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.




One response

12 12 2010
rachel b

megan — it’s rachel from the spring interns in cosprings. 🙂 i hope you’re doing well. i know that this post is from a month ago, but i loved what you had to say. i didn’t realize that this semester you were working with the construction management team and actually doing construction work yourself. that’s awesome! this fall, i started working for an electrical company part time to get some practical experience, and don’t worry — a girl on a work site actually working is a rare thing even here, and doesn’t go unnoticed. i’m so glad that your actions got to be a witness to your character and to where a life led in faith can lead us. i think that knowledge learned through our muscles and sweat is knowledge ground deeply into us and far more deeply than mental knowledge. i’m so glad to hear that, and so glad to know that your fall semester has been fruitful. i hope you have a great end of your time and a wonderful trip home!

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