Megan Yarberry’s Travel to Uganda Part I

May 6, 2008

Megan Yarberry

I’ve wanted to write sooner, but electricity is sporadic and our days are long and full, so here I am on a Sunday afternoon, ready to write.
It’s been almost 2 weeks since we left Hawaii. Took us 5 days to get to Tororo, Uganda, where the first trainings are taking place.
Judah & I flew from Hilo to Honolulu to L.A. to New York to London (where we took the tube to visit the National Museum of History during our 12 hour layover) to Nairobi.
In Nairobi we stopped over at the Abha Light offices, where I met up with my Real Medicine Foundation colleague Beth, and where Didi (who I worked with in December) got us organized, gave us a bit of a crash pad & repacking centre & refueling site before catching the late night bus to Uganda.
Beth had brought most of the training supplies, so had huge and many bags, which we wrestled onto the big, greyhound style bus that would take us on the 12+ hr ride across the border. We set off only 1 hr late, out of Nairobi and into the black African night. Judah and I entertained ourselves with i-pod stories and the occasional flash of village firelight.
Just before midnight, I felt the bus lurch and looked up in time to see the startled wide-eyed stare of a zebra through the front windshield before feeling a sizeable impact. The bus veered, and Beth & I both had visions of the bus rolling, screams, & glass shards everywhere. Fortunately, the driver kept us on the road, although one could feel that something was dragging (zebra? Part of the grill?) underneath us.
After some complicated back & forth, we pulled over to the side and most of the passengers piled out to see the damage. The front grill was completely mangled, and the radiator was leaking freely onto the tarmac. The poor zebra was a ways back on the side of the road, still warm, and almost unbelievably beautiful, even in death.
We stayed there, on the side of the road, for almost 3 hrs, until a replacement bus was sent from Nairobi (ours being inoperable). Around 3 am our replacement bus came. We monitored the transfer of our heaps of luggage, & rode on until the next pit stop around 4:30 am for refueling. I negotiated the obstacle course of cloth & snack vendors to brave the gas station’s public restrooms (floor level porcelain holes, a bit smelly, bring your own tp – some people had used leaves & other materials).
After we’d all piled back on the bus, we were told we had to switch buses again – apparently the one we were one wasn’t expected to be able to make it all the way. We were fairly practiced at loading our luggage, and there was – by this time – a certain camaraderie between the passengers, so the transfer was made in record time.
We revved up and trundled off down the almost unbelievably poorly maintained highway (really, it looked like a logging road that hadn’t been used in a decade, although huge transport trucks and buses competed for purchase on the best parts of the road).
As the sun came up and we drove through the rolling green hills approaching the border, I started seeing buildings reduced to rubble, charred buildings and fields, graffiti saying things like “Kibaki [Kenya’s incumbent president] must go.” I asked one of the other passengers who said that all the destruction I was seeing were the results of Kenya’s December elections, which were disputed, and the effects of which are still being sorted out.
At the Kenyan-Ugandan border all the passengers have to get off the bus & walk across the border (maybe 500 metres) passing through the Kenyan & Ugandan visa offices. As with other crossings I’ve made, a fellow passenger took us in hand, showing us where to stop & which road to take for our documents, and helping deflect the snack, drink & money lending vendors along the way.
A few hrs later we arrived in Tororo, which was to be our base camp for the next 2 weeks. While Beth made a call from the curbside mobile phone services, Judah & I wandered off to get our first corn of the trip – roasted over charcoal stoves on the side of the road. One of the Franciscan sisters met us soon thereafter in a rented car which helped transport our bags to the Travel Lodge Tororo hotel, one of the nicest places in town (although I’ve only managed 2 hot showers – the rest being of the bucket variety, and the electricity is off fairly frequently).
We went straight on to Mama Kevina school, which was established and is run by the Franciscan sisters. The students were there to greet us, with drums, singing and dancing – very sweet, and very energetic. The kids have mostly come from the North of Uganda, where they were child soldiers in the military operations there (which have been mostly on-going for the past 20 years) or whose families were destroyed by these operations or by the flooding last year. Also at the school are AIDS orphans from this area.
Although the care and effort of the sisters is apparent, many of the buildings are yet unfinished (the school having been established only 2 years ago, and with scrambled together funds from various sources). The kids are packed into dormitories without adequate mosquito nets ( so malaria is obviously a big health problem for them, in fact the head teacher-nun had malaria our entire first week here). In a room probably 50 feet by 20 feet there are perhaps 25 3-story bunkbeds, and almost not one spare yard of floorspace. Hopefully, when the next 2 buildings are finished, the kids will be able to spread out some.
There is also a rather amazing bakery, as one of the emphases is vocational training for the kids (almost none of them are likely to go on to university, so it’s important to give them wage-earning skills).
The bakery building and industrial baking machines were donated by folks from Holland. Because the machines take so much electricity – obviously a problem here – the sisters are also building huge charcoal or wood ovens. One wall of the bakery (which is still under construction, and currently is used as a sitting/eating room for the sisters who live rather far from this site) is made of tile made by the people in Holland who were part of mobilizing money and resources for this project.
There are 205 kids at the school, and most don’t have any support from families, so the sisters raise money for their school fees (one has to register for national exams, there are book, pen, uniform costs) as well as for food. The 16 teachers have been basically volunteering for the past 2 years, and so it’s hoped to locate funds to pay them as well.
The students – besides being full-time students – also do the gardening (sweet potatoes, greens, corn, and other things. The students are also making the bricks that are being used in the new buildings – bringing water from a nearby stream, mixing mud and straw, putting them in molds, and drying them in the sun. Lots of work!
After a tour of the school & some passion-fruit juice in the sisters’ sitting room, Judah passed out & I began to hallucinate from fatigue (remember – this was the end of 5 days of almost constant travel – no time in a real bed). A taxi eventually came to ferry us back to our hotel through a full on thunderstorm. We had a bit of masala for dinner (there is a strong Indian influence in food and business here) before turning in for the night.
The next day we met Charles Naku, a counselor from PLAN international who has acted as our facilitator here. Under Plan’s aegis, we have been able to avoid a lot of the red tape that would otherwise have been required in providing services in a refugee camp. Charles has been amazing, easing our way, helping us know who to talk to & how to negotiate some of the obstacles inherent in this work.
We went out to the Mulanda transit center (a refugee camp of Kenyans who spilled over the border after the violence from December’s presidential elections there.) to have a look around, get oriented, and take steps to identify the people we would be training in the NADA 5-needle protocol.
It was a bit surreal to see the acres of UNHCR tents spread across the landscape. We met with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees representative, a woman from Holland named Yolanda (and later met with other folks from UNHCR, Red Cross, Save the Children, World Vision and other relief agencies working at the camp). We explained our mission, she asked some questions, gave us some advice, and we went off to meet with the camp’s block leaders.
Our original vision of training relief workers (from org.s like Red Cross etc.) to do this basic acupuncture protocol had changed somewhat since our arrival. We had learned that most of the refugees would be relocating to a more permanent camp several hours to the north (Kiryandogo camp) the following week, and that many of the relief agencies were pulling out. So we decided instead to train the refugee workers themselves, choosing those that had healthcare or counseling experience back in Kenya.
The camp was organized into 6 blocks = A,B,C,D,E & F. While the block leaders were notified and assembled, we met some of the other relief workers, including Miss Tororo, who was using her considerable charm & looks to mobilize support for various camp activities.
We met with the block leaders in an incomplete brick building – sand floors, & no windows. We gave them a basic description of acupuncture, a more specific description of the ear protocol we were proposing to teach, how we would like to select trainees, and asked for questions. A few brave souls asked some questions, but mostly there was an ominous silence. Charles proposed that we leave them to talk amongst themselves while he showed us around the camp, so off we went.
He showed us how the camp was organized, visited the volleyball & basketball courts, the playground (all dirt surfaces and very well used), and introduced us to some of the other relief agency folk. We sat and talked with Sarah from Save the Children for quite a while – she is a hugely dynamic woman with a remarkable ability to see the big picture, as well as the intricacies of working with such a population (many unaccompanied children, for example, who fled across the border and who are now living in child-headed family groups). She knew most of the passing children by name, and specifics about their situations.
We also visited the school – very bare bones by US standards to be sure, but with a lot of seemingly dedicated teachers (other refugees from Kenya) and headmaster. Charles found us there, and brought us back to meet again with the grop leaders, who had come up with some very interesting questions and concerns for us. For example, were the needles pushed all the way through the ears? Were there powerful chemicals on the needles that we were proposing injecting into their population? Were there religious implications with this treatment? What were Beth & my qualifications?
We took the questions one by one, explaining again the overall framework of acupuncture, and our goals for the training. Then Beth gave me a demonstration treatment so they would have an idea of how it looked. We offered treatment to them, and a few brave souls accepted.
As the first few block leaders received treatment and didn’t fall over dead, more requested treatment until we had needled most of the group. We all sat quietly for 30 minutes, answering the occasional question, and looking back at the many people looking in the open windows.
The mood had changed entirely by the time we removed the needles, and the block leaders were asking if they could be trained, as they really liked the effects of the treatment. We reiterated that we could only accept 20 trainees, and that we would give precedence to those with healthcare or counseling experience.

Country Page: Uganda Initiative Page: Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement Project