Holy cow! It has officially been more than a year of my Peace Corps service in Uganda. Everyone says this is the hardest time for most volunteers and I have to agree. You feel like you have been here forever, but that you still have a long way to go (although the countdown to COS conference has begun: 7 months to go!). You feel like you haven’t gotten as much done as you thought you might when you were first applying, dreaming of saving the world (a feat I now know will take much more than one girl at a food factory for 2 years.) You generally just feel tired of being on display all of the time, people expecting so much out of you simply because you are white, and in general constantly tired. We could also reflect on the number of illness (mostly diarrhea based) I have had here compared to the US (maybe one cold a year), but that would just be cruel. In addition to the regular MST problems, my boyfriend who had become a source of sanity for me had to go back to the states in May and even worse my Lunatic, my kitten died after a run in with some dogs. Luna dying is the single worst thing that happened to me in my service. Sure John leaving was very upsetting, but he is still alive and in December we are going to Europe together and then he is coming back here, so not too difficult. Luna is gone for good.
However, I feel myself on the upswing already as I prepare for another friend’s visit and another camp (my last one I think). In the world of work, I am also preparing for World Food Day, trying to come up with new products while marketing the old, preparing for another project (hopefully!) to start either right before I leave for Europe or right after. I find myself becoming more positive once again and find myself going and staying at the office much more. So don’t worry people, it is getting better again.
Some things I found out in my first year of service:
1. America is awesome. I used to complain all the time about America, but now I feel like I am always going to go all out for the Fourth of July. Yes, I am still aware that our country has problems, but we are all most fortunate to have been born in the United States. We have so many luxuries and rights that we take for granted every day. The knowledge that your food has passed some sort of standards test. They have them here as well, but it is not a requirement, just a recommendation. Or the pedestrian right away OR having the same number of people as seat belts in a car OR the general regard for safety and human life that we don’t notice until it is taken away from us. For example, a taxi driver speeding at 120 km/hr with about 10 people in his Toyota when asked to slow down responds “Eh if Jesus means for us to die today, it will happen.” It is this sort of nonsense that makes me appreciate America. Or how about appliances that have become so common we don’t even think about them; refrigerators, washing machines, etc… are still uncommon luxury items here (I don’t have any of them)
2. Americans can be really cold. We do not talk to strangers, we do not greet people or wish them a nice day, we do not strike up random conversations with people on public transport. All of those things are common here. In fact, you would probably be considered quite rude if you did not greet people on the street (something on that my worse days I have definitely done). A lot of the time, this can be annoying, especially since it is amplified with calls of mzungu or my size or whatever else. It can also be nice, like when people are willing to go out of their way to help you or people are genuinely just happy to see you for no reason at all.
3. Americans should have to travel to the developing world to graduate college. It gives you a completely different perspective on yourself, your country, and the world in general. It makes you think about what really matters and what you can and cannot really live without (i.e. you CAN live without running water or electricity, but you CANNOT live without access to clean water of some kind). I know I have both running water and electricity, but sometimes they are just gone for days/weeks at a time. There is no calling the water/electric companies because they cannot/will not do anything about it. In addition, I’m pretty sure my piped water is from a lake on top of a hill that my village set up itself somehow. I keep being told that National Water had nothing to do with it. So you wait until they come back, prioritize what you need (drinking water) versus what you don’t (bathing daily goes down the drain real quick), and just hope they come back sooner rather than later. In many situations I often find myself inquiring “What would happen if this occurred in America” often the response is “uproar” where in Uganda we just wait…
4. International Aid is ridiculous. How the US gives out aid is improving and Peace Corps is kind of on the right track in my opinion (although their resources are very limited). We should never be just giving things out, which is often exactly what happens. Yes, there are extreme circumstances such as war, genocide, refugee camps, etc…but Uganda does not fit into those. Uganda and countries like it should never be just given anything. First, the government is so corrupt that any aid or money going to the government almost never reaches the target populations. Second, years of handouts without accountability has taught many people (*cough* cough* many men) that you don’t have to work or do anything really to get by. Food and clothes are freely given out, so why would you buy them. Why would you work? This is also furthered by the fact that the weather here is wonderful (shelter is not a necessity as it would be in say Mongolia) and everything grows in this region. Handouts also can destroy local economies in that area. Why pay a tailor when the US or Europe is sending free clothes? Again, this is changing; I see a lot of people selling former US clothes now, which is a step in the right direction (also a great way to find cheap clothing). Skills and time in the places that need it most (the rural villages) are better forms of aid. The Peace Corps is doing this, but it is probably one of the least funded forms of aid. Instead, USAID, PEP-FAR, and all those organizations just give crap out or start projects that are not feasible in the village context. They would never know because most NGO’s are based in Kampala and rarely travel to the very rural areas. Many of these organizations are beginning to move away from that and work with Peace Corps volunteers or hire former PCVs on the ground for these initiatives, but it is still a problem. People don’t feel responsible for their own country anymore. My organization is a great one to invest in: it is a business, but it has a corporate social responsibility program (set up before I came!), it provides work to many local women and youth directly, but also indirectly offers local farmers a stable market for the produce. Investment in organizations like mine that are dedicated to moving their community forward would be money well spent. Make my organization stable and profitable and they will change their community themselves. They have already started, but the effects can be (and are) growing. Third, our forms of aid are not even cost effective. They are so caught up in shipping, packaging, and other businesses that they are profitable for those business, but at the expense of government money (aka taxpayers). Localizing aid and focusing on skills not things would be much more cost effective and successful. Once again, big business takes money from the little people… Fourth and finally, what happens when/if something big happens in the western world. Do you think Europe or the US is ever going to continue aid at the expense of its own country? Absolutely Not! If it came down to it, the US would pull aid out of these countries immediately. What happens to them then? Well in the current situation most of the middle class and country in general would collapse. Not sustainable at all.
5. Critical/creative thinking, question asking is a luxury most cannot afford. The US education system (especially higher education—Universities) is one of the best in the world. Americans are critical and question asking people. This is not something we are born with, it is something we learned after years and years of education, that encouraged us to be like that. It is a great way to be. I feel that many people in Uganda often accept anything that they are told because they do not have that natural question in the back of their mind that Americans do. “How do you know that? Where is the evidence? I want to see all of the evidence on this topic myself and then I will make a decision” This is fostered by our professors citing all of their facts for everyone to see. We were asked our opinion in school, but when your class size is 60+ no one cares about your opinion, you just sit and listen and remember what you were told. There is simply no time for hands-on, critical thinking activities. It seems to get a bit better with university here, but still not where the US is. However, this means that as aid workers we have a responsibility to be careful what we say. They will take what you say at face value and they will rarely question you, meaning you have to tell them the truth. Sarcasm and subtly do not exist – there was never time for such nonsense in schools here. You are blunt (sometimes it almost feels rude/sassy, but you get over it quickly) and you better say the correct thing. A perfect example is the homosexuality issue that is raging in Uganda right now. Why do many Ugandans believe that homosexuals are fairies here to steal their children? Or that HIV/AIDS was created by homosexual scientists in L.A. to destroy Africa? Or that homosexuals deserve to die? Because they were told that by white people (a specific, crazy group of white people aka extreme evangelicals, but that is a different tangent). Be careful what you say, they will probably believe it. This can also be seen in the fact that they are reluctant to challenge the status quo, even if it is ridiculous. I am always surprised that more people don’t speak up and yell at the taxi drivers or stand up for themselves in government issues. It requires a way of thinking that the US fosters and Uganda cannot. I also can chalk up to being so religious. If Jesus/God is in control, what is the point of challenging it? Jesus or God will take care of it, means that you don’t have to.
6. Change happens slowly with many different combined efforts. When I first joined Peace Corps I was so excited to “change the world.” Sadly, this will take much more than one 24-year (almost 25 eek!) white girl at a food production factory. Change is a hard thing to make happen and it requires stream lined efforts from many different areas of expertise. A year in, I celebrate the little victories. The hygiene of the factory has drastically improved and we have some new products with protein. Protein deficiency is a huge issue, especially in my region of Uganda. I have gotten some people to eat a little better or even a little earlier in the day. (Seriously, many people eat a GIANT carb filled meal at like 10/11p and go straight to sleep). I have gotten to stress how important the nutrition of children and women is (usually men are the best fed and they need it the least AND this country needs them the least in my opinion). I have done the camps where at the end the kids show so much love and appreciation for you that you forget how damn tired you are or how stressed you had been all week. The little things make you happy and the relationships you managed to build with people that are completely different from you take on so much more meaning. Even my supervisor saying he plans to come to my wedding (I am doubting he will make it) or when they say they missed me if I haven’t been around for a bit makes all the difference now. The best example is how much they all cared that Luna had died. First, they seemed to love her, which as Matt Gomes said “means they love me.” Second, when she died they cared so much. They buried her for me (I was not allowed to as I can still produce children). Edidah called me just to tell me that she was sorry and she would be back the next day. Vincet offered to refund the kitten I had given him earlier in the year. Robert offered to take me to a pet store in Kampala. I came to the office and people said they were sorry to hear about my friend. Even now, they are all on the lookout for a new kitten for me. Reaching/Changing even a few people and doing a few things for the better become your goal rather than “changing the world.”
I think that is enough of my ranting for today my dears. I hope you enjoy my reflections a year in. I feel like I could write a whole book on my experiences in this country. As much as I can sometimes bitch and complain about this country or missing the US, this has really been an experience of a life time and I wouldn’t trade it for anything (except maybe a site on a beach…haha)