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 →

African Time

If you have ever had the privilege of visiting Uganda, you have probably heard the term “African time.” African time is VERY different from American time. Here in Uganda someone can tell you they will be there in 20 minutes, when in reality they don’t show up until 2 hours later. If someone says they are coming, that means they will come at some point in the day. Only if they tell you “now now” does it actually mean they are on their way.

It is important to know that Ugandan culture values relationships above productivity and efficiency. While the inefficiency of life here can be really frustrating to my American self, I have learned so many beautiful lessons from it. I have learned SO much patience. I have learned to sit with friends and enjoy every moment instead of feeling rushed or thinking about all the things I need to get done. I have learned that my community and my relationships matter far more than any material things ever could. I have learned that little things like greeting each staff at the start of the workday make the biggest difference.

A factory at the end of Main Street caught on fire.

When people back in Nashville ask me what I do each day, it can be hard to explain at times. Most things take at least twice as long here in Uganda as they would in America. For example, simply going to the bank to pay bills can take hours. Last week I had to pay rent for HEAL. I went to the bank where our HEAL account is, withdrew the US dollars (because we have to pay rent in USD for our specific property), then went to a different bank where the landlords account is and tried to deposit the money. Unfortunately, some of the bills had small markings and/or tears on them, so the bank wouldn’t accept them. I then had to go back to the first bank, trade the dollars, and then return to the second bank and try to pay again. This is just one example of how things often take a long time and can be a little complicated.

A highlight of the last two weeks was getting to see one of my coworker’s newborn baby boy! He is adorable and healthy! I got to go visit them in the clinic the day after delivery and hold the sweet baby boy. It is such a privilege to be there for the big life moments of my coworkers. This specific coworker has worked at HEAL since the organization started, so I knew her back in 2014 when I first interned with the organization. It has been so fun to watch her family grow over the past 6 years.

As for COVID-19 in Uganda, there are still 0 deaths which is wonderful! We have 1,056 confirmed cases, of which only 33 of those are active cases. The rest have all recovered. I am continually impressed by how Uganda is handling the virus.

Jinja becomes a city

On July 1st, Jinja will gain the status of “city.” With that status comes development and growth. Within the town there are a couple of slum areas where rent is extremely cheap. One of those areas is right down the road from HEAL Ministries, and a lot of families in our programs live there. We even have 4 staff members who have lived there for years. The government informed them recently that they must move out before July 1st because the area known as Works is going to be torn down and developed. This news has been devastating for the families who have called it home for so long. Finding new places to live right now has been really hard since most everyone has stayed put due to COVID-19. The few places that are available have increased in price. It’s a really hard situation for those being forced out of Works. Most of them will have to pay double the cost of rent at their new places.

As a social worker and leader with HEAL, I have spent a lot of time this past week sitting down with our 4 staff members from Works and helping them think through finances and budgets for their new expenses. I made sure they had people helping them look for available rooms. There were some tears shed and fears spoken about how they will provide for their families during this pandemic. They are all still getting their salaries from HEAL, so I know they will be ok. It has been a heavy week. A heavy month. People all around the world are hurting and in need. There is so much injustice.

I have had the privilege of watching this girl grow up over the last 6 years. She is a gentle leader who is going to do amazing things in this world!

While the James Place is still closed due to Uganda’s restrictions during the pandemic, I’m thankful that I can still work and help our staff in times of crisis. I’m thankful that we have the funds to continue to pay all 73 staff members during this time. I have been talking to several of our staff members on a regular basis and checking in on them to be sure they’re doing ok. Some staff are now pregnant, others have given birth, some have moved, etc. I can’t wait until we are all back together and see the growth that has happened in each other while we’ve been closed.

The Nile River in all it’s beauty!

A highlight from this month has been spending Sundays out in the village with John’s family. I miss my own family so much, and having the chance to see John’s regularly and build deeper relationships with them has helped me a lot. John’s family is the sweetest, and I really appreciate how they have welcomed me into their family with open arms. Life in the village is slow. I used to not enjoy spending days in the village, but it has now become one of my favorite parts of life here. The Ugandan culture has taught me that relationships and community are more important than being productive. Living in community is better than focusing all on myself and my own ambitions. The United States is such an individualist culture, and I have come to learn and see the ways that can be harmful. I am thankful that I have the opportunity to live and work in another culture because it has opened my eyes to other ways of life.

Food and Flooding

The lockdown here in Uganda has started to ease up! On May 26th (my birthday!) we were allowed to start driving personal vehicles again, and this past Thursday some of the public transport was allowed to resume. Merchandise shops have opened, and there are lots of people out and about. We are required to wear masks anywhere we go. The number of cases has been slowly rising. Uganda is legally required to allow the cargo trucks to enter because of international law, and unfortunately that is what is causing our cases to rise. Some Ugandans have come in contact with truck drivers who have COVID-19, so everyone is suspecting the virus to inevitably spread across the country. There is a chance that we will go back into full lockdown at some point, but right now things are slowly opening back up. We still aren’t allowed to open HEAL Ministries because of how big the organization is, so I am still working from home a few hours a week and checking on the property regularly.

Playing cards in the village

About 2 weeks ago we were able to give food to some of the families in our programs that live along the shore of Lake Victoria. They live in a fishing slum called Rippon that is flooding due to the increase in rainfall over the last year. The government has told everyone living there to move out, but that has been difficult due to the lockdown. We paid 3 months rent to help one of our families move to a safer place, and we gave food to 9 of our families that live in Rippon. Each family received rice, beans, posho, matooke, sugar, tea, and cooking oil. Matooke is what they call plantains, and posho is a corn flour that they make into a popular local food here. I am so thankful that we were able to help these families who have been really struggling during this lockdown. I am also thankful that we were able to give a bonus to all of our staff in both April and May to help them have enough food for their families during this hard time.

The cutest nieces around. I’m obsessed with them!

I am enjoying weather on the equator and the ability to go out and eat at restaurants again. Life is still slow with work being closed, but I’m finding things to do to keep me occupied. I have been able to visit some coworkers that live nearby as well as meet up with some friends. Life in Uganda is going well, even in the midst of a pandemic.

the mundane

Life is slow and simple these days. We are on day 49 of lockdown. I’ve been getting out of the house more often and walking to HEAL as well as to town to pick up a few things. Most people are wearing masks. The number of cases are slowly rising, but it is all cargo truck drivers that are testing positive.

I’m enjoying having plenty of time to cook and try new recipes. I am currently eating my mac & cheese leftovers from last night. I found a great homemade tortilla recipe and made chicken tacos. I even made pumpkin bread from an actual pumpkin! You have to make almost everything from scratch here because you can’t buy things like canned pumpkin or tortillas in town.

Lake Victoria is continuing to rise from all the extra rain over the last year in East Africa. It is currently at the highest level ever recorded. Therefore, flooding has occurred in parts of Uganda as well as other countries surrounding the big lake. Flooding is always devastating, but the severity is only heightened when it occurs in the midst of a lockdown from a global pandemic. Jinja, the town where I live, sits along the shores of Lake Victoria. Several of our preschool and childcare families live right along the edge of the water in a fishing slum called Rippon. This week we will be distributing food and helping some of them move to safer homes. Thankfully one of our social workers lives right across the street from me, so she has been helping me figure out how we can effectively help during this lockdown. I am also thankful that our staff are still getting paid even with the James Place being closed.

It’s easy to get sad and lethargic when I’m stuck at home and not able to drive anywhere for almost 2 months. Each day I try to find something hopeful. Yesterday I found hope in one of our 3 year old preschooler’s improved English. Sunday I found hope in a coworkers call to check in on me. Today I find hope in the sunshine and beautiful lush plants of Jinja.

Life is simple and mundane these days. Doing simple daily tasks take longer here than in Nashville. I wash all my dishes by hand, sweep the floors almost daily because the amount of dirt/dust that collects in here is insane, cook meals from scratch, and hand-wash clothes. A lot of people back in the States think that life in Uganda is full of adventure and exciting days, and while some days truly are that way, the majority of my days are simple and mundane, even when there isn’t a global pandemic going on. To be honest though, I love the simplicity of life here in Uganda. It is refreshing and allows me to focus on things like community and relationships instead of productivity.

The Strength of Uganda

This time in life is crazy and weird and with all the uncertainty of the future, I know we are all struggling in our own ways. It’s a lot to process all at once. My brain is slowly processing bits and pieces each day. A lot happened the week before everything closed here, and I’m finally processing all of it. A staff member lost her baby less than 12 hours after giving birth prematurely. I was there at the hospital when the baby was born, and I held his fingers while he struggled to breathe and was put in the NICU. Getting the dreaded call hours later was rough, but I never had time to fully process it because everything was so hectic trying to close the organization down because of the virus. So now that my brain is processing everything, I’m more tired than usual, so I’ve been taking a lot of naps. I’m exercising every day. I’m watching through the entire show of “Friends” because something lighthearted and funny is what my heart needs right now. I read news reports of what is happing in the United States and it breaks my heart. I’ve been on lockdown for 4 weeks now, but the virus isn’t bad here.

I finally finished this puzzle I was working on for a while!

Thankfully there has not been an outbreak here in Uganda. I have been genuinely impressed with how the government has taken this very seriously and created lots of restrictions to prevent the virus from spreading. At the moment, we have 79 cases and 0 deaths. 46 of the 79 cases have recovered and been sent home. The last 25ish cases have been cargo truck drivers coming through from Kenya and Tanzania to deliver goods. The government is testing every single driver at the border though, and putting tracking devices on every truck as well as having designated rest stops for the truck drivers to try to prevent them from spreading the virus.

A lot of articles were circulating the internet in mid-March when the virus started getting bad in the States. They all said that Africa was next, and that it would be hit even worse. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how sad and messed up it is that America always portrays the continent of Africa as helpless and worse off, even during a global pandemic. A lot of people were surprised when I said I felt safer here than in the States. While Uganda definitely doesn’t have the same level of medical care as the U.S., Uganda has tons of experience in containing outbreaks and diseases. They are leaders in containing Ebola. They have experience in containing outbreaks of Yellow Fever, Measles, and Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever. Uganda also contained the deadly Marburg virus in 2017 to only 3 deaths. There is even a PBS article titled “How Uganda’s History of Epidemics Has Prepared it for COVID-19.”

America could learn a thing or two from Uganda about containing outbreaks. While the lockdown has not been fun and everyone would love to go back to work, it has been critical in containing the spread of COVID-19. The Minister of Health in Uganda has done an amazing job of educating the public about the seriousness of the virus as well as explaining why the government is taking the measures that it is. She gave one of the best talks on COVID-19 that I have heard from any government official around the world.

So before you go assuming that Africa will always be worse off than the U.S., do some research and learn about the strengths and experiences of this beautiful continent. Each country is unique and has its own history and culture. Uganda’s experience in epidemics is a huge asset in containing COVID-19. It may not have all the high-tech hospitals of America, but it has its own techniques and abilities to stop diseases.

I’ve gotten a bunch of yummy avocados off this tree in my yard! I also try to watch the sunset each day because it’s my favorite.

Lockdown in Uganda

The world is full of uncertainty in the midst of this pandemic. Here in Jinja, Uganda, the situation has been changing daily, as it must be everywhere right now. The evening of March 18th, before there were any reported cases of COVID-19 in Uganda, President Museveni announced his first measures to prevent the spread of the virus to Uganda. Schools, religious gatherings, weddings, funerals, and any gatherings of more than 10 people were stopped for the next 32 days. Borders were also closed to prevent anyone from bringing the virus to Uganda. At HEAL Ministries, we have at least 220 people on property each day. Because of that and also because we have a preschool, we had to close the ministry for 32 days to abide by President Museveni’s orders.

We had one last day of work after the announcement to close everything up for (at least) one month. With an organization as big as ours, that is not an easy task. Thankfully, the management team is full of amazing talented staff members that stepped up to be sure everything got done. Caroline wrote letters to send home to parents and Prossy contacted the labor office to be sure we did everything according to the law. Christine took inventory of all the food we had remaining. Paul agreed to work overtime as our security guard during the time off. Aisha, Rebecca, and Barbara assured all of our preschoolers not to fear but to enjoy time at home with their families. Sylvia prepared the childcare department and made sure each child went home with a letter.

Running the James Place is always a team effort, but March 19th I saw the very best teamwork happening. I was so overwhelmed that day making sure that we didn’t forget anything. I was also worried about how our staff were going to manage being at home for at least one month, and how they would stay healthy if an outbreak came to Uganda. Our amazing intern Delaney noticed how anxious everyone was, and suggested that we spend some time in praise and worship after our staff meeting. So, after informing staff of our closure and advice of how to stay healthy during this time, we gathered together and sang songs of praise to our God of comfort. I teared up listening to our staff of resilient and strong women singing their hearts out to God.

Watching a storm roll in from my porch while the chickens run around.

I am so thankful that we had the money to buy food to send home with all 73 staff members. We bought some rice, beans, and other food to send home with each staff to help lift their burden of feeding their whole family during this time. When the James Place is open our staff receives a snack and lunch every day at work, and their children who are in school receive lunch. Therefore, with everything closed, parents have a bigger burden of trying to provide all 3 meals a day for their families. Several of our staff members spent a couple hours bagging up all the food to send home with staff at the end of the day. With that extra food plus their usual salary that they will still be receiving while we are closed, hopefully each family will be able to stay safe and have enough to eat.

Enjoying the baby goats on my compound has been a highlight of this lockdown.

Since President Museveni’s first protective measures, we have since gone into total lockdown. It was originally a 14 day lockdown, but it has been extended for another 3 weeks. The only places still open are banks, supermarkets, hospitals, pharmacies, and a few government offices. The only vehicles allowed on the road are cargo trucks, government vehicles, ambulances, and motorcycles that are allowed to deliver food but not carry any passengers. Our borders are closed. As of this morning, 7,693 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Uganda. Of those tested, 55 were positive. Almost all of the positive cases were people who came from abroad within 3 days of the borders closing, but a few are family members of those who came in from abroad. 12 of the 55 cases have already recovered and been released from the hospital. We have 0 deaths, and the government says that all of the patients are stable and responding well to treatment.

The Ugandan government is working extremely hard to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19. I am thankful for how serious they are taking this and how they are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the virus. Uganda is the leader in containing Ebola, and they have lots of experience in other infectious diseases as well, so they are not naive to the measures it takes to contain a disease. The CDC for Africa is based in Uganda, so that also helps! I have been very impressed with the ways the government is educating people on the virus as well as the extreme measures they are taking to contain the virus.

During the lockdown I have been staying at home and occasionally walking to work to check on the property. I have a trusted boda (motorcycle) driver who I send to buy me food if I need anything. I have been watching lots of episodes of “Friends” as well as working on a puzzle and reading books about how trauma effects our bodies. I have been able to facetime with family and friends as well as call friends here in Jinja to check in on one another. I cooked some chocolate chip cookies yesterday with a bag of chocolate chips that my friend brought from the States at Christmas. A little taste of home was SO nice! Trying to create a routine when there’s very little work to do and I’m at home all day has been difficult, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’m soaking up some vitamin D in the sun each day as well as working out. We have at least 20 more days of this lockdown, but I am thankful that the lockdown appears to be working and an outbreak has not occurred yet. I am healthy and safe in my home here in Jinja, and I appreciate those of you who have checked in to be sure I am doing well! I hope all of you are hanging in there and staying safe as well.

Watching the Virus from Afar

Oh, the coronavirus. It is all people are talking about these days! It has been really interesting to watch from my small-town home in East Africa. The virus hasn’t reached us here in Uganda yet, and I am thankful for that. I am hoping and praying that it magically stays away, because I know that as soon as it reaches Uganda, it is going to be extremely hard on this country.

It will be hard for people to quarantine in a country where it is common for 15+ people live in one home. It will be hard for everyone in the slums where hundreds of people live in extremely close quarters with a major lack of sanitation and clean toilets. It will be hard in a culture where VERY few people can stock up on food because:

  1. Power is unreliable and goes out frequently, therefore stockpiling food in your fridge/freezer is not a reliable option.
  2. Most people struggle to afford money for that very day, let alone buy enough food to get through a few weeks of quarantine.
  3. Most people make money by running their own business, and how will they have any income if they are home and the business is closed?

So far there are a few cases in Kenya and Rwanda, which neighbor Uganda. There are no reported cases here yet, but everyone thinks it’s only a matter of time. All I know is that when the threat becomes real in Uganda, we will close the James Place to protect our 74 staff members and 145 kids as well as their families. We have so many people that enter our compound each day.

Ugandans are no strangers to diseases. They have watched ebola spread through their own country long ago and other African countries in recent years. They have witnessed countless people die from malaria and typhoid. I know that Ugandans are strong and will be able to handle this virus, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a terrible impact on this small country.

I selfishly hope it does not come here because I want to marry my best friend on May 23rd with my family by my side, and this whole pandemic thing is throwing a real wrench into that plan. But I know that this is completely out of my control and all I can do is trust the Lord. Right now, I am safe and sound here in Jinja. The Ugandan Minister of Health has issued a 14-day self-quarantine for travelers coming from countries where the outbreak is bad. But other than that, we are washing our hands a lot and trying to mentally prepare ourselves for the day it reaches here.

We had a goodbye party for our beloved Noah, who just moved to the States!

We had the sweetest birthday party for Caroline! We went on a boat ride to the source of the Nile River.

Empowerment

Empowerment: The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.

Empowerment has become a buzzword these days within the context of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and humanitarian work. Almost everyone claims to empower locals, but how are they doing that and is it really happening? This is something I have been contemplating a lot over the last few months.

There is a big difference between helping and empowering. Helping an individual could look like buying food or paying their rent. It could look like connecting them to the correct resources based on their particular needs. There are so many ways to help someone, but empowering someone looks different and is not nearly as easy. Empowering someone involves walking alongside them and building a relationship of equality, not a relationship of a giver and beggar. It involves encouragement and strengths perspective. It involves teaching life skills and building up the natural talents of an individual. You have to see the other person as equal, as deserving of the privilege and rights that you yourself have. That can be rare to find within the NGO context of developing countries. A lot of the missionaries/expats that come into countries like Uganda view the locals as poor people that need saving. They don’t see them as truly equals, and I don’t think it is possible to empower an individual if you don’t see them as an equal.

My job here at HEAL has put me in a really unique place of equipping and empowering our management team staff members. When Trey, our operations manager, moved back to the States at the end of 2019, it created a really great opportunity for our management team to step up and lead. Trey’s role has been divided up between the management team members, and now they each have more responsibility than they did previously. They still continue to look to me, the white person, to give instructions and lead. This is the unique position I have right now– I get to remind them that they have a voice and a say in the matter. Management gets to decide as a team; I am not the only one making decisions. All 12 of us get to make decisions together about what is best for the organization. I am loving this role that I have right now. I get to sit alongside these staff members and encourage them to use their voices and to advocate for what they believe is best. I remind them that they know more than I do, and that my skin color does not mean I get to make all the decisions. To be fair, I don’t always do it perfectly and there are days where I want to make the final decision because I don’t agree. But I have to remind myself to step back and listen to these hardworking wise individuals who know the culture and organization far more than I do.

I know that empowering our staff is going to be a long journey and change won’t happen overnight. But there is nothing else in the world I would rather do than try to empower the people who society treats as less than.

Traffic in Kampala, the capital city

 

Community

My life in Uganda is in some ways just like my life in Nashville, and in other ways it is drastically different. Today I finished work at 5, went to town to buy some food for dinner, spent some time talking to a dear friend, and now I’m typing away as I eat peanut M&M’s and watch “The Holiday.” What makes it so different than life in the States is that the reason I got dinner in town is because my power had been out for over 36 hours (praise Jesus it is now back!), and this bag of peanut M&M’s is a treasured gift brought from the States that I am trying to make last as long as possible.

Sunset dinner overlooking the Nile River. I will always be in awe that this is my life right now!

January flew by. Work kept me super busy as we prepared for the new school year to start and accepted 20 new childcare kids into our childcare program. We hired several new staff members, and we have been working hard at organizing and improving policies and procedures. I even started my new role- social work coordinator and admin manager! It’s basically the same I was doing before with social work plus I got added to the management team to help oversee staff issues and I will now be doing payroll for the staff each month. It is all social work related– making sure that everything is running smoothly and providing resources and help to the staff.  I am really enjoying having more responsibility and I’m being challenged in really good ways.

I think one of the hardest parts about being here so far has been community. I miss getting to live with some of my best friends and having the rest of my college friends just down the road. It took time, but I made such a sweet community of friends at Belmont, and I definitely miss it a lot. Friendships and community can take a long time to build, and it’s especially hard to find time to invest in these relationships when I work from 8-5 Monday through Friday. I am slowly learning how to balance work, relationships, sleep, food, and exercising. It’s something I know I would be struggling with anywhere I lived post grad, and I know all my friends from college are in the same boat. Let’s be honest, adulthood can be scary and overwhelming and lots of responsibility that we don’t always feel ready for. But with time, I know that I will build a strong community here. I can already see it beginning.

One idea I came up with to help me in this endeavor, is that I try to have someone over for dinner every other week. Hospitality is such an important value in Ugandan culture, and I want to use my home here to welcome people in and give them a safe space to be themselves. We have been breaking bread together and talking long into the night, and each time I’ve had someone over it has been such an encouraging time that fills me up and leaves me a better person. Ugandan culture is teaching me more and more about the importance of relationships. Life can get really hard at times, but having people around us to encourage us and lift us up makes the world of a difference. Uganda has such a community focused culture, unlike the individualist culture of the United States. I think the U.S. has so much to learn from cultures like this one.

Sweet baby Juma! His mom is on staff with us and he is in our childcare program.

A New Year

Happy New Year from Uganda!

I spent New Year’s Eve watching fireworks and listening to live music at a local hotel, and it was honestly so much fun! Everyone was cheering and dancing and there was so much joy. I am excited to see what this new year in Uganda will hold.

I spent Christmas with this family I love so much!

We started back to work this week, and it has been crazy busy. There are so many things to do now that we are back after a month off. School fees have to be paid for our scholarship kids in primary school, teachers have to plan for the new preschool year (the new school year starts in February here), new staff has to be trained, bills have to be paid, new supplies must be bought, etc. Starting this month, I have been given some more responsibility, including being added to the management team and helping oversee staff issues.

As the new year begins, we are working on improving policies and procedures for various departments in the organization. For example, we are planning out exact procedures for any emergency that could take place that would prevent a parent from being able to take their child home at the end of the workday. We already have some procedures set in place, but it is always good to be extra thorough, especially when we are responsible for 145 children. You never know what could happen, and we have to always be prepared and know how to ethically handle any situation that could occur.

It has been interesting learning the differences between social work in the States verses social work in Uganda. Social work here in Uganda is a fairly new profession, and therefore there is not a social work council that oversees and regulates the profession. In the States, there is an entire code of ethics and values for social workers that must be followed, but here in Uganda that doesn’t exist on a national basis. A lot of the universities teach the ethics and values used in the U.S., but there is not an adapted one for best practice in Ugandan culture. The profession of social work is also commonly not understood here. Social workers tend to be used for home visits and maintaining files on clients, but there is SO much more that social workers are capable to do. They can be counselors, advocates, mediators, managers, educators, and so much more. I truly believe that social workers can make a massive difference in the fight for equity and justice here in Uganda.

Watching a storm roll in as I walk home. The compound on the left is where I live!

A word I have been thinking about a lot since the new year started is advocate. I want to be an advocate for Ugandans. I want to advocate for their rights, and I want to advocate for them to use their voices. In a country that was once a British colony, many locals are taught in school that the white person is superior. I’ve had friends tell me that they were always told to do what the white person says, and to not talk back. Even though Uganda gained independence in 1962, the effects of colonization can still be seen today. I want to advocate for our staff and kids, and help them know that their voices matter. They should stand up for their rights, their opinions, and their beliefs. They are beautiful and strong humans who must be heard.