Thursday, March 15, 2012

Kony 2012 Thoughts

"These past few days have been a wild cyber ride in regards to Uganda. I have mixed feelings about the KONY 2012 campaign. It is brilliant in its scope, reach, film-making technique, etc. I wish it was more accurate in its depiction of current day Uganda. I also wish people weren't rushing to send all of their money to IC to stop KONY, when there are some wonderful programs on the ground in Uganda, run by Ugandans, that would be more useful to fund at this point. I have 5th graders emailing me in tears because they are terrified that Kony is going to kill their pen pals in Kampala. I hope this emotionally-triggered awareness will, at some point, result in some support for programs that are currently happening to rebuild Uganda. I am approaching this as an opportunity to shine a light on issues currently facing Uganda. I just want to be sure and do so in a thoughtful, responsible way. I want to highlight the difference between reactive activism and conscious activism.

Global Shine Project is planning a trip back to Uganda in May 2013. We will be continuing our support of OTM projects, Building Tomorrow & Shanti Uganda, as well as working with our new partner, Breakdance Project Uganda. We will also be traveling to Gulu this go round. We are currently planning itinerary and hope to have it out soon. We are already filling spots!" - Amanda Stuermer, co-founder of Global Shine Project, fellow participant in Seva Challenge 2009: Uganda, and super smart friend!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

AlliedForUganda Relaunched!

Dear Family & Friends,

Three years ago, with the help of my amazing community, I raised over $20,000 and traveled to Uganda for 3 weeks with leaders from Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM). Twenty-one other women from all over North America also went on the trip, and collectively, we raised over half a million dollars. Our money built a birthing center, a seven room school, and provided rice, beans, medicine & other essentials for forty families living in the Acholi Quarters. We also gave $10K to YouthAids and provided new mattresses, a water filtration system and a small library for the New Hope Orphanage. I look forward to personally following up with each of these organizations in May of 2013 when I return to Uganda with Global Shine Project (GSP)!

My personal commitment: To raise $6,000 by April 1st, 2013. This will cover the expenses of my trip + roughly 50% of the funds I raise will support the following organizations:

Life In Africa- A successful community based organization that supports families living in extreme poverty in the Acholi Quarters.

Shanti Uganda- This is the center that our collective OTM funds built in 2009.

Building Tomorrow- This is the seven room primary school in Gayaza that our collective OTM funds built in 2009.

Breakdance Project Uganda- This is a new organization that Global Shine Project started working with in 2011. Their mission is to engage & empower disadvantaged youth in Uganda through breakdancing to promote leadership skills & social responsibility.

The exact project details for each organization will come later. As we get closer to the trip, GSP will have a clearer idea of the current, immediate needs.

Uganda holds a very special place in my heart & calls me to be of service. Together, we can help each worthy organization reach their next goal. You can help by donating time and/or money. There will be events throughout the year to give donors an opportunity to receive something in return for their generosity and be in community with like-minded people. If you are interested in helping out with these events, please let me know! The more people that are involved, the better. Individual donations anywhere from $1 to $1K will make a positive impact. Your participation will not only help Ugandans achieve a better quality of life, but you also contribute to my growth as a leader, and that means the world to me! I am deeply grateful for your support & sponsorship on this sacred journey.

With Gratitude,
Megan

Estimated Cost Breakdown:
(GSP is still working on finalizing exact quotes, so these numbers may change slightly):
$1,300 plane ticket
$1,100 hotel (9 nights)
$300 food (10 days)
$300 group bus rental/tips
$3,000 in donations to the organizations listed above.

My fundraising goal:
$6,000 in 12 months
$500/month
$120/week
$18/day<-- This covers the cost of one birthing kit for Shanti Uganda!

You can donate via cash, check, or credit card through PayPal. To donate via Credit Card/PayPal click here. You can make checks payable to "Megan Ridge" & post to the address below:

Megan Ridge
334 E North Street
Bethlehem PA 18018

Any donations raised after I meet the costs of my trip are tax deductible & GSP can provide a tax receipt. Please specify if you require a tax receipt.

NAMASTE!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Year Later


It's been a year since our trip to Uganda. So much has happened. The transition back to my "real life" was quite challenging. Upon my return to the States, I immediately started engaging in my old, bad habits in order to cope with all of the things that struck me about our experiences in Africa, and also as a way to fill the void of the things I missed about our trip. 2009 was a year of fundraising and bus-y-ness. 2010 was a year of slowing down and coming back to myself. It was necessary that I process the work that the trip required, and take the opportunity to examine what I was ignoring about myself while serving others. To do effective and sustainable work in the world, we must truly be doing our own work. We must look inside ourselves every day and consider why we make certain choices. I now often ask myself, "Is this a choice?" "Am I doing this for me or for someone else? And if not for myself, why am I doing it?" These are crucial questions if we want to live a truthful life.

After about 6 months off from any kind of service work, in September of 2010 I started up a new organization: "Furry Feet Yoga." Shortly after my return from Uganda, Christopher and I adopted our first puppy, Horatio. He's a lab/pit bull/malamute mix, and he is absolutely beautiful and wonderful. I didn't know I could love an animal like I love Horatio. So I decided to start an organization that raises money for rescue shelters and animal support organizations here in the Lehigh Valley. Our first fundraiser was for the shelter where we got Horatio and in January we raised over $1,000. Our next fundraiser is scheduled for April. We're still working out the logistics, but if you're interested in keeping up with our events, visit www.MeganRidge.com/Furry_Feet_Yoga for details.

Life is good. I remember the great quote my mom wrote to me at the end of every letter I read in Uganda. "No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. If everyone does something, together we can change the world."

Love to all beings,
Megan :)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

Our Safari Adventure!

Murchison Falls Park is much, MUCH hotter than Kampala. We are all roasting like pigs up here and the mosquito nets around our beds don't let any air in. Last night I slept 3 hours because I was just too hot.

The lack of sleep really didn't seem to effect me too much. We were up at 6am for a quick breakfast and 5-hour game ride. You have to start early if you want to spot any animals, so we had the pleasure of watching the sunrise as we drove around the bush. So beautiful. The morning was theraputic and very meditative. The bush was so quiet, and we were all quiet in our safari jeep as we kept an eye out for animals. This was such a perfect way to end our time in Africa - connecting with nature in silence. Every once in a while the Jurassic Park theme song would run through my head, but otherwise, silence. :)

We saw tons of waterbucks, buffalo, warthogs, birds (there are 450 species of birds in this park alone), and hippos. We also saw huge packs of giraffes and elephants, which was so amazing. I learned that when male giraffes get old they start to turn black. Just one of the many interesting facts you'll learn on a safari adventure. We also saw lions, but they were so far off in the distance that I don't know if I can count it.

We had a very knowledgeable Ugandan wildlife ranger in our jeep. We were reluctant at first because he looked intimidating with his huge gun, but he was immediately kind and helpful. We later found out that the gun was a precautionary measure just in case elephants started charging us and our jeep was stuck. Apparently, elephants can be very aggressive.

Our ranger showed us the Congo's Blue Mountains in the distance. I thought it was so cool that we were close enough to see the DRC. We've realloy seen so much of Uganda in our short time here.

As we drove around, I felt like our jeep must look like a big, strange animal to all of the animals we observed. While it was incredible to visit a place untouched by industry, it felt a little invasive. Nature is just doing it's thing out here, and I hope it stays that way forever.

In the afternoon, we took a boat ride on the Nile from the lodge to Murchison Falls. The ride was about 3 hours long and full of adventure! We saw TONS of hippos, birds, elephants at the water's edge, and Nile Crockadiles!!! I got some great pictures because we were WAY TO CLOSE FOR COMFORT! The crocs sleep with their mouths open. :) We saw two hippos having sex. Got that on video. I felt like I was on an episode of "Planet Earth."

Tonight is our last full night in Uganda. It is also Heather's birthday. We're planning a party in one of the 5 air conditioned rooms in the lodge. I imagine this gathering will be bittersweet for all of us. I'm happy to be going home to my family and dear friends, but I am sad to be leaving Africa and my new friends. This trip was life changing, just as everyone promised it would be, and I will hold each moment in my heart forever.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Murchison Falls Park

Murchison Falls Park is the biggest park in Uganda. It's 5,470 sq. km., like that means anything to me. BUT, I do know that it took us an hour to drive through the park itself simply to arrive at the falls. The falls were incredible. I cannot describe the beauty of this place, so I took tons of video and pictures, though I'm sure it will not give the falls justice. We spent an hour there and it felt like five minutes. There is a large, rectangular, elevated stone where the water rushes below so rapidly, it's both exhilerating and scary to get on top of the stone. Not only did I stand on this stone, I did full wheel! (For all you non-yoga dorks out there, Full Wheel is a rad backbend). Doing this was such a liberating, awesome experience for me. I can say with confidence that I am one of the few people in the world to have seen the water rush through the rocks upside down!

During our ride through the park we saw several baboons, warthogs, buffalo and deer. Tomorrow is our big safari adventure day, where I am told I will definitely see elephants, giraffes, hippos, and other majestic African creatures. I keep hoping I'll see a dinosaur.

Our lodge is AHHHHWESOME. We swam in the pool as soon as we arrived. The rooms are great, the food is delcious...it's like an actual resort. I'm finally giving myself permission to be on vacation for a day before we return back to real life.

Wish me luck!

<3 Megan

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The End, The Beginning

Today was our last day at the Building Tomorrow site, and our final opportunity to play with the children. I must say that play got a little out of control. We heard that this was the biggest turn out from the community for a school building project that Building Tomorrow has ever had.

Victoria led a great group dance and we played Frisbee and jump rope in smaller groups. Then, the stickers came out and the kids went FUCKING CRAZY! I kept saying, "Form a line!" but it was hugely unsuccessful and overwhelming. The kids ended up fighting over soccer balls, which was not good, so we had to cease distribution. There was definitely an element of chaos today, and maybe that's, in part, due to the group's energy. Many of us were exhausted and irritable, just doing our best to be there. I bet the kids can sense this disconnect and maybe that's why they turned against one another.

We've been eating boxed lunches on the bus every day on site, and doing our best to conceal our eating from the locals. Today, I was sitting in the very back of the bus and a man that had asked me for money yesterday came up to my window and stuck his hand through for food. My heart dropped down into my stomach. I felt both frustrated and horrible. I had a little less than half a sandwich left, and we were specifically asked not to feed anyone, but this man has been plaguing me. So, discreetly, I passed along my sandwich and then shut the window in his face. I know how this sounds, but it's what you have to do. Everyone is poor. Everyone is hungry. If I were him, I'd ask for money and food too. It just sucks.

Before we left, we planted a tree on site. Our last bit of work in Uganda. I heard that Building Tomorrow bought 25 trees total, one for each of the women who raised $20,000, to plant in the courtyard.

I feel my heart has grown 25 times bigger to make space for the beautiful women I've taken this journey with, for the Joseph's, for Uganda. And especially for all of the people I'm coming home to that have supported me throughout this entire journey. As I make space for all of this new love, I'm letting go of a lot of fear, and that's the greatest reward of all.

The Universe is pretty funny. I'm finding that all I have to do is ask, and within a very small time frame Spirit delivers almost immediately. Two nights ago, I sat down with the Universe and asked for help. I said, "Show me what to do next." And not two days later, I have my answer.

The Acholi Quarters have stayed with me since the very first day of this trip. I'm aware of how much it impacted me simply because I couldn't sleep AT ALL the night after our visit. That's usually a pretty good indication that I need to listen to my soul. I feel like of all the groups we worked with, that slum was the only place that we didn't offer sustainability. We came in with our donations and we left. Those people deserve more and I plan on seeing to it that they get more.

This afternoon a few of us sat down with two representatives from the Acholi Quarters- Faustino and Gilbert. These two men know the Acholi Quarters like the back of their hand, and they have experience in working with Invisible Children, another organization based in Uganda. We asked what the greatest needs are in the community, and they were ready to give us clear, direct answers. I was very impressed by their knowledge of the area and their game plan for improving the community. I have a very strong feeling about this work and feel comfortable sharing it's beginning stages. I introduce to you, the Acholi Quarters Project!

Number one, the children need to get a proper education. The few children that are in the surrounding Kampala schools are getting a poor education. The children need a real shot at helping their communities, so the men proposed that we set up a scholarship fund to send children to boarding school. It costs about $8,000 to pay for one child's ENTIRE education. This includes grades 1-12, about $700/year. The scholarship would require that the student comes back to the Acholi Quarters to help their community in whatever way inspires them.

Number two, while the community has some access to clean water, it's not nearly enough. There are fresh water taps stationed around the community, but the families that live by the taps manipulate other families into paying for fresh water. Most people cannot afford even 5 cents for the water, so they will go to the contaminated well instead. We are proposing that more taps are installed around the area to make clean water available to more people, perhaps reducing the price of fresh water or completely eliminating fees. We are waiting to hear back from Gilbert about how much that will cost.

Lastly, I am bringing back an ENTIRE CHECKED BAG FULL OF NECKLACES!! The Acholi women make recycled paper bead necklaces as part of their income generating group. I have a much better chance of selling their beads at a greater price than they do, so I have volunteered to support their group by selling as many beads as I can by August 2010. 100% of the profits will support the women of the Acholi Quarters. In this area, the women work and the majority of the men do not, so it is the woman's income that provides food and education for their children.

We've got three projects in place- improved education for the children, fresh water for more families, and profits for the women's income generating group. I feel we can make a significant impact as we carry the momentum from this trip back to the States, raising awareness about what we did and saw. The Acholi Quarters was the most hauntingly beautiful place I have ever visited and it is my intention to go back very soon and see our new projects come to flourishen.

Keep on loving,
Megan :)


P.S. - Tomorrow we leave for our Safari! It's about a 5-hour ride up to the Safari Lodge. Friday will be spent on a game ride and the afternoon on the Nile River. Saturday we'll make the drive back to Kampala, have a nice dinner, and then go to the airport for our departure back to the States. I may not have internet access during this time, so please wait to hear from me until the Brussels airport!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I'll Do As My Soul Says


Our first rainy day in Uganda. Finally, an opportunity to whip out the neon orange poncho. As soon as we got on site, I started hoeing away! It was easier to work for long periods of time because the rain kept the air cool. At lunch time, I hit a wall. Complete exhaustion. Cindy said it best- "My mind says 'go back to work,' but my legs won't move." David, one of our drivers, took eight of us back to the hotel early.

I have feelings of guilt about leaving early. The locals work outside all day long, rain or shine, in bare feet and with very little water. It gives me even more perspective about my absolutely pampered life. How pathetic that my 25 year old body can't even last until 1pm. But, I also recognize that I must let the guilt go. It does not serve me, or anyone else. I am listening to my body, which is actually the best thing I can do for myself at this point. We only have four more days here, and I cannot return to the U.S. burnt out. The goal of this trip is to make service sustainable, and if that means I need to quit early one day, so be it.

As we rode back to Kampala, I did my usual waves to anyone I made eye contact with through the bus window. 99% of the time I get a huge smile and wave in return. It's one of my favorite things about this country and there's really no reason why I can't take that back with me to the U.S. We could all use a little more acknowledgement and kindness.

Sometimes, when I take the time to sit quietly and think about the direction my life has taken, I can quickly become overwhelmed by the plans the Universe has for me. The women here are continually reminding me of how young I am, telling me that I'm very mature for my age. I haven't heard much of that since I was about 20, and I think the absence of those words whirled me into a panic. I was starting to feel that I was finally a grown up and now expected to deal with the world as an adult would, although I didn't really understand what that meant. Adults just seemed to me to be under constant stress and pressure, packing their lives full of things to do. So that's what I did, to some extent. Once I discovered yoga and service, I felt my efforts were more focused and purposeful, but still, life is moving quite fast. It's really nice to be reminded that I've still got a lot of time to figure some of this stuff out, and accept the fact that there are some things I'll never know.

The Universe never gives us more than we can handle. I see big projects on the horizon, and I must trust in the direction that my soul takes me. It is that trust that lead me to this challenge, and that will lead me to the next. "If my soul says so, I'll do as my soul says."

I love you all,
Megan

Monday, February 15, 2010

Building Tomorrow

"Wasuzoti" (Pronounced, "Wa-su-zoh-tea-ah") means "Good Morning."

"O-lay-oh-cha" - "How are you?"

"Jen-Dee" - "I'm fine!"

"Webalee" - "Thank you."

This is the extent of my Lugandan. Thank you, Joseph the driver.

Today, we went to Building Tomorrow's newest site-- land for a seven-room school house funded by your donations! We were able to give $135,000 to this project, and it's really cool! The new school will provide education to 400 kids from 7 villages around the area. The teachers will have housing on site, which will make them more available to the children. Uganda has the largest percentage of people under 18 years of age, so it's very crucial that children are getting into schools. This is Building Tomorrow's ninth school.

Building Tomorrow has a great system in place. We fund the school and provide a place for teachers to live, the community helps build it, and the government pays the teachers' salaries. We found out that it's difficult to keep steady teachers at places like the New Hope Orphanage because teachers' pay is not gaurenteed. Here, the teachers and their families are supported both physically and financially.

It was another day of hot, hard labor! The brick making contraption that I spoke about in an earlier blog at the birth center is also being used at the school's site. Ugandan's consider this contraption "New Technology" and were very thankful to us, as your donations bought 2 brick maker's for them. After the school is built, the community will continue to make bricks to sell for profit.

Many of us made bricks and transported the bricks either through an assembly line or on our heads. Others stacked the bricks to build walls, and used a hoe to level out the land. Hoeing is hard! The locals are so strong. A woman in a beautiful dress and flip flops had to show me how to hoe effectively. A little embarrassing, but now I know!

For those of us that wanted to carry bricks on our heads, a little girl made head cushions for us out of the leaves of a banana tree so that the bricks wouldn't hurt our soft American scalps. I thought this offering was very sweet, and it actually allowed me to carry 2 bricks on my head at once (headstands, here I come!).

As I was making my way back and forth to place the bricks closer to the builders, a man from the local community, probably around my age, asked me if I would have babies with him. I must tell you, this isn't the first time I've been here and men have inquired either about my relationship status or my desire to have children with them. My body type is very attractive to the average African male... I'm just not sure how I feel about it. In fact, in all honesty, I'm having a hard time with it. There are very few men here that I feel comfortable around, one on one, and that's not something I'm used to at all back in the states. I realize that some of my concerns stem from my own issues and insecurities. It's something I need to examen a little more closely on my own. Though, let me take a moment to thank the Universe for our Joseph's (Joseph the tour guide and Joseph the driver), so that I may always carry with me a clear picture of exceptional Ugandan males.

At the end of the day, the locals had sugar cane for the children as a reward for all their hard work. The children were so excited! It was really beautiful to see such a simple pleasure become the highlight of the day.

On our way home, we opened our windows for air while we were stuck in a traffic jam. Joseph, our guide, told us that at night there is a risk that a passerby will reach into your vehicle and grab your belongings out of your hands. If a man steals here, civilians will overtake him and beat him to death. If a woman steals, they'll strip her of her clothes and tell her to walk home. The presence of the police is so scarce, the people band together to claim justice. Sometimes I don't immediately believe what Joseph tell us because it seems so far-fetched. But it's the truth, and I think it's important that we know.

It's hard to remember what life was like before Uganda. What do neat little neighborhoods look like? How will I adjust to my packed schedule full of teaching, meetings and conversations about careers? I find myself afraid to return to my previous life. If only I could transport my family and yoga community to wherever I want to be. I suppose the real challenge will be just that. Our work here in Uganda is not selfless service. I am gaining a sense of myself made possible only by this trip. And soon I'll need to take myself back.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!


Today was a “rest day” for us to personally reflect on the happenings of the trip thus far and to prepare ourselves for our final three days of intense work. We had a 2-hour long yoga practice in the morning, and Seane gave us a lot to think about. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, she brought into question how we’ve been showing up and expressing love in our own lives, before and during our experiences in Uganda. How will we carry our new ideas of authentic love back to our everyday lives? What do we need to accept about our past in order to truly let go and love bigger? A lot of people had an emotional release. It took me a while to get there, but eventually, with the help of the Beatles playing in the background, I did. I realized that I’m still holding onto a lot of the sadness of 2009—the death of several loved ones. The fear of death itself. I’m always making acute adjustments in my perspective so that I can better handle this fear, but it keeps showing up again and again in the faces of the women and children I meet here in Uganda. Despite their contagious joy, my sadness lingers.

The women and children here do not latch onto their traumas and circumstances. They are constantly releasing emotions through passionate song and dance. Perhaps the men are so aggressive because they do not engage in these traditions. Most Ugandan men are addicted to alcohol, drugs, sexual abuse or power. They are acting out because, like most Americans, they are not moving the negative energy out of their bodies naturally. I can certainly relate to their struggles, and am so grateful for the support systems in my life that encourage the release of tension in my heart and in my hips every day. :)

I found out last night that I am the youngest woman on this trip. I am the baby. There are several life lessons that I have yet to experience, and I must remain patient with myself. I cannot be so critical and hard on myself. I must love myself and trust in my deepest truths to continue to love and serve others effectively. I think this will be my mantra for the decade.

Today, I sat and took the time to remember all of the great loves of my life. My very first valentines—Mom, Dad, and Grammy. The crushes, the necessary heartbreaks. My beautiful companion, Christopher. And especially, today, all of the 23 women here with me in Uganda, sharing an experience that will bind us together in love forever. You are all my valentines and I thank Spirit for this incredible opportunity to serve.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

New Hope Orphanage


This morning’s yoga practice focused on the art of PLAY! We worked on handstands, crow, and other arm balances. Seane wanted to give us some ideas on what to teach the kids we were going to meet at the New Hope Orphanage later that day. At the end of our practice, Seane asked us to remember the children in our own lives back home. I immediately thought of Christopher’s cousins- Erin, Jaime (though not so young anymore!), RJ and Ben, and beautiful little Jonathan. They have brought so much light into their families lives and I feel incredible gratitude for the presence of these special souls in my own life. They continually teach and re-teach me joy, innocence, and the pure pleasure of discovery.

Seane reminded us to cultivate play, not pity, and to support, not sympathize with the children we would meet today. Every child at New Hope has HIV and all are orphans. It is important to remember that it is not our responsibility to take on the emotional burden of the situation, but to approach each child with love and bare witness to their circumstances. We are providing opportunities for growth, and that mindset was definitely helpful today.

The New Hope Orphanage is located in Entebbe, about an hour north of Kampala. Your donations provided this facility with a clean water filtration system, an organic garden for food, and new mattresses for the children to sleep on. Water, food, and bedding- the basic necessities. The children could not have been more grateful. When we arrived, they sang us a few welcome songs (got it on video!!) and the director spoke to us. Then, the fun started. We did EVERYTHING with these kids! Soccer, yoga, jump rope, fluoride treatments, painting, coloring, games, dancing, Frisbee, reading, gardening, and even loaded their new mattresses into their large bedroom. This was a truly exhausting and rewarding day. A tough day, for some.

I felt I was standing on the outside, looking in, and made myself available for support to those that were deeply effected by the visit. Perhaps I’m not ready to handle what we were doing and seeing. The joy the children expressed when we arrived coupled with the utter sadness on their faces upon our departure is too much to take in. It is the hardest part of this kind of work—saying goodbye.

On the way back to Kampala, I sat in the very front of the bus, next to Joseph, to better observe the scenery. Goats, livestock, and trash flood the landscape. Markets, crowds, women walking with enormous bags on their heads, men riding bikes and boda-bodas in large groups, children playing in the dirt, banana trees, officers with shot guns. The heat, the B.O., the overwhelming smells of exhaust from nearly every vehicle. The senses are on overdrive in a place like this. Words cannot give justice to this magnificent country for all of it's flaws and perfections.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Great Nile River

The days are flying by here. Yesterday, after blogging, I caught up on reading letters. Ya'll are makin' me laugh and cry! It's nice to feel so supported by my beautiful community back home.

Today was our "day off," so we drove two hours to Jinja for river rafting on the Nile! The experience was both incredible and terrifying. We split into groups of eight and decided if we wanted to ride "wild" or "mild." I was torn, but in the end went for mild, which was definitely WILD!

There are six levels of rapids- 1 being the most harmless and 6 being the most dangerous. When we boarded the raft, tensions were high. Ann was very concerned about the raft tipping. The rest of us accepted the roles of confident and calm so that the group remained united and strong. Big J, our leader, took us through the dos and dont's of rafting. This worried Ann further, and, I must say, it felt like a lot of information to remember. He had us jump into a calm part of the river and swim around a little, we practiced paddling forward and back, and we even experimented with capsizing the boat with the hope that none of this would actually happen in a rapid.

As we went through our first big rapid (Level 5), everyone worked together beautifully, calling out things like, "paddle harder! "Together!", etc. But by the time we reached the point that I could check in with everyone, I noticed Ann was gone! She was quickly retrieved by a rescue kayaker and brought back to our raft. She was quite shaken and crying hysterically. Her nervous system was shocked by the experience. We all supported her as Big J hugged her, wiping away her tears. Eventually, she was able to go on, but just as fearful as before.

We reached a Level 4 rapid, and myself, David, and Sofi were knocked into the water. I surfaced quickly and found the experience exhilarating! I got back into the boat with even more confidence.

As we approached the last rapid, the most dangerous of all the previous rapids, Big J counseled us on what to do if we capsized. There was a 50% chance of tipping.  Ann was freaked. Big J said there were four large waves to get through, and if we tipped early, we may need to hold our breath for a long time. We all had to paddle hard to make it through. We were a determined group.

We clapped our paddles together in the air and reassured ourselves that we could make it. We saw the steep waterfall approaching fast, and fear mounted inside of me. I kept paddling with all my strength, then, I felt the raft starting to lean to one side. I was suddenly out of control and fell off. I thought the boat had flipped, as I was stuck underneath for a moment, but I knew I must stay calm. I was also aware of the fact that we had fallen early and I knew I had a long way to go before rescue. Wave after wave pummeled me down further, and water flooded my lungs. For the brief moment I had above water, I couldn't catch my breath, couldn't inhale. I was panicked, gasping for air. I had no awareness of where I was in relation to the boat, and assumed everyone else needed rescuing as well. After what seemed like forever, a kayak came out of no where and pulled me back to the boat as I coughed and burped up as much water as I could. Big J gave me a moment to catch my breath before pulling me back into the boat, and as I looked around I realized everyone else seemed ok. As it turns out, only two of us had fallen in, Kristen included. Big J quickly pulled her back in.

Wow. I was scared and shaken. I thought I was going to drown, but knew in the back of my mind somewhere that I wouldn't. I ate lunch in silence; hoping nourishment would calm my nerves. Eventually, I did feel better, and even took a swim around the calmer part of the river with Sofi. That was definitely a high point. I swam in the Nile River!! The scenery was brilliant and inspiring. Those few minutes made everything worth it.

We pulled the raft up to land and made the long trek, barefoot, back to our bus. The Earth was red and burned our feet. I felt like I was walking over hot coals, and took brief breaks in the shaded parts of the path.

In the bus, Suzanne gave me four grapefruit extract pills to kill any parasites I may have ingested in the river. Better that my worrisome mind did not know about the possibility of parasites until today. Nothing I can do about it now! And I don't regret anything. I think it was important for me to experience both the absolute terror of drowning and the thrill of success. It was a completely unique experience. And it all happened on our "day off."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Photos!

If you're on facebook, you're in for a treat! I've posted some pictures from our journey thus far. Copy and paste the link below into your browser. Facebook may require that you sign in first:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=144770&id=669407685&ref=mf

Time for bed,
Megan

Love



I made a brick this morning! There is a contraption (I hesitate to call it a machine because it requires so much manual labor) that you put dirt into and then put all of your weight into pulling down a lever to compact the dirt into a brick. Totally awesome. I also helped with interior design of the birth center. We molded extra mud into the walls to create the shape of branches, flowers and leaves. This was a challenging project but a lot fun. After two days of work I love the fact that I have very dirty fingers and toes!

As we were leaving the birth center for the last time, we rounded the corner in our enormous bus and out from behind the bushes came all of the men that were working at the site with us over the past 2 days. They completely surprised us-- rushing out into the open, screaming wildly, waving and smiling as a farewell to us all. It is difficult for me to describe why this was so emotional for the entire group We worked with these men intensely for two days, sharing stories and information about our cultures. They are the exception to the stereotypical, male Ugandan-- these men were thoughtful, kind, understanding, generous and supportive. Natalie is so fortunate to have them on board for her dream project, and it was so moving to see their appreciation for our presence in those last moments.

Before we left Kasana, we went to Natalie's home for lunch and enjoyed, yet again, the traditional Ugandan meal. That's our fifth time eating Thanksgiving in 3 days. I'm all starched out, but am very grateful for the local hospitality. They don't eat like this every day, but insist that we do as their guests. After lunch, we opened several of the bags full of donations for Natalie to see. We finally got to see the magnitude of what we collected. Natalie says the birth center will be up and running even sooner now that she has nearly all of the supplies they need to operate.

Sarah, Heather, Amanda and Davian stayed behind to help deliver another baby at the current birth center as we road back to the Sheraton Kampala. We were blessed to hear about this healthy birth later in the evening during group processing. We found out that today is Amanda's son's birthday. She gave birth to her first child twelve years ago today. She said, "12 years ago I became a mama and I helped someone else become a mama today." That really struck me. I feel special to be one of the 24 women in the room to hear that lovely realization.

I have mixed feelings about returning to Kampala. I am very aware of how lucky I am to now have amenities like bottled water, air conditioning, regular toilets, and a comfortable queen sized bed. I am also constantly thinking of our new friends that don't have these things. I lived for a few days in the Kasana volunteer house, and even there we had fair showers and working toilets. Most people in the village are walking miles for water and going to the bathroom in small cement holes. As a guest in their village, I was in no way roughing it, but now I just feel positively spoiled. I can understand a little more clearly now why people have incredible difficulty transitioning back into their normal lives after visiting a third world country. There's no turning back from what we've witnessed and experienced here, and in many ways I'm compelled to live among these people despite the constant struggle of their lives. The love I feel is so intoxicating it's easy to forget the daily hardships they endure.

Each night we take about an hour to check in as a group to make sure everyone is feeling fine and supported. It's also been a nice opportunity for me to remember some of the things I've forgotten to share with all of you. So much happens in a day, it's difficult to remember all of it. There's just one last thing I'd like to share...

Yesterday, when a group of us were taking a break from work, an old woman slowly walked towards us to sit in the shade. The woman did not speak English, but Natalie told us that the woman is ninety years old and walks to the birth site every Wednesday to help. She had hurt her leg. The woman sat and spoke softly to Jen, one of the participants, for several minutes in a language that none of us understood. Minutes later, she slowly stood to make her trek back home. We said goodbye.

Ninety years old. How will we show up when we reach her age? What will we be willing to do for our community and our children? She is way past the ability to conceive, so she is clearly coming to this site each week to see a project thrive that will support her granddaughters and great-granddaughters. She is an example of love at it's finest. I am in awe. May the Universe forever bless the great women of Uganda in all their strength and magnificent beauty.


Thanks for reading,
Megan

Written on 2/10/10

We started the day with an inspirational yoga practice on the grass outside of our volunteer house. We formed a circle with our mats and did a few sun salutations, standing poses, and backbends. Seane called on some participants to bring their intention for the day into the circle. Spirit flowed through each speaker. At the end, we did call and response chanting with Suzanne. I think the locals must be proud of our ability to sing and dance freely, with passion. Most Ugandans believe that “muzungos” don’t know how to truly express themselves and are very entertained when they see us doing things like hard labor or walking in our barefeet.

After breakfast we headed out to the new birth house. We rode motorcycles there!! The ride was INCREDIBLE! I’ve never been on a motorcycle before and it was one of the best times of my life. Here, they call the motorcycles “bodas,” and it’s the best way to travel around the villages. People will often say, “I’m going on a boda boda.” It’s my new favorite thing.

When we arrived we were split into small groups to rotate around the facility, learning about the different aspects that go into creating the birth house. We literally laid the brick. This is exactly what I told my donors I would be doing, so I was very happy. We stomped in the dirt and water with our bare feet to make it soft and muddy, and then we laid the mud thickly on the foundation and stacked bricks on top. We left a little space between each brick for more mud, and really packed it all in. I marvel at the fact that just a few months ago, this land was covered in jungle. Now buildings stand half finished and roads are cleared. There were no bulldozers to do the job, simply strong hands. I am still grasping the fact that our money is funding the creation of this sacred place.

When we took a break for lunch, I split from the group to sit with Joseph, our driver. I really love talking with Ugandan people. Joseph is so nice and welcoming, always a big smile on his face, happy to see us. We talked about the differences in Ugandan and U.S. culture. I’ve found that no one really judges the U.S.; they are simply interested and often surprised. Joseph asked me how many children I want to have and I said, “One. Or two at the very most.” He thought that was crazy and asked if there was a law in the U.S. that said people couldn’t have more than two. He thinks I should have 5 or 6! He asked how many siblings I have and I said I was the only one. He was shocked and said it must be harder for me to get married. I asked why he thought this and he said, “Since you are the only one, it will be hard for your parents to give you away.” In Uganda, men still pay a dowry for their wives and own her as property. Joseph told me his father died when he was young, and when his mother re-married the new husband kicked Joseph out of the house because he was another man’s son. He moved to Kampala, but still considers his village home. His mother’s husband recently passed away, so Joseph can now go back on holidays to visit his mom. Joseph says I should stay and live in Uganda. He has become a great friend in only four short days. He is always making sure I’ve had enough to eat, and always concludes that I never eat enough.

After lunch we went on a walking tour with Sam, a neighbor to the birth center. His family owns a lot of the land surrounding the site. He showed us his home, his father’s home, and his grandfather’s home. In 1982 there was a war in this part of the country that lasted for five years (separate from the war in the north) and Sam’s family was forced to leave. When the war ended, they returned and all of their homes were still intact. He showed us his family’s graveyard—at least 20 long tombstones populated the area. Sam explained that Ugandan’s take burial very seriously. People must be buried with their families, and a woman is always buried with her husband’s family since he bought her. Sam does not necessarily believe that this is the only way things should be in the world. He simply states that this is the way it is in Uganda and has always been. He was a very loveable man.

Now…I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go here on this blog, but I must tell you. The bathroom situation is hit or miss in the villages. At the birth center I ended up squatting over a narrow hole in the ground! There are bricks for your feet, and you’re lucky if there’s toilet paper. I feel I could go to the bathroom anywhere now! We also have to be conscious of the setting sun, because unless you have a flashlight, you won’t be able to see what you’re doing. It’s all been a humbling learning experience. J

After our long day of work at the site, I was feeling EXHAUSTED! I was dangerously close to not going back for the evening party with the women due to a severe headache. I drank three bottles of water, took some ibuprofen and was good to go. As soon as we arrived, there was singing and dancing. The children were shaking their hips like mad and skipping around in circles with us. There was a big bond-fire in the center of the site and as the sun slowly set, it became our only light. The sunset was absolutely beautiful- exactly as I imagined it should be- sinking slowly beyond the African trees as the stars came out, one by one. The night sky is brilliant in the middle of a remote village, and it brought tears to my eyes. I had one of those “I-can’t-believe-I’m-in-Africa” moments.

I played with an adorable little girl most of the evening. My tongue was red from the powder I added to my water for hydration, and she wanted a red tongue too, so she took the second half of my bottle and drank it, sticking out her tongue periodically so I could confirm her mouth was red too. I tried to teach her to touch her tongue to her nose, but she didn’t quite get that one. She walked around with my bottle for the rest of the evening, proud of her red mouth.

Tonight is our last night in the birth center. I’m only being completely honest when I say I am looking forward to the Sheraton Kampala. For now, mosquito net here I come.

p.s.- The Ugandan word for "thank you" is "Weebale" (pronounced, "Way-bah-lay"). Joseph taught me and I've been saying it about 20 times a day!

Written on 2/09/10

Another very special day in Uganda. Since I didn’t sleep the night before, I slept like a baby last night- 10 hours! I mistakenly set my alarm for 7PM instead of AM, so I slept right through yoga. I woke naturally at 8am with just enough time to shower, pack my belongings, and eat some breakfast before departing for the birth center in Kasana.

$150K of the money raised last year is going to an organization called, “Shanti Uganda,” started by a woman named Natalie Angell. Natalie is from Vancouver and studied Ugandan history in college. She decided to travel to the country a few years ago and discovered that the birth practices in Uganda were very aggressive and negative. She wanted to provide women with information about safe and supported birth practices. When she connected with Off the Mat, her dreams of building an eco-birth house were realized. She chose the village of Kasana because of her connection to the current birth center there, started and run by a nun who is also a midwife. Natalie’s intention is for the new birth house to be a training center for midwives and dualas throughout Uganda. Women can visit, learn, and bring the information back to their own communities.

Kasana is an extremely remote village about an hour north of Kampala. Now we’re starting to see parts of Uganda that we imagined in our heads: the bush, the scattered mud homes and narrow, blood red roads. Usually when people need an Internet connection they have to drive to Kampala! When we arrived, we checked into the volunteer house, which is much nicer than any of us expected. I am sharing a small room with Sarah, one of the fellow seva participants. I feel lucky to have her in my room because she is a Duala back in the states and these next couple of days will be simply incredible for her.

After check-in, the group traveled about five minutes to get to the current birth center, to meet Natalie and the women in her “Women’s Group.” The group is comprised of 26 HIV positive women, chosen out of 600. Some of the women have children, some are pregnant. All of the women are on ARV’s while they’re in the program. They make necklaces out of recycled paper beads as well as fabric handbags for profit. Natalie makes sure everyone is paid equally each week, that the women learn to manage and save their money, and provides business training. After a certain period of time the women will graduate from the program and receive a certificate of completion. They set short term and long term goals together. They are encouraged to improve their nutrition while in the program. It took a while for the women to come together peacefully. Often, women are in competition with one another because polygamy is practiced in this part of Uganda. In the beginning, women were stealing from each other and trying to get others kicked out of the group. They’ve been together for a year now and because of the high standards that Natalie sets for them, things have become much better.

Forty years ago, Americans and Europeans came to Uganda and told the women that their birthing techniques (squatting and birthing at home) were not correct. In order for the health professionals to make more money, they told women that they must go to hospitals to give birth. Normally, they are simply told to get on a table and push. There is no support. A lot of Ugandan women fear hospitals and C-sections, and because of the typical birth practices, women often end up having c-sections. After one c-section is performed, it is very difficult for a woman to have another vaginal birth. Women here usually have between 4 and 10 children, and there are only so many c-sections a woman can have before she dies in childbirth. Shanti Uganda aims to change that, finding a balance between home and hospital. One woman is paired with a midwife for the duration of her pregnancy and the baby is brought into the world safely and thoughtfully. They’ve even building a birth pool in the new center for women that don’t want to squat.

Natalie told us that the husbands normally don’t want to be involved in their wives pregnancy and birth, so unless a woman has a birth center nearby, she has little or no support. Often, women do not want to have a lot of children. It is the husband’s desire to have as many children as possible, as it is a sign of status. If a man owns land, he also requires children to work the land. Of course, the men control everything, and if a woman wants to be on birth control, her husband or guardian must sign a waiver.

Although midwifery is illegal in Uganda, the village of Kasana has approved the center. The government officials will not support the center, but they have agreed not to shut it down. Due to the presence of the center, the value of the homes in the area has gone up, which is very good for the people there. It only cost five thousand dollars for Shanti Uganda to purchase the land.

Most of the women that come to the center will be HIV positive, so it is essential that they be provided with the medicine necessary to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child. Shanti Uganda will provide this to all of their mothers. The mothers will pay a very small fee for prenatal care, food from the organic garden, a private room to stay in for as long as they need after giving birth, and any medicine they require. There are about 50-70 births a month at the current birth center, and Natalie hopes to accommodate 40-50 births a month at the new birth house.

They hope to have the birth center up and running by the end of March of 2010! Our donations pay the Ugandan’s working on the site, a new vehicle to transport pregnant mamas, and the building of the center. It costs $50,000 to build the entire birth house! It really shows you how far $150K can go in Uganda.

The current birth center recently acquired a microscope so they can test for malaria onsite rather than sending the women somewhere else. As all of the women in the current women’s group have HIV, a secondary disease like malaria can be deadly, so testing and treatment can now be provided immediately.

The women greeted us with a lively, upbeat song. Everyone was beautifully dressed for the occasion. We immediately started singing and dancing with them, as we were lead into a small pavilion, women tossing recycled paper bead necklaces around our necks along the way. The nun/midwife that started the birth center was there and she gave the women a lesson in safe birth practices while we watched. Then the women sang two more songs for us and we sang one back. I got some of this on video! It’s simply beautiful. We were all laughing and dancing together, happy to meet one another. They had made us an intricate fabric banner with beads sewed in that said, “THANK YOU OFF THE MAT!” Many of us got teary, considering how long it must have taken to make the banner. I can’t remember smiling this much in a long time.

After our heart-felt greeting, we all sat down to lunch. The women cooked us delicious, hot Ugandan food- even better than what we ate yesterday for lunch. There’s this awesome purple peanut sauce that you can put on anything!

After lunch we split into groups to learn how to roll beads (I rolled 2 decent beads!) and teach yoga to the women. I taught Warrior 1 and even with the language barrier, we all did really well. It was really fun to just play in the grass, yogaing and dancing to Suzanne’s drum.

After several hours with the women we returned to the volunteer house to clean up. Sarah, my roommate, stayed behind to deliver a baby in the birth house! That evening we were split into groups of five to have dinner with one of the women from the group. It was like Thanksgiving! We ate a lot of the same food we had at lunch- beans, white rice, potatoes, mashed banana with peanut sauce, squash, spinach, watermelon, pineapple, pumpkin, passion fruit juice, cabbage, and more. There is a lot of starch in the Ugandan diet, so the hopes and dreams I had of losing weight on this trip are completely dashed. The house we ate in was very small, with just enough room for all of us to sit around a small table, packed with the food. There wasn't any electricity, so all we had was a small, battery powered light blub to see our food. The woman that prepared the food for us was so gracious and spoke little English. She did not eat while we were there, and she did not let us help set up or clean up. Ugandan hospitality is out of this world, and I found it hard to simply receive.

On our bus ride back to the volunteer house I thought back to how nervous I was about this trip, only a week ago. It seems so silly now. Each moment has held beauty all it’s own, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s only been three days and I already feel forever changed. This journey is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Busy Busy!

I did not sleep at all last night. Not for one minute. I was in bed from 12am to 7am, awake. My mind was busy; thinking of my day- one of the best of my life, and the room next to me was up watching the Super Bowl until 6:30am. The men were talking, laughing and shouting the whole night- Earplugs couldn't even block them. Needless to say, the day was rough.

7:30am yoga- I found my way to the fitness center and as I was telling Nikki that I hadn't slept all night, I started to cry, mostly out of frustration and worry that the day would be a huge mess of emotion due to lack of sleep. After an hour of really incredible yoga I was feeling much more grounded and prepared to face my day. THANK THE UNIVERSE!

After yoga and breakfast, we visited the Youth Aids office in Kampala. We donated $10,000 to their organization and the staff set up a very interesting presentation for us. Some of their products and services include condom distribution, clean water systems education and distribution, fidelity campaigns (commitment to one relationship to prevent the spread of HIV), support for those who already have HIV, cross-generational sex prevention campaigns, family planning, and Malaria prevention.

Currently, one million people are living with AIDS in Uganda. 200,000 are in need of ARVs and BCP (the drugs an infected person can take to control and lessen the effects of the disease) and only 90,000 are on ARVs. The country's goal is to reduce infection by 25% by 2012.

Young women are four times more likely to have HIV than their male counterparts, so YouthAids created a campaign to target these women specifically. They found that the risk of HIV infection doubles for girls 15-19 years old when their partner is 10 or more years older. This kind of relationship is referred to as "Cross-generational Sex," or "Sugar Daddy Relationships." We listened to a testimony from a young woman named Esther, explaining her "narrow escape" from a potential Sugar Daddy. Esther was 19 and off to college. Her professor encouraged her to come to his office one day and suggested in so many words that they have a relationship, even though he claimed to love his wife and children. Esther kept coming up with lies in order to avoid rejecting her professor, as he had the power to control her grades. He started to slip her money in envelopes, and occasionally he took her out to dinner, but they hadn't had sex. After a few months, he was putting so much pressure on Esther that she felt she would not be able to lie any longer. Coincidentally, there was a presentation at her university conducted by YouthAids about cross-generational sex and she decided to check it out, only because it was at her school. She felt that the presentation was speaking directly to her and helped her find the strength necessary to share her story with her aunt and become empowered to stand up to her professor. She can now say "no" to him confidently, though he still pursues her to this day. Esther is now a volunteer "Go-Getter" for YouthAids, traveling around the country, sharing her story so that other young girls might come to understand that they do not need the help of an older man to have what they want in this life. The campaign also aims to involve the parents more, so that their daughters can feel they have someone to talk. It is YouthAids' hope that girls will start planning for the long term (consideration of education, pregnancy and AIDS) rather than what they want in the moment (i.e.: a cell phone or money). The campaign targets girls in secondary school so that they can be informed before reaching college. It is very easy to get overwhelmed by the freedom of university life.

In regards to the men, YouthAids has developed a fidelity program that may help son's see their father's as role models. If fathers are showing their son's that they respect the women in the household and remain faithful, the son will learn these values as well.

While these programs are more appropriate for the literate, urban community, the organization also provides an income-generating program for the rural, impoverished areas. Free condom distribution and free testing days are available around the country, though, it is still difficult to determine what is the most sustainable way to reach the poorest of the poor, especially when alcohol and sex are at the top of the priority list. One solution is providing female sex workers with condoms for a distribution program. The more condoms they sell, the more money they make, and most of these women are simply trying to support their children. There are more than 6,000 sex workers in Kampala, several underage girls. YouthAids makes sure that the places these women work have condoms.

YouthAids put together an "HIV Prevention Kit" that they distribute free of charge to anyone suffering from HIV/AIDS. The kit includes a water vessel, filter cloth and water guard to purify their drinking water. Also included in the kit are condoms, antibiotics, a book that highlights the benefits of healthy living, and mosquito nets. The mosquito nets are very important as to prevent a secondary infection. It is usually malaria or TB that ends up killing the HIV positive Ugandan, due to their already suffering immune system.

We heard a testimony from a man named Mohammad. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2001 and fell very sick, very quickly. When his wife heard the news, she left him and took their 6 children with her. When President George W. Bush visited Uganda during his first term, Mohammad met with him as a representative of the AIDS community. President Bush was moved by Mohammad's plight and made sure Mohammad got the medicine that he needed. A few years later, Bush sent 2 administrator’s over to Uganda to check on Mohammad. Mohammad was doing very well on the medication and had even been trained in Reflexology and Aroma Therapy in order to help sooth other HIV positive Ugandans. Bush then invited Mohammad to D.C. to visit the White house. This was an incredible honor for Mohammad. Bush agreed to provide $8 billion dollars to fund HIV, malaria and TB prevention in Uganda. Mohammad will be meeting President Obama later this year.

After the presentation, we drove to YouthAids warehouse to see how they package the HIV Prevention kits. It is all done by hand. Forty people work together to package about 200,000 kits a day. The system was incredible to witness.

After our informative morning with YouthAids we had authentic Ugandan cuisine for lunch. Delicious! Then we went to the Kasubi Tombs for a very brief history of the Kingdom of Buganda. This is a very sacred area for Ugandans and it was an honor to be in the presence of the decedents of the Kings and Queens of Uganda. The ancestors live around the parameter of the tombs and several use the tombs as a bedroom.

I must be honest; The Uganda Museum was a disappointment! Maybe I was too tired to enjoy it, but I expected more, as it is the only museum in the country. I could tell that there were some updated exhibits, but for the most part, things were not labeled or very poorly labeled, and we only had 20 minutes to breeze through.

I am off to dinner at the hotel this evening and after group processing I intend to get an excellent night's sleep! Early tomorrow morning we are leaving for the birth center in Kasana, about an hour and 15 minutes north of Kampala. There will not be Internet access there, so unfortunately I will not be blogging again for another 2 or 3 days.

Don't miss me too much!

xoxo
Megan :)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stella and Agu


I had the most amazing experience today at the Acholi Quarters. For those of you that are not familiar with this place, let me give you a brief history. In 1986, an Acholi man named Joseph Kony started a group called "The Lord's Resistance Army." His aim was to overthrow the Ugandan government in favor of a more scripture based government. It quickly became clear to the majority of the population that the LRA was an unfocused attempt at controlling government, and perhaps more about Kony gaining individual power than anything else. Kony started abducting Acholi children to create an army. During these mass abductions, the group would steal medicine, weapons, and money. On the day of the abductions, Kony would usually make the children commit some kind of terrible atrocity in front of their entire community-- bite someone to death, cannibalize a family member, or kill a brother or sister with his bare hands. They felt that this kind of trauma would make the child never want to return to their previous life out of shame. This is the LRA's 24th year of activity, though things have been peaceful in Northern Uganda for the past 3 years. Most believe that the group is weakening and perhaps has moved up into Southern Sudan. The people of Northern Uganda are intoxicated with optimism, saying that Kony is now Sudan's problem. The fact is, Kony is still free. 30,000 children have been abducted to date, and at the moment there is believed to be about 800 total members in the LRA. I could go on, but I think you get the gist.

Today, we heard two Acholi women's stories. We had a translator, and they told us how they fled Northern Uganda to escape the LRA. They now live in the Acholi Quarters, a piece of land in Southern Uganda, purchased in 1956 by the King of Buganda, and they raise their families there. As more refugees flooded the land in the 1980's, diseases spread- especially HIV. Many of the children died and now many grandmothers are caring for their grandchildren. Some women are providing for as many as 19 children.

It was our great honor to take several donations to the Acholi people. With additional funds we purchased beans, flour, soap and medicine for each family. I found out that the two families I was assigned to have a total of 16 children between them. So I rummaged through the donations and picked out a jump rope, frisbee, several books, baby clothes, and toothpaste/brushes. I hoped it would be enough.

Most of the people do not speak English. Only the educated Ugandans speak English. The Acholi Quarters is so HUGELY different from the city of Kampala, and it's only 20 minutes away. These are the poorest of the poor. We were lead into a large room where about 20 adults sat, smiling and clapping, and as soon as everyone was settled, they sang us a welcome song in their language. We sang "Amazing Grace" back to them. Our trip leader, Joseph, explained to them why we were there and what we were going to provide for them. There are about 1,000 people living in this area, but we were only able to provide for 40 families.

I had the great fortune of being matched with two women- Stella and Agu. Stella spoke broken English, which was a special opportunity, as most of the population does not. I was able to communicate with these women in a way I did not think was going to be possible. Stella took me to Agu's house first so she could translate. Agu's house was at the top of a very steep, rocky, red dirt hill-- which was really good for me, carrying a 25-pound bag of flour and beans! The physical effort it required of me to get up that hill, and still smile and say hello to all of the curious children, really took my mind off the fact that I was clueless as to what I was going to do once I arrived in her home.

Her house...was the size of my hotel bathroom and there were two benches inside. All of her children came in and gathered around and shook my hand saying "thank you." And I immediately understood that there was nothing to do but just be there. I listened while Stella told me that Agu's husband passed away and she has been raising her 8 children by herself. Both of Agu's parents are gone. She goes to the stone quarry at the top of the hill every day and works so she can pay the $20/month rent for her living space and feed her children. They eat one meal a day. I surprised myself in my ability to be present and grounded in the moment. I felt very little pity, only compassion. I reached out for Agu's hand and held it for a while. I knew we were one and we were equally blessed to be in the presence of one another. In reality, she was actually serving me.

After several pictures, we went back down the hill to Stella's home, and along the way she introduced me to several people, all smiles and handshakes. Beautiful little kids pointing, smiling, chanting, "Muzungo!" which means, "white person." Stella's home was much the same as Agu’s; perhaps a little sturdier looking, two beat up chairs and a small stove filled the space. She told me that she went into town to learn English-- she is 24 years old, tending to 7 children, three of which are her sister's children. Her sister was shot in Northern Uganda during their escape from the war. She was pregnant at the time. They thought it best to deliver her baby and she died. Her son does not have a hand because of the shooting, but it's truly a miracle that he's alive. Stella was as optimistic and generous as Agu. I wish I could have given them the world, but that's not what they wanted. They are the loveliest people I have ever met-- they live in a 10X10 room with nothing in it, and love bigger than imaginable.

As I was leaving Stella's home (and believe me, I didn't want to go), there were so many hugs. A young woman I hadn't met yet came up to me, put a necklace around my neck and said, "I love your name, Megan. It is so beautiful." And then Stella placed another necklace around me, and then Agu. Three recycled paper bead necklaces that they made in their community, the most beautiful mementos I have ever received. As I made my way to the bus, Stella gave me another tight squeeze and asked me, "When are you coming back to us?" And I said, "As soon as I possibly can."

On the drive back, some emotions finally came up. It looks hopeless, because it's not just the Acholi Quarters that needs attention. It's the whole country. These people are living in absolute, unimaginable poverty. It's not comparable, not even close to what we witness in America. There is a reason why our material possessions are ruining us. There's imbalance in the world and is the job of the fortunate to sustain that balance. This is our responsibility. On the other hand, it was a magical, beautiful, joyful day. I could have sat among these women much longer than we were able. I feel so lucky that I got to hear their stories and hold their babies. I realized that each life is unique, but much the same.

I read my mother's first letter today. At the end she quoted, "No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. If everyone does something, together we can change the world." Amen.

Bless the whole world,
Megan

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I've Arrived!

I'm in Uganda!!! WOO HOO!!!

Even though we landed in the dark, I can tell the country is just beautiful. The smell in the air coming off of the plane was delicious, fresh and sweet- nothing I'd ever smelled from the Earth before. Our bus ride from the airport to the hotel was exciting. As we rushed by the buildings and landscapes, I was so intrigued by the shapes of the trees and bushes, and the activities of the locals on a Saturday night. Many men were walking down the road, motor bikes speeding on the shoulder, and clusters of people every so often, talking around a dim light outside of their homes and businesses. The pavement was so bumpy I felt my spine would shatter at times, but it was also very exhilarating to speed down empty roads. I think in the hour it took to get to the hotel we stopped three times-- there weren't any traffic lights and very few stop signs, if any.

My flights went very smoothly and we took off and landed on-time all 3 times! The airports were easy to navigate and my seat companions were very nice. When we arrived in Entebbe there was a list of names indicating whose luggage didn't make it. A few people in our group were on the list, but will be picking up delayed items tomorrow.

I am now settled in my hotel room at the Sheraton Kampala, and believe me, we are not roughing it here. This room is just as nice as any in the states, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to process what happens day to day in this safe, familiar place.

I've already read 3 letters! During my 25+ hours of travel time, I opened one from Grammy, Dad, and Elizabeth Dowd. I'm glad I chose them. I imagine the Universe will help me decide which letter to open every day so that I'll be getting exactly the kind of support I need from back home, exactly when I need it.

It's 2:00am here in Kampala (my body thinks it's 6pm Saturday), but it's definitely time to rest.

Much love,
Megan :)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Off to Africa TOMORROW!

I'm all packed. I decided last minute that I'm going to bring my laptop-- only because there is room for it in my carry-on and I spent some time with it this week, cleaning it up so it runs more smoothly. This way, as long as the internet connection is good, I should be able to post pictures and blogs more frequently during the trip and keep in close touch with family and friends through email.

Speaking of my dear friends and family, I thank you all so, so much for the letters you wrote. I haven't opened any of them yet, promise! I will be taking them with me to Uganda to save for the tough times, when I need a little love and encouragement, or maybe just a good laugh. I counted 15 letters this morning, not including the multiple letters from my mom, dad, and grammy. I will definitely have a letter for every day that I'm there, plus a few extra!

Here's hoping Mother Nature conspires in my favor for Friday's flight out of D.C. I hear the snow storm is moving in fast on Friday. I don't take off until 6pm...

Much love,
Megan :)

Monday, February 1, 2010

4 Days

I had a major shift in perception last night after a really monstrous cry. I finally spoke to the Universe after a long time of reluctant communication, and I said, “I need help.” That’s usually all it takes.

I started to remember that I created this opportunity for myself. My community made it happen. Everyone believes in me and is really proud of me and wants to see me go so that I can become an improved person. I need to stop the mantras of “I can’t” and “I’m not, “ and begin the mantras of “I can” and “I am.” I can do this. I am ready.

When I came to this realization, I felt an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders and my heart got lighter. I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunity. I’m only 25 years old. People dream of doing this kind of work their whole lives, and I’m going. I’m thankful for each and every person that helped me get to this point. I’m speechlessly in gratitude to all of you.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

6 Days To Go

I’m beginning to realize that raising $20,000 was the easy part.

I leave for Uganda in 6 days. Life keeps going while I attempt to prepare for this trip. Loose ends to tie up, decisions to be made, complications, surprises, and meetings are still being scheduled up to the day of departure. I’m told I “don’t have to deal with it.” And part of me fully understands that there is no one to blame but myself. That all it takes is some assertive behavior on my part to say, “I can’t deal with this right now. Remind me again in March.” But sometimes I let the mundane issues overtake me and I can get very wrapped up in that drama. I’m stressed! And it is required that I de-stress for this experience. I must be present and centered to serve others. I must be ready. I don’t think I am.

Please know that it is my intention to be as honest as possible in this blog. Not only to share the positive experiences, but the challenging moments as well. Preparation for this adventure has held some very uplifting, magical moments. I’m just more prone to write when the negative arises.

My intuition tells me all will be well once I get there. I just need to get there.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Things I'm Worrying About...or...Thank you, Dad.

I leave for Uganda in 9 days and here are the things that I'm worrying about...

1. Getting lost in airports/missing flights on the way to Uganda
2. Losing my luggage
3. Not packing enough of what I need
4. Getting robbed or hurt
5. Getting sick (sinus infection, diarrhea, flu, etc.)
6. Getting malaria or AIDS, etc.
7. Not being physically prepared for the work we'll be doing
8. Not being able to handle what I witness, emotionally
9. Not knowing enough about the culture or country
10. Missing Christopher and not being able to contact him
11. Encountering snakes, spiders, crockadiles, etc.
12. Not being able to afford my mortgage when I return and racking up credit card bills again
13. Fear. Fear of inevitable death and horrors.

Not saying that I think I'll die on this trip, but fear of death certainly manifests itself through all of the more petty and irrational fears listed above. I am practical, cautious, and CRAZY all at once. And, often, I totally miss the point of why I signed up for this journey in the first place: To serve others and change my own life in the process. Perhaps that is what I'm most afraid of. The real probability that I will come back a different person, and what that will mean for my current commitments and relationships. Yeah. That's pretty scary too. Where did all of my excitement go? I fluctuate faster that I know, between the extremes of excitement and fear.

It's time I offer this up to the Universe and start trusting in the divine path laid out before me. Much better chance of getting a good night's sleep.

<3 Megan

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Will You Do Next?

Whoa dudes...Can't believe we're leaving for Uganda in 18 days!!

I took a workshop with Seane Corn at Yogaphoria in New Hope, PA last weekend. She is a co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, the organization that made this fundraising and travel opportunity possible. Seane is leading the trip to Uganda, along with Suzanne Sterling (another co-founder), and Sally Brown Bassett from Peace Through Yoga. I know we will be in good hands simply being in the presence of these incredible women.

Last year, around the same weekend, I was studying with Seane at Yogaphoria and she mentioned the Uganda Seva Challenge. When I went home that night, I couldn't sleep. I just kept thinking about the challenge. I knew in my heart that I had the time and resources to call my community to action and raise the $20,000. The next morning, over breakfast, I told my boyfriend, Christopher, I was going to Uganda, knowing next to nothing about the country at that time. He supported me without hesitation. Later that day, I called my parents and told them about my new, exciting endeavor. They were not as enthusiastic. Of course, concerned for my sanity and future safety, they cautioned me to think it through. Impatience runs in my blood (thanks, Mom :) and that evening, I signed my letter of intention on OTM's website. I started writing letters to family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I created a facebook group, email list and blog. We planned 20+ events. We made shirts. In 8 short months, the money was raised and my life was forever changed.

Christopher recently asked me, "What will you do next?" I thought about it, and remembered that cold, January night, exactly a year ago, when my intuition interrupted my dreams so abruptly and clearly, that I couldn't ignore the call. I responded, "I think I'll just know what to do next when it's time for me to do it."

For now, I've "rehearsed-packed" for the trip and am proud to say that ALL of my personal items fit into my carry-on bag with room to spare! I've also been connecting with several of the participants, exchanging ideas about what to bring and how to prepare. Facebook has become a wonderful resource for pre-trip connection. I imagine it will also be a nice way to maintain friendships after this journey has come to it's completion.

Til' next time, keep on lovin' and listenin' to that voice that keeps you up at night.

<3 Megan :)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Itinerary!


We got our itinerary last week.  Here it is:

Day 1 - Friday, February 5, 2010

Participants will fly from their hometowns to Kampala, Uganda.  

Day 2 - Saturday, February 6, 2010

Participants will arrive at Entebbe International Airport on the shores of Lake Victoria, which is about an hour away from Kampala, the capital of Uganda.  You will be met by a transportation representative holding a large sign - "Uganda Seva Challenge" to take you directly to the Sheraton Kampala Hotel.

Sheraton Kampala Hotel is ideally located in the heart of the capital city of Kampala.  The hotel is within walking distance of many main attractions including the National Theatre craft market, Uganda Golf Course, Nakasero and St. Balikuddembe market, shopping malls, as well as many dining and entertainment spots.

Your trip leader and Mission Coordinator, Sally Bassett, will meet individuals at the hotel as they arrive.  Bags will be taken directly to your room before getting a GOOD NIGHT SLEEP!

Day 3 - Sunday, February 7, 2010

8:00 a.m. - 9:15 a.m. Morning yoga is located in a separate room in the hotel's health club.

9:15 a.m. A healthy buffet breakfast awaits you on the second floor of the hotel.

10:30 a.m. A welcome briefing is scheduled outside on the hotel property under a private covered area.  We will have individuals from the Acholi Quarters along with several other speakers.  After lunch we will go to the Acholi slums to meet with families and distribute food.

When the outbreak of fighting in the north occured in the 1980's, thousands of members of the Acholi tribe moved to Kampala looking for safety and work.  The King of the Buganda donated land for the Acholi to settle, which has become the Acholi Quarter.  Approximately 10,000 tribe members who had fled to the Quarter in the 1980s to escape the war-torn north still live there.

6:00 p.m. Dinner will be at a local restaurant followed by group processing.

Day 4 - Monday, February 8, 2010

7:30 - 8:45 a.m. Yoga followed by breakfast.

9:30 a.m. The group will transfer to the Youth Aids office in Kampala for a detailed briefing of the situation in Uganda.

11:30 a.m. A visit to the Invisible Children's satellite office will be made before proceeding for lunch at a local restaurant.

1:30 p.m. A visit to the Kasubi Tombs (a UNESCO site) and Uganda Museum will be made before returning to the hotel.  Situated on Kasubi Hill, within Kampala, the Kasubi Tombs site is an active religious place in the Buganda Kingdom.  To the Buganda, the Kabaka is the unquestioned symbol of spiritual, political, and social state of the Buganda nation.  As the burial ground for the previous four Kabakas, therefore, the Kasubi Tombs is the place where the Kabaka and others in Buganda's complex cultural hierarchy frequently carry out important centuries-old Ganda rituals.

The Uganda Museum is the biggest and oldest museum in Uganda which started in 1908 at Lugard's fort on Old Kampala Hill in Kampala City.  It later moved to Makerere University at the school of industrial and fine arts and lastly to Kltante Hill where it stands today.  The Museum has different sections including traditional music, archaeology, independence pavilion, ethnohistory, and palealontology.

6:00 p.m. Dinner will be at the hotel this evening followed by group processing.

Day 5 - Tuesday, February 9, 2010

7:30 - 8:30 a.m. Yoga followed by breakfast.  Place luggage outside your room that you wish to leave at the hotel during our two night stay in Kasana.

9:30 a.m. Depart for Kasana in the Luweero District, which is about an hour drive from Kampala.  We will check-in to a guest house before proceeding to the current birth clinic just five minutes away.

11:30 a.m. The Seva participants will talk with registered midwives about birth in Uganda, spend some time with the HIV women, participate in "buying day," of their beads and learn how to roll beads, work at the current birthing center, possibly participate in yoga sessions with them and have lunch at the Volunteer House.

7:00 p.m. The group will be divided up to have dinner in the homes of the women we met today.

Day 6 - Wednesday, February 10, 2010

7:30 - 8:30 a.m. Yoga will take place in a fenced grassy garden area followed by breakfast of tea, fruit, and omelets.

9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Depart for the new Birthing Center for a full day of work on the back of a motorcycle (latte is option).  We will begin with a discussion with local community leaders about the history of war in Luwero District.  The actual construction taking place will depend on what phase of the project is taking place with the local workers.  The group will participate in a project with the local community.  Lunch will be served on site.

7:00 p.m. Dinner followed by music and dancing in the evening.

Day 7 - Thursday, February 11, 2010

7:30 - 8:30 a.m. Yoga followed by breakfast

9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. Work at the Birthing Center site and learn about the solar system and water filtration systems.

12:30 - 1:30 p.m. Lunch before saying farewell to our new found friends

2:00 p.m. Depart for Kampala and check-in to the Sheraton Hotel.

The remainder of the afternoon is free.  Enjoy time at the hotel pool, a site often see in the movie, "The Last King of Scotland."

6:00 p.m. Dinner at the hotel followed by group processing

Day 8 - Friday, February 12, 2010

6:30 a.m. Breakfast at the hotel

7:30 a.m. Transfer to Jinja for a half day of river rafting on the Nile!  White water rafting at the source of the Nile River is one of the most fun adventure activities that you can experience.  Upon arrival at the Nile, you will be given a briefing on your safety which will be followed by practical training prior to the start of the rafting trip.

Mid-day you will stop for a wonderful buffet lunch on the river before transferring back by bus to the original location.

Return to the hotel late afternoon.

6:00 p.m. Dinner at a local restaurant.

Day 9 - Saturday, February 13, 2010

7:30 - 8:45 a.m. Yoga followed by breakfast at the hotel

10:00 a.m. Depart the hotel for the New Hope School and Orphanage.  A fun filled day is scheduled with the children at New Hope.  We will have enrichment stations where the children can rotate and participate in games, educational modules, crafts, fluoride treatments, English lessons, and other activities based on the talent and interest of our own group.

12:00 p.m. Box lunch will be served.

New mattresses will be brought to the school and participants will help create a community garden at the school which will be used both for food and to generate funds for the school.

4:00 p.m. Return to the hotel.

6:00 p.m. Dinner at the hotel followed by group processing.

Day 10 - Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!  Sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast!

10:30-12:30 p.m. Yoga Class

12:30 - 1:30 p.m. Buffet lunch

Enjoy the afternoon at the pool, have a massage, or catch up on emails.

6:00 p.m. This evening we will enjoy traditional dancing and music at the Ndere Centre.  Ndere Centre is home to the well-known Ndere Troupe, Africa's dancing encyclopedia.  In Africa, written words did not exist thus Africa's cultural history, literature, knowledge and wisdom were recorded and passed on to succeeding generations through the medium of performing arts, music, dance, story telling and poetry.  In efforts to salvage and conserve African heritage, Ndere Troupe performs a repertoire of more than 40 authentic Ugandan dances and songs accompanied by various indigenous percussive, stringed and wind instruments.  the Troupe engages in various projects aimed at keeping African generations educated about traditional entertainment and also uses their art to spread knowledge about such current issues as modern farming techniques and HIV/AIDS.  A delicious buffet of traditional Ugandan cooking compliments the evening's performance.

Day 10, Monday, February 15 - Day 12, Wednesday, February 17, 2010

7:30 - 8:30 a.m. Yoga followed by breakfast.

9:30 a.m. Travel to Nyomero (approx. one hour from Kampala) to work at the OTM/Building Tomorrow school.  the academy will hold 325 students in grades 1-7.

Vegetarian box lunches will be served each day.  The group will be involved in a variety of activities depending on the building phase at that time.  Volunteers will meet many of the community children who will attend the school and assist with any remaining construction projects, side-by-side with the community.  Dinner will be at the hotel the evenings of February 15 and 16 followed by group processing.  On Wednesday night a farewell dinner is scheduled at a local restaurant.

Day 13 - Thursday, February 18, 2010

The work has ended.  Now it's time for the Safari adventure!  

Depart early morning taking a panoramic drive north-west through the famous Luwero Triangle and Masindi Town to Murchinson Falls National Park.  Check in for the night at Paraa Safari Lodge, FB.

Day 14 - Friday, February 19, 2010

Go for an early morning game drive to search for giraffes, lions, hart beasts, elephants, Cape buffalo and many other mammals.  Birds include the Black Chested Snake Eagle, Blue Napped Mouse birds, the Secretary bird, Swallow Tailed Bee-eaters and the Silver Headed Agama.  After lunch, enjoy a two hour boat ride on the placid Victoria Nile to the foot of the magnificent Murchison Falls where the Nile plunges through a narrow crevice and over a 40 meter drop.  En route, you may see the Nile crocodile, pools of hippo, water bucks and a variety of bird species including the rare Shoebill Stork.  Dinner and overnight at Paraa Safari Lodge, FB.

Day 15 - Saturday, February 20, 2010

After breakfast, visit the top of the falls before returning to Kampala.

Fly home in the evening, to arrive in Newark, NJ on Sunday, February 21st at 12:30pm.




Traveling with a Purpose

From our travel book...

"Grateful for the opportunity to experience the world and serve children as a global volunteer and because peace begins with the individual, I affirm my personal responsibility and commitment to:

Journey with an open mind and gentle heart.
Accept with grace and gratitude the diversity I encounter.
Revere and protect the natural environment which sustains all life.
Appreciate all cultures I discover.
Respect and thank my hosts for their welcome.
Offer my hand in friendship to everyone that I meet.
Support services that share these views and act upon them.
By my spirit, words, and actions encourage others to travel the world in peace."