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!)
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!
↓ | 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:
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.
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.