Luna Presence: Hello Hope, thank you so much for trekking the distant, dusty (or muddy) path to find a computer in Uganda to answer these questions. I think my students and visitors will enjoy finding out about your experiences in Uganda and how yoga and meditation has been a lifeline for you during your service.
Luna Presence: What city are you in and what is the name of the orphanage you live and work at?
Hope: The name of my village is Kyasira, and it is closest to the town of Entebbe, which is where the airport is in Uganda. The name of the home is Kyasira Home of Hope (KHH) – it was named that before I got there. I think I was meant to be there. There are 28 residential children between the ages of 3 and 16 and it is run by the Good Samaritan Sisters – an order of Catholic nuns founded in Uganda.
LP: How long is your service in the Peace Corp and how much time do you have left there?
H: My complete service for Peace Corps is 27 months – the first three are for training, and then my technical service is 24 months. I left in March 2007 and became an official volunteer in May 2007 – so I have less than six months left of my service, which officially ends May 9, 2009.
LP: What has been your service to the Home and what has been your main hope to accomplish while you are there?
H: I was trained as an economic development volunteer, so the job that I was trained for by Peace Corps had the goal of helping people develop ways to lift themselves out of poverty. This involves mostly starting income generating activities or small businesses and/or assisting people improve existing businesses to be more successful so that they can make enough money to support themselves and their families. So in that respect, I’ve been working with the Sisters to start some income generating activities so that they can get money to care for the children. In Uganda and much of the third world, that usually involves agricultural projects. The Sisters started a poultry farm and planted a large fruit plantation and garden. I’ve helped them with the planning and management of those projects through training in small business skills – including fundraising, designing bookkeeping and accounting systems, marketing and fund management.
The other aspect of my work at the home is my work with the children. Actually, I don’t really consider it work… its more just my relationship that I have with them. I tutor them in English and assist them with homework, we play games and hang out a lot, I help them with their work around the home sometimes, and I’ve been working with the home’s social worker and another partner organization to provide psychosocial counseling services. I recently started training the Sisters on positive discipline techniques as well. Mostly I just try to give the children love and encouragement. I love the children so much and at this point feel like I have a very close relationship with them.
LP: How did you come to decide you’d like to serve in the Peace Corp after many successful years as a grant writer and recent Masters graduate of social work?
H: I’ve always really enjoyed my volunteer experiences and wanted to have an experience that was more long term, and in Africa, so I figured Peace Corps would be a great way to do both. Plus, my background in grant writing, organizational development and counseling were very useful in Africa, so I wanted to use my skills to give back to people who are less fortunate. I’ve always admired the Peace Corps and am very proud the be serving, and look forward to seeing what opportunities this experience opens up in the future.
LP: You are passionate about yoga and meditation. How long were you practicing before you left for Africa?
H: Wow, it’s difficult to remember… I would say I was practicing yoga for about 5 years before I left for Africa and started to meditate more seriously about 2 years before. I took a beginner yoga class, and then found a great teacher in Lakewood, Cat Donovan, who taught at her home studio and in the metroparks. I also did a lot of reading about spirituality during my training as a counselor and began to explore meditation more.
LP: Did yoga/meditation help ease your transition from your life in the US to life in Africa. If so, how?
H: Training was probably the most difficult part of this experience because the culture shock is substantial and the training schedule is fairly rigorous. I was under a lot of physical, emotional and mental stress, and completely away from my usual support system, so it was difficult. So yoga really popped into my mind as something I could do to relieve some of that stress and center myself. I started meditating in the mornings and evenings at my homestay, and then as I got to know some other PCVs in my group, I found a few that enjoyed yoga, so we would take turns leading classes in the evenings and on weekends. It made a huge difference… actually I’d say it was a turning point and really filled me with both bodily and inner strength at a time when I really needed it.
LP: The Yamas and Niyamas are like the 10 Commandments of Yoga, and you’ve had major experience with two of them. Aparigraha is one Yama (Yamas are the five restraints) and means non-possessiveness over material goods, cultivating simplicity, inner fulfillment, recognizing the difference between needs and wants, and acceptance of where we are on our path. Give us an example or two of the challenges you had, or continue to have with this principle.
H: This has been a really interesting part of my experience, actually. Everyone always asks me, what is it like to live without running water, showers and a toilet? Believe it or not, that has been the easiest part of the experience. I’ve gotten really used to it – and it doesn’t really take very long. Do I miss a hot shower and get annoyed with having to go to the bore hole to haul 20 liters of water – absolutely! But I see these things as luxuries now. Living in Uganda has taught me that the majority of the things I have are wants rather than needs and that the wealth of our country and our economy is built upon wants rather than needs. When I do get a hot shower, and when I am mindful of my thoughts as I walk back from the bore hole carrying my water, I’m usually thinking about how much I appreciate having those things in America. And then I think how much I will miss the simplicity of life here when I go back home.
When I first arrived in Africa, I was really overcome by the poverty. It was really upsetting to see how much people lived without and how many facets of life were affected by extreme poverty. But as I have been living her with the people in the village, I’ve completely changed the way I see it. When I read the words “cultivating simplicity” – that so describes something so amazing about Ugandan culture – its simplicity that is inherent in the lifestyle that they lead. There is a certain inner strength among the people here – especially the women and children – that comes from the need to take care of each other and live in community, extreme resourcefulness with available resources, hard work and the most sincere appreciation I’ve ever seen for every little thing. People are less distracted by things that don’t matter because they are constantly struggling to survive… only they don’t see it that way because it is all they’ve ever known. They are happy and content until we come and tell them how poor they are. In terms of inner fulfillment and strength, they are extremely rich.
LP: Santosha-Contentment is a Niyama (one of the five Observances) which means accepting what is, making the best of what is. I know you’ve had many stories of witnessing the extreme poverty, illness and social injustice in Africa. You’ve made a long journey to this principle of acceptance and you eloquently described this journey in a recent email. Can you tell us here how you view the current situation in Uganda how you came to find acceptance in what you can do and what inevitably is?
H: I would say that acceptance is the thing that I’ve learned about most through this experience. There are many things that are frustrating about being here… from the transport system, to the fact that children under five years often die of preventable diseases like diarrheal diseases and malaria, to the corruption that literally filters down from the top government officials to the villagers, the way children are treated – especially those living with or who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS… I could go on and on.
All I can say is that it is heartbreaking sometimes. I’ve never felt such strong feelings of anger, guilt and helplessness in my life. I’ve had many “poverty cries” as we call them, and have felt so overwhelmed at times that I didn’t know what to do with myself… and the one thing that gets me through is acceptance. What I realized is that there is really very little I can do to change these deeply cultural and long-standing issues in a country that I don’t belong to and that ultimately the change must come from within through the empowerment of Ugandans. Does this mean that I throw my hands up and go home… there have been times when I’ve thought about it, believe me!
But then I realize its not really about me, its about helping others… and often the best way to do that is through acceptance, because then you can see things how they actually are and do what IS in your power to help, rather than be disappointed in the way you think they “should” be, or being so overwhelmed by what you can’t do. John Kabat Zin said “Acceptance doesn’t mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is – especially when you don’t like it – and work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed. Such acceptance is called ‘radical acceptance’ because it goes to the root of things.” (Coming to Our Senses)
So now, I’ve arrived at an understanding that I will most likely not start an amazing development project that will lift people out of poverty, but I may have taught a women’s group member how to improve her business just a little. I may not be able to change the cultural attitude towards children, but I can give them as many hugs as I can, encourage them as much as possible and teach them how to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties. I may not be able to stop children dying of preventable illnesses, but I can teach the children how to wash their hands with soap so that they don’t get sick as often. So I’ve learned acceptance of these things and how that acceptance can lead to greater compassion and understanding that helps to reach out and solve problems in a more realistic way. And for me, it has filtered down even to more self-acceptance of who I am, what my strengths and limitations are, how to have more compassion towards myself and be okay with where I am. It’s really awesome, but one of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn!
LP: I heard you taught the children yoga? How did that go?
H: I have to be honest and say that I didn’t exactly teach them yoga proper, but I did teach them many of the poses. One day, one of the boys, Derick, did a trick for us and it turned into kind of a spontaneous talent show. So I did a hand stand for them, and they LOVED it! So I started teaching them some of the other poses. A few weeks later, I saw them doing the poses again, so I am planning to do more yoga with them on their upcoming break from school.
LP: How have you seen yoga transform cultural boundaries?
H: I think it transforms cultural boundaries because the poses are so connected with universal principles and things, animals in nature that the children understand. The language barrier has been really difficult, but the names of the poses are easy to translate, so the children understand and enjoy stretching like a cat and standing like a tree. The mind-body-spirit connection is universal, we all have to breathe, and its helps everyone relieve stress… its great!
LP: What has been the most difficult emotional experience of your service thus far and did meditation help you through that?
H: My most difficult emotional experience so far is due to the treatment of the children. They are not always treated well because there is this culture-wide attitude towards children, especially orphans, that they deserve the very least in everything. The discipline of children is also quite harsh… they are beaten, humiliated and refused food often as a form of discipline and punishment. On top of that, they are rarely shown affection. And those who are treating the children that way are religious… they are the ones who dedicate their lives to serving God… the “good Samaritans.”
So on many levels, this bothers me tremendously. On an emotional level, it is extremely heartbreaking to see the children treated that way often resulting in feelings of extreme anger and overwhelming helplessness. These attitudes and actions towards children are so culturally ingrained that there is very little I can do to change it in the short time I am here. From a spiritual standpoint it is difficult for me to see people who are religious treating children that way. There have been times when I’ve not come out of my room because I am afraid of what I might say out of anger to the Sisters.
But then, that is where mindfulness and acceptance come in. I try to be aware of my feelings, especially when they are extreme, and try to understand the situation as much as possible from a cultural perspective. It usually takes time to arrive at acceptance but I get there. One thing that has really helped me is doing the Metta Bhavana Meditation in the mornings after yoga. It is a general meditation that cultivates loving kindness towards all beings. The part that really helps me is where I wish the people who I find difficult well, and state the intention that they be free from suffering. I’m not going to lie, it is difficult sometimes. But I find that it helps me to cultivate empathy and compassion for those people who I have difficult interactions with. And I honestly believe that some people who mistreat others do so from that place of suffering within themselves… their “soft spot” as Pema Chodron calls it. I know it is impossible to be completely free from suffering, but if people could deal in a more healthy way with their own suffering, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to inflict it on others?
LP: How have you grown spiritually through this unique experience?
H: In so many ways – many of which are difficult for me to put into words. The biggest thing probably for me is this idea of oneness… like Obama said in his speech “out of many we are one.” This idea has really been reinforced through my experience here. I’ve seen how much America affects the rest of the world and how our actions as a country, and even as individual Americans have far reaching effects on the rest of the world. Obama’s election is perfect example of this. But we are all human beings and I think I’ve really seen how we impact each other across the globe… an awareness that I am grateful to have and wish that everyone could have.
I’ve learned a lot about spirituality in terms of the recognition that it is a lifelong process. That my spirituality will continue to develop throughout my life and that its important to understand where I am in that process, and to enjoy where I am without trying to be somewhere else. African culture is very present-oriented, which has taught me a lot about being able to be in the moment, to enjoy life without thinking about the past or worrying about the future. I also find that meditation is so incredibly useful for this.
And then there’s love… “all you need is love.” It sounds so clichéd, but it is true. Love, compassion, kindness… these are the things that are most important and that have made the biggest difference here. All the money in the world, all the economic development or foreign aid or shared knowledge cannot even touch the impact that love has and that golden rule, that spans all religions, of treating others the way you want to be treated. The recognition that we are one and that all of our spirits are connected. That when one person is starving, we are all starving; that when one child is abused, they are all abused; that when one person is dying of a preventable illness, we all are. It’s the recognition that we all have the capacity to suffer and experience joy equally.
I could go on an on, but I think I should stop here.
LP: What have you missed most about being home?
H: Mostly I miss my family and friends. I’m really blessed to have a wonderful and supportive family and many amazing friends that it has been difficult to be away from. Some of my friends and family members have had babies and gotten married, and it is really difficult to miss those really important life events. But I also just miss hanging out with the people I love the most! I also miss food a lot, and having my own car and nice roads!
LP: What do you hope to do professionally when you come back to the States?
H: I am hoping to continue my counseling career. I’m not sure what population I will work with, but I’m excited to explore the possibilities. I would also like to explore doctoral studies in the counseling psychology field.
LP: What is you favorite yoga pose and why?
H: Its difficult to choose, but I’d have to say I like the Half Moon the most. When I was a little girl, my Dad used to teach me about the night sky… the moon and constellations. So ever since then, I feel a sort of affinity for the moon and stars. In terms of the pose itself, I like the challenge of the balance in this pose, and the openness of the body. I also like how you can flow to it from other poses!
LP: Thank you so much for your time, Hope. Enjoy the rest of your service and we look forward to seeing you back in the USA this Spring!
Thank you Julie! I love and miss you and so appreciate all your love and support! I am so grateful to you for organizing the yoga fundraiser – thanks to you and all those who participated. I’m looking forward to planning something fun for the children at KHH during their holiday and will let you know how we use the funds! Namaste – “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.”