"This City, it is Shining," by Shannon Harney

HarneyS 1.JPGShannon Harney recently returned from Jinja, Uganda. In Uganda, she worked with Soft Power Health, a local health clinic, to expand HIV education and testing in four rural secondary schools–via an educational HIV seminar for teachers, an on-campus HIV seminar for students that included free on-site voluntary testing and post-test counseling, and the creation of a savings account to generate funds for 2 Soft Power Health staff members to become HIV post-test counselor certified. The following is a selection of posts from the blog she kept in-country describing various stages of her experiences.

September 25, 2007
HarneyS 2.JPGI live in an agrarian jungle; a banana plantation right outside our back door, coffee plant volunteers seeding everywhere, each home equipped with its own durable sweet potato field and as I look to the west to watch the sun set from the main road I look past an ocean of sugar cane.

My mother, Rose, is dark and strong, with speckled honeycomb eyes and hands the size and texture of a baseball mit. My older sister, Silvia, is small and waif-like, and yet incredible durable and grounded; she gets stuck in quick sand Christianity too often for me, but her intentions are good. And the last of our humble abode is Edith, she is 10 and has boyish facial features, from what I can tell she has 1 dress, 1 skirt and 1 shirt…all beyond repair. Her status in the family seems to be dangerously close to house servant and she is so soft spoken I’ve all but given up trying to hear her quiet obeys; I found out just this morning that her constant hacking cough is because she has malaria…there is a sever lack of communication in my house.

The 25 or so children that reside on my street alone are priceless. The day I moved in, I had an audience of about 10, just peering curiously into my window for hours…they didn’t want to chat or beg, they just wanted to see my things…things are a rare commodity out here.

October 12, 2007
Last week my supervisor wanted to demonstrate how our HIV test kits in the clinic work. He carelessly grabbed a blood sample from the dozens of test tubes perched on the counter and dropped a blot on a tiny receptor strip. Ten minutes later we went to check it out and it had read positive. The random lab sample, the older women in the hall who’d complained of dizziness was living unknowingly with HIV. We couldn’t inform her I was told, as its illegal to test for HIV without consent. So I sat and stared at the test for a few minutes until the doctor came and threw it in the rubbish bin. I bid the woman a safe journey and refilled my water bottle. Those are things I don’t know what to do with.

So. I’m here for 3 months (1 of which is gone with the wind). I’m not going to eliminate AIDS from rural Ugandan communities. But I’d like to think I could take a stab at educating, informing and testing my district, my community; with the hopes and idealistic longing that my efforts will propagate themselves elsewhere in the country. With the money I raised at home, the money that was donated so generously to this project by my dear friends, family and even distant acquaintances; I’ll be implementing a pilot project for Soft Power Health.

October 26, 2007
HarneyS 3.JPGMonday night I facilitated my HIV education seminar for the secondary school teachers. I had assumed that we would start at about 7:30, after all, I’d told them to show up at 6:30, its called African Time. When I got to the hotel at 5:30 I’d set out to practice, set up, calm my nerves and my newly arrived bout of nausea…what do you know? All the teachers were there, sitting, waiting patiently. That blew my mind. I was really impressed, impressed by the honoring of their commitment to come, their timeliness, their motivation…it was really inspiring, it made me feel like perhaps I’d gotten this one right, perhaps I’d tapped into something that they really wanted, that they felt could help them make a difference. I’d asked the hotel to provide refreshments on my bill… you know, coffee, tea, sodas… so when I saw all the teachers kickin’ back with cold beers I knew the communication barrier had once again gotten the upper hand. I paid nearly three times more than I’d budgeted for, but the heated post-seminar roundtable discussion on teaching techniques was a lot more fiery thanks to the happy glowing buzz the teachers were feeling. Everything happens for a reason?

I spent that night throwing up (beers were not involved in this I assure you) and wasn’t able to go to work on Tuesday thanks to a number of GI issues. All I wanted was sleep, the temperature in my solar oven house to drop below 90 and my host-mom to please stop offering me fried macaroni… and then down the path to my house comes trotting a whole band of cohorts. My clinic was worried about ‘the sickness’ and so they all decided to abandon their health profession posts for the afternoon and come visit me; needless to say it was the first sick-in-bed day I’ve ever spent surrounded by a doctor, two nurses, a lab tech and a cook…just in case.

November 22, 2007
The logistical swamp bucket that presents itself when trying to coordinate three autonomous bodies is thick and it is fierce. After much pleading, rationalizing and exhausted compromises each school finally confirmed a date [for a school seminar and testing] that worked for both Soft Power Health (i.e. me…that wasn’t too difficult) and AIDS Information Centre Jinja.

East Secondary School- November 5th at 10:30 am
The AIC staff arrived one hour late to our meeting place, thus we arrived nearly 2 hours late to our appointment. It didn’t seem to be any skin off the Headmaster’s back as he was lounging under a mango tree eating jackfruit when I arrived in my long-skirted American “I heart efficiency” guise. We lumbered into a concrete classroom with dirt floors and twiddled fingers as the students scuffled in. The presentation went nicely, my favorite moment was when a cocky 18 year old raised his hand to say, “You said that condoms they should be thrown in the pit latrine. But me, I fuck in the bush, so what then?” The AIC HIV counselor was kind enough to take that question for me; I cowered backwards and resisted the urge to kick him in the mouth. We tested 70 students.

HarneyS 4.JPGLubani Secondary School- November 8th at 1pm
The AIC staff arrived one hour late to our meeting place, thus we arrived nearly 2 hours late to our appointment. It didn’t seem to be any skin off the teacher’s backs as they were lounging under a grove of pine trees, “We have just released the students for lunch. You wait for some 40 minutes.” So we began the presentation at around 4 pm, at which time I was introduced by one of the younger teachers as his wife. This set the students into such a fit it took canes and cursing of all sorts to quell them. This particular teacher, my husband, has taken to text messaging me late at night to tell me he misses me, that he needs my personality or to ask me “ware you b?” I gave the presentation to just under one thousand students. Outside. Without a microphone. These are times when I thank my theatre career… projection, annunciation…pause, punch and attitude…you got it! We tested 97 students before we ran out of vacutainer needles and the sun went down. This was the most chaotic group of all the students, I sustained several minor injuries that evening as well as coming to the conclusion that I don’t ever, ever want to be a schoolteacher. The electricity at the campus was shifty at best and we realized about thirty minutes before dark that the special hire car we were riding in had no headlights. Henry, the driver, and I had a friendly little chat where all I could think about was that he had a huge problem of misusing the word “generally”, ‘Well, generally, I have no lights. Oh, yes, generally I will go get another car.” This was not the end of the “Henry screwing me up” saga.

Trinity College- November 12th 1pm
By this point I’d like to think I’d worked out most of the hitches. I told the AIC people to arrive four hours before the program began and this time we were only about 20 minutes late. I educated the students in a really beautiful shaded arbor; pine trees, eucalyptus and palm all collected in a strange kind of partnership to provide a cool and calm space in which to talk about viral infections and condoms. We were able to test 100 children and make it home before dark. I felt good, I felt really proud driving home around dusk, the pink sky burning into the sugar cane plantations, the amueze rising as a fingernail in the sky.

HarneyS 5.JPGSt. Stephen’s Secondary School- November 14th 10:30 am
I almost don’t want to talk about it. But this, as much any of the pitfalls and obstacles, was part of my experience, part of the reality of getting things done or not so done here. I received a text message from the HM from St. Stephens at about 10 am the day of the program, something along the lines of, “Please cancel your visit. We are too busy. Thank you.” Keeping in mind please, that this is after two months of planning, of confirming and reconfirming of sticking to a date and time that he suggested. And so I kindly asked him to reconsider based on the fact that the program had already been paid for, the counselors had been hired etc etc. His response was, “Our position is final and unchangeable. Your program is not as important as our students learning. Thank you.” The story concludes with me rolling up to the school in a heated fury and laying in on the administrative staff, using my big English words and all.
Over, done with, unfortunate. Thus the lackluster aspect of this whole sha-bang.

But now I have about a month to learn this place. Learn the ebbs and flows of her land and people, the things I’ve been biking past too fast to notice. The weather has been peach, plum, pear perfect lately; cloudy sunshine days, breezy, beautiful. The living here is easy and I’m gonna take an HIV load off and enjoy it while I can. Christmas is coming in fast this year.