July 30, 2011

Birthday Week in Uganda!

Last Saturday we went farming with the children from St. Jude's. They've recently purchased over 200 acres of land to provide crops for the orphanage. We saw fields of various crops including casava, corn, and sunflowers. We hoed and weeded rows and rows of of sunflowers, and boy was it hard work. It didn't help that it was scorching hot that day. By the end of our work day we were all exhausted but felt accomplished. The physical labor was a nice contrast from the work I've been doing at TASO.

On Sunday, CVAP had a soccer (or football) match with the staff from S.O.S Children's village. At the beginning of the game, pigs came out of nowhere and were running across the field. It's safe to say that we got creamed, but I'm proud of the team anyway. I didn't play because Jeevan and I were on dinner duty that night and we had to go searching for ground beef.


It has been an insanely busy week at TASO. On Monday we attended a quarterly performance review meeting, which was quite helpful for getting a full picture of what TASO's various departments have been working on. Our placements have been confirmed within the social support department, and we have started a project with one of TASO's youth and drama groups. The youth group is part of the OVC (orphanes and vulnerable children) program within TASO. Group members are selected based on vulnerability assessments. By using drama and dance as a type of therapy, these youth groups help children thrive and overcome barriers. They focus on mobilizing and sensitizing communities about different issues including HIV/AIDs and domestic abuse. We will be interacting with the youth and planning a project with them. Since we have less than a month of work left, our goal is to lay the foundation for future projects between the youth group, TASO, and CVAP.

We also spent time in the child centre and learned about how they perform child counselling. It was fun to play with the children, even though some were shy and didn't speak english. One child was mesmorized by skin tone - she really didn't understand why I was so pale.

My Birthday!

Thursday was my 22nd birthday! I had a great day at work, and night at BJz for quiz night. After work, my secret munu, Linda bought me a jackfruit! Jackfruits are these massive green prickly fruits that can be twice the size and weight of a large watermelon. The inside is yellow and contains individual pod things that each have giant seeds inside. The texture is kind of rubbery and it tastes like a combination between mango, melon, and bubblegum. Three of us carried this giant fruit for about 20 minutes from the market to the compound. We put it in a box and carried it like a baby, but judging by how many people stared and laughed at us, we knew that there was definetely a more efficient way to transport it. I asked Agnes how you're supposed to carry a jackfruit and she told me to just through it on my head...Preparing the jackfruit is a whole other process. You have to coat your hands and the knife in cooking oil because jackfruit releases a really sticky white sap when it's cut open. Then you have to wipe off all the sap with a plastic bag. Apparently it's the only thing that will work. Then you have to pull apart the fruit and unwrap the sections you eat from these finger-y looking things. It looked like an aliens.

The Ugandan frogs I blogged about earlier are showing up in people's laundry, the bathrooms, and our huts! We also learned that they are apparently poisonous and if you're bitten you might die. People also say that the snakes here are only poisonous if they have eaten one of these poisonous frogs.

We have been given Acholi names by the local volunteers, and mine is Laker (pronounced Lak-eh). It means that I am from a royal family. Some of the names mean things like stubborn, or I hate you, so I'm quite happy with mine.

Time has been flying by and I can't believe I'll be home in just over a month! I'll try to update more next week!

Love from Africa!!

July 22, 2011

More Updates from Uganda!

Last week we got to hike Fort Baker, which was once a site of slave trade. It was beautiful and I took some great photos I will upload as soon as I find a usb cord.
We've been spending our weekend nights at BJz, a local Gulu bar. It's a mix of munus and Ugandans and generally not very sketchy. They play really old pop/rock as well as more recent dancy stuff. We went for Quiz night last Thursday but didn't win. Ugandan beer isn't bad, and you can buy little two-shot bags of gin from corner stores. I'll be sure to bring some portable gin home.

We've been playing a weekly game similar to secret santa called Secret Munu with all the Montreal CVAPers. The first gift I got was coffee! I was thrilled and I think my secret munu knew it would benefit all of us in the end (as I won't be going through coffee withdrawal). Unfortunately, our prized french press that was bought in Kampala broke so I've been surviving on cowboy coffee, which is still a lot better than instant (the coffee of choice here).

Our cooks are fantastic! We eat a lot of g-nut sauce which is basically a nut butter that tastes like a cross between tahini and peanbut butter. When it's cooked it turns purple and tastes great with rice or posho. Chapats, similar to chapati, are another favorite of mine. We've had Ugandan style fish and chips, too. I tracked down dairy milk chocolate because I was really craving sweets, and pop just wasn't cutting it.

Most of the girls have gotten clothes tailored already. I'm waiting to go pick up my skirt, but due to a freak ankle sprain on a frog, I haven't been able to hobble to town. Ugandan cotton is nice and comes in a range of beautiful colors, but you have to track down the right tailor to get a good price.

Final Orientation:

On Tuesday and Wednesday we had our last orientation session with the local CVAP volunteers. We had a development workshop where human rights based and conflict sensitive approaches to development were discussed, and applied to our placements. It was a great chance to analyze our projects and organizations and explore strategies for how future development  projects could be established. On Wednesday we had a health talk from TASO on malaria and the epidemiology of HIV/AIDs. A drastic proportion of HIV infections are in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a prevalence rate of around 6% in Uganda and 9.2% in Gulu. The TASO staff explained how these rates have negatively affected GDP, rural households, and industry in Uganda. They also brought up the issue that doctors in Uganda focus on receiving more clients/day rather than having fewer, but of greater quality appointments. They emphasized that this epidemic is NOT under control, more people are becoming infected, and HIV/AIDs is preventable.

Today I worked at the TASO Gulu centre with a PMTCT doctor. Again the language barrier was a difficulty for interacting with patients but I leared a lot. The doctor explained that if a program is followed closely, babies born from HIV+ mothers have a high likelihood of not contracting the disease. While it was difficult to see the number of (HIV+) women with babies that came to the clinic today, it was also very inspiring to see how many are seeking help.

I'm thrilled that work at TASO is finally progressing! We are still living without power but kind of enjoying it? Tomorrow we are all going to Coach to farm with the children from St. Jude's. I'll update more as soon as I can!

TASO outreach to Pabbo

Work has finally begun at TASO! We got to sit in on a meeting that started with the chair person leading a musical prayer. Everyone was singing and dancing. On a tour of TASO last week we also had the pleasure of meeting the TASO drama group. We walked into a room full of men and women dancing and singing and they invited us to join them. We learned after that these people were all HIV+ and they travel with TASO to various communities to sensitize people about HIV/AIDs and to show how they have become empowered by the disease.

Yesterday, Anne, Linda, Beatrice and I got to go on an outreach with TASO to the village of Pabbo. Pabbo is located north of Gulu and we drove on the road that leads to Sudan to get there. On the way we passed many trucks carrying live cows with men sleeping on hammocks above the cattle. TASO took three vehicles, around 25 staff members, and brought everything they needed to carry out the services they provide at the TASO Gulu center to Pabbo. People were lined up waiting for us when we arrived and by the end ofthe day around 250 clients had been served. We helped out where we could but none of the clients spoke english so it was difficult to interact with them. The TASO staff work incredibly well together as a team. Each client received either group or one on one counselling, then saw a doctor, and received medication from the "pharmacy" TASO brought with them. Health talks about HIV prevention were also given. Most of the clients were women who also brought children. A doctor explained that many of the villagers associate white people with food because they used to bring supplies to IDP camps. He assured the clients that I was a student there to learn. By the end of the day we were exhausted, and many counsellors and doctors were still working. Going on an outreach to Pabbo was great for learning more about TASO, as well as seeing a more rural area in Uganda.

July 17, 2011

Welcome to Uganda!

I'm sorry for not blogging since arriving in Uganda, but finding an internet cafe with power has been difficult. The travel to Uganda was long (including a day in London) but it was well worth it. The flight from London to Entebbe was filled with munus (white people) which was surprising. Eliza Dushku (from Buffy and Bring it on) was on our flight. Kampala is a crazy city so we spent most of our time at the guesthouse. We went to the Gaddafi mosque which was unbelieveable, shopped for cell phones and exchanged money before heading to Gulu three days later. At one point on the drive we stopped for mangoes and were surrounded by about 20 women trying to force meat on a stick, corn, and water on us. Gulu has a much more relaxed feel than Kampala.

The new CVAP compound is incredible. We are the first volunteers to stay there, and Chris, Jeevan and I were the first to arrive so technically I was one of the very first to see it. The main building was supposed to have power but since we arrived (two weeks ago) there has been no electricity. It's actually been a lot easier than I thought to live without power. The back yard has four round huts that we sleep in.They are modelled after traditional Ugandan turkuls. Our cooks are fantastic and I've been enjoying the Ugandan food but I'm starting to get a little bored of posho (mushed corn flour) and beans. I decided to eat meat here after being a vegetarian for three years. The meat is delicious and fresh. And by fresh I mean that I watched our cook kill and pluck a chicken the morning before we ate it for lunch. The fruit is so much sweeter here, too.

So, we have been eating well and adjusting to the very slow pace of life here. We toured the different organizations and have been bonding with the local Ugandan volunteers we are working with. I start official work with TASO tomorrow, and then I will have more details about my project for the next two months.

I will write more this week!


June 24, 2011

June 24 Update: July trip confirmed!

Dear friends and supporters,

I apologize for not posting any updates regarding my volunteer trip to Uganda that was postponed in May. However, I knew that I would not have a final decision  regarding the status of the July trip until mid-June. The CVAP executive director has recently returned to Uganda, and after assessing the current situation in Uganda with the CVAP board of directors in Montreal and the director of operations in Gulu, it has been decided that the July-August trip will go ahead as planned!  Political unrest and violence that was seen in the country following the series of “walk to work” protests occurring in April has subsided. Though the problem of rising food and fuel costs in Uganda has not been solved, the violence surrounding this complex concern has reached a level that permits safe travel to Uganda.

After nearly two months of being unsure whether I should be preparing for this trip or not, I am officially heading to Gulu, Uganda with the Concordia Volunteers Abroad Program on July 2! My placement has remained the same and I will be working with The AIDs Support Organization (TASO) I blogged about previously.

I want to thank everyone again who has supported my volunteer efforts. This trip really would not be possible without your help. Your donations will be used as they would have been had I gone in May ($500 supporting our community partners in Uganda, and $2000 covering flight costs). If you have not donated yet, and would like to, you may deposit funds in my PayPal account by clicking the DONATE link on my blog:

Or, you can donate directly to CVAP. Please include your name AND my name for these transactions. (Your name/Melissa) http://www.concordiavolunteers.org/donate/

Cheques and email money transfers are also acceptable.

Please donate whatever you can. Whether it is $5 or $500, every expression of generosity is greatly appreciated. While $10 is barely enough for a meal in Canada, in Uganda it will treat a child with malaria. $190.00 will provide the monthly salary of a full time nurse.

Despite the setbacks earlier this summer, I am thrilled to be traveling to Uganda for July and August and I look forward to sharing my experience with you through my blog  (http://melissaarmbruster.blogspot.com) and when I return to Canada in September.


Melissa Armbruster

May 05, 2011

Update: Volunteering in Uganda postponed

photo from Al Jazeera

    Firstly, I would like to thank you all for your generous support of my volunteer efforts in Uganda with the Concordia Volunteers Abroad Program (CVAP). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the volunteer trip to Gulu, Uganda that was scheduled to leave on May 2 had to be postponed.

    Over the past couple of months under the rule of president Yoweri Musevini, Uganda has seen a dramatic rise in food and commodity prices, and opposition candidates have been organizing “Walk to Work” protests.  Recently, government response to these protests has escalated. On April 14, Norbert Mao, former Chairman of Gulu District, and presidential candidate for the democratic party was arrested.  Mao’s popularity in Gulu, his town of origin, resulted in much upset over his arrest, and a situation developed in Gulu town in which police and military response to the protesters turned violent.  On this day, three Gulu civilians were killed. The situation was not confined to Gulu town, and incidents of serious unrest and reprisal are being reported in Kampala and other districts.

    What was supposed to be a series of peaceful protests of walking to work have turned into violent events as military police are using increasingly brutal force against the protesters all over Uganda. Given this initial incident in Gulu, the multiple violent arrests of other democratic leaders, and the Ugandan government's resistance to lower the cost of food and fuel, the CVAP board of directors decided that travel to Uganda at this time was not possible.

    The CVAP Crisis Action Plan forbids travel to Uganda within 30 days of any incidences of political unrest or violence. After discussing the current situation with CVAP members in Uganda, including the Director of Operations, the board is hopeful that the situation in Uganda will be resolved soon. On April 22, the board decided that while the first trip scheduled for May and June was officially canceled, the second trip that is scheduled to leave in July would go ahead as planned. CVAP will make a final decision on June 18 as to whether travel at this time is possible. The situation in Uganda is unstable and there is a chance that this trip will be canceled as well.

    If travel to Uganda in July goes ahead as planned, your donations will be used as they would have if I had gone in May: $500 going to the community partners in Uganda and $2000 covering transportation costs. In the event that travel to Uganda in July is not possible, I will gladly return the money you have donated, or you may offer your donations to the community partners in Gulu that we would have been volunteering with. Even if the CVAP volunteers from Montreal are not able to go to Uganda, our local community partners continue their work and are very appreciative of any donations during this difficult time.

Here are a few links you can check out to monitor the situation in Uganda:





I will also post relevant links and updates on my blog: http://melissaarmbruster.blogspot.com/

    Once again, I would like to thank you all for your generous support and I ask that you think of the people of Uganda. If you have any questions or would like to know more about the projects we are developing to provide support from Canada, please do not hesitate to contact me.

April 07, 2011

Volunteer assignments in Uganda!

I have recently been assigned to the community partner I'll be working with in Uganda. It's called The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) and was founded by the first Ugandans to come out as HIV positive. TASO focuses on promoting living positively with AIDS. I'm not sure what exactly I'll be doing with them but apparently their volunteer program is well established. The CVAP coordinator also mentioned that volunteer work with TASO is counted as an international internship. Check out TASO's website: http://www.tasouganda.org/

On another note, today after receive an online donation from a friend and a cash donation from my uncle out west, I have almost raised $2000! Bake sales and tickets for a dance fundraiser over the past week really helped! I raised over $400 in bake sale sales alone. That's a lot of cupcakes, brownies, cookies, and banana bread. I'm now completely out of flour and sugar, so there will be no more baking until July. It's hard to believe that it has only been a month and a half since I launched the fundraising campaign. I am incredibly appreciative to everyone that has contributed and I feel very proud of my friends for supporting this good cause.

I am confident that together we can raise the remaining $500 by May 2! May 2 - that's when I leave for Uganda. Can you believe it?!