Saturday, October 29, 2011

Rwanda Revisited

“It was late and we had to leave before the six o’clock curfew…A girl of about eleven was crouched by the side of the road.  She go up, calling, and walked towards us…She took my wrist and gently directed me to the gutter alongside the cathedral.  She let my wrist go and bent down to lift a printed shawl.  She had placed rocks on the corners of the cloth to hold it over her mother, who lay in the gutter.  Her mother’s eyes and mouth opened and closed to dissuade the flies that swarmed around her face.  She was too weak to use her hands.  She lay sweating among several corpses that had been thrown out of the church.  She was covered in vomit and diarrhea.  She was delirious, emaciated and barely alive…There was no choice, no thinking.  I just did it.  I picked up the girl’s mother and carried her to the truck…The girl’s name was Therese, and her mother had dysentery and likely TB as well.  She died two days later.  During those two days, Therese never left her mother’s side, washing her, holding her hands and trying to feed her.”

“I could hear wild dogs fighting among themselves in the distance.  They had already eaten the flesh from the roadside corpses.  Fresh greenstick branches browned by the sun slapped onto the windshield, yet even with the dense undergrowth, bodies were visible in the grass and underbrush along the road.  They were at least a few weeks old.  Sun-bleached white bones stuck through petrified leather skin that had been cut by machete, or torn by dogs.  Women lay on top of their children.  They had probably been forced to watch their children be butchered before being cut themselves.”

“My mother hid me in the latrine.  I saw through the hole.  I watched them hit her with machetes.  The men were angry and strong.  I watched my mother’s arm fall into my father’s blood on the floor and I cried without noise in the toilet.”

“The boy was fourteen, his lower right leg destroyed by a land mine.  What was left of his foot hung from his calf like severed wires that made a gnarled web capturing bone, bits of flesh, a piece of shoe.  The explosion had happened two or three days before.  He was febrile, and already infection was tracking up towards his knee.  It would have to be an above-the-knee amputation, the first amputation I would do alone…I cut, irrigated and tied off the arteries.  In the last six weeks, Giovanni had broken all of the surgical saw blades.  Now we were using a sterilized hacksaw…In thirty minutes, I had sawed off his leg…Therese took the severed limb and put it in a bucket on the floor…His leg was in a bucket, and he was alive – an imperfect offering.”

The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994, only seventeen years ago.  In his book, An Imperfect Offering – Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, Dr. James Orbinski, a past president of Medecins san Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), devotes almost 100 pages to the time he spent in Rwanda as the genocide was occurring.  As you have just read, he witnessed atrocities that no one should have to see, let alone experience.  So far, in my time on this earth, I have seen poverty, horrible living conditions, and terrible illness.  But I have not witnessed this.  I have not seen the systematic slaughter of men, women, and children.  What Orbinski describes is beyond anything I can fathom or understand.  There were times, as I read through these pages, when I would actually have to stop and catch my breath.  Just reading about it was physically draining.  After eating supper, I would read into the night, and, when I finally decided to stop, I would just sit in my chair for five, ten minutes, with very little thinking, very little of anything going on.  What can I say about it?  What can I even think about it?  How can people possibly do this to each other?  How can people justify to themselves the cold-blooded murder of innocent children?

In another passage from the book, Orbinski writes, “The Interahamwe would kill at night outside the church and throw bodies and severed limbs back over the wall so that the living would know what they would face.  The children were butchered systematically, but only a few at a time – sometimes five, sometimes thirty, sometimes more, whatever the killing squad’s alcohol and weed would allow for each night.”  When Orbinski tried to persuade a commander to let him move the children to a hospital (the kids were also experiencing an epidemic of measles), the commander replied, “These here are not children, they are Tutsi inyenzi (cockroaches)…They will be crushed like insects.”

How has it come to this point?  How is it possible for people to come to see other human beings as being so inferior, so inconsequential, so far beyond love and compassion?  And this is not the only genocide that has occurred in history.  There seems to be a long tradition of the killing and/or oppression of one group by another group, because the first group is seen as less human, less advanced, less worthy.  This is not a terrible problem only present in one group of people, at one moment in history, at one place in the world.  We have read, seen, and heard about these inhumanities in many different places, at many different times.

One of Orbinski’s main points is that the individual who is suffering could have been me, that there is no inherent difference between the person who is tortured or oppressed and any other human being on this planet.  When discussing a man who was suffering and simply wanted to be treated like a person, Orbinski’s friend remarked, “He could be me, he could be any of us.”  And yet, along with this theme is another, opposing point…While we should feel solidarity with those in pain, we must also realize that, somewhere deep within ourselves, we also have the capacity to commit the atrocities that cause such pain.

Orbinski writes, “It is easy to imagine that war and genocide come from a place outside of ourselves.  But genocide is not an accident of nature, nor an act of God.  It is an act of man – a human choice.  And genocide is not war, itself another human choice – ostensibly a choice with agreed-upon rules.  In genocide there are no rules...”

“Animals could never do this.  Animals can be brutal, but only humans can be rationally cruel.  We can choose anything, we can be anything, we can get used to anything…Only humans can be evil.  Only humans can make this choice.”

And yet, it still seems unexplainable.  What conditions, what circumstances, what accepted lies can produce someone who sees no problem with killing another?  I was in the latrine a few nights ago, and I saw a fly get caught in a spider’s web.  As the spider went over the make sure the fly didn’t escape, I found myself feeling bad for the fly…Now, a spider killing a fly so that it can eat and survive is drastically different than a human being killing another human being because he can.  But, if we have the capacity to sympathize with an insect as it dies, how can we also have the capacity to begin to see other human beings as insects that must be crushed?  And yet, it happens.  Somehow, mass killings, genocides, wars occur, and maybe I am capable of terrible things.  I have not experienced it, and, right now, I cannot understand it.

Maybe that’s good.  Maybe we’re not supposed to understand it.  Maybe we were meant for something more, something higher, something that is so different from oppression, torture, and killing that these things should be incomprehensible to us.  Over the past week, as I have spent my evenings immersed in this book, something different has dawned on me in the darkness of the night.  I’ve started getting into the habit of going outside right before going to bed, just to look up at the sky and take in all of the stars.  Especially on nights when the power is out, I can see so many stars, just by walking out of my door.  It’s absolutely beautiful, and it reminds me of our true situation in this universe.  We are really very, very small.  I’m looking up at millions and millions of tiny lights that are actually massive stars almost as big as, just as big as, or bigger than our sun, which is many, many times larger than this little planet.  And those are just the stars I can see from earth.  There are millions more out there in the Milky Way Galaxy, which, by the way, is just one galaxy of many in the universe.  And then you have the theoretical physicists who think that this universe is just one dimension among many.  And here we are, a tiny speck on a tiny needle inside of a huge haystack.

In other words, considering that we have no idea what the heck else is out there, we are all a lot more similar than we might sometimes think.  From humans to animals to plants to fungi to algae to protozoa to bacteria, we are all in this together, and a lack of respect even for the environment that we inhabit, not to mention another person or animal within that environment, adversely affects everything.  By ourselves, we can’t comprehend the full complexity of the entire natural system within which we live, but, even in our incomprehension, we can realize certain things about ourselves.

The director of the organization I’m working with recommended that I read a book called Principles, by Ray Dalio, the founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates.  While there is a lot in there that I’m not in total agreement with, I do like how he describes nature.  He writes, “Nature is both beautiful and practical.  Its perfection and brilliance staggers me. When I think about all the flying machines, swimming machines, and billions of other systems that nature created, from the microscopic level to the cosmic level, and how they interact with one another to make a workable whole that evolves through time and through multi-dimensions, my breath is taken away. It seems to me that, in relation to nature, man has the intelligence of a mold growing on an apple—man can’t even make a mosquito, let alone scratch the surface of understanding the universe.”

Maybe we can’t understand the universe (although it would be pretty cool if we could), but our not understanding can lead to subsequent realizations.  First, as I’ve said already, we might realize that we’re not as different as we think we are.  Sometimes, as I’m walking the streets of Kalisizo, I feel like the only thing others see as they look at me is the color of my skin.  But other times, when I stop and am able to have a conversation with someone, I feel a connection that goes far beyond anything related to external appearance.  We care about the same things, we want our friends to be safe and happy, we want children to have good teachers, and we want to learn from each other.  Just in the space of a few minutes, or even a few seconds, we can move beyond seeing another person as “the other,” and we can start to see an individual who is cut from the same cloth as we are.

Second, in our lack of understanding, we might come to understand that we are standing on hallowed ground.  As I was gazing up at the stars one night, a feeling came over me that I usually experience listening to or playing a beautiful piece of music, seeing a beautiful landscape, or witnessing a truly life-affirming church service that calls us to action.  I slipped off my flip-flops, because, on my little concrete veranda, I was standing on holy ground.  Whatever you believe, the universe’s most beautiful work of art, the universe itself, shows us that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves; that we, and everything else in the universe, are meant for something much higher.  We might not know what that something is, but we know that we are striving for something, working toward something, and we are doing it in conjunction with everything and everyone around us (“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” – 1 Cor 13:12).  And we might start to realize that, maybe, we can get closer to that something by lifting others up, instead of pushing others down to prop ourselves up, and that, by lifting others up, we ourselves will also naturally rise higher.

Third, we might realize that, while injustice, violence, and destruction may be incomprehensible, they must also be intolerable.  Orbinski writes, “There is no right balance between life and death when life is possible.  There is no right balance between justice and injustice when justice is possible.”  And it is our responsibility to speak out against death and injustice, questioning any systems and structures that allow them.  Again, Orbinski remarks, “The only crimes equaling inhumanity are the crimes of indifference, silence, and forgetting.”

One of the things I love most about the Old Testament prophets in the Bible is their honesty, not only with the people around them, but also with God.  And they are not afraid to question why things are the way they are, even as they talk directly to God.  The book of Habakkuk begins with these words: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrong?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.  Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.  The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted…Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.  Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?  Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:2 – 4, 13).  This is a passage, I think, that could be directly applied to the Rwandan genocide without changing a word.

In another case, the majority of the book of Job consists of the title character asking God why he is afflicted so severely.  Following a huge discussion between Job and his “friends” (who are not all that friendly), God finally answers with a majestic monologue about the vastness and complexity of the universe.  Some scholars call this a non-answer, which has some merit, since God doesn’t give Job an explicit explanation for why he suffers.  But maybe God’s answer is a “non-answer” because there is no answer.  In other words, many people suffer, but they don’t deserve it.  Many people are oppressed, but it’s impossible to understand how the oppressors have gotten to this point.  Suffering and injustice are sometimes unexplainable, but must always be intolerable.  One of my favorite interpretations of the book of Job suggests that the specific content of God’s answer is not what is truly important in this context.  Rather, it is the simple fact that God did answer Job.  God answered Job, who was talking to God, rather than Job’s friends, who were trying to talk about or for God.  God answered Job, who was protesting suffering and injustice, rather than Job’s friends, who were trying to explain, understand, and justify suffering and injustice.  God answered Job because he had the right idea.  You can’t always explain injustice and suffering; you can’t always understand it; but you can speak out against it.  You can refuse to keep silent when you witness it.

We do this because we are all in this together.  Because every rock, every tree, every creature (hmm…apparently I’m now citing Pocahontas) has inherent value, just by existing, and contributes to the whole, which encompasses all that is in existence.  By doing this, by listening to the voices of the oppressed, remembering them, and speaking up for them, maybe we can create a future that is free of genocide, free of injustice, and full of love and compassion.  Maybe we can move, together, towards that something for which we strive, even if we don't know exactly what it is.  “The creation waits in eager expectation…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19a, 21).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Slowly Settling In, Some Statistics, and Friends, Old and New

Well, it’s been a bit over a week since I took the plunge and headed off to my site in Kalisizo.  I think this first week has gone pretty well, although getting settled in does take a little while.  I’m slowly accumulating all of the stuff I need to survive over the next two years…I now have a bunch of bowls (that I attached some simple covers to) for food storage, a set of shelves in the kitchen for putting those bowls of food, spices, dishes, and other random food-related items, a nice little stool that I will probably use as a place to put my water filter (more on that later), a cover for the latrine, a bucket of wood chips from a local carpenter to pour down the latrine to help with smells and bugs, and a pretty decent supply of food.  Oh, and I also have an order in at another carpenter’s shop for two chairs (so you’ll have a place to sit if you come and visit!).

As for the water situation (this paragraph is mainly for those concerned about my health), the tap in my compound still doesn’t work most of the time (though it was working for a bit one day, and I filled up the two Gerry cans that I had at the time), but I almost have my entire water storage and treatment scheme set up and ready to go.  I bought a big 220 liter (about 60 gallon) plastic tank so that, once the tap does start working, I can fill that thing up right away and have a reliable extra supply that will last for a while.  Then, I have a 20 liter Gerry can that I’ll fill up and let sit for several hours, allowing any relatively big junk to settle to the bottom.  From there, I’ll pour the water (except for the junk at the bottom) into a simple water filter.  Peace Corps medical issued all of us these “porcelain candle filters” that can catch just about anything bigger than bacteria and viruses (and there are things bigger than bacteria and viruses that we need to worry about).  I took a big plastic bottle, melted a hole in the bottom by using my propane stove to heat up a bit holder that I then basically just pushed through the plastic.  Then, I bought a slightly smaller bucket and a tap, had a guy in town fix the tap into the bucket so that it was sealed, fixed the candle filter into the bigger bucket using the little hole, and put the big bucket on top of the smaller bucket.  It works…the water goes through really slowly, but it works.  Then, I take the water from that, fill up a bunch of plastic bottles, and stick them out in the sun all day to get some disinfection action happening (I talked about the technical aspects of this a little while ago).  If done for long enough, this should get rid of anything else in the water.  I’d like to do this with all of the water I use, and then, for drinking water, I’m going to add in an additional chlorine disinfection step, just to be excessively safe.  I still need to figure out exactly how I’m going to work in that chlorine step at the end, but it will happen somehow.

For food, the selection in town is pretty good.  I can get lots of veggies and fruits at the market (tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes, eggplant, peas, oranges, passion fruit, pineapple, papaya, avocadoes, and all sorts of varieties of bananas…and it’s not even mango season yet).  I can also get bread, rice, and eggs in town, and I’ve found some pretty good local peanut butter, and some jam from Kenya.  I could also get meat if I wanted, but, at least when I’m cooking for myself, I’m planning on being a vegetarian for the next two years.  Dry beans are also readily available, but they take a long time to cook, and I can buy canned beans in Masaka, the big town about a half an hour away.  In Masaka, there are also different types of pasta, spices, and cheese (yay), and there are even a couple restaurants where I could get a cheeseburger, if I really wanted…So, the point here is that I can definitely eat a nicely balanced and filling diet.

In addition to picking up all of this stuff, trying to make friends with some of the shop owners, carpenters, hardware store owners, and motorcycle drivers, and piecing together from some people in town the big news about Qaddafi (by the way, how many different ways have you seen that name spelled?), I also did a little work this week, amazingly enough.  I was working with my counterpart Max a lot, making the beginnings of a marketing plan for the brick business (not that I have any idea what I’m doing when it comes to making marketing plans), seeing some of the masons working on a rainwater tank, and working on getting a big job over in the southwest part of the country.  I didn’t do too much with Peruth, because she was in Kampala most of the week…she’s on her 35th week of pregnancy, so she’s got a lot of stuff to be thinking about right now.  I actually feel like it was fairly productive for my first week…but there’s a lot to be done in the coming weeks…

Finally, after the Friday afternoon Skype call with the Positive Planet director in New York, a great weekend began.  A friend from my church back in Pennsylvania who works with Compassion International, Kevin, is in Uganda now for an East African staff training, and he decided to spend the weekend in Kalisizo with me.   Over the course of Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday, I showed him around the town (as much as I could after being here a week), we walked miles searching in vain for a Compassion project nearby, we had some good food (in my opinion, anyway), and we went to a big Catholic Church service on Sunday.  This was finally my first church experience in country…up until now I’ve been so beat by the time Sunday rolls around that I’ve just wanted to sleep and relax…anyway, I obviously hadn’t done my research.  The service we went to was a “children’s service,” with about 10 adults and almost 1,000 kids (seriously, Kevin was counting)…not that it’s a bad thing.  It was kind of fun to be completely surrounded by the little ones in the middle of the sanctuary.

By the way, let me interject some statistical info here.  I recently got a letter that asked about religions in Uganda, and I realized that I haven’t really given you any sort of general overview or statistics about the country.  So, here’s some info (all from our PC training, actually), if you’re interested:

Some important political dates: 1850 – people from Europe began coming to the region that would eventually become Uganda; 1862-1864 – Egypt attempts to colonize Uganda (because it contains the source of the Nile…the attempt failed); 1884-1885 – The Berlin Conference (when European nations divided up Africa for themselves…no input from the Africans, obviously…the Ugandan area went to Great Britain); 1894 – Uganda becomes a British colony; 1962 – Uganda gains independence after a period of political weakening of the British colonial government; 1966 – Obote ousts Mutesa II and declares himself president; 1971 – Obote is overthrown by Idi Amin (you might have heard of him); 1979 – Amin is pushed out by the military, with assistance from Tanzania and Obote, and Professor Yusuf Lule becomes president; 1980 – Obote is elected and rules again; 1981 – Bush wars begin, with Museveni leading the opposition (he said that the elections were unfair); 1986 – Guerilla war ends and Museveni takes power; 2011 – After ruling for 25 years, Museveni is re-elected again for another five year term

Some cultural info: Uganda contains 56 ethnic groups, falling into four groups (Bantu, Western Nilotics, Eastern Nilotics, and Sudanic).  English is the official language, but Kiswahili and Luganda are also used commonly.  The Ugandan flag has 6 horizontal stripes…2 black, 2 yellow, and 2 red.  Black stands for Africa, yellow symbolizes the sunshine, and red symbolizes brotherhood or blood.  Along with the central government, Uganda also contains six traditional kingdoms, and loyalty to a kingdom or tribe often plays a big role in politics, finding jobs, etc.  As for religion, Uganda is predominately Christian.  Catholics make up 42% of the population, Anglicans comprise 36%, Pentecostals make up 4.6% and Adventists comprise 1.5% (for a grand total of 84% of the population being Christian).  After that, 13% are Muslims, 1% subscribe to traditional religions, and 2% fall under some other umbrella.

Some info related to population, health, and economics: Uganda’s population stands at about 34 million, with about 1.5 million people in Kampala.  And the population is growing fast…the country has the 2nd highest population growth rate in the world, a Ugandan woman gives birth, on average, 6.7 times, and 50% of the population is under 15 years of age.  Unemployment is currently around 35%.  Life expectancy in 2008 was 52 years, HIV prevalence is currently around 6.5% (though malaria is actually the leading cause of morbidity and mortality), and 75% of the disease burden is preventable.  Economically, agriculture dominates, employing over 80% of the workforce.  Much of this is subsistence agriculture, but some commercial agriculture also takes place (allowing me to go to the market and buy all kinds of veggies and fruits).  Major exports are coffee, cotton, tea, tobacco, flowers, and fish, and other major economic activities include fishing (there is that big lake), raising cattle, brick making, trading, and transportation.

Whew, all right, back to the weekend story.  Throughout Kevin’s entire visit, I think we had some great conversations about the work I’ll be doing, the work that Kevin’s done (he’s spent a lot of time in Bangladesh, and now works all over the world), the role of faith in development, development work in general, and stuff happening back on the home front.  He had also brought along two bags filled with stuff from home: lots of canned food, shirts, some books, a hammer, and some other helpful things.  At least 80% of the stuff was stored inside socks (apparently Mom’s favorite way to pack things)…so, if nothing else, I know I will not experience a shortage of socks (especially considering the fact that I have been wearing sandals almost exclusively for the past ten weeks).

Along with all of that stuff, I also got some nice notes from friends and family back home, which I really enjoyed reading, and Mom had packed a few framed pictures (in pillowcases this time, not socks) that are very special to me.  One was the mural painted at Bucknell commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bucknell Brigade in Nicaragua, one was a framed verse from Revelation that I think applies pretty well to the work I’ll be doing (“To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life”), and there were a few pictures of very close friends…friends from home, and friends from college.  I’m going to assume that you probably know who you are…I was thinking about you a lot on Friday night.  Just let me say that I miss you and love you very, very much, and that there are many times when I wish that you could be here with me.  But, I know that you’re all doing wonderful things in all sorts of places, and that makes me feel pretty happy.

One of my closest friends has a very special place in her heart for kids, and that brings me to my last story for this post.  Kevin left town after lunch on Sunday, needing to get back to Kampala for the training this coming week.  (Oh, by the way, he took a whole lot of pictures, so if my amazingly descriptive writing style just doesn’t work for you, find him…or find Mom, who I’m sure will have the pictures very soon after Kevin returns to the states next weekend.)  Anyway, I got Kevin situated on a bus back to Kampala (which hopefully didn’t take 3 hours to fill…he was the first person on it, I think), and then took a back way back to my house.  As I was walking through a field, I ran into some kids playing football (soccer) with a volleyball.  At this point, some of my friends from high school will be cringing, because doing anything with a volleyball besides playing volleyball is, of course, a cardinal sin.  So, I decided to rectify the situation, and I showed the kids how to use their hands instead of every other part of their bodies.  As other kids walked by and saw the Mzungu standing in a circle with a bunch of kids passing around a volleyball, we ended up with a pretty big group of volleyball players and fans (all under the age of 12).  That was a very fun way to spend 30-45 minutes, and I think the kids enjoyed it too.  Now, they’re still significantly better at football than at volleyball, but maybe I’ve set the wheels in motion to build capacity for a Ugandan national volleyball team…maybe.

On a more serious note, you might remember a post a while back where I talked about a burial site for victims of the Rwandan genocide…well, my next post is going to revisit this topic.  I’m reading a book right now called An Imperfect Offering – Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, by Dr. James Orbinski, a former president of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), and I’m working my way through a 95-page chapter on his time in Rwanda during the genocide.  Sometimes, I actually have to stop and catch my breath, because the stories are so horrendous, heart-wrenching, and disturbing.  I had a similar feeling when I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, about his time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.  Anyway, I’m going to be thinking about this a lot over the next few days, and my next post is going to focus on those thoughts.  Writing helps me to process, and I’m just going to need some kind of outlet after reading through this first-hand account of a terrible atrocity that occurred less than 20 years ago…I was alive when this happened.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Trained, Sworn In, and On My Own (well, sort of)

I’m sitting in my bedroom typing this after my first weekend at my now-official Ugandan home in the town of Kalisizo (in case you missed it before, that’s in Rakai District, near the Tanzanian border and Lake Victoria…you can see it on the Uganda map).  A lot happened last week to get me to this point, so I’ll start at the beginning.

Me and Hosea in my room at homestay
Last Monday (by the way, in Uganda, it’s generally accepted that the week starts on Monday) was the day before we left Wakiso town (our training site) to go to Kampala.  Since we needed to get up really early on Tuesday to leave, I said my good byes to my host mom and dad, and their little grandchild (Hosea, made internationally famous a few blog posts ago).  They were all very excited about the presents I had brought for them.  For Hosea, there were four picture books that I had already started going through with him a few weeks before, including “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “The Grouchy Ladybug,” “The Tiny Seed,” and “Goodnight Moon.”  They’re trying to teach him English, and he was getting pretty good at picking out some of the different pictures in the books and saying their names (tree, flower, bug, leaf, sun, moon, etc.).  Just about every day after I’d get home, Hosea would follow me into my room and would start leafing through those books, pointing at the pictures and telling me what they were.  So, I’m thinking he liked his gifts.  I also gave a nice set of three kitchen knives to my parents, along with a book full of pictures of Pennsylvania, to give them some idea of what my state looks like.  (It’s hard enough to say “Pennsylvania,” let alone finding it on a map or knowing how it looks.)  Anyway, it was a lot of fun explaining some of the pictures in the book, because they were photos of trees, mountains, rivers, etc., all grouped by season.  So, I got to explain winter, spring, summer, and autumn, and I got to see their expressions when we got to the pictures full of snow and ice (it starts to get “cold” here when the sun goes behind a cloud and the temperature drops below 80).  I also gave them a really nice note that my parents had written (okay, they had written an email and I handwrote it), thanking my homestay parents for taking care of me over the past few months.  I read the whole letter to them, and there were many, many expressions of gratitude and appreciation from my host parents.  Unfortunately, the power went out just as I was finishing reading the note, and so it was too dark to figure out how to take any pictures.  But, there is a pretty nice one of me and Hosea in my room from a week or so ago…

So, on Tuesday morning, we left Wakiso town early in the morning to head into Kampala.  We spent the morning at the US Embassy, meeting with the Deputy Ambassador, the USAID Director in Uganda, and a few others.  I actually really enjoyed listening to all of the things that are going on in this country.  After that, we headed over to the Peace Corps office to have lunch (subs from a deli called Quality Cuts…very yummy), sign some forms, tour the office, and find out how we did on the language interviews.  And…I passed, with an Intermediate Mid score, which I was pretty happy about.  (Although I’m trying to think of this as a starting point, rather than an ending point…because I need to keep getting better.)  And, finally, we went to a hotel just outside of the city, where we would spend the next couple of days, having a workshop with our Ugandan supervisors.  Actually, my supervisor couldn’t come, so Peruth, one of my counterparts, came and represented Positive Planet at the workshop.

This hotel was really nice, by the way.  Once again, the rooms had hot showers, comfy beds, and nice, flush toilets (which came in handy as I dealt with another wonderful bout of diarrhea…our group has had quite a few cases of this nice little ailment, enough that it has been given a nickname…pee-butt.  Perhaps that was extra information you didn’t need).  Anyway, it was very nice, and the food was delicious…sort of Americanized Ugandan cuisine.

Finally, Thursday was the big day.  After lunch, we all piled into buses on last time together to head for the Deputy Ambassador’s house, where we would be sworn in (officially changing designation from Peace Corps trainees to Peace Corps volunteers).  It was a very nice ceremony (and an incredibly nice house, by the way…no bucket baths or pit latrines there), with some guest speakers from the Ugandan government, speeches from the Peace Corps country director, the PC program managers for Community Health and Economic Development, and three representatives from our training group, and a song from one of the language trainers.  There was a little food afterwards, and some time for pictures, and then we headed back to the hotel for one more night, which was definitely bittersweet.  We were all very happy to be done with training and to be getting out into the field, but that also meant that we would need to say goodbye to a bunch of people who we had just lived with for the past 10 weeks.  Let me tell you, 10 weeks does not really seem like a long time, but, when you spend almost every waking minute with people, you can get pretty close to them pretty quickly.  And it was kind of tough as the people who needed to leave really early on Friday morning went to bed, and, after being one of the last five people sitting by the pool, I eventually said good night and went up to bed myself.  I did get to see a bunch of people the next morning, as we were waiting for our rides to our sites.  I’m lucky in the fact that I’ve got about six other people who are stationed within an hour or so of me, so we had all went in together to hire a big coaster (one of the larger mini-buses) that could carry us and all of our stuff.  So, when that finally arrived, there were a bunch of people who I didn’t yet have to say goodbye to.  It was still tough saying bye to the others, though.  But, it’s going to be okay, because we will all see each other again soon enough.  There are plans in the works for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc., and, in January, we have our three-month In-Service Training, when we’ll all definitely be together again.

Luganda Language Group at Swearing-In with our two wonderful teachers, Herbert and Ven
After leaving the hotel, we made pretty good time getting to my site (I was the first stop), and I had about a half an hour before a Skype meeting with Peruth and Marc, the director of Positive Planet, who lives in New York.  So, let’s just say I had tons of time to settle in…or, I plopped all of my bags down in the middle of my main room, found the computer, sat down, turned it on, skimmed through the meeting agenda, and started talking to Marc and Peruth.  On Saturday, I had yet another Skype meeting, this time with Marc and Max, my other counterpart.  Needless to say, we’re kind of jumping headfirst into this.  Basically, we talked about where things were currently, and how I should sit down with both Max and Peruth over the next week and come up with a work plan for the next few months.  Okay, it doesn’t sound like we talked about that much when I write it like that, but there was actually a bunch of important stuff.  In the free time between meetings, I tried to unpack and organize as much as possible, pick up food in town so that I wouldn’t starve, and buy a few more things that I needed in my house, like small buckets for food and a mattress for the bed.  Oh, and the water tap in my compound wasn’t working, and I needed some more water for washing dishes and things like that, so I decided to take a big 20 liter jerry can outside and find a well or something.  I ran into a guy and asked him where I could find some water, and he agreed to show me, and carry my jerry can there and back, all for the equivalent of like 35 cents.  Anyway, we descended this long set of steps (the elevation change had to be at least a couple hundred feet) and came to some pretty disgusting-looking pools of water at the bottom.  Some kids were filling their containers up there, but the guy I was withed went past these and stopped at another pool, with much clearer water.  At some point in the near future, I need to figure out where that water’s coming from (natural spring, runoff, etc.), but anyway, after this very helpful man had filled my container, he said, “Not for drinking.”  Yeah, no kidding.  That decision had been made long ago in my head.  Luckily, I had enough water left over from the trip to hold me for a few days as I figure out a treatment scheme for drinking water.

On Sunday, I spent the morning doing some work, writing up a summary of the meeting between me, Max, and Marc, and coming up with a list of the “next steps” for the coming weeks.  Then, in the afternoon, I headed to Masaka (a big town about 30 kilometers north of Kalisizo), where five of the new volunteers in the area were meeting one of the volunteer’s American supervisors for lunch.  We went to her house, where we had some really good burgers and brownies (hard life, right?).  She and her partner had been living in Uganda for several years, and they had started a business focused on making and distributing “Afri-pads,” which are washable and reusable feminine hygiene products.  They had seen a need when they discovered the large number of girls who were frequently missing school because they didn’t have something affordable, and this product is something that can meet that need.  They’re really great people, and it was really nice spending the afternoon with them.  By the way, they also have a very nice house, and a wonderful view.  If I haven’t said it yet, this area is really beautiful, and their house is up on top of a hill, with a great view of a valley and more hills beyond.

So, now, my first “work week” starts tomorrow morning (even though I’ve spent the weekend doing some work already), and I’m definitely excited to really get going.  I think I’m working with good people, and there are several friends who are relatively close by.  Yeah, I feel pretty fortunate at this point, considering everything.  What’s coming next?  I’m not sure, at this point.  But the real “Peace Corps experience” starts now…

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Technical Immersion Week Part 2 – Compost, Cows, Bricks, and a Graduation Party

The back of the composting latrines at the school in Kasensero

All right, picking up where I left off last time, we were heading to a fishing village on Lake Victoria called Kasensero during technical immersion, when we stopped at a Rwandan Genocide Burial Site.  After leaving the memorial, we headed on to the village, where we visited an orphanage/school for HIV/AIDS orphans.  (As a side note, “HIV/AIDS orphan” refers to any child who has lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.)  Colin, our volunteer leader, and his Ugandan counterpart, Joseph, had worked with the Ugandan Red Cross to build a set of “eco-sanitation latrines.”  Another term for these is “composting latrines,” and the idea is that, given the right conditions and enough time, the stuff coming out of us that we consider to be “waste” can actually be composted and used as a resource.  That stuff has a pretty big amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in it, two nutrients that many crops need to grow.  The main difficulty with these latrines is that they’re pretty tough to operate completely correctly.  For proper composting, you need a certain ratio of carbon to nitrogen (you need lots more carbon…about 20 to 30 times as much as nitrogen), whereas the ratio in human “waste” is tilted toward the nitrogen end too much.  So, other, carbon-rich materials, like sawdust or charcoal ash, need to be added to bump up that ratio.  To relate this to a normal compost pile that you might have out in your backyard, much of the food waste that is thrown in that pile in nitrogen-rich, and other stuff, like dried leaves, needs to be added to boost the carbon.  Some people describe the ratio in terms of “greens,” or nitrogen-rich materials, and “browns,” or carbon-rich materials.  So, that carbon-rich stuff needs to be added to the latrine after each use, and the right amount needs to be added.   

Kasensero fishing boats on the shores of Lake Victoria
Plus, if you have a compost pile, you probably know that you need to mix it up every now and then, to get some oxygen flowing through there, since composting is an aerobic process (meaning that it needs oxygen to work).  So, the stuff in these latrines also needs to be mixed, and I assume that some of you (maybe all of you) are turning your nose up a bit at this point.  Here’s how it generally works.  These latrines are built so that the hole is elevated, and the stuff ends up in a compartment that’s above the ground surface.  The structure should always have at least two stalls, because only one is in use at a time.  While one is being used, the other sits, full of composting stuff, and this is when the mixing happens.  The compartment generally has a back door that can be opened up, so that a shovel or pitchfork or something can be used to mix it up.  And, if the composting process is working well, the stuff shouldn’t smell or look disgusting or anything.  The issue is, it’s often hard to operate these things exactly like that, and the composting doesn’t always happen exactly as it should…For example, when Colin opened up one of the back doors, apparently the stuff was a bit more potent than it should have been.  I didn’t get to see or smell, because I was on the other side taking a picture…

Weed Control Project on the Kagera River
Well, now that I’m sure I’ve grossed at least some people out, we’ll move on.  While visiting the fishing village, we also went a bit further south along the lake to where the Kagera River (the one with the bodies from the genocide) meets the lake.  At this point, we were also apparently just a stone’s throw away from the Tanzanian border.  Now, there is a joint project being undertaken by Uganda and Egypt to clean out weeds from this river before they enter the lake (Lake Victoria is considered to be the source of the Nile River, hence Egypt’s interest).  On the banks of the river, we also saw a big herd of cattle, with some pretty massive horns.  Being the grandson of a farmer, I took a few pictures of these guys.

Huge-horned cattle near the Kagera River
After all of that, we had some lunch in the village (oddly enough, we couldn’t find fish in a fishing village…settled for some standard rice and beans), went back to the orphanage/school, where the kids put on a little drumming and dance show for us, and then began heading back.  Along the bumpy, potholed, dirt road, we got a flat tire.  This was actually a stroke of luck for me, because I was really needing a bathroom break at that point.  At any rate, they got the spare on pretty quickly and, once we got back onto the paved road, we stopped at a gas station to get a real tire.  We made it back safely, which we could probably consider a successful trip.

Our tech immersion group in front of the Kagera River
The next day (Wednesday of last week), we met with one of my Ugandan counterparts, Max, who talked to us about the interlocking soil brick business that I’ll be working with, and we went to check out a few rainwater tanks, two that were still under construction, and one that was finished.  After that, we headed back to town and watched some of the masons actually making these bricks using the brick press.  I tried to get some good pictures.

A rainwater tank under construction
We finished up around lunch time, but a few members of our group were feeling pretty sick, and, after I had gotten lunch in town, I picked up some supplies for peanut butter, banana, and jelly sandwiches (yep, I was actually able to find all of those in town) for Jake, whose stomach was not having a good day.  After bringing that back for him, we spent the afternoon in our hotel room, watching some episodes of The West Wing on Jake’s laptop.  (Side note…that’s a great show.  I’m kind of ticked I didn’t watch it when it was actually on TV.  Then again, I probably appreciate it more now.  Anyway, I downloaded a bunch of episodes from another volunteer, and I’m kind of hooked.)  We had dinner at the hotel that night, and I ordered fish and chips, not really knowing exactly what would be presented to me.  Well, there was a big pile of fries, and a big fish.  Yes, an entire fish.  Its tail was there, its fins, its scales, its head.  And I dug in, having to use my hands most of the time to pull the meat off of the bones, pop the head off, rip off the tail, etc.  It was actually really, really good, and all that was left at the end was a spinal column, some other assorted bones, some of the head, the tail, and the fins.  Definitely one of the most satisfying meals in Uganda so far.  Sadly, no camera for this occasion.

A completed tank (that's Max next to it)
Maybe I have now grossed you out twice, so, moving on again, we headed back to Wakiso on Thursday, no big problems there, and spent the rest of the week in training.  On Sunday, one of my host family’s sons, Ronnie, was having a party with four friends because they had all graduated from college.  I think Ronnie’s degree was in Travel and Tourism.  My whole family went, including me.  Oh, as a short tangent, I sometimes get a kick out of “Ugandan time”.  I was eating lunch around 2 or so (meals are generally significantly later than ours), and my host dad walks by, saying, “Hurry, hurry, we will be late!”  So, I pick up the pace a bit, finish up, and get some nicer clothes on.  I come out of my room, ready to go, my host dad sees me, and he says, “Oh, you are ready?  We will go now.”  Promptly an hour later, the family piles into the car and drives off to Kampala, heading to a church where the party was being held.

Making a brick...looks like hard work
Anyway, the party was very interesting, and very long (not helped by the fact that the cold I would be battling for the rest of the week was beginning that day).  There were two MCs, and the five graduates sat at a head table by themselves, above everyone.  I think three of the graduates gave speeches (and they were pretty long speeches), and what struck me the most was just how genuinely thankful and aware they were of all of the people who had helped them along the way, from parents, to siblings, to friends, to teachers.  We’ve talked a decent amount in training about the cultural differences between Uganda and the USA (making big generalizations, of course), and one of the things that comes up a lot is the community-centered focus of Ugandan culture.  This graduation is not the accomplishment of only one person.  It is an accomplishment for the entire support system surrounding that person.  A few of the graduates showed this idea very well when they called their parents up, took off their caps and gowns, and put them on their parents.  It was really pretty moving, and it made me think a lot about my own support system, both here and in the USA.  Pretty soon, this group of trainees will be “graduating” from training in and going out to their individual sites.  A lot of us have become pretty close over the past several weeks (that is probably bound to happen when you spend this much time with a group of people), and I’m definitely going to be missing folks as I head off to my house in Kalisizo.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m ready to go and do stuff, but it will be different, and maybe tough, not having these friends around.  And, of course, on top of all of that, I thought about all of you back in the USA.  The graduates said many times that they would not be up there without their supporters, and I feel the same way.  I would not be where I am right now, doing what I think and hope is right, without all of you.  Your influence, your challenges, your support, and your guidance have pushed me to this point, and I thank you for it.  Who knows how I’ll feel a month, a year, or two years down the road, but, right now, I feel like I’m in the right place, and I want to be here.

There it is!
One of the questions our language teachers told us might be asked during our language proficiency interviews was along the lines of, “Do you prefer living in America or living in Uganda?”  This is a freaking hard question to answer in English, let alone Luganda.  Thinking about it the night before my interview, I came up with a response that was more or less, “I don’t want to choose, but right now, even though I miss my friends and family in America, I prefer living in Uganda, because I think that I will be able to do good work here.”  More or less.  Speaking of the interview, that happened this past Thursday, and I don’t know the results yet.  I think it went okay.  I felt like I understood most or all of the questions (eventually), and answered relatively well.  I occasionally screwed up verb tenses and noun/adjective agreement, but I think I was able to realize just about every mistake and either said the next verb in the correct tense, or went back and corrected the adjective to make it match the noun.  What’s still very annoying to me (and I probably shouldn’t be expecting too much at this point, considering it’s only been 9 weeks, and I’ve never studied a language enough to become anywhere close to fluent before), is that I’m just really, really slow.  If you’ve had any decently-sized conversations with me, you probably know that it takes me a while to process a question and formulate an answer, in English.  Then, add to that the additional steps involved in a second language, and we’re left with a very long process of hearing words in Luganda, translating to English, figuring out how to respond in English, making sure I have the vocab and grammar to say that in Luganda, actually translating to Luganda, and then saying it with halfway decent pronunciation.  Let’s just say it’s a lot of, “Ummmmmm, Luganda word, ummmmmm, Luganda word, etc…”

But, after the interview, I did find out that my language teacher, who was doing the interview, knows that I’ve been working very hard on it.  As she said, “I hope you keep studying, so that you don’t lose it.  Because I know you’ve struggled for it, and I don’t want you to lose it.”  So, maybe that’s a good sign.  Yeah, that will be my story until I get the results.

Looking ahead, we’re scheduled to leave our homestays and head into Kampala on Tuesday morning, and we’ll spend the next couple of days at a hotel.  The swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for Thursday.  Oh, and in terms of my health, the cold has moved from my stomach (though I didn’t get diarrhea this time) to my chest to my neck to my nose, and now it’s stubbornly hanging out in my head.  I’m wasting a lot of toilet paper blowing out all of the junk in my nose.  Admittedly, I think that made the language interview a bit harder, since my hearing and attentiveness were probably a little impaired, but I don’t think it was that big of a deal.  I even worked that into one of my answers a little bit.  I’m thinking it should be completely gone in another couple of days, and it hasn’t been that bad anyway…please don’t worry!