Rebekah McKerley
Rebekah McKerley
Uganda, 2019 - 2021
Hello! I am living in Jinja, Uganda, for 2 years working with HEAL Ministries as a social worker. HEAL is a non-profit whose goal is family preservation. In this role, I will be expanding the social work program so that we can provide more resources to single-parent families. Read More About Rebekah →

Life is Crazy and Exciting

After some major writer’s block, I am back to update you on all the cray life things happening here in Uganda. The past few weeks have held a lot of growth and good conversations.

Working cross-culturally is so much harder than I remember it being. Maybe that’s because the first time I was here I just helped in childcare, and now I am trying to improve and grow the social work program. But wow, it is not easy navigating cross cultural friendship and work relationships when you have over 70 employees (all but 4 being females) and American interns coming for various amounts of time. How do I push the social workers to be more productive without offending them? How do we start counseling staff in a culture where mental health is not understood? It makes me think through decisions more intentionally and has been such a growing experience.

Things have been crazy around the James Place lately. Tina, the founder and executive director, arrived on the 8th and is here for the next month. Our preschoolers are taking exams this week, the pottery ladies are busy making lots of nativity sets to send back to the States for Christmas, and most of the interns are finishing up their last few weeks here. This year we have 4 weeks off for Christmas, so everyone is hurrying to finalize projects and assignments before we go on break on December 7th. I am looking forward to a break from work to be able to rest and visit with people. Most of our staff goes to the village for Christmas to be with all of their family, and the town of Jinja is a lot more quiet than usual.

The James Place- HEAL’s compound in Jinja, Uganda

It has been raining a lot longer than normal here. Usually rainy season lasts around 3 months, but this year it has been raining since April. Farmers are suffering from too much rain, and the threat of food shortages over the next year are becoming more and more serious. Climate change has definitely affected the weather here in Uganda over the past several years, and for people that live off of the crops they grow, it is a very real threat here.

There have been some really great highlights from the past several weeks of life here:

  1. We had a 2 week break at work, and I got to spend the night at a hotel in Kampala with one of the interns from work. We have become great friends, and it was so nice to have time together in the big city! Our hotel room had air conditioning (it was amazing!!) and we got massages and laid out by the beautiful pool.
  2. One of my college roommates just moved to Uganda and is working with an organization in the Western part of the country. Thankfully she spent about a week in Kampala buying supplies and adjusting before heading to the village where she will live. I got to meet up with her for the day over the weekend, and it was so so good!! We ate yummy food, found some American candy, and caught up on how our past 2½ months have been. I am so happy that she will be in Uganda for the next 2 years, and I look forward to more meet ups in the big city!
  3. Last but not least, I got engaged!! Crazy, I know. I met John back in 2014 when I first came to Uganda, and we spent many weekends with a group of friends watching movies, playing card games, having bonfires, etc. I slowly got to know him more over the following years and hung out with those friends whenever I came back to visit. In the summer of 2017 he asked me out, and at first I told him no. He was gracious and kind, and after a few weeks I came back to him with a changed mind, realizing that I didn’t want to live my life out of fear or choices that were comfortable and safe. So that summer we went on some dates and got to know each other more. I still had 2 years left of school though, so we kept in touch but didn’t really have any idea of how it could work. I went back for a month in July 2018, and that’s when we really started dating. The past year with him has been the best. He has helped me learn to use my voice and to stand up for my opinions (something this enneagram 9 often struggles with), and his tender yet strong heart is my safe place to run to. He loves the Lord and truly lives out his faith more than any guy I know. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in May, and he loves to fix anything and everything. John is the greatest example of redemption in my life, and the fact that we are standing here engaged today is a testament to the Lord, because we could not have ever gotten here on our own accord. There were way to many roadblocks for this to happen because of us.  I will still be working at HEAL for 2 years, so this won’t change any of that. John is still working as a mechanic with a local non-profit, but he is also looking for a better job with bigger companies around town. We are super excited to see what the Lord has in store for our future!

Mukwano

Mukwano means friend in the local tribal language called Luganda.

I have this mukwano. She is beautiful, strong, honest, and kind. I met her 5 years ago when I was first in Uganda. She works at a shop in town selling hand-made items to tourists that come through Jinja. At the time we first met, she was pregnant and the other interns and I would come visit her when we were in town and buy gifts from her shop for family back home. Little did I know, that relationship would blossom into a beautiful friendship over the years. I have had the privilege of watching her son, now 4½ years old, grow up. He calls me Auntie Bekah and runs and jumps into my arms when I see him. Sometimes I take him to get ice cream, and he tells me what he is learning in pre-school. He is funny, stubborn, friendly, and full of energy.

Whenever I am on main street I always try to go spend time with the two of them. I sit on the wooden stool and we talk about our day and anything that is happening in town. We talk about what God is teaching us. We talk about trauma and the scars that we carry from people who have hurt us, and how we carry on and process and grow from those hardships. We encourage each other to choose forgiveness, and we remind each other that love is not easy but it’s worth it. Our lives have been so very different, and yet so similar at the same time. We both want to be known and loved. We both desire friends who are kind and loyal. We both want to have fun and enjoy life. We both love our families dearly. Our day to day might look so different, and our cultures teach us different values and norms, but at the end of the day we are both humans who want to love and be loved and share the beautiful redemption of Christ with others because it has transformed our own lives. I am so thankful for my mukwano, and I am excited to see our friendship grow even deeper over the next 2 years.

Settling in at HEAL

At HEAL we have 80 kids in preschool, 65 in childcare, several women in our artisan program, and around 75 staff members. There are always a lot of people on the property, which means a lot of people for our social work department to help. I have so many ideas/dreams of things for the social workers to do at HEAL. I would love to see counseling increase, start grief therapy groups, social emotional groups for the preschoolers, education about the effects/preventions for childhood trauma, lessons on self-care, and so much more. I know a lot of these things will not happen over my two years here, but I am hopeful that I can work with the Ugandan social workers to implement some of them. I am excited to see HEAL grow over the next 2 years and see the ways we can provide more resources for the women and children that enter our gates. No organization is perfect and we definitely have ways that we could improve, but I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of keeping families together. The mothers we work with adore their children, they just need some help figuring out how to provide for their family.

I don’t have any pictures of the kids/staff at HEAL yet, and that is because I am getting to know them all first. We have a strict policy here that you must get to know people before you can take any pictures. I absolutely love this policy and I wish it was followed by everyone visiting countries in Africa. Way too often there are pictures on social media of adorable African kids posted by people who don’t even know the names of the children or have the child’s permission to post. Africans are constantly being exploited, so we have a policy at HEAL to try to prevent that from happening to our staff and kids.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a day with another organization called Sole Hope. They are a local NGO working to educate and treat the problem of jiggers here in Uganda. Jiggers are a parasite that burrow themselves into the skin and lay eggs, spreading the number of jiggers that someone can have from 1 to hundreds. Jiggers are very stigmatized and are a huge issue here. Sole Hope has been educating Ugandans on how to prevent them and treat any patients they find who have jiggers. Every Thursday they have clinics where the staff goes out to a village, oftentimes a school/community center, and they remove jiggers, educate, and provide shoes. I’ve gone on a few clinics before, and I always really enjoy them. The staff are great and I love getting to see what other organizations here do.

HEAL does a great job of partnering with local organizations and referring people to other NGOs that could help if we are not able to help their needs. Several kids from a local orphanage come to HEAL for pre-school, and we send children with special needs to Ekisa. Jinja Pregnancy Care Center refers their single mothers and babies to us once the child is one year old. Partnerships are key to providing the best all-around care to the people of Jinja. I have seen a great improvement in organizations working together over the past 5 years that I’ve come to here, which is really encouraging to see.

Confidentiality is a HUGE part of social work, and therefore there is a lot that I do that I can’t share. It is important to keep a client’s information and story confidential. There will be times where I can share a story from the day, but my priority is and will continue to be the protection of the women and I children I work with. So just hang in there with me and know that I am working my best to safely explain what I am up to at work.

Here are a couple pictures of my apartment! I got curtains made and hung up some beautiful baskets on the wall. I’m getting a new/bigger bed made and also furniture for the porch so that I can sit outside and eat/read. I’ll post more pictures once they are done!

 

 

No Hurry in Africa

 

 

There is a saying here that states “there is no hurry in Africa,” and it’s true. Uganda does not run by the clock or a need for efficiency/productivity. It feels as though everything here takes at least twice as long (if not more) than what it would take in the States. There are definitely moments where this frustrates me, but I also find myself loving it and appreciating the laid-back environment. The focus is on community and relationships with one another, something I think the US could learn a lot from. Since starting work, I have found myself wishing that I could instantly feel adjusted and know my role and immediately get to work expanding the social work program. I am constantly reminding myself, however, that relationships and trust take time to build, and that there really is no hurry or rush. I must let it happen organically.

I have been observing and learning a lot about the procedures and policies here at HEAL, and how the social work office operates. I am loving getting to work alongside 3 amazing Ugandan social workers! One is gentle and sweet, one is strong-willed and determined, and one walks with a confidence that I admire. They all 3 love the women and children here at HEAL and are determined to help fight for the well-being and betterment of each one.

My mornings are spent in the social work office, and then at noon I help with lunch and baths for all the childcare kids. After our lunch break, there is an hour that I rotate between cleaning and sitting with the artisan women. It is a great time to get to know the staff and talk about our days. After that hour, I go back to work in the social work office. This next week I will begin converting files from paper to online forms. It will be a lot of work, but once it’s done it will be very helpful for the organization.

John + I at the wedding

This past weekend I went to a Ugandan wedding for the first time! It was quite the experience. Nimeri, the bride, was beautiful and married the sweetest man who absolutely adores her. Weddings in Uganda are pretty similar to American weddings, but there are a few interesting differences. For example, Ugandan bridal parties dance instead of walk down the aisle at both the start and end of the ceremony. The women in the crowd were ululating (a high-pitched cheering noise) as the bride came down the aisle. It felt like more of a true celebration than American weddings do. Weddings here typically start around midday and last all afternoon and into the evening. The saying “there’s no hurry in Africa” rang true again as the ceremony started 2 hours late and lunch was not served until 4pm. Uganda is teaching me a whole lot of patience, as well as finding joy in the little simple moments of the day.

The simple moments that are bringing me joy this week are my morning cup of coffee, African spiced tea on Wednesdays, and my walk home with some of the other staff who live near me.

Settling In

Hello from Uganda! I have been in Jinja for 10 days, and tomorrow I have my first day of work. I am super excited and ready to have something to do.

I am so thankful that my dad was able to come with me to Uganda and stay for a week! I loved getting to show him around Jinja and introduce him to all of my friends here. He was able to see where I’ll be working and meet all of the staff. We even got to spend a day at an amazing lodge built on a small island in the middle of the Nile River!

Wild Waters Lodge

Since my dad left I have been trying to get the apartment all ready and check things off my to do list. Some of the kitchen drawers needed knobs, I got a water filter, refilled the empty gas tank, and deep cleaned the whole place. There is still more I want to do to make this place feel like home, but it’s coming along and I’m beginning to settle in. I am thankful to be only a 10 minute walk from work!

It has been raining almost every day this past week. The rain here stops just about everything. Everyone goes indoors and there are no bodas (motorcycle taxis) to be found. The roads that aren’t paved turn into clay mud. I enjoy the way things slow down when it rains and everyone must surrender their plans until the storm lifts. Because it has been raining so much, it has been cold all week! I’ve worn long sleeve shirts and/or sweatshirts almost every day. Coming from the heat and humidity of summer in Nashville, I have been really cold and snuggled up in blankets as I drink coffee each morning. I am soaking it all in while it lasts, because I know dry season is coming.

I have loved getting to reconnect with friends here. Ruth still has a shop in town and her son Elijah is growing up so quickly. She was pregnant with him when I first met her, and it has been a gift to see Elijah grow over the past 4 years. Aaron told my dad funny stories from some of my summers spent working with him. Timothy is enjoying university and asked me to help with a social work assignment. John took my dad and I to visit his wonderful family.

I am doing well and have lots of peace about being here. I am excited to see what my first week of work will hold. I am just so ready to have a job where I get to do what I spent the last 4 years studying.

Uganda Bound

I can’t believe that in just a few days I’ll be on a plane heading to Uganda!

It has been 5 years since I first went to Uganda for a gap year before starting college at Belmont. Lately I’ve been thinking back to that experience and the naïve 19-year-old version of me that I had no idea what I was doing. Those 8 months in Uganda opened my eyes to so much, and I left with a passion to empower and fight for the equity of vulnerable and marginalized people. That is what led me to study social work at Belmont. I learned so much from my professors and cohort about how to step into crisis, support one another, fight for equity and social justice, and see the strength and gifts that lie in every human.

I got my BSW!

As I enter the workforce in Uganda, I am so thankful for an education that equipped me with the skills and knowledge I need to do this job. I will be working as a social worker with HEAL Ministries, a nonprofit I interned with during part of my gap year. HEAL’s goal is family preservation, a cause that is very important in Uganda because about 85% of the kids in Ugandan orphanages have identifiable and traceable family. HEAL walks alongside single mothers and equips them with employable skills while also providing childcare so that children have a safe place to learn and play while the mothers work or go to school. As one of the social workers on staff, I will be helping make the social work program more efficient and create more resources for the families at HEAL.

I am so excited to return to a culture and community that I love. If you know me well, you know that my face lights up every time I talk about Uganda because I love it so much. Living cross culturally makes me a better human. It pushes me out of my comfort zone and challenges my ways of thinking and living. It forces me to confront and work through my biases and ethnocentrism.

As this summer comes to a close, I am so thankful that I had time to relax, play, and prepare for this transition. I spent a lot of the summer nannying a little baby, and I had the honor of being in 2 weddings of dear childhood friends. I had lots of family time and was able to spend my final weekend at the lake, my favorite place to be.

It was a joy to celebrate Kristen marrying her best friend!

I have a mixture of emotions as I prepare to leave. Goodbyes are hard, but I am also hopeful and excited to see what the next 2 years will hold. Transition is bittersweet to say the least.