Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Home Visits and Transportation

Let me take a moment to describe 2 things. Home visits and transportation. Home visits because it’s a fairly big part of what I do and transportation because it’s both one of the most fascinating and frustrating things that I do here.

Home Visits

I try to do home visits 2x per week, on Thursdays and Fridays. I always have to go with someone in our organization because of the language barrier. I’ve stated it before, the national language in Uganda is English, however there are somewhere around 55 tribal languages and the people are more comfortable speaking their native tongue than one imposed on them by the government. So Alice-the-nurse and I begin around 9am. We flash one of the moped drivers (get your mind out of the gutter!). A ‘flash’ is when you call someone and hang up before they answer. It doesn’t charge your phone any minutes and the driver of the moped knows to go to your house or business to pick you up. If he ‘flashes’ you back, then he can’t make it. It’s a fascinating system. So Alice ‘flashes’ a moped aka ‘boda’ driver, normally David, and within a few moments he arrives. We travel a couple of miles to a nearby primary school and meet with our children and they tell us where they live. We try in a given day to visit between 8-10 kids’ homes, and even this takes all day, about 45 minutes or so per visit. We get the directions and set out.

Now I know, back home, you have nice paved roads to all of your houses with nice big mailboxes with your addresses on them. Here you have main roads and side roads which eventually turn into footpaths. I once went on a bike ride in a random direction and the road became narrower and narrower until eventually I was just biking right by peoples houses, into their back yards and then to their neighbors houses, from one neighbor to another and eventually I got back to the main road. I was afraid the trail was just going to stop outright at someone’s house. Dead end. Nowhere else to go but back, but it didn’t.

So we visit these kids’ houses to check on a lot of things. We look at the condition of the house. What is it made of? Mud or concrete? Is the roof Iron sheets (corrugated metal sheets) or thatched reeds? Is it dirt floor or concrete? What is the overall condition? How many people sleep in the house? How many sleeping rooms are there? We then move on to the kids beds. Compassion provides foam sleeping mattresses for all of the kids. Are they using them? How many kids are sleeping on them? It’s not uncommon to find that 2 kids are sleeping on each bed. Do they still have the cover on them? Compassion gives each kid a mosquito net. Are they using them? Are they clean? Do they have holes? Is the child using the toothbrush that was given to them?

We then go outside. Now remember, people don’t live in their house. They live in the yard around the house. They sweep the dirt around the house and that’s their ‘living room’. So is that neatly swept. It should be swept to keep away bugs, collecting water and trip hazards, and for appearance purposes. Do they have a ‘drying rack’ for dishes? A simple stand should be erected where plates and dishes are placed in the sun to dry. The sun kills some germs and it keeps the dishes up off the ground. There should also be rocks underneath for drainage and to prevent hookworms. Next is the pit latrine. What shape is it in. How far is it from the house? Is it too far? Is it too close? One family had to go down a STEEP hill about 75 yards into the middle of a banana plantation to use their pit latrine. And can you imagine having to do that after a rain or in the dark??? A basic pit latrine has a concrete floor with a ‘hole’ about 8 inches by 12 inches which you squat over to urinate and defecate into. I’m just trying to describe it if you don’t already know. Often instead of a concrete floor there is a pit dug with several logs placed across the hole and mud filling in the cracks but a large crack left open in the middle to use. We also check to see if there is something to cover the hole of the latrine to prevent flies. Flies spread disease. After the latrine it’s on to the bathing area. Most of the village people here take bucket baths outside. They have planted some bushes or have fixed some mats in a 4ft x 4ft area near their house. The bathing area is constructed for privacy. This also has rocks in the bottom to prevent hookworm. On a couple of occasions we have found that people just bathe outside when it gets dark. This includes my wash lady, Justine, who lives in what would be equivalent to an apartment complex. In addition we are looking for a rubbish pit, somewhere for them to put trash. Trash. I would imagine when you think of Africa you would think of fresh air, a natural habitat for animals, fresh fruits and vegetables. What you don’t think of is the TRASH that is EVERYWHERE. People here DO NOT value their land so they throw plastic bags and plastic water bottles wherever. I’ll give people some candy and they’ll open it and just drop the rapper on the ground and it drives me CRAZY!! We also try to get an idea of their monthly income and how they earn a living. Most that we visit live on less than a dollar a day for their family and they are peasant farmers, just living off what they grow and sell. Lastly, we ask how the kids are behaving at home. Some of our kids live with their grandparents and they know that they are bigger and stronger and so act defiantly. So if we get a bad report then the kids are in trouble w/ us.


Public transportation is everywhere in Uganda. Moped, aka ‘boda’ is the easiest way to get from one point to another if you are traveling just a few blocks. It’s cheap too, you can ride for a couple of miles for about $0.25. It was funny at first to see 2 and 3 guys on these mopeds. You know that saying about fat chicks and mopeds? Well it’s not true here. Ugandans like them both! On occasion you’ll see one guy driving the moped and another guy on the back holding a bed! Or a 20 ft long pipe! I once saw the passenger holding a suitcase and the driver had one in his lap as well. Sometimes you’ll see a child in front of the driver and 2 in the back. You’ll also see mothers on the back riding side-saddle holding a baby, or perhaps they baby is tied to their back. You NEVER see a woman driving a moped! NEVER! And you walk through the town and see the drivers congregating and they’re notorious for being the roughnecks, so they give cat-calls and make comments. Many are school dropouts. They probably earn something like $5 a day which isn’t terribly bad. In areas that are flat then you have the bicycle ‘boda’ drivers who will peddle you across town. It’s the same concept only slower and cheaper.

On to the van-taxis. First off, these taxis come from Japan, so some of them have Japanese writing. Ed, one of our trainers, told us that in Japan they have a law about how long a vehicle can be on the road, so after that point the vehicle ends up here. The vehicle is composed of the driver and a conductor. The conductor hangs out the window as they drive around town and ‘barks’ for passengers and collects money. You are supposed to go to the taxi park to get a vehicle. This is where they congregate. However, you’ll wait and wait and wait and wait for the vehicle to fill up before you leave. Often for HOURS! So what I normally do is go to the edge of town and wait for either one that is leaving or one that is passing through town that has room. Now a ‘matatu’ as it’s called here, holds 15 people… let me rephrase that, it has 15 seats. There are supposed to be 3 people per row, 5 rows, but they typically have 4 per row. That’s the norm. There is no concept of personal space in this country. Fortunately people are skinny here. In this van that is supposed to hold 15, it’s common to have 20 or 25. I’ve personally been in one that had 27. 27 people in what is supposed to hold 15. The most I’ve heard of is 48! Forty Eight! In a vehicle that holds 15! Does that sound like one of those clown cars at the circus or what?? Now the 48 were a group of high school kids on their way to a soccer game, but still! Now these and the buses are cheap. You can go a couple of hundred miles for $5-$6. And gas is about the same price here as it is back home. It’s a little over a dollar a liter. Now there are taxi ‘cars’ as well. Some are official taxis and some are just guys going to a certain town trying to get his fuel paid for. Taxi cars, which are small (think Honda Civic), won’t leave until there are around 11 people in them. The last one of these I attempted to ride in had me sitting in the drivers seat with the driver and my feet were UNDER his pedals. My knees were wedged under the steering wheel and he was trying to convince me to move my feet and get situated. I told him to pull over and that I was getting out. I’ve ridden where I straddled the stick shift too. I was ok in the even numbered gears, but when he went to the odd numbered gears it was getting a little personal! I was in a ‘matatu’ once that went for fuel. The were out so the driver pulled up a few blocks to a guys house who brought out some plastic jugs and began to pour them into the fuel tank. I asked the guy next to me if they charged more for this new gas and he told me that they often charge less. Apparently people who receive gas from their work, such as some government officials, will siphon the gas from their tanks and sell it. Sometimes even mixing it with water to make it last longer!!

So that’s a little bit of travel in Uganda. Remember that the next time you’re stuck in traffic in your own personal, spacious car with the thermostat adjusted to the perfect temperature as you’re listing to your favorite radio station play your favorite song.

Thanks to Karen for the care package!! Wow!! You’re amazing!! Thank you so much!! It was perfect!

I read something in Runners World I want to share before I go. It was said by an 83 year old man upon nearing the finish line of a marathon. He said, “The pain of discipline is less than the pain of regret.” Remember that the next time you’re going through something difficult but you know that it’s till the ‘right thing’.


ps Amber, can you email me? I couldn't get your hotmail account to work...


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