Movement at the Time of Corona

When I can I compose my thoughts and put them in writing. After months of flying to commute between Kampala and my homebase I am back on the road. This time there are a lot of thoughts put into this time and I am sharing it with you.

I’m in the road pit stop #kabalega for the first meal of the day ☕☕☕

It’s been several months since I took the road to Kampala from my home in the West Nile. If not for the Covid_19 pandemic, by now I am in Entebbe via the small aircraft that lands in the same airport as all the other planes the come and go.

To reach Kampala I still have a good solid 4 hours plus or minus the traffic 🚑🚒🚓🚔🚕🚕🚖🚘🚙🚚🚛🚛🚲🚜🛵

My organization decided we should not mingle with undetected peeps in the airport since we pride ourselves to be both Covid free and Ebola free. It puts me and the others at greater risk since after the airport I will go in the mall for lunch like now and then to the office before I reach home.

While the world is waking up to the pandemic of 👑 Corona virus, Uganda is living with the scare of ebola outbreak every day long before I came here. The borders are manned to make sure it doesn’t come here. The health center workers are trained to detect even a slightest symptoms and sound the alarm on suspected cases.

The country also gets a share of active cases of poliomyelitis, measles and even leprosy not because Uganda has them per se but the country host refugees from countries that because of the breakdown of health systems import with them long treatable and preventable diseases.

Am I scared? I guess not.

My country is on lockdown, and Uganda is just waiting to confirm it’s first case after all the countries around it is already dealing with it’s own cases. But I opted to stay here than go home to the chaos of the Philippines.

At the pit stop I met two girls I know in Arua, they are being pulled out by their organization. The same for my Aussie friend, after 3 weeks of deployment she’s returning to Australia before they lockdown the country. Soon my organization too will pull out it’s non essential staffs, we’ll be skeleton staffs to remain and I am one of them.

Am I crazy to stay? Maybe not.

Imagine this 🤔 if i leave here I will need to travel for over 24 hours and change cars and planes multiple times. To arrive in a closed airport and disgruntled people. I make myself vulnerable by exposure.

Then I travel to my dad’s place that is if I am found okay. And self quarantine myself in my old room. Family is 💞 it’s impossible to not hug and kiss people you love.

What if after 14 days I got sick? And like dominoes the rest follows.

So no I am not crazy I am being practical. I have to be extra sensible and cautious until the first case and double the effort of self preservation once there is an active case identified … self quarantine and pray that the pandemic blows over and start the life back better and the environment cleaner.

COVID-19 is a Great Equalizer

I left the Philippines when the new virus started to affect Wuhan. That was the first of February. I went prepared, even brought with me masks and hand sanitiser. It was the only time I spent over 3 hours waiting for my flight. Then, I arrived in Uganda not having to get myself checked or quarantined, like it is now. I only have to show the usual yellow card to let the officers at the airport know I am vaccinated with yellow fever and I’m good to go.

Two months since, I am self quarantined in my little house up in West Nile after I was told I am a PUM – person under monitoring. 

I left KAMPALA just in time for the government declaration of national lock down, even private vehicles are not anymore allowed in the streets.  But I was there in Kampala when the first case was confirmed. The same day most expats with families are able to leave to go home fearing the worst being here. I got exposed from one of those under 20 people despedida, thanks to the many meetings we do trying to anticipate the arrival of the virus at Uganda doorstep. 

With the national lockdown, my organisation  has to stop our field intervention in the refugee settlement. Myself being in quarantine is relegated to work-from-home and had to endure Skype meetings to get something done for our projects.

Social distancing is already hard, being self-quarantined is harder. I don’t envy those with families with them, especially young kids. The same time the office has output expectations while on it.  But hey, I am not complaining, just stating facts!

The virus is a great equalizer; it is a serious business. If we don’t follow all the precautionary measures we put many peoples life at stake, and to be in charge of getting guidelines for our intervention in the failed, I have to set an example for all.

Stay safe everyone.

Can Abortion Be Justified?

Last night I dined with a friend. He’s the coordinator of one big international humanitarian NGO. We worked in a very different field, but somehow it is still connected.

Over wine, we got talking about the kinds of things we see in our places of work. On why expatriates like us are discouraged from being in insecure locations such as inside the settlement to spend the night, let alone live every day.

I said I would not do it. I am done with my cowboy days but I am sure young humanitarian actors will push their luck and try the adventure. But is it an adventure to live with the refugees if you represent oppression and reason for them being displaced? Maybe not, but that’s a story for another time.

On a more serious tone, our conversation gravitated on the subject of abortion. Since both of us work in the health sector, these are subjects we know are sensitive, and talked on hushed voices, and never blurted out in daylight, but we know it happens, and justified.

You see, without blaming anyone or any agency, we know that rape happens in the settlement or camps. People are in an insecure location and vulnerable situation, and many are just vultures taking advantage of the case, and the people they think are below them.

Imagine my surprise to hear that not only women are vulnerable in such a situation. In one week, he said they got report of men being raped but women out numbered them. Reports of defilement is available at police stations, but whether or not perpetrators are apprehended is hard to tell.

So, what he told me why they do it – abortion to victims of rape, made me think twice about why I am doing what I am doing here in Uganda. I even have to agree to disagree with him based on my faith.

That’s why abortion is hush-hush is because it’s the last resort. He said the best is still to have more robust policies on the protection of women and men against sexual exploitation and abuse, and stronger enforcement from the authorities. But when that system fails, there should be a support network that will catch these women victimized by their vulnerability, in a place where they thought they are protected but are not.

Being a victim is a hard pill to swallow. The psychological trauma it brings to the victim makes it hard for them to think straight. The fear of being discovered, labeled, and eventually ostracised in a community where you’re supposed to get your strength from to go on each day is tremendous.

What happens when the rape resulted in pregnancy?

That’s when another cycle of psychological trauma happens. Being pregnant from a rape always remind that person of what happened, of how she was not able to avoid it. Blame herself for bringing it to herself. The fight internally gets intense, making it hard for her to fight back, and often, the psychological trauma wins over the rational way of thinking, which can lead to many difficult decisions, including abortion and the worst suicide.

The mental health support system is as complicated as it can get. Not everybody understands what they are talking about, and when in such a complicated situation, often, the victims are left to fend for themselves. Making it hard for women to feel they had someone on their side. My friend told me that even he doesn’t like that program they have on abortion, but after seeing women getting into such a situation, he knew it has to be done. But he also told me that its the last resort when all support fails, and if they don’t do it, women will also find a crude way to get rid of the pregnancy that will also put their life further at risk.

So for us not to get there, as a humanitarian actor, we have a lot of responsibility for the people we serve.

First, when we design policy on protection and prevention of sexual violence and abuse, don’t let it on paper and pretend that action will magically materialize. No, it never does, that is why we should put weight on it and enforce it. We are making sure something or someone answers for the atrocities received in the hands of perpetrators.

Second, empower the support groups. Avoid the victim-blaming that often happens when rape is discovered. Nobody wants to be accosted and violated. Notably, no one should take advantage of a vulnerable situation to exert power over women and men.

Third, regardless of faith practices, we have to find solutions that best serve the many. I am not endorsing abortion. Like my friend, I am against it and will never advise it on anyone, but if all else fails, make sure that the solution identified will serve best the person and allowed to believe that s/he is not a victim but rather a survivor.

Fourth, as a person, we are our brothers and sisters keeper. We look out for each other and support each other by making sure that we all are equitable. God never wants harm to come our way, He wants us to live in harmony, but the world is crazy now. We become selfish and self-centered to the point of destruction.

The life where I live now is never easy. We make do of what we have, take advantage of the simple pleasures where it is merited. My friends here and I take our jobs seriously, that’s why our after-dinner subject was something that resonated in my head long after the wine wears off.

The road we travel to reach our workplace

Dusty Road

It’s the dry season, and I am back in the southwest visiting projects implemented here.

As expected, it will be very dusty.

The streets are parched. The rain that falls barely kiss the ground before it is dry again. The trees turn into different colors catching the specks of dust from the air every time a car passes by.

You can see that the whole journey is like going back in time from the movies of the Wild West, that anytime soon a guy with guns holstered on his waist will start calling out for a gun sling competition.

Snow Covered Kilimanjaro and Sunny Dar es Salaam

I intended to see the majestic Kilimanjaro. The mountain I heard so much about from friends who had no problem climbing mountains. It was once in my list of mountains to conquer, when the knees, the weight, and the heart are still in their prime.

Anyway, I had a good time at least, watching the brothers when my plane from Nairobi passed over the mountain, exposing its snow-covered top in the early morning of July last year.

At the Nairobi airport watching the sunrise as our plane gets ready to fly to Dar es Salaam and begin my journey

Kibo peak appeared, and I got excited

It feels like Tanzania is just a dream, and Kilimanjaro is an illusion since I visited the country six months ago.

Zoomed
The Kilimanjaro range is seen from the plane
Kibo (the higher peak on the far end) and Mawenzi (the more rugged smaller mountain) brothers

It will take me two days before I can go to where it is located.

Meantime, I enjoyed the warm days on the beach of Dar Es Salaam doing nothing but watch the sea, read, nap, eat, and drink, taking in all the sun I could bear.

Azure Boutique Hotel was a haven. A welcome respite from the heat of Arua in the north of Uganda, west of the Nile river.

The pool outside room 113
Azure
More huts
The gazeebo
The beach
Hallway
The hallway lights – seashells by the ceiling
View from the terrace
View from the terrace slash restaurant
Walkway to the beach from my room

Even the crab fascinates me.

After a good rest, good food and a good night’s sleep. I was excited to plan my next destination and see more of Tanzania.

Home for the Holidays

Ten months after my recovery from an injury in 2018, I accepted a job to support the refugee crisis in Uganda. By mid-November, 2018, I found myself changing continent once again, and psyching myself to live up north, west of the Nile river. 

Uganda, like the Philippines, is mostly Catholic. They have the same faith practice as us, though we are more into the fanfare, colors, and traditions. Theirs from my experience is mostly tradition and loud music.

When December came, instead of me planning to take my holidays outside of my new country, I decided to spend it with the locals. Thinking that since it’s with a family, I’ll get to experience “holidays a la Uganda.” Of course, I had a bias coming from the Philippines where Christmas season begins the moment the months’ last syllables end in “ber.” 

It was not the same. Instead, I get to live and experience, central Uganda way of life, especially on food and experience my good friends family’s faith practice without the fun-fare, lights, and colors I am used in my country. 

That’s why when I was asked to stay for another year, one of my conditions was to be allowed to travel home and spend my collected leave in my home country. 

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As always, the Philippines did not disappoint. 

I arrived with music and decorations fitting to my expectations. The airport was alive with live music from a chorale while families and friends are eagerly awaiting their loved ones. 

At my home, the motif was blue and silver with LED fairy lights. My dad’s little yellow house is like always on fire when the tree is lighted. Food, of course, was what I missed – the traditional rice cakes and the pork dishes I only imagined back in Uganda. 

Meeting friends was inevitable, and it is still fun catching up on what has happened since we last met, also going back to our kindergarten life. 

I got sick, of course. The change in the weather and long travel made me weak after Christmas, so New Year was a little subdued, but still, nothing beats an hour of fireworks display before I return to a slower welcome to 2020. When I welcomed 2019, I was in bed before midnight, and we don’t have the big table of food and pastries that are served to welcome the year, and I was not part of our family’s welcome photo. But this year, our yellow motif was punctuated by me wearing my yellow and black Ketenga cloth wrap dress. 

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As I continue to enjoy my seven weeks break, the Taal volcano, which is 50 kilometers away from where my dad lives, erupted. One moment was still planning to make a road trip; the next thing I knew, all the places we planned to visit is covered in ash. 

The momentum change. I cannot be idle while on holiday. I was avoiding to work, but I cannot let my friends down. I helped in any way I can. 

Two days after it erupted, I had my eye surgery. A minor operation, but very sensitive. It prevented me from going to ash-laden provinces and be at the forefront. Instead, I used my connections to help mobilize support to the most vulnerable people in times like this – the people with disabilities and the elderly. Pretty much the same as what I am doing in Uganda.

I am glad I have friends that are present on the ground and providing specific support to people with disabilities in the evacuation centers. And those, making sure funds received are provided to those that needed them the most. 

In the end, my holidays turning out to be very enriching. I don’t celebrate the hardship people have now because of the Taal volcano erupting. I celebrate the people that heed the call for help, and the Batangueno affected for trying to help each other out. 

I celebrate those behind the scenes, helping in any way they can to support the efforts on the ground. 

I have a couple of weeks left before I go back to Uganda, but before I do that, I will celebrate my birth month through our yearly feeding program. Isang Bata Isang Tasa (One Child One Cup) started 13 years ago, as a way to thank God for a new year by sharing my blessing to the children in my community. 

We give special attention to children under five and children with disabilities to encourage them to live healthier. We also educate their caregivers – mother, father, sisters, grandmother, etc. on how to continue to live a healthy lifestyle, in body and mind. 

Once done,  I will plan now for the 14th year, looking for sponsors and additional activities to make sure that we bring this service beyond my village and help more kids appreciate growing up healthy and clean all the time. 

Until the next celebration!

This article had been published in World Pulse

https://www.worldpulse.com/community/users/coolasas/posts/93687

Living Solo

Most of my adult life I live alone. Except when I am home, I crave the company of people familiar to me, my dad especially.

But when I am out of the country, more often than not, I am alone.

Living in Arua is not any different than any other places I live in. I get to enjoy all the perks of living solo. I get to cook food I like to eat, like when another Filipino brought me dried fish from home, I had a moment of happiness cooking it and eating with my hands.

When I wanted to be away from drama, I have a place of refuge, where no one can touch me. I can decide not even to answer my phone.

I can also choose the people I wanted to invite and dine with me, even to crash just because I know they are good people.

Although there are times, I feel lonely. In cold nights or when there’s no power, and a good chat buddy would be nice to have around. Phone calls don’t cut it. Those times, I needed someone close.

But the pro outweighs the cons of living alone. I wouldn’t trade it if I can avoid it. This is the life I chose to live, the compromise to the kind of work I do. And like, having my me time, I wouldn’t trade the work I do for anything especially the people I meet in the field. To be around them means I am part of the circle of life in Uganda and in anywhere I am then and in the future.

I get to enjoy working with them with my undivided attention; you wouldn’t trade those smiles for anything. And at the end of the day, I can go back home, kick my shoes, put my feet up and enjoy my evenings recalling what I had done and what I will do next or, what I will do for dinner.