When You Educate a Girl

This is Mbabazi Justine; she was one of the young women we met while at Kitovu Hospital in Masaka, Uganda.

Justine is 25 years old, from the Isingiro district in the southwestern part of Uganda.  She has had six operations for Vesico-Vaginal-Fistula (VVF).  She was married early on, but because of the fistula damage, that marriage ended.  She also was one of the few lucky girls who got to go to school; unfortunately she was forced to drop out.  Since the time we left Masaka, she has returned to the hospital to seek help in continuing her education.  She wants to finish her primary education, then continue on to study nursing so that she can help other mothers to avoid some of the challenges she had to face.  Her family is supporting this choice, but they don’t have the funds.


“When you educate a girl, there’s a ripple effect that goes beyond what you would get from a normal investment.  When you educate a girl, she tends to get married later on in life, she tends to have fewer kids. She takes better care of her kids. She has greater economic opportunity. She might create a business so she can contribute to the local economy. When you educate a girl, you educate a village.” – Sheryl WuDunn in the documentary film Half the Sky

Justine Mbabazi
Sister Bernadette has taken Justine to the St. Tereza Primary School for an interview.  They’ve agreed to admit her in level Primary Three that starts in just a couple days.  Some of us from the Fistula Project group that traveled to Uganda in October have rapidly pulled together the funds for her first semester and wired them off so she can get started.

Craig and I have been in an ongoing conversation since our return about how we can best help the people and community that we grew to love there in Uganda.  We’ve talked about the idea of sponsoring a girl through school.  We’ve gone back and forth, wondering is it best to use our limited funds to support one person or should we find something that helps more people at once.  We’ve finally come to the conclusion that by educating girls and young women we are helping many more, because that young woman is going to take her education and use it to better her community.

Now I’m going to ask for your help again.  It costs about $500 to get a girl enrolled in school, and then $200 a semester after that.  There are three semesters a year.  Sister Bernadette has told us that three more young women have gone up to the hospital to learn about going back to school.  Your $5, $10, or $20 could go a long way to getting these girls back in school and making a positive impact on not just their world, but this world we all live in.  Over there on the right sidebar you’ll find a Paypal donation button.  You don’t need a Paypal account to donate; you can use your credit or debit card and it is safe and secure.  Because this is not a 501c3, this is not a tax deductible donation.  Paypal does take out a small percentage, about 4%; every bit of the rest will go to the education fund.  We’ll continue to research better ways to organize this fund as we go, and if you have any helpful ideas based on your own experiences, please do share!

Some More Thoughts on Our Uganda Journey

babies at Kitovu
We’ve been home two months now and I haven’t finished telling you the full story of our journey.  When I began relating this story to you, I mentioned my anxiety and fear of not being able to express what the experience was.  Telling about the day to day occurrences is easy enough, but trying to explain in a big worldview kind of way is quite another thing.  Partly because I’m still trying to work that out for myself.

The main question that keeps jumping around in my head is, “did we do any good?”  In the big scheme of things what purpose did it serve to go knit with these women?  I know that, in a side show kind of way, we offered a distraction to the women waiting for or recovering from their surgeries.  I know from personal experience that knitting and other handicrafts are activities that help to heal the soul.  It has been related to us by Sister Bernadette, one of the nuns and a Ugandan, that the women loved having us there and were impressed at our “sitting down with them” as she said.

Prior to the trip, I had spoken with a friend of mine who is from Sudan.  I was all excited about going and then felt knocked down when he wasn’t as excited for me.  He questioned whether this trip was just another example of white privilege, with a hint of “white savior goes to Africa”.   Before going I wrangled with this question, comfortable with my conclusion that I had no expectations of saving anyone, that I was merely going to support women, something I do well.

The truth is I am still struggling with this question.  Deep down, were we all really making this trip just to make ourselves feel better?  Would it have been better to donate the money we spent to more surgeries instead of spending it on plane tickets?  Should we have stayed home and not interfered in a culture we don’t understand?  As bazungu, do we not belong there?  Should we leave it to Uganda to handle the problems of women in need?  That same government that just passed the “kill the gay” law?  I don’t expect to have the answer to these questions anytime soon or maybe not at all.  I do know, and perhaps this is just rationalizing, that our going and bringing back information helps to bring awareness to the fistula repair issue.  I know that Adobe Systems is donating $1000 to cover fistula repair surgeries in exchange for Craig’s volunteering with the project.  That’s something anyway.

I would very much like to do this again, even with all these questions.  It scares me to think that little Betty might be back in a couple years needing her own surgery.  With the rampant belief that sex with a virgin can cure aids, this horrifying thought is a very real possibility.

I can see ways of expanding the program.  For me the experience of sitting there knitting with the women was so like my experience working in shelters, where my best connections with the women I worked with were made sitting at the kitchen table knitting and chatting.  I can imagine the mzungu knitters acting in the capacity of women’s advocates.

While there at Kitovu I saw women with many needs other than fistula repair.  They had other health issues, poverty, isolation, violence against women…. the list goes on.  Now the truth is, as an outsider and a newbie I don’t know how many of their issues were being addressed there at the Kitovu complex.  I am fairly certain, through conversation with a couple of the women, that there are issues that slipped by.

While most of the women there didn’t speak any or very much English, there were a couple who were quite fluent.  I’d love to be able to recruit a couple English speakers to help us communicate with the rest of the women, and it wouldn’t hurt to learn some Swahili and Luganda myself!  Having interpreters would allow us to learn more of the women’s stories and find out what their needs are.  Advocates could then help direct the women to the proper resources, or if no resources exist, use that information to help bring them into existence!

Ja Ja
Oh listen to me carrying on like I have some ownership in this project.  I’m a volunteer with ideas, ideas that I need to pass on and see if they can go anywhere.  That brings me to what I want to do with what I learned on this adventure, aside from learning that I just want to go back.  I learned that I’m not happy sitting in my studio every day.  While I love making art and crocheting, I don’t want to do it for a living.  I thought I did, and I found out that it just wasn’t working for me.  I have to get out in the world more.  I’ll probably go back to work.  My first step will be to volunteer with a local refugee resettlement program and/or perhaps at the women’s shelter.  I need to follow my strengths and not try to force something that seemed like a good idea in theory.  I see that my relationship to art is similar to how I like the idea of having a dog, but I do much better enjoying my friends’ dogs than I do having my own.

I do still have more photos, and some short stories of our time in Uganda. I’ll be back next week with those!

Out in the Field with Sister Helen

One day Craig and I had the opportunity to travel out to the surrounding villages to see another side of life in Uganda.

We went with Sister Helen, a nun at Kitovu Hospital, who is also a dietician and has worked in Africa for many decades.  With Joseph and Stella, local social workers, Sister Helen does outreach in the villages, making regular trips out to visit with widows, the elderly, disabled, and people who are sick, most often with HIV/AIDS.  They talk to people about their diets and other health needs.

This child has lost both her parents and is being raised by her grandmother.  Stories are getting blurred in my head; I think that her father died from AIDS, the mother died in childbirth, and she was premature.

This is a daughter-in-law and baby who also live in this small mud and brick house.

We encountered a great deal of obeisance that day; I found it terribly uncomfortable.  This woman is the wife of a local minister.  They both have HIV.  She welcomed us to her home, directed us to sit on benches, then came to us on her knees, clasping our hands in hers and greeting us each in turn.  We witnessed this same knee walking in a couple other homes as well.

Most of the people we visited lived in mud or mud and brick, thatch roof huts.  The kitchens, like this one, are typically separate from the houses.

This is the inside where the cooking is done on a very smoky wood fire.

Here is the stove.

This is another kitchen, where the woman is showing us the mortar and pestle which is used for grinding maize, peanuts, or coffee beans.

This woman has been living with a man for 20 years, they have 4 children and have lost two.  The husband has HIV/AIDS and TB.  They have never had a legally recognized wedding, so if he dies, which he will, his family could, and probably will, come in and take over the house, displacing her and the children.


She makes baskets to supplement the family’s income.

Everyone we met that day was carrying a huge burden, either illness, lack of food, or loss of a family member.  One woman had lost her husband to AIDS, she was also so sick that she could no longer work, yet she was caring for her children, plus the children of her husband’s brother who also died from AIDS.  She had something like 14 people living in her house.

Even in the face of so much hardship, everyone was welcoming and cheerful.  They brought us into their homes and let us take photographs.  The contrast between what we saw in Uganda and the luxury that we have here in America struck us hard.  We swore that day that we’d never complain about slow internet again.

Kitovu Hospital Helping Women

I’ve talked a great deal already about the impact our trip to Uganda had on me.  It’s time to tell you more about the women we were working with and Kitovu Hospital where it happens.  Kitovu was founded as a first aid post in 1955, and has since grown to a 248 bed hospital.  The VVF ward (vesico-vaginal fistula), which is where we were, has 31 beds.

Kitovu has been offering fistula repair services since 1993, and is the first place to hold fistula repair training programs for Ugandan doctors and nurses. Surgeons from around the world come to volunteer their time and services at fistula camps that happen generally four times a year. The patients are not charged for the surgery and care.

At the October camp, 21 women had fistula repair surgery.  Many other women were treated for other childbirth related injuries.  One woman who had fistula repair last year came back to have her baby delivered by caesarean section.  One five year old had a congenital Ectopic ureter; she was born with her ureter entering through the vagina.

The women we were knitting with included both fistula and other patients, and friends and family members who accompanied the patients to the hospital.  Women come from all over Uganda to be treated at Kitovu.  Even though at home these women are often ostracized from their villages, here at the hospital a new community formed.  It was so life affirming to watch the way they supported and cared for each other, sharing tasks such as cooking and baby care.

The Fistula Project took over hygiene kits that were created by volunteers here in the US.  The kits included washable pads that the women can use after their surgeries.  On this day, in the photo above, hygiene kits were passed out and Pauline was demonstrating how to use the pads.  These things brought back bad memories of the days before modern feminine hygiene products!

This is Jacqueline; she stole our hearts:)

This is Ja Ja, Grandmother.  Because of the language barrier it was sometimes hard to know just what brought the women to the hospital, whether they were patients waiting for treatment, or perhaps post treatment.  The current patients were easy to recognize because of the paper hat and the catheter bucket they carried.

One thing that struck me hard is that all of the women there and throughout Uganda have a burden to bear.  I decided from the start that I didn’t care if the woman I was giving yarn to was a fistula patient or there for some completely unrelated reason.  She had a need and at that moment it was for yarn.  I handed out yarn until there was no more.

Knitting in Uganda

In the wee hours of the morning, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, I felt a panic.  “I can’t do this!  I want to be at home now!”  A friend asked me the other day, “what was your greatest fear in going?”  My fear, and the reason for the panic, was that I wouldn’t do a good job, that the women I was working with wouldn’t accept me, that I wouldn’t know what to do.  That’s it – I wouldn’t know what to do.

Uganda is right on the equator and morning comes at 6:30am, sunset at 6:30pm. We rose with the sun and went straight out for our first real Uganda breakfast of matoke, potatoes, chapati, “french” toast, a very white and flat omelet, chopped tomatoes, and pineapple.

After breakfast, Craig and I went back to the room to get ready, and a few minutes later when we came out everyone had already gone to the hospital. Well, ok, we’ll take boda bodas. Boda bodas are the little motorbikes that are the popular mode of transportation. People pile them high with families, goats, furniture, and anything else they can balance on there. These bikes then zip in and out of traffic, traffic that doesn’t seem to have any rules other than drive fast and wherever you want to. Oh and honk horns. I told the young man that I was a Ja Ja (old lady/grandmother) and to drive slow. He laughed and did.

We arrived at the hospital, regrouped with the others and headed off to our assignments. Deb, a nurse from SLC, Kelly, a doctor from Oregon, and I grabbed yarn and knitting needles and went outside to look for women. Most of the women are outside. Because they are leaking from their fistula, they aren’t allowed to roam about the buildings. That bothers me even to type it. There are a couple dorms set up where the patients waiting for surgery and their helpers sleep. Current patients sleep in the ward.

I had no idea how we were going to teach knitting, or gather a group of women to participate in that knitting when we didn’t speak the same language. I needn’t have worried. Fiber is a common language that women have been speaking since we invented textiles. We spied a group of women, then decided we’d just go sit down and start knitting and see what happened.

There was a patio area and steps where women were gathered, we started to sit and the women immediately insisted that we sit on the woven palm frond mats they had. This was a regular occurrence; we weren’t ever allowed to sit on the bare concrete, even though some of the Ugandan ladies were.

We pulled out our yarn and needles and immediately we were swarmed by women wanting to participate. At first it sort of took my breath away. I don’t respond well to too much movement and many people clamoring for my attention all at the same time. I took a few deep breaths, handed out some woozy (yarn) and m’piso (needles). Now I may have these words completely wrong. This is what we understood from what the ladies were asking for. Who knows? At any rate, this became part of our shared language.

After that initial mob, which tended to happen every day, we all settled in our spots with our knitting and began to learn from each other.   I was so overjoyed to be a part of that moment, that miracle.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I have a fascination with the connection between women and textiles.  As I said, this is a common language.  For eons we have been coming together to help each other with our textile work.  Women have always gathered together with their handiwork to support each other and offer companionship and community.  Even if we speak different languages and our skin is a different color, working with fiber is a common denominator.

My other concern, about not being accepted, also turned out to be unfounded.  Before the end of that first afternoon, I had become “sister” and “auntie” and I was so, so happy.

I’m crying again and dinner needs to come out of the oven.  I’ll be back on Wednesday.