Life in this Moment

23/7/15

There are days here where I can’t believe my life. After almost two years of work and vision the ICT Computer Lab has fully come into fruition. I spent the majority of the day hooking up the various computers to the electrical outlets and hoping that the village electricity was strong enough to support them. I added administrative passwords, installed Microsoft Office, and Computer Terminalsthis program called Learning the Computer which gives Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels of learning how to use a computer. I spent the entirety of the day teaching my Year 1 and Year 2 students how to move the mouse, the difference between left click and right click, the double click, and how to left click on something and drag it somewhere else. It’s funny how intuitive these skills seem and how difficult it is for my students. I seem them spend literal minutes attempting to move the cursor on the screen over one of the arrows on the scroll bar. As exasperated and exhausted as I am, it is a noteworthy start.

At night, I presented the movie Life in a Day, which is a film of various YouTube videos concerning the variety of human life all over the world over the course of one day on July 24th, 2010. I would stop to gaze outside the windows at the village darkness and remember where I was a few years ago when I first saw this movie. I was in an apartment in a suburb right outside of Baltimore, and turned on Netflix. As I watched this movie, I remembered how inspired I felt and how I wanted to see different parts of this world and life. Back then I viewed the movie through an American lens and mindset. Now as I watched the movie with my students and villagers, I saw the scenes of the movie through a Ugandan lens and mindset. One scene from the movie that struck me was greeting exchanged between a Ugandan woman and a Ugandan man. The woman kneels to the man as she greets him as the man says that she should be kneeling down to him because he is a man. The woman agrees with him and says that it’s because of the culture.

Speakers and Projectors

Speakers and Projectors

Computer Lab Resources

Computer Lab Resources

Back in the US, I used to think that this is a mindset that comes from ignorance and that these viewpoints could easily be changed with a straightforward conversation. Now in Uganda, I understand part of the cultural background and mentality that supports notions such as gender inequality. After more than 20 months, I have just started dialogue with my villagers regarding archaic notions and beliefs that stem from a culture far different than that of the US.

Life in a Day

Life in a Day

At some point in the movie, the music background comes from three Angolan woman who are mashing dried corn into corn meal and singing along to the beat. I got emotional, because I felt that so much has changed in my own life. Now I was living a life worthy of a few stories and viewing the beauty of life from this side of the world. I was projecting a movie in my village and sharing a small piece of the cultures of the world with my faculty, students, and friends.

Advertisements

Taking for Granted

13/7/15 – 20/7/15

I spent the last week traveling with the Country Director to the southwestern and western regions of Uganda. We stopped at PCV sites in Masaka, Kisoro, Kabale, Bushenyi, Fort Portal, Kyenjojo, Hoima, and Masindi. Even in an air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle, it was exhausting to see so many sites in such a short span of time. I have since come to regret agreeing to this project of creating Peace Corps Uganda promotional videos because it takes me away from site for long periods of time during the week. On the other hand I have been able to see the amazing projects and empathize with the difficulties of my fellow PCV’s. It was funny hearing complaints inside the Peace Corps vehicle about how difficult it was to reach a PCV’s site, and then realize that a PCV had to travel to and from that site with the use of limited public transportation.

Peace Corps Yoganda

Peace Corps Yoganda

We saw projects concerning coffee farmers, energy-efficient cookstoves, Ugandan yoga, reading interventions, cow dung to natural gas conversion, public health clinics, and kitenge scrap quilts. The more I saw my fellow PCV’s sites and projects, the more I wanted to get back home to my own site. My favorite part of each day was staying with a PCV at a his or her site and getting to know that person’s unfiltered story. I realized that I felt the most comfortable among other PCV’s and in my own village.

Cow Dung to Natural Gas

Cow Dung to Natural Gas

After finishing the site visits, I chilled in Masaka over the weekend where I got my haircut by Ugandan students of another PC, Jamie who was teaching them how to cut muzungu hair at St. Agnes Vocational School. I felt as if I really relaxed over the weekend, because Jamie’s house felt very cozy in the middle of town with a living room filled with couches and carpet. I finally was able to just lounge in a carpet and walk barefoot on carpet. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine that I was in a small college apartment instead of inside a nice Peace Corps house.

Cutting Muzungu Hair

Cutting Muzungu Hair

Then on Monday I organized the pick-up of computers, projectors, extension cables, padlocks, and a projector sheet for the Luteete PTC computer lab from Kampala. It was a bit stressful withdrawing over 6 million shillings, carrying the computers across two streets of busy traffic, and then making it back home by public transportation because I still had errands to do in Kampala. After passing out that night, I awoke the next day to start of the college’s computer lab. With the help of some Year 2 students, we assembled the ten computers on the side walls of the lab and organized the furniture so that students could work on the wall computer terminals while others took notes on the middle island tables. It really did feel like a dream come true.

Wiring the Computer Lab

Wiring the Computer Lab

I remembered when I first arrived at the college and how I knew that my college would really benefit from computer lab. I also remembered how I thought to myself: “This is gonna take a long time and a lot of hard work.” Now, the computers are ready and all that is needed is to connect the electricity from the college to the computer lab. I take a lot of things for granted here in Peace Corps, like the freedom to leave my job whenever I want/need without any questions. I also know that I am also taken for granted at times. However, the one thing that I will never take for granted are my shared experiences with other PCV’s and my own time here in my home nestled in Luteete village.

It’s a Choice

8/7/15 – 10/7/15

“Ah you know, for us Ugandans we don’t believe that. It is different over here.”

I have come to realize that even when armed with logic and sound reasoning presented in a straightforward manner, my target audience still has the choice to either believe what I am saying or disagree. Most of the time, the arguments are backed by opinions rather than by reason. Belief can easily be misconstrued for fact.

HIV Testing

HIV Testing

On Wednesday, Health and Care Foundation Uganda and Uganda Cares in partnership with Kasana Luweero Diocese came to Luteete PTC to perform HIV testing for my students and teachers. Health and Care Foundation Uganda also led several sessions regarding the biology of HIV/AIDS, HIV prevention, sexual gender roles, living positively, and condom demonstrations. I have come to realize that my Ugandan students and audience listen better when other Ugandans are presenting the information rather than when I present it. If I were to say something that provoked disbelief, my students could attribute it to differences in culture. The funny thing was that while Uganda Cares tested for HIV and promoted abstinence only since it was in partnership with a Catholic Diocese, Health and Care Foundation was explaining the use of both male and female condoms with the addition of water based lubricants. I specifically chose the Health and Care Foundation because its members were younger Ugandans who could easily relate to my students.

Male and Female Condoms, Wooden Penises, Lube

Male and Female Condoms, Wooden Penises, Lube

On Thursday, PCV Lindsay came from Iganga to present female sexual health, the biology of the menstrual period, and

RUMPs Materials

RUMPs Materials

how to make Re-Usable Menstrual Pads (RUMPs). Disposable pads cost around 1,500/= and if two pads are used each month then in one year that amounts to 60,000/=. RUMPs would only cost around 1,000/= to create and would last as long as the fabric stays together. Lindsay explained the biological process of the menstrual period and debunked the myth that there are safe days. While we explained the way to sew the pads, the students submitted their personal questions:

“Why does it hurt when I play sex?”Madam Lindsay

“If I have pain during my period, will playing sex get rid of the pain?”

“Will taking Panadal (pain relieving pills) cause me to become barren?”

“Can I get HIV if I plax sex with my girlfriend during her period?”

“How many holes does a vagina have?”

“Why does my skin itch after bathing?”

These questions were addressed as the students stitched together their fabric pieces around a towel in that would then be placed at the bottom of their underwear during their period. Afterwards, the students could remove the pad, wash it with soap, and then hang it on a clothesline where the sunlight would dry and disinfect it.

At the end of the day, one of my students continually asked Lindsay question after question. He seemed to believe that the blood of the female period was a disgusting and unsanitary thing.

My student: “Ah madam, I don’t want my wife cooking for me when she is on here period.”

Lindsay: “First of all, female blood is not unsanitary. Also we need to reduce the stigma behind the beauty of the female menstrual period and if it bothers you so much, you should reverse the traditional gender roles and cook for yourself and your wife while she is on her period.”

Making a Pad

Making a Pad

With these two full-day sessions I hoped to impart some knowledge to my students. I want to give them as many opportunities as possible to make the most well-informed decisions when the time comes to make them.

As I walked back home, my neighbors asked to borrow my wrench. One of my neighbor’s boda boda’s broke. They called a mechanic, who turned out to be a younger male student in his teens. The local reverend of the parish was walking by as the mechanic repaired the boda boda. During the initial discussions, it became known that this young mechanic could not read and had not finished primary school. My teacher neighbors attempted to convince him to go back to school and the reverend even offered a scholarship to him, but the boy refused. I guess that he thought that being a mechanic for the rest of his life and making some fast money was much better than investing in the long-term.

Then today a random policeman in camo gear attempted to arrest me as I was writing this post on top of the hill where I can get internet. I had been working on sending updates on PCV site development and sending photos from the HIV and RUMPs day events. I looked up from my computer and greeted him, and he asked me what I was doing:

*Exchange translated from Luganda

Policeman: “What are you doing here?”

Me: “I’m doing work on my computer.”

Policeman: “I need to take you in to the police station.”

Me: “No you don’t need to. I am a volunteer teacher here and have been living here for 20 months and always come on this hill. I am friends with the community members and the caretakers of the Kabaka’s Palace.”

Policeman: “I am taking you to the police station.”

Me: “I don’t want to go with you. You shouldn’t bring me to the police station, there’s nothing wrong. Stop touching my bike.”

Policeman: “Release your bicycle!”

Me: “No! I don’t want you to steal it. If I let go will you leave it on the ground?”

Policeman: “Fine, but come to the police station or I will hit you with this stick.”

Me: “Okay I’ll come, but let me first finish sending this email.”

*I send an email and take my time shutting down my computer. I then pick up my phone and call the Peace Corps Office Duty Phone number:

Me on the Phone: “Hey Nikki, no worries but I think that this random policeman is trying to arrest me for some reason. I’m not worried but I guess I’ll just walk down to the police station with him. If there’s a problem they arrest me, I just want to know that the safety and security manager will help me. Cool thanks.”

Policeman: “Hurry up or I’ll hit you with this stick.”

Me: “Don’t worry. Hit me with the stick. I have to wait. Don’t worry.”

Policeman: “Hurry up!”

*We walk down the hill to town as I whistle “Four Five Seconds” by Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney. As we pass through town, the village members greet me and laugh because I am being accompanied to the Bamunanika police station

Villagers: “Marvin, who is that with you?”

Me: “Oh this one? He’s my friend.”

Policeman: “I’m not your friend.”

*Meeting the Bamunanika chief of police

Me: “Hello, how have you been?”

Chief: “I have been well. Ah it’s so nice to see you again.”

Policeman: “I have brought this one in because he is suspicious on the hill.”

Chief: “This one has been living here for 20 months. He works as a volunteer teacher at Luteete PTC and sometimes goes to the hill to access the internet. Why did you bring him in?”

Policeman: “I thought that he was associated with the suspects who stole the fence last week.”

Chief: “No, let him go! There’s no problem with him.”

The chief scolded the policeman who then told me to leave. Honestly, I know that he was just trying to do his job, but I think that some common sense would have told him that a conspicuous suspect with much lighter skin who decided to return back to the scene of the crime with a laptop would not make sense. In the end, he too had a choice and he screwed up. There’s always a choice over here, whether to wear a condom, to purchase or create your menstrual pad, to arrest a “suspicious” character, to breakup with a loved one, to teach classes, or to continue trying when apathy abounds.

Developing

3/7/15 – 6/7/15

I went searching for a set of speakers that I could attach to a computer or iPhone so that my students would be able to hear the audio whenever I play a video clip in the computer lab. Rachel accompanied me to Ntinda in Kampala where one of the Ugandans helping out with the filming during the Let Girls Learn video told me I could find a set of solid speakers. Rachel and I wandered around the suburban-like Ntinda neighborhood until we saw a sign with the words “Speaker Forum” pointing inside a three-story building. I got excited because I was finally going to get these speakers for both my computer lab, as well as bring them for the 4th of July celebration in Fort Portal. The derelict inside of the building with its dark corridors and signs promising free Wifi and barbecue nights made me feel that I was a soon-to-be kidnapped victim from a Peace Corps themed Taken movie. Rachel and I ended up at a room filled with couches and Ugandans sitting behind a desk.

I quizzically asked one of the receptionists where I could find the speakers, and she told me that I was in the correct room. It turns out that a “Speakers Forum” meant human speakers and not the ones that attached to a stereo and audio jack. Dismayed, Rachel and I tried a furniture store next door run by whom we thought were two Lebanese men, but who actually turned out to be two bros from New Jersey/New York.

Me: “Do you sell speakers here?”

Not Lebanese Man: “We only sell furniture here bro. Where are you guys from?”
*Said in the most American bro accent

Me: “I’m from Luweer…. I’m from Maryland.”

Rachel: “And I’m from New Jersey.”

Not Lebanese Man: “Cool, my girlfriend lives 45 minutes away from New York City.”

Me: “…”

Rachel and I depart and decide that the best course of action on this Thursday night is to get happy hour gin and tonics at the Bistro.

I am glad to say that many of my adventures involve crazy situations and mishaps in Kampala prior to traveling anywhere. We stayed with my embassy sponsor after one of the most harrowing private hire rides through the dark abyss of the taxi park area, the bright red light district, and the traffic of the tank hill neighborhood. I couldn’t keep track of the number of times I thought we were going to hit a boda, be hit by a boda, or just careen off the side of the road. Fortunately we made it to the house in one piece, and had a traditional dinner of cheeseburgers and apple crumble for dessert.

On Friday morning, we left the comfort of my embassy sponsor’s house for the craziness of the taxi park area. I purchased a set of non-human stereo speakers at the Shoprite on Entebbe Road before heading out to Fort Portal on a taxi. I have come to realize how easy it has become to bother me these days. As we were about to enter one of the taxis, I rolled my eyes and laughed when the conductor of the taxi offered to put my backpack on the roof or in the back of the taxi. Rachel reminded to be nice, especially since the conductor was just trying to help me. After a cramped ride filled with much yelling, breast milk splashing, and emotional swings we arrived in Fort Portal where we greeted dozens of other PCV’s at the Sweet Aromas bakery and the Dutchess restaurant.

This 4th of July weekend filled me with a myriad of emotions. I felt so content to see PCV’s who could understand me and have a good time with me without me having to explain myself. I realize that I don’t even need to explain to other PCV’s why I feel a certain emotion or do something weird, because they too know that I am working through my own issues and emotions at any given moment. That first cup of coffee at Sweet Aromas, that first bite of olive pizza at the Dutchess, that first hit of shisha at the Forest bar felt so refreshing and wonderful.

Fourth Portal 2015

Fourth Portal 2015

The entire day of Saturday the 4th will remain in my memory as a particularly beautiful day. We started it out by doing yoga together on the lawn of the YES Hostel, followed by some ab workouts. After showering, we set up the speaker system and proceeded to drink bloody mary’s with Old Bay, mingle with PCV’s from all cohorts, and eat some Ugandan barbecue. Apart from the beer pong and dancing, I remember sitting on a chair facing the rolling hills of Fort Portal and witnessing the sunset in an auburn sky while my closest PCV friends surrounded me. Life literally felt as if it couldn’t get much better than this.

Interdependence

Interdependence

As the festivities ended, I began preparing my work as a PCVL, Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. One of my duties is to visit PCV sites in the Fort Portal region in order to assess whether these sites would be a good candidate to continue hosting a PCV after the ones in my cohort departed at the end of this year. The goal is of the Primary Literacy Project for us education PCV’s is to have an incoming education PCV from the cohort arriving this November work as the “carrier” PCV after our work as the “starter” PCV. It really is cool to know that so many of our projects involving libraries, clubs, and positive behavior systems can be continued and grown even after we leave.

As a PCVL, my visits to my friends’ sites have shown me just how much development can occur in as little as two years. AsCanon Apolo CPTC little as I feel I may accomplish here, I realize just how much of an impact we have in our communities and schools. I often hear those cheesy stories about how a simple greeting to a neighbor inspired that neighbor to become an English teacher, but I sometimes wonder what our pupils and students will remember from our classes. Saying hello is just one small facet of our day, and we have a direct impact on our students’ learning. This weekend of fun, reflection, and work has reminded me not to give up just yet. There is still work to be done and there is still time to develop.

The Works

19/6/15 – 30/6/15

One thing that I’ve come to learn about myself is how much I value rest. I need physical, mental, and emotional rest from time to time. At the beginning of last week, I felt alone. I had a taste of United States culture when I attended a US Embassy event at Big Mike’s bar/club. I felt very alone even though I was surrounded by dozens of US Citizens. I just felt that I couldn’t connect with their lives, their experiences, and their tight-knit community that isn’t very welcoming to outsiders. I get it, and I feel that I would be that way too if I was a part of the US Mission, but I’m not. Had I been in a Ugandan club or bar, almost everyone would have welcomed me and danced. However here, there was a lot of awkward standing and not a lot of socializing outside of the immediate group of US Mission folk. Even when I returned back to my embassy sponsor’s house, I felt lonely. There weren’t any neighbors to welcome me back, no children to incessantly knock on my front door, or villagers to welcome me into their homes when a downpour started in the middle of a bike ride.

At some point I met some GEO activists. It was fascinating talking with them and hearing about their experiences championing GEO rights in Uganda and sharing their stories in countries all over the world. I had asked them if they received a lot of animosity in Uganda, and they explained that when the Anti-GEO Bill came out they were attacked and almost beaten to death had it not been for some very brave and supportive friends who came to the rescue. They tell me that they are a part of a passive organization that performs community and village health outreaches. They offer medical counseling and services, but they are also very open to receiving GEO Ugandans and supporting them with the pre-existing and also tight-knit community that exists.

I helped Peace Corps Uganda staff with a Let Girls Learn video of Ugandan celebrities that was filmed at the Serena Hotel. ILet Girls Learn Prep was given a high quality Canon camera to record a close-up of Ugandan celebrities, singers, politicians, and women’s rights activists championing the need for Ugandan girls to learn. I wasn’t star-struck by the celebrities, but it just felt so weird being in one of the nicest hotels in Uganda (complete with waterfall water fountains, lounges, fine dining, and plush carpets) but also because I was filming famous Ugandans whom most villagers would go crazy to see.

I continued on with community integration training with the new cohort’s PST. I followed the same powerpoint model from the last time we presented this session 6 months ago. It was actually very refreshing to hear about the aspirations of these trainees. This time around, they kept saying, “Wow, you’ve been here for 18 months! That’s crazy how long you’ve been here!’ I’ve learned to just share a few of the truisms and generalizations that I’ve learned along the way, coupled with disclaimers that my stories are based solely on my experiences. I fully admitted to them that their experiences could vastly differ from my own.

"No Hookups During Homestay"

“No Hookups During Homestay”

After training, I hung out with Rachel and some other PCV’s at Masindi. Other than another surprise Giardia attack, I felt so content. I had been “on” and travelling for an entire week and just wanted to collapse on a couch and sleep for days. I also wanted to chill with PCV friends with whom I have shared common experiences. I didn’t have to explain myself, where I was coming from, or what I wanted to do. I could just be myself and relax.

I returned back to my house after more than a week of work. I didn’t know what my body wanted. Part of me wanted to sleep, another part of me wanted to go and landscape the area in front of the now-completed ICT Lab, and another part of me wanted to hide in my house until my feelings of apathy and exhaustion subsided. Funnily enough, what it took to get me out of my funk was a visit from a fellow PCV who co-taught a science experiment lesson to my Year 1 students and then got stuck in the middle of a torrential downpour in the middle of Bamunanika trading center.

Rainy Day Rolex

Rainy Day Rolex

We had just ordered rolexes from a chapatti stand dude, and then it began to rain. At first we stayed under the chapatti stand, but the rain intensified and one of the nearby women motioned for us to seek shelter inside her house. She brought out two stools for us to sit, and busied herself cooking porridge for her 3 year old daughter and cassava and beans katogo. Meanwhile the chapatti man welcomed himself into this woman’s house and started cooking our rolexes on her charcoal sigir. So as the rain pounded around us, this drenched young man cooked our rolexes in this stranger’s house as we sat on her chairs and played with her daughter. I realized just how special experiences like these can be and how I would rather get stuck in torrential village downpour in a stranger’s house, than engage in forced conversation in a Kampala bar/club. It is here in the village and in my home where I feel normal, happy, and content.