Recession Mama

{September 27, 2009}   GUEST POST: Five weeks in Africa

By Stephanie Bowen (Stephanie wrote Thoughts from Uganda for Recession Mama awhile back.  By popular demand, she is back with an update and photos!)


I have been back from Africa for over a month now and parts of my trip feel like a distant memory, where others I know will stay with me for a very long time. It was a trip for work but I grew so much personally that I would’ve gone as a volunteer (don’t tell my boss)!

A little background: I work for the humanitarian aid organization International Medical Corps. We focus on health care and training with the ultimate goal of helping communities become self-reliant. Our work literally saves lives and builds healthy futures. I’m not just saying this as their PR person – I’ve seen it first-hand. First in Indonesia about two years after the tsunami, now in Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This was my first trip to Africa and as you may remember from my blog reflecting on my wanderings through Kampala, I was immediately struck by the warmth of the people. That warmth continued on into Kenya and the Congo. Bright colors and big smiles were everywhere. Children were always running up to our vehicle, chasing us while laughing and waving. At one point I was in the middle of a refugee settlement in southwest Uganda surrounded by children who couldn’t stop laughing and screaming, so excited that I was taking their photograph and even more intrigued when I showed them the digital images. It was so much fun for me that I didn’t want to leave. To see that much joy in a situation that quite frankly can be very joyless was quite intoxicating.


The reality of life in the refugee settlements I visited in Uganda and the internally displaced persons camps I visited in the Congo were tough. Women who had been raped and left alone and pregnant (, and children who were so malnourished it was a miracle they were still alive ( But there were also many stories that left me feeling very good.

I haven’t formally written about it yet, but we have an amazing program in Kenya that has made great strides in fighting HIV and helping those who are infected. It’s our Home-Based Counseling and Testing program. We started it in Suba, which is along the shores of Lake Victoria and the HIV/AIDS rate is very high – some say up to 30% — because many women there frequently trade sex for fish so they can feed their families. We reached 100% coverage in Suba and now have expanded to a neighboring community, Migori.


Marcy and Jessica are just two of the women who are participating in this program. Having met with a volunteer community mobilizer, Marcy, and her sister-in-law, Jessica, decided to get tested for HIV – they wanted to know their status. Marcy has a five-month-old baby with her husband, Jessica’s brother, and being able to get tested in their shared home made it convenient and confidential. After preparing the women for all the possibilities and educating them about HIV and AIDS – the difference between them, transmission methods, risk reduction, etc. – they took their tests, which only needed about 10 minutes to process. They chose to get their results separately and were both happy to learn that they were negative. If they had been positive, International Medical Corps would’ve been there to make sure they knew how to access treatment and counsel them through the process. International Medical Corps has 44 counselors who go door to door, administering HIV tests in this one area alone. We test 3,000 people a month!

This is one of our community educators in the Kyaka II refugee settlement. The t-shirt she is wearing is one means of conveying information.

This is one of our community educators in the Kyaka II refugee settlement. The t-shirt she is wearing is one means of conveying information.

I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of the program, but what I observed with the several families I witnessed getting tested is that this program is not only helping people who are infected it is changing people’s views on the disease. Stereotypes are being broken down, treatment is being sought and prevention measures are becoming more and more acceptable. Change is taking place around AIDS in Africa, one person and one family at a time.


I think the biggest highlight for me was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a stop by one of our programs in the Congo ( We of course knew she was going through Congo on her Africa tour but were thrilled to learn that she was going to visit our nutrition program at the Mugunga I camp for those displaced inside their own country due to the ongoing war. I was supposed to come home right after Kenya, but got diverted to Congo to help document her visit. Even though I had spent six years in Washington, DC working for CNN, it was so thrilling for me to see our field staff – 96% of whom are local – being recognized in this very big way. People asked me if I met her or got my photo taken with her and to be honest, it never occurred to me because it was all about them. They are the people who are doing the hard work day in and day out and I was so glad she took the time to SHAKE EVERYONE’S HAND!


Okay – enough about International Medical Corps! Some of the other highlights of my trip were visiting the Nairobi National Park where I saw giraffes, ostriches, zebras, a hippo and countless other animals roaming around in their natural habitat (with the Nairobi skyline in the background!), and floating along the Nile River at the point where it starts its 3-4 month journey to the Mediterranean. I also loved that everywhere I went the Coca-Cola was served in bottles that had been used hundreds if not thousands of times before and the power outlets had switches so you could turn them on when you were using them so you weren’t wasting energy when you weren’t.

I have written way too much already, so I will stop here. But I will just say this: if you get the opportunity to go to Africa just do it. I’ve traveled to many countries and cultures – modern and developing – but there is nothing comparable. I can’t wait to go back!


Katy sez:  My friend Stephanie is in Uganda, as part of her work with International Medical Corps.  It’s a great non-profit organization, and she sent an e-mail out to friends, family, and others that I wanted to share with you today, as our guest post.  For me, it’s important to give to charities, and this is a great charity for me to give my money, when I can.  I also think that although this recession is bad, and a lot of people are out of jobs…other people in other countries have it worse.  After reading what Stephanie wrote, I was in awe of her work, but I was also so grateful for everything I have.  I hope you are inspired too.

Uganda is in orange next to Kenya

Uganda is in orange next to Kenya

By Stephanie

My first week in Uganda will be spent with a remarkable young woman named Georgina Miranda who started a campaign called “Climb Take Action” for which she will climb the highest summit on each continent with hopes of raising $50 per meter to benefit International Medical Corps, a total of $2.2 million. She climbed her third summit – Kilimanjaro – this week and will be visiting our programs in the Southwest where we have HIV and gender based violence activities. She will be joined by two other Kili climbers who also raised money for International Medical Corps. After that I will head to Northern Uganda where I will see programs that range from HIV to nutrition. It is also the site where we implemented our American Express Members Project grant, so I will be collecting information on that so we can report back to Amex. My third week will be spent in Nairobi where I will see our programs in the Kibera slums. I will also be reaching out to journalists, hoping to get some media coverage of the good work that we are doing at International Medical Corps.

Kampala is the capitol of Uganda

Kampala is the capitol of Uganda

July 18, 2009

Today was my first full day in Kampala. After taking an Ambien I woke up a bit groggy and it took me a little while to just get going, but it was worth it because I feel totally caught up on my sleep. Thankfully the shower was warm this morning – last night it wasn’t. That after 48 hours of travel, in the same clothes!

Moses, one of the International Medical Corps drivers, was going to pick me up and take me to a few hotels that I wanted to see for a donor trip we are planning in October. When he called to ask if he could come an hour later, I decided to take a cab as the hotels I was interested in were in the same area and I could just walk to them all – after all it was his day off and he has a one month old baby!

Moses is a young, hard working Ugandan who takes pride in his work, his family and his country. In addition to working for International Medical Corps he has a cab company, which keeps him busy off hours. Right now his wife is staying home with their three children, but he would like to be able to buy her a salon so she can have her own business. He carries photos of their children on his cell phone and showed them to me on our ride from the airport. They are pretty darn adorable. He does not want anymore children because he wants to be able to support his family and have a good life.  He explained the whole cycle of lack of education and poverty in Uganda that we see throughout the developing world.

Moses reinforces that lesson I always learn when traveling: We all have similar dreams and goals.

After touring the Sheraton, the Serena, and the Grand Imperial (if you are looking for luxury the Serena beats them all by far), I walked to the city center. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for but ended up in a place called the City Garden which is a big shopping center. Most of the shops were not very interesting – salon, dry cleaner, food court, a couple of restaurants and clothing stores that were not very appealing. But I did find a really great bookstore and finally got the Lonely Planet East Africa guide book I wanted to pick up before I left along with a couple of maps. Now armed with information, I decided to check out this area below Kampala Road that they suggested for people who wanted to see beyond the tourist spots.

It took me a while to find it, even with the map, but the walk there was really delightful. People were very friendly, saying “hello, how are you?” which I learned is customary here in Uganda. People don’t just say hello – they genuinely want to know how you are. So, after a few mishaps, I got myself in the habit of asking ‘how are you?’.

There are armed guards all over the place – not overwhelming at all, just noticeable. They carry these big guns – rifles maybe, or even machine guns, I wasn’t sure. I stopped to take a picture of two armed guards in front of the election council and had to explain I was just a tourist in order for them to let me keep them on my camera’s memory card. The walls around the Council’s compound were covered with slogans and paintings that encouraged voting and democracy, which of course I thought was very cool.

I felt I was getting closer to this market I was looking for, but wasn’t know certain. I was constantly being asked if I wanted a ride by men with motorcycle taxis and buses that were really mini-vans that would pick people up along the way. I had been warned by Moses that I would be taking my life into my hands if I rode on a motorcycle, so opted against that. And I had no idea where the buses were going, so just continued to walk. I could always see certain landmarks like the Parliament building and some other high rises that were near the hotels, so I could tell what direction I was going and never felt lost.

I turned down one road and as I walked along the poverty was stunning. I did not take any photographs as I thought that would be rude, but the people were living in flimsy shelters with tin roofs that I assumed did not have electricity or running water. Once I got to a section where people clearly had a little bit more I took some photographs. There were these adorable children playing outside of one house and as soon as I took out my camera they started waving and smiling. In general I did not take too many photos – unlike other places I have traveled it just felt like a violation of their privacy.

After a bit more walking I knew I was almost there. I walked through an area where they sold car parts and other supplies, then a few turns later I was at the market. One enterprising Ugandan named Pasqual offered to show me around. I politely declined several times then just decided to give in. In the market there were several tables where men were playing Lugo – a game played with dice that looked a bit too complicated for me! Without Pasqual I would have no idea what that game was called so already decided it was worth whatever I would end up buying.

We walked around and he took me to stalls run by his friends. Our first stop was someone who was selling fried and spiced insects – I forget what kind, but I promptly turned them down. He ultimately convinced me to buy some vanilla beans, passion fruit, plantains and roasted peanuts. I already knew how delicious the peanuts were from a colleague’s trip, and was not disappointed with the rest. At one point we stopped at a meat counter and I wanted to take a picture but the guy did not want me to unless I paid. So I gave him a couple of coins and took a few photos. Feeling empowered by my new level of comfort, I decided to try one of those insects on the way out. It was good, but glad I didn’t buy a whole bag!!

I did a bit more walking, found my way back to the posh hotel neighborhood and caught a cab back to my hotel. My feet were covered in red dirt and my face with many layers of dried on sweat. I now sit at the patio bar at the hotel, enjoying a glass of white wine and an incredible view of lush trees and a sky filled with papery clouds just starting to collect moisture. The perfect end to a memorable day.

et cetera