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