Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving and Malua

So Thanksgiving was last week and (of course), I was sucked into going to Mud Town, Kayunga.  And as usual, I left exhausted, covered in mud and mosquito bites but with no regrets.  My amazing PCV friends put together such a magical and extravagant Thanksgiving feast.  Three turkeys, 3 stuffings, 5 casseroles, about 100 lbs of mashed potatoes and 22 thankful people, both American and Ugandan.  They Ugandans were blown away by the food.  It was really cool to see everyone get together to plan out an execute this amazing evening despite the challenges of being in such a little town.  Peace Corps pretty much took over the kitchen of Hotel Katukomu for about 10 hours or so.  Everyone contributed in one way or another to the food and we all went around and gave short speeches on what we were thankful for.  It was a really amazing night!   On Thanksgiving Eve, we played beer pong at Rebecca's place which was awesome!  On that Kayunga journey, I also had some time to go visit Maria Gorete Primary School (my secondary project) to get some video footage for the fund raising video I'm working on.  I really do love the people in that place and I have made some amazing memories there.  I should be more thankful that I get to go back to my awesome little city that I love instead of bitching about having to visit my awesome friends in Kayunga.

I returned to Mukono on Friday, a haggard mess but with social obligations yet to be met.  It was Alisat's birthday (she's one of Alanas counterparts at the Youth Center and a really awesome lady), so we had to do some celebrating.   My good buddy Keith (PCV) and another volunteer at his org are from Western Uganda and had come out for Thanksgiving and wanted to see the night life of Mukono.  Several of my closest artivist bros had just finished a full day of screen printing shirts for the World AIDS Day event and were also ready to live it up in Mukono.  The night was ripe for mischief and adventure!  So we got the bro team together and hit the Malua circle.  I don't know if I've described the Malua in my blog yet, but it's a big clay pot of this sloppy millet beer mixed with hot water.  It's usually found in a really tucked away, hole in the wall place that is combined with a pork joint.  Everyone sits around in a circle it with big, long reed straws and drinks this warm alcoholic slop out of the pot in the middle.  It can be up to like 20 people in the circle and they upgrade the size of your pot as more people join the circle.  I hated the taste at first, but now it's totally grown on me.  You spend about $1 and you can sit there for as long as you like (we did 4 hours the first time I went there) and drink as much as your belly will hold.  It's definitely my favorite cultural experience here so far.  Everyone is super excited when there is a Muzungu (white person) there.  The conversation usually turns to politics and bad jokes and general merriment is experienced by all.  By the time it was getting dark, we were all singing church hymns at the top of our lungs, eating pork and enjoying each others company.

After drinking Malua to our hearts content (it's actually pretty low alcohol %, so you never get too drunk), we proceeded to hit up this art exhibition where we met up with other artivists and checked out their awesome crafts.  These guys are really talented craft makers!  Then we hit Casablanca (Alana and my regular hangout) for a night of hookah and dancing and mayhem.  It ended up being one of the best nights I've had in Uganda so far.

And then the next morning I went back to Mabira Forest with this really awesome Canadian girl that Alana introduced me to.  Zoey and I spent all day cruising around through the jungle and enjoying the complete chaos that is the public transit in Uganda.  It was an awesome end to my Thanksgiving vacation.  So here I sit on Sunday morning, reflecting on the awesomeness of the past 4 days and realizing that the vacation is over and I've gotta get my shit together and get back to work.  My apartment is filthy and I have tons of preparing to do for the World AIDS Day Event at the end of the week as well as a million other little projects I need to check in on.

Life is really good right now.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Planning phase, Muzungus, Friendship and the Like

Where to begin...  Life is moving along quite quickly as wings begin to take dream (that's a George Bush quote by the way "where wings take dream").  So, it sounds like I'm going to be able to help out this school that my bro, Maurice, started for orphans who lost their parents to HIV.  I'm planning to get their new school house built and filled with school stuff through various fund raising and grants and my awesome mentor, Rebecca Workman, just gave me the idea of having this other PCVs organization build them a water tank so they have clean water to drink through another grant.  And then there's yet another grant that I can apply for to get them a truck full of school books. So I'm getting pretty excited about my secondary project.

Rebecca is my mentor through the PC Peer Support Network and she's a really good friend and resource for getting shit done in this country.  She's dating Craig McIntosh who was my room mate when we staged for departure in Philadelphia and was in my language training group, so we've gone through this whole crazy adventure together.  I take the shitty taxi ride to hang out in Rebecca's mud town, Kayunga, pretty often both because her and Craig are normally there to chill with and one of the artivists 4 life branches is there.  I hate the town, but I love the people.  I'll be heading there for Thanksgiving to have some awesome food with some awesome friends.  I'll be rocking my stars and stripes bandanna and starting as many U.S.A chants as I can.

Yesterday Alana and I met with this other really cool organization that works with teenagers that are pregnant or have been pregnant.  They approach it in a really holistic way that keeps these young mothers out of the cycle of dropping out of school and having a bunch more kids.  They've got a psychologist and a social worker and they do crafts and life skills lessons and all kinds of awesome confidence building stuff.  So they are going to start making use of the youth center for some of their activities and Alana and I might do some talks for them on various life skills things.  I wonder if any of my blog readers have any material on being a new mother and being pregnant and all that stuff that they might want to send me? (

The youth center is pretty slow right now, but there are a bunch of awesome things that are going to be happening soon.  Due to Alana's planning and persistence, we are having a big World AIDS Day Event that the US Ambassador and Peace Corps officials are going to attend.  Artivists 4 life is going to be performing some traditional dances and some skits about HIV issues.  We're also going to be doing face painting and having a big drum circle (which I'm super excited for).  Other artivists 4 life stuff is just business of preparing our annual report and proposal for next years activities.  That stuff's not terribly exciting, but necessary.

Alana and I have met these great muzungus from Uganda Christian University (a couple Americans and a Canadian) that who made us dinner last night and went out on the town.  It was really fun and will probably happen again soon.  We went to Casablanca, which is a hookah bar that Alana and I frequent which is equidistant from both of our houses.  It's a college crowd, but it's really fun and we meet a lot of interesting people there.  It's a good place to have a few beers and get down on some politics and philosophy with some well educated Ugandans.

In the scheme of things, I think my service and my life are moving in a pretty positive direction. However, always looming in the back of my mind is the Peace Corps Guilt (read the article I posted) and the uncertainty of whether we're just creating a foreign aid dependent society and digging them deeper.  Those things are impossible to ignore, but only weigh on you as much as you let them.  You just power through and remind yourself that you knew this wasn't going to be easy.  In the most narcissistic chambers of my mind, I remind myself that no matter what, this experience is only going to leave me more enlightened and a better person both professionally and personally so... positive net gain.

That last paragraph sounded a little gloomy.  The reality is that the majority of my time is spent happy and excited and still freaking out about being here and actually doing this!  Tomorrow I'm going back into Mabira National Forest with my new friends and it's going to be awesome!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

It begins!

Alright guys, I promised to keep you all informed about my adventure by posting in this blog and I have failed.  But there is hope!  For, I woke up this morning and was bored and felt like starting this blog thing up.  So here we go:

  I guess we should start with the basics in case people haven't been following me on Facebook.  I'm in semi-urban Mukono, Uganda.  My organization is called artivists 4 life and they do activism through art.  That means anything from billboards and murals to skits on social issues performed in the community.  They are very grass roots, but the goal is to get them registered as a CBO (Community Based Organization).  So we've been going through that arduous process of applying for that.  The fun part is working with these 12 or so, 20 something year old artivists with whom I have already developed life long friendships.  My organization came to Mukono about a year and a half ago and recruited these idle, out of school youths who were interested in becoming artivists.  They have been training them and building their capacity to make change in their community. Part of my job (at least as I've defined it) is to build up their leadership skills and any other technical skills they may need (ie. computer training, lessons on basic economics, critical thinking activities, resume development, etc).  I've seen a lot progress in the few short months I've been here and I have a lot of optimism about their futures.
  We operate out of a Youth Center:

  There's a goat in this picture because I have found them to be the most photogenic barnyard animal, but the building in the background is the youth center. 

  The Mukono District Youth Center is part of the Walter Reed Project out of Makerery University in Kampala.  They are PEPFAR funded and have a long history with Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV's).  Alana Sutter is my awesome friend whose is the PCV who has been pretty much put in charge of running the youth center.  Alana lives about a half hour walk from me, but the youth center is the middle point between our houses.  I feel very lucky because we have become good friends and we get to work closely together on whatever projects we can dream up!  This experience would be much harder without her and I'm sure our friendship will live on long after our Peace Corps service.  

  Her organization, MUWRP, is artivists 4 life's only partner, so most of what we do is in collaboration with them.  We managed to get 2 of my artivists (Maurice and Kisitu) hired as volunteers there which is an awesome opportunity because they get really good training in HIV testing and counseling (which is the primary function of the youth center).  The really cool thing is that this youth center is brand new and we have been given a lot of creative freedom to come up with projects that align both our organizations goals.  We've been putting the artivists in a kind of promotional role.  It works out well because the age group of people int their 20s can be hard to reach out to and they are really receptive to activism through art (artivism) done by people their age.  

  I'll give you a typical day/week in my life out here.  I wake up early most of the time and check my emails.  I do a huge percentage of my work through email.  Being as we don't really have an office, I can get a lot of work done from my couch:
That's what my living room looks like right now (...after I moved some beer bottles out of the shot)

With the new activities Alana and I are putting in place, I will have a lot more, but right now I normally have 2 workshops each week.  Those normally take place at the youth center and I always really enjoy them.  So breakfast is usually a rolex (it's kind of like a breakfast burrito and I eat waaaaayyy too many of them).  I'm pretty much in a small city and right down the street is my main rolex homie, Bengy.  I practice a little Luganda (the local language) with him and either head to the youth center for a workshop or back home to work on my computer.  The nice thing is that no day is the same here.  We have a laptop, kindly sent from my Canadian supervisor Leslie, that I've been teaching basic computer skills to my artivists on.  They sign up for times, so I have them randomly throughout the week.  I also give guitar lessons to another main homie, Kenneth who is picking it up really fast.  I think we might start a band sometime soon with Maurice's booming church voice and his brother Paul on the drums.  I hang out with those 3 guys the most.  

  I found myself kind of guarded about befriending Ugandans at first.  I needed them to figure out how to do a lot of stuff in this country, so I think that helped break the ice.  But then about 3 months in, I realized what I was doing and now I've started to develop a social life here which I am enjoying very much.  I'm thinking more and more about getting this band started.  Maybe have songs with positive life lessons and HIV education... who knows!?

  I was really worried at first being placed in a city.  Where was I going to get into nature!?  Fortunately, the Catholic Church bought up this big hill right by my house and has made it Prayer Mountain (though, I call it Spirit Mountain).  It has a small amount of forest where I often see monkeys which is a treat!  It's great because it's a big hill to climb (as I learned to love in Ellensburg), it's got forest and I can take foot paths down the other side and then take the road back to make a nice hour long hike.  So I usually hit that at least 3 or 4 times a week.

  Everywhere I go, all hours of the day, children are yelling MUZUNGU!!!! BYE MAZUNGU!!! Muzungu means white person which can actually be asians as well.  It's a strange thing that I didn't really know how to react to at first.  It comes from every single child in my city of 60,000.  I quickly realized that if I decided to be annoyed by it, I would loose my mind in this place.  So now I just think of them as little cheer leaders rooting me on in whatever my current task may be.  I've got the ones on my street calling me Katumba now at least (my Muganda name).  My 4 year old neighbor is the coolest.  His name is Van and he has excellent English.  He's definitely a part of my emotional and mental support network (along with Alana).
This is him and the way my kitchen used to be set up.  It has since been moved inside because I never used it out there.

My days usually end with some kind of media viewing on laptop as I make a to do list.  I could not survive without lists, they are all over my apartment chaotically organized in like 7 notebooks.  The most important things I have here are my laptop (I could not function without this thing), my guitar, my ipod, my backpack and my speakers.  Losing any one of these things may send me into an existential tailspin.

  So, this is turning out to be a long blog, but there is one more topic to cover.  My side project is with an organization called AHUDA (African Humanitarians for Development Alliance) who have built a school for orphans who have lost their parents to HIV way deep in the village of Mayangayanga.  Maurice is their co-founder and coordinator and the one who introduced me to the project. I'm getting some teaching materials from my awesome friend Jan Gaffe which I'm going to train their teachers on (for an economic development volunteer, I do a lot of teaching which I'm finding I love).  I am also applying to have their school house finished by another PCVs organization, Brick by Brick, which will be awesome if we can make it happen.  Then the plan is to do this kind of grant through which Peace Corps lets me fund raise from America and fill up the building with all the things a school needs (hoping ya'll can reach deep into your hearts and your wallets for this one!).  It's kind of a pain in the ass to get out to the school, but I love the project and the kids and I'm really committed to helping in any way I can.

  Let me say that this has been an emotional roller coaster these past 5 months.  I've done so much on the job learning and I am learning so much from the people here.  Some days I'm King Shit of Turd Mountain and other days I want to punt a puppy!  However, I have absolutely no regrets and I'm finding out so much about my place in this world and what I have to offer.  Every day, I find myself in disbelief about the awesomeness that my life has become.