Tuesday, November 15, 2011

all the noise, noise, noise, noise!

I’ve always been sensitive to excess noise.  Outside of a monotonous droning (ie fans, jet engines, rain on a tin roof), I cannot concentrate on anything other than what I hear.  Background noise on even the smallest scale makes studying and reading an impossibility.  I hate having any noise whatsoever competing with my music or television.  Silence is an absolute must for sleep.  In America, noise pollution was rarely a problem.  Loud weekend parties of course take place, but even on college campuses, most problems are quickly taken care of by common courtesy and the invention of the government sanctioned noise citation.  There were always exceptions (“ARGHH!  I can’t believe the guy my landlord is paying to mow my lawn came at 8:30 on a Saturday morning!”), but my point is these exceptions are rare.

Not the case in Kisoga, Uganda.  Between the preacher(s) with the PA systems who start at 5:30 AM sharp, my neighbors own stereo systems, the local cinema halls with their giant speakers inexplicably outside of the hall blasting away not into the viewers but to the town without, the constant aura of reggae-tone remakes of American songs, and the ever present whacking of rubber flip flop on bare ass followed by children’s wailing, a moment of peace and quiet is a rare treat indeed.  Asking people to keep it down is out of the question here.  The fact that it’s outside of local norms to do so has not stopped me from trying, but it has probably had a hand in the complete lack of results achieved by such requests.  I just typed out and deleted a sentence that explained that the only time my house is quiet is when the rain is hammering on my tin roof.  I was thinking that this is the only time I cannot hear noise from the town and my neighbors, but after a second’s consideration it became apparent to me that loud drumming is, in fact, the exact opposite of quiet.

A particularly upsetting development in the noise pollution saga has been the arrival of my newest neighbor.  Henry recently moved in to the one room duuka (shop) in front of my own apartment.  Our places were originally designed as one unit so that a shopkeeper could run his or her business in the front room and live in the two back rooms.  When Peace Corps informed my landlady that requirements for Volunteer housing included just two rooms, the front was partitioned off with a wooden door in order to rent out the third room separately.  The original door was just a shoddy wooden contraption, and when my friend and Peace Corps driver, Khasim, laid eyes on it, he immediately deemed it unacceptable.  He told me that the door had empty gaps over an inch thick between the rotting planks.  The drivers are notorious amongst Volunteers for being the most reliable staff for looking out for our needs, and true to this, Khasim insisted that the door be replaced.  He wasn’t there when I moved in, but a cursory glance at the door told me that his demands had been met.

I want to say in his defense Henry is not at all a noisy neighbor compared to every other homes in my compound.  He’s rarely there, he plays his music sparingly and at a reasonable volume, and has no screaming children.  Despite all of this, I can hear everything Henry does when he’s at home.  Literally everything.  “Sounds like you just talked to your mom on the phone, Henry.  Hope she’s recovering from that bout of malaria.”  “Hey Henry!  Once you’re done washing those dishes, maybe we could go for a game of pool.”  “Hold up Henry.  Did I just hear a woman’s footsteps in your place?  Let me get my ear plugs…”

This went on for a while.  I wasn’t sure exactly why I could hear Henry so well.  He was my only neighbor which I shared a tin roof with.  Maybe the tin caused something sciencey to happen (possibly through stuff involving “sound waves”, “reverberation”, and “amplification”).  It could have been anything.  I just didn’t know.  I didn’t know, that is, until last week.  I was making myself dinner, listening to my current favorite tune (The White Stripe’s Ball & Biscuit) when Henry came home for the day.  I glanced at our shared door, wondering for the first time if it could be the party responsible for my noisey misery.  It had always seemed solid enough to me.  New paint, solid throughout, boards nailed across the frame to provide extra safety during a zombie outbreak.  But now, as I looked closely at this door, it didn’t look so new after all.  The fresh paint was already peeling to reveal rot.  A quick push illustrated shoddy construction work.  Most distressing however, was where the peeling paint did not reveal rotting wood, but newsprint.  I saw clearly now the massive gaps between the planks.  I have no conclusive proof of this, but I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that this was, in fact, the same door Khasim had deemed unfit.  The gaps had been filled with a single layer of unwadded newspaper and the whole thing had been freshly painted to deceive any quick inspections.  Now call me a perfectionist, but if you are going to seal a door with newspaper, you should at least have the courtesy to wad it up!  Fold it over or something.  A single layer of newspaper?!  C’mon.

After discovering the root cause of mine and my neighbor’s intimate knowledge of one another, I feel like I should have been pretty upset.  My organization and I had been hoodwinked by my landlady to save a few bucks and it had severely affected the quality of my life inside my own home.  After almost two years, though, I’m past this point.  I could stomp around and bitch and complain.  I could lay into my landlady.  Call Peace Corps.  Who knows?  The problem might even get fixed before I close my service.  Probably not, but stranger things have happened.  Now, however, I just have to laugh.  Newspaper?  My door is made up of about 10% newspaper?  That’s hysterical.  How can I not laugh?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

pirates ruined my holiday

I’ve never been a fan of pirates.  As a lifelong fan of both Peter Pan and ninjas, some might say that pirates represent a sort of eternal nemesis.  They’re the Wolverine to my Buckeye.  This time, however, they’ve gone too far.

This is not the first time pirates have attempted to ruin my vacation.  Ask my family about the time I threw up in the middle of a Disney World line while waiting to ride – you guessed it – Pirates of the Caribbean.  I couldn’t have been older than ten at the time so being the fearless, resilient kid that I was, I’m pretty sure I got on that ride anyway.  Like with terrorists, the second you start letting the pirates dictate your lifestyle, they win.  A man of principle, even at the age of ten…

Things are unfortunately different this time around.  Instead of Disney World, the destination was to be Lamu, Kenya.  Lamu is, by all accounts, a breathtakingly gorgeous island off the Kenyan coast.  Its combination of beautiful beaches, tasty seafood, and old Swahili culture have made Lamu a great destination for tourists in East Africa.  The abundance of rich tourists, coupled with its proximity to the seemingly lawless Somalia, has also made Lamu a great destination for pirates.

A group of us were planning to spend Christmas and New Year’s on the island, but after the rash of recent kidnappings and violence attributed to the swashbuckling scallywags, Kenya in general and Lamu in particular are now off-limits to Peace Corps Volunteers.  My good friend Ashley actually arrived on the island where, within hours, she was turned right around and evacuated (after her evacuation from Egypt during the Arab Spring Revolutions - she is well on track for some kind of record).

We’re considering moving the plans to Zanzibar (a second choice only due to its higher costs), but with the pirates reach continuing to extend, we’ll have to be careful about planning even this.  We’ll see what happens.  I really want to make it to a beach for the holidays, but we’re starting to run out of options.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

young and famous in uganda

Whenever I used to hear a celebrity gripe about all of their unwanted attention, my eyes would glaze over.  Not only do many of the most vocally defiant celebrities make fistfuls of cash while the rest of us toil on to get by, but they then have the audacity to complain about it?!  It’s obnoxious.

It’s occurred to me lately, however, that my position here in Kisoga is a lot like a celebrity back home.  Everywhere I go in town, people know me.  They want something from me.  Where the movie star has to put up with an endless stream of scripts and the rock star gets handed countless demo tapes, I am constantly asked to attend meetings that, if they ever do take place, always start sometime after my “one hour waiting past scheduled start time” threshold.  Where the producer gets bombarded with the obscure references that somehow link her to the unknown work of an aspiring actor, I get, “We should work together!  Do you know Megan?  She is a Dutch muzungu that came here in… was it 2007?  She was my friend.  So what can you do to help me?”  In the same vain as the paparazzi, I have had the back end of a camera phone shoved in my face for an instant before I see someone tearing away, holding on tightly to their new treasure.  This is not an isolated incident either, but happens with a fair amount of regularity.  When there’s a group of us out dancing… okay it’s weird, but it’s at least a little understandable.  Too many times, though, I’ve just been sitting in a taxi, covered with the dirt and sweat of the day’s travels, when I hear that chintzy little fake camera sound and look up to see the grin of my own personal paparazzo.  Like many of today’s celebrities, I didn’t even do anything to deserve my newfound fame.  Can someone tell me why being the stepchild of a 1980s Olympian is grounds to turn an entire family into household names?  I mean, I guess I’ve done some good things here, but most of the attention comes from people who, apart from knowing me as the token white guy, have no clue who I am or what I’m doing in Uganda.

It can be exhausting.  It’s a tough realization that no matter how badly you want to fit in; you are on the outside of your own community.  And how do Peace Corps Volunteers respond to this?  Well, quite a bit like celebrities to be honest.  Some Volunteers cut loose and paint the town red in a great hazy binge, a la Lindsey Lohan.  While I’ve yet to hear of anyone utilizing the classic “Woody Harrelson punchout”, I’ve definitely witnessed firsthand a few Russel Crowe like meltdowns (minus the bar fights).  A few Volunteers, to even my astonishment, never seem to lose their cool.  They have a Tom Hanks-esque saintliness that, while you have to appreciate, you can’t quite comprehend.  One good friend, taking after the infamous Nic Cage, has coped with his stress by buying a bunch of crap that no person in their right mind would need or want.  I do want to say that while almost all of the time almost all of the Volunteers act with the patience and serenity of a saint, we are all still human, and none of us are perfect.

So where do I fit into all of this when I’m having a bad day?  I guess I’d have to liken myself to the enigmatic Johnny Depp.  I keep to myself, staying safely within the confines of my house when I don’t feel ready to face all the staring and shouting that my celebrity brings.  When I have to leave the privacy of my home, I don a pair of sunglasses and my headphones and keep my head down.  It’s not that I ignore people, but on these days, it’s a brief nod and a “jambo” then I’m on my way.  I even seem to watch a lot of Johnny Depp movies on these days, but I’d say that it’s more a consequence of my affinity for Tim Burton than any true allegiance to my celebrity doppelganger.

Monday, September 19, 2011

a situation which is not good

Even if you follow this blog pretty closely, there’s a strong chance you have no idea about the work I’ve done in helping to establish a vocational school in my area.  I don’t often mention it because, unlike the other work I do, this project is entirely under the control of foreign donors and the Italian Sisters that they’ve appointed to keep it up.  Also, it should be said that I’m not altogether fond of the project itself.  I’ve done my best to implement some of my own touches to the project to help make it both successful and sustainable.  Some of my ideas have been used like instituting school fees to ensure that students take their classes seriously, though, much to my chagrin, foreign donations still cover about 80% of all costs.  Most of my ideas, however, are considered to lack the charitable spirit that the donors were hoping for.  When it was suggested that the sewing/tailoring students be given sewing machines for completing the course, my objections fell on deaf ears.  I argued that we could not only not afford to run the school for more than a few terms under such a plan, but that the vast majority of the recipients were likely to sell off their free sewing machines, taking the instant cash as opposed to the promise of long-term, slower investment.  We haven’t yet given away the machines because I am still trying to reach some sort of compromise on this point, but I cringe to think of what I’ll find when they send me out from house to house to check on the machines.

In addition to the sewing/tailoring course, we also offer a certificate in hairdressing.  The first term, which just ended this month, was wrought with frustration.  On top of the administrative issues I was having with the way the whole school was run, our only hair dressing instructor had proven to be unreliable at best.  Materials went missing, students disliked her, and her personal attendance was hovering just over the 50% mark.  When the first term ended, Sister Judith expressed her concerns.  “What should we do about her?” she asked.  “Just don’t ask her back.  She’s terrible,” I responded.  “But she’s already asked me about next term!” lamented Sister.  “Okay.  Then tell her honestly that we’ll find someone else.  I’ll even do it if you want.”

Sister told me she’d think about it, which not surprisingly meant that the hairdressing instructor was back at it for term two.  After the first two days of class, she showed up at my door at 6:30 AM.  “I cannot come to teach for the rest of the week.”  I don’t even try to act surprised.  “Oh no… why?”  “You see, I am passing through a situation which is not good,” she said as if in explanation.  “Wow.  That doesn’t sound good at all…” I silently cursed the fact that no one was there to bear witness to my wit.  “What exactly does that mean, Erin?” I asked.  “It means I am passing through a bad situation,” she clarified.  I’ll spare you from the rest of the conversation, but it persisted along these lines for a while.

I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe she had a funeral or something to go to and just didn’t want to talk about it.  At any rate, she wasn’t going to tell me, and I wasn’t going to convince her to go to work, so I let it drop.  I let it drop, at least, until I saw her later that day and each of the next 2 days working at her other job in town.  “Erin!  What are you doing working when you told you called off the rest of the week from your teaching post?!  You told me you couldn’t work, and yet here you are working another job” I was really angry at this point. “I told you,” she insisted, “I am passing through a situation which is not good.”

This time, I was too mad for even my old friend, sarcasm.  I stared at her for a few seconds, and then took off.  I should have expected this.  What else could happen you consistently pay a person in advance who consistently neglects her responsibilities?  I know I shouldn’t take things to heart as much as I do, but I can’t help it.  Her students have been paying for school fees (at my behest, nonetheless) without the benefit of actually learning anything.  At the same time, my organization seems to only be benefitting this woman whose single proven competency is taking advantage of the system.

I want to point out that not all development agencies operate like this. Some are great, but if there’s one lesson I’d like to get across from this post, it’s that you should know where your money is going if you donate to development agencies like this.  There are good programs out there.  Two of my favorites are:
Kiva – (Kiva.org)
Peace Corps Partnership Program – (peacecorps.gov/contribute/ )
Both allow you to select the individual projects that you want to contribute to, and both have good reputations when it comes to responsible financing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

the trip home

It’s been inexcusably long since I last wrote on this, and the worst part is I feel like a lot has happened in that time. The big roadblock was my month-long trip back to America, which was planned as a surprise for my Mom, but there were a handful of blog-worthy happenings in there as well which I hope to eventually get to in later posts. Mainly, what I want to deal with here is the notion of culture shock, or reverse culture shock to be specific to my experience.

The initial move from Ohio to Uganda was a bit jarring to say the least, but so much of that was cushioned by my expectations. I knew I would come here and meet all new types of people and see a different way of life than I am used to (cultural norms, poverty, corruption, etc.). When you expect the unexpected, a lot of the edge can be taken out of the shock. It also didn’t hurt that I was in the same boat as 28 other future Peace Corps Volunteers. The return trip a year and a half later was something else entirely.

Setting foot on that plane was like stepping through some kind of science fiction wormhole through time and space. All of the sudden, the headaches were gone, everything was clean and functioning properly, staff were going out of their way to take care of me. It was awesome, but it didn’t feel right.

When I arrived in Chicago (after a quick overnight stay in Istanbul – I won’t go into it here, but what an amazing city! I highly recommend it.) my friend Dan was there waiting for me at the airport. The switch was unceremoniously thrown from African time, where the concept of tardiness and urgency are completely foreign to American punctuality. My little delay in Turkey had cost me a whole day in the states, and we had a schedule to keep. After a stop-off at Art of Pizza, my absolute favorite, we picked up our friend Jon and went back to Dan’s place so I could grab a quick shower. From there it was straight to the My Morning Jacket concert that was a birthday present from Dan (thanks so much again, buddy).

Surprisingly, the blaring music, flashing lights, and droves of people that make concerts what they are didn’t have much affect on me. It wasn’t until we went out to a bar afterward that I realized the full extent of the culture shock. As people sat there and talked about relatively normal things – the job market, the newest iPhone apps, HBO’s Game of Thrones – I realized that I was completely incapable of contributing to the conversation. A year and a half ago, I would have been right at home. I knew all of these people. I had talked with them about the exact same things, but something was different and I knew that something was me. What was I supposed to say when someone was talking about apartment shopping? “Oh really? A two bedroom just a block away from the Red Line with a great view? Sounds great! That reminds me. I was recently thinking about zombie proofing my own apartment. You know… Just in case.” While I didn’t go through with it or even say it out loud, yes, I was seriously considering it for a while.

Though I really did love every minute of my trip home, it was a bit marred by my difficulties in re-acclimating. Sure, things like wastefulness and constant attention to the iPhone are things that I would have expected to annoy me, but it didn’t stop there. Nice dinners, easy transportation, time with family and friends, good customer service, even tap water caused me more than a little anxiety. At first I couldn’t understand it. These things are all positive, and I have thought about each and every one longingly since I arrived here, so why wasn’t I able to fully enjoy them without some nagging anxiety?

I have thought about it for a while, and the only thing I can come up with is a skewed sense of equilibrium. Life in Uganda can be incredible at times. Work can be so rewarding. Time with friends is so refreshing. Good food is a rare, but always much appreciated treat. I have rafted the Nile River and safaried in savannahs. The thing is, every good is paid for, and I don’t mean in shillings or dollars. For every breakthrough at work, there’s countless hours wasted waiting for people to show up, convincing (sometimes begging) them to try things your way, and doing your best to protect everything you’ve built from corruption, infighing, outside jealousies, and so many other problems. For every weekend adventure with friends, there always the cramped, smelly, agonizingly slow public transportation and the people outside of your safe community who see you as if you had a target on your back. Headaches seem to accompany just about everything here. I’ve had the opportunity to do things here that I never dreamed I would get a chance at, but, as I said, these things are paid for by a million headaches and frustrations. It’s a balance.

I think the root of my culture shock in America stems from that lack of equilibrium. I got a chance to hang out with friends and family every day. When I wanted good food, all I had to do was open my Mom’s refrigerator. On the rare occasions I didn’t find something that I was excited to eat, I could just hop in a car and go get something. I know this sounds great, but the problem was, I was experiencing all of this stuff while I think my mind was still keeping a mental tally for me. It thought that for every shower and glass of water, a grueling trip to the well loomed that much closer. For every good meal, a dirty, long matatu ride into town should be made. For every day of fun with my family and friends, at least five more would have to be spent in solitude. And that’s the way it went in America. With my good, easy times continuing to heap up on one side of the scales while the frustration and headache side remained empty. The more things that piled on the good side, the bigger the shit storm would have to be to balance it out. Luckily for me, that shit storm never came.

Even still, it’s hard for me to believe how profound the culture shock was in coming home versus that of when I came to Uganda. I guess it goes a long way in saying how we can get used to anything, even things that seem so so foreign to us.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

the cynicism of a development worker

Last week, my Peace Corps training class got together for our Mid-Service Conference (MSC in Peace Corps’ acronym happy lingo), a landmark that represents the halfway point of our service. The idea is that by the time you reach the halfway point, most of the bumps and bruises that come along with moving to a foreign country will be behind you. The first year of Peace Corps is there for you to get acclimated in your new community, run through some trial and error on your projects, and start to hone in on what works best for you. The second year is to solidify the work you are doing and make it sustainable. After ten weeks of Pre-Service Training, a year in the field, and a handful of other training sessions we’d attended, further trainings are a bit redundant. That’s why MSC is set up just as a chance for us to come together and reflect on our time so far with Peace Corps staff and friends.

You might think that the tone of a room filled with people who have given up their lives for the last year to help communities on the other side of the world would be overwhelmingly upbeat, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. In stark contrast to the optimistic, starry-eyed discussions I vividly remember from when we first got here, the current mood in regards to our work is often jaded and tired. Idealism has turned into realism and, at times, cynicism. We slam the concepts of charity, foreign aid, and especially short-term “voluntourism”, and question whether our impacts are even being felt by our communities. I was actually hesitant to write this entry because, even though these things are natural to the seasoned PCV, I feel like it might be misunderstood by someone who’s never walked a mile in our shoes.

So what happened? Why such a drastic shift in attitudes? There could be any number of reasons, I suppose. We’ve been here for so long now. We miss our homes; our families and friends. We’re tired of being outsiders. We want a decent, sand-free meal. We’re frustrated by any number of the differences that are the norm for both Uganda and Ugandans, but would be unimaginable in America.

I guess these would be the easy things to point to, and I would never completely discount any of them. Things can wear on you pretty quickly when you’re on your own the way nearly all of us are. But I think there’s a deeper reason behind the cynicism. Simply put, it’s because we still care. As a friend and I were just discussing, most Americans aren’t used to failure. We came from a country where you are expected to achieve, and all of the tools are there for everyone to make that happen. We PCVs came here with grandiose ideas about the work we were going to do and the impact we would have, and yet despite our good intentions and our American university degrees, we have all faced daunting failures. Usually things just don’t work out the way we’d hoped, but sometimes there are failures so epically catastrophic that the only possible conclusion to draw is that everyone would have been better off if we’d never even attempted the project. Everyone wants to see their efforts bear fruit and see that things are getting better. Unfortunately, for many here it can be difficult to see. It’s something that none of us was used to, and it’s definitely taken its toll.

What gives me hope, though, is that we’re still here. Not one of us has given up, and despite any bitching we might do, I know that each one of us is going to go out there and keep working for what we believe in. We aren't perfect. We get worn out and retreat within our own safe little American circle. We complain to each other because we're not sure outsiders will really understand and sometimes you need to vent. We make jokes because sometimes you just have to laugh. In the end, the people I've met through Peace Corps are still some of the best people I've ever met, and I feel incredibly lucky to count them as my friends.