What I’ve learned from Uganda and Its People…

North Americans can learn from Ugandans how to do the most with the very least.

Cirque du Soleil has nothing on the balancing act of Uganda women with baskets and water cans balancing on their heads for kilometers at a time.  This perhaps explains why Ugandan women carry themselves more gracefully and carefully than North American women.

At Christmas, in exchange for a new dress, women give grasshoppers to their husbands.

Uganda farmers, who are largely women, are the most hard-working people I have met—maize, rice, cassava, eucalyptus, tomatoes, cabbage, mangos, papayas, watermelon, pineapples, cotton, fish farming, chicken, peanuts (aka “g nuts”), beans, sorghum (for local breweries) are tended to for both cash crops and/or to feed their families.  This fertile country sells food to the UN World Food Program for south Sudan and other countries in Africa.

With little other technology, the cell phone has become a key tool in improving livelihoods and the well-being of Ugandan families.

When an elder arrives late for a meeting and there are no empty chairs, young people instantly give up their seats and scurry to find more chairs.

Most kids under 5 are afraid of white people because, for most, their only experience with white people has been a doctor or nurse with an immunization needle.

Nothing is wasted…including empty water bottles left by visitors.

In communities of mixed religions, prayer is respectfully replaced with one minute of silent reflection.

The great majority of Ugandans live in poverty, the great majority of Canadians live at mid-income.  Immersion in such an environment for a Canadian is humbling, life-changing and tremendously valuable.

Ugandan teachers subsidize their meager salaries by farming on the side.

Farmers worldwide, not only want to talk to each other, but must talk to each other.

I have yet to meet a Ugandan whose life hasn’t been affected, in some way, by HIV/AIDS and civil war.

Our intrepid driver Rashid told us that:

a) Speed bumps are called “sleeping policemen”, and,

b) Riding in the back of a van is called The African Massage.  At times, it was more like a chiropractic treatment.

Children love to wave at vehicles that pass through their village and a wave back will get you the biggest, unforgettable smile.

Uninhibited singing, delivered straight from the heart, is likely to greet you when you meet a group of Ugandan co-operators.  Coming from a postured, perhaps overly-guarded, business culture,  this too is humbling.

Ugandans have a cool handshake.

It surprised me that after 10 days of eating in outdoor restaurants at both day break and sunset, I recall being bitten only twice by mosquitoes.  Being a prairie girl, that small number is unthinkable in our summer months!

Lastly, A Ugandan woman’s “joyful place” is found when she is able to put her children through school—nothing more, nothing less.  I am proud that Canadians have entrusted the Canadian Co-operative Association to equip women with the tools needed to realize this dream.  I am so willing to share the stories of the women and men of Uganda that I met—call me sometime…

In keeping with blog guidelines, I must stop here.  However, I have learned so much more from/about Uganda and its people.

In the words of those I’ve met in this amazing country I say, “thank you, thank you” to my new Ugandan friends.Image

Uganda: Unplugged

It’s seven in the morning and I’m writing this in the back seat of a van in central Uganda. Being middle-aged, I can’t think of anything I’d be rather doing in the back seat of any vehicle!

I had full intentions of blogging each day, but the long, exciting days have naturally evolved into visiting with my fellow travelers over a cold (or tepid) ale at the end of the day. What is one do when water is the same price as the tasty locally brewed beer (aka Nile Special)?

For those of you who know me, I’m sure this opening is totally in line with the Karen that you know, you have laughed with, cried with, that you’ve grown up with. I feel compelled to say that the balance of my blog is quite a digression….

Since Sunday, we have been traveling north central Uganda hearing personal stories of how membership in local co-operatives has literally made the lives of some men, women and children worth living. As over-the-top as that might sound, the wounds afflicted by years of civil war remain open for tortured Ugandans and orphans. HIV/AIDS is a skeleton, either in or out of the closet, for most families. Such stories have been clustered within a couple of the co-ops we’ve visited painting an alarming picture of the necessity of co-ops for those of us who can’t remember our co-op number when paying for our groceries. In a country where life expectancy is 53, half of the population is under 15, and one’s access to credit is out of reach because interest rates in banks can well exceed 30% with hidden fees, it’s no surprise that co-op meetings start with prayer.

It’s truly exciting to see how, during UN 2012 International Year of Co-operatives, Canadian co-ops and credit unions have either begun to donate or have generously topped up their current donations to the Co-operative Development Foundation recognizing the role, or perhaps responsibility, they have to play in building a better world through a business model that we take for granted back home.

In order to appreciate one’s lot in life, one must never forget where they have been. Ugandans have figured this out to a science recognizing that all victories, however small in the eyes of a foreigner, are to be celebrated. Our Canadian Co-operative Association study mission team finds this outlook on life contagious. We have so much to learn about life from our Ugandan neighbours in this small world of ours.

For those looking for the words of the Karen you know, you have laughed with, cried with, that you’ve grown up with, in the words of Arnold, I’ll be back…..

Finding our joyful place

Freezer full of food, check. Things to do list (both work and play ideas) for Craig and the girls, check. Grocery list for tomorrow, check. Oh yah, the packing list, the last minute things to do and lesson plans for Uganda study mission participants…almost check! Preparation for an overseas trip can be overwhelming, especially if one over-thinks things. I have been gently advised that I do so by more than one wise friend over the years.

Keeping perspective is everything…I’m leaving my family that is blessed with love, good sense, good health and security for two weeks. I can’t imagine the thoughts that go through the minds of the women credit union managers from developing countries that travel to Canada to be part of the Canadian Co-operative Association’s Mentorship Program for a month. They leave children of all ages in the hands of family and friends without the myriad of personal technologies that we have become dependent upon to stay in touch. Our unwillingness to leave iPads, iPhones and computers behind perhaps suggests that we’re not near as secure as we think.

I often thought the relationship (or lack thereof) between security, control and choice would make an interesting philosophy thesis but we’ll chew on that one over a beverage someday if you are interested in entering my geek league, if only for a bit. A couple of relationships that I think are worth exploring however, particularly during my Ugandan journey, are Does having control make people happier? , and, What is at the core of human happiness?

If I haven’t yet lost you to a blog that won’t make your head hurt, let me explain…

While doing background reading for Uganda, I paid particular attention to the pieces that paint the reality for woman in the country nicknamed “The Pearl of Africa”.

  • The average number of children born to a woman in Uganda is 6
  • A Ugandan woman’s life expectancy is 54.5 years
  • 80% of women are involved in agriculture and 42% of Ugandan women are unpaid family workers
  • Women account for 57 percent of all adults living with HIV/AIDS with practically all women being affected either directly or indirectly by the disease.

These realities paint a bleak picture for Ugandan women.

Driving home from Harris the other day, in a rare move I changed my radio dial from CBC to a Saskatoon rock station for a music fix. Of all musicians, Pink made a comment that stuck with me upon which I plan to frame my learning of Uganda and its people….

When in the depths of despair, it’s important to move to our joyful place.

I want to learn when, where and what that place is for rural Ugandan women
and whether I can help them find and be in that place.

And so it begins…

After a number of trips, both pleasure and work-related, I have decided to subject some of my dearest friends and colleagues to my thoughts during my CCA Study Mission to Uganda, November 21st to December 5th, 2012.

I owe a great deal of gratitude to my partner in life, Craig Hanson, for supporting me without question as my job as Public Engagement Coordinator for the Canadian Co-operative Association has taken me to Indonesia, Costa Rica, the Philippines and Nicaragua, and now to Uganda. It is not by coincidence that these trips fall when they do. Enticing Canadian co-operators to travel abroad and assist in building a better world in our short day/long night months is much easier than it is in July…..go figure. On more than one occasion, Craig has been storm stayed with our two amazing daughters, Jasmine and Julia, hunkered down playing a board games or watching t.v. until the buses start running again. In fact, as I type this, I am waiting out a 10 hour delay at the Calgary airport, returning from a work trip to Vancouver, while the family is watching an episode of the Big Bang Theory. In short, thank you honey for your unwavering support.

As lead up to our departure on the 21st, I hope to share with you small facts about Uganda to help paint a backdrop for the adventure ahead. And, while in Uganda, when we have access to internet, I plan to share with you the magic of Uganda, its people, their culture, and their relentless quest for building a better world through working with others.