Linking Hills

2/3/15

I’ve been living at site for over a week and honestly right now in my Peace Corps service it almost feels as if the days meld together. I can’t keep track of when the weeks begin and when the days end. I think that the routine that I’ve settled into has allowed me to feel as if time moves much faster than when I’m in a new environment. Recently, I’ve been reviewing Year 1 mathematics with the Year 2 students. It still frustrates me to no end that many of these college-aged students still have trouble with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of numbers. However, I feel that I’m making progress with some of them.

On top of that I have been discussing the way forward with the construction of the ICT computer lab. My supervisor and I decided that it is unfeasible to wait until we reach our original goal of fundraising $7800 and will instead content ourselves with raising $5000. We looked through the budget and realized that the community can make an additional contribution and investment in this lab that it can provide over the course of the next few semesters. The construction of the ICT lab also reminded me that I need to start taking note of my accomplishments during my service so that I can showcase them to potential employers.

The other day I had a mini-panic attack on top of my internet hill, because I looked through the possible engineering job opportunities near Baltimore, Maryland and worried that my Peace Corps service caused me to become out-of-date. I have become rusty with my engineering technical skills. In Uganda, we’re using technology that is over a decade old, so I will definitely have to reacquaint myself with CAD, coding, and modeling software that can make me more marketable as an entry-level engineer.

After calling a few other PCV’s who also graduated with a B.S. in engineering, I was reminded that my experience here has been invaluable. I guess that with too much time to think by myself, I forgot that I have been developing soft skills and creative ways of problem-solving that will definitely set me apart from other candidates for the same job. Last night, I spent a few hours fine-tuning my resume in preparation for job applications in the next few months.

It’s too early for senioritis, but I’m already counting down the days until service ends. I am torn between the next stage of adventures and the one that I am living right now. I keep reminding myself to live right here and now; even though I already know that I will depart Uganda in early December 2015. I think that it will do me some good to work on some other projects outside of my village, and to continue doing what I can do with the remainder of my time here.

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Bicycle Man

23/2/15

It’s been another busy week at site. I’ve been reviewing mathematics with the Year 2 students, while also teaching the mathematics curriculum for the new Year 1 students. I’ve also been meeting with my supervisor to cut our losses and continue building the computer/ICT lab with the funds that we’ve currently been able to raise. I’m planning my friend’s visit in March, and have attempted to plan out the rest of these next 10 months of Peace Corps service. Looking back to last December, I laugh when I think back to how I told myself that I would definitely spend more time at site and not travel or take on as many other projects.

However, I am comfortable with what I do and who I am. I think that I’ve reached that balance and acceptance of my work here and what I can feasibly accomplish before I depart. Already I’m moving away from always reminiscing and remembering my life’s adventures before Peace Corps and instead imagining the adventures and experiences to come. In the meantime, I still have a job to do here.

I was reminded of my mortality this afternoon. I was playing outside with the village kids and saw that my neighbors had gathered by the side of the dirt road behind my house. My neighbor told me that there was an accident where a boda boda crashed into a man riding his bicycle. I left my rice to cook in my kitchen on low heat as I walked towards the scene of the accident. When my neighbors asked why I wanted to see the accident, I told them that I was a bike rider on these roads too.

As I approached the growing crowd on one of the side road intersections, I heard whispers that the man was dead. I climbed up to one of the dirt ridges by the side of the dirt road and saw a crowd around the boda boda driver and another one around a man lying on the ground with his bicycle lying down next to him. He wasn’t moving. One of the onlookers moved him to a sitting position and I saw that there was a small pool of blood on the ground where his head had lain. I couldn’t tell if he was dazed or dead. Several other men picked him up and sat him on a boda. Another man sat behind him to hold onto him as the boda driver drove away into the swirls of dust.

I would imagine that the boda man left the crash scene with nothing more than a warning from the villagers to drive more carefully. However, I don’t know if the crash victim died or is recovering. As unfortunate as it is this is state of events in my community in Uganda. Some boda boda drivers will still drive recklessly, and I’m still going to bicycle from my village to Wobulenzi in order to catch a takisi to Kampala or the north. It definitely crossed my thought that I could have been the victim, since the crash scene was a route that I would normally take to purchase eggs, toilet paper, oil, or other such village essentials. If there ever was a time in my life when I contemplated my own mortality, it has been during my time thus far in the Peace Corps. But I’m not gonna worry about that all the time, because there is so much else to think about than about the multitude of ways to perish here.

Despite accidents like the bodaman and the bicycle man, there is so much beauty here and so much more to be thankful for. I have to remember that, because shit happens a lot here; maybe more-so than in a developed world. So I’m gonna keep on biking and keep on working here because that’s what I can do in response to the injustice of an innocent bicycle man riding back home to his family.

Privilege

13/2 – 22/2 Two weekends ago I spent some time hanging out with some of the new education PCV’s in Masaka. Initially, I didn’t plan to eat at Frikadellen, but I ended up partaking in the 30,000/= buffet and from what I can remember it was definitely worth it. We spent the rest of the Ndegeya Bonfire Circlenight drinking, hanging out, and eventually dancing at the local club Ambiance. For some reason, four of us decided to share a bed in an extremely small and hot hotel room filled with mosquitoes and the stench of alcohol. The next day we sluggishly made our way to the pool located in one of the neighborhoods near Plot 99. Honestly, this weekend was going according to plan: I wanted to go out dancing, eat some good food, and spend the hungover Saturday swimming in a pool. In the evening we headed back to Ndegeya PTC where PCV’s Eric and Elyse hosted us for dinner. The last time I was at their house was almost one whole year ago, and their house is still as beautiful and posh as I remember it. After dinner, a few of us sloped up the nearby roads to the Ndegeya Art Community (Weaverbird Arts Foundation). It was founded 7 years ago by a Ugandan/Rwandan man who wanted to create a place where artists from Uganda and abroad could collaborate, hold workshops, and be free to express themselves in art. Every 3-4 months they would hold some sort of art workshop week where dozens of artists would gather together and live on top of the hill. The hill had a large grass clearing dotted with a bonfire pit, art houses, latrines, bathing areas, campgrounds, and sculptures made out of stone, brick, and recycled jerrycans. Since it was Valentine’s Day, not many artists had gathered for the meeting that weekend. This allowed us to have some more personal time with the founder of the movement. He told us that the meaning behind the art was to empower Ugandans, especially those in impoverished settings, to view art as something to help them in their lives. I posed the concern that many Ugandans view art as a detriment to survival since it would be viewed as a hindrance to daily tasks such as farming, tending to the children, cooking, fetching water, and everyday life. I felt that he wasn’t able to provide an answer that satisfied me, but I felt that I would need to spend more time there to better understand what he has done and accomplished with this movement. Most of the PCV’s left on Loucine Walking with Dr. JosephSunday, but I decided to stay another day at the cottage house at Ndegeya PTC. Man, it felt so comfortable being in a clean house where I could really stretch out, sleep without a mosquito net, shower, and eat homemade coq au vin since they had an oven. More than 15 months in-country, and I have come to appreciate the value of being comfortable. I left for Kampala on Monday, and did the usual routine of eating out at the fancy food court in Acacia Mall. I mean where else could I get decently priced and decent Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Ugandan, and American cuisine all in one area? I spent the night at the New City Annex just like old times, since I was told that a Peace Corps vehicle would pick me up early on Tuesday morning. Honestly, I assumed that I would just be going up to Lira in order to film an interview with a retired Ugandan colonel, but it turns out that I was voluntold to film promo videos of each region of Uganda with the Country Director. Personally, I am extremely glad that our country director is making an effort to personally visit the PCV’s in the different regions, because this was a complaint over the past few years. There is always some sort of disconnect between PCV’s and PC Staff since one group has trouble really empathizing or seeing the reasoning behind the actions and decisions of the other group. I also Benjamin Ferraro Stone Quarryam excited to be able to participate in such a cool project, but felt that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I stepped into that air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle that Tuesday morning.  There is another issue at work here that Peace Corps uses volunteers to fill needed staff positions and tasks. In my case, I provide free videos for Peace Corps without any payment. I have heard the arguments of both sides: on one hand we are volunteers and can accomplish the 3 goals of the Peace Corps through various means, and on the other hand the true experience of a Peace Corps Volunteer involves the integration of being at one’s site. In my case, sometimes I don’t even know where I stand anymore. It felt weird travelling in a nice vehicle with air-condition. I felt separated from both PCV’s and Ugandans by glass and cool air. There is a prevailing attitude that many well-intentioned Peace Corps staff don’t understand what many PCV’s endure because they have the luxury of private vehicles, access to clean food, access to running water, and the resource availability of Kampala. Regardless, I really enjoyed taking pictures and videos at my fellow PCV’s sites in the West Nile region, namely the towns of Arua and Maracha. First of all, it was hot as balls from 9am – 5pm. I felt fortunate that I lived in Central where the temperature of a 24 hour span varied from chilly in the night to hot in the afternoon. We visited primary schools, demonstration schools, NTCs, PTCs, a hospital, a honey organization, sexual health center, and an organization for orphans. Journal Entry: “I’m still so impressed with my fellow PCV’s and the hard work that they do. I’m still so frustrated by the bureaucracy here. I can see that there’s a lot of opportunity here, and in so many places, but those in charge of these opportunities don’t utilize them for what they’re worth. It’s all about saving face, building ones self-image, and very vague promises of far-reaching pipe dreams. A lot of self-aggrandizement. In many ways and times the wonder and initiative of the pupils an students are quashed by the rote inactivity of the administrators in power. I need to take more initiative and advantage of the resources at my Bee Natural Assembly Lineschool. People want things, boreholes, fences, internet, and so any things but how willing are they to work to make them come about? I am still so intrigued how sometimes adults here almost ruin the imagination of children. Pure wonder is hard to come by here. I go back and forth between not wanting to be staff and feeling like staff, but being constantly reminded that I am a volunteer. I am pulled in so many different directions. I understand that in certain cultures there are differences. But are some differences better than others, such as time management, gender roles, and societal structures in hierarchy. I mean what do we mean as a long-term goal of development? What does development really entail? Does it mean that we want developing countries to be like developed countries and share their ideals? What does it mean to rally empower people to do things in a culturally-conscious way? It’s a big mess and its not our job to fix every problem, nor is it our job to just leave and ignore all problems. Of course money alone does not solve the problem, but it can definitely help. And who am I to even have this discussion? In this air-conditioned car, I feel comfortable and as if everything is nearby. But it makes me feel so removed from PCV’s because part of service involves the hardships of dealing with the transportation and accommodations of the host country nationals. Almost that guilty feeling of not being one of them.” Maracha Primary School“If I give you a cow, do I feed your cow for you?” ~Emily Lamwaka, Peace Corps Education Progam Director Site after site, I saw what PCV’s were doing. Some tasks were successful, and some seemed impossible to overcome and it all depended on the site administrators. More than one primary school didn’t have the resources to provide pupils with lunch. In one instance, one of these schools was resource rich due to a nearby stone quarry but didn’t bother to sell the stones as an income-generating activity to provide lunch and build fences to keep livestock away from the school. Fortunately, for every four inept administrators there was at least one person at each school who was dedicated to really empowering the students by whatever means were available. On Friday, we left the West Nile and made our way to Lira to interview a retired Ugandan colonel. We found him near Café Path on Wan Nyaci Road. One of the GHSP Peace Corps volunteers ran into him at one of the stationary stores in Lira, and he told her that several decades ago a Peace Corps volunteer saved his life. On Friday, he shared his story in full. This man was born September 20th, 1940 with an education background that brought him to Russia. In the late Lira Colonel Portrait60’s, he joined the army and the military academy where he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant and posted in Masaka. He and his squad mates heard about the news of Idi Amin’s coup against Milton Obote on January 21st, 1971. During the coup, Amin’s people were killing the ranking officers and officials of Obote’s military. He had to flee home, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who was teaching at the Aga Kan Secondary School sheltered him for two weeks. She would go to Tropicana Hotel to check on the situation of the coup. Eventually, she told him that it was too dangerous to keep him at her house. She disguised her as a student, and drove him in her car towards Kampala and then to Lira. When they got to Karuma bridge that crossed the Nile River, they saw Amin’s soldiers slaughtering captured members of Obote’s soldiers. They let the Peace Corps volunteer pass through since they were still on friendly terms with the “whites” and didn’t recognize the lieutenant. There were so many dead bodies on the bridge, that she had to drive over them. When they passed over the bridge, they stopped at a trading center to drink beer due to the shock at the Meeting the Colonelbridge. She asked him to drive the rest of the way up to Lira. They bid farewell to each other, and the Peace Corps volunteer boarded a bus headed back to Kampala. It was the last time that they saw each other, since the Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from the Uganda. At this moment in his story that he got a little teary-eyed. He explained to us that she was more than just his friend, but his girlfriend. Of course she was the side-dish in the relationship since he was already married to another woman, but still this Peace Corps volunteer risked her life to save his. The rest of the story revolves around his narrow escapes from Amin’s soldiers, his time spent as a refugee in Dar es Salaam, and his fight to retake Uganda. I will be working on editing together his story, and at the end of it he shared with us his dream for the youth of Uganda: to know their history and not care about the mindless politics and instead care for each other so that mindless slaughter can be avoided. The next day as we drove across the Karuma bridge in our air-conditioned car, we all fell silent as we reflected on what occurred there 44 years ago. Instead of flowing blood and dead bodies, all that we could see were the rushing Nile underneath us and the balmy breeze of your typical Ugandan afternoon. In some ways this country has improved, and in other ways it has remained just as impoverished as it used to be. Now more than ever, I believe that it’s experiences like that Peace Corps that make me feel privileged to work alongside my Ugandan brothers and sisters.

Passing Away

11/2/15

I was messaged by my mom on Facebook that my grandmother, my Lola, was very sick. I was informed that she had fallen down, she wasn’t eating as much as she used to eat, and that she had to be hospitalized. Her condition worsened over the course of the past few months, and recently my mom had sent me some urgent Facebook messages informing me to call her while I still could. I remember calling her in Kampala last week. My uncle had picked up the phone and told me that I should just talk to her because she could no longer speak, but she could hear.

Today, I was fortunately able to see my mother’s Facebook message urging me to call as soon as possible because Lola could pass away at any moment. I bicycled to the nearby duka to buy airtime, and returned to my house. I called my mom who was in San Diego at the moment, who allowed me to say my final words to my Lola. I told her how I prayed for her, how much I missed her, how I did good work here in the Peace Corps and followed my dreams, how I drank some good Ugandan coffee out of the mug that she gave me the last time I saw her, and how I loved her.

There was some discussion with my mother concerning whether or not I would consider coming back for a week to attend the funeral. I really did not want to go back to attend my Lola’s funeral, but I asked my mom what she thought Lola would really want me to do. Of course my mother told me that I should come back for the funeral, but my grandfather, my Lolo, said that I shouldn’t put myself through the hassle of having to fill out all the paperwork just to travel back for the funeral. I know that it would put my mom at ease if I came back for a short period, as well as to console her, but I know that the best way for me to celebrate my Lola’s life is by doing the best job that I can as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

At 1:42 am Ugandan time (2pm California time), my Lola passed away. From what I heard, she had gone through a lot of suffering. While she could still communicate, she decided that if she passed away she didn’t want to be resuscitated. In my memories, I remember my Lola who cooked my favorite Filipino dishes, came to my high school graduation, and would welcome me with open arms whenever I had the chance to see her. When I think of a loving person and archetypal grandmother figure, I think of my Lola. Even when my dad divorced my mom, Lola still had his picture up with the rest of her sons and daughters-in law and told me that of course she still prayed for him and considered him a part of the family.

She had a capacity to love that made me stay on my best behavior whenever I was with her. Because of her and Lolo, they created a family of 7 kids who all grew up to start families of their own with over 20+ grandchildren.

My mom called me in tears, and told me that Lola just passed away. Even so far away I can feel the vulnerability and sadness that my mom feels. I remember looking back at a photo album in my Lola and Lolo’s apartment and seeing my mom with her brothers and sisters posing in front of their house in the Filipino village. I think back to their humble village beginnings and about the humble village beginnings of the Ugandans whom I work with here. I think about the importance of family and how right now my Lola is surrounded by her husband and all of her sons and daughters who have loved her and each other as a family.

Right now there are too many memories flooding through my head. I remember being a small boy in the Philippines and praying the rosary with her and hoping that after we prayed together 100 times I would be granted 1 wish, I remember her crying whenever we had to leave her after visiting, I remember her celebrating 50 years of marriage with Lolo during a family reunion in California, and I remember making sure that whenever I said goodbye to her on the phone or in-person I ended with “I love you Lola.”

What I do and accomplish as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I do in part for my Lola and how she inspired me ever since I was a baby. So for one more time, I love you Lola.

High Again

February 8, 2015

I feel very typically Peace Corps right now. More than a year later I’m back to business as usual on top of the nearby Kabaka’s Hill where I can get the only decent internet in my village. I had to write a few emails concerning the outcome of fundraisers back home, the possibility of another US Embassy Grant for the construction of a science lab (that does not rely on crowd-funding), sending a Peace Corps staff information regarding media equipment purchases, and confirming some details regarding my friend Alex’s visit this coming March.

As this was happening, I was squatting underneath a large mango tree, because it was providing shade from the afternoon sun. Large ants were biting me since I was so low to the ground, but I couldn’t stand up because it was difficult to see with the glare of the dry season’s afternoon sun. When I finished my internet errands, which cost me about 100Mb worth of data, I looked up a pad thai recipe and checked the Peace Corps Subreddit. Even though I don’t feel very hungry due to some sort of weird gastrointestinal problem (is it Giardia? Who knows anymore…), it’s nice to think about food that I can make in the future.

I got emotional while going through the subreddit. I found some of the postings ridiculous regarding the anxieties of people who were applying, especially since so many of them seemed to be very qualified for a Peace Corps position. However, two posts intrigued me the most: one regarding an article about why Peace Corps is a waste of time and another about Peace Corps hobbies. In regards to the first one, the writer, an RPCV, bemoans the lack of resources, support, and development potential that Peace Corps has. The writer criticizes how ineffective Peace Corps is at developing a nation, and that celebrating decades of volunteer-work in a given Peace Corps country is nothing to be proud of.

What interested me the most wasn’t the article, but the responses of other RPCV subredditors. They responded that Peace Corps is not a true development agency in that sense of the word, but a soft power. As always, the three goals concern maintaining world peace and relations rather than building literal bridges and buildings. It is more about giving those in hard-to-reach places a face of America rather than throwing money and resources at the problems.

These responses resonated more with me now than they did a year ago when I normally frequented the Peace Corps subreddit. I understood now a little bit more what I could only begin to comprehend back then. I definitely believe that a large part of my idealism has been toned down by Peace Corps, only to be replaced with high ideals tempered by realism. Of course, every now and then there’s a splash of idealism that I let in.

In the Peace Corps hobbies thread, subredditors shared what they did to pass the time. The hobbies ranged from basket weaving, to watching movies, to reading, and exercising. However, the one post that resonated the most with me was this guy who said that in his down time, he would walk to an isolated spot by a creek, light up a joint, and just relax as he listened to the birds chirping and the water babbling. He said that that place might be his most favorite spot in the whole world. Now I’m not high right now and definitely not smoking a joint, but I am in one of my favorite local spots in my country. It’s not as isolated nor as idyllic, but it reminds me of my beginnings at site last year. As I type this the sun is setting beyond the trash smoke-ridden hills of the Luweero sub-county with mighty gusts of wind that blow away the lazy heat of the dry season. I hear birds chirping, a carpenter pounding away at a piece of pine wood, and the booming local radio station playing the current Ugandan dancehall hits of the past few years. I have also failed repeatedly at killing one of the ants that made its way to my groin area, which doesn’t surprise me as much.

Right now there are several things that are physically bothering me: a possible jigger in my toe, ant bites, a wart on my index finger, a sunburned torso, dehydration, a headache, drowsiness, and some gastrointestinal giard, trophozoite, amoeba, or currently unknown parasite residing in my gut that causes diarrhea and gassiness. Funnily enough, the physical problems aren’t affecting me as much anymore. I’m on top of my hill, I’m enjoying life, things are happening, and I’m high again.