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.