Back to School (alternatively titled Lost in Translation)

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June 11th 2014
Published: June 11th 2014
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Alright, so I left off with us just arriving in Entebbe, Uganda. After we met up with Frank and Gena, Frank took us for lunch at this cute little restaurant just off the shores of Lake Victoria. We had a fantastic first meal here, with a beautiful backdrop, before we made our way to our hostel, where we would be staying the first couple nights. It was easy to settle in to our temporary home, as was actually quite a bit nicer than we expected. It included hot, running water, functioning electricity and western style toilet. Not too shabby! I had to appreciate every hot shower I had because it very likely may be my last for a long time.

Once we got unpacked, we decided to do some exploring by foot of the city. We were all pretty tired from the last couple days so we just wandered around an open market before heading back. Once back I decided to crack open my Uganda travel guide for the first time to look up some fun tourist destinations. A couple hours later I woke up with the book by my side opened to the first page and a little pool of drool on my pillow. I was seriously THAT tired. Leandra and Thea were also out cold on the beds next to me. We were up long enough to have a couple bites of food before going right back to bed to pass out again for a long overdue, solid night of sleep.

The following day we all bought our fancy new Ugandan cell phones (which kind of suck, by the way, so expect texts with lots of typos), then went to the airport to pick up the last member of our group, Lindsay, another U of S pharmacy student.

Now that we were all reunited again, it was time to do something touristy so we visited the nearby botanical gardens. Once inside we were pushed to take a guided tour for a price (of course), but since we were so new in the country, and assumed everyone was trying to rip us off we declined and decided to wander around on our own. Somehow though, less than five minutes into entering the park, we managed to have a worker become our guide and start showing us around anyways. All he had to do was mention “baby monkey, born yesterday” and without hesitation we began following him all around the gardens. He told us all about the different plants and their history, such as cocoa, frankincense, and cinnamon, allowing us to eat the bark right off the tree. He also showed us where the old black and white Tarzan movie was filmed, and then taught us how to “swing like Tarzan” from some of the vines. Near the end of the tour it was time for the monkeys, where not only did we get to see the day old baby, but we got to hand feed the adults! This highlight definitely made the price of the guide well worth it.

The next morning we all packed into Frank's van and hit the road to make our way to Mbarara. A few hours later, after a beautifully scenic drive through country, and a quick pit stop at the equator for some touristy pictures, we would arrive at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST). Here was where we would be for the next week during orientation and training. Typically, one of the program coordinators would meet us in Mbarara and help us get settled and find our way around campus, but due to circumstances back in Canada, none could make it, so once Frank dropped us off at residence we were on our own. The residence were also quite cute, with full kitchen, communal sitting area and dorm style bedrooms – two people to a room. It was more like a small house than a residence, and we even had a functioning shower. Well it had a shower head, that would trickle a stream of water, but hey, at least it was warm! Plus for the most of the week the water ran clear; however, when it turned brown we stopped brushing our teeth with it. Leandra and I are testing out the saying of “what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger” and using tap water to promote a heightened immune system and iron-man bowels. So far we haven't been sick yet!

The following morning, we were all up nice and early to get ready for our first day at MUST, where we would be told which community we were going to, and who from MUST would be on our team. We were told before we left that classes start at 8am, and since we had no idea where the main campus was, and we're all a bunch of keeners, we decided to go quite early so we could find our way. After asking for lot of directions we eventually found the school and right classroom. We were the first to arrive so we took seats and waited for everyone else. . . 8 o'clock comes and goes and no one else shows up. After over an hour of waiting there is still no one else entering the classroom. Turns out that we were an hour and a half early, and finally after 9:00, 250-300 students begin to filter in. To our surprise we aren't the only white kids in the house! Two other medical students from Harvard University are also in the program.

A speaker addresses the room and we eagerly wait with our notebooks to figure out the details of our program. As he finishes the introductions, he starts to discuss the program, the different communities and what is to be expected. . . I think? At this point I know he is speaking English, however the mix between the thick accent and the booms and crackles of the ancient PA system, I am only catching every few words. I looked to the other girls who also have an equally confused and slightly concerned look on their faces; it takes everything I have to hold in my laughter. Maybe if we all combine our notes, collectively, we will have figured out some of what is in store for us over the next five weeks. “University of Saskatchewan,” he calls out. Oh, that's us. So we stand up and awkwardly wave at the rest of the class and I can't help but wonder what everyone thinks of us being here. Next is the part we have been waiting for – finding out which community we will be placed at and with who. We know from past years that we'll either be at Rugazi or Kabale, and we'll be placed with one other U of S student. He starts going through a list of names and locations; we all wait, still not understanding a damn thing that's going on. A few minutes later everyone gets up and begins to leave and there we are, just as clueless as we were when we first sat down.

We go up to the speaker and skim through his paper to find that Leandra and I got paired up and are going to Kihefo, while the rest of the girls are going to Rugazi. At the time we had no idea where Kihefo was, but later found out that it's in Kabale, which we've been told is the “nicer” of the two communities. Plus it's located close to the Rwanda boarder, where we hope to go one weekend. Despite being separated from the rest of the girls, Leandra and I are feeling pretty lucky with our placement.

We all part ways and Leandra and I meet a couple other girls in our group who show us the lunch room, where we pick up our meal card and have our “health break” snack. Each day we would get two breaks: one in the morning where we received tea and either an egg or bread and one at lunch which consisted of heaping portions of beans, cabbage and either rice, matoke (mashed plantains), potatoes, or posha (maize paste). There was also a mystery meat option (or fish with attached head). Even though it was little bland, at least it's mostly vegetarian. Or so I try to tell myself after day three of eating the same almost entirely carb meal. . .

After the break, we headed to the classroom and met the rest of our group members – Prossy, Immaculate, Viola, Ivan, Tonny and Godfrey, who are a mix of pharmacy, nursing, medicine and medical lab students. After our introductions, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be the typical training I was expecting; it was an actual university course, with note taking and tests, just like any other course back home. Well, kind of. I'm going to try my best to accurately portray how this week went for us, but I apologize that it's more of a you-had-to-be-there type of thing.

Maybe it was the early morning, the accents I still struggle to understand, or the fact that I'm a constant day-dreamer, but I caught myself drifting off quite a bit.

“Sandra. Sandra, what do you think?” Everyone looks at me. Shit, is he talking to me?


“Yes, Sandra. Can you give me an example?”

“It's Sarah. Sorry, what was the question?”

. . . he says something I don't understand.

“Sorry, can you repeat that?”

. . . still not a clue.

“Um. . . I. . .I don't understand.” I look to Leandra who also has no clue what the instructor is saying. Eventually, my group explains the question and I quickly make something up so he gets off my case.

This particular instructor whose name I never did catch, had a small resemblance to the rapper Snoop Dogg, and so he was named that by Leandra and I for the rest of the week. After he finishes up hammering me for answers, Snoop Dogg moves on to Leandra who is still lost. I try my best to help her figure out what he's asking, but unfortunately she didn't say the right thing, resulting in a lecture on why she is wrong. . . which neither of us could follow. We then start having discussions in pairs. Ok, this isn't so bad because my partner talks slow and I can piece these conversations together. The instructor asks for volunteers to share their discussions with the class. No one responds. “Sandra. What have you to say?” Again, I don't even know he's talking to me until I see that everyone is staring at me. The confusion has me stumbling over my words. Oh, I need to stand up first? Great. I start speaking. Oh the person in the back can't hear me? I try to speak up and I quickly rattle off my story and sit down and look at the floor to hide my flushed cheeks. If you know me well, you know I hate speaking to groups of people.

Leandra and I continue to be called on to answer pretty much every question unless someone else volunteers first. Our group members also volunteer us to present a lot of our group work, and answer questions on behalf of our team. I try to be positive; maybe they like our accents? Never have I had to force myself to pay attention in class so much, only so I could prepare an answer every time Snoop Dogg asks the class to speak up.

As the week progressed it was much the same, despite the accents getting easier to understand, responding to questions remained just as difficult. No matter what we said, we were always wrong. Always. Even if it was a personal opinion. Some of it was just lost in translation, and other times cultural differences, but I'm fairly certain it was mostly because Snoop Dogg didn't like us. Also, somewhere midweek he forgot Leandra's name so she got a break while it became double time for me. Fortunately, both Leandra and I have a good sense of humour and were able to laugh off the awkward moments; we accepted the fact that we may have gotten lucky with the placement, but there was absolutely no winning in the classroom. Plus side, by the end of the week I no longer got embarrassed when getting drilled to answer questions. Downside, I'm fairly certain most of the class and instructors think Canadians are dumbasses.

Needless to say, it felt like a pretty long week as far as the classroom setting was concerned, but being back in school wasn't all bad. The other team members we'll be working with at Kihefo are all really nice and we get along great with them. They also were so incredibly patient with us as we got used to their accents, and never got frustrated no matter how many times they had to repeat themselves. A couple of the students even took us around town and showed us the local market. Plus, it was really interesting to experience university in another culture. It was far more simplified technology-wise; as in there was none. There was no PowerPoint presentation, or chalkboard, or even electricity, with all of the light in the room coming in through the large windows. Most of the class was taught orally, with the very minimal note-taking presented on large sheets of paper. Unfortunately, for Leandra and I, the class was mostly centred around discussion-based learning, but it created a really unique teaching environment and far more class interaction. The teaching style is also very thorough, making the class proceed at a much slower pace than back home, which took quite a bit of getting used to. I was also incredibly impressed by how much Ugandans know about Canada. Not only had they actually heard of Saskatchewan, but they knew it was a prairie province and that we grow a lot of wheat and grains. One student even drew a crude drawing of Canada and pointed to the middle asking if that's where Saskatchewan is located.

We also got a little glimpse into some cultural differences regarding gender and relationships. Homosexual and transgender people briefly came up (although not using those terms specifically), to which the instructor blatantly shot down as something abnormal. I so desperately wanted to speak up, but since I already had enough heat on me, I wasn't about to add more. As well, we did an exercise where the women had to choose and rank traits of a perfect husband. For the record, the point of this exercise was to explain the importance of priorities and how to rank them properly, I think. Leandra and I actually turned to each other saying “we got this” thinking there is no way we can get this wrong, so we start discussing traits such as kindness, honesty and a nice beard (ok, the last one was just me). The class starts yelling out their top traits, which in order, were: god-fearing, age, finance, and height. So, evidently Leandra and I can't even create an imaginary husband right, and maybe if we knew what “god-fearing” meant we wouldn't still be single. Ouch.

Our evenings were pretty relaxed and we spent them either at home or wandering around the town. We visited the local open market several times for fresh fruit, which is incredibly delicious (and so cheap)! Going out as a group resulted in quite a few stares, and we were very popular among young children, resulting in an army of kids following us around, giggling whenever we spoke to them. Many of you know I'm not the most maternal person on the planet, but the children here are adorable! When they saw us, they would yell, “muzungu! Muzungu!” (white person) and come running towards us. Most of the time they just wanted to touch and hug us, or hold our hand, and would laugh uncontrollably when we spoke back to them. I don't think I ever want to have kids of my own, but I might consider sneaking one of them home with me.

Classes/orientation ended on Friday (thank god), so we spent the day packing and buying supplies to take with us the next morning to our respective communities. We also had our second up close and personal experience with African wildlife. I was busy in my room and heard some screaming coming from down the hall, to find the other girls freaking out over a cockroach. Now, I know what you're thinking, it's just a harmless cockroach, and I thought the same thing, especially after seeing dozens of them in India. So being naturally fearless (ha!) I offered to kill it if they could show me where it was. But as soon as it came out from under the chair I also started screaming and jumped on the arm of the couch. Seriously. It was MASSIVE, and fast, and came charging right at us! Eventually, after far too much panic and screaming, Leandra trapped it under a pot (topped with a textbook, just in case), but we still moved all our belongings off the floor just in case it escaped and tried to crawl into our bags over night.

The next morning we were off to Kabale, which I will have to talk about next time as it's time for me to have my first informal African cooking lesson! Bye for now!


12th June 2014

Sandra haha
Those monkey pictures are amazing!!
12th June 2014

Great stories & pics Sarah! Keep 'em coming!

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