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!