The Chronicles of Nathan

Peace Corps adventures in Uganda, March 2006 - May 2008

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Close of Service

Well, I finished my Peace Corps service and returned back to Kansas this week. I left Uganda a day earlier than I was scheduled to in order to make it back for my Grandpa's funeral. I had made a trip back to the Kansas in February to see him one last time. That had been the first time I'd been back in the US since leaving for Uganda in March of '06.

I know that I haven't kept up with this blog very well; letting you know what grand experiences I've been having, what wonderful things I've been doing to save the world, sharing the wisdom I've gained along the way. Maybe because I've felt like there's none of those things to share, or because it's seemed too difficult to convey anything accurately and in context, or maybe just because I'm lazy. Probably its a combination of those things.

Over the last months I've been living on the island that I wrote about before. I haven't been able to do a whole lot there, but did a little bit with lifejacket availability for the people living there. Around Christmas time I took a trip to Zanzibar, which was beautiful. Toward the end of my time in Uganda, I visited my former home out on Lake Albert, and I said goodbye to the people I've developed friendships with, and wrapped up my time in Uganda for now.

I’m not sure how to describe the last two years. I’ve been working to understand a culture and people not my own, yet I’m connected to. I've met a lot of local people and developed relationships with some that have been, and will continue to be, very important to me. I’ve been trying to do some good while I’ve been there. Whether or not I’ve done more harm than good or good than harm, I don’t think I’ll know. I do know I’ve done both; pretty much anyone, anywhere does both, but especially for me, a westerner, in the context I was in there, I’ve done both. I’ve learned a bit; about Uganda, her people, western peoples, Americans, humanity, the aid industry, perceptions, reality, God, religion, beauty, brokenness, myself. So what great things can I pass on from my experiences, what great wisdom have I gained? I can’t really tell you. Maybe that’s not a nice, satisfactory answer, but it’s the answer I have right here, right now. I know that I've learned and grown an awful lot, and also that I know next to nothing about anything and being there for the last two years makes me an expert on nothing.

So what comes next for me? I don't have that all figured out right now, but things that I'm planning on are: trying my level best to figure out moving forward with my experiences a part of me and not let the experiences of the last couple years slip away into oblivion, which I feel could happen because in the context of being here in the states, that part of me feels completely removed and pretty much irrelevant, even though I know it's still a part of me and doesn't have to be irrelevant; visiting friends and relatives; researching other options for jobs in the states or overseas, or possibly graduate schools. Let me know if you know what I should do with myself now.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Opportunity for YOU

Hello everyone reading my blog. Firstly, I feel that I should apologize for taking long without posting anything on this blog. And that this posting may not be all that informative about what I've been up to over here. (I actually haven't been up to all that much out on the island, so you're not missing out on all that much). I am looking forward to my visit back to america very soon, and then completing my service and moving back to the states at the end of April. Although I know I'm going to miss it here, and I really don't know what the next steps in my journey will be, it will be good to spend some time at home while figuring it all out.

I would like to share with you an opportunity. Through the Peace Corps Partnership Program, anyone can contribute online through the U.S. Peace Corps website to specific projects that Peace Corps Volunteers are doing. While I don't have a project there, some friends of mine here in Uganda do. You can follow this link and scroll down to the Uganda projects. The people who are doing these projects are completing their service around May of this year and need to finish up their projects before that, so they are hoping the projects will be funded soon.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Another Shift

So after I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer after training last year in May, I was first placed in Kabale district in the far southwest corner of uganda to work with a Catholic health center, then after 2 months of frustration I managed to get switched to another organization, the one I'm currently working with, and I changed locations to a fishing village on Lake Albert (after a transition phase in Kampala), where I built my mud house, latrine, etc. That was around last August and I spent a lot of time in the village until about January or February of this year whenI've been going back and forth between Kampala, the capitol, and my village on Lake Albert, doing various things at the organization's office in Kampala, the longest stint being about 3 months when I was working on the ferry project mentioned in a previous blog entry (which the contract for fell through and so the ferry is currently still sitting where it was built, now with grass growing up around it). I tried to get small things going in the village when I was there and worked on laying the groundwork, getting community support, and preparing to implement a big community health project, which is the reason the org requested a Peace Corps Volunteer in the first place. That project never came to fruition. Now over the last months the potential for security risks have increased around Lake Albert due to factors such as increasing activity surrounding oil exploration in the area along the lake and border tension with the DRC that have caused a couple incidents on a different part of the lake. Since priority is placed on volunteer safety, it was decided that I should relocate away from that area, even though I never felt at risk and by all likelyhood would have probably been just fine there. So I've been away from my village for a couple months now, mostly in Kampala. I'm now moving to a different fishing village, this one in adifferent part of the country, on one of the large islands in LakeVictoria, to the south of Kampala. Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa and the second largest in the world, is shared by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, and has many islands and supports a big fish trade. I have visited the village where I will move to and found a place to live there, sort of a wooden shack, that needs a little work to meet Peace Corps minimum standards but should do the job okay. Today I'm moving out the island, a 3 hour ferry ride from the mainland, to start getting to know the community and make new friends there and see what projects I can get going there. What I'll be doing there somewhat depends on the funding the organization puts toward any projects there. They don't currently do any work in that area, so we'll see what happens with this next phase in my peace corps experience.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Info About "My" Village

My "home" is in a fishing village on Lake Albert. Here's some cold, factual information about it, in case you were interested.

It is 620 metres(2,030ft) above sea level on the shore of a low sandy plain located between the lake water and the Eastern escarpment of the Albertine Rift Valley. Lake Albert is about 160 km (100 mi) long and 30 km (19 mi) wide, with a maximum depth of 51 m (168 ft), and is part of the supply of the Nile River.

The dwellings in the village are almost all semi-permanent structures made of mud and stick, and the roofing material is predominately grass thatch, with some of them having iron sheets(tin roofs). Floors are predominately earthen. Cooking is mostly done outdoors on 3-stone fires, on semi-improved firewood cookstoves made of baked mud, or on metal charcoal stoves. Some outdoor kitchen structures are present but not many, so most cooking is just done on the ground in front of the house. The community is served by a primary school in the village, though many children don't attend. The only local medical care is local drug shops in the village run by people of varying education levels. There is no medical center or midwife serving the village. The community is accessed by boat or by a dirt road that was recently constructed coming into the area. The nearest source of reliable, safe drinking water is from a borehole (well with a hand pump) 5km(a little more than 3 miles) away in the next village. I estimate the nearest electric line to be 45km(28miles).

There are about 2650 people in the village, with an average of about 5 people per house. About 40% of the people are children. There are many more men than women, I think because the main source of income and subsistence is fishing, which is done mostly by men, and men from other areas come to live there for a while and fish to try and make some money. The lake straddles the border between Uganda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), and a large percentage of the village is Congolese. There are several main languages spoken, as people come from different areas. The vast majority of the households are supported by income from fishing(using large nets or very long hook lines) or selling fish(either fresh to iced trucks that come by the village, or dried and taken by boat to a large market at the end of the lake). Other people keep small shops, gather and sell firewood(women), run local bars(selling bottled beer, a local gin called waragi, or home brew, also usually offering prostitution services), keep cattle (men), work as a tailor with a treadle sewing machine(usually men, but some women), prepare and sell food at small local "restaurants" called hoteli (usually served in the front part of the hut where the woman preparing it sleeps, also where I usually get some lunch). There are a couple carpenters for making and repairing boats, some people (women or old men) cut reeds or poles or gather grass thatch for building, there is a police post at the village with a couple policemen, three teachers for the primary school, guys who repair bicycles or boat engines or radios, a couple guys who have transport boats(localy made wooden boats) to take people and goods back and forth to the weekly market at the end of the lake, and there is one witch doctor.
About a third of the households have a latrine (there is no running water and so no actual toilets), a third use another household's latrine, and a third never use a latrine (they use the bush, and when it rains, it all spreads everywhere and into the lake). Its about the same for the number of households that have bath shelters(small enclosures made of reeds near the house for bathing). The ones who don't have a bath shelter (and some who do) just bathe in the lake. About 40% of the people use raw lake water for drinking and cooking, the same lake water in which they bathe and faeces run into and the cattle drink from and the fish are cleaned in and is full of algae and mud. Other people boil lake water or bring water the 5km from the borehole in the next village. The lake water also contains bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) which is a parasitic worm disease, and infections are common.

Nutrition is generally poor, with the diet mostly comprised of starches and fish or beans. Much less than half of the homes have at least one mosquito net to help protect against malaria spreading mosquito bites. Malaria and worms are common ailments. Other common problems are diarrhea, and respiratory and skin diseases. There have been cholera outbreaks not infrequently, usually killing a few people each year. Witchcraft or a curse are sometimes cited as the cause for an illness or any bad thing that may happen, such as lack of rain or too much rain or too much wind causing fishing to be difficult. Not quite half of all deaths are reportedly caused by malaria, but malaria is sometimes used as a catch-all or assumed condition when its not actually the case. Regardless, many deaths are caused by malaria. About 3/5 of the deaths in the village are children under 5 years old. HIV/AIDS is a huge problem, but I have no idea what the infection rate is for my village because people report the opportunistic infections, and the people don't have good access to testing services or treatment, so not many people know their HIV/AIDS status. Prostitution and the migratory or mobile behaviour of some fishermen, social structures that are not as well formed due to influx and migration of people from different areas, along with little access to services, contribute to the problem. From other studies that I've seen on fishing villages in this part of the world, the prevalence rate could be around 20-30% and its possible that up to almost 60% of deaths can be attributed to AIDS.

Very very few people know how to swim. And lifejackets are almost non-existent. And the small wooden boats aren't stable when the wind picks up unpredictably. So there are many drownings. The organization that I work with is trying to address some of these water safety issues.

Recently oil exploration has picked up in the area, and things are changing rapidly. Many foreigners are coming, roads are being built, camps erected, test wells drilled, and lots of activity all over the place. They are in the exploration phase now and will soon begin production. Things will never be the same for the area with many things happening and many issues arising and many people involved with many interests. Whether that is more of a good thing or of a bad thing remains to be seen, but history doesn't look favorably on the local communities. The stakes are also raised when the oil being drilled sits on the rather unstable eastern border of the DRC.

*Much of the info here is from a household survey I helped conduct and belongs to the organization I'm working with.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Family visit

In recent general interest news, my mom, dad and sister came for a visit. You can see pictures on my flickr page.
It was very good to spend time with them. It had been about a year and a half since I had last seen them as I was boarding the plane on my journey here. It was also very good for them to be able to see my home here on the shore of Lake Albert, meet people that I work with and are friends with, and experience some of Uganda. I have shared with them a little of my life here, and thats important for both them and for me. It's more important to me that they understand a little more about the people, culture, issues, beauty, ugliness, and reality that is here. They saw a wee bit to help form those ideas. I know that they, nor I, will never see reality as it really is, but I think that the more we learn and see and experience, the closer we potentially get to understanding.

Take a minute from your busy day and read this good Washington Post article, Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa
Feel free to comment with your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

City Life

I've been living here in Kampala for the last few weeks working on a project. The organization I'm partnered with is building a ferry-barge to ferry returning Sudanese refugees across the Albert Nile river in Northern Uganda, so I'm helping with that. The picture shows the ferry in progress, minus the seats, engines, control console, loading ramp, canopy, safety rails, etc.

It's been a while since I've seen my friends in the village and my house and all. I got a text message from my friend in the village saying the mud is leaving the house seriously. I guess it's been raining now during the rainy season and mud erodes in the rain, even with a plastering of harder cow dung. Hopefully there'll be something left of it when I get back out there. For now I'm enjoying having running water with warm showers most of the time, electricity some of the time when the power's on, eating good (and expensive) food sometimes, and seeing friends who come into town. So do I prefer the mud house in the village or living in the city? That's a good question, but I can tell you that I feel it's becoming time to get back to my village.

When they said 'never again' after the holocaust, was it meant for some people and not others?-Genocide Museum, Rwanda

Saturday, March 03, 2007

1 Year In

This week I will have been in Uganda for a year, which means I have about 14 or so months of my Peace Corps service remaining. So what do I think of the experience so far?
I'm reminded of the wisdom that my friend Jen passed on one time; There's a difference between having a good time and having a good experience. I've had good times, and bad times, and in-between times, but definitely the experience has been one (or many) that I value very much. But lately for some of us in my training group, I have noticed that there has been something of a shift in focus and perspective. A subtle shift maybe, that is hard to truly convey in writing. It is a shift from the experience of living and working with the people here, to the people themselves. Sometimes the weight of that can be crushing, crippling, despairing. It's not that people live pitiful lives of depression...its...what?...I can't really communicate it very well yet, but I think it has to do with injustice, unfairness, ignorance (by us westerners and by a lack of education opportunity here) and all those other related things that are tossed around in discussions, and the fact that there is no difference between me and anyone here except that I can take for granted all the things my friends here will spend thier lives struggling for. I should say at this point that there is a great variance in how people live here among different parts of the country and among people with differing resources available to them.

Last week one morning as I made oatmeal for breakfast, squatting on the ground over my kerosene burner, I noticed some men walk on the path in back of my house carrying hoes and a shovel. I thought it a bit unusual as it's women who carry those tools on that path to get some dirt for mudding houses. After I finished breakfast and as I went back outside to brush my teeth, I saw that there were about ten men, gathered about 20 yards in back of my house where there is a small hill with two bushy trees where a few graves of victims of a cholera outbreak last year are located. Two of the men were hacking at the ground with the heavy hoes. I went over, greeted the group in Swahili, they quietly greeted me in response. I watched the two men struggle to break up the hard sun-baked earth in two holes, each about 2ft by 4ft. One of them standing next to me told me in Swahili that two children had died the night before and they were digging graves for them. I responded in Swahili that I was very sorry.
I spent most of the day helping Rubanga, Bosmick, and Jacob to develop their project plan and proposal for a video system that they want to get in order to hold entertainment and educational events in the village as fundraisers for community projects, but during the day I noticed that the carpenter in the village was making a couple small, simple wooden caskets. When I returned home in the afternoon, I saw that the graves were freshly filled in and each had a small wooden cross marking them; the only lonely evidence of the burial services that had taken place. From the information that Rubanga (my counterpart and friend) and I have gathered, about 60 people have died in our village of 2600 in the last six months. About 36 of them children under 5 years. Most died from malaria, diarrhea, or problems at birth.
I might have reflected on the bright smiling faces of children filled with happy laughter that have succombed to the emptiness of death, on the value of innocent lives destroyed, on what hope is for the future, but instead I detached myself enough to continue my daily routine; to not give in to the reality that I am nearly powerless to do anything substatial compared to the monsters faced; to continue doing the little, slow work that I can do, which is like trying to divert a raging river by throwing a pebble in its path.

And so I continue having good times and bad times and in-between times, and having a "good" experience.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

random stuff

Here are some movies to check out:
Last King of Scotland - about the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Some fact, some fiction.
Invisible Children - about the Lord's Resistance Army and child soldiers in Uganda
Uganda Rising - documentary about Uganda

A book you should read is The White Man's Burden. It takes a critical look at the aid industry, why so much money has been pumped into aid and so little progress made.

Being here, there sometimes is a fine line between realism and pessimism. The world isn't roses, but there can be hope for the future if we face reality and do something about it.

So recently I've been working with David, my counterpart in my village, to complete a household survey of every house in the village. We gathered information on demographics, source of income, children's immunization and school attendance, mortality, morbitity, sanitation indicators like use of a latrine, a bathing area, and a drying rack. We got some good data and we will use it for creating community health clubs which will be a vehicle for learning about health topics and doing projects in the community. There's a lot of potential for what can be done.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy Holidays

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas. Mine was good. I missed my family and home, but it was still good. Over the holidays, I, along with fellow Peace Corps people; attended a Christmas party thrown by a couple who works at the embassy, a brunch thrown by another couple from the Embassy, an evening of making pizza and hanging out at the house of a former PCV, Christmas eve mass, Christmas morning service at an Anglican cathedral, went swimming in a swimming pool, saw a movie, and hung out with friends. Then I went and visited my friend Sarah at her site. I was there over my birthday (the 28th) and she made me birthday no-bake cookies. For New Years, I think I will go to with some friends to watch some fireworks and have a good time.

Wishing everyone peace and blessings now and in the year to come.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

'Tis the Season...for Grasshoppers

What would happen if it was December, approaching Christmas, and there was no Christmas hype? No big flashy advertisements, no Christmas songs on the radio, no bright holiday decorations in the stores or aisles of holiday paraphernalia, no Salvation Army bell ringers, no hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, no Santa Clauses, no lights or decorations on houses or buildings, no Christmas trees a'glow, no snow, no frost, not even a nip in the air, no holiday office party or even frosted snowman cookies on the reception counter at work, no holiday performances or programs, no special traditions or even plans to get together with family? If it was Christmas time and there were little kids running around outside laughing and playing barefoot or naked, if there were roaming goats and cows eating the tall green grass around your house while you weeded your garden, if there were people on the beach bathing in the warm water, would it be Christmas? If you take away all that makes it feel like Christmas, is it still Christmas? Yes and no, I think. Without the same "culture" of Christmas, the experience of the holiday is not the same. It's true that there is more to "Christmas" than celebrating Jesus' birth, and it's not all bad. Although, no matter the context, we are all united with creation in celebrating the birth of Jesus. For much of the world, the things I have associated with Christmas aren't relevant. It's not winter, there aren't Christmas trees, there isn't as much commercialism. For me, it somehow is good that it doesn't feel like Christmas. I don't miss home quite as much as if it felt like Christmas. But I still miss it.
The thing that matters most, though, is still relevant, at least among Christian communities, and it could be easily argued, even among non-Christian communities.

Oh, and the grasshoppers are in season here. Some people just pull the wings and legs off and pop them in their mouths, but I prefer them fried and salted. They make a nice snack once you get past the fact that you're eating bugs.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

what's this box thing? oh yeah, a computer

Yes, I'm still here, alive and kicking. It's been awhile since I've had access to the internet. I will quickly update you a bit, then try to look at some of my emails. I love getting email, but I'm sure it's frustrating when I don't respond for months.

So my house is finished, and I've been living there (where I can sometimes hear hippos calling at night). It's nice to have a place to call my own- for the most part anyway. People stop by anytime and expect to come in and chat. I only have one small wood bench that I made to sit on, so they can't get too comfy (but I can't get that comfy, either). I did finally get a bed, though, and it's nice to have my foam mattress up off the floor since there are many other things living in my house besides me. (I've counted more than 25 species so far) The inside of the walls are plastered in a nice beige cream sort of colored clay, but I've found that the cow dung plastered outside walls still erode some with the rain. The rainy season should be over around mid December, so I won't have to worry about that until the next rainy season. Although, with the coming dry season I will have much less readily available water. I put a gutter on my house and have been collecting rain water in a bucket, but in the dry season I will have to get water either from the borehole (well) at the next village (4km) or from the billharzia infested lake where the cows drink, the fishermen clean their fish, and many people bathe. Needless to say, I am working on getting the village a water supply.
I have planted a garden, and it's growing well so far. I have okra, onion, tomato, carrot, green beans, passion fruit, watermelon, and sugarcane growing. I had to make a fence to keep out the marauding herds of goats. I also have made a duck shelter and bought 3 ducks: a male and two females. One female met her demise for Thanksgiving, so I have two left. I call them Bwana Bata and Bibi Bata (Swahili for mr duck and mrs duck). It's unfortunate that when we were chasing them around to catch one to eat it (they roam free during the day and sleep in the shelter at night) we caught the nice female instead of the troublemaking one. Now I am left with the troublemaker and the male who just follows her around in her mischief. I will let these two do their thing and see if we get ducklings.
I held a house opening "goat roast", minus the goat because of some goat related last minute difficulties, and invited the elders, the local council, and other influential people in the village, in addition to the volunteers who helped build it. It was quite a production with formal introductions, speeches, etc.
So other than continuing to set up life there, I have been making contacts with people who may be able to help get some projects underway in the village: district health officials, german development agency, a man with USAID, a grants coordinator with the US Embassy, the environmental and corporate social responsibility person for the oil camp nearby, and the couple who run the safari lodge nearby and oversee wildlife and conservation activities in the area. Hopefully something will pan out from these contacts. I think it will. I just have to try to find the best interests of the village community, the surrounding wildlife reserve, and of the oil company operating in the area. There are several things I am persuing currently, and we will see what happens. I just go with the flow and follow the leads to try and get something good happening. The main project I want to get going -community health clubs, which will be a vehicle for education and projects- saw a significant setback when the organization that was going to train Rubanga (my counterpart that I'm working with in the village, who is from there and is excellant to work with) and myself collapsed. So we need to find alternate sources of training in order to move that project forward.

I had two thanksgiving dinners this year, both of them very nice (although not comparable with being with my family for thanksgiving). The first was at the nearby safari lodge with an american couple who now work for the embassy and were peace corps volunteers back in the day, the south african couple who own the lodge, the swedish man who is here until the end of december training a local search and rescue crew in my village and his son, and two south african couples at the lodge on vacation. It was very nice of the lodge owners to invite me over, and great to spend it with former peace corps volunteers. I have been to the lodge a couple times now and it's culture shock to go there. It's a bit different than life in the village. I prefer the village, though. Then I had the aforementioned duck with some of my friends in the village. It was nice to share some american culture with them.

I've been continueing to work on my swahili, but it's a bit difficult with something like 6 or 7 languages spoken in the village including 2 dialects of swahili. Things overall are going well, and progress is being made on getting some projects going, but like everything else it can be slow going with setbacks and sudden changes of direction.

Okay, I'm going to look at some of those emails now. I'm not sure I'll have time to post pictures, but we'll see.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

new skills

So I'm still working on building my house, and I'm still living in a shipping container. Work has been delayed a bit since I had to go to Kampala with my counterpart so we could talk with the lady who has been the operations manager but is going back to Scotland then to Alaska for a while. They wanted us to go over projects and things in the works before she left. We have a life jacket manufacturing project going in the village I'm living in, so I've been doing a little with that; giving advice, a little oversight, creating a youth size life jacket design, and testing it. I've also been builder/contractor/supervisor/laborer on my house. I've never built a mud house before, and the volunteers working on it haven't either, but we are learning by asking questions from other people, discussing what might work, and trying things out. The guys are getting some good practice and experience in construction. You can see some pictures of the house by clicking on them on the right. We don't have much more to do. Just the finish coats of mud (which is mixed with cow dung to make it harder and more weather resistant), pouring the concrete floor, hanging the ceiling of papyrus mats, and moving in. Not that I have any furniture to move in yet. We also are almost done with the latrine. We just need to build the superstructure over the pit. I'm making gutters for the roof, also, so I can harvest rain water. It should help with the trips to the borehole 4 kilometers away. I fixed the borehole in my village that had been broken for 3 years, but there's very little water from it, as it's very shallow. It does help to supply some water, though. The local chairman had been collecting money for maintenance of the borehole, and after it broke he said that he had contacted a guy trained in repairing the handpump and he had said it wasn't fixable. After asking the chairman a few questions, I learned that he hadn't actually contacted anyone about fixing it. The money for maintenance has "disappeared" as they say. I don't know anything about borehole pumps, but I borrowed a couple wrenches from the one guy in the village with an extremely limited set of tools, and took a look at the pump. There became quite a crowd gathered to see what the muzungu (or mundo as some of them say in their local language) was doing with their old broken borehole. In 15 minutes I had screwed the rod back together that had come apart and water was being pumped again. I showed a guy how to take the cover off and what things looked like inside so maybe if there's a problem again, they can at least take a look at it.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Moving Forward

The plan is for me to move out to my new village this week sometime. I have been in Kampala in the organization's office for about a month and it's time to get out of the office in the city and start tackling the plethora of challenges that await me in the village. I have started contact with an organization who has worked out a good methodology for doing what we want to accomplish in the village with sanitation and health. Hopefully I will be able to work toward implementing some of thier ideas along with David and the Captain, who will be my coworkers in the village. They live there now and so will be able to do a lot of good.

One of my first tasks will be to get my new house built. In the mean time I will live in a converted metal shipping container that serves as our rescue station. For a variety of reasons, we decided to hold off further work on my house until I moved there and I could be directly involved. I will also need to get a latrine built for me to use. My drinking and cooking water will come from a borehole (well) 4 kilometers away, so I will need to work out how to transport that water. I will need to figure out what I can eat and cook with what food is available in the village. I'm pretty sure there aren't any frozen burritos to pop in the microwave. I will need to become a part of life in the village. Based on activities people there have seen in the area recently, they will see me, as a muzungu, as having a lot of money and will naturally want to use that to thier advantage. I will have to overcome that by showing them why I am there and how I will be working along with them to improve thier health.

No time left in the internet cafe, so I'll stop there.

The next phase in the adventure is about to begin. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Different Ballgame

So much has been going on since I last posted. I left my site down in Kabale district, Southwest Uganda, and started working with my new organization. It's a new organization so there is a lot of new things going on to grow what they are doing and involved in. It's purpose is to save lives on the water and save the marine evironment. They are setting up rescue stations around the large lakes in East Africa to offer search and rescue to fishermen and ferries on the lakes. They estimate that something like 3-5,000 people drown on Lake Victoria and around 3,000 on Lake Albert annually. They are in the process of doing this and training people to man the stations, and getting boats and equipment for the stations. They also want to offer more services to the people in the communities surrounding the lakes. There is much to be done to increase people's health and lives. With oil now in the area, there is potential for a lot of politics and the people of the area feeling like they're getting the short end of the stick.
The sanitation situation is not good in the village I am going to live in on Lake Albert. The majority of the people use the beach to ease themselves, bathe in the lake, and draw water from the lake for drinking and cooking. I will develop a program of education and mobilization with the aim of people changing their behavior and having the means to construct and use pit latrines, practise good hygeine, etc. If successful, then this program will be applied to other villages around the lakes. There is potential for many other projects with the community.
So far, though, I have spent the last weeks working at the organization's office in Kampala. I have been getting to know what they are working on, their plans, and how they operate. I have done some with the computer system in the office; helping with life jacket standards, design, testing, materials, since they are working on developing a life jacket from locally available materials to be produced in my village and sold to fisherman all over the lakes; supervised some preliminary construction at a site in Queen Elizabeth National Park in preparation for a rescue station to be installed there; taken over overseeing the construction of a training center building next to the office in Kampala where rescuers and people from other org's can be trained on first aid, rescue techniques, diving, etc. I have been keeping busy. I will move to the village the first part of September to begin my work there.
Last Thursday I went out to visit the village with a driver and truck from the org to see the place and meet people and work out a place for me to live when I move there. We got stuck once getting there on Thursday, and 3 times leaving on Saturday. The road isn't too good, and pretty much not passable after a good rain. It's about 7 or 8 hours from Kampala using a private vehicle, and would be a pain to get to using public transport. I am looking forward to moving there, though. It's a little fishing village, fairly isolated: the nearest town is about 3 hours away. There are nice sandy beaches, all the houses are mud and stick, mostly thatched roofs, but some tin roofs. While I was there I arrainged for a house to be built for me. It will be mud and stick, but have a concrete floor and tin roof. It should take less than 2 weeks to build with only a couple people working on it at a time. (You guys I worked with at Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City should take note: you could build mud and stick houses a lot quicker!)
I begin 2 weeks of Swahili lessons on Monday, then I will need to get a tutor when I move to the village. There are a handful of people who speak English in the village, and there is quite a mix of other languages, as people come from all over; different areas of Uganda, and from the Congo. Swahili is the most common language spoken, though not usually the first language of the people.
I have been living various places in Kampala while working long hours with my new organization, so I am looking forward to settling into life in the village, although it will be more isolated there and the work won't be easy.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Winds of Change are a'blowin

About the time my prospects for people to partner with on projects in my area dried up like the dusty red soil in the dry season sun, the country director for the Peace Corps talked to an organization in need of a water/sanitation engineer and thought of me because she knew things weren't going anywhere at my site and I was invited to Uganda to work with water and sanitation projects anyway. The country director called me a week ago Friday when I was up on Network Hill and asked if I wanted her to persue this other assignment for me, but she didn't know much about it yet. By Wednesday it was decided that I would be moving. The organization had seen my resume and they wanted me to start ASAP.
Oil has recently been found at Lake Albert and now there are oil company shillings available for community support projects and this organization is partnered with the oil company. I talked to the head of the org on the phone, a South African chap, and he said there was a fishing village that was an imminent cholera or typhoid outbreak waiting to happen and he wanted me to go live there, design an appropriate latrine system, introduce it to the community, and get all the people to build and use them instead of the beach front they have been utilizing. After that he wants me to improve the water supply as the village currently has very poor water quality. He expressed urgency at getting the project going very quickly. I thought to myself, "Um, sure, I took care of situations like that all the time in the states, no problem." Actually, in the states, I just sat in a cubicle and played on the computer. It's easier said than done to do what he is proposing doing, as there are many factors involved and behavior change doesn't happen overnight. He described it to me as "a hell of a challenge" and there would be a lot of responsibility placed on me requiring flexibility, innovation, hard work, and in tough conditions. Sounds like a peace corps assignment to me, although this will be a somewhat atypical assignment.
He also said I would have the oil company's resources at my disposal. Also, an old peace corps volunteer from way back got on the phone, as he's been working for this organization short term, and he told me that he would love this assignment if he was younger; it's exciting and has lots of potential. I do think it has potential to be a good opportunity to make a real, visible difference and could be exciting and fulfilling; on the other hand I might get in over my head in crap, pun intended. Many PC assignments involve a lot of ambiguity, slow movement projects or ideas, and no way to see the long term difference you are making, but with this it may be easier to see improvement, if successful.

So, I will leave my mountains and farmers in Kabale district for a lake and fisherman in Hoima district; my life of leisurly drinking soda at the shop and working a few hours a week to hitting the ground running working hard on something I'm not quite sure how to go about accomplishing just yet. I will move across hemispheres; from the Southern to the Northern hemisphere (does that mean I will go from winter to summer?), and to an area that speaks a different, but somehow similar, language than I have been learning from the beginning of training.
The associate pc director who placed me at my site originally was planning on coming out to visit anyway because I have been complaining for a couple months about not having good prospects for people to work with, so when she came with a SUV, I loaded up all my stuff (took me about an hour to pack everything I have) for her to take to Kampala. I have said goodbye to the people I have met and the friends I have made and I will go to the PC office in Kampala Monday, then off to my new site, assuming the red tape is cut and the site can be evaluated by the PC in good time.

The other day I was walking with my friend Albert (who is a Ugandan about my age studying to become a doctor but lived just behind my house as he works at the health center for now), and we were talking about the recent developments with oil in Uganda. I told him that I thought oil would change things, but I didn't know how or if they would be changes for the better or worse. Little did I know that the changes would very soon impact me so directly.

You will have to bear with the posts on this blog, as I have limited internet time and don't usually proofread or fix mistakes. I'm in africa, work with me. :)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Life Continues

Judith and I continue to visit homes a little bit each week to try and educate people about health related topics such as sanitation, malaria, HIV, and family planning. In the States, I don't think this sort of approach would work, as people generally would not be open to other people coming into thier homes and telling them how to live thier lives. Of course we are respectful and appropriate when we tell them they should sleep under a mosquito net, they should build a rack to dry dishes on so the chickens don't run across them on the ground, or they shouldn't sleep with every girl in the subcounty. I think in America, people are too individualistic and independent and would probably be defensive or even angry, but here, in this community driven society where there is no such thing as trespassing and it's fine to graze goats and cows on anyone's property as long as they don't eat the crops, most people are generally appreciative that we are teaching them. On more than one occasion, I've even been given a little money and told to treat myself to a soda. It's customary to give a visitor something to drink or eat, but it's awkward being the rich muzungu being given money. I have passed it on to Judith, who isn't getting anything to go with me.

The sudden rain showers of the wet season have given way to dry sunny days. Each footfall on the path kicks up fine dust, which is problematic when the culture places importance on looking "smart"; dressing neatly and cleanly, especially the shoes. These days, the basin of wash water turns to mud as I scrub my clothes. We are finding fewer people at home, mostly just the small children or the elderly. Many people are harvesting thier sorghum on the hillsides. They cut it down with a panga, an all-purpose machete like knife, lay the stalks in rows, then cut the heads of grain off using a small knife. The heads are carried back to the home in large baskets on thier heads where they are spread out to dry in the sun. Then the grain is seperated from the chaff which is burned in a pile. At night a few of these fires can be seen on the hillsides across the valley. The days are usually a bit hazy with dust kicked up by the wind and the smoke from the fires in the air. Some of the sorghum is made into a local drink called obushera, which looks and tastes like grainy mud, but people seem to really like it, or it is made into a homebrewed beer called omuramba, which I have yet to partake.

One morning the local village chairman was guiding us through the network of paths through the banana forests in the valley and the rocky slopes on the hills to individual's homes and he took us to the primary school that lies within his village. I didn't know ahead of time that we would visit a school, but when the chairman introduced me to the school headmaster, he asked if I wanted to speak to the entire school or just the teachers. Since I didn't really want all 550 primary school students and thier teachers staring at me with nothing prepared to present to them, I chose the teacher only option; that is after my first choice of returning at a later date was shot down by the chairman. So as the headmaster gathered the 9 teachers from thier classrooms, I tried to get my brain to figure out something to talk to them about that would make it worth thier while to interrupt classes. My brain was working a little slow anyway because it was a Monday morning after just getting back the night before from a week of travelling across the country on public transport for a workshop, an exhausting full day of white water rafting on the longest branch of the Nile river, and socializing with friends. I ended up telling them where I was from, what I was doing in the area, explained that I had no funding to hand them, and asked them questions about the school. Somehow I ended up telling them that I would come back and meet with the students. What I would do with them I had no idea. Since I didn't know anything about working with kids, what they learned in school, or needed to learn, I climbed up what I have dubbed Network Hill to get cell phone reception and asked a couple friends in the education program for ideas. They were slightly helpful.

The headmaster had requested that the chairman inform him when I would be coming back, and through the process of me telling Judith, who interpreted to the chairman, who told the headmaster, the time he was told I would be coming was much sooner than I had intended. I had an afternoon to plan, so I looked through the manuels I had gotten from Peace Corps and came up with a couple ideas, not really even knowing how much time I would have with the kids. I had requested to only meet with the older students, P6 & P7, so it would hopefully be a manageable size group and they would be old enough so that I could cover more topics that I had been discussing on the home visits. I hoped that this request had been relayed correctly. It actually went fairly well, I thought, all things considered. I tried to let them get to know me and make it interactive so I wasn't just lecturing. I was told to expect mostly blank stares, but they opened up a bit after a while. Of course I had to modify my plan as we went, but the headmaster said I was welcome to come back. I'm not sure I can handle much of that, but if my efforts to find other projects to work on don't pan out soon, I might be adding working with children to my resume. Or I may end up shifting locations all together.

"...people in western civilization no longer have time for each other, they do not share the experience of time. This explains why Westerners are incapable of understanding the psychology of sitting. In villages all over the world, sitting is an important social activity. Sitting is not 'a waste of time' nor is it a manifestation of laziness. Sitting is having time together, time to cultivate social relations." -Andreas Fuglesang

Thursday, June 22, 2006


The other day I ran into Samuel going up the path as I was coming down. Samuel is one of the first people I met here. He is middle aged with a ready smile and is one of two people who always makes it a point to converse with me. Too bad he's a drunk.

The first time I met him he said he was an electrictian, which I thought a little odd but plausible as the power grid stops far from here, but there are a handful of generators in the county and one solar power system that I know of. I have since found that his main responsibility is maintaining the water supplies in the area, which are a few springs, a couple boreholes(wells), and a gravity water system. Although mostly when I see him he is sitting around talking or drinking, which is a common practice. He usually wears a purple sweater and a driving cap, even when he took me way back up in the hills so he could show me the source of the gravity water system which carries water in pipes down from the hills to tanks and taps along the way to the parish. I was sweating and huffing and puffing as we clambored up rocky paths and across muddy hillsides wet with dew, getting me covered in mud and sweat just before my meeting with the local councilmen, but he didn't seem to break a sweat in his sweater. For me it's odd that people around here wear heavy winter coats and jackets almost every morning. They say "You are cold!", which means "aren't you cold?", when they see me in a short sleeved shirt. I haven't acclimated to 65° being freezing cold yet. It's usually 70-75° during the day, but the tropical midday sun can be very intense. Today I am in Kampala on the way to a Peace Corps conference in Jinja at a fancy resort, and here out of the hills seems rather hot to me, but it's probably not over 80. It's odd to think that when I left Kansas at the beginning of March it was still cold, now they have 100° temps. The temperature doesn't change like that here, and it's hard for people to imagine such extremes. (also this week I saw Poseiden Adventures at a movie theater. It was a bit hokey if you ask me.)

So when I met Samuel walking up the path, we exchanged the customary greetings:
I said "osiibire gye?"
Samuel "yeego, waasiibire ota?", which is typical for him to say, but isn't part of the greeting exchange we learned in language class during training. At first when people didn't follow the greeting script we learned, I wanted to say "no, no you're supposed to say this...then I say this...", but I'm used to it now.
me: "naasiibire gye"
him: "agandi?"
me: "ni gye"
Then he went past the greetings and said with a grin because he knows I am trying to learn the language, "nooruga nkahi?"
I responded, "wait, I know what that means...", but he didn't wait for me to formulate an answer and said in English "Where are you coming from?"
I pointed up the hill and said "just there."
him: "ah"
me: "nookora ki?" (what are you doing)
him: "Ninza kurambura paipu amaizi."
me: "Uh, ...something...water."
him: "Ee, good, you know much. 'I am going to inspect the water pipes'."
Then he said, "There are more of you coming."
me: "There are more of me coming?"
him: "Yes, I think there are more of you coming."
I wasn't completely sure, but I thought he might be referring to the group coming from Italy on a mission trip, so I said "The Italians are coming at the end of the month?" (Questions aren't phrased as questions, they are just asked as questions, which can be odd when someone says "You will have matoke", when they mean "Do you want to have a huge heaping pile of steamed and mashed plantains wrapped in a banana leaf?")
Samuel: "ee" (yes)
me: "For me, I have never been to Italy. I do not know them."
him:"Seventeen are coming, but they will work in the health center, the ward, the dispensary even."
me:"yes, it will good."
him:"kare" (okay)
me:"osiibe gye" (spend the day well)

And he went on up the hill to check the water pipes, taps, pressure reducing valves, and tanks.
By now he knows that I'm not Italian, but most people around here think that I must be when they first meet me, because there is a group from Italy that sends people every year to work at the health center for 3 or 4 days then go to a national park for a safari or trekking in the mountains. They also send a lot of funding. They have paid for building a surgery building (though we have no surgeon, not even a doctor), a huge maternity building (though only about 5 mothers a month give birth there, most deliver at home), a community center building, and the house in which I use one bedroom, and last week two huge cargo freight containers on two semi trailers rumbled in. They had come from Italy full of donations for the health center: bales and bales of used clothing, tons of hospital beds, medical supplies, fancy medical equipment, and a huge generating unit. That is what most people here have seen when they see a white person, but I have a different mode of operation here. I am trying to become a part of this community, get to know the people, build relationships, work alongside them. I'm not giving handouts, but am working toward sustainable and self sufficient improvement that doesn't create dependancy. Easier said than done. Not that the Italians aren't doing good; I have been on similar trips myself. It's just that I have to get people passed the fact that I am operating differently from them. Right now I am working on getting around roadblocks in trying to get affordable mosquito nets available to the people here. Hardly anyone has a net, as they are expensive, but malaria is a huge burden for the people in terms of lost time tending crops or working, treatment costs, and lives lost. We live among wetlands, and the mosquitoes are bad, so when I tell people that malaria is spread by the bite of mosquitoes at night, some say "yes, but what will we do, we can't afford nets." Partly what they are saying is that I must be rich, so would I give them money, and partly they are saying that they really want to protect thier families, but really don't have the means. So I tell them about other measures they can take to reduce mosquitoes. The government will be spraying every house in the district this month, so it should help.

I have been at my site for a month now. It's slow going becoming part of things and figuring out what needs I can address and how to about doing it. I am less like the local freak show now and more like the local oddity. I sometimes miss family, friends, and familiar things at home, but I simply cannot go back to my convienient, comfortably isolated and ignorant life in the US yet. Not after getting to know people here and starting to become part of thier lives. Not before trying to do some kind of good. It is what we all must do: try to do some good wherever we are, however we can. I have no magic bullets and a Ugandan would probably be more effective in my position, and there are many Ugandans doing similar work, but I will do what I can.

links of friends

I have uploaded some more pics to Flickr, you can see them by clicking on "More of Nathanpics photos" on the right.

Check out some friend's links if you want.

Group blog of our training group in Uganda:
Rachel's blog, check out her pictures. Unfortunately she had to return home.
Pervis' blog, check out his pictures:
Steve and Erin:
Eric and Sara, who have completed thier service:

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Call me Mugisha

I have been christened by the parish council with a local name. Mugisha or Migisha (Mu-JEE-sha, Mee-JEE-sha, both variations are used, but Mugisha is more common) means blessing or one who brings blessings.
As odd as it seemed to be eating supper with a Ugandan priest/politician and an elderly priest while they watch American satellite TV in rural Uganda, it is even a bit more odd to find myself sitting in a mud house with a thatched roof on the side of a fill in rural Africa explaining safe sex and family planning to a Ugandan woman and asking to examine her latrine. Right now this is my romanticized life of saving the world: looking in people's crappers and talking to them about sex. And these aren't your more glamourous outhouses you may have seen in the states; these are a bit more rudimentary. I have started this week going out two days a week with a lady from the community interpreting (since I'm not quite fluent yet) and I will do this until I have visited every one of the few hundred homes within about a 20 minute walk. Then I may visit them again to see if improvements have been made from our suggestions. The idea is to see people's situations and offer suggestions on better sanitation and hygeine to prevent spread of disease, ways to help prevent malaria infection, make sure the children are immunized, educate on HIV transmission, prevention, the importance of testing and of positive living if infected, offer information on family planning methods and answer any questions they may have. I am also trying to learn more about the community and the needs for other projects I may do.
I don't really know what will happen when we go into a home. Ugandans are very hospitable, but one old lady just laughed and laughed that there was a white American guy in her home talking about this stuff, one young lady just stared at me the whole time as if I had 6 eyes, one lady wanted advice on dealing with her husband who didn't approve of HIV testing or family planning, and one man said that he didn't need to worry about HIV because he had been saved at a revival and God would protect him. So in addition to using my skills as a latrine inspector and health advocate, I am also using my skills as marriage counsellor and theologian. Some people are very interested in learning how to be more healthy and keep thier families healthy, though.
The lady who is going with me to interpret is very helpful in relating to people in terms they understand. She has no health training, not that I have formal health training, but she knows quite a bit and is learning more as we go. She can understand most of what I say most of the time when translating what I say in English, but once in a while there's a communication gap, even when I use Ugandan English (we call it Uganglish) and the little Rukiga I know. She goes ahead and tells the people something, even when she doesn't get what I am trying to tell them. She is from the community, probably a bit younger than me, has a 2 year old son, has HIV, and has lost her husband to AIDS. She doesn't know if her son is positive or not.
Even though this is a fairly rural area, there are really a lot of people. Houses are scattered over the hills and families grow some crops on small plots of land around thier houses that they eat and sell a little of the excess if they can. Some have some animals: chickens, goats, or a cow or two. Most houses are mud and wattle with tin roofs, but some have thatched roofs, and a few are made of mud bricks. Water is carried up steep paths in jerry cans. The amount of English a person knows depends on how far they went in school, as English is supposed to be taught in schools. A lot of people know some amount of English, but it's limited for the majority. The main causes of mortality for this area area are malaria and complications of AIDS. There is also a lot of resperitory infections, worms, and diarhoea. 1 in 7 kids die before the age of 5. Yet there is a big population growth rate from fertility. There are a lot of kids around, and it's not unusual for elderly to be caring for small children. A lot of families are caring for orphans. Generalizations about the people here don't do justice to their diversity, richness, character, and humor. The other day I happened to meet a man living in the area who has advanced degrees in economics from a university in Switzerland. He is retired from being a foreighn ambassador with the Ugandan government and is doing part time consulting work.
Last Sunday I went to mass at the church next to my house. I'm not catholic, and I'm not fluent in Rukiga, so I didn't participate much, I mostly just sat there and tried not to mind people staring at me, as I do about everywhere I go. At the end of the service the priest/politician called me up to the alter in front of the several hundred gathered and introduced me to them and told them why I was here. Even though the language, customs, appearance of the people, and even some beliefs may be different, God is the same.

I should clarify what I said in my previous post. I do actually get more than rice, beans, and goat to eat. There is also usually matoke (boiled and mashed plantain bananas) on the table, although I usually pass on it as it tasts okay, but is an acquired taste. And it's not just goat meat, but a big bowl full of pieces of goat meat on big chunks of bone and gristle, usually with intestines and stomach. The priest/politician likes to suck the marrow out of the bones. Ugandans don't usually use any seasoning in thier dishes. Thankfully I can serve myself family style, instead of the Ugandan customary heaping bowl full of what was cooked placed in front of me. Usually when I go to the priest/politician's place for supper he is watching Animal Planet, football (soccer), or CNN. The other day it was Ugandan music videos. He only watched the Family Guy the one time. We haven't talked much about American culture, but he loves Bill Clinton, since the old priest doesn't talk much (although he's a cool guy and I like him) and the priest/politician (who's a pretty good guy, too) is busy watching his TV at supper and is usually gone to meetings and such during the day at lunch.
As a note of interest, the Kisizi (chee-see-zee) waterfall is just down the road, which is mentioned in the good book "The Impenetrable Forest" by Thor Hanson, who was a peace corps volunteer in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. One guy, Chapman, from my training group is working with a gorilla conservation group in Bwindi.

Feel free to ask me questions and I will try to answer them as I have internet time. I wish I had more access to be able to keep in touch better.

"If I rise on the wings of dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast." Psalms 139:9-10

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to seperate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:38-39

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Home Sweet Home

I've been living for about a week now at what is to be my new home for the next 2 years.
Last week we wrapped up training and had our swearing in ceremony at the U.S. Ambassador's residence, after which we split up and shipped off to our respective new homes with all of our luggage, miscellaneous stuff needed to fend for ourselves at site, and accumulated Peace Corps books and equipment. Our group is a good bunch of people and it was kind of sobering to say good luck to them and step off into the fog of this next part of life here.
There's a lot I could say about the PC at this point, and my fellow volunteer colleaques will attest to that, but I won't because you would have to understand the context.

So when I arrived at my site a week ago Friday evening, there were hundreds of people everywhere camped out around the health center and parish. I had no idea what was going on and I thought this much be a much more happening place than I had first thought on my initial visit a few weeks ago. It turns out that there was a week long revival at the church. Who knew the catholic church was so evangelical, with some of the revival led by a charismatic catholic priest, even. The father of the parish told me there is usually many more people at these revivals but some people had stayed home instead of travelling to the church for the week because the rains have come late and the crops aren't doing well. Everone dispersed last Sunday, so I haven't been stared at by hundreds of people at a time since then, only the normal number.

So what's it like being at site? Imagine if you will, being a young white American guy somehow finding yourself living in the rural mountains of Uganda; the only person with glow in the dark skin for miles and miles, not knowing anyone, knowing few words or phrases of the local language, trying to figure out what work you can do here to meet needs without causing more problems and trying to find someone to work with while trying to explain just why you are here if it isn't to bring funding from America or Europe and what you think you will do here for two years in a way that doesn't sound totally ridiculous. Of course it's not really the way you would imagine it. There's no way for you to accurately know unless you were here with me. Of course by you being here with me, it would change the dynamics so it wouldn't be the same anyway. Ah, Heisenberg, you've got us again. (Sorry for the ((actually incorrect)) reference to Heisenberg's uncertaintanty principle; that's what being at site will do to you. I guess it's better than turning into a night dancer. Now I'm going to have to explain the legend of night dancers. Stay tuned friends, maybe in another post I'll explain it and tell about by own encounter with such.)
There's not much in the area of interest, or for that matter a place to buy any kind of food (including produce), get mail, buy much of any supplies, or do about anything but see the health center or go to mass at church (which isn't in english). But of course you can buy a warm coke or beer at the small shop next to the health center. I'm lucky then that the priest's cooks will also cook for me and I will eat 3 meals a day with the priest and friar. The downside of that arraingement is that for the past week I have eaten, and for the next 2 years I will eat, for lunch and supper, rice, beans, goat, and bananas or sometimes pineapple. It's also an almost surreal experience to find myself eating supper with two Ugandan priests in rural Africa while they watch the Family Guy on satellite TV run by a generator in the only building for miles that has electricity or lights glaring, but then not much surprises me here anymore.

This last week I've been climbing up the hill to see if by chance there's any text messages on my phone from the outside world, reading, writing, listening to music or the BBC (including a great CD of piano solos by my my grandma), and I've met with the father and sister to discuss what I can do here (with a tentative plan to start with, sorta kinda), and I met with some local leaders to introduce myself and tell them I'll be working in the area. Also, the father drove me down the road in his van and introduced me to the head of an area development project office of World Vision, and I'm hopeful that I will be able to work with them some. So I'm making some progress on finding projects to work on and people to work with. This weekend I am visiting friends for a bit of a break from things.
It takes a lot of energy to try to meet people and start becoming part of the community and get people used to me being there. I don't really have anyone to be my guide to the community, but mpora mpora (slowly by slowly) I will become a part of things here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Soon to be an actual Peace Corps Volunteer

I am including some pictures here, but I don't know how well they will post. Hopefully you can see them and read the text, too. There is a picture of me swinging from a vine on March 11 in Entebbe Botanical Gardens, fellow peace corps trainee Angela with my homestay monkey (which hated me, but finally let me touch it on the last day I was living with my homestay), a view from my future house at my site on a foggy morning, a view of my site from the hill I will have to climb to get cell phone reception (the health center is the group of buildings to the left), me at Ssezibwe Falls on April 15 on a trip to Jinja and the source of the Nile River at Lake Victoria (the pic is not on the Nile, but at a place on the way there), and me at our homestay thank-you ceremony with my host mom on the left and host sister on the right (I am wearing a traditional formal garment called a kanzu. It's not a dress, it only looks like one).

We are about finished with training. I am in Kampala this week, and we will be sworn in as full fledged Peace Corps Volunteers on Thursday. I know where my site is, and visited it for a few days week before last. I've had some "Peace Corps" experiences that I might tell about in a later post.
My site is in the very southwest of the country. The nearest town of significance is Kabale, but it will take me an hour or so to get there, I think, using public transport or private vehicle. I am assigned to work with a health center that is run by the Catholic diocese. It has 7 nurses, a midwife, and a lab tech. A nun is the in-charge and will be my counterpart who theoretically I will work with on projects and will be my main co-worker. My superviser will be the parish priest, who is also a major political figure in the area. The village consists of the health center, a primary school, a girl's secondary school, a small general shop, the catholic church, and small farmers scattered over the surrounding hills. The nearest market is about a half hour drive away. I will live in a room in a house at the health center/parish which was built to house a doctor if one is found to work at the health center. A person who works at the health center also has a room in the house. I will have running cold water of sketchy quality, but no electricity. The electric grid has not yet reached the area. There is running water because of the Priest's connections. I don't know what kind of work I will find to do or what kind of projects I will find to work on, or who I will find to work alongside on the projects. I will get it figured out in due time. The area is beautiful. It's mountainous and has amazing views. The weather is very nice, but some people here consider it cold.
I might get a PO Box in Kabale, but you can still send things to the address I posted earlier and I will get them.

Thank you all for thoughts, prayers, letters, and emails. Keep me in your prayers, and I will do the same.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Life as a Trainee

Today I am in Kampala! We are visiting the big city to see where things are that we might need and we have a little free time this afternoon. I had a cheeseburger for lunch that was awesome. I am in a mall, which is really nice. It's almost like an American mall. Stuff is expensive, though. There's a lot of other muzungu's (actually bazungu is the plural, and we are foreigners).

Every morning a little before the sun rises soon after 6, I am roused from my slumber by the sounds of the day starting. People are out moving around, the birds start singing, the roosters crow, and in the distance a mosque broadcasts the song-chant call to prayers. I wish for a bit more sleep, then hear my host sister call "Nat (like gnat), it is morning already.", so I crawl out from under my mosquito net, choose which of my clean and neatly ironed clothes to wear for the day (I have to look "smart"), grab my bucket and get some water to splash off my face, then I use the latrine and empty my pee bucket if I had to use it in the night. After breakfast, I grab my pack and set on my bike for my daily commute. I have a nice 20 minute ride on my black single speed bike which looks exactly like the many other bikes I pass. As I set out from my homestay family's house, I travel a dirt road through the morning sunlight filtered by banana trees, past a couple people working thier plots of sandy red soil with a hoe. I call out greetings, and they call back. I reach the main road and many children in school uniforms are walking to school. Some of them smile and wave, others call out thier own greetings. Sometimes they call "bye muzungu", sometimes they chant in unison "how-are-you mu-zu-ngu". There are always many people on the main road, which is the main North-South route. The boreholes are always busy with people filling jerry cans with water. People are walking; riding or walking bikes, some piled unbelievably high with bananas, pinapples, charcoal, or other goods; riding bike or motorbike taxis; minibus taxis stop to stuff more people in or let some out. The sides of the road are lined with small shops that sell everything, each one has a shopkeeper and several people gathered around visiting. There are stands to buy chapate or meat on a stick (my favorite), and a corner always has big piles of pineapple and mango. On my ride, I pass health centers, churches, mosques, cell phone stores, tailors, restaurants, petrol stations, goats, longhorn cattle grazing anywhere and everywhere, carpenters, fruit and vegetable stands, and bike shops.

The day's activities vary. Sometimes I sit under a mango tree for language lessons with the 4 others in my group, sometimes all the trainees are together or the health and education volunteers are seperate for workshops. We learn about the health, education, governmental and community systems and how we might be able to work with those systems. Last week we split up into small groups and visited organizations in the area to see what work they are doing and visit with them about thier organizations. We had the chance to see some more of life for the people in the surrounding areas. I have a lot of respect for a lot of people here.

Training is somehow good (that's Ugandan phrasing). There are good and bad things, but it's a positive experience.
After training is over for the day, I hang around the training center and visit, or play volleyball, or relax at a restaurant, or have evening tea at a friend's house, or go back to my homestay family and visit with them and whoever has dropped by or wash clothes, or once in a while I will try to study language a little bit. It gets dark a bit after 7, and there are no street lights, so when there is no moon, it is very dark. After supper at about 8:30 or 9, I fill my bucket with water from the rain barrel next to where the pet monkey is tied or from a jerry can by the chicken coop, take my kerosene lantern out to the enclosed bathing area next to the latrine and take a splash bath under the stars with the calf tied there watching me. Then, after I prepare for the next day, I say goodnight to God, crawl under the mosquito net once again, and fall fast asleep.

I have visited two churches so far, and they have been good experiences.
I wish I had more time to try to explain life here, and catch up with everyone by email, but alas, I am in Uganda. I will have the next couple years to explain life here. I do have a cell phone, so I have talked to family a bit.

Check out this blog that our training group has created for a group blog:

Blessings to everyone,

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Hello from Uganda

I have my first chance at the internet since leaving the States, so I am happy! I am Mbarara in the southwest right now. Another trainee and I have been on a visit to a current volunteer even farther southwest from here to see what life is like for a real volunteer. The public transport here is fun! ;)
Training is going well, I think. We stayed in Entebbe near the airport for almost a week, just getting used to things and having some preliminary workshops, then last sunday we went to Luwero and our homestays. Our training center is in Luwero. My host family and I are adjusting pretty well to living with each other. Training this week has been busy, but good. There are many adjustments for us to make. Not having electricity, running or clean water, taking bucket baths, squatting over a hole in the pit latrine are all things that have been easy to adjust to. The harder things will be the social, cultural, and language barriers. I am learning Runyonkore/Rukiga which are two languages very similar to each other and are spoken in the southwest region of Uganda, so I will be placed in this area somewhere. English is also spoken here, but knowing some language will help a lot. My host family in Luwero speaks Luganda and some English. I have a leisurly 20 minute bike ride to the training center from my host family's place. Uganda is very beautiful. Here in the southwest it is hilly and lush tropical vegitation. I think it is somewhat drier in the east and north. The temperature has been not too hot, but I have to say that I do break a sweat. Night is very comfortable. Everywhere we go, we are like celebrities. The kids wave at us and call to us and run after us sometimes. They want to touch us and they giggle a lot. Usually when I try to use some language, people bust out laughing. They aren't laughing at me, but rather they are amused that a muzungu is speaking thier language. They appreciate it that I am making that effort.
I am doing well so far. There are many adjustments to make, but I am making them so far. I really appreciate my training group and the trainers we have.
I have heard here that the mail takes more like 2-3 weeks for a letter and 3-4 weeks for a package, so it's a little better than I thought it would be.
I hope everything back in America is going okay.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Goodbye Boston, See Ya Later America

I think this might be the last time I get on the internet for a couple months, so I thought I'd go ahead and post something.
We have completed staging, and tomorrow (Sunday) morning we head out bright and early for the airport and our ride to Uganda. We'll get there late Monday evening. It's a long way over there. When we get there we will spend about a week in Entebbe, where the airport is, then off to our training site and homestay families in a town a couple hours North of Entebbe.

So far my Peace Corps experience has been very positive. I've had fun meeting the other people in my group and the few PC staff we have met so far. We are all in this together and we all have many of the same ideals and thoughts and we have all been through the application and leaving process thus far, and we are all in this together. It's a good group. There's 37 of us of diverse backgrounds, ages, religions, a few married people. I like the group. We're having fun.

I was prepared for staging to be full of anxiety and nervousness, but it really hasn't been like that for me. I'm enjoying myself. Not to say I feel no stress at all, just to say that it is fairly minimal.

We have had workshops that have been kind of an introductory overview of some things like cultural adaption, what is development, how to stay safe, and malaria medicines. They've also started throwing lots of acronyms and abbreviations at us. This evening we went to the JFK library for the PC 45th anniversary celebration, and that was a cool event. We toured the library, had some group photos taken by the PC media services, attended a reception and mingled with returned peace corps volunteers (RPCV), some staff, and other related folks, then they had a program, part of which honored the first volunteer groups which went to Ghana and Tanganyika, and those groups symbolically passed the torch to our group heading for Uganda tomorrow. It was cool to meet lots of people involved in this PC thing, and some RPCV from Uganda who gave us encouragement and perspective on thier service, and we made some contacts that may come in handy someday during our service.

Here is my address for the next 10 weeks in case anyone wants to send me something. hint, hint. Note that it may take around three weeks for letters and a couple months for packages.
And just because I won't have much internet access, (or no access for a bit) doesn't mean you can't send me email. :)

Nathan Epp, Peace Corps Trainee
P.O. Box 29348
Kampala, Uganda

I hope everyone is doing well. Talk at you "soon". :)


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

And We're Off

In about 20 minutes, my mom, dad, and I are heading out to KC. I'm in Independence, KS now, where I moved all my junk to and put in storage and in mom and dad's house. We are going back up to KC and will meet my sister there who is coming down from Iowa. We will have dinner, go to the Ash Wednesday service at my church in KC, then tomorrow morning it's off to the airport and a flight to Boston.

And I sold my truck today, so that's good that mom and dad won't have to mess with that.

Sunday I'll fly to Uganda with my training group via Washington DC, Brussels, and Nairobi Kenya. I very much appreciate everyones thoughts and prayers for me and my family.

This is going to be great! (I'm pretty sure)

I'm not sure when the next time that I will have a chance to update this thing will be, but I'll try to let you know what's happening when I get a chance.

Oh, and today is the anniversary of the Peace Corps.

See ya later, Peace.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Caribbean Diversion

I just got back from a good time in the Caribbean visiting my friend Megan in the Peace Corps. She lives on a beautiful little island there, and has been there over six months now. I flew in last Thursday evening and left yesterday(Mon) at noon. It was a short visit, but a good one. We made the most of the time I had there. I tagged along with her Friday as she did some work with her special students, saw the town and tourist destinations, hiked up to an historic fort, saw a batik shop with a demonstration of making batik fabric, saw lots of awesome plants and trees, a rock carving from the original inhabitants of the island, saw a movie in a theater, took a ferry to the neighboring island and climbed to the peak, 3232 ft above sea level, (and what a climb it was: hand over hand most of the way along a muddy trail using ropes with roots and vines and rocks as handholds and footholds; but the view was awesome, and the tropical rainforest-like environment was beautiful) with a PCV friend and her boyfriend, hung out and ate supper with them, went to church Sunday morning with Megan’s landlord and family, went to a beach and swam and relaxed on the sand and made a sandcastle, ate some freshly caught fish, met lots of Megan’s friends (seems like she knows people all over the island), and visited some shops that she frequents.
She’s really a part of the community. It’s tough work that she’s doing, but it’s on a beautiful island. The weather was awesome. Now I’m back in KC facing all the preparations I need to do before moving this weekend and flying out next week.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Prologue

This post ended up being a little long (you know how wordy I get), so you can skim through it.

So I’m heading for two years of service in Uganda with the Peace Corps. Before that, I go to staging in Boston where I’ll meet up with the others in my training group, get vaccinations, attend workshops or whatever else is planned, and attend the 45th anniversary of the Peace Corps event. Staging is March 2-5 (It was going to be March 8-10, but they bumped it up). Then we go to Uganda and begin our Pre Service Training (PST), which will consist of language, cross-cultural communication, area studies, development issues, health and personal safety, and technical skills pertinent to our specific assignments. After about 10 weeks of training, I will be sworn in a full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).

It seems like it’s been a long time since November 15, 2004 when I submitted my application to the Peace Corps. There’s a lot of steps and paperwork involved in the application process. It’s finally getting close, though.

I’ll try to address some of the questions that I’ve received, but feel free to ask more questions by emailing me or posting them in comments.

I don’t know the details of what I will be doing, but it will be something to do with community health, water, and sanitation. All volunteers in Uganda incorporate HIV/AIDS education and prevention into their programs. During training, the staff will get to know us and our skills and interests and will match us up with community organizations around the southwestern part of the country that we will work with at our posts. Once at post, we will work with the community organization and our counterpart in the organization to determine programs and projects to work on that meet the needs of the community. Volunteers typically are assigned individually and don’t work daily with other volunteers. The goal is to develop projects that are self sustaining after we leave, so there isn’t a dependence on outsiders. During training, we will stay with a homestay family, then most likely at post we will have our own places, although volunteers sometimes stay with a family or on a compound of an organization or school. Wherever they live, the community typically becomes their extended family, looking out for them and including them in community activities.

The Peace Corps provides transportation to to Uganda, and back at the end of service, medical care for volunteers, issues training materials and equipment, provides stipends for food, clothing, housing, some traveling, etc. Basically, all our living expenses should be covered with enough money to live in a similar lifestyle as those we are living with. In reality, we probably get a little more than that, and we for sure have benefits others in our communities won’t have. I don’t know what kind of accommodations I will have, or whether or not I will have electricity or running water. Some volunteers in Uganda do, some don’t. Like everything, it depends. For a good perspective on PCV living conditions, I encourage you to read this post on by a PCV.

When I started thinking through the whole overseas service thing, I wanted to know details like anyone would want to know in order to make an informed decision. I wanted to know what my job responsibilities would be, want kind of living arrangements I would have, how I would get my food, where I would do laundry, how I would get my haircut, etc., but when there were no answers I came to the realization that I would just figure everything out as I needed to. I think this is good for any place in life: to prepare as much as possible, but not sweat the details because I have confidence I’ll figure things out as needed. I also had thought that I should have a plan for what I was going to do after the two years, since that’s not really a career, but I have no idea what I will do. I decided that if I waited until I had it all planned out, I would never do anything.

After the close of service, volunteers receive a readjustment allowance to use for getting going again in the U.S. Standard length of service is two years after we are sworn in at the end of training, although there is the possibility of extending for a year if you have needed skills and the programs you are working with warrant it. We build up two leave days per month of service to use for traveling, coming back home, etc. I don’t know if I’ll come back home during my service or not. If there is a significant family event I would, otherwise we’ll just see how the tides flow. I do want to do some traveling in the area either during my service or after.

The Peace Corps is a government organization, so my service is paid for by the taxes of good people like you. It also sometimes has the bureaucracy of the government. In country, there is a Country Director who oversees the programs and volunteers, and Associate Country Directors who oversee the programs. The Peace Corps also employs some other staff, and training is done by staff, Ugandans, and PCV who have been around the block.

I’ve been asked if it is safe in Uganda, or if it is politically stable. In a word, yes and yes. Some people remember Idi Amin who was a dictator in the 70’s with a bad human rights record, to put it rather mildly. Milton Obote also wasn’t so good for the lives of the people. Yoweri Museveni is currently the president, and has been in power since ’86. He is an elected president, and has done much to turn the country around. The country has improved economically, and Uganda is one of the few African countries who has made good progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. However, there has been increasing concern about him in recent years. The first multi-party elections will be held now at the end of February. Up to now there was a no party system. The man who is the main contender against Museveni was arrested on re-entering the country last November on charges of treason and rape. There’s some speculation as whether or not this was politically motivated. I’m no political analyst, and I’m not going to Uganda to be involved in politics, so I’m not going to get into too much here, but it will be interesting to see how this election plays out and the impact on the direction of the country. For a political history of Uganda, here are some links: Wikipedia, Enter Uganda

If you observe the news articles about Uganda or the bordering countries of Sudan or DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo, or just Congo; used to be Zaire) on the internet (I have links on the right to get you started) you will probably see mention from time to time of a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This is a group with a rather bad human rights record, again to put it mildly, which has been a problem in Northern Uganda for the last twenty years. They also cross into Southern Sudan, and Eastern Congo. If you desire, you can easily find more information on the internet. Interestingly the University of Kansas has a student group involved in aiding those affected by the LRA in Northern Uganda. The human rights crisis caused by the LRA, and the “African World War” in Eastern Congo involving nine African nations including Uganda (which ended in 2003) have largely been ignored by the West. But then nobody cared much about the genocide in Rwanda in ’94, either.

I bring up that stuff to say that you might see mention of it in the news, but that it is completely safe for PCV in Uganda. The small rebel group is far from where any PCV are located and the areas where the PC works are unaffected. The PC’s first priority is the safety of its volunteers and it makes sure it doesn’t get a bad name or put any Americans at risk. Case in point is that prior to Dad’s last trip to Haiti, the PC pulled all of the volunteers and staff out of Haiti for safety, and Dad went ahead and went down there and had no problems. The long term people Dad worked with there have stayed, and the PC has yet to re-enter the country. I have no concerns for safety, other than the normal considerations for traveling, with pickpockets and whatnot, and the other future trainees in my group and current PCV in country that I have talked to are not worried about safety. In fact, I suspect I will be at least as safe there as here in Kansas City.

So why do I want to join the Peace Corps? Well, that’s a good question. As is the case with most everything in life, there are multiple factors coming together that lead to this path I have before me. Basically my plan is to change the world into the way I want it, then kick back and enjoy living in a perfect world. Okay, not really. I actually don’t really plan to change the world. If I wanted to do that, I would be very disappointed. I only have a small sphere of influence, and change may seem painstakingly slow, only with great effort, and end up being very small. I have no notions of a romanticized adventure, heroically sweeping in and solving all of Africa’s problems with my superior American wisdom. I don’t even know if I have anything that the people of Uganda really need. What do I know about the problems facing a small community in southwest Uganda? I’m going to try my best to improve life for a few people, though. The whole business of foreign aid and development is a very tricky one, and I’m just starting to learn about it. It’s easy to have good intentions, but to actually do good seems to be the thing. If the solutions to the problems were easy, they’d be done already. The PC has three goals (I’m paraphrasing): 1) provide educated individuals to countries who would have them to transfer knowledge and aid in development, 2) to increase the cultural understanding of Americans by people in other countries, and 3) to increase the cultural understanding of other people by Americans. I think these are good goals. We as Americans don’t always have an accurate perspective of what the world is like in the eyes of other people, and it is important in this day and age for other people to have an understanding of Americans more than just the rich big brother government or what they see on TV or radio. I hope, also, that my work in the PC will act as some kind of catalyst for development to improve the quality of life for people.

I found the following written in a blog by a PCV in South Africa and thought it was worth sharing:

“…another Dark Star Safari quote, this one from a conversation Theroux has:
I think the government wants to have bad schools, because ignorant people are easier to govern’.
And that's the real point, isn't it? The problems are all interrelated, and education is at the root. Corrupt governments steal their people's money and leave them in poverty, and the people don't notice, because they are uneducated. And so charities, foreign aid workers in their shiny white Land Rovers, all come to help combat the poverty, but an educated African workforce wouldn't need to bring in outside expertise. Education is really the only way to make truly sustainable development in Africa.
And so I'm convinced of the importance of good education for Africans, and I'm here to help. And I'm also proud that I'm here with the Peace Corps, which isn't just another aid agency throwing money at a problem, bringing in professional charity workers with their expense accounts. This is real, on the ground, person-to-person, bottom-up work, and I'm happy to be a part of it. I think that's one of the interesting things about the Peace Corps, judging from my own change, and the changes I've seen from my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and even the changes that happened to Paul Theroux. The Peace Corps takes optimistic, idealistic Americans, beats all of the idealism out of them, and leaves them with a real desire to just, simply, help. Maybe that should be the new Peace Corps slogan.”

I think that if my motivation was entirely altruistic, I wouldn’t have the willpower to make it through. My motives are tempered by more self-serving objectives as well. I want to see this thing called life in new ways, grow personally and spiritually, meet some cool people, and explore life. I think that whenever we look with a new perspective, we gain insight and understanding. God has given us curiosity, and a thirst to know and be and explore and experience, and He’s given us this amazing world of diversity and beauty and mystery to live in and explore. But, this world has also become incredibly unfair and unjust. I think that when we learn more about our world, we realize how small it really is and how similar we all are. So then, if we’re all in this together, why wouldn’t we have compassion for our neighbors; in our community, in our state, in our world? There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, and there are treatments for many diseases, so why do people starve, and why to kids get sick and die from easily preventable and treatable diseases? I think it’s a lack of will.

It’s very easy for us in the superpower countries to be complacent with our lives and our place in the world. It’s important to educate ourselves about the world and the impact our lives have on it. The consumption of resources by Americans is mind boggling. I don’t mean to be too harsh on us Americans, though. I’ve met a lot of awesome people doing great things for people in all walks of life: from raising their kids to have compassion and think of others, to helping the homeless, to being a friend to someone who needs it, to devoting their lives to service to others, and many other examples.

I don’t want to propagate a false image of Africans, fueled by hopeless pictures of naked kids with bloated bellies and vacant stares, and sensationalized stories of famine and war. I think that those are important to see and hear, but I personally have found that they don’t elicit much emotional response from me; I think it’s because I can’t relate to that: it’s too foreign to me, those images don’t mesh with reality in my mind. But I think that Africans are much more like you and me than we might think, but with much less opportunity. I think that they want a good education for their kids, a government that works for them, to love and be loved, to provide for their families, to enjoy life, to have a little fun once in a while. What is your image of an African? Hopefully in the future I will be able to provide some more insight on that, although Africa is a huge continent with incredible diversity in peoples, cultures, climate, and geography, so I’ll only be able to relay my small glimpse of Africa.

The truth is, I don’t know what to expect out of my time with the Peace Corps. I’m trying to be realistic. I expect some hard times, frustrations, boredom, and I might not always feel fulfilled by the experience. Just because the goal is to do some “good” doesn’t mean everything will fall into place. I also expect to have some fun and meet cool people and have interesting experiences. I’m looking forward to it, and think that there will be enough positives to make it worthwhile. I know that if I don’t do this now, while I have a great opportunity for it, I will regret it.

I don’t feel like I’m making any grand sacrifices in the name of virtue, but rather I’m temporarily forgoing the status quo in search of new perspectives, broadened horizons, adventure, challenge, discovery, the opportunity to share whatever I might have to offer, and to probably receive much more in return.