Rebecca Scherpelz (Uganda)

Rebecca Scherpelz (Gulu Disabled Persons Union – GDPU): Rebecca is from Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated in 2008 from Butler University with an undergraduate degree in International Studies and Anthropology/History. During her studies Rebecca led service trips to Uganda, where she lived and volunteered in Gulu and Kampala. Prior to her AP fellowship Rebecca spent over two years working with Best Buddies, an international non-profit that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After her fellowship Rebecca wrote: “I think I found what I want to do long-term. I’d like to go into a long-term career of recipient-donor relations, empowering recipients to speak up for what they need the most... It really made me think about what we give, from dollars to second-hand things, and how recipient organizations deserve the very best…not just leftovers.”

In appreciation of “different”

20 Jun

Apwoyo from Gulu!

After one week in Uganda, I’m settling into my role as a Mzungu/munu visitor in a Ugandan world (“Mzungu” or “munu” are the local words for white person, foreigner, etc…basically anybody the locals can pick out as an outsider!). The welcome here has been wonderfully positive, and the generosity of friends and the kindness of strangers have gone a long way to help me feel at home. For the first few days, I experienced life with a fellow Butler graduate, Genni, who has relocated to Uganda to start a family and a new life! Special thanks to Genni, Julius, and baby Dominic for the amazing hospitality as I got my bearings in Ntinde (near Kampala), adjusting to the 7-hour time change, constant heat, and local food. Weebare!

Traveling to Gulu, it was a 6-hour bus-ride north. Heading that direction, the road becomes increasingly rough, the weather increasingly warm, and the lifestyle increasingly impoverished. Though poverty and struggle exists across all of Uganda (and much of Sub-Saharan Africa, for that matter), the post-war North is in the midst of a long and slow climb up following more than 2½ decades of war. Still, the overall attitude in Gulu – the largest city in the north – is one of incredible faith, eagerness, and yearning for a better tomorrow.

For me – a “munu” in Gulu – I’m constantly aware of how I stick out, for better or for worse. To be fair, the presence of a munu even a decade ago would have been more rare than it is today, as an influx of NGOs descended on the city, bringing with it workers, researchers, missionaries, peace builders, and young idealists (like me). Today, only in the more rural areas would the first “sighting” of a munu be an event (even a fearful one!) for a young child. Still, as I walk through town, attempt to buy mangos, stand by the road to meet friends, greet people in the local language, ride by on a boda-boda (local motorcycle, aka one-person taxi), and try to cautiously integrate my personal lifestyle with respect to Ugandan culture, I am ever-aware of sticking out. An attempted “Apwoyo! Atyi maber?” and a friendly conversation may quickly change the attitude, but without that personal contact, I worry that I am judged as an outsider. Someone different. And rightly so, as I am both! However, my own paranoia reads that as a judgment that I am incapable and inept, an invader sent to impose my Western ways or sit and be served. It may take me longer to fetch a 30-kilo gerry can of water and haul it the ¾ kilometer home…but I can do it. I might splash a bigger mess and still somehow end up with dusty feet when I bathe with a bucket and cold water…but I’m still clean. I might prefer different foods and eat a different portion as my stomach adapts to new flavors…but I’m well fed!

So why delve into my insecurities as a white American amongst black Ugandans? I realize it is a bit of a stretch, and pardon any offense in my comparison. But as I work to serve the population of Persons With Disabilities (PWD) in Gulu, I’m drawn to the idea that they, too, might have an idea of what it feels like to be an outsider…to be unjustly viewed as inept…to feel a step behind while striving to maintain the same dignities and opportunities as the rest, despite what the non-disabled population is offering. I’m only two days into my work with the Gulu Disabled Persons Union, but I am inspired by the inclusive nature and broad advocacy of the nine staff members, five of whom have a disability (including visual impairments, deafness, and a spectrum of mobility issues). Additionally, all 12 Board Members live with a disability. In spite of – or, rather, because of – their disabilities, productivity and devotion to the mission is strong. What many in the Gulu community may see as a fault is simply their way of life…neither better nor worse, just different.

So here am I, too – neither better nor worse, just different. We may all find ourselves where we feel like fish out of water…still, it can’t mean that the Deaf man doesn’t want to “hear” what you are saying; that a woman on crutches doesn’t want to enter the same building; that a munu isn’t interested in embracing a new way of life. Here, the GDPU is working tirelessly to help change this perception within the Gulu community; to increase the standard of living, both socially and economically for PWD; and to empower PWD to lead dignified lives. Time to get to work. : )

GDPU (Gulu, Uganda)

Posted By Rebecca Scherpelz (Uganda)

Posted Jun 20th, 2011


  • Martha Scherpelz

    June 20, 2011


    I appreciate how you realize that YOU are different to the people who surround you. What a good place to start your work. Wonderful descriptions and I loved seeing pix of where you are. Please tell the people I tried to talk to on the phone that we should try again 🙂
    Love you.

  • Jackie

    June 21, 2011


    Becca, This is a beautifully written piece. I love this! Your comparisons are genius! They are so lucky to have you on their side!!! Miss you already!

  • Ojok stephen

    June 22, 2011


    I realy apprecaite you work my dear sister, this is a kind of work which the world can know where a Acholi land belong with related varries inhuman life style in the Global, there is nothing i can compared this work of you with and i can’t have any thing to reward you with but our mighty lord shall do it on my behalf. Keep up the good work. who know where the Messiah come from.

  • Rebecca

    June 22, 2011


    Thanks for the comments, friends and family! I had an interesting conversation with a few staff members on Tuesday about the perception of PWD in Gulu. Tomorrow (Friday), we are having a staff training on common disabilities in Uganda. With that information, I will certainly have more to share this weekend!

  • Natasha Smith

    June 24, 2011


    Dear Becca! You have one of the kindest and most beautiful hearts. Thank you for such a powerful story. We love you and follow your chosen path. We miss you!

  • Liza Smith

    June 27, 2011


    Bec, This is amazing!! It is so inspiring and encouraging to the rest of us. I can only hope to be as selfless and thoughtful as you are :))
    Miss you lots but happy to follow the great work you are doing!

  • John Vostra

    November 22, 2011


    Such a good person Rebecca.Love the information and read on Uganda and mama margaret…There should be more people like you in the world.

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