Conservation Camp, Kisoro

31/8/15 – 4/9/15

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

~Booker, Ugandan Camp Counselor

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

Planting Trees

Planting Trees

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

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

Conservation Camp Group Photos

Conservation Camp Group Photos

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

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

Conservation Camp Reflection

Conservation Camp Reflection

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

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

~Trees, Twenty-One Pilots

Some Notes

February 21, 2014Han

You know it’s interesting how much humans can adapt to different situations. I used to think that life became a bit more difficult back in the United States when the shower or internet weren’t working. I remember how much water I poured into Tupperware containers during Hurricane Sandy and Snowstorm Nemo because I thought that the water and electricity would be out for a couple of days. I never would have expected that having access to a shower would be one of the most sought after luxuries here in Uganda. I remember that back then I was so excited and ready for whatever the Peace Corps experience would throw at me. And here I am writing this blog post on my reserve laptop battery power after having cooked my dinner by candlelight. I will say though that I splurged and bought a 300/= avocado and 2,000/= worth of goat meat (about 1lb). In total, this meant that me splurging for dinner cost less than $1, whereas my dinner back when I was in Boston could cost upwards of $10 if I decided to splurge when I went to the grocery store.

I remember my first few days at site when I was so worried about speaking Luganda and being judged for not knowing much, using a pit latrine, having to haul 20 liters of water daily from the borehole at the other end of campus, and living by myself. However, right now I feel almost adjusted to life here in Luteete. A good day involves me accomplishing some other extraneous task in addition to teaching, the School Profile Tool, and my daily chores of fetching water, cooking, washing clothes, sweeping the floor, doing dishes, boiling water to drink, working out, and bathing. I have discovered that about 5 liters of water are all that I need in order to fully bathe myself using my bucket. Last night I found a gecko swimming in my bucket water.

I guess that I feel more or less physically adjusted to Uganda, but I am still mentally and emotionally adjusting. The hardest part is missing friends, family, places, and events back home. I often find myself reminiscing back to life in a developed country where the problem was that there were too many options to choose what to do. Over here, life is much simpler because there is less to do and more focus on what is important in life. Sure there are a lot of chores, but many people here can’t afford to worry about trivialities such as gaining weight, who’s the most popular singer at the moment, or whether to drive to Chipotle or Qdoba. The focus is about survival and helping the family. The education that one receives goes to getting a job in order to help the family. Saving money is not as praised as spending money right now to help the community and family.

I guess that when the future is so uncertain, only the present moment can be trusted. I remember reading somewhere that what the United States lacks in many different rankings when compared to many European countries, it makes up for in entrepreneurship. Americans are risk-takers, because we can afford to be risk-takers. There is always some sort of safety net. Even the poorest people can get food stamps and go to soup kitchens whereas here no such initiative exists. Food stamps would only be useful for lighting coals here. I have felt it myself: the drive to strive for some sort of American Dream where I can say that I’ve made it. It’s the feeling of knowing that your hard work paid off and that you have the status, money, and things to prove it.

It’s a much more individualist society back at home, and that was my life for the past 22 years. But now I am in an extremely communal society where privacy is non-existent and everyone looks out for each other. Word spreads quickly around the community and sometimes can travel even faster than I do. But that is where the strength in Ugandans lies: in community. Things are always shared, and not to do so is considered selfish. If someone is sick, neighbors check up on that person. If a child needs to be babysat for a weekend while the parents work in Kampala, then a neighbor will take over without hesitation. After having prided myself on getting things done by myself in the United States, I would say that this is one of those things that I still have trouble adjusting to.

And so I sit here in the dim light of the candle, living in contradictions. I have worked with teachers who know basic Wave Theory but don’t know that skin cells shed every second. I cook caramelized onions and various assortments of foods, while the school serves po sho and beans every single day. I am typing on a Dell 4200 laptop that has about 6 hours of battery life, while some students have trouble finding paper to write notes on. But the hardest thing to live with is knowing that many of these things are luxuries that make me feel like me and like my life back in the United states, but are seen as very unnecessary and affluent by the Ugandans in my community. Because of this, I hold the dozens of Ugandans that I have met in the highest regard, because they don’t need that much to thrive whereas I need so much to simply survive.