23/11/14 – 6/12/14
“Ah it seems that you have been eating well, because you have put on weight.”
~Several of my neighbors after seeing me return from my travels these past two weeks
I would say that this has been one of the more hectic two weeks of my time here in Uganda. I’ve been busy travelling on behalf of projects, holidays, celebrations, trainings, and my own benefit. As per usual, I feel the need to blog about my experiences in order to make sense of what has occurred and move on to new experiences.
On Sunday November 23rd I left my house in order to go to my old host family’s house in Kasana/Luweero as the guest of honor for the opening of their Texas Primary School. While I lived with them last year the brick structures of what would eventually become school classrooms dotted the family’s compound. As I walked up the familiar roads that led to their house, I could see metal sheets that fenced in a compound of classrooms, staff rooms, a small media room, and the house that was converted into dorm rooms.
It felt very odd to be back in my host family’s house, because the last time I had spent any significant amount of time with them was 9 months ago right before I was sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There were so many children around the compound and my host brothers and sisters were all grown-up. I could tell that they weren’t as wild as they used to be during the day, because there were a lot of important guests around. Ministry members, teachers, the LC3, staff, students, and other invited guests. The ceremony had all the regular fixings of a typical Ugandan event: tarpaulin, speakers, joking MC’s, traditional dances, and musical performances lip-synced to Ugandan dancehall songs. I even got to join in with the entirety of my Enkima (Monkey) Clan. I still think that it is so cool that I am part of a clan here. Even my host parents’ parents told me that I was true Muganda.
I saw my tiny host brothers and sisters singing, “My name is ___insert name here___. Welcome our visitors!” Then there was a performance of some kid pleading either to God or to a king of sorts to help give him food. Interestingly enough, the speeches given by the officials were more succinct than usual and only averaged around 10-15 minutes per speech. The food was some of the best traditional Ugandan food that I’ve ever had in country.
Throughout the course of the event I noticed that my host brothers and sisters were avoiding me or not really interacting with me whenever I went up to them. I was worried that maybe they forgot about me since I had been gone for so long. However, towards the evening when the majority of the guests left, the eldest host brother and sister (around 6 and 7 years old) warmed up to me and started playing with me. I was laughing very hard as they ran races, attempted to carry jerrycans that were twice their weight, and asked me to do some training with them.
As the night approached, I filled jerrycans from the outside tap for my bathing and prepped my old bedroom for sleep. One of the recently graduated students danced into the room with some headphones on. She told me that she really loved Akon. Another student approached her with some glasses, and she said, “Ah! I don’t want to wear that because then I’ll look like a nigger.” I was completely taken aback by the casual way this statement was said. I realized that a lot of hip-hop music makes its way from the United States to Uganda without any cultural context or background. I explained to her that it was inappropriate to say comments like that, especially in front of children due to the meaning of the words she chose to use. To her, “nigger” just meant a cool, well-dressed person with a lot of money. As I thought about it, I could see how someone growing up in the village here could associate it with that concept after hearing the frequent use of that word in hip-hop songs.
After clearing up the misunderstanding, my host mother asked me to show a movie to the pupils who stayed in the house. I hooked up my portable speakers to my laptop and premiered the movie Frozen to them. They absolutely loved it, and I guess that the concept was foreign to them because of the liberal use of ice and snow that comprised the majority of the movie. Their favorite character was the snowman, and the concept of making a person out of snow and wasting a perfectly good carrot in order to give him a nose was another foreign idea.
*Note: Attempt to explain holiday ideas such as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny to any group of village Ugandans for comedic effect.
I woke up early on Monday and my host family members walked me to the main Kampala-Gulu Road. I hopped on a takisi headed to Kampala. I had to first withdraw some money from Barclays and then pick up some newly screen-printed PSN t-shirts. I made my way to the Kisenyi Bus Park, which is further west from the New Taxi Park where I took the Global Bus to Mbarara. That was a very difficult bus ride not only because I traveled alone, but because of how freaking hot it was. There were two seats on either side of the aisle, and the lady in the aisle seat kept closing my window once it got too windy. She would literally lean over me, my plastic bags, and my travel bag in order to close the window.
I kept sleeping a lot, but after almost six hours I made it into Mbarara where I met up with PCV Mike. I got to see the Peace Corps Resource Room where PCV’s can leave books and other accoutrements there for other PCV’s to use. There is also the added benefit of couches, free wifi, and we are also right across the hall from one of the Red Pepper newspaper offices who are notorious for publishing lists “outing” gay members of the Ugandan communities.
We bought some ingredients from the Nakumatt in town in order to make a Mediterranean shrimp scampi infused with some Vegeta seasoning that PCV Sam bought for me during his trip through Croatia. We cooked a tomato and white wine shrimp scampi over a bed of fusilli, which was deliciously amazing since I hadn’t tasted shrimp in over a year. I was glad that I made it over to Bishop Willis PTC before Mike left. We also danced to some dubstep and shared some music with one another before I went to bed.
Tuesday was a very memorable day for me. I walked from Bishop Willis PTC to the main road leading out from Mbarara. I caught a takisi headed to Kabale. About 3 hours and 3 takisi switches later I arrived in Kabale town. It always seems that a woman throws up on this journey as we twist our way through the winding hill roads of the far southwest. I arrived in Kabale town and walked to Amanda’s house.
Amanda’s house reminds me so much of a real house or apartment back in the United States. The way things were laid out felt very homely and welcoming. Also the air inside the house made me feel as if the air-condition was on the entire time. I felt very relaxed as I shared a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine with Amanda and Matt. Matt started quizzing me about the world map mural that he had drawn on one of the living room walls. I did a decently good job of locating the countries in Europe and Africa, but had a difficult time with those in South America. In the evening, more PCV’s came in order to celebrate a pre-Thanksgiving of sorts. We made mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, creamed peas and carrots, broiled chicken breasts, and boxed stuffing complemented with a jar of cranberries.
It was such a delicious meal that I shared with good friends in a good atmosphere. The night ended as the box of wine depleted and we all spent a night of snoring and labored breathing due to a lot of ingested food, cat allergies, and boxed wine.
The next day we headed over to Lake Bunyonyi after painting a world map mural at Amanda’s primary school. There were about 30 of us celebrating together on the islands of Byoona Amagara and Bushara. It was so great just to be in a place where I felt cold and surrounded by friends. The first night was mainly spent catching up with one another and enjoying the literal and figurative atmosphere. It had rained a little bit in the evening and the sunset cast a gorgeous rainbow in the background of the lake, which made the area look even more beautiful than it usual looks.
On Thanksgiving Day, everyone from both islands and those from Kabale Town met up at the Birdnest, which was a hotel/bar/restaurant on the shore of the mainland. We all ordered some Muzungu food, drank, connected 3 portable speakers together to an iPod, and gathered around in a circle in order to tell each other what we were thankful for. Personally, I’m thankful for:
Having the opportunity to live out my dream of joining the Peace Corps.
A cold gin and tonic.
A job well done.
Good friends that I never lost.
My family (Filipino, American, Ugandan, Peace Corps)
As lunch ended, we all gathered together at Byoona Amagara for a follow-up dinner before the PCV’s from Bushara headed back. As the night progressed, the number of us who stayed up dwindled. It was cold and rainy, but a few of us rallied and went skinny dipping off the docks around midnight. It was actually quite hilarious, because of how cold the water was and that it was still raining.
*Note: At this point in my home I had to take a break writing in my blog in order to eradicate an ant colony that was under my desk as well as a black baby snake that I hope isn’t a Black Mamba.
I spent one more day at Lake Bunyonyi. At this point more than half of the PCV’s left for various reasons: to go gorilla trekking, explore Rwanda, or head back to site to attend a Ugandan wedding. After breakfast, I decided to canoe over to Bushara to see what the remaining PCV’s were up to over there. The last time I was at Lake Bunyonyi, there were three of us in a canoe and we had the hardest time getting the canoe to go straight. This time, I finally got the hang of it and made it to the other island after about 45 minutes of paddling.
As I approached the other island, I was greeted by the remaining PCV’s who were sunbathing on the dock. We chilled, listened to some music, and enjoyed the rope swing. Honestly, that rope swing spot might be one of favorite locations in all of Uganda. I just felt so free as I fly through the air, release into a backflip, and know that I will land in really cold lake water. I played a card game called Ligretto after having a lunch of crayfish quesadillas. PCV Julia, who was my trainer a year ago and who is about to COS, invited me to hang out at her house the next day. I excitedly agreed since I needed to do something for a day before I made my way to Shimoni for Teacher Bootcamp Training with the new group. It had been raining on and off throughout the course of the day, so after a light shower gave way to a patch of clear skies I hurried back to the canoe to return to Byoona Amagara.
About 10 minutes later, the wind started whipping around me and waves started to rock my canoe. All of a sudden, it started to downpour. I placed my camera bag underneath my legs and paddled against the rain, wind, and waves towards the island. I had to be sure that I paddled perpendicular to the waves, because whenever I started to paddle parallel to them the canoe would rock violently. I felt epic, I felt like a hardcore explorer, but mostly I felt stupid for not leaving earlier when there was a much larger patch of clear skies.
That last night at Byoona Amagara was chill. The remaining PCV’s played Salad Bowl. I turned in for an early night because I knew that tomorrow would be another busy day. On Saturday a boat picked us up from Byoona Amagara and swung by Bushara in order to pick up the PCV’s over there. As the boat made its way to shore, Julia asked what we should do for dinner. I posited that we should purchase some crayfish and steam them for dinner. Julian added that we could do a Bouillabaisse. When we got to the docks, I asked some Ugandans if we could buy some crayfish, and they pulled up some large crayfish catching baskets from underneath the dock.
The baskets functioned as a trap for the crayfish with either corn, a piece of chicken, or some po sho used as bait. One end of the basket was inverted inwards so that the crayfish could easily enter but couldn’t exit and the other end was like the end of a wine bottle except that it was stuffed with reeds so that the crayfish couldn’t leave on their own volition unless poured out by someone. We bought 2kg of live crayfish, and I finally was able to purchase two small crayfish catching baskets in order to add to my growing basket collection from different parts of Uganda.
We stopped by the Kabale market so that we could pick up leeks, onions, tomatoes, and garlic for the Bouillabaisse. Then we took a private hire to Julia’s site, which is known as the sprawling village trading center metropolis of Bukindo. Julia had already removed most of her items from her house, but it still felt pretty homely. There was a dining room with a couch bed, a guest bedroom, and a kitchen and bathroom with running water. We first steamed the crayfish using the Luwombo method. The method involves steaming food without a fancy steamer or wire rack. One simply lines the bottom or a ssefuliya (metal pot) with the thick stems of a matooke leaf and then pours water or beer on the bottom. Then whatever is being steamed is wrapped with the leafy part of the matooke leaf and placed on top of the stems. Another ssefuliya or cover could be added to the first one in order to allow the steaming process to be more efficient.
Traditionally this method is used to prepare matooke, sweet potatoes, and chicken Luwombo. However in this case it was used to steam crayfish, which had a slight taste of the matooke leaves and the Nile Beer that we poured in it. While we prepared the vegetables for the Bouillabaisse, we had a small crayfish race with our chosen champions. Julia’s crayfish, Rambo, won whereas mine, Old Man Jenkins, died at the starting line.
The dinner tasted amazing as well. The steamed crayfish was just so sweet and really reminded me like I was eating mini lobsters. It was bittersweet to finally be hanging out with a bunch of my trainers right as they are about to leave, but I was thankful that I had the opportunity to at least hang out with them before they left.
On Sunday I left Julia’s house early in order to get to Kampala. Emily, who also stayed at Julia’s house, and I hopped on a Bismarkan Bus passing through Bukindo that was headed to Kampala. The ride wasn’t as bad as the ride to Kabale or Mbarara, but it wasn’t great either. It was very hot at one point, then it got chilly because of the rain, then the window started leaking, then it was humid again. Eventually we found our way to Kampala. I said goodbye to Emily and met up with Ravi at the Old Taxi Park at the Kira-Bulindo stage headed to Shimoni PTC where the new trainees were having their School based Training/Teacher Bootcamp.
I felt very weird being back at Shimoni after more than a year. I couldn’t tell if they had fixed it up and made it look nicer or if I had just gotten used to things here because I thought that the venue was much nicer than I remembered it. I had noticed that the trainees had changed a bit since I last saw them. They seemed to be a bit more stressed, anxious, and worried about their training and the future afterwards. I think that some of them were worried that the 27 month would take much longer than they had originally expected since training was dragging on forever.
As I entered the main hall, I was greeted by trainees and trainers alike who all asked me what I was doing there. I explained that I was asked to be here by the Literacy Coordinator Audrey who wanted me to create a video detailing the Primary Literacy Project training model. Therefore, I wanted to get some footage of what training looked like from the perspective of both the trainees and the trainers. For some reason I also felt anxious about being back at Shimoni. I just felt weird, as if something was off. Then again I feel like that whenever I spend a significant amount of time away from site.
I started the majority of the filming on December 1st. I filmed the trainers doing demonstration lessons at the PTC and some trainees performing literacy workstations at the demonstration school. Honestly, just being here at training for a full day took a lot out of me. I felt exhausted being on the entire time and filming lesson after lesson. However, it felt very refreshing to see the trainees eager to teach and implement the skills that they were taught when they were at Kulika.
In the evening, Ravi and I chatted a bit about some problems and concerns that we were going through. He talked about the stresses of training and shared a few anecdotes with me. I talked about what I had been doing in the meantime and how I was so worried that my ICT Lab wouldn’t be funded by February. We exchanged some advice and chilled on my hammock for a bit before doing some T25. We then had dinner and I finished my first full day of being back at School Based Training.
I spent the entirety of Tuesday filming at the PTC. I made the parts that I filmed look good; however, there were a few problems involved with trainees’ lesson plans. Of course this was expected, because it was their first actual day of teaching. For some of them it was their first day of real teaching in their entire lives. During lunchtime one of the trainees approached me because she was having some trouble. She felt like she had bombed her lesson and had trouble reconciling why she didn’t feel any emotional attachment to her students afterwards. She expressed to me how difficult she felt it already was living in country and how she felt that she hasn’t been the real her since she left the United States.
I explained to her that as PCV’s we all have different facets of our personality that we exhibit at different times. I told her that while many short-term volunteers look for meaning in the things that they do, Peace Corps Volunteers tend to do things and inadvertently stumble across meaning in the process. As for the concerns involving being invested in ones students, I shared that I didn’t feel that much emotional connection with my students until I started teaching at my PTC.
To me, it was interesting being approached for advice, because I still feel like I have more questions than answers. But I think that sharing my personal perspective was helpful to her in understanding how to approach the rest of training.
Finally it was Wednesday and I packed up my stuff to leave Shimoni for a week before I returned for Cultural Integration and Homestay Preparation Sessions. I was dropped off at Kira and took a takisi headed back to Kampala. I switched to another takisi where I was dropped off at Kisementi and I walked to the Peace Corps Office. I needed to work on a few projects where I could use the internet. As chance would have it, Jason and Loren were both there preparing for the My Language Spelling Bee celebration that would take place on Friday November 5th. They approached me and asked if I would be willing to take pictures during the event. I agreed given that I would be reimbursed for my stay in Kampala in the meantime.
It was perfect timing, because I still needed to do some work at the office and in Kampala where the internet is fast. I edited a first draft of the Primary Literacy Project video and called my middle school and high school in order to see if they would still be willing to have fundraising events for the computer lab at my PTC. I was pleased with the first draft of the video, and I passed out on one of the beds in Fat Cat.
I spent the next day meeting up with other PCV’s who were COSing. It was weird seeing them hit the gong, which signified that they were no longer a PCV but an RPCV. I imagined being in between the two worlds of life in the midst of being a Peace Corps Volunteer and the life of one who has to think about adjusting to life in a developed country.
I napped hardcore during the day and when I woke up I hung out with some PCV’s at the Bistro for Happy Hour gin and tonics. We had a delicious dinner at Ari Rang, which was a treat since I missed tasty Korean food in an ambient setting such as this one. I didn’t get much work done during the day, but I did discover that one of the stores in the Kisementi area had Leffe Blond beers stocked in the refrigerator section. Ah the taste of a good Trappist beer took me back to Europe and traveling through Brussels airport on our way here from staging.
I took a ton of pictures during the My Language Spelling Bee celebration where the winners, teachers, and family members of the My Language Spelling Bee championships had a ceremony dedicated for them. The cool thing about this one in particular was that the prime focus went to the pupils who were the champions in their respective language region. In many Ugandan events the chairpersons, administrators, and other adults are the center of attention. However, a special effort was made so that the pupils knew that today was their day. I loved it.
I showed Audrey the first draft of the Primary Literacy Video, and she liked it. There are a few things that we would like to include in it, but the meat of the project is there. After the event, I got drunk with some other PCV’s over Desperados and Leffe Blond at Fat Cat. I also ate this delicious sandwich that was reminiscent of Subway. I went to bed exhausted.
When I woke up I was tempted to join some other PCV’s at the pool in Entebbe, but decided against it in favor of going home for some much needed rest. On my bike ride back from Wobulenzi to Luteete I lost a travel towel that I bought while I stayed at Fat Cat. I also lost my toothbrush and toothpaste which was just as unfortunate. When I made it to my front door, I was bombarded with hugs and smiles from my neighborhood children, but I couldn’t reciprocate their energy. I just wanted to collapse from my two weeks of travelling, training, and working. It didn’t help that I was drinking more than I usually do during several of those days.
I discovered that I don’t really eat that healthily during travel days. All that I can eat are fried foods that are high in fat along with sugary sodas. Then whenever I stay in Kampala I can’t find any cheap and healthy options other than burgers, highly processed foods, cheese, ketchup, sauces, and snacks. I think that I have to rethink the whole concept of “Treat Yo Self” whenever I pass through a town or Kampala. It’s not sustainable or healthy, especially when I leave site for an extended period of time. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised when my neighbors told me that I had eaten well and gained some weight. My lifestyle in the past two weeks made me gain a bit of weight. Ever since I returned back at home I feel that I’ve been eating healthier, drinking more water, and getting back on a regular exercising schedule.
I also learned that goodbyes get more ritualized the more that they occur. I don’t even get that emotional knowing that I may never see some of these people ever again after they COS. Also while it Uganda is a small country, I have realized that there are so many aspects of it that I have not yet even come to grasp. I think that some PCV’s can fall into the trap of getting into a routine here where they eat at the same restaurants, stay at the same guesthouse, hang out with the same people, and complain about the same things. I don’t want that to be the case for me. I think that there are so many different things to do, people to interact with, and experiences to share that go beyond the places that I have been to time and time again. These past two weeks reiterate the need for me to go beyond my current rituals and comfort zones in favor of something new.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to leave my site just as often. My goal for the holidays and birthday is to go on a long distance bike ride in order to raise money for the computer lab funding. Currently the goal is to bike to Fort Portal from my village, which is around 350km, and have people back home pledge money per km. I have to get it approved by Peace Corps, and I’m banking on the people who wish me happy birthday on my Facebook to also see my project and pledge money. One of the new things that I look forward to this year is using the ICT/Computer Lab as a teaching resource for my students, teachers, and community members here.
Honestly, every single day has been some sort of dusty coaster ride. I start off excited and somehow refreshed at the beginning and somehow end up covered in dust, sweat, and back in a home without a towel.