Monday, August 27, 2007

Getting close with the people here

I don’t like going to Kampala, the capital city. There are several reasons for this. Long gone are they days when I could just hop into my car and drive wherever and whenever I felt like it. Now that I’m a PCV, there’s public transportation. While it differs for PCVs from country to country I opt for the bus trip. First I have to get a bus. Busses come along fairly regularly. Every 30-45 minutes or so. This is a good thing. They’re some of the biggest vehicles on the road, which in Uganda means they travel the fastest, which is generally a good thing. Buses make fewer stops than the mini van taxis, which is also a good thing. If I’m lucky I can catch the 4:30am bus (that’s right, 4:30am) which arrives in Kampala around 9:30. 5 hours on a bus. Not bad. (ok, it is, but bear with me) A normal vehicle could make the trip in 4 hours, but buses stop to load passengers along the way so it generally takes at least 6 hours from my site. The 4:30 bus is trying to get to Kampala as soon as possible in order to reload and make a return trip in the early afternoon. Another reason I don’t like buses is because it’s a money making venture for the bus companies, which means they cram as many people into the bus as possible. Normal buses have 2 seats on each side with an aisle in the middle, plenty of leg room and seats that recline. Here it’s 2 on one side, 3 on the other. Fortunately Ugandans have the build of a flute player in a marching band and not that of the starting nose tackle of the football team. Not only do the squeeze extra seats across the bus, they also squeeze in an additional row or two, which means my lanky 6’2” body doesn’t fit into the seat. My knees are pressed firmly against the seat in front of me for the entire 6 hour trip. Once I had something grabbing my ankles and when I looked under my seat I was surprised to find a duck! Occasionally there are also chickens and goats. There’s always the possibility of standing for the entire trip, as the bus conductors overload the buses to make a little bit more money. What surprises me is that they Ugandans never complain about this or demand their money back, though once the police stopped my bus and the driver received a fine of $5 for each individual that was standing, which was less than they price they paid for the trip, so they still made money off the deal. Inevitably the standers end up sitting on my arm rest reducing my already small seat into ½ of what it was. As if those weren’t enough problems there’s always the bus driver who cranks up the radio to it’s highest volume (even if it’s the 4:30 am bus) because he wants to hear it and the only speaker that’s working is in the back of the bus which, of course, is directly over the seat I’m in and it proceeds to play horrendous Ugandan music (though not all of it is bad) that is created by a single individual and a synthesizer to what seems like the same generic background music and beat for every song. Occasionally you’ll get a break from the Uganda music and instead you’ll get a mixture of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Don Williams. Who would have guessed? Once arriving in Kampala the situation doesn’t improve, it gets worse. The bus takes you to the bus park which is grossly overcrowded with people commuting and shopping in that area. It’s notorious for pickpockets and before you even step off the bus you are being hawked by numerous taxi drivers to take you anywhere you want to go. Because you’re white, you obviously have oodles of money and aren’t capable of walking anywhere in the city.

Why I almost went home

Yeah, I almost left. I was seriously thinking about it a month ago. I’ve had down times here before but not like this. I woke up about 10 days in a row and the first thought on my mind was, “Why am I here?”. The fact is sometimes there’s not enough work for me to do and I like to be busy. Another problem is that sometimes my organization doesn’t use what I’ve created for them, and that’s frustrating. I don’t need to stay the entire 2 years here. I don’t need the title of RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) for me to know that I’ve served as a volunteer. I think that what kept me here were the Compassion kids, my friends on staff with Compassion and that I have not made plans for what to do when I get home. I hate to let people down and I just felt like I would really be letting a lot of people down if I left. I know I’m not supposed to worry about what others think, and I wouldn’t let that supersede my decision to come home if that was what I thought was best for me, but it plays a part. Another reason, and please don’t pass judgment too quickly, is the upcoming NFL season. I absolutely love football, especially fantasy football. More than is healthy, but it’s my hobby, my interest and I’m entitled to it. So, I’ve been reading about the Colts and reading fantasy football magazines and scouring the web as often as possible to get ready for my 3 upcoming fantasy football drafts this weekend and it’s helped to pull me out of a funk. So, I’m still here, with no foreseeable plans to leave. I’m busy now painting 3 murals on the walls at Compassion. Uganda, the World and the USA. It’s time consuming, but I’m really enjoying it and it will be something to benefit the kids here, especially to see where their sponsors come from.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

3 days in the village

The following are journal entries from living in a small mud hut with a poor Ugandan family and their 9 children…

I arrived late. Much later than I had intended. It was nearly sunset by the time I made it to their place. Their home is 4.5 miles out of my village and they live way up on top of a small mountain range. Everyone in the area must have known I was coming because I couldn’t remember the way to the house for a minute. I couldn’t remember exactly which footpath went to their house and as I stood at a crossroad (crosspath) one of the guys I had just passed who was turned around watching me called to me and started gesturing to my left.

So I arrived. The father, Alfred, was there to greet me along with 3 of his children, a set of young twins and a younger daughter who I later learned was Samantha Ruth. My director from Compassion, Japheth, came shortly after to ease me into the situation and I’m glad of it. He came with my mattress and blanket but he came to make sure I was settled in alright. It was a good transition with him there. This house is so small. 2 rooms, barely 8ft by 8ft. 11 people (with me it’s 12) sleep here each night. It’s one reason I chose to stay here. I wanted to be here when everyone goes to sleep to see it for myself.

We walked down the path to a small duka (shop) where we met the Local Chairman 1 (LC1, equivalent of a mayor of a small village). I had to meet the local government. I was told that since I was a guest it was customary to introduce me to the LC1. The meeting was brief. There were a number of other villagers who were loitering around the shop, curious as to why a white man was there so late in the evening. Some of them were drunk and were trying to talk to me in Runyankore. I bought some packages of cookies and headed back up to the house. Japheth left and Alfred and I shared a bowl of katogo. Jacob describes katogo as “a bowl of screaming souls”. It’s made of matooke (unripe banana plantain) mixed with about anything else. Sometimes intestines, but usually beans. Mine was with beans. I had intended not to eat any of their food while on my visit for fear of diarrhea, but when offered, I had to eat it.

I then met the rest of the family. Mostly girls. Six of the 9 kids are girls. Deborah is the oldest. She told me she’s 19 but her birth date makes her 20. She looks about 14, probably from years of malnourishment. I asked her if she was in school and she assured me she was. There aren’t any secondary schools around here so I was curious as to what year she was in. P6, she tells me. P6!!?? That’s only 6th grade! You’re 20 and in 6th grade? Janet is the next oldest at 17 and she says she’s in P5! I mean it’s good that they’re in school but why are they so old and in primary school? The rest of the names I’m still learning.

As we ate supper they told me thaty liked to sing, so I had them sing me a song. An hour later I was fighting sleep listening to them singing. They sang quite beautifully. They not only sang but they danced for me. It was really special and I began to realize how blessed I was to have them open their home to me. Japheth was telling me how excited people in the area would be tonight just knowing that I was here. So now we’re singing what seems to be bedtime prayers, led by the mother. I’m in the “boy’s room” for sleeping with Alfred and one of the sons. So the other 9 are in the other room. They’re now all praying very quickly and loudly in the other room. It almost sounds like praying in tongues… no, more like a prayer auction by the speed they’re all using. It’s quite unusual and mildly disturbing to hear as the final sound before I drift to sleep. Oh well. Good night.

August 15th

After simultaneous, auction style, speed prayers, the girls room began remedial lessons in English, reciting what seemed like English dictionary terms and definitions. The light was still on so I guess they were reading them. I’m not sure if it was being done because I was here or what. Annet, the Compassion child who is in P3 is one of the brightest girls in her class (3rd out of 103) and her older sisters seem to know English well.

Shortly after lights out, around 9:30, came the noises. Little pitter patters of feet just inches from my head around my bookbag. Mice or rats, I’m not sure. I’ve got candy and cookies in my bag but they’re well sealed. My mosquito net I slept under doubles as a rat protector, so I wasn’t really worried, but it’s a disturbing noise to hear. I missed having my cat, Akamogo, around. I may sould like a baby by saying this but I would always bring her inside whenever I heard a bump in the night. She’s an expert hunter and she’ll eat anything: mice, rats, birds, bugs. And she’s not fooled by the gekos lose-their-tail trick.

I didn’t sleep well. Normally I’m out like a light within seconds of hitting the hay. Partly due to the noises but partly due to the fact that I was sleeping in a small mud hut with 11 other people in the middle of Africa!

This morning, very first thing, we went to work in the banana plantation. Cutting down dead leaves and laying them in a certain way on the plantation floor. There’s a right way and a wrong way to lay the leaves apparently. My job was to follow with the machete and cut the lower leaves while Alfred used a tool on a pole to cut the higher leaves. He works very hard and we finished on his small plantation in about 2 hours. I’m not used to working so I had blisters on my hands from the machete. I also couldn’t help but wonder what he does the rest of his time. This job took 2 hours and was necessary for the health of the banana trees but it obviously hadn’t been taken care of in months.

Afterwards I was given milk-tea, popcorn and breadsticks. After that it was on to climb the nearby mountain range. I planned on going solo but when I looked back Alfred was following me, so we went together along with the family dog. It was beautiful but hazy and I saw the mountain range I want to hike tomorrow. I’ve seen it before from One Tree Hill. I was struck by how peaceful it was on the hill. Quietly sitting, able to see everythihng while a heard of cows quietly grazed nearby. I could have styed for hours.

I tried to skip lunch and head into town but they had already prepared katogo for me. So I was obligated to eat it. I don’t exactly hate katogo but it’s easily my least favorite food here, and villagers eat it by the truckload. I biked into town to bathe and change. I planned to walk it to see what it’s like but it’s 4.5 miles, 2 hours walking each way, so biking was the better option.

The downside to the experiment is that there’s really nothing for me to do. I sat under a shade tree all afternoon while neighbors came and stared at me. Groups of like 20 neighbors just sitting in the yard watching me flip pages of Moby Dick for hours. Mostly kids. I had a small army of kids follow me anywhere I tried to go. I did manage to see where they fetch water. It's a borehole about ½ km down a steep hell, but not far away at all.

This may sound random but tonight I finally realized why Christmas didn’t feel like Christmas. I thought it was because of the warm weather, ack of snow and lack of Christmas marketing, but I was wrong. I passed out small gifts to all the kids tonight and their eyes lit up just like Christmas time, and then I realized that kids were the missing ingredient for me this year for Christmas. I gave them jump ropes, bandanas, little etch-a-sketches, and twine and beads to make necklaces and bracelets. I also gave them each a tooth brush because oral hygiene was seriously lacking, especially in the younger kids. The older girls had beautiful teeth, however. They were very excited about the gifts. This is a family, after all, that really has nothing. The Purdue Team when they were here visited this same family and brought with them mattresses, blankets, saucepans, mosquito nets, plates and cups. Before that they had only 1 small twin mattress that had been given to Annet from Compassion.

August 16th

I decided to end my visit this morning. I had spent 2 nights there and had seen all I wanted to see. I gave the family $25 for keeping me and they were instructed not to use it to buy any food or anything for me. Instead Alfred used it to buy 2 large trees which he’ll later cut down and use to build a new house for his family. They had some ironsheets that they had purchased from little money the Purdue Team had given to them. So with $25 and some hard work Alfred will be able to build a bigger house, minus the roof, for his family.

It was an interesting time with the family. It was tough to sleep at night with the noises as well as the young kids waking up at all hours of the night and Alfred yelling at them to go back to sleep. The kids woke up early, swept the dirt front yard and washed before going to school. When they returned home from school they fetched water and spent the next several hours preparing supper. There wasn’t any play time for the school kids that I noticed, except for recess at school. I was amazed at how clean they kept themselves. Bathing several times a day and encouraging me to do the same. And really scrubbing themselves down. The took what I would equate to a sponge bath, just washing arms, face and head, but they were immaculately clean. Their clothing was another matter. The kids wore the same clothes every day that I saw them. They had their school uniforms and then they had 1 other set of clothes. They may have had church clothes too, but I didn’t see any.

All in all it was fantastic experience to see what village life is like. I would like to do it again in a month or so with another family and possible go back to help Alfred construct his house.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Living in a mud hut

The plans are set. Later this week I’ll spend 3 night in a mud hut with a very poor African family. I specifically chose this family. They have 9 kids and live in a small 2 room mud hut. When the Purdue group came we bought them mattresses, blankets and a variety of cooking and eating utensils. The father came this morning and we explained that I was coming and that we didn’t want them doing anything extra or out of the ordinary for my arrival. Japheth, my director, even advised me to just show up and not tell them I was coming because they would automatically make preparations for me. The father insisted that they didn’t have anywhere to put me when I came, but that’s why I’m going. I hide myself away in my pseudo-dorm room where I have everything I need. I can successfully shut out Africa and watch movies, listen to music and read books that take me away from this place. Even though I live here I can’t know what it’s like to live as a villager, so for the next few days I’ll be finding out. I’ll take along a mattress, blanket, pillow, bottled water, a notebook and a camera. While there I want to fetch firewood, fetch water, eat matooke and beans (which I’m not all that crazy for) and do any work I can around the place. They have 9 kids, so I’m sure there won’t be a dull moment. And if this is successful I’d like to do it again next month. We’ll see.

“So, how’s the climate in America”

I HATE being asked this question. I get it all the time when I’m first talking to a Ugandan. I hate it because there’s never really a good answer for it. When you tell them that, yes, we have warm weather in America. They’re shocked. They must think we all live in the snow covered tundra and sleep in igloos, I’m not sure. It’s between 60-85 Fahrenheit all year here. They think that’s hot. For them to comprehend temperature extremes of sub zero temperatures with several feet of snow as well as temperatures in triple digets with 100% humidity boggles their minds. They automatically think I’m lying to them. And of course, America is a HUGE country so then I have to go into the explanation that in southern California (the only state most of them know due to Schwartzeneger being the governor) it’s nice most of the year but that in Maine it’s much colder… it turns into an hour long conversation with anyone who asks.

Early Morning Call

One great advantage to living in Africa, as well as one major disadvantage, is the concept of time. I can show up to work 30 minutes early or 2 hours late. No problems. I was planning on having one of my late days when I received a phone call. I rarely answer a call from a number I don’t know because it’s usually a wrong number and it takes the person on the other end of the line a minute or so before they realize that the person they’re talking to not only has a grossly different accent than they have but is also speaking another language. But this time I answered the phone and the man said he was waiting on me at my office. So I got around to bathing and heading over there.

When I arrived there was a well dressed man in his early forties there with a nice looking bag in his hand. He had a serious dimple on his chin which made him remind me of a black John Travolta the entire time I was talking to him. He started in on how he heard that I was staying there and wanted to ask me to help him. He and his wife both had HIV and the wife was suffering from paralysis on her left side and needed to go to the hospital and he wanted me to help. Now anybody who knows me knows that I love to help people. It’s one reason that I’m even here. But when random people show up on my door step asking for money… it’s another thing entirely. And the fact is that I had just dropped half my salary on that Frisbee tourney and I was broke. I told the man that I was sorry but that I couldn’t help him.

I’ve never in my life experienced what it’s like to be viewed as being wealthy before. I’m helping to pay for Bruno’s school fees for him to study tourism and the weekend of the Frisbee tourney he was here and he helped out with it. I almost felt that he was helping out of obligation. I mean, here we’re paying his school fees, he must feel a certain sense of having to do whatever we ask of him. Now Bruno has been a friend of Jacob and I for a year but I feel that I am more of a benefactor who hold some kind of clout over him. It’s just a strange feeling and I’m not sure what to do with it.

Japheth’s home

My director is asking me to donate some money to him to help him build a house. I’m glad to help him, he’s one of my best friends here and he’s not asking for much money, but I was questioning his need for a house.

He owns land near his birthplace on the complete other side of Uganda from here. It’s possible that he’ll take a good job in Kampala some day and have to live there for his work, but nonetheless, he says he needs to build a house even if he never lives there. He says it’s important for a man who is in his early 30s to own a house. For starters, when he gets married he has to have a house to take his wife to. Secondly, when he dies he has to be buried on his own plot of land where his house is. Apparently they don’t believe in cemeteries here. Of course I couldn’t convince him that it’s illogical to build a house that he may never live in, so I told him that I would certainly be willing to help him.

Flying saucer?

I’ve been hearing stories lately that kids all over have been throwing their plates, lids, anything that’s flat and will fly. After our Frisbee tourney I guess there’s been an onslaught of flying saucers. Even at Compassion this Saturday kids were throwing trash can lids back and forth. I’ve created a monster…

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Frisbee Tournament

Ultimate Frisbee Tournament

We held the first ever Ultimate Frisbee Tournament this weekend with the 6 secondary schools in the area. I had to tell them to arrive an hour and a half before the competition was to start to make sure they came on time and still I had a team show up an hour late which forced them to forfeit their first match.

I spent the entire day on Friday getting ready for the competition. I bought 3 50kg bags of wheat posho to use as lines on the field. I had to put a total of 1km of lines down to make 3 Frisbee fields. Fortunately Bruno and some kids who were hanging around, curious about the white man wasting food were available to help. I paid the kids in candy for their help. Bruno told me that they were basically street kids who weren’t in school and stayed ran around town all day. They were quite willing to help, though I think they ended up wearing more powder than they used on the field. I also saw them eating handfuls of it. In retrospect I probably should have bought them food rather than given them sweets. Bruno later told me that some of them stole some of the posho and hid it in the bushes to cook and eat later. It didn’t bother me one bit.

So the day came for the tourney. Slowly the teams began to arrive. The lines that I had worked to hard to put down were barely visible, mostly due to the thick grass. The kids showed up with their teams. Some walking, some in the back of a pickup truck. They all had athletic uniforms on for their respective schools. I paired them up and began the tourney only 30 minutes later that I wanted to begin. One team had failed to show up so I sent someone to check on them. I gave them a half hour extra to arrive, I counted down the time: 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10, 5, 2, 1, 30 seconds… then I gave their opponents the win. Not 2 minutes later I saw them walking around the bend. Too late, I had already called the game, but it was a double elimination tournament so they now had one loss, the same as 2 other teams.

The games proceeded on. The play was a bit sloppy at first but as it went on the kids picked it up and the games were quite interesting. It reminded me of my days of high school football. There were some great deep passes and some diving catches. Some superb defensive plays and good Frisbee management. The girls played well and the weather was sunny and warm. The nearest school even donated a sound system and a DJ, a student, who played local music throughout the competition. After each team played 3 games we broke for lunch and then came back to watch an HIV/AIDS drama that was performed by a local group of adults who all have been tested for HIV, some positive, some negative.

Jacob made some funny observations about the tourney. First, the students would fall down and grab a knee or an ankle if they were fouled. They would roll around in pain for several minutes before getting up and playing again without the slightest limp. Reason: European football. This is how soccer players react when they get fouled. They flop around and pretend to be injured to draw a foul from the ref, and because they watch a lot of Premiership Soccer here, that’s what they did in our Frisbee tourney. And after the injury, if they did leave the field, someone would come over and rub Vaseline on their injured calf or hamstring and within minutes they were miraculously fine.

We did have a problem with students officiating themselves. In the 30+ years of the game of Ultimate, it’s always been played with the players officiating themselves. As Marcus pointed out, that’s because it began in the 60’s by a bunch of hippies. Every single call in the final 2 games became an argument. ‘He was in!’ ‘He was out!’ ‘It was a catch!’ ‘It wasn’t a catch!’ It was like that with every call. They’re supposed to mutually agree on what happened and if they can’t then they just re-do the play. I think it was a combination of it being a new sport and their age as to why they wouldn’t play fairly. It almost ruined the entire competition. Jacob was yelling at them, I was yelling at them. The final game was just one big argument. And to top it off it started to rain. Dark clouds came in from all around. There was lightening. I tried to call the game off but the teachers from the school told me that lightening doesn’t strike people!! Yikes! The lightening wasn’t bad and it was far away, so we kept playing. In the end the team we thought would win did. They received a trophy and a goat for their efforts. And I received a headache and a sun burn for mine…

Making rocks

I spent some time out in the ‘bush’ on Sunday and I happened upon a small rock quary. Very small. As I approached I realized that there were people working there. 6 men using primitive tools to make rocks. One man’s job was to use a ball-pin hammer to break baseball size rocks into marble sized rocks. Another man was using a pry bar (similar to a crow bar) to pry the rocks from the wall. Another man was using a garden rake to sift the rocks. The other guys were sitting in the shade watching. When you have an ample supply of manpower that’s super cheap and machines are super expensive then you give them primitive tools and pay them a dollar a day to do basic work. It’s really amazing.

Road ID

When I was home I bought a bracelet that has my name, my village, the Peace Corps Medical Officer’s number and Jacob’s number on it in case of an emergency. I run up to 20 miles some days and am always afraid that I’m going to get clipped by a vehicle and knocked unconscious. I don’t run with any ID n me so I thought this would be a good thing to have, that is, until I was informed that if I did get hit and knocked out that the villagers would probably steal my bracelet because it looks valuable!!! If, for example, someone is in a car accident, people will rush to the vehicle and make it look like they’re helping, but really they’ll steal whatever they can and leave the person to bleed to death or whatever. They’ll take the phone, watch, wallet, luggage, whatever. Just one more reason poverty needs to be eliminated.