Thursday, February 21, 2008

Can Ribo Mon Matino (or, why I am here in the first place)

If you have purchased any paper bead necklaces from me during this first year, or you have entered my apartment and seen the piles and piles of colorful jewelry spread out on my living room floor (and even if you have not done either of these things), I would like to personally introduce you to the incredible women behind the beautiful and unique beads.

These women, from Awer IDP camp, create the jewelry that many of you now wear. Their transformation over this past year has been great, and much of it is thanks to you.

Between the time I met them, and now, just one year later, they have moved from making necklaces that I bought but could not sell or really wear myself, to jewelry that moves through trendy boutiques and gets sold when someone asks a wearer "That is so beautiful and different! Where did you get it???"

Part way through the year the women became serious about their work. They decided that they wanted more training; they decided to build a workspace for beading together, they decided to name themselves and thus become a true cooperative. Thus Can Ribo Mon Matin, or "Women United from Their Problems" was born.

And it is true that their problems are significant. Most of these women care for between 5-10 children and have no income to speak of. Nearly all of them began their childbearing when they were children themselves. They live in a congested and unsanitary camp for the internally displaced and cannot farm their own land. Their husbands, if alive, do not have work. They largely depend on the World Food Program and other aid. Many have lost family to AIDS, or are HIV positive themselves.

For the better part of this year, my friend and partner in all this, Tiffany, has continued to visit and advise the women of Can Ribo Mon Matino at Awer. I send her money, she purchases the necklaces, she sends them back to me (and also to her family in Texas). I sell the necklaces to you and send the money back to Tiffany. The cycle continues….

Your purchases have allowed them to become businesswomen. Without your support there is no way that their quality of life, and the quality of their work would have improved so dramatically, that they would have a workspace, that they would now be able to build a small, small business. Medicines are now more easily purchased, and small bellies filled. It is still a struggle, but things seem more hopeful for these women and their families.

One thing that has moved me greatly is something a bit less obvious. The women of Can Ribo Mon Matino have moved from being simple bead-makers to being creative artists. Their work has developed in color and style. They are taking chances, using their own ideas of beauty, pushing the envelope just a bit. This may not seem particularly incredible or note-worthy. The women are after all in a creative profession now, so to speak. However this move into unique and inspired creations is, in fact, monumental.

Camp living is about survival. It is day-to-day, hour-to-hour, what-am-I-going-to-eat-and-feed-my-children-tonight-living. It is praying that a fire doesn't spark and fly across a sea of thatched huts, charring your few possessions: a water jug, a pot, a sleeping mat, a change of clothes. It is hoping against hope that your newborn and maybe even your older child survive the year. In this kind of living, there is little room for imagination.

So together with the smiles on their faces and the obvious improvement in their living, the originality of these women and the spirit they have begun to infuse into their work moves me. It makes me certain that something is going right, and that it is worth finding them a more sustainable venue for their craft. This is especially important now that Tiffany is leaving Uganda in June. And that is why I am here in Gulu this time around. I knew you were wondering.

If you are interested in selling these unique and beautiful paper bead necklaces to your friends and family, please just let me know. I will be bringing home many, many, many. For more pictures of the women and the beads click here, into Tiffany's flickr account. It is definitely worth a look-see.

Big hugs to you all, and thank you for sending me so much comment/e-mail love!


Books, Afghanistan, Advocacy, and Slowly by Slowly

I lost 2 big posts today to a corrupted flash drive, and I am SO frustrated. I will do my best to re-write them later, but for now I will leave you with a small antecdote from an afternoon last week.

I was outside Charity for Peace giving a short lesson in English "conversation" to the street kids who hang out there while waiting for a meeeting. I had in my hand the book A Thousand Splendid Suns, written by the same man who wrote The Kite Runner. (Incidentally, I tore through the book in 2 days. Anyone looking for a great novel should pick it up). One of the CFP employees with whom I was speaking noticed the book and started asking about it's premise. "This one is in Afghanistan, yes?" I told him yes, it is a fictional book about Afghanistan.

"Ahhh, that place is so sad, just like this place," he told me. "I would like to know that place. It is also a place which is crying. I just pray for them for peace. But," he continued...."for them, they are fighting tribes against tribes, interests against interests. It is complicated and difficult. For us, we are fighting against our brothers. It is our family!! This should be easier, but it is not. I do not know how you end such a deep family problem. I am hoping. I am praying. We might, might be close. We should be close. It is coming slowly by slowly. And maybe those ones in Afghanistan..." he trailed off and tapped my book... "maybe those will also soon know some peace."

If you would like to know what you can do to help bring peace to northern Uganda, visit Lobby Days are almost here, and even if you can't be in DC, you are only a phone call away from your representative. Participate in your democracy and if you care, let them know. You can click here to send a letter directly to your elected official. All you have to do is enter your own address, and the work is done for you. So easy! Send the letter that is provided, or write your own. It is coming, as they say here "slowly by slowly" and that isn't quite fast enough.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Today is my mom's birthday. Her gift from me is 2 hours + in this internet cafe, as the power flickers in and out, trying to get a few posts up. I hope you have a wonderful birthday, Mom, and a very special year. I miss you! Thank you for your love and support in all my crazy endeavors, and for chatty morning coffee time, across the country and sometimes across the world. I love you. xoxoxoxo (This picture is of myself, my brother, mom and dad, and was taken when my mom was just about my age! It is one of my very favorites)

Love and Joy(ce)

Today is Valentine’s Day and I miss Minh. After a day of working with TAKS and Paper to Pearls, I decided to head to Joyce’s house for a short visit. After all, there is no one in Gulu I love more! I walked in from town and turned down the dusty road toward her home. Four small boys raced bicycle rims past me, pushing the metal circles with sticks and shouting playfully at the funny “muno” (white person), in their neighborhood. In a moment, another child raced out to the road, and seeing me, ran back from where she came, crying “Abalo! Joyce! Abalo! Joooooyyyyyce!!!!!” I slowly made my way up the path, but within another instant there were the children, flying toward me, a tangle of arms and legs and ripped dresses and toothy grins. Joyce was toward the back, but pushed her way up to the front of the pack, and before I knew it she had leapt into my arms, her head on my shoulder, panting and out of breath from the sprint. Her small hand played with my hair for a moment before I put her down. The other children ran ahead to tell Carla that I was there, but Joyce stayed by my side chit-chatting in Luo, so much to tell about the day’s activities!

I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with all the children outside. There were many rounds of the perennial favorite: “everybody jump,” which is exactly as it sounds, and which we transformed into a type of “simon says” hybrid. They all sang their ABCs and several nursery songs, and I began teaching “You are My Sunshine” and a version of “London Bridges Falling Down”.

For me, though, the best part was watching Joyce return every so often to Carla, just to make sure that she was watching. Carla, preparing the evening meal would smile and nod at Joyce, acknowledging her performance and games and antics, and Joyce would continue, right in the game with the other children.

I have thought of this scene all evening long. The truth is, many people have come together in order to ensure the brightest possible future for this special child. We can provide food and shelter, the very best education, mentorship. We can support ultimate self-sufficiency. We can care, adore, pray, and even love Joyce. But this kind of love, this kind of support – the genuine, constant, non-wavering, daily, deeply rooted love of a mother is not something we could ever, ever give her, no matter how much we wish it possible (and if you know me, you know I have wished it possible!!).

There was never a question in my mind that Joyce needed to stay in Gulu, with her family, with her people. Despite this knowledge of my mind last year, my heart spoke differently. I wanted her with me. I loved her. Not a day passed in the US when I didn’t think of her, speak of her, yes, at times cry for her. And I think that this is mostly because, although I knew she was being cared for, I hadn’t seen her loved. Carla has changed that. Joyce has a real family now. She has someone who is constantly looking out for her best interest – not because she is obligated, but because she cares, and she loves.

I will always love Joyce, but I can already feel a change. Maybe it is the sadness and heaviness lifting. Carla told me that Joyce is “here” – and she placed her hand over her heart. I understood, maybe too well. But the most beautiful part is that Carla is also here, in Gulu, beside Joyce as she goes to sleep and wakes up, prepares for school and returns, suffers from her sickness and succeeds in staying healthy. She is here, and will continue to be here as Joyce lives her life and grows.

In as many ways as I can be, I will be with her, too. I will love her in all the ways I can. But now when I am at home in America and I think of Joyce I will see her in my mind’s eye running over to Carla for assurance and a smile and then returning to me, for an afternoon of games.


I spent 4 full days in Gulu before I saw Joyce. I wanted to go and meet her family together with Grace, her mentor, and Grace wasn’t available until Saturday. With so much aid and so many people in and out of their lives, it was important to me that Joyce and Carla, her stepmother, see Grace and I as a team and understand that we work together.

When Saturday finally came, I tried to keep my expectations low. Very low. Perhaps Joyce wouldn’t remember me. She is, as they say here, a very stubborn child, and she is four. Chances were high that she would hide behind Carla or not want to interact with me at all, be shy or a bit scared, or just stubborn. For this, I was prepared (or so I told myself). Also, I tried to remember, she could be sick or not doing well. Although I had been told otherwise, I am not sure I really believed it.

As Grace, her 4 year old daughter, Laura, and I approached the home, she filled me in on the details of Joyce’s life. Within moments though, I saw for myself. Joyce was outside playing with her friends when we arrived: boisterous, lively, jumping up and down and up and down and up. In an instant we were spotted and suddenly a mess of 3-6 year olds were tearing toward us at breakneck speed. Joyce went straight for Grace. Once in Grace’s arms she looked over at me. Her eyes got big and she smiled, then buried her face in Grace’s shoulder. Grace spoke to her for a minute and then put her down. “Who is this? Grace asked in English. “Aimee” Joyce said with a small smile. Shyly, she walked over, took my hand, and we walked to the house.

I had never met Carla before. When I was here last year, her Aunt Mary was caring for Joyce. Shortly after I left, Carla, Joyce’s father’s second wife, arrived and began to care for Joyce. For a short time the two women shared the responsibility, but eventually Joyce was left solely in Carla’s care. Mary went back to Pader, and Carla stayed in Gulu with Joyce, going to Pader every few weeks (with Joyce) to tend her garden there.

Instantly, I liked Carla. She greeted us with warmth and hospitality. She smiled. She swooped Joyce up into her arms and absent-mindedly cleaned the dust off he face. She spoke of Joyce with the pride and utter adoration of a mother, adding with feigned irritation that Joyce is, indeed, “a very stubborn child,” and then erupting in laughter. We sat for a long time visiting, Grace translating and chatting between us, Joyce staying close to Carla, moving to Grace, and eventually climbing up into my lap.

I noticed that the home was clean. Spotless, clean. Mattresses, clothes, and playthings hid behind a freshly hung, cheery curtain. Pots and a kettle were neatly placed in the corner. There was nary a mosquito to be seen. This was still the same one-room, concrete block, tin roofed place she had lived last year, half the size of most modest bedrooms in the US, and housing 6 people, but somehow for the first time, it seemed like a home.

Joyce was clean. The sore on her arm is still problematic, but was covered with a fresh bandage. Her ears were not oozing, her nose was not dripping. She had gotten taller, put on weight. Her eyes shined. Dare I say it? This beautiful child looked healthy.

I left with Grace to go run errands and pick up staples for the family. For the past year, we have been supporting (through Grace and Invisible Children), Joyce and her family in their most basic needs: food, rent, and of course Joyce’s schooling and medical needs. This has been fundamentally necessary in order to bring her and the family to a point of stability, from which they can move forward.

It has clearly worked. Carla will be taking a class on money management and business before starting her own small venture selling charcoal in the very near future. The family will then begin providing for their own basic needs, and we will continue to support Joyce’s education and medical needs.

As we moved about town picking up rice and beans, sugar and flour, I chatted more with Grace, and played with Laura. We returned to the home to quickly drop off the goods, and I asked Carla if I could return to visit during the week, without Grace. She smiled and nodded yes, of course. Then I turned to Joyce and asked Grace to ask her the same thing in Luo: could I come back during the week to visit and play? Would that be ok? Joyce paused for a moment, looking at Carla, Grace, and then me.

“You come back tomorrow,” she said.

New Vision

I could tell we were getting closer to Gulu as the satellite IDP camps began to crowd the landscape. I anxiously arranged my belongings in preparation for a chaotic arrival into town, and I realized (maybe for the first time), I’m back!!! The bus careened left and then right, and suddenly vast and open land was replaced with brick and concrete, dilapidated storefronts, red and yellow and purple advertisements painted across half completed buildings, and long-abandoned scrap-wood scaffolding about to topple at the next big wind. Men on bikes and women selling bananas, boda-boda drivers and business people counting boxes of inventory scattered to the sides as the bus pushed through the narrow street and screeched to a halt. I knew this place, I had held it in my heart all year hoping for this return. And so, I was utterly unprepared for my own response to this scene. I was, in a word, horrified.

I did not have time to consider this visceral response, because before I could register much more, I was off the bus in a sea of bags and travelers and boda-drivers eager for a fare. I quickly assessed my belongings and jumped on the back of a bike side-saddle, balancing my big pack on my shoulders and my small bag carefully beside me. My simple, simple Luo somehow found my lips, and I greeted my driver and told him exactly where I was headed. Within seconds I was flying through Gulu town past familiar storefronts, familiar scenes: the men gathered outside the bike shop, the herd of cows outside the World Food Program tents, the children happily racing out of the schoolyard, the women carrying water back for the evening. The boda-driver chatted with me, and after a moment he paused…. “Wait, you tell me,” he said, “is this Lakica Aimee? You were here maybe just one year ago?” Yes! I replied. “Ahhh, Lakica Aimee, You are MOST Welcome! he enthusiastically re-greeted me. “How was your journey? How is your family?” (Did I know this man?) “Why have you been gone so long?” I hopped off the boda and recognized my kind-chauffer. He had driven me to the hospital many, many, many times last year when I was caring for Joyce.

So, somewhere between the bus and the boda, my friends, my vision changed. The dismay dissolved into a warm familiarity and affection. Instead of registering horror, I saw the workings of a day – a day in some ways unlike mine at home in America perhaps, but earnest and raw and true in its drive and ambition and hope. A day filled with stuff to get done, people to love, and things to accomplish. Just that quickly, my eyes didn’t register the poverty in the same way, if at all. Just that quickly, I felt at home.

Later that night I sat up in bed thinking about that moment of transition. Which vision of this place was real? Upon leaving the bus did I lose sense of “reality,” or is one only really able to “see” a place by looking past the trappings and into the heart of a day, the heart of the people there? I wasn’t sure.

I was jolted by my own reaction yesterday on that bus. Maybe even ashamed. But today, I am grateful for it. I think that maybe we need both – each to truly appreciate the other. If we do not allow ourselves to be moved by what we see and experience, we become complacent. However, to stay in disgust and shock is to possibly miss the heartbeat of a place, and maybe, then, to miss the point.

The Road

Fast food stops: I had almost forgotten the insistent (and persistent!) shouts of the road-stop vendors, trying to sell water, peanuts, bananas, roasted cassava, and goat on a stick (mochomo). The latter is usually beat against the window of the bus as the seller cries: mochomo!mochomo!mochomo!mochomo! For my snack? Roasted cassava and a bottle of water, please.

Chicken to go: Tonight’s dinner gets bought (live) on the road by the man seated behind me.


This morning I boarded the Post Bus (so named because it leaves from the post office and delivers the mail as it stops in each town) at 7:30 a.m. in Kampala. It rained for much of the journey, and the drops seeped into the old bus as it lumbered down the road, swerving to avoid potholes and streams of women carrying the day’s supplies squarely on their heads. I was grateful for a sweatshirt I borrowed in New York keeping me dry (thanks, Craig!) and the relative emptiness of the bus – no passengers or livestock crowding the isles. So nice.

Although I have only traveled this road a few times before, it was familiar and I settled into the ride easily. The sights and smells did not shake me awake with last year’s sense of wonder, electric in all its newness. No, on this journey instead I slept and chatted with my seat-mate, and watched Uganda pass by my window. With each mile I could feel the landscape slowly seep into me, like the rain that turned the road from a billow of dust to a soaked, deep red earth, full of possibility, leading me north.


Hello from Kampala! I arrived safely after a night in Dubai and a quick stop through Addis. After hearing some wonderful news, I quickly decided to stay in Kampala an extra night. I am sleeping at Cornerstone, a little refuge in a very nice area, in the midst of Kampala's chaos. Desiree, Jesse, and James, if you are reading this, the whole gang there sends their greetings and wonders when you will be returning. Thank you for the connection!

Just before I left DC I sent an e-mail to my friends Innocent and Phionah, letting them know that I would be in country. Phionah coordinated the training that I did last year in Arua, and works with TPO in Kampala, so I was sure I would see her. Plus, I had pictures to deliver. Innocent is a trainer and psychosocial worker for TPO Uganda, but he lives in Arua and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would not be making it to Arua. Still, I wanted to let him know that I would be in Uganda. Well, I must be lucky! As soon as I arrived I found out that Innocent was in Kampala for the week for work, along with our teacher Dr. Nancy Baron! I couldn't believe my good fortune. I immediately extended my K'la stay and arranged for dinner with both Innocent and Phionah. I had photos to deliver to both and was able to do so in person! Phionah picked the place, apparently for my western sensibilities, and soon I was introducing them both to Mexican food, Ugandan style.

Seeing them both was a wonderful homecoming. Innocent and I became fast friends last year, and we easily slipped back into conversation, as if it had only been a week. With Innocent's smile and gentle "You are most welcome to Uganda," I did, indeed feel welcome.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Back to Uganda

Dear Friends,

Hello from Dubai! I hope this finds everyone well! This is going to be short, but I wanted to share that through the amazing generosity of a small grant, I am en route, back in Uganda for 5 weeks. Now, a year later, I will be continuing some of the work that began during my time in Gulu last February-March. I feel so privileged and excited to be returning, eager to see old friends, and hopeful about the journey. I will be resurrecting my old blog and updating it as much as possible in order to share my return trip and work with any of you who would like to follow along. I don't have anything up yet, but will post from Kampala as soon as I arrive.

For the next five weeks you can find me here. Please, please leave comments. I love hearing from you - it brightens my day. Sending each of you my very best and wishing you well....