Monday, April 18, 2016

Chicken in a bag!

4/9/16--Entebbe Uganda, East Africa
I was JUST telling Dr. Wilfred that in the States you can go into a supermarket and buy "chicken in a bag" fully roasted and warm, raised and injected with heinous chemicals that make them enormously plump with meat that falls from the bone and has flavor designed to manipulate your palate in the way I hear methamphetamines manipulate your mind. Damn that's good. I think there's a chemical in the odor to even get you purchasing the poor carcass... 

The above pic is clearly a different "chicken in a bag". There are many snaps I'd love to take of daily Ugandan life with livestock. Yesterday I boarded the Homeland Bus earlier than the rest of the travelers, but just after an older woman had dropped her luggage off in the seat next to me. I realized I'd finally be able to get a good picture of "average doings" without offending anyone or having to explain myself. There were 3 hens in there. They traveled six hours with us. The longer distance busses I've been traveling on are clearly repurposed from EuroAsian fleets sold after the DVD player, aircon, and most of the lighting has failed. Usually the windows open, and this last time the radio worked! There is only one stop for a restroom break, so I always feel like a science experiment regarding hydration.  I don't want to pass out from heat stroke or fluid loss, but I don't want to have to urinate for 4-6 hours. And it's hot. Really hot.
After the Homeland Bus I had to take a boda taxi to Kampala's new taxi park. I should've gone to the smaller old taxi park to get the bus to Entebbe, becuase the new taxi park was mobbed and a drunk guy ran off with my luggage. After a big scene, I got my luggage back and had another hour to Entebbe, which was where my flight will leave tonight. 

4/18/16 -- Blanca Colorado USA
I wrote the above 9 days ago.  I have traveled through a variety of cultures, time zones and alternate realities since then. 17 hours from Dubai to Houston, TX. Houston to Seattle, Seattle to Denver. I bought a 700+ page Stephen King novel at the Dubai airport and used 3 different types of currency for the purchase. And the States are so... quiet. And everyone is so... white.

A few days before leaving for Africa, after signing papers in the morning to sell my Denver condo, I drove to this cabin in southern Colorado. The car was jammed full. A hard left or right turn meant anything from a coffee pot to my pet cat could roll out of place and under my gas pedal. I warranted a traffic ticket for poor visibility out the back window. The cabin is more than 8000 feet above sea level; it clings to the low upswing of earth at the base of Mount Blanca. Turn off route 160 and the pavement gives way to a lazy, broad grid of desert scrub pocked with camper vans strung with wind-tattered tarps, small homesteads and the occasional warning bark of a prairie dog. Modern automobiles offer either good gas mileage or muscle and high clearance.  I'm a sucker for getting 40 mpg, so I drive the dinky 2-door hatchbacks that can actually be blown off the road by speeding truckers.  This means I need to drive differently in the snow and ice, stay aware of soil stability, and be ready to walk. With the car as loaded as it was, however, if I had to stop at my earlier winter parking spot and sledge everything up to the cabin it would take several hours, perhaps two days with rest breaks. 

It was a very warm February day. As I approached the highway turn-off I felt the clip of anxiety. A warm day means snow melt, it can mean a quagmire, tow straps and flagging someone down to help. But if the recent snow load was mild the warmth could be drying out the desert soil and actually helping my traction. I made my turn into the dirt road. You can see the cabin from quite a distance. Most of the mountain appeared denuded of snow, but a few cotton-colored mounds were still visible within the denser clutches of trees.  I could see the path of the road and the soil. I could hear water running and see it in t he gullies. The hillside was a patchwork of color--red soil, gray snow melt, brown, white, evergreen pines, more white, more hope of being able to drive right up to the cabin spiked and plummeted the closer I got. YES! I'LL SURELY BE ABLE TO MAKE it maybe not THERE'S NO SNOW! but that water will be bad YES! no YES! no. My anxiety read like an EKG as I drove, scanned and prognosticated.  I noticed the traffic in my own mind. Then it hit me.

I will not know what will happen until the soil is actually under my tires. 

On that particular day I was able to drive up to the door and unload. The soil was dry. My tires found sure footing.
That weekend I also did the final packing for Africa. I packed, repacked, sorted and packed one more time. What would I need? What would I regret not bringing? I had 8 extra pounds in one suitcase...what could I leave? You won't know until the soil is actually under your tires.  I was simply incapable of preparing for every contingency. The growth part of the adventure would be how I adapted to what was unforeseen... wait... that's most of life...

Missing Dr. Moses-- pic with the gang night before departure
visit with baby Josh
I have returned from my trip one month early. Once the soil was under my tires over there I discovered several things. 1) Regardless of how fulfilling the work may be, or how compelling the personal connections are, I experience relentless heat in the upper 90s as if I'm drowning. Did I know it would be that hot? It IS Africa after all...Yes, I did know. 2) In Africa, my skin is the color of money. I experienced a baffling number (25?) of young men ages 20-35 who wanted to be my friend, have me read their movie script, sponsor their schooling, police officers who said they hadn't been paid, and one who outright asked for sex. Weird. There is also the constant heckling, haggling over prices, stalking, and low-grade resentment of white do-gooders (this last topic is a whole book). Did I know this would be the case? Yes, I did know. But after 3-4 weeks I began to completely shut down socially-- beyond the group I was working with.  Finally, the third component of the soil under my tires that sent me home early was my memories of my own non-profit work.
Lucy, Comfort Dog Program participant--TALL!
The Big Fix is almost ready to move onto their newly developed land--brand new construction in a beautiful rural area. I expected to walk onto the property and feel exhilaration for them. Instead, I smelled the smoke of the remains of Turning Light Farm. The skeleton of my own endeavor is pretty close to what they are doing.

The return trip was an odyssey. It requires another essay with more humor... but FYI the Dubai airport is not to be missed!! 

Final Thoughts
I love telling students "We own the English language". Language is a living, malleable thing. We create it. We dismantle it. We do need to be capable of wielding it to our advantage, pulling out formalities at the right time, but otherwise we can crack it open like a nut and move word meanings around as we see fit. In East Africa I discovered people used the word "reach" as we'd use the word "arrive". Example: On the phone someone asks "Have you reached?" (are you there yet?) or, "I'm glad you reached well." (got there safely) African English is a mashup and deconstruction of almost every common phrase. Even in upscale hotels mispellings and what would be classified as misuses are common. Yet there's a certain poetry to many of the mistakes.

                                I have reached. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dr. Tony Aliro: the heart of the matter

A week ago I listened as Okello Francis, wearing his signature wide, knowing grin, lowered his cell phone and said to me "We have been granted our radio time by Dr Tony...and the doctor..." Francis chuckled, "the doctor wants to meet you."  I've long known that the four Big Fix team members I live with are the visible part of the iceberg that rises above the waves, and that a solid expanse of effort rides underneath. Dr. Aliro is the Gulu District Veterinary Officer (DVO) and he is a key part of this support. But let's face it, in the States it's rare that someone with intense work demands and an important job title wants to meet you, just to know who you are-- not to talk to you about 'crafting the message', inquire about your motivation, or check up on your work.
For my first visit with Dr Aliro, Dr. Wilfred drove me over to his office. As we waited for him to arrive after a field call I had time to desperately wish I'd brought my camera to document the recurring theme I've experienced at school district headquarters, medical laboratories, recording studios, and now the department of agriculture: that much can be done with what Americans call "nothing", and that large parts of the world still function with only a paper log book and a precious pen. When there IS something that runs off electricity it requires blanketing to keep the red dust from fingering its way into the working mechanisms.
Notice the yellow jerry cans of water at the base of the bookshelf :)

Dr Aliro greeted us with easy humor and said I could come back and take pictures at any time. One thing I've learned, however, is that people stare at me wherever I go and official-looking armed guards often ask my business. (Armed guards are in many places--supermarkets, universities, churches...)
Two days later, I was lucky to catch up with him again. Dr Aliro's position with the government is analogous to the position of a state veterinarian in America, only imagine one state veterinarian for 20 or 30 states. And imagine those states lacking the infrastructure of plumbing. Or road access as Americans know it. Or electricity. Or  A sense of humor, proportion, and great faith develop in place of many of those things.

There are some stories that are shared through narration and other stories shared through a feeling. When I asked what lead Dr Tony to the veterinary field his demeanor became centered. He began to gently rock back-and-forth in his  chair. "Some things you know in your heart" was the phrase he lead with. A darkness scurried across the desk between us as he carefully chose words to describe his childhood. But he lightened when he spoke of working with livestock, especially all their cattle, every day. I sensed the daily connection with the animals provided something available no where else in this childhood. He then described how, when there was need to call for a veterinarian for their animals, that person was rarely a source of help and he was left to wonder if the creature's suffering could have been averted, and if so, how? While listening I scribbled in my book "the spirit of inquiry". 

What's struck me while harvesting stories from veterinarians here about their career choices is how close each of them came to engaging in a career in education instead of medicine. In these men I can clearly see the skills shared between two fields viewed as disparate where I come from: communicating and mobilizing, working to problem-solve in a wide variety of circumstances with pressures and limitations coming from all directions.

We agreed that the phrase "Got your back!" describes the relationship between Aliro and The Big Fix team, but I asked him to describe why it was important to support TBF in his own words. His response bolstered my understanding with numbers. Prior to having these guys around he might receive 2000 rabies vaccines to inoculate 15-20,000 dogs where the disease is endemic. The lack of resources and support infiltrates Ugandan veterinary medicine at every level. He sites the magnitude of dealing with these challenges as one of the most important things dissuading young people from committing to veterinary medicine even if they feel the calling. Makerere University in Kampsla has a challenging veterinary program that's been running for many years ( I toured the facility in 2005 and was impressed!) but not surprisingly earning potential for young vets is higher outside of Uganda and certainly outside of Gulu.

It's a character prerequisite to enter the veterinary field here knowing every challenge is  an opportunity. When I asked Dr Aliro if he had any final thoughts he wanted Americsns to know he gave an open invitation to anyone looking for thesis work, clinical trials, further study and just plain hard work and satisfaction. Wanna study tick- born diseases? Newcastle disease? Have an interest in zoonotic epidemiology? Swine disease transmission? I'll be damned if I wasn't inspired to dream up PhD work! So, my American friends and veterinary allies...when are we going to make it back here to start? We really are all in this together.