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I think I believed I would “find myself” in Uganda. I mean I traveled here as part of a post-grad fellowship and to work- truly- but I believed self-discovery would be an inevitable byproduct. How could it not? I was being thrown so far from my comfort zone. I was leaving everything familiar and venturing into the unknown for nine months. I was going to “Africa”. I was going to make my mark and make a difference. Without even intending to, I had quickly established an elaborate checklist of goals and plans.

But, you see, traveling puts you at odds with yourself, makes you realize- in your grand pursuit of self-fulfillment-how insignificant the “self” is. You quickly lose your pride. The expectations you  inevitably created are inevitably destroyed. You fail. You become optimistic, then cynical, then optimistic. You realize you know so very little. You break down. Again and again and again.
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And yet, it’s through this humility-this destruction of the “self”- that the world reveals its pure magnificence. Because you become aware that you are part of something more beautiful than anything you alone desire. Something grand and unfiltered and distinctly human that bares itself in the most transient of moments:

Dancing with 1000 children in Ddegeya (even if they are 100% better at dancing than you). Drinking a cold beer and watching the sun dip behind matoke fields. Feeling uncomfortable as you try and fit next to twenty five passengers in a fourteen-person taxi. Feeling confident as you flag down said taxi and haggle the driver for a lower fare. Making your first chipati. Disemboweling a chicken. Feeling small in the presence of a giraffe. Killing a terrifying bug (or rather having Matt kill a terrifying bug for you). Bargaining in the local language. Learning how to “properly” wash clothes by hand.

Watching a child’s eyes as she describes her dream. Watching an adult’s eyes as he continues to dream. Watching your brothers as they teach their new friends how to play cards. Watching 10 episodes of your favorite tv series in a single day.

Reading to fifty eager children. Singing “the hills are alive” in a very hilly place. Meeting a Ugandan pop star. Giving a hungry child a heaping plate of food. Realizing you resonate most with your sassy, two-year old neighbors.

Falling on the stoop next to your house for the third day in a row. Wearing the same shirt for the fourth day in a row. Entering the wrong data into the EMR system for the fifth day in a row.

Hugging a mother who has just lost her child. Doubting your most fundamental beliefs. Trusting instead in undercooked meat and unmade plans.

Observing the daily persistence and determination of your coworkers. Seeing a project take hold. Hearing your name change from “mzungu” to “Brianna” to your Ugandan name, “namukwaya.”

Embracing some of your best friends as you gather your belongings and get into your car. As you prepare to leave a place you, for a time, got to call a home.

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I believe it’s these fleeting moments-these universal sensations that etch themselves in your memory and your memory alone- that make it all so staggering..

So thank you Union, Engeye and Uganda, for your many moments. For deep joy amidst deep pain. For relationships. For some knowledge and more questions. For a renewed sense of wonder and gratitude. For contentment in uncertainty.

For forcing me to lose myself so that I could become a part of something greater.

I’ll miss this country and its people more than words can say.

….On that note, bring on the Ben and Jerrys and Chipotle. I’m coming home. ✌🏻️

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Henry’s Home

The road to Jinja bends and twists through Southeastern Uganda. It’s a narrow two-lane road, one that somehow manages to sustain all of the traffic exiting the capital city of Kampala. And it pulses through manicured fields of sugar cane and black tea, fields so full and plush during the rainy season, you could rest on top of them.

It’s off of this road that you’ll find Henry’s home village of Buvuunya.

We arrived at Henry’s home one evening after a particularly heavy rainfall. Though it was late, his sweet family greeted us in typical Ugandan fashion with endless amounts of chicken, mattooke and chipati…

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Henry has been a clinical officer (C.O.) at Engeye since 2015. He is often the first person in the clinic and the last one to leave. His job doesn’t end with the workday either—Henry is always mulling over new medical concepts at lunch or perusing old textbooks at night. He’s intelligent, dedicated and humble.

And though he’s not a very loud person, he has a way of drawing you in and demanding your attention. Of conveying his passion for both medicine and the world until you share the same fervor.

And that’s why Matt and I were here, in Buvuunya.

You see, Henry has been building a clinic of his own, a place where people in his village can receive personal and quality health care. As Henry said of his village, “It’s where I grew up and among the places in Uganda that are still underserved. Underserved in terms of labor, economy, transportation and especially healthcare. These people [in the village] don’t have so much money, so you need to give them these basic needs. You have to save these people somehow.”

Henry began saving for his clinic in 2013, through local jobs like bricklaying and farming. When he completed school and became a C.O., he was able to start construction. Now, the building—located a mere minute from his childhood home—is nearly complete.

While we were in Buvuunya, we got to walk through Henry’s clinic as he explained his vision:

“This room is for the lab and this one is a waiting area, “ Henry said, his eyes gleaming. The walls still need paint, the windows still need panes and we spent much of the weekend mopping and sweeping the dusty floors. But the foundation is there, as are the necessary resources and equipment.

“Everything—saving, planning etc—was so hard at the beginning, but now it’s not so bad,” Henry said, “It just needs to start.”

Working at Engeye has inspired Henry further.

“When I started at Engeye I thought, ‘this is what I have been thinking about but never seen,” he said. Being at Engeye has given Henry excellent clinical skills and a better understanding of the challenges that accompany running a clinic. More generally, Engeye has given Henry an example of sustainable, long-term growth.

“Engeye has things like cost-sharing that I hope to use. I want to put up something that patients can both like and afford. Using Engeye as a model, I think I can do it.”

Herny’s ambition is undoubtedly admirable. Yet, sometimes his vision seems a little lofty, a little hard to reach. For instance, while we were touring his clinic he explained his plans for the future:

“Over here, that will be a maternity center and I’ll get another floor. Maybe ill put water tanks here,” he motioned to the side of the clinic. I reluctantly remembered how hard Engeye worked this past year to get a maternity center. How long it took Engeye to install water tanks.

But then Henry acknowledged his tendency to dream and proposed more practical next-steps: “I don’t want to seem unrealistic…I think my main priority will be to offer good diagnostic services, so patients don’t have to go to Kampala,” he said, “I want it to be roughly the size of Engeye, not any bigger otherwise our staff will be stretched thin. But I want it to be run like Engeye.”

I kicked myself for having doubted Henry. After all, look at how far he’s come in such a short time.

As a twenty nine year old entering the prime of his career, Henry is also unique in his decision to return and serve his community. Unlike much of his generation, Henry has defied the ‘Brain Drain’—a phenomenon all too common in the developing world. Instead of abandoning his home country for a potentially lucrative career in Western medicine, Henry has chosen to remain right here, in Uganda. He is fully committed to his village, to addressing the vast need in this nation for better quality health care.

And it’s commitment like Henry’s that will promote a culture of sustainability, rather than handouts or band-aid solutions.

It’s commitment and determination like Henry’s that—ultimately—will change the course of Uganda’s future.

Henry would like to return to medical school in the coming years to become a surgeon. But he will remain involved in his clinic as much as he can. As he said, “I don’t just want to oversee it. I want to be a part of it through and through.” For now, he plans on dividing his time between his job at Engeye and his home village.

As for his clinic, it finally has a name and is due to open this month.

“Taasa, that’s what I’m going to call it,” Henry said.

When I asked him what Taasa meant, he looked at me and answered emphatically.

“Taasa—it means ‘To Save’.”

I’m Sew in love with you, Uganda: Engeye’s Artisan Project and other bad sewing puns

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in being here, that I completely neglect my blog. And, for that, I apologize. Because the truth is, there are so many wonderful things emerging in Ddegeya and you—as loyal followers and patrons of this crazy journey—deserve to know about them. So here’s an update of one of the many projects Matt and I have been working on throughout our fellowship and will finish up during our last three weeks (yes, THREE WEEKS) here:

What it is: Engeye’s Artisan program has actually been around for a number of years. Essentially, Engeye buys handmade goods from women within the Engeye community and around Ddegeya and sells them at a mark-up to American visitors. Both the women and Engeye make a profit—it’s a win-win. If you’ve ever had the privilege of coming to Engeye, you may have purchased a keychain, bag, apron, headband or basket made by one of the lovely artisans..

What we’re doing: When Matt and I first arrived in Uganda, we spent a lot of time brainstorming ways in which we could contribute to the sustainability of Engeye. When we considered Engeye’s Artisan program, we practically hit ourselves in the face. We were sitting on a goldmine. After all, American visitors loved the products and were constantly expressing their desire to share Artisan goods with friends in the U.S. And the program had already proved to be a successful entrepreneurship opportunity for both Engeye and the local women involved.

    All we needed to do was expand. Although the Artisan program was profitable, it remained small, somewhat unorganized and poorly accessed by its customer base. We wanted to recruit more Artisans and organize weekly meetings. We wanted to increase the overall inventory, formulate new designs, connect with the American market and create an online platform from which Engeye supporters could view Artisan products. Instead of purchasing items while in Uganda, customers could select items from a website and have them shipped directly to their homes in America.

However, though Matt and I wanted these things, we knew this venture couldn’t just be about our interests or desires. So we met with Maama Jackie—Engeye head cook and Artisan extraordinaire—and asked for her thoughts and expertise. Once we had both Maama Jackie and the Engeye board on board, we started our research.

Matt and I traveled to Kampala to tour a popular social enterprise called Sseko (to check out Sseko’s business model and beautiful products click here: https://ssekodesigns.com ). We examined NGOs that profit from Artisan-based goods. I reluctantly remembered principles I had learned in Econ 101. And both Matt and I reviewed notes from our social entrepreneurship class (shout out to Hal..Aloha!)

With a better idea of what we were getting into, we began recruitment and production. Along with Maama Jackie, we created a team of seven women from Ddegeya—three experienced artisans and four new members—and made a production list. We set up regular meeting times for training and collaboration. We perfected new designs and went shopping for fabric and supplies. Matt and I even made a few pitiful attempts at making artisan goods ourselves (needless to say we will not be selling the things we made…). We started sewing and adjusting and sewing some more.

It was all coming together SEAMLESSLY…

Our Goals: In a perfect world, this business would thrive. We would overcome blaring obstacles such as US shipping/regulations, connections to the American market and quality control. We would be able to provide consistent incomes for the Artisan women and their families. Most notably, we would increase Engeye’s revenue and decrease its reliance on donations.

And although we recognize the difficult nature of this business, we still want to try. After all, we all NEEDLE little faith sometimes (ok I’m done, I swear).

As of now, Matt and I are bringing the Artisan products back with us to the US to test their success, meet with a few vendors and sell what we can.

Until then, please enjoy some photos of the process below. If you have any requests or inquiries feel free to email me!

International Women’s Day 2017

It was International Women’s Day a few days ago and I am so so grateful for all of the beautiful women in my life. In Uganda, this day is a big deal (the U.S. should take note).

As I reflect on my time here, my own experiences as a woman and the role of gender in the developing world, I am reminded of a wonderfully relevant quote by Nicholas Kristof in Half the Sky:

Think about the major issues confronting us in this century. These include war, insecurity, and terrorism; population pressures, environmental strains, and climate change; poverty and income gaps. For all of these diverse problems, empowering women is part of the answer. Most obviously, educating girls and bringing them into the formal economy will yield economic dividends and help address global poverty.

Environmental pressures arise almost inevitably from surging population growth, and the best way to reduce fertility in a society is to educate girls and give then job opportunities. Likewise, we’ve argued that one way to soothe some conflict-ridden societies is to bring women and girls into schools, the workplace, government and business, partly to boost the economy and partly to ease testosterone –laden values of these countries. We would never argue that the empowerment of women is a silver bullet, but it is an approach that offers a range of rewards that go far beyond simple justice.” p.4063

 

For Stephanie

Below is an absolutely beautiful tribute to the co-founder of Engeye by former Minerva fellow, Alexis Deeb.

Though I never met Stephanie, it is not hard for me to imagine the kind of person she was.
Rest in peace, Stephanie. We will work hard to preserve your legacy of compassion, strength and generosity in the community of Ddegeya and throughout this world. ❤️

January: the Month of Mzungu

This post is aptly named “the Month of Mzungu” because Engeye had more visitors from the U.S. in January than we’ve had all year. My family came at the beginning of the month, Drs Kathy and Joe and Kathy’s sister, Renee, arrived shortly after, and Theresa Weinman and a seven-person medical team came towards the end of January. It was a crazy month, to say the least.

Visitors are great for several reasons (the primary reason being that they bring the best snacks). But they’re also wonderful because, when you’re here for a while, you become somewhat desensitized to your surroundings. Nothing is as fascinating as it was when you first arrived. Everything—even the blaring poverty and injustice—becomes normal and comfortable and mundane.

So the visitors gave me a new perspective. They renewed my interest in a lot of projects and aspects of Engeye. They did not impose. Rather, they approached this community with knowledge and compassion.

And it was great to watch them interact with the patients, play with the scholars and discover the beauty—and, at times, the hardship—of Engeye and Ddegeya.

I’ll let my twelve year-old-brother, Matteo, describe the rest, as he captures the experience more eloquently than I ever could:

“Mzungu, that’s what they called me when I was walking down a dirt road or when they spotted me buying a soda. I could hear them laughing and giggling at me everywhere I went. Sometimes I would turn around and there would be a little kid standing there with the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen, like he’d just seen a ghost. Which is what I must’ve looked like to him. My family must’ve looked so strange with our pale skin and long hair. I also heard from my sister that sometimes when the kids are young, the parents tell them that if you get too close to the mzungu “they will eat you!” So these kids had a reason to be afraid of us.

When we arrived in Ddegeya my sister gave my family and me a tour of the Engeye clinic where she’s been working. As we walked around I noticed the landscape around me that was like a feast for the eyes. There were grassy hills that stretched as far as the eyes could see. Plains of crops like potatoes and corn were dotted with the large trunks of banana trees and their long leaves. The whole time we were walking, we were followed by a large group of curious children. The clinic is a well-organized health center in the middle of the village and is surrounded by the living quarters of the staff and volunteers. Me, my brother and dad stayed in one side of a bunkhouse in bunk beds with mosquito nets and my mom stayed with my sister in her cabin on the other side of the clinic.

The first morning after I arrived in Ddegeya, I walked outside of the bunkhouse where I was staying and was putting on my shoes when I suddenly looked up and saw about 50 people staring at me. No doubt surprised to see a young “mzungu” come out of the building. There were patients already lined up to see the doctors and nurses. There were just so many sick people. Some of the patients were treated for HIV, cerebral malaria, burns and injuries and many other diseases.

…….Three days into our stay in Ddegeya, the Engeye Clinic hosted a large holiday festival of all of the children in the Village . The festival included roughly 1,200 children and they all received a full meal and learned some cool new dance moves. DJs and dancers were hired to come to the festival and the clinic had to slaughter a cow to have enough meat to feed the kids, This meant the whole day before the festival was spent cooking the cow and using literally every part of it. When the festival began, kids were pouring into the small clinic like a waterfall of hungry children ready to start a whole day of celebration. My family an I helped to serve the kids by handing out necklaces, sodas and food. The festival was absolutely crazy and it felt so good to put a smile on all of the children’s faces when they got their food. Overall, the festival was a great experience and was a lot of fun.

One thing that was really special there was not the food or the festival or the driving but it was the people. Every person and kid just lit up with an expression of happiness whenever my family and me interacted with him or her. It was so amazing to see that even though these people didn’t have anything, they want to give you everything that they have. Sometimes it makes me wonder why there are things that I want when I have so much already. I just want to give them everything that I have for what they have given me: Happiness. And if there is one thing I have learned from being there, it’s that life’s not about what you have, it’s about what you give back.”

This Christmas..

This Christmas, please consider a different kind of gift-giving. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Engeye is currently fundraising for the construction of a maternity center. This center would quite literally give the gift of life to the community of Ddegeya and leave a sustainable impact for years to come.

Click the pictures above to get a firsthand look at maternal health in Ddegeya and click the link below to donate.

http://www.engeye.org/engeye-maternity-center/