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!