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.

Gratitude

22/1/15 – 23/1/15

The new Education group of trainees finally swore-in at the ambassador’s house on Thursday. It really  didn’t hit me how much things have changed until I sat down and heard the speeches that I’ve heard time and time again by the Country Director, Ambassador, and new PCV’s. It struck me just how optimistic of a tone this new group had when its representatives gave speeches during the ceremony. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t eloquent or heartfelt, but they sounded very optimistic and intangible. There were a lot of metaphors and comparisons of empowering Ugandans in a sustainable way.

I believe that if I had heard these speeches a year ago, I would have been inspired. It’s funny just how much stock I now place in tangible goals instead of intangible aspirations and how all of the beautiful rhetoric in the world still won’t make the borehole pump itself. Some of my fellow PCV’s from my cohort who also attended the ceremony commented, “How long do you think it will take until they become jaded?”

New Group Swearing-In

Of course we all congratulated them and welcomed the newly sworn-in PCV’s with open arms, but I kept asking myself that question. Was there a turning point or was it a gradual shift in attitudes that made me the Peace Corps Volunteer who I am today as opposed to a whole year ago at the Ambassador’s house. I still welcome the fresh perspective to this country that only new PCV’s can offer.

The next day, I returned back to site. It’s almost as if my entry into my metaphorical junior year of my Peace Corps service was a reminder of what I had gone through. I had a mini-bout of giardia in the morning which caused me intense pain even as I wolfed down the chicken skewer appetizers after the swearing-in ceremony and drank glasses of wine at the Country Director’s house afterwards. I threw up later that night after much diarrhea.

The next day, I travelled back to site on an empty stomach. Even in my own town, a market vendor called me muchina and I chewed him out in local language. My bicycle’s back wheel had low air pressure, but as I made it back to my house a smile grew on my face. My neighborhood kids were yelling, “Marvin” as I made it to my front door. Even the berry plant that was eaten by a stray goat started to re-grow its leaves. So much has changed in this past year, and I think back to that last speech given at this new group’s swearing-in ceremony. PCV Emery gave a speech entirely devoted to gratitude towards all people and parts who made Peace Corps Ugandan possible: from the UPS man/woman who delivered our visa applications to the Peace Corps Uganda staff and trainers.

As I entered the front door of my house a for the first time after a whole year, I think back to the experiences and interactions that continuously led me back to that door when I could have just as easily ignored it for somewhere else. In this case, I’m grateful to call his place my home.