PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — An Uganda Journey, Part 1

Four flights and a 9½-hour ride on an African bus later, I am happy to report I am safely in Adjumani, Uganda.

Denise, my fellow co-chair of South Sudan Leadership and Community Development, and Christine, who also serves on the board, and I met in Detroit. Given a variety of travel concerns in the Midwest due to snow, I am glad that my skills as a travel ninja and hours on the phone with Delta served us well, since embarking together was vital to a successful trip.

After a flight to Amsterdam, where I was able to get my requisite cup of European Cocoa for breakfast, we caught another nine-hour flight to Kilgali, Rwanda, and a puddle jumper flight to Entebbe. Grateful to have my yellow fever vaccine card in hand, health inspection and immigration was relatively smooth.

When we emerged from the airport just after midnight Saturday, we were delighted to be greeted by Daniel, our SSLCD coordinator, and the van driver, Isaac, from the Mount Zion Hotel in Kampala, who took us on the 45-minute drive to our hotel. We were greeted warmly. (When in Kampala, I highly recommend staying there.) After settling in, we had a “quick sleep” of less than four hours, as we needed to be at the bus station by 6 am.

The hotel was kind enough to pack us some fruit and give us some mango juice before we left. However, as I emptied myself of this juice in the parking lot of the bus station, I questioned this decision. However, ever the optimist, I reframed it as being very grateful that I lost my breakfast in the parking lot and not on the bus. It is going to be a long while before I drink mango juice again.

The 9½-hour bus ride in 90 degree-plus heat was exactly what one would expect. It was extraordinarily crowded with people, produce and an adorable little boy with the most beautiful, well-kept and well-behaved  chicken I have ever seen. The seat was basically plywood covered in vinyl, and we sat five astride in a bus that is about the size of a school bus. We had two very brief 10-minute stops to use traditional African bathrooms, but given how the trip began, I decided dehydration was better than the alternative. At every bus stop, we were surrounded by people selling meat on a stick, cassava roots, grown nuts and beverages.

By the time we arrived in Adjumani, I was ready to bend down and kiss the dusty red earth, with a promise of a bed.

The hotel at which we are staying has limited Wi-Fi, intermittent electricity and a kind and caring staff. After much internal debate, I decided to opt for my phone service international plan every other day, so that I can post these updates and share in my journey. But now, I need to rest.

This trip by members of the SSLCD board was done in coordination with Ruth Zelenski, a professor of Midwifery at the University of Michigan, so that part  of our time here would overlap with Ruth and the students she brings from the U of M Midwifery Program.

The origins of SSLCD are deeply interconnected with the work that Ruth does with maternal health. Back when this organization began in South Sudan, before the Civil War forced so many South Sudanese to flee to  refugee camps in Uganda, our founder, John Musick, asked the women how they dealt with birth and who helped them. When they responded, “we have only God,” John became determined to provide some basic midwifery instruction, as well as the basics of maternal health. His quest led him to Ruth, who began bringing students here to both learn from the women here and provide instructions and basic birth kits, which include a gauze, a small flashlight, a flat- edged razor, a nail brush, a shoelace, a small hand towel and hand sanitizer. The training was so valued that when these women fled their homes when they were under attack, the papers they received about maternal care is one of the only things they brought with them.

Now that they live in the refugee communities with whom we work, Ruth’s teams continue to bring birth kits and connection as well as training.

Because we share translators, it is hard for us to all be here at the same time, but we were able to overlap the night we arrived. As a result, Denise, Christine and I took a brief break before heading out to dinner to visit with Ruth, two students and her colleague from the U of M, Sarah.

It was a great opportunity to begin our time in Adjumani by solidifying this meaningful connection, as well as to get to know these incredible women who are so committed to women’s health care.

I remember the first time I heard the description of what to put in a birth kit, and I shuddered. Imagine all you had for the birth process was a hand towel so you weren’t in the dirt, a flashlight in case it happens at night, hand sanitizer for your midwife as well as a nail brush to clean her nails, a single-edged razor blade and a shoelace for the umbilical cord and a gauze pad for bleeding. That such rudimentary items would be considered a luxury boggles my Western mind. But the simple truth is that this is the reality for so many women in our world. While the work at SSLCD cannot change the inequity of our world completely, it is our prayer that the work we do and the people with whom we connect can have an incremental improvement in their condition, which can do often make all the difference in the world.

One of the prime reasons that Christine, Denise and I traveled to Adjumani was to spend time with the organizers who worked in the camps on behalf of SSLCD.

After doing a bit of catch-up sleep and jet lag recovery, we spent time with Daniel, the principle organizer, and his wife, Mary, dreaming about what is next for SSLCD.

SSLCD was the brain child and supreme passion of our founder, John Musick, and when he died in August, many of the refugees here feared it would be the end of our organization. We came here to assure them of our ongoing commitment, both to them and to sharing their story to secure support for our mission.

In the past few years, we have expanded our ministry to include areas like building granaries and a variety of cooperatives that I will highlight in the next several days, as well as peace building that expands to the Ugandan community that surrounds the refugee camps.

Tonight we had a chance to dream about a new environmental focus. One of the challenges when refugees come into a community is the resulting deforestation. Trees are chopped down to build homes and to provide firewood for cooking. With the added challenges of climate change, the impact on the surrounding area can be profound. One of the dreams moving forward that Daniel articulated would be to help with tree plantation.

One doesn’t often think of refugees also being environmentalists who wish to give back to the community to which they have fled, but that is what makes this work so meaningful. I continually am amazed at the forward-thinking vision these people who are only here by chance of birth share, not only for themselves but the world surrounds them.

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