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.