Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gulu Nation

Having been to Gulu several times before, I admit to being (overly) quite confident about the prospect of moving to it’s town.  Visiting a place and assuming you understand how it would be to live there, however, is like eating a strawberry slice placed on top of icing all over a birthday cake and instantly proclaiming to have an affinity for red velvet.  That was a tough analogy, but the point is that it doesn’t work.

I was struck immediately with insecurity on my first day, just after I was left “to organize & rest a bit,” which basically is the blanket phrase for “you travelled today, and therefore you don’t do anything of value.”  Walking the streets of Gulu is not unsimilar to any other populated place in Uganda, and yet signs are clear enough that this place has some pretty distinct differences.  85% of cars passing are 4 wheel drive gas guzzling giants built to be the first vehicle to summit Everest; 95% of these cars proudly adorn some clever acronym describing the organization and who have supported them.  Not surprisingly, therefore, I am constantly reminded of the national colors of my homeland.

 Traveling around and stopping at the one place I remembered from my last trip to Gulu, I chanced upon a friend from New Zealand who I worked with while at Northern Camp BUILD.  She quickly recited the weekly recurring schedule of ultimate Frisbee, poker, trivia, and Mexican nights which the white people hold.  I was quite clearly overwhelmed.

Gulu is the only place I’ve been where I actually feel I have to explain myself to others.  This feels comes almost entirely because no one seems to care.  There are so many foreigners doing so many things (some worthy of sainthood, others of the 8th circle) that Ugandans have become completely unimpressed.  This foreign fatigue might seem nice to some; not being stared at quite so long or ostracized quite so much---these seem like things that one would welcome.  Yet for me it is the first time I am being grouped in with a “whole,” whereas I used to BE the whole.  People didn’t define me as a white person, they defined white people as Opolot (me).  Here, suddenly people I’ve never met are shaping the way people have and will see me in the place that I live.  That is frustrating to someone grown used to shaping his own identity---even if it was at his peril.

To be certain, I am taking the good with the different.  I’m currently staying in a hotel where I have free reign to a swimming pool, gym, steam & dry saunas, hot showers, a fridge in my room and a king size bed.  They had me at “no rats,” to be honest—everything else is just bonus.  The food is amazing (I had chicken tikka masala last night) if a bit expensive.  We are in the meantime searching for a place for me within town.  More importantly, my organization is seemingly extremely well organized, not to mention obviously well funded.  The work environment is friendly and up-beat; you’d be hardest not to hear someone laughing every 30 seconds in some part of the office.  The light heartedness could never be mistaken for follishness or associated with lack of ability; it is a supreme confidence that has come from the successful completion of the last 4 years cumulative work.  Their wheels are quite clearly greased, lessons learned and patterns formed as a result. 

As I move forward, I will continue to try and give Gulu the chance I gave Ngora.  It certainly has a lot to live up to, but perhaps once I’m able to accept them as different entities entirely I’ll be able to more appropriately appreciate such a town.  Hell, maybe I’ll even play a game of ultimate or two.

Farewell to Ngora

Since Junior Year of High-school, my head rested in one location for never more than one year.  Ngora is thus my longest duration of a home since I’ve gotten my full driver’s license.  That makes me feel old, saying that.  Anyway, it’s a bit of a technicality, but still interesting to see the place some might call me “settling down” was in the heart of NorthEastern Uganda in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ngora, you were and are a huge source of pride for me.  I have and will continue to defend any offenses against our people because, well, they’re our people after all.  You have frustrated me, to be sure—there are days when I cursed the very thought of you – but in the end you knew you’d found a new son.  When I find my place in this world, it will be in no small part to the things you taught me.

Fr. Ecogu—Scores upon scores of hat racks couldn’t hold all of the positions and responsibilities that you’ve taken in Ngora.  Your demeanor is so inspiring in that you actively throw yourself into any and every project you feel has merit; a relaxed day IS a bad day for you, because you understand how important you are and furthermore see it as a responsibility.  You have managed to make speeches that I’ve fumbled through in English sound eloquent in Ateso, somehow saying less but also more.  You are thoughtful and passionate, wise yet ever questioning.  You have sent me to google from conversations more than any other person I’ve met.  Your willingness to take time and encourage me at the right times has meant so much to me, and had such an impact on my ability to lead within Ngora.  You break the mold, Father.

Jackie—Only you could manage to make a 23 year old American MORE dependent on people by coming to Uganda.  Any time I’d do work outside, you’d scold me; everytime I didn’t eat 2x my fill, you’d purse your lips.  You were a great and wonderful teacher; you’d never get tired of teaching me Ateso.  You’re also a leader, Jackie, even if you don’t see it yourself; realize it and allow yourself to lead the women so willing to follow you  towards the things you wish to see in our community. 

Orelia—Don’t ever grow up.

Gulu-- Get ready.  Opolot is coming

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Stomping Out Malaria

On the 18th of September, I flew from Uganda to Kenya to the Ivory Coast, finally reaching Dakar, Senegal.  I showed up at the Senegal Peace Corps Office (Corps de la Paix) without much of an idea of what I'd be in for.  I had skimmed what seemed to be an overly optimistic schedule for the coming 10 days of "Boot Camp."  All I knew for sure was that I had close to $200 in my pocket and several neck-ties (and one bow-tie) in my bag; I figured the rest would work itself out.  I knew very little about malaria; 90% of what I knew came from a quick and dirty reading list provided by the camp.  To be honest, what I really expected was to get a break away, see a new country, ride some waves, and save some per-diem to be used on a future trip.

On the 30th of September, I flew back to Uganda. I came back with 7 extra pounds was on my body (Senegalese food---there are no words.), ~130 extra gigabytes of data on my computer (google drive, mumford & sons, Watch The Throne, Etc.etc.etc.), 35 new facebook friends, and a new outlook on my coming year in Uganda.  What I lost was (Besides my coveted Kavu Visor and my precious sunglasses) any excuse not to make an impact on Malaria in Uganda.  I have come back disillusioned, empowered, and for the first time in quite some time...Optimistic.

As beautiful as Senegal is, it is a true testament to the training that I won't be talking about it.  Its beautiful.  As wonderful as the food at the training center was, it is even MORE of a testament that I won't be talking about it. --I might have to have a follow-up post about it.--  Speaking sincerely, Stomp Out Malaria's Boot Camp was 10 days of the best training I've ever received.

The camp held almost 30 volunteers from 12 different countries within Africa, each having specific affiliations in malaria at their sites.  From 9am-9pm we were on a schedule.  From supply chain management to radio psa's, Epidemiology to behavior change, log frames to Indoor Residual Spraying, and on and on, we acquired the tools necessary to become resources for other volunteers in our respective country of service.  These lessons were taught by international leaders in the field through skype sessions from all over, from Stanford to the CDC HQ in Atlanta to the PC HQ in D.C.  I personally talked to the overall Peace Corps Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet about the Stomp Out Malaria Camp (

There was much more than information.  Underwriting every session, meal, and minute while at camp there could be felt a certain degree of expectation.  The creators of this camp very openly (and repeated several times) their intention of holding us, as boot camp participants, to a higher standard in every way.  It was expected to dress professionally each day, to have read case studies before the night session the day prior, and to be able to apply country specific highlights to lessons being taught.  This expectation was embossed with an otherwise overwhelming amount of information, an ever-increasing access to documents from all over Africa, and incredibly wide-spread network of people with which to find out answers.  By the end of the 10 days I felt polished into a volunteer that could actually tackle such an overwhelming topic that is Malaria.  I was reinvigorated with the feeling that I was now apart of something that I could truly be proud of.

It is a dangerous thing, this hope I now possess.  Every day in Africa is a challenge; trying to accomplish real results in it is something else entirely.  This kind of mentality, though, I will no longer accept as rationale for lack of progress.  I refuse the jaded attitude that clouds over like cataracts, and have resolved to remain in a state of near furious motion until my goals (which ARE attainable) are met.

The world lost somewhere between 700,000-1,000,000 people last year due to malaria.  This staggering figure is brought home quickly, with Uganda itself being about 10% responsible for this (estimated 80,000-110,000 die annually).  In some places in Uganda, the average person gets bit over 1500 times by an infected mosquito.  That means each day a person is being bit 5 times by a mosquito carrying a deadly disease.  Malaria is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Uganda, and in children under-5 attributes close to 50% of total deaths.

The overarching mission is to have near 0 deaths in all 19 Presidential Malaria Initiative funded countries by 2015.  Time to get to work.