Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music: The Universal Language

Okay, so I know that I just put up a post yesterday, but I just experienced something that I thought was really cool, and that I want to share.  Hopefully, you’ll think it’s cool, too.

So, just to set the stage, some of us spent the day near Entebbe, at a volunteer’s site on a demonstration farm.  We were learning about building energy efficient cook stoves, and two current volunteers were leading the session.  I had a lot of fun, and it was great to get out of the classroom for a day to do some physical work.  We were doing lots of shoveling of soil, which we mixed with sawdust and water to create this mud mixture, and then we built the stove using bricks and the mud we had just made.  It’s pretty neat…the stove is designed so that airflow enters a small chamber which contains a little wood, and then the smoke and hot air are directed to two holes where pots would sit, concentrating the heat onto the pots from below and from the sides.  Then, the air is directed to a chimney structure and out of the house.  The chambers and passageways that the air passes through are formed by sticking the trunks of banana plants in the structure, and eventually the trunks will decompose and can be pulled out, creating openings in the mud.  I’m not sure how well I explained that, but the idea is that this kind of a stove doesn’t need as much fuel (wood), because the heat given off from the fuel is channeled so that it warms the pots more efficiently and effective.  Also, the design reduces indoor air pollution, since the smoke goes up a chimney and out of the building.  Most people in Uganda who cook on charcoal stoves or on three-stone fires end up breathing in a lot of the smoke, since it just rises past the food being cooked and fills the room.

That wasn’t the really cool experience, even though I had a lot of fun with that today.  After returning to Wakiso, I hung out with friends at one of the bars just outside of town, and then headed home around 7 pm.  When I got there, the only other people in the house were my host mom and her little grandson, Hosea, who is about 3 or 4 years old, I think.  I have a lot of fun with him, especially when he ventures into my room in the evenings and I teach him English words for some of the things in my room.  He has become really good at recognizing lights, clocks, pens, and brushes, although his pronunciation is pretty funny.  (light ~ ayiti, clock ~ kaka, pen ~ penni, brush ~ brussssssssh)

Anyway, while I was eating supper, he was hanging out near the table, just watching and laughing occasionally when I would look at him.  Then, my host mom had to go outside to talk to someone in the front yard, and I think Hosea got very worried about her, maybe wondering whether or not she would come back.  Obviously, she was right outside, and we could hear her talking, but that didn’t change the fact that he started bawling (and he can bawl quite loudly…he threw in some really nice ear-piercing shrieks).  So, I started talking to him, trying both English and Luganda (they’re trying to teach him English early), saying things like “Don’t cry,” “You are all right,” etc (in both languages).  This didn’t work…So, I walked over to where he was standing, picked him up, brought him back to the table, and sat down with him in my lap, and I continued saying the reassurance attempts in a very calm voice, as he continued to cry in a very un-calm voice.  This didn’t work either.  So, I changed tactics.  I held him in my lap, starting to sway back and forth, and began humming the theme from Brahms’ Lullaby (if you don’t think you know this piece of music, you probably do and just don’t realize it…here’s a youtube link to convince you that you’ve probably heard this before: Johannes Brahms - Lullaby).  Almost immediately, Hosea was silent.  The tears stopped, and he just listened.  I was able to keep him calm for at least 5 to 10 minutes, as my host mom finished her conversation, repeating the lullaby probably 6 or 7 times.  Finally, she came back in, I let Hosea get down and run to her, and I finished supper.  And I was just sitting there thinking that music is truly an amazing thing.

It is often said that, to truly understand the culture of a certain people, you must understand the language of that people.  I agree with this.  People who study world music will probably also say that, to understand the music of a culture, you need to understand the culture itself.  And, in the world music class I took in college, we learned that music is NOT the universal language, since the musical styles of people from different cultures can differ as much as the languages of people from those different cultures.  Traditional African music, with an emphasis on complex rhythms, multi-layered rhythms and textures, and call and response patterns, is very different from western music, which focuses on harmonic structures, relatively simple rhythms, and bringing out the melodic line.  The style of one culture would probably sound very foreign to someone brought up in and immersed in the music of the other culture.  I also agree with this.  However, I still think that music has some sort of universal quality to it.  A beautiful melody (like Brahms’ Lullaby…hopefully I did it justice) seems to touch us somewhere beyond the cultural differences that we might see on the outside.  We are all able to appreciate, enjoy, and love the wonderful music created by the sound waves in the air all around us.  If you think about how sound is produced, I think that you might see how it is able to literally connect the person or group creating the music to the person or group listening to the music.  Whether you’re sitting in a concert hall or in a little dining room, the sound waves coming from the musicians stretch out to reach the listeners, touching both groups and allowing them all to experience the beauty inherent in the music.  The musician literally touches the listeners, so that the listeners can share in the experience of the musician, each in his or her own way.

I know I’m getting sort of abstract here, but this is one of the reasons that I love music so much.  It connects people, and it can express pure emotions and ideas that may be difficult or impossible to completely convey with words.  Sometimes, I think that language can limit our expression (or, at least, my expression), but music can communicate feelings and thoughts “with sighs too deep for words.”  What I’m trying to express here (and maybe words are limiting that expression right now) is that maybe music can help us all to find a common humanity within each and every person, and maybe it can bring us together to realize that we are not so different after all.  As I struggle to understand certain things about Ugandan culture that seem so foreign to me, I was also able to connect, for a few minutes at least, on a very fundamental level, with a little boy from that culture, just by singing a piece of music that conveys feelings of peace and calm.  It seemed to transcend any sort of cultural difference and bring us together.  Personally, I think it’s a pretty beautiful thing, and, even though volunteers will often say that extended service abroad makes them a little more cynical than when they began, it serves to give me hope, at least for now, that the possibility of a better, more just and peaceful world still remains.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Little Q & A

So, like I said in my last post, Mom has passed along a few questions about certain aspects of life in Uganda so far…so I thought I would dedicate a lot of this entry to answering a few of those questions.  If you have others that I don’t answer here, feel free to put them in a comment, send them to me through email or facebook, or just ask Mom, and I’m sure she’ll get them to me somehow…

Okay, we’ll start with one that’s fairly relevant, if you remember what most of the last post was about…

When squatting in the pit latrine, how do you clean yourself?

Well, toilet paper is pretty readily available just about everywhere that I’ve been so far.  There are several different brands, and they’re all pretty cheap.  All you need to do is stick a nail in the wall of the latrine, and you’ve got yourself a place to stick a roll of toilet paper.  The thing to be careful about is that, when you’re traveling, it’s kind of a toss up whether or not a latrine or toilet you visit will have a roll inside.  Even in a fairly high end mall-type place in Kampala called Garden City (which seems to be mzungu central), the toilets (yes, actual porcelain toilets) often do not have a roll nearby.  So, it’s advisable to always carry a bit of toilet paper with you, especially when you’re traveling a decent distance.  I have heard some stories about school students using old pieces of note paper, or of newspaper, to take care of things…and I’ve actually done that once already, when no toilet paper was near at hand…not quite as comfortable as a roll of Charmin Ultra.  I think, in the more rural areas, some people might use banana leaves.  If you think about it, this is probably one of the most sustainable methods out there, since the banana leaves are a waste product that is already being produced by the massive consumption of bananas in this country.  No trees need to be cut down to make toilet paper…so, what do you think, should we all switch to leaves?  By the way, in case you’re wondering, it’s fine to just toss the used paper down the latrine hole.  Actually, you want to toss a bit of dry, carbon-rich organic material down there after each session anyway.  Stuff like wood shavings or charcoal ash work really well.  These materials absorb any moisture that collects in the pit, which helps to minimize the smell and makes the pit less bug-infested, since those critters generally like moist environments.  Although toilet paper probably doesn’t work quite as well as those other materials, I would think that it helps to absorb a bit of the moisture.  (Of course, I cannot verify this through any sort of first-hand observation…)

What do you sleep on?  Do you have to use a mosquito net?

I sleep on a bed…nothing too crazy here.  At my homestay right now, I’ve got two 3 to 4 inch mattresses stacked on a little wooden bed frame, and that’s working pretty well.  Usually, when I go to sleep, I’m pretty warm and don’t need any covers, but it doesn’t get a bit cool at night, so I have a blanket that I can just pull up when I get a little chilly.  When I eventually go to my site, I’ll have the same kind of set-up there.  Jon, the volunteer I’m replacing, sold me his bed frame and mattress, along with most of his other stuff, and I’ll buy a second mattress to put on top once I get there.  And yes, mosquito nets are very important here.  The leading cause of morbidity and mortality (public health terms…as an oversimplification, morbidity = suffering caused by illness, and mortality = death) in Uganda is malaria (yep, it’s higher than HIV/AIDS).  People get malaria so often here that, if a child makes it to age 5, he or she has probably built up significant immunity to the disease, since he/she has probably already had it at least a few times.  Actually, in many of the local languages, the word people use for malaria really just means fever.  So, any time someone has a fever, it might automatically be assumed that this person has malaria.  The disease is transmitted by a certain type of mosquito (the anopheles moquito, if you’re interested, and only the females bite humans), and this mosquito feeds at night.  So, one of the most effective ways to prevent malaria is to sleep under a mosquito net (preferably, an insecticide-treated net, so that the bugs can’t even land on it, and, ideally, a long-lasting insecticide-treated net, which have a lifetime of about five years before the insecticide wears off).  We are issued long-lasting insecticide-treated nets by Peace Corps, and this thing is currently hanging above my bed, held up by a very haphazard combination of string, bailing rope, dental floss, and faith.  Admittedly, I put it up quickly the first day I got there, before I went to bed, so I wasn’t all that worried about perfect engineering.  Hopefully, I’ll come up with a slightly better, more planned-out system at my house…Here’s a picture.

My bed at homestay in Wakiso, with an impressively installed mosquito net

Are you learning to prepare food?

I’ve watched my host family cook several times on their charcoal stove, and, a few weekends ago, we split into groups and had a cooking day at a few homestays.  The idea was to use the traditional cooking methods (like charcoal stoves) to prepare a Ugandan dish and an American dish.  My group made breakfast, which consisted of “breakfast matooke” as the Ugandan dish (the same, green bananas used to make normal matooke, but you don’t mash them up, and you boil them with tomatoes, peppers, onions, etc…I think it’s really good) and French toast, scrambled eggs, and fruit salad as the American stuff.  I think it turned out really well, and I participated quite a bit, with all of the different foods.  The host family tried all of our weird American food, and they seemed to really like it!  Now, once I get to site, I’ll be using a propane stove that I bought from Jon, which is much easier and faster than the charcoal stove (and you need to use a heck of a lot of charcoal).  It’s got two burners (one which needs to be lit manually, which I can accomplish by getting the other burner going, setting the end of some cardboard on fire, and using that), and I just need to get the propane tank refilled when I run out, which I can do at a gas station in a nearby town.  I already used that stove a few times during the future site visit, and I think I produced some pretty good pasta sauces and rice concoctions.  It’s also really quick and easy to toast bread on a frying pan, for sandwiches or just to get my peanut butter fix for breakfast.

What do you drink?  Water?  Probably not…

Actually, yes, I drink a lot of water, just like I did back in the states.  (Here comes a long answer, seeing as this is kind of an area of interest for me…)  I think many Ugandan families boil their water, which kills anything that might be bad, to make it safe to drink.  Actually, boiling at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) is overkill, because everything is killed if the water is kept at or above 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) for 10 to 15 minutes.  The thing is, it’s just easier to tell when the water is at 100 degrees (because it’s boiling) than when it’s at 70 degrees.  But, regardless, heating up the water like this uses a lot of energy, whether you’re using charcoal, wood, gas, electricity, or whatever.  And, at least at my homestay, you get a very interesting, smoky taste from the charcoal, which I’m kind of used to now, but which was pretty weird at first.  Boiling is also the first option recommended by Peace Corps, because it definitely kills everything, but they do give another option, which involves filtering the water and then disinfecting with chlorine.  I’ll get a ceramic filter from Peace Corps if I want to do this, but, from what some volunteers have said, it sounds like these filters don’t work all that well (they’re really slow, you have to clean them all the time, etc.).  We’ll see.  Chlorine is readily available here, both as a liquid solution and in tablet form.  If the water doesn’t have too many particles in it (which interfere with the disinfection process), low doses of chlorine that are safe for human consumption can kill most bacteria and viruses.  However, these doses usually do NOT kill some of the bigger protozoa, such as giardia and cryptosporidium (I had a run-in with this little critter during my first trip to Suriname a couple years back).  The idea is to combine chlorination with filtration so that the particles and bigger organisms (like those pesky protozoa) are caught in the filter, and then the little bacteria and viruses that remain are taken down by the chlorine.  I have not yet had the chance to figure out where the water coming from the tap at my house in Kalisizo originates, but I would bet that it is either from a groundwater well or a rainwater tank.  In general, groundwater and rainwater usually don’t contain the big bugs like giardia…those are almost always found in surface water that is contaminated by human or animal waste (yeah, the kind of waste that would go into a latrine).  Rainwater is almost certainly free of this stuff, and, unless your groundwater well is located close to a latrine, groundwater should be good, too.  So, just treating it with chlorine would probably be okay.  The issue with chlorination in many places around the world is that people just hate the taste and the smell of chlorine in their water.  It’s quite the change from the taste and smell of charcoal water.

Once I get to site, I’m probably going to test out that ceramic filter to see how it works, I’ll almost certainly use chlorine, and I’m also thinking about doing something called solar disinfection.  This is really simple, and, under the right circumstances, can also kill just about everything.  As I already said, high temperatures kill bad stuff, but you can also kill bad stuff at lower temperatures, if you keep it at that temperature for a longer period of time.  So, keeping water at 70 degrees Celsius for 10 to 15 minutes would work, but keeping water at 50 degrees Celsius for 12 hours or so would also work.  The idea is to put water in clear bottles and stick them out in the sun for a while (really simple, like I said).  Especially when you’re this close to the equator (I cross it to go from Kampala to Kalisizo), the sun is pretty powerful.  It heats up the water, and the sunlight itself contains ultraviolet radiation that also helps to kill stuff.  The best way to do it is to leave a little space at the top of the bottle, so that you have some air up there.  Then, right before you stick the bottle in the sun, you shake it up, so that the amount of oxygen in the water increases.  The UV radiation from the sun causes the oxygen molecules to transform into these cool things called oxygen free radicals, which are really effective bacteria and virus killers.  So, you get the heat working together with the free radicals, and, under fairly sunny conditions, you can get complete disinfection within 6 hours.  Even on cloudy days, the process should still work if you leave the bottles out for a longer time (at least 2 days).  I kind of want to try this out, and I’m also thinking about doing a few simple water tests to see how well it works (Jon left some testing kits with me that are able to check for bacteria).

You were warned…that was a long answer.  So, those are some of the bigger questions that Mom has passed along.  Like I said, if you’re interested about anything else, or if you have any questions or comments about my answers, go ahead and send them to me somehow.  Now, to finish off the post, I’m going to do a little Luganda practice.  The next paragraph is going to talk about a typical day at training.  I’ll also put some pictures in to give you an idea of what the place looks like, and then I’ll have the English translation at the end…

Part of the shortcut to Raco, right before the big hill
"Bwe nzuukuka buli kumakya, nnaaba enviiri yange, era awo ndya ekyenkya.  Ntera ndya obuugi, omugaati, eggi, ne eryenvu, era nnywa amazzi olujjo.  Oluvannyuma ntambula okugenda Raco ku ssaawa nga emu, era ntera okutuuka mu Raco ku ssaawa emu n’eddakiika ataano.  Tutandika ku ssaawa bbiri, era tusoma Luganda okutuuka ssaawa ya caayi, ku ssaawa nnya.  Oluusi tulya ebinyeebwa, oluusi tulya omugaati, era oluusi tulya amagi.  Abantu abalala banywa caayi oba kaawa, naye nnywa amazzi.  Bwe tumala okulya ne okynywa, tutera okusoma eby’obulamu ne eby’enkulakulana okuva ssaawa nnya n’ekitundu okutuuka ssaawa mukaaga n’ekitundu.  Awo tulya ekyemisana.  Ntera okulya amatooke, omuceere, ebijanjaalo, doodo, biringanya, ovacedo, ne ennaanansi.  Oluvannyuma nzikuse.  Olweggulo tutera okuyiga ku empisa za abantu bannayuganda, ate tutera okumala ku ssaawa nga kkumi n’emu.  Awo oluusi ntambula okugenda mu Wakiso okukyalira ne bannakyewa abalala, ate oluusi ntambula okugenda eka.  Bwe ntuuka eka, nnaaba omubiri wange.  Awo ndya ekyeggulo ne bakadde bange, ate ntera okulya amatooke, lumonde, ebinyeebwa, biringanya, emboga, ne eryenvu.  Oluvannyuma nzikuse nnyo.  Awo ngamba, “Sula bulungi,” ate ngenda mu ekisenge kyange.  Nsoma Luganda, era oluusi nsoma ekitabo.  Awo nkooye, era ngenda okwebaka ku ssaawa nga nnya."

The hotel at Raco, where I spent a couple of unpleasant nights a few weeks back

The main conference room at Raco, where we have our big sessions

"When I wake up every morning, I wash my hair, and then I eat breakfast.  I usually eat maize porridge, bread, an egg, and a banana, and I drink water always.  Afterwards, I walk to Raco (our training site) at about 1 o’clock (Luganda time starts the day at 6:00 am, so 1 o’clock = 7:00 am), and I usually arrive at Raco at 1:50 (7:50 am).  We begin at 2:00 (8:00 am), and we study Luganda until tea time, at 4:00 (10:00 am).  Sometimes we eat peanuts, sometimes we eat bread, and sometimes we eat eggs.  Other people drink tea or coffee, but I drink water.  When we finish eating and drinking, we usually study health and development from 4:30 (10:30 am) until 6:30 (12:30 pm).  Then we eat lunch.  I usually eat matooke, rice, beans, greens, eggplant, avocado, and pineapple.  Afterwards, I am full (no kidding).  In the afternoon, we usually learn about the culture of the Ugandan people, and we usually finish at about 11:00 (5:00 pm).  Then sometimes I walk into Wakiso to visit with the other volunteers, and sometimes I walk home.  When I arrive at home, I wash my body (it seems that Ugandans like to bathe twice daily, so in the morning, I wash my hair, and in the evening, I take care of everything else).  Then I eat supper with my (host) parents, and I usually eat matooke, sweet potatoes, peanuts, eggplant, cabbage, and a banana.  Afterwards, I am very full.  Then I say, “Good night,” and I go to my room.  I study Luganda, and sometimes I read a book (yeah, you may have just realized that “study” and “read” are the same word).  Then I am tired, and I go to sleep at about 4:00 (10:00 pm)."

A very threatening raincloud coming toward training...massive downpour 5 minutes later
All right, great, so I just finished my weekend Luganda homework.  I think that will be all for now.  Next week, we split up into small groups and go on a “tech immersion.”  I get to be very unoriginal and go back to my site in Kalisizo for the water and sanitation tech immersion.  But, we’ll get to visit some other places, too, so I might get to see a little bit more, at least.  That will last from Monday until Thursday.  And after getting back from that, we’ll only have two more weeks until training is over and we swear in!

Have a great weekend everyone!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Pretty Crappy Predicament

You know, there are some situations that you simply can’t prepare for...and you just have to hope that, when one of these crazy things happens, you’ll keep your head and figure out what to do, relatively calmly…

So, to set the scene, it’s last Tuesday, which was the last full day I spent at my future site before heading back to training in Wakiso.  I had gone to visit the two closest schools that Positive Planet, my host organization, works with in Kalisizo in the morning, and I was just hanging out in my house for a bit in the early afternoon before heading out to walk around town a bit.  Well, I decided to take a trip to the latrine before leaving the compound.  Right then, the only two people in the place were my landlady’s youngest son (who is probably about 3 or 4 years old) and me.  As I go out my front door and walk to the latrine, the boy sees me and shouts, “Mzungu,” so I turn my head and wave for a second as I continue on.  I get to the latrine structure, which actually consists of a total of five “stalls,” three used as latrines and two used as bathing rooms.  I had claimed the middle latrine stall as my own, getting a nice little lock to put on it and everything.  Anyway, I unlocked it, went inside, squatted down, and started going to work.  Within a few seconds, I heard the kid coming over…and he started playing with the lock outside the door.  This is a kid who will stand, with his siblings, outside my door in the evening and shout “Mzungu, mzungu!” the entire time I’m out in the front room cooking dinner.  Occasionally, one of the kids will give a little play-by-play of my activities.  For example, “Mzungu afumba!”  (“The white person is cooking”…as a side note, when I actually start living in this place for real, I’m really going to try to get these kids to call me by my name, and not my skin color…we’ll see how successful I am in this venture).

Getting back to the story at hand, against all odds, I maintained my cool, calmly telling the kid to stop playing with the lock.  Eventually, it worked, and he went somewhere else…Actually, I think he left the compound completely.  So, a few minutes passed in peace, I finished up, and went to leave…and, yep, you guessed it, the door wouldn’t open.  As the reality quickly set in that the kid had left the door locked from the outside, a few choice phrases came to mind.  But, as I shook the door and called out for help, I soon figured out that I was the only one in the compound, and it didn’t take long to move past the “Holy crap, that boy locked me in a smelly, fly-infested latrine that doesn’t even have a cover over the hole yet” stage and on to the “Okay, I’m locked in a smelly, fly-infested latrine that doesn’t even have a cover over the hole yet…how the heck do I get out of here?” stage.  So, I started to look around, and, lo and behold, I noticed that the walls of my latrine stall don’t quite extend the whole way up to the roof.  There is a little space, maybe a foot and a half or two feet, between the top of the wall and the higher sections of the sloping roof.  I quickly did a pull-up so that I could look over the wall and into the stall to my right, and the door to that stall was open (hallelujah).  Now, if I could just climb this six-foot, concrete wall, squeeze beneath the roof, and lower myself down on the other side, I would be free.  So, that’s what I did…pulled myself up (helped by a tiny little quarter-inch wide ledge that I used as a foothold), got one leg over the wall (at this point I was straddling the wall like I was riding a horse, with my entire upper body pressed against the concrete so that my head could squeeze under the lower parts of the sloping roof), dismounted the wall, getting both legs on the freedom side, and slowly lowered myself down, ensuring that both feet landing on the floor and not in the hole…and I walked out, back into the light of day.  I soon realized how dirty my clothes and hands had become, but, before I spent too much time dusting myself off, I experimented with the lock on my stall until I figured out how to position the lock so that it would be impossible for this same situation to occur in the future.  Luckily for the little boy, he was not around, because I’m pretty sure I would have brought to bear my entire arsenal of Luganda knowledge to explain to him what he had just done, and why it was bad.  Of course, with my currently limited vocabulary, it would have been something incredibly simple, along the lines of, “Bwe nkozesa tooyi, toteekwa okuzannya wano, kubanga njagala okusobola okukomawo.” (“When I use the latrine, you must not play here, because I want to be able to return.”)

At any rate, huge crisis averted (more or less), I didn’t have to try to break the door down or anything, and now I have a pretty freaking awesome story.  After we all made it back to Wakiso, we had some processing time on Thursday, during which I acted out what I have just described in front the entire group (easier than telling the story twenty times).  I even think some of my fellow trainees will now be entertaining (or horrifying, depending on your point of view) friends and family back home with that story.  As some others have said, maybe it’s a good thing that this happened to me and not someone else who might be a little more freaked out at the thought of being stuck in such a crappy situation.  Although it’s probably not how I’d choose to spend my Tuesday afternoons, it didn’t feel like a massive, earth-shattering moment, even while it was happening.  I knew there would be some way out at some point, and, luckily, it only took a few moments for that way to present itself.  Actually, to be completely honest, now that it’s over, I don’t really mind that it happened at all…it’s just a really fun story to tell (as you can probably surmise from the way I’m telling it).

Let’s see, can we draw any lessons from this?  Well, there might be a few things that could be applicable to my service in general.  For example, creativity and the need to think outside the box (or the latrine stall, whatever the case may be) could be important.  Perhaps most significantly, I think it’s pretty necessary to stay calm and to roll with the punches (or the playful whims of a little boy).  Thankfully, I’m not really big into panicking, which, I think, helped me to think through how to get out of there, and then how to prevent it from ever happening again. (On second thought, would the story be better if it happened more than once?  No, never mind, probably not.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”)

At any rate, we are now back into the normal routine, training in Wakiso.  We’ve got about four more weeks until our swearing-in ceremony (when we officially become Peace Corps volunteers).  Oh, I almost forgot…on Thursday night, we got to go to a party at the US embassy in Kampala.  The party was in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and of USAID (US Agency for International Development).  It was quite a nice thing, with good food (I have to admit, all of the PC volunteers and trainees swarmed the servers as soon as they came out with a tray of food), and good music.  I talked to a couple of the Ugandan musicians, trying to figure out a good place to look for an instrument to try to learn.  I got locations of a couple craft stores/markets in Kampala that might work.  And, on the way home, the group finally discovered something that would make me speak up and be somewhat assertive.  Song lyrics…specifically, in this situation, Disney song lyrics (yeah, that’s right).  As a group of girls in the back of the bus attempted to get through “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, I found myself interjecting lyric corrections as needed.  And I have now secured a permanent place in Rebecca’s quote book for myself, with the exclamation, “It’s ‘I can open your eyes’ people.”  As I later explained the next day, there are a limited number of things in this world that I am passionate about and that will make me open my mouth and talk with some force.  One of those things is music.  Melody and intonation aside, if I’m going to have to listen to people trying to sing a song that I know, I at least want them to sing the right words.  J

All right, I think I’ve gone on long enough with tales of my adventures.  I will hopefully now have better access to the internet on a relatively regular basis, since I’ve got the necessary equipment, but, obviously, please don’t expect things everyday.  Oh, and I just got a letter from Mom a couple days ago with a bunch of questions that some friends have been asking…perhaps the next post will be geared towards some answers.

As always, thank you for everything you do, and for your tremendous support.  You’re in my thoughts often, and I wish you all nothing but the best (and safe, uneventful bathroom experiences).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sickness and Site Visit

Sickness and Site Placement

So, last week, I think I had my first real episode of sickness in Uganda.  I know a few weeks ago I said that I had dealt with a little bit of diarrhea, but that was child’s play.  I was walking to training on Tuesday morning, and I felt a little bit off, but I felt like I could probably just push through it, so I continued on to RACO.  I made it there fine, but I was feeling a little queasy by that point.  Thinking that it would eventually pass, since I had made it through the really strenuous physical exertion for the day, I went into my language class like normal.  I had almost made it the entire two hours, but then, with about 10 minutes left, I started to feel really faint.  Now, I’ve fainted, or have been very close to fainting, several times in my life, so I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the warning signs.  My stomach gets really nauseous, I start to sweat a heck of a lot, and I start to lose vision as everything turns white.  Luckily, I did the standard “put your head between your knees to get blood to your head” thing quickly enough so that I avoided a complete loss of consciousness.  But, once my head was down and others could see how pale and sweaty I was, I obviously couldn’t pretend I was fine anymore.  So, I found out that the training center also has a few guestrooms, with relatively comfortable beds, and some trainers walked me up there so I could lay down.  Basically, for the whole rest of the day, I was sleeping off and on, and the medical staff decided to let me spend the night at RACO.  This turned out to be a major stroke of luck, because, when I finally did get up to use the bathroom, I discovered that I had a pretty terrible case of diarrhea (which smelled pretty horrendous).  Those guestrooms have nice flush toilets right there, and it was put to full use through the night.  If I would have gone back to homestay, I’m not sure what would have happened, since the family locks the door and doesn’t go out to the latrine after dark.

Perhaps this is the best time to introduce the concept of a “night bucket” (realizing that there might never be a good time to bring up this subject).  For many people in Uganda, or at least those with outside latrines who live in areas that might get a bit shady after dark, the common practice is to use a small plastic bucket if one must perform a “short call” during the night, and to just hold it if one feels the need to perform a “long call” (I’m going to assume you can figure out what those terms mean).  In general, I’ve made full use of the night bucket to deal with my nightly short calls, and have not found this to be a problem…but, considering that long calls become much more difficult to hold when one is afflicted with the above ailment, I’d rather not have a bucket in my room overflowing with…well, I think you get the picture.  Moral of the story – recognizing that the frequency of diarrheal disease in Uganda is much higher than in the United States, I’m very impressed with the resiliency of the Ugandans and their ability to cope with these very annoying situations.

Moving on to less disgusting and much better news, the next day, Wednesday, our group received our site placements (in other words, we found out where everyone would be, and had some idea of what everyone might be doing for the next two years).  I was still not feeling good (the lightheadedness had subsided, but the diarrhea had refused to let up), but I was able to make it down to the training room around 11, right when they were announcing our sites.  Most people didn’t see me come in and sit down near the back of the room, so I have to admit that it was kind of a nice feeling when my name was called.  As I started to stand up, a few people called out, “He’s sick,” but then, once everyone realized I was there and walking up to get my info, I was greeted with a big round of applause…not a bad little ego-booster.

Anyway, I discovered that I will be stationed in a town called Kalisizo, which is in Rakai District.  As you can see from the Uganda map, it’s about as south as you can get in the central region of Uganda…it’s around 40 kilometers north of the border with Tanzania.  And, remember Jon, the guy who I had said is more or less me in two years (discounting the fact that he’s engaged…slight difference there), yeah, I’m basically his replacement.  My primary project will involve working with a New York-based NGO called Positive Planet, which works to connect US schools with schools in this part of Uganda.  Jon, in conjunction with Positive Planet, also helped to start a brick-making and construction business, which I will probably continue to work with as they try to expand.  The bricks are a little different than the normal ones made in Uganda, which generally require a lot of mortar (which is the much more expensive than the bricks themselves). These bricks are made in such a way so that they can interlock with one another, meaning that less mortar is needed.  With that project, I’ll probably be trying to help expand the business (not that I have any business training whatsoever) and trying to see if the design of rainwater tanks built with these bricks can be improved in any way.  Those will probably be some of my primary responsibilities with Positive Planet, but volunteers are also encouraged to find other projects to work on (Peace Corps calls them “secondary projects”), so I could also end up getting involved in something completely different.

Right now, I’m on a week-long “future site visit,” staying with Jon in Kalisizo and getting the lay of the land.  The ride from Kampala took me between three and four hours, and I was the only white person in the vehicle the entire time…I kind of enjoyed that.  As much as I love hanging out with the others in my training group, it was nice to not be a part of a massive cluster of foreigners.  And, helpfully, my bowels remained very well-behaved during the entire trip, giving me a chance to enjoy some of the scenery.  The topography is almost Pennsylvanian – rolling hills, some small mountains here and there, with a bunch of trees.  There’s a great diversity of plant life, and everything is very green.  Unlike PA, I won’t see the leaves changing color soon, which is a little sad, but I think I’ll get through it.

Kalisizo seems like a nice place.  I walked around town with Jon a bit on Thursday evening, and on Friday morning, the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director came to take a look at the brick project.  We went to see where the bricks are currently stored, the press used to make them, and one of the completed rainwater tanks using them.  It sounds like Loucine, the country director, has very high hopes for this project and would like to see it expand a lot (in other words, I’d better not screw it up).  Also on Friday, I met a wonderful man named Max, who will be one of my Ugandan counterparts (one of the people I’ll probably be working with very closely).  He is more or less the manager of this brick company (which is called “Brick by Brick,” by the way), and is on the Positive Planet payroll.  Later in the day, I met a very fun, and very pregnant, woman named Peruth, who does the school-based side of things for Positive Planet.  That afternoon, Jon, Max, Peruth, and I had a Skype meeting with Marc Sklar, one of the directors of the organization back in New York.  He seems like a very good guy.  He definitely likes to joke around and have fun, but he also seems to be quite serious about the work that Positive Planet is doing and is very ambitious about what we can accomplish in the coming years.  Being from New York, he is not excited about the fact that I’m a Phillies fan, but hopefully I can win him over on other fronts…

On Saturday, we moved most of the stuff from Jon’s house into the house that will be mine for the next two years.  Jon graciously sold me (for a relatively low price) all of the stuff that he had accumulated here and didn’t want to take home.  So, I got his bed, his furniture, his gas stove, his pots, pans, dishes, and silverware, and a bunch of other assorted goodies.  I may never need some of the things, but it’s definitely great to have the huge majority of my shopping done before I actually move in to the house for good.  The house itself is very nice (it’s more of an apartment, actually), and my landlady seems great.  I think I am her first tenant ever, because my place is the only one in her complex that is finished.  It consists of two relatively large rooms.  The first one will be mainly a cooking area, I think, and maybe also a living room if I have any visitors.  From there, we get into the bedroom, with a tiny room off of it that can be used as a bathing area.  At this point, I think I have the bedroom more or less how I want it…the kitchen/living room is still a mess.  And I haven’t even brought all of my luggage from home yet…

There are also four young kids who run around the complex…I’m assuming they’re the landlady’s.  They’re very energetic and playful, but I am definitely the center of attention when I come out and they see me.  I immediately hear “Mzungu, mzungu!” (“White person, white person!”), and the four of them surround me.  If I decide to sit down out there, one will head for my lap, one will take the right side, another will take the left side, and the fourth will probably stand behind me playing with my hair.  At this point, I can say a few things to them in Luganda, but they’re so young that they don’t really realize that I am not completely fluent, and they jump into some string of words at hyperspeed that I totally miss.  Hopefully, my Luganda will get a little better so that I can at least have a little conversation…

On Sunday, Jon left for Kampala, where he will stay until Friday, when he flies out of the country.  I am hoping to get to see him on Wednesday, when I’ll be heading back that way.  So, I’m now living in my house, at my site in Kalisizo, by myself.  It’s kind of cool…a little preview of what it will be like.  And I have to admit, as much as I have said that I’ve been enjoying the Ugandan cuisine, it’s been great to cook some more Americanized meals with Jon…and now I’ll get to try some stuff out on my own over the next few days.  I have definitely enjoyed this little visit to Kalisizo, and I’m really looking forward to getting started in the middle of October.  I’ve had lots of ideas bouncing around in my head about things to do and things to try (maybe it’s good that there’s still another month before I actually start…that will give me some time to filter out the ideas that stink).

Oh, by the way, I did not bring my camera (trying to pack light), so I don’t have any pictures of the area…yet.  I figured it was okay that I didn’t bring it for this one week…seeing as it’s going to be my home for, like, over 100 weeks.

Oh, and I’m feeling better now.  Don’t worry, Mom (or anyone else)...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

An “Introduction” to Uganda: Families, Flora, and Fauna

It’s a late night tonight, as I try to fully maximize my time with the modem I borrowed for the evening from a friend.  Sorry if this post feels a little more rushed/scattered than normal…

Anyway, training is continuing along…we’ve been in Uganda for almost a month now, and we’re almost halfway through training.  Honestly, it feels like I’ve been here for a significantly longer amount of time, and I feel like I’ve known the people in my training class for a while longer, too.  Even the current volunteers who come in to help train us seem to be part of this big extended family type of thing.  Last week, two guys came for a few days to talk about water and sanitation issues (which I obviously loved), and, as we hung out in town in the evenings, it was like hanging out with some old friends.  Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that the one guy was an engineering MI (master’s international) student from USF, and the other was an MI student at Michigan Tech.  Or, they were basically me, two years down the road (I mean, the name of the guy from USF is Jon, he wears glasses, is tall, and has a beard…holy crap).  At any rate, it was a great opportunity to talk to them as they’re getting ready to finish up their service.

Some exciting things are also coming up in the next couple of weeks.  We’ll all find out our specific site placements on Wednesday of next week, and we’ll have a few days to visit these places shortly after that.  So, I’ll get to see the community where I’ll be living for the next two years, I’ll meet people from the organization I’ll be working with, and I’ll just get to know the area in general a bit.

But, I think that my favorite experiences so far have come during the last two weekends.  Two Sundays ago, my host family had an “Introduction” at their house.  In the USA, we might call this an engagement party, although it’s definitely different than anything we might do.  Basically, one of the daughters in our family was getting engaged to a man from town.  It’s called an introduction because the man comes to the woman’s house with some members of his family, and they introduce themselves to the woman’s entire family (there were at least 30 to 40 people inside and outside of our house that day).  The actual ceremony lasts for about one and a half to two hours, during which all of these introductions happen, and the groom’s family negotiates with the bride’s family – some money changes hands, they agree on a dowry (which will be given at the wedding), and they set a date for the wedding ceremony.  Then comes the meal (yes, here comes another long section on food…you can see where my passions lie).  Oh my…My family was working on this meal all morning…they had at least 3 charcoal stoves and 2 wood fires going, cooking all sorts of stuff.  We had matooke, rice, beans, potatoes (Irish and sweet), cabbage, eggplant, pumpkin, greens, and so on and so forth.  Oh, and I’m pretty sure they slaughtered a chicken and a cow for this thing…I got to eat some of the cow’s intestines the day before…apparently they’re considered to be quite yummy.  I wouldn’t go that far, but they did make it completely through my own digestive system without a hitch.  That was all topped off with a cake, which was really tasty, and then came the gifts.  I guess this guy really likes my family’s daughter, because he brought in like half a grocery store – a huge (over 100 pounds) bag of rice, a huge (same size) bag of sugar, about 6 crates of soda, several loaves of bread, a big basket of tea packets, a bunch of fruit, and two huge bunches of green bananas (we’ll have plenty of matooke), just to name some of the things.  Oh, and a crate of about 30 bottles of Guinness, which our extended family may have gone through that night (don’t worry, I had one).  Oh, and I almost forgot about the coolest part…my host dad had me wear the traditional Bagandan dress, which consists of this long, white robe/tunic thing that goes down to your ankles, with a sport jacket on top of that.  I hadn’t brought any sport jackets, so I borrowed one of my host dad’s coats.  The sleeves were a little short, considering he’s at least 6 to 9 inches shorter than me, but it was definitely interesting and a lot of fun to be included in that ceremony.  They had me sitting right next to the father of the bride (my host dad), so I was right in the middle of it, even though I could pick out maybe 10% of the words (it was all in Luganda).  Luckily, my host dad leaned over every now and then to give me a little synopsis of what was happening…then he would ask, “So how do you do it in America?”, and I would try to explain that it’s a bit different.  Usually not quite so many family members around when the engagement takes place, for one thing.

Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me this weekend, so you don’t get to see me in my traditional outfit…sorry.
Incredibly cute otters

The next Saturday, our training group took a trip to Entebbe, where we visited a zoo in the morning and some botanical gardens in the afternoon.  And yes, I had my camera going full blast this time.  The zoo was really cool, even though it seems kind of ironic to go to Africa, and then to go see lions, giraffes, and rhinos in a zoo.  Anyway, the animals were pretty awesome.  Huge pythons, really cute otters, lazy lions, zebras, ostriches, etc.  And the rhinos were massive.  One of them came right up to the fence and grazed for a bit.  I actually reached out and touched its back…literally hard as a rock.  And I’m pretty sure it didn’t even notice.  These are some of the better pictures…And remember, I never take pictures, so these are not all that artistic.  Just be happy that I actually brought a camera and am using it.

Zebras look pretty cool in person

Lazy lions...the females were bigger than I expected (The Lion King being my only real point of reference)
This picture does not do justice to the girth of this animal

A very inquisitive ostrich

Aditi heading in...

The Botanical Gardens were really beautiful, too.  As everyone says, Uganda is so fertile that just about anything can grow, and there was an awesome variety of plants at this place.  A group of us found these paths, and, well, it’s kind of hard to describe.  Just look at the pictures.

Left to right - Laura, Erin, Liz, Russ, Jake, Stephanie, Howard, Mikael

Okay, well, I need to finish up and get to bed so I’m not falling asleep in language class tomorrow morning.  As always, thanks for all of your support.  I’m still doing well…enjoying spending time with the other trainees, living in a completely different place, and eating the food (a lot…I’m pretty sure I’ve gained at least five pounds since arriving.  For some reason, other trainees don’t like 10 varieties of starch in one meal.  As usual, I’m developing a reputation as the one who will eat anything and everything).

Who knows when the next post will be…probably not for a few weeks, because we’ll be traveling some with the site visits and such.  So, until then, know that I’m thinking about all of you and appreciating your love and support from afar!