I’m usually one of those people who sits and waits for everyone to get off the plane. After all, we will all get there, and pushing and shoving isn’t going to get anyone anywhere faster. Today, I barreled over 13 little old ladies, shoved 10 babies back toward the bathroom, and took out at least one nun in my haste to get out. (I think it was a nun…I was a little distracted by the screaming.)
And finally, finally, I was outside, my feet on the tarmac, breathing in that Ugandan air. I could smell charcoal, and burning garbage and jet fuel, strained through an almost visible gauzy screen made of equal parts heat and humidity. It was glorious.
I have no idea why I feel so connected to this place, to this little tiny country, so far away from my day to day reality. I do know that I’m not alone. Over the years I have met many people who smile knowingly when I mention my love for Africa and Uganda in particular. Maybe its some sort of species memory? We all came from Africa, if we trace humanity back far enough.Maybe there is some sort of cellular recognition that occurs, a physiological or psychological deep breath that happens when we are so close to the place where we all began. A reset button, if you will. On the other hand, though, I know people who feel this way about Vegas, so there may be a few holes in this theory.
I think for me, it is the very real fact that everything seems possible here. I want to put on a doula training in Uganda. Poof. Five months later,we’re standing here. Natalie wanted a birth center. So she made one happen. I don’t mean to devalue anyone’s hard work, for these projects obviously don’t come together as easily as all that. There is a ton of work and fear and tears and paperwork to be lived through, but the point is that things feel possible here, in a way that I do not feel at home.
My (and the lovely Jodilyn’s)interactions with Washington State’s bureaucracy are long and storied, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give them airtime here. But suffice to say, they have beaten me down to such a state that I no longer believe in the midwifery dream in my home. And it is very easy to let that attitude go viral all over my soul, and longer believe in anything. Well, anything good. Uganda is my antidote, my injection of hope, a periodic inoculation against the darkness that I fight almost constantly.
And speaking of darkness, it is dark here. There are almost no lights on as we move into the terminal, collect our bags, and stand in the various customs and immigration lines. Uganda tends to export her electricity, which is good for the GNP, I suppose, but bad for finding your way though the airport. Eventually, though, all the formalities have been fulfilled, and I see Ben, our driver and my friend, waiting just outside.
He looks great, exactly the same as last year, and we exchange excited greetings and formalities. Families are asked about, teasing about his idol Celine Dion commences, and before I know it, we are flying down bumpy roads towards the Guest House which will be our home for the next week and a half. I fell asleep.
We arrive at the Guest House a few hours later. It is beautiful, a series of rooms opening into a central courtyard. And best of all? A real toilet! My obsession with all things toilet-y is well documented, and I am absolutely thrilled. I immediately snap a pic for Anna, who will be so jealous. Kelli, Best Roommate Ever, and I go over to the Common Room for a quick snack of fruit, and then we go to sleep almost immediately.
I awake to the sound of the Muslim Call to Prayer, just before dawn. I’ve been asleep maybe three hours. Hauntingly beautiful would be the clichéd way to describe it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I want to open the door so I can hear better, but it creaks like my grandmother’s knees, and I don’t want to wake Kelli, so I content myself with pressing my ear up against the door. The muezzin’s voice swirls like smoke, ruffling the banana leaves, gently lifting the pampas grass in the courtyard, and somehow harmonizing with the first birdsongs of the day. It’s a sweet solitary moment, just me alone with my Uganda and my God.
Kelli wakes up, and we go off to eat some breakfast. Fruit (Kasana is located smack dab in the middle of the pineapple capital of Uganda), bread, tea. Like any good English girl, I tend to drink quite a bit of black tea, always with milk and sugar, because to do so otherwise is completely uncivilized. This particular combination, the powdered, wont-quite-dissolve, floats on the surface and coats your tongue milk and the huge, brown sugar crystals? (No fresh milk, as there is questionable electricity and thus questionable refrigeration.) Pure Uganda.
Sara, one of the long term Shanti volunteers, arrives and leads us through some gentle yoga stretching. Gah, I have got to find some way to love yoga. It is a struggle for me. I know it would be good for me (and my old, worn down broken back), but I just can’t get into it. Ah well. Its good to have goals. The whole time I’m supposed to be sitting with myself and meditating on different tensions in my body, my mind is drifting to the training. (Well, and Johnny Depp, but those thoughts have the constancy of gravity with this girl.)
I have the utmost confidence in my fellow trainers. They know their stuff, backwards and forwards, so I am completely not worried about their integrity or the validity of the information they will impart. I know the participants will come away bursting with knowledge and skills. I am not doing as much direct teaching as they are, as I have some other stuff at Shanti I want to get done (more on that later.) I am intrigued to watch our different personalities and areas of expertise wind their way around the material. We all have different ideas and different styles. Boy, do we have different styles. Melinda is straight, by the book, linear. She is able to see (and explain) so clearly how each piece of knowledge builds on the previous one, creating a solid ladder of information, with a clear beginning and end. Kristina lives in a world full of expansive language and heart led experience. Her words are ladles, dipping into a delicious soup, each nourishing anecdote effortlessly brought to the surface. And me? Who knows? I just let things flow, trust things will go where they need to, and kick things back into play if they get too out of hand, It is a testimony to the professionalism of these two women that anything gets done at all. Yet, it all seems to be coming together. How? Magic. The magic of this land, the magic of women’s need to connect, the magic of story telling. I’m excited to start.
In order to get down to Shanti, we are going to have to ride boda bodas. These motorcycles taxis are the standard way to navigating Uganda. They drive absolutely crazily, weaving in and out of trucks, cars and pedestrians like pop rocks on crack. Luckily, we will take back roads, where the potholes are so bad that its impossible to go too fast. I figure that the worst that could happen is a broken limb. Certainly not death. I was so proud of Melinda and Kristina. I knew they were nervous, but they just plastered big fake smiles on their faces and sucked it up. (Halfway through, though, I think they were enjoying it. : )
In about 10 minutes, we pulled up to the gates of Shanti. To say it felt like coming home is an understatement. I really don’t have any words, so I won’t even try. Let’s just say I was able to breath deeply and think clearly for the first time in a long time. This place means so much to me. I am unreasonably protective of it, and the people who make it what it is. That is a bit condescending, I think. They don’t need my protection,or admiration, but they have my love whether they want it or not. Emma the lab tech was the first person I saw, followed quickly by the midwives I had worked so closely with last year. Honey, the baby of Midwife SSanyu, was now a sturdy toddler, teething all over herself. SSanyu herself was as beautiful and solid as ever, and Midwife Joy was there with her steady presence and quiet confidence. New friends too: Sister Mar, the head midwife. I had sat in on her interview last year, and was overjoyed when Shanti was able to convince her to come and work there. A midwife for over 30 years, she has both the chops and the humility that resides inside the very best in our profession. She also has a wicked sense of humor, which is absolutely vital. Another delight was Stella, a smart-as-a-whip midwife who came to SHanti with Sadie, the new project director.
But almost best of all (for how can there really be a “best”) was FLorence. My facebook people know all about Florence, the Traditional Birth Attendant, who has been with Shanti since the first brick was laid.
Here is Florence talking with Joy, who is wearing scrubs. We fundraised so hard for Florence to be able to take this training and to cover all her expenses for the next year. She is everything good at Shanti, the mix of the traditional and the modern. She is the Wise Woman archetype, the one in whom resides the old knowledge, yet open to the new. She is shy and deferential when at work, seemingly intimidated by those she considers to be more knowledgeable or netter schooled than herself. But get her alone or in a small group, and she opens right up, and WOW. Birth goo runs in this woman’s veins.
We were lucky in that the Women’s Income Groups were both on site, and had their wares available for us to peruse and purchase. These are all HIV positive women, working in collective with Shanti to create bags and beads. Their work is beautiful, and I was happy to have the chance to pick up a few things missing from my Shanti collection. I had TOTALLY regretted not getting a patchwork bag such as I had gifted both my mother and Jodilyn last year. In fact, I considered swiping Jodilyn’s more than once; I’m happy Shanti was able to keep me from a burgeoning life of crime.
After shopping came lunch. Now, those of you who followed me last year are more than aware of my feelings on Ugandan food. It is nourishing, and always shared with great generosity of spirit and hospitality. I appreciate it so much for what it represents. However, it is not my favorite flavor palate. It is not bad, just a bit bland. And, there is very little variety. Almost every meal consists of matooke (smushed up plantains cooked in banana leaves) a starchy veggie like pumpkin or squash) rice and beans or potatoes covered in ground nut sauce. Very dense, and very very filling. Also, there was usually a side of delicious greens and the afore mentioned gorgeous pineapple.
Then the training started, although I think by that time, we were mostly braindead. I think it went well. But too be honest, monkeys on broomsticks could have flown through the building screaming obscenities in Norwegian, and I probably would have just nodded and smiled. It had been a very very long day.