Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Clean-up Time

Christmas in Kampala

I wasn’t sure what to expect for Christmas here in Uganda. Needless to say there wasn’t much hype. It didn’t feel like Christmas without the 2 months worth of advertising and pressure to buy Christmas gifts that the media pounds into our brains. No, Christmas was quiet this year, but still a lot of fun. The PCVs were invited to 4 different ex-pats houses for Christmas. We had some great food and even a gift exchange. It really felt like a normal Christmas party amongst friends, minus having family around, which, let’s face it, that’s what makes Christmas Christmas. We really had a nice time and the ex-pats, who mostly worked at the US Embassy, were so accommodating. Stoops and I even topped it off by being invited to watch the Christmas Day Dal vs Phi NFL game at one of their homes. The game didn’t come on until 1 AM but we managed to stay up for the whole game and it was AWESOME!!

The ex-pats who live here seem to have a pretty sweet gig. They live in beautiful homes which, from my understanding, are provided to them fully furnished with some neat African masks, art, etc. I even heard of one having a cat that came with the house… I was talking with one couple and I was asking if their jobs came together or how that worked. They explained that the Embassy sometimes tries to create a job for the spouse but in the guy’s case they didn’t have anything that interested him so he found a job teaching at an international school.

Clean-up Time

This morning I decided I would start on one of my New Year’s Resolutions. After my morning run and devotions I grabbed a burlap sack that and headed for town. I’m so sick and tired of seeing people just throw trash on the ground here with no regards for what happens to it! I remember a buddy of mine telling me how envious that he was that I would be living in Africa, eating fresh fruits and vegetables and smelling the clean air. The fact is that the fruits and vegetables are often sprayed with DDT and chemical that is thought to cause cancer and the air is filled with the smell of burning trash…

Have you ever wanted to do something but felt strange and almost ashamed to do it. I call it the ‘jumping into cold water’ theory. Jumping into cold water is the easiest thing in the world to do. It takes no special skill or ability to do and once your feet have left the concrete it’s all over. Taking my burlap bag into town to start collecting rubbish was me jumping into cold water. I’ve been wanting to do it for months but have felt silly and ashamed to. My friend Stoops recently wrote me a Christmas letter. It was a super nice letter and just a super nice thing to do. In it he made a statement to the point that he thought that I best resembled a PCV because of my willingness to help people without expecting anything in return. I have my parents to thank for instilling that in me. If there’s anything that they have a great deal in common with each other about it’s that exact thing, which I think is an amazing charisteristic.

So I sucked it up this morning and went into town. Let me share with you what I experienced:

I began in a very poor area on a dirt road just outside of town that I pass every day. There are always a ton of people standing around here and no matter how many times I’ve passed before they always stop and stare at me. The kids there always call me ‘muzungu’ and it’s just an area I would rather avoid but it’s the only rout into town. This is the place I just stopped walking one day and counted 50 people who were watching me at that one moment. On one side of the street is a row of businesses ranging from a bicycle repair shop where there are usually at least a dozen of guys sitting around, only 2 of which are usually working. There are also a slew of “dukas” which are the shops which all carry the same exact things and they are located all over this town, often right next to each other. There is also a herbal medicine shop. Many of these shops are a store in the front and a house in the back. One store sells only bananas and a few fresh vegetables.

That’s what’s on one side of the road. On the other side of the road is a semi-steep embankment of grass and a lot of trash, which I don’t completely understand because there’s a dumpster relatively nearby. Behind the embankment is a small nursery which sells seedlings of eucalyptus trees, tomato plants, flowers, pine trees, etc.

There was a part of me that figured, “OK, if people are going to stare at me all the time then I’m going to try to do something to give them to stare about and maybe even set an example for them to follow.” So I started picking up trash. What I soon discovered was that there was quite a bit more trash than I first thought, and I thought there was a lot! When a society has been throwing away trash for years and years and years and not picking it up… it accumulates! There was trash under the trash, trash under the grass, trash under the dirt! It was everywhere and it was incredibly dirty, as you can imagine. It was mostly plastic bags containing who knows what, often more trash. There were plastic bottles, wash basins, cigarette cartons (though people don’t smoke much here because of the cost, and they sell cigarettes individually). I had my back to the shops as I was picking but occasionally I would glance back to see a slew of eyes watching me, people just standing there staring. I heard my name a couple of times and the word ‘muzungu’.

I hadn’t been there long, maybe 20 minutes or so when a small boy of maybe 5 came up to me with a plastic bag he had picked up from across the road… I almost cried, seriously! Maybe someone had prompted him to bring it to me, maybe not, doesn’t matter. About 5 minutes later he had another plastic bag. Then another. Then a boy of maybe 2 brought me a matchbox and then ran away almost afraid of me. Then a girl brought me a plastic bottle. Each time I thanked them sincerely and smiled with some amazement. At one point a man who looked something like a black Tim McGraw with his goatee brought me 2 plastic bags to use as gloves. (I had searched the town previously and couldn’t find any work gloves). He said to me, “Birungi Munonga” meaning ‘very good’ and smiled. A taxi driver even stopped and asked me what I was doing. “I’m picking up rubbish,” I said. “For what reason?” he wanted to know. “Because it needs to be done,” I replied, and he drove off.

As I was working the trash-men came to collect garbage from a concrete dumpster which was located about 60 meters from where I was working. By ‘trash-men’ I mean a tractor pulling a trailer with 4 guys crowded around the driver. I started hauling my collection to the dumpster.

Maybe I didn’t change the world today and maybe I didn’t teach anyone about the dangers of HIV/AIDS but I did feel like I accomplished something today, and sometimes as a PCV that’s a very needed thing. You know, there’s something about a person of authority and power who humbles themselves to do service work. Whereas I feel like most of the time I have neither authority or power, I know that because of my skin color I am looked upon that way, and in the same way I hope that people felt my need for cleaning up the area as sincerely as I felt it.

Blog Filter

After a great deal of thought, I’ve decided not to protect my blog. I was advised by my country director that password protecting it would better ensure my safety at my site as a ‘soft target’ for terrorist activity, protect the integrity of my organization, the Peace Corps and the United States against my personal opinions by limiting access to only people I had invited to read. There was an incident regarding a PCV posting some opinions about her organization who then read her blog and became upset. I believe that I sensor my topics to my day to day goings-on as a PCV and omit my personal opinions adequately.

Random Factoid

Ugandans say the following words and they all sound exactly the same: hut, hurt, heart, hot, hat, hard. The only way you can tell them apart is from the context of the sentence.


At 04 January, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Post Brian! Sounds like Richard snowblowing all of the neighbors driveway when it snowed! Must've felt good to have some of the little kids following up on your actions. Sounds like you really did make a difference there.......sometimes its the little things.


At 04 January, 2007, Anonymous Jennifer Noble said...

That's an amazing story. I like your New Year's resolution. It sounds like you've already got them interested in cleaning up the area. I look forward to hearing more about it. Happy New Year!

At 07 January, 2007, Blogger Carol said...

Brian, it's like I was there. Thank you so much for posting that. I'm having some rough days lately and to read up on what you're doing has really put things a little bit more into perspective, at least for a little while. Like I said, it's like I was there with you doing that you wrote so well. Bravo, my friend. It was a small act that, I'm sure, was huge in the eyes of those people.


At 08 January, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do not know me but I am friend's with Jen Noble. She shares stories of your work with me from time to time and I finally decided to come to your blog and read for myself. You inspired my husband and I to make a donation to the Peace Corp and I am not saying this to "toot my own horn" so to speak but just to let you know that you are impacting many people and we hope to assist those of you who are overseas working hard with the peace corp. Keep up the good work!

At 14 January, 2007, Anonymous colejive said...

THANK YOU for not password protecting your blog. I'll likely never meet you, but whenever I have time I like to check out what you're up to with PC Uganda. You write the best blogs of anyone there right now...

I hope to do PC Africa starting next fall or winter myself. Thanks for continuing to share


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