Tag Archives: travel

Cacophony of cultural pride

Today officially started off the several month-long circumcision parades in town…

The villagers are covered in ash, dressed in plantain leaves, drumming and ululating in droves

Culturally, the Bagishu men who live in the districts of Bududa, Mbale, Sironko and Manafwa among others are supposed to undergo circumcision as a way of turning boys into men.

Unlike medical circumcision, cultural circumcision for the Gishu dictates that the one to be circumcised needs to feel it as it is happening and is not supposed to cry or cringe away from the pain. If this happens, then, one is deemed a man. Circumcision is not always performed with sterile knives. Mostly,  but not always are they consensual. Female circumcision has been banned from these regions. Rumor has it the boy is covered in white flour for three days after the ritual is performed, he then enters manhood. Healing takes 4-6 weeks, providing there are no complications.

Last day in Wanale

After a long day in Wanale, we arrived home just in time for the festivities-Doctor Sabiti and I ran down the drive to capture on film
After seeing what women go through in this country, you might dance a little for circumcision



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Embarking the unknown

I traveled 13 plus hours a day, on various modes of sketchy transport,  to a country that has questionable political unrest, is on the US State Department’s highest travel warning list, has “high” incidences of violent crime and possible threat from terrorists, and my dad writes…

“You forgot toothbrush on check list.”

Sleep deprived, sore, weary of riding matatus for long stretches, two(one unnecessary) visas later, and lot’s of marriage proposals we made it back home safe!

Keisha and I woke Saturday morning at six, grabbed a Boda Boda into town’s taxi park,  and caught a Matatu into Bucia. Getting accurate information to plan travel here is pretty impossible. You have to go to the source, ask questions, and wait for the next mode of transport to get where you’re going, generally meaning killing several hours while simultaneously being harassed. Harmless harassment, albeit exhausting.

Matatu’s are 10 passenger vans used for taxing locals pretty much everywhere. They are barely held together and maintained according to our standards. Every taxi park has Matatu’s going every which direction, and they don’t leave until the vans are full. Translation-  minimal,  20 people along with luggage, chickens, dead fish etc.  I quickly realized that instead of waiting an hour or more for the last two seats to fill up, i could offer to pay for them and insist “WE GO!”  After hours of this, I found my thinning patience overriding the obnoxiousness  of buying off seats. Oh well.

We quickly learned that there is no such thing as accurate time frames for Ugandans, or Kenyans for that matter.  If we were told a trip took 2 hours, it took 4 or 5. (actual drive time)  After we arrived at the taxi park in Bucia, we found our way several miles over to a bus that was leaving for Kenya. We waited 2 hours, and started our 8+ hour journey to Nakuru.

Knowing absolutely nothing about Nakuru, we were pleasantly surprised it was a bit more industrialized than Mbale. Sadly, we did not do our research before arriving and did not realize Lake Nakuru is famous for the millions of flamingos that line the lake front. The algae filled lake attracts warthogs, baboons, and black and white rhinos, among many other creatures. When we arrived we realized we were an hour and a half from Hell’s Gate, our final destination. Our room was pleasant, had a semi-hot shower and the staff was very welcoming. We woke at 7am and found a Matatu to take us to Navasha,  into Hell’s Gate National Park.

A full days travel and we have 8 hours to explore before making the trek back.  GO!

We rented bicycles in town and rode a couple of miles into the park.  The backdrop is an illustration out of Serendipity books. Clearly, a place where unicorns live. Warthogs, gazelle, baboons, zebra, and giraffe coexist with bikers.  There are no elephants, rhinos, or lions due to the borders being blocked, hence the bike riding allowed.

Home of  geological formations, soaring red cliffs, volcanic landforms,  endless deep green grasslands against cerulean blue skies- it’s beauty is overwhelmingly divine. We biked through extinct volcanos where geothermal geysers spews steam-creating an echo that pulsates through the canyon.  We gleeeeeeeefully made our way down to the gorge.  Here is where we met our guide, Robert.  He kept us laughing as we exchanged stories about his country and life. He wove us through the gorge for hours. All I could think about was how much I want to come back and camp here for days, explore, wake and sleep to the rhythm of these walls.

After our hike back up I asked Robert to take us off the National Park over to a Masai village. We quickly walked through as its’ nearing 6pm, and at this point Robert has promised to help us get a ride out of the park- we won’t make it on bikes. Despite asking permission to photo, the chief is not happy with my camera. Later Robert tells me he was drunk. Drunk or not, I deleted his photo out of respect. Too bad, it was a good one.

We hitched a ride out with a family from Singapore, who spoke no English. Made our way back to Nakuru. We woke early in the morning to start the journey back home.

This time we traveled to Malaba instead of Bucia as we hoped it would be a quicker route.  Despite it actually taking longer, the  Malaba road winded through multiple Kenyan villages that were bustling and full of life. If only I had my own car. Same story alllllll the way home.

We arrived home at 10pm, STARVING, yet content.

Ps  Dad, I remembered my tooth brush:)


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More pics and video

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Yes, Patron is better, but consider Jose this week…for Africa!

Friends and family. According to the stellar graphing charts WordPress provides, approx 800 people saw my last few post. Wow, amazing! No pressure or anything.  Upon your request, (beautiful, generous people) I will tell you where to donate your hard-earned money! And, thank you for leaving your comfort zone and giving a S$*T!

What it means to volunteer:

I volunteered to work with Kissito for 5 weeks. As a volunteer here, and with most NGO’s, you pay your own way. Upside, is you know your money does not pay for my expenses here. Downside, for those who have expressed interest in volunteering, there are significant cost involved. It cost me upward of 4 thousand dollars to come here-flight, med insurance, vaccines, supplies, etc. If you can get the time off and afford the trek, I highly encourage you to do so, or work with any NGO, anywhere. If you can commit to a lengthy period of time and have specialized skills you can apply for a fellowship. http://kissitointernational.org/volunteers.aspx

How you can help without physically touching ground:

Simple. Give what you can. If you are anything like me, you have a gym account open, but have not gone in a year. An unused Spotify account taking your 10 bucks a month to grow Zuckerberg’s fascist agenda…you get the point

Re-shift your monies. Cancel that corporate gym membership that’s giving the CEO his third trip to the Riviera. Yeah! Buy Jose Cuervo instead of Patron this week-I realize this is a tall order.

(a lot of you have written me and expressed feeling bad about smaller donations) YOU’RE CRAZY. Don’t think a small donation is not worth your time. Multiple small donations add up fast sillies. Even a small “sacrifice” on your part can literally transform someone’s life here-I’ve been seeing it with my own eyes. It’s incredibly rewarding.

Some of you asked if Kissito will deduct monthly amounts from accounts –YES



 The Big question: How does Kissito break down donors monies?

100%, 100%, 100% of your money goes directly to aid here in Africa.  Zero dollars go toward US administrative fees, advertising etc- they are covered by Kissito’s domestic mother company. This is RARE

Need a tAx write off? PLEAZE

You can give  support to a particular program – like malnutrition rehabilitation for children in Wanale – or to Kissito’s life-saving hospitals and transformative health programs,  “flipping” dysfunctional, critically understaffed/under-supplied government hospitals

So much has been accomplished here, yet so much more needs to be done!

and, Lizzy has 10 days to get us 10,000, which we desperately need:)


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Survival of the fittest

We have been working hard to get a rather large grant from the Rotary club. Shooting a short film to show Kissito’s “mission” in Mbale hospital is part of the package. Mbale is the regional hospital, meaning it is the largest hospital within a 5 hour range. That covers a lot of districts. This place desperately needs help.

Sleeping in Saturday was something I looked forward to. I told Uthman I would go over to Mbale with him in hopes we could get the remaining footage we need to complete the film.  We arrived unannounced, and I convinced sister Margarite to stop her work and give us a tour. She sat through a long interview and gave us a shockingly detailed tour of the wards. I’d been dubious before this day- as to whether or not sister Margarite liked me. Apparently someone else who tried to film there almost got arrested. Uthman and I managed to come out unscathed.  We walked into several departments like we owned them, getting real footage people need to see.

The children’s ward at Mbale could be  the poster child for non-existent health care in Africa. Kissito wants to expand into this ward eventually. All the usual shocking sights. Wrought iron beds with tattered, unsterile mattresses, very little medical equipment, 2 nurses for over a hundred children, multiple children sharing beds etc.  Despite all this, the children don’t cry much-when crying does not illicit a coddling response, you notice quickly how many children won’t cry.  It’s pretty amazing. I’ve don’t think I’ve seen one child whining here.

As we interviewed patients in the ward, i walked over to a boy’s bed. He was so badly malnourished and sick. I had never actually seen anyone this thin.  I knew this had to be more than malnourishment.  Note: We have not seen anyone dying of HIV like this since the 80’s in the U.S.  Most children here have TB along with HIV, along with malnourishment. If they are not adequately treated with ARV’s in the first stages their cd4 count gets too low to fight off any other infections such as Malaria, TB, Fever,etc.  Not knowing he was in stage 4, (full-blown AIDS), I made some calls to get him transferred into a facility that could better help him. After a few days of searching, I was lead to Renee. Her speciality is transferring the terminally ill children to better facilities. She drove in from Kampala to meet me at the children’s ward Monday. Not knowing the proper protocol on how to walk in and remove a patient without seeming offensive, we gracefully made out way to his bed. The bed was empty.

Friday-Sunday GOING TO KENYA SAFARI!!!!!!!!!! Some lighter posting on the horizon:)


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“To be a pregnant woman in Africa is to have one foot in the grave.” African Proverb

Back up to Wanale-

Carlos, Carolina, and I headed back up the mountain to Wanale clinic -Thursday (behind on posting)

The drive up through the lush fertile jungle gives me a  sense of calm. We drove through the vast untouched mountains, filled with sounds, creatures, waterfalls, smells only an unindustrialized nation could produce. Villagers wave and smile while yelling Jambo! ( Swahili) The Land Rover we drive up is a familiar sight to them now. This terrain is starting to feel like home.  If anything will make you a raging environmentalist,  it’s spending time in places like this.  Environmental degradation seems almost non-existent on this land, except for the burning of trash. This natural growth is ‘currently’ free from exploitation, development and modern amenities.  The villagers huts are elemental. No electricity is brought up the mountain, and the result is endless beauty that I will deeply miss.  I’m already anticipating my last ride up here as a very emotional day.

The malnutrition program has been approved for Wanale, but the funding will not come through till later this week. Hopefully.  We started assessing families anyway and followed them back to their homes to get a better understanding of the whole picture. I saw a woman walking down the road heading for the clinic with a baby and a young girl.  From the instant I saw this young woman walking down the mountain, i felt some connection to her. She has an infectious smile and an innocence you just want to know.

She brought a child in with Malaria symptoms. I’m trying to gather information from her while Robert ( medical officer) helps me translate. She did not know the birth dates or ages of most of her children. I’m finding this to be common. I find out after relentless questioning the child she brought to the clinic is not even hers. She is raising three children from a women who left them, and three of her own. She is 18. From the looks of the little girl she brought in we assumed the others were malnourished. We followed her home.  As we suspected, the children were very badly malnourished and one of the boys has been paralyzed for the last three years. No one seemed to know why, Polio is a guess. I’m assuming he sits in the hut mostly. He has never been seen by any doctors. His crutches were made out of wood, he can no longer use them he is so weak. He will need  food, a diagnosis, rehabilitation, and a wheelchair at the very least. These illnesses are so easily avoidable, it’s hard to see them left untreated.

She has a small plot of land and only grows maize. This has been their only diet. Maize here is hard and dry. I can hardly eat it, let alone fathom eating it everyday. Of course questions flood my mind– why is she only growing corn on her fertile land when they are starving? I’m trying to remember farming 101.  Eventually, Kissito will implement an agricultural program. You need to teach a man how to fish. The end goal is to help  support  the villagers to enhance the status of food security through training in agricultural practices, provision of seeds, animal breeds etc. We have a plot of land and seeds to start, but finding funding and staff is a never-ending process. Here is a local organization that teaches community supported agriculture.

Her child tested negative for Malaria. Although the microscope lens was broken, so the medical officer could not get an accurate read on her blood. Same story different clinic. Lack of basic equipment. He medicated her anyway, and her newborn got vaccinated.  We now know where she lives and will go back Thursday to deliver food. Eventually, she will be part of the education program in agriculture. Carolina and I are trying to get Dr Sabiti up the mountain to diagnose the young boy so we can get him transferred to some type of rehabilitation program. There we can be somewhat assured he’ll be fed and at least gain strength to heal.

She kept grabbing my hand and calling me Auntie. I stayed with her the entire day, she felt my devotion. I kept slipping her all my power bars. I don’t even know if they’ll eat them. I’m gonna make sure she does not slip through the cracks. Imagine her surprise walking to the doctors to help her child and by chance we were there in that exact moment to rescue her family. This luck will most definitely change their lives forever. When i saw her walking and smiling earlier, she had no idea – she asked for nothing. I can’t describe the look of hope on her face when we walked her home with food and told her we’ll be back.  And, we will.
We headed further up the mountain. The fog covering the peaks remind me of the city. We started hiking through the coffee plantations toward a home of a women we are supposed to deliver more food too. She is about to give birth. Her husband left her and the children with nothing. We made arrangements for our midwife to keep an eye on her till labor.  As the common saying around here is “To be a pregnant women in Africa, is to have one foot in the grave.” Maternal death here is devastatingly common. She was kneeling to us-a sign of respect. If she were to die, three more children would be orphans. We’ll make sure that won’t happen. We hiked back through the hills toward our car.

Ah, Ugandan coffee plantations. The workers passed on the hillside carrying burlap sacs of beans on their heads. The air was cool and crisp as the mist hovered around the fields. A nice reprieve from the heat.  Carlos and Carolina are making their way to the car.  I’m falling behind as I keep stopping to capture this place with my camera…

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This excerpt is from my dear friend Solar’s blog while traveling/working in Africa with New Seed

She describes the emotional “imbalance”  this otherwise rewarding work can often inflict, in an honest unfiltered way…when someone expresses my emotions perfectly, I’d rather recycle their words…

Forgive me for not having posted in so long. I’m working in reverse to make sense of my experience here. Every time I’m inspired to share something, it’s about the stresses, the challenges, what-I-would-have-done-differently-had-I-known, what isn’t working, why I feel powerless. etc.

I know there is also much positive but that lens is currently marred. I need the reality of what I’m feeling to be valid. It’s ok that this hasn’t been a Lonely Planet Adventure. I’ve been doing real work with real people, not in order to generate a colorful story or rack up an experience on my Life CV, but to actually help this world in some way. And I’ve gained more respect than you can imagine for the people here who spin gold from dirt. It’s part of why I’ve resisted sharing the challenge every time I feel it. I’m so fucking lucky. I didn’t live through any war. I didn’t see my cousin taken out back and shot between the shoulders. I wasn’t born into slavery. I get how privileged I really am. Even knowing I can eventually leave is a privilege.

I think I’ve just been pounded by a relentlessness from many sides in many unexpected ways with no recovery or reprieve. Knowing the complete picture now would make me set up my life here very differently in order to maintain balance, sanity and safety…Perspective is always a teacher but I may need less of it now to learn the same lessons. I’ve also been completely dependent. I think that has a lot to do with it. Because other people here have been here longer, I’ve just allowed plans to be made. I have given myself little control over my life here beyond some excursions to town… I haven’t set my own boundaries or responded to my own limitations. Because I committed to do a job, I’ve let that commitment and my idea of integrity trump instincts or decisions that would have otherwise protected me.  I was dropped into an emotional jungle and I’m finding my way into the clearing.”  Thanks for letting me post, I feel your sediments exactly.

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“You often meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.” – Chinese proverb

Dear friends,

Reading your e-mails has been a treat. Thank you all for being so supportive, making request, giving me direction, requesting photos etc.  I guess you all prefer e-mailing instead of commenting on blog.  Maxime, thank you for requesting I post a link to donate to Kissito. It’s in the works. Hatim, thank you for sending me Fiona’s latest album. Perfect timing for today’s long and bumpy ride. Oh, and good call on the Mophie, very handy. Had I not had it today I could not have brought you guys these great c-section videos.

A lot of you have asked me to break down the health care. It’s hard to do without making these post long and tedious, but here’s the basics…

It’s no secret Uganda’s health care system is cracked. The government allocates 9.3% of total national budget to health care. So they claim. Uganda’s healthcare performance is still ranked as one of the worst in the world by the World Health Organization. The country is ranked 186th out of 191 nations. A Ugandan’s life expectancy is among the lowest across the globe. In Uganda, one in every 200 births ends the mother’s life, around 1 million people are living with HIV and although malaria accounts for 14% of all deaths, less than 10% of children under five are sleeping under insecticide-treated nets. There is a hierarchy to the health system. The clinics are rated levels 1-4, General hospital, Regional hospital, and then National hospital.  I personally cannot tell a huge difference between the levels as they are all lacking. Level one does not have a structure. Picture someone in a village who can distribute basic medicine (pretty non-existent) Level 2= small structure(building) where  common diseases are treated. Level 3=treats basic disease and has a maternity area with midwife. Level 4 treats diseases plus maternity, plus surgery. Our level 4 is Bugabero clinic(c-section videos happened here).  Next step up is a General hospital (similar to level four) Our’s here is the Mbale, regional hospital.  The only National hospital in the entire country is in Kampala. This is where one goes to see any specialist. One in entire country!

Don’t picture any of these clinics actually functioning like anything you’ve seen in the U.S. For example, the government might come in and build a small structure, supply a few beds, minimal meds, and employ a few staff, but they don’t actually show up. The places literally sit empty. When paid by the government no one monitors if you show up for work. Many employees have to walk miles to work (not much incentive) and don’t have the staff or infrastructure to run effectively. For example,  Wanale clinic was built three years ago (it’s still empty).

Kissito (and standard NGO protocol) come in, supply meds, equipment, staff, trains staff, and generally try to get the place to actually function. To do this, NGO’s have to offer “Top Up’s” which is a performance based bonus pay on top of government salary. Reform is slow. Pay is based on skill. The head nurse at Bugabero makes 800,000 shillings/monthly=400 dollars. Most staff makes around 175US monthly from Gov’t (gov’t jobs are known as shit here). The employees hired by gov’t  don’t have access to monies to supply adequate care. Most drugs disappear, and record keeping is a horribly dated and inaccurate. Everything is hand written and carbon copies is a new concept.

The first day I traveled to Wanale clinic, Robert (clinical officer) explains that the meds are locked in a box and he has not been able to get the key.  Easy right, we’ll get the key. Don’t think like an American, were in UGANDA. His superior, (hired by the gov’t) is the only person allowed access to the key. Sadly, he never shows up, and when he does the med count is questionable. In this culture you don’t question your superior. To override them or have someone fired could take years, a painful arduous process requiring the  Ministry of Health.  That’s where NGO’s save the village. And, the money comes from big-hearted donors like you/us. We don’t make the rules, we suffer through them along with everyone else. I can tell you NOTHING would happen without them, so you can understand there is constant drive for funds…and yes,  if we sacrified one bar night out,  a fancy dinner, a new pair of Italian boots, and send that money here it literally saves 10 or more people’s lives. Money goes a lot further here. Who’s gonna start a Nat’l health fund on Kickstarter? If we all gave 5 dollars a week…

So, enough of that for now. This would be more interesting if I had a beer, but that’s against house rules. On the flip side, there are a lot of amazing people here working hard for their community despite being paid nothing, like Dr. Sabiti. He sleeps less than 5 hours a night, is always smiling, performs surgeries around the clock, drives hours around town, working hard.  He expects to be in the Ministry of Health in 5 years. He has my vote! Many of the staff he supervises walks 4 plus miles to their clinics, and are honored to work under his supervision, learning better ways.

On the bumpy non-tarmacked roads we head out to 5 clinics today.  Yeah, more bad, and I mean BAD gospel music in Spanish. Tyler moans from hours of being jolted around. Dr. Sabiti’s witty banter keeps us laughing.  He starts asking us how often we look at our private parts in the mirror. Oh, yes, I found my tribe! I think I have this on video. We see Michael ( a clinical officer) walking on the side of the road. We swerve over and tell him to get in( his clinic is 5 more miles). Dr. ask him immediately, “How many times do you look at your private parts in the mirror.” Without skipping a beat he answers,  1 more hour of entertainment. Great minds think alike!

Last stop is Bugabero clinic, level 4.  Dr. grabs me to observe an emergency  C-section before we head home.  We run back to the “theatre” which is what they call surgery rooms here. I’m asked to take off my sandals and put on a pair of crocs. Interesting. I throw on scrubs and enter. Everyone is laughing and surgery starts with Dr. singing a prayer. I confidently get my I-phone ready to record. Let’s do this. I’m asked to pinch the patient’s  throat as the nurse is shoving the breathing tube down. I can feel the tube entering her body as she tells me to squeeze harder. Dr. starts cutting and I’m suprisingly fine. I pan around as the nurses are checking their phones and giggling. His incision hits the uterus and water squirts across the room.  Blood starts pooling between her legs. He starts pulling her flesh apart similar to stuffing a turkey. The room started closing in on me and I felt reality slipping. I left the room three times to avoid passing out. My apologies for the series of bad videos. By the end of this month I suspect birthing will be routine. Whatta day! Here you go!

Our crew jokes  a lot. One of the running jokes around here is that Tyler is “uncircumcized.” That’s a heated topic around here. Bamasaba tribe believe circumcision is a right of passage into manhood. When a boy is 16 or so they are circumcised by a smaller knife/machete. Before HIV awareness was introduced into the scene the same knife was used on everyone. Now each person gets a new knife. This still happens but not amongst most people here. When Tyler went to the hardware store the man behind the counter asked “Are you  circumcised”? He answered, “yes”, although he doubts the man thinks he has been indoctrinated into true manhood b/c it was done at birth. I keep trying to find items we might need to send Tyler back to the hardware store. 🙂 Lots of circumcision puns( by locals) around here.


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