The Next Adventure

It has been a while since I left Uganda, and I can’t even begin to share how odd it is to look back on my experiences in the Peace Corps and feel as if these past two years were a dream. I think back to how different life was and how to reconcile that with the life that I am living right now. The past two months have been rough, and the transition has been everything but graceful. But I am still alive and getting used to a life that does not seem to hold meaningful value on the surface like it did during my service. Instead, more of an effort is required in order to find meaning in one’s life here.

My next story will continue in my new blog Twelve Years a Rave (twelveyearsarave.com), where I will chronicle my musings and adventures in my new home community of Baltimore City, Maryland. Thank you all for sharing in these past two years, but rest assured that my adventures and stories are still continuing.

Webale Nnyo Bassebo ne Bannyabo,

Marvin Roxas

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Sounds and Furies

20/11/15 – 28/11/15

I’m reaching the end. This past week I said goodbye and celebrated the good times of my Peace Corps service with so many PCV’s. It’s just a lot to handle and either too many emotions to comprehend or a dull numbness in my soul. On Friday I visited my home-stay family in Kasana town. They hosted me in December 2013 when I was still a Peace Corps trainee. The house and compound had been turned into a burgeoning primary school since I had last been there. All of my little brothers and sisters had grown up, and they all knew how to speak English. It was very weird to think that two years ago the Semuddu family had welcomed me into their home and adopted me as one of their own. They presented me with a button-up village shirt, a plate of meat cooked my favorite way, and the biscuits that I used to eat all the time as a snack. It felt good “training” with Davis, Daniella, Moustafa, and Diana out in the backyard just like old times. Before I left, I asked my home-stay father, Peter Semuddu, to clarify the meaning behind my Luganda name.

Since I stayed with the Semuddu family, I became part of the Enkima (monkey) clan. The different kingdoms of Uganda have different clans, so the clans in the central Buganda kingdom would differ from those of the Busoga, Banyankore, Bakiga, Batooro, and Banyooro kingdoms. The kabiro specifies the sub-clan of a given clan, and the sub-clans of the Enkima clan are Kamukukuru (small dove), Byenda (offals or cow intestines), and Vuvumira (wasp). My specific kabiro is Kamukukuru, which is great because the rule is that one cannot eat his or her sub-clan. I had unintentionally offended some Ugandans in Kampala this one time when I told them that my sub-clan was Byenda and then proceeded to order the traditional Katogo dish of matooke and cow intestines.

houseparty

Later that night in Kampala, I attended a house party near Legends bar. Years ago, this specific house would host monthly house parties for both expats and Ugnandans who lived in Kampala. I felt weird going to a house party and forcing small-talk. I realized how much I didn’t care for uninteresting conversations that would lead nowhere, and instead played a game with the other PCV’s where we would attempt to see who could successfully engage random strangers in conversation. In-between drinking the free alcohol and eating the free cookies, I met some Ugandan street artists who recycled old shirts, hats, and shoes and made them into art pieces. I was especially interested in the crested crane design screen printed on one of the artist’s shirt.

So the next day I made my way to Destreet Art Foundation led by Destreet A Kabati on the Kampala-Kamwokya-Mawanda Road (After Mawanda Road police follow Potters House sign until Evolv www.destreetart.webs.com). I spent Saturday morning sharing coffee with some PCV’s, checking out the canvas prints and shirts at Destreet’s garage studio, and heading to KLA Ink tattoo parlor. My goal that day was to get my tattoo. The design is the silhouette of Africa with the word abantu overlapping it. I waited for a few hours in the studio with PCV’s who wanted tattoos and piercings until the tattoo artist arrived from his other parlor. I had forgotten how much tattoos hurt, but the entire time I kept trying to reflect on my service up to that point. It was exciting, I was getting a tattoo and a majority of the PCV’s in my group was coming into Kampala in order to meet the new trainees who would be replacing us at our respective sites.

carriers

The next day was one of the weirdest days of my service. I made my way to the Peace Corps office with about 30 other PCV’s from my group, and we boarded a coaster headed to the Muzardi training center near Mukono. There I met my carrier PCV, Justin. I felt like I had just met my doppelganger. Justin has many tattoos, is Filipino, has already started learning Luganda, enjoys cycling, has similar humor to mine, and other communal traits. The coaster ride back from the training center felt very odd; it was as if I could let go and know that my site would be in good hands. I felt so numb from all the emotions that I just wandered around Acacia Mall where I drank coffee, ate ice cream, and said goodbyes to even more PCV’s.

thanksgiving

I then left Kampala for Kaliro where I helped a PCV friend, Lindsay, sort 1000 of her Books for Africa shipment in her new library. The best part about having replacement volunteers is that the resources that we have established can be utilized and capacity can be built with the students and teachers. I had never been to Kaliro before, but some PCV’s have dubbed it the “fire swamp” due to the extreme heat and humidity owed in large part to the stagnant swamp water and marshland.

Thanksgiving was spent at another PCV’s house in Jinja. If Lindsay’s house in Kaliro could be described as being a very village house without electricity or running water, then the house in Jinja could be described as looking like a standard apartment in the United States. Electricity was always on, the water pressure was strong, and the tiled flooring made me feel like I was in the developed world. I thought that it was fitting to spend my last Thanksgiving cooking good food, eating sandwiches, dancing by the Nile, and reading spooky stories from Reddit’s r/nosleep.

Now that I am back in my village for the last time, I think about all the last experiences that I will have in this country. If things were moving too slow before, now they are moving too fast. Before long this will all seem like a dream and I will become used to a different life. Honestly, it’s almost impossible to put into pictures, videos or words the complex and multifaceted emotions and insights that I have and even this blog with its weekly posts can’t capture my day-to-day life here.

The First Goodbyes

19/11/15

I said goodbye to my year 1 students and one of my neighbors today. I finally felt better today, so I washed my clothes after the torrential downpour of the morning subsided and then made my way to the PTC. I gave my supervisor a very nice fountain pen from Boston University and discussed the last few discussion points of my service:

  • Term timetable for the ICT tutors
  • Driving me to Kampala from Luteete
  • What to expect to do with my successor
  • Schedule for my last three weeks in-country

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I then spent one of my last days teaching in the computer lab. A few year 2 students came in and I taught them the basics of holding the mouse, practicing drag-and-drop with solitaire, and the functions of major keyboard keys. We also had a heated discussion where I tried to convince them that being black doesn’t make you any less intelligent, developed, or able to succeed compared to “whites”. What really riled me was when they said that they would much rather prefer a “white” person like me as a Peace Corps Volunteer than a black African Peace Corps Volunteer. They just couldn’t comprehend that black people could be successful or called true Americans because of their skin color. So honestly, it wasn’t that different than many of the discussions that I have had with them.

It feels weird, because I was teaching as if it was any other day during the term, but I knew that everything would soon be different. In less than a month I would be hanging out with friends in Amsterdam and I would breathe in the frigid December air. I left the ICT lab in the late afternoon and said goodbye to the year 1 students whom I could see. Naturally, they all wanted my contact information and photo.

When I got back to my house, I shared some samosas with my villagers and then said goodbye to Master Okia. Master Okia is one of the fathers who lives in a house near mine in Luteete, and he would be leaving next week for a month-long trip. Since I would be leaving in the first week of December, I made sure to knock on his door and personally say farewell. He requested that when I return back to the United States, that I not forget the people of Luteete.

Right now I am wondering how it could be possible for me to forget my experiences here. I honestly believe that I have enough life experiences here to fill a few average lifetimes. I tend to stop and gaze at things here for a few moments and reflect on my time. I look at the growing apple trees, the organized library that has progressed from having a part-time student librarian to a full-time librarian, and a functional ICT lab with eager students. I know that I will leave here with no regrets.

Distraught

18/11/15

I have been sick for the past few days. Through the help of ibuprofen, bananas from my neighbors, toast, and ginger tea I have started to feel much better. As I physically started to feel better, I became more emotionally weary. I began cleaning my house and preparing my bags for my eventual move to Kampala for Close-of-Service medical and then to Entebbe airport to fly to Amsterdam. It has been stressful saying goodbye to everyone in my village. I have had to deny so many people “snaps” or photos that they want to take with me, because my camera’s memory card wouldn’t be able to fit an individual photo of all of them. Also, I don’t have the funds or energy to print a few hundred photos to give to all of them. Everyone wants remembrances of me, and it’s interesting that even now as I am about to leave many of the older village kids ask me for things. They tell me that they want the kitenge stars hanging up in my room, the bicycle, or an old laptop that lies dormant in my room.

I worry about the transition to the developed countries where perspectives and experiences are different. Slowly-by-slowly my rooms are becoming more barren and packed into neat suitcases and bags that will make trip back to the developed world with me. I think about the children with whom I play in my little yard and how they don’t seem to understand the concept that I will be leaving forever.

Me: “Omanyi nti nja kugenda America omwezi gujja?” (Do you know that I’m going back to America next month?)

Child: “Ojja kudda ddi?” (When will you come back?)

Me: “Sigendanga kudda.” (I am never coming back.)

Child: “Tuzannye fishy fishy!” (Let’s play fishy fishy*)
*A game similar to Sharks and Minnows

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It’s weird thinking that soon I will be just a mere memory for my villagers and the children. Sure they will see my replacement Peace Corps Volunteer, but I wonder how many of the children will remember me. I think about the children telling stories about me to their own children when they’re older.

There is one recent even that I will remember for a long time: one of the secondary school boys, Waswa, came up to my window the other evening. I told him that I would be leaving for good and that I wanted to say goodbye to him before he left for another school. I then gave him an issue of The Atlantic magazine and a deck of playing cards that I got from Busch Gardens many years ago. He said thank you and walked away. An hour later he returned and was sniffling. He told me how he was crying and that he would miss me a lot. I usually don’t have much patience for the older secondary school students, but Waswa was different; he was always respectful and would invite me to play sports with him and the other students. He would offer me jackfruit, bananas, and avocadoes from time to time. But most importantly, he would listen and ask intelligent questions whenever we had discussions. What struck me about this specific interaction was that he cried.

In Uganda, it is not culturally appropriate for men to show signs of physical or emotional weakness, and crying is one of them. The only appropriate times to cry are when a close relative has died or if one is involved in a horrendous accident.

Before Peace Corps, I remember asking myself how to pack my entire life into two check-in bags. Now I am trying to comprehend how to take back this new life, this new perspective, and this new me back home. My home is changing and this house in Luteete will remain my home for 18 more days. In some ways, my worries are lessened because I have a carrier volunteer to follow up after me and I have planted some deep roots here.

Kampala Alone

8/11/15 – 10/11/15

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

Dinner in Paradise

Dinner in Paradise

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

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

Wandering

Wandering

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

A Conference of Volunteers

12/8/15 – 21/8/15

It’s been a doozy to be honest. A lot has happened in such a short span of time. Two weeks ago I finished my site development visits for the Central and Western Regions of Uganda. As a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, PCVL, I was expected to visit volunteer sites in my cohort in order to determine whether or not they would be appropriate sites for future PCV’s when we leave. It’s honestly a cool concept, because it continues the partnership of our host sites and schools with future PCV’s. I’ve been excited lately because I’ve been slowly accomplishing all of my tasks on my to-do lists before I finish my service.

The day afterwards, I attended the most recent Health & Agribusiness Cohort’s swearing-in ceremony. To date, this is the fourth swearing-in ceremony that I have attended and most things have remained the same: the country director’s speech about having the courage of a sword-swallower, the ambassador saying that we’ll change the world “one village, one person, one household at a time”, and most importantly the free finger foods after the conclusion of the ceremony. It’s interesting how emotionally distant I am with this group compared with past groups. I think that I’ve come to realize that there just isn’t enough time left in my service to spend feasibly any quality time with the new volunteers when I would rather spend time with my close friends whom I already know.

That night ended up being a bit of a shit-show, because several of us PCV’s took private hire vehicles to crash the dancing celebration at Bubbles Express, the club where newly sworn-in PCV’s dance while staying at the Lweza Conference Center. After a bottle of whiskey, a lot of dancing in a club where half of the second floor collapsed a few months ago, and a few regrettable choices we made it back to our hostel in time for a hungover breakfast of oral rehydration salts (ORS) and eggs.

I decided to stay in Kampala for the next two days since the All Volunteer Conference for all Uganda Peace Corps Breakdancing at MakerereVolunteers would commence at the beginning of the week. My PCV friend Cindy, who hosted during the Easter Mt. Elgon hike, had a couch-surfing friend in Ntinda. We stayed at her house with her vegan, German roommate. During that time we stopped by Makerere University to witness a breakdancing competition among different Ugandan breakdancing teams. I didn’t feel like I was in Uganda, because we were on a huge grass commons at Makerere with a modern-day stage setup where performers from all over Uganda showcased their moves. One of the bboys from the internationally acclaimed documentary “Shake the Dust”, hosted the dance-off which involved input from the crowd.

Finally, on Sunday I started making moves to the Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel near the Kabaka’s Lake where we had our All Volunteer Conference. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of PCV’s in one place. Normally even just a few other PCV’s in one place would be enough to put me into extroverted overload. I felt as if I had so many stories or so many interests to pursue with everyone. All Volunteer Conference differed from other conferences in that the majority of the sessions were led by other PCV’s. The bulk of the schedule embraced an “open space” methodology where PCV’s could lead simultaneously sessions concerning: yoga, hair wraps, new workout plans, sustainable library techniques, conservation, and youth clubs. During the days, I was busy working on media projects, meeting with the Peer Support Network, stuffing my face with free food, or walking around such as quaint lake that didn’t smell overtly like sewage.

US Ambassador and Peace Corps Volunteers

US Ambassador and Peace Corps Volunteers

At night, the atmosphere would change from somehow focused to casual. We would hang out on each other’s balconies, chill on the 4-story rooftop by the water tank, play a multiplayer LAN game of Age of Empires II, or eat a ton of cake and drink expensive gin with real, yellow lemons instead of the green ones sold at the markets. I can’t express how awesome it felt to just sit and hang with some PCV’s whom I haven’t seen for the good part of the year with our feet dangling dozens of feet above the ground on the ledge of the rooftop.  I got a bit sad at one point during the conference, because I realized that this would be the last time I would see many of these PCV’s before I left the country. Of course I wouldn’t miss all of them, but I would definitely miss a large majority of them.

Peace Corps Prom Part 2The last night of the conference was Peace Corps Prom. This event was a time for PCV’s to dress up in prom outfits pieced together from village clothing piles and then let loose together. I would be lying if I said that this event wasn’t a bit sloppy.  The night had a college-like atmosphere with PCV’s pre-gaming in their hotel dorm rooms. At one point the music stopped playing because the wires from the dj booth to the speakers in the center of the room snapped, and I re-connected them with my fingers. As a reward for my bravery, I received some tequila. As I walked back to my room very early the next morning I laughed. I noticed that behind each dorm room door there lay a story:

-An inebriated occupant since the key was still dangling on the outside part of the door

-Loud music with people hooking up

-People on a balcony smoking cigarettes and eating watermelon slices

-Several people in a room debating the merits of a threesome

-Friends comparing notes on a powerpoint presentation for their organization

-A random, dress with bite marks left on a doorknob

All of this occurred as another PCV played and sang songs on his guitar on the rooftop of the hotel. Hopefully we get invited back next year.

Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel

Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel

This is it, the end days of my service. Even now I still think back to where and who I was an entire year ago at last year’s All Volunteer Conference. I think that right now I have grown more confident in my own abilities and accomplishments and become more realistic in my expectations as to what I can accomplish before I leave. Most of my doubts and worries have gone, and I am more than ready to pass on projects to fresher PCV’s who have yet to feel the weariness of a fully-lived Peace Corps Service. As PCV’s we are a stubborn lot who are hard to please, but in some ways that makes us more likely to work hard to accomplish our goals.

Beyond Hills

6/8/15

“You’re not allowed to enter the palace grounds or take photos unless you first go to Mengo Palace in Kampala and obtain a letter of permission.”

I turned away in disappointment from the Kabaka’s Palace in Bamunanika. Last month, I had been promised that I could re-Hill Internet on Rockenter the palace for the last time and take photos in the ruins of the palace. However, this time a new army guard was hired who adhered to some sort of rule that prohibited me from entering the palace grounds. I started to get upset because this was a place that I loved to show my visitors and PCV Hannah was my guest for the week. I had also lived here for almost two years, and this one guard wasn’t allowing me to pass. Part of me believes that this has to do with the Ugandans who attempted to steal the fence surrounding the palace about a month ago. Another police officer attempted to arrest me back then.

We descended the small hill on which the Kabaka’s Palace lay, and made our way towards the much larger hill overlooking Bamunanika Town. Over the past two years, I had gazed at the hill with its rocky crags and wondered if it was possible to climb it. Since Hannah was visiting me, I decided that now was the best opportunity. As we approached the base of the hill, about a dozen Ugandan children started to follow us. Soon enough, they started to lead us up the hill. I laughed at how Hannah and I kept stumbling over hidden rocks, or stopped when faced with a very steep rock to boulder. But the barefoot children would just run up the mountain as if they were running down a paved road.

Climbing Hill Behind BamunanikaThe view from the top was beautiful, because it showed us the entirety of Bamunanika Town. Sure, I love the mountains and foothills of the Rwenzoris and Mt. Elgon but this was my home. It wasn’t just rolling hills; instead I could see the layout of this seemingly random town appear from the matooke trees and bush of the Luweero Sub-County. The children became our tour guides and showed us various sites on the hill. We stopped by a grassy clearing near the top called “Shaolin Temple” where the kids would mock fight in imitation of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. Another stop was a rocky outcropping that gave another view of Bamunanika Town and an abandoned factory by the outskirts.

After a few minutes at each site, one of the kids would say, “Tu gende?” which means “Should we go?”. The final site was a very steep rock that sloped down for about 25 feet. Hannah and I stood on the sloped embankment as the children picked up leafy branches and the plastic bases of jerrycans in order to sled down the hill. I couldn’t believe that this was a game that the children would play. Kids of all ages would slide down the smooth rock of the hill and then come to a halt when they crashed into the piles of grass and leaves near the base. I had fun categorizing the children and imagining what they would become when they grew up.

One of the kids led the group and helped form some sort of system of who would ride what and when; I assumed that he would become a takisi conductor. Another kid kept laughing, riding really fast, and making fun of the other kids who were crying and I felt that he would become a most wonderful bodaman. At one point this girl continued to ride on the leaf sleds even though only the boys were riding on them. I had a feeling that she would become a very empowered school teacher or sassy nnyabo.

Children, Laptop, and Rocks

Children, Laptop, and Rocks

The kids ushered us on to the final stop, which was an abandoned factory near the side of the hill. We avoided the woman who had made her home behind the factory, because she purportedly beat the children whenever they came near her. Near the local mosque, the children, who numbered around 25 by this point, said goodbye to us. After all this time I couldn’t believe that there was still something new to see in my hometown.

Hill Sledding

Hill Sledding

Honestly, it disappointed me not to enter the Kabaka’s Palace for the last time. But given the choice I would rather go rock sledding down a hill with barefoot, Ugandan children tour guides than walk through a gated palace with guards that don’t want me there.

Nsanafu

28/5/15

The nsanafu are reddish-brown ants that you normally see on National Geographic or Discovery Channel with David Attenborough narrating their aboveground ant highways from one underground residence to another one. Here in Uganda, usually after a quick rainstorm during the day the nsanafu transport their grubs and their entire colony from one home to another. Many Ugandans stay out of the way whenever they see these ant highways and mass migrations of a seemingly endless number of ants. One of my neighbors even told me that whenever the nsanafu decided that their highway passed through a house, they put all of their bedbug-ridden fabrics and mattresses directly in the middle of the nsanafu pathways so that the nsanafu also killed the bedbugs in their wake. It truly felt unreal to see one of these nsanafu migrations right in the middle of the pathway that led to my PTC in the middle of the day.

Nsanafu Migration

Nsanafu Migration

Nsanafu Chain

Nsanafu Chain

Sentries

Sentries

Throughout the course of the week, the apple roots have started to sprout these tiny green buds. I can only hope that they literally come to fruition given the time and care that they need. In addition, Godfrey and I gathered a sack-full of brown leaves, freshly-cut grass, and manure in order to create a compost pile that would help to not only nourish his garden but also the apple trees and other plants that we would be planting near the ICT lab.

Creating a Compost Pile

Creating a Compost Pile

A lot of the stress from my Peace Corps service has gone ever since the money from the grant made it to my supervisor. Before and after teaching, I literally spend my free time gazing at the ongoing construction of the ICT lab and what it means for my students and the future of this college. It almost feels as if the hard work and perseverance over more than a year have finally shown their worth.

Another Chance

Another Chance

9/7/14

 

I honestly think that this month of August has been a blur. I almost feel as if my friends and family members wouldn’t believe it if I shared it. A lot of things happened all at the same time to the point where I just want to sleep for a few weeks and just rest without doing anything just so that I could process what has happened in the past three weeks. I think it’s that leaving site for long periods of time takes a toll on you that you can’t even begin to fathom until you’ve been away from it for so long. Right now I’m in Entebbe slightly hungover and out of it. I think that it’s been a mixture of travelling for so long in the throngs of madding crowds, public transportation in general, night buses, the arctic tundra that is the southwest region, not being able to cook for myself, getting a sinus infection, spending a night with a PCV’s cat (which I’m allergic to), not having a usable laptop since mine broke during a coffee camp, drinking and celebrating with PCV’s in different regions especially with a recently engaged PCV couple, attending an all PCV Uganda conference, geeking out on mefloquine, and just not understanding life or what I stand for at the moment. So this blog post will a sort of catharsis for me in order to get my chaotic thoughts down in word form in order to process my turbulent emotions.

 

Coffee Camp, Kasese August 18 – 23

I was originally asked by some Peace Corps staff members to help out with filming a promotional video for a Coffee Camp that would be held in Kasese to the far west of Uganda. The main goal of Coffee Camp was to empower the local youth in the Kasese region to utilize coffee as a financial means to develop themselves and attain their goals. I was driven in a Peace Corps vehicle from Kampala to Kasese. I travelled along with the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, Loucine, and one of the other PCV’s, Jim from Kisoro, who had recently gotten engaged during one of the Peace Corps camps last week. We passed through Fort Portal and stopped to drink some coffee and eat some of the best pizza that I’ve eaten in country at the Duchess restaurant.

We continued on our way to the Kasese district which was absolutely gorgeous. As we transitioned from the central regions to the west the landscape changed from farms of matooke to open fields and the rolling foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Our final destination was Sarah Castagnola’s site in the Kyarumba village deeper in the depths of the Rwenzori foothills. We turned off of the main Kampala-Fort Portal road and instantaneously the tarmac gave way to a potholed dirt road. Before we knew it we were winding our way down a single-lane dirt road that wound its way through the verdant hillsides of Kasese. Everywhere I looked there were looming hills infinitely undulating into the horizon. There were hairpin turns at almost every single point, and our driver had to honk the horn before turning so that incoming boda bodas and cars would know to slow down in order to avoid a collision.

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Kasese Paved Road

Stone Riverbad Road

Stone Riverbad Road

As we drove deeper into the inroads of the foothills the dirt road disappeared completely and became a dry riverbed of stones. A lot of the pathways in this region resulted from the always-evolving pathways of the streams in this area. The pathways always change due to farming, erosion, rainy season, and various other development factors in the region. So the ride into Kyarumba was bumpy, and after about 45 minutes of driving through winding roads and riverbed stones we met up with Sarah Castagnola at the Mutanywana Secondary School where the Coffee Camp was taking place.

I couldn’t believe my luck in being able to attend this gorgeous and unique camp dedicated to empowering youth in this region through the medium of coffee. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon to see 12 year olds blackout drunk on the village streets at night or 13 year old girls carrying their babies to school. It is because of this reason that Sarah along with the the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative decided to put on this camp. Unlike most Peace Corps camps such as BUILD and GLOW, the Kasese Coffee Camp was primarily Ugandan-run by the employees of the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative. The desire to empower the local youth in this region was so great that Bukonzo Joint provided 50% of the camp funding as opposed to the minimal amount of 25% needed for a Peace Corps grant to be approved.

Kyarumba

Kyarumba

This camp also taught the local youth entrepreneurial skills critical to running a business (not necessarily agricultural in nature), smartly dealing with finances, developing leadership skills, and seeing coffee as a gift. It felt good to see the Ugandans in this area really invested in their youth. This camp was all for them, and my job was to film videos documenting what the camp was about and the experiences of the students, staff members, and camp facilitators.

There wasn’t a single angle where the view wasn’t amazing and awe-inspiring. Even wild Arabica coffee plants were growing on the pathways to the pit latrines. In the background of the school I could see mountains towering in the distance with clouds peeking behind their shadows, and even the school campus has gigantic boulders shaping the natural shape of the school campus. As per usual, there was a tea break between every major meal; however, locally roasted and brewed coffee was served in lieu of tea. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of drinking the rich flavor of the coffee that was served during each coffee break along with seeing the gorgeous view of the surrounding environment.

Wild Coffee Plant

Wild Coffee Plant

I was also able to see the entirety of the coffee value chain from “crop to cup”. We saw how the coffee saplings were planted in nurseries, transferred to coffee farms, had their red coffee berries picked, sorted by grade at one of the many washing stations, fermented, hulled, dried, and then either locally roasted and sold or shipped to high-end coffee shops and distributors. As an economic development PCV, Sarah explained to us some of the challenges of working with the small Bukonzo Joint Cooperative. For example, some of the larger coffee companies do bait-and-switch tactics in order to get coffee farmers to quickly produce low grade coffee for seemingly larger amounts of money than Bukonzo Joint can pay; however, in the end the farmers end up losing out on a sustainable opportunity to make money for themselves in the long run as well as being duped into producing sub-standard coffee for less money than they were promised.

Coffee Nursery

Coffee Nursery

Sorting Coffee Cherries

Sorting Coffee Cherries

Of course, no Peace Corps camp is complete without sessions concerning HIV/AIDS, financial management, and in this instance, creative ways to use coffee other than for drinking (soaps, candles, exfoliating face masks). Another reason why local Ugandans ran this camp was that most of the youth only spoke the local language of Kasese, Lukonzo, and the English that they did know was very limited. This led to very funny misunderstandings such as most of the campers assuming that I actually had HIV/AIDS during a skit where I pretended to be someone who had it.

We also brought the campers to Queen Elizabeth National Park which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though many of the youth lived within one hour of this tourist park, most of them never even knew that this existed or that eco-tourism is another form of employment. We woke up before the crack of dawn and drove from Kyarumba to the park where a small herd of elephants blocked our path on the dirt road and baboons stole packed bananas from our hands. We took a ferry ride on Lake Albert and it felt like some sort of surreal safari as Wilder beasts chilled in the water by the banks and hippopotamuses swam next to the ferry. The main purpose of the ride was to demonstrate that many people saw Kasese as this beautiful region filled with a multitude of wildlife, flora, and fauna that visitors would pay to see and explore if given the chance and opportunity.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park

When the youth were asked what coffee meant to them, they responded with varying answers ranging from money, wealth, opportunity, and normalcy. This community was able to transform coffee into electricity and bridges, stemming from the proceeds that the community made selling coffee in the past few years. Coffee literally becomes a lifeblood of the Bakonza people. It is the smell of the good earth upon which they live on and on which they hope to thrive on. When one of the campers was talking with our PC Country Director and asked what coffee smelled like to him, he answered, “It smells like life.”

So Coffee Camp was amazing and gorgeous, but of course like life I had some ups and downs. I ended up having my laptop break during the middle of the camp and got another surprise bout of Giardia on the last day. I don’t know how either of those mishaps occurred, but I know that they both sucked. My laptop refuses to turn on once I turn on the power button even though I have it plugged in and the lights shows that it’s charging. That was a lost cause that devastated me especially since I am utilized as a media guy in Peace Corps. Fortunately, I always keep spare Tinidazole in my camera bag which I took after consulting with PCMO who told me that I may possibly have a somehow drug-resistant form of Giardia since it keeps popping up every 2 months or so.

We were driven back to Kampala in a Peace Corps vehicle which was so nice compared to any other form of public transportation that I could have taken. I check into the Annex in Kampala and reconvene with some other PCV’s who had just finished the Girl Tech Camp in Shimoni Core PTC. A lot of PCV’s were preemptively congregating in Kampala since the next few days were the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference. Since I had taken Giardia medicine earlier that morning, I couldn’t eat dairy or drink alcohol for the next 24 hours. A bunch of the PCV’s wanted to go out, and I obliged although I went without drinking. At some point in the night, we ended up at this club called Iguana near Acacia Mall that was playing EDM and dubstep which was super dope. We get back to our beds at 6am and sleep.

 

All Volunteer Conference, Lweza, August 24 – 28

I wake up from my very restful nap and get ready for All Volunteer Conference. As the merchandise guy for Peer Support Network, I was in charge of bringing over 200 t-shirts to the Lweza Training and Conference Center from Kampala. It was a shit show of a day, since the guy who makes and screen prints the t-shirts gave me the wrong orders and missed out on providing me with the correct t-shirt sizes. We remedied the problem, and I carried the t-shirts in a taped plastic bag on my head like a village woman through the main streets of Kampala until I found a car that would drive me to the training center. There was air conditioning in the car, which was a big deal.

I was just so ecstatic and exhausted to hang out with all the volunteers. Technically the conference would have started on the 25th, but PCV’s working on different committees and projects were given special permission to arrive a day earlier.

On the morning of the 25th PCV’s started to trickle in. There was a 50th Anniversary meeting concerning the logistics behind the Peace Corps Uganda 50th Anniversary Celebrations that would be occurring throughout the country in order to commemorate how long Peace Corps has been in Uganda. There will be regional events showcasing the great work that PCV’s do as well as the “50 Years of Friendship” between PCV’s and Ugandans. The day was also hectic with film crews running around filming local language tongue twisters, setting up planning areas for PSN, and just general coordinating.

That night was a great night, because over 150+ of us PCV’s were gathered in the large conference hall as the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference Bonfirelaunch ceremony began. It was SNL themed with skits making fun of not knowing if it was, is, or will be rainy season, sharing shoutouts to the successes of the different cohorts and groups, singing the legendary and taboo song “Three Guys on a Boda”, and explaining the format of the All Volunteer Conference. The interesting thing about this conference is that unlike other PC workshops, this conference is primarily PCV-run. The concept that had successfully worked last year was open space, and it was being brought to this conference too. The idea of open space is that PCV’s can lead whatever session they want at a certain, designated time during the week so that there are several sessions all going on at the same time in different areas throughout the training center that other PCV’s could attend if they so desired. The sessions ranged from discussing revisions to the boda boda policy, hair braiding, new camp ideas, creative facilitation, incorporating sing-alongs in primary school, swing dancing, video project ideas, Ugandan travel guides, and so much more.

What I loved about this conference was the potential to do as much or as little as you wanted depending on your current demeanor and mood. After the launch ceremony, a giant bonfire was lit and the PCV’s started to mingle. My extroverted self loved seeing the mingling of the different groups and cohorts. I remember sharing some heart-to-heart conversations with some other PCV’s about being happy knowing that we’re living the life that we wanted to live and making our service count. There’s something just so Peace Corps about bonfires and hearing someone play a Sublime song on a guitar as another PCV smokes out of his homemade corn-cob pipe as shots of whiskey are passed around.

All Vol VolleyballThe next day was stressful. I attended a PSN group meeting, did some yoga, sold shirts for PSN during lunchtime, participated in the fiasco that was the 50th Anniversary Group Picture and rap song (yes, rap song), leading a session on the local language “Oh the Places You’ll Go” video project, filming scenes and interviews for a safety and security bystander intervention video, playing volleyball, and stressing out that night in frustration over not being able to use a Macbook that keeps crashing with the FinalCut Pro X video editing software. I was just so stressed by the end of the day because I knew that I had so many things on my plate and so many other things that I wanted to do and no laptop to accomplish any of them. All I just wanted to do was finish editing the video and play some Age of Empires II with my friends while I still had the chance to play with them. However, as one of my best PCV friends reminded me “This too shall pass, and tomorrow you’ll feel better.”

The next morning was just one of those mornings when I just didn’t want to wake up. If I could have slept for a few more days I would have done so. However, I rallied myself together to face the day and things did get better. I finished editing the video and discovered that another PCV had an extra laptop that I could buy off of him at a decent price. The day was busy as usual, and before I knew it night had come and it was time for Peace Corps Prom. Most of the PCV’s bought or had a “prom outfit” made for this night. We all danced the night away and ended up continuing the party at Bubbles Express down the road. Honestly, this night was such a reversal from the previous night. It was almost as if everything that had gone wrong or felt wrong from the day before had reversed to become such an amazing day and night. Peace Corps Prom ended on a very high note and I got back to bed around 5am, which incidentally was also around the same time my Lweza dorm mate got back.

 

Rwanda Trip, Kampala to Kigali, August 28 –  31

It almost seemed that it was one adventure after another. Everyone is trying to leave Lweza as soon as possible, especially me since I was planning to go to Rwanda for a two-day vacation that night. I was slated to go with three other PCV’s, Rachel B, Rachel C, and Steve. The funny thing was that we were so busy with All Volunteer Conference activities that we didn’t really plan for Rwanda. So we started by asking people in the conference center parking lot how to get to Rwanda. After about an hour of asking questions and with the input of 6 different PCV’s we pieced together that we needed to take one of the bigger night bus companies such as GaaGaa Bus Company, buy a 40,000/= each ticket for a bus that leaves Kampala at 6pm, and then arrive at the GaaGaa bus park near City Center in Kampala by 5:30pm.

Somehow all four of us get on the bus despite the torrential downpour and exhaustion post All Volunteer Conference, and make our way to Kigali, Rwanda. The GaaGaa night bus was so nice because there was actually room to move my legs and there weren’t any livestock on the bus. We reach the Uganda-Rwanda border around 2am and it’s frigid outside. We try to check in through the border control, and are told that we’ve been living illegally in the country. So from the get-go we’re almost arrested/deported until we explain to the border control manager that we actually have legitimate visas in our Peace Corps passports that allow us to live in Uganda.

Once we pass through, we are surrounded by random men who try to get us to exchange our dollars into Rwandan francs. From what we were told from our GaaGaa Busfellow PCV’s earlier that day, it’s much better to exchange the dollars into francs at the border because you get a better exchange rate rather than finding a place in Kigali. One of the guys attempts to give us a bad exchange rate, but is then beaten away by this chubby Ugandan man in camouflage gear who was wielding a stick. I called him stick guy. So I then told all of the exchange rate guys to line up and one-by-one tell me their exchange rates. I then asked stick guy to verify who was the most trustworthy exchanger, and we exchanged our dollars into francs right then and there (we did $1 = 690 Rwandan Francs).

We continue on the buses to Kigali where we continue to sleep inside the bus until 7am. We then make our way to the Discover Hostel which actually feels like a legitimate European hostel. What struck me the most about Kigali was how clean and put-together it was. It almost seemed like it was this small, European town with roads devoid of any potholes and boda boda drivers who wore helmets and actually stopped for streetlights and traffic.

Meze FreshBy this point it’s already the 29th so we check into the hostel, get our bearings, shower, and eat a delicious breakfast of Rwandan coffee and French croissants at La Brioche Café. We finish eating and then instantly make our way to Meze Fresh, which is exactly like a Chipotle. Oh my God it was amazing and worth the entire trip over to Rwanda. I had pulled pork with cheese, salsas, lettuce, and more sauces than my taste buds could handle along with a corona and lime. I literally could not believe what I was eating.

After lunch, we made our way to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Museum showcasing the history of the Tutsi genocide by the Hutus. The museum was extremely well-done, and really set the historical and emotional stage behind how and why the genocide occurred. It also didn’t shy away from the horrible details behind the genocide. The most emotionally charged part of the exhibit was called L’Avenir Perdu (The Lost Future) which was showed large pictures of smiling children with plaques detailing their names, ages, favorite food, favorite pastime, last words, and the exact way they were killed.

Journal Entry:

“I didn’t expect the emotional response that I would get from this exhibit. So many of them remind me of the children whom I teach in my villages and schools. I literally started to tear up as I entered this exhibit.”

Quote from the Museum:Kigali Memorial Gardens

“Genocide is likely to occur again

Learning about it is the first step to understanding it.

Understanding I is imperative to respond to it.

Responding to it is essential to save lives.

Otherwise ‘Never Again’ will remain ‘Again and Again…’”

I was a wreck within seconds of entering this part of the museum.

I would see these beautiful smiling faces of toddlers who reminded me of beautiful children in my village in Luteete.

Example:

Name: Sarah

Age: 7

Favorite Food: Passionfruit and Chips

Favorite Past-time: Playing with grandmother

Last Words: “Will we be okay?”

Method of Death: Hacked apart by machete

I’ve never been hit so hard by an exhibit or museum like this before. And it was interesting noting the difference in atmosphere in Rwanda now as opposed to two decades ago. From what I heard and read about it almost seems as if there is a lot of things hidden under the surface in Rwanda. I honestly don’t know any specifics, but it just felt weird knowing that there are still many people living in Rwanda who are living in the midst of others who committed a genocide against their people.

After we finished going through the museum, we needed some time to decompress so we headed to Hotel des Milles Collines which was the famous hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. We chilled by the pool area and drank some good Rwandan beer, Primus and Mutzig. We also realized that we had been incorrectly saying thank you in Kinyarwanda. Instead of saying morikoze (thank you), we had been saying irakonje, which means cold. This explained some of the weird looks that we were getting from the men and women whom we encountered in Kigali.

The rest of our stay in Kigali involved dancing at the Sundowner Bar/Club, eating three more times at Meze Fresh, drinking more amazing coffee at BourbonHotel des Milles Collines Café, checking out Kimironco Craft Market, talking with the locals about the disappearance of the French language in Rwanda, realizing that it’s alright to say the word gay in Rwanda but not so much Tutsi or Hutu, seeing the Peace Corps Rwanda HQ, meeting up with other Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers at Guma Guma (think Rwanda’s American Idol) in Amahoro National Stadium, having someone drunkenly sleepwalk into the hostel room filled with UN workers and sleep in one of their beds, being told by one of the Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers that you are not welcome there, and experiencing a hookup experience straight from a sitcom where said person couldn’t get back to the hostel until later because it was the last Sunday of the month which meant that everything (including the streets) were closed and shut down until 12pm for cleaning day, Umuganda.

Henceforth this is why the poloroid picture of our Rwandan group at Guma Guma is titled “The Night of Broken Friendships”. Other than some of the misunderstandings, it was very interesting getting to meet our Peace Corps Rwanda brethren. A lot of them told us that Kigali was very boring and that they saw Kampala as being much more lively and full of culture. On the other hand, we expressed to them how excited we were to eat burritos and walk in a city where we didn’t have to continuously look at our feet the whole time to avoid potholes. To be fair, there is a lot more to do in Uganda simply because it’s a bigger country and due to the rich diversity in landscape, activities, and never knowing what’s going to happen.

Guma Guma: The Night of Broken Friendships

Guma Guma: The Night of Broken Friendships

Kisoro and Virunga, Kisoro, August 31 – September 2

The Rwanda group parted ways the morning of the 31st, with Rachel B and I heading back to Uganda to Kisoro. We took a coaster from the Kigali bus park to Musanze/Ruhengeri. The ride there was absolutely glorious as we passed through forested mountain passes and fields of traditional farm vegetables whose leaves were undulating in the wind. Musanze reminded me of this small, grid town with infrastructure a little bit better than Uganda’s. We ate at this French Café called La Pallotte which had amazing meatballs and croissants. We then took a takisi to Cyanika where we crossed back over the border into Uganda without much effort at all. Then we took a private hire to Rafiki Guest House in Kisoro where we met with the PCV Jim whom I hung out with in Kasese for Coffee Camp. He was also the PCV who had recently gotten engaged at the last Peace Corps Camp in Mbale.

Honestly, it just felt so good to be back in Uganda with PCV’s who unconditionally loved us and would take care of us. I was so happy to cook in his guest house room and eat some cauliflower and rice with a curried, peanut soy sauce. I also got to use the internet which was absolutely fantastic for me since I had been internet free for quite some time due to my broken laptop.

We stopped by Kisoro because I was helping Jim out with the basics of filming a promotional video for his organization, Virunga Engineering Works, which Kisoro Hillprimarily creates and supplies fuel efficient cookstoves for schools throughout Uganda. Virunga is named after one of the volcanoes that is a defining feature of Kisoro’s skyline. The PCV’s who are in Kisoro now are Jim who is about to COS and Bruce who just started his Peace Corps service. The coolest part about their region is that they are said to have the most beautiful site in all of Peace Corps Uganda. After having breakfast at one of the tourist lodges in the area, we worked on some footage of the Virunga workshop and cookstoves and some interviews with Bruce and his Ugandan counterpart. I thought that Kisoro was a beautiful town, but I was blown away by the majesty of the natural land formations when I climbed the small Nyamirima Hill which gave me the million shilling view of Lake Mutanda to one side of the horizon and the Virunga volcano shrouded in clouds to the other side of the horizon. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes as the wind whipped around me.

It was weird knowing that this was just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and that some people would never be able to appreciate the beauty of this area or see it. It was fitting that Jim worked as a professional photographer before he did Peace Corps and that he was placed in the most beautiful site in Uganda. We then had cheeseburgers for lunch at the artsy Mucha restaurant run by a Hungarian lady, and then filmed a few market day scenes of the women carrying their home-woven baskets atop their heads before heading back to make a Tikka Masala dinner complete with whiskey.

In the midst of all this, one of my old middle school teachers, Miss Goode, friend requested me on Facebook. Miss Goode taught me 6th and 7th grade science and mathematics at Sacred Heart School of Glyndon. Out of all the teachers in my life, I can honestly say that she was one of those teachers who had made the biggest impact. She made me fall in love with math and science and know that I could not only excel in those subjects but also apply them in a way that kept me wanting to learn more. I had been emailing her on her Yahoo email account for quite some time because almost everyone had lost contact with her, but still remembered her.

In her message she told me how my email last year emotionally resounded in her and helped reinforce the notion that her college degree and teaching was not a waste of time. She shared that while she had inspired us all the way back then, it was now we who are inspiring her now as she reads and sees our accomplishments and adventures in fields far away from Glyndon, Maryland.

Journal Entry:

“What an adventure it’s been, I don’t even understand it. So many faces and emotions that it’s ridiculous to even understand what’s going on. But today wasBunyonyi Boat a particularly glorious day.”

On the morning of the 2nd Jim and Bruce’s organization drove us through the mountain pass roads connecting Kisoro and Kabale. Once again we experienced hairpin turns in the pouring rain, and made our way to Kabale where we picked up two other PCV’s, Amanda and Matt. We were dropped off by the pier of Lake Bunyonyi because we wanted to get some footage of the Lake Bunyonyi Secondary School where a Virunga Engineering Works cookstoves was installed a few months ago. The school was located on the largest island on Lake Bunyonyi and used to be the site of a PCV who had recently ET’d (early terminated).

It felt weird being back in Kabale so soon after I had just chilled there right before Coffee Camp. But it was nice to be there in the presence of good company and friends. Instead of taking the night bus back to Kampala that night, Rachel B and I stayed with Amanda and Matt at Amanda’s apartment in Kabale with their cat. We made burgers and drank red wine, which coupled with my ongoing sinus infection and cat allergies made me swell and clog up worse than most plumbing problems in Uganda.

Back Home, Luteete, September 3-5

I finally had the chance to breathe again in the cool Kabale air on the morning of September 3rd. It was a rough bus ride back to Kampala simply because I was still swollen from hanging out with red wine and a non-hypo-allergenic cat. I just had a headache, was tired, and just ready to get back to my site. I get to Kampala, eat a quick lunch at Brood, leave my laptop with an Indian man who is good with repairing electronics near a Shoprite on Entebbe Road, and then finally made it back to my site.

It felt so good to get back to site; I felt like I’d been away for so long. I just didn’t feel normal not being back at my house and cooking for myself. I spent all day of the 4th lesson planning, weeding my courtyard, buying market produce, doing laundry, and just playing with the village children. I was just so content and felt as if I was truly back at home and normal.

Before I knew it, I was already leaving site in order to get to Entebbe for the Central Welcome Weekend. To be honest, I never realized how busy I could actually be in the Peace Corps. I never imagined that I would ever be utilized for media work, especially since I consider myself just an amateur. It’s been a crazy adventure thus far, and even as I typed this entire blog post in one of the dorm rooms here at Backpacker’s Entebbe I still feel a bit off. It’s a mixture of stress, exhaustion, a hangover, and general anxiety from being separated from my site for an extended period of time. I felt so out of it earlier today, the 6th, and felt almost as if there was this immense weight of life, tasks, and stresses to accomplish. There was actually a point today when I felt that I couldn’t feel happy, but I still knew deep down inside of me that this too would pass.

And in the large scheme of things I mainly came to this event in order to support the new PCV’s who came to this event. I wanted them to feel welcomed and know that there are the older PCV’s who care and to know that in all things the cycle continues from one PCV to another.

From these experiences in this blog post, I think that what I took from my experiences was that everyone deserves another chance.

PCTs

November 19th, 2013

Today we left the compound around 5am and went to the Sancta Maria PTC (Primary Teachers’ College) located east DSC_0016of Kampala. It was our first visit to a PTC and the affiliated Primary Demonstration School. The way the education system works in Uganda is that there is a Nursery School which is similar to pre-school, followed by primary school which teaches children basics of self-care, arithmetic, and other grade school-like traits. This is then followed by LowerSecondary school which can lead to UpperSecondary school if one’s exam grades are high enough. Students hoping to become higher-level teachers who do not score a high enough grade or who do not have sufficient funds go to the government-funded PTC and train to become teachers for Primary School.

This is one aspect of the much larger issue of being a teacher trainer: having the ability to inspire those who have been told that they were not good enough or have enough money. Our group goal as educators in the Peace Corps is to begin the 10 year long process of the Primary Literacy Project. This project aims to increase literacy by improving teaching methods, increasing pupil success, and improving the school community. For someone like me who aims to be a teacher trainer, I will be working at a PTC and co-teaching and planning in order to reach these goals. There are DSC_0185many ways and roads that lead to these goals, and I am here to set the stage for eventual success, although I may even be long gone from Africa when these goals even begin to come to fruition. This means that I am not meant to mainly be a teacher of one class, but instead will help foster literacy through extra-curricular activities, co-curricular activities, ICT, mathematics, science, and community events. Past PCVs have held HIV/AIDS Education day, setup and maintained libraries, fostered a positive behavior system, and organized a system of discovering a site’s resources.

Tonight we finished placing our top three bids for sites in Uganda. For those of us who have experience in math and science, such as myself, we placed bids for our top three PTC sites whereas those with a literacy background applied for literacy specialist sites. This caused a lot of stress among us trainees, but I decided to be chill about it because I originally came here to help and did not even expect to have a say in my site. So at the very least I got to share my voice, and in return I hope to let others share theirs.