Saturday, October 30, 2010
First of all, thanks for the Birthday wishes! It was really nice to
know that everyone was thinking about me! Second, once again I'm
sorry for my MASSIVE delay in giving you any information about my
time in Uganda thus far. Training didn't allow for much of an
opportunity to get online and when I had time the power was usually
out. There's a lot to fill you in on in regards to what's already
happened but right now I want to fill you in on where I am now!
We were officially 'sworn in' as Peace Corps Volunteers on the 21st
and traveled to our sites on Oct. 22- my 27th birthday! It would have
been a kind of cool symbolic thing had I actually made it to my site.
Instead I got as far as my friend Steve's site before concerns arose
about bad road conditions, the increasingly late hour, and whether
there was a place for me to stay outweighed the benefits of continuing on. I finally arrived in Ngai, Oyam
District in Northern Uganda on the 24th.
Ngai is referred to as a 'trading center' because of it's relative
large size although it would make anywhere in the U.S. look like a
metropolis in comparison. The closest 'town' aka- place you can find
on a map and get most of the more basic things you need (mirror,
mattress, spices, chocolate, etc.) is Lira. There seems to be one
truck and one van that go to Lira daily. I went to town the other day
and it took 4 hours to get there due to bad roads and a bad truck.
Ngai is surrounded by swamps. Someone said to me that during the
rainy season (now) Ngai is virtually an island. It's true! When I
finally did get here I arrived in a big 4 wheel drive SUV which was
lucky, we basically had to forge a river because the road was so
flooded. There were literally people swimming and spear fishing next
to the car! There are some buildings with electricity in the trading
center but as far as I know no running water. The water comes from a
borehole and some of the people who have metal roofs collect
rainwater. The majority of people in Ngai live in grasshuts and are
farmers (one of the popular cash crops are sunflowers- they're
beautiful!). Every night we've had spectacular rain and lightning
storms that light up the sky and silhouette the trees and grasses. I
find myself mesmerized by it. We also have such loud crickets that,
given you call me at night- which you should, I promise you'll be able
to hear wherever you are in the world. So while Ngai is
intimidatingly remote it's also totally my cup of tea.
I will be a community health worker at the Ngai Health Center lll (the
government health centers are ranked by the variety and intensity of
services they offer). The health center is made up of 3 buildings
about the size of a 7/11- to give a very American analogy. One
building is for maternity, one for patient care- aka- sick people, and
one is a youth center (but that one doesn't have walls but strangely
does have a pool table donated by a German NGO). TONS of people come
to the center everyday and wait under the mango tree outside before
they are seen. Numerous babies have been born since I've been here.
Susan, the midwife and my new found friend, has promised to let me
watch a baby be born while William, my supervisor and the head of the
health center jokes (but is kind of serious) that I'll be delivering
babies before too long.
As a pseudo health center employee I will be living in health center
housing. I am temporarily living with a young nurse named Junior and
her 5 month old baby, Baracka. Junior has been great, easy going,
extremely hospitable, funny- really great. Another nice aspect of my
living situation is that all of the health workers plus their families
and others whose connections are yet to be determined all function as
a makeshift family. They look after one another's kids, share chores,
and leave their homes open with no worry. They also eat together- a
custom which I, thankfully, have been immediately included in. Ngai
is super remote and rural so there aren't a ton of options for food.
There are no small restaurants or places that sell prepared food and
only a small market with a few vegetables, rice, beans, unappealing
looking raw meats, and an improportionate number of people selling and
drinking the local booze. Additionally, I am staying in someones
house and feel a bit awkward coming out of my bedroom with a plate of
pasta (which I bought in Lira, they don't sell pasta anywhere in Oyam
District). Therefore I'm extremely happy to be included in the
communal meals. I've found that if I hang out long enough, someone
will eventually bring me food. This morning I was sitting outside
reading my book before going to the health center and what appeared in
front of me? Two African sweet potatoes and a very sugary cup of tea!
This plan does have it's drawbacks however. Yesterday my supervisor,
a few of the nurses, and I were sitting on his porch in prime lunch
serving position but it wasn't coming. Finally, when I became visibly
hungry (cranky and withdrawn- great qualities, I know) they told me
that they didn't have any charcoal to cook the beans on but that we
could hold ourselves over on glucose (aka- powdered sugar) which we
did until 5pm when we had lunch. I'd be lying if I said that this
communal living situation was always totally easy but I do feel very
fortunate to be surrounded by such thoughtful, caring people.
Today I was sent, equipped with handwritten letters from William, to
introduce myself to the headmasters of the primary and secondary
schools. I went to the primary school first and was welcomed warmly
and taken around to all of the classes. We went to the P7 class first
(rough equivalent of 7th grade) where I was surprised to find that the
majority of students were taller than me (I'm not usually outgrown
until 9th or 10th grade in the states). I credit this to the fact
that A- Lango people (the tribe of this region) are really tall or B-
the P7 students are older than our 7th graders because they were held back
when they don't pass exams, lack of school fees caused them not to
attend consecutive schooling, or they started school late. I think that
it's probably a mix of the two. I also found that only P7 and P6
classes had desks and chairs while P1-5 sat on the floor. Some of the
lower grade classrooms were so crammed with students that it was
physically difficult to get in the room. After many greetings and
songs and promises to come back I continued on to the secondary
At the secondary school I spent a good deal of time speaking with the
headmaster. He told me about the unique challenges that he's come
across as a result of working in Northern Uganda. As you may or may
not know the Northern region of the country experienced a devastating
20 year war which just ended around 2005. The conflict was caused by
the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The history of the
conflict is messy and I fear that I'll make a mistake in trying to
summarize it but the main point is that it was really bad. The LRA
used to attack people in their homes, burn down villages, abduct
children from their homes and schools- boys would be forced to become
child soldiers and girls were used as 'wives.' The brutality of the
war gets much worse but I'll leave it at that for now. The headmaster
explained to me that at one point towards the beginning of the war 50
students were abducted from the secondary school. It was also implied
that it was not the only raid. Eventually everyone in the region
moved into Internally Displaced Peoples Camps (which caused a whole
mess of other problems) and the school was used as barracks for the
Ugandan army. While the President has promised to construct new
buildings, the headmaster explained that during that time the
structure of the buildings was essentially destroyed. He described
the state of the school as being 'unfit for human use.' At another
point in our conversation he explained that they've had to move things
around because 2 classrooms recently collapsed. Some other startling
facts: It is the only secondary school for the sub-county which has a
population of about 48,000 but the total enrollment is only 321
students. Only 3 students got the equivalent of a C grade on the
national exams last year- the rest got Ds or failed. Only 20% of the
student body is female.
What the school, and Oyam District in general, has going for it is
amazingly intelligent, optimistic, and motivated people working to
find solutions to issues and support the communities here. With a mix
of poverty, lack of education and resources, effects of the recent
war, and the previlance of HIV/AIDS there's a lot of work to be done
in Oyam but I'm excited to be here. I'll promise to try a harder to
keep anyone whose interested in how my time in Uganda progresses in
Sunday, October 3, 2010
A few weeks before officially moving to site, Peace Corps allows volunteers in training to travel to the place that they will call home for the following 2 years of their lives. Future site visit is exciting for a variety of reasons. You get to see your community, meet the people you'll be working with, visit the house that you'll be living in, and start taking stalk of what will and won't be available to you during your time in Peace Corps. For me, traveling to site also meant independence. After months of being told what to do, where to be, and how to get there I was looking forward to being on my own for a few days. Getting around in developing countries is not new to me and, while I would describe local transport as uncomfortable, dirty, unreliable, and extremely time consuming there's a (big) part of me that loves it. When you're on an old crappy bus or in an overloaded share taxi (matatu) you're REALLY in it. You become enveloped in the smells, the language, the latest styles and music, the way that people interact and the lack of personal space. It's very real. It's very alive.
I made my way to the Kampala bus park early in the morning and found a bus heading to Lira. I was one of the first people on it, never a good sign. More often than not the buses don't have schedules but leave when they fill up. Entering an empty bus means a long wait. Ce la vive. Waiting is just part of the game. I grabbed a samosa from a street vendor, took out my book, and settled in.
About an hour and a half into the wait I was distracted from reading. There was a lot of commotion right outside of my window, I wanted to see what was going on. Yelling, lots of people piling up looking angry, looking violent. In the middle of the action was a man who had been accused of stealing. In populated areas like bus parks and markets, when someone is identified as a thief the community uses it's own form of justice- mob justice. Men surrounded the 'thief' who's guilt was taken at face value. Kicks, punches, blood. He screamed, tried to get away but the mob had gotten huge and there was no escape. More yelling, more blows, his shirt was torn to shreds as people pushed, either trying to sneak in to land a punch or get a better view of the action. Finally he broke free, was set free, and ran off into the chaos of Kampala almost naked and covered in blood. Justice had been served.
Not how I would have liked to start my day but for the most part everyone was okay and, unfortunately, it's not the first time I'd seen something like that. I was relieved when we finally set off half an hour later. We drove two hours before we stopped at the first 'rest stop.' Various little towns along the major routes are equipped with public latrines and street vendors armed with either baskets of goods and very long limbs or food squired on sticks that are able to reach the bus windows. Satisfied with my samosa I declined the street meat and dozed off. I woke up 45 minutes later to find that we hadn't moved. What's going on? I looked to the front of the bus just as the radiator was being lifted out and carried away for repair. Realizing that it was going to be a while I decided to get out and stretch my legs.
On the edge of the road I was about 20 steps from the bus when there was a horrible loud noise to my left. People started screaming and crying, running away from the road. I ran too, what's going on?!?!?! I looked back and about 15 feet from where I had been walking a woman had been run over by a matatu. She was laying on the ground in a pool of blood, not moving, not screaming. I turned and caught a glimpse of the vehicle that hit her, it never stopped, just drove at about 70mph away from from it's victim. Reflecting on the violent scene from the morning I couldn't blame them for that. Had he stopped the driver would most likely have been beaten to death on the road in the name of justice. It was horrible. The woman was lifted into the back of a pick up truck and taken to the nearest health center but you didn't need a doctor to know that life was quickly draining from her body, no one could have survive that. I was in shock for a few minutes, what do you do after watching someone die? Eventually I took a seat on the side of the road and some local men pointed out the woman's daughter. She was very sick, laying on the ground on the opposite side of the street. She had just been released from the health center and her mother had been crossing the road to bring her a mat to lay on and rest. She had seen the whole thing. After witnessing the violent, accidental loss of a life it was strange to have my life be dictated by something so mundane as car trouble. We were stuck there for another 2 hours. I can't explain how happy I was when we were finally called back to the bus to continue the trip.
We'd been on the road for a few hours and I finally felt able to relax again. One side perk to my site placement is that, when traveling from Kampala, we cross over the Nile River. I love crossing the bridge, watching the white water churn, imagining how the water forming the rapids will have to pass through Sudan before being scooped up by a woman washing laundry in Egypt. Upon reaching the other side you are rewarded with greetings from a troop of baboons who live at this famous location and try to demand a crossing fee of food.
About 10 miles past the bridge something didn't feel right. My seat partner and new friend pointed it out first. Do you feel that? No. Oh wait, now I do. What is it? Just then the back axle of the bus snapped in half. We left the wheels behind as the bus skidded out of control down the road, sparks flying outside of our windows. The passengers let out a chorus of prayers as we slid off the side of the road into a grassy ditch. The huge ton of metal threatened to flip but, thankfully, we stopped, perched at a scary but safe 45 degree angle. I got up and jumped out the door- the angle rendered the stairs useless. Somehow, we were all ok.
Now standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere thankful to be alive my seatmate and I discussed what to do next. Just then we spotted an 18-wheeler coming in our direction and the answer was clear. We flagged the truck down and hitch a ride the rest of the way to Lira.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that day. How lucky I was to have survived it. How unlucky I was to have gotten on that bus when there were so many others waiting to leave. After many rambly trains of thought I always come to the same conclusion. Bad things happen but I’m okay. Regardless of where I was in Uganda or the world, there was going to be an act of mob justice in the bus park, that woman was going to get hit by the matatu, and the axle of a bus heading to Lira was going to snap. I was there, witness to it, part of those stories of the world but I’m ok. On the brink of an experience that’s bound to expose me to massive human suffering- social injustices, poverty, AIDS, effects of war, lack of resources, and rampant community violence- what a great lesson to have pounded into my head and heart. Horrible things happen everyday but, while you need to acknowledge and honor them, you can’t drown in them. In the face of suffering you try to find solutions, you allow yourself to live, and you learn to recognize that you can still be okay. Like so many other moments in my life, I would never have chosen these events but I’m grateful for the window of wisdom that they’ve opened for me.