Highs and Woes: Library Edition

TODAY IS QUITE POSSIBLY THE HAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE BECAUSE KYAKATARA PRIMARY SCHOOL FINALLY HAS A LIBRARY! Shout out to the international aid organizations that dumped a bunch of books at the school 4 years ago and left them (quite literally) in the dust without any follow-up or teacher training. You’re doing development right. Now, my highs and woes of transforming a storage room of books into a functioning library…in numbers:

2,668: Number of books in the library
125: Number of American textbooks that Marian refuses to let me get rid of (Helllooo “Writing and Grammar for the Twelfth Grade”)
100: Number of times I thought about giving up
14: Number of months spent organizing, labeling (by hand!), cataloguing & cleaning mysterious excrement off of every. single. book.
10: Number of seasons of “Friends” watched while completing the aforementioned tasks (don’t judge me.)
6: Number of seasons of “Vampire Diaries” watched while completing the aforementioned tasks (don’t judge me. more.)
4: Number of months the library project was halted out of frustration AND the number of incredible helpers I gained during those months after the realization that I should really learn to ask for help
3: Number of library workshops planned for teachers to a) train their pupils on proper library usage and etiquette and b) conduct their own library lessons
2: Number of libraries in Kyenjojo District
1: Number of weeks until 470 pupils enter a library for the first time in their lives.

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Term 2, Year 2

This term is already so busy and it just started!! Here’s what I’m up to:

  1. Positive Behavior System
    My school doesn’t practice corporal punishment but teachers sometime use “shaming” to discipline students. I’m hoping that by introducing the idea of positive discipline, talking about alternative forms of classroom management and by having teachers make clear behavior expectations for their pupils and implementing a school-wide reward system for positive behavior, we can create a safer space for our kids to learn in. I learned about PBS during pre-service training (which feels like years ago) but it seemed too daunting of a task until now. Plus, my head teacher is very receptive to the idea, which makes my job easier.
  2. RUMPS
    RUMPS workshops for P4 & P5 pupils will also be held this term and this time, my superstar facilitators from P6 & P7 will be the ones to lead the workshops! Yay, sustainability!!
  3. Library
    EXCITING NEWS! I AM CURRENTLY PUTTING THE FINISHING TOUCHES ON THE LIBRARY, WHICH, AS YOU MAY RECALL, I HAVE BEEN WORKING ON FOR THE LAST YEAR AND A HALF. Of course, the work doesn’t finish once the library is finished. I will have to design a series of workshops to teach teachers and pupils how to use the library but after cleaning rat poop off of a million books, that doesn’t seem like such a huge task.
  4. Co-teaching in P2 AND P4
    Up until now, I’ve only co-taught in P4 but this term, I will also be joining the P2 teacher a couple times a week to teach letter sounds. Phonics isn’t typically taught in Ugandan schools but my school is part of an early-grade reading program through USAID. (How children learn to read in English without learning letter sounds is a mystery I’ve yet to unravel.)
  5. Model Teaching
    This may be a rather ambitious goal. I want to teach at least one lesson in each class this term to show teachers how to conduct child-centered lessons with a literacy component throughout all subjects. Teachers are used to an archaic form of teaching involving lecture and rote memorization that isn’t very effective…..or fun. AND SCHOOL SHOULD BE FUN!
  6. Spelling Bee
    I am a regional director for the local language and English spelling bees that were created by an organization called Enjuba. We had a training for the spelling bee last week with representatives from over 30 schools in the area and it went very well. The directors for the program are 2 incredibly passionate Ugandans who care enormously about literacy. Last year’s regional spelling bee was very small but it was one of the highlights of my Peace Corps service so I’m really excited for this one!

~~~~~

In other news, I have been flip flopping between being thoroughly terrified of Post-Peace Corps Life and being wonderfully intrigued by it. I am currently in the “how the hell am I going to leave this life of adventure and romance?!?!?!?!?” (Yesterday, I treated myself to a really romantic dinner where I sacrificed precious battery life for a little Marvin Gaye and brought out the nice, scented American candles that I usually reserve for guests.)

Update!

I just got done (pitifully) hauling a jerry can of water from the rain tank to my house. As usual, I was sweaty during the entire walk but this time, I found myself day dreaming about the luxury that is indoor plumbing.  This is dangerous territory since I only have ~ 7-8 months left in my Peace Corps service. I could day dream about tap water and sinks forever but then I would never get any work done. By no means am I ready to go back to America (Exhibit A: the school library, still in disarray. Exhibit B: the unfinished latrines, still in disarray. Exhibit C: my neighbors, still in disarray at the idea of me leaving) but to rectify this problem and put a halt to my outrageous fantasies of steamy showers, I have decided to make a list of all the things that I am not looking forward to about moving back to the states. (Note: This is not a list of all the things I will miss about Uganda. The fact that I almost teared up writing that sentence probably means that I’m not ready for that list yet).

  1. BILLS
    Number of bills I had before joining the Peace Corps: 7
    Number of bills I have while serving in the Peace Corps: 0
    Number of bills I will have upon returning from the Peace Corps: a million, probablyThe idea of having bills again gives me anxiety. It just feels so…suffocating. The other day, I found myself seriously thinking about how I could live without electricity in the states. I’m already accustomed to candle-lit dinners and accidentally ruining furniture/articles of clothing with candle wax and I’m sure that finding a place to charge my electronics in the states would be super easy. I’ve also considered only moving to cities with exceptional mass transit systems (helloooo, D.C.) so that I can avoid buying a car, even though I absolutely L.O.V.E driving (but I love the freedom of not having car payments and car insurance more).

    Another thing that scares me is having a phone plan. Peace Corps gives us free PCV to PCV calling but for communication with anyone outside Peace Corps, you have to buy airtime. It’s like a pay-as-you-go plan and I have a sneaking suspicion that those don’t exist anymore in the states. (Is Boost Mobile still around or am I just old?). I really don’t want to go back to paying $104384980948 for minutes/texts I will never use and unlimited internet that will only fuel my stalker-ish tendencies on Facebook. Really, the only thing I’m willing to pay for at this point without question is water. Hot showers > everything.

  2. Having a built in excuse for all of life’s problems
    Forgot to respond to an email/FB message/whatsapp?: “Oh, I live without electricity.”
    Didn’t feel like taking someone’s call?: “Oh, I live without electricity.”
    Don’t feel like having people over?: “Oh, I live without electricity.”
    Forgot to reply to a text message?: “Oh, I live without electricity.”
    Ignoring a party invite?: “Oh, I live without electricity.”
    Living without electricity also gives you a false sense of superiority that’s helpful when you need an ego boost. For example: “Uhm, I’ve lived without electricity for 18 months, I THINK I can [insert outrageous and virtually impossible task here. Ex: climb Mt. Everest].”
  3. DATING
    WHAT IS DATING???? I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M SCARED OF IT AND EXCITED BY IT AT THE SAME TIME. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about boys, too.
    I miss the anticipation and excitement of meeting someone new and although I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some really cool guys during my Peace Corps travels, I’m not sure that I know how to act around boys anymore. A few weeks ago (maybe a month ago. My sense of time is so warped – yesterday, I thought it was December), I met an intelligent, attractive, funny guy at a hostel. My method of trying to impress him? “Hey Attractive Guy, look!” *proceed to pull at a section of my very dirty leggings that I was wearing and then release it to watch a dust cloud form in the air above my legs* WHY. In my defense, my leggings were only that dirty because I had been traveling, and have you ever seen a dust cloud coming off your clothes? It’s like a miniature bomb going off. But I digress. If that’s what I’m like around boys here, what’s it going to be like in the states? “Hey Attractive Guy, look how clean my clothes are” ???????? I’ll probably just hide in my electricity-less apartment having romantic candle-lit dinners by myself for the rest of my life…which actually doesn’t sound bad at all. (Yes, there will be cats).
  1. Not knowing my neighbors
    In Uganda, your neighbors are your family…to the extent that if I had friends over and didn’t take them to meet my neighbors, my neighbors would be offended. Every evening is a giant block party and it is wonderful. Meanwhile in the states, I’ve lived in apartment complexes where I never even saw my neighbors. I could’ve died in my apartment and no one would’ve known. Here, if I didn’t leave my house for a day, my neighbors would think I was dead or that something was seriously wrong. (And, actually, if I didn’t leave my house for a day here, it would be very likely that I was on the verge of death….or deeply depressed. *cough*April 4th*cough*).
  2. Shaving, Wearing a Bra & General acquiescence to all the gender expectations
    TMI TIME! (What am I saying, all the time is TMI Time on this blog) – I don’t wear a bra very often here and I shave my legs probably twice a month. I love having smooth legs but it’s a pain to shave them all the time ESPECIALLY when you’re only mode of bathing is bucket bathing. (Have you ever shaved in the dark? That’s exactly what it’s like). Because of this, I’ve learned to love the freedom of having unshaven legs and not feel the need to cover them up. It’s very liberating. As much as I would love to carry these habits back with me to the states, I’m sure I’ll give in to the allure of smooth legs after watching my first shaving commercial in 2 years. (I’m weak).

~

SERIOUS UPDATE: I just got back to site this week after traveling around Uganda for a month talking about gender roles and power dynamics and their effects on labor & access and gender-based violence. Two weeks ago, I crossed “Safe and Friendly Schools Conference” – a project aimed at eliminating violence in schools and cultivating more compassionate teachers to create safer spaces for children to learn in – off my Peace Corps Bucket List. I watched a year’s worth of hard work come into fruition. Both Emery and I poured our heart and soul into the conference. Afterwards, as we interviewed some of the Ugandan participants about their experience, I realized that the conference was easily my proudest accomplishment in life.

I am at a point in my Peace Corps service where everything I’ve wanted to do is in motion. The latrines that my amazing family & friends back home funded are almost finished, the library that I’ve worked in tirelessly over the last year and a half is almost ready to be opened and my ReUsable Menstrual Pads program is onto its second phase. Today, a thought popped into my head – the volunteer who will be taking over my site and living in my house come January has already gotten her invitation to serve in Peace Corps Uganda just like I did at this time two years ago. I have gone from counting up the days (“I’ve been here for 18 months!”) to counting down. It’s a scary feeling, especially since I still have so much work left to do, but at this exact moment, it feels right.

Wandering Away

Wandering Away

Somewhere along the path of self-discovery,
you start to believe in things like fate.
Suddenly,
every person you meet,
every fellow hostel-mate,
is a sentence,
a paragraph,
a chapter
in the story of your life.
Because
(inevitably)
they teach you something
you
didn’t
know
about
yourself.

~

People are always coming and going and even though it’s hard to make lasting relationships in a place where everyone is a wanderer, the meaningful connections I’ve made in the throes of this crazy Peace Corps life are immeasurable. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. (Not even for a bar of Hershey’s Almonds, or a big fat burrito from Chipotle…which is saying a lot because if you caught me at the right time of the month, I would trade my first born baby for both of those things).

~

The other day, I was engaged in a conversation about dating and I told someone that I’m more “aggressive” with boys in Uganda than I was in the states. This came out wrong (as does most things when I’m talking about boys to boys) but it really made me think about how my mentality towards dating has changed.

I have never had trouble making the first move and in the states, dating was something I did when I was bored. When I got tired of the whole school-work routine, I would find a guy to keep me occupied. Sometimes, it really was as easy as that. As a result, most of my (short-lived) relationships were born out of convenience. While I was signing my life away to the Peace Corps and as I critically examined each of the 14 boys in my cohort (all of whom, by the second day, felt like brothers to me), I thought I was also signing away any chance of romance.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the local language fluently and are constantly labeled as an “outsider” can show you how rare it can be to find someone who understands you completely. Because of this, when you do happen upon another being who can keep up with your banter, it’s hard to just let them walk away. Living in a foreign country also makes you realize how short life can be so when you are bantering away with someone and you don’t know how long they’ll be in the same space as you……you tend to give in to spontaneity. It makes me wish I upheld all my past relationships with the same vigor.

~

I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer for 17 months now. That’s 17 months of butchering the local language, laughing awkwardly and mastering the art of becoming your own best friend. 17 months of failures and successes, of extreme highs and extreme lows. During those 17 months, my life has changed drastically. I can honestly say that right now, I am the happiest I have ever been. I get to teach. I get to travel. I get to use my creativity to try and make an impact on the world. I am living a life that I’ve dreamt of for so long.

Necessary Sadness

April 4, 2016

How To Be Sad – Peace Corps Style

When that familiar ache first saturates your heart, ignore it. Give yourself a pep talk and go about your day. Remind yourself of all the good things in life: the way Gladys calls you “dear” (“deah”), the ritualistic morning hugs from Marian, that pivotal moment when you see a pupil’s face light up with recognition.

When the ache starts to throb, dive into your projects; the things that make you happy. Work all day and then bring your work home with you. Spend weekends making posters of the menstruation cycle for an upcoming workshop. Take on more classes and spend all your extra time working on the library. At night, when you think about all the reasons for that ache in your heart and you feel your eyes well up, go back to thinking about the layout of the library. When you’re still awake at 2 a.m., drown out the voices in your head by writing lesson plans.

Eventually, that ache will start to twist and you won’t be able to stop the tears from escaping.

You will cry for a whole night, hoping for the brief respite of slumber which never comes. You will emerge from your bed the next morning and gaze at your reflection in the mirror. You can try to give yourself a pep talk but inevitably, your voice will break and you will have to tear your red-rimmed eyes away from the broken girl in the mirror.

Make a cup of overly-bitter instant coffee and sip it until the physical exhaustion lifts. Text some of your Peace Corps friends. Sob to your sister over a phone connection filled with distorted voices and static. With a layer of love around you, head to work. When you get there, your teachers will take in your puffy eyes and your stuffed nose and diagnose you (wrongly) with a fever. Use this as an excuse to leave work during break time.

Spend the rest of the day in bed.

The aches, the throbs, the twists. You have never had a sadness manifest itself so physically before. Lose yourself in that sadness. Feel each individual tear slip down your cheek; feel the chilling trail it leaves in its wake. Let the tears slip into your mouth and taste the salty mixture. Go to the place where your heart lies and make yourself delve into the agony that comes with each shaky breath.

Feel It. Taste It. Hear It. Recognize the intention behind every single emotion. Know who you are in that moment until the sobs don’t sound like they’re coming from a phantom version of yourself.

Eventually, the tears will subside and the only ache you will feel is the one in your throat. Light some scented candles and take a warm bath. Revel in the feeling of warm water cascading down your worn-out body. Slice up a cucumber for your swollen eyes, put on some soft music and lie in your bed. Drift off to sleep knowing that you just overcame something great – a necessary sadness.

RUMPS

My home in Western Uganda lies on the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Surrounded by rolling hills of tea plantations so verdant that it mocks any preconceived notions of Africa, is the community of Kyakatara. I live here as a Peace Corps Volunteer but I have been welcomed as one of the Batooro people. The people of Uganda are known for their friendly demeanor but it is the unparalleled sense of compassion of Gladys and Marian – my counterpart and supervisor – that has made my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life so far.

When I arrived at Kyakatara Primary School to serve as a Literacy Specialist, one of the first things I noticed was the disparity between the number of male and female pupils in upper primary classes. Marian, who is also the head teacher of the school, explained to me that menstruation brought on a slew of new obstacles for girls in the community. We agreed that the fact that pupils were missing school due to something as natural and beautiful as getting your period was unjust.  I worked with Marian and Gladys to come up with ways to mediate this problem. They understood that females were the backbone of the community and they were passionate about empowering girls to stay in school.

We decided to conduct a needs assessment and sent out a sexual reproduction survey to 60 girls from P6 and P7. We found that female pupils who have started menstruating missed 3 to 5 days of school every month due to improper sanitation methods, embarrassment and shame. They had little to no knowledge of the menstruation cycle.  With these findings, we developed a workshop on sexual reproduction, a portion of which would be dedicated to teaching girls how to make Reusable Menstruation Pads (RUMPS) from cheap, local materials. Since we would be conducting separate workshops for girls from P4-P7, we planned to mold participants from the first workshop into facilitators for the next workshop. We wanted girls to leave the workshop feeling empowered – not weakened – by their bodies.

The entire staff, males and females alike, joined us in preparing for the workshop. Teachers gave up their break time and spent their weekends cutting out pad shapes out of bed sheets, assembling needles and threads, and measuring towels for RUMPS kits. Their enthusiasm never faltered.

On April 6, 2016, 55 female pupils from P6 and P7 came together in a girlsDSC_0053-only workshop to learn about menstruation. They were given the opportunity to ask questions about reproduction, sexual intercourse and sexually transmitted diseases in a safe space. As Gladys taught them how to make their own RUMPS, the room transformed into a flurry of activity; the excitement was palpable. Each girl received enough materials to make two pads and they showed them off proudly with radiating smiles. A sense of ease permeated the room and as I looked around for possible facilitators for the next workshop, I realized I was standing in a room full of leaders.
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You can find more pictures here.