Today

4/12/15

I was an emotional wreck today. I just kept panicking about things that were out of my control. As soon as I woke up, I bicycled to Bamunanika where I purchased 3 kg of beef for the celebration that my neighbors would be throwing in the late afternoon. Instead of making medium-well steaks, I decided to cook the beef the way that my neighbors would appreciate: by boiling it with an abundance of sauce until it softened like stew meat. Paulo Mulo, the black village cat, even returned for the day in order to say goodbye or eat the leftover meat. I had also set aside a lot of knick-knacks and small toys for the kids if they won some games like who could jump-rope the most or run the fastest.

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At some point after lunch, I took my usual short nap in the living room. But I started to panic because in my daydream I imagined driving alone through the empty streets of my suburban neighborhood in Maryland towards my childhood home. It freaked me out to imagine that such a real world existed back there unfathomable by my neighbors here in a world that was equally as unimaginable for people back in that small suburban neighborhood. I’m thinking of a specific 4-way intersection in Owings Mills with streetlights even though the traffic never gets bad enough to warrant it. I see the clean-cut grass of suburbia with the tidy sidewalks and people walking their dogs. I imagine how quiet it is and how much space people have with clean clothes, climate-controlled cars, and 4G internet everywhere.

In the meantime, I am leaving behind a house with semi-consistent electricity, a borehole with cloudy water or rain water collection tanks with leaky taps, ungodly heat or torrential downpours, all manner of insects and livestock and children invading personal space, and dusty roads. I guess that before Peace Corps, the thought of not having running water or a toilet bothered me so much. Now I have become worried about transitioning to a life filled with creature comforts and amenities that are often seen as a right and not a treat. And I am also leaving behind my neighbors who have lives in this small village that may never interact with the much larger world. The adults will go on herding the cows, teaching 100 pupil classes, sweeping the dust, pumping water, cooking the matooke, playing in the backyard, and life will continue here as much as it has continued back home.

In some ways Peace Corps Volunteers are peerless. Village neighbors will never understand the lives that we lived beforehand, and those back in the states can only guess what we underwent here.

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After having served the meat stew to my neighbors and received my own portion of matooke and rice, Master Godfrey played some Ugandan songs on his speakers. The children all started dancing and going crazy in the backyard. All I could do was smile as I drank some ginger caayi with a full stomach and the echoes of laughter and Ugandan dancehall music. The sunset through the backyard matooke trees and one of my neighbors, the mother of the twins, presented a hand-woven mat as a parting gift. After thanking them, one of the grandmother neighbors whispered to me, “You cannot forget this day.” It wasn’t a command; it wasn’t a reminder. It was simply a comment that today was remarkable in how normal and how special it felt at the same time. It was a particularly beautiful day living in Luteete village. She’s right though, I can’t forget this day.

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The Monster

18/4/15

It is the time of the term break doldrums when the students have finished Term 1 and the tutors are done teaching until the beginning of Term 2 next month. I have followed the formula:

9:00am – 10:00am waking up, putting in my contacts, opening the windows to prove to my neighbors that I woke up

10:00am – 11:00am – do some laundry, make chappatis for breakfast

11:00am – 1:00pm – eat breakfast, read books and articles on my kindle, use the pit latrine

1:00pm – 3:00pm – go to the PTC to eat lunch, sit down and wait until students approach me with questions*

*Note: These questions have ranged from algebra to women’s sexual health to possible income-generating activities

3:00pm – 5:30pm – dress down from PTC attire, play with the village children, take a nap, read books on kindle, study Swahili, call PCV’s concerning future projects

5:30pm – 7:15pm – bicycle to nearby Bamunanika trading center, buy necessities (tp, flour, rice, tomatoes), purchase 5 samosas, set up laptop at the hill to get internet, check email and Facebook

7:15pm – 8:15pm – chill in the house and share some conversations with the neighbors, fetch water

8:15pm – 9:00pm – electricity comes back, I watch tv shows on laptop, charge cell phone, and cook rice

9:00pm – 9:30pm – I do Focus T25 workout

9:30pm – 10:30pm – cook dinner, bucket bathe, eat dinner, wash dishes

10:30pm – 1:30am – write blog posts, lesson plan, watch tv shows, poop, brush teeth, go to bed

Normally, I would have gone elsewhere to preoccupy myself, but I felt that I needed to stay put for once and just spend some quality time at my site with my students, neighbors, and children even though I wasn’t teaching at the PTC. I also knew that the next few weeks would involve a lot of hectic travel for me involving the Central Youth Technical Trainings, Training of Trainers for the incoming group of PCV’s, and traveling to the Acholi-speaking regions of PCV’s with the Country Director. Either I have too much free time or not enough of it.

However, today presented itself with some new circumstances. A few months ago, my neighbor Godfrey acquired a baby kitten that he keeps as a pet. The problem is that Ugandans dislike pets that serve no use such as a dog or cat. It is not uncommon for Ugandans to kick cats and dogs in the village or to even kill them if they continued to eat ones chickens. As a result, the empathy and kindness towards cats and dogs that are normally taken for granted in the United States do not apply here. Time and time again I have to explain to the children to pet the cat gently and not hit it with a rock or a stick. It doesn’t help that many of the adults kick the kitten if it’s in their way. Today, one of the children picked up the kitten by the tail and started swinging it around as the kitten cried. I was fed up with the situation and ill-will with which the children treated each other and the kitten so I picked up the child and held him upside down.

Normally, I would do this with the children and they would laugh because I was one of the few adults who would throw them in the air, flip them, and then catch them before they landed. He started crying and I proceeded to playfully throw him in the air but the suddenness with which I threw him startled him into crying even more. Honestly, I didn’t feel bad about making him cry, because he cries every day. Their cries rarely move me anymore, because they instigate it by hitting each other, slapping each other, falling over each other, smashing the other’s face with a stick, or biting each other. It is rare that children that young here resolve their problems through words or by saying, “Sorry.” Instead, it’s much easier to get the message through corporal punishment.

As I walked away from the kids who now all wanted to be held upside down, one of the older village neighbors in his late-teens walked up to me. He normally would ask me questions about my life, America, or my bicycle. This time we shared a lively discussion about cats and pets. He told me that he believed that cats were demons. When I asked him why, he told me that cats had no bones. I explained to him that while he is entitled to his own opinions, he still had to respect that the cat was Master Godfrey’s pet and so he shouldn’t hit or kick it. He disagreed with me and told me a story: “Marvin, you know when you have some come visit your house or room and even though you don’t know her you just hate her? That’s how I feel about cats.”

I was just fed up with the ignorance as I argued with him. Normally in a town or trading center I would have ignored these false musings and spent my time doing something more productive. The difference in this situation was that he was my neighbor and I had been living here for over a year now. This was someone in my direct sphere of influence in my home village. I explained to him that cats were animals and even though they didn’t serve a direct purpose such as chickens, goats, or cows they shouldn’t be treated with cruelty. I guess that it just worries me that if both children and adults get pleasure from physically torturing another creature that didn’t harm them then physical violence could be engrained in them at an early age. Sometimes I shuddered as I saw the smile and laugh as they hit each other or the cat with rocks, sticks, or their hands.

I told my neighbor that I would physically show him direct proof in the PTC library that cats had a skeletal system and therefore bones. He said that he still had to perform some chores, but insisted that cats were demons. A few minutes later, he was back at my door with more topics of intellectual discussion. At first he asked if I could find him a sponsor for his school fees to which I replied, “No.” I told him that it was unsustainable and that he himself and his family were well-off enough to provide him with the money needed to pay tuition and board.

He continued by telling me a story about how some of his friends got sponsors from visiting Bazungu (white people), but he himself did not receive one even though he spoke the best English. He started to say, “You people, the Bazungu…” I cut him off mid-sentence and explained to him that it was rude to categorize all of us as white people. I reminded him that even though my skin was light, I was not white but Filipino. This started us on an interesting discussion about how one could be both an American as well as Filipino, that using a lot of idiomatic expressions is good, and that Obama is a part of the Illuminati and not American because his father is Kenyan.

I sighed almost every time that my neighbor opened his mouth and started spouting nonsense. My favorite statement of his was that Lil Wayne, Bebe Cool, P Square, and other rappers worshipped the devil because he read about it on the internet. Furthermore, Akon was a sodomizer because a pastor came to his school and showed the students a video that proved it to them. My neighbor then told me that I had to agree with him because if I disagreed with him then I would be lying to myself. The circular logic stunned me, because I started to get a better understanding of why some beliefs and values took root so deeply in the Ugandan culture, whereas others did not.

With the use of effective rhetoric and passion, I could see that a single web page, visit from a pastor, or village superstition could have such a strong influence over my neighbor. My other worry was that this kid wasn’t an uneducated guy from the deep village, but a student at the respectable Luteete Secondary School. This was a kid who could rattle off the chemicals on the periodic table, talk in full English sentences, ask about apartheid, draw the parts of a computer, and recite all sorts of memorized information from his classes. However, the critical thinking aspect was very lacking.

At one point in the conversation when our discussion heated up he asked me what the word “hit” meant. In my anger, I punched my wooden front door as a demonstration and in the process I bruised my knuckles. It made me realize just how much harder I would need to work to even change a small part of a person’s mind over here. Even backed by legitimate textbooks, internet sources, and sound reason/logic in both Luganda and English he would still disagree with me concerning something he saw on the internet or heard through the matook leaves (my own metaphor of “through the grapevine”). As a generalization, there is a lack of personal judgment concerning what constitutes a good, objective source of information as opposed to passionate prose and strong opinions from “big people”.

Note: Ugandans refer to leaders and people in high positions of power as big people.

How do I get someone to agree with me that disagreeing with me on a certain opinion is alright when that person sees me as a big person who cannot be contradicted? How do I get someone to understand the difference between facts and opinions when almost anything written through a permanent or semi-permanent form is seen as the truth? It’s in times like this that I understand and appreciate the value of Peace Corps. I have started to gain the trust of my community and what I say can be trusted or explained through their lens rather than through that of a short-term visitor who cannot possibly begin to understand the idiosyncrasies and subtleties that make up general Ugandan culture.

The biggest enemy that I have to face as a teacher in Uganda isn’t some bureaucratic behemoth, but ignorance. I try my best to empower my students with creativity and critical-thinking, but some days I just want to hit people until they agree that what I am saying is correct. It would be a much easier method, but I would have then replaced their ignorance with my own. I would be colonizing their minds, with me as their king. Instead of becoming a monster, I have to become a paragon instead. Instead of colonizing their minds, I have to free them. Instead of showing them right from wrong, I have to give them the skills and tools to discover their own, educated truth.

Bicycle Man

23/2/15

It’s been another busy week at site. I’ve been reviewing mathematics with the Year 2 students, while also teaching the mathematics curriculum for the new Year 1 students. I’ve also been meeting with my supervisor to cut our losses and continue building the computer/ICT lab with the funds that we’ve currently been able to raise. I’m planning my friend’s visit in March, and have attempted to plan out the rest of these next 10 months of Peace Corps service. Looking back to last December, I laugh when I think back to how I told myself that I would definitely spend more time at site and not travel or take on as many other projects.

However, I am comfortable with what I do and who I am. I think that I’ve reached that balance and acceptance of my work here and what I can feasibly accomplish before I depart. Already I’m moving away from always reminiscing and remembering my life’s adventures before Peace Corps and instead imagining the adventures and experiences to come. In the meantime, I still have a job to do here.

I was reminded of my mortality this afternoon. I was playing outside with the village kids and saw that my neighbors had gathered by the side of the dirt road behind my house. My neighbor told me that there was an accident where a boda boda crashed into a man riding his bicycle. I left my rice to cook in my kitchen on low heat as I walked towards the scene of the accident. When my neighbors asked why I wanted to see the accident, I told them that I was a bike rider on these roads too.

As I approached the growing crowd on one of the side road intersections, I heard whispers that the man was dead. I climbed up to one of the dirt ridges by the side of the dirt road and saw a crowd around the boda boda driver and another one around a man lying on the ground with his bicycle lying down next to him. He wasn’t moving. One of the onlookers moved him to a sitting position and I saw that there was a small pool of blood on the ground where his head had lain. I couldn’t tell if he was dazed or dead. Several other men picked him up and sat him on a boda. Another man sat behind him to hold onto him as the boda driver drove away into the swirls of dust.

I would imagine that the boda man left the crash scene with nothing more than a warning from the villagers to drive more carefully. However, I don’t know if the crash victim died or is recovering. As unfortunate as it is this is state of events in my community in Uganda. Some boda boda drivers will still drive recklessly, and I’m still going to bicycle from my village to Wobulenzi in order to catch a takisi to Kampala or the north. It definitely crossed my thought that I could have been the victim, since the crash scene was a route that I would normally take to purchase eggs, toilet paper, oil, or other such village essentials. If there ever was a time in my life when I contemplated my own mortality, it has been during my time thus far in the Peace Corps. But I’m not gonna worry about that all the time, because there is so much else to think about than about the multitude of ways to perish here.

Despite accidents like the bodaman and the bicycle man, there is so much beauty here and so much more to be thankful for. I have to remember that, because shit happens a lot here; maybe more-so than in a developed world. So I’m gonna keep on biking and keep on working here because that’s what I can do in response to the injustice of an innocent bicycle man riding back home to his family.

A Few Difficulties

19/10/14

I think that one of the biggest difficulties of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the need to justify oneself. I feel as if I have to find a reason to convince myself that what I am doing is right, a reason to convince my community members that I was a good investment, and a reason that what I am doing is worth it. It’s true; there are times when I have to ask myself what I actually am doing here. One of my biggest personal flaws involves the need for self-validation. I want to be good at most things that I do and to let other people know it. Of course this is not a healthy thing, and it has been something that I have struggled with for years. My happiness shouldn’t depend on what others think about me, but the problem here is that a large part of a volunteer’s happiness stems from community approval. In the United States, swimming against the currents and uniquely marching to your own beat is considered to be good. But here it can be a bit jarring.

It is definitely a hard job. I sometimes feel as if I am exhausting myself when I bike to and from Wobulenzi in order to get to Kampala to attend a training session, workshop, or a celebration. I then stay up late at night whenever there is 3G+ Orange internet so that I can use the 2500/= midnight deal for 1Gb of data. This is when I can upload blog posts, upload pictures, add email attachments, download programs, and upload the videos that I have been working on at site. The sad part is that I know that a lot of my community members believe that I am often away from site for leisure. While it is true that I add leisure in with my work time, I feel as if I can’t truly convey how busy I am at times.

Even today one of my fellow neighbors who usually lives here during the weekends, which incidentally is when I am away from site, asked me how my day of leisure went. I was taken aback by her comment because I had spent the good part of the day editing a video for a fellow PCV’s science fair since there was access to electricity today. Of course, I also took advantage of the electricity by watching a few tv shows on my external hard drive. Another neighbor commented that I had woken up very late today, which is funny and foreign to them since they usually wake up before 6am to do their chores. I told them that one of the biggest problems involves the need for me to use my laptop, which requires me to wait until the electricity comes on in the late evening. My explanation elicited a few laughs from them.

I’ve repeatedly told me neighbors that I wish I could split myself into two people so that I could stay at site more often with them and still accomplish all of the tasks necessary out-of-site. One of my close PCV friends, who is one of the hardest working PCV’s in the group, discovered that many of her colleagues thought that she had all of this money and was always leaving site in order to party and laze around. The funny thing is that she is always travelling with a shitload of merchandise to sell with the proceeds going towards local schoolchildren who don’t have uniforms.

It’s as if working as hard as you can makes you still fall behind. Never before in my life have I seen so much work go unappreciated. I definitely feel more integrated in my community, but that just allows me to understand what my fellow members think about me. The last thing that I want my neighbors to think is that I am a waste of space. Hard physical labor is valued in this culture, and a child who doesn’t learn how to do chores, dig, or farm is not viewed with as much value as one who does.

Peace Corps Volunteers are seen as some of the best examples of American ideals and values. I sometimes wonder what my community would think if they were presented with a focus group of Americans from any city. If some of the best and patient of the volunteer world can’t measure up to personal community standards, then how would the average American fare? The average village Ugandan assumes that all Americans have money and that we are selfish for not giving it to them. Others believe that we aren’t as industrious because we use machines to do all of our work: digging, washing, driving, printing, cooking, and cleaning.

So is it okay for me to justify working on a training presentation here late at night, biking 12km to Wobulenzi, taking a takisi to Kampala, travelling to an event, giving the presentation, and going out to a club to blow off some steam if the community agrees that drinking a lot and dancing is idle and unproductive?

It pains me at times, because I feel like I do have it easy. My insecurity with being idle has forced me to do more work, take more photos, upload more videos, accept more training positions, and accomplish more events. The more I seem to do, especially away from site, the more it’s viewed that I am not being as productive. I like to think that my neighbors’ view of my productivity depends on the state of my front courtyard, whether the grass is cut and the dirt is swept. So I pedal forward like matooke-laden bikes against the wind, borne ceaselessly into the dust.

A Dance of Light and Music

22/9/14

Have you ever done a dance when the electricity finally turns on? I just did one a few minutes ago and it was glorious. It’s been over a month since I had a working laptop in my house. I was sad last night because the electricity didn’t come on and I was unable to use my new laptop, which has a battery that doesn’t hold charge.  Therefore I need to wait until the electricity comes on before I can use this gigantic tome of a laptop. Fortunately a lot of my media and music were backed up on flash drives and external hard drives which allow me to act as if nothing different has happened since my old laptop stopped working. Since the electricity came back on I’ve been dancing around and listening to music and it has made me very glad. I literally forgot the sensation of putting in headphones and listening to your favorite music.

I am filled with contentment right now with things returning back to normal now that I have the ability to get back to work. As for now I will have to work based on the electrical availability of the surrounding village and internet on the nearby hill is out of the question but at least I can do work in the evening when the power comes back on. Life is good.

ICT Lab Project

It’s finally here. After sending a detailed budget and dozens of paragraphs worth of information the Creation of an ICT Lab in a Ugandan Village is finally posted on the Peace Corps website. I am so excited for this project because it will finally give my teachers, students, and fellow village members in the community the opportunity to gain access to the rest of the world through media, documentary showings, powerpoints, and the understanding of basic computer skills. It is an exciting time, but I’m also nervous because I am hoping that I can raise the necessary funds. The community has already raised 25% of the total project cost ($2820), and the rest comes through the crowd funding on the Peace Corps website where the rest of the $8462 can be raised through donors. I’ve reached out to all of my friend groups and organizations that I’ve been a part of in the hopes that with my reach I will be able to have people help me in this project that benefits not only my own community, but also the sharing of cultures between Uganda and America. And in that respect, the goals of the Peace Corps, my passion, and the willingness of my community members can all be met.

Click on the link to donate: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfmshell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=14-617-059

Or search Roxas in http://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate

I would really appreciate any help regarding this project. And everyone who donates will have his or her name or organization’s name inscribed on a plaque in the ICT Lab to remember those who helped us in this collaborative journey.

“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”
~Pierre Teilhard de Chardin