Sunday, February 17, 2008

Updates of 16 and 17 February 2008

Written on Saturday, February 16, 2008

For what it’s worth, my St Valentine’s Day message presented hours worth of posting problems. The pictures are finally there and probably twice, right along with the journal text, but the captions are missing. I’ll try again to eliminate the duplication and to reduce it to one copy. But let’s continue……. Also by the way, the Internet has been down for the last couple of days, so who knows when this will actually get posted.

Sometimes life is a blur. Father Paul Buyela made a surprise appearance on Valentine’s Day. One of his many responsibilities is to keep the construction crew on task who are renovating the former bishop’s house. In spite of its sturdy, well-built appearance, the tile roof had been leaking badly and the wiring was inadequate. When we do a “tear-off” roofing job at home, it’s a big, expensive job. In this case, the tile roof leaked badly due to a sagging frame. Every tile and the supporting structure needed to be removed and the support structure rebuilt. The roof is gone for the duration of the project! This opened up the building for updated wiring and other modifications, so the project is quite extensive. There have been 10 to 12 workmen at this from dawn to dusk these last few days. And these men work right along in the hot African sun. (And I break a sweat just carrying my computer and camera gear from my room to the office).

Following directions isn’t necessarily a strength of many Ugandan workers. The electrician had been directed to remove and protect the electrical devices (outlets, switches, etc.). Instead he stacked them outside and they were quite unprotected from the elements. It rained heavily overnight. Sadly for the contractor, this means no pay for the work completed as new electrical devices will be needed. This is an example of something I’ve noticed before. Supervision of technical tasks, even for the best intentioned workers, does take more effort than we would expect in the US. The lesson seems to be, allow plenty of time for training, supervision and extra follow up on all projects. If this was a well (borehole), and a screen was inadvertently ruined, it might take days or weeks to get a replacement, with a resultant impact upon cost and schedule and the necessity to reschedule the whole operation. I hope I’ve learned this lesson well, because it does seem repeat itself now and then.

Something unexpected just happened. Gertrude, the cook, is killing me with kindness today. It’s nearly 1 PM (lunch time) and she has taken the initiative to bring my lunch to my room, “for a change, for Mr. Tom.” The only problem is that every square inch of available table space is occupied with pieces of electronic gear or books or notes as I sit here updating the journal and working on the schedule for the next few weeks. Maybe I should have insisted on the dinning room, but this time I’ve decided to enjoy the change. I really don’t want the mid-day beer she brought as that would guarantee a very sleepy Tom. And maybe I’m getting a trifle skeptical, but I suspect that part of her reason (or all of it) for bringing the lunch is so that she can have part of the afternoon off. That would be fine with me, but the effort to arrange it surreptitiously is a bit amusing. By using unrequested room service, she won’t leave the dinning room messy, just in case the Archbishop comes back before she has a chance to clean it up. At home I would be me making my own lunch and cleaning up afterward, so there is no real complaint here, just amusement. But I do so wish I could influence an attitude of service without the subservience that often comes with it here in Uganda.

A similar indirect approach occurred yesterday. My new friend, Peter Omuse of the Tororo Rotary Club asked me if I would go to a meeting with him and say hello to the meeting. It seemed to include a Rotary project for scholarships for orphans that he was going to, but that wasn’t entirely clear. By the way, Peter is a dedicated secondary school teacher with a real compassion for those less fortunate. I really didn’t have the time to go just then, but he had introduced me to his best friend, Abraham Odeke, a correspondent for eastern Uganda with the BBC, and had brought him to my office for an interview. This resulted in an in-depth exchange of useful information with a key Ugandan news reporter, which Peter patiently sat through. In spite of feeling my blood sugar waning, needing lunch and a rest from the heat, and not really knowing what the meeting was about, I couldn’t say no. After all, this would only be a half-hour (which turned out to be 2 hours). It did appear that he wanted his friend, the American Engineer, to address this group. We’ll get back to the Odeke interview in a moment.

We drove into Tororo in Peter’s Toyota and dropped Abraham Odeke off at the police station where he had a story to follow up on. Peter explained that he had started an NGO to help widows and orphans, which appeared to have something to do with the meeting. A few blocks later we stopped at the curb and picked up a passenger. Incredibly this was Faustine Odeke, Abraham’s son. He turned out to be a news reporter for a local radio station, Rock MAMBO. We continued past the town’s round-about and headed south. After a few kilometers we turned up a well traveled dirt road. We passed Peter’s simple village of homes that seemed a little larger than most I’d seen. We turned into a meeting hall that was constructed of concrete with a metal roof. Peter told me that those in the meeting were widows attempting to embrace micro-financing as a means of paying their children’s tuition and helping the community’s orphans. When we entered the 40 or 50 ladies present stood and applauded. Peter made profuse apologies for our late arrival due to another meeting (mine). Microfinance was explained in the simplest of terms, some of which was done through an interpreter. Then everyone was allowed to have her say,

Peter then addressed the group through the interpreter. He encouraged them and said he would continue to support them as they used microfinance as a means of making affordable low-interest payments from their slim agricultural earnings. What I’ve learned about micro-finance is that it is the user group that holds each individual accountable. This mechanism makes it possible to loan money to those with little collateral or visible means of repayment, and still make good loans. Personal worth and dignity are enhanced and borrowers successfully pay off loans and are consequently helped above poverty through their own initiative and hard work. In Uganda and much of Africa, women turn out to be the best credit risks. They have a typically stronger grasp of the responsibility necessary to make their payments.

Then the moment came. Peter asked Engineer Tom to speak to the group. Quite fortunately I had been able to follow most of the discussion and grasped the essentials of the meeting. The group seemed astounded that an American should stand in their very meeting hall and also encourage them. Actually Congressional Candidate George Phillips had tipped me off to the mechanism of micro-finance as a means of helping to raise people above poverty in developing countries. I’m glad I read some of the material before coming to Uganda. I was able to encourage this large group of widows to continue in their own hard work, and to honestly say that I was pleased to see them taking personal responsibility to support and educate their children in the most difficult of circumstances. If I’d thought about how difficult it was for them, it probably would have resulted in tears. However, their looks of resolve helped me to rise above mere emotion and to applaud them in their efforts and determination. Meanwhile, Faustine took the initiative to pick up my video camera and record what I said. I’m not sure if I dare to watch it.

We left amidst a standing ovation (truly humbling) of very determined and responsible women. Faustine had his story and was doing his part to make Uganda a better place for all. Would that more news reporters in the US were like Odeke.
Back to Abraham Odeke. You may remember that Peter Omuse had introduced Abraham on the way home from a Tororo Rotary Club meeting a week and a half earlier. I told him that I’d like to meet with him and discuss the media in Unganda, adding that the BBC had a good reputation for accuracy. Part of the process in completing public sorts of projects is public perception and understanding, which is very much influenced by the media. And there might be differences in dealing with the media here in Uganda. He agreed to meet on Friday 16 February, which happened as agreed.

Abraham arrived at the chancery office accompanied by Peter and wearing a wide brimmed straw hat ideal for the hot African sun. I gave him a copy of a letter outlining my objectives for being here and let him read a copy of the letter that Archbishop Lote wrote introducing me to the Minister of State for Water. We were off on excellent footing. The introduction had come from a close friend and my credentials were appropriately established. Additionally, Abraham had years of experience in objectively observing the real and positive influence that the Catholic Church has had on the people of Uganda. He cited schools, water projects, churches, hospitals and meticulous stewardship of the funds entrusted to and well spent by the Church. The Church, he said, was a liberating influence on the people of Uganda and Africa as a whole.

This narrative would be incomplete if I didn’t include his studied perspective about the use of funds by other churches and the government. Unfortunately he was able to cite instances where funds given to other churches had too frequently not been as successful or well spent toward their intended purposes. Funding through the government had often been diverted in one manner or another, sometimes to the pockets of the few at the expense of the poor it was intended to serve. Neither of these generalities is true across the board. There are good and successful projects by other churches and by the government. His point is that the Catholic Church has been far more successful in liberating, educating, providing water and health care than anyone else in Uganda. And certain others have been less than completely trustworthy with funds.

It may be impolitic to include such statements, but in keeping with the need for making a trustworthy report, I must recall what has been learned from such a reliable and considered source. By the same token, given the opportunity I would encourage other church representatives to be completely trustworthy in their dealings. And I’d point out that the Cabinet Minister for Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba and the Minister of State, Jenipher Byakatonda Namuyangu, both emphatically demanded transparency and accountability in the proper disbursement of funds and resources in the water and sanitation sector. I heard and filmed these comments first-hand on Tuesday and Wednesday at the National Meeting of the District Water Officers in Jinja, which I was privileged to attend. Only time will tell how effective their leadership and direction will be, but if one can accept their words, they are sincerely making an effort to change an opportunistic culture into one of responsibility and accountability.

President Ronald Reagan of the United States often said, “Trust, but verify.” These are key words in the collection and disbursement of any form of aid. I am learning various mechanisms that will be very much a part of controlling and accounting for any funding that I may eventually become responsible for.

Abraham and I proceeded to the conference room and videotaped an extensive interview. Usually the correspondent does the interviewing, but yesterday we did a role reversal and Abraham graced me with considerable insight into the news media in Uganda, its culture and the development of responsibility and dignity of an industrious people, my brothers and sisters in Uganda.

This afternoon I showed video clips to Sisters Grace and Lucy in the convent dinning room. Some of the clips involved the Sisters and things they said. This involved a bit of comic relief, because I had purposely led Sister Lucy into a funny mis-statement about making home brew for the convent. This was caught on film, which she instantly retracted and asked me to erase. To me it was absolutely innocent and funny and corrected on the spot. What was interesting is the depth of conviction that both sisters used in not wanting anyone to think that home brew was being made for the convent. They then wanted to have me film them at work and in prayer. Their devotion and faith should be a real world example to us all. I will try to film them at work and prayer, simply due to their utter sincerity. Even if I had great fun with the mis-statement.

One closing comment from 16 February 2008. I talked to Abraham Odeke to review the text pertaining to him. He was happy with what I had written. But more significantly, he told me that even more refugees are now entered Uganda from nearby Kenya. Please pray for all. For many this is an honest to goodness life or death situation. After seeing this reality I never, ever want to catch myself making another complaint about a materialistic issue as long as I breath. We have brothers and sisters who are fleeing for their very lives only a few short kilometers from my moderately comfy base of operations. Thank God for the heroes who are reaching out to them. And for Abraham Odeke who won’t let this pass unnoticed. And for the Church, which does reach out. This will post as soon as the Internet is available. May the genuine peace of Christ be with each of you!

Additional notes on Sunday, 17 February 2008

This morning I walked the 2 ½ km into Sacred Heart Parish for mass at 9:30. I arrived about 5 minutes early only to discover that the 8:00 local language mass had not yet ended. A large crowd had gathered and was waiting patiently. Peter Omuse and his wife, Bernadette were there, both in traditional African attire. I must say that many of the dresses that women wear would look good on women at home. Maybe we should start a new trend. (No, this comment isn’t because I’ve been away from home too long). The 9:30 mass started about 20 minutes later and finished at almost noon. There was a special project at the end of mass to raise funds for seminarians. The support that Ugandan’s give to their priests and the training of future priests is evident. I filmed a sampling of the singing, which was beautiful.

One of my earlier posts talked about the nomadic herdsmen called “Warriors” of NE Uganda. Well, I’m working with two individuals who have personally been ambushed and shot by them. One is Father Paul Buyela, Director of Development for the Archdiocese of Tororo. The other is His Grace, Archbishop Denis Kiwanuka Lote! Both were previously serving in the northeastern corner of Uganda. The Archbishop was ambushed once. The other time was a deliberate assassination attempt. Yet this region seems peaceful and friendly. By the way, there are no immediate plans to visit northeastern Uganda, not even to see the elephants and lions.

Until the next installment, be well……