Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy St Valentine's Day from the Heart of Africa

12 – 14 February 2008

Amazing things sometimes happen fast. I hope I can keep up with the needed actions. At the National Meeting of District Water Officers I was introduced to and welcomed by the Cabinet Minister for Water and Environment and the Minister of State for Water. The cabinet minister reports directly to the President of Uganda. And virtually every District Water Officer in Uganda (maybe all of them) now knows who I am – the Minister of State introduced me to the conference as “her friend.” Hopefully some good will come of this. The participants compiled a significant list of concerns and action items. It was a textbook example of consensus building, cooperation, deference to the opinions of all. In short there was a lot of talk that amounted to the same thing, yet everyone had their say and it seemed to produce good agreement on many issues. There is a mountain of detail to record, but it probably won’t make it onto the blog. The chairman allowed me to speak for a minute at the end. My comments were limited to complimenting the significant and organized effort that the Republic of Uganda is making to make safe drinking water available for every family. While most districts are short staffed, they are working to overcome difficulties and improve the lot of every citizen. I've made note of several issues, but hope to bring them up in a more diplomatic setting. If those responsible come up with these ideas and can take credit for them, there is much greater chance that they will be successfully implemented. So I hope to help the process along and perhaps finesse some ideas into actions, projects and programs.

Meanwhile, I've returned to the Archbishop's House. Wait 'til you read the next. Gertrude, the cook is a 50 year old grandmother whose 3 year old granddaughter, also Gertrude, was dropped on her doorstep because her own daughter (20 year old mother of little Gertrude) is ill in Tanzania. Yesterday evening she tried to convince me to take her grandchild with me to America and raise her and send her back! Cute little girl, but oh wow. And Gertrude the cook was so desperate that she would seriously send off her granddaughter, if only the good mzungu would take her. Then there was the cook in the other building who hoped I could help her fund the rebuilding of her mud hut. And one priest who wrote me an appeals letter to help reconstruct one of his churches. Today I am going to meet Gertrude's brother, who is principal of the school that is part of the nearby Benedictine Eye Hospital. My purpose is to collect the contact information for an Endicott opthamologist who might consider serving for a while in Uganda.

Don't worry, I'm not planning to pack my suitcase full of kids. But I must say it would take a heartless person not to mourn for these very real cries for help. If I thought it would make a difference, I would make a commercial like the TV stars have done. The problem with that, however, is that for real help, personal presence is needed. Boots on the ground are needed, not just money. I am also beginning to appreciate that ignorance is real, even among intelligent, hard-working people. Here's an anecdote describing the nomadic herdsmen of the northeast: "Why shouldn't I drink the water. The cows drink it and they don't get sick." And would you believe, at the conference in Jinja, the government has prepared and is implementing a campaign to promote hand washing with soap. I could sell waterless hand cleaner here by the trainload, except that very, very few could afford such luxury.

Please don't take any of this as complaining or being condescending toward the wonderful people of Uganda. It's only said to put things in perspective. And according to Father Joseph Othieno, who is about to return to America where he does mission appeals, Uganda is crying out, not as much for aid as for fair trade practices. One example he used is coffee. 100 kg (he said 180 # without calculating it) of coffee nets the Ugandan exporter about $230. And how much is coffee per pound in the grocery store? And what if you applied Starbucks prices to all the cups that 180# would make. Of course I'd want to analyze the fairness of the profit margins a bit more since each step of handing requires a fair profit, but you get the picture. Western prices far outweigh the income to African producers of raw goods.

Father Joseph didn’t even touched upon the rich mineral resources that are about to be opened up for exploration and exploitation. That's something I hope the Ugandan government can use for building its water, sanitation and other infrastructure resources.

Well, it’s now St Valentine’s Day and this is my letter to all who will read it. Let me close with a few thoughts about things I miss about home. I miss
· Seeing family and friends
· Luxurious showers with hot water on demand
· Plenty of safe drinking water
· Being able to get in a vehicle and just go
· Phones that work almost 100%
· Reliable electricity
· Tuesday, our Black Lab, which won’t give anyone rabbies
· Garbage pick-up and actual sanitary landfills
· Readily available supplies of office supplies, sundries and gadgets galore
· Ability to order and receive most anything on the Internet or in a store near you
· Modern roads with actual signs and traffic lights
· Police with holstered weapons
· A significant level of literacy
· Schools with books, supplies, libraries, drinking water, and even sanitary facilities
· Cooking (After having rubber turkey today I volunteered to teach the cook how to roast a turkey in the oven, but I need to acquire a roasting pan, an oven thermometer, a meat thermometer and aluminum foil. A turkey baster is beyond consideration.)
· Snow – well sometimes.
· Building codes
· Modern hospitals and doctors offices
· The ability to walk or travel about at night
· Doors and windows without iron bars
· Free enterprise were everybody is able to win
· Subway sandwiches
· Predictable workouts at Lourdes
· Relative stability of America (vs. say Kenya, which is about 7 km east where many have been displaced or killed; or the American tourist shot at night on Mt Elgon not too far north of me)
· Working with folks from SEMO & FEMA on disaster relief projects

Oh this could go on and on. And there are some things I don’t really miss:
· Excesses of materialism (including my own)
· Campaign reports (except for George Phillips for Congress, GO GEORGE!)
· TV in general
· The cold of winter
· Political correctness gone amuck
· The old pre-retirement days of working a fixed schedule (every day is an adventure here)

Uganda and its people are beautiful. There is a simplicity, faith and joy that come from within that is evident in most in spite of abject physical poverty. It’s true that many prefer to live in the slums of a city or large town to living in their village or working their small plot of land. But each has a recognition of the worth and dignity of each person. And there have to be ways to stimulate material and health advances without destroying such inner beauty. There is much here that we of the West could learn or relearn from the simpler days of a century or two ago. Perhaps our countries can help each other. It will take more than money or material goods. It will take personal presence to walk in each others’ shoes.

From the Heart of Africa on St. Valentine’s Day, 2008……be well!