No Place I’d Rather Be

Five days ago on December 22nd I turned 23 years old. It was a low-key affair, and I didn’t even tell my host family about it. I woke up early to accompany my host dad to go to the Catholic Mass at St. Paul’s, and then he showed me around the markets and where I could buy chickens. He also informed me about the prices of various produce during this holiday season. I actually enjoyed it being a low-key affair, and it was humbling just to spend the day with the family. Then later on in the evening I trained with the neighborhood children and my host family’s children. The host family has four children: Diana, Davis, Daniella, and Daniel. Diana is six-years old and is the eldest girl, followed by the four-year old Davis, then the two-year old Daniella, and the eight-month old Daniel.

My host family is a very gracious and beautiful family. They call themselves a very free family. By this, I believe that they are not as rigid as some other traditional Ugandan families. For example, the girls do not kneel to greet me and the parents are not very strict when it comes to the children. During the day many of the neighborhood kids come over to the house to watch tv or play with the host family children. Recently I’ve started this training regiment that incorporates exercises from rugby and the Insanity workouts in order to stay more physically fit. The host family children and the neighborhood kids call it “training”. Whenever I return back to the host house, the kids all ask for training.

So it was decided that for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that the Central Language group would all stay at the Saint Paul’s Guest House behind the Catholic Church in Kasana. We would all be partnered up two to a room and stay in one of the compounds with a small courtyard, communal room with a tv and couches, and a kitchen where we could cook. We split up the responsibilities for these two days and I made arrangements to purchase and lead the cooking of the food for the next two days. We bought rice, beans, 4kg of beef, two live chickens, mangoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oranges, pasta (also referred to as “macaron”), tomato paste, potatoes, and various other spices and baking supplies. The chickens were the hardest part of the meal, because I first had to reserve them from a neighbor and then I had to pick them up while they were still alive on Christmas Eve morning.

Later during the day on Christmas Eve I had one of the guest house workers demonstrate how to kill, de-feather, and gut the chickens in front of me so that I would be able to do the same thing myself in the future. He started by laying banana leaves on the ground and then laying a chicken on top of it. He pulls back the wings and then steps on it with one foot and then steps his other foot on the chicken’s feet in order to keep it still. He then plucks the feathers from the bird’s neck in order to make the beheading cleaner. Then he kills the chicken by slicing through the neck. The neck is then held in order to spurt out as much blood through one of the main arteries. The open end of the neck is then tied with a piece of banana leaf in order to keep the insides fresh during de-feathering.

Boiling water is then poured over the chicken carcass in order to assist in the plucking of all the feathers. Then the chicken is gutted by cutting around the anal cavity and carefully pulling out all of the guts. He advised that care must be taken not to burst the gall bladder, because its contents could ruin the taste of the chicken. Then the gizzard had to be removed from the neck of the chicken, otherwise there would be tiny stones that would be added to the chicken. Water was then poured into and around the chicken in order to clean it from the remaining blood and then the chicken was ready to be stuffed and roasted.

I took a small break from the Christmas Eve festivities and beer pong in order to wish my host family a Merry Christmas (Sekukulu Ennungi). I returned to the household and gave the children some more Reese’s Pieces and Maryland Fisher’s Popcorn. To the parents I gave them a bottle of Spanish White Wine bought from one of the local stores. They were very thankful for the gifts and they shared with me a fourth of a cake made for Christmas Day. It was a small, round cake that tasted of ginger and had a hard sugar icing covering its entirety with small dots of pink frosting. My host mother told me that she had paid one of her neighbor friends to make the cake for her for 40,000 Ush. It was this small gesture that made me emotional, because this family that did not have much still went out of the way in order to make Christmas Day special with a small expensive cake. They even set up a branch of what looked like an Evergreen Tree to be the Christmas Tree in the corner of the room. I told the family that I would return the next day.

Then it was Christmas Eve night and we just finished a scrumptious dinner of Old Bay and sugar dry-rubbed steaks, roasted chicken stuffed with onions, carrots, garlic, oranges, and tangerines, rice with mangoes, onions, and oranges, and thinly cut, garlic-basted filets of beef. It was a meal that took everyone’s help to prepare and several days to plan. Even with the limited materials of on and off again electricity, a clogged sink, and only two burners we were successfully able to cook all of the food that we wanted to make. It was a successful meal, and I was happy.

The following is an excerpt written by me on Christmas Eve night at bed as the stomach cramps intensified:

“Right now I am lying on the guest house bed and am a bit out of commission. The feeling that I have right now is reminiscent of the abdominal and intestinal pains from Giardia. It’s not as bad or debilitating, but it still hurts a lot and has been plaguing me since I arrived on site here with my host family. It sucks, because I really want to be close to me host family and spend more time with them and the four beautiful children, but I usually excuse myself to lie down on the cold, hard ground of my bedroom in the house with the windows open in order to cool myself.

And there’s nothing that I can do about the pain. It’s just there.”

It was at this point that I had to stop writing because of the pain. Fortunately, I was able to sleep and I awoke Christmas Day feeling a bit better. I attended the Catholic Mass at 10am and it lasted until 1pm. The homily itself took about an hour and then the announcements at the end of the service took about 45 minutes, during which they thanked all of the local government officials and religious clergy who attended that service as well as myself and the other Peace Corps Volunteer who attended the mass.

I returned back to the guest house and prepared a large pot of chili for lunch with the added flavoring of taco seasoning shared by another volunteer. I got a head start on dinner, which was Filipino adobo (beef boiled in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic) and roast chicken again. We finished eating dinner, but again the cramps came back and I was unable to return back to my host family to wish them Merry Christmas. The cramping was intense again, but I was able to sleep after much tossing and turning on the bed.

The day after Christmas offered a bit of a respite from my stomach cramps. I felt myself getting much better and I returned back to my host family from the guest house where they asked me to cook the beef for them. I obliged and dry-rubbed slices of beef with a mixture of Old Bay seasoning from Maryland and sugar. I then pan fried them on the sagiri and served it to my host family with some rice. They absolutely loved it, and said that they were learning about these different cooking methods from me. I wrote in my journal:

“I honestly never would have believed you when it was said that we would experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But now there is no other way to describe it. I spent a tough past week since arriving at homestay with a gassy stomach, cramps, and tiredness with switching up my schedule and lifestyle so far. I started having the cramps on my birthday and dealt with it through the Christmas celebrations even as I cooked. I feel so much better am so glad that my host family loves my OldBay and sugar barbecued meat on the sagiri. I am full, content, my stomach isn’t cramping, and life is good again.”

However, I was wary of this respite and called PCMO in order to ensure that my cramping stopped for good. Joann, the PCMO who helped me during my bout of Giardia at Shimoni a few weeks ago, instructed me to purchase 2g of Tinidazole from the local pharmacy. In the evening I walked into Kasana and purchased the medicine and returned back to my homestay where I ate some fish for dinner and took the Tinidazole. As soon as I finished supper, I started having intense gas and cramps. This started around 8pm and continued throughout the duration of the night. I did not sleep that night from the 26th to the 27th. I called PCMO around 2am and was consoled by Joann who told me to take some Ibuprofen and that I would be picked up by a Peace Corps vehicle and brought to the Peace Corps HQ and Medical Office in Kampala. I didn’t know if I could make it that long. I took 600mg of Ibuprofen, which did nothing to curb the pain for over 12 hours:

“Crap, it’s exhausting dealing with the pain of bloating, gas, and cramps for over a week. And I can’t do anything about it. It’s inside me and it just hurts so much and sucks.

It’s just hurt so much for over a week now without relief. Why?!

I’m crying on my knees in the fetal position because it hurts so bad. I’ve never felt anything like it. It’s like shooting pain coming from inside my stomach.

Oh my God I literally cannot move or function without these cramps. I can feel churning in my stomach and lower abdomen and there’s nothing I can do to lessen the pain.”

While I waited for the Peace Corps vehicle to arrive, I tossed and turned on the bed and then would sometimes curl up into a ball on the floor because it was cool and hard on the ground. Not even the fetal position could help me and every burp or fart was accompanied by a resounding gurgle from my stomach which would lead to more gas being produced inside of me. Around 5am I threw up in the pit latrines and then returned to my room for 5 more hours of pain until the Peace Corps vehicle arrived to pick me up. I am so thankful to my language trainers, Herbert and Dan, because they arranged for the vehicle to arrive directly at my host family’s doorstep in order to pick me up.

I then endured two hours of driving through the bumpy Ugandan roads until we arrived at the Peace Corps HQ and medical office in Kampala. I remember attempting to occupy my mind with fond memories of my life before Africa in order to divert my attention from the pain. I thought of biking through the beaches of Ruegen in northern Germany, hanging out with my BU friends in my Allston apartment, and thinking of how comfortable my old bedroom in Owings Mills would be. I discovered that gentle memories were the best ones to curb the pain, and not ones involving much physical activity such as sports, drinking alcohol, or hardcore adventuring as these only led to focusing on movement which would lead to a churning sensation in my stomach. I would focus very hard on a good memory and grasp onto one of the chairs in the van in order to deal with the pain. If there was a moment when I wanted to return back home to the United States even for just an hour, it was during this ordeal.

We then made it to the Peace Corps medical office and Joann came to meet me. I hugged her and then just burst into tears from my pain, exhaustion, and hope for relief after a week of pain. She consoled me and told me that they would do everything that they could to help me feel better. I later found out that she was also believer in holistic medicine and healing in addition to her science-based background as a doctor. She believed in taking care of the person from a personal level, and I was even told from her co-workers at the office that she was a presence that they would all miss. Agatha, one of the Ugandan medical workers at the office, shared with me that she would miss Joann’s hugs in the morning and how she would always be ready to make you feel alright and at home. Joann then took me to see Dr. Francis who was to become the main PCMO since Joann was leaving the Peace Corps for good that day to return back to her home in California. Dr. Francis then gathered up all the information that he could from me and what I had been experiencing over the past week. He surmised that I either had Giardia or Amoebiasis (amoebic dysentery) and asked me to submit some stool samples.

He then prescribed me with several medicines to combat both my pain and the parasites within my intestines.

Tinidazole was used in order to deal with the parasites inside my intestines which would be taken for the next two days and then followed by Gabbroral for the following week. Then I took Oxycodone/Acetaminophen to deal with the pain and Nospa as a muscle relaxant to help with my stomach cramps.

I then took a short nap in one of the side rooms of the medical office at the Peace Corps HQ, and then Johnson, one of the Ugandan Peace Corps workers and drivers met me to drive me to Nurse Betsy’s house near Entebbe. I was driven alongside a current PCV who was also being brought to Nurse Betsy’s house for other reasons and for healing of a different sort. I will not disclose his name due to reasons of privacy, but he has given me permission to share some of his stories. For the duration of this post I shall call him “M” just like the first letter of my name.

We arrived at Nurse Betsy’s house which feels like a home away from home. It literally feels like the homeliest house that I have ever been to in a long time. It sits near the top of a hill near Kampala and has a closed gate that leads to a small parking lot area. The lower level has rooms meant for the property owner, named Mille Scent, who was the founding director of ISIS (Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange). The house is used a place of rest and healing for PCVs who are sick and need to be monitored while recovering and taking medicine underneath the supervision of the PCMO and Nurse Betsy herself. During my time in Africa, I had heard stories from PCVs who had spent time here too during intense bouts of Malaria and other diseases. I never would have believed that I too would be here.

The grounds are covered with all sorts of tropical plants from banana flowers hailing from Madagascar to Ugandan ferns. The inside is also decorated in such a way that evokes feelings of home. It’s therapeutic here. There are pictures of old family members, coasters from England, small paintings, pastel-painted walls, and panoramic view of other villas and houses on these hills. However, the most rehabilitating part of this place has been Nurse Betsy herself. She is one of the most genuinely kind-hearted people whom I have had the pleasure of meeting during my stay here. Within minutes of arriving she had a bowl of chicken noodle soup and freshly cut bananas and watermelon. And for the first time in over a week I was finally able to lie on a bed without pain and rest.

While here, I have also been able to have the pleasure of sharing company with M who accompanied me here. We have both been sharing a few stories about our experiences in life and about his time spent here in Uganda. I found out that he had devoted a lot of time to learning Luganda, and was now almost fluent in it. He shared some of his knowledge about how the Peace Corps Uganda program was revamped under the leadership of the current Country Director Loucine. I was told that Loucine was an expert in rehabilitating programs that needed to be resuscitated, because there was a time a few years ago when Peace Corps Uganda was almost on the verge of shutting down. The old Country Director was more lax about regulations, and PCVs were regularly allowed to go into Kampala and ride on Boda Boda’s. There were even stories about how PCVs would be allowed to hang out at the old Country Director’s house when he was away, and were given more or less free reign to act as they saw fit.

There were also many problems that plagued Peace Corps Uganda, and so Loucine came in and changed the program to have more regulations and structure in order to keep it afloat. With this also came new regulations. So far there we have been notified of four unbreakable rules that would lead to a PCV immediately being sent back to the United States:

  1. No riding on Boda Bodas
  2. No entering Kampala without express permission from Peace Corps
  3. No leaving country without notifying Peace Corps
  4. No getting into fights with Ugandans

These are not passive rules either, because PCVs have been sent home for violating these rules. The PCV at Nurse Betsy’s house, M, is being sent home for violating one of these reasons. He has given me permission of sharing his story with the world, and so I will do my best to give it in an unbiased manner.

He says that the downward slope to the entire Peace Corps experience started about 7 months ago on the anniversary on his arrival in country. He did not go into detail about the entire matter, but that was around the time when his parents came to visit him, and a lot of people had told him that maybe it was time for him to return back to the United States. But M was stubborn and decided to continue staying in Uganda despite the problematic circumstances. This instance led to a transfer from the school he was working in to an orphanage. From what I have gleaned, M was highly regarded by the Peace Corps workers, administration, his fellow PCVs, and the Ugandans he worked with. He was the only one in his current group who attained a high level of mastery in Luganda, and I was able to witness it firsthand during my ride down to Nurse Betsy’s house with Johnson.

He had also made significant changes in his community, such as the startup of a local farm that is now worth several million shillings. He has also integrated very well into his local communities, thanks in no small part to his language proficiency. Loucine herself has said the he was 1 out of 1000 in his ability to master the language at the level that he is at right now even before his two year mark. He was seen as one of the more shining examples of what a PCV could be, and people like Loucine, Ven, and Johnson were upset with the eventual outcome of his actions on Christmas Day. This past Christmas, he spent his time in his house and watched the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” right before one of the Ugandan orphans had asked him to go for a ride. M agrees and gets on the Boda Boda, and as they are driving it stalls near a policeman. M urges his friend to get it starting again, but is unable to and the policeman questions them. One thing leads to another, and the scene escalates and intensifies with M not liking how the policeman was acting. M resists arrest and subsequently spends Christmas night in a Ugandan jail.

Our paths just happened to cross at the Peace Corps Headquarters after his meeting with Loucine and other staff members. We are currently spending our second night at Nurse Betsy’s house on our laptops and recovering from our two very different ordeals. He has shared that a long time in Uganda has made him and so many other PCVs jaded, and I understand that that is a thing that can eventually happen to any of us.

I am in this for the long run and these past few days have only served to educate me more. M has said to continue his legacy and his proficiency with the language, and I will continue that to the best of my ability with my Luganda training.

And even in the depths of my pains this past week squatting in a pit latrine, I would look through the open roof and stare up at the starry skies and let Africa save me.

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Lands of Opportunity

December 20th, 2013

I am nearing the end of my Future Site Visit (FSV) to the Luteete PTC and Primary School in the Luwero District near the towns of Wobulenzi, Kalule, Bamunanika, and Luwero. Honestly this visit makes me even more excited about the future, because this district is where I will be calling home for the next two years. The dirt roads and streets are very dusty because of the dry season, but the surrounding vegetation still remains lush. Luteete is located about 10km due east from the midpoint on the Kampala-Gulu Highway between Wobulenzi and Kalule. One could either take the northeast route from Kalule and then reach the Luteete or take the southeast route from Wobulenzi and first pass through the trading center of Bamunanika before reaching Luteete.

My supervisor, Othieno, has been one of the key parts of my initial integration into the society. I have eaten at his two favorite restaurants in Wobulenzi for the past three days: a hotel on the main road and the Crimson Noble near the taxi park. I have been introduced to various pastors, businessmen, the LC3 Chairman, several shopkeepers, market vendors, and his family members. All the while he has been teaching me various Lugandan phrases and words relating to the things that we have been doing or things that we have been seeing. Every time we traveled anywhere around Wobulenzi or any of the surrounding sub-counties it seemed as if someone knew my supervisor. He would then proceed to introduce me as the Peace Corps Volunteer assigned by the Ugandan Ministry of Education to the Luteete PTC.

We were very efficient in accomplishing the necessary tasks of the FSV. Luteete has a northern gate which leads to the PTC campus and the southern gate leads to the primary campus. Both campuses are connected by pathways through the college gardens. I got to see my future house which is on the primary school campus of Luteete. The house is relatively small compared to a standard American apartment, but Othieno had been renovating it since he heard about my impending arrival. It has electrical lights, a small main room that leads to a same-sized bedroom, a smaller kitchen area, and a bathing area. There are still a few more renovations to be made, but I was assured that the house would be ready by the time I returned in late-January.

There have been some notable moments during my FSV. I have shared some interesting talks with several of my supervisor’s friends and family. On Wednesday I was invited to share in a meal of pork and Guinness with him and his friends over at my guest house where I have been staying. He told me that one of his close friends bought the roasted pork at Bamunanika, and it was cut up into small bits and paired with slices of fresh tomato, minced red onions, salt, and peri peri peppers. Peri peri peppers are extremely small peppers that are a bit larger than long grain rice and can be green or red in color. However, they are extremely spicy and add some much needed heat to counterbalance the saltiness of the pork along with the sweetness of the tomatoes and onions.

Later that day I decided to run to town not only for the exercise, but also to make a few purchases for dinner that night. I bought some bread rolls, peanut butter (because I’m American and love that stuff), some bananas from the fresh fruit market, and a whole fried fish (because I’m Filipino and love that stuff). On my run back to my guest house, I passed by a woman who appeared to be a little bit off. A few seconds later, she started yelling and running towards me. I looked at some Ugandan men across the street for some help and they responded with, “You better run!” So I then sprinted away from her for 2km back to the guest house with my backpack full of groceries. I got some cardio that day.

Then on Thursday I accompanied my supervisor on a few errands. This included picking up his sister from her rural house and dropping her off at her town house in Bombo where she worked as a University Tutor (the Ugandan equivalent of professor) at the University. It was here that I encountered an interesting situation. My supervisor had brought one of his children with him to borrow some books from the Teachers’ ResourceCenter at the University, but the building was dilapidated, broken into, falling apart, and more importantly locked. With the help of some maintenance men, we were able to enter the small building’s main room, which resembled a classroom of sorts. We then had to cut off the lock of the storage room which kept well over a hundred books ranging from East African Mathematics curriculum to English literary classics including Joseph Conrad and William Shakespeare. Apparently, these books used to be on a loan system to PTC students all over the Luwero District. A student could pay 500 USH and have access to borrow the books as needed from this room in Bombo.

However, the resource room’s funding soon ran out and the building was simply locked and the Teacehers’ ResourceCenter was not maintained. As a result, the storage room was home to a wasp hive, geckos, and birds. The books were covered in small animal droppings and dust. It then turns out that the storage room was also broken into through one of the windows. Seeing an opportunity, I turned to Othieno and suggested that these books could be relocated to the Luteete PTC where they could be better maintained and actually used since they were rotting away at the University. He told me that he would talk to his sister about it. At least the idea could start.

Later that day I was invited to share lunch with his wife and several of his children at his house. One of the customs that I am still getting used to is that the younger women and girls of a household kneel on the ground to greet a visitor such as myself. I know that this would cause a fit if seen in an American society, but this is just a different tradition and gesture seen in this culture.

His wife prepared a delicious meal of sautéed cabbage, rice, millet, and roasted chicken in groundnut sauce. Groundnuts are very similar to peanuts, but are much oilier. I then relaxed for a bit of the afternoon in his living room as we watched the soccer match between Manchester United and CrystalPalace. It was nice to see my supervisor more as a family man in a much more personal manner than the professional way we employ our image back in the United States. I mean he and his friends have already joked about finding me a Ugandan woman who will teach me Luganda at all times of the day and in all manners: in the morning, during mealtimes, in bed, and even in the shower. They have even considered giving me a Lugandan nickname, but so far they haven’t found a suitable one yet.

Today is the last day of the FSV, and I once again had my usual breakfast of matooke, rice, dodo, and meat at the hotel in Wobulenzi. This time, I chatted with several of Othieno’s friends about poverty in America. It shocked many of these educated men that there existed actual Americans who were homeless and died on the streets because they had no food, no resources, and no roof over there head. They assumed that there was an almost nonexistent poor populace in the United States, hence the association of a muzungu to a rich person. I guessed that the notion of “streets paved with gold” still held true in some countries. They then responded that even though Uganda is a very poor and developing country, that even the poorest of the poor have a roof over their heads to call home.

This made me wonder about poverty and whether it is better to be impoverished in country where one had the potential to climb the social ladder and become whom one wanted to be without a roof over one’s head, or to be in a country that was more restrictive in one’s social movements with a more familial environment and a roof over everyone’s heads.

Which country is more impoverished; America a land of opportunity with so many people struggling to get by, or Uganda a land lacking in opportunity with so many people struggling to get by?

Future Site Visit

December 17, 2013

The 43 Peace Corps Trainees woke up very early this morning in order to depart for our future sites. Hearkening back to our sorting at Kulika, all of us were assigned different language trainers for our sites. Privately hired matatus, Peace Corps vans, and buses all arrived around 7am this morning in order to take the volunteers to their Future Sites. In the past, the trainees would first go to a homestay Ugandan family located in one of the regional areas for language training. However, this time around we will first be staying at our assigned site for a few days in order to get acquainted with the place before we actually begin living there. This change in procedure came about from issues involving past Peace Corps Volunteers who arrived at their sites after swearing-in only to realize that there was no house to house them, or that the school was not expecting them. Therefore, this Future Site Visit was enacted in order to establish a preliminary report with each volunteer’s supervisor as well as to carry out a series of tasks that will make the subsequent move-in less chaotic:

  • Fill out an emergency site-locator form detailing contact and address information of not only myself but of those in my community in case the Peace Corps needs to reach me, this includes a hand-drawn map detailing how to get to my site from the main roads.
  • Fill out a School Profile Tool form detailing my supervisor’s information, a map of the school, local trading centers, and costs of transportation to the local trading center and Kampala
  • Transport Assessment Form
  • Housing Evaluation Checklist
  • Being introduced to the LC 1 (Locally Elected Chairperson of the Community)
  • Review of what my future role will be at the school
  • Tour of the trading towns, and availability of goods

I accomplished a good deal of this today, and I will hopefully accomplish the rest of the deliverables tomorrow so that I can use the remainder of the Future Site Visit to become more acquainted with the trading centers and my supervisor. So far I feel that we have been able to bond. His name is Othieno Moses Othieno and he is very excited to be hosting a Peace Corps Volunteer from the United States in order to further develop the Luteete PTC that he founded 7 years ago. It is now a privately funded PTC, since it no longer receives government assistance.  I have been informed that it is also the only PTC in the country that has its own website: luteeteptc.com/index.html.

I was able to share some Guinness with my supervisor off the clock and talk about my role at Luteete PTC. The goal is to help in the development of the math, science, and ICT curriculum as well as support the growth of extra-curricular activities. I am very excited, because I feel as if my background very much supports my intended role as seen by myself, my supervisor, and the Peace Corps.

Later on, my supervisor dropped me off at a guest house about 1km away from the Wobulenzi trading center. It has electricity, running water, and a personal toilet and shower which are awesome amenities. My Orange modem also receives 3G here so I am able to connect to the internet and browse Reddit and post on my blog. I walked to Wobulenzi town as the sun was setting, and explored the fresh-food open-air market, the Asian-run supermarket, and some of the street food stalls where they sold fried chicken, mandazi, samosas, chapatti, and rolex. I bought a rolex for my dinner and ran into my supervisor who also happened to be in town with one of the chairmen of the school who wanted to meet me. I then learned an important cultural note, which is that one must not openly display food when walking because it is rude. Therefore, I hid my rolex and chapatti in a black bag and my backpack on the way back to my guest house for the next few days.

I think that I’m gonna like it here. I’ve already started speaking in short, uncomplicated Lugandan phrases and am getting better at picking out words from overheard conversations among Ugandans.

Njagala okw-ogera Luganda era ngenda okw-ogera Luganda.

Tunaalabagana.

Remember Us

December 14th, 2013

It’s quiet over here in Shimoni, because all of the Peace Corps Volunteer Trainers left this morning to go back to their homes. Some of them are headed back to the United States for their one year vacation where they get to spend almost a month off from working. Some are going to the beaches of Zanzibar, while others are meeting friends and family members in Europe. Then there are those who are simply returning back to their home sites in-country to just chill and enjoy the time off.

The change of pace today was drastic, especially since the past few weeks have involved us preparing for teacher P4 Kira Primary Schooltraining. The past two weeks were the most emotionally, physically, and mentally draining weeks of our stay thus far. Teaching at the PTC and then switching to the Primary School was very tiring. It reminded me a bit of my days as a Junior and Senior at BostonUniversity when I would tutor literacy and arithmetic at the WinshipGrade School in the morning and then tutor Calculus and Physics at BostonUniversity later that night. It was a complete switching of mindsets. Over here at Shimoni, I did not have to work that much on classroom management, because the students were well-behaved, whereas the pupils at the KiraPrimary School were very hyper-active and sometimes needed to be kept in check.

We had our last celebration with the PTC and the Primary School yesterday. I celebrated with the Primary School, and it was very bittersweet. I read some big books on grain sacks that were created by some of the PTC students. I then read a story about a hare and a tortoise with one of the PTC students who helped me read the book to the primary pupils. However, the most emotional part for me was at the closing assembly. Two of the Ugandan Peace Corps Employees, Ven and Audrey, gave remarks concerning how Kira Primary School was the model primary school in Uganda and that they had helped their country by being the training grounds for the Peace Corps Literacy Specialists. We had gone through the two week teaching gauntlet and learned a little bit more about ourselves both as individuals and as a group.

The children then said goodbye to us. This was one of the most emotional parts of the training thus far, because the kids were all saying goodbye and some were even crying. So many of them wanted final high fives, and a lot of them hugged us before running off to their homes. However, one moment that will always stay with me is a story that one of my fellow volunteers, Paul Benz, shared on his Facebook wall.

The Last High Five“During picture/farewell time one of the youngsters in a red shirt demanded I come down to hear him whisper something in my ear, ‘REMEMBER US.’”

I hope that these kids one day realize that they have changed our lives as well as the lives of students and pupils all throughout the country. I do not know if I myself will make much of an impact in this country or in this world by myself, but together with my fellow volunteers we can maybe make a small breakthrough that could maybe lead to some sort of change. And in my heart and in my mind I will remember them.

Teaching in Shimoni

It is a funny thing to be doing what I have dreamed of doing for these many years. Yes it is true that we are still in the middle of training at the Shimoni PTC, but this actually involves us teaching here at Shimoni as well as at the Kira Primary School. This is one of the most draining and humbling experiences of the Peace Corps experience thus far. I co-taught math lessons involving percentages and basic fractions last week with one of the other Primary Teacher Trainers and it we did very well. We had a solid lesson plan, moderate pace, and had enough space for the Pre-Service Teacher Students to absorb what was taught. I felt relatively confident in my skills here at the PTC, and it was not very difficult working with these students who were already thinking at a high level.

On the other hand, there is the Primary School which is a completely different game. The Literacy Specialists are sent there and have to teach students from the P2 – P7 levels. These are the equivalents of 2nd grade to 7th grade, and as many people remember we were not all on our best behavior during those ages. During the sorting process two weeks ago in Kulika, I was chosen to be both a Primary Teacher Trainer and a Literacy Specialist at my site near Luwero. These past two days at the Kira Primary School have been taxing. Whereas the PTC is accommodating to lesson plans with higher level thinking, segmented group activities, and minimal classroom management, the primary school is almost the opposite. The focus is about teaching the basics to the students, keeping them entertained, stopping them from hitting each other, and working through language barriers when they have trouble with our very strong American accent.

Even though I did not shine during my lessons at the primary school, I did gain a lot of feedback regarding my work as a teacher. And I believe that this is important, because I would like to become a better teacher at any grade level. It’s funny how life works, because for every low point in the day, like when a student would punch another student or when the class could just not understand my lesson, there was a high point, like when a student would say, “Thank you Teacher Marvin” or tell me that his favorite part of the day was my Plinko arithmetic game made out of construction paper and empty water bottles. On the bus ride back from Kira Primary School today, I was totally and utterly spent from being “on” the entire time in front of my P4 students, but when I closed my eyes I could see their smiling faces and their enthusiastic hands raised in the air and I knew that I was in the right place.

Giardia

December 5, 2013

Today was another good day. I woke up a little bit sleepy, but other than that I felt awesome because I was alive and my stomach was not aching. But today was the day that the medicine from last night fully kicked in and my cramps stopped.

It turns out that I had a case of Giardiasis for the past four days, which is a form of Traveller’s Diarrhea caused by the protozoan Giardia lamblia and can cause gastreoenteritis. If you want to know how Giardia feels like, imagine having intense cramps in the stomach and intestines every 20 minutes. These cramps feel as if someone had just intensely punched me in the stomach combined with feelings of bloating, diarrhea, loss of appetite, general tiredness, a fever, and chills. Giardia comes from ingesting fecally contaminated water, which I found weird because I did not remember recently ingesting any poop. Several others seemed to have also come down with similar symptoms of varying degrees, and it was surmised that perhaps the water from the sinks that we used to brush our teeth had contributed to it. Hilariously, I had been dealing with all of these symptoms for the past four days, and yesterday the pain had gotten to an unbearable point. I slept in through the medical sessions in the afternoon, and I was brought to my knees and would rest in the fetal position because the cramping in my stomach was so bad. I would have to just clench my hands around something because the cramping hurt so much.

I eventually called the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Office) and described my symptoms. I was told by the Medical Officer that she would call around Shimoni and ask any of the Peace Corps Trainers if there was any medicine left by the medical staff. Serendipitously, one of the Trainers was out and about and was able to buy the medicine (I believe that it was Metronidazole at a pharmacy that was needed to cure my Giardia.

At this time, I had been lying on the concrete ground of our 5 person bedroom because it was comforting to be on something harder than the bed mattress. The cramps were so severe at this point that I had to plan my phone calls and movements during the down-time between my cramping sessions. Fortunately, I had a support group of my roommates who would check up on me, and one of them even gave me tips on how to be in a better fetal position. Obviously, I was very grateful to this person.

Ruvi Shimoni RainbowThen I got some sad news from one of my roommates; one of our fellow trainees had decided to early terminate and head back to the United States. She too had Giardia. I rallied, and headed to the main hall where I bid farewell to her and received my dosage of four pills of antibiotics that instantaneously quelled my cramps. It was a rough set of four days, but I rallied and made it through. The hardest part was having about one minute’s notice before I had to poop, and knowing that the water had shut off and the Turkish toilets could not flush. But this is a small part of the life that I live right now and as always life is good and I am well.

Shimoni Arrival

December 1, 2013

Jeez, I feel like a lot has been taken out of me both figuratively and literally. I feel as if a small part of my body has failed me these past three days. I was already feeling a bit faint and under the weather back in Kulika, but today was rough. I ended up having a very vivid fever dream concerning all of the 44 Peace Corps volunteers running to poop in one of the 6 available toilets in Ugandan campgrounds. My German/Indian roommate, Ruvi, was also there and we both lost a cake-building contest that was judged by Ven who is one of our Ugandan Peace Corps Administrators who is very motherly. I then spoke in German to Ruvi’s mother, who is German, and then I kept waking up and shivering even though the room was warm and I was under the blankets.

We finished packing our bags and then went aboard the buses headed towards the Shimoni PTC where we would be Shimoni PTC Signstarting our Teacher Training Bootcamp. I was feeling so faint when we arrived, and could barely move. I had a headache, I was warm but felt cold, my stomach was growling, my bowel movements were not in my favor, and it was just hard to deal with the harsh sunlight, pee-scented pit latrines, and loud noises. But I know that this is part of the package, and I don’t mean for any blog post to count as a complaint, but as a way to express what is happening to me right now. Even though I felt physically ill, I was still in good spirits and Shimoni is such a beautiful school filled with such beautiful people.

A bunch of us ended up napping in our rooms. When we woke up we started discussing what food we missed the most from the United States, especially Mexican food, ice cream, and salads. I took some ibuprofen, napped some more, and then rested until I felt well enough to go wander around the campus.

I ended up wandering to the football (soccer for you Americans out there) pitch and seeing a bunch of the Ugandan students playing soccer against some of us Peace Corps trainees. For some reason it was a very powerful moment for me. I felt the commonality of us all even though we all came from so many different backgrounds. These were young adults who listened to pop music, talked about hot celebrities, played sports, hooked up, shared stories, and lived life similar to most young adults around the world. However, I also know that this paints an idyllic picture that fails to recognize the many hardships that Ugandans face.

For example, today the piped water stopped working so all of the showers, faucets, and Turkish toilets stopped working. The bathroom smelled horrible and I needed to poop so many times today due to problems with my bowel. I guess that being in the Peace Corps involves having many bowel movement problems; either it comes out too quickly or takes too long to come out. Regardless of these downs, I notice the ups and have not even for a second reconsidered my resolve to stay in Uganda for the Peace Corps. I’m living the dream.

Last Day in Kulika

November 30th, 2013

It’s our last day in Kulika. We had a session about gender roles this morning, but other than that the day was dedicatedPeace Corps Education Group November 2013 to packing, resting, and preparing for our departure to Teacher Training Boot Camp at the ShimoniSchool tomorrow. I felt kind of sick today, similar to how a lot of people have been feeling around here. A lot of the volunteers had trouble keeping their food in, fevers, chills, headaches, and fatigue. Even my roommate Ruvi felt sick a few days ago and took a malaria test, which fortunately turned out to be negative. It’s part of the growing pains and I know that this is just the tip of it. I decided to be a bit chiller today and took anti-diarrheal medicine, drank oral rehydration salts, and swallowed two ibuprofen. Those were the first ibuprofen that I have ever taken in my life and by golly are they great. Since then I have been feeling much better.

The day continued as it always had, with sunny skies and no clouds. We did our last batches of hand-washed laundry, had a Settlers of Catan tournament, chilled on my hammock, and took a full-group picture. Even though I felt under the weather, today was a particularly peaceful and beautiful day. There was not a lot of stress, but there was a lot of poop from everyone.

Rachel to Rachel in a HammockThe day was so wide and so warm over here in the farm. The group is now taking its first step away from the comforts and amenities of showers and toilets for the more realistic pit latrines and bucket baths. Kulika was our first home here in Uganda and now it’s on to Shimoni where we will be practicing our teaching skills with Ugandan teachers at both the PTC and primary levels.