Thursday, October 13, 2011

Population Multiplication

In Uganda, the population is exploding at an incredible rate. This small country, about the size of the state of Oregon, has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. The average number of children per woman is 7, and while that number is actually a decrease from a previous 10 or 11(!), it doesn’t change the fact that, by 2050, Uganda’s population is expected to grow from its current 33 million to 100 million. 100 million people in a country the size of Oregon! Kampala, the capitol city, is already very over-crowded – a PCV friend told me it was initially designed for 500,000 people but is already at around 3 million. The increasing population will burden Uganda’s already inadequate infrastructure and development solutions, including:

Land. The majority of Ugandans are currently subsistence farmers who are reliant on owning enough land to grow food for their whole family. Land is already becoming a scarcity for many farmers, and while most still have enough food, that could easily change for millions in the coming years. Subsistence farming is by definition extensive and has much lower productivity then modernized or commercialized farming. While modern, mechanized farming has caused many problems in the U.S., namely environmental, there is no denying that some level of scaling-up of agriculture is necessary to feed a growing population. But can this be done fast enough in Uganda, and effectively enough, to keep up with the increasing number of people?

Waste management. All Ugandan roadsides, towns, and cities are covered with trash because there is no formal waste management system. Even in the capitol city, there is trash strewn everywhere, clogging gutters and adding to an already-poor sanitation situation. While most rural Ugandans don’t produce nearly as much household waste as Americans, as they buy most of their food fresh and rarely buy packaged items, the influence of Western societies and increased urbanization is also increasing the amount of trash produced. I still find it shocking, 14 months after arriving here, when people throw their trash out the bus window or even into their own yard… but then I think, where else are they supposed to put it? The main method of dealing with rubbish here is burning it in piles. Even the U.S., with its reliance on landfills, does not have the perfect waste management solution, but at least we have some method to keep trash off our streets and out of our waterways.

Education. The education system is already rife with problems, with one of the biggest being too many students and not enough teachers. There is also a lack of actual school buildings and classrooms, with students often squeezed onto small benches in a crowded room that is not conducive to learning. Even within the next decade, there will be millions more children to educate than the system has to currently deal with. Without an education, people are forced to remain subsistence farmers, which, as detailed above, will become increasingly more difficult. Uneducated women will also continue to have many children. It’s hard to say how a timely solution will be found to this problem.

Electricity. Uganda already experiences regular rolling blackouts, sometimes for days at a time – and there are still many parts of the country which have no electricity at all. Not only will a larger population require more electricity, but people are increasingly moving to urban areas, and rural areas are demanding that they also be put on the grid.

Health. There is already a shortage of doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical equipment and supplies, etc. for the current population level. While an increase in population size will hopefully result in more people also being trained as health workers, it is likely that the increase will not meet the demand.

This list could really go on and on. While Uganda has problems now, I can only see them becoming much, much worse if the population continues to grow as it is. Honestly, within a relatively short amount of time (possibly a decade or two), I believe that there will be widespread chronic hunger and that Uganda will once again descend into chaos as people literally fight each other for survival. (And as a quick plug against foreign aid, can I just say that in 2010 alone, Uganda received almost $1.8 BILLION in foreign aid to fix these problems, and nothing ever seems to get better? And President Museveni can hardly blame this lack of results on his predecessors, a common American presidential tactic, as he's been in office since 1986 and has received $31 billion in foreign aid during that time)

What’s one solution to slowing down the population explosion? While the provision of family planning (contraceptives) is of course the main tool to reduce the fertility rate, it means nothing if people still desire a large family size. One of the most successful strategies at lowering fertility rates worldwide has not been provision of family planning, forced sterilization, a “one child rule”, etc. but rather increasing girls’ education. By ensuring that girls receive a full education, they are provided with an alternative to simply being a housewife. Women who are educated not only understand the health and economic benefits of having fewer children, but if they work outside the home, they also know that they must have fewer children or forfeit their career. Of course, men also have to be educated to see the benefits of a smaller family and to “allow” their wives to have fewer children, as many women in my village have to hide their contraceptive use from their husbands or risk being beaten. Many refuse to take The Pill, as it is easy for their husband to find out, and only come when the health center has Depo-Provera, the injectable contraceptive they get every 3 months. Gender equality is not just some feminist, 70’s, flower-power concept – it’s absolutely vital for development and even, in Uganda’s case, survival.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Kenya - Safari Njema

Since my last post, we had an All Volunteer Conference near Kampala where all the PCVs currently serving in Uganda came together for a couple of days to meet and greet, catch up, and share our stories and ideas. I thought I knew a lot of volunteers here, but it felt like almost half the faces were new to me (we have about 160 PCVs in Uganda). I presented a session on animal husbandry which went well, and we all ate delicious food and enjoyed spending time with one another.

After All Vol, I went with 4 other PCVs from my training group (Becca, Chelsea, Lisa, and Rashida) to KENYA! The trip was absolutely incredible. Nairobi was an impressively-large, much more developed city than Kampala. As we were passing through, I remarked, “Wow, look at all the traffic lights they have!” just as our taxi driver ran a red light. Oh well, nice try Kenya. The people seemed much less muzungu-crazed than in Uganda, and we were called ‘muzungu’ only a handful of times – a very nice break for us.

We saw many amazing things in Kenya, but our main objective was the Masai Mara National Reserve, which was probably the most amazing safari I’ve ever been on (and I’m privileged to have been on safaris all over East and Southern Africa). On our 4-day safari (with only two full days in the park), we saw 54 lions(!), 4 cheetahs, a leopard, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, ostriches, and hundreds of zebras. While this was all super impressive, the main reason we chose to go to the Masai Mara at this time of year was to see the wildebeest migration, which is featured in countless Discovery Channel and National Geographic documentaries. We were SO lucky to not only see the migration, with literally hundreds of thousands of wildebeest stretching up to the horizon, but we also saw them cross the infamous Mara River! After our safari, we had a chance to visit a Maasai village, which was interesting but of course touristy – at least it was a way for us to take unlimited photos without offending anyone. Overall, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and we are so lucky to have seen all that we did.

All those black dots? Wildebeest, as far as the eye can see

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River

Zebra being attacked by a crocodile!!! (surprisingly, the zebra got away and seemed fine)

An elusive leopard

A Maasai woman

The “Kenya Kitties”

When I came back to site after Kenya, the road into my village was flooded! I thought the taxi drivers had been joking when they said the road was impassable, but when I arrived at dusk, I had to wade through 100+ yards of water that sometimes reached halfway up my thigh (I’m short, but still!). Thankfully my house was nowhere near the danger zone and the water soon receded.

The water the next morning, after it had already gone done significantly!

I also recently had a chance to help train the newest group of trainees (who will soon swear in to be Peace Corps Volunteers). I talked about malaria prevention and what PCVs in Uganda did to celebrate World Malaria Day and raise awareness in our communities. I’m also coordinating with two local schools to do the World Map Project, through which the students will paint a giant map of the world on a wall of the school. One school is definitely on board, so we should start work next weekend. I’m really excited to get this going, as this is a project I’ve wanted to do since the beginning of service. The goal of the project is not only to increase the students’ knowledge about geography (which is very limited for even educated Ugandans), but to help them with critical thinking, creativity, mathematical methods such as drawing a grid system, and to build confidence by completing a big project that will be a beautiful, permanent fixture of the school. I’ll post photos as our map develops!

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Last week was the most rewarding experience in my Peace Corps service yet – Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) for southwest Uganda! Camp GLOW is designed to help empower girls in their early teens and give them confidence, leadership skills, and help show them the fullness of their potential. It was started by Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania in 1995 and has been spreading around the world ever since. Uganda had its first nationwide Camp GLOW in December 2010, and this camp was meant to target girls from all over the southwestern region.

It was an intense week – the counselors all arrived on Saturday to prepare for the camp (there were 8 PCVs plus 8 young Ugandans who are studying to be primary school teachers (PTC students), then co-directors/staff that included 6 more PCVs and 3 Ugandans). The campers arrived on Monday evening in the school truck (a big lorry/truck where the students stand in the back), and even though it was cold and pouring down rain, all the counselors ran out to greet them cheering. Girls were assigned to groups named after animals, and each group was led by one PCV and one PTC student (we were the Elephants). However, chaos quickly ensued as the girls tried to find their counselors, we realized almost none of them had brought blankets and some of them didn’t even have sheets or sweaters, and we knew that night would be cold. Eventually, we got things sorted out, and went for dinner and a sort of “opening ceremony”, including a song that the counselors sang about GLOW and girls’ empowerment set to the tune of “Rude Boy” by Rihanna (awkward original lyrics for kids but really awesome new lyrics for
GLOW written by one of the co-directors – “Come on GLOW girl girl show us what you’ve got – show it show it, lady lady, show it show it, shinin’ shinin’!). More chaos happened at 3AM when yours truly went for a “short call” to the latrine – the campers heard the dorm door open and thought it was time to get up (none of them had watches or phones to see the time), so started bathing, getting dressed, etc. We were all sleeping in triple-decker bunk beds so when a few people are up, everyone gets woken up.

The days were so busy after that! Wake up call was at 6AM (unless the girls woke up early at 3 or 4:30 haha), then activities ran until 10PM every day. The camp was filled with sessions about health (HIV, reproductive health and sex, nutrition and sanitation), life skills (goal setting, decision making and assertiveness, self-esteem), leadership (gender roles, public speaking, bringing Camp GLOW home), and arts and crafts (making a team flag, piggy banks/money jars, and a vision board – “Picture Yourself in 10 Years”). In addition, we had tons of games and competitions like the human knot, telephone, a blindfolded obstacle course, relay races, sports, and more. All of them helped the girls develop leadership, communication, and problem solving skills in addition to being lots of fun. (Although for my team, the blindfolded obstacle course was a disaster – only two girls from the group of 8 led the blind-folded girl and didn’t really guide her, meaning she fell off chairs, aimlessly kicked at the soccer ball because nobody guided her
foot or held the ball, and when they got to the potato/rice sack, simply stopped her in front of it and told her to get into it…). The education system here is all lectures and rote memorization, even from the age of 4 or 5, and there’s really no critical thinking or problem solving to be had, so these skills are so important to foster in these girls. By far their favorite game was Capture the Flag at night – so fun! I felt like I was back at YMCA camp or band camp, haha. The best part was that the quietest girl in my group was the one who captured the flag – talk about a confidence booster! But we all joked that the PCVs had a disadvantage – it took moving to Africa to realize white people glow at night even when there’s no moon.

Blindfolded obstacle course

The Floor is Lava! Getting teams of 20+ people across the hall with two basins, two rice sacks, and two pieces of cardboard

We also had reading time, speeches by strong, successful women, trivia, and even a fashion show where the campers dressed up the 3 male PCVs in women’s clothing and the boys strutted their stuff – soooo funny (and I don’t think Ugandans have ever seen cross dressers before). We even had a Disney movie night and watched Mulan, which has a strong message about gender roles but unfortunately most of the girls didn’t understand what was going on. I think the PCVs may have enjoyed the Disney night more than the campers, and we realized we’ve been in Africa wayyy too long when the main male (cartoon!) character takes his shirt off and we all swooned hahaha. Whenever we weren’t doing a formal activity, we were playing little games, singing songs (each animal group made their own theme song), and trying to stay busy and energetic.

My Elephant Group

The most amazing thing was the change we could see in the girls. I really didn’t think we would see a tangible difference in 3 days, but it was like night and day. When they arrived, they were quiet, shy, didn’t make eye contact, and frankly looked scared (part of it just being in a new place, part of it being the way most Ugandan girls are). Over the course of the camp, you could see the girls making friends, taking pride in accomplishing something completely new for them (like any of the team competitions/games), and started to become more vocal. After the closing ceremony on the third day, the girls had so much energy, they were bouncing off the walls, danced without a care in the world, and even at 11pm it was hard to get them to stop talking, giggling, etc. to go to bed. It was so amazing to see this difference in them. My favorite girl, a very intelligent and well-spoken girl who always smiled at everything I said even when the other girls were shut-off and non-responsive, wrote me a letter at the end of camp that almost made me cry, thanking me for everything and saying I was “the best counselor of all the rest” and “I promise that I will always remember you and always take into account what I have learnt from this camp…I wish you a safe stay throughout your life till ends meet. Your loving elephant, Joventah.”

By the end of Camp GLOW – full of energy and confidence

During the camp, I felt like who I used to be before Peace Corps (a sentiment expressed by other PCVs, too). I felt like I was needed and necessary, constantly busy, and full of energy and enthusiasm. All of these were feelings I haven’t had in a very long time. I was exhausted by the end but felt like my sense of purpose had been refilled. Considering how low I’ve felt about service for a couple of months, this was just what the doctor ordered. I also enjoyed feeling like a little kid again for a few days – summer camp rocks. :)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

World Spins Madly On

A couple of weeks ago, we got a TV and satellite at our Epicenter to act as an IGA (income-generating activity) for our programs. People are supposed to pay 500-700 shillings (20-40 cents) to watch a program, usually football matches, yet, unsurprisingly, there have been several times lately when nobody paid and so The Hunger Project is footing the bill for the generator’s fuel, rather than actually making money as is the whole idea behind an IGA. Regardless, I realized when we turned on the TV for the first time, and people were treated to music videos, news, and National Geographic, that this small window to the rest of the world changes everything. I watched as the villagers gasped at women wearing shorts, nice cars, and rich nuclear Ugandan families in commercials, and this view of life outside the village is one that most of these people have never had before. Viewing these things is exposing them to the modern world, which is a double-edged sword – on one hand they are learning about the bigger picture and gaining new ideas but they are also losing a part of their way of life along the way. Whether you think this exposure is positive or negative, it’s definitely a change that will be there forever.

Also, newly-named game popular among PCVs that I had unknowingly been playing for months: “Goat or Baby?” Here in the village, there are lots of goats and lots of children (the average family has 7 children around here!). I frequently hear loud, high-pitched wails coming from nearby, and it always causes one to pause and think, “Goat or baby?” because the two sound remarkably alike sometimes. Just another way to pass the time.

We recently had a 1st birthday party for Amanya, my next-door neighbor (Gertrude)’s daughter. I made a yellow cake with chocolate frosting all from scratch, and without a real oven! I’m using a tried-and-true PCV technique of using a dutch oven (big pot with a lid, then inside you put the cake pan on big rocks or sand for conduction and airflow), so I baked a cake over firewood! It was delicious. After having tea, popcorn, peanuts, and cake, we all watched Beauty and the Beast, although I think they found the movie just plain confusing (a big creature they've never seen before? Dancing candlesticks and clocks? What is this?).

Tiny baby, big knife

Baking the cake gave me confidence, so the next day I tried making pita bread using yeast (I have never made bread before in my life) – pretty easy and it came out super delicious! I dipped it in olive oil and basil with some balsamic vinegar that I splurged on in Kampala. If I can do all this in an African village with like 4 ingredients, imagine what I can do with access to an American grocery store!

Homemade pita bread… mmm mmm good!

Projects! I’ve got a few things going on, including trying to start a support group for HIV-positive community members. I decided to try to start a support group while at the funeral of a friend who died of AIDS. As I was at the burial, I looked around and saw at least 2 or 3 other people I know to be HIV-positive, and I’m sure many others were in attendance, and I just couldn’t imagine the fear, loneliness, and hopelessness they must have been feeling. I also asked people to submit proposals for a Peace Corps grant we can apply for, and the general consensus was to do a goat project, where we distribute goats, and those recipients pass on the first female offspring to another person in the community. I feel unoriginal with this since a neighboring PCV just did a similar project with goats, but I’m happy to have an animal project to work on! I’m still teaching health and life skills at the primary schools, and am planning to do the “World Map Project”, which was started by a PCV in the Dominican Republic in 1988, with one of the schools next term. We will paint a huge map of the world on the side of the school, increasing awareness of geography and the world but also instilling in the students a sense of accomplishment, leadership, critical thinking, etc. since they have never done anything like this before. I recently visited a friend’s site where they were completing the World Map Project, and I noticed that the girls doing the project were outgoing, independent, not afraid to ask questions, etc., which is very unusual for young Ugandan girls in the village. When I mentioned this to my friend, he said they used to be shy and never spoke up, but this project had completely changed them.

In true Peace Corps style, though, I haven't been super busy at site (although I've been attending all kinds of workshops, etc. away from my village lately), so I've gotten into quite a few TV shows - currently catching up on The Office and Grey's Anatomy, finished the 2nd seasons of Glee and Modern Family (probably my current favorite show), getting into 30 Rock, and have a few more on the docket.

Also it's official - I'll be home for Christmas!! Counting down the days - in just over 4 months I'll be State-side! I'm imagining holiday decor everywhere (especially wreaths on streetlamps, since we don't even have streetlamps here), hopefully snow for the true winter wonderland (come on Cincinnati), decorating the tree, eating amaaaazing American food, and seeing how I react to freezing temperatures now that I have turned African and put on a sweater when it's 68 degrees out. Can't wait!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Maama Wangye omuri Uganda

Mom’s visit was fantastic. She flew into Entebbe, then we spent one night at a beautiful boutique hotel before heading to my house the next day. When we arrived in my village, I was amazed by our reception – a big group of women (and a few men) singing, dancing, and drumming, and repeatedly saying how thankful they were that I brought my mother to visit them. My neighbors and a few friends also prepared a welcome dinner of traditional Ugandan foods for us. Amazing! I was so proud of my village and felt incredibly loved.

While we were in my village, we actually stayed pretty busy, which is rare haha. One day for lunch we went to the house of the Epicenter Chairman (basically the community leader for The Hunger Project’s work) for lunch and were treated to an amazing spread – matooke, posho, millet, potatoes, chicken, dodo (greens), and delicious pineapple fresh from his garden. His wife even gave each of us a handmade necklace. Another evening, we walked deep into the village to see a friend’s newborn baby who they named after me (Kamusiime). Mom also brought a donated microscope with her which we presented to the community – they are really excited about the potential to have malaria and TB testing in their village very soon. Mom also came with us to one of the immunization outreaches. Every night, we watched movies curled up on my couch – felt like old times from my childhood.

One of our adventures away from my site took us across the border to northwest Rwanda at the base of the Virunga volcanoes (most of which are inactive). First of all, Rwanda is so much cleaner and more organized than Uganda! The roads are paved with streetlamps and shoulders that have gravel (i.e. not muddy grossness). Every Saturday, people are required to close their shops for 2 hours and clean up their communities, so there is virtually no trash, whereas in Uganda the amount of ‘rubbish’ on the ground is disgusting. Also, the boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers wear helmets and safety vests, are limited to carrying one passenger (whereas in Uganda I have seen 3 adult passengers plus the driver on a motorcycle before), and they carry an extra helmet for their passenger! The president, Paul Kagame, has also outlawed plastic bags. These little differences are like night and day between Rwanda and its northern neighbor Uganda.

But the main highlight of our trip to Rwanda wasn’t the cleanliness or struggling through speaking French or remembering which way to look when crossing the street (I automatically now look right before I look left, but Rwandans drive on the same side of the road as Americans) – it was seeing the mountain gorillas!!! Our adventure involved an easy hike through farmland and then through the forest as we entered Volcanoes National Park (part of an ecosystem spanning Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo). We had heard that finding the gorillas can take hours of hiking through ankle-deep mud up steep hills and hacking through stinging nettles, but our experience was more like walking in the park on a sunny morning. After only about 45 minutes of walking, we found the Kwitonda gorilla group. Our first sighting was a young blackback male, and it was astounding to see this massive black ape sitting only yards away from us – no fences, no barriers of any kind.

During the next hour, we were continuously amazed by what was happening. While we are supposed to maintain a 7-meter distance between us and the gorillas (mostly to prevent disease transmission between humans and gorillas), at times the gorillas walked right up to us. One silverback wandered right through the middle of our group – I could have literally reached out and touched him had I thought it a wise idea. We saw three silverbacks, youngsters of all ages (including a five-month-old infant), mothers with ‘toddlers’ – all in all, the group has 21 members, the 3rd largest gorilla group in the park. The gorillas were mostly moving around and eating and, incredibly, just about completely ignored us. We were entertained by watching one youngster hang from a vine and use his/her foot to push off from a tree to spin around, presumably just for fun. Gorillas make a deep “Hmm-hmmmm” sound to mean “everything is okay”, and it was amazing to sometimes hear it coming from all around us, even from gorillas we couldn’t actually see.

Just as our hour was almost up, the head silverback, Kwitonda himself, got up and walked within feet of us, all 400 or so pounds of silver and black bulk, and headed off for a new section of the forest as the rest of the group followed. The fact that they, too, were moving on made it easier to leave. I could have easily spent all day watching them, and it felt like we had just arrived when we started heading back to the trailhead. This was easily one of the most amazing animal encounters I’ve ever had.

After Mom left, it was a rough transition back to site. I had been frustrated with things before she came, then everything was wonderful while she was visiting until I got a phone call from my organization on Wednesday telling me to come to a staff retreat in Kampala on Friday, my mom’s last day in Uganda, prompting a huge wave of frustration (this is the first staff meeting they’ve ever asked me to come to in the 8 months I’ve been at site) and actually made way for waves of fairly serious depression in the week or two following that. At home, I’m a normally bubbly, happy person all the time, so depression of any severity is abnormal and a bit scary for me. However, now I’m getting busier again, and I got support from Peace Corps and other volunteers on how to push through this low (and talking to them, I realize most of us are in a rough spot right now, probably the “mid-service slump” a little bit early or the 6-month-slump a little late). It’s nice to hear I’m not alone.

Things have been getting back to normal now and I finally feel I’ve leveled out – part of it may be that I stopped taking mefloquine, the original malaria prophylaxis I had been on, which is known to have psychological side effects. I finally bought a guitar after talking about it for months and am starting to learn how to play – even though I’m just picking out a few notes and chords, it’s already fun and relaxing. I’ve been going on walks with Kibo through the village which are not only relaxing and fun for both of us, but also seem to be the only way her anxiety issues seem to get better. I am already researching how to bring her back to the U.S. with me – seems pretty straightforward, just need to get proof of rabies vaccination and an approved crate to ship her in.

This week, I’ve been at a Peace Corps conference with many of my best friends in-country to learn about malaria as part of the new Presidential Malaria Initiative (PMI). Some of the sessions have been disappointing as they often are when led by Ugandans – not sure why I expected anything different. One of the main speakers, the director for Uganda’s national malaria control program, was not only pompous, but was giving false information, including stating that DDT not only prevents cancer, but that it didn’t kill bald eagles, the “Red Indians ate them.” He also indicated that where you take a blood sample (fingertips vs. arm) affects whether you can detect malaria parasites upon testing, which is completely false. Thankfully, most of us knew this and called his bluff, but we all were quickly fed up. Perhaps it is because this man is so prominent in the public health field in Uganda, and that I kept calling him out, that the Peace Corps community health program manager told me I should get a Ph.D. in public health and write a book, haha. Some of the other sessions were much more worthwhile, and the conference is great simply from the fact that I get to see some of my closest friends who I haven’t seen in several months, and we get hot showers, DSTV, and a swimming pool, all on American taxpayers. Thanks!

We did bring up more issues of foreign aid and dependency at this workshop, though. We discussed how people given free mosquito nets (the norm from things like Global Fund and USAID) sometimes use them for things like bridal gowns or fishing nets, and the fact that the nets are procured abroad means that local businesses are severely hurt by this influx of free nets. There’s a small mosquito net factory in Kampala – how are they expected to compete in such an environment? Also, since malaria drugs at government health centers are free, people have little incentive to prevent malaria by sleeping under a mosquito net, covering their windows and vents with screens, clearing stagnant water, etc. Why make the effort to prevent malaria if treatment is free? I am now pretty much completely against any type of handout or free anything (including foreign aid in the form of grants, and possibly even loans since the debt gets forgiven) and think the future truly lies in investment and supporting local businesses. My friends and I joke that Peace Corps is actually making us more conservative (at least in the economic sense).

The next couple of months are busy! In a couple of weeks, I have a training near Kampala to teach me how to train the new group coming in August, then hopefully helping with a Peace Camp in the north, teaching the new group of trainees, going to the All Volunteer Conference (every volunteer in Uganda comes together for a few days), then off to Kenya for the migration in the Masai Mara and delightful modern delights in Nairobi (including several rumored sushi restaurants!). After that, it’s only a little while until our mid-service conference at the end of October. The days here move slowly but the weeks fly by.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Recent Photos

Waiting to go pick up my mom at the airport (she lands in an hour!) and our super-nice hotel has super-fast internet, so I'll upload some pics I've been meaning to for a long time:

Mural painted at the Peace Corps 50th Celebration

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Lioness, Queen Elizabeth National Park

Elephant with the Rwenzori Mountains, Queen Elizabeth National Park

Peace Garden - our team's project at the Peace Corps 50th

Children dancing in my village


a HUGE puff adder at the agricultural college where I've been teaching (it's dead)

The kids at the Epicenter nursery school

My supervisor, James (left), with our Epicenter chairman at his matooke plantation

Women weighing their babies at our monthly immunization day

Banywani na Nshonga

PCVs currently serving have all heard stories of how rattling reverse culture shock can really be. Reverse culture shock refers to returning to your home country/culture after spending time abroad and finding that you don’t quite fit in as well as you used to, at least at first, and that the way Americans do things is actually now shocking to you. I’ve heard stories of RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) breaking down in the cereal aisle, amazed by the ridiculously huge variety before them. Others have become “that weird guy who greets everyone” because in many of the cultures where PCVs serve, greeting neighbors or even people you don’t know on the street is just what you do. I was watching God Grew Tired of Us, a documentary about refugees from Sudan who are relocated to the U.S., and I felt so bad for them when they went up to people’s houses just to greet them and ask about the neighborhood, and the homeowners were so nervous they called the police. Whenever a group of PCVs gets together at someone’s house, we spend hours raving if that person has a toilet and running water (I’ve even heard rumors that a few lucky PCVs even have things like ovens and one person has a fireplace?!), so I wonder how long I will marvel at modern conveniences when I get home – at our house we have three toilets, three hot showers, a refrigerator, a microwave, an oven, several TVs, heat, air conditioning, a fireplace, fast internet… even the thought of all those luxuries is overwhelming right now. It’s hard to say what will cause me to break down, but a cry fest at the grocery store or Target (another PCV and I have a specific fantasy – driving to Target in our own car while drinking a Starbucks latte) doesn’t scare me as much as the idea that I will be some kind of weird maladjusted citizen who doesn’t fit in.

Kibo is doing great – she’s now 8 months old and pretty big! I was worried about whether I’d be able to take her back to the U.S. because of how nervous she gets around new places and strangers, but I’ve discovered a few important things. First of all, she’s racist (lol). She is super afraid of Ugandan men she doesn’t know (barks her head off then runs away when they get too close), is curious about Ugandan women she doesn’t know, but she almost instantly loves any white PCV that comes to visit, man or woman, and is all over them right away! She’s already very affectionate with people she is familiar with, Ugandan or American, man or woman. And I think her anxiety with new places or walking through the trading center is the number of strange Ugandan men that she doesn’t know. I’ve been taking her on walks up little paths, between farms and where there aren’t too many people, and as soon as we’re away from the main road she visibly relaxes, becomes her happy-go-lucky self, and has a great time running around. The other evening we took a long walk and somehow picked up a caboose of 5 or 6 small children walking with us for over an hour. They didn’t say much but mostly just giggled at Kibo and ran away screaming if she tried to play with them. Definitely an “I live in Africa” moment when you walk through the village with a bunch of kids. Plus, I just don’t think I have the heart to leave Kibo here when I go back to the U.S. – she’s sometimes a piece of work but I love her and she’s coming home with me.

In my village, my best friend is probably my next-door neighbor, Gertrude, who is one of the nurses at the health center. She speaks the best English, understands most of my jokes and just seems to get me more than most Ugandans. She has a 10-month-old daughter named Amanya Ruth, and she is soooo cute! I’ve never watched a baby grow up like this, as I’ve seen her almost every day since she was 3 months old, and it’s so cool to watch her learn to stand, start to say words, learn how to smile, etc.

I was recently traveling by taxi (aka crowded minibus) to my friend’s site in the central region near Kampala. The woman sitting very close beside me kept nodding off to sleep, and every time her head thunked into my shoulder (not just brushed by actually head-butted me), she wouldn’t exactly pull away and would sometimes linger there. I know she was aware of what was happening, and was astonished because I know that I would be mortified if my sleepy head kept landing on a stranger’s shoulder. So I decided to start shoving my shoulder back into her head every time she lingered for more than a few seconds. Well, the ladies in the row behind me noticed it and burst into laughter every time I bonked the lady’s head away from me, and pretty soon my friend and I were also laughing hysterically. It was a very happy moment after a rough week – despite the fact that I didn’t want the lady to actually be sleeping on me, the fact that I had a moment with some Ugandan women without saying a word – a completely cross-cultural, all-humans-are-the-same moment – just made me so happy that I can’t describe it in words. It’s little moments like that, usually a shared laugh, that help put things in perspective and see the goodness in people, despite all the frustrations that naturally arise when two cultures collide.

I needed something to help me feel good about Ugandans and my life here, and remind me of the positive side of things. This last week was very rough because of so many different thing adding up to frustrate me. First of all, my counterpart and supervisor haven't informed me of very important things (such as not being able to translate for a women's health workshop or that the new country director was coming to visit). I bought a new lock for our rainwater tank (which is finally full! no more going to the stream for me for a while) and gave keys to my neighbor and the maintenance man, who sometimes does his laundry here, and who I thought I could trust, and found out that he had given more than 5 people full jerrycans of water without asking us about it (and most of the people who received water were young pretty girls...). The word on the street was that Kahinda was now giving everyone free water from the tank. I felt like my trust had been so betrayed and I was irate. Finally, I had already had greediness, etc. on my mind (see my previous post), so when an NGO came to build two 20,000 liter rainwater tanks for the community's use and asked people to help haul lumber and water for construction, and people were refusing to help without payment, I had just about had it. The community is getting a free source of safe water and they won't give up 10 minutes of their time to help?? And I gave up 2 years of my life (and delayed vet school by 3) to volunteer to help these same people? Ugh! I've rarely been so frustrated and fed up. This week was when I most seriously considered ETing (early termination - quitting) because of how frustrated I was by how irresponsible/selfish/whatever people were being. However, I'm happy to report that spending a few days with PCV friends has drastically improved my mood, so I won't be quitting anytime soon. It was just one of those weeks - they happen to everyone here.

And another mood booster - my mom is flying in today and I am soooo excited!! I’ll pick her up in Entebbe this afternoon and then head to my village with her tomorrow. Updates on our adventures together in a few weeks!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Foreign Aid, Dependency, and Corruption

Being here in Uganda, I have lost a great deal of faith in large NGOs and foreign aid. While I am still (and always will be) learning about international development, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has helped me to see the harm which can come from international donors, and has me questioning almost every type of foreign assistance currently being provided. I apologize if this post comes across as overly negative, but this is a huge problem here and I can’t emphasize the importance of how these issues are impacting Uganda’s future.

One of the biggest problems I see is the mentality of people here in regards to how they see themselves and their communities, which I believe mostly stems from the large influx of foreign aid into Uganda. The mindset is one of powerlessness and dependency. Whenever I make a suggestion on a different way of doing things (like that the community work together to conserve their water supplies for the dry season, or even simple requests like starting a meeting on time) people say things like, “We Africans can’t do that. Black people don’t behave that way. Our problem is…” For instance, many of the most successful and lucrative small businesses, such as supermarkets, are owned by Indians, which many Ugandans chalk up to Indians being “business people” and alluding to the idea that Africans lack some natural ability to run good businesses. I don’t know if this mindset is a product of lack of education, foreign aid providing everything, having the perception that all white people are rich and all black people are poor, being told they are “poor uneducated Africans” making them believe themselves to be at the lowest rung of society’s ladder, or a combination of a variety of factors, but this mentality is very troubling. In fact, I would hazard to guess that this is a major reason the much of Africa continues to lag behind most other parts of the world in terms of development (the word “development” has a different definition for everyone, and there are countless books that try to define exactly what “development” is, but here I use it to refer to indicators of human rights and quality of life, such as life expectancy, access to health care and prevalence of communicable diseases, literacy and education rates, access to clean water, etc.). Rather than trying to solve problems themselves, Africans have been told they are poor, they are uneducated, they need the help of Westerners to make their lives better, etc. so many don’t even try to improve their lives without outside help. Many even describe an epidemic of laziness stemming from being given so much from outside. Why would anyone work to improve their lives when they can just get a handout? As several people have pointed out, Uganda (and many other African countries) has plenty of natural resources, land for cultivating, enough rainfall, good soil, mineral wealth, etc. but yet people go hungry and live in poverty. One Indian man who has been living here for 5 years boiled it all down to laziness.

When a Western donor comes to visit to check things out, the local branches of the organization he/she is funding of course rave about their work and make it sound like they’re doing amazing things, sometimes even lying about activities – and it makes sense when you realize that the very well-paid jobs held by staff members of these organizations would be jeopardized if the donors realized how ineffective many of their donations have truly been. Yes, we always talk about ourselves and our work in the best way possible (I’m also guilty there), but it is commonplace for NGOs to blatantly lie about programs they have been conducting so that the aid money keeps coming. A lot of money seems to be spent on paying a driver to lug around “field officers” in a shining white SUV, spending an exorbitant amount of money on a vehicle and fuel that could be instead shunted to community projects. For example, my organization drives for hours every day to conduct field work because the staff members live in a major urban center more than 1 hour away from the catchment area of their projects.

I also feel that foreign aid contributes to corruption, even down to the level of the individual within society, due to the huge influx of money that everyone wants to get their hands on. Community members sometimes don’t attend educational events hosted by my organization, such as workshops about HIV or malaria, if they know they won’t receive something tangible (a soda, lunch, or just plain money) in return, and villagers know how to beef up a budget proposal for their community-based organization (CBO) to get more money than they actually need for their operations – some of which ends up spent on new clothes, alcohol, school fees, soda or street food, etc. While things like school fees and clothing are needed by the local people, it doesn’t mean that lying about the allocation of funds, and thus using corrupt practices, is acceptable. Several Peace Corps Volunteers who are working for NGOs have complained that budget proposals sent to international donors are blatant lies or include figures which the organization has purposely padded and made no attempt to make cost-effective. For example, we asked some community members to draft a proposal for funding a fruit demonstration garden. Their original proposal suggested far more plants than could fit on the land where they want to grow them, budgeted about $350 to transport seedlings from Mbarara when we already have most of the seedlings in our nursery bed here, and asked for a very large salary when these workers are volunteers and are working for their own benefit and the improvement of their own community. Their original proposal called for $4,677, while my supervisor figured we could meet all our objects for about $1,200 (which is probably still more than is necessary).

A lot of community projects fail because when a project is started to generate income for the community/NGO, someone ends up pocketing at least some portion of it. Maybe it’s impossible for me to understand the type of desperation that comes from poverty due to lack of personal experience, but the level of dishonesty when it comes to money in almost every situation in Uganda astounds me. We’re currently trying to come up with some income-generating activities that the community can do to continue The Hunger Project’s programs after we pull out (each Epicenter is only supposed to receive 5 years of external support before being self-sufficient) but I’m realizing that there is absolutely no way to prevent the committee leaders for our programs from pocketing any income for themselves – and based on what has happened at other Epicenters, this is exactly what has happened. I simply don’t know how to function in a system with such an overwhelming level of corruption from top to bottom. Yes, there’s corruption in the U.S., but not nearly to this extent.

African society is considered more community-oriented than in the U.S., yet a lot of the things I see happen are very individualistic. For example, we have tried to start a vegetable demonstration garden at our Epicenter before but people have always stolen the vegetables. Taxi drivers and shop owners are always trying to rip people off, and not just the muzungu who they assume is rich – fellow Ugandans, too – and they can do it because there are few price tags here, you just ask how much something costs and have to know whether it’s a fair price or not. Theft is very common here, and one house in my village was violently broken into during the night when the thieves knew the homeowner had sold cattle that day and had 1.5 million shillings (about $650) in his house. He and his wife were beaten badly and took a long time to recover. I can’t even leave things like my buckets or towels outside overnight because someone is likely to take them. There are certainly aspects of society that demonstrate how much Ugandans care about the greater community – people greet everyone, my neighbors get worried if I don’t come out of my house all day, and I recently attended a funeral where well over 500 people were in attendance because everyone attends, not just the people who knew the deceased. However, a lot of what I see is counterintuitive to what I would expect to see in a community-oriented society.

Another thing I don’t really understand (and that is not completely related but I want to discuss it) is poor job performance. When it comes to government “public servant” jobs, there is no accountability because everyone is on a permanent pension and virtually nobody gets fired. Another Peace Corps Volunteer works at the District Health Office, and a co-worker of his remarked that in 16 years of working for the Ministry of Health, they’ve never known a single person to get fired. Thus, poor job performance is rampant, not only among health care workers, but in every position in Ugandan society. Nurses show up to work hours late and leave hours early, forcing patients to wait a long time for health care, sometimes until the following day. Secretaries fail to deliver important messages. Groundskeepers simply don’t show up for work, yet are still somehow paid. I continue to be amazed at the quality of “customer service” here – almost all shopkeepers, hotel staff, waiters, etc. give off the attitude that you, the customer, are bothering them and they wished you would just go away so they can get back to their nap. Such job performance would never be tolerated in the U.S., so I simply can’t wrap my head around why in Uganda, where the unemployment rate is astronomically higher, employers continue to put up with this when so many other people would be available to fill the position. A big part of the equation is low salaries, but with the level of poverty here, even a low salary is something worth working for.

Despite all this, I still believe that people have a moral obligation to help other human beings who are suffering or in need. So how do we help developing countries without squandering money in ways that are ineffective and actually create problems of their own, like dependence on outside resources? One way is investment. If foreign investors spent their money on rewarding good Ugandan businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship, rather than just donating things and money, we would get past a huge host of the current problems, including fostering creative approaches to ending one’s one poverty rather than waiting for an outside handout, and creating a sustainable way to boost the local economy. However, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m struggling with what kinds of solutions I can bring to the table as just one person (along with other PCVs and my community).

Like I mentioned earlier, I am still learning and am trying to get my hands on books such as Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo. Friends have raved about this book and I’m hoping to read it soon, as well as similar books, to help flesh out my new perspective on foreign aid.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Amagara ni Marungi (Life is Good)

I spent Easter in my village and went to church with my neighbors. The service was long but had music and dancing. The best part was that they had a translator so most of the service was given in both Runyankore and English – otherwise, it would have been a painful 2.5 to 3 hours of not understanding much at all. A young woman from the area was launching an album so gave a “concert”. The music and dancing were good but the girl needs to learn how to lip synch better – it was very obvious she wasn’t singing. I entertained everyone during one song by getting up and joining the dancers on stage. Afterwards, we came home and I ate lots of local foods with my neighbors for dinner (matooke, sweet potatoes, millet, and some very tough beef. Even Gertrude, my neighbor, said the beef was tough, and when a Ugandan comments on the toughness of the meat, you know it’s really tough. And they wonder why I rarely buy meat in this country…).

Villagers buying beef the day before Easter. They slaughtered 4 cows that day, and they sell the meat by the kilo by just hacking away with a machete – no such thing as real cuts like sirloin or T-bone steaks here.

Easter church service with music and dancing. Even the pastor gets into it.

A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a World Malaria Day event at my site. 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers came to help out, and the day included music to draw people to the event, lessons about malaria transmission, prevention, and treatment (some of which was taught by yours truly), speeches by local government officials, a youth poster contest, and a raffle for several mosquito nets and a bottle of insect repellant. Although I had worked hard preparing for the event, I decided that morning to have no expectations so as not to be disappointed if we had a low turn-up (a survival mechanism I’m learning to have in Uganda – be pleasantly surprised if things work out) but was very happy when over 225 people showed up for the event. The District Health Officer was our guest of honor, and he was very impressed by the size of the crowd and wants to help us do more health events like this around the district. The event lasted far longer than I ever anticipated – speeches from every local government official imaginable, guest speakers showing up 3 hours late, etc. – but everyone deemed the event a huge success. While I really enjoyed planning and hosting the event, and acting as the country coordinator for all the Peace Corps events for World Malaria Day in Uganda, I was very glad it was over because of how much work and time it had taken to prepare for the day.

A representative of the District Chairman addressing the crowd at World Malaria Day

The next day was my birthday, April 28. The actual day was spent in the village, and was lazy in a wonderful way. Some of my Peace Corps friends were still at my house (including my friend Jesse, whose birthday is also April 28!), so we had French toast, watched a movie, then just chilled all day. For dinner, my friends Gertrude and Janephur cooked us millet, posho, and g-nut (peanut) sauce. The food was nothing out of the ordinary but the gesture was so nice. The following day, I went to Mbarara for the weekend to meet new PCVs, who had just finished training and moved to their sites around the southwest, and to celebrate my birthday. I enjoyed a few days of eating good food, watching the royal wedding (everything looks even fancier when you live in an African village), lounging at the pool, getting a full-body massage, buying a ton of clothes at a big weekly market (4 skirts, 2 shirts, and a cardigan for about $11), and dancing with friends at a popular nightclub, Heat, which is outdoors and has fire pits and music videos playing on big screens.

The weekly market in Mbarara where I bought way too many clothes. Shirts go for 20 to 50 cents, so a shopping spree here isn’t quite as expensive as in the U.S., and since Ugandans don’t know the good American brand names, you find shirts from The North Face or Banana Republic for the same price as everything else.

However, that Friday also marked the biggest riot that has occurred since demonstrations began in Kampala and other cities several weeks ago for the “Walk to Work Campaign”, which the opposition is heading to protest rising fuel and food prices. Downtown Kampala had tires burning in the streets and riot police everywhere. One of my Peace Corps friends was on a bus in central Kampala during the riots and described a scene of pure chaos, saying that no vehicles were entering the city and taxis and buses were all heading away from downtown as fast as possible, even without passengers. A man almost threw a brick at his bus until the driver made a pro-opposition hand gesture. Despite this major riot, during which time the main opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye, was seriously injured by police and has been recovering at a hospital in Kenya, things have been fairly peaceful since, and all PCVs are safe.

I’ve continued teaching at Kyera Agricultural Teaching College, and last week was my lesson on goats and sheep. When I asked the students what a female sheep is called, they said “Eee-way”. I wrote “ewe” on the board and explained that it is pronounced “you”, but only later realized the irony – the word for “you” in Runyankore is “iwe”, which is how they were pronouncing the word for a female sheep. Maybe they’re right after all. Also, although I regularly watch movies with Ugandans, probably the most entertaining movie-watching experience happened when Jesse and I showed the college staff two extreme sports videos. The first was of our training group’s white water rafting trip on the Nile. Whenever a boat flipped, they would matter-of-factly exclaim, “And now you die!” with the typical Ugandan noise of disbelief and amazement “Eh eh eh eh eh eh…” They just couldn’t believe people actually do such things on “water which is like smoke.” Hilarious and made me realize how crazy white people really do look sometimes. We followed that with a video of really extreme skiing that even amazed me, which produced many more hilarious comments from the Ugandans.

My house has suddenly been raided by mosquitoes and is a buzzing hotbed of the bloodsuckers every night. I’ve taken to walking around my house for a good 20 minutes or so before going to bed just killing mosquitoes by clapping my hands together or slapping them against the walls. Kibo watches me while this happens with wide eyes and a confused expression, and I can tell I look crazy and slightly disturbed during this now-nightly ritual. I’m hoping that the coming dry season, my recently-cleared compound (it had tall grasses before which can harbor mosquitoes), and the fact that I now kill 5-20 mosquitoes every night will soon get rid of my problem.

I’ve started calling everyone who calls me muzungu either black guy or omweraguju, which means black person in Runyankore. A lot of times they don’t really know how to react and are stunned into silence, but others around them always laugh. It’s difficult to explain to people that where I come from, it is racist to call someone by the color of their skin, so if they don’t like being called “black guy”, they shouldn’t call me muzungu. I also made an entire taxi full of people laugh (again – this always happens), but this time because the driver tried to get me to take aboda boda (motorcycle taxi) past a police checkpoint because I had been sharing the front seat with another woman and it is illegal to have two passengers in the front seat (even though they often squeeze in three). People laughed when I vehemently refused and told the driver I would not help him do something illegal, but if all passengers would refuse illegal practices, the roads here would be so much safer – however, nobody ever seems to stand up against overcrowding or bad driving.

I began a health education series for mothers at our child immunization outreaches. Our first session discussed family planning options, including a condom demonstration using matooke (a green banana/plantain) which always makes everyone laugh. The lesson was only about 15-20 minutes but I feel it was effective, and afterwards at least one woman asked for a Depo Provera injection. Feels good to see results from my work! I’m also planning on doing a women’s health day next week with information about family planning, HIV and STIs, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and menstruation, including selling Afripads, a low-cost reusable menstrual pad that saves girls and women a lot of money, keeps girls in school (many stay at home during their periods because of embarrassment from using towels, rags, feathers, etc. when they are unable to afford a pack of Always), and is environmentally friendly.

I officially ate the first thing I have grown myself – green beans from my garden! Amazingly fresh and delicious, and 100% organic. Maybe I’ll continue a garden back in the U.S.?

Finally, one last interesting anecdote. I knew before that the people in my region, the Banyankore, are split into two ethnic groups, the Bahima, who are the prestigious minority who have traditionally been the cattle owners and therefore the group with money and power, and the Bairu, who were traditionally the agriculturalists and lower in society than the Bahima. President Museveni himself is Bahima. The two groups often look physically different, with Bahima people known for lighter skin and thinner noses (also, Bahima women tend to be very large! People say it’s all the milk they drink). However, what I was recently told is that these two groups are actually the same ethnic groups as the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, who are now famous for being the focus of the Rwandan genocide. The Bahima are essentially Tutsis, and the Bairu are Hutus, the difference being that they are now part of different language groups so have different names.

I am going to try to write more frequent, shorter blog entries to make it easier on my readers. It doesn’t feel like very much happens here on a daily basis but when I sit down to write a blog post it always gets so long!

Monday, April 25, 2011

It's a Weird, Weird World

The other night, I’m watching Legends of the Fall and suddenly realize that the way the soldiers stare at Brad Pitt when he rides back into the WWI camp, his dead brother’s blood smeared in war paint on his face and a necklace made of German scalps around his neck, is the way that Ugandans often stare at me – a sense of wonder, confusion, and a hint of unsettled, disapproving curiosity, like they’ve never seen something as crazy-weird as you. I first laughed at the realization, then was depressed by the fact that for two years, I’m looked at in the way that one might look at a person who has brutally chopped apart bodies, isn’t exactly mentally stable, and is no longer recognizable as a civilized human being and needs psychiatric counseling.

I really need to learn not to give any contact information to Ugandan men, period. I thought I was being sneaky by giving out my e-mail rather than my phone number, but a) I forgot that I have an automatic e-mail signature with my phone number in it, and b) I just received an e-mail from one of my students at the agricultural college saying, “your are my fiance i like you from bottom of my heart and i like you with my soul heart i would request you to be my best Friend What about you dear?” All other differences in culture and wifely expectations aside, I prefer dating guys who understand the definition of “fiancĂ©” and realize it’s not a term that means “The girl I find pretty who I would like to be friends with.” Unless we begin with that type of understanding, I really can’t see this working out, fellas. Additionally, crying, “I love you!” to a Western woman with whom you’ve literally never spoken one word is a sure way to get her to run immediately in the opposite direction. It doesn’t help that the local language has no distinction between “like,” “desire,” and “love,” but given the other problems I’ve encountered with men being extremely forward with what they say and vocabulary confusion about words like “fiancĂ©”, I doubt it makes a huge difference. In a relationship in the U.S., if you say “I love you,” too soon (for some this means after the first few dates, for others it means months or years), it’s a sure sign that you’ve just made things too awkward to continue. Just watch the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother, a TV show that is becoming an obsession in certain Peace Corps circles – it proves my point. One of my best friends, Andrea, is in Peace Corps Paraguay, and while Latin American cultures are widely known for their machismo culture, I think Uganda should qualify as another flag-bearer for ridiculous male declarations of love.

ATTENTION all lazy and/or eccentrically-dressed people: come to Uganda. Here, one of the common greetings is, “Gyebale!” or “Webale/yebare emirimo!” which both mean “Thank you for your work!” This is a very nice sentiment, to thank everyone you meet for just doing what they do, and speaks highly on how Ugandans value other people, but using this as a standard greeting could very well (and often does) mean thanking people for sitting and drinking a beer, walking down the road, or taking a nap. People recently thanked me when I bought a sofa set. If your goals in life are less than overachieving, or you’ve had too few people appreciate all your hard work, Uganda could be good for you, or at least make you feel good about yourself. Additionally, just about any time I wear a new outfit, I am told by someone, “You are very smart!” meaning well-dressed. One day I was wearing a black tank top with a pair of brown capris, which are actually getting pretty washed-out, stained, and gross-looking (and by mixing black and brown I broke one of those fashion rules which someone once created but probably doesn’t actually apply anymore, like the whole “white after Labor Day” thing) but someone still said, “Eh! You are so smart.” I think this is partially due to the fact that I rarely wear pants in my village, but regardless, if you wear some type of clothing a Ugandan has infrequently seen, is very unique (also sometimes known as “really weird”), or has bright colors, you will be complimented on your wardrobe.

However, other compliments here I can go without, namely any remark about my body. In Africa, being called ‘fat’ is a good thing, similar to being called beautiful, and people will sometimes say, “You are growing fat!” to mean that you are looking rich and healthy. Unfortunately, Ugandans do not understand that such comments have been known to cause eating disorders in Western women, who are bombarded with images of celebrities and models with long, lean figures. For instance, when I first arrived at site I was chatting with some women in the village who were saying, “Oh you are so pretty! Your nose is small! Your face is nice! And you have a great figure!” Just when I was about to be flattered, they added, “You have big legs!” It was in that moment that I realized I never want a Ugandan to honestly compliment my body because of their preferences for junk-in-the-trunk and everything that jiggles.

One fashion trend that I really don’t get is that men here sometimes wear ridiculously short ties. While most Ugandan men adopt a typical Western suit for work or special occasions, including a tie of normal length, you occasionally see a man wearing a short, fat tie stretching down no further than where I imagine his nipples would be. I’m not sure if the actual tie is shorter or they just tie the knot differently, but the effect, at least from my perspective, is probably not what the wearer was going for. I was at a hotel with another PCV once when our waiter had a tie that extended literally only 3 inches past the knot. She and I couldn’t help but bust into hysterics every time he came to refill our drinks or bring our food. It just looks so strange and comical, as if someone stepped into a futuristic machine that makes you bigger (whatever the opposite of a shrink-ray is) and everything got 5 times larger except for the tie. If a man wears shorts in this culture he’s considered to be dressing like a young boy, but apparently wearing a tie that is meant to be on someone standing no more than 3 feet tall is a fashion statement.

If you put an American kid within 3 miles of a puppy, he/she will find that puppy, play with it, squeeze it half to death, and cry out, “Mom, can we keep it, please?! I promise I’ll take care of it,” and other similar pleas to keep the good, cute and furry times rolling. If you put a puppy near a Ugandan child, the kid will scream bloody murder and run away crying, as if he or she is being chased by an 800-pound Grizzly bear (or for an African example, a pride of hungry lions) rather than a 4-pound hairball of joy. Ugandans are not dog lovers, and I realize this, but it still never ceases to amaze me how absolutely terrified of dogs, and especially puppies, Ugandan children are. Kibo has lately taken up the hobby of terrorizing small children on their way to fetch water by charging at them at full speed. I think she knows they don’t want to play, but despite their screams, their tears making channels in the dirt on their cheeks and snot bubbling out of their noses, they still run away and provide something to chase, so the game is still fun for her. Dogs here are for security purposes only, so most Ugandans are raised to fear dogs as much as American children are raised to fear strangers offering them candy or… a cute puppy. Huh. Maybe these cultures are more similar than we think.

Speaking of similarities, at the Easter service at one of the local churches, the LC1 Chairman (basically the village mayor), an older gentleman, was giving a speech and addressed the children, telling them to appreciate their education and study hard. At one point, he actually said something like, “I used to have to walk for miles to reach school,” (which I would like to point out that some of these children still do) then said something about how kids these days have it easy and they should appreciate what they have. I didn’t hear anything about walking uphill both ways in three feet of snow, but the correlation to those stereotypical stories we all heard from our grandparents was not lost on me. Maybe Uganda and the U.S. are more alike than meets the eye.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Live Like a PCV!

I highly encourage everyone to take part in this challenge - Live Like a PCV. It's designed to give you a taste of what life is like for PCVs (and most other people) in the developing world. It's actually pretty hilarious for me to read the criteria (extremely true!) and I would absolutely love to hear stories of any of you who attempt the challenge! I suggest trying the set of rules for Kenya as it's probably most similar to my situation in Uganda.

Happy 50th Birthday, Peace Corps!

Time here seems frozen. Yes, there is some seasonality between rainy and dry seasons, but for the most part the weather is constant. It feels like spring or summer all year. Being on the Equator, the day length doesn’t change – the sun comes up and sets at almost the same time every day. I can’t decide if life in the U.S. seems like just yesterday or a million years ago, a distant memory that could have been a dream, one which stills seems real when you first wake up.

Speaking of the passage of time, this past weekend, many volunteers attended a service day to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps. We did lots of projects at a primary school near Kampala, including creating a ‘peace garden’ (which was my group’s project), rehabilitating the rainwater collecting system, painting classrooms, collecting trash, painting a mural, teaching life skills, etc. It was a lot of fun, and I got to see lots of great friends and meet many new people, both PCVs already in the field and trainees in the newest group that arrived in February. Although some of the work was outside the ideology of Peace Corps (which emphasizes building capacity and empowering people, not doing things for them like painting schools and building water systems), it felt good to actually do something with a visible, tangible, almost instant result. That evening, we had a super fancy reception – we arrived to big band Frank Sinatra-style music while everyone was having drinks on the lawn, then had dinner and watched films/listened to speeches about Peace Corps under some fancy tents while seated on chairs with chair covers. Super swanky. Kudos to the planning team! Then we danced and danced and danced…. I don’t think I sat down for 4 hours. You can see the video we watched at the reception featuring PCVs and staff in Uganda and what Peace Corps means to us (include a short quip by yours truly) here on Facebook.

Liza, a PCV from my training group who lives in the next village over, is applying for a grant to start a goat project, so she and I would be working together if we get the money. I would teach the recipients about goat care, and she would teach them about financial management and help them to open an account at the Farmers SACCO (microfinance bank) where she works. Keep your fingers crossed that the money pulls through!

I will soon be teaching at an agricultural training college (Kyera Farm) near Mbarara with Jesse, another PCV from my training group. He’s teaching a permaculture class, while I get to teach various animal husbandry topics. This term, I’m in charge of teaching a class on pig, small ruminant, and rabbit production (which is good since I’m also helping other PCVs with goat and rabbit projects – it will help me brush up on what I know). Next term, I could be teaching dairy and beef production. I’m so excited since this is more what I envisioned for myself in Peace Corps than what I have been doing so far, and I also think this might make me a professor. The staff members at Kyera are also really nice, fun people. When I was there last time, one of the veterinarians, who is also a lecturer, was showing the students how to treat pigs for mange – man was it loud! If you’ve never heard a pig scream, your eardrums are thanking you. My first class is on Monday (currently preparing my swine lessons, hahaha) – wish me luck!

I recently received FOUR packages from home, including such wonders as JIF peanut butter, granola bars, Velveeta Mac & Cheese, a ton of issues of The Horse magazine, scented candles, a solar shower, a can of baked beans, Valentine’s Day candy, white-chocolate covered Oreos (unbelievable!), and Eat, Pray, Love on DVD. I also got a big bundle of holiday cards made by Betsy (my niece)’s classroom, with whom I am corresponding through the Peace Corps World Wise Schools Correspondence Program. I should have video-taped myself opening the packages, I was so excited. A big thanks to Mom, Dad, Joy, Sean, and Betsy’s classroom!

Also, the bats in my ceiling/attic are GONE! All it took was to wait for the bats to leave at dusk one evening, and then my neighbor climbed up in the ceiling and stuffed thorny branches into the holes where the bats enter and exit. Now nights are nice and quiet – no more squeaks, creaks, feet scratching on the ceiling tiles, and very-loud thuds when the bats re-enter and jump onto the ceiling from above. If I had known it was this easy, I would have done this months ago – they were so loud they would wake me up at night, and my first few nights at site (and a few select times since then) I literally thought someone was breaking into my kitchen. However, there is now a rat/mouse that sneaks into my kitchen every night and wreaks havoc on my food stores and any level of cleanliness I had managed to create. Might be time to set some traps.

Lately, whenever I’ve been away from site, I get easily frustrated by the actions of people around me (mostly due to impersonal shouts of “Muzungu!”, creepy men, people just trying to rip me off, and another level of annoyedness that I can’t explain) and it’s a huge relief to get home. This manifestation is probably not healthy overall, but I think it speaks volumes to how integrated I feel at site and how kind the people in my village are towards me. When I’m having a bad day, I’m reminded of a quote from a PCV in Peru in one of our reference books:
“There comes a day when all this suddenly becomes apparent, all at once. Things are no longer picturesque; they are dirty. No longer quaint but furiously frustrating. And you want like crazy to just get out of there, to go home.”
When I was traveling in Africa in 2008, things were picturesque, villages were quaint, people were fascinating, and life was an adventure. Life is still an adventure, but in different ways than I could have anticipated (but isn’t it always that way?) but of course I’m still enjoying the ride. I’m learning how to deal with frustrations, and I’m trying to perfect the art of turning the other cheek and of not sweating the small stuff (which is difficult when being cat-called on the street or when a bus company openly admits they have ripped you off and are refusing to give your money back). I also want to show some Ugandan men what a determined, independent woman looks like and what happens when you try to mess with her (it’s not pretty. Ask some of my friends who have been around when someone tries to rip me off or does something really rude). I do wonder how things will be when I get back to the U.S., because reverse culture shock can sometimes be the hardest adjustment of all. Will I actually find things about this culture and way of life that I miss? I’m sure there will be a few, like how people value greeting each other here and take time for their families, and even the fact that I stand out so much will probably be partly missed (I’ll be wondering where my celebrity status went once I get home). Other things, like the treatment of women or open corruption in society, will not.

As a fun addendum to lighten the mood, I just bought a zebra print soft set and will post pictures when I get it delivered to my house. I’ve kinda wanted one ever since I saw one from a bus window a few months ago. When else in my life can I have a zebra print couch without looking completely insane except when I live in Africa? All the couches in Uganda are ugly, anyways (no seriously, they’re REALLY ugly) – might as well get one with some flair!