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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Surprises

You know you're back in America when:
1. No one unashamedly stares at you as you walk by
2. There is more than one option for the flavor of your coffee, and the size of your coffee and the darkness of your coffee!
3. There is no dirt under your fingernails after a whole day away from your house
4. Your hair is staticy and skin dry from winter dryness
5. You understand everyones English

That's right folks, I'm in America! I officially COSed (close of service) and became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer on the 29th of March 2011. I have successfully completely my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was an incredible 2 years of self-discovery, fun adventures, deep friendships, memorable events and life perspective changing. I am eternally thankful for the opportunity I had to live and love in Uganda and I will forever be affected by this experience.

My leaving Uganda was a hard decision and not one I particularly wanted to do but needed to. When I decided to move back to the States I needed to have something fun to look forward to. So I decided to surprise my friends and family. I let my parents in on this and we worked out plans to make it all happen. I flew into Minneapolis/St. Paul around lunch time where I was greeted at the airport with a fresh hot cup of coffee, many warm layers of winter clothing and beaming parents. They drove me to see one of my best friends from growing up at her work. Her office is near the door and she saw me coming. Soon the office door flew open and Ashley came hurrying out with arms wide open exclaiming, "Is this for real?" And followed by her husband saying, "I didn't expect to see you today." We went out for lunch with them and all continued to look at one another in semi-disbelief. It all felt so normal and yet unreal.

Bart, Ashley and Me

Next, we headed over to my sister and brother-in-law's place. Erik, my wonderful brother-in-law, was in on the surprise and let us into their apartment to wait for Ash to come home from work. We drank coffee and caught up on life while waiting then hid along the wall to surprise Ash. She couldn't believe I was there! Of course one of my first observations was that she was wearing my scarf and had my vest. Little sisters are always stealing older sisters clothes and they think they can get away with it! That's why surprises are good - you catch them red handed:)



video


My mom had set up a Skype date with my sisters Melissa in California and Angela in Israel. We all gathered around Ash's computer and she logged on. I hid out of the cameras view and after greeting the girls Ash said she wanted them to meet her special guest. Now, Angela was hoping to see a new baby that Ash and Erik would have adopted since she's dying to be an aunt and Melissa was thinking it might be a cat. They were both wrong and I slide into view. Their shocked expressions and tears were priceless.


My first few hours back in America were such fun times. It was great to be able to suprise my friends and family. Everyone is happy to have me back and part of me is happy to be here too.


Mom, Me, Ash and Dad

I feel very welcomed home. I was given my favorite coffee at the airport, Mom and Ash made delicious gluten-free pizza for dinner, there were fresh flowers in my room and mints on my pillow. Thanks to Ang and her quick facebook update, I also received several calls and e-mails from friends who saw her say I was home. The ease and speed of communication is something I'm going to have to get used to again. And so, life in America begins. This is the life I have always known. My life in Uganda was different. But Uganda did change me. I'm not sure how it'll all play out but America, let's go!

Mom, Me and Ash eating gluten-free pizza

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Goodbyes

Goodbyes are inevitable. We are forced to make them at many junctions throughout our lives. It's not until you must say goodbye to a whole community that you realize how many people have affected your daily life. For the last few weeks I have been working on saying goodbye to Gayaza, Peace Corps and Uganda in general. Last week I attended several goodbye lunches with close friends, goodbye parties/ceremonies at local schools I had worked in, goodbye dinners with co-workers and had several goodbye visits from community members. I ate more matoke wrapped in banana leaves and g-nut sauce each day than I've possibly eaten in 2 years. O.k. that might be a little exagerations but still, it was a lot! There were a few days I had multiple lunches. My stomach hurt from forcing down such heavy meals within an hour of each other. But my heart was beating with thankfulness and pure joy at having such wonderful friends who gave from their hearts and culture by making special goodbye meals to share with me one last time. And so, I say goodbye to my wonderful and unique home and all my dear friends who made my experience a truly memorable one.
Goodbye Gayaza market where I shopped for fresh food several times a week Goodbye Peter, a Gayaza street food vendor Goodbye Gayaza chapati man who always greeted me in Luganda Goodbye Gayaza boda men who called me Nalubega and always wanted to take me for a ride though I always refused

Goodbye Gayaza supermarket who sold me the cheapest apples in the area Goodbye mukwano (friend) who worked in the supermarket and always welcomed me in Goodbye Gayaza fresh dairy where I bought yogurt every morning Goodbye daily walks and fun adventures with my little friend Grace Goodbye Joan and baby Ellen who taught English with me to adults from Gayaza Goodbye Mildred, Alvin, Gertrude, and Maggie who played with me and loved me Goodbye Joan, Susan, Allan and Norah who taught me about the plight of women in Uganda and the health needs and concerns of Gayaza Goodbye Annet who showed me how to look out for the best interest of others and always love children Goodbye belongings that only work and fit in in Uganda Goodbye sweeping with small sticks gathered together and goodbye to my cute little house where I lived alone for the first time in my life Goodbye PCV friends who still have more work to do in Uganda

Goodbye Uganda! You are LOVED!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cross-Cultural Sharing and Friendship

I have been trying to find time to go and visit Jen but time is not on my side these days. She offered to meet me in Kampala and I decided that would have to do. A friend of mine is out of town and I had the keys to his house so decided to meet Jen there to make dinner together. A long time ago Jen asked me to teach her to make pizza. This seemed like the right time to do that. It was a fun night of catching up and hearing about Jen's new life. We reminisced about our friendship and we talked about mutual people we know. It felt so normal and good to be with her again. I have missed her presence. I continue to appreciate and value the friendships I have made in Uganda.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Election Season is Finally Over

Elections in Uganda, and much of Africa for that matter, are a several week process. Our elections took most of February and March. There were elections for President, Members of Parliament, and Local Council members (5 branches worth!). Every week was a different position and a public holiday was announced where everyone was encouraged to go and vote. As you can imagine, not a lot of work happened over these many weeks. I wondered why they couldn't do all the voting at once but after seeing the ballots and hearing the voting stories, I realized it would have been even more chaotic than it already was. Each ballot had the name, political symbol and picture of the people running. You voted either by signing your name or by stamping your finger print. Then each card had to be counted by hand. For a few elections the ballot boxes were already full at 7 am when the polling stations opened. While there was a lot of talk about anti-corruption and not rigging the votes, it seems it still existed.

Elections have officially ended now. Everyone is getting back into the swing of work and school and peace seems to reign. A few runners contested the outcomes of the elections and the Electoral Committee is busy recounting and handling those localized situations. There was a lot of hype leading up to the elections and the actual season of elections was rather anti-climatic. There were a few incidents of violence but nothing large scale. I am glad Uganda had peaceful elections and I hope peace prevails along with positive progress. We shall see which politicians follow through on their promises. So, until the next season of elections, God bless Uganda.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mob Justice and Graphic Media

Police tend to be corrupt in Uganda. They fall prey to bribes easily and often think themselves more important then their jobs and fail to actually do their jobs. This leave many people who do not believe in the police. Communities have then taken on mod justice to fix trouble that occurs. I was reading the newspaper yesterday and saw this picture and article. A man was caught stealing and the community striped him of his clothes and tried to beat him. He took off running and ran to the police for protection. While the police do not always go out and settle disputes or apprehend offenders, they also don't kill people. They are a safe place. This thief sought refuge at the police station because at least his physical life wouldn't be in jeopardy. He will probably go to jail now. If a thief shows up at the police they don't have far to go to take them to jail so they will at least do that.

It's interesting to read the newspaper or watch news programs on TV in Uganda. They are incredibly graphic. Full on nudity is shown, brutally murdered bodies are displayed and graphic language is used. People seem so desensitized to it all. Often times I have to turn my head and completely avoid the pictures I see. They are too disturbing and horrifying. I think we are also over stimulated with graphics in America and we also become desensitized to horror. Yet, it seems different to me somehow. I'm not exactly sure what the difference is. Maybe it's because the people I see and hear about in America are far removed from me. They are from some other State, or some other country. But here, I read about my town, an acquaintance's family member or a tribe I know well. Maybe this is closer to my understanding of reality than my reality in America. Whatever it is, it's upsetting.

Oh, Uganda. While I won't miss the corruption, the lack of infrastructured justice, or the graphic media, I will miss the little things that make it different - ie. mob justice, poor quality news, etc.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Uganda, I will miss you!

I spent this past week in the East of Uganda for work. I had many schools to visit and they were deep in the bush which means a lot of rough roads to bump along. It was a fairly successful trip but I did come back tired. As I got out of the taxi in Gayaza and began my walk home I felt my shoulders were sagging and my legs dragged. But then I heard, “Nalubega! Kulikyu! (welcome back),” and “Nalubega, how was the journey,” and “Welcome Home, Amanda!” The enthusiastic greetings I receive after a long journey always give me energy and a big smile spreads its way across my face as I return the well wishes and engage in the greeting process once again. I feel loved in Gayaza. I am happy to have had this town as my home. There are many things I am going to miss about Uganda. The warmth and kindness I feel daily from greetings is just one such thing.

The other day, I had called Annet to check on her. From that conversation some miscommunication ensued. She thought I was bringing a friend home with me and since I’d been gone for a while she knew my house would be dusty and dirty, not what a visitor should see. So, she went to my house and swept it out, washed my floors and tidied my belongings so that it looked good for me and my visitor. She also thought I would be too tired to cook an appropriate meal for my visitor so made fresh fish and matoke for us. The only problem with this is that I didn’t bring home a visitor! But again, this hospitality and thoughtfulness is something I am going to truly miss. I feel so incredibly loved here. If everyone felt as loved as I do we would have world peace.

On a different note, some volunteers have made top 10 or top 20 lists over the years of ways you’ve adapted Uganda too much. It’s amazing the things we adjust and adapt to. I think I have embraced almost all of these “signs.” I can just add these to the list of things I will probably miss about Uganda – maybe not immediately, but in time. This is a mixture of two recent lists that were sent out to volunteers.

Top 20 signs you’ve been living in Uganda too long
20. You constantly say “somehow.”
19. You start all sentences with “Ssebo” or “Nnyabo” when addressing people.
18. You prefer latrines to toilets.
17. You consider a four hour matatu ride to be a short journey.
16. You never throw out a box or plastic bag because someone will probably use it.
15. You begin hoarding food because you aren’t sure when you will be able to get more.
14. You have to plan your day around the rain.
13. You don’t consider a taxi full until there are at least two people in the driver’s seat.
12. Your definition of a balanced diet involves three shades of starch
11. You think, “Why go all the way to the latrine to pee when I have a bucket/bush/tree right here?”
10. You stop showing up to meetings on time because you know you will be the only person there for several hours.
9. You refuse to spend an extra ki-kumi (5 cents) at the market based on principal.
8. You feel “smart” when you put on a button up and paisley skirt from the early 90's.
7. You need to clarify time by using “now now” or “just now.”
6. You ask which foods are available at a restaurant, even when you have a menu in front of you!
5. You need your cell phone when using the latrine at night. *
4. Someone asks you where the toilet is and you point with your lips.
3. You often ask, “Is power there?”
2. 8pm is the new midnight and midnight is . . .unthinkable.
1. You look both ways before crossing one-way streets . . . and sidewalks . . . and it has save your life, multiple times.

*To shed light on #5, our cell phones have a torch (flashlight) built into them

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Life Decisions

After much deliberation and advice seeking, I have finally made my decision. I am leaving Uganda. This comes with a small sense of peace and a lot of heartache. I know this is the right decision and the time is now but it is always hard to leave something you love. I must now begin telling my friends and community here that I am going. I already started and have been surprised with the tears I am meeting. I don't think they really thought I would leave Uganda! I think they thought I would move to Kampala and get a job but not that I'd actually leave the country. Ugandan's rarely cry so when I see my dear friends tear up it also brings the tears to the forefront, a place they are not far from these days. I love Uganda!

It's hard to hear people say they will never see me again, something I can't refute. I hope to come back to Uganda but there is no guarantee I will or that I will see everyone if I do come. These goodbyes are likely final goodbyes. How do you say goodbye to someone forever? Sure, we can try and stay in contact but Ugandan's are forever loosing their phones and phone numbers, they don't have mailboxes and many don't know how to work a computer. I did teach a few of my closest friends how to use e-mail and set them up with accounts so at least we will start there.

And so, the clock is officially ticking down. My house needs to be packed and cleaned out, I'm going to have my last days of work and somehow, I need to say goodbye to everyone I have made a part of my life. 27 months, how did you come so fast?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Amanda's Luxury Taxi Service

Transportation in Uganda is almost always a squished affair. Someone else's body part(s) is inevitably poking into one of yours. Personal space does not exist. You will find matatus that say they are licensed to carry 14 passengers with 26 people inside! It has been with much appreciation and thanksgiving that my current job has provided me with a car and driver to take me around to the various sites and volunteers in the field. I get to relax in an air-conditioned Land Cruiser and fly through all those annoying check points because of the CD (Country Diplomat) letters on our license plates. I haven't had to battle conductors trying to over charge me, feared for my life as the bus flies around narrow mountain corners or most importantly, dealt with the insufferable smells that come from too many over-heated bodies in a small cramped space.

With that being said, today I had the funniest experience in my nice comfortable Land Cruiser. I first picked up the Deputy Principal of Outreach from a Primary Teacher's College in the East of Uganda. He was taking me around to the different Coordinating Centers (CC) that will be receiving volunteers next month. We were at one CC where we picked up the Coordinating Center Tutor (CCT) and the Head Teacher (H/T) of the CC primary school. After visiting a house that was not suitable for a volunteer, the CCT called the chair person of the school committee that handles finances and housing. We picked him up and went to see another house. Now the back seat of the Land Cruiser had 3 tall full grown men and 1 over weight woman. Things were a bit tight back there. We continued on to the next house, which also failed my standards, and the chair person called to check on yet another option. But first we had to go pick up a man who could show us that house. So, in piles another big man making 5 Ugandan adults completely and utterly squished together and on top of one another in my back seat. I, on the other hand, sat in my big, single front seat - all alone. The funniest part is that we literally drove 30 seconds farther. When I commented that we could have just walked the H/T said they had wanted to travel in style.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Another Season

The rains have come! It's been a long dry and hot season these last few months. Everyone has said the rains would come in March but the first of March came and went and I doubted the accuracy of the Ugandans telling me so. As the dry season has crept later and later the effects are becoming more visible. The fruits and vegetables in my market have become smaller and less colorful. There are radio announcements and Government sent text messages about food scarcity and possible famine in different parts of the country. And the cost of posho (maize flour) has almost doubled. Ugandans have told me they are eating only one meal a day and praying the rains come quickly and not too heavily that they wreck the crops or cause landslides and other property damage.

Well, they have come! And not too hard yet. I think the rainy season officially began two days ago. We had a good down pour for about an hour. I was tempted to think it was only a fluke and that the rainy season wasn't really starting but then it rained again yesterday for an hour and now, today, there is thunder, lightening and rain!

I am a girl who typically relishes light and warmth. In the past, I associated rain with dreary gray skies, bone-chilling cold and frizzy hair. But my perspective has changed since living in Uganda. Now, rain is a welcome respite from the insufferable heat, it settles the swirling dust and it gives me an excuse to take an hour long nap in the middle of the day.

Yesterday, an especially loud clap of thunder sent Grace flying into my house with a scream and eyes bugging out of her head. She ran into my arms and we snuggled down on my couch to read a book. Soon my eyes became heavy. The rain began to fall and I had to get up anyway to adjust my upside-down umbrella catching the rain that leaks through my roof. I put a bucket on the ground to catch rain from another hole too. Then I called Grace into my bedroom and we laid down on my bed listening to the gentle taps of rain on my tin roof. It was a nice rain, not a deafening one. Lulled by the steady sound and the warm body heat, we soon fell asleep. Grace's little arms were entwined with mine and my chin rested on her head. Almost an hour later, we woke to the slowing of the rain. Grace sat up and wiped her mouth at which point I realized my arm was covered in drool. We smiled at one another and moved to get on with the rest of the afternoon. I love the beginning of the rainy season!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

International Women's Day

March 8th is International Women's Day and in many countries around the world it is a national holiday. Uganda marks this day as a national holiday. They say the men do the cooking on International Women's Day but I have yet to see this happen. I think the women work just as hard the only difference is that everyone says, "Happy Women's Day!"

International Women's Day was first celebrated in 1911 to honor the work of the suffragettes. It has continued to be celebrated to celebrate the successes of women around the world and also to bring light to the inequalities that still exist and need to be addressed. Gender still remains one of the biggest divides in our world today. While half the population of the world is female, they account for much less than half of the world's power and wealth.

I had the honor to attend an International Women's Day event put on by a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mbarara District. Natalie works at a secondary school for girls. She organized to have fellow volunteers come and lead Life Skills lessons on Role Models, Self-Esteem, Menstruation and other life skills. The girls attended sessions in the morning then had a special lunch that included meat. Meat is expensive and only eaten on special occasions so the girls were very excited. After lunch everyone met in a large group and a program followed that included a poetry reading, a fashion show, the choir performing and a speech from the Head Teacher.

I was especially pleased to see my friend Faith there leading the fashion show. Faith was one of my Ugandan counselors at Camp GLOW. The fashion show featured different outfits women wear: traditional, business, every-day and creative wear (made out of banana leaves). Faith talked to the girls about being confident in what they wear and the successes they will have in the future. I am proud of the work she continues to do with the girls of Uganda.

Girls singing about women embracing their roles
Girl playing the drum
Faith speaking to the girls

Monday, March 7, 2011

Site Development and Volunteer Support

A few months ago I was approached by Peace Corps and offered a temporary position doing Site Development and Volunteer Support. At first I didn’t want the job because I wanted to spend my last few months at site. Then, when two of my best friends were transferred I didn’t really want to be around site too much. So I took the job and am a month and a half in and loving it. I still live in Gayaza and commute to Kampala on days I work in the office. I spend several days a week in the field and get to be home on weekends.

A large part of what I do is visit schools around the country who qualify to receive a volunteer. The Ugandan Ministry of Education gives Peace Corps a list of secondary schools and Primary Teacher Colleges that they’d like Americans to help. The first visit is one where I introduce what Peace Corps is and ask if they’d like to have a volunteer live and work with them for 2 years. I feel like Santa Clause on these visits. I am a complete surprise to them and get to bring a gift. What Ugandan school doesn’t want a white person?! Everyone I have talked to gets so excited and can’t stop thanking me for choosing their school. As if it were all my doing – ha!

Those were the first visits I made. Now, a month later, I am going to schools to follow up and check on the improvements the schools have made to housing for a volunteer and meet with the head teacher or counter part to reiterate the role of a volunteer in their school and what their responsibility will be to that volunteer.

I’ve found that secondary schools will bend over backwards to make it work. They are actively fixing up housing to meet Peace Corps standards. They’ve designated a desk in the staff room for the volunteer. They’ve prepared their teachers to welcome another teacher. They want a volunteer and they are going to do whatever Peace Corps asks so that they get that volunteer.

Primary Teacher College’s and Coordinating Centers, on the other hand, have not met the standards I carry and I often leave feeling demoralized and hopeless. They quickly ask for money to fix up the house that looks like it’ll fall in on a volunteer. Many don’t take any responsibility for their part in hosting a volunteer. I continue to question why we have this program when it never seems to work. Many volunteers who are placed at Coordinating Centers, including yours truly, find a system that looks great on paper but isn’t being carried out well in the community, if at all. It’s a government job which means payment may or may not come. Which means the Coordinating Center Tutor may or may not work. You work with other unmotivated teachers who are set in their ways and don’t want to learn different teaching techniques. Many volunteers start looking outside their coordinating centers for work, like I did. Because of my experience, I am able to look at these coordinating centers very critically and question them from different angles. I’m able to see their attitude, right from the beginning with getting appropriate housing and determine if they’ll make a good enough effort to place a volunteer there. Thankfully, my supervisor listens to my judgment and if I say the place isn’t going to work, she crosses it out and we go back to the drawing board. This job comes with a lot of responsibility and pressure I wasn’t expecting.

Along with site development, I also get to do volunteer support. This means I go and visit volunteers. I sit and have tea with them and hear how life in Uganda is going for them. It’s fun and I hope I bring them encouragement. It’s been really encouraging for me too, to see what other volunteers are doing around the country. Uganda is full of some pretty awesome Peace Corps Volunteers who are truly making positive impacts in their communities!

As I visit these sites I get excited with the enthusiasm I am met with. I see the beautiful locations in the foothills of great mountains, along the boarder with DR Congo, beside a rushing river, in the middle of a busy town with hardworking woman selling their goods, or amongst a thousand running, yelling and laughing brown faced children in school. I hear about the projects volunteers will be active in: teaching motion in a physics class with never used lab equipment, harnessing solar rays to power a computer lab, leading an HIV club and partnering with the local bee keepers to provide teachers with a natural sweetener for their morning tea. It makes me want to sign up for another 2 year tour of Peace Corps Uganda!

This is a good job for me to have at the end. It is something tangible that I am good at. It is giving me a sense of accomplishment and I feel I have come full circle. I have lived and loved Uganda for 2 years. On site development, I know what other volunteers need to survive and be happy here. Granted, we are all different and come with different attitudes and expectations. But I know what basics to look for that will aid in the contentment of a volunteer. I know how to talk and interact with Ugandans in authority. I carry on a conversation that is culturally sensitive and shows our shared humanity at the same time. When I visit volunteers, I know that sometimes another volunteer just needs someone to vent to. I know how to point at those small victories and remind volunteers why they are here.

As the completion of my 27 months of service approaches faster and faster, I am happy preparing the way for new volunteers in this country that will forever hold a part of my heart. May they be as happy, hardworking and motivated as some of the volunteers I visit and I myself tried to be. It’ll be worth it all!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Impact

I have new neighbors with small children. I haven’t been around much so haven’t gotten to know them. I have been traveling a lot for work and a few weeks ago when I was back talking to Annet she told me about a conversation she had heard between Grace and Mercy, my new 4 year old neighbor.

Mercy: “Grace, where did your mzungu go?”
Grace: “What?”
Mercy: “Where did you send your mzungu?
Grace: “What?”
Mercy: “Why did you send your mzungu away?”
Grace: “She’s not my mzungu. She’s my Amanda.”
Mercy: “Where did you send your Amanda?”

Friday, March 4, 2011

Swimming

One thing that surprises me about Uganda is the many swimming pools it holds. There is even a swimming pool near my house. It’s extremely ghetto. You used to walk through some slums to get there, but they have been torn down and now you just walk through dirt heaps that is starting to resemble a landfill with all the garbage people throw there. Once you get to the pool it’s almost like an oasis. The pool is clean, has music playing and it's full of Ugandans! This is the most surprising part because all the other pools in Uganda seem to be full of white people. Another thing my pool has that is unique is a pile of swim suits for rent. Yes, for rent. If you don’t have a swim suit, or swimming costume as they are called here, you can just rent one for 1000 shillings, about 50 cents. I personally have never needed to use this service but last weekend I witnessed the process for the first time.

I have wanted to take Grace swimming for months/a year. I finally got around to it last weekend. Grace and I boarded a taxi and headed off to the pool where we met up with Celeste and her little neighbor Pauline. What followed was four hours of fun. Neither Grace or Pauline had ever been swimming before. I sewed a pair of my swim suit bottoms tight for Grace to wear and gave her a tank top. Celeste didn’t have anything to offer Pauline so she rented a swim suit from the pile. It was actually pretty cute and we figured it wasn’t so gross for little kids.


Grace and Pauline clung to the edge extremely hesitant to take any steps further into the kiddy pool. They also are not used to the sport of swimming and found themselves getting very cold just standing in the water. Their little lips shivered and I imagined they turned blue though with black skin it’s difficult to tell. After a few hours, they found a little more boldness and began splashing around. They LOVED swimming and both went home claiming having learned to swim. It was a very successful day at the pool. Now, I have to hear stories about Grace and her new friend Pauline and the time they learned how to swim. Oh, and hear the question, “when will we go again?”