It’s a Choice

8/7/15 – 10/7/15

“Ah you know, for us Ugandans we don’t believe that. It is different over here.”

I have come to realize that even when armed with logic and sound reasoning presented in a straightforward manner, my target audience still has the choice to either believe what I am saying or disagree. Most of the time, the arguments are backed by opinions rather than by reason. Belief can easily be misconstrued for fact.

HIV Testing

HIV Testing

On Wednesday, Health and Care Foundation Uganda and Uganda Cares in partnership with Kasana Luweero Diocese came to Luteete PTC to perform HIV testing for my students and teachers. Health and Care Foundation Uganda also led several sessions regarding the biology of HIV/AIDS, HIV prevention, sexual gender roles, living positively, and condom demonstrations. I have come to realize that my Ugandan students and audience listen better when other Ugandans are presenting the information rather than when I present it. If I were to say something that provoked disbelief, my students could attribute it to differences in culture. The funny thing was that while Uganda Cares tested for HIV and promoted abstinence only since it was in partnership with a Catholic Diocese, Health and Care Foundation was explaining the use of both male and female condoms with the addition of water based lubricants. I specifically chose the Health and Care Foundation because its members were younger Ugandans who could easily relate to my students.

Male and Female Condoms, Wooden Penises, Lube

Male and Female Condoms, Wooden Penises, Lube

On Thursday, PCV Lindsay came from Iganga to present female sexual health, the biology of the menstrual period, and

RUMPs Materials

RUMPs Materials

how to make Re-Usable Menstrual Pads (RUMPs). Disposable pads cost around 1,500/= and if two pads are used each month then in one year that amounts to 60,000/=. RUMPs would only cost around 1,000/= to create and would last as long as the fabric stays together. Lindsay explained the biological process of the menstrual period and debunked the myth that there are safe days. While we explained the way to sew the pads, the students submitted their personal questions:

“Why does it hurt when I play sex?”Madam Lindsay

“If I have pain during my period, will playing sex get rid of the pain?”

“Will taking Panadal (pain relieving pills) cause me to become barren?”

“Can I get HIV if I plax sex with my girlfriend during her period?”

“How many holes does a vagina have?”

“Why does my skin itch after bathing?”

These questions were addressed as the students stitched together their fabric pieces around a towel in that would then be placed at the bottom of their underwear during their period. Afterwards, the students could remove the pad, wash it with soap, and then hang it on a clothesline where the sunlight would dry and disinfect it.

At the end of the day, one of my students continually asked Lindsay question after question. He seemed to believe that the blood of the female period was a disgusting and unsanitary thing.

My student: “Ah madam, I don’t want my wife cooking for me when she is on here period.”

Lindsay: “First of all, female blood is not unsanitary. Also we need to reduce the stigma behind the beauty of the female menstrual period and if it bothers you so much, you should reverse the traditional gender roles and cook for yourself and your wife while she is on her period.”

Making a Pad

Making a Pad

With these two full-day sessions I hoped to impart some knowledge to my students. I want to give them as many opportunities as possible to make the most well-informed decisions when the time comes to make them.

As I walked back home, my neighbors asked to borrow my wrench. One of my neighbor’s boda boda’s broke. They called a mechanic, who turned out to be a younger male student in his teens. The local reverend of the parish was walking by as the mechanic repaired the boda boda. During the initial discussions, it became known that this young mechanic could not read and had not finished primary school. My teacher neighbors attempted to convince him to go back to school and the reverend even offered a scholarship to him, but the boy refused. I guess that he thought that being a mechanic for the rest of his life and making some fast money was much better than investing in the long-term.

Then today a random policeman in camo gear attempted to arrest me as I was writing this post on top of the hill where I can get internet. I had been working on sending updates on PCV site development and sending photos from the HIV and RUMPs day events. I looked up from my computer and greeted him, and he asked me what I was doing:

*Exchange translated from Luganda

Policeman: “What are you doing here?”

Me: “I’m doing work on my computer.”

Policeman: “I need to take you in to the police station.”

Me: “No you don’t need to. I am a volunteer teacher here and have been living here for 20 months and always come on this hill. I am friends with the community members and the caretakers of the Kabaka’s Palace.”

Policeman: “I am taking you to the police station.”

Me: “I don’t want to go with you. You shouldn’t bring me to the police station, there’s nothing wrong. Stop touching my bike.”

Policeman: “Release your bicycle!”

Me: “No! I don’t want you to steal it. If I let go will you leave it on the ground?”

Policeman: “Fine, but come to the police station or I will hit you with this stick.”

Me: “Okay I’ll come, but let me first finish sending this email.”

*I send an email and take my time shutting down my computer. I then pick up my phone and call the Peace Corps Office Duty Phone number:

Me on the Phone: “Hey Nikki, no worries but I think that this random policeman is trying to arrest me for some reason. I’m not worried but I guess I’ll just walk down to the police station with him. If there’s a problem they arrest me, I just want to know that the safety and security manager will help me. Cool thanks.”

Policeman: “Hurry up or I’ll hit you with this stick.”

Me: “Don’t worry. Hit me with the stick. I have to wait. Don’t worry.”

Policeman: “Hurry up!”

*We walk down the hill to town as I whistle “Four Five Seconds” by Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney. As we pass through town, the village members greet me and laugh because I am being accompanied to the Bamunanika police station

Villagers: “Marvin, who is that with you?”

Me: “Oh this one? He’s my friend.”

Policeman: “I’m not your friend.”

*Meeting the Bamunanika chief of police

Me: “Hello, how have you been?”

Chief: “I have been well. Ah it’s so nice to see you again.”

Policeman: “I have brought this one in because he is suspicious on the hill.”

Chief: “This one has been living here for 20 months. He works as a volunteer teacher at Luteete PTC and sometimes goes to the hill to access the internet. Why did you bring him in?”

Policeman: “I thought that he was associated with the suspects who stole the fence last week.”

Chief: “No, let him go! There’s no problem with him.”

The chief scolded the policeman who then told me to leave. Honestly, I know that he was just trying to do his job, but I think that some common sense would have told him that a conspicuous suspect with much lighter skin who decided to return back to the scene of the crime with a laptop would not make sense. In the end, he too had a choice and he screwed up. There’s always a choice over here, whether to wear a condom, to purchase or create your menstrual pad, to arrest a “suspicious” character, to breakup with a loved one, to teach classes, or to continue trying when apathy abounds.

The Eventful Road to Masindi

1/6/15

The trek to visit PCV Rachel in Masindi always sucks because while it is physically near to my site, there is no direct route from my site or nearest taxi park to Masindi Town. Once I arrive in Wobulenzi Town by bicycle, I have to take a taxi about 17km north to the Luweero Bus/Takisi Stop junction where the street vendors peddle their roasted gonja, beef, chappati, and cold drinks. In the past I’ve attempted to take a takisi that the conductors promised would take me to Masindi, but in actuality spends 4 hours taking me to the Kafu junction that should have only taken me a little bit over an hour’s ride. This time around, I decided to take my chances by waiting for a bus that would either bring me directly to Masindi or drop me off at Kafu 115km north of Luweero. Fortunately, a Ugandan man working for IRF (International Rescue Committee) picked me up for a ride. He told me that he worked for an American organization dedicated to aiding Sudanese refugees in Kiryandongo District directly north of Masindi District.

I shared a lot about the values of Peace Corps, my work, and the basics of the Federal Government with him. He also explained to me that while he is from Kitgum, he doesn’t like to share that fact with Ugandans whom he meets as a safety precaution due to some lingering hostile tensions between the northerners and the western/central Ugandans.  At one point we were stopped by traffic officers, but I talked ourselves out of a ticket by speaking in Luganda. He dropped me off at the Kafu junction, where I squeezed into a 4 seat-sedan with 7 other Ugandans. I don’t even get surprised anymore when I see two people sitting in the driver’s seat. I still don’t know how drivers can do that.

We were stopped halfway between Kafu and Masindi by more traffic police who had the most recent passengers leave the Long Masindi Roadcar. The head police officer kept threatening to arrest the driver of the car whose excuse was that he was giving me and this old lady a free lift. After the police officer let him go, he attempted to collect money from me and the old lady. The police officer reprimanded him for lying and then gave me and the old lady a lift to Masindi Town. Along the way he asked me if I had my passport and I retorted that I didn’t have to show it to him. We went back and forth debating whether or not it was legal for him to demand my passport, and I threatened to call the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura. Instead I called a Peace Corps staff member and asked if I was supposed to show him my passport. I was informed that I had to show him a legal form of identification that could or could not be a passport.

I gave him my driver’s license and Peace Corps identification card which upset him because I could have forged them. His argument was that I could be part of Al-Shabaab and forge my forms of identification as opposed to a passport. I had him show me the Police Act of Uganda, Chapter 303 The Police Act that states with some examples:

Part V.

Power to inspect licenses.

No liability for action done under authority of a warrant.

24. Arrest without a warrant.

A police officer may, without a court order and without a warrant, arrest a person if he or she has reasonable cause to suspect that the person has committed or is about to commit an arrestable offence.

27. Search by police offiers.

Whenever a police officer, not being lower in rank than a sergeant, has reasonable grounds for believing that anything necessary for the purposes of an investigation into any offence which he or she is authorised to investigate may be found in any place and that that thing cannot in his or her opinion be otherwise obtained without undue delay, the officer may, after recording in writing the grounds of his or her belief and specifying in the writing, so far as possible, the thing for which search is to be made, search, or cause search to be made, for that thing.”

In the US, we have judicial review and the concept of precedence whereas in Uganda the vague wordings in the police act grant police officers unbelievable power over the populace.

Unfortunately, he was right in the sense that any cause or any possible cause to suspect something in the future is grounds for inspection of one’s property. Probable cause is met in Uganda if any police officer has reason to suspect that one may at some point in the future break the law. I surmised that this gave the police unlimited power since they could legally find anyone guilty if the mood suited them. This also meant that inept police have unlimited power, since the police man attempted to search for the police act on his cracked iPad, but he kept clicking on an advertisement and refused to let me help him.

I mean, in the end I made it to Masindi Town in record time. It irks me because the ride from Masindi to Wobulenzi Town only takes 2 hours. Whatever, at least I got some new knowledge and another good story out of this trek.

Privilege

13/2 – 22/2 Two weekends ago I spent some time hanging out with some of the new education PCV’s in Masaka. Initially, I didn’t plan to eat at Frikadellen, but I ended up partaking in the 30,000/= buffet and from what I can remember it was definitely worth it. We spent the rest of the Ndegeya Bonfire Circlenight drinking, hanging out, and eventually dancing at the local club Ambiance. For some reason, four of us decided to share a bed in an extremely small and hot hotel room filled with mosquitoes and the stench of alcohol. The next day we sluggishly made our way to the pool located in one of the neighborhoods near Plot 99. Honestly, this weekend was going according to plan: I wanted to go out dancing, eat some good food, and spend the hungover Saturday swimming in a pool. In the evening we headed back to Ndegeya PTC where PCV’s Eric and Elyse hosted us for dinner. The last time I was at their house was almost one whole year ago, and their house is still as beautiful and posh as I remember it. After dinner, a few of us sloped up the nearby roads to the Ndegeya Art Community (Weaverbird Arts Foundation). It was founded 7 years ago by a Ugandan/Rwandan man who wanted to create a place where artists from Uganda and abroad could collaborate, hold workshops, and be free to express themselves in art. Every 3-4 months they would hold some sort of art workshop week where dozens of artists would gather together and live on top of the hill. The hill had a large grass clearing dotted with a bonfire pit, art houses, latrines, bathing areas, campgrounds, and sculptures made out of stone, brick, and recycled jerrycans. Since it was Valentine’s Day, not many artists had gathered for the meeting that weekend. This allowed us to have some more personal time with the founder of the movement. He told us that the meaning behind the art was to empower Ugandans, especially those in impoverished settings, to view art as something to help them in their lives. I posed the concern that many Ugandans view art as a detriment to survival since it would be viewed as a hindrance to daily tasks such as farming, tending to the children, cooking, fetching water, and everyday life. I felt that he wasn’t able to provide an answer that satisfied me, but I felt that I would need to spend more time there to better understand what he has done and accomplished with this movement. Most of the PCV’s left on Loucine Walking with Dr. JosephSunday, but I decided to stay another day at the cottage house at Ndegeya PTC. Man, it felt so comfortable being in a clean house where I could really stretch out, sleep without a mosquito net, shower, and eat homemade coq au vin since they had an oven. More than 15 months in-country, and I have come to appreciate the value of being comfortable. I left for Kampala on Monday, and did the usual routine of eating out at the fancy food court in Acacia Mall. I mean where else could I get decently priced and decent Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Ugandan, and American cuisine all in one area? I spent the night at the New City Annex just like old times, since I was told that a Peace Corps vehicle would pick me up early on Tuesday morning. Honestly, I assumed that I would just be going up to Lira in order to film an interview with a retired Ugandan colonel, but it turns out that I was voluntold to film promo videos of each region of Uganda with the Country Director. Personally, I am extremely glad that our country director is making an effort to personally visit the PCV’s in the different regions, because this was a complaint over the past few years. There is always some sort of disconnect between PCV’s and PC Staff since one group has trouble really empathizing or seeing the reasoning behind the actions and decisions of the other group. I also Benjamin Ferraro Stone Quarryam excited to be able to participate in such a cool project, but felt that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I stepped into that air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle that Tuesday morning.  There is another issue at work here that Peace Corps uses volunteers to fill needed staff positions and tasks. In my case, I provide free videos for Peace Corps without any payment. I have heard the arguments of both sides: on one hand we are volunteers and can accomplish the 3 goals of the Peace Corps through various means, and on the other hand the true experience of a Peace Corps Volunteer involves the integration of being at one’s site. In my case, sometimes I don’t even know where I stand anymore. It felt weird travelling in a nice vehicle with air-condition. I felt separated from both PCV’s and Ugandans by glass and cool air. There is a prevailing attitude that many well-intentioned Peace Corps staff don’t understand what many PCV’s endure because they have the luxury of private vehicles, access to clean food, access to running water, and the resource availability of Kampala. Regardless, I really enjoyed taking pictures and videos at my fellow PCV’s sites in the West Nile region, namely the towns of Arua and Maracha. First of all, it was hot as balls from 9am – 5pm. I felt fortunate that I lived in Central where the temperature of a 24 hour span varied from chilly in the night to hot in the afternoon. We visited primary schools, demonstration schools, NTCs, PTCs, a hospital, a honey organization, sexual health center, and an organization for orphans. Journal Entry: “I’m still so impressed with my fellow PCV’s and the hard work that they do. I’m still so frustrated by the bureaucracy here. I can see that there’s a lot of opportunity here, and in so many places, but those in charge of these opportunities don’t utilize them for what they’re worth. It’s all about saving face, building ones self-image, and very vague promises of far-reaching pipe dreams. A lot of self-aggrandizement. In many ways and times the wonder and initiative of the pupils an students are quashed by the rote inactivity of the administrators in power. I need to take more initiative and advantage of the resources at my Bee Natural Assembly Lineschool. People want things, boreholes, fences, internet, and so any things but how willing are they to work to make them come about? I am still so intrigued how sometimes adults here almost ruin the imagination of children. Pure wonder is hard to come by here. I go back and forth between not wanting to be staff and feeling like staff, but being constantly reminded that I am a volunteer. I am pulled in so many different directions. I understand that in certain cultures there are differences. But are some differences better than others, such as time management, gender roles, and societal structures in hierarchy. I mean what do we mean as a long-term goal of development? What does development really entail? Does it mean that we want developing countries to be like developed countries and share their ideals? What does it mean to rally empower people to do things in a culturally-conscious way? It’s a big mess and its not our job to fix every problem, nor is it our job to just leave and ignore all problems. Of course money alone does not solve the problem, but it can definitely help. And who am I to even have this discussion? In this air-conditioned car, I feel comfortable and as if everything is nearby. But it makes me feel so removed from PCV’s because part of service involves the hardships of dealing with the transportation and accommodations of the host country nationals. Almost that guilty feeling of not being one of them.” Maracha Primary School“If I give you a cow, do I feed your cow for you?” ~Emily Lamwaka, Peace Corps Education Progam Director Site after site, I saw what PCV’s were doing. Some tasks were successful, and some seemed impossible to overcome and it all depended on the site administrators. More than one primary school didn’t have the resources to provide pupils with lunch. In one instance, one of these schools was resource rich due to a nearby stone quarry but didn’t bother to sell the stones as an income-generating activity to provide lunch and build fences to keep livestock away from the school. Fortunately, for every four inept administrators there was at least one person at each school who was dedicated to really empowering the students by whatever means were available. On Friday, we left the West Nile and made our way to Lira to interview a retired Ugandan colonel. We found him near Café Path on Wan Nyaci Road. One of the GHSP Peace Corps volunteers ran into him at one of the stationary stores in Lira, and he told her that several decades ago a Peace Corps volunteer saved his life. On Friday, he shared his story in full. This man was born September 20th, 1940 with an education background that brought him to Russia. In the late Lira Colonel Portrait60’s, he joined the army and the military academy where he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant and posted in Masaka. He and his squad mates heard about the news of Idi Amin’s coup against Milton Obote on January 21st, 1971. During the coup, Amin’s people were killing the ranking officers and officials of Obote’s military. He had to flee home, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who was teaching at the Aga Kan Secondary School sheltered him for two weeks. She would go to Tropicana Hotel to check on the situation of the coup. Eventually, she told him that it was too dangerous to keep him at her house. She disguised her as a student, and drove him in her car towards Kampala and then to Lira. When they got to Karuma bridge that crossed the Nile River, they saw Amin’s soldiers slaughtering captured members of Obote’s soldiers. They let the Peace Corps volunteer pass through since they were still on friendly terms with the “whites” and didn’t recognize the lieutenant. There were so many dead bodies on the bridge, that she had to drive over them. When they passed over the bridge, they stopped at a trading center to drink beer due to the shock at the Meeting the Colonelbridge. She asked him to drive the rest of the way up to Lira. They bid farewell to each other, and the Peace Corps volunteer boarded a bus headed back to Kampala. It was the last time that they saw each other, since the Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from the Uganda. At this moment in his story that he got a little teary-eyed. He explained to us that she was more than just his friend, but his girlfriend. Of course she was the side-dish in the relationship since he was already married to another woman, but still this Peace Corps volunteer risked her life to save his. The rest of the story revolves around his narrow escapes from Amin’s soldiers, his time spent as a refugee in Dar es Salaam, and his fight to retake Uganda. I will be working on editing together his story, and at the end of it he shared with us his dream for the youth of Uganda: to know their history and not care about the mindless politics and instead care for each other so that mindless slaughter can be avoided. The next day as we drove across the Karuma bridge in our air-conditioned car, we all fell silent as we reflected on what occurred there 44 years ago. Instead of flowing blood and dead bodies, all that we could see were the rushing Nile underneath us and the balmy breeze of your typical Ugandan afternoon. In some ways this country has improved, and in other ways it has remained just as impoverished as it used to be. Now more than ever, I believe that it’s experiences like that Peace Corps that make me feel privileged to work alongside my Ugandan brothers and sisters.

Gratitude

22/1/15 – 23/1/15

The new Education group of trainees finally swore-in at the ambassador’s house on Thursday. It really  didn’t hit me how much things have changed until I sat down and heard the speeches that I’ve heard time and time again by the Country Director, Ambassador, and new PCV’s. It struck me just how optimistic of a tone this new group had when its representatives gave speeches during the ceremony. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t eloquent or heartfelt, but they sounded very optimistic and intangible. There were a lot of metaphors and comparisons of empowering Ugandans in a sustainable way.

I believe that if I had heard these speeches a year ago, I would have been inspired. It’s funny just how much stock I now place in tangible goals instead of intangible aspirations and how all of the beautiful rhetoric in the world still won’t make the borehole pump itself. Some of my fellow PCV’s from my cohort who also attended the ceremony commented, “How long do you think it will take until they become jaded?”

New Group Swearing-In

Of course we all congratulated them and welcomed the newly sworn-in PCV’s with open arms, but I kept asking myself that question. Was there a turning point or was it a gradual shift in attitudes that made me the Peace Corps Volunteer who I am today as opposed to a whole year ago at the Ambassador’s house. I still welcome the fresh perspective to this country that only new PCV’s can offer.

The next day, I returned back to site. It’s almost as if my entry into my metaphorical junior year of my Peace Corps service was a reminder of what I had gone through. I had a mini-bout of giardia in the morning which caused me intense pain even as I wolfed down the chicken skewer appetizers after the swearing-in ceremony and drank glasses of wine at the Country Director’s house afterwards. I threw up later that night after much diarrhea.

The next day, I travelled back to site on an empty stomach. Even in my own town, a market vendor called me muchina and I chewed him out in local language. My bicycle’s back wheel had low air pressure, but as I made it back to my house a smile grew on my face. My neighborhood kids were yelling, “Marvin” as I made it to my front door. Even the berry plant that was eaten by a stray goat started to re-grow its leaves. So much has changed in this past year, and I think back to that last speech given at this new group’s swearing-in ceremony. PCV Emery gave a speech entirely devoted to gratitude towards all people and parts who made Peace Corps Ugandan possible: from the UPS man/woman who delivered our visa applications to the Peace Corps Uganda staff and trainers.

As I entered the front door of my house a for the first time after a whole year, I think back to the experiences and interactions that continuously led me back to that door when I could have just as easily ignored it for somewhere else. In this case, I’m grateful to call his place my home.

Another Goodbye

8/11/14

I travelled back to Kampala on Wednesday because I was invited to sell some PSN (Peer Support Network) t-shirts at the US Embassy Christmas Africa Acacia Tree DesignBazaar. The bazaar started on Thursday morning so I wanted to be sure that I was in Kampala the day before in order to ensure that all the t-shirts were ready to be sold. This involved picking up 33 shirts from the screen printer near the taxi parks as well as coordinating for the sack of the other shirts to be picked up from the most recent group’s IST (In-Service Training). PSN has gotten better at bringing t-shirts to trainings so that PCV’s can purchase them.

Dinner that night was very eventful. I hung out on the rooftop of the Annex with Steve and Rachel as we ate sandwiches that we made from separate ingredients purchased at Nakumatt. The bread was a baguette from the bakery packed with lettuce, tomatoes, gouda cheese, bbq ham, pili pili peppers, and thousand island dressing mixed with Old Bay. On the side we had some chili and lemon chips paired with a plain yogurt dipping sauce. We hung out in the cool Kampala wind with a few stars peeking at us beyond the city smog and light pollution as the Of Monsters and Men album played on my portable speakers.

The next day, Rachel and I arrived at the US Embassy and set up our respective tables underneath a large U-shaped tarpaulin among two dozen other tables. The rest of the vendors showed up around 11am with wares of Brood bread, local produce, citronella oil, meatballs, milk, screen printed art, eggless cookies, candles made by ex-prisoners, Congolese masks, passionfruit juice concentrate, hummus, cream cheese, coffee, and of course anything that you could think of that is made out of kitenge. I swear that if I combined all of the kitenge vendors together at this bazaar then I would be able to get anything out of kitenge: shoes, blankets, baby bibs, hats, quilts, pillows, dresses, pants, shirts, head bands, wine bottle coozies, and even more.

I made a killing at this bazaar and sold a few of the older shirts and a lot of the newer design of Africa with an acacia tree growing inside of it. Throughout the day a lot of embassy workers, who were also RPCV’s from other countries, stopped by the table to chat for a while. The bazaar eventually wrapped up and I was dropped off at Kisementi to share a few farewell drinks with Jim from Kisoro. We got some of the double shot gin and tonics at the Bistro happy hour (Monday – Thursday, 4pm – 7pm). It felt really weird knowing that this would be the last time that I would see him in Uganda. I guess that all the PCV’s who are about to leave will have that effect on me because I have only ever known Uganda with them in it.

Jim FarewellOf course we got to share some good jokes over some good drinks (with ice in them!) and then we bid Jim farewell. I walked back to the Annex with some other PCV’s and checked into a room for the night. Somehow, the idea of travelling back to site after drinking didn’t sound that appealing. We got dinner at SawaSawa near the Annex and ordered the nicest looking Ugandan food. It was very well-presented. As we were eating our dinner, this older Ugandan woman approaches us and asks us where we’re from.

Instinctively, we all attempt to avoid a conversation with her and reply that we were all from Minnesota. She explained that she was living off her pension in Uganda and that she had lived in England for the past few decades. Her late husband was the brother of the King in Hoima, which made her a princess by marriage. Furthermore, she was the Executive Assistant for the Peace Corps in Kenya a while back, but left when her husband was killed. She explained that she was so happy to meet us Peace Corps Volunteers and that we should call her Auntie Jane. Then before we knew it, she left us to our meal.

I quickly travelled back to site on Friday because I had to make it to the Luteete PTC dedication ceremony for the Year 2 students. It was a sort of graduation ceremony for them at the church. The funny thing about ceremonies is that the collective speeches after the mass are about 3x longer than the mass itself. At around 3pm we departed the church for a lunch with sodas, chicken, beef, and g-nut sauce. It struck me that I had been living at site for 9 months, which doesn’t seem that long at all to me right now. I had known this community for almost a whole year, and this would be the last time that I would see many of these students. It was another goodbye mixed in with other feelings.

One of my regrets this past year is that I focused a lot of my efforts and energies into teaching the Year 1 students instead of the Year 2 students. As a result, I didn’t really feel that much of an emotional connection with the Year 2 students as I bid farewell to the. Instead I felt sad that I would be saying goodbye to the Year 1 students until I met them again after the new year.

I also noticed another muzungu here, which was very weird for me to see. After approaching him I discovered that his name is Cameron and thatLuteete Church Inside he was part of New Hope Ministries located in Kasana since 1987. It’s one of the oldest Christian organizations still in existence in Uganda after the Luweero Triangle War.

He attended the ceremony because a few of the PTC students were sponsored by some of the families in the New Hope community. At first I was taken aback by his overtly Christian nature since I had not interacted with other muzungus like that since I left the United States. I told him that the next time I was in Luweero I would stop by the community to say hi and learn a bit more about them before I make any judgments.

It’s actually very interesting to notice how my views concerning missionaries have changed since my time in the Peace Corps. I definitely believe that there are some that do good, especially in the developing world. But I also think that they can be detrimental in some cases. In Uganda the overtly Christian atmosphere (especially concerning the Christian Fundamentalists) has led to local religions being seen as taboo and old-fashioned. Ugandans who go to some of the older local religious shrines still in existence have to do it secretly so that their churches will not find out that they still pay homage to this part of their culture. There is no separation of church and state; even official meetings with government officials usually start with a prayer.

It sways the masses into fervors concerning issues such as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I can’t even walk through the Taxi Park area without hearing a Ugandan giving a sermon and thumping his or her Bible. Then there is the whole issue of communities depending on the contributions of missionaries in order to survive. This in turn creates a culture of dependency on temporary aid that fosters even more blind belief in whatever faith is trumpeted by the donors.

I’m not against the idea of missionaries, Christian Service trips, or relief volunteer agencies. All I’m saying is that there are just so many factors involved in mission trips and volunteer programs that I can’t judge someone or a group on first impressions. Similar to the Peace Corps’ model of living and learning through immersion, I too will attempt to get to know people like Cameron and his group before just labeling them as “just another missionary group.”

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.

Taking Something Back

5/8/14 – 15/8/14

It’s been another whirlwind of emotions and exertions. It’s been a while since a week like this has taken its toll on my physical, mental, and emotional well-being but I’m still here and ready to embark on the next week’s adventures in this life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The craziness began on Tuesday August 5th when I left my site to go to Nakaseke for the weekly radio segment. I had a meeting with a Ugandan man and his daughter at the NB Hotel in Wobulenzi at 3pm. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, his daughter had won a scholarship to study Computer Engineering in Oklahoma University. She was slated to leave by Sunday but both she and her father wanted to speak to me in order to field some questions about America and college life. I explained to her the basic curriculum of an engineering major, how different the seasons were like, the crazy culture of college students who are exploring their identities and pushing their limits, the rigors of classes, the freedom, how expensive things were, what an internship was, the concept of a green card, and the importance of surrounding oneself with good friends. It felt really good to know that there was a Ugandan student who had worked her way through the education system to eventually have the opportunity to study in a good university and obtain an in-demand degree today.

I then explained to her that if she completes her studies, then she would be able to get many job offers simply because she would be a woman, minority with a Bachelors Degree in Computer Engineering. I then bid farewell to both her and her father and made my way to Nakaseke for the radio show.

He show in Nakaseke was about transportation differences between Uganda and the United States. I explained that the takisi and boda boda system worked in Uganda because people lived so spread out in hard-to-reach places in the middle-of-nowhere sub-counties. Halfway through the show, the power went out so we recorded the second half on Peter’s recorder so that he could play it back when the power returned. I traveled to Nakaseke PTC, made dinner with Rebekah, and then slept.

I had to wake up early on Wednesday because I needed to be at the Peace Corps Headquarters (PCHQ) by 10am in order to make the shuttle to the US Ambassador’s house for the new groups’ swearing-in. I got into Kampala early and got to the PCHQ in time to talk to some staff members and pick up the kitenge drawstring bags that were the gift from Peer Support Network (PSN) to the new group of volunteers.

A bunch of us PCV Trainers attended the swearing-in ceremony which was crazy for me because I thought back to my Swearing-Inown group’s swearing-in when we were the newbies. I smiled when I saw the trainees arrive, clad in their locally made outfits from their different regions. They also seemed a bit dirtier than when I first saw them in Kulika a few months ago. It was a funny swearing-in ceremony with a lot of speakers who just killed it like an open mic session in Kampala. The funniest speech by far was by the Ugandan representative from the Ministry of Education and Sports who just kept talking and talking despite the threat of storm clouds, and at one point in his speech said, “Yes! Please develop us. Please give us the help and development.” My guess is that he didn’t read the book Dead Aid.

On the other hand, one of the most poignant speeches came from the US Embassy Representative charge d’affaires who was an RPCV two decades ago in an East Asian country. She talked about her time in the Peace Corps and how she didn’t have any eye-opening epiphanies or find herself or become this wise and enlightened person. She stated that the biggest thing that she learned was just to try and understand the person in front of her. She literally meant that her biggest victory of the day was getting the person in front of her to understand what she wanted to convey. She ended her speech by saying, “Each and every one of you gave up something to be here in the Peace Corps; take something back with you.”

Before I knew it the new Health, Agribusiness, and GHSP trainees were sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers and we added 53 new members to our family. While the newly sworn-in volunteers congratulated each other and posed for pictures, I went straight for the free finger foods of teriyaki chicken on a stick, fish puffs, bruschetta, fish sticks, spring rolls, all-you-can drink juice/soda, and Godiva chocolate. I gorged myself on food that tasted like they were filled with preservatives which meant that they were probably from America and not from the local villages. I then doled out the kitenge drawstring bags to the new PCVs and headed back to PCHQ.

There was a small celebration with a few of the PCV trainers, Ugandan trainers, and PC staff at PCHQ. This time there was alcohol, so I was able to eat more good food like cold pasta salad, drink beers and wine, and dance with the Country Director and the Ugandan language training staff. At some point as I was being driven back to the Annex, I was drunkenly cracking jokes in Luganda with my language trainers and most likely gave one of them an extra kitenge bag.

Thursday was an errands day in Kampala. I took the morning shuttle from the Annex to PCHQ where I had a discussion with the Safety and Security Officer and Director of Programming and Training about doing a video for a Coffee Camp in Kasese from August 17 – 23.

Camp Description Excerpt:

“The camp’s objective is to encourage Bukonzo youth to grow their leadership abilities and to equip them with the tools to more fully contribute to the economic development of their family and support their community’s development through agriculture. Two youth, one male and one female will be elected by each of Bukonzo Joint’s 33 washing stations scattered around the remote foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. The 66 youth will attend a week-long camp to encourage a better understanding of how they can contribute to their family’s coffee farms and the opportunities that exist in employment in the coffee value chain.”

I agreed to do the video, but was worried because my skills were extremely amateur. I only did video in order to help bolster my blog and projects here in the Peace Corps and on occasion help other volunteers with their own projects. I felt that I did not have the skill nor the means to create an amazing video that Peace Corps desired because that wasn’t my job, but I felt that it would be an adventure and learning experience.

A Peace Corps vehicle then drove me and two other PCVs to the Lweza Training Center where the recently sworn-in PCVs were still having an extra full day of training sessions. As representatives of PSN, we sold t-shirts in order to make more money for PSN so that more merchandise and goods could be sold to Peace Corps Volunteers. The vehicle then drove us back to the Annex. It was around this time that I noticed that my body was dragging and that I had a weird tickle in my throat. I dismissed it and decided just to take a nap. Later that night when a bunch of us PCV’s in Kampala ate out at Ari Rang, the Korean restaurant, I started to feel very sick and exhausted.

When I went to bed that night, I had the worst headache imaginable and would experience waves of extreme heat followed by intense chills. It didn’t help that the last thing that I read before going to bed were the symptoms of Ebola and how they correlated with everything that I was feeling at that moment. Funnily enough those symptoms are also usually experienced by almost all PCV’s on a daily basis. After a sleepless night, I decided to take advantage of being in Kampala and returned to PCHQ to visit the Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO). I got checked up by one of the Ugandan medical officers who told me that there was nothing wrong with me and that I should just rest, drink fluids, and take ibuprofen. Even my stool and blood samples tested normally.

Lake BunyonyiI chilled for the rest of the day, and took it easy. I also started feeling significantly better to the point that I agreed with another PCV friend to go all the way down to Lake Bunyonyi in Kabale in southwest Uganda for the weekend. So on Saturday I traveled to Kabale on a bus. Honestly, Uganda never ceases to amaze me. For such a small country it has such a diverse array of landscapes. As I passed through Masaka and Mbarara the landscape started to flatten out and I could see the wide expanse of the southwest countryside. As the bus neared Kabale the air suddenly became colder and the bus started to wind its way up the winding roads the led its way up to higher elevation in that region.

When I got off in Kabale I felt that I was in a mountain town, because everything was shrouded in mist, the air was much cooler and crisp, and I could see large hills in the background. I rendezvoused with the other PCV’s who were going to Lake Bunyonyi and we all took a private hire car to the docks leading to Byoona Amagara island. It was late by the time we got to the island, and it was extremely cold. Since it was dark, it was hard to see and there was no electricity on the island other than the common seating area at the top of the hill. Surprisingly, there was good cell phone service, a fully working kitchen and menu, and hot drinks.

We stayed at Lake Bunyonyi until Monday morning and honestly it was a relaxing, yet stressful mini-vacation. I was stillCrayfish getting over my 24 hour bug that I had the day before, and the weather was downright chilly. We ate some locally caught crayfish, explored the breadth of the Byoona Amagara island, swam in the waters by the swimming dock, drank the free tea as the mists gave way to the sunlight over the placid waters, canoed in circles towards the rope swing on another island, and danced in the moonlight by the docks. During this time, we also hung out with this Dutch guy, Mark, from Amsterdam who was finishing up his year of working with an organization in Kampala.

It was cool sharing some stories with him about the places that I’ve visited in Holland, as well as comparing our experiences living thus far in Uganda. We talked about the effects of aid in developing countries, different hostels in Holland (like Bostel Amsterdamse Bos in Amstelveen), the pronunciation of Dutch words like Brood, traveling and backpacking in groups and alone, the concept of legalizing weed, sharing deep stories with strangers, and what we hoped to do with our lives after our time in Uganda. It was very interesting hanging out with Mark because it almost felt like I was meeting a friendly stranger in a European hostel who was willing to just hang out for the weekend simply because you’re forced to make that temporary friendship. It was refreshing after having only hung out with other PCV’s in a group numbering less than 200.

Chilling at Byoona AmagaraOn Monday we decide to head back to Kabale where we ate dinner at this backpacker’s hostel called Edirisa (http://www.edirisa.org/index.php?language=1&cat=130). A handful of us decided to continue to just go back home, so we took the night bus from Kabale to Kampala. Although the ride did seem much shorter due to falling asleep, it was also a bit rough. I felt like I was trapped inside this simultaneously hot and cold enclosure for centuries until I was able to embrace the cool morning air that only a 3am jaunt out in Kampala can give you. Fortunately, one of my PCV friends had a room at the Annex, so I slept on her floor for the morning until it was a more reasonable time to be out.

I left the Annex, made a shirt order for PSN, and then took a takisi from the New Taxi Park to Nakaseke because it was time for me to be on the radio show again. Even I couldn’t believe that I had been gone from site for a whole week and was now ready to do another radio show segment. This time, the segment was about the Education system in Uganda. We specifically discussed the structure of Primary and Grade School in the United States and the equivalent Nursery and Primary School in Uganda. This time the power didn’t go out.

But oh man was dinner a blast that night at the Rebekah household. I had picked up 1kg of Gouda from Mega Standard inCheese Galore Kampala earlier that day for only 15,000/=. We made macaroni and cheese, pasta lasagna, and grilled cheese stuffed with caramelized onions, rosemary, and cinnamon. It was too much cheese for my bowels to handle, but I loved it anyway. Since the water was running at site, I was able to poop in the toilet rather than having to walk a hundred feet to the nearby pit latrines.

The next morning on Wednesday I departed Nakaseke to make my way northwards back up to Rachel’s site in Masindi in order to help her take pictures of Peace by Piece. Peace by Piece is a local organization of Ugandan tailors who make kitenge products and school uniforms and sell them in order to provide for their families. What sets them apart from the average tailor is that they also create specialty items such as bomb-diggity kitenge quilts, kitenge yoga bags, kitenge oven mitts, kitenge aprons, kitenge camera straps, and so many more kitenge merchandise. I made a personal order of a kitenge hoodie and another one of kitenge coozies so that PCV’s can keep their Nile Special Beers cold.

Peace by PieceI ended up doing some much-needed, hardcore chilling with Rachel at her site since I was just exhausted and beat from all of the travelling that I had done. That Wednesday night I just passed out after making Mexican dinner with ground beef and didn’t wake up until noon. Thursday was spent slowly getting ready for the day and walking up to Court View Hotel to meet up with some British volunteers associated with Soft Power and two of the new PCV’s who were stationed in Masindi. We swapped some stories among ourselves, especially some choice quotes from the Facebook group “I Fucking Love Village Science” which shares stories from local Ugandans in our villages who share their own ideas regarding how and why things work. Two of my favorite village facts ones are that a woman who is menstruating must not climb a mango tree because if she does all the mangoes will die, or don’t go out at night because the cannibalistic night dancers will eat you and the only way to avoid them is to dress up like one. My query concerning the latter fact is how you would ever be able to tell apart the normal night dancer from one who is simply attempting to avoid them?

On the way back from Court View there was a small, Ugandan carnival that only cost 1,000/=. We paid through a rippedCircus Ride hole in a white sheet with a mysterious, black hand that took our money and gave us a ticket that was immediately torn up by the gatekeeper who through the ticket halves on the ground. We walked in and were not disappointed; there were street foods, gambling games, market day wares, a muddy dancing area, music videos, and even one of those revolving carousel swing rides. I actually laughed when I saw it because it looked like it would fall apart at a moment’s notice, but Ugandans still chose to ride on it. I entertained the thought of riding it for a hot second, but decided that I valued my life too much to tempt fate depending on rusty metal and loose chains.

On Friday August 15th I rode an express takisi back to Wobulenzi where I did some internet errands at NB Hotel as the rain poured all around. Even though the rain hadn’t stopped, I knew that I just had to make it home. I bought my groceries, picked up my bicycle from the police station, and then biked through the rain and mud until I made it back home. Despite my exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and restlessness I was just desperate to make it back home to a place that I was fully comfortable and familiar with. I missed my linoleum floors, my system of washing dishes, my on-off electricity, my fully-stocked kitchen, my pit latrine, the nearby borehole, my neighbors, and the tiny balongo twins. However, what I missed most was just being home. I just wanted to be in my home here and just be. Despite knowing that I will soon embark on another adventure from my site, I am glad that I was able to spend some time in a place that I call home.

P.S. – During this time, Eastern Camp BUILD and GLOW happened in Mbale. In the middle of the week, the media specialist Jim Tanton proposed to his girlfriend, one of the camp directors Julia Lingham. First of all, the pictures from Jim’s camera are spectacular. I honestly felt sincere joy and happiness seeing the photos and video of Jim proposing to Julia, because for the short time that I have known them I felt that they were a power couple and just good, talented people in the Peace Corps and in this world. It’s times like these that I feel that life is good.

Connection

27/7/14

I think that one of the biggest needs of a Peace Corps Volunteer is the need to connect. It’s the need to connect with the village and to feel integrated at site, as well as the need to connect with other Peace Corps Volunteers who know what you’re going through. Then there is the need to connect back with your old home back in the United States where most of our engrained memories and attributes stem from. I realize just how connected I am in my village with the village neighbors who lived around my house and the free picture-less Facebook that allows me to keep in contact with everyone when the internet access works.

However, as much as technology has progressed to allow us to stream videos of ourselves chatting with others it cannot replace the feeling that the physical presence of another human being can provide. I feel a marked difference between seeing a Facebook message written to me compared with a physically mailed letter. Then there is the familiarity of hearing a good friend’s voice on the phone telling you about his exploits of the past few weeks while you’ve been away. You hear the rise and fall in tones and the emotions behind the story that only the best writers could hope to capture in written text.

Yet I think that the physical presence of someone is something that we as social human beings crave. We crave to touch, smell, see, and listen to another living human being. We desire to be in the presence of another person who can empathize and share his or her problems, secrets, fears, successes, and joys with us.

I also believe that it is the human spirit that I am most attracted to. It is the enormous potential to do good and bad combined within one person who has a choice to do either.

This past weekend, I was able to experience that good side of human connections. On Friday I left to meet up with my Safety and Security Warden VisitPCV Safety and Security Warden, Rachel B, who was doing a checkup on the Northern Central Group’s evacuation point in Luweero should there ever be an emergency when we would need to congregate. We ate lunch in Kasana where I worked on filling out another grant for Virunga Engineering Works (VEW) Cookstoves that would be placed at my site and allow the PTC to save up to $360 every year from firewood transportation and purchases. We made our way back to Wobulenzi where we picked up a ton of groceries for the weekend.

Back at my site, we chilled and had good heart-to-heart talks while eating tikka masala and jalebi cooked with ghee, rice, and pumpkin bread. That was an awesome Friday night, just hanging out and not worrying about the problems that we would be facing with our projects or that lay ahead of us. The next day two to other PCVs, Rachel C and Lindsay, came over to visit for the day.

We explored the local Bamunanika market since it was market day, which occurs every Saturday fortnight. The girls where looking for prom dresses in preparation for the Peace Corps All Volunteer Conference that is themed as Peace Corps prom and happening at the end of August. We got some sodas at Bamunanika and then got a tour of the Kabaka’s Palace by the caretaker, Kimera, who also gave the tour when Hannah visited about 3 weeks ago. This time, he gave us gifts of cold bottled water, flowers, and a raw egg each from the palace chicken. We thanked him after seeing the grounds, and departed for home.

Rachel B, Rachel C, and Lindsay continued on back home and I plopped myself down on a rock by the dusty, main road leading to Luteete PTC from Bamunanika and called my two of my best friends back home. I talked with Sean and Audrey about their experiences in Baltimore and their most recent adventures. For some reason, just hearing their hungover voices and laughs made me feel like I was right there with them in a Baltimore apartment. I felt so comfortable talking with them on that rock as Ugandan children surrounded me and played this game where they tried to see how close they could get to me before freaking out and running away.

I just felt happiness and joy listening to my old friends tell me stories and how they were feeling after an eventful night. I Rachel and Lindsay in Bamunanika Marketwished that I were back home with them even for just 1 hour in order to just be with them. We said goodbye for the time being and I rejoined my PCV friends at my house. The dinner plan was to eat Philly Cheesesteaks, so they had brought cans of Campbell’s Cheese Soup. We baked bread from scratch, sautéed onions and green bell peppers, and broiled steak with garlic. Those sandwiches were amazing, and it’s funny because this whole weekend started because Rachel B said that we should eat cheesesteaks because she found can of Campbell’s Cheese Soup.

We chilled again at night, and then slept off the heavy meal. In all things, I find it hard to put into words how content I was with this weekend, with the friends who visited me, the meals that I cooked, the places I went, the people whom I talked with, and the connections that I made.

“Time is a linear dimension.”
~Lindsay Carrera, PCV Education

The Traditions of Gods and Cookstoves

12/7/14

Friday was definitely a busy day. I woke up a bit later than I wanted to and started editing my video detailing the ICT Lab Construction and how to donate the money to the Peace Corps Website (search Roxas in www.peacecorps.gov/donate). I was scheduled to meet with an Economic Development PCV, Jim Tanton, who visited my site because he was working with Virunga Engineering Works (VEW, http://www.metamorfose.com/#!the-need-uganda/c16mg) to implement cookstoves at different PCVs’ sites. The idea behind them is that most schools and colleges throughout Uganda have to provide meals to the students, and most of them cook using the three-stone method. This isn’t the most efficient method of cooking since a lot of the heat is not directed upwards towards the ssefuliya (metal cooking pot) and is instead emanated outwards. Virgunga Engineering Cookstoves would are 70% more energy efficient than the three-stone method and also reduces cooking time by a little bit. This energy efficiency allows the school or college to use less firewood per term, which adds up to savings of sometimes more than 600,000/= per term.

So far Jim has visited a few other schools and colleges besides mine in order to take preliminary measurements regarding each individual site. The project would cost around $9600 which is covered by a PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) Grant through the Peace Corps Small Grants forum. The only catch with the project is that some of the initial money saved from the energy efficiency at the beginning has to go towards an HIV/AIDS related project such as a workshop, an HIV/AIDS testing day, an awareness day, or something other than just putting up posters on the walls. Other than that the project really helps out the schools and colleges and allows for the savings to be used for other expenditures every year, including volunteer projects.

So Jim met with the Luteete PTC bursar, cooks, and other staff members in order to take initial measurements of the college kitchen, which is a smoky room with two 70cm ssefuliyas that utilize the three-stone fire method. The estimate was that the college could save up to 300,000/= every term, which adds up to 900,000/= every year. I plan to draft a contract with the college that would allot a significant portion of this money to up-keeping the ICT lab as well as allowing for further development of the site in terms of paying tutors on time, purchasing new books, and future plans for later PCVs that will come to my site.

However, the only problem involved finding someone to write a grant for me since I am already in the midst of a PCPP Grant at my PTC. Fortunately, Rebekah Roland at the Nakaseke PTC agreed to help me in this regard. The goal is that I would write the contents of the grant and she would then put her name on it instead of me.

Jim then left, and I hurriedly went back to editing my video for the ICT Lab fund-raising. I was rushing because the power was out and I had limited time to use my laptop and then render the video, especially since Adobe Premiere Elements 10 still crashed on me, and I also had to make it to Mityana before it got dark since I was expected at the Central Luganda Group’s Homestay Farewell Celebration on Saturday morning. I finished the video by noon, packed up my things, and then biked to Wobulenzi. I took a takisi to Kampala and then had to walk all the way to the main Barclays Bank because I literally had 3000/= left in my wallet. I had spent a lot of money during 4th of July, and I also spent money every week travelling to Nakaseke for the radio show and then to Mityana for my homestay visits. Fortunately, Peace Corps has this thing where PCVs are reimbursed and given a stipend when travelling and training for Peace Corps events.

PCVs are given 22,500/= per diem for every day that he or she is travelling and 30,000/= per diem for every full day that that PCV is doing training: such as workshops, trainings, medical reasons, and any other reason that Peace Corps would need you to travel anywhere. In addition to the per diem, PCVs are also reimbursed for the travel costs incurred for these events.

Example: Volunteer Travel Reimbursement Form NOV 2013

Fortunately, the Peace Corps staff processed my previous reimbursement forms and the money was in my bank account. I withdrew my money and then made my way back to the New Taxi Park to get to Mityana. I walked up the road from Busuubizi to Kololo hill to stay at Jenn’s site again and passed out after very busy day.

I woke up on Saturday and shared a cup of coffee with Jenn. I went out on the porch to read some Peace Corps blogs, and I read a post about a PCV in another East African country who was distraught about what happened at his site. It turns out that he was teaching a primary school class and one of the male teachers took some of the students to the farm where he raped some of them. I was stunned to read his testimonial and hear about something so vile that could be done. The worst part about it was that there was nothing that he could do about it. The system was so corrupt that even if the girls were to testify against him, the male teacher’s word would still hold more weight than the girls.

It hurt me so much to read this, especially since I was also a teacher. I then thought back to my site and thought of the innocent children whom I played with everyday and how much I would give to ensure that something like that never happened to them. The testimonial that I read moved me so much, that I was brought to tears for a bit and just needed a few moments alone to process what I had just read. It’s one thing to know that these things happen, but it’s another thing to read or hear about it from a someone who’s grown so attached to his or her students.

I collected my thoughts and journeyed to the New Highway Hotel in Mityana where the 5 PCV Trainees were havingNew Central Group Dance their homestay farewell celebration. There was the usual sharing of traditional dances, proverbs, sayings, speeches, music, and a trivia contest. We finished up the celebration and the trainees, Herbert the Luganda language trainer, and I went to visit the Ttanda Archaeological Archives. The legend goes that the founders of the Buganda Kingdom were Kintu and Nambi whose descendents comprise the Royal Family of the Kabaka (King of the Central Buganda Kingdom). Nambi’s father was Ggulu, which means heaven or the above. Nambi had two legendary brothers known as Walumbe, meaning death or disease, and Kayikuuzi, meaning excavator.

At some point Walumbe began killing Kintu and Nambi’s children, and Ggulu told Kayikuuzi to bring Walumbe back. This resulted in a chase leading to Ttanda where Walumbe dove straight into the ground. Kayikuuzi would then dig deep holes right where Walumbe dove in order to excavate him. Mystically, Walumbe would appear elsewhere on the Ttanda grounds and mock Kayikuuzi. Walumbe kept diving into the ground and Kayikuuzi kept trying to dig him out until over 200 conical pits were dug.

*Note: Muganda means someone who is from the Central Uganda Kingdom. Baganda is just the plural form.

Ttanda Archaological GroundsWe walked onto the grounds which are still regarded as sacred to some of the Baganda people. The mysticism of the pits involve Baganda who have visions about certain things, such as twins, peace, colors, electricity, sweetness and other things that pertain to various senses that cause them to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the Ttanda grounds to pay respect to the ancestors of the Kabaka. Each pit represents something specific that a Muganda pilgrim would go to after seeing a vision. For example, if a Muganda in a far-off Central village was crippled and then had a vision about one of the pits, he or she would travel to the Ttanda grounds and go to the pit having to do with cripples and walking. That person would then spend anywhere from a night to several months there in the hopes that the ancestors would help her in some way. In the very least, the vision would have brought her there to allow her to pay respects to her forefathers and foremothers.

Local Brew PotsThere were many congregations of Baganda there. Some were drinking the local alcoholic brew out of clay pots, some were smoking joints around a smoky fire, others were praying on woven mats, some were offering sacrifices of pineapple and various fruits, while others were wandering around the Ttanda grounds. We were told that some of the Baganda who came there smoked in order to commune with the ancestors. Honestly, it reminded me a bit of some Native American tribes who smoke peyote in order to go on spirit quests.

To show our respects, we removed our shoes and continued wandering around the community filled with pits. One of the PCVs, who was a geologist, was completely befuddled by the pits because it didn’t make any sense how they came to exist. From a geological standpoint there was no obvious reason how they came to be near the Mityana area. Some of the pits went down for hundreds of feet and we were told of a story about a man who fell down one of them and died. He was eventually retrieved by a brave Muganda.

Kayikuuzi SpearsSo we continued through the grounds and made our way out of that place of pits and ancient beliefs. What intrigued me the most about the visit was the coexistence of these local beliefs with the overarching strength of religions of Christianity and Islam. I tried to relate it to the beliefs of Voodoo and Christianity in Haiti, the belief in the Holy Death and Christianity in South America, as well as the concept of basic superstitions in American culture coupled with our own religious beliefs.

So it was another jam-packed weekend filled with a lot of different things happening one right after the other. Fortunately, I have a full schedule ahead of me and I look forward to the weeks and projects ahead.

Ugandan Proverb Mashup:

“Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. If God is willing, teach that man to cook and he will eat for the rest of his life. If what he cooks doesn’t come out right, he still has to cut the grass.”

Meaning:

Giving a handout to someone only fills an immediate need and is sustainable. Our future is not in our hands, but if God decides it then we can give someone the skills to empower him and live his own life. But if it doesn’t work out he still has to deal with the life that he is living.