Mid-Service

Elections came and went, shrouded by an air of ominous peacefulness despite protests of rigging. Museveni won the presidency and although some people were upset, most slipped into a tacit acceptance of the results.

I spent the entirety of stand fast on the cusp of two different worlds. I woke up every day with a stinging sense of nostalgia – a result of painfully ordinary dreams of family and friends back in America – but then I spent my days holding back tears as my teachers asked me how can it be that you are going in a year? You just arrived yesterday. I was overwhelmed by the love I felt in a place that no longer felt foreign but there was an emptiness that haunted me at night. Every day was a battle between things I missed – the chill of a winter morning, drinking tea with my sisters as the sun dips below, crying from laughing over drinks at a restaurant, friends who knew me better than I knew myself, the soft melody of my mom’s humming – and things I was going to miss – the sway and rustle of matooke trees, the fragrance of tea plantations, the soft melody of Gladys’ humming on quiet Saturday mornings, the joyous expressions on my pupils’ faces when I enter the classroom. I missed being called Tarin, my Bengali pet name, in a way that I knew I’d miss being called Amooti, my Rutooro pet name. I couldn’t stop thinking about how difficult it was going to be to leave but at the same time, I looked forward to arriving. I was a mess of emotions.

Eventually, pupils started filling the seats of the empty classrooms and I was brought back to my current reality. My dreams transformed from that of American comforts to those of latrines under construction, empty bookshelves, a full heart and work that needed to be finished.

~

There is a boy in my class who was diagnosed with HIV last year. He asks why me. I don’t have any answers. He tries to kill himself over the holidays with rat poison. My heart breaks into tiny glass pieces. We plan an intervention. We let him know that we are here and that we care. We take him to the clinic to get ARVs.

He wears a look of seriousness atypical of an 11 year old. In class, he hides his smile behind his hands but not before I catch a glimpse of the transformation. His smile tells a story with an alternate ending. So I chase that smile.

~

I am high. I am lying on a dock watching a sky full of cotton clouds pass by. They transform into different shapes – a private show just for me. The world changes every time I blink. I laugh, amused at the characters that decorate the sky. I listen to the birds in the nearby forest; their melodious speech a sharp contrast to the grunts of monkeys that occasionally pierce the air. The sky darkens ever so slightly as a cloud greets the sun and I am thankful for the brief respite. A breeze gently sweeps across my bikini-clad body, bringing with it a pink dragonfly. I sit up. Dots of purple and pink decorate the blue-green lake in front of me. I am mesmerized by the way the dragonflies kiss the water.  I close my eyes and let my face meet the sun. My hair sways and I can feel the tiny droplets of sweat on my skin reluctantly release their grasp. I reach behind me and open the clasp on my top. A glow appears on my chest and it takes over my every being. I am swept up in the warm embrace of the sun and the wind and I am euphoric.

~

What I’m Up To This Term

  1. SFS. I am a co-director of this year’s Student-Friendly Schools Conference. The SFS Conference is a two day workshop that is mandatory for all new education volunteers and their school counterparts. It covers topics like gender-based violence, corporal punishment and promotes positive discipline and gender equity in schools. Although corporal punishment is illegal in Uganda, many schools still practice this antiquated form of punishment as a means of discipline. Caning is so embedded into the culture that many educators find it hard to move away from it. The purpose of the conference is to show educators how harmful and, ultimately, ineffective corporal punishment is to pupils. We want educators to understand the effect they have in the lives of the pupils they teach and encourage them to be good role models. Another aim of the SFS Conference is to dismantle harmful gender stereotypes to create a more inclusive and friendly environment for the girl child. Although this is the third consecutive year of the SFS Conference, we have completely changed the structure and content of the sessions. Emery (the other director) and I even wrote a book for the conference that will be printed on grain sacks and distributed to schools all over Uganda! The SFS Conference is in May.
  2. RUMPs. A few months ago, I applied for a grant that would allow my counterpart and me to conduct a school workshop to teach girls how to make Reusable Menstrual Pads. The grant was approved recently and I am SO excited to begin a project that I’ve wanted to do since I came to Uganda. The thought of girls missing school and, sometimes, dropping out because of something as natural and beautiful as menstruation is unbelievable but unfortunately, it’s the reality here. I am also going to add a sexual health portion to the workshop. I want my girls to leave feeling empowered by their bodies, not weakened.
  3. Library! The day that I can take “library development” off my “What I’m Up To” list is going to be one of the happiest days of my life. The good news is that I’ve cleaned rat poop off of/organized/catalogued about 1,600 books so far and even though I have about 1,600 books left to work on, I have a helper this term! I’m hoping to have the library finished and ready for use by the middle of Term 2, which is in June/July. Also, I received some money from a Peace Corps grant to build bookshelves. Somedays (like today), I look out at the sea of books and get really overwhelmed thinking about all the work I still have left to do (like figuring out where the heck books about dinosaurs fit in the nonfiction section. Science? History? Nature? Animals?). Then, I take a deep breath and imagine how awesome this place is going to look when I’m done, how excited/proud the kids are going to be and how CLOSE I am to that goal. Whooosaaahh.
  4. YTT. I agreed to be a trainer for this year’s Youth Technical Training. I was an attendee last year with my counterpart and 2 pupils from my school and it was very enjoyable for everyone involved. The training focused on youth-adult partnerships across different sectors (health, education, agriculture). It promoted youth leadership and peer education. The conference is in April and I will be facilitating sessions on “gender” with my head teacher!
  5. Co-teaching. I have a new batch of P4 pupils this year, which is fun and exciting.
  6. Overseeing latrine construction. Construction was supposed to finish in the beginning of March but, as always, things come up (or, in this case, come down)…like rain. The good news is that one of the blocks of latrines will be finished next week! In the meantime, pupils have been using the stalls in the old latrines that are still functional.

It’s an interesting time to be in Uganda. Last Saturday, I had dinner with some friends in Fort Portal before heading out to the clubs. As we approached the first establishment, one of my friends noted the still atmosphere broken by the occasional burst of cheer. I immediately groaned out loud imagining a club full of people glued to whatever football match was displayed on the television screens that normally played music videos. I was wrong. People were glued to the television screens but it wasn’t a football match that held their rapt attention, it was the Ugandan Presidential Debate, and it blared from every speaker in the club.

Earlier that day, I observed a group of people, known as the “Crime Preventers,” marching around town in crisp army uniforms. These groups were trained by the government to aid the police and military in keeping communities safe and preventing voter intimidation during the election on February 18th. They are said to be impartial but they are paid by the ruling government and exist in large numbers throughout the country. I can’t help but think of the Peace Keepers in The Hunger Games but maybe I’m just being dramatic.

It is important to note that Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transition of power. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, who helped overthrow the notorious Idi Amin, has been in power for 30 years under whispers of rigged elections and state-sponsored violence. In fact, Museveni had the constitution changed in 2006 to allow himself the chance to stay in power under claims that it’s “what the people want.”

Apart from the books I’ve read, I’ve heard references to the Amin-era regime only from the older teachers at my school. It seems as though initially Museveni’s rise to power was a welcome change from the dictatorial rulings of Idi Amin and Milton Obote and understandably so, he has been credited for Uganda’s substantial (albeit, slow) economic growth and stability. The Ugandans that I have been lucky enough to be associated with proudly describe Uganda as a peaceful nation but the government of Uganda is marred by corruption and there is plenty of evidence to back it up.

The media is calling this presidential election the closest it’s ever been with the main opposition, Kizza Besigye, garnering significantly more support than in the past. (Besigye ran against Museveni in 2011 and lost, receiving only 30% of the votes). Campaigns have been relatively peaceful until yesterday when riots broke out in Kampala after Besigye’s arrest, inciting military interference in the capital city.

Peace Corps has instructed us to stay in our villages for the next 2 weeks and remain highly alert. We were told to prepare a “go bag,” in case of an emergency evacuation. Although I don’t think we will need to evacuate, I am torn up about the election for many reasons and the only thing I can do is try to figure out how to fit my cat into my go bag.

As always, opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not reflect those of the United States of America or the Peace Corps.

The day after I graduated high school, I walked into the local library and walked out with a stack of books and a job offer. That same day, I asked the boy who I went to prom with to be my boyfriend. I spent that summer roaming the bookshelves of the library and tangled up in the backseat of my sister’s dark blue 2001 Chevy Prizm, which would later be handed down to me and infamously re-named “Punchbag Bob.” My job at the library, a place I frequented often, felt like a dream come true. I had fond memories of making the long walk from my house, always stopping at the Polish bakery on the way back. On August 8, 2008, during a five hour conversation on my now-antiquated cellphone, I said “I love you” to a boy for the first time. I whispered the words into the dark and laughed at my nervousness when I heard them back. Although I’m sure life had its moments, I can’t remember being anything but blissfully happy that summer. I had my first taste of freedom in the form of a job, a car and reciprocated love. My five-year plan involved a career, a home and marriage. Regardless of these aspirations, the memory of scrolling through the Peace Corps website is so vivid in my memory that I can tell you the exact shade of my nail polish as the computer mouse hovered over the application link. The world had never felt so big and so small at the same time. My job lasted until the weather cooled and I started my first semester of college. The relationship with the boy lasted another year and a half. Punchbag Bob was my faithful companion for 4 years.

This week, I will be celebrating my 26th birthday. Going into my 2nd year of Peace Corps, “career” is a foreign word that I’ve only recently wrapped my head around; just like I can’t imagine waking up next to the same person for the rest of my life, the idea of choosing one job feels daunting. My concept of home is constantly in flux. Home is a little house nestled between tea plantations in Western Uganda. It’s my sister’s voice on the telephone. Home is a shared room with my best friend in Kampala. It’s a backpack in the corner of a hostel. Home is a twinkling pair of eyes hinting at things to come.

Somedays, I’m ready for the goals I had as an 18-year-old. I’m ready for “The Rest Of My Life.” On those days, I wake up craving the safety and comfort of a familiar pair of arms so I pull my blanket tight. I work on my resume and throw around fancy acronyms. GRE, PRAXIS, TFA, TEFL. I think about living in one place and the thought of being tethered doesn’t sound so scary.

I don’t have a five-year plan anymore and although I have some ideas floating through my head, I can’t even tell you where I’m going to be one year from now. My life could go in a million different directions and right now, I am reveling in the fact that each decision, each path, is wholly mine. I am exactly where I want to be and I think my 18-year old self would be proud of that.

Update & A List

January 12, 2016

I am currently sitting in the staff-room-turned-library at my school trying to cool down after working up a sweat organizing a million* American textbooks.

I could go on a rant about the fact that no one has touched these books since they were donated 5 years ago and that I really don’t understand why someone would donate 5 copies of “Writing & Grammar for Twelfth Grade,” of all things, to a small rural primary school in Uganda where the kids barely know how to speak English.

But I digress. My head teacher insists that we keep them so I begrudgingly wiped the mysterious excrements off the covers, put them on the shelf and will watch them collect dust (but hopefully no poop) once again like the good Peace Corps Volunteer that I am.

JKJKJK. Excuse my sarcasm.** I do love Peace Corps.

Anyway, it has already been such a busy year and because I know that you really want to know what I’ve been up to these last 12 day, here’s a list! It may be a new year but my fondness for lists with unnecessarily long titles remains intact.

Ahem.

Things I Have Been Preoccupied With for the Last 12 Days (aka the First 12 Days of 2016)

  1. Getting readjusted to bucket baths, pit latrines and cooking for myself. The thought of taking a bucket bath after a month of hot showers was not a happy one but getting back to the routine was really nice, like coming home.
  2. Playing with my cat….or as Ugandans like to say…Playing with my “pussy.”
  3. Curing baby fever. My trip to Bangladesh left me with a serious aversion to marriage but, in a confusing twist, an intense case of “baby fever.” I am proud to say that I no longer have the intense and extremely untimely desire to have babies, thanks to the fact that I have a 3 month old kitten who refuses to go to sleep unless I sit down with her on my lap. I imagine having a baby would be 100X more inconvenient than that.
  4. Supervising a construction project. If you follow my GoFundMe campaign (www.gofundme.com/latrinesforkps), you know that we have started construction on the new latrines! If you follow this blog, you know that I hate dealing with money and the fact that I’m supervising a 27,000,000 USh construction project is basically my worst nightmare. Okay, it’s not that bad. But it is stressful. But yay! Latrines! And yay for keeping the school open!!
  5. Developing a library. Which brings me back to not-complaining about all the textbooks in the school library.

I have three consecutive workshops/conferences starting next week so the year is just going to get busier! I can’t complain though – however stressful it may be, I love it.

 

*exaggeration

**Maybe the new tag line for this blog? Definitely the tag line for this post.

Solo Dolo

Some quick thoughts on my trip to Thailand/traveling solo:

  • I was really conflicted when planning my trip over whether to stay in a hotel or a hostel. I compromised by booking a hotel room for my time in Phuket at the beginning of the trip and staying at a hostel for my time in Bangkok. It was really nice walking around naked and having no one around to witness the noises I made while taking my first real hot shower in MONTHS and when I got that out of my system, I welcomed the company of the people in my hostel. It was the perfect balance.
  • As corny as it sounds – you’re never alone when you’re traveling. I think this Ugandan proverb says it best “A friend is someone you share the path with.” During my time at the hostel in Bangkok, I was surprised to find many other solo travelers from all walks of life. I still had to be convinced to venture out of the safety of the hostel that first night but then I was hanging out with the guys I met every night after that. We formed our own little “hostel family,” if you will, and we always looked out for one another. It was really comforting. Two of the guys I met are now traveling together! (Which makes me insanely jealous and brings me to my next point…)
  • I briefly considered traveling to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos while planning my trip to Thailand. I had heard that it was fairly easy to travel overland between those countries but after thinking about visas and other cumbersome things, I decided against it. Of course, I regret it now, especially after seeing firsthand how easy it is to travel solo. I really wish that I planned less and gave myself more time. I am definitely booking a one-way ticket for my next trip.
  • My absolute favorite part of the entire trip was walking down the streets of Phuket wearing that tight black mini dress that I never wear because I swear it emphasizes my not-so-flat belly, eating copious amounts of delicious street meat. As I embraced my poor sense of direction and wandered aimlessly, I felt an incomparable lightness born out of the simple fact that in that moment I didn’t need anyone or anything, I was enough. I felt completely, wholly, liberated. It was a wonderful feeling and I think it sums up the entire trip pretty well. Actually, I think it sums up this year pretty well :).

Happy New Year, everyone!

P.S. Check out my Instagram for pictures!

Being Alone

The summer before I left for the Peace Corps, in an attempt to learn how to be alone, I took myself on a date for the first time. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of two months and I was irrationally upset in the way that a person who did the breaking up has no right to be. Like every other break up, I regretted it almost instantaneously – a common theme in my love life. I’ve either stayed in relationships long after they were over, driven by the need to be wanted, or ended relationships abruptly, at the first hint of rejection. A therapist once told me that I have a “fear of abandonment,” brought on by a sexually abusive Imam at the mosque I attended, physically abusive parents and an angry father whose look of contempt holds a special place in my memory. As a child, I found love in the way my mother’s hands, before they became rough and calloused, massaged my back with Vicks after one of her abusive rampages. I still remember the way her hands felt, gently gliding over every cut and bruise, leaving behind a deliciously dull ache. My parents would tell me that all I needed to do was be a good girl and they wouldn’t have to “discipline” me anymore. Ironically, every time the Imam was done touching me in places that a 6 year old should not be touched, he would say indignantly “you’re a bad girl.” Now, I’ve become familiar with the lingering impressions of abuse that inevitably pervaded every romantic relationship that I’ve had; the elephant in the various rooms of my sexual encounters, mocking my attempts at feeling something real. But I digress. This blog post isn’t about the variety platter of abuse that characterized my childhood and shaped my love life. It’s about my attempt at working through those things and searching for that elusive sense of inner peace. It’s about being alone.

After I broke up with the aforementioned guy, I immersed myself in Peace Corps preparations. I obsessively scoured the blogs of current volunteers and made a list of all the things I needed to do to make my time in the Peace Corps less challenging. Among items like “Build muscle in arms so you can fetch water” and “Learn to swim!” (things I failed miserably at) I listed “Learn how to be alone.” I knew that in addition to giving back to the world, Peace Corps was a time of self-reflection and solitude – two things I dreaded. I was never a serial dater but I crammed my work/school/social calendar so that I was rarely ever alone. In fact, my perception of self was largely influenced by how other people saw me. Because of this, oftentimes, I felt like I was two different people: the one I presented to the world – confident, smart, and beautiful – and the one I kept hidden – ashamed, insecure and lonely. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my Peace Corps service adequately if I didn’t learn how to be alone. And so, I decided to date myself.

I got ready for my first date just as I would have if I were going out with another person. I wore my “first date outfit”- a tight black mini dress with a cardigan over it – and I had the prerequisite first date jitters, worsened by the fact that I wasn’t sure how to act without someone mirroring back to me, without a guy telling me how beautiful/smart/interesting I was. I almost canceled on myself that night, but I didn’t. Two profound things happened that summer: 1. for the first time ever, I arrived early for dates. 2. I stopped looking for distractions and I slowly started enjoying the time I spent alone.

Fast forward to the present. I recently caught myself thinking I could be alone for the rest of my life and that would be fine. This thought popped into my head casually, like it was an item on a grocery list. Never mind that a year and a half ago, I almost canceled on a date with myself. In two weeks, I will be traveling around Thailand and Bangladesh by myself navigating a completely different corner of the world. Somewhere in the last year, between the solo candle-lit dinners and bucket baths, I became the sort of person who goes on trips by herself. Sometime during the countless hours I spent in my house alone, talking to myself (no shame), watching movies, cooking and reading, I became kinder and more forgiving. I realize now that I am made up of many incredibly attributes and many, many flaws; that the very thing I was denying was a pivotal part of what made me whole. I am not my past but my past has shaped me in ways that I am proud of. I know what it’s like to be neglected and it has only fueled my ability to love fiercely. I’ve been broken repeatedly but I put myself back together each time, stronger than before. It’s because of these experiences, not despite these experiences, that I am here.

I used to carry my past in designer luggage, hoping that the beauty would be enough to dull the ugliness inside. Now I wear my past like badges of honor and I show my scars unreservedly. I still have a long way to go in my search for inner peace but for the time being, the war inside me has subsided and I am content.

CATS (Pt. II): The Answer To All of Life’s Problems

CATS (Pt. II): The Answer To All of Life’s Problems

(Read part I HERE.)

I got another cat!

Worried about your school being shut down and can’t stop obsessing over how to stop it from happening?
CATS

IMG_4248

& also, GOFUNDME (www.gofundme.com/latrinesforkps)

Having recurring dreams (or nightmares, depending on how you look at it) about babies and being pregnant even though you being pregnant at this moment is about as likely as Chipotle opening a restaurant in Uganda?
CATS

IMG_4110

Accidentally remember that Chipotle exists elsewhere in the world while writing a blog post?
CATS

DSC_0023 (2)

Having nightmares about being robbed in your house?
CATS

IMG_4108

Drunk alter ego hit on a bunch of 19 year old German boys causing you to wake up to mysterious text messages, phone calls and genuine confusion over someone named LEO?
CATS

DSC_0001

Can’t get to your pit latrine because a billion* ants have taken up residence on the pathway leading out of the back of your house so you have to pee in a bucket for two days?
CATS

IMG_4103

Ran out of money from your living allowance because you get paid in shillings and since the value of the shilling has dropped drastically (thanks, in part, to the dollar), all the stores (who conveniently pay their rent in dollars), have raised their prices and you’re counting down the days until you get paid so you can afford food again?**
CATS

DSC_0026

Realize that you’re incredibly turned on by guys who care about social justice and you’re suddenly overcome with the urge to hop on a plane back to the USA and kiss the crap out of a certain guy all because of a Facebook post?
CATS

DSC_0009 (2)

Feeling psychotic for creeping on said guy…and then admitting to it on a public blog?
Fuck it, CATS

DSC_0034

*NOT exaggerating

**NOT exaggerating. Also, someone explain economics to me because I don’t understand any of this.