Friday, November 2, 2012

Shot@Life Trip Blog: Motherhood is Universal (videos, whee!)

I promise you, I'm going to get wonky on the statistics and foreign policy soon. Those of you who know me know I'm prone to do that. But let's dwell on the emotion for a bit more and the idea of motherhood.
(Stuart Ramson/Insider Images for UN Foundation) 
Nine Shot@Life volunteers went on this trip. All women, all mothers. (You can see a few staffers in this photo as well who happen to be women) We made quite an impression as we moved about the countryside. One of the boys at St. Zoe's school stood up to ask us, "Aren't there any men in your organization?"...which is a fair question. The answer is, yes, there are male Shot@Life champions, but mothers were selected for this trip because Shot@Life wanted American mothers to be connecting with Ugandan mothers. In Uganda - as in many parts of the U.S., no disrespect to my husband or other caring fathers - it is the mothers who are primarily responsible and concerned about children's health. So, we wanted caretakers talking to caretakers. And we wanted to talk not only about vaccines, but the other things that concern us about our kids no matter where we live on the planet.
                                                                                    (Stuart Ramson/Insider Images for UN Foundation) 
We spoke to mothers all the way through the trip in individual conversation, but on Day 3 we sat down with a group of about 10 mothers sitting exactly opposite us in a group and had a Q&A session. You can see them in this photo of all of us together in front of their church.

We asked them questions on a range of topics about what concerned them most in life. Sometimes we spoke about their own health care needs and their desire for more emotional and medical support for mothers who test positive for HIV. Yet regarding feelings about their children, their answers were focused and on target: their children's health and education. They stayed on those points with the tenacity of a presidential candidate on Meet the Press. To their credit, they are dogged advocates for their families. One of my questions was, "I am often telling my children not to fight and to keep their fingers out of their mouths. What do you tell your children over and over?" There was only one answer: Stay in school. My last question to them was, "My favorite part of being a mother is laughing with my children. What is your favorite time being a mother?" The answers were: when my children are healthy, when they are in school, when they have enough to eat.

There was a question to them that was also revealing about our similarities and differences at the same time. We asked, "What activities do with your children when you have some extra time to spend with them?" One answer was "making bread to sell." In one way, we were struck that there is not really a concept of having free time. All activities must be revenue generating in order to survive. Our family bike rides don't really connect with their paradigm. At the same time, I was struck by the fact that I also make bread with my children because it's fun for us, it teaches them a skill, and it's healthy. The activity itself is the same even if the necessity isn't the same for us here in Illinois.

As it happens, that night it was my turn to record a video diary entry for our trip. You can see it below along with a video made by Shot@Life. I swear that at the time I recorded my segment, I didn't know there would be a video called "Motherhood is Universal." Yet it's a phrase that was top of mind for all of us after our conversations and a concept that ran through our trip experience.

For more video reflections from the rest of the delegation - and to see some of their blog posts as well - visit

My reflections on Day 3 of the Shot@Life Uganda Trip

Shot@Life's "Motherhood is Universal" Video

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shot@Life Uganda Trip Blog: Where are the flies?

I'm going to take a moment and address a question I've been getting from some folks about the images of the children I've presented in this blog so far. It can probably be boiled down to a single question: "Where are the flies?"

Some readers have noticed that the pictures that Shot@Life and the volunteers have been posting are of happy, beautiful children. I've heard surprise that the kids look so lovely and that they don't look very miserable at all. We haven't been posting pictures of kids looking woefully at the camera with flies in their eyes. That is the image of Africa that Americans have grown used to seeing over the years. So...where are those flies?

What I can tell you, is that there is indeed a choice that I'm making to show you the joy and the beauty I found in Uganda. I'm portraying the people in the way that I think they themselves would want me to present them: with respect and courtesy. I do this much in the same spirit that I'd ask you to delete a picture of me that made me look sickly or made my butt look big.

Some of the places we saw people - where the Family Health Care programs were held - were in settings where folks were showing looking their absolute best. An Eid celebration at a mosque is much like Christmas at a church. They dress to show respect for God and maybe even impress each other a bit. Sunday church was much the same way. At school, I'm told children come presenting their best because they are happy to be there...especially to escape their home situations, which might indeed reveal some of the destitution we expected to see. Regardless of where I was, I did see a range of emotions - sometimes even on the very same people within the hours we visited them. That range gives me a choice of how I tell you the stories of what I saw.

For instance, let's take a look at this picture from my last post...

photo by Stephanie Geddes

Here, I'm smiling and laughing with kids while their mother waits in line for HIV testing. Now in the next photo, we have the same kids about 20 minutes later, waiting in the hot equatorial sun after I wandered away to play with their peers on the other side of the churchyard.

photo by Stephanie Geddes

This may be the kind of expression that we are more used to seeing on the UNICEF and Save the Children ads when they are looking for a donations from us. It gives the impression of children who are miserable with their lot in life. Yet if you take it in context of what was happening at the moment, you might consider that they kind of look like American kids after an hour in line at Disney World waiting for Toy Story Mania. Kids + waiting + hot = grumpy face.

Uganda has a lot of extreme poverty, but it is also a country of variations. They have a growing wealth gap in their country, too. And while they may not have a lot of Oprahs and Trumps at the top of their food chain, there are people living good lives.

There are schools that look like this from the entrance...

And schools that look like this....

There are lots of buildings that look like this...

And there are some that look like this...

Sometimes, it's true, there were swarms of flies in my shot. They're so small but they make it look like my lens was dirty and we had to wave them from our faces. 

In fact, I did meet a little boy with a cut on this ankle and flies were gathered on it. But rather than take a picture of it, I did what any American mom with a purse full of wipes and Band Aids would do. I scooped him up and took him to an aid workers table where we could clean it up and put a bandage on it. I honestly didn't even think about documenting that with my camera.

In the same church setting, I did capture some the following pictures. Perhaps these are more of what we Americans have grown to expect? 


Please keep in mind those kids were standing right beside these cheeky gigglers...

Children anywhere in the world are entitled to share their feeling with us in their faces and words. The kids in Uganda were no different in that regard. I'm here to say that I saw both the positive and the negative, but overwhelmingly the emotions that I felt from them was curiosity and joy. And that's mostly what I want to show you in my pictures. that I've shared a few unflattering pictures of Ugandans not in the best light, it's probably only fair that I show a picture of myself that makes my butt look big. Thanks, Stephanie Geddes, for using your enormous photo talent to capture it.

photo by Stephanie Geddes

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Shot@Life Trip Blog: Rosemary's family (note: discussion of HIV testing)

photo by Stephanie Geddes

Let me introduce you to a family I met at church yesterday. These are Rosemary's children.
  • Fiona,  2 1/2 yrs seated with me wearing a denim dress
  • Victor 3 1/2 yrs wearing denim jeans and a blue shirt with his back to us
  • Juliette 4 years, 8 months in a gold and black dress
  • Ronald 7 yrs old behind Victor
  • Sara 11 yrs is wearing a pink dress
(Sara's friend is hanging out, too, in a blue dress) All of these kids attend a school that is less than 1/2 kilometer from their home. All have received their vaccinations and passed their health screenings with flying colors. You can see Fiona's blue vaccination record card in her hand.

        photo by Stephanie Geddes
Rosemary herself is in the brown dress behind Fiona and me. She is 36 years old. She does not have a paying job, but stays at home raising the children and caring for the house. Her husband is a businessman in the maize business.

Rosemary's family is actually pretty well off by the standards of most families we were meeting. They live in a house with 3 bedrooms and an outdoor latrine. They have a tap outside with clean water on their own property. They own four cows and a few goats, so there is always milk for the children. Their garden grows cabbage and "dodo" - I'm sure I'm spelling that wrong - which is a green leafy vegetable. The children eat three times a day (none of them measured underweight at the Family Health Day upper arm measurement table). Sometimes they even get meat even though Juliette and Fiona don't like to eat it.

All of it sounds pretty good, right? It does, but there is an area of uncertainty for them on this Family Health Day. Neither Rosemary nor her husband have been tested to know their HIV status. In fact, in these pictures I'm playing with the kids while Rosemary stands in line to get tested. No wonder that her expression and the woman behind her is not so cheery. Unfortunately, an unknown status is not uncommon for this community and Rosemary is to be commended for her bravery. There is still a stigma attached to a positive result and many women do not wish to be tested for fear that their husbands will turn them out of the house and divorce them, blaming it on the woman despite the norm that it is usually the men who are unfaithful.
                                                                                                                    photo by Stephanie Geddes
The healthcare workers at the Family Health Day told us they are making a special campaign push to encourage husbands and wives to be tested together at worship services because that is often when they are together. At health clinics, they tend to come alone. If they both find out they are HIV positive at the same time, they will probably "have happy lives" says Dr. Edward. The doctor is pictured here answering questions from me and Jen Burden, founder of World Moms Blog, in the room where HIV testing was conducted before church let out. He told us that getting people to follow best practices about HIV/AIDS is a bigger problem for them than getting people to practice safe sex for pregnancy reasons. The availability of anti-retroviral medications (ARV's) to help people live with AIDS has an odd social side effect. It helps people maintain a good appearance (they no longer look sick) and work even though they are HIV positive, which makes them feel like they are fine. Therefore, they don't bother to use condoms or practice abstinence in their relationships, methods that would prevent transmission to others. People are more concerned about a pregnancy that everyone would know about than an HIV condition that they can easily hide. This is a huge social problem and the women who are leaders in the community all told us they know it and are worried. They want more medical and emotional support for those women who step up and admit they are HIV positive and they want the transmission to stop.

I can't tell you the end of Rosemary's story. I don't know her status and it wouldn't be for me to tell such a sensitive thing, but I think you can see with such a vibrant family of young children, she has a lot riding on her answer. She's doing a lot right for herself and her family. Join me in wishing her all the best in their journey together.

Shot@Life Uganda Trip Blog: Getting to Know You

"Getting to know you
Getting to know all about you
Getting to like you
Getting to hope you like me" - Anna, in "The King and I"

Like Miss Anna in the Broadway musical, I've found myself surrounded by dozens of children - who speak varying levels of English - and wanting to get to know them all as much as they want to get to know me. I thought I'd introduce you to a few of them tonight as they put faces on the people that we talk about helping through Shot@Life. I hope when you look into their eyes, you'll know that they are precious and special as they grow and achieve milestones free of the preventable diseases they have been immunized against.

I met Natugonza a number of times during my visit to her church where she received immunizations, but she only talked to me once. Her sweet, shy smile showed how curious she was, but at first she only ducked her head and smiled when I complimented her on her necklace. She warmed eventually, but still I had to lean in very close to hear her tiny voice as she spelled out her name for me. She is 7 years old in grade level P3. Her favorite subject is "maths" and she dreams of being a nurse.

This proud girl is Kyokasima. Like my daughters, she is a football (soccer) player. At age 10, she tells me that she wants to "wash plates" when she grows up and leaves school. I don't know if this is because someone she knows does this for a living or because she doesn't know many other professions, but I feel if she keeps going to school and keeps her confident attitude, she can be much more.

 Kabahiinda speaks English very well and was even very willing to help me talk to all the other children. At 9 years old, she is in grade level P4 and enjoys doing math in school. She likes to play football and is very good at caring for the younger children around her in a gentle, soft-spoken way. She is one of 6 children and her mother, Mary, is 40 yrs old, like me. She lives in an area of Uganda within sight of the border of the Congo, which is just over the mountains within sight of her church.

Meet Natasha, Eve, and Modesta. (left to right)
They are athletic girls in grade P7 who play volleyball and netball, which is like basketball with no dribbling. They are cool and confident. Natasha wants to be a lawyer someday. Eve wants to be a nurse. Modesta wants to be an engineer. I hope they beat the odds and stay in school, so they can live these dreams. They already have since up to 60% of all kids in their area drop out of school in P7. Statistic are even worse for girls, but these 3 seem to know what's at stake.

Hey, let's not forget the boys! Here are my buddies Paul (right) and Sef (left) who are in grade level P7. Paul is a VERY well-spoken young man in debate club. He told us it helps his English skills to debate topics like "Have Europeans done more good than harm to Africa?", "Monogamy Vs. Polygamy," and "Ancient life Vs. Modern Life." He wants to be Chief Justice when he grows up and I really wouldn't bet against him!

Last, but not least, here is little Mariam. I don't know her story as she didn't speak to us with words, but as she launched herself into LaShaun Martin's arm and then so willingly climbed into mine, we knew that she is loving and beautiful soul. I know she's off to a good start because she is in school and  received her vaccinations at St. Zoe's School where we met her. I hope she gets the other support and things she needs to reach her future hopes and dreams!