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.