Monday, October 10, 2011

Hey guys! Sorry to be a bit late in sending this, as always, there have been obstacles in the way of getting stuff done here. But I’m glad to have the time to sit down and write to you now (sending it is another issue!).
I’ve read all of your letters to me, thanks for writing to me with all of those great questions. I’ve done my best in responding to each of you. It’s really great to be able to share this experience with you through these letters. Also, Miss Fusco and I are trying to find a good time to skype, so that we can all see each other face to face soon!
Alright, let me tell you all a little bit about what has been happening with me in Uganda lately. I remember writing the last letter to you and thinking that it wasn’t all that positive, and that I wasn’t really having a great time with things here. Well, I’m happy to say that my attitude has gotten a lot better since then. I think it’s because I’ve gotten back to my village and have been warmly welcomed by everyone here, combined with the work going pretty good lately. Oh and one other thing too, but I have to keep that a secret for a little while :)
Being back in my village is like being back at home with family and friends. Almost all of the frustrations of being a white person in Uganda, alone and stared at constantly, the object of everyone’s attention, has left me when I return to the village where everyone knows me and is glad that I’m around. I can sleep in my own bed again, and I can make myself afternoon tea whenever I please. I can go and play in my garden, spreading mulch and picking a few veggies here and there. The sunflowers are a warm welcome back, and the strawberries too!
Now that I’m back in my village, I can get back to work as well. The work that I came here to do. FINALLY, the grant money has come for me to begin the biggest project I am undertaking in my time here, that of making bricks and water tanks as a business for my health centre. It’s intimidating and I’m a bit nervous about it, but at last it is under way, and I am committed to doing the best I can with it. I just ordered the machine to make bricks, which cost about $1,600. Soon we will build a 20,000 Liter water tank at the health centre in order to train our workers to build the tanks.
Also, I’ve been working with a group in the village to do some micro-finance activities. It’s called a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA). Every saturday, we meet and the people put some small money into savings, and other members use that money to take out small loans, which they pay back with interest. In the beginning, we had some problems with keeping records of everything, but we have really improved since then and we now have meetings that run quite well. That really helps me feel good about the work I’m doing. There are even several people who want to start another group to do the same thing, since they have heard good things about our group.
I mentioned earlier the garden I have been keeping. This has given me something really nice to do when I have finished my work for the day, which often can be after only a few hours in the morning. I’m growing lots and lots of different things, many of which are tropical species like vanilla, tomato tree, coffee, papaya, avocado, coconut, and aloe vera. And I’m learning so much in the garden lately, like how to save the seeds from many different kinds of plants. I’m also growing lots of herbs, like basil, thyme, cilantro, dill, and lavender. We are soon putting up a sign to encourage villagers to visit the garden and learn from it.
So I think you can see from what I’ve written that I’ve become much happier recently with life in Uganda. I am now midway through service here, and every day I think about how fortunate I am to be able to have this experience. I know it’s going to be over before I know it, so I am really appreciating my time here lately. I’ve also been thinking a lot about what to do after I leave Uganda, and I have a tentative plan. I am thinking of going back to school for environmental engineering. This would allow me to pursue my interests in helping people to better manage the natural resources like air and water quality, or advising for waste management, or for providing guidance in environmental stewardship. I admit that I am intimidated also by the difficulty of pursuing an engineering degree, but I think we all need to challenge ourselves if we’re going to achieve our goals in life.
I’m getting a cat tomorrow also, which means I’ll have had it for probably a few days by the time you read this letter. I am hoping things will work out better than they did with my old dog Oliver. It will be nice to have a little friend running around, and maybe chasing lizards and mice here and there. I’m naming her “Pearl”, as Winston Churchill dubbed Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” some time ago.
Okay for now I’ll say farewell. I hope you’re enjoying autumn in Rhode Island these days, it’s something I really miss here. Enjoy the cool and crisp beginnings of winter, look forward to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas! I’ll be thinking of you all!
Disclaimer! I wrote this initially as a letter to my correspondence match program classroom, so forgive me if this and the rest of my updates make it sound like you're in high school!

Greetings! And welcome to the second year of our Ugandan/American exchange program! I hope you all had great summers, are rejuvenated, and have a positive attitude about the coming school year. For me, I also feel as though a new beginning is happening. I’ve taken almost a month away from my site work, traveling to different areas of Uganda for a little work and a little playtime. But now I have returned and am ready to get stuff done! So, we are all starting something new, both in Rhode Island and in Uganda. Except that I didn’t get to go to the beach like I’m sure most or all of you have! I’m not complaining though... As I write this, it’s a beautiful day and I’m relaxing in my new hammock on my porch, with a very pleasant breeze to enjoy. I can hear the drumming and singing from the church behind my house, and I watch the people coming and going from the health centre compound. Work will begin tomorrow, but today is Sunday and it’s time to relax and enjoy the atmosphere here.
Let me tell you all a little bit about life here lately. I know it’s been maybe three months since I last wrote you, and I think there are some of you who are new to the program, so I’ll share with you some of the experiences and thoughts that I’ve had recently.
In general, the past few months have been a bit difficult. For many Peace Corps Volunteers, the time about midway through service can be stressful. There are lots of reasons this can happen, and for me it has been a combination of things. I really, really miss my family and friends. It helps to talk with them on the phone, but nothing can change the fact that I haven’t seen them in over a year, and I know that I won’t see any of them for the next six months or so. In addition, although there have been some projects that have been going well, a couple of the projects that I’ve been trying to organize have been taking far too long to get going. Things here can happen very, very slowly.
Another aspect of living in Uganda that can be challenging are the cultural differences between life in America and life here. Really, that is a major reason I came to Uganda, to experience life in a different culture, but sometimes this creates as many headaches as it does rewards. For example, it is within Ugandan culture for a boss to have very little communication with his employees. The workplace can be said to be more like a dictatorship than a place of equal respect. The educational system is another source of frustration. The students are generally taught to memorize facts and principles, day after day, year after year. They are not taught to think critically or creatively, and different styles of learning are not catered to. If someone is not a great test-taker, they will simply fail when they would otherwise have done really well in a different setting. And they are taught not to question authority, but simply to accept everything that the teacher tells them is true. I believe this is counter productive and stifles the children’s ability to communicate their thoughts to others. These are some of the things that make it difficult for me to teach Life Skills sessions too. There is no participation in the classroom because they fear to speak.
There is also the “culture of dependency” that many foreign aid organizations have created. Because Uganda and many other developing nations have received so much money from America and Europe over the years, it has become engrained in the minds of Africans that they will continue to receive money from whites, and thus their work ethic is often poor. Why should they work to pay for a good quality water tank when some organization in Denmark or the U.S. will give them a plastic tank? It can be quite difficult to overcome some of these issues as a PCVs in our communities when people think we are here to give them money.
However, I’m happy to say that my attitude is improving, slowly by slowly as they say here. I have been learning to accept those things which I can’t change, working to affect those I can change, and learning to know the difference between the two. I’ve also had the opportunity to help in the training of the newest group of volunteers in Uganda, which has given me a source of positivity, as well as going to a conference in Kampala with all of the other volunteers in Uganda, which are about 150. These interactions have gone a long way in refueling me to be happy in my second year of service. My garden has also been a place of refuge for me, helping me focus on a nice environment and the fruits that it bears. I also know that family and friends are coming to visit me sometime, and just knowing that really helps me find peace. Lastly, just reminding myself that I’m a Peace
Corps Volunteer in the heart of East Africa is comforting because it is, after all, a dream that I’ve been able to achieve and that I live every day here. So there are, as always, many many things to be thankful for in my life! And I just received a package with the most delicious cookies in the whole wide world yesterday! Life is truly wonderful sometimes :)
I hope all of you are enjoying the first few weeks of school, and I really look forward to any questions or comments that you may have!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hey folks! So I find myself on a thursday afternoon, sitting in my little cement and brick house, listening to mellow guitar instrumentals, writing to you! Not a bad way to spend some time, really. It is the 26th of May, according to the calendar Miss Fusco sent me. There is a picture for the month of May that is of a beautiful home in East Greenwich, with a picket fence and stone pillars. A lovely reminder of my home state. I patiently wait for kyamushana (lunch), which is surely some matooke, posho, and g-nut sauce. If we’re especially lucky today, there may be a side of cabbage or dodo (steamed greens). But most likely not. I can see and hear the children playing at the primary school just down the hill, for the children of Uganda the school term has just started. I think this is the second of three terms in their school year. Next week I will again begin leading Life Skills activities, and I am adding some sessions at the secondary school this term as well. These days, life here has been good. Very rarely am I bored, and the work that I do has been my choice to undertake, so that means I enjoy what I do when I’m at work! I hope I’ll be able to say that for the rest of my life.
I’m still writing the grant proposal for the brick making machine. It has taken some good time to work my way through this, partly because I’ve never written a grant before, and partly because I don’t want to fail. I want to be comprehensive enough in the proposal that I feel very confident it will be approved for funding. It may very well be my major addition to my organization, so I have to put my best effort forth, without rushing things.
I’ve finished teaching at Kyera Farm Agricultural College, which I am pleased about. Now I can focus more on the work I do at my site, which I enjoy more. The teaching didn’t go as well as I had hoped it would, for a few reasons. The students were ‘not serious’, as people like to say here. They were very, very late to classes, if they came at all. They didn’t do any of the assignments that I asked them to do, and only one person did any of the reading from the books I left with them. When they did come, they didn’t participate in the discussions very often. I couldn’t tell if they were not understanding my accent, or if they were not following the content of what I was teaching, or if they were just not interested in the stuff I was teaching them. It would be easy to just blame them, but at the same time, this was my first attempt at teaching permaculture, and my first try at teaching at the college level. I’m sure I could have done many things differently to illicit a different response. I will think of it as a learning experience for me.
I’m getting more and more used to life in Uganda in general. It’s been nearly ten months here now, and although so many things here don’t make sense to me or leave my mind boggled, I have much more patience and acceptance than I have in the past. People still stare at me all the time, but I have coached myself almost every day to cope with it better. I realize where I am, and that being the object of most people’s attention wherever I go simply comes with the territory. Living in a place the rarely sees white people is what I signed up for. If someone with blue skin and funny facial features lived in Rhode Island, I think we would stare all the time too. There is definitely less awareness here of racial issues, because the people aren’t exposed to people from different parts of the world, so people don’t understand that behaving a certain way towards someone because of the color of their skin is not okay. It is very contextual, these attitudes that we have towards other humans. Thinking of all of these differences and trying to understand them really helps in becoming comfortable here, not driving oneself nuts about how home is sooooo different.
The HIV Post Test Club is going really well too. We have been trained for the last two weekends in several songs, dances, and drama performances. On monday of next week, we are traveling for our first outreach performance, in the parish just north of us called Kaichumu. It’s about six miles away, and we’re all really excited about it! I’ll take lots of pictures to show you afterwards. Our plan is to continue with one outreach effort each week from now on, complete with health counseling, HIV testing, tuberculosis testing, and infant immunizations. I will act as photographer and token white guy, maybe occasionally giving short speeches in the local language for everyone to laugh at. Soon we will start to use this platform to market the brick making machine for those water tanks.
So I find myself happy these days. I’ve began to exercise more, running early in the morning as the sun rises and mist is still in the valleys. I also fill up the jerrycans halfway with water, tie them to a stick, and do some curls. Pushups, situps, and a few other creative lifts have kept my body in good working condition lately. I always miss home, and have been talking on the phone more often with family and friends. See you around the bend... -Jesse

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hello hello! I hope you are well! As I’m writing this, it is Easter Sunday, midday, and I am hearing all of the village churches and their preaching, singing and drumming. I hope all of you reading this have enjoyed your Easter holiday, whether or not you choose to celebrate Easter as Christians do. I also hear that spring is slow in coming, that days still can chill one to the bone. I can’t overstate how strange it is for me to miss my first winter, as the equator has a way of keeping us nice and warm. Despite the seasons, or perhaps because of them, I have found myself daydreaming quite often lately of life back home. Thinking to myself that I still have more than 18 months remaining here can be hard to understand. It has already felt like a really long time away from home, but I still have two thirds of my time here remaining. I’m really beginning to adjust to life here in Uganda, and from that I can get a lot done, but I also realize that the adjustment back to life in America will be a difficult process. It seems easy for me to work here in part because I am an American and people here will listen to me just because of that. Also, Ugandan village standards of getting a lot done is a bit different from American standards. Simply having a computer and a little money to travel also enables me to be extremely productive in some regards. All of these things are different in America, so to continue to be highly productive and valuable, I’ll need to go through another adjustment period. This has got me thinking a lot about what to plan for upon my return, whether that be graduate school or some form of employment.
Alright, so for an update on work related stuff, here goes. I’ve been teaching the permaculture course at Kyera Farm, and that’s going well enough. I’m not entirely comfortable with the material I’m teaching, so it would have been nice to go through a permaculture teacher training course to help prepare. But I didn’t, so I’ll have to do the best I can as is. The HIV Post Test Club has been doing well. We just finished writing our club’s constitution, our garden is growing fast, and we’ve been practicing our songs and dances. We are going to be training by a highly renowned drummer soon, so we’re all excited about that, including yours truly! I’m also busy putting together the grant proposal for the brick making machine that will be an income generating activity for my organization. We’re all very excited about this project, and eager to complete the proposal. This requires gathering lots of information from local villages on water usage, so very soon I’ll be moving around to more remote areas for this purpose. I do really enjoy these adventures, as I get to see people and places that very few white people ever see, and the people are always glad to receive me. I’ve taken a break from teaching Life Skills classes, since the children are on break for the next few weeks. Overall, work has been very enjoyable lately.
Some of my extra time lately has been spent planting more and more things on my compound, like Aloe Vera, moringa trees, mulberry trees, strawberries, and lots more. I’ve been playing the guitar a lot, reading some, watching lots of movies on my laptop in the evenings, and trying to improve in the local language, Runyankore. On a very sad note, my dearest dog Oliver has died from an unknown cause. Some think he was beaten or poisoned in town, the vet thought it might have been a tick-borne disease, and another volunteer thinks it may have been a disease called Parvo. Whatever the cause, he is now in doggie heaven and I miss him very much. He was only five months old, and really becoming an overly friendly, playful, well-behaved, and lovable dog. In other news, this week I’m having my 30th birthday pass, and I’ll celebrate it with my friend Britt, who shares the same birthday, and some other volunteers in Mbarara next weekend. There is also World Malaria Day that I will attend nearby in Kashongi with some fellow volunteers. So, some travel is ahead, and that is always good for the mind and soul of PCVs. I hope you all stay well, and I will be in touch. Take care. -Jesse
Howdy y’all! Wow, it’s time to write again? The days have wings lately for sure! I’ve been talking with some friends and family from Rhode Island lately, and they tell me the snow is most likely finally gone. Sorry for the skiers, and snowboarders, ice fisherman/women, dog sledders, igloo contractors, ice climbers, and outdoor hockey enthusiasts reading this, but congrats to the rest of you for making it through another winter! For me, the weather remains the same (Led Zeppelin reference there). Often, there will be a nice breeze that reminds me of the beach in Rhody, and I will long for clam cakes and chowder. My mind will drift, and I will find myself daydreaming of homemade ice cream, salty air, cookouts, campfires, live music, and other niceties of life in America. Somehow, I must endure life without these things for 19 more months.
Things are really getting interesting here lately, in terms of life and especially the work that I am doing. The Post Test Club that we have organized has been very active lately, and participation is great. We have planted a vegetable, flower, and herb garden that is doing well so far. We have several songs with dancing and drumming, and a drama presentation that we will soon be performing through our outreach efforts around the community. We are also looking into beekeeping for an income generating activity for club members. Also, my Life Skills workshops have been going really well at the primary school next door. We have nearly finished the HIV/AIDS sessions, and will be moving on to decision making skills. I’ll be starting with the secondary school (high school) shortly with the same lessons. Another big project I’m getting into is the acquisition and use of an improved brick making technology for the construction of buildings and water storage tanks. This new method is more ecologically appropriate, cost effective, durable, and quicker than the methods that are widely used throughout Uganda and Africa as a whole. This will also act as an income generating activity for the Health Centre that I am working for (LICHI).
I’d also like to share another recent development in my activities here in Uganda. I have agreed to teach a Permaculture course at Kyera Farm Agricultural Training College in Mbarara this semester and beyond. I’m super-excited about this opportunity because I’ve thought about teaching in the past, and now this will give me the chance to see how I like it at the college level! The material is of great use too, so I’ll be getting much more familiar with topics related to sustainable, empowering lifestyles. Sharing this kind of information and perspectives is extremely rewarding, as people can see how much they can do with whatever they have to work with.
As always, the personal side of life here is not consistent. One day, I’ll relish in the fact that I’m in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ll walk through the village greeting everyone, with my dog in close pursuit, and soak in the sunshine. Other days, I’ll look for shade, trying to avoid all of those who want to watch everything I do. I’ll be quick in my responses, shake my head at things, then take an early dinner alone, before an American movie and finally go to bed. It is certainly not the life I expected to find in Africa, and for that I’m sometimes glad but other times I turn to daydreaming of the next path my life will take. What has really helped to keep my sanity has been my doggie, my guitar, telephone conversations, trips to see other volunteers, and thoughts about the future. My inner world and the outer world are becoming places of greater depth and vastness than ever would have been possible if I did not leave the comforts of home. The experience has so far been both wonderfully stimulating and incredibly humbling.
So, as I end this letter, I hope all of you are enjoying the first days of spring. I hope you all are thinking of your future and planning for where you want to go and what you want to do in life. The possibilities are as countless as the stars, so you have every reason to believe you can find something to do that you believe in, that you love, and that will have a positive effect on others. Take care, and as always, ask any questions you like.

Jesse Coker
P.S. The embargo on mail from Africa to the U.S. has been lifted, so expect a little something sometime soon!
P.P.S Remember that this was originally intended for two high school classrooms, if that makes a difference at all.
Hello hello! Greetings from Uganda! I hope everyone reading or listening to this is doing well, looking forward to springtime, gardens, chickens, surfing, riding horses, climbing trees, and playing kickball. Things are fine here, but my oh my, how time is flying by! It seems I just wrote you all yesterday. Maybe it’s the realization that six and one half months have passed since I came to Africa. Now my group are the sophomores, as there have come forty five new volunteers this month, all of whom will work in the education sector of Peace Corps Uganda. So the experience is well under way. I am getting into the meat of the term of service, finally beginning to develop projects in my community. I even have some prospects of a few secondary projects well outside of my village. I am making more and more friends here, and I now have a puppy, Oliver, to keep me company. He is an African mutt, he is a handful, and he is constantly testing my patience (as if this whole experience didn’t test my patience enough). On another note, the Ugandan presidential elections have come and gone, with very few problems. This was a worry for all of the volunteers here, as the potential for problems was high, and none of us wanted to have to leave our service preemptively. President YK Museveni has been elected to another term, extending his position to 30 years in office. It’s hard for me to imagine America being led by the same person for that long!
Okay, a little bit about work here lately. I have a list of projects that have either started or are in the process of getting started. We have had several meetings for the Post-Test Club, and are starting our club garden on the 26th of February. We’ve developed an outline for our project development strategies, complete with a mission statement, goals, objectives, and some ways to monitor and evaluate our success. We’re also trying to develop some income generating activities within the club, possibly looking into an apiary project (beekeeping). This could be a great way to make money by selling a health-promoting product that also will help in the success of local crop growing also, through the bees pollinating the crops and eating some garden pests. Speaking of gardens, we have started our PTC demonstration garden on the compound of my health centre. We are ‘demonstrating’ better ways to manage rainwater in your garden, mulching techniques, contour planning, companion planting, organic practices, and seed saving strategies, among others. It’s a lot of fun to get involved, hands on, with the people I’m working with. They also really enjoy seeing a white person actually working next to them, sweating, and getting blisters. Another project that I am trying to put together is that of forming a small group of villagers who will be trained in constructing rainwater tanks. People here desperately need better access to water throughout the year, and the government will pay 60% of the cost for those who qualify. I have also started doing Life Skills workshops with the primary school next door to my organization. These are kids aged twelve and above, and we’re talking about things such as decision making skills, relationship skills, information on HIV/AIDS, communication skills, etc. There are so many negative influences these children here are facing day to day, so equipping them with some tools to handle tough situations is critical to them growing up to be happy, healthy, and productive members of their communities. These Life Skills activities are fun too! In other news, I’m also having the local carpenter build me a wooden sign so that I can keep the village informed about different talks that I will be giving. I’ve given one presentation to a nearby village about soil health and techniques for improving it in gardens. There was a good response, so I’ll continue with other topics too. Community outreach programs are still in the works also. The major setback for us has been transportation. We don’t have a vehicle at LICHI, and I’m not allowed to ride the motorcycles here, so that leaves us with the intention of bicycling to different villages around my sub-county. I have a bicycle, but we need another one so that two of us can go together. Hopefully that will come soon.
So that’s a bit of work talk, now a bit of personal talk, eh? My spirits have lifted as of the past few days, but for a little while I was struggling with some of the common frustrations of life here. I have always been a spectacle in my village, something for everyone to stare at and talk about. Now, with Oliver, the attention has seemingly doubled. They don’t treat animals very well here, so for them to see a white man carrying a dog down the street is like nothing they could have ever imagined. Being this person in a rural African village can be fun, but also very tiring. Never have I been so self conscious, and never did I think I’d have to answer a million times, “Eh! Embwa yange nomanya Orujungu?” (“Eh! Your dog knows English?”) Then I explain to them that dogs are treated with respect in America, and they are our friends. Here, they are used only for security purposes, and they often are not fed and sometimes they are beaten or have rocks thrown at them. So, the people don’t really understand why I have Oliver. Also, my organization has been understaffed for about two months now. This puts more responsibility on the people who are here, meaning that there is less time available for someone to work with me. This can be quite frustrating, as I am eager to develop projects but find myself unable to do them alone, mostly due to the language barrier. One thing that has kept me sane through some of these frustrations has been the guitar. I’m not all that good, but playing for an hour after a long day is a great way to relax, and it puts a smile on everyone’s face. Then I’ll turn to Oliver and say, “It’s doggie time!”, and play with him for a bit. Then I’ll sit and watch the sunset through the acacia trees from my porch and think to myself, “I am deep in the African bush. This isn’t so bad at all.” As much as I can’t believe it’s already been seven months here, and as much as I can’t believe I have twenty months left, life is good. As always, I hope everyone in Rhode Island is doing well. I heard there has been more snow, but I’m sure the flowers will be coming up pretty soon. Happy trails!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hello everyone-
Realizing that another month has passed, and that I need to write you all once again, I feel that my time here in Uganda is not so long as it once seemed. The days seem to pass slowly, but the weeks and the months pass by like the wind of a hurricane. I hope that all of you have been enjoying winter as much as possible! I hear that there has been lots of snow, and that the temperatures lately have been brutally low. You know what that means! Get your skis out on the weekends, huddle up by the wood stove at night, and wear those galoshes when it get messy outside! As for Uganda, the weather varies ever so slightly, staying sunny and around 80 degrees all the time. I cannot complain, but coming from Rhode Island, some variation would be nice. Besides the occasional earthquake, mudslide, or volcanic eruption, natural disasters are somehow rare.
Okay, so I’d like to split this correspondence into three main parts. First, I’ll tell about things I’ve done since I last wrote. Secondly, I’ll tell about things I’d like to do in the near future here at my organization. Thirdly, I’ll reflect a bit about how I’ve been coping with being in another country and another culture for nearly six months now.
In the last month, I’ve had waaaaaay too much fun. It’s really felt mostly like I’ve been on vacation more than anything else. I spent Christmas with the people who work at my organization, and we celebrated the holiday by attending a church service, playing volleyball, and “slaughtering the husband of a goat”! This saying comes from the time of Idi Amin, when he told the Queen of England in his broken english that he would repay her hospitality to him by inviting her to Uganda, where he would slaughter the husband of a cow for her. I’m not sure what he meant to say, but the joke still stands! Anyways, after Christmas I travelled to the far southwest district of Kisoro and hiked up Mt. Sabyinyo, a three-peaked volcano in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, where the mountain gorillas live, and which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo and also Rwanda. It was an amazing ten hour hike through the rainforest, up many vertical wooden ladders, in the rain, with the threat of forest buffalos and warthogs. Our group of 18 volunteers had three guides who carried high powered rifles for protection from these beasts. Next, we went to Kabale district just to the west of Kisoro, where we staying on a private island in Lake Bunyonyi for New Year’s. Festivities included swimming, frisbee golf, lots of great food, some wonderful traditional Ugandan dancing, and lots of story telling. Then, after spending two weeks back at site, all 45 volunteers in my group travelled to Kampala to attend our In-Service Training (IST), which lasted a week and a half. We stayed at a great hotel with a swimming pool! This was followed by 36 of our group of 45 going to Jinja, and the source of the River Nile. We went on an evening boat ride that started on the river and took us out into Lake Victoria, so that we could experience the true beginning of the world’s longest and most famous river. The next day was to be one of the highlights of my trip and really of my life so far. We went white water rafting on the Nile and it’s class five rapids. Covering 30km of river, where crocodiles are occasionally spotted, and where the river will toss you from your boat at any second, we conquered our fears and experienced the raging river in all of its glory. I will try to post some of the pictures on my blog website, which is
So now I am back at my site in Kiruhura District. I have finished the “getting to know your community” phase of my stay here, and am entering the “project development and implentation” phase. This will be the real work that I am here to do, and I am very excited about it! Throughout the first three months at site, lots of ideas were talked about, lists were made, but little work was done. Now, I get to put these ideas into practice, and participate in the change that is needed. One of the first projects that I will be helping to facilitate is a HIV/AIDS Post-Test Club. The HIV/AIDS virus is prevalent here, with an official rate of around 12% in my sub-county. People are afraid to test, and instead are living unaware and spreading the disease to their families or otherwise. This group will focus on supporting those living with the disease through education of healthy lifestyles, creating Income Generating Activities (IGAs), and also showing the general public that knowing one’s status leads to taking charge of one’s life so that quality of life can be enhanced in a variety of ways. Some of the other projects that I will be getting involved with include developing a community seed bank, creating demonstration gardens, outreach for health education in rural areas, working with the primary school next door in various capacities, conducting Life Skills Workshops throughout the community, improving community access to clean water throughout the year, developing LICHI’s webpage to promote volunteerism, funding, and acquisition of used medical equipment, improving waste management in the community, and much more. My project list is long and overwhelming, but things tend to move slowly here, so if I get my hands in a few projects at the same time then maybe I will be able to stay busy. Peace Corps Volunteers are always looking for fellow volunteers to travel to their sites to contribute to different projects and to share ideas, so I think it’s safe to say that I will not be so idle. When I have done this in the past, it has the effect of energizing me, so that I go back to my village with a great attitude, and cannot wait to get to work! I also want to grow my own small garden, I’m getting a dog soon, and have some other small projects that I’m getting into. For example, I have been trying to figure out how to keep food items cold in a place that is 80 degrees and does not have electricity. I want to do some pickling, keep butter and cheese for a few weeks, and maybe have a cold soda pop from time to time. After failing with several attempts, the next thing I’m going to try is to have a huge clay pot dug halfway into the ground, and have another smaller clay pot inside this one and filled with water, and the two vessels separated by a layer of wet sand. I have been told this will work and I hope it’s true! I think you all can get the impression that life can be as interesting as you want it to be here in a rural African village.
Now on a different, more personal note, life here in Uganda after nearly six months has led to many triumphs, yet some struggles as well. To begin, I feel as though I do not fear talking with anyone, as I have in the past. Being forced to fend for one’s self in an environment that thinks you are rich and often wants to take advantage of you leads to the need to say what needs to be said in any given situation. Being a long-term volunteer in a developing country also has the effect of validating one’s existence in a sense. Most people respect what we are doing as Peace Corps Volunteers, and those who do not, it is simply from of a lack of understanding of the meaning of the role of a volunteer in sustainable development. I finally feel like the work I am doing is as important as any work that is done anywhere by anybody, and that allows for active and productive participation in most any circles of discussion. I am reminded of a conversation I had with my supervisor here where he told me that financial wealth only leads to competition, jealousy, and the feeling of never being satisfied with life. Sharing one’s knowledge, helping others whenever and however possible, and cooperating will lead to a lifetime of rewards, both tangible and intangible. Colorful communities will emerge and vibrant, healthy lives will be lived. Despite this and many other positives that result from this experience so far, life is not always so easy. Being away from life in America for so long has shown me how much I value the things I once knew. Family and friends are very dearly missed; I never feel like I talk to them enough. To think that I most likely won’t see the Atlantic Ocean for 21 more months is painful. To be able to go out in public and not draw the attention of everyone around me is something that I think most people in America take for granted. I think that white people in developing nations have some taste of what it’s like to be a celebrity in the sense that there is no privacy, no anonymity when you are in a public setting. Communication can be very frustrating, as in my village most of the people do not speak any english. The local language has been difficult to learn, so most conversations I have with the locals are very rudimentary. When I do find someone who can speak some english, it is usually limited in scope so that I need to slow down my speech, articulate carefully, and choose my words selectively so that we can understand each other. Generally, people who are somehow familiar with english here are most familiar with Ugandan english, followed by British english, and lastly American english. This has to do with word selection and major differences in accent and pronunciation. All of these struggles in language have caused for some feelings of isolation, but I nevertheless do not shy away from interacting with my community because it does help to maintain my place in the village and it always brings about smiles and laughter on both sides. I have made good friends with the people who run the primary school, “Bright Future”, and play Scrabble with them at the village restaurant a few times a week. All in all, life is good here, and it is only going to get more active and more interesting now that we have entered the ‘work phase’ for the rest of the way. There is so much work to be done! Enjoy wintry weather!

Best wishes,

Back on track

Hello everyone!- Just now realizing that I never sent this update! Sorry for the delays, I'll try to be better. Again, it feels like years since I have written all of you! Part of me wants to say that life here in Uganda is normalizing, but in truth I think that I am just adjusting to the lifestyle that is required here. Life is anything but normal, from an American’s perspective at least. I am becoming used to daily life in the Ugandan village setting. Time is different here. Travel is way, way different. Communication is another entity, verbal and nonverbal alike. Business relationships, social norms, life priorities, cultural practices, religious beliefs, family behavior, and an array of subtleties underlie this land and its peoples. There is much, much more than meets the eye, and one must have good senses and the ability to read between the lines in order to gain some understanding of what life is like here in Uganda. After four and a half months, I feel like I am only beginning to scratch the surface of all of this.
Last time I wrote, I told the story of how I lost nearly everything I had brought with me in coming here, as I was carjacked at gunpoint. It was a major setback to my level of comfort at the time, as lots of these things were essentially my connection to family and friends back home. It also made me think twice about my ability to serve here for two years, knowing full well that this kind of threat can be reduced, but not eliminated for the future. It could happen again. However, everyone around me has rallied to help, and this includes the police forces here in Uganda. The thieves have been caught, trying to do the same thing at the same place, just days after I last wrote you. Many of my things have been returned to me, and I am assured that the rest will be found and returned as well. This is the first time in over five years that anything this serious has happened to a volunteer in Uganda, and from the response from Peace Corps Security, Ugandan security, and all police and intelligence forces at work, I can see why. I have also received the care package from the fundraiser that was done back in the States, with a new laptop, camera, and ipod. This will help keep me sane and allow me to send pictures to you!
I have included this story not to frighten people, or to receive sympathy. I have told it in an attempt to help paint an accurate picture of the state of affairs in some of the so called “developing nations”. In times of desperation and greed, in areas where there are limited human resources and a lack of infrastructure to patrol rural areas, to communicate, or respond to emergencies, people can take advantage of those who find themselves in precarious situations. If there were not these kinds of problems and underlying issues here, there would hardly be a need for volunteers to come. The more I see of the conditions and the ways of life here, the more I realize the need for people all over the world to understand what is happening and to become a part of the solution.
Okay, so what have I been up to lately, you ask? Well, since you asked, quite a bit! I have been getting to know the community more and more lately, including attending some church services, going to the monthly markets, and simply being out and about, talking and making friends. I have started a garden, beginning with some rainwater harvesting earthworks, and also including the planting of strawberries and a couple of fruit trees. I have been experimenting with different ways of keeping perishable food items cool, without the convenience of a refrigerator in a land that generally stays within three degrees of eighty, year round. If I succeed with this, I’ll be able to explore a great many other ideas I have about utilizing traditional methods of preparing food, in order to bring about improved nutrition for the community and possibly some ways of adding value to some market items. I’ve also built three different models of rocket stoves, two for cooking and one for the burning of trash. This is a type of stove that reaches very high temperatures resulting from a high quality draft, and producing an incredibly clean burn, so that there is almost zero smoke emitted. It also requires drastically less fuel to operate than any other type of burn system. And, it’s fun! We have also been improving the sanitation of the place through improvements in the pit latrines, and by adding hands-free washing stations next to the latrines. My fellow staff and I have also been talking a great deal about starting a HIV/AIDS Post-Testing Club, in order to sensitize the community about the importance of knowing one’s status, to de-stigmatize living with the virus, to create positive ways of life for the infected, to bring attention to the health centre, create income generating activities for the community, and to have something fun to do as a community. I’m really excited about the possibilities of this club!
For Christmas, I’m staying at my organization and helping to prepare the feast! I think we’ll have chicken (enyama y’enkoko), Irish potatoes (emondi), matooke (ebitookye), and, if I can manage a pie crust, apple pie! Without an oven, this will be tough though. Hopefully the pan in a pan method will work for us. On the 27th, I’ll be going to the district that is the furthest southwest in Uganda, Kisoro. It borders the Democratic Republic of Congo and also Rwanda, and contains Gorilla National Park, where we are going to hike up one of the volcanoes. Then later, after In Service Training in mid-January, we are going to go white water rafting on the Nile! It is Class 5 rapids, as treacherous as it gets, and I have never done it before. Shortly after, if I survive, I’m going bungee jumping over the Nile with some friends! I’ve gone sky diving before, but this should be a whole other ball game. I’ll be writing you again immediately after, so stay tuned!
I also feel like I am really becoming a part of the community here. Nearly everyone in the village knows my name, and as I walk through ‘town’, there are countless waves, smiles, greetings, and at least a few short conversations. They have given me a name in the local language, Kanyankore, meaning one who speaks the language. It feels great to have gained the respect of this community, it is important to develop relationships here, and I think it will set the stage for lots of productive work to be done.
Thanks for reading, I hope all of you are doing well this December! Happy holidays to you all, a safe and enjoyable New Year too. Stay warm, drink lots of hot chocolate by the wood stove, and make sure your teachers give you enough homework to keep you busy during the break! Until next time, take care. -Jesse