All Volunteer Conference

September 27, 2010

I left site on Sept 1st to attend the All Volunteer Conference held over the next two days.  Before I got to the hotel, I stopped by the Wild Life Club Office.  Procured a permit card for the college.  Yay! Now we officially have a live Wild Life Club at the college partnered with a parent organization.  I’m so excited.  I really can’t wait for one of the staff members to come and give talks & show documentaries.  It would be incredible if the students could visit one of the parks.  Gosh! That would be a great opportunity for them.

I rushed to get a facial after a downpour while I was at the Wild Life Club.  I know, facial in Africa.  Totally! A friend at a salon gives me awesome facials.  She is friendly and professional–2 things I look for before I do business with someone.  The saloon uses high grade skin products.

I met up with Fractal in Garden City and had mouthwatering vegetable pies at Uchumi before we headed to Hotel Ridar.  Finding a taxi around rush hour on Jinja Road was a headache but the broker whom I greeted found us a private car who was going that way & we paid the nice lady for the ride.

We checked in and found a room with a double bed, which is unbelievably hard sometimes.  After checking in, we went downstairs for dinner.  I wasn’t hungry since the veggie pies were still digesting.  We saw PCV’s we hadn’t seen for ages.  It was a wonderful reunion.

Over the next two days I spend time with some incredible people, met Ambassador Lanier (I mentioned to him that I send him a letter addressing my concerns about how Ugandan visitors are treated at the Embassy), sat through interesting sessions (Raising Voices, Family Planning, secondary projects–I never knew making soap would so rewarding)ate delicious food, caught up on my sleep, and hung out with the kitchen staff.  The kitchen staff @ Ridar were welcoming and super cool.  On the last day of the conference we had some delectable pizza.  My mouth waters when I think how delightful it was.

I also danced @ the Talent Show because someone from my group signed me up.  Even though I love performing, I don’t always take the initiative and was glad some one gave me the push.  It was an impromptu performance but it worked out.  A friend from my group asked me whether I could go to her site and show some of the girls in her area Bollywood dancing, which I gladly agreed to.  That gave me another idea of starting a dance club.  Dancing is an integral part of African culture and empowering girls through creative movement may be a way to break the initial ice and give them opportunities to express themselves where they feel in charge and comfortable to be themselves.

After the conference Fractal went back to site.  I wanted to visit homestay but an emergency came up.  I heard from our host mom that our host sister’s baby was in the hospital.  I made my way to Kololo hospital where I stayed the whole day. Baby I is an adorable baby, happy & the least fussiest baby I’ve ever met; it was painful to see a 7-month old baby with tubes inserted in his nose and arms.

I don’t know how pediatric nurses, doctors & other medical professionals tolerate all that pain their little patients take; it takes incredible strength to do what they do.  Even though I’ve respect for pediatric doctors, I was annoyed by Baby I’s doctor.  Baby I’s grandma (my host mom) managed to calm him down; soon after he calmed down, the doctor entered the scene, picked up the baby, and asked him how he was doing.  Baby I started shrieking.  Seeing the infant’s response, the doctor asked him why he was crying.  What’s the doc thinking? Or is he not? Why would you take a child who’s comfortable on his grandma’s lap, raise him in mid air, and ask him how he’s doing.  I was later introduced to the doc and found out he did an exchange program in the twin cities in MN.  I wanted to ask him where he learned to interact with his patients the way I just saw but decided to hold my tongue.  In the evening my host sister, her husband, Baby I’s nanny & I headed back to their apartment while the grandma cared for the baby.

I had a restful sleep and headed back into the city the next morning.  I had my first tennis lesson at the American Rec Association.  The coach was amazingly encouraging and patient.  I learned forehand and backhand.  Met some really nice and friendly staff.  I was introduced to the ARA cat Jerry; I thought the name was slightly odd for a female cat, even though giving girls traditionally male names is not uncommon here.  She was the fattest and the oldest cat I’ve seen in Uganda.

After the tennis lesson, I made my way to the taxi park to catch a matatu to I-town.  That leads me to a lesson I learned that day: if you can help it, then avoid taking late afternoon taxi because the drivers think they’re infallible.  I had a gravity defying experience and felt I was in an airplane at various points of the voyage.  I did make it home in an intact piece.  I was glad to be home to Fractal, Kunda the cat & Peace the duck after a long rewarding day.


Better citizens

August 18, 2010

You take a group of people who lived in a developed western country for most of their lives and enjoyed comfortable lives with plethora of amenities. Send them to live in a developing country anywhere in the world where they learn to live a new way of life, learn to cook using local means, get around like most of their community members and eat foods they never imagined they would eat back in their home culture.

A great potential is unlocked even though every volunteer’s journey is as unique as he/she is…

We come from a melting pot of a nation. A rich tapestry of ethnicities. Different shades of color. Various socioeconomic backgrounds. Natural-born & naturalized citizens. We all came from the Old World during various waves of migration.

We may join for different reasons but we all chose to be in the host country we serve. Help in the ways we can. Share our skills and histories. Learn about the host community. Share what we learned about the host people and their communities when we return.

Our challenges may not be that different from what many immigrants face when they first arrive in the US. Sure, immigrants come from all walks of lives. Unskilled blue-collar workers. Professional white-collar workers. Their backgrounds are diverse; regardless of their socioeconomic status or ethnic background, they may feel isolated and alienated in their new home when they first arrive. They seek others like themselves who speak the same language, eat the familiar foods, and dress like them.

Peace Corps service may not just make us into better problem solvers, thinkers, mobilizers, and ambassadors but may also help us connect better with different groups of people back in the United States. Next time we’re in a grocery store and we run into a newly arrived immigrant who may mistake us for someone from their home, or ask us a question we can empathize with them. We were in their shoes. We know what it is like to be foreigners. Learn a new language. Adjust to different norms.

No, we don’t all have to be friends with every newcomer. We can on the other hand see the other person at a point in his/her journey which may not be too different from where we were. We can say hello in their native language, or maybe they can teach us how to greet.

We can connect with a different member of the human family in a way that makes them feel welcome. Show empathy. Become a better world ambassador. The possibilities of what the service can do are limitless. The only limiting factor is oneself. How far are we willing to go?

PO Box ___
_______, Uganda

August 12, 2010

Jerry P. Lanier,
Ambassador to the Republic of Uganda
Kampala, Uganda

Dear Mr. Ambassador:

Thank you for all the important work you do in representing our nation in Uganda and in protecting American interests. The purpose of this letter is to bring to your attention both some unpleasant experiences that some of my Ugandan friends and host family have faced at the US embassy and the unprofessional conduct of the security personnel at the American Recreational Association.

My Ugandan friends and family who were treated with little respect felt they were labeled as potential illegal immigrants when they went for their interviews. When they narrated their experiences, I felt saddened and embarrassed that a person’s self-worth and dignity are judged based on their nationality or appearance. I find this degrading treatment disturbing and unacceptable in a US government agency.

I experienced the pain my Ugandan friends and family felt when I found myself in their shoes this past weekend while I was at the American Recreational Association. Since I brought neither my passport nor my Peace Corps ID, the security personnel at the entrance subjected me to an endless tirade of criticism. I respect that the security personnel take their jobs and their dedication to protect the facility seriously; however, I found their conduct unprofessional and demeaning.

I believe everyone who visits any US Embassy or a facility funded by the US government should be treated in a courteous and professional manner. Combining professionalism and courtesy in every day interactions with visitors and while following security protocol will create a positive image of Americans at home and abroad. I request that you bring this to the attention of all your staff members.

Thank you.


Peace Corps Volunteer

A couple of weeks ago we took our first trip to the intoxicating capital city since our arrival at site, the first real break since trying to move to the village for the last two months.  Determined to make the most out of the trip to the All Volunteer Conference in Seeta, about 10 miles in the outskirts of the capital city, we embarked on the two hour journey a day early to the bustling city center.  Kampala.  The world of noxious smoke, the white & blue taxis, the marabou storks, the trouser-clad women, the cell phones, the high-heeled shoes, the men in denim shorts, Game (Uganda’s Target), the cappuccino, the crisp dosas, the Chloride Exide solar outfitters, the African horn bills.  Kampala, the city on seven hills, really sits on at least hundred hills when you’re a pedestrian visitor exploring the concrete jungle.

If you happened to find a hotel on Kampala Road, the one that showed us the naked guy running away from mob justice, then you are also that unlucky one to find out that the city never sleeps.  Getting advice from an elderly Indian hotel employee on the evils of cohabitation and watching his relief when he learned we are married reminded me of my concerned parents worrying that we might land into trouble with the police when we check into a shoestring hotel traveling as the white & brown team in India last year.  Those cops on raids, the safe guarders of the moral compass, might mistake us for a white dude on LSD visiting the sandy beaches of Goa and picking up a local girl to attain enlightenment.

The next day when Fractal attended a meeting at the Peace Corps office, I spent an hour nervously holding my arm out for the Peace Corps Medical staff who wanted a blood sample.  Hesitant in pricking me more than once, the three nurses, on my insistence, took turns drawing my viscous blood.  “Are you drinking enough water?” they asked.  The next several hours Fractal–also quite a paramedic–reminded me to hydrate myself.

Over the falafel sandwich and the cheese burger (Fractal’s first in years) and a mango & passion fruit smoothie, we caught up with our host sister Michelle and her husband in the food court of Garden City Shopping mall.  “We miss your mother,” we tell Michelle. We talked about our desire to visit her mother after we move to our new place.  She told us about her work at the state-sponsored television network, his video production takes, their daughter’s birthday party.

After the three and a half hour visit, we boarded a taxi for the hour odyssey to the Hotel Kabeka in Seeta.  Welcome to the alien planet of hot showers, tiled floors, running water, porcelain bathtubs, indoor toilets, and complimentary conditioners; despite the shine & shimmer, the varying heights of the stairs with its unaligned rails was somewhat precarious.  Someone used different tape measures that were several centimeters off from one another and just didn’t think anyone would notice the poor calculations.

The next few days the veteran volunteers taught us about organic gardening, healthy nutrition, creating newspapers in their schools, traveling in Africa, planting trees, and sanitizing water.  During meals volunteers talked about their trials, tribulations, likes, and dislikes of working and living in the pearl.  A few new volunteers shared frustrations about settling into their sites, and others from our group shared how thrilled they were when their sites turned out to be better than they thought.  Some discussed what more they would bring if they were coming to Uganda as a new volunteer.  Camp towel, skirts with lining, stainless steel knife, and flip-flop Rainbow sandals.  A talent show and a cultural show entertained the nights.

Rejuvenated and enriched after the three-day conference we got back before sundown on Sunday.  Ready to find a welding generator to finish the rest of the work in the house.  Ready to move to the village.  Ready to start the work we came here to do.

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.

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