Two Weeks in Kampala

When the neurologist* told me that I would need to stay in Kampala for two weeks under observation, I didn’t know how to feel. I wasn’t particularly fond of the city and 2 weeks away from my home felt like eternity. On the other hand, I was relieved. The thought of going back to my home in the village was fine; the thought of sleeping alone, engulfed in darkness, sent me into a whirlwind of panic that was not there before. I couldn’t imagine being by myself after the accident.

I spent the first 5 days of the 2 weeks in an oxycodone** haze at the home of Nurse Betsy, who works with Peace Corps to take care of injured or ill volunteers. After a period of uncomfortable numbness, my friend Emily and I were able to move to a hostel near the Peace Corps headquarters. At the hostel, I met volunteers, teachers, doctors, students and travelers from all over the world. I engaged in conversations about literature and politics. I learned about different cultures. My friends from Peace Corps dropped by daily and I welcomed the opportunity to hang out with people in small groups. Emily and I took this opportunity to explore Kampala. We toured the Ghadaffi Mosque, we attended a show at the Ndere Cultural Center, we visited the gallery of a local artist we met at a club one night and we indulged in ice cream and pedicures.

The cuts and bruises that decorated my body were slowly fading away but I still needed someone to hold my hand when I crossed the street. Confronted with the rush of traffic, a feeling of anxiety took over my body and it only worsened when I crossed the street. My thoughts ran awry and I imagined being hit by the speeding vehicles over and over again. The fact that boda bodas drove on the sidewalk during rush hour did not help but holding the equally clammy hands of my friend next to me brought me back to life.

During this time, my Ugandan coworkers also reached out to me. “I am missing you,” they told me. “The place is lonely.” I felt guiltier with each phone call. I missed them too but I found that I didn’t want to go back. I was getting used to this life of luxury made up of free wifi, hot showers, toilets and constant company. Being able to speak and be understood was something I took for granted in the states but treasured wholeheartedly here. Life in the village was beginning to look less appealing every day and I hated that I felt that way.

The night after a breakdown over whether I would be able to readjust to village life, I sat on the hostel rooftop slightly tipsy, drinking in the city lights. I was soon joined by a German guy who also stayed at the hostel and occupied the bed opposite mine. Sharing a room had expedited the process of getting to know each other and we had reached a comfortable level in our friendship. Our conversation weaved in and out of various topics until he made a comment about life in the village that made me defensive.

Disregarding the fact that I had just bawled my eyes out not even 24 hours prior thinking about going back to the village, I heard myself tell him*** how grateful I was to be here and how much I believed in the work I was doing. I told him that life as a Peace Corps Volunteer was not easy. Nobody lives without electricity and running water for fun. Nobody moves halfway across the world, away from everything they have ever known, for two years purely for a thrill. If I wanted a comfortable life with wifi and hot showers, I would move back to America. If I wanted to be near my family, I could be. If I wanted a romantic relationship, I could have one. It’s the look on my kids’ faces when they open a book for the first time that tells me I’m in the right place. It’s their unwavering attention and hesitant questions when I talk to them about HIV and AIDS that reminds me about the impact of the work I’m doing. It’s the kindness and gratitude of my Ugandan coworkers and neighbors that comforts me when I think about all the things I sacrificed to be here and it’s in these moments that I find a deep sense of personal fulfillment that I could never get from a relationship or a more comfortable life.

My rooftop companion eventually turned to me and said “I love that you said that” and only then did I realize that I was still talking out loud. After a certain point, I had stopped trying to convince him why I was here and started reminding myself why I was here.

~~~~~~

*Fun fact: My neurologist was the first neurologist in Uganda, and for a long time – the only one. He actually introduced the neurology program in Uganda at Makerere University.

**Side note: I am sorry for anyone who is going through something so terrible emotionally that they turn to drugs like oxycodone to numb the pain. I can’t imagine anything worse than feeling nothing. I’ll take the pain any day.

***Because sometimes (all the time) I don’t know what I’m thinking/saying until it comes out of my mouth or onto a paper.

Uncomfortably Numb

For me, writing is therapy. I write when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when the thoughts in my head overwhelm every other part of me. Writing gives me clarity. It forces me to organize my thoughts into something tangible. And sometimes, for this very reason, writing is scary.

Last week, my friend and I got hit by a speeding motorcycle while crossing the street. The motorcycle hit me first, knocking me to the ground . The driver’s helmet flew off of his head and hit my friend on her face. Or so I’m told. I don’t remember the accident at all. What I remember is a sunny day and a clear street and then all of a sudden, I was on the sidewalk watching my friend scream in pain as our other friend, who had crossed the street before us, rushed over. I remember a pounding in my head and a soreness throughout my body. I remember feeling like I should be crying.

I’ve tried to avoid writing about it but I sit here now drained and unsettled, having exhausted every other form of therapy. I have a bump on my head, various cuts and bruises on my body and a possible hemorrhage in my sinus cavity. My friend has five fractured bones on her face. I am uncomfortably numb, a result of both the pain medication I’m on and my increasing anxiety over the fact that I can’t remember anything from the accident. The doctors have told me that I need to stay in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda and the location of the Peace Corps Uganda Headquarters, for two weeks under observation. My friend was medically evacuated to South Africa for surgery. This is the longest that she and I will be apart since we met in November in an airport shuttle in Philadelphia on our way to staging.

The doctors in South Africa told her that if she hadn’t heard me scream and turned her head, the helmet would have hit the side of her head, fracturing her skull and she could have died.

I am sad that I can’t be there for her.
I am sad that after hitting us with his motorcycle, the driver picked up his bike and fled.
I am sad that this is common; that no cops were called.
I am sad when I think of my friend who crossed the street before us; how she turned around and found her two friends laying on the street.
I am sad that once we got to the nearest hospital the Ugandan doctor told my friend that according to the x-ray, nothing was fractured.
I am sad that when this happens to a local, they go home thinking that everything is fine when in reality, they are far from okay.

I get anxious crossing the street. The sound of motorcycles on the road make me apprehensive but it triggers nothing in my memory. I am scared that one day I will remember being hit and I won’t be able to deal with the pain. I catch myself tearing up out of nowhere, overwhelmed by a sadness I can’t place.

I want to be okay.

How I Live Now: A Pictorial Guide to My Life in Uganda

How I Live Now: A Pictorial Guide to My Life in Uganda

Just to give you an idea of what my life in Uganda entails…

Cooking

Grocery Shopping
Grocery shopping

Cooking is challenging without running water and electricity but I feel as if that is what makes it so fun for me (probably won’t be saying that after two years of it…). I think there should be a cooking competition/reality show where chefs have to cook by candlelight, without electricity and running water. I usually try to finish cooking supper before the sun goes down but sometimes, when I’m feeling especially dangerous, I like to push it and race against the sun to finish cooking. Cooking by candlelight is kind of scary in the sense that I almost burn down the house/myself each time – key word being almost.

How I Cook

Eating

Breakfast
Breakfast in the states consisted of a cup (or two) of coffee at work but here it’s my favorite part of the day. Mornings are mine. There’s a certain stillness and anticipation that comes with the start of a new day; it’s cleansing. I wake up around 7:30 a.m. (sleeping past 8 is highly unusual for Uganda-Tahrima) and if I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I put my milk pan on the doorstep for the milk man so I can make myself a mocha to go with my breakfast.

Fried egg, avocado, granola and green tea. What I'm reading: The newspaper.  Headline - Schools Ordered to Give Girls Pads
Fried egg, avocado, granola and green tea. What I’m reading: The newspaper.
Headline – Schools Ordered to Give Girls Pads*
Oatmeal and green tea. What I'm reading: Teach Like A Champion
Oatmeal and green tea. What I’m reading: Teach Like A Champion
Scrambled eggs, toast, a banana and green tea. What I'm Reading On My Kindle: "Winter In Sweetwater County." Dumb romance novel that I couldn't put down because it was free and I had nothing else to read.
Scrambled eggs, toast, a banana and green tea. What I’m Reading On My Kindle: “Winter In Sweetwater County.” Dumb romance novel that I couldn’t put down because it was free and I had nothing else to read.

Lunch

Fried rice with stir fry. What I'm Reading: A dumb book with lots of run-on sentences that made me angry but I couldn't put it down because I had nothing else to read. Desperate times.
Fried rice with stir fry. What I’m Reading: A dumb book with lots of run-on sentences that made me angry but I couldn’t put it down because I had nothing else to read. Desperate times.
Spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and garlic bread. And yes, that is a pink wine glass. What I'm Reading: "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You." Really great novel, I highly recommend it.
Spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and garlic bread. And yes, that is a pink wine glass. What I’m Reading: “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You.” Really great novel, I highly recommend it.

Snack

Matooke with curry dressing
Matooke with curry dressing

Supper

Supper is usually the same as lunch except there’s alcohol involved and instead of reading, I put on some music or watch a movie/tv show on my laptop (I’m currently on the 4th season of Arrested Development). Once I made steak and mashed potatoes, put on some slow jams and treated myself to the “good” wine. It was divine. I’m basically dating myself. I’m okay with that.

Dish Washing

I hate washing dishes.

Dish Washing

Laundry

The Washing Machine
The Washing Machine
The Dryer
The Dryer

My supervisor keeps trying to convince me to find some “friends” (aka village girls) to help me with the housework. Her latest reasoning: “Tahrima, your body is not used to this work. If you continue working so hard, you will hurt your back and you won’t be able to produce [aka have a baby] and I really want to be a grandmother someday.” This was actually really sweet….in a twisted sort of way.

Bathing

Jerry Can: used to fetch water. Night Bucket: Bucket used to pee in at night
Jerry Can: used to fetch water. Night Bucket: Bucket used to pee in at night

How I Bathe:

How I Bathe

Toilet

My latrine is the one on the right.
My latrine is the one on the right.
Latrine
Inside my latrine

Water

Collecting water when it rains

Collecting water when it rains

Filtering Water

How I Filter Water
Peace Corps provided us with this fancy filtering system.

What I’m Currently Working On

  1. Literacy. As a Literacy Specialist, my job for the first term of school, which runs from January – May, is to administer a test called EGRA (Early Grade Reading Assessment) to pupils in P4. The reason we focus on P4 is because it is the grade that children transition from learning in the local language to learning in English.*** This test helps me gauge the reading ability of the pupils so that I can determine what to focus my lessons on once I doing reading interventions. ****
  2. School Family Initiative. My school is part of a USAID funded program called the school family initiative. Basically, every teacher is assigned a group of kids, called our “family,” that we meet with once a week to discuss issues relating to health, safe sex and education. So far, I’ve covered topics like HIV, AIDS, positive living and the magic that is condoms.
  3. School Library. My school has a dusty locked room that constitutes as a library. Apparently “some American” came to the school a couple years ago, donated a bunch of books and [unvarnished] shelves and promptly left….because throwing money and materials at a problem without any guidance or follow up constitutes as adequate problem solving. Currently, I’m working on cleaning and organizing the books. Once I have it organized, I want to form a library club and recruit pupils in the upper classes to help me manage the library, come up with a borrowing system and act as librarians. Yay for sustainable work!
  1. Child Protective Rights. I’ve talked about this in previous blog posts (here and here) but basically I am working with World Education/Bantwana Initiative to work against child abuse. One of my projects with the organization is the Child’s Rights Club (CRC), which I will be starting at my school next week. The aim of the club is to empower children through education, self-awareness and esteem building and encourage them to report abuse. This is something I am deeply passionate about and can connect with on a personal level but it’s probably going to be my toughest job.
  1. Things I want to do in the future: Girls Education – From P1 to P4, girls outnumber and outperform boys in every subject area but from P4 to P7, their attendance drops drastically. The most common reason for this is the start of menstruation and thus, an increase of responsibilities at home. In my head teacher’s words “Once a girl gets her period, the parents think she is an old girl so they give her more and more work. You take care of the kids! You cook the meals! You fetch the water!” Some girls choose not to come to school because they don’t have the proper sanitation methods (i.e. pads, tampons) and would rather stay at home during their period to avoid embarrassment. My school also lacks a washing station for girls. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to tackle this problem but I really want to start by getting involved with RUMPs, a program that teaches girls how to make reusable menstrual pads.

What I Do In My Free Time

  1. Day dream about cats, cuddles and hot cheetos
  2. Read. I am fortunate enough to live near a town that has an actual public library (funded by USAID!).
  3. Hang out with my coworkers. This usually involves girl’s nights at my house (with wine and care-package chocolate, of course), a trip to the village bar or just sitting on the porch talking until the sun goes down.
  4. On the weekends, I bask in the company of Americans and relish in the fact that I can speak normal English for three days. I live near my best friends so it’s always a good time. Also, weekends are usually the only time I have meat so that’s a pretty big deal.

The room I hang out in the most/my favorite room in the house.

IMG_1773

*Speaking of food, I have this recurring dream where I realize that I still have half a bag of Hot Cheetos left and I eat them and it is magical and I almost die from happiness. Someone please put me out of my misery.

**Fun Fact: Schools in Uganda are “ordered” to do a lot of things but there’s hardly any follow through.

***Fun Fact: Uganda’s national language is English.

****A typical EGRA session goes like this:

Hi! Oraire ota? [How was the night?]
Kurungi. [Good.]
Ah, Kale. [Ah, okay.]
Do you like to read?
Yes.
Ah, that is very good. Today, I just want to see how much you can read.
This is not a test so do not be worried.
*raises eyebrows* [Cultural sign of acknowledgement]
Okay. Do you know the English alphabet?
Yes.
Do you know the letter sounds?
Yes.
Can you tell me what is the letter sound of this one?
*avoids eye contact and gazes around the room*
Do you know the name of the letter?
Yes. *pause* E
Very good! Now you tell me the sound. If you do not know, it is okay.
Yes. *pause*
Okay, let’s move on.
Can you read for me this word?
Yes. *avoids eye contact*
Can you read?
Yes.
You tell me the word.
*stares at testing paper for eternity*
Ah, Kale. Webale Kusoma. [Ah, okay. Thank you for reading]
You can go back to class.

REPEAT FOREVER. Just kidding, I only have to do it 91 times

Journal Entries No. 2

Hope

I’ve spent the last two days at another workshop about child protective rights*. The workshops are supposed to help me prepare for the Child Rights Club that I’ll be starting at my own school next week and to provide counseling and guidance to children who have been abused or neglected. After the second day, my coworkers at World Education Bantwana took me to meet Immaculate, a 9 year old girl who was repeatedly sexually abused by her uncle for “as long as I can remember,” before my coworkers at Bantwana intervened. Now, Immaculate is at a boarding school for needy children called Hope Academy (which was started by a Ugandan woman and her “muzungu” husband). She is a beautiful girl with a reluctant smile that breaks my heart.

After the visit, one of my coworkers looked at me and asked “Are these kinds of things, there? In America?” I tried to keep my voice steady as I responded “There are bad people everywhere.”

Later, as I laid in bed trying to make sense of the day, I dissected the flurry of emotions that had taken over. I was sad for Immaculate, and for children like Immaculate, whose innocence is taken far too early. But I am grateful for all the good people in the world who far outnumber the bad.

~

­­Death.

Since I’ve been here, at least one of my coworkers has been absent from school every week because of a burial or a sick family member. I have never been to a funeral in my entire life.

~

Beauty

I wonder how I would feel
if the sentence “But this one, she looks African”
was not followed by “She is beautiful.”

~

Alone.

She asked me “don’t you get lonely, here?”

I thought back to 10 minutes ago when I was day dreaming about someone, anyone, touching me. Playing with my hair, brushing my hand, resting their head on my shoulder.
I thought back to sitting on my couch the night before. The urgency of the day giving away to a stillness that, although usually comforting, left me with a sense of overwhelming sadness.
I thought about all the people I left back in America and how my heart literally aches thinking about them.
I thought about a boy.
And then I thought about all the boys I’ve been with and how many moments I had lying awake next to their sleeping figure wondering if there was anything lonelier than this.

I told her “No, I don’t get lonely here.”
Loneliness is when you have no one, not even yourself.

~

Space

In the countryside, there is nothing but space.
Space to think.
Space to breathe.
Space to be.
It’s in the emptiness that I find room for myself.

~

Tahri

Since I’ve been in Uganda, I’ve acquired many nicknames:
tahreamy,
tahrimski
and my personal favorite – tahri.
I like the way it sounds, unfinished.

~

*Read about the first one here.

Journal Entries

The Rain is a Blessing.

During a vacation in Jamaica a couple years ago, it started to rain at the resort I was staying in. I complained about the weather (as we Americans love to do) to the Jamaican waitress. She gave me a puzzled look and said “the rain is a blessing.”

As I sit here now, comforted by the thunderstorm taking place outside, I understand what she meant. Because now the rain tank will be full and I can stop rationing the water I have saved in my jerry cans. Now, I can wash the dirty dishes piled high in my “dishwashing bucket” and wash the dusty clothes tucked away in my basin. I can mop my floors. I can filter drinking water. I understand now that the rain. Is a blessing.

~

To Study (Kusoma).

I learned that Ugandans don’t date. Instead, they “study” each other. Studying, in this sense, means spending time observing whether the person they are interested in is someone they would want to marry. The simple practicality of this method does not escape me but for someone who loves fiercely, who loves recklessly, it is practically impossible. (Also in Uganda, there is an unspoken rule between males and females that “no means maybe.” Apparently a girl rarely says yes to a guy’s first proposition, no matter how much she likes him…so maybe their dating method isn’t foolproof anyway. Although really, any dating method is better than the one I have now: fall head over heels over a guy, ignore all the red flags while basking in a naive state of infatuation, eventually come to my senses and spend the next embarrassing amount of months obsessing over every detail of the failed “relationship”)

~

Concentrate your love in places where it will be appreciated; in places where it can grow.

~

Homesickness.

I told my supervisor today that I was missing home. She told me that she will pray that I get over my sickness.

~

Irrational.

My school is part of a program called the School-Family Initiative. Basically, each teacher is assigned a group of kids that will be their “family” for the term. The family sits together once a week to discuss topics related to health and awareness. I was called away so I could not be present for the beginning of the meeting. My supervisor, who is also the head teacher of the school, took over my family and I walked in on her telling the kids that you can get gonorrhea by peeing in the pit latrines. I knew I shouldn’t have but I did anyway, I argued with her in front of the kids. I told her that wasn’t true. She was adamant. “Really, it is different in Uganda!” She gave me her reasons and I thought back to every sex ed class I’ve ever had to sit through. A feel of unjustified superiority overtook me. I told her we could talk later, when we didn’t have an audience of 25 school children. With a whole week of stress built up inside me, most of it a result of not being understood, I was angry. At first I was angry with my head teacher. Then I was angry at myself for being angry with her (because she doesn’t know any better). Then I was angry at myself for being angry at myself. This is generally how my thought-feelings process works nowadays. I am beginning to realize exactly how tough this job is. Peace Corps wasn’t lying.

~

Irony.

Isn’t it strange how we mourn things that never existed? How we miss relationships that never were, people that we never really had? I am trying to drown out the voices in my head, whispering ideas of what could have been, distorting what actually was.

~

Ugandan Compliments

Being told you look smart, as I mentioned before, is the best compliment you can receive by a Ugandan. It means you look clean, respectable and good. My coworkers saw me in yoga pants for the first time today, as I was heading to town. They said, “Ah, Tahrima you look so smart!” And then a pause. (During which I was trying to figure out what was so “smart” about my outfit of skin tight pants and an oversized shirt). “And you are fat!” Fat is also a compliment in Uganda. It means you have hips, you have a butt. It is also a very nice change from being told you need to eat more because you are too thin.

~

Rant.

During training, we talked a lot about the fears we had joining the Peace Corps. Many volunteers mentioned that one of their fears was missing out on milestones back home and being forgotten by their friends. I can’t say that this was a top concern for me at that time but I did feel that being in a completely new country, I craved communication from my friends in America. I found that words of encouragement help me when I’m having a rough day, there’s a feeling of normalcy, which I lack 100% in my new life, that comes with staying updated on the lives of the people I care about and a surprise email or message from someone I haven’t heard from in a while brightens up my day immeasurably. Likewise, receiving a piece of mail is like Christmas.

This need for communication was infinitely magnified around my birthday, when I was missing home the most. Each birthday message I received gave me a feeling of happiness that I didn’t know I could receive from a Facebook wall post. It felt good to know that people cared and that people remembered (even if they were prodded by a Facebook notification). Suffice to say, while I appreciate those who did take the time to reach out to me (and those who sent me long, lovely messages), I’ve also subconsciously started noting those who did not. I realized that I have started to judge my relationships with people by the amount of effort they put into keeping in touch with me. It makes me wonder if the sting I felt, as petty as it is, is because I truly believe that people don’t care or if I am afraid of being forgotten after all.