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!