Posts Tagged With: Jane Goodall Institute

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:

J.A.C.K. Blog:

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Your Africa Correspondent, Jules Torti

September 20, 2008

Where do I begin when everything is so radically different from the landcape I have come from? There are familiar aspects, like dogs underfoot. Here at the Jane Goodall office there are five: Levi, the white rhodesian ridgeback, Tinker (black lab who brings sticks smaller than cigarettes for you to throw to him), Scrappy (the true African dog with ears perked up in a manner that resembles a bird coming in for landing, and Buster and Beevis (two pups in guard dog training). There are also two cats, Pops and Juwa, who are probably wondering what the hell they did in their last life to deserve the company of five dogs.
The office (where I also live–enjoying a one minute commute down the stairs to work) overlooks Lake Victoria, which is the cichlid capital of the world, if you are a fish hobbyist like my bro. I’m wondering how I can bring back some cichlids for him with the 100ml liquid restriction with the airlines.
My housemates are Carol (from Boston, but without a Boston accent as she is of Ann Arbor, Michigan blood), Mary-Lou (from Australia, all 6’4 of her), and Aura, who reminds me of Katherine Hepburn–or is it Audrey? She is known as Mother Superior, and is currently on Ngamba Island working at the chimp sanctuary.
Life on the equator means the first break of sunlight is around 6:20 am, and by 7:15 there is a blackness in the sky that Toronto will never see! There are a few solar powered street lamps, but these seem to be a mile apart.

There are mango, avocado and coffee trees–and a thousand birds. Each morning I wake to the sound of a rooster programmed to cockle-doodle-doo at 4:30. Carol tells me the family buys the bird on Sunday, fattens it up all week, then eats it on Friday. So, the weekends are quieter, due to the rooster being roasted. The birds start a ruckus shortly after the rooster, and I am eager to match the bird songs with the bodies. One of the bird’s calls sounds like the “plook, plook” of a leaky faucet.

The hornbills zoom in and sound like kites taking a sharp cut in the wind, fish eagles (like the bald eagle) take the wingspan prize as they soar with wingtips reaching 10 feet, on the wind currents. The blue turacos are the most spectacular but I have a certain fondness for Uganda’s most loathed bird: themarabu stork. They look lheroin addicts with haggard bodies and jerky movements. They are so awkward, they are like the Bambi of the bird world adjusting to their wings and ability to fly. Their heads are bald, and they need a good bath, probably because they spend most of their life poking through the dumpsters.
The vervet monkeys are a comical bunch–and a few days ago, I was nearly robbed by a pack of them in a parking lot. For my birthday, I thought it only proper that I find some sort of African cake but, I haven’t been able to locate the Entebbe Costco yet (haha). So, for 400 shillings(30 cents?) I found my cake. I also bought some buns (from a shop that sold Ugandan sherry, cooking oil, lollipops, yarn, soap and that’s about it). As I cut through the Imperial Beach hotel lot I spied a great picture of monkeys sitting on the arms of a wheelbarrow. I pulled out my camera, zoomed in and felt a tug on my bun bag. I turned around to see a vervet monkey with his mightly little hands tugging at my bag.

Then, I was swarmed–it was the monkey bun mafia!! I pulled and pulled, and the monkey was actually hanging, suspended, from my bun bag!! The others edged closer, trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. It was my birthday cake, dammit!! Finally, he let go, but the monkeys stayed close on my heels, still plotting how to get my goods. Eventually they dropped off and clamboured up into the trees, Barrel of Monkeys style.
So, the cake. It tasted like bread. And the buns? Tasted like cake. I had made a sandwich and it was like fresh tomato and cheese on a donut. And, with no presvatives in this country, it crumbled apart like a taco. Carol informed me later that there are two varieties of bun: salt buns and sweet buns. I would have to check the ingredients.
My first market experience was a complete sensory massage. Every Tuesday, vendors congregate to sell everything from rat traps to knock-off watches, to pineapples and eggplants. There are heaps and heaps of second-hand clothes, apparently shipped from North America as Value Village rejects. There are winter parkas for sale, skinned goats, and rolexes. By rolex, I mean the ultimate Ugandan street food (although there are knock-off Rolex watches too). It’s a greasy cabbage and tomato omelette rolled up in a chapati for, about 75 cents. Carol insisted that we have a rolex, and street chicken. This was the ultimate test for my Dukoral, the travellers anti-diarrhea medication. I thought for sure I’d be shitting my pants in the night, tangled up in my mosquito net trying to get to the toilet. We sat at a table below the street level, just as night was falling. Kerosene torches lit the length of the street as crowds pushed along. Wild cats circled under the table as a young boy provided water for us to wash our hands. I wondered later where the water came from, but thougt, eating street chicken was the worst evil.
The market just hums. Many of the vendors sell the same produce (mostly onions, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, peas, limes, ginger), so there are great attempts to make their blanket area the most visually appealing. Tomatoes are stacked 4-5 high and the best eggplants are fanned out in front with open sacs showcasing tiny minnow-sized dried fish. I asked for four tomatoes, but was given 8–Carol told me that this is normal. “They always give you 3-4 rottten ones to get rid of them.”
The grocery ‘stores’ sell peanut butter, sardines, Cadbury chocolate, unrefrigerated eggs and bottled Coca-Cola. There are cassava and matoke (cooking banana) chips and even a local icecream.
On the streets there is constant motion. As they drive UK style (opposite side of the road), my morning runs have been a test of dodging bikes carrying six foot lengths of aluminum, sacs of pineapples, matatus (SUV taxi) honking horns, and boda-bodas (moped taxis) zooming by with 3 people on them. Women sit sidesaddle, sometimes there is a smiley kid in front, and everything gets transported this way. Yesterday a boda boda driver had a suitcase in the front, a rolled up duvet and a live chicken in his hand. A version of the African motorhome?
Poverty is very close at hand. The road I lived on has two 3-star hotels, a golf course, the zoo, and an AIDS clinic. However, turn off this road in any direction and there are mud huts, women sweeping dirt from the dirt in front of their homes. Fires of rubbish are burning, skinny dogs run along the ditches, and chickens run truly free range.
The roads are red, like burnt sienna of Crayola crayons. In the morning, the roads are dotted with kids immaculately dressed in school uniforms (bright purple, yellow and green, pink & red–they certainly make fine use of the colour wheel). With so many people all at once, it seems as though a concert or movie has just ended. Where did everyone come from, and where are they going? The kids yell out to me: “Mizungo! Mizungo!” I am a celebrity for my skin colour alone here. The men holler out, “America!” I like to think it’s because I look like Miss America. But, it is again my skin, white=America.

During the week I am actively working on my project: to compile and edit stories and artwork about the tribes and totems of Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute runs a program for kids called Roots & Shoots, and this book development is part of that. There were over 500 submissions from 40 local schools to sift through. The stories are dramatic, and some of the drawings quite comical. The lion seems to garner the most intriguing interpretations.
Ruth, our housekeeper provides lunches during the week that are wonderful, but leave me in a starch coma. The diet here is very soft–bananas, rice, matoke (mashed banana), eggplant, millet loaf–Wanda, my saviour is sending All-Bran bars in hope that I can have a bowel movement at least once a month.


There is a calm here, of suspended time. Technology is ever-present (many Ugandans have cell phones pressed to their ears, and Big Brother Africa 3 has a huge following), but I have found pleasure in reading more and eating breakfast with nothing more than the scenery to read (part of me does miss the Vancouver Sun folded out though!). With early dark nights, it is easy to follow the pattern of the sun. Plus, I have yet to find the switch that turns the early morning birds off.
That’s my first week in Africa…the condensed version. It is difficult to communicate the vibrant colours and peculiar sounds and warmth of the equator, because it is so very different from the landscapes of my life so far. Aside from missing my gal and dog incredibly, the richness of this experience illuminates the reason why we live: to pursue our dreams and stretch our minds a little farther, into uncomfortable and new places. And, to share those dynamic experiences with those we love and find comfort in.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gin Confessions, Tip Taps and How to Make Your Life’s Documentary

October 20, 2008
Gin is the perfect stimulant for late night confessions. In fact, it wasn’t even that late, but the gin was warm in our heads as we sat on the veranda of the Kaniyo-Pabidi Eco-Tourist lodge in the Budongo Forest. We had covered Obama, chimp sex (in graphic detail) and Brian’s travels as a freelance documentary film producer from the Arctic to Guatemala. Crickets were trying to outdo each other with volume levels, and a hyrax (a strange guniea pig/groundhog cross) was screaming like a damsel in distress from the dark depths of the forest.
Jacques,the Roots & Shoots program coordinator at the Jane Goodall Institute, admitted she needed to cut back on her coffee and Coca-Cola addictions. She was confident that she could kick the habit, after all, she had stopped eating clay four years ago. Clay? Her eyes glazed over as she reminisced about the fights she had with her sister over the termite hill close to their home. This was where she found the freshest, finest, powdery clay to eat. Clay? I had heard of pica—a medical disorder where individuals crave coal, soil, chalk, glass and soap. It’s most commonly seen with autism, brain injured children, epileptics and some pregnant women (when dill pickles and dulce de leche Haagen Dazs just aren’t cutting it). Pica cravings also include paint chips, burnt match heads, cornstarch, coffee grounds and buttons. Everyone loves a good button now and again!
The clay confession had me on a Google search as soon as we reached an Internet café in Masindi. I simply typed in “people who eat clay” and discovered that Jacques and her sister fighting over a termite hill was commonplace in places like Africa and the southern United States, and that the clay fetish was better known as “geophagy.” Apparently clay and chalk provide a slam-dunk source of zinc, sulphur, potassium, magnesium, copper and calcium. In some places vendors actually sell earth for consumption. Aboriginals in California and Peru ate earth with acorns and potatoes to help neutralize harmful akaloids (I would choose a syrah with nice legs).Even Italians in Sardinia were incorporating it into their loaves of freshly baked acorn bread.
Mary Lou, who manages the Budongo lodge, told me that pregnant women in the local village often lick the walls of their mud homes. It suddenly seems odd that in North America we moan about our cravings for lime Tostitos, Big Macs with salty fries, butter-saturated movie theatre popcorn and sticky chicken wings at the pub. I wonder if I can create a dirt wave of popularity when I return home? Why haven’t the protein bar makers capitalized on this? Clif bars could reach a whole new market with a Clif Dirt bar. Really, who would want unoriginal flavours like carrot cake and oatmeal raisin when you could bite into genuine African Rift Valley earth?
Naturally, Jacques had to endure our non-stop clay comments for the rest of the week as we would muse over a breakfast of banana muffins and granola, “these muffins are good, but, if they had a little clay in them…”
I seized the opportunity to return to the Budongo Forest (and lodge with the best hot rainwater showers) with Jacques and Brian Knappenberger who was filming a piece for the Discovery Channel on “Eco-Heroes.” A teacher in the Masindi District had created quite a stir when he introduced the concept of the “tiptap” to his school and community after seeing a similar practice in another part of Uganda. The tiptap is a hands-free hand-washing system that is constructed from two sticks, a jerry can and rope. In this area, typhoid, cholera and malaria are rampant, and sanitation is an ever-present issue. At St. Mary’s Biisu Primary School where we would be filming, the “toilets” were pit latrines, which are holes in the ground that you squat and hover over. Toilet paper? Hah, such a luxury. There’s not even enough paper for the kids to do schoolwork assignments. The stench of urine from boys still practicing their aim is the kind that doubles you over.
At St. Mary’s, many of the children walk 5km (one way) to school. They suck on sugarcane for lunch (if anything), or, if they do go home on their lunch break, they often don’t come back. This school of six grades has 688 enrolled students. The classrooms are dark and tired with graffiti on the walls and beat-up desks. There are no text books, no colourful maps of the world, no posters reminding kids of hot dog day on Friday. At recess (which they seem to be on all day), 75 kids chase after a soccer ball made of knotted up banana fiber. There are no swings or hop-scotch or basketball nets. At one point I watch about 20 kids cutting swaths of grass with machetes under a teacher’s supervision.Visiting this school makes me want to tour Canada and visit every elementary school with photos to tell any little unappreciative buggers how good they have it. I watch as barefoot kids line up to drink from a rain barrel with a communal plastic cup. The tiptap is a step forward, but 688 kids sharing the same cup is about five steps back.
Brian interviews five of the most outspoken kids, while a hundred others stand on their tiptoes trying to peer into the classroom windows to see what the mizungos with cameras are doing. Brian and I are like zoo animals. When I step outside the classroom I am stared at by 600 blank eyes, unsure what to make of me and my tattoos. I laugh now thinking of the job interview I had at the Fairmont Royal York where I shared my profound moment of volunteering in the jungles of Costa Rica for three months. I said to Heidi, the health club manager, “the kids in this Alto Cuen village had never seen a person with blue hair and blonde eyes.” Remarkably, I landed the job, despite my blue hair faux pas. However, in the middle of this village, the experience was identical, and I really did feel like my hair was blue and my eyes were blonde! By day’s end, the kids had warmed to us and stampeded Brian (or took off in terror, it was a mixed reaction), whenever he lifted his camera lens.
I am curious to see how Brian will refine three full days of filming into three minutes. But, I suppose this is what we do in life. The places and faces that we meet are constantly condensed into an cell phone call, email, a photograph or a postcard. We live for 80 years (if we are so lucky) and can really only take the very best moments with us. The golden stories that we repeat, those shiver moments (Oprah has aha! moments, I have shiver moments –where the emotional and physical thrill of the moment makes your blood as fizzy as shook-up champagne, and goosepimples race across your skin like fast-moving snakes).
I have four distinct shiver moments that I can instantly define — where I was standing, the smells in my nose, and the pounding of my heart in my ribcage can’t be forgotten. You know that feeling, when you are so stunned with what you see and feel that your eyes burn with hot tears? I was 18 and standing on the dusty logging road of Clayoquot Sound when the logging trucks started their slow grind towards the protesters, headlights and shadows like ghosts in heavy blanket of dark before dawn. Walking into the Monteverde Cloud forest in Costa Rica, toucans shrill above my head as I left the world I knew and stepped into the dripping green of a humming rainforest for the first time. Flying 1,000 km west into the Pacific to touch down on the Galapagos Islands, the place I had dreamed of since I was six: blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, barking seals and tortoises as big as coffee tables. And then, the first scream and pant-hoot of a chimp community, their voices ringing in my ears, the thumping of a chimp as he pounds on an ironwood tree and the canopies above my head swaying with chimpanzees. Their smell, so primal and distinct will stay with me forever.
Africa is certainly taking up a lot of my life’s documentary minutes and I’m okay with that. I haven’t even mentioned the sugarcane fields and the expanse of the Rift Valley that stretches so far my eyes strain to see the other side of the world. Have I described the bruised sky at night with fine veins of lightning splitting the atmosphere between the heavens and earth? Or, hearing the sound of Puvel’s illadopses, a tiny bird that is only found in the Budongo forest? For some birders, the illadopses is their pinnacle. This is their life’s documentary coming to a tidy, satisfied close.
As I let Africa rub its way into deep into my skin, I feel a raw ache for those I wish I could share these moments with. As we drove through the sugarcane fields to Masindi, I imagined my grandfather, his soiled hat tipped to the side, hand on his tired hip as he looked out at the crop. He would talk to the farmer about fertilizers, the desperate need for rain that year, the soil. The life of a farmer is universal, a tug-of-war toil with the weather with years that offer reassurance, and seasons that end in disappointment. My grandmother would love the birds, the brilliant bee-eaters and sunbirds. She would marvel at the spider lilies and sausage trees. I will show her my Africa in photos when I return, but, if only for a day she could walk beside me.
My mother should be here, drinking a warm beer on the verandah overlooking Lake Victoria. She would have binoculars permanently trained on the treetops for colobus and vervet monkeys… and we’d send my dad to the Entebbe Golf Club.
My sister Kiley will see Africa, because she has the incessant travel bugs that bite away at me too. I hope my brother does. I know Dax all too well, he would be up early, drinking black coffee outside and then quietly sneaking off to paddle a kayak around the lake alone. He would come back as the sun was going down, ravenous and exploding with stories.
Wanda will arrive in December to share this world with me, and this brings me comfort. I think of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild (spoiler here) about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless bravely deciding to walk into the woods of Alaska, away from civilization and the ills of society. He survived a harsh winter of solitude in the North, but realized as he was dying of starvation that “Happiness is best shared.” He carved his last tragic words into the permanency of wood with his knife.
And this is the responsibility I have, to share. Go out and create the documentary that will leave you sitting in the audience (because you are the audience) stunned with what you have seen and done with your life.
Artwork by Tuguinie Sharon whose work will appear in the book The Tribes and Totems of Uganda, the project I have been working on inbetween chimp treks and eating termites.
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sex With Goats and Newspaper Maxi Pads: PG-13

October 31, 2008

This week I travelled with Jacques to Budongo to perform gopher duties for her as she facilitated Peer Educator workshops targeting 10-11 year old girls selected from 11 schools in the Masindi and Bulisa district.
The Nike Foundation (in addition to the Jane Goodall Institute Canada and USA) funded the three day intensive taught by the Uganda Youth Anti-AIDS Association (no free Nike swag bags though, damn, just $10,000 bucks). The girls arrived in their day-glo uniforms, a Nike swoosh meaning nothing to them. They sat as quiet as church mice as Jacques introduced them to the Budongo Ecotourism Centre, a startling contrast from their mud hut village life.
“Girls, we sit on the toilets here, we do not squat. If you squat on the toilet seat, you will break it. If you sit on it, I promise you, you will not fall in. There are showers in your cabins, only use as much water as you need, not as much as there is. If Mary-lou or Jules says something to you, and their accent is too strong, say, “I beg your pardon, please rewind.”
Jacques, a Ugandan who speaks 5 languages, is as effervescent as a bottle of Coca-Cola. She encouraged the girls to talk openly, this was their opportunity to discuss reproductive health issues and AIDS with just girls. “However, girls, will we be calling a penis a big spoon or a big stick? No. We will call a spade a spade. A vagina is a vagina.” The teachers suddenly started squirming, and I’m certain I could see their black skin blushing. I was still stuck on the penis being referred to as a big spoon.
As an icebreaker, the girls were asked to stand up with a friend, and announce why they were friends. “We are the same sex!” (Oh, hurray, a future lesbian!). “She has good manners.” Two more girls cautiously stood up, “we’re age-mates, and my friend is gentle.” “She is disciplined.” Disciplined? I thought of a group of Canadians doing this same activity–.“I am friends with Dakota because she has wii.” “Madison is my friend because her mom lets us eat Oreo cookies for breakfast.” “I like Dawson because she wears Lululemon and has two turtles.” “I like Olivia because her Dad has a Hummer, and he takes us to the movies and buys us popcorn and M&M’s. And, we have sleepovers and stay up late downloading music on our iPods.” Are we that superficial in Canada? I certainly never picked friends for their manners and discipline! I was totally friends with Kim Valade because her family had a swimming pool AND her mom made homemade ice cream sandwiches! Plus, they had a pinball machine, best friend material for sure!
Jacques pulled the group back together, explaining the importance of peers with one blunt statement, emphasizing the importance of choosing friends with similar goals and interests: “Girls, if your friend is a drunkard, then you will be a drunkard.”
A pre-evaluation “test” was circulated for the girls to complete to assess their knowledge level. The questions were about STDs, menstruation, ways to prevent pregnancy and “during the menstrual cycle, which day is a girl likely to get pregnant?” (My favourite answer was “Sunday”).
I tried to think back to my 10-year-old life at Mt. Pleasant School. Weren’t we still eating glue and wearing pom-pom socks with parachute pants? Had we even heard of AIDS? Had I even kissed Robert LeBovic on the cheek yet? We were told about head lice and not to share hats, but that was the worst of our worries.
When I was 10 I was listening to Boy George and the Mini-Pops. I had GI Joe and bug collections and thought peanut butter on graham crackers was fine dining. Maybe we learned about reproductive health in grade 6 or 7, but wasn’t it just a film with two cats humping each other until the film spun off the reel and the lights were turned back on? Maybe I was too busy reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book under my desk because I thought Sunday was the day a girl would likely get pregnant too. My sex ed can be credited to the movie Porky’s and Dr. Ruth’s phone-in radio show.

These kids were answering questions about how HIV could be transmitted and tackling big, meaty issues like how to avoid rape and defilement (older men offering gifts to girls if they undress or squat in front of them). Jacques told me that it is not uncommon for kids in grade 3 to have sex—they like to imitate “mommy and daddy” in every way!
The Ugandan Anti-AIDS facilitator, also named Jacques, asked if any of the girls were married (for Muslim girls, they are ready for marriage after their second menstrual cycle). She asked if anyone was pregnant, because these were very real possibilities. “If you are having five men, have one. Teachers, you are old, show example and have one man.” To avoid contracting AIDS, Jacques advised to “avoid loving boy sex and gangs of boys. Avoid walking at night. Girls, we should not be playing sex before marriage! And for STD prevention, don’t share knickers!”
In the afternoon I read over some of the evaluations and wondered if the girls understood that simply walking at night didn’t make you pregnant, because that seemed to be the number one answer (like those glossy teeny-bopper magazine adverts: “Will using a tampon make me pregnant?). For AIDS prevention, many listed to not “share sharp objects,” when Jacques had said to avoid needles and piercing equipment. For adolescent changes many understood that public hair would grow on the vagina, but it could also grow under the hand (?) or under the handpit! A more honest answer came from one girl who listed adolescent changes as: “you begin abusing people and you don’t do anything at home, and, your voice becomes sharp and your breasts come out!” Also, did you know the menstrual cycle can be described as “eggs, larva and pupa stage” (someone was sleeping during that section of the workshop), and sexuality is: “where a male organ meets a female organ.” Oh no, not the big spoon!
Goat stew and rice was served for lunch, and I couldn’t help but compare how my Canadian counterparts would react. Imagine serving goat to 10-year-old kids—or, for dinner, tilapia with the fins still intact.
By afternoon my attention was drifting, and this is when I started prowling through Jacques’ Teacher Resource Guide. I had no idea that the Presidential Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to Youth (PIASCY) would be such an engaging read.
Of course, I immediately scanned the index for homosexuality.
Homosexuality: This is a sexual deviation in both the African and religious context. “From the Christian perspective, these deviations are considered a strong offence to God (ref. Genesis 2:24). That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife and the two become one. It defies the moral stance of God as the creator of marriage, love and sex. As a practice it demonstrates man’s disobedience of God’s order for husband and wife. Single sex marriage is illegal, and it is unsafe for one to engage in a relationship which may end in illegal implications.” Luckily, for a sexual deviant like myself, there were immediate solutions available. All I had to do was develop Godly principles and values—which would protect me from being swayed into these deviant actions. If I was assertive and “stuck to my stand” I could just say “no,” even when everyone else says it’s cool. But, it is cool, isn’t it? For gay (or pregnant) Ugandans, they are expelled, thanks to Genesis.
I couldn’t wait to delve into the listings for oral and anal sex and masturbation. Oh, and bestiality too! I almost choked on my sweet African tea—Bestiality: “sex between human beings and animals, as for instance, a man having sex with a goat. What can one do to avoid being dragged into sex? Uplift your self-esteem, believe in yourself. Even if you are poor, resist such a relationship to avoid risks. Be assertive regarding your position (okay, I had to laugh out loud at this one—since when are goats so dominant and bossy about having sex, and dragging humans into sex?) Teachers, reward those who are making the decision to abstain.” Geez, instead of a gold star for knowing your time tables and how to spell surreptitiously, Ugandan teachers are giving praise for resisting the bedroom eyes of goats!
Oral sex: (another sexual deviation that can be avoided by developing those cure-all Godly principles. Looks like I’ll have to spend more time with my Godly Mennonite co-worker Brittany!). Another alternative is to seek help from a trusted adult or friends when I “feel unable to manage my stand well.” I should also avoid literature which may influence my feelings and thoughts negatively. So, I guess that means an end to my burgeoning erotica writing career. Sigh.
Anal sex: “The anus is not biologically designed for sex. Medical doctors have observed that anal sex can affect the sphincter muscle with the long-run result that one is unable to control feces.” Beware gay boys!!
I refilled my tea because now it was getting good. Could masturbation protect one from HIV/AIDS? “It may not be safe. Since African orientation is penetrative sex, many people who practice masturbation as a safer sex practice end up being emotionally triggered into penetrative sex which increases HIV risk.” Hmmm. I think someone is trying to instil the fear of God here! But, then I was shocked to learn about masturbation side effects which can lead to indirect psychological and social issues. There can be feelings of shame, guilt and low self-worth, even when those around you aren’t aware. Worse, “it can disrupt stable marital relations in the future once one of the partners discovers that it is happening and doesn’t believe in it. Self-sexual gratification may diminish the value of one’s spouse and could strain the relationship.” I think I need to set up a booth at gay Pride next year and hand out flyers! Do people know about these side effects and aggressive goat issues?
Luckily, there was advice in the resource guide on how I could overcome pressures to masturbate. I have to avoid hanging out with people who say and do things which may arouse my feelings in that direction (you know who you are!). Again, the Godly principles which I really need to start developing, starting… tomorrow. Oh, and I shouldn’t let my mind dwell on thoughts, pictures and literature that might influence sexual feelings. Instead, it is as easy as finding active ways of “occupying your redundancy periods, such as sports, music, drama and reading positive literature (like my weekly updates I suppose!).
There’s a reason why I was almost expelled from massage college for sarcasm. But, some humour is needed to grapple with the profound sadness that I see here. At this same workshop, girls were taught how to make their own maxi pads using cotton t-shirts and plastic bags. Most of them were accustomed to using old sheets of newspaper as pads but Jacques warned them that pieces could break off and block their fallopian tubes (really? I call bluff).
Dr. Musazi, a local university professor and engineer recently developed sustainable maxi pads (or sanitary towels as Jacques calls them) from a tall plant called the papyrus. The papyrus grows as fast as bamboo, and looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book with its poofy-hair top. Ten pads by his company, Technology for Tomorrow, cost 650 shillings (40 cents). Local NGO’s are distributing them to northern refugee camps. However, the technology has me sceptical as the pad is three times longer than it is wide…and, most of the girls don’t have underwear. So, where does one affix a pad when you are wearing a skirt? This is when Anna (a Californian photographer documenting AIDS orphans in Sub-Sahara Africa) and I hatched the idea of Project One Million Panties. If every girl at 60 Ugandan schools in the 30 districts that the Jane Goodall Institute works with were given one pair of underwear, one million pairs would be needed. Does anyone have Oprah’s number? The pads are innovative, but, without underwear…plus, only 10 packages of pads (10 pads/package) were provided to each teacher who accepted them on behalf of their school. I am suspicious that the teachers might pinch the pads for themselves, despite being instructed to hand them out in emergency situations.
It’s a daily see-saw of despair and hope for change. I feel guilty sitting in my designer Ginch underwear with access to 50 brands of tampons (some smaller than a hearing aid) and pads with wings and floral scents if wanted. I can’t imagine using newspaper for anything but reading, or worrying about getting pregnant at age 10. Scarier is growing hair in my handpit!
Now that I feel a redundancy period coming on, I know that I should engage myself in some sports, music or drama. And, when I run tomorrow morning down Berkeley road, I am telling the goats to back off, they are not dragging me in for sex!

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at