Sunday, 27 December 2015

Re-entry: An update from Mark and Abby Bartels

A year and a half ago, after founding and directing the Uganda Studies Program for ten years, Mark and Abby Bartels moved back to the US with their kids. As we just completed our fall 2015 semester's Debrief and Re-entry Seminar, we asked Mark and Abby to share a bit about what their re-entry process has been like. How have they have endeavored to integrate their experiences, beliefs and convictions into a way of life and being in the US? 

Daniel, Mark, Abby, Mary and Rachel Bartels At Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.

1. What and why? Mark: vocation--- why we moved back, a desire to serve and invest in UCU as an institution and desire to create space/opportunity for Abby and I to share workload and have time and opportunity to be part of the formation of our children as they go through adolescence.

The decision to leave USP and Uganda was a difficult one. There were so many things we liked about our work and life in Uganda. In the end, there were three significant factors. The first is that we felt, for a variety of reasons, that we wanted our kids to experience some of their growing up years in their home culture. A big part of that was the fact finding a good schooling option for our kids was becoming increasingly difficult in Uganda. The second factor leading to our moving from Uganda was, ironically, the opportunity to continue to work with Uganda Christian University (UCU). We felt that this continued connection to UCU was an important part of our “integration” as we moved back. What better way to continue to process and think about our life in Uganda than to have a continued formal connection? The third factor was the reality that although Abby was involved with USP, being in Uganda did not allow her to explore her professional and personal development goals in the same way being in the U.S. would.

In some ways, we can look back at our transition and see each of these three factors playing a key role in our (relatively) positive re-entry. While we aren’t living in exactly the type of community we may have envisioned upon leaving Uganda, we are in a place that is working well for the kids. From school to activities to friends, the kids are all engaging their new/home culture in positive ways. The work with Uganda Christian University Partners is providing us a key connection to UCU and connecting our current life stage with our previous one. Not only has Abby been able to consider and explore more professional options since we have been back, but her current focus is on coordinating communications for Uganda Christian University Partners—something that utilizes her strengths and keeps her engaged with our time in Uganda.

2. How? Abby speaking for both of us from here on out!

I think about our USP alumni and community all the time as we continue to “debrief” our “re-entry” with ourselves, with you, with friends who were in Uganda with us and with others who face transition and an earnest desire to be pilgrims!

Photo of Mark 'debriefing' the kids: I think they love it as much as you all did!
We are doing our best to try to wade through all the commitments of our lives with the orientation of “patience/presence” because it is the piece from our time in Uganda that is most universally challenging to our American culture and most life-giving to us as people and to our family life.

I’m adding a link to an OnBeing podcast of a poet, John O'Donohue, who has a Celtic view of life and the inner landscape. He beautifully describes a quality of life and “presence” that we can cultivate in our inner beings regardless of our place, our culture, our circumstances. I find it comforting and inspiring.    

I recently read that C.S. Lewis said all great truths are a paradox. I do think there probably is a paradox involved with the competing cultural values—productivity/efficiency/stewardship versus presence, patience, kairos time (kairos being the quality of time, chronos being the quantity of time).  It is a paradox that most Americans and Westerners face while being in Uganda; it is a paradox worth embracing!

Almost a year and a half into our move back, I’m compelled by developing routines and rituals that would encourage us to be present/patient, because I don’t trust the worlds’ patterns or my natural emotions (as aided by technology and consumer culture!) to seek and submit to patience/presence. 

By the end of our time in Uganda, Mark started reading books by James K.A. Smith and I think he has another way of asking, “What is forming you?” He talks about liturgy (for you non-Anglicans; remember learning about liturgy while studying at an Anglican University in Africa?) in a bigger picture sense exploring the ways we have many “liturgies” in culture, in our routines, in our way of life that are training us to love the wrong things. Here is a Christianity Today article reviewing his work.

While I’ve been somewhat general in the motivations and the measures of how we are seeking to be present, I would say it really does affect many of our decisions and schedules.  From our finances (choosing to live with my folks), to schooling for the kids, to what activities they do, to how we do church, to how we make time for our marriage, to carving out personal space and goals, to investing in friendships (near and far), to food choices (a work in progress), to our consumerism, to our time at work and our time off, etc.  

One example that I’m still mulling over—Sabbath. For the last several months, I have been compelled by the thought of doing Sabbath well. I haven’t worked out what that means yet, but it is percolating in my mind and spirit as a way to counter our culture and embrace a presence that is abiding and deep and good for our souls!

So, if you are wondering if the Bartels have transitioned well… I think I can mostly say, “we’re working on it!” And we’re grateful for all the years of being immersed in a very present culture that has enabled us to imagine another way, enabled us to pause and consider our patterns and “liturgies of life”!

Marks parents visiting us in Pittsburgh where we live with Abby's parents. 

The attic space is our living room— that is a batting net for wiffle ball, my office desk,
a very heavy TV, etc.  Sometimes, the close quarters get intense for the introvert mother of the family!

Outdoor time is good for the soul, and the swings remind the kids of Uganda!

Living with my folks is overall good; but sometimes we need our own time and space:
 a weekend in a cabin!

If you want to follow the goings on at UCU and the work that Mark and Abby are doing through Uganda Partners' (UCU's US-based support agency) you can join the mailing list to receive newsletters about Uganda Christian University. You can also *like* the UCU Partners Facebook page

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Giving Thanks

This past Thursday was a day of thankfulness for many reasons including worship, friends, sports, and plenty of food. All this made for a special USP Thanksgiving.

We started the day by leading Community Worship with Honors College. Every semester we are given this opportunity and this semester it just happened to fall on Thanksgiving. Songs were sung, testimonies were shared, scripture was read and a beautiful and inspiring message was preached by our own USP staff member, Lydia Wankuma.

USP and Honors College students leading Community Worship together.
Lydia Wankuma being introduced by her husband and the
Honors College Director, Abel Wankuma
USP student, Katie reads scripture.
USP student Zach shares a testimony.
Later in the day we headed down to the old pitch; it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without some American football! Here we have our students and USP friends working up an appetite, playing a friendly game of football.

Thanksgiving football game!

Students, staff, friends, family and USP alumni gathered for our annual Thanksgiving dinner at the USP House. We started our time with connecting and introducing, enjoyed a classic Thanksgiving dinner, indulged in the desserts that students had prepared and ended the evening with an outdoor screening of Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving.

Pre-dinner mingling! 
Loading on the gravy!
USP Alumni and students sharing a meal.

So many people, places and things to be thankful for. 
Happy Thanksgiving from the Uganda Studies Program!

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Student blog: Kendra Pankow

Many USP students keep their own blogs during their semester in Uganda. Besides being a way to easily update friends and family on events going on, these blogs often provide space to share thought processes and insights gained from their experiences.

Today we are featuring a blog post from one of our Fall 2015 homestay students, Kendra Pankow (Lawrence University). In this post, Kendra weaves together concepts she’s learned in class with her own observations from her rural homestay in Kapchorwa. Thanks Kendra for sharing!


         What does it mean to be a part of a community? What does it mean to live a life dedicated to knowing God’s family? According to Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, “the togetherness of the Christian community…is not the result of shared anger or anxiety; it grows from a deep sense of being called together to make God’s compassion visible in the concreteness of everyday living” (74).
I have often thought about what community looks like because the idea of a true community is very appealing to me. The idea of being with people, always having a group to belong to, and having people to care for and take care of you seems like something that everyone should be a part of. However, what does this actually look like? What does it mean to make God’s compassion visible in the ‘concreteness of everyday living’? The book Compassion discusses how to sit with people in their hurt. The authors discuss how individuals can be together with people in their real hardships in order to show compassion. We talked in class about how one must know how to sit with each other in the day-to-day life activities in order to be able to show this compassion most successfully.
John Taylor talks about presence in his work Primal Vision. He suggests that many Africans have a better sense of knowing how to simply ‘be’ than most westerners. Instead of always being focused on the next item on the agenda or where they would rather be, Africans are able to sit in the moment and enjoy the surroundings and people. The idea of not scheduling everything, not always thinking ahead, and not worrying about how to be as productive as possible is again appealing to me. Both John Taylor and the authors of Compassion have brought to my attention a possible sense of community that is possibly attainable; however, the remaining question is ‘how’. How can I practically find this type of community where everyone is present with each other and are able to express true compassion?

Although there is a great sense of community where I usually live, it sometimes gets blurred in my mind because of school and my everyday living. But I finally caught a deeper glimpse of this type of lifestyle in Kapchorwa! I finally saw in detail a community that could ‘be’ together. I finally saw a community that lived life together – sitting with each other in pain, celebration, and everyday life. Unlike many western neighborhoods where streets are quiet because kids are inside playing with their electronics, kids in the area of Kapchorwa where I lived were together as much as possible! I lived in their designated ‘hang-out’ compound. If at any point they were free of chores and schoolwork, they would come to our compound to see if any kids were free to play. The kids already knew a sense of community and belonging that many western adults do not know. They asserted themselves enough to simply come to the group instead of waiting to be invited, and all were welcomed – two concepts that I think are necessary for this kind of community.
It was not only the kids living in community together. The adults lived life in community as well. Neighbors, family members, and distant relations were constantly checking in on each other.
In a matter of one day, we might have had three to five visitors to our compound that wanted nothing more than to check to make sure we were doing all right. We were still living, functioning, and doing well. My mother was actually asked why she had not been to check in on someone recently; it is an EXPECTATION on community members to visit people! I am learning that the idea of checking-in on people plays a huge role in creating a community that knows how to sit with each other. Without checking in on each other, they would not know when someone was hurting, or when someone was celebrating. They would also not have built a deep enough relationship in which individuals can jump into each others’ lives through help or encouragement.
A view of church
In this Kapchorwa community, members also knew how to appreciate each other. People were constantly thanking each other and appreciating them for the work they were doing, even if the work they were doing in no way affected the one doing the thanking. Members of the community were thanked simply for harvesting their crops, or doing their dishes. The sense of appreciation, encouragement, and being with people enough to appreciate the work they are doing for themselves, I think plays a huge role in creating this type of community that we have discussed in class.
It was wonderful to finally see a functioning community that knows how to sit with each other and simply ‘be’. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in theoretical thoughts when we only discuss ideas from books in class, but being in Kapchorwa gave me a view into what a community could actually look like: a kind of community I would like to be a part of.
My current community on top of a mountain!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Gulu Trip!

Northern Uganda is still recovering from a recent history of conflict. Former child soldiers and others similarly affected by the war suffer from poverty and a lack of opportunities, but they also suffer just as significantly from mistrust, isolation and a lack of platforms for self-expression. Last weekend USP visited four organizations in Gulu, northern Uganda, which address these issues in wonderfully unique ways.

Our first stop was Amani Uganda, a small business organization working with women who were formerly abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. The women at Amani welcomed us to their workshop with a song and lots of smiles and handshakes. A couple of the women shared their stories with us, retelling their experiences with the LRA, their struggles with reintegrating back into their home communities, the healing they discovered through working with women who shared similar experiences, and the empowerment they found in selling their handmade products to support their families. We stayed for a while in the shop to watch them work their magic with the colorful fabrics to turn them into amazing handbags, wallets and other practical yet beautiful merchandise. 

A beautiful Gulu sunset after a rainy afternoon

The next day, Saturday, began with a trip to The Recreation Project (TRP), located in a small forest in Gulu. TRP works primarily with Gulu’s youth, using recreational means such as team building games and a ropes course to help young people build friendships with peers, skills to support themselves, and healing after trauma. We got to taste some of the TRP experience ourselves as the staff led us in group games and other activities, and then helped us reflect on the team dynamics of each activity. 

Students start off the day at TRP by playing a name game
Geralyn, Julia and Morgan work together to help Jessica through the Spider's Web
Jansen, Kat and Geralyn chill while acting as a weight for the bridge the other students are building

After a classic Ugandan lunch of rice, beans and cabbage, we piled back into the coaster to visit TAKS - or "Through Art Keep Smiling" - a grassroots community arts center in Gulu Town. We watched a breakdance performance and then sat in on the Film Club meeting to watch an amazing African film that was both light-hearted and meaningful. David Odwar, the founder of TAKS, took us on a tour of the compound, which included a buzzing computer lab, the lawn where a wedding was taking place, the mini motel under construction, the gift shop where we bought some handmade jewelry, and even David’s home with an amazing view of the sunset. David’s enthusiasm for his work and love for his community was inspiring, and it was exciting to see all that was happening in this space that is well-loved and utilized by the community. 

Beautiful graffiti decorates the walls of the main building at TAKS
Louise and Katie listen to the discussion after watching "Africa United" with the TAKS Film Club
A dancer performs in the TAKS theater

Our last stop was the music studio of Music For Peace, an organization that uses music as a tool for emotional healing, reconciliation and communication on important issues. Founders Jeff and Lindsay Opiyo showed us their recording studio in Gulu Town. Jeff even helped us record a short track that became an instant hit with the kids listening outside the studio! At dinner afterwards, Jeff and Lindsay shared their stories about using music with the people of northern Uganda to facilitate friendships, promote healing and empower them to use their voices to make change. 

Samuel and Martha listen to the duet they just recorded in the MFP music studio

We ended our trip with a Sunday morning worship service where we prayed together and reflected on what we’d learned and who we’d like to become during this last month of the semester. As we climbed back on to the coaster to make our way home to Mukono, we left feeling hopeful, with a greater appreciation for the power of community, self-expression and beauty. Maybe we can’t solve the problem of poverty on our own, but we can create space for those around us to sing, to laugh, to dance, to enjoy being themselves and to experience love in genuine friendships.

Students share a meal on the way home to Mukono

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Hats off to the Lady Cardinals!

Many USP students choose to participate in extracurricular activities including sports. Joining the volleyball, tennis, swimming or basketball team is a fantastic chance to get to know fellow UCU students.

Today we are highlighting our women’s soccer team; The Lady Cardinals.

This semester we have three USP students who are playing with the Lady Cardinals, Morgan Walker, Molly Stark, and Kat Hohenberger. Practice takes place every day from 5-7pm at the old pitch and consists of drills, exercises and practice games. 

For Kat, one of the benefits of being on a sports team has been the welcoming nature of the rest of the team.

“Soccer has been such a great opportunity to get to know new people and connect with them by doing something we all love together. Everyone has been so welcoming and it has been great to develop a sense of family with yet another group of people here in Uganda.”

A couple of weeks ago the Lady Cardinals participated in an Independence Day Tournament. Along with their teammates, Kat, Molly and Morgan competed in games against various women’s teams from surrounding schools and universities. The Lady Cardinals finished with three wins, one tied game and one loss.

Morgan, Molly and Kat at the Independence Day Tournament
As the semester rolls on, the Lady Cardinals will continue to play the soccer field with style, our students will continue to grow and learn with their fellow teammates and USP will continue to be on the sidelines cheering on our beloved students.

Here's to you, Lady Cardinals!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Rural Homestays in Kapchorwa

It was the midpoint in the semester, just as students were starting to feel a little weary of the school assignments that have been piling up, and most of us felt ready for a change of pace. With the late nights spent writing midterm papers finally behind us, we piled into two vans early on a Friday morning for the five hour drive to Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda. Our target departure time was 8:30am sharp, so keeping time was important, but once we’d all settled into the vans and taken off down the road, we took off our watches, put away our phones and relaxed into life with a very different sense of time.

The vans rolling out of the UCU parking lot
Each student was dropped off at a home somewhere along the road between the village of Sipi and Kapchorwa town. As with the Mukono homestay drop offs, no one was exactly sure what to expect from this week spent living with strangers in a new village, so the vans were filled with a little nervous excitement and a lot of hope for the best.

Molly and her host sisters carry her things to their home
Zachary meets his Kapchorwa mama
And with that, rural homestays began. A week of making new friends…

Geralyn with her host mama
Julia with her baby brother Simon

Learning to cook and make juice...

Kat helps her family prepare a meal
Alexis makes passion fruit juice during a visit to Kat's Kapchorwa home
Learning to milk cows...

Kendra learns to milk a cow
Getting the full coffee experience...

Kat helps her family harvest coffee berries
Jansen serves coffee that he helped harvest, pulp, roast and grind
Helping out around the compound...

Laura helps sweep her family's compound
Sam sorts peas while hanging out with his twin sisters
Helping to carry water...

Louise takes a jerrycan down the road to get water for her family
Hosting the staff when they came for visits...

Julia pours tea for the staff during a visit
Katie and her host sister "give a push" to the staff after a visit
And, of course, enjoying the stunning scenery of Mt. Elgon!

Jessica and her host mama during a hike to a nearby waterfall
The week came to an end much too fast, but each student left with yet another valuable experience that will stay in their hearts forever.

To debrief the events of the week we stayed at the Crow’s Nest, a lodge in Sipi, which has arguably the most spectacular view in the world. (We're not biased!) Overlooking a beautiful green valley and the gorgeous Sipi Falls, it was the perfect spot to catch up with each other, discuss the questions we had about the week, fill up on delicious food, hike to three different waterfalls and just soak in the beauty of the glorious hills. 
Morgan gives us a pep talk before we leave for the debrief hike
Students stop on the top of a hill while the fog rolls in
Students take a rest under a waterfall during the hike
We ended our time with a Sunday morning worship service at the top of the hill – a beautiful way to stop and remind ourselves of God’s presence after a week of learning to love the world around us with big hearts and open minds.

Julia leads us in prayer on Sunday morning and shares some insights she gained from the week
The view from the hilltop during our worship service