I honestly think that this month of August has been a blur. I almost feel as if my friends and family members wouldn’t believe it if I shared it. A lot of things happened all at the same time to the point where I just want to sleep for a few weeks and just rest without doing anything just so that I could process what has happened in the past three weeks. I think it’s that leaving site for long periods of time takes a toll on you that you can’t even begin to fathom until you’ve been away from it for so long. Right now I’m in Entebbe slightly hungover and out of it. I think that it’s been a mixture of travelling for so long in the throngs of madding crowds, public transportation in general, night buses, the arctic tundra that is the southwest region, not being able to cook for myself, getting a sinus infection, spending a night with a PCV’s cat (which I’m allergic to), not having a usable laptop since mine broke during a coffee camp, drinking and celebrating with PCV’s in different regions especially with a recently engaged PCV couple, attending an all PCV Uganda conference, geeking out on mefloquine, and just not understanding life or what I stand for at the moment. So this blog post will a sort of catharsis for me in order to get my chaotic thoughts down in word form in order to process my turbulent emotions.
Coffee Camp, Kasese August 18 – 23
I was originally asked by some Peace Corps staff members to help out with filming a promotional video for a Coffee Camp that would be held in Kasese to the far west of Uganda. The main goal of Coffee Camp was to empower the local youth in the Kasese region to utilize coffee as a financial means to develop themselves and attain their goals. I was driven in a Peace Corps vehicle from Kampala to Kasese. I travelled along with the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, Loucine, and one of the other PCV’s, Jim from Kisoro, who had recently gotten engaged during one of the Peace Corps camps last week. We passed through Fort Portal and stopped to drink some coffee and eat some of the best pizza that I’ve eaten in country at the Duchess restaurant.
We continued on our way to the Kasese district which was absolutely gorgeous. As we transitioned from the central regions to the west the landscape changed from farms of matooke to open fields and the rolling foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Our final destination was Sarah Castagnola’s site in the Kyarumba village deeper in the depths of the Rwenzori foothills. We turned off of the main Kampala-Fort Portal road and instantaneously the tarmac gave way to a potholed dirt road. Before we knew it we were winding our way down a single-lane dirt road that wound its way through the verdant hillsides of Kasese. Everywhere I looked there were looming hills infinitely undulating into the horizon. There were hairpin turns at almost every single point, and our driver had to honk the horn before turning so that incoming boda bodas and cars would know to slow down in order to avoid a collision.
As we drove deeper into the inroads of the foothills the dirt road disappeared completely and became a dry riverbed of stones. A lot of the pathways in this region resulted from the always-evolving pathways of the streams in this area. The pathways always change due to farming, erosion, rainy season, and various other development factors in the region. So the ride into Kyarumba was bumpy, and after about 45 minutes of driving through winding roads and riverbed stones we met up with Sarah Castagnola at the Mutanywana Secondary School where the Coffee Camp was taking place.
I couldn’t believe my luck in being able to attend this gorgeous and unique camp dedicated to empowering youth in this region through the medium of coffee. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon to see 12 year olds blackout drunk on the village streets at night or 13 year old girls carrying their babies to school. It is because of this reason that Sarah along with the the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative decided to put on this camp. Unlike most Peace Corps camps such as BUILD and GLOW, the Kasese Coffee Camp was primarily Ugandan-run by the employees of the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative. The desire to empower the local youth in this region was so great that Bukonzo Joint provided 50% of the camp funding as opposed to the minimal amount of 25% needed for a Peace Corps grant to be approved.
This camp also taught the local youth entrepreneurial skills critical to running a business (not necessarily agricultural in nature), smartly dealing with finances, developing leadership skills, and seeing coffee as a gift. It felt good to see the Ugandans in this area really invested in their youth. This camp was all for them, and my job was to film videos documenting what the camp was about and the experiences of the students, staff members, and camp facilitators.
There wasn’t a single angle where the view wasn’t amazing and awe-inspiring. Even wild Arabica coffee plants were growing on the pathways to the pit latrines. In the background of the school I could see mountains towering in the distance with clouds peeking behind their shadows, and even the school campus has gigantic boulders shaping the natural shape of the school campus. As per usual, there was a tea break between every major meal; however, locally roasted and brewed coffee was served in lieu of tea. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of drinking the rich flavor of the coffee that was served during each coffee break along with seeing the gorgeous view of the surrounding environment.
I was also able to see the entirety of the coffee value chain from “crop to cup”. We saw how the coffee saplings were planted in nurseries, transferred to coffee farms, had their red coffee berries picked, sorted by grade at one of the many washing stations, fermented, hulled, dried, and then either locally roasted and sold or shipped to high-end coffee shops and distributors. As an economic development PCV, Sarah explained to us some of the challenges of working with the small Bukonzo Joint Cooperative. For example, some of the larger coffee companies do bait-and-switch tactics in order to get coffee farmers to quickly produce low grade coffee for seemingly larger amounts of money than Bukonzo Joint can pay; however, in the end the farmers end up losing out on a sustainable opportunity to make money for themselves in the long run as well as being duped into producing sub-standard coffee for less money than they were promised.
Of course, no Peace Corps camp is complete without sessions concerning HIV/AIDS, financial management, and in this instance, creative ways to use coffee other than for drinking (soaps, candles, exfoliating face masks). Another reason why local Ugandans ran this camp was that most of the youth only spoke the local language of Kasese, Lukonzo, and the English that they did know was very limited. This led to very funny misunderstandings such as most of the campers assuming that I actually had HIV/AIDS during a skit where I pretended to be someone who had it.
We also brought the campers to Queen Elizabeth National Park which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though many of the youth lived within one hour of this tourist park, most of them never even knew that this existed or that eco-tourism is another form of employment. We woke up before the crack of dawn and drove from Kyarumba to the park where a small herd of elephants blocked our path on the dirt road and baboons stole packed bananas from our hands. We took a ferry ride on Lake Albert and it felt like some sort of surreal safari as Wilder beasts chilled in the water by the banks and hippopotamuses swam next to the ferry. The main purpose of the ride was to demonstrate that many people saw Kasese as this beautiful region filled with a multitude of wildlife, flora, and fauna that visitors would pay to see and explore if given the chance and opportunity.
When the youth were asked what coffee meant to them, they responded with varying answers ranging from money, wealth, opportunity, and normalcy. This community was able to transform coffee into electricity and bridges, stemming from the proceeds that the community made selling coffee in the past few years. Coffee literally becomes a lifeblood of the Bakonza people. It is the smell of the good earth upon which they live on and on which they hope to thrive on. When one of the campers was talking with our PC Country Director and asked what coffee smelled like to him, he answered, “It smells like life.”
So Coffee Camp was amazing and gorgeous, but of course like life I had some ups and downs. I ended up having my laptop break during the middle of the camp and got another surprise bout of Giardia on the last day. I don’t know how either of those mishaps occurred, but I know that they both sucked. My laptop refuses to turn on once I turn on the power button even though I have it plugged in and the lights shows that it’s charging. That was a lost cause that devastated me especially since I am utilized as a media guy in Peace Corps. Fortunately, I always keep spare Tinidazole in my camera bag which I took after consulting with PCMO who told me that I may possibly have a somehow drug-resistant form of Giardia since it keeps popping up every 2 months or so.
We were driven back to Kampala in a Peace Corps vehicle which was so nice compared to any other form of public transportation that I could have taken. I check into the Annex in Kampala and reconvene with some other PCV’s who had just finished the Girl Tech Camp in Shimoni Core PTC. A lot of PCV’s were preemptively congregating in Kampala since the next few days were the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference. Since I had taken Giardia medicine earlier that morning, I couldn’t eat dairy or drink alcohol for the next 24 hours. A bunch of the PCV’s wanted to go out, and I obliged although I went without drinking. At some point in the night, we ended up at this club called Iguana near Acacia Mall that was playing EDM and dubstep which was super dope. We get back to our beds at 6am and sleep.
All Volunteer Conference, Lweza, August 24 – 28
I wake up from my very restful nap and get ready for All Volunteer Conference. As the merchandise guy for Peer Support Network, I was in charge of bringing over 200 t-shirts to the Lweza Training and Conference Center from Kampala. It was a shit show of a day, since the guy who makes and screen prints the t-shirts gave me the wrong orders and missed out on providing me with the correct t-shirt sizes. We remedied the problem, and I carried the t-shirts in a taped plastic bag on my head like a village woman through the main streets of Kampala until I found a car that would drive me to the training center. There was air conditioning in the car, which was a big deal.
I was just so ecstatic and exhausted to hang out with all the volunteers. Technically the conference would have started on the 25th, but PCV’s working on different committees and projects were given special permission to arrive a day earlier.
On the morning of the 25th PCV’s started to trickle in. There was a 50th Anniversary meeting concerning the logistics behind the Peace Corps Uganda 50th Anniversary Celebrations that would be occurring throughout the country in order to commemorate how long Peace Corps has been in Uganda. There will be regional events showcasing the great work that PCV’s do as well as the “50 Years of Friendship” between PCV’s and Ugandans. The day was also hectic with film crews running around filming local language tongue twisters, setting up planning areas for PSN, and just general coordinating.
That night was a great night, because over 150+ of us PCV’s were gathered in the large conference hall as the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference launch ceremony began. It was SNL themed with skits making fun of not knowing if it was, is, or will be rainy season, sharing shoutouts to the successes of the different cohorts and groups, singing the legendary and taboo song “Three Guys on a Boda”, and explaining the format of the All Volunteer Conference. The interesting thing about this conference is that unlike other PC workshops, this conference is primarily PCV-run. The concept that had successfully worked last year was open space, and it was being brought to this conference too. The idea of open space is that PCV’s can lead whatever session they want at a certain, designated time during the week so that there are several sessions all going on at the same time in different areas throughout the training center that other PCV’s could attend if they so desired. The sessions ranged from discussing revisions to the boda boda policy, hair braiding, new camp ideas, creative facilitation, incorporating sing-alongs in primary school, swing dancing, video project ideas, Ugandan travel guides, and so much more.
What I loved about this conference was the potential to do as much or as little as you wanted depending on your current demeanor and mood. After the launch ceremony, a giant bonfire was lit and the PCV’s started to mingle. My extroverted self loved seeing the mingling of the different groups and cohorts. I remember sharing some heart-to-heart conversations with some other PCV’s about being happy knowing that we’re living the life that we wanted to live and making our service count. There’s something just so Peace Corps about bonfires and hearing someone play a Sublime song on a guitar as another PCV smokes out of his homemade corn-cob pipe as shots of whiskey are passed around.
The next day was stressful. I attended a PSN group meeting, did some yoga, sold shirts for PSN during lunchtime, participated in the fiasco that was the 50th Anniversary Group Picture and rap song (yes, rap song), leading a session on the local language “Oh the Places You’ll Go” video project, filming scenes and interviews for a safety and security bystander intervention video, playing volleyball, and stressing out that night in frustration over not being able to use a Macbook that keeps crashing with the FinalCut Pro X video editing software. I was just so stressed by the end of the day because I knew that I had so many things on my plate and so many other things that I wanted to do and no laptop to accomplish any of them. All I just wanted to do was finish editing the video and play some Age of Empires II with my friends while I still had the chance to play with them. However, as one of my best PCV friends reminded me “This too shall pass, and tomorrow you’ll feel better.”
The next morning was just one of those mornings when I just didn’t want to wake up. If I could have slept for a few more days I would have done so. However, I rallied myself together to face the day and things did get better. I finished editing the video and discovered that another PCV had an extra laptop that I could buy off of him at a decent price. The day was busy as usual, and before I knew it night had come and it was time for Peace Corps Prom. Most of the PCV’s bought or had a “prom outfit” made for this night. We all danced the night away and ended up continuing the party at Bubbles Express down the road. Honestly, this night was such a reversal from the previous night. It was almost as if everything that had gone wrong or felt wrong from the day before had reversed to become such an amazing day and night. Peace Corps Prom ended on a very high note and I got back to bed around 5am, which incidentally was also around the same time my Lweza dorm mate got back.
Rwanda Trip, Kampala to Kigali, August 28 – 31
It almost seemed that it was one adventure after another. Everyone is trying to leave Lweza as soon as possible, especially me since I was planning to go to Rwanda for a two-day vacation that night. I was slated to go with three other PCV’s, Rachel B, Rachel C, and Steve. The funny thing was that we were so busy with All Volunteer Conference activities that we didn’t really plan for Rwanda. So we started by asking people in the conference center parking lot how to get to Rwanda. After about an hour of asking questions and with the input of 6 different PCV’s we pieced together that we needed to take one of the bigger night bus companies such as GaaGaa Bus Company, buy a 40,000/= each ticket for a bus that leaves Kampala at 6pm, and then arrive at the GaaGaa bus park near City Center in Kampala by 5:30pm.
Somehow all four of us get on the bus despite the torrential downpour and exhaustion post All Volunteer Conference, and make our way to Kigali, Rwanda. The GaaGaa night bus was so nice because there was actually room to move my legs and there weren’t any livestock on the bus. We reach the Uganda-Rwanda border around 2am and it’s frigid outside. We try to check in through the border control, and are told that we’ve been living illegally in the country. So from the get-go we’re almost arrested/deported until we explain to the border control manager that we actually have legitimate visas in our Peace Corps passports that allow us to live in Uganda.
Once we pass through, we are surrounded by random men who try to get us to exchange our dollars into Rwandan francs. From what we were told from our fellow PCV’s earlier that day, it’s much better to exchange the dollars into francs at the border because you get a better exchange rate rather than finding a place in Kigali. One of the guys attempts to give us a bad exchange rate, but is then beaten away by this chubby Ugandan man in camouflage gear who was wielding a stick. I called him stick guy. So I then told all of the exchange rate guys to line up and one-by-one tell me their exchange rates. I then asked stick guy to verify who was the most trustworthy exchanger, and we exchanged our dollars into francs right then and there (we did $1 = 690 Rwandan Francs).
We continue on the buses to Kigali where we continue to sleep inside the bus until 7am. We then make our way to the Discover Hostel which actually feels like a legitimate European hostel. What struck me the most about Kigali was how clean and put-together it was. It almost seemed like it was this small, European town with roads devoid of any potholes and boda boda drivers who wore helmets and actually stopped for streetlights and traffic.
By this point it’s already the 29th so we check into the hostel, get our bearings, shower, and eat a delicious breakfast of Rwandan coffee and French croissants at La Brioche Café. We finish eating and then instantly make our way to Meze Fresh, which is exactly like a Chipotle. Oh my God it was amazing and worth the entire trip over to Rwanda. I had pulled pork with cheese, salsas, lettuce, and more sauces than my taste buds could handle along with a corona and lime. I literally could not believe what I was eating.
After lunch, we made our way to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Museum showcasing the history of the Tutsi genocide by the Hutus. The museum was extremely well-done, and really set the historical and emotional stage behind how and why the genocide occurred. It also didn’t shy away from the horrible details behind the genocide. The most emotionally charged part of the exhibit was called L’Avenir Perdu (The Lost Future) which was showed large pictures of smiling children with plaques detailing their names, ages, favorite food, favorite pastime, last words, and the exact way they were killed.
“I didn’t expect the emotional response that I would get from this exhibit. So many of them remind me of the children whom I teach in my villages and schools. I literally started to tear up as I entered this exhibit.”
“Genocide is likely to occur again
Learning about it is the first step to understanding it.
Understanding I is imperative to respond to it.
Responding to it is essential to save lives.
Otherwise ‘Never Again’ will remain ‘Again and Again…’”
I was a wreck within seconds of entering this part of the museum.
I would see these beautiful smiling faces of toddlers who reminded me of beautiful children in my village in Luteete.
Favorite Food: Passionfruit and Chips
Favorite Past-time: Playing with grandmother
Last Words: “Will we be okay?”
Method of Death: Hacked apart by machete
I’ve never been hit so hard by an exhibit or museum like this before. And it was interesting noting the difference in atmosphere in Rwanda now as opposed to two decades ago. From what I heard and read about it almost seems as if there is a lot of things hidden under the surface in Rwanda. I honestly don’t know any specifics, but it just felt weird knowing that there are still many people living in Rwanda who are living in the midst of others who committed a genocide against their people.
After we finished going through the museum, we needed some time to decompress so we headed to Hotel des Milles Collines which was the famous hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. We chilled by the pool area and drank some good Rwandan beer, Primus and Mutzig. We also realized that we had been incorrectly saying thank you in Kinyarwanda. Instead of saying morikoze (thank you), we had been saying irakonje, which means cold. This explained some of the weird looks that we were getting from the men and women whom we encountered in Kigali.
The rest of our stay in Kigali involved dancing at the Sundowner Bar/Club, eating three more times at Meze Fresh, drinking more amazing coffee at Bourbon Café, checking out Kimironco Craft Market, talking with the locals about the disappearance of the French language in Rwanda, realizing that it’s alright to say the word gay in Rwanda but not so much Tutsi or Hutu, seeing the Peace Corps Rwanda HQ, meeting up with other Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers at Guma Guma (think Rwanda’s American Idol) in Amahoro National Stadium, having someone drunkenly sleepwalk into the hostel room filled with UN workers and sleep in one of their beds, being told by one of the Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers that you are not welcome there, and experiencing a hookup experience straight from a sitcom where said person couldn’t get back to the hostel until later because it was the last Sunday of the month which meant that everything (including the streets) were closed and shut down until 12pm for cleaning day, Umuganda.
Henceforth this is why the poloroid picture of our Rwandan group at Guma Guma is titled “The Night of Broken Friendships”. Other than some of the misunderstandings, it was very interesting getting to meet our Peace Corps Rwanda brethren. A lot of them told us that Kigali was very boring and that they saw Kampala as being much more lively and full of culture. On the other hand, we expressed to them how excited we were to eat burritos and walk in a city where we didn’t have to continuously look at our feet the whole time to avoid potholes. To be fair, there is a lot more to do in Uganda simply because it’s a bigger country and due to the rich diversity in landscape, activities, and never knowing what’s going to happen.
Kisoro and Virunga, Kisoro, August 31 – September 2
The Rwanda group parted ways the morning of the 31st, with Rachel B and I heading back to Uganda to Kisoro. We took a coaster from the Kigali bus park to Musanze/Ruhengeri. The ride there was absolutely glorious as we passed through forested mountain passes and fields of traditional farm vegetables whose leaves were undulating in the wind. Musanze reminded me of this small, grid town with infrastructure a little bit better than Uganda’s. We ate at this French Café called La Pallotte which had amazing meatballs and croissants. We then took a takisi to Cyanika where we crossed back over the border into Uganda without much effort at all. Then we took a private hire to Rafiki Guest House in Kisoro where we met with the PCV Jim whom I hung out with in Kasese for Coffee Camp. He was also the PCV who had recently gotten engaged at the last Peace Corps Camp in Mbale.
Honestly, it just felt so good to be back in Uganda with PCV’s who unconditionally loved us and would take care of us. I was so happy to cook in his guest house room and eat some cauliflower and rice with a curried, peanut soy sauce. I also got to use the internet which was absolutely fantastic for me since I had been internet free for quite some time due to my broken laptop.
We stopped by Kisoro because I was helping Jim out with the basics of filming a promotional video for his organization, Virunga Engineering Works, which primarily creates and supplies fuel efficient cookstoves for schools throughout Uganda. Virunga is named after one of the volcanoes that is a defining feature of Kisoro’s skyline. The PCV’s who are in Kisoro now are Jim who is about to COS and Bruce who just started his Peace Corps service. The coolest part about their region is that they are said to have the most beautiful site in all of Peace Corps Uganda. After having breakfast at one of the tourist lodges in the area, we worked on some footage of the Virunga workshop and cookstoves and some interviews with Bruce and his Ugandan counterpart. I thought that Kisoro was a beautiful town, but I was blown away by the majesty of the natural land formations when I climbed the small Nyamirima Hill which gave me the million shilling view of Lake Mutanda to one side of the horizon and the Virunga volcano shrouded in clouds to the other side of the horizon. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes as the wind whipped around me.
It was weird knowing that this was just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and that some people would never be able to appreciate the beauty of this area or see it. It was fitting that Jim worked as a professional photographer before he did Peace Corps and that he was placed in the most beautiful site in Uganda. We then had cheeseburgers for lunch at the artsy Mucha restaurant run by a Hungarian lady, and then filmed a few market day scenes of the women carrying their home-woven baskets atop their heads before heading back to make a Tikka Masala dinner complete with whiskey.
In the midst of all this, one of my old middle school teachers, Miss Goode, friend requested me on Facebook. Miss Goode taught me 6th and 7th grade science and mathematics at Sacred Heart School of Glyndon. Out of all the teachers in my life, I can honestly say that she was one of those teachers who had made the biggest impact. She made me fall in love with math and science and know that I could not only excel in those subjects but also apply them in a way that kept me wanting to learn more. I had been emailing her on her Yahoo email account for quite some time because almost everyone had lost contact with her, but still remembered her.
In her message she told me how my email last year emotionally resounded in her and helped reinforce the notion that her college degree and teaching was not a waste of time. She shared that while she had inspired us all the way back then, it was now we who are inspiring her now as she reads and sees our accomplishments and adventures in fields far away from Glyndon, Maryland.
On the morning of the 2nd Jim and Bruce’s organization drove us through the mountain pass roads connecting Kisoro and Kabale. Once again we experienced hairpin turns in the pouring rain, and made our way to Kabale where we picked up two other PCV’s, Amanda and Matt. We were dropped off by the pier of Lake Bunyonyi because we wanted to get some footage of the Lake Bunyonyi Secondary School where a Virunga Engineering Works cookstoves was installed a few months ago. The school was located on the largest island on Lake Bunyonyi and used to be the site of a PCV who had recently ET’d (early terminated).
It felt weird being back in Kabale so soon after I had just chilled there right before Coffee Camp. But it was nice to be there in the presence of good company and friends. Instead of taking the night bus back to Kampala that night, Rachel B and I stayed with Amanda and Matt at Amanda’s apartment in Kabale with their cat. We made burgers and drank red wine, which coupled with my ongoing sinus infection and cat allergies made me swell and clog up worse than most plumbing problems in Uganda.
Back Home, Luteete, September 3-5
I finally had the chance to breathe again in the cool Kabale air on the morning of September 3rd. It was a rough bus ride back to Kampala simply because I was still swollen from hanging out with red wine and a non-hypo-allergenic cat. I just had a headache, was tired, and just ready to get back to my site. I get to Kampala, eat a quick lunch at Brood, leave my laptop with an Indian man who is good with repairing electronics near a Shoprite on Entebbe Road, and then finally made it back to my site.
It felt so good to get back to site; I felt like I’d been away for so long. I just didn’t feel normal not being back at my house and cooking for myself. I spent all day of the 4th lesson planning, weeding my courtyard, buying market produce, doing laundry, and just playing with the village children. I was just so content and felt as if I was truly back at home and normal.
Before I knew it, I was already leaving site in order to get to Entebbe for the Central Welcome Weekend. To be honest, I never realized how busy I could actually be in the Peace Corps. I never imagined that I would ever be utilized for media work, especially since I consider myself just an amateur. It’s been a crazy adventure thus far, and even as I typed this entire blog post in one of the dorm rooms here at Backpacker’s Entebbe I still feel a bit off. It’s a mixture of stress, exhaustion, a hangover, and general anxiety from being separated from my site for an extended period of time. I felt so out of it earlier today, the 6th, and felt almost as if there was this immense weight of life, tasks, and stresses to accomplish. There was actually a point today when I felt that I couldn’t feel happy, but I still knew deep down inside of me that this too would pass.
And in the large scheme of things I mainly came to this event in order to support the new PCV’s who came to this event. I wanted them to feel welcomed and know that there are the older PCV’s who care and to know that in all things the cycle continues from one PCV to another.
From these experiences in this blog post, I think that what I took from my experiences was that everyone deserves another chance.