Conservation Camp, Kisoro

31/8/15 – 4/9/15

“Let us not stop here, let us bring our ideas home to take root.”

~Booker, Ugandan Camp Counselor

I’m on a late bus headed back to Kisoro on the darkened tarmac road winding through the hills of the “African Alps”. It’s been one of those very memorable weeks of Peace Corps life where you feel like you’re in another world or life. I spent this camp working as the photographer and chef for the Peace Corps Conservation Camp. The camp was held in Kisoro, Uganda which is heralded as the “African Alps” due to the large amount of hills and volcanoes of the rift valley. During this week, 41 Ugandan youth from 6 local secondary schools spent a week at Seseme Girls Secondary School learning how about African conservationists, waste management, tree planting, basket weaving, permagarden construction, beehive construction, eco-tourism, and a city-street cleanup.

Planting Trees

Planting Trees

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

During this camp, I had the opportunity to take photos using one of the newer Canon DSLR cameras and editing the photos on Adobe Lightroom  as the campers went to sessions. This week felt very surreal, because of the beautifully cold Kisoro setting. The Peace Corps counselors stayed at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house and the nearby guesthouse. Throughout the week the campers would attend sessions, do practicals, and create action plans as I took photos, then by 4pm I would leave camp early in order to prepare dinner. I think that we had the best camp food of my Peace Corps service: meat, g-nut sauces, and vegetables for lunch and sushi, stir-fries, pastas, burgers, soups, and pizzas for dinner at the Peace Corps Volunteer’s house.

Conservation Camp Group Photos

Conservation Camp Group Photos

As with all camps, it got more stressful and tiring as the week continued. But it also got more inspiring. Two times during the week we took field trips to Mgahinga Lodge near the base of Mgahinga National Park, the smallest national park in Uganda at the base of Mts. Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo. It felt really epic photographing the youth planting tree saplings along the village roads behind Mgahinga Lodge leading up to the overlooking Mt. Muhabura. I felt epic armed with such a nice camera in such a photogenic setting.

Most of the time, I’m profusely sweating in Uganda. However, in Kisoro it would  get so cold at night that I would actually shiver on the couches in the living room of the PCV’s house. Then during the day if I closed my eyes and felt the golden sun setting on my face coupled with the cool wind from the mountains, I could imagine that I was back in Maryland or Boston during the start of a new school year as the leaves were changing color. As camp ended, I started to think about the upcoming COS Conference for my cohort. It’s so crazy to me to think that this adventure is coming to its final stages. Before long, it will have been my two year anniversary in country, and I will be preparing to fly to Europe.

Conservation Camp Reflection

Conservation Camp Reflection

I find it very comforting to know that I have practically no regrets in my Peace Corps service. It just feels like every weekend, there is some sort of adventure or project happening that makes me feel like what I am living is the life that I am supposed to be living right now. This past week, this service, and this life has been a blur up to this point, and I am beyond incredulous to have made it this far. Two years ago I was planting trees as a landscaper in Maryland, now I am planting trees and ideas here and watching them grow before me.

“I know where you stand, silent in the trees, and that’s where I am silent in the trees. Why won’t you speak where I happen to be? Silent, in the trees, standing cowardly.”

~Trees, Twenty-One Pilots

The 50th Anniversary in Kisoro

6/10/14 – 12/10/14

It was one of those weeks away from site where a lot of things happened, but it felt like no time at all. This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps’ presence in Uganda. Technically the Peace Corps has been in Uganda for less than 50 years because it left during Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970’s and then again in the 1990’s. I guess that the 50 years represent the time that has passed since Peace Corps started having volunteers in Uganda back in 1964. Four celebrations were scheduled for this event: Gulu in the north, Kisoro in the southwest, Tororo in the east, and Kampala in the center. I was invited to the celebration in Kisoro, which was also the one that I wanted to go to since I had helped out Virunga Engineering Works in the past and wanted to go see the sites back there again.

6/10/14 – Monday

I woke up at the New City Annex and was picked up by a PC vehicle that brought me to the Peace Corps HQ. I then boarded one of the 16-seat coasters headed to Kisoro. Honestly, travelling in Uganda isn’t too bad if you have your own private driver who doesn’t stop to pick up livestock or cram 2x the legal number of passengers into the vehicle. In the vehicle were a lot of the Ugandan Peace Corps staff, a fellow PCV Julia, and the literacy coordinator Audrey. We made good time and passed through Mbarara and stopped at the Fuelex station in Ntungamo to get some lunch.

I ran into a takisi filled with other PCV’s who were also headed to Kisoro, and had decided to get a takisi together in Fort Portal. Before I knew it, we were passing through Kabale town and headed through the hilly mountain pass that connected Kabale to Kisoro. It still never ceases to amaze me; the setting sun beyond the winding hills and the hairpin turns. I opened the window to get some fresh air. I felt the cool wind breeze by my face almost as if it was an autumn wind. As the sun passed beyond the rim of the hills and the terraced farmland grew dark, we arrived in Kisoro. I got off the coaster and headed to the Golden Monkey guesthouse where I checked in.

I was instantly greeted by PCV’s from my cohort and those from other cohorts whom I was close with.  We all got dinner at the Golden Monkey, which consisted of pizzas, crayfish chowders, stews, curries, and quesadillas. I suppose that the large influx of tourism due to hiking the volcanoes, gorilla trekking, chimp trekking, batwa pygmy cultural experiences (whatever that means), and beautiful trails has led to the creation of guesthouses, restaurants, and groceries that cater to the particular tastes of the muzungu.

It was a long day of travel for everyone, so we all chilled in our own rooms and slept early in preparation for the official celebration tomorrow.

7/10/14 – Tuesday

I woke up early and got my favorite Kisoro breakfast at Traveller’s, which has this breakfast deal where you can get unlimited coffee, tea, cereal, US Ambassador's Speechmilk and your choice of an omelette, pancake, or French toast for only 10,000/=. Honestly that’s a steal right there. I just realized that as a Peace Corps Volunteer one of the aspects of any situation that I talk about is the food of a particular locale. I hung out there in the brisk autumn morning, while I wore my new kitenge hoodie from Peace by Piece. I then hurried back to Golden Monkey in order to prepare for the 50th Anniversary Celebration that was going to take place at Tourist’s Inn. Peace Corps had very recently informed me that I was the Master of Ceremonies and would be giving the introductory speech to kickoff the event. They told me that all I had to include was when Peace Corps was founded, Peace Corps’ story over the past 50 years, background of the southwest region of Uganda, the sustainability of volunteers’ projects, to showcase specific volunteer projects, thank the hosts, and then introduce the US Ambassador and honored guests. Of course there was no stress involved, especially since I was forced to write the speech in less than 1 hour. This is what I produced and then presented at the celebration:

“Welcome Ambassador Scott DeLisi, his wife, Country Director Loucine Hayes, PCV’s, PCV staff, counterparts, supervisors, and our hosts Virunga Engineering Works to the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Kisoro, Uganda.

In the immortal words of the rapper 2Chainz, “I’m different.” We’re all different and it’s the differences among us that make us stronger and allow us to find creative solutions to problems.

Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by the US President John F. Kennedy with 3 core goals in mind:

  1. To provide a service to the host country
  2. To promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served
  3. To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Right now we are celebrating this 50th Anniversary in Kisoro, Uganda. Kisoro is 8km from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is also home to the Virunga Volcanoes, and the endangered Mountain Gorillas. There are currently 53 Peace Corps Volunteers in the southwest region of Uganda. They speak Runyoro, Rutoro, Runyankore, Rukiga, and Rufumbira and work in the health, economic development, education, and agribusiness sectors.

So we’ve come together right here in the southwestto celebrate half a century of triumphs. There have been some hiccups along the way, such as when Peace Corps had to leave during the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s. But we always came back.

We tend to focus and showcase our own great victories and successes, and they are important and inspiring. But as a fellow PCV, I’ve since come to realize that it’s the little victories everyday that count:

  • getting my PTC students to read and add
  • lighting my sigiri coals without suffocating from smoke
  • not being squeezed by livestock and large Ugandan women in the takisis
  • getting neighbors to understand me
  • and most importantly, having a normal bowel movement

Open Space BoothsIt’s in finding that balance and change of cultures, worlds, and mentalities that allow us to communicate with one another.

Thus we get to our tagline “50 Years of Friendship”. But friendship, unlike most roads in Uganda, is a 2-way street. It’s the push and pull of a bike loaded with matooke, a give and take of shillings for produce at the local market, an up and down pump at the borehole, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and the sharing of cultures from both ourselves and our Ugandan brothers and sisters.

It is friendship that allows us to fuse western fashion with tradition kitenge fabrics, solidarity that inspires us to empower youth through leadership camps, and kinship that moves us together in the struggle to share our stories.

We tell people all the time that if you give a man some food he will eat for a day. If you plant a tree for him, then he will eat for a lifetime. But if you teach him how to plant trees, he will eat for generations.

So with the boldness of explorers, the resourcefulness of innovators, and the faith of martyrs we trek forward… like Gorillas in the Mist.

I think that P-Square and Akon put it the best in their immortal words, “Chop my money… chop my money… ‘cause I don’t care…” Because more important than leaving a legacy behind is letting people know that there are people in this world who still care.

All protocol observed.”

Needless to say, I was a bit stressed since I didn’t have that much time to rehearse it and there were some important people in the audience. However, people seemed to like the speech and a few PCV’s even told me that it was ballsy of me to say what I said. The ceremony itself was short and sweet. It featured a traditional song and dance, a speech by the US Ambassador, and then a speech by the LC5 chairman of Kisoro. Then there was lunch, an open space booth for PCV projects, and a dance party. I myself bought some ground Omwani coffee from the Kyambura Women’s Coffee Cooperative that apparently was named the “Best Cup of Coffee in Uganda”.

After some dancing, I left to go back to Golden Monkey where I met Max, the supervisor for Virunga Engineering Works. Max is equal parts crazy,Jackson and Bruce hip, intelligent, free, and giving. He has been living in Africa for the past 8 years and now lives at the Golden Monkey. He is an engineer by trade and Virunga Engineering Works is his brainchild. He had conceptualized and came up with the design and implementation of the cookstoves by utilizing the local volcanic rocks that acted as effective heat insulators. The unique thing about Max is that he is white and also the supervisor of the two PCV’s in Kisoro, Jim and Bruce. The counterpart and field project manager, Jackson, is Ugandan and works as a foil to Max. Jackson is more level-headed and better at getting things done after Max comes up with the idea. Jackson has previously lived in Sweden and would be considered a very modern Ugandan with more technological knowledge than the average Peace Corps Volunteer.

So Max and a group of about 6 PCV’s made our way up a nearby hill down a road off of Golden Monkey. We walked along a grassy trail that sloped upwards past stone quarries and sloping farmland. When we got to the top of the hill-ridge we entered a small forest that gave way to a grassy knoll between two large hills. To our left we could see the Virunga Volcanoes and to our right we could see Lake Mutanda. I still feel as if that grassy hill is one of my favorite places in all of Uganda. I find myself hard-pressed to even think of another place that is as natural, local, and cool as that place.

We continued our way down a gently-sloping dirt path that snaked its way down the other side of the hills towards Lake Mutanda. I felt that I passed through several ecosystems on this 2+ hour trek. At first we walked on a dirt road through winding down the side of a large hill that led to villages in the middle of a jungle that in turn led to typical Ugandan villages surrounded by what looked like vineyards.  I turned around at some point and asked one of my companions, “Are we in Napa Valley right now?”

Path to Lake Mutanda

Path to Lake Mutanda

Lake Mutanda Dock

Lake Mutanda Dock

When we arrived at Lake Mutanda we set up our stuff at the dock and then plunged in for a refreshing swim. The water felt so cool and good after such a long hike. Even though all PCV’s are warned about the dangers of Schistosomiasis from swimming in freshwater bodies in Uganda, most of us still do it. I guess that it’s the “live while we’re young” attitude, because if we don’t swim in the lake now then we may regret it later in life. Then again, I may also regret getting Schisto in about 40 years when the snails enter my spinal cord and cause damage to my nervous system.

After swimming, Virunga Engineering Works sent a truck to drive us back to Rafiki Guesthouse and the official dance party. There was some good Rainbow Roadbarbecued food here, enough ketchup for me since I love ketchup, and enough gin to get drunk. My fondest memories from the night involve being told that I usually have this glass box around myself that I use to hide my real self from people, seeing PCV’s who were celebrating their birthdays getting iced*, and dancing to Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. You know that moment when you all know and love a certain song and you’re drunk enough that you’ll just dance all out to it? Well that was our group of PCV’s in the courtyard of Rafiki as we jumped and danced to the beat of Miley Cyrus. It felt pretty epic, and was a fitting end to such an epic day of celebrations.

We then went back to our respective guest houses, chilled for a bit, and then went to bed.

8/10/14 – Wednesday

Today was much more low-key than the day before. I got breakfast at Traveller’s and then joined a group of PCV’s to do some morning yoga on the top of the hill between the volcanoes and the lake. It felt epic going through the Vinyasa with our certified PCV Yogi, Amanda. The reflection of the day was “I am fearless and immovable.” And on the edge of the hill overlooking the villages and lake below I felt very content. If I was feeling out of balance a month ago, then I felt very in-balance during this week. Life felt good.

Yoga on the HillWe finished our yoga as the rain started to fall. In the early afternoon, trucks came to pick us up for a barbecue on the shores of Lake Mutanda. There was this wall-less building with tables and a thatched roof where we hung out and ate some aged Gouda cheese and stroop waffles from Amsterdam that PCV Elmy brought back with her from her recent vacation. At one point we were all asked to walk up to this landing that overlooked the lake for a surprise. When we walk up there, Jim and Bruce reveal a washbasin filled with Smirnoff Ice. We were all iced! About 30+ PCV’s all knelt down on one knee in unison to chug our bottles. Once again, another epic moment that also showcases how PCV’s tend to recycle the trends of the past 5 years.

I wandered around the shores of the lake and shared some stories with some of the newer PCV’s. I even got to hear some new stories from some of the PCV’s from my own cohort, including this hilarious one involving Las Vegas, day-drinking, a pool, and being called your friend’s aunt because she drunkenly yelled “Aunt Mandy” as she was being dragged out of the pool by medics.

I stopped with some other PCV’s at Tourists, because I heard that there was a sauna there. I got to then sweat off my toxins in both a dry and a steamy sauna, which still blows my mind whenever I see them in Uganda. I felt so relaxed, especially with the eucalyptus leaves draped over the heaters in both rooms.

If yesterday was the party and adventure day, then today was the chill and relaxing day.

9/10/14 – Thursday

I started today once again at Traveller’s for breakfast with a bacon and cheese pancake which was an improvement from the breakfast that I had there yesterday. We then headed back to Golden Monkey Guesthouse. There was some discussion about travelling to see the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Eventually the group split up with some people going back to Lake Mutanda and another group wandering around Kisoro town. I was a part of this latter group and walked eastwards towards the market area of Kisoro, after realizing that my laptop wouldn’t register any charge. My new laptop doesn’t hold charge for any substantial amount of time, and even though it was plugged in it wouldn’t register that it was plugged in. I was pissed off because this would be the second laptop that broke with me in-country. I just decided to clear my mind and explore Kisoro for a bit.

I stopped by a Beekeeping Cooperative, the produce stands, and finally found what I was looking for: these tote bags made out of multi-colored strands of woven plastic that a lot of the local women use to transport produce to and from the markets. The woven blue, red, white, black, yellow, and green strands stand out in contrast with the natural environment and typical brown-woven baskets.

I returned back to the Coffee Pot and got the amazing bacon wrap with lettuce salad. It tasted incredible; with a sweet vinaigrette dressing and huge chunks of crispy bacon in a fresh tortilla. I was impressed at how delicious the whole meal was. I mean it was as if I was eating a wrap at a local café back in the United States. Back at the Golden Monkey I was still upset due to my broken laptop. Fortunately, I was able to consult supervisor Max who was able to offer his bedroom (that also doubled as an engineering workroom) in order to troubleshoot my laptop. Max suggested that I remove and then re-insert the battery of my laptop, so I did it and it worked. I felt so relieved that I could use my laptop again, because I was imagining that I would need to go without one again for an extended period of time. The rest of the afternoon was spent doing some much-needed napping.

When the group got back from the lake, we coordinated dinner at Jim’s house. We picked up the ingredients to make a Bolognese sauce for pasta. Then we arrived at his house which has two stories and is gorgeous. It was nicer than most college apartments that I’ve seen with a marble countertop, couches, and spacious rooms. We quickly prepared the Bolognese sauce using my favorite recipe that I saw during an Anne Burrell Food Network show. We also had a dessert of beer bread that we baked on top of the sigiri using a portable Coleman Oven. I felt like I was back in college as we just hung out in different areas of the apartment.

VirungaSome people were playing a game called Salad Bowl where each participant had to write down 5 different words on separate pieces of paper and then place them in a bowl in the middle of the table. The participants were split into two teams and during one’s turn he or she had to pick a piece of paper out of the hat and describe it to her team in order to get them to guess it. If successful, the player gets to pick up another piece of paper from the hat and continue until the 1 minute of allotted time is up. The number of correct guesses by the player’s team is the same number of points that that team gets for that turn. The teams each take turns allowing a representative to go and describe as many words as he or she can for the 1 minute of time. After all the words are used up from the bowl, they are placed back inside and the teams start the whole game again, this time with the player only being allowed to say one word to describe the word on the piece of paper. The third round involves charades.

It was a fitting end and night to being in Kisoro. It was a lot of good friends and people all gathered together in a communal atmosphere just to hang out and feel somehow normal. Even now I can’t believe that I’ve been here since Monday. Kisoro feels very different than the other regions of Uganda that I have visited. It’s much cooler here due to the higher elevation, and the background of the town itself is comprised of towering mountains, hills, and volcanoes shrouded in both mists and clouds. Another interesting thing that I noticed was that a lot of the locals here kept saying, “Give me money!” almost as if it was a greeting. I surmised that since there were a lot of muzungus who passed through here that they were used to be given handouts more-so than the locals in a lot of our own villages.

I don’t know if I can even put into words just how epic it felt to feel the breeze blowing through my entire being as I gazed upon Mount Muhuvura and Lake Mutanda again. Or if I could ever capture that feeling of adventure as I trekked on the winding pathways from the hill through terraced farms and dirt roads that stretched to the banks of the lake.

10/10/14 – Friday

Today was the travel day. I was hitching a ride with Bruce, Jackson, and some Virunga Engineering Works staff members to install two stoves at Ravi’s site in Butiiti in Kyenjojo. The ride there was an adventure in itself

Journal Entry:

Transporting the Virunga Cookstoves“the feeling of cool wind as I was perched on the metal frame of the truck bed, mist, clouds, fresh airs, and breezes”

I sat in the back of a truck bed and would stand up, supported by a welded metal frame that encompassed the entirety of the bed. This allowed me to get some amazing shots of the winding roads from Kisoro to Kabale. We continued past Kabale to Ntungamo where we shot northwards through stone quarries into Busheny and into Kasese where we drove through the outskirts of Queen Elizabeth National Park. We stopped in Fort Portal for dinner at the Duchess, which is said to have the best pizza in Uganda. I would have to agree with this statement. As we left Fort Portal going east, we passed by tea plantations which were covered by a sprawling fog made eerie by the pale moonlight. I remember closing my eyes and inhaling the smell of cool, earthy pine for just a split second and imagine that I was back in New England on one of my autumn bike adventures. Eventually we arrived at St. Augustine’s Butiiti PTC and passed out from more than 12 hours of travel time.

11/10/14 – Saturday

This was the working day. Bruce, Ravi, and the VEW staff mobilized the PTC principal and cooking staff to begin the process of installing the new Installing the Cookstovesstoves. The problem was that the new stoves were supposed to be placed where the old cement stoves were. So the local carpenter came by and doled out sledgehammers and pickaxes for us to break away the old cement/brick stoves. The stoves were installed in the cooking area and the staff started instructing the cooking staff the most effective way to cut and store the firewood in order to maximize the usage of the new cookstoves. I made sure to document the installation as best as I could and even made a promotional video.

The PTC provided a vehicle for us to go to Fort Portal to buy some groceries for dinner. I got the food necessary to make Filipino Adobo and a simple Pancit for dinner. I had never really done anything in Fort Portal other than eat at the Duchess. It’s a beautiful town that has an almost American downtown layout of the shops. I filmed Ravi saying a few lines in Rutoro for my Oh the Places You’ll Go project. We headed back to the PTC as it got dark, and made some dinner. The noodles for the Pancit didn’t turn out the way I wanted them, but the flavor was still there and even the Ugandan VEW staff enjoyed it.

12/10/14 – Sunday

They say Sunday is a day of rest, but for me it’s usually a day of travelling. I left Butiiti in the morning and in Mukunyu, caught a takisi headed for Kampala. I slept for most of the ride and was eager to return home. Since I was coming from the west, I got off at the bypass outside Kampala and boarded a connecting takisi headed to Bwaise where I found a takisi going to Wobulenzi. This method was much more convenient, faster, and cheaper than first getting dropped off at the Taxi Park and then finding a takisi headed all the way to Wobulenzi.

I got back to Wobulenzi, did my normal market shopping, and then biked back to Luteete. I got back and unloaded all of my bags at home. Surprisingly, the electricity was on early today and I turned my laptop on. Instead of marathoning tv shows on my external hard drive, I decided to walk and talk with my neighbors. One of the girls asked me if I knew how to split firewood. I responded that I didn’t and she proceeded to show me how. I was laughably bad; bad enough that I gained an audience of village children who were pointing at my mistakes and joking about my bad form.

I too thought that it was hilarious. It wasn’t lost on me that I give them such a hard time when they have trouble understanding technology or dealing with something foreign to them that I deserved being mocked for what is considered a basic skill here. I was really bad. It got to the point where I completely missed the log at one point. Fortunately, my neighbor Godfrey showed me the correct way to hold and swing the axe. After a few swings I was able to split the log with a moderate amount of effort. It felt so good to cut wood, since I had never really done it before.

Luteete Sunset Maybe it’s something to do with being a guy, but I feel like splitting wood is a fun chore. I get some instant gratification from swinging the axe at a hunk of dead tree, and chop it into smaller pieces that the womenfolk can use to cook. I’m kidding of course about that last part, but still it was very gratifying to cut wood the old-fashioned way. I thanked my neighbors and informed them that they should let me know the next time they will cut firewood.

Before I knew it the week was already over. I had travelled hundreds of kilometers, cooked many dishes, and interacted with a multitude of people in a variety of situations and locations. It gets to the point where I feel that I live more in a week here than I could ever hope to live in a month back in the United States. I’m actually struggling to find a way to poignantly end this blog post, but I believe that in this case it’s almost impossible to succinctly summarize what I experienced in the past week. Once again there are no words that can capture these experiences. Simply put, the adventure continues.

Another Chance

Another Chance

9/7/14

 

I honestly think that this month of August has been a blur. I almost feel as if my friends and family members wouldn’t believe it if I shared it. A lot of things happened all at the same time to the point where I just want to sleep for a few weeks and just rest without doing anything just so that I could process what has happened in the past three weeks. I think it’s that leaving site for long periods of time takes a toll on you that you can’t even begin to fathom until you’ve been away from it for so long. Right now I’m in Entebbe slightly hungover and out of it. I think that it’s been a mixture of travelling for so long in the throngs of madding crowds, public transportation in general, night buses, the arctic tundra that is the southwest region, not being able to cook for myself, getting a sinus infection, spending a night with a PCV’s cat (which I’m allergic to), not having a usable laptop since mine broke during a coffee camp, drinking and celebrating with PCV’s in different regions especially with a recently engaged PCV couple, attending an all PCV Uganda conference, geeking out on mefloquine, and just not understanding life or what I stand for at the moment. So this blog post will a sort of catharsis for me in order to get my chaotic thoughts down in word form in order to process my turbulent emotions.

 

Coffee Camp, Kasese August 18 – 23

I was originally asked by some Peace Corps staff members to help out with filming a promotional video for a Coffee Camp that would be held in Kasese to the far west of Uganda. The main goal of Coffee Camp was to empower the local youth in the Kasese region to utilize coffee as a financial means to develop themselves and attain their goals. I was driven in a Peace Corps vehicle from Kampala to Kasese. I travelled along with the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, Loucine, and one of the other PCV’s, Jim from Kisoro, who had recently gotten engaged during one of the Peace Corps camps last week. We passed through Fort Portal and stopped to drink some coffee and eat some of the best pizza that I’ve eaten in country at the Duchess restaurant.

We continued on our way to the Kasese district which was absolutely gorgeous. As we transitioned from the central regions to the west the landscape changed from farms of matooke to open fields and the rolling foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Our final destination was Sarah Castagnola’s site in the Kyarumba village deeper in the depths of the Rwenzori foothills. We turned off of the main Kampala-Fort Portal road and instantaneously the tarmac gave way to a potholed dirt road. Before we knew it we were winding our way down a single-lane dirt road that wound its way through the verdant hillsides of Kasese. Everywhere I looked there were looming hills infinitely undulating into the horizon. There were hairpin turns at almost every single point, and our driver had to honk the horn before turning so that incoming boda bodas and cars would know to slow down in order to avoid a collision.

DSC_0003

Kasese Paved Road

Stone Riverbad Road

Stone Riverbad Road

As we drove deeper into the inroads of the foothills the dirt road disappeared completely and became a dry riverbed of stones. A lot of the pathways in this region resulted from the always-evolving pathways of the streams in this area. The pathways always change due to farming, erosion, rainy season, and various other development factors in the region. So the ride into Kyarumba was bumpy, and after about 45 minutes of driving through winding roads and riverbed stones we met up with Sarah Castagnola at the Mutanywana Secondary School where the Coffee Camp was taking place.

I couldn’t believe my luck in being able to attend this gorgeous and unique camp dedicated to empowering youth in this region through the medium of coffee. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon to see 12 year olds blackout drunk on the village streets at night or 13 year old girls carrying their babies to school. It is because of this reason that Sarah along with the the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative decided to put on this camp. Unlike most Peace Corps camps such as BUILD and GLOW, the Kasese Coffee Camp was primarily Ugandan-run by the employees of the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative. The desire to empower the local youth in this region was so great that Bukonzo Joint provided 50% of the camp funding as opposed to the minimal amount of 25% needed for a Peace Corps grant to be approved.

Kyarumba

Kyarumba

This camp also taught the local youth entrepreneurial skills critical to running a business (not necessarily agricultural in nature), smartly dealing with finances, developing leadership skills, and seeing coffee as a gift. It felt good to see the Ugandans in this area really invested in their youth. This camp was all for them, and my job was to film videos documenting what the camp was about and the experiences of the students, staff members, and camp facilitators.

There wasn’t a single angle where the view wasn’t amazing and awe-inspiring. Even wild Arabica coffee plants were growing on the pathways to the pit latrines. In the background of the school I could see mountains towering in the distance with clouds peeking behind their shadows, and even the school campus has gigantic boulders shaping the natural shape of the school campus. As per usual, there was a tea break between every major meal; however, locally roasted and brewed coffee was served in lieu of tea. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of drinking the rich flavor of the coffee that was served during each coffee break along with seeing the gorgeous view of the surrounding environment.

Wild Coffee Plant

Wild Coffee Plant

I was also able to see the entirety of the coffee value chain from “crop to cup”. We saw how the coffee saplings were planted in nurseries, transferred to coffee farms, had their red coffee berries picked, sorted by grade at one of the many washing stations, fermented, hulled, dried, and then either locally roasted and sold or shipped to high-end coffee shops and distributors. As an economic development PCV, Sarah explained to us some of the challenges of working with the small Bukonzo Joint Cooperative. For example, some of the larger coffee companies do bait-and-switch tactics in order to get coffee farmers to quickly produce low grade coffee for seemingly larger amounts of money than Bukonzo Joint can pay; however, in the end the farmers end up losing out on a sustainable opportunity to make money for themselves in the long run as well as being duped into producing sub-standard coffee for less money than they were promised.

Coffee Nursery

Coffee Nursery

Sorting Coffee Cherries

Sorting Coffee Cherries

Of course, no Peace Corps camp is complete without sessions concerning HIV/AIDS, financial management, and in this instance, creative ways to use coffee other than for drinking (soaps, candles, exfoliating face masks). Another reason why local Ugandans ran this camp was that most of the youth only spoke the local language of Kasese, Lukonzo, and the English that they did know was very limited. This led to very funny misunderstandings such as most of the campers assuming that I actually had HIV/AIDS during a skit where I pretended to be someone who had it.

We also brought the campers to Queen Elizabeth National Park which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though many of the youth lived within one hour of this tourist park, most of them never even knew that this existed or that eco-tourism is another form of employment. We woke up before the crack of dawn and drove from Kyarumba to the park where a small herd of elephants blocked our path on the dirt road and baboons stole packed bananas from our hands. We took a ferry ride on Lake Albert and it felt like some sort of surreal safari as Wilder beasts chilled in the water by the banks and hippopotamuses swam next to the ferry. The main purpose of the ride was to demonstrate that many people saw Kasese as this beautiful region filled with a multitude of wildlife, flora, and fauna that visitors would pay to see and explore if given the chance and opportunity.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park

When the youth were asked what coffee meant to them, they responded with varying answers ranging from money, wealth, opportunity, and normalcy. This community was able to transform coffee into electricity and bridges, stemming from the proceeds that the community made selling coffee in the past few years. Coffee literally becomes a lifeblood of the Bakonza people. It is the smell of the good earth upon which they live on and on which they hope to thrive on. When one of the campers was talking with our PC Country Director and asked what coffee smelled like to him, he answered, “It smells like life.”

So Coffee Camp was amazing and gorgeous, but of course like life I had some ups and downs. I ended up having my laptop break during the middle of the camp and got another surprise bout of Giardia on the last day. I don’t know how either of those mishaps occurred, but I know that they both sucked. My laptop refuses to turn on once I turn on the power button even though I have it plugged in and the lights shows that it’s charging. That was a lost cause that devastated me especially since I am utilized as a media guy in Peace Corps. Fortunately, I always keep spare Tinidazole in my camera bag which I took after consulting with PCMO who told me that I may possibly have a somehow drug-resistant form of Giardia since it keeps popping up every 2 months or so.

We were driven back to Kampala in a Peace Corps vehicle which was so nice compared to any other form of public transportation that I could have taken. I check into the Annex in Kampala and reconvene with some other PCV’s who had just finished the Girl Tech Camp in Shimoni Core PTC. A lot of PCV’s were preemptively congregating in Kampala since the next few days were the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference. Since I had taken Giardia medicine earlier that morning, I couldn’t eat dairy or drink alcohol for the next 24 hours. A bunch of the PCV’s wanted to go out, and I obliged although I went without drinking. At some point in the night, we ended up at this club called Iguana near Acacia Mall that was playing EDM and dubstep which was super dope. We get back to our beds at 6am and sleep.

 

All Volunteer Conference, Lweza, August 24 – 28

I wake up from my very restful nap and get ready for All Volunteer Conference. As the merchandise guy for Peer Support Network, I was in charge of bringing over 200 t-shirts to the Lweza Training and Conference Center from Kampala. It was a shit show of a day, since the guy who makes and screen prints the t-shirts gave me the wrong orders and missed out on providing me with the correct t-shirt sizes. We remedied the problem, and I carried the t-shirts in a taped plastic bag on my head like a village woman through the main streets of Kampala until I found a car that would drive me to the training center. There was air conditioning in the car, which was a big deal.

I was just so ecstatic and exhausted to hang out with all the volunteers. Technically the conference would have started on the 25th, but PCV’s working on different committees and projects were given special permission to arrive a day earlier.

On the morning of the 25th PCV’s started to trickle in. There was a 50th Anniversary meeting concerning the logistics behind the Peace Corps Uganda 50th Anniversary Celebrations that would be occurring throughout the country in order to commemorate how long Peace Corps has been in Uganda. There will be regional events showcasing the great work that PCV’s do as well as the “50 Years of Friendship” between PCV’s and Ugandans. The day was also hectic with film crews running around filming local language tongue twisters, setting up planning areas for PSN, and just general coordinating.

That night was a great night, because over 150+ of us PCV’s were gathered in the large conference hall as the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference Bonfirelaunch ceremony began. It was SNL themed with skits making fun of not knowing if it was, is, or will be rainy season, sharing shoutouts to the successes of the different cohorts and groups, singing the legendary and taboo song “Three Guys on a Boda”, and explaining the format of the All Volunteer Conference. The interesting thing about this conference is that unlike other PC workshops, this conference is primarily PCV-run. The concept that had successfully worked last year was open space, and it was being brought to this conference too. The idea of open space is that PCV’s can lead whatever session they want at a certain, designated time during the week so that there are several sessions all going on at the same time in different areas throughout the training center that other PCV’s could attend if they so desired. The sessions ranged from discussing revisions to the boda boda policy, hair braiding, new camp ideas, creative facilitation, incorporating sing-alongs in primary school, swing dancing, video project ideas, Ugandan travel guides, and so much more.

What I loved about this conference was the potential to do as much or as little as you wanted depending on your current demeanor and mood. After the launch ceremony, a giant bonfire was lit and the PCV’s started to mingle. My extroverted self loved seeing the mingling of the different groups and cohorts. I remember sharing some heart-to-heart conversations with some other PCV’s about being happy knowing that we’re living the life that we wanted to live and making our service count. There’s something just so Peace Corps about bonfires and hearing someone play a Sublime song on a guitar as another PCV smokes out of his homemade corn-cob pipe as shots of whiskey are passed around.

All Vol VolleyballThe next day was stressful. I attended a PSN group meeting, did some yoga, sold shirts for PSN during lunchtime, participated in the fiasco that was the 50th Anniversary Group Picture and rap song (yes, rap song), leading a session on the local language “Oh the Places You’ll Go” video project, filming scenes and interviews for a safety and security bystander intervention video, playing volleyball, and stressing out that night in frustration over not being able to use a Macbook that keeps crashing with the FinalCut Pro X video editing software. I was just so stressed by the end of the day because I knew that I had so many things on my plate and so many other things that I wanted to do and no laptop to accomplish any of them. All I just wanted to do was finish editing the video and play some Age of Empires II with my friends while I still had the chance to play with them. However, as one of my best PCV friends reminded me “This too shall pass, and tomorrow you’ll feel better.”

The next morning was just one of those mornings when I just didn’t want to wake up. If I could have slept for a few more days I would have done so. However, I rallied myself together to face the day and things did get better. I finished editing the video and discovered that another PCV had an extra laptop that I could buy off of him at a decent price. The day was busy as usual, and before I knew it night had come and it was time for Peace Corps Prom. Most of the PCV’s bought or had a “prom outfit” made for this night. We all danced the night away and ended up continuing the party at Bubbles Express down the road. Honestly, this night was such a reversal from the previous night. It was almost as if everything that had gone wrong or felt wrong from the day before had reversed to become such an amazing day and night. Peace Corps Prom ended on a very high note and I got back to bed around 5am, which incidentally was also around the same time my Lweza dorm mate got back.

 

Rwanda Trip, Kampala to Kigali, August 28 –  31

It almost seemed that it was one adventure after another. Everyone is trying to leave Lweza as soon as possible, especially me since I was planning to go to Rwanda for a two-day vacation that night. I was slated to go with three other PCV’s, Rachel B, Rachel C, and Steve. The funny thing was that we were so busy with All Volunteer Conference activities that we didn’t really plan for Rwanda. So we started by asking people in the conference center parking lot how to get to Rwanda. After about an hour of asking questions and with the input of 6 different PCV’s we pieced together that we needed to take one of the bigger night bus companies such as GaaGaa Bus Company, buy a 40,000/= each ticket for a bus that leaves Kampala at 6pm, and then arrive at the GaaGaa bus park near City Center in Kampala by 5:30pm.

Somehow all four of us get on the bus despite the torrential downpour and exhaustion post All Volunteer Conference, and make our way to Kigali, Rwanda. The GaaGaa night bus was so nice because there was actually room to move my legs and there weren’t any livestock on the bus. We reach the Uganda-Rwanda border around 2am and it’s frigid outside. We try to check in through the border control, and are told that we’ve been living illegally in the country. So from the get-go we’re almost arrested/deported until we explain to the border control manager that we actually have legitimate visas in our Peace Corps passports that allow us to live in Uganda.

Once we pass through, we are surrounded by random men who try to get us to exchange our dollars into Rwandan francs. From what we were told from our GaaGaa Busfellow PCV’s earlier that day, it’s much better to exchange the dollars into francs at the border because you get a better exchange rate rather than finding a place in Kigali. One of the guys attempts to give us a bad exchange rate, but is then beaten away by this chubby Ugandan man in camouflage gear who was wielding a stick. I called him stick guy. So I then told all of the exchange rate guys to line up and one-by-one tell me their exchange rates. I then asked stick guy to verify who was the most trustworthy exchanger, and we exchanged our dollars into francs right then and there (we did $1 = 690 Rwandan Francs).

We continue on the buses to Kigali where we continue to sleep inside the bus until 7am. We then make our way to the Discover Hostel which actually feels like a legitimate European hostel. What struck me the most about Kigali was how clean and put-together it was. It almost seemed like it was this small, European town with roads devoid of any potholes and boda boda drivers who wore helmets and actually stopped for streetlights and traffic.

Meze FreshBy this point it’s already the 29th so we check into the hostel, get our bearings, shower, and eat a delicious breakfast of Rwandan coffee and French croissants at La Brioche Café. We finish eating and then instantly make our way to Meze Fresh, which is exactly like a Chipotle. Oh my God it was amazing and worth the entire trip over to Rwanda. I had pulled pork with cheese, salsas, lettuce, and more sauces than my taste buds could handle along with a corona and lime. I literally could not believe what I was eating.

After lunch, we made our way to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Museum showcasing the history of the Tutsi genocide by the Hutus. The museum was extremely well-done, and really set the historical and emotional stage behind how and why the genocide occurred. It also didn’t shy away from the horrible details behind the genocide. The most emotionally charged part of the exhibit was called L’Avenir Perdu (The Lost Future) which was showed large pictures of smiling children with plaques detailing their names, ages, favorite food, favorite pastime, last words, and the exact way they were killed.

Journal Entry:

“I didn’t expect the emotional response that I would get from this exhibit. So many of them remind me of the children whom I teach in my villages and schools. I literally started to tear up as I entered this exhibit.”

Quote from the Museum:Kigali Memorial Gardens

“Genocide is likely to occur again

Learning about it is the first step to understanding it.

Understanding I is imperative to respond to it.

Responding to it is essential to save lives.

Otherwise ‘Never Again’ will remain ‘Again and Again…’”

I was a wreck within seconds of entering this part of the museum.

I would see these beautiful smiling faces of toddlers who reminded me of beautiful children in my village in Luteete.

Example:

Name: Sarah

Age: 7

Favorite Food: Passionfruit and Chips

Favorite Past-time: Playing with grandmother

Last Words: “Will we be okay?”

Method of Death: Hacked apart by machete

I’ve never been hit so hard by an exhibit or museum like this before. And it was interesting noting the difference in atmosphere in Rwanda now as opposed to two decades ago. From what I heard and read about it almost seems as if there is a lot of things hidden under the surface in Rwanda. I honestly don’t know any specifics, but it just felt weird knowing that there are still many people living in Rwanda who are living in the midst of others who committed a genocide against their people.

After we finished going through the museum, we needed some time to decompress so we headed to Hotel des Milles Collines which was the famous hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. We chilled by the pool area and drank some good Rwandan beer, Primus and Mutzig. We also realized that we had been incorrectly saying thank you in Kinyarwanda. Instead of saying morikoze (thank you), we had been saying irakonje, which means cold. This explained some of the weird looks that we were getting from the men and women whom we encountered in Kigali.

The rest of our stay in Kigali involved dancing at the Sundowner Bar/Club, eating three more times at Meze Fresh, drinking more amazing coffee at BourbonHotel des Milles Collines Café, checking out Kimironco Craft Market, talking with the locals about the disappearance of the French language in Rwanda, realizing that it’s alright to say the word gay in Rwanda but not so much Tutsi or Hutu, seeing the Peace Corps Rwanda HQ, meeting up with other Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers at Guma Guma (think Rwanda’s American Idol) in Amahoro National Stadium, having someone drunkenly sleepwalk into the hostel room filled with UN workers and sleep in one of their beds, being told by one of the Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers that you are not welcome there, and experiencing a hookup experience straight from a sitcom where said person couldn’t get back to the hostel until later because it was the last Sunday of the month which meant that everything (including the streets) were closed and shut down until 12pm for cleaning day, Umuganda.

Henceforth this is why the poloroid picture of our Rwandan group at Guma Guma is titled “The Night of Broken Friendships”. Other than some of the misunderstandings, it was very interesting getting to meet our Peace Corps Rwanda brethren. A lot of them told us that Kigali was very boring and that they saw Kampala as being much more lively and full of culture. On the other hand, we expressed to them how excited we were to eat burritos and walk in a city where we didn’t have to continuously look at our feet the whole time to avoid potholes. To be fair, there is a lot more to do in Uganda simply because it’s a bigger country and due to the rich diversity in landscape, activities, and never knowing what’s going to happen.

Guma Guma: The Night of Broken Friendships

Guma Guma: The Night of Broken Friendships

Kisoro and Virunga, Kisoro, August 31 – September 2

The Rwanda group parted ways the morning of the 31st, with Rachel B and I heading back to Uganda to Kisoro. We took a coaster from the Kigali bus park to Musanze/Ruhengeri. The ride there was absolutely glorious as we passed through forested mountain passes and fields of traditional farm vegetables whose leaves were undulating in the wind. Musanze reminded me of this small, grid town with infrastructure a little bit better than Uganda’s. We ate at this French Café called La Pallotte which had amazing meatballs and croissants. We then took a takisi to Cyanika where we crossed back over the border into Uganda without much effort at all. Then we took a private hire to Rafiki Guest House in Kisoro where we met with the PCV Jim whom I hung out with in Kasese for Coffee Camp. He was also the PCV who had recently gotten engaged at the last Peace Corps Camp in Mbale.

Honestly, it just felt so good to be back in Uganda with PCV’s who unconditionally loved us and would take care of us. I was so happy to cook in his guest house room and eat some cauliflower and rice with a curried, peanut soy sauce. I also got to use the internet which was absolutely fantastic for me since I had been internet free for quite some time due to my broken laptop.

We stopped by Kisoro because I was helping Jim out with the basics of filming a promotional video for his organization, Virunga Engineering Works, which Kisoro Hillprimarily creates and supplies fuel efficient cookstoves for schools throughout Uganda. Virunga is named after one of the volcanoes that is a defining feature of Kisoro’s skyline. The PCV’s who are in Kisoro now are Jim who is about to COS and Bruce who just started his Peace Corps service. The coolest part about their region is that they are said to have the most beautiful site in all of Peace Corps Uganda. After having breakfast at one of the tourist lodges in the area, we worked on some footage of the Virunga workshop and cookstoves and some interviews with Bruce and his Ugandan counterpart. I thought that Kisoro was a beautiful town, but I was blown away by the majesty of the natural land formations when I climbed the small Nyamirima Hill which gave me the million shilling view of Lake Mutanda to one side of the horizon and the Virunga volcano shrouded in clouds to the other side of the horizon. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes as the wind whipped around me.

It was weird knowing that this was just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and that some people would never be able to appreciate the beauty of this area or see it. It was fitting that Jim worked as a professional photographer before he did Peace Corps and that he was placed in the most beautiful site in Uganda. We then had cheeseburgers for lunch at the artsy Mucha restaurant run by a Hungarian lady, and then filmed a few market day scenes of the women carrying their home-woven baskets atop their heads before heading back to make a Tikka Masala dinner complete with whiskey.

In the midst of all this, one of my old middle school teachers, Miss Goode, friend requested me on Facebook. Miss Goode taught me 6th and 7th grade science and mathematics at Sacred Heart School of Glyndon. Out of all the teachers in my life, I can honestly say that she was one of those teachers who had made the biggest impact. She made me fall in love with math and science and know that I could not only excel in those subjects but also apply them in a way that kept me wanting to learn more. I had been emailing her on her Yahoo email account for quite some time because almost everyone had lost contact with her, but still remembered her.

In her message she told me how my email last year emotionally resounded in her and helped reinforce the notion that her college degree and teaching was not a waste of time. She shared that while she had inspired us all the way back then, it was now we who are inspiring her now as she reads and sees our accomplishments and adventures in fields far away from Glyndon, Maryland.

Journal Entry:

“What an adventure it’s been, I don’t even understand it. So many faces and emotions that it’s ridiculous to even understand what’s going on. But today wasBunyonyi Boat a particularly glorious day.”

On the morning of the 2nd Jim and Bruce’s organization drove us through the mountain pass roads connecting Kisoro and Kabale. Once again we experienced hairpin turns in the pouring rain, and made our way to Kabale where we picked up two other PCV’s, Amanda and Matt. We were dropped off by the pier of Lake Bunyonyi because we wanted to get some footage of the Lake Bunyonyi Secondary School where a Virunga Engineering Works cookstoves was installed a few months ago. The school was located on the largest island on Lake Bunyonyi and used to be the site of a PCV who had recently ET’d (early terminated).

It felt weird being back in Kabale so soon after I had just chilled there right before Coffee Camp. But it was nice to be there in the presence of good company and friends. Instead of taking the night bus back to Kampala that night, Rachel B and I stayed with Amanda and Matt at Amanda’s apartment in Kabale with their cat. We made burgers and drank red wine, which coupled with my ongoing sinus infection and cat allergies made me swell and clog up worse than most plumbing problems in Uganda.

Back Home, Luteete, September 3-5

I finally had the chance to breathe again in the cool Kabale air on the morning of September 3rd. It was a rough bus ride back to Kampala simply because I was still swollen from hanging out with red wine and a non-hypo-allergenic cat. I just had a headache, was tired, and just ready to get back to my site. I get to Kampala, eat a quick lunch at Brood, leave my laptop with an Indian man who is good with repairing electronics near a Shoprite on Entebbe Road, and then finally made it back to my site.

It felt so good to get back to site; I felt like I’d been away for so long. I just didn’t feel normal not being back at my house and cooking for myself. I spent all day of the 4th lesson planning, weeding my courtyard, buying market produce, doing laundry, and just playing with the village children. I was just so content and felt as if I was truly back at home and normal.

Before I knew it, I was already leaving site in order to get to Entebbe for the Central Welcome Weekend. To be honest, I never realized how busy I could actually be in the Peace Corps. I never imagined that I would ever be utilized for media work, especially since I consider myself just an amateur. It’s been a crazy adventure thus far, and even as I typed this entire blog post in one of the dorm rooms here at Backpacker’s Entebbe I still feel a bit off. It’s a mixture of stress, exhaustion, a hangover, and general anxiety from being separated from my site for an extended period of time. I felt so out of it earlier today, the 6th, and felt almost as if there was this immense weight of life, tasks, and stresses to accomplish. There was actually a point today when I felt that I couldn’t feel happy, but I still knew deep down inside of me that this too would pass.

And in the large scheme of things I mainly came to this event in order to support the new PCV’s who came to this event. I wanted them to feel welcomed and know that there are the older PCV’s who care and to know that in all things the cycle continues from one PCV to another.

From these experiences in this blog post, I think that what I took from my experiences was that everyone deserves another chance.