5/8/14 – 15/8/14
It’s been another whirlwind of emotions and exertions. It’s been a while since a week like this has taken its toll on my physical, mental, and emotional well-being but I’m still here and ready to embark on the next week’s adventures in this life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The craziness began on Tuesday August 5th when I left my site to go to Nakaseke for the weekly radio segment. I had a meeting with a Ugandan man and his daughter at the NB Hotel in Wobulenzi at 3pm. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, his daughter had won a scholarship to study Computer Engineering in Oklahoma University. She was slated to leave by Sunday but both she and her father wanted to speak to me in order to field some questions about America and college life. I explained to her the basic curriculum of an engineering major, how different the seasons were like, the crazy culture of college students who are exploring their identities and pushing their limits, the rigors of classes, the freedom, how expensive things were, what an internship was, the concept of a green card, and the importance of surrounding oneself with good friends. It felt really good to know that there was a Ugandan student who had worked her way through the education system to eventually have the opportunity to study in a good university and obtain an in-demand degree today.
I then explained to her that if she completes her studies, then she would be able to get many job offers simply because she would be a woman, minority with a Bachelors Degree in Computer Engineering. I then bid farewell to both her and her father and made my way to Nakaseke for the radio show.
He show in Nakaseke was about transportation differences between Uganda and the United States. I explained that the takisi and boda boda system worked in Uganda because people lived so spread out in hard-to-reach places in the middle-of-nowhere sub-counties. Halfway through the show, the power went out so we recorded the second half on Peter’s recorder so that he could play it back when the power returned. I traveled to Nakaseke PTC, made dinner with Rebekah, and then slept.
I had to wake up early on Wednesday because I needed to be at the Peace Corps Headquarters (PCHQ) by 10am in order to make the shuttle to the US Ambassador’s house for the new groups’ swearing-in. I got into Kampala early and got to the PCHQ in time to talk to some staff members and pick up the kitenge drawstring bags that were the gift from Peer Support Network (PSN) to the new group of volunteers.
A bunch of us PCV Trainers attended the swearing-in ceremony which was crazy for me because I thought back to my own group’s swearing-in when we were the newbies. I smiled when I saw the trainees arrive, clad in their locally made outfits from their different regions. They also seemed a bit dirtier than when I first saw them in Kulika a few months ago. It was a funny swearing-in ceremony with a lot of speakers who just killed it like an open mic session in Kampala. The funniest speech by far was by the Ugandan representative from the Ministry of Education and Sports who just kept talking and talking despite the threat of storm clouds, and at one point in his speech said, “Yes! Please develop us. Please give us the help and development.” My guess is that he didn’t read the book Dead Aid.
On the other hand, one of the most poignant speeches came from the US Embassy Representative charge d’affaires who was an RPCV two decades ago in an East Asian country. She talked about her time in the Peace Corps and how she didn’t have any eye-opening epiphanies or find herself or become this wise and enlightened person. She stated that the biggest thing that she learned was just to try and understand the person in front of her. She literally meant that her biggest victory of the day was getting the person in front of her to understand what she wanted to convey. She ended her speech by saying, “Each and every one of you gave up something to be here in the Peace Corps; take something back with you.”
Before I knew it the new Health, Agribusiness, and GHSP trainees were sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers and we added 53 new members to our family. While the newly sworn-in volunteers congratulated each other and posed for pictures, I went straight for the free finger foods of teriyaki chicken on a stick, fish puffs, bruschetta, fish sticks, spring rolls, all-you-can drink juice/soda, and Godiva chocolate. I gorged myself on food that tasted like they were filled with preservatives which meant that they were probably from America and not from the local villages. I then doled out the kitenge drawstring bags to the new PCVs and headed back to PCHQ.
There was a small celebration with a few of the PCV trainers, Ugandan trainers, and PC staff at PCHQ. This time there was alcohol, so I was able to eat more good food like cold pasta salad, drink beers and wine, and dance with the Country Director and the Ugandan language training staff. At some point as I was being driven back to the Annex, I was drunkenly cracking jokes in Luganda with my language trainers and most likely gave one of them an extra kitenge bag.
Thursday was an errands day in Kampala. I took the morning shuttle from the Annex to PCHQ where I had a discussion with the Safety and Security Officer and Director of Programming and Training about doing a video for a Coffee Camp in Kasese from August 17 – 23.
Camp Description Excerpt:
“The camp’s objective is to encourage Bukonzo youth to grow their leadership abilities and to equip them with the tools to more fully contribute to the economic development of their family and support their community’s development through agriculture. Two youth, one male and one female will be elected by each of Bukonzo Joint’s 33 washing stations scattered around the remote foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. The 66 youth will attend a week-long camp to encourage a better understanding of how they can contribute to their family’s coffee farms and the opportunities that exist in employment in the coffee value chain.”
I agreed to do the video, but was worried because my skills were extremely amateur. I only did video in order to help bolster my blog and projects here in the Peace Corps and on occasion help other volunteers with their own projects. I felt that I did not have the skill nor the means to create an amazing video that Peace Corps desired because that wasn’t my job, but I felt that it would be an adventure and learning experience.
A Peace Corps vehicle then drove me and two other PCVs to the Lweza Training Center where the recently sworn-in PCVs were still having an extra full day of training sessions. As representatives of PSN, we sold t-shirts in order to make more money for PSN so that more merchandise and goods could be sold to Peace Corps Volunteers. The vehicle then drove us back to the Annex. It was around this time that I noticed that my body was dragging and that I had a weird tickle in my throat. I dismissed it and decided just to take a nap. Later that night when a bunch of us PCV’s in Kampala ate out at Ari Rang, the Korean restaurant, I started to feel very sick and exhausted.
When I went to bed that night, I had the worst headache imaginable and would experience waves of extreme heat followed by intense chills. It didn’t help that the last thing that I read before going to bed were the symptoms of Ebola and how they correlated with everything that I was feeling at that moment. Funnily enough those symptoms are also usually experienced by almost all PCV’s on a daily basis. After a sleepless night, I decided to take advantage of being in Kampala and returned to PCHQ to visit the Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO). I got checked up by one of the Ugandan medical officers who told me that there was nothing wrong with me and that I should just rest, drink fluids, and take ibuprofen. Even my stool and blood samples tested normally.
I chilled for the rest of the day, and took it easy. I also started feeling significantly better to the point that I agreed with another PCV friend to go all the way down to Lake Bunyonyi in Kabale in southwest Uganda for the weekend. So on Saturday I traveled to Kabale on a bus. Honestly, Uganda never ceases to amaze me. For such a small country it has such a diverse array of landscapes. As I passed through Masaka and Mbarara the landscape started to flatten out and I could see the wide expanse of the southwest countryside. As the bus neared Kabale the air suddenly became colder and the bus started to wind its way up the winding roads the led its way up to higher elevation in that region.
When I got off in Kabale I felt that I was in a mountain town, because everything was shrouded in mist, the air was much cooler and crisp, and I could see large hills in the background. I rendezvoused with the other PCV’s who were going to Lake Bunyonyi and we all took a private hire car to the docks leading to Byoona Amagara island. It was late by the time we got to the island, and it was extremely cold. Since it was dark, it was hard to see and there was no electricity on the island other than the common seating area at the top of the hill. Surprisingly, there was good cell phone service, a fully working kitchen and menu, and hot drinks.
We stayed at Lake Bunyonyi until Monday morning and honestly it was a relaxing, yet stressful mini-vacation. I was still getting over my 24 hour bug that I had the day before, and the weather was downright chilly. We ate some locally caught crayfish, explored the breadth of the Byoona Amagara island, swam in the waters by the swimming dock, drank the free tea as the mists gave way to the sunlight over the placid waters, canoed in circles towards the rope swing on another island, and danced in the moonlight by the docks. During this time, we also hung out with this Dutch guy, Mark, from Amsterdam who was finishing up his year of working with an organization in Kampala.
It was cool sharing some stories with him about the places that I’ve visited in Holland, as well as comparing our experiences living thus far in Uganda. We talked about the effects of aid in developing countries, different hostels in Holland (like Bostel Amsterdamse Bos in Amstelveen), the pronunciation of Dutch words like Brood, traveling and backpacking in groups and alone, the concept of legalizing weed, sharing deep stories with strangers, and what we hoped to do with our lives after our time in Uganda. It was very interesting hanging out with Mark because it almost felt like I was meeting a friendly stranger in a European hostel who was willing to just hang out for the weekend simply because you’re forced to make that temporary friendship. It was refreshing after having only hung out with other PCV’s in a group numbering less than 200.
On Monday we decide to head back to Kabale where we ate dinner at this backpacker’s hostel called Edirisa (http://www.edirisa.org/index.php?language=1&cat=130). A handful of us decided to continue to just go back home, so we took the night bus from Kabale to Kampala. Although the ride did seem much shorter due to falling asleep, it was also a bit rough. I felt like I was trapped inside this simultaneously hot and cold enclosure for centuries until I was able to embrace the cool morning air that only a 3am jaunt out in Kampala can give you. Fortunately, one of my PCV friends had a room at the Annex, so I slept on her floor for the morning until it was a more reasonable time to be out.
I left the Annex, made a shirt order for PSN, and then took a takisi from the New Taxi Park to Nakaseke because it was time for me to be on the radio show again. Even I couldn’t believe that I had been gone from site for a whole week and was now ready to do another radio show segment. This time, the segment was about the Education system in Uganda. We specifically discussed the structure of Primary and Grade School in the United States and the equivalent Nursery and Primary School in Uganda. This time the power didn’t go out.
But oh man was dinner a blast that night at the Rebekah household. I had picked up 1kg of Gouda from Mega Standard in Kampala earlier that day for only 15,000/=. We made macaroni and cheese, pasta lasagna, and grilled cheese stuffed with caramelized onions, rosemary, and cinnamon. It was too much cheese for my bowels to handle, but I loved it anyway. Since the water was running at site, I was able to poop in the toilet rather than having to walk a hundred feet to the nearby pit latrines.
The next morning on Wednesday I departed Nakaseke to make my way northwards back up to Rachel’s site in Masindi in order to help her take pictures of Peace by Piece. Peace by Piece is a local organization of Ugandan tailors who make kitenge products and school uniforms and sell them in order to provide for their families. What sets them apart from the average tailor is that they also create specialty items such as bomb-diggity kitenge quilts, kitenge yoga bags, kitenge oven mitts, kitenge aprons, kitenge camera straps, and so many more kitenge merchandise. I made a personal order of a kitenge hoodie and another one of kitenge coozies so that PCV’s can keep their Nile Special Beers cold.
I ended up doing some much-needed, hardcore chilling with Rachel at her site since I was just exhausted and beat from all of the travelling that I had done. That Wednesday night I just passed out after making Mexican dinner with ground beef and didn’t wake up until noon. Thursday was spent slowly getting ready for the day and walking up to Court View Hotel to meet up with some British volunteers associated with Soft Power and two of the new PCV’s who were stationed in Masindi. We swapped some stories among ourselves, especially some choice quotes from the Facebook group “I Fucking Love Village Science” which shares stories from local Ugandans in our villages who share their own ideas regarding how and why things work. Two of my favorite village facts ones are that a woman who is menstruating must not climb a mango tree because if she does all the mangoes will die, or don’t go out at night because the cannibalistic night dancers will eat you and the only way to avoid them is to dress up like one. My query concerning the latter fact is how you would ever be able to tell apart the normal night dancer from one who is simply attempting to avoid them?
On the way back from Court View there was a small, Ugandan carnival that only cost 1,000/=. We paid through a ripped hole in a white sheet with a mysterious, black hand that took our money and gave us a ticket that was immediately torn up by the gatekeeper who through the ticket halves on the ground. We walked in and were not disappointed; there were street foods, gambling games, market day wares, a muddy dancing area, music videos, and even one of those revolving carousel swing rides. I actually laughed when I saw it because it looked like it would fall apart at a moment’s notice, but Ugandans still chose to ride on it. I entertained the thought of riding it for a hot second, but decided that I valued my life too much to tempt fate depending on rusty metal and loose chains.
On Friday August 15th I rode an express takisi back to Wobulenzi where I did some internet errands at NB Hotel as the rain poured all around. Even though the rain hadn’t stopped, I knew that I just had to make it home. I bought my groceries, picked up my bicycle from the police station, and then biked through the rain and mud until I made it back home. Despite my exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and restlessness I was just desperate to make it back home to a place that I was fully comfortable and familiar with. I missed my linoleum floors, my system of washing dishes, my on-off electricity, my fully-stocked kitchen, my pit latrine, the nearby borehole, my neighbors, and the tiny balongo twins. However, what I missed most was just being home. I just wanted to be in my home here and just be. Despite knowing that I will soon embark on another adventure from my site, I am glad that I was able to spend some time in a place that I call home.
P.S. – During this time, Eastern Camp BUILD and GLOW happened in Mbale. In the middle of the week, the media specialist Jim Tanton proposed to his girlfriend, one of the camp directors Julia Lingham. First of all, the pictures from Jim’s camera are spectacular. I honestly felt sincere joy and happiness seeing the photos and video of Jim proposing to Julia, because for the short time that I have known them I felt that they were a power couple and just good, talented people in the Peace Corps and in this world. It’s times like these that I feel that life is good.