July 29, 2010
Jake Brems is a rising junior defenseman on the Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team and a Science – Business major from Kensington, Maryland who is spending his summer working on a joint internship with the Center of Concern in Washington D.C. and Fields of Growth International. He is travelling, serving and working at a community development and athletic ministry initiative started by Notre Dame men’s lacrosse operations coordinator Kevin Dugan.
Jake Brems’ first blog entry …
I’m happy to say that I arrived in Uganda safely without any major issues. I spent the previous night in Dubai with fellow volunteer Joel Derichinsky (Gordon College ’10) and managed to find a taxi driver who was willing to take us on a two and half hour tour of the city. I saw the downtown area with shopping and nightclubs and all of the major landmarks there like the tallest building in the world and a seven star hotel.
At the Dubai airport, I managed to get through with a full water bottle. The security guard asked me what I had in it and just took my word that it was water without checking himself. We had a stop in Ethiopia before flying to Entebbe. Joel and I managed to get carts to carry all the extra overweight baggage we brought with us (lax gear, school supplies and treats for the children in the village.) We found Mwebembezi Brown (Dugan’s country coordinator for Fields of Growth), Jeff, and Will (Mount St. Mary’s `11) all waiting for us at the airport.
We spent our first night at the Bethany House in Entebbe. The Bethany House is a nice retreat house on Lake Victoria that was built by Dugan’s friend Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, a co-founder of the Center for Reconciliation in the Duke Divinity School. It was the perfect place for us to spend our first night and ease our way into our new surroundings. After dinner we had a blind singer named Alfred perform for us, and it was very powerful. Alfred is a blind man that Brown met playing music for money on the streets of Kampala and now plays for Fields of Growth visitors. Everyone, including Fr. Katongole was moved by his soulful performance and story of perseverance.
The morning after our stay at Bethany House, we hired a taxi to take the five of us (me, Jeff, Will, Joel, and Brown) to Masaka. We originally planned on taking a bus from the Kampala taxi park, but after the recent bombings we were advised to avoid public places in Kampala for the time being. It was about a two hour cramped drive, but we got to stop at the equator and take pictures. The roads are very dusty and we had to cover our mouths and faces for part of the time. When we arrived in Masaka, we had lunch at a restaurant. We met up with more Fields of Growth volunteers including summer intern Kerry Hamill (Yale women’s lacrosse), Mara Trionfero (Notre Dame drug and alcohol counselor,) Father Emmanuel/Father Emmy Bukulu /”Faja” (yes he responds to all of them), and Kakande John (FoG Project manager) showed up. Everybody was excited to see new faces and we spent the rest of lunch talking and getting to know each other. After lunch, we left Masaka Town and headed to Kkindu Village.
The first night in Kkindu was mostly spent familiarizing ourselves with everything. I was honestly embarrassed at how open and welcoming people here were towards us. They made us feel so loved and we had only just met them. My favorite part of the night was when all of the children sang and danced for all of us for a good half an hour. We ended the night playing games in Bishop Kalanda’s retirement house where I am staying. (Mara and Kerry are jealous that we have access to a toilet.)
When we woke up the next morning, Joel and I decided we would try the shower. Since the shower only has cold water, we were given about a gallon and a half of boiling hot water and a bin. I was the guinea pig for showering and tried to mix hot and cold water before realizing that I just need to rinse, soap, and use the rinse to get the soap off. Having showered, I got ready for our welcome Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in the village.
The first day in Kkindu was pretty much entirely devoted to inducting us newcomers. This essentially encompassed nothing but the village showing an outpouring of hospitality, love and entertainment for 12 hours.
We went to Mass, children performed songs (including a great version of `One Love’ by Bob Marley) but the best part of the day was easily being forced out of my comfort zone on several occasions; I was chosen to give a speech to the village, and Jeff and I were the first to dance and shake our hips like Shakira (sort of…..) with the youth group. It was really a special first day, and I was very touched by everything people did for us.
The next day was the bus trip to the Southwest. That made the nine-hour car ride from Maryland to South Bend seem like a casual walk around the block. I learned that in Africa you need to double or triple the amount of time people tell you something will take. Brown told us that the bus ride would be only five or six hours. It was nine and a half. Brown also was supposed to meet us at the bus stop at 8 a.m., but he did not let us know until 7:45 that he would be two hours later. Sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches….
Children in Uganda wearing Notre Dame jerseys as they learn to play lacrosse.
The bus was definitely cramped, but we took turns rotating the good seat across from the driver with a lot of legroom. We got a flat tire about an hour into the trip and the last few hours were spent on a narrow, windy, rocky, crevice-filled road through the mountains. I think it is amazing how cautious parents are back in America; We saw several children just hanging out on the edge of the road next to a cliff with machetes. Amazing. The little kids always yelled MZUNGUUUU whenever they saw us. We eventually got to Bwindi. We were told the guesthouse where we’d be staying was a half hour away. Africa time conversion: one hour. We met our amazing chef Gino at the house, ate dinner, and went to bed.
Our first day in Bwindi was spent at Mass and watching a soccer match. I got some great videos of the dancing at Mass and yes, we did join in again. They stomp their feet a lot and don’t do the hip-shaking that the people in Masaka do. The soccer match was awesome and we saw the Bwindi team from our side of the river defeat the team from the other side of the river in a 5-2 contest. Jeff and Will have raised money with Fields of Growth to level the field and build a mini soccer complex, and it definitely needs it. The field was slanted and there was no clean way of marking out of bounds. It was at the discretion of the ref. After the match, everyone there gathered around us as we had to sit in chairs on the hill overlooking the field. Once again, very embarrassing as the people cheered and clapped for us as though we were celebrities. We gave out some soccer balls and uniforms and the children were beyond grateful.
The second day was the Batwa Cultural experience. We hiked up into the mountains and spent the day with some Batwa Pygmy elders who showed us how they have lived in the rain forests for thousands of years. I managed to break one of the steps on a ladder that led to one of their nest-like huts in a tree. Awesome. It started pouring on the way down the mountain and we realized that nothing we could do stop us from getting soaked to the bone. Fortunately, we kept anything valuable dry wrapped up in a backpack. Some of us ran ahead down the muddy slopes, jumping off rocks and across the path.
Some of the kids at the bottom got a real kick out of seeing some shirtless Americans running out of the jungle with walking sticks and hooting (everything is currently outside in the sun drying). Running down the mountain was so much fun, but the best part of the day was yet to come.
When we got back to the guesthouse, we all used the shower (cold water, but bearable) and starting talking about the day. Brown came to the house after showering at his guesthouse and told us that there were gorillas somewhere near the entrance to the park. Our guesthouse (built for volunteers by Dugan’s friend Dr. Scott Kellerman from California) is literally 30 meters (yeah I’m starting to use the metric system) from the park entrance, so we went to see. We casually walked by the AK-47 carrying guards at the front entrance, and went up some stairs to an open area with a guest center and a bar. We saw a gorilla hanging out in a tree just chilling and eating. Some other Mzungu from New Jersey told us to go behind the guest center to see some more. We went around some wooded paths and found a house. We went down one side and saw some gorillas through trees, but our vision was really poor. I ran around to the other side and called everyone to follow. There was a clearing and we saw some Gorillas walk by … I can’t even begin to describe the excitement/terror I felt when I saw the silverback coming. For those of you who do not know, silverback is the alpha male who heads his pack and is charged with protecting the other women and juveniles that comprise his family. It did not help that right before the silverback walked by, we had seen a mother with a baby on her back go by. We were probably 15 feet away from the clearing where all of the Gorillas were. I snapped the only picture of the enormous silverback, but I turned to get out of there before he could see me.
That night, we got to rub it in the face of some other rude Americans who had paid $500 each to go on the trek and only saw four gorillas and couldn’t get within seven meters. We loved that we paid $5 each and got an up close look at a family, complete with a baby on the back of a mother and a goliath silverback.
Today we helped build a house in a Batwa Pygmy resettlement with the Batwa Development Program. We spent several hours covering the bamboo framework of a house with mud, so that explains why I am now caked in mud. It was a ton of fun, and afterwards, we got to dance with the Batwa who had helped us with the mudding.
My last day in Bwindi was great as we went on a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. I got to see a lion, an elephant, and several hippos. Will attempted to move closer to all of the animals, but fortunately none of them decided he looked good enough to eat. We had to get up at 3 a.m. to catch the 4 a.m. bus, but once we woke up we realized that we had somehow been locked in. Jeff, Joel, Will, and I safely and quickly jumped over the back railing, but Kerry turned it into a five-minute ordeal (don’t worry, I captured everything on video). The bus ride back to Masaka was eventful because our driver believed that rocky and windy roads in the mountains should be driven like a NASCAR race. We were all exhausted by the time we reached Kkindu outside Masaka, but we were relieved the journey was over.
We were able to play soccer, football, and lacrosse on Friday with the kids at the Hopeful School for orphans, and they loved the starbursts we gave to all of them. Over the weekend we made it to a beach (aka grass next to water) and got some rest for the week ahead. We’ve visited Kkindu primary school and introduced them to American football. This morning we taught the fifth and sixth graders how to do a roll dodge, a face dodge, and a split dodge and actually witnessed a well-executed face dodge in the scrimmage. They absolutely love to play lacrosse.
Of the many lessons I have learned here, two stick out. The first is that you must always look in both directions when crossing the street. It seems obvious, I know, but they drive on the left side of the road here, so you can never be too careful. The second thing I learned is how to safely and effectively castrate an animal. Fortunate, a teacher at Hopeful, decided to educate me on how he learned this skill and described the painful details of how he performs it. There are some things you can only learn in Uganda.
Really having a great experience, and can’t wait to really begin serving; coaching lacrosse and doing my poultry rearing research next week.