A long time…
It’s been a long time between blog entries. A long, hard time. My great-nephew Rich died in Afghanistan at the end of May, and my family’s world is horribly altered. There are many days when I question why I am here. Maybe my family needs me more than Uganda does. It was difficult to leave them after my two weeks in the States. Why did I come back? Really because when I questioned returning to Africa my sister grabbed me by the shoulders and said “Go back. Do good work. Our family commits and we follow through.”
So here I am, committed and following through. There are some bright spots, like completing secondary school management workshops for 30 schools. This was a collaboration with a Dutch school principal. The topics: leadership, team effectiveness, creating a management plan, financial management and income-generating activities. We plan to reach as many as 80 additional schools over the coming year.
I’m also delivering workshops on sexual/reproductive health and menstruation management at primary and secondary schools. Menstruation is a big issue for girls in rural Uganda – they get very little information about what’s happening to their bodies and disposable pads are far too expensive for them to use. It’s a cause of absenteeism and contributes to a high drop-out rate. So, we are teaching them how to make re-usable pads, and providing kits with the necessary materials. The best part is that I am working with a wonderful Ugandan woman, Betty, on this project. She is passionate, articulate, and motivated – so I know that this work will continue long after I’ve returned to the USA.
Neither of these things is exactly what I expected to be doing. As an economic development volunteer I didn’t foresee being placed in an organization focused on education quality improvement. It took awhile to define projects that I felt made a contribution and used my skills, but I am happy with these and feel like I may be doing some good. The help I provide in proposal and report writing, project planning, and budgeting is also, I hope, helping to build some capacity at CEREDO.
I’ve learned a lot. Had good and bad experiences. Seen positive and negative effects of donor aid. Met inspiring people. Have loved and hated Uganda and Ugandans. And I’m really glad that I am doing this despite enthusiasm that waxes and wanes - with homesickness, but also with frustration about “the way things are”. There is no money at my organization. The previous funding year ended June 30, but the major donor organization is changing and new funding won’t be released until November. Not only that, it will be significantly less. I think the knowledge that this was coming has been there for some time, but the planning for it has been haphazard. The staff has not been paid for three months. The second truck has broken down. Lunch is no longer served in the office. Internet is no longer available. In the meantime, the staff continues coming the office and working as hard as ever. My admiration for their commitment is strong, and it keeps me going.
Many days the enormity of the problems facing the education system is overwhelming, and my own small efforts feel inconsequential. Too many children, schools in poor condition, no books, no laboratory equipment, no lunch, teacher and student absenteeism, rote instruction, corruption, ineffective government… I have to keep reminding myself that making a difference in the life of just one child is reason enough to go on tilting at the windmills.
A trip to South Africa, and the regional Peace Corps Medical Office in Pretoria, was dictated by discovery of a tiny basal cell skin cancer on my forehead. It was first removed in Kampala, but the lab work showed specimen margins not as “clean” as desired. Any volunteer that has a problem that cannot be handled in the host country gets “med-evac’d” to regional. The work on my forehead was deemed suitable for a plastic surgeon, and there are few of those in Uganda (maybe even only one!).
The trip was 9 days. Another world. White sheets, my own bathroom with hot shower, tasty breakfasts, an oven and complete kitchen, washing machine and dryer, pedicure, hair cut and color, real ice cream (every day), real supermarkets, highways, sushi, Thai restaurants, wine, lettuce, and other treats. Also very strange - as if it was two countries, one first world, one third world. The first world has everything, but the everything exists behind walls, electric fences, razor wire, and security guards. I felt the ghosts of apartheid.
I also felt lion cubs! With the other “walking wounded” (all PCVs staying at The Rose Guesthouse while recuperating from broken bones, infections, and surgeries) I travelled to a lion sanctuary about 1 ½ hours from Pretoria. White (not albino) lions have all but disappeared in the wild. The sanctuary has a program to breed them. Feeding and playing with the three week-old cubs was amazing. They are curious, playful, and sweet. By nine weeks they are already too old to play with humans, as by then they have very sharp claws and are quite strong. Still impossibly cute, but beginning to be dangerous.
The revision was successful, the skin cancer is gone, and I was promptly sent back to Uganda. Not all of the other PCVs were as lucky. Jon, from Kenya, is recovering from a shoulder broken in a boat taxi collision, but cannot return to his site in Kenya because of the recent activity by Somali pirates. All American government employees, including Peace Corps volunteers, have been evacuated from northeastern Kenya. Jon is on his way back to New York. Justine, from Malawi, is back in the states now for skin grafts and additional surgery for the multiple fractures in her foot. Seth and Rebekah, however, have returned to Ethiopia and Madagascar, respectively. The real highlight of South Africa was getting to know these PCVs from other countries, and to talk together about the challenges we face and the joys and frustrations of Peace Corps Service.
My own return to Uganda was a bit more difficult than expected.
It all began with a craving for good bread
Let’s start by describing Ugandan bread. Typical Ugandan bread is not delicious. Think stale Wonder Bread. For brown bread, think stale Wonder Bread with food coloring. In Kampala there is one bakery called Brood (Dutch for bread) that makes excellent multigrain bread and croissants, baguettes and other goodies. At least one trip to Brood is on the agenda for every trip to the capital.
Following my return from South Africa and before leaving Kampala on the 7am bus for Soroti, my plan was to stop at Brood for bread. I went there, but they had not opened at their advertised 6am. (And why did this surprise me? This is Uganda, after all. Time is an entirely different construct.) I waited for a few minutes, but there was no sign of an imminent opening. There was however, a lurking boda (motorcycle) driver who rode up on the sidewalk, flew by, and snatched my purse.
Now, I’m sure that boda-boda man was seeing dollar signs in his daydreams as he speed away. I would have loved to be there and see his face when he realized that the small purse contained only a comb, pen, tissues, travel medication box, a copy of my medical report from South Africa, Peace Corps ID and a cheap phone. Only the phone created a problem, but one that was resolved quickly. Lesson number one: the streets of Kampala are not safe, even at daybreak on a Sunday. Lesson number two: a decoy bag works!
The thief didn’t get much, and this could have happened in any city in the world, but the incident just added to the shock of “re-entry”. And I didn’t get my bread. I was a very grouchy person on Sunday, October 2!
As always, the return to Uganda requires adjustment. Adjusting from the beautiful room at The Rose to the shabby single at Kampala’s New City Annex. Adjusting from food variety to restricted choices. Adjusting from super highways to Ugandan public transport.
After the purse snatching and nine hours of bus travel, I arrived in Soroti in bad humor. Then – slowly, slowly – I begin moving back into the flow of Soroti. Familiar people. Neighbors. Friends. My little house. My turf. The mood lifted.
However, there were still more adjustments. I now own a bicycle. And I have learned how to negotiate roads full of potholes, puddles, and bumps. (All while wearing a skirt, by the way. That, my friends, qualifies as a skill.) During the two weeks I was away Soroti experienced heavy rains. With every storm, the pattern of potholes, puddles, and bumps changes. Over a couple of weeks the changes are substantial. The result is a need to re-learn the bicycle routes to the office and to town. It’s always important to know where you need to position yourself on the road for the driest and smoothest ride. You must learn “the line”.
Then there was the adjustment to on again/off again electrical power. The power outages the first week back were:
8pm Sunday to 5am Monday
5pm to 6pm Monday
7pm Tuesday to 4am Wednesday
12:30am to 10am Thursday
6:15pm to Midnight Thursday
7pm Saturday to sometime Sunday morning.
Some outages are breakdowns or repairs. But the regular (sort of), every other day evening outages are part of a rolling blackout. The power companies say that the government owes them a lot of money. The government says that the privatization of the electric utility has not resulted in promised cost reductions, has refused to pay the bills, and has an investigation underway. ( Launching an investigation, by the way, appears to be a common method of issue avoidance by this government. ) Meanwhile, the citizens of Uganda are dealing with rolling blackouts that the companies claim are required because they cannot afford to generate enough electricity when the government isn’t paying their bills . And the citizens are not mad as hell. I’m waiting for them to say that they are “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”. But they don’t.
October 9 celebrated Uganda’s independence from Great Britain. That occurred in 1962. In the years since, Uganda has suffered civil war and Idi Amin. Museveni and the NRE assumed power in 1985, and they have been in power since. This government made some big accomplishments in the past, like immunization programs and universal education. Today it feels as though progress has slowed. Perhaps those in power now see retaining power, not development, as the primary goal. And the people are not “rising up” because they prize the stability (i.e. absence of civil war) that years of NRM rule have provided. Peace at any cost.
The cost seems high, though. A strain of passivity and resignation runs through the society. Daily life for most is a struggle, perhaps they just have no time to be angry. There is also fear, both of instability and of retribution. Some of the passivity is also fueled by the donor culture. The huge amounts of foreign aid, by both government and private sources (especially churches), accomplish some good, but have also fostered in some the expectation that “someone will give it to me”. Hardly a day passes that I don’t get a request for a handout, from children’s requests that I give them money or buy them a soda, to requests by mere acquaintances that I pay school fees for themselves or their children.
Paraphrasing my friend Chelsea, Uganda will not be truly independent until they escape the donor trap, get rid of the “kleptocrats”, and empower themselves to change. Meanwhile, hats off to the many Ugandans who struggle every day to feed and educate their children, and to those who choose “development” as their passion and not just a paycheck.
Closing with an Inspiration
Because some of this post has a negative tone, I’ll close with a story that inspires hope.
I was invited to join a colleague at the graduation party for a young woman from a village in Serere. It was a long drive to the truly remote settlement. On the way, we picked up the guest of honor. She was a recent nursing school graduate, and the first woman from her village to go beyond secondary school. About a kilometer from our destination we were greeted by a crowd of women; singing, dancing, waving flags, and throwing flowers in greeting. The parade accompanied us all the way to the village!
The entire village was assembled for the event. It was clear that her family was very proud of her accomplishment, and the community was proud too. This may not seem remarkable to you, but when you understand that many villagers put a low value on educating their daughters, then you find it so. There was a mass, with lovely traditional music and singing, and the obligatory speeches. The father of the graduate, a most dignified and humble man, told his audience to educate their girl children. The priest in his sermon did the same. I was watching the girls and young women in the congregation. They were beaming. And their parents were nodding their heads.
This is the way real change will happen. One child, one family, one village at a time.