Five days ago on December 22nd I turned 23 years old. It was a low-key affair, and I didn’t even tell my host family about it. I woke up early to accompany my host dad to go to the Catholic Mass at St. Paul’s, and then he showed me around the markets and where I could buy chickens. He also informed me about the prices of various produce during this holiday season. I actually enjoyed it being a low-key affair, and it was humbling just to spend the day with the family. Then later on in the evening I trained with the neighborhood children and my host family’s children. The host family has four children: Diana, Davis, Daniella, and Daniel. Diana is six-years old and is the eldest girl, followed by the four-year old Davis, then the two-year old Daniella, and the eight-month old Daniel.
My host family is a very gracious and beautiful family. They call themselves a very free family. By this, I believe that they are not as rigid as some other traditional Ugandan families. For example, the girls do not kneel to greet me and the parents are not very strict when it comes to the children. During the day many of the neighborhood kids come over to the house to watch tv or play with the host family children. Recently I’ve started this training regiment that incorporates exercises from rugby and the Insanity workouts in order to stay more physically fit. The host family children and the neighborhood kids call it “training”. Whenever I return back to the host house, the kids all ask for training.
So it was decided that for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that the Central Language group would all stay at the Saint Paul’s Guest House behind the Catholic Church in Kasana. We would all be partnered up two to a room and stay in one of the compounds with a small courtyard, communal room with a tv and couches, and a kitchen where we could cook. We split up the responsibilities for these two days and I made arrangements to purchase and lead the cooking of the food for the next two days. We bought rice, beans, 4kg of beef, two live chickens, mangoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oranges, pasta (also referred to as “macaron”), tomato paste, potatoes, and various other spices and baking supplies. The chickens were the hardest part of the meal, because I first had to reserve them from a neighbor and then I had to pick them up while they were still alive on Christmas Eve morning.
Later during the day on Christmas Eve I had one of the guest house workers demonstrate how to kill, de-feather, and gut the chickens in front of me so that I would be able to do the same thing myself in the future. He started by laying banana leaves on the ground and then laying a chicken on top of it. He pulls back the wings and then steps on it with one foot and then steps his other foot on the chicken’s feet in order to keep it still. He then plucks the feathers from the bird’s neck in order to make the beheading cleaner. Then he kills the chicken by slicing through the neck. The neck is then held in order to spurt out as much blood through one of the main arteries. The open end of the neck is then tied with a piece of banana leaf in order to keep the insides fresh during de-feathering.
Boiling water is then poured over the chicken carcass in order to assist in the plucking of all the feathers. Then the chicken is gutted by cutting around the anal cavity and carefully pulling out all of the guts. He advised that care must be taken not to burst the gall bladder, because its contents could ruin the taste of the chicken. Then the gizzard had to be removed from the neck of the chicken, otherwise there would be tiny stones that would be added to the chicken. Water was then poured into and around the chicken in order to clean it from the remaining blood and then the chicken was ready to be stuffed and roasted.
I took a small break from the Christmas Eve festivities and beer pong in order to wish my host family a Merry Christmas (Sekukulu Ennungi). I returned to the household and gave the children some more Reese’s Pieces and Maryland Fisher’s Popcorn. To the parents I gave them a bottle of Spanish White Wine bought from one of the local stores. They were very thankful for the gifts and they shared with me a fourth of a cake made for Christmas Day. It was a small, round cake that tasted of ginger and had a hard sugar icing covering its entirety with small dots of pink frosting. My host mother told me that she had paid one of her neighbor friends to make the cake for her for 40,000 Ush. It was this small gesture that made me emotional, because this family that did not have much still went out of the way in order to make Christmas Day special with a small expensive cake. They even set up a branch of what looked like an Evergreen Tree to be the Christmas Tree in the corner of the room. I told the family that I would return the next day.
Then it was Christmas Eve night and we just finished a scrumptious dinner of Old Bay and sugar dry-rubbed steaks, roasted chicken stuffed with onions, carrots, garlic, oranges, and tangerines, rice with mangoes, onions, and oranges, and thinly cut, garlic-basted filets of beef. It was a meal that took everyone’s help to prepare and several days to plan. Even with the limited materials of on and off again electricity, a clogged sink, and only two burners we were successfully able to cook all of the food that we wanted to make. It was a successful meal, and I was happy.
The following is an excerpt written by me on Christmas Eve night at bed as the stomach cramps intensified:
“Right now I am lying on the guest house bed and am a bit out of commission. The feeling that I have right now is reminiscent of the abdominal and intestinal pains from Giardia. It’s not as bad or debilitating, but it still hurts a lot and has been plaguing me since I arrived on site here with my host family. It sucks, because I really want to be close to me host family and spend more time with them and the four beautiful children, but I usually excuse myself to lie down on the cold, hard ground of my bedroom in the house with the windows open in order to cool myself.
And there’s nothing that I can do about the pain. It’s just there.”
It was at this point that I had to stop writing because of the pain. Fortunately, I was able to sleep and I awoke Christmas Day feeling a bit better. I attended the Catholic Mass at 10am and it lasted until 1pm. The homily itself took about an hour and then the announcements at the end of the service took about 45 minutes, during which they thanked all of the local government officials and religious clergy who attended that service as well as myself and the other Peace Corps Volunteer who attended the mass.
I returned back to the guest house and prepared a large pot of chili for lunch with the added flavoring of taco seasoning shared by another volunteer. I got a head start on dinner, which was Filipino adobo (beef boiled in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic) and roast chicken again. We finished eating dinner, but again the cramps came back and I was unable to return back to my host family to wish them Merry Christmas. The cramping was intense again, but I was able to sleep after much tossing and turning on the bed.
The day after Christmas offered a bit of a respite from my stomach cramps. I felt myself getting much better and I returned back to my host family from the guest house where they asked me to cook the beef for them. I obliged and dry-rubbed slices of beef with a mixture of Old Bay seasoning from Maryland and sugar. I then pan fried them on the sagiri and served it to my host family with some rice. They absolutely loved it, and said that they were learning about these different cooking methods from me. I wrote in my journal:
“I honestly never would have believed you when it was said that we would experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But now there is no other way to describe it. I spent a tough past week since arriving at homestay with a gassy stomach, cramps, and tiredness with switching up my schedule and lifestyle so far. I started having the cramps on my birthday and dealt with it through the Christmas celebrations even as I cooked. I feel so much better am so glad that my host family loves my OldBay and sugar barbecued meat on the sagiri. I am full, content, my stomach isn’t cramping, and life is good again.”
However, I was wary of this respite and called PCMO in order to ensure that my cramping stopped for good. Joann, the PCMO who helped me during my bout of Giardia at Shimoni a few weeks ago, instructed me to purchase 2g of Tinidazole from the local pharmacy. In the evening I walked into Kasana and purchased the medicine and returned back to my homestay where I ate some fish for dinner and took the Tinidazole. As soon as I finished supper, I started having intense gas and cramps. This started around 8pm and continued throughout the duration of the night. I did not sleep that night from the 26th to the 27th. I called PCMO around 2am and was consoled by Joann who told me to take some Ibuprofen and that I would be picked up by a Peace Corps vehicle and brought to the Peace Corps HQ and Medical Office in Kampala. I didn’t know if I could make it that long. I took 600mg of Ibuprofen, which did nothing to curb the pain for over 12 hours:
“Crap, it’s exhausting dealing with the pain of bloating, gas, and cramps for over a week. And I can’t do anything about it. It’s inside me and it just hurts so much and sucks.
It’s just hurt so much for over a week now without relief. Why?!
I’m crying on my knees in the fetal position because it hurts so bad. I’ve never felt anything like it. It’s like shooting pain coming from inside my stomach.
Oh my God I literally cannot move or function without these cramps. I can feel churning in my stomach and lower abdomen and there’s nothing I can do to lessen the pain.”
While I waited for the Peace Corps vehicle to arrive, I tossed and turned on the bed and then would sometimes curl up into a ball on the floor because it was cool and hard on the ground. Not even the fetal position could help me and every burp or fart was accompanied by a resounding gurgle from my stomach which would lead to more gas being produced inside of me. Around 5am I threw up in the pit latrines and then returned to my room for 5 more hours of pain until the Peace Corps vehicle arrived to pick me up. I am so thankful to my language trainers, Herbert and Dan, because they arranged for the vehicle to arrive directly at my host family’s doorstep in order to pick me up.
I then endured two hours of driving through the bumpy Ugandan roads until we arrived at the Peace Corps HQ and medical office in Kampala. I remember attempting to occupy my mind with fond memories of my life before Africa in order to divert my attention from the pain. I thought of biking through the beaches of Ruegen in northern Germany, hanging out with my BU friends in my Allston apartment, and thinking of how comfortable my old bedroom in Owings Mills would be. I discovered that gentle memories were the best ones to curb the pain, and not ones involving much physical activity such as sports, drinking alcohol, or hardcore adventuring as these only led to focusing on movement which would lead to a churning sensation in my stomach. I would focus very hard on a good memory and grasp onto one of the chairs in the van in order to deal with the pain. If there was a moment when I wanted to return back home to the United States even for just an hour, it was during this ordeal.
We then made it to the Peace Corps medical office and Joann came to meet me. I hugged her and then just burst into tears from my pain, exhaustion, and hope for relief after a week of pain. She consoled me and told me that they would do everything that they could to help me feel better. I later found out that she was also believer in holistic medicine and healing in addition to her science-based background as a doctor. She believed in taking care of the person from a personal level, and I was even told from her co-workers at the office that she was a presence that they would all miss. Agatha, one of the Ugandan medical workers at the office, shared with me that she would miss Joann’s hugs in the morning and how she would always be ready to make you feel alright and at home. Joann then took me to see Dr. Francis who was to become the main PCMO since Joann was leaving the Peace Corps for good that day to return back to her home in California. Dr. Francis then gathered up all the information that he could from me and what I had been experiencing over the past week. He surmised that I either had Giardia or Amoebiasis (amoebic dysentery) and asked me to submit some stool samples.
He then prescribed me with several medicines to combat both my pain and the parasites within my intestines.
Tinidazole was used in order to deal with the parasites inside my intestines which would be taken for the next two days and then followed by Gabbroral for the following week. Then I took Oxycodone/Acetaminophen to deal with the pain and Nospa as a muscle relaxant to help with my stomach cramps.
I then took a short nap in one of the side rooms of the medical office at the Peace Corps HQ, and then Johnson, one of the Ugandan Peace Corps workers and drivers met me to drive me to Nurse Betsy’s house near Entebbe. I was driven alongside a current PCV who was also being brought to Nurse Betsy’s house for other reasons and for healing of a different sort. I will not disclose his name due to reasons of privacy, but he has given me permission to share some of his stories. For the duration of this post I shall call him “M” just like the first letter of my name.
We arrived at Nurse Betsy’s house which feels like a home away from home. It literally feels like the homeliest house that I have ever been to in a long time. It sits near the top of a hill near Kampala and has a closed gate that leads to a small parking lot area. The lower level has rooms meant for the property owner, named Mille Scent, who was the founding director of ISIS (Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange). The house is used a place of rest and healing for PCVs who are sick and need to be monitored while recovering and taking medicine underneath the supervision of the PCMO and Nurse Betsy herself. During my time in Africa, I had heard stories from PCVs who had spent time here too during intense bouts of Malaria and other diseases. I never would have believed that I too would be here.
The grounds are covered with all sorts of tropical plants from banana flowers hailing from Madagascar to Ugandan ferns. The inside is also decorated in such a way that evokes feelings of home. It’s therapeutic here. There are pictures of old family members, coasters from England, small paintings, pastel-painted walls, and panoramic view of other villas and houses on these hills. However, the most rehabilitating part of this place has been Nurse Betsy herself. She is one of the most genuinely kind-hearted people whom I have had the pleasure of meeting during my stay here. Within minutes of arriving she had a bowl of chicken noodle soup and freshly cut bananas and watermelon. And for the first time in over a week I was finally able to lie on a bed without pain and rest.
While here, I have also been able to have the pleasure of sharing company with M who accompanied me here. We have both been sharing a few stories about our experiences in life and about his time spent here in Uganda. I found out that he had devoted a lot of time to learning Luganda, and was now almost fluent in it. He shared some of his knowledge about how the Peace Corps Uganda program was revamped under the leadership of the current Country Director Loucine. I was told that Loucine was an expert in rehabilitating programs that needed to be resuscitated, because there was a time a few years ago when Peace Corps Uganda was almost on the verge of shutting down. The old Country Director was more lax about regulations, and PCVs were regularly allowed to go into Kampala and ride on Boda Boda’s. There were even stories about how PCVs would be allowed to hang out at the old Country Director’s house when he was away, and were given more or less free reign to act as they saw fit.
There were also many problems that plagued Peace Corps Uganda, and so Loucine came in and changed the program to have more regulations and structure in order to keep it afloat. With this also came new regulations. So far there we have been notified of four unbreakable rules that would lead to a PCV immediately being sent back to the United States:
- No riding on Boda Bodas
- No entering Kampala without express permission from Peace Corps
- No leaving country without notifying Peace Corps
- No getting into fights with Ugandans
These are not passive rules either, because PCVs have been sent home for violating these rules. The PCV at Nurse Betsy’s house, M, is being sent home for violating one of these reasons. He has given me permission of sharing his story with the world, and so I will do my best to give it in an unbiased manner.
He says that the downward slope to the entire Peace Corps experience started about 7 months ago on the anniversary on his arrival in country. He did not go into detail about the entire matter, but that was around the time when his parents came to visit him, and a lot of people had told him that maybe it was time for him to return back to the United States. But M was stubborn and decided to continue staying in Uganda despite the problematic circumstances. This instance led to a transfer from the school he was working in to an orphanage. From what I have gleaned, M was highly regarded by the Peace Corps workers, administration, his fellow PCVs, and the Ugandans he worked with. He was the only one in his current group who attained a high level of mastery in Luganda, and I was able to witness it firsthand during my ride down to Nurse Betsy’s house with Johnson.
He had also made significant changes in his community, such as the startup of a local farm that is now worth several million shillings. He has also integrated very well into his local communities, thanks in no small part to his language proficiency. Loucine herself has said the he was 1 out of 1000 in his ability to master the language at the level that he is at right now even before his two year mark. He was seen as one of the more shining examples of what a PCV could be, and people like Loucine, Ven, and Johnson were upset with the eventual outcome of his actions on Christmas Day. This past Christmas, he spent his time in his house and watched the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” right before one of the Ugandan orphans had asked him to go for a ride. M agrees and gets on the Boda Boda, and as they are driving it stalls near a policeman. M urges his friend to get it starting again, but is unable to and the policeman questions them. One thing leads to another, and the scene escalates and intensifies with M not liking how the policeman was acting. M resists arrest and subsequently spends Christmas night in a Ugandan jail.
Our paths just happened to cross at the Peace Corps Headquarters after his meeting with Loucine and other staff members. We are currently spending our second night at Nurse Betsy’s house on our laptops and recovering from our two very different ordeals. He has shared that a long time in Uganda has made him and so many other PCVs jaded, and I understand that that is a thing that can eventually happen to any of us.
I am in this for the long run and these past few days have only served to educate me more. M has said to continue his legacy and his proficiency with the language, and I will continue that to the best of my ability with my Luganda training.
And even in the depths of my pains this past week squatting in a pit latrine, I would look through the open roof and stare up at the starry skies and let Africa save me.