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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Friend Maria

Maria is a 12 year old girl from Tanzania. She lives at the school I live at and has for several years. She won’t go home until maybe after she finishes P7. She is in P6 now. For the last month and a half Maria has been going blind. It came on suddenly and wasn’t discovered until this term when she was having other students read the board for her and teachers saw her bend over double an inch from her paper. Sister Carol took her to Mengo Hospital, the government hospital in Kampala, to be checked out and they told her they don’t know what is wrong but it looks like she is going blind. They gave her some steroids because they thought the nerves behind her eyes might be enflamed. It made her eyes feel better but her sight has not returned. She can barely see out of one eye and a little better out of the other. Maria needed to return to the hospital to be checked on this week.

Normally, I dislike having white skin. Sometimes I am taken more seriously and sometimes I am regarded as trying to bring in crazy ideas from the West that are not part of Ugandan culture and therefore not wanted or respected. It means I am treated differently, usually given preferential treatment. I am served meals first, I am given the best chair to sit on, and I am the guest of honor at events. It is a challenge to be white. With this situation with Maria it was the first time I wanted to use the power of my white skin to get some answers and hopefully push things along. So, I went to Mengo Hospital with Sister Carol and Maria.

The eye department has very rudimentary eye equipment. They see several patients at once and you all read the chart in front of one another. Maria could only read the first two lines; the ones with the giant letters. If you need to move on from there and see the actually doctor, you wait for what can be hours if not days to see the doctor.

I made sure I was very visible to all the staff standing with Maria and moving with her whenever her name as called. Sister Carol and I took turns inquiring about when we would see the doctor. It was much faster than I thought it would be. We saw the doctor just under 2 hours of waiting.

The doctor informed us that she didn’t know what the problem was. I asked very pointed questions and she just keep saying she didn’t know what is causing this and that it looks like Maria will go blind. She put her on more steroids and wants to see her again next week.

I am so sad and frustrated with the health care here. They don’t have the resources or availability to find causes so they just treat patients with lots of medicines and they never improve. I am so afraid poor Maria is going to go blind not because what she has can’t be cured but because they won’t figure out the problem. They seem so passive. But it is a nationwide problem – the lack of critical thinking skills! I am going to try and research possible causes and if any of you have any ideas please pass them on. Next week when we go back I want to be able to offer ideas that will hopefully be investigated. How can we give up on a 12 year old girl who lives in a foreign country without her family? How can we give up so quickly on anyone?

The Walk of Shame

The tin roof on my house does not completely meet my brick walls in my bedroom. So, it was only inevitable that one day I would receive bats. That day has come. My bedroom is now a bat colony at night. They swoop down, make really loud squeaky noises and defecate and urinate all over my house. It is gross and even beyond that, I have always feared bats so this is a terrifying experience.

The first night this happened I lay with a sheet over my head wide awake the whole night. Immediately the next morning, I went to Sister Carol (she’s in charge of the school I live at) and told her about this problem asking her what we can do about it. She said she would look into it. Nothing happens right away here so I went on to talk to other teachers and find what they do to keep the bats away. I can’t be the only one who has this problem. As it turns out, my whole block of houses (there are 4 of us on my block) have bat problems. Rose suggested we send some students out into the bush to collect thorns to put in the openings. Betty wants to have our houses sprayed with chemicals. I just want them gone.

That second night, I went to dinner at the convent and when the nuns asked me how I was I said in true Ugandan fashion, “I’m not all that well.” They rushed with their concerns and asked what were my troubles. After hearing about my fear of bats they laughed hysterically, largely because this is just a problem you always live with, and then told me I should move back to the convent, where I lived before getting my own house.

I have survived the armies of gecko’s, spiders and ants that live in my house. I deal with the cockroaches that inhabit my latrine. And, I let the sparrows keep their nests in my bathing house. I cannot handle the colony of bats that think they have found a new home. So, I have moved back into my old room in the convent at night. Each night I make the journey across campus with my pillow, sleeping bag and toothbrush. Each morning I make the journey back across campus in my pajamas, wearing my glasses, and greeting the students who are busy doing morning chores. I receive many, “Amanda, why do you sleep there now.” To which I reply, “It is because I fear the bats in my house.” And they say, “You fear your house?” I affirm this question and am greeting with laughter and shots throughout campus, “Amanda, she fears her house. She fears the bats.” Oh, the walk of shame each morning.

And so, it has been a week since I moved back to the convent and I am still waiting for something to happen. Sister Carol tells me she has requested someone from town come and spray our houses but as of yet, they have not come.

Hierarchy and Its Look for Me During the Riots

I recently wrote an e-mail to a friend trying to convey my sense of guilt and frustration in relation to the recent riots in Kampala. I decided to post it also as a blog:

I had never been in such a volatile place much less alone as I was during the riots in Kampala. I had it easy and had Peace Corps behind me helping me get out immediately. Even in the midst of it I kept thinking about all those who must face these instances alone because they either don’t have an organization behind them, their government/police don’t really care about protecting innocent people, or this is a daily reality. After the whole adrenaline rush of emergency and once I have calmed down a little I thought about it more and it really bothered me. You see, I came into Kampala with Sister Carol. We attended a meeting together and then she needed to visit someone and I needed to go home. So, we split ways just before the park. We were both there for the riots but not together at that point. I called her immediately to warn her but of course she was also in the midst of it. She told me to get out and we would see each other later. Once I was safely out of it I called her again and she was hiding at a priest’s house she knew in the city. We were both safe and unharmed. But I felt awful. If we had been together PC couldn’t have picked her up and gotten her out of there. Only me. This is even true if there ever needs to be an evacuation – all Americans are assisted out of country by national staff and then if there is time and availability Ugandan staff will be helped out. What makes being an American so special? How are we of more worth than everyone else? This is not just isolated to these issues of safety and security but also to everyday life here in Uganda. I am given preferential treatment to most everything. And during these riots, Sister Carol was so relieved that PC had picked me up and was keeping me safe in an undisclosed location to her. I know that she cares about me as a person and so is glad that I was safe but it goes deeper than that at times. She thought it was right that I was taken care of by PC. On one hand Ugandan’s seem like such a humble people, putting others (whites) above themselves. But at the same time, this is extremely unhealthy and unrealistic. They are stuck in these hierarchical mentalities that keep them trapped in falsehoods and unable to develop and progress in the ways they are capable of. The honestly believe others are of better than them. Even within their own peoples.

Do you ever grapple with these big life issues? How do we reconcile being white and living in this unfair world? This is an issue I always come back to. In college I went through the hating being white phase and I think I am a little bit back there. I’m not sure how to appreciate the extremely easy life being white affords me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Going Home!

After living in a hostel with 18 other Peace Corps Volunteers for the last 5 days, we are finally free to go home! We are at the PC office doing our paper work and gathering our money.

Uganda is calm once again. There are minor disturbances over those who were arrested but it seems life is back to normal.

Thank you for your calls, e-mails, and prayers. I am happy to go back to site. Have a beautiful day!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Alive and Safe

Due to lack of internet I will make this brief. We are safe and healthy. Peace Corps has us staying in a safe location. Things in town and Kayunga are still troubling. Guns are still being shot and beatings are taking place. The "action" is taking place in very Ugandan areas so the areas that are foreign dominated are safe. The President is making a statement and many are hoping it dies down quickly. It sounds like things will continue for another day or so.

Stay safe!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Close Shave

First, I need to start by saying a) I am safe and alive and b) this is abnormal - Uganda is usually safe.

With that being said, I almost got killed today. I went to the District office of the Ministry of Education for a meeting this morning and had to travel back through Kampala to get home. I was changing taxi's near the taxi park when it all started (to be dramatic).... A huge riot started, there were gun shots everywhere, and then the police came with tear gas. Everyone started running and a nice man grabbed my arm and pulled me along telling me to run faster. We ran up this giant hill and my heart was beating like crazy and it was the first time I was scared in country.

I ran behind a building and called Peace Corps and they told me to get on anything I could and get away and to Peace Corps office that second. Traffic was stopped, people were running everywhere, gun shots are going off like crazy, and tear gas was seeping all over the city. I managed to get on a boda-boda (motorcycle) which we are only allowed to ride if our lives are in danger. My life was in danger. Fred, our safety and security director, met me on the road and I got in the PC vehicle. Another volunteer was also in the midst of these riots and we had to go get him out too. Now, we are all at PC - about 9 of us are stuck here - and they are telling us we may not go for a few days. All traffic has been stopped in and out of Kamapala. PC is trying to figure out where to put us for the night(s).

The story on why and how is still very unclear. Apparently the King of Buganda (the tribe I live in) wants to go to another area where there are a mix of other tribes and the government doesn't want him to because they think he is getting too powerful. Kings in Uganda technically only have social power and not political power. So there was this big mess today. Tribalism at its finest. The King is supposed to go there on Saturday so the next few days may even be worse than today.

From this dramatic experience, I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Peace Corps Uganda. They came immediately and make our safety a priority. I feel safe and cared for with PC on my team.

Well folk, just another adventure in Uganda.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Garbage Heap

There is a garbage heap near my house where we dump our rubbish. It is burned once a day. We then use the ash to clean our latrines. The children love going through the garbage heap and finding treasure. Treasure can be almost anything. I am always surprised at the things they want to keep. This morning my oatmeal box was taken. I usually try and time my garbage dump to when it is lit and burning. However, even that has not always stopped children from grabbing my garbage off the burning heap.

On Saturday morning I awoke particularly early and couldn’t fall back asleep so got up and made a coffee cake to eat as my breakfast with my coffee. I must say, it was a pretty good coffee cake and only took me one hour to make. I had a piece in the morning then covered it and went about my business. I came back to the coffee cake in the late afternoon and when I uncovered it, it was crawling with tiny ants. I was horrified and my first reaction was to brush them off. However, this only got them crawling all over me and I ran out of my house swatting and flicking ants off all parts of my body. I’m sure this was a surprising site for my neighbors to witness. I went back into my house and waited a few minutes to make a dash for the burn pile with this coffee cake. Usually I keep a pile of food scrapes near a tree in my backyard. A teacher friend has goats that she feeds the scrapes to so I save them for her. This time, I just wanted to be rid of the cake so made a quick trip to the burn pile. After depositing the cake, I wandered back to my house still picking ants off my body. It was only a few seconds later that a crowd of children came up behind me with coffee cake in their hands and mouths. They then thanked me profusely for the cake that was, “soooo sweet.”

In a panicked rushed voice I told them it was bad; that there had been ants on it. I switched to Luganda but couldn’t think of the word for ant. They all just gave me big smiles and kept thanking me and telling me how good it was.

I wanted to throw up.

But hey, it’s protein right?

The Long Month Of Training

I am back! I was away for training over the month of August. It was a long time to be away from site and I am happy to be back and starting a somewhat normal routine of life again.

We spent time near Kampala going through technical training with or Ugandan counterparts. Mine neglected to show up so I joined my friend Celeste and her counterpart Humphery. We work out of the same college so it was beneficial for us to work together.

Those of us who live in the Buganda region of Uganda and speak Luganda went to Mityana, a few hours West of Kampala, for further language training. This was a more low key training where we were able to focus on the language issues we had. It was nice to have things clarified and learn a new key vocab and phrases we actually need at site. This is a picture of our Luganda group and Irene, one of our language trainers.