Friday, January 1, 2010

Reflections of a Summer Intern

It’s been five months since I lived in Walukuba Village as an intern for UVP. One of the questions most often asked of me is: “What is it like to live in an African village?” I usually say, “It is unforgettable.” I had no idea what of kind of impact it would have on me but I know now that the effects of living in a rural village in Africa have greatly enriched my life in many ways. To many, voluntarily living in an environment without access to running water or electricity with three initial strangers (my amazing team) sounds a little unworldly. However the experience helped me gain a deeper understanding of what I believe life is all about. In addition to the health programs we implemented and building a well with the villagers, what has stayed with me the most was appreciating the beauty in the simplicity of their lives. Residents in the village have very little materially, yet spiritually they are overflowing.

My mornings would start off with the sound of the rooster - usually around 5:30am. I would look through my mosquito net and my open window and see the night sky still dark so I'd lie there until it was light enough to go outside, or I would roll back asleep. The mornings involved me greeting Oliver and Betty, our host family’s two cows, then going to the train tracks; either to talk on my small phone to friends and family back home or to watch the sunrise. Sometimes it included both. But really the best part was seeing the primary school kids scamper along, balancing themselves on the tracks, saying "bonga!" to me as they passed by, then burst into giggles and run off to school. These kids are absolutely beautiful. I have never seen so many glowing, bright, shiny, perfect little faces with smiles full of white teeth.

Nights in the village were equally as beautiful as watching the sunrise. The best nights were when the moon lit the entire sky and I could enjoy being out on the expansive red dirt landscape that we called our front yard, on my wooden folding chair and just sit, listen and watch. The sense of community was palpable as I watched neighbors chatting and children walking with jerry cans on their way to retrieve water. I'd listen to the village continue to bustle along, little kerosene lamps dotting the main road which allowed me to see the shadows that moved in the dark. Of course for me, I couldn't see anything, but Ugandan night vision is strong and most people move around at night since they work in the gardens most of the day.

It was the small connections I made with others and simple moments during my summer in Walukuba that had the biggest impact on me. There were so many sweet moments with the children. You can't go to Africa and not like children. It's almost sacrilege! I'll remember Mpata - a little man with a big belly and the gentlest round face. He would walk around with one hand rubbing his fat little belly, the other behind his head with such a serene look on his face and I would think: he'll be doing that exact same pose when he's 80. His sister Doreen, we called Doreeny, had a similar face, beautiful with distinct features and the longest eyelashes. Then there was Shebala, the little girl who ruled the roost and probably the most photogenic of them all. I also can’t forget Esther, the absolutely, certifiably crazy four year old who lived across the way from us. She always had her tongue hanging out, wide-eyes smiling, carrying a knife around in her filthy hands. I made sure to never cross her! After getting all clean from taking a bucket bath I'd be out with the kids and a half naked Esther would come marching up, tongue wagging, and her head covered with dust and she would flail herself around on my lap. She'd then place her unwashed hands all over my face and in my mouth, and I'd think: well I'm no longer Africa clean, I'm now Esther clean. And of course Kamuya, the sweet seven year old who took to me right away at the soccer fields at the beginning of the summer. Never failing to greet me, I would always say to her “Maku matifua” (give me a hug) and she was frequent visitor in our house.

The children were everywhere…Children of the Maize! I swear I'd think I was alone and out of nowhere I'd hear a tiny voice say my name, or at times scream my name, and I'd have to search the horizon before I'd spot four little ones lost in the maize standing there frantically waving their little arms until they were about to fall off only to stop when I shouted back to them "Jambo!" Sometimes they would just stand there with their arm straight out, like we were being saluted. Katie, one of my teammates, said we should start our own little child army that worshipped us….we would have had quite a following. I would look at them, their smooth and flawless dark skin, black eyes, and naturally curled eyelashes and wonder what their futures have in store for them. Will they stay in the village and live the slow, predictable village life, bear a lot of children and perpetuate the cycle of poverty? Or will they push the envelope, challenge themselves, and attempt to expand their world outside the boundary lines of their village? What opportunities will present themselves to better their lives? Will they have the luxury of Choice to improve their lives? I don't know but I do know that all of the children in the village are bright and smart and have a glowing presence about them that is much bigger than any small village can handle. These kids helped me feel so at home by always, without a doubt greeting me with the same enthusiasm and zest that they greeted me with the day before, hour before, or even minutes before. "JAMBO MZUNGU! MZUNGU BYEEEEEE!" But by the end of the summer the word 'mzungu' was replaced with 'Sarah'. Now I can't say that they all really knew my name because there were only three mzungu women in the area and two of us were named Sarah, so it is entirely possible that they thought every female mzungu's name was Sarah!

My absolute favorite memory is the very last night we all stayed in the village. What started out as a simple dance party turned into a rager! With about twenty children singing upbeat Ugandan songs and another child pounding on an empty jerry can with a wooden stick, we filled the night air with the sounds of a true party. The kids' voices were harmonic and fast as if to preserve the atmosphere of a popular nightclub, they sang songs at the top of their lungs in Lusoga, clapping their hands and waving them everywhere, synchronizing to the beat of the jerry can, and all under the disco ball of the bright half moon. I wouldn't be surprised if villages miles away could hear our party. They put fabric around our hips, which is a tradition for them. I don’t know the exact meaning behind this but I think it's to accentuate the hips since they are involved in so many movements. I felt little hands behind me grasp my hips guiding them to move from side to side as fast as I possibly could; sometimes eventually falling over from losing my balance. We did conga lines. We hit the dirt ground on our knees, to do the infamous Twin Dance. We just danced. Sweaty and hot, it was the most fun I have had in a long time and better than any dance club I've ever been to in my life. I just remember reminding myself that evenings like this is what life is all about. Making cross-cultural connections with people you might never have otherwise met in life really leads to such an enriching and fulfilled life. After almost two hours of dancing, the mzungus had to call it quits because we were so tired and we all had to get up early the next day to leave - the children had outlasted us. They were so sad. But us going into the house didn't stop them. About 10 of them remained and stood in front of our house, sang goodbye songs to us in Lusoga, then songs about America. They didn't want to leave!

Since I’ve left and had more time to reflect on my stay in the village - I realize that it really is the smaller things in life that make the biggest impacts. The simple connections with others and the mini-moments are now what help me define balance in life. At the beginning of this experience I set out to make a lasting impact and bring change to a small village. Yet what I learned is that I have received more than I could ever give and the biggest impression is not what I left on the village but what the villagers have left on me.

1 comment:

Volunteer For A Cause said...

Hello, good work... I have to set some time and read your posts.