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Never Gamble…

Birger and Rohan here. So its been a few days since our last update, so we’ll I try to catch you up on what you’ve missed.

After a week of long, uncomfortable car rides to and meetings with the villages, Sunday was a well-deserved break from the work. The plan was originally for half of the group to make an excursion to go hiking at Sipi Falls in the west, but this fell through due to difficulties finding a driver (not to worry – we made it up on Tuesday instead). In our wait and unusual amount of downtime, Stephanie decided to teach Ivett, Birger, and Rohan a new card game: Euchre. After some initial confusions everyone quickly caught on and games continued with sisters’increasing intensity and vigor. Gradually we rotated through every combination of partners (Euchre is a four person partner game), playing for best two out of three each time. Alter egos, playful dissing, and general delirum were not uncommon, especially as games progressed ‘late’ (even early times become late in the Ugandan heat) into the night. Rohan and Birger very narrowly lost out on their last game after being tied with one round each against Stephanie and Ivett in the first match-up. Ivett continued her success in the next set with Birger as a partner against the ‘sorority sisters’, Stephanie and Rohan, including a sweeping 10-0 victory to close. In the last pairing, Stephanie and Birger are tied with Rohan and Ivett at one round each – the final outcome is yet to be determined. After the first game, the group decided to go out into Soroti Town, but first had a chance encounter with an old friend of previous travellers, Baker, a student at Pilgrim’s Beacon of Hope college. Baker accompanied Rohan and Birger into town for some time and finally everyone reconvenened at the usual dinner place of Landmark Hotel to have a nice dinner with Julius The Magnificent, his wife, and two beyond-adorable kids (Stephanie especially enjoyed playing with them).

 

Monday started out on a productive note, with a 3-hour meeting between the group, local technician and resident expert on Lister Engines and MFPs (supposedly even moreso than the great Julius) Paul, Julius himself, and key members of Pilgrim’s Agriculture Department David and (the other) Julius. The meeting was both a debrief on all site visits and occurences of the past week, and more importantly a great planning session for the future of the MFP project as a whole. Calendars and budgets were discussed and agreed upon, issues from all ends were brought up and addressed, and everyone left the meeting feeling a whole lot more optimistic and comfortable with the direction and situation of the MFP project. In the mean time, Ivett and Min Ye also talked to some Beacon of Hope College administrators to get a better feel of the success of the Rainwater Harvesting Project. In the afternoon, the original plan was for the group to be able to climb Soroti Rock, a large geographical feature that Soroti is built around. However, this failed to happen (as was the case in last summer’s implementation trip), since the local authorities, despite appeals and paperwork from Pilgrim, did not grant us permits to do so. Instead, the afternoon was spent playing more Euchre and relaxing. Our last night in Soroti ended in an appropriate way, with a glorious meal cooked by our friendly Golden Ark hosts Grace and Esther. Stephanie had been wanting to try Atap, an interesting doughy and slightly grainy local dish made from Millet, for a whole week and we finally had a chance to do so together with local African sweet potatoes, and different kinds of greens and ground nut sauce.

 

On Tuesday, however, we embarked on yet another journey as we traveled back to Kampala. Luckily, this time we had some fun and exciting pit stops on the way. The first one was hiking Sipi Falls, which are a group of waterfalls that are part of the mountains that mark the border between eastern Uganda and Kenya. It was truly a beautiful place with an amazing view. It seemed like you could look out over Uganda and see miles and miles of the perfectly flat land.

The hike itself was a lot fun but mainly incredibly sweaty, which we can’t say was a surprise considering we were hiking up a mountain with the hot Ugandan sun overhead. It was definitely worth it though to see the three main waterfalls and learn about the community that lived there. It was a great way to break up a very long car ride.

The next stop was at a town called Jinja, where the Nile River begins its trek up Africa and to the Mediterranean Sea. It was a quick visit where we got to see the Nile and take a quick boat ride to the source of the Nile which is an underground spring and the bordering Lake Victoria. Being so close to water, the surrounding area is incredibly lush with green everywhere, something that hasn’t been too present in the dry season.

Leaving Jinja, we continued on the last leg of the journey and finally reached Kampala at night, where after a quick meal we collapsed into our beds.

Yesterday we were lucky to not have any long trips planned, but of course that meant there were meetings instead. The first meeting of the day was with another Ugandan NGO called Sasakawa (coincidentally located just one floor up in the same building as Prilgrim). The reason for the meeting was that since 1997 they have been running a MFP project very similar to our own, and we wanted to learn from their many years of experience. After talking to them, we were heartened to hear that they had run into the same problems we are currently facing but that they were able to overcome them. All in all, it was a very interesting and helpful meeting and moving forward, we hope to be able to use what we learned from them to better our own project.

The other meeting we had planned was with Patrick, the Country Director of Pilgrim. The meeting was just to give him a summary of what we observed and learned from our trips to the villages and to make sure we were all on the same page, which included going over the schedule we made in Soroti. After the meeting, we had a free day and were able to do a little souvenir shopping, which was a nice, easy break for us.

Today is our last full day in Uganda and will be another busy day with a few (you guessed it!) meetings which you’ll hear about in the next post. I’m thinking we may need a vacation when we get back :-P.

3, 2, 1

The last 3 days have been tiring!!  …But very productive. Every day has been similar in that we visited one MFP site (typically at least 3 hours round-trip) to meet with the farmers groups and see whether or not the MFPs have been working and hopefully improving their lives. Additionally, we wanted to see what else is still needed to complete the hand-off from us to them – things such as training, internal management and maintenance plans. Every evening we have had debriefing meetings amongst ourselves and with Pilgrim staff and have eaten at the same local restaurant every night. Though it’s been a repetitive schedule, it’s been really productive and informative.

On Thursday we visited the Orungo MFP site and got a chance to talk to community members there. Although the site has experienced some operational difficulties, there have been many successes and the village leaders expressed excitement over the tremendous potential of having the MFP. We learned that there is great potential for them to thrive in the sunflower seed and oil markets, so moving forward we will plan to help them get the machine efficient for both grinding and pressing oil. Since school is out of session in Uganda right now, we also had a chance to talk with a girl who is in secondary school and is thinking about going to college to study engineering. We told her, half jokingly, that she needs to study hard so that she can run the MFP after she goes to college, as mechanical engineers are unfortunately in short supply in the villages.

After we got back to Soroti, we headed back to Beacon of Hope to talk to Julius, the school’s MFP operator/handyman/superhero. He was able to tell us a lot about the changes and maintenance that had been done on the rainwater harvesting system since it was installed. All in all, the systems seem to have been working smoothly, and students have reportedly used water from the tanks more frequently than from any other source throughout the school year. An additional perk was when we learned that when the town recently suffered a two-week stretch without city water service, the tanks provided locals one entire week’s worth of supply to relieve that difficult period.

Julius the Magnificent was also able to tell us what had been going on at all four MFP sites when he last visited them. He then agreed to join us for the last 2 MFP site visits since he has had the most hands-on experience with them out of us all.

Yesterday we split up for the day, with Min Ye and Ivett staying in Soroti with Edward to check out what types of water filters are available for use at the school. They were able to visit local hardware stores to evaluate the availability of materials for water filtration systems. They visited a local site to observe ceramic stovetops to assess the ease of ceramic production in case the ceramic filters ended up being chosen. They also got dirty and dug out clay from the ground to play around with some prototype models.  Finally they performed some water tests on the rainwater that came out of the system. The water was really clear, especially in comparison to the city water, which was a little green. Turbidity, conductivity, pH, hardness and alkalinity tests also showed positive results and a promising continuation of this project.

The rest of us headed out to visit the MFP at Anyara. There we got a chance to speak to the farmers association and learn about the challenges that they have faced thus far in the program. As one of the more recently installed MFPs (summer 2011) they have had a bit of a slow start, with the biggest challenge being a good understanding of the machine’s mechanics. Luckily the village has some of the most fertile soil in the area so they have had little trouble growing a diversity of new crops that can also be used in the MFP. One highlight was when we were served some freshly picked and boiled white sweet potatoes and some tamarind fruit right off the tree, which tastes like a natural version of Sour Patch Kids. This just got us all hungry for more opportunities to try local food!! The group ended the meeting by serenading us with an upbeat church song that got everyone clapping and smiling. In return we were asked to sing an American song (eep!), and after much giggling and feet-shuffling, we finally sang a verse of “Amazing Grace” with the group.

Today we made it to the fourth and final MFP site, Usuk. As always, we were welcome with warm smiles and hearty handshakes. After some thoughtful conversations with the farmers group and community members, Julius the Magician tinkered with the MFP machine and upped its efficiency and output within one hour!! We took lots of pictures with the community members and kids and ended the day with some songs again. About a dozen kids sang us a cheery song, then the adults sang us the same upbeat song we heard in Anyara. And finally, of course the Muzungu (foreigners = us) were asked to sing a song and they chose “Old MacDonald”. We gave an animated and fun-filled performance that is sure to make them laugh (at us) for weeks.

Tomorrow is our day of rest so you can expect to read more next week!!

Hi everyone, sorry we are so terrible at blogging, but today’s the first day that we’ve been in the same place for more than 14 hours. Where do we start, it seems like we’ve been traveling for forever. Most of us started early morning of New Year’s Day and have been going nonstop since last night when we arrived in Soroti. As you can imagine you can come up with several interesting stories when you’ve been on trains, planes, and a few hundred kilometers of poorly paved roads, but they’re not all necessarily age appropriate (or like, life appropriate) for our audiences :), but we did see a monkey cross the road.

Our first day in Soroti was pretty busy. We started the day with an introductory meeting with the Pilgirm staff in the Soroti office, then headed out to Tubur for our first MFP visit. We got a chance to talk with community members at the site, and also visited a local, privately operated miller. After picking up some groanges  (green oranges), we headed back to Soroti to check out the rainwater harvesting systems at Beacon of Hope. It was eerily quiet at the school without all of the students, but we got a chance to assess the system components and there was plenty of water in all three of the tanks, so we’re all set to continue with our water testing.

We have more site visits scheduled for later this week, so more to come soon!

Yoga & Happy New Year!

Welcome to our travel blog for the next two weeks. There’s not much here yet, but we’ll have a packed schedule once we’re in Uganda and we’re excited to share it with you. We leave from Newark tomorrow, so stay tuned!