A Reflection of My Life after living in Uganda as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer

Friday, July 31, 2009

Happy Times in Uganda

There are countless times I feel completely content and happy with my life in Uganda. There are many times I don’t but let’s not talk about those right now. Many times those feelings of happiness, pride, and contentment overwhelm me when I do something that makes me feel very Ugandan.

Yesterday, I was riding on a taxi with my friend Lizzie. Lizzie loves Jack Fruit and is unable to get it at her site. She has had a craving for it and was determined to get some before going back to site. We scoured the market and all around the town we had been in. There was none to be seen. While in the taxi on the way home, we stopped to let some passengers out and I spotted Jack fruit at a small vender across the street. I tapped on the window furiously trying to get a ladies attention and then I motioned her over to us using the Ugandan come-here wave. This is the wave we use to say hello to little children in the states but in Uganda it means come here. The woman pick-up a giant Jack fruit and ran across the road to us. Lizzie then proceeded to buy the Jack fruit through the taxi door. This exchange is extremely common in Uganda and made me feel very Ugandan.

One of my favorite, and least favorite at the same time, conversations to have with Ugandans is when I ask for directions. They are incredible vague and will admit to being horrible direction givers. Earlier this week I went into the bush to drop off some letters from the Ministry of Education and invite teachers to a workshop on HIV/AIDS education. I have three schools that are relatively close together in the bush but I had only visited them once and this was my first time trying to find them again on my own. I made it to the first school and then asked the Head Mister (principal) to direct me to the next school. He walked me to the road and said, “You go that way (shakes his hand around so I am not sure which way that is) for some time. Then there is a tree somewhat far, turn there. Hmmm, there is a somewhat small path but you might get lost. O.k. o.k. Hmmm. Go that way (again shakes his hand in no apparent direction) for some more time. After the big mango tree you will look and see the school. Climb the hill and you will see. It is somewhat near.” So, I took off “that way.” The amazing part is that I followed his directions and made it to the school without any mishaps. Oh, to understand Ugandan directions. It is a talent, let me tell you.

Another Ugandan moment happened for me this week. I am working with a local health center on HIV/AIDS programs in schools. A program exists in Uganda called, “Education for Life.” I was told the program is working in Katikamu, a village an hour and a half North of where I live. I was asked to go there and find out more information. When I asked for a contact person I was told to just go there and ask around. I was assured people would know where to direct me. So, I packed up and went to Katikamu. After asking around the local trading center, visiting the health center, grilling the father’s at the Catholic parish, and trying to visit the LC1 (like the mayor of the town), I found no one had ever heard of “Education for Life.”

While this would normally frustrate me and I may make some grudging remark about it being very Ugandan, I found this experience very rewarding. I did not find the organization/program I wanted to learn about but in the process I was directed to other NGO’s and community based programs. I found a community that has an active Village Savings and Loans program, a health center that does both in-center care and outreach, and a Catholic parish that is working to promote quality education so that all their students qualify for higher education. I love learning about communities that are building themselves up and seeing how they are doing it.

Exorcisms Next Door

My dear sweet neighbor Grace, who I scared a few weeks ago, is having night terrors. Lately, I have been awoken around 3 am by her screaming, sobbing, and calling out. I even hear my name. She screams out prayers that include, “Mamma! Mamma! Mamma! (some Luganda) Yesu, my friend save me! (Luganda mixture) Yesu! Yesu! Amanda! Mamma Fred! (Luganda words) Yesu!” Then I hear claps and banging noises. Grace has dreams that men live in the corners of her room and come to abduct her and sacrifice her. Her mom, Annette, is clapping into the corners to show her there is no one there and also to ward off the evil spirits.

Lately, many of the teachers and community members have been taking about child sacrifice. It has made me so angry because they are scaring the children. Then, I found out that a little boy in the next town was abducted and sacrificed last week. So, poor Grace’s night terrors are founded.

Annette is at the end of her rope. She is very distressed and does not know what to do. She has taken Grace to the doctor, sleeps with her, and lately has brought in some Born Again’s (Pentecostal’s) to pray over Grace and the room each night. It sounds like they are having exorcisms to me.

For my part, I have given Grace Sleepy-Time tea and read, “The Berenstain Bears Bad Dream,” with her. Still, the night terrors persist.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sweet Child and Hiking through the jungle

Welcome to Kalangala and Riding in a Flat Bed Truck

Amazon Women on Lake Victoria

Sseese Islands

Last weekend I traveled to the Ssesse Islands in Lake Victoria with 6 wonderful friends. We arrived at the dock in Entebbe and camped out, ready to elbow our way onto the boat and in a seat. There are little to no rules about catching the ferry. They fill it until there are no more people and many must stand for the 3 hour passage.

We managed to be some of the first passengers on the boat and secured two benches with a narrow table between them for us to play cards on and rest our tired heads. We tried to ignore the fact that they squished more people than the boat should have been able to hold, there were no visible life jackets, no life boats, and only 3 staff members (the captain, the ticket collector, and a security guard). Oh, and did I mention there were cars along with passengers on this boat and they were held in place by logs? That too.

Despite the potentially dangerous ferry crossing, we made it to Bulago Island safely. We were greeted by 15 Islanders carrying signs representing their respective resorts. Being American, we had made reservations ahead of time and found the lady carrying the “Pearl Gardens Beach Resort,” sign and followed her down the beach some 100 meters.

Let me educate you on two important facts about vacationing in Uganda. Number 1 – there is no need for reservations. They don’t mean anything. Number 2 – resort in Uganda does not mean Caribbean Resort. You still have a bucket bath, the front door has gaping holes in it, and you sleep under a tattered mosquito net. At first these differences were a little disappointing, after all, we thought we were moving up in the world by going on vacation. But as we quickly adjusted, we realized it was refreshing to be in a place that has not been “Westernized.” It wouldn’t be Uganda without the bucket bath and lack of communication.

We proceeded to have a most excellent vacation that included hitching a ride on the back of a flat bed truck to “town”, hiking a nature walk through the jungles of the island, some quality beach time, a picnic near the beach, canoeing a giant canoe through Lake Victoria and jumping in and swimming in the middle of the cove.

It was a wonderful weekend and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. But, I must admit, I never want to go back. Not because of the place but solely because of the ferry ride. 3 hours is a long time to fear for your life and I have not gotten as sea sick as I got on the return ride. There were moments where I was tempted to throw myself over board in hopes of settling my stomach.

And so, I am happy to be back on dry land and living life at site once again. I am refreshed and thankful for life. Next vacation will have to not include a ferry. Perhaps, rafting the Nile River?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Grace and Friends

Grace is the one on the left with a chalk smudge on her face.

The Tickling Game

My nearest neighbor is a 5 year old girl named Grace and her mother Annette, a teacher at the school. Grace and I play the tickle game. It is a cat and mouse game of her running and me catching her to tickle her and then let her run off and start all over again. Last week we were playing this game and she would not let me catch her. I was not in the mood to run all over the place trying to catch a child that wasn’t going to let me catch her so I was about to give up quickly. Grace took off around a school building and I drug myself to give one last ditch effort and hid around a corner of the building waiting for her to come back.

As Grace came back looking for me I jumped out, grabbed her and began tickling her. At first I thought she was screaming in delight but I quickly realized she was sobbing and utterly terrified and upset. I had surprised her so much that she had wet her pants in fear. I tried to apologize and calm her down but she would have nothing to do with me. She ran away.

Grace refused to come home until I was in my house with the door shut. The next morning she would not come out until I had left. I asked her mom to bring her out so I could apologize and we could be friends again but Annette told me Grace needed more time. I went away to visit my friend Lizzie for the next night and day and when I returned Grace would come out of her house but she would have nothing to do with me.

It wasn’t until Sunday morning, 3 days later, when I brought some sidewalk chalk out to our shared front slab of concrete and asked Grace to draw with me that she would finally interact with me. I realize bribery is not the best way to make friends but, I must admit, it worked very well. Grace and I have since colored all the concrete slabs on our school campus, performed cartwheels through the field, washed my floors, eaten an orange together, and played Go-Fish. Needless to say, we have not played the tickle game again, yet.

The Business of Religion

I am continually frustrated and saddened with religion being a business. Yesterday morning I noticed that a few of my students had the Bible on their desks with their other books. I work at a Muslim college and know that they have religious education but was still a little surprised to see students in their Muslim garb with the Bible. I asked a student later why she was carrying her Bible and she said it was for Bible study. I asked her if she was a Christian and she answered affirmatively. I then asked her if she was Muslim. She said no and at my puzzled expression explained that my Muslim college was the only one she could get into so she is Muslim while at school but otherwise is a Christian.

I had a conversation with Sister Kizito and Sister Stella about their families last weekend. I was asking why they became nuns and how their families felt about it. I asked if they came from Catholic families. This is when I found out that both of them have a brother who is a Muslim. I asked how they felt about it and they both told me they pray for their Muslim brothers but are not too concerned because the brothers only became Muslims for jobs. They needed to be Muslim in order to get a certain job and so they converted. They said it like choosing your religion was like choosing which pair of shoes to wear to work.

Even the other week a man approached me and ask if I would help him start an NGO. Here was how the conversation went:

Me: “What do you want to do?”
Man: “I want to start an NGO.”
Me: “That is great. What do you want to do?”
Man: “Start an NGO.”
Me, thinking he isn’t understanding me: “What kind of NGO do you want to start? What population of people do you want to be helping?”
Man: “I just want to start an NGO. I want a white truck.”

At this point I understand that it is me, who has been misunderstanding. The man believes, like most Ugandan’s, that NGO’s mean money and status. They drive around in Land Cruisers and big diesel white trucks with their NGO name across the door. They have a nice office in Kampala and enough money to feed their families. NGO’s, be them faith-based or not, are a business in Uganda.

Daily Life

Every day in Uganda is different yet the same. I rarely know if it will be a busy day or not. This is due to being at the mercy of other people who do not value time as I do. Some days I leave my house before 7 am and do not return until after 7 pm. Other days I may only leave my house/school compound for an hour total all day.

Even with the uncertainty of my daily schedule there are a few routines I have developed. Before I eat dinner with my nuns around 8 pm, I take a bath and wash the layers of dust and dirt off my feet and body. Almost every night, I fill a basin with water and laundry detergent and put my dirtiest clothes in this basin to soak and loosen their grime out. Each morning I wake up and go out to my bathing area and wash my face and hair. After dressing, I cut up a banana and passion fruit and let them marinate together in a bowl for my breakfast. While they mix I do my laundry and hang it up to dry in the sun all day while I am away. I always try to beat my neighbors in getting my laundry done so that my clothes can hang in the clearest place and not have leaves, fruit, and dirt falling on them all day from the trees our clothes lines are tied to. With this done, I eat my breakfast, put it in a basin of water to soak during the day, sweep each room and walk out the door. When I return from work, I wash my dishes and take my clothes off from the line. At this point there are usually around 50 children loitering around my house waiting for me to play with them. And so, I do.

Love my Ugandan life!

This morning I had finished hanging all my laundry and was over visiting with a teacher across the campus when it began to rain through the sunshine. I rain home and got my clothes off the line. I then quickly gathered all my pails and buckets and put them out to catch the rain. This will save me a trip to the water tank. I felt so Ugandan.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Advantages and Disadvantages

My class yesterday at the teacher’s college did not go so well. They changed the time table on me again and I had a different group of students for the third time this term. I have never had the same class since the first week. I had to start from the beginning and give the same lecture I have been giving. It is a very boring lecture on the history of social studies, different approaches, and the phases social studies has gone through in Africa over the last 100 years. I spent most of the class repeating myself over and over again and rephrasing my questions because the students did not understand my accent.

When we were discussing the different methods of teaching social studies I asked them the advantages and disadvantages of teaching with those approaches. With every approach they told me the disadvantage was that it was time consuming for the teacher. I finally told them that was a stupid answer and I never wanted to hear it again because that is life. Teaching is time consuming. Get over it. When we were discussing the next approach and I asked for disadvantages the very first answer was that it can be time consuming for the teacher. I wanted to scream!

Even beyond that frustration, my students only give text book definitions and do not know how to think outside the box. When they give an answer I will probe them to go deeper but they are incapable and simply rephrase their first answer.
With a class of over a hundred students it is always noisy. I can’t get them to all be quite at the same time. A few take naps while others are doing homework for other classes. They only perk up when they get to ask questions.

These are the questions they ask:
How is Obama? Do you know him?
Can you get me a visa and take me to America?
Are you married? Will you marry me?
Can you sponsor me and pay my school fees?

It was one of those days where I left class and wondered what I was doing. The students don’t really want to be there. It is their only option because they didn’t get into University. My class seems like a pointless class – they only need it to pass their teacher’s exams. Who cares about social studies methodology? Am I really teaching them anything significant and that will help them in life? And I keep changing classes so I don’t even have the same students. How can I build relationships?

On a brighter note – I had a great creative writing club this week. We listed adjectives and came up with a wide variety of words to describe ourselves other than big, black, and fat (the three words they always use to describe themselves). We did some serious editing and critiquing of our poems and made final drafts. Then we hung our poems up for everyone to read.

Maybe the trick is working with younger minds that are still somewhat pliable.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Home Coming

I attended a conference for all Peace Corps Volunteers in Uganda last week. There were almost 130 of us all together for 5 days. It was a great time to meet all the volunteers and also to learn from one another. I left the conference excited about the possibilities. It was helpful to hear what volunteers are doing; how they started; how they failed; how they tried again, differently and succeeded. It was also comforting to hear how others are struggling with some of the same emotions I find myself dealing with: anger, spite, joy, excitement. It is always nice to know you are not the only one with extreme highs and lows when that was never your personality before.

I returned to site on Sunday and received such a warm welcome home I was humbled by the love my community has for me. My friend Felicia (Francie’s mom) met me on the road and took my heavy bag and escorted me home. I found out later she had walked into town 2 other times that day looking for me. It took us sometime to get home because everyone we passed wanted to welcome me home and hear about my trip. Everyone said, “Nalubega, you have been lost.” In Ugandan (referring to the whole country/culture) this means they haven’t seen you in a while. Many thought I had gone back to America and were so excited I was back.

The students I live with ran and met me at the gate. There was no time for a rest, they wanted to play. We had a week to catch up on. My nuns all greeted me with hugs and much exclamation at dinner that night. It is sometimes difficult to go back to Ugandan life when you have had a break and surrounded by other American’s. I love my life here but there is comfort and familiarity in being around those who come from a similar background. I came back to site with a little dread but upon getting back and received such a welcome home, I was touched and experienced a great sense of belonging. I am exactly where I am supposed to be.