Julie Santos Goes to Uganda
Julie Santos, Associate Director
Julie Santos has been actively volunteering with grassroots movements and international relief agencies for over 8 years. Her efforts have brought her to work in disasters like Katrina and the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti. She has volunteered in multiple countries, helped spear-head several grassroots projects mainly focusing on community and individual action as the pivotal component to inspire change and progress. Julie is constantly striving to find ways to remind people that now is the perfect time to practice a random act of kindness with the tools you have in the place you are at.
My last week in Uganda was outstanding. Andrew, Connor and I toured around with Fremma, a grant recipient of The Pollination Project. We owe so much to Fremma, who has gone out of his way to make sure I see and understand his country from the inside out. Much of the wonderful things Uganda has to offer are often only accessible through private vehicle and/or expensive tour companies, which made it unattainable for me. However, Fremma, or Emma, as others call him, found a fairly inexpensive vehicle and he took it upon himself to be our personal guide. Not only have I gotten a chance to see things I would have never seen, but, we had the privilege of really getting to know this unique man.
Fremma is like many Ugandan men his age. He’s had a tough life and a poverty-stricken childhood. Fremma’s father died when he was a toddler, leaving Fremma’s mother the sole provider of 3 very young children . Fremma’s adulthood, like most Ugandans, is also filled with financial hardship, limited resources and unemployment. Yet despite the similarities he shares with men his age, Fremma stands out the moment you meet him.
With a college education, which he paid for himself, he is also a student of Buddhism and nonviolence action. His English is impeccable and he speaks 4 other languages. From the moment you meet him, you can tell he’s well traveled. As a child, Fremma bounced around from the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), Uganda and refugee camps. Despite the minimal support he had, Fremma managed to live a life of service, constantly giving back to his community and finding ways to encourage others. His work in the refugee camps earned him the nickname “Papa Emma” (Father Emma) because he is a father to everyone. Fremma’s work in the camps resulted in an invitation to Thailand where he became a monk for 9 months, studying mindfulness and meditation.
“I was a celebrity” he said when speaking of his time in the monastery. “Nobody had seen an African monk and people came everywhere to see me dressed in the robes. It was really all so difficult,” his contagious laughter filling every pause.
“Did people back home think you were weird for doing this?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he exclaimed. “They thought it was wichcraft! But I know I must do it and come back and help my people.”
The Pollination Project’s grant helped support Fremma’s work in the refugee camps. A place he still considers part of his home and where some of his family members still live.
“Many of the people that live in the camp together, as neighbors, are the same people that were fighting outside the camp. It is really a bad situation actually.”
Fremma arrives to the camp, to teach mindfulness and meditation and engage them on the concept of forgiveness within and to each other. He collects used clothing and brings it to give away at his workshops. This encouragse attendance at his group sessions. This tactic is not a foreign concept, in many places, you can not hold information sessions such as these without giving something away- at least a certificate or a t-shirt- to encourage attendance. Since Fremma himself operates on 0 budget, he offers donated items that cost him very little. His excitement built as he told me about teaching people to draw Mandalas, a process where one creates an image using repetitive patterns. The act of drawing the same thing over and over, calms the mind into a state of meditation. “And that’s when the people all started talking to each other and laughing,” he says excited to relieve the moment. I imagined how Mandalas were bridging tribal war rifts and erasing enemy lines in one of the largest refugee camps in Uganda, and smiled with the same enthusiasm he was. I wanted to visit Papa Emma’s project, but towards the 2nd week it all became too difficult to fit in. However, my conversations with Fremma and seeing his pictures painted a detailed image of what it was like. I have pretty solid experience working in camps where displaced people live. International aid organizations strive to make sure that all the displaced people receive basic needs in these camps. But, we always forget to feed the most hungry part of us, our souls. Because after we have shelter, and our bellies are full what keeps us in pain are the parts of us that need healing.
Somewhere in our conversations about his work in the camps, Fremma told me about the time he was 12 years old and trekked the impenetrable forest to reach the safe haven of his grandmother’s house from the Congo to Uganda. A few days after our conversation, I trekked a part of the Impenetrable Forest in search for Gorillas. It was a forest so thick, that our guide had to machete the path in front of us. I walked up and down the mountains for approximately 8 hours and barely got a glimpse of the sprawling jungle. I had hiking shoes and a camel pack full of water and knew I would be returning to a vehicle and access to more water and food. I thought about Fremma. How he did not have a guide but followed a man that was smuggling tobacco, across the border. He was barefoot and without food or water and despite the risk, it was the safest and the only affordable option he had. In that forest is when I realized Fremma is an ordinary man in Uganda, however, he has taken these hardships and chosen a path of compassion and service. Fremma’s life is still a struggle. Being unemployed in Uganda is as hard as you can imagine. He lives an extremely humble life with access to very little. Yet, despite his poverty, after talking to Fremma, one can’t help but think; “this man is an example for Uganda and Congo.” Every pit stop we made, along the country, Fremma’s came to greet him. If we left him alone for 5 minutes, we would come back to him laughing with a stranger or surrounded by children. And after 2 weeks of riding around with Fremma, I realized, he is far more than hope for these two countries. The depth of his compassion and his commitment to serving others has given me a window into the power of mind and the hope that lies within us all if we take time to activate our highest self. Because, despite the odds, circumstances and challenges, Fremma has found a way to tap into his higher self and let Love win, and that is a lesson for all humanity.
On my last site visit I was asked to join the community leaders in a meal. Upon finishing the meal, the woman of the house, and a community leader asked us to go outside and take a picture in front of her home. For the picture she grabbed a mango and offered it to me, as if giving it. I tried to grab it and then she took it away and offered it again. At the moment I was perplexed and on her last attempt I finally took a bite, and a few people snickered. She took the mango and thanked me for the picture.
After it was all over with I realized she was just gesturing as if she was giving me a mango and I was supposed to act like I was receiving it. It was a photo opp which I turned into meal. I got in the car embarrassed and yelled at my Ugandan friend “why didn’t you tell me what the heck was going on?” He would have responded but he was laughing too hard to answer.
So.. This is the image the community will print and hang in their community center. The day The Pollination Project came to town.
One of our first grants in Uganda, was a man named John Kaganga, who wanted to start a computer lab for his community, Kikandwa. The nearest computer lab is nearly 40 kilometers away and he wanted his village/ district to have access to the outside world without having to commute over an hour to get there. His project was easy enough to fund. It came highly recommended by one of our ambassadors, Heather Box, and her recommendation carried a lot of weight on our final decision.
Upon arriving there, they showed us the computer lab, which had still not been hooked up to the Internet due to some unforeseen expenses from being located in such a remote area. However, they already started computer literacy classes to educate the youth and farmers. While the computer lab we funded was great, the immense project that Mr. Kaganga and his peers have developed over the past 10 years was more astonishing.
Mr. Kaganga’s passion started when he returned to his village, after years of being away, and saw all the trees had been cut down. John Kaganga’s childhood education, from the moment he was a young child, was either self taught or paid for by himself. He literally educated himself underneath the shades of these trees that had been cut down and when he saw them withering away, he decided to come back and help the very community that had cut them down by starting Kikandwa Environment Association (KEA).
Mr.Kaganga’s life story, like many Ugandans, is entrenched in deep suffering and hardship. However, what makes his story unique is the extraordinary feats this man has accomplished with such little resources. He went from being an illiterate child, to having a profitable business in the capital of Uganda. But his true success is seen in the extensive collaboration that he and his community members have accomplished and it cannot be outlined in a blog post, nor could I have believed it- unless I saw it for myself.
After being shown the computer lab, I was taken to the resource center- a small library that offers resources and printed information relative to women, youth and farmers. A space held to educate the public and encourage cross-project collaboration. We then went a few kilometers up the bumpy dusty road to a school surrounded by trees, trees that had not been cut down thanks to KEA’s community education. They taught preschool through 6th grade. The children sat on rustic wooden benches. Some had something to write on and others used their laps. Some had uniforms while others wore regular clothes. Unlike most schools that deny access to schooling if the child cannot afford a uniform, this school allows them to attend however they can. The classes were small, about 6-20 per class. Some classrooms had a roof, and others used the shade of a tree, but none resembled a school the way we know it. The school was another project under KEA.
After visiting the classrooms, I was taken from tree to tree where community members had set up demonstrations of their projects underneath the shade. Each demonstration was carefully displayed and labeled, like science experiments. These were all projects that KEA was helping to organize and encourage. A man was preserving native seeds and educating the community on the importance of using native seeds vs. those sold by others. Another elder was using local wild herbs and roots to care for animals. A young man demonstrated his art skills and taught youth how to make art from recycled material. It was project after project all under the umbrella of KEA. All inspired to go above and beyond, to fuel their community economy and provide sustainable local solutions to every day problems in the community. Above the school lay a large garden that fed most of the school and village below.
The Pollination Project grant, while it came after 10 years of Mr. Kaganaga’s efforts started, was pivotal to their growth. Since receiving funding, Mr. Kaganga said that other grants have been easier to get. “They see you trust us, so others trust,” he said after explaining his recent $50,000 grant from UNDP to help with sustainable agriculture.
The entire system, from the school to the computer lab, was volunteer run. This is something nice for us to hear in our countries, not so nice for people who have no monetary income and are living way below the poverty line. Yet, despite the lack of monetary funds, they are doing what they can with what they have; and they are doing it with the spirit of progress and love in the forefront. “He wants to make this a model village for all to see,” explained one of Mr. Kaganga’s mentorees. While it is not currently a model village, it is definitely an example of community efforts and collaboration.
It seems Uganda has presented a long line of “I had no idea this existed” revelations. John Kaganga’s project is an example of this. I knew we funded a computer lab in a remote district of Uganda, I had no idea we were funding an agricultural/ environmental revolution that was intending to uplift and entire district and even the most humblest of farmers and youngest of community members.
In the USA, we hear of inspirational stories all the time. We love people coming out of nothing and becoming rich and successful. Mr. Kaganga’s strength, intelligence and persistence could very well be one of those that we hear so often in our culture. But it’s not. It’s a story of man who came from nothing, made a name for himself, and decided to throw it all away in his mid 40’s to start all over and make sure that he was taking his entire district with him on the way up. And so far, he is well on his way to uplifting every man, woman, child, plant and animal in his community. He truly is an example of someone who continues to Seed The Change.
I saw wild Gorillas the other day. After seeing these majestic creatures in their habitat- I couldn’t help but feel such strong sadness for all the ones kept in zoos. These are wild massive beasts that roam the jungle grazing on plants and roots. Their heavy set eyes and deep stare leave you feeling like they are either sad or disappointed in something you did. When the silver back looked sideways and made eye contact with me, I couldn’t help but look down. A bit ashamed almost, like he said to me “what do you want?” Maybe they really were looking at me with these feelings. Maybe, to them, all humans are representative of the massive killings and kidnappings we have enforced upon their species.
In order to find the Gorillas we had to hike almost 4 hours through the thickest bush I have ever traversed. We had a guide and two men with semi-automatic guns in front and behind our group. While the gorilla families we set out to find were used to human beings, there were a few more families in the forest that were not, and accidentally encountering them or the jungle elephants- was a situation too dangerous to be left unarmed, apparently. I felt terrible at the thought that such a majestic creature might lose its’ life over a stupid curious human who once again, intrudes in their space and blames them for defending their rights.
The thickness of the jungle most certainly brings forth the feeling that we no longer belong there. The last humans that inhabited this jungle were the Batwa people, said to be one of the oldest indigenous populations still alive. The Batwa were kicked out of the jungles when Uganda made the Impenetrable Forest, Bwindi, a national park.
The Batwa look physically different than most Ugandans. They are smaller in stature and their facial features are very distinctive of their tribe. They exist all over Uganda now that they have been evicted from their homes as of a few years ago. They used to graze the forest barefoot, surviving on foraged foods. Upon their eviction, they were giving land to toil and live off of, despite the fact they were never taught to farm. Almost all Ugandans look down on the Batwa people, considering them less intelligent and unfit for most things. The handful of Ugandans that have mentioned the Batwa to me, has talked about them as if they were aliens. Their lack of farming skills is almost unforgivable in such an agricultural society. However, the Batwa never farmed because they lived off the fruits naturally provided by the land. Their intelligence made sense in this jungle, where most of us can not survive over a week.
We were briefed prior to our descent into Bwindi. There were several groups of humans there, each seeing a different family of gorillas. A man did a general briefing before we divided up into groups. He pointed out that the Impenetrable Forest housed 3 of the great apes on this planet. “The chimpanzees live towards the north, the Gorillas live here and can anyone guess who the third apes are?” He paused for a moment waiting for a response. “It’s the humans,” he said. “The Batwa people were the 3rd, but they no longer live there.” My jaw dropped. Yes, this man just compared one of the oldest native tribes on the planet to apes in front of all these people. Surely apes and humans have similar genetic make up, but comparing unlike species just seemed completely out of line.
I was hoping to see one of the projects that focused on the Batwa people on my trip to Uganda. Mainly out of respect that I knew that I would be trekking on their land. Two of our grantees that have been doing projects with the Batwa people were unavailable. One was just in a serious car accident while the other was halfway across the country at the time I was down south. And so, at this point, I’m afraid I will be leaving without meeting a part of this community. Our guide, whose name I can’t remember, turned out to be their ally. And after a series of questions, about the Batwa, he told me that he was helping some of his Batwa colleagues get their own organization going. “There are many organizations that have come to help the Batwa, but they raise money and it all goes in their pockets,” He tapped his pockets. “It never goes back to the Batwa. If the Batwa make an organization, they can raise their own money, and it will go back to the community. It’s no good the way the way it is done now.”
There in the jungle- whispering out of fear of being attacked by something wilder than I’ve ever been, I told him about The Pollination Project and our grant opportunity. He smiled- and exclaimed how all they need is recognition. “They feel they are below us, and they are ashamed. They do not smile.” He said somberly. “They need to feel proud.”
Shortly after this conversation, we met the Gorilla family. It was 5 people in our group, not counting the guides. It was intimate enough to feel extremely vulnerable and scared. Several males in the group charged us a couple of times. Each time, the guides reminded us not to turn and run, but to walk backwards slowly and avoid eye contact. I wondered how the Batwa people co-existed with these larger creatures. They did not have a semi-automatic weapon, that’s for sure. It’s terrible how we have condemned so many of the living creatures on this planet to live lives we feel are better fit for us. I was teary eyed during my entire visit with the Gorillas. Knowing that there are less than 900 left on this planet and their only chance of survival was having daily visitors, for one hour a day, taking pictures and gawking at them in hopes that we can tell the rest of the world, “Don’t kill this species, these ones are worth saving.”
I guess everyone needs an advocate, it’s just sad that it comes at the price of treating them like aliens.
Whenever I am emailing an applicant about their application, I like to sign the email with “thank you for sharing your vision with us”.
I know many of us have great ideas that we can implement in our communities that will make life easier or spread a little compassion and understanding. Most of us sit on these ideas, a few share them here and there and an even smaller percentage decides to do something about it. This is the small percentage that takes the initiative to submit a grant application. As we all know, the jump between saying and doing is quite large and so I consider a completed application a pretty good accomplishment.
After being in Uganda for less than a week, the “thank you for sharing your vision with us” has taken on a whole new meaning. Most of these applicants do not have access to the Internet from their home. They have to pay to go into a computer lab and apply for an application. In the small village I just came from, the computers are limited and people have to wait hours just to get online. After applying, they have to do the same thing to receive our application decision and if they are funded it requires numerous amount of hours and money to send contracts and receive payment. The Western Union office for one of our grantees is a day away and can only be reached by donkey.
To some people that are living in remote villages all over the world, sharing their vision with us is more than just a check off the ‘to-do list’. We are talking about significant monetary and time commitment to merely tell someone in your non-native tongue, that you have an idea. One of our grantees created an email address solely for the purpose of submitting an application with us because they did not have one before. We are talking about people who are pushing themselves to their edge of what they know or daily routine, only to share their vision with a group of strangers who may or may not understand their idea.
Every village in Uganda speaks English a little differently. In the eastern part, they have a very particular way of expressing themselves always in the present tense. Instead of “we appreciate you” they say “we are appreciating you”. Instead of naming a place they say “there”. “Your Welcome” and “Thank you” are used interchangeably and “well done” is the highest form of praise.
Every time I met someone that knew what TPP was doing their response was: “Please tell them there, that we are appreciating them and well done. Your Welcome. Julie. Thank you so much.”
And my response had never been so true when I said : “Well done, thank you for sharing your vision with us”
It took us 12 hours to arrive to Andrew’s village. It is a small remote village on the eastern part of Uganda with large boulder rock foundations protruding from the flat green planes. The weather is slightly warmer than the rest of the country and during the dry season, water becomes scarce and a serious issue. The houses are circular clay huts with grass roofs. They are built in sets of 5 to 10, small little ‘compounds’ where families co-exist. Now, it is rainy season and the large boulders that have large holes carved into them turn into lush pools where naked children come to wash their clothes and bathe. Giggles of laughter sprout throughout the sky and it is only when you look up onto the rocks and see the children’s silhouettes, that you know where the laughter is coming from.
The village is not used to seeing this many white people. It is three of us here. They are used to Andrew’s presence, but Connor and I have added additional excitement to the mix. In addition to that, I am one of a handful of Non-African girls that have been to this region. Today I spent the morning visiting Berry Estoot’s project. The first official site visit I did and I’m hoping all site visits will be just as inspiring. I have videos and images that will follow when I have enough Internet bandwidth to provide them to you.
On my route home from visiting Berry Estoot’s project a group of children began to follow me. When I turned around, they ran away screaming and laughing. After 15 minutes of this, to be funny, I chased them and made a ‘roar’ sound. The kids ran and I saw genuine fear going through their face. They were literally afraid of my existence. I had never been such a foreigner.
I got to their level on one knee, and said hello in their tribal language and extended my hand. One by one, they came to greet me. Some grabbed my hand others barely touched it and a few shook my hand and starred at my light skin. The eldest wiped her hand on mine, she looked at the hairs on my arms with a peculiar face. Her skin was smooth and like the rest of the people in her village, she did not have any arm hairs. I wanted to tell her that when I was her age, I attempted to shave all my hairs off my body, including my eyebrows.
She looked at my hair and squinted. Her hair was shaved like most women in this region. I ran my hand over my head and her upper lip curled a bit, almost disgusted. My hair was definitely matted; the curls were caked with red dust from riding a motorcycle all day, but not enough to gross somebody out (I thought to myself). I put my handkerchief back on my head and kept walking until I reached a group of women that sat on top of a trunk. They handed me a mango. I sat on the ground and indulged. This was not new to me at all… eating mangos on the floor, underneath a mango tree was something I knew well from growing up in Costa Rica. The kids gathered around, sat down, poked at my camera for a bit and eventually began to ignore me. Soon enough we all became focused on peeling our mangos with our teeth and enjoying the afternoon breeze. This is the closest we might ever be to understanding each other, I thought to myself.
I met the Ugandan national Lacrosse team yesterday. A scrappy team brought together to play a game introduced to their country in 2010. My friend, Andrew Boston, travels nearly 11 hours, one way, to coach the team. Lacrosse was brought to Uganda by an organization called Fields of Growth. They began by creating small leagues the first few years, then taking the best players from that league and creating the National Ugandan Lacrosse team.
They gathered in the afternoon, after a night of heavy rainfall, to find that the field had been turned into a muddy wet mess that resembled a rice patty. Andrew took one look at the field, turned to us and said, “They don’t even have the right equipment to practice in these conditions.” The dream all year long has been to get this team to participate in the World Lacrosse Championship. Fields of Growth has been hustling and fundraising to get this team visas and to cover accommodations while Andrew has been on the ground dedicating his free time to coaching and gearing them to participate. Nobody on the team has ever been on a plane and most of them had never left their country. Today, Andrew told them, that they were going to the World Tournament.
“We are making our family so proud,” said Tabu, one of the players on the team. “And our country too!” The rest were smiling ear to ear.
“Who’s your first match?” I asked.
“Ireland,” responded one of the players that had shown up to practice in pretty worn down dress shoes. “Are they good?”
“Yes.” I said almost somberly. “They are very big and some of them play lacrosse since they were little.”
I am not familiar with the Ireland Lacrosse team, but this much I know. I also know that the Ireland team is not practicing in dress shoes and having to call off practice because their field has been turned into a mud bath. I’m also sure most of the national teams have appropriate equipment to train and condition with. At the very least, their trainer is not commuting 11 hours to teach them the basics of lacrosse. Yet despite the odds, they are going to the World Lacrosse Championships.
“But we are good too, and we are fast. They will know who we are,” said Tabu, with a smile so large it made his eyes squint.
“Yes.” I agreed. It’s the 1st African country to participate in such games, and the first Ugandan National team ever. They have an all expense paid trip to USA and upon arrival will be given a care package full of training and lacrosse equipment.
“Your also each getting a case of lacrosse balls, “ exclaimed Andrew as he read off the list of items they were being gifted. “Which is ironic since there are currently only 8 balls in the entire country of Uganda.” The team laughed.
A few of the players were from the North of Uganda. Judging by their age, it was safe to assume they or their families came to Kampala fleeing the LRA (Kony’s army that went around kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers). We just funded a project in their home-town, that’s 75 kilometers south of South Sudan, where a civil war just broke out. We funded the project to build a basketball court, the first in the region.
“You did!” exclaimed one of the players after Andrew introduced us and explained what we had just done. “I very much want to be a part of this project! That is my home.” He said delighted.
I’m not sure where these 18 players will end up in the tournament or if they will even win any games. I know little about lacrosse and even less about the Ugandan team. But I do have a feeling that this tale of success has little to do with the destination and all to do with the journey.
I have been unable to get wireless Internet since I arrived to Uganda. Pardon my brevity and or typos. I write this blog short and brief because I’m using USA phone to write this post. But I had to start my filling everybody in on my travels.
We arrived Friday 1pm Uganda time. The drive from the airport was cozy, fitting 5 in a small car ( one of our grantees, Fremma, our driver and another driver who was driving b/c the first driver had no car). I learned a few words in Luganda, the language spoken here in Kampala, the capital, in addition to some backstory of the country. I know very little about Uganda, knowing mainly what you hear in the news here and there. My decision to come to Uganda was quite random- or maybe not random at all.
Uganda has been coming up the past 2 yrs. First, my friend Andrew moved here as a Peace Core Volunteer which was around the same time the The Pollination Project saw a surge in applications coming from Uganda. The applicants were referred to us from various places and sources, yet the projects have called my attention because of the creative responses to issues in their communities and the resiliency behind the grantees and people involved in the projects. After TPP and Andrew put Uganda on my mental map, Uganda continued to pop up everywhere.
Every time I said I wanted to visit Uganda, people asked me; “Why Uganda?”
To which I answered, “Exactly, why Uganda? What’s going on there? And why do I keep hearing about it?”
Slowly I’ve been learning ‘Why Uganda’. Uganda is a culturally diverse, geographically stunning and relatively safe country rocked by a violent history , bordered by tumultuous countries and a growing economy.
It is considered the Pearl of Africa. In fact, there was a sign at customs with an incredibly long hash tag that informed me of it. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can see Gorillas and other great apes, it has 3 safari parks, top notch white water rafting in the Nile River, ridiculously plush scenic views, crater lakes, coffee and vanilla coops and agricultural lands straight out of a National Geographic and a plethora of other things I have yet to hear about. The weather is tropical with a really nice cool breeze and a bit cooler in the south. The people so far have proven to be absolutely kind, patient and soft spoken. There are no shortage of languages spoken throughout the country but mainly one dominant faith, Christ- based theology with a minority Muslim population.
They’ve had the same ‘President’ for over 20 yrs and it is now illegal for people to congregate in a public setting and talk about the government in a negative way. I found out that a vast majority of the people strongly support the anti- gay rights Bill, and around 240 people have been sent to jail after passing this law. Much of the country believes that homosexuality are the reason behind the spread of HIV and a lot of this was sparked and spread by missionaries coming and heavily influencing the country with anti-gay propaganda. The anti-gay bill has significantly diminished foreign aid in the country to which Uganda has responded with ‘anti-west’ sentiments, stating that ‘they are not dependent on aid for the country to survive’. A statement, of course, often said by the rich.
Uganda is definitely going through a period of growth and the country is working hard at finding their own identity.
We are leaving Kampala for a very remote village in the East where my friend Andrew has been stationed for the past few years. It will take us an entire day to travel to his village.
Until next time.