Uganda project update

This is a very late update on the status of the project we worked on while we were in Uganda. While I was in Uganda this summer, my group and I were hoping to see a well be dug for the Sisters’ new complex. This was, of course, after we had originally planned to build a spring box around a spring on the new land, only to discover that there actually wasn’t a spring. So we settled for paying for a well to be dug, and hoped that we might get to actually see the process. We did not see the process, because the trucks required to dig the well weren’t able to make it through the roads when we were there, and later the truck driver got sick, which precluded them from making another attempt before we returned to the United States.

I said this was a very late update because it really should have been posted 3 or 4 months ago, when the well was finally dug. It was a few weeks after the start of the semester when we got an email from our professor, informing us that the well was finally complete. This was great news to hear, because once we left we didn’t really know what would happen, and whether the well would ever actually get dug or not. This is a huge problem with service trips like the one we took to Uganda- three weeks is not enough time to get a lot done, and unless you or somebody else follows up on what you did, a lot of time it doesn’t end up being completed, or it breaks quickly, and then it’s no longer helpful. I’m glad to know that at the very least the well was dug, and OU also has a long-term plan to continue working with Sister Rosemary, so it should be maintained for a long time.

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Staying Connected after studying abroad

A while ago, I got a message from one of the girls I met in Uganda. She just wanted to know how I was doing, and wanted help getting in contact with some of the other people who went to Uganda with me. It was really great to hear from her, and it got me thinking about staying connected to all the people you meet when you go abroad. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t done a good job of that. Like I’ve done a really terrible job, despite phones, and wechat, and facebook, and skype, and all the other technology that should theoretically make it really easy to stay in contact with people. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, because once you go back home, and get settled back in to life in the U.S., you just don’t end up thinking about those people as much. Not because you don’t care about them, but you just never see them or hear from them. I’m not particularly talkative either, and it’s not always easy to know what to say when you haven’t talked to someone in a while.

I’ve met so many wonderful people during the two study abroad trips I’ve done with OU, and it would be such a shame just to not keep in contact with those people. Technology is a good tool, but it’s still up to us to keep in contact with people. It’s still up to us to send that first message, and I’d like to do a better job of that in the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some messages to send.

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CLC Moon Festival

This year was the first year that I got to enjoy the Moon Festival celebration put on by CLC without having to worry too much about trying to find a room to have it in, or come up with a presentation, or try to get people to sign up for the CLC mailing list. It was definitely nice to be able to just enjoy the event without running around like a crazy person the whole time. Like every year, we celebrated with moon cakes and other food, and listened to a presentation about moon festival. As a previous presenter at this exact event last year, I was surprised to actually learn something new about moon festival. In addition to eating moon cakes and gathering with family, another tradition is to carry lanterns, or to hang lanterns with riddles on them for people passing by to solve. I didn’t really know about this, but it sounds like a lovely tradition. I did a little more research on it, and it’s actually kind of interesting, because unlike moon cakes, it doesn’t go all that far back in Chinese history, and nobody really knows why there are lanterns for moon festival. Moon cakes are probably the most well-known tradition associated with the festival, and have been associated with in pretty much for as long as it has existed. They are also only associated with moon festival. Lanterns, on the other hand, are associated with a variety of different festivals, and haven’t always been associated with Moon festival. It actually looks like over time, the traditions associated with lanterns were kind of transmitted between festivals, so that now Moon festival, which did not actually have lanterns, and has no story as to what lanterns originally meant to the festival, is now associated with lanterns. I just think that’s pretty interesting.

Anyway, the CLC Moon festival was a lot of fun. It was good to see all the Chinese professors, especially now that I don’t get to take very many Chinese classes anymore. And it was also good to meet the new CLC members and see old friends. The new CLC officers did a really good job of getting the food and presentations organized, and keeping the event running smoothly, and I can’t wait to see what events CLC has next semester.

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Leadership Change in China Talk

A couple weeks ago I went to a talk by Joseph Fewsmith on Leadership Change in China, and it’s implications for US-China relations. China had it’s 19th Party Congress in October, which is basically a meeting among China’s top officials to decide on new officials and policies. The congress is held every 5 years, and a new president is installed every other congress. The party congress this year did not see a new president, but did have several other important developments. The Chinese government is basically organized with a president at the top (currently Xi Jinping), and four branches that all work under the president. The legislative branch (People’s National Congress), the Executive branch (the State council, whose chair is known as the Premier), the judicial branch, and the military branch. The politburo is also an important body, composed of about 25 officials. This is a decision making body, and the Politburo standing committee is a smaller group of seven from the full politburo who have a lot of decision making power. There are also of course important positions heading the different branches, and managing different provinces of China. Who gets into these positions is pretty much decided by other people on power, but there are some informal preferences for seniority, and somewhat formal age limits for officials. The main developments of the 19th party congress was the reshuffling of important officials. The basic idea is that Xi Jinping was able to promote a lot of people who agree with him without breaking the seniority of ageing out rules, so he cemented his power while avoiding backlash from the rest of the party.

There was a lot more to Dr. Fewsmith’s talk than just that, but unfortunately, I didn’t know enough about Chinese politics to really grasp all of it. The talk really was good, and the speaker definitely knew a lot about the subject, and was able to go into a lot of the nuances of the decisions made at the congress. I wish I could tell you about them, but I definitely didn’t know enough to understand any of them. Overall, I’m glad I went, because it was very interesting, and showed me that I really should learn more about Chinese politics.

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CLC This Semester

Chinese Language Club kicked off this semester with an officer election meeting followed by a fun social for Chinese majors and minors to meet each other and the professors. The past two years, I’ve been an officer in Chinese Language Club, and it’s been a great time. This year, however, I have a lot going on with rowing, research, and way too many classes so I decided to take a step back from CLC. It turns out all my fellow officers were feeling the same way, so the officer election resulted in a brand new group of officers. So far they have a lot of energy and it seems like they’ll do a better job than we did! Though I won’t be an officer, I still plan to stay involved. I’m excited to see what CLC will do this semester.

The Chinese Social was a good way to kick off the semester. I’m only in one Chinese class this semester, so it was good to see all the other Chinese faculty and old friends from classes who I haven’t seen in a while. It was also good to see all the new students in the Chinese program. It was especially exciting to see how many of them turned out for the social, because one of the biggest problems with CLC is low turnout for events. It seems like there are a lot of energetic and involved new students in the Chinese program, which was really good to see. Overall, I’m excited to stay involved in CLC, and see it hopefully grow this semester.

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The effects of conflict

This past June in Uganda, I had an opportunity to really see some of the effects of conflict firsthand, and it was really eye-opening. It’s not like Gulu is a war-town pile of rubble or anything, it’s been peaceful since 2006 and is a very safe place. But the people there are still recovering from the LRA conflict, and Northern Uganda is also affected by conflicts in the DRC and South Sudan. There were some things that I expected to see, and some that I just never would have understood or known about without seeing them. Those are the things I’ll talk about here- things that I just didn’t fully understand, or didn’t even know were problems.

Though it wasn’t immediately visible that Gulu had been through a war, the effects on individuals were clear once we started interacting with them. The OU education students were working in a women’s primary school at St. Monica’s, and the rest of us got to tutor some of the students and give exams while we were there. Most of the women in school had stopped going to school when they were very young due to conflict. The women’s education was interrupted at such a young age that they really didn’t have the basic skills you need just to get by. We were working on math skills that I remember learning in first or second grade, like addition and place value. I can’t imagine trying to live without those basic skills, even just for budgeting and keeping track of money. I guess I just take knowing how to do basic arithmetic for granted, and didn’t quite realize all the implications of not actually getting to learn that.

The conflicts in neighboring countries also had some visible effects on Northern Uganda. Early on in our study abroad, we went on a two day road trip around Northern Uganda to drop medical and nursing students off at various health centers. Our journey took a lot longer than we thought it would. I didn’t think much of it, but Sister Rosemary (the Sacred Heart Sister in charge of the compound we were staying on) said that it was due to the heavy traffic of UN trucks to and from Bidi bidi refugee camp near Moyo, Uganda. Bidi bidi currently hosts around 270,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. The massive amount of traffic to and from the camp, coupled with the fact that there is virtually no road maintenance in Northern Uganda, means that the roads around the camp are deteriorating rapidly. We saw the effects of this when our drive took three times as long as predicted. The effects of that on everyday life and development are huge, because it’s really difficult to get much done with almost impassable roads. I certainly never would have known that that would be such a big problem without actually seeing it.

Uganda is still recovering from it’s own conflict, and still has a long way to go toward repairing all the damage that was done, particularly to individuals lifestyles and education. Meanwhile, it’s still dealing with conflicts in neighboring countries. Uganda has a very compassionate refugee policy, and pretty much has open borders, so there are a lot of refugees in the country, particularly in the northern part. In fact, some of the women in the school at St. Monica’s are refugees from either South Sudan or the DRC. This puts additional strain on Northern Uganda to try and accommodate all those people. To add on to all that, people in the South of the country, where the government is, still have really negative opinions about the North due to the LRA conflict and former president Milton Obote’s use of Northern Ugandans as soldiers in his very violent army, so less governmental aid is afforded to the north than the south. Basically, the effects of conflict in Northern Uganda are widespread and complicated, making it difficult for them to continue to develop.

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Impressions from Gulu, Uganda

This past June I had the opportunity to study abroad in Gulu, Uganda. I was taking an engineering class, and our main goal was to build a spring box to provide clean water for a planned compound about 2 hours from Gulu. Long story short, there wasn’t a spring, so that project did not go as planned. Instead, we struggled to come up with a useful project, and settled on hiring a contractor to drill a well, making a plan for the water distribution system at the site, and making a map of the site that was to scale. We only accomplished two of these three objectives, as the contractor did not make it out to the site before we had to go home. It turns out that’s just how things work in Uganda, you need to plan for everything to take a lot longer than you might think. I really wish we had been there for more than three weeks so that we could have made a little more progress.

Though the academic experience in Uganda was a little frustrating, the cultural experience was incredible. The one positive of not really having a project to do was that we had a lot of free time to explore Gulu and interact with the people on the compound where we were staying. In the afternoons, the girls in the tailoring school would have a break, and we would all play soccer or netball together, or just sit under a tree and talk. There were also some construction projects going on within the compound – a new library was just built and a new guest house is under construction. I spent a lot of time at these sites attempting to learn how to build things, and getting to know some of the people on the construction crew. Those guys are some of the most impressive people I have ever met, and some of the nicest. They were patient enough to teach me everything from laying tile to making bricks, and even let me attempt to help on their projects. I can’t imagine I was much help, but it was a really good learning experience.

Overall, my impression of Gulu was a positive one. The people we met there are still recovering from the LRA conflict, and many are affected by the current crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they are incredibly resilient and positive people. Things may take a little longer to get done there, but that’s just something you have to deal with in developing areas. I actually wish we had been able to stay longer, because I was just starting to get settled in and build relationships when we had to leave. I definitely want to go back and take time to continue to build those relationships, because Gulu really was an incredible place.

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Preparing to go abroad again!

As a Global Engagement Fellow at OU, I get to go abroad not just once, but twice. I did my longer trip almost 2 years ago to China, and decided that this summer might be a good time to go on my shorter trip. OU has a lot of options for summer study abroad programs, and it took me a long time to sift through them all. I had it narrowed down to a few in China and Taiwan, but actually ended up taking my study abroad advisor’s advice and applying for a program in Uganda. The program I’ll be participating in is three weeks at St. Monica’s Girl’s School in Gulu, Uganda. Though I miss China, I’m glad that I’ll be taking this opportunity to go someplace that I’m much less likely to go to after I graduate college. The program also has an Engineering track, and is part of a cooperative development effort between OU and St. Monica’s.

I’m excited to go abroad again, but this will be a lot different than China. I’m pretty nervous about going there because I know so little about what it will be like. When I went to China, I was a little nervous, but I had spent several years learning about Chinese language and culture. I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I don’t know a lot about Ugandan culture or history, but I do know that since gaining independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has gone through a lot of violence. I’m nervous about being about being able to interact effectively and sensitively with people whose culture I understand so little and who have been through so much recent violence. You can bet that I’ll be reading a lot of books on Uganda in the next few weeks.
The school we are staying at, St. Monica’s Girl’s School, was actually founded to help victims of violence, particularly victims of a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony. The group abducted between 30,000 and 40,000 children who were either killed or forced to become child soldiers and sex slaves. Children who did manage to escape were stigmatized and rarely accepted back into their communities. St. Monica’s was established to teach skills to young women who escaped the LRA and were stigmatized by their communities so that they could provide for themselves. The school teaches tailoring, catering, and hairdressing, and was founded by Sister Rosemary Niyrumbe. The original school is in Gulu, but there is another campus in Atiak that was recently opened.

The part we will play in all of this is in helping to provide St. Monica’s with enough water. Last year, OU students surveyed people at St. Monica’s and in the areas around Gulu and Atiak to determine what their water needs were. Basically, they found out that everyone has trouble getting water, and that the burden of getting water primarily affects women. This year, we will be building a protected spring box for an agricultural farm owned by St. Monica’s, as well as work on a few other projects to improve the water situation at St. Monica’s. I’m definitely nervous about it, but also excited to be doing something that is useful and bigger than just me going someplace interesting.

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Interesting notes from my Chinese Linguistics project

This semester I’m taking an independent study Chinese course. The course is an extension of my previous Language, Culture, and Cognition course, where we proposed a design for a linguistic study. This semester I actually attempted to conduct the study that a proposed. The study I proposed was a linguistic relativity study looking at the differences between Chinese and English. Linguistic Relativity is the theory that the language we speak actually influences the way we think. For example, other researchers have found that the orientation of our writing influences how we visualize scenes, and what part of scenes we pay most attention to. English speakers tend to notice more from the upper left corner of a scene because our text starts there. Taiwanese Mandarin speakers, however, still often read texts that go from top to bottom and then right to left, and they have been found to notice more from the upper right corner.

The study I proposed looked at something a little bit similar to this- the difference between Chinese and English punctuation. Chinese speakers tend to use a lot more commas and fewer periods than English speakers. It’s normal for half a page of text to have maybe only 2 or 3 periods. I wanted to see if this difference in punctuation was reflected in how people parsed long sequences of events in their mind. My method for testing this involved having people arrange pictures that represented a very long sequence of events to see how they broke them down into lines. I only managed to complete a pilot study this semester, but hope to complete a full study in the future. The pilot study only had 15 participants, but there were some interesting results. For one, the Chinese speakers tended to make longer lines with the pictures than the English speakers. This may actually support my hypothesis that how information is parsed in language affects how it is parsed in the mind. Chinese tends to have longer sentences than English, so we might expect that they would break the pictures into longer segments. Another interesting observation was that there was much more variation between English speakers than Chinese speakers in how they arranged the pictures. The Chinese speakers all meticulously arranged the pictures in the order I had intended, while several English speakers put them in a completely different order.

These results aren’t very meaningful at the moment, since it was just a small pilot study using methodology that needs major improvement. I just thought it would be interesting to share because I still find the idea of linguistic relativity really fascinating.

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CLC Chinese Language Practice

This is the first semester I have been able to really get involved and participate in Chinese Language Club’s Language Practice Hour. I went to a few freshman year, but never really managed to go consistently until this semester. It was an interesting experience as a CLC officer, trying to figure out when and where to hold it, and how to get people to come. There were definitely a couple hours spent in a dingy room in Dale Hall Tower with nobody except for myself and AJ (CLC’s president). We had a good time attempting to speak Chinese to each other and trying to devise ways to make more people show up.

As the semester went on, we moved the practice hour to a much nicer room in Wagner Hall, found Chinese professors to join in, and managed to offer free pizza. We managed to have 5 or 6 people each week, which was a big step up from just AJ and I sitting in Dale Hall Tower. The moral of the story here is that free food is apparently a must for a successful event. It was good to get to keep practicing my Chinese, especially since I don’t have a Chinese class this semester. It’s important to find a way to keep practicing a language, and CLC practice hour was a good way to do that in the middle of a crazy busy semester. It was also good to meet some of the younger Chinese majors and minors as well as professors I’ve never had class with, and reconnect with old friends and professors from Chinese classes.

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