Thursday, November 26, 2015

The road to a UN refugee camp is paved with good intentions

I am convinced, more than ever, that charity begins at home! Let me explain.

On Wednesday, we drove about 90 minutes towards the Tanzanian border. Our goal was to visit a United Nations refugee camp, catering for what we later learned to be a popuation of more than 5000. The back of the van was stacked with those striped bags you find in discount shops, each of them crammed full of knitted blankets, jumpers and dolls.

Our hope was that, during our brief sojourn to this spartan environment, we would be able to sit and dialogue with some of the people who have been forced to call the mud-brick buildings home. We wanted to hand out the donated items - the fruit of many hours of pain-staking love and devotion from faithful people back home - and let them know they were not alone. Somebody did indeed care! It was meant to be an experience where we would attempt to shine a little bit of love and compassion into an environment we had heard was characterised by darkness and despair.

We were wrong! Or maybe it was just that we were naive. It was not only the crafty creations that we were laden up with but also perhaps the expectations of well-meaning people back home.

When people have been forced to flee their homes and end up living in rows of makeshift dwellings, with only dirt for a verandah and paddocks for a landscape, something has to give. When you are reliant on a local constabulary to tell you when you can eat and how much you can consume, your dignity must shrivel and wither, like a piece of fruit lacking sunlight.

Most of you reading this will likely be from countries where the plight of refugees is often a headline to be alarmed by, a cause to be fought for or a slogan to be delivered in a sound-bite. We can so easily forget that they are human beings, each with a story to tell and a voice to be heard. We really don't know the circumstances that force them to flee their place of birth but I suspect, after that slow drive past people sitting in dirt, with a distant look in their eyes, that we may not be able to fully stomach it even if we did.

Our little party, myself included, thought these people would line up in neat rows to help facilitate the distribution process. We thought the police would be more supportive and constructive. At a personal level, the journalist in me hoped I would be able to sit down with some of them and discover more about where had come from, why they had fled and what hopes and dreams they still had.

Instead, what we experienced were people grasping and groping, pushing and pulling, jostling and
pleading. In those frenzied moments, an image that came to mind was of seagulls fighting for the discarded food scraps or a few cold chips. We wanted to restore some of their dignity; instead, we provoked desperate people to become even more so.

Our hearts were already open to these fellow human beings. That's why we were there. It's just that our heads had to catch up. Now that we know more, my commitment is not to expect people who have nothing to be somehow be grateful to simply be given something. Instead, I need to alert people as to how they can truly make a difference. If that means sometimes putting down the knitting needles, and finding another way to show support, then that is a windmill I am willing to tilt at. 


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The part of the trip where I found myself in hospital...again

During yesterday's visit with Fr Gerard, the priest who helped Paul and Sue start Uganda Kids, we were treated to a feast of local cuisine: fish cakes, beef meet balls, chicken, beans, potato, rice, gee nut sauce and, in a feast for our taste buds, tomatoes mixed with onion. Shortly after lunch, we all ended up at the local hospital.

OK, I should clarify that poor sentence structure. We had lunch - then we went on an inspection of the local parish where Fr Gerard now serves. Part of that inspection eventually led us to a local health clinic/hospital, based on the church grounds. So let me say up front: there was nothing in the food that brought us to the doors of this valuable health facility.

What did bring us there was a desire to see, first-hand, the many different ways the Catholic Church is making a difference in the lives of the Ugandan people. This is stuff I have spent the past seven years highlighting and bringing to the attention of the people of Brisbane, Queensland and beyond and I never cease to marvel at how expansive this missionary work is. As I have asked myself many times (and also articulated in several appeal talks): "What would it look like for the people of (insert name of relevant country) if the Catholic Church wasn't present, with people giving of their time, energy, passion and faithfulness.

The 'hospital', such as it is, was more of a few buildings, in a u-shape, and a large verandah running along each wing. Patients, which included children and women (but, seemingly, no men) were either inside the spartan rooms, with doors left open, or laying outside on the grass or blankets. Medical assistance seemed mainly to be offered in the form of dispensing of tablets and antibiotics; a few people were feeding themselves from bowls of food, resting on the ground in front of them.

I hope my description is not seen as disparaging or alarming. I have been in many hospitals back home and they do not offer the same sense of community that this small facility, perched on a hill overloking the nearby village, seemed to offer. Besides, our time there was really not long enough to offer any more informed insights on what else could be done to improve services.

One of the challenges presented by a trip such as this is knowing what aspects of the world you can transform. There is a peace that comes from recognising that you cannot do everything, only some things, with much love. 


Lessons I never learned at school

The past 24 hours has seen us visit two different schools: St Joseph's Primary yesterday and St Bruno Secondary this morning. Both Principals have expressed immense gratitude for the support being extended to their staff and students, by Paul and Sue and their donors. They also have articulated an extensive arrange of challenges they are facing.

I don't claim to understand the full extent of the trials they outlined. It has a lot to do with the government agreeing to support some schools, but not others; it also seems that teachers, in Uganda, are not paid well (some of you reading this might well say that it is nothing different to the situation faced by the profession in some parts of Australia!) Then there are the issues of water being too expensive to provide on an ongoing basis, shortages in electricity supply, the increased costs of feeding students (especially boarders) and a dearth of basic supplies such as English dictionaries. When they talk about "the school of hard knocks", it could well be a Ugandan school that they had in mind.

And yet... and yet...

I once heard a story about Mexican jumping fleas. Apparently, if these fleas were put in a bottle, they could jump out because they have the capacity to jump quite high. But put a lid on the bottle, they only jump as high as the lid allows. Eventually, the fleas become conditioned to jumping to that height. Take the lid away and the fleas will still stay in the bottle.

It may seem like a weird digression but I think this analogy applies to the students of Uganda. The many adverse conditions they face could be seen as effectively putting a lid on their hopes and dreams. And yet the support of people from places like Australia is the leverage that not only removes the top but even, one day, helps shatter the bottle.

Any teacher will tell you that expectations are key to a student's success. They rise up, or fall down, according to the demands and opportunities we place upon them. A nation's youth is no different from an individual student in the classroom.

It is a privilege to be meeting people who see Uganda, not as it is, but rather what it can be.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Visiting Africa is not all black and white

People much more eloquent than me have written about Africa being a place of contrasts. After only a couple of days in Uganda, I can well understand what they mean.

The generosity and graciousness with which we have been received is humbling. Many of them  know Paul and Sue from their previous visits and the ongoing work that Uganda Kids makes happen, especially in a couple of local schools and the parish. We have been ferried, from place to place, by a lovely local couple, Lucy and Aloysius (she is a nurse, he is the principal of one of St Joseph's School), and also hosted at their home for lunch.

There is a genuine warmth to their greetings, an appreciation of the effort we have made in travelling across the seas to be with them at this time. Forget the eyes being mirrors to the souls - for Ugandans, it is their smiles that illuminate and inspire, whether they be shy and sheepish or dazzling and captivating, white teeth emerging Cheshire-cat like in the midst of their ebony faces.

But the flipside of this warmth and welcoming nature is a tendency towards self-serving: a politician who attends Mass, coincidentally at the height of an election campaign; wives attending a married couples' group burrowing through a gift basket of jewellery and taking more than the solitary item suggested; elderly people lamenting about their lot in life, in the hope that they may be able to elicit enough sympathy that it will lead to financial largesse.

The contrast, however, does not lie in these external observations. The above actions hardly distinguish Ugandans from any other people in the human race - deep down, we all have a tendency towards self-interest! The paradox I am referring to is the one that lies within....

I sit in the community sessions and find myself becoming uneasy with some of what is being shared. I am making judgements, either about what is being articulated or about the people speaking. It is not my intention to do this but the habits of a life-time are hard to stifle, even if I am a long way from home. 

And then it dawns on me: this type of sharing - the process of coming together and sitting around in a circle, to speak openly about topics important to the hearts and minds of the Ugandan people, is the way things are done here. It is the dialogue, the talking, that is key. This is what I mean by 'contrast' - my western expectations, my tendency towards speaking with a point in mind, compared with the Ugandan way of simply being together. 

Even the Mass reflected this, in all its 120 minute glory, colour and reverence. Time with God, their Creator and Saviour, is not something to be rushed, slotted into the multitude of other commitments from which we, in other cultures, so readily bounce.

We spent time with three different parish groups yesterday: the elderly, the Married for Life and the women. In each gathering, significantly conducted in circles (no-one was at the head, everyone could see everyone else), I learned much about Ugandan cultural issues, its past and various sociological trends.

But the greatest lesson learned was realising that the real "heart of darkness" of Africa is that which we carry within us.  


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thank Heavens I am an extrovert!

There are times when my extrovert personality has got the better of me - when I professed my love for a girlfriend, on stage, at a drunken college bar night, would be one such example (we broke up shortly after!) Today, however, I am grateful that my natural disposition is to draw energy from interacting with people.

From the moment I stepped outside door 562 of the Garden Court hotel, it has been one conversation after another: chatting over a light breakfast with Paul and Sue was quickly followed by sitting in on a presentation by the finance committee of the school they support. Along the way, there were short stops as Aloysius, our driver (who also happens to be the school principal) recognised people familiar to Paul and Sue and pulled the car over to say hello.

The conversations continued over lunch at Aloysius and Lucy's home - with their son, with a visiting Californian student, Sonia, with each other - followed by a trek into Masaka, where the streets just teemed with bodies in motion.

An afternoon meeting with a couple of priests, to discuss possible immersion trips to Uganda, through Catholic Mission, meant the talking continued into early evening. When we finally took our leave, it was only to head out for dinner at a local restaurant (with another diversion to Lucy's community health clinic). Here, over burgers and soft drinks, we reflected on the day that had unfolded. A final opportunity for interaction occurred when the principal of the local secondary school, Justine, joined us to share about some of the challenges she was facing.

Tomorrow, the schedule will be similar as we attend a large community Mass, beginning at 7am, and then several meetings with various parish groups, and a large lunch, to punctuate the day.

This blow-by-blow account is offered for the simple reason that I am reminded that this trip is not so much about the place of Uganda, as it is its people. They are the reason Paul and Sue do what they do, through Uganda Kids; they are the focus for our time and effort,  the fuel that powers our journeying.

Of course, while being an extrovert does indeed help with the constant demands on personal space and time it is not the only force at play in this trip. In the smiles and hugs, the elaborate hand shakes and gracious nature of all our hosts, I realise that encountering others will always leave us open to the greatest of all human experiences: the joy of knowing people and, just as importantly, the grace of being known in return.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Good morning from Uganda

Watching Modern Family on the in-flight entertainment system.The skies are dark outside, the fellow passengers are slumbering. It is still over six hours to Abu Dhabi.

I cannot quite believe this adventure is unfolding. I am on my way to Uganda! It has been one of those dreams we carry in our heart, the mystical Camelot, the Land of Oz, my own trip down the Rabbit Hole.

What do I expect from this experience? I want to meet people who live differently to me; I hope to be touched by the encounters we have with local people, to be reminded that what we have in our life is a blessing and not something to be taken for granted.

Saturday morning, in the foyer of our accommodation at Masaka. The trip to here was a long one: a 14 hour flight to Abu Dabi, a 2-hour stop-over, then another 6 hours to Entebee and, finally, a crammed car ride, for 6 hours to here. I am not complaining - a number of times I found myself thinking of those who flee from their place of birth and endure so many challenges on their way to a new life somewhere else.

The rain falling overnight was a calming balm and the yelping dogs and crowing roosters were signposts that "I'm not in Kansas any more, Sam" (to paraphrase Dorothy!) The shower before bed was sans hot water but, hey, it was a properly plumbed bathroom, the room was small and comfortable with a door that locked and there was a freshly-made bed to tumble into - a lot more people in the world don't have any of these things so I consider myself very blessed indeed.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Luem spends time helping those infected like him

This is Luem Laom. He was one of the first of 275 in his village in Cambodia to be diagnosed with HIV. That was in December last year. 


Out of his immediate 8 family members, 4 of also tested positive with the virus. Luem now helps out as a volunteer offering support and counseling to other affected families.

According to the Cambodian authorities, an unlicensed doctor who re-used syringes and other medical equipment was responsible for spreading the infection to unsuspecting victims. 

Catholic Mission is committed in providing support of these victims of HIV through supporting its local partner, the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang, provide Emergency support services. To ensure this project can continue to provide those people affected with AIDS and other chronic diseases in village of Roka and their families, with different tools to help overcome the difficulties they face, we are looking to raise $45,000.

If you can support this cause, click on the link below and go through the various fields. At the bottom of the page, where it has a box for you to give a bit more information, please mention this post and indicate your contribution is for the village in Cambodia. Tell them 'David in Brisbane sent us'. And thanks, on behalf of those inadvertently affected by this awful disease.