An article I wrote for PC Uganda newsletter to share with fellow PCV’s what I do @ site to preserve my sanity.

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When people ask me what my religion is, I sometimes tell them that it is running. When I don’t practice this religion that I discovered three years ago, I feel pretty discontent with my life. I feel sad, withdrawn, restless, empty, and worthless, which may sound like tendencies of a person suffering from clinical depression. Even though I haven’t been diagnosed with clinical depression, these tendencies can develop in anyone even though someone who has a genetic disposition has a greater risk in developing the condition. No one is immune to clinical depression. Our body can develop conditions when we don’t take care of it; similarly our mind can develop disorders when we neglect our mental health.

Each person is responsible for figuring out the best way to take care of his/her mental health. Some people may meditate or combine meditation with yoga; others may find solace in prayer or silent reflection. Playing a team sport, or expressing oneself through creative movement or visual arts may help some others. No matter what one’s outlet is, it’s important to do something. Doing something to take care of one’s mental health is even more important when one is living outside of one’s home base.

In my mid twenties, I decided that I needed to do something so I can stay healthy in the various stages of adulthood. I had no aspirations to do one-armed push-ups like my great granddad, but I wanted to develop habits that increased my chances in staying fit and healthy in my 80’s. Around that time, I also decided that I wanted higher bone density levels into my late adulthood, so I can lower the risk of developing fractures or osteoporosis later in life. I enrolled myself in a weight training program in the Peach State (home of the Georgia Bulldawgs, Yellow Jackets, & the Eagles) I lived in before moving to the Pearl. Combining weight training, cardiovascular activities (running, aerobics), and flexibility (yoga) made me a happy camper back in Athens, Ga. When I moved to Uganda, I was concerned that the change in my physical routine would affect my mental health.

When I was in homestay in Wakiso, I tried running a few times. Not knowing what to do with unwanted attention, my runs became occasional. A sudden change in my physical routine made be anxious and unhappy during PST (Pre Service Training) and I probably would have left the country if it weren’t for my super loving host family and almost a decade long desire to do Peace Corps.

When I moved to site, I decided that I needed another reason to run in a patriarchal society. I decided that I want to run for the fellow women. In a culture where women are expected to live under the authority of their fathers and later under the control of their husbands and are defined and judged based on their role as caregivers to their children, I wanted to show that a woman can do something just for herself. Not for her partner. Not for her babies. Not for society. Just for herself.

When I started running regularly, I immediately noticed a change in my mood elevations, which isn’t surprising since running increases one’s endorphin levels that generate an overall sense of well-being and elevate one’s moods. When I run regularly, my body has practice recovering from the increased levels of adrenaline, which provides practice in recovering from the effects of physical anxiety. When I feel less anxious, I can focus on things that are important to me—giving back to those around me and acquiring skills I need to accomplish my long-term goals.

Running doesn’t just help in the mental health but it also has many benefits to the physical health. Elevating the heart rate over a long period of time can boost one’s cardiovascular health. When a person first starts running, the physical exertion forces the heart to pump more blood than it is used to pumping. This initial change in heart rate overloads the heart and the heart adapts to the change in the heart rate by pumping (more) efficiently. Once the heart pumps more blood, then more oxygen can be delivered to the muscles and more ATP can be produced in one’s body. ATP or adenosine triphosphate is a multi-functional nucleotide (fancy term for molecules that join together to make structural units) that plays a crucial role in metabolism and serves as sources of chemical energy. In addition to that, studies show running may contribute to an increase in brain cell growth in the areas associated with memory (The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer).

Running also helps in working towards one of the goals that I want to achieve before I hit my 30’s—running a marathon. A PCV volunteer, who ran two marathons, told me that once a person runs a marathon, then he/she feels like he/she can do anything. My goal for the first marathon is to finish the challenge. I don’t have a time goal even though I would be more comfortable if I can finish it in four hours. If you plan to train for a marathon and have a time goal, then you should ask the volunteer who has trained for several triathlons, or one of the many PCV’s who have completed a marathon.

If you don’t have a time goal, then you may want to follow the following training schedule (Whitsett, Dolgener & Kole’s The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer) in the table below. The distance is in miles. Before you start on this training schedule, you should be able to jog continuously for 30 minutes. The authors also experimented with training programs from 4-6 days a week and found four week programs are just as effective as those programs with more than 4 days a week of training. Figuring out your foot type and investing in a good running shoe (Asics Nimbus 11th generation works great) would reduce your chances of developing injuries.

Week Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Total
1 3 4 3 5 15
2 3 4 3 6 16
3 3 4 3 7 17
4 3 5 3 8 19
5 3 5 3 10 21
6 4 5 4 11 24
7 4 6 4 12 26
8 4 6 4 14 28
9 4 7 4 16 31
10 5 8 5 16 34
11 5 8 5 16 34
12 5 8 5 18 36
13 5 8 5 18 36
14 5 8 5 9 27
15 3 5 3 8 19
16 3 3 Walk 3 marathon 35.2

Taking care of one’s mental health requires work. It takes dedication and discipline to follow mental and physical exercises. Following a discipline makes one emotionally and physically strong. If one takes small measures now to take care of one’s mental and physical health, then one can enjoy short-term and long-term benefits.

On a personal note, four years ago I couldn’t imagine running a 5K and found the possibility daunting. Last year I ran my first 10K. My granddad once told me that the only person who can stop you from doing what you want is yourself. The possibilities of what one can do are endless. The first step is to get up and do something. Let us stay true to the PC motto: Life is calling. How far are you willing to go?

I wish you the very best in taking care of your mental health while you strive to make a difference in people’s lives. Age Quod Agis. Do well whatever you do. May the force be with you (Yoda, Jedi Master).

I spend September 19th visiting chimps on Ngamba Island.  One of the staff members at the Wild Life Club Office asked me whether I had a chance to visit them; when he learned I hadn’t, he offered up his seat for me as he had been there numerous times.  I was super excited and arrived at the taxi park half an hour earlier than I said I would to meet the staff member.  As it was past the time we discussed to meet, I went ahead to Entebbe Nature Center.  ENC houses 40 different species of animals & cares for about 150 animals; they are different from a traditional zoo since they are a refuge for injured and older animals that cannot take care of themselves in the wild.

After an hour and a half of waiting (during this time I got a free entrance into the nature center) the staff member finally arrived at ENC.  Another hour went by before I headed with a secondary school group on a two-hour long ferry ride across Lake Victoria.  I won’t deny that I’ve a mild hydrophobia even though I know how to swim.  Something about not knowing how deep the water is and from almost drowning in the Indian Ocean as a 3 and a half-year old.  I also had no desire to be in Lake Victoria because of the high prevalence of Schistosomes that cause Bilharzia.  Despite my fear of water, flukes and rocking of the ferry boat, I was grateful for the (free) opportunity to visit the island.

I spend the time before the chimps’ feeding time exploring the island, taking pictures, spotting the Sacred Ibis (for the 1st time), other birds & two monitor lizards, and listening to a lecture that the secondary students had to attend.

It was refreshing to see students ask questions as I worked with older primary students in the village who had a lot of difficulty being comfortable enough to ask questions.  The answers to the questions were interesting; I felt the staff member was doing his best to answer them but I noticed a tendency to anthropomorphize the chimps.  It may take conscious effort to understand non-human animals in their own environment without feeling the need to attribute human qualities to make them more relate-able to people.

After the lecture, we went to the chimps outdoor habitat to see them feeding.  It was impressive to see our 98.7 % relatives sitting hunched forward with their knees bent before them, holding out their arms for a veggie, and vocalizing when their keeper threw veggies over the fence.  There were over forty chimps in the outdoor facility; the chimps were confiscated at the customs close to the border with Democratic Republic of Congo.  A couple of them were held in the indoor holding area because one of them kept trying to escape the island when he was picked on by other chimps & the other chimp was an incredible acrobat who like to jump over the fence.  Since an average chimp has physical strength of at least 3 adult men, visitors don’t get the same experience as they would when they track chimps in the wild (where they come relatively close to the chimps without protected contact, a fence).  We were also asked not to go too close to the fence since some chimps had a habit of throwing things at us.  I was amazed at how similar we were to the chimps.

After the feeding time, we left the island and returned to the mainland.  I felt exhausted and was thankful for the free ride (that was arranged by one of the staff members) back into the city.  After dinner I went straight to bed and left for site early next morning.

Next post…Gorilla tracking on September 25th.

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.

Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers

September 7, 2010

This morning I found out that a PCV was fatally shot in Lesotho.  The news was shocking.  The Inspector General’s(Lesotho’s police force) response was not surprising where he indirectly blamed the victim for walking out on the street rather than choosing a private car.  Yes, the victim chose to get killed because he decided to walk out of the building in what was quoted by IG as a low crime area.  If it’s a low crime area, then why isn’t it safe to walk outside? It is hard enough to hear a death of a PCV, should the victim be blamed? Does that help in coping with someone’s death? Did this person think of the victim’s family, friends, or colleagues? Would this person appreciate if someone said this about someone he cared about?

Since I believe Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers have the same right as other service people to be remembered, I started a Facebook group for the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers.  PCV’s sacrifice their time and energy to make a difference in people’s lives and in the communities they reside.  The ones who die in service should never be forgotten.  There is a memorial website for Fallen PCV’s–http://www.fpcv.org/.  I hope they accomplish their goal of constructing a physical memorial for those volunteers who died during their service.

While I was exploring their website, I ran into a link to Kate Puzey–the volunteer who was murdered in Benin during our Pre-service Training last year.  PC didn’t provide any information about her death at the time, or wanted to stay tight lipped in fear of offending PC headquarters.  The Government of Benin had pledged full cooperation and support in the investigation at the time. A year and a half later from what I’ve looked up there hasn’t been any arrest.  A year and a half ago Jody Olsen, former acting Peace Corps Director, commended Kate for her service and expressed sorrow for the loss.

Is that all? Just a few words.  Is that all what we–Peace Corps Volunteers–mean to the headquarters? Are we just a mere number that a few words will do? A number that is needed to fill a quota that is required in a country of service so the US government can gloat what kind of humanitarian work it supports.

When I read about Kate Puzey, I feel for those who knew her.  Her family who lost their daughter.  Her community who lost a leader.  Her students who lost a teacher.  Even though I never met Kate, I feel I lost a PC sister.

Can Kate’s family rely on Peace Corps to put pressure on the Government of Benin to bring her attacker/s to justice? Or is Peace Corps just going to put on a diplomatic face and add a few more words? If what happened to Kate occurred to one of the top Washington officials’ children, what would the response be? Is Peace Corps the kind of organization that Kate believed in? “one that’s transparent, efficient and respects and protects and empowers their volunteers.”(http://www.wsbtv.com/news/22798759/detail.html).

Time will tell.

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Update: I learned from PC staff members & a RPCV that Kate Puzey’s perpetrator was found.  The perpetrator was her language instructor who killed her because she was going to blow the whistle on the instructor’s relative who was allegedly abusing children.  The US government wanted the perpetrator extradited to a US court and the government of Benin refused.

We are murderers

September 1, 2010

I was saddened by the cabinet’s recent decision to give away part of Mabira Forest to sugar cane plantation owners.  Mabira Forest is the only standing forest in central Uganda.  It is home to diverse species of birds, mammals, and insects.  A few years ago there was a huge outcry when the cabinet made the same decision.  Now that people have quiet down, they are probably hoping their recent decision would not make much of a difference because people have other things to worry about: like the primary elections.

We’re murdering other species of living organisms.  I feel ashamed on behalf of my species, who’re self-centered and care only about our progress, our short-term happiness, and our welfare.  If we cannot live in harmony with Mother Nature, then we’re also setting ourselves up closer to our extinction.  Let us look at the history of our planet.  Look at the organisms that dominated during the Paleozoic or the Mesozoic.  Trilobites and the dinosaurs became extinct.  Why wouldn’t we?

While we rape and murder our planet, I’m grateful for those who sow and plant the seeds so all species have an equal chance of survival.  Meanwhile, I’m going to stop sitting on my glutes and staying depressed and getting in touch with Trees for the Future.

Trees for the Future @ http://www.plant-trees.org/

I am the earth.  You are the earth.  The Earth is dying.  You and I are murderers.  (Ymber Delecto)