8 11 2010

Or, How You Can Take the Girl Out of America, But You Can’t Take America Out of the Girl.

FIRST! A crummy commercial:

I’m currently raising support for the remainder of my time in Uganda. If you are interested, please consider contributing, either financially ( or through prayer that this support will come through! Thank you!

Mission Link International - Auditorium Job Site



I know that I promised this over a month ago, but the longer I work the more there is to write. I also realize that this is my first real-time (non-retrospective) post from the construction field in Jinja. And in the words of Stephen Colbert, this kind of work is “really, really hard.”

In all honesty, it didn’t take me that long to figure out that earning accolades for work in Africa is just as soothing to my ego as it is in America. In Kampala I gained a bit of a reputation for staying late, sleeping little, and working weekends. Even now, part of me is prideful about the work that I do, but I guess that’s going to be a constant struggle in this profession.  Architects get to make something where nothing exists and it’s easy sometimes to forget that It’s Not About Me. It certainly isn’t.

Work in Jinja has been a wonderful challenge, and a constant struggle for me to find a gauge for my progress on the site and my ability as a construction manager.


If I were to gauge my progress by what I hear from the men on the site, I would be led to believe that I am God’s gift to construction management. I’m constantly told by the men that they are “so grateful for the hard work,” that I am “the most hard working lady,” and that they think “all Americans must be hard working people.” Most of the men greet me in the morning by cheering “praise God.”

Though this is all very flattering, please allow me to make something clear: if I have learned one thing here it is that I do not know anything. Please don’t think that shoveling concrete is a hereto unknown talent. The site of me with a shovel in my hand is the perfect picture of ineptitude. These “hard-working” observations are usually made as I force my spade into a pile of aggregate and only manage to scoop six piece into the wheel-barrel. The men will then gently ask for my tool because their sharper instincts realize I desperately need a water break. I confess that sometimes my presence is simply a waste of a tool.

But this is a culture where compliments are expected and, despite risking predictability and insincerity, are appreciated.  “Jebale!” is the Ugandan way of saying “hello!” and literally translates as “well done!”  Based on my actual performance, I’d say that my accolades register on the Western compliment scale somewhere between “Nice try” and “Good effort…for a girl.” I tried to limit their praise – my Western mind isn’t able process anything less than well-earned plaudits. But there are some things not worth fighting for, and I’m learning to be gracious with the praise that I am given. And, truthfully, “for a girl” is somewhat endearing – in a true answer to prayer I now have a team of big brothers on the site to encourage and teach me.

Edison (the charmer), Justice (the joker), and Charles (the 'muzee', or wise man)


As to physical progress on the site, that has been difficult to gauge as well. There are three projects in Jinja, each at a different stage and with different constraints and challenges: (1) a remodeled auditorium downtown; (2) a dormitory on the banks of the Nile, left by previous eMi staff that is now nearing completion; and (3) the new construction that is happening at Good Shepherd’s Fold, about 40 minutes away from Jinja itself. I have had involvement with the GSF project since April, designing a clinic, missionary housing, and a home school/youth center, but it was only this past week that we were able to begin work on site.

I confess that I knew we would be delaying in breaking ground – between meeting with local officials for permits, coordination with other projects, and general African delays. But one thing I had not considered was the investment I would feel in the GSF projects and the difficulty I will have in leaving them behind in such stages of infancy.

Please don’t assume that I haven’t learned anything in my time here, or that it’s been a waste in any way. I am a true believer that the best lessons learned are those we can’t foresee and must adapt to. The purposeful work here goes beyond laying brick and mixing concrete. Everyday I have the opportunity to solve problems – both logistical and design. What do we do if it’s after 5pm and we can’t find enough eucalyptus poles for the work in the morning and our truck driver is yelling at me? Do we waste another week excavating larger foundation trenches to move our wall 6” or do we correct our design at the roof connection? How do we use a limited budget to make a fun, kid-friendly youth center, especially considering the uniformity of the surrounding campus of buildings?  How do I best allocate workers, who usually don’t want to work, to meet our goals for the day?

I guess any disappointment has stemmed from realizing that this a commitment I cannot yet make. My previous internship was very structured: every semester eMi interns in the office have a project trip and a report to show for it at the end. Construction work requires a long haul. It’s unpredictable and often difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It goes beyond conceptual design or report publishing and slowly (oh ever so slowly) pushes a project to its full realization. It’s about trench digging and negotiating and knowing what to do when the plan changes (or is corrupted). It’s terribly frustrating, and I love it.  But I will not be able to see this work finished, and that breaks my heart a little.

GSF Missionary House Plan, currently under construction


It’s also difficult for this Catholic-blooded girl to focus on things beyond the work in itself. eMi is a support ministry that uses actions more than words to spread the gospels. We are indirect – the silent workers behind the scenes.

There’s this exchange in The West Wing where the Chief of Staff says that there are two kinds of people – “the guy” and “the guy the guy counts on”. I identify more with the latter. I’ve always liked being backstage – there’s a lot of excitement and enjoyment in the chaos. However, it’s easy to forget the purpose of the work if you’re only focus is the work itself. If you’re not the one to deliver the message then it’s easy to forget it entirely. It’s tempting to start justifying long hours on the job as a sacrifice for a calling. But, in my case, it’s usually a load of crap.

In searching for a gauge to measure my progress, I was recently hit over the head with some truth:

About a month ago I was helping to pour concrete at the dormitory site. One of the “praise God” masons finally felt comfortable to ask me why an educated white American woman was working on a construction site in Uganda. He said that most Ugandans themselves try to avoid this work, and it is left for the desperately poor. Was I being payed? Was I working for a recommendation? Do I have ambitions to be a bricklayer? Finally he asked, “So you’re here because of Jesus?” The only conceivable answer to this question is “yes”.

I had been looking for a greater purpose to this menial work, thinking that there was some revelation in learning to make buildings plumb, level, and square. It’s true that I will gain experiential knowledge from this work, that learning to lay brick will somehow make me a better designer. But learning extends beyond the knowledge of personal edification. I am here because I was called, despite how uncomfortable the words can be when I speak them. If that is what I leave behind – rather than a completed building – then my purpose for this season was fulfilled.

Home School and Youth Room, currently in design review


So what do have have to show thus far? Well, there will be a temporary shading shelter for the workers at GSF, but I don’t think it’s anything I’ll want to add to my portfolio. I also have a couple of photos that show me wearing construction boots and looking important, but that’s about as concrete as it gets.

For the first two months here, this lack of concrete proof worried me as I sought to find something I could literally take home. My boss (Steve Hoyt – see! I mentioned you by name! albeit a parenthetical reference) then wisely reminded me that I have a license to learn. I have the right to put myself where I can absorb, analyze, and internalize. What I have learned is that I want to come back, perhaps for the long haul next time. I hope what I bring home is written on my person rather than my resume, a test that will come soon as I transition from this culture to my own.

Thanks for sticking with this post despite its rambling nature. There has been a lot to report in the past few months and a lot of pieces to connect. Now that the end is in sight I’ll be posting with a bit more urgency. Stay tuned for my letter to Santa/Bruce Springsteen!!

I love you all, thank you for your constant love and support, and my God bless you and your families during the holidays!  I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.



21 09 2010

I realize I haven’t updated this blog nearly enough and I cringe at thinking of how many people might have looked at this page in the last few months wanting an update from Kampala or Jinja. I console myself by remembering I’m always more popular in my head than in real life, and perhaps even less so on the internet.

Nevertheless I know I have let those who are praying and thinking of me down in some small way. I’ve been able to talk to some of you individually, and I’m sure my parents are good relaters of my exploits. But instead of talking, I thought I’d do something new, something I’ve been extra delinquent on updating you all about – photos.

I’ve downloaded 10 albums, each with 10 photos – from working in the office and on construction sites to intern excursions.  I hope there’s enough implied storytelling in the pictures to help those at home visualize this experience and excite your imaginations. Talk is cheap anyway.

Here’s the link:

Looking through the bent back tulips…

12 09 2010

…to see how the other half lives.

The fellow interns and I were coached and warned about the effects of reverse culture shock before leaving Uganda. Apparently, walking into a Wal-Mart after a stint in Africa is like an epileptic walking into a strobe-lit nightclub. I thought I would be OK, but wondered what my First World triggers might be. Would a city with no trash on the streets make me feel like I was living in Celebration, Florida? Could I stand to eat fruit that wasn’t grown in the equatorial Eden of Uganda? And, fear of all fears, would I look at a receipt from Starbucks and finally wonder “Is this too much to pay for a cup of coffee?”

For the record, I had a Starbucks latte everyday in London, and the only thing that struck me was the irony of their “From Africa, To Africa” coffee campaign. No, London was wonderful. When asked what I did on my summer vacation, I realize that most of my time was spent walking. St Paul’s was gorgeous – a really interesting study for an amateur art history buff – and afternoon tea is a tradition I’d like to start in my own home. But walking in a big city has always been an near-religious experience for me (the trek to Abbey Road was a true pilgrimage), and was definitely the highlight of the trip.

In Kampala there are no sidewalks. Cars, bikes, people, cows, dogs, begging children, food vendors, and even the occasional door-to-door pedicurist share the double wide streets in Uganda. So walking in a city where there are distinct and legally-enforced divisions between foot traffic and vehicular traffic was a true delight. When I came to a crosswalk and saw an oncoming car, my first thought was to wait for it to pass, then make my mad dash to the other side. Instead, the drivers stopped for me, gave me the go-ahead wave, and probably wondered impatiently why I hadn’t taken the right-of-way before they reached the intersection. Right-of-way isn’t big in the developing world yet.

I’m sure reverse culture shock will be difficult when I do not have the luxury of knowing that the trip is temporary. London was like a candy shop, and I was happy to be a little kid for a while. But when the shift is permanent – when I know that I can’t call my favorite boda driver for a lift to the supermarket, when I can’t walk down the street to find an avacado for 25 cents, when I can’t greet a stranger with the surefire guarantee that they will beam back at me – then I’m sure the western world will seem like the Big Bad Wolf of excess that it sometimes is. But I also know that the American culture – my own culture – will be highlighted in a way that I never saw before. I am truly excited to see it with those eyes, looking through a glass onion.

Please, Please

22 06 2010

GSF Schematic Design

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.

GSF Missionary Housing


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.

Father’s Day

21 06 2010

So I was originally going to send this as an email, but I think everyone should know how amazing you are:

Daddy –

So while we were talking yesterday I completely forgot it was Father’s Day, and then I had to go and shut off without saying goodbye.

I was reading this book called Searching for God Knows What about the problems with formulaic religion and morality in the US, and the author was talking about how having a relationship with God is the most important thing, and that God himself is very relational. To illustrate his point, he used an example of an interview that someone had with the writer Toni Morrison. They asked her what the secret to her success was, why she was so good at what she did – was it college? was it natural talent? was it her experiences? She answered that the reason why she was good at what she did was that, when she was a little girl, her daddy would smile when she walked into a room and she knew she was loved.

I am now living in a country where there are many, many children who do not have fathers. Some argue that it is a root cause of the political and social instability in Uganda. All I know is that any encounter with a child who has been cut loose, who is unwanted, and who will never hear the words “I love you” from a parent is heartbreaking to the point where I can hardly process a day in their life. I am here today because when I was growing up I had a dad who loved me, who’s eyes lit up when I entered a room, and they still do.

I miss you this Father’s Day and wish I could have spent it with you at Steak’n’Shake, but I’m here in large part because of you. Last week I helped design a university landscape and drainage masterplan for the future leaders of Uganda, and I know I’m making you proud.

Love you more,


Retrospect #2: Sudan

6 06 2010

Nyongrial women

It has been three months since I returned to Kampala from Sudan, and I’m still trying to fully process what I saw and learned during that week.  Let me first say that my observations are entirely in hindsight and therefore more editorial than objective, but I’ll try to curb my propensity for nostalgia. 

I admit now that most of my time in Sudan was spent in a cultural-default-mode: in being observant I was never able to fully participate in the events surrounding me, and in preparing myself for “anything-goes” I might have missed those events which were truly amazing.  These memories, for better or for worse, are what I can recall now.  I think they are those moments when the real beauty of the place cut through my “default” mindset. 


When we arrived in Sudan I gladly welcomed the dry heat. I never realized how comfortable I feel in hot weather until coming to Africa, especially when humidity is not a factor. But eventually the continuous heat turned oppressive as the week progressed. Our time working in the village shifted from an indoor hut to an outdoor shade tree as slight variations in temperature made one spot cooler than the other. If not for the constant wind we might have been severely less motivated to complete our work. 

At night the heat stopped but the wind didn’t, giving us all a respite from the brutality of the daylight hours. On our first night in the village a team member seemingly joked that we should move our cots out of the huts and rig up the mosquito nets under a nearby shade tree. This might have been the best decision, design or otherwise, that we made that week.  Sleeping outside was a highlight of the trip, and we seemed to have a full moon every night. The wind would invariably kick up around 3am and knock over some of our nets; the birds would only stop squawking when the donkeys started braying; and some team members didn’t quite fit in their cots.  I hardly slept, but they were enjoyable nights for me. 




In all honesty, the work we did there would was incredibly humbling.  As we progressed with our architectural master plan we realized the likelihood that our design would be completed was quite low.  The scope of the ministry’s needs is incredible (a primary school, a secondary school, a clinic, and an orphanage); but budgetary, construction, and regional constraints limited our focus to providing immediate and efficient design solutions.  It was a challenge for me, but I believe it’s the first project I’ve been a part of where every decision was prefaced with the sincere consideration of “can we actually do this?”  Those decisions usually included all disciplines crowded into a single hut, depending on each other to find those solutions. 

Perhaps the large project scope is best illustrated by the vast nothingness of our site.  The elders who showed us the land had no way to denote property lines other than using large sticks placed into the cracked ground every few dozen meters.  The most definitive edge of our site was a dirt road which bordered the Sobat River.  The opposite side was a surreal horizon of flat, black cotton soil where lions roam “far, far away.”  Every drawing done that week depended on a single Tree and Hut as our landmarks. 

Black cotton

We worked with a dynamic zoom-in-zoom-out lens, wanting to match the ministries overall vision while providing real and achievable goals for construction.  We were told by the ministry leaders that if we build it, they will come (“they” meaning around 850 primary and secondary school students).  But the emptiness of the site required us to temper our master planning ambitions and to instead consider the foundation-to-roof construction of a single classroom building.  I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about site design one minute, then purlin dimensions the next.  In the paper-architecture world of design school, my professors always stressed the importance of jumping scales to stretch your design muscles and I was glad to find that, even in the most “real” and restrictive of situations, they were right. 


We now come to the point where I confess I wish I knew more about civil and structural engineering.  Every architectural decision was made only after receiving an answer from the engineers.  I was able to contribute to an overall vision for the site – something important to have for a ministry undertaking a serious recovery mission.  But in a place where simple infrastructure is a luxury, engineers have the resources to truly break ground first. 

During the week, the civil team received the equipment necessary to begin drilling a bore hole.  Currently, about 1 out of every 7 kids in the village is sick from water-born disease, and each of them will soon receive access to clean water.  In addition to Tree and Hut,  there is now Bore Hole. 

The latest update of the bore hole is that it is now drilled but not yet running.  Please, please pray for completion and maintenance of the bore hole and for its use in the village. 

Volunteer civil engineer



As a group of white professionals on the border of North and South Sudan, it was difficult to not draw a crowd wherever we went.  Many of the local politicians in the region were aware of the free publicity of our crowd and we consequentially heard many stump speeches for the April elections.  Our caravan was nothing less than a spectacle, especially during our ride back from the village where, after the tread of our bus tire tore off we noticed that our escorting vehicle of ministry leaders and politicians had run out of gas.  Our driver then roped their car to our sideways-leaning bus.  Every now and then we noticed the absence of headlights behind us and turned to find the rope dragging behind the bus.  We then turned around to find our beloved politicians. 

But our conspicuousness invited a healthy curiosity on both sides.  A game ensued where, as we walked around the village, we were continually followed by a group of kids about ten steps behind us.  In an act of brilliance, another intern took this opportunity to quickly turn around and run toward the gaggle of now-screaming kids.  When we continued on our way, they only grew in numbers and walked closer to us. 

It  was easy to accept this attention when I knew it came from the pure gratitude and sincere interest of the Nyongiral people.  They wished to honor us because they felt honored by our presence, and our stay was a lesson in receiving hospitality.  Each night the men from the ministry set up our beds and nets.  We were heartily cooked for every day.  We were greeted by every member at the village church.  A woman waited for hours during our meeting with the ministry to present us with a chicken – an extravagant gift in appreciation of our work.  It was delicious.  

Woman with chicken

Our last day in the village the elders slaughtered a bull on our behalf.  We were invited to the ceremony and, while I wish I could say it was a revelatory or extraordinary cultural experience, it was simply (and wonderfully) entertaining.  As the men tied the bull and sharpened the knife and as the women began to dance and yell, our crowd of people tightened around the slaughtering post to try to get a close look.  But the first sight of blood caused a ripple through the crowd as we collectively and swiftly moved away from the animal.   It also was delicious, and though we were served first among the villagers it was wonderful to see the entire community share in that single and plentiful meal. 

Bull slaughter

We were honored before we left with a closing ceremony, where we were dressed by the local officials in Sudanese cloth and were given certificates of their appreciation.  We were urged by the locals to come back and visit, that one week was not enough time.  Though I was ready for a hot shower, I had to agree.  In my time here I’ve been told repeatedly by locals that the time we spend is not enough – that six months in Uganda is hardly enough to know the place, that a week in Sudan is no time at all, and that a day at a village church is barely hello.  It’s hard to understand in a culture where our datebooks are divided into 15 minute intervals, but in a place with no cyclical seasons or harvests, where time is internal and never valued over relationships (or just about anything else), my time here is very short. 

Closing ceremony

At the end of the ceremony, after all of our names were called and we were photographed and joyfully laughed at for our wonderful conspicuousness, there was still someone left to honor more than the foreign white people.   Chigai Lual, the ministry leader who had been relocated to Canada and was returning to his homeland after seven years, who had organized for these professionals to help provide water and education, who had loved his family and friends enough to work every day since leaving to come back, was surrounded and kissed and carried by his beloved people.  Watching their completeness in being reunited was like watching the joy of the prodigal son and his father, but this man was faithful and he did not return empty-handed.  It was a beautiful moment to watch, and I’ve never more grateful to be inconspicuous. 



In Uganda, there is a certain generation that remembers the horrors of Idi Amin, and there is another generation that lives without the consequences of remembering.  In Sudan, everyone remembers war.  It’s presence isn’t just in stories and in the broken villages – it’s written on people’s faces.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to live with that cloud of memory and yet fight for progress, however slowly progress may come.  I think this is what is meant by fighting the good fight, and what touched me most about my short, short time in Sudan – the strange and beautiful mix of burden and strength. 

Please pray with me for everything small and large that is happening in Sudan.  For this school to begin construction and to nurture the next generation that does not need to know war.  For God’s hand of healing on the minds and hearts of those who do know war.  For the bore hole’s use, maintenance, and provision for clean water.  For a furthering of His Kingdom in the continual tension between Christians and Muslims on the border in Malakal.  And for peace during next year’s referendum for the separation of North and South Sudan.  Without that stability, very little of our work can move forward. 

The tree of life

Thanks for sticking through this entire post.  Next up: Retrospect #3: Work; or, How You Can Take the Girl Out of America, But You Can’t Take America Out of the Girl

Retrospect #1: Update

8 05 2010

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)

It has literally been months since my last post and I sincerely apologize to all friends and family who have periodically checked this site in anticipation of something new. This week there is much transition in the office and I finally have some time to catch up on my posts in a series covering the highs and lows of the last three months. I’ll hopefully have one post every day, as long as the Internet connection doesn’t fail me.

There is much to say about my time thus far, and all that I have seen and witnessed has prompted me to extend my internship in Uganda until December 2010. I have been continually overwhelmed by the Ugandan people and their culture as well as the caliber of people who flow into and out of the EMI office, and I feel compelled to stay with them a while longer to continue this good work. I will be heading out to Jinja (80 km east of Kampala) in August to work and live with an EMI family doing construction management. There is a great need for construction managers in East Africa as building techniques do not usually meet minimum safety requirements. The internship will allow me to work on-site, face-to-face with local builders and craftsmen, dealing with the daily anxieties and frustrations of the construction process. Yet I am at a serious loss for words in describing how excited I am to see a design move from concept to reality.

I will be working with an orphange called Good Shepherd’s Fold which houses and educates abandoned children ages 3-17. They demonstrate the love of Christ by giving these children a home, a family, and a chance for a wonderful inheritance in this world and the next. We will be designing a clinic which will serve both the orphanage and the surrounding village, as well as housing for both orphans and missionary volunteers. Please please pray for the orphans – that they can tangibly feel the love of God the Father in their fatherless lives – and for the ministry as they expand to serve more children.

As for me, I’ll be in need of your prayers and support throughout the end of the year as well. And thank you for your prayers thus far – there is no other way for me to describe this experience and the time I will spend in Jinja as a true answer to prayer, so thank you.

Tune in tomorrow for Retrospect #2: Sudan.

(P.S. The picture is at Sipi Falls – more to come later…)