December 31, 2010

December 21, 2010

yabba dabba do

Pony tail ahoy!

It may come as some surprise to those back home but until two days ago I hadn't updated my journal since August. My track record with letter writing is even worse and you can see how poorly I've been updating my blog. The first months at site have been a struggle. Though hardly the black death of loneliness and isolation I expected, it has taken all of my available faculties to tread water. Apparently those water treading faculties are also requisite for my journaling and letter writing. Something like winning the war but losing the battle.

I recently (and smugly) underlined the passage: "A neck tie is a noose inverted and if you're not careful it will hang you just the same" from the "The Life of Pi" as if it were a reaffirmation of my beard, pony tail, and flip flop life style. Occasionally I have these moments of (mostly imagined) bohemianism. But it got me thinking about why I'm here rather than over there.

One of the things that enticed me, and I imagine others like me, to the Peace Corps was the idea of living on the edge of the known world. Going farther, deeper, better, faster, harder, stronger than would otherwise be available via the more traditional school-to-more-school-to-cubicle-to-office-railway. In private pre-departure moments I imagined myself a yogi of the African grassland, personally growing through rich cultural experiences followed by careful meditation and quiet reflection.

As I roll up on a year and half of skipping around the the world, my experience has been more "square peg pounded through round hole" than "Buddah of the Serengeti." I run, but sometimes walk, face first into brick walls nearly every day. That is to say, rewarding though it has been, the experience has not been without it's discomfort and contortions. Some of the very basic ideas about myself and society at large have been re-opened for debate and debate can be uncomfortable because it is uncertain. I won't be quite sure until I return home to my friends and family but I feel as if squared edges are being rounded.

November 30, 2010

this is my cat, i am not a cat person

Just recently I inherited a cat, actually kitten, from another PCV. Initially I named her J-Woww though after careful reflection she is now known as LeFleur the Cat. Her interests include sleeping, being insufferably noisy in the early morning and leaving disembowled rats and lizards on my living room floor. LeFleur the Cat is named in homage to a good friend of mine who has a predilection for yoga and terrible movies.

August 12, 2010

I talk too much. Here are some pictures.

The view right out my front door.

Teaching in Lira during training.

My students dug up a giant termite mound and proudly brought me the queen termite.

These guys are our friends. They eat mosquitoes.

Three months of running on dusty roads caught up to me and my lungs to the point where I could barely breathe. For the past week I've been taking an extensive battery of drugs for breakfast lunch and dinner. Six pills, a shot of cough syrup, and a beer.

August 9, 2010

I am a blogging derelict

Between a severe shortage of internet, a busy schedule, and just honest lethargy I haven't put a post up in months. I just wrapped up my first term as a math teacher and I'll be spending my holiday attending seminars for language and technical training before starting up with school again in late August.

Morale is a few degrees over luke warm at the moment, the bad days are ceding territory to the good, though I am happy with my progress as a teacher. My frustrations are not uncommon to any teacher or parent where the 'good' isn't seen until deep into the future and the bad is a nagging daily reminder. I'm generally happy with my students as they are improving, however slowly, though there is still so much work for us to do.

In any case here's an email I sent to my Peace Corpsing colleagues that hopefully you'll find's the Peace Corps experience in a nutshell as you often find yourself in strange positions doing unexpected things. I'll get something better up soon, I promise!

Hey you people!

For the past two months I've been attending "wedding planning
meetings" for some lawyer in Gulu who is the OB of my head teacher.
This entails mostly sitting around and nominating each other to
various offices of power which is to say we do next to nothing for
about three hours every Sunday.

Now it has thus far been a breeze...I show up, throw down some cash,
sip my VIP Coca Cola, and carefully weigh the pros and cons of whether
Mr. Ojok or Mr. Odong would make a better Deputy Secretary of Litrugy
(Mr. Odong by a landslide by the way). Things have been humming along
nicely for the past month or so but my obsolescence has been disturbed.
I have been nominated as the Wedding Photographer.

You see I have photographed a couple of the events at the school and
church with my snap shooter and apparently the Head Teacher has taken
notice. He nominated me for the post (naturally neglecting to inform
me of his intentions prior to the meeting) telling the assembly of the
Gulu business set that "Mr. Jacob is a photographer at the MASTER
LEVEL. He will take wonderful pictures I am CERTAIN."

That's actually how he talks...he always puts tons of emphasis on the
last word of any sentence.

Anyways at first I was mildly (majorly) alarmed. I've never
photographed any event seriously and certainly nothing like a wedding! The guys throwing
down this wedding have the scrilla to hire a professional so I'm
assuming they're expecting professional quality. My nomination was
immediately called into question by the chairman of the planning
commission as he questioned my experience and ability. My Head
Teacher immediately launched into an impassioned defense of my
unparalleled abilities as a photographer.

And sweet baby Jesus can my Head Teacher talk, he once gave a rousing
hour long speech to the morning assembly that touched on brochial
pnuemonia, poverty in Bolivia (of all places) and the importance of
sweeping the dirt outside your compound. Now I'm no fan of hour long
speeches but this one was down right majestic. When he gets some
momentum he can just roll like a freight train.

Anyways he's going on and on about how I should be the photographer
and eventually my mild (major) alarm gives way to righteous
indignation. How dare they! Goddamnit, I am a photographer at the
MASTER LEVEL! Who are they to question my nomination!

Naturally he convinced them (and me) that I was the only one for the
job so that is how I now find myself as the wedding photographer for
an event planned for the 24th of August. Guys, all of this has been a
very long and indirect way to get to my direct point:

If I don't have a decent camera for this thing I'm boned.

So, please, please, please with extra matoke on top does anyone have a
dSLR that I can borrow for this wedding? I will guard it with my life
and guarantee payment if it is returned to you in a condition in any
way less than it was lent. Hopefully I can get it at IST or after we
go rafting and return it to you in a most expedited manner.

My life is in your hands dudes. Look at me I want to repeat that. My
life is in your hands dudes. Dudes....My. Life. Is. In. Your.



April 30, 2010

Things I humbly request via care package

Thank you Mom, Dad, Becky, Landon, and Grandma and Grandpa! I was really having a rough period and I got three packages on one day and it was a real turning point, thank you so much!

*Recent issues of the Economist or the New Yorker are always appreciated!
*Anything you've read recently and enjoyed.
*Music. Best to put it on a flash disk. Send anything you want although I'd really like Panda Bear "Tomboy" and whatever Top 40 music is out there these days. Shut up AJ.

I'm pretty well covered as far as clothes go, the second hand markets here are a treasure trove for the intrepid, but if you'd like to send something it would be appreciated all the same. Here are my measurements:
*Shirts M or a 15-34 I've heard merino wool T-shirts are the bees knees and I wouldn't mind trying it out.
*Pants 32 x 32 although I'm probably closer to a 30x 32 on the Peace Corps diet.
*Shoes 10. Some Merino wool socks would probably be a good thing here also.

*Cliff bars are a wonderful treat.
*Protein powder is also good stuff.
*Country Time Lemonade for Arnold Palmers.
*Gatorade powder is great too, while I'm at it.
*Home baked cookies! Chocolate chip, Kringla, snickerdoodles in that order.
*Raisins, craisins, apricots
*Blueberry pancake mix
*Velveeta Mac and Cheese

*Hair ties. Nice, good, thick hair ties. My pony tail is in full effect.

14 Piece Knife Set RECIEVED!
Whoa! This came out of the blue and these knifes are awesome! Another killer care package, Dad!
Single serving french press RECIEVED!
Dad, I use this thing every day! Thank you a thousand times!
ExOfficio boxer briefs RECIEVED!
My buddy AJ sent me an email asking if there was anything on my list that hadn't been sent. "Let me know and I'll send it...i'm not sending you underwear though. That's just weird." Duly noted AJ, that's what mothers are for. Thanks mom!


I have a big giant American flag and a huge poster of Adrian Peterson doing that thing I like.

April 28, 2010

What I packed

Net book ~$230
You can get internet access with a modem (available for ~$100 brand new) anywhere you can get cell phone coverage... which is just about everywhere. There are a variety of plans that range from $25-50 per month and you can cover that with your Peace Corps living allowance.

iPod 160gb ~$220 + Sennheiser PX100 headphones ~$40 + Shure SE310 sound isolating ear buds ~$200.
I like listening to music. The Sennheisers are great for around the house and the Shures are ideal for noisy bus and taxi rides.

Portable 500gb hard drive ~$100
You can bring an empty one and fill it when you get here.

I wish I would have brought a Kindle, those things seem pretty cool.

Dress shirts x5
I brought four button down dress shirts and one polo. The best shirts are non-iron or wrinkle resistant and any color but white. You'll be wearing these everyday especially as a teacher. Dress is very important in the's weird but even though it's hot and dusty the people, especially teachers, dress very well. Most of the teachers at my school wear French cuffs. Seriously. One more endorsement for wrinkle resistant fabric goes here.

Slacks x2
One pair dark khaki and one pair black both are wrinkle resistant. I don't mind wearing the same pair of pants multiple times if they're not nasty. My Ugandan colleagues wear dress slacks that are always crisp and pressed. You won't regret bringing nice quality dress clothes. They don't have to be expensive brand names but quality material and workmanship are nice.

Jeans x1 and cotton shorts x2
Nice to have for going out in Kampala, though I rarely wore them during training or even at site. I actually wouldn't bother packing cotton shorts if I were packing again...I rarely wear them. It sounds strange but it's a weird cultural thing. Even though it's hot everyone wears long shirts and pants. It's strange at first but I got used to it.

Quick dry shorts x1 and shirts x3
You can buy just about every piece of clothing you'll need in country. Dress shirts, slacks, t shirts, socks, everything...except any kind of "tech" fabric so it's a good thing to bring with you.

ExOfficio boxer briefs x3 (~$25/pair)
I cannot swear by these enough. Ideal travel and hot weather underwear. They wick away moisture and dry quickly. I wear them into the shower and they're dry by noon the next day if they're hanging in my room. I've been wearing three pair in rotation for the past year. Whoa. I didn't realize we (me and my underwear) had hit our one year anniversary. Good stuff.

I brought a pair of brown suade Cole Haans for more formal occasions. They're going to be trashed by the time I leave but, damnit, I love those shoes.

I chose to buy the Chaco flip flops instead of the Chaco wrap with the Vibram hiking sole. The flip flops are perfect for daily wear, I think the weave/wrap style is too clunky to use on a daily basis. You can also find the weave/wrap style in the second hand market if want them are are willing to look hard enough. They can be had (after serious negotiation) for ~$20.

I brought a pair of Nike running shoes though I wish I would have done my research and bought a good pair of Asics. You can find decent second hand running shoes in the large markets but you never really know how many miles are left in 'em. If you want to be serious about running (I'm training for a marathon) you may want to consider bringing several pair or having them shipped to you from the States.

Misc. stuff and comments
I brought six pounds of protien powder. I didn't use any during training becasue my family fed me so well but it's nice to have at site. I also brought a bunch of Cliff bars and I'm hoping that more will be sent soon. While we're on food...I also brought Gatorade powder. You can't buy these things here so they're good things to bring with you. If you are under your weight requirements bring food! You know what you like.

Books books books. Hmmmm. If you're not picky you can always find something to read. I've been told there are a bunch of "classics" at the PC library but I didn't find it to be all that great. If you have something you really want to read bring it and swap it with someone later. New releases are always a hot commodity. I also brought some textbooks to keep myself occupied. It's strange how much more interesting calculus or biochemistry is when you're doing it for personal interest. It also makes me feel like I'm keeping my mind sharp.

I wish I would have brought my tent for some camping, though I think you can rent gear at the National parks here. Not essential but if you have extra space, why not.

I didn't bring a raincoat because most of the time raincoats just make me sweaty, though I think it would be nice for when I start hiking. I guess what I mean is I'm leaning towards having one sent.

Do not bring heavy duty hiking boots. You won't wear them.

It's nice to bring a decent chef's knife as well as spices to cook with. I also wish I would have brought seeds for herbs...basil, oregano, rosemary, mint...stuff like that.

Batteries are a good thing to bring as well AA or AAA. You can get them here but they're either cheap and poor quality or expensive and good quality.

If you like coffee you can find great coffee here and it isn't too expensive. Just like in the States the best coffee is freshly ground whole beans but you can buy bags that are already ground. A volunteer that was leaving the country gave me his electric grinder and it's been great. Electric coffee grinders are cheap and small and I haven't seen them for sale anywhere here so if you like coffee it may be a good idea.

Don't bug out about anything on this can get just about EVERYTHING in Kampala at the supermarkets. Also people are always going back and fourth to the States and most people are happy to carry small things when they come back to Uganda. That means you can buy something on Amazon and ship it to someone's house and they'll bring it over for you.

Feel free to email me if you have questions about packing.

A day in the life: training ed.

*disclaimer: I stayed with an awesome AWESOME family so maybe you'll have something like this but probably not.

I wake up at 6:00am each morning about half an hour before the sun rises. If I'm able to get myself up then I do a little yoga session in my room as the sun rises. More often than not I hit the snooze four times and get up fourty minutes past six.

Breakfast is always waiting for me at the kitchen table. The food is different each day. This morning I had corn flakes with fresh milk, a green apple, and tea. Yesterday I had two hard boiled eggs, a banana, and tea. I take my morning tea and review the notes from my language class.

I leave the house on my bike at 7:30am and bike the 5 kilometers to the training center. Along the way I greet everyone I meet. As I pass the school children walking down the road in their uniforms I give them a quick greeting in Swahili ("Jambo!") and they respond with the same. I greet those older than me with the more formal "Wasuzio oteyano, ssebo!" ("good morning, sir!").

I arrive at school ten minutes to eight. I used to need that time to stop sweating but I've learned how to exert myself only to the point before I break the sweat threshold and now I arrive at school free of perspiration. The day begins with a two hour language class in Acholi, the language commonly spoken in the north of Uganda. Language is my favorite and what I believe to be most helpful.

We break for tea and peanuts in the mid morning and continue with sessions in either health, safety/security, local culture, or technical training. These range mostly from mildly boring to excruciatingly boring.

We take lunch around noon thrity and they feed us quite well. There's usually matoke (made out of steamed bananas), baked beans, green beans, mashed potatoes, chicken or pork, and fresh fruit. Sessions continue after lunch until around 4:00 or 5:00pm. I bike home stopping at my family's shop to say hello to my mother or sometimes grabbing a beer or two with the other volunteers.

Afternoon tea is waiting, usually with fresh pineapple, and I take the time to relax by reading or journaling. After tea I hang out with my family making chapati or feeding the pigs or just sitting around talking. Sometimes I bust out the laptop and we watch a movie, my sisters really dig Disney movies.

My Luganda is really bad but I can tell my brother Ronald is a really funny guy, people are always laughing when he's around. As the sun sets my whole family gathers around the television to watch a Brazilian soap opera filmed in Portugese but (badly) dubbed into English called "La Tormenta." It's terrible. Absolutely terrible.

Dinner is served from 9:30 to 10:30pm (the Baganda like to eat late). Usually it's rice, matoke, greens, a couple pieces of beef and french fries ("chips"). Good stuff. I usually bathe before dinner, my family boils some water so I can take a warm bucket bath before going to sleep and doing it all again the next day. I mean that's really all there is to it. Rinse, wash, repeat.

April 20, 2010


In Gulu I saw a man riding a bicycle with only one finger on each hand to operate the brakes.

In Lira I saw several people with their lips cut off, leaving them forever looking like black face vaudvillians from the 1920's.

Some of my students were abducted and conscripted by the rebels as child soldiers or prostitutes. I particularly remember speaking with one student and as he turned to face me I noticed a scar running from his forehead through his eye socket to his chin.

But markets now hum with energy. School children dance and sing and laugh and study. Life is returning to normal and that's what makes it all so strange. I see the peace but can only imagine the horror that preceded it.

February 6, 2010

My toes are like the concentric rings of a tree stump

So this is what my feet look like these days. If you look close enough you'll notice two bands that run across the big toe which separates the nail into three sections. It's hard to tell the different textures from the photograph but each section is a different thickness reflecting the different amounts of nutrients I was getting. Each line marks the changes in my diet during the past 5 months and the nails have been getting progressively thicker the farther away I get from Guinea.

Here, I'll label them for you:
Pretty cool, huh? I wonder if any of the other refuguinean volunteers have noticed anything similar...

Anyways, I'm flying out of Hawaii tomorrow to Philly for my second staging. I've been reassigned to Uganda. I will once again be a high school science teacher. I'll be traveling a bit bags still haven't made it back from Guinea...but I'm not too worried about it.

Speaking of Guinea, there has been some hopeful news of late. Civilian rule has been restored and there is the usual talk of free and open elections. No one knows if this ultimately will lead to an effective and stable government but the important thing is that this clearly represents a de-escalation from the previous situation. Happy days!
Lastly, many many thanks to my sister and Eric. Three years ago they sold all the stuff out of their apartment and used the money from their wedding to film an independent film about malaria. A year after that they moved to China to work and explore. A year after that and they're working in the Teach for America program in Hawaii and letting me take up their space.

They gave me my first nudge into this incredible world and showed me how accessible it can be. They've been an inspiration and given me support in every way. I love you guys.

January 18, 2010

(1)When everything is foreign, nothing is strange and (2)Nobody knows anything

One of the weirdest things about going to Guinea was losing the ability to distinguish what was weird. Since there were so many new things to see and smell and eat and do; it was hard to tell the mundane from the truly bizarre. I felt emotionally monotone on a day to day basis but when I'd sit down to write a letter or pick up the phone to talk to people back home I would have a mental log jam of ideas. There was an overwhelming amount of context required for each story and so many stories to tell. I didn't even know where to start. I still don't know where to start. I guess my host family may be the best place to begin.

The Bah's were good people. They opened their home to me. They fed me and scolded me for coming home too late. They invited me to Ramadan prayer and diligently helped me with my French. They treated me with an incredible kindness and hospitality and I didn't realize how amazing it was until I left.

They took someone into their house who looked different and displayed an embarrassingly small understanding of social decorum. This someone lacked even the most basic ability to communicate. With infinite patience and good humor they polished my manners and language and sent me on my merry way. I wonder if I would have taken in a non-English-speaking-mildly-rude-strange-looking-person into my home. I doubt it. Guineans are great people.

It's because of part (1) that I am so frustrated with part (2). In the year preceding my departure to Guinea I read a handful of books about the development world. I had the thought that we had poverty and development on the run. It seemed as if these things were beginning to be solved as if they were a particularly complicated algebra problem.

Sachs writes that if the developed world were to commit .7% of their GDP to the developing world they would escape their "poverty traps." Easterly thinks Sachs is a grandstanding buffoon. Collier argues that smartly timed and targeted investments will lead countries slowly out of poverty. Bornstein writes about empowering locally minded social entrepreneurs.

Unsurprisingly they could all be right, they could all be wrong, or they could be a little bit of both. Even though they all argue with tremendous conviction, none of them (or any of us) really has any idea what's going on. There are too many moving parts.

I've really struggled with that since leaving the country, knowing that something needs to change but not knowing how to change it. I've read strong arguments for and against democracy or education or business development as the pathways out of poverty and now I've actually seen a small part of where those arguments come from and why. This drives me crazy. I like to believe that solutions to most problems are within the reach of our reason but I can't wade through the development morass and I'm skeptical of someone who says they can.

At times the difficulties facing the development world at large and particularly Guinea seem cyclical and overwhelming but occaisionaly good news trickles out and I'm reminded that even in tough times there's always hope for the future.