May 26, 2009

When the folks back home inquire about the climate here in Fractaville, Uganda, I’m quick to point out that the temperatures soar far less than in the summers in Georgia.  The climate is moderate despite our location on the equator.  Warm.  Not HOT.  A good bargain with the Sun.  The lush elevation.  The credit also goes to the influences of the (Schistosomes-full) Great lakes.

Although in the sun the rays seem to concentrate their energies like a magnifying glass, in the shade it feels like spring in Ga.  I proudly wear Z-shaped Chaco tan lines on my feet.  My counterpart joked that I will truly be an Ugandan in two years and he could even pass for my biological brother.

Spending several hours riding around on my newly repaired conglomerated Shimano soaking the Ugandan sun visiting the 35 schools in the area will be a quadriceps and gluteus strengthening experience.  My counterpart suggested we visit the closer schools first, so I gradually get accustomed to the heat and exercise.  I decided to go on a 8-km test ride from Fractalville to Bunytown, the quiet town we’re moving to in a few weeks.

1:15p.m. I hopped on the bike while Fractal, who didn’t own a bike yet, took a taxi.  Many heads turned at the helmeted muzungu wearing a black skirt.

When I walk on the streets, the children’s voices calling out “muzungu” climb in decibels.  muzungu. Muzungu. MUZUngu. MUZUNGU. MUZUNGUMUZUNGUMUZUNGU!!!  Instead of the usual yelling, the children whispered “muzungu.”  I noticed that none of them increased in their frequencies during my ride.  I wondered whether they were cautious in their muzungu singing to ensure that I don’t fall off my bike.

Even though I can tolerate the muzungu mania, I get fairly annoyed when I hear men make sucking noises at me.  I wanted to tell them what trainers suggested to say when confronted with inappropriate comments, or behavior. Oline mpisa embi. You’ve bad manners. Except I didn’t remember my survival Lusoga.  Instead I rode my bike without stopping and changing the gears through the three hills and valleys.

1:45p.m. Breathless and dehydrated, I arrived at the destination where Fractal and my counterparts were awaiting.  I got off the bike and walked towards them.  I could hardly speak when I informed Fractal that I felt a bit strange.  The water I drank gave me little relief, and I craved for a cold Fanta.  I asked Fractal for some of his water.

Then I heard my husband’s voice grow faint, and everything went white.  BLANK.  I gained consciousness after several seconds and I felt the ground underneath me.  Fractal who elevated my legs poured some water on my head and gave me water to sip on from his Klean Kanteen.  He called the Peace Corps Medical Officer and narrated what happened.  While I was recovering, I looked up to see the Peace Corps Education Program Director.  Shocked and confused to see me laying down on the ground, she looked at Fractal and my counterparts for an explanation.  After they fill her in on what happened, she turned to me.  Smiling I say, “Welcome to Bunytown!”


Project Casa part 1

May 20, 2009

Setting up shop in a new town, or even a different state is stressful. Yet manageable.  Making a home in a new country in the Old World is another story.  Different language. Unfamiliar rules.  Running a marathon seems easier than finding the 30mm long bolt.  One could live without power, but drilling a hole in a house without electricity is no joke.  No wonder most of the people resort to whacking nails  into concrete walls leaving stress fractures that spread like varicose veins.  Like the cancer that metastatically claims more and more of its victim. House with a tumor.

Our house shedded its old fingerprints, dust smears, spiderweb masses, and eggcases.  The furniture gleamed in the new coat of varnish.  Painted sky blue, the house glowed in a fresh look.  After a day of hunting for a solid color fabric, we resorted to paying a seamstress sew three layers of nylon fabric together to create our no-peeping-tom curtains.  The work is only half done.  Only half fully done.

The plan for skylights in the three rooms to lighten up the rooms would require a trip to Jinja; the installation of the solar panel frame needs an electric drill.  The four water drums that will hold a week’s supply of water wait for their faucets.  The two window panes scream to be replaced with the new ones, and the broken door hinge grudingly turns awaiting the mason.  Finding the numerous sundry bolts for the holes that would hold the table, the shelves, the hammocks, the mosquito net, and the clothes’ line calls for patience, bargaining, and time.  In the meantime, the grass in our front and back yard continues to grow, the floors collect dust, and the walls grow the webs.

A month in the site isn’t enough to settle when every minute thing takes many days to complete.  On the other hand, we meet people who help us find things, or other people to assist us.  When our to-do list is completed, we would have a comfy crib.  And the future residents would be happier with the brighter home.

The African way

May 20, 2009

April 12, 2009

I sit patiently in the front office of Fractal’s NGO in the heart of Fractalville.   We dropped in for a few minutes to ask some wholesome advice into turning the depressing dump into a habitable home.  We’ve a grand vision for our 3-room iron sheet-roofed concrete home: energy-saving solar panels that power 2 small lamps and charge our cell-phones, our ENO hammocks that provide solace, hanging tables that are convenient and simple, and bookshelves that are mounted on the wall.  Things, we discovered, aren’t as simple as going to Home Depot, purchasing a power tool, drilling a hole, and inserting screws into the sheet rock.

An hour later, I was still sitting in the office.  Seated across from me, the NGO accountant extended her hand to give us an invitation to her niece’s introduction ceremony.  We graciously thanked her.  A bit unsure of attending a ceremony where a stranger would introduce her fiance to her parents, I tried to cover my surprise when Sara told me that I should wear a busuti and Fractal should wear a kansu with a sports jacket.   The gomesi, or a busuti, elegantly conceals  any semblance of curves and makes the beautiful voluptuous figure of an Ugandan woman into a mass of shiny fabric that disapprovingly hides any skin.  A busuti with its silk folds, high peaked sleeves, and huge bowed sash would swallow a petite person (like me!).  Hannah, NGO board member, assured me that I would look smart.

A few days later, I got a call from the NGO secretary, who informed me to come into the office for the measurements for the gomesi.  What! MEASUREMENTS FOR THE GOMESI!   When I arrived at the office,  2 NGO colleagues greet me with the maroon fabric.  They informed me that the chairman of the NGO decided  to purchase the fabric for the gomesi and kansu. This, they say, is the African way.

Soon after that they ushered me into a seamstress’ shop.  The tailor wasn’t there, but her assistant looked me over and retorted that the gomesi would be ready the next morning (just a few hours before the event).  When I inquired whether she should take my measurements, she assured me that she eyeballed the measurements correctly when she looked me over.  As I leave the Africa’s Best Tailoring Shop, I’ve images of the GOMESI engulfing me.

The next day we waited eagerly to be picked up at nine in the morning.  The chairman, the treasurer, the program director, and the secretary arrived at one in the afternoon, and Frank the treasurer excitedly handed me the gomesi.  I thankfully accepted the kind-hearted gift and I proceeded back into the house to be helped by the secretary into the six meter river of cloth.  I decided that the gomesi was a cross between a sari and a Victorian-era dress.  Anna first wrapped  me around the thick shawl–the kind that aunties of my parents’ Orthodox church adorn in winter.  Then I stepped into the gomesi with its PUFFED sleeves.  Since Anna wasn’t well versed in wearing a gomesi, the gargantuan sash took twenty minutes to be fastened around my waist.

We arrived only three hours late, and the ceremony hadn’t started.  A crowd of smartly dressed women and men clad in both traditional and western attires waited uncomplainingly  under a white tent embellished with pink ribbons in the roasting sun.  Not even an hour in the gomesi, I felt I stepped into a sauna.  We were escorted right to the front.  Since there was no room inside the tent, we sat bathing in the warm sun.  After singing the Ugandan and the Busoga anthems, we tolerated (for the next seven hours) the conversations between two professional gabblers, who represented the two families and who were employed by them, for the event.  The first–couple of hours–was the greeting.  The children, the adolescent girls, the teenaged boys, middle-aged women, the senior-women danced their way into the aisle between the two tents.  They welcomed the groom’s family.  The families shared their Busoga kingdom membership donation certificates to verify that they were from different clans.  The last hour the groom’s family, who came bearing gifts, covered every inch of space with gifts: baskets of tomatoes, pumpkins, pineapples, rice, sugar, onions,the leg of a cow in a burlap sack, matooke, soaps, sofa, goats, and chickens.  The  chairman informed us that the material goods have replaced the traditional monetary bride price.

Right after sunset, the buffet lunch was ready.  As I stood up to walk to the line, the sari part of my gomesi came undone.  Frank motioned to me that my dress was dragging on the floor, and  I gathered it together without showing my embarassment.  I was too tired to care about it after a few minutes, but was glad to see the food.

As I used the chapatti to scoop up the sauce, I watched Fractal furtively try to avoid the video camera as he attempted to  sneak the rice into his mouth with his fingers.  The last three years Fractal has been finessing the art of eating with his fingers.  Even though he impressed relatives in India, he was still self conscious of his fine motor skills.

We got back a little after nine.  With a new perspective.  I decided that our hour and half long wedding wasn’t that bad.

I’m reading Hari Kunzru’s Transmission.  Amazing.  I’m not referring to just the content of the book.  Six months ago, I probably could  give ten reasons why I was incapable of reading a book in three days.  You know, the ADHD makes me do things.  Maybe, I’ll read after just another 10 minutes of online video streaming.  Darn! I’ve to finish that 20-something paper that was due in the summer, so I can finally be certified in Montessori elementary ed.

Now I’ve one reason why I’m capable of reading a book in three days.  Boredom.  Life in this 3rd world corner has changed for the better.  With no school in session, I’m really enjoying my holiday time.  I just finished visiting Dr. Garrigan’s world in Giles Fodes’ The Last King of Scotland.

Jotting down my thoughts in the intricate virtual world of zeros and ones is another source of joy.  Six months ago, I swear writing was excruciating.  That final paper zapped enough energy out of me that could power Soy, my beloved PC that I left back in those States, for a month.  Now writing brings me the same mirth that my neurons experience when I reminisce my mother’s delightful tofu curry, or Siri Thai”s exquisitive Mock Duck Green Curry.

Another thing that is miraculous is seeing Fractal don a full-sleve button down shirt,  black dress pants, and non-Chaco shoes.  I never thought he would give up his quick-dry shorts and UGA’s Dept of Engineering and Lego T-shirts.  The man has changed into a serious professional.

Concocting palate-desiring nourishment in our pressure-cooker is exhilarating.  The Sundip Veggie Masala is truly a lifesaver. The red chili, cumin seed, ginger, turmeric, and garlic powder, coriander, bay leaves, cinnamon, black pepper, fenugreek leaves, and cardomom make our high-fiber beans a bit exotic.  Sautee the onions, add tomoto paste, and salt to taste, & we’ve some good yum.  My attempt at making chapattis–an Indian flatbread that’s popular in this African corner–last night was sadly less eloquent.  On the other hand, it was a community building activity.  My neighbor with the 6-yr old niece, 2-yr old son, and the 2-month old baby guided me in molding the flour into the dough in our thatched gazebo.  I’m determined in making it better tonight.  A little bit more oil might do the trick.

One night last week I made some simple macaroni and cheese.  That was the best meal I’ve eaten in three months.  I missed cheese.  In these parts, cheese is part of the muzungu diet.  The 4-portions of Nouvelle Vache Processed Cheese Spread for Sandwiches is the only cheese product I can find in F-town.  One can get some Real Cheddar in Kampala for an exuberant price.  The local people aren’t too fond of cheese.  I clearly remember the disappointed look of a volunteer when she described the reaction of her homestay family when she made some mac & cheese for them.  Her host mother took a spoonful and spat it out.  I can respect the differences in culinary tastes though.

I’m not a big fan of matooke (steamed green cooking banana).  When people ask me whether I like this national pride, I say that I like it with G.nut  (peanut) sauce.  I possibly cannot eat it without the condiment.  I also don’t care too much for the plain posho (ground millet)without the sauce, or the rocky rice, or the salty greens (that restaurants fondly serve).  I miss the array of dishes that the diligent house-help in our homestay cooked for us.  Even though the food wasn’t prepared with spices, I liked the balanced meals.  I eventually enjoyed the way spaghetti was prepared sauteed with tomotoes and onions.

The last four days with Fractal’s NGO in the Strategic Planning Workshop lacked fiber.  In the  diet.  The meals that were specially made for the restaurant-Ugandan food-challenged palate consisted of two options: chips (french fries) and Spanish omelet (without the potatoes), or the 2 oily  chappatis, 2 hard-boiled eggs, and greens saturated with salt.  I was grateful that they accommodated my dietary shortcoming, but  my intestines weren’t too pleased.

On the bright side, there was some good brainwork that was milled in the long 10-hour days.  Fractal churned up 40-something pages of ideas on how to improve the Ugandan education system.  A perfect opportunity for me to get used to the speeches.  The day always started with an introduction from a staff member at the NGO and ended with two or three vote-of-thanks from the same staff member at the NGO, the facilitator, and an audience member.  Even though Fractal wasn’t asked to speak a few words, he was almost asked to recite a prayer.  I suggested for the next time he should memorize a prayer that he can spill at any moment.

“The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.”

Hearing “muzungu,” can fill some people with dread.  MUZUNGU.  FOREIGNER.  Calling someone muzungu isn’t insulting.  Stating the obvious (physical attributes) isn’t offensive here.  People generously use words like fat, thin, small, big, tall, short, black, white, and red  to describe others.  Once I was taken aback when someone refered to the person standing next to me as “that fat one.”  I wanted to apologize to my neighbor on behalf of the speaker.

If you don’t look African, then the term “muzungu” applies to you.  Once upon a time, the great Muzungu greeting was probably reserved for white folks, but now it refers to anyone who’s non-Bantu.  The term also suggests that one’s loaded.  Yes, if you’re white, then you’re a walking wallet; but if you’re brown as I, then you’re a stingy walking wallet.  There’s a significant number of business owners from the Indian subcontinent in Uganda.  A well-intentioned volunteer informed me that I should be wary of those Ugandan business owners who would assume I’m an Indian Ugandan and would resist giving a good bargain.  Now I can bargain.  I bought 3 bell peppers for 100 shillings.  I even tried to bargain the price of some cheap candy.  Yes, bargain I can.  It must be in my blood.

I don’t want to be entitled to any special call-outs.  Though the word challenges me.  I honestly want to stop in my track, turn to the person, and say, “musoga.” (a resident of the Busoga kingdom) Once I  said “muzungu” back, and got perplexed looks.  Fractal was concerned that I might offend the children by calling them something they weren’t.  I changed my tactic.  When children call Fractal & me “muzungu,” I stick out two fingers to suggest there’re two of us and say, “buzungu.”     At least, I can teach them some grammar.  After all, I’m a teacher.