The Futility of Dust

18/5/15 – 21/5/15

I spent the past week travelling with Loucine, the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, to Gulu and Kitgum for a continuation of the regional site visits. The idea is to create a 5 minute promotional video of each region of Uganda so that when the new Peace Corps Education Trainees arrive in November they will be able to get a taste of what the different regions look like and what Peace Corps Volunteers have been doing in those regions.

I started off by biking to Wobulenzi from my house and waiting by the side of the road for the Peace Corps Vehicle to pick Homeless Man Wobulenzime up. In the meantime, I hung out with the resident homeless Ugandan man on the street. I gave him a piece of my homemade bread that I baked the day before, but the Ugandans who were seated next to me didn’t want any. In my opinion, I assumed that they didn’t want to eat the bread that this homeless man was also eating. As I looked around the trading center, it struck me how different poverty was. I mean, compared to many people in the developed world many of the Ugandans in or near this town are living well below the poverty line. However, I think that sometimes we tend to lump entire countries and cultures into the stereotyped image of a poor and third-world nation. Many of the Ugandans whom I know at least have a roof over their heads, enough to eat every day, and the mobility to travel or celebrate a wedding or graduation event with a bit of saved money.

Pupils LearningBefore I could get too deep into this reflection, the Peace Corps Vehicle arrived and picked me up. The ride was relatively smooth all the way up to Gulu. In the land of the Acholi’s who speak the Nilotic language Luo, we visited PCV’s who worked in mainly primary schools. I was very intrigued to see the work done with literacy and reading interventions with the education PCV’s. One of the volunteers worked at a primary school that used to serve as the school for the children of inmates and the prison staff, and eventually became a general primary school for the surrounding area. It’s really funny how the prison inmates are treated here in Uganda. They all wear bright yellow outfits, and are allowed to roam free outside of the prison walls during the day where they work as free day-laborers, farmers, carpenters, and electricians before returning back to the prison at night like good little boys and girls.

Another PCV was working on involving the schools of the surrounding districts to take part in the My Language Spelling Bee for Luo while another volunteer worked with blind pupils who took their exams using Braille books specially printed by the Cheyanne and Brailleschool’s Braille machines. The interesting dynamic about Gulu is that it has many municipalities and resembles a small grid-city system with 4-way intersections at every block. Due to the influx of NGO’s and other refugee organizations in response to the rebel activities years ago, a large western population consisting of expatriates and travelers exists in Gulu. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and other amenities that travelling and working expatriates would enjoy.

I travelled to Comboni Samaritain where we stopped by the Wawoto Kacel Cooperative Society Limited which consisted of people living with HIV/AIDS, disabilities, and single parents to sell handmade and hand-woven goods to travelers as a way to provide a means of sustaining their livelihoods. We ate the best traditional food at Mama Kristina’s restaurant shack near Sankofa Café. Mama Kristina is this big Ugandan woman who operates a small restaurant business inside her shack where she cooks local dishes such as: lakoto koto (ground and fried simsim/sesame seeds), malakwang (pasted sour greens), fried beef, rice, beans, Odii (ground and roasted g-nuts and simsim), fried fish, and Bo (another green). It was one of the best local meals that I have eaten in this country, and many other Acholi and visiting Ugandans would agree because her stock runs out around 2pm.

Weaving at Comboni

Weaving at Comboni

Mama Kristina's Restaurant

Mama Kristina’s Restaurant

Aside from great Luo, Indian, Ethiopian, and Café food, I even got a chance to experience the expatriate life when I played a game of Ultimate Frisbee at the Acholi Inn field. Man, it just felt so good to run and play a competitive sport again. I missed that feeling of letting loose and just giving it your all. After the game, I hung out with one of the PCV’s and her Ugandan boyfriend at one of the traditional restaurants. One interesting point of discussion was that this Ugandan worked at the Invisible Children organization and at one point was also one of the Invisible Children. Out of respect for him and his girlfriend, I won’t share details, but he had to go through some very violent and scarring events during his time as a child soldier.

Currently he works as a videographer and media point person for the organization and shared some of his interesting viewpoints. I was told that the organization was very familial and a lot of the proceeds from donations went to the families of those Ugandans who worked in the organization, also the promotional videos about child soldiers didn’t tell the whole story. Like any good video or documentary, the narrative was specifically crafted with anecdotes that didn’t tell the whole story. It left out a lot of the more graphic and violent parts. However, as a whole it is a good organization that supports its main message.

The next morning as I was walking past the prison and through Gulu Town, I saw one of the cleaner women sweeping the Village Ellendust off the road. The rising sun illuminated her silhouette, and with every sweep of her broom the dust would swirl around her. I almost felt that her effort was self-defeating, because the dust would simply settle around her as she continued on with her endless task. I moved on past this futile task, and continued onwards to the Iron Donkey café where I would meet up with Loucine. That morning, Loucine was slated to attend what would have been the final court case of Danielle Gucciardo who died when struck by a drunk driver in Gulu back in April 2013. However, even two years later justice hasn’t been served. The Magistrate in-charge of this case conveniently decided that she wouldn’t show up for the scheduled court date.

What struck me the most was that even with the backing of the US Ambassador, the media attention, and the weight of public opinion against this driver still wouldn’t lead to a guilty conviction. There is a reason why mob justice exists, and that’s because of how difficult it is to go through the arduous process of court cases. Last year, even with all of the evidence against him the driver was not convicted; the reason being that he was drunk when he killed her and thus was not in control of his actions.

We spent the last two days of the trip going into Kitgum where we met the PCV’s over there. We visited a child care primary school, another prison primary school, a MercyCorps branch, and Uganda HipHop Culture. One of the most interesting things at the child care primary school was a book project by PCV Mary Williams. When she arrived at the school, she discovered a lot of books in the school’s library that did not respect or reflect diversity. Many of the books were not culturally appropriate, such as a picnic day, the beauty of Barbie and her white skin, an Aboriginal princess, or books that Ugandan pupils couldn’t relate to. Fortunately, a generous donor sent over a box of multicultural and diverse books showcasing the beauty of one’s skin color, picture books primarily featuring African-Americans, or stories featuring sub-saharan African characters.

One of my favorite sites was PCV Leah Walkowski’s Northern Uganda HipHop Culture Site. The members of this organization focus on reaching out to local Ugandan youth about HIV/AIDS through hip hop dancing, beatboxing, rapping, and dancing that would appeal to the youth. They regularly do HIV testing and seasonal male circumcisions. One of their coolest projects by the Kitgum youth was an HIV Song warning youth against the dangers of HIV performed by the members of Northern Uganda HipHop Culture (NHUC) in conjunction with StraightTalk Uganda with the lyrics in being both English and Luo.

https://www.facebook.com/nuhculture

Artists: Lil Nicha, Black MC, Kim, and Benny

Once again, I was exhausted after this week. All I wanted to do was just sit down alone in my own house and teach my students. I feel like I’m racing towards the end of my service, while also being stuck where I am right now. There is already so much to do, and I’m trying to accomplish it all before the end.

Advertisements

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.

MSC (Mid-Service Conference)

January 27-31, 2015

You know, it’s interesting to have finally made it this far. Last year I had visited the other PCV’s at their own MSC at Maria Flo Hotel in Masaka. I found it hard to believe that it had been one whole year since the older education volunteers were celebrating their own successes and planning the next year. Out of all of the conferences that I’ve attended, this was definitely the most fulfilling and productive. It’s hard to stress just how connected I feel with the fellow PCV’s in my cohort. I see them as my family and friends who have shared similar struggles and hardships together since the beginning at Kulika.

I left my site on Monday January 26 with the end goal of reaching Jinja in mind. After a traditionally lengthy day of travel by bike, takisi, and foot, I arrived in Jinja town where I met up with fellow PCV’s Hannah and Steve at Hans. I was told that they had one of the best chicken pillao in town. We then shared a milkshake with each other at the Keep which is a castle-themed restaurant that serves amazing smoothies and milkshakes. I was struck by how almost-developed the streets were around that area. There were sidewalks and some semblance of city-planning since the town streets were a grid system.

We spent the night at Hannah’s site near Wanyange. The next day we made for the Njeru Nile Hotel near the Nile Brewery where we would be having our four-day MSC. Even though I had been able to share quality time with everyone in our cohort since other conferences, it felt really good to physically be with everyone again in one space. It was perfect, the conference center had swanky rooms with leather chairs, a tv, sink, an oven that didn’t connect to anything, a private bathroom, and an oscillating fan.

Group MeetingIn keeping with my cohort’s overachieving attitude, we already had extra-curricular activities planned throughout the conference. On the first night, we all chilled by the bonfire and listened to some PCV’s play around on their guitars. Of course there was also the mandatory sharing of whiskey, chill sessions, and catching up those whom I haven’t had the chance to see in a long time. The first morning involved a gallery walk where everyone was encouraged to make a poster or presentation detailing what he or she has done during his or her service. At first, a lot of us didn’t like the idea of bragging about ourselves. However, that morning session was successful, and it was really refreshing to see the work that we were all doing at our respective sites with our time.

I was struck with the difference in mentality and attitude since IST. Back then it almost felt like a competition about who did the most work and who was being the most successful at site. Now it felt like we were here to really support each other with the realization that all of us had such unique talents, circumstances, and regions that allowed us to accomplish what we did. The other cool thing about this conference was that even though we knew each other on different personal levels, we were very comfortable presenting our own ideas to each other, sharing our struggles, and voicing concerns.

Amanda, who led a lot of yoga sessions during our service, led a reflection/meditation activity in the afternoon. The idea was that we were caught riding a boda or doing some other illegal activity that kicked us out of Peace Corps Uganda and that we then had 12 hours of time left before we had to leave and go back to the United States. We were savoring each breath and reflecting on our dreams, hopes, regrets, lies, goodbyes, and thank yous before we left for good. I thought about what I would say to my closest friends here, how I would never be able to see a completed ICT lab, how my village kids would always ask where I went, and the anger that I would have with myself at not finishing my Peace Corps service.

Mid Service Conference Group Photo

I actually got really emotional during the reflection, because it helped me realize just how much of an impact Uganda had made on me in this past year. My head was spinning as I attempted to understand what I would do to prepare for my sojourn back to my old home. Interestingly, I also felt a sense of relief in imagining that in such a sudden and forceful departure, I would also be forced to let go of all attachments here and focus on what was happening in those last moments of life in Uganda. Then just as we meditated on getting on that plane and leaving Ugandan ground for the last time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we took a deep breath and came back to this reality. The meditation was an adaptation of a death meditation of one’s last 12 hours of life before death. In this case, I realized just how short one year really is and what I wanted to do in this last year of service.

We also scheduled some extra sessions as a cohort where we discussed issues concerning diversity, peer support, geo issues, and sexual harassment. I appreciated the level of maturity in the cohort where we could talk about serious issues with each other when the time was right, and still have the energy to go crazy and celebrate with each other when the work was completed.

We drafted our upcoming year 1 workplans, wrote success stories, met with our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders, attended resume/CV sessions, received our W-2’s from our DMO, and voiced our honest concerns concerning safety and security, favoritism, the boda policy, and volunteer/staff relations. The last two nights were dedicated to a casino and a carnival night of games.

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised with how successful MSC was. I expected to roll my eyes at the presentations because I already understood the basics, but this was all about ways to move forward. I came out of this conference on the upswing and am extremely excited to start this new year. Once again, I was also able to create a new music video of all the members in our cohort as a sort of commemoration after the Kulika Music Video last year. I guess that above all things I am grateful to have a cohort, community, and family that cares as much about this job as I do.