Sunday, December 12, 2010


“You have been lost,” my neighbor and local dukka (small general stores that litter Ugandan towns by the hundreds) owner says to me.

“Lost?” I ask. “But I have been around. I see you almost every day.”

“Yes, but you used to always come to me to buy eggs and bananas and pay me for doing your laundry.”

She is telling the truth, and I had hoped that this conversation would be prevented by the usual Ugandan reserved politeness, but I was not surprised to be asked anyway. I could have easily skirted the question and gone on my way, but I decided to be honest with her. The second of three goals for every Peace Corps Volunteer is to share the culture and values of America with people of our communities, and that is exactly what I decided to do.

“Well, nnyabo (m’am), you haven’t had any bananas to sell in months.” I watched as this fact registered with her. “You sell eggs for 300 shillings each, when most places in town sell them for 250.” Again, I could see her contemplating this fact. “And I had to find someone else to do my laundry because you did not seem to be very serious about it. Even after I told you about the problem, you continued to bring my clothes back wet and smelling worse than when I gave them to you. I am not going to pay for such service.” It may sound like a ridiculous story, but this conversation actually took place, and it is an almost perfect microcosm of the state of rural Ugandan business as I have found it.

When talking with my friends and neighbors about why they shop where they do, they will usually give answers that perfectly mirror at least two or three of “The Four P’s of Marketing”; product, place, price, and promotion. Very few of them have ever heard of the concept, but they use their common sense and list them off anyway. They will say that they go this specific shop because the prices are better, or they prefer that shop because it has what they need and is conveniently located, or they always go to the other shop because the keeper is so friendly. Basically, they are the exact same things that cause anyone to choose to buy what they do from where they do it.

For some reason, though, the common sense on the customer’s end does not equate to the same knowledge on the owner’s end. If you walk down the streets of Kisoga town, you will find failing dukkas everywhere you look. They are shops that have been opened in an already oversaturated market which don’t carry the products people want to buy, are staffed by people who are negligent or flat out rude to their customers, and are located out of the way of any significant traffic. In many cases, when sales are poor the shop keeper attempts to address his or her losses, not by fixing the issues of the business, but by charging more money for the few products that they are selling.

I can’t say I have any idea why the customer’s common sense appears to be like rocket science to the people who are opening up these businesses, but I suppose it presents an interesting opportunity for me as an economic volunteer. As a friend once told me, “if it was already developed, we wouldn’t need development workers.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

a different perspective

Being the only outsider in my community, you can probably imagine that I am the subject of a lot of local attention. Even though I have been here for three months, and I seem to be going about my business unnoticed, I have found that I never really have privacy.

Some people in my village know me and are familiar with my Western ways, but most prefer to keep their distance and speculate. They come up with some pretty outlandish, but pretty amusing theories not just about me, but often projecting them onto all non-Africans.

Not used to manual labor, I am soft and weak.
Emma, really my only local friend, brought me a couple sections of sugar cane the other day as a treat. For those who don’t know, sugar cane looks like bamboo sectionals, and, as the name implies, tastes delicious. Two sectionals is really too much for me so I asked Emma if I could just break it in half and share it with him. “No!” he yelled, taking it away from me in a hurry. He then quickly shattered the stalk over his knee and handed one back to me before tearing into his own half. “You could not have managed,” he said.

My diet consists entirely of yellow bananas.
Being a bachelor in Uganda, I am not expected to know how to cook. I had many people apply for the position of house girl (maid), but I turned them all down, and the speculation began immediately as to how on earth I would feed myself. Often being seen walking back from the market with a bunch in hand, Emma told me that a large portion of the town believed that I was subsisting solely on bananas.

I am quite the ladies’ man.
I have said it on here before, but not being used to seeing white people, the locals really have trouble distinguishing us from one another. Despite the fact that she has been here at least seven or eight times, many people mistake my girlfriend Nicole for a new, attractive woman every time she comes to Kisoga.

I am one of the world’s greatest soccer players.
Again, the issue of recognition comes into play here. To many locals, I am the spitting image of either Cesc Fabregas or Carlos Tevez (Spanish and Argentinean international soccer superstars). This, coupled with the fact that I am in regular attendance at the cinema hall (wooden shack with satellite dish) on weekends to watch English Premier League football has caused many people to believe I have unparalleled skills. Luckily, ten minutes on the pitch was all it took to disprove this theory.

Having a different internal composition, my body is physically incapable of eating and digesting many of the foods that Africans eat.
I have no clue where this notion came from, but I think it’s hilarious.

Being born naturally smarter, I only had to attend school for 5 years.
This one is really sad. After talking with Emma and a few of his secondary schools friends about it, I found that they felt African children needed to attend school for 13 years because they weren’t born with the same intellect as children from other parts of the world. When I explained to the boys that I had actually attended 20 years of schooling, and that they had the same exact same natural gifts of any foreigner, I think their spirits lifted, but I still get upset every time I think about it.

I am not someone to be messed with.
Unfortunately, this belief is only held by young boys (it would be a useful safety deterrent if the whole town believed it). They have told me that no one will try to rob or harm me in any way because if they do, they know they will feel the wrath that all Americans are capable of dishing out. When I asked how they knew Americans were so fierce, they told me it was because of all the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan films they had seen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

mob justice

About a week back I was in riding in a matatu (van-like taxi) while talking my sister on the phone. She had just had her birthday the day before, and due to proximity and budget issues, the best I can manage for such special occasions is to allow others the privilege of calling me. The matatu pulled over to the side of the road to give everyone the chance to buy some food or drinks, and, as I was staring out the window, talking to my sister, I saw a man on the street get struck by another man riding a bicycle. I immediately lost track of the conversation. I knew what was coming. I apologized to my sister and told her she would have to call me back, ruining what would have otherwise been my stellar gift to her.

Within seconds, people had already begun to move toward the accident. While the first man writhed around, probably emulating one his international soccer star heroes, the second man immediately hopped to his feet, grabbed his bike, and started to make a run for it. Unlike in America, people don’t hit-and-run out purely to ditch responsibility for the accident they caused, they do it for their own safety, and sometimes, if it’s bad enough, to save their own lives. At any rate, the poor guy and his bike weren’t fast enough. Too many people had seen the accident, and he was converged on from all sides. I couldn’t see the man with the bike once he went down, but I could guess what kind of justice was being administered to him in the center of that mob. The man whom had been struck, miraculously unscathed after taking a grazing from a bicycle going 5mph, quickly got up and joined in. As the matatu began to pull away, I looked around at my fellow passengers and the people on the street who hadn’t joined the mob. Some were watching the incident, but the vast majority of people didn’t appear to notice or care what was going on. This kind of thing, I’m told, just happens all the time.

This is, by no means, the first time I have heard about mob justice in Uganda. Mukono, with all of the crime I have documented on this blog already, has more than it’s fair share. Just a few weeks ago, a man was burned alive in a neighboring village. The mob had found him guilty of killing another man for his boda-boda (motorcycle). Even right here in my own village, a man had been suspected of six ritualistic killings, and while he was able to get away, all of his property was destroyed in the ensuing riot. The culture here is such that, if you harm another person, that harm will return to you.

Our own security procedures are clear. Of course, do not ever participate in the mob. Do not attempt to interfere with a mob or you may find yourself in the same boat as the accused. And finally, if you are the cause of some accident where people have been injured, flee. You can turn yourself into the police once you are safely away.

The whole practice a little Old Testament, and it is. Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. It’s not that the people here are bloodthirsty (I have found just the opposite to be true), it’s just that, they tell me, there is no other form of justice for them in Uganda. Law-enforcement is, at best, under-manned and under-funded, and at worst unreliable and susceptible to payoffs.

I am not trying to justify or make excuses. I really have trouble stomaching the whole thing, but I also understand that I am not in a position to change it. While I might not call the mob justice culture, it is certainly part of life here. I may not agree with it, but It’s not an easy thing to stand by and tolerate, but for now it is something that I have to learn to live with.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kisoga: City of Dreams

Album of my site in Mukono, Uganda

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

god complex

Religion seems to be at the center of just about everything in Uganda. Meetings, the apparent national pastime, regardless of their purpose or lack of religious affiliation, always begin and end with a prayer,“God’s will” is credited for most things good and all things bad, and anyone can tell you that the only way to make something official, be it a speech, a letter or a business proposal, is to signoff with the national motto, “For God and my country”.

While not as diverse as America, there are a handful of different sects prevalent throughout my community with the largest constituencies being Catholics, Protestants (the term locally applies only to Anglicans), Muslims, and “Born-agains” (I’m not sure to which church these actually belong). Indian and Chinese families, both present in my area, have their Hindu, Buddhist, and Siek beliefs. There is also a small smattering of other Protestant faiths, several Jewish families, and probably the most intriguing, the traditionalists or the “witches”. The only people glaringly absent are non-believers. I have yet to meet a local who subscribes to, or even respects the concept of non-theism.

While the least populous groups tend to keep their faiths to themselves, the larger groups, perhaps emboldened by their numbers, are not content to live and let live. Every day seems an epic struggle to win as many souls as possible, and that struggle begins early. If you are familiar with Islamic tradition, you probably know that the Muslim call to prayer begins at around 5:30 every day and is repeated another 4 times throughout the day. If it’s done at a respectable volume and by someone with a good voice the tradition can actually be quite soothing even to a sleeping outsider, and, in defense of the local Muslim population, they have done just that the few times I have been able to hear them. This is a battle, though, and the reason I have only heard the mosque (which is about ½ km away from my house) a few times is because they are not the only faith who knows how to use a public address system.

About 1 km away from my humble home lie the “Born-agains”. The “Born-agains”, by far the smallest of the big four faiths of Kisoga are also by far the loudest, most in-your-face of them all. They are led by a pastor whom, according to him, grew tired of having another religion inflicted upon him and his people every morning about six months ago, and without any sense of irony he devised a plan to rectify the situation. His idea was to buy a bigger, better PA system than the one being used at the mosque and to give a daily sermon to the town starting at 5:25 AM, just before the Muslim call to prayer. The deafening roar drowns out any competing sounds throughout the town. Margaret, my counterpart who lives at least 3 km away from the source, has even told me that her family is woken by him every day. While his incessant shouting can’t quite match the musical quality of the Islamic call to prayer, he does outdo his rivals by upping the few minutes that they spend by a modest two and a half hours. I was sure things couldn’t get any worse until today when some competing sect of Christianity joined in on the fun and began playing hymnals from their own crackly PA system. I am not sure who is behind this, and I was never exactly thrilled with the situation to begin with, but I am far from pleased about this latest development.

While the worst is always over by 8 AM, the battle does not stop there. Inevitably, at various points throughout the day, I will be asked about my religion. Despite my most cunning of schemes to dodge the topic and steer the conversation in other directions, I am usually thwarted. Regardless of how I’ve answered and how unenthused I appear about the topic, it is then my privilege to listen to a diatribe on the merits of their personal beliefs. One such speech turned into a near brawl in a restaurant where I was eating. While two men were arguing over which religion was better and which I should devote my life to I walked out of the restaurant. I am not sure they even noticed. The tone of these little speeches may range from friendly to angry, but the length of the speech is always the same; however long I allow it to go on before kicking them off my porch or walking away and asking them not to follow me. Interestingly enough, the only people who don’t pry into my personal beliefs are the Catholic priests and nuns whom I work with on almost a daily basis.

If you have been keeping up with this blog, you might remember that I promised to write more about the practice of witchcraft in my community. Before I get started I will issue a disclaimer. The accounts here are all based solely on things I have seen and heard during my time in Kisoga. The facts of what I am telling you are true; however their association with witchcraft is speculation, not just by me, but nearly all townspeople as well. Additionally, I am using the words “witchcraft” and “traditionalism” interchangeably. I guess this may be considered offensive to some, but it is the language the locals use, and being that most of their practices are underground, the acts that do surface tend to be deserving of the title.

I will start by explaining that over the years, traditionalist African ideologies have been denounced (at least publicly) by all but the most devoted of followers in favor of what I would call Western religions, most notably Christianity and Islam. Despite this, there remains a small contingency of avid traditionalist, especially in my district of Mukono – considered by many to be the witchcraft capitol of Uganda. It is my theory that because the common, everyday traditionalists have moved on to other faiths, those that remain tend to be the more radical “witch doctors”. They keep their practices under wraps, not because their beliefs are unacceptable to the people of Uganda, but because of the acts that are attributed to at least some of the followers. These acts include such atrocities as child sacrifice, cannibalism, possessions, and placing human heads in building foundations. According to friends and neighbors, each form of murder serves a different function, be it for health, prosperity, or any number of reasons. Upon first hearing these claims, I was typically skeptical. I assumed that the stories were simply that. Just stories. After just a few months here, however, headless and/or filleted bodies have turned up, children have gone missing, and suspects have been lynched by mobs.

One specific incident recently caused quite a stir. A local business owner fled town right before a lynch mob could seek their vengeance. Over the course of the last two years, six headless bodies have found in the woods surrounding my town. The evidence was as follows:

-The business owner had erected six new buildings over the last two years which matched the six headless bodies.
-Two of the bodies found were former employees of the business owner which had gone missing.
-The business owner had been questioned by local authorities when each of his employees went missing (before the bodies had turned up, and had stated that each employee had quit to return to their home village.

Whether the evidence would have held up in a court of law was never in question. Assuming the man, who had been told of his imminent arrest, had not decided to skip town, the mob which trashed his properties would certainly have killed him before any such trial could be held. The riot happened just a few minutes walk from my house, and a few of the shops wrecked were businesses which I had patronized.

Religion. It’s definitely a focal point of life here. Whether you are a witch doctor, a pastor with a vendetta, or a foreign volunteer just trying to get some sleep it seems impossible to avoid. I do want to say, though, that despite the pressure I feel from some people and the violence that admittedly has occurred in my town, I feel safe here. I live near the center of town, and I have worked to cultivate relationships with as many people as I can. Despite their confusion that, after having point blank asked me on numerous occasions, they are still completely clueless about my religion, I feel like they have my back. Some think I look Indian and must be Hindu, some think I look Arab and am probably Muslim, some know I am American and think I have to be Christian, and others hear my name and think I could be Jewish. I might humor their guesses, but I always keep my silence on the issue.

Monday, October 4, 2010

daily grind

I have been in Mukono for about two months now, and it finally feels like I have a home here. I am settling into my community, and work is starting to take shape. I realize that I haven’t talked much about work up to this point, and large part of that has been because I haven’t been anywhere long enough to actually figure things out well enough to write about it, but I think it’s finally time.

The best way to describe my role here would be to say that I am a micro-consultant. Once a week, people come to my counterpart, Margaret, and me with a veritable laundry list of issues. They come as orphans, widows, victims of HIV / AIDS / malaria / malnutrition / domestic violence. Some are physically or developmentally disabled. Some have almost no education. Some are just looking for a handout. So, every Monday we hold a group session where we hear from and speak with anywhere from 10-40 people about their stories. They may come asking for school fees, for food, for land, for just about anything, but in the end it always comes down to one basic thing. Money.

Everything Margaret and I do the rest of the week stems from that. One of the first things we do is to go through and verify each person’s story by going to their home for a sort of surprise inspection. If it weren’t for the fact that I get to walk through some beautiful areas in a tropical climate, this part of the job would be completely without reward. Only two things can happen once we actually arrive at the person’s home. They are either as impoverished and desperate as they said, or they lied and are trying to exploit us. Either way, it is usually a bit of a downer.

Before my arrival, the Catholic Church, backed by 4 Italian nuns and their benefactors from home, used to simply verify the situations of those who came asking for help and then start giving them the money/land/house/food they had asked for. When Italy was hit by the global economic crisis, the nuns remained but the funds dried up. That is why they brought me in. My main task here in Kisoga is to devise and implement programs to economically stimulate the people in need. This is what takes up the bulk of my time, and it is by far the most challenging aspect of my work.

Currently, my organization is running three programs to boost individuals’ incomes. The first is my counterpart Margaret’s project which targets mainly healthy young men and women. It is a community garden in which we have bought a large tract of land and divided it up to allow people to stake their own plot, come and work the land themselves, and keep all of the food/profits that they earn. Margaret, another coworker, and I even go help them work the land once a week. I once had a laugh with my friend from back home because her mom was under the impression that I was hacking away at the bush with a machete all day. Well, that’s pretty much exactly what you will find me doing every Tuesday now. Despite having had a lot of interest in this project initially, turnout has been beyond poor. Of the 30+ people that have shown interest, only 3 people have shown up to work, and of those, only one does so on a regular basis. It’s really disheartening to see, but at the same time it’s fairly understandable. Where is the motivation to work on a farm for years to pay for your house when my organization just built your neighbor one two years ago for free. People either don’t understand or don’t believe us when we tell them that that money is no longer there. The following is a conversation I had with a local woman just yesterday on my way to work:

Her: You have not yet come to build me my house. I asked a month ago, and still you have not come.
Me: I’m very sorry, but, as we told you, we don’t have money to build houses. You have to come to one of our programs and earn the money.
Her: But my husband died last year of AIDS.
Me: That’s terrible. I’m so sorry, but the money just is not there to build any more houses.
Her: - And I have nine children, and the three oldest removed me from the house because I have AIDS.
Me: I’m sorry. There isn’t any money right now, but -
Her: - And now I have to care for the other six children and I have no food and no money and no house.
Me: I’m very sorry, but we don’t have any money, but if you follow me to my crafts group and you work hard you will definitely be able to make enough money for your family.
Her: Why don’t you give me money? Some of my children are even having AIDS. Isn’t my story sad?
Me: It’s very sad. We still don’t have any money though.
Her: I will go to where I stay now and wait for you to come build my house.

The second project I am involved in is Sister Judith’s, my supervisor. Backed by one of the few remaining Italian benefactors we have left, we are starting up a vocational school to train young people in sewing and tailoring. My role here relates pretty exclusively to the budget. I was told outright that I was chosen for this role not only because of my financial experience in my past life, but because of the experience I had at my first site and my unwillingness to bend on certain issues. This has made me a bit of a lightning rod, as some of the outside experts that we have brought in have already let me know exactly how they feel about me and my tight control over the project’s budget. This doesn’t sound like much fun, but I know I have the support of Margaret and Sister Judith and I am glad that I can contribute something.

The final project is a crafts group made up of some of the women of Kisoga. Within my organization, we say that it is “my project” but the truth is I only asked the women what they wanted/liked to do, set up a few ground rules with them, and they have been running with it ever since. It is more theirs than mine. The basic idea behind this group is that these are women who have specific ideas on how to sustain themselves; they just need a little help to get there. The solution is to create handcrafts to sell where I have found a small market for them in America. The crafts are a means, not an end. These women know they cannot hope to continue to export handmade crafts for the rest of their lives, so we have planned out with each woman a way to take the money they earn and turn it into something that is sustainable for them in the long run. So far we are only working on paper bead necklaces, and the women are still learning, but we hope to soon have enough ready to ship to America where my Mom and Aunt Elle have very generously agreed to sell the necklaces in their salon and send every cent of profit back to the women here. The group is footing the cost of all of the materials and shipping themselves. Each necklace takes an incredible amount of time and attention to detail. I feel like these are very important things. They are working so hard and investing a lot of their time and what little money they have into their own futures. They are not looking for handouts; they are just hoping to catch a break. When they have earned enough money, the idea is that they will “graduate” from the group, take the money they have earned, and begin to work on the plan we have set up together. If you can read between the lines, it is probably fairly obvious that this is the project that I am the most excited about, and I feel like we have a real shot at being successful for these women.

So that’s basically what I do these days. I’m fairly busy right now, but I know that as my projects mature my part in them diminishes so I’m always looking for new ideas. Until then though, I’ll continue to hammer out the numerous kinks and try to keep the updates coming on the successes and failures of my current projects.

rafting and more

Click the link above to see my album of our rafting trip on the Nile plus a handful of other photos. The wet conditions and constant fear for our lives hindered all of our abilities to take our own photos so we paid one of the company's employees to take them. I can't take credit for any of the rafting shots, but the rest are mine.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

the gift

Every day I walk to work along a meandering footpath through hills, bush and farmland. It is Ugandan custom to greet pretty much everyone in sight, and when you are the only white person for miles people will literally come running to make sure they get their dues from you. The kids are always especially excited, and I try to tell myself that it’s not just because they think I am going to give them the sweeties that they have been misguided into thinking all muzungus carry.

On this particular day a band of boys came running up to me, even more excited than usual. “Davidee!” (I haven’t figured this out yet, but when pronouncing Western names people tend to add long “e” sounds to names that shouldn’t have it and drop them from names which should i.e. “Davidee,” “Sister Doroth”) they shouted. “We have for you! You come!”

I am used to being asked for things, but this was the first time the kids were offering me something. “Mulina ki?” (you all have what?) I asked in broken Luganda.

“Monkey tail! Monkey tail!” they shouted back, jumping up and down now and waving frantically, trying to will me to quicken my pace. Wow, I thought, monkey tail… I wonder what they mean? Probably slang for some kind of toy or maybe even some bizarre food. I followed them, almost matching their excitement, anxious to see what this monkey tail was that was causing so much excitement.

The boys stopped in front of a rock and turned around to beam at me while one went around to retrieve my gift. The boy returned holding something. “MONKEY TAIL!” he screamed, holding it high and waving it around his head in circles. Oh, its some kind of vine – that makes sense. He offered it to me and I reached out to take it. Monkey tail… that’s a clever name for… THE TAIL OF A FREAKING MONKEY!?!?!

My hand retracted, and, as I stared down at the hairy, bloody tail that I had mistaken for a vine, my initial reaction was to think they were having some fun with me. When I looked around at the smiling, nodding faces though, I realized that this was not the case. In these boys’ eyes, this was the most precious gift they could possibly give me. I could tell they were so so proud to finally have something to offer me. I was torn between not wanting to hurt these kids’ feelings and not wanting to touch the dismembered tail of an animal which, according to my vast knowledge of movies and bestselling novels, was credited for starting some of the fiercest tropical diseases known to man. It also occurred to me what a great re-gift this would make to some unsuspecting member of my family at Christmas. In the end, a combination of disgust and hygiene won out over good manners and the potential look of shock on my aunt's face. I declined their offer as politely as I could.

“No, no. You remain with it. I am already having,” I lied in my best Ugandan-English. “Webale nyo nyo,” (thank you very very much) I added as I turned to continue my journey to work. They looked a bit disappointed, but when I looked back not less than a minute later I saw that they were already chasing each other around with the tail, laughing and having fun.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

blog of revelations

After receiving some good feedback from my last list about my first 100 days at site, I decided to put together another list. This one is just a random collection of revelations that I have come to. I thought that I would add some contributions from fellow PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), not just to add to the list, but also as a fun way for you reading at home to “meet” some of the people I have come to call my friends.

- Goats sound more like people trying to sound like goats than actual goats.

- In the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. In the land of Kisoga, the man who can speak passable English and doesn’t ask for all of my things is my new best friend (still accepting applications!)

- People who live in grass huts still have cell phones. – Alyssa, Hillsborough, NJ

- Foreign facial recognition amongst homogeneous cultures is poor. Apparently even a 25 year-old men can be consistently confused for 70+ year old Italian nuns.

- Given the circumstances, 50 GB of music (enough to listen to nonstop for over a month) is nowhere near enough.

- In America you NEVER TELL A WOMAN SHE'S FAT! Yet here in
Uganda it is not only acceptable but a compliment. – Bernadette, Los Angeles, CA

- Ants can act as effective floor cleaners if left to their own devices.

- Lizards can act as effective mosquito exterminators as long as you don’t mind cleaning their shit off of your walls.

- Rats are not much good for anything except keeping your shit cleaning skills honed for your household lizard population.

- It is possible to get so used to pests inhabiting your house that a bat which has flown inside and is now circling your head ceases to be a concern.

- I've come to view bugs in my food as nothing more than a protein supplement; cheaper and more prevalent than Whey. – “Boy” Devon, Roanoake, VA

- Even if you bathe daily, you will probably still be standing in a puddle of brown water at the end of your bucket bath.

- While local witch spells seem to be ineffective, they still pose a potential threat due to their more conventional methods of murdering people. True story. (stay posted for more on this topic at a later date)

- With enough time and no alternatives, you can get used to living without just about anything (electricity, running water, a diet consisting of more than 5 different foods). What you can not get used to, however, is having nothing to sit on to make a long call (#2).

- If the roach you see in the restaurant you are eating at is not actually IN your food, then it’s totally okay.

- It is, in fact, possible to annoy yourself with your own speech patterns. “Okay please.”

- Time is relative. Nothing starts when it is supposed to. There is only one thing on any schedule here that is constant. Never wavering. Tea time. – Grace, Fort Collins, CO & Shannon, Philadelphia, PA

- Hollywood is probably America’s most prominent ambassador to Uganda. During a random study conducted by myself, when asked “who is your favorite American?” the two most popular answers are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan.

- A society can exist in which grown people bathe outside in plain sight but still consider it inappropriate to hang underwear on an outdoor clothesline.

- If it is raining you are not only allowed to do absolutely nothing, you are expected to. – Ashley, San Antonio, TX

- Despite not having any hope of accessing 99% of the items, PCVs love playing the game “What do you miss most about America”. Other variations include “If you could have any (ice cream flavor, bowl of cereal, sushi roll, etc.), which would you choose?”

- To answer the above with “my family and friends” is cheating and totally unacceptable for the purposes of the game. Of course it is true, though. This is the obvious and overwhelming sentiment. It is already assumed. I have yet to meet a single volunteer that, rules permitting, would not answer in this way. So with that, I miss everyone at home and love you all! Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 6, 2010

from the nile


I have been away for the last two weeks attending a scheduled Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST). Considering I had only been at my new site for six days, the timing could have been better, but like a lot of things over here, I pretty much just had to go with it.

The first week was filled with a language training course. Unfortunately for me, these courses were designed for people who had been practicing their language for the last six months, and they were really my first exposure to Luganda, the language they speak in my new area. Again, not really ideal, but both the language I learned in training and my new language are based in Bantu and have some similarities so I was able to get by as best I could.

After language, each of the separate language groups plus all of our local counterparts came together in one hotel for technical training. For those unaware of what a counterpart is as it applies to PC, they are our local partners in everything we do. The idea is that each and every project we undertake, we are not just completing the work, but teaching our counterparts. That way, when we return to America, instead of only leaving behind isolated projects we are leaving a legacy of resources for the community to keep our projects sustainable and hopefully create new ones on their own. Anyway, the purpose of the technical training was to discuss the projects and ideas that people had been working on for the last 15 weeks at site with our fellow volunteers and Ugandan counterparts. Again, having only been at my site for six days instead of 15 weeks, my counterpart, Margaret, and I did not have a lot to contribute, however we did benefit from the work everyone else had been doing, and I think we took away some good ideas.

Despite most of the sessions being more than a little boring (I actually only wrote about them because some people have been telling me that I write too much about what I observe and interpret as opposed to what I am actually doing), I really enjoyed being able to spend two weeks straight around friends. Don’t get me wrong, the people of Uganda are usually very nice, but the differences that exist between Americans and the locals are significant. We volunteers stand out so much as it is, that most of us can’t help but try to fit in in any other way we can. My speech patterns change, my sense of humor adjusts, and huge parts of my personality disappear entirely and are replaced by characteristics that feel more like they are those of a stranger instead of my own. You can start to feel like you are losing a sense of your true self. When I finally get a chance to be around my PCV friends, none of those things are a concern anymore, and I think each one of us revels in it a bit. We are fast friends, not just because of our common ties, but also because we have to be.

After the training sessions were over, a group of 20 of us went to Jinga, the source of the Nile River, to go whitewater rafting. The power of that river was amazing at times and terrifying at others, but was always awe-inspiring. I got tossed out of the raft on three separate occasions - a trip record matched only by my good friends Renee and Brennan. After an exhausting day of getting our proverbial shops wrecked together on the rapids, many of us sat out at our campsite that night looking out over the Nile and sipping beers, sometimes talking, but often not saying anything at all.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend involves my friends Arwen and Elizabeth. Everyone except Arwen was sitting around, enjoying the rare treat of chapatti (kind of like a crepe), banana, and nutella. The problem was Arwen had chipped a tooth on a flying oar when our raft had been flipped and was in too much pain to properly bite and chew this delicacy. Elizabeth, seeing this, began to chew off manageable pieces of her own dessert, take them out of her mouth and hand them over to Arwen which she glady accepted and ate. We all, of course, laughed our asses off at this, but I still thought it was an amazing little moment all the same. I think it really illustrates just how close we've become in such a short time. After all, it takes a true friend to chew your food for you.

After rafting, I spent one more great day exploring the city of Jinga with my friends Elizabeth and Brennan before finally returning to my site. We enoyed some great food, walked about the city, and met some interesting people from both Uganda and other parts of the world. We held onto every moment we could together knowing we would have to leave eventually. I’ll admit that I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about returning to my tiny new village after spending two weeks amongst my friends, but once I arrived I realized that I was completely reenergized and ready to start working and integrating into my new home. Kisoga marks the fourth community I’ve lived in since moving to Uganda less than seven months ago, and you know what they say. The fourth time’s the charm.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

side by side

I’ve talked before about how Peace Corps is a dichotomy. At times I think it may just be the unfamiliarity that makes everything seem this way, but sometimes I feel like this is a place where the extreme seems to thrive and both sides of the coin coexist side by side.

Since I have been in country, I have seen great savannahs, impenetrable rain forests, and vast swamps that look as if man has never even been near them, and I have seen factories pumping what looked like used motor oil directly into a roadside ditch right outside their property, forests leveled and plains burned to make way for new farmland, and entire towns coated in dust from all of the construction in the red earth.

I have had unknown children sprint up to me wanting to do nothing other than hold my hand, and I have been woken up at all hours of the morning by other children fiercely demanding that I give them money, a computer, or any number of my other possessions, which they inexplicably know I have.

I have seen life on the highway. Literally. I actually saw a woman give birth on the side of the road. But I also saw death on the highway when a man fell from his perch on top of a moving truck and had been gorily ripped open, lying with his insides spread over the road.

I am always easily recognized as someone “not from around here”. This, at times, has resulted in total strangers inviting me to take lunch or tea with them, or just thanking me for coming to help their country. At other times it has resulted in people yelling at me to “go back to (insert foreign country here)”.

I know people that work from sunrise to sunset, cooking, cleaning, farming, and getting their children off to school every single day, but I have also walked past groups of men who, despite being drunk off their asses before noon, can’t afford their own children’s school fees. When they incredulously demand “YOU GIVE ME MONEY!” they often don’t even hide the fact that they are planning to use it to buy more booze.

My complexion, darker than most Western workers but much lighter than their own, has caused total strangers to want to take a photo with their favorite international football stars Carlos Tevez or Cesc Fabregas (me), but it has also gotten me furiously accused of being a terrorist or a Muhindi (person from India), probably both of which implying equal disdain in the accusers’ eyes.

I have seen months, packed with new and exciting things every day, fly by in an instant. I have also felt the hours stretch so long they seemed like weeks where I would hardly leave my apartment or speak to anyone for days on end.

I have met people who have selflessly devoted their entire lives (not just the two years I am giving up) to the service of other people, receiving hardly anything in return outside of their own contentment, but I have also seen hordes of people who have taken jobs in aid or religious service only because they are the best paying (and most easily extorted) positions available locally.

I have met local people with hardly anything to call their own share meals, lend money, and even take in lost children to raise as their own, expecting nothing in return, but I have also seen people in power with their hands in the pockets of needy schools, orphanages, and any other number of other organizations.

Having said all of these things, I guess it’s not altogether surprising some of the mood swings that I, along with many of the other volunteers in country, experience, but I think it would be a mistake to attribute them entirely to outside forces. Sometimes I feel up when everything is going wrong, and sometimes I am down for no reason at all. I guess I haven’t quite figured that one out yet, but I’m looking into it.

Special thanks to my friend, Devon, for the photo. He took the shot and photoshopped it. I liked it so much that I couldn't help but steal it. I feel like the photo does a great job in getting the point I wanted across. In his own words:

THIS is Peace Corps. Same pic. Flip it. Desaturate it. Sew them together. Bright, warm. Black/white Drab. It's the "ups" and it's the "downs." And when you put it all together, it's a beautiful view... sunrise on the horizon. The beginning of a truly unique day.

You can check out Devon's blog here -

I also have my new address finally. Check it out on the right side of this page under "Contact Info".

Saturday, August 7, 2010

two great american holidays

More old photos. These should have gone with the stories about my birthday and the boat ride/4th of July, but I had trouble uploading them all. Hope you enjoy them anyway.

These albums have been about halfway uploaded to the site for a while so it's possible you have looked at the album before today but not seen most of the photos now there.


Photos of my old site. I have been trying for weeks to get them up, and titled the album "Site!" when I had just moved in and was still very excited about Rwenjeru. If I were to title it now, it would probably be "site..." and would have been accompanied by an effect that sounds like "wanh wanhh waaaaaaannnnnnnhhh". You know what I mean.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

a fresh start

Monday, I finally made my move away from Rwenjeru Campsite. The people whom I had lived with were all quite surprised to see the Peace Corps truck pulling up. They quickly set to work trying to make tea and set up a nice little outdoor meeting area to show the PC staff some hospitality, having no clue the real reason for their arrival.

I was given the option to attend the meeting where the truth would out, and PC would tell about their discovery of the corruption and their decision to remove me from the site. Looking back, I feel like I should have definitely been there, but at the time I declined to attend. I felt more nauseous than I can ever remember feeling. I just couldn't face them. Also not in attendance was Enock, who, in typical fashion, had left town for a one night trip to Kampala about a week or so ago. I elected, instead, to put all of my belongings into the truck. 90 seconds later I was all packed up and ready to go, but the meeting continued to drag on.

I knew they would try to contest the decision, and they did. I was told after that every one of them claimed to have been ignorant to what Enock had done, and each one of them severely condemned the actions despite the fact that everyone in attendance was related to the man (including his father and grandfather). Peace Corps, however, was not there to have an open dialog. They were fed up with the way things had gone from day one, and their decision was final. They told the members of the campsite that even if they had been ignorant, Enock was a representative of the campsite, and his actions were recognized as such. If I had continued to work there, it would be a serious compromise of both Peace Corps' and my own integrity. When the meeting eventually let out, they all came over to shake my hand, apologize for what had happened, and to wish me luck. I could see that some of them were crying.

By all rights, my time at Rwenjeru was absolutely awful. I spent my first two months living in a bare apartment with nothing to do and no one to talk to. The next three weeks I was happy to move into my new place, but I was hardly doing anything constructive. That was then followed by about three more weeks of dealing with the corruption issue and being forced to essentially live a lie. In my time there I saw alcoholism, laziness, corruption, and sexism taken to degrees I had never dreamed I would see. And yet, despite all of that, leaving that day was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I knew what a crushing blow it was to the dreams of the campsite, and to each one of the members personally.

After a one night stop in Kampala, the truck brought me to my new site here in the village of Kisoga in Mukono District. Despite the effect leaving Rwenjeru had on me, I feel like a weight has been lifted from my chest, and I am ready to start anew. I will be working in conjunction with the local Catholic Church doing whatever projects they and I feel will help the people. That sounds very vague, but they already have some ideas in place, and I can tell I will be more than busy during my service here. I'll have more details about what I am doing and how everything is going later. Even now, completely removed from Rwenjeru, I still feel badly about the way things turned out, but I am trying to concentrate on moving forward, and I know things will be better for me here.

*** Note ***
My new village doesn't have cell phone reception from my old provider so I had to switch back to my old number for now. You can find it to the right side of the screen under Contact Info.

Friday, July 30, 2010

100 days of site

It’s been 100 days now since I have been at site. I guess it doesn’t seem like that much time has gone by, but maybe that’s just because I continue to keep moving around quite a bit. Anyway, that got me thinking of exactly what 100 days means here, so I figured I would have a little fun with some other numbers.

500 – Bananas I have eaten (This is just an estimate, but I promise you, it is a VERY conservative one. I generally eat quite a bit more than 5 bananas a day. Sometimes up to around 10.)

10 – Most people seen in a single compact car

483 – Text messages sent

2 – Times woken up past 7:00 AM

1000 - Biggest “Muzungu Price” mark-up percentage (price initially offered due to conspicuous skin color)

500 – Liters of water drank

13 – Number of books read (including Infinite Jest which should count for like 10)

5 – Kilos of oatmeal eaten

33 – World Cup matches watched

7 – Meals eaten with meat

4 – Most days gone without showering

190 – Days without a haircut (this obviously goes outside of the 100 day theme, but seems worth noting)

14 – Times listened to album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in its entirety

9 - Average distance walked per day in kilometers

As luck would have it, it looks like these first 100 days will be my last at this site. I got the word from Peace Corps that they will be moving me to Mukono this Monday. I have no idea about what I am walking into, but I am not too worried about that at the moment. It's just something I've come to expect here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

things fall apart

The other day my organization, Rwenjeru Campsite, told me to visit a local primary (elementary) school because they were under-funded and were looking for help writing a grant. Even though I wasn’t exactly asked, and grant writing is not something I am all that familiar with, I agreed to help out as best I could.

As I walked around and toured the school with the headmaster, my heart went out to the place. It’s hard not to feel moved when there are hundreds of kids grinning from ear to ear, greeting you, and singing for you in every classroom you enter despite all the hardships and poor conditions that it’s obvious they are facing. I found my smile was even more permanently plastered to my face than usual.

After the tour, I went back to the headmaster’s office to ask a few questions and discuss what it was he planned to use the funds for. My supervisor, Enoch, had tagged along for the trip, although he had asked me to handle the process. After my discussion with the headmaster I got up to leave, and saw Enoch hand a paper discreetly across the desk. After looking it over, the headmaster replied, “This will be pending approval. For now, it must be transportation only.” This put me on alert. Enoch had me sit back down while he scribbled out another piece of paper, and handed it across the desk again. “100,000 seems like a lot for transport,” said the headmaster this time, and I knew he was absolutely right. It was something like three times the price of our transportation. Nevertheless, the headmaster signed and stamped the second piece of paper, and told Enoch to go collect at the cashier.

If I thought something was up before, I knew it was now. I needed to see what was on that paper. Clearly, it had something to do with money. I decided discretion would be better than throwing around accusations of corruption, so I walked around the headmaster’s desk under the guise of asking him a question about some of the estimates he had given me. I glanced down at the first paper while he talked to discover that mystery paper #1 was actually an invoice from my campsite to the school for my “consultative services” for the figure of 500,000 Ugandan Shillings (500,000 shillings exchanges to about $250, but if you consider things like average incomes and purchasing power, I’d say it’s closer in Ugandan terms to $7,000-$10,000).

I felt absolutely devastated. I am not trying to sound noble, but I came here to help as a volunteer. If I had wanted to charge people for my services, I would have continued consulting in America where I would be the one to profit off of my work. The idea that I was being used as a tool to exploit an under-funded school in Uganda for someone else’s personal gain made me sick.

Still in shock, I called some Peace Corps friends to see what I should do. They all convinced me that I had call PC administration, and when I did they were extremely helpful and understanding. They even came out to meet me in person the next day. They initially told me to leave my site for the weekend. I was obviously upset, and they told me to take the weekend to cool off, clear my head a bit, and decide if I could continue working with these people, or if it was finally time to cut ties and move on to another organization.

After spending the weekend with Charlene in Ibanda, I still felt no more certain about what I wanted to do. On the one hand, I was really starting to enjoy my life here at the campsite. I still did not have much faith in the work I was doing, but at least things were starting to move in a productive direction. It’s a beautiful place to live, and, my distaste for Enoch aside, I have gotten along great with most of the staff and the surrounding community. I felt an obligation to these people. I also had a bit of a fear of the unknown. If I were to leave, where would I go? On the other hand, I could not erase from my mind what had happened. I couldn’t stand the thought of continuing to work with these people. It just flew in the face of my values, and tolerating corruption on this level was not something I felt prepared to do.

Even though I still feel uncertain about what it is that I want, I feel fortunate that the Country Director of PC Uganda took the responsibility out of my hands. He decided that the organization had committed too serious a violation of policy to continue working with them, and that I would be leaving Rwenjeru Campsite. I still feel very conflicted about the whole thing, but I think deep down I know that this is what has to happen.

What’s next is still unknown, and more than a little awkward. The general protocol is for siteless volunteers to go to the capitol city of Kampala, however it is still off limits to volunteers due to security concerns over the recent terrorist attacks. That means that I will continue living at Rwenjeru until a replacement site is found. They still have no idea that I am being removed, and they actually don’t even know that I know about the invoice, and I am supposed to keep it that way just in case it becomes a security issue (not that I think it will, Mom). I even had to call the headmaster of the school, whom was made aware of the situation, and ask him to lie on my behalf in case someone should call trying to collect the UGX 500,000.

So for now, it looks like I am going to go on living a secret life. It’s definitely not ideal, but at the moment not much else can be done.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

kampala bombings

I have had a recent influx of calls and emails from a lot of people concerned about the bombings that took place in the capitol city of Kampala during the World Cup Finals. I am okay, and as far as I know, no Peace Corps Volunteers or staff were harmed during the attacks.

I am currently restricted from leaving my site, and, because that is fairly deep in the village, I don't have much information or insight into what is going on.

I will say that I know both the places that were attacked. One is a rugby club and the other is an Ethiopian restaurant. While I wouldn't say that either was very popular with tourists, both places were frequented by foreign residents, particularly from the West. I would have to think that whoever planned these attacks was also aware of this fact, which is pretty troubling as far as my own safety is concerned. Outside of that, I am pretty well in the dark. I will try to keep everyone posted if anything changes.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

i'm on a boat

The following story admittedly foul and probably the longest entry that I have written, but it’s my favorite to this point, and I hope you find reading it is worth the sacrifice of your time and potentially your appetite.

I spent the 4th of July on Banda Island, part of the Ssese Island chain just off the Ugandan coast of Lake Victoria. The only way to reach the island is by a three hour water taxi ride on what was basically an old, oversized canoe with an engine hardly fit for trawling.

There is no pier in which to board the boats, which remain tied just off shore. As I was working out in my head how I was possibly going to get on this thing without both exposing myself to schistosomaisis (a parasite found in nearly all stagnant freshwater bodies in Uganda) and getting my things completely soaked, a Ugandan man approached me, squatted next to me, and proceeded to sort of spin me around by grabbing the pocket of my jeans. Totally dumbstruck, I briefly considered telling the man, “yeah, they are Levi’s,” until, at that moment, he stuck his head in between my legs and stood up, hoisting me onto his shoulders. He then proceeded to walk me out into the lake and basically throw me on the boat.

Once on board, our spirits were very high. Somebody broke out their iPod and speakers, and we of course listened to Andy Samberg’s “I’m on a Boat”. A few others decided that rum and mango juice was appropriate considering the circumstances, and although I was inclined to agree, I didn’t partake due to the looming ride across what I could see were rough waters. As we waited to disembark, a few more people boarded the boat, all Ugandans. Then, we were off.

To call the ensuing trip a shit-show would be a severe understatement. Due to the high winds and choppy waters, it became apparent pretty quickly that our 3 hour tour would not bring us anywhere near our destination. After about two hours on the lake, things began to take a turn for the worse. From that point on, I saw things I had really never hoped to see, but this is Peace Corps, and unfortunately bodily functions are by no means sacred here.

Girl Devon (cleverly nicknamed to differentiate her from Boy Devon), along with a couple of the Ugandans, could no longer stomach the pitch and roll of the boat, and began vomiting. One might think that it is fairly obvious that the best course of action here would be to simply turn your head and do this overboard, and in Devon’s defense this was her chosen method, but such things were not so obvious to our local counterparts, who instead used buckets and bags that just sat, stinking, on the boat for the remainder of the journey.

Meanwhile, Boy Devon’s bladder of rum and mango juice had reached its limit. Not wanting to expose himself to everyone or take the risk of literally pissing into the wind with a boatful of people behind him, we cut open a 1.5 liter water bottle and let him do his thing. As he held up the nearly full bottle (amazing… I know), the look on some of the locals faces told me that we should probably be embarrassed, but to be honest, I was mostly just impressed.

Shortly thereafter, a friend next to me mentioned that she had stomach cramps (I am going to leave her name out of this one for reasons that will become obvious). In the middle of the lake, I knew her options were pretty much limited to one of the following: (A) Hanging her ass overboard; (B) Using a plastic bag/bottle in the middle of the boat; or (C) Jumping overboard and taking care of things there. When she spoke up again five minutes later, I came to the realization that there was in fact an option (D). “Guys,” she said, “I really need to go… and I actually kind of already did a little.” It was in the same instant that I smelled something and looked down to find that, to my horror, she had shat her dress and diarrhea was now spilling on the floor of the boat. I was quite literally frozen with a mixture of terror, nausea, and embarrassment on her behalf. I knew that I should do something to help out this girl that was obviously too sick to help herself out but I couldn’t. I just sat there with, what I was later told, a completely blank stare on my face.

Boy Devon had apparently missed the action to this point, but caught on that something was amiss when he saw my face. “Dude,” he whispered, “what happened? Did she pee her pants?” Still in too much shock to speak, I shook my head no. “She didn’t puke, did she?” I shook my head again. “Well, then… what did she… oh…. OHHHH!”

At this point Renee took over. The girl was surrounded by only me and the Ugandans, and it was apparent that neither parties were capable of lifting a finger to help. Luckily for everyone (myself most of all), Renee’s first move was to switch seats with me. She then proceeded to help the girl cut off her underwear with a knife and get her a plastic bag to contain the torrential flow of shit now being produced. The storm continued until we had run out of plastic bags, at which point Boy Devon passes up the pee bottle that he had now filled twice with urine and dumped overboard. I had done a good job of avoiding looking and staying as much out of the way as possible, out of both respect for the girl and my own well-being, but for some reason something caught my eye at the worst possible moment. It was one of the moments where you don’t even mean to look. It’s just a reaction. As I instinctively looked over I saw the former pee bottle, now filled to the brim with shit, being tossed overboard. What I saw then will be scarred in my memory forever… Even from upwind, it smelled something awful, but I can’t even imagine what the downwind Ugandans were going through.

While all of this was going on, Elizabeth had also had her fill of rum and mango juice, and decided that she would not be able to wait any longer. Wanting to avoid another embarrassing showing of bodily function, she cut the top off of a juice box (the only suitable receptacle not already filled and tossed into the lake) and had us put up a wall for privacy. Her plan would have probably worked had the boat not rocked violently in midstream, knocking her over and causing her to pee all over herself and in her pants.

The rest of the weekend went by without much event, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth remembering. We sat and relaxed on what was basically our own deserted beach, ate good food, read, drank a bit, enjoyed eachother’s company after months of isolation, and celebrated America’s independence in style. We even brought Jortstock to Uganda, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a theme party I used to throw in college with my housemates. It’s pretty similar to most college parties except it’s awesomer and everyone wears cut-off jeans shorts (or jorts). All in all, it was an amazing time.

The poor victims of this story recovered quickly, and despite our constant reminders to them about the events on the boat, took everything well in stride.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

birthday to remember

I celebrated my birthday this past Saturday, and I want to first and foremost thank everyone for all of the love they showed me that day. Before I came here, I worried that out of sight would mean out of mind. That I would live my life here and people would go on living their lives at home with the time and distance creating a rift between us. Luckily, I have never felt that way since I actually arrived, and in fact have come to feel and appreciate those bonds now more than ever. I have already talked a lot about this, and I am sure I will do so even more in the future, but I had to say it again here.

This past weekend I went to the neighboring town of Ibanda to visit two of my losest PCV friends Charlene and Brian and to celebrate my birthday.

Before I go on with my day, I need you to know something about me. One of my favorite ways to mark special occasions is by severe overeating. Whether it be exclusively eating Chicago deep-dish pizza during a 3 day trip with Danimal, a gluttonous Super Bowl eating competition with Ian, Mix, and Fro, ungodly amounts of protein after the completion of a particularly brutal day of lifting legs with Pat, ludicrous amounts of Grandma’s Pizza + Katzinger’s Deli for the OSU football game with Luke, Rees, Ally and Katie, ice cream for just about any movie night with Mike, and especially the incomparable feasts during holidays with the Lebanese Mafia. Although I generally do my best to always eat healthy, these special occasions are one of my favorite ways to celebrate.

Anyway, this past birthday was no different. After a relatively nutritious breakfast of banana, cocoa, and peanut butter oatmeal, we made our way from Brian’s to Charlene’s. There, we dined on a lunch of GIANT chocolate chunk and banana pancakes. Lacking syrup, we topped them off with a selection of powdered sugar, honey, and/or peanut butter.

After lunch, Charlene dragged Brian and my bloated asses out of the house to meet up with a Brother from a nearby church. The Brother had asked if we would attend some school celebration with him, and against our urges to immediately take an afternoon nap, we went. We appeared to be right on-time because as we walked in the MC announced that the celebration had officially begun as the guests of honor had arrived. I looked around to see who the guests of honor were, both curious and a bit embarrassed that we were entering a room of tuxedo and dress clad teens and probably even more elaborately dressed guests of honor while we had on only our t-shirts and jeans. To both my horror and amusement, I saw every head in the house turn toward us as cameras’ flash bulbs began to pop. For a few seconds I felt bad for the real guest of honor as clearly these misinformed kids had thought that the only white people in the room must surely be the guests of honor. Unfortunately, I was the misinformed one. Apparently the Brother, along with his three American friends were, in fact, said guests of honor to these students’ prom. After taking our seats on stage, we introduced ourselves over the microphone to the student body, where much to the chagrin of mine and Brian’s bellies, we were served lunch and cake, which, knowing our manners better then to refuse a Ugandan’s offer of food, we accepted and ate. Feeling even more stuffed than before and still largely uncomfortable, we began hatch out our exit strategy. Before we could put our plan into motion, however, the MC announced that the ceremony part of the celebration was over and that the dance would officially begin with the guests of honor taking the stage first to “show everyone how they dance in America”. Dancing on stage in front of hundreds of people I don’t know could probably best be described under the heading: My Worst Nightmare, but I did it anyway, and at the very least lived to laugh about it.

After the dance, we got the hell out there and headed back to Charlene’s. We had only a couple hours before we had to head into town to watch the then highly anticipated US Soccer match vs. Ghana. Before we went, however, we were obligated to eat the peanut butter cake with chocolate icing that Charlene had made for my birthday. Apparently they had caught on to my affinity for chocolate and peanut butter. We had all thought that we were completely stuffed, but our three-man destruction of that cake implied otherwise.

We then headed into town for dinner (I was contractually obligated to continue the gluttony) and the match. We ate rolex’s (basically like egg burritos), drank a few beers, and when Landon Donovan equalized we absolutely lost our minds with euphoria. I was having one of the best birthdays I can remember. Our ultimate loss to Ghana, on the other hand, was a bit hard to swallow. I tried to joke that at least my first son’s name was still up in the air as Landon Danger Szaronos would not be made obligatory by a US World Cup title (Danger, however, is definitely still on the table). By the time the final seconds ticked off from the match in extra time my euphoric mood had completely disipated. An almost perfect birthday. I looked down at my watch to discover that it was 12:03, June 27th. Maybe my birthday had ended on a high note.

site. finally.


I know the entries are coming fewer and further between as of late, but since I have finally moved to my site out in the village power and internet have been much harder to come by. Like I said though, I am here now, and after nearly two months of idle doldrums I am ready to get to work.

My house is pretty small and very simple. It’s essentially two rooms that measure about 6’X15’ with two 4’x4’ outcroppings for a bathing area and a kitchen. There’s no power and no running water and my furnishings are minimalist at best, but to be honest, out of all the adjustments I’ve had to make since coming to country, acclimating to the lack of amenities has been the easiest.

I said I was ready to work, and I meant it, yet my move to site has not meant a move from the continent, and things here still move slower than I’d thought possible. After a little more than a week my only real contribution has been to write a letter to the Ugandan Ministry of Tourism announcing the launch of our campsite (the organization officially started 4 years ago, but my arrival marks the “real launch” according to the other members) and asking them for technical advice and resources. The letter took me about 30 minutes to write, however it took me about three days to go around with my supervisor Enoch and listen to him read it to people. I am not sure if there was a point to it other than for them to tell me it was the greatest letter any of them had ever heard.

So what have I done with my days since arriving at site? Well each morning I wake up, exercise, make breakfast, and read for about an hour. By 10-11 everyone else is just about ready, and we have our daily meeting. The meetings revolve around what we are going to do for that day, although to date, 60% of these meetings have been to tell me why the other members are too busy to do work for the day. From there, I either find ways to keep myself busy (reading, cleaning, cooking) or do whatever work I can for the day. 2:00 marks lunch time, and what seems to mean the definite end of all work to be done by every man in the village for the day. I’m hoping that this is only because of the ongoing World Cup, however I can’t say at all for sure. And so after lunch each day I have gone into the nearby trading center (small town) with the two closest people to friends I have so far (Allen and Eddison) to watch a match or two. Despite having run out of money to finish my house on time, the chairman of my organization has just opened a new bar with a 15 foot HD projection screen with a satellite dish. I won’t jump to any conclusions, but you are free to speculate on that… Regardless, at least I have a good place to watch soccer from. Anyway, I try to get home by dark, eat my dinner, watch a show on my laptop if I have power, and call it a day.

So that’s it. That’s my life for the time being. The situation is by no means perfect, but I have been really happy so far. If things were perfect there would be no need for me to be here. I have to look at each problem as an opportunity, whether it be an opportunity to help someone else or an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

my new patriotism

It's been over four months now, and at some point not long ago I crossed the 'longest-I've-ever-been-outside-of-the-country" barrier. In crossing this invisible threshold, my mind has also shifted a bit in it's way of thinking. Being away from my home, America, has always made me stop and appreciate how many great opportunities there outside. There are different sights to see, people to meet, and cultures to experience. The world is filled with all kinds of amazing things, and I think it would be unfortunate to live inside of a bubble and never get to see them.

I have never been one to be terribly patriotic, and if truth be told, I found the entire concept a bit tacky. That is not to say that I despised America or anything even close to that, but I just considered it the place where I happened to be born as opposed to any other. Patriotism was something for older generations maybe, or perhaps something for the politicians to make a show of. A pin on a lapel. With that being said however, my time away has now led me to rethink my conceptions.

America, I've come to realize after all, is a pretty amazing place. I will leave aside the obvious things that people would want to associate with America's greatness like "freedom", "equality" and whatever other catchphrase you want to throw in. Those things all may be true, but it's not really what I want to focus on here. What I have come to value the most is our people. It is a country filled with good people who are hard-working and never give up. They care about what's right, and are willing to sacrifice for it.

These are all pretty lofty sounding ideals that I think probably sound cliche, and if you would have presented them to me just a few months ago I would have agreed with you, but not anymore. When I say these things, I am not thinking about some generic concepts that the founding fathers wrote on some document and that get regurgitated at a national convention. I am thinking of very specific examples where I see people putting these ideas into practice every day (and for the record, I am not speaking of myself here, because to be honest I haven't done shit yet). I see friends and family who have sacrificed so much of their lives to teach our children, to revive our communities, to care for and heal the underprivileged, trying to make our political system better, or are dedicating themselves in so many other ways. These are more the rules than the exceptions.

I want to sign off with two quotes that have been in my mind quite a bit lately. The first was said by a Ugandan to a group of us Peace Corps Volunteers that I think is relevant to what I have been trying to say. He said, "America is a country that is more than willing to sacrifice it's greatest resource. It's people." The second is a bit more simple, and I am going to have to apologize to some, but I just have to say it anyway...

"America. Fuck yeah."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

new phone number

After fighting a losing battle with my previous mobile provider, I have switched, and now have a new number. You can find me at (256) 701-325-324

I also have Skype on my computer, and, for the time being, I have fast enough internet for video. You can find me there at david.szaronos

Friday, June 4, 2010

much needed holiday

I've been away from my apartment in Mbarara for a week and haven't been to my campsite at Rwenjeru for over two now, hence my absence. The first few days of my holiday I met up with my friend Renee to stay with another Volunteer in a town called Kasese near Queen Elizabeth National Park. From there, Renee and I went on to Kampala to meet up with some of our other friends from our training class, and to deal with a few issues we were both having with our sites at the Peace Corps Office.

Whether it was seeing all of my friends, eating a few good meals, finally feeling some support from the PC administration, or the complete lack of Enock in my life, I feel so refreshed right now. The problems I am facing at my site are all still here, and may have even grown in number since I have been away as my landlord is threatening to evict me for late rent. I just feel more ready to deal with all of those things now.

Kampala gave me a much needed break from the monotony of my daily routine. I got a chance to do do some things that I thought I wouldn't even get a whiff of for the next two years. I had the three best meals I have eaten since I left America in early February including one of roasted crocodile (surprisingly delicious!), I went to the local clothing market and indulged a bit in my two favorite articles of clothing (jeans and a pair of high tops - second hand, but still...This is Uganda), and I even threw down and won a few bets at a nearby casino. More importantly, I got a chance to spend some time with some good friends (namely Renee and Joe). I think we reminded each other of why we came here in the first place and the fact that, even thuogh it sometimes feels like it, we aren't in this alone.

All in all, the last week or so has in no way resembled what a Peace Corps experience normally is or even should be. None of us came here to continue the lives we left back in America. High-end meals, new (used) clothes, and gambling are not things that you ever want to rely on to keep your sanity, especially when you are spending two years in East Africa. We also have to learn how to find contentment within ourselves, and not rely on other people for our happiness as we move on. We all know this, and we are still learning, but that doesn't mean that it is wise to deny ourselves these much needed respites when we need them, and as far as I am concerned, the timing of this last trip couldn't have been better.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

experiences nonetheless

Last week a group of students from the University of London came to visit my site for a research project on the role of tourism in development. I have to say that their visit was really my saving grace last week. The truth is things have kind of ground to a halt lately here. My house is still not finished, and I find myself with less and less to do as each day goes by, and because of the restrictions on travel, I will often just sit in my Mbarara apartment for days on end. Even when I do get to go out to site, my organization frustrates me in almost every conceivable way, but I won't go into that now.

I actually wasn't even supposed to be there for the student visit, as I was going to travel to visit my friends Charlene and Brian in a neighboring town, but due to my supervisors unrelenting insistence, I ended up cancelling the trip. I was a little upset about having to cancel, but when a van rolled up and I saw that the group of visiting students were all girls my mood picked up slightly. I was only supposed be with them for a few hours, but after my supervisor Enock hijacked everything he turned their two hour morning visit into an all-day affair. Even though I was embarrassed by Enock's imposition, I was actually relieved to have someone else to talk to that day. The alternative being just Enock and me...

I ended up hanging out with the group for the rest of the week, and I got to be pretty close with some of them despite only having met them a few days ago. I actually even went on a Safari with one of the girls (Lorraine- from Zimbabwe but has lived in England for the past 7 years) and a couple of other friends that live here in town. These past few days have easily been the best I've had since coming to site. It made me feel like myself again.

Their presence however, both when they were here and in their absence, has highlighted what my life has actually become. It made me think of what things must look like to somebody just stepping off a plane from London, and it also helped me remember what life outside of this place was like for a few days. "Yes, I do see this kind of poverty every day." "Yes, I do actually work with this man." "Yes, I do eat this every day." "Yes, I spend every waking hour either alone or with people that treat me as more of a novelty than an actual person." "Yes, I will be here for the next two years..." The list goes on, and while more than one of them told me they think what I am doing is noble, I also know that not one of them envies my position. It's probably safe to say that many of you reading this at home wouldn't trade positions with me either.

The point is that this is my life, and it's what I've come to know and accept. Hopefully it will get better as I continue to integrate into my community more fully (assuming my house ever gets finished), but for now it's my reality. It can be lonely, boring, difficult, and definitely frustrating, but I also hope it's giving me the chance to experience something unique. Even if those experiences are hard, and the good ones only happen by every once, and even those are often short-lived, they are all experiences nonetheless.

Check out the photos from my safari with Lorraine, Brendon and Dennis here:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

a day in pictures

So I have been getting some requests to add some more about my day-to-day life as well as some pictures. Here's my attempt at doing both of those at the same time. I tried to create an album that takes you through a typical day in my life, and at the bottom of each picture there is a caption explaining it. I tried to set up it so you could view it from here, but it didn't really work out so you have to view it from my Picasa page.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rock Bottom

I don't know what to say. I am saddened, shocked, and disappointed. I have worked so hard. Wanted it so badly. I felt like this time, I really deserved it. I have even been waking up at 3:00 AM with this one goal in mind. Now I see it was all for nothing.

I guess I just thought that if I put my whole heart into something, devoted the time to it, and believed with my entire being that maybe this time would be different that it actually would be.

Then the Cavs go and put on a performance like that...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

High Tide Low Tide

Yesterday started out pretty neutral. I woke up and ate breakfast (leftover rice and beans - Asian style), then got ready for my 9:00 meeting with some local man about goat husbandry. By 11:30 sharp, the man had picked me up and we were on our way. It was raining, so we had to keep the windows down as we drove around for the next 1-2 hours picking up various people who weren't yet ready for our 9:00 meeting. After the car was packed (6 wet people in a compact with no AC and the windows up) we drove down one of the most poorly maintained roads with some of the most nauseating driving I have seen in Africa for at least a week, and that is really saying something. After arriving at the project site, I picked the smallest, least fresh pile of goat shit I could find to stand in and listen to two men argue in a language I didn't understand (not Runyankore or English) about whether one man's goats were fit enough for the government to buy and give to the other man for free. After the meeting was over, I explained to the driver that I was not feeling well enough to continue on. I withheld the information that this was probably 50% attributable to his driving and 50% attributable to the neglect of my rumbling stomach. After another hour ride back, my mood at this point could have best been described as "pissy".

Once out of the car, the tide began to turn almost immediately. The sun came out (literally) as I sat down to a nice heaping plate of rice and beans (African-style). I then went home, ate about 5 kabaragara which are these amazing little yellow bananas, listened to a Podcast of the Avett Brothers live in concert (thanks to Ally and Charlene for the intro), and laid around for about an hour. Next, I got up and went to my new gym and, despite the 6'X15' space available for the dozen of us there, got in an amazing workout. I then went to the store where I bought some yogurt and a scone which I slathered in peanut-butter and inhaled while listening to another live concert Podcast - this time Passion Pit. After a few more hours and a few more kabaragara, I made dinner. I had eaten rice and beans African-style or Asian-style for the last four meals in a row so I decided to treat myself and switch things up. After an immensely satisfying bowl of Mexican-style rice and beans with a Decemberists Podcast to keep me company, I watched the movie Avatar (available locally for the low, low price of UGX 2,ooo = $1), ate the rest of my kabaragara, and called it a night

Peace Corps is a dichotomy. I've heard it said a by a number of more experienced PC Volunteers, but it is just now starting to become apparent to me. I have never had such peaks and valleys in the course of a single day. In one moment I might be completely lost and miserable. An anxiety will grip me and I'll start to wonder what on earth possessed me to do this. Am I out of my mind? A few hours later, you might find me at peace with everything, grinning from ear to ear. Sometimes the change is brought on by something as simple as the sun coming out or getting a decent meal, and sometimes it is brought on by seemingly nothing at all. I guess that's just the nature of this thing. Sometimes it feels like you're on top of the world, and sometimes it feels like nothing is ever going to go your way. I think the trick will be to learn as much as I can from the bad and soak up as much as I can from the good.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Magic Wand

So the more I talk to people on the phone, the more I become aware that I haven't been too clear on what I am actually doing here. Part of that is because I am trying not to treat this like a day to day list of menial tasks, and the other part is because if I don't type about it, it's probably because I find it either too boring for people to want to read or too sensitive for what Peace Corps considers appropriate. Anyway, I'll try to be more clear about what's going on. I also want to note that if there is something you want to hear about or see here, just let me know and I'll try to get to it.

I'll start by saying that training is officially over. I have left my homestay, and am now trying to get settled in Mbarara. I am living in Mbarara (see picture of my mud hut above) for only a few weeks until my house at site, right outside of Lake Mburo National Park, is finished. I have been to the park this past weekend and it's beautiful! You can see some of the pictures that I took there on the link in the last post. I feel like I've said this, but I'll quickly say again that the work that I will be doing will mostly be to develop this tourism site (camping and cabins) and work with the communities surrounding the park to help them generate some income from all of the tourism they live right next to. That could mean a number of different things, but so you have an idea of what that might look like, other similarly placed volunteers have done things like crafts groups for women to sell things to tourists, youth wilderness and conservation clubs, teaching marketing and basic accounting to business owners, while always trying to mix in some HIV/AIDS education. Those tasks seem pretty realistic, and I listed them because they are the things I know how to do, and they are the ones Peace Corps supports, and volunteers have been successful with in the past.

The problem is the people at my site are looking for so much more. They had this expectation that someone from the West could come into their community, wave a magic wand, and leave the streets paved in gold. The problem persisted when they didn't take one look at me and decide that this 24 year old kid with no tourism experience (outside of being one) would not, in fact, be the person that would turn their empty plot of land into a booming tourism mecca. Instead, they took me around to some of the most important people in the Ankole region and told these VIPs that I had arrived to show them how to do it all. Some of these people have included the heir to the Ankole throne, the Warden of Tourism for National Parks, and while I haven't yet met the national Minister of Tourism, I understand that he was upset I was unable to meet him during my first visit here.

To put it lightly, my site is well connected to the people at the top, and well supported at the grassroots level. These people have put in a lot of their already scarce resources into Rwenjeru Campsite. They seem to have so much banking on the success of this project, and they are counting on me for that success. The gravity if my commitment is dawning on me for what feels like the first time. It's definitely scary, but it's also really exhilarating. I still probably need to curb some of the more grandiose expectations, but I know I can help these people. It's definitely going to be more challenging than I care to imagine at this point in time, but right now I am just excited to get started.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pictures and Video

I don't have a new post ready quite yet, but I've got pictures which is even better! You can also check out some videos of my friends and me on John's youtube page. The intro will give you a chance to just meet everyone and see where we are from, and the next few are about what we went through with training.

Check the video out at:

Or look at my pictures here:
Uganda - Training

Friday, April 23, 2010


Today is the last day at homestay before we move on to Kampala for our Swearing In Ceremony. In just a few more days, I'll no longer be considered a Trainee, but a Volunteer! After only 10 weeks of training for 9 hours a day, six days a week you too can be qualified to give away two years of your work for free! It's a little bittersweet leaving this place. On the one hand, I am ready to be out living on my own, and on the other, I am really going to miss the support of all of the friends that I've made here. I will still see some of them once or twice a month, and I am sure we will text and call frequently, but of course it's not nearly the same. Anyway, I don't feel like thinking up a new post, but since I had to write and read a speech today during our homestay thank you ceremony, I figured I would share that with you all.

Ten weeks ago, we Trainees came to this country as strangers in every sense of the word. The land. The language. The culture. The people. We didn't even know eachother. We may have come here with some preconceived notions about what life was going to be like here, but the fact of the matter is we had no idea. We were strangers in a strange land (yep... I said it.). Bush babies. Yet from the moment we stepped off the plane in Entebbe, someone has been there to show us the way.

At first it was the staff and administration. These people have given up so much of their own lives, many of them away from their homes and families, to be here with us. Each one of them consistently puts in so much time, energy, and effort, and exhibits so much patience. I can't imagine what it must be like to try to teach a language to someone who is litterally coming in with the knowledge of a two year old, or trying to tell an American that just because no one has shown up to one of your meetings that was supposed to start an hour ago, that doesn't mean no one is GOING to show up. They've been our instructors, our counselors, and our friends for the last ten weeks. Always going above and beyond what could reasonably be expected of them. Alyways putting us first.

After the long plane ride and the few short days in Lweza, it was time for yet another new beginning, here, in Wakiso. Since we arrived, the community has welcomed us with open arms, and that is especially true of each one of our homestay familes. You have invited us into your homes, looked after us, cooked for us, and put up with our odd American ways. It takes a very special kind of person to not only take a total stranger into their home, but to welcome them as if they were family. I haven't traveled the world over, but I have been many places both outside and within the United States, and I can promise you that you don't find the type of people that we have found here just anywhere.

And then there's the rest of you guys, my fellow trainees. We made it! Ten long weeks down. Two short years to go. You guys are an amazing group of people, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. All 29 of us who came to country are still here, and even amongst the adventurous people Peace Corps is famous for, that is a very rare accomplishment. I've seen you all supporting eachother and supporting me every step along the way. I know that without you, I couldn't have gotten very far. Charlene (for those of you reading Charlene is a Trainee and one of my best friends here) said it first, but I am going to steal it from her here - we are a world away from wherever we called home before, but we have eachother here, and we are a family.

When I look around here, I am incredibly encouraged to see each of you. Each one of us is unique in our own way. We come from different places, cultures, and we have different beliefs, and yet by being here I feel like I can say that all share some important bonds. We believe that our lives can be richer when we share them with people who are different than ourselves. We believe that there are more important things than only looking out for ourselves. We believe that what we do with this life really does matter. That although we may not change the world, it might just be a brighter place for our having been here.

So yeah, that was my speech. It's just a paraphrase of what I actually said, but that's the best I can remember it. I am fully aware that it's a bit over-the-top, but that's what's called for by the pomp of Ugandan ceremonies. Having said that, I don't want you to think it's any less sincere.