Taking for Granted

13/7/15 – 20/7/15

I spent the last week traveling with the Country Director to the southwestern and western regions of Uganda. We stopped at PCV sites in Masaka, Kisoro, Kabale, Bushenyi, Fort Portal, Kyenjojo, Hoima, and Masindi. Even in an air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle, it was exhausting to see so many sites in such a short span of time. I have since come to regret agreeing to this project of creating Peace Corps Uganda promotional videos because it takes me away from site for long periods of time during the week. On the other hand I have been able to see the amazing projects and empathize with the difficulties of my fellow PCV’s. It was funny hearing complaints inside the Peace Corps vehicle about how difficult it was to reach a PCV’s site, and then realize that a PCV had to travel to and from that site with the use of limited public transportation.

Peace Corps Yoganda

Peace Corps Yoganda

We saw projects concerning coffee farmers, energy-efficient cookstoves, Ugandan yoga, reading interventions, cow dung to natural gas conversion, public health clinics, and kitenge scrap quilts. The more I saw my fellow PCV’s sites and projects, the more I wanted to get back home to my own site. My favorite part of each day was staying with a PCV at a his or her site and getting to know that person’s unfiltered story. I realized that I felt the most comfortable among other PCV’s and in my own village.

Cow Dung to Natural Gas

Cow Dung to Natural Gas

After finishing the site visits, I chilled in Masaka over the weekend where I got my haircut by Ugandan students of another PC, Jamie who was teaching them how to cut muzungu hair at St. Agnes Vocational School. I felt as if I really relaxed over the weekend, because Jamie’s house felt very cozy in the middle of town with a living room filled with couches and carpet. I finally was able to just lounge in a carpet and walk barefoot on carpet. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine that I was in a small college apartment instead of inside a nice Peace Corps house.

Cutting Muzungu Hair

Cutting Muzungu Hair

Then on Monday I organized the pick-up of computers, projectors, extension cables, padlocks, and a projector sheet for the Luteete PTC computer lab from Kampala. It was a bit stressful withdrawing over 6 million shillings, carrying the computers across two streets of busy traffic, and then making it back home by public transportation because I still had errands to do in Kampala. After passing out that night, I awoke the next day to start of the college’s computer lab. With the help of some Year 2 students, we assembled the ten computers on the side walls of the lab and organized the furniture so that students could work on the wall computer terminals while others took notes on the middle island tables. It really did feel like a dream come true.

Wiring the Computer Lab

Wiring the Computer Lab

I remembered when I first arrived at the college and how I knew that my college would really benefit from computer lab. I also remembered how I thought to myself: “This is gonna take a long time and a lot of hard work.” Now, the computers are ready and all that is needed is to connect the electricity from the college to the computer lab. I take a lot of things for granted here in Peace Corps, like the freedom to leave my job whenever I want/need without any questions. I also know that I am also taken for granted at times. However, the one thing that I will never take for granted are my shared experiences with other PCV’s and my own time here in my home nestled in Luteete village.

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Developing

3/7/15 – 6/7/15

I went searching for a set of speakers that I could attach to a computer or iPhone so that my students would be able to hear the audio whenever I play a video clip in the computer lab. Rachel accompanied me to Ntinda in Kampala where one of the Ugandans helping out with the filming during the Let Girls Learn video told me I could find a set of solid speakers. Rachel and I wandered around the suburban-like Ntinda neighborhood until we saw a sign with the words “Speaker Forum” pointing inside a three-story building. I got excited because I was finally going to get these speakers for both my computer lab, as well as bring them for the 4th of July celebration in Fort Portal. The derelict inside of the building with its dark corridors and signs promising free Wifi and barbecue nights made me feel that I was a soon-to-be kidnapped victim from a Peace Corps themed Taken movie. Rachel and I ended up at a room filled with couches and Ugandans sitting behind a desk.

I quizzically asked one of the receptionists where I could find the speakers, and she told me that I was in the correct room. It turns out that a “Speakers Forum” meant human speakers and not the ones that attached to a stereo and audio jack. Dismayed, Rachel and I tried a furniture store next door run by whom we thought were two Lebanese men, but who actually turned out to be two bros from New Jersey/New York.

Me: “Do you sell speakers here?”

Not Lebanese Man: “We only sell furniture here bro. Where are you guys from?”
*Said in the most American bro accent

Me: “I’m from Luweer…. I’m from Maryland.”

Rachel: “And I’m from New Jersey.”

Not Lebanese Man: “Cool, my girlfriend lives 45 minutes away from New York City.”

Me: “…”

Rachel and I depart and decide that the best course of action on this Thursday night is to get happy hour gin and tonics at the Bistro.

I am glad to say that many of my adventures involve crazy situations and mishaps in Kampala prior to traveling anywhere. We stayed with my embassy sponsor after one of the most harrowing private hire rides through the dark abyss of the taxi park area, the bright red light district, and the traffic of the tank hill neighborhood. I couldn’t keep track of the number of times I thought we were going to hit a boda, be hit by a boda, or just careen off the side of the road. Fortunately we made it to the house in one piece, and had a traditional dinner of cheeseburgers and apple crumble for dessert.

On Friday morning, we left the comfort of my embassy sponsor’s house for the craziness of the taxi park area. I purchased a set of non-human stereo speakers at the Shoprite on Entebbe Road before heading out to Fort Portal on a taxi. I have come to realize how easy it has become to bother me these days. As we were about to enter one of the taxis, I rolled my eyes and laughed when the conductor of the taxi offered to put my backpack on the roof or in the back of the taxi. Rachel reminded to be nice, especially since the conductor was just trying to help me. After a cramped ride filled with much yelling, breast milk splashing, and emotional swings we arrived in Fort Portal where we greeted dozens of other PCV’s at the Sweet Aromas bakery and the Dutchess restaurant.

This 4th of July weekend filled me with a myriad of emotions. I felt so content to see PCV’s who could understand me and have a good time with me without me having to explain myself. I realize that I don’t even need to explain to other PCV’s why I feel a certain emotion or do something weird, because they too know that I am working through my own issues and emotions at any given moment. That first cup of coffee at Sweet Aromas, that first bite of olive pizza at the Dutchess, that first hit of shisha at the Forest bar felt so refreshing and wonderful.

Fourth Portal 2015

Fourth Portal 2015

The entire day of Saturday the 4th will remain in my memory as a particularly beautiful day. We started it out by doing yoga together on the lawn of the YES Hostel, followed by some ab workouts. After showering, we set up the speaker system and proceeded to drink bloody mary’s with Old Bay, mingle with PCV’s from all cohorts, and eat some Ugandan barbecue. Apart from the beer pong and dancing, I remember sitting on a chair facing the rolling hills of Fort Portal and witnessing the sunset in an auburn sky while my closest PCV friends surrounded me. Life literally felt as if it couldn’t get much better than this.

Interdependence

Interdependence

As the festivities ended, I began preparing my work as a PCVL, Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. One of my duties is to visit PCV sites in the Fort Portal region in order to assess whether these sites would be a good candidate to continue hosting a PCV after the ones in my cohort departed at the end of this year. The goal is of the Primary Literacy Project for us education PCV’s is to have an incoming education PCV from the cohort arriving this November work as the “carrier” PCV after our work as the “starter” PCV. It really is cool to know that so many of our projects involving libraries, clubs, and positive behavior systems can be continued and grown even after we leave.

As a PCVL, my visits to my friends’ sites have shown me just how much development can occur in as little as two years. AsCanon Apolo CPTC little as I feel I may accomplish here, I realize just how much of an impact we have in our communities and schools. I often hear those cheesy stories about how a simple greeting to a neighbor inspired that neighbor to become an English teacher, but I sometimes wonder what our pupils and students will remember from our classes. Saying hello is just one small facet of our day, and we have a direct impact on our students’ learning. This weekend of fun, reflection, and work has reminded me not to give up just yet. There is still work to be done and there is still time to develop.

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.