Who We Are

February 3, 2015

After MSC, a portion of us PCV’s chilled out by the beautifully swanky Nile Resort pool that overlooked the Nile. I feltNile Resort Hotel like I was in a movie, because everything looked so pretty and thought-out. Then we headed to NRE to stay the night. I was a bit turned off by NRE, because last time I was very excited to be among other PCV’s and in the mindset to celebrate the 4th of July. It smelled of old beer, the music was overbearing, and I felt off since I was hungover from the beer pong games of the night before. I didn’t even feel like joining in with the other muzungus and dancing with them.

The next day, we headed over to Kampala since we had a meetings the next day at the office. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep, but the Super Bowl was being shown at the Fat Boyz bar in Kisementi starting at 2:30am on Tuesday morning. I slept a bit beforehand, and then got up to watch the first American football game that I’ve seen in-country. So there weren’t any wings, commercials, or half-time show but it was so worth it to watch a well-edited game in solidarity with everyone else who was watching it around the world. The shock that us 8 PCV’s had in seeing the Patriots keep the Seahawks away from that last 1-yard line in the last minute of the game was audible throughout the Kisementi parking lot.

The next day saw some of the most action that the Peace Corps Office has seen in a while. Peer Support Network, Diversity Club, GEO Club, SHAC Committee, Conservation Think Tank, and VAC all met with staff in order to discuss the way forward this year for PCV’s and their respective groups. Now more than ever, it seems as if these support committees and clubs are needed by the PCV community in Uganda.

Pool HangoutOne of the biggest take-aways from this most recent training group was the lack of diversity awareness and training. Trainers and trainees alike would sometimes refer to the entire training cohort as “white people” where there were definitely other races represented. In another instance, some of the white trainees shared, “Oh, I mean I’m called muzungu all the time by Ugandans and it annoys me so I totally get how it feels to be discriminated against.” Of course, this was just a misguided form of empathy.

In the past, Diversity Club used to be focused predominantly on race, especially for African-American PCV’s. The founder of the club was very passionate about the issue, because of how she was treated by Ugandans. Having very dark skin due to her Nigerian heritage, her homestay family would complain about having her because they couldn’t have one of the white, American PCV’s. As a result, the Diversity Club was created to spread awareness among staff, PCV’s, and Ugandans that Americans come from all races, backgrounds, beliefs, orientations, sexes, and ages.

Furthermore, there have been instances where female PCV’s feel as if they aren’t given as much support as they need. Unfortunately, most of Uganda’s laws blame the victim. For example, if a female were to go into a house with three other men in it and then gets sexually assaulted, then it would be hard for her to win a court case against them because she should have known better than to go into a house with three men in it. In other words, she was asking for it and it’s partially her fault.

And yes, there have been stories concerning sexual assault to the point where almost every PCV in any given Peace Corps country could tell you about someone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted during service. The hardest part is keeping that motivation to help and do good in a country where some of its people want nothing more than to take advantage of you or your Peace Corps family. Back in Kulika, we were told to believe that goodness can prevail but it’s hard to believe that sometimes.

Even in the case of those who are LGBT, I have heard from some PCV’s about the difficulties in having to make friends, live with homestay families, and make lasting relationships with Ugandans and never be able to let them know about this very beautiful and significant part of their lives. A lot of these PCV’s sometimes live in fear because a simple slipup of leaving a journal entry out in public, having personal pictures stolen, or an old photo on a Facebook album could turn a whole community against them.

So this is why the committees and clubs met together at the office. A passionate percentage of us PCV’s wanted to help support each other in any way that we could. Even though there is a lot of bad going on around us, there is also a lot of possible good. I remember back when I was a trainee how it was even possible for a PCV to get anything done in the village let alone smile while being bombarded by apathy, dust, heat, lack of resources, and even hostility at times.

It’s those little victories of goodness that help turn the tide of apathy and hatred. It’s the reminder that for every negative situation there is another positive situation to balance it. It’s the mutual respect among PCV’s that we know how it really is to be a foreigner living in a country that will leave physical, mental, and emotional scars on your body, mind, and soul before you leave.  It’s the understanding that while we may not know what’s another person is going through, we can try to understand what he or she is experiencing.

P.S. – After MSC, I feel as if I’ve been better able to manage my temper whenever I’m called muchina or muzungu by Ugandans.

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MSC (Mid-Service Conference)

January 27-31, 2015

You know, it’s interesting to have finally made it this far. Last year I had visited the other PCV’s at their own MSC at Maria Flo Hotel in Masaka. I found it hard to believe that it had been one whole year since the older education volunteers were celebrating their own successes and planning the next year. Out of all of the conferences that I’ve attended, this was definitely the most fulfilling and productive. It’s hard to stress just how connected I feel with the fellow PCV’s in my cohort. I see them as my family and friends who have shared similar struggles and hardships together since the beginning at Kulika.

I left my site on Monday January 26 with the end goal of reaching Jinja in mind. After a traditionally lengthy day of travel by bike, takisi, and foot, I arrived in Jinja town where I met up with fellow PCV’s Hannah and Steve at Hans. I was told that they had one of the best chicken pillao in town. We then shared a milkshake with each other at the Keep which is a castle-themed restaurant that serves amazing smoothies and milkshakes. I was struck by how almost-developed the streets were around that area. There were sidewalks and some semblance of city-planning since the town streets were a grid system.

We spent the night at Hannah’s site near Wanyange. The next day we made for the Njeru Nile Hotel near the Nile Brewery where we would be having our four-day MSC. Even though I had been able to share quality time with everyone in our cohort since other conferences, it felt really good to physically be with everyone again in one space. It was perfect, the conference center had swanky rooms with leather chairs, a tv, sink, an oven that didn’t connect to anything, a private bathroom, and an oscillating fan.

Group MeetingIn keeping with my cohort’s overachieving attitude, we already had extra-curricular activities planned throughout the conference. On the first night, we all chilled by the bonfire and listened to some PCV’s play around on their guitars. Of course there was also the mandatory sharing of whiskey, chill sessions, and catching up those whom I haven’t had the chance to see in a long time. The first morning involved a gallery walk where everyone was encouraged to make a poster or presentation detailing what he or she has done during his or her service. At first, a lot of us didn’t like the idea of bragging about ourselves. However, that morning session was successful, and it was really refreshing to see the work that we were all doing at our respective sites with our time.

I was struck with the difference in mentality and attitude since IST. Back then it almost felt like a competition about who did the most work and who was being the most successful at site. Now it felt like we were here to really support each other with the realization that all of us had such unique talents, circumstances, and regions that allowed us to accomplish what we did. The other cool thing about this conference was that even though we knew each other on different personal levels, we were very comfortable presenting our own ideas to each other, sharing our struggles, and voicing concerns.

Amanda, who led a lot of yoga sessions during our service, led a reflection/meditation activity in the afternoon. The idea was that we were caught riding a boda or doing some other illegal activity that kicked us out of Peace Corps Uganda and that we then had 12 hours of time left before we had to leave and go back to the United States. We were savoring each breath and reflecting on our dreams, hopes, regrets, lies, goodbyes, and thank yous before we left for good. I thought about what I would say to my closest friends here, how I would never be able to see a completed ICT lab, how my village kids would always ask where I went, and the anger that I would have with myself at not finishing my Peace Corps service.

Mid Service Conference Group Photo

I actually got really emotional during the reflection, because it helped me realize just how much of an impact Uganda had made on me in this past year. My head was spinning as I attempted to understand what I would do to prepare for my sojourn back to my old home. Interestingly, I also felt a sense of relief in imagining that in such a sudden and forceful departure, I would also be forced to let go of all attachments here and focus on what was happening in those last moments of life in Uganda. Then just as we meditated on getting on that plane and leaving Ugandan ground for the last time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we took a deep breath and came back to this reality. The meditation was an adaptation of a death meditation of one’s last 12 hours of life before death. In this case, I realized just how short one year really is and what I wanted to do in this last year of service.

We also scheduled some extra sessions as a cohort where we discussed issues concerning diversity, peer support, geo issues, and sexual harassment. I appreciated the level of maturity in the cohort where we could talk about serious issues with each other when the time was right, and still have the energy to go crazy and celebrate with each other when the work was completed.

We drafted our upcoming year 1 workplans, wrote success stories, met with our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders, attended resume/CV sessions, received our W-2’s from our DMO, and voiced our honest concerns concerning safety and security, favoritism, the boda policy, and volunteer/staff relations. The last two nights were dedicated to a casino and a carnival night of games.

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised with how successful MSC was. I expected to roll my eyes at the presentations because I already understood the basics, but this was all about ways to move forward. I came out of this conference on the upswing and am extremely excited to start this new year. Once again, I was also able to create a new music video of all the members in our cohort as a sort of commemoration after the Kulika Music Video last year. I guess that above all things I am grateful to have a cohort, community, and family that cares as much about this job as I do.

Gratitude

22/1/15 – 23/1/15

The new Education group of trainees finally swore-in at the ambassador’s house on Thursday. It really  didn’t hit me how much things have changed until I sat down and heard the speeches that I’ve heard time and time again by the Country Director, Ambassador, and new PCV’s. It struck me just how optimistic of a tone this new group had when its representatives gave speeches during the ceremony. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t eloquent or heartfelt, but they sounded very optimistic and intangible. There were a lot of metaphors and comparisons of empowering Ugandans in a sustainable way.

I believe that if I had heard these speeches a year ago, I would have been inspired. It’s funny just how much stock I now place in tangible goals instead of intangible aspirations and how all of the beautiful rhetoric in the world still won’t make the borehole pump itself. Some of my fellow PCV’s from my cohort who also attended the ceremony commented, “How long do you think it will take until they become jaded?”

New Group Swearing-In

Of course we all congratulated them and welcomed the newly sworn-in PCV’s with open arms, but I kept asking myself that question. Was there a turning point or was it a gradual shift in attitudes that made me the Peace Corps Volunteer who I am today as opposed to a whole year ago at the Ambassador’s house. I still welcome the fresh perspective to this country that only new PCV’s can offer.

The next day, I returned back to site. It’s almost as if my entry into my metaphorical junior year of my Peace Corps service was a reminder of what I had gone through. I had a mini-bout of giardia in the morning which caused me intense pain even as I wolfed down the chicken skewer appetizers after the swearing-in ceremony and drank glasses of wine at the Country Director’s house afterwards. I threw up later that night after much diarrhea.

The next day, I travelled back to site on an empty stomach. Even in my own town, a market vendor called me muchina and I chewed him out in local language. My bicycle’s back wheel had low air pressure, but as I made it back to my house a smile grew on my face. My neighborhood kids were yelling, “Marvin” as I made it to my front door. Even the berry plant that was eaten by a stray goat started to re-grow its leaves. So much has changed in this past year, and I think back to that last speech given at this new group’s swearing-in ceremony. PCV Emery gave a speech entirely devoted to gratitude towards all people and parts who made Peace Corps Ugandan possible: from the UPS man/woman who delivered our visa applications to the Peace Corps Uganda staff and trainers.

As I entered the front door of my house a for the first time after a whole year, I think back to the experiences and interactions that continuously led me back to that door when I could have just as easily ignored it for somewhere else. In this case, I’m grateful to call his place my home.

Camp Kuseka (Special Needs Camp): The Tale of Marvin and Deus

10/1/2015 – 16/1/2015

After my Satellite Liaison duties in Mityana town, I proceeded to Fort Portal where I met up with other Peace Corps DeusVolunteers. We gathered together at the Kyaninga Child Development Center (CDC) near YES Hostel where Camp Kuseka would take place from January 12 – 16. The goal was to empower youth, caretakers, and parents connected with special needs in the community. The following tale is one of the relationship between myself as a counselor and my camper Deus.

I was eager to start this grand adventure at the CDC, but the Camp Directors informed us that we first needed to go through two days of training. The camp was to take place in this beautifully walled-off compound with areas designated for sports, arts and crafts, reading, and lectures/dancing. During this time, we underwent basic information involving special needs education in Uganda and how little it is understood. We discussed worst-case scenarios, how to act with different special needs campers, basic Ugandan sign language, basic Rutooro, adapting activities to suit individual campers, and the various Ugandan groups who were involved with this camp:

TOCI – Twerwanemo Orphans Community Initiative

YAWE – Youth and Women Empowerment

KCDC – Kyaninga Child Development Center

RSNF – Rwenzori Special Needs Foundation

YALI – Young African Leaders Initiative

On the last day of training, each counselor was matched up with unique camper with a special need. Each counselor and camper duo was then placed in a specific color group: yellow for auditory, orange for physical, and red for mental. I found out that I was to be paired with Anifa, a 16-year old girl who had problems with fine motor skills. Despite having an older camper, I was eager to start off this journey.

“You call yourself normal, but you’re not normal. No one on this world is normal.”
~Swaib, Ugandan Counselor

12/1/15 – Journal Notes

I don’t feel nervous at all for this beginning part of camp. I felt that I learned a few new things about PWD (People with Disabilities) during ToT (Training of Trainers), but now I’m excited to once again get this camp started.

At lunchtime, I switched campers from Anifa in the orange group to Deus in the red group. Deus is a 12, 14, 15, or 16 year old who has a mental disability. He is easily distracted and has the mind of a 6-year old.

It was a fulfilling and tiring day. I wasn’t nervous, and funnily enough I felt confident in my abilities as a counselor. I guess that in the past, I’ve always worried about being good enough in situations like this.

I was sad that I had to switch from Anifa to Deus by mid-day, but I think that the fit worked out in their best interests. In the end, I suppose that my energies and personality jive much better with Deus and his interests than with Anifa’s. She is a girl’s girl and Deus likes to do more guy things.

13/1/15 – Journal Notes

It was another long day in the tale of Deus and Marvin. It went by so fast from the get-go. We started by playing Camp Kuseka Readingsports and continued our tradition of throwing cones in a hoop, cricket bat fighting, and me chasing Deus with hula hoop fingers. One of our favorite past-times was hitting the indestructible ball back and forth to each other.

During library time, we read all of the books with the pictures, especially Richard Scarry with the fruit and vegetable cars. I’ve realized that in this journey, he likes to attend to literary obstacls and encounters with a judgmental eye. If there are no good pictures, he rushes through the book. Words are his greatest downfall. For example, space was impossible to navigate. The adventure continued with speeches right before lunch, where I was very tired and sleepy.

Lunch was good, and I got to meet Deus’ father, who was also a part of the Amooti pet name clan.

Lunch: Beans, matooke, cabbage, meat, tomatoes, sweet potatoes

Verdict: Filling

A cool session was the arts and crafts session with scenarios for the campers. It was cool to see the campers answer somewhat complicated questions concerning scenarios. Then there was an excruciating Ugandan panel that welcomed questions from the audience consisting of the campers’ parents. Anifa’s mother asked the panel what she could do to protect her daughter from the men in the village community who want to seduce her and have sex with her.

As the panel attempted to answer this question, Deus and I drew in my notebook and threw hula hoops at each other. After the panel, all the campers, counselors, and parents joined in a dance party consisting of our favorite Ugandan dancehall songs.

14/11/15 – Journal Notes

Stuart "Crazy Legs"I have realized that I haven’t described many of the other campers here at the CDC. Accompanying us on the journey are campers with autism, Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, deafness, and various other disabilities. At any given moment I can see Mary or John crawling faster than I can run through a soccer game with the indestructible ball. Then I’ll see Michael and Apolo laughing with Benson as they sign jokes towards each other. Meanwhile, Alex, Michael, and Deus are all taking pictures of each other and “crazy legs” Stuart is dancing his heart out in the middle of the dance floor regardless of whether or not there’s any music.

Stuart is one of my favorite campers. Our directors informed us that their first memory of him was when they visited his school and saw him kicking a ball out on the field. His head perpetually swings to either his left or right shoulder, his mouth is open and askew, and his limbs move in a jerk-like fashion due to cerebral palsy but for all intents and purposes he is a 9 year old at heart. The directors watched him kick the ball for a while, fall down, get back up, and run towards them to give them a hug.

In the morning, Stuart comes up to me and starts signing the tattoo on my left forearm.

endlich daheim = finally home

During the morning session, Deus opened up. He said that he wanted to be a lawyer and make friends as his goals in life. He didn’t want to participate in singing with the group, and just wanted to kick the ball. We discussed HIV/AIDS during discussion time, drank some tea, and made origami during arts and crafts. We made a paper bag, in order for us to store our items, as well as a pet paper bird to accompany us on our journey. Mine was the smaller and inferior one compared to Deus’ amazing mama bird.

The red group really enjoyed having the opportunity to use their hands and make something tangible. I got annoyed with one of the Ugandan counselors, because he kept trying to fix the bad folding job of his camper and wouldn’t let his camper do it himself. The goal was to empower them, not to be the best origami maker. We wanted them to fight their own battles.

One of the directors led us with animal yoga and then with the parachute game filled with multitudes of colors.

Sad Anecdote: John the scout with no feeling in the lower half of his body, spends most of his day on the potty at the child center because his caretakers don’t want him soiling himself or the center. But it still doesn’t give him an excuse to act out during camp.

We made it over the hump of the week, and it’s downhill from here. Since the beginning, I have started to notice that my partner is becoming more and more independent. I am fearing that he won’t have much need for me anymore.

15/1/15 –Journal Entry

This morning the other counselor group’s caravan broke down again. They’ve already had problems with water and Brianfood. My partner was late today, and I hope that no mishap occurred to delay him.

He made it late today, and surprised me during song time with travelling bard PCV Paul.

“Strong Love, Strong Heart”

Karate was taught by a visiting German lady in knit elephant pants. I suppose that it’s good for us to learn how to defend ourselves. I have started to grow accustomed to my partner.

He laughs and makes me smile.

Deus really loves that indestructible ball. We colored some maps of Africa in order to expand our knowledge of the surrounding areas. Grandmaster Country Director Loucine stopped by to visit and see how our respective journeys have been.

We are here, near the end of the journey, and sloping down.

Watercolors are a small way of reflecting on life after camp. The fourth day in and already it feels like a liftetime on the Kyaninga CDC Road. Though well-versed in the art of bean eating, ball kicking, and friend-making, Deus’ color-identifying skills are rudimentary at best, as are his literacy skills.

But out of all his traits, dedication and full commitment to a task are his greatest assets. His favorite thing to draw is a cow. The day ended as per usual, but with more of an emotional reaction for me.

It made me realize just how different my partner’s life was compared to my own life. How he saw the world through is own eyes and mindset and how I saw the world through my own eyes and mindset.

I wonder if he even realize that he has a different mindset compared to other children and young adults who are his age. Will he ever be able to feel that sense of contentment and self-worth from life or just focus on the immediate road in front of him?

The more Deus and I travel together; I become sadder and more confused about how life works.

I end the day with other counselors on an open air patio with a thatched roof on top of Phylicia’s family’s compound garage as the sun sets in violet hues over the waves of dust-covered matooke. I wonder if Deus sees this too at his house.

“Stay with Me”

16/1/15

MattIt’s the last day of the journey. As soon as Deus saw me, he smiled and said, “Marvin!” It warmed my heart. I hope that he feels the same about me when he sees me.

He’s found an interest in using the camera and taking photos of the world around him. I wish that I could give him a camera of his own, and to see a small snapshot of the world in his own eyes.

We started filling out our final assessment of the week, and what we learned from our journey through Kyaninga.

Now, there’s a little bit of an arts reflection with drawing and homemade play-doh.

He’s very proud of the photos that he takes. He even showed the drivers for the Rides for Lives mobile HIV/AIDS testing clinic some of his photos that he took on my camera.

I’m definitely gonna miss these kiddos. I like to think that for this one week, they get to feel like other kids in their community.

He’s a big eater and has a big belly. Fortunately, we had beans and meat today. He got seconds. And now he finally got his certificate of completion. I don’t know if he understands that this day is the last ay of camp, because he asked me what we would be doing tomorrow.

“This is just the beginning.”
~Rachel Ceruti

I honestly feel that this was one of the most memorable weeks of my Peace Corps service. Despite it only being a day camp, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted by the end of each day. This caused most of the counselors to sojourn to the Sweet Aromas bakery near Gardens Café at the bottom of the Fort Portal hill. Aw man, I can still taste the pumpkin glazed cookies, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and tea cakes baked fresh to order each day. I also made an effort to exercise every evening, whether it was running 5 miles (which reminded me why I’m not a runner) or doing a T25 workout video.

This week was a very cool Peace Corps experience. I got the opportunity to really see a new side of Fort Portal, while participating in a special needs camp in Uganda. Once again, I felt that I was right where I needed to be in life.