Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Random Notes on Ugandan Culture

  • Breastfeeding in public is not just normal, it’s everywhere. Boobs everywhere. I’ve heard that male PCVs serving in Africa complain that for them, breasts lose their sexuality because they’re just out, all the time, feeding babies. I mean, that’s their function, but it’s so taboo to do out in the open in the U.S. that it’s a shock here to see it on a daily basis. Sometimes the women have finished breastfeeding but just leave the girls out, flapping in the wind. But God help you if you wear a skirt that shows your knees – completely inappropriate.
  • Today, the nurse I was working with decided to play music out-loud from his phone. His choices? Enya and Celine Dion. Back to back. Not kidding.
  • Small car taxis. These are the only vehicles which come to my village for which I have Peace Corps approval (we are not allowed to ride boda-bodas, the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis). They’re essentially an older Toyota Corolla that fits quite literally ten adults in it on a regular basis – 6ish in the back, 2 in the passenger seat, and – probably my favorite part – a passenger sharing the seat with the driver (who is driving a stick-shift). Definitely safe. There’s often a few small children sitting on laps and a poor chicken thrown into the trunk for good measure.
  • I’ve been asked before such things as, “Are you from America or Italy?” as if there are no other choices. I even had one person in Kampala yell at me, “Hello, Japan!” Perception of foreigners is funny, and my guess is most people think that all muzungus are from the only country that they themselves have met people from.
  • The security guard at a friend’s site offered me his 5-year-old son to take back to America with me. When I said, “Won’t you miss each other too much?” he replied, “I have three other children.” While I know he has his son’s best interests in mind (an education in America is an opportunity most people here would never dream of), his response shocked me.
  • I've been told by several Ugandans, "Your English is very good." I usually think the statement is so ridiculous, English being my first language, that I just say "Thank you," but I think they mean I speak clearly and they can understand me. I adopt my own "Ugandan voice" when speaking with local people - speaking more clearly and slowly. Maybe that's what they mean. Some Americans/foreigners just keep blabbering at their normal speed and nobody understands them.
  • The ideas determining what is rude and what is not are almost reversed from the U.S. It is rude to confront someone directly about a problem you have with them (better to go through a friend or relative), but it is perfectly okay to walk into someone’s house without asking (for instance, my house) while that person is eating or otherwise preoccupied – thus leaving me in a conundrum about how to tell said person to leave. It is rude not to greet someone, but it is not rude to inquire a perfect stranger about their religion, their marital status, and why they aren’t yet married. It is rude to eat while walking on the street, but it is in fact good manners to tell someone they are fat (it’s a compliment). It’s not rude to slap someone’s arm to get their attention, inquire how much someone else’s stuff costs, arrive two hours late to a meeting, or to stare openly. It’s sometimes very hard to remind myself the cultural differences and not get irate at certain behaviors I consider, from my American perspective, very rude.
  • Ugandan English is funny and often throws me for a loop. It’s amazing how many variations of “English” there are in the world, and how even native English speakers from different countries sometimes struggle to understand each other. Words/phrases of note:
  1. “Extend” – move over, we have to fit a 7th person in the backseat of the taxi, and no, you don’t get a discount for losing feeling in your left leg
  2. Ugandans like to insert a rhetorical “what?” into the middle of a sentence to see if you’re listening. For instance: “We are meeting in Kampala to do what? To go shopping.”
  3. “Hmm/ehhh” – I’m acknowledging what you’ve just said. For instance, if you ask someone “How did you spend the night?” and they reply “Very well”, you say “Hmmm” to prove you were listening.
  4. “Smart” – well-dressed. “Clever” means intelligent.
  5. “How do you find the place?” – do you like it here? How’s life?
  6. “You increase” – you’re paying too little, you’re white and rich, please pay more
  7. “You reduce” – you’re overcharging me, I’m white but I’m a volunteer, bring your price down
  8. “It is finished/it is over” – we’re out of stock. This phrase is heard far too often in this country
  9. Non-verbal "words" - instead of saying "yes", Ugandans often just quickly raise their eyebrows. I've started subconsciously doing this. I'm afraid I will be so weird when I try to have a conversation back in the U.S. Ugandans also will point with their lips when you ask where something is.

At my post office in Mbarara. This pretty much sums everything up.

Kasese and Queen Elizabeth National Park

This past weekend, I traveled to Kasese to meet up with friends. The town sits at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains, which form the western border with the DRC (Congo), and the views are absolutely stunning. I actually now, in reflection, find it a little strange that one of the biggest things I remember is the fact that Kasese has a quasi-grid system, so they have actual blocks and street names. Revolutionary for Uganda. That evening, we had dinner at Margherita Hotel in the foothills, and had beautiful panoramic views of the mountains as the sun went down. On the ride up to the hotel, with the wind whipping through my hair, surrounded by good friends and staring at the mountains in the pre-dusk glow, it was one of those perfect moments in life when everything feels right – just pure euphoria.

The Rwenzoris

On Saturday, we headed to Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was so nice to feel like tourists for a day. Along the way, we stopped for photos at the Equator – I was in two hemispheres in one day (actually I jumped back and forth a few times in 48 hours).

The Equator!

Once in the park, we took a $15 boat trip along the Kazinga Channel which links Lakes George and Edward. Definitely worth the money! For a couple of hours, we cruised within meters of hippos (reportedly the world’s largest concentration of them), buffalo, a big bull elephant, waterbuck, bushbuck, African fish eagles, yellow-billed storks, pelicans, herons, egrets, etc. When we reached Lake Edward, the sun was going down and the views of the fishermen on the lake, and the pelicans soaring over the water’s surface, were beautiful. The lake forms the border with the DRC (Congo), and it was insane to think how close we are to a place that is still in serious conflict. Honestly this has been one of the hot beds of conflict in the world – Uganda has weathered Idi Amin and had rebel groups killing people in the north until very recently, the DRC still has mass murder and rape occurring, Sudan to the north is famous for the genocide in its Darfur region and could see more conflict soon when the country votes whether to split in two, Rwanda to the south is famous for its own genocide, and Kenya to the east has had its fair share of conflicts. All the more reason Peace Corps, and other organizations, are here to help re-build communities.

Bull elephant in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Pelicans on Lake Edward

The excitement didn’t end after the boat ride – while driving back through the park at night to Kasese, we literally almost ran into a herd of elephants. Only in Africa – gotta love it.

Sunday was a lazy day around Kasese (including listening to Christmas music – totally surreal when the weather hasn’t changed in months and there is nothing around to remind you that it’s the holiday season), but the real event happened that evening – I was drifting off to sleep when suddenly I woke up to the bed shaking beneath me. We had an earthquake! Apparently it was a 4.9 quake centered near Lake Edward in the DRC, not far at all from where we had been on safari the day before. Crazy!

Random moment today: a boy walked into the clinic wearing a Santa hat.

Romance vs. Reality

Peace Corps has such a romantic image. Before coming here, I imagined such exciting and idealistic images like traveling the world, laughing all the time with local children, building schools and wells, spending my days in the field vaccinating cattle and helping livestock farmers, making a tangible difference every day, etc. Picture Angelina Jolie in aviators and khaki pants, working in a refugee camp, an independent, worldly woman actively fighting poverty – that’s the image of Peace Corps that comes to mind for many people, including my own pre-Peace Corps self. While it’s a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t at all change my decision to come, this is not reality. Of course, it’s not reality anywhere – we aren’t always living meaningful thrilling lives no matter where we are. But I’d just like to dispel the myths.

The truth: nothing like that former vision. Village life is pretty boring. Not much to do for entertainment – good thing I grew up as an only child and know how to keep myself occupied. Work is excruciatingly slow right now (as I understand it is for most PCVs at first) – I’ve been trying to meet with my supervisor for weeks to create a workplan and re-evaluate my job description (aka I’m not here to count pills for the nurses) but he’s always off doing something else, or doesn’t call to tell me when he can’t make a meeting we have together. You really have to create your own work here, and I’m trying. While my Facebook status updates (and even this blog) always sound so exciting, those really thrilling days happen maybe once every two weeks – the rest of the time I’m just here, trying to find work to do, getting frustrated with my inability to understand most of the people around me (my Runyankore just isn’t that good yet), avoiding harassment from men, wishing I could be doing more meaningful activities and interacting with more people. And the food – oh! I’m afraid I’m becoming anorexic (not really, Mom, don’t worry) because of the monotonous diet. I’m not keen on making some of the local foods myself (they take hours and aren’t even that tasty), and have been subsisting mostly on rice, pasta, potatoes, PB&J, milk, eggs, bananas, and some other fruits and vegetables. The diet is just so routine. Case in point – you go into a local restaurant and they never have a menu because everyone knows what will be on it – matooke (steamed plaintain-like bananas), posho (maize meal), maybe rice, maybe millet, maybe meat, maybe groundnut (peanut) sauce. That’s about it. It makes sense to not have a huge variety of foods when most people here grow their own foods (and how many different things can you really grow in one garden?) but it’s still getting old for me. I’m convinced I’ll gain 30 pounds in the first month I’m back in the U.S. just because all I’ll want to do is eat!

But despite these challenges, that’s life – not every day is an adventure. This isn’t a vacation, this is where I live and work, and I’m learning a new rhythm of how to carry out my days. I’m learning that the little accomplishments, like understanding 30% of what someone says to me in Runyankore-Rukiga, holding a meeting on the same day we planned for it to happen, networking with another organization in the area, or learning to cook something new, are what really get me through. If I look at the big picture, I get frustrated by how slowly things are going – but if I live one day at a time, things are manageable, life is good, and I can see the small impacts I’m having that, over time, accumulate to be something truly meaningful.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Solar Panel!

Here's a photo of the solar panel on the roof! My house is the right half of the duplex. Once I get a little more furniture and decor, I'll take pictures of the inside.

The small window is my kitchen, and the blue door goes into the main house. Note the good-looking puppy on the porch. :)

Let There Be Light!

Thanksgiving was fantastic! On Friday, I headed through Kampala, where I did some Christmas shopping at the craft market (although no guarantees that packages will get there by Christmas, or ever even arrive), then headed back to my friend Becca’s house with Bryce, Alexi, Maggie, and Evan. We spent the evening marveling at her house (it’s huge! and has electricity!), eating Velveeta macaroni and cheese (heaven!), and a pumpkin pie given to us for free by the owner/chef at I <3 New York Kitchen, our favorite pizza/dessert place in Kampala (soooo good!). We bought a DVD on the street earlier that we thought would be the new Harry Potter movie since we couldn’t make any of the showings at the real theater in Kampala, but when we played it, it was just a cheap Bollywood film. Wahh wahhhhh...

Saturday morning, Becca and I woke up first, so we made banana pancakes, M&M pancakes, and scrambled eggs, with real Maine maple syrup! (Becca is a Mainer). I went to work with Becca for a little while, but was called away to go help gut the two chickens we were going to eat for dinner. It was pretty successful, although I’m sure my animal science professors would cringe at my technique. The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking – and man was it worth it! BBQ chicken, wine-and-herb chicken, stuffing made from bagel chips, mashed potatoes, vegetable medley, spicy pumpkin soup with cranberry jelly, yummy bread and butter, guacamole with chapatti, and a fruit salad with passion fruit glaze for dessert. Amazing!!! All of this laid out on a beautiful banquet table complete with candlesticks and autumn-themed napkins from the U.S.

After dinner, Maggie and Evan brought over the turkey piƱata they made, and so for the next 20 minutes or so we watched as blindfolded, dizzy people tried to hit a cardboard turkey that kept falling, the broomstick broke in half, and the clothesline snapped, leaving us all in stitches. Definitely a new Thanksgiving tradition! Afterwards we had planned to stay up and party, but the food coma spell hit hard, and we fell asleep watching new episodes of Glee.

In the morning, Bryce made us delicious French toast (with more Maine maple syrup), then we all headed into Kampala. They all went to see Harry Potter at the theater, but I had to catch a 5-hour bus back to Mbarara, so skipped the movie. I also inadvertently skipped lunch, so was starving, and the first vendor who got on the bus to sell us food had only fried grasshoppers. So, naturally, that’s what I ate. I had tried them last week for the first time and they’re surprisingly pretty delicious... you just can't think too much about what you're eating. The woman behind me hesitantly says, “Madam, did you know those are insects?” probably expecting me to scream and throw them in the air upon discovering what I was really eating. I told her yes, I know, but thank you, causing her and a few others around us to start laughing.

On Monday morning, I went with a co-worker to his cousin’s solar shop in Mbarara for an estimate. He quoted me a price 300,000 shillings lower than another shop I had gone to (about $140 cheaper), and when I said I’d like it installed as soon as possible, he said, “How about today?” So I now have solar power at my house! As a thank-you to my neighbor in the next duplex unit, who always cares for my dog when I go away, I paid the relatively small extra charge to string a light into her house, too. She and her family were so excited, and that night we all just stood around staring at the light. They kept laughing and saying, “Kampala!” joking that now they live in the city, and when I eventually said, “No, America!” they all roared with laughter. We all celebrated by watching a movie at my house (The Princess Diaries, since it has nothing really culturally inappropriate here in Uganda, although it’s amazing how many things I had to explain while watching it. A movie is a whole cross-cultural exchange in itself). I even made popcorn! A huge thanks to Mom at home for helping me to make this happen. :)

I do have to say, it’s so weird after living at homestay and then at site for a total of 4+ months without electricity to now be able to charge my laptop and flip on a lightswitch. It definitely changes the experience, and a (small) part of me misses how basic things were when I based my day more around the rhythm of the sun, and how it was probably a more genuine Peace Corps experience. I feel a bit like a spoiled brat, paying to have solar power in a village where a fair number of people live in mud-walled houses. However, a number of people came to thank me for bringing solar power here, and I know that installing it in the staff quarters here will make it much easier to attract workers in the future. And to be fair, there are also a few other people in my village who have solar power, too, which makes me feel a little better. Also, on a personal note, I am ecstatic to be able to work on assignments for Peace Corps, do research online, catch up with family and friends more often, maybe write that book I’ve always wanted to write, and even just unwind with a movie at the end of the day. And if I feel too over-the-top with solar power, I remind myself that I still hand-wash my clothes, bathe from a bucket, and pee in a hole in the ground.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving! Today is emotionally difficult since Thanksgiving might just be my favorite holiday, and thoughts of the whole family of 25+ people gathered around the table is almost too much to handle. Despite that, I just had two wonderful Skype sessions - one with my amazing friend Chelsea, who is studying abroad in Spain, and the other with Mom and Pappo. Definitely something to be thankful for! I'm hoping to get solar power at my house very soon so that I can stay in better touch with the rest of the world (already helped by my discovery of the BBC on a local FM station... world news! wow!). While I debated whether getting solar power is really in the true Peace Corps spirit, I reminded myself that a) most of my PCV friends have electricity at their houses (or at least do when the power isn't out), and b) that I will be much saner and happier, and therefore effective as a volunteer, if I can keep in closer contact with friends and family back home, be able to do research for work, do workout videos, watch movies, etc.

Two weeks ago, I enjoyed a weekend in Mbarara with other PCVs - some from my training group, and others I was meeting for the first time. It was great to swap stories from site, eat good food (although with ridiculously long wait times), and just be around other Americans for a while, with no one staring at the strange way we do things. However, when I returned to site, I surprised even myself when I got that wave of relief, that "I'm home" feeling. I think having a dog really helps with that, but regardless of the reason, it was great to realize I'm getting used to things and feeling like, in some aspect, I belong here.

Kibo, 10 weeks :)

As far as work goes, I've been busy doing lots of needs assessments, both within my organization and in the community. The highlight happened this past Saturday when I met with a group from the community who came after I requested the local chairman (mayor-type guy) to mobilize people for a needs assessment activity. I did two activities - Community Mapping (asking people to draw a map indicating the resources they value in their communities, what they'd like to see that isn't there, etc.) and Needs Assessment. The mapping exercise started out as a trainwreck, mostly because I followed one of the guidelines from a Peace Corps manual - "start with a familiar landmark, such as a river, road, etc." So, naturally, I asked them to start by drawing the road that runs through our trading center. This turned into the men and women collaborating (after I'd asked them to work separately) to draw a roadmap to all the neighboring villages. Not the goal. After reassessing again and again, we finally got a usable resource map, but by that point I just wanted to move on to the more straight-forward Needs Assessment. But! Despite all these difficulties, we came up with a list of priorities, ranked in order, that the community feels it needs. #1 was a technical school (#2 was to get Holstein/Friesian cows, which I hope to come back to at another time, but the meeting was already 4 hours long...). So, I explained that as a PCV I come with no money, only ideas, so how can we mobilize local resources to start a technical school? We started listing resources such as a brickmaker, land, teachers, etc., but then realized that construction would still be costly. So I proposed an idea: rather than build a physical school, why not try a community-based apprenticeship program, where students go directly to the carpenter's shop, the salon, etc. to train? They liked the idea and within a few minutes, we had a committee of women who would go out to find prospective teachers. Some people argued that we should first ask for "help" (aka money) before we start, but others reiterated what I had said - that if we wait for outside help, it might never come, so we have to act first, ask for help later if we need it. We're supposed to meet again in 2 weeks, and I really hope they follow through with their commitment - I couldn't believe how immediately dedicated they were to the idea of starting this technical school. That's my whole goal - have the community take ownership. That's a famous quote about leadership, "Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, 'We have done this ourselves.'" (Lao Tzu, ~500 BC). Perfect quote for Peace Corps. But that doesn't exclude the fact that on the inside, just to hype up the excitement about the situation, I'm telling myself that I started a technical school the other day. P.S., I apologize for the length of this paragraph.

Also, I did teach handwashing and tippy-tap building (see my last post) at the two local primary schools this week, and it was a huge hit! The kids seemed really into it, especially when I got them to all sing "Happy Birthday" while they tried out the tippy-tap to make sure they washed their hands for the right length of time. I encouraged them all to go home and build tippy-taps at their houses so their families have somewhere to wash their hands. I even went so far as to promise I would visit their house if they came and told me they had built a tippy-tap (a promise I may soon be regretting when 83 children show up at my doorstep asking me to come to their homes), but I didn't want to give the kids candy, as some of the teachers and my co-workers were telling me I should do, as that would just reinforce the stereotype that white people bring candy and pens for kids (it's bad enough that I get asked for sweeties from kids in bigger cities when walking down the street). I asked the teachers to invite me back next term if they would like me to teach other health topics, and they expressed great interest - they also added they want me to teach PE, with lots of American games and songs. So, I'm going to try to find a creative way of combining health messages with fun games and songs. Their next term starts in February so I have a few months to start brainstorming.

I've read quite a few books in the past couple of weeks (having no electricity will do that to you), and one that I really recommend is Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. A former PCV, he details his overland trip, by any means possible, from Cairo to Cape Town. He isn't afraid to offend the reader and dole out criticism, whether to foreign aid or local conditions, so reading this book is a trip into his uncensored mind as he traverses the continent. His attack on foreign aid definitely got me thinking, and the ideas that foreign aid makes things worse (which are not unique to Theroux) are definitely something I struggle with. Also, I'm halfway through The Horse Whisperer and thought it was hilarious that the husband and wife met when she was a VSO volunteer and he was in Peace Corps. However, I lost faith in the author's vision of Peace Corps when he first described the PCV as owning a jeep (ha!), and second when he said that "most [PCVs] are dope-heads or bores or both." Maybe that used to be true, but the majority of our group here in Uganda is amazingly motivated and qualified to be here.

I made peanut butter no-bake cookies last week (soooo good, especially after weeks of practically only rice, potatoes, beans, and sometimes pasta), and invited my neighbor and counterpart to come have some. At first they were very skeptical (and I'll admit, they look a bit like cow shit - flat, amorphous globs of chunky brown goo) but after tasting them they couldn't stop eating them, and practically demanded to be present the next time I make them, which I can tell you will be sometime very soon.

I've been getting up early to go running (okay, I'm pretty slow so I guess it's jogging, but running sounds so much more serious) and the views of the sunrise are worth every lost minute of sleeping in. If I pass kids on their way to school, they start running with me, which right now is pretty comical, but I enjoy running alone to gather my thoughts and have "me" time, so this will probably wear on me. But nothing can detract from the beauty of a sight like this out my front door in the morning:

I had a frustrating moment the other day when a complete stranger showed up at my doorstep, trying to pretend he wanted to have a conversation but was really just asking for money. It made me incredibly irate (and this wasn't a homeless man in rags, he was wearing a nice dress shirt and slacks), so I had to remind myself that most people here are more than generous towards me - a friend of my neighbor's bought me muchomo (grilled meat) and eggs for no apparent reason, people bring me fruit all the time, one of the primary schools gave me a HUGE bag of fruit and beans as a thank-you for teaching about tippy-taps... most people here show me their thanks for my presence in huge ways.

Ironic moment of the week: Seeing a young girl walking on the side of the road carrying a shopping bag from Bata, a big shoe store chain, but wearing no shoes.

Tomorrow, I'm heading through Kampala (meeting a friend for lunch at our favorite pizza/dessert place and shopping) and then meeting up at another friend's site, about an hour northeast of Kampala, for the weekend. We're cooking all day on Saturday and having our Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday night. The proposed menu: chicken (few turkeys available and no oven to cook one in), homemade bread, stuffing, mashed potatoes, salad, cranberry sauce, spicy pumpkin soup, vegetarian gravy, rice, veggie medley, apple pie, mango crumble, and pumpkin pie. YUM! Next blog entry: detailing the success (and hopefully no lack-thereof) of preparing a huge Thanksgiving feast in Uganda.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

First Few Weeks at Site

Wow, I haven't blogged in forever! Sorry, things were very busy at the end of training, and I don't have electricity at my house so computer time is very limited. But a lot has happened since my last post:

For one thing, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! We had a swearing-in ceremony on October 21 at the US Ambassador's House. All 45 of us who met in Philadelphia and starting training together made it to swearing-in, which is actually a big accomplishment - it's not uncommon for a few people to decide during training that Peace Corps is not for them and go home. We also held a Homestay Thank You event on the weekend before swearing in to thank the families that have been hosting us. The highlight was when our language group did a traditional Banyankore-Bakiga dance and probably 40+ Ugandans joined in with clapping, jumping, stomping, singing.... so much fun.

The whole training group - official Peace Corps Volunteers!

My language group, Runyankore-Rukiga, with our teachers

I moved to site the weekend after swearing-in, and things get better every day. I still have moments (that were especially numerous during the first few days) where I semi-panic, think "Why the hell did I come here?", and have thoughts of going home early. But those moments are short-lived, and I'm just taking things one day at a time. One of the challenges we have as Volunteers is that we don't have an exact job description, and some of our organizations don't really know what to do with us. You have to make work for yourself, which in the first month or two at site is not easy. So for now, I've been mostly dispensing drugs that are prescribed by the nurses in the clinic, and helping with baby immunization and weighing outreach events. We are encouraged by Peace Corps to "do nothing" for the first 3 months - and by that, they mean just learn, observe, do needs assessments, integrate into your community, etc. before you come up with grandiose ideas on what types of projects to start/implement. A project that I work on should never be entirely my idea - it should stem from the needs and desires of my community members. This is very difficult for me, both as an American not used to pursuing what I see needs to be done and as someone used to taking charge and getting the ball rolling.

However, a few ideas for projects have started to come out. I built a tippy-tap, a makeshift handwashing station, during my first week at site (since there is no easy way for me to wash my hands without running water), and my counterpart and others were very interested in it, and when I expressed my desire to teach hygiene and tippy-tap-building at local schools, they seemed very receptive to the idea. So that might be one of my first projects! Also, I've been doing needs assessments within my organization and one of the biggest problems at our small health clinic is the lack of ability to test for malaria - we simply don't have the equipment for either a blood smear or a rapid malaria test. The result is that anyone who has a headache, fever, body aches, or generally doesn't feel well gets diagnosed with malaria. As we currently have the drugs in stock right now (provided by the Ugandan government), we are giving them out to everyone showing these symptoms. The nurses don't really have a choice not to - if they don't prescribe the drugs, and the patient does have malaria, he/she could die. Everyone seems to know that some people are faking the symptoms, knowing they can get the drugs for free from our government-funded clinic now and stock up later for when they don't feel well at another time. We're about to run out of anti-malarial drugs (Coartem), and we won't get any for at least another month, when the government may or may not show up to deliver more. Thus, for anyone suffering for malaria after we run out of drugs, they have to buy them at drug shops/pharmacies at a cost of around 15,000 shillings (about $7.50), which is too expensive for many of the people who live here. Very tough situation. So even though as a PCV I am supposed to encourage mobilizing local resources instead of looking for outside funding/materials, this is a huge need and I'm going to explore the options to get a microscope (doesn't even have to turn on - we don't have electricity so you just set the microscope in the sun) so we can test for malaria.

In happier news, I am now the proud parent of a beautiful Ugandan puppy. Her name is Kibo (named after the main peak of Kilimanjaro) and she's now 8 weeks old. She came from a litter of puppies at my homestay, and since I got to handle them from 1.5 weeks of age, and I really like the mother's personality, I was hooked. I picked the most beautiful, biggest, outgoing puppy (of course!) and returned for her a week after getting to site (along with another friend who got a dog from his homestay). Public transport with puppies wasn't as bad as we anticipated - we were expecting negative reactions, since it's okay to bring chickens and goats on a shared taxi but dogs are feared and often have a negative connotation in this culture. However, people were all just curious and thought it was so funny, the bazungu with their dogs. Kibo has been settling into site great - my neighbors love her (they even let her sleep in their house when I'm gone! HUGE for a Ugandan family, never expected that), people now come to my house to see my dog and not me, she follows me everywhere when I'm home but surprisingly stays around the yard when I leave, which saves me from having to tie her up. She knows how to sit when she's paying attention or thinks I have food, and can be a bit stubborn, but she's affectionate and playful and just pretty darn adorable. So far she's been very healthy, and I hope it continues - my friend's puppy got parvo, a very nasty virus that often kills the dog, and we were very worried he wouldn't make it. I went to give him IV fluids and dextrose (he is only about 40-50 km from me), and when I had to leave my friend gave him some SQ fluids. And the little guy is doing great! He didn't eat for about a week, so he's super skinny, but apparently now he's running around, eating, and doing great. Amazing!

Kibo! 7 weeks old

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Role of the Volunteer in Development

While here in Uganda, I have been asked to blog for SCOUT BANANA, an excellent organization I was involved with at Michigan State University that gets young people involved with health and development issues in Africa. Here's my first real post for their blog:

As a Peace Corps Trainee in Uganda, I have learned a great deal during the 10-week training period about topics from language (I’m learning Runyankore-Rukiga, but there are 7 other languages being taught to other Trainees), cross-cultural issues, income generating activities, community health, agrobusiness, water and sanitation, etc. However, no matter which topic we are discussing, it is all based on the Peace Corps’ approach to development, which is a grassroots, assets-based (rather than problem-based) approach. Essentially, as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), our role is to act as change agents and co-facilitators to help communities realize the resources they already have to change their lives. The idea is to break the traditional cycle of dependency on outside aid for development to happen, and to empower people to stop thinking of themselves as ‘poor and helpless’, as the Western world has so often labeled them, but rather to believe that they have control over their own lives. We are here to share skills and ideas, and to motivate people to use what they do have rather than thinking about what they don’t.

However, this approach is not without difficulty. Since so many NGOs and short-term volunteers have already been working here in Uganda, and indeed throughout Africa and the rest of the developing world, many Ugandan communities have come to expect that a muzungu (foreigner or white person) brings money and outside resources. While monetary aid does have its place in certain contexts, this dependency on resources that come from outside the community is unsustainable and discourages people to rely on themselves and take charge of their own development. While the problem exists all across Uganda, I have heard PCVs serving in Northern Uganda complain of the “war tourism” occurring there as short-term volunteers and tourists flood the region in the wake of the devastation caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The existence of war tourism makes their job as PCVs much more difficult because of the expectancy that the muzungu will come, build a school or make a donation, and then leave, while the PCV comes for two years with motivation and skills but no funding to speak of.

My purpose is not to bash foreign aid, more traditional development work, or short-term volunteers (indeed, most PCVs have been short-term volunteers themselves at some point, which could have been the spark that inspired them to serve in the Peace Corps), but rather to encourage people to think differently about the impacts that these approaches have on the communities which they are trying to ‘develop’. Sustainability is key in any development context, and the assets-based approach that Peace Corps takes aims for sustainability through community-driven development. After all, only when people take ownership of their actions in order to continue improving their own lives long after an NGO or volunteer leaves can development work be truly sustainable.


I finally got my assignment!!! I will be working for The Hunger Project in Kashongi town, Kiruhura District! This is just north of Mbarara, a major city of 100,000+ people, about 5 hours southwest of Kampala. The Hunger Project is a huge international NGO and I am so excited to be working for them. Here's the information I was given:

Purpose and goals (for my chapter/office):
- To eradicate extreme poverty
- To achieve Universal Primary Education
- To promote gender equality and empower women
- To reduce child mortality
- To improve maternal health
- To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- To ensure environmental sustainability
- To develop global partnership for development

Proposed job description:
- Adult literacy education
- Health education on malaria prevention and control, nutrition, HIV/AIDS
- Hygiene promotion
- Community outreaches on immunization and health education
- Involve in income generating activity projects
- Assist in reporting
- Sports for children

I'm incredibly excited about the variety of projects I could work on. I think it's a relatively new branch of The Hunger Project, so it sounds like I get to help them gauge which projects would work best in the community (and what I would like to work on, too). I'm going on a site visit tomorrow to check out my organization, meet my counterparts and superviser, and see my house! I've been told it's a 2-room house with no electricity or running water. It's supposedly next to my counterpart's home on the compound where my office is located (yay for a short commute!).

The area where I'll be living isn't quite in the mountains like I had been hoping, but it's supposed to be in a beautiful hilly region nicknamed "The Land of Milk and Honey" because of how many cows and how much honey is produced there. YUM! I'll post pictures and let you know the real details of my site when I get back in a few days!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The end (of training) is in sight...

The last few weeks have brought some exciting (and not as exciting) things. Everyone is starting to get pretty tired of training, so the next few weeks will probably be tough to push through. But soon we'll be swearing in as real Peace Corps Volunteers!

I had some talks with the trainers about my concerns over being placed under economic development (which is where they place people with animal husbandry backgrounds), but we had only been talking about business management and crop agriculture during the training sessions, neither of which I know anything about or am interested in. They took my concerns, as well as my preferences, and have officially switched me to being a Community Health volunteer. I still don't have the details of my site (we find out in ONE WEEK!) but they gave me a vague description when they switched me that I'd probably be working with an organization that has a broad focus on community health and food security, and that the organization partners/staff are interested in starting animal husbandry work. If that's the case, it sounds ideal - a great blend between health, agriculture, animal husbandry, etc. So glad I said something and that they aren't placing me as a primarily business/econ volunteer - ask and ye shall receive! Even if animal husbandry becomes a secondary project, it sounds completely feasible. Just about every household keeps some animals for subsistence, so there's plenty of opportunities, especially since my organization is apparently interested in doing more work in that area. BUT I don't have any solid details about my organization at all yet, so I shouldn't count my chickens before they hatch. Getting so anxious to hear about it!

In other news, spent last week staying with 2 Peace Corps Volunteers in Kyotera in southern Uganda. It's actually two girls - one community health volunteer, one education - who share a duplex. They each have their own "house" on either side of a dividing wall (which is very nice - bedroom, bathroom, guest bedroom, living/dining room, and kitchen, electricity most of the time, and limited running water that comes from a tank on their roof). It was so great to cook American-style food (pan-fried noodles, spaghetti and garlic bread, eggs and toast, etc.), have girls nights, watch movies, take naps, etc. We did do some work too, but unfortunately the interpreter who usually works with her to teach nutrition at the health center wasn't around, so we mostly taught English at the local vocational school. On the way back to Wakiso (where I live now), a few of us stopped in Kampala for shopping and delicious food, including iced lattes. Yummmm!

Other events recently: one of my friends got a puppy from the neighbor and I helped him get dewormer/tick and flea bath, I've been doing a project about Community Animal Health Workers (which I did research for in college and now I'm looking at how to implement a program here in Uganda - very cool), we're having weekly trivia nights at a local bar with our fellow trainees which are really fun, finding an amazing bootleg DVD store in Kampala where you can buy movies or even entire TV seasons for 1,200 shillings (50 cents), learning our way around Kampala and using public transport, trying to diagnose the neighbor's goat (I think it has footrot, it won't put weight on it and its hoof is super hot to the touch but I don't want to try to fix it on my own)... pretty good times! It's not all fun and games - I'll be honest and say I'm getting tired of homestay curfews and having to explain why I want to just read in my room by myself, monotonous training periods, etc. - but in general things are good. Already looking forward to people visiting from the States... if you're not thinking about coming to Uganda, you should be!

These last few days we've had intensive language practice for a mock-LPI (language proficiency interview). The real LPI is at the end of training, and we must be at an Intermediate Low level to "pass" training. I felt like I was struggling a bit during the practice with native speakers, but everyone is saying I'm doing great, speaking Runyankore-Rukiga "like a parrot". Glad to hear! Romance languages will be a piece of cake after this (and I want to work on Spanish and French when I'm out at my site). I'm excited to actually practice the language when I finally go to the southwest, as people here in central Uganda don't really speak Runyankore-Rukiga.

I'll post again in a week when I get my official site placement, which will include where I'll be, my organization/job, what amenities I may or may not have, etc. Sooo excited! All my love to everyone at home.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Getting into the swing of things...

Well here we are during the fourth week of training and things are going pretty well. We’ve had so many different sessions on Ugandan culture, safety and security, health talks about the scary tropical diseases that some of us will pick up (40% of volunteers get schistosomiasis??), business management, HIV and malaria, permaculture, participatory community assessment tools, our roles are volunteers, etc. I’ve been learning a lot, but the days are long and the weeks are exhausting. All of the current PCVs say that the experience gets a lot better after training, although I’m enjoying being close to all of the other trainees, and I’m sure I’ll miss this time when we’re all scattered across the country. Less than a month until we find out our sites! Couldn’t come soon enough.

Things with my host family are great. My dad and I have the best conversations every night, from the political situation in Uganda and the U.S. to ebola and the education system. We have a running joke that I have an “American stomach”, not a Ugandan stomach because they serve soooo much food here. He’s great and never pushes me to eat more than I want. The food is already getting pretty routine but I’m finding a few favorites (like G-nut, aka groundnut, aka peanut, sauce), and the street food is fantastic. You can get a rolex (omelet-like deliciousness) for 700 shillings (about 40 cents), samosas for 100 shillings (5 cents!), chapattis, “pizza” (egg and onion in a little latke-like patty) for 300 shillings… I might never cook in this country.

My ‘siblings’ are also great, and I’m in love with 7-year-old Tracy (as is everyone else) who is the smartest thing ever. I often forget she’s 7 years old. She’s so incredibly mature and already pretty much fluent in English. Yesterday, she told me I’m her best friend (cue major “Awww!!” now). I don’t get to see my host mom very much – she works in Kampala and so doesn’t get home until around 9:00 on most nights, and sometimes I’m even in bed by the time she gets home. When I do see her, she is so much fun – always laughing at what I have to say. Last night, we all ended up dying of laughter when my host dad recounted my language faux pas this week. Instead of asking for “enyama y’empunu” (“meat of pig” aka pork), I asked for “emanya y’empunu” (vagina of pig). I didn’t learn what I had really said until language class the next day, and now it makes so much sense why my sister was laughing so hard and my dad was so adamant about correcting my pronunciation. But the list doesn’t end there. 2 nights later, I was trying to say “I’m eating” which is “Nindya”, but I said “Ninya” which basically means “I’m getting it on”. Ohhhh lordy, good thing they know I don’t always mean what I say. It definitely provided for some great laughs and great stories!

This past weekend was a great recharge from the routine we’ve been having. On Friday, we visited some groups of women who are working towards income generation and empowerment through craft making. I bought a beautiful bead necklace and basket for amazingly low prices. It was just so great to get out into the community and do something. When we pulled up to one group, it seemed like the whole village erupted into song and dance – everyone was SO excited for the muzungus to arrive! On top of all that, the scenery on the way to the NGO visit was so beautiful. I can’t wait to see the southwest (my future home), which everyone says is stunningly gorgeous. On Saturday, we went to Kavumba Rec Center to go swimming!! The water was the perfect refreshing temperature (you just have to ignore the fact that it wasn’t chlorinated… we had already paid to swim and walked 2 miles to do so, there was no turning back). We all got a nice sunburn from the equatorial sun, even with multiple applications of sunscreen. At first I was upset that they were charging 2,500 shillings for beer whereas the regular price in town is 2,000, then realized that it was equal to $1.25 vs. $1.00. Add on a plate of BBQ chicken and chips for 6,000 shillings ($3.00) and I was a happy camper. But I have to stop thinking in terms of US Dollars since we calculated that we’ll be making somewhere around $3,600 per year (about 3 times higher than the national average salary in Uganda). That night, we went to a local hotel to watch the Uganda-Angola football game (3-0!), and ended up having a dance party and celebrating a PCT’s (Peace Corps Trainee) birthday. But the night ended early, as always (by 7:00ish) since we all have to get home around dusk. Wah wahhhh….

On Sunday, my friend Becca came over to help me cook brunch for my family, which was my first time cooking in Uganda from start to finish. I think they were extremely skeptical during the cooking process (this muzungu doesn’t know how to peel potatoes very well, and I would never dice up potatoes that way… and why does she need so many pots?) but it seemed to be a success – scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, hash browns, toast with butter and jam, and mango juice. YUM!! After weeks of the same food over and over, this was pure bliss. My family even wants to make hash browns again next Sunday, which is impressive since these weren’t even really good hash browns. After brunch, I read a book, took a nap, did some laundry, then headed to a friend’s house to exchange movies and music. A group of us watched a Russian bootleg copy of Salt on my laptop, and the moment (and day) felt so American that it was a shock to look up and see cattle being herded by the window. Yep, we’re still in Africa. We’re all joking that life here starts to feel pretty normal until we remember we have a bucket in our rooms to pee in at night (since there are guard dogs/who knows what roaming around and it’s not safe to go out to the latrine).

In general, I’m so happy here. The training days get long, and life isn’t without its frustrations, but I am so blessed to be in this beautiful country and be given this chance. Looking forward to an immersion week in my region next week, then 3 weeks later I get to visit my actual future site!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mwebare kwija!

I am in Uganda and so far everything is going so well! Don't want to waste too much time online so I'll quickly go through everything.

Staging in Philadelphia was a great time to reflect on the incredible commitment we have all made. All the people in the group are fantastic (I mean they are signing up for a 2-year Peace Corps stint in Uganda). I've already made a lot of wonderful friends. After an extremely long flight from JFK to Johannesburg, and then another 4 hours up to Uganda, we landed at Entebbe just at dusk. As soon as I stepped onto the tarmac on the shores of Lake Victoria, all my fears and homesickness were temporarily washed away as I stepped back into Africa. I was nothing but happiness that night.

Since then, training days have been long but productive. We've had lectures on the role of volunteers in development (emphasizing people-to-people empowerment at the grassroots level... awesome!), participatory techniques, info about Uganda and it's economic and health status, basic Luganda lessons, etc. I am exhausted by the end of the day. We just moved to Wakiso a few days ago (about 30 minutes from Kampala) and I am loving the 45 minute walk to training every morning. I'm living with a huge, wonderful host family - Dad, Mom, 6 siblings (5 have lived at home so far, but 2 are soon going to boarding school), an uncle, and a cook. They have welcomed me with open arms, are feeding me entirely too much, and have a beautiful house (even if it lacks electricity and running water). They have their own subsistence garden with matooke (plaintains), bananas, papaya, passion fruit, oranges, avocados, chickens, rabbits.... it's beautiful. I have a fantastic view every morning when I come over the crest of our hill and see the rising sun over miles of undulating hills intertwined with valleys of mist. 2 nights ago, I had a push-up contest with my family and last night the kids wouldn't let me stop taking pictures of them. I've also had such wonderful conversations with them, about everything from how muzungus (white people) blush and sunburn to how my brothers and sisters feel about caning (beating) students in school and the status of the health care system in Uganda.

The weather is so far perfect (in the 70s and sunny every day). I could definitely get used to this. The food is pretty much the same at every meal - a ton of starches (matoooke/mashed plaintain, rice, posho/maize meal, irish potatoes, sweet potatoes...), beans, sometimes meat or fruit. Already looking forward to cooking for myself at my site.

I am learning the language Runyankore-Rukiga (I'd never heard of it either), which means I will be living somewhere in the beautiful mountainous southwest after training. I couldn't be more excited! I have a great language teacher and only 3 other students in my class (although 8 of us are learning Runyankore-Rukiga, pronounced Roon-yawn-core-a Roo-chee-gah).

More updates soon! (and by soon, I mean within a week or two. Not enough time in the day to get to an internet cafe very often!).

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I'm leaving on a jet plane...

The reality of my departure finally hit last night (aka the crying finally started). As much as serving in the Peace Corps fulfills many of my dreams, it is never easy to leave behind your life as you know it, especially family and friends, for so long. In an attempt to look toward the future rather than dwell on the depressing aspects of leaving, I continued reading The Price of Stones by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, a book detailing how the author started a free school for AIDS orphans in his hometown in western Uganda. On the page where I left off, the author is leaving his family to return to his home in the United States. His words were so comforting because they resonated perfectly. "Morning came too quickly after a final evening with friends and family... We will all be crying shortly. It was probably the same for all families around the world. An awkward silence before leaving when one does not want to say goodbye, when the pain of family being pulled apart is too much to bear." And finally, the quote that restored my hope in seeing my family again soon is what his mother says to him whenever they say goodbye: "May the Lord keep you safe until we meet again." Indeed, I think God does work in mysterious ways - I mean, what are the odds that this would be the particular passage that would greet me as soon as my emotions began to get the best of me? I'm not an especially religious person, but you can't ignore a message like this when it stares you in the face.

Speaking of which, while I was writing this, a TV commercial came on for an initiative in East Africa being carried out by Johnson & Johnson, and those images reminded me of exactly why I can't wait to get back to Africa and get down to work. Meaningful work, and in turn, a meaningful life, hardly comes without personal sacrifice.

When I first started to think about Peace Corps almost 2 years ago, I e-mailed one of my professors, who is from Kenya, for his opinion on whether I should do Peace Corps, work for an NGO, or try some other volunteer experience. Reading his reply again gives me pride in what I am about to do (and hopefully he doesn't mind being quoted here): "Do the Peace Corps. Nothing would be as valuable. Nothing else would allow you to realize what you are capable of and what role you want to play. You should never perceive of yourself as helping 'others' by treating them as something different. 'Those' other people have something to say as well and you should align yourself to understand what they want to say and the rich histories and contexts that 'they' have. Development institutions, by their nature, always treat local peoples as 'others' not individuals. That is why we give them labels such as the 'poor'. I think that you would start to see things very differently if you were able to dwell in place for 2 years... I strongly believe that you have a unique ability to make a significant difference. That is why I am being very frank with you."

Thank you so much to everyone for all the well-wishing, phone calls, and positive thoughts as I depart! Without your support, I couldn't do what I'm about to do, or be who I am today (cheesy but completely true). May we all stay safe until we are together again. Or, in Luganda, beera bulungi, tunaalabagana! (Stay well, we will see each other!).

The logistics of the next few days: I leave my house around 5:15am tomorrow to catch a 7:40am plane to Philadelphia. I have "staging" (orientation) meetings all afternoon and get to know my fellow volunteers. Then we depart the hotel by 3:00am (yes, you read that right) on Tuesday to drive to JFK airport. There, we catch our flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, and then connect to Entebbe, Uganda. It's really happening! The bags are almost packed (hopefully they will zip!), and I can't wait to be back on African soil in just 3 days from now!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

6 days and counting...

Less than 6 days to get ready now... still feels unreal. Today was my original departure date... thank goodness it got moved back! While I've been working on my preparations for departure, I've also been trying to enjoy all those aspects of American life I'll really miss. In the past week or so, I've been horseback riding, went to the John Mayer and Train concert, I've been eating lots of Ohio sweet corn, getting my fill of sushi, seeing friends and family, went to Kings Island for the first time in years (despite the fact that I can see it from my house), hanging out with my dog, going to the movie theater, eating pizza, went to the Dayton Celtic Festival, perused Borders and Barnes & Noble.... basically a really good time!

Now to the serious business. Everyone's been asking me what I'm packing, so here's a basic run-down (it looks very long, and it is, but a lot of these things are small so I'm hoping I'll fit in the 80-pound limit for checked baggage, plus whatever I can fit in my carry-on).

Packing List for Uganda:


  • Several basic below-the-knee skirts
  • 1-2 pairs of gauchos or capris for bike riding and fieldwork
  • Several short-sleeved (not sleeveless) tops
  • 1 below-the-knee dress for special occasions
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1-2 pairs of longer shorts for sports or running/jogging
  • Several cotton t-shirts
  • 1 long-sleeved shirt
  • Cardigans
  • Tank tops and camisoles
  • 1 pair sweatpants
  • 1 pair black leggings for under skirts
  • Good supply of underwear (handwashing is hard on clothes and apparently the quality available in Uganda leaves a lot to be desired)
  • Good supply of durable bras
    • 4 regular bras
    • 1 sports bra
    • 1 strapless bra
  • Socks
    • Gym socks
    • Hiking socks
  • 1 half slip
  • Rain jacket (REI Women's Ultra Light Jacket)
  • Pajamas
  • Sweatshirt
  • North Face Fleece
  • 2 pairs of hiking pants (can be used for field work)
  • Swimsuit
  • Nice clothing for going out to a bar or dancing in Kampala
  • Gloves for field work (Carhartt Women's Chore Gloves)
  • Scarf/shawl


  • Leather sandals (Merrell Siena)
  • Dress shoes (black ballet flats)
  • Teva sandals
  • Flip-flops
  • Hiking boots (Scarpa Kailash GTX)
  • Gym shoes
  • 1 pair of closed-toe flats (Naturalizer NaturalSport Scatter)


  • Toothbrush
  • Hair ties, bobby pins
  • Hairbrush
  • Travel hair dryer
  • Straightener
  • Razor and extra blades
  • Lotion
  • Deodorant
  • Nail clippers
  • Mirror
  • Chapstick with sunscreen
  • Facial sunscreen
  • Sunscreen – 30 spf
  • Makeup
  • Face wash
  • Nail polish and remover
  • Foot scrub/pumice stone
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Bath towel
  • Hand towel
  • Glasses
  • Contacts
  • Contact solution
  • Qtips
  • Feminine products


  • Travel alarm clock
  • Watch
  • Shortwave radio (Grundig G4000A)
  • iPod and charger
  • Small battery-powered speaker (Altec Lansing iM-237 Orbit - highly recommended!)
  • Camera equipment
    • Camera Bodies (Canon T2i and XTi)
    • Lenses
    • Lens cloth
    • Lumix point-and-shoot camera
    • Filters
  • Extra camera batteries and SD cards
  • Travel drive for photos
  • External hard drive
  • USB card reader
  • DVDs
  • Laptop and charger
  • Outlet adapters
  • Power strip – charge multiple items at a time if I have to charge away from home
  • USB flash drive

Camping/outdoor equipment

  • Sleeping bag
  • Small packable pillow
  • Solar-powered headlamp
  • Solar-powered flashlight
  • Water bottles
  • Trekking poles
  • Sleeping pad (if room in bag)
  • Tent (if room in bag)

Office Supplies/Books/etc.

  • Twelve passport-size photos
  • Reference books
    • Introduction to Animal Husbandry in the Tropics (thank you to Wiley-Blackwell Publishing for the discount!)
    • Where There Is No Animal Doctor
    • Where There Is No Doctor
  • Novels/fun books
  • Duct tape
  • Journal
  • Calendar/planner
  • Post-it notes
  • Scissors
  • Scotch tape
  • Peal and seal letter, small-padded package envelopes
  • Sharpies
  • Pens
  • Folders
  • Small stapler and staples
  • Solar powered calculator
  • Addresses of friends and family
  • Detailed map of Uganda
  • World map to hang on my wall and show my neighbors where I'm from (or plan trips!)
  • Travel books
    • Uganda
    • East Africa


  • Gum
  • Spices
    • Lawry’s
    • Mrs. Dash
  • Crystal Light packets
  • Can opener
  • Ziploc bags
  • Plastic spatula
  • Tupperware
  • Recipes
  • Pot holders

Personal stuff

  • Driver’s license
  • ATM card
  • Credit card
  • All Peace Corps paperwork, handbooks, packets, etc.
  • Yellow WHO vaccination record
  • Bank contact info
  • Copies of all of the above (leave one at home, bring one copy)


  • Photos from home – family, friends, etc.
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Leatherman
  • Sheets – 2 full-size flat ones are the most flexible as bed size can vary widely
  • Shower scrunchie
  • Umbrella
  • Sunglasses
  • Money belt
  • Luggage locks
  • Non-valuable jewelry
  • Laundry bag
  • Tissues (3 travel packs)
  • Bug spray
  • Playing cards
  • Gifts for host family
    • Postcards from Cincinnati
    • Coloring books and crayons for the kids
    • Will probably buy something in-country once I realize what my family would like/need


  • Kelty backpack (Coyote 4570)
  • Big duffle bag
  • Daypack as carry-on
  • Small purse? Still deciding on this

Whew! It seems like a lot (it's all spread on my floor right now) but with some careful packing it will hopefully all make the cut!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What does a Peace Corps Volunteer do?

I've been given a job title, program, and job description, but nothing about the details of my job are clear yet, and probably won't be for a long time to come. Part of the model of Peace Corps, and any type of grassroots participatory development work, is doing needs assessments in your community and doing what the people there are interested in and need, not what your international organization deems necessary (radical thinking, I know). So the details of my work are still yet to be determined, but here is the general idea of what I'll be doing:

Program: Community Health and Economic Development (CHED)
Job Title: Agricultural Extension Volunteer
Your Primary Duties: Volunteers in our Community Health and Economic Development Program work as staff members in a variety of host organizations in Uganda. Uganda's Ministry of Health, and local and international organizations request Volunteers to assist them with developing and implementing programs with the goals of improving overall levels of community health and economic development, preventing HIV/AIDS among adults and youth, caring for orphans and vulnerable children, and supporting people living with AIDS, their families, and their caregivers. As an Agricultural Extension Volunteer it is important for you to know that more than 80% of Ugandans depend on subsistence agriculture for livelihood.

The info packet then goes on to explain a number of activities with which I could be involved with the overall goal of improving livelihoods through agriculture, especially for people affected by HIV/AIDS and youth. I'm really hoping for a livestock/animal husbandry post! However, volunteers always get involved with secondary projects, as described below:

While your primary assignment will be work in an advisory role full-time with a local host organization or government agency, there is little that goes on in your community that falls wholly outside of your role as a Community Health and Economic Development Volunteer. Your primary assignment will be the door through which you enter and initially come to know your community, allowing you to identify activities that are of interest to your community as a whole, and that further enhance your sense of fulfillment and professional development...

Oftentimes, secondary projects are among the most fulfilling to Volunteers. Such projects may include working with a local women's group to improve their health practices; teaching adults basic computer skills; teaching English or basic reading and writing to low-literacy adults in your community; setting up girls' empowerment or sports camps with students in local schools, to name a few such possible secondary activities.

Hopefully that gives you some insight into what I'll be doing! Peace Corps just sent me even more info on the first few months of training, what to bring, what to expect, etc., so I'll relay more soon! As for now, starting to pack and square away what feels like the last details. I just filled out a homestay questionnaire... it's almost here!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tragedy in Kampala

As many of you have probably heard, there were two terrorist bombings last night in Kampala, the capitol city of Uganda, which killed upwards of 64 people who were gathered to watch the World Cup finals. The attack was carried out by Al-Shabaab, a Somalian terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda. Somalia is a country with no functioning government, and as such, the African Union has sent peacekeeping forces there, a number of which are from the Ugandan Army. Al-Shabaab, which "controls" much of Somalia, does not appreciate Uganda's presence, and supposedly this is why the attack was conducted. The African Union summit will also be taking place in Kampala next week, so this could be why Al-Shabaab chose to carry out these attacks now - to make a statement and try to shine negative light on Uganda during this important time.

While at first I was concerned about the safety of traveling to Uganda at this time, and whether we would even be departing for training, I have since been reassured my numerous sources. This is an isolated incident, and Kampala is considered to be one of the safest capitol cities in Africa. All 120 Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in Uganda are fine and have been told not to leave their sites (most of which are pretty far from Kampala) until further notice. One of my fellow trainees called the Peace Corps headquarters and was told that this will not affect our departure, and we will leave as planned. I trust Peace Corps' decision, especially with the knowledge that they are usually quick to pull volunteers out of volatile situations, such as political violence in Kenya and Madagascar in recent years. During my service, I will never be stationed in Kampala - the closest is during the first few months for training when we will be living about 20 km outside of Kampala.

So, we'll keep an eye on the situation, but it seems that this will not affect the beginning of my Peace Corps service. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. I hope that during the next 2 years, I can somehow bring a degree of hope and positive changes to help counteract such terrible events that happen not only in Uganda but around the world. The Peace Corps is aptly named, as I truly believe that intercultural, global understanding can help to make this world a more peaceful place.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


On April 19, I finally received an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps! And for some reason, I haven't blogged about it for over 2 months... so here it goes! I will be leaving for Uganda on August 9th to serve as an Agricultural Extension Volunteer within the Community Health and Economic Development program! My original nomination (a tentative placement) that I received in August 2009 was for Animal Husbandry, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can get involved with livestock work during my service. However, no volunteer works on solely one project; we are encouraged to take on secondary projects, which are anything your community may need and varies widely - after school clubs or programs, water system or latrine construction, building a library, HIV/AIDS education... the possibilities are endless.

Uganda is a land-locked country in East Africa. It is relatively small (about the size of Oregon) and is bordered by Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. It shares Lake Victoria with Tanzania, and has many other smaller lakes within its borders. Uganda is bisected by the equator, but temperatures are moderated by the altitude (highs in the 70s and 80s, lows in the 60s... aka summer year-round!). Rather than hot and cold seasons, there are rainy and dry seasons (which is true in many tropical regions). In the southwest, the higher rainfall supports central African rainforest in the hilly regions bordering Rwanda and the Congo. This is home to the small population of remaining mountain gorillas, which you can visit on an expensive trek through the mountainous jungle (definitely on my to-do list!). The western border also boasts the Rwenzori Mountains, the highest mountain range in Africa (although the highest peak is Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the world's tallest free-standing mountain). The land becomes increasingly arid as you travel north towards Sudan and the Sahara Desert. The source of the Nile is at Jinja in eastern Uganda (and offers awesome whitewater rafting which I plan to do at some point!). While Idi Amin remains Uganda's trademark to most people in the West, the country has come a long way since the 1970s, and since the cessation of most rebel activity in northern Uganda within the last few years, Uganda can be considered relatively peaceful. However, as Peace Corps Volunteers, we are not permitted to visit the northern area towards Sudan or the western border with the DRC due to the turmoil in these areas. I would love to be in the southwest, surrounded by mountains - but would of course be happy to serve anywhere; all the photos I've seen of Uganda are gorgeous!

When I first arrive in Uganda, I will be in training through mid-October with all of the other new Peace Corps Trainees, during which time we will work on language, cultural, and technical skills. Luganda is the most widely-spoken local language, but I could be learning a different language depending on which region I will serve in (Uganda has about 40 languages currently in use, although English and Swahili are the official languages). I will be living with a host family during training. At the end of training, we will swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and will then proceed to our individual posts, where we will volunteer for 2 years. There, I will have my own housing (whether my own separate house or an apartment within another compound).

Less than 6 weeks to go! I'm making a packing list, sorting out finances and paperwork, and trying to also mentally prepare myself for this journey. More posts to come soon!