Thursday, September 23, 2010

Some random thoughts

Ode to Ugandan yogurt: Oh delicious dairy, thick, creamy and strawberry flavored. How I love drinking you out of your bag with a straw along my dusty walk home.

Eating Ugandan children: I didn’t believe the apparently popular folk tale that white people eat Ugandan children until a few days ago. As I walked to training, I was offered a terrified two year-old to eat, so that I would spare the older children accompanying her. No wonder the shouts of MUZUNGU are sometimes punctuated by screams of terror…

Mist: It’s beautiful, mysterious, and makes me stop and stare on my walk through the jungle to training.

Mosquito nets: Sometimes I feel like I’m in a dome of protection. Sometimes, it strangles me in my sleep. We have a love/hate relationship.

Mefloquine: Disappointment. I was hoping for the advertised vivid dreams/hallucinations/night terrors. Sadly, all it does is prevent me from getting malaria. Sigh. 

ttfn friends :)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More than half way there!

This blog is written in two installments, dated from when I wrote them and listed oldest to newest:

September 12, 2010

Today marks the end of week four of official training – one month down! This week has been pretty eventful, with some field trips during the training week, a Muslim/national holiday that the entire country (include the PC office in Kampala) had off except for us, and a fun filled weekend.

On Monday we drove for several hours east to a current volunteer’s site to visit village health teams (VHTs) and ask them questions about their work. VHTs are meant to be a first line of health care/referral for communities, especially those that are far from health centers. They provide education on hygiene, sanitation, HIV/AIDS, malaria prevention/distribution, and refer people to facilities when needed. VHTs are chosen by the communities, and are usually people who are well trusted and respected within the community.

We also got to visit a woman who raises poultry and grows mushrooms. She demonstrated how she creates her mushroom gardens in plastic bags, and then we got to see her room full of mushroom gardens – bags hanging all around with mushrooms growing out of the sides. Pretty cool! The ride back to town was also eventful since one of our trainers bought a live chicken to take home, and she carried in back in the bus in a plastic bag – his worried little head stuck out of the bag-handle the whole way back!

This week I also got to co-facilitate a medical session on STDs and HIV with two other trainees and a Peace Corps medical officer. Some of you might know that I volunteered with Peer Health Exchange (PHE) in college and taught workshops on this very topic to high school students in Boston. Proof that this is indeed a small world: one of my fellow trainees also did PHE and taught the very same workshop! So we got to pull out our old activities and use them with the PCT class. Great fun J

Saturday was a designated cooking day – within each of our language groups, we prepared a menu to cook at one of our homestays lunch for our class and the host family. We made a delicious three course meal: egg and cheese sandwiches, chapatti burritos with guacamole, salsa, ground beef, rice, and beans, and pineapple and brownies for dessert (one of my brilliant classmates rigged an oven out of two pots and some sand – I love my language group!) The meal turned out great, and I had an absolutely amazing time cooking with my Lusoga team – I really and truly could not have asked for a better group of people. Freeze frame moment: after our meal while waiting for the brownies to cook, we all laid out on a mat on the back porch, and digested our delicious meal while enjoying a gorgeous view of lush Uganda in the midst of the rainy season. Life just doesn’t get much better.

Sunday I went with a few other trainees to a local secondary school event to cheer on our friend’s host sister during their “field day.” She won the cross country race (go Stella!). and we stayed to watch some of the other events: sack racing, long jump, jaggling, matooke peeling (my favorite event! girls had to demonstrated peeling and wrapping matooke in the banana leaves for cooking, but boys only had to demonstrate fast and correct peeling), and bottle filling (a race where kids filled their mouths with water and ran across the field to spit the water into a bottle, repeating until the bottle is full). Since these events took until 1 pm, and there were 32 total listed on the schedule, we left to get lunch instead of watching all the events. However, I was sad to miss some of the events-to-come, such as the laughing and crying contests…not quite sure what we would have experienced with those! Afterwards we enjoyed a delicious meal of fried chicken and fries with a bag of strawberry yogurt for dessert. Mmmm mmmm good.

September 22, 2010

There’s a general feeling of restlessness among our training class: in just over a week, we’ll be given our site placements. We’ve been anxiously waiting for that day since training started (and honestly, since we applied to the Peace Corps), but the wait has become even harder since we’ve just returned from our immersion week. Week 5 of training was our “tech immersion.” We all got placed with current volunteers and spent 4 days at their site. Not only we were all excited for a vacation from the usual training schedule, but it was a great chance to cook our own food: no matooke!

I went with another trainee to visit a volunteer just east of Kampala. Sadly our site was not in my language region, but at least we were close to Wakiso, so we didn’t have to spend 10 hours on a bus like some of our training class. Part of the excitement of the journey came from the chance to spend some time on the way to and from the site in Kampala. We savored the opportunities: coffee, smoothies, burgers, fries (with real ketchup!), Indian food, etc. We even got to use a real flush toilet! Woohoo!

The community we visited was right on the shore of Lake Victoria, and we got a beautiful view by hiking up a hill and looking out over the village. We also got to feed some local monkeys along the lake. Some were shyer than others, but they were eager for our bananas!

In terms of cooking, we learned that the locals are much, much better at preparation than we are. One of the PCV’s secondary students helped us one evening, and she peeled and chopped sweet potatoes, tomato, cabbage, and pineapple faster than I could blink. I have to admit, after using the locally purchased knife the PCV had, I am glad that I brought a set of good kitchen knives with me! We also got to cook some luxury foods: sweet potato fries, peanut butter cookies, and pancakes. Mmmm.

Needless to say, after the freedom of immersion week, it was hard to come back to training. We’re also all starting to realize how little training we actually have left, and we’re all scrambling to finish our self-exploration projects and study for our language exams. We’ve been told that failing the exam is no big deal (you still swear-in as a volunteer and just retake the exam in 3 months), but we’re all a little worried about being that ONE TRAINEE that fails…

Some things that have become “typical” in my Ugandan life:
-       Sweating. All the time. Even at night. What I wouldn’t do for a screen on my window so I could get some fresh air while I sleep!
-       Rain. The rainy season is in full swing, and sudden downpours are commonplace. Last week I enjoyed a peaceful walk to training in the pouring rain: even though it happens all the time, the Ugandans all stay in doors when the rain comes, so I was met with strange looks on my walk from people looking out their windows, but few shouts of MUZUNGU!!!
-       That brings me to the “SEE YOU MUZUNGU!!” and “BYE MUZUNGU!!” shouts that every child yells, at least a dozen times, at the sight of a foreigner. Muzungu means traveler or white person, and I still haven’t figured out why seeing one inspires such excitement in Ugandan children. They scream, run toward us, and often grab our hands or hug us. It can be sweet, funny, or overwhelming depending on my mood.
-       Dust. There’s constantly a layer of it all over my body. It bothered me for a couple of days, but now I’ve accepted that I will be dusty for the next two years. Embrace the dust!
-       Christmas music. They start playing it even earlier than back home!
-       Pizas/Rolexes - similar delicious street foods. A piza (not to be confused with pizza, which has the much missed cheese) is a small chapatti with fried egg and onion on top and costs the equivalent of about a dime. A rolex is a large chapatti served burrito style with fried egg, onion, and tomato, and it’s a bit pricier: about 30 cents.
-       Cadbury chocolate. It’s readily available in town, and has sadly become part of my daily routine.

Well, I think that’s all to report at the moment. I’ll update again when I get a chance. ttfn – ta ta for now!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The good and the not-so-good of Africa

Let’s start with the not-so-good so that we end on a high note:

The not-so-good:

1. The smell of burning trash. The only real public land fill is in Kampala, so for people not in the city, trash tends to get burned or simply tossed on the ground. Now, it would seem better (to me anyway) to burn trash at night, so fewer people have to breathe in the toxic fumes and oh-so-delicious smell. Unfortunately, I walk by at least 2 or 3 piles of burning trash every day. I’m pretty sure this is knocking some years off my life…

2. The cockroaches. They are HUGE (and therefore nice and juicy when you squish them). Now, I expect to see these critters in the latrine, but I am oh-so unhappy when I find them in my room. My host family thinks it’s hilarious that I “fear” the cockroaches, and my 5 year old host sister keeps telling me “Rashida, they won’t eat you!”

3. The mosquitoes. They seem to think I am quite tasty, and the bug spray PC gave me seems to only be icing on the cake for them. At least I’m taking my antimalarials!

4. The ants. They are also much bigger than should be allowed. And they bite. My feet. All the time.

5. The matooke and posho. These are staple foods in Uganda, but they are unlike anything I’ve eaten back home, and I have to say I don’t enjoy them. They are basically dense, flavorless starches…that I eat everyday. On the plus side, we got a PC Uganda cook book with lots of different recipes that I can’t wait to try out once I get to site.

The good:

1. The weather. It’s beautiful, sunny, and in the 70s just about everyday. Never too hot or too cold. The rainy season is starting, making the roads very muddy,  butI’m still extremely grateful for the moderate weather, especially since we’re on the equator!

2. My host sisters. They are SO cute and adorable. The eldest decided she was going to love me even before she met me. It took the youngest a few days to warm up to me, but now she also never leaves my side. It’s pretty great.

3. The scenery (minus the burning trash and the cockroaches, of course). It honestly feels as though I’m walking through the jungle every day on my way to training. It’s lush and green and just about everything that urban America is not.

4. My fellow trainees. They are absolutely fabulous, through the good times and the bad. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people.

5. The pineapple. It was already my favorite fruit before I came, but the pineapple here is the best I’ve ever eaten. I could eat it everyday (and I keep hinting to my host family that I want too…)

6. Dancing to the Ugandan version of VH1 with our house girl. It’s just so much fun. She’s also teaching me some Busoga dances (from the region I’ll be going to), but my host family tells me I’m “not so good,” and I need to practice so I can dance for them at the farewell party at the end of training. No pressure!

There’s lots more I could add to this list, but I’ll leave it here for now and update it as time goes on. ttfn – ta ta for now J

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wow, I've been here for a while now - time to post!

Sorry to all of you who have been following my blog for the last few weeks hoping for an update – internet (and sometimes even electricity) has been difficult to come by. Anyway, here is a very long post about my first few weeks in Uganda J


My journey started with an orientation (called “staging” in Peace Corps-speak) in Philadelphia. I had to arrive the night before because I came from the west coast, so I was able to enjoy a fabulous tour of the city and dinner with a friend of mine from college. Thanks again Jason! After arriving back at the hotel, I met a few of my fellow PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees). They are all amazingly wonderful (of course), so I enjoy a long night’s rest (my last for quite a while).

Staging involves a lot of paperwork/logistics/get-to-know you activities. I finally get to meet all of my training class (although it will take me a while to learn all of their names), and we get to share are common fears and excitements about the next 2 years. It’s very comforting to know that we all have very similar anxieties about traveling to Uganda! Staging ends with some logistics for our journey to Africa, and we’re all told that we should pack our carry on luggage to last us our first 6 days in Uganda because we may not get access to our luggage until we get to our permanent training site. This causes a bit of a panic among the group, as we’ve all spent hours carefully packing our bags before coming to Philly, only to find out we need to re-arrange it all. Several people make a mad-dash to the Target that is (thankfully) right across the street, and then we all share a last-American meal at California Pizza Kitchen before delving into the re-packing task.

After a “restful” 0-2 hours of sleep, we all pile onto buses at 2:30 am for JFK airport. The journey: 15.5 hour flight to Johannesburg + 6 hour layover + 4 hour flight to Entebbe = 45 very tired/slightly smelly PCTs. Also, fyi: it is currently winter in South Africa, and their airport seems to not be at all heated….so if you happen to have a 6 hour layover there, you might consider packing some warm clothes or a blanket, as I did not.

We arrive to a warm welcome by the PC staff and pile into a coupler of buses for the ride to Lweza Training & Conference Center. We drop off our bags, eat dinner, and stumble to bed.  

Arrival week:

Our training in Lweza starts with some introductions of each other, the staff, and Peace Corps. Oh, and of course we get a couple of immunization shots. The next few days involve meetings with our program coordinators about expectations and job assignments, preparations for moving into out homestay, and survival Luganda language lessons. The first week has a “summer-camp” feel because of the (fabulous) morning and afternoon tea breaks, the dorm-style living (complete with running water!), and the continual “bonding” activities. We even get a gorgeous view of the Ugandan landscape in out backyard, complete with monkeys. All in all, it was pretty great.

Our week in Lweza ends with a tour of Kampala. We split up into small groups and explored the city with a Ugandan PC trainer. We went to Kampala on Sunday so it would be less crowded, but the city center was still a bit overwhelming. Not only is the city packed full of more people than I thought could possibly fit into such a small space, but the amount of dust and fun odors in the air was a bit of a shock to my system. After some shopping, we rode back to Lweza on a public taxi and repacked our bags (again!) for our homestay.

Week 1:

Our first week of real training starts with us moving into our homestays in Wakiso, a “suburb” of Kampala. After storing some of our luggage at RACO (our training site), we wait for our families to pick us up. My host mom picks me up in her car and drives me to her home. I had no idea what to expect from my new home, but I am surprised to find that in many respects, it is not very different from a home in America. There is a garage, electricity, and even a television. However, there is no running water, so I get to learn how to use a pit latrine and bucket bathe outside. I have to say, the pit latrine is not nearly as bad as I expected. It’s still not my favorite thing in the world (or even my top 100), but it’s completely do-able. The bucket baths are pretty even nice, except that it’s hard to get all the shampoo out of my hair (since there’s so much of it!). It’s also difficult to explain to my host family why I need more water to bathe than they do since they all have shaved heads…

I’ve also improved upon using just a jerry can for hand washing by constructing a tippy tap at my home (something we learned in training). It’s basically a jerry can tied to a pole (where our clothesline is) and to a stick on the ground. When you step on the stick, the jerry can tilts down, and water pours through a hole poked through the side of the can, creating an easy way to wash hands after using the latrine. Simple yet effective!

I’m staying with a Muslim family: a mother, father, and three kids (a 13 year old boy, and two 5 and 2 year old girls). There’s also a house-girl who stays with the family and helps with the cooking and cleaning. It’s Ramadan, so my family’s schedule is quite a bit different than mine. I eat dinner around 7-7:30 and then go to bed around 9-9:30 (since training starts at 8), but my family stays up until around midnight eating and praying while it’s dark, and then they wake up again to eat around 4:30. By the time I get up at 6, everyone has gone back to sleep. In fact, I haven’t yet met my host dad because he gets home late from work in Kampala after prayer, and he’s always asleep when I leave in the morning. Other than the mismatch of schedules, I adore the children in the house. The eldest son goes to boarding school, so he’s often not home, but the younger girls are the same age as my niece and nephew back home, and they are so much fun to play with.

Training classes involve a lot of language study. We’ve all been assigned to language groups based on the region of the country we’ll be placed in. While we won’t know our specific site placements until close to the end of training, our language group gives us an idea of where we might be. I’m learning Lusoga, which is very similar to Luganda (the language spoken in Wakiso and the central region of the country). Lusoga is spoken in the southeastern part of the country, around the town of Jinja and the heart of the Nile River. There are 4 other (fabulous) trainees in my language group, and I’m pretty excited to have them as “neighbors” after training.

This first week involves learning greetings and introductions in our language and getting some overviews of our program areas: community health and economic development. We also get our bikes to use during training. As many of you probably know, I had to learn how to ride a bike before coming to Uganda, and one of my biggest fears upon arrival was how well I would be able to get around on my bike (especially after all the horror stories I’ve heard about bikes falling apart and poor-quality African roads). Needless to say, I got my bike and promptly put it in storage for safe keeping. After seeing my fellow trainees (with many more years of bike-riding experience) struggle on the rough and bumpy dirt roads, I was glad to be walking. The walk to training everyday is beautiful. It’s about 30-40 minutes (depending on my energy level), and it’s like trekking through the jungle. I’ll try to post pictures when I can.

Week 2:

In week two we get more language and more shots, but we also get to do a field assignment. We met with members from one of the local villages in the community, and we executed an assessment tool that we’ll likely use at our sites. My group constructed a community map, so we had community members draw a map of their village and point out important places, places they like/dislike to go, and places they would like to see in their village that aren’t there. It was a great way to get to know the community, how they spend their time, and their own priorities for improvement in their village.

This week we also learn about perma-culture/perma-gardening and as a group we construct a garden of vegetables at our training site. I have absolutely no previous experience in gardening, so it was great to learn about it, but I’m still unlikely to be my community’s perma-gardening expert.

The week ended with another visit to Kampala: this time to visit the Ugandan Museum and go to Garden City (a nice shopping mall) to test out our new ATM cards, which will enable us to access our PC living allowance while at site. The highlight of the trip for me was getting pizza for lunch – oh so delicious! I hadn’t realized how much I missed cheese…and flavor! The typical Ugandan diet consists of a lot of bland starches: matooke (mushed, cooked plantains), posho (a mushy, flavorless white starch made from flour), rice, potatoes, etc. We usually get some fruits/vegetables thrown in (a PC requirement for our homestays), but the food got old really fast. However, the pineapple here is beyond amazing. Mmmm mmmm good.

Week 3:

This past week has been pretty great, mostly because I finally feel like I’m settling into a routine here – things are just feeling a lot more familiar. Training consists of the same: language and technical sessions, but we also get several opportunities this week to go out into the field. On Thursday we got to visit the local health center and get a tour of the facilities. We even got to see their daily child health activities, where they offer immunizations, growth recordings, and vitamin supplementation to babies in the community (they’re following the EPI schedule recommendations!!). It was interesting yet sad to hear about all the local health issues plaguing the community. Today we also got to visit a local community based organization that works on HIV testing and counseling in their community and hear from the staff and counselors about their work. Overall, it’s been a pretty interesting week. I’m really exciting to start seeing first hand all the things I’ve spent the last year studying.

On a side note: tonight for dinner I got buttered pasta (or “macaroon” as my host mom called it), and it was DELICIOUS. Pasta’s never been one of my favorite dishes, but it was just so exciting to get something new!

I’m still not sure it’s hit me that I’m staying here for the next two years. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all planning on getting on a plane home tomorrow, but I just keep thinking about what I’ll do when I get “home.” I need to start getting my brain to think of Uganda as my new home. I’m sure once I get to my site and can settle into my own place I will feel more “settled in,” but it’s hard to really feel at home here while I’m still living out of a suitcase.

I think that’s all I have for now. For those few who actually read this entire crazy-long post – good on you mate, and thanks for reading. Until next time - ttfn, ta ta for now!