Laura Leach ‘95 working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda for the past two years. She sent regular updates to KWConnect about her experiences in Africa. This page is a collection of all her posts. Start at the bottom to read her story from the beginning.
June 6, 2011 – Coming Home (Final Post)
O-F-Z-Q-P – I flew through the eye chart with my left eye. I was in the middle of my close-of-service physical exam, and it seemed impossible that my two years were already up, but here I was just two days from flying home.
When I switched to my right eye, everything looked blurry – really blurry. Since I’m the last remaining member of my family who is not yet sporting a pair of glasses or contacts, this made me nervous, but Karen, the Peace Corps Medical Officer, assured me my vision was fine.
What I was soon to discover when reaching home is that I was now going to see things clearer than I ever have. That’s what happens to you when you spend two years in a foreign country and come home. You see things differently and notice details that have gone unnoticed for years.
I left Uganda on April 28. There were walk-to-work demonstrations going on in Kampala that day, and I was a little bit nervous about getting from Kampala to Entebbe to catch my flight, but the Peace Corps driver got me safely there in plenty of time. My flight was from Uganda to Amsterdam, where I quickly devoured a lot of cheese during my layover, and then flew to Detroit.
In Detroit, my sister Kelly surprised me at the airport. It was my first time back in the U.S. for more than two years, and the first time I had seen anyone from my family during that same period of time. I was stunned (in a good way) that she flew from New York to meet me.
The two of us flew the last leg of the journey together and were met at the airport by my Dad, Mom and sister Lisa. As soon as I saw my mom, I started to cry. It had been a difficult week saying goodbye to the friends I had made, the work that gave me such a sense of fulfillment and the country I had grown to love, but now I was home!
What I Learned
The number one thing I’ve been asked about my experience with the Peace Corps is if I am glad I did it. The answer is a resounding YES! I learned so much from this experience. I learned how much I take for granted every single day while people on the other side of the world are so grateful for the very little bit that they have.
I was greeted with enthusiasm, acceptance and joy almost every single day while I was in Uganda, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Certainly things in Uganda were not perfect, but the things that bothered me while I was there seem so insignificant now that I am home, I can’t imagine why I let them bother me so much at the time.
I also learned a lot about the challenges that women face in other parts of the world – domestic violence, an inability to exercise their reproductive rights, unequal access to education and good jobs, and I could go on.
I learned about life for children in Uganda where many children are treated like property, or neglected, or sexually abused, or fail to receive an education, or are living in poverty, and yet they are so light hearted and full of joy. I became good friends with a little girl who was HIV+ and learned a little bit about the challenges people who are HIV+ face as well as their families and communities. I even learned a little bit about myself along the way, too.
What You Can Do
I have enjoyed sharing my story with the KWC community. The Peace Corps was a wonderful experience for me that I would recommend to any students finishing their academic career. You will learn about the world, about yourself, and develop important skills that will help you in your future careers no matter which path you chose. To learn more about serving in the Peace Corps, you can go to their website at www.peacecorps.gov or you can feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!
April 21, 2011 — Girls of the Haven
A new director has taken over the Haven, and in the past month, most of the children who had been at the Haven for a long time have been resettled. In some cases, I felt nothing but relief and joy that the children were getting to go home. Josephine was one of those cases. Josephine had been staying at the Haven for a year, and she was so homesick. She always greeted me with big smiles and hugs except on the days that another child got to go home. On those days I knew someone had gone before everyone had arrived to the classroom just by the expression on Josephine’s face. Josephine’s parents came in for some counseling, and then they were reunited with Josephine. I wasn’t there when they took her home, but I can imagine the joy and excitement surrounding that trip home.
Regina was another girl who stayed at the Haven for a long time. There is just something special about Regina. You can ask anyone who worked with her, and they will tell you the same. She has a big heart. She was the little helper at the Haven. I remember one day I arrived wet because it started raining while I was walking there, and Regina went and made hot tea to serve to me to help warm me up. No one told her to do it…that’s just the kind of girl she is. Regina loved story time, and heaven help any of the kids who acted up or talked during the story. Regina was quick to let them know they needed to be quiet and listen.
When Regina was going to be returned home, I asked if I could go along. It was an interesting day because it turned out that almost everything I thought I knew about Regina wasn’t true. Regina was a runaway, and I thought her mother wasn’t alive and her father didn’t have the means to care for her. I didn’t get that story from her, but one of the counselors had shared it with me. The truth was that Regina has both her parents. They had been separated, but had reconciled while Regina was away. I didn’t meet either of her parents, but I did meet her grandfather who is a fisherman in Mayuge district. We ended up leaving Regina in the care of her grandfather. That was a difficult day because Regina had gotten used to the Haven and the people there, and she was not happy to go home.
I talked to her grandfather about her education, and he took me to meet the headmistress at the local primary school. I went back to visit Regina a week later to take her some things and check in on how she was doing. It was a great visit, and I hope to go back one more time before I leave and keep in touch once I’ve returned to the U.S. (a challenge since her grandfather doesn’t have a phone or immediate access to a computer, and the closest post office is about an hour away).
The difficult aspect of working with the Reginas and Josephines is that although each girl is unique, there are so many girls in Uganda that have stories exactly like Regina and Josephine of abuse, neglect, being treated like property and like they don’t matter. It is a huge problem here and in other countries around the world, and it is a problem that we all need to work together to solve.
April 11, 2011 — My Kiddos
I started going to the Haven last June. The Haven is an emergency shelter for women and children who are experiencing domestic violence and need a safe place to stay while their case is being sorted out. While the idea was that it would mainly be used by women and their children, there ended up being a lot of children placed there on their own. These children have faced problems such as defilement, incest, physical abuse, and some are runaways.
Such cases are not easy to resolve in Uganda. According to a survey done by the Uganda Bureau of Statistic in 2005, the Ugandan police are considered the most corrupt service provider in Uganda. Part of the problem is lack of resources, and part of the problem is poor ethics and a culture where corruption is commonplace.
In some cases when a child is defiled and the case is taken to the police, the family of the perpetrator will offer a bribe to the police to make the case go away. If the child’s family can’t come up with their own money to pursue the case, then that child will never receive justice.
Another challenge is that girls are treated like a commodity here. Their value rests in how much their parents receive for bride price when they wed. If a child is defiled, her parents will often settle the situation by accepting some payment from the defiler, because the girl is now spoiled and won’t command a bride price if or when she weds.
Some of the cases prove challenging just because of geography. Right now we have a girl who is from Bwindi which is in Western Uganda, so the challenge is researching the situation and finding family who can take her in, and then getting her there. Due to these challenges and others, the children were staying at the Haven for extended periods of time, and there was no programming in place for them.
During my first visit with the children, they greeted me as a visitor and recited their alphabet chart and number chart. I quickly went from visitor to Teacher Laura, spending a couple hours with the children every morning. We read stories, color pictures, solve math problems, play games, sing songs, and generally have a good time together.
The most important thing I try to do with the kids is instill confidence in them and make them feel loved. But in truth, I feel like I receive far more from the children than I give. Every day when I arrive, they come running to greet me, grabbing my purse and bags to carry in for me. Every day when I leave, I am engulfed in hugs and well wishes. The truth is, they’ve increased MY confidence and made me feel loved by them. What a great gift.
Next time: two individual stories of girls at The Haven …
March 10, 2011 — Finding a Purpose
A Big Move
Although I was excited that the VSLA was doing well, I was still feeling very isolated from my organization and underutilized. In December of 2009, I went and spoke to the director of MIFUMI about how I was feeling. He agreed that the physical distance between me and the office was serving as an obstacle, and they would look for a place in Tororo town for me to stay.
I was pleased by how our talk went, but I refused to get my hopes up because at one point there had been discussions of moving me to Nagongera, and that had fallen through. Most things tend to take quite awhile to organize and execute here, so I was really surprised when I was moved into my new apartment in Tororo town before the end of the year. Everything was about to change.
When I made the move to Tororo town, they switched my counterpart at MIFUMI as well. Now I was going to be working with Dinah Atim, who at the time was the head of organizational development, but soon was switched to the head of enterprise, and later was promoted to the programming officer for the organization. Dinah and I worked together to get VSLAs started within each women support group MIFUMI works with.
When I came to MIFUMI there were only 10 advice centers, but during my first year here, they expanded their service so that there was an advice center in each sub-county. This meant there were 21 women’s groups that needed to start saving. I ended up doing most of the VSLA training because Dinah was busy working to transition the groups to community based organizations.
Instead of my earlier fear coming true of not having enough members interested or able to save, the opposite actually occurred. By the time I got one group trained and underway, they would have the next 30 women lined up to start another group. This is a terrific problem to have because it meant the program was popular and spreading, but it also created a challenge for me because I couldn’t disengage from one center and move on to the next.
So far I have made it to 14 sub-counties and am working with 37 VSLAs. One of the highlights of my service was when that first group in Nagongera completed their first savings cycle last September. I got a gomesi – the traditional dress worn by women of Uganda – made for the occasion. The women laughed and clapped when I arrived and stepped out of the vehicle in my gomesi. It was a fun day with a lot of laughter, hugs and a few tears of joy as well.
As I sat there and watched each woman receive her savings, I thought back to that first meeting I had in Nagongera and how overwhelmed I had felt that day by the weight of the women’s problems. I’m sure many of those problems still exist, but they weren’t there that day. I am so proud of the women of Nagongera mostly because their accomplishment was their own. They were not given the toolkit – they bought it. They were not given any money – all of the money saved and used for loans was their own. They just needed me to give them a little guidance, and I needed them to find my sense of purpose here in Uganda. In the end, we all walked away a little richer from the experience.
March 3, 2011 – VSLAs
During our pre-service training, two volunteers came to talk to us about a program called VSLA which stands for Village Savings and Loan Association. This program is designed to give people who live in a rural area and do not have easy access to formal financial institutions the opportunity to save money and borrow money.
Here’s how it works: around 30 people get together, buy a metal box with three places to lock it, and meet regularly to save money and give out loans to group members from their savings. There is a separate fund that members contribute to weekly that exists for emergencies that pop up such as sickness or death in the family. Loans taken from this emergency fund are not charged interest. Members choose a base amount for savings, which we call their share value. Then at each meeting, members are supposed to save from one to five shares per meeting.
The good things about the program are that it encourages savings in a culture that typically does not save, it gives members access to loans that they can put into business ventures, the interest paid on loans stays within the group rather than going to a bank and it is self-managed. I was pretty much sold on the concept by the time the volunteers left our training session, so I was excited when the women of Nagongera mentioned that they wanted to learn how to save.
Despite the good sales pitch by Josh and Eric, I was still nervous starting the VSLA. The last thing you want to do is start a project that flops, especially when you are dealing with someone’s hard-earned money. The toolkit consists of the metal box, three locks, 30 passbooks, two bowls, ink pens, a record keeper journal, an ink stamp pad, a bottle of ink, a stamp and a ruler. It all costs 90,000 shillings (about $45), so I was worried about the women having the money to get started.
I quickly discovered that my worries were unfounded. These women were serious about saving. They had their money collected for the box kit and all of the members recruited and in place at our first meeting. The first few meetings you have, nobody saves, because you are training and setting up the VSLA. At each of those first few trainings, the members were so eager to start saving. They elected officers, and soon saving was underway. I came to all of the meetings I could make during the first few months, but soon the women needed very little guidance from me.
Next time: A big move … and VSLAs expand!
February 22, 2011 — Uganda: The Big Pay-Off (Part 2)
Another False Start
The second false start came when the women said they were interested in being trained in poultry keeping. There is an organization in Uganda called the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS); their sole purpose is to educate and support Ugandans regarding agricultural practices. I went to the Nagongera sub-county offices and met with the NAADS officers and asked them if they would conduct a training for the women in Nagongera on raising poultry as an income generating activity. The NAADS officers agreed and said they would make sure to spread the word that there would be a training.
I had notified my “counterpart” at MIFUMI to let her know when the training would take place, but somehow wires were crossed, and a domestic violence advisor training session was scheduled for the same time as the poultry training. This meant that the two women that I counted on to help me with translations would be gone, and Hellen, who was also very helpful, would have to be at the Advice Center and also could not attend the poultry training. I was disappointed by this but still felt optimistic about the training.
Food and Payment
The morning of the scheduled session, I went to the office. When the women began showing up for the training, they were asking where the food was. One of the local officials came and told me the women were hungry, and that I should provide some food. Well, there was a budget of zero for this event, but I hopped on my bike and rode down the street and bought a bag of chapattis for the women. They were quickly gone, and as more and more women arrived, the same official told me we needed more. I told her the food was only for people who showed up on time, and we needed to go ahead and start with the training.
It wasn’t that simple though. The two men from NAADS asked me for their money. Um, what money? It turned out they wanted me to pay a “facilitation fee.” This was news to me, since when I arranged for the training no one mentioned any sort of fee, and providing advice to their community members regarding agricultural practices was precisely what their job was suppose to be.
I was angry, frustrated, and near tears, but with over 100 women who had traveled quite far waiting for a training, I agreed to pay their fee. Being the nice guys that they were, they agreed to give me a “discount” since no one had mentioned the fee prior to the event.
What Did He Just Say?
I’d like to say the money was well spent, but the men seemed ill prepared. The training was in dhopadhola, so I didn’t know what was being said most of the time except for the brief summaries the men would say to me. I do know at one point the guys were talking about sex instead of poultry, so I think it is probably best that I couldn’t follow most of what was being said.
After they finished, the men asked me to pay them in the privacy of their office, which just made the whole encounter feel even creepier. They were all smiles and handshakes and told me to let them know if I needed them for any future training.
At this point, I was down, but not quite out. I had one more idea before I was going to throw in the towel … and this one was a winner!
February 14, 2011
The Big Pay-Off
My breakthrough at my site came when I met a lady named Mary Asili. Mary was one of the domestic violence advisors in Nagongera and also worked with a group of women called the Nagongera Women’s Guild. Mary was the first person within the MIFUMI organization that I met who genuinely seemed interested in working with me, and I was definitely ready to grab at any opportunity that came along at this point.
We scheduled a meeting for me to go to Nagongera to meet the women Mary works with and talk to them to see if there was some project or goal that I could work with them on. The day of my meeting, Akoth Thereza, who is a volunteer at the Mifumi Village Advice Center, hopped on her bike to lead me to Nagongera. It was about a 45-minute bike ride.
When I got there I was greeted by Margret Rembo, the other domestic violence advisor at that site; Hellen, who is a volunteer at the center and also a young mother with a baby named Obama; and Betty who was one of the leaders within the Women’s Guild. There were probably between 30-40 women there for that first meeting.
I introduced myself in dhopodhola and went as far as I could on my own before I sought help with translation. At first the women were quiet, but when I asked them to tell me about themselves, one by one, women raised their hands to tell me what challenges they were facing. One of the biggest concerns shared by most women was inability to pay school fees. Some women had been abandoned by their husbands who were now not contributing at all to provide basic needs for the women or their children. Some women had been chased by their husbands, after their husbands had married a second wife. Some were widows who didn’t have any help or any way to provide for themselves. Most of the women who spoke had experienced domestic violence in some form or another.
By the time the women were finished, I was completely overwhelmed. I remember trying to compose myself to say something coherent, but I also remember wondering what I could possibly do to help these women with their problems.
I have to admit I had a couple of false starts before I actually found the right project to work on with the women of Nagongera. First the women showed me a kitchen that they were given by the Catholic Church in Nagongera. The Nagongera Advice Center is located next to the church, and the Nagongera Women’s Guild started out as a prayer group for the women.
I need to clarify what I mean by “kitchen” It was an empty building – no electricity, no stove, no furniture…nothing. But it was a “kitchen” to the women, and they wanted to start a catering business from this kitchen. The first thing I asked the women to do was to make a list of everything they thought they would need for this business and the price that it would cost.
At first the list started off with the typical things you would associate with a catering business such as pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups, etc., but soon that list was several pages long and included jewels and gowns for their catering uniforms. I’m not sure where that list ended up, but I made it the responsibility of the group members to search out the prices of the items for the business, and I never saw that list again.
Next time: Another false start, leading to The Pay-Off …
December 14, 2010
Work was another challenge for me out in the village. I was supposed to be spending time learning about the work at the advice centers, but one counselor at the center was hardly ever around. She was from Tororo town, and apparently village life wasn’t for her either. The other counselor would leave me behind at the center while she went out on case handling. I read quite a few books those first few weeks out in the village.
Soon a solution presented itself. The school Greg was volunteering at didn’t have an English teacher and wanted to know if I would be interested. I went to James Ochola Memorial Secondary School (JOMSS) the very next day, introduced myself, and informed them that I had never taught in my life, had absolutely no training, and would be delighted to try to teach the kids if they still wanted me. That first term, I taught all four grades, S1-S4.
It was a huge challenge to say the least. I’m not sure what the children learn regarding English in the primary schools, but it isn’t punctuation, parts of speech, grammar, writing or reading. I bought a local grammar book during a visit in Kampala to help me come up with lessons. There weren’t books for the students to use, so the only information they received was what I put on the board.
Another challenge I had besides not knowing what to teach was discipline. Caning children is supposed to be illegal here, but it definitely goes on. I think the children were excited to have two white teachers visiting them. JOMSS is a government school with very few resources, but it was definitely a status booster to have two teachers (and I use that term loosely regarding myself) from the U.S.
I think this excitement coupled with the fact that they knew neither of us would cane them, and also my own inexperience in the classroom, led to challenges with discipline. Classes were also huge, with over 60 kids each in the S1 and S2 classes. I survived the first term somehow and agreed to teach for a second term but only to S2 and S3.
At the end of the school year, S4 students have to take a national exam, and those scores determine whether they would go on to S5 or not. I felt like the S4 students needed a Ugandan who was familiar with the exam to prepare them. As far as S1 goes, there were just far too many students and they were far too undisciplined for me to continue teaching that class.
Something else was happening too…I finally found work with my host organization.
December 2, 1010
Rats and Cats
I would have never really considered myself a city girl. I don’t exactly consider Owensboro the big city, but it didn’t take long for me to discover I’m not ready to move to Green Acres either. This became abundantly clear the first time a rat paid me a visit in Mifumi.
This was a HUGE problem in my book, but when I mentioned it to the administrator at Mifumi, she seemed not to grasp the sense of urgency I was feeling regarding this rat. The rat situation came to a head one night when it was raining outside and I didn’t have any power. Water was pooling at the bottom of my door, and I heard a noise coming from down there. When I shined my headlamp down at the door, a rat was crawling in under the bottom.
Picture me seconds later standing on top of my sofa with my headlamp on, shrieking on my cell phone to my then-boyfriend about the current situation. Another rat made his way in despite the dishtowel dam I tried to build at the bottom of my door. We had now entered code red as far as I was concerned.
Another “emergency” visit to Mifumi’s home office was made. The staff was laughing when I once again brought up the “rat problem,” but their amusement subsided when I said I wanted a cat. It turns out that many Ugandans fear cats. Rats, on the other hand, are just part of village living and nothing to fear.
Sister Goretti was tasked with the assignment of finding me a cat. Goretti asked me if I wanted a big cat or a little cat. I told her I thought a small cat would be fine. Moments later she hopped on her moped and zipped away. When she came back, there was half of a yellow jerry can on the back of the moped and inside was an incredibly dirty, black and white kitten. Hello Oreo!
Oreo cleaned up pretty well, and soon became a bit of a neighborhood celebrity. The children living on the compound would come by knocking on the window looking for Oreo. I would go to the Mifumi market and buy omena (which is the same thing as sun-dried minnows) to mix with rice and feed to Oreo, so the local women liked Oreo because he was good for business.
At first I thought I got jipped when it came to mouse-hunting skills. We would hear a noise, and Oreo would perk up, but instead of going to check the situation out, he would stand there looking at me. I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “After you,” and he never went onto the scene until I gave the all-clear.
Later, he did better at chasing rats, and I had a new problem of him gifting me with rats. He’d come home with a live rat in his mouth, and proceed to play with it for about an hour before he’d eventually eat it. Despite our little differences of opinion about bringing rats home, Oreo was good company and I became happier with my village living.
Next time … teaching school!
October 13, 2010
The Odd Couple and Mifumi
Charles Osinde, who does legal aid clinics out in the village, was the one who came in the Mifumi truck to pick Jude and me up. Charles was the exact opposite of Jude, and they cracked me up most of the drive back to Tororo. While Jude was happy and easy-going, Charles was impatient and grumpy, but still polite. It was kind of like watching the Odd Couple. The bed of the truck was filled with plastic containers with lids, so all of my belongings were squeezed in the backseat with me.
By the time we got to Tororo town, it was raining. We stopped in town, so I could get some kerosene for my lamp, a box of matches and a couple of basins. I also bought a set of silverware, one plate, one bowl and one coffee cup. From Tororo town, we drove on another hour to Mifumi village. I was going to be living in the staff quarters of the Mifumi Health Clinic. It was dark by the time we arrived, and there was no power. Sister Goretti, who manages the Mifumi Health Clinic, met us and let me into my new apartment. As soon as I was settled in, Charles and Jude took off. I was exhausted. I found my sheets in my suitcase, and was soon tucked in under my mosquito net.
During our early days of training, we had meetings with our program managers to discuss what kind of site we wanted. One of the questions was if we wanted a rural or an urban site. I had said I wanted a rural site, and I don’t think you could get much more rural than this. The first weekend at my site I decided to go exploring in the “neighborhood.” I could either turn left or right out of the compound – I chose left and started walking. I walked past mud houses with thatched roofs. I walked past rice fields. I came to the first small trade center and asked them if they had rice. No rice.
I decided to search for the school that fellow volunteer Greg was going to be teaching at. We had passed it on the way to my site, but it was dark, and I couldn’t remember which direction it was or the name of the school. I asked some people at the trade center and a man decided to walk with me. We walked to an intersection, and rested there under a big mango tree. I had been away from my site for an hour now and didn’t bring any water with me. The man flagged down a motorcycle for me, and I tried to explain that I wasn’t allowed to ride motorcycles here. I thanked the gentleman for accompanying me that far and told him I would continue on my own.
I decided to turn right at the intersection. I walked for about 30 minutes, during which time I had a mental conversation with myself about how I was in the middle of nowhere and was likely to starve to death before I found food.
Eventually I came to a bigger trade center. I didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t see too many women around. It was mostly men, and I felt very intimidated. I found a shop that sold rice and beans, bought half a kilo of each, and enjoyed a soda before heading back. I gave up finding Greg that day, but at least I had gotten out and looked around. My new top priority was getting myself a bicycle to get to the local villages and explore more. There was still a lot left to see!
October 8, 2010
The most exciting day of training was the day that we were given our work assignments. A week or two before, a gentleman named Dipak came to our training. He is from an organization called Raising Voices, which works to prevent violence against women and children in Uganda. Dipak spoke mostly about caning in the schools and alternative forms of discipline, but he also touched on child abuse at home, sexual abuse, and violence against women. The statistics he shared were startling and the stories heartbreaking.
After his visit, I went to the internet café in town, and looked up the Raising Voices website. I decided that no matter what my primary work assignment was, working against domestic violence was definitely something worthwhile for me to take on as a secondary project. The website listed one partner organization in the Tororo area that was linked with Raising Voices – Mifumi.
Each of us were later given an envelope with information about where we would be living and the organization we would be working with. When I opened my envelope and read the word Mifumi on my paper, you would have thought I won the lottery. All of the volunteers were running up to each other asking, “What did you get, what did you get?” It was really amazing because it seemed like all of the economic volunteers got placements perfectly suited for them. We were all so pleased and felt like our program manager Jolie had really listened to us during our discussions about what we wanted.
We were soon on our way to Kampala. We each met either our counterpart or our supervisor for the first time. My counterpart was supposed to be Janet Otte, but she was unable to make the trip to Kampala; instead, Jude Oboth came to meet me. Jude is about the happiest guy I’ve ever met. He had a huge smile on his face when we met, and he made me feel very welcomed from the very beginning. Jude worked as a lawyer at Mifumi. He went over some organizational basics with me to explain about the work that Mifumi does, but as far as getting specifics on what my role would be, I was going to have to wait.
While we were in Kampala, we were given time for a quick shopping trip. I had no idea what to buy because I had no idea what my place would already have. Fellow volunteer Hunter said he was getting a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jelly. That sounded good to me, and I followed his lead. It turned out to be a good move – that’s what I lived off of my first few days at site.
The next day we had our swearing-in ceremony. I was very emotional during that ceremony and kept crying. Afterwards, we had a group photo taken, enjoyed a meal together and then were on our way. It felt so sudden to be saying goodbye to all of the volunteers I had just gone through training with, but it was also exciting to be on our way to my new home.
Next time: first days at Mifumi …
September 23, 2010
The big event during pre-service training was our volunteer visit. Usually trainees get a visit with a current volunteer at his or her site to see what life after training is like AND a site visit, but due to budget cuts, we only got the volunteer site visit.
The volunteer I visited lived in Palissa district. She came on board as an education volunteer, but it didn’t take her long at her site to realize she wasn’t really needed where she was assigned to work. Instead she found a new counterpart and organization to work with, and her major project was helping to get a demonstration pig farm built. It was still under construction during our visit, but you could tell it was going to be a very nice facility, and you could see how the community would benefit from it.
The idea was that someone who was HIV+ would receive two pigs and produce a litter. They would return two of the piglets to the piggery to replenish the ones they took, and could raise and sell the rest for income. Because it is a demonstration farm, those receiving pigs could come in and be trained on raising pigs before receiving their piglets. Local area youth could also come and learn about raising pigs. I also got to visit with another volunteer in Palissa who was working with women’s groups.
Our visit with current volunteers was great because it showed us what our living conditions might be like, what kind of activities we would be doing out in the community, and it gave us a break from the routine we had been in for several weeks at the training center. It was also the first time we had traveled anywhere on our own, so it showed us that things weren’t quite as scary in Uganda as the safety trainer had made it sound. It was fun coming back together at Wakiso and hearing about the other volunteer visits. The only downside to the volunteer visit was that it gave us all a little taste of freedom and suddenly made us anxious to be done with training.
The good news was that training wouldn’t last much longer. It was amazing how quickly the last few weeks went by. Most of our attention was focused on language as we geared up for the “test” we would have to pass. We had two simulations where there were different language stations set up, and Ugandans who speak our language were brought in to practice with us. One language station was a supermarket with fresh fruit, cookies, candy, etc. I’m not sure how I did it, but I negotiated the purchase of chocolate biscuits in the local language. If I could procure chocolate on my own, I felt that I might just be okay!
Three people who were friends of our language trainer came for the simulations. One lady I could kind of understand and communicate with and so my confidence was building, but then at the very next station, the lady spoke with such speed, I didn’t understand anything. Leading up to our language test, Esther told us that the man Chombo who would be coming to test us was a very, very big man, so we wouldn’t be surprised and nervous when we met him. I had spent a lot of time studying my flash cards. Esther gave us a whole list of potential questions that Chombo would ask us, and I wrote out answers and practiced them.
When the big day came, I was so nervous. I sat and watched other volunteers go in and come out, some confident they passed and others not so confident. My turn finally came, and when I went in I was so nervous I was shaking. I made it through some general conversation with Chombo, and then he asked me a question, and I couldn’t remember the translation for one of the words he said. I struggled a minute or two trying to come up with a response, but never quite recovered. I left feeling very defeated and certain that I did not achieve the intermediate low score necessary to pass the language requirement.
Those who don’t pass the test are given a second chance at in-service training about three months after you’ve been at site. So it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t pass, but I had put a lot of effort into it and had hoped I would pass. The testing took a long time, and after we each finished, our trainer and our tester had to go back and listen to each of our tapes and discuss our scores, which meant we wouldn’t find out our results that day. When Esther finally did give me my results, and I found out I passed (due to some lenient grading on the part of Chombo, who noticed my shaking hands), I started crying out of joy and relief and gave Esther the biggest hug I’m sure any language trainer has ever received!
I had made it past my biggest obstacle, and in a couple days I would be sworn in and heading to site … the next leg of my adventure.
September 15, 2010
Training, Food and Kids
During pre-service training, I developed a very comfortable routine. Joseph the houseboy would make me breakfast…usually an omelet, bread with jam and margarine, and Nescafe instant coffee or African tea.
I’d walk to the training site, and would attend a morning training session. Sometimes we would start with language, but sometimes we would start with a culture session or some other topic. Besides culture and language, we had medical sessions, and then either economic development or education, depending on your sector. I thought we would have to get our vaccination shots before coming in country, but we actually received these over the course of our pre-service training during medical sessions. We also had current volunteers attend our training to teach us about topics such as HIV/AIDS, the peer diversity support network, VSLAs (village savings and loan associations) and gender and safety issues at your site.
Food and More Food
After the morning training session, we’d have break tea. I LOVE break tea, and call upon all of you to help me get this tradition going in America. We were given the choice of black tea, African tea (which is tea with milk and sugar), instant coffee or hot chocolate. Break tea was accompanied by a couple of snack items such as doughnuts, mandazi (another type of fried dough treat), g-nuts (same thing as peanuts), samosas (thin pastry filled with either a vegetable mixture or a spicy minced meat, folded into a triangle shape and fried) and hard boiled eggs.
After break we would go into another training session. This was followed by lunch. Lunch was a buffet with different combinations of local dishes, matoke (boiled, mashed green bananas), rice, beans, greens, g-nut sauce, spaghetti noodles, goat meat, beef, and chicken. The most popular lunch included roasted pumpkin and chapattis cut up in little triangles. Chapattis are just flour, salt, and water combined rolled into a flat circle like a tortilla, and fried in cooking oil. It looks and sounds like the easiest thing in the world to make, but I have yet to be able to master the art of the chapatti!
Afternoons were usually when we did our sector training. These were my favorite sessions for two reasons. First, our economic development trainer Jenny was amazing. She is very bright, friendly, funny, and absolutely beautiful. The second reason I liked economic sessions the best was because I liked all of the volunteers in our sector very much. With Stephen returning to the US with his wife, we only had seven volunteers left in our group. Despite our small number, we were a motley crew spanning the United States – UT, MN, PA, MO, GA and KY.
Another thing that was fun about economic training is that business is so different here. Our very first assignment for the class was going out to research a different type of business. We were each paired with a partner and given a business to find out about. My partner was Miranda, who recently earned her MBA before coming to Uganda, and we had to research the chapatti business. We went to find out what products they offered, how they decided their locations, the cost of the product, how they competed with other chapatti makers, etc.
What we found out is that business is extremely different here. Instead of trying to come up with the next big new idea, people see someone else doing something for business and decide to try the same thing. They don’t do any research about if there is demand for more of that product or service. They don’t do anything to differentiate themselves from their competition. A lot of small businesses don’t keep any kind of records regarding expenses, income or stock, so many business people have no idea if they are earning a profit or not.
Another element to add on more confusion is that many small business owners don’t keep their personal finances separate from their business finances. Despite our various education and employment backgrounds, we were quick to discover we were all starting at ground zero when it comes to understanding Ugandan businesses.
In the middle of the afternoon we would have afternoon tea, which is the same thing as our morning break tea. There was one last session, and we usually finished around 5:00 p.m. After training I would either go straight home and read in my room or study language, or I would go into town to buy a chocolate bar or soda. It seems impossible that I could be hungry given all of the meals and snacks I received throughout the day, but there is always room for chocolate in my diet.
Most volunteers adopted a local bar as an after-training hang out spot. I seldom went there because my home stay was not near the bar, and I had been scared enough by our initial safety session to make sure I was always inside before dark. The family that lives across the street from my home stay runs a little duka (shop) where they sell some snack foods, sodas, washing detergent, flour, rice, cooking oil, etc., so sometimes I would go over there to hang out with the children. They would try to get me to say words in dhopadhola and then laugh hysterically at my accent. They also would always try to get me to dance for them, which wasn’t difficult to do.
Ugandan children have amazing spirits. Compared to American children they have very little, and much is expected of them in terms of helping the family. Despite the difficult circumstances many of them live in, they manage to still laugh and smile, and pretty soon I was dancing pretty regularly either for or with all the children that lived along my road!
August 4, 2010
Training, Weddings and Heading East
One of the toughest emotional challenges during Peace Corps is losing members of your training class. After that first weekend with our host families, a married couple that we came over with decided to go back to the United States. They had dreamed of being in the Peace Corps back in the early years of the Peace Corps, but they had been discouraged by their parents. All of their kids are now grown, and they had recently retired, and decided to pursue their dream. The wife was an education volunteer, and the husband was an economic development volunteer, and both brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experience.
After that first weekend, they decided they had made a mistake and could not spend two years away from their children and grandchildren. With a bat of an eye, they were gone and there was nothing for the rest of us to do but move forward.
Snacks and Weddings
Things were looking pretty sunny for me at my home stay. I had chosen carrots and cucumbers for my first night snack, and this turned out to be a good move. Ugandans are very warm and welcoming people. They go out of their way for their guests, and as soon as Jane found out I enjoyed carrots and cucumbers, they become a regular part of my diet throughout my stay.
My first weekend at home stay, Jane had a wedding reception she was catering, and I got to tag along. I can’t imagine crashing a wedding reception in the United States and the wedding party being okay with that, but there I was at a wedding reception where I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me, and I was greeted and told that I was “most welcomed.”
I was the only white person there, which means I got a lot of attention, especially from the children. This wedding was a western style wedding being held in Kampala. The main difference between an American wedding reception and this one was that there were many more speeches given at the Ugandan reception, and then the cake was served to the guests by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. I thought that was a nice touch.
Pre-service training is all leading to you getting your own site where you will live and work. Although we had to wait until our last week of training to find out the exact community where we would be located, we got a big hint when we were divided into our language groups. I was put in the dhopadhola group with Mary Beth, Greg and Racheal. Only one district in Uganda speaks dhopadhola, and that is Tororo. I would be heading east.
July 23, 2010
Do you like children? Yes. Do you require a lot of privacy? Yes. I was filling out my home stay questionnaire. During our pre-service training, each volunteer is placed with a home stay family. The idea is for us to interact with Ugandans, learn about the culture, and also learn how to do things the local way – like wash clothes in a basin and cook using a sigiri (small charcoal stove).
I’m sure there is also an emotional element there, too … we hopefully would bond with our Ugandan family, so we wouldn’t bolt and return to the US because we missed the families we left behind. The host families also filled out questionnaires, and the night before we left for Wakiso, Irene (the cultural trainer) was matching volunteers with host families.
When the big day came, we were all given an index card with the name of our host parents, which parish they lived in, what religion they practiced, and how many children they have. My card said Jane, two children, Catholic, and I won’t even try to remember how to spell the parish now. It turns out the card was a little misleading. Jane is Catholic, but she is virtually a non-attending Catholic much as I am virtually a non-attending Christian. She does have a son and daughter, but the daughter was away at college and the son was away at boarding school. Jane is a school teacher in Mengo, which is a suburb of Kampala. She also has a side business as a caterer. In short, Jane is a very busy woman.
Jane is a widow, but she has a houseboy named Joseph who was responsible for cooking, cleaning, collecting water from the well, opening up the house in the morning and closing it up at night, doing the laundry and running errands. I later learned that Joseph was Jane’s nephew and that it is not uncommon for families to have a relative working as a house boy or girl. Joseph didn’t speak much English at all, and I didn’t speak much Luganda, so we had an interesting relationship that consisted of a lot of laughing, smiling, and pointing.
On the big day when we met our families, all of the volunteers were seated in the dining area at ROCCO, a guest house that had been hired out to serve as our training site. The host families didn’t all arrive at once – they sort of trickled in. I sat and watched the hugging and hellos, and waited for my turn. Those of us whose “parents” had not arrived yet looked like the animals left at the end of a pet adoption day at the local pet store. You could sort of sense the rising desperation that we wouldn’t be picked. Certainly it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to change his or her mind about having a complete stranger stay in his or her home for 10 weeks.
Eventually my “mom” did arrive, and we sat down and talked a bit with my friend Mary Beth, a volunteer from Missouri whose home stay Mom was friends with Jane. Slowly, host families and volunteers started going their separate ways.
Jane’s home was beautiful. It was a four-bedroom house with a garage. She had electricity, but no running water. The latrine was outside, but the bathing room was right next to my bedroom, and there was a door that opened from my bedroom into the bathing room, so no streaking through the house in a towel. Yes!!!
There was also a refrigerator, which I didn’t appreciate the significance of at the time, but certainly do now after going a year without having one. After we got all of my things moved into my bedroom, Jane asked me what I wanted to eat. I didn’t know at the time, but how I answered this one question would impact my future happiness for the next 10 weeks.
Stay tuned …
July 15, 2010
Safety, Food and Short Calls
Our first few days in country were spent at Lweza Training & Conference Center in Entebbe. The pace was slow as we were all recovering from jet lag. We met Shirley, who was our training director, Irene, who was responsible for teaching us about Ugandan culture, and Ruth, who was acting as the safety and security director at that time.
The safety and security session was the most memorable, but then again most scarring events usually are. Seriously, by the time this session was finished, I was convinced I would never travel anywhere within country during the course of my stay.
They had a current volunteer come and talk to us, and much of her discussion was about riding matatus (passenger vans that are used as taxis). Don’t give them your bag. Don’t get in until you confirm where they are going. Don’t pay them until you arrive. It might be a good idea to copy down the license number before you get in, and my favorite piece of advice … don’t get into an otherwise empty vehicle with someone you don’t know because of the “human sacrifice problem.” WHAT??? Um, we’re new to this country…everyone is a stranger!
During that training session I also became frightened of walking down the street because it was likely someone would try to steal my bag. I also discovered riding motorcycles was strictly prohibited because so many people are killed or injured from motorcycle accidents in Uganda there is an entire ward devoted to accident victims in the hospital. My means of getting around were looking pretty limited at this point. I later found out that I was not the only volunteer terrified by this session, and I believe they have modified it since our group’s induction.
Shots and Language
During our time at Lweza we met our program directors (APCD). My program director’s name was Jolie. She served as a volunteer in Togo. When we met, she was very relaxed and asked things about our trip there, how things were going so far, how my family felt about me coming to Uganda, and what I was interested in doing regarding my assignment.
We also met with our medical officers who reviewed our files with us, and gave us our malaria prophylaxis. I was really surprised because I thought I would have to get tons of shots before I left for Uganda, but instead we received shots throughout our pre-service training.
We also started our Luganda language training during our time at Lweza. We divided into groups, and my group was led by Irene the cultural trainer. I was really nervous before leaving for Uganda regarding learning a new language. I had taken a little French and a little Spanish in school, and had mastered neither of them. We were given access to some basic training materials online before leaving, but I had not memorized anything yet. I found that most of the volunteers shared the same concerns regarding language.
Besides getting inducted to our training, and our culture, we also were introduced to Ugandan cuisine during these first few days. My friends had rightfully made fun of me before leaving for Uganda because one of the main crops in Uganda is bananas, and I HATE bananas. Ugandans pick them while they are still green, boil them, and mash them. They cover the pot with banana leaves while it cooks. The result is a golden mashed food they call matoke. I tried matoke once. I did not hate it, but it definitely is not at the top of my list.
Other popular dishes here are rice and beans, posho (which is a starchy food made out of maize and cassava flour), millet bread, several different types of greens, roasted pumpkin, cabbage, fish, goat, beef, pork, chicken, and my favorite, chapatti, which is a flat bread fried and sometimes served rolled with an egg, and called a rolex.
My favorite time of the day is tea time. During training we had breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The tea consisted of your option of regular black tea, African tea that was made with milk and a little spicy, coffee, and Cadbury drinking chocolate. This was accompanied by mandazi (fried dough), doughnuts, samosas (small triangular shaped crust filled with either a vegetable mixture or meat mixture and fried), or g-nuts (same thing as peanuts). It was delicious, and I’m convinced if I wasn’t sick so much during my time at training I’d weigh 200 pounds by now.
After a few days in Entebbe, it was time to be transported to Wakiso town. Wakiso is where we would be living with host families for the next 10 weeks during training. If there was anything I feared as much or more than learning a new language, it was the prospect of being a house guest for the next 10 weeks. I am a very private person by nature, and while part of me looked forward to connecting with a local family, the other part of me dreaded having to share living space with strangers for so long.
On our way to Wakiso, we were going to make a quick stop in the Ugandan capitol of Kampala to do some quick shopping. We were told we all needed to buy a little bucket. Why do we need a little bucket? It is in case you need to make a short call at night. Short call? Apparently it would pose a risk to our host families to go outside in the middle of the night to use the restroom, so the bucket was for us to go in during the night. Again I found myself wondering … what have I gotten myself into?
Tune in next time to read about pre-service training and life with a host family.
Find about more about the Peace Corps.
July 8, 2010
Uganda: Cholesterol, Technology and Staging
High Cholesterol? Really?
It wasn’t easy getting into the Peace Corps, and as you can imagine, I was pretty excited when the time came to leave. Actually, it took over a year from the time I applied to when I left for my service. The culprit that delayed the process is a little thing called high cholesterol.
I completed the application, got three people to write letters of recommendation for me, went through the interview, and then went in for my medical and dental appointments. When everything was said and done, the U.S. government decided that I needed to lower my cholesterol and sustain it at a lower level for six months before I left for Uganda.
This amuses me in retrospect only because once I arrived and had my medical review with the medical staff here, they said my beloved Crestor pills were not listed on my medical chart, and I haven’t taken one since I arrived in country.
The fact that there are high medical standards that have to be met before you can leave for service didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me is that I never had a single face-to-face encounter with anyone from the Peace Corps throughout the entire application process. The interview was via phone. Updates came via email. My acceptance letter came through the US Postal Service, and conversations about placements and delays took place via the phone.
I’m curious what the application process was like back when Peace Corps first started up in the 60s before the World Wide Web came along. One thing that has become increasingly clear throughout this entire experience is that this is NOT the same Peace Corps of the ‘60s. Sure, some of the problems that faced developing countries back then are the same problems we are still working on today, but today’s villagers come equipped with cell phones (at least some of them do) and better access to news and information from around the world.
In fact, one of the initiatives taking place in Peace Corps is called TAP (technology against poverty). The mere fact that I am sitting here in my office in Uganda typing on a laptop is a sign of how things have changed over time since the Peace Corps began 49 years ago. I would have had to send my blog on an airgram back then. ;)
One of the nice things about technology is that I got to meet some of the fellow volunteers from my volunteer class via Facebook before we met at staging in Philadelphia. There were originally 35 volunteers scheduled to go to Uganda with my group – 10 economic development volunteers and 25 education volunteers. Two volunteers didn’t show up in Philadelphia, and one volunteer got some bad news from home the day before he left for staging and decided to turn around and go home rather than continue on to Uganda.
Staging is mostly a blur to me now – partly because it is a very short process, and partly because I was teetering between excitement and totally freaking out the entire time. The main event at staging was completing paperwork and making sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s were crossed. Staging was also a good glimpse at what to expect during the next 10 weeks of pre-service training…group activities, flipchart paper and magic markers, and skits. I don’t know how someone who was so involved in theater growing up could loathe having to perform skits so much as an adult, but if I ever have to perform another skit again it will be too soon.
After one night in Philadelphia, we were on our way to New York City to catch our flight to Uganda. When we arrived at Entebbe, there was this old guy wearing jeans, and a baseball cap. He looked like he could have easily fit in with the buddies that my Grandpa used to meet for coffee in Hartford, KY. I assumed he was an overly enthusiastic retiree volunteer who was heading up the welcome committee for the new volunteers. Turns out he was Larry Brown, the country director for Peace Corps Uganda. It was at the moment that I discovered that this was our fearless leader that I finally relaxed and decided that I might just fit in okay here.
Tune in next time to read about our first few days in Uganda.
Find about more about the Peace Corps.
July 1, 2010
A Thatch-Roofed House
How in the world did I end up here? It seems like a fair question these days. Here is Tororo, Uganda. I am an economic development U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer just underway in my second year of service. To understand how I got from point A (Owensboro, KY) to point B (Tororo, Uganda) you have to go back to my college time spent at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
It was there that I met Rebecca Tincher (class of ’94) who joined the Peace Corps immediately following college. Rebecca served in Thailand, and she’s the one who sowed the seed, so to speak.
Back when I was still in college, I had never traveled abroad. In fact, no one in my family had, and I was certain that this was something “other people” do, and certainly not meant for me. It took me a while to debunk that myth, so here I am at age 37, living in a thatch-roofed house in Tororo, Uganda.
Joining the Peace Corps a little bit later than the average volunteer creates some unique challenges. I had been working for Follett Higher Education Group for ten years before I left. Try telling your boss that you are leaving your job because you are going to Africa. It sounded like a horribly fabricated story even to me, and I was the one going.
Aside from wrapping things up at work, I had to figure out what to do with my stuff. Look around you – Americans can accumulate a lot of stuff in a 13-year span, which is how long it had been since I’d been away from home. My parents agreed to take care of the love of my life, Koko the cat, while I was away, so now I just needed to find a home for my furniture and lots and lots of cardboard boxes.
I found a clean, reasonably-priced storage unit in Reo, IN, so after a four-hour U-Haul trip from Jackson, TN, where I was working and living, to my parents’ home in Owensboro, KY, followed by a short jaunt across the river, my life was neatly packed away – okay, precariously crammed away – for the next two years.
I made that trip in December 2008, right before Christmas. I spent the next month selling my car, visiting friends and family, writing a will (just in case Dad was right and I died over here) and figuring out what I absolutely needed to survive during two years in Africa.
Finally the big day arrived in February 2009. My parents took me, my carry-on and two over-stuffed suitcases (one of them literally taped shut with duct tape because none of us could get the zipper to close) to the Evansville airport. I was off to Philadelphia, PA, for my staging event.
In my next entry, I will share with you about staging and my first two months of training in Uganda.