Silence

September 7 – 11, 2015

“We’re all a bit blind, and now how do we share what we’ve seen?”

I don’t know if I have ever been bombarded with so many swirling emotions and feelings in such a short span of time. After the night bus ride from Kisoro, I met up with some other Peace Corps Volunteers in Kampala before we boarded private hire vehicles to the Speke Munyonyo Resort near the shores of Lake Victoria. We all collectively gasped as our vehicle Speke Munyonyo Groundspulled into the driveway of one of the nicest hotels that I have ever stayed. The manicured lawns bounded tarmac pathways surrounded by landscaped foliage of bamboos, banana trees, and water lilies. Behind the hotel, one could bound across an open expanse of grass with the gentle waves of Lake Victoria lapping by a small, manmade boardwalk and pier marina. Every room had its own air condition unit and hot shower that I literally have not felt since I left Philadelphia almost two years ago. The beds had spring mattresses, every meal had cheese platters, meat dishes, salad bars, and cheese cake for dessert.

Even weirder was having legitimate sessions presented to us as a cohort concerning marketing ourselves as viable job Meeting Roomcandidates, updating our resumes/CV’s, practicing for interviews, preparing for the shittiness of reverse culture shock, how to get our readjustment allowance, non-competitive eligibility, and dealing with our collective emotions as a family that has undergone indescribable experiences that only we truly will understand. It felt as just as I had finally mastered “Peace Corps Life”, COS (Close of Service) Conference happened and derailed my entire outlook. My Peace Corps experience has an expiration date now: December 9, 2015. After that day, I will no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Whereas other trainings focused on skills to live in Uganda and accomplish our goals here, this conference focused on transitioning back to the United States.

I felt blindsided with conflicting emotions of excitement, sadness, joy, and frustration during one of the RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) Panel who gave us advice on transitioning:

“We can see the world that we describe.”

“The cure is to keep coming back.”

“A lot of people wanted us to confirm their preconceived perceptions.”

“Envision your dream job a lot.”

“You don’t have to decide on a career ever.”

“The unfairness of life and seeing that will soften, but as you are able to move up, ypu will be able to actively affect policy.”

“We are able to discern social nuances.”

“At the end of it all, we’re just friends spending two years together.”

“Never life about your qualifications unless you can get away with it.”

“We all have a chance to step back and develop ourselves.”

“Do you wanna change from within or change your community?”

Adult Late Night Art

Adult Late Night Art

What was reassuring was that all of these RPCV’s were higher ups in the foreign service working on ethical mining practices, CDC (Center for Disease Control) regulations, the 2nd in command to the US Ambassador, and other impressive job titles. However, they all spoke in a language that only Peace Corps Volunteers could understand. There was a kinship and understanding of what we were going through and tangible ways to cope with finishing Peace Corps. One of the RPCV’s had received an award from the president of her host country due to her contributions in the medical sector during her service, and then had to work a temp job in a post office in her small town in the US because she couldn’t find a job. Another Peace Corps Volunteer told us that if he could have redone his last three months in-country then he would have just spent that time drinking coffee on his porch, walking around his village, and looking at the stars while he still had the chance to live life in this way.

I started getting emotional due to the realization that this would be one of the last times that this dream of mine would be coming to an end so soon. After sessions ended we played ultimate Frisbee on the grassy field by the lake, drank during Late Night Art and danced to “Trumpets” by Jason Derulo, played LAN Party games, and walked around the gorgeous grounds. At the beginning of the conference, we all wrote our names and put them into a bag, then we had to pick out a name so that we could share with the group a small story about that person.

Education Cohort 2 Group Photo

Education Cohort 2 Group Photo

I also premiered the slideshow for our group which was over 40 minutes long and showcased video clips and pictures starting all the way back in Philadelphia for our staging at the Hampton Inn in November 2013 and chronicling our service up until the present day. The slideshow made so many people cry, and even I couldn’t deal with all of the emotions that had been welling up inside of me. By the end of the conference, I was exhausted and didn’t know what to do with myself. One part of me felt as if I could just go back to normal life in the village for the next three months, but another part of me understands that my Peace Corps life will never be the same again. I have been in this weird stasis and limbo for the past two days since the conference ended where swing from intense joy to apathy and then depression. I have one of three desires right now:

  1. Jump on a plane and fly to my new home in Baltimore and get a head start on dealing with reverse culture shock.
  2. Go back to the Speke Resort with all of my PCV friends.
  3. Teleport to my village bedroom and watch tv shows and sleep for a week.

What kills me is that I don’t know when will be the last time that I say goodbye to someone in my group. There are so many last things that I will experience and people whom I may never see again. Also Peace Corps farewells suck because they happen in moments and then you’re off on public transportation or back to your site and you may never see that friend again. I am emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted to the point where I just want to cry and sleep for the entire day. I don’t know why I am affected by this close of service conference so much. I think that right now I am in this in-between world where my heart and mind are torn between this life that I love so much, and a future life stateside that excites me so much too. I also get worried by the societal pressures that I will face stateside and how I will forever want to wander and explore this vast world. However, I know one thing, and that is I will never have to start sentences with “I should’ve.”

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Conservation Camp, Kisoro

31/8/15 – 4/9/15

“Let us not stop here, let us bring our ideas home to take root.”

~Booker, Ugandan Camp Counselor

I’m on a late bus headed back to Kisoro on the darkened tarmac road winding through the hills of the “African Alps”. It’s been one of those very memorable weeks of Peace Corps life where you feel like you’re in another world or life. I spent this camp working as the photographer and chef for the Peace Corps Conservation Camp. The camp was held in Kisoro, Uganda which is heralded as the “African Alps” due to the large amount of hills and volcanoes of the rift valley. During this week, 41 Ugandan youth from 6 local secondary schools spent a week at Seseme Girls Secondary School learning how about African conservationists, waste management, tree planting, basket weaving, permagarden construction, beehive construction, eco-tourism, and a city-street cleanup.

Planting Trees

Planting Trees

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

During this camp, I had the opportunity to take photos using one of the newer Canon DSLR cameras and editing the photos on Adobe Lightroom  as the campers went to sessions. This week felt very surreal, because of the beautifully cold Kisoro setting. The Peace Corps counselors stayed at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house and the nearby guesthouse. Throughout the week the campers would attend sessions, do practicals, and create action plans as I took photos, then by 4pm I would leave camp early in order to prepare dinner. I think that we had the best camp food of my Peace Corps service: meat, g-nut sauces, and vegetables for lunch and sushi, stir-fries, pastas, burgers, soups, and pizzas for dinner at the Peace Corps Volunteer’s house.

Conservation Camp Group Photos

Conservation Camp Group Photos

As with all camps, it got more stressful and tiring as the week continued. But it also got more inspiring. Two times during the week we took field trips to Mgahinga Lodge near the base of Mgahinga National Park, the smallest national park in Uganda at the base of Mts. Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo. It felt really epic photographing the youth planting tree saplings along the village roads behind Mgahinga Lodge leading up to the overlooking Mt. Muhabura. I felt epic armed with such a nice camera in such a photogenic setting.

Most of the time, I’m profusely sweating in Uganda. However, in Kisoro it would  get so cold at night that I would actually shiver on the couches in the living room of the PCV’s house. Then during the day if I closed my eyes and felt the golden sun setting on my face coupled with the cool wind from the mountains, I could imagine that I was back in Maryland or Boston during the start of a new school year as the leaves were changing color. As camp ended, I started to think about the upcoming COS Conference for my cohort. It’s so crazy to me to think that this adventure is coming to its final stages. Before long, it will have been my two year anniversary in country, and I will be preparing to fly to Europe.

Conservation Camp Reflection

Conservation Camp Reflection

I find it very comforting to know that I have practically no regrets in my Peace Corps service. It just feels like every weekend, there is some sort of adventure or project happening that makes me feel like what I am living is the life that I am supposed to be living right now. This past week, this service, and this life has been a blur up to this point, and I am beyond incredulous to have made it this far. Two years ago I was planting trees as a landscaper in Maryland, now I am planting trees and ideas here and watching them grow before me.

“I know where you stand, silent in the trees, and that’s where I am silent in the trees. Why won’t you speak where I happen to be? Silent, in the trees, standing cowardly.”

~Trees, Twenty-One Pilots

Permagardens and Flying

20/4/15 – 25/4/15

I feel like I dedicated the past two weeks of my life towards very sustainable trainings and sessions. From April 20th – 25th I brought a group of two Luteete PTC students and my village neighbor Mingling HandsGodfrey to the Central Youth Technical Training in Mukono. During the past 5 months Peace Corps staff and an extended Peace Corps Volunteer designed regional youth technical trainings that refined the Peace Corps camp model. The goal was to present and facilitate soft leadership skills and sustainable agricultural practices, IGA’s (income generating activities), and creative facilitation skills to a team consisting of a Peace Corps Volunteer, Ugandan counterpart, and two Ugandan youth. This would ensure a transfer of skills and further provision of resources by the Peace Corps Volunteer.

I was absolutely enthralled by this training, because the focus was on fostering youth-adult partnerships. There were sessions about creative facilitation, HIV/AIDS myths and condom (male and female) demonstrations, gender empowerment, compost and permagarden creation, and youth-led clubs. Every session presented the topics with an emphasis on gender and youth empowerment. The Centre for Creativity and Capacity Development, consisting of Ugandan artists, dancers, singers, and actors, facilitated the majority of the sessions. A special emphasis was placed on having females and other youth leading the sessions as opposed to traditional male Ugandan facilitators.

Permagarden NotesI think that I was in a stage of my service where I had this close relationship with my Ugandan team members and knew specific ways and methods that could be employed in my community. I met a Ugandan facilitators dedicated to motivating youth through hip-hop dancing, offering free HIV testing in rural communities, and demonstrating the successes of youth-led clubs. However, the session that excited me the most was the permagarden tutorial led by a Peace Corps Ethiopia agriculture specialist, Peter Jensen. A permagarden utilizes many of the concepts of permaculture design, by manipulating a pre-existing landscape with sustainable, easy-to-access, and readily available resources in agriculturally-based societies. Once created, a permagarden would allow a family to plant various fruits, vegetables, and perennials throughout the year regardless of dry season or rainy season.

Mukono Sunset

Mukono Sunset

Water is stored underground during rainy season underneath the subsoil and deeper layers of clay. After double-digging and loosening the soil down to a depth of 50cm, the water from the rainy season will rise through the dry upper layers of subsoil and topsoil through capillary action. By adding charcoal powder, dry cow manure, and wood ash the loosened layers of soil in the plant beds will hold more air, water, and minerals essential for plant growth and deep roots. My team members were ecstatic about this new concept and decided that they wanted to create a permagarden near the ICT lab near the PTC. I too got excited about introducing various vegetables and greens to my community in a easily-created way.

Furthermore, these trainings allowed the youth to voice their own ideas and feel as if anything they said carried the same magnitude as any other adult or Peace Corps Volunteer regardless of age or gender. I could summarize my time in Mukono as being very inspiring. I was surrounded by devoted Peace Corps Volunteers and even more devoted Ugandans. Similar to other Peace Corps camps, the Centre for Creativity and Capacity Development taught leadership and creativity sessions through art, skits, dancing, singing, and movement. The idea revolved around kinesthetic teaching methods as opposed to powerpoint presentations and blackboards.

Arua Sunset

Arua Sunset

Towards the end of the training, there were two sessions that really captured the essence of training. The first one was late-night art where all the participants of the training gathered around the edges of a long table draped with white cloth and all kinds of drawing and painting materials. The idea was to dance around the table and draw certain images at certain intervals. It started out at face-value by drawing our favorite foods on the cloth, and progressed to drawing images that reminded us of youth-adult partnerships. At one point, we were instructed to draw an image of our personal dream for someone in this room. After we were done, my Ugandan student pulled me arm and showed me her drawing of a school building. She told me that her dream was for me to teach students like her at my very own school. Another youth pulled me aside and showed me an image of a camera and said that her dream was for me to take the best photo in the entire world.

Sometimes I forget that as much as Peace Corps volunteers here dream about helping Uganda, To FlyUgandans also have dreams for us. Peter led the second session where we each held a piece of paper and slowly crumpled it every time something he said applied to us. For example, if he said, “I have been a victim of crime”, “I have a leaky roof”, “I have HIV”, or “I have been persecuted for my beliefs” then I would crumple my paper each time a statement was true in my life. Afterwards, we exchanged papers with someone else and straightened the paper out. Step-by-step he instructed us how to build a paper airplane, and explained that even though we could never truly get rid of the crumples in our life, we could still change. After everyone successfully created a paper airplane, he instructed us to lift it into the air and in the stillness of that moment he uttered, “No matter how damaged you were; now you can fly.” Immediately after he said that, over 60 paper airplanes, goals, and visions were soaring through the air of the main hall.

Who We Are

February 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MSC (Mid-Service Conference)

January 27-31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid Service Conference Group Photo

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

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

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

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

Setting Dust and Settling In

2/1/15-8/1/15

It’s been a whole new week with both the same old dust setting on every surface of my house, as I get used to a routine. I mean, it felt very good just spending quality time with my site for days on end. I forgot how easy it was to lose track of the date when I was at site, especially since my calendar is now out-of-date. Also, the electricity was on for the majority of the days spent at site, which made it easy to stay up late and even easier to sleep in.

I got into such a good routine where I would wake up sometime after 9am, wash a few clothes, make some chappatis, watch episodes of Breaking Bad and 30 Rock, play with the kids, cook either quinoa (I found some left behind by a COSing PCV at the office) or rice, take a nap, watch more tv, make French-pressed coffee, talk with the neighbors, fetch water, bring in my dry clothes, do a Focus T25 workout, make dinner, shower, watch more tv, check free 0.facebook, and then go to bed.

I was relaxed. I felt comfortable getting into the habit of living at site and doing everything that I was used to doing. If too much time spent away from site made me feel guilty in the past, too much time spent at site with nothing to do since it was school break made me feel at ease. I was at vacation in my own house and didn’t feel guilty about spending a ton of money flying to another country.

Of course, I decided to get busy again. My productivity started up again on Sunday the 4th when I chose to take another jab at editing the Coffee Camp video from the Kasese Coffee Camp back during August 17-23, 2014. Since all of the translations were completed, the video clips were compressed to file sizes that my tome of a laptop could handle, and electricity was somehow on at site I decided that now was the perfect opportunity to finally finish this project that loomed over my head like a dust cloud or a non-existent raincloud (since we are in the middle of rainy season).

I have spent the past four days working on this whenever electricity has been available to me. I left site on the 6th since I had to fill in the role of Central Luganda Satellite Liaison for the new trainees who were undergoing language training and homestay in Mityana. It was rough waking up in early on Tuesday, biking to Wobulenzi, riding a takisi to Kampala and completing all of my errands for the day. I got a medical checkup where a jigger in my toe was removed, my knee might have slight tendonitis, and my left index finger has a splinter blister. I also discussed the possibility of attaining more grant funding for the construction of the computer/ICT lab in my village and delivered screen-printed PSN t-shirts to the office.

By the time I made it to St. Noa Primary School in Mityana to meet the 10 trainees, I was exhausted. I got to share some stories with them about the bike ride two weeks ago. I didn’t even know where I would be spending the night here, but fortunately Joshua graciously allowed me to stay in his future house, the same one that used to belong to RPCV Robin Munroe on top of Kololo Hill near Busuubizi PTC.

The next day was the trainees’ mock LPI, Language Placement Interview. It was a slow day, which was good because it allowed me to spend quality time with the trainees. I felt that I was getting to know them on a more personal level compared to how I interacted with them during the earlier stages of PST at both Kulika and Shimoni. I bluntly answered their questions, joked with them, and shared my own stories and perspectives concerning different issues and concerns that they had.

I have very high hopes for this group. I feel as if they have a very strong energy and determination to get out there and start working on projects that they are passionate about. Even today it was refreshing to see them invested in the Uganda gender roles discussion with the language trainers. During the daily hangout session at Enro Hotel, I had a heart-to-heart talk with one of the trainees. She voiced her concerns to me about how she was worried about her future site because she didn’t feel inspired or emotionally attached to it even though it had all of the amenities that she would ever want.

It was very interesting being in this position, because after I talked her through her worries she thanked me for my wisdom and hard work. To be honest, I don’t feel very wise. I agree that I am a hard worker, but many times I feel that I don’t have wisdom. Sure, I’ve lived in-country for over a year, but that doesn’t automatically make me wise. I still feel like a fool, even when I talk to people about what I have learned. Either way, it felt good to have been of some use to this group as their Deputy Satellite Liaison.

When I returned back to Joshua’s house, I finally finished the last few edits of the Coffee Camp video. I was ecstatic to have finally pressed the render button that would turn the timeline of video clips, titles, and music files into a sharable MPEG file. After all of the roadblocks and issues that kept me from working on this video, including a broken laptop for over a month after Coffee Camp, I finally finished this project and couldn’t be happier.

Tomorrow, I return to Fort Portal to begin training for yet another camp called Camp Kuseka for Ugandan children with special needs. I am exhausted, definitely have something like a sty in my right eye, and need to rally for this coming week and couldn’t be happier how this new year is starting.

The Struggles and the Furies

December 10, 2014

I’ve been through the whole gambit of emotions recently. On Monday I traveled to Masindi in order to choose some quilts from Piece by Peace so that Rachel could bring them back to friends and family members back in the United States. I’m not going back to the United States for the holidays, but I still want to give my loved ones gifts back home. The next day we traveled to Kampala by bus, which wasn’t too bad since the air was cool due to the recent rain. However, I instantly got stressed because I thought about all of the stuff that I still had to do before I returned to Shimoni PTC for my cultural sessions. I still had to pick up some PSN t-shirts at the Peace Corps Office, discuss my bike ride fundraising idea with Peace Corps administration, say final goodbyes to some COSing PCV’s, grab lunch, pick up some more PSN t-shirts near the Old Taxi Park, and then make my way to Shimoni by takisi.

I got frustrated the longer the day went, because there was so much on my mind and the people whom I was hanging out with had their own strong emotions that they were undergoing. I got so angry when I went to pick up the order of 24 PSN t-shirts at the t-shirt screen printing shop near the Old Taxi Park. I arrived at the desk only to see that no one had started the process of screen printing the agreed upon I design on any of the t-shirts. The woman behind the counter just told me, “Ah, the woman she is coming and she will finish them now.” When the managing woman arrived, I got so furious with her. I told her how upset I was with how she broke the agreement that the t-shirts would be done by the morning. I explained to her that now I didn’t have the opportunity to sell them since I couldn’t bring them with me and that I would no longer use her services if they weren’t ready by tomorrow.

I said this to her in much meaner terms and with angrier language. One of the PCV’s who was accompanying me said that he had never seen me act this way. I replied to him that he needed to hang out with me more because this was just another side of me. I guess that that infuriated me more because I extremely dislike it when people just assume that I’m happy all of the time.

I was just in a very foul and pissed off mood with everyone and I knew it. I rationally knew that I needed to change my outlook lest I bring others down with me. Instead I snapped at a PCV who was going through a breakup, kept shaking my head when any Ugandans wanted to talk to me, and straight up pushed some Ugandans out of my way instead of me walking around them.

The takisi ride from Kampala to the Shimoni PTC sign and the subsequent walk to the college helped cool down my temper a bit. It felt both satisfying and sucky to be in a mood like this one where I just had trouble seeing the good ahead of me. If you had asked me then what my goals were for the immediate future, I would have told you that I didn’t know. My mood significantly improved when I arrived at the college and saw the many trainees working on their lesson plans, work stations, and other activities. I guess that refreshing would be the right word to describe how I felt.

I put my bags back in the dorm room and did a solo session of T25 to exert some excess steam. I then had some dinner, worked on a few presentations, and slept in preparation for a new day.

Today was a good day. It wasn’t perfect, and maybe I won’t be sharing any epic stories or pictures from the day. But it was a good day. I met up with language trainers in preparation for cross-cultural and language sessions that we would be presenting to the trainees. I also planned out the details for a fundraising idea for the ICT Lab. The idea is for one of my Ugandan neighbors, PCV Ravi, and I to bike all the way to Fort Portal from the village of Luteete in order to raise pledged donations towards the construction and furnishing of the ICT/computer lab. I’m banking on the fact that people back home will be in the giving mood since the journey will overlap with my birthday and will end a few days before Christmas.

Then after lunchtime I helped out with a stress-management session with Dr. Jenny from the PCMO. When the session ended, a dozen of us gathered together on the big football patch at the end of campus to play a game of Ultimate Frisbee. I can’t even begin to describe how much fun it was. I haven’t played a competitive sports game for over 6 months. There’s just something about the workout and the fun combined together that I missed. Plus the sun was setting with this golden glow that cast the entire pitch in this nostalgic light that just reminded me of playing the same game with different people last year.

And I know that a lot of those people, including myself, have drastically changed in this past year. For a few minutes, I just sat down on the edge of the pitch and basked in the glow of the setting sun. I felt at peace; I felt comfortable again. We then made our way back up to the dining hall where I partook in a Zumba session led by one of the trainees who is a Native American from Wisconsin. I spent the rest of the night polishing up some sessions and typing up the bike ride proposal to the Country Director Loucine whom I hope will approve it.

I feel better knowing that I am here and that the ideas that I have are slowly by slowly coming together. I no longer feel the fury and anger that I felt yesterday, but I know that they can easily be awakened again. I don’t like it when I get moody and angry, but I have fully accepted that sometimes I need to act like that to let off some steam from the thoughts, emotions, and worries that I am processing. If I had the choice I would want to go back to some of my original ideals of talking to the Ugandans whom I meet and indulging him or her in conversations that I’ve heard time and time again. I would go back to a time when getting new furniture was the most exciting event of the week for me. I would go back to a time when I didn’t have to be angry because I could just accept things as the way they are. But this is just another change that happens during my Peace Corps service.

The struggle is real, but as for Peace Corps Volunteers: they endure.

Doing and Being

25/10/14

Entitlement is something that I struggle with on a daily basis. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I sometimes feel that life here is a bit harder to deal with compared to life back in the United States. After working on a difficult project, teaching a long class, or travelling a lot I feel as if I “deserve” a 50th Anniversary US Ambassadorbreak somehow. In the United States, a lot of emotions are connected with how one feels that he or she deserves something. The heroes and do-gooders deserve praise and rewards whereas the villains and neer-do-wells deserve justice and punishment. The concept of karma and the idea that good works lead to earthly rewards (Gospel of Prosperity) prevail in the United States. Movies and tv shows, especially those feel-good ones, show the struggle of the hero/protagonist and the cathartic rewards at the end.

I have since come to realize that what one deserves is rarely what one receives here. If I worked the same as I worked here, but in the United States then I would be considered a hard worker. However, I would guess that the average village Ugandan sees me as one who lives a cushioned lifestyle. I might be working on my laptop in my house when there’s electricity but the Ugandan passing by my window will only see me spending leisure time on some expensive electronics. Who does the most amount of work: the Ugandan who planted beans, groundnuts, and corn in his farm all-day or the Peace Corps Volunteer who lesson planned, edited a video, and wrote a blog post?

I struggle reconciling which work is harder through the mindset of my pre-Peace Corps life and my mindset now. During training, we are told that Peace Corps volunteers deserve a break every now and then from village life. RPCV’s, friends, family members, and the US Ambassador himself have praised our efforts and work in the villages. Yet, I pose the question of whether or not our breaks from village life truly are deserved. How is it fair that we get nice houses compared to our local communities and have the freedom to leave whenever we want when our students, neighbors, and friends never get a break?

Of course, I know that life isn’t fair and not everyone gets the justice that he or she deserves. When you have luxuries in life, the tendency is to justify why you have then and how you deserve them because of what accomplished. I have the utmost respect for my neighbors and students because of the work that they do every day that garner no praise or special recognition. To be honest, I know that I could accomplish three times as much as I accomplish now if I only had their work ethic.

There is a paradox to address: while many Ugandans are hard workers out in the field, you would be hard-pressed to go a day in Uganda without seeing a Ugandan lounging about on a mattress and not doing anything for hours. Then you have the tendency for Ugandans to be “masters of time” and never show up on time and accomplish very few tangible results during meetings and workshops. Sometimes I feel that Ugandans can be the hardest working people whose actions elicit the smallest return for work done. I personally believe that most Ugandans who have very little must work hard to continue to survive, while those who have money let others do the work for them.

Audrey FirespinningDuring this past week I was back at Kulika Training Center near Busunjju for Training of Trainers (ToT). I always feel comfortable there because that was where I started my Peace Corps journey. We prepped for the upcoming PST in November as well as worked on establishing trust with one another. One of the most effective sessions occurred on the last full day of ToT. The trainers and some staff members gathered together in a circle and we all held a piece of paper where we wrote down what we wanted to be perceived as on one half of the paper and what we thought others perceived us to be on the other half. The next part of the session involved us walking around to other people in the circle one at a time and telling that person something good about him or herself (Glow) and perceived shortcoming that he or she should improve (Grow). The activity works if initial trust is established among the group members and if the Glows and Grows are given honestly.

It felt really good to go through this activity and engage myself and others in a self-reflection activity that forced us to be uncomfortable. I don’t think that I had felt this raw and vulnerable in such a long time. I literally felt as if the walls that I had built up to protect myself were slowly battered down with each person I confronted in this activity. I noticed that a lot of my own worries about myself were recurring: I take on too much work, who is the real Marvin?, I appear to be too happy that it seems fake, I try to get people to like me, and I overshadow others who may not be as comfortable in a group.

This activity reminded me of all the masks that I wear. I forgot that I act so differently around different groups of people. I am perceptive of group atmospheres and can act accordingly with different facets of my personality. I’m self-conscious about myself, so I attempt to be good at doing different things in order to mask that self-consciousness. If people know me for being good at different things then that can be my mask that hides my low self-esteem. I still let what others think about me affect me too much. I thought that I had already figured out in junior year at BU that my happiness shouldn’t depend on the approval of others.

So in my village I wonder who I really am. I build my reputation about all the things that I’ve done, but forget about being. When you strip away all of the tasks, project, and accomplishments what is left? Even in this country I can’t be my full self due to some cultural obligations. I hide behind the culturally appropriate high context conversations involving Uganglish and indirect confrontations. Then in the midst of all this I am changing with each passing day. I am a Filipino by blood, an American by birth, a member of the monkey (Enkima) clan, called a muzungu every day, a teacher, a volunteer, a traveler, a trainer, and a learner. I don’t recognize myself at times, but I guess part of being in the Peace Corps is venturing into this unknown and constantly discovering who I am.

Integrating Displacement

26/9/14

“To be in Peace Corps is to be displaced.”

On Tuesday I headed to Kampala for a TAC (Training Advisory Committee) Meeting at the Peace Corp Headquarters. The goal of this meeting was to plan PCHQ TAC Meetingthe schedule and sessions for the incoming Education Group’s training in November. My role is Community Integration Leader/Champion along with two other PCV’s Paul and Ellen. Our goal is to facilitate sessions that will present the new Peace Corps Trainees with ideas on integrating into the Ugandan culture and finding a balance. From past reports the Entry into Community Integration and Cultural Integration presentations have been the lowest ranked sessions of past trainings so a special emphasis was placed on these topics.

I was very glad to be working with Paul and Ellen on this project. Paul has a very bright energy about him and is one of those PCVs who runs around and is consistently “on” both in and out of his community. Ellen is one of those PCVs who can be described as being very “village”; she eats with her hands, hunts large, local rats with a bow and arrow, is building a mud hut, and dedicates a significant amount of her energies towards integrating into her local community in Kitgum. It was interesting holding discussions amongst ourselves and with some Ugandan staff members about the content we would be presenting.

We wanted to stress the importance of the local language and how even though everyone around you may speak English, the use of local language really helps improve the relationship between you and your community members. It demonstrates a level of respect for the culture as well as the people in your surroundings. Another point was shared that the first step towards successful community integration is for the PCV to have the desire to integrate into the community of his or her own volition.

We wanted to stress that no matter how “village” we became, how much we dressed like them, or how much local language we spoke we would still be foreigners. However, community integration doesn’t mean forsaking your own culture and mannerisms, but instead adjusting them to fit the cultural and traditional boundaries of the local community.

If there’s one Peace Corps Handbook (out of the dozens given to us during training) that has helped me the most, it’s been The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook. Compiled from the experiences of PCVs throughout the years, the Workbook describes how deep down inside we are all so different. We’re not the same, even though we’re all human beings with similar needs. A culture has certain beliefs, traditions, and actions that stem from sociological, religious, environmental, economical, and practical reasons.

As a generalization, in the United States:

  • It’s very common for someone to want to take risks and know that we control our own fate and destiny. If something doesn’t work out, we’re usually more likely to get back up and try again.
  • Change is good and we are consistently bent towards progress
  • Everyone should have access to equal opportunities, especially in job employment
  • Problems and statements should be said directly in order to allow for no miscommunication
  • It is seen as a good thing for bosses to socialize and get to know subordinates
  • People follow time
  • Status is achieved
  • Life is interesting and what is uncertain in the future is what also holds excitement and opportunity

As a generalization, in Uganda:

  • It is not common for people to take risks and destiny is dependent on whether or not “if God is willing”
  • Change is not necessarily good and traditions are important to uphold
  • It is important to favor others such as friends and family members to have better opportunities rather than everyone (like strangers)
  • Problems and issues should be approached in an indirect way in order to save face and avoid confrontations
  • Time follows people
  • Status is given to you
  • Life is scary, uncertain, and largely out of your control

I remember reading the workbook during training and not really taking to heart what the different concepts represented. Now after more than 10 months in country I am finally starting to understand just how different I am from Ugandans and vice versa. At first I was oblivious to how different I was from everyone here and thought that my firm beliefs and mentality gained from living in the United States and Germany were the correct ways of thinking. Once I arrived in my village, I realized just how different things were approached here. I started to become conscious of the mistakes I made and didn’t know how to stop making them. I remember planting coffee in front of my yard during the dry season on top of dirt mounds that couldn’t even hold water. After some time I started to consciously realize what I needed to do; I needed to scrap the dying coffee plants and focus on other things such as planting grass in front of my compound as the rainy season started.

I believe that I have gotten to the point where I can appropriately function and work in my community without even realizing how different I act now compared with 10 months ago. It’s funny because some other PCVs make fun of me of I break out in one of my Uganglish phrases or Ugandan mannerisms while hanging out. The habit literally becomes so ingrained in me that I sometimes have to make a conscious effort to act like a “muzungu” again.

This brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this blog post: “To be in Peace Corps is to be displaced.” We’re stuck between two worlds. There are Luteete VIllage Sunsettimes when I don’t even know what I stand for anymore or who I am. I couldn’t even tell you what my preconceptions about Africa and Uganda were during staging at the Hampton Inn right before the plane flight to Uganda. In the past, stories about Africa were just that; stories. The tales of revolutions, dictators, starving children, genocides, epidemics, poverty, the 3rd World, missionaries, savannahs, and aid were all that I had ever heard or seen through various media platforms. It was literally worlds away.

Now my life is filled with stories of pumping water from a borehole, taking pictures and video of Peace Corps activities, teaching at a PTC, writing grant, working alongside my fellow Ugandan teachers, living with my Ugandan neighbors, and playing with their kids. Now tales of new pop songs, new jobs, dvancements in technology, high profile scandals, new foods, viral videos, and general trends are stories that are worlds away. It’s almost as if the interest that many Americans had when the Kony 2012 video came out is akin to the interest that most PCVs have about the events that happened in Ferguson. Both went viral on the internet but to the audience, each event happened in a different world that had no immediate impact on life.

Of course, I still consider myself to be a newbie who has only spent just over 10 months here. I look forward to seeing how much more I integrate into this community and how much more I will feel displaced in the 16+ months to come.

The Cost of a Soda

7/18/14 – 7/20/14

*A typical glass bottle of soda costs 1000/=

I left my site Friday and headed towards Kampala because I was asked by Peace Corps staff to help out with training for the Global Health Service Provider (GHSP) Peace Corps Volunteers over the weekend. I also had to work on the Peer Support Network (PSN) merchandise activities, such as putting in an order for more shirts and kitenge drawstring bags from the local tailors who live near the Taxi Parks. I made my way to Brood near Center City and realized that I had very little money left in my account and that neither my stipend for the month nor the most recent reimbursements had come in. So I literally had 100,000/= for the weekend with which I would have to pay for lodging, food, drinks, and transportation.

I bought a loaf of multigrain bread at Brood because in times when money is tight I figured out that having a large loaf of good bread will sustain me for at least a few meals. I then checked into the New City Annex, chilled for a bit, and then decided to explore a new area of Kampala since I had the extra time in the afternoon. Thanks to Jenn Ross, whose house I stayed at during my most recent Mityana Site Liaison visits, I knew about another new mall called Village Mall in Bugolobi in Nakawa Kampala. I took a takisi near Center City headed towards Luzira-Bugolobi and then got off at the Shell gas station near Village Mall.

The mall reminded me a lot like Acacia Mall in Kisementi (which also has a swanky KFC), but it was open air and had a Village Mallfew different restaurants and a totally legit café called Java Coffee and Tea. I took a picture as I was nearing the entrance, and the security guards told me to stop because it was illegal to take pictures of the mall. I played the dumb tourist, and they said that they would have to arrest me but that they would let me off the hook if I bought them a soda. I just smiled at them and walked through and wandered through the mall with the nicest bathrooms that I have seen in country (aside from Acacia Mall). There was a legitimate book shop, interior design stores, real leather shoe stores, and other shops that would only appeal to muzungus.

I walked into Java Coffee and Tea and ordered a normal house coffee. Ah that was some good coffee. I remember sipping on my cup of coffee, realizing how little money I had left for the weekend, and how alone I was.

Journal Entry:

“Right now I’m at Java Coffee and Tea at the Village Mall about to drink a nice, hot house coffee in the Kampala afternoon. It’s quiet and interesting doing all of this exploring by myself like I’m used to.

Peace Corps is truly filled with the experience of disparity that I have never seen before. I mean, I’m in a gorgeous open air mall with specialty coffees, but I woke up in a village without running water and nothing that comes even close to how nice this place is.

Yet, it’s more comforting in my village where I feel at home. There are times when I forget that I’m living the dream, and times when I wonder if I’m making the most of it. The newness of the experiences has been wearing off, but that is to be expected. I’m at the stager where real work can be accomplished.

I sometimes can’t tell if I’m happy or not. I feel the most alive when in motion: physical, mental, and emotional.

I feel like with each new life experience, I understand less and less about this world. I’m less sure about absolutes that I used to hold inviolable and eternal. I still believe that the purpose in life is to help others, but now I’m not so sure what that means or entails.

I’m just unsure of it all and what it all means.

At the same time the world seems both immensely large and small. I could be back home in 2 days if I needed to be back, but at the same time I still will not learn about all of the secrets that my village and sub-country have to offer.”

I bought 50g of sliced bacon and a jar of peanut butter at the Nakumatt in the mall, and then walked back to Center City. I finally met up with some other Peace Corps volunteers in the Annex who were spending their last weekend in Uganda before they left for good on Sunday. As a result, I decided to celebrate with them that night. I’ll spare the details other than that one volunteer ended up with 675,000/= more than he started with, there was a ton of dancing, a tooth was slightly chipped, and bedtime was around 4:30am. Despite the fun, it was very sad bidding farewell to the first somewhat large group of volunteers whom I considered friends.

The next morning was a bit rough, but I rallied sometime around noon and took a takisi headed towards Wandegeya-Bwaise where I would get off at the Kolping Hotel where the group of 13 GHSP volunteers was beginning its training. In the back of the takisi, I conversed with an older Ugandan man who is the director of the Lugoba Secondary School. He was very impressed that I could speak with him in Luganda, and was very friendly. The most interesting part about this specific conversation was that he said that I was speaking to his heart.

It reminded me of the phrase that was shared with us during training: “If you speak in someone’s second language, you’re speaking to the brain. If you speak to that person’s first language, you’re speaking to the heart.”

Kolping Hotel GHSPI arrived at the hotel and was briefed by the training staff about what the program was for the day and Sunday. I was slated to give the survival ICT presentation within the hour and then to show the volunteers around Kampala the day after in order for them to buy the necessary electronics that they needed. In the meantime I ate lunch at the hotel and was almost in tears by how good it was. It was your typical Ugandan buffet at a workshop, but it was beautifully prepared and there were grapes in the fruit spread!

It was at this time that I also figured out what the GHSP volunteers actually are: they are licensed medical doctors who are Peace Corps Response Volunteers who have either finished a whole Peace Corps before or have 10 years of licensed experience. So I presented the information to them concerning what phones to buy, how to load airtime, how to get on the internet, what a Powermatic is, and also allayed their fears since a bunch of them admitted that they were not very tech savvy.

I told them that I would meet them Sunday morning near Center City in order to give them a brief Kampala tour where they could pick up their needed electronics. A Peace Corps vehicle gave me a ride back to the New City Annex, and on my way back I thought about how weird it was that I was saying goodbye to PCVs who were leaving in less than 24 hours and giving presentations to PCV Trainees who had been in-country for less than 24 hours.

I ate dinner at this Turkish restaurant called Istanbul where I ordered hummus, babaganoush, and fresh vegetables with yogurt on freshly baked foccacia-like bread. I chilled in the Annex for a bit and hung out with some PCVs who had attended a Ugandan Football Game that evening. The Cranes beat Mauritania in an underwhelming (especially right after the World Cup) but nevertheless exciting match filled with Ugandan sports pride.

I woke up tired, and made my way to Garden City where I met the GHSP volunteers. Since it was Sunday, most of the stores were closed but we made our way south towards the Taxi Parks where they could get their Powermatics and burner cell phones. On the way there I got to know some of them. Five of them had already finished a full 27 months in the Peace Corps. So it was weird because in a sense they were already seniors who knew more about Peace Corps than most of the volunteers in-country, but they were also newbies who didn’t yet understand what it means to live in Uganda.

Yet I still felt more open and candid in my discussions with them, simply because they understood what being a Peace Corps volunteer entails. I shepherded them to the Shoprite on Entebbe Road where they bought Powermatics, and the nearby MTN store across from the Total Gas Station where they bought unlocked burner phones. We made our way back to Brood where I bid farewell to them.

As I picked up my backpack that I had left at the Annex, a Ugandan man started following me. He told me that he was born-again Christian and Catholic who had just come from mass and that he wanted me to give him 1000/= to buy food or pay for his ride back to his home. He kept telling me that he wasn’t lying to me and that he wouldn’t spend the money on alcohol or drugs. I told him that I would buy him bread at Brood, and he responded that he doesn’t like bread and that he would rather have rice and sauce instead.

I then offered him the rest of the water from the complimentary water bottles that I collected from Kolping Hotel, but he insisted that I give him 1000/=. I told him that I would pay for his meal or the fare for his ride, and he would tell me that I didn’t trust him. He was right. Even though I believe that people are really good at heart, my time spent here has made me a bit wary of strangers upon my initial meeting with them. Of course he would single me out because I was the muzungu and would help him.

I got really upset and pulled him aside on the sidewalk and told him that I was giving him money but not because he believed in God or was Christian. I angrily gave him 1000/= and then told him to pray for me without even looking him in the face. For some reason I was just very upset that he kept following me and saying that I didn’t trust him.

I started to slope down the roads leading to the Taxi Parks where the street children started to swarm around me and ask me for cash. By now they laugh because they continuously ask me, “How are you? Give me money. How are you? Give me money…” I try to talk to them in Luganda, but it seems as if their parents or leader instructs them not to divulge any information to passersby. Usually I just wave them off and make sure that they don’t steal anything from my pockets or bag, but this time I held out the remainder of my water bottle to them. I instructed them to share it amongst themselves and then to throw it away in the nearby trash can instead of on the road like everything is usually disposed of in this country.

Doing that brought a smile to my face as well as theirs. A nearby boda man who witnessed the whole exchange was also chuckling in the background. Honestly, I don’t know what to make out of this weekend and the experiences that I had during it. The only thing I do know is that there are times in life when you are utterly alone even in the midst of other people’s company, times when you feel so alive and energized when you are physically alone, and that 1000/= buys you a soda.

Journal Entry:

“I came in on Friday alone and I left today alone. But in-between there were a lot of people and experiences here. Lots of hellos and goodbyes and interactions. It’s honestly crazy. And now there’s a wild wind blowing.

Sometimes I feel as if I have to write down and reflect on an experience before I feel like I’ve had some closure concerning the event. I suppose it could even be said that the reflection itself becomes part of the event.”