Kwaheri, Uganda. Jambo, USA.

September 4, 2011

I have been back home for a few days now and visions of Uganda consume my thoughts. I was going to do another blog post on my last few days in Uganda…I went to a really fun concert, I had some interesting mishaps during the 2 days of travel it took me to reach home, and I wanted to introduce some new friends that I made…but it just didn’t seem right to blog about something when I am worlds away from it now. I also realized (after talking to a lot of you who read my blog) that the avocado blog resonated the most with people because everyone can picture food, but not everyone can relate to a blog about living in a post-conflict zone where people used to be killed as a way of life. It was really shocking to me that everyone enjoyed my superficial post so much when I thought it was very silly. So in light of that information, I decided to post a video that I made. This video contains a few short clips set to a song which will show you a little bit about the four cities I visited: Kampala, Kyangwali, Gulu, and Oyam. Seeing the environment and the people will hopefully give you a bit more of an understanding about what Uganda is like and how I was able to see it. Then, with any luck, my avocado post won’t seem to be the most relatable! : )

Even now as I sit in my room in Boulder, I keep mistaking the squeaky wheel of a passing bike for a rooster cry; it takes me a few minutes when I first wake up not to panic that I don’t have a mosquito net covering my bed; and I still have to think twice about drinking water from the tap. I don’t get to say “Apwoyo” or “Habari” or “Oliotia” when I greet someone new. I don’t get to stroll aimlessly along the red dirt road trying to catch a passing boda. I don’t get to shred the cabbage for lunch with a dull knife while I am repeatedly chastised for not having many many babies by the ripe old age of 24. But I am comforted by the fact that it will all still be there. Uganda isn’t going anywhere…but I am. It is my goal to relocate (semi-permanently) to East Africa within the next couple of years to pursue a career in human rights for refugees. But until then, I look forward to rekindling relationships with my loved ones in the US during the day, and dreaming about Uganda at night…

Thank you for reading my blog and helping me share my stories. I have so appreciated reading all of your kind comments, receiving much needed advice, and having your full support while I embarked on this journey.

Asante sana.





August 23, 2011

I realize that I’ve mostly been blogging about depressing issues. (After all, I’m in Africa.) But I don’t want people to get the impression that it’s always sad here. In fact, I find that I can hardly wipe away the smile on my face most of the time. Yesterday, for example, I thought I was going to die of laughter when 3 Acholi women were giving me a lesson in how to say, “How are you?” There is something about our stupid Mzungu mouths that do not allow us to pronounce this sound…kind of like “ng” but really nasally and pinched. I sound like I’m in labor and everyone around me just erupts into fits of laughter.

My bodaboda drivers (the motorbike taxis) are much more forgiving. They are actually probably sick of hearing whites butcher their language so they just give a pleasant chuckle and then ask me in English to clarify. I don’t know why, but I get SUCH a sense of accomplishment when we don’t resort to English. When we haggle for prices, I always find they come down by 50% if I try Acholi first. Now if only I could pronounce that “ng” without feeling like a massive loser I’d be in business!

So, I’m going to talk about avocados. It’s a boring subject, I’m sure, compared to my other, more gripping topics. But damn…the avocados here are amazing. And they definitely warrant a blog post. As you may or may not know, avocados are my favorite food. One could argue that sushi is my favorite food…but honestly, I realized that all the sushi I order has avocado on it already. So yeah, it’s avocados.

Avocado Lovin'

The very first day Ella and I arrived in Kampala we were travel-weary and exhausted. We came to the COBURWAS headquarters in Bugiza district and met Solomon, Coco, and Daniel for breakfast. They had prepared a Spanish omelet, which had been prepared with oil so it was delicious. There were also these ity bity little bananas called “sweets” which were in fact very sweet! But then Coco brought out a 3rd plate. On this plate lay the thing to which my taste buds praise the most: big, juicy, avocado slices.

That’s the thing about avocados here. There is no need to integrate them into a dish so that their delectable flavor is masked. There is no need to mush or squish or mélange with tomatoes or garlic or any other impurities. There is simply…avocado. Just so you have a point of reference, the size of a Ugandan avocado is roughly the size of a cantaloupe. Yeah, that’s right… When I first saw one at the market, I thought it was some kind of melon or bizarre vegetable that I had not yet tasted. Now, there is a downside to the size of these guys. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much flavor. Now as we head toward the end of avocado season (tear…) they are still the same size but much more watery and light green instead of that delicious darkkkkk green that makes them taste so sinful.


At COBURWAS, Ella and I introduced the salt, which added so much flavor to the avocado slices I actually started crying a little bit. The salt here is really good, too. It is rocky…a kind of course sea salt. And it is JUST heaven to see it floating on top of the avocado, glistening, beckoning, calling to me! I don’t think that salt is traditionally applied to avocado…just as they had never seen sugar pour on top of baked pumpkin slices for breakfast…yuuuum.

And I haven’t even told you the best part: they are cheap! One avocado will go for about 500 schillings in the market (which is roughly 18 cents). So that means I could spend all day, every day, eating delicious avocados, for less than I spend on a cup of coffee. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but this MAY be the closest thing to heaven that I’ve ever experienced. : D

On a non avocado-related topic, I have one week left in Uganda and I am so sad I don’t know what to do with myself. The thought of coming back to Colorado is making me quite depressed, actually. I really miss people back home (..Beno!..) but I just feel like I’m not ‘done’ here or something. I haven’t made as much of an impact as I want to. Karl has been connecting me with tons of people in the NGO world and I cross my fingers that something will come of that. But until that day, I just have to work hard and look forward to the day that I can come back to Uganda…and eat some amazing avocados with some amazing people.

The Gun Song

August 19, 2011

Last Friday I arrived here in Gulu town, which is about a 5-hour drive from Kampala. In stark contrast to the lush mountains of the West, Northern Uganda is flat and dry. It actually reminds me a lot of Kansas or Eastern Colorado due to the acres and acres of farming land and quaint farming communities along the road. However, unlike Kansas or Colorado, Gulu is recovering from the 18-year war that raged from 1987-2005. The Acholi people who live in Gulu have seen so much devastation that the most common Acholi phrase is “anim chol”…(the future is dark).

Our Compound Surrounded by Razor Wire

Robert, Karl’s assistant and trusted Acholi advisor, took me out to dinner last night and told me his experience of growing up during a war. The war began due to both internal and external crises: The internal crisis was stemming from the breakdown of authority within Acholi society, authority that had been legitimized through a discourse of Acholi ethnicity; the external crisis was brought about by the destruction of the political links that had tied the Acholi in the district to the national state. When the national government seized power in 1986, they proceeded to exclude Acholi political leaders from the new government, and launched a vicious counter-insurgency in Acholiland, which left the Acholi people without effective national leadership or representation in the face of extreme state violence. Many southerners saw it as necessary to remove northerners from national power in order to establish a new national equalization and end northern military dictatorship. Thus began the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), a rebel militia group, who used guerilla war tactics in order to combat the encroaching new government.

The LRA attempted to eradicate all but 10,000 Acholis in an effort to create a “purified tribe.” Those who did not join the LRA (or those who were suspected of supporting the Ugandan national government) were met with extreme violence. Most of the LRA’s common war tactics included raping, pillaging, and kidnapping. Robert was the man who the LRA would call when they wanted to release women and children from detainment. Robert would meet them at the bush and escort the released hostages to a safe house in Gulu. He didn’t go into detail, but he had a far away look in his eyes when he told me how they suffered during captivity. Robert said, “It was the time of the gun. The guns would sing. Gun songs night and day.” The LRA conflict effectively displaced over 1 and a half million Ugandans until the conflict ended in 2005.

When the war ended, Gulu became a hub for NGO work. Whites from all over the world established NGOs to help Gulu recover from years of devastation. Food and world aid programs began springing up all over town to provide the Acholi people with access to clean food and rehabilitation services for those who had developed psychological trauma. Today, Gulu is known as the Mzungu capital of Uganda due to the overwhelming number of white NGO workers and volunteers.

The walls of Karl’s compound are enshrouded by razor wire (a must for any white living in Gulu) and we have 24-hour security guards with rifles for round the clock protection. It’s not dangerous anymore now that the rebels have fled to Sudan; but it’s always good to be protected, I suppose. I’ve actually made friends with one the security guards. Emmanuel is 24 and he comes from a district in the East called Mbale. Like me, Emmanuel is learning to speak Acholi. I spend three hours perched in the security hut window each night talking to Emmanuel about the differences between our two cultures. He works the night shift at our compound, which begins at 5pm and ends at 7am. I cannot imagine how boring that job must be! But Emmanuel doesn’t complain. For him, having a good job means having money to support his family back in Mbale. He never had the opportunity to attend college. His dream is to become a social worker…but that dreams has no hope of becoming a reality without an education.

Emmanuel Standing Guard

In fact, just as I was typing Emmanuel came into the compound to start his night shift. I really like him. He’s always so happy. I brought him an orange and a Sprite and I thought he was going to explode with happiness! Haha. He told me he works 6 days, 12 hour shifts a piece. He says this with a smile on his face…amazing guy… We joke that he will come visit me and Ben in America. He wants to meet Ben so much. Everyone that sees Ben’s picture always has the same response…”Lako ma dit!” (big man!). : )

I haven’t started the research with Karl yet. Right now he is in Kidepo National Park with his girlfriend. He just sent me a text saying they saw many lions this morning. I’m alright with being alone at the compound. I reviewing our documents from the Grameen Foundation on the Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) and becoming familiar with the mobile phone survey data that the farmers submit. I have also been reading some books on the LRA conflict and how the war ended. Honestly, I sort of feel like anywhere I go in this country I could spend the rest of my life working on projects. For instance, Ella and I barely scratched the surface with COBURWAS. The business plan is important, but it’s one of MANY projects they need help with. The farm, the microfinance project, the schools, etc. Educate! (the org that I interned with for 9 months in the US) has the headquarters in Kampala that I went to visit and they have so much that is needing to be done. And then here in Gulu, I could easily spend the next year just assisting with the Grameen project Karl is working on. Agh! Sometimes I get the feeling here like it would be ok if I just never went home. I’ve never found a place that I could feel so… fulfilled. And I’m not even doing much!

I am really drawn to East Africa. West Africa was amazing but I never felt ‘at home’ there like I do here. I can connect with Ugandans on a level that I never seemed to reach in Senegal due to the French language barrier. I know I have spoken of this before, but I just want to reiterate how STARVED these people are for opportunities to better themselves and their community…particularly in post-conflict zones like Gulu. It’s unbelievable. The people don’t want handouts. They don’t want to be coddled. They don’t want to be given fish; they want to be taught how to fish. I definitely have the passion to help…but I don’t currently possess the skills and knowledge to help these people achieve their dreams. Karl is going to help me find jobs in development and I cannot wait to see what kind of opportunities there are that bring me back to this place.

Mzungus in Maratatu

August 14, 2011

It’s hard to travel in Africa without being noticed when you are white. Everywhere you go you are escorted by a large group of children and inquisitive spectators wanting to ask you questions…”Hello, Mzungu!” “How are you, Mzungu!?” “Come here, Mzungu!”…and sadly enough, “Will you sponsor me, Mzungu? I want to go to school.” Mostly these curious individuals are harmless and they just want to say hello or perhaps practice their English. Others follow because they want money or some kind of present.


There are also those who (I SWEAR) think we are going to spontaneously explode into a vibrant show of lights and colors…otherwise what compels them to stay? The 8 year old boy thinks in Swahili, “I wonder if I just stay here at her side all day, eventually something miraculous will happen. No, I had better not go home!” And then there are those who are not blessed with social graces and behave…awkwardly. One particular fellow in the market came up to me and pinched my arm. “You’re soft!” he exclaimed. “Different color, sure,” I thought, “but it’s the same material!” At least he used his hand to examine me and not one of those machetes that everyone seems to enjoy toting around town.

Drying the Rice as a Storm Rolls In

I’m going to talk about the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement and my experiences there. As you could see by my Facebook photos (shame on you if you haven’t seen them yet!), the settlement was a charming community full of mud huts, goats, chickens, half naked children, and some of the most awe-inspiring human beings I have ever met. People began fleeing other countries (namely the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1997 due to conflicts growing over the tribal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. During this tumultuous time known as “Africa’s world war” (in which millions died between 1998-2003) thousands of people attempted to cross the boarder into Uganda to seek safety and freedom. As one refugee, Nziyonvira Ntakamaze put it, “When we arrived at Kyangwali there was nothing. There were no roads, or houses, or land for farming. It was just bush.” I cannot imagine how terrifying it must have been to arrive a country that is not your homeland and have to survive in a dense forest with no hope for the future. The refugees were able to receive USAID food (cornmeal) to subsist on until a settlement was established. Today, there is a large main road spanning miles and miles as well as thousands of homesteads. There are an estimated 20,000 refugees living in Kyangwali. Even though the war has died down, eastern regions are still plagued by army and militia violence, which prevents the refugees from returning home.

It was during my four nights in the settlement that I realized the extent of COBURWAS’ community support. COBURWAS provides educational opportunities to children in their primary school (elementary school) and also built two hostels for students in the Hoima region so that they may have access to education after primary. The projects that I saw first-hand were incredible. Benson Wereje, a refugee from DRC, founded COBURWAS in 2005 because he saw that the abject poverty of the camp was not going to change unless something was done. A motivation spirit, Benson attracted other visionary leaders in the community to start the Kyangwali Rice Project in Maratatu in order to raise money for the COBURWAS organization. The rice grown in the fields, which is an hour 1/2 walk from Kyangwali, creates enough of an income to support COBURWAS projects, programs, and schools. Last Friday, Ella and I were fortunate enough to visit Maratatu and help the farmers harvest the rice…by hand…

We received weird looks from stunned locals as Ella and I ventured to the fields. Upon arriving, we saw about 10 men with long poles beating rice stalks on a large pile in the field. As it was explained to me, this is called “punishing the rice” in order to rid the stalk of the seed. After being punished, the seeds are then gathered and put into sacks, which have to be CARRIED BACK ON BICYCLES. Mind you, each one of these bags could easily weigh 50 lbs and most of the bikes seemed to hold 3 or 4. Needless to say, these are tough people.

Working the Rice Field with Jackie

We were tasked with slashing the rice with a sickle. Basically it involved bending over and grabbing batches of rice and cutting near the base with the sickle. The freed stalks are thrown into piles all around the field, which we later brought to the men to thrash. It was hard but honest work. As the day moved on, the sun began to beam so we took frequent breaks under the trees. The men would drink this porridge instead of water to cool off. It was a nasty millet and sorghum brew with yeast…which is EXACTLY the sort of refreshing beverage I crave when working all day in the heat…

We worked on and on until the late afternoon when we were released from our duties. The hour and 1/2 walk back from Maratatu was spent practicing our new-found Swahili. “Habari?….Muzouri!” (How are you? I’m fine!) Little children would run from their front doors to greet us and the adults appeared dumbfounded to see our Mzungu faces. Later we learned…we were the FIRST white people to visit Maratatu and help harvest the rice. Exhausted, we dragged our lifeless bodies into the camp and slumped into chairs for the rest of the night…only to learn that the rest of the workers did not return until several hours later. Such is the life of a refugee in Africa.

Our last night in the camp we were called into a dimly lit office attached to the primary school and asked to have a seat among 7 of COBURWAS’ leaders. At first Ella and I thought we were in some sort of trouble (like being called into the principals office…), but then the president said that he wanted a chance to thank us for our hard work, dedication to the COBURWAS mission, and willingness to learn about the lives of refugees. Each member took their time to tell us exactly how we had made an impression on the community and what it meant to them that we had graciously volunteered our time to help. I was sobbing by the end and could barely express my gratitude for their hospitality and welcoming us into their family.

I believe that a little bit of my heart will always remain in Kyangwali. There are very few places on earth where you will find the same kind of genuine generosity and love. I hope to dedicate my life to providing opportunities for refugees. This experience has been truly humbling and I am motivated now more than ever to work hard to make a difference.


***I’ve been listening to a lot of Mattafix recently. These are some lyrics from their popular song “Living Darfur”. I felt it was applicable to this post.***

See the nation through the people’s eyes,
See tears that flow like rivers from the skies.
Where it seems there are only borderlines
Where others turn and sigh,
You shall rise
There’s disaster in your past
Boundaries in your path
What do you desire when lift you higher?
You don’t have to be extraordinary, just forgiving
Those who never heard your cries,
You shall rise
And look toward the skies.
Where others fail, you prevail in time.
You shall rise.

Jeffte on the Rice Mound

Exhausted, Ella and I arrived at Entebbe International Airport after a 9 hour flight from London. Our bags made the journey after our good luck baggage dance…IT WORKS! We met up with Daniel from COBURWAS and he and his landlord, Patrick, drove us to the headquarters in Kampala.

The drive into Kampala was very green with lots of plants and rolling hills. We noticed many beautiful homes perched in the hills as well as shanties built up in the center of town. We didn’t attract as much attention as I thought we would considering Patrick told me I was “EXTRA white”… K. Men on motorbikes called Boda-Bodas will stare as they drive by but I’m sure that’s just because our strikingly white skin acts as a beacon. It unfortunately attracted the attention of a drunkard dubbed “Al Shabaab”. He felt compelled to direct traffic and inform us that his boss was merciful and gave us the green light to proceed. “I’ll keep you alive today,” he said. WHEW! Daniel had a good laugh at his expense but it was, needless to say, a shocking reception into the city. The city of Kampala has many street vendors, loads of different smells, and lots of interesting names for businesses and goods. Our favorites so far have been:

Tickles and Giggles Bar

Love Jesus Restaurant

Diabetes Orange Jam

and our personal favorite, the local poultry market called:


The other COBURWAS members are extremely welcoming. A young woman named Constantina greeted us at the door. She is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (along with Daniel) and speaks limited English.  I was excited to learn that I could practice my French with her until she asked me to translate what Ella had said. “Je…” was the only thing that came out of my mushy brain having been up for something like 26 hours. Constantina, or Coco as she is called, told us that she hadn’t had the opportunity to complete high school. Due to the rising violence in her country she had to flee and had no choice but to abandon her schooling, home, and family. She also briefly disclosed that she is a survivor of sexual assault in the DRC and will be speaking about the brutality she endured at a conference in Tanzania.

The other colleague is named Soloman. He speaks very good English but is hard to understand due to his thick accent. Soloman is Ugandan but he comes from a tribe outside of Kampala and therefore doesn’t speak Swahili OR Luganda as fluently as locals. He is an intelligent man with a voracious appetite for knowledge. He has excelled in his schooling and has sought out many extracurricular projects in hopes of bettering his country. This afternoon he taught us how to prepare lunch and he was a very good teacher. There is no name for the dish we ate but it was comprised of rice (grown from Kyangwali!), eggplant, tomatoes, cabbage, green pepper and a peculiar leafy green called “dodo” in Luganda. There are also endless amounts of fresh avocado to be had here. I may do an ENTIRE blog post on that in the future.

Soloman was eager to know what stereotypes Americans held of Africans. As diplomatically as possible, Ella and I explained that mostly the news covers issues of disease, famine, war, or corruption in politics (not unlike that of many other countries). I told him that since Africa does not appear frequently in popular media, that most Americans are ignorant (and therefore afraid of) the continent as a whole. He wanted to know of a way for us to show the good things that happened in Africa and said he would make it a goal to teach Americans that there are celebrated occurrences and not just war and disease. He also thought that AIDS was more prevalent in the US due to sexual habits, which I thought was interesting.

During lunch our conversation turned political. Soloman was fascinated to learn that we expose the dirty secrets of our politicians when a scandal is leaked. Ella mentioned the recent John Edwards scandal involving embezzlement and a child he was thought have had by a woman other than his wife. Soloman couldn’t understand where the controversy lay in the affair. “Is his wife not able to produce?” he asked. We said that it didn’t matter…the fact was that he had sex outside of his marriage to another woman. “Well he’s performing a community service!” Soloman tried to explain. In his eyes, Edwards’ illegitimate child was going to have a good life because a great politician fathered him and it was therefore a service to the community to pass along his name. Soloman also didn’t understand why it was acceptable in the eyes of our Christian God to divorce and re-marry but NOT to have children with two wives at the same time. He believes that you make an oath to God not to ever leave your wife. It is acceptable if you make that oath more than once…at the same time, just so long as you don’t leave your wives. Technically, he has a point…

Continuing on, Ella and I spent the night at the Metropole Hotel in Kampala and had proper showers and even AIR CONDITIONING! It’s actually been very temperate here but it was still a luxury that we had no qualms indulging. An amazing coincidence occurred last night as well. Ella’s old friend from high school named Peter was living A HALF A BLOCK from our hotel! So we had dinner last night with him and 15 of his colleagues from BYU. It was so nice to have a meal in the company of so many Mzungus (whites) who shared a similar passion for aiding Africa.

After a restful night Ella and I were accompanied back to the COBURWAS office where we spent the afternoon laughing with Soloman and making lunch. I donated my Toshiba laptop from college to the COBURWAS team and taught them all the idiosyncrasies. I also began helping with their website. They have endless documents that need to be translated into better English and edited before they make it onto the website. I also spent some time providing instructions of how to edit photos, make a slideshow of pictures in HTML, and orient documents in Word 2007. The language barrier is hard to overcome but I’m getting better at understanding.

We were supposed to have left already for Hoima (where the Kyangwali camp actually is) but we are being delayed. Since it is quite a journey to make, many documents and goods are transported along with visitors to make the trip worthwhile. We are waiting for red tape to be cut in Kampala on an important document for someone named Joseph before we are able to travel. It’s cool. Ella and I are content to get to know the area more before we proceed to the extremely rural (and most likely difficult) living conditions in the camp.

On that note, I may not have internet access for a while during our stay at the camp. It’s unclear at this point, but we may be returning on the weekend to help with office documents before we leave to our respective places. I will try to post pictures and keep the blog updated as often as possible.

Well our friendly house mouse Spartacus, as Ella has named him, is signaling that I should go help in the office now. I hope all is well back home. I miss you!



P.S. I just heard that we will most likely not be traveling to Kyangwali Refugee Camp. The UN has not yet approved our travel there so I hope it will happen on Wednesday!

Ella and I have officially arrived in London, England for leg one of our Ugandan Adventure! Here is a copy of our itinerary and a map of Uganda to help explain exactly where we’ll be:

  • London, England July 28th-July 30th
  • Arrive in Entebbe, Uganda on July 30th
  • One night in Kampala, Uganda on July 31st
  • Travel to Hoima (where the Refugee Settlement COBURWAS is located)
  • Hoima for 1 week
  • I will then travel to Gulu to meet up with the LSE (London School of Economics) research team and Ella will stay in Hoima.
  • Depart for Kampala–>London–>Denver beginning on August 31st and returning home on September 1st!
There may be a few little voyages to cities around Eastern Africa when I am with the research team but for now this is our basic plan of attack.
    The plane ride from DEN->LHR was long but easy journey. We took the Heathrow Express into Central London and, even though exhausted, Ella and I were amped to be in London. It is both our first time in the country (and Ella’s first time in Europe!) and we couldn’t have been more excited. After receiving some unforuntaely misleading advice on how to get to our hostel, we EVENTUALLY arrived at Palmer’s Lodge in Swiss Cottage. This hostel is very far from Central London but it is exquisite. Or as I put it after 30 hours without sleep last night, “This place is f**kin’ quaint!”. I’m so classy in London…But in all seriousness, thanks to Ella for choosing such magnificent lodging!
      Last night we dragged our aching bodies into Camden, a nearby hipster neighborhood with loads (heaps!) of bars. We dined at a pub called the Monarch which came recommended by the sassy Australian concierge at the hostel, Jaime. The food tasted spectacular even though it was probably not the best cuisine I’ve ever eaten. BLTs with chips (: D) and a side of peas and carrots. We also had two Strongbows (which is hard cider)….mmmmm. We walked home last night and explored the little residential neighborhoods along Chalk Farm and Swiss Cottage. And as luck would have it, it was a beautiful sun-shiny day!
        Today Ella and I are going to go on a 2 1/2 hour walking tour of all the sites of London. And yes, I will take photos! Even though we haven’t even been here a full 24 hours yet, I really like London. I could absolutely live here, if it weren’t so expensive. The thing that London has to offer that I don’t find in other big cities are the NEIGHBORHOODS. Even in the hustle and bussle of Central London, it just feels like I should know everyone by their first names. There are parks galore and beautiful brick apartment buildings have little white balconies overflowing with potted flowers. I also love the juxtaposition of antiquated buildings and old-timey taxi cabs, compared to the state-of-the-art technology and 21st Century amenities (thank goodness for free WIFI!).
          I will try to post another blog tonight or tomorrow with some pictures of our tour today. But if you don’t hear from me, I’ll try to blog once we have arrived in Kampala!

            As I prepare my blog for my upcoming adventures in Uganda in a few days, I realize that the title may seem a bit odd. Here is a brief explanation of why I named my blog “Turtles All The Way Down” in case you slept through your Sociology class the day we studied Geertz:

            “There is an Indian story — at least I heard it as an Indian story — about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? ‘Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down”

             –Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures

            Cultural ignorance is easy. It’s easy to judge the exterior of a person… what they wear, what they say, how they behave… if they differ from you. However, what I believe to be a worse offense is pretending that you know a culture simply because you have been subjected to small bits of information that most people are not knowledgable about. For example, when famed Anthropologist Margaret Mead, published her ethnography concerning adolescent life in Samoa in the 1920’s, American readers were shocked by her observations.

            Coming of Age in Samoa was considered to be a masterpiece in the ethnographic world and began to shift the Western perceptions of Samoan life and culture. Many decades later after Mead had died, New Zealand anthroplogist Derek Freeman, published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged Mead’s major findings concerning adolescent sexuality. This criticism of Mead’s work lead to further investigation of her methods until it was later concluded that Mead coaxed her unsuspecting informants into giving her the answers that she desired.

            I remember when I first read Coming of Age in Samoa and how idyllic the Samoans lives seemed. Mead perpetuated the romanticization of island life by conflating aspects that seemed ‘too good to be true’ in the eyes of Westerners. Instead of drawing upon her knowledge as an Anthropologist and letting the customs speak for themselves, she allowed her own bias to interfere and inaccurately portrayed the Samoan people as simple, morally corruptible, and unabashedly primitive. I remarkably saw very similar representations of Senegalese life in when I was there with a study abroad program in 2008.

            During our program, a group of American students were tasked with living with a Senegalese family and attending classes for 3 months. The 4th and final month was dedicated solely to an Independent Study Project in which students would each choose a different Anthropological topic that focused on explaining a Senegalese tradition, custom, or aspect of culture or art. The presentations giving by the students at the end of the program were enlightening in many ways. I noticed that the majority of the presentation was dedicated to explaining the topic and interjecting informant quotes to legitimize a hypothesis. However, the conclusions of almost every student (myself included) were embarrassingly Mead-esque. In our attempts to understand a small part of the culture we had grown so fond of, we had inadvertently bastardized the whole civilization. I realized it was ridiculous to think that I could fit a culture into a perfect little box. Culture, whatever that means, is messy. People are messy. The most paramount interactions I had with Senegalese were not from hour long interviews involving carefully crafted questions which I later transcribed in my notebooks…instead they rested in the fleeting moments I had trying to communicate with a roadside fruit vendor in Wolof or simply watching my homestay mother make her 40th batch of bissap juice to sell at the market. Of course, all of these revelations did not happen while in-country but months and years after being back home.

            I guess what I’m trying to say, no where near as eloquently as Sir Geertz, is that understanding a culture is futile.

            The point isn’t to figure it out. Once you think you’ve figured out what that turtle is all about, you discover that there is another turtle under that one with a whole new bag of surprises. Instead, the true satisfaction comes from your personal sacrifice….from sitting in a 100 degree bus surrounded by strangers who don’t resemble you or want to get to know you….from mustering up the courage to taste that weird looking meat that is still moving and realizing that’s absolutely delicious….and then inevitably spending the rest of the balmy night squatting over a turkish toilet and praying to a god you didn’t know existed for a minute of relief. These are the messy experiences that allow you, IN RETROSPECT, to exhale deeply and realize that you actually learned more than you thought you knew. Does knowing how to say “I’m fine” in Wolof make me any more Wolof? No. But it does embolden me to believe it more myself.

            Association Colombin

            February 4, 2010

            Hi all,

            I know I just posted recently but I wanted to squeeze one more in before we go to Saint-Louis tomorrow.  We are leaving early in the morning and taking a 7-place car.  I recall it being about a 3 1/2 hour journey which I’m not particularly looking forward to, but Hannah has made some delicious PB&Js for the road using this delicious/hard to find bread called Tappalapa.  Once we arrive in Saint-Louis Thierry is going to give us a tour (he used to live there) and we’ll eat dinner at my favorite haunt, Restaurant Au Fleuve Plus.  Not sure what is means, actually, but all I know is they have this terrific chicken and fries (poulet frites) meal that cannot be beat.  Thierry and I will be fighting to see who can be the best host (as I lived in SL for one month during the Independent Study Project portion of our study abroad program…I’m sure I’ll beat him).

            We’re staying in this auberge called “Cafe des Arts” and it’s apparently pretty nice although I do not recall seeing it.  Saint-Louis is beautiful and colonial so be on the lookout for a post next week with loads of photos.  Saint-Louis was the capital of the French colony of Senegal from 1673 until independence in 1960.  From 1920 to 1957 it also served as capital of the neighboring colony of Mauritania.  Therefore there are amazing colonial-style buildings that are either re-vamped and beautiful, or falling down…and beautiful.  I’m also looking forward to seeing the goats!  So many goats.

            I am bringing with me tons of gifts for the Talibe (I think I’ve mentioned them in previous posts but they are orphan boys who beg on the streets).  Their patron is an Islamic leader who barely feeds and shelters them.  I’m pretty sure the whole system is corrupt and evil but it’s hard to deprive the Talibe of money, especially with their outstretched dirty hands and a gaze that would make your heart melt.  However, they give the money directly to their patron and it is forbidden for them to use the money on themselves.  Sooooo, I brought presents!  It’s been working like a charm.  They usually travel in packs of 3-5 and I have been handing out: marbles, chewing gum, Smarties, playing cards, kazoos, Pez, etc.  It brings them joy which brings me joy.  It’s interesting to see what they do with it.  They usually just look at it for a while and then, if I’m lucky, they smile.  One boy even gave me a high-five…the one and only high-five I’ve ever received here.  I felt special.

            Anyway, on Sunday we are going to the desert to ride camels and play in the sand dunes.  I won’t go on about that considering I’m sure I’ll have one post dedicated to tell you all how amazing it was.  Then we return Sunday night to Dakar.  Monday is going to be great because Hannah and I are spending the day at this pottery/ceramics shop called Association Colombin (I believe ‘colombin’ is the color of clay before it’s fired).  This little gem was discovered by Hannah in 2008.  It is a place where handicapped people can go (usually deaf) to learn how to make pottery and earn money for themselves.  It’s essentially a safe haven for young boys who are deaf or have other handicaps to learn a marketable skills so they won’t have to resort to begging on the street later in life.

            This place…there are no words.  All I can say is that my soul is never warmer than when Babacar teaches us sign language, when the little one, Sibril, smiles his toothy grin, or when Assane lip-reads my Wolof and responds…and I understand him.  This is truly a magical place.

            In 2008 I took a few photos while I was there, printed them and then brought the printed photos to Colombin when I went back on last Monday.  They were overwhelmed.  They couldn’t believe that 1. I had actually come back after two years and 2. that I cared about them enough to want to see them again.  Babacar called us his “meillures amis” (best friends).  I always cry a bunch when I’m there and Monday was no exception.  Babacar taught us how to make these little toothpick holders with clay animals on top.  I made a hippo and Hannah made a giraffe.  Babacar is a great teacher because he shows you how to do it, let’s you do it yourself, and then corrects your mistakes.  Essentially, my piece looks really good because of him!  I even did the wheel.  It was the craziest feeling!  Assane basically did all the work, but my hands were at least in there doing something, so I felt pretty good about the ultimate result.

            Yup!  I made a vase!  We’re going back on Monday after our weekend in Saint-Louis to paint the fired ceramics.  I hope they turn out alright…I’m not much of an artist!  It’s easy to be inspired there, though.  How could you not be?  Oh, I suppose I had better tell this story.  While I was deep in thought contemplating how I was going to create the second hippo nostril, I looked up to see Assane’s creation:  a turtle, on top of another turtle, on top of another turtle… it was turtles all the way down.  I just started sobbing.  I felt bad because I couldn’t explain why I was so moved.  I just signed “It’s beautiful” and he smiled.  I have no idea how or why he thought to create that while I was there, but if you know anything about me, you’ll know why I found that to be so touching (read the About section).  I want to bring him something on Monday to explain why I cried.  I don’t think they have that saying in French…but who knows.  I might as well try!  I’m also going to try to buy it from him.  How perfect is this world?

            If you are interested in Association Colombin, here is there website:  Ok, it’s coming up on 12:30am and I’m exhausted!  On a good note, Hannah and I are feeling much better so hopefully we’ll be able to make the best of this weekend.  I’ll try to post again on Monday.  Until then…

            Love, Sa’lam, & Jamm,



            February 3, 2010

            Hello all!

            Unfortunately I’m a bit under the weather and Hannah is really sick.  The doctor came to our house and gave us checkups.  He basically just wrote us some prescriptions.  But it’s ok, I’m feeling fine and Hannah seems to be doing better.  We’re going to go to SIT tonight to meet the new students!  (and hopefully not give them some terrible virus)…  I’m so excited.  It’s going to be so surreal to talk to them.  We were both there a mere two years ago!  We’re going to try to give them some prudent advice.  Such as, there is a big difference between “enseigne moi” (teach me) and “enceinte moi” (impregnate me).  Lol.

            This past weekend so was amazing.  We went to the resort and spent all day relaxing in the sun.  Fortunately we didn’t have to move on Saturday morning so we were able to get an early start.  The truck for moving wasn’t available so Thierry extended the lease.  I think it’s a good thing.  At least I’ll have access to internet!  The resort was a hot and bumpy two and 1/2 hour drive from Dakar through Rufisque traffic.  So worth it.  Toubab Diallo is the name of the city and there are little clusters of hostels and hotels.  Ours was called “Sobo-Bade” which means “Welcome” in Haitian.  There weren’t too many people there so we had lots of access to woven hammocks and beachside views.

            Our meals were pretty decent, too.  Lots of local dishes, including Ceebujen, and also French plates like pizzas and sandwiches.  I kept remarking about how quiet it was there!  Compared to Dakar, you could hear a pin drop.  The ocean waves were rolling in and off in the distance you could make out djembe beats from a local band practice.  The birds were also relaxing to hear.  Since there is an abundance of greenery and vegetation, the birds were plentiful and happy to croon a Toubab to sleep.

            On Sunday, Hannah and I set out to swim in the ocean.  We’re both not very brave when it comes to setting foot in the great Atlantic, but we got up to our hips before we ran screaming back to shore.  We played catch with a Nerf football I brought from home and even had a our own self-appointed Senegalese supervisor in case we should need help.  He was quick to offer assistance when I stepped on a crab and was pinched.  No, thank you, Sai Sai.  I can take care of myself.  : )

            After many a nap and journal writing we packed our things and took a taxi back to Dakar.  I always feel weird coming back to Dakar after being away.  The first time was in 2008 when our program took us to Kedougou to stay in villages for a week.  I remember dreading the return just as I did this weekend.  The noise of the traffic, pollution, and overall state of chaos is always shocking at first.  But then it just starts to feel like coming home.  Here is a view from Hannah’s balcony.

            Khadija and I have been meeting to discuss website logistics for CAEF.  I’m really excited to help develop a website for her.  This organization is in dire need of some global attention so hopefully this will help.  She half jokingly, half serious said that I would be part of the US team and my title would be something like “Liaison of International Affaires” Haha.  Tomorrow we’re meeting again to gather more information.  I think it’s going well and she is so appreciative of my help.  We’ve also been discussing ways that people from the US and other places can make online contributions.  So if you weren’t able to give money before I left, hopefully when her site is done you can donate there, inchallah!

            I had probably better go rest a bit more.  I’m feeling better but we have a big weekend coming up and I’ll want to be 100% for that.  Hope all is well.  Leggi leggi!

            Love, Sa’lam, & Jamm,


            First Week

            January 29, 2010

            Hello all!

            I wanted to do a quick post for two reasons:  1. I have begun my work at the microfinance agency and gave Khadija the donations and 2. I will not have daily access to the internet until I leave.

            Yesterday, after much ado concerning who would take the keys to the apartment and how I would get back to “Nord Foire” where Hannah lives, I set out to take a taxi to C.A.E.F. to meet Khadija Doucoure.  Of course I got lost.  Apparently when you ask a Taximan if he speaks French in French and he says yes in Wolof, that means he does not speak French (noted).  After being 30 minutes late I borrowed a cell phone of a guard nearby and called Madame Doucoure.  According to the Senegalese way, I was right on time.  She came to meet me and it was a joyous reunion.  She was so excited to see me and we walked arm-in-arm throughout the ‘quartier’ while she tested my Wolof.

            After many phatic exchanges, I presented Khadija with several presents: a magazine from Seattle, a gold key chain with UPS emblem on it, american candy, beautiful earrings that my mom crafted herself, and…$200 as a donation to the organization.  She was overwhelmed with kindness and gratitude.  I have never experienced anything like it.  She hugged me and started sobbing.  We spoke for an hour about the lives of Senegalese women.  She has been working her whole life to tell their stories, remarkable stories of perseverance and strength.  Soon her foulard was soaked from tears.  She wrote a thank you to each individual donor on post cards that I purchased and then took about 50 photos of me with all of her presents.  She even said she was going to call a journalist!  I’m glad she didn’t…I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate myself in any coherent French.

            We ate lunch and discussed what project I could do in the short amount of time that I’m here.  I decided that with the help of my new camera, I would help her build a website so that people could learn the stories of Senegalese women.  So next Tuesday and Thursday while Hannah is at work I’ll be at C.A.E.F. taking pictures and gathering information on the organization so that I’ll be able to put together a decent website when I come home.  Let’s hope that will work!

            Apart from that wonderful rendez-vous, I have been doing a lot of touristy things like going to markets and trying to haggle my way to a new scarf…it’ll happen one day!  I swear I’ve lost my ability to “waxaale”.  Yesterday I spent 4 hours on the roof doing my laundry.  I felt extremely Senegalese as I dressed like a maid and did my laundry by hand.  It was so relaxing even though it was hard work.

            The sun on my back with the cool water in my hands was splendidly juxtaposed to the hussle and bussle of the neighborhood.  Thierry informed me that there is a soccer tournament for the African countries and yesterday was the semi-finale.  Everyone was out on their roofs trying to fix the antennas so that they could watch the game.  It was brilliant.

            Today was amazing because I met up with my friend (Katie Morrison)’s homestay sister, Nogaye Ndoye.  I met her at SIT after saying hi to the gang and we ate at Les Ambassades.  Oh how I’ve missed their food!  Then she took me to the Universite Cheikh Anta Diop (the biggest University in Senegal).  The campus was NUTS.  It was enormous.  I kept telling her it was like a “petit village” because there were all these little shops and places to eat and vendors selling random items.  I went to 4 dorms and met all of her friends.  They laughed at my Wolof skills, touched my Toubab hair, and wanted me to take many many pictures of them.  I felt pretty good because one of her friends swears that I was Senegalese in a past life.  Although it is not a Muslim tenet and I have no idea where she came up with that, I liked it!

            Next we went to Marche Sandaga which is the largest market in Dakar to find fabric with Obama’s face on it.  We were unsuccessful and had to cut our journey short due to some particularly aggressive vendors.  Tonight was amazing.  Thierry and I met Hannah at British Council where she works and there was a grand spectacle.  There was a fashion show followed by break dancing and salsa dancing and a live DJ.  It was off the hinges, as they say.  I wanted to dance SO BAD!  But I would look absolutely ridiculous and we were meant to be seated.  So I just danced in the taxi on the way home.

            Tomorrow will be stressful as we are supposed to move into Thierry’s parents house in Ouakam.  The only problem is, the truck we were going to use might not be available…which would mean that we could not move and would therefore not be able to go to Saint-Louis and Lampoul next weekend.  I hope that everything will work out, inchallah.  But I suppose we’ll see then.  If all goes according to plan, we will move in the morning and then head to Toubab Diallo (a beautiful resort) tomorrow afternoon.  Although I won’t have access to internet very often, I’ll try to at least post some more pics on facebook.  Speaking of pictures, I couldn’t help but post this one.  Hannah and I found a taxi with “Good Luck” written on the car seat covers.  Oh how ironic that is for anyone who knows what it’s like to put your hands in the life of a Senegalese taximan!  Haha.

            I hope you all are doing well.  I’ll try to keep posting as often as I can.  Thank you again for all of you who contributed to C.A.E.F.  I’ll get those postcards in the mail tomorrow so that you will get them soon.  I miss you!

            Love, Sa’lam, & Jamm,


            P.S.  A sheep was just born outside the apartment today and it is making the CUTEST noise I’ve ever heard.  No, mom, it’s not cuter than Mishka ; )