Monday, August 12, 2013

Here's to you, Uganda

I remember asking you back, 3 years prior, if you were ready for me.  If you understood the things I was giving up to be with you.  I remember because it's a question that's evolved every day since I first arrived in country.  My naive 23 year old self actually believed that it was you who was going to have to be ready for me, and that it was going to have to require your willingness to work with me as opposed to my ability to adapt.  You must have been smiling on that day.

I've failed so much at so many opportunities to work with you and your people.  Groups were haphazardly formed, clubs started, and projects designed that were broken up, ended from within, and scrapped in as little as hours after they were formed.  Perhaps it was my lack of understanding, or your stubbornness. I associated your lack of effort with criminal levels of indifference, and I'm sure you took my misplaced passion a deep sign of misunderstanding, if not disrespect.  Some days living with you seemed like more of a sentence than an opportunity--another great idea I'd had in college which I realized only too late how silly it would be to actually carry out.  I'm sure your head was shaking, seeing me locked up in my room for the second day straight, coming out only to eat, or, worse, to find more fault in you to better rationalize my idleness.

And yet.  Amidst all of the frustrating spinning of wheels and ridiculous catastrophies of integration which seemed to overwhelm any progress at all, still that word was there.  Progress.  Perhaps more inside of myself than you.  Not at a pace I'll ever be ok with, and only in ways I'd never have planned, but we actually started to figure each other out.  You began to accept me.  Not the smiling, pet name giving, how are you mzungu kind of accepting, but something deeper.  I found myself in a village where people came to my door to learn, instead of just to be seen.  To ask for materials for their own group, instead of for me to do the work and lead a group for them.  Ever so slowly, I stopped talking about how much I felt apart of you, and I somehow started to actually feel it.

When you actually integrate into your community, the best sign of such an achievement is that you no longer have the (previously highly desirable) itch to describe it.  If you ever do describe it, you do so begrudgingly, as you realize every word of description separates you from exactly what you're trying to depict.  Once I realized I was part of Ngora, Uganda, I stopped worrying about what it meant.  I got busier doing things that I might have considered before to be parts of a "nothing" day.  Teas in the village became priority meetings.  Walks became my biggest form of work.  Follow up was my real proof of value, and my truest form of respect.

And just when I was starting to think I'd gotten "there," you'd crash down on me with reality Americans are not used to experiencing.  Or at least I had never experienced.  You showed me an extent of Chaos and Danger which I'd never imagined.  You being so unbothered, or unwilling, or perhaps unable to sand off the edges of life terrifies me, saddens me, and more than anything just confuses me.  There is no reason to it. Explanations simply aren't there.  The next week, or the next day, or even the next hour, you carry on with daily life.  These instances of Chaos and Danger, I had to realize, are in fact your daily life.

You're sure as hell not perfect Uganda.  There are many things I will only be able to respond with a shrug of my shoulders and a turn of my head.  I suppose you could say the same about me.  Ultimately, though, you've taught me to be the man I now am.  Mostly you exposed me, made me realize how proud I am to be who I am, where I've come from, and thankful to those who shaped me.  You made my limitations stick out like a, well, like a white person in a small village in Africa, and you ripped away so many ideas that I used to believe where integral into my own description.  I am stronger than ever because of this, because of you.

Here's to you Uganda, and here's to three years (and a day) of living under you.

--Opolot


P.S. I've got to ask---are you ready for these next three months Uganda?  Do you realize the amount of passion I have, and the amount of energy I'm willing to extend to make my leave be of no effect to the groups, projects, and events I've helped start?  I've developed friendships, been mentored, mentored others, started long-lasting sustainable partnerships, and they are about to be wholly on you.  Let's get to work.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Travel Day


I have been traveling a lot lately to see & help run malaria-related activities which Volunteers are running in their sites around the country.  As the guy the staff likes call the malaria coordinator (but doesn't like to pay for this position), I'm the point-man for all of these events.  This, in combination with my primary service being with spraying insides of homes in 10 districts (10%) of Uganda and helping co-create a software to judge the capacity of these districts makes me busier than I think I was even as a 70 hour-a-week bartender and psychology lab assistant.

Some of these travels are better than others; traveling to the North has of late become quite the experience, with the coming of rains and the unbelievably poor road systems on which it falls. Thus begins yesterday's events:

I had booked a bus ticket for 3:00pm on a bus that usually (quite miraculously) holds a very tight schedule.  I was in Kitgum, traveling down to Gulu where I currently live.  This journey on a good day should take something like 2 hours.  This was good, as I was not inclined to being on the road I didn't know well at night, especially considering I was hoping to travel the next day (today) across the country to another PCV's site.

The bus ended up leaving rather late, at just before 4:00pm.  Several riders were standing, despite having bought seats earlier in the day (which the company sold multiple times, like an airline, but without the ability to push people off).  After being on the road for around 25 minutes, the bus turns into a side street, three-points, and heads back in the opposite direction.  No one on the bus even bats an eye.  I start looking around and asking, and it isn't that I am not "in the know," its just that everyone assumes we are going back the way we came for a reason.  Hm.  I ask around, and apparently the bus has gotten a call that the roads in this direction are very bad (it rained earlier in the day), and that they are going to try and different route.

Thus, we leave Kitgum town (again) at just after 5:00pm, and begin the journey again.  35 or 40 minutes in, we hit our first mud road.  We twist, turn, and eventually skate across the 85 seat overfilled bus through the worst parts.  The bus cheers!  We are all convinced we've made it through the worst of it, and shake hands in congratulations of our achievements.  I even did a little dance, much to the delight of the old men and women of the bus.

But then 20 minutes later we hit a T in the road, with both left and right directions looking more appropriate for a whale shark than a bus.  The driver stops completely and gets out to see how firm the road is.  He slips and falls.  This is not a good sign; I look at my clock and see that it is now after 6:00, and the sun is beginning to set on the horizon in front of us.  Because of how slow we've been traveling, we've still not even made it half way to Gulu, yet have managed to get far enough away from, well, everything to be convinced of nothing being present besides huts for a 6 mile radius.

So we try the road.  Women shake their heads as we turn onto the road, with the back of the bus started to lose traction almost immediately.  But the driver regains control, and slowly (about 3mph) advances down the road for about 20-25 minutes.  It is inevitable, though, as we look and see the road getting worse instead of better, that this was an attempt doomed from the beginning.  Eventually the back of the bus slides heavily to one side, falling down the slope, causing the driver to over-react and lose control of the bus completely.  The back end slams (surprisingly hard considering our minuscule speed) into the burm, and the bus teeters precariously, to the point where people are instructed to stand on one side of the bus to prevent it from tipping (all I can think about at this point is my "High side is the dry side!" screams while raft-guiding in Charlotte).  And then we just stop.  

Everyone gets off the bus, and oddly enough all of us are still quite optimistic.  All of the men get in the back (in the mud) and start to push as the tires spin, and we're able to move the bus about 20 feet.  This is encouraging; if we can only get the bus out of the down slope of the burm, we might can make this work.  The next push, though, the wheel starts a heavy click-click noise, and we suddenly realize how twisted the back axle has become  with the uneven terrain.  In reverse, the wheel gets locked and even throw's the bus up in the air a bit, with impressive force.  This bus, it is now clear, is going nowhere.

By this point its reaching 7, and people are starting to get worried.  Acholi land is still known by people even in Uganda as a place you don't want to be stranded in.  Other's are completely unbothered, and rather more interested in making jokes and telling people "This is Uganda, eh?! This is Uganda!!"  These people are either close enough to their desired destination where they can walk, or more likely, they're hammered drunk.  

A couple of people decide they are going to walk to the nearest center and see if there are bodas (Motorcycles) to get us to the nearest town.  Sounds good.  We walk for about a mile, and reach the center at 8pm.  This center is obviously filled to the brim, and it becomes clear that we are not the only bus that has tried and failed on this road.  As it turns out, every single bus that has tried to make the journey on this day has gotten stuck, save for one: the bus that I later got on to return.  

It is also quite clear that this is not a safe place to be with a computer, ipod touch, and more generally white skin.  People have been drinking since noon...and its well past that now.  With the increase of people on their grounds, drunkards have responded vigorously by seemingly drinking more and being more absurd.  I need to get out of here, I decide, and start looking for how to make that happen.

But the road is still crap.  Talking to motorcycle taxis, even at 10x the price, they are unwilling to travel to the next center 10k away, much less Gulu some 80k further.  I start to become discouraged---and start asking locals who seem sober if I can stay with them in the night, if it comes to it.  As I am doing this, two men walk up to me and ask me what I've found out--they are travelers as well, don't know the local language, and ready to get out of here.  They hear that the nearest center is 10k away, and their eyes light up (not my reaction).  "Let's walk!" they say.  As they offer this option, the generator is powered up and blasting music of "Gasolina Gasolina" resounds through the center.  It's about 8:30pm, reaching to 9.  "Where are you guys from?"  --"Kaabong" (from Karamoja).  "You fellas are Karamajong, eh?" ---"We are.  You come, we can walk for days!"  (Karamoja is the land PC is not allowed to visit or travel to in Uganda.  Everyone in Uganda fears the Karamoja and tells fairy-tell stories about how they rape their women, steal any cow they see, and pillage for a profession.  This certainly could be argued was their lifestyle years back.)  But they seem sincere, if only a bit too eager to go walking with me.  "Alright, lets do it."  I separate my money into 3 different places, the majority of which I put inside of my socks.  This should be fun.

For 2 hours my two friends (Saddam---named after Saddam Hussein, and Mike) talk to me about their life.  One turns out to be a LCIII--a local mid-level politician.  The other is a businessman in K-ja, and owns a lodge just outside of K-ja's only real tourist attraction, Kidepo National Park.  I talk to them about stars, satellites, and shooting stars.  They talk about how these stars were used in raids, back in the war, and for the warriors to know when was the best time to attack.  They also talk about how shooting stars would forecast where the attack would come from the following day, which they followed religiously.  

Ultimately, my fears (while, I would argue, were understandable) were completely unrealized.  A couple of times, a lone bicyclist would approach us without warning.  Because of the dark, it was nearly impossible to seem them in advance.  The LCIII Mike would call out to Saddam and I (who didn't have his night-time seeing ability) and we'd jump off the road like it was a mack truck coming, not a 13-year old kid with a jerrican of water.  Each time we laughed at each other as if we individually knew the object approaching couldn't actually hurt us...and yet still every time we jumped.

As we walked, we began to encroach upon what we thought had to of been "the town" which we were aiming for, because we saw light.  As it turns out, these were simple huts stationed all around who had lit fires in their front yard, seemingly for no reason in the middle of the night.  What they were actually doing was attracting the white ants, ants with wings that flew around during the beginning of every rainy season in the East and North of Uganda.  These ants are caught by running & jumping kids as they draw nearer to the fire where their wings are plucked and they are held hostage for frying the next day.  Don't knock it till you try it; a handful of white ants provides much needed protein and a pretty solid taste to back it up.  

Anyway, after a couple of hours we happened upon a white truck (surprise surprise, it was an NGO truck) which stopped.  Yes they did have three extra spaces in their truck, and sure, they were going to Gulu.  We high-fived each other and jumped in, our luck having changed form a 7 hour walk in the middle of a night to a comfortable ride in the backseat of a truck.

It was an experience I both cannot and also partially don't want to write too much about; it is one of a hundred different times in the country when I've felt so amazingly happy and blessed to of been able to come and enjoy this place.  Uganda, you're awesome.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A sudden shift

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one expects to be working on the ground level.  Bloody hands, dirty knees and sunburnt necks was what I had in mind when I applied to Peace Corps 3 years prior.  For the first 2 years of my service, that wasn't such a bad description.  I dug a well, built a latrine, ate white ants and washed my own clothes.  I built the house I lived in, killed the chickens I ate, pumped the water that I drank.  If you were to ask me what a successful day would be, I would have had no way to answer; every day was so unique and inevitably filled with such (sometimes pleasant, sometimes awful) discord that I eventually became as slippery as the day itself.  I'd jump on trucks heading South simply because I wanted to talk to a kid sitting in the back; I'd stop for "break" with any family that asked and thereby make myself an hour or two late for my scheduled meeting; I was, on my best days, an organic extension of the community.  By the end of my time, I was conversant in Ateso to the point where I would commonly speak less than 20 words in English, and only then so that I could ask the Ateso equivalent.

Now, here in Gulu, things are quite different.  I have a 4 room house with tiled floor, big ceilings, and a veranda in front with a hedge.  I work on the computer 10 hours a day, in an office with wireless internet, a fan, and window, powered continuously by either town electricity or a 24/7 generator.  I don't know the names of my neighbors, and still am unsure about the name for the road I live on.  I can say only good morning, good night, thank you, I'm satisfied, thank you for cooking, and "why is there never any lukotokoto!?"(lukotokoto is a food I have come to love here.  Peanut Butter with small fish, chicken scraps all mixed and ground into a paste).  A good day here still varies, but only in the types of malaria-related goals that I am trying to tackle on that day.

My friend recently told me that Peace Corps has "put blinders" on me, making me focus on exactly one kind of thing in the country.  While this is true, its also a bit incomplete; Along with the blinders, they've given me an intense pair of glasses, augmenting my capabilities in this specific field to a level that surprises me every day.  I will have a seat at a table of 15 people who are controlling the country of Uganda's entire malaria control program.  I am meeting with national artists, recording podcasts with the U.S. Ambassador, talking about malaria control to members of the CDC, USAID, and Vanessa Kerry.  I'm now in charge of coordinating efforts for malaria in Peace Corps Uganda, technical advisor on grants and pointman for questions in-country. I feel extremely lucky to have been given so much responsibility, and pretty excited that these responsible are things that I not only sought, but am able to handle and excel at having.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Stranger in a Foreign Land: My second trip back home

No question, it was great to get a trip back home.  I took a full month on Peace Corps' dime back home in NC, and was thrilled the entire time.  Such an amazing feeling to reconnect to family, talk with old friends, and taste the foods, drink the drinks, and touch the land from which I grew up on.  My time back wasn't too long, as I had at first worried.  I suppose I thought that a month back in the U.S. would cause me to forget Uganda, or would get my body feeling like I was home for good.  I realize now that Uganda is a part of me, and for better or worse it is something that will remain in my blood for the rest of my life.  I will say that right now, I wouldn't have it any other way.

There are some pretty key things that, going back home, made me realize that perhaps "home" wasn't completely accurate.  At least, not in the definition I used to attach to it; a feeling of unparalleled comfort, where you don't get lost, or confused.  Most of the things I noticed weren't negative, but they still did highlight some simple truths, mostly that life does carry on even if you're not there to watch it happen.

One thing was my friends ability to spot available women.  I never worried about this!  I mean c'mon, you like a woman, think she's attractive, so you go up to her and ask her what her name is.  Figure it out from there.  But nooooo, apparently this is no longer acceptable.  At the age I have now found myself in (clearly I'm happy about it...), it is no longer acceptable to simply go up and introduce yourself to just anyone. You first have to do the search for the piece of metal on her left hand.  It is, apparently, bad manners NOT to do this!  How absurd.  Anyway, it is very clear to me that I have unintentionally entered a new dimension of dating, where i'm not searching for a lady, but rather a lady who's not married.  And look, it's not like this was what I was doing throughout my month back home.  Its just, I don't know, really disturbing that this is part of the process now.  What happened to the good ol' days when, if you liked somebody, you could get their AOL Screenname and say "sup"?

One of the things I was most excited about the U.S. was that I didn't have much plans, and that it was going to be a real live vacation.  I was thinking about this with the mindset that I would be able to read so many of the books which had remained on my shelves in Uganda.  I was foolish.  There is simply too much going on in the U.S. at any point to actually be able to close your mind off enough to enjoy a book.  I tried constantly. There was a football game, or basketball game, or a river outside, or good beer to drink, or things to see, people to talk to, things to download, games to play.  Reading?  No shot.  Never got past page 5.

The amount of safety measures in America seem pretty ridiculous to me.  When I was walking around at Southpoint, gawking at all of the white knees and floored by the amount of such seemingly simple items ("45 dollars for sandals....that would be...100,000 Shillings?! 100,000 Shillings for a pair of stupid sandals?!"), I stopped and watched some workers taking down the Christmas tree.  This tree was probably about 20 feet high, with big wide metal rings started at about 10 feet in diameter at the base.  3 men were taking down the fake fir, each of which were harnessed up by what had to be a 1000 pound maximum load webbing, on two different points of their bodies---just in case one failed.  what they were on was more stable than a ladder, and barely as high off the ground.  I couldn't help giggling, thinking about my 4 year old neighbor running around with a machete, laughing and jumping and swinging at the chickens in front of my house.

Beyond everything, it was a good journey home because of the people who I surrounded myself with.  Everyone I met that I truly cared about were in such good places in their respective lives; it was incredibly inspiring to see.

I was able to see my best friend Jarvis, who I could tell immediately was holding the look of a man who had seen the last woman he ever desired to be with.  His successful position, great new city (living in Philly), and other passions were getting along well as well (he's without question 5x the bartender I ever was, and he's done it through books and at-home trials); but these were all effortlessly eclipsed by the way he talked about this girl, now his fiance.  It is a rare treat to see a friend in such a great place; it was an absolute delight to be able to see him, meet her, and be apart of his life for a short time.  In so many ways, Jarvis keeps me focused on what success is, and where priorities should be.

Another brother I was able to see was my real one!  Getting to spend New Years with my older Brother was awesome; it is amazing that the older we get, the closer we become towards actually being people we can hang out with on a social level.  Will and I get along great---don't let this be a misunderstanding---but it is also quite clear that we come from different outlooks on life, or perhaps simply different approaches.  Most times this is at my own peril.  But as we've grown, I think it is quite obvious to anyone looking that we have both come a bit more towards the middle; I have moved towards being at least a little bit more responsible and goal-set, whereas Will has made it more of a priority to understand that having fun and doing stupid stuff isn't a bad goal to set all the time.  I can see him and I being best friends when we're 80 (but for the record, i'll only be 76).

It was also great to see my Mom and Dad.  They have successfully moved into a dreamhouse, in a dream location in the mountains which is both close to everything and near absolutely nothing.  It is the first real move that they've made on their own accord, without reason of job or designed length of stay.  It is such a beautiful house, highlighted by a river 30 meters down the hill which two balconies look out to.  I can only imagine how awesome it will be in the summer and early fall.  The house was great, to be sure---but it was my parents themselves who really tickled me.  How great a feeling it is for a son to see his parents obviously proud of their accomplishments!  It is something I had never really considered; obviously my parents have done extremely well for themselves in so many aspects of life, but really having them get to a point where they are ready to admit it is such an awesome feeling.  I am at a loss for words to describe this, quite clearly, and they probably won't like me writing this much about them anyway; it feels great.  Happy to seem them so happy.

So thank you Everyone who spent time, had a bed, put out the couch, bought a beer, or let me ramble into their ear while I was back home.  It was fantastic.  Next post will be getting more into exactly what i've been doing for the past couple of months that i've been back home from home, and away from my home in Ngora.



Where to begin?

Having written less than ever in my Peace Corps service, and having more to write about in my Peace Corps service, has rendered me feeling quite overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to publish a post on this blog.  It feels as though it has expired, like it is something of a distant past that no longer belongs to "me," but rather a former being of a long-forgotten self.  That's extremely dramatic---what I'm getting at is that it's been quite awhile, and to be honest I have almost no idea how I'm going to cover the ground lost.

I think maybe the best idea is just to throw some thoughts out there and let the process of unfolding the past couple of months unfold organically, through tangents and stories which have to be explained.  Perhaps this will be a good filter, as it will be only the important acts and events that happened in the past which I'll have to talk about in order to to where I am today.  You'll be spared, perhaps, a bit of the saturated fat of the blog.  Hopefully that wasn't the best part of the blog?

So here I am.  March 6th, a couple of months back into my service after a glorious 30 day break from Uganda for the holidays.  Peace Corps provides 30 day *recommended (pretty much mandatory) breaks to go back home and unwind for Volunteers who have completed 2 years' service and are looking for another year.  They cover the transport and give a modest per-diem allowance (about 15 bucks a day, all totaled) while you are back home.

I can't believe it has only been two months that I've been back in Uganda.  I have hit the ground sprinting, trying to make an impression on anyone and everyone who has been in my track, both in order to do my job currently, and also to try and open up as many doors as possible down the road.

My job currently:
1) I am a Field Coordinator for Abt Associates, an implementing partner of the Presidential Malaria Initiative (U.S. Funded and run in coordination by the CDC & USAID out of the U.S. Embassy here in Uganda) who is working on the Indoor Residual Spray Project in Northern Uganda.  Largely I am working with two different teams; James Kirunda & I are working on being able to judge the capacity at the district level of doing the job of IRS without Abt Associates---judging to see if they could do it without the support of a supervisory organization watching and guiding them through the process.  On the other side, I am working with a partner organization of Abt Associates to develop SBCC (Social & Behavioral Change Communications) throughout the 10 districts, through all kinds of different mediums.  We go to radio stations, we pass out flyers, we work with VHTs, we deal with locally elected officials.  We develop the messaging, are responsible for the sensitization of the community of when these sprays are coming around, why they are important, and what to do to prepare.
2) I am acting as the Malaria Coordinator for Peace Corps Uganda; I am technical advisor in malaria to the PEPFAR (Presidential Emergency Plan For Aids Relief) Coordinator under Peace Corps Staff, who handles all of the malaria-related grants.  I'm also the go-to person (or am trying to be) for any Volunteer with malaria-related questions.  Everyday I get emails from Volunteers all over the country (and even a few across Africa who have seen posts on the Stomp Website) asking about various degrees of projects, statistics, or more general questions regarding malaria in Uganda.  It has been something extremely rewarding for me, and indeed it is an honor to have earned the respect of my peers to a level where they feel confident having me be their source for such an important topic in Uganda.  I'm the chairperson of the Malaria Think-Tank, and have created and am spearheading the first annual World Malaria Month Competition among all Volunteers in country for the month of April.
3) I am on the board of governors for the Ngora Parish Harmack Company.  The kids are running the company by themselves!  This comes with a mostly expected amount of trouble, and many times I find myself working 3 times as hard doing 1/5 as much as I used to within the Company.  But the kids are really learning, and we've got a truly amazing boy who is currently leading the charge in all kinds of new and exciting ways.  Our building is being completed this week, we are hoping, and after approval from our grant supporters we will start furnishing the building with sewing machines, tables, computers, and solar panels.  It is certainly an exciting time.  It is also certainly tough, being so busy and therefore unable to sit and bask in the success the NPHC is having in Ngora.  7 hours journey makes it nearly impossible for me to make it down on a consistent basis.

If this sounds like it is too much to humanly do, I will admit that it sometimes does feel like it.  But to be honest, most days I'm really quite relaxed.  Much more structured, and seemingly much more predictable days than I had while in my first 2 years of service, but largely under control and within a reasonable amount of workload.