I was ordering the waitress was enjoying that i knew some of the local language and she attempted, though in vain, to teach me some additional phrases. "Sit and I will bring it," she said in Runyankore. "Anything to eat?" and then smiling and repeating it in English. Ugandan's do funny things as far as decorating a place it seems. They even do this in their houses. The put up any picture just for the sake of having a picture on the wall. Now granted, there were a couple of African masks hanging along with a couple of African paintings too, that I would expect. But then there's always an assortment of beer ads, Fresca and Coke ads, along with politicians, especially ‘Vote for Museveni’ posters adorning the walls as well. There’s a book I read my freshman year called Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Moon, a college English teacher, travels around the circumference of the USA on small highways in a mini van, visiting people and cafes along the way. He always rates the cafes by the number of calendars on the wall with the elite being the 7 calendar café. The holy grail of cafes if you will. I think every restaurant in Uganda could qualify because they each seem to have at least 7 calendars and it doesn’t matter which year either. A man could also make a killing selling levels here as the decorations looked similar to what you might find in a Dr Seuss book as everything hung just crooked enough to give you that nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling if you’re OCD like me. And I mean everything is crooked. The African masks, paintings, calendars, the electrical box, lampshades, posters, wires are criss-crossing all over the place. And in these 6 crooked lampshades was a different light bulb in every one. There was an energy saver fluorescent bulb hanging above a group of 4 Ugandans in what would have appeared to be a heated discussion of important political ramifications, but what was in all likelihood a friendly chat about who will win the World Cup. Ugandan’s love to debate, and it’s clear because you see it often. And of these different bulbs there was also the flickering of the lights as the generator they were being powered by was having surges every 15 seconds or so. There was a home-made sign that read ‘Strictly No Smoking’ right next to a green sign that said ‘Exit’ in English and Arabic. It’s 8:50 now and a few straddlers are coming in for supper. They take supper here around 9pm. Just a cultural thing I guess. Next comes “Listen to Your Heart” by DHT followed by “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias. I sat, sipping my coffee, reading my book, in part listening to the trucks and busses outside, and in part wishing to be back in the states in NY or Chicago doing the exact same thing. And the thought crosses my mind, “Why am I a just visitor in this country and not a permanent resident? What matter of chance decided that and what an amazing fine line between the two?” Too deep for a Friday night, so I finished my cup, closed up my book and headed back to the hotel.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Care Package Ideas

A few people have asked what to send in a care package, so let me address that now. Any care package is the best care package I've ever received in my whole life!! Even the one my mom sent me that contained 4 bottles of vitamins... that was all... 4 bottles of vitamins. NO CHOCOLATE, no nothing. Vitamins. Ok, so that one needed some work, and therein lies the 1st rule. A care package must include chocolate. Even if it's just one small 'fun size' bag of M&M's, that's ok. Chocolate! I know you can relate to this one girls, but chocolate is a near necessity here. Oh, they have chocolate here. And if you look hard enough you can even find Snickers, but the chocolate here isn't the same as back home. Sometimes it's been here for YEARS and it's more like that dry, crumbly stuff you'd use to make chocolate milk than actually eat. For an idea, my friend Kelly sent a shoe box containing: M&M's, Pixie sticks, a Runners World magazine, 2 used DVD's from Blockbuster, Nerds, EZ cheese, and rainblow bubble gum. Today I received a box containing ONLY M&M's and Reeses Pieces, and I mean a FULL box! (Thanks Mike and Rita!!) I feel strange making a list, almost like the list your parents ask you to make for Christmas when you're 24 and you know it's just so they can buy whatever is on that list for you, but you've asked so here it is: Chocolate - M&M's, twix, 3 musketeers, Reese Cups, Reese Pieces, Whopers - whatever. Be smart about it. Like whopers come in this hard-to-ship milk carton thingy. Open it and dump it into a ziplock bag to save space. And don't worry, it won't melt (I don't think). It's hot here and all but the boxes usually stay inside and it's not an issue. Also, be thrifty. Buy up all the leftover Easter and Halloween candy. I'm not going to get it in time so i'll probably think you bought it in season.

Ultimate Frisbees!! Jacob and I are starting Ultimate teams at all of the local high schools but we NEED some frisbees for each school. They LOVE this game!! And the ONLY equipment needed is a frisbee. You'll have to look for what we're after, they are specific frisbees that weigh 175g and they should say Ultimate on them. I think they cost around $15 at any sporting goods store, but you CANNOT find them here in Uganda. The one I have, I brought with me and it's already showing some wear.

Chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, etc. Put them in a zip lock bag...they'll get here ok. Used DVD's from Blockbuster – they have new releases and who doesn't mind unwinding to a movie on a Friday night? The best movies to send are 'family movies' like Shrek and the Incredibles because i'll probably end up showing them to the Ugandans or the kids at Compassion, but personally i like to watch dramas, romance, thinking movies, some comedies… seriously just anything. Watch it first even before you send it, doesn't matter to me. They have movies and they rent movies here, so i have access to them. You can even buy/rent like 7 movies on 1 disc. I bought the 'matt damon' collection. Poor DVD quality, but not a bad deal. Krunchers Potato Chips (BBQ). Again not economical because of the bag, so open them and put in a zip lock bag. Even crunch them down a little. No Problem. These are my favourite chips in the WORLD and they might be hard to find. Pringles work well too. BBQ are my favorites. They sell them here but they’re expensive.

Burn a CD – Create a mix that you like, throw some new ‘hits’ in there. Throw some country in there. It’s funny but they play country here and seem to like it.

Stickers - Stickers go over so well with kids.

Crayons/Markers/Coloring Books Again... for the kids

Bacon Bits

some of those super bouncy balls...the girls have a game they play with them here, but they usually use some rubber from an old bike tire that they wrap around and around and around.

Surprises – Nothing’s better than opening a box of goodies and having a hodgepodge of random stuff. It’s Africa people, I’ll find a use for it somehow, someway… trust me!

I’ve heard that sending things in those padded envelopes is the most economical. It seems to take packages anywhere from 4-8 weeks to arrive, so keep that in mind. Again, getting packages are like small gifts from heaven, truly! And I want to thank anyone who has either written or sent anything these past few months! You are all in my prayers and please keep praying for these kids and the Compassion staff and for me as I try every day to figure out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing here…