PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 8

Connections and relationships are vital when engaged in meaningful community development.

Sudanese  Lutheran Community Development, the organization with which I am volunteering, began when my friend Denise’s bishop approached her about building a relationship with some Sudanese Lost Boys about 15 years ago.

When Denise and her husband John go into something, they go big or go home.  Or in this case, go to the Sudan. After getting to know these Sudanese men, they ended up going to their village in rural South Sudan, to build relationships and to find out how they could help improve their lives

While in Kir Village, they discovered that there was a need for help with training midwives. When they asked how women had babies, they were told, “From God.”  That meant often they would just crouch in the dirt and give birth, alone.

When John returned to the U.S., he began a mission to find a nurse midwife who might be interested in helping these women, and he ended up developing a relationship with Ruth, the director of the University of Michigan nurse midwife program, and her best friend, Susan, who began to journey the Sudan with Denise and John, living in the village and improving the quality of life for the people.

It was Ruth who developed the idea of “birth kits.” Each kit contains a hand towel, so they can sit on that instead of the dirt, a flashlight, in case birth happens at night so that they can see, hand sanitizer for obvious purposes, a nail brush so the midwife can clean her nails as she catches the baby, a gauze pad for bleeding and an exacto blade or single edges razor blade and shoe lace for the umbilical cord. Those kits are the difference between life and death.

Now Ruth brings a group of U of M Nurse Midwife Students here every year to train women on childbirth and provide some basic care and health training, and they are with us for half of our time here.

John also built connections with leaders in the Kir community and in the refugee camps. Because of the networking of those connections, SLCD is the only organization in all of Uganda that is not a major NGO like World Vision or Lutheran World Relief or Medical Teams International that can enter the refugee camps.

Because our organization is committed to community-based organizing principals, SLCD employs two organizers — one refugee in each of the camps where we work. These organizers assess community needs and work with the people to empower them with solution-based development ideals that focus on sustainability and community development.

Some of the key actions have involved our organizers teaching English to everyone in the village who wishes to learn, not a select few, so that all have that option instead of a hierarchal approach; bringing the nurse midwives here; and our trauma healing training that was a response to a direct request for help.

Today, Denise, John and I visited the second refugee camp with which we are affiliated. Mungula Camp is over twice the size of Olwa 1. One of the wonderful things about the way Uganda provides refugee camps is it doesn’t put everyone in one huge camp, such as the ones in Kenya. Instead, there are a series of small camps spread out over northern Uganda, although it is getting harder and harder to find space as people teem over the border.

As soon as we entered this camp, it felt very different. It is an older camp, much more established, and the vibe is less frenetic than Olwa 1. The communities are more in compounds, with thatched huts, and the pace of life felt more like I think it would feel had we visited them at their home. These people are a bit more removed from the war and have settled in.

Our task today was to meet with the church leaders and our organizer there, Jacob, to discuss what they thought their needs were and how we could work with them to address them.

The contrast to what we heard from Olwa 1 was remarkable. At Olwa 1, it was more basic needs — what they didn’t have. They were hungry, they were desperate, and they were flailing about looking for solid ground.

Here the needs were specific and direct. The refugees received mats and pans when they arrived almost four years ago, and they needed new ones. They needed a large pot for community meals at the church and something to keep the older women in particular warm when the rainy season arrives. They needed tools for agriculture, medication and feminine care products. And above all, education for all of their children, especially orphans and unaccompanied minors.

Education is the key to their survival. But to go to school, a child has to pay both school fees and for a school uniform. The two together cost about $10, but when you have nothing and are hungry, that is a lot. As one woman said, “Do I send my child to school but have him starve, or starve his mind but fill his belly.”

As an organization, we are careful not to promise anything, but we listened for specific projects that we could do, with the underlying goal of providing them with concrete skills and uplifting the community.

After meeting the men and women, we gathered with our organizer and the pastor. Some of their requests we could attend to immediately. I had phenomenal response to my outreach for birth kits, bringing literally as many as my suitcase would carry.  I, however, thought each birth kit needed an additional $10 for medication, so I set aside additional funds for that. (I could not have brought more anyway — our suitcases all maxed at 50 pounds.) Instead, that money is needed to help women who go to the hospital when they have a birth — which is rare.

As we brainstormed how to use the funds, it was decided that we would use them to purchase items and set up a pharmacy run by the organizers at each of the village. This would allow them to access items they need much easier and help with things like AIDS medication as well, if not available. Meds are cheap in Uganda — for us. The funds provided will go a long way.

We are also pursuing another connection to deal with the feminine care products in these camps. My son’s best friend at Harvard is a dynamic 19-year-old who just so happens to also be the executive director of a multinational not-for-profit, Camions of Care, that provides feminine care products for homeless women and the poor.

While here, I connected with Nadya, and she and our translator, Daniel, are going to work together to get a video about the impact of not having feminine care products on young girls who have to drop out of school when they begin to menstruate, as they can’t afford proper hygiene products. They are also planning to establish a branch where Daniel goes to university and works with their international partners to provide reusable items like washable pads and menstrual cups to address this issue, and I will work on securing funding.

Other issues involve visioning and finding people who are interested and passionate about them to help us move forward with our goals.

For example, I would love to find someone who would love to spearhead a drive to get the unaccompanied children and orphans to school. One thousand dollars a year, a fairly modest fundraising goal, could provide schooling for 100 children. That is a small ripple, but it is many ripples together that make a wave.

We are also excited about a soap-making project. Women at both camps suggested that if we provided the seed money for startup items, they had some women who could teach soap-making. Then they could begin making it and selling it, in order to get additional funds. If our organization then in turn bought some of the soap to help distribute to attend to improve hygiene, then they would have a guaranteed source of revenue, and they could buy more items to make soap. It would be a community collective that would elevate both personal care and promote a cottage industry for the village.

An additional passion for our organization is peace and reconciliation work, as the only way the Denka and the Nure tribes will ever return to South Sudan is if they forge a peaceful relationship. We have connected with an amazing pastor in this area who is on a mission to share tools for doing this and is currently doing it for free all over Uganda — or perhaps gas money or a Coke. We are hopeful we can work with him in the camps but need to secure funding. I am also working on connecting him with some Mennonite friends, who are all about peace and reconciliation.

Connections and relationships. That is what we are building, and that is what we are doing here. And when I return, I will let people know about ways you can get involved, make connections and build relationships. Or you can contact me.

We are living in times when people often feel helpless about much of what is transpiring, and this is a chance, with a small, on-the-ground operation with no U.S. overhead (all of us are volunteers and I am self-funded) that is truly making a profound difference in the lives of the Denka people, in exile in Uganda.

I knew the summer of 2015, when I saw refugees from Syria arrive on Patmos Island in Greece, that my life would forever be changed in some way by work with refugees. Thanks to a relationship with Denise and John that dates back to being students at the University of Zimbabwe and their ability to make these connections, I know now how. Because my relationship with SLCD will be one of the main connections of my life going forward.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 8”

  • Akoi Mathew February 21, 2023 at 12:57 am

    glad seeing the people of God giving a helping hands, happy seeing my mum in the picture


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