Beyond Hills


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

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

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

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

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

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

Children, Laptop, and Rocks

Children, Laptop, and Rocks

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

Hill Sledding

Hill Sledding

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

Squiggles, Monsters, and Moments

1/7/14 – 6/7/14

*Squiggles and Monsters is a game played by two or more people where one person starts off by drawing a small squiggle on a blank piece of paper and then the next person continues the drawing of the initial squiggle by connecting the beginning of the squiggle to its end, thereby forming a monster of sorts.

July 1st – Tuesday

After taking the Giardia medication and two acetaminophen on Tuesday morning, I passed out on my bed until around 1pm and missed teaching my Integrated Science class to my Year 1 PTC students. I initially felt bad because I had a lesson plan explaining the concept of moments in physics (M = r x F). Instead, I rested throughout the morning and then rallied in order to make it to Nakaske for the radio show. The show was about the history behind the 4th of July and American values such as freedom, the Protestant work ethic, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the need to control our own destinies and futures. Afterwards, I stayed with Rebekah at Nakaseke PTC where we made two special and delicious batches of brownies to share.

July 2nd – Wednesday

I woke up early in order to make it to Kampala en route to Mityana for a PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) presentation with the new Central Luganda group. They were having their homestay cultural sharing day on the 4th of July where it was decided that they would be having an American themed barbecue in order to share American food. They asked me to buy a wheel of Gouda cheese and 2kg of ground meat from the big green supermarket, Mega Shoppers, near the Old Taxi Park.

I made it back to Mityana and hung out with the group. It seemed as if they definitely become more comfortable with their homestay families and with life in Uganda. Their Luganda was also improving, but they seemed ready to get the LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) Test done and out of the way. I gave my presentation and then headed to two PCVs’ houses on Kololo Hill up the road from the Busuubizi Boda Stage. It was a long walk, but after about 1 hour I reached the Jenn and Robin’s site near the top of the hill; it was a gorgeous view. Their houses had multiple rooms, couches, kitchens with ovens and sinks, running water, and a view of the setting sun over the Mityana sub-county.

July 3rd – Thursday

Robin gave me a small tour of the Busuubizi Core PTC on the top of the hill including the fully-equipped science labs Busuubizi Churchand the dome-shaped chapel that resembled a small airplane hangar. Robin described it as being art-deco. I then made my way back to Mityana where I took at taxi back to Kampala where I met about a dozen other PCVs at Brood who were headed to NRE (Nile River Explorers) Camp near Jinja for the 4th of July celebration.

Since I had some time, I decided to get my first real haircut in-country since I left almost 8 months ago. Since then I’ve had other PCVs cut my hair using hair-cutting scissors that they brought from home. The Indian salon near the New City Annex was closed, so I made my way to Sparkles Salon in Garden City. It was pretty weird sitting in a nice salon that smelled and felt like an American barber shop, except that Ugandan men were cutting the hair and giving pedicures to customers. I got my hair cut, and it was pretty fly. I then also opted to have my hair washed, and as the shampoo mixed with my head the Ugandan man said, “Wow, you’re hair is very dirty and filthy.” I laughed and explained to him that I lived in a dusty village without running water and have to bike on dusty roads all of the time. He then washed my head a second time with shampoo.

Soon enough I was on a taxi with other PCVs to the NRE Camp near Jinja on the east side of the Nile River. This camp was literally by the banks of the river and it was one of the most spectacular places that I have ever been to. The Camp offered a variety of accommodations: two-person cabins, eight-person dorms, pre-set tents, and an open field on which one could pitch up his or her own tent. There was also a lounge area connected to a bar on a hill overlooking a sweeping panoramic view of the Nile River below.

NRE Trampoline LoungeI still remember the smile on my face as I hugged PCVs whom I haven’t seen for months and just chilled with them and a bottle of cold Nile Special beer. It’s funny to think how much PCVs miss the company of other muzungus, because then we’re able to just be ourselves. We don’t have to be the village PCV who talks in a certain way or has to be extra careful about what we say. I remember that we were all just laughing with one-another and smiling because of the exciting weekend ahead of us.

I shared that brownies that I had baked with Rebekah and some others shared some delicious, homemade chocolate chip cookies because PCVs love this kind of stuff. By this time I was already exhausted and passed out in one of the dorm beds.

July 4th – Friday

I woke up around 7:45am in-preparation for the Nile River Rafting. About 50 PCVs got on the NRE trucks headed Crossing the Niletowards another NRE site where they served us morning coffee, fresh fruit, and rolexes. One of the main guides then gave us some preliminary information about our day including some safety tips about white water rafting through class 4 and 5 rapids. We then hopped on buses headed for the takeoff point for the rafts. We divided ourselves into groups of 6 and huddled around the banks of the Nile River as the guides gave us tips about what to do in various situations. A bunch of us PCVs laughed out loud when he said, “Be careful because if you don’t listen to us then you will find yourself out in the middle of the Nile River in the middle of nowhere in Uganda.” I guess it’s because almost all of our sites are more remote than any section of the Nile that we would have rafted on.

Our group hopped in our raft, led by a Ugandan guide named Hassan, and paddled out into the initially still waters. We were given instructions on how to paddle, when to paddle, when to duck, and how to get back on the raft after we flipped over. Then we were off. It was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever done in my life. I was on a raft on the Nile and going through class 5 rapids with some of my best friends here. It was funny seeing other rafts flip over in the rapids only to then have our own raft flip over as well.

Class 6 RapidsAnd then there were the stretches when we would have to paddle through the stiller parts of the river. Honestly, NRE did a great job of making this experience feel like an adventure. We passed around class 6 rapids, near islands with thousands of fruit bats flying around, ate biscuits and fresh pineapple, did backflips off the raft and swam to other rafts, and then finally got to swim through the last class 5 rapids after our raft flipped over.

At the end of our journey, we were greeted with a buffet of rice, hummus, beans, grilled meats, baked potatoes, fresh vegetables, and most importantly beer. It was just the perfect end to the adventure, especially since we were starving after paddling for several hours and our adrenaline was going down. We found our way to the camp after passing out on the buses.

That night was ridiculous. Everyone was in their most patriotic outfits. Everywhere I looked in that lounge bar I 4th of July Sparklerscould see American flags emblazoned on chests, red skirts, white tops, blue jeans, and hilarious and hot outfits all around. There was beer pong in the corner, specialty watermelon vodka drinks, grilled hotdogs, and American songs played all night long. I actually had three drinks bought for me that night: two from a New Zealander after a dance-off and one from a South African girl who wanted to borrow my shirt for a hot second.

It just felt fun to let loose after all of the work done in the village and the time spent travelling for training. I think that as PCVs we realize so much about ourselves with the amount of time that we have alone at our sites. Sometimes occasions such as 4th of July are needed in order to expend some of that pent-up energy that keeping it holed up inside because no one really understands you unless you’ve either let them in or you’ve lived that person’s life.

July 5th – Saturday

I woke up tired and got a rolex from the best rolex stand in Uganda near the entrance to the NRE Camp. Many rolex and chappati stands claim to have the best rolex; however, I would have to agree with this particular claim. The Ugandan guy who works there really understands what muzungus want. There are about 10 different options to choose from involving savory variations of cabbage, fried potatoes, tomatoes, onions, eggs, and curry powder to sweet options of bananas, nutella, peanut butter, and honey. Then I chilled in the lounge with a pot of coffee.

Some PCVs went to the Keep in Jinja town to get milkshakes and others went to the pool to chill for the day. I was just content hardcore chilling with some other PCVs who decided to lounge on the couches and not to think about anything other than the warm sunshine and the breeze emanating from the Nile.

Excerpt from Journal:Nile View NRE

“It’s the morning after 4th of July and it’s just so chill right now at the NRE Camp. It’s a bunch of us Peace Corps Volunteers just lounging around here on the open-air couches as a cool breeze blows up the hill from the Nile River and Ben Howard plays in the background. The hangover is slowly dissipating as the day progresses and it’s just a feeling of contentment being surrounded by good friends that are part of my Peace Corps family.

It still feels early because of the residual effects of the hangover, but I wouldn’t have spent the day after the 4th any other way. I rafted yesterday on the Nile River with some of my best friends here and it almost feels like a well-needed vacation. There’s running water, electricity, a beautiful view, and other people here who understand what I’m going through.

That’s the best thing about being among other Peace Corps Volunteers; we understand the hardships that we’re all going through more so than even our best friends and family members back in the United States. It’s just the shared experiences that help us to adjust and get through our struggles.”

In the afternoon we get up from the lounge and put on swim wear in order to swim to the nearby rope swing. In orderBackflip Into Nile to get there, we had to walk on a pathway down the hill to the water and then swim about 10 minutes to another path that had a rope swing. It felt surreal just flying through the air and knowing that you would be landing in the Nile. I felt so free jumping off of that ledge and doing backflips as I released the rope.

Everyone gets back to the Camp later in the evening and 40 of us register for the sunset cruise. We dress up in classier American-themed outfits and get on the “booze cruise”. For two+ hours they served us all-you-can-drink vodka, rum, and gin mixed drinks along with vegetable dips, barbecued ribs, grilled chicken drumsticks, sausages, and crostinis with hummus, tuna salad, and bruschetta.

The breeze was behind us, the view of the Nile was breathtaking, and the sun was setting as we danced, took pictures, and reflected about how awesome life was during those moments. We were in the Peace Corps living in the villages, but for this weekend we could let loose and once again take a break from the latrines, no running water, and Ugandan food.

The boat made it back as the sun set, and we chilled together for one more night as the Netherlands beat Costa Rica in one of the World Cup matches.

Education Cohort 2 Sunset Cruise

July 6th – Sunday

Departure days are always rough because it means going travelling when tired. This time around, I had a PCV friend, Hannah, coming to visit and stay with me for a few days. We shared a brownie sundae at Café Javas and then brought back some parmesan cheese and English bacon for a pasta carbonara dinner. By the time we made it back to site, pumped water, and ate dinner we were exhausted. We both collapsed on the bed and slept deeply.

July 7th – Monday

We both woke up refreshed and ready to start teaching. With Hannah’s help, we taught the Year 1 students a lesson concerning moments in physics. It was great teaching with Hannah, because she brought something new to the class since she was a primary school teacher all the way west in Ibanda. It gave me hope seeing my students solving physics problems involving moments and how they can be taught somewhat difficult concepts if they are given the tools and time to understand them.

We finished the lesson about moments, and then walked around Luteete. I brought her to the Kabaka’s Palace, but Hannah Hilltopthis time around the caretaker let us in. He gave us a short tour in Luganda after we signed the visitors’ book. He then told us not to take pictures and I motioned to Hannah to take pictures anyway as I distracted him with conversation in Luganda.

I then brought Hannah to the top of one of the hills in my area that overlooked a vast majority of the sub-county. We chilled on that hilltop as I played some music and just napped as the clouds loomed so near above us. Dinner that night consisted of the best steaks that I had ever cooked. I broiled slabs of beef in garlic-infused butter with some salt and pepper and it was amazing; I felt like I was eating a restaurant steak dinner back at home.

July 8th – Tuesday

Hannah and I spent the morning preparing for our journey to Nakaseke for the radio show. We stopped by in Nakaseke Community RadioWobulenzi for me to check on my ICT Lab Grant application, and I was ecstatic to find out that it had made it through Peace Corps Washington Headquarters and was on the main website. We continued to Nakaseke where we met up with Mary for the radio show where we discussed the difference between gender roles in Uganda and in America. The main focus on the show involved empowering women, but we also noted the need for men not to feel weak if they wanted to do things that weren’t traditionally seen as being manly, such as cooking.

That night we gorged ourselves on freshly cooked chocolate chip cookies and Rebekah’s famous no-bake cookies. Once again we were exhausted from our travels and passed out in the guest tent pitched in their yard.

July 9th – Wednesday

I bid farewell to Hannah after dropping her off in Wobulenzi. Once again I biked my way back to Luteete on the dustiest road ever. I made it back to my house and got dressed in order to lead a small tutoring session with my students. Instead, there was a ceremony at the Luteete PTC inducting the new student members of the Guild Council. There were synthesizer music playing, bottles of water, smartly dressed students, a reverend who made blatant references to walking with Jesus, and a “professional” photographer.

I laughed at the end of the ceremony because so many students came up to me asking for a “snap”. Now I understood how it felt to be a teacher or faculty member during a graduation ceremony and having the students ask you for a picture. I couldn’t help noticing how proud and happy the upcoming Guild Council members were to be honored as the next group of student leaders. As the sun beat down upon me, I took a moment and remembered my own graduation ceremonies in the US for high school and college. I looked back to how happy I was that I had finally made it and how things were changing.

Things too are changing now, and soon enough my Peace Corps adventures too will find their way to an end. But I find it fitting that the lesson plan that looped around this weekend concerned moments, because we all experienced a lot