Who We Are

February 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Connection

27/7/14

I think that one of the biggest needs of a Peace Corps Volunteer is the need to connect. It’s the need to connect with the village and to feel integrated at site, as well as the need to connect with other Peace Corps Volunteers who know what you’re going through. Then there is the need to connect back with your old home back in the United States where most of our engrained memories and attributes stem from. I realize just how connected I am in my village with the village neighbors who lived around my house and the free picture-less Facebook that allows me to keep in contact with everyone when the internet access works.

However, as much as technology has progressed to allow us to stream videos of ourselves chatting with others it cannot replace the feeling that the physical presence of another human being can provide. I feel a marked difference between seeing a Facebook message written to me compared with a physically mailed letter. Then there is the familiarity of hearing a good friend’s voice on the phone telling you about his exploits of the past few weeks while you’ve been away. You hear the rise and fall in tones and the emotions behind the story that only the best writers could hope to capture in written text.

Yet I think that the physical presence of someone is something that we as social human beings crave. We crave to touch, smell, see, and listen to another living human being. We desire to be in the presence of another person who can empathize and share his or her problems, secrets, fears, successes, and joys with us.

I also believe that it is the human spirit that I am most attracted to. It is the enormous potential to do good and bad combined within one person who has a choice to do either.

This past weekend, I was able to experience that good side of human connections. On Friday I left to meet up with my Safety and Security Warden VisitPCV Safety and Security Warden, Rachel B, who was doing a checkup on the Northern Central Group’s evacuation point in Luweero should there ever be an emergency when we would need to congregate. We ate lunch in Kasana where I worked on filling out another grant for Virunga Engineering Works (VEW) Cookstoves that would be placed at my site and allow the PTC to save up to $360 every year from firewood transportation and purchases. We made our way back to Wobulenzi where we picked up a ton of groceries for the weekend.

Back at my site, we chilled and had good heart-to-heart talks while eating tikka masala and jalebi cooked with ghee, rice, and pumpkin bread. That was an awesome Friday night, just hanging out and not worrying about the problems that we would be facing with our projects or that lay ahead of us. The next day two to other PCVs, Rachel C and Lindsay, came over to visit for the day.

We explored the local Bamunanika market since it was market day, which occurs every Saturday fortnight. The girls where looking for prom dresses in preparation for the Peace Corps All Volunteer Conference that is themed as Peace Corps prom and happening at the end of August. We got some sodas at Bamunanika and then got a tour of the Kabaka’s Palace by the caretaker, Kimera, who also gave the tour when Hannah visited about 3 weeks ago. This time, he gave us gifts of cold bottled water, flowers, and a raw egg each from the palace chicken. We thanked him after seeing the grounds, and departed for home.

Rachel B, Rachel C, and Lindsay continued on back home and I plopped myself down on a rock by the dusty, main road leading to Luteete PTC from Bamunanika and called my two of my best friends back home. I talked with Sean and Audrey about their experiences in Baltimore and their most recent adventures. For some reason, just hearing their hungover voices and laughs made me feel like I was right there with them in a Baltimore apartment. I felt so comfortable talking with them on that rock as Ugandan children surrounded me and played this game where they tried to see how close they could get to me before freaking out and running away.

I just felt happiness and joy listening to my old friends tell me stories and how they were feeling after an eventful night. I Rachel and Lindsay in Bamunanika Marketwished that I were back home with them even for just 1 hour in order to just be with them. We said goodbye for the time being and I rejoined my PCV friends at my house. The dinner plan was to eat Philly Cheesesteaks, so they had brought cans of Campbell’s Cheese Soup. We baked bread from scratch, sautéed onions and green bell peppers, and broiled steak with garlic. Those sandwiches were amazing, and it’s funny because this whole weekend started because Rachel B said that we should eat cheesesteaks because she found can of Campbell’s Cheese Soup.

We chilled again at night, and then slept off the heavy meal. In all things, I find it hard to put into words how content I was with this weekend, with the friends who visited me, the meals that I cooked, the places I went, the people whom I talked with, and the connections that I made.

“Time is a linear dimension.”
~Lindsay Carrera, PCV Education

A Chill Easter Weekend

4/22/14

It feels so nice to return back to my home in Luteete after a weekend of traveling. I left site last Wednesday to go helpMasindi Malaria Day Fact my friend Rachel and Brittany put on a Malaria Awareness event at the Kamurasi Demonstration School. They had previously asked me to be the media specialist guy to take many pictures and videos of the event. They had applied for a small Peace Corps grant and acquired $75 to fund the day’s events. It included Pin the Net Over Opio (similar to pin the tail on the donkey), Mosquito Net Repair, Malaria Freeze Tag, Beware of Ms. Mosquito Read-Aloud, Risk Field Obstacle Course, 9 Facts of Malaria, and Malaria Hangman. The pupils at the Kamurasi school would rotate through the sessions, and during the events of the day the winning artists in a the malaria mural competition painted a Fight Malaria, Save Lives themed mural on one of the walls of the school and the older P6 and P7 pupils played soccer on the field while learning about malaria facts.

What astounded me was how supportive the primary school teachers were. The stereotype has usually been that it was difficult to motivate many of the primary school teachers into doing any sort of event where they wouldn’t explicitly be paid. However, the teachers seemed to be very excited to hosting some of the sessions and helping set up the events for the day.

After helping with the event, we headed over to Arua to celebrate Easter with the northern Peace Corps Volunteers. The bus ride from Masindi to Arua sucked because I had to share a two seats with 6 other people (three adults and two babies). It was hot and we intermittently stopped to offload and accept random passengers who wanted to hitch a ride which is the norm for Ugandan public transportation.

After departing Masindi around 10:30am, we arrived in Arua around 6pm and made our way to Café Cosmos where they served delicious Muzungu food. I had only had the opportunity to eat chappatis  that day, so the burger that I ate there was absolutely delicious, especially in tandem with the Heinz Ketchup and crispy fries.

We then walked back to our friend Jamie’s house near the Arua Core PTC. She has one of the largest houses in Peace Corps Uganda with two living rooms, a separate bathroom and toilet area, four bedrooms, a kitchen, a backyard and a separate cooking area all complete with electricity and running water. She was so gracious to host the two dozen volunteers who were celebrating the Easter Weekend together.

Easter Arua CrewWe spent Friday night drinking together and dancing to select tunes from one of the volunteer’s iPod and portable speakers. The next day was spent going to Arua town in order to procure groceries for the weekend’s meals and to buy some fabric and clothing in the fabled Arua Fabric Market. The fabric market is one of the coolest places that I have been to in Uganda. It seemed like I was lost in a maze of stalls all covered in kitenge fabric ranging in a multitude of designs. I thought that this place would be the perfect setting for a action movie chase scene through the stalls. I promised myself that I would definitely return to Arua and the fabric market in order to procure locally made clothes for myself and friends. We purchased tomatoes, peas, lettuce, minced meat, carrots, limes, lemons, potatoes, onions, beef bouillon, chicken bouillon, soy sauce, cumin, chilli powder, pasta, rice, flour, green peppers, milk, sugar, avocadoes, cilantro, and mangoes in order to cook for 20+ people for Saturday and Sunday. I volunteered to cook for everyone and so on Saturday I organized people to cook seasoned ground, flour tortillas, rice, fresh pico de gallo salsa, and mango salsa for a Mexican themed dinner. After dinner, we pregamed and got ready for Club Matonge, which is the big club in Arua. We paid 10,000/= for the VIP 2nd floor area and danced. It’s funny hearing the music played at these clubs, because many of the Muzungu-club songs are from the top 40 lists of 2009 – 2011 with very few of them coming from the past year.

Sunday, April 20th, was my favorite day by far, because we just chilled at Jamie’s house. We took it easy in the DSC_0121morning, and got a slow start on the Easter meal. I cooked beef stroganoff, beef with soy sauce and onions, shepherd’s pie, pasta, deviled eggs, potato salad, and fresh lettuce salad while the rest of the remaining volunteers dyed Easter eggs for the Easter egg hunt. We ate the meal in the afternoon and then played a few rounds of Easter egg hunting, which was a lot more fun than I remembered it many years ago.

Honestly, I enjoyed this weekend so much and prepping food and cooking for so many people. It just made me feel happy to make delicious food for others and let others not have to worry too much about the food aspect of the weekend. I even got compliments about my food from the Ugandans who attended the Easter celebration.

It’s funny, because sometimes I worry that I will leave this country in 22 months and not have anything to show for it. I worry that I will not be able to leave my mark on this place. I mean, I’ve already been in Uganda for about the same amount of time as the average study abroad program. And I can honestly say that I feel that I’ve only made the slightest of dents. There is a sort of guilt associated with my preconceived notions about what I expected life to be like in the Peace Corps and how I actually act while here.

Easter Egg PaintingI’m on vacation right now since Term 1 ended during Easter Weekend. I spent today watching the first two episodes of Game of Thrones season 4, picking up my refilled gas tank, battling a horde of ants near my doorway, and taking a nap with the weirdest mefloquine-inspired day-dream* that I’ve had in a while. I pretty much stayed in my house the entire day and vegged-out. Never before would I have imagined that Peace Corps volunteers easily fell prey to the NGO-syndrome of always yearning for home once you leave it. I mean, I want to integrate so much into my community and go harvest the cassava that I planted, but then again I also just want to eat a bowl of mac ‘n cheese in front of my computer or pour a ton of Heinz Ketchup on some fries while I drink a non-tropical milkshake.

It honestly makes me question why so many volunteers are still here when it seems that we all continuously strive to achieve or acquire the same things that we had back in the United States. However, I have also come to realize that many of these yearnings usually occur during the weekends and vacations when we can treat ourselves. When I take a step back, I feel as if I’ve been able to integrate well into my local village community, I am conversational in Luganda, love eating po sho and beans, planted cassava, fetch water everyday from the borehole, play with the children, bike to Wobulenzi when I want to accomplish anything, cook on a sagiri when my gas tank is empty, and am getting more and more used to Uganda as a home rather than a temporary part of my life.

And it feels as if these past 5 months have gone by so quickly. Staging in Philadelphia feels like a lifetime ago and by the end of this June my education group will no longer be the newest group in-country. Pretty soon we will be helping train the new group and acting guides for their questions.

So life continues and goes on as it always has been regardless of whether I’m present or not. I think my immediate goal now is to be more present than not and appreciate this world around me rather than missing what I don’t have.

*Note: I want to summarize my day-dream, because I feel that it represents a marriage of the dreams inspired by the malaria prophylaxis drug mefloquine and my experiences thus far in Uganda.

I remember being in what I called my Peace Corps house which was located by a pathway next to a large river, similar to the Charles River in Boston. My house was originally two stories tall and had many nice rooms with old Victorian furniture. I had several Peace Corps friends visiting. They were arriving shortly because they had just visited the kitenge market a few minutes walk down the pathway running parallel to the river. When I entered the house with them, I saw a huge parlor room with antique furniture. I explored the other parts of my house and saw weird patterns in the floor, but it wasn’t scary. I then left my friends in the parlor room of my house and chased a chipmunk that had made its way to the stairwell. I followed it up the stairwell and discovered that my house was actually in fact 5 stories tall. As I made it past the 2nd story, I came to realize that the hallways and rooms of my old Victorian Mansion had not been entered in a long time due to dust and the boarded up windows and doors.

I then opened up a barred, steel door that led up to a storage room where there was a missing maid and two other women who were feeding beans and chappatis to zombies in the room. I left the room and continued exploring the upper levels of the mansion until I reached another stairwell. However, this stairwell scared me because I looked up and saw a silhouette of a girl standing behind prison bars. I quickly ran downstairs and saw my Peace Corps friends. I told them about what I had just saw they agreed with me.

Then somehow I was transported to a scene at a shipyard where I learned about the fate of a lady who was leaving a train but then died when another train backed up into her. Then I was in either a streetcar or a trolley or train where this mysterious man/conductor told the passengers that no one should shoot the voltage box underneath the compartment we were traveling in because it would electrocute and kill us all. Apparently, it was some sort of reference to the Final Destination movie because not everyone died, such as the maid and the little girl, and the rest became the aforementioned zombies.

It was at this very confusing moment that I woke up around 4pm on my bench in my actual Peace Corps house in Uganda wondering if I would continue having these weird day-dreams.