Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Goodbye Wakiso, Hello Soroti

The prospect of moving to a home of my own was so enticing that I did not prepare for the sadness I would feel at leaving my home stay family in Wakiso. I miss the Bettys, and the assorted family that came and went during my two months there. Before I left for the trip to Kampala, Betty (the elder) made me sit, and then she placed her hands on my head and offered a prayer. Ruth and young Betty, each carrying a piece of my hand luggage, walked with me to the town center. I was surprised by my tears.

During the week following, our training class toured PC headquarters and the American Embassy in Kampala. We had dinner at the PC Country Director’s home. There was a two day workshop with representatives from the organizations each of us will be working with. And, finally, we were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers (Trainee no longer!) at the American Ambassador’s residence. Then, more goodbyes. This time to friends from the class, teachers, and staff. No tears this time, but fear at the realization that this support group would now be there only via telephone or at the end of a very long (and uncomfortable!) trip.

I was one of the lucky ones, because my organization sent a truck to carry me and my things to Soroti. Others had to rely upon public transport – not an easy trip with suitcases, backpacks, and the propane gas stoves that most had purchased in Kampala. In the extended cab pick-up we carried six people, including two other PCVs. A bit tight, but far less so than the bus or matatu (mini-bus taxi). Our driver was my supervisor, Father Akepa. Father, it turns out, is a big fan of Red Bull. He picked some up on the way to Soroti, and I met him in town buying more a couple of days later!

There are four PCVs from my training group in or very close to Soroti, and three more within an hour or so. All of us are working in some capacity with the Soroti Catholic Diocese. Mike is at a vocational school, Chelsea at the school for the blind, Joanna working in agricultural development, and the others at clinics or schools.

I am with CEREDO – Catholic Education, Research and Development Organization. Their mission is “to provide and promote quality and sustainable education for all people in the Teso region”. They provide development support to nursery, primary, secondary and vocational education; promote equal and meaningful opportunities for vulnerable groups (remote rural schools, the poor, the disabled, those affected by HIV/AIDS, girls, orphans); and support the development of district-based civil society networks related to education and community support of schools. (That’s a mouthful!)

And what will I be doing? The original thought was organizational development and planning. It looks like that thought is changing. The Program Officer for EQUIP may be leaving and there is talk that I might take on that function. EQUIP is the education quality improvement initiative accomplished in partnership with the Church of Uganda and other NGOs (non-government organizations). (It is not hard to see that there is an NGO “industry” here in Uganda, fueled by donor funds. A topic for more investigation and later comment!) The job has been described to me as “networking” with district education officials, parish representatives, school leadership, etc. to identify successes and best practice. Also to be the major liaison to the donor community, and to compile the semi-annual and annual reports. This is not exactly the kind of work that I envisioned I would do in the Peace Corps, but if this is what the organization needs, then I will do it. I need to know more, but things do move slowly here and patience is key. All will be revealed in time!

When I arrived in Soroti, my house was not quite ready. So, I spent four nights at the Desert Island Resort (a motel with a restaurant). For the first time since coming to Uganda I did some serious TV watching. One favorite show, “Hidden Passions”, is certain proof that we live in a global economy. A Mexican soap opera, dubbed in English, and broadcast in East Africa. So bad that it is delightful. Another entertainment note: Ugandans love country music and Celine Dion. They don’t, however, play country music at the Discotheque.

Yes, Soroti has a club, called the Trend Discotheque. Complete with glitter ball and black light. Last weekend the Diocese had a dinner for the PCVs (an outdoor event with beer and great food), following which a group of us went to the Trend. Like a club anywhere in the world, with the exception that not couples, but groups (of men, of women, of men and women) dominate the dance floor. We left at a very respectable hour, around midnight, but I arrived home to find myself locked out of the compound. My home is in a fenced compound, where there are four houses. Unfortunately we had to rouse a neighbor to let me in the gate. Working now on getting my own key!

Red Bull, television, country music, the disco… you might say “hey, this is not very different from the USA”. Believe me, it is different. Soroti is a small city/big town. Just outside, and in many internal neighborhoods, people live in round mud huts with thatched roofing. There is extreme poverty. Hunger. Dirt roads. Bicycle taxis. Begging. Long trips to the water source. Cattle and goals graze in the city square. I have hired once a week help with laundry, housecleaning, and yard work for the US equivalent of less than $15 per month – jobs are few and hard to get and wages low.

You also see some things that you might not expect… like the Hindu and Sikh temples and the Om Supermarket. The Indian community that Idi Amin expelled years ago has been returning to Uganda. Most of the “supermarkets” and many other retail stores are owned by Indians. A supermarket here has canned and bottled goods, baked items and maybe a few frozen things. It also carries cleaning products and house wares. Fresh fruits and vegetables are in the outdoor market. I’ve negotiated the market successfully – and been pleasantly surprised by the lack of effort to charge me “muzungu” prices. In general, the people here in Soroti may stare, but they don’t shout “muzungu” and seem to accept that I will be a part of the community. As in Wakiso, greeting people in the local language brings a smile.

My house is a cement structure with a metal roof. The floors are also cement. There are four small bedrooms (two of which I have simply cleaned then shut the door on), a sitting room, a kitchen and a bathroom. It’s a tad “run down” and the woodwork is a bit (actually a lot) termite-eaten, but recently painted. I have running water (not advisable to drink, but fine for washing), and electricity. I cannot, however, find a lamp anywhere in Soroti, so the light consists of a bare (but energy-saving!) bulb in each room. Between the lack of task lighting and the tendency of the electricity to go out for hours at a time, my head lamp is still one of my most valued possessions.

Although there is a shower, bucket baths with hot water from a thermos are the norm. It is very hot here, so the cold shower feels great at the end of the day but is just too much for me to handle in the morning. Heating water for the bath thermos as I clean up from dinner has become so routine that I’m afraid I will do it when I return to the States! After several tries, the toilet is finally working effectively, so my bathroom facilities are complete.

I feel very fortunate to have two things in my kitchen – the first is my two burner propane gas stove. It has been such a pleasure to cook, and control my own diet, again. No more matooke! The second, which is a true luxury, is a small refrigerator. Ah the pleasures of truly cold water and beer, not to mention a bug-free place to put leftovers and other “vulnerable” food.

Oh the bugs. Really big cockroaches and really big spiders. I have them under control, but only after spending a fortune on “Doom”. This could end up being one of my major expenses, as well as the cause of brain cancer or something. But I despise bugs. One reason that I love my mosquito net is that it keeps all of the critters out of my bed. No sign of rodents yet. Plenty of lizards (which is good because they eat bugs), and chickens and turkeys that make strange noises in the yard.

So far I have acquired a bed, and six plastic chairs. Molded plastic chairs are so ubiquitous in Africa that I’m afraid no one could sit down if they all disappeared! The chairs are currently serving as seats, a night table, dinner table and desk. A table is on order and it will serve as dining table and desk. At some point I hope to get a second bed, for guests. And that’s my home…

Oops, almost forgot luxury number three. A fan. Did I mention that it’s hot here? The fan means comfortable sleep, which I didn’t get much of in Wakiso. I think the circles under my eyes are disappearing. The only thing that wakes me in the night these days is the thunder and the rain. It is rainy season, and the rain is falling in the middle of the night and sometimes in the evening. The thunder comes in long rumbles, not claps, and the pounding rain on the metal roof makes quite a racket.

I’ll post photos on Facebook. Soon, I hope. I lost the cable from my camera to the computer, and I’m waiting for a replacement in the mail. Unfortunately¸ I also have challenges with internet here in Soroti. I cannot get to email or Facebook from my home or the office. So far, only the restaurant at the Landmark Hotel has promising connectivity. I may have to begin stopping there most evenings for a cold one and an email session!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Coming Soon - Soroti!

The long wait is over. For eight weeks of training we have been wondering where exactly and what exactly our assignments would be. Language placements were a clue, but only to the general region. Now I have been to my site, been introduced to the organization I’ll be working with, and have seen what will be my home for the next two years. Two more weeks, one of training and one of administrative stuff in Kampala, and I’ll be settling in Soroti, the major town in the district of the same name.

Soroti is in Eastern Uganda, and a six hour bus trip from Kampala. The East is flat, wet and, where not wet and marshy, rocky. The people in this region have suffered from 20 years of civil strife, and more recently devastating floods. The region is among the poorest in Uganda – by one account more than 50% live on less than $1.00 US per day. My organization is CEREDO – the Catholic Education Research and Development Organization. Their programs include an education quality improvement initiative, HIV/AIDs and sexual/reproductive health training, and support for orphans and vulnerable children. It looks like my role will be in strategic planning and organization development, as well as to help with ideas for income generation with an eye toward self-sufficiency. Good, because I can help. Disappointing, because it won’t involve much day to day community engagement. To compensate I’ll look for a secondary project – possibly in a school or health center. There are about 5 other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in the area, most working with Catholic-affiliated programs and many in schools. We’ve already been talking about projects and opportunities for each other in the various organizations.

The bus trip is long, and the buses are uncomfortable, but there is “entertainment”. First, one section of the trip is devoted to the sale of patent medicines. Then there is the lay preacher who has selected the route between Mbale and Kampala as his ministry. He prays and reads scripture in English and Luganda. Given the safety record and physical condition of most buses, my PC colleague who said “there are no atheists on a Ugandan bus” has a point…

Not exactly entertainment, but interesting nonetheless, is the practice of the “short call”. The bus stops, the conductor announces a short call, men leave the bus in one direction and women in the other, everyone slips into the sugar cane field and … The Ugandan version of the highway rest stop.

As the bus moves eastward from Kampala, banana trees give way to sugar cane and tea that give way to rice. You pass the source of the Nile, and drive through dusty trading centers. You turn northeast toward Mbale, at Mbale turn west and then travel two more hours to reach Soroti. As Soroti approaches the landscape turns marshy. Soroti is at the eastern edge of Lake Kyoga – an ill defined lake system that covers hundreds of square miles. Buses and cars and trucks pass by fishermen in dugout canoes waiting to spear their prey… the 21st century passing pre-history…

The staff at CEREDO was quite welcoming. I already have a desk, and I’ve been to visit some other local organizations that partner with CEREDO on selected projects. I’ll be posting some photos of the office and my new colleagues, as well as of my new home, on my Facebook page shortly. CEREDO is providing a house on a compound owned by the Soroti Diocese, right next door to the Bishop’s residence. I don’t think that safety and security will be a concern! My direct neighbors include a retired priest and the diocese accountant. The house has four bedrooms, a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bathroom. Rather more space than I expected! People are working on the house right now – some repairs, painting, and tiling the bathroom floor – with promises that it will be ready in two weeks. We’ll see if that happens. Meanwhile I’m preparing myself to spend some time in temporary quarters! Consider the current house photos as the “before” pictures…

My address in Soroti will be c/o CEREDO, Catholic Education, Research and Development Organization, PO Box 650 Soroti, Uganda. Best to you all!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Settling In

August 21, 2010

The past two weeks have been overflowing with new sights, sounds, routines, and people. I don’t know if a blog post and can do it justice. Photos will help, when I can manage to get them uploaded. Our group of trainees spent the first several days in Uganda at a conference center outside of Kampala. There were classes, administration of our first immunizations (Hep A, Hep B, Rabies#1 and Yellow Fever so far) training on malaria prevention, and an introduction to the volunteer’s role in development. The Peace Corps approach is unique because it focuses on building local capacity and mobilizing the community to create sustainable results. Most of the work here is in community health or agriculture – so don’t be surprised to hear that my project is working in “farm to market” activities! It will be a few weeks yet before each of us knows exactly where we are going and what organizations we will be working with.

I do have some clues to my eventual assignment. I am learning the Ateso language, which is spoken in central eastern Uganda (Soroti and Kumi districts). That area is flat savannah, although near many large lakes. Language learning is a challenge, for sure. But, the classes are small (three students in mine) and the teachers excellent.

Last Sunday we had a field trip to Kampala, the capital and largest city. Kampala is crowded, chaotic, and overwhelming. I expect though, that I will be negotiating the old Taxi Park, the new Taxi Park, and the Bus Park like a pro by the end of this adventure. Kampala has outdoor markets for everything under the sun, including one devoted only to used clothing. It also has supermarkets and electronics stores. All of the trainees bought. It was a joy to speak to Marty and Eli, and I’m looking forward to more calls this weekend. The connection is amazing. If you sign up for Skype, you can call my cell phone for about 2 cents a minute. There is also a 1 800 number called 1 Suite that appears to have a 2 cent per minute rate – some of the trainees family are already using it. Skype video will be free, but it will be a couple of months before I have broadband internet so that we can use it. Yes you read “broadband internet”. It is widely available here (for a price, of course), so I am keeping my fingers crossed that the area of my assignment is covered. Marty and Eli have my number. Remember, I am 7 hours ahead of you, and I am in class from 8am to 5pm M to F, and 8am to 1pm on Saturday.

Until the end of October, my internet access is limited. During training, each trainee is living with a host family. Many have electricity and only a few have running water. My family has neither. Water is carried from the well about ½ mile down the road. The family’s light comes from a single kerosene lantern. Cooking happens outside on a wood fire or on a small charcoal stove. The house has concrete floors, and we bathe from a bucket in a small room that has a hole for drainage in one corner. I do have my own room, and a bed. A few nails in the wall make a closet. I’m also lucky to have a solar powered lamp (supplied by the Peace Corps) and my headlamp. It gets dark about 6:30pm, and light at 6:30am. We’re just about on the equator, so the length of the day is constant throughout the year.

My day goes something like this – wake up at six. Go to the pit latrine and empty the night bucket (no one leaves the house after dark). Bathe from a bucket of water. Eat breakfast. Bike or walk about three miles to school. Class (with breaks for tea and lunch) from 8 to 5. Walk or bike home. Once I stopped in town with some other volunteers for a beer. Most of the time I go straight home, visit a bit with my family, study, help with dinner or some other task (like fetching water), and take care of personal chores. We eat dinner about 10pm! The diet here is very high in starch – matoke, posho, cassava, rice, potatoes – sometimes all in the same meal! The starch is supplemented with a sauce, which is beans, groundnuts, vegetables, and only rarely, meat. There are also bananas, jack fruit, avocados, papaya and mango in abundance. It’s a good thing that I have to bike or walk about 6 miles a day, or I would be quite fat already.

My host “sister” is Betty. Most of the volunteers have host “mothers”, but I am a few years older than mine, so we settled on sister. Two of Betty’s grandchildren are living here, Betty is 11 and Emmanuel 2. I have also met various daughters, sisters, and nieces in my short time here. Betty is a strong, beautiful woman with a ready laugh. She has some English, as do her daughters and grandchildren, so communication has been challenging but not impossible. Unfortunately, I am learning Ateso and Betty speaks Luganda, so I am not doing much language learning at home. It took me a few days to adapt to the loss of all of the conveniences and routines that we take for granted in the U.S., but I am surprised at my ability to do so. I have a new appreciation for the effort required of families living in the developing world to get water, to cook, and to get their homes, clothing, and selves clean. Oh, but what I still wouldn’t do for a hot shower! I‘ve stopped: fingernail polish, eye make-up, and washing my hair every day. I haven’t stopped painting my toenails. A girl’s gotta have standards after all.

All for now… With luck I’ll get to the internet cafĂ© tomorrow, after I do my clothes washing (by hand, of course).

August 26,2010

This week was a new adventure – with an amoeba. Sunday I was feeling more tired than usual, and by Monday morning was running a slight fever. I was taken to Kampala to see the nurse on duty at headquarters, where the vomiting and diarrhea began, and the temperature climbed to 102 degrees (and eventually a little higher). Off to the Surgery (don’t panic, it’s the British English term for clinic) for lab work and a diagnosis was confirmed. There were about two and a half days of pure misery – mitigated by Nurse Betsy. My Kampala angel. Betsy cares for PCVs and PCTs (Peace Core Volunteers and Peace Core Trainees) that need nursing care but not hospitalization. I received excellent care – with the side benefit of modern plumbing and electricity in her lovely hillside home. Oh, and the craziest part, I got a pedicure! A house call for a pedicure, only about $6 US.

I’m back in Wakiso, but spending a couple of nights at the school so that I don’t have to make the hike or bike to and from school. My appetite has returned, and with a bit more rest and food so will my strength and energy. Saturday I’m looking forward to another “field trip” to Kampala, this time to test the ATM cards for our new Ugandan bank accounts (PC pays by direct deposit), visit the Uganda Museum, and to get better oriented to the city.

Post Script – The Kampala expedition was a success, even more than expected. I have broadband internet already! And, I’m back “home”.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I leave for Uganda on August 10, but this journey began more than a year ago.

It was time for me to do something new. Retire? Not while my playmates are still working. A new company? Not with my disillusionment with and distaste for corporate life still intact. A new purpose? But, what exactly, would that be? Out came the list of dreams never pursued and the possibilities imagined for the 3rd third of this life.

At the intersection of dreams and possibilities I found the strong desire to make a difference, to give back after a lifetime of good fortune. I also found a need for adventure, for testing myself, and having intense new experiences. And then I investigated the Peace Corps. “Life is calling. How far will you go?” I was hooked.

The application process, well it certainly is a process. Application, essays, recommendations, the first request for my college transcripts in 25 years, the interview… Then there are the fingerprints, legal screening, and medical screenings. At 59, a woman has a medical history. And the Peace Corps wants to know ALL of it. And they want to know it from your primary care doc, your specialists, your dentist, your eye doctor, and you. It takes time.

The application is sent in June 2009. The interview is in July, and I’m nominated in August. Then begins the medical fun, and the long wait while they determine if they have a placement for you. At last, in April, there is news. That news is presented in an extraordinary fashion. I accept the invitation to a reception for 2010 DC area nominees at the Peace Corps headquarters. Ten of us are called to the stage and presented with invitations to serve. My nomination was for business development in Eastern Europe or Asia. The invitation is for Uganda. I have this to digest as I prepare to introduce myself and my assignment in front of 300 people. It took a little time to wrap my head around the idea of Africa. (My head is firmly wrapped around it today!)

Between application and invitation, a few other things happened. In November I lost my job. That was a good thing – like taking a long hot shower to scrub off years of accumulated grime. At some other time and in some other forum I’m looking forward to sharing my observations of corporate life and the people in it. Although I experienced modest success there, it’s a place where I never belonged. Leaving didn’t feel bad, it felt free.

So, the dirt gets removed and it’s time to start shedding skin. The first shed – selling my condominium. Easier than expected, logistically and emotionally. Next comes a layer of superfluous possessions. Much given away, to family and to charity. Some put into storage. Some sold. The essentials moved to Marty’s. Then the car goes. Here I am – free of an unfulfilling job, free of possessions, free of debt. Seems un-American, somehow.

I did accumulate a few new things. People. Now I have People – to manage my personal business. Just call my People if you need anything. I have new stuff. A solar charger. Portable French press. New luggage. A netbook. Speaking of stuff, stuffing it all into two suitcases and 80lbs was a challenge. That’s the reason for the new luggage – lighter bags provided room for 12 more pounds of stuff. With apologies to George Carlin, it keeps coming back to stuff. Got rid of most of it, but couldn’t help getting more! Part of my expectation for this experience in Uganda is learning to live with a lot less of it.

Living without stuff is a goal, but living without the people that I love will be incredibly hard. Living without the day to day presence of my guy Marty? Difficult to imagine. Marty’s support for this adventure has been selflessly given even through his sadness at my upcoming absence. Marty gets it. He knows why I want to do this. He is a wonderful man, and my life is enriched by his friendship and love. Africa in February, babe. It’s a date.

I will miss my son, Eli. (Eli, I’ll see YOU in Africa next summer!) I’ll miss my sister and brother, their children and grandchildren. I’ll miss Marty’s children and grandchildren. I’ll cry at Christmas, and on the day of Nick and Jessica’s wedding. I’ll expect to see lots of photos from everyone, and I’ll expect you to continue the annual Family Camping Trip tradition (even though next summer was my turn to pick the place)!

Writing for an audience is hard – it can feel like standing naked on a crowded bus. I had decided not to blog because I would be writing about personal thoughts and feelings. I was going to rely on e-mail distributions. Obviously, I’ve changed my mind.

Next posting… from Uganda!