Tuesday, November 15, 2011

all the noise, noise, noise, noise!

I’ve always been sensitive to excess noise.  Outside of a monotonous droning (ie fans, jet engines, rain on a tin roof), I cannot concentrate on anything other than what I hear.  Background noise on even the smallest scale makes studying and reading an impossibility.  I hate having any noise whatsoever competing with my music or television.  Silence is an absolute must for sleep.  In America, noise pollution was rarely a problem.  Loud weekend parties of course take place, but even on college campuses, most problems are quickly taken care of by common courtesy and the invention of the government sanctioned noise citation.  There were always exceptions (“ARGHH!  I can’t believe the guy my landlord is paying to mow my lawn came at 8:30 on a Saturday morning!”), but my point is these exceptions are rare.

Not the case in Kisoga, Uganda.  Between the preacher(s) with the PA systems who start at 5:30 AM sharp, my neighbors own stereo systems, the local cinema halls with their giant speakers inexplicably outside of the hall blasting away not into the viewers but to the town without, the constant aura of reggae-tone remakes of American songs, and the ever present whacking of rubber flip flop on bare ass followed by children’s wailing, a moment of peace and quiet is a rare treat indeed.  Asking people to keep it down is out of the question here.  The fact that it’s outside of local norms to do so has not stopped me from trying, but it has probably had a hand in the complete lack of results achieved by such requests.  I just typed out and deleted a sentence that explained that the only time my house is quiet is when the rain is hammering on my tin roof.  I was thinking that this is the only time I cannot hear noise from the town and my neighbors, but after a second’s consideration it became apparent to me that loud drumming is, in fact, the exact opposite of quiet.

A particularly upsetting development in the noise pollution saga has been the arrival of my newest neighbor.  Henry recently moved in to the one room duuka (shop) in front of my own apartment.  Our places were originally designed as one unit so that a shopkeeper could run his or her business in the front room and live in the two back rooms.  When Peace Corps informed my landlady that requirements for Volunteer housing included just two rooms, the front was partitioned off with a wooden door in order to rent out the third room separately.  The original door was just a shoddy wooden contraption, and when my friend and Peace Corps driver, Khasim, laid eyes on it, he immediately deemed it unacceptable.  He told me that the door had empty gaps over an inch thick between the rotting planks.  The drivers are notorious amongst Volunteers for being the most reliable staff for looking out for our needs, and true to this, Khasim insisted that the door be replaced.  He wasn’t there when I moved in, but a cursory glance at the door told me that his demands had been met.

I want to say in his defense Henry is not at all a noisy neighbor compared to every other homes in my compound.  He’s rarely there, he plays his music sparingly and at a reasonable volume, and has no screaming children.  Despite all of this, I can hear everything Henry does when he’s at home.  Literally everything.  “Sounds like you just talked to your mom on the phone, Henry.  Hope she’s recovering from that bout of malaria.”  “Hey Henry!  Once you’re done washing those dishes, maybe we could go for a game of pool.”  “Hold up Henry.  Did I just hear a woman’s footsteps in your place?  Let me get my ear plugs…”

This went on for a while.  I wasn’t sure exactly why I could hear Henry so well.  He was my only neighbor which I shared a tin roof with.  Maybe the tin caused something sciencey to happen (possibly through stuff involving “sound waves”, “reverberation”, and “amplification”).  It could have been anything.  I just didn’t know.  I didn’t know, that is, until last week.  I was making myself dinner, listening to my current favorite tune (The White Stripe’s Ball & Biscuit) when Henry came home for the day.  I glanced at our shared door, wondering for the first time if it could be the party responsible for my noisey misery.  It had always seemed solid enough to me.  New paint, solid throughout, boards nailed across the frame to provide extra safety during a zombie outbreak.  But now, as I looked closely at this door, it didn’t look so new after all.  The fresh paint was already peeling to reveal rot.  A quick push illustrated shoddy construction work.  Most distressing however, was where the peeling paint did not reveal rotting wood, but newsprint.  I saw clearly now the massive gaps between the planks.  I have no conclusive proof of this, but I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that this was, in fact, the same door Khasim had deemed unfit.  The gaps had been filled with a single layer of unwadded newspaper and the whole thing had been freshly painted to deceive any quick inspections.  Now call me a perfectionist, but if you are going to seal a door with newspaper, you should at least have the courtesy to wad it up!  Fold it over or something.  A single layer of newspaper?!  C’mon.

After discovering the root cause of mine and my neighbor’s intimate knowledge of one another, I feel like I should have been pretty upset.  My organization and I had been hoodwinked by my landlady to save a few bucks and it had severely affected the quality of my life inside my own home.  After almost two years, though, I’m past this point.  I could stomp around and bitch and complain.  I could lay into my landlady.  Call Peace Corps.  Who knows?  The problem might even get fixed before I close my service.  Probably not, but stranger things have happened.  Now, however, I just have to laugh.  Newspaper?  My door is made up of about 10% newspaper?  That’s hysterical.  How can I not laugh?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

pirates ruined my holiday

I’ve never been a fan of pirates.  As a lifelong fan of both Peter Pan and ninjas, some might say that pirates represent a sort of eternal nemesis.  They’re the Wolverine to my Buckeye.  This time, however, they’ve gone too far.

This is not the first time pirates have attempted to ruin my vacation.  Ask my family about the time I threw up in the middle of a Disney World line while waiting to ride – you guessed it – Pirates of the Caribbean.  I couldn’t have been older than ten at the time so being the fearless, resilient kid that I was, I’m pretty sure I got on that ride anyway.  Like with terrorists, the second you start letting the pirates dictate your lifestyle, they win.  A man of principle, even at the age of ten…

Things are unfortunately different this time around.  Instead of Disney World, the destination was to be Lamu, Kenya.  Lamu is, by all accounts, a breathtakingly gorgeous island off the Kenyan coast.  Its combination of beautiful beaches, tasty seafood, and old Swahili culture have made Lamu a great destination for tourists in East Africa.  The abundance of rich tourists, coupled with its proximity to the seemingly lawless Somalia, has also made Lamu a great destination for pirates.

A group of us were planning to spend Christmas and New Year’s on the island, but after the rash of recent kidnappings and violence attributed to the swashbuckling scallywags, Kenya in general and Lamu in particular are now off-limits to Peace Corps Volunteers.  My good friend Ashley actually arrived on the island where, within hours, she was turned right around and evacuated (after her evacuation from Egypt during the Arab Spring Revolutions - she is well on track for some kind of record).

We’re considering moving the plans to Zanzibar (a second choice only due to its higher costs), but with the pirates reach continuing to extend, we’ll have to be careful about planning even this.  We’ll see what happens.  I really want to make it to a beach for the holidays, but we’re starting to run out of options.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

young and famous in uganda

Whenever I used to hear a celebrity gripe about all of their unwanted attention, my eyes would glaze over.  Not only do many of the most vocally defiant celebrities make fistfuls of cash while the rest of us toil on to get by, but they then have the audacity to complain about it?!  It’s obnoxious.

It’s occurred to me lately, however, that my position here in Kisoga is a lot like a celebrity back home.  Everywhere I go in town, people know me.  They want something from me.  Where the movie star has to put up with an endless stream of scripts and the rock star gets handed countless demo tapes, I am constantly asked to attend meetings that, if they ever do take place, always start sometime after my “one hour waiting past scheduled start time” threshold.  Where the producer gets bombarded with the obscure references that somehow link her to the unknown work of an aspiring actor, I get, “We should work together!  Do you know Megan?  She is a Dutch muzungu that came here in… was it 2007?  She was my friend.  So what can you do to help me?”  In the same vain as the paparazzi, I have had the back end of a camera phone shoved in my face for an instant before I see someone tearing away, holding on tightly to their new treasure.  This is not an isolated incident either, but happens with a fair amount of regularity.  When there’s a group of us out dancing… okay it’s weird, but it’s at least a little understandable.  Too many times, though, I’ve just been sitting in a taxi, covered with the dirt and sweat of the day’s travels, when I hear that chintzy little fake camera sound and look up to see the grin of my own personal paparazzo.  Like many of today’s celebrities, I didn’t even do anything to deserve my newfound fame.  Can someone tell me why being the stepchild of a 1980s Olympian is grounds to turn an entire family into household names?  I mean, I guess I’ve done some good things here, but most of the attention comes from people who, apart from knowing me as the token white guy, have no clue who I am or what I’m doing in Uganda.

It can be exhausting.  It’s a tough realization that no matter how badly you want to fit in; you are on the outside of your own community.  And how do Peace Corps Volunteers respond to this?  Well, quite a bit like celebrities to be honest.  Some Volunteers cut loose and paint the town red in a great hazy binge, a la Lindsey Lohan.  While I’ve yet to hear of anyone utilizing the classic “Woody Harrelson punchout”, I’ve definitely witnessed firsthand a few Russel Crowe like meltdowns (minus the bar fights).  A few Volunteers, to even my astonishment, never seem to lose their cool.  They have a Tom Hanks-esque saintliness that, while you have to appreciate, you can’t quite comprehend.  One good friend, taking after the infamous Nic Cage, has coped with his stress by buying a bunch of crap that no person in their right mind would need or want.  I do want to say that while almost all of the time almost all of the Volunteers act with the patience and serenity of a saint, we are all still human, and none of us are perfect.

So where do I fit into all of this when I’m having a bad day?  I guess I’d have to liken myself to the enigmatic Johnny Depp.  I keep to myself, staying safely within the confines of my house when I don’t feel ready to face all the staring and shouting that my celebrity brings.  When I have to leave the privacy of my home, I don a pair of sunglasses and my headphones and keep my head down.  It’s not that I ignore people, but on these days, it’s a brief nod and a “jambo” then I’m on my way.  I even seem to watch a lot of Johnny Depp movies on these days, but I’d say that it’s more a consequence of my affinity for Tim Burton than any true allegiance to my celebrity doppelganger.

Monday, September 19, 2011

a situation which is not good

Even if you follow this blog pretty closely, there’s a strong chance you have no idea about the work I’ve done in helping to establish a vocational school in my area.  I don’t often mention it because, unlike the other work I do, this project is entirely under the control of foreign donors and the Italian Sisters that they’ve appointed to keep it up.  Also, it should be said that I’m not altogether fond of the project itself.  I’ve done my best to implement some of my own touches to the project to help make it both successful and sustainable.  Some of my ideas have been used like instituting school fees to ensure that students take their classes seriously, though, much to my chagrin, foreign donations still cover about 80% of all costs.  Most of my ideas, however, are considered to lack the charitable spirit that the donors were hoping for.  When it was suggested that the sewing/tailoring students be given sewing machines for completing the course, my objections fell on deaf ears.  I argued that we could not only not afford to run the school for more than a few terms under such a plan, but that the vast majority of the recipients were likely to sell off their free sewing machines, taking the instant cash as opposed to the promise of long-term, slower investment.  We haven’t yet given away the machines because I am still trying to reach some sort of compromise on this point, but I cringe to think of what I’ll find when they send me out from house to house to check on the machines.

In addition to the sewing/tailoring course, we also offer a certificate in hairdressing.  The first term, which just ended this month, was wrought with frustration.  On top of the administrative issues I was having with the way the whole school was run, our only hair dressing instructor had proven to be unreliable at best.  Materials went missing, students disliked her, and her personal attendance was hovering just over the 50% mark.  When the first term ended, Sister Judith expressed her concerns.  “What should we do about her?” she asked.  “Just don’t ask her back.  She’s terrible,” I responded.  “But she’s already asked me about next term!” lamented Sister.  “Okay.  Then tell her honestly that we’ll find someone else.  I’ll even do it if you want.”

Sister told me she’d think about it, which not surprisingly meant that the hairdressing instructor was back at it for term two.  After the first two days of class, she showed up at my door at 6:30 AM.  “I cannot come to teach for the rest of the week.”  I don’t even try to act surprised.  “Oh no… why?”  “You see, I am passing through a situation which is not good,” she said as if in explanation.  “Wow.  That doesn’t sound good at all…” I silently cursed the fact that no one was there to bear witness to my wit.  “What exactly does that mean, Erin?” I asked.  “It means I am passing through a bad situation,” she clarified.  I’ll spare you from the rest of the conversation, but it persisted along these lines for a while.

I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe she had a funeral or something to go to and just didn’t want to talk about it.  At any rate, she wasn’t going to tell me, and I wasn’t going to convince her to go to work, so I let it drop.  I let it drop, at least, until I saw her later that day and each of the next 2 days working at her other job in town.  “Erin!  What are you doing working when you told you called off the rest of the week from your teaching post?!  You told me you couldn’t work, and yet here you are working another job” I was really angry at this point. “I told you,” she insisted, “I am passing through a situation which is not good.”

This time, I was too mad for even my old friend, sarcasm.  I stared at her for a few seconds, and then took off.  I should have expected this.  What else could happen you consistently pay a person in advance who consistently neglects her responsibilities?  I know I shouldn’t take things to heart as much as I do, but I can’t help it.  Her students have been paying for school fees (at my behest, nonetheless) without the benefit of actually learning anything.  At the same time, my organization seems to only be benefitting this woman whose single proven competency is taking advantage of the system.

I want to point out that not all development agencies operate like this. Some are great, but if there’s one lesson I’d like to get across from this post, it’s that you should know where your money is going if you donate to development agencies like this.  There are good programs out there.  Two of my favorites are:
Kiva – (Kiva.org)
Peace Corps Partnership Program – (peacecorps.gov/contribute/ )
Both allow you to select the individual projects that you want to contribute to, and both have good reputations when it comes to responsible financing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

the trip home

It’s been inexcusably long since I last wrote on this, and the worst part is I feel like a lot has happened in that time. The big roadblock was my month-long trip back to America, which was planned as a surprise for my Mom, but there were a handful of blog-worthy happenings in there as well which I hope to eventually get to in later posts. Mainly, what I want to deal with here is the notion of culture shock, or reverse culture shock to be specific to my experience.

The initial move from Ohio to Uganda was a bit jarring to say the least, but so much of that was cushioned by my expectations. I knew I would come here and meet all new types of people and see a different way of life than I am used to (cultural norms, poverty, corruption, etc.). When you expect the unexpected, a lot of the edge can be taken out of the shock. It also didn’t hurt that I was in the same boat as 28 other future Peace Corps Volunteers. The return trip a year and a half later was something else entirely.

Setting foot on that plane was like stepping through some kind of science fiction wormhole through time and space. All of the sudden, the headaches were gone, everything was clean and functioning properly, staff were going out of their way to take care of me. It was awesome, but it didn’t feel right.

When I arrived in Chicago (after a quick overnight stay in Istanbul – I won’t go into it here, but what an amazing city! I highly recommend it.) my friend Dan was there waiting for me at the airport. The switch was unceremoniously thrown from African time, where the concept of tardiness and urgency are completely foreign to American punctuality. My little delay in Turkey had cost me a whole day in the states, and we had a schedule to keep. After a stop-off at Art of Pizza, my absolute favorite, we picked up our friend Jon and went back to Dan’s place so I could grab a quick shower. From there it was straight to the My Morning Jacket concert that was a birthday present from Dan (thanks so much again, buddy).

Surprisingly, the blaring music, flashing lights, and droves of people that make concerts what they are didn’t have much affect on me. It wasn’t until we went out to a bar afterward that I realized the full extent of the culture shock. As people sat there and talked about relatively normal things – the job market, the newest iPhone apps, HBO’s Game of Thrones – I realized that I was completely incapable of contributing to the conversation. A year and a half ago, I would have been right at home. I knew all of these people. I had talked with them about the exact same things, but something was different and I knew that something was me. What was I supposed to say when someone was talking about apartment shopping? “Oh really? A two bedroom just a block away from the Red Line with a great view? Sounds great! That reminds me. I was recently thinking about zombie proofing my own apartment. You know… Just in case.” While I didn’t go through with it or even say it out loud, yes, I was seriously considering it for a while.

Though I really did love every minute of my trip home, it was a bit marred by my difficulties in re-acclimating. Sure, things like wastefulness and constant attention to the iPhone are things that I would have expected to annoy me, but it didn’t stop there. Nice dinners, easy transportation, time with family and friends, good customer service, even tap water caused me more than a little anxiety. At first I couldn’t understand it. These things are all positive, and I have thought about each and every one longingly since I arrived here, so why wasn’t I able to fully enjoy them without some nagging anxiety?

I have thought about it for a while, and the only thing I can come up with is a skewed sense of equilibrium. Life in Uganda can be incredible at times. Work can be so rewarding. Time with friends is so refreshing. Good food is a rare, but always much appreciated treat. I have rafted the Nile River and safaried in savannahs. The thing is, every good is paid for, and I don’t mean in shillings or dollars. For every breakthrough at work, there’s countless hours wasted waiting for people to show up, convincing (sometimes begging) them to try things your way, and doing your best to protect everything you’ve built from corruption, infighing, outside jealousies, and so many other problems. For every weekend adventure with friends, there always the cramped, smelly, agonizingly slow public transportation and the people outside of your safe community who see you as if you had a target on your back. Headaches seem to accompany just about everything here. I’ve had the opportunity to do things here that I never dreamed I would get a chance at, but, as I said, these things are paid for by a million headaches and frustrations. It’s a balance.

I think the root of my culture shock in America stems from that lack of equilibrium. I got a chance to hang out with friends and family every day. When I wanted good food, all I had to do was open my Mom’s refrigerator. On the rare occasions I didn’t find something that I was excited to eat, I could just hop in a car and go get something. I know this sounds great, but the problem was, I was experiencing all of this stuff while I think my mind was still keeping a mental tally for me. It thought that for every shower and glass of water, a grueling trip to the well loomed that much closer. For every good meal, a dirty, long matatu ride into town should be made. For every day of fun with my family and friends, at least five more would have to be spent in solitude. And that’s the way it went in America. With my good, easy times continuing to heap up on one side of the scales while the frustration and headache side remained empty. The more things that piled on the good side, the bigger the shit storm would have to be to balance it out. Luckily for me, that shit storm never came.

Even still, it’s hard for me to believe how profound the culture shock was in coming home versus that of when I came to Uganda. I guess it goes a long way in saying how we can get used to anything, even things that seem so so foreign to us.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

the cynicism of a development worker

Last week, my Peace Corps training class got together for our Mid-Service Conference (MSC in Peace Corps’ acronym happy lingo), a landmark that represents the halfway point of our service. The idea is that by the time you reach the halfway point, most of the bumps and bruises that come along with moving to a foreign country will be behind you. The first year of Peace Corps is there for you to get acclimated in your new community, run through some trial and error on your projects, and start to hone in on what works best for you. The second year is to solidify the work you are doing and make it sustainable. After ten weeks of Pre-Service Training, a year in the field, and a handful of other training sessions we’d attended, further trainings are a bit redundant. That’s why MSC is set up just as a chance for us to come together and reflect on our time so far with Peace Corps staff and friends.

You might think that the tone of a room filled with people who have given up their lives for the last year to help communities on the other side of the world would be overwhelmingly upbeat, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. In stark contrast to the optimistic, starry-eyed discussions I vividly remember from when we first got here, the current mood in regards to our work is often jaded and tired. Idealism has turned into realism and, at times, cynicism. We slam the concepts of charity, foreign aid, and especially short-term “voluntourism”, and question whether our impacts are even being felt by our communities. I was actually hesitant to write this entry because, even though these things are natural to the seasoned PCV, I feel like it might be misunderstood by someone who’s never walked a mile in our shoes.

So what happened? Why such a drastic shift in attitudes? There could be any number of reasons, I suppose. We’ve been here for so long now. We miss our homes; our families and friends. We’re tired of being outsiders. We want a decent, sand-free meal. We’re frustrated by any number of the differences that are the norm for both Uganda and Ugandans, but would be unimaginable in America.

I guess these would be the easy things to point to, and I would never completely discount any of them. Things can wear on you pretty quickly when you’re on your own the way nearly all of us are. But I think there’s a deeper reason behind the cynicism. Simply put, it’s because we still care. As a friend and I were just discussing, most Americans aren’t used to failure. We came from a country where you are expected to achieve, and all of the tools are there for everyone to make that happen. We PCVs came here with grandiose ideas about the work we were going to do and the impact we would have, and yet despite our good intentions and our American university degrees, we have all faced daunting failures. Usually things just don’t work out the way we’d hoped, but sometimes there are failures so epically catastrophic that the only possible conclusion to draw is that everyone would have been better off if we’d never even attempted the project. Everyone wants to see their efforts bear fruit and see that things are getting better. Unfortunately, for many here it can be difficult to see. It’s something that none of us was used to, and it’s definitely taken its toll.

What gives me hope, though, is that we’re still here. Not one of us has given up, and despite any bitching we might do, I know that each one of us is going to go out there and keep working for what we believe in. We aren't perfect. We get worn out and retreat within our own safe little American circle. We complain to each other because we're not sure outsiders will really understand and sometimes you need to vent. We make jokes because sometimes you just have to laugh. In the end, the people I've met through Peace Corps are still some of the best people I've ever met, and I feel incredibly lucky to count them as my friends.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the joys of living without

I’m often asked what the most difficult part of living in Uganda is. It’s not an easy question to answer. There are, after all, a lot of difficult parts about living here, not just for me, but even for the people who have never, and probably will never, leave this place. When asked how hard it is to live without all of the amenities and luxuries I got used to in the states though, that is a question I feel like I can answer more readily. While it’s undeniable that there certainly is a very substantial gap between the US and Uganda in almost all the amenities that make up daily life, it is far from the hardest part of life here. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s one of the best.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not some kind of masochist. There are times when I feel like I am losing my mind. I would give anything for some decent food (or even some food without rocks and sand in it), my own seat in a safe, odor-free car, a sit-down toilet, a good friend to hang out with on short notice, running water, reliable electricity, really just for anything to work out on time the way it should. After enough time, you get used to these things, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still mentally and sometimes physically taxing. The really amazing part about this experience, however, is in the newfound appreciation that you gain for all of those things that were taken for granted before.

I once received a bag of Cajun trail mix in a care package that ants had burrowed into and were devouring. I wouldn’t say that the ants were the bulk of it by the time I got to the bag, but I would say they’d probably be up there on the ingredient list; behind the corn nuts and roasted peanuts, but ahead of the almonds, sesame sticks, and toffee peanuts. Well, I had been looking forward to this package for months, and I was going to be damned if I let a couple of ants piss on my parade. I put the bag into a Ziploc and sealed it to kill the little beasts off and set it aside for the night. Even I wasn’t about to eat live ants. I’m not a total heathen. The next day, after the ants had earned their just reward, I dove right in. I had originally intended to pick the ants out as I ate, but I’d be lying if I said that process lasted more than the first few minutes. In the end, I figured it would send a good message to any nearby ants that had funny ideas about the rest of that care package.

When I told my friends about this story, I heard two distinct reactions.

My friends from home: Dude… that’s pretty nasty. How gross was it?

My friends in Peace Corps: Dude… I LOVE Cajun seasoning. How good was it?

And the truth is it was fantastic. I can tell you without hesitation that I have never enjoyed trail mix as completely as I did for those next few days (the two pound bag lasted about half of a week).

In America, Cajun trail mix is one of my favorite snacks. I really enjoyed the stuff, but there’s something lost when you can run down to the supermarket anytime, anywhere, pick a bag up, and fulfill your cravings. Such a feat in Uganda is not just difficult, it is flat-out impossible. I had lived for months on crumby porridge, rice, beans, and a handful of other equally uninspired ingredients so that when something like a bag of Cajun trail mix finally did come along, it wasn’t just an enjoyable snack, it was an earth-shattering enlightenment for my deprived taste buds. The really high highs, the things that make this experience so unique, may not come from the act of living without, but they do come because of it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

update: ambc

****The following is an article that I wrote to hopefully be published in celebration of Peace Corps' 50th anniversary.****

I arrived in Kisoga, Uganda under a fair amount of uncertainty. The organization I was assigned to had been operating for ten years, and was essentially the philanthropic arm of a Catholic Parish in Italy. Over those ten years, Mirembe Maria had sponsored hundreds of children’s school fees, built dozens of buildings for both local individuals and the Catholic Church, founded several conventional and vocational schools, and funded countless other similarly minded ventures. Funding began to dry up with the global recession, and so I was brought in and given one task: better the economic well-being of the people of my community. It was straightforward enough, but still had no idea how I was possibly going to accomplish it.

As I integrated into Kisoga, I sat down and spoke with hundreds of individuals about their lives, their problems, and, most importantly, their goals. While people’s lives are as diverse here as anywhere else on earth, there seemed to be a very common theme in terms of their goals and most immediate problems: money. People needed money to feed their families, to buy their own land to farm, to send their children through school, to open their own businesses, and to pay for things like medical treatment and their other necessities.
It was not exactly a revelation for the ages. The question of, “how?” still loomed larger than ever, but it was a start. I looked deeper into my community for the solution. I wanted to know the types of things people were already doing, and to see if a fresh perspective might take a stale idea to new heights.

It wasn’t until my sister, Jenna, called me from Ohio that the project finally started to come together. She had told me that she seen a booth in her university student union selling African handicrafts for charity. When she told me the prices these items were fetching, I couldn’t believe it. I immediately remembered that I had spoken with a handful of women who used to be part of a group that made beaded necklaces out of recycled paper, but had stopped because the local market was completely oversaturated and profits had been nearly impossible to come by. It seemed that, if the right connections with people and businesses back in America were be formed, the paper beaded necklaces could make an ideal product to export.

I believe that, far from being at ends with it, the private sector is one of the best tools we can use for development. I knew that similar programs with craft sales had already been put into practice; after all, that was how I had the idea in the first place. I thought, however, that if we could draw on ideas from businesses as opposed to charities, we might be able improve upon their models. First of all, nothing would be given away. Group members would buy all of their own material up-front, pay for their share of shipping and handling, and would earn only as much as they were able to sell. I hoped that these measures would discourage corruption, infighting, and opportunism while building a base of real business knowledge and encouraging hard-work and quality products. I had also decided to encourage any retailers who would support us to make their own profits on our goods. In this, the goals were to provide an incentive to push sales of our jewelry as well as promote expansion into shops and even regions where we might not otherwise have a presence. All of this, I hoped, would combine to build a better, more economically sustainable business.

Things were slow in the beginning. While dozens of people in Kisoga expressed interest in forming the group, less than ten initially joined. Of those, perhaps only four showed anything in the way of commitment. Meanwhile, I had only found one American business that was interested in picking up our products: a salon in Columbus, Ohio that my aunt owns and operates with my Mom.

We pushed ahead anyway, and before long Ave Maria Bead Co. sent a shipment to the salon. That first package contained just a small number of basic necklaces and a flyer with a photo and a brief explanation of our group. I was terrified that the product wouldn’t sell and that these women, who had put their trust in me, would be rewarded with only the loss of their time and money. Less than two weeks later, however, we received word from the salon. The necklaces had sold out, back orders had been placed, and some of the customers wanted to carry our products and retail them in their own businesses.

Just a few months have passed since that first shipment, but Ave Maria Bead Co. has continued to grow by leaps and bounds since that point. The group grew seemingly overnight from its original nine members to now over forty. They have elected their own leadership and make their own rules and regulations. Another big development has been every member’s enrollment to their own mobile banking account. Savings accounts have long been perceived as inaccessible by so many in this area, but this new technology has changed that. It will give our members not only a safe, secure way to send, receive, and store money, but will hopefully encourage a culture of savings and financial responsibility.

The retail side in America has grown just as quickly as the production side, meaning more profits for everyone involved (everyone except me, of course!). Volume and revenue continue to increase. There are even two regional teams now, one in Ohio and one in Mississippi, who are dedicated to sales and distribution. Our products can be found in seven retail locations, and this number is growing all the time. The customer experience has also evolved as all jewelry now comes with a tag identifying the artisan who made the piece. The card also points buyers to a web page where photos, stories, and letters from the artist can be found.

The success of Ave Maria Bead Co. has been exhilarating for everyone involved. Our retailers in America are happy to help out a cause they believe in, while still making some profits for themselves. Many of our customers have sent encouraging words supporting our products and our goals. Our group members are better off financially, but they also take immense pride in knowing that they have earned their own money and have not taken any handouts. Some have even begun to move into their own ventures, taking with them their skills, knowledge, and new found self-confidence. As for me, I am just happy to have been a part of this. To have helped create something, watch it grow, and continue to work for its future.

Monday, March 21, 2011

prejudice is bad

Growing up as a white, middle class male in the American Midwest never exposed me to much in the way of prejudice. I can’t remember ever feeling isolated or different from the people around me. The only real way I’d ever stood out was the freakishness with which my body developed, but luckily for me, a sixth grade giant who already has to shave everyday is not exactly a target for ridicule.

My days of blending seamlessly into my surroundings ended abruptly when I moved to Uganda. The communities here are so homogenous that people can tell when you are from a different region of this country. Imagine, then, how much I stick out. I am literally the only white person in my town. A minority of one in a community of 80,000. I try to treat every experience in country, good or bad, as a learning opportunity, and what has this lifestyle taught me? Racism and prejudice is bad. You can quote me on that. It’s a revelation, I know.

The fact is that no matter how hard I try to fit in, I never will in Uganda. I will always be seen as an outsider while I am here. My name is often muzungu, the color of my skin. I am asked dozens of times per day for money. I get talked about by gossiping women in the market as if I am not standing right in front of them. I am overcharged for almost everything. I am so berated by requests that I am often suspicious of anyone who approaches me. Most days I am able to take it all in stride, at least hiding my aggravation usually by ignoring rude behavior, but sometimes stopping to address things in a constructive way. There are rare occasions though, when I’m caught on a bad day and my temper gets the best of me. By American standards, it would seem pretty mild, but I’m still not at all proud of these moments.

In the past, this is the part of my blog where I would try to come full circile and explain things away, usually citing some differences in culture. While the fact that I, along with my other Peace Corps Volunteers, get treated more like tourist attractions than people probably can be explained in terms of differences in culture, I don’t think that excuses anything. Being singled out for standing apart from the majority is a terrible thing to experience. Even on my best days it is extremely hurtful and always takes a bit of the wind of sails.

I didn’t write this blog to create some kind of pity party for myself. My suffering here is miniscule, and there hasn’t been a single day when any of it has outweighed the good parts of my service. I love it here, and for the most part I love the people here (although, like anywhere else, there are good and bad). What encouraged me to sit down and write this was a conversation I had with my friend, Jake. Like me, he’s been frustrated by the prejudice he receives in his community, but he said something that really put the whole situation into perspective. He said something to the extent that even though it was obnoxious and even hurtful at times, we get treated the way we do for two main reasons: the people in our communities perceive us to be very smart and very rich, two incredibly positive things. With that said, I realized that I can’t even imagine how alienating it must feel to be a part of a people judged for being intellectually, physically, morally, or in any other way inferior. I am not advocating that we ignore all of the differences that make us unique and interesting, as is often the case in today’s overly politically correct world. Rather, my experience has just reinforced in me the notion that we should treat everyone with the love and respect that they deserve.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

back to business

I remember the first time I seriously considered becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was sitting at my desk, absolutely miserable, when I received a Facebook message from my old high school buddy, Chris, a PCV in Ecuador at the time. I decided to check it out for myself at peacecorps.gov and was immediately enthralled with the idea.

I had strived my entire life to put myself into the position I was in, working as a consultant in the big city of Chicago. I was just out of college and only three months into my job, but my thoughts were already straying toward the idea of leaving the corporate world behind forever. I wanted to experience something different. I wanted to help people, and I felt compelled because to be in a position to do so. I wanted to do something that I loved, and just as importantly, that I believed in. Peace Corps would give me the opportunity to do all of these things. Finally, after about a year and a bit of a winding road, I found myself out from behind my desk and bound for Uganda.

Despite the 27 month stint I had committed to, I still got a lot of questions from people about what I wanted to do after Peace Corps. I knew there was plenty of time to consider my options, but I told most people that I would probably end up returning to school for a master’s in some form international development or economic policy and then try for the State Department. Here I am now, though, more than a year removed from my courageous escape from corporate America, and I am set on getting an MBA and rejoining the business world (after I finish my service here, of course). What’s more, I am sure this is what I want. Absolutely positive. If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that I studied my ass off for the GMAT (just finished Thursday!), and this has got to be something that no human being would put themselves through unless they were convinced that they wanted to go to business school.

I know what this looks like. You must be thinking to yourself that old Dave sold out. The truth is, I still believe in all of those things that made me want to leave my desk job. I still believe in doing what you love and believe in and I still think that people who are lucky enough to be in a position to help others should do so, I just see the methods a bit differently now.

When I look around me, I see thousands of NGOs in Uganda dumping millions of dollars in the country. The intentions are almost always good, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are countless examples that I could point to in Uganda alone to emphasize some of the failures of gifted aid, but I will just use one here. The clean-cook stove was developed to replace the more traditional three-stone cooking fire (literally just three stones that hold pots slightly elevated over burning firewood). Clean-cook stoves burn a fraction of the wood that three-stone fires do reducing deforestation and the price of fuel, they cook things faster, and they minimize the smoke and ash that young girls and women are subjected to inhale three times per day. Countless NGOs have installed these stoves in homes all over Uganda, but I have yet to see one being used in my year in country. At my first site in, while I was still just a bush baby, I proposed the idea of installing these stoves. I figured the people as well as the park we neighbored would greatly benefit. The people were ecstatic about the idea. Everyone wanted a stove. I went to the first house to have one installed, and was shown a great place for the stove. It was so great, in fact, that there was already a clean-cook stove installed, tucked neatly behind the three-stone fire the woman was making lunch on. The next three houses were the same thing. All the members of the group had clean-cook stoves that they didn’t use, and every single one of them, without a trace of irony, wanted me to install another one for them. I still think that the clean-cook stove is a fantastic idea, but the way in which it has been implemented to this point has utterly failed.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique example. You see things like it all the time, and it used to give me a sense of hopelessness, but now I can see that changes are coming. There are actually some great things that are starting to happen in the developing world. I am seeing ideas that are lifting people, slowly by slowly, out of poverty, but perhaps surprisingly to some, they are mostly coming out of the private, for-profit, sector. Products and services such as micro-loans, mobile phones, and commoditized solar energy have already changed the face of my village. These ideas work not just because they are good for the people who consume them, but because it is in the best interest of the people who produce them to make sure the consumers are well-informed of the benefits and uses of their products.

Even my own project, Ave Maria Bead Co. has benefited greatly from using the models of the private sector. Tying the earnings of the group to direct sales and profits ensures that they stay motivated and focused on quality assurance, while allowing profits to be made by the retailers and distributors we sell to has helped us grow larger in a few short months than I thought we ever could. Ave Maria will also soon switch from cash-based transactions to mobile phone banking, another private sector idea. Within the matter of minutes that it takes to sign up, all 41 members of the group will have their own savings accounts, something few have had access to and even fewer have an understanding of its benefits. Only one of the 41 members has previous experience with banking (Sylvia’s husband has an account).

In my opinion, private business, not aid and government, is the best tool for fixing some of the pressing issues of the world. This is why I decided to return to business and get my MBA. Business school, I hope, will allow me to be a part of these solutions and be surrounded by a culture that thrives on innovation. The same ideas about making the world a better place that motivated me to leave corporate America do still exist, I am just going about realizing them a little differently now.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

uganda rocks the vote

This past Friday, Uganda held its Presidential elections, with results Sunday declaring Yoweri Museveni the winner. Again. The next five years will mark his sixth term in office. Despite over a year of buildup, which for me started the first day I set foot in country, the elections passed with very little incident. The fairness of the vote may have been called into question by the opposition, but despite the failed candidates’ call for public outrage, nothing has materialized.

Some people will probably find it quite surprising that Museveni could peacefully win a sixth term. After all, consider the fact that Uganda sits near the top of nearly all global corruption statistics. Even the Ambassador of one their biggest allies was leaked in a memo stating the man had autocratic tendencies. Also consider the fact the claims of fraud and bribery of voters was substantiated by European overseers. Place all of this against the backdrop of the wave of political turmoil sweeping North Africa and the Middle East and serious, credible terror threats from al-Shabob and al-Qaeda, and it really does seem incredible that things went as well as they did. Although I am by no means an expert on the politics of Uganda, I do have some theories as to why.

The first reason is the Ugandans themselves. Uganda is a country, like much of Sub-Saharan, that was formerly under European colonial rule. Borders were drawn with little regard to the identity of its inhabitants, and as a result, the country is made up of dozens of different tribes and multiple ethnicities, all with their own cultures and many with their own languages. The disconnect and rivalry between these groups makes it very unlikely that a large enough band of tribes would stand together to oppose much of anything. The last time such an alliance did form, Museveni himself was leading it on his way to seizing the Presidency. Similarly, if Ugandans have a difficult time identifying with rivaling tribesmen, they have no connection whatsoever to Tunisians and Egyptians, whom most would claim aren’t Africans. The stories of protesters taking to the streets and toppling regimes is certainly news, but it does little in the way of inspiring the people to stand up themselves.

The opposition itself is probably another reason for the lack of unrest. Many Ugandans nd even the leaked Ambassador cited earlier have said that the opposition candidates did little to set themselves apart from Museveni. I heard more than a few people claim that almost all of the opposition was just as corrupt as anyone else already in office, so why vote for a change that could possibly destabilize the country? Furthermore, there were eight opposition candidates. Eight! I can’t imagine trying to defeat an entrenched incumbent with eight people splitting the opposition vote.

The final reason that I think prevented the riots and protests seen elsewhere in the region was the Mzee (old man), Museveni himself. First of all, he promised to crush any political uprising. After his brutal handling of riots in the Central region of the country in 2009, I think most people were inclined to take him at his word. Secondly, and probably the most important of all, people still like Museveni. Even in the freest, fairest elections known to man, I still think Museveni would have won easily. He is wildly popular in the West and Southwest of the country, and also amongst the elderly. I have talked to a few people who are old enough to remember what this country was like before Museveni came to power. I even met a few who fought alongside Museveni and his National Resistance Army (now the political party National Resistance Movement). I won’t go into a history lesson here, but the stories of life then are truly horrific. They still idolize their President for taking them into a time of relative stability and freedom, even if some admit that he has overstayed a bit.

There's certainly a lot of disappointment out there for people who wanted a change. This is even true amongst some Volunteers. I don’t really know enough about the political issues here to be able to comment what five more years will mean for this country. I am just relieved that things remained safe and calm in a volatile environment.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

ahead of the election

Tomorrow marks Uganda's presidential election. It's a monumental day, not just for Uganda, but beyond as the international world looks to this nation as a pillar of democratic stability in an often turbulent region. I sat down to write something about the build-up leading to the election, however I realized that my friend had already written something that said everything I would have. I promise that after the election I will write out some thoughts and insights of my own, but if you are interested now, check Joe's blog out. He's not only a very good friend, but a great writer.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

after a year

Before I set off for Uganda, I was pretty much running the emotional gauntlet. Of course, I was excited to start a new chapter and a new adventure in life, but I also felt uncertain, scared, guilty, and pretty much any other adjective you might think of. With all of these things swimming through me, I remember one of the overwhelming feelings that I couldn’t shake was a sense of loss. I imagined that I was leaving my life completely behind for the two plus years. Even though I was resolute in my decision to come, I was afraid that I was diverging. Stepping away from the path that I was on with everyone and everything I knew, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get back to that when I returned.

In a way, my concerns were right. I did leave behind the only way of life that I had ever known. Cultures and norms are different here. I no longer have so many of the amenities I happily took for granted in the states. Ugandans don’t eat the same food as Americans. They don’t communicate in the same way as Americans. Nothing runs the same way it did back home. Not knowing a single person on the entire continent when I arrived, I met new people and made new friends. I even had to change the way I communicate with my old friends and family. I have had more triumphs and frustrations in this single year than I can ever remember having before. With time, I have learned to adapt to these things, sometimes consciously, and sometimes without noticing it at all.

In the same way, I know that things at home have gone on in my absence. My friends’ and family’s lives have taken on exciting new changes as well. Some have struck out on their own adventures to exotic places, but all of them are in different places, figuratively and/or literally, from the time I last saw them. I continue to read about the pessimism regarding the economy. There’s apparently a new political movement in America. The iPad (which looks phenomenal, by the way) was unveiled. New music, movies, books, and trends are undoubtedly sweeping the nation. The Cleveland Cavaliers can’t win a game… Life has changed.

I have accepted all of this as true. There would be no point in denying it. The difference now, I suppose, is only in the way I view these changes. Before, I was afraid that the differences between my life now and my life before I left would create a barrier between me and everyone and everything I loved, but now I know that that is not the case. I have changed and so has everything else, but that doesn’t mean it is the end of anything. Change does not necessarily mean that things have diverged, as I once feared. They have just grown. Sure, everything will be a little different, but, to me, that’s exciting!

Exactly a year ago today I set out from Columbus, Ohio, bound for Uganda. Being so close to everything, it can be difficult to tell, but looking back now I can see that so much has happened in that year. I have had four homes in four different communities, I have been on safaris, climbed volcanoes, been immersed in new cultures, worked on countless different projects in different roles, eaten hundreds of plates of rice and beans, been through thousands of bananas, and I have met so many new people, not just from Uganda, but all over the world. Many of the experiences have been incredible, and more than a few have been considerably less than that. People often ask me what’s the biggest way that I have changed since I have been here, and, a year in, I still find it hard to answer that question. The one thing I can say with certainty, however, is that I have definitely changed. But really, who hasn’t?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

ambc photo shoot

In just a few short months, Ave Maria Bead Co. has surpassed all of my expectations for where I thought the project would be. The group here continues it's growth in all aspects of the word, while just as importantly, our organization has taken great strides in expansion outside of Uganda. AMBC now has two people, Lindsay and Jenna, that have taken over sales and distribution, and we are constantly in talks about new directions for the group. They have a lot of great ideas for the future, and I can't wait to see where this thing goes!

The photo album is mostly for their benefit, as it was just an easy way for me to share some materials with them as they consider constructing our own website, but I thought I'd put it up on my blog just in case anyone else wanted to take a look.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

the kids are alright

When I was in college I remember returning home for holidays and being taken aback by seeing young children again. Oxford, Ohio is almost exclusively made up of the college-aged and the very old with nothing in between.

Uganda, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It sometimes seems that over half the population here is under the age of 6. Everywhere you look, there they are. Playing, cleaning, cooking, greeting every white person they see (usually just me) sleeping, farming, running shops, fetching water, eating, shitting, yelling, herding cattle. They pretty much do it all. Sometimes I feel like I have stumbled into some insane, clothing optional bizarre-o world where children have inherited the earth.

I’ve heard it said that kids are kids, no matter where you are. I guess, in some ways, that’s true. The children here love to run around and have fun just like any other. When I was young, I would have been completely lost if I couldn’t have played with my G.I. Joes, or Nintendo, or any one of the countless other toys I had. Here, though, none of that is an option. They have to get a little more creative, and it’s always entertaining for me to see what they come up with.

(neighborhood boy with a string of cars that he made)

The other day, I walked by some of my neighbors who were playing what looked like the absolute best lawn party drinking game. Yes, possibly even better than Cornhole or Bags. They had found an old rubber flip-flop sole and a bunch of discarded batteries and devised a game where two people stood about ten meters apart, set ten batteries up, vertically, in a row, and then took turns throwing the flip-flop like a Frisbee at their opponents battery row. They first person to knock over all of his opponents batteries stayed on to play the next challenger. I sat there for about an hour watching and cheering on the game.

As I said, in some ways they are similar to your average American child. In most ways, however, they are worlds apart. Kids here are tougher and more independent than I had imagined was even possible for people of their age. Whether it is a child strapped to its mother’s back, stuffed into an impossibly uncomfortable position for a taxi ride, or one that has just fallen and hit her head, you will rarely hear them complain and you will almost never see them cry. Supervision, on the rare occasions it occurs, is usually performed by a 6-7 year old sibling, and things such safety precautions, let alone any kind of code, are completely unheard of.

A few months back, I was walking home from work when I came upon a young boy, maybe 18 months old at most. He was in the middle of the town square by himself, completely nude, chasing around a chicken with a machete. “Oh my god!” I thought to myself, as I started to run. “I’ve got to get home and grab my camera!” Even my preconceived notions about how children should or should not be raised have faded with time. (For the record, I did return with my camera, but I couldn’t find the boy anywhere)

Living alone in such a foreign country can definitely take its toll. There are always unexpected ups and downs. Sometimes the kids in my village are the best part of my day. They will run right up to me after a rough day just to hold my hand while I walk home. It makes me laugh to see how proud they are to be there with me, always making sure to get their friends attention so they can rub it in a bit. Other days, and with other kids though, they can be the final nail in the coffin. “Give me my money!” they shout, or “Muzungu, mpa sweetie!” white person, give me candy! It drives me up the wall, especially when I see their parents in the background telling them what to say.

Time has helped me to do my best to ignore these negative encounters. I guess if I were in their shoes, I would be asking for something to eat too. Still though, the good more than makes up for the bad, and I really do get a lot of joy out of the crazy army of children in my village.

Monday, January 10, 2011

ave maria bead co.

A while back, I briefly went over a project that I am working on with some of the women of my village where we are creating links between a crafts group here in Uganda and local small businesses stateside. While the project is still in its very early stages, I am excited to report that a lot has happened in those few short months.

Sometime in November, Ave Maria Bead Co. (their choice, not mine) sent its first shipment of paper bead necklaces to Hair Artists in Columbus, OH. I have to admit that I was initially just hoping to recoup the costs that I had sunk into the start-ups involved, and have a bit of profit leftover to give the women of the group. In a very non-Peace Corps move, I had put more than a full month’s stipend into the cost of the materials and shipping, and I was starting to feel the pinch as the holidays approached. Fortunately, my concerns were completely unwarranted, as sales with our test-shipment outstripped even my wildest expectations. We earned not just enough to overcome the start-up costs, but also about $1,000 in profit, which, even when divided amongst the 10 group members, is hugely significant considering the median national income is about $400 per year.

Distributing the money to the women in early December was one of the biggest highlights of my service to date. Each had earned a different sum based on what they had made and sold, so I called them into a private room to confidentially give them their share. They marched back, heads held high, and received their money with very dignified thanks and handshakes. Only my counterpart, Margaret, seemed to be throwing all solemnity to the wind as she helped translate and distribute. However as soon as they left an immediate cry of joy rose up, and when I had finally finished I saw that the singing was accompanied by plenty of dancing out on the veranda. Everyone was talking animatedly about the type of Christmas they were now going to be able to have.

Not surprisingly, the group has grown exponentially in the month since that morning in December. The number of necklaces we have for our next shipment is almost triple what it was for our first, and the group itself has expanded to now include about 20 women, a handful of young girls, and now even a 10-11 year old boy named Douglas who is trying to earn money to pay for his own school fees. Even my friend Emma, a 17 year old secondary school student too proud to defy the strict gender roles of Uganda, has gotten in on the act. According to him, he hasn’t officially joined the group, but has taken the title of “Team Manager” for his family of about 10 women and girls who all work diligently on making necklaces in their free time.

Success, however, has come at a bit of a price. It may not seem like a problem, but I am legitimately concerned that the group is now making too much money. The last thing I want is for people to start diverting resources away from secure, local means of income in order to invest more fully into a project that I cannot guarantee will be able to continue indefinitely. Ideally, we will be able to take this money and turn it into other, sustainable projects. I am working with the group to think of ideas on how they can invest their new income into their futures instead of just “eating it”, as the local saying goes. The boon in production has also created the problem of finding new avenues for sales. The Ugandan market is already heavily oversaturated with these products, but I have some ideas on how to tackle this.
My hope is to turn this into as much of a business as possible, giving sales people in the states the opportunity to earn a profit for themselves while still assisting to support the artisans here in Uganda. In short, converting Ave Maria Bead Co. from a charity organization into a fair trade business. While it is against Peace Corps policy for me to make any profit, I think that allowing equally hardworking people outside of Uganda who do their part to do so is the way forward. I feel very strongly that enterprise, and not charity, is the best tool for sustainable development. Now I just need to find those people…

***Special thanks again to my Mom, my Aunt Elle, the women of Hair Artists, and everyone in Columbus who has helped support Ave Maria Bead Co. I wish you could be here to see what that support has meant for the people of Kisoga!

Monday, January 3, 2011

mgahinga xmas

This was my first Christmas away from home. A few buddies of mine and I thought that if we couldn't be home for the holidays then we might as well go out and do something totally different than the traditional Xmas.

We ultimately decided to climb the Virungas, a chain of stand-alone volcanoes that act as a natural boundary between Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda.

It was definitely unlike anything I had ever done before, for Christmas or otherwise. The climb was physically more challenging than anything I can remember, but it was also one of the most memorable, rewarding things I've done since being here.

Below are some of the pictures from my holiday adventure with Jake, Devon, and Cowboy Dave. Thanks for reading, and I hope all of you had as great a holiday as I did.