Sunday, September 25, 2011

What a Weekend!!

With as much stuff that happens in this country that gets me agitated, I try and keep at least one or two things in the distance that I know are going to be a blast. Lights at the end of the tunnel, and all that. Ideally, the good days are spread out so that I can continue to look forward to things, but also don't get too disillusioned about where I'm living. This weekend didn't follow that rule at all!

Firstly, I traveled to Jinja to compete in the Annual Nile River Rafting Race. I also competed in this the last year with Peace Corps, finishing 4th (although two rafts in front of us cheated). This year, we said, we'd come more prepared. Either way I knew I'd have a blast; Nile River, good friends, and motivation to work my muscles to a point of total failure in less than 30 minutes? Right up my alley.

After we finished our race, we were pretty sure we'd at least get on the podium; the race was done solely as a timed competition, and there were 3 heats (18 or 19 boats total). We had pretty good rhythm throughout the race and despite hitting a pretty bad eddy which slowed us down, I was feeling pretty confident. At the awards ceremony, we found that not only had we won (we beat the 2nd place team by over a minute, with a time of 22:37), but we'd also set a new course record in the history of the race itself. What a great feeling! We'd accomplished our goal, and done it in the proper way.

During the Jinja trip, less selfishly positive things happened as well. Another company in the Jinja area approached me (which is a nice change of power) to start supplying them hammocks. I also started talking to a South African lady who happened to be the Sales Director of a major magazine published throughout Uganda, and she asked me to write up the NPHC story and send her some pictures to put it in her next issue. Wow! If I can get the kids to write it, and have it be solely their names on the issue, without any mention of silly me or Peace Corps, can you imagine how proud they would be? Great to be able to positively reinforce such great kids, and supporting them in something that they have done on their own.

Today, about 5 minutes ago (just in time for it to still be considered part of my amazing weekend, 7 minutes before midnight), I got an email being told that my Appropriate Projects Latrine Funding ( had just gotten fully funded. Appropriate Projects did pre-fund my project for the health center...but still. It's complete! Also, I'm eligible (and preferred by the company) to re-apply for another grant, given that it's actually needed and can be used in a sustainable way to decrease the need for it's kind of support in the future. Awesome!

Riding the wave into the weekday, tomorrow. Fully expecting for my Apex-turned-high-plateau to start crumbling down back to sea level (or lower)...but also continuing with faith that weekends like this will keep arising, even if they're sporadic at best.

Bring on Monday!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Great Way to Help

Awhile back, I wrote a blog talking about how foreign aid in this country was causing problems, not fixing them. This is a common recurrence in my writing, as it is in other Peace Corps Volunteers.

In response, many people challenged me to take the extra step and give examples of ways to support Uganda in a sustainable way that will reduce the need for future aid.

One way you can do this is through supporting projects in which people of Uganda have taken it upon themselves to change their own future. One such project, I am extremely proud to say, was made through a friend of mine in Peace Corps, David Szaronos. You can check out the company that he helped start here:

Take a few minutes to look through the website. Read a couple of the ladies' letters to (you), the supporter. If you like their product, then figure out a way to find some beads near you, or challenge them to figure out a way to get some beads to you.

One thing you'll notice: David isn't on the website at all. The website wasn't made for his vanity, and he has no need to attach himself to it. Thus, another step is taken towards the women (and boy) taking charge of their project, their product, their lives.

I Call BS (Devil's Advocate)

When I get back home, noone is going to recognize me. I'm going to bake my own cakes, dry my clothes on a clothesline, and shower no more than twice a week. It's all I need! I'm going to take public transportation, I'll never leave my plate unclean, and I'm going to greet everyone on my street, everyday. It's how it should be! Man, it's going to be great!!

I have heard segments of this paragraph (this paragraph can continue on into infinity, as you could easily imagine its concept) nearly every time I get together with fellow PCV's. The same thing, except (ironically) even MORE flamboyant promises of change in character come from shorties (short-term volunteers) that I commonly meet when in Jinja. I smile, nod, and consider the differences I'll make in my American life when I return to it. Sometimes I'm even the one saying these things, I'll admit; I'll be extremely confident in my own future alterations of self. Yeah. I'm all talk.

Can I live with no electricity, no computer, no running water? Can I live without daily portions of cheese, red meat, and a microbrew? Will I manage? Absolutely. Proven that. But when I go back in June, and then go back again at the end of 2012, you can bet your sweet butt you'll be able to find me at Spanky's. I'll be the guy eating a double patty, rare pimento cheese burger with the latest dark beer on tap in front of me. There will be another glass, filled with water (shot from a magic gun) and ICE on my side. I will be watching ESPN on a flat screen and perusing internet from the wi-fi connection.

There are certainly many attributes of my daily life in Uganda that I'd love to carry over when I eventually move back. But to think that it is as simple as doing as while I'm here...that would be to underestimate if not ignore a number of factors. Culture and the norms that it produces are powerful forces, and they carry more weight than one might care to believe. Putting a clothesline out in your backyard in Uganda is nothing more nor less than a necessity; there is no other way. Doing it in the suburbs is going to raise a few eyebrows. People will associate you as a "kind" of person, based on this. The kinds of people who take public transportation in Uganda are simply not the same kind of people who take public transportation in America. Anybody been in a Greyhound station in a major city? Yeah. It's a different scenario completely; to not recognize that is to not fully appreciate the exceptional situation we are all currently in.

I think someone would respond to me with something like, "what I am going home with is a new perspective about how life is lived in other parts of the world." This is a big part of why most of us are here; but I have to ask what good a perspective is if we're not going to come away any different because of it. It isn't like we didn't already know, or couldn't have somehow easily discovered the current situation of people in parts of the world like Uganda. All you'd have to do is read one of the thousands of other Peace Corps blogs that are being produced, and you'd have a pretty good picture. We wouldn't have the personal stories, we wouldn't have the fine details that would make these perspectives as powerful, fair enough. But when I'm back in America, sitting on my couch with A/C on, what good is that?

Before everyone goes crazy, I don't mean to say that all of us will simply revert back to our old selves, taking things for granted and driving our 8 mpg klunkers, although I do think that will be true of more than just a small portion of us. I only mean for us to appreciate the culture with which we've been placed in. It is through this culture that we have learned to live in such a low impact way, and yet still in a way that we feel comfortable, healthy, and happy. To assign these changes as changes to our own character, however, is at best premature.

We don't have reasonable capabilities of the many luxuries that we were accustomed to in the U.S., but that doesn't mean we won't want them when we're back. It doesn't mean we can't once again become set into the exact same person we were before we left. It really doesn't mean anything at all. Right now, we're all following the norms of our society, just like we did in America. Breaking norms is a lot harder. Especially when you don't have a 2-year get out of dodge guarantee.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Letting Go

Yes, yes, I've always had the hope that the harmack company (as a specific example in a more general sense) would be as sustainable as possible, and would eventually be taken over completely by Ugandan's who I've been leading. I constantly worried that I was doing too much, having too much input. Indeed, at the beginning, if it wasn't my idea that we were following, then necessarily it was an idea that I all but implanted in one of the kid's mind. But now its changed. Students have become the leaders. More and more, little by little, I've been relinquishing my influence over the company. It's really great; it is seriously ideal; its a little sad.

Finding work is arguably the most common struggle for any Peace Corps Volunteer. (Besides the food, time management, language barrier...)Add this to the fact that when you put a philosophy major in a health center, he doesn't exactly have a lot planned out for him. Sorry, I don't want to stick a needle in the baby's head. Having such a successful project like the NPHC, and then realizing (by your design) that you are no longer running it, or even really needed...Kind of feels like catching a monster bass in a catch & release pond. Time to start all over, with knowledge that in all likelihood you aren't going to find anything better.

I almost stopped there, but that isn't really my style and it wouldn't be fair. I really am proud of the company, and having less responsibilities has allowed me to develop a small team to work on the RD & D department of the NPHC. We're working on new styled harnesses (THANK YOU RICK & MEL!!), new designs, and on improving the netted hammock design. It is a blast. I'm also trying to teach them about email ( and websites, along with excel (budget) and all the intricacies of small business. And, real soon, I will have co-facilitated the repair of a newly donated & transported (and transported again) sewing machine for the group.

As it has come, I've realized that maybe the NPHC isn't actually going to be my Peace Corps service. I haven't quite finished a year on service, after all; I've got a whole nother year coming up. That is a bit daunting, I'll admit; but hey, could be fun.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The full Ugandan experience

It is the PMI (President's Malaria Initiative)'s goal to try and reduce malaria in sub-saharan Africa by 50% in 5 years. No, really, we are hoping to actually accomplish that. Even though, when my health center did a survey about malaria in the community of 86 women, only 18 knew that it was contracted through malaria carrying mosquitoes. Anyway, I have to admit to being my own worst enemy in this quest. I found out after 3 days and nights of debilitating sickness that I had been infected with Malaria.

I had never had the disease before, obviously, and therefore had never developed the antibodies and relative immunity to the disease that Ugandan's have from a lifetime of exposure. That said, I have to admit that it was probably the worst I've ever felt from an illness. For me there was no throwing up or diarrhea, only headache and fever. But the headache was literally blinding, and the fever recorded at times reaching 104. I remember walking to the parish to say hello, and wondering which foot I was moving, while staring down at them. I lost the ability completely to look outside myself and see how people might be looking at me; I walked out of my house with no shirt, and boxers on after a year of never stepping outside without long pants and ( 90% of the time) a long sleeve button down. I was pretty out of it. At night I'd pile on blankets, wearing jeans, jackets, and a toboggan on my head, and I'd still be shivering.

My poor parish, they were so worried about me that I wished I could pull a Willy Wonka, do a tumble roll and put my hands up in the air and exclaim hooray for them. I actually tried, once Orelia (the cutest 3 year old girl you'll ever know) started crying because she heard that "her" opolot (she calls me "opolotka", meaning literally "My opolot") was sick. Instead, I stayed in bed, grumbled to and back the parish house to supervise the hammocks being made. I even skipped meals. Skipping meals is a cardinal sin in Uganda, and you can guarantee it will cause you some attention. By attention, I mean that everyone AND their mother will come and bang on your door until you drag yourself out of bed and thank THEM for greeting you.

Alright. I certainly never intended to contract the highest killing illness in Uganda (and Sub-Saharan Africa on the whole). I didn't want it, and I never did anything intentionally to get it. That being said, I have to admit that I am pretty happy about experiencing it. These Ugandans deal with malaria to a point of absurdity. I've had it once, and it's enough, but it is good to know what others go through 4 or 5 times a month.