Thursday, January 27, 2011

Graduate School

So as crazy as it may seem.... my time in Peace Corps is coming to an end. And for those of you who know me well, you are well aware that I am scrambling to see what the next challenge will be. And I've found it!! I am applying to get my MSW (Masters in Social Work) from a few different schools. I will find out if I am accepted in the next few months, but in the meantime I wanted to share some of my entrance essays... so here it goes:

Why do you want to become a professional social worker?

The beginning was a bit serendipitous. I had decided to study abroad in South Africa and was lucky enough to be offered a course in Community Engagement. I took it, not sure what to expect, and was placed with mentally handicapped women who had been institutionalized their whole lives. Given free reign to create any type of program that I saw fit, I quickly developed a counseling/self-esteem curriculum that encouraged the women to think freely about their situation and to find ways to feel good about themselves. Six months passed and as we all embraced with teary goodbyes, the women explaining just what they had gained from my work, I had an epiphany: I wanted to become a professional social worker.

With a whet pallet, I continued my social work journey in the Philippines. The community center where I worked focused on providing positive activities for both boys and girls but my placement was specifically with the girls and I worked hard to support them. We devoted an entire week to sex education, spent hours making bracelets to sell at a fair, and rewarded ourselves with days at the beach. We learned about nutrition and I helped them with their homework each night. After homework was done we would all gather around and finish the night off with a round of karaoke. Every day cemented the thought that I wanted to be a social worker.

As the dust settled from my trip in East Asia, I was lucky enough to be nominated for a scholarship program in India. I spent months preparing appropriate learning materials and lesson plans. As we landed in Calcutta I realized that I had never really seen such omnipresent poverty. The streets were lined with beggars and trash. Everywhere you looked there was dirt and people visibly looked famished. We took our materials and lessons to local orphanages that were choked with children. Most of these were disabled and had been abandoned at birth; they were struggling to simply stay alive. They had never been properly taught and were incredibly responsive when given attention. Within three days time I had worked with Raki, a young girl with Cerebral Palsy, long enough to increase her fine motor skills ten fold. She was finally able to pick up a cup! And the drive to become a social worker amplified.

Throughout the rest of my college years I focused on getting to know as much as I could about the field of social work. I began volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and learned about the pitfalls of our social work system though my “little” and her family. I played afternoon sports with adults with disabilities who were in the system because they were unable to live alone. I read about social workers, their passions, successes and failures. I talked with social workers about their day to day experiences, sympathizing with their frustrations and sharing in their successes. As my understanding of social work deepened, so did my desire to become a social worker.

Finishing college, I did a quick survey of my options and decided to join the Peace Corps. Though my exact designation here is “Primary Teacher Trainer”, I think “Social Worker” is a much more appropriate title. I spend most mornings teaching Lifeskills to orphans and vulnerable children. My afternoons are spent creating a vocational school for deaf youth. I have worked with incarcerated men, taught English to illiterate adults and shown 18 year olds how to work a computer. I’ve learned Uganda Sign Language to be able to teach the local deaf population about HIV/AIDS as well as simply how to read and write. I have worked with a local NGO to sell re-usable menstrual pads to encourage girls to stay in school and I have marched in parades in support of people with disabilities.

In the past five years that I have been pursuing social work I have learned so many things. I have learned that I am one of the most blessed people I know and therefore I must help others. I have learned that doing what you think is best is not always best for the community. I have learned patience and understanding. I have learned that people may not share your race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, class or culture but they do share your innate desire to be happy in life. I have learned that progress is slow, and that’s okay. I have learned that you have to hold on to hope and hold it tightly because some days that is the only thing that will help you through. I have learned that there are so many ways we can make the world a better place and it is up to us to make it happen. And above all I have learned to love. Love everyone, always, as much as you can. Love when you are hurt and love when you are happy. Love people when they are feeling stressed and when they are feeling successful. Love people because you can and because it feels good. I believe that the lessons I have learned about life and loving people will help me as I set off on this new journey.

It will be a journey of learning and understanding. One that will equip me with the information and expertise I need to be able to make more of an impact in the world. It will be a voyage of excitement and hardship that will challenge me beyond anything I have every known. It will be a hard journey, but everything worth having is hard.

Describe a social issue of importance to you. What are some of its causes? How can you improve this issue?

“Disability is not inability” is the slogan that they have written on the wall at Masaka School for Children with Special Needs, and although most of the children would say that this statement is true, people in the community see it differently. I have spent the past two years at a small primary school in rural Uganda working with deaf children. I have worked tirelessly to teach the students skills that they will be able to use throughout their lives. They now know that they have a right to education and a right to resources; they recognize that they have a right to earn a living and a right to health care. They are learning about the impact they can make in their community by spreading information about being assertive, having self-esteem and knowing their facts about HIV/AIDS. They are aware that they deserve equal opportunities as their hearing peers and they are working hard to let everyone else know it as well. But try as they may, they are still social outcasts within the community. People call them “kasilu” which means stupid in the local language. When I spend afternoons grading the English papers they have written, my neighbors refuse to believe that the deaf can write. Many of them were abandoned at birth, with their fathers claiming “No one in my clan has ever been deaf, so this can’t be my child.” They have been mercilessly prayed for and “healed” by local witch doctors, only to find out that they are still unable to hear. Against all odds, these children are learning and are empowered.

There are myriad causes of social, economic, academic and physical exclusion of people with disabilities. Many of these exclusions begin with the simple underestimation of abilities. Because of their presumed “disabilities”, people with different intellectual, physical or sensory abilities are automatically assumed incapable of matching the capacity of their “normal” peers. Because of these negative beliefs, people with disabilities are oftentimes not given a chance to live up to their potential. In addition to low expectations by society, a lack of adequate facilities that are well equipped for the physically disabled compounds the issue. Sloped entrances and elevators are innovations that have only recently been required in building codes, and are virtually non-existent anywhere except in the first world. It is only within the last 30 years in the United States, and as little as 3 years in the developing world, that the government has begun supporting people with disabilities through its legislation and procedure. But even as I write this paper there are governments that refuse to support individuals within their own nation who have disabilities. The final, but probably most pervasive contribution to the exclusion of people with disabilities, is poverty. Poverty is not only one of the greatest causes of disability; it is also a painful effect. Families living in poverty often have a difficult time getting proper health care and diagnosis to their children. This can cause further complications in the future. Poverty is also a consequence of disability because people with disabilities are often unable to secure well paying jobs to support themselves and their families.

I was first introduced to the problem of social exclusion of mentally handicapped people when I was studying in South Africa. I spent 6 months working at an institution with women who had been institutionalized most of their lives. They had no contact with the “outside world” except through the few weeks they spent celebrating holidays with their families. My time there was spent on a project to increase their self-esteem and basic lifeskills and I was finally able to fully understand the ways in which a disability can impact ones life. All of the women I worked with had the same life goals as me: go to school, get a job I enjoy, get married and start a family. And all of these women had their goals stolen from them the moment they were institutionalized. It was then I began questioning the way we allow people with disabilities to integrate into society.

Two years after my experience in South Africa, I traveled to India to work with children who were mentally and physically handicapped and had been abandoned. The way these children were kept can barely be called living. Thrown into orphanages as babies, most of them had never set foot outside the building they were forced to live in. At the age of 18, many of them were sent out onto the streets where they would become beggars for lack of any other way to sustain themselves. It was during this trip that I finally understood just how much society excludes those with disabilities.

I continued my work with people with disabilities during my junior and senior years of college, and was able to compare and contrast the way people with disabilities were treated in different parts of the world. My final experience with people with disabilities has been here in Uganda, where I have spent the last two years working at a school for children with special needs. Throughout all of my travels my eyes have been opened to the pain and suffering children with special needs go through every day.

We can begin addressing the problem of segregating people with disabilities by first restructuring the way they are perceived. When looking at disability, a person can choose one of two perspectives, the medical model or the social model. The first perspective, the medical model, is governed by the activities that a person is able or unable to do. In this model, the focus is on the person and what they and their doctors can do to alter the course of their disability. The focus is on changing the individual to make them better fit into society’s ideal of a “normal functioning person.” The second perspective, the social model, states that disability is the lack of a society to conform to the social norms of all people. Its focus is on changing society to make it recognize and accept all people in spite of their differences. Using the second model we are able to see that the only reason people are categorized as disabled is because they cannot perform all of the functions that we have said are necessary to live in our society. It can clearly be seen that the problem is not within the ability of a person to think, act or understand, but it is within the boundaries we have built as a society.

Starting a similar program to the one I have create in Uganda could be a great way to empower young disabled people in the United States. Working together with the community, we could begin helping disabled people realize their own potential. This can include classroom work, after school health talks and vocational training in a number of different trades. This will also encompass beginning support groups for people with disabilities and starting family groups to help families help their children. When speaking of adults with special needs, we need to begin realizing that they are capable of working and start finding them appropriate places of work. But it can’t stop with just the people with disabilities and their families; for these young people to be empowered we must continue to include the community. Information sessions for the community should be set up so they can learn about the different programs offered to disabled youth. Beginning “showcase days” where people in the area can purchase or simply see items made by disabled youth is yet another way to inform the community of their potential.

There are innumerable reasons the people with disabilities are excluded from our communities. If we work together to find and implement solutions we can help disabled people to live meaningful and productive lives within their communities.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Camp GLOW!

My group of beautiful girls!!

I was lucky enough a few weeks ago to be able to attend Camp Glow with 5 deaf girls from Masaka School for Children with Special Needs.  I took 2 Ugandan counselors with me (my two best friends, Sarah and Judith) and we set out for Entebbe.  I was placed as a camp counselor with a group of girls and our team name was the crested cranes.  3 of the girls in my group were deaf and the other two were in Sarahs group.


All of the Camp GLOW counselors.

The week long Camp, funded by a grant from the US government, focused on girls empowerment.  GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World.  We had sessions on everything: lifeskills, healthy living, saving money, teambuilding, malaria, HIV/AIDS and crafts.  Every night the girls were able to participate in activities of their choice like a nature walk to the lake, Frisbee time, bracelet making, sign language lessons and dance classes.  They loved every minute of it.

My group was the "crested cranes".

One of the coolest things was being able to see my deaf girls interact with hearing girls in a positive way.  In the past, everytime I had brought my deaf students into the community I had been let down by the way they were treated.  People were rude and uncomfortable.  At Camp Glow it was explained at the beginning that they were deaf and if girls wanted to communicate they should try using sign language.  It was amazing to see young girls attempting and succeeding at communicating with my deaf girls.

Interpreting during the final day.

Because we were only 3 counselors it became very clear from the beginning that I was going to have to interpret at some point.  Interpreting is tiring and on top of that I had NEVER done it before.  (I teach my own classes at the school using sign language, but always have time to prepare the signs before hand.  Interpreting requires a person to listen to what one person is saying and then figure out how to teach it to the girls.  Talk about a CHALLENGE.) But you all know that I love a challenge so I embraced it and tried my hardest.  By the end of the week I was feeling more confident in my sign language than ever before.  It was so great to be able to communicate with my girls on a totally different level than I ever have.

I discussed with the girls what they enjoyed the most about the week.  Most said they liked meeting new friends and learning new things.  They also loved that we treated them as equals, they are used to being treated very badly by their teachers.  They enjoyed lessons on self-defense and learning hip hop dancing.  They loved the food and making up camp cheers (I translated our cheer into sign language so the deaf girls in our group could feel included).  They loved watching movies and the team building exercises.  They really liked that a woman speaker came to camp every day to inspire them to be all they could be.  Overall, Camp Glow was a major success and yet another pinnacle of my Peace Corps experience.

Our group flag!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vocation School

My students in the salon, learning how to cut hair.

In October (as I was preparing my surprise trip back to the States) we had the grand opening of the Vocational School for Children with Special Needs.  This project was made possible by so many generous gifts from the wonderful people in the States, as well as a very large contribution from the Primary School for the deaf.  It was an exciting time because all of the parents of the children, as well as Peace Corps staff and volunteers were invited to attend.

Two of my students, learning how to make chapatti.

The day went well, with speeches, giving of gifts and raising money to transport our books back to the school.  The parents raised 98,000 UGsh.  Which is comparable to $45, a whole lot of money in this country.  We were able to walk the parents through the school and show them all of the work their children had been doing: hairdressing, tailoring, cooking, and making handy crafts.  The parents were so amazed by their childrens abilities and were incredibly supportive and thankful for the idea. It was by far the best moment I have had yet in Uganda.  I think this is the first time I have felt I achieved the Peace Corps first goal of training the local people to support themselves. 

Tablecloths the students made themselves after only a week of training. We are selling these to sustain the project, let me know if you want a set!! (Only 15$ per set of 6)

I know that the school is going to be a place that will allow deaf children to create a future for themselves.  They will learn and master a trade and then be able to take it to the community where they can be productive members of society.  I want to send a big thank you out to everyone who made this day possible... I love you all!

One of the 5 sewing machines purchased for the school.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Loving on my family!!
Time with friends!
Some of the best people I know!

I was able to be in the wedding of one of my all time best friends, Jennifer Cantrell!!

Sitting in my house on my first day back in Uganda and trying to think of the perfect word to describe exactly how I feel right now.... contented is good, but then it seems as though I am settling for something, elated might be it, but that makes it seem as though I am not happy in America.  I’ve got it.... whole.  Whole is the perfect word to describe exactly how I feel right now.

I feel whole because I just spent 3 weeks loving on some of my favorite people and now I get to spend a whole lot more time loving on some more of my favorite people here in Uganda. 

It was interesting being home.  There were hundreds of times when I had to just stop for a minute to be able to actualize the fact that both the world I live in in Uganda and the one in America do exist at the same time.  I absolutely LOVED being home.  I surprised the heck out of my parents and friends, sharing a lot of tears and laughter.  I was able to visit friends at a football game and be in the wedding of my best friend.  After my time in the States I was lucky enough to head over to London for a week to see Sarah and Taylor.  London was amazing and it was even better being there with two of my favorite people.

Spending time with the wonderful Nichols family.

Sarah and I, in the london snow!

In the end, I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I thought I would be, but I think that is simply because I knew I was coming back to Uganda.  One thing that did blow my mind was how much time we spend buying things in America: groceries, clothes, books, going out to eat, gifts, gas, etc.  It seems as thought Americans spend most of their days working, and when they aren’t working they are spending the money that they just made.  I’m not necessarily saying it’s a terrible thing, but I do find that there are many more important things we could be doing with our day that we don’t seem to be doing:  seeing our family, helping our neighbors, enjoying the outdoors, reading, visiting friends.

As I flew back into Uganda I was truly worried that I would be shocked again by the unorganization and poverty that is Uganda, but I can truly say that I saw neither of those things.  Yes, people stand to close in line and everything is both late and difficult.... but, a random stranger gave me a ride home from the airport.  My neighbors came over to greet me.  Baby Dan and family screamed at my arrival and I was greeted with grasshoppers.  All of these things are important, but oftentimes we forget about their importance.  I can truthfully say I am happy to be back in my home, with the warm weather and my ka-dog.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Making a Classroom

So, I know a lot of you who are reading this blog are teachers.  And I want to thank you for all the work that you for your kids.  My students just returned from their final school practice, basically student teaching for a final grade. Its very similar to student teaching in the States, except they are only there for 4 weeks and there is no trial period where they observe the teacher, they are just thrown into a classroom of 90 1st graders and told to go.  One major difference in Uganda is that a large portion of the students grades are based on the “classroom environment”.  They are encouraged to make their rooms look like American rooms, but without the help of nifty quotes printed on plastic and appropriate shelving units.  Though I admit that buying laminated cutouts of lady bugs and sentence strips that are already printed might be a chore..... this is significantly harder.  They have to “build” an entire room out of locally available materials. That is the big push from the ministry of education right now.  I think (like many things here) that is great in theory and a bit dismal in practice, but my kids work is phenomenal.  Below I have included some photos of the things they made in their classrooms.

This is what a classroom looked like the first week of the students teaching.  This is better than what it looks like with the regular teacher and has about 1/4 of the students.

Our clock: made from paper, cardboard, bark cloth and reeds. 

Musical Instruments poster: Made from bark cloth, markers and poster board

Our shop:  (shelves) made from papyrus and bamboo, covered in toilet paper and paper.  (girl) made from banana fibers, toilet paper rolls and rags.

Nature Table: (table) made from banana fiber, sisal and sticks.  (food) made from newspaper, cassava flour, dirt and water.
Animals found at home: (writing) made with glue and dirt (animals) made with furs from local animals.

This is just a regular poster, but I really loved it.  It was in a first grade class.  Pretty sure I think that every classroom should have this on the wall.
T.V.: Made from cardboard box, sticks, banana fibers and paper.  Very cool.  You spin the knobs on the side the picture changes.

Our church: Made from cardboard and painted with dirt

Sunday, October 10, 2010


This past weekend, I was lucky enough to get invited to an introduction.  And introduction is basically like an engagement party in the States, but 100 times funnier and more involved.  The general premise is that the girl is introducing the boy to her family.  This is also when the boy pays the traditional “bride price”.  The whole idea of the introduction is that it is a huge drama.... everyone is playing a role and its really important to exaggerate and follow all of the rules. One of my Peace Corps friends has fallen in love with a Ugandan girl and this was their introduction!

We all took a couple of hours getting ready before the event.  You have to wear traditional attire and we were all a bit inexperienced with how to wear it, walk in it, etc.  The men wear kanzus and the women wear Gomez.  The men look damn good in their outfit but the purpose of the Gomez is to make women look very fat (as that is a good thing in this culture).  There are so many layers of fabric, it’s basically a mess if you haven’t worn one before.  Here is me trying to get mine on.... with the help of Ven, of course:

You can see that I have a layer UNDER the blue one.  This is to make my "hips and bum look bigger"  Then you wrap all of that blue around you.  Talk about hot.

 All of us girls with our outfits.

We arrived at the introduction 2 hours late (I guess this is just expected) and we all had to line up outside of where the event would take place (at the girls fathers house).  There were about 50 of us in our entourage (PC staff, volunteers, and friends from his village) and we were instructed to “dance in”.  As we came in, four girls dressed as nurses came out, gave us “immunizations”, little knitted pins and handkerchiefs with the future bride and grooms names.  Then we all sat down under a big tent.  The mans friends and family under one tent, with the womans in another tent.


Our group waiting to be immunized by the brides family.  We are a colorful bunch!

Then the womans family brings out a bunch of girls, to show how prosperous they are and how they have so many girls.  Every time they ask if the groom (who I forgot to mention is currently sitting in the general crowd... the family doesn’t know who he is) would like any of these girls.  They bring out groups of girls starting with 4 years olds, then 8 year olds, then 14 year olds, then 20 year olds, then a few groups of adults.  Each group of girls does a dance, says some words of wisdom and then is given a gift from the grooms side.  The entire thing is commentated by two MC’s who are hired by the separate families.  They banter back and forth with the brides side saying things like “We showed you all of our girls, you can go now” and “Please leave, we already gave you people drinks.”  After all the dancers come, the jja jja (grandma) comes out in her digging clothes, with a machete in one hand and a hoe in the other and acts like she had no clue that this event was going to happen.  She then realizes her granddaughter is going to get married and comes out and dances.  (I thought this was hilarious and totally want to do this at my engagement party. Ha)


Finally, the girls aunt says that they have brought out all of the girls and now the brides family wants to meet the groom.  The aunty goes searching/dancing through the crowd and after about 10 minutes “finds” the groom.  Then he is introduced.  Next, more girls come out and dance and this time the bride is amongst them.  The girls are instructed to dance into kneeling position... unless they are the bride, which leaves her standing alone.  She is told to stand for a while so everyone can get a good look.  Then the grooms sister has to present a gift for the groom.  After that the future bride is finally allowed to sit next to her future groom.  But this lasts for a whopping 10 minutes and then she has to go back and sit with her family.

 Kimuli and his future wife Gertrude

Next is the giving of gifts.... also known as paying the “bride price”.  A few months before the introduction occurs, the future groom has to go and speak with the girls aunt.  He brings her gifts and they negotiate how much he will have to bring to the introduction.  On the day of the introduction the people who traveled with the groom bring in all of the gifts.  To give you an idea of how much stuff it was.... there was about 40 of us carrying it in...... and it took us 3 trips!! Here is a list of some of the things he gave:

   Basket of tomatoes

   7 loaves of bread

   Basket of onions

   8 pineapples

   Basket of spices

   10 jars of blueband

   Gomez fabric for ALL women

   Kanzus for ALL men





   Crates of soda

   Boxes of water

   Basket of oranges

   Box of applyes

   6 heads of cabbage

   Maize Flower


 The boys carrying in the heavy items.

All of the stuff that the groom purchased for the brides family.

I asked what would happen to all the perishable food (because there is no way one family could consume it in time) and Ven told me that they give it out to all the extended relatives, so everyone basically gets a gift from the groom.

I told Mr. Bigyemwa (my neighbor) that I was going to an introduction here in the Buganda Kingdom.  He proceeded to say that people in the Buganda Kingdom are not serious about bride price, and I quote, “ In the Buganda Kingdom they let men buy woman for tomatoes.  What kind of a price is that?  You think they will want to keep the wife that they only paid for in tomatoes?  What reason would the husband have for staying?  I paid 8 cows for my wife and I have been with her for 25 years.  Those people are not serious.”  I love his theory. 


This is a picture of the bride, kneeling, to give her gifts to the groom.

After the gift-giving, there is an outfit change for the bridal party, cutting of the cake and then general merrymaking. We had a delicious meal of luwombo (chicken wrapped in matooke leaves and steamed) and then did some dancing.  It was amazing to see the fusion of the two cultures and to be able to be a part of two incredible peoples very special day.  And I can’t even wait to go to their wedding. J

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making the vocational school/library beautiful!

About a month ago, my grant got fully funded and we started the process of getting the space ready to become a vocational school/library.  We had finished all of the cosmetic painting, so William encouraged me to start painting a mural.  It took me about a week of making a grid, drawing the countries and finally painting them.  The kids love coming in and looking at all the different countries.


We had some paint left over and wanted to do a “hand mural” with the kids.  I painted a trunk of a tree and had the kids do their hands for the leaves.  They loved it, and I thought it was extra special because they use their hands to communicate.

To finish up the beautification process, I painted all of the left over paint cans and the kids planted flowers. They loved getting their hands dirty and thought it was pretty cool that they each got to plant their own.