A Year In… Somehow

19/11/14

Okay so this post is a few days late, but I finally made it back home after a week and a half of travelling and training. I am physically sick with some sort of cough (sennyiga) and I feel weary. I don’t think that I’ve ever really yearned for a restorative vacation as much as I long for it now. This past year has given me highs, lows, and everything in-between.

In the past year, I have seen a lot of good and learned a lot about living in a developing country. I think that I am becoming what I pledged I would not become when I was a trainee; jaded. I’m not bitter; rather, I am a bit weary. I know that it’s only been a year but I’ve started noticing that the wonders and disappointments are becoming less frequent and smaller in magnitude. I go through the day with a resignation that things may not turn out how I want. I am more comfortable accepting what happens during the course of a day and understanding that there is always more time, somehow.

I find it harder to empathize with the struggles of issues back in the United States, especially complaints lodged on Facebook.

“Blackout for 6 hours today made me miss the premiere of (insert name of tv show here). I’m pissed off at (insert name of electric/tv company) and I’m gonna give them an earful.”

“Bored with nothing to do today.”

“Life is so hard and sucks.”

“I can’t find the remote control for the tv, First World Problems.”

“No internet for a day… what hell am I in right now?!”

“There’s a mouse in my room and I can’t find it. Someone come over please!”

I think that I’ve actually shaken my head and laughed out loud when I read some of these statuses. It’s a part of my old life that is very foreign to me.

I think that I personally progressed through several stages since I touched down in Entebbe airport. At first I was marveling at the breadth and scope of what I was doing here. I was incapable and very excited at accomplishing tasks. Then there was the period where I decided to hunker down and really work as hard as I could. This gave way to disappointment when the things that I worked on didn’t turn out as I had hoped they would. I think that at this stage I am at the point where I am just very tired from trying and working as hard as I can, knowing full well that despite my best efforts very little might actually happen.

There is an emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical weariness that I feel. Fortunately, I am right where I need to be on the Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment, which dips to a low around the one year mark. Two of the biggest issues at this point involve withdrawal and disappointment. While it is good for me to be realistic concerning how things generally occur here, it is not healthy for me to not attempt doing something simply because I believe that I will be disappointed in the long-run. To do so would stop my creativity and the possibility of pleasant surprises.

In times like these, I realize that I have to look back on the events that have happened in the past year to allow me to realize how I got to this point. I got to bond with my training group in Kulika. I transitioned to Shimonic Core PTC where I did some school based training and recovered from my first bout with Giardia. I lived in Luweero with the Semuddu family for homestay and learned some Luganda. I got sworn-in and moved into my house in Luteete. Thus began my life at site. I planted some grass, started teaching, met my trainers at Masaka, went to Gulu for the Northern HIV/AIDS conference, spent Easter in Arua, saw rhinos in Ziwa, spent welcome weekend in Entebbe, had IST back in Lweza, went to Northern Camp BUILD, hung out in the Ssese Islands, camped out in Mabira Forest for Burning Ssebo, rafted the Nile on 4th of July, talked in Nakaseke Radio Telecenter, organized getting t-shirts for PSN, trained as the Luganda satellite liaison in Mityana, helped out volunteers in Kabukunge, Wanyange, and Kisoro for video projects, chilled at Lake Bunyonyi, attended and led sessions at the All-Volunteer Conference in Lweza again, vacationed in Kigali, Rwanda, filmed video at Kasese Coffee Camp, MC’d the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Kisoro, represented PSN at the Ambassador’s house and at the US Embassy, hiked on the hills between the Virunga Volcanoes and Lake Mutanda, rode a cattle truck with cookstoves from Kisoro to Fort Portal, spent Halloween in a cave at Sipi Falls, finally traveled to the east in Mbale and hiked Wanyale Falls, and then helped out as a community integration leader for this most recent group’s training all while filming scenes for Oh the Places You’ll Go.

As I wrote this down, I realized that a lot of it has to do with places that are far away from my site. However, I spent just as much time at my site as I did away from it. Today one of my neighbors asked me if I even knew her name, and I was able to correctly answer it back to her. I understand now more than ever that this second year is crunch time. My biggest goals are to start working as a literacy instructor at the primary school, raising enough funds for the ICT Lab construction, and visiting other PCV’s sites in remote parts of the country.

In the adjusted, immortal words of most bodamen, first I rest, then I go.

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At It Again

15/11/14

I’m back on the Kulika organic farm again for training a whole year since I first had arrived in-country. I feel more connection as a trainer with this group as opposed to the most recent HAG (Health/Agribusiness) cohort that arrived 5 months ago. I think that I am at the position that my own trainers were at back when I was a trainee and participated in all of the mandatory training sessions. Immediately I start to imagine how a lot of these trainees will turn out after having lived in-country.

But more on that later. Let me first explain how I got to Kulika again.

Last week I visited a few other PCV’s near the Jinja area to help out with taking pictures and videos at a Science Teaching Fair at the Wanyange Science Teaching Fair Lungs ActivityPTC. The goal of the event was to give several outstanding PTC students to teach biology lessons by demonstrating experiments to some P5 pupils at the nearby Mwiri primary school. It was so neat seeing their bright and shining faces as they marched in their yellow and khaki uniform. The fair started off with PCV Penelope having the pupils draw a vector for a disease. The catch was that the pupils had to be creative in the creation of this vector; for example it could have 100 legs, 32 eyes, be the color purple, and spread a disease that causes a swollen head and hands.

Most of the pupils created already known vectors such as fleas, mosquitoes, bed bugs, and other insects but few of them really showcased creativity outside of the norm. This sessions was designed to allow the pupils a chance to creatively express themselves as well as allow the PTC students a chance to find ways to foster creativity in the pupils. Then pupils were split into 7 groups. Each group went to a different station where a biological concept was explained and demonstrated through lecture, experiments, and activities.

The Activities:

  1. Hygiene- Singing a Bill-Nye the Science Guy song about washing hands
  2. White Blood Cells – Rock, Paper, Scissors turned into Antibody and Antigen game
  3. Lungs – Hula Hoop game
  4. Digestive System – Order of the organs and drinking upside down race
  5. Heart – Heart shaped sponge relay race
  6. Red Blood Cells – Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide race
  7. Muscular/Skeletal System – Arm pumps and raw chicken wing demonstration

Teaching MusclesThe fair came to a close as the students and pupils alike came together for a big group reflection. Pupils got to answer questions concerning what they learned during the fair as well as choose their favorite PTC student teacher. Similarly the PTC student teachers had the opportunity to choose their favorite pupil. The event felt very successful, and was a great way to combine content based instruction with teaching practice.

It felt good to stay over at Penelope’s site, since I had yet to really see any part of Eastern Uganda. Penelope’s site was located in Wanyange which was about 10 minutes east of Jinja. While at her site, she brought me to a quaint, Catholic convent called St. Benedict’s, which was located on the banks of Lake Victoria. It was one of the earliest times that I woke up in country so that I could make it to 7am mass. I also had the opportunity to see PCV’s Stephanie, Linda, and Josh who brought me around Jinja Town and the Jinja Market. During my second night in Jinja I stayed with Stephanie at her house, which had recently gained electricity.

My goal was to explore a bit more of the eastern region before I headed over to Kulika for training I felt that Penelope’s invitation to come and help at her Science Teaching Fair was the perfect excuse to travel to Jinja and beyond. My viewpoint is that many PCV’s travel a lot during their first year at site and explore specific areas and towns of Uganda in big groups during large gatherings and events. Then when the excitement settles down, they start to focus on seeing the same old people and staying more and more at site. Furthermore, there are a lot of cliques within Peace Corps. I’m not saying that cliques are bad, only that they are a natural occurrence after living through very high and highs and just as low lows with people who truly understand you in this country, this region, this village, and in this specific circumstance. I wanted to break a bit of the mold and spend my one-year anniversary doing something different and travelling to see other PCV’s in another cohort in order to see something new and get to know them a little bit better.

So on Wednesday I bid farewell to Jinja and boarded a takisi headed to Mbale. Technically, the takisi headed to Mbale was empty and I waited inside of it for an hour before taking another one that went most of the way there and then taking a connecting one to Mbale town. When I got to Mbale town I got some coffee at Cosmos Café, which was located on the second floor of storefront on Republic Street with Mt. Elgon looming in the eastern horizon. Mbale town reminded me a lot like one that you would see in an old western movie: there were the wide dusty road and saloon storefronts that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place during the days of sundance kids and cowboy vigilantes.

I met with PCV’s from the most recent HAG (Health Agribusiness) cohort group. Cindy met me at Cosmos and we made our way to Molly’s site, Cindy, Baby, and Kittenswhich was an orphanage that took in children from parents who died. I felt like a short-term volunteer when I got to the orphanage because I saw dozens of cute infants who were lying helplessly around the nursery area and just as many toddlers waddling and peeing around the orphanage/church compound. Molly explained to me that this site was the location of many short-term volunteer projects and mission trips where groups came in, took pictures, maybe even built a stove, and then left without having really accomplished anything substantial.

Cindy and Teresa had a very large house inside of a compound on the outskirts of Mbale town, and fortunately they loved having people over; they even had their house registered on CouchSurfing. So I spent my one-year anniversary in Uganda with PCV’s from the HAG cohort ahead of me while we enjoyed some red wine (courtesy of Uchumi) and some homemade Bolognese sauce (courtesy of OiLibya gas tanks and the giant indoor Mbale market). It was interesting hearing stories and inside jokes from an outsider’s perspective concerning their cohort.

The next day, Cindy took me on a hike to Wanale Falls. If you looked off in the horizon a little bit southeast of her house, you would see a sort of green mesa jutting up from the ground with a small forest surrounding it. The coolest and most confusing part of the mesa was that there was a waterfall smack dab in the middle of it that didn’t make sense because it was well above the normal height of the ground of the Mbale region.

The hike to the top of the falls took a bit more than 2 hours, but it was one of the more difficult hikes that I’ve done in Uganda because the slope wasn’t gradual. After walking through open green fields of grass, small trading dukas, and houses hidden in the forests, the path gave way to steep rock steps and muddy slopes carved into the structure of the mesa. When we were almost at the top, we encountered the wooden ladder made out of interlocked tree branches and logs that allowed you to scale a 30 foot rock wall. Then we made it to the top where a few Ugandan farmers lived and tended their farms using the water that flowed on the top of the mesa.

Open Field Path

Open Field Path

Climbing Rocks

Climbing Rocks

Climbing Stick Ladder

Climbing Stick Ladder

The view was spectacular. I could see as far as the clouds would let me and I had to just take it all in for a moment. My tendency is to take out my camera as soon as possible to capture to the visual side of a perfect moment, but sometimes I like to first close my eyes and enjoy the unadulterated moment in its entirety. I definitely got knots in my stomach as I sat near the edge of the cliff by the waterfall, because the drop was at least 400ft and I would definitely die if I fell. We enjoyed the moments, shared some stories, took some pics, and made our way down on the other side of the falls.

Top of the Falls

Top of the Falls

Ledges and Falls

Ledges and Falls

By the time we got back to the house, we were exhausted. Fortunately, the tap was back on so we had access to unlimited water to wash clothes, bathe, and refill the jerrycans for later when the tap turned off at sunset. Two of the PCV’s from the older group joined for a dinner of steak, mashed sweet potatoes, and creamed peas and carrots. It really felt like a good American meal after a long day of hiking.

This whole time I was dealing with what started as a tickle in my throat but then progressed to an annoying sore throat. Every time I swallowed it would hurt, and at some points I would just spit because it felt better than swallowing.

Then on Friday morning I took a bus from Mbale to Kampala. I had a few errands to do at the Peace Corps Office including: getting my flash drive back, receiving the translated scripts from Lukonzo into English for the Coffee Camp Video, getting my schistosomiasis test results back (negative), selling a PSN t-shirt, turning in my reimbursement form, and prepping for training at Kulika.

In the early afternoon, I finally decided to make my way down to the Busunju taxi stage to get to the Kulika training center. I got there before the training group returned from their field trip to Kamurasi PTC, so I set up my hammock between the two brick posts outside the main conference room. As I lay in the hammock in the same spot where I had lain in last year, I reminisced about my own training experience. I remember the sessions, the smell of the farm, the food, the staff, and how excited it was to be starting this experience. As the trainees trickled in, I started associating their individual personalities with people from my own training group.

It felt weird being asked so many questions all at once, and being seen as the expert in-country. Honestly, I still feel very naïve and clueless about many things. One of the trainees said that the trainers all looked rugged and seemed to walk differently. He said that it had something to do with how we looked as if we’ve been through a few struggles since we first arrived and that we walked with a certain confidence and surety. While answering the trainees’ questions, I definitely felt a sense of sureness and confidence with my answers and my actions. Most of the questions were very straightforward.

We had the Kampala tour on Sunday, which was pretty fun. We split up the trainees into groups of 4-5 with either a PCV or a Ugandan trainer to bring them around Kampala. It was fun rushing my group through Kampala in order to buy a Powermatic/Dr. Volt, exchange money, buy unlocked modems, purchase cell phones, get sim cards, and then meet up with some hungover PCV’s for lunch at Prunes. As we approached the table of my fellow PCV’s, I noticed a marked difference between my group of trainees and my friends. That was by far the funniest part of the day for me, because my trainees looked fresh, clean, and energized and the PCV’s looked haggard, bedraggled, and extremely hungover. Fortunately, I convinced the waitress to ice them with a Smirnoff Ice that I had bought earlier at Nakumatt. Overall, I thought that it was productive for the trainees to see PCV’s early on who weren’t trainers and get a more well-rounded perspective concerning PCV’s compared to the generally formal nature of trainers.

I also felt a bit more of a connection with this group than with the past cohort. I don’t know what the reasoning is. Maybe it’s because this group is an education group or that it is one year since I too arrived in Uganda as a trainee. I also felt as if I was able to bond with this group from the get-go. I answered their questions truthfully and with tact since I was also their trainer. I gave the survival ICT session, helped out with the basic survival skills, and assisted in the survival Luganda lesson. From this side of training, I could really see a lot of the disorganization and the reasoning behind the complaints that many of my trainers last year made. I no longer have the lens of newness and wonder with which I can view this world.

So on the last night of training Ellen, my fellow community integration PCV, and I hung out with the trainees as they hung out on the concrete dais of Kulika with wireless speakers, champagne, good wine, incense, Rwandan beers (Skol), and some good conversations. I’m a fan of this new group, especially since they’ve already started getting acclimated talking about the three eternal topics that all PCV’s talk about: poop, sex, and alcohol.

“Guys, I love this song; it’s the one that I had sex to the night before I left.”

~Education Cohort 3 Trainee

Another Goodbye

8/11/14

I travelled back to Kampala on Wednesday because I was invited to sell some PSN (Peer Support Network) t-shirts at the US Embassy Christmas Africa Acacia Tree DesignBazaar. The bazaar started on Thursday morning so I wanted to be sure that I was in Kampala the day before in order to ensure that all the t-shirts were ready to be sold. This involved picking up 33 shirts from the screen printer near the taxi parks as well as coordinating for the sack of the other shirts to be picked up from the most recent group’s IST (In-Service Training). PSN has gotten better at bringing t-shirts to trainings so that PCV’s can purchase them.

Dinner that night was very eventful. I hung out on the rooftop of the Annex with Steve and Rachel as we ate sandwiches that we made from separate ingredients purchased at Nakumatt. The bread was a baguette from the bakery packed with lettuce, tomatoes, gouda cheese, bbq ham, pili pili peppers, and thousand island dressing mixed with Old Bay. On the side we had some chili and lemon chips paired with a plain yogurt dipping sauce. We hung out in the cool Kampala wind with a few stars peeking at us beyond the city smog and light pollution as the Of Monsters and Men album played on my portable speakers.

The next day, Rachel and I arrived at the US Embassy and set up our respective tables underneath a large U-shaped tarpaulin among two dozen other tables. The rest of the vendors showed up around 11am with wares of Brood bread, local produce, citronella oil, meatballs, milk, screen printed art, eggless cookies, candles made by ex-prisoners, Congolese masks, passionfruit juice concentrate, hummus, cream cheese, coffee, and of course anything that you could think of that is made out of kitenge. I swear that if I combined all of the kitenge vendors together at this bazaar then I would be able to get anything out of kitenge: shoes, blankets, baby bibs, hats, quilts, pillows, dresses, pants, shirts, head bands, wine bottle coozies, and even more.

I made a killing at this bazaar and sold a few of the older shirts and a lot of the newer design of Africa with an acacia tree growing inside of it. Throughout the day a lot of embassy workers, who were also RPCV’s from other countries, stopped by the table to chat for a while. The bazaar eventually wrapped up and I was dropped off at Kisementi to share a few farewell drinks with Jim from Kisoro. We got some of the double shot gin and tonics at the Bistro happy hour (Monday – Thursday, 4pm – 7pm). It felt really weird knowing that this would be the last time that I would see him in Uganda. I guess that all the PCV’s who are about to leave will have that effect on me because I have only ever known Uganda with them in it.

Jim FarewellOf course we got to share some good jokes over some good drinks (with ice in them!) and then we bid Jim farewell. I walked back to the Annex with some other PCV’s and checked into a room for the night. Somehow, the idea of travelling back to site after drinking didn’t sound that appealing. We got dinner at SawaSawa near the Annex and ordered the nicest looking Ugandan food. It was very well-presented. As we were eating our dinner, this older Ugandan woman approaches us and asks us where we’re from.

Instinctively, we all attempt to avoid a conversation with her and reply that we were all from Minnesota. She explained that she was living off her pension in Uganda and that she had lived in England for the past few decades. Her late husband was the brother of the King in Hoima, which made her a princess by marriage. Furthermore, she was the Executive Assistant for the Peace Corps in Kenya a while back, but left when her husband was killed. She explained that she was so happy to meet us Peace Corps Volunteers and that we should call her Auntie Jane. Then before we knew it, she left us to our meal.

I quickly travelled back to site on Friday because I had to make it to the Luteete PTC dedication ceremony for the Year 2 students. It was a sort of graduation ceremony for them at the church. The funny thing about ceremonies is that the collective speeches after the mass are about 3x longer than the mass itself. At around 3pm we departed the church for a lunch with sodas, chicken, beef, and g-nut sauce. It struck me that I had been living at site for 9 months, which doesn’t seem that long at all to me right now. I had known this community for almost a whole year, and this would be the last time that I would see many of these students. It was another goodbye mixed in with other feelings.

One of my regrets this past year is that I focused a lot of my efforts and energies into teaching the Year 1 students instead of the Year 2 students. As a result, I didn’t really feel that much of an emotional connection with the Year 2 students as I bid farewell to the. Instead I felt sad that I would be saying goodbye to the Year 1 students until I met them again after the new year.

I also noticed another muzungu here, which was very weird for me to see. After approaching him I discovered that his name is Cameron and thatLuteete Church Inside he was part of New Hope Ministries located in Kasana since 1987. It’s one of the oldest Christian organizations still in existence in Uganda after the Luweero Triangle War.

He attended the ceremony because a few of the PTC students were sponsored by some of the families in the New Hope community. At first I was taken aback by his overtly Christian nature since I had not interacted with other muzungus like that since I left the United States. I told him that the next time I was in Luweero I would stop by the community to say hi and learn a bit more about them before I make any judgments.

It’s actually very interesting to notice how my views concerning missionaries have changed since my time in the Peace Corps. I definitely believe that there are some that do good, especially in the developing world. But I also think that they can be detrimental in some cases. In Uganda the overtly Christian atmosphere (especially concerning the Christian Fundamentalists) has led to local religions being seen as taboo and old-fashioned. Ugandans who go to some of the older local religious shrines still in existence have to do it secretly so that their churches will not find out that they still pay homage to this part of their culture. There is no separation of church and state; even official meetings with government officials usually start with a prayer.

It sways the masses into fervors concerning issues such as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I can’t even walk through the Taxi Park area without hearing a Ugandan giving a sermon and thumping his or her Bible. Then there is the whole issue of communities depending on the contributions of missionaries in order to survive. This in turn creates a culture of dependency on temporary aid that fosters even more blind belief in whatever faith is trumpeted by the donors.

I’m not against the idea of missionaries, Christian Service trips, or relief volunteer agencies. All I’m saying is that there are just so many factors involved in mission trips and volunteer programs that I can’t judge someone or a group on first impressions. Similar to the Peace Corps’ model of living and learning through immersion, I too will attempt to get to know people like Cameron and his group before just labeling them as “just another missionary group.”

Walking to the Taxi Park

4/11/14

I like to think that I see the weirdest shit on my walk from Kampala’s city center to the taxi parks.

As I descend down Luwum Street, the shops change from wine stores to local restaurants and dukas.

As I pass north above the Old Taxi Park, I see cobblers fixing shower shoes and painting black on plastic shoes, cripples lying on mats with their outstretched hands pleading for money, dirty children motioning to their mouths, women with newly inserted weaves, and sketchy men eyeing me as I walk by them. At this point, my wallet is in my front pocket and I make sure to continuously check the zippers of my bags and my pockets.

As I pass the bus park, I see a man smoking weed out of a pipe in the center of the intersection, a throng of people betting over a football match, an older woman yelling Bible verses from her pulpit of a broken gutter stone, and bodamen beckoning me to ride them with their siren call of “Yes Boda!”

As I enter the New Taxi Park, I see conductors of all ages pulling men and women aside to get them to ride to a specific destination whether they were originally headed there or not. A man asks if I want a bus to Juba in South Sudan. I get to my taxi stage headed to Luweero and finally sit in the taxi where all of the window seats are already taken.

I put my wallet back in my back pocket, set my duffel bag on my lap, and relax knowing that the hard part of my journey home is over.

Caves and Waterfalls

31/10/14 – 2/11/14

I think that this past weekend signifies a paradigm shift for me. There were a lot of things that happened that elicited a change in how I live in Uganda. A lot of things that I am used to doing are becoming more than normal. The unknown is becoming less and less and the surprises are much less frequent. I believe that it is very fitting that I write this blog post the week before my one year anniversary in country.

I left site on Friday in order to attend the Halloween celebration hosted by fellow PCV Loren. The celebration was slated to take place in Mise CaveCrow's Nest Dorms of the ancestral Sabine king on the side of Mt. Elgon near Sipi Falls about a 45 minute drive away from Mbale. I arrived in Kampala and met up with some other PCV’s who were also headed to Mbale. We ate lunch at the Ethiopian woman’s living room restaurant, and then hopped on the YY Bus in the Bus Park. Compared to other bus rides, this one was ridiculous. It started raining once we passed Jinja and the bus driver decided to pick up speed.  We were zooming along the highway as the bus lights flickered on and off, which gave the on-flight (on-ride?) movies an ominous tone. The first movie involved two village kids who got into shenanigans, then there was a music video that showed scenes of fat Ugandans dancing, priests, cripples, genocide victims, livestock, and smiling villagers all to the tune of Ugandan dancehall with horrible signal-to-noise ratio (speakers are on full volume for the entire ride), and finally a movie called Bridge of Dragons involving a white action star who fights a Vietnamese general in order to save this other Asian girl.

We arrived in Mbale in the evening and checked into this hostel called Casa Del Tourista, and the rooms were carpeted! After dinner, our group met up with other PCV’s on the rooftop of this Indian restaurant called Nuralis. There were dancing, attempts at beer pong, attempts at jumping over tables, and updates from the PCV’s who decided to attend the celebration. I got back to Del Casa a little drunker for the wear, and finished my overdue VRF (Volunteer Report Form).

We grabbed a quick breakfast in the morning and took a private hire to the Crow’s Nest lodge near Sipi Falls. Now usually I’m pretty good at directions, but for this weekend I really had no idea where I was. I just enjoyed the ride from the wide and dusty roads of Mbale to the nearby foothills. Since I had never really been further east than Jinja before this weekend, every 10 seconds my friend Rachel would say to me, “Hey, this is the furthest east you’ve ever been!”

Crow’s Nest reminded me of Byoona Amagara on Lake Bunyonyi. You had the dusty/mildew-infested dorm rooms, the compost pit latrines, the café lounge area, and beautiful panoramic views of the ever-expanding horizon. In this case instead of a placid lake there was a majestic waterfall. A group of us got together for a hike to the three nearby waterfalls in the area. It was another beautiful hike through open farms filled with wild onions that drastically gave way to misty jungles damp from the spray of the waterfalls. As we got nearer to the waterfalls it felt as if there was a light drizzle all around us. I felt so cool and epic standing so close to those falls.

The First Waterfall

The First Waterfall

The Second Waterfall

The Second Waterfall

We got to see three waterfalls in total. I could tell that our guides had been doing this for decades, because they knew exactly when we needed to stop to take a picture, eat some white passionfruit, or let us pause and take in the scenery that was their everyday life. It’s a bit funny to imagine living as a Ugandan in these areas and wondering why muzungus would want to pay 20,000/= (more than you would make in a week) to traipse around your backyard. I think that a famous naturalist said that something no longer appears special or beautiful to you if you see it every day.

 

Looking Up

Looking Up

At the third waterfall, we were given the opportunity to walk down a sloped pathway that led from a cave behind the waterfall, to the pool underneath the waterfall. It felt epic slowly making my way through the sprays and mists. I had never been underneath a real waterfall before, and so it was a new experience for me to just close my eyes and let the water rush down over me.

Underneath a Waterfall

Underneath a Waterfall

As we finished our hike, we passed by a small restaurant that sold rolexes. When the woman told us how much she would charge us 3,000/= ($1.20) for the rolexes, we all simultaneously threw our hands in the air and exclaimed that she was severely overcharging us. After bargaining the price down to 2,000/= ($0.80), we all laughed because of how used we had become to the village prices of certain goods.

We got back to the Crow’s Nest and prepared for the night’s festivities by showering, pre-gaming, and putting on our costumes.

Costumes in a CaveCostumes Included: Peace Corps Care Package, a tree, a chicken, Space Mice, Mefloquine Dream, the princesses from Frozen, Abby and Alana from Broad City, Yoshi, the Nyabo who sells drinks and sodas at the taxi parks, a very bad Michael Jackson, a bumblebee, an Expatriate, Jesus, a barefoot and pregnant woman, and various other costumes.

I was put in charge of preparing the music playlist on a flash drive. I spent the next hour and a half compiling crowd-pleasing songs for the cave as I drank some gin. There were vans hired to shuttle us to in the cave from the Crow’s Nest. We were dropped off literally in the middle of a road and followed a muddy path that led to the large Mise Cave. There were about 30 PCV’s there in costume. To the right of the cave was the man in charge of cooking the whole roasted pig and to the left was the generator that powered the lights and speakers.

The food was amazing, and the glazed/roasted pork tasted just as good as any Lechon that I ate at a Filipino party back home. The food was good, the location was unique, the atmosphere was there, but the only problem was the music. The first set of speakers didn’t play the music from the flash drive because the button on the speakers that would allow the flash drive to play didn’t connect to anything. The second set of speakers only played DVD’s, and so the rest of the party was filled with the overly loud songs of Ugandan dancehall.

That was the unfortunate bit of it. Everything was there and everything was right except for a small button that would have allowed the music to Mise Caveplay. As a result, the Halloween celebration wasn’t as it could have been had the music worked out. Slowly-by-slowly we trickled out of the king’s ancestral cave and continued the celebration back at the Crow’s Nest. We hooked up some portable speakers to our laptops and iPhones and proceeded to dance to music that we knew.

I actually loved that last part of the night where we were all still in costume and chilling by the portable speakers with a waterfall quietly roaring in the distance. I enjoyed getting to hang out with more members of the newer group and connect with them in a way that I had never been able to do before.

On Sunday we hired a coaster to drive most of us back to Kampala. It was a fun, smooth ride since we weren’t taking public transportation. I made the decision to stay overnight in Kampala instead of rushing back home, since I needed to get some work done on the internet.

Chill Lantern NightThe other thing was that I felt stuck in a weird funk after the Halloween celebration. Usually after weekend celebrations with other PCV’s I feel some sort of closure as I travel back home. This time I felt as if there wasn’t any sort of closure. I realized that I had said hello and goodbye to some PCV’s for the last time before they COS’d. I think that it also had to do with the overall vibe of the PCV’s, especially those who were disappointed with the music. This trip also marked me crossing off the east as the last region that I had yet to visit. had traveled to Gulu and Arua in the north, Kabale and Kisoro in the southwest, Kasese and Fort Portal in the west, Kalangala Islands in the central/south, and finally Mbale in the east.

The unknown parts of this country were making themselves known to me. I have also realized that I am almost at the halfway point of my stay in this country. In literally one week I will be welcoming the new trainees into the country. I like to think that one of my resolutions for this coming year in country will be to make an effort to see other PCV’s in all of the regions of Uganda. When this school term ends and I finish helping out with PST, I aim to spend my vacation travelling to the different regions of Uganda and visiting more remote sites along the way. It would be a way to connect with those whom I don’t normally see, and reinvigorate me from seeing the same people and personalities all of the time.

Becoming Used

29/10/14

Sometimes I wonder about how different life was like back in the United States. I had a dream (most likely Mefloquine induced) about staging in Philadelphia the day before we left for our flight to Uganda. I definitely know that I have changed since that day. One of my PCV friends here explained her concern that when our friends and family members see us back in the United States, they will see us as a changed person. They might say, “Marvin, you’ve changed since you left 27 months ago.” However, for them the change that they see is just one large change in outlook, appearance, and personality whereas the change that I and my fellow PCV’s know consists of many small minute changes that occurred throughout the entirety of our service. What I am at the one year mark is different from what I was when I first arrived and what I will be when I depart.

As I’ve acclimated to daily life here, the epiphany moments become less and less frequent as the mundane day-to-day moments become more and more frequent. I may not notice how I’ve changed because of how gradual the changes have been. As an example, when I first arrived in country I was extremely confused as how to navigate anywhere without a Peace Corps Driver driving me everywhere. The concept of finding another Peace Corps Volunteer in the middle of a Ugandan sub-county was daunting. I couldn’t understand how to get from one place to another without the guidance of sign posts or a pre-printed list of Google Maps directions.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I got more and more comfortable travelling to different areas of Uganda by myself. I began to see familiar roads and intersections. I could tell when I had left one region and started entering another one. As the Ugandans say, “I started to become used.”

I think that the hardest adjustment will be re-connecting with old friends as well as connecting with new ones. I’ve already started thinking about that concise one-sentence response that will answer the question: “How as Peace Corps/Africa/Uganda?”

My tentative responses thus far:

“It was hot. It was sultry. I learned where Uganda was on the map. I was a physics teacher in a Ugandan village armed with a blackboard and a piece of chalk. I pooped in a hole. Ebola wasn’t near me at all. I could never tell what was inside me.”

I guess that I’ll figure out my witty, informative, and awe-inspiring response sometime in the coming 15 months.

So the rest of the day involved me going to a dedication ceremony for the primary school pupils here. There was a Christian (Seventh Day Luteete Primary School Dedication CeremonyAdventist maybe?) church service and the P7 and P1 pupils were honored. From the few words I could gather from the pastor’s 20-minute long speech (he said that he was wrapping up the speech at the 5, 10, and 15 minute mark) he made a poignant comparison between the P1 and the P7 pupils. It was interesting placing myself in their shoes and imagining how it must feel to have once been that young and then be on the verge of entering secondary school.

I thought back to when I was a middle-school student in Sacred Heart of Glyndon in Maryland. I remembered my graduation night and how I felt that those three years in middle school represented an end of an era.

I look back on that now and think about how far I’ve come and how many personal eras I’ve lived through since that graduation night in a far different church. In that air-conditioned church, all students and family members were present for a graduation ceremony where the speeches were brief and the prospect of eating out at the nearby Bill Bateman’s was tantalizing. In this heat-filled church, all pupils and some family members who could make it for the day were present for a dedication ceremony where the overtly religious speeches were endless and the prospect of eat fresh cassava and beans was on everyone’s mind.

After the ceremony ended, I taught a brief lesson about light dispersion and the formation of rainbows. I then walked back home and saw the entire congregation gathered underneath the tamarind tree. They were having a harvest auction where each grade level of the primary school brought in something  such as beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cassava, etc. to auction. It was amusing seeing one of the primary school teachers playing the role of the auctioneer as pupils, teachers, and parents alike bid on the various harvest goods. I outbid one of the villagers for a pumpkin by 100/= (roughly 2 cents).

Right now I am roasting some pumpkin in my dutch oven in order to make some pumpkin bread and pumpkin based tikka masala as a small treat for me since its hump day at site. Tomorrow I’ll use the remainder to make some pumpkin soup. So yeah, I guess that I’m getting used.

Fall Winds and Summer Heat

28/10/14

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I woke up to a cool, overcast morning and taught my class about the nature of light. I finished a succinct, coherent class, ate some lunch, and enjoyed the cold breeze as it down-poured for the majority of the afternoon. The electricity also stayed on for the entire day, which surprised me a lot. I loved feeling chilly as I drank my French-pressed coffee. When I closed my eyes, I imagined that I was back in Boston or Owings Mills as the cold breeze wafted away the humid heat of summer. I think that the Fall season is one of the things that I miss the most about the US. I miss being able to bundle up in layers of clothing and share hot food at a warm café or restaurant. But most of all I miss biking through the Fall foliage; there’s just something about a cold a wind where every inhale just makes you feel alive.

Then in the evening I took out a pack of crayons, some loose poster paper and played with the village kids who drew drawings of cups, houses, and cars. They seemed so happy just to draw and play. I felt good to be alive, because it was such a good day.

Today was a bit of a meteorological turn-around. The day started out muggy and stayed hot and humid throughout. I had trouble concentrating as I taught my class about plane, concave, and convex mirrors as well as reflection and refraction of light rays. My Year 1 students impressed me today with how they take more effective notes and actually understand what I am teaching them when it comes to the basics of mirrors and optics. I remember that I had some trouble understanding this when I was their age back in high school, and now in a classroom devoid of materials and armed only with a piece of chalk and a spoon they have been able to pick more than the average American.

I remained sluggish after lunch. The heat was everywhere, and fanning myself in the shade of my house only made me sweat more. After napping Luteete Primary School Rainbowfor either 30 minutes or a few hours (I can never really keep track of time here), I walked outside to draw with my village children. I also started thinking about how I would teach my lesson tomorrow concerning the dispersions of light that lead to the formation of a rainbow. Funnily enough, there was a vivid double rainbow spanned the length of the sky over my village. I literally laughed at this coincidence. I mean, I’m literally teaching about the reflections and refractions of different wavelengths of light that lead to how the cones in our eyes see different colors and in the backdrop of children drawing on my porch is this glorious rainbow with a golden sun setting in the foreground.

I’m not even gonna attempt to draw any meaning from this, but I will say that I sometimes forget where I am living. I forget just how beautiful this place is, and sometimes it takes a drastic change in the weather, a few crayons, and a physics class to make me realize it.

Doing and Being

25/10/14

Entitlement is something that I struggle with on a daily basis. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I sometimes feel that life here is a bit harder to deal with compared to life back in the United States. After working on a difficult project, teaching a long class, or travelling a lot I feel as if I “deserve” a 50th Anniversary US Ambassadorbreak somehow. In the United States, a lot of emotions are connected with how one feels that he or she deserves something. The heroes and do-gooders deserve praise and rewards whereas the villains and neer-do-wells deserve justice and punishment. The concept of karma and the idea that good works lead to earthly rewards (Gospel of Prosperity) prevail in the United States. Movies and tv shows, especially those feel-good ones, show the struggle of the hero/protagonist and the cathartic rewards at the end.

I have since come to realize that what one deserves is rarely what one receives here. If I worked the same as I worked here, but in the United States then I would be considered a hard worker. However, I would guess that the average village Ugandan sees me as one who lives a cushioned lifestyle. I might be working on my laptop in my house when there’s electricity but the Ugandan passing by my window will only see me spending leisure time on some expensive electronics. Who does the most amount of work: the Ugandan who planted beans, groundnuts, and corn in his farm all-day or the Peace Corps Volunteer who lesson planned, edited a video, and wrote a blog post?

I struggle reconciling which work is harder through the mindset of my pre-Peace Corps life and my mindset now. During training, we are told that Peace Corps volunteers deserve a break every now and then from village life. RPCV’s, friends, family members, and the US Ambassador himself have praised our efforts and work in the villages. Yet, I pose the question of whether or not our breaks from village life truly are deserved. How is it fair that we get nice houses compared to our local communities and have the freedom to leave whenever we want when our students, neighbors, and friends never get a break?

Of course, I know that life isn’t fair and not everyone gets the justice that he or she deserves. When you have luxuries in life, the tendency is to justify why you have then and how you deserve them because of what accomplished. I have the utmost respect for my neighbors and students because of the work that they do every day that garner no praise or special recognition. To be honest, I know that I could accomplish three times as much as I accomplish now if I only had their work ethic.

There is a paradox to address: while many Ugandans are hard workers out in the field, you would be hard-pressed to go a day in Uganda without seeing a Ugandan lounging about on a mattress and not doing anything for hours. Then you have the tendency for Ugandans to be “masters of time” and never show up on time and accomplish very few tangible results during meetings and workshops. Sometimes I feel that Ugandans can be the hardest working people whose actions elicit the smallest return for work done. I personally believe that most Ugandans who have very little must work hard to continue to survive, while those who have money let others do the work for them.

Audrey FirespinningDuring this past week I was back at Kulika Training Center near Busunjju for Training of Trainers (ToT). I always feel comfortable there because that was where I started my Peace Corps journey. We prepped for the upcoming PST in November as well as worked on establishing trust with one another. One of the most effective sessions occurred on the last full day of ToT. The trainers and some staff members gathered together in a circle and we all held a piece of paper where we wrote down what we wanted to be perceived as on one half of the paper and what we thought others perceived us to be on the other half. The next part of the session involved us walking around to other people in the circle one at a time and telling that person something good about him or herself (Glow) and perceived shortcoming that he or she should improve (Grow). The activity works if initial trust is established among the group members and if the Glows and Grows are given honestly.

It felt really good to go through this activity and engage myself and others in a self-reflection activity that forced us to be uncomfortable. I don’t think that I had felt this raw and vulnerable in such a long time. I literally felt as if the walls that I had built up to protect myself were slowly battered down with each person I confronted in this activity. I noticed that a lot of my own worries about myself were recurring: I take on too much work, who is the real Marvin?, I appear to be too happy that it seems fake, I try to get people to like me, and I overshadow others who may not be as comfortable in a group.

This activity reminded me of all the masks that I wear. I forgot that I act so differently around different groups of people. I am perceptive of group atmospheres and can act accordingly with different facets of my personality. I’m self-conscious about myself, so I attempt to be good at doing different things in order to mask that self-consciousness. If people know me for being good at different things then that can be my mask that hides my low self-esteem. I still let what others think about me affect me too much. I thought that I had already figured out in junior year at BU that my happiness shouldn’t depend on the approval of others.

So in my village I wonder who I really am. I build my reputation about all the things that I’ve done, but forget about being. When you strip away all of the tasks, project, and accomplishments what is left? Even in this country I can’t be my full self due to some cultural obligations. I hide behind the culturally appropriate high context conversations involving Uganglish and indirect confrontations. Then in the midst of all this I am changing with each passing day. I am a Filipino by blood, an American by birth, a member of the monkey (Enkima) clan, called a muzungu every day, a teacher, a volunteer, a traveler, a trainer, and a learner. I don’t recognize myself at times, but I guess part of being in the Peace Corps is venturing into this unknown and constantly discovering who I am.