Friday, October 31, 2008

Project trip to Buvu Island

The Buvu Island team, from left: me, Pilot Simon (from Switzerland), Pastor Sam (Ugandan) and MAF administrator Adrian (from the UK)
This past Tuesday, I was a part of a team of 4 guys who travelled by boat about 45 miles out into Lake Victoria to visit and assess an island for the feasibility of putting in an air strip. The group leading the trip was MAF, Mission Aviation Fellowship, an international missions group who use their expertise in air transport to assist other mission groups in spreading the gospel as well as to help the poor with humanitarian aid. Our group consisted of the administrative director of MAF in Uganda, Adrian, the chief MAF pilot Simon, a local pastor named Sam and myself, ‘the engineer’.

The team strapping on life jackets and some wet weather gear next to the boat. We were blessed with good weather all day. A big thunderstorm out on the lake (they occur almost every day) would've soaked us in a hurry and there would've been no option but to forge on.

We met at 7:15am not far from my house, and travelled about 5 miles to the lakeshore, where we boarded a boat operated by the National Lake Rescue Institute, a search and rescue outfit that is not only saving lives on Lake Victoria but also educating the local people about safety out on the water. According to our boat driver, Mike, over 5000 people die from drowning each year on Lake Victoria! The vast majority of these deaths are either children or fishermen, many of whom are on the lake in poorly constructed wooden canoes that simply sink in rough water. It is rare for Ugandans to know how to swim, and even rarer still for them to have a lifejacket. As a result, the NLRI has developed a program where the fishermen’s wives are being taught how to make life jackets! Mike’s goal is for one day to have all fisherman on the lake wearing life jackets. The boat trip to the Island took around 2 hours. When we arrived, we were greeted by the local pastor who had originally approached MAF 18 months ago with the idea of putting in an air strip. The Island is a part of a chain of islands called the Ssese Isles (seh-say) and is quite secluded from the mainland.

On the boat, heading to Buvu Isle. The boat driver actually had me drive for about 20 minutes while he switched gas tanks and then took a seat. We'd talked about boats some and I'd mentioned I grew up with one, and apparently that was all the qualifications I needed to satisfy him. Driving by GPS was interesting though, and a first for me.

Everything on the island arrives there by canoe, with the closest point on the mainland about a 3 hour ride away in the motorized canoes. These canoes are very dangerous, especially with the massive thunderstorms that can form very quickly on the lake. (Our boat driver said that a few years back he had encountered a 30-foot, breaking wave out in the open portion of the lake!) Consequently, very few missionaries or humanitarians make the journey. One of the gentlemen in our group asked the local pastor when the last time muzungu’s were on the island, and he said that he couldn’t remember the last time.

Lake Victoria, looking out the back of our semi-rigid boat. The lake creates the vast majority of the weather for this whole region. It's roughly 350 miles long, north to south.

After coming ashore, we walked through one of the 3 villages on the island. I was surprised at how similar it felt to villages on the mainland, though it was even more simple. The island has about 5000 people on it, and a ‘fleet’ of 4 boda bodas (motorcycles) that constitute the entire motorized transportation system on the island! End to end, the island is around 5 kilometers (3 miles) long.

Buvu Island, as seen from our boat arriving around 10am. The canoe pictured on the water (right-side) is typical of the canoes that currently provide the only access to the island - for both people and supplies.

We walked to the church, where we sat down in front of a group of about 40 community citizens and leaders to hear us present the mission of our visit. In typical Ugandan fashion, each leader was recognized and allowed to speak – the police chief, the school teacher, the head pastor, the landlord (owner of the island), the leader of the beaches and water areas, the LC1 (local chairperson, similar to a city council member) and a few other dignitaries. It’s always a bit comical to be a part of the pageantry and hear the hierarchy of people say their piece! After the ceremony, we had to sign 4 separate visitor’s books! It was interesting that the muslim Sheik for the island attended the meeting. He seemed pleased by what was said, though the only person there who seemed skeptical and had a number of questions was the head of the beaches and water areas – who happened to be sitting right next to the Sheik. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a coincidence.

The 'Community Meeting'

After arriving, we walked through "Main Street" of the largest village on the island. We were quite the spectacle as many of the villagers hadn't seen a white person in a long time. Most people just stared & waved from their porches, but the kids were more willing to approach us.

At the meeting, Adrian, the administrative director of MAF here in Uganda, shared that the air strip would be owned, built and maintained by the community and that MAF would only be using it to bring people and supplies to the island to help. The example given was of a neighboring island where there is already a strip, MAF is flying in a team of eye doctors later in the week to treat some of the people there. According to Adrian, these doctors are often able to restore vision to people who have fallen blind from infections.
After the community meeting was over, part of the team got back in the boat to head to the other side of the island where the air strip was being proposed, and the rest of us hopped on the 4 bodas and drove to the site.

Riding the boda through the narrow main path of the village was awesome - one of the most authentically 'African' places I've been to yet.

For the last half of the trip heading out to the site, I was on the boda with 3 other guys - I about caused us to fall over trying to get a good picture of us all!

The area where I took some soil samples and slope measurements to check the feasibility of the island for installing the air strip. It was very sandy, which isn't great for overloaded boda rides, or air strips.

After we finished up checking out the airstrip, we had to stop at yet another village on the island to sign a guestbook (#5 if you're counting). The process of welcoming and receiving guests is very formal in Ugandan society (and I think many African ones too).

At the site, I used a hand auger to check and sample the soil down to a depth of one meter where they were proposing the 20 meter wide x 1000 meter long air strip. Unfortunately, the site was very sandy and soft, which is not good for landing planes. However, as we moved up the hill, we found more suitable soil with more loam was mixed in with the sand. I then used a hand level to get an idea of the slope and cross slope of the air strip.

As we were leaving, the pastor's wife and one of the other community leaders really wanted a picture taken. Though they look fairly stoic in this shot, they were anything but afterwards as they looked at the picture on my camera!

After about 5 hours on the island – meeting with the locals, observing the land, and performing some basic tests of the soil and site, our mission was complete and we headed back to the boat. Overall, the report will be good back to the church in the UK who is playing a big part in raising the funding for the air strip. Though not as ideal as they were hoping for, we were able to identify a specific location for the strip where the soils were acceptable.

No matter how remote, and how primitive, apparently TV satellite dishes are standard equipment even for mud huts on a remote island in Uganda. Unbelievable.

The boat ride back started calmly, but ended in some pretty rough water that made it a little more interesting. We were fortunate to have encountered no rain despite the large thunder clouds looming to the south of us earlier in the morning. We arrived back to the mainland around 5pm, so I even got home in time to head down to the school for the second half of Tuesday night basketball! Overall, it was a good day, and it was great to finally work on a project with MAF, who I’d previously heard so many good things about.

The MAF guys brought over some bibles to hand out, so they gave a copy to some of the community leaders we met with. They were very excited to receive them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Project trip to Rwanda

This past Monday morning, I boarded a bus with two of our eMi interns (Nick and Anna) and set out for Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. We were going to work with a ministry called New Creation Ministries (NCM). NCM has been training Rwandan pastors for over 20 years, teaching classes in the native language of Kinyarwanda. It is run by two gentlemen, Gary Scheer and Gary Bennett, both from the states but have lived in Rwanda for 29 and 23 years respectively and speak the language fluently.
The team: (L to R) Intern Anna, Architect Liz (who had flown in from Sudan the first morning after completing a project trip there), Intern Nick, me, Gary Scheer (NCM Director) and Gary Bennett (NCM site coordinator).

It was a very interesting trip not only for the work we were doing, which was helping them plan their 5-acre site for the future bible university they are starting, but also being right in the center of where the war was fought just 14 years ago. Hearing their stories of how they survived and escaped during that time was unbelievable – they helped hide some of the Tutsi people, but were discovered by some of the Hutu soldiers who were fortunately willing to accept money instead of murdering them and the Tutsi’s, which is what was done repeatedly by the radical element of the Hutu’s during those few months.
The trip was a short one – an all day bus ride on Monday (9 1/2 hours), work on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by an all day bus ride back on Thursday – but a great experience to join up with NCM and all they are doing in Rwanda. The amazing personal stories of these two families’ time in Rwanda, particularly during the genocide in 1994, made the trip feel so much more exciting to be a part of. That God had spared their lives, and they in turn were so committed to their call that they left reluctantly and returned as soon as they were allowed back in, made us feel privileged to be coming along side them and helping in their work. Our brief visit to the Genocide Memorial was somewhat overshadowed by their first-hand account of the atrocities witnessed and their narrow, divinely assisted escape from the country.
A view of the border from the Rwandan side - on the left background, you can see how the local people have cut hundreds of terraces in the surrounding mountainsides in the area. Driving for 10-15 miles through the mountains, these terraces are everywhere - all dug by hand!

If you have seen the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’, it tells a pretty accurate depiction of what went on. The Bennett’s home, where I stayed, still has an un-patched gunshot hole in one of the rooms. After they were evacuated from the country 6 days after the genocide broke out, soldiers holed up in their house. They live on the side of a hill where the parliament building sits at the top. During the war, the rebel troops (now the current ruling government) were stationed in the parliament building, so the hill below was taken over by the old-government troops trying to attack the parliament building. When they returned to the country 3 months later after the rebels had taken over the country, their house had 5 land mines and 20 live grenades in the yard with 1000’s of rounds of ammo shells littering the place.
The architects working out details with Gary Bennett

Fast forwarding 14 years, what an amazing transformation has taken place in both the city and the country. The current government, though a bit heavy-handed at times (for example, plastic bags are not allowed into the country, and people are arrested if they cut across landscaped medians in the road), has overall done a good job of restoring order, rebuilding the country and making significant progress towards development at the same time. The city of Kigali is night and day compared to Kampala – it’s clean, very little traffic, and the traffic laws are enforced so that people actually obey them! The air is clean, the land is clean, and parts of the city have the appearance of a Western country. Of course, there is a long way to go, and much of the development has been at the expense of local working-class people who have been bought out of their homes but don’t really have anywhere to relocate in the city. The city policy is to methodically demolish all of the existing poorly built mud huts and typical local brick homes and rebuild the entire city. On the surface it’s making for a very nice-looking and clean city, but the problem of what to do for the vast majority of the people who can’t afford the very nice, large homes being built is going to have to be addressed. In the meantime, the city has received the UN award for cleanest city!
Some of the team walking the grounds with the two Gary's

As for the project, the site is on a fairly steep slope, but they have leveled out (by hand) 3 terraces that house their current buildings. They currently house up to 60 pastors, who come for 3 weeks at a time and then return to their churches for 3 months to implement what they’ve learned. The program for the pastors is 4 years long, and the format allows them to maintain their currents jobs and also to practice what they’re learning as they go.
A view of the suburbs from the site - you can see how clean and nice the roads are in Kigali.
Both Gary’s wives also teach the pastors English, since English is not commonly spoken in Rwanda. (The country was originally a French colony and therefore most people speak the native language and French. This is changing though, as relations between France and Rwanda have deteriorated significantly recently and the government has announced that by 2010, French will no longer be spoken in schools, replaced by English!)

The Bennett's house where we stayed. It was used as barracks by the previous government soldiers (Hutu's). Intern Nick is standing near where live ammunition, grenades and land mines were found when the Bennett's returned to Rwanda 3 months after the war began.

For our time there, we helped NCM create a master plan for their site, and are giving them schematic plans for a new classroom building, library building, redesign for their current building into an administration block, and few plans for housing for the professors and local staff. Because of the steep site, there were a number of complicating factors that we had to consider, maintaining setbacks from steep, existing slopes as well as recommending proper compaction for the terraced, future building levels. Overall, it was a great trip – we were able to help them put down on paper and organize their thoughts that will help them move forward towards their goal of opening the university in 2011.

The government is in the process of demolishing the local structures in entire areas of town, resubdividing the land, and building new homes like this one. It looks nice, but most of the local people can't afford to live in houses 1/10 this size. Though compensation is provided, something will have to be done to provide homes for the people being relocated by the development.

While I was there, I was also able to do some research with the local government agencies, obtaining a copy of the building regulations for the city of Kigali as well as meet with the Rwandan Environmental Management Authority to get a copy of the manual that outlines the requirements for the new Environmental Impact Report they are now requiring for all projects in Rwanda. These documents will be very helpful to not only our office, but all the other eMi offices around the world (USA, Canada and UK) who are doing projects in Rwanda.

'Bourbon Coffee', a starbucks lookalike that was the nicest looking store I've been in since we left the USA last January. The Bennett's took us to lunch there on the last day - it was the first time I'd felt like I could've been in the U.S. ...though with a long return bus trip looming the next day, I had to refrain from splurging and having a cup of Rwandan coffee. But this place is another sign of the rapid development that has occurred in Rwanda since the war.

A few funny stories from the trip: 1) Buses in Uganda are a piece of work. You are crammed into a tiny space, sitting next to people who have no concern for their own personal space (and consequently yours either!).

A round-about near downtown. Helmets are required here, and the enforcement of traffic laws makes driving in Rwanda a lot safer than in Uganda.

The shocks are worn, so any bumps makes it feel like the bus is overturning, and you’re never sure of the mechanical condition of the rig. With the terrible roads in Uganda (the roads in Rwanda are actually good), it can be a pretty interesting (read “miserable”) experience to be trapped on a bus for 10 hours with no bathroom and no guarantee of a bathroom stop. Well, about 6 hours into the trip on the way there, we pull over to the side of the road next to a metal-works shop. The driver hops out and starts hammering on something underneath by the front axle. Pretty soon, the guy from the shop pulls the cord to his welder over, crawls under the bus, and starts welding something on the front axle, with the bus still running! Five minutes later we were back on the road!

Taken out the window of the bus, the welders do their work under the front of the bus while the fully loaded bus waits it's impending fate!
A view of the former parliament building up the brick cobble road from where we were staying. Mortar and bullet holes still riddle this building as a reminder of the choas that reigned just 14 years earlier.

2) The bus driver on the way home was a much faster driver, so consequently, there was lot more weaving and swerving than on the trip there. We could barely keep up with the Nigerian soap opera blaring the local language voice-overlay from a small TV they install near the front of the busses.

The former parliament building on top of the hill we stayed on.

So, about 4 hours into the trip, with everyone feeling a little woozy, a lady sitting across the aisle from us couldn’t take it anymore and lost the contents of her stomach. You can imagine that this didn’t help the already terrible smell on the bus that is ever present. With intern Nick and I sharing a 2-seat row, we kept our window plenty open the whole trip. We were not popular for this, as Ugandans don’t like the coolness or the blowing air. A few people were requesting that the conductor close our window (we had closed it down to about an inch), however, with both of us feeling queasy ourselves, the cracked window was the only thing keeping us intact.

Downtown Kigali, viewed from the front of the Rwanda Genocide Memorial

The driving alone was enough to make us sick, but coupled with the smell it would’ve been a locked box of barf and motion – not an ideal setup for someone who gets motion sickness on a backyard swing-set! The only thing that saved me was the fact that I didn’t eat or drink anything since dinner the night before to avoid having to go to the bathroom for 10 hours straight (though we were able to sneak over to the restroom at the border crossing).

Interns Nick & Anna with me out before entering the Genocide Memorial. It was an amazing thing to witness, and a sobering reminder that evil exists on a large scale in our world.

Anyway, thanks for all the prayers for the trip. The bus rides over here are definitely worthy of prayer support! But this was a perfect trip – I really enjoy helping ministries who are training the local pastors. I think of all the need for mission groups over here it’s among the most important in that the ramifications of the work groups like NCM do ripple across entire nations and help to transform the lives of people – first, and most importantly, on a spiritual level, but then also on a physical level as the power of freedom in the life of a true follower of Christ can bring dramatic progress not just to individuals, but through them, to entire villages, cities, countries and the whole world.

While I was gone, my niece Traci (Dani's older sister) arrived for a 6 week visit! It is so fun to have her here - she's a lot of fun to have around! As I write this the two of them are rafting on the Nile River!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cranes' World Cup Qualifier

Me and my niece Dani at the game - please note that I was wearing my Ducks' hat with pride!

This past Sunday, I went to the Ugandan National Teams' ('The Cranes') final World Cup qualifier match against group leader Benin along with a group of about 20 eMi people. It was an amazing experience. Uganda came back from being down 1-0 to win 2-1 with two second-half goals in a 3 minute span. The place went wild when they took the lead. And at the end of the game, the riot police fired shots in the air to scatter the rowdy crowd (on the opposite side of the stadium) from throwing things on the visiting players. I drove my friend Matt (from Michigan) on the back of my boda to get to the stadium. It was a kick - he held a Ugandan flag in his hand, so everyone was yelling at us in approval as we approached the stadium.

Me before the game outside Nelson Mandela Stadium, on the outskirts of Kampala. (I'm walking backwards - that isn't some dorky pose)

Unfortunately, because of the outcome of other games, they just missed moving on to the next round of qualifying games. Bummer, no more games for quite a while now.

Part of the eMi crew at the game

Otherwise, life has been good, though I've been battling sickness the last 2 weeks. I've had a weird cold/stomach bug that has had me throwing up, coughing, fever, the runs, and just overall very tired. The doctor first treated me for salmonella, but I don't think that was it. Now he's treating me for giardia, so we'll see. I have improved quite a bit, but I can't yet tell if it's the medicine or if the bug is just moving along.This coming Monday, I will board a bus for Rwanda with two of the interns. It's a 9-hour bus trip with only a stop at the border for a potty break. It should be interesting - I have no plans to eat or drink that day until I arrive in Kigali off the bus! We're there until Thursday, when we'll catch the same bus trip home. I'm excited to get to go to Rwanda, and glad I'll only be gone from home 3 nights. We're going to help a theological college with their expansion. I'll try to update with some pictures of Rwanda when I get home.

Introducing the players (Uganda is in yellow)

The game at kickoff

One side of the stadium was totally full - the shady side! You could hear a pin drop when Benin took the lead in the 30th minute - that was surreal.

Me and the eMi Office Manager, Semei. My friend Matt is on the other side of Semei.

The place went nuts after Uganda's 2nd goal in a 3-minute span!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


The Berry Family picture - with Grandma Delma - taken last Christmas eve down in San Diego - we were visiting my brother Brian's family a month before departing to Africa
This is Alisha – I just wanted to share a story with you...
When we left the States in January,my Grandma Delma (a dear sweet lady and one of my best friends), accompanied us to the airport with my parents. As I said goodbye I gave her a kiss, and had the sad thought, “God please let this not be the last time I see Grandma.” She handed me a $20.00 bill and said, “You go in and buy yourself some ice cream” (she and I both love ice cream!). Seven months later, on September 2nd, Grandma passed away in the hospital in her sleep (she would have turned 86 this December). It was a bit of a shock for me, since I was still holding on to the hope that she would pull through after having had pneumonia and a ‘silent heart attack’.

Grandma performing her annual job - wrapping up the used Christmas ribbon for re-use the following year.

This past Saturday, October 3rd, my parents had about twenty friends and family over to their house for a celebration in honor of Grandma and the legacy of servanthood she left. It was a hard day for me - I really wished I could just be home to be a part of the gathering. That evening, as the celebration was starting, I called home to send my love and support to the family, hoping to Skype for a couple of minutes and share a few memories about Grandma. A few minutes later I connected with my brother Brian on Skype, placing me, through his computer, amongst the circle of family and friends gathering in my parents’ living room. At the time, Brad and Dani had gone to watch a soccer match. It turned out that I was essentially part of the celebration. I never expected the Skype connection to stay on, the power to last, or to be able to listen to everyone’s thoughts and stories of how Grandma had impacted their lives. It was truly amazing.

The boys and neighbor/friend Julia, hanging out on the porch with two little kittens who found their way into our compound. Brad's sworn "policy" of no pets while in Africa won out though, so we drove them across town to a USPCA office (this is the second time here that we've rescued kittens and taken them to the USPCA)

The boys, watching a movie with Dani

As I began sharing my thoughts with the group, it was hard for me to hold it together. Partly because I was missing my grandma, and partly because I felt so blessed that I was at a special event that I thought I would have to miss out on. I felt even more blessed when Brad came home just in time to share his memories of Grandma too. God’s timing is perfect. To all those who were at my mom and dad’s house on Saturday, it was so awesome to be with you all. We miss you so much, but were so grateful to get to see and talk with you. And thank you,God, for Skype. How fortunate we are to be having this experience in Africa at a time when Skyping, and phone calls, and emails are all possible. We worship an amazing God.

By the way, this blog was started to celebrate my Grandma's life.

Brad and Jonah with his parents' dog Niner, who also died, on Sept. 26 after nearly 14 years in our family. She was a big part of the family and will always be missed. She was also a good friend and mentor to our Moses dog (our Saint Bernard who died 2 years ago).

Brad searching for mosquito's in Brodie and Dani's room. The racket-looking thing is a 'zapper' that shocks insects to death (and burns them if you keep pressing the button, leaving a terrible smoky smell...all to the delight of the boys. Gross!) The boys are the 'spotters' - Brad won't let them use the zapper since it's apparently quite a bit stronger than zappers back in the states.