Monday, May 14, 2012

A Mother's Day poem

Yesterday toward the end of our weekly mentor meeting, we went around the circle as usual and listened to the mentors give updates from each home.  When it was his turn, Sam from Bukesa home spoke up and gave the regular updates, but asked to share a poem with us all that was written by a boy in the home named Otua for Mother's Day.   This particular boy is now 12, but came into the home when he was 9, straight from the streets of Kampala.  Otua's mentors and others have told me that he came in looking ragged and malnutritioned, with a big wound on the top of his head.  But now he is a favorite of many who know him. He's always jolly and consistently scores at the top of his class.  He's pudgy and round, sweet, helpful, chatty and, well, just an incredible kid.  Here is his poem:

Mother's Day
 What can I say about a mother on this day?
Where do I begin and where do I end?
The more I talk the less I mean.
The less I talk the more I mean.
I mean to say that I am her flesh and blood.
Her desire, her ambitions, her all wishes come true.

I am what I am because of her
and I am not all that which she did not want.
Then I am not all her reflection, her replica, herself.
I am her creation, her dream and the best.

And on this day as I reminiscent the past
I reflect on her care, the warmth and the bond.
Those unconditional love that she showered on me.
Those long patient hours that she spent on me.
I thank the Almighty for giving me her.
And I am sure she would thank you for giving her me.

When Sam read this poem aloud to the rest of the mentor and our coordination team, there we all gave a unified "Awwwwww" and we ladies, only one of whom was a mother, put our hands over our hearts and smiled.  How sweet!  I later talked to our secretary about the poem, because she found it also quite touching and I soon began to wonder: what was his relationship with his mother?

The next day I looked up his profile and this is what I came across:

Otua's father and mother both died before he could remember either of them, so he spent his young life with his aunt, who told him that after his father died, his mother could not care for him, so she tried to kill him.  He was later found on the streets of Kibuli.

I stared at my computer screen with my mouth hanging open.  I had thought that surely Otua had a wonderful mother, of whom he kept fond memories, and I never expected that the complete opposite was true - that he never even knew her and she never, in Otua's words, "would thank you for giving her me." All Otua really knows of his mother is that she tried to kill him when she could no longer care for him.  Whoa.

What is it in this young boy's heart that he can exude love and expect goodness from a mother, when all he has every right to be bitter and broken?  How many lessons could I learn from Otua about love and forgiveness, dwelling on the Good of life, and making the best of what I've been given?

A Happy Mothers Day to you all, and thank you to all of those mothers who measure up to Otua's poem.  The world wouldn't be the same without you.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Body talk

I never really had a good story for the "most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you" question.  Sure, I had one here and there about a toot slipping out at in inappropriate time, but nothing ever too juicy...

...until my Turkish bath experience in January.

I'm not going to go into too many details, but to make a long story short, I thought I was supposed to go in my birthday suit to a Turkish bath and after enjoying myself in the nude for an hour with about 15 other women, I realized I was the only one in my complete birthday suit.  Everyone else was wearing bottoms.


So like my English teachers taught me, that's my attention-getter at the beginning of this post - a brief recounting of my most embarrassing story.  But despite my humiliation at the end of my Turkish bath, I'll shamelessly admit that I loved every moment of the experience up until the fateful moment that I realized my mistake and was left experiencing a real-life naked dream.

I realized after my Turkish bath that I hadn't really seen that many naked women in my life.  Unlike my understanding of boys'/men's locker room culture, the girls on the sports teams I was in would put their sports bras on over their regular bras and shimmy off the other one underneath so nobody could get a glance.  And we always pulled down our shirts as far as possible when taking off our bottoms, obviously.

I've thought a lot about women lately.  I've thought about what it means to be a woman, the unique struggles that women face throughout the world, if feminine traits are good or bad, and if feminism is worthwhile.  And at the center of all of this is a woman's body.  You see, women don't see each others bodies very often - at least in America.  While we are bombarded with images of women's bodies in the media and surrounded by social norms that tell us how we should look, we shield ourselves from the realities of what women's bodies actually look like.

So my Turkish bath experience was a unique one, clearly in more ways than one.  Near the end of my hour strutting my stuff (before I realized that the sideways glances were NOT because I was just a tourist), I looked at other women's (almost) naked bodies for the first time.  One woman was super rolly, her breasts resting on her belly's first roll.  I could see another girl's pelvic bones and she probably had to stuff her AA bra.  Another girl's thighs didn't touch, but her boobs were huge.  And they all just chatted away, letting it hang out while scrubbing themselves down underneath the dome that was built in the 14th century.  It was fascinating to be so far outside of my comfort zone, knowing that such a scene could never happen in America without the women eying each other and measuring their cellulite against their friend's firm bum.

This year during an event for International Women's Day held in Kampala, another occurrence got my mind reeling about these issues.  A few fashion designers from Uganda held a fashion show to model their pieces, and many of them took volunteers from the event to strut their stuff on the catwalk.  As I watched this show, I saw big women and skinny women and medium sized women all walking down the runway with their chins up and a sexy air of confidence that sparked a bit of envy inside of me.  One girl was a rugby player on the national team with all sorts of curves and bulging muscle, but she narrowed her eyes and shook her hips just like the rest of them.  Many experiences in Uganda have shown me and many other Americans who come to visit just how differently our cultures view our bodies.  Denis, my friend and favorite boda driver, recently told me that he wanted to find a girlfriend, so I asked him what physical traits he preferred - a big girl, or a skinny one?  "Either!" he pronounced.  He really didn't care what he got, as long as she had a great personality.
Recently posted by a friend of mine on Pinterest

All of these things have made me wonder, what is it that we're missing?  How can the United States top the world in obesity ratings while also having the highest mortality rate in the world due to eating disorders?  How is that for an oxymoron?  And what is this saying about how we as a culture view and treat our bodies?  As Eve Ensler, founder of the Vagina Monologues, discusses in a recent TED Talk, we tend to use our bodies as tools, to manipulate them to meet our desires instead of listening to them and giving them what they need to be healthy.  We ignore them when they tell us we are hungry or we are full, we tough it out during the work day when our bodies are in pain, and we continue to believe the notion that "pain is beauty."  But Eve got cancer, and, as she said, "suddenly I had a body."

The most blatant hatred of our bodies is evident in the culture of Hollywood, magazines, and all of the other media images we consume on a daily basis that rocks almost every woman in America's view of herself.  As the very compelling documentary, Miss Representation, brings to light better than ever, an average American girl's self-confidence peaks at the age of 9, and then declines as she sees and hears over and over again about how her worth is placed in her body and beauty and then the bodies that she is told to strive for are simply unattainable.

And they ARE SIMPLY UNATTAINABLE.  At dinner last night, a friend of mine told me of an article that she recently read about how Victoria's Secret models prepare for live shows.  Since their bodies can't be photoshopped on the runway, they stop eating solid foods 2 weeks before the show.  Let me say it again.  They go hungry for 2 weeks in order to have the picture perfect body.  And those pictures in magazines?  Sure, everyone tells us about photoshop, but get a good look for yourself of how media can distort our realities.  The two photos below are of the same Victoria's Secret model, Karolina Kurkova.  The first image is untouched.  You can see her real body, her real belly button, and her face without make-up.  The second image is retouched, although most people wouldn't question it when we see it in a magazine.  Her neck has been elongated, her breasts enlarged, skin tanned, elbow and neck lines deleted, waist cinched, backs of legs deleted, thighs slimmed and widely separated, skin smoothed, arms lengthened and slimmed, and a belly button added.  How is this anywhere near OK?

According to this website, Cindy Crawford once commented that she wished she looked as good as her photos do.  Kate Winslet also came out with a public statement condemning the photoshopped picture of her pasted on the front of GQ magazine.  "I don't want to look like that!"  she said, setting a much-needed precedent, much like Ashley Judd in this highly recommended article speaking out against the media picking apart her image.

I could go on for hours about this and many other issues, but one of the important things that it comes down to is that we aren't listening to our bodies.  We aren't in tune with them and valuing them anymore.  We see our bodies as machines to be pushed, prodded, and displayed rather than loved, listened to, and treasured.  And as much as I know these things and can see the before and after photoshop pictures, I'll still get up tomorrow morning and turn sideways in the mirror, evaluating the poof of my tummy and the shape of my butt.  When I shake up the salad dressing, I'll get self-conscious about my underarm flabbing around too much.  But it helps to talk to other women about these things, knowing that I'm not the only one who is unhappy with my body.  Before I left for Uganda, I had a pond party with a few of my friends who were All Stars on IU's track team and each had (in my mind) perfect bodies.  But as we lay out in the sun tanning ourselves in our bikinis, one of them asked the rest of us what our favorite and least favorite parts of our bodies were.  I was shocked to hear the sprinter talk about how she hated how her belly poofed out after she ate a meal and the All American pole vaulter didn't like the shape of her bum, too.

I highly recommend taking a took at the links in this post and thinking about how each of us can love and be more in tune with our bodies more each day and how we can encourage each other in this endeavor.  I'm more convinced than ever that loving our bodies is essential to loving ourselves and becoming powerful, world-changing women!

Thanks for reading, and please take a gander at the other pictures below.

From Ann Taylor's online catalogue

original image on the left and touched up image on the right

Victoria's Secret models with and without makeup

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Street Life Crew

Almost all of the boys in our homes have lived on the streets of Kampala at one time or another. Ask the boys to tell you stories, and you'll hear of them selling metal scraps to survive, being beaten by the police and other boys, and becoming addicted to drugs and sniffing glue .  It's a rough life and we work with rough kids.  Ask our mentors.  The mentors will tell you stories about their possessions being stolen, about being surrounded by other street kids with threats to be beaten up, and kids running back to the streets only to return to the mentor when they need something.  Nobody ever said it would be easy.

Then ask a visitor that comes to our homes and they'll tell you that these boys are just boys, like any others in the world.  They have all come so far in getting over incredibly traumatic experiences and in our homes they soon come to a point where they transform from the heart because of the stability we can provide, thanks to the mentors who continue to love them despite the hardest of circumstances.  Our boys are just like any others, loving to play football, wrestle with each other, and somewhat messy.

Saddam is one of these boys.  His narrative is similar to his friends' in our homes.  His mother chose his abusive step-father over him and his siblings, so he ran away to the streets, trying to survive on his own.  Saddam now lives in our Makerere home and if you ever visit, I'm confident he'll be one of the boys you remember.  He's hungry for mentorship and life wisdom.  He walked a couple of hours across town one day to visit my friend, Tyler, and ask him about life.  When my parents came to visit, he sat my dad down and asked him some of life's deepest questions, including, "Uncle Rory, what did you feel the moment you married Aunt Diana?" and "What is the hardest thing you've ever gone through in life?"

In his free time, Saddam heads up a group of a few of his other friends called Street Life Crew.  They write their own rap songs and sing them on the streets and in churches to encourage other street boys and let them know that there are ways out of that lifestyle.  He'll gladly sell you a CD of their songs.  Today he asked me, "Aunt Dani, what does 'vision' mean?"  After explaining it to him, he told me his own vision for Street Life Crew.

Saddam wants to be a journalist, so today while we were doing community service and I was clicking away taking photographs, I asked Saddam to help me translate so I could ask permission to take pictures of some people in the neighborhood.  Later, I gave him the camera and let him take his own pictures, an opportunity he jumped at.  I also promised him that he could borrow my old camera and, after seeing the results from today, I'm really excited to see more photos through his lens.

This picture specifically really blew me away.  This boy lives on the street and faces the same life that many of our boys faced.  He is drinking a packet of Waragi, a locally made alcohol.  This portrait is so compelling to me, partly because of how well the subject is captured and partly because of who snapped it - own our Saddam, ex-street boy turned visionary.

I cropped the photo a bit, but Saddam gets all the credit for this shot!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Celebrate A Woman

I have many thoughts about women.  I have many, many thoughts on gender, femininity, sexuality, relationships, and all the sub-issues that sequence their way into those topics.  I've become increasingly passionate about all of this as I continue to view cultures around the world and see how much the issues of gender and sexuality affect our societies and our selves.  It's inescapable.  These days, I'm a sponge, soaking in everything that I can get my hands on, trying to come to my own conclusions on what gender means in my personal life while also being a resource to others who may be wondering about the same things.  There are way too many things on my mind to even choose which topic to write about, so I'm not going to choose.  I'm going to celebrate.

Today is about celebrating the women in our histories and in our lives.  Today we can focus on the half of the world's population that generally does not have half the world's voice.  Today I got to focus on the women in Uganda and the incredible ways they contribute to the progress of this country.  I got to spend time with the future female leaders of Uganda - the graduates of Cornerstone - and we celebrated together, with hundreds of others, our feminine worth.

Happy International Women's Day!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Catch up

I'm so embarrassed.  Never in my history of blogging have I gone a whole month without a single post.  I'm so ashamed to look at my blog archive and there's not even the option to click on January because according to my blog, it didn't exist.


Trust me, the silence does not mean that life hasn't been happening.  Oh my, has life been happening.  There's actually been so much life happening and so many thoughts running through my brain that I actually couldn't sit down to sort through them and write them coherently.  With all the joys and anxieties and questions happening over the last couple of months, even my journal remains untouched.  Geeeez, Dani!

So, the whirlwind tour of the last two months of my life:

I went home.  It was awesome and it was a whirlwind.  My sister had a beautiful baby boy, named Mason and I took a "best of America" tour for 3 weeks to see my favorite people, eat my favorite food, and partake in my favorite wintertime activities.  I also started planning a wedding.  (!!)  Read on.

Dinner with Amanda and Kristen in Chicago - Uganda friends!

Sunrise over our pond

Tea party with my sister and niece

Christmas tree shopping with Dad


Tea with Lola and Grandma and Mom

Eric decorating the Christmas tree

ice skating

The Cates family, with new baby and even a baby doll for Morgan

With Baby Mason - my new nephew!

The whole Walker clan

I went to Turkey.  Eric typically does some sort of adventure over Christmas, since most Ugandans head back to their villages for about a month and our office closes.  So on our way back to Uganda from the U.S. we took a long layover in Turkey and backpacked around for about a week.  Thanks to Mom and Dad's Christmas cash, we were able to explore this unique country that finds itself literally situated between the east and the west.  Turkey, which straddles two continents geographically, also provides a nice blend of European and Middle Eastern culture.  Delicious food, great sights, wonderful trip.

Sea gulls with Istanbul in the background

Inside the Blue Mosque

Hagia Sofia

Feeding pigeons in Istanbul

Pomegranate juice vendor

Kebap stand

Outside our hostel


Hot air balloons over Cappadocia

Hot air balloon ride

Hiking the white valley at Cappadocia

I got engaged.  Eric popped the big question on January 14th and put a perfect little diamond ring on my finger when we returned to Uganda.  Having talked about it before we went back to the states, we knew when we'd like to get married, so I took the initiative to start the crucial planning details while I was at home.  But many things still remained a surprise, and he did a great job.  Read the full story.

Engaged :)

2 groomsmen and a bridesmaid

the ring

I got back to work.  January was a slow start to the office, especially for our homes, since many of the kids are just now returning to the homes after spending the holidays with any remaining family.  They go back to school in the next couple of weeks and things are getting into full swing!  We've welcomed some new kiddos into our homes are putting some of the older ones into vocational schools.  I continue to be reminded every day how much I love my job and enjoy my work.  I'm looking forward to all of the kids getting back so I can go and visit them soon.

To follow my life in Uganda more closely, please take a gander at my blipfoto page every now and again.  I post a picture each day and it will probably help to get a better grasp on life in Uganda, my friends, my work, and boring and unusual events that life provides. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

I'm so glad to be home for Christmas, but I'm also thinking of my kids and coworkers in Uganda!

Thursday, December 22, 2011


On June 10, 2009, I sat in a hospital room with my sister, her husband, my mother, and my first baby niece, Morgan.  This was the first grandchild in our family and she was getting all the attention she deserved as soon as her conception was announced.  As our family sat in the room doting over this tiny little newborn life and doing anything we could to help my sister, I received an unexpected phone call.  When I answered, a friend of mine was on the other line.  I had lived with her a couple years earlier in an intern house in Washington, D.C. while we were both working on Capitol Hill.   For the past couple of weeks, we had been playing phone tag, trying to catch up on each others' lives.  I was anxious to step out of the room for a few minutes and see what was going on with her, but as soon as she started speaking, it was clear that this wasn't a call to just shoot the breeze.  During our summer together in D.C. I learned of her mother's struggle with cancer and she called me that morning to tell me that her mother had ended her long battle just hours earlier.

I had no idea what to say.  A year and a half later I was able to meet up with her in D.C. and she told me again about her mother's death, seemingly forgetting that I was the first one she told about it that day, so I guess it didn't matter what I said.  In that moment, I'm sure it doesn't really matter.  She was right in the midst of raw grief at the exact same time I was in the midst of pure elation.  What a strange dichotomy of emotions!  What an incredibly weird experience to switch my emotions from the joy of birth to the grief of death!

Again, three weeks ago, I received a text message from my mother telling me that my sister's second child - a boy this time - was expected to come along at any hour or day.  Although I was still in Uganda and wished to be home for the birth, I was anxiously awaiting more news about the birth of my first nephew.  The next day, I wandered around a popular craft exhibition and ran into a friend.  We began talking about our days and he updated me about a woman from his work and church who he saw that day and who is fighting cancer and was expected to go at any hour or day.

And there it was again - that strange confrontation of birth and death, of coming and going, of the different phases of life that we are all experiencing.

I've been at home now for 2 weeks and within my "Best of America" tour, I've gotten to see many of my favorite people who have impacted me in some way throughout my life.  I've sat down with a couple of family members in order to gather family stories for a personal compilation.  I've looked through pictures of my childhood, seeing them through my mother's eyes and wandering if she ever expected life to turn out how it is now when she was in a younger phase of life.

Tonight I cleaned out my closet - cleaning it out for the next phase of my life.  I find it rather hard to throw away clothes because each garment has a story of its own from a different phase in my life.  This dress I wore at my high school graduation party.  This shirt I wore when I used to show cattle.  This shirt I wore to support my old boyfriend.  These pants I got that one time while shopping with my mom and sister.  Cleaning those things out is like letting go of different phases of my life and acknowledging that life is changing.

As I reflect on all of these tidbits of life, it's again reaffirmed that we indeed only have one shot at each phase.  There is only one phase of life when we get to be parents, one phase when we struggle through change, one phase when we are in high school, one time that we are young and free and one time that we are aged and knowledgeable.  What a shame to waste one of these phases when it only passes by once.

The year of 2011 was a year of a lot of learning and growth for me.  I felt more self-aware than at any other time in my life, meaning that I learned a lot about my strengths and most especially about my weaknesses.  Growing and learning can be a struggle and it can be fun.  It was both in 2011.  My goal for 2012 is to recognize that short phase of struggle and to build upon it.  This year I want to surround myself with beautiful people, with inspirational messages, with encouraging words.  I want to emanate more joy, although I know it doesn't always come naturally for me.  I only have one shot at 2012, so I hope to do my best at making it a joyful year.

One thing that has really helped me appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of every day is my personal project to take a photo each day.  You can see these pictures at:  Add me to your Google reader!

P.S.  I was able to make it home for my nephew's birth!  Here are a few pictures:
Me and newborn Mason!

The whole family.  Morgan got her own baby to care for while Mommy cares for baby Mason

Morgan and Mason

The little one