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, milk 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:
- To provide a service to the host country
- To promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served
- 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
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, 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?”
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 barbecued 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.
We 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.
Some 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
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 stoves. 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.
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.