18 February 2012


Caitlin and Shane got engaged a couple weeks ago now. I am happy, happy, happy for them. I've also been, since then, unbelievably excited to go home. Not to get out of Uganda, but just to go home and have the wedding to look forward to, seeing everyone and celebrating and being back. I'm also anticipating the itch that I know will come as soon as the wedding ends and the celebrations start to die down: the itch to leave home again. This, from a great article in today's New York Times:
“Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have been left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power or punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears, no longer familiar to anyone in this new place.
In Arabic, the word “bayt” translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is finally the identity that does not fade.
Loved that, and wanted to share, and I guess that's all. Just excited to go home, happy to be here and have home, as it resonates beyond rooms and walls, to go back to.

13 February 2012

I Guess I'd Need a Flight Suit, Too

The other day, not long after my What Am I Doing Here moment, one of my HIV counsellors came into my office to drop off her notebook -- the ones that I gave everyone during the training, in which they're recording their visits to the various 'clients' (as we call them; Ugandans loving formalities as they do) in their communities. Her name is Atai Deborah. She's in her sixties; her CD4 count (the measure of the number of white blood cells in a person's body and a measure of how severely they've been affected by HIV, basically, as it attacks white blood cells) was once below 100 --a healthy, HIV-negative adult usually has a CD4 count of at least 800-- but now she's sturdy and strong; she's the chairperson of a committee that advocates for people with HIV/AIDS throughout the district; soft-spoken and intelligent and dedicated, and, well, the words that are coming to mind are wry and wizened, both of which, I think, work.

She sat down across from me. We went through the formalities of greeting. Then she told me a few stories from her recent client visits: someone had died; someone had gone for treatment and was getting healthier; someone else was sick; everyone was poor; there was one husband who works in Kampala, his wife lives here, she was pregnant and found out she was HIV+ when she went in for antenatal care but was afraid to tell her husband, afraid he'd beat her or leave her or beat her and then leave her, but then he came back from Kampala and tearfully admitted to her that he had recently found out that he was HIV+, at which point she disclosed her status to him, and they agreed to stay together, to stay healthy together; their baby was born, tested after three months, and was negative. Good things, bad things, the sorts of things that are all so unfortunately typical and expected that they just leave you feeling ... kind of ... neutral. Things are getting better for some people, things are getting worse for some people, and you just get used to it. Such as it is.

Amidst all of that, though, she tossed in one story. Not even a story, really: it was just a couple sentences, flowing out from a single line, that she tossed out there like no big deal. But it made me feel all sorts of good. Or, well, at least it tipped the meter slightly in the feeling good direction, at least for a while.

She said: And one man thanked me for saving his life.

It's not a quantifiable success. I didn't alleviate poverty, or help this man start a successful Income Generating Activity, or put his kids through school. (I mean, shoot: I didn't actually do anything. Though that's probably the best part. Theoretically. She had counselled him on the importance of Antiretroviral Therapy, etc. etc., and he had taken her up on her advice, decided to turn his life around, stop drinking alcohol and start living positively, as they say.) There aren't any numbers or data to prove anything really happened, apart from this throwaway line she dropped into the middle of series of stories. It's not a concrete success, really, that I can point to and say, This is what I did/built/achieved during my Peace Corps service: see how successful I was?, and it's only one man, and who knows what's going to happen in a week or year or the rest of his life. But. Even so, even though it's not something that I can touch and take pictures of and prove to everyone, and even if there's nothing else, nothing real, no sustainable or empowering or whatever success, nothing before that and nothing from here on out --though, ok, I know there were a few things before that, and I remain confident that there will be a few more things from here on out-- at least there's that, and I'll take it, and keep it and be proud of it.

My next project, I guess, building off of that, is to convince President Museveni that he needs (for the MiG fighter jets he spent 1,700,000,000,000 shillings on) an aircraft carrier in Lake Victoria.  

Because where else am I going to hang my giant Mission Accomplished banner?