Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Boda-Boda Driver

My consuming fear of motorcycles has been well-chronicled, but in Kampala, you can't avoid taking bodas. They are everywhere, traffic is horrible and constant, and to get anywhere quickly, you simply have no choice but to flag down a boda, haggle over the price, hop on the back of the bike, and pray.

As soon as I began riding bodas, I met a driver named Jon, who parks himself outside of my apartment complex, waiting for customers. Demure in stature and wearing an ever-present smile, I hopped on the back of his boda while going to a bar one night. Preparing to watch a USA world Cup soccer match, I was wearing my red white and blue jersey.

"USA!" Jon exclaimed! "I love USA!"

Before beginning our journey, I grabbed hold of Jon's arms and made a deal. "OK, Jon, you like this jersey? If you give me rides, charge me fair prices, and keep me safe for the next month, I give you this jersey."

I could virtually see Jon's mouth watering. He let out a high-pitched "Eeeeh!" and we sped off.

Last night, I called Jon to my apartment complex, needing a ride to meet a friend at a restaurant. I approached him, one hand behind my back, and we embraced. After chatting for a minute about how we were doing, I stepping back and brought my hand around, showing him the shirt he craved. I tossed it to him, and he grabbed it out of the air with glee. Hopping off his boda, Jon gave me a huge bear hug, not an easy feat given that I am at least 8 inches taller and 50 pounds bigger than he is.

"Thank you, Mr. Ross," Jon said. "I will wear it every day!" He drove me safely and slowly to the restaurant, and refused to take any payment.

This morning, I left my apartment to walk to work for the last time. Jon was perched on the side of the road, straddling his boda, chest puffed out and proudly wearing my red, white and blue jersey.

Last Day

My last full day in Uganda.

It's difficult to reflect on the last month, as I have encountered a full spectrum of emotions, and much more, during my time here.

One thing is for sure, I will miss this place. There is an aura of humanity here, a genuineness of place and people that I have not found elsewhere. Smiles and hugs are like currency, passed from person to person easily and without second thought at every turn. Ugandan friends excitedly grab my hand and walk me from place to place, eager to show me something new. Little children saunter up to me in the clinic, wary at first, until I stick out my hand. Their curious eyes widen, followed by a toothy grin, as they slap me high five.

I will miss the laughter in my office, the constant cultural comparisons that brought curious looks and never-ending giggles. I will also miss seeing the doctors and nurses working; they have a sense of purpose and devotion to their patients that is subtle, but breathtaking. I will miss the walks through downtown Kampala, a place that at first looked like utter chaos but, as I have gotten to know this town, exhibits a free-flowing, sometimes-manic, order. I will miss riding buses across Uganda, packed three into a seat built for two (small) people, as chickens wander on the ground, clucking and pecking at my feet, while Ugandan hip-hop music blares from the bus's speaker system. I will miss the boda-boda rides, the matoke and beans, the African sun, and so much more.

Of course, this is Africa. Poverty abounds, to the point that after a month, I often ignore it. Walking home from work yesterday, a coworker pointed to a collection of makeshift shacks, right off the main road, with disbelief. I recall noticing them on my first walk to IDI on my first day here, and then never looking again. In Africa, suffering blends slowly into the background.

I will never forget the faces at the clinic. Given how much I love this place, it is not difficult to forget that the people we are here to help are sick. Really, frighteningly, sick. Before Uganda, HIV/AIDS was an abstraction for me, a list of statistics chronicling the plight of a people far away. For me, far away meant Africa, or the other side of Washington, D.C. But these faces, they will stay with me. They are old and young, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. Their faces tell stories of suffering, but they are resilient. Their faces are strong.

And, of course, the bombings of Sunday night will forever remain etched in my memory. I have seen a city at its lowest point, trembling and afraid. But I am also watching it slowly return to normal. Despite the repulsive efforts of those that want to do us harm, life always returns to equilibrium. The decency and humanity of so many will always outweigh the unconscionable behavior of a few. It simply must be so.

Perhaps my lasting memory of Africa will be saying goodbye to one of my colleagues, Benson, who I have written about before. Embracing, we discussed the bombings, my trip back to the United States, and my plans to return. I then thanked him for everything he had done for me, helping me to get adjusted, and explaining how the clinic worked.

Benson, HIV positive for ten years, smiled beneath his bushy mustache.

"You are most welcome," he said. "See you next year."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The TB Clinic

The tuberculosis (TB) clinic at IDI has come along way since its founding in 2008. Back then, only one nurse, Ariko Immaculate, was charged with caring for, and managing the files of, every TB patient that came to IDI. The clinic was housed in one small, cramped room indoors, a severe health risk considering TB is transmitted through the air.

When the clinic finally moved to an open-air space, Immaculate and her colleagues encountered a new problem: the rain. Housed underneath flimsy tents, rain would pour in to the clinic, soaking the doctors, nurses and patients, along with their files and medicine.

Almost two years after its founding, the TB clinic now has six full-time staff, sees up to 50 patients per day, accepts 30 new patients per month, and is looking to expand. The staff does integral work, treating patients co-infected with HIV/AIDS and TB, many of whom are in dire need of care. The HIV virus breaks down the immune system, approximately doubling one’s risk of acquiring TB. When a patient becomes dually infected, administering medication becomes increasingly difficult. Side effects intensify, more pills must be taken, and there are only certain kinds of ARVs that can be prescribed with TB drugs.

Faced with vexing challenges and forced to make difficult choices, the only way the TB team can survive is by working together. Medical officers Catherine Katabira and Peter Mbidde work closely with three nurses and one full-time staffer to make sure the clinic runs smoothly, and patients get the care they need.

Additionally, peer counselors at the IDI clinics interview new incoming patients, asking them if they are showing symptoms of TB, such as weight loss, constant coughing, or a high fever. If so, they are immediately taken to the TB clinic to be examined by a nurse. Then, the patient sees one of the two medical officers, before seeing a nurse to get their prescription and receive counseling if needed.

It’s an efficient, streamlined effort that requires maximum cooperation from the entire team, particularly at a time when money is tight. While a grant from a European organization has lessened the financial burden on the TB clinic, there is still tremendous need. There is no outdoor toilet for patients to use, forcing them to go back into the clinic and, in the process, risk the transmittal of TB to other patients. An x-ray reading box and other general supplies are also needed. Perhaps most importantly, there is no separate space to provide urgent care for TB patients who need immediate medical attention.

Despite the needs, the TB clinic staff dedicates themselves to providing excellent care to every patient they see, every day.

“This team has been great at improvising and trying to implement new things,” said coordinator Sabine Hermans. “We are constantly working to raise the level of care, and do it with minimum cost.”

One example of the team devising ways to do more with less is the food delivery program. Funded almost exclusively by donations, one of the nurses, Jennifer, delivers packages of food to the homes of patients who are too sick to venture out. It’s a cost-effective way to ensure that immobile patients have enough to eat.

The TB clinic also plays an important role in the research portion of IDI. As the team works hard to devise new and improved strategies to treat dually-infected patients, observations and trends are entered into a database and examined. A recent study showed that after only one year at the TB clinic, about 14% of patients were not finishing their treatment, down from 30%, a remarkable improvement. Two more studies are planned in the near future at the TB clinic.

Treating TB presents difficult challenges for the clinic staff, but because the disease is curable, unlike, HIV/AIDS the rewards are tangible. Dr. Katabira said that watching a patient diagnosed with TB correctly take their medication and recover is extremely gratifying.

“When you see someone get better, some one make it, that encourages us as a team,” Dr. Katabira said.

Cultural Observations

Getting over the trauma of Sunday night has been difficult for everyone in Kampala, but each successive morning makes it slightly easier. As my time in Uganda winds down, I have spent more time with my Ugandan coworkers and other friends, and our jokes have begun to return.

Today, over a good-bye lunch of delivery pizza from Domino's Pizza (coincidence? I think not...), my office discussed some of our favorite cultural differences about one another. The lunch ended with all of us holding our sides in laughter. With all that we have gone through, I can't tell you how good it feels to laugh.

Ugandans, for example, think eating cheese pizza is weird. Putting toppings on is fine, but just cheese disturbs them.

They also think it's quite odd that for breakfast every morning, I put my banana inside my chapati (kind of like a potato-pancake). It's like a crepe with banana on it (I'm only missing nutella), but this baffles my Ugandan friends.

Ugandans also think that iced tea is near-blasphemous. I understand the rationale behind this one; with few refrigerators outside of Kampala, it's difficult to produce ice in a country that lies on the equator. But even here in the capital, where you can find ice, they think it's abnormal. I tried to explain my iced-coffee obsession; they looked at me like I had three heads.

They also can't comprehend that they are sitting in a room with a Jewish person. When I told them I am Jewish, Angelina, Caleb and Diana almost fell out of their chairs. They touched my skin to see if their hands would pass through. This isn't anti-semitism; I'm just probably the first of the Tribe that they have met. We constantly laugh about this one.

I poke fun at the Ugandan accents (for example, if Diana says "You wear a hat, you have a heart, you get hurt and you live in a hut," it sounds like "You wear a hut, you have a hut, you get hut and you live in a hut"), their powdered coffee, and too many other small things to count. We all have a good time.

These inside jokes are remarkable not for their incredible humor or their window into different cultures. But the fact that we were able to kid each other and laugh together meant that life was returning to normal.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010


This morning, the sun rose in the east, my boda-boda driver drove too fast causing me to panic, and the coffee at IDI is watery and bland.

In other words, it was a normal Kampala morning.

Of course, the searing memory of Sunday night still looms. The death count rose to 74. At the hospital where I work, people still linger, waiting for any late news on friends and relatives. Doctors and nurses still look bleary-eyed, overworked and overwhelmed.

A city begins to recover, and I am both impressed and disturbed by the resolved of my Ugandan friends and colleagues. They are devastated, of course, but have plowed forward in a way that is surprising. Yesterday, my coworkers made small talk while I stared into space, shellshocked. Today, another colleague came and told me that they were going to play football after work, and he wanted to teach a mzungu how to play "the beautiful game."

People grieve differently, but I think living in Uganda has, if not conditioned people to tragedy death, at least exposed them to it in a way that I have not. Having barely slept the last two nights, I am still grappling with what happened. Ugandans, reslient and proud, seem intent on moving on as quickly as possible.

For me, the most difficult part of this entire ordeal has been reconciling that something so horrible could happen in a place so wonderful, and to a people so kind. After having lived here for a month, the stunning contradiction between the warmth and beauty of Uganda, and the cowardice and destruction of the bombings, is too much to bear.

Tragedies happen all over the world, and life goes on. For me, this has been an acute reminder that we live in a dangerous world, no matter if you are in Washington, D.C., Kampala, or anywhere else. The last 48 hours have been truly awful.

I'm looking forward to beginning the process of moving on, just like my Ugandan friends.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I'll Never Forget Today

Tonight, I'm sitting in my living room, drinking wine with my roommate Peace, and watching bad American sitcoms on DVD. It sounds like any other Monday night. Except that it wasn't.

Today was quite possibly the worst day of my life. After a sleepless night contemplating all that happened in Kampala last night, I arrived at Mulago National Hospital to see hundreds of people gathering outside. They were waiting to hear of news about loved ones. Some were crying, others were staring into the distance with hollow eyes, and still others chatted absentmindedly.

Going inside to offer my assistance to the Red Cross, I saw victims of the attacks on rolling hospital beds. Some were bloody and bandaged. Others were missing limbs. It truly looked like the aftermath of war.

It was impossible to work. I kept thinking about how close I was to meeting Peace at the Rugby Club. Had I not gotten a text message from a friend, I would have been at the bar where the second, more powerful bomb exploded. I also thought about her, what she saw, and what she felt. She tells me she's ok, but it's hard to know.

Rumors have flown around Kampala about what did happen, what could have happened, and what is going to happen. I heard that a bomber was on his way to the bar that I was at. I heard that two bombs were defused today in Kampala, sparing more lives. I heard that more attacks are on the way. I don't know what to believe.

It's unclear what my future plans are. On Monday, July 19, the day that I am supposed to leave, a meeting of African Union leaders will begin in Kampala. It may be prudent to leave before then.

Thank you everyone for your kind words and support. Today was a horrible experience for me, but my day pales in comparison to the hundreds that lost a friend or family member last night. I know lots of those people, and their ordeal is just beginning.

I need to get some sleep. Will post more tomorrow.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Bombings

I'm not sure what I am supposed to feel.

Last night, three bombs went off at popular bars in Kampala. The attacks killed at least 65 people, including one American.

My roommate Peace, a lovely Ugandan woman who is in graduate school at the University of Washington, was at the Rugby club, a big outdoor space where hundreds gathered to watch the World Cup final. At halftime, I was about to leave the crowded bar where I was to go meet her, when I received a text message.

"Two bombs have gone off, get out of bars."

The rest of the night is a blur. As information trickled in and rumors swirled, I was left feeling a weird combination of lucky and helpless. No one knew what was going on, and we all relied on whispers.

I could have been in that bar. I could have died.

Having worked on national security issues at the U.S. Department of Justice, I feel as if I have gone from watching a scary movie to actually being thrown in it. It is a surreal sensation, and even know, I'm unable to keep from shaking. Thankfully, everyone I know here has survived, and for that I am grateful. But it is a stunningly unsettling notion to think that so much death and destruction happened so close to me.

Immediately, flashbacks to 9/11 came racing back. Many of my emotions are the same, some are different. Perhaps I will write more about this when I have had time to process this ordeal.

The morning did not bring respite; in many ways, it has been worse. The national morgue is at the hospital where I work. Everywhere, people are gathered around wailing victims, consoling them, hugging them. I am too confused to know what I feel.

Uganda is a beautiful country, with kind, warm, generous people. Last night, evil tore through my adopted home, lowering a dark, bloody cloud on what was a joyous, boisterous evening in a fantastic place. In the world we live in, terror can strike anywhere, anytime.

I am shaken. To those that lost their lives or know someone that did, all of our prayers are with you.

Friday, July 9, 2010


I received the outlet pass and immediately turned up court. Taking a long dribble, I surveyed the scene in front of me and saw one teammate and one defender streaking towards the basket. Getting closer to the goal, I considered the options: continue onwards for a lay-up, pass the ball off to my teammate, or pull up for the short jump shot. I chose the third, and about 8 feet from the basket, stopped on a dime and rose into the air. With a flick of the wrist, the ball left my hands as it has done thousands and thousands of times in my life, and swished softly through the net. The crowd cheered, and I rushed to get back on defense.

Sounds like a pretty typical basketball scene, right? Could have been a pick-up game in DC, or scrimmaging with my teammates at Vassar. But this game came at the YMCA in Kampala, and my teammates and opponents were my new Ugandan friends.

One sunny day, on the recommendation of a friend, I wandered over to the court in a bustling section of the city. A fast-paced pick up game was already going on. Taking a place in the bleachers, I watched for about 15 minutes, before asking another bystander how to get on the court.

"Say you got next game," he sneered to me, and walked off.

Sounded simple enough. "I got next!" I yelled, and no one seemed to pay much attention.

When the game ended, a few people coalesced around me, and I chose four others to play. I learned that the players were all part of Team Power, one of the better teams in Kampala. Last year, they won the city championship, and so far were undefeated this season. We walked to center court to meet the winners of the last game, when one guy put his finger in my chest.

"Mzungus don't play here."

"We'll see about that," I said, and brushed past him.

The game began. Despite being 5,000 miles away from home, playing hoops felt like... home. Pick-up basketball is universal. The rules are the same. The terminology is the same. The competitive fire is the same. I almost wanted to pull a Gene Hackmann and go measure the height of the basket. And yes, it would have been ten feet tall, just like in Indiana.

My team won the first game, and then the second. People crowing around the court were having fun with the idea that a pale, short mzungu could hoop (take this with a grain of salt - while I've played a lot of basketball in my life, I am in terrible shape after drinking too many Nile Specials (Ugandan beer), and spent most of the game trying to keep up with my talented, athletic counterparts.)

Finally, after an hour, I was exhausted and retired to the sidelines, breathing heavily.

One of the players on my team, a lightning-quick guard named Richard, ambled over to me. "You'll be here tomorrow, right?"

Yup, I said, and we slapped hands.

Felt like home.

Courtship in Uganda

Today at lunch, a colleague and I had a discussion about dating, marraige, and relationships in our two cultures (timely since it seems like so many of my friends back home are getting engaged).

I asked my coworker about how she met her husband, and what it was like getting engaged in Uganda. She explained to me that in her tribe, longstanding ritual demands that the groom's family offer cows to the bride's parents in exchange for the young woman.

Apparently, my coworkers parents asked for 60 cows. Eventually, they settled on ten.

The system of determining how many cows are to be given away as a dowery depends on the qualifications of the bride-to-be. My coworker's family demanded a high price (evidently 10 is still quite a lot) because she had a master's degree and was educated in the UK. A young woman with lesser qualifications would be worth far fewer cows.

In the end, my colleague's family did not take the cows from the groom's parents; rather, it was a ceremony based on tradition that still resonates in modern, urban Uganda. I felt uneasy coming to terms with the idea that a woman, a human being, could be worth a certain number of livestock, and that the number was on a highly fluid sliding scale based on her resume.

My coworker found this idea quite normal, and said her husband's family would have been happy to give up the cows.

Makes buying a drink for a girl in a bar seem far less daunting...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Success Story

To all of the faithful readers out there, you must be sick of hearing my voice and reading my words. I don't blame you. That's why I wanted to share a story written by my good friend Elizabeth, who works at the front desk at the Infectious Disease Institute.

Elizabeth is a beautiful young woman with a bubbly personality. She helps me send faxes, retrieve office supplies, and knows pretty much everything about the office. Elizabeth sent me this story, and gave me permission to post it on my blog. I have not edited it at all. Hope you enjoy.


My name is Kembabazi Elizabeth Mercy and I am 22years old, HIV positive. Here I am to share with you my success story.

In 2008 I joined IDI infectious diseases institute as one of the young adult living with HIV. after a long period of suffering with a lot of worries and stress with a lot of pain deep down in my heart,IDI was able to make me have a better hope for success towards a bright lovely future. When I had just joined IDI, I never believed that one day, things would be much better as they are today. I believed that to me life was all about pain, a lot of rejection and misery, not knowing that life had always wanted to give me a second chance to be happy and smile once again.

Before I got to be at IDI, life was too painful and unbearable, that it had to lead me to the unwanted suicidal commission. All the time, there was nothing else I could think of apart from committing sucide. Time came and IDI offered to be giving me free treatment (ART) from its clinic. Although I started getting free treatment from IDI, that didn’t stop me from wanting to commit sucide. insted the feeling just kept growing deep down inside of me, not until it became a fundamental problem to me. I could talk to some one, but in the actual sense, I would be only thinking about the worst thing I could ever do to finish off my self.

But after along period of time, IDI gave me the best hope of how to admire living my own life once again by offering me the best opportunity to work with it. IDI indeed has been my father, my mother and above it all, it has been my family, place of hope and success. I never believed that I could also have the best smile on earth, but IDI has truly done the best to see me both happy and smiling too. Long live IDI.

Am now looking forward to my success in IDI and all around the other nations around the world. I really enjoy working with IDI because, the more I work with it, the more experience I get and I keep learning new better things in my life, for example, customer care, official work, how to love my self and others, etc. And above it all IDI helps me focus towards abright, lovely future with a positive attitude towards life. If it wasn’t IDI, I don’t think I would be living today. To me IDI will always be my life saving hero. Thank you IDI and long leave too. Indeed you are the best.

Yours joyful,

Kembabazi Elizabeth Mercy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I want to tell you about two of my colleagues, Benson and Charles. Benson, a stocky individual with a bushy, disheveled mustache, is the Director of the Friends Council and head of the Resource Center. Charles, tall and elegant with defined cheekbones and a huge smile, is the deputy director of the Greater Involvement for People Living with AIDS (GIPA) program and the head of the music, drama, and dance initiative at IDI.

Their jobs are to expand the options for patients at the clinic. By making educational, entrepreneurial, and spiritual resources available, Benson and Charles encourage patients to understand that a positive diagnosis doesn't mean life is not worth living.

I met them both on my first day in Kampala, and over the last few weeks, both have been instrumental in making me feel welcome, and have helped me immensely at work. Benson and Charles have explained how the clinic functions, introducing me to doctors, nurses, and patients. They have taken me to performances and let me sit in on meetings. Needless to say, I have a far greater understanding of this clinic, and the people that make it run, because of Benson and Charles.

Today, after working side-by-side for three weeks, I found out both are HIV Positive. While interviewing them on the successes of the GIPA program, Benson told me he learned of his positive status in 2001. Charles found out all the way back in 1993.

After the interview, I reflected on the lives and fates of these two men. Both are strong, handsome, and eloquent. Both are highly respected at the clinic, and command attention when they speak. And both have been infected with a deadly disease for years.

Before I got to Uganda, I considered HIV/AIDS to be a death sentence. No doubt, this is true for some, as a positive diagnosis can lead to desperation, depression, and ultimately, the end. But Benson and Charles are proof that it doesn't have to be. They have transformed their lives, taking a horrible negative and turning it into a positive, becoming role models in their community. They have become accountable not only for their own well-being, but for the well-being of thousands of others living with HIV.

Both men use their stories to inspire others. When they talk to patients, Benson and Charles can relate to their plight. Patients, in turn, know that they have found a friend and confidante who understands what they are going through. Rather than shy away from the stigma of HIV/AIDS, Benson and Charles embrace it and use it to educate others.

In the last few months alone, almost 2,000 people have used the Resource Center, a collection of computers, games, and health resources that exists primarily due to the hard work and dedication of Benson and Charles. The skills and lessons learned at the Resource Center tangibly helps patients in physical, emotional and intellectual ways.

I was impressed with these Benson and Charles before I chatted with them today. I found them to be smart, dedicated, impressive leaders.

Staring down a debilitating disease only makes them exponentially more impressive.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Games We Love

Happy Monday morning to everyone, and I hope you all had a great 4th of July! While I was sad to not be in DC, I went to a great bbq, complete with African dancers and a surprisingly good fireworks display.

I wanted to post quickly about two experiences that I had this weekend concerning sports, and the effect they have in any culture.

On Saturday, some friends and I attended the Uganda-Kenya rugby match in Kampala. On a warm, sunny day, about 5,000 people crowded around the pitch and cheered on their team. Obviously, most spectators were pulling for the home team, but Kenya traveled with quite an entourage, and there was a strong Kenyan contingent.

I was struck by the festival-like atmosphere of the occasion. Ugandans and Kenyans a like danced, sang, and cheered for their teams, but always with one arm draped around the rival's shoulder. Would Yankees and Red Sox fans cheer hard for their team, while embracing a rival fan? Not likely. And I've been to enough Duke-Maryland college basketball games to know that few friends rooting for opposing sides are made.

In the end, Kenya won the match, but not before a furious comeback from Uganda late in the game. The Kenyan players and fans - about 250 people in total - then circled the field, stopping every few meters to sing their national song, do a little dance, and get down on the ground and show the soles of their feet to the Ugandan fans. I took it as a sign of disrespect. The Ugandans around me laughed and said it was funny.

Most surprising of all, that night, I saw members of both teams in the bar I went to, drinking congenially and enjoying each other's company. Members of two rival nations, after just having played a violent and brutal rugby match, went to the same bar. On purpose. It was both surprising and inspiring to see the players, so intense on the field, act so civilly towards one another off it. Sometimes, in America, we let our rooting interests take on too much importance. Not so for the Ugandan and Kenyan rugby teams. Their perspective was pitch-perfect.

The night before, I had a wholly different experience. I went to a bar to watch the Ghana-Uruguay World Cup match. Filled with Ugandans, the atmosphere was tense throughout the game. When Ghana scored their goal right before the half, the bar exploded in a jubilation unlike I had ever seen. Ugandans and mzungus hugged and kissed. Vuvuzelas made the walls shake. It was glorious.

Of course, everyone knows what happened. Ghana's star played missed a game-winning free kick, and then Uruguay went on to win in a penalty kick shootout. I could almost feel the bar, the country, and the continent, deflate. All of Africa united around Ghana's team. For a continent short on accomplishments, a win would have been monumental. Instead, they lost in the worst, most heart-breaking, way possible.

As one friend said to me, "If the world was a good place, if there was justice, Ghana would have won." Maybe so. It was hard not to feel terrible for my Ugandan friends sitting glumly next to me after the match. Football is just a game, but it's much more than that here. Even if a single match couldn't cure any of Africa's problems, a win would have meant that for just a few hours, a continent could rejoice.

In much of Africa, such opportunities are few and far between.

Sports bring people together. In the case of the rugby match, opposing players and fans bonded over a great game on a beautiful day, a bond that lasted well into the night. An entire continent bonded over Ghana's success. And while the end result was disappointing, I was heartened to see Ugandans - and all Africans - cheering on their African counterparts. Ghana and Uganda don't have much in common; they only share their "African-ness". But Ugandans adopted Ghana's team as if it was their own. If this type of unity and togetherness can extend to arenas off the football pitch, this continent stands a much better chance of moving forward.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fourth of July

Just a very quick post wishing everyone back home a happy 4th of July weekend.

It's been well-documented that America's Independence Day is my favorite day of the year. I love the fireworks, I love Ben Safran flipping burgers across the patio, I love the warm keg beer, but mostly I love hosting all my friends, in my backyard by the pool, having a great day.

I'm sad to say that tradition takes a hiatus this year. While there is a big, American 4th of July party here, I'm certain it won't be the same.

Perhaps the only person who is happy that I'm in Uganda for the 4th is my mother. Mom, you're off the hook... no big parties at the house this year. Oh, and that crazy German neighbor that hates me. If you've been to one of the parties, you know who I'm talking about.

To everyone back in the states, have a safe and happy 4th. Sorry I won't be there to celebrate with you!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Song and Dance

The HIV/AIDS virus is much more than just a physically debilitating disease.

I do not mean to understate the tole it takes on the human body. You can see the damage as you walk through the IDI clinic; patients are weak and vulnerable, their bodies brittle and their immune systems frail.

But HIV/AIDS also weakens the mind and the heart. A positive diagnosis can lead to depression. It can end one's motivation to work, to learn, to provide for a family, and most of all, to just keep going. When all you can think about is getting sick, you get sicker.

Or, it can have the opposite effect. It can motivate you to overcome your diagnosis, rise above it, and teach others to do the same.

That's the approach taken by the IDI singing and theater group, whose performance I watched today. These ten individuals (there are 25 total, comprising two groups), use song, dance, and drama to motivate themselves and others to live healthy lives and take care of themselves and their loved ones.

The troupe started with a song about disclosure, encouraging the 50 or so audience members to be honest with their lovers and loved ones about their positive diagnosis. Then, another song about the benefits of modern medicine, pushing them to continue visiting the clinic and refilling their prescriptions. Afterwards, one by one, the members of the group introduced themselves, and a few told the story of when they found out they were HIV positive and how IDI has helped them stay healthy. Finally, one last song about practicing safe sex and abstaining from alcohol and other dangerous substances.

The audience clapped and cheered, and the members of the troupe smiled and bowed proudly. The sense of pride and accomplishment on their faces was palpable; they rehearse twice a week, and it shows. Songs were pitch perfect, dance steps were highly choreographed and in unison. Their performance was significant not only for the lessons imparted to the audience, but because of the feeling of purpose and self-worth it gave the members of the troupe.

Every singer has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, a disease with no known cure. They could have easily chosen to curl up and wait for the disease to break down their bodies.

Instead, they sing.

Conquering My Fears

Everyone has their fears.

Some people hate spiders, others don't do well with heights, still others get nervous on airplanes. Mine biggest fear is motorcycles.

Let me explain: as a 15-year old budding basketball player, my idol was a point guard named Jason Williams. In 2001, he led my beloved Duke Blue Devils to the national championship (a game I attended). He was strong and elegant, and could do anything on the basketball court. I loved him.

After one year in the NBA, Jason Williams got on a motorcycle one day and crashed, sustaining serious injuries. He never played professional basketball again. Hearing that, I swore to never get on a two-wheeled, motorized device, for the rest of my life.

Fast-forward eight years. EVERYONE in Kampala takes boda-bodas. They are quick and cheap, and with traffic jams galore, bodas are by far the most efficient means of transportation. Everyone does it, except for me.

Until now.

This morning, I forgot my cell phone at my apartment. With lots of work to do, and friends coming into town, I needed to run home and get it quickly. I walked home - about 15 minutes - and retrived it, but was running out of time. Outside of my apartment complex, a boda driver waited patiently.

We locked eyes, and he motioned me over. "Mulago Hospital?" I asked him. He nodded.

I got on the back, clenching his shirt a bit too tightly. "Pole pole," I said. Slowly, slowly.

We lurched forward, over a bump. I thought I was going to be bucked off and tightened my grip on my poor driver. He snorted, and looked back at me over his shoulder.

Once on the main rode, we cruised towards the hospital. It was... fun! Not nearly as scary as I expected. I loosened my grip, and began to smile. I was riding a boda-boda, in Kampala! Surely, I became a bit more Ugandan on that ride.

Upon arriving at the hospital, I jumped off the motorcycle like an old pro and gave the driver a big high-five. He asked for 500 shillings, I paid him 1,000. It was glorious.

Don't worry mother, I won't make riding boda-bodas a habit. But I conquered my fear, and it feels wonderful. Does this mean I have to change the name of my blog?