Complete Immersion

Billie Hsieh spent 2 weeks at Project Bumwalukani in Uganda this past September, and outlines her experience as a FIMRC GHVP volunteer in the following piece, with pictures as well.  I had been warned against imbibing unboiled water or water not in sealed bottles. I had also been told that consuming street food would make me seriously ill. But nothing could have prepared me for my first impression of Uganda during monsoon season. To give an idea of the heavy, exotic scent emblematic of Uganda, a recipe: add 4 parts incense, 2 parts brumous smoke and 1 part thick fumes to serving bowl. Mix and serve warm.

As the president and founder of FIMRC at CSULA, I was no stranger to community service, having organized and hosted a potpourri of events, from a haircut event on the CSULA campus in association with Locks of Love to adopting a beach and receiving California coastal recognition to reading to children with learning disabilities and concurrently promoting a learning disability awareness week. I had implemented weekly meetings to sew 50 beanbags by hand from donated clothing, as well as collected school supplies for crèches in India. My chapter initiated arts-and-crafts events to create handmade origami greeting cards for Los Angeles Children's Hospital patients. However, I had not realized the impact of actually meeting the beneficiaries, transforming ideas to corporeal existence.

Being woken by the crowing of a rooster at 7 AM on my first full day in Uganda was a surprisingly surreal experience. In the suburban neighborhood of my childhood, I had read about such natural alarm clocks but had never seen a rooster in the flesh, let alone heard one utter any crowning glory. The shrill boast continued at irregular intervals until 9 AM. By 8:30 AM the air was crowded with the sounds of bird cries, car engines and indistinct chatter. Pulsing beats with faint singing floated through my room.

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The 8-hour drive from Entebbe, surrounded by the aureate Lake Victoria, to Budada included traveling through the town of Jinja. Tourist brochures proclaimed “visit Jinja, the source of the Nile River!” A thrill swept through me as I had my first glimpse of the renowned longest river in the world. We passed through Mbale (mm-ba-li) and soon into Budada. The FIMRC clinic that was our destination was on the far outskirts of town, perched at the base of a looming mountain. Both the clinic and the nearby Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH) were founded by a philanthropist named John Wanda. Most of my time was spent working at the FIMRC clinic, from 6:30 AM to 5:30 PM Monday to Saturday. The clinic was well-organized into 5 stations, where patients received checkups, diagnosis, lab tests, medications and information. There was also a separate facility designated for HIV testing and counseling on some days, and pregnancy checkups on others.

At the FIMRC guesthouse in the parish of Bumwalukani, which encompasses a few villages, I received my own room outside the main residence. The room had a sheet metal roof, providing little insulation, and was bare but for an empty wooden bookshelf and bunk bed. There was no electricity, or umeme, for the time being. After a brief cold shower, using the limited water supply from the nearby reservoir, I perched on the lower bunk watching lukewarm raindrops fall beyond the turquoise door. I felt utterly satisfied before the stunning beauty of the lush mountain shrouded in mist.

The tiny community enveloping the FIMRC clinic and guesthouse was not even considered a village, only a miniscule fragment of the parish. In fact, according to Google maps, this rural area of Uganda ended at the edge of Mbale. And this was where I stayed for two weeks, learning the local dialects and culture; each district has a different dialect, although most Ugandan residents can understand the various tongues. Memories were amassed from incredible experiences, from learning to balance on boda bodas, otherwise known as motorcycle taxis, to riding on matatus or vans that served as public buses to hiking for 4 hours to Mount Nusu, the highest peak nearby. I exchanged my jeans for knee-length skirts worn by all the village women and my sandals for gum boots, an essential on the slippery mud roads. Visits were made to the Mbale Regional Hospital, CURE for neurological disorders, Bushika Health Center, Bududa Hospital, where I witnessed the miracle of birth, and Ugandan outdoor markets. I gave a health presentation to community members with the aid of a translator and performed research for an alcohol awareness event. Striding through an expanse of fields one evening after dining at a community member's modest home, I felt the sharp contrast between the completely serene pitch-black skies dusted with pinpricks of light and the paved streets with streetlamps blocking the stars in Los Angeles.

I felt rather exposed at first, much as a marked target. Soon, however, my tension eased when I realized that more people greeted me with polite phrases, such as hello, morning, welcome and, most often, how are you, than showed distrust. Shaking hands seemed to be a fairly popular method of greeting, and children would approach me and cling to my skirts. As my vocabulary expanded, I gradually became able to answer with malembe or hello, how are you, bulyi (bu-ly-yi) or I am good and several other phrases.

Racing through a thunderstorm on a boda boda was another striking occurrence. Arriving after the galvanizing ride at the homestay family's house, where I would be residing for a weekend, I learned that the family cooked in a bantam dirt shed and heated water in glowing pits. The family provided elaborate, delicious meals and drank hot tea made with fresh milk from their lone dairy cow. A person in Uganda, I was informed, could buy lunch and dinner with 3,000 shillings, or about $1. A common Ugandan saying translated into English literally means “Feed my children, eat yours.” In desperation, as I also gleaned from the radio news, some parents would slaughter their neighbors' children to prevent their own from starving.

Everyone wished me the best in my studies and implored me to come back as a medical student and/or doctor to aid the clinic, and thus greatly help the poor people of the small surrounding villages. Actually meeting and establishing a relationship with the people one sees in pictures is an incredible experience. I had contacts and places to stay in Africa, a land I had only dreamed about setting foot in. On the return flight to the States, I was already generating ideas on raising funds and supplies for impoverished Ugandan families, now so tangible to me. Wishing to continue contributing from Los Angeles, I bought a smattering of handmade paper bead jewelry, Ugandan wares and roasted coffee beans to help raise funds and awareness of the lack of necessities in developing communities. All proceeds are employed toward purchasing medical and educational supplies, in support of FIMRC’s compassionate cause.

Thanks, Billie! 

Posted on November 12, 2011 and filed under FIMRC Stories, Project Bumwalukani, Uganda, GHVP.