Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The end of an experience

I've returned for what might be the last entry of my Mbarara blog...

Our project has wrapped up very nicely. We went above and beyond our original 1300 goal and recorded 1615 total interviews. The data has been entered and sent back to U-M; we'll get to delve into the analysis later in August/September once our brains have had a chance to relax. Three of the Ugandan students at MUST will be joining us at the end of August for a one month stay in Ann Arbor. All I can say is that I can't wait to take them out for some of our traditional pasttimes (rollerskating is at the top of my list).

I'm sitting in my hotel in Entebbe, 7 hours away from my depature, thinking about how I could possibly sum up what's been the most monumental experience of my life so far. There's much that could be said about what I've seen, what I've done, and how I feel about it all. I can't help but think I should just keep it brief. Only so much can be - and should be - described here...

I haven’t traveled the world yet, so I can’t really make comparisons - but I can verify that what I previously read about is true: the people of Uganda are spectacular. I've been surprised countless times when people have gone above and beyond in helping me without expecting anything in return. It’s made traveling here so much easier and pleasurable. Our project leader, Godfrey, has also been the most gracious host we could ever ask for; I'm going to miss him this fall.

I’ve actually started to realize I'm going to miss a lot of things; the gorgeous views of rolling, fertile hills, the brilliantly sunny sky that woke me almost every single day, the amazingly cheap price of beer and local, organic foods, the beautiful children running up to say “how are you?”, the wind rushing by while riding a boda and the generally relaxed pace of life. Of course, many things I’m happy to depart from; the armies of bugs that seem to defy physics and enter airproof containers, relentlessly strong bacteria that preyed upon my foreign skin, supermarkets filled with a bunch of things I don’t want, a general lack of privilege that attest to how lucky and spoiled Americans are, and that everlasting, stubborn brown stain on my heel.

Uganda is special - I truly believe it's "the pearl of Africa" and I know that one day I must return. But no matter what happens, it has etched a special, sacred place in my heart that I'll keep with me my entire life. Farewell - for now.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I haven’t written an entry in a while, as I had nothing new to report – until now. On July 11th, during the World Cup finale, there were two horrible bombings in Kampala at a restaurant and a rugby club airing the game that killed at least 74 people and made international news. Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group centralized in Somalia that is linked with Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the act. I found out about the bombings the following morning from Lindsey, whose sister called her out of concern; and she had very much reason to be. Because it’s the only major city in the country, we’ve been to Kampala several times for shopping and sightseeing. And since the World Cup is such a big event and we’ve been ahead with our work, we had even pondered going that weekend.

It’s now been 4 days since the bombing and no one from the university – including the faculty directly working on the project – has tried to contact us; no phone call, no e-mail, absolutely nothing. Prior to the trip, we were made to register where we’d be with the school, attend special lectures on traveling safely in foreign countries, receive a full range of vaccines and mandatory health insurance, all in order to keep us safe in case something happens. But for all the university knows, we could be badly hurt or even dead. I’m very disappointed, mostly in our project leaders, who undoubtedly should have sent some form of communication to us. They know we’re here. I know they heard about the story unless they’re living in a cave. So, why?

Furthermore, our health insurance doesn’t even work here. We attempted to use it at the one hospital in the country that takes it – which is in Kampala – and were denied. I previously wrote about my horrible experience with bacteria. A week or so after that event had died down, the infection reoccurred – more virulent than before and in two different places. Thanks to Massy, I was able to see a doctor here who told me to get an antibiotic that’s widely available at pharmacies here. It has mostly gone away now, but not entirely. I’m still in occasional pain and I worry about it lurking in my body.

I’m just annoyed with the school at the moment. Yes, technically, we’re OK – but what if we weren’t? Show some courtesy for your students and practice what you preach, please. End of rant – I will survive. I have 20 more days here and I believe I’m ready to come home now. Though I do have a week in Europe before that happens. I should see a doctor there; in both America and Uganda, I’m screwed for different reasons.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The last 5 weeks

We’re definitely in the lull stage of the project – protocol has been standardized, interviews are conducted, and data is entered throughout the week; only 5 weeks to go, actually. I know it's going to fly by. I’m pretty sure Godfrey thinks we’re bored because at out last meeting he planned a trip for us on Saturday to Lake Mburo National Park. It’s nowhere as monumental animal-wise as Queen Elizabeth but it’s really close – only an hour away – and they have zebras :-D

I was originally heading to Rwanda this weekend; now I’ll be traveling there July 8th – 12th. I was going to try to squeeze in Tanzania as well but it’s looking unlikely at this point; there just isn’t enough time. Uganda is actually an ideal base from which to travel in East Africa; it’s gorgeous, jam-packed with highlights, relatively small and borders many countries. However, transportation, as you can imagine, is very slow in Africa. The roads are usually in poor condition and there are numerous stops and starts when traveling on buses. The only other option is flying – which doesn’t follow the cheap trend like most other commodities here. I looked at a flight from Kampala to Dar Es Salaam/Zanzibar – where I really had my heart set on visiting (and definitely will someday!) – and round-trip is $490. The bus option is affordable but takes 36 hours – which doesn’t mesh well with work and would likely be one hellish journey.

I sat next to a man who spoke English fairly well on my last bus ride from Kampala to Mbarara. We got to talking and I found out he’s a graduate of Makerere University, the school I stayed at in Kampala upon arriving to Uganda that was once considered “The Harvard of East Africa” in its intellectual heyday of the 1960’s, before the rise of Amin. As we traveled, he complained several times about the bus driver’s erratic driving and the horribly slow pace of the trip. I told him it would be wonderful if Uganda could have a state-of-the-art, reliable train system built – one that ran on clean energy – maybe solar – and was affordable for the majority of citizens. Uganda is a small enough country that most of the urban centers could be railed together easily and it would definitely lead to more economic growth from faster travel. But then, he said, that would put the bus drivers out of business.

If anyone is looking for some first-class, non-fiction reads about Africa, I have two recommendations. The first is Africa Doesn’t Matter by Giles Bolton, a British aid-worker who discusses the many blunders of foreign aid – past and present – and why Africa has struggled to rise out of poverty. He lays out facts very clearly and it’s full of interesting tidbits of information that you’ll feel intelligent for learning. The second is The Invisible Cure by Helen Epstein, a scientist/public health graduate who originally came to Uganda in the early 1990’s to research an HIV vaccination. This book follows her unplanned, relentless journey to determine why the HIV rate in Uganda dropped so sharply as the rates of richer, sub-Saharan countries skyrocketed, while exposing the many fallacies of heavily-funded HIV interventions in Africa (if choosing, read this one; it’s brilliant).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rafting the Nile

This weekend ending up being a last-minute trip to Kampala and Jinja – and a great one at that.

Mbarara to Kampala is a 4 to 5 hr bus ride (depending on which bus driver you end up with) and is usually filled with maxed-capacity passengers, bumpy roads, and endless vendors – both on and off the bus – hoping to sell you anything. We didn’t get there ‘til 10PM and immediately went to the Red Chili Hideaway outside the city. It ended up being a really cute place, obviously designed for Peace Corps volunteers and other muzungus who happen to be passing through. I finally had the delicious breakfast I had been itching for – a veggie and cheese omelet with exquisite African coffee.

We spent Friday in Kampala, wandering the streets of the crowded city. We found the mother load of craft shops, filled with infinite beautiful crafts that owners would stop at nothing to sell to you. I bought a couple irresistible items before deciding to wait and buy everything right before my departure to avoid lugging it back to Mbarara; I can’t wait to go crazy in there…

On Saturday, we were picked up at 7:30 AM by Nile River Explorers – our rafting company – and headed out to Jinja. We trekked down to Bujagali Falls to see what we’d be up against the next day; after the muddiest experience ever, it was back to our lodging for drinks and relaxation. The Explorers Campsite is set on a steep hill, overlooking a postcard section of the Nile; amazingly, you get one night free just for rafting and the rate for a shared 4-person room is only $7 each. The restaurant and bar are open almost all day long and you can conveniently throw everything on your entire stay tab. I can see how people passing through easily might end up extending their stay.

On Sunday morning, it was straight down to the NRE headquarters for breakfast and rafting equipment. We couldn’t have picked a more beautiful day to hit the Nile; sunny, blue skies stayed with us the entire trip. Our guide, Peter, was a Jinja local and a big jokester (“This is my first time rafting”) so we had a lot of fun. I’ve only been white-water rafting once in 7th grade, so it’s hard to compare this experience, but I will say that this seemed monumentally bigger, wilder, and thrilling than what I had done before. I was continuously smiling and thought about going again the next day (you can raft again within 3 months for half the price). That evening, there was a hearty barbeque and video viewing of our trip. One of the guides puts one together for every rafting trip and I ended up buying it :-D

Monday ended up being a long day of commuting back to Mbarara – first a taxi to Jinja, then a shared taxi to Kampala, and finally a bus back to Mbarara, caught from the most hectic bus station/place in general I’ve ever been; this took from 11am-8pm. It’s nice to be back! Although, now that I’m feeling much braver about travelling, I’ve already planned another trip – 5 days in Rwanda, with stops in Kigali, Gisenyi at Lake Kivu, and Parc Nacional des Volcans. I'm hopefully going to be going within the next couple weeks. My trip is now halfway over so I have to hurry!

The project is going well - getting the database filled up. We should be sending off what we have so far to U-M this weekend.

Life is pretty swell here. I just need a couple things I'm missing.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!

I’ve been MIA from the blog mostly because not much has happened in the past week to write about. We had to wait for the database coding to be fixed before we could proceed; however, that was completed and now we’re entering data just fine. We actually have a lot of free time and flexibility with our work now – since it’s just entering data and organizational tasks, we can do it whenever is best for us.

It’s easy to feel a little useless being here, especially with such a lax schedule; I could be doing most of this from home and I’m not really performing any hands-on, public health interaction/work with the local population. Then I tell myself that it wasn’t my duty to be doing so in the first place. My main priority is research and just being here and learning about Uganda, its PH delivery and the numerous challenges are all important lessons for me. It really is true what they say about actually experiencing something to really understand it. Books can only do so much.

I got two amazing infections since my last writing – and if that kind of thing grosses you out, skip ahead because I feel like venting about it. The first was on my upper left eyelid, right on the tip (I didn’t know I had a pore there!). The lovely thing decided to get huge before I finally steamed it out. My roomie gave me some antibiotic drops for it so my entire eye wouldn’t get infected. The second was of lesser concern until it blew up; what started out as a little pimple below my right eye turned out to raging, flesh-eating bacteria. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it was seriously the largest, most painful and most difficult to relieve infection I’ve ever had. It refused to leave my body until just yesterday and there’s now a perfectly round hole/crater on my face – but it’s healing just fine. I guess it comes with the territory. Maybe I'll have an enhanced immune system upon returning; either way, I definitely won't miss the bug bites, infections, and other unidentifiable bumps.

Other than warding off bacteria, I’ve been watching a lot of football (you can’t miss the World Cup games when out for dinner), exercising, and reading. I’m actually heading out for a weekend in Kampala in a few hours to get some new scenery for the weekend. We’re going to try to go white-water rafting in Jinja - the source of the Nile! We can choose between class 3 or 5 rapids. I say 5; you get a helmet.

38 days gone from home. 47 more days in Uganda. Thinking of my family and friends and missing them.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Everything in it's right place

The project is organized now – and it kind of feels like a miracle. We now have a proper numbering system for interviews, consent forms, and defined protocol that we abide by (which was all established in our IRB proposal… but, no comment).

All 3 of the Americans are no longer conducting interviews; the Ugandans will do them solo from now on. There was some word that our presence had made several interviewees uncomfortable. It’s not surprising – we just sit there, collecting the data as the Ugandan translates it to us. Usually, we’re not even introduced or explained as to why we’re there. So, basically, we’re just going to be taking the collected interviews from the previous day and enter them into the Access database we built.

Speaking of which, the database is brand spanking new. It only took Lindsey and I probably 8-9 hours to make - a vast improvement over our previous attempts. We gave it to Nickolas on Friday so he could add in the skip patterns and it should be ready early this week. I’m really proud of myself for figuring out how to use Access (and thanks Kris and Lindsey for starting me out!); it’s an annoyingly complex program but extremely useful once you learn the ropes. I can perform more actions on it than I ever thought I would. I feel like I should add it as one of my internship competencies.

The other good news is that during the fall semester, I can continue working on the project. I’m going to be taking 3 credits of independent study to analyze data and begin writing up the research. And I think I might get to have my name on the paper… which would be amazing!

Last Wednesday, Jason Bell, an OB/GYN from U-M, came out. Since he didn’t get to do QENP with us, Godfrey arranged for us to go out to Lake Bunyonyi. The lake is in the very southwestern corner of the country, almost touching Rwanda. The drive out was, again, continually gorgeous. The lake is actually in a small area considered to be malaria-free because of the elevation and because of an absence of hippos, crocs, and diseases, the water is safe to swim in. We did the standard boat ride and stopped on an island for lunch. All of the islands are huge hills so right when you dock the boat, it’s a straight shot up. The restaurant was part of a gigantic, open hut and the view was astounding. It’s definitely a location worth an extended stay… it’s no wonder I saw tons more tourists there than I have anywhere else.

Today marks 4 weeks away from home – and 8 ½ more to go! It’s so strange how you can concurrently feel like you just left home yesterday and that you’ve been somewhere forever…

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park was everything I hoped it would be and more. The trip was planned for when Dr. Snow came in and also served as a good bonding experience for the Ugandan and American teams. On Friday at 1PM, a total of 11 of us, plus our hired driver, piled up in a van (taking me back to my church trip days) and headed off for our destination.

The drive there was probably the most beautiful I’ve ever been on. The further west you travel in Uganda, the more lush your surroundings become (the southwestern tip is actually rainforest). We traveled a winding, mountainous road, surrounded by fertile tea fields, plantain plots, and what looked like untamed hills of various shades of green. When we stopped along the road at a random community, women carrying bushels of bananas and baskets of avocados, oranges, and passion fruit instantly swarmed the van. We also stopped to see some beautiful crater lakes nestled high in the Ugandan hills and to admire the view of the Western African Rift with the Rwenzori Mountains looming in the distance…

We arrived at the park around 5PM and bought 24-hour passes. During our evening drive, we spotted baboons, monkeys, warthogs, and a herd of elephants having a little dinner. A lone hippo charged the van when we got a little too close – which, now, gives me a laugh every time I think about it. Right at dusk, we spotted a leopard hanging out by the side of the road – a rare occurrence, especially for where we were. It scampered off before any of us could take a picture.

Our hotel was in a neighboring town called Kasese, a good hour-long drive north of the park. It was extremely nice compared to most of the facilities I’ve seen here and a great deal – which is probably why we were staying so far away. We had dinner and were in bed by 11:30PM; however, to be back in time for the sunrise and another van tour, we had to wake up at 4AM (ouch).

We got back to the park around 5:30 AM. As the sun came up, we ventured through a different section and saw antelope, buffalo, various birds, and some more beautiful scenery. We also visited a lake mined for its salt that is the main supplier for Uganda and many other surrounding countries.

After lunch, it was time for the boat ride – the most exciting event animal-wise. I never dreamed of getting a close as we did to such large, wild animals… elephants, water buffalo, even moody hippos, all just a short distance from me. I probably took more pictures than anyone would ever care to look at it. Just amazing!

After the boat, we were exhausted and had pretty much seen all the essential attractions within a 24-hr period – except a lion. Lion sightings are even more rare than leopards at QENP and everyone else staying at the university who had visited hadn’t seen one on their trip. As we left the park, a light rain started to fall and people began to doze off as best as they could on the bumpy road. Suddenly, we heard Snow shout “LION!” I looked out the window to my left and, sure enough, there was a lioness in the distance, sauntering through the rain on the savannah. She was too far away for any of us to get a really good shot on our camera, but I do have a little pixelated memento of something I hope to see again someday up close.

Snow & Co. departed this afternoon. There are a whole lot of new and interesting developments concerning the research project; I’ll be posting on that next time.