Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving is all about People

Happy Thanksgiving!

For my non-American friends and family, American Thanksgiving is all about appreciating the blessings in our lives and taking the time to cherish our loved ones. The day usually entails a massive dinner, centering around a Turkey and all its fixings (cranberry sauce, stuffing, vegetables, and if you’re lucky, a pie for dessert!) Although most African countries don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I was able to share this sort of family-centered day with my Ugandan family on Easter this past year. My Maama Murungi cooked an astounding meal- several chickens and enough potatoes to feed an army. I got to spend time with my little sisters as we celebrated our heavenly blessings, and even managed to bring them a chocolate bunny from the States. Even if we don’t celebrate the concept at the same time, I think every culture knows the value of putting time aside to be grateful for what we are given.

For me, this year is a harder Thanksgiving than most. Kam and I have been dating a little over a year now, and this year it’s frustrating not to have him with my family for the holiday, as he is still living in Uganda and I am back in the United States. He also had his official university commencement this week, and it was sad that I couldn’t be there to celebrate his great achievement. No one ever said long distance relationships would be easy! I do have hopes for later this winter, though, it’s possible that Kam may be able to visit here, or that I will be able to go and meet him in Europe.

Fortunately, even though this aspect of life has been frustrating, I’ve had plenty to keep me busy. For the moment I’m substitute teaching, and the work has allowed me to do the job that I love and meet some very interesting people. Some of the kids I work with are hilarious. The best thing I’ve seen this week is a student playing a digital version of trash ball. Remember throwing paper balls into the wastebasket, pretending you were a basketball star? Well, Apple has an app for that. Oh, technology.

As we enter the holiday season, the kids get wound up about gifts and parents worry themselves over decorations and gatherings, but we mustn’t forget the most important things. It doesn’t matter what the latest game on the iPad is, how many pounds of turkey you’ve eaten, or how tall your Christmas tree (or handcrafted menorah) is. Many families have an empty seat at their holiday table that not long ago seated a dear family member. The holidays bring about good memories and sad ones, but my goal this year is to really recognize the people I’m grateful for, including those who can no longer be with me. I may be a schoolteacher and not a millionaire, but my life is truly made rich by the people who have blessed my life with friendship, grace, and wisdom. Even in this digital age it can be hard to stay in touch across continents, but we are lucky to know that love can span oceans.

In Memory of Family and Friends, Past and Present

Thanksgiving 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Springing into Understanding

It has been a wild run-up to spring break. The end of the year is coming up fast, and there is still a lot that I want to experience here in Uganda (aside from marking massive amounts of high school English papers!) While living here I have been granted the great opportunity of seeing beautiful sights and meeting all sorts of people. I know my time here has encouraged me to grow in many ways, but most especially in the realm of understanding.

Although in this global economy people are always talking about cultural differences and transitions, I have learned more about the differences between myself and my fellow man in this one year than I could have possibly imagined. It also seems to me that the biggest differences come between the cultures of ‘Western’ nations, not the cultures of the developing world.
Here’s my proof: This week one of my housemates hosted a friend of hers at our house for a night. It wasn’t a big deal at all, but I couldn’t help noticing the absence of what would be expected behaviors in my own country. I’m quite used to living around Dutch conversations that I don’t understand (these days, unless I’m asking a question, I generally have no idea what is going on. But that’s why I love reading so much. The books always speak my language!) After the guest and her daughter had settled in, I came downstairs for a few minutes. First I tried to calm our dog (who was panicked with glee at the sight of a young child,) and then I thought to sit down for a moment with the company. After a moment or two I realized however that the conversation continued in Dutch around me, and that our temporary guests would not be introduced. As I do not speak Dutch, I quickly abandoned my attempt at conversation, feeling quite foolish indeed. Probably such things are not a big concern at all in Holland, but my own culture is quite the opposite. With us it is almost a point of pride to make introductions. I have heard for several months, as a passing observation, that few other nations can compare to the garrulousness of Americans. One must learn and adapt!
My wonderful boyfriend, of Rwandan-Ugandan stock, is constantly reminding me to be patient with such cultural adjustments (he anticipates more between our trans-Atlantic lives than we have actually found yet.) I laugh as I repeat his words to myself- I doubt he ever thought they’d be needed in my own house! Still, as I pray for patience and understanding, I know that every challenge builds character. I pity friends and family; I’m going to be quite a character when I get back!

Living Room as Classroom

Spring break means a journey back to the village to visit friends and extended family. One of my students from last year has begun secondary school, and I can’t wait to see how he is getting along. I am helping the family with his school fees, and plan to take him shopping for some new shoes and notebooks as well. Education is such a big deal in rural areas- it’s amazing to see the power of learning so celebrated. That and this particular young man will be quite a lot smarter than me one day soon!

The Young Scholar

After a few days in the village, it is my hope that my gentleman and I can spend some time visiting the historical sites located here in Kampala. I have never been to the shrine of the martyrs, nor have I learned very much at all about the Kabaka, Kampala’s ancient line of traditional kings. In fact, the only things I really know about the Kabaka are that traditionally, any woman who lived in the kingdom was considered to be one of his wives, and if you look at the king in his ceremonial robes, he kind of looks like the Pope in red cloth. If I’m able to take such a tour, expect some nifty stories to come!

Kabaka, Source:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Valentine's Adventures

Well, it really has been a roller-coaster few weeks! My students are finally settling back into routine after the winter holiday, and new curriculum is pursued with vigor, at least by the teachers. My upper classmen are no fonder of reading than they were in November, but I’m working on them. The seniors are reading Jane Eyre, one of my favorites, and I know they’ll be surprised when Thornfield’s ‘ghost’ is revealed! (Actually, I’m rather counting on it to convince them to finish reading the book.) The eleventh grade is almost finished their final projects on A Streetcar Named Desire, and it was truly amazing to see them read and respond to the play. If you haven’t read Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, do!

But there I go, teacher rambling again. For Valentine’s Day, I took the end of last week off and went to the town of Jinja, situated near the source of the Nile. My boyfriend and I made it an escape weekend, and wandered around the town, enjoying some amazing (and mostly Western,) food. Because of its proximity to a major tourist point, there are some really nice restaurants. My favorite was The Keep CafĂ©, which was decorated by its American owners to look like a medieval castle on the inside. I got chicken wings and an Africanized soft pretzel, and though below par for Philly standards, my companion was thoroughly impressed. I gave him half for his French onion soup, and he enjoyed it.
The View from Our Room

Hotel Pool!

Just Relaxing in the Beautiful Weather

The journey home on Friday was another adventure in itself. After we reached the city we parted ways for our separate homes, and I caught a boda from the mall in town as I have done a zillion times before. Except this fellow turned out to be drunk! He fooled me by being completely normal as I negotiated a price for the ride, but after we were underway for a few minutes he started shouting at every other person in sight. I asked him to stop, and he began swearing. So I told him to stop so I could get off, but he refused. Eventually he had to slow for traffic and I jumped off, though he dove after me, clawing at my jacket and bags. Fortunately, he backed up as I retaliated, punching and striking at his eyes until he moved away. Other motorbike drivers stopped and restrained him long enough for me to get away with another driver, but then the chase began. The drunk ended up running my new boda and I off the road and tipping our bike in the process. I have some very cute bruises and a few scratches, though I count myself very fortunate. The drunken screaming got a dozen other boda drivers to stop, and they said they would drag him to the nearby police barracks. As that progressed, I finally got away, and caught one more boda the rest of the way home. I had been especially nervous because I was carrying my laptop home from the vacation, but it and I wound up fine. Never dull, as my Dad likes to say!

That same night we had our school’s youth group Valentine’s dinner at a local restaurant. The sight was enough to chase any remaining upset completely out of my system. All of the kids were dressed up, many in shades of red. Some had the courage to invite dates, and it was a trip to see the middle school boys nervous. But the older boys were gentleman and offered guidance, and well as being quite chivalrous to their own dates. Much good food was had, pool was played, and some of the kids even got up to dance. At the end of the night, after waiting for parents to come collect their charges (remember, in Africa things happen 1-2 hours later than one intends,) the school’s chaplain and his wife gave me a lift home.

I’ve been using the rest of the weekend to plan for classes and hide from the heat of the daytime. I’ll be glad to get back to work tomorrow- it is a little weird to have been out of the classroom for so long.
I’ve also started keeping an eye on the job market back home; as much as I have loved parts of this experience, it’s time to get back to the States. It’s been hard to be away from my family as they have faced some difficult times. And at the risk of sounding old, I’m warming up to the idea of settling down and starting some semblance of a career. And yes, I will be hoping for snow next winter!

Lots of Love,


Monday, January 21, 2013


Back in Uganda after a wonderful Christmas season with my family. I always love bringing back quirky gifts for everyone in my family, and this year I think the hand-carved folding table, goatskin sheathed pygmy knives, and traditional African string instrument won special amusement. I was the recipient of some wonderful gifts as well, most especially some new clothes and washing supplies (as I am still completely miserable at doing my own washing!)

As I anticipated, however, it was very difficult to leave the States! We entered the dry season here in Uganda while I was gone, and the sometimes muggy, always hot weather is very different than the slick ice and light snow that I visited at home.

Still, there is work to do, and my students have grudgingly returned to their efforts. For the sake of my homesickness, I keep reminding myself that the four months to summer is a very short time, but for my graduating seniors, it is quite the reality. They have to finish polishing themselves mentally, spiritually, and academically before the time comes for them to spirit away to university in all corners of the world but here. When recently surveyed, I found out that in fact not one of my senior students intends to stay in Uganda for post-secondary education. For me, that means sorting time to finish Jane Eyre, read Macbeth, and review and discuss some classic examples of British poetry. These students will cross minds with peers from all around the world, and many will have a much more formal English background. They have to be ready to make the grade just as well as anyone else, never mind a secondary education in the third world. When looked at that way, four months isn’t very long at all!

Most of my classes are the same this term, though they are all in different time slots. My seventh graders, who were fond of bouncing off the walls before lunch, are quite amicable after. It’s like meeting a new group of kids. Some have returned slightly changed; though none have noticed the addition to my progressing tattoo sleeve, I have noticed their purple braids, new haircuts, and shiny new backpacks and sneakers sent from abroad. It is the season for change and new things. I have also taken on the eighth grade social studies class for a friend on maternity leave, and her students and I will start acting out scenes from the Odyssey with them next week as the explore the culture and beliefs of ancient Greece.

Lastly, I have given some thought to my plans for next year. As one can probably tell from this reading, being back and forth to home was hard. It wasn’t made easier by family illness, and I was shocked and pained to learn that as I was flying back to Uganda, a dear uncle passed away. Needless to say, I’m feeling a little insecure about being so far from my pack. The good news is that the universe seems to be smiling on me, and my boyfriend (born and raised on this side of the Atlantic,) may be offered the chance to work in Canada in the upcoming year. Hemisphere crossing relationships- it would be quite the adventure! He has seen me  make adjustments since my move to Uganda; I would be curious about what cultural differences he would find coming to the West.

But for now I am here, and going to make the most of it. As the school term gets back underway, I'm sure there will be more stories to share! 

Lots of Love, 


In loving memory of my uncle, Francis Sharpless.
The sweetest man anyone could ever have hoped to meet.