Term Two

What I’m up to:

1. Reading intervention groups

After analysing the data from the early grade reading assessments, I’ve picked 30 pupils to work with on improving/developing literacy skills. I’ve divided the pupils into 3 groups of 10 and I meet with them twice a week to cover alphabetic and phonemic awareness, comprehension and fluency. I love working with the kids so closely and seeing their progress. 

2. Full class instruction

Once a week, I do full class literacy instruction in P4. The class teacher, Robert, helps me by translating and assisting the pupils who have a hard time understanding me. Not only do I get to see the children get excited about reading, I get to see how Robert interacts with the kids and learn from it. I’m hoping to make an appearance in every class from P1 to P7 before the end of the term. Side note: a couple weeks ago, my friend Stephanie sat in on one of my classes. She gave me a lot of positive feedback but the best thing she told me was that I smile when I teach, which I did not realize at all! I love it.

3. Clubs

I’ve started two clubs. One is the gardening club, which expanded from a group of 20 kids to the entire school. Now, instead of having just one club garden, each class has their own garden. Pupils are growing vegetables that they will then harvest and sell or use to provide food for themselves. This is really awesome to see because a lot of the children come to school hungry and my school does not have a feeding program.

The second club is The Happy Club which combines elements of the child protective rights program through World Education (my secondary project) and the Happy made by Zed program. It is made up of 2 representatives from each upper primary class (P4-P7). Essentially, what I wanted to do was create a group of leaders, discuss different topics with them, such as positive living and the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS, and then figure out a way to relay that message to the rest of the school via different creative outlets (music, plays, posters, etc.). We had our first meeting this week and it went really well. For this project, I’m working with Matia, a fellow teacher and one of my favorite humans on this planet. Side note: I introduced the term stigma to the pupils by first defining loneliness. Then, I asked the kids to draw or write about a happy memory and a sad memory. I never realized how artfully children could portray abuse and HIV. I also didn’t realize how much value they put in education. Most of the happy memories had to do with school!

4. Workshops

Earlier this month, I held my very first workshop with my counterpart, Gladys.The topic of our workshop was phonics and how to teach letter sounds. We had 100% attendance and everyone arrived on time! This is basically unheard of in Uganda. I am currently working on holding a workshop to teach girls how to make reusable menstrual pads.

5. Library

This is probably my toughest project. I started organizing my “library” by pulling the books from the shelves, taking inventory and cleaning them. One day, I noticed that the roof had a leak. That leak turned out to be multiple leaks. This was a huge problem, considering rainy season. Now I’m trying to convince my head teacher to turn one of our other (leak-free) rooms into a library. Until I can present my case to the School Management Committee, I’ve made a makeshift library in my classroom. I’m also applying for a library grant for bookshelves, which I hope will sway the SMC into letting me do what I want (to put it bluntly :)).

On a more personal note: Being in Uganda has changed the way I perceive myself, in more ways than one. Previously, when I told people a little about my past, they immediately showered me with words like “strong” and “resilient.” To be honest, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t consider myself to be any stronger than the stranger next to me. I did what I had to do to survive. If I didn’t go to therapy, if I didn’t try to understand myself, if I let other people dictate my life, I wouldn’t be living. Not really. For me, there was no alternative.  I started this year with a host family that didn’t feed me. Not even two months after I was sworn in as a volunteer, I got hit by a motorcycle and when I finally recovered from that, I got robbed in a taxi and my cat died. Peace Corps makes it really easy for you to terminate your service if you feel that you can’t continue with it. After the robbery, I thought the death of my cat would be the last straw. I thought for sure that I wouldn’t be able to handle all the pain and I would leave. Once again, I underestimated how strong and resilient I really was. I’m still here and frankly, I don’t feel resigned or defeated, I feel invincible and more than ever, I feel like I belong here.

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17 June

It was a cold, rainy morning and I was wearing a flimsy chiffon robe that reminded me of home. I mean, my other home, in America, the place I visited in my dreams. The clock read 4:00 a.m. Posho, my cat, could always sense when I was awake. I knew this because most mornings, I heard her little paws scratching at my door, eager for some morning cuddles, before I could even check the time. This morning was different and no matter how hard I strained, the only sound I could hear was my uneven breathing. I laid in bed for two hours before I willed myself to check on her. After 7 months, I still couldn’t sleep without my solar lamp on and after the robbery that happened a mere 4 days prior, I really didn’t want to leave the comfort of light. I was overcome with a sense of dread. I was afraid of what I would find in the other room, what state she would be in. 6 a.m. is when I opened my bedroom door.

Looking back, I’m thankful for the rain. There were no roosters crowing that morning, or sounds of children playing. I didn’t want to be reminded of life when death was right in front of me. The rain was the backdrop to my pain as I took in the sight of her, collapsed on the couch barely breathing. I refused to believe it at first, that she was dying and in a fit if desperation, I tried to get her to eat, to drink but she couldn’t even move. Finally, I rubbed her matted fur as I watched her take her last breath.

I remember the last time I cuddled with her. Burying my face in her soft fur, feeling her protruding bones, and wishing that if I cuddled her hard enough, if I gave her enough love, she would be healthy again. After losing so much of myself in the robbery, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her too. I didn’t have Posho for very long but there is no way I can adequately explain what she meant to me. She was a physical outlet for all the love inside me, the object of my affection, if you will. In a country where I struggle to be understood every single day, I was able to speak to her in any language I chose – Bengali, English, Uganglish and even Rutooro. She made me feel less alone because she was always there, always waiting for me. She needed me and I needed her and it was this synergistic relationship that I didn’t know I missed that I treasured wholeheartedly.

Posho is now buried in my backyard near three banana trees overlooking a valley. Emily and Marguerite came over on the day that she died and we held a service for her, changing the words of “Taps” from “God is love” to “Posho is love.” They kept me company and we cried together. Word spread throughout the village of Posho’s death and my neighbors and fellow teachers stopped by all day to offer their condolences. Ugandans don’t really believe in pets, but they had gotten used to Posho, which made their sympathy even more comforting.

I went to teach the morning after her death and after a breakdown in the staff room, I was told by one of the teachers that I needed to grieve and take care of myself. It seemed like the only person I had convinced that I was okay was myself. When I went to visit Posho’s grave, I saw that someone had planted the rose I’d lain on her grave and stuck a cross made out of sticks into the ground. This gesture was so emblematically profound that I stood there and cried for a long time – for the love that I lost and for all the love that still surrounds me.

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June 16, 2015

I stood along the familiar tarmac road that passed through my village, as I’d done a hundred times since moving to Uganda. I always felt a certain level of anxiety when traveling, particularly because it usually involved hitch hiking, but this time I was overcome with a new feeling – fear. I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle and stuck a shaky hand out. The dark gray sedan stopped and I peered inside and saw three passengers, two men and a kid. I got in. I was on my way Into town to replace my bank card, which was just one of the things stolen from me during a robbery in a taxi over the weekend.

I greeted my fellow passengers in Rutooro. Maybe if they are aware that I knew the local language, they’ll think twice about robbing me. I live here. I belong here. We sped through rolling hills of tea plantations while Neyo blared through the stereo about how much he hated love songs. Not for the first time, I noted how bizarre my life was. The men next to me yelled out  “stage” – the signal that they had reached their destination. The driver stopped and soon, I was the only one left in the vehicle. I could feel panic rising within me like vomit and I could no longer control the direction of my thoughts. This driver could take me anywhere. He could rob me. He could rape me. He could kill me.

Studdenly, he turned around and said “Your door, it is not closed.” I was paralysed. Was this really happening again?

I painstakingly replayed every detail of the last time I was in a taxi, the last time I heard those words, when I was robbed. I remember feeling a sense of weightlessness prior to the incident, the kind of happiness that makes you want to tell the whole world how wonderful life is. Looking back, it was as if the universe was mocking me and I needed to be brought back down to earth. My friend and I were passing through Kampala and we sat in a matatu that we had flagged down after dinner. I was seated in the front, while she was seated in the back. With our guard down, we did not question why the conductor separated us in a minibus with only three other passengers. I was so preoccupied with making sure we didn’t miss our destination that I didn’t notice the man next to me taking my wallet out of my purse. I was so panicked when the conductor started gesturing wildly at the passenger door and told me in broken English that it was coming unhinged that I didn’t notice the man next to me taking my laptop and makeup bag out of my book bag and replacing it with a brick. I was so stunned when my friend started yelling out “thief” that I did not hear the man tell us to get out of the taxi. What I do remember clearly is running down the dark streets of a city I barely knew, in a country where I did not belong, as a man from the taxi chased after us.

Although we escaped physically unscathed, I feel like a part of me did die that night. This was becoming more and more evident as I sat with  heightened paranoia on my way into town worried that the driver was assessing my vulnerability. “You close the door,” he said impatiently. I opened the door and closed it with force. Satisfied, the driver turned around and we were speeding through tea plantations once again.

I know I should find comfort in the fact that the worst thing that the robbers did was steal our things. I know I should be relieved that I’m not lying in a ditch somewhere. But I’m not. Maybe if I was leaving the country, I could find solace in the type of violation that did occur but I was still here, and dying was now a possibility that crossed through my head every time I got in a vehicle. Didn’t being a volunteer – being a good person – give me a pass to these kinds of things?

The tears flowed freely now, out of my control, but I tried to reign in my thoughts. “Resilient” was the word echoed by my friends and I tried to make myself believe it too. You chose this. This is why you’re in Uganda, to educate children so that they don’t turn to robbery as a way of life. You are too strong to let this incident beat you. It didn’t work, I was still on edge and I could feel myself slipping. Outside my window, the landscape had changed from rolling hills to mountains peaks, a sign that we were close to town. If the driver had wanted to rob me and kill me, he would have done it by now. Neyo was still crooning on the stereo. Finally, the car stopped at the market near town. I slipped on my sunglasses to hide my puffy eyes and gave the driver 3000 shillings. Thank you.