Saturday, November 20, 2010

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water

Hello everyone,
Many events have taken place since I last wrote you. There have been several new and exciting experiences, one of the scariest scenarios in my life, some moments of true satisfaction, extreme tests of patience, and strong bonds with my new families. After all is said and done, the notion remains that I am in the right place doing the right thing for me right now; I’m very grateful to be here.
The ten weeks of training in Wakiso have been completed. There was a ceremony to thank the 45 different families in the district who hosted us, complete with song, dance, speeches (one from yours truly!), and a feast to boot. We then said our goodbyes and departed for the capital city, Kampala, where we stayed for a few days to visit the U.S. Embassy, do some shopping, have a dinner party at the Country Director of Peace Corps Uganda’s house, and finally, FINALLY, swear-in to official become Peace Corps Volunteers! That day marked the achievement of a goal that I have had for the last 5 or 6 years, and it was filled with color, humor, dancing, satisfaction, some tears, and lots of joy. It is rare indeed that a group of 45 trainees ALL make it to become volunteers, and our group has shown cohesion and resilience to achieve that.
Following one of the best days of my life so far, came one of the most frightening experiences I’ve ever endured. After getting a late start the next morning from the hotel traveling to my work site, we found ourselves driving the last leg of the trip after nightfall. Peace Corps strongly advises only traveling during the daylight hours, and now I know why. After dropping the next to last volunteer off, myself, my counterpart from my host organization, and our driver were making the final 15km drive to my site. About halfway there we came upon a roadblock next to a bridge, made of logs and soil so that we could not pass, and stopped the vehicle in confusion. No sooner had we stopped than three men, one with a machine gun, one with a machete, and one without an obvious weapon, banged on the windows, opened the doors, pulled us out, and ordered us to lie on the ground next to the road.
“Money, give me money!” the unarmed one barked at me while the other pointed the gun. I fumbled to get my wallet out and give him all of the 400k shillings (about $200) that I had on me.
“Where are you from, mzungu!?” he demanded with a heavy accent.
“I’m from America” I said as calmly as I could.
“This is Uganda!” was the reply, as if this kind of attack was the way of life here.
And so they proceeded to take everything of monetary worth that I had with me, including my laptop, digital camera, ipod, newly bought guitar, some books, even my beach volleyball, and more. But to my surprise and relief, they did not harm me physically.
Maybe you can imagine the state of mind or the thought process going through my head in this situation. I have come from 10,000 miles away to a foreign land, it is at night, I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I have angry men with deadly weapons that they look ready to use. I have come here in peace, ready to give two years of my life to this country and its people, and this is how it starts? Talk about a commitment check.
Staying in Uganda has been made possible by the tremendous amount of support I have received from all angles. Peace Corps staff and administration have been extremely sensitive to my needs and state of mind, my host organization has been gracious and understanding, my fellow volunteers have reached out to offer their support, and family and friends back home have been nothing short of amazing in their efforts to help me recover both mentally and materially. I am still trying to put this experience into perspective, trying to gain from it, trying to turn the problem into a solution. Any funding that is raised to help recover from this that is past my immediate needs will go towards furthering the work that I will do here in my community. Maybe create a library or community resource center. Maybe pay for transport for the community to attend some of the workshops or meetings I will run. Maybe it will help to develop a seed bank for the community, or buy a water cistern for the primary school next door. I think the point is that no matter how negative a situation presents itself as, there are always ways to look towards the positive side.
Okay, maybe a little bit about the community I live in, the organization I’ll be working for, and the work that I hope to do while I’m here! I’ve been placed in a district in the southwest of Uganda call Kiruhura District. It is about an hour and a half north of Mbarara, one of the large towns in Uganda. My village is called Omungari, and I work at the small but growing Health Centre here. Many of the people in this village have never seen a white person before, never mind a white person who can say some phrases in the local language! I love the reactions I get. The Health Centre is part of a larger organization called the Life Children’s Initiative (LICHI), and their mission is “To increase levels of social protection for all by reducing vulnerability, inequality and powerlessness especially among the poor and vulnerable”. This aims to be done through a myriad of approaches, from promoting self-reliance, sharing knowledge, reducing adult illiteracy, creation of jobs, investing in communities, improvements in housing, and improving access to educational opportunities, health care, and human services. It is an area suffering from poor living conditions, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and other diseases, poor sanitation practices, lack of family planning, and a host of other issues that contribute to the low life-expectancy and sub-standard quality of life for much of the population. My role here is to facilitate a positive change in these areas however feasible. One of the main approaches I will take is to develop income generating activities within the community and within my organization to improve the economic well-being of those that live here. Another focus will be to improve access to clean drinking water throughout the area. I will also develop agroforestry and permaculture demonstration plots at my organization and wherever else it is possible in order to improve land-use and foster empowerment throughout the community.
However, the first three months at site will be time for observing life in a rural African village and developing relationships. As with any walk of life, if there is no understanding of a system then there can be little work done within it. Before making any changes in the workplace or in a community, one must be able to see his/her role, to see cause and effect relationships, and to gain respect. This is the task at hand now; there is no work schedule for me at this time. I will continue to study the language of Runyankore, develop personal and professional relationships within the community and my organization, explore the area and the country, and try to understand how life works here in Uganda.
Some of the things I’ve done so far:
- Introduce the Frisbee to my village
- Learned song and dance with “Compassion”, an international organization who connects sponsors to children in need.
- Set up a volleyball league
- Set up a compost bin
- Built a hands-free hand washing station
- Attended a primary school graduation party (mostly dancing with 60 kids between 8 and 14), as they laugh at me
- Set up a P.O. Box for mail, obviously (P.O. Box 873 Mbarara, Uganda)
- Ate matooke (like mashed potatoes only made from bananas) every day
- Ate beans, rice, and posho (strange, almost tasteless food made from corn flour) every day
- Caught a glimpse of the mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo
- Stood on the equator
- Made fresh passion juice, eaten fresh pineapples, mangos, avocados, and guavas
- Made a fool of myself trying to play football (soccer)
- Rode in a Toyota Corolla with 9 other people

All in all, it’s been great here so far. It can be a roller coaster of emotions, but I believe it is adaptability and perseverance that make us successful here on earth. I know that violence is the exception, not the rule, and that most things in life that are worthwhile involve some sort of risk. I do have internet at site now, so hopefully updates will be much more frequent here! Take care of yourselves and I'll try to do the same!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

First update!

Hello friends & family!
Just to preface, this is largely the correspondence I have sent to EWG High School for the correspondence match program. There has been so much work for training and I haven’t found so much time so this will have to do for now!
I am here in Uganda, the heart of East Africa, and have been for about 6 weeks. I am here for no less than 27 months, maybe longer, and every day I thank the stars for bringing me to this amazing land and having the opportunity to work with these beautiful people. Right now, the group of 45 Americans of which I am a part of is going through 10 weeks of intensive training to prepare us for the next two years when we will be on our own. There are two programs that our group is serving within, that of community health and economic development. I am part of the economic development program, and as I learn more and more about the approach to development that Peace Corps takes, I feel stronger and stronger that I have chosen the right path. Since JFK began the Peace Corps in 1961, the three goals have been to provide trained men and women to countries who request it, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the communities served, and to promote a better understanding of the communities served on the part of Americans.
The Peace Corps’ approach to development is based on capacity building and long-term sustainability. Instead of giving donations, doing the work for the people we work with, or telling them what to do, we are going to be facilitating the development of the people themselves. Before coming, I wasn’t entirely sure how much ‘hands-on’ work I would be doing here, and now I see that in my primary project, it will be more of an advisory role than anything else. There will be plenty of opportunities to get my hands dirty with secondary projects of my own volition. All 45 trainees in my group will be placed with Ugandan host Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), or Community Based Organizations (CBOs), with a plethora of different missions. Some work to combat major diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, or organizing health centers. Others work with women’s groups doing Income Generating Activities (IGAs) such as community gardening, craft making, or mushroom cultivation. Still others work to promote small business development, farm to market operations, or the development of training institutions for improved livelihoods in rural villages. The possibilities are endless, and the needs always exceed the capacity of the volunteers so that it is always challenging work.
Now a bit about ‘how I find the place’. You can imagine my anticipation of coming to Africa at long last, considering my studies in cultural and physical anthropology, and general wanderlust for the mystique of equatorial East Africa. It is an inexplicable calling that I have felt deep within for some time. To be here gives me a sense of satisfaction I never could have anticipated. Nearly every aspect of life in Uganda is completely different than the life I lived in America. The language that I am learning, Runyankore/Rukiga, is so completely different than any I have known. It can be difficult to simply get your mouth to make the sounds that in a few months need to become fluid. To say, “I am happy to meet you”, the phrase becomes “Nakushemerererwa”.
The land here is exotic to me and infinitely beautiful. All along my walk to training every day, I see Jackfruit trees, papaya trees, matooke trees, maybe a lizard, some monkeys, or some talkative birds. Most mornings, I get up around sunrise and walk to the top of the hill I live on for some incredible views of mist in the valleys with oranges and yellows of the morning sky. Often, there is a rich smell in the air that I have never experienced before coming to Africa, a rich black velvety smell that gives life to the air we breathe.
The aspect of life in Uganda that I have appreciated the most, however, is the people who call this place home. Despite all the problems that Uganda faces, the people are as gracious, lively, welcoming, pleasantly curious, and genuine as any I could ever hope to meet. Every time I walk anywhere (that is my only mode of transportation around town), there are countless children calling to me “Muzungu, see you muzungu!” and running to smile and hold my hand for a moment before running off screaming with delight. ‘Muzungu’ is a term people here use for those who are clearly not native to the country, and is not derogatory. I will have several conversations with adults daily, as they are all curious as to what has brought me here. Engaging in these interactions is an important part of the successful integration into the communities that Peace Corps serves. Integration breeds respect, and respect breeds positive working relations between host communities and the volunteers who serve.
For the last three weeks, and for the next six, I am living with a host family. This helps gain an understanding of the lives that Ugandans live on a day to day basis, as well as preparing us to live on our own for the next two years. Food and water preparation, social behavior, personal hygiene, and safety and security are some of the knowledge that I am taking from this experience with my host family. There is a lot of cultural exchange in this arrangement, and respect is definitely mutual. We are being weaned into the culture bit by bit.
A typical day for me lately has been loaded with stimuli of all kinds. I wake around 5 a.m., and listen to the sounds of the village of Kisimbiri, part of Wakiso District, just north of Kampala. Birds, crickets, some weird clanking noise, are soon followed by the first glimpses of the rising sun, children’s chatter and laughter around nearby houses, maybe some music a ways off. It is time for me to rise, and so I dress, sit down with my host mother Bonnie for some hot milk with cane sugar, a banana, and begin the walk to the training facility. The walk takes about 45 minutes, and is often my favorite part of the day. The sun is still very low in the sky, a bright orange through the matooke and jackfruit trees. The valleys are full of mist, the children and storekeepers are out, and right away I get the full sensation that I am indeed in the heart of Africa. I begin to hear children’s voices, “Muzungu, what is your name?!”, and all I can do is smile. Shortly after getting to the training site, sessions begin. Language for two hours, tea time, some cross-cultural training, maybe some medical information, lunch, a technical session in economic development or community health, and some more language training. It can be a lot at once, but our group of 45 trainees has become close already and provides any support for each other that is needed. This is endearing, as we are so far from the people and lifestyles that we know in America. When 5 o’clock comes, we socialize as we make the trip back to our homestay families nearby, maybe buying a fresh pineapple, sugar cane, or jackfruit on the way. A review of the day’s work, home made dinner with the family, and bucket bath later, bedtime is calling. I crawl under the mosquito net and smile as I think of all the things that have brought me here, my family back in Exeter, the challenges and rewards that are to come here in Uganda, and what my future holds as a result of my joining the Peace Corps. Simply being here creates new perspectives and changes priorities. Life is forever different now, and I have only just arrived.
I think that I have rambled on for long enough at this time. I could write for many more hours, but I think this will suffice for the time being. Please let me know what you are curious about, which aspects of my experience are most interesting or relevant to you, and I will expound on these. It has been incredibly enriching and life changing so far, and I have just arrived. I could not imagine being anywhere else at this point in my life. There is so much I haven’t told and many more experiences to come.

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Introduction

Hello everyone and welcome to my Peace Corps blog page! To bring you up to date, I'll give a somewhat brief history of the events that have brought me to this point in my life, which is the foundation of this journey.

After graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in anthropology in 2006, I became really frustrated with the search for a job in the field of archaeology, my area of interest at the time. So, what fell into my lap was a job in construction, and although I enjoyed some days, I knew it wasn't my calling. I stuck with it for 3 years or so, and it took me down to Floyd, Virginia in the fall of 2008 for a building project for my uncle Jon and his wife Shelley. This turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me, for several reasons. The community in Floyd is filled with people who cherish the land that they walk upon as much as the folks that they are surrounded by. They are self-reliant, colorful, and vibrantly healthy in the face of corporatism and the consumer culture of mainstream America. I was introduced to a lifestyle that I knew would be a part of me for the rest of my life.

Having made these observations, and not having a clear path in front of me, I took quite a bit of time to myself in order to figure out how to best proceed. My main objective was, and is, to find a deeply fulfilling way of life that promotes the health of the planet, and all the creatures that live upon it (including humans!). Somewhere along the way, I'm sure a living wage will be earned.

My uncle Jon was instrumental in helping find a way to learn more about how to accomplish these goals. He shared with me his learnings in the field of Permaculture. In a nutshell, permaculture is the thoughtful, holistic design of buildings and landscapes, based on the workings of natural systems, that is used to meet human needs while increasing the health of ecosystems. What could be better than vibrant people and healthy, productive land? If you're interested, more can be learned at:

The following summer, 2009, I took an apprenticeship in permaculture with the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI), in Ithaca, N.Y. This path was taken in part for personal reasons, but also as a way to make myself more prepared for reaching another lifelong goal, that of serving in the United States Peace Corps. The summer of '09 was filled with amazing new friends, experiences, and learning opportunities. FLPCI is always hosting great workshops, and they run an amazing 2 week intensive Permaculture Design Course in late July at the beautiful Cayuta Sun. They are a huge reason I am now able to serve in the Peace Corps. Check 'em out at

So, after this apprenticeship, I twiddled my thumbs for a bit to make sure that it was the right time to apply to the Peace Corps. Was I ready? Was I qualified? Did I really want to take more than two years from the comfort of life at home to venture into the great unknown? I'd been talking about this for over 5 years now, was it really time to send in the application? Whoa, skedunga!

I decided to go for it. I applied, was nominated, went through the EXTENSIVE medical, dental, and legal screening process, and FINALLY received my formal invitation to serve. From the time I sent in the the online application to the time I received my invitation, it took about seven months, which comparatively speaking is not that long.

Since I've know where I'm going and when, it has been all about preparing. Of course, this means getting bills squared away, making all kinds of lists, downsizing my material items, the usual stuff. But it also means taking care of things on the home front so that leaving can be a smooth transition for my family. It also means seeing the ocean as much as I can before I leave. It means showing everyone how much I appreciate having them in my life, getting together with friends and family whenever possible. It means living a healthy lifestyle, staying in good shape (for all those bike rides to work in Uganda), learning as much as I can that will be of use while I'm overseas, and trying to wrap my own head around the tasks to come. It means stepping out of the box and embracing the unknown challenges and opportunities that I'm about to find.

And so now here I stand, two weeks away from departing to Uganda. One of the highlights of my existence so far on this Earth. I have this serene feeling lately, an eerie calmness despite all the goings on surrounding my departure. Maybe it's the calm before the storm, or more likely it's just my own way of focusing on the reality at hand. As I watch and listen to the rain fall from the sky today, I think of days to come as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Under African Skies.