Taking the Red Pill

2/12/15

Peace Corps fucks up your life in the best way possible.

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I think that sentiment expresses how I feel in this moment. I am lost in a vortex of emotions: anger, denial, sadness, regret, excitement, joy, longing, and frustration. This last week at site has been one of my toughest weeks in-country. I feel as if all I want to do is finally say goodbye to my neighbors; however, I’ve been stuck in my house and with my reflective thoughts. Saying goodbye to my Year 2 students was anti-climactic. They were in a session with the academic registrar concerning behavior during exam period, and as they were dismissed I said goodbye to them. Less than half of them turned towards me to say goodbye. I felt a bit disheartened, but would it have made any sense for them to have made a bigger deal out of the goodbye?

There’s a side of the world and a multitude of perspectives that I will never be able to forget even if I wanted to forget them. The concept of a homogenous Africa no longer makes sense to me, I will give different cultural attitudes the benefit of the doubt, and I will be much slower to judge an action as being either right or wrong. I have ceased to see things as being black or white. It’s all a mixture of variant grays that all have a background and a story.

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For example, what will I do if someone asks me to donate $5 to a charity dedicated to feeding starving children in Africa. I think that I will first have to look into the organization to see if the feeding is humanitarian and if it is relief based. Then I will also look into the organization itself to see if the majority of the funding goes towards the relief effort. But then I will have to see if the food is being disbursed in an ethical way that eventually leads to self-sustenance on the part of the recipients. However, this is rarely the case as conflicts and civil wars lead to refugees who rely on the food deliveries. In this case, would it be right for me to donate to a cause that may help satiate the hunger of a few children if the larger issue at hand isn’t being addressed? Is it still alright to blindly throw money at an issue if even just one child benefits from the money?

I don’t think that there are any easy answers to these questions. Yet, I believe that I am better off for seeing a different side to issues that I used to see as being one-sided. Despite the grander complexities of social issues, one tenet still remains true to me: that compassion and the acknowledgement of the humanity of another human being is paramount to the discussion of said issues.

After all this, how can I possibly go back?

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Taking for Granted

13/7/15 – 20/7/15

I spent the last week traveling with the Country Director to the southwestern and western regions of Uganda. We stopped at PCV sites in Masaka, Kisoro, Kabale, Bushenyi, Fort Portal, Kyenjojo, Hoima, and Masindi. Even in an air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle, it was exhausting to see so many sites in such a short span of time. I have since come to regret agreeing to this project of creating Peace Corps Uganda promotional videos because it takes me away from site for long periods of time during the week. On the other hand I have been able to see the amazing projects and empathize with the difficulties of my fellow PCV’s. It was funny hearing complaints inside the Peace Corps vehicle about how difficult it was to reach a PCV’s site, and then realize that a PCV had to travel to and from that site with the use of limited public transportation.

Peace Corps Yoganda

Peace Corps Yoganda

We saw projects concerning coffee farmers, energy-efficient cookstoves, Ugandan yoga, reading interventions, cow dung to natural gas conversion, public health clinics, and kitenge scrap quilts. The more I saw my fellow PCV’s sites and projects, the more I wanted to get back home to my own site. My favorite part of each day was staying with a PCV at a his or her site and getting to know that person’s unfiltered story. I realized that I felt the most comfortable among other PCV’s and in my own village.

Cow Dung to Natural Gas

Cow Dung to Natural Gas

After finishing the site visits, I chilled in Masaka over the weekend where I got my haircut by Ugandan students of another PC, Jamie who was teaching them how to cut muzungu hair at St. Agnes Vocational School. I felt as if I really relaxed over the weekend, because Jamie’s house felt very cozy in the middle of town with a living room filled with couches and carpet. I finally was able to just lounge in a carpet and walk barefoot on carpet. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine that I was in a small college apartment instead of inside a nice Peace Corps house.

Cutting Muzungu Hair

Cutting Muzungu Hair

Then on Monday I organized the pick-up of computers, projectors, extension cables, padlocks, and a projector sheet for the Luteete PTC computer lab from Kampala. It was a bit stressful withdrawing over 6 million shillings, carrying the computers across two streets of busy traffic, and then making it back home by public transportation because I still had errands to do in Kampala. After passing out that night, I awoke the next day to start of the college’s computer lab. With the help of some Year 2 students, we assembled the ten computers on the side walls of the lab and organized the furniture so that students could work on the wall computer terminals while others took notes on the middle island tables. It really did feel like a dream come true.

Wiring the Computer Lab

Wiring the Computer Lab

I remembered when I first arrived at the college and how I knew that my college would really benefit from computer lab. I also remembered how I thought to myself: “This is gonna take a long time and a lot of hard work.” Now, the computers are ready and all that is needed is to connect the electricity from the college to the computer lab. I take a lot of things for granted here in Peace Corps, like the freedom to leave my job whenever I want/need without any questions. I also know that I am also taken for granted at times. However, the one thing that I will never take for granted are my shared experiences with other PCV’s and my own time here in my home nestled in Luteete village.

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.

High Again

February 8, 2015

I feel very typically Peace Corps right now. More than a year later I’m back to business as usual on top of the nearby Kabaka’s Hill where I can get the only decent internet in my village. I had to write a few emails concerning the outcome of fundraisers back home, the possibility of another US Embassy Grant for the construction of a science lab (that does not rely on crowd-funding), sending a Peace Corps staff information regarding media equipment purchases, and confirming some details regarding my friend Alex’s visit this coming March.

As this was happening, I was squatting underneath a large mango tree, because it was providing shade from the afternoon sun. Large ants were biting me since I was so low to the ground, but I couldn’t stand up because it was difficult to see with the glare of the dry season’s afternoon sun. When I finished my internet errands, which cost me about 100Mb worth of data, I looked up a pad thai recipe and checked the Peace Corps Subreddit. Even though I don’t feel very hungry due to some sort of weird gastrointestinal problem (is it Giardia? Who knows anymore…), it’s nice to think about food that I can make in the future.

I got emotional while going through the subreddit. I found some of the postings ridiculous regarding the anxieties of people who were applying, especially since so many of them seemed to be very qualified for a Peace Corps position. However, two posts intrigued me the most: one regarding an article about why Peace Corps is a waste of time and another about Peace Corps hobbies. In regards to the first one, the writer, an RPCV, bemoans the lack of resources, support, and development potential that Peace Corps has. The writer criticizes how ineffective Peace Corps is at developing a nation, and that celebrating decades of volunteer-work in a given Peace Corps country is nothing to be proud of.

What interested me the most wasn’t the article, but the responses of other RPCV subredditors. They responded that Peace Corps is not a true development agency in that sense of the word, but a soft power. As always, the three goals concern maintaining world peace and relations rather than building literal bridges and buildings. It is more about giving those in hard-to-reach places a face of America rather than throwing money and resources at the problems.

These responses resonated more with me now than they did a year ago when I normally frequented the Peace Corps subreddit. I understood now a little bit more what I could only begin to comprehend back then. I definitely believe that a large part of my idealism has been toned down by Peace Corps, only to be replaced with high ideals tempered by realism. Of course, every now and then there’s a splash of idealism that I let in.

In the Peace Corps hobbies thread, subredditors shared what they did to pass the time. The hobbies ranged from basket weaving, to watching movies, to reading, and exercising. However, the one post that resonated the most with me was this guy who said that in his down time, he would walk to an isolated spot by a creek, light up a joint, and just relax as he listened to the birds chirping and the water babbling. He said that that place might be his most favorite spot in the whole world. Now I’m not high right now and definitely not smoking a joint, but I am in one of my favorite local spots in my country. It’s not as isolated nor as idyllic, but it reminds me of my beginnings at site last year. As I type this the sun is setting beyond the trash smoke-ridden hills of the Luweero sub-county with mighty gusts of wind that blow away the lazy heat of the dry season. I hear birds chirping, a carpenter pounding away at a piece of pine wood, and the booming local radio station playing the current Ugandan dancehall hits of the past few years. I have also failed repeatedly at killing one of the ants that made its way to my groin area, which doesn’t surprise me as much.

Right now there are several things that are physically bothering me: a possible jigger in my toe, ant bites, a wart on my index finger, a sunburned torso, dehydration, a headache, drowsiness, and some gastrointestinal giard, trophozoite, amoeba, or currently unknown parasite residing in my gut that causes diarrhea and gassiness. Funnily enough, the physical problems aren’t affecting me as much anymore. I’m on top of my hill, I’m enjoying life, things are happening, and I’m high again.