Kampala Alone

8/11/15 – 10/11/15

I finished a lot of my projects with Peace Corps. I always go through some sort of anxiety when I spend a lot of time alone in Kampala. I worry about looking after my backpack full of my electronics, getting arrested or mugged, falling in a ditch, or being slammed by a truckful of coal/cows. I get too much in my head when I’m here. As per usual, I made my way to Garden City’s Sound Cup Café where I got my usual cup of coffee and muffin. I got very wired and anxious from the strong coffee, since I eat very little food during my travel days. I had hoped to hear back from my job applications as well as from a Ugandan from whom I was hoping to see. I was disappointed by both. I had no responses from any of my 20 job applications and my Ugandan friend ended up postponing our meeting until he eventually just told me that he couldn’t go out because “he was broke”.

Dinner in Paradise

Dinner in Paradise

Monday was more productive and social for me. I spent the majority of my day in the black hole that is the Peace Corps Uganda Office. I turned in my edited video projects, returned the loaned Peace Corps laptop, passed on information to the new swag coordinator for Peer Support Network merchandise, and got some pro-biotics to help lessen my gastrointestinal gas problems.

I honestly feel very lonely whenever I have to go into Kampala by myself. It’s hard trying to make new friends and not feel isolated if my main goal is doing work with faster internet speeds, while having no permanent base of operations. I feel on edge and roam from host sponsor apartments in Ntinda to subpar guesthouse rooms near parliament. In-between I frequent cafes where I get coffee and free water while I hold in my pee because I fear leaving my belongings behind. Yet I come to Kampala to fulfill my Peace Corps office duties, have a warm shower, and acquire goods that I couldn’t get anywhere else in the country.

Wandering

Wandering

At times, it’s cool to be walking on the potholed roads of Kampala and feeling like I’m still in a village of sorts, except that it’s much bigger, more developed, crowded, and lonely.

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Old and New

8/11/15

I finally finished all of the Peace Corps video projects that the office wanted me to film and edit together. As a result, I have four regional videos showcasing various PCV projects, a video about how a PCV saved a Ugandan Lieutenant’s life during the 1971 Idi Amin coup against Obote, and how PCV’s work with their counterparts. As I finished these videos, I took some time to reflect on these past few days in the village. The days are zooming by faster than ever, and in a few days we’ll be welcoming a new Peace Corps Uganda cohort. Looking back there my entire viewpoint and belief system has radically changed since that time I left Maryland back in November 2013. I have recently been connecting with old friends and acquaintances in Facebook in order to prep them for my eventual re-entry into the United States, and already I can feel see how much I have changed when I look at the last messages that I sent to my friends. I talked about going to Africa, helping people, and answering the call of adventure for a lifetime.

Now I look back on those messages and feel as if the person who wrote them was much more immature and callow than the one reading them. I will be unable to tell the “African story”, as the BBC news report puts it. I will still be unsure if I really helped anyone in the sustainable, long-term. But I will definitely understand that if I want it, then even back in the United States I can keep my edge. I don’t believe that there should be this fine line between the workday and the weekend, or between the work year and a vacation. I want to be able to live in the United States and still adventure every day or motivate myself to try something instead of just liking it on Facebook.

I’m still young, but at times I feel much older than I once was. Yesterday was the commissioning of the Year 2 students at Luteete PTC. I attended the ceremony, which started 2 hours late at 10am and continued until 4pm when lunch was finally served. By now I was already used to having a few hundred eyes staring at me, the long-winded speeches, a mass service where the preacher proclaimed that Jesus was a better leader than Hitler or Napoleon,  and a captive audience where I was asked to give a speech in Luganda. To be honest, I enjoyed the day with my fellow teachers, students, and their family members. As I daydreamed throughout the event, I reminisced about my own high school graduation in 2009 and my college graduation in 2013. I dreamed about baccalaureate mass, senior week in ocean city, fulfilling my college bucket list during my college senior week, the soundtrack of college graduation parties compared to Ugandan dancehall tunes, and how everything was about to change.

I have been living the dream for two years now. I am interested in seeing how it will be to look back on these experiences in a country where the African dream is still a thing. I’ll definitely have a tale or two when I get back and I’m sure that I’m ready for another adventure.

“The old taxis will stage at home again… the young bodas will ride away.”

Soon

1/11/15

“Goodbye Marv. See you soon!”

Those words hit me hard. I stepped off the taxi from Gulu where I had spent this past Halloween weekend with Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve been saying goodbye to so many places recently, and I said goodbye to a lot of friends and PCV’s in Gulu. I know that I will most likely not see many of them ever again. Most things that I will do in my last 6 weeks in country will be the last time that I do them. I most likely will not see the flat plains of the West Nile, the slopes of Elgon, the matooke and tea fields of the West, or the small town of Masindi again. It’s definitely a lot of goodbyes that I have said and a lot of emotions all mixed together.

In Gulu, I spent most of my time hanging out at the Iron Donkey Café and Guesthouse. The quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches were on point, and it didn’t hurt having unreasonably fast wifi. On Saturday I had phone interview with a small solar energy company based in Kigali, Rwanda. The interview revolved around my current skills and what I could offer to the company that needed someone who knew CAD, community needs assessment reports, and local training skills. It’s hard because I still don’t know what I want to do at this crossroads in my life. I don’t know if I want to continue the whole adventuring and not settling in a semi-permanent location or go back to the United States and establish a more permanent base there.

I could go on and on about readjusting. But now, I will focus on the job applications and the goodbyes to my villagers, PCV’s, and friends here. Goodbyes hurt a lot, especially when it’s been a whole lifetime worth of experiences and impacts that end with stepping off a taxi and waving your friends as they ride away.

Worlds and Murals

24/10/15 – 27/10/15

I hosted a PCV who was traveling around the country in order to paint large world map murals on walls. He had already painted 17 world maps on library walls, water tanks, and the outside walls of school buildings. Over the course of two days he made a grid pattern on the wall about 4 meters long by 1.5 meters wide and then drew an outline of all the countries of the world. The next day we painted in each country as well as the entire ocean and added the words “the world” around the map in 24 different languages. It was nice to have a good chat with another PCV and I guess that we talked about the usual topics: food, sex, and life after Peace Corps. The weird part was acknowledging that he was probably the last PCV to visit my site before I depart. Already there are a lot of things that will be the last time I do anything.

Computer Lab World Map

Computer Lab World Map

On Tuesday I traveled to Masindi to hang out with Rachel for the last time at her site. As usual, the route from my village to Masindi was fraught with perils. I did the usual 45 minute bike ride to Wobulenzi town, and then struggled to find a taxi headed to the Luwero bus junction. Using what I thought was my better judgment; I boarded a GaaGaa Bus headed towards Gulu. I had good experiences with GaaGaa in the past and knew that it would be better than any taxi or sketchy hitchhiking that I could obtain. I was wrong. Within an hour of boarding the bus, a sound like a gunshot burst from the seat to the left of me and the whole bus filled with smoke and the cries of Ugandans yelling and praying. As the smoke dissipated, I could see that everyone was alright but one of the bus tires had exploded. We got off the bus and waited for the mechanic to attach the spare tire.

Normally this would have been fine, except that GaaGaa bus has 8 wheels: two wheels per corner. The mechanic made it soGaaGaa Breakdown that the tires that exploded were replaced with just one tire. About another hour later the same thing happened except that there was more crying and more smoke. During both of these tire explosions I thought that I was going to die or that the bus was going to crash. I literally thought to myself that this was going to be the end as even the normally stoic Ugandans clutched my arms in abject terror after the sound of gunshots and smoke exacerbated the shrieks of the women and men on board. When the bus stopped I just picked up my bag and walked out of the bus. I didn’t even look back, and I walked to Cafu junction where I then boarded a 4-person sedan with 8 other people headed to Masindi Town. I don’t think that I could have asked for better luck than to once again have the tradition of typical shitty public transportation to Masindi; a ride that would normally take only 3 hours from Kampala but takes me 6+ hours even though my village is nearer.

I am just torn. It definitely feels like life as usual, but I know that in a little over a month my life will once again be turned upside down. As I end Peace Corps, it’s hard for me to see how much of an adventure this has been. I am focusing on future jobs after Peace Corps, the new friends I will make, and the new experiences that I will undergo coupled with the new skills that I learned during my 2+ years here. Many times these days I will daydream about how other-worldly this experience is. I don’t even know how to explain just how odd this life has become and how the unusual and weird have become the norm. As I gazed at the world mural behind my students in the computer lab, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I did something during my service. Maybe it wasn’t all in vain and selfish for me to have chosen a life of adventure before committing to something less transient.

Gulu Skyline

Gulu Skyline

It’s a big world in which we live, and it’s taken me until now to realize that.

Idiosyncrasy

21/10/15

It’s the immensity of life that’s hitting me right now; remembering a life beyond the villages, the workshops, the shitty public transportation, and our role in the greater world perspective. I’m sitting at my desk trying to reconcile all of these feelings of how I can go back and still reconcile, explain, and integrate these new traits and perspectives that I have gained here. I think it’s such a unique experience to willingly choose to spend more than two years of paid career experience in order to do the ultimate volunteering experience. While we may be living in rural villages and towns, we’re viewing our transformations and the changing cultural perspectives from the lens of someone from the developed world where social and semantic nuances make all the difference.

In the beginning, almost everyone thinks, “Wow this country is so quaint and the people are so loving and friendly.” I thought the same thing too, and yes I do believe that on the surface level everything does appear to be very simple and free. In the developed world, there are layers of depth and meaning to almost every thought, word, and action. People spend hours poring over quotes by politicians, religious leaders, and friends whereas here so many words can be said without much meaning. I’m thinking of the 45-minute long speeches that signify nothing but pure sound. So on the surface things seem to be relatively straightforward here, but after spending two years here I have begun to see the reasons why things occur. I have started to see that western criteria for efficiency, best practices, and right and wrong do not always coincide with the cultural beliefs and local environment of Uganda.

In the United States time must be planned because everyone else is making a schedule that works in harmony with the local situation of the day. Public transportation is more or less on time, meetings have agendas, school and work have certain hours, and timed actions concern most things. Missing an important work meeting even if your child is sick or your local grocery store ran out of bread can be detrimental to your work colleagues. Here, it is a perfectly valid excuse to miss a work meeting or be hours late because people and your work take priority since time bends to whatever actions are required. If I attempt to chastise a co-worker for being late to a meeting when his or her child is sick with malaria, the cow has wandered away, and the lack of rain means that he or she needed to gather water from the borehole to water the farm then I would be seen as being in the wrong.

I still don’t know the best way to tackle this problem. What does it mean to develop a village if making it more time-efficient, wealthier, and more educated leads to lesser empathy among people and more emphasis on American individualism and entrepreneurship?

This is just one of the puzzling questions that I ask myself that would have made almost no sense to me pre-Peace Corps. It’s the idiosyncrasies that I catch through my westernized, critical thinking lens coupled with the slight understanding of life here in Uganda. It’s all about the context rather than absolutes. In the United States, we want emotionally fulfilling, efficient, and innovative solutions that fit our criteria for good feels and restoring our faith in humanity whereas in Uganda we want to slowly-by-slowly make a lot of easy money, provide for the entire extended family and one day make it to the United States.

It’s the intersection of sweeping generalizations and anecdotal circumstances that I believe are true. The hardest part will be going back and knowing that most people will want a one-sentence answer to the age-old question: “How was Peace Corps?”

Defeated

23/10/15

I spent the majority of the day on my hill so that I could send out more job applications. This is harder for me than other PCV’s, because I have to squat beside a rock that is half covered with biting ants and hope that the signal for my internet USB modem is 3G+ because 3 and EDGE don’t allow me to access any internet. It’s hard concentrating on gathering details about the company for whom I’m writing a cover letter and supplying relevant information about my current life when insects are biting my legs, the sun is blazing on my back, and the service is temporarily down. The worst are the job applications that require me to go on an internet portal that shuts down when my service shuts down.

I wished that my potential employers could have seen me hurrying to finish an application as the clouds raced in and started to downpour on me. I didn’t want to close my laptop in the middle of a portal application, so I huddled underneath a large mango tree and shielded the laptop with my body as I continued to gather information about the company and add it to my cover letter. I am sure that if any of my employers saw the dedication that I put into applying for their open positions that my resolve and self-motivation would not be of any question.

It’s hard trying to find a job with access to village technology and such a large time difference. I get worried sometimes because I feel as if I need to have a job or internship set so that I can finally relax and no longer worry about it. It’s causing me to focus almost all of my efforts on my future when I get back and it’s exciting and disconcerting knowing that my future career and life will depend on what company accepts me.

I’m tired. It’s not the tiredness that comes from working too hard or partying too hard, but the weariness from sustained work without a solid break from looming projects and commitments. I feel ready for a vacation from my service and then off to start a new journey in engineering design. It’s a long way away, and right now it feels as if I’ll never get there. However, I know that I just have to keep on networking and applying for jobs and hopefully one of them will turn out in my favor.

Nile Waves

16/10/15 – 18/10/15

Nyege Nyege – Luganda, (noun) The uncontrollable urge to move, shake, and dance.

I will be hard-pressed to achieve the highs that I did during this weekend. It was honestly one of the most fun weekends that I’ve had during my Peace Corps service. The Nyege Nyege music festival was held this weekend at the Nile Discovery Beach about 1km off from the Nile Brewery Stage near Jinja Town. The venue consisted of large swaths of open campgrounds, a large grass main music stage, a smaller side stage in ruins by the Nile, and tortuous pathways connecting the venues disparate parts together. After many weeks of being sad and down at site, I was looking forward to this weekend. I had saved up a lot of my money in order to purchase food, drinks, and camping materials for the music festival.

Festival Ruins

Festival Ruins

I arrived at the venue around 11am on Friday and setup camp in a secluded corner of the campgrounds where we used the surrounding trees to hang our hammocks and make a physical boundary for all the PCV’s who were staying. As the day progressed, the number of PCV’s in our camp grew to about 15. Despite being in Uganda, the music festival had good facilities: the showering section consisted of bamboo stalls with 20 liter jerrycans positioned on top with showerheads attached, there were two working toilet areas, food stalls from Kampala (sushi, brownies, sandwiches, tacos, hot dogs, and barbecue), and of course festival clothes booths.

Over a year ago I camped in Mabira Forest with other PCV’s for Burning Ssebo and now I was once again camping with Main StagePCV’s and about 600 other people. The music consisted of an eclectic ménage of traditional tribal music, reggae, rap, acoustic, and edm. Artists came from all over Africa and the UK. During the day we would wander around to other campsites and swap stories or share some food, beer, or coffee in exchange for other goods. On Saturday morning I partook in an offshoot of Afrikans Yoga called Smaitawe Yoga. Compared to the Yoga predominantly practiced in the United States, this version of yoga was much more free-flowing and primal. The focus was on the hips and groin area and revolved around the elements of air, water, fire, and ground.

Even more-so than Vinyasa, the movements were all about the flow and freedom of expression in its directive rather than strict postures and holds. For example, instead of warrior 1 we would be instructed to take a pose similar to warrior 1 and then undulate our hips in a circle as we imagined the vibrancy of fire. To an outsider, the moves of Smaitawe Yoga would seem very sensual and suggestive.

It was rainy season, so as soon as it would rain we would all rush back to our tents and cover them with tarps since our cheap tents from Nakumatt weren’t waterproof. Despite the mud, the humidity, and the dirtiness that comes with a hippy dippy-like music festival I absolutely loved it. My mood pre-festival could not be compared to my mood now after the experiences at the Nyege Nyege Festival. I had always wanted to attend a music festival during my Peace Corps service, and I was fortunate enough to go to one by the banks of the Nile with my best friends and some new ones as a PCV.

I will remember hanging out on the hill overlooking the main stage as hot Ethiopian or Eritrean hot dog vendors made Nutella crepes, I will remember sheltering 11 PCV’s in a small tent during a rain storm, I will remember going wild surrounded by PCV friends as an African dj played a remixed version of Avicii’s Levels, I will remember female rappers with mad flow on the main stage, and I will remember how much I will miss being able to have experiences like this one.

PCV Ssebo Nnyabo Photo

PCV Ssebo Nnyabo Photo

I have around 50 days of Peace Corps Service remaining, and it’s hard to believe it. Now I feel ready to make the most of my remaining time here and I owe a large part of that to the waves of joy and kinship that I felt during this weekend. During a heart to heart talk with one of the new PCV’s on Saturday night, he told me, “This may have been one of the best nights of my entire life.” I just smiled and leaned back in my chair as I stared at the stars in the sky and thought that many of the nights of my own Peace Corps service have been the best nights of my entire life.

Time for Myself

9/10/15 – 12/10/15

This weekend surprised me. I took some personal time away from site where I wandered around the villages of Muduuma, Katuuso, and Mpigi in the sub-counties right outside of Mityana Town. I knew that I needed to fulfill a physical need by leaving my village, and in the process this weekend caused me to reflect a lot. On Saturday, I talked with one of my friends who is two years older than me, was a member of the Boston University Catholic Center, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. I had met with him a few weeks after I had graduated from Boston University back in the spring of 2013. I vividly remember nursing a hangover and  biking over to the Starbucks on Newbury Street where we had a long chat about what I could expect from serving in the Peace Corps. A lot of concepts that he shared with me didn’t make sense to me back then, and a few of them meant something different to me back then than what they mean to me right now.

As an example, he shared with me the concept of having to resort to morally gray actions in order to accomplish certain goals. In Ukraine as well as Uganda bribery is a very common occurrence that is sometimes necessary to facilitate meetings, camps, or almost anything that passes through strict bureaucratic channels. Back then I thought that I would have to struggle a lot with the prevalence of bribery here, but now I think of it as an alternative bargaining technique with some guards and officials when reason, cajoling, and influence fail. Instead, I have been recently reflecting on my faith regarding my Catholic beliefs.

In the liberal atmosphere of Boston University, the Boston University Catholic Center was a conservative bastion and I was often seen as the rebel Catholic with liberal interpretations. However, I still attended retreats and would often go back and forth between how my heart could feel so strongly about a certain issue but then I would either supplant or reconcile it with semantics and reasoning supported by church doctrine. Before Peace Corps, I would go to mass every Sunday and would infrequently go to the sacrament of confession. During my Peace Corps service I have been to mass maybe 3 times, have not attended a single confession, and have refused to believe certain teachings of the Catholic Church. However, I still consider myself Catholic and in the Peace Corps I am often seen as the Catholic volunteer who can answer questions regarding the Catholic faith.

To be frank, in college I used to justify my belief that LGBTI+ couples were justified as long as they didn’t call it marriage due to the historical and religious significance of marriage. Now I laugh at the overuse of semantics in justifying certain beliefs back then. Yes, after having lived in Uganda I believe in marriage equality, the use of contraception, and the belief that life at all stages in the situational context must be respected. As Catholics, when we commit a sin, which distances us from God, we ask forgiveness by going to a priest and asking for forgiveness. At this moment, I don’t feel that I could go to confession and ask for forgiveness for things that I have done that I don’t believe are wrong but the church says is wrong. If I confess then I would be lying and thus it would be empty forgiveness. I mean, I still respect my faith and the belief in the bread and wine being the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ but I wouldn’t receive it if I did attend mass.

In Uganda, most people whom I meet believe in some form of Christianity or Islam. I would be hard-pressed to make my way through Kampala on a given day without having some Bible thumper hoarsely yelling scripture verses at my face. When I ask my students or villagers why they believe in something, they tend to cite scripture without actual justification of why they believe in it. Fortunately there isn’t the religious tension between Christianity and Islam that is seen in so many other countries in the world.

Teacher and Student Conversation:

Me: “But why do you believe in your Christian faith?”

Student: “Ah, because it is true and the Bible says that it is true.”

Me: “Okay the Bible says that it is true but why do you believe in the Bible?”

Student: “Because the Bible is the Word of God.”

Me: “How do you know that it is the Word of God and that someone didn’t just make it up and convince you to believe it?”

Student: “Ah master, that is impossible. It is true because it is written.”

Me: “You still haven’t told me why you believe what you believe.”

Student: “Ah… but I am right because Jesus died for all our sins and if I don’t believe then I won’t go to heaven.”

The only problem that I have is that most Ugandans don’t question why they believe certain tenets. Scripture is often interpreted by fire and brimstone revival preachers with very little experience in contextual theology and the concept of anachronisms. It is a blind faith that many Ugandans believe. It is a faith of Christ without the Cross; no context and fundamental zealotry. It’s sometimes laughable how it is somehow permissible to stone the gays because they are living sinful lives, but then have 3 wives and 30 children because “side-dish” women are traditionally okay and contraception is bad.

The other sad aspect is the destruction of local religious shrines and traditions. Some Ugandans still honor the traditional holy places like the Tanda Burial Grounds near Mityana or the Nakayima Tree in Mubende but they often-times go in secret so that their church and family don’t find out that they are respecting their “pagan” beliefs. Some Christian Ugandans go out of their way to burn down and destroy local shrines in order to cast down the pagan idols. It’s almost as if there’s no middle ground or prior thought.

In the past, I used to be so unsure about certain principles. Now, I am very sure about my principles but less sure about the doctrinal rules espoused by the church. It is sad, because my faith is a large part of my identity and I still believe in it but am now less sure about it.

Then on Sunday I went through another series of formative experiences. As I passed through Kampala I stopped by the bank at Acacia Mall. I greeted the guard in Lugbarati and entered the cubicle which housed the atm. A Ugandan man was already inside withdrawing money and I remained a respectable distance away from him. When he left I heard him chastising the guard because she was sitting sideways on her chair and talking on her phone. I ignored it for a while until he said, “And you let another person inside while I was withdrawing.” Now I don’t think that it’s against policy to allow more than one person inside to wait in line for the atm, but I opened the door and attempted to defend the guard. I explained to the man that this woman has been a good guard and that I have only ever had good interactions with her during my time at the Acacia Mall atm. The man quickly derided me and told me that I was a visitor who didn’t know what Ugandans had to go through in order to keep their country safe. I started to get agitated, so I thanked the guard for her work and left in a huff.

I agree that she could have acted more professional in her position as a guard but this sort of power display rubbed me the wrong way. I made my way to the café to grab a coffee and do some internet errands. During this time, I discovered that I have the opportunity of living and working in New York City a few months after I return. For the longest time I assumed that I would live in Baltimore City for a few years and then maybe consider moving to New York City when I was more settled. This made me both very excited as well as very anxious since I would now have to look for jobs in a city where I had fewer connections.

Fortunately, an RPCV (Peru 2010-2012) hosted me that night. I had a warm shower, ate bacon, and had an electric fan blowing wind in my face during the entirety of my stay. It was good to reminisce about our services and shared experiences together. We talked about how she became jaded working as both a development worker for USAID and as a humanitarian in South Sudan. With development, results come very slowly and very often bigger organizations don’t really understand the local needs and resources of a community to build itself up. With humanitarianism, the local communities who receive assistance from NGO’s concerning a vital need end up depending on that. The issue revolves around whether it’s better to continue feeding starving refugees in war-torn South Sudan who depend on the food and will continue to depend on the food forever, or to leave after having started a food program. When is there a release so that the NGO’s no longer need to feed the people of another country?

The other problem involved the case where most NGO’s have lofty goals of achieving community self-sufficiency but they don’t ever really want that to happen because then that NGO will no longer exist. The ideal goal is for an NGO to work its way out of existence. In the meantime, viral videos and media campaigns will raise millions of dollars in humanitarian aid that will definitely help people in need, but then discourages the government to grow and address the needs of its own people since foreign assistance comes without a cost and at a higher standard.

With the thoughts about my own efficacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my future life in the US, and the jaded/faded idealism of helping people I went to bed on a leather couch with a fan blowing cool air in my face after an amazingly warm shower and dinner of bacon. I needed some time to go through some things. Right now I don’t have any answers to these issues, but I feel much better about living with them.