Turning the Page

One year ago, today I received an email with the subject line of a simple “!”. I received a Minerva Fellow placement and if I chose to accept, I would be heading to rural Uganda for nine months. I will admit, I was overwhelmed. An exclamation point was exactly how I was feeling, along with a few question marks and a comma. Now what? What does this mean? Am I capable of doing this?

Anyone that knows me is likely aware that I tend to err on the side of caution (thanks, anxiety). For as long as I can remember, I feared the unknown. Little things, such as driving to a new office for an appointment with the doctor nearly put me over the edge. How would I possibly be capable of managing nine months on a different continent, in a foreign culture?

Despite these fears, the Minerva Fellowship had been on my radar for years before applying. In the spring term of my freshman year at Union, I heard returning Engeye Minerva Fellows, Joe and Charlotte, speak about their experiences. I thought, “what an incredible opportunity for recent graduates, I give them a lot of credit”, never thinking that I would be in their position four years later. As I began my senior year at Union, I had no idea what I wanted for myself after graduation. In September I took the LSAT, in July I took the GRE. I applied to jobs, considered graduate school, and felt overwhelmed by the prospect of not having a plan after graduation.

Still unsure of my ability to succeed at the Minerva Fellowship, I made a commitment to myself my freshman year that I would apply when the time came. So I did. The application process was an incredibly introspective experience. If I were to tailor my application toward what I thought the selection committee wanted, I would be setting myself up for failure. I was open about my fears, how I have never experienced life as a visible minority, how I had never traveled to a developing country, battled anxiety since I was 14, and was not entirely sure of myself a majority of the time. My interview was raw – I didn’t leave the room feeling confident in my performance. I did promise the committee two things: if selected, I would try my absolute hardest for Union, for Engeye, and for myself, and I would face adversity with as much grace as possible.

Before leaving for Uganda in July, I asked Matt and Nick, my predecessors, far more questions than they likely wanted to answer. I was worried about things I had no control over and seriously reconsidered the fellowship altogether. I have no idea as to what triggered my drastic change in outlook, but after graduation I was feeling good about moving.

Stepping onto the tarmac at Entebbe International Airport is a feeling that I don’t know I will ever be able to adequately articulate: exhilarating, fearful, countless other adjectives. I was delusional from exhaustion and emotionally drained from leaving everything I have ever known. Upon arriving at Engeye, the first thing I was told was, “you are welcome to the Engeye family.” And a family it is.

I am very proud to say that I felt like I thrived in Uganda. My anxiety dissipated, I learned to live in the moment, and adopted the slow pace of life. I learned that I can be incredibly happy with very little and that your company and your environment are what truly dictate fulfillment.

I did have quite a few bumps in the road. I navigated gender dynamics, living as a solo-female fellow while still maintaining independence – learning a few lessons about what I could and couldn’t do on my own. There were challenging personal situations that arose for my Ugandan sisters, and I tried to support them to the best of my ability. Come December, I was incredibly tired of rice and beans, went on a two-week rice protest (which was rather dumb on my part considering it left me with just beans), and dealt with my fair share of digestive issues. I was sick of cold showers and straining my back over a basin for four hours to wash my clothes. Sure, these were bumps in the road, but the road still led me to where I am now. Without adversity and a bit of discomfort, we don’t grow.

Undoubtedly, the most difficult time for me was March. Looking forward to hosting a third and final medical team at the end of the month, wrapping up projects, and spending time with the people I love, I had quite a few plans for my final six weeks. Now, I am home, one month earlier than anticipated and two weeks earlier than my revised return date. The medical team was forced to cancel their trip and I was given less than a 48-hour notice prior to leaving.

I cried, a lot. I put all work and projects aside, and during my last two days, I spent time with as many of my friends for as long as I could. I crashed my own surprise party, felt like a princess when Susan gave me a dress she made (in one day), and struggled to say goodbye. But it isn’t goodbye, it’s see you someday. Engeye is now and forever a part of my identity. I will be back, again and again, and will continue to work on my projects. I will stay in touch with my friends, the Scholars, and kiddos, and strive to maintain my connections with Ddegeya.

While my chapter as a Minerva Fellow at Engeye has abruptly closed, the page has turned for my new chapter as an Engeye volunteer. For a long while, I will struggle to adapt to life in America. I will struggle to tell stories of my experiences, not because I don’t want to, but because a thirty second sound byte is incapable of giving my experiences justice. To the Engeye staff and Eddie, you mean more to me than you will ever know. You are my family. I will see you again soon.

“It’s those who have persevered the thorns on a palm tree that feast on its fruits” – John Kalule


The Impact

Coronavirus, COVID-19, the current source of global panic and hysteria. The cause of $200 hand sanitizer on Amazon and the inability for medical professionals to receive respirator masks. COVID-19, the disease that is currently 2,000 miles from me but somehow managed to turn my world upside down earlier this week.

On Monday evening, my cohort of Fellows received a message stating that Union was considering pulling us from our placements in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Cambodia within the next two weeks. I had some choice words, cried, and did a deep dive into the media coverage of coronavirus. The CDC released a report on Sunday night, which states that institutions of higher education (IHE) should consider canceling or postponing upcoming study abroad trips and bringing home current students that are traveling. I read the statement three times and it could not be more ambiguous. It doesn’t suggest that IHEs pull students, it doesn’t require students to return, it’s merely something that schools should consider. I firmly believe that every IHE in America has considered it. It is my understanding that the decision was based upon the escalation of the situation, globally, and this statement.

But for me, it was personal. I felt like I was punched in the gut. I have ongoing projects for the clinic, Scholars program, and Artisans program. I have things that I want to do, see, people that I want to spend as much time with as I can. In the matter of a text, I was expecting to leave in two weeks instead of six (which seems too soon in itself). On Tuesday, Union made the decision to cancel upcoming study abroad programs to Germany and England (Florence had already been canceled). At this point there was no firm decision on the status of Minerva Fellows but I don’t think that any of the five of us were feeling optimistic in the slightest. Then, on Wednesday evening, as if I am on an episode of Punked, we are all told that for the time being, we are able to remain at our placements on the original timeline. Excuse me? Now, the caveat was included that we can be pulled at any time. So…what? Plan like every day is your last? Every time I go somewhere bring all of my items and say goodbye to everyone I know, just in case? No, thank you.

I cannot imagine a worse possible scenario for leaving Uganda than being given a two-day notice. If I am going to leave earlier than anticipated, which is quite likely based upon the fluidity of the situation, it is going to be on my own terms. So as of right now, I am planning to leave on March 28, and return to the United States with the medical team that we will be hosting. I will lose ten days in Uganda. Ten too many but emotionally easier to grapple with than an emergency departure. Since January, I have felt that my re-acclimation in the United States may be more difficult than my transition was coming here. I am not the same person that I was in July. I have matured, have a new-found confidence and appreciation for meaningful relationships with people and places. I still don’t feel ready to leave in three weeks. I don’t think I would feel ready to leave on my original departure date. However, knowing that I have the slightest bit of control over such an unpredictable situation has given me the peace of mind that I need to have an adequate transition back to life at home.

So, does coronavirus have a truly global reach? Absolutely. Is there currently a confirmed case of coronavirus in Uganda? No. Is it impacting Uganda? It sure is. Uganda may not be highlighted on the New York Times map of affected areas, but it should be. The whole world is impacted even if the physical spread of the disease is not global. People will be talking throughout coronavirus in the village. It is on the news, in the papers, and a topic of everyday conversation in a region where there is no current threat. Now, that may change within hours, days, weeks, or months. For now, I am leaving on the 28th. If the decision to leave is made for me prior to that date, I will go. Union has worked diligently to ensure my safety and comfort over the last nine months. IHEs are complex, liability is real, and I know that they are thinking of me. Although I may not agree with the decision (slightly impartial, here), I respect it, and I will abide by it. For now, I am going to enjoy my last three weeks with my people in my place.


See you, Mzungu!

As I mentioned in my last blog (which was not posted over a month ago!) I mentioned that Engeye was hosting a visiting team of doctors from Albany Med. From the 12th to the 24th, there were 12 additional mzungus running through Ddegeya. We, the Ugandan staff, were so happy to have them. Incredible relationships were made, both medically and socially, between the two groups. It is amazing how connected you can become to a group of people and a place after such a short amount of time. While the American docs, who are back home, are feeling the “Engeye Blues”, their absence is certainly felt by those of us here, too.

For me, the last two weeks were incredibly chaotic in the best way possible – minus my little breakdown (please refer to my last blog). I was able to participate in workshops for our current and rising University Scholars, refine our inventory system for the medical store, and, what I am most excited about, launch my computer skills program.

In early December I made a post seeking donations of old or unwanted, functioning, laptops and tablets. My Uncle, who I cannot begin to thank enough, was incredibly generous and donated 10 new laptops to the Engeye Scholars program. To Kevin Welch and his company, KTS, Inc. the Scholars program and I are so incredibly grateful for this contribution. It has allowed us to expand our offerings for students and refine skills that are so important in the increasingly technological world we live in.

Thank you to our wonderful medical team, specifically Theresa Weinman, for agreeing to carry over the laptops and to her husband Bob, who worked for hours making sure that all of the computers were functioning and equipped with Microsoft Office. Despite a scare of one laptop being stolen in the Brussels airport (it was found) and another one arriving broken (it will be replaced), Engeye now has 9 functioning laptops! Four of these laptops will serve as personal school computers for the Scholars attending University in August. The others will remain in the Scholars Center at Engeye to be made available for community use.

Computer skills with Jackie and Maxy

In the meantime, I have been working on typing skills with the students that have not yet returned to school for the start of the academic year. When I think back on my computer classes in elementary school, the first concept we learned was proper typing, and the ability to type quickly. So, that is where we began. Hand placement, posture, finger movements, etc.

Day 1

I must say, I was incredibly nervous that this program would go up in flames and that all of the students would sit at the laptops browsing YouTube, refusing to type. I could not have been more wrong. I have never seen a group of kids and adolescents sit so quietly for so long without being told to do so. The visiting medical team can attest to this – I was shocked. They are eager to learn and we have had lessons regularly since the start of the program.

Relocation for WiFi purposes

Unfortunately, most of the Scholars return to school this week and next and will not be returning to Ddegeya before I leave in April. Don’t fret, the computer lessons won’t end! I am working on compiling a lesson book with exercises for navigating Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), Internet Research and finding reliable sources, and setting up email accounts (selfishly, so I can continue talking to them). Although we are just touching the surface of computer skills, I could not be happier with how the program has gone thus far. And as far as me worrying that I haven’t accomplished enough since being here, I think this counts for something.



            Again, it has been a while. I always struggle to write these blogs. Not because I don’t want to share my experiences, but because I have a difficult time articulating them. Unless you have spent considerable time at Engeye, you likely won’t “get” it. I’m realizing, though, that this blog isn’t really for me, it’s for you: the people that care enough to follow along on my journey. Now, six months in, I know that I have not given you the opportunity to follow along. For that, I am sorry.

            The last six months have undoubtedly been a grand adventure, yet my personal growth and relationships have been formed through day-to-day interactions. I naïvely assumed that these weren’t interesting enough to be written about. In the mornings I wake up, go to work, go home in the evening, relax, and do chores – just like the rest of you. My routine received a bit of a switch up last week though.

            On Sunday the 12th, a group of doctors from Albany Med arrived at Engeye. We haven’t had a group of visitors since August, when our last team left. That said, we were very much looking forward to their arrival. For some, it was their first time at Engeye. I could sense their nervousness surrounding the change in lifestyle (i.e. pit latrine), cultural differences, and the practice of tropical medicine more generally. Seeing them made me realize just how far I have come since July. I had the same fears six months ago. Now, I have doctors turning to me for advice.

            While I am incredibly grateful that they are here, seeing them was a harsh reminder that my time at Engeye is coming to an end in two and a half months. Living in Ddegeya has become my reality. Seeing familiar faces is a lovely reminder of home but has also made me realize that my current reality is temporary. I won’t be staying in Ddegeya forever. I will return to the US, return to Union, and in July a new cohort of fellows will embark on their Minerva Fellowship journeys. I had a very difficult time processing this emotionally. For the first time in five months, I broke down and cried (in front of everyone, might I add). After talking it through in the gazebo, I realized that this introspection is incredibly valuable. It made me realize just how significant of an impression that Engeye has left on me. I hope that by the time I leave I will have left a fraction of that impression on Engeye.

            Since being here, I haven’t created an independent project, but I have tried my best to contribute. I have loved the people and I have loved the place with everything that I can give. The relationships that I have formed have left a handprint on my heart that I will carry with me forever. This, I am realizing, is the purpose of the Minerva Fellowship.

            I felt, and continue to feel as though I haven’t done enough. I am a results-driven individual and have struggled to answer the question “so what have you been doing?” I have been working, I have been living, and I am the happiest that I have ever been. I may not have tipped the scale on public health issues in Ddegeya (which I am neither qualified nor aiming to do) but I have done my best to make the lives of those around me a little bit easier in the workplace.

            I will be physically leaving Engeye in April, but I will not be leaving emotionally. I have two and a half months left, which I know will pass in the blink of an eye. With the pressure of “not doing enough” off of my chest and the fear of disappointing people out of my mind, I am confident that the most valuable time in my fellowship is yet to come.


Catching Up

Well, it has been a while. When I first sat down to write this, I reflected on my last post and noticed the time stamp: October 29. Whoops. So buckle up, this will be a long one.

My least favorite day of the year, Halloween, came and went without a hitch and suddenly I was into November. This meant three things: the conference in Kigali, Thanksgiving, and the halfway point in my fellowship. On the 17th of every month I find it extremely difficult to believe how long I have been here. Time moves incredibly differently here than in the US. Despite the relaxed pace of life, the weeks and months have blurred smoothly in my mind. Days can be slow if the students are in school and the clinic doesn’t have many patients but the time is flying by. I am sure that much of this can be attributed to the differences in seasons.

Living in Massachusetts, I am familiar with four distinct seasons and have associated those with certain days and gatherings. Easter is normally a bit brisk, and sometimes wet. Fourth of July is HOT, the weather on Thanksgiving changes yearly, and Christmas is cold and, sometimes, snowy. Here, there are two seasons: dry and rainy. Although we are currently in rainy season, the temperature is warm compared to what I am used to this time of the year. I love the climate here (sorry to everyone at home bombarded with two feet of snow), but it has made it difficult for me to keep track of time. Time, to a certain extent, has gotten away from me here: I have four months remaining in my fellowship and I am grappling with all of the things I want to do before April, both professionally and personally.

The professional experience that I had been most looking forward to since early on in my fellowship was the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference (WLGHC) held in Kigali, Rwanda. Needless to say, it did not disappoint. On Thursday, November 7th, I travelled on an overnight bus to Kigali, Rwanda with one of Engeye’s lovely lab technicians, Hanifah, who attended the conference with me. After a sleepless night complete with a three-hour stop at the border, we arrived in Kigali mid-morning on Friday. From the moment we reached Kigali, I couldn’t help but notice the visible and audible differences between Rwanda and Uganda. For one, Kigali is the cleanest city that I have ever been to. Not just in Africa, but globally. I had friends tell me that Kigali was clean but I never thought it would be spotless.

Clean and Green

Given the recent history of Rwanda, (https://www.history.com/topics/africa/rwandan-genocide) I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Only 25 years ago, Rwanda was a nation in turmoil. Now, it is thriving. The infrastructure and organization of the city is amazing and public officials have made incredible strides in improving the health and equity of women. Throughout the city, the main form of transportation is boda, or moto in Kinyarwanda. Bodas in Kigali are – and I can’t emphasize this enough – so much safer than in Uganda. There, it is illegal to have more than two people on the boda, the driver and a single passenger. Oh, and both are required to wear helmets (what a concept!). In Uganda, anything goes on a boda, literally. I recommend you check out a comical post by 2018-2019 Minerva Fellow Matt Liquori, that perfectly illustrates what I am talking about (https://mattliquoricom.wordpress.com/2019/04/01/the-boda-boda/). Thursday, on our way home from outreach, we passed a boda carrying six, yes six, people. One of them was a small child, but still!

Two incredibly safe boda rides later, we arrived at our hostel, washed up, and explored the city. For me, the highlight of our whirlwind tour was the Genocide Memorial Museum. This beautifully done, thought provoking exhibition detailed the realities of Rwanda’s recent history. If you ever find yourself in the Kigali area, this is a must-see. Not only did it highlight Rwanda’s national history, but those of “forgotten genocides” as well. I was a bit surprised and horrified at the fact that these were never a part of my high school curriculum. I suppose we were too concerned learning about the American Revolution for the 6th year in a row (thanks AP US History) to focus on the global atrocities that took place in Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bangladesh, to name a few.

Stay mindful

The afternoon was somber but gave me a much greater understanding of and appreciation for the dramatic changes that Rwanda has made, particularly concerning the rights of women and underrepresented groups. With my excitement for the conference at an all-time high, I went to bed embarrassingly early, exhausted after the travel of the night before. A 20-minute walk from our hostel, the Kigali Conference Center stands in the middle of downtown. Its a funky looking building. Shaped like a beehive, I personally think it is pretty ugly during the daytime, but at night it is beautifully lit, making it much more appealing to the eye.

Much better lit, wouldn’t you say?

The conference itself had over 1,000 attendees, mostly women, traveling from 86 countries. Often times, when discussing issues in the global health of women, we don’t give the necessary players a seat at the table – WLGHC did. I heard from community health workers in Ethiopia and India on their work in rural regions, leaders in the field like Paul Farmer, and visionaries such as Camara Jones and Senait Fisseha. I attended panels on the effect of climate change on women in developing nations, the health of women living in conflict and crisis, and gender inequalities in access to health education, among four others. This conference only reassured that global health is my passion, particularly regarding the health equity of women. I left Rwanda empowered, with a new perception on health, some new LinkedIn connections, and some new pairs of earrings thanks to Abraham Konga.

Hanifah and I featured on the WLGHC website

We arrived back in Ddegeya around 4:00am on a Monday morning. Getting back into my routine, I nearly forgot that Thanksgiving was approaching. Thankfully, about two weeks before the big day, my friends asked if I was planning to have a Thanksgiving celebration. As someone with a “take it or leave it” opinion on turkey, I was thrilled to have the chance to eat something different on the traditionally turkey-filled day. So, I chose my Ugandan favorite, goat. I bought a goat, and it was a tasty goat. It arrived the Sunday before Thanksgiving on a boda and was incredibly loud and annoying for the five days leading up to “the end” despite having room to roam and being properly cared for. I wonder if it subconsciously knew what was coming.

The Goat

All afternoon Thursday we worked on the…preparations (I’ll spare you the photos – my Mom was horrified). After hours of work and cooking, the Thanksgiving dinner turned into a Thanksgiving party of 25, complete with goat, chips, cabbage, two crates of beer, soda, music, and dancing. The celebration continued until midnight, marking the best Ugandan Thanksgiving I could have possibly asked for. I can’t thank my Ugandan family enough for all of the work they put in to make sure that my Thanksgiving was everything that I could have asked for.

Making the grill: bricks, charcoal, cardboard, and a metal bed frame
The Goat: The Sequel

I will admit that Thanksgiving was the day that I was most worried about when I started my fellowship. There’s something special about family and generosity that comes out and I was nervous that I would feel isolated or lonely since it is an American celebrated holiday. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Now, as I look toward Christmas, I know I will miss my family and our traditions, but I am so excited to experience it in a new light.

Onion Chopping and an Unhappy Joseph
Thanksgiving Dinner
My favorite, blurry picture

Leading up to Christmas and during the month of January, our Scholars are home from school. In the past, Minerva Fellows have done awesome workshops and innovation camps with the students to promote entrepreneurship and career building. With little knowledge of entrepreneurial endeavors but the mind of a sociologist, I chose to take my program a different route. I am calling it “Social Problems and Computer Literacy.” During the next month and a half, I will aim to provide Scholars with an opportunity to think critically about the social problems faced in Ddegeya and implement community-level solutions through research, innovation, and evaluation. Regarding computer literacy, the students will be introduced to valuable computer skills that will assist them in their projects such as internet research, identification of reliable sources, and use of programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Currently, we have access to one laptop – mine. Although we can make it work for the next month and a half, it is my hope that moving forward, the Scholars will have access to laptops or tablets to allow for more individualized learning and practice. Technology is the future of education and business and I believe that access to these resources will provide our Scholars with the confidence to move forward in the world, powerfully. If you or anyone you know purchased a new laptop or tablet this Black Friday or Cyber Monday, I ask that you please consider donating the old device to this cause. If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact me via email or Facebook for details and logistics!!

I have a feeling that the last four months of my fellowship are going to pass even more quickly than the first five. I have friends, I have a routine, I have goals, and I want to make the most of it all. In January, February, and March, we will be hosting visiting medical teams for two weeks each. Although I am so excited to see some familiar faces, I am wishing I had more time. So far, Uganda has taught me a lot about myself. I have learned an incredible amount in the clinic, had the opportunity to see three deliveries (if I know one thing for sure, I will not become an OBGYN), and realized that I can live very comfortably in a much different setting that I am used to, with the cold showers as an exception. There’s nothing quite like having to listen to the “Walk Like a Badass” playlist on Spotify in order to muster up the courage to get in the shower at 6:30 in the morning.

Until next time,

I promise it won’t be another month and a half (sorry Michelle!)



Friday of last week marked my 100th day living in Uganda. I am finding it very hard to believe that I am already one third of the way to completing my fellowship. I have taken time to reflect upon the last three months and think about my potential for the next six months.

Since listening to the 8th Generation Minerva fellows speak in my Sociology of Medicine class my first year at Union, I have known that I wanted to apply to the Minerva Fellowship. The application process was difficult, but mustering up the courage to physically come to Uganda was an entirely different, more complicated obstacle. I doubted myself for the entirety of Spring Term. Am I adaptable enough to live in a rural village for nine months? Will I make friends? Will this be fulfilling to me and guide me toward my future aspirations? I am proud and happy to say that after three months of living in Ddegeya, I can answer all of these questions with a resounding “YES”.

In three short months, I have learned more about myself, my priorities, and my potential than I ever thought possible. As a psuedo-extrovert, I try to present myself as an individual that seeks constant social interaction. Generally, I am someone that craves alone time. In Ddegeya, however, I have this feeling far less than I do back in the United States. I am not sure if the relaxed pace of life has allowed me to appreciate the value of socialization, but I think I am slowly making the transition from being a psuedo-extrovert, to a true extrovert. I still need my time to read and be alone, but if given the option to spend time with others or to spend time alone, I would choose the former, always.

Although many common-held socio-political beliefs are different from my own, I have found more cross-cultural similarities than differences. Acknowledging this and learning more about where I am living, the people, and their traditions, has been vital to the expansion of my emotional intelligence and becoming a global citizen. I have worked hard both in and outside of the clinic to learn as much as possible.

Overall, volunteering with Engeye has reignited my passion for global health and development, so much so that I made the decision to apply to graduate school. Next year, I will be heading to the London School of Economics to pursue a Masters in Health and International Development. I am proud of myself for coming to Uganda, proud of the work that I have done thus far, and proud to be a member of a community filled with hard-working, welcoming, and passionate individuals.

For any Union seniors that are interested in applying to the Minerva Fellowship, do it. It was the best decision that I have made for myself, possibly ever. It is my hope that the next six months are filled with as many laughs and as much joy as the first three. All in all, so far, so good.


Adventures in Addis

Who would’ve thought that it is more time and cost efficient to fly to Ethiopia than it is to drive to Kenya? Not me! That said, it worked out in my favor. During the last weekend of September I traveled from Ddegeya to Addis Ababa, the national capital and political hub of Ethiopia. I left Ddegeya on a Thursday afternoon and traveled to Kampala, three hours away. It was my first real solo travel since being here. I was nervous that my taxi wouldn’t drop me off at the correct location – which it didn’t – but that’s all a part of the experience, right Mom and Dad? I was traveling to Kampala to meet Ilyena, former Minerva Fellow at Engeye and my new travel pal. Four and a half hours after I left Ddegeya, Ilyena found me at a petrol station 25 minutes from the New Taxi Park, our intended meeting location. We made our way to her apartment, I had a hot shower (whoop whoop), and the following morning we left for Addis.

We arrived on Friday evening and returned to Uganda on the following Tuesday – it was a whirlwind of a trip. We stepped out of the airport and were greeted by a rainstorm of fireworks — what a warm welcome! We weren’t sure what the cause for celebration was, but other guests at our hostel informed us that we arrived on a great day, Meskel.

The most common religion in the country is Ethiopian Orthodox, a regional sect of Christianity. Meskel is an annual Ethiopian Orthodox holiday commemorating the discovery of the True Cross in the fourth century by Helena, a Roman Empress. This is the biggest holiday celebration in Ethiopia, and celebrated by all, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. This multi-day affair begins with the lighting of Damera bonfire in Meskel Square, the city center of Addis Ababa. The smoke from the bonfire is believed to lead individuals to the True Cross, if followed. In addition to the Damera bonfire, families, neighbors, and friends gather and start their own fires. Music is played, incenses are burned, and Abyssinian daisies are laid everywhere. The celebration honors the local culture and beliefs while welcoming those who prescribe to different religious sects to participate in full. In my opinion, the United States could learn from this ideology. Different, in any way, doesn’t equate to less than.

Getting off of my soapbox now.

The only similarity that I found between Ethiopia and Uganda was that they border Kenya. These nations are incredibly different, and I am so happy that I had the chance to experience those differences. Language, food, music, holidays, religions, calendars, clothing, infrastructure, and the appearance of people are remarkably distinct. The national language of Ethiopia, Amharic, is similar to Arabic, as both are Semitic languages. The Amharic alphabet has 33 characters, each with seven forms depending on the context of its use – a lot to remember. Ethiopia does not follow the Gregorian calendar that we are all used to. Rather, the calendar of Ethiopia is a solar calendar that recognizes 13 months and is seven years behind that of the Gregorian calendar. The New Year celebration, Enkutatash, is celebrated on September 11 of our Gregorian calendar.

Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan African country that was never colonized by Europeans. This is reflected in a visibly multi-ethnic, culturally dense nation with countless regional influences from East Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. The food was delicious, flavorful, and fun to eat. Most traditional dishes are not eaten with a fork or spoon, but rather, injera. Injera is an Ethiopian flatbread made out of teff flour and is eaten with almost every meal. Personally, I enjoyed the taste and texture. It was relatively tasteless on its own, but with meat stews or dips, the sponge-like quality of the bread absorbed all of the flavor. I will definitely be visiting the Ethiopian restaurant in Boston, come April.

Ethiopian people, physically, look considerably different than Ugandans. They have much lighter skin tones, and longer, sharper facial features. Of the individuals that I saw, most women wore their hair naturally and men did not prescribe to keeping their hair short. Clothing is not as loud and bright as it is in Uganda but everyone has impeccable style.

In the three full days that we had in Addis, Ilyena and I walked close to 40 miles, exploring nearly all of the city on foot. There was a tram system that ran through the city center, which I was impressed by. There are many buildings under development. It was difficult to tell if there was considerable money being invested in development, or if that money may be running dry. Nonetheless, efforts are being made to improve infrastructure. Addis is not one of Ethiopia’s traditional tourist destinations, which made this trip all the better. I am wishing that I had more time to explore the north and venture into the Simien Mountains and the Danakil Depression but that just gives me more reason to go back at some point in my life.

Oh, also, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in engaging with bordering nations in the Horn of Africa. Go Ethiopia!!

I left four days after arriving with a full stomach, a lot of leather goods (made in house by local women), and a new-found appreciation for the value of multi-ethnic, welcoming cultures.


Lions and Hippos and Giraffes, Oh My!

And elephants, baboons, warthogs, Jackson’s heartbeasts, waterbucks, crocodiles, leopards, and black spotted hyenas. Last weekend I was able to go on safari to Murchison Falls National Park located in northwestern Uganda. A quick Friday-Sunday trip, my travels included 22 hours on the road, 8 hours of game drives, 2 hours of boat cruising on the Victoria Nile, and an hour viewing the most powerful waterfall in the world. Other than my run-in with a stomach bug, it was a great weekend.

Departing from Engeye at 5:00am Friday, we reached Kampala, the capital, around 9:30am thanks to rush-hour traffic. After a quick 10-minute boda ride, we reached our tour group and headed out for Murchison after picking up two chickens, two watermelons, and matoke to feed us for the weekend. I won’t lie, I slept for a good portion of the ride from Kampala to Murchison Falls — it was an early wakeup call after all. Nonetheless, the time that I did spend awake, I tried to take in the ride. We passed through villages and small towns that looked similar to what I’ve seen around Ddegeya and Masaka but it was interesting to see how visibly the vegetation and wealth of communities changed as we made our way north.

A visual of where we were headed

After a quick lunch an hour from the park we arrived to the entrance around 3:30pm, greeted by a troop of baboons!

I thought at this point that we would be close to our campsite. From my experiences traveling to massive US National Parks, you would have thought that I would make the connection to park immensity in Uganda. What I did not know was that Murchison Falls encompassed 3,893 square km of land and forest. Massive. So, we drove for another hour and a half, took a ferry across the nile, and eventually landed at our site around 5:00pm. We dropped our things and quickly headed off for an evening game drive.

The variety of wildlife in Murchison Falls is impressive and within 30 minutes of our safari we had already spotted Jackson’s heartbeasts, four other members of the antelope family, giraffes, waterbucks, and warthogs.

Jackson’s heartbeast
An aging giraffe, determined by its dark color

Big cats are less common in Murchison Falls than many of the animals I have previously mentioned. However, we were fortunate enough to view a pride of lions, four cubs and their mother, just prior to sunset as they began hunting. Pictures do not do justice to the the distance we were from them. As we drove away, they started to chase our safari van and became a little too close for comfort. Fortunately, I think they became distracted by a potential dinner and left us alone.

Three of the lion cubs with the mother visible in the background

We then headed back to camp, ate some dinner, and prepared for an early morning game drive with a 6:00am departure. I was really hoping, and hoping some more, that we would see elephants in the morning; they’re my favorite. I was not disappointed. I will say, I may have yelped when we saw the first one, but it was so close!! The excitement didn’t wear off as we passed multiple herds. At that point, I would’ve been content if we had to leave.

Before the rains came, we were able to see countless hippos and, far less common, a leopard perched in a tree. We were told that spotting a leopard in Murchison is extremely rare, so once one tour group got word of it, most of the tours were heading to the viewing point. I think my distance vision is becoming worse because it seemed that everyone could see it except for me. Thankfully, a nice British tourist with a powerful camera lens captured a video and showed it to me. I have no picture, but it was very neat to see. We then headed back to camp as the rains came for a late morning breakfast, which was shared with a few warthogs.

The breakfast club

In the afternoon, we went on a boat cruise of the Victoria Nile to view Murchison Falls, the most powerful waterfall in the world, from the bottom. On our way to camp on Friday we were able to view the Falls from the top, which I captured a video of. 50 meters wide above the falls, the Nile powers through a 7-meter wide gorge, and down 44 meters to the Victoria Nile below.

After the cruise, unfortunately, I caught some sort of a stomach bug and spent the rest of the day in bed. Sunday was a very long day of travel and it felt nice to get home to Ddegeya, with Joe Joe waiting arms open when I stepped off the taxi. Thankfully, I live at a health clinic, picked up some medication on Monday morning, and am feeling good again. Overall, I had an awesome weekend viewing wildlife that I never thought I would have the opportunity to see outside of a zoo. Uganda is called The Pearl of Africa for a reason. If you get the chance, go out and explore it.



I am continually impressed by the deep-rooted cultural influences on daily life. Here in the Kingdom of Buganda, the largest modern-day Kingdom in Uganda, it is tradition that prior to a wedding, a pre-wedding ceremony is held during which the bride-to-be introduces her groom, his friends, and family to her friends and family. The Introduction generally lasts around six hours and includes many edifying traditions. In late August, I had the opportunity to attend an Introduction with my friend (and favorite) Hellen, our lead medical dispenser.

The Introduction took place on a Thursday, so the Wednesday before we traveled to Masaka in search of a gomesi – a colorful, floor-length dress that is traditionally worn by women in Buganda. Customary clothing is worn by men and women alike at Introduction ceremonies. Men most commonly wear what is called a kanzu, a shin-length tunic paired with a suit coat.

Thankfully, the shop that we went to in Masaka had one gomesi that was long enough for my 5’10” frame. The gomesi is relatively heavy and difficult to walk in. It is designed to reach the floor, and often drags. Anyone that knows me also knows that I am not a fan of high heels. What shoes does one wear with a gomesi, you may ask? High heels. Despite the Battle of the Heels, I must admit that I was very comfortable (though sweating) throughout the day. The gomesi is one piece of fabric, held together on the body by two buttons near the left collarbone. A large belt is then tied at the waist to ensure that the gomesi does not open. Dressing was complex compared to formal wear generally worn in the United States. Pants are worn underneath and a piece of fabric is often worn to give the illusion of wider hips and a full backside. Thankfully I was assisted by the sister of the groom, who was incredibly helpful and refrained from laughing at me when I tried to dress myself – incorrectly, of course.

Hellen and I before leaving for the village of the bride.

After dressing, we traveled with the groom’s family and friends to the village of the bride, where the Introduction occurred. Upon arriving, we were seated and fed…a lot: chicken, beef, rice, pumpkin, sweet potato, Irish potato, matoke, and greens. The bride, Olivia, remained inside for the duration of the meal and throughout the beginning of the ceremony. Following our feast, there were vibrant performances from children and adults. About two hours into the ceremony, Olivia came out in a striking baby-blue, lace-overlaid gomesi. She changed outfits three times throughout the course of the Introduction, with each outfit growing more extravagant. Gifts were presented from the family and friends of the groom to the family of the bride. The brothers of the bride received chickens, as is custom, and the father of the bride was gifted a couch. The family as a whole received a rainwater collection tank in addition to a plentiful amount of soda, beer, sugar, and flour, among roughy 25 other items.

On the morning of the ceremony I left Engeye at 9am and arrived back home at around 10:30PM. The day was long but I am incredibly grateful and honored that I had the opportunity to attend such an important and fascinating cultural ceremony. Plus, I felt like a princess in the gomesi.


September? Already?

All is well in Ddegeya. I’m having a very hard time believing that it is already September. I certainly don’t feel like one and a half months have passed since I left JFK; time flies when you appreciate village life, right? I apologize that I have been on a blog hiatus for the last few weeks. In part it was due to writers block and in part because we have had visitors (!!) so things have been busy.

A lot happened at Engeye during August. We had a month-long visit from Sara, who has been deeply involved with Engeye from a young age. She is working on a video project and while here she regularly conducted interviews with staff, scholars, and much to my dismay, me. Each morning she collected footage of the Engeye day-to-day, which will ultimately be used on the new website — exciting! I will be shocked if my interview is used in any way, shape, or form…not my best performance. Sara was working under the guidance of Jim and Heidi, two awesome Engeye board members that made their first trip to Ddegeya just under three weeks after Sara’s arrival. It was great spending time with them and Kathy, Vice President of the Health Program on the US board. We spoke about potential projects and fundraising ideas that I am excited about (which will remain a secret until I work out logistics). I was happy to have them here not only for the sense of familiarity of home, but also because they are all incredibly knowledgable of the ins and outs of Engeye. Armed with a better understanding of Engeye as a whole, I am much more confident to take on the next seven and a half months.

My favorite August sunrise.

I have received a lot of questions about what I have been doing. In short, my weekdays are relatively similar: in the mornings, before lunch, I often work in the pharmacy helping to dispense medication. After lunch, I conduct daily reporting for Engeye and on Mondays, weekly reporting for the Ministry of Health. We are focused on tracking daily attendance of patients, both new and old to the clinic, daily diagnoses of patients, family planning, and incidence of malaria. Weekly, we see between 300 and 400 patients and a myriad of conditions. In the afternoons I often work on various projects for the Scholars and Artisans programs, and help out where necessary. Afternoons tend to attract fewer patients than the mornings, granting me time to play with the kids from the village. We like to shade (color), run around, and toss a ball. They love to dance. Me, not so much. If they can eventually get me to dance then I am hoping that at some point I will be able to have them sit for more than five minutes so that we can read together. So far, everyone involved has been unsuccessful but we’re working on it. Once they head home as the sun starts to set, I occasionally play some volleyball and head home once it gets dark. I am slowly but surely working on my Luganda. It’s hard!! Overall, I like my routine, appreciate the pace of life, and enjoy the alone time to read and reflect. I think I will need to download more books before the nine months are up considering I have already read 15 of the 42 that are on my Kindle.

Now that our visitors are back home in the US and I have some more free time and flexibility in my schedule, I hope to plan some day and weekend trips. So far, I haven’t ventured too far beyond Masaka, the city nearest to us which is between 20-40 minutes away, depending on who is driving. This month I am planning to travel to Murchison Falls, a national park in northern Uganda, and to Kampala, the national capital. If I am unable to make some phone calls to figure out my visa, I might need to make a quick trip out of the country and back to the border, in which case I will have a weekend getaway in Kenya in early October. I was approved to receive a six-month multi-entry visa but am expected to leave Uganda prior to the three-month mark. In November, I am attending a Women Leaders in Global Health conference in Kigali, Rwanda. To say that I am excited is an understatement! It is a full weekend of workshops, talks, and networking with international leaders in global health, which is right up my alley.

Beyond our visits from individuals from the United States, I don’t have much to report. We are getting into rainy season in Ddegeya, which means the beginning of planting season. Boy oh boy, does it rain. The rain doesn’t last long – a few hours at the most – but it rains hard. On Tuesday we had an incredibly intense, two-hour rainstorm complete with the largest chunks of hail that many of the staff members, and certainly myself, have ever seen. I can’t say that I thought it would hail here considering most days the temperature doesn’t drop below the mid 70s until nightfall.

Winter is coming.

As of right now, I don’t see myself growing tired of the weather. That said, as the United States approaches Fall, I can’t help but think of the New England foliage and autumn activities – it’s my favorite time of year, after all. So please, send me pictures. I’ll send some of the green trees and fresh-picked mango when the snow takes control come winter.