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Ups and Downs, Or Why Zooming In Is Important

I haven’t posted in a while – I think in part because I’m lazy and every time I think about posting I think about the work needed to write everything, find pictures, and find internet and in part because I’m at the point that I’m just living here. I’m living my life, and it just happens to be in Uganda. I don’t blog about my life at home because it’s not all that interesting, and I don’t really blog about my life here because on the whole it’s not all that interesting. Things that are annoying and weird have become part of my daily routine. How many times do you want to read about us running out of food and eating fried rice again, or that I did my laundry and it took 2 hours and I still have a giant pile in my room? I mean I’m bored living that experience, I can’t imagine reading it would be any more exciting.

That being said, I’m going to try to post a bit more. Who knows how that will go – this term is going to be kind of crazy because Eric and I got a puppy three weeks ago who is a lot of work (he was only 4 weeks old when we got him!) and because I’m going to be a trainer for the new group of volunteers arriving in November, which means I’ll be away from site for a month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about training, as we’ve prepared to receive the new group. It’s a crazy process that tries to prepare you for everything, but honestly you just have to live it to understand. One part I didn’t necessarily understand until I lived it is the ups and downs of the Peace Corps experience. That’s not to say I wasn’t expecting ups and downs. Of course I was – every blog, Facebook post and book tells you there will be ups and downs. There are ups and downs in regular American life too, and it’d be crazy not to expect them here. In fact, at some point in training they showed us this graph of emotions Peace Corps volunteers go through over the course of their 27 months. There’s the high of arriving, the lull of being stuck in training, the high of swearing in, and the definite low of being at site and continuing to fail over and over again before finding something that sticks. Obviously not everyone feels all of these emotions at the exact same time, but I’d say it definitely was at least averagely accurate for our group.

(You can check out a table talking about the same stuff here – looks like I’m right on schedule in my 10th month!)

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The problem with the graph, you see, is that it lays out all these emotions of a period of over two years. You get this nice, curvy line that looks a lot like a roller coaster over the course of 27 months. But anyone who has taken a statistics course knows, a lot can be hidden by the way you present the data. What this pretty line belies is that almost every day is a roller coaster of emotions. If you zoom in on the line, if you magnify and magnify and magnify again, you find that the line that represents a mere 24 hours looks a lot like a roller coaster too! Things might be going fine, you’re listening to your music and watching the highway pass by when your coaster suddenly hydroplanes across the highway (this may have happened to me two weeks ago). Or you’re already to bake your meatballs you’ve worked hard on and are so excited to eat – and then the power goes out for two hours. You’re walking to school and enjoying the beauty, when all of the sudden someone grabs you as you pass, calls you muzungu and then demands you give them money.

A powerful example of this constant fluctuation of emotions and feelings happened this Wednesday, a day in which I both cried tears of sadness and anger and jumped for joy within the span of approximately 4 hours. Here’s a breakdown of the day so you can understand, with arrows indicating my feelings throughout the day:

↓ | I wake up to a beautiful, sunny morning. This might sound great, but rain here is the equivalent of snow. It makes the roads impassible, no one shows up for work or school, attention wanes at school if it starts during the day, and you end up spending the day with a shovel in your hand. (Digging in the fields when the rain makes the dirt softer, in this case.) A little bit in the morning and I get a rain delay and can sleep in a bit. A lot in the morning? Rain day!

↑ | Our puppy, Tyrion, and his brother Walker who we are dog-sitting are calm and less whiny than they have been in the past few days when we place them in the fenced-in area of our yard. This makes it much easier to get ready for school!

↑↑↑↑↑ | As I turn my phone on for the day, I see that I have just missed a call from Henry, the nice guy at the post office. Henry has my phone number so that he can call me when a package arrives. Technically you get charged for a package sitting in the post office (though Henry has never charged me!), so it’s best to know when it’s there. This is super exciting news because it means the packages my dad sent nearly a month ago, and which I have been tracking fastidiously, have finally arrived and are not lost, as I somehow feared after they were labeled as ‘at the pick-up point’ for days before they actually appeared. I call Henry back and he confirms that all three boxes are waiting for me. I really want to just go to tow and pick them immediately, but I decide to be a good Peace Corps volunteer and make it to work for a few hours before going to get them.

↑ | Eric is supervising some of his students as they student teach at a primary school just down the road from me, so we decide to make the 30 minute trek together. I usually make the trip alone every day, or rather just me and my iPod, so it’s kind of nice to have someone else along. It’s less lonely.

↓ | It is already 75°, sunny and approximately 4 billion percent humidity at 9am when we leave the house. There is a grand total of 1 shade tree on the entire walk to school, and it occurs like 3 minutes before you get to school. I arrive to school soaked in sweat, as I do every day.

↑ | After opening the windows in the hope of catching a breeze, I get to work planning a series of workshops I’ll be holding for the teachers at my school. Since my school is a demonstration school attached to Eric’s primary teachers college some of his students are spending a month student teaching at my school. This means that for an entire month my staff is supposed to be observing them, giving them feedback and completing preparation work. In reality, this means an entire month of my staff sleeping in the staff room and lazing around. I figured it wouldn’t be too much of a burden to ask them to give a whopping 8 hours over the course of the next month to learning new, better classroom management and engagement strategies. We’ll see how that goes.

↑ | Tea time rolls around (we have break tea every day between 10:30am and 11:00am/whenever the teachers decide to go back to class) and tea is nearly on time. This is a big win because sometimes it can be up to 45 minutes late. Which confuses me, as all the cook is doing is boiling the same amount of water every day at the same time. Uganda. Anyway, I happen to stand up and fix my own tea before one of the very helpful staff can do it. This is a major win, as Ugandans seem to like their tea a bit sweet for my tastes. And I say that as someone who makes her Kool-Aid nearly tacky. It’s a lot of sugar. They also seem to like filling the mug up to the very brim, which is a lot of very hot tea to drink when I’m still very hot from getting to school. Actually, I’m just always hot in this country. Needless to say, I prefer to make my own.

↓ | While reading from my Kindle during break (and thank goodness it was pretty quiet in the staff room and I got some good reading done – I’ve been reading A People’s History of the United States which is awesome, but very long and I feel dejected every time I realize I still haven’t finished) I notice that it is October. Holy cow. Where has the time gone? (I mention this fact to Eric later and he points out that it’s about 42 days until we’ve been here for a year. Too soon.)

↔ | (Didn’t think I’d pull out the old line arrow did you? Well I got you!) Because every day recently has been blazing hot, sunny and has the humidity of a steam room in Florida there have been pop-up storms nearly every day. We Ohioans are well versed at these in the summer – come 3 or 4 o’clock it’s time to pack everything up at the pool, make a mad dash for the car, and try to make it home before all hell breaks loose. In Uganda, we don’t even make it past noon most days. By the time I make it back to my office after tea the sky is usually starting to darken. Wednesday is no different, and as I try to finish up the chapter in my book on American during the Vietnam War I start to hear thunder. Yuck. The wind kicks up tremendously and there’s red dust flying by my office. Anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely, positively, completely hate thunderstorms. Always have, always will. I don’t like lightning, thunder, hail, loud rain or loud wind. Literally every component of thunderstorms is on my naughty list. Naturally I feel uneasy during this period, especially knowing that like 6 primary school kids died in Uganda a month or so ago when lightning struck their classroom. So you know, sitting under a tin roof on top of a hill in the middle of a brewing thunderstorm isn’t my ideal situation. The only reason this isn’t multiple down arrows is that storms cool it off to a bearable temperature. (Also the storm ended up blowing over a bit, and opened up on the plains under our hill which gave me a spectacular view!)

↓ | Lunch time rolls around, and I head off to find my head teacher (principal, in regular English). Eric is coming to my school for lunch as all of my staff misses him and the head teacher wants to talk to Eric about the upcoming spelling bee for P3. Even though I told the head teacher that Eric would be at lunch on Wednesday to talk to him, he’s nowhere to be seen. Of course.

↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓↓ | I’m sitting in the staff room waiting for lunch (also frequently late by up to 2 hours) and Eric to arrive when two P7 boys enter and drop to their knees in front of their teacher. As they begin talking, and other teachers start chiming in (in reality, yelling at the boys) it becomes obvious that these two boys are in trouble. Discipline in Uganda is strange, and often begins with students kneeling in the staff room and trying to tell their side of the story while all of the teachers in the staff room begin yelling at them, whether they know the situation at all or not. Frequently this leads to children crying while the teachers continue to berate them. I never really know what’s going on because it’s all in Luganda, but the teachers are always sure the students are lying and most of the children are completely terrified and humiliated. P7 boys are the oldest on campus, usually 14 or older but these boys seem pretty scared. It soon becomes apparent when their teacher grabs a cane (¼ thick stick) and leads them, pleading for mercy, to the next room.

I should mention that this teacher is one of my favorites, and extremely intelligent.

What happens next is not pretty. There’s no insulation or muffling in Ugandan buildings, especially in primary schools which frequently look like they’re held together with Elmer’s paste and sheer luck. I can hear everything that happens in the next room. There are a few thwacks, and I try to focus intensely on my book. A few louder thwacks, and the sound of one of the boys crying out. I really try to focus on the book. There’s a few more cries, and I think seriously about running in there, grabbing the cane and breaking it as I scream an obscenity laced diatribe – if only it would help. It stops for a moment, and I take a deep breath. I look back at the page and realize that I have no memory of any of the facts that have been presented in the last few paragraphs. Something about Vietnam. It begins again, louder than before. One of the boys screams out for his mom. Something inside of me snaps and I burst into tears. I can think of nothing that would ever make this kind of punishment okay. I stand up to leave and this is when the two teachers, who had been carrying on a pleasant conversation throughout this whole ordeal, realize I’m upset.

“Painter, don’t cry!” one says. “We will tell him to stop. He is stopping now.”

I tell them I have to go, I can’t listen to this.

The other teacher says, “Painter, don’t go! It’s okay.”

For some reason, it makes me angry that they don’t even call me by my first name. In some ways, it feels like I’ve given up a lot of my identity in that moment. In Uganda. I’m not even myself. When did I become a person who can sit and listen to child abuse? When did I become okay with doing nothing? When did I lose being Elyse?

↓↓ | My counterpart, who I walked by in tears, comes in to console me. She tells me not to worry, it’s just part of the African culture. Her hugs help, but her words cut. In the ten or so minutes we talk, she says what nearly all of my teachers say. It’s the African culture. It’s just these indisciplined (their word, not mine) children. It’s just that the boys are so bad. It’s just that, it’s just that, it’s just that. No one takes responsibility. Instead, they blame it on other things. In fact she even tried to blame it on PBS (positive behavior systems), which really hurt. You see, I want to start a PBS, or incentive-based, positive behavior reinforcement system, at my school. We’ve talked about it. I know I can’t run straight into it, so I did an entire presentation on the idea, gave the teachers materials to look at, and tried to answer their questions. I suggested we start small, with incremental steps. The only one interested, it turns out, seems to be the head teacher. And yet somehow the caning is a result of a system they’ve shown no interest in? Color me surprised.

↑ | Eric arrives, and I tell him what happens. I’m glad he’s there, as sitting in the staff room is exceptionally awkward. Gossip gets around in like one second in a small school, so all of the staff know I’ve cried. I’m sure they’re talking about it in Luganda. The teacher who did the beating keeps his head down for nearly all of lunch.

↑ | After lunch, we head home to feed the puppies and get ready to go into town. It doesn’t take too long to get a ride into town, which is nice. It’s good when you have reliable people you can call who understand that when you say you want to go into town “kati kati” (now now), you mean American now and not Ugandan now.

↑ | Since we’re in town, we decide to stock up on some good food. We rarely go into town more than once a week, usually on Saturday, so by Wednesday our food supplies are usually running low and the meals get less and less inventive until we’re eating fried rice or French toast because we only have the bare minimum of supplies. (I really miss refrigerators.) We stop by our favorite supermarket and pick up some frozen ground beef (which takes approximately a day to defrost, so we’ll have meat for Thursday night) and stop by our other favorite supermarket to get mozzarella cheese! We decide to make pizza for dinner, which is super exciting. Cheese is very hard to find in Uganda, frequently poor in quality, and expensive. We usually only buy it once a month or so.

↑↑ | As we walk to the post office, we pass a man who has a similar shape to one of the tutors at Eric’s college (he’s a very distinctly shaped man). Turns out it is him, along with the principal of the school and her driver and truck! They agree to pick us up at the post office in a little bit and take us home. Total win! This saves us 15,000 =/ which is approximately $6, or the price of the mozzarella cheese.

↑ | We walk into the post office and Henry is there to greet me with a big smile. He goes to get the boxes as I fill out the ginormous book of records they have and pay the 17,700 =/ to pick up my packages (why I have to pay $7 to get them, I’ll never know…). He brings back 3 enormous boxes and I get super excited. Over the day I’ve been guessing what surprises they might hold. I’ve decided I hope there is at least a box of macaroni and cheese (haven’t had it since July, which may be the longest I’ve gone with out a box of Kraft since birth) and a thing of Twizzlers. (As I learn later, nailed it.) It’s a good thing we have the principal’s truck coming to pick us up as the boxes are super heavy and unwieldy. When the truck arrives, we toss them in the bed and hop in to go home. As is customary in Uganda, I look back to notice that they are right next to three very rank fish tied to the bed. Nothing is safe from fish guts when the principal is around, I’ve learned.

↑↑↑↑↑↑↑↑ | I can’t contain my giddy excitement as I open up the boxes. They are full of books for the school library I am working on at my school, donated by friends of my Dad. I love children’s literature so I excitedly exclaim all of the titles, and really friends I’ve made through books, to Eric. Apparently he’s not friends with Amelia Bedelia, Franklin, Curious George, Clifford and Skippyjon Jones like I am. (I’m hoping he gets to read a few before I take them to my school, as really it’s a crime to not know Amelia’s struggles with drawing the drapes and dressing the chicken even if you did grow up in Taiwan.) I count and I have around 170 awesome books for my school, which is amazing. The books are all so colorful and friendly, and so much more exciting than any book I’ve found for kids in Uganda (most of which frequently have to do with alcoholism, rape, AIDS, or a parent leaving the family… again, these are books for children.) The boxes also contain a few surprises for me like the aforementioned macaroni and cheese and Twizzlers, as well as a new Ohio State shirt (so exciting!) and some of my books that I haven’t read. Overall an A+ package for sure. Everyone is sure to be happy – my school, the community, Eric and me too!

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I love big books and I cannot lie!

 

↓ | Eric and I get to work making dinner by making a homemade sauce and dough. Eric put the first dough in to pre-bake, and approximately 10 minutes later the power goes off. For some reason the power has been frequently going off right at dinner time which means we can no longer bake (we use a toaster oven). The last night the power came back on at approximately 8pm, so we settle in for the long haul. I get a pillow and blanket and decide to take a nap on the couch while Eric reads on his smartphone. (Lives without power. So thrilling. A new reality show coming to TLC. Feel the boredom.) It only takes about 30 minutes for the power to come back on, and we’re back to packing. Yay?

↑↑ | We eat delicious homemade pizza and watch the last three episodes of Game of Thrones, season 4. This gets two up arrows – one for our amazing pizza, which we’re getting pretty darn good at when we have all the supplies, and one for finishing Game of Thrones. While we both love the show (I mean, we named our dog Tyrion…) it was nice to be done with it and be able to watch something happy now. (We’re watching Parks and Recreation now, which is lightyears from GoT.)

↓↓ | As I turn on the faucet to do dishes, something strange happens. Just a trickle comes out. An instant panic hits – and I remember that when I last flushed the toilet it sounded strange as it slowly refilled. We’re out of water. I shout for Eric and we start trying to fill buckets with the little bit that’s still trickling out of the faucet in our shower. Running out of water in Uganda is pretty common, and a lot of our friends have gone weeks without running water at site. But it’s not common at our site – in fact, it’s never happened before. And it’s a cause for concern. Eric and I have just enough boiled water to get us through about a day. We have no water reserves stored for the toilet or bathing, as there’s never been a need. Most other sites have a borehole nearby for when the water runs out, but I’ve never seen one since getting to site. I’m sure there’s one somewhere, but I doubt it’s anywhere near us. Most other sites have a pit latrine to use when the toilet can’t flush, but there aren’t any at our house. Our house is dependent on water. We get maybe 4L from what was left in the pipes in the shower. We decide to go to bed and hope that it’s working in the morning.

So here’s what a day in Uganda looks like:

A day in the life of me. Scientific and all.

A day in the life of me. Scientific and all.

 

As you can see, the devil’s in the details. No two days are the same in Uganda (although a lot of them feel pretty darn similar!) and the smooth, curvy roller coaster they show you in training isn’t necessarily representative of the fact that you’re living every day here.

I want to end this post with a sincere and heartfelt thank you to all of my Dad’s friends who donated books or funds to allow my school to receive so many amazing books. I was truly shocked at how many I received, and I know they will all be well loved for years to come. Ugandan kids are just like American kids in that they love to hold books in their hands and look at the pictures, well before they can read the words. Most of my students have never had storytime at school or a bedtime story at home. Now they’ll be able to experience the classics that we all love from Green Eggs and Ham to Pinocchioand new favorites like Skippyjon Jones and Dora the Explorer. I’ve spent the last day combing through them and categorizing them by reading level so that they’re ready to be labeled when our library is finished. I am so excited by all of them. A huge shout out to my Dad for organizing this (and dealing with me when I wasn’t so helpful!) and choosing an awesome range of books – there’s something for everyone, and I’m sure my teachers will be super excited to check out some of the math readers you found. It was seriously amazing all around. So thanks to everyone, I truly appreciate it!

Together with the books I received from Erin and her mom, Nate and Ashley, and Shane, Andria and Ava I’ve got over 200 books for my school already! I’m hoping to start doing read alouds in the younger classes and a mobile library for the older classes while the library gets built.

 

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Girls reading “Pinkalicious” in my office!

 

If you didn’t get a chance to donate, or feel extra rejuvenated in the spirit of giving, I’m trying to fill my library with even more books! I am working together with 19 other Peace Corps volunteers to raise funds for a Books for Africa shipment. BFA is an awesome organization that sends shipping containers (seriously whole shipping containers!) full of books to Africa – all we need to do is raise the shipping costs. Obviously sending a giant shipping container on a boat from America to Uganda is pricy, so we need to raise $20,000. When we make that goal, they’ll send a container full of 20,000 books off to our group of volunteers. I’ll be getting 1000 of those books for my library.

If you can spare a dollar, you can buy a book for my school. It’s just that simple.

Please donate here.

Sam I Am. I Am Sam.

Just a quick note to say that I was overjoyed to receive a package from an old camp friend and her mom. It was full of books for my primary school’s library! My kids have approximately like 10 actual books to read in the “library” (read: locked room that only teachers are allowed in) and most of them are Ugandan (read: the worst children’s books ever which inevitably end in someone dying or being dismembered). But now, because of Erin and her amazing mom’s scoping and scooping skills my kids have actual, fun, colorful books to read!

I’m continuing my call for books – if you have any children’s or young adult books in your house, school, library, office or you have a $10 dollar Barnes and Noble card you want to use — I WANT YOUR BOOKS. Seriously. These kids are dying for books, and I want to put them in their hands. However, quality books here are incredibly expensive and hard to find. I will take your slightly damaged, old, unloved books and make use of them. (I’ll also take brand new books!)

Books here are going to be doing a lot of jobs – in small group literacy lessons, whole class story hours, library free read books, teaching the PTC students how to teach literacy, and books over primary level will be put into the PTC’s library for free reading. So please, please, please – if you can send a book or two. You can mail me at my normal address (located in the contact me section) and I will make sure you know when we get them and you’ll get a thank you card for sure!

 

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Textbooks Are Important…

I’ll have the next installment of my trip to Rwanda up soon, but I thought a quick update on what I’m up to would be nice.

At my primary school I am:

+ About to start my reading groups – we’re waiting on desks so we can get to work. I’ll be doing small group reading instruction with 4 groups of children (27 in total) who are from P4, P5, and P6, although the majority are from P4. They read between 20 – 43 words per minute, or about the same as the average American first grader. So yeah, we have some gains to be made.

+ Starting a Positive Behavior System. In a wild idea, it appears that students respond better to rewarding positive behavior and non-violent discipline. Who would have known? Apparently like 50% of the staff of my school…

+ Going to start teaching “handwriting”/Elyse teaches phonics instead of the handwriting to P4 and P5. This is a recent addition to my schedule and is still pretty fluid.

 

At the PTC I am:

+ Leading a girls’ empowerment group for about 20 PTC students. We had our first meeting last week and it went really well. I’m super excited about this project because women, in general, tend to be very un-empowered in Uganda.

+ Teaching English/literacy once a week for year 2 students. I’m basically teaching them how to teach reading, because it’s not being taught well here. Phonics is not a thing. Kids are growing up completely unable to read, and those who can read aren’t very good at comprehending what they read.

 

In Peace Corps I am:

+ A new “literacy champion” along with Eric. We’re going to be working to get big books (literally just what they sound like, they’re giant books made from grain sacks) made from an organization called Mango Tree. They’re on topics like best agricultural practices, malaria prevention and hand washing. I’ll be making one about reusable menstrual pads, which means I can totally call myself a published author, right?

 

I’ve talked about how poor the students are in reading, writing, speaking and understanding English. Presented without any of the identifying information, here is one essay from a first year student at Eric’s PTC. We were in charge of making the English exams last term, which means we each had to grade 150+ of these. Just to note, I did not change anything with this essay – it is presented completely as is. This was handwritten, so I simply typed it up.

This individual has completed 7 years of primary education and 4 years of secondary education. Also note, this individual will be in charge of teaching 40-100 or more students in English language (either as a single subject, or in all subjects from P4-P7) in 1.5 years.

What challenges did you face as you learned English language, and how did your teacher help you overcome those challenges? If you feel your teacher did not help you overcome the challenges, what do you think he or she should have done to help you learn English?

 

The challenges you faced as you learned English language area inadquate textbooks where to get the real information and research for more content about English language and even inadquate trained teachers in some school, there is no enough trained teacher and this leads learners to fail examinations not only that but students or learners have negative attitude to wards English language so some do not the values or importance of English language more so there is a challenge of reading and understanding the written materials due to lack of skills and knowledge about it and since it is a foreign language, it become difficult to understand

However there are many challenges but there is also solutions to over come those challenges first one and foremost to tell my parents to buy for me text books for English language where to get the real information and teachers should advice parents to accept that issue more to over come the challenge of inadquate trained teachers, the government should provide enough training primary collenges, novels, more textbook and students should be guided and counselled by telling them the importance of English language inorder to develop the positive attitude towards it more so teachers should alway give out homeworks, asseccement, passage to read and write to improve English language and even they should give me feedback.

Kigali Memorial Center

Kigali

 

Note: This is going to be a long one, so go grab a snack. Then put that snack in a box and mail it to me. You don’t need it like I do. :)

Kigali is the capital of Rwanda, and the first stop on our itinerary. Fun facts time! At the time of independence (1962), Kigali had a population of around 9,000. It’s now over a million. It wasn’t even the capital until independence, when they moved it from a larger city to a more central location – Kigali. Another fun fact – at the time of the genocide (1994) Kigali had no buildings over 4 stories. Today, Kigali is a bustling city with new skyscrapers and modern buildings sprouting up all around.

We didn’t get much of a look at Kigali our first evening in town – again, the sun goes down at six (and it wasn’t even winter!) We got to our hostel, put our things down and went out for dinner. Luckily our hostel (St. Paul’s Pastoral Centre – for those of you headed to Kigali on the super cheap, it’s a pretty nice place to stay for about 7 dollars a night and is pretty safe, more on that later) was near several restaurants. We walked about ten minutes and made it to a weird bar/club/restaurant mix that had pounding music, disco lights all around, and soccer on the television. As is frequent in African restaurants, they didn’t have enough menus to go around the table and several of the things we ordered were “finished” (whether finished means they’ve run out of something or never really had it to begin with is hard to discern here). The power went out twice while we were there, so we ate by candlelight. It was actually pretty good – I got some unique “lasagna” that sort of resembled it’s namesake but was surprisingly delicious. It actually got passed around the table, as everyone wanted something that sort of tasted like home.

The next day, we headed off for some breakfast at another nearby restaurant – a little cafe with a deceptive pair of golden arches on it’s sign. They had omelets with cheese and ham. It was quickly becoming clear to use that Rwanda was a cheese lovers paradise – in the sense that they actually have cheese in Rwanda. It was wonderful.

It was on our way to breakfast that we recognized the worst part about Kigali – kid thieves. Luckily our group is pretty well traveled and we recognized them instantly and knew how to handle it. Having dealt with the gypsy children in Georgia who will literally cling onto your body for blocks, I was surprised that they gave up pretty easily. One duo was scared away by the restaurant owner, and another duo finally gave up after we kept asking them about school. I don’t think any of us have encountered a similar situation in Uganda yet… here you have to watch out for the adults.

After breakfast, our waiter was kind enough not only to point us in the direction of the genocide memorial but to take us a few doors down and up to a balcony where we could see exactly where we were headed. (Seriously, the people of Rwanda are really nice.) We decided to walk, and somewhere in the middle of the 30 minute walk we decided to take a taxi back.

I’ll save a discussion of the genocide for another post, as it deserves more than being sandwiched between stories of me eating cheese. I’ll say that visiting the memorial was the top thing on my to-do list. If you know me personally, then you probably know that I really like politics. If you’ve ever been in a class with me between high school and college and we had to write a paper, you probably know I did a lot of research papers on genocide. I find it a really fascinating topic, and specifically I find the Rwandan genocide and the lack of international response to be particularly fascinating. So going to the memorial was a really big deal. Even more important – we were visiting during the 20th anniversary of the 100 days of genocide.

While the memorial doesn’t necessarily live up to say, the Holocaust Museum in DC, it was still really powerful. We chose to do the audio tour, which explained all of the parts of the museum and grounds. Over 250,000 victims are buried at the memorial in mass graves – and that number is increasing as people are identified and their families choose to move them there. Since we arrived just a few weeks after the week of mourning (the first week of the 100 days) there were still flowers and messages on top of the graves.

 

One of the mass graves at the memorial center

One of the mass graves at the memorial center

The most interesting and surprising part of the museum was when we learned that the hotel we were staying at (St. Paul’s Pastoral Centre) was a place of refuge for over 2000 people during the genocide. The church literally next door (the place the taxi driver took us to originally) was a place where many lost their lives – the Father openly collaborated with the militia. When we walked back to our hotel the same evening we noticed the congregation surrounding a concrete structure – they were putting up plaques with the names of those who had been killed there 20 years ago.

I’m trying to stay off the subject of the genocide as much as possible, as I don’t think it’s fair to talk about such a horrific event and eating burritos in the same go. But I’m finding that it’s hard to separate the genocide from everything else. But that’s also the sensation you get in Rwanda…

We followed the trip to the museum with a trip to “Hotel Rwanda” – Hotel des Mille Collines. If you haven’t seen the movie (and you should – right now, at least once), the hotel was one of the top hotels in Kigali when the genocide broke out. The manager, himself a Hutu, used all of his clout/alcohol/personal money/begging to save the lives of 1268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by sheltering them in the hotel until they could escape behind the RPF’s lines. The manager has been called Rwanda’s Oskar Schindler. (If you haven’t seen Schindler’s List you have some serious problems and you need to start making better movie choices.) While the hotel in the film isn’t the real one, it was still pretty awesome to be there. To know that at that location, one person took it upon himself to risk his life to save others.

Hotel des Mille Collines (note the weird light refraction on the edge from my broken lens cap)

Hotel des Mille Collines (note the weird light refraction on the edge from my broken lens cap)

It was at Hotel des Mille Collines that I had what I like to think of as one of the luckiest moments of my life. (You see how it’s awkward to mix genocide and my 2014 middle class Western life? I apologize. I seriously don’t know how to transition this better.) At the memorial I had dropped my camera bag with my camera on the ground. It landed straight down on the lens, but luckily I’ve dropped it before and figured no sweat. While we were taking pictures of the des Mille Collines’ sign I noticed that there was a bit of residue on my lens that was causing my pictures to be a bit blurred. I turned it around and my heart stopped – it was completely cracked across, and totally shattered on one side. I tried to play it cool since I was with my friends and no one wants to be somebody hanging out with the shrieking, hysterically crying adult. No one.

So I took a few deep breaths and said something like ‘Oh well, I’ll just have my mom send me my other lens’ knowing full well that A) I would never have her send an expensive lens in the mail to Uganda, B) It was a zoom lens that while nice to have would not cover regular use as well, and C) Even if it was shipped to me, I’d still have a broken lens for the rest of the trip. Seriously, I’m proud of how calm I appeared on the outside. I mean it was still taking sort of pictures, so I figured I’d try to go with it. However, as we moved inside to check out a memorial to the employees who were killed in the genocide,I remembered that a few years ago I got swanky lens filters from my mom and that I definitely had one on it. Crossing all my fingers and toes, I removed the UV filter to find — a perfectly intact lens! Thank goodness. I’m being even more careful than before with my baby.

That evening we celebrated Eric’s birthday at a restaurant on the other side of town. The restaurant is called Meze Fresh, and it has become… legend in Peace Corps Uganda. Maybe folklore? It’s a story passed down from Peace Corps generation to Peace Corps generation about this magical restaurant in the heart of Kigali that is Chipotle in Africa. I am not kidding you. It’s Chipotle. In Africa. And it was the best thing that has happened to me culinary-wise since early November.

But first, let me take you back a step. See we had to get there first, and unfortunately it wasn’t too close to our hotel. Luckily Mary has a friend who was serving in Peace Corps Rwanda and we got bus routes from her. She told us to ask for a certain final stop, and once we knew the right bus to get on we would recognize where to get off. Fair enough. Unfortunately the final stop we were looking for apparently sounds incredibly similar to another final stop. As you can imagine, that meant we got on the wrong bus. It took a while for us to figure that out, of course, because like I said it gets super dark early and we didn’t really recognize any of the buildings anyway. But alas a helpful Rwandan let us know that, nope, we were headed to a taxi park. But if we stayed on, we could get off at the taxi park and get on the right taxi and go to the land of golden burritos. What was amazing about this, and trust me this would never happen in Uganda, was that even though we rode to the end of the line (probably about 20 minutes or so) the conductor refused to charge us because we had taken the wrong taxi! Seriously. They even helped us find the right taxi to get on. THAT HAPPENED. It was spectacular.

Anyway, back to burritos. Meze Fresh is an oasis in a food desert. Meze Fresh is like when a newborn curls its fingers around yours. Meze Fresh is like that first sip of a cold drink on a hot day. Meze Fresh is that first day of spring when you can leave the house without a jacket, and maybe even put on sandals. Meze Fresh is like that moment when a football is soaring through the air on a long pass to the endzone for a go-ahead touchdown at the end of the fourth. Meze Fresh is like crying Michigan fans at the end of The Game.

Meze Fresh is amazing.<

Now, you might be thinking to yourself… Chipotle isn’t all that special. And frankly, I agree under normal circumstances. However, just imagine yourself living in a country where people firmly believe that it just isn’t a meal unless matooke is involved and you hate matooke. And really every meal you had for the first two months were variations of rice, potatoes (never mashed though), oily tortillas, bony, fishy fish and questionable, grisly, fatty meat. And after that you followed it up with about 4 months of 90% of your meals being one of the following: pasta in red sauce, pasta in white “sauce”, fried rice, peanut butter noddles, fried potatoes and eggs, or a questionable mixture of the above. Suddenly Chipotle might sound like the greatest place on Earth, a beacon of hope and a message that you can and will make it through this.

So as you can imagine, we walked through those doors like we were walking through the doors of the most acclaimed foodie restaurant in New York City. And I’ll say we were not disappointed (except for the fact that they said they had Dr. Pepper on the menu but they didn’t). I had a delicious chicken burrito bowl (yep, they have them!) with cheese and sour cream (ish) with chapatti chips (the oily tortillas I talked about earlier). And it was spectacular. There were flavors. Oh, there were flavors. There was seasoning. It was great. I’ll spare you a second retelling of this story, but we ended up going back at the end of the week because it was just that good. And as I was paying the second time, I turned my head and saw a familiar friend’s photo on the wall. Apparently Jack Hanna was there sometime this year! (If you don’t know Jungle Jack, I’m sorry you’re not from Ohio and you haven’t been to the best zoo in the country.)

We were pretty tired after traveling the day before and walking all around town, so after dinner we headed back to our hotel to play some Cards Against Humanity. If you haven’t played it, it’s like Apples to Apples, only all of the choices are absolutely terrible and you feel like you’re going to burn for all of eternity every time you play a card. It’s great.

The next day started a little slow, but was awesome. We first headed to another mythical place we had read about in Mary’s guidebook: ABC, or the African Bagel Co-op. Yes, you read that right. Bagels. In Africa! It was (quite) a bit out of the way, but it was easy enough to find the right bus to get on and we got a nice tour of the outskirts of Kigali. When we arrived, we knew we had made the right choice. We all ordered fresh herb or onion bagels (only two flavors that day, but they were both delicious) with cream cheese (!!) or gouda. This place even had chocolate chip cookies! None of these things are readily (or at all) available in Uganda – I have yet to see bagels, unfortunately, and cream cheese is a big city luxury. There aren’t chocolate chips at all. Needless to say we spent the better part of the morning there.

Again, apologies for mixing genocide and food. However, we decided that since we were so far out we’d ask if there were any memorials nearby. Of course there was one about ten minutes up the road, so we caught a bus and headed there. The site is named Nyanza (there are at least two memorials named Nyanza, this is the smaller one) and sits on top of a small hill in a quiet area outside of central Kigali. It’s quite unassuming, in fact we didn’t even really know where to go when we got off the bus. Luckily, a local young man saw us kind of doing the awkward tourist head bob to figure out what direction to head in, and led us to it.

The memorial was made up of several mass graves holding thousands of bodies, as well as a wall of remembrance with each name inscribed. We were incredibly luckily to meet the young man, as he took it upon himself to give us a tour and explain the story more than we would have learned otherwise. As he told us, it’s his generation’s job to remember and to tell others. He explained to us that the area was a camp for UN soldiers at one time, but they had evacuated by the time the killing began. Somewhere between 3500 and 5000 local villagers went to the site seeking protection, although the UN was gone. When the genocidaires arrived they pushed college students from a local technical college to the site and murdered them with the villagers on May 11. They also slaughtered members of a local human rights organization. The site is quiet, the building associated with it nearly empty, and there were no other people there while we visited – it’s just one of thousands of sites like it around the country.

We followed that depressing trip with another one. We traveled across Kigali to Camp Kigali. The camp was the last army barracks of the Rwandan army, and was the place 10 UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda) Belgian soldiers lost their lives in the first days of the Rwandan genocide. The genocide began when the President’s airplane was shot down (likely by the Hutu) on the night of April 6, 1994. The next in line for the presidency was Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was denied the position. The ten Belgians were sent to escort and protect her when they were overwhelmed by soldiers and Rwandan civilians. After being forced to surrender their weapons they were taken to the military base where they were tortured and killed. (The Prime Minister and her husband were executed as well.) They hid for hours, fighting off their murderers with only their hidden sidearms before being killed. The site remains as a memorial and small museum, and one can walk into the room and see the bullet holes pockmarking the walls. It was after this incident that the Belgian soldiers in UNAMIR were withdrawn, and led to reinforcements to the mission being withheld until June (most countries, including the US lobbied for the entire mission to be withdrawn). In between April and June the UN was effectively powerless.

The final hideout of the 10 Belgian UNAMIR soldiers

The final hideout of the 10 Belgian UNAMIR soldiers

What's left of the wall in Camp Kigali

What’s left of the wall in Camp Kigali

We ended the night on a slightly more positive note – we went to a large craft market and checked out the wares. Everybody ended up going home with one (or a few things) except me, but I ended up going back when we returned to Kigali at the end of our trip for a great piece of banana leaf art.

The next morning we woke up sort of early and made our way to the next stop in our story, Kibuye. But not before stopping at a Korean bakery Mary’s friend told us about. It was great, but the bagels weren’t quite as good as ABC. But alas, not as great bagels are still bagels…

Anyway, our next installment will take us to the very edge of Rwanda and will allow me to use the phrase “I can see the Democratic Republic of Congo from my hotel!”

Rwanda – Part I

Today was my first day back to school for the start of term 2. (Yesterday should have been, but there were storms and I had to finish grading like 50 exams from the PTC… more on that later… so today was my first day back.) Edited to add: I wrote this a few days ago, so no… I don’t work on Saturdays. Ugandan culture is all about thanking and congratulating, so I got congratulated on traveling like ten times. It was weird. But everyone was excited to hear about Rwanda. After all, from what I’ve experienced, basically every Ugandan thinks that Rwandan is an amazing place. I mean none of them have been there, but they all have super positive things to say about it. It’s so clean, they’ll say excitedly. They don’t even have plastic bags!

I’m happy to report that Rwanda lives up to, and exceeds, all of the rumors. Rwanda is awesome. Rwanda is just like Uganda, but better and nicer in nearly every way. (Sorry Uganda, but you know it’s true.)

Our trip to Rwanda started in Kampala. We spent the day before we left in Kampala because it’s super hard to get there the day of in the morning, no matter where you’re coming from. The trip to Kigali is somewhere between 8-10 hours on a good day, so we wanted to get an early start. Also staying in Kampala means we can eat good muzungu food, so let’s just say it wasn’t that rough.

Four of us went to Rwanda after IST in our group (another three people went a few days after us), which was nice. When we first started talking about going a ton of people were interested. However, when the first budget of like 500 dollars per person came out a lot of people dropped out. Which was nice. If you haven’t traveled with a group of ten or more people, you wouldn’t understand. Just… never do it. You’ll never even eat because you’ll never be able to come to a consensus. It’s miserable. So four was perfect. It was myself, my site mate Eric, and our two friends Mary and Matt.

>Anyway, we were at the bus stop in Kampala by 8:30 on Saturday morning. Since the next day was Eric’s birthday I treated him to a trip to Rwanda. (Everything else was on him, I’m not that nice. But now I can lord it over him for a long time… oh yeah, well remember that time when I took you to the greatest country ever??) The bus was scheduled to depart at 9:00, and luckily we had no issues getting seats. The trip was 40,000 shillings – or about $16. Not too bad for a trip to another country!

It took a long time for us to figure out which bus company to take, as everyone has some piece of advice (most of it being along the lines of ‘I’ve never taken them, but I hear…’) and this being Africa, none of the bus companies that go to Rwanda (and there are a lot) have things such as websites or you know, contact information or actual hours of service. Mere details. We ended up going with Jaguar, as we heard some good things about them (however, if you Google them one of the first links is an article about one being robbed by bandits on the way to Kigali… the usual) and they happened to have a VIP bus. And as people who make the equivalent of $250 a month we’re obviously VIPs.

The VIP bus was a good choice. We were towards the back of the bus, which meant it was a bit bouncy – especially before we got out of Kampala, where it’s stop and go the whole way. And since Rwandans were involved the bus actually departed on time, and we didn’t have to wait until the whole bus filled up. There were actually a lot of empty seats until we hit Mbarara which meant that we could all get a few seats to ourselves to nap on. There was a ton of legroom (especially when compared to taking any other kind of transport in this country) and it was pretty comfortable. It was a strange, and nice feeling to be comfortable. I wish it happened more often.

The bus ride wasn’t too bad – just really long. The first two legs of the trip, from Kampala to Masaka and Masaka to Mbarara weren’t too bad. The highway in between Kampala and Mbarara have been recently upgraded so they’re pretty smooth (other than the random areas that aren’t finished and are just gravel) and we could go pretty fast. Once you get past Mbarara, however, it’s a whole different stories. The roads haven’t been upgraded, although it appeared like they might be doing work on them? Maybe? I made up a game – guess whether the bus was driving on a road, or the dirt. It was surprisingly difficult. Eventually we made it to the hills, and then to the mountains of southern Uganda near Kabale. It was really pretty as we wound up and down the sides of the mountains – one minute looking down on a valley and soon finding ourselves in it.

The border crossing is maybe a half an hour from Kabale. It was, no surprise, the most chaotic border crossing I’ve ever been to. As soon as we stepped off the bus to go through border control there were men grabbing at us and offering to exchange our money to Rwandan francs. Saying no just meant that they would begin to rattle offer other currencies they could exchange – dollars, Euros, pounds. People were walking bicycles through with matooke strapped to the back, others were selling juice and soda to one side (if you even looked in their direction they would immediately start yelling at you), and men were wandering around offering pens to everyone. Naturally, there was no sign or anything to direct you where to go but we figured out the line pretty quick. Some guy from customs was passing out forms to those of us in line. I tried to explain he was passing us arrival forms for Uganda, when we needed exit forms. He told me it would be fine, and I started to fill mine out – I was nearly done when he came back through with the correct forms and tried to grab the wrong one from me. Ugandan efficiency at it’s finest.

Anyway, I hate customs so I went through pretty quick. I just hate that they always seem like they distrust you. I don’t want to answer your stupid questions and then have you do the ‘Oh really’ thing to me. I’m visiting, not planning an al-Qaeda cell. As I waited for the rest of the group, I had my heart broken. You see, Uganda drives on the left just like the British (thanks colonialism!) but Rwanda drives on the right. I was hoping, hoping, hoping for the transition to look epic. I know in some places they have big four-leaf clover ramps to change you over. I mean I didn’t expect that, necessarily, but I expected more than one dinky sign that says ‘Drive on the Left’. So disappointing. Step it up, Uganda.

Let. Down.

Let. Down.

So when we were done we kind of looked around. There weren’t any signs pointing where to go next and our bus was gone, so we kind of walked on. Seriously, a sign or two wouldn’t be the worst idea. There are semis, bikes, people, cars, and motorcycles all converging on the same place and moving around at once. It’s… confusing. We finally found the Rwandan customs, stood in line a bit more, and got our stamps. We were in!

Or sort of. Next came the bag search. Now, in America when you go through the bag search they’re looking for stuff to charge you for. Or bombs. In Rwanda, they’re looking for something a little less… sinister. Plastic bags. Like I said earlier, plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda. Matt had one for the snacks he had bought before we left, but they confiscated it. Seriously. However, I sneaked in two because they were inside something else. HA. Come at me Interpol.

From the border it took about 2 hours to get to Kigali. I tried to look out the very tinted windows on our bus, but it didn’t look wildly different than Uganda. More hilly than where I live, certainly, and the hills were pretty much all terraced which was cool. They have buildings painted as advertisements for Tigo, instead of Orange. The biggest change was that both of my SIM cards texted me to welcome me to Rwanda and then immediately stopped providing data service. Lame. The biggest surprise? Apparently Rwanda is in another timezone! This makes no sense because Rwanda extends all of like ten inches further west than Uganda and is directly below it, but we somehow jumped back an hour. We were now at the easternmost part of whatever timezone we were in, which meant it gets dark at 6pm in Rwanda. Weird.

We made it into Kigali right as the sun was setting. Luckily the bus park has a pretty legit forex (foreign exchange) so we were able to get our money exchanged pretty quickly. We even got the woman to tell us how much we should expect to pay for our taxi to our hostel. Naturally the taxi drivers tried to quote us twice that much, but we knew to walk away until they came down. Next stop: our hostel. Or so we thought. We arrived at a dark building next to a church. After scoping it out, and having some guy come out in his towel, we concluded that it was not the place we were supposed to be. Luckily, our hostel was pretty much around the corner so no harm, no foul.

In the next edition: Kigali!

The Boda- Boda

I’ve realized that, looking back at my previous blog posts, I haven’t done a great job of really explaining the day to day life in Uganda. So I’ve come up with a way to do a better job helping you understand and really feel what it’s like to live on the ground here. So, without further ado…

INTRODUCING:

Recreating Uganda

A new series that will occur on this blog from time to time. And the best part is, it’s totally interactive!

So here goes our first Recreating Uganda experience.

The Boda-Boda

Congratulations on wanting to know more about the everyday Ugandan experience. Understanding the boda-boda experience is crucial to understanding Uganda. You can’t have Uganda without boda-bodas, every Ugandan ever said (laughing at us after we tell them we can’t take them… ANYWAY…)

Boda-Boda Stage in Uganda (not my picture)

A boda-boda is a motorcycle taxi that is used in literally every city, town, village, and hodunk collection of shacks next to a road/muddy path in this country. The name boda-boda might make you think you’re learning your first bit of Luganda, but you’re not. It’s just a mispronunciation of border-border, as the motorcycles used to be used to ferry goods across the border between Uganda and Kenya. So really you’ve learned your first important lessons about Uganglish – drop all ‘r’ sounds and double a lot of words.

Anyway, boda-bodas are how basically everyone moves here. You need to get to your nearest trading village which is a 45 minute walk from your house at a PTC (hey… that sounds like my situation!), you ride a boda-boda (or walk if you’re a Peace Corps member…) So here’s the interactive part of this experience. First, obtain a motorcycle that has some space on the back. Doesn’t need to be much. To make this as accurate an experience as possible, maintenance of the motorcycle is highly frowned upon. Please choose one of the following options and get the listed members together in your group:

A) One man (if you’re a man… ey-yo, you’re in luck!), one woman and one infant

B) One man, four children between the ages of 6 and 10 and one toddler

C) Three men

D) Two men

E) Two men, a woman, and a live goat or two live chickens

Note: This reenactment is best done on a humid, 80+ day for accuracy.

As you’ll note, all of these situations include at least one man. That’s because only men get to drive the boda-bodas. Sorry ladies, but we all know you need to be at home cooking for your husband. So, amongst the group (if necessary) determine who will be the boda-boda driver. If you’re stuck, important qualities are assertiveness, adventurousness and sheer lunacy. Now that you’ve chosen the boda-boda man he needs to get in proper wardrobe. Full pants (shorts are only for children!) and a 90s windbreaker/winter coat are required. If you have an old Starter jacket, you’re in luck! (You might be questioning this as I told you to do this reenactment in 80 degree weather, but in Uganda apparently wind has the ability to kill so button up!)

If you’re a woman taking part in this reenactment, you must wear a knee-length or longer skirt. Anything shorter and you might attract attention to your knee caps and hoo-buddy, you don’t want to do that.

Anyway, the rules for each situation are as follows:

A) Boda-boda driver will obviously be driving. The woman will be perched on the rear of the seat, holding the infant in her arms. This is crucial here: the woman must be seated side-saddle style. If you don’t know what that means (and clearly this implies you haven’t seen enough Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman for my tastes), it means that both of the woman’s legs are on the same side and she’s precariously balanced sideways with no good grip. While holding her infant. On a speeding motorcycle.

B) The boda-boda driver will cram 4 of the children behind him, each of them clutching at the one in front of them. The toddler will go where it naturally goes – in front of the driver on the metal part between the handlebars and the seat. Holding onto the handlebars. (Perfect way for your tot to learn the feel of the road years before they should ever really be on a motorcycle, am I right?) If you’re the parent of one of these lucky kids, go ahead and go back into your house. Parental supervision is not required for this. In fact, it’s probably better if you only have a vague sense that your children aren’t in your home. Maybe. Or maybe they’re somewhere around here…

A boda boda representative of scenario B. Not my picture, but also completely unsurprising.

C) Not too many rules for this one – one of you will be the boda-boda driver and the other two are passengers. Get cozy close. Real close. You can even hold hands with your best male friend. That’s fine. Just don’t go violating any laws, if you get my drift.

D) Ha! You chose this one because it sounds the easiest. Well have I got news for you. The boda-boda man will be driving while the passenger balances either an entire full sized bed frame or an entire car windshield (whichever is easiest for you to find) in between himself and the driver, with just two hands. Driving will continue at full speed. You might say this sounds impossible, but my friend, impossible is nothing. Adidas told me so. Also I’ve seen both done. So figure it out.

E) This one I like to imagine is the family situation. One of you will be the driver, and our lovely husband and wife duo will be the passengers. It is of utmost importance that the husband and wife never hold hands or show any kind of intimacy, genuine affection or knowledge that the other one exists. (Hold hands with your same sex friends, not the person you’re spending all eternity with, got it?) If you’ve chosen to bring along a goat, the best option here is to have the side-saddle woman hold it in her lap. If it’s fighting, she better hold on tight. If you’ve got two live chickens, the woman could hold them or you can decide to strap them down to the back of the bike with a long rubber cord. Your choice. It’s going to be noisy either way.

Rule for Everyone: Roll a 12 sided dice (or use a random number generator if you’re not a nerd who has one of those…) If the number that comes up is 8, you’re in luck. The driver is wearing a helmet! If not, the driver doesn’t need to worry. I’m sure he’ll be fine.

Other Rule for Everyone: Roll a regular dice (you have to have one – go open up that dusty box of Yahtzee that you definitely have somewhere in your basement). If the number that comes up is negative, the passengers get a helmet. Oh shoot… looks like you’re all out of luck.

Now, to determine the playing field go ahead and flip a coin. Bonus points if it’s a 50 shilling coin – those things are crazy hard to find. Anyway, if it’s heads (shield side for my shilling peeps, represent!) you’re going to be our cityfolk. If it’s tails (steer in front of a mountain? side), you’ll be our village dwellers.

Cityfolk: Take your assembled crew (and any necessary props) and your motorcycle out onto a busy road at rush hour. For my C-bus group, I vote either High Street or Polaris Parkway at around 4:45pm on a Friday. For those in the Bay Area, El Camino between San Mateo and Mountain View would work great for this (same time, except in PST). If you’re not in one of those areas, just think about that one street where if you mention you were stuck on it at rush hour everyone at the table will groan and start sharing their war stories from there. That’s the road you want.

Now your goal is to make it about 3 or 4 miles in the shortest time possible. Remember that laws are only words, and words bounce off me and stick to you or whatever. What I’m trying to say is that laws are a mere suggestion of how the weak would do it. Do whatever you damn well please. Also make sure to ignore any painted lines, as those are only for conformists. Also ignore: right of way, pedestrians, traffic police, common courtesy, posted signs, and all traffic lights. (Those barely exist here anyway.) Since we drive on the left here, and no one really feels it’s necessary to stick with that anyway the entire road is yours. Feel free to make use of the space given. Look at how many things are available to drive on when you don’t feel constrained to stay on the road. Bonus points if you hit someone on the route.

Village Dwellers: Well no lies here, you drew the short end on this one. It’s important that you wait for a day after it’s poured raining all day. (Or heck, why wait? Just go on ahead and carry out your plans the second it stops raining.) Now, take your assembled crew, props and motorcycles to the nearest dirt bike track. If you don’t know where that is, trust me some dude smoking weed outside of the nearest high school at around 11:30am will definitely know where it is. If you still come up dry, ask them where they go ‘muddin’ and you should get some kind of similar venue. If you still, still come up dry then go to the nearest large farm field. It’ll have to do. Should have been a cityfolk, shouldn’t you?

Your goal is to make it about 10 miles in the shortest time possible. Imagine you’re going to a introduction ceremony for your niece who lives in the next closest village. I wonder how many cows she’s worth!! Since you’re out in the village, no need to worry about laws. I haven’t seen a single cop patrol my village road in the past 4 months, and even if you saw them you’d blow buy them on your motorcycle anyway. Feel free to really become one with the road. The best way to do this is to take every twist, turn, hill and large crevasse as fast as possible. Now, there will be people living along side your route, so just go ahead and make sure to hold down the horn the whole route so that they won’t get in your way. And if they do, that’s fine. Because there’s no stopping a boda-boda once it gets going. Bonus points for any village children you take out.

To finish the scenario, the passenger must shout ‘stage’ when he or she reaches the destination. (Stage means stop in Uganglish, obviously.) After you finish your scenario, congratulations! You’ve just recreated a bit of authentic Uganda for your very own!

However, if for some reason you couldn’t pull a group together and you’re a man… you’re still in luck. I’ve come up with a simple way for you to experience the fun of being a boda-boda man on your very own! (Again, sorry ladies. But when we get to the recreating drudgery part… you’re going to be our stars!)

Anyway, take your motorcycle to a busy street corner where there is a good amount of pedestrian traffic. If you have a bunch of buddies who want to get in on this too, they should bring their motorcycles along too. If you think you might be working this corner a lot, feel free to erect a bench and a kind of wall with pegs to hang up your jackets when you’re not on the road. Nothing fancy here – I’m talking scrap lumber. Now you have your ‘stage’. (Stage also means end of a route in Uganglish, obviously.)

Now, you’re not bringing in any shillings just standing around. You need customers. Take a look around. Try shouting out “You first come” to any of the men walking around. If any come, well done! You’ve got a customer. If not, continue on.

If you spot any women, try to draw them in by shouting things like “Sister, you come we go!” or “Sister, we go!” or “Sister, come come!” Really any combination of sister + some form of come that would not be recognized as grammatically correct can do the job. If this still hasn’t netted you a customer, fear not.

If you spot anyone of Asian (or potentially Asian-like) descent, get yourself ready. Go ahead and shout things like “Chinese! Chinese! Chinese!” or “Ni hao!” or make ‘ching ching chong’ sounds as they walk by. For every tenth person of Asian descent (or not, no need to actually be accurate on these things) go ahead and scream “Japanese! Japanese!” and “Konichiwa!” at them. If they look offended, don’t worry. They’re just not used to being received with such accuracy and excitement. Probably. Just keep trying, it’s bound to work sometime. But in the meantime…

If you see a white person anywhere nearby… DROP EVERYTHING. A white person is your holy grail. Your whatever is opposite of kryptonite for Superman (I ran out of metaphors.) Anyway. Every good boda-boda man knows that white people have endless money supplies and are just waiting to drop it on a ride. If you see a white person, immediately yell “MUZUNGU MUZUNGU” at them as loud as you possibly can. If that doesn’t work, feel free to rush up to them and grab their hands or arms saying something like “Yes my friend, we go” or “Hello friend, come come” or “Sister, first you come”. Ask how Obama is. If they’re holding bags, make sure to helpfully try to carry them to your boda even if they’re not interested in a ride. It’ll work like a charm. If it’s a white woman alone, remember that you’re a highly sexually charged man and it’s your job to let her know. Feel free to shout “my size” (I’ll let you figure out the implications of that one) or “Let me put my baby in you” or “let me ride you” (that actually just means let me give you a ride… maybe…) at her. Let her know that you want to marry her and that she is so beautiful. Her body is yours, so go ahead and pinch, slap or punch her as she walks by. That’ll definitely get her. Feel free to quote all muzungus a price four to five times higher than you would anyone else. They’re all shillingaires and love to drop that paper.

If all of this has failed, you’re not trying hard enough. Drive your motorcycle up to every single person walking and rev the engine next to them while giving them some grammatically incorrect form of ‘You come with me’. Even if they just passed up a few boda-bodas a few seconds ago, or you witnessed them say no to someone else. They might just change their mind!

Once you’ve got your customer, and by this point I’m sure you have them just lining up to get a ride, go back to the point where I said ‘flip a coin’ and go from there. Congratulations! Even you can feel the boda-boda experience properly.

Now, if none of those scenarios work perfectly you can recreate the boda-boda experience of a Peace Corps volunteer. Just set out on a hilly walk that will last you anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Make sure that it’s sunny (just like in Philly, it’s always sunny here!) and at least 80 degrees. Since this is the equator, humidity should be at “dripping off of you before you get out of bed”, just for accuracy. Your scenario is pretty simple. Just watch all the boda-bodas drive past you as you walk. Some might have passengers, but there’s always room for one more. But not you. You can’t ride them. So you’ll glare with increasing jealousy as you continue to walk. Soon, your entire back will be soaked in sweat and you have dust all over your face. A boda-boda will drive by, slow and the driver will shout “We go?”. No, you respond back sadly. We don’t go. Congratulations. You’re a real Peace Corps volunteer now.

 

Our regularly scheduled Rwanda post will occur once I’ve edited the pictures! Gotta work on those curves.

IST

Well – we’re finally back home. A half a month of travelling around Uganda and Rwanda will leave you with a lot of laundry. And intestinal parasites, apparently, but more on that later! This first post (of many to catch you up on my last two weeks!) will be dealing strictly with our nearly week-long in-service training (IST).

IST “began” on Sunday, but as is customary in Uganda the day it begins is more of a travel/arrive and get settled day, and lasted until Friday morning. We were requested to bring a counterpart to the conference – someone we have been or expect to be working with and who will support us in our endeavors and projects. I technically have an assigned counterpart, but as it’s the P7 science teacher it doesn’t make much sense for me to work with her. Since my primary project is working with P4 and P5 in literacy, it made a lot more sense to bring along the P4 and P5 English and reading teacher. Luckily this switch wasn’t too big of a deal – I just asked my headteacher if I could bring Teacher Millie along since she’d be helping me with my primary project. I haven’t really worked with her too much, as so far I’ve just been assessing students and completing my school profile tool, but I can sense she really likes me. She’s pretty young (although I did just find out she has a three year old named Mark who is a sweetie!), and very modern. She’s even worn pants (or trousers, as they call them here) to school – twice! (Although both times she was coaching athletics, so it wasn’t as scandalous as I first thought.) She likes to listen to music on her smartphone and her dream is to go to America. She’s already told me she’s going to save up and come back with me. She’s also told me she’s going to name her next child Painter (which I tried to stress is not really a name per se, but she told me it was better than my first name so I’m just rolling with it…) so she had no objections to coming along. I sold it by saying she had to spend a lot of time with muzungus. She was down. When I announced she was invited in front of the staff, the rest of the staff clapped and got really excited for her which was good – sometimes these things can cause resentment.

Our IST was held at a conference center we’ve been at before, but this was the first time we were travelling their on our own (last time Peace Corps transported us all from our language training sites), and this time we were travelling with big bags (well, at least mine was pretty big – but hey, I was travelling for two weeks!) and trying to coordinate with our counterparts. Eric and I determined that we wanted to be out on the road by around 10am so that we’d have time to stop to grab a bite to eat before arriving at the conference center by 4. We told our counterparts to meet us at the coaster (a big minibus that fits about 25-30 people when they’re full, and in Uganda they don’t leave until every seat is full) stop at 9:30. We figured this wouldn’t been incredibly difficult – we gave them advance notice of what time we wanted to meet (and I told my counterpart we’d leave if she wasn’t there on time), and Eric’s counterpart is our next door neighbor. This being Uganda, none of that really happened. About a half-hour before we were ready to leave for the coaster stop, Eric’s counterpart knocked on our door and told us that he was going to town to do a few things and that he’d just meet us there. At about 9:15 my counterpart called me and told me she’d be there in a bit. I give her credit for only being about 10 minutes late in the end, which is a real achievement for the average Ugandan! We were all loaded up on the coaster and watching it fill up as we wondered about Eric’s counterpart who was still nowhere to be seen. Eric gave him a call and it turns out that he was in town getting something repaired and it might take another half hour. We both had a bit of an eye roll. Luckily he ended up being one of the last people to hop on, however he had to pay by sitting in what should be a three-person row with four people and a child. (And that’s why you always get there early.) I won’t bore you with the details of the journey, but I will sum it up by saying that travel in Uganda always sucks. So there’s that.

Anyway, I made it to the conference center successfully in one (very sweaty) piece. I got my key to the room I shared with Mary, another volunteer, and immediately sprinted (basically, my bag was pretty heavy so more like fast-trudged?) into my room to dump my stuff and take a long shower. Nothing better than hot water after your shower has been only cold for a month! It was spectacular. Now I’m not saying it was the highlight of the week… but… it was really good.

It was great to see everyone. It’s strange to go from seeing people every minute of every day (essentially, in training) to not seeing them for three months. (Also, to not see them after seeing them so much for a week. I miss my group!) While I’d say I’m probably closest to those in the central group, that has a lot to do with proximity and the fact that we were together for an extra month during language training. There are some people in our group that live 10+ hours away that I wish I could see much more frequently! And since we aren’t supposed to leave our region during the first three months, most of them I wasn’t able to see at all. So yeah, it was nice to be reunited.

While it was great to be reunited, I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the training portion of IST. Maybe it was because our lead trainer during pre-service training (and the literacy coordinator, so basically the person in charge of our entire project) was unfortunately, for a completely understandable reason, not able to attend until the last day. Or maybe it was because one of my favorite volunteer trainers wasn’t there. But I know at least some of my disappointment came from the fact that it felt like I didn’t really learn anything new. It was a lot of review – I mean using the same power points as the first time and everything. The information was great. The first time. But sitting through hours of the same information again gets… tedious. It was awesome that the counterparts got that information – Teacher Millie was really impressed and seemed to take a lot from it. She seemed excited to implement a lot of new ideas when we get back. So that was awesome. But yeah, I wish I felt like I got more out of it.

Really the parts I actually remember are the things we did in the evening. There’s a bar/club/restaurant about 10 minutes away that we frequented in January and again this time. We found out that there’s a great restaurant that serves pretty good pizza (!) and hummus and other muzungu favorites literally like ten steps in the opposite direction of the bar (and yet we’ve never even turned that way!) so some of us hit that up and played Cards Against Humanity there. It was nice. One evening Marvin, the resident chef of the group, organized an Iron Chef/Chopped competition. Four groups competed to create the best dish using matooke, mangoes and Doritos. The entries were… interesting. I took pictures, because there was no way I was going to be sampling or cooking anything with matooke. We also had a trivia night, which was a blast. We competed on teams of 5 (mine consisting of myself, the rest of the group that went to Rwanda and one of our volunteer trainers. I’m very happy to announce that team Suck It, Trebek went on to win the competition! (Thanks in large part go to my site mate, Eric, who happened to be born in the United States and not in Taiwan as everyone else thought – we were the only team to correctly name two people in our group born outside of the US!)

The biggest bummer (other than not learning much new information) was that we had to get a flu shot. I’m not a huge fan of the flu shot, so I’ve never had one. I’ve also never had the flu, so really I’ve not seen any real need to get the shot. Now if they had a sinus infection shot, I’d be all over that. But anyway, we were required to get the shot. It didn’t really hurt or anything, and I felt fine afterward. However, about twelve hours later I felt like I was basically dying. Apparently my immune system will react to dead viruses from a vaccination (or harmless allergens) like it’s the Battle of Stalingrad, but if you put in a real concern (like giardia parasites… for instance) and it’s like… well I think the obvious comparison here would be the French army defending anything. It was a rough night. I ended up sleeping through the next morning and got up around lunch time. Luckily it wasn’t actually the flu, but rather my immune system building up a defense. So I’m going to assume I’ll never be able to get flu based on it’s reaction.

Anyway, that’s IST. I’ll be back next time to talk about my trip to Rwanda!

(Also, just a little sidebar: Uganda won the Peace Corps’ Stomp Out Malaria competition! We beat out countries all over Africa! Go us!)

Three Months!

So as the title suggests, we’ve officially been Peace Corps volunteers for three months, and are looking forward to celebrating our six months in country in the middle of May. (Still trying to figure out what to do for it, but it will hopefully involve mzungu food and fun times!) This is just a quick post to celebrate the fact that Uganda has not killed me off yet, despite some of its best attempts! We successfully made it through the first term of school, and the students went on break yesterday. We’ll be back in action mid-May.

It’s also to say that it’s going to be radio silent here for a bit, which is a total bummer. I have some really great stories to tell, and I’m positive that more are coming up soon. However, tomorrow Eric and I head off with our counterparts for a week long training session that takes place at the three month mark for all Peace Corps volunteers. We’ll be heading back to familiar territory, as it’s the place we stayed for supervisor’s workshop just before swearing in. There will be good food, hot showers and best of all – all of our friends! It’s going to be a blast, but also a lot of work. We’ve been making materials to exhibit (I spent about 6 hours sewing a handmade pocket chart for vocabulary words out of a rice sack) and preparing a three month long school profile tool to help us make the most of this training. There will be an Iron Chef matooke cooking competition (which I will be in no way taking part in) and apparently we’re watching the Sound of Music and comparing the Captain’s discipline methods with Ugandan methods. (Seriously.)

After IST, we still have two weeks off. Eric and I will be spending one of those weeks touring Rwanda with two friends. I could not be more excited for this trip – I’ve always wanted to visit Rwanda, and after doing more than one college paper on the American response to genocide, I’m really grateful for the chance to see the place I’ve read so much about. We’ll be spending time in the capital Kigali and seeing the memorials near there, then heading to Lake Kivu which splits Rwanda from the DRC (I’ll be able to say I’ve seen the DRC, since we’re not allowed to travel there) and then we’ll be hiking a volcano. A VOLCANO! So cool. There’s a craft fair at the embassy and they have a restaurant that’s similar to Chipotle. It’s going to be amazing. We’ll also be seeing one of our friend’s friends who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda who is just about to finish up her service. It’s also Eric’s birthday the day after we arrive, so we’re going to be celebrating that as well! Pretty much an awesome trip.

So basically, it might be a while before I update again… but when I come back, be prepared for some really awesome stories!

Bad Air

Stop! Before you begin reading – note the time you started. This will be important later! Seriously! Look at the little clock in the right hand corner of your computer. It’s right there.

Living in Sub-Saharan Africa has allowed me to experience a lot of things I never thought I would (and probably never would have experienced in Ohio – some of which I rather wish I hadn’t experienced), and to learn so much about myself and the world I live in. For instance, what’s the number one cause of illness and death in Uganda? AIDS, right? Everyone knows that. This is Sub-Saharan Africa we’re talking about.

Wrong.

The World Health Organization estimated that in 2010 there were 219 million documented cases of malaria worldwide.

And since most of the cases occur in rural, Sub-Saharan Africa we don’t know how many die each year – but it’s estimated to be between 660,000 and 1.2 million people. 90% of malaria deaths happen in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of them children.

Today is World Malaria Day. You might not know that, though, because malaria just isn’t a big deal in America. We’re incredibly privileged. While malaria used to be endemic in North America (and Europe too!), it was wiped out long before I was born. When we travel, we have a State Department who warns us before we go that we might be traveling to a region with malaria. We can stop by our doctor’s and pick up an anti-malarial just like that. And we even have choices now – if you want acid-trip like dreams, there’s an anti-malarial for that! (And if you’ve got a few bucks extra to spend you can sleep sound without the crazy hallucinations. I recommend spluging.)

In Uganda, the average citizen is not so lucky. I guess they don’t need a State Department to warn them that they might be at risk in certain regions – because 100% of the Ugandan population is at risk of malaria. There really aren’t any areas where malaria doesn’t exist. (Trust me, Eric and I can attest that there is no place you can hide from mosquitoes in this country. We probably average about 5-10 bites a week each.)

I won’t get into the boring stuff – we’ve all made it through basic health and science classes where we learned that mosquitoes (that’s pronounced moss-skwee-toes in Uganda, for your information) are the vectors for the plasmodium that cause malaria. Been there, done that, even seen the graphic of the little suckers biting. If you have questions, that’s what Google is for.

What I want to say is that as you’re going about your day today, consider what’s the reality halfway around the world. We may never consider it in our daily lives at home, but it’s an ever present entity here. Ugandans only ever claim to be sick with one of two things – flu or malaria. When my 4 year old host brother got very sick during homestay, they immediately began treatment for both flu and malaria. It’s not uncommon to hear someone complain of being sick with “a little malaria”. If you go outside in the rain here, you don’t get a cold. You get malaria. There are no colds – just malaria.

Most Ugandans never see the anti-malarials that Peace Corps hands out to us like candy. Anti-malarials are free for us, but there are some rules. We have to take them as prescribed for the entire time we’re in country, and we can’t share them with our host families. The treated mosquito nets we’re also handed for free and expected to use? Becoming less rare for the average Ugandan, thanks to agencies working here. But I’d still estimated that only about 60-70% of my students have one at home.

Malaria costs Africa an estimated $12 billion a year in lost revenue. Children miss days of school because they’re sick with malaria. And they don’t just get it once. It happens over and over.

In some areas of Uganda, the infective biting rates are the highest in the world. Malaria accounts for 25-40% of visits to health facilities in Uganda. It accounts for 15-20% of all hospital admissions in Uganda, and it accounts for 9-14% of all hospital deaths.

Here’s the cold, hard truth.

Uganda accounts for 10% of all malaria deaths in the world.

10%.

An estimated 70,000 to 110,000 people die of malaria every year here.

That’s 11 people an hour dying of malaria in Uganda.

A child dies of malaria every minute in the world. Do the math – that means that about every ten minutes, a child dies of malaria in Uganda.

Peace Corps is dedicated to helping end malaria’s stranglehold on Africa. Not just health volunteers, but all of us, are involved in malaria activities. We’re educating the population, repairing nets and creating resources. We’re singing songs and creating books. All with an anti-malaria message.

You can help, too. If you have the means, consider going to nothingbutnets.net and donating to purchase a net for a family in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a wonderful program associated with the United Nations that, as the name might inspire, deals only with delivering nets.. And if you donate today, World Malaria Day, they’ll double your donation. You can purchase 2 bed nets for a family for only $10 dollars!

So take a few minutes today to consider the malaria reality on the other side of the world.

(By the way, there are 10 new malaria infections every second. How long did it take you to read this?)

Drop It!

I know the last post was a bit of a downer, but you know, so is caning. Luckily, I had a good talk with my headteacher. On Monday of this week he came into my classroom to welcome me to school, as he does nearly every day. He let me know that we would be having a school assembly in a few minutes in the building that serves as our chapel. The topic of the assembly: sanitation and discipline. I immediately got worried – just one week before the school assembly had turned into a caning-fest, so I asked him directly if there would be any caning at the assembly. No he reassured me, there wouldn’t be. In fact, he told me, he doesn’t like caning and worries that there is too much of it. He said he had spotted (I assume teachers) going to get more canes and had put a stop to it. He told me he wants to work together on getting rid of caning from our school. It felt very sincere to me, and I look forward to helping my school come up with a code of conduct and appropriate discipline steps.

(The assembly, if you’re wondering turned out to be an hour long lecture on the proper way to bathe and put on underwear. Seriously.)

But anyway, this post isn’t about caning (anymore.) It’s about DEAR Day!

DEAR, if you’re not in the know, is Drop Everything and Read. I remember DEAR when I was a kid – I’m pretty sure we did it in fourth grade. In my experience it was just reading, but we got to choose our own books and sit wherever we wanted around the classroom for the forty or so minutes we did it. Some teachers use it as their reading lesson every day, but that’s not so in Uganda. In fact, although library hour or reading is supposed to be on the timetable at least once a week for every class, it’s not often that you’ll find Ugandan schoolchildren reading. One reason: they don’t have books.

So today was the first ever national DEAR Day in Uganda. The event was put together by an awesome Peace Corps volunteer who served as one of our trainers when we first got to country, and was sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Sports. All over Uganda at 11:00 pupils, students (in Uganda those are different things… more on that some other time) , teachers, and ministry officials, even support staff at schools set down everything and read. Those that didn’t have anything to read were provided books and materials to keep or borrow from sponsors. The whole country was reading!

On our side of Uganda, the day started early. Eric’s first year PTC students (who just arrived last week!) were up and doing a sustained silent reading challenge by 9:00am – everyone was silently reading to see how long they could all keep reading without distraction. For a group of over 100 18-20 year-olds, it’s quite the challenge but Eric is happy to report they made it over 20 minutes! After they enjoyed some silent reading they all made the long trek over to my school with leveled readers in tow. The plan was for the PTC students to read to small groups of children from my school, no more than 4 primary pupils per PTC student. They’d arrive just as my pupils were getting out of mass and read to them for about 40 minutes. We even had half the group bring books in Luganda (as P1-P3 is taught only in local language) and half in English.

Now of course, this being Uganda, not everything turned out quite how we planned. For some reason today was super mass. When the PTC students arrived at around 11 most of the P1-P3 students were enjoying their break while the older students were sitting through hour 2 of mass. My headteacher was not at school, so there was no real way to tell when the mass would be ending. So after a few minutes of chaos we decided to get the younger students into their classrooms so that we could break the PTC students up into groups and get the reading started. The deputy headteacher told me mass would be over shortly.

Getting the PTC students into the classrooms and reading to the young students was great. I think it cemented in all of our minds (including mine and Eric’s) that yeah, this could work. The PTC students took to reading to the pupils right away, and did a great job from the start. Some classrooms decided to take their reading outside, and soon the front lawn of our school was filled with little readers and their big buddies, hunched over books.

And while all this was fine and great, super mass was still going on. So we had about 50 PTC students milling about in the hot sun, probably wondering what the heck they were doing listening to two muzungus. Not that I really blame them. We thanked them for being patient and led them to the classes they would be working with so that they’d be ready when they returned. Eric tasked them with pre-reading the books they’d read to the children and picking out hard vocabulary that would need explanation. They took this to heart, as most of them were reading the whole time they waited.

An hour later, mass finally let up. Yes indeed, the P4-P7 pupils sat through a three hour mass today. Instead of learning.

Anyway, once mass was over they could finally get in on the DEAR Day action! In fact, all 400 or so pupils got to hear a book read to them today. And since we had over 100 PTC students, they all got to hear the books read to them in small groups and were able to see the books and pictures, and follow along to the words. In some of the groups and pairs, I saw pupils reading to the PTC students. It was awesome!

I have yet to see any books being read to the students at my school other than today, and in fact, have yet to really see any books at my school at all. I know we have some in the library, but they just aren’t used. Thank goodness Eric’s PTC has a stocked library FULL of leveled readers in Luganda and English and has agreed to let my school use them when I’m teaching. When Term 2 begins in May, P4 and P5 will be getting double reading lessons with me once a week, and I’m excited to be able to use the awesome readers.