13 April 2011


I think it's probably time to let everyone know about the "work" that I've been doing here. And about the work that I've been doing here.

I'm calling it "work" because, so far, it's been a little hard to come by, and work -- actually doing things where I feel useful and busy -- has been a lot less common than "work" -- where I do useless and frustrating things like going out into the community with my counterpart when she asks me to present some information on some topic like reproductive health or early childhood development which she will then translate, which then ends up meaning that I talk for a couple minutes, stop to let her translate, and she talks for twenty or thirty minutes about I have no idea what.

But, in the last couple weeks, I've started to have slightly more work and slightly less "work".

A while ago, I wrote about how I was going to be doing some work with another community-based organization (CBO) in the district. They had some people who were acting as home-based counselors for people living with HIV/AIDS (or PLWHA, as the acronym goes here), but who'd never actually been trained on what it meant to act as a home-based counselor for PLWHA. So I was going to train them, using only my bare hands, the little bit of knowledge that I have, and a lot of notes from a lot of different books and manuals. I was excited. It was going to be work, not "work", and it was going to keep me busy for a while, and, also, had the potential to turn into a lot of other things -- HIV support groups that I could meet with to talk about income-generating activities (IGAs) or village savings and loans associations (VSLAs) or planting a simple garden to grow some food that is more nutritious than cassava. Work! Exciting!

And then I got back from IST in January, all ready to start doing some work. I called Okello Moses, the director of the CBO when I got back, and we set up a time to have a meeting to discuss the training. We met one day when he came to meet me at the office of the organization I'm placed with (Vision Teso Rural Development Organization, or Vision TERDUO, because acronyms, or VT, if you want an acronym inside another acronym), and then we went to the office of his CBO. There I met with him and a couple of the guys who were acting as the counselors. We talked about what they were doing now, what they felt like they needed training on, and what they felt like the needs of PLWHA in the community were. Moses said they were going to mobilize resources (NGO-speak for getting money) for the training and then we could set a date and get going. So it all went really well, and I was, again, excited.

About a week later, I still hadn't heard from Moses, so I gave him a call: Moses, how are you, blah blah blah, let's set a date for the training, let's do this thing. Yes, ok, he said, but there's been a problem. And he asked if anyone at my organization had talked to me. They hadn't. I asked why. And then Moses went on to tell me that after we had met that first time, my supervisor (at VT, not the Peace Corps) and the executive director of our organization had called Moses into the ED's office, and proceeded basically to verbally harass him, asking him what he thought he was doing working with me, why he thought he could just come in here and work with me, and on and on, to the point where they were, Moses told me, threatening him and his organization if he continued to try to work with me. And so, Moses said, thanks for the offer, but no thanks.

Needless to say, 1: my organization had not mentioned this to me, despite the fact that I had told everyone that I would be doing this training, despite the fact that I had told everyone that I was working on material for this training since that meeting, despite the fact that my counterpart and supervisor were both at Peace Corps trainings where the topic of secondary projects -- projects that PCVs do outside of their organization, projects that PCVs do with other organizations or community groups in the area, projects that PCVs are strongly encouraged, almost required to do -- was brought up more than once or twice, and 2: I was pissed. It was early afternoon when I called Moses, and I was at the office, and I hung up the phone, thought, Expletive, expletive, expletive, picked up my things, went home so that I wouldn't tell my supervisor and counterpart and the ED what I really wanted to tell them, and called another PCV friend to rant.

Because not only had my organization ruined what was, really, the only work I had so far lined up, and taken away an opportunity for PLWHA in the community to (hopefully) improve their quality of life, but they also hadn't, themselves, given me any work to do; they had only given me "work."

So the next week, I sat down with my supervisor and counterpart and we talked about secondary projects. I said, PCVs are placed with an organization, but they don't belong to that organization, blah blah blah, our responsibility is ultimately with the community we're placed in and the Peace Corps, blah blah blah, secondary projects, blah blah blah. They said, ok. And I said, I'm going to do a training with another CBO. And they said, ok.

So I called Moses back: Moses, how are you, blah blah blah, I've talked to the people here, and I'm sorry for what happened, but, in reality, I'm a Peace Corps volunteer, and not a Vision TERUDO volunteer, and I'm supposed to work in the community, not just in the organization, blah blah blah, so let's set that date, let's do this thing. And Moses said, again, Thanks, but no thanks.

And that was that. No more work. Back to it only being "work".

So then, a week or two ago, after numerous other organization-related frustrations, and wondering if it was, in the long run, going to work out with VT or if I'd have to try and change organizations, wondering who else VT had told not to work with me and wondering how that was making me look in the community, and talking about the whole situation with my program coordinator at the Peace Corps office, I sat down, again, with my counterpart and supervisor to talk about work versus "work".

I said, I feel like I haven't been given any real work, blah blah blah, the project that the health program is working on is totally covered and doesn't need my help, blah blah blah, I want responsibility, and work, and things that I can be in charge of on my own, and I think what I'm going to do is make a couple project designs, things that I can be in charge of and responsible for, that can still be done under the auspices of VT since you don't want me out of your site ever, not even for a minute, and then we can go over them together and see where we can go from there. They said, ok. (They also said that when they first found out they'd be getting a PCV, they thought that their PCV, AKA me, would be writing grant proposals and mobilizing resources, which, like I said, means getting money, to which I said, Yeah, no. But that could be an entirely different rant than this one, and I'm kinda on a roll here.)

Then my supervisor said, Aren't you doing that training with that other CBO? And I said, Ha.. ha.. yeah, about that.. That's.. um.. not going to be happening, because now he's.. um.. refusing to work with me, because.. well.. someone here told him that he wasn't allowed to. And I stopped there and looked at them, and they didn't look at me, and they didn't react at all. So I guess that's that.

And, so, here we are.

All in all, despite all that, I feel pretty good about where things are right now, and where they could, if VT doesn't try to take everything over and destroy it all, go from here. I'm working on a couple project designs -- the same training for HIV counselors, so that I can get them the information even if their CBO doesn't want to work directly with me; and a peer educator program for a secondary school in town, where a select group of students will be trained to basically be available for questions and issues the other students in the school have, about HIV or social issues or pregnancy or peer pressure or whatever, and also lead some sessions on all that stuff at all-school assemblies, and all that good stuff; and the one project that I most want to do, which I'm not ready to share with my organization yet, until I can be sure that they're going to let me do things how I want to do things, which is a soccer league for boys, probably ten to fifteen years old, who aren't in school, where the league will run, over the course of ten to twelve weeks, in a tournament style, while also incorporating life-skills sessions.

And so I've given these work-plans, or project designs, to my counterpart and supervisor to review, and we should be able to meet at the end of the week, or the beginning of next week to discuss details and hopefully get started.

So I feel good.

Other than that, on the work side of the "work"-work divide, I've started an after-school Life-Skills Club at a secondary school in town. And, so far, it's been awesome.

The school, called Light College, is not a college, is small, about 120 students total, spread across four grades, Senior 1 through Senior 4 -- basically like high school in the States, S1 being Freshmen. It's one building, rough, unfinished brick walls and a tin roof, one classroom for each grade, students dressed in blue pants or skirts and white button-down shirts cramming into desks that are one wooden slab for sitting on attached to another wooden slab for writing on, the teachers dictating lessons with the use of cracking blackboards that never really seem to get clean and caning students with a long wooden switch when the students -- actually I don't know why; there's no reason for that.

There are about 35 students in the club, some from each grade, and I love them. Silent at first, they had trouble understanding my English either because of the accent or because I was talking to fast and were simply not used to participating in class or being asked to ask questions or speak out or do anything besides copy notes from the board, now they're energetic, charismatic, funny, engaged, intelligent, and eager to learn. This is the first term of the school year (though it's ending this week), so I'm looking forward to meeting with the kids in the club once a week, each term after this.

The Life-Skills Program is used by PCVs worldwide, and the PC has a great manual with lessons and topics, warm-ups and games to play. Life-skills are basically, how should I put this, skills that you use in life. Some of the skills you use in life, anyway. Minus basic karate skills or speed-boat driving skills, the life-skills we're working on are along the lines of self-esteem building, communication skills, responding to peer pressure, assertiveness vs aggressiveness vs passiveness, decision-making skills, along with more informational sessions on things like the facts and myths of HIV/AIDS, and sessions that open debates and new lines of thought on issues like gender roles.

So the first week of the Life-Skills Club was a little rough. I think the students had a really hard time understanding me, we weren't doing the most exciting things -- we just reviewed the basics; set up some club rules like being respectful, giving me the Time-Out signal (hands in a T-shape) when they can't understand me, and so on; voted on peer educators, six students that would help me out by leading small groups and helping to lead sessions as well as being available for questions from other students; and intoduced the Question Box, where they could drop questions, written down, that they didn't feel comfortable asking in front of the whole group -- and so it wasn't the most fun forty minutes any of us had spent.

The next week, worried that they'd be worried that every week would be like the first one, I decided not to do anything relating to learning or sitting in their desks where they'd been sitting all day, so we just played games. We did creative thinking games, we jumped around, we made an African version of Simon Says. They all laughed, tried to think and approach things with different perspectives (something they're never asked to do in school), jumped, had a lot of fun, and I did too. And they talked more and started to open up more and, I think, realized that it wasn't just going to be me lecturing at them every week, because I don't want to do that either.

The week after that, they split into small groups, led by my awesome peer educators, to prepare role plays that they'd perform the following week. They were to make a short drama about a risk situation that young people might typically face, where the characters in the drama engaged in the risk behavior because they were missing some of those important life-skills. I didn't give them examples of risk situations or behaviors, because I wanted them to have to be creative and didn't want each group to end up doing the same thing, and, when they performed the role plays the next week, they were creative, they didn't all do the same thing, they had assigned roles, memorized lines, brought their own props, and practiced during the week.

We had fifteen year-old girls getting pregnant, people getting HIV after having unprotected sex, everyone seemed to be stealing school fees from their parents and skipping school to go drink instead, someone got run over by a car for some reason, someone brought a flat-brimmed, fitted baseball cap with the hologram sticker on it that was worn by the "bad" boys in the dramas. But each role play was funny and insightful and creative, and the kids were really excited to do them. And I was excited about it too.

The best part, so far, is that they've started asking questions too, and they seem like they've started to feel like they can use me as a resource for those questions. And their questions have been direct, topical, frank, and bold. One boy asked, in a country where you can be stoned to death for being rumored to be gay, "These Europeans who are practicing homosexuality -- is that a good thing or a bad thing?" And so I told him what I thought and that it was a really good question, because it was. And then he followed it up with, "So if I'm infected [with HIV] and I take this boy as my sexual partner, will he also get the disease?" And so I explained the four fluids that transmit HIV and how they can transmit the virus between two men too, not just between a man and a woman, and I told him that it was a really good question, because it was. And someone else told me that they have a friend, a boy, who has a girlfriend who is pressuring him into having sex with her though he doesn't want to, he's still in school, he wants to finish, but he does love her (apparently, in the way that 15 year-old kids can love each other), and her family is rich and his is poor, so she's buying him things and keeps pressuring him, and so my student told his friend that he would ask me what my advice was on what he should say to her to get her to stop pressuring him. And so I told him what I thought and that it was a really good question, because it was, and I told them all that I'd always be available for more. (And I will be, I want to be that resource, because they will have more questions -- the Question Box, before it was stolen by some little kids who climbed in through the windows over one weekend, was full of questions, which will, hopefully, be put into the new Question Box, which will, hopefully, not be stolen.)

And so, when I'd gone to the last couple meetings feeling a little unenthusiastic, a little tired, or a little distracted, within a couple minutes of being there I was happy, energized by their enthusiasm, and I'd forgotten about the things that were distracting me before.

I felt useful, like I was doing even the smallest bit of something good, and I was happy to be doing that work, the kind with no quotation marks around it.