Monday, February 25, 2013

Monkeys and envrionmental stuff

                I’m watching the dew fall in the rainforest outside of the front door of my new home as I write this.  After many delays and hang-ups, I have finally moved to my new site.  I feel lucky though, as many of my volunteer friends have been waiting months for their new sites.  In my group, a lot of the original (Peace Corps assigned) sites fell through and Peace Corps has really taken it’s time finding them new ones, so I thought it would be a better choice to find my own.  After 2 weeks of the typical Ugandan delays, MAFICO finally got the construction done on my place.  But then I find out that they hadn’t filled out the application for a volunteer!  So I went to the MAFICO office, sat down with them, filled out the application, took pictures of it and sent it to Peace Corps and got everything cleared by that night.  It was nice because I got to pretty much got to write my own job description. 
                During this impossibly long month of waiting (the 2 weeks we gave them to get shit done + the extra 2 weeks it actually took to finish), I was very lucky to have an amazing host, Alana Sutter.  She was gracious enough to allow me to bum around her home and be completely worthless for most of a month.  One of the best parts about this whole Peace Corps experience is the amazing and profound friendships I’ve built, firstly with the folks in my region (Alana, Craig, Rebecca, Caitlin and Matt) but also with the rest of the PCV’s that for which I will travel to the ends of the earth (or so it feels like as I wait for 2.5 hours in an idling, hot and sweaty bus just for it to fill up so we can start the 5 hour ride to Kampala) to see for even just a night.
The construction/miscellaneous delays at my site came at an unfortunate time because I ended up moving to my new site the day before I had to travel across the country for the new PCV “orientation” (aka Western Welcome Weekend/80’s prom) which was awesome and totally worth the 10 hour trips there and back.  It’s amazing how much further I am willing to travel for events like this.  Stateside, I would never go through 2 full, 10 hour days of very uncomfortable travel just for one night of rocking out with friends.  But in the states, it’s much less important to my mental health to have these kinds of social interactions.  One thing I’ve learned/am always learning more and more here, is patience.  I’m not even stressing about the 14 hour plane ride back to America at the end of this whole experience (mostly because it’s a year and a half away) but also because I am capable of sitting and doing nothing for vast amounts of time that would have driven the old Aaron crazy.    
Now I’m finally facing the challenges that I was expecting from this whole Peace Corps experience.  I have almost no coverage from any service provider at my site and I’m 6 miles from the nearest market.  There are a few things I can get in the village just outside my camp, but definitely not enough unless I want to live on Matooke (plantain mash) and beans.  I have a little apartment on the backside of the reception of this small camp.  My bathing and toilet situation is pretty similar to what you would see at camp sites in the states.  Fortunately I have a plastic toilet setup rather than a pit latrine and my bathing area is surrounded by the forest and the stars above.  I basically have 3 counterparts who are all in and out of the camp at various times.  The most important is Betty who is more or less the receptionist here, but also handles all the cooking and cleaning.  We’ve worked out an arrangement where she cooks and cleans for me and I teach her new dishes and basically, how to cater to Muzungus (I also pay her).  She’s really sweet and I think we will get along just fine.  Then I have Hussein who is an educated Ugandan who is a guide for nature walks and safaris.  He’s very bright and I think we can collaborate on a lot of things.  And then Gregory who is a Ugandan village person and he serves as the night watchman/kind-of-handy man around camp.  He normally sleeps here too, which is nice to have backup in the event that the monkeys break our covenant of peace and raid the camp (think: the end of I Am Legend, it’s pretty much exactly like that when they raid except with more elaborate booby traps).  In quantity, the monkeys here are like squirrels in the states.  There are pretty much no predators in these woods.  Which is lame because there are no big cats or anything but cool because you can go on hikes (day or night) and you are the biggest animal in the forest.  Oh yeah, and I was kidding about the monkey raids, btw.  The covenant the Ugandans have with the monkeys is more like: we used to poach the shit out of you but now it’s illegal. 
As far as work goes, my first goal is to make some improvements on the camp itself.  I’m gonna add a bon fire pit, level out the camp sites, maybe put in a rope swing and some other stuff.  Then I’m gonna get some online marketing going and try to hit the European and American tourist market.  I don’t know why any tourists would come here unless it’s on the way to Tanzania or somewhere else, but I think there is a market for this whole “voluntourism” thing that’s getting popular. 
Part of me does feel like my first 6 months here were kind of a waste.  I put a ton of effort into getting Artivists 4 Life their contract, and it doesn’t look like it will even come through.  I guess that would validate my site change though.  On the bright side, what I really picked up in the past 6 months is getting to know Uganda and how to do business with Ugandans (with an iron fist!), which has made integrating into my new community much easier.  I got most of my embarrassing mistakes out of the way already and now I have a fresh start.
I was wandering around Wasswa (the village that my camp is just outside of) and I ran into a drunk, elderly man who told me his name was Johnny Walker.  It wasn’t long before I found out that he is actually the LC1 Chairman (which is pretty much a 21st century village chief).  He’s the guy that people go to when there are civil and domestic disputes and he resolves them.  The overall opinion that I’ve gathered is that he is always drunk, but still a pretty effective and responsible chairman.  He’s 60 years old and has been drinking this Waragi (moonshine) and Malua (warm millet beer served in a large pot in the middle of a circle of people who all drink it with long straws) pretty much his whole life and he appears to be in very good health.  He was very excited when I told him that I also take Malua, so I spent most of my Sunday afternoon in an old health clinic (turned malua bar) sitting around a big pot of millet beer with a bunch of village folks.  It was some good conversation and integration. 
I had my first meeting with my organization to plan out what we’ll be working on in the next few months and it was one of the most professional and concise meetings I’ve had in Uganda.  They were very responsive and excited when I presented my new ideas and we have a pretty solid plan to get things going.  It’s very reassuring and refreshing to be working with an organization that is focused on solving real problems facing Uganda today.  Rather than organizing Skype meetings with Canadian graduate art students (clearly the people who need help from a PCV in Uganda the most!), I’m going to be going to local schools and teaching environmental education.  I’ll also be developing a cultural tour through the villages surrounding the forest.  It feels great to be taken seriously by my organization and to be working on worthwhile projects.  I’m very excited.