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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Waiting on Empty Promises?

Elections are coming up here in Uganda in 2011. Many hopeful-elects are busy campaigning giving their promises out like songs on the radio. The current president, Museveni, is also running for reelection. Please keep in mind he came to power in 1986 and changed the constitution years later saying a president could run for president as many times as he wants. I'll let you judge the legitimacy of that one.

Along with campaigning, the current government is trying to show it's citizens they have their best interests at heart and are actively working to make the country better. This means, among many other things, major roads are currently under construction and food prices are pretty stable. On a district level, it means funding is being found for programs that have been absent for the last few years and past promises are being distributed.

A few weeks ago a representative from Wakiso District (the district I live in) came through Gayaza and registered people to receive mosquito nets. I was away at the time but a fellow teacher, Harriet, registered me. She registered me as a family of four. When she told me this and gave me the voucher to be presented at a later time, I laughed and asked what I possibly was going to do with 4 mosquito nets when I already have 2 working nets and only one bed. And, I'm not even a Ugandan citizen! How do I qualify for a Ugandan government program? She informed me that when the ministry comes to give things out you have to take as many as you can because it'll be a long time, if ever, they come again. And, they registered me under my first name and my Bugandan name so the ministry will think I'm Ugandan. The logic my dear friends have here always makes me take a step back. Is this a form of corruption? Of course to an American, we say yes this is corruption. But to a Ugandan? It's survival. Does survival justify corruption?

Somehow news traveled that the ministry would come to Gayaza today to distribute the nets to all those who were registered. My school was used as the pick-up location. People were told to arrive at 8 am. All day long people gathered. There was no sign of the ministry. It rained and people crammed into classrooms. The classrooms were full with people waiting. I asked my neighbor Rose if the ministry would really come today. She said, "They say they are coming. They might not." So why are people waiting all day?

The ministry came. At 6 pm. Then in true Ugandan style they gave a speech for a while and then attempted to form some kind of order. They called off names and you presented your voucher in order to collect your net(s). I was told I couldn't go because they'd see my face. Jen took my voucher and claimed the nets for me.

Now, the questions remains, what do I do with 4 mosquito nets?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Outsourcing War With My Friends

I was told my friend Deo moved to America. I couldn't believe he'd just move there without telling me especially because I am American. Most of the people I meet here want connections in America so it didn't make sense that Deo wouldn't have talked to me before moving there to try and get connections.

Yesterday I was talking to his mom and in my slightly in-direct way I asked when Deo would be coming back to work. She'd never told me he left and when I asked this she just said he wouldn't be back for a long time. I became more direct and asked where in America he was because I had friends there I may be able to connect him with. She looked startled then said, "No, Deo isn't in America. He's working for Americans but in Iraq. He's a soldier."

Now, as one who only gets news from the United States every now and then I tried to recall what I had last heard about the War in Iraq. I thought I remembered Obama saying he was pulling out our troops. As I guess has become common in modern warfare, we (the USA) are now outsourcing our war with other countries citizens. We can pacify the countries of the world who hate us because of our involvement in wars by saying we are leaving; we provide good paying jobs to people from developing countries; and our privatized military consultant groups get richer and richer. Did we learn nothing from Blackwater?

For Deo, this job in Iraq is going to provide him with a lot of money. Compared to what an American is/was paid to be in Iraq Ugandans are making next to nothing. But compared to life in Uganda Ugandans are making quite a bit of money. His mom is happy for him that he got this job because he hadn't had a paying job since graduating from university 5 years ago. Deo was a volunteer teacher with Gayaza Christian Caring Community, a CBO. She also said she was proud of him because people of the world need to stand up and fight for human rights and she believes there are very few human rights being acknowledged in Iraq especially for women.

Deo will be gone for at least a year. I will probably never see him again. When he returns to Uganda he will be a different man. My feelings are jumbled on this one. I'm angry with our world for using others for the gain of a few. I'm sad for those who live in perilous places. I'm frustrated with people justifying their actions in the name of religion. I'm a little glad for Deo that he has a job and the chance to see another part of the world. I hope he will get to know more about different cultures. With the whole situation I am not happy. I don't know how you can be.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Fun Disaster

I work with a CBO (Community Based Organization) called Gayaza Christian Caring Community (GCCC) that has 6 main focuses: Functional Adult Literacy (FAL), Widows, Community Health Volunteers, Orphans and Vulnerable Children, Pastoral Care and Education For Life (Life Skills workshops and training). I’ve worked most closely with the Community Health Volunteers, the Functional Adult Literacy class and most recently the Widows group. Last week the FAL class invited me to come and teach them how to bake.
What ensued over a 4.5 hour span was a very fun disaster. The lady in charge of bringing the over-ripe bananas brought over-ripe matooke (plantains). Then half the group didn't bring the required sagiri (charcoal cooker) and pots so we had to bake in shifts. Also, only one person brought a mixing bowel so we had to use the pots as mixing bowels, then put the batter on the table, wash the pots, then put it all together to bake. Of course no one had utensils so we were mixing with our hands. Throughout the whole time (3:30 pm - 8 pm!) the group was laughing and joking with me, something most Ugandans have a hard time with. They're humor is so different than ours.

One of the things I love about this component of GCCC is that they really try and focus on functional learning. The students are all ages, mainly women since they tend to be the ones who were not educated. Quite a few of them work in the market so the teachers have focused their lessons on functional English that will help them first in their work places. They add activities that will force them to practice their English but also to gain a new skill that can enhance their work. A few months back another PCV came and taught them how to grow mushrooms. The women grew them and sold them at their stalls in the market. Now they are able to continuing growing, eating and selling mushrooms. Doing this baking class, the students took down the recipe in English, practiced greeting me and attempted to understand my directions. They still have a long way to go with their English skills so a translator was used but even with the translator our conversations and jokes transcended.

Ugandans begin toughing hot sauce pans and pots from a very early age and build up tough calluses that make them immune to burning hot objects. I, on the other hand, was always taught to use pot holders. During our baking time I would check on the breads and lift the top pot off using a towel. Each time I did this the women would fall into fits of laughter. "Oh Amanda is too delicate. She must use a towel," to which I replied in Luganda, "Ugandans are so tough! They handle fire with their hands!" I personally didn't think this was so funny but each time it sent my friends into peels of laughter. As we were finishing up they asked if I'd come the next day and teach them to make yeast bread. I thought that would be pushing it, at least for me, so I said I'd come next month. Now, I have a disaster of sorts to look forward to.

The Truths We Stretch

Yesterday, my friends at the Health Center were busy trimming bushes, sweeping the dirt, mopping the clinic floor and making it look very nice. This morning I found them ironing their white lab coats/dresses and stocking the medicine in the pharmacy. Everything was looking very organized and professional. The Health Center usually does a good job at this but not to the extent that was happening all at once. I also noticed that all our beds were full. There were so many patients. I didn't think too much of it until a white couple came in the door. I immediately recognized their accents and went to greet them. It turns out they were a nice couple from Nebraska who might be interested in funding parts of the clinic. The woman is a midwife and the man is an engineer. It also turns out they have a daughter in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. It really is a small world.

The woman had many questions for Dr. Charles and the rest of the staff. There were times when I had to turn away with my smile and not laugh because of the lies or truths that were being stretched. Martha, the American woman, looked at our supply of medications and asked if we had coartum to treat patients who have malaria. Of course we did today! But I must admit that we rarely have coartum on hand and usually prescribe quinine. At another time Martha asked if children came in every 6 months for check-ups and deworming. There was great assurance that this was a common practice. I almost chocked on my laugh. Parents don't send their children for check-ups! Sometimes schools will have physical exams but never parents bringing their children in unless it's for immunizations or they are sick.

The thing that made me laugh the hardest was when I told the lab technicial it was good there were so many patients today because it made it look like we were busy and really need more funding. She laughed and told me they had been telling patients all week to come back today to fill the beds! They told patients white people were coming to give money but only if the clinic looked like it was busy. We were joking that if the patients hadn't shown up we would have had to go to another clinic and drag them to ours.

Since this couple has a daughter in Peace Corps I assume they know that they are getting the sunny story and that reality is a bit different. Martha stayed at the clinic for the morning and participated in prenatal exams and other patient interviews. All the nurses and the doctor made comments afterward about how thorough and competent she was. They were very impressed and kept making comments such as, "Those ones there really know what to ask. That's why you are developed."

While it was a stressful day for my friends working at the Health Center it surely was an amusing day for me. I also find it a bit amusing that I am so used to these stretching of the truths that I don't really mind them so much. I just hope those who hear these falsehoods can distinguish them enough to know how to really help or not.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rite of Passage

There are many rites of passage in Peace Corps. Swearing in as a US Peace Corps Volunteer after 2+ months of training, completing your first project (successful or not), giving your first impromptu speech, and attending a social event (wedding, funeral, introduction, graduation, etc.) are a few examples. This weekend I completed another rite of passage: going to the home village of a friend.

I traveled to Kaliro District in the Busoga Region of Eastern Uganda. I got off the taxi in Kaliro town and heard my name being called. A man was sent to get me and take me to the village. We traveled down a fairly nice dirt road and soon veered off on what appeared to be a cow trail. We passed through forest, swamp, and more forest on trails sometimes, and other times grassy fields. As we got closer and closer I saw a cluster of grass thatch huts and people standing waving and yelling out welcoming me to their village. Annet and Grace were there to greet me with hugs and laughter. It was a beautiful scene.

Annet took me around her village introducing me to friends and family. I saw where she went to primary school and secondary school. I attended a village wedding. I watched monkeys swing overhead as we drank tea on grass mats. In a span of 8 hours I ate goat, beef, chicken and fish. As a vegetarian this was a shock to the system. But how to you refuse when they give it to honor you? Eating meat is not an everyday event here in Uganda either. Most people eat meat for Christmas and Easter. Because there was a wedding there was a lot of meat in the village and they had just slaughtered some of the animals for the wedding so it was a little unusual to get so much meat.

I'd always heard horror stories of volunteers who went to visit friends in the village. They talked of being stared at for days on end, people asking them for money or being treated as a god and given everything the villagers had. This was not my experience at all. Of course there were a few awkward moments. Imagine bathing outside at night with everyone under a full moon. Keep in mind my dear friends are as black as the night sky but myself, on the other hand, glow at night. I took my glasses off to wash my face and when I put them back on I found 6 pairs of eyes watching me bathe. Is a white naked body that different from a black naked body?

It was so refreshing to be out in the village away from the business of my town. Annet told me she liked having me there because I was all her's. I did what she wanted when she wanted. I didn't go away during the day to work or have other visitors come over and chat. I was there purely for her. It was really great to be there for her and I had a wonderful time. I wish I'd had longer. I guess I'll just have to go back again another time.

Dda Dda (grandmother in Lusoga - this is Annet's mother), Grace and Annet

Dda Dda and a Visitor (note "our" hut in the background)

Grace lounging in the Village

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Excitement of the World Cup

Even though the World Cup is over my neighbor children still get excited when they hear music from the World Cup. Here is them dancing and waving flags to Waka Waka by Shakira:

Sunday, August 15, 2010


A few days ago Annet and I heard that our friend Pauline was dying in Mulago. Pauline used to be a teacher with Annet but was transferred out to the village last year. Of course Pauline's phone was not on and we didn't have any more information on how to find her. Mulago Hospital is very big and I was unsure if you could just show up and find the person you want. Also, Annet couldn't remember her other name so it would have been very difficult going there and asking to find a Pauline who is possibly dying but we don't know why.

Yesterday morning Annet ran into a lady in the market who also knew Pauline. She told Annet Pauline was staying at her sisters right here in Gayaza. She said Pauline was not doing well. So Annet and I set out to visit Pauline at her sisters. As we neared our destination Annet started to question which place was the sisters. She couldn't remember. A few of the places had dogs in the yard and as most Ugandans are terrified of dogs Annet didn't want to go into any of those yard. For a Saturday evening it was surprisingly empty of foot passengers or even people sitting in their yards. I became annoyed with one girl who kept staring at me from her door way and yelling mzungu then laughing hysterically. I marched right past the dog in that yard to this girl and asked her where the sick woman was staying. I skipped the whole respectful greeting because I was so annoyed. She pointed to the house next door with another dog in the yard.

Annet gripped my arm as we walked past the dog around the house to the back. There we found Pauline's sister who showed us into the sick room. As Annet says, “I couldn't even look at her face at first because I thought I was looking at death.” Pauline's hair was missing in clumps, her lips had boils and dried blood, her voice was so deep and raspy it was scary, she was extremely thin, and whenever she coughed, which was often, blood stained her handkerchief. I wanted to cry looking at her.

This is my friend who raises goats and grows all her own food. She teaches P5 and tries to make ever child in her class feel loved. Pauline brings food to her neighbors. She washes laundry for the jja jja's (old women) in the village whose backs are permanently bend double and whose hands hurt with every movement. Pauline would have an orphanage of old people if she could. But now she's the one propped up in bed with pillows being spoon fed porridge that is even too rough for her esophagus to let go down more than 1 or 2 small sips an hour.

Much to my and Annet's surprise we were told Pauline is doing much better and improving dramatically every day! She had overworked herself leaving her system low and open to infection. Then she got a cold which quickly turned into pneumonia and bronchitis that she left untreated for much too long. When she finally realized she was really sick she then had to ride a boda boda (motorcycle) for a coupe hours to the main road letting immense amounts of dust and cold air into her lungs. The doctors at Mulago told Agnes (Pauline's sister) that if she'd come in a day later she wouldn't have lived. They kept her in Mulago for a month. She's only just left to stay with Agnes.

We stayed for some time and left with promises to pray for her. As we were leaving Pauline asked us to contact someone in the village to inquire to the status of her goats. It truly amazes me at how ill people can become, and look, and yet still find the will/strength to fight and live. I'm thankful Pauline is healing and will recover.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Joan Gets Married!

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A good friend of mine, Joan, got married on Saturday. She and her husband have been saving their money for 12 years to get married. Weddings are big productions in Uganda. They cost a lot of money, mainly because of the bride price involved. The common practice is to cohabit for years before actually having an introduction ceremony (presenting the bride price) and the wedding ceremony. Joan and Christopher have 2 adorable children together: Michael age 11 and Allan age 4. The whole family was excited and happy. And they all looked so smart!

I learned more about Ugandan weddings that day. Everyone dresses up in their fanciest clothes. This means women dress up in cast-off American prom dresses from the 80's and 90's. The older or more traditional women wear glittered-out gomezes (traditional dress). Men wear a kanzu, traditional long gowns with a black suit jacket. The church is decorated in the tackiest fake flowers and mismatching embroidered clothes. The bride comes into the church on the arm of her father or male family member. The choir sings Here Comes The Bride. The maid-of-honor and best man's most important job is wiping the flowing sweat off the bride and groom with white handkerchiefs throughout the service. The priest lifts the brides vale once the vows have been made. The wedding party sits in white plastic chairs on the side of the church. And really, the ceremony is more a full mass with a few quick vows thrown in there.

Everyone was so happy to be at this wedding. Women yelled out the traditional scream, drums were beating and everyone sang with gusto. After the wedding was picture time and I somehow found myself in quite a few. In the past, I would know I was the token white person they can show all their neighbors, friends and family. I would give them an elevated status. And I know, when Joan and Christopher show the pictures, this will still be the case. But I also know that we have a relationship and I wanted to be in those pictures for Joan. We are friends and she can look back at those pictures as time goes on and remember her friend Amanda who came to her wedding.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Soleme's Birthday

Early last week I was approached by a teacher. She wanted to commission me to make a birthday cake for her daughter and take pictures at her birthday party. She wanted to know how much I charged. I make cakes and other baked goods every now and then and always share with my neighbors and friends. I'd never been asked to do a party for anyone. I tried to get her to tell me how much she wanted to pay me but she wouldn't so I quoted a low number and she doubled it. We were both happy.

Day before the party I realize I'm busy all day, tired and don't really want to think about making a cake. So...in true American fashion...I buy a boxed cake mix! Yes, way out of my budget but well worth the time factor. Ugandan's don't know any difference. They still think I slaved all day over this cake. I did make homemade frosting and dyed it yellow/orange, threw on some mnm's and used candles to write the letters 1 4.

We took pictures, sang Happy Birthday over her lit cake, gave presents, chatted and took more pictures. I know I've said this before but I really appreciate the way Ugandan share. Soleme (the birthday girl) cut her cake into small pieces and passed it around making sure everyone got a piece. She even thought to send some to the school cooks and matrons. She then got a slightly bigger piece for herself but still no where near the size of cake we each eat on our birthday's in the States. She was gracious and kind. After the party she thanked me repeatedly for being there for her birthday and helping. She then gave me a soda that had been intended for her. Ugandan's have so much to teach me. I hope that I can be as selfless someday.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Labia Elongation

It was recently brought to my attention that some tribes in Uganda practice labia elongation. I was asked to give a lecture and lead dialogue on, "The Effect of Modernization on Moral Social Issues in Society from America to Uganda." Weighty topic, hu? One of the pre-questions they had given me was, "Some Ugandan girls practice labia elongation to prepare themselves sexually for marriage. What do you do in your society? Is labia elongation a reality in the U.S.?" When I read this question I knew what the words meant but I wasn't sure what it really meant in a day to day kind of context. Did girls really do this to themselves? and how?

It got me asking around. I talked to my neighbors and friends/nurses at the health center. It was the first I was hearing about it. Apparently some tribes in Uganda make their girls elongate their labias. They start around the age of 10 and some girls have several inches of skin hanging from their bodies! They can use local herbs and dead bats to pull on the labials. I was horrified! It turns out most of my Bugandan friends practiced this when they were young. They say it is cultural. I also found out that the matrons in boarding schools teach the girls how to do this! They are doing it right here at my school!

It used to be that the aunt on your fathers side was in charge of teaching you to cook, keep house and elongate your labias once you reached a certain age. However, that practice is no longer as common due to families not wanting each other to be successful, having tensions between families and the fact that many girls now attend boarding school. So the job has fallen to the matrons who preside over the girls dorms. There are even "specialist" that schools can bring in to teach girls how to properly bathe and take care of themselves which includes labia elongation. Annet tells me you even hear advertisements on the radio for such "aunties."

We touched on this topic briefly at the lecture and I asked if this was done because women want it and value it or if it is done because the men want it. You guessed it - it's all for the men! The men will send them away to go and work on making it longer if they find a girl whose labia they are not satisfied with. I told them that I think they need to consider why they are doing it and if they decide it is for their own beliefs and they find value in it for themselves than I will support them but if it is because the men make them then I think it is a despicable practice.

I shouldn't be surprised this happens as it is a patriarchal society, but it still makes me sad. Everyone I talked to is so surprised I didn't know about it before. "Amanda, you've been here for almost 2 years and you didn't know?" They are astonished. To them, it is a common part of culture that everyone knows about. To me, it's just one more fact that men control the world. Why is there such a need to dominate and control?