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!