21 November 2010


I live in Ngora. I think I might have forgotten to mention that until now. Actually, I live in five different levels of Ngora-ness. In Uganda, the government is broken down into different levels of Local Councils. There are districts, which are the biggest areas, like states at home, then there are counties, sub-counties, parishes, and villages. So I live in Ngora District, County, Sub-County, Parish, and finally in Ngora Town, itself. It's pretty small, there are three main roads in town, each runs east-west, and they're each about a quarter of a mile long, or so. There is the main-main road, and then I live on the third road over. I recently read that there are a little over 43,000 people in Ngora, and although that didn't say Ngora District, specifically, that's what I'm assuming is the case. So it's little, but it's nice. Now that we're a district (up until July of this year, Ngora was part of Kumi District), they tell me that there's going to be a lot more things happening here in the near future. I'm not entirely sure I believe that, but it will be interesting to see. Ngora Town actually used to be very nice, from what I hear, due to a large population of Indian business owners. Idi Amin kicked all Indians out of Uganda, though many have come back, but it's easy to see the effects are still here, most prominently in the run-down Hindu temple in the middle of town, as well as all the well-constructed (at one time, anyway) buildings which are now abandoned and falling down. These buildings though, I'm told, are being rebuilt and reoccupied now, again, because the town is a district headquarters and we're going to be big-time. Anyway. Ngora is part of the Teso Region of Eastern Uganda. It is very, very flat out here, hot and getting hotter, I swear, every single day, but also (although this could change with the dry season coming up, the effects of which are already being seen in the amount of red dust that blows around everywhere now, coating my hair and clothes, without the rain to tamp it down) very green, with tall grass and (mostly) short trees stretching literally as far as you can see. We also have rocks. Lots of them. Giant, hundred-plus-foot gray monoliths that dot the countryside and break up the flatness. I love them. So, the other day, we climbed to the top of the one that marks the beginning of town. And here is what Ngora looks like from there. On the left is part of the main road and the shops there. In the middle, is my (the third) road. You can see my house if you look towards the far end of the road, the electricity pole on the right, where you can see some umbrellas, and the yellowish coloured one is mine. Then on the right is the middle/second road. So that's my little town, where I once found a pineapple, the only one I've seen, in the market. (And, click on the pictures to make them bigger.)

And, naturally, kids followed / guided us up and sat, enjoying the view, just like we were, while others below saw us and shouted "Imusugut!" and we could hear their voices but couldn't see where they were coming from, from that high up.

15 November 2010


Remember how I said that my living situation is really awesome? It got more awesomer recently, with the addition of a shower in my bathing area and rumors of a sink to come. The shower doesn't work yet, but it's pretty to look at and I like the fact that I'll probably get a shower before I get a ceiling. And they've been painting and doing a lot of other work on the compound as a whole.

Unfortunately, after that, it got a lot less awesomer.

They're turning the whole place into a guest house. This is fine with me, I think it could be nice to meet people who are coming to stay for a few days or so, though I'm pretty positive tourists don't come to Ngora, so I don't think I'd be meeting anyone.

Actually, let me go back for a second. The compound part, with all the rooms and bathing areas and latrines actually only makes up about two-thirds of the building. The rest is a store-front that opens up onto the street, which, until recently wasn't being used for anything.

So, they're turning the compound part of the building into a guest house. This is fine.
They're turning the store-front part of the building into a bar. This is not fine.

Ugandans really love music. Naturally, then, they play it at an obscene volume. And now there are speakers playing said music at said volume about fifteen feet from my home. I don't mind the Ugandan music, and I actually enjoy a lot of it, but not quite so much when it's louder in my home than my computer speakers can go.

Some Ugandans also really love drinking, sometimes way more than they should. And now there are people drinking, probably more than they should, about seven feet from me. I don't mind drinking, but not quite so much when it's random people drinking next to my front door.

I had originally assumed that the bar would be only in the store-front, and not outside my door, and that there would be a lock on the door between the bar and the compound and that life would go on as usual, maybe slightly louder (but, I have to admit, I hadn't really thought about the music yet). And, you know me, I'll put up with a lot of stuff that I don't want to put up with because I don't know why, I'm either nice or spineless, but let's go with nice.

So I discussed this with a few other volunteers today. One asked if this meant that I was going to become an alcoholic or if it just meant that people should come visit. One told me a story of his neighbor and landlord who came home totally wasted the other night, came into the his side of the house, wouldn't leave for over an hour, then asked him if he wanted to fight, and then kissed him on both cheeks when he said no. One told me that I was the type of person who would put up with a bar in their compound for two years without saying anything (is my lack of a spine, er, my niceness that obvious?) and that that was a bad choice because they'd probably never come visit. Among other reasons.

Needless to say, I'm probably going to have to talk to Peace Corps. Earlier I was saying that I would just talk to my neighbor Peter about putting the tables and chairs in front of the bar, rather than next to my front door. And that I could probably put up with the music after that. But then I was reminded that this is two years, and, as I'm sitting here jamming to Ugandan pop, I'm realizing that next July or December or the year 2012 when they're playing the same songs at the same volume, I will probably have already gone insane. And I just talked this weekend with some PCVs who've been here for a year and a half and they said that being here this long makes you a weirdo anyway, so I don't need to help the process along.

So, that sucks. 1: It sucks to move. 2: My house is really nice. 3: Shower! 4: I really like Peter and it was really quiet here before and I like being right on the outskirts of town.

But, if I were to move, it wouldn't be all bad. 1: I wouldn't be listening to this song anymore, I mean, for the love of God, I think this might be the same song they've been playing for the last six hours. 2: Since I'm already out here, I'd be able to see the other options and choose the best one. 3: Moving would also be a chance to get to know more people and a different part of town.

So, we'll see what happens.

However, I also went on a long walk out of town towards the villages this evening while the sun was setting and it was green and quiet and beautiful and I spoke a lot of Ateso and everyone pointed their homes out to me and asked me to come back and visit and an old woman walking ahead of me turned and saw me and waited for me and we walked together for a good ten minutes until she turned to go home and we talked and it was nice because she just wanted to greet me and didn't ask for anything except that I greet her back and I tried to get a small child named Sylvia to give me her herd of goats but she refused for some reason, probably because she pointed at them and said "Akinei!" meaning "Goats!" and I just pointed at them and said "Akinei ka?" meaning "My goats?" so she said "Mam!" meaning no and she was right, they weren't my goats, but maybe I can still convince her to give me some later, and the whole thing was easily the best experience I've had since being at site.

14 November 2010


Here in Uganda, we've all learned to deal with some pretty intense situations when it comes to the insect life here. Cockroaches the size of your thumb are the norm. I've heard tales of a spider so big you can hear its footsteps while it walks across your room. You hear the sound of wings flapping outside your pit latrine at night and think it's a bat, only to find out it's actually a beetle the size of a baseball. You have a ten-day battle with a three-inch long wasp that lives in your house and chases you from one room to the other and back.

There's not a whole lot you can do. You ignore some of them and hope they go away and/or don't bite you and/or aren't poisonous or carrying disease. You kill others and hope that more don't come to take their place.

So the other night, I was lying in bed, reading with my headlamp on, when I get hit in the face by a praying mantis. I grab an issue of the Economist from spring of 2009, and swat it, sending it bouncing off the wall and under my bed. I roll over and shine the light under the bed to make sure it's dead.

I hadn't looked under my bed since I got it, two and a half weeks ago.

The praying mantis was dead.
And I found an entire colony of ants had built a series of dirt tunnels under my head while I slept.


So I rolled back over and spent a few minutes debating what to do. Get up and deal with it now or go to sleep and hope that it had taken them a while to build that much and that I wouldn't wake up covered in dirt tunnels and ants and deal with in the morning.

I went to sleep. And then I didn't get around to the ants for a few days.
I'm gross, I know.

When I went to take care of it today, the tunnels were still there, snaking from the corner over to the box from my stove. I didn't see any ants though. Until I sort of kicked at the box. A thousand ants swarmed out of the box, back into their tunnels, back through the crack they came in. I could hear them. Millions of tiny legs make a surprisingly loud and creepy noise.

Needless to say, I lost a lot of brain cells today from spraying a lot of BOP Insecticide (which, according to the can, has a New Approved Formula, so that's nice). And I'm going to try to stop being a disgusting human being.

(And the picture is sideways for some reason, but you get the point.)

10 November 2010

Pineapple Trees

Obviously I've learned a lot in the three months that I've been here. But this is about the best, and possibly most important fact that I've learned so far.

Pineapples do not grow on trees. I know, right? Who knew?

This goes back to training in Wakiso, when, one Sunday afternoon, my friend Eliza and I took a walk out of town. Wandering down one of the dirt roads, talking about nothing and admiring the view every time we reached the top of hill and being hemmed in by trees on either side when we reached the bottom. From the top of one hill, we saw a compound of buildings on the next rise and, wondering what it was, decided to try to get over to it. We branched off the main road and after another ten or fifteen minutes reached the fence and then the gate of what turned out to be a school and an orphanage.

The kids who lived there were excited to see us, as always, and they brought us inside where we chatted and played with them, my arm growing tired from doing bicep curls with a little girl whose pants gave way to serious plumber's crack every time I picked her up. Eventually they took us on a tour of the compound where we saw all the school and the dorms and the lake and the football field and the pig sty.

As we were walking around the compound, one boy in front of me pointed to a short, spiky plant, which distinctly resembled aloe.

Sweet little orphan, trying to teach the muzungu about Uganda: "This is a pineapple plant."
Me, not wanting him to go through life misinformed about pineapples, I mean, seriously, what are they teaching in the schools here?, poor kid: "No, it's not. Pineapples grow on trees."

I told this to Eliza a little bit later.
Her, laughing, hard: "That probably was a pineapple plant. They don't grow on trees."
Me, skeptical, using a common Ugandan phrase: "Are you sure?"

Needless to say, two months later, I still knew that I was right about pineapple trees.

Until this past weekend, when Eliza mentioned to her counterpart, Tony, that, not only did I think that pineapples grew on trees, but I had also once, out of the goodness of my heart, corrected an adorable orphan boy on the subject. Judging by his reaction and the reactions of the neighbors who'd also heard the story, this was maybe, nope, definitely the funniest thing to ever happen in Uganda.

Me, over their laughter and my own, using another common Ugandan phrase: "Is it not so?"
Tony's neighbor, still laughing: "I have never seen a pineapple that grows on a tree!"
Me, still skeptical: "Well, I have never seen one that doesn't grow on a tree." (Lawyered!)

After that they quickly sent us to the nearby pineapple farm to set me straight.

And pineapples do not grow on trees. I know, right? Crazy.

(Actually, there were no full-size pineapples on any of those "pineapple bushes," only a few apple-sized baby pineapples, so I still haven't seen real pineapples growing on an aloe plant, so, I'm still pretty much one-hundred percent sure that pineapples only, seriously, because how could it be any other way?, grow on trees.)

Then, later that evening:

Me, looking up at a palm tree with round, orangeish fruits hanging from it: "Are those coconuts?"
Eliza, with the confidence of someone who doesn't believe in pineapple trees: "Um, I think so..."
Me, only half-joking: "That's what I thought. But... they look like pumpkins."
Eliza, not believing in pumpkin trees either, and laughing, again: "Wait until Tony hears that."

04 November 2010


If I ever need a reminder of exactly where I'm living (though I don't think I do, or I hope I don't yet, anyway), the newspaper provides some pretty good ones every other day or so.

Like the other day, when I read a short article about a lion loose in Kibaale. It had been heard roaring and had attacked a woman near a water source and several goats had gone missing since it had first been spotted and kids were staying home from school in fear. Yeah. So, we get bears every once in a while in Seattle. But, this is a lion. Loose in a city.

Or today, when I opened the paper to an article about a preacher who had been murdered. It was a really sad story. He was killed with a spear. Yeah. Speared.

So, I realize those are slightly morbid. But still. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that I really am living in Africa. Where lions and spears could apparently be lurking just around the corner. It's exciting. And I'm counting goats from now on, just so I know when to hide from the lions.

02 November 2010


There's one statistic about Uganda's population that always stuck out to me. I don't remember the exact figure off the top of my head right now, but it's basically this: something insane like 50% of the population here is under 20 years old. In a country of roughly thirty-three million-plus, that's a lot of kids. And with an average fertility rate (number of children per woman of child-bearing age) of 6.7, there are only going to be more.

Which is good and bad. Good because the kids are totally fun and awesome. Bad for lots and lots more crucial reasons.

These last (first) few days at site, I've been going out into surrounding villages with my organization conducting a baseline survey on family planning knowledge and use, looking at things like birth control and spacing the births of the children, etc.

The villages are really remote, most at least an hour's drive down small, rutted dirt roads or, as often as not, down a small footpath (we drive out to the villages, and then walk from house to house), and are just small compounds of round mud huts with grass thatched roofs spread across grassy savannah and scrubby trees with the few taller trees and the leafy mango trees providing shade to meet in. All that goes to say that most of the kids in the villages, and, again, there are a lot of them, have probably never (and at the absolute most, maybe once or twice) seen a white person in, well, person.

So today we went out to one such small, remote village, this one probably the furthest out of town that we had been. My counterpart and I got out of the car at the furthest household, the one on the border between this and the next district. Within five minutes of us sitting down under the shade of the biggest tree in the compound, there was a crowd of (yes, I counted, because I was impressed and slightly taken aback) twenty-nine kids all standing within five feet of where we were sitting. Staring, some glaring, whispering to each other, craning their necks to get a better look, a few of the smaller ones were stark naked while most of the rest were dressed in dirty rags or clothes six sizes too big, swollen bellies and snot-crusted noses and dirty bodies making me fall in love with all of them, even as we asked their parents if they've ever used birth control or family planning or why they didn't.

So I smiled and greeted them in Ateso, "Yoga kere!" with a wave. One may have waved back, a couple may have quietly replied "Yoga noi" but most just kept staring. The man we were interviewing snapped at the kids and they all sat down immediately, plopping down in the dirt, without taking their eyes off of the weirdo with the pasty skin sitting in front of them. It went on like that for a while, as we interviewed several parents, ranging from early twenties to mid-forties with three to five to seven kids, some of the kids in the crowd getting bored of my inactivity and wandering off, others coming to take their place, others, noticing something new and crazy about me, whispering to their friends and pointing.

It was good to see that, when a completely unexpected (I turned and stared until it was out of sight too -- literally the second aircraft I've seen since being here, third if you count the plane we flew in on) low-flying helicopter soared overhead, they were more impressed and intrigued by that then by me.

But when the helicopter was gone (apparently, probably, carrying the president to a campaign speech in the run-up to the elections in February), the kids came back and, yes, I counted again, because I could have sworn they had multiplied again and now there were forty-six. Forty-six kids, just coming to look. That has to be a new personal record.

Slowly though, one word started going around, repeated first as a question, though I'm not sure who asked it first, then as an exclamation, then as a question again, and then, seemingly, as a statement of fact.


That's right. Wayne Rooney, superstar English striker for Manchester United, nursing an injured ankle, had finally arrived. Right here in their village. No wonder they were so excited. Fortunately there wasn't a football around, so I couldn't prove them wrong.

Most of them chased the car until it was out of sight.

Later this evening, I stopped in the market for some food for dinner. Two tomatoes, two onions, two bell peppers, all for less than fifty cents. Walking home from the market, three kids ran up to me from across the street. We exchanged excited greetings in Ateso: "Yoga!" "Yoga noi! Biai bo?" "Etamit!"

Then the little girl, maybe four or five, said something I couldn't quite understand: "Akoto eong something something" which translates as "I want something something." I shrugged, she repeated herself, I shrugged, she repeated herself. Then a woman shouted from a storefront: "Idwe!" -- "Children!" They stopped and stared at her, ready to be reprimanded. "No, it's ok," I explained to her. "I just did not know what she was saying." The woman explained that they were saying they wanted to come with me.

I laughed and looked at the kids. "Ilosi iso!" I shouted. "We go!" And I walked towards home with the sun setting in my eyes and the acrid smell of cooking fires stinging my in nose and an increasing number of kids skipping and running at my side.

Those were today's things-that-make-having-millions-of-kids-in-this-country-awesome.

Then there was tonight.

I had my headphones in while I sat on my concrete floor, washing and cutting up the tomatoes, onions and peppers, stir-frying them in garlic chili oil and mixing them with pasta for the first legitimate dinner I've made for myself since being here. I was texting other volunteer friends and hearing funny stories about their days (like the meeting of the Department of Health in Oyam district where one long-winded doctor drew a detailed diagram to explain the location of hemorrhoids, for some unknown reason). The music was good and the stories were good and my dinner was good. And I washed my dishes in the basin and took my headphones off and went to throw the food scraps and water in the pit outside the compound.

As I walked outside, I heard an intense commotion from a house nearby. Crying, no, not crying, wailing, and screaming, and raised voices. I quickly opened the compound door into the pitch black of the night outside, emptied the basin into the dark, shut and locked the door again, and turned to my neighbor Peter who was sitting under the light outside studying for his exams.

"A baby has just died, in the house of that mzee next door."
Did this happen just now? I ask.
"Yes, they took it for treatment two days ago, but it has just now died."
I'm very sorry to hear that, I say out loud, then think to myself that I'm sorry to hear that another baby has died and I'm sorry that I can hear the family weeping from inside my house and I'm sorry that I feel that way and I feel disrespectful wanting to put my headphones back in to drown out someone's grief over the loss of a child and I text another friend so I'm not listening to it alone and she says that life is hard here and I say I know that and she says she knows that I know that and she also knows that I know that sitting and listening to it and wallowing in it won't change anything and won't help anyone and she knows that I know, but advises me anyway and rightly so, that I should recognize that those things happen every day and recognize the tragedy of it and then put my headphones back in and she's right.

That was today's thing-that-shows-that-these-millions-of-kids-cannot-really-be-cared-for-properly.

Peter says they think it was malaria.