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!