Privilege

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 Ndegeya Bonfire Circlenight 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 Loucine Walking with Dr. JosephSunday, 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 Benjamin Ferraro Stone Quarryam 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 Bee Natural Assembly Lineschool. 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.” Maracha Primary School“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 Lira Colonel Portrait60’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 Meeting the Colonelbridge. 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.

No Place I’d Rather Be

Five days ago on December 22nd I turned 23 years old. It was a low-key affair, and I didn’t even tell my host family about it. I woke up early to accompany my host dad to go to the Catholic Mass at St. Paul’s, and then he showed me around the markets and where I could buy chickens. He also informed me about the prices of various produce during this holiday season. I actually enjoyed it being a low-key affair, and it was humbling just to spend the day with the family. Then later on in the evening I trained with the neighborhood children and my host family’s children. The host family has four children: Diana, Davis, Daniella, and Daniel. Diana is six-years old and is the eldest girl, followed by the four-year old Davis, then the two-year old Daniella, and the eight-month old Daniel.

My host family is a very gracious and beautiful family. They call themselves a very free family. By this, I believe that they are not as rigid as some other traditional Ugandan families. For example, the girls do not kneel to greet me and the parents are not very strict when it comes to the children. During the day many of the neighborhood kids come over to the house to watch tv or play with the host family children. Recently I’ve started this training regiment that incorporates exercises from rugby and the Insanity workouts in order to stay more physically fit. The host family children and the neighborhood kids call it “training”. Whenever I return back to the host house, the kids all ask for training.

So it was decided that for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that the Central Language group would all stay at the Saint Paul’s Guest House behind the Catholic Church in Kasana. We would all be partnered up two to a room and stay in one of the compounds with a small courtyard, communal room with a tv and couches, and a kitchen where we could cook. We split up the responsibilities for these two days and I made arrangements to purchase and lead the cooking of the food for the next two days. We bought rice, beans, 4kg of beef, two live chickens, mangoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oranges, pasta (also referred to as “macaron”), tomato paste, potatoes, and various other spices and baking supplies. The chickens were the hardest part of the meal, because I first had to reserve them from a neighbor and then I had to pick them up while they were still alive on Christmas Eve morning.

Later during the day on Christmas Eve I had one of the guest house workers demonstrate how to kill, de-feather, and gut the chickens in front of me so that I would be able to do the same thing myself in the future. He started by laying banana leaves on the ground and then laying a chicken on top of it. He pulls back the wings and then steps on it with one foot and then steps his other foot on the chicken’s feet in order to keep it still. He then plucks the feathers from the bird’s neck in order to make the beheading cleaner. Then he kills the chicken by slicing through the neck. The neck is then held in order to spurt out as much blood through one of the main arteries. The open end of the neck is then tied with a piece of banana leaf in order to keep the insides fresh during de-feathering.

Boiling water is then poured over the chicken carcass in order to assist in the plucking of all the feathers. Then the chicken is gutted by cutting around the anal cavity and carefully pulling out all of the guts. He advised that care must be taken not to burst the gall bladder, because its contents could ruin the taste of the chicken. Then the gizzard had to be removed from the neck of the chicken, otherwise there would be tiny stones that would be added to the chicken. Water was then poured into and around the chicken in order to clean it from the remaining blood and then the chicken was ready to be stuffed and roasted.

I took a small break from the Christmas Eve festivities and beer pong in order to wish my host family a Merry Christmas (Sekukulu Ennungi). I returned to the household and gave the children some more Reese’s Pieces and Maryland Fisher’s Popcorn. To the parents I gave them a bottle of Spanish White Wine bought from one of the local stores. They were very thankful for the gifts and they shared with me a fourth of a cake made for Christmas Day. It was a small, round cake that tasted of ginger and had a hard sugar icing covering its entirety with small dots of pink frosting. My host mother told me that she had paid one of her neighbor friends to make the cake for her for 40,000 Ush. It was this small gesture that made me emotional, because this family that did not have much still went out of the way in order to make Christmas Day special with a small expensive cake. They even set up a branch of what looked like an Evergreen Tree to be the Christmas Tree in the corner of the room. I told the family that I would return the next day.

Then it was Christmas Eve night and we just finished a scrumptious dinner of Old Bay and sugar dry-rubbed steaks, roasted chicken stuffed with onions, carrots, garlic, oranges, and tangerines, rice with mangoes, onions, and oranges, and thinly cut, garlic-basted filets of beef. It was a meal that took everyone’s help to prepare and several days to plan. Even with the limited materials of on and off again electricity, a clogged sink, and only two burners we were successfully able to cook all of the food that we wanted to make. It was a successful meal, and I was happy.

The following is an excerpt written by me on Christmas Eve night at bed as the stomach cramps intensified:

“Right now I am lying on the guest house bed and am a bit out of commission. The feeling that I have right now is reminiscent of the abdominal and intestinal pains from Giardia. It’s not as bad or debilitating, but it still hurts a lot and has been plaguing me since I arrived on site here with my host family. It sucks, because I really want to be close to me host family and spend more time with them and the four beautiful children, but I usually excuse myself to lie down on the cold, hard ground of my bedroom in the house with the windows open in order to cool myself.

And there’s nothing that I can do about the pain. It’s just there.”

It was at this point that I had to stop writing because of the pain. Fortunately, I was able to sleep and I awoke Christmas Day feeling a bit better. I attended the Catholic Mass at 10am and it lasted until 1pm. The homily itself took about an hour and then the announcements at the end of the service took about 45 minutes, during which they thanked all of the local government officials and religious clergy who attended that service as well as myself and the other Peace Corps Volunteer who attended the mass.

I returned back to the guest house and prepared a large pot of chili for lunch with the added flavoring of taco seasoning shared by another volunteer. I got a head start on dinner, which was Filipino adobo (beef boiled in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic) and roast chicken again. We finished eating dinner, but again the cramps came back and I was unable to return back to my host family to wish them Merry Christmas. The cramping was intense again, but I was able to sleep after much tossing and turning on the bed.

The day after Christmas offered a bit of a respite from my stomach cramps. I felt myself getting much better and I returned back to my host family from the guest house where they asked me to cook the beef for them. I obliged and dry-rubbed slices of beef with a mixture of Old Bay seasoning from Maryland and sugar. I then pan fried them on the sagiri and served it to my host family with some rice. They absolutely loved it, and said that they were learning about these different cooking methods from me. I wrote in my journal:

“I honestly never would have believed you when it was said that we would experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But now there is no other way to describe it. I spent a tough past week since arriving at homestay with a gassy stomach, cramps, and tiredness with switching up my schedule and lifestyle so far. I started having the cramps on my birthday and dealt with it through the Christmas celebrations even as I cooked. I feel so much better am so glad that my host family loves my OldBay and sugar barbecued meat on the sagiri. I am full, content, my stomach isn’t cramping, and life is good again.”

However, I was wary of this respite and called PCMO in order to ensure that my cramping stopped for good. Joann, the PCMO who helped me during my bout of Giardia at Shimoni a few weeks ago, instructed me to purchase 2g of Tinidazole from the local pharmacy. In the evening I walked into Kasana and purchased the medicine and returned back to my homestay where I ate some fish for dinner and took the Tinidazole. As soon as I finished supper, I started having intense gas and cramps. This started around 8pm and continued throughout the duration of the night. I did not sleep that night from the 26th to the 27th. I called PCMO around 2am and was consoled by Joann who told me to take some Ibuprofen and that I would be picked up by a Peace Corps vehicle and brought to the Peace Corps HQ and Medical Office in Kampala. I didn’t know if I could make it that long. I took 600mg of Ibuprofen, which did nothing to curb the pain for over 12 hours:

“Crap, it’s exhausting dealing with the pain of bloating, gas, and cramps for over a week. And I can’t do anything about it. It’s inside me and it just hurts so much and sucks.

It’s just hurt so much for over a week now without relief. Why?!

I’m crying on my knees in the fetal position because it hurts so bad. I’ve never felt anything like it. It’s like shooting pain coming from inside my stomach.

Oh my God I literally cannot move or function without these cramps. I can feel churning in my stomach and lower abdomen and there’s nothing I can do to lessen the pain.”

While I waited for the Peace Corps vehicle to arrive, I tossed and turned on the bed and then would sometimes curl up into a ball on the floor because it was cool and hard on the ground. Not even the fetal position could help me and every burp or fart was accompanied by a resounding gurgle from my stomach which would lead to more gas being produced inside of me. Around 5am I threw up in the pit latrines and then returned to my room for 5 more hours of pain until the Peace Corps vehicle arrived to pick me up. I am so thankful to my language trainers, Herbert and Dan, because they arranged for the vehicle to arrive directly at my host family’s doorstep in order to pick me up.

I then endured two hours of driving through the bumpy Ugandan roads until we arrived at the Peace Corps HQ and medical office in Kampala. I remember attempting to occupy my mind with fond memories of my life before Africa in order to divert my attention from the pain. I thought of biking through the beaches of Ruegen in northern Germany, hanging out with my BU friends in my Allston apartment, and thinking of how comfortable my old bedroom in Owings Mills would be. I discovered that gentle memories were the best ones to curb the pain, and not ones involving much physical activity such as sports, drinking alcohol, or hardcore adventuring as these only led to focusing on movement which would lead to a churning sensation in my stomach. I would focus very hard on a good memory and grasp onto one of the chairs in the van in order to deal with the pain. If there was a moment when I wanted to return back home to the United States even for just an hour, it was during this ordeal.

We then made it to the Peace Corps medical office and Joann came to meet me. I hugged her and then just burst into tears from my pain, exhaustion, and hope for relief after a week of pain. She consoled me and told me that they would do everything that they could to help me feel better. I later found out that she was also believer in holistic medicine and healing in addition to her science-based background as a doctor. She believed in taking care of the person from a personal level, and I was even told from her co-workers at the office that she was a presence that they would all miss. Agatha, one of the Ugandan medical workers at the office, shared with me that she would miss Joann’s hugs in the morning and how she would always be ready to make you feel alright and at home. Joann then took me to see Dr. Francis who was to become the main PCMO since Joann was leaving the Peace Corps for good that day to return back to her home in California. Dr. Francis then gathered up all the information that he could from me and what I had been experiencing over the past week. He surmised that I either had Giardia or Amoebiasis (amoebic dysentery) and asked me to submit some stool samples.

He then prescribed me with several medicines to combat both my pain and the parasites within my intestines.

Tinidazole was used in order to deal with the parasites inside my intestines which would be taken for the next two days and then followed by Gabbroral for the following week. Then I took Oxycodone/Acetaminophen to deal with the pain and Nospa as a muscle relaxant to help with my stomach cramps.

I then took a short nap in one of the side rooms of the medical office at the Peace Corps HQ, and then Johnson, one of the Ugandan Peace Corps workers and drivers met me to drive me to Nurse Betsy’s house near Entebbe. I was driven alongside a current PCV who was also being brought to Nurse Betsy’s house for other reasons and for healing of a different sort. I will not disclose his name due to reasons of privacy, but he has given me permission to share some of his stories. For the duration of this post I shall call him “M” just like the first letter of my name.

We arrived at Nurse Betsy’s house which feels like a home away from home. It literally feels like the homeliest house that I have ever been to in a long time. It sits near the top of a hill near Kampala and has a closed gate that leads to a small parking lot area. The lower level has rooms meant for the property owner, named Mille Scent, who was the founding director of ISIS (Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange). The house is used a place of rest and healing for PCVs who are sick and need to be monitored while recovering and taking medicine underneath the supervision of the PCMO and Nurse Betsy herself. During my time in Africa, I had heard stories from PCVs who had spent time here too during intense bouts of Malaria and other diseases. I never would have believed that I too would be here.

The grounds are covered with all sorts of tropical plants from banana flowers hailing from Madagascar to Ugandan ferns. The inside is also decorated in such a way that evokes feelings of home. It’s therapeutic here. There are pictures of old family members, coasters from England, small paintings, pastel-painted walls, and panoramic view of other villas and houses on these hills. However, the most rehabilitating part of this place has been Nurse Betsy herself. She is one of the most genuinely kind-hearted people whom I have had the pleasure of meeting during my stay here. Within minutes of arriving she had a bowl of chicken noodle soup and freshly cut bananas and watermelon. And for the first time in over a week I was finally able to lie on a bed without pain and rest.

While here, I have also been able to have the pleasure of sharing company with M who accompanied me here. We have both been sharing a few stories about our experiences in life and about his time spent here in Uganda. I found out that he had devoted a lot of time to learning Luganda, and was now almost fluent in it. He shared some of his knowledge about how the Peace Corps Uganda program was revamped under the leadership of the current Country Director Loucine. I was told that Loucine was an expert in rehabilitating programs that needed to be resuscitated, because there was a time a few years ago when Peace Corps Uganda was almost on the verge of shutting down. The old Country Director was more lax about regulations, and PCVs were regularly allowed to go into Kampala and ride on Boda Boda’s. There were even stories about how PCVs would be allowed to hang out at the old Country Director’s house when he was away, and were given more or less free reign to act as they saw fit.

There were also many problems that plagued Peace Corps Uganda, and so Loucine came in and changed the program to have more regulations and structure in order to keep it afloat. With this also came new regulations. So far there we have been notified of four unbreakable rules that would lead to a PCV immediately being sent back to the United States:

  1. No riding on Boda Bodas
  2. No entering Kampala without express permission from Peace Corps
  3. No leaving country without notifying Peace Corps
  4. No getting into fights with Ugandans

These are not passive rules either, because PCVs have been sent home for violating these rules. The PCV at Nurse Betsy’s house, M, is being sent home for violating one of these reasons. He has given me permission of sharing his story with the world, and so I will do my best to give it in an unbiased manner.

He says that the downward slope to the entire Peace Corps experience started about 7 months ago on the anniversary on his arrival in country. He did not go into detail about the entire matter, but that was around the time when his parents came to visit him, and a lot of people had told him that maybe it was time for him to return back to the United States. But M was stubborn and decided to continue staying in Uganda despite the problematic circumstances. This instance led to a transfer from the school he was working in to an orphanage. From what I have gleaned, M was highly regarded by the Peace Corps workers, administration, his fellow PCVs, and the Ugandans he worked with. He was the only one in his current group who attained a high level of mastery in Luganda, and I was able to witness it firsthand during my ride down to Nurse Betsy’s house with Johnson.

He had also made significant changes in his community, such as the startup of a local farm that is now worth several million shillings. He has also integrated very well into his local communities, thanks in no small part to his language proficiency. Loucine herself has said the he was 1 out of 1000 in his ability to master the language at the level that he is at right now even before his two year mark. He was seen as one of the more shining examples of what a PCV could be, and people like Loucine, Ven, and Johnson were upset with the eventual outcome of his actions on Christmas Day. This past Christmas, he spent his time in his house and watched the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” right before one of the Ugandan orphans had asked him to go for a ride. M agrees and gets on the Boda Boda, and as they are driving it stalls near a policeman. M urges his friend to get it starting again, but is unable to and the policeman questions them. One thing leads to another, and the scene escalates and intensifies with M not liking how the policeman was acting. M resists arrest and subsequently spends Christmas night in a Ugandan jail.

Our paths just happened to cross at the Peace Corps Headquarters after his meeting with Loucine and other staff members. We are currently spending our second night at Nurse Betsy’s house on our laptops and recovering from our two very different ordeals. He has shared that a long time in Uganda has made him and so many other PCVs jaded, and I understand that that is a thing that can eventually happen to any of us.

I am in this for the long run and these past few days have only served to educate me more. M has said to continue his legacy and his proficiency with the language, and I will continue that to the best of my ability with my Luganda training.

And even in the depths of my pains this past week squatting in a pit latrine, I would look through the open roof and stare up at the starry skies and let Africa save me.