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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Being Fat

Over the last few months I have continually heard:

"Oh Amanda, you are getting so fat."
"Look how fat you are Amanda!"
"You are a little elephant on the compound."
"I saw you walking over there and you are so fat."
"Amanda, you have grown so fat."

Ugandan's like to tell you how fat you are. This is usually a compliment. To them, being fat equates with having enough food or a surplus and thus you are rich. A good thing to them. When they tell you you are fat it is a good thing to them. I have told my Ugandan friends repeatedly that American's don't like being told they are fat and that it's an insult. However, this doesn't stop them from saying it. So, I've stopped trying to explain and instead extend my thanks for their appreciation of my weight gain.

When you hear, daily, that you are fat you start to believe it. I even called my mom a few months ago and told her maybe we should order a bigger size dress for my sister's wedding. I was getting very concerned that I was growing exponentially and I had no way to measure this.

So, it was with great trepidation that I arrived home in the states and attemped to put on my favorite pair of tight jeans. I'm here to report, I have not grown fat and in reality, my jeans are loose!

I can only imagine what they will say when I get back...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Murchison Falls with the Wild Life Clubs

I was able to go to Murchison Falls National Park this past week. The Wild Life Clubs of Uganda hosted a camp for secondary students who were active in their Wild Life Clubs at their schools. Wild Life Clubs do reforestation, plant flowers to beautify areas, run community gardens, and sensitize others about wild life issues. Celeste and I attended as a chaperon with my friend Hellen's school. Hunter also brought two girls from his school. I'm hoping to get a Wild Life Club started in some of my schools next year and so took this opportunity to go and learn more about the program and meet some of the students who are conservationists in their communities. Here is how it went...

Day 1: We met in Gulu and boarded a bus. On our way from Gulu to Murchison we saw many IDP camps, the Nile River, Giraffes, and breathtaking savanna landscapes. Once in the park our driver went too far and we spent an hour trying to turn the bus around on a very narrow dirt trail. You are not allowed to get out of your vehicle once in the park due too the wild animals. My friend Hunter told the Ugandan in charge that it was o.k. and proceeded to get out of the bus and attempt to help direct the driver in turning around. When he came back in he did admit to feeling slight fear that a lion was going to pounce on him. We finally make it to the Education Center around 9 pm. Being thoroughly exhausted from a day of travel (I left my house at 6:45am) I went straight to sleep, skipping dinner much to the horror of the Ugandans.

Day 2: Ali, our Wild Life Authority guide took us on a nature walk. We learned how to distinguish different animal feces and identify their tracks. We followed some hippopotamus tracks and feces we found and gathered near the Nile River to see 10 or so hippos bathing away. They are huge and interesting animals. We also visited a Safari Lodge during our hike. The lodge is used mainly (perhaps sole) by tourists. It was a beautiful lodge overlooking the Nile. The students were enthralled with such a place. After our walk we had the afternoon to ourselves. Hellen, Celeste and I took naps. The students washed their clothes, bedding, showered and spent time together. Students in Uganda sure have different priorities than most American students at camp!

Day 3: We were awoken to a knock on the next door telling the students they had 2 minutes before we were leaving. Then the knock came to our door and we were given 1 minutes. This is at 5:15 am and the night before we had been told we'd leave at 6 am for our game drive. Being Americans, we jumped out of bed and got to the bus within minutes. We found Hunter on the bus and no one else. The students were getting their showers in and slowly trickling onto the bus for the next hour. The game drive was awesome! As the sun rose we saw buffalo, gazelles and antelope, giraffes, elephants, hippopotamus', warthogs, baboons, and lots of different beautiful birds. We bought fresh tilapia from some fisherman on Lake Albert and had that for dinner. It was delicious! After our morning doing the game drive we got back to camp and once again took lovely afternoon naps.

That evening we had a short program. The instructions were to come up with a story/skit/song etc. about wild life, you, and it should be humorous. I think the four PCV's were the only ones to follow instructions. We made up a skit about two tourists (Celeste and Hellen) who were at Murchison Falls and littered. Then a warthog (Hunter) came along and ate the litter. A nurse (me) rushed onto the scene and tried to revive the choking warthog but to no avail. He died. We then rewound and the tourists took their trash with them and the warthog had nothing to choke on. The students laughed and understood the message we were trying to get across. We went first. Then came the students who told riddles that didn't make sense, jokes that were not funny to Americans but somehow the Ugandans got them and laughed hysterically, and performed silent skits that had no point. Everyone had a great time:)

Day 4: We went to Murchison Falls where the Nile River crashes down into majestic falls. We hiked to the top of the falls and then to the bottom. My legs burned a little hiking back up the steep cliffs. Some of the boy students ran up and other teachers commented on their, “excess energy.” The girls on the other hand pulled over to the side numerous times taking time to, “recover.” The falls were on the South bank so we had to cross the Nile River and spent the majority of the day over on that side. As we were leaving the falls our bus had to climb a muddy hill. Unfortunately it didn't make it and we got stuck in the mud. Students and teachers got out to push the bus but that didn't work. So after more than an hour of using rocks, sticks, and bark to pack the mud the bus zoomed up the hill and we ran after it to take us back to camp. Everyone as tired when we got home.

Day 5: We were scheduled to leave by 7 so that all the people traveling far away could return home before dark. When Hellen, Celeste and I went to the dinning hall for breakfast at 6:30 we were informed there was no firewood so the cooks went back to sleep and were only just getting up and looking for wood. Oh Uganda... We finally ate and left at 9:30 am. I got home at 5:30 pm. What a day of travel. But all in all, it was a wonderful trip with great students and friendly staff members.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This was the week/weekend of graduations. After a quick (5 hours there on Wednesday, 1 full day on Thursday, and left at 5 am on Friday) trip to Kibale in the West of Uganda for Thanksgiving, I came back to site for important graduations. My neighbor Grace graduated from Nursery school. In Uganda nursery school is baby class, middle class, and top class. Grace passed top class and now will enter P1 next year. I arrived an hour late and it was still another 15 minutes before it actually started. The invited guest of honor did not show up and so I was asked to be the guest of honor. This is a common request and I accepted. If truth be told, I'm the guest of honor more often than not. Being the guest of honor brings many advantages. You get to sit on nice chairs with a center view of the events. You are served soda's. You get to eat first and it's usually brought to you so you don't even have to leave your seat. I did have to march around the field and salute the graduates and then later give a speech. But don't worry, I am an expert public speaker after these 9 months in Uganda.

Graduations is tedious, often boring, and long in the States. Now imagine that times at least 5 more hours. Grace's nursery school graduation lasted 8 hours! Yes, 8! There is the marching, the prayers, the lunch, the games, the speeches, the awards, and finally the cake. And did I mention it is all in Luganda minus the little speech given by the guest of honor who only greets in Luganda then quickly switches to English? Oh, and I was up before 5 and on a bus for 5 hours. Needless to say, I was falling asleep during this graduation. I am glad I went. It made Grace and her mom Annet's day. I definitely went home and feel into a deep sleep till morning.

When morning arrived I began to get myself ready for another graduation. This graduation was for the Technical and Vocational School I had a Life Skills club at. The girls there had been asking me to attend their graduation for months. I couldn't miss. This graduation seemed it would be even longer since it started with a full mass. However, I was only there a total of 6.5 hours.

Here is a text message conversation I had with my dear friend Celeste regarding this graduation:

Me: I'm getting a big head. When I'm not the guest of honor I get offended and want to say, “Do you know who I am?” Not good.

Celeste: Oh man, I know the feeling. I get irritated when I'm not fed first! What do we do when we're not superstars anymore?! Look out America.

Me: O.k. They just performed a song and dance about Life Skills and dedicated it to me. I feel better. And anyways, I was up against the bishop for guest of honor:)

Now my weekend of graduations are over. The next one will be in January for my friend who's graduating with her masters. I can only imagine how that will go.

Christmas in Uganda

There is a secondary school behind my house. I had never been over there until last week. It is a really good school and they don't really need my services so I never made the time to go and visit. I was invited to their Christmas Carol program and decided it was time to make an appearance. Everyone was so happy to have me there. They sang songs in both Luganda and English. Many Christmas songs I knew. Near the end of the program I was invited up to give a few words and then was asked to share an American Christmas carol with the school. I am definitely not a singer and singing for secondary students is not my idea of fun. I insisted they had sung all the Christmas songs I knew and I'd have to work on one for next year. Somehow, they went with it.

As I walked into this school it was decorated for Christmas with streamers and paper cut outs of snowmen and Santa Clause. The Santa Clause was black and when I asked students what the snowmen were they didn't know. I tried to explain the concept of packing snow into a round mound and using coal and a carrot to make a face. Students were shocked we'd put our coal on snow.

It doesn't look like Christmas with everything green, steady temperatures in the 80's and 90's, and black faced Santa Clauses. Yet the joyful and excited children's voices waiting for Christmas, the pressured adults trying to save enough money for meat on Christmas and the familiar Christmas carols in English show me Christmas is coming.

Jesus Freak - the Bus

Amy and I traveled on a bus named Jesus Freak. When we caught the bus it was already packed with people. We found ourselves standing in the stairwell trying to keep our balance as it sped over deep roots and spun loose gravel as it creamed around a curve in the road. Outside of the capital roads are more and more likely to be gravel and as you travel into war torn areas they are likely to have not been maintained or even touched in 20 years. This was our experience on this bus. While we initially thought the bus couldn't fit another person in, it continued to pick up more people along the road side. Amy and I quickly became separated where I found myself near the front standing with my head in a man's elbow, my hand on the shoulder of a very sweaty man, my foot on a woman's basket with a chicken inside and due to the many pot holes, my butt was bumping along some poor man's leg. Amy on the other hand, was care free hanging out the bus door with the conductor, smiling as the breeze from the fast moving bus blew her hair every witch-watch-way. Despite the sardine effect, the accelerator happy driver and the lack of passable road Amy and I made it on Jesus Freak safely to our destination.

Going East and North

I took a whirlwind trip to the East and then North of Uganda for almost two weeks. I went to help run some programs and also to visit the new Peace Corps volunteers in the North and welcome them to Uganda and Peace Corps. It was in the East I met with the women's group doing the VSLA. I also visited a deaf school with Amy where we taught the students self-defense. Amy translated into Iteso what we were trying to say and then a woman translated that into sign language. We think things got lost in translation since during the question time we were asked, “What happens to the person after you've beaten them up?” and “Why would we hurt another person?”

Due to the cost of travel around Uganda, Amy and I chose to hitch hike as much as possible during our travels. This brought us into a nice air-conditioned truck with a friendly Chinese road construction man, a Danish agriculture man working for USAID, a kind woman driving a small distance, the cab of an empty dump truck and even a World Vision vehicle out on outreach. The dump truck left us half way to our destination one day and we spied the World Vision vehicle parked along the road. With our friendliest smiles we approached the vehicle and asked where they were headed. They were going to our destination but first needed to complete some data collection in an IDP (internationally displaced people) camp. We were welcome to a ride if we didn't mind going to the camp with them. This lead to an educational 4 hours with World Vision. This camp was one of the largest IDP camps during the insurgency in the North. For a while there were 76,000 people living in small grass thatched huts. Hundreds died each day due to sanitation. Now it is much smaller. They have dismantled a vast majority of it. Many people have gone home now that the war is over. There are still many who have not gone back and may never return to their villages. There is too many bad memories associated with their homes and/or they have no reason to go back. Where they are now water is close and clean, they have health care near, food arrives on a scheduled basis, and they don't fear a resurface of rebells. IDP camps are interesting places to find yourself.

One thing Amy and I were most aware of was our ability or inability to understand language. When hitch hiking we normally found someone who spoke one of our languages. People would get so excited when they found Amy spoke and understood Iteso or I could converse with them in Luganda. There were only a few times our driver and fellow passengers spoke only Lango or Acholi which left us out. Language is a bonding factor here in Uganda. The respect other's have for us raises as soon as they discover we have taken the time to learn one of the languages in their country. We're always told language is a big component that sets Peace Corps apart from other humanitarian organizations and the more I travel and even interact in my own community I understand the value and vital importance of language.

Coffee with PCV's in the North: