A Conference of Volunteers

12/8/15 – 21/8/15

It’s been a doozy to be honest. A lot has happened in such a short span of time. Two weeks ago I finished my site development visits for the Central and Western Regions of Uganda. As a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, PCVL, I was expected to visit volunteer sites in my cohort in order to determine whether or not they would be appropriate sites for future PCV’s when we leave. It’s honestly a cool concept, because it continues the partnership of our host sites and schools with future PCV’s. I’ve been excited lately because I’ve been slowly accomplishing all of my tasks on my to-do lists before I finish my service.

The day afterwards, I attended the most recent Health & Agribusiness Cohort’s swearing-in ceremony. To date, this is the fourth swearing-in ceremony that I have attended and most things have remained the same: the country director’s speech about having the courage of a sword-swallower, the ambassador saying that we’ll change the world “one village, one person, one household at a time”, and most importantly the free finger foods after the conclusion of the ceremony. It’s interesting how emotionally distant I am with this group compared with past groups. I think that I’ve come to realize that there just isn’t enough time left in my service to spend feasibly any quality time with the new volunteers when I would rather spend time with my close friends whom I already know.

That night ended up being a bit of a shit-show, because several of us PCV’s took private hire vehicles to crash the dancing celebration at Bubbles Express, the club where newly sworn-in PCV’s dance while staying at the Lweza Conference Center. After a bottle of whiskey, a lot of dancing in a club where half of the second floor collapsed a few months ago, and a few regrettable choices we made it back to our hostel in time for a hungover breakfast of oral rehydration salts (ORS) and eggs.

I decided to stay in Kampala for the next two days since the All Volunteer Conference for all Uganda Peace Corps Breakdancing at MakerereVolunteers would commence at the beginning of the week. My PCV friend Cindy, who hosted during the Easter Mt. Elgon hike, had a couch-surfing friend in Ntinda. We stayed at her house with her vegan, German roommate. During that time we stopped by Makerere University to witness a breakdancing competition among different Ugandan breakdancing teams. I didn’t feel like I was in Uganda, because we were on a huge grass commons at Makerere with a modern-day stage setup where performers from all over Uganda showcased their moves. One of the bboys from the internationally acclaimed documentary “Shake the Dust”, hosted the dance-off which involved input from the crowd.

Finally, on Sunday I started making moves to the Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel near the Kabaka’s Lake where we had our All Volunteer Conference. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of PCV’s in one place. Normally even just a few other PCV’s in one place would be enough to put me into extroverted overload. I felt as if I had so many stories or so many interests to pursue with everyone. All Volunteer Conference differed from other conferences in that the majority of the sessions were led by other PCV’s. The bulk of the schedule embraced an “open space” methodology where PCV’s could lead simultaneously sessions concerning: yoga, hair wraps, new workout plans, sustainable library techniques, conservation, and youth clubs. During the days, I was busy working on media projects, meeting with the Peer Support Network, stuffing my face with free food, or walking around such as quaint lake that didn’t smell overtly like sewage.

US Ambassador and Peace Corps Volunteers

US Ambassador and Peace Corps Volunteers

At night, the atmosphere would change from somehow focused to casual. We would hang out on each other’s balconies, chill on the 4-story rooftop by the water tank, play a multiplayer LAN game of Age of Empires II, or eat a ton of cake and drink expensive gin with real, yellow lemons instead of the green ones sold at the markets. I can’t express how awesome it felt to just sit and hang with some PCV’s whom I haven’t seen for the good part of the year with our feet dangling dozens of feet above the ground on the ledge of the rooftop.  I got a bit sad at one point during the conference, because I realized that this would be the last time I would see many of these PCV’s before I left the country. Of course I wouldn’t miss all of them, but I would definitely miss a large majority of them.

Peace Corps Prom Part 2The last night of the conference was Peace Corps Prom. This event was a time for PCV’s to dress up in prom outfits pieced together from village clothing piles and then let loose together. I would be lying if I said that this event wasn’t a bit sloppy.  The night had a college-like atmosphere with PCV’s pre-gaming in their hotel dorm rooms. At one point the music stopped playing because the wires from the dj booth to the speakers in the center of the room snapped, and I re-connected them with my fingers. As a reward for my bravery, I received some tequila. As I walked back to my room very early the next morning I laughed. I noticed that behind each dorm room door there lay a story:

-An inebriated occupant since the key was still dangling on the outside part of the door

-Loud music with people hooking up

-People on a balcony smoking cigarettes and eating watermelon slices

-Several people in a room debating the merits of a threesome

-Friends comparing notes on a powerpoint presentation for their organization

-A random, dress with bite marks left on a doorknob

All of this occurred as another PCV played and sang songs on his guitar on the rooftop of the hotel. Hopefully we get invited back next year.

Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel

Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel

This is it, the end days of my service. Even now I still think back to where and who I was an entire year ago at last year’s All Volunteer Conference. I think that right now I have grown more confident in my own abilities and accomplishments and become more realistic in my expectations as to what I can accomplish before I leave. Most of my doubts and worries have gone, and I am more than ready to pass on projects to fresher PCV’s who have yet to feel the weariness of a fully-lived Peace Corps Service. As PCV’s we are a stubborn lot who are hard to please, but in some ways that makes us more likely to work hard to accomplish our goals.

Permagardens and Flying

20/4/15 – 25/4/15

I feel like I dedicated the past two weeks of my life towards very sustainable trainings and sessions. From April 20th – 25th I brought a group of two Luteete PTC students and my village neighbor Mingling HandsGodfrey to the Central Youth Technical Training in Mukono. During the past 5 months Peace Corps staff and an extended Peace Corps Volunteer designed regional youth technical trainings that refined the Peace Corps camp model. The goal was to present and facilitate soft leadership skills and sustainable agricultural practices, IGA’s (income generating activities), and creative facilitation skills to a team consisting of a Peace Corps Volunteer, Ugandan counterpart, and two Ugandan youth. This would ensure a transfer of skills and further provision of resources by the Peace Corps Volunteer.

I was absolutely enthralled by this training, because the focus was on fostering youth-adult partnerships. There were sessions about creative facilitation, HIV/AIDS myths and condom (male and female) demonstrations, gender empowerment, compost and permagarden creation, and youth-led clubs. Every session presented the topics with an emphasis on gender and youth empowerment. The Centre for Creativity and Capacity Development, consisting of Ugandan artists, dancers, singers, and actors, facilitated the majority of the sessions. A special emphasis was placed on having females and other youth leading the sessions as opposed to traditional male Ugandan facilitators.

Permagarden NotesI think that I was in a stage of my service where I had this close relationship with my Ugandan team members and knew specific ways and methods that could be employed in my community. I met a Ugandan facilitators dedicated to motivating youth through hip-hop dancing, offering free HIV testing in rural communities, and demonstrating the successes of youth-led clubs. However, the session that excited me the most was the permagarden tutorial led by a Peace Corps Ethiopia agriculture specialist, Peter Jensen. A permagarden utilizes many of the concepts of permaculture design, by manipulating a pre-existing landscape with sustainable, easy-to-access, and readily available resources in agriculturally-based societies. Once created, a permagarden would allow a family to plant various fruits, vegetables, and perennials throughout the year regardless of dry season or rainy season.

Mukono Sunset

Mukono Sunset

Water is stored underground during rainy season underneath the subsoil and deeper layers of clay. After double-digging and loosening the soil down to a depth of 50cm, the water from the rainy season will rise through the dry upper layers of subsoil and topsoil through capillary action. By adding charcoal powder, dry cow manure, and wood ash the loosened layers of soil in the plant beds will hold more air, water, and minerals essential for plant growth and deep roots. My team members were ecstatic about this new concept and decided that they wanted to create a permagarden near the ICT lab near the PTC. I too got excited about introducing various vegetables and greens to my community in a easily-created way.

Furthermore, these trainings allowed the youth to voice their own ideas and feel as if anything they said carried the same magnitude as any other adult or Peace Corps Volunteer regardless of age or gender. I could summarize my time in Mukono as being very inspiring. I was surrounded by devoted Peace Corps Volunteers and even more devoted Ugandans. Similar to other Peace Corps camps, the Centre for Creativity and Capacity Development taught leadership and creativity sessions through art, skits, dancing, singing, and movement. The idea revolved around kinesthetic teaching methods as opposed to powerpoint presentations and blackboards.

Arua Sunset

Arua Sunset

Towards the end of the training, there were two sessions that really captured the essence of training. The first one was late-night art where all the participants of the training gathered around the edges of a long table draped with white cloth and all kinds of drawing and painting materials. The idea was to dance around the table and draw certain images at certain intervals. It started out at face-value by drawing our favorite foods on the cloth, and progressed to drawing images that reminded us of youth-adult partnerships. At one point, we were instructed to draw an image of our personal dream for someone in this room. After we were done, my Ugandan student pulled me arm and showed me her drawing of a school building. She told me that her dream was for me to teach students like her at my very own school. Another youth pulled me aside and showed me an image of a camera and said that her dream was for me to take the best photo in the entire world.

Sometimes I forget that as much as Peace Corps volunteers here dream about helping Uganda, To FlyUgandans also have dreams for us. Peter led the second session where we each held a piece of paper and slowly crumpled it every time something he said applied to us. For example, if he said, “I have been a victim of crime”, “I have a leaky roof”, “I have HIV”, or “I have been persecuted for my beliefs” then I would crumple my paper each time a statement was true in my life. Afterwards, we exchanged papers with someone else and straightened the paper out. Step-by-step he instructed us how to build a paper airplane, and explained that even though we could never truly get rid of the crumples in our life, we could still change. After everyone successfully created a paper airplane, he instructed us to lift it into the air and in the stillness of that moment he uttered, “No matter how damaged you were; now you can fly.” Immediately after he said that, over 60 paper airplanes, goals, and visions were soaring through the air of the main hall.

MSC (Mid-Service Conference)

January 27-31, 2015

You know, it’s interesting to have finally made it this far. Last year I had visited the other PCV’s at their own MSC at Maria Flo Hotel in Masaka. I found it hard to believe that it had been one whole year since the older education volunteers were celebrating their own successes and planning the next year. Out of all of the conferences that I’ve attended, this was definitely the most fulfilling and productive. It’s hard to stress just how connected I feel with the fellow PCV’s in my cohort. I see them as my family and friends who have shared similar struggles and hardships together since the beginning at Kulika.

I left my site on Monday January 26 with the end goal of reaching Jinja in mind. After a traditionally lengthy day of travel by bike, takisi, and foot, I arrived in Jinja town where I met up with fellow PCV’s Hannah and Steve at Hans. I was told that they had one of the best chicken pillao in town. We then shared a milkshake with each other at the Keep which is a castle-themed restaurant that serves amazing smoothies and milkshakes. I was struck by how almost-developed the streets were around that area. There were sidewalks and some semblance of city-planning since the town streets were a grid system.

We spent the night at Hannah’s site near Wanyange. The next day we made for the Njeru Nile Hotel near the Nile Brewery where we would be having our four-day MSC. Even though I had been able to share quality time with everyone in our cohort since other conferences, it felt really good to physically be with everyone again in one space. It was perfect, the conference center had swanky rooms with leather chairs, a tv, sink, an oven that didn’t connect to anything, a private bathroom, and an oscillating fan.

Group MeetingIn keeping with my cohort’s overachieving attitude, we already had extra-curricular activities planned throughout the conference. On the first night, we all chilled by the bonfire and listened to some PCV’s play around on their guitars. Of course there was also the mandatory sharing of whiskey, chill sessions, and catching up those whom I haven’t had the chance to see in a long time. The first morning involved a gallery walk where everyone was encouraged to make a poster or presentation detailing what he or she has done during his or her service. At first, a lot of us didn’t like the idea of bragging about ourselves. However, that morning session was successful, and it was really refreshing to see the work that we were all doing at our respective sites with our time.

I was struck with the difference in mentality and attitude since IST. Back then it almost felt like a competition about who did the most work and who was being the most successful at site. Now it felt like we were here to really support each other with the realization that all of us had such unique talents, circumstances, and regions that allowed us to accomplish what we did. The other cool thing about this conference was that even though we knew each other on different personal levels, we were very comfortable presenting our own ideas to each other, sharing our struggles, and voicing concerns.

Amanda, who led a lot of yoga sessions during our service, led a reflection/meditation activity in the afternoon. The idea was that we were caught riding a boda or doing some other illegal activity that kicked us out of Peace Corps Uganda and that we then had 12 hours of time left before we had to leave and go back to the United States. We were savoring each breath and reflecting on our dreams, hopes, regrets, lies, goodbyes, and thank yous before we left for good. I thought about what I would say to my closest friends here, how I would never be able to see a completed ICT lab, how my village kids would always ask where I went, and the anger that I would have with myself at not finishing my Peace Corps service.

Mid Service Conference Group Photo

I actually got really emotional during the reflection, because it helped me realize just how much of an impact Uganda had made on me in this past year. My head was spinning as I attempted to understand what I would do to prepare for my sojourn back to my old home. Interestingly, I also felt a sense of relief in imagining that in such a sudden and forceful departure, I would also be forced to let go of all attachments here and focus on what was happening in those last moments of life in Uganda. Then just as we meditated on getting on that plane and leaving Ugandan ground for the last time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we took a deep breath and came back to this reality. The meditation was an adaptation of a death meditation of one’s last 12 hours of life before death. In this case, I realized just how short one year really is and what I wanted to do in this last year of service.

We also scheduled some extra sessions as a cohort where we discussed issues concerning diversity, peer support, geo issues, and sexual harassment. I appreciated the level of maturity in the cohort where we could talk about serious issues with each other when the time was right, and still have the energy to go crazy and celebrate with each other when the work was completed.

We drafted our upcoming year 1 workplans, wrote success stories, met with our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders, attended resume/CV sessions, received our W-2’s from our DMO, and voiced our honest concerns concerning safety and security, favoritism, the boda policy, and volunteer/staff relations. The last two nights were dedicated to a casino and a carnival night of games.

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised with how successful MSC was. I expected to roll my eyes at the presentations because I already understood the basics, but this was all about ways to move forward. I came out of this conference on the upswing and am extremely excited to start this new year. Once again, I was also able to create a new music video of all the members in our cohort as a sort of commemoration after the Kulika Music Video last year. I guess that above all things I am grateful to have a cohort, community, and family that cares as much about this job as I do.

Kulika Bubble

November 16th, 2013

I talked to several of the other volunteers today, and we attended several more classes about the differences between Kulika MeetingsUgandan culture and American culture as well as the different Peace Corps Committees that help support PCVs with issues such as sexual harassment, cultural diversity, and resiliency. The sessions have been helpful in setting a background of knowledge for us, but it’s still weird because all that we really know about Uganda comes from the presentations, interactions, and stories heard on this farm. We are in this Kulika bubble that is beautiful and still other-worldly.

It was nice to feel a slight connection to home today when we all took out our laptops and external hard-drives to share tv shows, music, and movies. Unfortunately, I totally forgot to add any of those things to my external hard-drive before leaving the United States, so I had a clean computer with video editing software and Microsoft Office which can only be entertaining for so long. Now I have all of the seasons of Breaking Bad and a sizable list of music that can satiate me for those long nights ahead.