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.

When it Rains...

I've been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster lately. Last week, I found out my future site. This is the place that I'm going to be living and working in for the next two years. I have been assigned to work as an eco-tourism advisor near Lake Mburo National Park. I was absolutely ecstatic about this placement. I feel it is one of the most exciting fields that Peace Corps works in, and I was lucky enough to be the only person in my group selected for this program. Eco-tourism is exactly what my dream job would have been here with the Peace Corps, and although Lake Mburo isn't as well known as some of Uganda's other parks (probably due to it's lack of lions and gorillas), it is supposed to be an amazing little park, and one that is fairly untapped when it comes to tourism.

A quick rundown for those of you who aren't sure what eco-tourism is: it is the idea of creating communities of environmentally and economically sustainable tourist destinations. As it is now, many of the villagers feel as if they are at ends with the parks that they live near. For example, lions are absent in the park because neighboring cattle herders have poisoned them into extinction for preying on the cows which represent their livlihoods. Deforestation is also a problem because people have been chopping down trees in and around the park for years for firewood. The general duty of the eco-tourism volunteer is to not only educate the surrounding communities about the dangers of these actions, but to teach them to live harmoniously with the park, and to hopefully use that park as a source of income to enrich their lives.

This past weekend, while I was visiting my future site, the mental pendulum started to swing the other way. I arrived in the town of Biharwe, which is 3km away from my site, and was less than excited by what I saw. Biharwe is a transient town right along the highway. It is loud and dirty with the heavy traffic of people traveling between Masaka and Mbarara, and the road construction is definitely not helping. I knew that Biharwe was not my site, however, and I kept my hopes up that those 3km would be a world away from the town I was seeing. After meeting my new supervisor, counterpart, and chairman of my organization, we hopped into a car a took a dirt road away from the highway toward my site, Rwenjeru Campsite. Rwenjeru is supposed to be my home and basecamp for work for the rest of my time here in Uganda. The campsite is quite luckily nothing like Biharwe. It is beautiful there. No more construction and traffic, no more dirt, no more people harrassing me. As my future collegues were showing me around, they pointed out a pile of bricks to me, which I thought I was supposed to be admiring. "Nice bricks," I said. "Yes, we are glad you like them. They are for your house. Where would you like it?" I was a bit taken aback by this. There was less than two weeks before I was supposed to be moving into this pile of bricks, and I had been told that Peace Corps had signed off on my housing as meeting their standards just a few days before.

To make a long story short, my organization had had a temporary house for me in the beautiful town of Biharwe to live in during construction which Peace Corps had signed off on, but it has been made unfit to live in by the road construction. My organization then found different housing for me in the town of Mbarara, which is completely amazing, however Peace Corps will most likely veto this location because it is too far away. I don't know what is being done, but I am told things will "probably still work out" with the organization, and to just sit tight and wait for them to decide something.

This, in and of itself, is really not the worst thing in the world, although the not knowing is a bit frustrating but as I said the pendulum had started to swing. I am aware that it is completely mental, but I can't help but think that all the things that usually go my way throughout the course of the day have started going against me. Some stomach issues have set in for the first time since I've been here, there has been some controversey between my host family and PC which I am unfortunately caught in the middle of, even the weather seems to be conspiring against me. Little things that I would not ordinarily care about are piling up and just making things worse.

I know that this is not a feeling that is unique to me. It happened to me back in the states, and I am sure you can probably relate to what I am saying. It's just a rut, and I can see myself in it so I feel like I can work my way out of it. Training will be over in just a few days, and with its end comes yet another fresh start. I may not know where I'll be living, but I am sure the change is exactly what I need.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fun with Uganglish


As you may or may not know, Uganda was a British colony until 1962. There are 56 local languages in this country, some of which have the same base (i.e. Bantu) while others are something completely unrecognizable to any but there native speakers. The one common language across the entire nation, luckily for me, is English. Unluckily for me, Ugandans don't speak American-English, and really they don't even speak British-English, but rather a derivitive of British-English that I've come to know and love as Uganglish. I find find Uganglish rather amusing, and I thought you might as well so I thought I would just share with you some of my favorite expressions.

*Note* I am in no way trying to put down Ugandan dialect. In fact, if you speak to me on the phone you will probably notice more than a few of these have already entered my speech patterns. It is simply a cultural difference, and that's kind of what this whole thing is all about.

The Mid-sentence What? The Mid-sentence Question - I have already talked a bit about this one in a previous post, but I thought it was list-worthy anyway. You hear this one quite a bit from anyone who is trying to teach something or from current students. There is even one what? one Trainee whose homestay brother will what? will ask questions how many times? up to three times in one sentence.

The Unnecessary Assurance - "I can assure you." It's said in America, but not with the same frequency or the liberal interpretation of what things a person may need reassurance on.
-"It has started to rain. I can assure you."
-"I know. I am standing outside with you."

"Somehow" - One of my favorites. In American-English, somehow means that an outcome has happened against some odds. "The Cavs somehow got the win." In Uganglish, however, somehow has a different meaning which I would say is much closer, although not limited to our own use of "kind of".
-"So your house is by the well?"

"Are You Sure/Positive?" - Again, another phrase you are likely to hear in American-English, but the here is different. In America, it is used to gauge somebody's certainty, while here it's simply a conversational filler. A somehow exclamatory remark that I would say is closest to "oh, really?" (you see what I did there with the "somehow"?).
-"I had rice and beans for lunch today."
-"Are you sure?"
-"Let me think about it... yep..."

The Apology - There is no word in any Bantu language for "sorry", however the word "bambe" is sometimes substituted for it locally. The problem with "bambe" is that it has many more meanings than just "I'm sorry". It can be used as not only an apology, but also a term of endearment and a term of pitying. This is just my theory, but I believe that it is because of this that everyone in Uganda is constantly apologizing to every white people. If you trip over your own feet on the street, you can be sure to hear a chorus of, "Oh, sorry!" as you go by.

"Toast" - Apparently the word "toast" means two pieces of bread in Unganglish. This type of "toast" has no prior toasting requirements, and in fact very few locals will even know that some foreign people actually toast their bread. I discovered this through my language trainer, Richard, and we were both equally outraged at the other's misuse of "toast".
-"Well how many pieces do you have to toast to make it toast?!"
-"Any amount! You can toast half a slice, or you can toast a whole loaf and it will -all be "toast"!"
-"What? That's crazy!"
-"We're the crazy ones?! You don't even toast your f-ing toast!"

The Assist - This one pretty much just means "give", and, as a Muzungu, I hear it all the time.
-"Muzungu, assist me with your money/bike."

Tones - So these aren't really Uganglish words, and it is done all of the time in both English and local languages, but people will use many tones as a way of communcation instead of words. Often, people set the pace of a conversation by "mmmmmmmm"-ing, and I can assure you, they do it often. "How are you, sir?" "Fine, madem." "mmmmmmm" (at least 3 seconds - this means you can move on and ask the other person how they are). Another one of my favorites is that "Ahhhhh-haaaaa!" It is used whenever someone is really in agreement with something that has been said. It's much higher in pitch and considerably more elongated than it's American counterpart. There are many others, but I won't get into them all here. I guess we have similar mannerisms, but none so formally a part of everyone's speech pattern. It takes some getting used to.

Rat Warz


My room here in Uganda is a bit of a zoo, and each day it becomes progressively more so. The first day at homestay, I saw that their was a pretty noticable amount of insects inhabiting my room. I have never been one for insects, but this is Africa, and I figured exceptions must be made. That night, I noticed a gecko running around on my walls during the middle of the night. I was a little weirded out by having a live animal in my room, and aside from shitting on my walls, my gecko doesn't bother me much once I got used to him. I have also gotten used to the rest of his family which have also moved in with me. Several weeks back, I began hearing a lot of scurrying around and screaching coming from my attic. I figured it was probably some kind of rodent, but seeing as the noise wasn't disturbing my sleep too much, there was apparently no way for them to come into my room due to the concrete walls and 10 foot drop from the attic hole, and my complete lack of interest in climbing into the attic to catch, kill, and handle dead rats, I opted to live and let live.

This was a mistake on my part. I returned from immersion to find that the situation has gotten completely out of hand. My first night back, the noise was unlike anything I had heard before. It is extremely loud and even violent sounding, and, unlike before, it is now keeping me up at all hours of the night. Mixed in with this, there has also been some light noises of things ploppingt on my concrete floor intermittently throughout the night. As it turns out, over the course of my week-long absence the rats have somehow learned how to shit out of the attic hole and into my room. The ruckus climaxed at around 5 AM. The screaching was unbearable, and it sounded as if a person were actually up there stomping around. At the end of this commotion, there was another very distinct sound. It was one of those things that, although I had never experienced it before, I was 100% sure I knew what it was. This fine morning, that experience was hearing the sound of 1/4 pound of flesh hitting a concrete flooor. After shouting something horrible, I turned on my flashlight to confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, there was the latest member of my zoo, only to my surprise the 10 foot drop had not killed it, and the light from my torch sent my new rat scurrying under my couch. (Sidenote: in what is one of the less fortunate coincidences of my life, I started reading the book The Plague less than a week ago)

Geckos are one thing, but rats are something else entirely. I weighed the options of searching through my dark room (the power was out) for a rat, or letting said rat wreak havoc in my room all day. I ultimately decided to get the thing out of my room. An hour and a half later, my host brother, Innocent, woke up, and, with his help, we had that rat crawling over my bare feet and out the door in just another short hour.

As you can imagine, I was pretty tired all the next day. When I returned home I was assured that both the extra noise and the boldly leaping rat were freak incidents. The rats had been up in that attic before and had never caused any problems like that. As the story seemed backed up by my own experiences, I bought into it. That night there was even more noise, more shit, and around 5 AM another 2 rats jumped out of the attic at the climax of commotion. I went to training even more tired than the day before, and later learned that my zombie-like state had been mistaken for withdraw from the program by the training staff, and that I had earned an unofficial spot on their Early Termination watch-list (ET is the Peace Corps lingo for a volunteer choosing to go home. Sorry Mom. Not yet.). Luckily the story came out through my language instructor Richard, and I was even offered a hotel room until the problem was solved.

Well rats, just as George Costanza concluded with the pigeons of NYC, "the deal is off!" If you think I will just roll over for some animal, maybe you should talk to the last chicken that got in my way. The time for pacifism is over.

Unfortunately for both me and the rats, African pest control is not quite up to my American standards. The only things available locally are some bush-league poison and what is basically just a tube of glue. The poison takes up to 3 days to kill the things and does not prevent the smell of decay like many Western chemicals. Who knows where these things will be in 3 days time... The glue, as I said, is just glue, and while, once stuck, the rat can't wander off, die in some hole, and fester for weeks, he can keep on living and screaching for a few days in his newly glued-to-the-floor state making both of our lives miserable.

Despite all this, sacrifices must be made in the name of good vs. evil. Unlike the case of the chicken, I will show neither hesitation nor remorse. I will not bend to the will of this freedom-hating rodent-facism. My resolve is strong. I am confident that I will prevail.

"We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!"



All this week, I have been in language immersion with a current volunteer, Jill. I was matched with her because she lives in an area where they speak the language I am learning, and like me she is a Community Health and Economic Development (CHED) Volunteer. It has been so nice to get outside of the town I have been spending training in, get away from the confines of a host family, and away from the stringent rules that come along with Peace Corps Training. I'd like to be able to expound a bit more on what it's been like here, but there honestly isn't much to tell in the day to day. Compassion, the NGO Jill works for, welcomed my coming by basically giving her the whole week off (something that seems the nice thing to do, but is kind of the opposite that we were going for). Most of our days are filled with taking long walks throughout her town.

Another big part of the immersion week was supposed to be to see how a volunteer interacts with their counterparts. A counterpart is a local person who works with each volunteer to add different perspectives and methods to each project and is key at making any project sustainable. Unfortunately, I only got to meet Jill's counterpart once, and it was only for a few minutes as she was mostly bedridden. We brought her some get-well-fruit, and as I was meeting her I was struck by an odd feeling. Jacinta is the first woman I have ever met whom I was aware was HIV positive. It's not a fact that I had ever really thought about, but as I was shaking the woman's hand I was absolutely sure it was true. After having talked about the disease at such a distance for so long back in school, it was a bit surreal to see it for the first time. I am ashamed to say that a bit of parnoia also gripped me at this moment, and despite everything I know about it saying otherwise, I wondered whether or not it was a safe place for me to be. I don't think that I showed any outward signs of what I was feeling, but it was definitely there. I understand why education on the topic is so important. It's hardly difficult to imagine the isolation a person feels from everyone around them given my own knee-jerk reaction.

The following day, I had another glimpse into what this disease has done in Uganda. I was at a TASO (The AIDS Support Organization) outreach with Jill and my instructor, Richard with literally hundreds of infected people awaiting both physical and mental health treatment. Looking around, Ugandans from all walks of life were represented. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor. As Richard told me, the disease has no face, and it never discriminates.

ALthough Jill doesn't have any formal duties with TASO, she brough along a bucket of crayons, and the three of us set to work bringing some much needed order and distraction to the children's group. Being a bit timid about just diving right in, I sat down and buried myself in drawing. After a few minutes, I glanced next to me and saw an exact replica of my drawing on my neighbor's paper and a beaming smile on her face. Her name is Marian, and she's in Primary 5 which puts her at about the age of 12, and, like everyone else there, she too is HIV positive. After we got a picture and swapped drawings, we had fun going through my Runyankore/English dictionary, and teaching eachother new words in our native tongues. After a few hours, I said goodbye and left TASO. I figured that would be the last I would ever see of her, but that night, at the vegetable market, there she was. I said, "Osiibire gye, Marian?" (how have you spent the day), and hoped to have the chance to talk with her for a bit, but she just ran off instead. A minute later, she reappeared, thrust a bag of oranges into my chest, and ran off giggling with her friend. I really wish I could have told her something... anything... but I just stood there not knowing what to say as she disappeared for good this time. It's not the first time a Ugandan girl has given me oranges, but I think I will remember this one.