13/2 – 22/2 Two weekends ago I spent some time hanging out with some of the new education PCV’s in Masaka. Initially, I didn’t plan to eat at Frikadellen, but I ended up partaking in the 30,000/= buffet and from what I can remember it was definitely worth it. We spent the rest of the night drinking, hanging out, and eventually dancing at the local club Ambiance. For some reason, four of us decided to share a bed in an extremely small and hot hotel room filled with mosquitoes and the stench of alcohol. The next day we sluggishly made our way to the pool located in one of the neighborhoods near Plot 99. Honestly, this weekend was going according to plan: I wanted to go out dancing, eat some good food, and spend the hungover Saturday swimming in a pool. In the evening we headed back to Ndegeya PTC where PCV’s Eric and Elyse hosted us for dinner. The last time I was at their house was almost one whole year ago, and their house is still as beautiful and posh as I remember it. After dinner, a few of us sloped up the nearby roads to the Ndegeya Art Community (Weaverbird Arts Foundation). It was founded 7 years ago by a Ugandan/Rwandan man who wanted to create a place where artists from Uganda and abroad could collaborate, hold workshops, and be free to express themselves in art. Every 3-4 months they would hold some sort of art workshop week where dozens of artists would gather together and live on top of the hill. The hill had a large grass clearing dotted with a bonfire pit, art houses, latrines, bathing areas, campgrounds, and sculptures made out of stone, brick, and recycled jerrycans. Since it was Valentine’s Day, not many artists had gathered for the meeting that weekend. This allowed us to have some more personal time with the founder of the movement. He told us that the meaning behind the art was to empower Ugandans, especially those in impoverished settings, to view art as something to help them in their lives. I posed the concern that many Ugandans view art as a detriment to survival since it would be viewed as a hindrance to daily tasks such as farming, tending to the children, cooking, fetching water, and everyday life. I felt that he wasn’t able to provide an answer that satisfied me, but I felt that I would need to spend more time there to better understand what he has done and accomplished with this movement. Most of the PCV’s left on Sunday, but I decided to stay another day at the cottage house at Ndegeya PTC. Man, it felt so comfortable being in a clean house where I could really stretch out, sleep without a mosquito net, shower, and eat homemade coq au vin since they had an oven. More than 15 months in-country, and I have come to appreciate the value of being comfortable. I left for Kampala on Monday, and did the usual routine of eating out at the fancy food court in Acacia Mall. I mean where else could I get decently priced and decent Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Ugandan, and American cuisine all in one area? I spent the night at the New City Annex just like old times, since I was told that a Peace Corps vehicle would pick me up early on Tuesday morning. Honestly, I assumed that I would just be going up to Lira in order to film an interview with a retired Ugandan colonel, but it turns out that I was voluntold to film promo videos of each region of Uganda with the Country Director. Personally, I am extremely glad that our country director is making an effort to personally visit the PCV’s in the different regions, because this was a complaint over the past few years. There is always some sort of disconnect between PCV’s and PC Staff since one group has trouble really empathizing or seeing the reasoning behind the actions and decisions of the other group. I also am excited to be able to participate in such a cool project, but felt that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I stepped into that air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle that Tuesday morning. There is another issue at work here that Peace Corps uses volunteers to fill needed staff positions and tasks. In my case, I provide free videos for Peace Corps without any payment. I have heard the arguments of both sides: on one hand we are volunteers and can accomplish the 3 goals of the Peace Corps through various means, and on the other hand the true experience of a Peace Corps Volunteer involves the integration of being at one’s site. In my case, sometimes I don’t even know where I stand anymore. It felt weird travelling in a nice vehicle with air-condition. I felt separated from both PCV’s and Ugandans by glass and cool air. There is a prevailing attitude that many well-intentioned Peace Corps staff don’t understand what many PCV’s endure because they have the luxury of private vehicles, access to clean food, access to running water, and the resource availability of Kampala. Regardless, I really enjoyed taking pictures and videos at my fellow PCV’s sites in the West Nile region, namely the towns of Arua and Maracha. First of all, it was hot as balls from 9am – 5pm. I felt fortunate that I lived in Central where the temperature of a 24 hour span varied from chilly in the night to hot in the afternoon. We visited primary schools, demonstration schools, NTCs, PTCs, a hospital, a honey organization, sexual health center, and an organization for orphans. Journal Entry: “I’m still so impressed with my fellow PCV’s and the hard work that they do. I’m still so frustrated by the bureaucracy here. I can see that there’s a lot of opportunity here, and in so many places, but those in charge of these opportunities don’t utilize them for what they’re worth. It’s all about saving face, building ones self-image, and very vague promises of far-reaching pipe dreams. A lot of self-aggrandizement. In many ways and times the wonder and initiative of the pupils an students are quashed by the rote inactivity of the administrators in power. I need to take more initiative and advantage of the resources at my school. People want things, boreholes, fences, internet, and so any things but how willing are they to work to make them come about? I am still so intrigued how sometimes adults here almost ruin the imagination of children. Pure wonder is hard to come by here. I go back and forth between not wanting to be staff and feeling like staff, but being constantly reminded that I am a volunteer. I am pulled in so many different directions. I understand that in certain cultures there are differences. But are some differences better than others, such as time management, gender roles, and societal structures in hierarchy. I mean what do we mean as a long-term goal of development? What does development really entail? Does it mean that we want developing countries to be like developed countries and share their ideals? What does it mean to rally empower people to do things in a culturally-conscious way? It’s a big mess and its not our job to fix every problem, nor is it our job to just leave and ignore all problems. Of course money alone does not solve the problem, but it can definitely help. And who am I to even have this discussion? In this air-conditioned car, I feel comfortable and as if everything is nearby. But it makes me feel so removed from PCV’s because part of service involves the hardships of dealing with the transportation and accommodations of the host country nationals. Almost that guilty feeling of not being one of them.” “If I give you a cow, do I feed your cow for you?” ~Emily Lamwaka, Peace Corps Education Progam Director Site after site, I saw what PCV’s were doing. Some tasks were successful, and some seemed impossible to overcome and it all depended on the site administrators. More than one primary school didn’t have the resources to provide pupils with lunch. In one instance, one of these schools was resource rich due to a nearby stone quarry but didn’t bother to sell the stones as an income-generating activity to provide lunch and build fences to keep livestock away from the school. Fortunately, for every four inept administrators there was at least one person at each school who was dedicated to really empowering the students by whatever means were available. On Friday, we left the West Nile and made our way to Lira to interview a retired Ugandan colonel. We found him near Café Path on Wan Nyaci Road. One of the GHSP Peace Corps volunteers ran into him at one of the stationary stores in Lira, and he told her that several decades ago a Peace Corps volunteer saved his life. On Friday, he shared his story in full. This man was born September 20th, 1940 with an education background that brought him to Russia. In the late 60’s, he joined the army and the military academy where he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant and posted in Masaka. He and his squad mates heard about the news of Idi Amin’s coup against Milton Obote on January 21st, 1971. During the coup, Amin’s people were killing the ranking officers and officials of Obote’s military. He had to flee home, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who was teaching at the Aga Kan Secondary School sheltered him for two weeks. She would go to Tropicana Hotel to check on the situation of the coup. Eventually, she told him that it was too dangerous to keep him at her house. She disguised her as a student, and drove him in her car towards Kampala and then to Lira. When they got to Karuma bridge that crossed the Nile River, they saw Amin’s soldiers slaughtering captured members of Obote’s soldiers. They let the Peace Corps volunteer pass through since they were still on friendly terms with the “whites” and didn’t recognize the lieutenant. There were so many dead bodies on the bridge, that she had to drive over them. When they passed over the bridge, they stopped at a trading center to drink beer due to the shock at the bridge. She asked him to drive the rest of the way up to Lira. They bid farewell to each other, and the Peace Corps volunteer boarded a bus headed back to Kampala. It was the last time that they saw each other, since the Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from the Uganda. At this moment in his story that he got a little teary-eyed. He explained to us that she was more than just his friend, but his girlfriend. Of course she was the side-dish in the relationship since he was already married to another woman, but still this Peace Corps volunteer risked her life to save his. The rest of the story revolves around his narrow escapes from Amin’s soldiers, his time spent as a refugee in Dar es Salaam, and his fight to retake Uganda. I will be working on editing together his story, and at the end of it he shared with us his dream for the youth of Uganda: to know their history and not care about the mindless politics and instead care for each other so that mindless slaughter can be avoided. The next day as we drove across the Karuma bridge in our air-conditioned car, we all fell silent as we reflected on what occurred there 44 years ago. Instead of flowing blood and dead bodies, all that we could see were the rushing Nile underneath us and the balmy breeze of your typical Ugandan afternoon. In some ways this country has improved, and in other ways it has remained just as impoverished as it used to be. Now more than ever, I believe that it’s experiences like that Peace Corps that make me feel privileged to work alongside my Ugandan brothers and sisters.
17/12/14 – 22/12/14
Back at Shimoni I was discussing with one of my best PCV friends, Ravi, that I still needed to raise about $7500 more in order to cover the cost of building and furnishing the ICT/Computer Lab at Luteete PTC. One of the things we discussed was how difficult it would be to raise the rest of the money through social media alone without offering some sort of incentive. I thought about what I should do in order to motivate people to donate money to this cause. As a result, I came up with the idea to bike ride and have people back home pledge money for kilometer or mile biked. After training, I stopped by the Peace Corps Office and talked to the Country Director and the Director of Programming and Staff in order to ask for their advice.
I was told to put together an itinerary detailing the route that I would take over the course of specific dates. They also suggested that I would receive their support and blessing if I found two others to bicycle with me in case of emergency and chose a route that wasn’t too dangerous to bike that close to the holidays. In Uganda, public transportation goes gumbles* during the holidays.
*Note: Gumbles is a fake, adjectival word that means crazy or nuts.
I quickly asked me Ravi and my Ugandan neighbor, Kato Godfrey, to accompany on my 300km (200mile) bike ride from Luteete Village to Fort Portal. I still had to type up the itinerary and proposal to the Country Director, borrow an extra bicycle for Godfrey, plan out the route, figure out where we would be staying, and when exactly we would be undertaking the venture.
I returned to Shimoni for some language and cultural sessions. During this time I was able to get both Ravi and Godfrey to agree to this venture, mapped out a route from my village to Mityana and then to Fort Portal on the Fort Portal Road, received the go-ahead from the Country Director, secured an extra bicycle for Godfrey, and asked some PCV’s along the route if we could stay with them. There were so many things that could have halted the start of this fundraiser, but everything somehow came together.
The original plan was to leave December 16 and make it to Fort Portal by December 20; however, the plans changed at the last minute in order to allow Ravi and I to have an extra day of preparation. Therefore, we changed the departure date to December 17.
Ravi arrived at my house on the 16th with his bicycle. The funny thing is that he lives in Butiiti which is one the Fort Portal Road about 40km east of Fort Portal. So the majority of the ride would bring him closer to his own home, whereas I would be biking away from my home.
We did a final packing checklist of: clothes, toiletries, water bottles, bike tools, patch kit, extra tubes, electronics, granola, maps, and money. Our dinner that night consisted of rice and tikka masala cooked with ghee to give us that extra fat.
December 17, 2014 (Luteete to Mityana, 60km)
Ravi, Godfrey, and I left Luteete at 7:25am. The weather was misty and cool. Instead of taking the Wobulenzi dirt road to the main Kampala-Gulu Road, we went by the southwesterly route towards Kalule. At one point, another Ugandan on a bicycle yelled, “This is not America” to us, which made me laugh because that was a new phrase that I haven’t heard here. We pause for some water at Kalule, and figure out that it takes us an average of 1 hour to bike 15km on the dirt roads. After crossing the Kampala-Gulu Road, we make our way through the Nakaseke and Wakiso sub-county dirt paths to Busunjju. It started to get really hot and dry since it was the middle of dry season. We had a few problems with Godfrey’s bike, because the PCV whom I had borrowed it from had a relatively small frame and Godfrey was much larger than her.
At some point past Mwera trading center, a random man ran towards my bicycle and pushed me. I almost fell off of the bicycle, but steadied myself at the last moment. I was furious and told the man to come back to me. He warily kept walking away until he disappeared into the bush and matooke trees surrounding the dusty trading center. I yelled at him to return and apologize to me, but all that I did was attract the attention of the trading center residents.
Me: “I’m not leaving until he comes back.”
Residents: “But he has already gone away.”
Me: “Where has he gone?”
Residents: “There!” *Points to the bush and matooke trees
Me: “I am very upset that he pushed me.”
Residents: “Ah, but he is sorry. Forgive him.”
Me: “I want him to come here and say sorry himself.”
Residents: “But he has already gone.”
Ravi: “Marv, let’s go.”
Me: “Okay, you let him know that I am going to call President Obama and tell him to send the police here to find him and arrest him.”
Residents: “Oh, he is sorry. Forgive him.”
Me: “No, I would have forgiven him if he himself came here.”
To be honest, it was pretty funny remembering this conversation. My goal was that by shaming him, he would think twice about pushing someone on his or her bicycle trip. I have started to realize that a year in-country I have started to lose patience with people much faster than when I first arrived. I want people to be accountable for their own actions and take responsibility for what they do. I think that I’m starting to understand what Loucine told me a year ago in Kulika: “To hold people to high standards not high expectations.”
At some point the dirt road turns into a paved road, and we purchase some bottled water in this trading center called Semuto. Once again, we continue on dirt roads until we hit Busunju, which lies on the paved Hoima Road. We get lunch at the Trust in God restaurant, which was okay by village standards. The rice, greens, beef, and g-nut sauce were solid and they allowed Ravi and I to take naps on the benches in the eating area. We also ordered plastic bags of passionfruit juice, which would also be a staple of our journey.
After a groggy awakening, we continued the last 28km leg of our first day’s journey to Mityana. We ran into some trouble during this part, because my back bicycle wheel lost air pressure. I assumed that the valve was leaking, so I pumped some air into it. When it started leaking again I changed the entire tube, and assumed that the problem was fixed. When that tire started losing pressure, I started to get worried. What if we didn’t make it to Mityana before sundown?
Ravi and Godfrey suggested that we once again take the new tube out and check to see if there were any punctures. Sure enough, we found a small thorn in between the wheel and the tube. Fortunately, Ravi brought a patch kit with him and we patched up the small hole. During the course of this incident we lost an hour of sunlight, which gave us less leeway in terms of making it to Mityana before it got too dark.
The patch held, and we biked up and down the dusty trails. At this point, the dust had penetrated every single pore on our bodies. The sweat didn’t help either, as it caused the billowing dust left in the wake of passing cars and bodas to cling to our skin. Whenever I wiped my brow with my forearm I could see this brown ooze coalesce that consisted of sweat and dirt. I am pretty sure that I breathed over a full cup of dust during the course of this day.
Continuing on with the eventfulness of the day, my front wheel rubbed against the Ravi’s back wheel and I crashed into the dustiest ditch known to man. I am also pretty sure that there were some nettles there, because I felt all scratched up from the mini crash. About 10-20km away from Mityana, depending on which bodaman we asked, we passed through this odd trading center called Kyaterakera.
As we entered into the center there was this bible-thumping Ugandan who was yelling at anyone who passed by him. At one point I think that he was talking about Chinese people and how they usually owned chickens. Another crazy man approached me after I had bought some bottled water for Godfrey, and told me, “Oh thank you for the water.” I explained to him that the water wasn’t for him, and he continued to follow me around and call me JaJa (grandmother in Luganda). Then a younger man with a cool accent comes up to me and starts conversing with me about where we are from. He introduces himself as a Nigerian named Christopher who works as both a hustler and a chapatti stand ownder. As he’s talking to me, the bible-thumper gets nearer to us and the JaJa man gets closer on the other side. At one point the JaJa man looks at me and then his shutter shades that were resting on his forehead slide down in front of his eyes which surprise him as he stumbles back.
So here I am laughing at the situation as JaJa man is clearly drunk, high, or just affected by decades of dust inhalation, the bible-thumper is attempting to convert us to his own Chinese/chicken version of Christianity, and our Nigerian friend is telling us about his hustling business and his successful chapatti stand. Behind me, I see a group of weird children approaching us so I just decided to take off and continue the last leg of our journey to Mityana.
This last stretch of dirt road hills was gorgeous. Our roads bounded fields of tea plantations that stretched off into the distance. We kept asking bodamen, Nnyabos, and stall vendors how far Mityana was and we were given estimates ranging from 10km to 2km. At one point a woman told us that we were 6km away and after half an hour of hard biking we were told that we were only 8km away.
As it got dark, we finally made it to the tarmac roads of Mityana. We saw giant lights illuminating the night sky, and saw these tiny insects flying around. I had forgotten that we were in grasshopper season. Giant floodlights were pointed towards the sky, and grasshoppers (enseneni) were attracted to them. Slanted tin sheets were placed by the light source, and then the grasshoppers flew into the sheets they would slide down into a catchment basin where workers would peel off their legs and fry them for consumption and sale.
We made our way to PCV Robin’s site on the top of Kololo hill near Busuubizi PTC. Man, we were exhausted after our first day of biking. We showered off the thick film of dust, and partook in a delicious dinner prepared by Robin. Even though our bodies were aching, it felt good to have succeeded in our first day of biking.
December 18, 2014 (Mityana to Mubende, 80km)
We shared breakfast in the morning with both Robin and the soon-to-be PCV, Joshua, who would be taking over her site after she COS’d. Robin suggested that we visit the Nakayima Tree in Mubende when we got there. All of us seemed taken to that idea, and we agreed that we would discuss it with our PCV host in Mubende when we got there.
We departed from Robin’s hill, and after 15 minutes of biking we met the tarmac of the Fort Portal Highway. Godfrey’s backpack started ripping, so we stopped at a trading center to get it re-sewn. While it felt nice to be biking on a real road, the challenge now was that the stretches of hills seemed endless. It literally felt like hills on hills on hills. At some points, the grade of the hill was too steep and we would rest by walking our bikes up the hills.
We had lunch at the hottest, smallest restaurant in the world called Shifa Hotel in Kalamba Town. Imagine the volume of two phonebooths placed side-by-side, and you would still have more space than this restaurant. It didn’t help that there wasn’t any cloud cover and that the food was cooked by the doorway so that any breeze that blew through consisted of hot oven air. We ate our fill of meat and beans and I was able to ferret out some bagged passionfruit juice. I had asked one of the Ugandan duka owners if she sold any passionfruit juice. She responded that there wasn’t any left, so I walked up to her fridge and told her that I wanted three of them. I guess that she forgot to take inventory of her stock.
I was talking with Ravi that our bicycles represent our personalities. Mine was short and squat, Ravi’s was sleek with a big butt, and Godfrey’s was black and slightly disgruntled (mainly based on the PCV who lent it to us). The rest of the 40km to Mubende NTC was characterized by choice napping patches of grass, hills on hills, and me telling off Ugandan men who called me muchina (Chinese Man). Right before the sun set, we arrived at the Mubende NTC sign which heralded our destination for the day.
PCV Brent welcomed us to the NTC campus and his home. I was extremely sore after two straight days of hard biking. Brent was a very gracious host and had bottled water, sodas, and beer ready for us. The dinner that night was a feast consisting of teriyaki beef, a fresh salad tossed with Ranch Dressing, stir-fried broccoli, and rice. It was very interesting staying with Brent, because we were his first guests. Most of the PCV’s in our cohort hadn’t heard anything from him in months, and it was very refreshing to hear him tell us how much he loved his site. He shared his exploits concerning his initial foray into mushroom farming and how the local community could use it as an IGA (Income Generating Activity).
December 19, 2014 (Nakayima Tree, 0km)
We woke up to a breakfast of toast, potatoes, and fried eggs. We washed our clothes and set them out to dry. We pitched our idea to Brent that we should take the day off and see this Nakayima Tree in Mubende Town. We didn’t know anything about the tree except that it was connected to the local religion of the Buganda Kingdom. We were dropped off by one of Brent’s fellow teachers near the New Town Hotel up the hill overlooking Mubende Town. We followed the road that wound itself around the hill, after a 20 minute walk we entered into a clearing with a gigantic tree in the middle of it. The tree’s leaves resembled oak tree leaves, and the trunk had grown to more than 20 feet in diameter exhibit buttress roots that extended from the ground. A local community of Ugandans set up small dukas, pit latrines, and cooking stations around the clearing that supported its caretakers. This community is called Boma Village.
After paying 5000/= and then 4000/= more for a guided tour, we found ourselves walking around the 1500 year old Nakayima Tree. Each side of the tree represented a different aspect of the pantheon of local Buganda spirits. The story goes that Nakayima, who was married to King Ndawula, was protecting the tree against some tyrant. She walked and disappeared into the tree, and became one with it. Someone tried to cut the tree down once, but that person died in an accident so the tree is protected by the spirit of Nakayima.
Maama Nabuzana: prepares the cooking, takes care of the children, and represents fertility as witnessed by the offerings of pots and jugs filled with water placed by the base of the tree.
Child Tree: Food for children, they are allowed to eat it if it hasn’t spoiled yet, otherwise the insects eat it
King Ndungu: guides the hunters, his symbol is smoke
King Kalisa: brother to King Ndungu, he feeds everyone on earth
Maama Kiwanuka: like lightning and thunder she brings good things down and brings the bad things up and away with her
King Mukasa: lakes and rivers
Similar to the Tanda Burial Grounds near Mityana, the belief goes that Ugandans must first dream about the Nakayima Tree in a vision and then will come here on his or her own accord. Even though a woman in a far-off village dreams about fertility but has never heard of the Nakayima Tree, she can still dream a vision about it and be guided to Boma Village on the top of the hill near Mubende. Also similar to the Tanda Burial Grounds, everyone must remove his or her shoes before walking on the sacred ground near the base of the tree.
Ravi, Brent, Godfrey, and I participated in a blessing ceremony at the base of the tree with a Jaja dressed in very colorful and ceremonial garb. We all sat by the base of the tree and presented offerings of boiled coffee beans wrapped in dried banana fibers shaped like samosas. She started chanting in Luganda, wishing us good health, many children, a car, safe travels, and money. We then handed over our pods of dried banana fibers to her and she opened them for us. Without breaking cadence from her prayer, she asked for 2000/= and we placed it in the basket along with the boiled coffee beans that she gave back to us after opening the banana fibers pods. We then ingest some of the coffee beans, and I instantly start choking and coughing on one of them.
While I was thinking whether a Nalgene bottle would be appropriate to bring out during this ceremony, I heard her choking on one as well. So she halted her blessing in order to spit the remnants of her coffee bean out, and continue the prayer. The ending of the prayer involved each of us standing up, touching the trunk of the tree, then touching our face, and walking back down. It sounded simple enough, but we kept screwing up the directions. Apparently we weren’t supposed to turn around after touching the tree, but instead back up without turning. This caused some confusion as Godfrey was translating to us: “Come as you are!” An exasperated Ravi retorts with, “I am as I am!?” Meanwhile Brent and I are laughing and the Jaja is still praying, oblivious to what’s going on around her.
The ceremony ends, we all shake hands with the Jaja and wander around the tree. We collect some seeds to plant our own versions of the tree, and I pick up a leaf that I press into my journal. At this point in the day, it’s the late afternoon and we are very hungry since boiled coffee beans do not make a good enough snack. We eat a late lunch at Agnes’ Restaurant on the Mubende Main Street, and purchase the produce for the night’s dinner.
We also eat well that night. We share sodas, beer, and stories over a dinner reminiscent of the night before except that in lieu of beef we have grilled chicken sold by the Mubende street food vendors.
December 20, 2014 (Mubende to Kakabara, 65km)
We had an early breakfast at Brent’s house, and I prepared some last minute homemade granola using some oats, oil, and honey over the stove. The majority of the day was overcast and the hills were less daunting than the second day of biking. The air was much cooler and we transitioned from the Buganda Kingdom to the Butooro Kingdom. At this point, Ravi took charge in the translating since his learned language was Runyooro/Rutooro and mine was Luganda.
Since the road was much more level than previous days, we made good time and arrived in Kyegegwa by lunch time. There was a traditional Butooro dance at one end of Kyegegwa Town, and as I stopped to take some photos two men came up to me and told me to pay them money. I laughed at them and told them that I would not pay them money. The crowd sided with me, especially as I greeted them in my basic Rutooro and told them my Rutooro pet name, Ateenyi (Guardian Snake). I continued to watch the dance, which I later found out was being performed in the honor of a local religious leader called Bissaka who would “bring all religions together”. Still, Bissaka couldn’t assuage the annoyance of the two men who repeatedly asked me to pay them to watch the traditional dancing. I still refused and they told me to leave and never come back. I smiled and extended my hand to shake their hands. One of them dumbly extended his hand to shake mine most likely out of instinct, but pulled it back at the last moment and turned his back on me.
Since we were making good time, we continued biking past Kyegegwa to find a trading center/town that was closer to Ravi’s site in Butiiti so that the next day’s journey wouldn’t be too difficult.
“I’m enjoying this grove/glade of eucalyptus trees in the afternoon for a short break. We’re 2/3 of the way through our journey, which is incredible to me. I love that ideas like this one can become a reality. Looking at the map, it’s hard to believe that we’ve traveled as far as we did in the past 3+ days on bicycles with everything loaded in our backpacks.
After resting in that small grove, we got stuck in the rain for a few minutes and found shelter by some nearby dukas. By the evening we found ourselves in the sprawling, urban village trading center of Kakabra. After talking to some locals, we set down our things at the Nu World Leisure Center, which felt safe enough by village guesthouse standards. I mean sure the pit latrine door wasn’t connected to the hinges, my mattress was awkwardly slanted upwards (I firmly believe that there was a dead prostitute underneath my mattress), the blanket made me itch, and there were condoms and candles covered in cobwebs on our windowsill but it felt very comfortable after a long day of biking.
We explore the trading center for a few minutes, because it literally took a few minutes to explore the town. Dinner at one of the local restaurants held a surprise for us. There was a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup served with hot milk that tasted like home. I smiled thinking about the journey that this syrup bottled made all the way from the fields of Pennsylvania to a wooden shack restaurant in Kakabara.
“In undertakings as long as this one, it’s a bit hard to remember that there is a life not involving a bike ride. That is abnormal, even for life in the Peace Corps.”
I believe that I have to explain this last entry. I guess that by this point, I was getting used to the routine of having to bike these long stretches only to reach a hill by the time exhaustion set in and then enjoy gliding downhill until the next challenge presented itself. I became used to biking, and my immediate goal was first to make it to the top of the nearest hill, make it to the next trading center, and make it to Fort Portal by the 22nd.
December 21, 2014 (Kakabara to Butiiti, 56km)
We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and bananas courtesy of Nu World Leisure Center’s hot water flask. The journey was relatively uneventful, except that we passed by the cool looking Matiri forest reserve. At some point before Kyenjojo, my right knee starts hurting to the point where every single pedal causes me intense bursts of pain. We take a lunch break in Kyenjojo just in time for me to rest my overworked knee. Ravi purchases food at the market as I take a small nap in the shade of a mosque-like building.
I press onwards for about 10km more until I make it to the turnoff to Butiiti PTC. After a 1.6km ride through dirt roads, we arrive at Ravi’s house where I feel right at home. The afternoon is spent baking some coffee spice cake, drinking Java Coffee, and doing some extra laundry. Aw man, I wish that I could just bottle that feeling of feeling the cool afternoon breeze as the warm sun sets and I wash our dirty clothes. It was also nice knowing that the last stage of our journey would only be 40km.
Godfrey, Ravi, and I all prepped dinner together. We made Ravi’s famous Eggplant Curry, Sautéed Potatoes, and Cilantro Chutney (since his Cilantro plant grew a ton during the wet season).
Sauté eggplant and green peppers with cumin, coriander, and paprika. In a separate saucepan sauté garlic, ginger, and onions with cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, chili powder, and black pepper. When the onions become translucent, add the tomatoes and a bit of garam masala in order to make a tomato sauce. When the sauce thickens, add it to the eggplant mixture and cook down for a bit.
Cilantro Chutney Recipe Outline:
Blend together two cups of fresh cilantro, a few tomatoes, 5 cloves of garlic, half an inch of ginger, salt, chili powder and lemon juice.
That was another amazing dinner, courtesy of Ravi’s signature recipes.
December 22, 2014 (Butiiti to Fort Portal, 40km)
It was my birthday! I turned 24 years old on the last day of the bike ride. Ravi prepared his famous German Pancakes and Java Coffee for our breakfast. We decided to take it easy today since the ride wasn’t too difficult nor long. As I chilled in the morning, I read Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer (yes the same guy who also wrote Into Thin Air and Into the Wild). Ravi had his book on his bookshelf, and I took some time reading it. While I had never done any bouldering, mountain climbing, ice waterfall scaling, donned any crampons, or rappelled down any canyons I came across a passage at the end of one of the chapters:
“Lying on a delicious slab of granite toward the evening, letting the warmth o the pink rock suck the chill from my dripping back, it dawned on me that it was my birthday. I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend it, I decided, if I’d tried.”
~Eiger Dreams, pg 115
On this last victory lap of 40k, I too would have to agree that “I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend it”. We passed by the Mwengo Forest Reserve, Kibale National Park, Kihininga Swamp (that curiously also has guided tours 8-12pm and 3-5pm), and the Tamteco Kamara Tea Estates. Honestly, the ride didn’t feel like it took that long, and a little bit after noon we arrived in Fort Portal. Ravi suggested that we walk up the hill that led to the main street, but I posited that we should bike this one last hill before we met up with our welcoming party at the Duchess. Man, it was such a relief to bike to the restaurant, hug some other PCV friends, and eat a well-deserved pizza and drink a few Nile beers.
I even got a dope Christmas present of a journal from PCV Jamie and a letter from PCV Jenna:
just focus on what’s important
and capture the good times,
develop from the negatives
and if things don’t
work out, just take
Wishing you the perfect shot this birthday!”
As I sat there and ate my pizza and watched Godfrey eat his first pizza ever, my mind drifted off. The thought that we had finished the bike ride was unfathomable to me. Every single pedal contributed to the overall goal, and with my buzz from the combination of dehydration and two Nile Special’s I couldn’t think. I just enjoyed the moment and the relaxation.
I think that after 300km of dirt and roads I was undergoing some sort of immediate withdrawal. I guess it’s just that I poured in my passion for biking and fundraising this computer lab and went through with this idea with my best PCV friend and my closest Ugandan friend. Now I was surrounded by loving and caring people on my birthday, but the focus was on the future and not so much on what had happened. That week of biking felt as if it lasted much longer than a week, but for everyone else life continued on pretty much as it always has.
My respect for Ravi grew tremendously during this journey. The Director of Programming and Training was right, I needed my two partners. I definitely would not have been able to make it alone, especially on the first day when I got a tube puncture. I mean, after one simple question my best Peace Corps friend agreed to bike ride with me in order to support me and my project. The same thing goes for my neighbor, Godfrey. He is very village and very Ugandan, and is my most trusted Ugandan friend. His open-mindedness and willingness to accompany and continue biking with me on this ride meant so much to me.
I would definitely say that this undertaking was a success in every way. We raised over $1500 for the computer lab, I bonded much more with both Ravi and Godfrey, and I understood just how much my friends and family cared about me and what I was passionate about.
“On and on you will [bike], and I know you’ll [bike] far, and face up to your problems whatever they are.”
~Oh the Places You’ll Go
I’m back on the Kulika organic farm again for training a whole year since I first had arrived in-country. I feel more connection as a trainer with this group as opposed to the most recent HAG (Health/Agribusiness) cohort that arrived 5 months ago. I think that I am at the position that my own trainers were at back when I was a trainee and participated in all of the mandatory training sessions. Immediately I start to imagine how a lot of these trainees will turn out after having lived in-country.
But more on that later. Let me first explain how I got to Kulika again.
Last week I visited a few other PCV’s near the Jinja area to help out with taking pictures and videos at a Science Teaching Fair at the Wanyange PTC. The goal of the event was to give several outstanding PTC students to teach biology lessons by demonstrating experiments to some P5 pupils at the nearby Mwiri primary school. It was so neat seeing their bright and shining faces as they marched in their yellow and khaki uniform. The fair started off with PCV Penelope having the pupils draw a vector for a disease. The catch was that the pupils had to be creative in the creation of this vector; for example it could have 100 legs, 32 eyes, be the color purple, and spread a disease that causes a swollen head and hands.
Most of the pupils created already known vectors such as fleas, mosquitoes, bed bugs, and other insects but few of them really showcased creativity outside of the norm. This sessions was designed to allow the pupils a chance to creatively express themselves as well as allow the PTC students a chance to find ways to foster creativity in the pupils. Then pupils were split into 7 groups. Each group went to a different station where a biological concept was explained and demonstrated through lecture, experiments, and activities.
- Hygiene- Singing a Bill-Nye the Science Guy song about washing hands
- White Blood Cells – Rock, Paper, Scissors turned into Antibody and Antigen game
- Lungs – Hula Hoop game
- Digestive System – Order of the organs and drinking upside down race
- Heart – Heart shaped sponge relay race
- Red Blood Cells – Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide race
- Muscular/Skeletal System – Arm pumps and raw chicken wing demonstration
The fair came to a close as the students and pupils alike came together for a big group reflection. Pupils got to answer questions concerning what they learned during the fair as well as choose their favorite PTC student teacher. Similarly the PTC student teachers had the opportunity to choose their favorite pupil. The event felt very successful, and was a great way to combine content based instruction with teaching practice.
It felt good to stay over at Penelope’s site, since I had yet to really see any part of Eastern Uganda. Penelope’s site was located in Wanyange which was about 10 minutes east of Jinja. While at her site, she brought me to a quaint, Catholic convent called St. Benedict’s, which was located on the banks of Lake Victoria. It was one of the earliest times that I woke up in country so that I could make it to 7am mass. I also had the opportunity to see PCV’s Stephanie, Linda, and Josh who brought me around Jinja Town and the Jinja Market. During my second night in Jinja I stayed with Stephanie at her house, which had recently gained electricity.
My goal was to explore a bit more of the eastern region before I headed over to Kulika for training I felt that Penelope’s invitation to come and help at her Science Teaching Fair was the perfect excuse to travel to Jinja and beyond. My viewpoint is that many PCV’s travel a lot during their first year at site and explore specific areas and towns of Uganda in big groups during large gatherings and events. Then when the excitement settles down, they start to focus on seeing the same old people and staying more and more at site. Furthermore, there are a lot of cliques within Peace Corps. I’m not saying that cliques are bad, only that they are a natural occurrence after living through very high and highs and just as low lows with people who truly understand you in this country, this region, this village, and in this specific circumstance. I wanted to break a bit of the mold and spend my one-year anniversary doing something different and travelling to see other PCV’s in another cohort in order to see something new and get to know them a little bit better.
So on Wednesday I bid farewell to Jinja and boarded a takisi headed to Mbale. Technically, the takisi headed to Mbale was empty and I waited inside of it for an hour before taking another one that went most of the way there and then taking a connecting one to Mbale town. When I got to Mbale town I got some coffee at Cosmos Café, which was located on the second floor of storefront on Republic Street with Mt. Elgon looming in the eastern horizon. Mbale town reminded me a lot like one that you would see in an old western movie: there were the wide dusty road and saloon storefronts that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place during the days of sundance kids and cowboy vigilantes.
I met with PCV’s from the most recent HAG (Health Agribusiness) cohort group. Cindy met me at Cosmos and we made our way to Molly’s site, which was an orphanage that took in children from parents who died. I felt like a short-term volunteer when I got to the orphanage because I saw dozens of cute infants who were lying helplessly around the nursery area and just as many toddlers waddling and peeing around the orphanage/church compound. Molly explained to me that this site was the location of many short-term volunteer projects and mission trips where groups came in, took pictures, maybe even built a stove, and then left without having really accomplished anything substantial.
Cindy and Teresa had a very large house inside of a compound on the outskirts of Mbale town, and fortunately they loved having people over; they even had their house registered on CouchSurfing. So I spent my one-year anniversary in Uganda with PCV’s from the HAG cohort ahead of me while we enjoyed some red wine (courtesy of Uchumi) and some homemade Bolognese sauce (courtesy of OiLibya gas tanks and the giant indoor Mbale market). It was interesting hearing stories and inside jokes from an outsider’s perspective concerning their cohort.
The next day, Cindy took me on a hike to Wanale Falls. If you looked off in the horizon a little bit southeast of her house, you would see a sort of green mesa jutting up from the ground with a small forest surrounding it. The coolest and most confusing part of the mesa was that there was a waterfall smack dab in the middle of it that didn’t make sense because it was well above the normal height of the ground of the Mbale region.
The hike to the top of the falls took a bit more than 2 hours, but it was one of the more difficult hikes that I’ve done in Uganda because the slope wasn’t gradual. After walking through open green fields of grass, small trading dukas, and houses hidden in the forests, the path gave way to steep rock steps and muddy slopes carved into the structure of the mesa. When we were almost at the top, we encountered the wooden ladder made out of interlocked tree branches and logs that allowed you to scale a 30 foot rock wall. Then we made it to the top where a few Ugandan farmers lived and tended their farms using the water that flowed on the top of the mesa.
The view was spectacular. I could see as far as the clouds would let me and I had to just take it all in for a moment. My tendency is to take out my camera as soon as possible to capture to the visual side of a perfect moment, but sometimes I like to first close my eyes and enjoy the unadulterated moment in its entirety. I definitely got knots in my stomach as I sat near the edge of the cliff by the waterfall, because the drop was at least 400ft and I would definitely die if I fell. We enjoyed the moments, shared some stories, took some pics, and made our way down on the other side of the falls.
By the time we got back to the house, we were exhausted. Fortunately, the tap was back on so we had access to unlimited water to wash clothes, bathe, and refill the jerrycans for later when the tap turned off at sunset. Two of the PCV’s from the older group joined for a dinner of steak, mashed sweet potatoes, and creamed peas and carrots. It really felt like a good American meal after a long day of hiking.
This whole time I was dealing with what started as a tickle in my throat but then progressed to an annoying sore throat. Every time I swallowed it would hurt, and at some points I would just spit because it felt better than swallowing.
Then on Friday morning I took a bus from Mbale to Kampala. I had a few errands to do at the Peace Corps Office including: getting my flash drive back, receiving the translated scripts from Lukonzo into English for the Coffee Camp Video, getting my schistosomiasis test results back (negative), selling a PSN t-shirt, turning in my reimbursement form, and prepping for training at Kulika.
In the early afternoon, I finally decided to make my way down to the Busunju taxi stage to get to the Kulika training center. I got there before the training group returned from their field trip to Kamurasi PTC, so I set up my hammock between the two brick posts outside the main conference room. As I lay in the hammock in the same spot where I had lain in last year, I reminisced about my own training experience. I remember the sessions, the smell of the farm, the food, the staff, and how excited it was to be starting this experience. As the trainees trickled in, I started associating their individual personalities with people from my own training group.
It felt weird being asked so many questions all at once, and being seen as the expert in-country. Honestly, I still feel very naïve and clueless about many things. One of the trainees said that the trainers all looked rugged and seemed to walk differently. He said that it had something to do with how we looked as if we’ve been through a few struggles since we first arrived and that we walked with a certain confidence and surety. While answering the trainees’ questions, I definitely felt a sense of sureness and confidence with my answers and my actions. Most of the questions were very straightforward.
We had the Kampala tour on Sunday, which was pretty fun. We split up the trainees into groups of 4-5 with either a PCV or a Ugandan trainer to bring them around Kampala. It was fun rushing my group through Kampala in order to buy a Powermatic/Dr. Volt, exchange money, buy unlocked modems, purchase cell phones, get sim cards, and then meet up with some hungover PCV’s for lunch at Prunes. As we approached the table of my fellow PCV’s, I noticed a marked difference between my group of trainees and my friends. That was by far the funniest part of the day for me, because my trainees looked fresh, clean, and energized and the PCV’s looked haggard, bedraggled, and extremely hungover. Fortunately, I convinced the waitress to ice them with a Smirnoff Ice that I had bought earlier at Nakumatt. Overall, I thought that it was productive for the trainees to see PCV’s early on who weren’t trainers and get a more well-rounded perspective concerning PCV’s compared to the generally formal nature of trainers.
I also felt a bit more of a connection with this group than with the past cohort. I don’t know what the reasoning is. Maybe it’s because this group is an education group or that it is one year since I too arrived in Uganda as a trainee. I also felt as if I was able to bond with this group from the get-go. I answered their questions truthfully and with tact since I was also their trainer. I gave the survival ICT session, helped out with the basic survival skills, and assisted in the survival Luganda lesson. From this side of training, I could really see a lot of the disorganization and the reasoning behind the complaints that many of my trainers last year made. I no longer have the lens of newness and wonder with which I can view this world.
So on the last night of training Ellen, my fellow community integration PCV, and I hung out with the trainees as they hung out on the concrete dais of Kulika with wireless speakers, champagne, good wine, incense, Rwandan beers (Skol), and some good conversations. I’m a fan of this new group, especially since they’ve already started getting acclimated talking about the three eternal topics that all PCV’s talk about: poop, sex, and alcohol.
“Guys, I love this song; it’s the one that I had sex to the night before I left.”
~Education Cohort 3 Trainee
I think that one of the biggest difficulties of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the need to justify oneself. I feel as if I have to find a reason to convince myself that what I am doing is right, a reason to convince my community members that I was a good investment, and a reason that what I am doing is worth it. It’s true; there are times when I have to ask myself what I actually am doing here. One of my biggest personal flaws involves the need for self-validation. I want to be good at most things that I do and to let other people know it. Of course this is not a healthy thing, and it has been something that I have struggled with for years. My happiness shouldn’t depend on what others think about me, but the problem here is that a large part of a volunteer’s happiness stems from community approval. In the United States, swimming against the currents and uniquely marching to your own beat is considered to be good. But here it can be a bit jarring.
It is definitely a hard job. I sometimes feel as if I am exhausting myself when I bike to and from Wobulenzi in order to get to Kampala to attend a training session, workshop, or a celebration. I then stay up late at night whenever there is 3G+ Orange internet so that I can use the 2500/= midnight deal for 1Gb of data. This is when I can upload blog posts, upload pictures, add email attachments, download programs, and upload the videos that I have been working on at site. The sad part is that I know that a lot of my community members believe that I am often away from site for leisure. While it is true that I add leisure in with my work time, I feel as if I can’t truly convey how busy I am at times.
Even today one of my fellow neighbors who usually lives here during the weekends, which incidentally is when I am away from site, asked me how my day of leisure went. I was taken aback by her comment because I had spent the good part of the day editing a video for a fellow PCV’s science fair since there was access to electricity today. Of course, I also took advantage of the electricity by watching a few tv shows on my external hard drive. Another neighbor commented that I had woken up very late today, which is funny and foreign to them since they usually wake up before 6am to do their chores. I told them that one of the biggest problems involves the need for me to use my laptop, which requires me to wait until the electricity comes on in the late evening. My explanation elicited a few laughs from them.
I’ve repeatedly told me neighbors that I wish I could split myself into two people so that I could stay at site more often with them and still accomplish all of the tasks necessary out-of-site. One of my close PCV friends, who is one of the hardest working PCV’s in the group, discovered that many of her colleagues thought that she had all of this money and was always leaving site in order to party and laze around. The funny thing is that she is always travelling with a shitload of merchandise to sell with the proceeds going towards local schoolchildren who don’t have uniforms.
It’s as if working as hard as you can makes you still fall behind. Never before in my life have I seen so much work go unappreciated. I definitely feel more integrated in my community, but that just allows me to understand what my fellow members think about me. The last thing that I want my neighbors to think is that I am a waste of space. Hard physical labor is valued in this culture, and a child who doesn’t learn how to do chores, dig, or farm is not viewed with as much value as one who does.
Peace Corps Volunteers are seen as some of the best examples of American ideals and values. I sometimes wonder what my community would think if they were presented with a focus group of Americans from any city. If some of the best and patient of the volunteer world can’t measure up to personal community standards, then how would the average American fare? The average village Ugandan assumes that all Americans have money and that we are selfish for not giving it to them. Others believe that we aren’t as industrious because we use machines to do all of our work: digging, washing, driving, printing, cooking, and cleaning.
So is it okay for me to justify working on a training presentation here late at night, biking 12km to Wobulenzi, taking a takisi to Kampala, travelling to an event, giving the presentation, and going out to a club to blow off some steam if the community agrees that drinking a lot and dancing is idle and unproductive?
It pains me at times, because I feel like I do have it easy. My insecurity with being idle has forced me to do more work, take more photos, upload more videos, accept more training positions, and accomplish more events. The more I seem to do, especially away from site, the more it’s viewed that I am not being as productive. I like to think that my neighbors’ view of my productivity depends on the state of my front courtyard, whether the grass is cut and the dirt is swept. So I pedal forward like matooke-laden bikes against the wind, borne ceaselessly into the dust.
“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 the 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 times 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.
There are times when I am on top of my shit here, and then there are times when I am literally on top of shit here in the Peace Corps. As per usual, this week has been filled with many high and low points. I got back from Entebbe on Sunday night after discovering where the two “hole-in-the-wall” Ethiopian restaurants were in Kampala. One of them was tucked away near the Shoprite on Entebbe Road in this Ethiopian woman’s living room, which isn’t open on Sundays. The other one was up the hill to the west of the New Taxi Park named Adama. The food was amazing and delicious, but I still felt exhausted from my heavy month of travelling.
I headed back to my site and was relieved to finally be back home. I felt exhausted and weary, but I understood that this was normal for me. I taught my first lesson of Term 3 at my PTC on Monday, and was very pleased with the results. I had learned from the students that the last thing they learned from my fellow math and science teacher, Mr. Nsereko, were functions in math and sound waves in science. I therefore crafted a lesson plan revolving around the definition and application of a function in mathematics. I was very happy with how my students received the knowledge. At the end of the day on Monday I still felt a bit tired and more out of it than usual (I had thrown up my dinner of plain rice), so I decided to go to bed early, but I was happy that life here was finally getting back to normal.
I don’t think that I can even describe to you how I felt during those next few days this past week. I had woken up on Tuesday and biked to a nearby duka in order to purchase biscuits, a coke, and some toilet paper because I started having some stomach upsets when I woke up. I then called Rebekah in order to tell her that I was going to make it to Nakaseke by the evening in order to restart going on the radio show. All of a sudden I found myself feverish, nauseous, delirious, and sick with a head-splitting headache. All I could do from morning until the late evening was lie down in my bed because any simple movement caused my entire body to ache.
“everything sucks, I keep throwing up everything I eat although throwing up bananas, water, and toast doesn’t taste so bad on the way up. I’ll never forget at staging that this experience would be the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There’s literally no working electronic device in my house right now.
Yet even this day must be suffered. Soon this too shall pass and life will continue. I came in knowing that it wouldn’t be easy, and it sure as hell isn’t. But it’s in all moments when the struggle is real that meaning shows itself.
I never thought that throwing up could lead to so much relief. Literally after throwing up I felt so much better and had a lessening of the overall pain in my body. Hopefully, it’s all going to be better from here on out… that it was just a 24 hour bug. Let’s hope so, because it’s exhausting.”
I was hungry, but couldn’t eat anything. I had to go poop several times, but it hurt just to stand. I took Ibuprofen several times but threw them up each time. At first I assumed that my waves of chills and sudden sickness constituted Malaria, but my rapid Malaria test turned out to be negative. I took my temperature and called PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) who told me that my temperature of 100 degrees F should not be making me feel that miserable and that if I felt any worse by the next morning then I should probably call a private hire to bring me in to the medical office in Kampala.
I was so thankful for my neighbor Kato Godfrey who biked all the way to Bamunanika in order to pick up some water and groceries for me since I was unable to even walk any significant distance outside of my house. I even chuckled a bit because I had asked him to pick up some Glucose Biscuits for me which were these local, dry biscuits called “Glucose Biscuits”, but he instead picked up packets of pure Glucose for me. I forced myself to drink oral rehydration fluids and eat some toast since I had eaten nothing during the day. I don’t even know how I got through the rest of that day, because there was no electricity, I had no working laptop, there was nothing to do in my house, I was both burning hot and frigidly cold, and my cell phone died right after the Peace Corps Medical Officer called me to check up on me.
Wednesday was a blur as well, because I still had a headache, but was feeling slightly better. My phone was dead and there was no electricity in the surrounding villages so I didn’t know what time it was at all. I stayed inside the entire day to continue recovering. I don’t think that I had ever felt that way before; I literally would just stare blankly at my walls and feel as if I was inside of a dream. I was delirious and couldn’t tell if it was from my sickness, the mefloquine, my long sojourn from site, or a mixture of all three. Sometimes, all I could think about was how nice it would be to have my own toilet with an abundant supply of toilet paper and a refrigerator with cold water and enough bland food to eat so that I didn’t have to poop or throw everything out.
Then on Thursday morning came and I felt so much better. I t was almost as if all that was left was a few stomach rumbles. I was able to teach again which felt good because I started the Algebra I Unit in mathematics with my students, and they seemed to understand the concepts. Rachel came over later in the day and I was able to make a Mexican dinner for both of us. I was extremely happy to finally eat some substantial food with flavor since I had only eaten small bananas and toast for the duration of the week. It felt good to laugh and smile again with a friend.
On Friday we headed to Kampala and I was well enough to perform my usual bike ride from Luteete to Wobulenzi. Rachel had some business with Peace by Piece Kitenge merchandise at the Peace Corps office and I was called in to work on video editing a Peace Corps Uganda 50th Anniversary Rap. As soon as I stepped in the office I was engulfed in the turbulent storm that only a Ugandan Peace Corps Headquarters could provide. Everyone seemed to be rushing off to a meeting and those who were able to talk to me gave me differing answers. When I asked where the Safety and Security Officer Fred was I received the following replies:
“He’s in his office.”
“Fred is not here at the moment.”
“I think that he’s in a meeting.”
“Phylicia is in a meeting.”
“There’s an emergency and he left to handle it.”
“He’s on the first floor.”
I eventually found Fred and gave him the Bystander Intervention training video that I had edited for him at the All Volunteer Conference a few weeks prior. I gave one of the staff members who was in charge of video ideas interviews from Coffee Camp that needed to be translated from Lukonzo into English. I then was meeting with the head IT person in order to sign out a Peace Corps laptop for the weekend so that I could edit the 50th Anniversary Rap Music Video. Unfortunately, there was no video editing software on any of the laptops. At first we attempted to install Adobe Premiere Elements 10 since I had gotten the software off of PirateBay, but I had the 32-bit version and the laptop was 64-bit. In the end, I was told that I had to make do with Windows Movie Maker to edit the video.
Ever since then, I’ve been staying at this new hostel in Kisementi called Fat Cat Hostel and have finished the music video. The original footage and audio wasn’t the best quality, but I did the best job that I could with the resources that were available to me. It’s been another surreal week and I still can’t understand what’s been happening in my life. Really, these sicknesses, long travels, and lack of my own laptop have really taken a toll on me. Recently, it’s been a series of lows sprinkled with intermittent highs.
But it’s still worth it. I was still looking up at the countless stars in the clear African sky as I retched in my pit latrine, my neighbor cared enough to buy groceries for me, I enjoyed one of the most delicious burgers at Endiro Café on Friday with some good friends even though my stomach started acting up again, and I got to edit video on Windows Movie Maker (never again) in the Peace Corps lounge as the U.S. Embassy released a notification of a terror alert in Kampala concerning a terrorist cell. In the midst of the downs there were ups and that’s what life is, especially in the Peace Corps.
“And so it goes, and so it goes…”
I still feel like I compare myself too much with other PCVs whose accomplishments posted on Facebook seem to dwarf my day-to-day victories. After a good phone call with my friend Ravi in the Wobulenzi market today I feel a bit better. I just have to be comfortable being where I am at this very moment and understanding that there will be days when I feel like I’m accomplishing a great deal, and days when it feels as if I’m going backwards.
Yesterday I travelled to Wobulenzi en route to Nakaseke for the radio show. For some reason my Orange internet access stayed at EDGE the entire time which was frustrating because I had to figure out what was wrong with my personal student loan account. I had applied to have a portion of the Peace Corps readjustment allowance to be paid in monthly installments towards my personal loan payments. However, I was notified that my paperwork that I filled out during the initial application and during PST was never processed and so I was late in paying my payments this past July.
I had to deal with my bank’s customer service by using the Orange international bundle of 45 minutes talking time with anyone in the United States for 6,000/=. Funnily enough the customer service felt like it sped by at lightning fast speed compared to the way things move here in Uganda. It turns out through the bureaucracy of Peace Corps, Washington D.C., and the banks my paperwork was never submitted that allotted my monthly installments.
Fortunately, the problem was squared away by the nice employees at the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, which was a pleasant surprise.
Before I left Wobulenzi, a Ugandan man approached me and said that he noticed that I spoke with an American accent. He asked me if I had some time to speak with him about his daughter. I was a bit annoyed since I assumed he wanted me to sponsor his daughter, marry her, or bring her back to the United States with me. Despite my apprehension, I agreed to speak with him. He informed me that his daughter was about to depart for the United States in mid-August to study Aerospace Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. She had been enrolled in some sort of international studies program that sponsored her to study abroad in other schools around the world. She finished that last two years of her high school studies in Italy after completing her O Levels here in Uganda.
I was very impressed to hear this man talk in superb English about his daughter. He himself obtained his Bachelors in Makerere University in Kampala and then his Masters in Nairobi, Kenya. It felt good to hear that there were programs that sponsored bright Ugandan students to have the opportunity to see other cultures and study in other places that allowed them to have chances that many of their peers and family members would never have. He requested that I meet with his daughter in order to answer her questions regarding the United States since it would be the first time that she would ever travel let alone live there. I felt honored to be requested by this man, who also correctly guessed that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and scheduled to meet him and his daughter in one week’s time. I then bid him farewell and left Wobulenzi.
I arrived in Nakaseke in the late afternoon and made my way to the radio station. I had originally planned to discuss the differences between the education system here and in the United States as the theme for the evening’s radio show. I had also hoped to bring the Luteete PTC and Nakaseke PTC Kiswahili teacher to talk as a guest speaker on the show. Unfortunately, she forgot about the scheduled date and told me that she couldn’t make it to the show. Coincidentally, the head of the Nakaseke Telecenter, Peter, was sick in Kampala and couldn’t host the show that night so it was cancelled and I made my way to Rebekah’s house to hang out with her for the rest of the evening.
I woke up to the smell of French toast and Nakumatt Blue Label coffee prepared by Rebekah before heading back towards Wobulenzi. When I got there, I called my supervisor to meet me and sign the grant paperwork for the VEW cookstoves for my college. He arrived, signed the paper, and asked me if he could see the ICT Lab appeal video that I had created to spread awareness about the project. I showed it to him on my external hard drive. I stepped away from the laptop to work on some other paperwork when I noticed that he was clicking on some files after the video was done.
I walk over to the screen and laugh because I see that he clicked on the Community folder and started watching an episode. I explained to him that Community was a famous American comedy tv show. He then bought me a Guinness, as he always does at Wobulenzi, and left to go back to his house. As I drank the beer and continued working on my laptop I got a little bit worried because one of the episodes of Community was titled Advanced Gay. In the wrong hands, the title itself could be misconstrued by a Ugandan who wouldn’t understand the satirical comedy of the show due to the current atmosphere and attitudes towards that subject in Uganda.
I wasn’t worried about it at all, but at the very least it got me thinking about repercussions involving a misconception with the episode. Furthermore, it bothered me to think that in this is such a non-issue in the United States to the point that the episode could be broadcasted on a family tv network, but it would be absolutely taboo and forbidden to say the same for Uganda. The situation here in Uganda is so different, unknown, and untested that it’s even suggested that PCVs create euphemisms and code words when talking about the subject in order to not attract any unwanted attention. Ah well, this is the Uganda that we live in today.
So I finish up my work in Wobulenzi, buy some linoleum flooring for my dirt floor kitchen, then bike back to Bamunanika where I call my mother who celebrated her birthday in California with my grandparents and relatives. It felt good just hearing their voices again and knowing that they were having a good time together. I guess that I’m getting old, because I’m starting to just enjoy the small talk and exchanges with good friends and family members back in the United States.
“…and you’re the only one who knows.”
~Billy Joel, And So It Goes
5/5/14 – 10/5/14
I feel exhausted beyond belief; it’s actually funny because I feel just as tired as the many sleepless nights spent during my College of Engineering days in Boston University. We finally finished the last day of Camp BUILD (Boys of Uganda in Leadership and Development) at the Ocer Secondary School in Gulu, Uganda. Tired and delirious doesn’t even begin to explain how I feel right now at 1am after the final celebrations for the week.
I will be brief in my description of camp, because I aim to post a video documentary about camp within the following month.
This week was dedicated to providing an educational and fun camp experience for Ugandan males aged 16-18. They arrived on Sunday and were sorted into different colored groups that corresponded to different leaders ranging from national heroes such as Nelson Mandela to local leaders such as Tekya Abraham who founded Breakdance Project Uganda. Like other leadership camps, the week progressed with a theme revolving around heroes and villains. Monday and Tuesday were devoted to focus group sessions concerning HIV/AIDS, Agribusiness, WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene), Nutrition, and Malaria. In addition to these sessions were classes based on leadership, public speaking, creativity, heroes vs. villains, and the sticky issue of gender in Uganda.
Each group was led by a PCV counselor and a Ugandan co-counselor. The sessions were also taught in a similar fashion by PCV and Ugandan specialists. Out of all of these classes, I thought that the gender classes were extremely intriguing. Uganda has a very interesting gender dynamic where men are seen as being very superior to women. For example, a woman must kneel when they meet men, especially if she is that man’s wife. Men are also allowed to have several wives and if a girl gets pregnant in school, then she is forced to leave and the guy who impregnated her can still remain.
The goals of the camp were to empower the campers to become leaders in their own right, as well as to become more knowledgeable in subject areas that are important to emphasize in developing countries such as Uganda. As the week progressed, the campers were given more and more responsibility for the focus group sessions. Then on Friday the campers presented skits, dances, and demonstrations involving the subjects of the focus groups, while incorporating the skills learned through the other sessions.
Another big contribution to the success of the camp was the inclusion of the In Movement, which is an organization based in Kampala that utilizes singing, art, and dance to inspire Ugandans of all ages and groups. Its members, who are Ugandan, have worked with students from schools over Uganda as well as various other camps.
This camp has drained me of my energy reserves, especially as the Media Specialist Staff member. I was in charge not only of documenting the activities of camp and making the Facebook Page, but also of taking videos in order to eventually make a mini-documentary showing what Camp BUILD is all about, and making the end of camp slideshow.
Honestly, I don’t think that there is any easy job at camp. And as the days progressed, the thousands of white ants started swarming in the night, the electricity would go off, the bathrooms would flood, the campers would get rowdier, and the counselors and staff would stink since we couldn’t wash our camp shirts for a week.
But I’m hooked. Even though I was unable to bond on a more personal level with the campers like the counselors did, I felt that I contributed in my own way to the success of this camp by using a skill that I had. With the theme of Heroes in mind, In Movement created a simple song that could be sung by three different groups of people. Two of the groups sing, “We are the ones, we are the ones waiting” in harmony as the third group sings, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Despite its simplicity, as the groups combine and merge together while still singing their distinct parts, I couldn’t help but feel that I was doing the right thing here. I mean, who else can say that they helped volunteer at a summer camp for Ugandan teenagers as a Peace Corps Volunteer
We wanted the campers to know that they shouldn’t wait for someone to help them or to lead the way to a better future, but to understand that they are the ones whom they’ve been waiting; they are their own heroes. I can’t believe that camp and IST are already over, but that’s how time works over here in Uganda.
27/4/14 – 2/5/14
And it ended as quickly as it began. On Friday I left my site in order to get to the Lweza Training Center, situated somewhere in the middle of the main road between Kampala and Entebbe. I stopped at Kampala on the way there and hung out with some other PCVs at Brood and then at Prunes, which reminded me of a hipster café with free/fast wifi, fruit smoothies, sandwiches with cream cheese, and silly names for all of these food items designed to appeal to the young adult demographic of this generation. Afterwards, I wanted to explore Nakivubo Market, which had previously burned down in November while my Education Group (Cohort 2) was still in PST (Pre-Service Training). The location of the market on Google Maps didn’t match the location of the physical location of the market.
We get to the market, and it’s literally on the small corner of a block located near the New Taxi Park. All of the vendors were groping us and asking us to buy their wares and clothes. We didn’t find anything interesting, so we made our way to the Kajjansi Stage Taxi headed towards Lweza.
We arrived at Lweza, and even before checking in I joined many of the other volunteers at the volleyball court. It felt so much like a reunion. However, this time around it seemed that everyone had matured a little bit. Sure we still enjoyed going out and having adventures, but it seemed that as a whole we weren’t too concerned with having to hang out with certain people or needing to be loud or acting like we would never see each other again. We had gone through the many highs and lows of living as Peace Corps Volunteers at site for the past three months, and we had some stories to share with each other.
The training itself seemed like a rehash of what we had already learned about cultural acclimation, teaching with positive behavior systems, and using the VRF (volunteer reporting form). However, the most important part of IST seemed to be the presence of our chosen counterparts from our respective sites to join us and attend the same sessions that we did. In some ways, it felt as if the counterparts were more in-tune and realistic when it came to contributing to discussions and activities.
We reconnected with other volunteers, and shared stories and methods that worked and shitty situations that others had to deal with. However, the most memorable events of the training was dancing and hanging out with the PCVs at Bubbles Express, having a South Sudanese man to buy me and “my girlfriend” drinks, playing volleyball with counterparts and other PCVs, seeing the return of our literacy coordinator Audrey and our Safety and Security Advisor Fred (who had just returned from a liver transplant), holding a Chopped-themed cooking competition using sagiris (charcoal stoves) and a grill and the three mystery ingredients of matooke, spicy Doritos chips, and mangoes, and participating in a trivia contest on the last night held by the PCV duo Rachel and Rachel. It didn’t really hit me until the last night.
The Rachels played the PST Music Video about our time at Kulika during the final tallying of the points during the trivia contest, and it made us emotional. I remember making that video the night before Thanksgiving 2013, and I included every volunteer in our group. Since that time, four members of our group had ET’d (early terminated) their service. I remember joking about the music video and saying I wanted to film and include all of us while we were still blissful and happy. I wanted the video to be a reminded of how we came in as a group and how we would be able to support each other and have fun at the onset of this adventure that is the Peace Corps.
Right now I am back in Gulu as the media specialist (ha!) for the Northern Camp BUILD. I left Lweza this morning and took a Postbus from Kampala all the way here in a 7+ hour journey. Even the bus ride was an adventure; I had the driver stop at Wobulenzi so that I could pick up my mosquito net, bedsheets, and contact solution that I had forgotten at my house. My counterpart had left the day before and preemptively left them at the police station in Wobulenzi. I picked them up, after having asked the Post Bus to wait for me, and then we continued our way up the Kampala-Gulu Highway.
About 6 hours later we arrived in Gulu and hung out at Coffee Hut and at the Indian Restaurant a street over from the Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant. We later reconvened at Coffee Hut and boarded a taxi to get to the Ocer Secondary School where both Camp BUILD and Camp GLOW would start.
4/11/14 – 4/13-14
This past weekend was different than most weekends, because this time I ended up hosting some other PCVs. Mary and Rebecca from Nakaseke, Jay-C from Gulu, and Rachel from Masindi. I was so excited to finally show them my place which was different than other volunteers’ places because it’s not near any big town with many muzungu things to do. Instead, I felt as if I was able to truly share how I lived at my site with my visitors. We fetched water from the borehole, cooked and baked using milk supplied from the community reverend, ate streetfood from the Bamunanika trading center (while seeing the police carry away the local drunkard), and explored the surrounding areas.
I made sure to bring my friends to the palace of the Kabaka near Bamunanika. We walked up to the front gate, and I hoped to meet the caretaker who would usually approach me and ask me if I wanted to see the palace grounds. There wasn’t anybody working nearby, so we decided to take some pictures in front of the palace gates. Then some plucky teenager approaches us and tells us that it’s forbidden to take pictures of the palace grounds. We wait in front of the gate as he calls to some other caretaker who is walking towards us down the road. When the caretaker realizes that he’s being called, he turns down another road and tells the teenager that he’s busy.
I start laughing at the entire situation: about how it’s forbidden to take pictures and how the caretaker clearly doesn’t want to deal with 5 muzungus who are trying to get a free tour of the palace. So instead we walk towards the hills to the west of Bamunanika. A few weeks ago I remember exploring the pathways near the trading center. I happened upon a trail that continuously led upwards towards the foot of one of the taller hills in the sub-county. I brought my friends to this hill this past weekend. After asking the local farmers if it was alright, we decided to climb up the hill. There was no path, so we navigated through the bushes, rocks, and brambles that were considerably thicker due to it being the rainy season (as opposed to when it looked more barren during the dry season).
There was a rocky outcropping at the summit followed by a flat, rocky space. But the view was breathtaking. Sure it wasn’t any famous hill, but it was a local hill that was probably climbed for the first time by muzungus. We could see far into the horizon past the many villages and smaller hills that undulated through the sub-county. We chilled there for a time, and then returned back to Bamunanika to buy a sagiri and charcoal because my gas stove ran out of gas.
Then on Sunday I finally accomplished one of my goals after the Gulu HIV/AIDS workshop. I held a small HIV/AIDS awareness session for the Luteete PTC students with the help of Rachel and Jay-C. We held an HIV/AIDS Biology, myths, and sexual panel question session in the PTC courtyard where most of the students attended. I remember my satisfaction after hearing laughs from the students during the condom on a stick demonstration, or when the students couldn’t tell if “having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV/AIDS is okay if you already have HIV/AIDS” was true or false. I felt that I as able to inform the students and raise awareness about the problems that it posed to all communities.
It felt nice to host people again. And it also felt nice to have a more local, low-key weekend compared to the ones spent in Masaka or Masindi where the schedules for the day involve pools, expensive restaurants, Wifi, and a lot of English speaking with other muzungus. I admit that those treats are necessary every now and then, but I think that it’s also important to see the local side of where other volunteers live and experience playing with the neighborhood children and living in a house that some Peace Corps staff have described as being “makeshift”.