30 January 2011

Story Time

I just got home to Ngora a few days ago from Kampala, where we had our three-month In-Service Training (IST) and where I went to get my glasses fixed and pack on a few pounds' worth of pizza, brownies, and (believe it!) awesome Mexican food with a pitcher of sangria, and from Jinja, where 30 some-odd PCVs from my group relaxed, went on a sunset cruise, and did some intense whitewater rafting on the Nile River. A pretty awesome trip, needless to say (but I said it anyway). I hadn't seen most of the other volunteers in the three months since coming to site so it was really good to catch up with them, and it was really good to get hot showers, tons of good food, and more than a couple dips in the Nile (while somehow mostly avoiding sunburns and completely avoiding crocodiles).

So, I figure it's time for some more random stories from the last few weeks. And here we go.

I want to start with a story about work, since I haven't talked about that much, and just to prove that I'm not, as a friend from home (ahem, Rory) put it, on a long, government-funded vacation. I was sitting at the office of my organization one morning, a few days before leaving for IST, waiting for my counterpart, Mary Margaret (or MM, as she likes to be called) and unsure where she had gone off to. So, twiddling my thumbs (figuratively -- I've never actually found that to be a very good way of passing the time), when another Ugandan man who I had never met came in and said that he was here to see my counterpart. I told him that she was probably around somewhere and would probably be back soon and he was welcome to wait.
So we got to talking and I asked him what he did for work. He told me that he was the director of a small community-based organization (CBO) a little bit outside of town. They're still relatively new and trying to partner with other, more established organizations in the area in order to mobilize resources and really get off the ground, which was why he was here to talk to MM. In answer to my question of what his CBO does, he started to explain. Agroforestry. (Eh.) Agriculture. (Eh.) HIV/AIDS counseling. (Cool.) I'm also interested in HIV/AIDS counseling, I told him. What are they doing for that? Not much, yet, he told me. They had some volunteers acting as counselors who were going from home to home doing counseling, but there was a problem with that. Whenever they would find someone who was HIV+ and open to counseling, the volunteers would inevitably be asked if they, too, had HIV. None of them did, and that's where the program stalled out. People living with HIV/AIDS want to talk to and/or be counseled by other people who are living with HIV/AIDS. Fortunately, he went on, he had found some HIV+ community members who were willing to and interested in acting as counselors. Unfortunately, he went on again, none of them had ever been trained as counselors, and his little CBO didn't have the information or resources to train them.
So that's when I got excited (since I've been wanting and trying to find work outside of my organization -- though my organization is great -- that I could do and plan and carry out on my own). Maybe that's something that I could help you with, I told him. He seemed excited about it too.
Though I don't have much direct experience with it, I really do think that I have, at least, the resources available to be able to plan and run a multi-day training session on the best strategies and practices for counseling and specifically for counseling people living with HIV/AIDS.
And while it'll only be starting with meeting the people who want to become counselors and running the training session, it definitely has the possibility of moving on to a lot more from that. There will be follow-up and monitoring as the newly-trained counselors go out into the community and start meeting with other HIV+ individuals, and there could be other HIV support and meeting groups to come out of it, and on and on.
So we exchanged phone numbers and he assured me that, while I was gone, he'd meet with the potential counselors and get them interested and mobilized for when I got back.
And he called me while I was in Kampala to find out when I'd be back in Ngora, so he sounds serious.
I'm excited.

Also along the work side of things, the school term is going to be starting up again soon here, and I've already discussed with a couple people the possibility of me teaching some life-skills classes at one or two of the schools around here. (Life-Skills is a program that looks, essentially, at positive living -- self-esteem, decision-making, assertiveness, positive role models, etc -- which is lacking in a lot of Ugandan youth.)
And, recently, I've been kicking around the idea of starting up a Boy Scout troop. Because Uganda has Boy Scouts, it's true.

And that's work, for now. It'll be picking up soon, and I'm really looking forward to it.

The presidential elections here are coming up quickly, as voting starts on February 18. President Museveni is looking to extend his 26 year term, while the challengers talk about it being time for change and a new face and claiming that, "We are the ones we have been waiting for."
The main opposition opponent in this election, as in the last two, is Kizza Besigye, Museveni's former personal physician, and the leader of the FDC party. He had a rally in Ngora recently, giving a speech to a massive (for Ngora) crowd at the primary school across the street from my organization. I listened from outside our offices, not wanting to be in the middle of the crowd since we're not supposed to take part in any sort of political action or activism as volunteers, as the person who was introducing Besigye got the crowd (even more) excited. Crackling over the speakers: "Ngora, oh yeah!" (Crowd cheers.) "FDC, oh yeah!" (Crowd cheers.) "Kizza Besigye, oh yeah!" (Crowd cheers.) And then to more cheers, Besigye took the stand, but most of his speech, though it was in English and then translated, didn't make it from the speakers over the crowd and cars and cows and bristling hot air to where I was standing. But the people who could hear him apparently thought it was quite the speech.
And then, when he was finished, we watched as he drove through the throngs of supporters, standing out of the sunroof of a shiny, late-model SUV, both arms outstretched, looking (unintentionally, I'm sure) very Nixon-esque, as he waved both hands in the signal of the FDC, the peace sign.
And as I watched the crowd disperse (to wherever they came from, because it was definitely more people than the town's population), jubilantly walking away on foot, or hopping onto open-back lorries blasting music, or cramming into cars that then almost ran over a small herd of cows, I had to wonder if he really stood a chance.
It's hard to tell from what people here tell me. Some people say he does have a chance, some say he doesn't. Some say that he'll win, in the vote total, but that it won't matter anyway because Museveni will win, in reality. Some people say that there will be violence and rioting if he wins, some say there will be violence and rioting if he loses, some say there won't be violence or rioting either way (and I probably agree with that last group). Someone told me that the Indian supermarket owners in Soroti weren't fully stocking their shelves because they're worried about rioting, someone else told me that they were fully stocking their shelves because they weren't worried at all (and I don't get up there enough to be able to tell the difference -- there's still more stuff than in the shops here and that's what really matters to me). Peace Corps is still bringing in the newest group of volunteers in a week or ten days or something, so they must not think there are going to be any major issues either, although they do also have us going on Standfast from February 11-25, meaning that, for safety and security reasons, we're all to stay at site that entire time.
But, two things, regardless of what happens -- 1: I can't wait for the elections to be over so that the campaign lorries that blast obscenely loud music and drive around town will (hopefully) stop doing that. And, 2: It's an interesting time to be in Africa. Ivory Coast. South Sudan. Egypt. And now Uganda, which hopefully goes more smoothly than all of those. And I think it will. I'm not worried, just interested.

I came home the other day and one of my neighbors, nowhere to be seen, had their dirty laundry sitting outside in basins ready to be washed. They must have gone back inside for something, because it was left up to me to chase away the goats that were getting ready to eat their clothes.

Sitting outside on my front step the other day, I watch as a kid comes around the corner of the half-constructed house near mine. Looking behind him to make sure he hasn't been spotted, he doesn't notice me either. Thinking he's in the clear, he starts to squat and drop his shorts. That's right. To poop in the grass, not twenty feet from my door. Halfway into his squat, he looks up and sees me, half-surprised, half-trying-not-to-laugh. He pauses, slowly hikes his shorts back up, and tiptoes back around the corner out of my line of sight. Two seconds later, he comes back, shorts pulled up, looks at me, and says, "Ejai emopiira?" -- "Do you have a football?"
Yeah. Let's just move on. Pretend like you weren't just about to do what I saw you about to do.
And no, I don't have a football.

Ugandan quote of the week, to me: "Most Americans are big and strong. I don't know why you are so short and thin." It wasn't meant to be an insult, just pure confusion, and I had no answer for him.

I had my first Ugandan baby named after me. About a month or so ago, I was out with MM, driving around doing something, when she got a phone call that someone she knew was at one of the health centres near town, in labor, with complications. Since we were already in the car, and since she had to be transferred from the HC to one of the bigger hospitals in the area, we went and picked her up, went to the nearest hospital where they could help, in Kumi, 20km away, then found out, after some waiting around, that the doctor wasn't there, and, so, took off to the next closest hospital, probably at least 20km farther away, where we dropped her off, again, after not a little bit of waiting around. So basically, I had nothing to do with this, or with the delivery, but it was a healthy baby boy, and, since I was there, though not when he was actually born, they named him Daniel. Despite doing nothing to earn having the baby named after me, I still felt pretty good about it.
One reason I felt good about it was that, the vast majority of the time, when I tell Ugandans what my name is, they don't understand me at all. It usually goes like this -- Me: "Nice to meet you, my name is Daniel." Ugandan: "Channelrelyel...lel?" Me: "Good enough."
I tried introducing myself as Danny for a couple months, but that always came across as Tony. Which, I guess, is at least a real name, but still.
However, success of the day today, I introduced myself to someone while I was at the dairy buying a bag of freshly boiled whole milk, and, unbelievable as it sounds, he understood me. Blew my mind. And was almost as awesome as having that baby named after me.

I mentioned the "pterodactyl birds" in my last blog post. Unfortunately that's not their real name -- they're actually called maribou storks -- but it's a pretty good descriptor. Standing up, they probably come up at least to my elbow, are hideously ugly, with bald heads covered in places with a few stringy hairs and pink, rubbery waddles hanging from their necks and massive beaks that you can hear clopping together if you're close enough. There are, literally, flocks of them everywhere in Kampala. And they are easily the most hideous animal I've ever seen. Anyway. At IST, a friend and I were joking about running up to one and punching it. I said that I'd punch it right on the top of the head, while she thought it would be a better idea to go straight in with a gut-punch. We debated which was better, and after I helped her buy a bike later, we almost got to test those theories. We were walking the bike back past a flock of six or seven of them standing in the grass about a hundred feet away. We both looked at each other, looked at the birds, looked at the bike, and then I hopped on and started pedaling straight at them. Drive-by punch to the skull. Or that was the idea anyway. I sped closer and closer, they barely flinched, but I definitely did and veered away at the last second. No way I was actually going to touch one of those things. But it's the thought that counts.

I'm a terrible saver. I had an awesome package from home waiting for me when I got back from IST. Velveeta shells and cheese, caramel popcorn, a couple Clif Bars, instant oatmeal packets, water-flavoring packets, along with a couple books, crossword puzzles, my nice rain jacket, and a sweatshirt for whenever I go way down to the southwest or end up climbing Mt. Elgon. I opened the package as soon as I got home, and within less than 48 hours, had eaten the shells and cheese, all the caramel popcorn, both of the Clif Bars, several oatmeal packets, and several drink packets. And I don't feel bad about that at all.

I don't know if I've talked about the Rolex before, but it's long overdue, if I haven't. It's a popular Ugandan street food, where fried eggs are mixed with cabbage, tomatoes, and salt, and then wrapped in a chapati, like a delicious breakfast burrito. I was fortunate enough to have a Rolex Guy in Ngora, and I made sure he knew how happy I was about that by giving him lots and lots of business over the last few months. Until I got home from Christmas.
One night, a day or two after I got back, at about 8:00, I walked over into town to get a couple Rolexes. I was really excited about it. A good Rolex is a very, very good thing. It was pitch dark out, since there was no moon, but I managed to make it to where Rolex Guy always is with his stand. Or to where I thought he was. The broken-down lorry that had been sitting on blocks next to his Rolex stand since I got to Ngora (one of the biggest landmarks in town, especially when it's dark out) was gone, and Rolex Guy was replaced by the tenth Chicken-and-Chapati Guy in town. I couldn't believe it. I was actually so confused that I just stood there for about fifteen seconds, wondering where I was. But then I realized what had happened. Rolex Guy was gone. Devastating. (It might not sound like much to people back home, but, believe me: devastating. I might actually lose even more weight now.)

One of my favorite Ugandan-English phrases is "You were lost!" They say it to you when they first see you after you've just gotten back from any sort of extended trip. It's like you only meant to leave for a few minutes and then spent all the rest of that time trying to find your way back home. Or, maybe, it's like you left and when they realized that, they spent the entire time you were away searching everywhere for you. And now that they've found you, after all that desperate searching, the only thing to say is, "You were lost!" I like it.

I went to an introduction ceremony for a guy who works at my organization. The introduction ceremony is one step before marriage here, where the groom-to-be is "introduced" to the family of the bride-to-be, people give a lot of speeches that I can't understand, they figure out what the dowry is going to be, and then there's food and drink and dancing.
At this introduction, though, the negotiation of the dowry was taking forever. Usually the have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be coming in, so it's all just finishing up the details at that point. But after an hour had passed, during which time all the other guests and I (since the committee who negotiates the dowry does so in private) were just sitting around making small talk and waiting for dinner, I asked what was making this take so much longer than I had been told it would.
The bride-to-be got pregnant before the wedding, was the answer. And since the groom-to-be was the one to get her pregnant before the wedding, his family was going to have to pay more for the dowry.
But by "got pregnant before the wedding," I mean, "they have a three year-old daughter." So, it's like a shotgun wedding. It's just moving on African time.

Speaking of kids: As I left my house to go to work the other day, a little boy, maybe not even two years old, ran up to me, alone, grabbed my hand and started walking with me. We walked, super slowly because of his tiny-little-kid steps, for a good five minutes, while the neighbors laughed and asked where I got the kid (or something like that), and I kept waiting for him to realize that he was getting farther and farther from home (I assumed) and wondering what I was going to do with him when he ended up walking all the way across town with me because he definitely did look like he was planning on letting go any time soon, and we almost made it to the main road, when a woman, maybe his mom, maybe not, called to him and he looked at her, then looked at me, then ran off. It was pretty awesome. Mostly I just like it when kids aren't A: completely terrified of me, or B: asking me for money. The ones that just want to kick it make me happy.

Crazy newspaper story: 30 baboons were killed by a vermin control team in Luweero District last week after farmers were complaining that the baboons were destroying their crops and scaring women and children as they went for water. Crazy. But the best part is that the story said that the vermin control team attacked the baboons "at their hideout" like they were a posse of Wild West bandits, although, more than the Wild West, all I could think of was the movie Congo and gorillas with laser guns strapped to their backs. Crazy story, but awesome mental image.

One last story, that's not actually mine, but it's too good not to share. Another volunteer was in her room at home the other day, middle of the afternoon, she was lying in bed reading and dozed off for a minute, lying on her side, facing the wall. She woke up to a sort of shuffling sound, something moving around a little bit, but figured it was the neighbor girls in the next room over. Then she rolled over and found herself face-to-face with a massive cow that had walked into her bedroom. It was just standing there. Inches from her bed. Understandably surprised, she slapped the cow in the face with her book and it, since it was fully and entirely inside her bedroom, turned around and shuffled out. She had no idea how long it had been in there. That's got to be the quintessential living-in-rural-Africa story of the month. Awesome.

That's pretty much it for now.

Except for rafting. We spent the day on the Nile, charging over a bunch of Class 5 rapids (with Class 6 being the highest, and, also, being technically impassable), flipping the raft on a smaller one, falling out a few times even when the raft didn't flip, and getting out and floating down the river on the flat parts, balancing, for a while, pineapple slices on our chests like otters. It was my first time rafting and it will be pretty hard to top it. Just awesome all around. And this is what it looked like when we flipped (that's me in the middle in the blue shirt). Good. Times.

12 January 2011

Sipi Christmas

A few of my best friends here and I spent Christmas day hiking up to Sipi Falls. It was not the way any of us had spent Christmas before, but it was a really awesome way to spend our first Christmas in Africa.

To get to the falls, we started off on a small path, red Ugandan dirt, and the mob of children that had met us on the road fell away as we declined offers of guides and told the older kids who started to explain how to get there that we weren't going to pay them to tell us. The path led us away from the road and over green rolling hills covered in banana groves and overgrowth and dotted with huts, we were in the middle of a sharp valley, almost more of a large ravine, maybe a mile across, with the walls rising up quickly on either side and the banana trees in the distance making green Xs and patterns on the sides of the hills, and we greeted people as we walked right through their gardens and we declined to pay more people who insisted that there was an entrance fee and, look, they even have receipt books, so you know it's official (but it's not, and there is no entrance fee, but clever, with the receipt books.) And after twenty or thirty minutes of walking, we could see the falls coming off of a cliff face, just one white streak against the brown rocks and green trees, and just a little farther after that and we could hear the white noise of the water on the rocks below, and just a little farther after that and we could feel the mist swirling around and making us shiver against the wind that would make the waterfall sway to one side, and it was all very Jurassic Park as we passed among taller trees that had raking scratches on the bark, maybe from lions or velociraptors or just because that's how the bark looked, and then we were right at the falls. We still stood up on a smaller hill, some ninety meters below the top of the falls and ten meters above the pool at the bottom (if Martin, a local kid, sporting a Barack Obama shirt, who somehow became our guide despite us telling everyone we didn't need one, was right in his confident statement of the fact that the falls are 100 meters high). So we stood and watched the water falling and shifting in the wind and I said the mist reminded me of Seattle and someone said that makes Seattle sound terrible and I disagreed and then shivered. And we made our way down to the pool where the mist was thicker and we shivered more and walked around and talked about whether we'd rather be a bird living in a nest in a tree or on the side of a cliff, and agreed, cliff, definitely, and if we'd rather have a house where we could hear the ocean all the time or hear a waterfall, and agreed, ocean, definitely, and then we were too cold and made our slippery way back up to the hill where we sat and watched the water fall. And when we'd had enough of being cold and damp and watching water fall off of a cliff, we headed up one side of the valley, along another narrow red dirt path, past more huts, declining more receipt books, picking up a chameleon and watching its perfectly round eyes roll around its head and its mitten hands gripping a stick, and with Martin asking, repeatedly, if we were tired, and with us insisting, repeatedly, that we weren't, we made it to the top, to a guesthouse (called the Crow's Nest, a fact we had to repeat, loudly, many times on the phone with the driver who was coming to pick us up -- "We are waiting at the CROW'S NEST... Yes, it is called the CROW'S NEST... CR-- ... CROW'S ... NEST.") with a small restaurant where we could sit again and watch the water fall, but this time we could do it from a distance and with a beer in hand. And we waited until dark for the driver with heavy rain clouds threatening and drove down the winding road in the dark, with lightning striking where we had just been, back to our guesthouse where more beer and a fantastic spread of Ugandan food was waiting for us. Merry Christmas.

(Side note: I ended up not climbing Mount Elgon. One of my friends had to fly back to the States for a couple weeks, and so I decided to entertain her by traveling to Kampala and Entebbe with her instead, and whether or not she was entertained, I still had fun, and by fun I mean we ate pizza and brownies and got real coffee. But the mountain will still be there, I assume, for the next two years, and I'll definitely do it at some point, and I'm looking forward to it already.)

We had a few more days of relaxing too, just bumming around, sleeping in late, trying to think of names for someone's new kittens (and settling on Susan Sarandon and The Bejazzler, after getting rid of my favorite idea, which was to call them both The Mighty Ducks, though, sadly, a few days later when they got home, they found out, as they put in their text to me: TERRIBLE NEWS. ALL THE KITTENS WERE EATEN BY A PTERODACTYL BIRD. WORST. DAY. EVER.), and at one point I even ate a legit quesadilla and a mocha milkshake, and all of that was really nice too. Really solid Christmas, despite the fact that I think we were all missing our families and traditions from home just a little bit, but how could you not? No Totino's Pizza Rolls on Christmas Eve is a crime.

But, by far, the best story from Christmas:

The whole time we were around the town we stayed at and going up to the falls and even once or twice on the hike to the falls, we kept seeing young Ugandan men, maybe in their late teens or early twenties, wearing women's skirts. Like, there was no mistaking that these were not kilts, or wraps, or something that could, with a certain perspective, appear manly. These were cut for a woman's hips, patterned in bright flowers or colorful paisley. We could not figure it out. We could also not help laughing at them behind their backs, joking to oursleves, "Hey, dude. Nice skirt."

And then we found out why they were wearing skirts. And then it got even better.

All of these young Ugandan men were wearing women's skirts because they had just been circumcised.

Nothing to keep you in your place after enduring an extremely painful (I assume, confidently) rite of passage into manhood like having to put on ladies' clothes.

The best, however, were the guys who'd be shuffling along slowly, one hand gingerly placed in front of their freshly chopped manhood, walking along with a limp and a grimace.

Merry Christmas? Ouch.

10 January 2011

Interpreter of Maladies

"Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Just that.

The Tallest Man on Earth

Stories and a couple pictures from an awesome Christmas are coming, but here's this for now.

The power was out last night and so I sat outside on my front step with the first pin-prick stars and the smallest sliver of the moon, though it was dark enough that I could still see the shadow of the rest of it, and listened to music and I remembered that this line, when I listened to this song at home, made me think of living here, and now that I am here, it makes me think of living here -- how it's so flat out here that when you climb up above everything else you can see until you can't, and the way that the lightning colors everything pale purple-white during diagonal lashing rains or lights up piles of clouds in the black night distance, and when I got home from Christmas and it was hot as hot and so dry and dust-blown because it hadn't rained in weeks and I couldn't bathe because the tap had gone dry and people in town had to walk, jerrycans on their heads or roped to the backs of their bicycles, for maybe an hour or maybe more to find water somewhere else, and when there's no moon and I wake up in the pitch-black in the middle of the night and open my eyes and nothing changes and I wave my hand in front of my face, my fingers inches from my eyes, and am unable to see it or even sense the movement and for just a second I wonder if I can see anything at all as I roll over and go back to sleep, hoping, still half-dreaming, that I'll be able to see the sun when I wake up -- and it's this: "Well, hell, I'm just a blind man on the plains. I drink my water when it rains, and live by chance among the lightning strikes." And then the power came back on and I could still see in the morning and I was pretty happy about that.