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Stella and Agu

Written by Megan Ridge on 2/8/2010:

We had the most amazing experience today at the Acholi Quarters. For those of you that are not familiar with this place, let me give you a brief history. In 1986, an Acholi man named Joseph Kony started a group called “The Lord’s Resistance Army.” His aim was to overthrow the Ugandan government in favor of a more scripture based government. It quickly became clear to the majority of the population that the LRA was an unfocused attempt at controlling government, and perhaps more about Kony gaining individual power than anything else. Kony started abducting Acholi children to create an army. During these mass abductions, the group would steal medicine, weapons, and money. On the day of the abductions, Kony would usually make the children commit some kind of terrible atrocity in front of their entire community– bite someone to death, cannibalize a family member, or kill a brother or sister with his bare hands. They felt that this kind of trauma would make the child never want to return to their previous life out of shame. This is the LRA’s 24th year of activity, though things have been peaceful in Northern Uganda for the past 3 years. Most believe that the group is weakening and perhaps has moved up into Southern Sudan. The people of Northern Uganda are intoxicated with optimism, saying that Kony is now Sudan’s problem. The fact is, Kony is still free. 30,000 children have been abducted to date, and at the moment there is believed to be about 800 total members in the LRA. I could go on, but I think you get the gist.

Today, we heard two Acholi women’s stories. We had a translator, and they told us how they fled Northern Uganda to escape the LRA. They now live in the Acholi Quarters, a piece of land in Southern Uganda, purchased in 1956 by the King of Buganda, and they raise their families there. As more refugees flooded the land in the 1980’s, diseases spread- especially HIV. Many of the children died and now many grandmothers are caring for their grandchildren. Some women are providing for as many as 19 children.

It was our great honor to take several donations to the Acholi people. With additional funds we purchased beans, flour, soap and medicine for each family. I found out that the two families I was assigned to have a total of 16 children between them. So I rummaged through the donations and picked out a jump rope, frisbee, several books, baby clothes, and toothpaste/brushes. I hoped it would be enough.

Most of the people do not speak English. Only the educated Ugandans speak English. The Acholi Quarters is so HUGELY different from the city of Kampala, and it’s only 20 minutes away. These are the poorest of the poor. We were lead into a large room where about 20 adults sat, smiling and clapping, and as soon as everyone was settled, they sang us a welcome song in their language. We sang “Amazing Grace” back to them. Our trip leader, Joseph, explained to them why we were there and what we were going to provide for them. There are about 1,000 people living in this area, but we were only able to provide for 40 families.

I had the great fortune of being matched with two women- Stella and Agu. Stella spoke broken English, which was a special opportunity, as most of the population does not. I was able to communicate with these women in a way I did not think was going to be possible. Stella took me to Agu’s house first so she could translate. Agu’s house was at the top of a very steep, rocky, red dirt hill– which was really good for me, carrying a 25-pound bag of flour and beans! The physical effort it required of me to get up that hill, and still smile and say hello to all of the curious children, really took my mind off the fact that I was clueless as to what I was going to do once I arrived in her home.

Her house…was the size of my hotel bathroom and there were two benches inside. All of her children came in and gathered around and shook my hand saying “thank you.” And I immediately understood that there was nothing to do but just be there. I listened while Stella told me that Agu’s husband passed away and she has been raising her 8 children by herself. Both of Agu’s parents are gone. She goes to the stone quarry at the top of the hill every day and works so she can pay the $20/month rent for her living space and feed her children. They eat one meal a day. I surprised myself in my ability to be present and grounded in the moment. I felt very little pity, only compassion. I reached out for Agu’s hand and held it for a while. I knew we were one and we were equally blessed to be in the presence of one another. In reality, she was actually serving me.

After several pictures, we went back down the hill to Stella’s home, and along the way she introduced me to several people, all smiles and handshakes. Beautiful little kids pointing, smiling, chanting, “Muzungo!” which means, “white person.” Stella’s home was much the same as Agu’s; perhaps a little sturdier looking, two beat up chairs and a small stove filled the space. She told me that she went into town to learn English– she is 24 years old, tending to 7 children, three of which are her sister’s children. Her sister was shot in Northern Uganda during their escape from the war. She was pregnant at the time. They thought it best to deliver her baby and she died. Her son does not have a hand because of the shooting, but it’s truly a miracle that he’s alive. Stella was as optimistic and generous as Agu. I wish I could have given them the world, but that’s not what they wanted. They are the loveliest people I have ever met– they live in a 10X10 room with nothing in it, and love bigger than imaginable.

As I was leaving Stella’s home (and believe me, I didn’t want to go), there were so many hugs. A young woman I hadn’t met yet came up to me, put a necklace around my neck and said, “I love your name, Megan. It is so beautiful.” And then Stella placed another necklace around me, and then Agu. Three recycled paper bead necklaces that they made in their community, the most beautiful mementos I have ever received. As I made my way to the bus, Stella gave me another tight squeeze and asked me, “When are you coming back to us?” And I said, “As soon as I possibly can.”

On the drive back, some emotions finally came up. It looks hopeless, because it’s not just the Acholi Quarters that needs attention. It’s the whole country. These people are living in absolute, unimaginable poverty. It’s not comparable, not even close to what we witness in America. There is a reason why our material possessions are ruining us. There’s imbalance in the world and is the job of the fortunate to sustain that balance. This is our responsibility. On the other hand, it was a magical, beautiful, joyful day. I could have sat among these women much longer than we were able. I feel so lucky that I got to hear their stories and hold their babies. I realized that each life is unique, but much the same.

I read a letter that my mother wrote for me today.  It quoted, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. If everyone does something, together we can change the world.” Amen.

Bless the whole world,


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An Unexpected Gift…

As I was standing outside the birthing center listening to one of the midwives describe a typical day, Sally, our trip coordinator, began to beckon me into the delivery room.  She says; ‘there’s a baby coming.’

I enter a dingy, approximately 10 x 12 room with two old examination tables covered in what looks like white plastic garbage bags.   Two Ugandan women, experiencing intense labor pain, were being treated by a midwife.  Sarah, a member of the OTM group who is a Doula, was giving a woman who was clearly full term breathing instructions as she shared her “Emergen -C” infused water.   No water was available for patients.

Sarah introduced me to Margaret, who spoke little English and seemed disgusted and confused about why I was there.   Drawing closer to Margaret, the repulsive stench coming from her body nearly knocked me out.  It had clearly been a long, long time since soap and water had touched her.

Another contraction began and Margaret reached out for me.  Fearing that I might faint from the funk, I took a step back.  Then I closed my eyes, said a prayer, and took a deep cleansing breath.  A sister was asking for help, the funk didn’t matter.   I held out my hand.  Margaret swiftly pulled her whole face between my breast.

When an examination by a midwife determined that she was only 8 centimeters dilated, Margaret was  told to get off the table and go outside.  Reluctantly and only with help from Sarah and I, she got off the table and went to an area in back of the clinic.  There we met Margaret’s sister.

On all fours in the grass, Margaret indicated that she needed to defecate and did  – right there on the grass.  Margaret’s sister gathered banana leaves to clean her and Sarah handed me her scarf for wetting to wipe Margaret’s face as there were no towels.  Margaret, still on all fours in the grass, writhed and cried.

Sarah and I, insisting that Margaret was near delivery, coaxed the attendants to re-examine her.  They now agreed that it was time.  I held Margaret closely as Sarah continued her coaching work.

Struggling to position her on the garbage bags, Sally held one leg, as I held the other, and together, we scooted Margaret in position.  For an instant, I wonder how in the world I got here – in a hot room overwhelmed with the stank of body oder, defecation, urine and blood, assisting a woman who is most likely HIV-positive in childbirth.  I silently thank God, we open her legs a little wider on the stirrup-less table,  and see the emergence of the baby’s head.  After two more big pushes, we joyfully witness Margaret’s baby boy enter the world, exercising great lungs, weighing in at 3 kilometers. Margaret sees her baby boy and smiles big.

As the child is taken away, Margaret smiles at me, lays my hands on her belly and indicates for me to rub.  When the nurses return their attention to Margaret,  I continued to massage and jump as the placenta is released.  Margaret smiled big again.

Sally, Sarah and I joyously celebrated Margaret and her beautiful baby boy, recognizing that even with all the inadequacies, they were both very lucky.   Most woman in Uganda’s villages deliver their babies in a bush.   The death rate of woman and children in childbirth is insanely tragic.

When I inquired about Margaret and the baby the next day,  I was told that she was gone.  Mothers in Uganda spend hours, not days recouping after childbirth.  Though, I’ll most likely never see her again, I am grateful beyond words for the deep connection I experienced with this sister on the path.  Truly grateful beyond words.


That which connects us is Sacred – My day at the Acholi slums

Today was my first day in Uganda and we went to visit the Acholi slums located outside the Kampala, the capital of Uganda. We had brought with us lots of clothing and supplies from home to give out to the families living there. Like so many other times in my life that I have faced the new and unknown, the experience I had there was much different than I had imagined it would be.

The first thing that struck me was the strong sense of community that I felt there. It was truly inspiring. We gathered with many of the women in a meeting house of sorts which was no more than a large dark cement structure with some make shift wooden benches. There they welcomed us with a song that was filled with so much joy and gratitude that I felt my heart open up and soak it in like a sponge or like a thirsty dessert animal who had stumbled upon a cool stream and was drinking in the life affirming water. This was not the vibration of sadness and despair that I had imagined would be so palpable in the slums that I wouldn’t be able to breath. We answered their song with our own rendition of Amazing Grace. I had never offered a song as a gift before but it felt like such an honest exchange of loving vibration. It was powerful to say the least.

The second part of the day involved splitting up on our own and going to visit the homes of two families and delivering to them what we had brought. This part was challenging for me. For starters, where as most of the other members of my group were paired with two women (one from each house hold), I ended up two men. At the first house, and I use the term ‘house’ lightly as it was no more than a two room shack which housed 6 family member, no english was spoken. Luckily, the four children with who lived there were of the ages 2-6 and I was equipped with a bottle of bubble’s … need I say more?

The second house, however was a very different scene. Nine boys (who were a mix of brothers and cousin) lived there along with 1 baby girl and a Mom and Dad. The house was, again, only two rooms and I can’t fathom where they all slept. I didn’t ask because I was afraid it would be somehow embarrassing for them. The father spoke only a little english but explained how his brother was gone and that he had taken in his 3 nephews. He was working to support all 10 kids and when he couldn’t think of the english words to express his situation I offered some help. “Hard”, I said to him. He looked me in the eyes and said, in a deeply burden ridden voice, “Hard”. Then there was a silence that lasted for so long that I felt my whole body contract with uncomfortableness. No one was speaking. The teen age boys (ages 13 – 18) had the same vibe as my teenage step son and his friends – totally great kids but probably were being forced to be home and hang out with their parents and me when all they really wanted to do was to go out and hang with their friends. At least this is what I imagined. The scene felt tense. I felt stupid just sitting there but couldn’t think on anything to say. We all just sat there. Time seemed to drag on forever. When the father explained that the boys new english very well but were just to shy to say anything I looked at them and told them that I was feeling shy do. They smiled and though I could have imagined it, I can almost swear that we all shared a big group exhalation. I felt my muscles loosen, my breath began to flow again. We had found our common ground. They were nervous and I was nervous and it was okay.

At first I felt disappointed in myself that I had frozen up in their home but now I feel okay about it. It’s where I was at the time and I am just so happy that my heart allowed me to be vulnerable enough to express what I was feeling to them. They say a smile is a language that we all share but so are songs, tears, hardships and even moments of shyness. Whatever it may be that allows us to connect is Sacred and today, in a place where I had imagined that I would feel so different and separate from those whom I would be meeting, I had a taste of that first hand.

Live, love and learn,



About the Seva Challenge and Bare Witness Tour

It is incredible.  One challenging, inspiring, successful year of fundraising later, we are once again on an airplane, flying to our destination of Uganda from all parts of the US and Canada, in preparation for what will no doubt be a life changing, two week adventure into the heart of sacred service.  Last year as we put out a call to the yoga community to raise significant funds for the very first Seva Challenge, we had no idea how powerfully the community would respond, raising over $537,000 for the Cambodian Children’s Fund and offering the 20 women (who raised 20k each through outreach and community building), an opportunity to experience first hand, the devastating effects of genocide, poverty, disease and domestic violence on an entire population as well as how one person (or many) can take action and bring help and healing to the children of that population in the form of basic needs, education, and a loving and safe environment in which to grow.  There were days where each of us was confronted with the absolute worst atrocities that humans can inflict upon one another, days where we could feel the palpable emotion as the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal began (30 years after the initial genocide), but perhaps the most memorable parts of the trip were the days when we visited the children at the facilities and sang and danced and practiced yoga with them. These laughing, playful, joyful spirits so full of life will no doubt grow up to become a powerful and well educated part of Cambodian society and knowing that we were, in some small way, a part of that joy and that future was the greatest gift that each of us could receive.  Many of us on that journey became deeply aware that in offering our service in this way, we received far more than we could ever possibly give.  This is the heart of sacred service.

This year, we again put out the call to the yoga community. We again asked people to use their creativity and ingenuity to find new ways to activate and motivate their own local communites. Again many yogis rallied, creating auctions, donation classes, products for sale, arts events, yogathons, and more and pushing themselves beyond perceived limits to stay inspired and continue to give voice to their visions and goals.  But this was no ordinary year.  Seva Challenge participants were faced this year with a stressed economy and a fiscal environment in which many service and non profit initiatives were shut down due to lack of adequate funding.  However, despite these challenges, we collectively raised $574K and  we will soon be arriving in Uganda to meet up with the 21 women who reached the goal of 20K each with the help of hundreds of yogis at home.  We will be visiting a country that has known only war, genocide and violence for over 20 years.  We will be immersing ourselves in a population in which 1 in 5 persons has been infected with HIV/AIDS.  We will be walking the sacred red earth of a country where the oldest human fossils have been found…a place called the motherland.

This year, in partnership with Shanti Uganda, we will be building an eco – birthing center for women with HIV/AIDS and helping to support the education and training of the midwives and nurses there…creating a place for women (who might otherwise die in unassisted childbirth) to have a loving and safe environment to bring their babies into the world.  We will be collaborating with Building Tomorrow and, along side the members of a local community, building an entire school brick by brick and providing a place for some 150 – 400 children to have access to safe and sound schooling.  We will be learning about the specifics of HIV/AIDS prevention, education and the latest advances in treatment from YouthAids.  We will visit the offices of Invisible Children and hear about the 350.000 child soldiers abducted in Uganda as well as how some of those children are being lovingly rehabilitated and reunited with their long lost families.

And again, our task as sacred activists, is to practice the presence of love and compassion, even as we work for change.  Even as we encounter children and families without even the basics needed for survival and facing the devastating long term effects of the pandemic of AIDS, we are charged with the task of staying present in our breath and in our bodies, witnessing honestly and profoundly, using all the tools that we have aquired in our yoga practice on the mat, and simply showing up with respect and a willingness to connect.  Connecting to the land,  to every woman, man and child that we meet, connecting to each other and connecting to the truths that keep us inspired to meet all that we encounter with fierce compassion and a strong heart.  And we will be changed. There is no doubt.

We are profoundly grateful to be a part of this growing community that is innovating the concept and reality of sacred activism and we are thankful for the vibrant creativity, leadership and love that has been called into action in such a powerful way at a time when it is so crucial and necessary to our global evolution and awakening.  We look forward to sharing our stories and inspirations with you over the next two weeks.

With Love Seane Corn and Suzanne Sterling


A lesson learned

It’s day 2 of the Uganda experience and I am exhausted. I actually left the group in the middle of the day today because I was copmpletely wiped out, emotionally and physically. Day 2. We started the day with our yoga practice. The practice felt good in my body. I felt strong and grounded and enjoyed the movement after days of travel and all of that stagnancy on the plane. By the time we got to savasana, however, something had shifted. Normally, savasana takes me to a deeply calm state. However, today all I felt was anxiety. It just popped up out of what seemed like nowhere. What the hell was going on? I assumed that my jet lag and sleep deprivation was catching up with me although that was my rational brain saying that. My emotional brain was freaking out because I just couldn’t have anxiety then! I had so much energy yesterday for our first day and our visit to the slums. I was surprisingly inspired and joyful after that experience. So, here I was this morning at 9 am feeling anxious and not ready for anything today and judging myself for it. Not helpful, of course. Last night in our group processing Seane spoke of how we could expect all sorts of emotional things to come us for us during the 2 weeks and how we should talk about them, be present for them and express them however we needed to, even if it’s some ugly  stuff coming up. We have to take care of ourselves so we don’t hold onto it and let it shut us down or close us off. It’s a lot to take in here and we need to acknowledge it and own it for ourselves. So, that was last night, it all made sense. And here I am at 9 am pissed off at myself for getting anxious.
So, I decided, after I got off the mat, to just be open to how I was feeling, breathe through it and move on with the day.
We started the day at Pace, learning about this incredible organization that serves the Ugandan community. Pace’s mission is to use their programs to improve the health of vulberable Ugandans  and promote sustained behavior changes. Part of what they do is create and distribute HIV prevention and care packages that include a safe drinking water system, condoms, mosquito nets and antibiotics. A lot of what kills people with HIV are the opportunistic disease that take hold of their vulnerable bodies and destroy their immune systems. So protecting from malaria, TB, and other diseases in important for those with HIV to remain healthy.
They are saving thousands of lives a year through this program. We took a tour of the warehouse and saw their operation. They are no machines doing the packing and processing. It is a dedicated group of workers who care about what they are doing and put their hearts and hands into creating these products for people. I thought about the woman whose family I met and spent time with yesterday, Abalo Betty. She and her entire family  have AIDS. The people in the slums don’t have access to many of these preventive AIDS programs and don’t have the means go out and seek it for themselves. There is just so much help needed in this country. It was great to see that Pace is making a positive difference in people’s lives although they are aware that there is much more work to be done as well.
After my experience at Pace, my emotional and physical state were not much better than this morning, actually a bit worse. I was exhasuted, sad and starting to feel physically ill. So, although there was more on our schedule for today, I  have learned through the guidance of Seane and Suzanne that if I don’t take care of myself, I’m not of much good and sustainable use to anyone else.
So, I listened to my inner guidance and decided to take the rest of the day off to rest, rejuvenate, and ground myself so that I can go out and be of service tomrrow in the best shape I can be in. There was a reason I was anxious this morning even if I’m not exactly sure what it was yet. But I trust that my body was trying to tell me something. Maybe it was trying to tell me to take care of myself, listen closely to my body, and just accept, not judge, what is going on with me. Well, that’s what I learned anyway. If I’m not taking care of myself, how can I do any good here for anyone else?

And onto  a new day…

xoxo Heather


Mama is Uganda Bound Again!

Today is the day!  My bags are ready to close.  The 50 pound big boy filled with dental, medical and school supplies is ready to load in the car.  Soon I’ll be headed to the airport – embarking on my 2nd trip to Uganda.

Now, with all the practicalities handled, I can begin to really bring conscious contemplation to what is right in front of me.  I’m a set an intention, let it go, do the next good, right, honest thing kind of girl. The intention that I set for this trip and actually for all of 2010 is – ‘to serve’.  I’ve got a lot of inspiration for this intention including and especially the 22 other women on this Uganda journey.  And… the picture that I’ve attached below is another big source of inspiration for me and has been since my first trip to Uganda in March 2008.

One of the organization that we will be working with on this trip is called Building Tomorrow.  They are, believe it or not, based in Indianapolis, IN just like me.  I had no idea of they even existed until my first Uganda trip.  Building Tomorrow builds schools in Uganda.  I’ll write a lot more about them in coming blogs.  Anyway, when Seane and I met them on the last trip they took us to a village where a school was being built.    The materials are furnished by Building Tomorrow, but the school is built by the community.  The picture of below is of a woman in that community who was out in the hot, hot sun, wheelbarrow and tools in hand working to build a school!    She is the guardian of the child with her in the photo and while we know he is directly related, it was unclear whether he was a grandchild or great grandchild. We were told that the generations in between were dead due to AIDS.    All I know and my big inspiration is – seeing how she wanted that baby to go to school and what she was willing to do for it.

I so hope I have the chance to catch up on all of this while there, but really it doesn’t matter.  I am still so inspired!  I can’t wait to get out there and help build a school!!!


And okay….now that you all know I’m from Indianapolis!  It would be just wrong to end this post without saying GO COLTS!!

Love and blessings!


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