The New Normal

Happy Thanksgiving!

That being said, it does not feel like the end of November. Although I missed my family and friends in the states, I had a lovely day yesterday celebrating with my Peace Corps family. Lunch was served at the PC Uganda Headquarters and we all got a much needed break from the usual rice and beans combo. Right now, I am relaxing in my dorm room that I share with 6 other girls. We moved into this training center (which is also a Teacher’s College) last Sunday.

During one of our welcome sessions earlier in the month, the program director mentioned that going through the Peace Corps “Teacher Boot Camp” is like earning your master’s degree in literacy. I didn’t believe her then but I stand (sit) corrected. This shit is intense.* I’m teaching 3 classes next week and 4 the week after. I have lesson plans to do, projects to complete and teachers to collaborate with. I’m exhausted by the time I get back to my dorm room but I’m learning so much that it’s hard not to be excited. The fact that I’m doing all this with some really awesome people makes the experience even better.

My dorm room is another story. We were definitely spoiled at the last training center, with our scalding hot water, American toilets and cockroach-free closets. Don’t get me wrong, we are definitely coddled here and it only took a couple days to realize this. Ants in your closet aren’t a big deal when you have cockroaches and cockroaches aren’t a big deal when you have lizards. Along the same lines, pooping in a Turkish toilet isn’t so bad** when you see the Black Hole of Doom that is the pit latrines. Also, running water is a beautiful thing even if it’s ice cold.

Uganda has obviously done wonders for my ability to be optimistic!

*Although the other day we had a random sex ed class that was the most hilarious thing ever (mostly because I was under the impression that I was an adult but also because I’d accepted that I pretty much signed a celibacy vow for two years when I decided to join the Peace Corps…unless you know, NGOs happen). The gist of the session was:
DON’T HAVE SEX.
BUT IF YOU MUST, DON’T HAVE SEX WITH ANYONE WHO HAS HIV.
AND USE A CONDOM.
ALWAYS.

**Even if a frog happens to jump out of it while you are doing your business.

Emotion Hangover

I did it.

I pooped in a hole.

But don’t let that fact fool you, I am far from winning at Peace Corps.

Today was a very rough day, probably the hardest since I’ve been in Uganda. I had my very first breakdown and my friend Jamie, who is a beautiful angel, kept me company and told me that I am the most graceful crier.* Everything was okay until I went to my third session of the day and the topic was Corporal Punishment and child abuse. It was like seeing my childhood in bullet point form on a PowerPoint. I’m comfortable talking about abuse, especially my own, and I’ve figured out how to cope with it. I knew that corporal punishment was something I would have to see firsthand as a teacher in Uganda, where it was only recently criminalized but still widely accepted, and I thought I was emotionally prepared enough to deal with it. However, the further we got into the presentation, the more I could sense that familiar feeling of suffocation creeping up on me. It got to the point where I had to leave the room.

I don’t want to elaborate anymore at this point because I don’t believe in dwelling on the past. What I do want to mention is that I feel incredibly grateful to be surrounded by such caring and loving people. Thinking about all that I’ve been through in life does not make me angry or upset, it makes me determined. It took a lot of hard work to become the person I am today and I have every intention of using my experiences in a positive way. I am humbled by this opportunity that is granted to so few, to be here, to be present, to make a change – no matter how small that change may be. Today, I broke down.

Today, I was sad and I’m positive that today was not the last day that I will be feeling like this. And that’s okay.

(Also today, I conquered my fear of pooping in a hole and although I joke about it, it is no small feat, my friends).

*Jamie is also to thank for the title of this post

I Went To Africa & Started a Girl Band

I got my site assignment!! You are looking at (errr…reading the words of?) the first literacy specialist in Kyakatara Primary School in the Kyenjojo District in Western Uganda. I will be living in a cooler* part of the country amongst the mountains. The site assignment ceremony was done with a sorting hat and in true Harry Potter form, it was all very dramatic. Waiting to be hear our assignments felt much like receiving a letter to see if you got accepted into the college of your choice. Of course, I was the last one to be “sorted.”

When I first heard the name of the school, I was slightly disappointed because it wasn’t one of my top 3 choices…and then I read the job description. Apparently one of the reasons I was chosen to work at this school is because they are advocating for gender balance and “can benefit from strong female leadership” and as you all know, I am all about gender balance. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good right about now. Also, my friend Marguerite will be living about a half hour away from me, which makes me really happy.

Friday night was also the talent show, which was such a blast. A couple of my friends and I created a girl band called “The Lugogo Girls” and sang a parody version of the song “I Will Survive. “ Our version is Peace Corps related (of course) but we called it “I Might Survive.” We all wore black mini dresses (that we just happened to have packed in our suitcases**) and red lipstick. We made up dance moves to the song and we even had groupies! It was so much fun to dress up and put on makeup even though I still smelled like bug spray. The other acts were pretty great too. After the talent show was over, we had a dance party in the classroom. My roommate and I finally stumbled into our dorm room around 1 and spent at least an hour sitting in bed and giggling.

Tomorrow we are leaving for our new training center, where we will be for the next 3 weeks. The dorm rooms are going to be bigger but that also means we’ll have more roommates (rumor has it that it’s 6 per room). It’s also going to be more intense, work-wise but I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully I will have faster internet so I can finally post these entries!

*Cooler = 70s and 80s. 60s at night.

**It was meant to be.

Kampala

I HAVE INTERNET!

BUT IT’S NOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME TO UPLOAD ALL THESE BLOG POSTS!

SO I’M JUST GOING TO CONTINUE TYPING LIKE SOMEONE IS ACTUALLY READING THIS!

Okay I’ll stop.

Today was a very exciting day because my fellow PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) and I got to visit the US Embassy and the Peace Corps Headquarters in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Both the embassy and the PC headquarters are located in more affluent parts of the city so we got to see some pretty houses and structures. Since this part of the country is more hilly and valley-like, we were able to catch some breathtaking views of the city from the top. The PC headquarters is incredible. I can’t even describe it but if I could live there, I would. The staff was very welcoming and they greeted us so warmly. It’s nice to feel loved when you’re surrounded by strangers, although stranger is the last word I would use to describe my other PCTs.

On our ride home, we did cheesy things like sing songs and make music. This helped to take my mind off the fact that the roads in Uganda are incredibly dangerous and I could basically die at any moment (JKJK). There are no traffic lights or signs and the roads don’t even have names! Everyone just somehow knows where each road leads. This makes no sense to me.*

Despite the deadly transportation issues, Uganda is a beautiful country landscape-wise because it is so diverse. The east side of the country is known for its lakes and rivers while the north is the typical “African” landscape that people envision with dusty roads and flat terrain but lots of wildlife. The west is the opposite and is much cooler with lots of mountains. I’m really curious to find out where I will end up.

On a non-PC related note, I got to talk to two of my sisters this week and it feels great! I can’t say that I miss America yet (especially since the word “snow” was mentioned in the conversations.**) but it does feel weird not being able to talk to my friends and family whenever I want to vent about my day or to talk about something funny that happened. There are many times during the day (usually during a boring session) when I wonder what someone is up to in the states and then proceed to figure out the time difference and guess what they’re doing at that exact time. I also have to constantly remind myself that it’s only been a week and a half and it’s because of circumstance that my life has changed so dramatically.

Interesting Fact: Uganda is the size of Oregon but has a population of 39 million people.

* Side note: while we were driving back from Uganda, there was a billboard on the side of the road with an ad for a type of scotch called Crazy Cock. It had a picture of a rooster drinking scotch with the tag line “It’s SERIOUSLY CRAZY!” I am so disappointed that I didn’t have my phone on me to take a picture of it. I am a bad blogger.

**It’s around 80 and sunny every day here in Kulika, Uganda!

The Life of A Peace Corps Trainee

Here is what my schedule looks like nowadays as a Peace Corps Trainee:

6:45 a.m.: Alarm Clock/Snooze/Complain to Jamie (my awesome roommate) about how we need to go to bed earlier/Wake up

7:30 a.m.: Breakfast, which usually consists of tea or instant coffee (yum.), a peanut butter and jelly sandwich* and fruit (usually a banana). They also have hard boiled eggs and sometimes meat. Today we had meat balls!

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8:00 a.m.: Morning meeting, which usually involves an ice breaker (the fact that I was in student council in high school is actually keeping me sane).

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The classroom

8:15 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.: Various lectures and training sessions consisting of lots of group activities and sweating. It’s part college (because of the dorms and structured lessons), part high school (because of all the ice breakers and “energizers”) and part kindergarten (because sometimes we do things like play games and stand around in a circle and hug the person next to us, while being thankful that we’re comfortable enough with each other now and we don’t care if they can smell our sweat). In between, we get breaks:

  • 10:30 a.m.: Tea break which consists of tea or instant coffee (yum.) and a snack. Today we had samosas** and they were delicious!
  • 2:00 p.m.: Lunch, which so far means rice and beans for sure with some sort of meat and vegetables. I got excited the other day because they served laal shag, which is a Bengali dish my mom makes. We also get fresh fruit for dessert, like papayas and pineapple!

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  • 4:00 p.m.: Tea break #2

7:00 p.m.: Dinner, which is the same as lunch.

8:00 p.m.-whenever my roommate and I decide we need to shut up and go to asleep: “Personal Time,” basically a time to socialize and do whatever we want. We had a bonfire the other day and someone led a mini yoga session the day before, which was really cool. Yesterday, I sat in my room with a couple friends drinking wine and talking about white privilege, feminism and social justice which, as you all know, are 3 of my favorite things to talk about. Today, we had a mini dance party before I decided to be anti-social and escape to my room to type this post up (you’re welcome). At the end of the night, my roommate and I sit in our bed and talk for, no exaggeration, hours and we always regret it when we have to wake up at 6:45 a.m. the next day.

I can’t believe it’s only been one week since I arrived in Uganda. It feels like so much longer! I’ve gotten close to many people (spending every hour of the day together will do that to you) and it’s really awesome to be here. My trainers have been excellent so far and Ugandans in general are so friendly and welcoming. On Friday, I find out my placement and we move to a new training site during the weekend.

Interesting Fact: 54% of the population in Uganda is younger than 13 and they have one of the highest fertility rates in the world.

*It’s amazing the kinds of foods you start to like when you’re out of your element. Peanut butter is growing on me and I couldn’t stand it in the states.

**Fun fact: Uganda has a huge Southeast Asian influence. When we visited the capital the other day, I saw many Indian people dressed in ethnic wear. However, Ugandan food isn’t nearly as flavorful, which is sad because that’s the best part of Southeast Asia.

Perks of Being An Immigrant

It took moving to Africa for me to realize the significance of the bucket and mug that resided permanently in my parent’s bathroom. I never thought too much about it growing up and wrote off bathing with a bucket in the bathtub as one of the many quirks that come with the Bengali culture (like putting rugs on top of carpet, which is hella weird now that I think about it).

This all changed today.

I don’t know if it was the hot Ugandan sun or the fact that I missed tea break and was starving as a result, but it wasn’t until the end of the “Bathing in Uganda” session that I realized the reason why the lesson seemed so familiar was because bucket bathing was something I was already taught growing up (shout out to the parental unit!). Even though we had running water and a bathroom with a shower in our home in New York, I remember my mother filling a bucket with water and using a mug to pour the water on my 6 year old self sitting in the bathtub.

Following the bathing session was a lesson on hand washing your clothes, another task I was acquainted with. So while most people around me were doing these things for the first time, I was sitting there like no big deal.

It’s very interesting to make these connections in such a foreign place. Growing up, I didn’t always appreciate my native culture; I was in college when I finally started embracing my brown-ness, if you will. (It also wasn’t until college that I realized how much the color of my skin changed the way people perceived me, but that’s a story for another blog post). This experience was also very reassuring. It’s nice to know that although there is a long list of obstacles that I may have to overcome while living in Uganda, bucket bathing will not be one of them.

Education in Uganda

Okay, first order of business. Someone left me a voicemail on Tuesday while I was taking off for Africa (of course) AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHO IT IS. It is driving me absolutely crazy. I can’t check my voicemail because

  1. I don’t have international calling,
  2. I don’t have internet access yet to email someone in the states to check my voicemail for me (I’m actually blogging on Word and plan on copying these entries over to my blog when I get internet) and
  3. it is very likely that by the time I get internet access, my phone will no longer be in service.

That being said, if YOU (yes, you, wasting your precious time reading my ramblings) happen to be the person who left me a voicemail on Tuesday (around 4/5/6ish) I would like to request that you transcript what you said in the voicemail into an email and send it to me at khanom.tahrima@gmail.com. If you want to be more dramatic and/or you left me a voicemail declaring your undying love for me, you may also send me a letter to: Tahrima Khanom P.O. Box 7007 Kampala, Uganda. Chocolates are also welcome. And a pair of rain boots. And hot sauce. And posters for my future home (!!!). And music on CDs because my collection is pathetic (although I did find another volunteer who was into Bob Marley and will be able to bum some music off of him. All these Peace Corps people are so cool).

Anyway, now that we got that very pressing issue out of the way, let me tell you about my day. Today, I visited a Primary Teacher College and a Primary School in Western Uganda. As many of you know, I got accepted into the Peace Corps with the job title of “Teacher Trainer.” However, I had the chance to talk to one of the program managers yesterday and learned that if I want, I can work as a “Literacy Specialist.” This means I would be working with kids in reading while also training and building instructional materials for teachers. It’s basically the best of both worlds.

We were greeted at each school by a group of students performing traditional song and dance. I was awe-struck. What made it even more surreal was the backdrop. Western Uganda is known for its abundant lush greenery and beautiful mountains. It was so breathtaking that I found myself thinking multiple times, almost disbelievingly, “I’m in freaking Africa!” The other Peace Corps Volunteers felt the same way (although I’m starting to think we feel the same way about a lot of things, which is nice) and the kids were so adorable!

The only downside of the whole experience occurred while we were touring the classrooms. I was looking around at the different posters hung up on the wall and noticed a series of yellow papers that had statements written on them. One of them said “Pre-marital sex is bad.” This was followed by other statements echoing the same sentiment of abstinence (“Virginity is healthy for males and females.” “Do not have sex”). I found it interesting that a country with an HIV/AIDS problem is promoting abstinence as a way to decrease the spread of such diseases instead of discussing methods of safe sex and promoting the use of birth control and condoms. However, I really can’t hold it against them since the US is struggling with similar problems (according to the teen pregnancy rate in schools that teach abstinence only sex ed because THAT makes sense).

The worst of the yellow papers was one that hung casually in the corner of the room with the words “Beware of Homosexuals” written on it. It was disheartening, to say the least.

Overall though, it was very interesting to venture outside of our compound and see a bit of Uganda. Next week I find out where I will be placed!