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.