Monday, July 18, 2011
Where it’s at
Kampala is the capital of Uganda, located in the northern part of the country and really close to the equator. While it is more of an amalgamation of previous villages than a “city” as Westerners would call it, it is home to approximately 2 million people. Uganda is the “Pearl of Africa” and located centrally among the East African countries. Uganda has borders with Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the newly minted South Sudan. There is also a big portion of its borders that are taken up by the shores of Lake Victoria. Lake Vicky, as she is known to her friends, is the second largest fresh water lake in the world (Lake Superior, for the win!) You shouldn’t swim in LV because there is so much schistosomiasis in the water you’d be lucky to get out without being infected. Ugandan’s most populous tribe is the Buganda people and the most commonly spoken tribal language is Luganda.
The eight interns with GHFP are split up among three organizations: The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), Mengo Hospital, and Meeting Point Kampala (MPK). My co-worker Veronica and I are lucky enough to be working at Meeting Point along their wonderful staff. Meeting Point was started years ago when AIDS was wreaking havoc in Uganda. The founder and now Executive Director is an exceptional woman named Noelina Namukisa but everyone just calls her “Maama”. She is most deserving of this title as she serves as a surrogate mother to dozens of orphans. Also she gives GREAT hugs, a talent that is sadly hard to find these days. Maama started MPK by herself after years of serving infected people in their homes while working full-time as a domestic worker and raising her eight biological children. I don’t think she slept.
Meeting Point’s main office is located in an area of Kampala called Namuwongo. Recently they have also expanded to the Wakiso District so their clients don’t have to travel very far to take advantage of their services. Both Namuwongo and Wakiso are slum areas of Kampala. Most houses are made of wood and usually consist of one room for the whole family. They are positioned right next to the dirt roads that cars turn into a dust storm daily. Alongside these wooden dwellings are all kinds of shops. Whether they are small restaurants, cash shops, or saloons they are all packed next to one another. Their market is made up of dozens of little stands each boasting impressive pyramids of goods. Chickens, goats, dogs, and the occasional cow wander the streets in a loose interpretation of the idea of free range livestock. Walking through these areas is really difficult, both in a physical and emotional sense. The clotheslines crisscross the paths between houses and years of rains have created deep wash outs that are made cross-able by whatever is nearby. From a public health standpoint it is terrible. Overcrowding, open sewers, unprotected communal water taps, open garbage dumps in the middle of “town”, intense pollution, living with livestock, no shoes, and lots of broken glass and sharp metal. However, the people that live in these conditions are unquestionably the kindest people I have met in this warm and welcoming country. Whatever they have is shared with generosity and without pause. It is comforting to see such love and light amid such darkness.
There aren’t a lot of white people that I have seen who walk in these areas of town. Actually, only one. Me. The game of “One of these things is not like the others” is absurdly easy. Even my partner from the States is originally from Liberia and doesn’t help the situation at all. The word for white person in Luganda is “muzungu” and my anomalous presence in the slums causes lots of scratched heads and calls of “Hey muzungu!!” The children seem particularly inquisitive, as are kids everywhere, and will follow me around in large groups that are too scared to talk to me but will shine their beautiful smiles and giggle when I make faces at them. One little girl who really grasped the idea of rhyming started the chant of “How are you, muzungu?” It’s really catchy and was soon joined in by many voices and followed us for quite some time as my laughing colleagues and I maneuvered through the paths.