I’m taking a break from the scheduled programming (the Retrospect “penance” blogs) to update in the present.
Between finishing the work for the primary school in Sudan and starting a landscape masterplan for a university in Kampala, I started working on the design for my upcoming project this Fall in Jinja. This project is unlike any I’ve worked on thus far – both work and school included – in that I will be able to be moving to Jinja to witness and help with its construction. The work is therefore incredibly personal – more so that I would have expected – but not in the ego-feeding way I had initially feared. Rather, knowing my work will take me from conception to (hopefully) partial completion produces a tangible responsibility in the research I do, the design I propose, and the relationships I find along the way.
As a result, there have been a lot of late nights recently (perhaps more out of habit than need, but more on that later). But in the initial weeks of the design I had a meeting that prompted me to feel the weight of responsibility as a designer in a developing nation.
Not far from the orphanage in Jinja is a hospital that was established and is currently run by Catholic missionaries from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They have become an invaluable resource in planning the orphanage’s clinic. The current hospital administrator is a woman named Renata who has been working here for one year. The morning I met with her she had arrived at the hospital at 5am on an emergency call because the back-up generator had failed for a necessary surgery that morning. She searched the hospital for a working outlet, then found six extension cords to connect the instruments in the operation theater to the plug on the other side of the hospital. Though she seemed tired that day, this event did not seem out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, her reaction in telling this story was quite the opposite.
I had a list of questions prepared to ask Renata regarding room sizes, occupancy, and circulation. However, her familiarity with the frustrations of a village hospital had her speaking from an overflow of experience. She anticipated every question I could have had, and addressed those that an architect could never know to ask. After we toured the facilities we sat down to discuss eMi’s proposal for the Good Shepherd’s Clinic. She took some time to fully explain the situations that arise in western-run hospital in Africa: how to best help mothers who choose to deliver at home, until there is an emergency; how to work around patients who will sell their medications on the black market; how to ensure that the hospital doesn’t only serve those who can pay, yet is able to maintain income for its local staff. During our meeting, she had to sign the dismissal paperwork for a local staff member who had been caught stealing. The complications and stresses of her job are monumental. I asked how long her commitment was with the hospital, and she said she was reconsidering her time here. Truthfully, I thought she was headed for burn-out, but she instead said she wants to extend her stay in order to establish and run an HIV/AIDS clinic.
At the end of the meeting, she gave a simple but effective warning. She urged us to please, please design something good, something that would last, and something that worked the way a clinic needed to in Africa. It gave me pause to wonder if I really wanted to begin a project that could start more problems than it solves. But I admit that I believe I’m up to this serious and humbling challenge, and that I do not want to break ground until I have Renata’s express approval to do so.
As I started making my way back to Jinja Town from the villages, I was reminded of something. Exactly one year earlier I began an internship at an architecture office in my hometown. I remember feeling disappointed that I had not yet found a way to work in Africa, that, in fact, every plan I had for my gap year had fallen through or was about to. I then remembered that even after the excitement of finding eMi and knowing I would serve in Uganda, I knew my time here would not include an on-site learning experience. Beginning my walk away from Good Shepherd’s Fold, I realized that this would now be my daily commute from the place where I would design and learn to build with local workers. A year ago I wanted this but never would have expected it – two months ago I didn’t either - and I thank God that He works by His own plans and timing and not by mine. And I’m glad for the joy and peace He gives along the way to let us know we’re heading in His general direction. Please, please help me build something good.