December 3, 2011

and it all briefly comes together

Words words words.  I don't know how to start.  It's becoming the dry season now, daily rains giving way to long hot dusty days.  The school is deserted, the teachers and students moving back into the deep village for harvesting.  It's quiet.

I've found that my frustrations and cynicisms and despairs pile up over time.  Like shoots of tough savanna grass they grow green and fresh in isolation and a fertile disposition, before they turn brown dead and dry as time marches on.  Like an unkempt garden these frustrations grow into a prickly thicket, eventually obscuring even tomorrow's limitless promise and possibility.  The process is gradual but the effect is cumulative.

But the clearance happens suddenly like a flame front across the plains.  Instantaneous.  An experience, a good experience, sometimes only a moment, so powerfully good that it wipes out weeks of the thorny nagging underbrush leaving behind only fresh scorched earth.  Clean fertile earth to try it all over again.  The lows are powerfully low, but the highs are intoxicating in their intensity.  Cycles of despair and euphoria.

We finished up the term.  And it finished.  

Before we as a staff collectively broke huddle for the year we congregated for one last event, the end of year staff party.  The event started late and there were long speeches from bloviating politicians (or rather their junior emissaries) and blah blah blah.  That's not important.  We ate a tremendous spread of fried chicken, cassava, pasta, rice, goat, beef, fish, salad and then Got. It. On.

A sound system was hired and several crates of beer were ordered and we started doing togetherness.  In the past I've been hesitant to linger too long at these get togethers, perhaps equal parts sober concern for my reputation and a middle school boy's fear of the dance floor.  The music is a reggeton/afro/acholi quick beat that made me look exactly what you think a white guy dancing with a bunch of African's would look like.  Enough to shatter any delicate male ego.  

With a single beer's assistance I set sail on those turbulent seas, trying to find paths of rhythms and the crests of bass lines.  Mr. Okema saw me swimming (sinking) and came to my aid.  "Uh huh, good!" as he choreographed  "Now do like this."  And I started to get it kinda.  Either that or more likely I picked up another bottle of assistance.

(Digression: I don't know if there's a name for it but the night's weapon of choice was a big 500ml bottle of Senator beer spiked with a shot of Waragi gin.  For the home bartender: buy a bottle of the cheapest high octane beer you can find, leave it in the sun for a day or so and then, still warm, open it and add some vodka or gin (any kind that comes in a plastic bottle will do) and drink it.  Hooray!)

The tribal dance here is incredible.  The Acholi school children win the national dance competitions on the regular and for good reason.  Hips neck feet and drums in a flurry of coordinated contortions and culture.  It's a joy to live in this region and witness these things.  What would those bored screen addled American suburbanites give to have a culture like this, all they own?  

So there I was.  We were.  The syncopated bouncing mob.  Boozy, happy, dancing.  Gaining confidence and BAC I was beginning to surf the lines of music.  First was the school secretary Filda, maternal, unusually exuberant, though characteristically dignified as she approached and bounced and danced, circling around ululating.  She flipped off back into the mass of now sweating bodies but she had opened the floodgates.  Some recently graduated A level students, staffers, teachers, wives of teachers, children of teachers, students of children of wives of teachers (just kidding) all had a go at me.  

One young woman came at me gale force in a hurricane of confidence, hips and vitality.  A thick woman in an ankle length dress and covered shoulders who radiated a sexuality more fierce than her thin designer jean gym toned counterparts in college bars across America.  She was a force.  FORCE.  I've never felt anything like it.  As she trailed away she glanced back over her shoulder looking like "I just launched you into outer space, huh." Raised eyebrows and a noiseless whistle was my only reply.  Because I had already torn past the moon and Mars and was zipping by Neptune.  

At three thousand feet per second.

As I made the solitary walk home from the party, head still buzzing from cheap alcohol and the peculiar electricity that I imagine is only felt among the flirtatious youth, I realized that this had been the best party I had ever attended.  It wasn't the food, the dancing, the drinking though they all played their part.  It was the sense that I had finally found the people around me and that they had found me.  For one night we punted everything out the window and just became people.  People with faces and fingers and toes.  I didn't feel like a white guy, an American, a math teacher, any of that.  I felt together.

And just like that weeks of frustration were razed to the ground and I get to start fresh all over again.  Two days later and I'm still glowing.  I chased off three people who thought I was away and had come to rob my house.  I fished a dead rancid rotting lizard out of my sofa cushions when I noticed the horrible smell.  I ate beans and rice for three hundred and eightieth sixth time.  But I don't care.  I love it here.  The highs tower above the lows.

The next morning I woke up early and went to get a cup of milk tea and a plate of cassava.  I saw a co-reveler from the night before.  He politely inquired about the status of my hangover (incredibly non-existent) before, like a proud father, adding, "You learned a lot last night."

And I was like "yeah."

November 1, 2011

some (other) thoughts I think

One of the Volunteers here had originally joined in the '60s and had served briefly in Somalia before getting evacuated to India.  I bought a guitar when I first arrived here (that would be failed teach my self guitar attempt number 3) and he came over for Thanksgiving and played it.  He described his guitar playing as a nice relic of his first stint in Peace Corps and it's something that made an impression on me.  Relics of Peace Corps service.  I've picked up a couple languages, read a bunch of good books, filled up my passport and made some life long friends.

I was in the staff room one morning preparing some of my lesson notes when the fine art teacher, Mr. Okema, pulled up at my table as asked if he could sketch me.  Do I have to pose?  Nope.  Well sure, fire away.  I continued working and he started sketching and by the time I had finished my notes he had a rough sketch on paper.  He fleshed it out for two full days, then he colored it in and gave it to me as a present.  I've become so image desensitized probably due to the ubiquity of digital cameras and the way they can machine-gun images out into the world.  I hadn't even considered having my portrait done by an artist.  I had forgotten that that was an option.

It was such a valuable thing to receive as a gift.  It was a time consuming labor of love executed by a friend of mine exercising his considerable talent for my benefit.  And it was unsolicited.  It is, perhaps, my favorite gift and once framed will be a very tangible relic of my Peace Corps service.
Candid shots are so difficult here.  The only thing more conspicuous than being the one white guy at a 1,000 person strong gathering is to be a white guy holding a camera.  Most shots taken by local photographers are posed portrait shots.  During big events when everyone is all dressed up, there is a village photographer who goes around snapping portraits and charging about 30 cents a piece to develop them.  He comes back several days later with a messenger bag full of pictures which he returns to his customers.  I have no idea how he keeps track of who has paid for what photograph but he seems to be doing good business as he's got customers whenever he's around.

Now there is a very real possibility that I am missing several layers of nuance and subtlety but 90% of these posed portraits look exactly the same.  It's a very formal affair.  No smiling.  Rigid posture.  Looking off into the distance and never at the camera.  It was kind of funny at first but with a memory card full of rather bland portraits I've been trying to figure a way around it.  I snapped the above shot of the kids from my lap while someone was giving a speech.

Kids here are left pretty much unsupervised by around the time they can walk.  The ever quotable Mr. Owiny quips that the children here "just move anyhow, as if they were goats" which probably doesn't help paint the picture for you as you're likely not familiar with free range goats.   If the child is still crawling they're put under the charge of a (not much) older sibling.  It is quite common to see a girl of about 8-10 years with a baby wrapped to her back with a piece of fabric while she fetches water or fire wood.

There's another aspect about the village children that I really struggle to articulate.  It's like they're not really viewed as people or at least as a person with a name and personality.  Any boy is called merely "boy" and girls are called "girl" in lieu of a name.  It's impossible (for me) to tell which child belongs to which family and where they are supposed to be and when.  Free range children I guess.

September 11, 2011

approximately five thousands words

Well yeah.
Before I got the new ones in a care package, I thought my orignal t-shirts were still white. Nope.Fourth of Ju-ly and long exposure sparklers.Veranda sunsets. It's something like this every night.Hell kittens from hell! 5 kittens, no cat mother, it almost broke me. IT ALMOST BROKE ME!

August 23, 2011

the airport safari cowgirl

In my hammock trying to recreate a look of anxiety. And my hair.

I suffer increasingly powerful anxiety when I'm around...whatever, let's just say it....white people. My Peace Corps brothers and sisters don't really count because we all bathe, figuratively speaking, in the same bucket of dirty water. So generally any white person in Uganda outside of about 140 people mildly freak me out for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me.

Sure I spend a fair amount of time at my site and those prolonged exposures naturally change the way I talk and think and act to the point where western small talk absolutely flummoxes me. Peace Corps talk inevitably devolves (evolves?) towards global politics, the weighty metaphysical, the Development Carnival or... poop (and the quality/consistency of). Village talk with my teaching colleagues usually centers around rain (the absence/presence of) and how "stubborn" our students are (very stubborn).

(Quick aside: A bunch of us were at a bar where we met this German backpacker who was traveling through East Africa. "Oh you guys are in Peace Corps? You guys are all the same, you sit around drinking beer and talking about how much you hate being in Peace Corps." He had a beer with us and then went on his merry little way. When he left, we kept drinking beer and now talked about how much we hated German backpackers. I will always grudgingly admire that man for speaking truth to power or at least truth to a bunch of smelly inebriated PCVs. In our defense I would argue that most of our complaining in merely venting and most of us cherish our experience and opportunities here.)

None of these things (metaphysics, global politics, poop) really interest anyone outside of Peace Corps or at least not in the context of oh-hey-here-we-are-standing-in-line-at-the-supermarket-together conversations. I was in Gulu buying supplies (Gulu is like the regional capital of northern Uganda and the armpit of the Developement Juggernaut) and some guy noticed my Twins hat and started in with the baseball small talk. I felt a constriction in my chest and the normally free flowing opinions regarding bowel movements or the ongoing NATO led Libyan "intervention" slowed to a trickle. Nothing I was comfortable talking about fit the scenario so I stammered out some platitudes about Liriano and darted away as quickly as possible. I don't think this affliction hits all the other PCVs to the same extent as it does me but I'm positive it's there in some shape or insidious form.

Right. I'm at the Johannesburg airport to see the Africa Region Peace Corps Medical Officer (or AR PCMO in Peace Corps parlance) located in the PC regional headquarters. If you're afraid of white people airports are like the seventh circle of hell. But anyways there I am in the Johannesburg airport waiting in line to get my passport stamped and doing my best to be non-nondescript. Like actively thinking about looking non-nondescript lest some passerby make the mistake of talking to me about anything other than, for example, Ayn Rand's hypocritical rejection of practical socialism via a book touting an idealized capitalism. I'm wearing headphones and sun glasses more to discourage potential interlocutors than for entertainment or fashion purposes respectively. My hands are tightly locked to the straps of my backpack because I've consciously decided it's likely to draw the least amount of attention while giving me the added bonus of having something to hold, tightly, on to. Occasionally I glance up from the floor to monitor the progress of the customs que lest I inadvertently am holding it up (thereby drawing attention to myself) and that's when I saw her.

She's mid forties, tall, thin, blonde and I suppose attractive, though what really catches my eye is what she's wearing. The first layer is your standard issue khaki cargo (too) shorts and muti pocketed button down short sleeve shirt which, while a bit silly on any occasion, is not out of the ordinary among safari tourists. But the "over layer" of this first layer is a distressed leather frilled frock/vest that is too large to be a vest but too short to be a free standing dress (hence my "frock"). Imagine a blonde hippy from the late '60s trying to dress like a Native American but without the beads. Frilled like that but more so. And instead of hippie think aging yuppie. I'm trying to avoid the word garish but I can't. It was garish. And expensive. There are some articles of clothing, or maybe ensembles, that you can just look at and realize "Whoa that must have cost a lot of money." She also carried a handsome canvas travel bag again in her alliterative khaki color. Naturally this whole array was crowned with oversize sunglasses and an audacious safari hat. She didn't look like she had come from a safari so much as she looked like she was trying to look like she came from a safari. An expensive safari. She was making a statement.

I should interject that from where I left I bought a banana for less than ten cents from a bare footed woman clad in what would be described in America as "rags" with a bunch of bananas carried on her head like the Chiquita banana lady. The contrast between that and the slick cleanliness of the Jo-burg airport already had me reeling even without including the airport chic fashion show.

I was mesmerized. I wish I could have taken a picture but that would have been decidedly conspicuous and anti-nondescript. No sooner had the question "is she married?" scrolled across my mind then I saw, who I assumed to be, her husband who was dressed like the spitting image of The Man in the Yellow Hat from the Curious George children's books. I can offer no improvement on that description.

Are these people real? Where are they going? Do they dress like this all the time? Maybe this is the "jet set" and they dress according to the airport they will be parading through. If that's so, is this their Africa get up? Do they have a special sub-Saharan Africa get up? Better yet, do they have an even more specific sub-Saharan Big Game Safari Outfit to contrast with a a Just General Safari Outfit? Do they also have a sub-Saharan designer Desert Nomad airport chic outfit for Addis Ababa? Freaks! FREAKS!

While these thoughts and observations are tumbling through my mind I snap back into white people paranoia mode and notice the customs que is about to pass me by. To avoid the stern looks and any chance of possible brief (!) conversations I quickly scuttle off through customs, dutifully avoiding the eye contact of any passerby.

July 25, 2011

the (un)invisible man

There are millions of experiences out here for the experiencing and perhaps the most poignant is the experience of being a minority. Dispatches from the frontier: being a minority sucks.

I can't disappear, I can't fade into the background. I'm always on display. Sometimes it's not so bad and some days it's unbearable but it's something that never comes off and never goes away.

My otherness is impossible forget as each day brings subtle, flat and overt reminders addressed as offhand comments or jeering children or slurring drunks. As tiresome as these things can be, especially one year in and one to go, they bruise only. More than insults and irritation it's the isolation. There are some things that nobody in my village ever really "gets." Somethings I can't explain to even the most willing, educated, kindly people in the township. The people I consider to be my closest friends. I wish they could just listen and understand and change their outlook seamlessly but, obviously, that's a bit of a fantasy.

I can't help but compare my experience as a minority here with my previous experience in the majority...needless to say I think I've become more sensitive.

But like nearly every hardship I face in Peace Corps I can stand outside of it, to some extent, as my life here has a two year expiration date. None of my challenges are permanent and that's comforting. It's like in middle school when some teacher duck tapes your thumb to your palm for the day. It sucks but not too much because you know it's only for the day. Owing, perhaps, to the time bound nature of the experience I am afforded a rather clinical perspective of my own frustrations.

*************************Edit 19/9/2011**********************************
This is a really stupid post and some pretty lousy writing.

Basically what I wanted to say is that I'm tired of being stared at all the time.  Anonymity has gone the way of, I dunno, decent cheese.  It's not something I'm likely to get back until I come back Stateside.  Something that I do appreciate is the perspective I have gleaned from this experience.

I mean, every possible factor is skewed in my favor.  The stereo-type of white people here is that we are healthy wealthy and educated.  Even the nature of the experience is finite, there's a two year window that I have to put up with all this and afterwards I'm back in the happy majority bubble.  I can't help but contrast that with what minorities in the US have to put up with.  Most of the stereo types are negative and the experience certainly doesn't have a two-years-and-you're-free time stamp.  I can't even imagine how much weight that is to carry around.  As comparatively easy the experience is for me, it still drives me up the wall.

July 18, 2011

thoughts i think

skee doo bop
bop bom-ba way
ow whoa whoa
oh whoa whoa

ho ho hoopa
tupa tupa
wam ba whoa
whoa whoa


May 31, 2011

comeuppens muffins, man

Crawling (and occasionally flying) out there in this fine wide world is a little beetle whose body is packed with caustic acid. When this insect is squashed, the acid smears onto the skin of the sqausher and causes a rather nasty chemical burn. It would be a decent defense mechanism except I've never even seen one. You see, I can't avoid swatting them because they crawl around on me while I'm sleeping.

(Actually, this doesn't really bother me all that much. The crawling while I'm sleeping thing. I can't say I'm pumped about it, but I'm sure there are plenty of things creeping around on all of us whether it's in Uganda or America. You see, most of the night time crawlers are considerate enough to practice "Leave No Trace" ethics and I wake up the next morning none the wiser. Great.)

For whatever reason, I have a sub-concious Kung Fu reflex and I keep swatting them dead in my sleep and waking up with these nasty chemical burns. This is my third such burn, the first on my face. When the burn is on your face it's apparently called "Nairobi Eye." I have no idea how they've managed to (repeatedly) gain access to my net covered bed.

I don't want to moan about my health problems too much, it's bad form, but I've gotten walloped pretty good the past couple months. Torn (?) ACL, torn meniscus, esophagus burn from my malaria meds, the flu, sleepless nights and these damn beetles. Ehhhhhh man!

During training, while seemingly half of my group was suffering from persistant gastro-intestinal problems and I was as regular as a Twins first round playoff exit, I made the mistake of bragging about my good health. This is what, it seems, come-uppens feel like.

you take the good,
you take the bad,
you take them both
and then you have...

April 21, 2011

products of dubious quality may be a metaphor for something

Sub-saharan Africa is a lot of things and one of those things happens to be the dumping ground of the consumer world. The t-shirts you donate to the Salvation Army eventually end up here (and oddly enough Japan) where they are sold in unsorted bundles to market vendors for about $100 a bundle. This phenomenon can be followed to its conclusion where local textile manufacturing has been steam rolled by the impossible task of competing with second hand goods and those firms have mostly run for the hills. The textile industry has historically been one of the first "rungs on the development ladder" for developing countries and it has been argued that the knee capping of this industry by the second hand clothing market has contributed to the rather lowsy state of economic affairs in Uganda specifically and Africa generally. But that's an argument for another day and another post.

For a variety of reasons (poor regulation and lack of domestic competition are my bets) the quality of new things is generally terrible. It's better to buy just about everything here second hand. Of course the vendors know this, because it's their business to know this, so second hand goods actually cost more than most new goods. A good example is soccer cleats. Ugandans love soccer and know the equipment very well. You can purchase crappy Chinese cleats brand new for about $10 that fall apart in a month or second hand cleats for about $20 that will last you a couple years.
It's hard to get a good bargain on anything related to soccer because it's a product that is much better understood by the market vendors than it is by me. Outdoor gear is the opposite case because the vendors don't know the brands. I picked up this North Face Windstopper fleece for $3, they're going for about $125 on ebay. Though now that I'm doing a web search it is possible that mine's a fake and that's why it ended up going to the Salvation Army in the first place.
I bought this Camelback backpack for about $15 and they usually go for about $75. There's something off about the bag though. The guy seems to have a supply of them as he sold identical seemingly new bags to me and my buddy on separate occasions for the same price. Originally I imagined that he hijacked a Camelback truck and was selling them off one by one. Though after a couple months of ownership we both noticed that the bags have the relatively minor defect of a crappy label. My current guess is that these bags were rejected by quality control and dumped here at a fraction of the price.

You never really know what you're getting new or second hand although you can generally be sure that whatever it is you buy is defective in one way or the other. The people here know that too and sometimes I wonder if that idea is internalized.

February 11, 2011

the time i rode a very full taxi

I don't think I've bothered to explain transportation here. The transport here is a rather large improvement over what it was in Guinea, but that says more about the sorry state of Guinea than it does about Uganda.

There is a fairly decent network of major arteries spreading through the country and plenty of vehicles to get you where you need to go. There are buses, private compact vehicles, taxi vans (matatoos) and motorcycles (forbidden!).

PCVs have an ongoing who's-been-in-the-fullest-taxi-game. Adults count as one, children count as one half, and chickens and drivers count as zero. The most I've heard is 23 in a taxi with a 14 person carrying capacity.

February 10, 2011

a day in the life: site ed.

I've been on this bizarre kick for the past month or so that involves getting up at 5am. I'm not sure how I've managed to continue to convince myself that this a worthy goal but I have. Initially, I believed that I would start the day off with a nice brisk morning run but the light doesn't break until 6:30 and to run and shower and break the fast wouldn't get me out the door until 8:00am at which point I've missed the 7:30 school assembly (more on this later). Instead I've become fixated on the idea that early mornings build character or happen to be a habit of highly effective people or some other such nonsense. However you cut it, I'm up every morning sometime around 5am.

First stop is a glass of water, a nice cup of coffee and breakfast then it's out the door to school. Breakfast can be anything from a handful of g-nuts (groudnuts...they're like peanuts), a potato/onion/tomato omlette or even mango crepes if the season is right.

The school day starts with the morning assembly attended by the boarding students, staff, and the "teacher on duty." If you want to put that into NGO development-speak that would be all the "stakeholders"). Of course the day scholars rarely bother to come to school for this and most of my teaching colleagues make a point of missing it but I've found a certain zen to the whole thing.

The students are gathered and lectured on a litany of topics that usually center around the main theme that they are lazy and "stubborn.*" Now, there is no shortage of lazy and stubborn students at my school, but the majority of them don't bother to get up and get lectured at 7:30 every morning. Never the less, the lecturers ramble on unabated preaching to the choir and the students patiently listen to messages clearly intended for those not present.

The assembly is only supposed to last for half an hour but quite often the chief admonisher will get a full head of steam and plough on for a good 45 minutes to a full hour causing all the morning classes for the entire school to begin 20, 30, or 40 minutes late. It used to really irritate me (I almost always teach morning classes) but like I said, I've found certain zen to the whole thing.

After going into the staff room and greeting every person there with a hand shake and "good morning" it's off to class. I take attendance every day, more to learn names than anything else, and then start my lesson. Originally, I would let late comers come into the class but now I've set a hard cap at 30 minutes after I start my lesson for admittance.

The hardest part about being teaching is varying your teaching style to reach all the different types of students in the class and keep things interesting. If I'm not careful I find myself getting all college professor-y and lecturing too much making the dry subject of mathematics positively barren to a room full of teenagers. I much prefer to break them into groups and ask them to complete an activity which is submitted to me at the end of class.

For lunch I eat in the staff room (lunch is expected to be provided by the school) with the other teachers. Lunch is usually beans and posho (pounded corn meal) but usually one day a week it's goat instead of beans.

After lunch I head over to the bursor's office. This term I've been working with him to make electronic records of the school fees due by the students. The records have previously been kept in paper ledgers and sorting and tracking which student have paid and which haven't and which have a balance and which don't has been a mess. I've created a rather simple Excel spreadsheet that I'm hoping will be a vast improvement over pen and paper. This is the first term we've worked together so I'm doing most of the data entry. I'm hoping he will appreciate how much easier it is to do these things on the computer and I can tutor him in Excel so he can continue after I leave. Things are going pretty well so far.

I come home around 5pm and if I don't have an extra curricular activity I go for a run around 6pm when the sun has begun to set and the temperature drops. I cook some food when I get back and dink around on the computer or do some reading or prep for tomorrow's classes and then I'm in bed around 9:30 (that 5am start time comes with cost!) and that's that.

*"stubborn" is the preferred, and often only, adjective used to describe anyone or anything that is difficult, non-cooperative, disobediant, or generally bad in any way. It's just one of the little wrinkles of living here that other PCVs appreciate more than anyone back home can understand.

January 25, 2011

buzzards and dreadful crows, a necessary evil I suppose

This what it looks like outside my front door these days. Perhaps you can compare with the photo taken a couple months ago. Same mango tree, different season.

We're in the heart of the dry season right now. It began in November and will continue until the end of February. I would previously gripe about the mud and general sogginess of the wet season but I have been reformed! The rain keeps down the dust and provides merciful coolness to the hot grasslands of northern Uganda.

The dry grass is also regularly set ablaze by the villagers for reasons not entirely understood by me. I have been told by it's done for aesthetics, replenishing soil nutrients needed for agriculture, or assisting hunters in their quest for game meat (the Ugandan Cob is a regional favorite).

I find the whole endeavor to be madness. The constant grass fires kick up waves and waves of wispy ash that coat nearly every interior part of my house. The fires quickly spread beyond the purview of the originator across vast stretches of plains. Grass thatched huts in their path can be set ablaze like dry Christmas trees. The whole territory now looks somewhat post apocalyptic.

But, hey, it is what it is.

I'm praying for rain.