25 January 2012

The Reasons We Came Here

I've been back in Ngora for three weeks or so now, and one thing that hasn't changed at all is the lack of real work (hence the two blog posts in one day). Part of me blames myself for not having had much consistent work –I haven't been proactive enough, or creative enough in what I want to do, or whatever– but part of me wants to blame my organization too –for not needing me or my skills or whatever, for applying to get a Peace Corps volunteer to write grant proposals for them instead of doing real work. But it's not really about the blame, and I'm not the only volunteer who still hasn't had consistent, meaningful work.

So I was sitting at my desk at my organization a few days ago, the only member of the health team there that day, with nothing to do, and after an hour or so, I just put my face down on my desk and said: Ughhhhh.

I think that this translated, generally, to: What am I doing here?

Even when there's been no work at all, I've never regretted or thought twice to my decision to join the Peace Corps. I've never been unhappy about living in Uganda or hanging out in the village. I get to do and see things that I've never done or seen before and that I would never have gotten to do or see without joining the Peace Corps. I love living here. It's ridiculous and frustrating and hilarious and fun. This place is a mess, and I like it.

But still, I can't help wondering from time to time what I am doing here.
So, with my hours of free time and the mostly-blank notebook I use for project ideas and my boredom, I though maybe I could write down the reasons I came here. I wasn't really thinking about what I would write – and for some reason it came out all in the first-person plural we, though I'm pretty sure I'm speaking only for myself– but an hour or two later, this is what I had:

None of us chose to come to Uganda. Not specifically. We chose only to go somewhere. We could have ended up anywhere, really: in Mexico, South America, or the Caribbean; in Asia, Eastern Europe, or various miniscule islands in the Pacific. When we applied, we were choosing simply to go.

We shared a need to do more than travel, to be able to load heavy backpacks and army-green duffel bags with the things we thought we would need and hoist them onto our backs or sling them over our shoulders and carry them through cloud banks and night skies, to cross borders and chase sunlight, scaling mountains and wading through swamps and staggering across deserts and hacking our way through jungles with machetes, and then, having arrived somewhere, to set our things down and live.

We needed to see the world: to have its problems shoved in our faces; to have its stench in our nostrils and its coppery blood on our tongues; to have its fires singe the hair on our arms and its revolutions shake the ground beneath our feet. We wanted the world's people to embrace us, to reach into our chests and cradle our hearts in hands strong and calloused with lifetimes of hard work on unforgiving lands. We would give them our hearts and let the people fill them with anything and everything they could. We would give them our hands and let our palms and fingers become blistered and hard, our knuckles gnarled and stiff. We would be like them, then, we would be citizens of the world, champions of the broken, destitute, beaten-down. And they would embrace us, we knew they would, because our hearts were pure and our hands were willing and our minds were sharp.
We stuck out our chests and held our chins high and stared down the sun because we were already proud of what we knew we would do, because we knew that we would set our possessions down, the few things we carried, and would stand shoulder to shoulder with the world's vast majority, the sick, the poor, and the hopeless, and we would lead their march toward health and prosperity and political freedom, our millions and hundreds of millions of shoeless feet would pound the ground as we marched, would be like thunder cracking the sky open and rumbling tectonic plates shifting the axis of the earth, and we would chant and raise our fists in solidarity, we would not back down, we would rise up, and when people grew tired we would carry them, we would throw them over our shoulders, every one of them, and press onward, we would show them what billions of people could do when they were united, when they marched in unison, when their voices combined into one, booming out like the voice of God, to shout down inequality and injustice, to demand education for their daughters and healthcare for their mothers and jobs for their sisters, and anyone who saw us coming, a billion dark faces and raised fists, would know that this was right, that the time had come for the world to change, and if they didn't, God help them, if they stood in our way, we would crush them, would cast them aside, because this is our time now, we are the majority and our voice will be heard, my God, we're unstoppable, we are righteous and pure, we are infallible and perfect, and you will listen to us, you will listen to every word that rises up from our midst, we will not let you ignore us, we will destroy your plasma televisions if you turn up the volume to drown us out, we will kick down your doors if you slam them in our faces, you will listen, because we are here, we are here, and we are not the ninety-nine percent, we are not the Berkeley-educated kids sitting and waiting to be pepper-sprayed and inexplicably comparing themselves to the black Americans who were sprayed with firehoses and strung up from trees and shot in the back, we are the ninety-nine-point-nine percent, we are the children who are tear-gassed at school, the pregnant mothers shot in the belly with rubber bullets for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and finally this is the right place and the right time, finally this is our time, we are here, we are worthy, you will listen, oh my God, you will listen, you will listen.

We were naïve.

But we chose to go somewhere –and we ended up coming here– because we were naïve. We could deny it over and over –and we did, we still do– and we could say that we hoped to improve only a few lives, at the very least. If we could help even one family learn better farming techniques so they could grow more food year-round on the same small plot of land; if we could teach even one classroom-full of secondary school students how to prevent the spread of HIV and how to put on a condom; if we could help start even one savings and loans group to help women earn more money and wield more power in the home; if we could make just one old woman smiled wide with her missing teeth and her gums, make just one infant laugh like a flock of tiny birds taking flight – any of these things, and we would be happy.
We were earnest and truthful in these small dreams. We talked about throwing just one small pebble into still water and watching the ripples spread all the way across the lake. We had our development buzzwords down: we would empower women; we would sensitize communities; everything would be sustainable and community-based and we would sit back and watch lives improve.
But in the most honest corners of our hearts, we knew we wanted to lead the revolution, to pound our feet and raise our fists and shout.

You can understand that, can't you?

We had grown up with cable TV, the 24-hour news channels, the world's famines and floods and uprisings constantly on display – and we had absorbed this. We had read Twitter feeds from Iran, following government crackdowns in real time, in short bursts of text sent out by kids our own age, people with whom –in another, better world– we would have gone to college, who would have held our legs while we did keg stands, their fiery speeches in our international affairs classes would have given us goosebumps and earned our respect. We had Facebook friends in Brazil and South Africa and China. We worked for the Obama campaign and hosted parties on election night and popped champagne and cried when he won, had bolted from our apartments and sprinted past riot police through the downtown streets of our cities, our coastal, liberal cities, and danced to the impromptu marching bands playing in the middle of intersections, full of hope and change and pride and victory, because our generation had a new defining moment, because we knew people were celebrating in London, Nairobi, Berlin, because we had a joyous unity that we had been searching for since the World Trade Center fell, since the ash settled like snow on New York City, and we had wept then, too, because the world had become terrifying and uncertain and divided, you were either with us or against us, and all we had ever wanted was for there just to be us, just all of us.

And we had seen the world first-hand, too, if only all too briefly. We had studied abroad, and, after graduation, had taken meaningless temp jobs and saved and borrowed money to buy plane tickets to places our parents had never been.
We had walked the racial divide in South Africa, had lain on the beaches of Cape Town and navigated the narrow alleyways between the tin shacks of Khayelitsha, ashamed of ourselves and brokenhearted. We had been in mosques in Cairo, had basked in the relative silence as one of the world's loudest cities all but shut down on a Friday, and had been woken up by the earliest calls to prayer. We had held sugar cubes between our teeth as we sipped mint tea from tiny porcelain cups, had gotten high on hashish laced in hookahs almost as tall as we were, had ridden camels across endless deserts under an infinite sun. We had stood in the shadows of the Great Pyramids and marveled at all the garbage, had made fleeting eye contact with women covered head-to-toe in black burqas, their eyes the only part of them available to the world. We had felt invincible when we read about bombings in markets we had wandered through just days before; then we had felt ashamed. We had gotten violently ill in Mumbai and had relied on the kindness of strangers to take us to the hospital and still never fully recovered. We had removed our shoes at temples and made offerings to Mahalakshmi; had run our fingertips across the cool white marble of the Taj Mahal; had been extras in Bollywood films that we had never seen. We had been rocked to sleep by the swaying of overnight trains lumbering across Rajasthani desert; had escaped Delhi for Dharamsala where we filled our lungs with cool air flowing down from the Himalayas and sat on rock outcroppings with saffron-robed monks, listening to their murmured incantations and quietly clacking prayer beads. We spun Buddhist prayer wheels and watched sun-faded prayer flags carry whispered words into the sky. We had shuffled past Mao Zedong, lying in state, and been yelled at by armed guards for stopping too close to his portrait outside the Forbidden City. We had walked the Great Wall and counted terracotta soldiers and bathed in Shanghai's neon nights.
We had ridden trains and buses and taxis; motorcycles and tuk-tuks and rickshaws; camels and horses and elephants. We had waded through the milieus of Christianity and Islam and through the sacred places of Buddhism and Hinduism. We had been scammed and cheated and robbed by monkeys. We had thrown up in trash cans and pit latrines, had gone days without bathing in anything but our own sweat. We had cried and yelled and laughed and cajoled our way across continents and borders and timezones. We had learned to say thank you in Xhosa and Swahili and Arabic and Mandarin. We had worn out the soles of our shoes. We had loved all of it but it had only ever been for a few weeks or months at a time and it had never been enough.

We came here because we needed more. We had seen some of the world, more of it than many people we knew, but the world was fantastically and thrillingly huge. Our eyes were starving, ravenous. But we needed to be more than just eyes: we needed to be hearts and hands. We had homes and families and friends, but we needed new places to call home, needed more friends and more people we could call family. We needed more time, more experiences and stories. We needed to be a part of something that seemed bigger than ourselves. We needed more direction and meaning in our lives. We needed to find our place in that wonderfully large world. We needed to grow up and learn about ourselves, learn about our capabilities and our limits. We needed to be frustrated and put in our place. We needed to do something that would make us feel needed or successful or good. We needed to know what it would be like to be more than just eyes, we needed to know if we could do it, needed to feel purposeful, needed to matter. We came here because we were greedy.

We also came here because we were lucky. We were lucky to be born into an interconnected world where we could make a full circle around the globe by the time we were twenty-five. We were lucky to have graduated college before the world's economies collapsed, when a twenty-two year old could still get a job and quit six months later to travel, just to travel, without having to worry about never being able to find a job when he came back. We were lucky to be born into upper-middle class American families, to parents who encouraged and enable our need to leave, and who would let us sleep on the couch for a month or two when we came back, rent-free. But we felt like we needed more than American middle class-ness –we were greedy in this way, too– and we felt like our middle class futures were already assured –like I said: we were naïve. We were lucky to have hard-working parents: we came here because we were carefree children.

We came here because we were entitled. Some members of our parents' or grandparents' generations call us entitled, anyway. They say that we were told too often that we were special. We watched too much Mr Rogers, were hugged too often, had too many green-sky and purple-grass finger paintings hung with magnets on the refrigerators of our suburban homes. Everyone got trophies; even the losers won. They may be right. We may think too highly of ourselves. We may think we know more than they do. We may be self-centered and overly self-confident, with short attention spans and no moral fiber.
There's a flip side to this, too, though. Because now we've grown up and the world's started to fall apart and we've realized we can't all be president or quarterback or CEO. Some of us have realized we can't even be baristas. I'm not entirely sure what an IRA is, because even if I had one, I don't have any money to put in it. We've been driven and enthusiastic and proud of ourselves for our entire lives. And now we're moving back into our parents' basements in droves. We might not become homeowners until we're fifty (because we'll refuse to move out of the city) but that's not so bad because we won't be able to retire until we're eighty-five. We're fighting, now, against apathy, against becoming depressed because we're capable and desirous of everything and there's nothing. We've all that drive and enthusiasm and specialness with nothing to use it on.
(Of course, those same tired critics would say that we're not looking hard enough, or that we don't have jobs because we're only willing to take our dream jobs because we're too full of our specialness to settle for anything less, or that we're only depressed because no one else is appreciating how special and talented we are. Again: they may be right.)
This is the truth, for those of us in our twenties or early thirties who've grown up believing in the world, in ourselves and each other and our collective capability to do big things: with nothing to use our talents on, or with bosses who don't hang our metaphorical finger paintings on the metaphorical refrigerators, we've become cynical. It's true. We couldn't help it. But this is the beauty of our generation: we haven't become bitter. There's still that hopefulness and optimism that undercuts the cynicism. The cynicism is like a joke: gallows humor. It covers everything up.
We're so screwed– we say.
And we laugh about it.
They've totally already got nuclear technology: obviously– we say.
And we laugh about it.
Because we can't help it. We're optimistic and hopeful and certain of the fact that our future is assured, in some way. We can't help believing that we are talented and capable. Some of us can't help believing that we can do anything we want. The rest of us believe we can at least do something. And then there are even those of us who think we have to do something. Something big and important and revolutionary and world-changing. We believe we can lead the march. We believe in the people who are marching. We believe that things will change for the better, we want them to change for the better, the world deserves to change for the better, and we know that if nothing changes, we'll figure something else out. Some of us are misguided: look no further than those Berkeley-educated kids who compare their Occupy “protests” to the civil rights movement –I hate their self-righteousness and their lack of a real plan, but even I think that if their hearts aren't in the right place, they're at least in the general vicinity. Because it's our time. We are entitled to this. We are entitled to go out into the world and try to change it and maybe we'll fail but when we do, we'll laugh and learn from it and be better next time. We came here knowing that failure was either a strong possibility or an almost certainty. But we came here because we're ok with that, because even if we fail, we'll figure something else out; because even if we fail, at least we have the stories, at least we can laugh about it, at least we can say that we came here.
I don't know how the critics would respond to that, but I don't think we care.
We came here because we're screwed, and we're happy.

We came here to find out about the world and ourselves. We came here because we knew the world in a few ways and needed to know more. We came here because we were naïve and greedy; because we were earnest and hopeful; because we thought we could lead the march, or at least be witness to it, or at least throw one small pebble into still water and watch the ripples. We came here because we knew that even if none of that happened, we would still have more stories and another pair of shoes with worn-out soles. We came here because we knew we could always go back. We came here because we were young and free of debt and mortgages and children –and we wouldn't be, didn't want to be, free of those things forever– and our futures were long and wide-open, and we knew that we needed to take advantage of the opportunity, just in case they weren't. We came here because we wanted to be a part of Kerouac's rucksack revolution or because we had no idea what we wanted to do with our lives other than be a part of the world or because we had never been able to stay in one place for very long.

We came here because our eyes were wide and minds were curious; because our backs were strong and our legs could carry us; because we needed our hearts to be filled and hoped to have our hands put to work.

We came here because we had to; and because we could.

I Am America, and So Can You!

I know I've been worse at updating this blog than Chuck Knoblog was at throwing to first base. (Yes, that was a long stretch for a bad joke.) So, it's going to be a double-blog-post day, since I've had this one sitting on my computer for a couple weeks now.

But I'm back in Ngora after a full month away, and I'm happy to report that America is still awesome and Uganda is still Uganda. Without going into too much detail about the two and a half weeks I spent in Seattle and Sunriver, eating and drinking and not moving too much, here are a few things people said to me–

When I got back to the States:
“Welcome back!”
“You're so tan!”
“I missed your big Irish head!”
“You're not as skinny as I thought you would be!”
“It's 68 degrees in this house: take off that down jacket!”
“Seriously: you've been wearing that down jacket for twelve days straight!”
“Did you just refer to Uganda as 'home?'”

When I got back to Uganda:
“Welcome back!”
“You're so white now!”
“So America was good? Because it looks like it was about fifteen pounds good!”
“You're fat!”

So that pretty much sums it up: I wasn't that skinny when I got to the States, and I was super fat when I got back to Uganda (which is entirely ok, since the PCVs who commented on my probably-unhealthy weight gain were just jealous, and the Ugandans who commented on it meant it as a compliment). It wasn't really that cold, technically –the coldest it got was one morning when it was 15 degrees out when I woke up; most of the rest of the days were sunny and in the 40s; and London was much colder than either Seattle or Sunriver– and there was no snow, but I opened presents on Christmas morning while wearing my puffy down jacket. I lost whatever tan I had, at least according to my Ugandan friends, the ones who told me I was “a real white man, now.” Without thinking about it, I did call Uganda home, but when I'm here, I call America home, too. So it was nice to get to go home twice.

Before I left to go back to the States, I had been thinking that it wouldn't be weird at all, going back. I'd left and come back and left before, so I didn't think it would be a big deal. Then I started thinking that maybe it would be really weird, since I wasn't expecting it to be weird at all. Then I got back, and I had been right the first time. It wasn't weird. I even asked my good friend Whit: “Is it weird for you that I'm back and I've been gone for a year and a half?” She said, “When you first showed up, I was like, 'Whoa!' But now that you've been here for, like, an hour, I'm just like, 'Cool.'” So I think everyone agreed: like I'd never left. There were no mental breakdowns over all the choices in the cereal aisles of the grocery stores (or even Costco), like the Peace Corps had warned us about during some silly Pre-Service Training session on culture shock. There was no righteous indignation at the excesses and ridiculousness of Americans. No mind-blowing new technology (though FaceTime on the new iPhone is pretty awesome, and new to me). I didn't even have any trouble staying on the right side of the road while I was driving.

Then I realized the reason why it wasn't weird at all: I've lived in Uganda for a year and a half, true, but I've also lived in the United States for about twenty-five years before that. So no, it wasn't weird.

One funny thing I did notice myself doing, while I was in America, was when I would get in line behind someone, like at the movie theatre or the checkout at the grocery store or wherever, I would stand really, really close to them. Because in Uganda –and Asia and India– if you're not basically standing with your head on the shoulder of the person standing in front of you, you're either not in line, or you're going to get jumped. So I've gotten used to that; it's completely ceased to be awkward. Unless I do it in America. Because I could just feel the awkwardness radiating from the stranger in front of me as I ruffled the back of their hair with my breath. Fortunately, I would realize what I was doing after a few seconds, laugh, and step back. It amused me every time though.

But so it was really awesome to see all of my friends, and my family, and Dublin; to get to drink real, delicious beer and eat so much food that I kind of felt ill the entire time (but in a good way); to be cold; to watch football, even if the Broncos got destroyed in both games I watched; the bed was ridiculously comfortable; there were snacks in the pantry for when I woke up in the middle of the night from jetlag; I got to “meet” the guy who's going to marry my sister; it was sunny and gorgeous every day in Seattle; I got to do (almost) all of the things that I loved doing before I left (and one of my favorites was sitting at Starbucks with Sarah, with coffee and breakfast sandwiches, reading the New York Times –because, yes, we are the “Did You Read That?” sketch from Portlandia, it's true– and laughing because we're just so damn funny); and it was just … good.

I was asked a few times, when it got to be a few days before I was heading back here, “So, are you excited to go back to Uganda?” And I said, “Well … no. Not really.” I had to qualify it then, because that made it sound like I just hated it here: “It's like, if I lived in Seattle, and went on vacation to Uganda, I wouldn't be excited to go back to Seattle.” I think that's how you know a place has really become your home: when you leave, and even though you love living there, you're not entirely excited to go back.

There was one other thing from home that made me laugh. I've been lucky so far that I haven't missed any major life events while I've been gone. No new babies or weddings or dog-funerals. Everything's been pretty steady, and this makes me happy. But I was sitting around with the fam, on Christmas Eve, maybe, and Mom said, looking and Ryan and Emily and Caitlin and me, excited like only Mom gets, “I can't believe you're all here!”
Yeah,” Ryan said. “And the next time we're all here, we might have a kid.”
And,” Caitlin said, “you guys might have a new son-in-law.”
I paused, and thought for a second.
Yeah...” I said. “And, I mean … you know … I'll be here.”
But you'll be coming back again,” Dad said, “from somewhere else in Africa. Or Asia. Or wherever.”
I think he was just trying to make me feel better, but he's probably right: this is my life, and it's pretty awesome.