It’s been about three months now since I’ve been in Uganda. I really feel like I’ve been learning a lot.

A few weeks ago, my mom came to visit, and we took a trip to South Africa. Everything was exceptionally beautiful. We went to Cape Town, and though I believe that Ddegeya is exceptionally beautiful as well, Cape Town was undeniably significantly different than my village in Uganda.

I frustrated myself when we initially arrived in Cape Town; I expected that my first hot shower after bathing in cold rain water for three months would be a big moment, but it felt normal. I thought that sitting on a toilet instead of squatting over a hole would be relieving, but at the time, I honestly didn’t think much of it. I anticipated to appreciate the extra amenities more than I would’ve typically enjoyed them, but it took me a little extra consideration to remember to be thankful. I’m frustrated at myself for this. It felt so natural to be brought back into a lifestyle similar to what I had grown up in, that I initially forgot to consider where I had just been living for three months.

I wasn’t reminded to fix my mindset until the morning after my mom and I arrived. In our hotel, I walked into a room that had a large wall filled with books. Most of the books were covered in dust because no one ever actually reads them. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of that, but I was reminded of our scholar’s center back in Ddegeya. At Engeye, we have a small room that has a few shelves of books. Nearly all of the books have been read and re-read by the kids in the village and the scholars many times. The books have all been helpful in teaching the kids how to read. They are incredibly purposeful. In contrast, the books that I admired, but did not read, in my hotel were clearly mainly used for decoration. I scanned the rest of the room. There was a chess set off to the side, with a marble board and pieces that were made to look like they were gold. I thought back to the chess set that I had in my room at Engeye; the board is made of cardboard, and the majority of the original pieces are missing, replaced by bottle caps and other random bits. The chess games that I played on the set back at Engeye were just as fun as the games played on the set in my Cape Town hotel. The couches in the room of the hotel were certainly comfy, but I thought of the straw mat that I have back in my Ddegeya room. On the straw mat, I’ve sat, used it for exercise, watched movies with my friends, and taught the kids how to make a blanket fort over it. The mat works just fine.

For the rest of my trip in Cape Town, I kept in mind how so many of the things that we used or encountered were just non-essential. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly very thankful for all the non-essential extras that I am privileged to have, but I hadn’t really realized how unnecessary so many details in my typical life had been.

Consider this: when I’m living in Uganda, some nights we’ll go out to get food. We usually get either goat or chicken. If I’m feeling extra hungry, then we’ll stop to get chips (french-fries) too. The chips in Uganda are great. They’re probably one of my favorite foods here. In Cape Town, we went to a restaurant where it wasn’t only the choice of whether or not you wanted fries, but what type of fry do you want—regular, steak, curly, sweet potato, waffle, smiley-shaped… I chose the smiley-shaped.

We are given so many choices and options for how to live our lives, and while it is great, it’s not necessarily essential. We choose what clothes we put on, what color iPhone we want, and whether or not we want extra butter on our popcorn in the movie theater. Girls choose what scent of perfume they want to use that day, and boys decide which tie to wear at a formal event. We pick where we want to go for spring break. We decide if we want a raspberry margarita or strawberry.

I am incredibly grateful that I have these choices to make. There are some patients that we see at the clinic that have to choose if they want to purchase their diabetes medication or their H. Pylori pills, because they can’t afford both. There are kids in the village that I know based on the one outfit that they wear every day, because they don’t have the choice to wear something different. Some kids can’t decide on what they want to study in university, because they can’t afford to go to university at all.

When I was in Cape Town, I frustrated myself. I had the choice between three different shampoos, two conditioners, and four different body-washes in my hot shower. My mom and I went to get a pedicure. I don’t even get pedicures when I’m back at home. I couldn’t decide on one color, so I got purple nails on one foot and red on the other.

I’ve always been horrible at making decisions. When I’m home, it takes me forever to pick an outfit in the morning. Deciding which college that I wanted to attend was tough. Picking if I wanted to date Sean or A.J. in high school was hard. Deciding if I wanted to go to Chi Psi fraternity or Biergarten on a Friday night was a struggle. Now, I’m glad that I even had such elementary decisions to make.

Getting Used to it

It’s been a while since I posted my last blog. I’m sorry about that. The reason is that it’s actually been pretty hard for me to acclimate.

Initially, this made me think that I’m not in the right mindset to be writing a blog, but maybe I am. Part of this blog’s purpose is to educate the next group of Minerva Fellows about how to move your way through the fellowship, and what to expect. It would be wrong to only write about easy moments that I’m going through—that would be unrealistic.

When considering the scenario, it might make more sense that I’d still be getting used to being here, rather than if everything felt completely natural. For context, I had just spent the past four years of my life where nearly every hour of my day was planned and structured. Between classes, homework, work-study, clubs, socializing, staying in shape, and trying to get enough sleep, there were very few times in college where I found myself wondering what to do with my time. With this, I had also spent the past four years living on the same grounds, surrounded by the same people. Many of the friends that I made as a freshman were the ones that I carried with me through to my senior year. This being said, I do not think that it’s completely unexpected for me to still be feeling a little unsure of myself.

There’s no denying it that things are very different here. The pace of life is much more relaxed. The people are new, and have viewpoints on life unlike any that you’d hear back in the United States. The houses are different, the transportation is different, the food is different, the language is different, the types of things that people do during a regular day are different. Lots of things are different, but that means that I get to experience things that I would never get to experience back at home. Even if it’s hard to get used to, I’m glad that things are different.

Something that I’ve taken comfort in, is that even through a world of differences, there are still so many things that are much the same. The staff here at the clinic, the scholars, along with many of the other people that I’ve met so far have all been great. People are just people. It doesn’t matter that we grew up on opposite sides of the world. The scholars—the students that Engeye sponsors through school—are some of the friendliest and most driven kids that I’ve ever met. They each have their own passion and plans for what they want to study in university. One boy wants to be a pharmacist. One girl is in school for fashion design. Another is studying to become a tour guide. Some of the adversities that the kids have had to overcome brings me to tears, but they’re still just kids when it comes down to it… and great kids at that. Also, the staff at Engeye have made me feel welcome, and I’ve made some friends here. That helps a lot. The village kids know me now, and every time they see me, I’m met with smiles and hugs. They always want me to play, draw, or read with them. Since the name “Lauren” is hard for a lot of the Ugandans to pronounce, the kids know me as “Nakato” which means “the younger twin sister.” Sometimes when I go for a jog through the village, I’ll have kids shout “Nakato” after me and will run with me for a little while. This happens even when I’m miles from the clinic and haven’t officially met the kids before. I’ve realized that it’s nearly impossible to jog alone, and I’m okay with that. It makes me smile.

So, some things are the same, and it makes being so far away from home a little more comfortable. Some things are different. I’m adapting to them, and I know it means that I’m learning.

Starting Out

I’ve started writing this blog post a few different times. The first time was weeks before I was leaving, and the theme of the post was going to be about why I wanted to go to Uganda, and why I even decided to apply to the fellowship in the first place back in January. I didn’t get very far with that post; the only reasons I could jot down were that I hated the cold weather and wanted to get a tan. These reasons– though undeniably very small factors in the decision– are obviously not why I decided to uproot my life and volunteer in a developing nation for 9 months. Even though escaping the cold weather is great, I don’t think the sunshine is worth having to squat over a hole in the ground as a toilet every day. Therefore, it’s evident that greater motivations were quite necessary.

But, when sitting down to type this post, I found that my true motivations for leaving were very hard to put into writing. There are a great number of reasons that I applied for and accepted this fellowship, many of which are rather personal and hard to explain. I’ll save the actual reasons for a later post when I can do my reasoning justice and articulate it fully.

The second time I started trying to write was on the plane here. I intended for the blog to be a nice introduction to the work I’ll be doing here, and a humble remark on how I wouldn’t be the one imparting wisdom through my posts, rather the Ugandans would be, with me as their translator. I felt I couldn’t complete this post because I was, and still am, unsure about all the logistics of what I’m doing here and what I will learn. That will come as I go. I’ll keep you updated.

The third time I started writing was a few nights ago, after arriving at Engeye. I wrote about how I was scared. I wrote that I was unsure of what I was doing. I was tired. The combination of learning the clinicians’ names, my way around the compound, my job duties, the village layout, and how to get into the neighboring towns worried me a lot. What do I do at the clinic? Where do I get food? Will I get to know the people here? How can I be away from home for so long? I called my dad. I called my mom. I talked to the other students who are here. They each calmed me down. I went to bed with the reminder to take everything day by day, and that these things will come with time.

The next morning, I woke up feeling better. The weather has been beautiful every second that I’ve been here so far, and maybe the toilets aren’t so bad. Amy—the other Minerva Fellow—and I walked around the village. The children waved at us and stared as if we were a spectacle. They pointed and called us “Mzungu,” which translates somewhat to “traveler” but mostly refers to “white person.” We passed villagers and their huts made of mud. Right now, things are all still new, but they are also still a bit scary. I hope that the intimidating aspect will wear off soon, so I can truly enjoy the novelty of being in such a different and beautiful place. I have never done anything comparable to this in my whole life, and I may never again. I want to take it all in and fully appreciate everything before it becomes ordinary. I have fresh eyes. I know that once I am comfortable here, I may not see things the same way as I will over the first couple of weeks.

I am still a bit scared, but it comes and goes. I’m sure this feeling will come in great frequency at first, but will fade away as time goes on. Everything is day by day now. That’s the only way I can see it. When I first got here, I knew nothing. Now, a few days later, I know the layout of the Engeye Health Clinic compound, I know most of the clinician’s names, I’ve gotten a small sense of what the routine will be like, and I’ve ventured a bit further into the village. Amy and I met a local shop owner, Eddie, who is famous among the past Minerva Fellows as someone who will be somewhat of our guide. He brought us into a neighboring town for drinks and a great meal, cooked by “Mama Ryan.” Today, we got training on some of our tasks in the clinic, and I’m beginning to feel helpful to Engeye.  

Things are coming together, but I still have a few lingering fears. The language barrier is hard for me. I want to talk to the people that I see, but can’t unless they speak English. It’s a bit isolating. My other main fear is being away from home for so long. Home is what I know; it’s what I’m accustomed to. I am hopeful that in a few months that will shift, and Uganda will become a new type of home for me.

So, thank you for reading my first blog post, Mzungus. As promised, I’ll keep you all updated with my adventures and what I learn. I am very excited to get into my work at the clinic and to start my Lugandan lessons. I am hopeful that I may someday soon call the Engeye staff family. I am grateful to be here. Thank you, Union College, for giving me this opportunity. I will work my hardest to help the people of Uganda through Engeye Health Clinic. I will give my best effort to learn what I can and share this with people back home. I will put my heart into becoming a Ugandan.

Weebale and Tunaalabagana; thank you and see you later!

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