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.