Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Quick Note

Dear Friends,

Today I've had a little time to post some ramblings. Little snippets of my time here. I'm still processing quite a lot, but I wanted to start least something!! I just realized, though, that if you read my posts from top to bottom they won't make much sense. I refer to previous thoughts as I progress, so you might want to take a look from bottom to top! It still might not make much sense -- like I said, just rambling -- but little by little I'll get there. Thank you for caring and following me around Uganda. The past few days have felt a little lonely as I'm adjusting from being with my big group "family" to traveling alone. Just a little change! I think of you all often and am thankful every day for your love and support. More to come from Uganda. My love to you always, Aimee

PS Just in case anyone gets the urge to call across the world , my cell phone number here is (from the US): 011-256-77-465-4360 :)

To Give a Goat

UPDATE: Through an exciting new partnership between TPO Uganda and the Polus Center, you can now donate a goat to a mentally disabled child in Uganda and transform a life, family, and community. Read below to learn more. Click here to give. Thank you all for your interest, love and support. Through your encouragement over the past year we were able to make this possible.

In the camps and in the villages, finding a way to address the unique issues surrounding children with special needs is of vital importance . It is rare to see a special needs child, and even rarer still (almost never happening) to see an adult with mental disabilities and special needs.

It is believed that for every special needs child seen, at least one (or several) exist. Why are they not a visible part of the community? Why don't we see special needs adults?

It must be assumed that most special needs children don't make it to adulthood. There may be many reasons for this, including limited food supply and necessitated decision making for parents with many, many mouths to feed. Additionally, mental disabilities are often understood to be a curse or spiritual malady, and attempts to "cure" it isn this fashion often go awry.

Special needs children are sometimes found by workers locked in tukuls, being fed adequately but not cared for properly or integrated into family and community life. This is due to both the social stigma (would you want your neighbors to treat you as cursed?) and a general lack of knowledge about mental illnesses. Parents often have no concept of their child's potential and actual limitations, and don't know how to provide the best care.

Often, a special needs child becomes a major secret within a family, which (in a very communal society) breeds isolation, and sometimes problems like alcoholism and violence within the family. But let's back up....

How is anyone supposed to be able to help at all, if we can't even identify families with these children in the first place? Enter TPO's goat project!

IN communities where this was found to be a prevalent problem, TPO began a (now very succesful)program. It goes something like this:

It is announced that any child with special needs will receive a goat free of charge. The goat is only given directly to the child. A parent may not receive the goat on the child's behalf. In a context where goats provide much needed food and income (think milk, cheese, and then breeding for meat), this is a highly valuable comodity.

Giving the goat allows TPO to identify the child and family and see if individual, family interventions are necessary. Is there abuse? Starvation? A feeling of overwhelming helplessness? What is the situation? Community members are usually intrigued, and facilitated community dialogues, sensitization and education can begin. Slowly, over time, this leads to a change in attitudes and understanding of special needs children. Often,support groups are started as families with these children learn, with great relief, that they are not alone. Finally, the child, who now OWNS a goat has status within the family and a small charge to care for and love. And all for a $45 goat. The continued, positive results -- even after goats have ceased to be given -- have been overwhelming.

TPO has recently identified several new villages where they will begin the project for the first time. Anyone want to give a goat?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rich in Name, Part 2

Just as we were to leave, the village leader asked me aside. “We have been thinking and talking,” he said. “We have been thinking of your name and its meaning. We think that in Africa it is different than in America. You must have a name that reflects you in Africa, in Okubani. We think that you should be called Ajikoru. It means, “one who loves a lot.” This way, with both your names you are complete. You are both loved, and it is clear that you love others very much. If you did not, you would not be in Okubani. This is clear. It is a circle.”

I am honored by my Arringa name. Sam practically had to drag me back to the car.

Member of the Tribe

“What is your religion?” they asked.

I knew that this question would come and had considered how I might answer. The people here are deeply religious, but most are Muslim or Christian and are unfamiliar with anything else.

“I am Jewish,” I answered.

I was met by puzzled looks. Finally, one of the elders spoke.

“But,” he said hesitantly but with pride, “isn’t that your tribe?”

“Yes!” I said.

They were thrilled. They knew my tribe! But I continued. “It’s both religion AND tribe.”

Puzzled, concerns looks. Moments of silence. Finally one of the men broke out howling. “Religion AND tribe!!! This is very, very funny!!!” A second leader gave him a quick look of death and a slap. The laughing man calmed down. I gave a basic explanation of Judaism, which they took in, wide-eyed. “Well,” one said, once I was done, “I am happy to know your tribe. Greetings to them from our Arringa tribe. We wish your brothers and sisters well. I smiled and promised to deliver the message.

Rich in Name

Ezama’s youngest child sat on his lap, sniffling. Several chickens and a grey cat wandered into the tukul and were shooed away. The baby, distracted, stopped crying. He had been frightened by my foreign, mzungu face. He had never seen a white person before. Relieved, I grinned at the baby who returned with a cautious coo.

“What’s his name?” I asked Ezama.
“Alijonee,” the proud father replied.
I repeated the name. “It’s nice,” I said. “What does it mean?”
“It means,” Ezama told me, “it is very bad to be poor.”
One of the village elders turned to me.
“Your name, Aimee. What does it mean?”
“Beloved,” I replied, suddenly acutely self aware.
“Ahhh, he answered, as all the men nodded. “You are very rich in name.”

Later that night, far from Okubani, as Sam and I talked about the day, I asked him about the relative wealth of the village. Surely, I thought, I may have misread some of the signals. Perhaps they were not as bad off as they had shared. “No,” he told me “The names. That is one way to know. Only the very poorest places have poverty names. It is very unfortuate,yes.”


As soon as Sam and I arrivec at Ikafe, our host Ezama was there to greet us. He rode with us back to Okubani (the TPO driver kindly drove us) explaining the whole way that the community was very excited to meet us. We greeted some of the women and children outside of Ezama’s tukul and then were ushered inside to sit in one of the four chairs placed around a small, short table. I learned later that Ezama had pulled many strings and worked for quite a while to to gather these chairs for us. As we sat, Ezama repeated many times, “You are most welcome, you are most welcome,” a common, beautifully hospitable Ugandan refrain. I would hear it dozens and dozens more times before the day was through.

We hadn’t been seated but moments when the community leaders began arriving: local religious and political leaders, representing various spheres of influence. I was grateful that Innocent (a Ugandan friend an coursemate) had taught me the most respectful way of shaking hands.

It is worth noting that I was the only women present. When Ezama’s wife entered she sat on her knees to bring food (rice, motoke, tea) and quickly left.

Ezama’s home had been prepared for our arrival. Hand crocheted doilies framed the door and hung from the roof. The dirt floor had been recently swept, and the posters on the wall freshly taped (he told us). The posters were from the IRC with messages like: Ways That Bird Flu Spreads; Discuss Your Sexual Needs With Your Partner for Safety, Health, and Respect; and Alcohol Effects Community . The table was set with seemingly every object of weath: a broken cell phone, a wind up radio, and a photo album which he proudly insisted we peruse. Inside were photos of Ezama dressed smartly, standing proudly outside of various buildings. I asked what they were and learned: where he had received his teaching certificate, and several town halls – trips into “big cities.” His biggest trip? Into Arua, from whence I came.

“I love to travel,” he told me.
“Me too,” I replied with a smile.


It’s easy to see why the people of Okubani believe themselves forgotten. Their village sits att he edge of Ikafe, but before the refugees arrived, they tell me, their isolation was severe. The land is parched and will not produce much. Cotton, their sole cash crop, is not growing like before, and the government has recently declared that it will pay less, making the taxing venture hardly worthwhile for the people. Or so said two Okubani men as they sat under a tree, cleaning the cotton, and afternoon turned to dusk. A few meters past, close to the mosque, (an expanded, large, thatched tukul), and under another tree sat a man with a sewing maching – the town tailor. Clothes hung on low branches above him, stiff and hot in the stale air. Not far from him I could see a clearing lined with empty stalls and inquired. The market, I was told.

What do they sell, I asked.

Fish from the Nile, sometimes cotton, and necessities like salt and sugar. Fabric from Congo, came the reply. Things come over from the Sudan, things go back into the Sudan. “This is how we stay alive,” they said. “If there is to be a marriage, then there is cattle, although cattle are few.” A lively conversation ensued in the local language. I asked Ezama what was being discussed. “They are debating,” he said, “how many cattle you would bring in dowry.”

Eager to change the subject, I pointed to homes in the distance. “How far does your village extend?” I asked. He pointed and drew a large circle in the air.

“This is our countryside, he said. And then, pointing closer to the dusty path and the women weaving mats outside their homes, “and this is the city. Some people want to be close to the development. Big development. The same in the USA, no?”


2-3 dusty, dry and rattling hours north-east from Arua you will find Ikafe refugee settlement, “home” to southern Sudanese refugees who have been here as long as 15 years (some say longer). I have spent some time over the past few weeks at Ikafe and the surrounding communities. We were initially invited as guests, to visit several host families at Ikafe. We were to spend the day with them: eating, chatting, listening and learning. The families were given the resources to host us, so we were not drawing from their very small supply of food. However, many families insisted on sending us away with gifts, and one of my colleagues returned to Arua with a live chicken in the back of her car!

TPO works in Ikafe, and the staff chose our host families for their relative stability and their various standing within the community, so that we may understand “normal” in this complex and terribly impoverished camp environment.

The families were delighted to have us there, many commenting that this was their first visit with a mzungu (foreign/white person). Others mentioned that other mzungus always treated them as dirty, left as quickly as possible, and never wanted to eat with them.

Many of the families told us that they had been preparing for us for days, looking forward to the visit for weeks. All of us had very unique experiences, depending on our hosts. Common questions to us included:

“What do you grow on your land?”
“Why are you so far from your family/clan/tribe?”
“What is your religion?”
“How many wives/children do you have?”
“Is there rain in your home?”

Questions we asked included:
Who is in your family?
Have you ever been to Arua? (to discern how much/little they have traveled past the camp
What do you think of the peace agreement?
How did you become a refugee?
Are you planning on going home?
What problems do you face here?

The International Rescue Committee (, in conjunction with the Office of the Prime Minister, administers most programs inside Ikafe, including the health services. I was given a gracious tour of the maternal health center and the general health clinic. The former consisted of two beds for birthing, and a scale set inside a sparse room. Two midwives tended to dozens of pregnant women, mothers and babies lined up outside the clinic, breast feeding and tending to their little ones. The birth rate at Ikafe is astronomical, and conditions for birthing poor, although better than some places. The doctor shared that the top health problems faced at Ikafe are: disease (malaria, typhoid, and waterborne diseases mostly), malnutrition, and birthing problems. HIV/AIDS is growing, but not severe in the camp. It is an ongoing struggle to identify these patients. The doctor shared, though, that the school had recently initiated a better health education program, and many of the psychosocial projects were geared toward changing attitudes about sexual behavior and associated health problems.

I had an opportunity to learn more about this because I was hosted during this initial visit to Ikafe by Ezama, a teacher at Ikafe’s school. Ezama, a Ugandan national, lives in Okubani, the abutting village. The school serves the national and refugee community alike, as does the health center. Ezama and Okubani left a lasting impression and I learned more in 8 hours than in much of my formal education.

A Good Question

So, what is psycho-social work, anyway? Well, after almost 3 weeks here I now have a pretty good idea. Putting it into words is another matter entirely. Here is my own best shot (TPO friends, any input???):

Critical, creative, compassionate problem-solving aimed at mobilizing, utilizing, and engaging existing resources at family, community, societal (and sometimes individual) levels. Psychosocial work involves identifying and rebuilding protective factors at all levels. Interventions attempt to address and mitigate compounded social issues that create or contribute to mental health problems. In addition, psychosocial work responds to serious mental health problems appropriately, according to culture, context and need.

Examples coming!

Good Mornings

Every morning I wake to the sound of the goats bleating outside my window, and the generator turning on for its few hours of day time work. My room has concrete floor and fits a small twin bed canopied in a white swath of mosquito netting, a table, and a chair. On the table I have arranged my books, class materials, clock, toiletries, and few medicines (so I remember to take them!). My window looks past the edge of the property, where goats and a few chickens wander, out to where our neighbors live in their small, thatched huts (tukles). The tukles are arranged in groupings by family, with each one functioning, effectively, as a room of a house. The tukle nearest my window has been painted around the bottom in recognition of a recent celebration. I can wave to the mother as she sweeps in the morning, and watch the girls bring the water from the borehole, yellow jerry-cans balanced carefully on their strong heads.

There are 14 other rooms like mine, all in a row, with shared bathrooms at the end of the corridor. All of us women live here – the men are one building over. Every night kerosene lanterns sit outside each room, lining the corridor and casting a warm glow through the hallway. I’m usually asleep before the generator turns off at 11:00 p.m. (it runs for 4 hrs in the evening), But if I stay awake, I read or write by lantern light. It is very comfortable here.

The center functions as a training site, but prides itself on being part of the neighborhood, so to speak. We are roughly 2 km outside of Arua town, but pretty rural. The people are very welcoming and kind. They don’t give us a difficult time, and no one begs us or asks for anything, which I feel is pretty amazing. But we don’t take pictures and absolutely do not give anything to them, in terms of money or gifts. This community, although poor by many standards, is self reliant and capable. Giving, although well intentioned, could, in effect, create a very negative situation.

A few nights ago we had a big party. We opened the gates of the center, and all of our neighbors came over to dance. There are several traditional dance and music groups in the area, and they performed/danced with us. Some of the kids dug a pit and built a xylephone into the ground using pieces of wood. It must have been 6 feet long! When it was done, 8-10 of the children gathered around and starting playing the newly created instrument. Boy could they play! Music filled the neighborhood, and we all danced well into the evening, until it was time for the little ones to go home to sleep. We’ve done this several times, and it’s so much fun for all. I think that one or two of the pictures I previously posted (or Minh posted for me!) are from these dance parties.

Back in touch

Dear Friends,

I am sorry that I have been so out of touch! Between slow internet connection and being busy, it has been difficult to post. I usually have about an hour and a half free during the day, and must choose whether to wash my clothes, take a walk through the neighborhood, rest, or go to town. The internet center in Arua is good, but the computers are slow. Everything here takes longer, and in some ways, I love it. Watching the clock is pointless. Time takes…its time. I am learning to breathe again.

Class, however, is progressing at a clip. The days when we are in class are long, and often aren’t done until 9:30 pm. It’s a good thing, since, of course, there is so much to learn! In order to have the proper tools and context for any field work, I know that it is essential that we spend quite a lot of time prepping, and I’m glad that I’m getting a good dose. I’m trying hard to absorb it all. A typical day (when we stay “in school”) looks something like this:

7:00 wake up
7:30 short walk with a friend – say good morning to our neighbors in the village
8:00 breakfast (usually fried eggs, toast, coffee)
8:30 class (today: Analyze field based assessment done at Ikafe refugee camp)
10:30 tea
10:45 class (today: Designing prevention and treatment interventions at individual, family, community levels based on assessment)
1:15 lunch
2:00 class (today: Identifying at risk groups, differentiating between need and crisis)
5:30 break
7:00 dinner
8:00 class (today: Clarifying roles of helpers: expatriates, nationals from outside community, local community-based helpers)
10:00 done!
10:30 fast asleep

A day in the field or at the camps looks entirely different, but that is for another post. Truly, it is taking a while for my words to catch up to my experiences here. It is sometimes difficult for my mind to believe my eyes, and processing all of this takes some time. There is a lot to take in, and so much to share.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In Uganda

Hi Friends!!

Greetings to you from Arua, Uganda! After 9 very bumpy, beautiful hours we are arrived from Kampala, dusty but happy. I only have a minute, so this is just to say that I am here safe and sound. My group is truly phenomenal, Uganda beautiful and gracious, and I feel incredibly privileged to be here. More tomorrow, but for now off to dinner.

Love to you,

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Coming and Going

M gets back from California tonight, and I leave tomorrow. 26 hours together. (Sigh). It's not enough, but I'll take every second that we have.

We're driving up to New York tomorrow morning, because I fly out of JFK. I'm flying through Dubai and spending the night in a hotel airport. Unfortunately, it will be dark so I won't get to see any of the city. I hear that Dubai is opulent. Doesn't Michael Jackson have a house there? After the night in Dubai I fly into Kampala via Addis Ababa and meet the other people in my program. We'll spend the night in Kampala and then drive the 7 hours north to Arua.

DC - NY 206 miles
NY-Dubai 6,843 miles
Dubai-Addis Ababa 1,563 miles
Addis-Kampala 1,183 miles
Kampala-Arua 523 miles

Total miles here to there: 10,318

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

King of the Jungle

I think Matisse knows that I'll be going soon. He's been very, very cuddly. Even more than usual, if that's possible. It makes it (a little) harder to leave!

Kim Family Auction

The Kim family benefit art and craft auction begins tomorrow. Many amazing artists have donated their work, so check it out! All money raised will go to the Kim family who lost their beloved husband/father, James, after the family was stranded in the Oregon wilderness for 9 days. James left to find help and was found deceased days after the rest of his family was rescued. To find the auction click here. To learn more about the inspiring strength of James Kim, click here.