A Yogini’s Journey to Uganda
by volunteer and Birth Partner Karen Sainas
For as long as I can remember, Africa has been in my heart and I knew one day I would find my way there. I was introduced to Shanti Uganda in 2012, when I met Natalie, the Founder of Shanti. I knew this was an organization I was excited to be a part of and so I committed to the Ambassador role! I spent 2012 supporting Shanti’s fundraising events, bringing awareness to my community and fundraising by teaching yoga, facilitating workshops and kids’ yoga camps!
In early 2013 I knew in my heart it was my time to experience the Shanti Uganda Birth House. I arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on March 21, 2013. As the airplane wheels touched the African earth I had many tears of deep gratitude. “Am I really here in Uganda?!” I was so excited to finally arrive! Shanti’s amazing, kind driver, Ben, drove from Entebbe through the very busy city of Kampala. This experience was similar to that of India with the roads full of boda-boda’s, cars, taxis, bicycles and people all flowing with each other like a traffic dance! As we cleared the busy city of Kampala we made our way towards Kasana Village where the Birth House is located. The drive was so beautiful. The road was lined with little villages, full color, lush green terrain and children everywhere coming home from school in their colorful uniforms. There were children selling local fruit and vegetables on the village streets.
I settled into my small room, which consisted of two sets of bunk beds, which I shared with three other volunteers. The volunteer house has two small bedrooms, six beds total, a small bathroom with a flush toilet, running water (most of the time) and a very unique shower system! We had a small fridge and gas cook top in our kitchen/living room. It was a quaint space to share with the other volunteers. I was so honored to meet Jamila, a 23 year old woman who lives next door and has been cooking dinner for the Shanti Volunteers Monday to Friday for the past couple of years.
I enjoyed learning all about Jamila and her dreams. I went to the local market with her to gather the food items we would use to create my first meal in Kasana. As we walked through the village of Kasana so many children ran up to me to say “Hello Muzungu!” and wave with big smiles on their little faces. I would later learn that it meant “hello white skin”. This little village was accustomed to having Shanti volunteers come and go over the past three years. The market was full of local vegetables and fruits. The land is abundant with crops of tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, onions, greens, carrots, garlic, cabbage, mangos, passion fruit, jackfruit, green peppers, bananas, grains and pineapples. Jamila created such incredible delicious meals for us. I LOVED the chapatti dipped in g-nut sauce along with fried bananas! At times we created these meals by candlelight and flashlight as it was very common to lose power and water for days, which was a lesson in gratitude.
My first walk to the Birth House was with an amazing girl named Sara. Sara had been in Kasana for two years with the USA Peace Corps. The walk from the volunteer house to the Birth House was 30 minutes through the village. It was a beautiful walk along a quiet dirt road lined with local houses, crops and many young children running out to the street to say hello to us! The children were all so happy and curious to connect with us every time we walked to the Birth House. When I first saw the Birth House I felt a great sense of serenity. It is nestled amongst so much natural beauty in area of Kasana called Nsaasi Village.
As I walked through the gate my eyes scanned the stunning property. I saw the birth house main building, the birthing rooms, a large hut, green grass, a variety of fruit trees, gardens and a lovely little rock lined path that led to the Birth House. As I walked around the property I noticed all the lush gardens, which were full of vegetation and healing herbs. There was a large beautiful stone latrine in the back of the property. Everything was so beautiful and the energy felt so peaceful.
The Birth House was having a busy day. I first met Sister Florence (also know as Sister Lule) and Ssanyu who are both Shanti Midwives. Ssanyu gave birth to her daughter, Honey, at the Birth House within the first year of it opening. As I arrived there was one mama who just delivered her baby girl and another mama in labor who gave birth later that evening to a healthy baby girl.
It’s very common for the Midwives to bring their young children & grandchildren to the birth house during their shift. Sister Lule had her two year old granddaughter “Florence” with her on this day along with Ssanyu’s two year old daughter “Honey”. They were happily playing on the grass just steps away from the birthing room.
I also met Flora who works for Shanti as a Family Planning Counselor, Prenatal Yoga Teacher, Traditional Birth Attendant and assists with the Teen Girl Workshops. I later met Shanti’s head midwife the lovely Sister Mary. What an amazing team of women! AND men! There are wonderful men tending to the gardens every day, maintaining the Shanti buildings and Ben, Shanti’s Driver.
During my time at the Birth House I was given the opportunity many times to see first hand how my Birth Partner monthly donation was put into action! This is one of the easiest and sustainable ways to make a difference in the lives of Ugandan women & babies. A monthly donation of $50.00 supports the birth of one baby every month. This includes 24/7 midwifery care, pre and post natal nutrition, education and yoga classes as well as all lab tests, sterile equipment and birth supplies. I witnessed all of these services and was so impressed with Shanti’s team. I saw so many beautiful newborn babes and happy mamas.
The Shanti Uganda Birth House is a beautiful place to give birth in a relaxed setting amongst the peaceful and healing energy of nature. I spent as much time as possible at the Birth House, following closely behind the staff & midwifes, and learning all I could about their roles and responsibilities.
I enjoyed listening to Stella, a midwife, sing every chance she got to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton! Stella’s big smile, light humor & calm nature really help birthing mamas to be at ease. There are two birthing rooms each with doors that open up onto the property full of nature. Inside the large main house there is an examination room and a large room with four beds for new mamas and their babes to rest after birth as well as to treat women with Malaria. The main house is also where the free weekly vaccinations take place for any babies in the community. There are also free nutrition and family planning workshops and prenatal yoga classes. I was honored to teach prenatal yoga to the mamas under a big tree on the grass surrounded by gardens.
The Women’s Income Generating Group (WIGG) also meets in this space, and I enjoyed teaching them yoga as well. The WIGG employs twenty-one HIV positive mothers and grandmothers from Luweero District and gives them the training and business skills they need to succeed. Shanti provides the Singer sewing machines the women use to create a variety of beautiful bags and yoga mat bags! The WIGG also create beautiful paper beaded jewelry. This is a wonderfully successful and sustainable program for the local Ugandan women! I brought home with me a large suitcase full of new products!
Uganda is truly a beautiful country ~ the Pearl of Africa! I decided to take a three day safari in nearby Murchinson Falls Park before leaving Uganda. It was an incredible adventure! I am so happy I did it!
On the eve of my last day in Uganda, we all gathered at the Birth House for a bonfire, food and the sweet sounds of Flora’s drummin’ and singin’. I hung up the Peace Flag of mandalas on the front of the birth house that my Yoga Kids created during my summer camp fundraiser for Shanti. Twenty-five beautifully painted personal mandalas expressing love, peace and oneness!
My experience at the Birth House allowed me to witness many beautiful things, including seeing babies come into the world surrounded by so much love and nature, as well as their mamas deep gratitude for the Shanti Midwives, Staff & Interns for their compassionate approach to child birth.
I witnessed a community of women from Canada, USA and Uganda coming together to support a common goal of maternal and infant health as well as empowering one another to be powerful and compassionate leaders of change.