PeaceCorps

Celebrating 50 Years of Peace Corps

The east. A beautiful place of green tropical mountain sides speckled with thatch roofed mud brick homes. We gathered to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps Uganda in the town of Tororo.

The first Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) landed at Entebbe International Airport in 1964, swearing an oath to serve as teachers in the rural schools. Today there are 100+ PCVs serving as teaching, health and economic development volunteers in all regions of Uganda.

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Can you find me in the “5”?

How do we commemorate 50 years in eastern Uganda? By celebrating the opening of a new library established by our fellow volunteers at Atiri Secondary School in Tororo. They partnered with Books for Africa and found the grant monies needed to fund the Red Ribbon Library. There were speeches, food, music and even story time. What better way to celebrate volunteering then to read to secondary school children.

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A volunteer returns to Uganda after serving almost 50 years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

We hiked up Tororo rock to watch the African sunset.

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Current volunteers Wayne and Vanessa lead with Country Director Loucine behind them.

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At the top of Tororo Rock with our guide and volunteers Wayne, Josh 1, Brie, Molly, Josh 2 and Teresa.

We played with some fireworks and watched the red moon rise from a hill side cave.

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Fountain fireworks with Josh, Wayne and PC Staff Angela.

But most importantly, we took the time to enjoy each others company. As volunteers we have an undeniable bond to one another and to our communities. This was a time to celebrate the life long friendships that started on these same grounds every year, for the past 50 years.

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Sunset hike with the volunteers from the east. One love, Uganda.

Read more about Peace Corps Uganda here:
http://uganda.peacecorps.gov/content/50th-anniversary-speech

Mud mud mud mud muddy mud.

The truck began to fish tail, slowly creeping towards the gravel ditch running parallel to the road. It was no longer raining but the waters were now steadily flowing down from the surrounding mountains, carving out deep grooves into the dirt path ahead. The water was murky from the debris and orange clay, which was being stirred up by the rushing water.

The woman slowly stepped over the ditch with one foot and learned closely against the hill side to avoid the vehicle. Balancing the heavy bundle of sticks on her head, digging her walking stick into the mud, she was able to prevent herself from slipping. The children quickly scurried off of the mud-slick road, knowing very well that there is no predicting a truck’s path in these conditions.

The driver calmly shifted gears in the bouncing truck just before rolling up his window in preparation for the large pool of water ahead. The truck was just picked up from the washing bay earlier that morning. Now the white truck was layered with orange clay and collecting splatters of black mud across the front window pane.

We were determined to arrive in Mtufu. The village agents were expecting us within the hour, but the collection of mud stuck vehicles on the more popular road lead us to a detour. A local village woman guided us on a rural path where the homes were so close to the dirt road that it felt like we were driving through their front yard. I glanced back to the village woman to find that she too was holding the hand-bar, fist tightly clenched.

Our heads bobbed side to side as we struck the pot holes and bumped around from one tire path grooves to the other. It was as if we were in a bobsled, sliding on the ice track, with only the walled embankments forcing us to continue straight on the path. Motorcyclist were driving with both feet down, shifting their gum boots through the mud as if they were training wheels for a child’s new bike. Everyone was in the thick of it… The thick of the Ugandan rainy season.

On our return from the training at Mtufu, we followed the same path that the woman had showed us. Only this time, the small streams of rain water flowing along side the path began to saturate the open road. The truck fish-tailed again and the driver continued to calmly shift between 4H and 4L.

Just as we began to slide up the small incline, the mud slowly sunk beneath us. The front tires slipped into the small water carved ditch as the rear wheels lost all traction in the thick, thick mud. The heavy truck bottomed out, we were finally stuck.

Luckily, the entire village arrived to help, and, to watch the excitement. After a quick attempt to push the truck free with the help of some locals, the driver decided to use a little strategy. The village men brought a large heavy log from around the row of brick ducas. They dug out a space with hoes to prop up the jack.

Now out of the truck, I began to greet the kids who screamed “muzungu” from across the path. The children gathered around as I shared pictures; and we laughed at the silly faces made during our impromptu photo shoot. The men continued working to free the truck with a combination of ropes, props and brut strength.

After being set free, the driver reversed 15 meters below the slue of mush to prepare for the 2nd attempt. More than 30 villagers quickly moved away from the mud path, knowing that the truck could easily lose control at any point. The truck was just a few yards past the very place where it was stuck when the tires began to lose traction. The men hurriedly ran to the back side to push, while three brave men grabbed the tow ropes and ran in front of the massive truck. They pulled and pushed the truck until the wheels gripped the bits of thick debris and rock on the center path.

My muscles clenched and eyes began to close as I prepared to witness a man get pummeled by the truck. The men were far to experienced with this endeavor. Surely, their nimble bare feet gripped the clay road as they sprang away from the moving truck in perfect timing.

The villagers laughed to see my muzungu self try to manage the road by foot. Unable to risk stopping in the sinking mud, the driver continued ahead around the bend. Myself with the support of 25 villagers began to walk, following the tire trail left ahead. The ground was impossible to traverse, let alone stand on. After just a few steps, the locals knew it would be a matter of seconds before I fell straight into the mud. A man gave me his arm, which I happily grabbed to prevent a full back hand flip.

My thick sandals were like two large suction cups, being pulled back into the earth. The school children in the baby blue matching uniforms took a audible gasp when I stepped bare foot into the mud. Since my new friends knew to walk shoes in hand, feet in the mud, I decided to follow suit. After the gasp came giggles. My guess is that they were shocked to see a muzungu woman walking bare foot through their very own village.

On my fifth near split in the relentless mud, my new walking assistant threw my arm around his neck, better balanced with me close to his side. The crowd burst into a fit of laughter. Their neighbor was now walking bare foot through the mud with a muzungu woman hanging from his side…. This would definitely be one for the front page, only if they had a newspaper.

The driver was waiting just past the road’s fork with the dozen men that helped free his vehicle. They too broke into laughter when they saw their friend with the muzungu strung around his neck. He proudly smiled and rambled a few things in Lugisu; maybe a joke about having a new muzungu wife, I’d imagine. I was just happy to arrive at the truck with mud only in my feet.

Once my escort received his share of shillings for the good work, we all exchanged a few fare-wells and continued our journey home. The village rescuers and onlookers footed back towards the sinking mud. The driver continued towards Sironko main road. The African sky began to display it’s beautiful array of gold colors behind the blue shadows of Mount Elgon.

The wheels soon firmly gripped the pavement as we traveled back towards Mbale. With the mud drying to a soft crust between my toes, and the breathtaking views of East Africa all around me, I could not help but think that there is no place that I would rather be.

So Fresh and Clean

Everything is harder in Uganda. Any mundane task done in America will take twelve times longer and require six times more energy to complete in Uganda. Don’t try to fact check my calculations, my friend. Just trust me on this one; daily chores are difficult for a spoiled American living in Uganda.

Maybe we need an example to explain. Let’s consider the arch nemesis, laundry day.

Back in the states the process of sorting laundry, carrying it to a machine, adding soap, then pressing a button was annoying. Now, We sort clothes according to line-drying time. Heavy or thick clothes must be washed first for optimal sunshine hours. If water is running low or off, you may have to be choosy* on the Mormon swag wear for next week. (No offense Mormon friends; it’s just the best way to describe the ankle skirt with t-shirt look).

Next you have to wash the dang clothes….. by hand…… with buckets….. and a lab experiment of chemicals somehow labeled soap in Uganda. The process is long and tiring. You’re left with calloused hands and an aching back.

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Yep, laundry most definitely is my arch nemesis, and, African orange mud is it’s close accomplice.

But if we have to find some good in hand washing and line drying, here it is: my back is much stronger and my bed sheets are now naturally scented with that ‘fresh mountain breeze’.

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*The word “choosy” has been brought to you by a legendary man known as “D”. I’m keeping it real in the motherland my friend. 😉

Smiles Make Life Better

The past couple weeks have been a challenge. With the frustration of not being able to communicate freely and the struggles of a different work environment, I was starting to get worn out. But most of all I was really missing my family and friends. I was missing those connections…. the unbreakable bonds that tie us to the ones we love.

Luckily, smiles make everything better. Especially the sincere smiles of happy children. Thanks to some heavy rains, I was able to get a healthy dose of smiles to brighten up the gloomy day.

The rain was lightly falling onto the windshield when I noticed a motorcyclist slide on the mud-slick road. The clay was saturated with water to the point where even off-roading vehicles were losing traction.

Traffic came to a stop where a commercial truck sunk into the mud. The muddy road was absorbing car after car, nearly impossible to pass. We watched as the locals lifted, pushed and pulled the many stranded cars through the narrow path. It was clear that we would not be able to make it to the training in our truck.

The accountant and coffee specialist loaded onto a Boda Boda, then continued onto the next village for the training.

I happily stayed behind and played with the kids. Usually I would say that life is simple when you’re a child. But the people living in the rural areas face many challenges. Life is not easy deep in the villages, but, smiles do come easily.

The kids are so eager to learn and share with visitors. And they are so interested to see my muzungu self hanging out in their community. We drew pictures, learned how to use a camera phone and messed with my muzungu hair.

Overall, their smiles made my life a little sweeter that day. My only regret was not having something to read to them. Time to start packing a children’s book, just in case another impromptu kids day happens again.

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New Food Blues: The Ugly Side

Lira Tech Week

Lira was supposed to be a time to get hands-on training in the field with volunteers who have been in country for almost a year. Tech-week: voted the best week of training by former volunteers. Unfortunately, I decided to eat the cheese mandaz of death on the bus up to Lira. Basically, I spent three days hiding in the hotel, always within a 20 foot distance from any flushing toilet. There is no need to go into details, but the PCV saying “Never trust a fart” is definitely a tried and trusted piece of advice.

Big thanks to Teresa for calling medical and taking care of me while I was in my delusional-feverish state. Some more fan fare goes to Austin and Ashley for pricking my finger and doing the Malaria test. Luckily it wasn’t Malaria, but, bacterial infection definitely kicked some butt (figuratively, maybe?).

The history of things….

The journey was long. With 3 flights, 2 bus trips, 1 private car (thanks Anna-Banana for the lift) and very many hours of patience I was able to manage the long journey from The Sunshine State to The Pearl of Africa. Myself with 39 more Peace Corps “volunteers-to-be” were greeted at Entebbe International airport with more enthusiasm then our jet lagged minds could comprehend. We had no idea where we were going for training or how we would get there; but we continued to hear the same greeting from the Peace Corps staff of Uganda, “You are most Welcome.” With their big smiles and warm embrace we could rest assured that the long journey was well worth the trip.

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I’m about 6 weeks into my PST and have some catching up to do…. In short, here is the history of things:

There was no time to putz around or sleep through the jet lag. Peace Corps had us up and moving for Pre-Service Training (PST) at the crack of dawn. Our first two months in Uganda were outlined in detail; a 13 page daily schedule was handed to us…..
>  2 weeks of medical, safety policies, more medical, team building, more safety, and survival language at the Kulika Center in Nayamuba.
>  3 weeks of language classes and community integration while living with our Home-Stay family. Myself and four other volunteers traveled to iMalukhu Village in Mbale to study Lumasaaba.
>  3 days for our Future Site Visit; this was time to meet our future work site colleagues at Chemonics International. Myself and co-volunteer Teresa left Mbale for field work with our supervisor in Bugiri, Iganga and Jinja.
>  2 weeks of Tech Immersion training; first week to be held in a small city near Entebbe, second week location TBD.
>  3 days for a Supervisor Workshop.
>  1 day to take an oath and officially be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) on August 6th 2014.

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Our first weeks in training were exhausting! We managed to learn the ways of a squatting latrine, the long process of hand-washing laundry and mastered the splashing techniques involved for an effective warm bucket bath. We tasted the local foods and experienced what Molly Burgess calls, “The new food blues.” Lets just say that our stomachs needed some time to accept our new diets. And then there was medical… Lots of medical training. If you are not on a flight home after the first two weeks of medical scare tactics, you are golden. Peace Corps doctors are sure to explain every horrible medical occurrence that may possibly happen to you while in Africa…. Thankfully they found that graphic photos were not necessary for the presentations. Then the medical staff decided to make themselves even more unpopular by sticking us with a new batch of immunizations every other day (maybe not that often, but you get the point.) Luckily we were given some down time before dinner to get to know our new  ‘government issued friends.’ The day usually closed with extreme Uganda Frisbee (over-exaggeration for effect) or a Volleyball Game.

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Our first two weeks at the Kulika Center went by fast, and now it seems that this may be the case for our service time as a whole. It was time for the group of 40 volunteers to split into our separate language groups and travel to our individual home stay sites.

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The 3 weeks spent in Mbale studying Lumasaaba were AMAZING! Every year I am surprised by some beautiful turn of events in my life, this year it is moving to Mbale. The town center is dirty from the the orange African clay and the streets are crowded with taxi vans packed with 2 maybe 3 persons per seat (plus a chicken), Boda Bodas spewing white clouds of smoke from their exhaust, street vendors shouting for attention and local people pushing through the crowds as they manage their everyday lives. For some, this may be a challenging place to live…

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You must be alert to avoid getting side swapped by a speeding bicyclist and cautious of the many walking obstacles on every path (whether it be a pot hole or cow dung). But the hustle of the town combined with the beautiful green tropical landscape is nothing less then AMAZING!

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Everyday walking to Lumasaaba class was like being in a video game. It was a combination of Frogger, Zelda and Oregon Trail: Avoid the traffic, get caught in long conversations with strangers and lose a volunteer to illness for a day or two. We were a group of 5 in Mbale: Holly, Molly, Teresa, Josh and myself. At the end of each day we went home to spend time with our homestay family and share our lives and stories with one another. The care and attention we received from our Ugandan moms, aka Myaai wange, will never be forgotten. (More about homestay life to come on a later post).

Most memorable moment of iMalukhu was seeing the reaction of the small school children when they see a Muzungu (white person) for the first time. Either they will run away in absolutely terror if you come remotely close to them, or they shout, “Muzungu how are you?” from a safe 50-foot distance. With time the village became accustom to seeing us Muzungus roaming the local paths. The children eventually came close to poke our white skin or hold our hands as we walked.

Each day we learned a little more Lumasaaba and began greeting our community in their local language. We were even invited to be special guest at the wedding of a couple that we had never met (side note: ‘Muzungu Celebrity Status’ leads to many unexpected perks). At the wedding we posed for group photos and and danced like the locals, it was a big hit!

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 Every day, without question, something happened that made us crack up laughing. In class we laughed at our lack of understanding Uganglish or the never ending bananas that seem to be packed away in everyone’s bags.

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In the village we laughed at Josh trying to take pictures with animals he feared (such as the harmless family goat); Our instructors reaction to Molly’s pronunciation of slowly-by-slowly in Lumasaaba; Holly’s first and last catch on the 4th of July (as well as the flying orange ball in class); and Teresa getting stuck with arms above her head and face completely covered by the fabric of her tailored African dress. Somehow or another we managed to learn enough Lumasaaba to pass our final exams and prepared to split again for our next training adventure.

Future Site Visit is a time for us volunteers to meet our project supervisor and counterpart. Teresa and I were both assigned to the same partner organization in Mbale, Chemonics International Inc. We packed our bags and said last farewells to our Ugandan host families before moving to the Chemonics office in the senior quarters district. Our tour was short because our supervisor had a field visit planned for our training. Typically the 3 days would be spent doing a formal training in office during the day and exploring our new permanent housing area in the evenings. Luckily our supervisor made arrangements for us to hit the ground running.

We traveled to Bugiri for a community farming meeting organized by the local village agent.

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We met some farmers and learned about some of the challenges of the Agribusiness firsthand. We then moved to Iganga to meet trade partners and input suppliers about some developing cooperatives for maize. Lastly we traveled to Jinja for another field event that explored a demo crop of hybrid seeds and farming equipment demonstration. The event left me feeling sooo excited about my work to come as an Agribusiness volunteer. Our Chemonics/Feed the Future colleagues energy and passion for the work that they are doing in the communities was contagious.

And now for the icing on the cake…. We were setup in a hotel with….. Drum-Roll…… Hot Showers!!!! Yay! After having my first hot shower (not bucket splash bath) and a fully functioning flush toilet in over 6 weeks I have a new love and respect for modern day plumbing. To all the plumbers out there, you will forever be categorized as my heroes from this day forward. Seriously, thank you for keeping the water flowing… The world is a better place because of it. Okay, maybe you think this plumbing rant went on too long, but one day if you visit you will understand.

Now I’m packing up my bags again, time to find a taxi from Jinja to Kampala, then another to our next training site outside of Entebbe. Meanwhile, the other 30+ volunteers are making their way back to Entebbe for our final training. Im looking forward to hearing their stories from homestay life and the new languages they’ve learned. Our experiences have been challenging, fun, humbling and inspirational in just a few weeks. Something tells me that the future will only get better. Uganda will be my new home for 2 years, and at this point I couldn’t imagine my life in any other place.

Wish me luck with my final weeks of training!

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Today is the big day… Time to fly away 🙂 We had a long travel this morning to JFK but the big flight is about to begin. About to board the plane for a 15 hour flight to South Africa, yikes! Tomorrow there will be a short layover in Johannesburg, then a 4 hour flight to Entebbe. Here we go! Updates direct from Uganda coming soon…

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Accepting a Peace Corps invitation opens a flood gate of questions from friends and family. Often times conversations start with “but, why?” As if they meant to say, “Are you crazy!?”There is no pay, limited resources, cultural differences, safety concerns and the ultimate sacrifice: time. There is a sense of misunderstanding that builds and creates a feeling of being, well for lack of a better description, different.

Then there are those who choose to serve. These Peace Corps dreamers know someway, somehow, in the core of their being, that the call to serve is undeniable. We know that this will be one of the best decisions in our lifetime. The legacy calls our names so clearly that we cannot turn away. There is no “but, why?”

Walking into the Peace Corps staging room brought a feeling of excitement. And now that we are with colleagues whom have also heard the call to serve, we no longer hear the same questions of “why?” Sitting in a room of 40 dynamic people who are committed to serving in Uganda brings a sense of calm. No more explanation needed. It’s time to take action. We are a strong team, ready for service!

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2 Day Countdown to Departure

When we take a moment to reflect, it is amazing to see those pivotal moments that changed our lives in unimaginable ways. Our lives can change dramatically in just a few short years, just a drop in the bucket. But there is one constant that will always remain…. family.

Now it’s time to fly! On my way to Philly tomorrow morning for Peace Corps staging.

Goodbye Florida!

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Thank you to Aunt Donna for the BBQ Farewell!