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.