3/20/14 – 3/26/14
I had a very interesting and memorable week. Last Thursday I journeyed to Gulu to attend the Peace Corps Uganda Northern Regional HIV/AIDS conference in Gulu Town at the Bomah Hotel. I decided to go a bit early to meet up with some friends in Gulu who lived around the area. There were some volunteers from Masindi, Arua, and the surrounding area in Gulu. I was extremely excited to finally see some of the other volunteers from my education group whom I had not met since we were sworn-in way back in January. I had never been to Gulu before, so I decided to go a bit earlier in order to make my journey a bit easier. So on Thursday I traveled to Masindi and stayed with my friend Rachel. We made chili and ate it with Ranch dressing and rice which was very important for me because I was starving. Apparently, I contracted some sort of food poisoning (at least that’s what I think it was), that led to me having the worst ever diarrhea and nausea from Sunday night to literally the night before I left on Thursday. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to travel, but then like magic my bowel movements returned back to normal.
Then on Friday morning we traveled to Gulu. We hopped on a taxi bound for Kigumba, where we would then be able to find a means of transportation up to Gulu on the Kampala-Gulu highway. In Kigumba we were fortunate enough to come by a Kenyan driver who was headed up to Gulu on his weekly journey to set up fiber optic cables there. The highway deteriorated as we made our way north and passed the Nile. I thought that I was already used to Ugandan driving in a taxi, but my heart kept racing every time our driver swerved off the one-lane road in order to avoid an incoming bus, car, boda boda, or van. Judging from the road it looked as if it wasn’t maintained in a long time and the sides began to erode due to the rainy seasons.
We eventually arrived in Gulu and set up camp at the Acholi Ber hotel. We ate at an Indian restaurant with some of my fellow volunteers and some new faces who were also denizens of the far north. The food was spectacular and the first time that I felt that I ate authentic Indian food in Uganda that was spicy. It was interesting walking through Gulu, because it seemed much more developed than many other Ugandan towns that I had seen. There seemed to be some sort of mini-grid system that linked the streets together dotted with cafes, restaurants, dukas, stores, hotels, and streetlights. Those were the first streetlights that I had ever seen in-country.
It was interesting to note that it was also the first time that I did not feel like I was living in a fishbowl. None of the Ugandans seemed to pay any notice to the group of walking Muzungus. Due to its troubled history with displaced people and the LRA, Gulu still has many NGOs and development agencies from around the world with doctors, teachers, and volunteers hailing from white-countries. I met German, American, and Danish workers and saw so many other white people that could have come from any number of European countries.
Gulu also seemed very different from the other parts of Uganda. It was the first place in Uganda where I couldn’t find many Ugandans who could speak Luganda other than the drivers.
That night we went clubbing at Butterfly, which was a bar with a dancing area. It was fun to let loose and mingle with both volunteers and Ugandans. I never realized just how much I loved dancing until I got to this country. It was even cooler to see other groups of Muzungus and ask them where they were from and what they were doing in Gulu. We played a few games of Beer Pong and Flip Cup and then somehow found our way to another club called BJs. This was a larger bar/club with many more Ugandans. I remember meeting a Ugandan who talked about my hometown of Baltimore and how he loved the National Aquarium there. He explained to me that he had traveled throughout a large part of America while working with the group Invisible Children.
The next day we spent relaxing by the Bomah Hotel pool where we would be spending our HIV/AIDS conference from Sunday to Wednesday. It felt so nice to just feel cool and not burning hot like how I normally felt at site. We also met two grad students from UCLA School of Law who were working on a video production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo called Restore the Villages. She told me that her name is Jenevieve Discar, and I promised that I would remember her name and project and look it up when they finished filming and editing it.
I remember that they asked us what we were doing in Gulu. They then continued by asking us what the goals of a Peace Corps Volunteer were. We responded by saying that the Peace Corps is primarily not a development agency. We aren’t in countries to provide physical development to a village or economy, although that may be a benefit from our work. Rather we are working as a soft power to be the face of the United States to the rest of the world rather than our armies and bases. We are present in order to share our culture with those who might never have access to it, as well as to learn about an entirely different culture and share that back in the United States. In other words, the three goals of the Peace Corps (http://www.peacecorps.gov/about/).
That night we hung out with a doctor who was slated to present the basic biology behind HIV/AIDS. He had a gorgeous house inside of a compound complete with washing machine, oven, stove, kitchen, and several rooms. It’s actually funny to think that what would be considered normal or even sub-par in the United States feels so luxurious over here. We then hung out at BJs again. However, this time it did not feel like such a fun time. I was actually approached by a Ugandan woman who questioned me about another non-PCV Muzungu who was also at the club.
She came up to me, pulled my ear close to her mouth and blatantly asked me, “Is he gay?” Seeing as how I didn’t know that Muzungu, I responded, “No, I’m pretty sure that he isn’t.” She then looked at me and said, “Well, you better not be gay.” When I assured her that I wasn’t she then told me that she liked me and that even though I informed her that I had a wife in the Central Region, that since I was here with her in Gulu it didn’t matter. Apparently, my supposed wife didn’t need to know what I did here in the far north. I was pissed off at her and told her that in my culture, I respect my wife and love her with all of my heart and would never be unfaithful to her. Eventually she relented, I walked away to the barbecue stand to buy some grilled pork, and then left to go back to the hotel.
It was the first time that I actually felt any personal response or attack stemming from the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Of course I will not post any personal or political feelings concerning the bill because I am supposed to be neutral as a representative Peace Corps Volunteer. But the events of the night lingered with me and made me feel very uneasy, because there really isn’t much that any of us can do about it.
On Sunday the conference officially started at the Bomah Hotel. Every PCVs’ counterpart was also invited to the conference. There were sessions every day that were divided into a pick one out of the four available seminars and general sessions that everyone needed to attend. This HIV/AIDS workshop was tailored not only to inform volunteers and counterparts about the biology behind the disease, but also about the myths, preconceptions, talking to youth about sex, the connection between violence against women and HIV, positive living and nutrition, involving males with female health, HIV and malaria, and engaging the local community through the arts, music, and drama. I actually felt as if I learned about ways to involve my community in becoming more aware about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, which is such a big killer in Africa and Uganda.
Much of the problem results not only from a lack of accessible resources for people in the villages, but also a lack of education. There were misconceptions regarding the ways HIV could be transmitted and how it could eventually turn into AIDS. In some villages, the people believe that AIDS is caused by witchcraft, or that a woman who has HIV contracted it because she was unfaithful to her husband when it was the husband who had given her AIDS. It becomes even harder to treat the disease with the two available first-line ARVs (Anti Retrovirals) because many people who live with HIV and AIDS are viewed as pariahs. Even kissing was seen to be risky by some of the Ugandan counterparts who attended the workshop.
However, a conference like this also signaled hope. I, along with many of my fellow volunteers, felt inspired by the commitment of the many volunteers, Ugandans, and NGOs who put there time into creating and supplying the resources that would enable us volunteers to work alongside our counterpart in spreading awareness in our local communities.
My biggest goal is to share the stories of those affected by HIV/AIDS at my college. I want to give my students a voice and let them be heard around the world. That’s why I’ve been setting up another blog that will allow me to post media created by Ugandan students. These will include stories, videos, songs, and art created by the students at the Luteete PTC who come from a multitude of regions in Uganda. By giving them a voice, they become empowered to choose their own fate without having to rely on anyone else. I guess that it could even be said that the greatest fear and hope of every Peace Corps Country’s Organization is for it to no longer exist in that country.
On another note, it was absolutely spectacular to stay at the Bomah Hotel. The food was some of the best Ugandan food that I have eaten in-country, the sessions were held in air-conditioned rooms, every room had an air-condition and satellite tv, the showers were hot, there was actual carpet, and the floors were tiled. I felt like I was in a really swanky motel, but for us PCV’s it felt like the Bellagio.
I wanted to share the last night spent the hotel. We were told that we would be given a barbecue by the pool, which turned out to be the same food that we had been given all-throughout the conference. There was live music, which wasn’t the most conducive music to dance to. We eventually switched the music with someone’s iPod and the pool party was on. We danced for a bit and then decided to go jump into the pool sometime around midnight. Honestly, it felt so nice to just let go and have a nighttime dance/swim in the pool as Rihanna blasted in the background.
And I believe that events such as these warrant the need to get a bit crazy because there’s just so much pent-up energy at site. Having to be “on” 24/7 and representing the United States even without any other Americans to emotionally support you in the area can get tiring. Times like a midnight pool party definitely allow you to feel like you have some good friends in this world who are also willing to let loose before returning back to local norms in the village where a nighttime swim would be frowned upon and most likely unhygienic (probably with a case of Schistosomiasis).
What I got most out of this week away from site is that everything is intertwined in this world. HIV/AIDS represents a much bigger issue than just a disease. It’s an intertwinement as great as the sexual network and polygamy that isn’t as frowned upon in Ugandan society as it is in the United States. It’s the misconceptions about HIV vectors and the stigma associated with the disease. It’s the lack of technical knowledge, improper use of a condom, and ignorance about HIV testing in local clinics. It’s the misconception that virgins don’t have HIV and that a family with one HIV+ member means that the entire family is HIV+. It’s the withdrawal of millions of dollars from the World Bank and 67 funded positions in the Ugandan Ministry of Health that were cancelled after the passing of the recent bill.
There are many political, social, cultural, and socio-economic reasons are at play here. In spite of this, here we are as PCV’s attempting to work as deputy ambassadors in our own communities where try our best to represent the best that America has to offer. So we will continue to live in a culture of opposites, because it’s worth it to take a single step forward even when we fall back two steps.
*Note: Some other good places to eat are:
Uchumi Supermarket Bakery (where you can buy beef and fish pizza)
Abyssinia Ethiopian (also serves some Italian food)
Sankofa Café (serves burgers, salads, and thin-crust pizzas)