The Aimless Wanderers

29/11/15

Muzungu (Luganda n). – white man, European

I made a small breakthrough with my neighbors today. I informed them that my replacement PCV is a Filipino American whose parents come from the Philippines, but is an American citizen. They seemed surprised that his name is Justin, since Justin (pronounced Justine by Ugandans) is a girl’s name here. At one point, my neighbor asked me why we Americans disliked being called muzungu.

Neighbor: “Why do you dislike being called muzungu?”

Me: “Well, first of all what do you think muzungu means?”

Neighbor: “Eh, for us it means a white person.”

Me: “The word muzungu is related to the Luganda word kuzunga which means to wander aimlessly.”

Neighbor: “EH! I have never made that connection.”

Me: “And is kuzunga a good thing?”

Neighbor: “No, to wander aimlessly is not a good thing.”

Me: “Yes, for us we don’t enjoy being told that we are lost and that we don’t belong here. Also not all Americans are white, so it is also a difficulty with identity.”

Neighbor: “Eh, we have picked. Thank you.”

oku-zunga (Luganda n.) – to stagger, reel about, whirl around, or wander aimlessly

Literally two years later my neighbors finally started to understand the reasoning behind the word muzungu and how it has a negative connotation. I also explained that muzungu relates to people who look white and is associated with wealth, short-term tourism, dependence, and not knowing where to go. For PCV’s who have white or semi-white skin the term lumps us all together as a homogenous grouping that disregards our personal identities or heritage. For PCV’s who are black or have brown skin, the term strips away the identity of that person’s heritage by assuming that since that person is from America, then he or she is like the other rich white people.

In the past, I have explained to Ugandans to first ask me to tell them my name or ask me about my heritage before calling me muzungu. I liken it to calling people from the Buganda Kingdom muganda instead of mudugavu. Muganda means brother, or person from the Buganda Kingdom, whereas, mudugavu means a black/dirty person. Mudugavu is related to the verb oku-ddugala, which means to become black or dirty. Even though using the word muganda denotes that the person is black, it also is respectable because that person hails from the Buganda Kingdom and central region of Uganda. However, mudugavu is an epithet because it calls a person dirty and associates the color of black skin with dirt.

When I was a trainee, our trainers told us that many of us would be called muzungu. They explained that it was related to the Kiswahili word kizungu which means of the aimless wanderer. Back then aimless wanderer sounded poetic. Now that I am here, I understand the silliness of that misconception. To be an aimless wanderer isn’t poetic or good, it’s seen as a sign of ignorance, dualism, and the disparity between the developed countries and many developing countries in East Africa. I still believe that it’s good to wander, but instead I feel that it’s better to wander with a purpose rather than without aim.

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Distraught

18/11/15

I have been sick for the past few days. Through the help of ibuprofen, bananas from my neighbors, toast, and ginger tea I have started to feel much better. As I physically started to feel better, I became more emotionally weary. I began cleaning my house and preparing my bags for my eventual move to Kampala for Close-of-Service medical and then to Entebbe airport to fly to Amsterdam. It has been stressful saying goodbye to everyone in my village. I have had to deny so many people “snaps” or photos that they want to take with me, because my camera’s memory card wouldn’t be able to fit an individual photo of all of them. Also, I don’t have the funds or energy to print a few hundred photos to give to all of them. Everyone wants remembrances of me, and it’s interesting that even now as I am about to leave many of the older village kids ask me for things. They tell me that they want the kitenge stars hanging up in my room, the bicycle, or an old laptop that lies dormant in my room.

I worry about the transition to the developed countries where perspectives and experiences are different. Slowly-by-slowly my rooms are becoming more barren and packed into neat suitcases and bags that will make trip back to the developed world with me. I think about the children with whom I play in my little yard and how they don’t seem to understand the concept that I will be leaving forever.

Me: “Omanyi nti nja kugenda America omwezi gujja?” (Do you know that I’m going back to America next month?)

Child: “Ojja kudda ddi?” (When will you come back?)

Me: “Sigendanga kudda.” (I am never coming back.)

Child: “Tuzannye fishy fishy!” (Let’s play fishy fishy*)
*A game similar to Sharks and Minnows

DSC_0379

It’s weird thinking that soon I will be just a mere memory for my villagers and the children. Sure they will see my replacement Peace Corps Volunteer, but I wonder how many of the children will remember me. I think about the children telling stories about me to their own children when they’re older.

There is one recent even that I will remember for a long time: one of the secondary school boys, Waswa, came up to my window the other evening. I told him that I would be leaving for good and that I wanted to say goodbye to him before he left for another school. I then gave him an issue of The Atlantic magazine and a deck of playing cards that I got from Busch Gardens many years ago. He said thank you and walked away. An hour later he returned and was sniffling. He told me how he was crying and that he would miss me a lot. I usually don’t have much patience for the older secondary school students, but Waswa was different; he was always respectful and would invite me to play sports with him and the other students. He would offer me jackfruit, bananas, and avocadoes from time to time. But most importantly, he would listen and ask intelligent questions whenever we had discussions. What struck me about this specific interaction was that he cried.

In Uganda, it is not culturally appropriate for men to show signs of physical or emotional weakness, and crying is one of them. The only appropriate times to cry are when a close relative has died or if one is involved in a horrendous accident.

Before Peace Corps, I remember asking myself how to pack my entire life into two check-in bags. Now I am trying to comprehend how to take back this new life, this new perspective, and this new me back home. My home is changing and this house in Luteete will remain my home for 18 more days. In some ways, my worries are lessened because I have a carrier volunteer to follow up after me and I have planted some deep roots here.

Knowing

15/11/15

Paris, Baghdad, Beirut, Bujumbura

I spent this weekend helping out at the final round of the Luganda and Sign Language My Language Spelling Bee, and celebrating one of my closest PCV friend’s birthday as well as our 2-year anniversary in-country. Two years is both a short and a long time. Coincidentally, I also got very sick during this weekend with extreme diarrhea and intense heat fluctuations where my body felt like it was an oven one moment and then felt like a freezer the next. Other than my sickness and fatigue, it was a very enjoyable weekend. I spent a lot of money on good food; the hung-over morning following the birthday celebration consisted of 10 PCV’s splurging on an all-you-can eat buffet at the Kampala Protea hotel complete with champagne, pastries, bacon, smoked salmon, kiwis, strawberries, cappuccinos, waffles, and eggs cooked to order. It was a sloppy breakfast; we ended up feeling very full and queasy because we all ate too much and were also still a bit drunk. At one point someone tried to stand up and knocked over a champagne glass, which shattered on the floor. But it was nice saying goodbye to PCV’s after such an enjoyable weekend.

On the other hand, there were other less-joyous events happening around the world. There were the Paris terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead, as well as attacks in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and the beginnings of genocide in Burundi. I started to see my Facebook newsfeed filled with notifications about the Paris attacks and solidarity with France. This was a very tragic event, and so many people seem to come together praying, sending positive messages, and standing together. However, I wonder how many people also feel just as passionate about the attacks and reckless violence happening in other countries. With Facebook as a platform for raising awareness and activism, is it our duty to make sure that people know it’s not just the developed world that we should care about?

I think back to my time before Peace Corps, and the discussion of rebels in the north of Uganda were such a foreign concept to me. The statistics of child soldiers, rebel attacks, and rampant diseases were so far removed that they just remained as numbers to me. Now they have faces and stories that have impacted my own life. I can’t ask every Ugandan about his or her tribe due to old tensions, I am friends with former child soldiers, and I am hard-pressed to find a Ugandan who hasn’t been threatened by malaria, HIV, or some form of dysentery. Now whenever I hear a news story that mentions Uganda, those numbers won’t remain mere numbers, but people with lives and stories.

It is kind of crazy the disproportionate amount of social media attention that stories in the United States, the Middle East, and Western European countries receive when tragic events occur. I’m not saying that it’s bad to grieve or spread awareness about events such as the Paris attacks, but it’s just interesting that genocide is beginning in Burundi and there seems to be little to know media attention or solidarity with the Burundians.

After the Holocaust, people proclaimed, “Never again.”

After the Darfur and Rwandan genocides, people proclaimed, “Never again.”

Now it’s happening in Burundi and the world can’t do anything about it.

Is it fair to place more care and emphasis on people’s lives that directly impact our own lives? Was it fair for me to feel solidarity with Boston during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing where a handful of people died as opposed to solidarity with Syrians when nerve gas used against them in Syria a few months later? In the United States social media erupts when there is any hint of racial discrimination and in some countries there are blatant attacks against groups of people due to their religious beliefs ethnic background, or social status.

It makes me wonder about the power of social media and if there are some things that just seem more glamorous to support or discuss. Honestly, I think that a temporary profile photo change to support France would be more likely to be seen as patriotic, sensitive, and appropriate compared to a photo depicting victims of terrorist and sectarian violence in African and Middle Eastern countries. Maybe it’s because the developed countries are seen as bastions of safety and freedom where attacks aren’t expected and Africa and the Middle East are seen as places where attacks happen all the time. There’s no longer any surprise if people were killed there but God forbid that people were attacked in developed countries, because that hits too close to home.

I still don’t know how I feel about these issues. Maybe part of the American Dream is that once you get to the US, you no longer have to worry about the troubles that plague other less stable countries. You can ignore the whisperings of a rebellion, the warnings to evacuate the village, or the last chance to board a refugee ship because those things no longer affect you. Perhaps that’s a bit why it’s called the Dream, because once you live it you no longer have to acknowledge all realities around the world; just the one that you care to worry about.

Is it a privilege or a right not to worry about what doesn’t directly affect our well-being? Should we worry about the plight of other people or only concern ourselves with our immediate spheres of influence?

Now as I am entering the last three weeks of my Peace Corps service I have fewer answers than I thought I had. I am looking forward to being worry-free and living with creature comforts. I don’t feel guilty anymore, but I am certain that there are things that could be done to make this world a better place. I guess that my version of the Dream is to find out what little I can do to achieve that.

Old and New

8/11/15

I finally finished all of the Peace Corps video projects that the office wanted me to film and edit together. As a result, I have four regional videos showcasing various PCV projects, a video about how a PCV saved a Ugandan Lieutenant’s life during the 1971 Idi Amin coup against Obote, and how PCV’s work with their counterparts. As I finished these videos, I took some time to reflect on these past few days in the village. The days are zooming by faster than ever, and in a few days we’ll be welcoming a new Peace Corps Uganda cohort. Looking back there my entire viewpoint and belief system has radically changed since that time I left Maryland back in November 2013. I have recently been connecting with old friends and acquaintances in Facebook in order to prep them for my eventual re-entry into the United States, and already I can feel see how much I have changed when I look at the last messages that I sent to my friends. I talked about going to Africa, helping people, and answering the call of adventure for a lifetime.

Now I look back on those messages and feel as if the person who wrote them was much more immature and callow than the one reading them. I will be unable to tell the “African story”, as the BBC news report puts it. I will still be unsure if I really helped anyone in the sustainable, long-term. But I will definitely understand that if I want it, then even back in the United States I can keep my edge. I don’t believe that there should be this fine line between the workday and the weekend, or between the work year and a vacation. I want to be able to live in the United States and still adventure every day or motivate myself to try something instead of just liking it on Facebook.

I’m still young, but at times I feel much older than I once was. Yesterday was the commissioning of the Year 2 students at Luteete PTC. I attended the ceremony, which started 2 hours late at 10am and continued until 4pm when lunch was finally served. By now I was already used to having a few hundred eyes staring at me, the long-winded speeches, a mass service where the preacher proclaimed that Jesus was a better leader than Hitler or Napoleon,  and a captive audience where I was asked to give a speech in Luganda. To be honest, I enjoyed the day with my fellow teachers, students, and their family members. As I daydreamed throughout the event, I reminisced about my own high school graduation in 2009 and my college graduation in 2013. I dreamed about baccalaureate mass, senior week in ocean city, fulfilling my college bucket list during my college senior week, the soundtrack of college graduation parties compared to Ugandan dancehall tunes, and how everything was about to change.

I have been living the dream for two years now. I am interested in seeing how it will be to look back on these experiences in a country where the African dream is still a thing. I’ll definitely have a tale or two when I get back and I’m sure that I’m ready for another adventure.

“The old taxis will stage at home again… the young bodas will ride away.”

Worlds and Murals

24/10/15 – 27/10/15

I hosted a PCV who was traveling around the country in order to paint large world map murals on walls. He had already painted 17 world maps on library walls, water tanks, and the outside walls of school buildings. Over the course of two days he made a grid pattern on the wall about 4 meters long by 1.5 meters wide and then drew an outline of all the countries of the world. The next day we painted in each country as well as the entire ocean and added the words “the world” around the map in 24 different languages. It was nice to have a good chat with another PCV and I guess that we talked about the usual topics: food, sex, and life after Peace Corps. The weird part was acknowledging that he was probably the last PCV to visit my site before I depart. Already there are a lot of things that will be the last time I do anything.

Computer Lab World Map

Computer Lab World Map

On Tuesday I traveled to Masindi to hang out with Rachel for the last time at her site. As usual, the route from my village to Masindi was fraught with perils. I did the usual 45 minute bike ride to Wobulenzi town, and then struggled to find a taxi headed to the Luwero bus junction. Using what I thought was my better judgment; I boarded a GaaGaa Bus headed towards Gulu. I had good experiences with GaaGaa in the past and knew that it would be better than any taxi or sketchy hitchhiking that I could obtain. I was wrong. Within an hour of boarding the bus, a sound like a gunshot burst from the seat to the left of me and the whole bus filled with smoke and the cries of Ugandans yelling and praying. As the smoke dissipated, I could see that everyone was alright but one of the bus tires had exploded. We got off the bus and waited for the mechanic to attach the spare tire.

Normally this would have been fine, except that GaaGaa bus has 8 wheels: two wheels per corner. The mechanic made it soGaaGaa Breakdown that the tires that exploded were replaced with just one tire. About another hour later the same thing happened except that there was more crying and more smoke. During both of these tire explosions I thought that I was going to die or that the bus was going to crash. I literally thought to myself that this was going to be the end as even the normally stoic Ugandans clutched my arms in abject terror after the sound of gunshots and smoke exacerbated the shrieks of the women and men on board. When the bus stopped I just picked up my bag and walked out of the bus. I didn’t even look back, and I walked to Cafu junction where I then boarded a 4-person sedan with 8 other people headed to Masindi Town. I don’t think that I could have asked for better luck than to once again have the tradition of typical shitty public transportation to Masindi; a ride that would normally take only 3 hours from Kampala but takes me 6+ hours even though my village is nearer.

I am just torn. It definitely feels like life as usual, but I know that in a little over a month my life will once again be turned upside down. As I end Peace Corps, it’s hard for me to see how much of an adventure this has been. I am focusing on future jobs after Peace Corps, the new friends I will make, and the new experiences that I will undergo coupled with the new skills that I learned during my 2+ years here. Many times these days I will daydream about how other-worldly this experience is. I don’t even know how to explain just how odd this life has become and how the unusual and weird have become the norm. As I gazed at the world mural behind my students in the computer lab, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I did something during my service. Maybe it wasn’t all in vain and selfish for me to have chosen a life of adventure before committing to something less transient.

Gulu Skyline

Gulu Skyline

It’s a big world in which we live, and it’s taken me until now to realize that.

Idiosyncrasy

21/10/15

It’s the immensity of life that’s hitting me right now; remembering a life beyond the villages, the workshops, the shitty public transportation, and our role in the greater world perspective. I’m sitting at my desk trying to reconcile all of these feelings of how I can go back and still reconcile, explain, and integrate these new traits and perspectives that I have gained here. I think it’s such a unique experience to willingly choose to spend more than two years of paid career experience in order to do the ultimate volunteering experience. While we may be living in rural villages and towns, we’re viewing our transformations and the changing cultural perspectives from the lens of someone from the developed world where social and semantic nuances make all the difference.

In the beginning, almost everyone thinks, “Wow this country is so quaint and the people are so loving and friendly.” I thought the same thing too, and yes I do believe that on the surface level everything does appear to be very simple and free. In the developed world, there are layers of depth and meaning to almost every thought, word, and action. People spend hours poring over quotes by politicians, religious leaders, and friends whereas here so many words can be said without much meaning. I’m thinking of the 45-minute long speeches that signify nothing but pure sound. So on the surface things seem to be relatively straightforward here, but after spending two years here I have begun to see the reasons why things occur. I have started to see that western criteria for efficiency, best practices, and right and wrong do not always coincide with the cultural beliefs and local environment of Uganda.

In the United States time must be planned because everyone else is making a schedule that works in harmony with the local situation of the day. Public transportation is more or less on time, meetings have agendas, school and work have certain hours, and timed actions concern most things. Missing an important work meeting even if your child is sick or your local grocery store ran out of bread can be detrimental to your work colleagues. Here, it is a perfectly valid excuse to miss a work meeting or be hours late because people and your work take priority since time bends to whatever actions are required. If I attempt to chastise a co-worker for being late to a meeting when his or her child is sick with malaria, the cow has wandered away, and the lack of rain means that he or she needed to gather water from the borehole to water the farm then I would be seen as being in the wrong.

I still don’t know the best way to tackle this problem. What does it mean to develop a village if making it more time-efficient, wealthier, and more educated leads to lesser empathy among people and more emphasis on American individualism and entrepreneurship?

This is just one of the puzzling questions that I ask myself that would have made almost no sense to me pre-Peace Corps. It’s the idiosyncrasies that I catch through my westernized, critical thinking lens coupled with the slight understanding of life here in Uganda. It’s all about the context rather than absolutes. In the United States, we want emotionally fulfilling, efficient, and innovative solutions that fit our criteria for good feels and restoring our faith in humanity whereas in Uganda we want to slowly-by-slowly make a lot of easy money, provide for the entire extended family and one day make it to the United States.

It’s the intersection of sweeping generalizations and anecdotal circumstances that I believe are true. The hardest part will be going back and knowing that most people will want a one-sentence answer to the age-old question: “How was Peace Corps?”

Defeated

23/10/15

I spent the majority of the day on my hill so that I could send out more job applications. This is harder for me than other PCV’s, because I have to squat beside a rock that is half covered with biting ants and hope that the signal for my internet USB modem is 3G+ because 3 and EDGE don’t allow me to access any internet. It’s hard concentrating on gathering details about the company for whom I’m writing a cover letter and supplying relevant information about my current life when insects are biting my legs, the sun is blazing on my back, and the service is temporarily down. The worst are the job applications that require me to go on an internet portal that shuts down when my service shuts down.

I wished that my potential employers could have seen me hurrying to finish an application as the clouds raced in and started to downpour on me. I didn’t want to close my laptop in the middle of a portal application, so I huddled underneath a large mango tree and shielded the laptop with my body as I continued to gather information about the company and add it to my cover letter. I am sure that if any of my employers saw the dedication that I put into applying for their open positions that my resolve and self-motivation would not be of any question.

It’s hard trying to find a job with access to village technology and such a large time difference. I get worried sometimes because I feel as if I need to have a job or internship set so that I can finally relax and no longer worry about it. It’s causing me to focus almost all of my efforts on my future when I get back and it’s exciting and disconcerting knowing that my future career and life will depend on what company accepts me.

I’m tired. It’s not the tiredness that comes from working too hard or partying too hard, but the weariness from sustained work without a solid break from looming projects and commitments. I feel ready for a vacation from my service and then off to start a new journey in engineering design. It’s a long way away, and right now it feels as if I’ll never get there. However, I know that I just have to keep on networking and applying for jobs and hopefully one of them will turn out in my favor.

Time for Myself

9/10/15 – 12/10/15

This weekend surprised me. I took some personal time away from site where I wandered around the villages of Muduuma, Katuuso, and Mpigi in the sub-counties right outside of Mityana Town. I knew that I needed to fulfill a physical need by leaving my village, and in the process this weekend caused me to reflect a lot. On Saturday, I talked with one of my friends who is two years older than me, was a member of the Boston University Catholic Center, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. I had met with him a few weeks after I had graduated from Boston University back in the spring of 2013. I vividly remember nursing a hangover and  biking over to the Starbucks on Newbury Street where we had a long chat about what I could expect from serving in the Peace Corps. A lot of concepts that he shared with me didn’t make sense to me back then, and a few of them meant something different to me back then than what they mean to me right now.

As an example, he shared with me the concept of having to resort to morally gray actions in order to accomplish certain goals. In Ukraine as well as Uganda bribery is a very common occurrence that is sometimes necessary to facilitate meetings, camps, or almost anything that passes through strict bureaucratic channels. Back then I thought that I would have to struggle a lot with the prevalence of bribery here, but now I think of it as an alternative bargaining technique with some guards and officials when reason, cajoling, and influence fail. Instead, I have been recently reflecting on my faith regarding my Catholic beliefs.

In the liberal atmosphere of Boston University, the Boston University Catholic Center was a conservative bastion and I was often seen as the rebel Catholic with liberal interpretations. However, I still attended retreats and would often go back and forth between how my heart could feel so strongly about a certain issue but then I would either supplant or reconcile it with semantics and reasoning supported by church doctrine. Before Peace Corps, I would go to mass every Sunday and would infrequently go to the sacrament of confession. During my Peace Corps service I have been to mass maybe 3 times, have not attended a single confession, and have refused to believe certain teachings of the Catholic Church. However, I still consider myself Catholic and in the Peace Corps I am often seen as the Catholic volunteer who can answer questions regarding the Catholic faith.

To be frank, in college I used to justify my belief that LGBTI+ couples were justified as long as they didn’t call it marriage due to the historical and religious significance of marriage. Now I laugh at the overuse of semantics in justifying certain beliefs back then. Yes, after having lived in Uganda I believe in marriage equality, the use of contraception, and the belief that life at all stages in the situational context must be respected. As Catholics, when we commit a sin, which distances us from God, we ask forgiveness by going to a priest and asking for forgiveness. At this moment, I don’t feel that I could go to confession and ask for forgiveness for things that I have done that I don’t believe are wrong but the church says is wrong. If I confess then I would be lying and thus it would be empty forgiveness. I mean, I still respect my faith and the belief in the bread and wine being the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ but I wouldn’t receive it if I did attend mass.

In Uganda, most people whom I meet believe in some form of Christianity or Islam. I would be hard-pressed to make my way through Kampala on a given day without having some Bible thumper hoarsely yelling scripture verses at my face. When I ask my students or villagers why they believe in something, they tend to cite scripture without actual justification of why they believe in it. Fortunately there isn’t the religious tension between Christianity and Islam that is seen in so many other countries in the world.

Teacher and Student Conversation:

Me: “But why do you believe in your Christian faith?”

Student: “Ah, because it is true and the Bible says that it is true.”

Me: “Okay the Bible says that it is true but why do you believe in the Bible?”

Student: “Because the Bible is the Word of God.”

Me: “How do you know that it is the Word of God and that someone didn’t just make it up and convince you to believe it?”

Student: “Ah master, that is impossible. It is true because it is written.”

Me: “You still haven’t told me why you believe what you believe.”

Student: “Ah… but I am right because Jesus died for all our sins and if I don’t believe then I won’t go to heaven.”

The only problem that I have is that most Ugandans don’t question why they believe certain tenets. Scripture is often interpreted by fire and brimstone revival preachers with very little experience in contextual theology and the concept of anachronisms. It is a blind faith that many Ugandans believe. It is a faith of Christ without the Cross; no context and fundamental zealotry. It’s sometimes laughable how it is somehow permissible to stone the gays because they are living sinful lives, but then have 3 wives and 30 children because “side-dish” women are traditionally okay and contraception is bad.

The other sad aspect is the destruction of local religious shrines and traditions. Some Ugandans still honor the traditional holy places like the Tanda Burial Grounds near Mityana or the Nakayima Tree in Mubende but they often-times go in secret so that their church and family don’t find out that they are respecting their “pagan” beliefs. Some Christian Ugandans go out of their way to burn down and destroy local shrines in order to cast down the pagan idols. It’s almost as if there’s no middle ground or prior thought.

In the past, I used to be so unsure about certain principles. Now, I am very sure about my principles but less sure about the doctrinal rules espoused by the church. It is sad, because my faith is a large part of my identity and I still believe in it but am now less sure about it.

Then on Sunday I went through another series of formative experiences. As I passed through Kampala I stopped by the bank at Acacia Mall. I greeted the guard in Lugbarati and entered the cubicle which housed the atm. A Ugandan man was already inside withdrawing money and I remained a respectable distance away from him. When he left I heard him chastising the guard because she was sitting sideways on her chair and talking on her phone. I ignored it for a while until he said, “And you let another person inside while I was withdrawing.” Now I don’t think that it’s against policy to allow more than one person inside to wait in line for the atm, but I opened the door and attempted to defend the guard. I explained to the man that this woman has been a good guard and that I have only ever had good interactions with her during my time at the Acacia Mall atm. The man quickly derided me and told me that I was a visitor who didn’t know what Ugandans had to go through in order to keep their country safe. I started to get agitated, so I thanked the guard for her work and left in a huff.

I agree that she could have acted more professional in her position as a guard but this sort of power display rubbed me the wrong way. I made my way to the café to grab a coffee and do some internet errands. During this time, I discovered that I have the opportunity of living and working in New York City a few months after I return. For the longest time I assumed that I would live in Baltimore City for a few years and then maybe consider moving to New York City when I was more settled. This made me both very excited as well as very anxious since I would now have to look for jobs in a city where I had fewer connections.

Fortunately, an RPCV (Peru 2010-2012) hosted me that night. I had a warm shower, ate bacon, and had an electric fan blowing wind in my face during the entirety of my stay. It was good to reminisce about our services and shared experiences together. We talked about how she became jaded working as both a development worker for USAID and as a humanitarian in South Sudan. With development, results come very slowly and very often bigger organizations don’t really understand the local needs and resources of a community to build itself up. With humanitarianism, the local communities who receive assistance from NGO’s concerning a vital need end up depending on that. The issue revolves around whether it’s better to continue feeding starving refugees in war-torn South Sudan who depend on the food and will continue to depend on the food forever, or to leave after having started a food program. When is there a release so that the NGO’s no longer need to feed the people of another country?

The other problem involved the case where most NGO’s have lofty goals of achieving community self-sufficiency but they don’t ever really want that to happen because then that NGO will no longer exist. The ideal goal is for an NGO to work its way out of existence. In the meantime, viral videos and media campaigns will raise millions of dollars in humanitarian aid that will definitely help people in need, but then discourages the government to grow and address the needs of its own people since foreign assistance comes without a cost and at a higher standard.

With the thoughts about my own efficacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my future life in the US, and the jaded/faded idealism of helping people I went to bed on a leather couch with a fan blowing cool air in my face after an amazingly warm shower and dinner of bacon. I needed some time to go through some things. Right now I don’t have any answers to these issues, but I feel much better about living with them.

Conservation Camp, Kisoro

31/8/15 – 4/9/15

“Let us not stop here, let us bring our ideas home to take root.”

~Booker, Ugandan Camp Counselor

I’m on a late bus headed back to Kisoro on the darkened tarmac road winding through the hills of the “African Alps”. It’s been one of those very memorable weeks of Peace Corps life where you feel like you’re in another world or life. I spent this camp working as the photographer and chef for the Peace Corps Conservation Camp. The camp was held in Kisoro, Uganda which is heralded as the “African Alps” due to the large amount of hills and volcanoes of the rift valley. During this week, 41 Ugandan youth from 6 local secondary schools spent a week at Seseme Girls Secondary School learning how about African conservationists, waste management, tree planting, basket weaving, permagarden construction, beehive construction, eco-tourism, and a city-street cleanup.

Planting Trees

Planting Trees

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

During this camp, I had the opportunity to take photos using one of the newer Canon DSLR cameras and editing the photos on Adobe Lightroom  as the campers went to sessions. This week felt very surreal, because of the beautifully cold Kisoro setting. The Peace Corps counselors stayed at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house and the nearby guesthouse. Throughout the week the campers would attend sessions, do practicals, and create action plans as I took photos, then by 4pm I would leave camp early in order to prepare dinner. I think that we had the best camp food of my Peace Corps service: meat, g-nut sauces, and vegetables for lunch and sushi, stir-fries, pastas, burgers, soups, and pizzas for dinner at the Peace Corps Volunteer’s house.

Conservation Camp Group Photos

Conservation Camp Group Photos

As with all camps, it got more stressful and tiring as the week continued. But it also got more inspiring. Two times during the week we took field trips to Mgahinga Lodge near the base of Mgahinga National Park, the smallest national park in Uganda at the base of Mts. Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo. It felt really epic photographing the youth planting tree saplings along the village roads behind Mgahinga Lodge leading up to the overlooking Mt. Muhabura. I felt epic armed with such a nice camera in such a photogenic setting.

Most of the time, I’m profusely sweating in Uganda. However, in Kisoro it would  get so cold at night that I would actually shiver on the couches in the living room of the PCV’s house. Then during the day if I closed my eyes and felt the golden sun setting on my face coupled with the cool wind from the mountains, I could imagine that I was back in Maryland or Boston during the start of a new school year as the leaves were changing color. As camp ended, I started to think about the upcoming COS Conference for my cohort. It’s so crazy to me to think that this adventure is coming to its final stages. Before long, it will have been my two year anniversary in country, and I will be preparing to fly to Europe.

Conservation Camp Reflection

Conservation Camp Reflection

I find it very comforting to know that I have practically no regrets in my Peace Corps service. It just feels like every weekend, there is some sort of adventure or project happening that makes me feel like what I am living is the life that I am supposed to be living right now. This past week, this service, and this life has been a blur up to this point, and I am beyond incredulous to have made it this far. Two years ago I was planting trees as a landscaper in Maryland, now I am planting trees and ideas here and watching them grow before me.

“I know where you stand, silent in the trees, and that’s where I am silent in the trees. Why won’t you speak where I happen to be? Silent, in the trees, standing cowardly.”

~Trees, Twenty-One Pilots

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.