Training Matatus

November 24th, 2013

The training days here on this organic farm are getting shorter and the sessions are getting longer. We are starting our descent from the honeymoon phase into the reality phase. After a lengthy bidding process, I discovered that I would be placed into both a PTC and a Primary School near Luwero, which is a town north of Kampala. It is an exciting time, because now the lessons that we are learning can actually be applied to what we signed up for. All 45 of us have divided into our respective language groups of Luganda, Lugbara, Runyoro/Rutooro, and Runyankore/Rukiga. We have all been assigned different areas of the country and it’s finally starting to hit us that we are going our separate ways in not too long a time.

Today we split into 2-4 person groups and were each assigned a PCT (Peace Corps Trainer) or employee. We then were dropped in front of the main post office in Kampala and had a small tour throughout the city where we learned about where to buy cell phones (Orange or MTN), a Powermatic adaptor, and a USB modem. We then made our way through the Old Taxi Park and the New Taxi Park. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so many matatus and cars squeezed into a muddy area. Matatus are the infamous Ugandan taxis that can seat around 15 people legally and about 30 people, a few chickens, and several babies normally. They’re the main way Ugandans can get to any point in the country as long as the destination lies somewhere along the one of Uganda’s roads that are maintained by the UNRA (Uganda National Road Authority). At points my group would literally have to squeeze through between two matatus that were separated by a foot and a half in order to get to the matatu that would take us home.

We’ve been eased into the country, and times are definitely going to get harder and more challenging, but it’s DSC_0103beautiful. We have been working on creating a 8 page children’s book story on large grain sacks so that bugs won’t eat through them when we put them in storage in the classrooms. It’s tedious work, but it’s worth it knowing that the students will have someone to read to them, which is a very innovative concept for them. The next week will involve us learning about lesson planning for our respective roles in our respective schools as well as language training. It’s going to be a stressful series of weeks, but I am looking forward to it and life is good.

The other day I was riding in a bus coming back from Lugogo, which is a small shopping center in Kampala and felt the fresh African air blowing across my face as the bus zoomed past boda bodas, matatus, and Ugandans walking on the narrow road back to the organic farm. I looked out across the villages, trading centers, and fields of green jungle and thought that despite the hardships ahead that I was where I needed to be in life and that was good.

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PCTs

November 19th, 2013

Today we left the compound around 5am and went to the Sancta Maria PTC (Primary Teachers’ College) located east DSC_0016of Kampala. It was our first visit to a PTC and the affiliated Primary Demonstration School. The way the education system works in Uganda is that there is a Nursery School which is similar to pre-school, followed by primary school which teaches children basics of self-care, arithmetic, and other grade school-like traits. This is then followed by LowerSecondary school which can lead to UpperSecondary school if one’s exam grades are high enough. Students hoping to become higher-level teachers who do not score a high enough grade or who do not have sufficient funds go to the government-funded PTC and train to become teachers for Primary School.

This is one aspect of the much larger issue of being a teacher trainer: having the ability to inspire those who have been told that they were not good enough or have enough money. Our group goal as educators in the Peace Corps is to begin the 10 year long process of the Primary Literacy Project. This project aims to increase literacy by improving teaching methods, increasing pupil success, and improving the school community. For someone like me who aims to be a teacher trainer, I will be working at a PTC and co-teaching and planning in order to reach these goals. There are DSC_0185many ways and roads that lead to these goals, and I am here to set the stage for eventual success, although I may even be long gone from Africa when these goals even begin to come to fruition. This means that I am not meant to mainly be a teacher of one class, but instead will help foster literacy through extra-curricular activities, co-curricular activities, ICT, mathematics, science, and community events. Past PCVs have held HIV/AIDS Education day, setup and maintained libraries, fostered a positive behavior system, and organized a system of discovering a site’s resources.

Tonight we finished placing our top three bids for sites in Uganda. For those of us who have experience in math and science, such as myself, we placed bids for our top three PTC sites whereas those with a literacy background applied for literacy specialist sites. This caused a lot of stress among us trainees, but I decided to be chill about it because I originally came here to help and did not even expect to have a say in my site. So at the very least I got to share my voice, and in return I hope to let others share theirs.

Muzungu Term

November 17th, 2013

Today was Sunday and our day off, but I feel like I used today to catch up on my errands and chores. I went to St. AlphonsiusCatholic Mass with a bunch of the other volunteers and it felt refreshing to go back to mass again since I had not been going religiously every weekend since I had graduated from Boston University. I really felt the universality of the mass at this Ugandan village’s Catholic Church. As soon as our bus entered the village, everyone started staring at the bus. We entered the church, and heads immediately turned towards our general direction. It was not everyday that a muzungu wandered into one of the core centers of a Ugandan community. The mass, which took about 2 hours or 1 hour and another consisting of community messages, eventually ended after we were called up to the head of the church and asked to individually introduce ourselves to the congregation.

You know, the term muzungu has a very interesting connotation. Ugandans refer to anyone who appears white to be muzungu and it comes from a Kiswahili word which means “aimless wanderer”. It is not a derogatory term, rather it is how Ugandans refer to foreigners such as many Europeans and Americans. From the stories of current PCVs, the term gets tiring sometimes since it is rude in American culture to call someone by that person’s race because every person is more than just a race. However, when it comes down to it I will attempt to think of the term muzungu in the terms of its original meaning. We have all become displaced in our own way. We have all become wanderers in our own way who are leaving our American home in order to wander and hopefully make some sort of difference here in the heart of Africa.

 

Kulika Bubble

November 16th, 2013

I talked to several of the other volunteers today, and we attended several more classes about the differences between Kulika MeetingsUgandan culture and American culture as well as the different Peace Corps Committees that help support PCVs with issues such as sexual harassment, cultural diversity, and resiliency. The sessions have been helpful in setting a background of knowledge for us, but it’s still weird because all that we really know about Uganda comes from the presentations, interactions, and stories heard on this farm. We are in this Kulika bubble that is beautiful and still other-worldly.

It was nice to feel a slight connection to home today when we all took out our laptops and external hard-drives to share tv shows, music, and movies. Unfortunately, I totally forgot to add any of those things to my external hard-drive before leaving the United States, so I had a clean computer with video editing software and Microsoft Office which can only be entertaining for so long. Now I have all of the seasons of Breaking Bad and a sizable list of music that can satiate me for those long nights ahead.

Dreams and Time

*Mefloquine is one of the three main prophylaxis drugs used to prevent the major effects of malaria in a person. It is taken once a week and side-effects can include vivid dreams, night terrors, hallucinations, and in some cases depression.

Already we’re starting to get into a routine and it’s still surreal to think that this is all happening. Even as I write this it feels as if I am in a dream world. It’s a world inhabited by strange flora and fauna, stories, foods, and people. It’s strange and different. Right now many of the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and I are still in the euphoric, dream-world stage. We’ve been staying on this farm and attending service presentations and sessions given by program directors, administrators, and current PCVs. We have showers, electric lights, tea time, and three home-cooked Ugandan meals every day. And the only mention of the outside world comes from the stories shared during our presentations about safety and security, bank accounts, cell phones, malaria, and internet access. These are all sessions that are intending to prepare us for our eventual venture out into the “real-world” once we’ve had enough time in getting ready in this surreal state.Kulika Bonfire

Nothing feels real or even that challenging. The paperwork that we need is given to us, instructions are doled out, and even the people who come from Kampala to help us set up our bank account arrive in a white van from a dusty road that winds away into the jungle and hills. Since we arrived under the cover of night, I was unable to physically orient or place myself from Kampala or any other source of civilization.

Yet we interact with each other on this farm and with the other staff members here. We have had talks with the Uganda Country Director, health staff, and education coordinators. We are still living the dream, but I know that it will soon give way to bucket showers, pit latrines, inevitable malaria, disorganized schools, and safety threats during travel. I had a talk with several of the current Peace Corps Volunteers who are leading training sessions, and I felt such a unique vibe from them. It almost seemed as if they were unaffected and in some cases disillusioned to an extent with regards to the hardships and trials that we were expecting to face. Don’t get me wrong, they love their work and even now they say that they would volunteer again, but they are so real in their work and with the goals that they can accomplish tempered by the good that they know they are doing.

One of them stated that not every volunteer during training will make it to the end of service. One volunteer left during training after 10 days in, another had to go back home due to transportation accident injuries, and another volunteer died in an accident. These are real threats, and the way that he shared these situations with us seemed to resemble a tone accepting the reality of the situation and the real ability just keep moving and doing. The lives that the current volunteers live right now are very different than the ones that we have been experiencing here at the farm these past two days.

Kulika Wood SignHowever, I learned something other than some basic Lugandan phrases these past two days: Ugandans may not have much, but they have a lot of time. Time is not a master of the Ugandans, rather Ugandans are the masters of time. Schedules may be made, but at the end of the day the most important thing involves the patience and care that can lead to growth. If one is true to oneself and one’s own community, then growth can occur. There is a lot of wisdom hidden here on the faces of both Ugandans and their mountainsides. And right now all we can do is heed their wisdom and wait for the dream to pass.

Life is Calling

November 13th, 2013

It’s been a crazy journey thus far, but I suppose that any journey that involves leaving your home and traveling Peace Corps Staging Hotelhalfway around the world is considered crazy. I got to Philadelphia on the morning of November 9th and said goodbye to my dad and his wife. For the next two days, I stayed with a friend from the DAAD RISE program with whom I had interned with during my Berlin summer internship. I hung out with them and with two of my other engineering friends from BostonUniversity. I spent my time doing the things that I always did whenever I hung out with them: cooking homemade meals, chilling, listening to music, drinking good beers, going out to bars, biking, and playing soccer at PennPark. Life was good.

I then departed for the Hampton Inn near the Convention Center at noon of the 12th and met with 43 other Peace Corps volunteers for Staging. Staging was a day-long process involving the mental as well as emotional process of preparing for the eventual departure for Uganda. It was during this time that we discussed our fears, anxieties, aspirations, and basic logistics. Afterwards, we were let go for our last night in the United States and a bunch of us left to go have our final American meals and check out some bars. My group ended up ordering burgers at the Hard Rock Café and having a few drinks there, then a few more at a Tapas Wine Bar, and then our final drinks at McGilligan’s Irish Pub. I ensured that my final drink was a pumpkin beer that reminded me of a New England Fall.

DSC_0028The next day was a bit of a rough start for me, but we took a bus to JFK and departed for Brussels, Belgium that afternoon from the international terminal. It was funny to me that I was leaving from that terminal, because it was the fourth time that I had departed from there. The first time was back in February of 2011 for my Dresden Study Abroad Semester, the next time was for my 2012 DAAD RISE Berlin Internship, and the last time was my Summer 2013 Eurotrip. I was feeling similar feelings as I entered the terminal, and knew that this too would be the start of another life-changing adventure that would be the most difficult one to date.

The flight was relatively uneventful, except for watching the movies Pacific Rim and In Bruges, which one of my Brussels Air SunsetDresden Rugby buddies had recommended to watch. We had a few-hour layover in Brussels where we gathered at one of the airport bars to order Belgian beer, although I was disappointed in the selection. I was in the mood for a wider variety but all that they had were Leffe, Hoegaarden, and Stella Artois. The bartender shared our feelings by expressing that these were all considered lemonade. We then took the flight out of Brussels to Bujumbura, Burundi and then onto Entebbe, Uganda. We arrived around 11pm on the 13th, and then were greeted by Peace Corps personnel. After a two-hour bus ride to an organic farm near Kampala, we ate a delicious “dinner” (since it was 3am) consisting of a purple peanut paste, fried chicken, rice, noodles, squash, and a tomato based meat sauce. There was also tea, and good lord do they love their tea time here. I guess that it had something to do with the British influence from decades past and I don’t mind.

DSC_0064So we finally made it to Uganda, and I still have some trouble fully believing that I am in Africa. I know that I’m in the honeymoon phase and that everything appears to be idyllic and euphoric. The feeling will soon change, but as of this moment everything feels new and awesome. Pre-Service training begins tomorrow and things start to get real. I look forward to my experiences ahead and knowing that life called and I responded.

Philadelphia

With every passing day I get closer and closer to my actual departure date of November 13th, 2013. I’m already in Philly at one of my friend’s apartments whom I met during my DAAD RISE internship in Berlin, Germany two summers ago. My last few days in Maryland were hectic and emotional. I bid farewell to representative friends who have made up the friend groups that I made throughout the last decade and a half of my life. I did my final bar-hopping with my grade-school friends in Fells Point, ate some fries over melted cheese and crab in a Towson Bill Bateman’s, and chilled in one of my friend’s apartments in Baltimore.

So this is it, I have finally made it to Philadelphia and to the last stage and hurdle before I leave for Uganda. It’s kind of crazy to think that it’s finally happening but here we are and time continues moving whether we like it or not. I decided to spend my last few days enjoying the normal life of sleeping in until 10am, biking down a street to buy groceries after a night of drinking, and then making a fall-themed chili with pumpkin. Aw man the taste of both Baltimore Old Bay and Boston Pumpkin combined together in a heart-warming chili right before heading to the Hampton Inn near the Convention Center for the Peace Corps Staging really hit the spot. I ate Ethiopian food at this dive bar called Era, and ordered city-wides which is a shot of whiskey and a Philly beer for about $3 which was awesome to learn about. I also played soccer at the Penn Park with my BU friends Thierry and Max, and it literally felt like life was as it was when we were back in Boston as undergraduates.

But I knew deep down inside that it was actually all different, and that we were all moving on with our lives. I may have been playing soccer with old friends, and I may have woken up at my friend’s apartment on Franklin Town Blvd, but I knew that in less than 24 hours I would be on a plane on Brussels Air headed towards Brussels and then to Entebbe. Tonight was a beautiful last day in the United States. I got to meet over 40 people from all over the United States who hailed from a wide variety of backgrounds, educational backgrounds, ages, and experiences who were all united by the one commonality of wanting to be a part of the Peace Corps as an education volunteer.

Aw man, it is so beautiful and nerve-wracking at the same time. I have never had to deal with so many goodbyes from friends and family members within such a short span of time. However, I know that life has been calling me for the past few years to finally muster the guts to make this 27 month commitment, and I feel as if I’m ready. I got to spend my last night in Philly sharing some beers, aspirations, and taxi rides with my new-found friends who are in the same position as me.

Irish Bar Post Stagi

Sometimes I feel as if I could cry,  but I have to save my emotions and my tears for the trials and experiences ahead. It’s been a crazy ride, but I know my life has somehow brought me to this pivotal point, and I answered the call to serve.z

Another Beginning

It is the last Sunday that I will spend in Maryland for a long time. Once again I prepare to bid farewell to my childhood room. I have done this so many times now and the room has gone through so many transformations that I no longer know how to feel about my goodbye. My first real goodbye to this room was almost three years ago when I was packing up for my study abroad spring semester in Dresden, Germany for my sophomore year at Boston University. Back then I was emotionally distraught because I was saying a really long farewell to so many of my friends and family members. My mom had recently moved out of the house that I had grown up in since I was six, and she had moved into a new apartment about a week before I had left for Dresden. My dad also informed me that he was going to sell the house, so I had also had my closure back then with my final last glances at the house as my dad drove me to the airport that morning. And it’s funny to think back to then and to think about where I am right now. My experiences in life thus far have led me to this moment of finally leaving for service in the Peace Corps in Uganda.

The difference with my departure from my room this time is that I have had this goal of serving for over 7 year. I first really heard about the Peace Corps when I joined the two-week leadership program, GYLC (Global Youth Leadership Conference), had the opportunity to visit the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington D.C, and talk to a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Kazakhstan. That was the first moment when I knew that I wanted to one day become involved with the Peace Corps. Now I can honestly say that the waiting has paid off and I feel so ready. What has given me hope and strength has been the support of my friends and family members. I started a GoFundMe Page in order to raise funds to pay for some of my supplies as well as my monthly payments for my personal student loans (since Peace Corps takes care of my Federal Loans). The outpouring of support from Facebook likes, comments, shares, donations, and messages have given me the confidence to go forth and not falter. There are definitely times when I feel very overwhelmed by the immensity and scope of this endeavor that I am about to take, but the comments stating that I have inspired others and Lived the Fourth and desire to change the world have helped me to press on with confidence and hope.

It is true that there are a few of those who do not support me and have let me know that. But I am stronger than their words and committed. The Peace Corps has a slogan: “Life is calling. How far will you go?” I have heard the calling and the joy of that calling has welled within me and my heart for the past 7 years and has been evident in my passions, commitments, and adventures. And now I begin that first step to a life of service that I have dreamed of for so long. The journey will be long and arduous and at times it will suck, but it’s another beginning and I couldn’t be more excited.