Murchinson Falls – Paraa Lodge

By Megan Borsuk

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Paraa Lodge at Murchison Fall National Park (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda– We left New Court View Hotel and headed to Murchinson Falls. It was a bittersweet good-bye. The people at New Court View Hotel were great and took care us of us but we were excited for the next leg of the program–the safari.

Getting to Paraa Lodge was quite a journey. The road was not paved. This made for a long and very bumpy ride. My insides felt a bit scrambled. Just before we reached our destination, we had to board a ferry to cross the Nile River.

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The ferry across the Nile at Murchison Falls National Park (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

The ferry was not what I expected. Basically, it was a moving platform that carried vehicles and people across the river. It was only traveling a short distance but I did have some reservations. At one point, the park ranger had to shuffle some of us to the opposite side of the platform because it was tilting too much. But we made it–safe and sound!

When we arrived at the lodge, the staff greeted us with cold towels. It was a great surprise. After the long hot bus ride, the cool towels were so refreshing and much needed. As I peeled the towel from my face, I saw the towel was covered in red-brown dirt! At first, I was a bit embarrassed but then realized everyone else had the same dirty face!

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Paraa Lodge is a lovely place (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

The lodge was amazing with beautiful views, wild animals, a poolside bar, and turn-down service! Complete luxury! It was the first time I saw this side of Uganda. It was a real privilege. With that said, it also caused some discomfort, moving from the experiences we had the first three weeks. This experience really highlighted the great disparities in the country and globally.

The Paraa Lodge had stable energy, water, food, and then some, while many of the schools, homes and businesses we visited do not have safe and reliable access to these basic needs. It is frustrating to think that as a global community we have the knowledge, technology, and resources yet there are such disparities and inequality. To lessen the divide between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’ we need to look at the distribution and creating fair access to these resources.

In Sanitation We Trust

By Andita Parker Lloyd

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Godfrey Byaruhanga of the Water Trust with a community well in rural Masindi (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Masindi, Uganda– Today we visited the Masindi Office of the Water Trust (http://watertrust.org/), several schools they helped with latrines and/or wash systems, and community water tanks/wells put up by the trust. You might not understand why that is important but hopefully you will shortly.

Imagine a cup of brown cloudy water to drink with your breakfast. Are you excited for that drink? How about washing your hands or body from water that an animal has defecated in? Imagine urinating in a bush or squatting over a rotten wooden hole in the floor. What would you do without your toilet paper or the “new” flushable wipes some people like? If you are struggling to imagine these types of things, I would not be surprised.

According to http://www.merriam-webster.com/, sanitation is the process of keeping places free from dirt, infection, disease, etc., by removing waste, trash and garbage, by cleaning streets, etc. I noticed that the rural schools we visited during our entire trip were lucky to have a latrine with a cement cap. This was an improvement from the previous latrines if they had one previously.

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A rain collection tank at St. John Bosco School in Buliisa (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

The rural schools had various ways of getting water but I don’t recall any one of them having running water. This lack of clean water and effective latrines causes a problem with creating a germ-free environment. You want a sanitary environment to help reduce diseases and infections.

The Water Trust helps with this problem in the Masindi and Kiryondongo Districts. The population of these two districts is estimated to be around 480,000, according to watertrust.org. Rachel De Souza just recently took over as the Program Manager in Masindi and appears to be eager and up to the challenge of creating community collaborations for healthier people.

A community well built by the Busoga Trust in a village near Masindi (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Water Fact:
Ugandan women spend an average of 3-5 hours fetching water each day.   (The Water Trust)

We learned that the Water Trust has several projects in place and is successful because they work with the communities and not by bypassing the communities. The local governments help them decide which schools to target and then they go in an assess what might be needed as the highest priority.

The Water Trust can help with shallow hand dug wells, latrines, wash systems, and borehole wells. They also help with educating the community by using Sanitary or Health Clubs comprised of students, Water Trust staff, and teachers. They have a drama group that uses skits to talk about sanitation. This has improved the conditions of the people in these communities. Students can be late or miss school depending on how far they have to go to acquire water. Students also miss school when they are ill with illness due to contaminated water. Female students may not come to school due to menstruation.

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Children carry water in rural Masindi, Uganda (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

 Water Fact:
Students who participate in handwashing awareness programs have 40% less absenteeism in school. (The Water Trust)

Students missing school results in inadequate learning. The education system has enough difficulties without the added difficulty of unsafe or unavailable water. I am glad that the Water Trust has been established to help these communities practice more sanitary ways of life.

These sanitation practices will help ensure the future generations of Ugandans will be educated without the hardships that unsafe water and inadequate sanitation practices. “Mazoea ya maji safi na salama itasaidia Uganda kufanikiwa” means “Safe water practices will help Uganda prosper” in Swahili.

Water is essential and we all have to take time to treasure and conserve this natural resource that is not endless.

Soft Power in Buliisa

By Katie Frain

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Girls study outside their crowded classroom at St. Joseph Busingiro public school in Buliisa (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Masindi, Uganda– Today we met Maz Robertson, the regional manager of Soft Power Education’s “People and Parks” Project. She brought us to two primary schools that receive support from Soft Power Education, St. John Bosco and St. Joseph Busingiro.

Both of these schools were located in the Buliisa district, a rural area near Murchison Falls National Park. Driving to these schools allowed us to see some of the true beauty that is Uganda. I could not get over how picturesque it was, but then seeing the conditions of the schools and students reminded me that there are children and families suffering in this beautiful world.

We first went to St. John Bosco, a community-run primary school serving about 125 students in P1 through P6. As soon as we pulled up, we could see that this was a very rural school. It had one building that Soft Power built for the school in 2012, a solid new building with three classrooms; students were also studying in simple community church building on the school grounds, a structure that was made of wood and clay. The school also had a small playground with new play equipment consisting of six swings and a slide. In addition, the school had a new pit latrine and water cistern. All around the school grounds, crops grew.

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Primary 3 students at St. John Bosco Community school in Buliisa (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

When we looked into the classrooms, I was expecting to see rows of long desks and a big chalkboard in the front of the room like I had seen in many of the other Ugandan schools we have visited. To my surprise, however, one of the classrooms was split in half, with a plastic sheeting curtain and a small chalkboard at the front.

In the clay building there were no chalkboards and it was pretty dark; I can only imagine how difficult it would be to teach and to learn in such an environment. It saddened me to see that none of the students wore shoes and to hear these students asking for sweets and water, when at their age I  just got handed these things.

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Students at St. John Bosco in Buliisa singing for us, their “dear visitors.” (photo: Katie Brunwasser)

At the end of our visit we got a warm goodbye performance from the students, including songs, dancing, and poetry. When the students were singing I noticed one boy who was sitting on a watering can, using the bottom of it as a drum. I thought that was pretty clever and at then realized that these students must be so resourceful with everything they find. I hope that their resourcefulness will stay with them; who knows maybe we met some future inventors.

The second school we went to was St. Joseph Busingiro Primary, a public school serving over 1000 students. To me, this school looked more similar to other schools we have been to. However, when we had the chance to go into some classes, some of the first things I noticed were that there were students sitting on the floor with their notebooks in their laps because there were no more seats for them.

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(photo:Noreen O’Connor)

I felt guilty that they had a set an empty desk off to the side for us to sit in while the students had to work on the floor. Despite the fact that these kids didn’t have much, they were still students. They listened and actively participated for their teacher, just like any other child in the world.

I loved our visit to The Soft Power schools and I would love to come back to volunteer. I think that Soft Power is doing such powerful work and helping so many students. Without this organization these children may not have had the opportunity to have school buildings.

Chasing Chimps

By Erin McDonough

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A chimpanzee in Budongo Forest (photo: Erin McDonough)

Masindi, Uganda– Last night, Brian Dugas asked to gather the group to suggest adding something to our agenda since we had the next morning free. He suggested that we go to Budongo Forest to go chimpanzee trekking. The group’s decision was unanimous. We decided to get up early and go see some chimps!

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Erin McDonough in Budongo Forest (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

After breakfast, we got on the bus and headed towards the forest. During the ride, one of our group started shouting and asked Dennis, our bus driver, to stop. Once I looked at the window I found that there were about ten baboons playing in the road! We took some time to take many pictures and to observe what they were doing. Some of them were running around, others where climbing trees, and a few had babies hanging from their stomachs. It was adorable to say the least!

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Chimpanzee trekking guide Deo Chombedeo (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

A few minutes later, we picked up our guide and he took us to the part of the forest where he knew we could find the most chimps. We walked to the edge of the forest and he asked that we be quiet to enter. We were dodging vines and stepping over fallen trees for a little when all of a sudden we heard some very loud noises coming from the chimps. It was surreal! It sounded like dog’s bark, but louder. Everyone did everything they could to hold in their laughter.

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Baboons on the road near Masindi (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

We finally got to the area where the chimps were playing and eating. I was surprised by how much they could move the trees that they were in! We watched them for a while and tried to get as many pictures as we could before they ran away. Every now and then they would start communicating with one another. Once we had gotten out of the forest, the guide told us that they were making those noises to scare us away. I think I speak for the group when I say that it was a very exhilarating experience!

A Day of Rest and Reflection

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Holy Cross Lakeview secondary school in Jinja

Masindi, Uganda– In the book of Genesis, we are reminded that after creating the world in six days, God rested on the seventh. Today was a day of rest for most of the group with few scheduled activities. For me, the day afforded the opportunity to reflect on my experiences in Uganda so far. After a twenty-two year absence, I was anxious to visit the country again and see what changes have taken place.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant changes that I have witnessed has dealt with technology. Cell phone towers now dot the country’s landscape and enable a vast number of people to communicate with one another in ways that were not possible in the past. It has been fascinating to visit rural areas and find signs that indicate places to charge cellular phones or buy additional air time…all at a price of course! Universal education has now been mandated throughout Uganda. Although there is a national curriculum, the quality of education varies from district to district and between government and private schools. However, it has been gratifying to observe teachers in classrooms that are often overcrowded (sometimes with as many as 100 students) and with a bare minimum of materials. Without a doubt, even with numerous challenges, education is seen as key to Uganda’s future and there are more schools than I had remembered in the past.

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“World Class Internet”: Uganda’s MTN is everywhere (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Poverty still exists in large numbers–both in urban as well as rural areas–but I have witnessed the emergence of a growing middle class who have comparative challenges with the middle class in our country. Making ends meet and wanting the best possible opportunities to insure your children’s success and well being are traits shared across cultures!   With the rise of the middle class, I have also witnessed a greater role of women in Ugandan society. Even in some of the rural areas, there was evidence of day care centers, indicating that some women are entering the work force in greater numbers than before. I have also witnessed more women in leadership roles – and taking on more responsibility for heading the family in the absence of a husband.

Finally, I have also witnessed how the Catholic faith has firmly taken root in the country. I have been greatly inspired to pray with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Jinja and with diocesan priests in Kampla. Of course, attending Mass with the parishioners of Holy Cross parish in Bugembe (staffed by CSC) and visiting the CSC formation house in Jinja provided me with the firm hope that the Congregation of Holy Cross has a viable and strong future in East Africa.

I have been truly been blessed by this visit to Uganda, and as always, learn so much from a people who are warm, hospitable and make one feel so welcome.

A Day that Ended in Tears

By Paula Longo

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A TASO client with her family and neighborhood children. She has a small business that helps her pay her children’s school fees. (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Masindi, Uganda– It is very difficult to put today’s realizations, truths and emotions into words. I will try my best though.

Rachel Kamara, of The Aids Support Organization (TASO), presented a lecture entitled “HIV/Aids: No Barrier to Development, Education and Entrepreneurship.”  We had already met her earlier during the week and visited the TASO Medical Center in Masindi, so we had an understanding of all the services this non-governmental organization offers to those who are HIV positive as well as children of those who are HIV positive.

You can certainly read up on all the statistics about Ugandans and HIV/AIDS, but to have the opportunity to meet a person who is personally delivering hope, educating the public, and counseling day in and out is invaluable. It brings the human element of this disease to the surface. Although Ms.  Kamara used this quote in regards to her HIV/AIDS clients, it relates to any obstacle or life-changing event:

“One’s downfall can be a stepping stone for success and life.”

I have always believed that education is power. However, this education is creating much more. It has started a women’s liberation movement and assists people in accepting their disease.

This was evident when we toured the market stands and homes of several HIV positive women entrepreneurs. They were very informative, proud, and knowledgable about their businesses.

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Sharon Nyakoojo of the Family Sprit Child Centre (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Our last stop was the Family Spirit Children Centre, an orphanage and school that serves poor, orphaned, and HIV-positive children. This is the part I can not adequately express in words. The sadness, joy, despair and wonder in the eyes of these children was indescribable. The small hands that reached up to us, the innocent eyes and the incredible smiles were overwhelming. It was all too much to comprehend. How could they be so friendly to strangers? How could they want affection from human beings after being abandoned and/or inflicted with this lifelong disease?

Many of them sang songs of peace, love and their concern for losing their elders due to AIDS. Other children snuggled in on our laps while some others watched on the sidelines.

Even more amazing is the woman, Sharon, who operates this orphanage and school with her husband Isaac Nyakoojo.  She has endured being a war refugee and other horrific events, including a rape that left her HIV infected. Many people in her position would fall into a negative world of darkness. Instead, Sharon’s strength, positivity and perseverance guided her to save  some of Uganda’s children. She is a true hero and inspiration for us to aspire to.

Taking Life Seriously

By Katie Brunwasser

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Mural at TASO Masindi (photo: Katie Brunwasser)

Masindi, Uganda– If you know me, you know that I am not a very serious person. I don’t have a problem with taking a bad situation and turning it into something hilarious, funny, and fun. With that said, I was not myself today.

The Aids Support Organization, or TASO, provides support and treatment for HIV-positive patients in Masindi, and ten other places in Uganda. Funded by the CDC in America and many other organizations, the center serves patients of all ages. There was a children’s center with about twenty or thirty kids playing with old toys that were probably donated from some sort of Goodwill or charity from another country.

For the first half of our visit, I was silent. Seeing the children, how sad and lonely they looked, made me so upset. Brian, Katie F., Katie C., and Erin played with them for a little while, and the smile on these kids’ faces was even bigger than any other child’s that we had visited on this whole trip.

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Children wait for their family members to receive services at TASO Masindi (photo: Katie Brunwasser)

Nearing the end of our visit, Erin, Katie F., Maria, and I went back to the children’s center to play with the kids some more. This time, I was a little bit more comfortable with the situation. These kids were so much fun. Not many of them spoke English, so it was very difficult to communicate, but somehow, we were able to manage. Making faces, using body language, and using different sounds were different ways we were able to play together. It was interesting that the children were able to understand what points I wanted to get across.

This experience has definitely opened my eyes. It forces me think about all the commercials and photos and brochures that I’ve seen with children just like these kids on them and how I ignored it and pretended it never happened. Now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’m kicking myself for all the times I ignored their cries for help. I’m happy I was able to make them smile for the rest of the day, but I wish I could do it for the rest of their lives.

Seeing Rhinos

By Maria Zangari

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White rhinos, Ziwa Rhino reserve (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Masindi, Uganda– Today was a travel day. We left St. Augustine’s Institute in Kampala early and began the trip to Masindi. No one was looking forward to the four hour bus ride; thankfully the plan was to break it up by a stop at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.

White rhinos were declared extinct in Uganda by 1983, but today our group was lucky enough to see eight of the 14 rhinos living in the Ziwa sanctuary. I never thought I’d stand 50 yards away from a group of four. Three adults and their young played with the leaves of a tree barely taller than their shoulders while we watched from a short distance. The older rhino pushed the young into the leaves, seemingly enjoying the rustling sound that resulted. The young rhino didn’t protest. This was all in good fun.

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Kawesa, rhino guide (photo: Noreen O’Connor)

Nature is a powerful thing. It is rejuvenating to be outside, to watch the sunset on the savanna to the rumble of thunder. Even after learning of our group’s visit to Ziwa, I hadn’t expected I would stand a short distance away from these wild animals. I didn’t expect to see most of the rhinos living on the 70,000-acre sanctuary. But we did.

I think being surrounded by nature can often heal anxieties, discomforts and displeasures better than medicine or doctors. Today was therapy for me and I heard a few of my colleagues agree. Some of us left the sanctuary with scratched and irritated legs. Most of us left a little tired. But we finally got the opportunity to stretch our legs, see African wildlife and appreciate a tiny sliver of the “Pearl of Africa’s” landscape. I am grateful for and humbled by the awesome beauty of Uganda.

The Voice of the People

By Brian Dugas

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Mabira Forest trail guide (photo: Paula Longo)

Kampala, Uganda– Today we travelled from Jinja back to the city of Kampala where we will be spending a couple of days before heading to the more rural Masindi area. Along the way we stopped at a couple of beautiful environmental areas called the Source of the Nile and the Rainforest Lodge in the Mabira Forest Reserve.

The Source of the Nile is the approximate location where Lake Victoria feeds the Nile River. It was at this location the British explorer Speke answered the lingering question bothering the western world: Where does the Nile begin? While there has been some environmental loss due to the construction of a dam, the Nile remains a raging river, as many of us found out on a recent rafting trip through some significant rapids. Unfortunately our rafting guide informed us that there is more dam construction planned over the next few years which will put these rapids underwater.

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The Mabira Forest (photo: Paula Longo)

Our next stop was at a lodge deep in the Nabira Forest Reserve. The 360 square kilometers of rain forest that make up this forest reserve are truly a national treasure. A wide variety of animals, insects, reptiles, and over 300 types of birds are found here. Our hiking guide told us stories of how the original inhabitants, the pygmies, were decimated by western diseases like the plague. The few remaining “short people” no longer want to be known by this name and will not be your friend if you refer to them that way. Along with their departure went most of the medicinal plant knowledge that they had built over years of trial and error.

During our short hike, our guide told us another story that provides a valuable lesson that might also be useful to reform the education system here. It seems that some years ago the President wanted to knock down the Mabira Forest in order to plant sugar cane.

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The Rainforest Lodge (photo: Paula Longo)

Fortunately the local residents wanted to protect their rain forest enough to work together to stop the government intrusion. This shows that people can work together to make a significant difference in Uganda. Throughout our time in Uganda we have been told in school after school that government bureaucracy is a significant factor in their difficulties. Yet, when asked why they have not worked together to force the government to change they are unable to provide an explanation.

What I learned today is that even in a country where there is limited political expression, the voice of the people can be heard and can be loud enough to bring about government change. My hope is that they will apply what they have learned in the Mabira Forest Reserve to make the changes needed in their education system, and to save the Nile for future rafters.

Soft Power Education: Dreaming Big

By Katie Cryan

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a mural painted by Soft Power volunteers, Kalungami, Jinja (photo: Paula Longo)

Jinja, Uganda– Today was a very inspiring day to say the least. Not only were we able to experience the workings of a Ugandan Secondary Education (USE) school, but also understand and introduce ourselves to Soft Power Education. Soft Power Education is an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) located within the United Kingdom and Uganda. From our time spent at Soft Power, we were able to recognize the benefits and the help this organization has provide to many Ugandan students and schools.

Through our tour within the Soft Power Education headquarters in Jinja, we were able to understand the organization’s goals to help create a clean, equipped, fun, and safe learning environment in schools so that students are able to have a positive learning experience, and are able to have a passion and will to succeed. It was clear to us that Soft Power is changing many lives. In other words, children who experience poverty are now able to dream big, find encouragement, and believe that there is hope.

Although it can be difficult to see children and schools experience the effects of poverty, Soft Power Education seems to overcome the odds and provide a better educational system to a variety of schools. Furthermore, my group had the opportunity to understand how the smallest changes in a school can affect a child’s learning experience in a positive way. As a result, this organization has the ability to bring forth a brighter future, and empower tomorrow’s leaders.