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I would like to share some about my experience this summer at New Hope Uganda in Africa. New Hope ministers to children of Uganda whose families are unable to care for them. Some of their parents were victims of past wars in the region, others fell victim to the aids epidemic that is decimating the country, others have family members that are still living, but cannot care for their children for one reason or another. Children are assigned to "family groups", which includes a "mother and father" and often an "auntie or uncle". This picture is of one of the seven family group. (I am third from the left in the back row.)
The car bumps its way off the long, dusty road and onto the orphanage's property. In a matter of minutes, the car is surrounded by eager, coal black faces, ready to welcome the new arrivals to their home. That was the welcome my companions and I received when we arrived in New Hope Uganda for our one-month stay.
My experiences in my trip to New Hope Uganda this summer taught me a lot about the consistencies in human nature, even in vastly different cultures. Kids in Uganda come from a very different background with experiences in war, disease and poverty that I can't even begin to imagine. Yet, I had no problem relating with my companions, since the main focus of our conversations were on our shared faith in God and on basic things common to all of humanity, like school, work, and friends. While there my responsibilities were, helping in the baby house, the primary school, and played games with the children. I also went on some field trips with the secondary school students and did some construction work in the community. I would like to share my experiences, explain what I learned, and comment on what I still need to learn.
The history of New Hope Uganda Children's Center started nearly twenty years ago in response to the large numbers of orphaned children left by the genocide at Luweero Triangle. This area had been caught between the government troops and Museveni's rebels for four years, resulting in an estimated 250,000 civilian deaths, nearly the whole area's population. The center now serves over five hundred children ages 0-18, with at least two hundred children receiving full-time care. Africa's current AID'S crisis is responsible for the younger wave of orphans. A primary school and secondary school were started to meet the needs of the children. Trade schools and monetary supplements are provided to the young adults who have graduated from the program to help them in their start in life. New Hope has been so successful that many ambassadors from neighboring countries and communities are coming to see how they can replicate the success.
One thing that I noticed while I was there is that the kids really value learning and take their education seriously. A lot of the kids in upper secondary school are in their early twenties because the war several years ago postponed everyone's schooling. Their age and experiences though, only make them try harder to get the best education they can achieve. One young man I spoke with had lived at the school for several years. His relatives live so far away that he can only afford to see them a couple of weeks out of the year. He gets up at four every morning to study to pass his secondary level four test (junior year in High School for us), because he works in the afternoons and evenings. The sad thing for him was that even though he knew he was going to pass the test, he would not be able to go on to secondary five and six since he didn't have anyone to sponsor him. His alternative plan is to go to trade school so he can get a job, and then he can save money to go to college. Even as he told me of his plans, he knows that once he gets away from school it will be very hard for him to return.
Somehow I will have to learn how to instill a love of learning in the children I work with and a desire to succeed. Most children in America don't have the benefit of seeing so clearly the contrast in life that education and a willingness to learn creates, as do the children in developing countries.
This observation leads to another one that is especially important to me, since I want to work with the disadvantaged children of the foster care system. Children who have had traumatic experiences in life can grow up to become well-balanced citizens in their community. In New Hope Uganda Children's center where I stayed, every single one of the current five hundred children involved, are there because something horrible happened to them. New Hope's goal is to reach the lowest of the low: the abandoned babies, street children, the ones who have lost at least one parent and have no one to care for them. Many of the children survived the war, but suffered the trauma of watching family members being shot. Others cared for their parents as they died in the bush while hiding from both the rebels who would kill them, and the army who would take away their food and belongings. When I would talk to people in Uganda, they would tell me of the life they used to live, and then they would smile and start talking about their new life at New Hope. They spoke about their faith in Jesus as their Savior, their school, their friends, and about their new "parents".
New Hope provides homes for the children in the form of seven special villages. Each mini village has a married Ugandan couple who act as parents to the 12-16 children in their care, with the help of one or two additional adults. Each family has their own living space on the primary school grounds set up like a traditional Ugandan home. This gives the family group identity and a realistic family atmosphere. The children, when they graduate from school and move out on their own, are setting examples in their communities by giving back. They show the villagers how to farm for more than subsistence living and how to start their own businesses. One graduate is now a father for one of the family groups at New Hope.
Seeing their achievements really encouraged me that the disadvantaged children in America can succeed too, as long as they learn from their past, rather than letting it rule them. It also made me realize that I need to learn more about how past circumstances affect a person's outlook on life and what I can do to make life as positive as possible for the kids I work with.
Another aspect in life that became clear to me was that early experiences really play a large part in a person's future. While I was in Uganda, two new babies were brought into the New Hope infant house. One was a one-week old that had been abandoned near a police station. The other baby had been dropped forty feet into a pit latrine after she was born, where it took six hours to rescue her. Both of these children are going to have to live for the rest of their lives with the fact that they were abandoned. To encourage healing at New Hope, several adults are assigned to each child to be a mentor, to encourage them, and to help them work through any emotional difficulties they may have.
What I need to learn is to be able to identify different behaviors and evaluate what circumstances may cause them. Also, I need to know what to do about the behavior once I've identified it. This is especially important since I want to work with disadvantaged children who are much more likely to come with alot of "baggage", than children from functional homes.
Another observation I had was that people respond very differently to the same circumstances. There were two sisters at New Hope whose mom, and at least one sibling, had died while their family was hiding in the bush during the killing in the Luweero Triangle. They lived in the bush for a couple of years, surviving on what they could find for food and shelter. After the war they came to New Hope. One sister took all of her anger out on the people around her. She was very difficult to live and work with. Unfortunately, it took a very sad thing to turn her around. She got lung cancer and began rapidly and painfully dying. She decided it was time to make peace with the world and now she has asked everyone's forgiveness for her actions. The other sister was able to get over her past earlier. She responded by concentrating on the present and the future and is very gentle and kind to the people around her. It would be easy to forget, though, that the second sister has baggage from her past too, that needs to be worked out, since she responded by internalizing her pain and didn't express it outwardly.
I need to learn what ways are best in dealing with children according to their personalities. I'll have to learn how to identify the different personality types and tailor my interactions to fit those needs.
The children in Uganda, even though they come from a different culture and value system, still go through the same developmental stages, as all other children.
I want to know what I can expect from the children I will be working with, and what things the children are mentally capable of doing at the different developmental stages. I will also need to know a lot about learning disabilities and what can be done to overcome them. Probably all of the kids I will be working with will have challenges brought on by whatever past experiences put them in the foster care system in the first place.
The other thing I'll need to learn is the different styles in which children learn. In Uganda, I never met a child who didn't love to sing. The teachers have used this love of singing to help the kids learn better in many subjects. When the teacher has something they want the kids to be able to remember, they make it into a song. This allows the kids to see it written, hear it being said, say it in action, and feel it because they use drums and clapping in all of their songs. The teachers also use a lot of posters in their teaching materials so that the kids can picture what they are learning about. All this must work well because the school has a reputation of being one of the best schools in the area. When the school announces two or three openings, hundreds of caretakers arrive and wait for hours to try to enroll their children
In conclusion, my time in Uganda helped confirm for me the benefits of going into early childhood education. What impacted me the most about the children in Uganda is their enthusiasm for learning, and their ability to overcome even in the worst situations. It is these two characteristics that I want to take away with me and use in my future profession in the foster care system. Also, I saw how effective the committed family atmosphere works for the children in Uganda and it gives me hope that I can recreate a stable and loving environment for the foster children in America. [Return to Top]
The Ugandans are so friendly. They keep coming up to me and introducing themselves and saying, “You are welcome.” Meaning you are welcome here. They all have two names, one is English, which is the official language of the country and the second name is from the language of their tribe. When they say their English name, I can usually understand it, even though their names are older and not used in America any more. But when they say their Ugandan name, I have trouble understanding since they don’t say it clearly in my unrefined ears. A couple of them smile when I try to repeat their names, but they’re very patient.
They always ask me what I think of Uganda, they are very proud of their country. I was talking with some adopted missionary kids, they told me they are Ugandan-Americans, and they have not forgotten their heritage.
The only things that I have noticed that is different from our culture so far is the hand shaking, it confused me the first few times they shook my hand, but it easy when I expect it. They start and end the hand shake like we do, but in the middle they slide their fingers around the base of the thumb. If they are enthusiastic about seeing someone they will repeat the entire motion many times. Usually it is just part of the casual greeting like it is in America.
Another thing is how they say yes; all they do is raise their eyebrows. Even the one and a half-year-olds answer yes with their eyebrows. The last thing is they point with their lips; they just push out their lips in the direction they want to point.
At New Hope Children’s Center all the expatriate female staff wear skirts or dresses to respect the culture. In the city the girls and women are allowed to wear shorts or pants since they have had more introductions to western cultures. In the villages there is some special meaning in the thighs, women, at least black women, could go topless, but they can not show their legs above the knee.
One thing that amazes me is that they are so happy even though they are poor and know it. The "nice" houses have cement floors and walls with metal roofs, since rats can live in houses with thatched roofs. The average house is 15’ by 30’. Their water is heated on the stove so showers are cold; with the climate it isn’t too bad. Water is gathered at an outdoor faucet if you’re lucky and at the village bore hole if you’re pretty lucky. If not, water is collected anywhere: streams, puddles, or rain barrels.
Several times we have been eating dinner and the power went out. It was no big deal, we just lit a lantern. They have seen television and heard on the radio all that is going on in the world, so they’re not naďve. They have so little and yet are happy, we in America have so much and yet want more.
A Ugandan family invited us over for dinner. While we were there they told us about their marriage four years ago. They had a tape of the introduction. In Uganda, after the man and woman decide they want to get married, the man gathers his friends and relatives and chooses a spokes person from among them. They plan a meeting with the woman’s relatives. They pretend they are meeting for another matter, like building a bore hole so the village can collect water. The man and his friends arrive together and the spokes person does all the talking and makes the arrangements. After talking about other things, the spokes person brings up marriage and the woman’s family pretends to be surprised. In Uganda, the men pay a dowry for their brides, usually in cows. Cows are a status symbol; the more a person has, the richer they are. After the dowry had been arranged to everyone’s satisfaction, with the amount of cows or other products varying depending on the party's social status, the man and woman are given permission to marry. This practice is much more traditional rather than practical. For the wedding the bride wears white with lots of flowers, and the man wears a suit. There are all the normal people in the bridal party: bride, groom, maid of honor and best man etc…. This is due to their long status as a British colony I guess. In the wedding movie that I saw, they were getting married in a structure the relatives and neighbors had built. The poles were tied together and had thatch over it, the doors had cloth over them. Inside there were a couple rows of nice white plastic lawn chairs, the minister’s table and a roll of cloth leading from the door up to the table. That was all I got to see since then the power went out and it didn’t come back on while we were there.
All in all the wedding looked very much like an outdoor wedding in America. The celebration’s meat of choice is goat, which is more of a delicacy, while they have beef, pork and chicken more often. Generally any meat is not common at meals, maize, matoke (Ma-toe-KAY), cooked mashed cooking bananas, and gee nut sauce (peanut sauce) are more common while posho and beans are the staple. The popular drink is chee, a green tea with a lot of milk; it tastes good and is very filling. The Ugandans eat and drink their food at scalding temperatures.
Around here the cow is milked and the milk is poured into a milk can and strapped to a bike. The seller then goes door to door, ladling out the milk from a cup into the container provided by the buyer. If you are gone when the milk arrives, then you get no milk for that day. The milk is then boiled to make sure it is o.k. It is the whole milk that makes the tea so filling. I think it is strange that in a hot country people choose a hot drink, but they don’t have ice and most don’t have refrigeration so I guess hot is better than luke warm.
There is an interesting quirk in the Ugandan culture: they say “what” a lot. This is due to the teaching methods they use; the main way children learn in school is by rote. The teacher says, “Two plus two equals four, two plus two equals what?” In normal conversation they will add in what and then either answer it or if it is something other people would know they expect you to fill in the blank. Adding so many “whats” into the conversation has the effect of keeping the listener paying close attention and reacting to the speaker. Since I grew up in America, I don’t know if we have any peculiar habits that other countries notice.
The Ugandans usually act like they want to see their friends. In America people are so busy that they don’t have time to say hello to people they see across the street or in the store. Everyone seems to keep their head down and focused on getting through the present activity so they can rush on to the next activity. When we see saw an acquaintance in the store one time, she pretended she didn’t see us and went down aisles we weren’t going down. We have become too busy to talk to our friends, sometimes we can’t even say hi. Our society has become a collection of individuals that don’t even know their neighbors. Here if you see someone you know who is far away you call their name and say hi and if you are close enough or walking by, it is polite to stop and say hi and ask how you are or how is life. Even complete strangers on the road are greeting everyone they pass. I am having a little trouble here since I normally smile my greeting and maybe wave, but that is not enough here. [Return to Top]
This site was last updated 02/06/08