Profound Realizations I’ve Had Today

I think a lot.

(Disclaimer: sarcasm-heavy post…not that all my posts aren’t.)

  1. While taking a refreshing bucket bath, I realized what sick satisfaction I got from watching the red dirt that was caked onto my body from the dusty roads of Hoima slowly slide down the drain. Since I started language and cultural training in Hoima, all my standards of beauty have gone out the window. I don’t wear makeup anymore since it’s so hot that my face feels like it’s melting half the time. It is also dusty as hell. The dirt is literally like flour. Red flour. Everywhere. If this city sold souvenirs, it would be dust globes. Now that I think about it, the dust could actually double as a bronzer since there’s a nice coat of it on my body as the day progresses. Hoima is also incredibly hilly so it feels like I’m hiking all the time. I never knew I could sweat so much until I got here. It’s growing on me slowly (literally…ha…ha…) but I am so happy that I only have a couple more weeks left here!*
  2. On my morning walk to language class, I was going through the usual Ugandan ritual of greeting everyone I pass by** and it hit me how much I absolutely enjoy greeting Ugandans in their language. They break out in a huge smile and instantly take on a friendlier attitude towards me. A major reason for this drastic change in demeanor is that they usually associate foreigners with being tourists so when I speak the language (or attempt to….), it’s a nice surprise. It’s like saying “I’m here to stay and I respect your culture.” This also made me think of how harshly Americans would respond if the roles were reversed. In most cases, a “foreigner” attempting to speak English in the states would be met with irritation, not acceptance.
  3. Scene: Me – Happily playing with a baby/comforting a small child. Onlookers – “Tahrima, you would make such a good mother” or “Tahrima, I can totally see you as a mom.” Me – Feelings of happiness and warmth at the compliment followed by a moment of shock and intense panic. REPEAT FOREVER.
    I could never put my finger on why I felt that moment of panic until now. And it’s not something rational like the fact that being a parent means being responsible for a little human being (with a heartbeat!!!) or that a casual onlooker just judged my parenting ability by the fact that I was speaking in 4 octaves higher than my regular voice and making sounds/faces that no normal person should make. Obviously, that would make too much sense. I panic after that comment (and it’s been the same across continents – pre and post Africa) because I cannot imagine being ready to be a mom. I cannot imagine being with someone I would want to raise a child with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a #foreveralone issue (if it was then I probably shouldn’t have joined the Peace Corps) but it’s just something I think about when I get caught up in those weird panicky states of confusion after being given one of the greatest compliments ever. Side note: One of my host brothers is 2 ½ months old and he is the cutest thing in the world. Also, Ugandans don’t believe in diapers 50% of the time…which is why I have been both peed and pooped on. I know I’m painting a very attractive picture of myself right now.
  4. With tomorrow marking the last day of 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as a whole. Moving to Uganda was obviously a huge part of it but there were so many other things that made this year incredible for me. The one trend I’ve noticed throughout is how unafraid I was to let myself feel. My ability to love easy and without reservation was not something I took pride in. For a long time, I considered it a weakness and I tried my best to stifle it. I realize that I am a passionate person and with every experience I’ve had this year, I embraced that part of myself a little bit more. I took risks and threw myself into the unknown, with the driving force that I did not want to live a life of regrets. I did not apologize for the way I felt and I was honest, both with myself and the people I encountered. Through this, I was able to achieve a sense of acceptance of my past and present (although I still struggle with patience toward the future). Ultimately, I really do believe that all of my experiences led me here, to Uganda, and for once in my life, I don’t feel like running away.

*On a slightly less optimistic note, sometimes I look through my Facebook profile (wifi willing, of course) and come across photos of me pre-Uganda and think wistfully “will I ever look pretty again??” Haha. I’m joking, of course. Not to sound cocky or anything but chasing dreams and having a continually improving sense of self has done wonders for my skin.

**In Uganda, it’s incredibly rude not to greet everyone you see. I’m getting used to it now, which may pose a problem in two years when I move back to the states. I imagine myself walking down the streets of Detroit being offended because no one is responding back when I ask them “How is the day?”

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Skin

From the beginning, race has permeated every facet of my life. It is the well-meaning caretaker that made decisions for me without my permission. Growing up as a first generation American, I struggled to find the balance between being both Bengali and American. My parents used the word “Americanized” like a curse word but too often I was asked by elevator companions and new coworkers the three words that made me cringe: “What are you?” People questioned my American citizenship but my fair skinned friend, who still had her green card, did not have the same problem. I was not brown enough and I was not white enough, leaving me in the muddy middle area that felt, for lack of better words, like poop. The more thought I put into it, the more confused I felt. Eventually, I took the advice of Dove candy wrappers and cheesy self-help books – “Be Yourself.” I learned to accept both my Bengali heritage and my American nationality, both of which clashed disastrously at times. I stopped trying to cover myself up in the summertime to fit into the Bengali ideal of light skin and I laid out on the beach with my friends unafraid of tan lines. I told people of my birthplace proudly and flaunted by ability to speak two languages. I was proud of my two worlds and I did not value one more than the other. However, although I had stopped trying to box myself into a particular stereotype, human nature had other plans.

Being in Uganda introduced a new dichotomy in my already complex feelings about race. Surrounded by mostly Caucasian Americans during training, I was praised for my beautiful skin tone, a compliment I had only previously gotten from the white boys I dated. With the absence of blow dryers and hair straighteners, I fell in love with my naturally wavy hair that also garnered much attention. Needless to say, being around Ugandans is a different story. Passerbys are confused by my appearance. To them, my mannerisms were American but my skin color said otherwise. I was informed that my hair looked better when it was in a pony tail. It was only when I spoke that they would call me “muzungu,” the word for expats or foreigners that literally meant “aimless wanderer.” My counterpart and supervisor commented on how much my skin color resembled that of light skinned Gloria. “Tahrima, if it was not for you hair, Gloria could be your baby!” People in the community asked my coworker if I was African and later that evening, when I showed her the tan lines that had formed on my ring fingers due to the sun, she advised me, in a voice that echoed my mother’s from my younger days, to wear sunscreen so I would not get any darker. Like the Bengali culture I grew up with, dark skin was not favorable in Africa.

For Christmas, my friends and I rented a hotel room in Hoima and spent the majority of the day at the pool. Looking at my tanned skin in the mirror the next day, I could not drown out the words of my mother or the words of my Ugandan coworker. I reached for the sunscreen and tied my hair. It wasn’t until later when I sat watching an Indian film that had been dubbed in English and then re-dubbed in the local language – a combination that resulted in an incoherent mess – that I realized what an incredibly absurd feat it is to navigate the ideals of three countries at once.

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There were six of us running around the capital city that day, each carrying our own luggage while trying not to lose sight of the others. My 50 pound book bag was strapped to the front of my body to keep it from being ransacked by thieves. I had a tote bag on one arm, a side bag on the other and in my hands I was carrying my mosquito net and a plastic bag filled with the things I could not fit anywhere else. The African sun beat down on my head and sweat dripped off my body like water. The six of us weaved through crowds of people to get to the bus park. Once there, we were to board a bus to Hoima, where we would each meet the host family we were staying with for the next month. This was the last part of our training before being sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Because of the fast approaching holiday, the dirty streets of Kampala were crowded with people. Although I was exhausted from being up at 5:30 a.m. and spending 5 hours on a different bus, I plowed through, keeping my eye on the familiar red, white and blue Peace Corps tag of my friend’s book bag in front of me. We crossed unmarked streets void of any traffic signals. At one intersection, I came close to a speeding taxi. Motorcycles, called “boda-bodas,” swerved around me and I jumped out of the way just in time. The straps of my book bag dug into my shoulders. My nose burned from the polluted air and I could feel a stinging in my lungs. I was nauseous and exhausted and for the first time in 5 weeks, I thought “I want to go home.”

But home was not Detroit, or even America. My home was in the Kyenjojo District of Fort Portal, where I had spent the last three days without running water or electricity. Home was my house in the staff quarters of Kyakatara Primary School where I would be working for the next two years, starting in February. Home was the place built with love, the only house on the block with paved walkways and an enclosed bathing area. It was the place of carefully hung pink curtains and details so perfect that I had to wonder how people could know me so well before even meeting me. Home was the place of my future co-workers who earnestly thanked me over dinner under a starry night sky “for being so loving,” a sentiment I quickly dismissed but treasured wholeheartedly.

My mind drifted back into Kampala as we reached the bus park. My shoulders ached and I longed to set my things down on the ground but there were far too many people and not enough space. “Link” Busses, comparable to Greyhound busses in America, were parked along the makeshift sidewalk. Just as I started to wonder how the vehicles were going to navigate their way out of the lot, I heard the rough sound of an engine. A bus filled with passengers and completely surrounded by people started moving, nudging bystanders out of the way. People were being run over. I watched disbelievingly, unable to escape the chaos that surrounded me. The harsh stench of fuel filled the air and I could feel myself growing weak. I sat down on a box on the side of the road. A sour taste filled my mouth and I threw up the only thing I had that day – water. My friends surrounded me with worried looks on their faces. My vision blurred and I could not make out their words.

I closed my eyes. I was back in the hills and valleys of Kyenjojo. I could see the tea plantations that made up my backyard and hear the rustling of the tall matooke plants that belonged to my neighbors. The scent of herbs filled the air. The softest breeze swept through and I opened my eyes expectantly, hoping that I had fallen asleep in the field with Gloria, my coworker’s baby who was suffering from malaria, and not on a box drenched in my own sweat and vomit in the overcrowded streets of Kampala.

My vision was clearer and my hearing slowly returned to normal. My friends were discussing how to navigate to our bus with my things. I stood up, insisting that I was fine. I hauled my things back on to my aching body, each bag weighing me down even more. We pushed on. I could feel myself swaying but I knew I could not let myself stand still or I would be lost. I kept my eye on the blonde-haired figure of my friend in front of me. A man with a bunch of dead chickens tied around his body pushed past me. Their sharp beaks pierced my skin.

Two hours after we had arrived in Kampala, we finally boarded the bus feeling as if we had accomplished a great feat. I sat next to my friend Marguerite who turned to me, her big blue eyes shining brightly, “I am so glad we have each other.”

All I Want for Christmas is Hot Sauce

Christmas Wish List

  1. Hot sauce, sriracha to be exact
  2. Lifetime supply of hand sanitizer
  3. Personal space (virtually non-existent in Uganda)
  4. Someone to touch me and play with my hair*
  5. A hot shower
  6. Mixed CDs and USBs of music and television shows**
  7. Something to eat other than rice and beans***
  8. An occasion where it’s appropriate to show my kneecap
  9. More t-shirts
  10. HOT CHEETOS FOR DAYS
  11. THINGS TO DECORATE MY NEW HOME WITH!!

*Although there is no shortage of hugs and cuddles here, being touched was the first thing I missed about my friends, family and coworkers. I never realized how many hugs I got in a day or how many times I had casual conversations with friends and coworkers that involved touch. It came with such ease that I took it for granted.

**FYI: My mailing address is: Tahrima Khanom, P.O. BOX 7007, Kampala, Uganda. If you care about me in the slightest, you will send me a care package. Or a letter. Or an email. I love any forms of communication. Don’t judge, I can’t watch Netflix here.

**I’m basically a vegetarian now and I would pay top shilling (Uganda currency) for a steak. My anemic self can’t handle this lifestyle.

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December 10. 2014

HAPPY ONE MONTH ANNIVERSARY TO COHORT THREE!!

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I met my Peace Corps family in Philadelphia for staging. The moment I stepped into that room on that fateful Monday morning, I just knew we would all be best friends. Haha. JUST KIDDING. I was scared, confused, overwhelmed, and had no idea how I could live with the 37 crazies that were willing to leave their comfortable lives in America to live in freaking AFRICA*.

I feel as if I am in a time warp. So many things have happened between then and now that I sometimes find myself convinced that it’s been months, if not years.** Right now, I am sitting under my mosquito net lighted by the glow of my laptop. I just finished rehearsing for the holiday party that we are holding on Friday, where The Lugogo Girls (my band) will be performing. I taught a really tough lesson earlier today and I had my first proud teacher moment when the kids finally understood the point I was making after 30 minutes of coaxing it out of them. My last day of Teacher Boot Camp is Friday and I am dreading it. My pupils have already warned me that they will cry. Next week, after spending every hour of the last 30 days together, my entire cohort will be split up around different parts of Uganda. I will visit my future site, possibly see my house*** and meet my host family, with whom I will be staying with for the next month while I go through language and cultural training.

Shit is getting real.

But

I am so incredibly happy that I find myself dreading the day when I come down from this incredible high.

*And I was thinking all this while praying that my dress (that I had to duct tape together that morning) would not fall apart.

**This thought quickly vanishes when I talk to someone from back home and prod them for stories only to realize that their life doesn’t change as drastically as mine does on a day-to-day basis.

***Waddup personal space?

Introducing: Teacher Tahrima or “Madame”

Introducing: Teacher Tahrima or “Madame”

My first week of teaching was awesome and exhausting! My schedule was intense and I am nostalgic for the days when I didn’t have to wake up until 7:00 a.m. The school that I am teaching at is called Kira Primary School (Ki = Ch) and I work in a classroom of seventy 6th graders, which is less daunting than it sounds. The school is located in what is considered the “suburbs” of Kampala so the pupils are much more advanced than the general population. I taught 3 classes this week and I have returned to the conclusion that I am most definitely my own worst critic.* I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from my trainer and learned a lot about myself in the process.** It’s also been great watching my friends teach. They just transform into magical fairy teachers in front of the classroom!

My pupils can speak and read English but they have a hard time grasping the fact that the English alphabet has both letter names and letter sounds. But they can read perfectly. It’s like magic. Apparently this is a common problem so I will be singing a lot of alphabet sound songs in the next 26 months. God help us all. Next week, I am running Reading Intervention Groups, which is an important part of my job as a Literacy Specialist. Basically, I will be focusing on alphabetic/phonemic awareness, fluency, reading comprehension and vocabulary with struggling readers. I’m really excited because I’ve chosen my favorite poem of all time to help me teach fluency. It’s called “Twistable Turnable Man” by my man Shel Silverstein.*** I will even be incorporating some dance moves into it! Hopefully the kids enjoy it as much as I do and hopefully I don’t sprain my ankle in the process.

Some teaching materials I created. Fun Fact: The rabbit's name is Trippy because my fellow trainees have informed me that he looks like he's on acid.
Some teaching materials I created. Fun Fact: The rabbit’s name is Trippy because my fellow trainees have informed me that he looks like he’s on acid.

Right now, I’m taking a break from lesson planning and taking full advantage of the luxury of free wifi. My body is sore from flopping around in the pool yesterday**** but I can’t complain because I can’t even recall the last time I felt as relaxed as I did soaking up the sun with a drink in my hand. Life is good.

Doing my thang
Doing my thang

*On a serious “finding myself” note, teaching has shown me how much I really need to change the incredibly high standards I hold for myself. One of my observers actually told me that she wishes I could see myself through her eyes…and the sad thing is that I’ve had plenty of people in my life tell me that in different contexts. It’s unhealthy and even hypocritical to a certain extent because I don’t expect much from other people (evidence: my entire dating history). I need to be kinder to myself. Peace Corps Goal #34654657454.

**Apparently I’m a natural in front of the classroom and have a great “teacher voice,” which explains a lot. I’m finally putting my bossiness to good use! Also, one of my friends told me that she would never mess with Teacher Tahrima, which made me laugh so hard.

***Also my lover from a past life.

****3 vaguely related thoughts: I can’t swim. I am so out of shape. I can’t remember the last time I ate meat.

Outfit of the Day: Uganda Edition

[[Note: This was supposed to be posted a million days ago but I started a new schedule this week (teaching from 8-1, training sessions from 1-6, lesson planning from 6-whenever I feel like I’m going to collapse from exhaustion) and I have had absolutely no time to myself. I’ll post a lil somethin’ somethin’ about my wonderful classroom experiences tomorrow since we FINALLY HAVE A WEEKEND OFF!]]

So after the seriousness of my last post, I decided a fashion update was in order.

Not to brag or anything but I have already been dubbed Best Dressed in Cohort 3. Haha. When I lived in the states I always made an effort to dress well, regardless of the occasion. No matter how chaotic my life got, when I looked put together, I felt put together. I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I was packing for Africa but I am forever thankful to my past self for packing things I knew I would like wearing.*

Uganda is absolutely no exception, even with its conservative guidelines. A very interesting thing about Ugandans is that they value appearance a great deal. How you dress determines how much respect you receive from your community. In the states, I dressed for myself. In Uganda, people dress out of respect for the other person, which I think is a great philosophy to have. Probably one of the greatest compliments you can get from a Ugandan is that you look “smart,” which I’m proud to say I’ve gotten on multiple occasions. Here is one of the outfits I’ve conjured up during my time here, an outfit of the day if you will:

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  1. Shoulders covered because visible bra straps are scandalous.
  2. Skirts and dresses must be below the knees and the outline of your legs should not be visible through the skirt. Kneecaps are also scandalous.
  3. Tidy shoes. Ugandans are very particular about cleanliness. **
  4. Funny story: I left all 20 of my shoulder bags in Detroit because for some weirdo reason I created in my head, I didn’t think I would need them as a TEACHER here. Anyway, it’s all okay now because during my last trip to Kampala, I bought this great cloth bag from the craft market. I also bought a beautiful below-the-knee skirt that is now making its rounds around the dorm.

*I think a lot of people forget that moving to another country doesn’t meant that you will instantly have new priorities and new interests. You’re still you but you’re just you in a different place. As much as you can change during your time here, it’s nice to retain some aspects of your former self. I sound so wise but really I’m saying this while kicking myself for thinking I can live without a planner. Hindsight 20/20.

**Ugandans also shower twice a day – once in the morning and once at night. If you do not have time to take a shower, you must (at the very least) “apologize to your body,” which means cleaning your armpits and private area thoroughly. Suffice to say, I’ve done a lot of apologizing since I’ve been here. 2 ice cold showers in one day is just too much for me.

Facts About the Anti Homosexuality Act of Uganda

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to figure out how to talk about the Anti-Homosexuality Act of Uganda diplomatically. I am discouraged from discussing my opinion on this matter as it may pose safety concerns for me when I am integrating into my community, among other things. What I’ve decided to do is state some facts because I think it’s important. To preface all of this, I want to mention that Ugandans view homosexuality much like Americans view pedophilia. It is seen as a gross, controllable act.

The anti-gay movement in Uganda started in 2009 after a group of American preachers led an anti-gay conference in the country and intentionally spread anti-gay propaganda. They stayed to work with Ugandan legislators to create a bill that would make homosexuality punishable by death. International criticism and threats from the West to cut funding and aid to Uganda caused the legislators to modify the bill so that homosexuality would result in life in prison rather than death.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law in February 2014. It is “An Act to prohibit any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; prohibit the promotion or recognition of such relations and to provide for other related matters.” Anybody who is viewed as “promoting”* homosexuality is also subject to imprisonment. The law was annulled in August on a technicality but support for AHA is at an overwhelming 96% and it is likely that the bill will reappear.

Ugandans don’t attribute gays with the same stereotypes present in the U.S., creating an interesting dichotomy. For example, men hold hands frequently but are not seen as being gay. Flamboyant, feminine men are not seen as gay and neither are women with what we would consider tomboy characteristics. Ugandans associate homosexuality with many of the other issues that face the country, the most common one being the spread of HIV.

*Promotion of homosexuality:
“A person who—
(a) participates in production, procuring, marketing, broadcasting, disseminating, publishing of pornographic materials for purposes of promoting homosexuality;
(b) funds or sponsors homosexuality or other related activities;
(c) offers premises and other related fixed or movable assets for purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality;
(d) uses electronic devices which include internet, films, mobile phones for purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality; or
e) who acts as an accomplice or attempts to promote or in anyway abets homosexuality and related practices”

For more information:
http://www.politicalresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Anti-Homosexuality-Act-2014.pdf
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28605400