Sunday, December 23, 2012

Split Ends, New Beginnings

Is this a weird thing to do?--Posting a picture of yourself on your own blog merely to show off a bitchin' new hair cut after two years of looking like a cave woman?  Well, so be it.  Ilse: Version 4S.  Does not come with Siri voice feature.  (And should by no means be expected to help you arrive at your destination safely or in good spirits)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sometimes it's time to grow, and sometimes it's time to go.

 I’m officially a returned peace corps volunteer!  Flying above the clouds at 33,000 feet back to America for the first time in 2 years with a nimble laptop at my fingertips and a airplane meal in my belly…it’s quite easy to wax nostalgic.  Am I returning bright cheeked and with a new brisk confident hitch in my step? You’d have to ask me tomorrow.  At this point, I’m returning with wildly inappropriate clothing for a Minnesotan winter and a child-like sense of fear and wonder at what lies ahead.  My journey alone has been bewildering…starting in a dusty African village, then to the urban beauty and elegance of the fancy parts of Kampala, to Kenya airport, to Brussels airport…
I’ve seen a drinking fountain, a starbucks, a whole lot of scandalous outfits (seriously who travels in miniskirts and high heels???) and have said one of the hardest goodbyes of my life. 

I’ve got to get my stock-sentence-long reply ready for when people ask me “how it was.”  Luckily, I have more than a few kindred heart spirits who I can talk to straight from my heart.  But, I’m not an eloquent person, at least not verbally or spontaneously, so it’s something to think about. 

I have no idea how much I have changed.  Up here in the clouds I can make up all sorts of previously-absent noble traits I’ve developed from living with villagers in Africa.  Mostly though, it’s the physical ones that are easy: my hair is a bit blonder, I have dust permanently etched onto my skin, and I walk a lot slower.  Am I less impatient?  More easy going?  Friendlier?  I think like most people on earth, it just depends on the day and the situation.  At least I can say that I may now be more accommodating for my own shortcomings.  Living under conditions of hardship (relative, of course) and stress can bring out previously undreamt versions and sides of yourself, and I want to accept those parts of me, too.  I’m a person who can potentially ignore hungry children who come up to ask me for food. I can say no to an old man asking me for the equivalent of 1 US cent.  Yeah, it’s not pretty on paper, but it’s a part of my experience that I’ll probably remember alongside my montage of pretty moments and accomplishments.  

I’m proud of myself.  If you have done the math, you may realize that I elected to leave a few months before my official close of service date.  Big deal? Not really.  It’s all how you look at it.  I’m still a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and have completed just about 2 years of service.  I left early, not because of something traumatic, but because it made sense.  As of December, us education volunteers were finished with our school year, and had 2 months of vacation until the new school term started.  The thing is, school terms don’t actually start in early February, because there is testing, absenteeism, and ‘slowly-slowly’ mentality.  School may start trucking around March, which is when I would be leaving anyway.  I elected to leave because having my last 4 months in country be idle and potentially mentally-contusive seemed unfortunate.  I wanted to end on a good note, and I’m also not the type of volunteer who will make up for boredom and idleness by drinking or traveling a lot.  I wanted to get home, to start a new chapter, and to start working with refugees and immigrants state-side.  Also, did I mention that Peace Corps is really emotionally hard? So, I left a bit early, but on good terms with the administration, and don’t really see the difference.  I’m proud because I got over my stupid American stubbornness with regards to “seeing something out” even if it comes at extremely negative consequences for you and others around you.  I’d be serving myself (and others) better at this point if I recognized that, yes, I won’t be doing anything the next 4 months, so might be better to pack it up.  I actually listened to myself.  After all, sometimes it’s times to grow, and sometimes it’s time to go.  And, Uganda HAS made me grow.  In all sorts of strange ways.  I’ve done my service, made some incredible friendships, done some work, sweated my face off everyday, and read some books with kids. Success? Yes please.  I'll never forget Uganda and the lovely people.  It would be impossible to even consider otherwise. More on this later, I'm sure, when I've had time to reflect. This is all happening so fast.

Any PCVs reading this will understand when I voice my concern over my potential future behavior in America…I may keep on littering “it’s okay!”, “sorry!” and “yes please” all over the place.  I will most likely see any ride in a vehicle in which I am not sitting on someone else, with a goat on my lap, flying over potholes with 10 people squeezed into 4 seats, as a goddamn miracle.  I will most likely ask people how their families are when they aren’t even acknowledging me.  And I don’t think Ill be able to stop dressing in village clothing cold turkey.  I like that I lived in a place where a grown man wearing a bonnet and cardigan (and who is not being ironic) is an acceptable occurrence. Many fellow PCVs have truly taken to this laxity in appearance and clothing.  My favorite example is my friend Kirk who is most commonly seen in: a spongebob squarepants shirt, a red doo-rag, a dollar sign baseball cap, and black socks with hiking boots.  It’s okay. 

So, please excuse my initial awkwardness.  I haven’t been to bars, am not used to hanging out with groups of Americans, and have spent most of my time sitting outside, drinking tea, and watching animals interact with each other for 2 years.  I don’t know anything about current politics, gadgets, trends in the market, or Korean pop singers.  I can’t handle more than 1 beer at a time, and I will talk about an interesting bowel movement for far longer than it is appropriate or tasteful.  

I’m still in the air, and I’m getting more and more excited to touch down in America.  I’m not sure how the whole frigid-winter thing is going to go for me, but I have high hopes.  Mostly, I can’t wait to see family and friends and walk around without getting stared at.

Thanks to all of you for coming along with me for this journey and being so supportive.  I’m ready for the next adventure. (And this is NOT the end of this blog.  I tend to think that my experience in America will be just as thought-provoking and ridiculous).

Here’s my description of service:


Ilse Griffin Peace Corps Uganda

After a competitive process stressing applicant skills, adaptability and cross-cultural understanding, Ms. Ilse Griffin was invited into Peace Corps Service.  As part of the language and cross-cultural component of the training program, Ilse lived with a Ugandan family in Lweza for approximately ten weeks and was made to feel welcome and at home.  This home stay assisted Ilse in adapting to Ugandan culture and acquiring local language abilities, thus facilitating the transition into her service in 2011.

Ms. Ilse Griffin began Peace Corps training on February 11, 2011, at the training site in Lweza, Uganda, where she completed an intensive ten week training program encompassing the following subject areas:

Cross-cultural Orientation:       Sessions on the Ugandan people including traditional customs, politics, geography, social values and norms, history, health, and gender roles (40 hours)

Technical:                                A general introduction to the education system in Uganda; a specific introduction to the secondary school system; training in community mobilization, observation and feedback skills; and teaching practice in 3 schools (167.5 hours)

Language:                                Study of the Lugbara language (82.5 hours)
Ms. Ilse Griffin passed her ACTFL exam at the Intermediate Low level.

Medical:                                   Training in first aid, tropical and preventive medicine, and stress management (20 hours)

Safety and Security:                 Training in personal and road safety issues (8 hours)

Ms. Ilse Griffin entered into Peace Corps service on April 21, 2011 and was assigned to Endru Coordinating Centre in Arua District, through the Ministry of Education and Sports.

As a primary school teacher trainer, Ms. Ilse Griffin served within the Ugandan educational system, assigned to the local Primary Teachers’ College, as an outreach coordinating tutor serving in a rural community outside of Arua, sher helped provide training and support for teachers and administration in areas such as literacy, life skills, and student-centred teaching methods.  Ms. Ilse Griffin and her Ministry of Education counterpart were responsible for planning and carrying out workshops and professional development for the teachers in the school catchment area, and also for providing support and guidance to head teachers.  Their duties included lesson planning, developing instructional materials for learning and teaching, supervising teachers, and hosting workshops for their colleagues (teachers) in order to improve teaching methods and learning environments. Ms. Ilse Griffin carried out the following activities during her/his Peace Corps service:

CCT Duties
  • Facilitated workshops alongside counterpart. Topics include new Primary 5 curriculum roll-out, student-centred teaching methods, special needs education, alternatives to corporal punishment, teacher professionalism. 
  • Taught classes alongside primary school teachers. Subjects included English and life skills.
  • Helped develop, create, and encourage the use of learning aids for primary school teachers
  • Encouraged and assisted in organization of primary school libraries
  • Encouraged girl education by coaching girl’s football at primary schools
  • Taught literacy to Primary 7 students.
  • Encouraged literacy through extracurricular activities such as the implementation of pen-pal programs, reading clubs, poetry contests, essays contests, and spelling bees in the catchment area.
  • Counseled teachers on alternative methods to corporal punishment and the benefits of student encouragement.

Life Skills
  • Emphasized the importance of sexual health including limiting one’s sexual partners, getting tested for STDs, STIs, and HIV, using protection, and practicing abstinence.
  • Counseled girls on the importance of staying in school and delaying early pregnancy and marriage.
  • Introduced reusable menstrual pads in a Women’s Day Celebration for both primary and secondary school girls.
  • Started a drama/life skills club at the secondary school, that met for three sessions.
  • Taught weekly life skills classes to Primary 6 and 7 students alongside a Ugandan co-teacher
  • Used football (soccer) as a tool to teach life skills through a weekly intervention program called “Grassroots SKILLZ soccer” at both the primary and secondary level, with the parish priest as a counterpart.

Other Projects
·         Counselor at 2012 northern Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).  Worked with girls ages 15-18 for a week-long girls’ empowerment camp with emphasis on life skills, healthy living, creativity, leadership, and decision making.
·         Counselor at 2012 Girltech camp.  Worked with girls in senior 1-senior 3 who demonstrated interest or talent in the sciences. 
·         Coached primary boys’ soccer and introduced primary and secondary girls to football.
·         Planned and directed a Women’s Day Event at the local secondary school for primary and secondary school girls.  The event included life skills, RUMPS, yoga, and banner creation.
·         Team-taught English for senior 2 students at the local secondary school, and mostly assisted with devising student- centered activities in the classroom.
·         Started a female adult literacy program in community with the parish priest as a counterpart.  The group consists of three separate parish-sized literacy circles composed of 30 women.  Three women were selected to be the Community Literacy Facilitators and the program focuses on teaching functional literacy. These groups are flourishing and have started income-generating activities.
·         Planned a training for the female adult learners in the community by inviting fellows PCVs to come facilitate sessions.  Sessions included hygiene, nutrition, tippy-tap making, and entrepreneurial skills.
·         Held individual tutoring sessions during the weekend for students interested in improving their reading comprehension and English.
·         Taught literacy classes in two different schools to primary 7 students.  In these classes, focused on listening, speaking, reading and writing, and did activities such as autobiography creation and small-group reading. Invited out local musicians to speak on the importance of reading and writing in their lives, and also invited fellow PCVs to lead student-centered literacy activities such as book creation.

Cross-cultural Exchange
  • Taught primary and secondary students how to play ultimate Frisbee.
  • Hosted visitors from America.
  • Implemented pen-pal programs with three different schools.
  • Corresponded with friends and family at home to share experience and knowledge of Ugandan culture
  • Everyday discussed issues with Ugandan friends and teachers on politics, economics, and law of the U.S. encouraging a greater understanding of the differing views between what is experienced in Uganda and the United States, especially how women are viewed and treated in each culture.

Peace Corps Leadership
·         One of three editors for the Spirit of 61.

Ms. Ilse Griffin completed her service on December 14th, 2012.

This is to certify in accordance with Executive Order 11103 of April 10, 1963, that #####(name) served successfully as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  She/He is therefore eligible to be appointed as a career-conditional employee in the competitive civil service on a non-competitive basis.  This benefit under the Executive Order extends for a period of one year after termination of Volunteer service, except that the employing agency may extend the period for up to three years for a former Volunteer who enters military service, pursues studies at a recognized institution of higher learning, or engages in other activities that, in the view of the appointing agency, warrant extension of the period.

Pursuant to section 5(f) of the Peace Corps Act, 22 USC 2504(f), as amended, any former Volunteer employed by the United States Government following her/his Peace Corps Volunteer service is entitled to have any period of satisfactory Peace Corps Volunteer service credited for purposes of retirement, seniority, reduction in force, leave, and other privileges based on length of Government service.  Peace Corps service shall not be credited toward completion of the probationary or trial period or completion of any service requirement for career appointment.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hakuna Matata

Did you know that the words “Rafiki,” “jambo,” and “hakuna matata” are actually used in Tanzania?  Like, all the time.  At first, I thought it was some sort of conspiracy, but then I realized that The Lion King had to have gotten their cool African lingo from somewhere, and Kiswahili was probably a legit linguistic source.  Anyway, it was really cool being in a country where you greet people with “Jambo” and you throw around “Hakuna Matatas” like it’s nobody’s business. 

I’m too excited, and I need to start over, from the very beginning.  A very good place to start.  In the beginning, there was an elephant.  Until a speeding night bus driving from Arua to Kampala crashed headlong into it.  This is essential for the rest of my rambling story.  The very next day, Tom and I had to get on a bus to Kampala to catch a plane.  Unfortunately, we had purchased tickets for the very same company that had recently become too close with Ugandan wildlife.  We thought, “psshh…buses crash all the time. It can’t affect our trip.”  So that morning we walked to the KKT office and found out that our bus had been canceled.  And all other bus companies had full buses.  As a huge stroke of luck, the KKT company had decided to run ONE bus that day at 1 pm, which we were able to get on.  Little did we know that after that one bus, the company would be forced to close their operations down completely.  So we got really lucky, considering.  We got there in one piece, but our bus had severe issues and halfway into our ride, essentially stopped working.  It would completely turn off every few minutes.  We somehow rolled into Kampala late at night, even with our bus shutting off every few minutes, and then once we were in the dark suburbs of Kampala, the bus decided to break down completely.  We stayed on the bus waiting for them to fix it because we had no idea where we were and didn’t want to traipse around in dark alleys.  Once we got to our hotel, we felt pretty lucky.  And, the next day we went to Entebbe and got on a plane to Zanzibar.  The plane had propellers, which I felt luke-warm about, but it was okay.  The plane stopped at Kilimanjaro airport, and I think we may have seen this allegedly large mountain-looking like Mount Doom shrouded in mist- but when we asked our Tanzanian flight attendant about it, she didn’t really seem to know either.  Then we went to Dar International Airport and I had a hernia.  Why?  Because we were dropped in the middle of this airport as transfers and were told to wait by a desk for someone to take us through a magical transfer hallway that would allow us to forgo going through security and all that again----but 15 minutes before our flight, a really stuck-up airport dude suddenly looked at us scornfully and told us we needed to get our visas there, fill out all these forms, and why hadn’t we done it yet?  I was so mad.  Did I mention that we had asked 5 times before what we were supposed to do and no one helped?  We scribbled out our visas, and tried not to listen to the guy ask me if I was a “crazy mzungu” and “are you sleeping together?”  After all that, we flat out sprinted through the airport, re entered security, and were the last people on the plane. 

I have to interject into my monologue to note that the Tanzanian countryside is BEAUTIFUL and just how I imagined Africa to be.  We were flying low enough to see the Serengeti.  We also flew very low into Zanzibar and the flight only took 20 minutes. 

Okay, so we made it to Zanzibar.  We waited around for our ride for a while.  We had set up to couchsurf with a Dutch girl named Evy, but it wasn’t really a traditional couchsurfing situation. Rather than staying with her in her own home for free, she had hooked us up with a cheap house to stay in (the same as her) where the main guy let out rooms for a low price and all the profits went towards school fees for his children.  In theory, a really cool thing.  In reality, we arrived in Stone Town at night, bedraggled, and were shown our room by the brother of the owner of the house, because the owner and Evy were both away in Madrid? Our room was up two ladders (instead of stairs), the shared bathroom didn’t close or flush nor was there water, and we were just dropped in our room, and left.  We felt so degraded; the whole point of couchsurfing is the spirit of showing someone around a cool place and spending time together, but instead we were just in someone’s attic at night, hungry, thirsty, and with no idea where we were or if it was safe to walk around at night.  Anyway, not a great start.  We made the best of it the next day by getting up early and walking around all day.  And we decided to stop being gypsies and actually book a hotel room for on our way back through Stone town.  There’s no point in courchsurfing if it completely misses the point. 

I’m not going to talk that much about Stone town.  It was really beautiful and chaotic.  Winding alleys, soaring white ottoman architecture, women walking around in fullblown traditional Muslim dress, mangoes and coconuts everywhere…and the ocean of course.  We decided to leave for the beaches pretty much straightaway because we weren’t feeling relaxed in Stone Town.  There are about a million people who come up to you hawking tours, deals, music, and you constantly have to dodge cars inappropriately speeding through the tiny streets.  We have enough of that in Kampala.  At one point, we sat down in a quiet area to watch the sunset over the Indian ocean, and just as it was getting dark, a group of large men with lead pipes in their hands came up to us.  We both swallowed and answered their friendly greetings nervously when they reached us, thinking, “holy crap, so this is how it ends.” Of course, they were just a group of ridiculously friendly men who happened to have lead pipes with them, but all the same…we needed to get out of an urban area. 

Beaches?  Awesome.  Whitest, smoothest sand you have ever seen.  Turquoise, clear water the temperature of a warm Jacuzzi.  Fresh fruit juice everyday.  Local fisherman hauling in sea creatures the size of children. Coconut milk in curries.  Children playing soccer on the beach.  A beer under the full moon.  All in all, two weeks of hanging out on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  Funny thing about Zanzibar?  There are Masai EVERYWHERE, walking around in their traditional red cloaks with spears in their hands, hawking jewelry.  (There are also a ton of Rastas and Bob Marley paraphernalia). A lot of them come to Zanzibar for tourism school.  Really friendly, tall, and majestic, but by the end of our time on the beaches, we would literally run away from them when we saw them coming.  Ah, we felt so touristy.  Whenever anyone sees a muzungu in Zanzibar, they go up to them and try to sell massages, jewelry, tours, food, etc. It’s always hard to tell when someone is genuine or not.  It’s a lot different from Arua.  I’m really glad I live in a place completely devoid of tourism.  I think we had worn out our welcome by the time we left, because we had turned down SO many people and offers and ‘cheap deals’, like any good peace corps volunteer should do. 

While we mostly just relaxed by means of doing completely nothing, we decided to do one stupid touristy thing: swimming with dolphins.  We went with a bunch of rastas (literally had livestrong bracelets that said “Rasta Man”) in a little boat and hunted dolphins for a few hours.  They also let us out to snorkel for a while.  It was so goofy though.  I envisioned myself reuniting with the wild as I swam cheek to jowl with a pack of dolphins into the great deep.  Instead, we flew across the choppy sea hunting down dolphins, our captain exchanging news about their whereabouts with other boats filled with tourists, and then finally all the boats converged on them at once.  The minute we saw the dolphins skim the surface, everyone would start running, gun their engines, and speed right ahead of the dolphins and yell (or push) at us to jump off the boat right into their path!  So, what it looked like was this: A navy seals operation gone horribly wrong with 10 boats of tourists wearing snorkels and swim suits jumping off speeding boats right on top of dolphins (a lot of them belly-flopping) and then spending a few bewildered moments trying to look down under and see them.  In my case, after jumping off a boat in snorkel-gear at high speed, I would be much too excited and full of adrenaline to do anything useful, and would instead just bob around in the huge waves and nearly drown as I looked around me frantically for dolphins.  I DID manage to see them under me one of the times I jumped off.  Pretty awesome.  There was one boat full of really sophisticated looking European tourists who were fully clothed and wielding cameras who just looked at us with complete disdain during this spectacle. I guess they just wanted good pictures, and not to belly flop on a flock of dolphins?  I choose to leave you with this image of me in Zanzibar; snorkels on, nearly-drowning, and hyperventilating as I look for dolphins. 

Our travel back to Uganda went smoothly.  We left after a final two days in Stone town, in which we saw the Arab Fort, went on a spice tour, and visited the old Slave Chambers under the cathedral we were staying in.  We might have seen Kilimanjaro, which brings it to two times that we maybe saw the biggest mountain in the world.  All in all, a success.  We both had a growing worry in our stomach about our travel back to ARua, but neither of us could put word to it.  The presentiment turned out to be spot-on.  Again, it all starts with one elephant.  Because of this elephant, KKT had completely shut down because they had to pay back the wildlife authorities the FULL cost for the elephant that they killed.  I think it came to like 300 million shillings?  So, they probably won’t open for a long time.  And because KKT is one of four bus companies that goes from Kampala to Arua (really three, because one company overturns more frequently than it doesn’t), it had put a bit of stress on the transport situation. Not to mention that at this time of year, the school year has just ended, and EVERYONE is trying to get home to their villages for Christmas.  Long story short, the buses were all booked for days.  Even the awkward buses that leave at weird times, and the companies that you never really would take.  ALL BOOKED.  I was in a weird situation where I was DESPERATE to get on a bus home and was willing to do wild things to get on a California bus-which is certainly saying a lot.  So our options were: 1. stay in Kampala for an indefinite period of time and watch our bank accounts drop and despair accumulate 2. pay 1 million dollars for a private hire  3. pay 1 million dollars to take a plane  or 3. tear out our hair and set our clothes on fire.  Turns out there was a fourth option that we exercised the following morning.  Namely, bribery.  So thanks to some extra shillings delivered in a firm handshake, Tom got us two seats on a Gaagaa bus to Arua!  And although our bus DID break down in the middle of the game park in the formerly most dangerous area for LRA  bus abductions, we made it!  While on the road, we were passed by no less than 4 other gaagaa buses coming from Kampala that had left hours later than us.  

I don’t really like to talk about what happened when we got back to the village, because it’s still sort of happening right now…too soon, you know?  The truth: we came home to a thriving and gigantic bee hive in our kitchen.  You may be thinking, ‘oh hey, but can’t you peacefully coexist and all that?’ but I’m telling you that it doesn’t work that way.  I live in a small, damp cave and currently (although it’s getting better) I am sharing this cave with thousands of angry African-killer bees.  And I can’t get into my kitchen to cook or get water or do any other normal human thing.  The situation is improving, but I can tell you that Tom and the kids next door spent the better part of yesterday engaging in guerilla warfare.  There was smoke, there was fire, there was ritual humiliation, there was hot water, there was a whole strategy to it.  And I hate the idea of killing or harming these bees but they keep on coming back.  Just now they are reentering our kitchen.  But, there are some good memories I guess.  Like when the kids removed the honey comb and ate it.  Or when Flavia dressed up in a cloak, motorcycle helmet, and gardening gloves, to run and firebomb the bees. 

I’m exhausted. 

Love and Lobsters,