Bududa Trip: In which I learned, acted like a cliché, and saw two ends of the spectrum

Last weekend, I traveled to Bududa with another MAPLE volunteer. We went to this small rural town an hour from Mbale for three reasons. First, we were visiting an orphan’s program to explore partnership possibilities. Second, the director of the program happened to be from the same town as Kelly, the other MAPLE volunteer. And third, Bududa is really fun to say. Try it the way Ella Fitzgerald would say it: bah doo dah.

We arrived at the Bududa Development Center (BDC) mid-morning on Saturday. The children were having breakfast while the teachers and staff had tea. Most weeks, the children would then have classes.

The day of our visit was different. Public health workers were visiting to talk about HIV/AIDS and to administer testing. The presentation to the children was given in a combination of English and Lugisu. It emphasized ways that even young children could get HIV (from the mother) and the confidential nature of the testing (to allay fears of social stigma). After the presentation, the children all had pin-pricks of blood drawn. Processing about 100 children took several hours. The children played while the samples were evaluated, and received their results a few hours later.

Learning

The breaks in the day allowed me to meet the Ugandan teachers who worked with the program. I asked what they thought about the HIV presentation. In the United States, it would be odd to speak about this topic with a group of kids ranging from 5 to 20. The teachers described how HIV is a common part of life for many Ugandans. The children may not fully understand it, but they are certainly familiar with it.

My conversations about HIV with the teachers highlighted how the structures of our lives impact the different assumptions we make. Some people call this a difference of “culture” — but I find that this concept obscures more than it illuminates. Culture can seem immutable, though it clearly isn’t. Even if we accept the changing nature of culture, the concept suggests something bigger than individuals. That introduces an unnecessary element: these children’s understanding of HIV didn’t result from some broader society-wide force, but rather from a natural reaction to their circumstances.

Acting like a cliché

While waiting for the results of their tests, the children milled about and played games. That was my cue. As an American visiting a rural orphanage in a developing country, I felt contractually obligated to play soccer with the kids (and yes, many of them called it “soccer” as well as “football”). Some of them were pretty good. They ran barefoot on a mediocre field and still displayed impressive ball skills.

When the afternoon’s downpour came, we huddled under a sheltered area. The kids pulled out a ball of lettuce held together with twine: a make-shift hacky sack. I showed off my skills, doing a pretty good impression of myself in high school. I had to find non-verbal ways to encourage sharing: a few of the boys liked to hog the hack, but this group was younger so their English was not as good.

One end of the spectrum

The rest of Saturday was nice, but uneventful. Sunday gave me a chance to see two very different ends of the local socio-economic scale.

Sunday morning we had planned to go hiking to the site of the March mudslides that had left about a hundred dead and several thousand displaced, but morning rain forced us to cancel. Instead, we waited for the rain to pass and then followed the program staff on a home visit to one of the orphans. To reach Emanuel, age 6, we walked half an hour along dirt roads and then fifteen minutes up a foot path. We were more confident in finding our way after encountering a Ugandan woman who the staff knew from the vocational programs. She guided us the rest of the way.

Once we reached Emanuel’s home, the staff had a questionnaire to fill out about Emanuel and the household. Emanuel lives with his sisters: Betty, age 16, and Barbara, age 8. Their house has mud walls, and they live off what little they grow and the cow they keep. In addition to coming to the orphan’s program on Saturdays, Emanuel goes to school every weekday. Betty had given birth just three days before. The baby was doing well but Betty seemed to have complications, so the staff gave her some money to get to the clinic.

As we left, Emanuel and Barbara walked with us back to the BDC. The staff loaded them up with donated clothes, some water treatment tablets, and a few other things. The kids waited out a passing storm and then walked home.

The other end of the spectrum

Kelly and I left Bududa shortly after that. We had been invited to attend a meeting of Opportunity Sakuya United Talents Associatin (OSUTA) by Veronica Mungoma, a friend of MAPLE. The OSUTA meeting took place in a town a little way outside Mbale. It was hosted by Mary, one of the OSUTA members who was also a local councilor. Her home was very nice, though small: the fifteen people at the meeting sat shoulder-to-shoulder on couches and chairs in her living room. She introduced us to the five children who lived with her. I was unclear on their relationship to her, but at least two had been orphans.

OSUTA has a dual mission. First, the organization is a savings and credit cooperative (SACCO). At the meeting every two weeks, the dozen members each contribute a set amount into the savings. This creates a small fund from which they can borrow at an interest rate of 10% per month. SACCOs and similar arrangements help families to manage their money when they lack access to formal financial tools like banks and credit cards.

The second part of the mission is to help the needy. The group has plans to do charity work in their community with part of the interest paid by members, as well as other funds they are able to raise. Though the group members are poor on the global scale, they are relatively well-off compared to their neighbors. Today I met with Veronica again to talk about any support that MAPLE could give to OSUTA. She is a smart and fascinating woman, and I will surely have more to share about her work in the coming weeks.

The OSUTA meeting ended with a meal of soup, casava, and mulokonyi: cow hooves. One of the group members expressed surprise that people in the United States throw away so many perfectly good parts of the cow! I dug in, fulfilling my duty to try whatever is put in front of me. The cow hooves were similar in texture and taste to over-cooked ham. Not bad, on the whole.