Thursday, February 16, 2012

There was an article out recently about 12 reasons to date a returned Peace Corps volunteer, including the perks of having someone whisper a tribal language sultrily into your ear, or the general low-maintenance of girls who have just returned after two years of having no hair dryers or high heels. High heels? That’s hilarious. I can’t remember a time in the last year when I have had an easy time walking down the dirt road I live on. In rainy season, the road is impassible and muddy in an evil way, a quick sand way, that sucks down motorcycles, vehicles, and pedestrians. I have fond memories of getting out of the parish vehicle with Tom, Father Lino, and the secondary school head teacher, on the way back from a church function, to all push the car out of a gigantic pile of mud, in the middle of a tropical storm. During dry season, just when you are getting the taste and texture of mud out of your mouth, the roads become somehow even worse, but this time are completely impassible because all the dirt turns into sand. Ever tried biking or running in sand? I digress.

I’m not asking any of you to date me once I return from peace corps, completely shell-shocked and socially-awkward after two years of living in Africa, I’m just trying to inspire some awe in you, until you actually come visit me and realize that I live like an African princess. An African princess with perpetually dirty feet, who pees into a bucket at night. I’m having a moment, I must confess, in which I fantasize strongly about the magical existences and lives of PCVs in other countries. Surely I live in the worst PC host country, at least in terms of environment and awesomeness. I envision hazy, magical scenes where volunteers frolic with water buffalo in clear streams, and walk hand in hand with monkeys to pick coconuts off trees. My friend Beth in Guyana has just written a blog where she states that she and her fellow trainees are permitted to use any of the below forms of travel: bike, kayak, horse, foot…Wait, what? Kayak? HORSE? I live in a country where I can’t even go WADING or stone-skipping or even really think about bodies of water because I’ll get a terrible tropical disease (which I in all likelihood already have), let alone do watersports! Horses? Unless I jump on one my neighbor’s starving-from-dry-season cows, I won’t be travelling anywhere by animal anytime soon. This Peace Corps “moment” that I was having continued aggressively, after I read on that the food in Guyana was delicious; a savory blend of Indian, Mexican, and Caribbean. Excuse me? Everyday I eat an uncooked cassava bread that has the texture of bloated play-dough and tastes like centuries of misery, with a side of plain beans. People here call anything vaguely spicy or flavorful, “self-punishment.” I wonder what they would think of sriracha. Oh, but in Guyana (which sounds painfully close to Uganda), I’ll just jump on my horse and ride off into the jungle-sunset with my belly full of curry. Did I mention that Guyana is all jungly? And how, even though I somehow live 2 k from the Congo and smack dab on the equator, the environment around here sweetly recalls an aging shanty town from the wild west? WITHOUT HORSES.

The inspiration for this blog came in a minute when Tom looked me in the eye after my long diatribe, and seemingly inspired, blurted, “Yeah what is there fun to do in Uganda? We can’t even ride on trucks! There aren’t even any cool animals, just a shit ton of chickens! We can’t go swimming! All we can do here is…Walk around and get hot!” That’s exactly right. I spend my days in a feverish daze, and slip into a heat coma the minute I step outside of my house.

The funny part, is how cool Uganda actually is, especially when I take a moment to step back and examine it. Even though I do have these moments of irrational jealousy, which usually have to do with camels, horses, and curries. What does Uganda show me every day? I hear drumming almost every night, I walk past women pounding on the ground to simulate rain fall to draw “white ants” out of their underground homes, I see large groups of elders drinking homebrew out of empty coconut shells under the shade of trees, I watch a tiny 6 year old girl teach her even tinier sister how to correctly throw a spear, I watch life stir as the first morning light eases above the thatch roof huts and rolling hills on morning runs.


I can't wait to show this world to my friend Lauren who will be here in a week, and then my parents a few weeks after!

Love and lima beans,
Ilse

Friday, February 3, 2012

Culture Shock: 2.0

Just when I have reached the 1 year mark and started to strut myself around, thinking I know all there is to know about this culture and people, that nothing can shock or surprise me short of a radioactive goat-man, I retreat into a culture-shock coma. The reason? Several days ago, our venerable neighbor approached us purposefully and told us that it may be better for us to leave for the next few days, because the infant child of one of his son's had passed away from malaria. This alone was terrible to hear. He then told us that the body would be coming to his house, and would be buried there. I share the same space as my neighbor, and am on the same compound. I live in one of his houses that he has so kindly lent towards Peace Corps purposes for these two years. "You will be very disturbed," he told us, and I was thinking, "yeah, no doubt," when he continued, "there will be so many people around for up to a week, and they will expect you to house and feed them." This part of African culture is entirely unique and still very foreign to me, and although I find myself singing its praises, I start to face the music the moment that it comes to my backdoor.

Within an hour of two of our neighbor's announcement to us, truckloads full of people started to unload around my house; women dressed in the most lamentably beautiful and outrageous fabrics, joined together with their children and families. Peeking out the kitchen window, I watched as the crowd around the small purple coffin swelled and grew, formed and reformed to allow for newcomers, taking on new limbs and organs, and becoming an organ of mourning. Starting from the first swell of visitors in the morning, and not stopping until the following morning, the hot, dusty air filled with mourning music. Aided by home-made drums, the group comprised mostly of women (but a few men) sang a 24 hour song, a song that also morphed and dissolved, only to reform again in a different key or harmony. Some of the songs were familiar church songs to us, unique to the Lugbara, but now there was an extra element within them, a sad slurring between words and notes, an audible and collective moan of despair that was owned not just by the family of the child, but everyone. In these songs, the suffering and sadness of this family was taken up by everyone in the village; this music lifted the tragedy up above this family, until it was owned by everyone, hanging in the air above, and carried by all.

These songs of mourning do not cease until the burial. Throughout the entire night, until the sun rose, I slept soundly, my dreams buoyed and pulsed through with the dark colors of the music, the patiently woven harmonies, until I would wake, suddenly, with my heart-pounding in time with the drums and wailing pleas and laments. This was easily the most beautiful and disturbing night that I have ever spent. I have heard these mourning songs at night before, but from far off in the distance, and I have always felt something small and dark latch inside of me, as I realize what they mean. I have never had these songs sung outside my window, had these drums beaten against my house, so that the rhythm becomes part of me, so that even I (a foreigner untouched by this tragedy) am pulled into this current of mourning. Something else unique in this culture is the way people express their sadness. I think in America we save our emoting for when we are alone. We are private people. We try to hold it together, even when there is all the reason in the world to let yourself pour-out. Here, when people are sad or affected, they simply run off from the crowd, wailing and speaking in tongues, falling to the ground to tear at the grass. Tom and I tried to cook food, uneasily, as we heard the mother of the child tearing around the compound, her voice cracking as she screamed and cried.

We had felt uncomfortable about the possibility of people asking us for shelter or food. It sounds unreasonable of us, but really, it's not in our culture to house strangers for the night. If anyone asked, we were going to try to explain the best we could. No one asked. Sure, we had hordes of women and men peeking in our windows, using our latrine, and sitting outside our doors. At one point, I looked at our house, and saw that we had a solid moat of hundreds of brightly-clad women sitting around our house, like some sort of innovative defense strategy. But we didn't have to leave, and we went to the burial the next day. That first night, hundreds of people had showed up to join in the mourning, and people did not sleep, or if they did, slept in small huddled groups on the ground near dawn. After the burial, most everyone left for their homes, except for the mourning family.

Despite the sad situation, people were still friendly and curious towards us. I felt almost guilty for being a distraction during the few days and I tried to make myself as scarce as possible, but was once again amazed by the bottomless reserve of warmth that the Lugbara exude. Once the burial was over, people regained their usual smiles and laughter. The outpouring of emotion and sadness had run its course, and now life started to tip back towards normal. When I greeted someone during those few days, and we talked about the funeral, the person would always click their tongue, but then look at me and say, "Yes but this is life. God gives and takes." With such composure. I think that this has taught me that Uganda will continue to surprise me and take me out of my comfort zone, but also that no matter how different our culture and traditions are, we can still somehow respect each other.

In other news, I recently asked an older women in my village about the good old days in Arua, and she told me that when she was a young girl, everyone was still wearing bark and leaves instead of clothes. Awesome.

Love and Lamps,
Ilse



grass and leaves

Back to School

The first day of school in my community is a lot like not having school. The hours spent fretting, tossing, and turning over the approaching school term and reentry into “work” is for naught. Silly us. In Peace Corps, somehow your weekends and weekdays, your long stretches of vacation and long stretches of ‘active duty’ all seem to somehow equate in the end…because, at the end of every day, I have probably done the same things; watch the animals interact in my backyard, formally greeted 639 people, have some sort of uncomfortable cultural misunderstanding, and gotten sun burnt and dust-caked over every inch of my body. The beginning of the school year is not a magical flip switch, where everyone around me suddenly lays down their garden hoes and local brew, and flocks to school in straight lines. This ain’t no Twelve- little- girls- in- two- straight- lines.

This morning we woke up early to go running, extra early to account for the expected morning rush hour, of hundreds of children dutifully marching off to school. I don’t know bout you, but I don’t like my runs to be interrupted by 750 small children laughing and chasing me. It’s just a matter of personal taste. We had resigned ourselves the night before that, placating each other with “well hey, maybe the last three months of complete vacation and inactivity was enough for us now,” and “the cherry blossom is only beautiful because it’s temporary.” We didn’t run into any children on our morning run, only the usual passing dangers of women carrying 75X their body weights on their heads and villagers still drunk from the night before. In fact, this run felt like a victory when compared to Saturday’s run, in which we got lost on the border road for 2 hours, all the while trying to convince ourselves that we hadn’t accidently wandered into Congo, especially when we started to see French words on store fronts. So anyway, we came home and decided to camp out in the front to make a mental note of when the rush hour began, so that we could plan our runs accordingly. No children ever passed by. Huh. I asked the neighbors several times, who all nodded and said, “yes, there is school.” Our own morning was only slightly less relaxed than usual, and we finally left for school around 11:00 am instead of 7:30 when school officially begins. You know, we are doing our best to change our values and concept of time.

The only thing I dislike about school here, is the herds of children. I like children. I dislike when they develop into herds or storms, or packs, or murders. It makes me uneasy. Especially when they are all wearing the same blue uniform. There were no herds of children on the way to the secondary school, only a few disheveled ones walking the opposite direction. Hmm. When we got to school, the campus was completely deserted. After some minutes, a few students started to come out of the woodwork shyly, and there was a teacher here and there. So, Tom and I parked under a tree and promptly took out books to read. Every half hour or so, another boda boda would buzz up to the school and deposit another student with the requisite luggage: a blue chest, a mattress, and two jerry cans. To live for the next year in a room full of hundreds of other students. They could barely contain their excitement. So, school doesn’t exactly begin on the first day. On the first day, students start showing up, and if they are lucky, a few teachers may follow. For the first week or two of school, nothing productive happens. Classes don’t start. I don’t know how I thought that the beginning of the school year would be any different than the beginning of a new term.
After about an hour of takin’ it easy and shootin’ the breeze with some teachers and students, Tom finally asked the deputy principal what classes he was teaching this year. Better late than never, I guess. After another hour, the deputy principal from the primary school across the street wandered over to use the solar power that the secondary school has to charge his phone, laughing as he told us that no teachers or students showed up, and that he had closed up shop at 11:00 in the morning. This is what I run up against. Even though the school term has opened, I have a number of weeks before anything starts to creak towards a schedule or predictability.

Anyway, we stayed long enough to eat the school lunch and catch up with some more teachers. We were ready to leave after lunch, when a motorcycle pulled up with two gangster rappers. Both Tom and I stared in wide-eyed horror as the more majestic of the two, dismounted, and walked slowly towards us. Pink-tinted sunglasses that read “DK” in cursive jewels, a long black leather trench coat, and a black leather newsboy hat. This is what dreams are made of, is all I could think, as Tom sat next to me, frantically trying to recall which of Uganda’s favorite rappers this was, “Weasel? Bebe Cool? Eddie Kenzo?” As it turned out, this was the headteacher, Tom’s supervisor. Except that he was dressed like Tupac from the early 90’s. “Yes, you are welcome,” he intoned, after having stopped and stared at us for a good 30 seconds, seemingly just as amazed as we were. He then disappeared into his office, and emerged a minute later with the usual pastel button down shirt and kakhi pants and huge smile. You need to realize that fashion is 30 years off and 60% GDPs away from being remotely socially appropriate (through the westerner’s lens). It’s common to see a local councilmen donned in a shiny silver ¾ length sleeve tunic with matching tight silver pants, or a local priest dressed in loud Congolese fabric that is composed alternately of random French phrases like ‘la vie est combat!’ and pictures of Jesus. But still, this seemed like a vision, and a good one to start a year off to.

We gave the head teacher our gift of the blessed rosary from the Vatican, a gift that was much loved and appreciated by everyone who received one, when a huge shiny white SUV pulled up to the mostly deserted school. Visitors! Lugbara love visitors, and I do too, now. Especially ones who arrive in vehicles. We all excitedly left the staff room (which is a grass-thatch hut) to meet the Local Councilman 5 (read: big guy) and the District Education Officer as they got out of the car. Tom and I watched in horror, and then subsequently retreated, as we witnessed these government officials berate and yell at our headteacher for the lack of organization, students, and teachers evident on the first day of school. “There should be classes started today!” The DEO remonstrated, and then looking more closely at the headteacher, “you look as if you’ve just arrived!” “I…have just arrived.” We both cringed, and ducked back into the hut, feeling guilty because we had just been about to leave, early. We decided to wait until they had left, all the while eavesdropping from the hut, and laughing with the other teachers about the situation. One female teacher burst out laughing, “He asked the headteacher where the rest of the teachers were? Could he account for all of them?” She paused for a moment. “There are 6 out of 23 today!” This was our cue to lose our shit, and laugh for 20 minutes. Ah, how sweet is it to laugh about a severe problem of faculty absenteeism. After the threat was gone, and the government officials safely shipped away in their vehicle, Tom and I felt it was safe enough to leave. After all, it WAS 3 pm. And, we had to fetch water. (And get home to relax with a beer and movie) We left all of the teachers doubled over laughing about the incident, the anger, and the threats flown around. “What do they expect?” One teacher was saying, as we left, “Ayikoru and Thomas should have gone to pump water as they were here, to demonstrate the difficulties we face out here in the bush. Here is not easy.”
Roll credits. The first day of school. Just some minor setbacks.

In other news, we have a cat! This too has its own long documented story starting with its inception, when we picked the kitten up at the mayor’s house, and uneasily toted it around in a purple picnic basket until we could find a ride back out to the village, all the while cringing from the shrieking squeaks emitted from the tiny creature inside. I’m not good with cats. I’m learning. But, I like her. And, she’s the size of my foot. Having failed to find a proper name at the outset, we started calling her “cute alert!” but recently we came up with “Athena,” to honor her veracity and warrior-like philosophy. Athena has two states: asleep and attacking. When she is not attacking one of our foots or legs, she is probably passed out somewhere. The name came to us, when upon meeting the neighbor’s guard dog Fida, a very large threatening dog, she promptly hissed, spat, and swiped a paw at him. At 1/78th his size. This pattern has continue; no animate or inanimate object is exempt from her fury. The goats and Fida all have weird attractions and penchants for Athena, at any given time, one of these large animals is coming over to get right into her face and stare lovingly into her eyes. I’m not sure if it’s love, or curiosity, but I do know that it completely kindles Athena’s war fire. Hell hath no fury… So, Come visit to see the extraordinary progress I’ve made towards interacting with cats, if for nothing else.

As for other work news, the female adult literacy project was officially launched yesterday, in a 5 hour ceremonious event, in which I made a speech. The women are so excited about the literacy circles, and I’m amazed at their power of mobilization. I hope to work a lot with this project and support the women in any way that I can. I’m still waiting to see if Peace Corps will support my project by means of a grant . I also recently was asked to be an editor for the monthly newsletter here, called The Spirit of 61’. I said yes, because I think it’s a good way to get more involved in PC stuff, and also it’s something that I can do from a distance (read: not travel to Kampala). Also, it will force me to write even more!

The next few days are for reconnecting with schools and teachers, and trying to set the framework for some projects I want to do this term, like a sub-county wide spelling bee, a counseling/guidance program, girl’s football club, and others. I’m trying to think of something that I can do for International Women’s Day, which is in March. I want to do something that won’t cost anything, but will honor the amazing women in my community here. Let me know if you have any ideas!